Pietermaritzburg and Port Shepstone feature prominently in the Harding family history. Both places appear in our personal Births, Marriages and Deaths columns. We also have a rather macabre sub-column of near misses involving both locations.
My paternal grandfather was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1901. Years later the family moved to southern Natal where they farmed at the top of Oribi Gorge. My father, Cedric, was born in Port Shepstone in 1937 and so was I almost twenty-five years later. Over the years we left the farm and moved progressively closer before settling in Pietermaritzburg in 1972 where both my grandparents died and my daughter, Kimberley, was born in 1992. My parents have now retired back to the greater Port Shepstone area. Farm life in the ‘Thirties, ‘Forties and ‘Fifties has provided plenty of stories of adventure and camaraderie. I also grew up aware of an event in 1956 that could have left my grandmother both a widow and childless in the flash of an eye, and me less than a twinkle in that of my father.
An afternoon thunderstorm over the Gorge had cleared and the sky was once again brilliant blue. My father was preparing a bath in one of the rondavels that comprised the homestead. My grandfather was in one of the nearby buildings. Unnoticed the storm doubled back and, out of a seemingly blue sky, a freak streak of lightning struck the home. Both men were thrown across the respective rooms but were grateful to survive, albeit it bruised and badly shaken. A telephone in another room melted.
Despite this, I have always loved storms. Only a few years ago I commented to friends that the storm we were experiencing was so magnificent that I wished I could sit on the roof and conduct it like an orchestra. (I sometimes have an unfortunate turn of phrase, but equally delight in punnery). It was instantly pointed out to me that I would stand a very good chance of being a conductor were I to sit on the roof in that downpour.
Fast forward sixty years from the storm on the Gorge to 16 March 2016, an evening that saw heavy flooding in several suburbs around Pietermaritzburg. (I remember the date in relation to the Ides of March). My daughter was planning to go out at half past six. I had been expecting to join her but a rather dramatic tooth extraction had left me with an unhappy head and I was groaning peacefully to myself on the bed when the heavens opened. Not wanting Kimberley to spend the evening in wet clothes, I got up and went to open the gate – under a tall syringa tree – with an umbrella as I figured having to stand under the tree would negate any risks posed by the umbrella, while the storm swirled around us. As it happened, the heavy metal gate was not responsible for the imminent head-banging. Within a minute or two I was back inside but by then wind was howling through an open window in my bedroom and I went to close it before returning to bed. What followed lasted a few seconds but is etched in slow motion and the finest detail on my mind.
The cottage pane window frame is made of steel and the catches are stiff. With both hands on the frame, time and sound suddenly seemed to abate and I looked up almost vertically but slightly towards Ashburton. A silver grey cylindrical tunnel opened overhead, stretching to infinity, and I experienced an overwhelming certainty that I was in deep trouble. I remember thinking that I had to get the window shut before the lightning struck – and then it sounded like an express train hurtling back down the tunnel before hitting storeys below ground level. I remember a double reverberation. By then only my right hand was still holding the brass window catch but the ground next to an apple tree about six metres from me as well as the bedroom wall seemed to jump about half a metre, three times in quick succession. In retrospect it obviously couldn’t have been the building or the ground moving but it certainly looked like it while I was being tossed around. I don’t remember the electricity tripping but both TVs and decoders in the two neighbouring homes were completely destroyed in the strike that hit our roof directly.
I stepped back from the window (despite being shaken around I hadn’t lost my footing) and my right arm felt like it was exploding. In the dark I forced my left arm around, almost expecting to feel no right arm. As I did so a strong hissing caused me to take another step back and look up as a bright light the size of a tennis ball travelled from the top right side of the window frame, rippled around the panes, before reaching the left side where I had been standing and dispersing down the wall into the ground, faded by then to a dull blue trickle of light. The ball was so intensely white that I know no word to describe it ; ‘neon’ is completely inadequate. The edges were frilled like the last vestiges of a wave rippling ashore, equally brilliant blue and yellow.
I managed to send Kimberley a text message and found a wooden spoon to reset the distribution board. There was perverse satisfaction in hearing that Kimberley told the friends who accompanied her home that my message was serious because there were spelling mistakes.
Apparently I was a more natural chalk white when they found me and within half an hour bruises started coming through on my upper arm where, I was told, the electrical charge exited. When I thought to check a day or two later, I had managed to shut the window one notch short of fully-closed but the outside of the frame was scorched black and that section of the roof is slightly buckled. The doctor who saw me the following day expected further bruising but that didn’t materialise. I was spared damage to my heart as it was my right side that was affected. The only lasting consequences are stiffness in the two fingers that were in contact with the window frame when the ground shook. Some days are better than others and time will tell if they recover more fully. An unexplained low-grade temperature I’d had for years has completely disappeared.
The coming storm season will reveal whether I still enjoy storms ; at the moment my feelings range from ambivalence to apprehension. What I find remarkable is that I have become the third consecutive generation to have a brush with one of the greatest forces known to mankind and survive to tell the story.
Although our friendship only lasted for a few years because he stubbornly went ahead and died aged fifty-four, a chance meeting at work brought Richard into our lives and has left both Kimberley and me with untold happy memories. It was the kind of relationship that offered support when most needed, tendered really sensible advice, wasn’t afraid to be honest when necessary, generated a lot of mutual laughter, and is really in a class of its own. In one of the conversations that helps when I’m feeling down, Richard said he would always remember me for my sense of humour, ‘fantastic’ eyes, and memory of an elephant. He also remarked from time to time that I had balls of steel. This of course led to rounds of jokes based largely on bad puns and not the suggestive humour one may imagine. Brass monkeys featured and are just an example of the way our conversations unearthed fascinating trivia.
A recent chance remark brought back memories of an unrelated conversation which I sometimes marvel at undertaking and would undoubtedly have led Richard to reaffirm his opinion.
In the time before wedded bliss turned to wedded mis, we had a crazy half-Siamese cat named Wally. His time with us was also limited but, to this day, we have no explanation for his disappearance. One night he was with us as we stood in the driveway seeing off some visitors, then we never saw him again. There were few stones left unturned in trying to find out where he was. For years afterwards I would follow up on vague leads in the hope of recovering him.
On one of these occasions I loaded up a thoroughly deceased Siamese lying on the side of Murray Road and drove him to our long-suffering vet*. Apart from the body being stiff, there was a red maggoty kind of centipede cavorting in one of its eye sockets. This was about two years after Wally left. The body I took to the vet had much fainter points than Wally and I really needed to know if death could cause pigmentation to fade. Needless to say, it was next to impossible for the vet to say with any certainty whether or not this could have been our cat. But I did succeed in grossing him out, as a remark overheard by chance on my way out indicated.
The conversation which I am certain Richard would have enjoyed was the result of another sighting. A lady phoned from a neighbouring suburb in response to one of our many posters and advertisements. She was attempting to catch a stray cat in her area. The real catch in this story is that the wily cat was proving to be extremely elusive and the only identifying feature she could give me was that in the faint light of her torch he had discernibly huge testicles, visible on each occasion as he disappeared over her garden wall.
My dad tends to think I’m too independent for my own good but life events have taught me that if something needs to be done I might as well get on with it myself – so sometimes I just take a deep breath and get the ball rolling before I get cold feet. If there really are such things as premonitions our vet would have left Pietermaritzburg many years earlier than he eventually did.
Having dialled the number and been put through to him I had to say something, but in those days still had something approaching sensibilities. Time and experience has long put paid to that luxury. The monologue ran something along the lines of “We brought our Siamese cat to you to be neutered a few years ago. As you know, he is missing but a lady has seen one she thinks may be him. The problem is that she has only seen him at night and can only identify him by big body parts. Um. Um. When you neutered him, did you actually remove pieces or just severe the connection? Could they have grown back?” I don’t often have a wish to be something insect-like, particularly not a fly, but on this occasion I wouldn’t have objected to finding myself lurking on the vet’s office wall. While his exact answer is beyond recall, the words were to the effect that it was not our cat. His voice was rather indistinct.
* If you are anything more than remotely acquaintanted with us, you will understand my long-standing joke that over the years I have paid for a large part of our vet’s Land Rover.
I freely admit to loving my (limited) experience of the ‘fifties, which is just as well as I intend to stick to my maxim that the best part of old age is denial – no matter how much experience I clock up. The most noticeable tribute to passing time is the slothful approach my body adopts to the snappy mental commands I issue from time to time ; for example, “get up from the pool paving and fetch another drink” tends to be interpreted as “roll over soonish, when no-one is looking hoist your bum in the air and get one leg under you – ow, not like that – and p-u-u-s-h ; ag, just ask Kimberley to fill your glass”.
Less obvious to the casual observer are the unforeseen twinges. Like the one I’ve had in the base of my left thumb for a few days. We are having a cold front but the twinge persists even while washing dishes in hot water. So far I’ve borne it stoically but my response reminds me strongly of my grandfather. Who else remembers the Reader’s Digest’s endless series of publications in the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies? In this context I refer to their health books. Pa became hooked on them and so early on I discovered the dangers of reading too much about symptoms and possible causes. I do not criticise as Google still tells me things I don’t want to hear and are not easy to forget.
The first explanation for the offending hand to occur to me was probably triggered by experiences of friends and colleagues. I prefer a more poetic approach : despite my fortitude, the inclination to bitch to all and sundry points to carp-all tunnel syndrome. This layman’s diagnosis is reinforced by the all-consuming attention it seeks, possibly making it carp-all tunnel vision?
Fortunately my brain was quickly able to talk itself out of this first diagnosis by recalling the remedial procedures undergone by the erstwhile colleagues and late friends. If the latter were removed from this mortal coil because of blocked passages, the chances of these being both manual and digital rather than arterial is remote. On the other hand (unintentional, I assure you), the finger in which the cat excavated two years ago remains pain free. Considering the abysmal state of my medical aid, this does give food for thought. But I would need to have a whole host of drinks before undergoing that again. Unless it was the rabies shots that did the trick.
The possibility of tendonitis has occurred to me but at this stage the rather isolated symptoms have narrowed it down to a colloquially “blerriesorefum”.
As my ‘thirties were spent inexorably approaching and then recuperating from a divorce and I cannot imagine what I did with my ‘forties, I’m revelling in my ‘fifties and neither they nor I are going to be remembered for being a pain in the thumb.
For various reasons my mind has recently turned, in spare moments, to deciding where I’d like to holiday (verb, thus annoying a few purists and tangling Google’s algorithms). Considering the rarity of spare moments, maybe my mind just bent a little rather than turning fully, but even that has been enough to make a short list and have time left to stir memories. The nostalgia was initially triggered by a recent Facebook post “Libraries as vacation spots”. Although the author spent her vacations actually inside libraries, a number of my childhood holidays were preceded by visits to book exchanges and the Public Library (for Pietermaritzburg dwellers of yore, remember the building set back from Longmarket Street that later became Warren’s Health Studio? The building itself fascinated me as the main book collection was housed in a large room with an inside balcony running around most of the room that was also lined with shelves, a rather gloomy floor-to-ceiling treasure cave that sparkled with intent. In retrospect it must have been a temporary measure while the new Bessie-Head-to-be library was being built adjacent to the City Hall).
The time period I’m thinking of would have been at the end of the Sixties going into the early Seventies. My grandparents had discovered the Natal Lurula Spa near Paulpietersberg near Vryheid (now Gooderson Natal Spa Hot Springs and Leisure Resort my close friend Google tells me). They persuaded my parents to take a well-earned break and so began a series of family holidays to the hinterland. A series of pools fed from hot springs in the area and, still bookmarked with awe deep inside my head, a large magnesium pool channelled directly from some polar region (spot the Jules Verne influence?). The latter never tempted me more than ankle deep and, even then, only on days when I thought blue feet looked cool. On the other hand, we all soaked slothfully in the warm pools until our legs oscillated rather than walked back to our rooms. After the first exploratory trip, my mom made sure to take John and me to the library ‘in town’ to stock up on reading material ahead of the holidays. By then I’d pretty much exhausted the Famous Five stories of Enid Blyton, worn out Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys, and discovered Willard Price’s Adventure series. I still clearly remember pouncing victoriously on “Safari adventure”, the problem with enthralling series being that it becomes harder and harder to locate unread titles.
As an adult, I’m rather appalled now that I’m reminded that the purpose of the various expeditions was to collect live animals. My childhood soul became so involved in the plot that the implications went right over my head. It’s an unresolved internal battle that is not going to be satisfied any time soon : rights of the animal versus what’s right for the animal. It is therefore rather interesting to read that Anthony McGowan has been commissioned to add four more titles to the series and the focus is shifting more strongly to conservation.
Now that the prospect looms of a ‘proper’ holiday after nineteen years punctuated with occasional mini-breaks, my adult soul has found new ways to be torn. The choice is currently Berg versus Cape Town as both hold happy memories. Maybe I need to go and sit in a library somewhere and find the peace necessary to rational thought.
Over the last month we have hauled out the last four boxes that hadn’t been unpacked since our move. They were all big boxes used to transport printers and photocopy machines between countries and, due largely to my Packing Plan of 2010 aka As the Mood Took Me (more below) we uncovered many semi-forgotten, and obviously not essential, belongings.
At the time clothes were shuttled across town on the back seat of the car. No need to pack most of those. So too curtains and other things we needed more or less immediately. However
We own tons of books. Not being relocation novices, they were packed in a single layer at the bottom of most boxes. Lugging full boxes of books opens endless opportunities for cartoonists and chiropractors. Not for those who don’t wish to walk funny for the rest of their natural lives. Laughing at myself comes quite easily but not when I’m in pain.
The actual contents of whichever room I was in at the time comprised the middle layer, fragile items packed between lengths of material from my Sewing Intentions and, when these ran out, various items of lesser-spotted clothing. Finally robust but lightweight articles topped off the contents. The kind of things for which “distings” was coined.
I’ve always considered the best part of unpacking to be the unfurling of unknown newspaper-clad shapes. We’ve done plenty of that in recent weeks, uncovering vases my grandad had crafted out of brass shell casings during WWII, numerous kitchen paraphenalia and lots of semi-forgotten hobby equipment. The ‘wrapping’ also yielded two dresses I had given up on finding. Still haven’t found the blowdrier so will stick with the wash ‘n go haircuts.
The only bad news is that one box that had been pushed into a back corner and reloaded full of books, therefore unmoved in four years, opened to reveal that over half of them had absorbed damp through one of the walls and have been ruined by black mould. It hadn’t yet become visible on the box and I don’t know if any/many of the books can be salvaged.
One of the other activities in which I’ve recently indulged is reclaiming the vegetable garden. Our suburb balances on a sheet of shale (do you also visualise four turtles and an elephant?) and so our vegetable ‘beds’ are made from recycled tyres. A reasonably wet summer sent weed production into overdrive and I was delighted to unpeel these usurpers in recent days to discover that we have a tyreful of rocket that has even started invading the lawn. Quite a few tomato bushes have sprung up among the parsley and I’ve spotted a fledgling brinjal plant alongside my maligned-butternut runners.
The season has changed and I hope better things lie ahead.
The last few months of 2014 felt like the calm before a storm. Recent electric storms have been intensifying but I’ve always loved them so it hasn’t worried me as the heavens reverberate and sometimes the ground too seems to shake. Despite this the feeling of an impending implosion of some sort remained unsated as the year came to an end.
The early evening of Saturday 3 January was marked by a particularly potent storm. Storm had been in earlier and I commented to Kimberley how his lower teeth were visible and it looked like he was smiling. He loitered awhile and then returned to his Ridgeback ‘sisters’ next door. It was to be the last time we saw him. Although the storm blew over, it returned a few hours later and the dogs stayed firmly indoors. At about one the following morning they asked to go out for a customary pit stop. The night was particularly humid and all three dogs decided to remain outside. There is no logic to the events that have taken place in the interim so chronology will have to suffice.
At 4am Storm was fed poison, either on our property or from an adjoining one. By the time he was found before six o’clock his little body was already cold. He was twelve years old and hadn’t finished living by a long way.
We realised that it was a likely precursor to further criminal activity but there is not a lot one can do without knowing what the threat is. Police increased their patrols on Sunday night as a result of Storm’s death. On Tuesday morning I was up early and at about six Winston came over to speak to me. One look at his face was worrying but didn’t fully indicate what was to come. Lady had also been poisoned. We had heard her barking at a quarter to four. She managed to get out three agitated barks. That eight-year old dog fought with everything she had to stay alive and managed to do so for four hours before giving up. Kimberley went with Winston and Angela to the vet and said Lady was gagging and convulsing and died within minutes of arriving at the consulting rooms.
While Winston and I were talking I looked up and realised the chain and padlock were no longer on the gate at the top of the property. Within a few metres it was apparent my 1999 VW Golf had been stolen from our garage. It’s since emerged that I had interrupted the murdering thieves at midnight when they fell over a booby-trap I’d left in the garage. They left and came back four hours later, killed Lady, lifted a heavy gate so it made no noise, pushed my car out and then towed it away. They even removed the padlock and chain so as to leave no fingerprints. The top of the gearlock was lying in a flowerbed adjacent to the garage.
The crimes on our property saw the start of a crime spree that is still under way. Within the next few days, now weeks, more Golfs were stolen – so too Corollas and a Sentra. The focus is on older cars. Houses in numerous suburbs are being broken into, communities are pulling together like they should have been doing all along, police and security companies have upped their patrols. A Bull Mastiff about half a kilometre below us was poisoned at 1.30am on a Saturday/Sunday night a couple of weeks later. I heard him barking and reported it to the neighbourhood watch at 1.26am but it was too late to protect him. There are reports of attempts being made to come through roofs. It really feels like we are under siege. Any unfamiliar car loitering in the area is noted. We saw someone hiding an insecticide can under a bush on a neighbouring verge last Sunday. On Thursday morning a jewellery box and computer equipment were found in shrubbery on the verge immediately opposite us.
Our car was recovered the day after it was stolen. Although tomorrow will mark a month since the theft I am still waiting for the insurance company to approve the assessor’s recommendation that it be scrapped. I’ve driven two different hire cars in the interim and will take custody of the third tomorrow when this one’s term expires. The current Polo is almost new out of the box and is the best car I’ve driven to date.**
But I feel like I’m living outside myself. I see my feet walking and respond to people around me, laugh and share posts on social media. Sleep patterns are erratic as even small noises send me around the house to check the source. The first thing I do when I go out in the morning is confirm that the car is in the garage. It took a couple of years to get over that habit after our previous car was stolen six years ago. An old familiar feeling of the wrong kind.
Working one step at a time will see the insurance claim procedure through although it has taken a ridiculous amount of time compared to the last theft. More steps will find us another car. Our security at home has been tightened and further measures are being taken. At the back of my mind is the thought that if I just cope with immediate tasks “this too shall pass”. People are dealing with ‘worse’ crimes and coping with losses that are far greater than ours.
But for the first time since I was divorced seventeen years ago I am consciously fighting depression. This time the criminals have taken something they can’t afford. They have interfered with something they cannot replace. The lack of compassion that is so evident in world events has moved into our personal space. A vibrant happy little dog lies rotting in his grave because he dared to bark. “This too” is not going to pass. The rage inside me is growing stronger and I’m hoping common sense will be strong enough to prevail if they return.
** This post was written on 5 February. Today (6th) the car was deregistered at the Licensing Department, in other words, scrapped. I am now driving a Ford Figo.
I didn’t feel that as 2014 drew to a close. There were still deadlines to be met and processes to complete but the anticipation was missing. Two weeks away from the office allowed me to see to home maintenance that was due and the change of routine was welcome.
New Year’s Day came in quietly but on 4 January the worst crime yet committed against us took place. My next post will almost inevitably be about the events of the three days up to 6 January but I am battling to get the pieces to fit together in a sensible way. The whole thing is incomprehensible and has left us in a morass of jagged emotions and thoughts. Suffice it to say that in a 48-hour period, two dogs were poisoned to death and all, it seems, to steal my sixteen-year-old car. That cannot make sense.