Autumn is here. Johannesburg has cast off its lush, green, summer coverall and has taken on a cloak of many colours. The russets, reds and yellows adorning the suburbs vie in places with the late blossom of purple petrea, early camellias and roses in their final flush. It’s beautiful. The days are warm and mellow and walking through the neighbourhood takes one through rustles of fallen leaves. And in the background there is the constant, rhythmic swish of grass brooms as all the gardeners clear the pavements and driveways. This sound symbolises something for me. It seems to have been part of the soundtrack of my life for as long as I can remember. This particular sound and this particular rhythm is endemic to South African suburbia. I heard it on waking this morning and a line of poetry flitted across my mind: “Scrape of a rake, swish of a hose”. It comes from my first-ever attempt at poetry-writing at the age of 12.
We had a special English teacher that year. She stretched the Standard 5 syllabus of the time and opened our eyes to other options. I remember that particular day well. It was mild with the heavy coastal air of the Eastern Cape. There was no wind and the day was slumberous. The class of 12 year olds was restive and in an inspired move Mrs H led us outside into the school gardens. She asked us to sit still and absorb the sights, sounds and smells surrounding us and while we did that she read us Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’. It has remained one of my favourite poems ever since. And then she asked us to put our own impressions on paper. My effort went something like this:
Leaves, dusty and drifting
Float down to the lawn,
Around the Coral Tree’s towering form.
The scrape of a rake, the swish of a hose.
A soft sensation; a full pink rose.
A butterfly glides; carelessly, loftily.
Clouds gather over the sea
A bee buzzes drowsily.
No strain, no strife.
Autumn. It’s a lazy life.
I remember that I derailed a bit at the end; had trouble wrapping it up and never liked that second last line, but the bell had rung and the weekend called. Now though, I’m struck by how little would change were I to pen my impressions today. Different town but same country. So much has changed and yet so little. Except the tree name, of course. Eastern Cape school fields were awash with those orange blooms and the younger children spent hours of their break-times collecting the “luckybean” seeds. Now I see those seeds set in the Perspex handles of salad servers and spoons. Whoever would have thought it? And how odd that nobody thought twice about using the old name even though it was forbidden in other contexts. The ‘scraping rake and swishing hose’ would have been one of the school gardeners tending the grounds. To us, the little girls sitting cross-legged on the grass, the gardener’s presence in the background would have been a given. I seem to remember that his name was Prince. I wonder what he thought of us? I wonder where his children went to school?
Sitting here today, about 43 years later, I hear exactly the same sounds and experience the season in exactly the same way. The ‘strife’ never really happened and despite Johannesburg’s unfortunate reputation, we still have gorgeous, mellow days. But now they are even better; they’re rainbow coloured. It all fascinates me. The French understand it: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.