I take this route home every day. I am methodical in my process of skipping the long arduous lanes of traffic; I take shortcuts to get me home faster. This particular day is no different from the other 200-plus days I have taken this route home from work. The robot turns red, and I take a right turn as soon as the green arrow prompts me, and instead of going straight, past the petrol station, I take an immediate left. It’s a new car and it’s as if it knows where I am heading. I just need to see it. Just once. Only for a few minutes. I stop the car. Turn the engine off. Roll down my window. There are seven beige pillars, sandwiching black palisade gating. The once-pastel pink walls (a bold decision by my grandmother, no doubt) are now a cream colour. I wonder if the assistant at the paint shop said, ‘This colour, ma’am, is just what you are looking for – sand yellow.’ The number brandished boldly on the black garage door is still the same, almost too big in the ‘o’ of the nine and too curvy in the tail. This seems to be the only thing that is the same about the house since I last saw it. I take comfort in the Mexican porcelain ornaments stuck above the garage door, weathered and chipped, but the exact ones that my gran put up when the house was being built.
Nine Gosling Road was bought in 1968 by my papa, Bunny Norman Ansara. He wanted, no, he needed to move his family off the Blyvooruitzicht mine, three kilometres out of Carletonville and eighty kilometres west of Johannesburg, where he was a mine manager. He came home, steel canteen in hand, and found my gran, nine months pregnant, climbing out of a window of their house. She was participating in a mock evacuation drill during the crisis of the sinkholes. Blyvooruitzicht mine was fast becoming famous for its extensively mined underground. Sinkholes had suddenly appeared over the last few months. On 3 August 1964 a family down the road, the Oosthuizens, arrived home from holiday. They were unpacking their suitcases when a sinkhole swallowed the entire house, leaving a gaping hole. Not a trace to be found, not even the car. Now there stands a monument to the family, a battered plaque hammered to a misshapen rock: ‘God het hulle self ter aarde bestel’– God put them in the earth himself. My papa was made personnel manager after the tragedy and tasked with evacuating families. It just so happened – call it luck – that my grandparents’ house just met the ‘danger’ line. Perhaps it was the sight of his nearly due wife struggling out of the window, or his kids hauling half-packed bags, or it was the knowledge that a family, mere houses away, had lost their lives. But the panic to get his family to safety took hold.
So he packed them up and drove to Johannesburg. Three years later they settled at nine Gosling Road, Illiondale, a neighbourhood barely built, with a sand road leading up to the house and five stands lying empty. Numbers eleven, thirteen, fifteen, seventeen and nineteen would only be built years later. Open plots lay like gaping mouths ready to be fed. By the time I came around to noticing that there were other houses along the street, they were elaborately built, bulging-fat pieces of architecture with cracking walls and worn-down driveways. This was the house my grandparents would live in for twenty-nine years, with three children and eight grandchildren, each generation occupying some part of the house at one time or another and sometimes all at once. The house was perfect. It was near schools, which my father got expelled from a few years later. The veld down the road, still there, was where my father camped out for a day with a can of baked beans and a tin of dog food, with his younger brother and the family dog. Gosling Road would later hum with the revving of my father’s motorbike and witness the first bicycle attempts of my cousin Leo.
The black gate, rounded at the top with a leafy design, welcomed you home. It was at this gate that my uncle, who was eight or nine, picked up the old blonde Alsatian named Judy, presented her to two strangers standing at the gate and said, ‘This dog is vicious!’ and walked back inside. We never knew what those strangers were doing at the gate. My eleven-year-old father stood at this same gate, arm wrapped in gauze, waiting for my papa. ‘I am telling my father what you did to me,’ he said to my gran. She had lost her cool with two feuding boys and thrown a pot that hit my father by accident. He always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. My father still mocks her about this by showing off the silvered scar on his elbow.
The driveway was made of red bricks with blue bricks dotted here and there. Those red bricks were always hot, scorching our Toughee school shoes. My cousins were faster than the chubby me who tried to keep up. I always fell, the lip of my shoe catching on an uneven brick, or a cousin pushing me while running past in an attempt to win or seek revenge. My knees would hit the hot bricks that grazed the skin. Tears and dramatic limping would follow inspection of the damage. ‘Get back inside, now!’ My gran would appear, the stereotype of a nineteen-fifties housewife. A lace apron was her armour, a wooden spoon her weapon. Her lipstick always matched her outfit, ‘Because you never know when you’ll have visitors.’
It was in this driveway that we stood for the photograph displayed proudly in my aunt’s house and hidden in my gran’s: Leo, the first grandson, his hair combed to one side, and wearing jeans too big for his lanky frame; Tarryn with bangs she still cringes at, in a patterned mini skirt and halter neck top, a model wannabee; Tracey, awkward from being the middle child and hitting puberty all at once; Terry with a mop of blonde hair and her usual cheeky smile, the same smile that her daughter, Lexi, uses to get her way now; me in a jersey that was clearly my mother’s, having grown out of yet another set of clothes, my cheeks red; Sean, the baby, his hand-knitted jersey crusted at the sleeves with snot; Byron in a babygro jumper, red and blue, looking lost and on the verge of tears. Tessa, with the blue bug-eyes, would only arrive years later, long after this picture was taken, once we’d all grown up and had better things to do with our adolescent lives than worry about a toddler.
The garage door, black, faced the road. Next to it was a white carport, encased in bright purple hydrangeas. My cousin Terry, who had a pudding bowl haircut at the time and the cheeky-brash nature to go with it, and I would pick them, knowing full well we shouldn’t. We pretended it was our wedding day, each taking a turn to carefully walk in a practised left-foot-together-right-foot-together down the imaginary aisle. Easter egg hunts made these hydrangea bushes famous. We donned our Sunday best and got handed a Spar packet to hold our chocolate rewards. We played hide-and-seek in whispered giggles. During fairy tea parties we bullied my cousin Sean. As the youngest he had to say ‘yes’ to two older cousins and would frequently be banished to the wet hydrangea beds.
In the entrance hall of the house, the black rotary dial telephone with notepad stood ready. We itched to be old enough to use it one day, not that we had anyone to call, but hearing my gran say into the mouthpiece, ‘Hello, Ansara residence, lady of the house speaking,’ made us burn with impatience to grow up. We all answer the phone like this now. A left turn took you into a dining room that led seamlessly into the first lounge. It was the dining room that saw my grandparents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, children’s birthday parties, and traditional Sunday lunches. One particular Sunday lunch, I grabbed the edge of the tablecloth and yanked it off the table. Dishes clanked together with cutlery. Food fell to the floor. Everyone jumped up to avoid being covered in gravy or stepping on spilled peas.
The carpeted passage, its walls were covered with framed pictures, led to the three bedrooms. The first bedroom on your left was occupied by my father and my uncle during their childhood. The second bedroom, on the same side with the pink flower wallpaper, belonged to my aunt. The third bedroom was my grandparents’ with its refined, white, hand-carved headboard and large bed. In their own bedroom my father and his little brother carved a trapdoor in the cupboard that led to the roof: a secret fort. My gran only found this trap door when they moved out years later, and the faded black khoki line down the middle of the room. My grandparents’ room held the most allure for Terry and me. It was my gran’s shiny oak kist (bought with her trousseau) that intrigued us most: a little girl’s wonderland of grown-up lipsticks, perfumes and big decisions. We were allowed to snake the lipstick tube up along the peaks of our lips, my gran saying, ‘Only one colour, girls.’
We spent most of our time in the lounge as children, occupying every inch of it. There was a red and a blue chair directly in front of the television: one for Sean and one for me. We didn’t care or wonder where anyone else would sit. After school, armed with Kavalier fruit and chutney flavoured crisps and a chocolate Steri Stumpie, we watched Animaniacs: ‘It's time for Animaniacs, And we're zany to the max, So just sit back and relax, You'll laugh 'til you collapse, We're Animaniacs!’ Sean and I tried to outdo each other by singing louder and louder. The brown carpeted floor had flecks of white, the ribs in the fabric held parked bicycle wheels and a row of Barbie shoes for a fashion show. My father once stood proudly at the top of the trio of stairs that led to a family room, re-enacting a movie scene, shouting, ‘I am going to commit a dous-a-suicide.’ And years later my cousins and I would fling ourselves screaming, tumbling and giggling to our pretend demise off the same stairs. We had competitions in falling, bum-first, and singing ‘Don’t be fat and lazy, whoopsie-daisy,’ into papa’s purple armchair. On Christmas Eve we balled up on the floor, mattresses pushed and puzzled together; a Christmas bed. All six of us, wriggling, whispering and pinching – Santa was coming.
In summer we wildly flung ourselves into the swimming pool to create the biggest-bestest dive bomb ever, my cousins daring the little ones to touch the mosaic dolphin on the floor in the deep end in one breath, each of us more petrified than the other. The kitchen always fizzed with something being cooked, boiled, chatted about, sipped or shouted at, the shouting directed at some or other crime Terry had bribed me into. The wooden counters and white cupboards never seemed to run out of anything, especially my gran’s Tupperware collection. If the house was too boring, you’d find Terry and I tucked under the nook next to the fridge, sharing Diddle Daddle popcorn, which, being older and bossier, Terry always got more of. Our fingers were sticky and tangled into our wild hair, our lips stained from Lecol cordial. You always heard us before you found us. ‘You two never shut up,’ my gran scolded from the dining room. Or we’d be singing, ‘The boy sat on the burning deck, picking his nose like mad; he rolled them into little balls, and flicked them at his dad.’
The smell of pizza coaxed us back in after a hard day’s playing and taunting. The pizzas were in the shape of the heads of the characters from Dinosaurs our favourite TV show.
The house was an infinity of adventures that awaited us as children. The neighbourhood changed around us, cigarette butts started popping up in the backyard behind the mulberry bush. The boys across the street interested Tarryn and Tracey more and more with their rock music, cheap booze and gelled, spiked hair. My aunt announced she was pregnant with Tessa. My other aunt moved suburbs taking her kids, my cousins, with her. The family changed, and moved. My grandparents got older and were unable to support a house that was no longer a full nest, so it had to be sold for something smaller, more modern and, yes, cheaper. I stopped seeing my cousins after that move, except for Terry, because she went to the same school as me. My cousin Sean was shipped off to Witbank to live with his Dad. Leo started working. Tarryn fell pregnant. Tracey headed off to the UK. We flew the nest, leaving the house in the proverbial dust.
As I sit in my car, reminiscing, a blue Honda pulls up to the gate. The gate slides open, no manual labour or the loud yelling of kids competing to do the arduous task of opening. The women driving the car looks at me. Her eyes have dark circles underneath them, and the girl in the back gives her little brother a wallop on the shoulder. I want to get out of my car and ask the woman, ‘Does the back door still get stuck when it rains?’ But I know she’ll be forced to call the security company to ‘serve and protect’ her family. Instead, I start the engine. The woman shades her eyes with her hand, her face asking if it was someone she knew. I look closer, the hydrangea bush has gone, roots yanked and burnt out of the soil to kill any possible re-growth. I know the old neighbour, Honey, still lives next door. I wonder if she pops her head over looking for the next instalment of neighbourhood gossip. The Nortje boys, from down the road, have grown up and have children of their own. I head back home where I live with my parents. It’s different somehow. While it is home it isn’t nine Gosling Road. We aren’t all there, chatting loudly, or passing plates of food around.
This wasn’t just any old house. It was our house. The house we aspired to: a house that determined who we became. Our world always seemed to be contained within its four walls. A new adventure always waited: our Narnia. I loved this house. We loved this house. I still do. It is the house that forced us together, laughing and fighting, when we would rather have been anywhere else. It showed us what being a family meant, especially if we refused to see it. Warts and all, we huddled together. It was the house we lived in and grew up in. It was history that flooded its passage and spilled through its keyholes. The walls would tell stories of delight and sadness. That house held horrors, broken people, stretched-out moments of grief, loud bleating fights, bloody noses, and the beginnings of divorce. Now, nostalgia washes memories clean, leaving me with the pristine. It has been almost fifteen years since we were all back there. We still talk about that house. Always laughing. It is the foundation of our memory muscles and the place where happiness begins and resides.