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The boy who loved camping - excerpt
John Eppel
November 2009

Chapter One

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.

Dad unhooked 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.

"Hullo, Son, did you catch anything?"

"A few 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.

"Dad, it's full moon tomorrow, can I go camping?"

"I don't 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.

Mom called, "Dinner's ready. Wash your hands, Tom! Robyn, does Frikkie want to join us? Are you coming, Ouma?"

"Do you think that's Tauber whistling, Dad?" Tom asked as "Pedro the Fisherman" drew to its climax.

"I doubt it. Too undignified for a monocled German."

"Austrian."

"Same thing. Sis Tommy, you stink. You'd better have a bath after dinner."

"Same language, but...."

"You've 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.

"Whose turn is it to feed the pets?"

"I'll 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.

"Al Jolson. Now there's a whistler."

"He was a Jew, like Ouma."

"Ouma's not a Jew, Tommy, she's Dutch Reformed, by St Paul-"

"Dad, why do you always say that?"

"Say what? Robyn, go help the Old Queen with the dinner things."

"‘By St Paul.'"

"We did Richard the Third for matric."

"So?"

"Robyn, go fetch Ouma. Well, Richard kept saying it and it kind of stuck in my head."

"I knew 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,

I sincerely 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".

Thanking you in anticipation,

Yours very sincerely.

Robyn helped 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.

"Like a golden dream..." sang the great tenor while the family and their guest tucked into Mom's cooking.

"Where are you sleeping tonight, Tom?" asked his sister.

"On the roof, I think. There's no wind."

"As long as you don't clomp around up there, son. I need my sleep; I'm working overtime tomorrow."

"I won't, Dad. This food is delicious Mom." Frikkie concurred.

Jeremy Smith 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.

"Mom, can I go camping tomorrow night? It's full moon."

"Just the one night, Tommy. Your sister goes back to boarding school on Monday."

"Don't remind me, Mom," said Robyn, grimacing and feeling under the table for Frikkie's hand.

"And don't forget, there's the farewell dance at Jessie Hotel on Sunday."

"I won't, Mom, thanks. I'll take Jimmy with me. For protection."

"Tommy, he's not going to protect you from baboons or leopards!"

"Jimmy isn't afraid of anything-"

"Except Socks!"

"True," 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.

"Good morning, Jeremy," replied the ancient lady, "What is for breakfast?"

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