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boy who loved camping - excerpt
Dad was on the
veranda playing darts with the cat. Mom was in the kitchen presiding
over a beef stew, reading a cowboy book, and knitting a tea cosy.
Ouma was in her room, halfway through a six-pack of lion lager dumpies,
whistling tunes from the War Years. Robyn was somewhere in the back
yard spooning with her boy friend, Frikkie. Mercy had knocked off
and was having an over-the-fence-conversation with the "girl"
next door. Uniting these activities in a concordia discors was the
voice of Richard Tauber, like a warm blade passing through butter,
singing the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria.
Tom called out,
"I'm home", and leant his fishing rod against
the house. He smelled of nutrient mud with a hint of orange peel.
His muscular fox terrier, Jimmy, was with him, as always - a greenish
glow on his black and white coat, testimony to hours of fun in the
algae encrusted dam, which was situated between the village and
the Great North Road.
Socks from the woven grass carpet. Hanging on the veranda wall,
and circular in shape, it resembled a giant dart board. Even its
pattern was conducive: alternating light and dark rings. Darts are
thrown from the shoulder, but with cats, an underarm action is preferable.
Darts are thrown with one hand, cats with two. Dad's method
was to hold Socks with his claws facing the target, one hand supporting
his neck, the other his rump. Cats are swung rather than thrown.
Socks seemed to love the game, and would purr constantly, even when
Dad missed the bull's eye.
Son, did you catch anything?"
tiddlers. I brought them back for Mercy's isitshebo."
Mom had turned
the record over, and Tauber was singing, appropriately, "Pedro
the Fisherman". Dad swung Socks and he landed to the left
of centre, a comfortable position for someone of Sock's mildly
conservative habits. For example, he preferred the sand box to the
garden, gem squash to pets' mince, milk to ox blood.
it's full moon tomorrow, can I go camping?"
see why not, son, but you'd better clear it with the Old Queen."
Dad called Mom
"the Old Queen" and Mom called Dad, but not his face,
"the Old Goat". Ouma was just "Ouma". She
was Dad's grandmother, Tom and Robyn's great grandmother.
She had been born in1873, near the town of Barberton, South Africa;
the daughter of smouse, Jewish pedlars who had followed the Voortrekkers.
Ouma played the piano, drunk or sober, in the style of Winifred
Atwell. She was known throughout the South-Western districts for
her exhilarating rendering of "Dill Pickles". In the
distant past, she had supplemented Oupa's meagre income (he
had been an engraver of hotel cutlery) by accompanying silent movies
in the flea pits of Johannesburg.
Tom took the
five tiddlers, threaded via their gills by a stem of love grass,
to Mercy, still at the neighbour's fence, making noisy conversation
with her friend, Comfort. "Izinkalakatha!" she laughed,
nevertheless graciously receiving Tom's offer.
"Dinner's ready. Wash your hands, Tom! Robyn, does Frikkie
want to join us? Are you coming, Ouma?"
think that's Tauber whistling, Dad?" Tom asked as "Pedro
the Fisherman" drew to its climax.
it. Too undignified for a monocled German."
thing. Sis Tommy, you stink. You'd better have a bath after
still got bits of earthworm on your fingers. Use the nail brush."
Robyn and Frikkie
wandered inside, holding hands, eyes like saucers. Ouma, still in
her room, two dumpies to go, was out-whistling Pedro. Jimmy yelped
as Socks cuffed him smartly on the chops. Socks had been an old
campaigner when Jimmy joined the family as a puppy, and she never
lost her dominance.
turn is it to feed the pets?"
do it," said the obliging Frikkie. Reluctantly he let go of
Robyn's hand. "Where's their dishes, Aunty Joan?"
Frikkie was a strapping sixteen year old boarder at Milton High
School in Bulawayo. He was in form four. Robyn was slender like
her brother, fourteen years old, and a boarder at Eveline High school
in Bulawayo. She was in form three.
Now there's a whistler."
a Jew, like Ouma."
not a Jew, Tommy, she's Dutch Reformed, by St Paul-"
why do you always say that?"
Robyn, go help the Old Queen with the dinner things."
Richard the Third for matric."
go fetch Ouma. Well, Richard kept saying it and it kind of stuck
in my head."
that you must care" was coming to an end. Tears were streaming
from Mom's eyes as she placed the dish of stew at the head
of the table for Dad to serve, though he never did. Mom leant over
his shoulder and dished up from that position, always serving Dad
first. By the time she got to serving herself, Dad, with a satisfied
burp, would have flung his cutlery onto an emptied plate, and pushed
back his chair. Richard Tauber always made Mom cry, especially this
song. She knew by heart the letter "of touching human interest",
which was quoted on the record sleeve:
Dear Mr Tauber,
hope you will forgive the impertinence of this letter, but I wonder
if you would grant a special request. Three years ago a song of
yours brought the man I love and myself together. It always remained
a very special song to us. The reason I wish you to sing this
song is, that lately we have drifted away from each other. If
he heard you sing it, well, who knows he may think of those very
happy days when it was recognized as "Our Hymn", and
so unite us once more.
I know I am
asking a great deal of a very busy man, but I do not think you
will mind. The song is "I knew that you must care".
Ouma, incapacitated by her beer-steeped memories, to her chair.
Before saying grace, she took a long swig from the last of the dumpies,
thumped the bottle on the table, and croaked: "Dankie Heere
vir my kos en kleere, maar my veldskoens maak ek self. Amen."
The beef stew
was being served with rice, pumpkin, and broad beans from the garden.
Dad eschewed all vegetables but he loved rice, and it was upon a
veritable Mont Blanc that Mom ladled his stew.
a golden dream..." sang the great tenor while the family and
their guest tucked into Mom's cooking.
are you sleeping tonight, Tom?" asked his sister.
roof, I think. There's no wind."
as you don't clomp around up there, son. I need my sleep;
I'm working overtime tomorrow."
Dad. This food is delicious Mom." Frikkie concurred.
was foreman at the factory workshop. His hours were long: from 7
a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with a 40 minute break for lunch. His wife of
fifteen years would make him up a basket of sandwiches, fruit, and
tea. She wrapped the sandwiches in a white table napkin, the bottle
of tea in layers of insulating newspaper. She would leave the basket
beside his breakfast things on the kitchen table, and go back to
bed. Dad would get his own coffee and cereal while the family slept
and the house creaked. Not infrequently, Tom was woken by the sound
of a spoon clattering on an empty plate.
Now, Dad stood
up from the table and announced that he was off to bed. All except
Ouma (who had begun to snore) bade him good night, and held out
their plates for second helpings. It was the last weekend of the
Easter holidays so there was a general feeling of impending loss,
a kind of heart-heaviness, evident in the occasional sighs of Mrs
Joan Smith: housewife, mother, knitter, and inveterate reader of
cowboy books. Handel's "Largo" contributed to
the mood as Side Two of "Memories of Richard Tauber"
came sweetly to a close.
can I go camping tomorrow night? It's full moon."
the one night, Tommy. Your sister goes back to boarding school on
remind me, Mom," said Robyn, grimacing and feeling under the
table for Frikkie's hand.
forget, there's the farewell dance at Jessie Hotel on Sunday."
Mom, thanks. I'll take Jimmy with me. For protection."
he's not going to protect you from baboons or leopards!"
isn't afraid of anything-"
Tom conceded, "except Socks."
Mom got up to
clear away the dinner things. Robyn and Frikkie rose to help her.
Up the passage that led to the bedrooms a loud fart rolled. Everybody
giggled. It was Tom's turn to get Ouma to bed. Gently he shook
her awake. Gently he wiped the spittle from her chin with his handerchief.
"Bedtime, Ouma," he said.
morning, Jeremy," replied the ancient lady, "What is
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