THE BLUE WIDTH OF THE SKY

(I asked someone to give me a word or phrase to kick-start the writing muse. The phrase was “I had a farm in Africa”.)

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I had a farm in Africa.

Or to be more specific, we had a farm in Africa. My sister and me. My twin. My lost, dead twin.

The farm was spread across a shallow bowl of grassland and dust pans in the Karoo, a short distance north-west of the Gariep Dam. About nine hundred acres, as it said in our father’s will.

Ma got the big farm along the regional road, which will go to Marcus, our older brother after Ma dies. The problem was – and still is – that Ma is a bit like that queen of England. She won’t bloody die. Marcus has divided his time between the farm and being an accountant in Bloemfontein, waiting for Ma to fall over dead one day. But she just goes on, making jams and konfyt, and chasing spiders out the house with a lappie.

So, ja. The terrible twins got the farm along the road, seven kilometres away. We were supposed to take it on and make sure the sheep survived, and the blesbok herd didn’t get poached for biltong that would be sold, eventually, down in Cape Town.

At least that’s where Chris-Jan says it goes. Don’t ask me how he knows. It could be that his wife Betsie has a skelm cousin or three doing the poaching. Maybe Chris-Jan lets the cousins take only enough so that he doesn’t need to do a cull once a year. Chris-Jan is long on ideas, but short on energy. And Betsie is thin on brains but rather wide on the hips.

Oh, I can hear you asking who Chris-Jan and Betsie are? They’re what Ma calls ‘die kleurlinge‘, or what Marcus’s uptight wife calls ‘the helpers’. They make sure that Ma has enough to eat, that she doesn’t burn down the house making jam, and that the big farm is kept well enough for Maryna – Marcus’s wife – to say that they have a small place near the dam.

Not that she ever brings her fancy friends to the farm – that would mean she has to let them see that her mother-in-law is not one of the gentrified ladies from the NG Kerk, but rather someone who looks like she just fell off the back of the ox-wagon and just kept walking.

When Chris-Jan and Betsie go visiting their families down by Beaufort West, then Ma is watched by Spanjaard and Venster. Spanjaard is a completely crazy Border Collie that Ma swears was born with chronic insanity – something about his mother walking in rabid jackal piss when she was in pup – no really, that’s what Ma says. Venster is just a dog – a patchwork of whatever makes up a million mongrels in the world. Venster’s name comes from the fact that Ma was on the road from Bloem when she saw the pup thrown from the window of the car ahead of her.

By now you are probably thinking that I am the different one, the brother who is more normal than the rest. Haha, you would be so bloody wrong. I have a dead sister. She killed herself. We lived in the same womb for almost nine months. We shared an eccentric mother, a brother who is a snob, and a father whose favourite weapon was a sjambok, backed up by very expensive Scotch and the NG Kerk that his wife despised.

Yes, I had a farm in Africa, and I ran away from it. I had to because dragging the bloated body of your sister from the farm dam is not something you want to re-imagine every morning that you wake up on that same farm. She took an overdose of tablets then walked into the dam, one late evening five years ago. Passing into unconsciousness when you are fifty metres from the muddy banks, maybe it is a quiet way to go, but she didn’t think about those who would find her. There are things that a few barbel can do to a body that can make a sobbing-snot brother wish he was dead alongside her.

That filthy old rose-patterned dress…I hate seeing pink floral stuff now. When I was still friendly with Marcus – after “the accident” as Maryna calls it – he would laugh and tease me about being ‘a moffie who didn’t like flowers’. Stupid shit, he has me all wrong. Being quiet and not playing sport doesn’t make a boy a gay. I just preferred to hang around with my sister all the time. We had our own secret language and our own secret signs. But at the end, I failed to hear and to see the worst secret of all – that she would leave without telling me.

So I left the farm, two days after my sister died. I hid the key in the special place, and I just went. Took the things that mattered to me, drove to Bloemfontein and caught a plane to Joburg. I hid away in a funny boarding house in a suburb called Kensington, changed my cell number, renewed my passport, and left the country six weeks later. I don’t know how they buried Doriet, or on what day. I was gone. Out of it. And I could tell my new friends in London that I’d had a farm in Africa.

London became my new farm. It was so easy to walk with my head down, not looking at anyone – as they do there – much like I had done on the farm. But in those old days, I had been looking at the small miracles beneath my feet – the vygies, the scuttling lizards, stealthy scorpions, and the succulents squeezed into impossible spaces on the stony tops of rock ridges. London’s only miracle was my anonymity and a willingness to do some filthy jobs.

I had a farm in Africa.

But I came back. I am here right now. The house is a mongrel mix of Cape Dutch affectation and Karoo practicality, small windows to keep out the heat, but gables facing to all points of the compass. The driveway seems to be maintained – Chris-Jan maybe? The grass is a bit yellow and crispy in parts, around to where the verandah faces the dam and the ridge. The peach trees are starting to hang low with still-green fruit. Ma must enjoy coming here to fetch the harvest when it’s jam time.

And I am now standing by the door of the thick-walled stone room in the farmyard where the old people used to store the milk for the day or the cream for Sunday’s lunch dessert. A cold room, they call it. When I was small I would creep in here with Doriet and we would lie on the cold, damp floor and tell stories and secrets. There is a shelf, low down on the wall, that we lay under so that we could draw with bits of old sandstone on the surface above us. Doriet always drew ladies with big boobs and bums. I always drew monsters.

I push the door open and walk in. The old box with the Johnnie Walker logo on it is still up on the left side. I reach up inside it and pick out the filthy tin that says Sharp’s Toffees. A rattle inside and I know the key is still there. The tin is sticky with old oil and dust, but it opens like I always remember it did.

There’s the key, I grab it and drop the tin on the floor and hasten to the kitchen door. And stop.

What is more important? The house or the land? I hesitate. No, I have to go around. To what everybody calls the front. Where Doriet and I would sit on the stoep and sip cheap, sweet hanepoot from the general dealer down by the dam.

The grass crunches beneath my feet, and I can feel the heat of the sun on my neck as I look down – careful for basking snakes or trailing strands of harsh grass that can trip up the unwary.

As I come around the corner, I feel the punch of memory. The old coke bottles are still lined up on the low wall of the verandah. They still contain Doriet’s collection of stones and precious findings. Some have fallen down onto the ground alongside the steps, but they are essentially undisturbed.

I turn my back to the house and look north, to the ridge. It shimmers in the heat haze, the horizon white, leached of colour in the midday sun. My city-blind eyes pick up a movement that would have been easy to define five years ago. Sheep? Or the blesbok that always haunt the dam surrounds?

I start walking along the track that leads to the old concrete reservoir that’s near the top of the ridge. I can see the windmill pump turn very slowly, a sentinel alongside the slime-coated trickle of water that has leaked from the reservoir since I was barely able to stumble upright. Sometimes Doriet and I would strip to our underwear and jump into the reservoir, picking up strings of algae to hurl at each other, or grasping handfuls of rotting vegetation that had been blown into the water on a thundery night.

Suddenly, a puff of dust, a snort of fright, and a commotion as I disturb a family of warthogs that rush up the slope, tails straight and upright like the aerials on police vans. No wonder Doriet and I called them police cars – she loved these belligerent bush pigs.

I start to laugh, and watch the group vanish over a dip in the slope. And then I carefully turn around and look back at my house. My farm in Africa. My vast sky – a dome of endless blue that spins slowly like an azure mirror above my head. There will be a storm later on, I know it – because this is my heart’s home. And I have brought back my heart’s desire to share it.

I look at the bakkie standing down in the farmyard. I know Alisha is still asleep inside, but she will wake very soon because the air-con is off and the heat comes quickly.

There’s going to be hell to pay for this, as sure as the dust beneath my feet tastes as red as it looks.

Why? I hear you ask.

Because Alisha is a distant relative of Chris-Jan and Betsie, and I love her. I found her in London, miserable as hell and pining for this centrepiece of Africa. She was a shampooist in a fancy hair salon, earning pounds for sure, but as out of place as a crocodile on an ice floe. Having grown up in Lesotho, with an Indian father and Chris-Jan or Betsie’s cousin as her mom, she was hating every minute of that city, but determined to go back home all polished and sophisticated.

I spent more money than I should have, getting my hair cut ever shorter and shorter, regaling her with stories of the farm. Until one day she threatened to cut off my ear if I didn’t shut up, then she threw the scissors at the mirror, called me a string of obscene things – not understood by the Brits around us – and stormed off to the toilets at the back.

That’s when I realised, I had a farm in Africa, and I still loved it. And I still wanted it. But I couldn’t go back to it unless Alisha came with me.

She has the same coal-black hair as Doriet, but a beautiful coffee cast to her skin. Her eyes are like the pools at the bottom of a kloof that opens up when you are wandering aimlessly in this almost-Karoo.

And this Karoo, with all its mense is going to throw a huge scandal right at the feet of my brother up in Bloemfontein. Never mind his wife. But I didn’t come back here to exact revenge, I came back here to resurrect my lesson in how to live and love once more. Only this time I have Alisha to laugh with, and to lie on the ground under the night sky and paint pictures with our fingers amongst the stars.

As for Ma? I reckon Alisha is going to be told how to make jam and koeksusters faster than you can say “Venster just stole the biltong from the drying frame!” The problem is that Alisha takes orders from no one, so this going to be a battle of wills between the “ou miesies” and this tiny stubborn woman who bewitches me.

I am back on the farm I have in Africa, beneath the blue width of the sky, and the magnificence of mile-high cloudbursts falling to the parched earth below.

* * * * * *

Copyright © October 2012 FIONA TIPPING. All rights reserved.

Reproduction or use of any portion thereof is a direct violation of US and International copyright law.

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