Theodora Villiers and her partner Lily Wood travel from their home in the small village of Straateind, on the edge of the Karoo, to Cape Town and to the Naval Base in Simon's Town, to be part of the celebrations of Queen Victoria's birthday. Although a measure of normality still reigns on the Cape Peninsula, they are soon confronted with the horrors of war but also the heroic and live changing efforts of people like Mary Kingsley.
A story of love, courage and war.
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At the Bay
By Klavs Skovsholm
Partridge AfricaCopyright © 2015 Klavs Skovsholm
All rights reserved.
Simon's Town, South Africa, February 1900
18 year-old Peter Smith stood on the floating pier of Simon's Town rowing club, watching the calm waters. Not a wind was stirring and the sun had just started to come up. Soon its rays would be bathing the mountains, the harbour and the bay in golden light.
"What an exceptional morning," he thought.
He turned as he heard a plank in the pier creak behind him. He immediately recognized the red hair of his rowing partner, Riaan Meershoek, who was coming up the pier accompanied by his coloured houseboy, Kalim. Their progress created a rocking sensation like waves lapping against the pier.
"Morning, Riaan," Peter said as Kalim made Riaan stop in front of him. His voice immediately made Riaan direct his gentle face towards him. Riaan had always been blind and he could only sense the shadows of light and dark. Peter looked at Riaan's brown eyes which were open, but without life. He had a straight nose, and his skin was lightly golden and freckled where he had tanned. Peter, with his darker complexion and black hair, tanned a much deeper colour and withstood exposure to the sun much better.
"Good morning to you, too, Peter!" He let go of Kalim, moved forward a little and touched Peter's arms with his hands. "It's a really quiet morning, isn't it?"
Then it struck Peter that this morning would be just perfect for letting Riaan try out the new light double scull with sliding seats which the club had recently received from England.
"Riaan, I want us to row the new double scull. Are you up for it? The weather is just right."
"Of course I am. There are not that many days this calm at the Cape so we must make the best of them!"
Quickly, Peter, Riaan and Kalim got the light boat out of the boat house. Peter asked Kalim to step aside. Between Riaan and himself they would have no difficulty in carrying the boat on their own. Riaan had never helped carry a boat this light before.
Riaan ran his fingers over the polished surface of the shell. He could not decide what the shell was made of. It did not quite feel like the wood of the other boats in the club.
"What is this shell made of?" he asked in wonder.
"It's many layers of lacquered paper glued together. Waterproof, light, but fragile," Peter said with some pride as if the idea had been his own.
Gently and with great care, Peter helped Riaan into the boat after explaining to him where to put his feet. Precision was of the essence to avoid cracks in the shell. With his sense of balance and coordination, Riaan, with a little help from Peter, found his seat with ease while he was holding on to his oars with his left hand. Kalim stood nearby with a worried expression for fear that his baas should fall in.
A few minutes later they were off. Riaan was in the bow seat while Peter had taken up his position in the stern seat. Tentatively at first; Riaan was not used to such a light, nimble craft under him. However, soon the boat was in balance under the two rowers. For the first time, Riaan felt the exhilarating sensation of the light boat gliding effortlessly across the calm surface. The sense of propulsion created by pushing back on his footrest took his breath away. He could also sense how the darkness was disappearing around him, increasingly feeling the warm rays of the sun on his body.
Peter, too, was thrilled with the performance of the new boat. He could feel that with the right amount of training, this double scull could be made to go very fast. Peter loved sports. In England, he had been an avid cricket player and rower. He had been reluctant to follow his family to South Africa when his father had been stationed here shortly before the outbreak of the war, but he had soon discovered that South Africa was the best playground imaginable.
Peter looked around. The golden light reflecting from the surface almost blinded him. He could not remember seeing Simon's Town look more stunning than this.
"Oh Riaan, look how beautiful!" he burst out. He stopped abruptly. His heart sank. He had not intended to remind his friend of what he could not see. He often felt pity for Riaan whom God had not allowed to see all the incredible beauty surrounding those fortunate enough to visit the Cape.
Peter need not have worried. Riaan was smiling, but all Peter could see was his red hair, the back of his rowing suit and the freckles on his shoulders. However, he stopped rowing, forcing Peter to do the same, and let the scull drift.
"Try and describe it to me, Peter, if you can ... Be my eyes for a moment."
Gliding forward, holding both oars in his left hand, Peter gently placed his free hand on Riaan's back just for a moment. It felt warm and a little sweaty. Then he grabbed his oars with both hands again.
"Well ... it's like a mirror. So to my eye I see the same object twice, the real object and the reflected object reproduced by the surface of the water. I see the sky reflected in the water and the mountains look as if they have identical twins descending down into the water ... and the sunlight ..."
"How to explain the sunlight?" he pondered.
"And the sunlight, Peter?"
"... I don't know how to describe it."
"And the sunlight is warm, right?" Riaan said with irony.
"Yes! The sunlight is warm!" Peter laughed while Riaan turned his face towards the warm sun.
"I think I love you, Riaan," Peter suddenly thought. For a moment he suppressed his urge to place his hand on Riaan's back. "But you will never see my loving glance. If you had sight, it would only be for girls." These feelings frightened him, but he could not help himself. Riaan's good looks and positive attitude had drawn him like a magnet since he had first met him not too long ago when his father had been stationed at the Naval Station.
"Riaan, will you row with me at the Table Bay Championships on 24 May?"
Peter knew he should not have asked, but his urge to be around Riaan was too strong. "In this boat?"
"Do you reckon they'd let us? This boat is so different from all the heavy wooden ones."
"Yes, I have made inquiries. Some of the other clubs, like Alfred's and Britannia, have got them already. So this year there'll be a race for these light ones too."
"That's a deal then!" Riaan answered immediately. Peter's heart leapt with joy.
"Are you ready to continue, Peter?"
"OK then. From backstops, half slide."
On their way back to the rowing club, they passed close by a naval ship at anchor. A sailor, wearing only khaki shorts was busy washing the deck and saw them coming. He took a small break and leaned over the railing to study the unusual sculling boat. Looking up, Peter hungrily rested his eyes on the sailor's muscular torso. As the sailor winked and grinned broadly at him, Peter blushed.CHAPTER 2
April the same year
Lily Wood was tending to the white roses planted alongside the house she shared with her Afrikaans partner, Theodora Villiers, in the small village of Straateind on the edge of the Karoo in the Western Cape. They had shared this house for some years since Theodora had become a widow. It was a simple but spacious Karoo house with high windowless gables, wooden shutters and a black thatched roof. Theodora and Lily loved their house.
Theodora and Lily had left Stellenbosch for Straateind to live a life according to their own ideas. Lily had very little family, except for a couple of cousins. Theodora had left behind her married daughter Mariette and her grandchild Antonius. Mariette was married to the local judge in Stellenbosch. Their moving to Straateind, or more specifically the fact that the two mature ladies had moved in together, had led to a fallout between Theodora and Mariette. Mariette did not approve. This caused Theodora much pain, but she chose to hide it. Besides, she was convinced that following her heart was the right thing to do.
Although it took the best part of the day to reach Stellenbosch by horse, Straateind had become much more accessible with a recently built train stop only an hour away by donkey cart. Cape Town was now easy to reach in a day.
Straateind was surrounded by mountains. Only one road led in and out. Theodora and Lily liked the village too. They did not have much contact with their neighbours. They were seen as the eccentric outsiders, especially Theodora who, despite her Afrikaner origins, was prone to dressing unconventionally and rarely attended church. On the other hand, Lily would always dress appropriately in long skirts and hid her hair under a straw hat. It had been rumored that Theodora had been seen wearing riding breeches, riding a horse like a man.
Things had been really good for them in Straateind until Britain had gone to war with the Boer republics up north in the previous month of October 1899. This had dragged the British colony in the Western Cape into war with its Northern neighbours. Most of Straateind's inhabitants were Afrikaners who, although they had lived under British rule for a long time, had little love left for the British. The daily reporting of atrocities in the war some 800 miles away meant that Lily, being English, was met with much coldness. So the couple had become outsiders even more than before.
* * *
When Theodora returned from Meneer Pretorius' general store she placed her basket on the kitchen table. Lately, only she would go to the general store. Lily refused after having been received so coldly that she had walked out feeling humiliated.
Through the window she caught sight of Lily outside her workshop in the garden behind their house. Lily was busy cleaning some paint brushes at a table. She wore an apron with a multitude of paint stains. Lily looked up as Theodora appeared in the garden. She felt a warm glow in her heart seeing her partner and interrupted her scrubbing of brushes. She wore heavy gloves to protect her delicate hands from the chemicals she used to clean them.
Theodora leaned forward and kissed Lily on her hair while Lily was careful to hold her brushes away from her for fear that she might stain Theodora's light blue dress. Then Theodora caught sight of an official-looking envelope on the table.
"So, what's this?" she asked pointing with her chin towards the envelope. "Looks like Giles the postman was here while I was gone."
Theodora was happy that Giles would occasionally call on Lily for a chat, even when he had no mail to deliver. Being Scottish, he did not shun Lily for being English like so many of their Afrikaner neighbours did. Giles also had a sweet tooth and he always appreciated the prospect of a cup of tea and a piece of one of the many cakes Theodora loved to bake. Although Lily was extremely good at immersing herself in her painting and in doing all the small jobs around the house and garden, she took immense pleasure in Giles' visits and their witty conversations. Giles was just the man for that and he always made Lily laugh. Laughs had been few and far apart since the war broke out.
"That's a letter from my Cousin Robert inviting us for the official function to celebrate the Queen's birthday next month." Cousin Robert was one of Lily's remote cousins who was the admiral at the Naval Station in Simon's Town. They received an invitation every year but had not gone since they had moved to Straateind because of the travelling involved.
"Maybe we should go this year, Lily? With the new train stop it will be so much easier to get there."
She did not say so, but Theodora was thinking that Lily could benefit from a break away from Straateind. A break in a place where she would not be shunned for being English. Lily's face lit up as if she had not considered that they would go, but she also looked a little hesitant, Theodora noticed.
"If we do go ..." Lily started. "Maybe we could go for a couple of weeks. I don't want to stay with Cousin Robert all that time ... maybe a few days in a nice boarding house somewhere else on the coast, like Muizenberg, and a few days at the British Hotel in Simon's Town?" Lily's face had by now regained its usual radiance which Theodora loved so well.
Theodora was delighted to see how this idea lifted Lily's spirits in a way she had not seen for quite a while. Lily had grown up on the coast close to Simon's Town, so she felt much more connected to the sea than Theodora who had always lived inland.
Had Theodora been able to read Lily's mind, she would have seen a glimpse of the False Bay beaches through the eyes of a little girl taking brisk walks on the beach, felt the wind in the hair of that little girl, and heard the cries of seagulls overhead. Lily's memories were so vivid that, for an instant, she could smell the salt in the air and, on her skin, feel the warm grains of sand carried with the wind.
"I think that's a lovely idea, my dear," Theodora said. "Do you want me to write to Cousin Robert or will you do it?CHAPTER 3
Lily could not find words to express her joy over going to the seaside in Muizenberg. Much as she loved the arid, rugged landscapes around Straateind, the sea stirred different emotions in her all together. As the train was approaching the sea, she had noticed the change of brilliance in the light. Having rained a little that same morning, Table Mountain could be seen from even further afield than usual, towering over Cape Town in the clear sunshine.
They changed trains at the Cape Town station where they boarded the Southern Line to Muizenberg. As the train was making its way through the leafy suburbs on the southern side of Table Mountain, Lily had faint memories of her time in England at a very young age.
"Look at all those oak trees, Theo. I think the driveway to my parents' house had oak trees like these," she said gaily while she tried to recall clearly her faint memories.
"Even so they are out of place," Theodora thought. She had always held the view that with the immense variety of plants in the Cape there was no point in importing any plants from abroad. She briefly pondered the fact that the many enormous oak trees along the track owed their survival to their growing too fast in South Africa to provide suitable timber for building boats, which was the reason that they had been planted in the first place.
"What else do you remember from your English childhood, my dear?" Theodora asked so as not to spoil Lily's pleasure at seeing the trees.
"Oh, very little," Lily laughed. "But you know that, I was an only child of four and half when I arrived here. My childhood really only started that morning when we sailed into Cape Town and I saw Table Mountain for the first time."
"My first vivid childhood memory is of me sitting on my grandmother's lap eating Melk tart under a tree. I must have been about three," Theodora said happily.
* * *
On one of their morning strolls in Muizenberg over the coming days, Lily and Theodora admired the many large houses which had been built along the coast. About a decade earlier, the railway line had made the small communities along False Bay easily accessible.
At one point they stopped in front of a small cottage a little south of the station: a small almost featureless cottage with a corrugated iron roof.
"I've heard that this little cottage belongs to our former prime minister Cecil Rhodes," Lily said.
"Really? Who would have thought that? Look at the other houses around. I wonder why one of the richest men in the country would be satisfied with such a small hut?" Theodora said.
"You know, Theo, he does own the Groote Schuur Estate, so he's not exactly short of space, is he?"
"No, I suppose he isn't," Theodore chuckled.
"Maybe he has one thing in common with the two of us: he also wants to live a simple life? You also left your impressive Cape Dutch house in Stellenbosch, remember? To live simply in Straateind," Lily said with a smile in her voice. "And look at the views from this place!" she continued.
The cottage stood at the nape of the Cape Peninsula, on the coastline which sweeps round to Simon's Town and on to the Cape of the Good Hope. From where Lily and Theodora were standing, they could see the broad aspect of the beginning of the Indian Ocean and immediately behind, the Muizenberg Mountains were rising.
"No palatial home has any view better than this," Theodora thought. Suddenly, she felt a little pang of home sickness as she thought of the view of the mountains and the clear blue skies in Straateind from her favorite bench in front of their house.
* * *
Theodora watched Lily descending the stairs down to the beach from the promenade in Muizenberg. Lily was wearing a light white summer dress and a large straw hat. The material of Lily's dress was fluttering in the wind, but the hairpins kept her brimmed hat firmly in place. Lily carried her drawing materials under one arm and held a small stool in her hand as she set out to find a suitable spot on the beach.
"This light and the vibrant colours call for a totally different choice of paints than at home," Lily thought." I must try and capture this bright light on the surface of the sea" The light on the sea reminded her of some lovely prints of works of Scandinavian painters depicting life at the seaside which she had recently seen. She had found the prints so inspiring that she now wanted to have a go at painting in the same impressionist style. So she planned to do sketches on the beach which she could later finish in oils back in Straateind.
Excerpted from At the Bay by Klavs Skovsholm. Copyright © 2015 Klavs Skovsholm. Excerpted by permission of Partridge Africa.
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