Authors: Barbara Mutch
Tags: #Fiction, #General
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This is a work of fiction. Apart from recognised historical figures, the names and characters in the novel are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. The places they inhabit, however, are real, even if they have strayed a little from their original sites. The Karoo itself is eternal.
Today I left for Africa.
Out of the front door I went, and down the flagstone path. The gulls were shrieking over Bannock cliffs and my dearest sister Ada was crying. Mother – in the brown dress she wore for weddings and christenings – looked the other way. Remember this, I kept telling myself as I climbed into the pony trap.
Remember this: the wheeling gulls, the click of the waves on the pebbles in the cove, Father’s hands red and chapped, Eamon shifting from foot to foot, a waft of peaty earth and chimney smoke and lilac …
Remember this, hold it tight.
wasn’t supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me.
But my mother Miriam stayed by the
round the back, under the bony shade of the thorn tree, moaning quietly in the midday heat until Madam returned from school with the children and came down the garden to look for her.
By then it was too late to go to the hospital.
Master Edward was at home, seeing to his papers in the study. Madam sent him out to fetch the family doctor from his surgery on Church Street. It was lunchtime and Dr Wilmott had to be interrupted at his meal. My mother told me that Madam shooed the children – Miss Rosemary and Master Phil – away from the one-room
and helped Miriam up to the house. There, she held her hand and wiped her forehead with her very own hanky, the one Miriam had ironed the day before.
The doctor came. Master went back to his study.
I was born. It was 1930.
Mama named me Ada after Madam’s younger sister across the sea in a place called Ireland.
I think that being born in Cradock House has made me grateful all my life. It makes me feel I am part of it in a way that my mother Miriam never was. The narrow stairs and the brass doorknobs know my hands and feet, the bony thorn tree and the apricot bush hold me inside them, carrying me in their sap from year to year. And I own a tiny bit of them in return. So when Cradock House was taken away from me I could not understand my life after that.
Cradock lies in the Karoo, the great semi-desert of South Africa that you find whenever you go far enough inland from the green mountains that edge the coast in a steep frill. The Karoo is the hard place you have to cross before you reach Johannesburg, where you can dig gold out of the ground and become rich. None of this I knew, of course. My whole world was just a square, two-storey house of cream stone with a red tin roof in a small town surrounded by rocky
brown dust and a lack of rain. The only water I knew about lay in the Groot Vis – the Great Fish River – and sometimes stirred itself to flow along a furrow outside the house, from where it could be led into the garden for the plants to drink. On the edge of town where the sky met the earth, tough Karoo bush hardly ever taller than the height of a child clung to the dry soil. Above the bush poked the withered trunks of aloes, topped by orange flower spikes that stood out like flames against the scrub. There were some trees, like bluegums or frothy mimosas, but only in front gardens or down on the banks of the Groot Vis where their roots could burrow for water.
On those few times when it did rain, the hammering on the tin roof was so loud it sent Miss Rosemary and young Master Phil into fits of screaming. My mother and I – in the
at the bottom of the garden – also had a tin roof but ours was grey and overhung by the thorn tree. It damped the hammering into a hiss. I didn’t scream at the rain, I stood at the
door listening to it and looking out over the veld beyond the fence. When my mother wasn’t watching, I would put one bare foot out into the tiny rivers that crept over the hard ground and watch the water pool and sink reluctantly into the ground around my toes.
Cradock House sat on Dundas Street, just up from the Groot Vis and just below Market Square. Dundas became Bree Street about halfway along its length. I don’t know why one street needed two names – Mama said perhaps it was a matter of honouring ancestors equally – but that was the way it was. Once the street with two names crossed over Regent Street, it ran out of steam, fell into a township and disappeared.
Cradock House had a wooden
with shell chairs to sit on that went almost the whole way round the house, like a circle. It stopped at the kitchen and then picked up again after the laundry, which was just as well, said my mother, otherwise we’d want to sit there all day when we should be washing or cooking or ironing.
But although I longed to sit in one of those chairs, I was forbidden by my mother to do so. They were for the family, she said. ‘But I am also part of the family,’ I would say hopefully in return, stroking the grainy wood. ‘Shoo, child!’ Mama would mutter and tell me to get on with the polishing. Mama and I mostly talked in English, unless she was really angry with me, or singing to me in the night:
Thula thu’ thula bhabha
Hush, hush, hush, little baby …
I didn’t mind too much about the chairs. There was a secret lookout upstairs that was far better than the
In the mornings when the children were at school, and while I was busy dusting on the top floor of the house, I would creep into Master Phil’s room, climb on to his toy box and peer out of the window.
There it was: the whole of Cradock – perhaps, I thought, the whole of the Karoo – unfolding in the yellow morning sun like a map Master once unfolded for young Master Phil under the yellow lamplight in the study. If I narrowed my eyes and ignored the window frames, I could imagine flying right over the broad streets of the town, past the spire of the Dutch Reformed Church – far higher than St Peter’s, the Master and Madam’s church – then out over the brown shallows of the Groot Vis with its mimosas digging for water, then through dust devils that twisted into the sky above the stunted veld, then over rocky
piled high with polished stones in the early sun, and finally, as the desert heaved upwards, over mountains thick with forest. I could hardly see the mountains, but everyone talked about them as if they were there, especially when it was cold and frost coated the ground like sugar.
As I stood there every day, craning out, it seemed to me that for one special moment the whole town, the whole Karoo, was mine. From this spot, from this window, it belonged to no one else.
Like Cradock House belonged to me.
Maybe Madam felt the same way about the place called Ireland across the sea, where she had come from. She, too, seemed to stare out of windows, looking for something beyond the bluegums and the Groot Vis and the brown dust that hung over Market Square when there were too many horse carts and no rain.
Mother and Father don’t mind me going to Africa – in fact they rather need it. But they won’t say so openly. And I don’t mention it. They can rent out my room for more than I can pay from my salary. Eamon needs boots, Ada’s coat – my old green – is worn out. There isn’t enough money for me to stay.
I am looking forward to going, yet dreading it as well. For I know that once there, I will not be able to return. This is a commitment that will last a lifetime. And while I will keep up with friends and family through the letters we will exchange, I will never see their dear faces or hear their Irish laughter again. This is what it means to emigrate.
* * *
Mrs Pumile, from the
next door, was jealous of my mother Miriam and me. She said that our Madam treated us well, unlike her own Madam who watched the level of the sugar in the kitchen and made Mrs Pumile turn out her pockets if she thought they were bulging with stolen goods.
‘Eeeh.’ Mrs Pumile would suck in her breath and waddle back to her
askew, apron pockets flapping, the biscuits or whatever she had borrowed now lying in the bottom of Mrs Pumile’s Madam’s rubbish bin. Biscuits handled by Mrs Pumile were no good to her Madam. I never found out Mrs Pumile’s Madam’s name. She was just Madam, like most Madams were Madam.
Our Madam’s name – apart from Madam – was Cathleen. Mrs Cathleen Harrington née Moore, as she once wrote for me in her swooping hand, though she didn’t explain why she had so many names. Madam was tall and gentle and had green eyes and brown hair that she twisted into a round ball at the back of her head during the day. I saw her once with her hair out of the ball and it floated about her head like smoke. She was in her pale blue nightgown at the dressing table, writing in her special book, and I was only there because my mother Miriam told me to fetch Madam as young Master Philip was getting sick in the children’s bathroom.
‘Ada!’ Madam said, getting up straight away, her nightgown with its embroidered flowers on the hem brushing the floor. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Just Master Phil oops-ing,’ I said from the doorway. ‘Mama says to come.’
Madam was a good mother, and not just to Miss Rosemary and Master Phil – although Miss Rose spent a lot of time arguing with her. But then Miss Rose didn’t often agree with anyone.
‘So perverse,’ Madam would sigh to Master, using a word I did not know but could guess what it meant. ‘Whatever shall we do?’
Madam’s goodness to me meant letting me sit in the chair next to her on the
– despite my mother’s frowns – or by her side when she played the piano. Madam made me feel like it was my chair after all. She made me feel like I was hers, too.