On Saturday (or was it Sunday?) afternoons in 1980’s Welkom, the thing to do was drive around The Horseshoe (a horseshoe-shaped park) in the middle of town, with a (horseshoe-shaped) road around it, along which all the shops stood. We used to join the fun, most often parking and going for a walk through the gardens. I remember them as being green and lush. Sometimes we’d be treated to an ice cream from the corner cafe or, treat-of-all-treats, a Coke Float at the Wimpy.
Last week, over thirty years later, I went back, and drove around The Horseshoe. Like a set from an apocalyptic film with a moral about the ills of capitalism, half the park has been guzzled by a shopping mall, now abandoned by the looks of it. The other half is dry and desolate. The furniture stores, the clothes shops, the Wimpy (gasp!) are gone, leaving empty shells and broken windows plastered with adverts for back-street abortionists.
I was ten when we moved from Welkom, having lived my entire life there. In other words, I was old enough to have stored up a bundle of incredibly happy childhood memories, of friends and family, lazy days and a school I loved, weekends of swimming and playing and exploring and imagining and growing and becoming. When we left (which broke my little 10-year old heart), I was young enough not to have developed any teen-hormone-filled angst and misery aimed at everything and anyone, or to have seen the dirt under the town’s carpet. Every town has it, I was too young (and happily protected), yet, to know of it. Keep that in mind as I tell this little tale.
On the second of February in 1975, at 1 PM, on the day I was due (I’m still very punctual), I arrived. My father ate the hospital lunch that had been brought to my mother (before I spoilt her lunch plans) as she was wheeled into theatre for me to make my entrance into this wild world we live in. That was 41 years ago, way before fathers (and now photographers, instagrammers and the rest of the social media personnel) were allowed into the delivery room.
We went there, to the hospital, last week. I wanted to see the very place on earth where I entered this world. Past the murderous malls that have killed the little shops around The Horseshoe and to the imposing and now also abandoned and decrepit building we drove. To its entrance, where the door hung sadly, glass smashed, no longer welcoming the sick to be healed or delivering the new to the world. Torn blinds still flap through broken sixth floor windows, ghosts waving plastic white flags of defeat.
And then back to my childhood home, in Stateway, past yet another mall, one with a casino in it. It’s a business now, our house. The beautiful big garden with its huge trees – the two that held our hammock in their arms, the huge syringa with our tree house, built by my Dad, in it, the one with the foofy slide; my Mum’s prolific vegetable garden with its feast of Jerusalem artichokes, golden treasures dug from fertile ground; the lawn on which we ran and ran and played Musical Statues at our birthday parties, sugar-highed on my Mother’s homemade birthday cake, always a surprise shape, always exactly what our little hearts had desired; the perfect-for-hide-and-seek coal shed; the metal bar in the backyard (what even was that?) that we made ourselves dizzy on, doing rolly-pollies; the tree I climbed to say hello to the back neighbours after I’d had my mole cut out of my back resulting in ripped out stitches and some admonishing; the back courtyard with our Portapool in which we’d skinny dip on hot Free State nights, our nighties crumpled next to it… It’s all gone, replaced by a brick parking lot. An empty brick parking lot, for an accounting firm.
It looks like my bedroom, where the flower children curtains hung and my Mother made up stories of magical lands that those flower children visited for my sister and I, is now the reception room. The spirit of Zinia, Rose, Marigold, Peter and John and the flowers on their heads still hangs in the air, I’m sure (I hope), spreading some magic about and lighting up what I’d imagine to be a rather boring place.
The air of Welkom feels decrepit and desolate, as if beneath the old tarred roads the very earth is decomposing. But this is not aromatic, forest-type decomposition. This is foul, chemical degradation from the very mines that produced that fertile opulence of my idyllic (and privileged) childhood. The mines are closing, the town is dying, under the watchful flickering neon eyes of Adult World on The Horseshoe.
This may be an unfair reflection on Welkom, but it’s mine, from a ‘then and now’ perspective which, often, is exactly that – unfair and unwarranted. The people we met were still the lovely, friendly, Free State people I remembered, my nursery school still looked cheerful and bright (if security-gated and barred), as I remember it, and the tree-lined streets still scatter dappled shade. There just seems to be a thickness to the air, and a distinct lack of kids riding their bikes through that dappled shade.
And that, dear friends, is why sometimes it’s better to leave your childhood memories just as they are, with birds singing in the syringa tree and Bessie the dog barking as you make whirlpools in the pool with your big sister.