Operation Oysterhood: 18 April

OYSTERHOOD is reclusiveness or solitude, or an overwhelming desire to stay at home.

— @HaggardHawks

In the air, in the bones, the heaviness. An intuition. When I saw the Mountain burning around Rhodes Memorial after returning from the shops in the morning, I immediately felt fear. I thought of the Restaurant up there, the vegetation, the early heat of the day, and checked for wind. It was relatively calm still. The helicopters were in the air. There was hope the fire would be contained. I took the photographs standing in the street outside my home. The symbolism of the Memorial burning in the context of the last few years did not escape me.

Soon after, the smoke covered the entire Mountain on our side and I could smell it – like incense – in my garden.

I finished packing, glancing out my windows with apprehension every few minutes. We were leaving for Elgin, to have lunch at the Railway Market, an afternoon at Kiku, one of the Cheverells Farm Cottages, where we were also supposed to stay the night, and an evening of poetry at Liberty Books with John performing Finuala Dowling’s script “Ice Cream, Thank You”.

I have been in love with the Elgin Valley for quite a few years now and returning there always makes me happy, but yesterday’s visit was overshadowed with anxiety. Yet: the hospitality at the Railway Market was delightful as ever and it was great to see Lester’s sister, Monique, at the wine shop and to hear that she was also coming to the poetry event with her daughter. We had sushi and G&Ts, listened to the live music, browsed, bought some Elgin wine, and continued monitoring the news from Cape Town, my fears deepening.

I found myself, i.e. The Fifth Mrs Brink, in great company selling at the Book Bus. It is impossible to estimate how many people read each individual copy of a book sold, especially if it ends up in libraries, but I do wonder how many readers have paged through this particular one, now on sale second-hand in this wonderful bookshop …

We spent the rest of the afternoon in this beautiful place, but my heart and mind were not present. By then, UCT students were being evacuated and the fire was burning history. Mostert’s Mill, built in 1796, the oldest surviving windmill in South Africa, was up in flames, a few hundred metres away from my neighbourhood. And then the Reading Room of the Jagger Library at UCT was on fire … This is the space where, like thousands and thousands of others, I spent many hours researching the Special Collections held there. Part of that research went into my PhD. My books have been included in the Library’s collection – the last time I visited, they were actually on display in a glass case and it thrilled me no end to see them there.

I could not hold back the tears.

I know people and property were/are in danger. The loss is unimaginable, numbing. But people can be evacuated, buildings rebuilt and renovated – there is hope for a time beyond the loss. However, there are paper (and other: art, film, music, etc.) treasures that, once damaged or lost, cannot be replaced. The events of yesterday make one understand the meaning of ‘forever’. In the coming days, the cataloguing of loss will begin.

Fire is unpredictable. We always think, it won’t happen to me, and even though I understood that it was highly unlikely that my home would be threatened, I thought of my Furry Family and of my own precious library and felt the need to be home. I realised how completely unprepared I was. How does one find out about an evacuation order? How does one prepare? In my head, I started going through the rooms of my home and collecting the objects I would hope to save, if given the time. There was also a need to be close to the loss in progress, almost like going to a funeral to be in the same place as others to be part of the collective mourning, to find words and gestures to share the horror of the communal experience with others. Not to be alone. Not to be far away, helpless.

“Ice Cream, Thank You” is a compilation of poetry which confronts death, but instead of being depressing, it is strangely comforting and uplifting. Christy Weyer, the owner of Liberty Books, wrote after the event:

“A mesmerising performance by John Maytham at Peregrine last night!
Finuala Dowling’s superb script entertains & inspires and John’s delivery was perfection, delighting the ear as it stimulated the brain cells. Thank you to Finuala Dowling and John for bringing this collaboration out to Elgin, to Peregrine Farmstall, Elgin Ridge Wines and Cheverells Farm for their generous support and to our amazing & attentive audience: we managed to raise around R2000 for Siphila Sonke Kids Club.”

Despite everything, for an hour we were transported into another world, a world were poetry offers beauty and solace. We were all conscious of what was happening in Cape Town and in a way the reading was preparing us for the losses ahead. One of the women in the audience donated her late husband’s art collection to the UCT Libraries after his death. He was a renowned cartoonist. It is only a small part of the heritage held and taken care of at the institution. May it survive, may it be safe.

We drove home in near silence. By the time we returned, the entire Devil’s Peak was on fire – flames like fireflies all over the mountain. The wind was up. I checked on the Cats, gave them food, sat down on my bed and continued following the news, also replying to messages from around the world, family and friends concerned about my safety. I eventually fell asleep like that, waking up sometime after one a.m. to brush my teeth and get into PJs for the night.

My heart is sore. All of this is nearly impossible to process.

Be kind. Wear a mask. Support local.

“Physical distancing remains one of the key strategies to curb this pandemic.”

— NICD

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