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Monday, 20 October 2014 17:39

The Last House

By  Kristien Potgieter

Winner of the Deon Hofmeyr Award for Creative Writing, 2014

We only had two days until the old lady got back so we had to move fast. Everyone had to be coerced into family Christmases, but this dubious scheme fell fluidly into place and met with no resistance. Oom Tinus didn’t even moan about the “exorbitant” costs of the whole affair, Oom Gert, away in Port Alfred, never said a word about things being “done behind his back”, and Tannie Naomi agreed to help without a word about her “excruciating” shoulder pain.

The movers were scheduled to come on the second day, but first we had to get everything boxed up. Ordinarily I would have stayed out of something like this, but after the break‑in I had heard Ma having coffee with Tannie Lizette in the kitchen, crying about the whole thing, so I felt guilty for always minding my own business. I didn’t know if there ever came a point when the sight of your parents’ crying is less jolting. Ouma always said things to Ma over the phone like, “You don’t know what it is to be lonely like I am,” or “Nobody cares about me anymore”. Then afterwards Ma usually thundered down the hallway to me and said, “If she says something like that to me one more time I’m going to run screaming down the road,” or “I just told Ouma we’re moving far, far away. To Australia.” But crying was different from anger.  

Pa had put in leave for the day and we left our house just before six, wearing our oldest T‑shirts, jeans and tekkies. As we drove through the grey Johannesburg streets I started to regret coming along. I was sacrificing a perfectly good day of TV – and reading Pride and Prejudice for the seventh time – for sorting out a houseful of junk. But it wasn’t the time to bring it up. Ma was quiet, which meant she was in a bad mood.

“I wonder what we’ll find, hey,” said Pa. “Maybe she’s got some Krugerrands hidden somewhere.”

I laughed. “Or an actual skeleton in a closet. Or, or like a really old painting that she always thought was worthless but is actually like a Van Gogh or something. How cool would that be? Flip, I wonder how she’s going to react when she realises what we’ve done.”

Ma didn’t say anything.

We were the first to arrive. The sun had barely dared to show its face, so the street was basked in an eerie stillness. Her house sat at the bottom of Wonderboom Street, nestled snugly in a dip that in winter filled up every morning and evening with smoky mist that blew in from the nearby township. As we pulled up in front of the gate no one said a word. I think we were all still a bit incredulous at the audacity of what we were about to do. “It’s better this way,” Ma had reassured us in the weeks leading up to this day. People don’t always know the best way to take care of themselves, she explained, so sometimes you have to pull up your sleeves, reach in and drag them out of their hole. In other words, drastic times call for drastic measures.

It felt strange to let ourselves into her house. After opening the gate to the driveway (useless security since it was never locked and was only tall enough to perhaps trap a toddler or keep out a garden gnome), you normally had to ring the doorbell four of five times and yell “Ouma!” as hard as you could before she heard. Then she came shuffling excitedly to the door, exclaiming how wonderful it was to see you and immediately offering you tea, cake, juice, milk tart, biscuits, sweets, whatever you like, my dear Hannatjie. You always had to say yes to at least one thing to get her off your case; lately black rooibos tea was the safest option, since you couldn’t know for how long she’d been hoarding anything else. 

Without her bouncy frame to soften it, the place's state of dereliction seemed even more pronounced than usual. The grass was towering over the fence, the flowerbeds were sneaking leafy tendrils into cracks in the pavement, and the old burglar bars over the windows were crooked and rusty. The house had slowly been collapsing around her, but instead of making her flee, as it would have most other people, it had driven her further into the past. The rusty security gate at the front door squeaked terribly when Ma pulled it open, and we filed into the waiting gloom. Inside it was silent except for the ancient radio she kept in the kitchen and never turned off, which was pumping an Afrikaans pop song – surely RSG? – into the dusty folds of the house.

I imagined her small frame, almost comically shrunken with age, huddled on the couch watching 7de Laan under a blanket every night and stubbornly warding off fears of violent criminals and violent change, ignoring her home’s attempts to get rid of her by its gradual regression into a ruin. She would not leave, she told us. It was the house Oupa had built for her at the end of a long trek through many towns and cities. It was her last house, she said.

“What would we do in a retirement home, huh?” she asked, hands crossly on her hips. “People just sit and wait to die in those places. And you can’t even see a car driving by,” she said, as if that really settled it.

“But you aren’t safe here by yourself, Ouma,” said Ma.

“We’ll see,” she sniffed, and changed the topic.

We started pulling open the curtains. Walking through this house was like walking through my childhood. In the dining room I found the two stools made of real stuffed elephants’ feet. I had always thought it was so funny that an elephant’s foot was big enough for an entire person to sit on. I used to hug them and pretend I was clinging to the legs of my real elephant pet. And at the back of the dining room was the sweets drawer, where I used to steal sweets from when I thought no one was looking. Our favourite back then were Rascals and Mini Marshmallows, both of which they don’t make anymore.

Next to the living room door was Ouma’s telephone. Stuck on the wall behind the telephone were the handwritten instructions Stefan had written for her on how to use the answering machine: Dial 1405#. Listen to voice. To delete message, press 9#. To listen to message again, press 8#. Listen to voice. He’d spent about three hours patiently teaching her how to use it. Often he had stopped by for a cup of tea and ended up replacing light bulbs, servicing her little Uno for her, fixing the dishwasher, mending a leaking tap. He was rewarded with more birthday and ice cream money than any other grandchild.

Some of the others had begun to arrive. Everyone was curt and business‑like, but I could sense a tense, suspended relief beneath everyone’s brisk exteriors, like they hardly dared believe this was finally happening. Tannie Milly waddled in with her oversized pink faux‑leather handbag on her arm and gave me a fat kiss before stepping back. She examined me with her piggy eyes.

“Yes, so how are we?” she asked, pulling out her lipstick from her handbag.

“Good, thank you,” I replied.

“Good,” she nodded, pouting and applying bright red lipstick. “Good. So, what are we doing these days? What are your plans?” she asked, like she hadn’t asked me the exact same question just a few weeks ago at the funeral and now expected me to say I’ve become president in the meantime.

“Oh, you know,” I said, “the usual. I’m working on some things.”

She pursed her lips and nodded slowly. “Yes. Well.  You can’t do that forever, you know. Better start… contributing soon. You should look into finance. Johan is doing so well.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I nodded and smiled, as if I’d just received the extraordinary advice I’d been waiting my whole life for.

Fortunately my parents and the others started to delegate tasks. A portion of the stuff would be going with her to the home, but the bulk of it would be going into storage for the time being. We would decide the fate of these items at a later stage. While the grownups talked I walked over to the stoep door. The wide patio stretching around the entire rear of the house was bleak and dirty and all the potted plants were wilting, but when we were little we used to play touches in between the blooming flowers and scramble wildly up the branches of the old apricot tree, which was always the “den”, the safe area. I remember one day, before Stefan and I were even in school, we stayed with Ouma while Ma went to teach and the other two were at school. We sat on the patio, two small children lounging in those glamorous reclining chairs, pretending like we were in the movies, and Ouma carried out Coke floats to us. She let us watch as much K-TV as we liked. Back then she wasn’t too tiny for such a big house, and Stefan was just my older brother, not a grim soul just yet. Pointless, these memories were pointless. I turned away from the window. Tannie Naomi was standing right behind me.

“It’s dreadful. Just dreadful,” she said, gesturing at the garden.

“Yes,” I said. “She can’t cope anymore.”

“And of course now it’s our problem. Having to clean up this place. She’s a hoarder, your grandmother, she really is,” she said.

I nodded. I never knew what to say to Tannie Naomi. When she saw me at the funeral she didn’t cry like everyone else. She gave me a brisk hug and said, “Now keep your chin up for your parents, okay.” Everyone else just burst into tears when they saw me. The day after he died, two of my cousins from Pa’s side of the family, Suzanne and Stella, had walked in the front door and spotted me. Suzanne managed to say, “Ag jinne, julle,” and then they both immediately collapsed onto my chest in tears. I didn’t tell them that the cousin they were crying over always got the two of them confused and never bothered to figure out which one was Suzanne and which one was Stella.

Anyway, I didn’t take everything Tannie Naomi said very seriously. Every few weeks she showed up uninvited at our house to have tea with Ma, which was really just an excuse for her to complain about Ouma. Whenever Ma saw that it was her at the gate she looked angry and always said, “Dammit” or “Donner, not again”, but then opened the gate and invited her in for tea. Last week I listened to their conversation from the living room.

“Your mother,” Tannie Naomi had said to Ma. This was how she begun nearly every sentence. “Your mother,” she said, “is so stubborn. I told her she couldn’t go on like that. I told her they would break into her house.” Ma just nodded.

“I know,” she said.

Oom Tinus and Pa would start in the garage, which had been left virtually untouched since Oupa’s death in 1994. The level of chaos in there was thus frighteningly unknown. Tannie Milly, Tannie Naomi, Ma and I would tackle the three bedrooms and then the study and sitting room. Oom Wessel and Tannie Louise would start in the dining room and then move to the kitchen and living room. It was going to be a long day. There was a good chance we weren’t going to finish it all before tomorrow.

Ma and I began to pack up the first bedroom. When I was small my mother could frighten me with her ruthless efficiency that went ahead and organised everything in sight whether it wanted to be organised or not. Today she had that steely look of resolve I hadn’t seen in a while. Was it a good sign, I wondered? Were we slowly thawing, defrosting from the rigidity of our grief? I wondered how Stefan would have reacted to this whole debacle. But he wasn’t here to help, was he, so he had no say in our lives anymore. There is no end to the ways in which children can betray their parents. I thought I could see my mother ignoring this same thought and pushing on, so I joined her.

This particular bedroom was decorated in pink and white. It was assembled in an era when the amount of frills and bows stuck to everything was directly proportional to how stylish the room was. My mother, now a veritable minimalist, could not help smiling at this garish display of bad taste. We carefully took down the ornamental plates adorned with baby deer wearing pink and blue bows around their necks from the wall and placed them in the “Ornaments” box.

“They almost look like they belong in Umbridge’s bedroom, don’t they?” I said, and Ma laughed.

“Just about,” she said. “I used to love this room, though. Back in the day I chose those curtains myself.” She gestured to the faded flowery curtains.

“Wow, Ma should have been an interior decorator,” I said.

“Yes, wise guy,” she said, smiling faintly.

I opened the wardrobe door. I pushed my hand between the old coats and dresses to touch the back of the wardrobe with my fingertips. I knocked on it three times.

“Damn, no entrance to a magical world here,” I said.

I shrieked as something large and hairy scuttled out of a jacket sleeve.

“What is it?” said Ma, not looking up.

“A flipping huge spider. Urgh,” I said. “I’m not touching those clothes again.”

Ma sighed. “Hannatjie, we don’t have time today. Really. Please.”

Cautiously I ruffled the clothes and jumped back in case any more spiders appeared. None did, so I gingerly began sorting out the old clothes. I’d been hoping the whole time to find a few hidden gems which Ouma perhaps used to wear when she was young and glamorous and still had a visible waist. Vintage pieces I could customise slightly to look effortlessly chic. But there were only bulky coats and starkly utilitarian dresses in dull greys and greens and browns. They certainly didn’t exude timeless beauty from a bygone era, only puffs of dust and the stench of mothballs.

“Listen,” said my mom, “while I start cleaning up the dressing table, go check on the others. And if you see anything that looks like a handwritten recipe book, bring it to me.”

“Okay,” I said, wiping my dusty hands on my pants.

Ma thought I didn’t know, but I knew what this was about. Everyone had agreed not to take anything for themselves today. They were very respectfully waiting for Ouma to perish before fighting it out over the various trinkets and silverware, but I knew my mom desperately wanted to get her hands on Ouma’s secret recipe book. So did Tannie Milly, Tannie Louise and Tannie Naomi, who frequently moaned about Ouma’s refusal to divulge her recipes. See, you never saw Ouma using a recipe, but her baking was legendary, especially the koeksisters. Everyone who had just a single bite of her koeksisters agreed they were the best they’d ever had. Ouma claimed it was just an old Kook & Geniet recipe, but my mother and aunts weren’t buying it. Whoever had this secret recipe (and all of the others) would be in possession of powerful knowledge indeed. My feeling was that the “secret ingredients”, the little touches that made her baking extraordinary, weren’t written down anywhere but were enclosed in the ancient pleats of her mind, so that when she started baking they automatically and magically spread through her fingers and into the batter.

I checked on what the others were doing, but there was no recipe book in sight. Perhaps someone had found it without telling anyone else. I decided to go see the study. I hadn’t been in there in years. This was the room perhaps the most overwhelmed by thirty-three years of steady accumulation of stuff. Bookshelves lined three walls, but they didn’t hold only books. An odd assortment of objects was stuffed onto the shelves among the books. There was a spotted trumpet, a naked plastic doll with no arms and legs, jars filled to the brim with faded seashells and an empty birdcage. There was a collection of handmade African dolls that Ouma had once told me came from South-West Africa.

“Yes, they made those dolls themselves,” she said. “The ousies and outas over there are very clever.” My eyes stretched wide in silent shock. I never knew how to respond to her politically incorrect statements.

About two weeks ago, for instance, Ma and I took her out for lunch. We specially went to Crafters and Cravings, the coffee shop in Linden she likes because (according to her) their chairs weren’t too low and their coffee cups weren’t too big (“Oooh, we hate a big cup,” she always said). Ouma usually ran into at least ten people that she knew at this coffee shop, mostly people from church or the home industry, but often people whom we didn’t know at all. That day was no different. An old lady wearing a bright green poncho came over to our table to greet Ouma.

“Oh, it’s so wonderful to see you, tannie,” the lady beamed. “And you know,” she turned to my mother, “you have an amazing mom. Still so independent at her age! This lady over here is such an inspiration to all of us.”

Ma laughed. “Sure, would you like to have her?” she asked. The lady laughed too. She didn’t realise Ma was only half‑joking.

After the lady left we finished our food. Despite complaining that it was much too big and trying to get me to eat her chips, Ouma finished her entire chicken pie.

Ouma het so lekker geëet, ne?” said Ma. “Ouma loves pies, don’t you, Ouma?” I don’t know when, but Ma had also started calling Ouma “Ouma”. Before, she used to call her “Ma”.

“No,” Ouma snapped. “We don’t like pies. We don’t like anything! Don’t tell us what we like,” she barked. She’s lived alone for almost twenty years but still said “we”: “We miss you so, so much, you know,” or “We are just so lonely at home.” It reminded me of Gollum, but I didn’t dare say this to Ma.

“Sorry, sorry, Ouma,” Ma tried to apologise. But this very issue was a source of great frustration for Ma. Ouma never cooked anymore and ate practically nothing but toast. One day, Ma had brought Ouma two grocery bags full of food from Woolworths. But a week later she’d gone back and found the unopened containers of pasta and salad moulding in the refrigerator. Now we often took her out for breakfast or lunch.

We were already back in the car when Ma said, “Ouma, do you need money? Because we’re here now, I can quickly go draw.”

Ouma hadn’t heard. “Ouma?” Ma said in a loud voice, twisting in her seat to look at Ouma in the back seat. “Do you need money? Cash? I can draw some now.” Ouma couldn’t cope with the ATM and did not know how to use her card for shopping.

“Well – um – yes – well, let me – well,” she said, twisting her hands around in her lap. Her indecisiveness drove my mother crazy. Ma looked at her unblinkingly with raised eyebrows.

“Do you have money to pay Moses? Is Moses coming tomorrow?” asked Ma.

“Uh, yes. Yes, but I don’t think I – I won’t have enough because there’s – Saturday we have the bazaar at church, yes,” Ouma said.

“So should I just draw you some money now for the rest of the week, Ouma?” asked Ma. Ouma nodded.

“Your card please?” said Ma.

Ouma fumbled in her handbag until she found the bank card. Ma got out of the car. I sat quietly and stared in front of me with an awful pleasant little smile plastered on my face.

“And is it going well at – uh – at the – at Wits, Hannatjie? Do you have holiday now?” asked Ouma.

At that point I hadn’t told anyone I’d stopped going yet, so I just said, “Ja, ja, very well, very well, Ouma.”

“We’re so proud of you,” she said, and I nodded, still with the same insipid smile on my face. Even as I was doing it I thought of the way Stefan had always infuriated me by mimicking this exact facial expression of mine. Whenever I had this smile on my face he pulled his mouth tight, stretched his eyes wide open and tilted his head to the side to show me how retarded I looked.

Ma came back. “Hierso, Ouma,” she said. “Here’s your money and your card.”

Dankie, dankie,” she said. “Ja nee, ja nee, it’s a treat, my girl.” She winked at me and then peeled off a R100 note from the bundle and, eyes twinkling mischievously, pressed it into my lap.

“Just a little something. For an ice cream,” she said.

Ag, is Ouma sure?” I asked.

“But that money’s for the whole week, Ouma,” said Ma.

“Yes, yes. We’re rich, you see,” she said.

I laughed. I looked at Ma. She was rolling her eyes as she put the car into reverse.

Then Ouma told us about the new maid, Brenda, who had worked at her house for the first time the previous Saturday. She hadn’t really wanted to leave Brenda alone in the house on the first day, but she had had to deliver her baking to the home industry.

“You can’t leave them on their own, you know,” she said seriously. “You never know what they will steal the moment you turn your back.”

Ma and I glanced at each other, trying not to smile. I twisted around in my seat and nodded understandingly.

“But,” said Ouma, “I knew what to do. Before I left, I just told her, Brenda, listen to me. The tokoloshe is watching you. Ye-e-s, I said, if you take anything, the tokoloshe will get you. And you know, they really believe in the tokoloshe. She wouldn’t dare to take anything!” she said, clearly impressed by her own ingenuity.

“What do you mean ‘they’, Ouma? Who’s ‘they’?” I asked innocently, and Ma gave me a look of warning. But Ouma hadn’t even heard.

Against the wall of the study stood a desk made nearly invisible by the stacks of papers and books and junk piled on it. In a corner of the room stood an empty fish tank and in another a broken exercise bicycle, which had been broken ever since I could remember. There was also a big television with a cracked screen and an old record player.

Above the desk was a collage of photographs stuck messily to the wall with Prestik. I recognised some relatives, but I couldn’t tell everyone apart as children. Here and there I spotted a familiar nose, grin or chin, but the unformed juvenile features made it difficult to tell which adult aunt or uncle or cousin they had morphed into. Some of the photos looked ancient.

There was one, clearly taken during Ouma and Oupa’s years in South‑West Africa, with the bleak desert backdrop, where Ouma, squinting into the sun, was holding a baby in its christening clothes. And there was another where Ouma was holding Stefan, also in his long white christening dress. I could tell it was him from the ages of my sisters and cousins grouped around them. Alicia had her arms crossed grumpily, jealous of the new baby. Nicole was smiling sweetly, a little princess, as always.

There was also a picture Stefan sent her when he was taking his wild gap year in Scotland. He’d always said it was the best year of his life. His year away from us. Ma, Pa, Alicia and I had visited him while he was living there. We went on a tumultuous road trip through Scotland. Ma couldn’t understand the Scots (“Is that even English they’re speaking?” she asked), and Alicia kept complaining because she hadn’t spotted a puffin yet.

I’d brought the newest Fokofpolisiekar CD along from home to give to Stefan, and we’d played it over and over again extremely loudly in the hire car, singing along obnoxiously, especially to all the bits with swear words.

“Enough of this,” said Pa finally. “Sit af die gemors! Is dit Polisiekar dié?

“Does Pa mean Fokofpolisiekar?” I asked innocently.

Moenie so lelik praat nie,” he said.

Stefan and I laughed raucously. Ma only shook her head.

In the top left‑hand corner of the photo collage Ouma had stuck one of the funeral pamphlets. I wondered how many she’d taken from the church that day and stuffed into her handbag.  I’d already seen one perched in a corner of her bedroom mirror, another stuck to the fridge, and yet another behind the bathroom door. Did she put them up around the house because she was afraid she would forget? Or did she want to torment herself by letting the ghost of her favourite grandson follow her all over her house? As a sort of macabre reminder of losing him when she was ninety‑three and still pottering on, more miserably perhaps, but still unmistakeably alive? I couldn’t look at her on the day of the funeral. She had held on to Tannie Louise’s arm the whole time. I couldn’t look at her that day because every time I saw her I kept thinking of the way she’d furiously rubbed Stefan’s arms and legs that day in the hospital.

“Wake up, Stefantjie, wake up,” she had tried to coax him, like you would a little child. “He’s going to wake up now, you’ll see,” she said to us. “Come Stefan, wake up. We’re all here.”

“It’s too late, Ouma,” said Ma, crying. “It’s over.”

I kept seeing her knobbly hands, wrinkled like old bits of snakeskin, trying to rub the life back into Stefan’s transparent skin. It felt weird going home that day and leaving him there. I ripped the pamphlet from the wall and wedged it into the middle of a thick stack of papers on the desk. I had promised myself that it would do no good to slip into a rabbit‑hole of regret.

It wasn’t even nine o’clock and I was already tired of this. I wandered over to the bookshelves. Lots of Reader’s Digest collections. An incomplete encyclopaedia set from 1985. Some historical books about the Anglo-Boer War. Kringe in ‘n Bos. No recipe books that I could see. Everything in here was dusty, as if it hadn’t been disturbed in years, but it was as if every single item was lined up perfectly, carefully arranged in its particular place. I wondered why she was clinging so desperately to these things she didn’t have a use for anymore. Even her sewing machine, which she had used up until a few years ago, was gathering dust beneath its cover. I went back to the pink room to help my mom. It was now stripped bare of nearly all of its frills.

“It’s for the best, isn’t it?” I said.

After we finished the pink room Ma told me to start taking down all of the paintings in the house. Most were dreary landscapes, probably of the Karoo or somewhere else they’d once lived. In the hallway hung a framed pencil sketch done by my cousin Jessica while she was a student. It depicted a heap of old shoes: a tekkie, a sandal, a boot, a ballet shoe. “For Oumie”, she had written in the top right‑hand corner. I had to decide which paintings went into storage and which ones went to the home. It felt like too big a decision for me to make on my own. I didn’t know which ones were her favourites. I chose the ones I liked most, including Jessica’s little sketch.

At least all her stuff will be familiar, I thought. I was tired but it felt good to focus on an immediate, physical task. Not that I was sad all of the time. Mostly I was fine. Last week, in fact, I had curled up under a blanket for most of the day watching Nelson Mandela’s funeral on TV and eating some of the cake and muffins brought over by various friends and family. And I kept thinking how funny it was that Madiba had outlived my brother, even if it was only by a week and a half. I immediately wanted to turn to him and mock him about the fact that a bloody ninety‑five year‑old had beaten him.

Eight hours later and the house was nearly unrecognisable. Almost every room had been dismantled and then neatly assembled in labelled cardboard boxes. The walls looked shamefully naked, spotted as they were with bare nails. My back was aching and I was ready to go home. There had still been no sign of the secret recipe book. Earlier I had noticed Tannie Milly carefully going through all of the bookshelves.

Now I had to clean out the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink. I opened it and saw empty yoghurt and margarine containers stacked neatly in rows. My foggy brain had been counting and emptying and stacking the entire day, so the sight of the containers made my eyes cross over. There are at least fifty thousand million containers in here, I thought. I called Ma over. “Will she be needing these at the home or what do I do with them?”

My mom thought for a second. “No, throw them away.”

After I’d emptied the cupboard about halfway, I stuck my hand into a corner and felt something that definitely wasn’t plastic. I pulled it out. It was a black A4 exercise book like the ones used by schoolchildren. Could this be it? I thought. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. Then I opened it.

On the first page was written Ouma’s name in black ink, in her neat, rather old‑fashioned handwriting. She had only gone to school until standard 7, but her handwriting was meticulous. I turned the page and there it was: the entire koeksister recipe, written out in her hand. I leafed through the rest of the book. All of her secret recipes were in here. Every single one. The pancakes, the milk tart, the beskuit, all of it.

I glanced around again. Oom Tinus was eyeing the old ivory sculptures in the living room. Earlier I had seen Tannie Milly lining her pink handbag with the antique silver spoons. Even Ma had slipped that ruby ring she always insisted was rightfully hers into her pocket.

I looked at the recipes again. These were recipes Ouma had learned from her own mother when she’d been a young girl growing up on a Lowveld farm. I saw for a moment her face, etched with all the crevices and hollows of nearly a century, and I imagined what would happen when she came home in two days and saw her hollow house.

I stuck the book under my shirt and went to find my handbag. I pretended to read an sms on my phone and then slipped the book into the bag.

It was after midnight when we were finally done. I was lying on the backseat of our car, already half asleep and dreaming, when I heard Tannie Milly and Tannie Louise come out to the car and ask Ma, “Did you ever find that recipe book, Sam?”

“No,” replied my mother. “I don’t think we ever will. The recipes will surely die with the stubborn old lady.”

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