About my dad: Part 1.
Imagine a young Greek man. A fit, handsome father. His style, that of old-school 50’s. His shoes polished every single day – including weekends. Piercing blue eyes set against jet black hair and strong Greek features. A volatile man. A man of whom one of his most remarkable features is his voice – deep, rich and warm like dark molasses. Also a literary man – a man with whom I first read from Pygmalion in his study in a place called Umhlanga Rocks, a million years ago now.
Our house was on a corner. It stood high on banks which were covered in soft lilac flowers called Storm lilies. These flowers had thick, bright green stems and long, succulent, darker green leaves. These pretty flowers were called Storm Lilies because their petals would magically open about ten minutes after it had rained.
Surrounded by bushes my father built walls around our house. Some to separate the bush from our house, some to prevent the sandy banks from sliding into our garden and one long, low red-brick wall demarcating our property from the plot of land that lay over the dunes and deep within those bushes behind us. We had a nice patch of land there that we called our garden – mostly sand – with short grass growing lightly across it when it rained. In the summer the grass was yellow. In the rainy season it was dark green and very sweet to eat. In this garden my father built me a Wendy House out of creosote poles. I loved the smell of that sticky, black creosote. I also had a swing and parallel bars in this garden. An active child, I loved swinging myself up onto those parallel bars and swinging back down again from my knees. Once, I pulled myself up the swing chains to the bar across the top, hooked my knees over it and swung backwards and forwards from up there only to fall and split my forehead open on the seat of the swing below. But that’s another story.
There was a garden below the house too. It spread along a sloping stretch of land that ran below the driveway on either side. We called it the Orchard. Well, it wasn’t really an orchard. But it did have a great fig tree with the broadest trunk and lovely wide, smooth, pale blonde branches to climb along. It had thick, rubbery, bright green leaves and it offered us sweet, dark figs. We also had a mulberry bush in the Orchard. From this I would eat the sweetest mulberries and collect silkworms to put in a shoe box to take to school. There was another wide, sprawling and very untidy tree in our Orchard, but it was alive with parasitic plants – vines that clung to its trunk and wound their way around its branches. I found it a little unsettling. It was a very old tree – the branches were too thin to climb and it bore no fruit. Around the base of this tree grew dark red orchids with deep green leaves. I don’t know what this tree was called – the whole concept of parasites made me itch and I found it a little too dark, even oddly menacing. It felt to me as though this tree were full of African spirits from hundreds of years gone by.
My father planted some pretty, more delicate trees in the Orchard – a lemon tree for example, that bore fruit. A fiddlewood tree too – which was the only tree whose leaves changed to brightest oranges, reds and golds when the season changed.
Along the side of the house my father built a pergola and covered it with a truly magnificent golden shower. This vine created a canopy of orange and gold flowers from which one would pluck the stamen and suck on the honey sweet liquid that dripped from its surface.
Around the garage grew canna’s and orchids and a very pretty tree with red flowers that hung like Japanese lanterns. This tree had the lightest branches bearing fronds for leaves that swayed like giant fans in the wind. I was fascinated by this tree, although I considered it a little too delicate to play around. On one side of the garage grew a night orchid. Two giant flowers sang the most perfect duet from their long, thick stem – two heads touching as they swayed in the night air. These beautiful white flowers bloomed only at night, radiant beneath a full moon and shining brightly against the night sky. I had a very special relationship with these night orchids – but that is another story.
A long, cool verandah stretched across the length of our house. My father built a pretty, low white wall along it made from Spanish bricks to stop us from falling off and rolling down the bank below. From here I would sit for hours watching the waves of the Indian Ocean as they crashed and rolled in towards the shore.
Between our house and the ocean lay a small makeshift sandy road and thick, wild bush. All sorts of things went on in that bush at night. As we were one of only a handful of houses sprinkled around the area in those days it was quite scary to hear the sounds of people drinking, fighting and making love in those bushes at night. On one occasion loud screams and angry shouts emanated from those bushes. To my terror, my young father came flying out of the house, leapt over the wall and raced into those bushes waving a sjambok and shouting above them all. I thought he would surely be killed.
He returned unscathed – merely annoyed that I was still awake.
My father had a friend with whom he formed a local Am Dram Society called The Lagoon Players – in reference to the wide lagoon that lay in the bushes a little way beyond our house. You could reach the lagoon through the bushes and reeds, or if you walked along the beach. Surrounded by tall, thin yellow and light green reeds topped with bright orange heads, this lagoon area was inhabited by many rare species of birds and was internationally protected from development for that reason. If you arrived there quietly in the very early hours of the morning and waited in total silence and stillness you would be rewarded by the sight of pink flamingo’s rising from the surface of the lagoon to greet the dawn. It was a magical place – embraced by huge sand dunes along the beach and held safely among the reeds. My dad would take me there at night so we could see the great pool of light made by the moon as it shone across the surface of the still water. Accompanied by fireflies burning brightly amongst the leaves, we would walk back stealthily, carefully parting tangled monkey ropes so as not to disturb either resident monkeys or snakes.
The Lagoon Players met at our house on Sunday nights. Comprised of aspiring actors and a few English ex-pats who had experience of theatre in London this amateur dramatic society would meet to read from plays selected by my father. I was very young and I do not remember the names of all the plays. Rather, I recall being in awe of the very words being read from various plays – words for example, such as “pusillanimous” held great power in my mind and I was so proud to be the only person in my junior school who could use such language with confidence. I also recall feeling deeply honoured when asked to play two notes on my baby grand piano to sound a BELL for one of those plays! Oh, the drama of it, sitting upright and still as a mouse at my piano awaiting my cue! How proud I was to get it right. I loved those Sunday nights – loved hearing those plays read out against a backdrop of crashing waves, there in our beautiful, isolated house.
So it was, when I came to be sitting with my father in his study in Umhlanga Rocks, enacting my own first play reading of Eliza to his Professor Higgins.