Writing: Once upon a toffee apple

Dedicated to my family. Most of my childhood memories are set on “the farm” with the main character being Oupa Dad. This is the only place and time I would go back to and not change a thing.
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He was always up to mischief. A twinkle in his eye, a trick to play, riddles to solve. He always told made-up stories based on legend or myth. He deliberately confused us with truthful lies, knowing we would believe everything he said. The reason we believed him was because of who he was. He was our reason for being, having fun, learning new things, questioning what was around us and how we saw the world.

Although he came from nothing he was the wisest man I ever knew. He was the one we all turned to when we needed help, advice, a second voice, an objective eye. He made us laugh, he made us angry, he made us look beyond what we saw, he made our family, he made us.

He was my grandfather.

I was four when my parents and grandparents wanted a life away from the city. They bought a small farm. 

When spring dressed the black wattles lining the dirt road around Donkiedraai with neon yellow flowers, we arrived at 224 Nestpark. 

Our new home and my new world.

The house was perched on a hill looking out over the vegetable garden, the lucerne fields, the kraal and animal pens, the vlei at the bottom and beyond that the rolling hills where the sunset. 

At the back of the house was the big gate and entrance to the farm. To the left we bordered another farm. To the right was the forest, a real, dark, mouldy forest with creepy crawlies in the undergrowth, birds in the sunroof ceiling and a haunted cottage. I was never allowed outside the big or the small gates on my own. I had to stay within the fence of the compound.

Sometimes during summer holidays when the six boy cousins came to visit, Oupa Dad would take us, a box of matches and some boerewors and walk deep into the belly of the woods at nightfall to tell us stories. 

Wide eyes intently fixed on him while words of haunted houses, ghosts and witches flew around our ears, we braaied on an open fire, ate the wors off sticks and listened to him well into the dark of night. 

We loved his stories, hanging on his words, always wanting more.

Because he knew we always believed him, he managed a fine line between truth and fable. Even away from the woods, ghosts and witches, if he said pigs flew and chickens swam, we believed him. Not because he told us so, but he showed us so. 

What he promised always came true: when the first summer rain would fall, when the vlei would burn in winter, when the cows would get babies, when the sheep would “loose” their wool, when eggs would hatch. 

He knew everything!

He showed us how the farm worked. We fixed fences, checked boreholes, swam in the dam, rode the horse, ploughed the fields. We ran through the veldt playing with sticks and stones. He told us that putting our feet in fresh warm cow dung would make us grow tall. We were there to witness new life, but also when animals were slaughtered. 

Through all the stories, the farm work and the games, Oupa Dad taught us about life. He showed us that the farm and life were both kind and cruel. Nothing was sacred and everything had a price.

The Christmas before my sixth birthday we were promised a bag full of toffee apples. 

We had no idea what they were, but from his description, we had to have them. The only problem was that he had to go in search of the toffee apple tree, hoping that when he found it he would not be too early or too late to pick the big, round, bright-red, sticky fruit that only came once. The tree only lived for one season and died immediately after the last fruit fell. 

Not everyone knew about the toffee apple tree, but luckily for us, he had it on good authority from the moon that there was a tree not too far away.

The holidays ended, the promise faded and the boys went home.

Then, one day, while I was patrolling the border of our compound, safeguarding my fairies, their dwarfs and the garden angels, and every now and then hiding from Angola warbirds flying overhead. I looked up. I saw his wiry frame walk slowly and deliberately up the path towards the house. 

He had a big bag on this back.

I ran to wait for him at the small gate. My wooden revolver tucked into my pants, cowboy hat streaming behind me. His silhouette drowned in the big blue sky. He walked while I skipped next to him, singing a made-up song of joy.

“How did you know it was ready?”
“The moon said so,” he said.
“Where did you find it?”
“Where the sun sets,” he said.
“How did you get there?”
“Buks took me,” he said.
“How did you know where to go?”
“The stars showed us,” he said.

He pulled the bag off his back. He put it down next to where the garden angels lived. I was so excited. 

He let me choose my perfect apple – carefully feeling my way around the bag. There were big apples and small apples, most of them felt perfectly round, firm and smooth. Through the course hessian bag I found the one and clapped my hands.

He opened the bag and a familiar smell filled the air.

I didn’t know what toffee apples were, I did not expect what I saw. 

Tears filled my eyes when he the poured dull, brown, dried-out horse apples into the garden. The one I chose crumbled as it rolled.

My clapping stopped. I did not know what to make of that moment. Whether to see it as funny or sad.

As a little girl I was devestated.

As a grown-up I remember it fondly, not for what he did, but for how he invented a fairytale out of dust.


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