It was mid-winter, 1948. Recently returned from a year spent on the warm shores of Lake Victoria, we began our resettlement in a farmhouse on the shoulders of the Natal Drakensberg.
The snows were late that year. Vicious gusts of sleet rattled the windows and shivered the trees around the house. The well pump froze until my father erected a shelter warmed by an oil-heater. The path between the house and pump was hazardous with ice.
The outdoor lavatory was not warmed. We did not visit this small room until the need became urgent, hurriedly fastening the door, which was seldom closed in the summer months. Often the wind shook the latch loose and pushed the door wide to caress the cowering child within. This was not the time to delight in the view of the deep valley with the river running down to the dam.
On these days we played guessing games before the kitchen fire, stealing potato chips from the frying pan on the stove. We were allocated a warm corner where we built Meccano cities or played Snap or Sevens with the walls of houses which the wolf had blown away.
After lunch, when Mum required an oasis time of quiet, we dipped our noses into books.
Not every day was ruled by wind and sleet. On many a morning the sun reached bright beams into the house, highlighting the muddles our indoor play had created. We didn’t sort the books, the cards or the Meccano pieces as we threw them into boxes and pushed them under hastily tidied beds.
We swallowed our cocoa in gulps, rushed with our toast through the door. The old Red Setter rose and looked through the door as we ran out. He waved his great red flag in farewell and returned to his place on the floor near the stove. The puppy went out with us.
Winter brought change to the world we lived in. The grasses were shorter, gold instead of green. Many of the trees were bare and gaunt. Spider webs that stretched between the shrubs glittered with early morning dew. Where spring would bring the pink and white of cosmos to the fields beside the streams, rocks lay bare and bright along the banks. The God who placed Orion and the Pleiades built the Kingdom of the Dragons. The big river, the trout river, coming down from high in the mountain passes wended its way some distance to the right of us. The Castle of the Giant loomed behind us and above. This was our world, and we soaked up the fables of the veldt, carrying them into our games and our explorations of the ravines and knolls around the farm. Warmed by the sun and cooled by the light winter air, the hours carried us until the shadow of the Giant fell across the land.
“Oh, bother!” complained my brother, casting his fly one more time across the stream. “We’ll have to go home now but we’ll come straight here tomorrow. I want that trout!” He never did get that trout. Perhaps it wasn’t a trout, just an unidentified fish lurking under the overhung bank of the stream.
When the snow fell we were confined to the garden around the house. The drifts were dangerous, and Father said he hadn’t time to look for us if we got ourselves lost.
When the snow fell the mountain drew a shroud of mystery about itself. Down in the valley only the smoke from the farmhouse roof was familiar, although the once red roof was now white blanketed. At first we talked softly, afraid to break the stillness of the snow. Then the ‘Crotchets’ came and we fell easily into the grumps. We were wilderness children and the snow had stolen our wilderness, giving us chilblains in return.
Before the following winter we moved to live in a town nearer to the coast. There we had no snow, only the frosts and the wind blowing down from the snow-covered mountain peaks. No longer were we wilderness children eagerly absorbing the lore of field and stream. Now we were scholars, humping our books between the class and home, mainly concerned with the laws of mathematics and the rules of English grammar. Winter at school meant rugby or soccer in place of summer cricket.
We grew up, grew old…..
Now when winter comes we turn the heater on and reach for a warmer jacket. On brilliant sunny days we rake the leaves.
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