Author: Sue Steel, Childhood, Childhood & Family, Coming of Age

ONE

Rooms rambled and connected around the courtyard U.
Entangled leafy creepers lay between the flagstones. A large table, the surface splashed with wine and lavish dinners stood in the courtyard centre.
Dappled light broke the flatness of the plastered walls. Beveled panes held together by crafted frames, held images of within. All slightly a-symmetrical. A muddle of human choreography.
Light piano music often fell awkwardly out of the far door. Half-remembered pieces making their way across the wine-drenched synapses. Sometimes a couple swayed rhythmically in the corner.
It gave the afternoons a disheveled ambiance. A wildly frivolous undertone, crochet hooked together by the dowagers under the shade of the wisteria.
Warm well-worn bodies pressing against the seams of their dresses. Proper under garments trapped the stories of life lived. Dainty florals hiding what lay within.
The once gay girl or frightened teenager now heavily laden with age.
Sagging arms propped up by the canvas of the outdoor chairs. Strange tipping scale between child and advanced womanhood.
The house, when built, was occupied only by the family. As times changed and earnings fluctuated, parts of the house were rented out or divided off. At this stage a wall had been built across the garden giving a third of the land to the boarders.
The large kitchen was included in the boarders’ section of the house. This left a small room with the closed fire range, as the kitchen for the main part of the house.

The driveway extended past the end of the house, then turned left separating the workshop from the main building. It cut through the property and headed toward another gate. The workshop was a corrugated iron structure of double volume.
The machinery, imposing but silent over weekends. Behind the workshop the windmill whirred on days when the wind came in, gentle turner from the South West.
Fred was an inventor. Similar to his machinery, imposing and silent.
The household was supported by his ingenuity and design talent. He had bought this land and built the house a bold mark in the African veld.
He loved a game of draughts. A small table, checker-board top, and two colonial planter’s chairs had a place in the courtyard. He would patiently read while he waited for opponents. I was fearful of him but loved to be close to him. He read the classics. Small leather-bound books heaped beneath the seat of his chair.
When playing draughts, the one proviso was that the moves were swift. He hated a slow game and would mutter in irritation if you hesitated: Duffer!

The kitchen floor was discoloured, especially in front of the wood stove.
An indent in the patterned tile showed where Edwina stood.
Many hours of stirring and heating, spicing and tasting.
Great pots of creation.
It was a small room. Door facing the tennis court. Arched bougainvillea haphazardly framed the exterior. Cars were always parked down the driveway between the kitchen door and the giant oak.
The Ford, my father’s loved one, was in the row. Red leather bench seats, shiny black wings, lines etched with silver trim.
From the kitchen two doors led to the interior. One into the dining room, dark wood carved window seats, dado and picture rails, and above: Monaghan’s delicate pink swans, drifting pairs amongst collections of pond plants, painted in payment for his stay. The other doorway, draped with heavy velvet, led down the passage. Unlit and menacing, it was the way to the bar. The drape was on occasion hooked up and tied with a heavy ribbon, allowing some light to fall onto the polished floor and the hand prints left by the family’s drunks.

Monaghan had arrived many months before, it must have been his third, fourth or fifth time of staying. No-one remembered or kept count. He carried his brushes, paints and palette in a battered leather hold-all. His dress was eccentric and overly casual. Heavy woolen hand-knitted socks in thick leather sandals. Corduroy trousers with a bagged knee and a houndstooth jacket, which had seen better days. Dabs of oil paint marked the fabric above the pocket, a storage jar when he was up the ladder. He always arrived on foot, an obvious long walk from where he had come.
His shirt was washed every other day. While it hung limp on the line, he would wander seemingly aimlessly around the property dressed in his under garment, inspecting the plants. Days later those plants would appear in inexplicable beauty on the walls of the house. Voluptuous lilies with stamens hanging in juicy drape towards the floor. Stiff broad-leaved cannas growing out of the skirting. Startled starlings shooting across a frieze of camellia, heads dipping beneath the cornice.
Monaghan was in love with Ussher, so many men were. Fred hardly noticed anymore.
Her sweeping presence and tinkling laughter filled the rooms. It seemed enough for him. He would hear her while he worked, and wonder at her. Her ability to do nothing with such grace and aplomb. Monaghan was Irish, all the visitors were from somewhere abroad. She knew better than to irritate Fred. For all his distant observing and quiet demeanor, he had a giant temper. He’d fought against the Boers and held onto a prejudice that was seldom mentioned, but everyone was aware of.

Soup and bread, Sunday supper.
It had started elegantly. Cucumber sandwiches and G and T’s sipped and swilled as the tennis games deteriorated. Loss of focus scraping the net or propelling balls over the wire gate and into the garden. We sat now in the dining-room eating the broth and dipping warm crust wedges into our bowls.
The piano stood just inside the lounge, the stool’s upholstery collapsed from many heavy bottoms.
Greyson always played during dinner, appetite at the bottom of the glass that perched precariously next to the music sheets, and china urns all wobbling and shaking as he strummed his way through each remembered piece. Sometimes Willow squeezed up next to him. The gentle fall of her dress touching the ground. Her hourglass frame leaning against the rough knit of his cardigan.
Between songs his hand would touch the curve of her hip or the nape of her neck in such a seductive way it made me shiver.
Far across the room, in a tiny annex: lay O Foghlu. He’d been given a nickname which belonged to his previous self: Ogee, which was a fabulous answer to the house pastime of crosswords. Answer to the question, curved arch. Before his illness he had been a striking figure. Tall but bent forward in an attempt to minimize the distance between himself and whom ever was in front of him. Half-shut eyes over hooked nose. Chin resting on chest.
His now amputated body small in the raised bed.
Wrought iron bed end dropping shadows against the wall.
He called out at intervals wanting soup or a pillow to ease the pain in his back.
The bedpan, an object of interest to me, lent against the wall.
My thoughts drifted through the rooms wondering about the combination of these freaks and vagabonds balancing together in the circus of life.

Ogee and Eirlys had been part of this group for years.
He was well-read and good at conversation. Insight tumbling down the front of his pullover. Hard to hear and impossible to ignore. He hardly looked up. She often repeated what he said, making sure his words had not been wasted. Her eyes dark under the fringed black glossy crop, stared up at him and then at the group in fast even movements. Maintaining connection. Her body was petite but slightly rounded over the hip. Her tiny feet danced lightly on the ground. Buttoned straps held the T-bar in place on her shoe. Her movement and delicate frame belied her age.
She teetered and tipped on a fine line in front of him. Invisible strings attaching her movements to his needs. A co-dependent puppet and puppeteer. They often wore colours that complimented each other melding them into one.
Ogee had left Ireland and travelled to South Africa to fight in the Boer war. He was a Royalist like Fred. She was Welsh and I have no memory of how she had ended up here with him.

It was a dark day when Eirlys lost the fight. What had brought her to life’s edge? To the verandah of leaving. A lonely trundle down worn steps. Feet on smooth surface, the slippery slope to the dark beyond. Shadowed bush of the unknown. Held up flags of white peace paper let go to the wind of demise. Floating unanswerables to challenge all we leave behind. Limited smatterings of life half-lived.

A tiny bird of a woman when well, but when ill the embroidered covers barely showed her presence. A tiny ruffle or slow alteration when the pain became unbearable. Dark eyes hidden under the silk trim. And then she was gone. Ogee looked like the tree the wind had sent over the edge. Unshaven curved man, stooped over his loss. His Welsh black-capped warbler had fallen. Leaving his sky of admiration, leaving a cold grey, an icy absence. He felt stilled. Stood immovable like a floor lamp in the corner, head down. Usually the curve of his body would have her in its shadow. Looking up at him. Now the empty space felt like no-man’s land.
He was tormented by her loss. The twittering and feathered flutter of her warmth had left. The only person who seemed to understand was Ussher. She carefully moved toward the no-man’s land, stood quietly at the boundary with her hand on his arm.
Those hands were things of beauty. He had noticed them before. Long tendrils, almond manicure at their ends. Milky satin skin of disuse. She slowly drew him in.
Her voice a mere whisper of consoling. A moist lap at the dry corners of his mind.

She knew he would not survive alone. He felt like he would slowly curl up like a dry leaf. Crumble into the dust.

The funeral was excruciating. Head to toe black regalia. The grave on the far side of the cemetery. Laced and buckled shoes crunching the gravel. The curved figure staring down at the coffin. Tears hitting the ground.
He winced as the first clod hit the gleaming imbuia surface, red earth on polished dark wood. The thought of his love covered over, left alone in this vast landscape of monuments. The horror. He wanted to lie down next to the gaping hole in the ground. How could he let go? All these people had come to say goodbye, but they would not stay when she no longer pirouette-ed him into acceptance. The whirling top of distraction. He would be left with his thoughts, words that would not be given meaning. It would become a jumbled non existence. He knew.

He scanned all the shoes standing in higgledy-piggledy stripes on the overturned ground. He recognised people by their shoes, polished slip-on alongside well-heeled brogue, patent kitten heel touching black leather mule. All waiting in line to drop earth into the six-foot deep cavity. What a strange day. What kept him here watching the procession? Manners?
He thought of her body naked and lying close to him. The soft ends of her fingers tracing the arch of his brow. The beady flick of her eyes as she felt his need. The pain housed itself in his chest. The walls of his lungs swollen with the panic of loss.

The crowd hovered then slowly they moved away, the stony amble to the cemetery building accompanied by a wordless hum. Ussher’s tendril hand touched his mourning coat, wrapping its fingers around his wrist. “Come along”

The chief mourner was leaning against the hearse as they approached.
He stood up and assumed the appropriate expression.
How ridiculous this was, well-executed misery.

TWO

They called him Nero.
When I look back, many of them had names given to them by my uncle.
Nero was married to my cousin, Mary Quant magic girl.
She had herself a foreigner. Spoilt. Stove-pipe swagger and a hint of something other in his voice.
He had been part of our lives for a long while now and as with everyone else there was an open invitation to add someone into the Sunday shenanigans.
Nero and Slim, the good time boys, were a pair.
Slim had made himself a grimy shadow on the wall where he leant against one of my favourite hand-painted gentle scenes that Monaghan had mastered. Embossed clematis on an upward climb toward the picture rail. Detail, pale and waxy. Schiaparelli pink stamens darkened by his leaning.
Whenever anyone approached that corner he’d unfold himself, stand tall above them in some obsequious gesture of manners.
He had an uncomfortable allure.
I had been taught to like these men by my father.
The charmer, the snake, the circling reptile who mesmerized you then struck and left you poisoned on the floor.
The way his hand moved along the rattan surface as he pushed his scaly body to its feet.
“So young, lady.”
I always wondered why he spoke to me, little more than a child, with my mother sitting across the room.
What did he want?
She would have removed his head and torn his sexy body into a million shameful pieces.
Snapped his fingers off at the root. Stuffed his innards into the trash can where they belonged. But she was lulled, swinging in this hammock of family sun-drench.
This house was my mother’s haven. In childhood it was a long walk from Sogget’s Corner. Gas and candle lit dinners. Gentle music, poetry and performance. A table of shiny beings.
Who had let these creatures slither along the floor and lean on our wall like they belonged?
Most strangers came with a gift of some exuberance to offer to the carefully put- together whole. Some well-recited verse, some trick. Slim’s talent was hidden, held close, shoved in some dark corner. A hat without a rabbit.
I could not think of an answer to his question.
Was it a question? “So young, lady?”
I searched for a bright jewel, something similar to his rippling scales to lay before him.
I felt frozen, this kind of interaction was not familiar.
I felt awkwardly pinned on his words. Each letter from each word attached me, strangely posed next to him in lack of response.
Excusing myself seemed the easiest way out. A polite manoeuver. An escape.
I took a step but his body moved to block my way. No words, but the move was threatening. A dash across this room would have drawn attention to my plight. I felt the ridged texture of my dress. my hand firmly gripping the seam.
Darling, my uncle’s liquid voice raced through the room, Irish resonance cracking the freeze. I looked up.
He’d turned away and slid back down the wall.

Years later when I returned so much had changed. This could no longer be called the outskirts of the city. The bus that had its terminus at Soggert’s Corner now continued on for miles. The once lonely walk my mother had taken to visit her aunt and uncle was a continuous shamble of apartment blocks and work places. The stretch of veld had held so many secrets, had dispersed so many lies. Rotten seeds tumbling in the wind had fallen fallow and been covered by a new world.
I parked my car at the top of the road and walked the last mile. As I walked I felt an overwhelming presence. An animated shadow of so many conjured happenings walked with me. As I reached the property the sound of the windmill flung images into the air patterning a collage of thoughts across my mind.

I looked over the wall, death and devastation had eaten at everything. Rotten segments of my life lay in abundance under the persimmon tree.
Scavenged by scavengers and family alike. The orchard was mangled. Weeds filled once-tended circular clearings, slimy water filled each birdbath. Blood splashes of fallen Hibiscus heaps drenched the earth leaving it wet with dismay.

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