Thursday 12 April 2012

An extract ~ Chapter Three

Dear Soph,
Here are medical insurance papers you asked for. I hope you don’t need to make a claim.
All is well except that Bellevue has been on the market for two weeks and we’ve only had one couple round.
They called everything ‘quaint’ or ‘feature’ and loved the crass name. (So much for Raddy telling me to change it to get a better sale). They were worried about the noise from the sawmill at the end of the garden. I said it was infrequent and didn’t bother me. (This is a lie). They’re coming back for a second gawp tomorrow, when no doubt the circular saw will be going all the time.
We went to see Perry and Robert’s new house. It’s odd; open-plan with the most enormous sitting room. You could stand fifty people in it. Or park up two tanks. Atalanta zooms around in her Noddy car. Oh, how I long for such space.
I spoke to Mum last night. With more violence being reported from South Africa, she is anxious about you and needs a letter. She had an interview for a job as a dinner-lady yesterday, so is excited but isn’t happy about Granny, who after another bout of ’flu is threatening to go into a nursing home again.
Raddy is rather upset. She made friends with a man she thought would like to rent Mum’s cottage, only to discover he is a sitting-tenant with a strange past. Last week he was walking down the track that runs above her farm and started chatting to her while she was feeding the chickens. This wouldn’t normally be alarming, but he was wearing surgical rubber gloves.
Her husband is away for a week so she has set up booby traps in case the creepy man comes back.
I shall keep you in touch with house developments.
Lots of love,
Tamzin, Johnty, Maude, Bod and Thelma xxx

PS: Johnty only noticed the organic under-blanket, the sheepskin you gave me, last week when I stripped the bed. I’ve been sleeping on it for over a month. He wanted to know what ‘all that revolting white hair’ was.

Equus Horse Safaris
PO Box, Marken
Northern Transvaal
South Africa
Dear Tamzin,
I’m rather wishing that I brought out the dead sheep Johnty is complaining about, so that I have something to lie on in the bush. I did have a blow-up Thermarest mat but lent it to Sarah-Jane who rolled it out onto paperbark thorns. It will never inflate again. The suede chaps that you persuaded me to buy in Farnham are a great success. I just zip them on over my shorts and ride, without having to squeeze into jodhpurs. As I don’t think I’ve owned a pair since I was fifteen, this is just as well. The chaps stop me getting scratched by acacia bushes and are useful for cooking in. I’m meant to be the chef, which entails trying to do complicated things like roast a whole chicken on the campfire. I struggled with this, getting hot legs, but have found the answer:
You say, brightly, ‘We’re having fillet tonight.’
It’s not expensive here, and, it’s a man’s job, as Perry would say, to cook the meat.
A South African braai is completely different to one of our barbeques. A huge emphasis is made on collecting dry wood, preferably stuff baked so hard by the sun even the termites have rejected it. A fire is lit but nothing happens for a while except that numerous cans of beer are opened. Then the man in charge takes a graaf, which is a spade, and drags out the coals, lifting them onto a higher level area where he cooks, while everyone else can still sit round the fire. I just have to make a few salads. And lay the table, search frantically for the horseradish sauce, take round snacks, do something about potatoes, and make a pudding. The same sort of thing applies to starting diesel pumps. Our water has to be pumped two kilometres, which entails starting a massive engine. I just stand looking at it. I thought I was a practical person, but this thing’s bigger than me and only starts if you can turn the flywheel. You need to weigh more than 80kgs to do this. I only weigh 47kgs.

We had the strangest guests this weekend. A gruff looking man arrived with his little daughter who was keen on riding. I put her on Guido as he trots all the time. Well, it turned out that the man, despite being small and quite weedy looking, was a Colonel in the Special Forces, the Koevoets, which, I gather, means ‘crowbars’ and is the South African equivalent of the SAS. He told Andrew, who was recently an army conscript, all about his time fighting on the Angolan border. He was there seventeen years. One job was to spring ambushes. To make a lasting impression on the enemy his men would chop off their ears. He said he had quite a collection. And there was his little daughter, trotting along happily on her one-eared pony.
I took out an evening ride with two sweet old ladies, ‘here on a jaunt’ and a rather good-looking Swiss chap who had never been to Africa before.
I packed drinks in our saddlebags, and thought we would sit watching the sunset before riding back in the moonlight, which is an amazing experience. You can see quite clearly; the moon is so bright it casts shadows.
Only I miscalculated things. The sun went down and then it was dark. Pitch black. There was no moon at all. I had to lead them back, through the rocks, along a streambed, winding through towering reeds and thick vegetation, across a dam wall and over open country for a good hour in starlight. It’s not like going through the woods in England either. The clients said all they could see was the white top to the tail of the piebald horse I was riding, so they followed that and were amazingly cheerful, considering it was rather dangerous. I learnt how well horses can see in the dark and how forgiving people can be. Sarah-Jane was good about it and the old ladies assured me that the reason they had come was for adventure. As we reached home a huge moon rose over the flat-topped trees. We could see quite clearly when we got off the horses.

We’re so busy that my attempts to learn an African language have gone right out of the window.
As Sarah-Jane has never attempted to speak anything but rather precarious Spanish, she’s ‘Looking for local staff who can speak English.’
Somewhere, whose real name turns out to be Samuel, rather alarmed her by asking for ‘flesh’ at 6 o’clock in the morning. He meant meat. Nelly who works in the kitchen said,
‘This English makes me tired. Why can’t everyone speak Northern Sotho?’
‘Well, Nelly, Northern Sotho isn’t an international language.’
Although English does appear to be becoming the language of this world but I’m assured that when we get to heaven it’ll be Afrikaans. Better try to extend my vocabulary.
Nelly is horrified that I don’t have a boyfriend, ‘The blood,’ she said, ominously. ‘It will go to your head.’
Andrew explained that African girls are told you will die if you don’t get enough sex but it’s more likely they’ll die if they do. AIDS is hovering over the people here. A nurse from the government clinic, who drives around the farms providing contraceptives, told me that anyone with a sexually transmitted disease (and these are rife) is probably HIV+. She said that South Africa has been largely protected by the trade embargo. Because AIDS is mainly spread from place to place by lorry drivers who use prostitutes, the fact that trucks couldn’t cross the border curtailed the spread. Until now.
There has been a National referendum. Being English Sarah-Jane couldn’t vote but she made Andrew go.
‘Why doesn’t he take Nelly?’
‘Sophie,’ she said looking at me as if I was mentally disturbed, ‘Nelly doesn’t have a vote; that’s the whole point.’
Apparently the Prime Minister, FW de Klerk, has asked all those who are enfranchised, ie: the white people, if they support him in pursuing a new constitution, ie: whether forthcoming elections should be multi-racial. And this is 1992. I suppose it marks the end of apartheid but all round Marken there were posters saying NO. Andrew thought this quite funny. But while most of the rest of South Africa voted YES, the people round here did, indeed, vote NO.
You will be so impressed; I’ve learnt how to cure acne. We have a shrub with huge pods called the Sumac bean, which does the job. I always wanted to make a television programme on acne. Seriously; some people get so depressed about having bad skin that they resort to suicide. My proposal was entitled; ‘Spots’ with that song Spotty Muldoon played over an opening sequence composed of famous acne-fied people. I didn’t know any offhand, but thought I could ask the film library to look for shots of spotty world leaders.
Here’s a porcupine quill I found for you. Don’t touch the tip, it’s poisonous.
Lots of love,

15th April 1992
Dear Sophie,
Thank you for your letter. I was fascinated by the ear collection. What kind of ears? Does he still have them?
We went home the other day to celebrate Mum and Dad’s wedding anniversary; 35 years. I gave Mary-Dieu your address but she says she never writes and isn’t going to start now. She was there with Daisy, who is two now and chatting away quite confidently.
I was listening to one of the neighbours telling me how much money her husband earns, thinking, ‘I don’t believe I’m hearing this,’ when Mum announced to one and all that she can, henceforth, be seen as a large, smiley dinner-lady in a pink nylon overall, pushing around fifty trolleys of dirty dishes.
‘Oh, no, Mum. Where?’
‘Through the streets of Birmingh-gam,’ she said, putting on a funny accent and taking another drink. ‘It’s for a Fairy Liquid ad-vertize-ment; I’m going to be gracing the bill boards.’
How can she do this to us? It happens time and again. The embarrassment.
I told Dad about the ears. He said that during the Second World War the Ghurkhas collected German ears. They were paid half-a-crown for each one. He read your letter and said that Spotty Muldoon died in the end but met lots of acned angels in heaven and was very happy.
I actually entered at The County Show last week. I put Bod in for the ‘Handy Hunter Class’, which means the judge has to ride your horse. She wouldn’t ride mine. No sense of adventure.
It wasn’t too disgraceful except that my number came loose and was flapping around. There was a shout from the crowd.
‘Don’t worry,’ called a voice, as a rather dishevelled woman ran towards me. ‘Your Mummy’s here.’
And Mum ran into the arena with her arms outstretched, about to make the necessary adjustments. I didn’t even know she was at the show.
We came second to last.
I had Atalanta to stay for a week. She was great and only cried once when she fell out of the wheelbarrow. Her favourite thing is to sneak up to you looking totally expressionless and then raise her eyebrows up and down.
Raddy and her husband have been skiing, leaving me with all their animals – my penance as Raddy kindly lets me stable my enormous horse on her farm. Before they left, Raddy made the most of April Fool’s Day, I can tell you. My April Fool was a dead rat hanging out of Bod’s feed bin.
However we had a shock far worse than that. Every time I went to make up Bod’s food I could smell something really foul. Raddy and I went to investigate. We moved a huge pile of wood to no avail. Just as we were about to give up, Raddy said that she was going to look in the old pram… Ha ha ha. She went white with shock. I went over to investigate. Inside was Henry, the ginger cat. He’d been decomposing for over three months. The smell was dreadful. We wheeled the pram backwards up into the wood. Raddy removed him with a spade, buried him and cried a lot. I said to Raddy that I would take the pram in the back of the Land Rover to the dump and burn it. She was livid and said she was going to sell it at the Quellington Car Boot Sale.
Not much acting work about. Richard Eyre, the director I once worked for in a BBC Play for the Day, asked me to be in Tumbledown, a drama series about the Falklands war.
When I turned up at Brize Norton, he took one look at me and said: ‘You’re not pregnant.’
They must have muddled me up with Perry, as I’d just been told to come dressed in my own clothes, as a soldier’s wife. I had to play the part with a quilted jacket stuffed up my front, which was a bit difficult. You try running across an airfield, bringing on the tears with a padded arm determined to fall down between your legs.
We’ve still had no luck with the house. Raddy will have to think of a better sales ploy than changing the name. We have to move for Bod’s sake. I need to find a place with a bit of land for him. And Maud. She started chasing cows yesterday, the naughty little dog, and got a wallop, but then I dropped a tin of cat food on her head and was instantly immersed in guilt. You must treasure bullterriers; they’re such angel creatures.
Write soon,
lots of love,
Tamzin and Johnty xxx

Equus Horse Safaris
PO Box
Northern Transvaal
South Africa
Dear Tamzin,
When I asked Andrew about the collection he said they were Cuban ears. Would you warrant it? Cubans were employed as mercenaries by the Angolans.
Sarah-Jane’s boyfriend, Billy, was in the South African Defence Force Mounted Division and used to patrol the Namibian border on horses. They would ride through the desert with Bushmen trackers; the idea being that the enemy could be approached silently. But what about land mines? Military service is compulsory for all South African men, well, all the white ones. There is no obligation if you are black.
We have a new guide called Andy, so now we have Andrew and Andy, both of whom are blonde and rather good looking. Andy has come from a smart game lodge in the Eastern Transvaal called Londolozi and is going to teach us all he knows. I can now identify an agama, a gymnogene and wild gladioli. The only thing he can’t do is ride.
‘But Andy, I thought all Army recruits have to learn how to vault onto a cantering horse and trot endlessly without stirrups,’ Sarah-Jane said in dismay.
‘Yes, M’am, but I served in the Air Force.’
We put him on an old grey mare called Smokey Joe, but she trod in an aardvark hole and he fell off onto his head. All the guests were looking.
We have an unpleasant group staying; nine men led by a pompous and autocratic nitwit wearing an eagle feather in his hat. He arrived early, ‘to inspect the horses’ and, without asking us, plonked an Austrian Army saddle on Jigsaw, Sarah-Jane’s frantic horse, who stood there snorting and twitching in revolt. It was far too big for him. The man had special, handmade canvas saddlebags for his video camera, which he slapped on behind the saddle. They had emblems on the sides; little shields which he’d drawn on, in felt-tip pen.
‘I intend to take video footage while we are riding along.’
‘That saddle slipped and Jigsaw bucked like a two-stroke,’ Andrew said later. ‘I found the video camera swinging from a branch.’
I wish Perry was here to organize the kitchen. I did manage to make marmalade from our own oranges. They are so bitter it tasted quite good but every single thing in the kitchen was sticky for the next week. It’s difficult cooking impressive food when you have a low budget, especially when the nearest supermarket is 100 kilometres away. Marken, where we post our letters, consists of a mortuary, a doctor’s surgery and a farmers’ co-op; the Ko-operaserie of the Northern Transvaal, where you can buy farm implements and diesel. There’s a sort of café shop, but just stocks plastic bottles of Handy Andy. It must be the last outpost of apartheid; you find two different counters at the post office and separate examination rooms at the surgery. I haven’t asked what happens at the morgue. You certainly can’t find lettuce.
In each of the last three groups of riders at least one person has been a professional chef, and they can tell how hopeless I am. When I made macaroni cheese; everyone was late and it turned to concrete. I tried to roast potatoes in the traditional way, using an iron pot on the fire. They turned to mush. I should have pretended it was some new dish. Then I attempted to cook gemsquash, vegetables that look like dark green tennis balls, by putting them around the fire. I knew you had to bake them but didn’t realise they ought to be pierced first. They exploded in all directions.
I have to use tinned tomatoes. Oh, the shame. As I was walking down to the dining-tent with their breakfast, some English clients were talking about what good tinned food you can get and what amazing things they managed to find to take on their boat.
‘But it has to be said,’ the husband declared resolutely. ‘Tinned tomatoes are absolutely h o r r i b l e.’
At this point in time I placed before him a great, steaming bowl of the long red Italian type, pathetically sprinkled with dried herbs.
We go to a neighbouring farm, about fifteen kilometres away, for eggs. The farmer’s wife is a sweet lady called Meisie. Meisie means girl in Afrikaans. She always has bright make-up and wears delicate lacy dresses with her hair set immaculately in a doll-like way, but she is about seventy-five. She has an old-fashioned farm shop, which sells everything under the sun. A white bullterrier ominously guards her fruit trees. Meisie loves receiving customers and flutters from shelf to high shelf collecting all the things you need, writing a long itemised receipt in neat, loopy writing. All the food is terribly expensive and all the funny things she has had for years are ridiculously cheap. You can buy a reel of thread for about 2p, but as Sarah-Jane pointed out, it is so decrepit it would perish if you tried to use it.
Lots of love,

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