And the bell tolls

A mag­i­cal place dur­ing a young boy’s child­hood, the Botan­i­cal Gar­dens con­tin­ues to be so for to­day’s kids

The Witness - - FEATURES - CLIN­TON MAR­IUS

“For it was heaven to me. An­cient trees in rolling blan­kets of whis­per­ing grasses, trick­ling streams to stamp through ...”

THERE it was! A tiny hole in the fence where the pole leaned into a shal­low ditch. It had been 40 years since last I had wrig­gled through to the mag­i­cal world beyond. I felt that fa­mil­iar urge, but the pas­sage of time makes one taller, and wider, and slower, and cau­tious.

How easy it had been back then! Tip-toe­ing out of the house, jump­ing the low gar­den wall and dash­ing down the road. And then a squirm this way, an el­bow that way, and one last push was all it took to tum­ble into heaven. For it was heaven to me. An­cient trees in rolling blan­kets of whis­per­ing grasses, trick­ling streams to stamp through — splash­ing twin­kling wa­ter into the light, an­noyed frogs leap­ing from stone to stone, and but­ter­flies div­ing, flip­ping and soar­ing into the sky.

A lily-padded pond played court to a bevy of swans that im­pe­ri­ously cir­cled their do­main. On week­ends, vis­i­tors to the court­yard café would toss tit­bits to these grace­ful posers, whose deco­rum would evap­o­rate in a flurry of feath­ers.

Paved path­ways folded into the park, turn­ing this way and that, and even­tu­ally lead­ing to a stately av­enue of plain trees, at the head of which hung a large ship’s bell. It marked a king’s visit, and had crowned the long av­enue of plain trees for more than a cen­tury. So read a brass plaque, along with the com­mand, “Do not ring”.

On select oc­ca­sions, fol­low­ing a pro­tracted hul­la­baloo of bag­pipes and choirs, a per­son of con­se­quence and in posses­sion of a pretty hat, would be in­vited to sound the bell.

I walked along the perime­ter and en­tered through the gates of Pi­eter­mar­itzburg’s Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, as a re­spon­si­ble per­son would do, as a man far re­moved from the dar­ing and ad­ven­ture of child­hood would do.

All the old trees were still there, with some newer saplings push­ing at their shoul­ders. The hedges were still neatly framed with bor­ders of low pur­ple plants. The swans were gone. In­stead, a fam­ily of ducks bobbed past, and two queru­lous geese sized each other up.

Ev­ery­thing seemed al­most as it had been. I was 12 years old again, on an au­tumn morn­ing such as this, mist curl­ing through the un­der­growth, on the sort of day when a car­pet of leaves crunched un­der­foot. And I was ring­ing that bell.

A gar­dener had emerged from the un­der­growth, drop­ping his rake.

“I see you,” he said, mop­ping his brow with a rag. All man­ner of ter­rors and pun­ish­ments — and the in­stru­ments by which these pun­ish­ments would be car­ried out — played through my mind. I shrank back­wards, hop­ing my sud­den small­ness would count in my favour.

“I see you … ev­ery day … school fin­ish … you mak­ing like small worm … nje nje nje … through the fence, I see you …”

I was well and truly caught. My de­por­ta­tion to an is­land in the mid­dle of nowhere, with noth­ing but a tiny block of cheese, was im­mi­nent.

“And I hear you,” he con­tin­ued, knot­ting the cor­ners of his hanky and plac­ing it on his head, “I hear you, ding ding ding the bell.”

I was def­i­nitely on my way to that dreaded is­land, the one with scor­pi­ons on it, and prob­a­bly with­out the block of cheese. The imag­i­na­tion of a ner­vous young­ster can be a cruel taskmas­ter.

The gar­dener leaned in, eyes wide. “Now the man­ager he will come and shout for me — and now I must shout for you — be­cause this bell is only for the spe­cial peo­ple.”

I re­call he glared at me for what seemed like years, cen­turies even. Then he shook his head and chuck­led, picked up his rake and dis­ap­peared into the shrubs.

Spe­cial peo­ple. I didn’t un­der­stand what he meant. It would take years be­fore I’d com­pre­hended my ig­no­rance, priv­i­lege, and how strange those times were — that era of spe­cial peo­ple, spe­cial peo­ple in pretty hats. The cho­sen few, pale as swans, cir­cling in pretty hats, bran­dish­ing their pol­i­tics and prej­u­dice.

Times have changed. Revo­lu­tion, free­dom and tech­nol­ogy keep pulling us into the fu­ture, but here at the heart of this gar­den a nos­tal­gic breeze still rolls in, leaves still fall like shreds of rust and ochre parch­ment, and in the av­enue the bell still stands.

Peo­ple lounge on pic­nic blan­kets. Three old women dish out bowls of breyani to their fam­ily, and to any­one who gath­ers near. Teenagers dash after a ball, and a griz­zled hippy strums his gui­tar and sings to the birds. Nearby, a group of tod­dlers squeal and jos­tle as they line up to have their faces painted.

A young boy stands in front of the bell, cu­ri­ous eyes gaz­ing up­wards. Sud­denly he clam­bers onto the mon­u­ment.

“Sipho!” his mother calls out, “don’t climb up there!” but Sipho laughs and climbs higher, reach­ing for the bell and ring­ing it loudly. That sonorous, fa­mil­iar sound echoes down the av­enue of trees, spilling into the gar­dens, and out into the val­ley.

And he keeps on ring­ing, ring­ing and laugh­ing, and all the chil­dren trip­ping and tum­bling through the av­enue laugh too.

‘Paved path­ways folded into the park, turn­ing this way and that, and even­tu­ally lead­ing to a stately av­enue of plain trees, at the head of which hung a large ship’s bell.’

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