Six men swarm off and out of the small truck in my driveway and take over my house. A few days earlier the same team serviced some sluggish sash windows and in the process, cracked a small pane of glass. Now they are back to replace it. They commandeer my long ladder from the garage and set it up against the wall. One man works on the upstairs window from the outside and another from the inside while the remaining four stand around offering advice. This is the South African way.
They’re a somewhat ragged bunch without identifiable overalls or uniforms; a group I might look at twice if I passed them on the street. One in particular stands out amongst the rest: The youngest of the team, of stocky build, in board shorts and sporting shiny studs in both ears, I remember from the previous visit as having what might be called ‘attitude’. This time I register the slightly pugnacious stance; firmly planted feet, hands in pockets and, unlike the older men, a direct, somewhat challenging gaze and decide ‘swagger’ might be a more accurate description.
Replacing the window pane seems to be taking longer than anticipated. Perhaps there is some sort of pecking order as to who does the work and who runs the commentary but the board shorts guy comes in from the upstairs veranda and I find him studying – quite intently – the ‘photo gallery’ at the top of the stairs. This is unusual. I have never known any workman give that wall more than a cursory glance in passing.
“You’re looking at my old photos?” I venture.
“This one” he moves forward and presses an index finger on a picture of my paternal grandparents taken in the early 1900’s. I assume it’s the car that’s caught his attention and I remark on it but I’m wrong. It’s the smaller photo above capturing three Xhosa huts on a hillside.
“Where is this?”
By now we’ve been joined by two other older, more deferential men who are visibly intrigued by the photo.
I explain that the couple in the car are my grandparents and that they lived in the huts. This raises eyebrows and I go on, describing how my grandfather, a land surveyor, worked in the Transkei for several years which is how he and my grandmother, in their early married years, came to live there. I add that my grandmother often described those years as ‘the happiest of her life.’
I sense a subtle shift of tension; a certain change of stance. Suddenly, in that moment, we’re friends. I would like to extend the conversation but at last the window pane is installed and the team are on the move, eager to get the next job done and the long weekend started. They jostle down the stairs, pile onto the back of the truck talking among themselves and – not for the first time – I wish I understood their language. Smiling and waving they disappear up the driveway and I wonder if any of their conversation is about the photograph of Transkei huts on this white woman’s wall. I don’t flatter myself that it might be complimentary. I have no inkling of their political leanings. After all, that I’m a descendant of white settler colonialists is clearly proved by what I have hanging in my tv room. But I’d be interested anyway. The encounter stays with me the whole day. Separated by generations and a million miles of cultural differences, we recognised – in that fleeting instant – a shared appreciation and love of this country.
It’s only as I turn away from the door that I remember an earlier posting about family heirlooms and photos on this blog. I get onto wordpress and scroll back until I find ‘White Noise’ written on February 6th, 2017. I have even shared the same photographs. I am struck by this. It’s as though those musings have been validated in some small way. Had there been more time, perhaps I would have told these men that years later I would visit my grandmother in a nursing home in East London. She was well into her eighties and the present was of no relevance to her. She would gaze out of the window of her room in the Mater Dei (now St Dominics) at the unprepossessing block of flats next door and she’d point and ask us to share in the beauty of those Transkei hills. As a thirteen year old, I remember finding it a little disconcerting but with hindsight I’m grateful that at the end of her life she returned to those happiest of days.
Who would have thought then that an old black and white photograph of those same, beloved hills would somehow strike a chord with someone almost a hundred years later.