For the first 65 years of our lives I'm not sure my cousin Stuart and I really got each other. I don't think there was any particular animosity but we seemed to live in parallel universes. But things changed when Jane died towards the end of 2019.
Our Dads were brothers and at times our families lived in each others' pockets, but random forces seemed to push us in different directions. I was the first born on Woody's side of the house and Jane was first born on Graham's. For a while our paternal grandmother, Molla, assumed Nirvana had been achieved. Jane and I would marry and ride off into the proverbial sunset.
She hadn't accounted for our parents' baby-boomer proclivities and it wasn't long before Stuart appeared in Jean and Graham's (GKF) household and Susan arrived to grace Shirley and Woody's (EFH). In Molla's eyes the third and fourth sprogs had pitched up to gatecrash the party.
The irony was that by the time Catherine EFH and Rosemary GKF sidled into the mix, Molla had a new round of favourites. Stuart and Sue were relegated, in Molla's eyes at least, to a parallel universe.
Jane and Stuart remained close, enjoying various nefarious capers together well into their teens. Teen stuff was Jane's and my preserve during the mid-60s before she got attached to her first partner. I think Stuart very much ploughed his own furrow at that stage and we gradually became scattered to the wind. Over the years we got together for weddings and funerals and it was the most recent of the latter that cemented Stuart's and my path towards toenadering.
Jane and Stuart had remained great friends and that relationship grew stronger over the years, especially when they both wound up in the UK. Jane as a carer and Stuart on secondment from a major SA bank. Jane was desperate to rekindle a relationship between her brother and cousin but we were both caught up in our own professional lives and opportunities were missed.
Above, clockwise from lop left: Stuart as a pirate, Jane the damsel in distress although she doesn't look too distressed; Stuart, Rosemary (who didn't like her photo being taken) and Jane; Jane on her wedding day smiling at what may or may not be Molla; Jane in latter years at a music festival in the KZN Midlands.
Until the summer of 2019 when she contrived for the three of us to meet for lunch in the Boot and Flogger (B&F) in Southwark, which had become a favourite haunt of mine for London rendezvous. Only, Jane managed to drop out for "work-related priorities". She had been a carer in the South East for some years and came up with a plausible excuse.
I was pretty stoked after the hour or two my re-found Cuz and I spent in the B&F. I think he felt the same because we readily agreed to meet again the next time he was in town.
The next time I heard from Stuart was when he telephoned me a month or so later in September. His opening words were: "I've just been contacted by Interpol ..."
Now, our family has always revelled telephone prankery so I left a wary pause hanging ...
"Jane is dead," he blurted. I could tell he was choked up and finding this difficult. Hearing this for the first time I went numb. Probably didn't acquit myself terribly well, which wouldn't have been helpful to my Cuz delivering such a devastating message.
She had had a heart attack in her caring client's home. It had taken Interpol a while to trace her next of kin, i.e. Stuart, via Johannesburg to London where he was currently on business. Stuart ended up shuttling back and forth to sort out her affairs. We agreed to meet near her last workplace in Flitwick and attempt to shoulder the burden together. I have to say Stuart shouldered most of it but I did provide the transport while we went from one branch of the public administration to another between Flitwick and Luton. That meant three or four hours in the car together, during which we made great strides in our toenadering.
A few more days together at random intervals during September and October 2019 cemented our determination to get to know each other better. Stuart had some consultancy work he was doing in London but Covid put a stop to that as well as a planned trip for Shan and me to South Africa. It was January 2022 before we could properly plan our next reunion, this time at his place on the multi-faceted Walkerson Estate where Stuart and his son, Ryan, had recently built a refuge from eGoli.
Above: The countryside in the Walkerson Estate and the general Dullstroom area could almost be in Wales or the Lake District with its rolling green valleys rearing up occasionally into stark peaks and kranses, the former of which often reach above the surrounding mist. It is mostly rich grassland but indigenous lilies abound in sheltered spots. Many of these lilies, such as the Agapanthus on the right, have found themselves into the garden centres of England.
Walkersons and Dullstroom
"I have a plan for your stay," Stuart announced when I eventually found his abode, nestling on a slope above the central trout stream. "We don't have to follow it religiously but the first step is to go up to the mountain plateau and have a G&T while we enjoy the view of the estate below."
"Sounds great to me," I responded. We were soon climbing into his bakkie, accompanied by Cairo the English Rottweiler, and setting off on our ascent.
"There's quite a lot of game up there," my cousin informed me. "We're bound to see Wildebeest and Striped Donkeys but there could be a lot more."
"What's with the striped donkeys?" I asked him.
"They're Zebra. Cairo and I don't like them."
Turns out the zebra keep destroying Stuart's lawn. A particularly annoying event had occurred soon after laying turf at vast expense. Stuart and Cairo managed to chase about 20 of them away from the immediate surrounds of the house in the dark and the next morning the whole "lawn" had turned into a mud bath. Cursing and swearing, he'd gone to inspect the damage. No a blade of grass in sight. Then he noticed a strange thing: the zebra hadn't munched all the grass, they'd flipped all the turf squares on their backs, mud side up.
"Bastards," my cousin exclaimed. I could understand his sentiment although I still quite like Zebra.
The rest of the plan for the day was to be a braai accompanied by suitable beverages
Above, clockwise from top left: Cairo enjoying the "view" of the valley; we luxuriated in the bespoke G&Ts that Stuart had prepared earlier; I'd stopped of in Mbombela to avail myself of the limited stock in a local wine shop and then Hops Hollow for a selection of craft beers - the latter weren't cold and my cousin's magnum kind of trumped the former; after a couple of cold lagers, we set about the 2011 Lady May with some enthusiasm; by the time the excellent braai was ready to eat we were eagerly revisiting our past, seen here in the Drakensberg at what could've been Loteni or Kamberg, I imagine around1963/4.
Over the next few days my rediscovered cousin and I explored the foundations of why we should be proper buddies during our remaining years. Yes, it was more than our shared affection for Jane or that we were both suckers for a great curry.
"Besides," Stuart observed, "we're both in touch with our feminine sides."
He's probably right ... I'd never really thought about it: we both certainly cared about other people. We also reminisced about how, on the whole, I got on better with his Dad and he got on better with mine. Was that Molla's influence in bringing up her sons or just the distant father-son relationships that were encouraged then? Although Stuart's rakish charm is all Graham.
We tried valiantly to finish the Glenelly but fatigue eventually took its toll. Retiring to our opposite corners of his house my cousin suddenly checked himself and remarked: "Oh and the plan for tomorrow is ..."
Above, L to R: Perhaps my Cuz was too fatigued to notice this interloper as he retired but when I glanced out of the window of my quarters, I spotted this fella about two metres away - the camera flash didn't bother him and I wasn't about to set off a cacophony; Cairo regards me knowingly while Stuart recovers slowly from the night before.
It wasn't long, though, on my second day in Dullstroom, that my host sprang to life: "Now Cus, about today's plan; first I'll do a fry up then we'll head into Dullstroom for a beer tasting. I'll show you some of the shops, buy some provisions and check out the whisky bar, we can have a pub lunch, followed by a milkshake and then we can come back here and cast some flies."
If he didn't have a measured delivery, I could swear he didn't stop for breath. I tried to keep up.
Trip to town
Dullstroom would probably like to think of itself as quirky and to some extent it is. Kind of posh quirk, though. The bric-a-brac is in a different league and the milkshake shop would turn Mo Farrah into Mr Blobby given a week or two.
Above: clockwise from top left: Très trendy (chic?); the pretty much everything shop next door; in a whisky bar, a full sized wooden bike with presumably fully-functional Ultegra running gear in a frame on the wall - I mean, they went to all that trouble, they could at least have used a Dura Ace groupset; 4 or 5 spaces/rooms packed to the gills with just clocks - this was one room, others contained all sorts including antique grandfather timepieces; a bric-a-brac shop with quality stuff, including some tasty silverware.
Casting some flies seemed a pretty sensible way to spend the late afternoon after our sensory overload, a little bit of tranquil exercise along the river at Walkersons. I think Stuart caught a couple of tiddlers that he put back. We fished separate beats as he has stellar experience and I just like to thrash about a bit. I caught nothing and elected to walk back the couple of kilometres to the house. The soon-to-fade light brought with it a perfect tranquility after the busy day.
Above: What is it about water and early evening that brings about regenerative powers?
One of the evenings I was staying with Stuart we managed to slip out for a bite to eat at the rather splendid Mrs Simpsons restaurant in central Dullstroom. As is customary when parking in the street in South Africa, there is a system of car guards who freelance in "looking after" your car while you go about your business. It was no different when we went to Mrs Simpsons except that Stuart managed to establish from our car guard that he was a schoolboy and that he needed to watch over x number of cars to make ends meet before he had to walk a few kilometres home. Doing a quick calculation, my cuz gave the young chap x times the going rate and sent him off to get an early night. I think the young lad had exams the next day.
Above: Inside Mrs Simpsons. It was excellent but what is it about places like this that still hark back to the Empire ... or maybe it's a pistache to satirise the so rich and so powerful with so little to offer Everyman.
On my last day my Cuz pointed out that we hadn't really explored the "other" side of the estate yet. There may be some other animals up there he said. He was secretly hoping we'd catch a glimpse of the only sable antelope "in the village". A male whom, Stuart claimed, had been making inappropriate advances towards the female wildebeest. Sadly, we did not come across this lonely fellow but a story emerged. Apparently Stuart and another couple of Walkersons inmates had taken pity on this magnificent buck and had purchased three female sables from a reputable source. Sadly the local game preservation officials were not so sympathetic to our "stag's" plight and the paperwork was taking months ... perhaps now even years.
I mentioned this story to my old mate, Mario Bozzone, who, in typical laconic fashion, told me how male sables had an inbuilt time bomb, beyond which their sperm count diminished rapidly. Typical Boz ... he researches everything. I must check with Stuart if the ladies have been given the go-ahead to move to Dullstroom, yet.
On my last morning, I peered out of the window pretty early in the morning to see this mountain reedbuck gazing at me balefully from a few metres away ...
Above, l to r: Oops, there's a scary dude at the window; he looks dodgy, I'm outta here; is this far enough, this grass is actually pretty tasty?
After Shan's and my return from our trip to South Africa, Stuart contacted me to sound me out about scattering Jane's ashes at a special place on our gin mountain. It was sensitive of him to ask. What right would I have to disagree? Anyway, I thought it was a brilliant idea - as I write this I can see her ensconced up there on her new bench, revelling in the view or being philosophical about the mist.
Hopefully our next Dullstroom G&T will be shared on this bench.
A race across Mpumalanga for a slight incursion into the Free State to catch up with another old mate.