2016-12-21 10:49
‘Soon there were growing piles of leaves, sticks and branches in strategic places, and the difference was noticeable.’

‘Soon there were growing piles of leaves, sticks and branches in strategic places, and the difference was noticeable.’ (Supplied)

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The third time I heard the gate rattle that sunny Saturday morning I decided to take a look. He introduced himself as Obed and said that he was looking for work as a gardener.

I felt that the angels had sent him. We’d moved into the company house in Empangeni in February, and the garden had run riot since the previous occupants had left, with the growing season in full swing. We’d arrived without a lawn mower and the grass was close to obscuring the window sills. I needed help.

We gave the man a hearty breakfast and then I gave him the few garden tools in my arsenal. He looked doubtful, but the breakfast must have helped and he set to. Soon there were growing piles of leaves, sticks and branches in strategic places, and the difference was noticeable. Thus encouraged, I raced off to Empangeni Rail to buy the most basic mower I could find.

The machine had not been designed to cope with summer in Zululand, and emitted puffs and then clouds of dark smoke, but gamely stuck to the task. The fuel tank was refilled several times and the deep, narrow paths in the lank lawn began to repel the grass forest. Freshly cut foliage lay in rows that traced the course of the roaring machine with blinding white strips showing in-between. It had been a long time since the ground level had seen the light of day.

The escalating temperature and humidity took their toll, and by lunch time our activities had palled. Even the injection of another meal made little difference and I knew that no more would be achieved until the following weekend. There was some negotiation about Obed’s pay, and with his belly full and his pocket less so, he closed the rattling gate and left. I surveyed the site of the carnage with great satisfaction and eagerly anticipated the next onslaught.

The gate rattled again. This time I responded only at the fourth rattle, to find Obed looking anxious and disturbed. He’d arrived at the bus terminus to find that the last bus for the entire weekend had already left. Would I please take him home, as if that were my duty. I looked around at the changed garden and reluctantly agreed, asking him where he lived, having no idea of the geography of this area so new to me.

The battered green Fiat 125S emerged from its garage and wobbled down the steep, uneven driveway. My wife and our six-month-old son joined us, and Obed had the back seat to himself. Fanakalo from my mining apprenticeship days allowed some conversation and Obed, after a 10-minute stop at a café for cigarettes, returned to the Fiat to impart travel directions to his home in the hills.

“Turn here,” said our navigator as we approached the road between Empangeni and Eshowe. “Turn here,” came the next command from behind a few kilometres later, and the low-slung Fiat was instantly transformed into a four-by-four. That track had never been a road and had probably reduced to scrap metal many vehicles hardier than our petite Fiat. We negotiated ruts and trenches caused by a century of soil erosion, lurching from one ridge to the next trough, wheels spinning and engine roaring as we progressed slowly in the late afternoon.

I soon lost all sense of direction while our passenger called out greetings to friends, family and acquaintances along the way, and I felt we must be nearing his home. At more than one place he called a stop, each time giving me hope that we’d arrived and could go home, but after chatting to locals he returned to his throne in the Fiat and off we went again. The going didn’t improve, and I was convinced that we’d spend the weekend there ourselves, camping in our derelict car. The western sky had darkened with the storm clouds typical of a summer day in TV Bulpin’sLand of Ten Thousand Hills, and I knew that if the rain came we’d never get home.

“Stop,” was the instruction. Obed climbed out of the car, nodded slightly, and moved off towards a cluster of huts. I began to turn the car to go home, but he told me just to carry on, then disappeared. I drove along, not knowing what to expect, and a few 100 metres along we found ourselves once again on the solid tarred Eshowe road. Twenty minutes later we were home with frayed nerves and a clanking car.

Obed never rattled our gate again but I was grateful to him despite the nightmare journey. I’d seen my new home, its people and its landscape, as I’d never have done without him. And I’d fallen in love with it.

About the author:

Doug Morton is an avid photographer and short-story writer living in Pietermaritzburg. He has been self-employed as an architectural technologist for many years and takes a keen interest in the history of the people and places of South Africa, concentrating on KwaZulu-Natal and the Boer War. He is married to Terri and they have a married son in the city and a married daughter who lives in England

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  true stories of kzn 2016

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