Winner 2000: Swinging Iron Under the Jacaranda Tree

2008-07-22 00:00

The grey-haired street vendor displayed his wares on a low table behind his garden wall, using the wall itself for extra shelf space. The first thing that caught my eye was the red handle. I recognised the clothes iron and a wash basket full of memories glowed into life. I curled my fingers around the long-forgotten shape and lifted the iron to rest on the palm of my left hand. Moving aside the catch, I raised the lid.

Forty-five rands,said the vendor. Just then, an ample Zulu bosom showed an interest in a pack of plastic clothes pegs.

You go first, I nodded towards the new customer. In the cast grey-metal emptiness inside the iron, I saw the glowing charcoal of three and a half decades ago. The Mount Partridge I remember lies spread over rolling hills and deep dongas, some 15 km south-west of Pietermaritzburg. If you were in town and wanted to get to Mount Partridge by bus, you listened for a conductor to sing out, Pata, Mabulala, Sobhedlela! Now a translation: Pata was the common name for Mount Partridge, Mabulala was a nearby village and Sobhedlela meant hospital, referring to Edendale Hospital. That's the bus you had to board. The conductor would have placed your fare in the appropriate cylinder of a heavy chrome coin dispenser he carried on his belt. If he had to give you change, he clicked out the coins by thumbing levers at the bottom of the cylinders.

Some 40 minutes later the latter part of it fairly dusty you would be in Pata. Family plots there were large enough to allow three or four or more uncles to build houses on Grandfather's land and leave enough space in between. Space to grow mielies, peanuts and amadumbe; space to race dogs in; space to be shaded by wattle, syringa and jacaranda; space to repair Vauxhalls, Morris Minors and Ford Prefects and space to allow grass and weeds to follow the rhythm of the seasons.

Pata had two main roads your bus ride would have ended along one of them, Politique Road. The road itself came to a stony drop at a deep donga. In a brick house across the donga, Amah raised her seven children. To the seven we must add Unna and Akka for Papa's youngest brother and youngest sister also lived with us. Unna and Akka have Tamil roots: the words mean elder brother and elder sister. Unna and Akka were actually my uncle and aunt but I'd rather not argue with Tamil.

Once a week, Papa drove his Bedford lorry to the stall just off the road, to deliver their order of Crerar's minerals: a case of Bull's Eye Pop, two cases of Mandarin Crush, one of Raspberry and 200 Quenchies.

This order was pencilled on a note that I had collected the previous day, on my barefooted way from school. The name of the school was a rich source of history: Vedic Yuvuk Government-Aided Indian Primary School.

Under a jacaranda in our back yard stood a solid cube of brick and concrete. This was our washing stone. Beside the stone was a modern marvel: a galvanised pipe protruding from the earth. When you turned the handle of the brass tap, a clear, pure miracle poured out. Countless times I cupped my little-boy fingers under its spout and drank. That taste hasn't been matched since.

Before the clothing reached the washing stone, there was the Material Van. Once a month, he'd turn right off Politique Road, to skirt around the donga. He'd pass Uncle Narain's and Uncle Murugas's houses, and park alongside our house. Amah, together with one or two visiting aunts, would assess the fabric, then decide how much was needed. In Pata, too, children outgrew their clothes before you could say, Do you have a bigger size?

Rands and cents, hard-earned from Crerar's Minerals and Eddels Shoes and other such places in town where my uncles worked, would change hands. The fabric would join more fabric, bought on Saturday outings to Asmall's in West Street, or the bazaars in the city as we called the self-service stores that were starting to appear in the sixties. Amah cut shapes out of the cotton and polyester. She then joined them together with a rotate-your-hand Singer sewing machine. Often she'd sew to the music of rice boiling on a wood-burning Welcome Dover stove. Amah and Papa called their first daughter Baby. When she helped with the sewing, it would have been to the beat of Jody Wayne's Patches, broadcast from LM Radio. The clothing was handed down from Baby to Mullie to Sharmla to Pamla. Half a century later, Baby is still Baby and her granddaughter calls her Baby-Ma. Pamla has a teenage daughter.

I can't tell how the girls responded to the clothing queue but Pamla, fourth in the line, must have looked pretty tatty. I was in the middle of a three-boy queue and felt terribly proud to wear what no longer fitted George. Between Peter and myself there were three sisters. Not much of what I outgrew reached Peter. Amah gave them away to whoever they fitted: cousins, friends, our maid's children, or passersby.

Our hand-me-down wardrobes received a welcome brightening at Christmas and at weddings. Two weddings stand out. Unna took a bride from Raisethorpe. Our house was extended and I recall many meals in Unna's and Auntie Sarla's kitchen. Directions were easy: out of our kitchen, down the passage, first door on the left. Akka married a fine young man from Vijay Road, the other main road in Pata. She moved out. We all had new clothes for these weddings and they were ready-made. Always, they'd be one or two sizes too big, to allow us to grow into them.

As the clothes moved from sibling to sibling, they made regular stops at our washing stone in the shade of the jacaranda. When I could, I helped with the washing. You have to turn socks inside-out,Amah would say, "and soap them again.The foam covered her bony fingers. Four pairs of white girls socks, three pairs of grey boys socks and a pair from Papa. That's a great many socks to turn inside-out. Rinsing was fun. Let the tap run, Amah would go on, while I plunged my arms into the soapy clothing, the water must flow clear then you know that the clothes are clean.

The washline consisted of strands of wire tied between two tee-poles. Behind the line was our fowl run. When the meat van didn't arrive, or when we had visitors, or when we felt the urge for chicken, curried or otherwise, we sacrificed one or two birds on the altar of our appetites. As executioner, I folded the wings back and pinioned them under one foot. Under my other foot I immobilised the legs. The knife, sharpened on the washing stone, did its quick work on the outstretched neck.

Through the soles of my feet I felt the bird's muscles spasm, squeezing life out in a red stream. The stream was soon absorbed by the soil of my boyhood years.

Beyond the run stood a circular structure of corrugated steel, with a Chinese hat for a roof. A shale path led from our cemented yard to its steel door. At the centre of its floor of precast slabs there was a concrete seat with a pine lid. Once a week, everything got washed down with plenty of soap and water. And every day, seated comfortably, you read snippets from the previous days Natal Witness.

Night excursions were more dramatic and only carried out in emergencies. Come and stand for me, you asked your brother or sister. Together you walked the path cut out of the blackness by a paraffin lamp, or by a torch. You certainly didn't do any reading. Your sibling, waiting outside for you, stared at the electric road lights across the donga and muttered, Make it fast! Every four or five years the inevitable happened. A new hole was dug in the earth and the whole structure was moved. A tree was planted to mark the spot.

On your return trip, you walked the path again, passing our pit on your left. Household waste was dumped there, and once a week the pit was burned. There's a scar on the top of my right foot, caused by swinging burning plastic on the end of a stick. Once you passed alongside the jacaranda, you were opposite our clothesline again.

If the clothes dried too crisp and in the midlands sunshine this happened often ironing alone did not remove the creases. Each garment was spread over a table, sprinkled with water, then rolled into a tight cylinder. As the stack of cylinders grew, the water diffused through the fabric, relaxing the creases. The clothes were now ready for ironing.

You lifted the lid of the iron and emptied the cold ashes from the previous day's ironing. Next, you took the iron to the stove and carefully moved aside the pot. With a chimta (long metal tongs) you selected glowing red charcoal and transferred them to the iron. When the iron was three-quarters full, you replaced the pot. Making sure that the lid of the iron was securely shut, you carried it outside and swung it through the air several times. The airstream cleared the ash, which escaped through a row of openings around the edge of the iron. Doing this under the stars branded bright arcs into your memory. If the iron got too hot, you waited for it to cool, or you ironed more tolerant fabrics. Before the charcoal burned away to a size small enough to escape through the holes, you took the iron outside and swung it again.

To the credit of all of us who did the ironing, I can't remember burn-holes. Not even on clothes that had been through the queue. Pata has been declared a Bantu Group Area,we were told sometime in the early sixties. I understood as much of that as a 10-year-old could. They are selling property to Indians in Northdale. That's the new Indian area. Now this was exciting a new house. For Papa, it must have been a major upheaval. However, he bought a piece of land on the border of the new township. Just a wire fence separated the back of the land from the Mountain Rise cemetery. About two years after us, Unna moved to Northdale too.

The seven of us who started out in a village on the Edendale side of Pietermaritzburg are not all still in Northdale. Mullie is in Johannesburg, George is in Durban and I'm in Richards Bay. We have gone where work has taken us. Needing to accommodate growing families, Pamla and Peter have moved to other suburbs of the city. Papa and Baby still live in the house we moved into in 1968. Amah rests in a quiet spot behind what used to be a wire fence, but is now a concrete wall. Unna and Auntie Sarla are still in Northdale but their house too is nearly empty. Akka is a grandmother and widow; the husband she married in Pata died before Amah.

I let the lid drop shut and placed the iron back on its matching stand. Forty-five rands, the vendor repeated, after he'd sold the pegs. I'll take it, I responded. He placed the iron back into its cardboard box, then eased it into a plastic packet. But I won't pay more than R5 for it, I went on. I offered him a R50 note. He took the note, then stopped, puzzled, for he realised what I had said.

Five rands? he repeated.

Five rands for the iron, I confirmed what he'd heard, but I'm happy to pay R45 for the memories.Puzzlement was replaced with a broad grin of understanding. Ngiyabonga,he said, as he slipped the note into a well-used wallet.

He was possibly Papa's age. He knew that I wasn't just buying a coal iron.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.