Freedom Radio

2012-10-03 00:00

OPEN CATEGORY FINALIST

Saxon Solomon

THE eyes closed and a calmness spread over her. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, her lids snapped open and she began to relate the story I’d prompted her to tell. Her voice was steady, the accent from a public school education in the British Isles.

“It was a long time ago, Dear. We had just become a republic and this part of Natal wasn’t at all happy.” She was quiet again for a little while, as if adjusting her thoughts. “They came after dark. Three lawyers from town — all well-known in the legal world. Two cars, their tyres crunching on the gravel around that huge jacaranda in our driveway. Do you remember that tree — where you two boys used to swing, clinging to a long canvas conveyor belt?” I nodded, a wave of nostalgia coursing through me.

“They followed us into the house, and over coffee we described the route up the Bluff. There was no dallying Dear. They were on a mission and anxious to get done. What they were doing was dangerous and the police were desperate to catch them.” Her eyes were a window into her soul, and the defiance was still evident, even after all these years. “Your father was a bit puzzled over the whole affair. Not entirely convinced. More than once he said I should be more sensible!” I imagined him seated in his big redwood armchair, with his dogs at foot, just wishing peace on the world. Six long years of war, then in the recent past, from Sonderwater in Pretoria to Milan in northern Italy, had made him sceptical of conflict.

The route skirted the northern base of Kwela mountain. There was an old wrought-iron gate as it entered the thorn country, then one-and-a-half miles of undulating terrain, ending at another gate. Here one finally entered the wattle plantations on the high ground near Hilton Road. Often shrouded in mist, as the warm air of the Umgeni Valley fled upwards, visibility could be seriously impaired. “There was no mist that night. they were lucky.” The voice had risen slightly, heralding the drama to come. She dropped her hands from the armrests of her chair and folded them neatly in front of her.

A nurse, wheeling a large trolley, smiled at us and began dispensing mugs of sweet tea. “Thanks Dear.” She called everybody “Dear”, had done her whole adult life. During the interlude she moved off the subject, seemingly forgotten, and began chatting brightly about inane things. “How are the family? How many dogs do you have now?” The names of the great-grandchildren were linked again to the wrong parents: short-term memory had become a challenge, but again Carol gently led her through the process, straightening it all out for her. Their eyes met and they smiled at each other. There was a palpable warmth between them. The trolley returned and began to fill with empty mugs.

After focusing on the blue sky outside the large window for a while, she suddenly exclaimed: “No artist has ever been able to reproduce the colour of the sky. It’s such a perfect blue. What were we talking about? Oh yes — that!” She began again.

“The cars made it safely up the hill. Your father kept the farm in beautiful condition and the roads were always good. We did worry though. Sometimes wattle trees fell across the road. They’ve got very shallow root systems you know.” It wasn’t a question, merely information drawn from the depths of her mind. “On the very top of the Bluff, the men set up their equipment: the most modern aerial available at the time, and a powerful transmitter to reach every corner of the land.” I knew the spot intimately. I was a small boy again clambering up the krantzes as often as boarding school freedom allowed. From there, on a clear day after rain, the great sweep of the valley receded into the distance, ending to the north with the Blinkwater above Greytown. In the west, the Nhlosaan bracketed the end of the Dargle valley, and even further, the Giant’s Castle bastion cut the Drakensberg skyline. On a really good day, a long stare to the east would reward one with a glimpse of the sea.

“We knew the broadcast would go out during the eight o’clock national news bulletin, so in good time the radiogram was switched on. In those days, it took a while to warm up the valves. They would glow through the louvred front of the wooden cabinet.” I remembered that also, together with the pungent electrical smell. The images of the flickering log fire in the lounge, contained by sandstone side walls and mantelpiece, and the old ancestral clock ticking steadily and loudly before pausing to strike the first bar of its Westminster chime, were as clear as yesterday. “It was time. Eight beeps preceded the announcement of the bulletin. We wondered anxiously if they were ready. It must have been quite chilly up there, especially if the east wind was blowing. The news reader launched into his script: very professional as always. Although it was supposed to be international news, all we were getting then was National Party propaganda.” One could sense that even now she was peeved, but the fire that had burnt fiercely in the days of the Black Sash, had been tempered by the passing years.

Again there was a pause. Her grey eyes shone brightly. “Suddenly the radio crackled with static followed by momentary silence ... and then a well-modulated voice cut in: ‘Good evening listeners. This is a live broadcast by Freedom Radio!’” She had our attention, and I interjected enthusiastically: “What was said?” A smile played at her mouth. “Oh, it was all counter- propaganda cleverly put together. Derogatory, of course! Jan van Riebeeck was referred to as that long-eared Spaniel, and so forth. It was never more than about a minute of broadcast. They had to shut down and move quickly before the Security Branch could get a fix on the signal.”

Something outside the window seemed to distract her and she lost focus. We let her be for a while, merely sitting there following her gaze. “How did it end?” It was Carol’s voice, quietly encouraging her to finish her story. She looked back at us and her eyes sharpened again. “End? Oh yes. They brought the cars back and parked behind the cowshed, not wanting to risk being seen by a passing police van. The district road went right through our yard.” There wasn’t much traffic in those days — only the odd neighbour travelling to and from town during the day.

She addressed me directly. “Your father went out to meet them and brought them back for a cup of coffee in front of the fire. All the broadcast papers accompanied them, as they dared not leave those in the vehicles unattended. A careful plan had been formulated for the homeward journey. Maritzburg was only eight miles distant and one of their number left presently in an empty car to see if the road was clear of roadblocks. You see, the moment the broadcast started, police patrols would have been despatched to scour the country roads. Once he reached home, he was to phone us, which would be the signal for the others to return with the incriminating equipment.”

We sensed that the tale was nearing its end. Her voice rose slightly and became a little breathless. “Some time after he’d gone, the tension in the sitting room was becoming evident. Suddenly there was a knock on the front door. Everyone froze! Your father recovered first, swiftly gathering the scripts before hurling them into the fire. The two lawyers and I flung open the French doors and rushed off into the darkness of the garden. Your father was always so calm in adversity. I suppose that’s how he won all those medals in the war. He closed the doors behind us and threw more logs onto the fire before walking up the passage. He swung the top half of the stable door open, expecting to be confronted by a uniformed officer of the law. The decoy lawyer stood there apologetically. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “I had a puncture and had to walk back!”

About the author:

 

Saxon Solomon was born in 1950 on the farm Otto’s Bluff. He was educated at Cowan House in Mountain Rise before it moved to Winterskloof, Hilton College, and Cedara College of Agriculture. He currently holds the position of farm manager at Hilton College. He is married to Roxy and they have two children and three grandchildren.

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