My father came from Newcastle, where his ancestors were indentured Indians who worked on the coal mines there. My mother was the daughter of an enterprising woman who, at the urging of her brothers, moved from Durban to Ladysmith in the 1950s to take care of their banana depot. My parents met at the Klip River High School, fell madly in love, and in the April of 1960 they married at the local hall having gathered every bloom of gladioli from the veld of the Natal Midlands to grace their wedding. In the September of the following year, I came into the world unassisted, in the presence of a white Catholic midwife and an anxiously waiting grandmother. My two sisters followed in acceptable but quick succession. My father and my mother were satisfied that we were now a complete family, although my father had hoped that the last child would be a boy.
The house I was born and raised in stood on the corner of Buckingham Street in Ladysmith. There were two large acorn trees in front of the house, a green lawn and boxes of planted petunias, fig, apricot and pomegranate trees, and several dogs. A low fence marked the edges of the property, keeping the dogs in and nothing out. An old cow gate stood as a symbolic entrance and pedlars, carrying large brown cases, and basket gardeners, would lift the latch and walk down the long driveway, arriving at the open front door on the shiny red polished veranda. Inside the house, a large pot in the kitchen was always filled with doughnuts, queen cakes, or whatever my mother thought would last three children for a few days. We dipped into this pot and ate with innocent joy. For our birthdays she made us her well-practised three square tiers of chocolate, vanilla, and pink cake, sandwiched with apricot jam and covered in flock butter-cream icing. After lunch on Sundays under the old oaks, my parents packed us into the back of their Morris Minor in our poplin or seersucker handmade little dresses, socks and shoes, to get us ice-creams. It was our special treat for being good girls and we looked forward to this outing every Sunday.
It was a long drive, certainly by the standards of children, to the nearby town of Winterton, and inevitably one of us always fell into a short sleep in the hot and drowsy car. We would interrupt my parents, when they were not pointing out cows or horses on the farms to us, to ask how long before we got to the shop. My father would jerk the car repeatedly and it would stop. “There is no petrol” he would say, “so we can’t go any further for ice-creams”. “Pappa, nooo…” we would cry, with my baby sister imitating the actions of her older sisters. My mother would turn around to look at the disappointment on our little faces. My sisters and I would quickly see the teasing smile on my father’s face and we would laugh to pretend that we hadn’t been fooled. We resumed our journey with excitement. It was his stock joke on these drives and he stopped doing it when we were no longer taken in by his trick.
When we reached our destination, my father would straighten our dresses, gather our hands into bunches and make his way to the shop. My mother often sat in the car or waited outside. But Pappa never entered the shop. He always went around the back and we would get our ice-creams at a small wire mesh opening in the wall from a man who had only a head and hands. When I got older, about four or five, I protested. “Why can’t we enter the shop through the big door like the other children do,” I asked. My father answered me as a parent does to satisfy a small child’s curiosity for that moment. Lowering his body, he would look into my eyes while holding my face, and say that we were still getting our ice-creams whether we got them from the back of the shop or the inside of the shop. There now, everything is all right. Later, he would tell me that I was too young and that when I grew up I would understand these things. Ice-cream always made me feel better.