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