TGIFOOD

GASTROTURF

The memories in the walls of forlorn Karoo houses

The memories in the walls of forlorn Karoo houses
Verbyganger, by Willem Pretorius, oil on canvas. (Image supplied by Willem Pretorius)

I chanced upon an image of a painting by Willem Pretorius of a derelict house. It transported me to other houses on other roads, and the intrigue they hold.

There’s an abandoned house on the road from Cradock to Graaff-Reinet as you’re heading towards the Wapadsberg pass, aiming for the Merino Slaghuis in Graaff-Reinet to buy some doodvreters and a nice slab of brisket to roast for many hours with garlic and too much paprika. They say people were murdered there.

On any long journey somewhere in the Platteland there is that derelict house, just off the road, holding its mysteries close. No one seems to dare interfere with it. They’re never bought, done up and turned into precious Airbnbs with faux-French finishes and pictures of sheep behind the toilet doors. They stand resplendent in their decay, as if it’s a badge of honour. 

The wind chafes at the faded red paint on the roof, the afdakkie seems held up by a pole leaning against it. The plaster has fallen away on a side wall leaving great red-brown slashes. The cracked chimney looks as though it might fall down at any moment. The mind takes you to Scorched Earth; to Kitchener’s men putting flame to a farmhouse while a mother holds her children to her skirts and the dogs bark madly, the pages of the big family Bible burning on the stoep where Ma dropped it while fleeing the house. What dark secrets this house must keep in its walls; what heartache it must have seen.

The dilapidated houses of the Karoo seem impervious to everything around them as if able to withstand most of the weather, oblivious to the passing gaze of every eye in every car that ever went by. Maybe a superstition hangs over them; the suggestion that something happened to the people who once lived here. You wouldn’t want to come in here; bad things lie buried in these walls. An invisible Keep Out sign. You look for the sign that says Private Property, but none seems to be necessary. You’re near; you’re the intruder.

The most famous of South Africa’s deserted houses may well be the red-roofed beauty outside Leeu-Gamka on the N1. Strange how something so decayed can be strangely beautiful. Photographers love them; artists paint them. A sheet of rusted zinc roof hangs akimbo; a collapsed lean-to, as if further evidence were needed that this house has seen all of its better days. A misplaced palm tree hugs the curved afdak to one side, trying vainly to support it. The wooden kitchen door still manages to keep its once bright green, now a faded teal, like an ageing actress reluctant to wipe off the last of the rouge. 

On my Facebook page last week I chanced upon an image of a painting by Willem Pretorius; an oil on canvas of a house seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with an empty booze bottle in the foreground as if to suggest someone had sauntered by at some stage and, draining the dregs, dropped it there as he walked. 

The painting is titled Verbyganger. It tells its story in paint and an artist’s private thoughts.

I know nothing about that particular house, nor where it is, but I don’t need to. Some houses just have that aura about them, that sense of mystery and intrigue, and a suspicion that there were finer times here once, back in the day, nobody quite remembers when. That house, the artist’s house, painted as he sees it – and no two eyes are the same – that house took my mind to other houses on other roads, and the intrigue they hold.

Whenever I drive past the house on the road to Graaff-Reinet I yearn to stop and go inside and snoop around. There are holes in the zinc roof and a part of the afdakkie at the front looks like you wouldn’t want to walk under it, just in case you didn’t survive. You can imagine a series of American Horror Story being set behind those double front doors where nobody has seen for many years, ever since whatever happened in there happened. One night, when all were asleep, and all but one never to awake again. So they say. 

African Horror Story: Karoo Death House. Did death really stalk those dank halls? Hearsay fabricates and replicates itself in houses like that; whether it’s true or not hardly seems the point. It’s the intrigue, the wonder, the what-if, the could-it-be… as somebody wise once said, never spoil a good story with mundane facts.

Melktert and mosbolletjies were made on that kitchen table; rusks and oblietjies, quince jelly and pumpkin fritters. The spice cupboard smelt of vinkel en koljander, cinnamon and ginger. Naartjie peel lay drying in a dish somewhere on a ledge; biltong hung in an outhouse.

Maybe I’ll stop there one day, once I’ve checked the road ahead and the rearview mirror to see if anyone can see what I’m up to. Park a little down the road to avoid suspicion, climb over the barbed wire fence, check my peripheral vision, then saunter over to the stoep, like a teenage boy sneaking up to the school playground shed for a smoke. Harry casual, like.

Listen to my own heavy footsteps as I trudge up to the front door, as if I were my own voyeur. Some leaves scatter, pitter-patter. Something scurries away from my foot, disappears into a hole in the wall. Something creaks, a window shutter on its rusty hinge. The left-hand front door is lopsided. I reach out and push. It moves. It creaks. Something flutters, something else breathes out. A glance over your shoulder finds the breather gone. You give the door another gentle shove. It opens as if an unseen hand is pulling it open from inside. The passage is somber, dark doors along each side urging you to leave now. At the end, dim light in an arc from a filthy window last cleaned in 1993. The day before the night when everything happened, that happened. That night.

My footsteps follow me, creaking floorboards showing me the way through the old voorkamer with its once red sofa now brown with years of dust, and into the kitchen. A rat darts across the Oregon floor, leaving tiny paw prints. Rat drolletjies punctuate my progress. Crunch crunch. And there it is, the thing that I thought surely must be there, unless an earlier intruder had managed to remove it in the dead of a long-ago night, load it onto a bakkie and make off. But my prize is there. 

It’s now red with dust, but a quick wipe with your palm and there it is: the swipe of a hand reveals the shiny green finish of a lovely old Aga. You can smell its history, in the air the remnants of the meals it once was proud to produce, day after night after week after month after year, as young brides grew into mothers and old ladies, as little boys grew into strapping lads who’d go to Marlow to learn how to farm, and little girls grew up to know the right way to embroider, be a good hostess when anybody comes to kuier, make nastergal konfyt and makataan for the church bazaar and slaphakskeentjies for the tuisnywerheid

The kids who grew up at that old kitchen range were unlikely to be feminists or vegan or gluten free, whatever that is. The elder son became the next farmer, the younger boy was set free and hope-for-the-best. The girls learnt how to manage a household and don’t forget the chops for lunch.

Pa must have sat at that kitchen table with its turned legs, and his pa before him, and his, and… and ma would have set down the enamel pot of coffee and poured for him when he’d come back from his morning’s labour with the sheep and the fences, the ever needy fences, and she would have made him chops and he could already smell the supper he’d have tonight. 

There was spice in the air, turmeric and cloves, she must have been making curry with the mutton that was defrosted overnight. Now there was something for a farmer to salivate over all afternoon, and no farmer who ever existed did not have a renewed and massive appetite once supper time came.

Melktert and mosbolletjies were made on that kitchen table; rusks and oblietjies, quince jelly and pumpkin fritters. The spice cupboard smelt of vinkel en koljander, cinnamon and ginger. Naartjie peel lay drying in a dish somewhere on a ledge; biltong hung in an outhouse.

Do the things we once did still hover in the rooms of the houses of our lives; like the scars on an old table top, evidence of a little girl having eaten her porridge there and scraped the table with her spoon; a dark circle in the wood where ma once dropped a pot because it was too hot. 

Will their eyes follow me out of the kitchen as I step into the passage, and other eyes follow me towards the front door, and glance at each other as I close it behind me. And hear the car door shut and the engine start as I drive off back to a life still being lived. 

Like those they once lived. DM/TGIFood

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Kelly says:

    Fantastic writing! Loved every word.

  • Steve Daniel says:

    Beautiful
    Simply beautiful…

  • Sue Grant-Marshall says:

    Absolutely brilliant words, evocative, haunting, mesmerising. You can smell the dust, the food, the family.

  • Bryan Macpherson says:

    Such evocative writing – those deserted houses will mean much more to me now!

  • Wanda Hennig says:

    “Will their eyes follow me out of the kitchen as I step into the passage, and other eyes follow me towards the front door, and glance at each other as I close it behind me. And hear the car door shut and the engine start as I drive off back to a life still being lived.”
    So enjoyed this evocative piece of writing. And the return, at the end, to the life still being lived…

  • Norah Stoops says:

    There is food for the body and food for the soul and this nourishes my imagination, memories and reminds me that there is another world out there that awaits us. Thank you

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