I loved our first house, and so did my brother. You came into the house straight into the living room. The kitchen was just behind that, with a large hatch that you could see through from the one room into the other. There was a passageway between all of the rooms in the house, and it felt absolutely huge to us as children. We’d line all of our cars up in a line and play car crashes by smashing one car into the back of the others and see just how many cars we could make crash together. It was just the right size for games of cricket for two children under the age of 7. Because each of the rooms had doors we could shut, and there was nothing on the walls we could break, we were pretty much allowed free reign over that part of the house. Our favourite game was one I named ghostie ghostie. We’d shut all the doors, turn off the lights, turning it into a pitch black world and proceed to make spooky noises as we ran up and down in the dark. In between the fights, the bickering and the jealousy, I learnt that having a little brother wasn’t really such a bad thing after all.
My father planted a hedge in the front garden, and a bed of carnations for my mother. Carnations are her favourite flowers and so he grew them for her so that he could cut them from the garden and hand them to her when they grew. One day he brought home three fruit trees for us to plant: one for him and my mother, one for me and one for Alistair. I think the idea was that we’d tend them ourselves and watch them grow. We planted them and I took caring for my tree very seriously. I also planted a feather and looked after that, but I blame my mother for me doing that.
Whenever we’d tell my mother or father “I thought…” in response to being told off or something else, they’d respond with “Thought thought if he planted a feather a chicken will grow”. I was always a very curious child, and I wonder if it were possible to grow a chicken from a feather. I knew chickens came from eggs and I think I sort of knew you couldn’t grow a chicken from a feather, but I was going to try anyway. I planted a feather and would go and water it every day. After a couple of weeks nothing had happened. Chalking that one up to experience, I continued to look after my tree instead. Much like the climbing out of my room when I was supposed to be sitting on my naughty chair, my parents never knew. My mother thought it was absolutely hilarious when I told her about it. I’d kept it a secret for many, many years because, even at the age of 5 or 6 (I’m not too sure how old I was), I somehow knew I was doing something silly.
The house wasn’t perfect. I now know that it was a new build and had many, many issues with it. When I was around 7 years old my parents found another house, in a slightly different part of the city, and we proceeded to move. It in January that we started moving, just after Christmas and my birthday. We had two dogs at the time, and both of them stayed with us in Applemist Road initially. My parents didn’t move everything in one go, as they had a bit of time to slowly move things across, and so they did just that. One day they came back from work to find that the new house had been burgled. My father’s record collection was gone, some of the stuff he had would be worth a fortune now. My mother had a collection of souvenir spoons. Every time my father went away he would come back with a spoon for her from wherever he’d been. They weren’t worth much, but the sentimental value of those spoons was huge. All of them were gone. When we were children on school trips my brother and I would try and find a spoon for her. I stopped when I noticed how sad she would look as she looked at the spoons. My brother and I had all our toys in a travel cot, one that my parents had had since I was a baby. Since we’d both outgrown it, and since it was lower to the ground and we could reach into it, it was used for toy storage. All of our brand new Christmas presents, all of my birthday presents were gone.
It’s never the things that are taken during a burglary that is upsetting. It’s the emotions that come with it. Whether it’s the sentimental value of the things that are gone, or the fact that you are suddenly aware just how easy it is for your home to be invaded, it’s that that’s the worst. My parents moved one of the dogs to the new house and kept the other at the old house. My father had an aviary of budgies outside the old house, and he was preparing to move them to the new one. They too were stolen. He’s always believed it was our neighbour who took them. It wasn’t a great start.
Our new house had a swimming pool. While this made all of my friends in England ask if my family were rich, it’s not really that unique to middle class homes in South Africa. It was wonderful. My father had taught me to swim years ago in my grandparent’s pool and I’d had further lessons at school. I loved the water. I could have spent all day jumping in and out, diving down to touch the bottom of the pool, pushing myself up to the surface. Having a swimming pool in the back garden was like a dream come true. Alistair was terrified of it. He hated the sea, screamed when he was taken in to swimming pools and just didn’t like it at all. It’s hard to get away from water when you live in a city by the sea. It’s even more difficult when most of the people you know have swimming pools. My mother told my father he has to teach Alistair to swim, no matter how much Alistair doesn’t like it. She’d seen how close a child can come to drowning without anyone noticing. At a family braai (like a bbq, but better), where all of the adults were sitting around laughing, eating and drinking, my mother was the only one to see my cousin fall into the swimming pool. She was two at the time and dropped silently into the water. My mother fished her out and all was well. With that on her mind, though, she was determined that her son would learn to at least keep his head above water. Our pool had gates around them, but she knew by then that gates don’t stop children from getting places.
Thus began the swimming lessons. I can’t remember the start of them. I can’t remember Alistair crying or screaming as my father taught him. There’s probably a strong chance that he didn’t act up. My father is an incredibly calm and easy going man. He’s never had much of an interest in babies and toddlers (other than his own, of course), preferring to interact with children when they get a bit older and learn to talk. However, if your baby is screaming, or your toddler is acting up, and you hand them over to my Dad, within 5 minutes they’ll be chuckling away at him. I watched him help my youngest brother get over his fear of the sea, and I can only imagine he did the same sort of thing with Alistair.
Soon Alistair was able to boogie board around the pool. He couldn’t swim, but he could keep his head above water and kick, so long as he had his bright yellow boogie board.
Alistair as a toddler and young child had the most angelic of looks. He had these huge blue eyes and this blond hair that fell in perfect curls. My mother didn’t want to cut his curls until she had to, and so he had this mop of curls falling softly around his face. He also went to the same nursery that she worked at. The women there tried to persuade my mother to give him a haircut because he ‘looked like a girl’ and she refused. They went so far as to put him in a dress, aged around 2 years old, and walk him up to where my mother worked. She wasn’t fazed and kept his hair as it was.
I really wish I could go back in time and yell at those women. Just thinking about it makes me more than a little angry.
Back to the swimming lessons. One day I was mucking about in the pool, Alistair was boogie boarding around, following my father’s instructions carefully, and my Dad was sunning himself next to the pool. Alistair saw a bee in the pool. It was dead and harmless, but at the time he was afraid of bees. He shrieked and dropped the boogie board. One of the first things we were taught by Dad was that if you ever get into difficulties, kick and don’t stop kicking because that will keep your head above water. Alistair never stopped kicking. His head, though, didn’t rise above the water. He became a mop of blond curls, spreading out over the water. I, in between giggles at the shriek and the brother that had turned into nothing but hair, yelled at my Dad to get him out. The bee was removed from the water, and everything continued as per usual.
It’s funny that he was terrified of bees and water, because in many other respects he was fearless. We both were. We were never discouraged from going outside and getting covered in dirt. Nor did we have anxious parents standing under trees we’d climbed up, worried that we would break things. I was constantly climbing trees. There was a perfect tree at the nursery to climb. The trunk split at just the right height to get your foot on and pull yourself up. One side of the tree was more difficult to climb than the other, you could pick according to how you felt at the time. Alistair was just as much of a climber as I was. One day my father was fixing the aerial on our roof. Alistair asked him what he was doing, and my father told him. We had no ladder at the time and Dad had really struggled to find a way to get up onto the roof. He’d climbed onto the gate, and from the gate pulled himself up onto the roof. The next thing he heard, from directly behind him, is the voice of his four year old son asking if he needed any help. He nearly fell off the roof at that point in fright. Alistair had found a much easier way to get up onto the roof and he wanted to help his father fix whatever was wrong.
That pool became the centre of family gatherings. We’d have spontaneous braais, where my Dad would ring up a couple of people, ask what they were doing that evening, and they’d turn up with some meat and some beers. My uncle Allan was usually one of the ones there. I remember one particular night they decided to test out something that was done on an advert for fabric softener. There were 5 things that this softener in its new form could do. The final thing was that it was ‘Really, really strong’, and the little boy in the advert would jump on this bag of softener to prove it. The men at the braai decided that they were going to do the same. They took it in turns to jump on it, jumping off of our porch onto the concrete patio below. True to what the advert said, it was really, really strong and it didn’t break. Right up until my uncle Allan jumped. The bag split, softener went everywhere, and my uncle fell down pretty hard. I’m amazed he didn’t break anything. The beer he’d consumed at that point probably helped break his fall.
At one braai my Dad and Allan decided that they were going to play pool volleyball. Alistair and I were to be their ball boys. My mother yelled out the window that we’d just had our bath, were in our pyjamas and were not allowed to get wet or end up in the pool. The game commenced, my Dad with a bucket on his head, my uncle with a children’s police helmet on his head. At one point the ball ended up falling in the middle of the pool. My dad and uncle insisted that one of the ball boys try and get it. Somehow both Alistair and I ended up in the pool, using getting the ball as an excuse for falling in. We were both in our dressing gowns, I had my bunny slippers on, he had his puppy slippers on. I still remember the exasperated expression on my mother’s face as she wrung out the slippers and placed them on the window sill to dry.