I grabbed the handle of the old green door, pressed the thumb latch down, and gave a push. It seemed to be stuck, but it moved enough to encourage me to try harder. I tried again with a firm shove, and it opened. Dad and I stepped through onto the east-facing veranda of the old house.
We were entirely silent for a moment, except for the sound of Dad’s deep draw of breath. He seemed to falter for a moment. Then in a slightly choked voice he uttered the words ”Oh my! The memories!”, and he moved across the concrete floor to gaze at the façade of the house and then the vista of rolling green hills before us. I remained silent. It was his moment. The only sound was the rush of the uMngeni River. Dad just took it all in. His eyes were a little misty. Then he pointed things out, and we began to speak of how it was back then, when he was a boy.
He re-told the story of summer nights with his bed pulled out onto the porch; the Great Dane, whom he secretly let into his bedroom through the door behind us to have it sleep on his bed; how he remembered being able to see Inhlosane Mountain, now obscured by a few trees.
I asked if he remembered hearing the river as loudly as we were then, and he shook his head. But he remembered being ordered to take an afternoon sleep, and laying down on a blanket under some trees that are no longer there, where he watched weaver birds build their nests. He pointed out the “Old folks room” at the southern end of the building, and I asked him about the cellar there, evident from the stone staircase leading down from the lawn. “They kept booze in there.” he said, but I pointed out that he had said the same about the front cellar just minutes earlier. I was looking for a repeat of the story about apples stored there and how they stayed cool and crispy for months, but that memory was gone. “Maybe they kept booze in both.” he said with a grin, and we both laughed.
We looked out over the terraced area built by the Italian prisoners of war, and Dad remembered the veggie garden there, but the story of the fruit trees so harshly and expertly pruned by the same POWs was lost that day.
We turned back towards the view of the river below, and Dad craned his neck, looking for the willow tree. It was gone, but having looked around at features like the water wheel furrow and the bend of the river, he was still able to lock on a precise location and point to it, as he told another story: “Jack Didcott took me fishing there” he said. “I was just a small boy, and he was very kind to me. He hooked a trout but pretended not to. He asked me if I would like to fish, and handed me his rod. The fish was already on, and I said ‘I’ve got a fish, I’ve got a fish!’. Dad was motioning the holding of the rod, and he was laughing. He lowered his hands, and slipped into a tone of reverence before telling how Jack Didcott went off to the war after that, and never came back. My grandfather “had helped Didcott’s widow with her finances, and what have you” as Dad put it.
When the stories were done, we took one last look around the east veranda and circled back to the front porch. Dad steadied himself with a hand against the stone corner pillar as he allowed his eyes to drift over the commanding view of the valley. “To grow up here” he started, and then he struggled for words. “What a playground! You know…to grow up…..for a boy”.
We walked back down the stone stairs, Dad turning sideways and taking care with his footing on the stonework, his hand gripping the balustrade. We strolled back past the booze cellar, around to the back. Dad pointed out his father’s study overlooking where the old dairy building had been with the river beyond, where it flowed tight at the foot of the forest. We spoke about how the old man would take his fly rod and creel with him to milking in the afternoon, and leave them outside the stone dairy, to take down to the river later, where he caught trout for dinner. Dad pointed out the door to the dining room and showed me where the scullery and kitchen were. I found an open door and stepped in. The floors had been done, and a glance into the kitchen revealed the woodstove gone: replaced with modern fittings. I encouraged Dad to step in and take a look, but he shook his head and turned away. His head was swimming with the special memories of his childhood, and he chose not to spoil them with images of change and modernisation.
We strolled back across the driveway to the car. I felt a need to relish the visit, perhaps extend it. We both knew it wouldn’t be repeated. I scanned my memory for more stories he had told over the years. Perhaps I could draw them out, ask him more about them. Maybe something precious would emerge. I thought of what he had told me on the drive in earlier.
He said that the eight-mile private road had been maintained by the two farmers: the Fowlers from Umgeni Poort and the Ross family from New Forest. “It was in better nick then than it is now!” he remarked. I said I could imagine that to be true. At a spot just beneath Inhlezela Mountain, he related the story of Isaac falling off the back of the vehicle after they hit a rough spot on the road exactly where we were. Dad had been watching out the back window and saw it happen “Dad! Dad! Stop! Isaac has fallen off” he re-enacted, his face alight in the recollection of the moment. Earlier, as we passed Scott brothers he told of Claudi, the injured Blue Crane. “Zebra were running wild in the days before the Lavisters came to live here, and across there” he pointed to the other side of the road down towards the Elands River “hundreds upon hundreds of Blue Cranes. One of them was injured by the hay mower, and its left foot was all…….” He paused. “It was ……messed up. It came to live in the farmyard, and it was very tame. We called her Claudi. She was lovely.” He paused again and then added “ The labourers would hold out her wings and dance with her.”
There seemed to be nothing more. We climbed into the bakkie to leave, and I drove out slowly. I offered to stop along the way if he wanted a photo or to look at anything. He declined.
Dad fell quiet. His soul was dancing with Claudi.