Welwitschia and Camel-Thorns

by David G. Thorne
The screen door clattered, and Faity called out for me, just as he’d done every day for as long as I could remember. Moments later he sidled into the kitchen and flopped onto the pine chair opposite me.
David Faity was one of my two best friends. He was french, though I can’t recall him ever speaking his native tongue. We always spoke English or Afrikaans, or sometimes a mixture of the two. He always got Faity because I was David too, and I was chief of our gang. For the first couple years at school Neville Gousse had been my ‘official’ best friend but somehow, without anyone noticing, Faity had gradually supplanted that role. Neville was still our Lieutenant but he seldom came to our house because he lived on the far side of town in the new duplexes. We lived in Klein Tsumeb where most of the bosses of the mine lived. Even on a bike it was a long way.
‘What shall we do today?’
I shrugged. What could we do with so little time left to us? All the usual things occupied too many hours. The swimming pool at the recreation club was out of the question, you needed a whole day for that. Sometimes we would take apples or carrots from the vegetable rack and ride our bikes over to Fritz Gaertner’s riding stables to feed the horses. My mother would complain that half the shopping budget was spent feeding those bloody horses. But the stables were also too far to go today.
On days when the others in our gang showed up we would hang out in our fort, built from leftovers off the log pile. To get in you had to climb onto the top and lower yourself down through a hole in the roof. Inside we had logs for stools and a table made from an upturned tea chest. We called ourselves the Red Skull Gang and we would spend hours carving catapults or bows and arrows with our penknives, for use in the war we were always planning against Kyle-Dean Rutters’ gang.
When temperatures climbed into the mid forties and sharpening sticks became too much effort, we would pick lemons and sit eating them dipped in a bowl of sugar. We had a lot of lemon trees, so there was always a plentiful supply, even after my Mother had made dozens of jars of curd for the endless succession of fetes that dotted the town’s social calendar. It struck me that we would never get to pick those lemons again.
Two months earlier my mother had contracted a mysterious illness and been flown to a hospital in Cape Town. You knew it was serious if someone was sent to the Cape. The local hospital was known colloquially as the butcher’s shop. They were okay at dishing out aspirins or patching up cuts and scrapes; perhaps sorting out an ingrowing toenail. But you wouldn’t want to go under the knife at the hands of the local quacks.
I don’t know to this day what was wrong with her, but she’d now recovered sufficiently to be released into the care of friends to convalesce, and today I was off to join her. For a few weeks, according to my father. But Faity and I both knew that I wasn’t coming back. We sat kicking the legs of the wooden kitchen table, talking about school and our strategy for the battle that would never be. Anything to maintain the appearance of nonchalance, not daring to broach the subject my leaving. Trying to put off the inevitable for as long as possible.
The telephone rang in the living room. A few minutes later my father came into the kitchen.
“It’s about time you were saying your cheerios now,” he said. “Dory and Curtis will be here shortly. Is your bag packed?”
I nodded.
‘I’d better go then,’ said Faity scrambling to his feet.
My father had the decency to leave the room as we said our goodbyes. It would be the last time I saw Faity’s cheeky face, framed by the profusion of purple Bougainvillea surrounding the back door.
‘Well…’ said Faity.
I gazed down at his blue Adidas plimsols. Takkies we called them.
‘Promise you’ll keep the gang in order until I get back?’
‘Course I will, no problem,’ he grinned, revealing an incisor chipped by a cricket ball. But his voice sounded thick and hoarse.
‘Red skulls forever,’ we chorused, raising our fists in half-hearted salute. Tears were gathering in Faity’s eyes.
‘Well. Goodbye then.’
He turned and fled. Then he was pedalling away furiously. I called out as he disappeared amongst the mango trees, but he didn’t look back. When he was gone the static-like buzz of the cicadas and chatter of the hornbills seemed deafening; the sickly smell of balloon flowers overpowering. I pulled a koringkriek off the door, the tiny barbs on its legs clinging desperately to the mesh. I sat down on the stoop and let the grey, armoured arthropod crawl over my hands, as I waited for Dory and Curtis.
Dory Eistead was a stout, efficient lady with tight lilac trousers and dyed bouffant hair. My mother still insists that Dory was a lovely woman, but to my ten year old eyes she seemed starchy and austere. Captain of the bowls club, PTA chairman, and my chaperone for the impending journey. Her husband Curtis was driving us to the airport. He was a short, craggy fellow resembling a squat Walter Matthau. I liked Curtis.
The journey was less than a mile. Our house adjoined the airfield, but you had to drive around the perimeter to reach the terminal. I sat in the back of the tank-like white Chevrolet clutching some comic books I’d bought for the journey, nervous excitement competing with anguish at leaving my whole world behind. The seats were a blue faux leather. The kind that stuck to your legs in hot weather and left square dimples on the backs of your thighs.
The ‘airport’ was just a wooden shack that served as an office-cum-waiting-room. Alongside there was a big tin hangar housing a Beechcraft six-seater which the management of the Corporation used for business jaunts. On the one occasion that my parents and I had flown in her, I had actually been allowed to sit beside the pilot and steer her. It was the talk of the playground for weeks.
Todays’ flight however, was with Namib Air, whose fleet comprised two decrepit 1930’s Douglas DC-3s salvaged from the bush war in Rhodesia. Onboard catering consisted of a mint humbug to help your ears pop. I gazed through the blur of the propellers, at the rippling, warping shadow of the aircraft speeding along the ochre coloured earth, soaring over rocks, causing herds of zebra to scatter.
These days tourists and gap-year kids pay big bucks for flights on these so-called ‘heritage’ aircraft. Namib Air passengers considered themselves lucky to survive the trip without being brought down by trigger happy SWAPO terrorists. But it was a wildlife spotter’s dream. The ancient crates rattled and wheezed their way over the hills at barely 400 metres, providing a phantasmagorical view of the sunbaked Mopane savannah dotted with welwitschia and camel-thorns. Dory pointed out a parade of six elephants crashing through the scrub.
At Windhoek we transferred to a South African Airways 727 with a bright orange tail fin emblazoned with a winged Springbok. Alongside it the old Dakota appeared miniscule. Like all airliners, in my experience, the cabin smelled faintly of vomit and air freshener as we took our seats. I suppose I must have spoken to Dory during the flight but I don’t recall our conversation. Perhaps I read my comic books and pretended she didn’t exist?
At D.F. Milan airport we were met by another coiffured lady and driven forty odd miles to the house in Constantia where I would spend the weekend, before joining my mother. It was a huge rambling affair with umpteen staircases, grass tennis courts and outdoor swimming pool. Dory mentioned that there were stables too, though I never got to see those.
As we waited at the door for someone to admit us, I felt overwhelmed and tearful. There had been recent rain and there was a smell of damp vegetation and honeysuckle in the air. So different from the arid climate of home. Home, where Faity and the gang would be sitting down to their dinners. Except it wasn’t home any more, was it? Dory’s friend noticed me sniffing.
‘The garden boy has been sweeping up leaves to put on the bonfire,’ she smiled.
The door opened and a girl appeared. She must have been fourteen or fifteen, with shortish brown hair and a jagged fringe. She wore a lemon coloured tank top over a pink gingham shirt, blue jeans and grubby white socks.
After a flurry of hugs and greetings Dory introduced us.
‘This is Joanna,’ she said.
‘Hi there,’ said the girl. She had a cheeky, tomboyish grin with a tiny chip in her front tooth.
‘Do you like creepy-crawlies? I’ve got something to show you.’
Joanna put a conspiratorial arm around my shoulders and steered me into the house. Within hours Faity and Tsumeb felt like a dream. A week later and I began to forget what they looked like.

Comments are closed.