Oupa Bekker told us about how he had once gone back – very many years later – to revisit a village where he had lived as a child. Jurie Steyn asked him how many years, but he did not answer. He pretended to be too deaf to hear Jurie Steyn’s question.
That was a peculiarity of Oupa Bekker. He not infrequently, by implication, made claims to great age. But he never allowed himself to be pinned down into stating how old he actually was, in terms of years. It seemed that he wanted to give himself a certain measure of room for manoeuvering in, on that score.
Nor did Oupa Bekker acquaint us with the name of the little place that he went back to, to have a look at, after an interval of many years. But that did not matter. Since, for each of us, they were the remembered scenes of our own childhood that Oupa Bekker spoke about.
‘Of course, there was a railway station now, which, of course, there hadn’t been before,’ Oupa Bekker said.
‘Yes, and tarred streets, and a filling station with petrol pumps,’ Chris Welman said.
‘And a fish and chip shop, and a milk bar with high stools,’ Gysbert van Tonder said.
‘And where there had been an old garden wall of red bricks with honeysuckle growing over it – ’ Jurie Steyn began.
‘No, not honeysuckle,’ Chris Welman interrupted him, ‘but a creeper with those broad leaves and blue flowers. I forget what it’s called now.’
‘And the wall isn’t red brick,’ Gysbert van Tonder said, ‘but a whitewashed earth wall.’
They were in general agreement, however, that whatever building had been erected on the site of that old garden wall must be something pretty awful, anyway.
Oupa Bekker took our remarks in bad part.
‘Who’s telling this story – me or the lot of you?’ he asked.
Then he went on to say that from the station there was a bit of a rise before you got to the village itself.
‘And so you decided to walk,’ Jurie Steyn said, ‘so you could enjoy each moment of it, recalling how you had run over the veld there as a carefree boy.’
‘Yes,’ Oupa Bekker snapped. ‘That’s what I did do. I did walk. But the way you’re carrying on, I’m sorry now that I didn’t take a taxi instead.’
That shut Jurie Steyn up for a while. And so Oupa Bekker told us how, having deposited his suitcase in the railway cloakroom, he set off along that road, which was tarred now (as Chris Welman had said it would be), and there was a soft wind blowing, that was always there, on the rise, when in the village in the hollow the air was very still.
And Oupa Bekker said that he thought what a strange thing it was that, after all those years, the same wind should still be there. You think of wind as something that blows and is gone, Oupa Bekker said. And yet after so many long years, there, on the rise, there that wind still was, and not changed in any way.
So Chris Welman said that was how it always was. When you revisited a place after a long interval, the first impression you always got was that it hadn’t changed. The first building you would see, as likely as not, would be the church. And the church steeple would look just like it did when you were a child, except not so tall any more. Only afterwards did you find out how much the place had really altered.
‘And when you were a child the steeple, even then, needed paint on it,’ Gysbert van Tonder observed.
‘What I had noticed,’ Oupa Bekker proceeded, getting bitter at all the interruptions, ‘what I noticed, as I walked up the rise, was that the rise was not as high as it had seemed when I was a boy. Only, when I was a boy I could get up over it easier. Maybe that was the fault of the tarred road. But when Chris Welman says that the church steeple did not look so tall any more, he’s quite wrong. Because the church steeple looked taller, when I got there. And the church looked three times bigger than it used to be. And it seemed to be standing right at the other end of the kerkplein from where it had stood in the old days. And why it all looked like that to me was because the church had been rebuilt on the other end of the plein. And it was three times bigger.
That should have put Chris Welman in his place. But it didn’t. Instead, a twinkle came into his eye.
‘Where was the bar, Oupa Bekker?’ he asked. ‘I hope you found that all right. I mean, they didn’t go and shift the saloon bar too, did they, where you couldn’t find it?’
Oupa Bekker said he was coming to that.
First he had walked about the kerkplein a good while, searching for the site of the old church.
Then he came across a row of stones that were half-buried in the long grass, and that he knew were the foundations of the old church. He went and sat on a stone, Oupa Bekker said, and a –
‘And a host of childhood memories came back to you,’ Jurie Steyn said.
Then Oupa Bekker got really huffy.
‘Look here,’ Oupa Bekker said, ‘I only hope the same thing happens to you, all of you, as happened to me. I only hope that one day, when you take it into your heads to go and visit your childhood homes again, you’ll also find everything as changed as I found it, that’s all. Then you won’t see anything to laugh at, in it.
‘And I only hope you also feel as lonely as I felt when I turned away from the kerkplein, and walked down the main street of the village, and everywhere I saw only strange faces, and strange buildings, and there was nobody to whom I could say – and there was nobody who was even interested – that this was my home town.