The dealer from Knysna walked from room to room, silently writing in his little notebook. Finally he said: “R17 000 for everything.” I would probably have taken the offer, having no clue if this was reasonable or if we could do better. Nor was I actually in the mood to care. But Bernard said: “Forget it.”
So we went with the option of an auction. We had debts to settle.
The Anna House, our group home for Adults with Intellectual Disability, which had been my home and life for twenty years, was suddenly having to close. It was a nightmare. I won’t discuss the reasons for this here as it’s a huge chapter in itself but I was frantic. Frantic to relocate all my residents and sell the house – and with no real choice but to move in with Bernard and live in his caravan.
It had all gone past me in a sort of disbelieving daze up to that point. Now it was time to empty the contents of the home and the workshops. A household full of all you could possibly need to share life with 14 special adults. And all the materials, equipment and tools with which we had created so much together.
The auctioneer, aka SW our attorney, came with his assistants to prepare the items the evening before the sale. He said he had never had to make up so many job lots in his whole career, as he sent his staff for more piles of beer boxes from the bottle store. With a grin he warned me to remove anything I wanted to keep, no matter what, or it would go under the hammer.
“If I see it, I sell it!” he said, as I briskly rescued my precious white marble angel from his secretary’s hands.
The day of the auction had an almost festive atmosphere. The September sun shone. Blossoms were out on the trees; wisteria and jasmine filled the air with the scent I usually loved. The house and outbuildings were starting to fill with people, well before nine o’clock. They poured in from our town, young and old, smart and casual; from the farming districts in khaki shorts and battered hats and dusty boots. From nearby towns came some people I knew but many more who were strangers. Then there were the essential and expected antique dealers from pricey stores in Port Elizabeth, Cradock and Graaff Reinet, who arrived in their fashionable outfits and well-cut suits. And, of course, last of all, in came the well-known and ubiquitous “Sweeper” from the junk shop in Bedford.
No auction was complete without him: his short stature, well-ripped muscles in tight black tank top and jeans, his bald head glinting, dozens of copper bangles jangling, many tattoos rippling and his bandy biker swagger. I doubt if anyone knew his real name. That day I was in total denial but went into a full-on “I am fine” mode. Like a wind-up doll I greeted everyone and chatted amiably as I would at any birthday party or the church bazaar. At ten o’clock sharp the items began to fly under SW’s capable hammer. From room to room I went with the throng and watched the familiar pieces of our home dislodged and removed.
The prices being paid were proving Bernard had been right. An antique cupboard we had bought for R15 from a neighbour’s garage and beautifully restored went for R800. An elegant Victorian desert trolley from the same garage, which had cost us R20 years before and, once stripped of its layers of green and brown enamel paint, was to reveal itself as crafted from beautiful walnut or beech wood, I can’t remember which. But it sold for R1500. A dark wood sideboard with an ornate mirror that had miraculously survived when I accidentally set all the Christmas decorations on fire one happy, distant New Year’s Eve – this went for R1500.
Proper old wooden wardrobes we had received as donations because people did not use them anymore sold for R500 or more each, 12 of them. The dining room tables and chairs where we had eaten together three times a day – carried away. The sitting room chairs and couches that brought us together after a day’s work or for a meeting or to pray – gone to the highest bidders. Fridges, stoves, toasters, kettles, vacuum cleaners and lamps, all imprinted with our countless activities – hastily removed by their new owners. The pictures and artwork we had created over the years, in paint, textile, clay, beadwork and tapestry, some even framed in the old doorframes from the first Anna House – all vanished in incomprehensibly quick succession.
Then the countless job lots, which took hours but every single one found an eager buyer. There went our cups and plates and dishes, our glasses and cutlery, our cooking pots and kitchen utensils. There went all our mats and rugs and vases and ornaments. All the cared-for and meaningful entanglements of our day-to-day life as a family and home for most of two decades, unravelling at numbing speed.
By early afternoon we got to the big workroom. Hours of bidding went on there for the fabrics, wools, looms, threads, buttons and trimmings; the paints, clay, candle wax, pastels, rolls of paper and countless other art materials. Finally the huge work tables went. This area took the longest time. Last of all the enormous wooden wall unit consisting of 40 or so deep and wide glass-fronted drawers in which we had stored most of our materials. My husband had bought it for R80 from an auto-mechanic in Woodstock, years before Anna House was even thought of. The mechanic had stored greasy motor parts in the elegant drawers because you could see into them at a glance. It sold that day for about R2 500. It was made from light oak and came originally from an old-fashioned department store.
An auction is an exciting thing, especially in the small country towns I lived in. Most auctions were from deceased estates or farm households being downsized when the farmer retired and moved into town. These auctions were places for bargains but also, if the mood and tempo rose high enough, where the seller could really score from the sheer enthusiasm of the bidders. Some people would bid on a pot plant holder or tea kettle and if the excitement was right, before they could realise it, would pay far above the value of a new one. It could go the other way too, of course. On a bad day bidding could be feeble and stingy. It was a game of chance but in our case it was a carnival and the public, who had always loved and supported us so well, came generously to the pageant.
Every single item went. My very lappies and dusters and floor mops and brooms and laundry pegs were bought in job lots, probably by the “Sweeper”. As the rooms and outbuildings emptied, there was a constant flow of vans and trucks and trailers moving up and down the long driveway and the spacious garden to load up bookshelves or lawn-mowers, bentwood chairs, table linens or the beautiful handwork of my residents. I bid on the automatic washing machine when we did the laundry room and everyone went silent after my first offer so that I could get it more reasonably. It was a reassuring show of solidarity for me right until the end.
Eventually the auction was done. The public left with their purchases. The auctioneer and his staff returned to their office. Bernard went home to his trailer. I finally stood alone late that afternoon in the day’s last glow. In that vast and echoing house, in that west-facing kitchen where we would make supper and watch the sunset through the open door, my capable Lisa and Daisy with me. I had checked each room and there was nothing, not even dust, because my lovely Elizabeth had swept up as each room was cleared.
In the corner where the broom cupboard had been, I had left an open tin of cat food for Petronella, who was being adopted by the new owners of the house. My three dogs had already moved with us to Bernard’s place but he would not accept the cat. Suddenly I discovered there was not even a teaspoon to dish the food into her little bowl, which I had carefully hidden from the auctioneer.
That was when it all dawned. Only then. I sank to the floor of my kitchen and begin to feel and mourn my loss. I fed our cat with my fingers. She licked them clean and we watched the sunset, side by side. For the first time in 20 years I did not know what to do next.
The auction fetched R50 000.