As children we were fortunate to have a house at the seaside*. A shack, really, that to me was a palace beyond palaces. It was four rooms. Five, if you counted the bathroom that sat in the garden, a scary-when-you’re-9-years-old five metres away, out of the back door and through the dark. The front door opened into the lounge which opened into my sister and my room which opened into the kitchen, off which my parents’ room was. It was the perfect holiday house.
It was a palace beyond palaces to me, to us, because it was at the seaside. Not on the sea, with views across the ocean, not one of those rambling fake-Spanish monstrosities that started popping up along Beach Road, in the late 80’s, guzzling the aromatic bush, all glass and soulless, no. But it was at the seaside.
Set in the cluster of houses next to town in Port Alfred, where the river bent, we could walk to the beach, or the river, and the air was salty and slightly clammy and, in the house, when we first opened it up on arrival, it smelt like grass mats and damp wood and holiday.
And it was at the seaside which, for us who lived in dusty gold-mining towns over a thousand kilometres from the sea for the other 46 months of the year, was heavenly. And it made that shack a palace in our eyes. And it was. We were extraordinarily privileged to have it, to have those blissful, barefoot summer holidays.
Every year, when schools closed, our parents would pick my sister and me up, the car packed so tightly with tiny bags (summer: we needed only our costumes, a couple of t-shirts and shorts, one light jersey for ‘in case’ and a pair of flip flops to protect our feet from the duiweltjies that would’ve run riot in the garden all year), my mother’s sewing machine, boxes of plums and peaches from our garden on the mine, and the dog. My sister and I would exchange our school uniforms for t-shirts and shorts on the back seat, stuffing them under the car seats not to be seen or thought of for the next six weeks.
We’d eat digestive biscuits with triangles of Melrose cheese squashed on them as we drove over the dam wall, leaving the Free State behind us and entering the Eastern Cape. We’d stop to stretch our legs and walk across the dam wall, leaning over the edge as the water thundered and our hair flew above our heads.
The Eastern Cape has held my heart since those early days. Perhaps it was genetically passed down to me, from my parents who had loved it from their varsity days, and my grandparents before them. I didn’t realise then that I, too, would go to varsity there, and the Eastern Cape would entwine itself around-and-in-and-through my heart more than I thought possible.
Then, though, in my childhood days, that little house was a palace, the place of sandy feet and salty skin; the Treats Drawer (second from the left) that smelt like Christmas fruit cake and chocolate bars; our iron beds made with a sheet and a brown storm blanket that squeaked and squawked and gave us the best sleeps ever; morning swims on Kelly’s Beach, us the only ones there so early; sundowners and picnic suppers on the jetty at the end of the road; the friendly librarians at the library with its puzzle on the huge table always on the go; the smell of the Christmas tree; the sound of my Mother sewing ‘secrets’ late at night, a shaft of light thrown into our room from the kitchen; my Dad collecting mussels at Riet River; of walking behind him on the beach, stretching my legs so that my footsteps could match his 6 foot, four ones.
It was a palace filled with delight.
*Seeing everyone’s gorgeous holiday pictures, I got all reminiscent (and I’m working the night shift tonight, so it’s a good time for some writing.)