Long long ago Annie said to me I should get her beloved husband Frank’s oak desk. We never knew Frank. He died when Mom was just fifteen or so, still in school. Annie had five grandkids and I suppose her reasoning was the only grandson should get it?
So now Mom’s in Azalea Gardens and Dad will be joining her soon, so it was time to fetch the desk. Dismantle, ship on the back of and inside of my Ford bakkie and re-assemble in my office.
It looks good.
Very importantly, the key is in the top drawer, attached to a label ticket. Written in (I suppose) Annie’s handwriting: “Key of Frank’s Desk.” Interesting, as there’s no lock or keyhole in the desk, nor any of its drawers!
Arthur Kennedy arrived in Harrismith like a dwarrelwind. Why we were so lucky as to get Arthur to our town I don’t know, but I think his wife Zita had family here. I think she was related to the Kerkenberg mountain vd Bosch’s.
He brought an exciting new venture to the dorp: A new motel on the N3 on the south-east end of town – at the Jo’burg-Durban-Bloemfontein junction – or the Warden-Swinburne-Kestell junction you could say if you weren’t going to drive far.
The motel – Kennedy Motel – was going to have a ‘flyover’ restaurant suspended over the road so diners could watch the road as they munched their mixed grills. All the Durban-Joburg traffic – the busiest rural freeway in South Africa by far – would have to drive underneath them. But meantime the motel and petrol station had to be built, plus all the rooms – the chalets. A cable car to the top of Platberg was also in the pipeline, according to Arthur. Big plans!
The Kennedy family stayed right on-site in novel half-round semi-portable wooden bungalows above the building site and below the track that was an extension of Vowe Street, below the SE end of Hector Street. Arthur was very hands-on and was deeply involved in everything. He made the cardinal apartheid error of starting to pay his workers more than the “known” Harrismith wage which, according to Steph de Witt, got 5ft 6 inch Arthur a visit from 6ft 4 inch Koos de Witt, Steph’s Dad. Steph says Koos found Arthur in a foundation ditch. He jumped in next to him and “explained” to him in international language how he was not to bend the “local rules” of wage exploitation.
Later he built a triangular house of wood and glass above Vowe Street – a huge novelty for the town. It was next door to the du Plessis home, and Pierre and I hopped the fence and inspected it while under construction. The bathroom had a novelty in it which we hadn’t seen before. We didn’t know it was called a bidet, but we spotted right away what it was for. HaHaHa! Our schoolboy humour kicked in. Arthur’s initials were AW (were they? or did we invent that?) and we proceeded to call him Arse Washer after that bathroom furniture that so tickled our crude funny bones. We weren’t always Methodist-polite, ’tis true.
He even became a town councillor, this foreign rooinek in the vrystaat! If America could have a President Kennedy at that time, why couldn’t we have a possible future mayor Kennedy? Quite a guy was our Arthur!
The Cupboard Snake
For a while the Kennedys lived in the middle of town – in or near the house where Nick Duursema lived, near the circle in Warden street, just down from Arthur Grey’s corner store. That’s where the puff adder landed on top of the bedroom wardrobe.
The first and last puff adder I saw ‘in the wild’ was in Hector Street outside our house in about 1965 when – ware vrystater that she was – Mother Mary ran over the poor thing in the blue VW OHS 155. Doelbewus! Swear! The old man was called out from the pub. He came home, caught it and put it in a box which he gave to Zita Kennedy to give to Tommy van den Bosch. Maybe he’d first stunned it with a blast of cane spirits breath.
Tommy lived against the slopes of Kerkenberg and wore a cowboy hat and played the guitar. He’d sing you a mournful – or toe-tapping if that was your poison – cowboy song at the drop of a hat. His cowboy stetson hat. He collected snakes and took them to the Durban snake park who paid him by the foot. They estimated this puffy at five foot, though of course that length may have grown over time! SSSSS – Snake Stories Seldom Suffer Shrinkage.
That night in bed just before lights out Arthur Kennedy asked Zita “What’s that box up on the cupboard?” She hadn’t finished telling him and he was already out in Bester Street opposite the ou groot kerk near the traffic circle in his tiny pie-jarm shorts shouting “Get that thing out of there ! I am NEVER going into that house again until that thing is gone!” and other earnest entreaties.
Strange fear, as he was fearless in other ways: Who can forget Arthur Kennedy dressed only in a white Tarzan loincloth – which looked a bit like a nappy – swinging right across the hele stadsaal on a trapeze above the gob-smacked and ge-be-indrukte Harrismith mense? And outdoors upside-down high on a thin pole above the skougronde? Fearless aerobatics and acrobatics.
But a snake on his cupboard? That was too much for him!
For a while he made Harrismith seem part of the wider world! A bit like this:
Here’s the actual scene of the thrill (I remember the curtains as red back then):
On the big day celebrating South Africa’s freedom from the tyranny of Mrs British Queen, Arthur gave a stunning performance on his own equipment down at the President Brand Park in front of a full pawiljoen of ge-be-indrukte Harrismith mense! Dad filmed it:
Arthur ran our mountain race and, further proving his commitment to Harrismith he married a second local girl – much, much younger than him.
dwarrelwind – whirlwind, tornado, breath of fresh air
Doelbewus – on purpose; Swear! ‘Strue’s God! Gentle Mary did that. In those days you did. The only thing that made you think maybe you wouldn’t drive over it was the story that it would wind itself around your axle and then climb up into your engine, then under your dashboard and THEN pik you on the foot! Swear!
ware vrystater – genuine free stater; born and bred in the free state, as was her mother before her (who would not have been celebrating the 1961 demotion of QEII from monarch to foreign tannie)
tannie – auntie
ou groot kerk – the old Dutch Reformed Church, the Moederkerk
Mom Mary Bland learnt to play the piano on her Granny Mary Bland’s upright Otto Bach at 13 Stuart Street. Her sister Pat didn’t play, but when Granny died the piano had to go to the older granddaughter. But how to get it there?
Jack Shannon had a bakkie and he volunteered to schlep it to Blyvooruitzicht, or as the Cowies called it, ‘Blayfore’. It got dropped at some stage in the loading or offloading and had to be repaired when it got there. All was well.
Years later Pat died and Bill decided it should go to Barbara as she played, and his daughters Frankie and Gemma did not. So another farmer with a bakkie was roped in to schlep it back from Blayfore – this time long-suffering husband Jeff Tarr carted it to PMB or Howick or Greytown (must ask Barbara). Barbara still has the piano – now in Linda’s home on their farm Umvoti Villa.
Meantime Mom had bought another: an upright Bentley. Marie Bain had bought her daughter Lynn the Bentley hoping she’d learn to play ‘like Mary’. Well, Lynn never took to playing, so Mom bought it from Marie for the same £100 she had paid for it years before. This was the piano we were so privileged to grow up with at 95 Stuart Street, listening to Mom playing Hymns, Classical and Popular music. Who could forget the late night drinking songs when the Goor Koor gang would gather round her and bellow out their alcohol fumes, cigarette ash and varying levels of talent with gay abandon.
Mom still has the Bentley in PMB and still plays it beautifully. They’re upright pianos, not ‘grand’ pianos, but they certainly have been a grand part of our lives from about 1920-something – Mary was born in 1928 – to 2019. And more to come.
Here Mary at 90 plays someone else’s piano. Her classical pieces she always played with the music score in front of her. She can no longer see well enough to read it, so mainly plays her popular pieces by memory now.
We grew up to these sounds in the background. How lucky can you get!? These next few classical pieces are played by some wonderful pianists who are almost as good as Mom in her prime!
I remember a few times getting so overcome by the music – melancholy or something? – I’d run down the passage and get Mom to stop playing! weird.
My first recollections are of life on the plot outside Harrismith, playing with Enoch and Casaia, childhood companions, kids of Lena Mazibuko, who looked after us as Mom and Dad worked in town. The plot was was called Birdhaven – Dad kept big aviaries – and was in the shadow of Platberg. I remember Lena as kind and loving – and strict!
What I remember is suddenly “knowing” it was lunchtime and looking up at the dirt road above the farmyard that led to town. Sure enough, right about then a cloud of dust would appear and Mom & Dad would arrive for their lunch and siesta, having locked up the Platberg bottle store at 1pm sharp. I could see them coming along the road and then sweeping down the long driveway to park near the rondavel at the back near the kitchen door. They would eat lunch, have a short lie-down and leave in time to re-open at 2pm. I now know the trip was exactly 3km door-to-door, thanks to google maps.
Every day I “just knew” they were coming. I wonder if I actually heard their approach and then “knew”? Or was it an inner clock? Here’s an old 8mm movie of the Ford Prefect on the Birdhaven circular driveway – four seconds of action:
1. Ruins of our house; 2. Dougie Wright, Gould & Ruth Dominy’s place; 3. Jack Levick’s house; 4. The meandering Kak Spruit. None of those houses on the left were there back then.
Back then they would buzz home in the tiny green and black Ford Prefect or the beige Morris Isis, not yet the little powder-blue Beetle.
Our nearest neighbour was Jack Levick and he had a pet crow that said a few words. We had a white Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Jacko that didn’t, and an African Grey parrot Cocky who said more. A tame-ish Spotted Eagle Owl would visit at night. Our next neighbours were Ruth and Gould Dominy and Ruth’s son Dougie Wright on Glen Khyber. They were about 500m further down the road towards the mountain, across the Kak Spruit over a little bridge. Doug’s cottage was on the left next to the spruit that came down from Khyber Pass and flowed into the bigger spruit; The big house with its sunny glassed-in stoep was a bit further on the right. Ruth and a flock of small dogs would serve Gould his tea in a teacup the size of a big deep soup bowl.
Judas Thabethe lived on the property and looked after the garden. I remember him as old, small and bearded. He lived in a hovel of a hut across a donga and a small ploughed field to the west of our house. He had some sort of cart – animal-drawn? self-drawn? Self-drawn, I think.
Other things I remember are driving out and seeing white storks in the dead bluegum trees outside the gate – those and the eagle owl being the first wild birds I ‘spotted’ in my still-ongoing birding life; I remember the snake outside the kitchen door;
I don’t remember but have been told that my mate Donald Coleman, two years older, would walk the 1.1km from his home on the edge of town to Birdhaven to visit me. Apparently his Mom Jean would phone my Mom Mary on the party line and ask “Do you have a little person out there?” if she couldn’t find him.
Bruno the doberman came from Little Switzerland on Oliviershoek pass down the Drakensberg into Natal. Leo and Heather Hilcovitz owned and ran it – “very well” according to Dad. Leo came into town once with a few pups in the back of his bakkie. Dad said I Want One! and gave him a pocket of potatoes in exchange for our Bruno. He lived to good age and died at 95 Stuart Street after we’d moved to town.
rondavel – circular building with a conical roof, often thatched;
spruit – stream; kak spruit: shit stream; maybe it was used as a sewer downstream in town in earlier days?
stoep – veranda
donga – dry, eroded watercourse; gulch, arroyo; scene of much play in our youth;
Off they’d go in Mary’s pale blue VW Beetle OHS 155. Off to Durbs-by-the-Sea, the Lonsdale Hotel or the Four Seasons for a whole week!
Might that be Mary’s VW outside the Lonsdale in this picture? Three cars behind the Borgward?
The cost of their stay: R2.95 each per day including meals. Mom thinks Randolph Stiller may have owned the Four Seasons. He and Bebe certainly owned the Central Hotel in Harrismith where Annie stayed, one block away from her Caltex garage in Warden Street. Only the Deborah Retief gardens between her hotel room and her office, but she drove there in her great big old beige Chev Fleetline; one block up to the garage. Mom – ever kind – says her legs were too sore to walk.
In Durban Mom and Annie would visit Annie’s sister Jessie (Bain Bell) and her daughter Lesley (Malcolm-Smith ) in their flat in Finsbury Court in West Street. Lesley worked at Daytons – a supermarket, Mom thinks.
They would all hop into Mom’s car and head off on a drive – to the beach, to the Japanese Gardens; and – always – to visit Annie’s bridesmaid Maggie McPherson who lived in a ‘posh flat up on the Berea. Looked like a bit of Olde England’.
Many years later – 1980’s – we would go and listen to Joe Parker in the Lonsdale. Beer-soaked, we hosed ourselves, but I don’t think Mom and Annie would have approved!
While we’re getting nostalgic, some names to remember: Gillespie Street; The Italian restaurant Villa d’Este; The Four Seasons Hotel, with its Pink Panther steakhouse; Palm Beach Hotel; Millionaires’ Club; Lonsdale Hotel; The El Castilian nightclub (remember The Bats?); The Killarney Hotel, where the Monks Inn used to be (with the words “Steak, Eggs and Strips” posted prominently outside); Thatcher’s Bar at the former Parkview Hotel.