Romaine Hill

Sketch I   Johanna meets JCK Pollock, January 18, 1908 

That day, it was Thursday January 18 (I remember, because it was a day before my twenty-fourth birthday), Pa Maree had done something he rarely did – he’d left his lunch bag on the hall table.  He’d risen from the breakfast table, gone straight out through the back door to look at the pears ripening in the orchard and then he’d called, ‘Totsiens Elisabet, totsiens, julle,’ and left by the little side gate for work.

Ma said it was his longing for the farm that made him inspect the fruit trees daily like he did, but I knew it was Ma herself who really hankered after the farm. Sometimes she would sit out on our back stoep after pa had gone, sip her coffee & look longingly over the trees, northward, as if she could see right across the Witwatersrand, out across the plains and over the Magaliesberge to the Hoekberg, and then west to Koster, where the family farm had rested against the low ridge of our koppie.  I, too, longed for ‘Skoonspruit’, and for the red-brown earth and the veld, tall & rustling at the edge of the grass, and the blue-gums, with their bitter bark & pungent-tasting leaves. It was my birthplace and I’d lived and grown there. But that was ten long years ago, before the war against the English sent our lives, and then the farm, splintering off in so many terrible directions, before the little Marees had even come into being.  It was so different here, in Mayfair, for us all. And I sighed as I roused myself to stir the konfyt thickening in the large, black pot on the stove.

Now, from the other end of the house where she was sorting the linen, came Ma’s voice,  ‘Johanna, my kind, wat van Pa se kos? And take Dolly, too. She loves a visit to the Post Office.’  Already the clock in the church tower was chiming 12 and pa’s lunch-break was at half-past. Grabbing the bag, I set off quickly with Dolly skipping alongside.

A few minutes later the two of us were hurrying through the door of the Post Office, Dolly breaking into a run and standing on tip-toe to reach up and try to pull herself onto the high wooden counter by the metal railing that separated the workspace from the public.  There was no-one there, so greeting Pa I handed over the bag for him to put into one of the narrow post slots & lifted her up so she could give him our present – the first pear from the orchard, one found by Ma after he’d left that day – & be given a kiss in response. Her eyes were brown, just like Pa Maree’s own, and nothing could make him smile quite as broadly as ‘Kleinsis’. Sometimes watching them made me long for my own father. But he’d been gone since I was six, Dolly’s age now – almost eighteen years ago.  And at least Pa Maree made us all, Rouxs, de Villierses and Marees, feel like one big family.

Dolly, still holding Pa’s hands over the railing, started dancing on the narrow counter’s edge and singing, and I was humming along and stepping in time, when a quick shadow fell across the entrance to the Post Office, and I felt a dark presence, smelling strongly of boot-black, move through the intervening space toward the counter. I glanced down to find just what I’d suspected: two shiny black boots standing to attention. It was still the way one knew a Boer from a Brit, they said, even after the war, by the smell of polish. 

Af nou, gou Liefie,’ Pa was saying with some urgency, and he looked at the customer behind me and coughed twice, his official ‘on-duty’ cough, to show he wasn’t just a fond family man, Then, smiling, he said, ‘Dankie Johanna. Maar weg now, gou julle twee, Pa het werk om te doen’, at which point, Dolly let go of his hands and, in her characteristically abandoned fashion, leapt high into the air, somewhere between the darkly clad stranger to my left and me.

It was such a quick, unexpected movement and I was already so flustered that she’d have fallen hard onto the floor if the man hadn’t stepped into the gap between us and caught her adeptly, handing her down and saying kindly in what was a strong, thicker-than-English accent, ‘There you are now, wee lass, no harm done.’ Now I looked directly at the stranger for the first time.  He was very thin and tall, handsome, with a neat little moustache, blue eyes and a bemused look on his face. ‘Dag Mejuffrou’, he said, inclining his head politely and looking me up & down more intently than he ought, a smile breaking out across his face, and ‘Dag, Meneer Maree. Hoe gaan dit?’ 

‘Dag, Mnr Pollock,’ said Pa, and then surprisingly though haltingly, in English, ‘I hope you are well. Ah Glasgow. Another parcel for your sister, I see?’ 

Tall, handsome, blue-eyed, so manly, and with a sister in a town so strangely named – the exotic stirred the commonplace – my heart beat so loudly I could hear it in my own two ears. I turned to hurry out of the post office, tugging the intrigued Dolly behind me and calling, in a voice not quite my own, ‘Dag Meneer and I thank you. Totsiens Pa.’

‘Glass cow, glass cow,’ Dolly chanted all the way along the main street, despite having to run to keep up with me. And only after I had hurried the two blocks down Church Street, turned the corner into our street, slowed down and said ‘Hush Dolly, hou nou op met die “glass cow”’ did I straightened my hair and look down at my own attire. Then I realised, to my horror, why Pa’s handsome customer had looked at me in what seemed such a forward way, and with such amusement. I was wearing my old kombuis voorskoot, spattered liberally with blobs of sticky green konvyt. I had quite forgotten to take it off and hang it on the peg behind the door when I had heard the clock chime and Ma had called reminding me of the errand to the Post Office – what a foolish ‘boere meisie’ I must look, and him so elegant, even with his silly at-attention feet and his strong boot-black smell.

Hanna, said Dolly, ‘hoekom is jou gesig so rooi? Nes Pa se ryp tamaties.’ And skipping toward the gate she took up a new chant, ‘Ryp tamatie,  glas cow, ryp tamatie, glass cow.’ Onnosele kind, I thought. Why do six year-olds see everything?  Now we would have to go in and tell Ma the whole story. And how would I hide my interest in the exotic young man, with his thick accent and his little moustache?

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3 comments on “Romaine Hill

  1. I never thought that there would be another Romaine Hill on the internet… that is what happens when you think that your name is unique! There are a lot of people with the name “Romaine” in Pennsylvania. I just didn’t think that there would be another Romaine with the name Hill too.

    Hope you have been writing a lot lately!!!

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