The stones were heaped in the shed along with spiderwebs, an old saddle, an empty hatbox and other junk. Drifts of unpolished semiprecious gems: tiger’s eye, amethyst, agate, rose quartz. The pieces of rock ranged in size from sugar-lump to bread-loaf. They were dusty and opaque, but if you dipped them in water they revealed secret, translucent colours. One of the ongoing ritual tasks of our childhood was the sorting of the stones, making piles of green and purple and copper-brown. It was my father’s idea: he held on to the hope that the stones might be valuable, although he never found a buyer.
My parents had moved into the dilapidated Victorian house in our modest suburb of Cape Town in 1969, two years before my birth. Later, I heard the stories of how it was: the house dilapidated, the garden a jungle. There were children’s scribbles on the walls, my sister told me, names written close to the floor.
The house and the stones were previously owned by a Mr R. His name was on the wall at the end of the stoep, the sign still faintly visible even under several coats of white paint. I was aware of something uncomfortable, maybe a little scurrilous, about this man. My parents used his name with a half-embarrassed laugh. Old Mr R had brought the stones down from Namibia in a donkey cart, my mother said, and there may have been illicit diamonds in the load – why else make such arduous journeys?
He was also a moneylender. I remember repeating this to a small friend, smirking, although I didn’t understand what it meant. We were playing on the stoep at the time, close to where a date, 1892, was carved into the sandstone from which the house was built.
Moneylender, illicit diamond dealer – shady occupations indeed; but not enough to account for the unease around the figure of Mr R. A whiff of shame that was somehow not his, but ours.
It was only when I was a teenager, painting the side of the house as a holiday job, that the truth struck me. I stood there on my father’s ladder, brush dripping, and saw the name rise again to the surface, despite my efforts. The name sounded . . . Indian?
A sickly realisation surfaced. The wall in front of me looked different, wrong, like the bricks had been switched with ones from some other building entirely. I’d thought I’d known this house inside and out, every cranny; my mother had measured my growth from infant to teenager in pencil marks on the kitchen wall. But the house had been keeping secrets. All along, it had not been ours alone. It had another, shadow family.
The name meant that this area had not always been white. It meant that families had been removed from here, forced out to some bleak township to make space for people like us. Allowing my parents to buy this ramshackle, grand old house and move in with their young family.
It’s hard, forty years after the event, to be sure of the details. My mother, now nearly eighty, does not clearly recall what this neighbourhood was like before they moved in; if it was racially mixed, as parts of Cape Town were then. Certainly by the time I was born the area was white, although not very affluent. What my mother remembers is buying the house at a good price – if one they could barely afford at the time. She believes Mr R was ‘Turkish’, while his wife and children she thinks were ‘coloured’. The estate agent told my parents that the owners were poor and in need of money from the sale; but they asked to be allowed to stay in the house a little longer, because their mother was ill. They also wanted to take the decorative overmantels from the fireplaces when they left. My parents agreed. These poignant negotiations are hard to reconcile with the violence of other forced removals, with their bulldozers and protests and armed policemen. For our house, it seems, there was some paltry compensation paid; this was a retreat rather than a last stand.
In 1998, my parents were contacted by the post-apartheid Commission on Restitution of Land Rights: Mr R’s descendants had emerged to lay a claim. My mother and father feared losing the house, although from the beginning it was clear the heirs wanted only payment – which they eventually received from the restitution fund. But the bureaucratic process dragged on for years. I can read my parents’ anxiety in the patchy paperwork that remains: in the tight lines of my father’s retired-doctor handwriting, listing improvements made to the property; in official letters back and forth; in the old newspaper clippings about land claims that my father meticulously, helplessly, cut out and filed away. Our parents did not ask us for help, and told us little.
I can only guess at the fears of the others, the claimants; I hope there was some comfort for them in the settlement. It’s difficult to think of them, our house’s other family. To imagine their memories of home. Their story must be a bitter inversion of my own family’s founding myth: the luck of finding this unlikely, unexpected house, fixing it, cleaning it, making it a home. Laying by hand the lovely tiles along the passage.
I make myself imagine it, though. I think of those names written low on the walls in a child’s hand. I think of that same child playing on the red-painted stoep, her stoep: dipping the stones in water to make them shine. Making little piles and patterns of tiger’s eye and amethyst, agate and quartz, and mixing them up again.
Photograph © Mattnic