For The Birds

By Jac Dowling

I could use many adjectives to describe Susan’s Shirley Valentine blog, but I shan’t, because it’s not good writing practice. So, sans adjectives – I loved it, it moved me to dig deep into what remains of the (better) part of my soul, and to revisit Andrew Marvell. His lines ‘Two paradises  ’twere in one, To live in Paradise alone.’ pretty well says it all about where we live.I have eleven plus weeks of enforced idleness in progress at the moment. How to fill the time? No shopping, no library visits, no gadding about… perhaps I’ll get down to some serious writing, or read again our dusty volumes of Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski or simply open my eyes and count the blessings of our immediate environment.

We live in Hermanus, on the lowest slopes of a mountain range, in a quiet and leafy area.  On the other side of the plateau is the Hemel en Aarde valley, a place of vines, olives, cork oaks, wineries, fruit farms and spectacular views sweeping down to the sea. Our side is less verdant , and home to a baboon troop, the cape leopard, tortoises (which have right of way), klipspringers, larger antelope, honey badgers, meerkats and all that goes therewith. And birds of every description, most of which seem to live in our garden which, in October, is ablaze with brilliant red bottle-brush trees, full of birds. Next will come the waterberries and with them the long tailed sugar birds.  Mossies nest in the winter jasmine on one of the stoep pillars, in a nest recently vacated by a pair of doves. In the creeper on the driveway wall, a wagtail pair are using the same nest for the fifth year, and pop in regularly for cheese and crumbs. A weaver has started four nests in the white stinkwood next door, all of which have been rejected by his mate, and a tatty feather duster adorns the spikes on the garage pillar to discourage two amorous and messy pigeons who find spikes the perfect place to plight their troth, and other things.

Sunbirds, crimson and malachite, swoop between bottlebrush, honeysuckle and jasmine, their long beaks probing deep into the nectar while a francolin appears on the lawn with her four chicks. Not long ago she was eating crushed mealies from my hand and has made a fairly good job of scratching good soil out of tubs and pots. The robins, weavers, canaries and thrushes have discovered the seed tin in the hall  and, since the door is usually open, the mat’s beginning to resemble the entrance to a chicken run – I tell myself it’ll scrub up.  No problem.

These small birds also spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen, cleaning up crumbs and pecking at the bread bin.

It’s quiet here.  The main sound is that of birdsong, hadedah alarms, guinea fowl on twice daily patrol, squabbling weavers, egyptian geese and in the silence of night, the lonely squeal of kiewits and woolly voiced wood owls.

This evening a flock of flamingos fly across to Bot River lagoon, buzzards  swoop in the setting sun and five pied crows shatter the evening with their harsh cries. Down at the rocks are oyster catchers… but that’s another story!

On balance, perhaps idleness isn’t all that bad after all.


Talking to Shirley Valentine’s Wall


By Susan RobertsHaving recently worked on KickstArt’s wonderful stage production of Willy Russell’s play Shirley Valentine, my thoughts in the last few weeks have been influenced by Shirley’s life and motives more than I would have thought possible. When we first did the production back in 2008, it fuelled my desire to see Greece again, and the following year I began working on a novel – The Epidaurus Inheritance – which I set in one of my favourite Greek places. Five years on, the impact of a repeat production of Shirley Valentine has left a different mark on me.

I’m not just talking here about my nightly craving for chips, although that’s a big part of it. I defy anyone to watch Shirley lowering those cut potatoes into the pan night after night, and not generate a little saliva. Once I’ve listened to those chips frying and smelt the aroma, I turn into Pavlov’s dog. It’s not my fault that I lose willpower on my way home and am forced to make a quick detour to the all-night Spur in Durban North for a medium fries…

I digress. Nothing unusual there, of course. It’s a well-known fact that I’m easily distracted when it comes to food.

But apart from the chip cravings, I realise that Shirley has influenced me in other ways. I’m ten years older than she is in the play, and even though I don’t have a stodgy husband who refuses to deviate from his set ways, I see from a different perspective now the truths that she speaks to her kitchen wall.

I missed my chance to follow the fictitious Shirley to Greece because my sister moved to Australia – a move which upended my life in ways that even Shirley could never have imagined – and my Greek novel had to rely heavily on a trip I took many years ago instead. Perhaps Shirley’s rejection of what
she’s known all her life is mirrored in my yearning to re-acquaint myself with what I know and those I love.

Shirley wants to drink a glass of wine in the country where the grape is grown. Here in South Africa I am lucky enough to be able to do that without even thinking about it, but next year I’m going to do that with beloved and much missed family members in two other countries where grapes are also grown.

Two years ago I visited my sister in Australia and dragged her around Melbourne to the point of exhaustion. Early next year I am going to visit her again, but this time I’ll take in a trip to New Zealand as well, to visit my niece. I can’t wait. In addition to the wine, I hope they’ve both got good walking shoes!

Let’s be honest here, at my age plenty of boats have already sailed, but just like everyone else I long to travel to faraway places and experience another kind of life, even if it’s only temporary. As much as I tell myself that it’s for my writing research, that’s only a small part of it. The real reason is because I’m not getting any younger and want to be able to enjoy as much of life as I can cram in while I can still get around under my own steam. In the words of my favourite poem by Andrew Marvell, “though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run.”

I’m in love with life too, and like Shirley I don’t want to turn around at the end of my life and look back on a string of missed opportunities.

Eager for January, I feel that same sense of nervous anticipation that Shirley does, waiting in her kitchen for the taxi to arrive, talking to her wall as she goes through her checklist in her head. “Tickets? Passport? Money?” Yes. I have my tickets, passport and an overdrawn credit card (which comes to the same thing really), and I’m ready to face the world.

Bring on those grapes!

Ancient History

By Michelle Dennison/Julianne Alcott

A grade 7 pupil said today, “I have learned that 9/11 is not just a type of Porsche, but it is also about the Twin Towers.”

I did a display in my library on the World Trade Centre for a number of reasons. It’s the 40th anniversary of the Twin Towers (1973) It’s the 20th anniversary of the 1993 bombing of the North tower, and the new Freedom Tower is being finished this year.

Most of all, it is because the children still talk about it, but some strange ideas have crept in. After  all, even the oldest in my school were barely born when it happened.

For instance, many think that the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lampur are the ones that were destroyed, and that Hitler bombed the Twin Towers in World War 2.

So I decided to set the story straight, and share what happened on that day, and some of the stories
that came out of what has been called “The day that changed the world.”

Most adults will remember 9/11. I was in Cape Town, and watched the surreal sight of the planes flying into the second tower, and the towers collapsing as it happened. We were in Muizenberg city hall that night when a low flying plane made us stop and cringe for a second, before we thought, “terrorists crash into Cape Town? Nah!”

There are so many amazing stories among all the terrible loss-of-life facts.

I watched a documentary about 14 people who were trapped in the hotel that stood in the shadow of the Twin Towers. First the one tower, then the other fell on the hotel, but those 14 people were saved by a steel bar that strengthened the hotel.

Why was the steel bar there?  It had been the repair to the hotel after the 1993 bombing. Something the terrorists of the first attack hadn’t planned on doing!

And how about the sad but inspiring story of the passengers and crew on United flight 93 who were determined not to let the hijackers use them as pawns to destroy another building. The plane crashed, killing all on board, but a worse calamity had been avoided by the bravery of ordinary people.

And a bit of love among all the heartache was shown by the people of the small towns in Canada who took in passengers after US airspace was closed. Imagine the air traffic controller in tiny Gander when 37 jets showed up on his screen!

The town opened its doors to the 6700 passengers who landed virtually on their doorstep, supplying them with food, accommodation and medicine free of charge.

I think it is important to teach children about history. To make it alive for them, so that they can be warned, inspired and taught by people who lived many years and many centuries before them.

Those little interruptions

by Penny M

A piece of wayward cotton was caught up in my zipper at a most unfortunate moment. I am no dentist but then these were not ordinary teeth.  As I sat there, trying to disengage bits of wayward fluff from metal jaws, I pondered about other interruptions that squeeze themselves into my schedule without invitation.

A few weeks back, laden with my laptop, lunch box, handbag and dinner plate, I rushed downstairs. My descent proved to be rather faster than anticipated, airborne in fact. It was not a graceful landing. I lay there for a while, contemplating the prospect of missing a meeting that I’d been attempting to co-ordinate for months. Cancelling was out of the question. Shock kicked in, and the consequent adrenalin drove me to the office.

I presented to the delegates from the safety of an armchair. Only when I stood to leave did I consider that my motion miracle might have a limit. I developed a limp that became more pronounced as the day rolled by. Removing my boot was not an option; I couldn’t risk not getting it back on. By the time I returned home, I was beginning to wonder if I might ever walk normally again. My ‘old lady bop’ was tiresome and other parts of me began to complain. I discarded my footwear to inspect the damage. The gash on top of my foot, the blood, swelling and bruising was convincing enough for several days of bed rest. The healing process was slow.

How did I do it? It took me several days to accurately remember. As my left leg was poised to step down another stair, the buckle on the side of my boot must have caught against the inside of my trouser leg. My foot didn’t appear, and I did a bit of a ‘Grande battement’ to free it. For those who have never been in ballet circles, that’s a high kick, often done at the bar (as in railing, not pub) for warm ups. Whilst I do have a bar attached to the wall down my staircase, I must have let go at that
particular time; probably to catch my laptop that slipped off my shoulder. So there you have it, the reason why I still wince in certain positions, my choice of suitable shoes has diminished, and my dinner set only serves five.

I’ve often heard people saying things like, “I had an uncomfortable feeling about taking that route,” or, “if I’d been five minutes earlier, I could have been involved in the accident.”  I have also experienced similar moments. Then there are the times when I’ve said to myself, “I wish I hadn’t …” or “If I hadn’t come this way, then …” Even worse, “I knew I shouldn’t have …”

I wonder at the warnings. Why should I be so special that I got one and others didn’t? Maybe they all did, but ignored it. Perhaps they had no alternative. It’s possible they had to get to that meeting on time. Or somebody was waiting for the heart that was beating in the cool box. What are the chances that all the people who went to the World Trade Centre on that fateful day, September 11, 2001, heard a small voice telling them to stay home?

On a lighter note, have you ever read the excuses people give to insurance companies for an accident? Here are a  few choice ones

  • The pedestrian ran for the pavement, but I got him.
  • The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.
  • The car in front hit the pedestrian but he got up so I hit him again.
  • I was backing my car out of the driveway in the usual manner, when it was struck by the other car in the same place it had been struck several times before.
  • The gentleman behind me struck me on the backside. He then went to rest in a bush with just his rear end showing.
  • The car in front of me stopped for a yellow light, so I had no choice but to hit him.
  • Coming home I drove into the wrong house and collided with a tree I don’t have.
  • I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment.
  • As I approached an intersection a sign suddenly appeared in a place where no stop sign had ever appeared before.
  • In an attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole.
  • The telephone pole was approaching. I was attempting to swerve out of the way when I struck the front end.
  • I didn’t think the speed limit applied after midnight.
  • As I reached an intersection a hedge sprang up, obscuring my vision and I did not see the other car.
  • The indirect cause of the accident was a little guy in a small car with a big mouth.
  • On approach to the traffic lights the car in front suddenly broke.
  • The accident was caused by me waving to the man I hit last week.
  • The accident happened when the right front door of a car came round the corner without giving a signal.
  • I had been driving for forty years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident.
  • I knew the dog was possessive about the car but I would not have asked her to drive it if I had thought there was any risk.
  • The accident happened because I had one eye on the truck in front, one eye on the pedestrian, and the other on the car behind.

Well how about a new set of excuses for being late for work?

  • The bee was stuck behind the curtains and couldn’t get out (true).
  • The car keys were in the ice box (I knew somebody who found their false teeth there once).
  • The air con frosted up my glasses.
  • I was doing my warm ups on the staircase.

I weighed the options between wrecking the zip against a puddle and a wet suit. Houdini would have been proud of me. I managed to locate my picker. Fast-tracking can have benefits, especially in the correct footwear. What a relief!

On the Rocks

by Jacqueline Dowling

Early Portuguese navigators called it Cabo de Bon Esperanza (Cape of Good Hope), rounded Cape Point and, depending on the weather, either sank or sailed on to lands of monkeys and exotic spices.  Or, they called it Cabo Tormentosa (Cape of Storms), and simply sank.  There are some 3000 wrecks along the Southern African coast and, after shivering through our present and extended winter, it’s not difficult to imagine why.

Recently, the lagoon breached in a volcanic fury of mud, bushes, trees and a wall of water which swept away all intersecting sandbanks and clashed with breakers of the high spring tide sending columns of sea and fresh water high into the air , and a river of sludge heaving along the coast.   It was an apocalyptic sight:  especially when viewed from a car park rumoured to be built on the rubble from the old Birkenhead Hotel, named after a Royal Navy ship wrecked in  1852,  with the loss of 450 lives, off Danger Point , at the southern end of Walker Bay.  The Birkenhead, at
the time, was the largest iron ship of the Royal Navy, en route to the Frontier War.

Today the force and anger of the lagoon is gradually sending the spirit of Birkenhead on yet another  journey,  undermining the car park in the process.   It’s a crowd gatherer, no doubt about it: we stand in the teeth of a winter gale, leaning against the yellow safety barriers and rubber-necking in time with the surging and crashing of the tide.  At times it’s almost balletic to watch the human movement, a motley collection of bodies swaddled in polar gear swaying hither and yon as the sea sucks and swells, woolly hats bobbing to the rhythm of their feet.

Recently the Atlantic exploded with such force against the sea wall in the fishing harbour that  gates were washed away, windows in the diving ‘hut’ smashed and a trawler sank at its quayside moorings.  Seaside homes had boulders delivered to their living rooms, bedrooms and garages on the back of brutal waves which smashed everything in their path.  Tents and marquees erected for the annual Whale Festival landed up in trees and out at sea…and everyone agreed that it was the worst winter in living memory.

In time the gates were recovered from the seabed, slightly misshapen, but restored to their rightful place nevertheless. Divers fitted sliding sea-proof shutters to their hut and the pier was strengthened with vast quantities of dolosse: chunks of  rusted boat were dredged up and  sold as scrap.  Now there are no more trawlers in the little harbour.

The sea is an icy bottle green: hail pounds the roof of our car as we battle to find a sheltering Milkwood: waterfalls race down mountainsides into the lagoon which, once again has reached saturation point. My mobile buzzes with a text from the municipality warning of heavy rainfall over the weekend , high winds and  severe flooding.

It’s the first day of Spring.

© jacqueline dowling 2013


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