I dreamt of Summer holidays in Port Alfred. Of friends and sun and sand, while outside the winds gust and howl as the heavens open, showering down huge drops of rain and even some hail. The clouds are dark and heavy, leaking onto the earth, obscuring the mountains, giving everything a feeling of dampness and a pervading sense of melancholy.
We had a cottage at the seaside. My parents bought it when I was two. Living in gold mining towns, often dusty and small and farfarfar away from the sea, they bought this little piece of paradise in a coastal town in the Eastern Cape, near the university they went to (and then I). One small bite of the Eastern Cape and it steals your heart and beckons loudly forever.
This was not a seaside holiday house in the manner of those that are found there now. This was referred to as our shack at the seaside, and rightly so. It wasn’t on the sea – in fact it was a good, brisk, ten-minute walk to the beach. It didn’t have any amazing views or large numbers of glass sliding doors opening onto a patio and rim pool. It was, in fact, a rather ramshackle, four-roomed square of a house, with an outside bathroom which had lots of ginormous spiders and no electricity.
And we loved it. With every cell of our bodies. And, even though it’s no longer ours, I still do.
Spending six weeks a year there (one of the joys of working on a mine back then was lots of holiday time) over Christmas was like heaven. The four rooms were: a lounge into which the front door opened which led into my sister’s and my room with two highly sprung metal single beds, some shelves made of bricks and planks, and a dressing table with two large drawers and three small. The three small ones were for my sister’s clothes, the two big ones were mine. Always.
Our bedroom led into the kitchen which had a back door that opened onto a bricked path across which we’d fly on dark nights to the bathroom, under a tin ‘afdakkie’. Off the kitchen was my parent’s bedroom which contained a large double bed and a huge wardrobe which always had ‘secrets’ in it until Christmas and a top shelf on which my father kept coins for some reason.
The whole house smelt slightly mouldy, as seaside houses do. The lounge floor was covered in grass matting that we’d lift up twice during the six weeks: once at the beginning to sweep away the year’s dust and once at the end to sweep out the tons of beach sand that we’d carried in on our salt-soaked, sun-kissed bodies throughout the holiday. Pure bliss.
There was no TV and no phone. The sum total of electrical goods in the house were an ancient fat fridge, a light in each room and a reading lamp in the sitting room. The bathroom only had a candle for years, until my father rigged up a single bulb with a cord into the house which we thought was the ultimate in luxury. The stove was gas and the water out of the taps was brack. On top of the fridge was a battery-operated radio which told us the news and played us songs.
The second drawer from the right was the Treats Drawer. Every December it contained an enormous Christmas cake (baked by my mother in September and doused with brandy regularly until it’s trip to the seaside) wrapped in tin foil, which got progressively smaller as the holiday progressed. The drawer smelt deliciously dark and rich. In there, too, were the sweets and chocolate bars: two sweets or two pieces of chocolate each afternoon after lunch when my parents went to rest.
We drank water from the rain water tank which lived out the back door and to the right, a place that, when we were small and scared at night, flitting out at breakneck speed to fill the orange water jug, was full of dark shadows, possibly containing wolves. The square of light that fell on the grass from the kitchen window didn’t quite reach far enough to light the little tap. We made it through twenty years of holidays without being gulped down by wolves, I’m pleased to report. The water was sweet and delicious and we ignored the mosquito larvae that floated about in it. “It’s just protein,” said my Mother.
If we wanted to phone someone, which of course became an absolute necessity when we hit adolescence, we had to walk over the bridge to the post office and use the ‘tickey boxes’. For our weekly dose of television (Who’s The Boss, on a Wednesday), we’d go over to the lovely old couple next door, The Coombes’. We’d watch while the old man, Theo, ate Provitas for dinner and told us stories of ‘The Olden Days’ (far more interesting, even, than Who’s The Boss.)
The house had a specific smell, which is hard to define, but I smelt it in my dream last night and woke up feeling holiday blissful. It was a combination of grass mats, seaside mould and pure, unadulterated happiness.
It’s almost as if that house was built of love and happiness (at the risk of sounding schmaltzy). It saw me grow up and provided some of the very happiest moments in my life. When I went to university (60 km down the road), my parents gave me the keys and we went down regularly for weekends (and sneaky week days, which my parents were blissfully unaware of).
It was there that I had my first crush, then first fell in love and that little house held me safe through all the things that come after such things. I can’t think of a better place for it, all of it. That house, if it could speak, could tell many fabulous stories. In a way, it’s lucky it can’t.
Some things are left kept between a house and the one who loves it.