Somebody zapped by my spam detection filter wants to sell me Pan flutes made from carrots, as though I might be a superior musical donkey. The Internet is a strange marketplace –
As I was bending down to filch red onions from a wire vegetable basket in my kitchen yesterday morning, I twisted my back clumsily and hurt something. Stood up and felt dull twinges in unexpected places. Since then I have been moving around gingerly and wishing my life was not so sedentary — I walk, exercise and swim in summer, but I sit writing or editing or rewriting for hours every day and that is Not A Good Thing.
But despite me treading about like a cat on hot bricks, it was a great day, another reminder that sober living is good and gets better as time passes. We all climbed into the microbus early and went over the fire-scarred mountain pass accompanied by wheezing and clicking noises from overheating brake pads, stopping en route to mollify the overheating engine and to buy fresh rolls, free-range farm eggs and bright green limes in a small country town that was still sleepyheaded on a hot cloudy Sunday morning. Bikers pulling in on their breakfast run, the smell of grilled boerewors drifting up the street. Then up through another pine-forested mountain pass or two, past Freedom Hill across the road from the prison where Mandela began his walk to freedom in 1994, and on to another sleepy village, grimy on the outskirts, with African Zionist leaders robed in white doing healing rituals and using water from a filthy stream littered with trash and dead dogs. Local municipalities don’t deal with sanitation effectively out in the rural areas and cholera epidemics break out with fatal regularity each summer. Always this: alongside the beauty and ordinariness of daily life here, the destitution and reminders of plague.
Coming down from the steep mountain pass with hairpin bends, we found ourselves – despite squealing brakes — amidst the rolling wheat fields and low farmsteads of the Swartland, hawks and cranes black against the golden stubble, wide empty skies above us – and then with a final spurt we reached our destination, parked outside an old Edwardian homestead, shutters partly closed against the heat, dim high-ceilinged rooms, dark varnished wooden floors, wooden beams above which had been smeared and darkened with whale oil a century ago. All of us crowding into a small Victorian kitchen with bottle-green tongue-and-groove cupboards. My sweet friend was thrilled to see us and tearfully pointed out her latest error – she had inexplicably painted the whole exterior an ugly dark pink she thought would come out buff. Like all old country homesteads, the plumbing is eccentric, with a deep growly echo in the toilet cistern, the electrical wiring illegal. The loft is haunted by what sounds like the ghost of an asthmatic owl.
Char has begun work on the wonderful sprawling garden – oh how it will bake in summer, clay soil and bricked paths, too much gravel! But she says she will plant trees for shade and has created a fertile but unsightly compost pile at the back of the garden, is trimming some runaway kikuyu grass, reviving old palm trees, pruned back faltering apricots and peaches, has filled in a koi pond colonised by a greedy kingfisher. Her aloes are already in flower, spikes of raw African colour, and there is a fig heavy with fruit in the mild winter. True, there is a blocked well, rainwater tanks that will cost too much, derelict garages and crumbling sheds, a new expensive security gate that does not open as it should. A ghostly man in a long overcoat is known to wander about the garden at twilight and his grave bears an indecipherable tombstone mounded under a wiry pittosporum tree.
We banished the ghosts by our noisy curious presence, lit a fire for char-grilling lamb and chicken, set out salads and bread and fruit on tables standing on the long verandah shaded by a mauve bougainvillea. The loft was explored via a trapdoor and the ghostly owl revealed as a cozy family of wood pigeons nesting in a huddle of electrical wires. Plans were made for trenches to be dug in order to mix in sand and mulch to lighten the clay soil, the stove was safely reconnected — two of my women friends have degrees in engineering and ironically intend to begin living Off the Grid in the near future as they await the collapse of civilization as we know it – the rainwater tanks made more viable on a platform, The microbus was disembowelled and fixed, and a bookcase moved into a back spare room. Paint samples were remixed for a better gentler colour for the outer walls and a deep-dish chicken, ham and leek pie heated in the oven. We can do things together that seem impossible for the lone individual.
So we sat outside and talked about political solutions to ecological crisis, why Martin Gardner who has just died at the age of 95 was a more intelligent sceptic than any of the New Atheists, what it means to be living with Peak Oil, good back-stretching exercises for lazy women, why the quest for the historical Jesus is doomed to failure, who will win the soccer World Cup, why Kenya needs to share water from the Nile with Egypt, the upcoming Ethiopian elections, how to counter homophobia in Malawi and Nigeria, what is meant by UK ‘multiculturalism’, the ultimate ingrediants needed to make perfect friable compost. We ate and dozed in the sunshine and Char got excited about using the unhaunted loft to store apples and invited all of us over again to see the unblocking of the old well in a few months’ time. And then we climbed back into the good-as-new microbus and began playing Annie Lennox CDs as we drove back across the golden wheatfields and low white farmsteads, following the blue wall of the Langeberg peaks just visible on the far horizon. The landscape we call home.