This is the first section of my English Honours Dissertation. It was my first experiment in creative writing.
There is a harsh beauty about the landscape of the Karoo that inspires both awe and revulsion. At sunset, the disparity between the softening sky and the comical dwarf bushes is thrown into relief, and remnants of decades’ worth of broken bottles littering the side of the road sparkle in the dying sun. Minutes later, a shrouding darkness falls to obscure the view of what my mother calls “God’s own country” from any weary travellers foolish enough still to be on the road.
It is 7pm, and nearing a full 12 hours in the car when we reach this stage. Even in midwinter the heat of the day has been unbearable with five of us crammed in amongst some of the weirdest luggage ever to grace the N1: an old-fashioned carriage clock, the ingredients for sponge cake, brownies, date balls and Mojitos, four beds’ worth of linen, a soft toilet seat and several boxes of champagne. The smell of ripe paw paws, disquietingly reminiscent of vomit, hangs about like mosquitoes.
Half a day’s travelling has been slowed down by traffic and roadworks, with the result that the final 200km must be undertaken in an utter darkness and silence. The only signs of life apart from the trundling of our car are the occasional glint of animal eyes on the side of the road: a bat-eared fox, an impala.
Our destination is a little-known hamlet called Oviston on the border of the Eastern Cape and the Free State, nestled on the edge of the Gariep (formerly the Hendrik Verwoerd) Dam. Its great claim to fame is a marginally better-known nature reserve. The total population is approximately 80; the average age, approximately 80. The community is served by a corner shop and a bottle store; any more high-brow requirements must be obtained in the nearby town of Venterstad, which at least boasts the big city luxuries of a post office and banks.
An unusual five we are, comprising my mother, my three sisters and myself, spanning an age gap of 35 years, and hailing from as far afield as the United Kingdom. Only a truly momentous occasion could bring five women in the shape of this travelling circus to this part of the world.
15 years ago my maternal grandfather made the decision (sensible, I’m sure, at the time) to move from Pietermaritzburg to the middle of nowhere to live out his retirement. No one envisaged, at that stage, that the then strapping man in his mid-seventies would turn out to be a not-quite-so-strapping, but still mostly independent and only mildly senile 90 year old. It is for the occasion of his 90th birthday that we now find ourselves pounding down the tarmac at literally the 11th hour.
The road to Oviston, after leaving the civilisation of the better-known Colesberg, is impossibly bumpy and quite brutal on a bladder which has been full since a stop in Richmond two hours ago. The heat has thankfully dispersed so the oppressive closeness in the car is relieved by notoriously cold Karoo night air.
Turning onto the main road into Oviston, I (and I sense the others in the car too) am filled with apprehension at the prospect of the next five days. This may seem like a short period of time as far as family gatherings are concerned, but all anxieties and tensions, however normal they may be in a family setting, are exacerbated by the extreme conditions out here. There is no privacy, no personal space, little in the way of hygiene (seven people sharing a house intended for one is not conducive to showering every day), and the additional stress of my grandfather’s various health problems.
This is challenging enough on its own, but added to the equation this time is the necessity to host a birthday tea for 30-odd Oviston residents. All of these hurdles must be overcome in a place where there is no Woolies to run to for last minute ingredients, and every dish, beverage and snack must be planned in advance to avoid disappointment when the corner shop informs us that they won’t be getting fresh cream in until the following Tuesday. Days stretch into weeks when working under these circumstances, and my sense of foreboding deepens as we turn the corner into my grandfather’s street.
My grandfather’s house looks pretty much like all the other houses in Oviston – the delightful, terribly retro prefab construction which seems to populate most of this part of the world. As we pull into the driveway, a single sign of life appears in the form of my aunt Michelle, followed closely by Grampa. “Hello!” she calls, fumbling with the gigantic ring of keys which operates the entire property. Next thing we’re in the front gate and enfolded in a flurry of hugs and kisses and affection of the sort that is only possible at the very beginning of a visit like this. After unpacking the car, a lengthy explanation of why exactly it took us so long to make the usually 9-hour trip, and dinner, we are eventually permitted to retire to our room (one room, mind you, among the five of us) to assess the sleeping situation. Nights out here are bitterly cold, so the more of us in one room the better for the general temperature; however this solution does entail three on mattresses on every bit of spare floor space, and two in the bed. I, having a history of asthma, am privileged to occupy a place in the bed.