PROLOGUEIreland, 1919Today I left for Africa.Out of the front door I went, and down the flagstone path. The gulls were shrieking over Bannock cliffs and my dearest sister Ada was crying. Mother – in the brown dress she wore for weddings and christenings – looked the other way. Remember this, I kept telling myself as I climbed into the pony trap.Remember this: the wheeling gulls, the click of the waves on the pebbles in the Cove, Father’s hands red and chapped, Eamon shifting from foot to foot, a waft of peaty earth and chimney smoke and lilac...Remember this, hold it tight. CHAPTER ONEI wasn’t supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me.But my mother Miriam stayed by the kaia round the back, under the bony shade of the thorn tree, moaning quietly in the midday heat until Madam returned from school with the children and came down the garden to look for her.By then it was too late to go to the hospital.Master Edward was at home, seeing to his papers in the study. Madam sent him out to fetch the family doctor from his surgery on Church Street. It was lunchtime and Dr Wilmott had to be interrupted at his meal. My mother told me that Madam shooed the children – Miss Rosemary and Master Phil – away from the one-room kaia and helped Miriam up to the house. There, she held her hand and wiped her forehead with her very own hanky, the one Miriam had ironed the day before.The doctor came. Master went back to his study.I was born. It was 1930.Mama named me Ada after Madam’s younger sister across the sea in a place called Ireland.I think that being born in Cradock House has made me grateful all my life. It makes me feel I am part of it in a way that my mother Miriam never was. The narrow stairs and the brass doorknobs know my hands and feet, the bony thorn tree and the apricot bush hold me inside them, carrying me in their sap from year to year. And I own a tiny bit of them in return. So when Cradock House was taken away from me I could not understand my life after that.Cradock lies in the Karoo, the great semi-desert of South Africa that you find whenever you go far enough inland from the green mountains that edge the coast in a steep frill. The Karoo is the hard place you have to cross before you reach Johannesburg, where you can dig gold out of the ground and become rich. None of this I knew, of course. My whole world was just a square, two storey house of cream stone with a red tin roof in a small town surrounded by rocky koppies, brown dust and a lack of rain. The only water I knew about lay in the Groot Vis – the Great Fish River – and sometimes stirred itself to flow along a furrow outside the house, from where it could be led into the garden for the plants to drink. On the edge of town where the sky met the earth, tough Karoo bush hardly ever taller than the height of a child clung to the dry soil. Above the bush poked the withered trunks of aloes, topped by orange flower spikes that stood out like flames against the scrub. There were some trees, like bluegums or frothy mimosas, but only in front gardens or down on the banks of the Groot Vis where their roots could burrow for water.On those few times when it did rain, the hammering on the tin roof was so loud it sent Miss Rosemary and young Master Phil into fits of screaming. My mother and I – in the kaia at the bottom of the garden – also had a tin roof but ours was grey and overhung by the thorn tree. It damped the hammering into a hiss. I didn’t scream at the rain, I stood at the kaia door listening to it and looking out over the veld beyond the fence. When my mother wasn’t watching, I would put one bare foot out into the tiny rivers that crept over the hard ground and watch the water pool and sink reluctantly into the ground around my toes.Cradock House sat on Dundas Street, just up from the Groot Vis and just below Market Square. Dundas became Bree Street about half way along its length. I don’t know why one street needed two names – Mama said perhaps it was a matter of honouring ancestors equally – but that was the way it was. Once the street with two names crossed over Regent Street, it ran out of steam, fell into a township and disappeared.Cradock House had a wooden stoep with shell chairs to sit on that went almost the whole way around the house, like a circle. It stopped at the kitchen and then picked up again after the laundry, which was just as well, said my mother, otherwise we’d want to sit there all day when we should be washing or cooking or ironing.But although I longed to sit in one of those chairs, I was forbidden by my mother to do so. They were for the family, she said. "But I am also part of the family," I would say hopefully in return, stroking the grainy wood. "Shoo, child!" Mama would mutter and tell me to get on with the polishing. Mama and I mostly talked in English, unless she was really angry with me, or singing to me in the night; Thula thu’ thula bhabha...Hush, hush, hush little baby...I didn’t mind too much about the chairs. There was a secret lookout upstairs that was far better than the stoep. In the mornings when the children were at school, and while I was busy dusting on the top floor of the house, I would creep into Master Phil’s room, climb onto his toybox and peer out of the window.There it was: the whole of Cradock – perhaps, I thought, the whole of the Karoo – unfolding in the yellow morning sun like a map Master once unfolded for young Master Phil under the yellow lamplight in the study. If I narrowed my eyes and ignored the window frames, I could imagine flying right over the broad streets of the town, past the spire of the Dutch Reformed Church – far higher than St Peter’s, the Master and Madam’s church – then out over the brown shallows of the Groot Vis with its mimosas digging for water, then through dust devils that twisted into the sky above the stunted veld, then over rocky koppies piled high with polished stones in the early sun, and finally, as the desert heaved upwards, over mountains thick with forest. I could hardly see the mountains, but everyone talked about them as if they were there, especially when it was cold and frost coated the ground like sugar.As I stood there every day, craning out, it seemed to me that for one special moment the whole town, the whole Karoo, was mine. From this spot, from this window, it belonged to no-one else.Like Cradock House belonged to me.Maybe Madam felt the same way about the place called Ireland across the sea, where she had come from. She, too, seemed to stare out of windows, looking for something beyond the bluegums and the Groot Vis and the brown dust that hung over Market Square when there were too many horse carts and no rain. Mother and Father don’t mind me going to Africa – in fact they rather need it. But they won’t say so openly. And I don’t mention it. They can rent out my room for more than I can pay from my salary. Eamon needs boots, Ada’s coat – my old green – is worn out. There isn’t enough money for me to stay.I am looking forward to going, yet dreading it as well. For I know that once there, I will not be able to return. This is a commitment that will last a lifetime. And while I will keep up with friends and family through the letters we will exchange, I will never see their dear faces or hear their Irish laughter again. This is what it means to emigrate. Mrs Pumile, from the kaia next door, was jealous of my mother Miriam and I. She said that our Madam treated us well, unlike her own Madam who watched the level of the sugar in the kitchen and made Mrs Pumile turn out her pockets if she thought they were bulging with stolen goods."Eeeh," Mrs Pumile would suck in her breath and waddle back to her kaia, doek askew, apron pockets flapping, the biscuits or whatever she had borrowed now lying in the bottom of Mrs Pumile’s Madam’s rubbish bin. Biscuits handled by Mrs Pumile were no good to her Madam. I never found out Mrs Pumile’s Madam’s name. She was just Madam, like most Madams were Madam.Our Madam’s name – apart from Madam – was Cathleen. Mrs Cathleen Harrington née Moore, as she once wrote for me in her swooping hand, though she didn’t explain why she had so many names. Madam was tall and gentle and had green eyes and brown hair that she twisted into a round ball at the back of her head during the day. I saw her once with her hair out of the ball and it floated about her head like smoke. She was in her pale blue nightgown at the dressing table, writing in her special book, and I was only there because my mother Miriam told me to fetch Madam as young Master Philip was getting sick in the children’s bathroom."Ada!" Madam said, getting up straightaway, her nightgown with its embroidered flowers on the hem brushing the floor. "Is something wrong?""Just Master Phil oops-ing," I said from the doorway. "Mama says to come."Madam was a good mother, and not just to Miss Rosemary and Master Phil – although Miss Rose spent a lot of time arguing with her. But then Miss Rose didn’t often agree with anyone. "So perverse," Madam would sigh to Master, using a word I did not know but could guess what it meant. "Whatever shall we do?"Madam’s goodness to me meant letting me sit in the chair next to her on the stoep – despite my mother’s frowns – or by her side when she played the piano. Madam made me feel like it was my chair after all. She made me feel like I was hers, too.Master Edward didn’t make me feel like I was his, which was a pity because I didn’t have any other father. For a long time I didn’t think you needed a father to have a baby. In any case I thought only white children had fathers.My mother Miriam had left KwaZakhele township outside Port Elizabeth when she was eighteen years old to go to work for Master Edward in Cradock. He had just bought Cradock House and was waiting for Madam to arrive from across the sea. Master had been saving for years, Madam said, before he could buy Cradock House for Madam who was to be his bride. Yet Master never came into Madam’s dressing room, and only sometimes into Madam’s bedroom. I could tell: the bed, when I made it each morning, carried the imprint from Madam’s body on its own. I was surprised about that. I thought that married people always wanted to be together, especially after saving for so long for Cradock House. But I didn’t ask my mother why not. It would be unfair to ask such a question when she didn’t have a husband of her own. But having no husband was not unusual. There were many like Mama. Mrs Pumile next door, for instance, although she had many callers to her kaia. But callers were not husbands and could never be relied upon to keep calling.When I asked my mother Miriam about her early life, before the possibility of husbands, she used to say that she came with the house. I don’t know if that’s true, I don’t think you could buy people along with houses, even then. But perhaps you could – perhaps that was why next door’s Madam kept Mrs Pumile even when she ate too much sugar and entertained too many callers?But it is true that Mama worked all her life in Cradock House and died there one day while she was polishing the silver at the kitchen table.I wanted to stay in Cradock House all my life as well. I didn’t want to live in that place where Bree Street ran out of steam, fell into a township and disappeared. I wanted to live and die in Cradock House, where I’d been born. Where I surely belonged because of that?But I wanted to die while I was polishing silver under the kaffirboom tree in the garden, where the emerald sunbirds darted among the red flowers and the sky poked bright blue between shivering leaves. CHAPTER TWO The distance we are from Bannock village, Ireland, is further than a hemisphere.And yet I do feel a curious sympathy with the townspeople I’ve met, though I know nothing of their past and they nothing of mine. And I remind myself that wherever one finds oneself, home and love is lent to each of us only for a while. We must care for it while it’s ours, and cherish its memory once it’s gone.So I embrace this new life, and these new people.Soon, I hope, we will no longer be strangers to one another. My mother Miriam never went to school and neither did I. Mrs Pumile never went to school either. There was a small school in the Lococamp township that served the railway workers across the Groot Vis, but the children there were always dirty and played wild games, my mother said. A bigger school lay in the township on our side of the river beyond Bree Street. It was called St James school and it was run by the Rev Calata. It had sports fields and a choir and it looked away from the town and towards the open veld. It was much more strict, Mama said, and that was a good thing for a school to be, but it was too far for me to walk to such a strict school on my own.We didn’t go across the Groot Vis often, only on Mama’s Thursday afternoon off, when we went to visit her older sister, my aunt. "So many people," Mama would gasp, perhaps reminded of her old KwaZekhele days, as we pushed across the bridge. "Stay close to me, child."Auntie lived in a mud hut with no door and she had to wash her clothes in the river. Bad people came and stole the drying clothes off the bushes along the river bank when Auntie went home for the next bundle of washing. Auntie washed for a living. In the matter of schools, Auntie agreed with Mama that the Lococamp school was not to be trusted. Auntie said it was as rough as life on the river bank.It fell to Madam and Master to talk about a school for me."Edward," I overheard Madam say one day as I was coming out of the kitchen carrying the ironing for my mother, "we can’t ignore it, we have a duty. The township school is too unsettled, perhaps Lovedale Mission?""It’ll only lead to trouble later on, expectations and whatnot," said Master Edward, flapping a page of the newspaper over. "But look into it if you must. Will you play the Beethoven for me this evening?"I don’t know what ‘trouble later on’ Master was afraid of. And going to the mission school might have meant leaving Cradock House and leaving my mother, who needed me to help her as she got older and smaller, like a bird, while I got bigger. It seemed to me that life was strange in the matter of size, but maybe it was meant to be that way; you grew from a tiny baby into a tall grownup and then you shrank until you died and were small enough for God the Father to deliver you to the ancestors."I’m grateful, Ma’am," Miriam said to Madam when the subject of school came up again. "But Lovedale Mission is far away and Ada would be alone."Leaving to go to school, and leaving to go to Africa must be about the same, I calculated, hiding behind the door while Madam and Master talked one evening in the lounge. Both meant losing your family and never seeing them again. I didn’t want to lose mine, like Madam had lost hers. I watched through the crack above the door hinge. Master was reading the paper and Madam was shaking her head. The round green stone she wore at her neck caught the lamplight. She had changed from the loose, low-waisted dress she wore during the day – Madam’s day dresses were made to withstand the heat, and were the colour of cream on the top of milk – into a fitted one in pale green to match her brooch."I’d like to get her into the children’s school here in town but the Head won’t hear of it," she said. The stone flashed at me again. I didn’t know what it meant when people wouldn’t hear of things. I didn’t think it had anything to do with being deaf."Why is everyone so difficult about this, Edward?""For the simple reason, my dear," Master said, frowning at her over the top of his newspaper, "that if you let one in, they’ll all want places.""Is that so wrong?"He didn’t answer but instead turned another page, his dark head with its side parting disappearing behind the paper. I don’t know what he meant, or what Madam meant. But I don’t think Madam agreed with him. Perhaps she didn’t understand the trouble he said he was afraid of later on if I went to school? The trouble that I didn’t understand either? I would never want to cause Madam and Master any trouble. If going to school meant trouble, then I should not go.I watched as she stood up, looked out of the window for a moment, then walked over to the piano. Whenever there was silence between Madam and Master, she would often go to the piano. Sometimes she played straightaway, and sometimes she sat stiffly, staring at the keys."Ada!" hissed my mother, pulling me away. "The tokoloshe comes for bad girls that listen at doors!" I ran back to our room and lay down, covering my eyes so I couldn’t see the evil tokoloshe when he crept onto the bed and took me away to hell. But he didn’t come. And Madam played Beethoven. The Moonlight Sonata. But she was distracted, I could tell. I could hear it in her fingers."The child can learn all she needs here, Madam," Miriam said firmly the next day as she looked for elastic for young Master Phil’s garters in Madam’s sewing basket. My mother had given me a talking-to when she later came to bed. She said that I didn’t deserve Madam’s kindness if I listened at doors. And that she wouldn’t have my schooling bothering Madam and Master.Madam pushed her needle into young Master Phil’s sock that she was darning. There was always a lot of sewing to do with young Master Phil. He seemed to be able to walk out of the house and tear his shorts or lose a button straightaway. But all boys tore their clothes, Mama told me. It’s what boys do. But it didn’t seem to matter, for we all loved Master Phil, who was as sunny as Miss Rose was forever peeved."We’ll see. I won’t give up just yet. You didn’t have the chance for school, Miriam dear, but Ada should -"But I never went to school.Instead Madam started to teach me my letters at home at the dining room table when Master was at work and the children were busy. I don’t know why she wouldn’t teach me when Master was at home, but that was the way it was. We always had to pack up very quickly when Master’s footsteps were heard coming down the path. And my mother Miriam and Mrs Pumile from next door clapped their hands and said I was very lucky to be getting something they called an "education".I began to read from the book Madam left in her dressing room as well, on the table next to her silver brush and her powder box where I dusted every day. No-one else saw that book, not Master or Miss Rose or young Master Phil. I knew this because I could tell from the outline it would make in powder or dust if it had been moved by anyone apart from Madam and myself. I watched for this every morning when the sun came through the window and fell upon Madam’s dressing table in a revealing, yellow beam. And I made sure to put the book back to the page she’d been writing so she would never know.There were often sentences that I didn’t understand but I could think about them all day as I went about my dusting and polishing, and sometimes the meaning that had been hiding within them would jump out at me long after I had read the words. Musical notes, I later discovered, were also like words: they meant one thing when played on their own, and quite another when strung together.I don’t think that Madam knew I was reading her book, but maybe she did? Was that why, many years later, she left the book behind when she went away to Johannesburg? Left it for me? After all, without Madam and the children, Cradock House would be empty and silent. There would be only my footsteps and Master’s footsteps on the narrow stairs.Once I started to understand letters, I began to make out words on the front of shops in town when I went to post Madam’s letters to Ireland at the Post Office on Adderley Street. I started to search out new ones every time I went to town, peering into windows for so long that often the shopkeeper would come out and shoo me away.I learnt to walk slowly one way up Adderley, cross over the broad dirt road with its donkey carts and snapping dogs and fine gentlemen on horses and then slowly the other way so I never missed anything. Madam didn’t seem to notice if it took a while to post letters, so I could return via the Karoo Gardens on Market Square where there were wooden benches that I was allowed to sit on. I could stare up at the palm trees over my head, or at the flaming aloes in their square flower beds, and repeat the words I’d read while the sun warmed my bare feet. Then it was along Church Street – like Adderley, also broad on account of wagons and oxen needing to turn about in years gone by – and the last signs before the shops ran out at the edge of the Groot Vis.The first words I learned on my own like this were "Austen’s the Chemist", "White and Boughton for paper and ink", "Cuthbert’s Shoe Store for personal fitting", and "Ladies find Quality at Anstey’s Fashions". Outside Badger & Co, there was often a table with rolls of cloth, saying "... for a bolt". I never could work out what those missing words were – I saw them in lots of places – but they weren’t made of letters I recognised, so they must have come from another sort of language that I didn’t yet understand. I never found any of those unknown words in Madam’s writing. I longed to ask her what they meant but I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all that Madam was teaching me anyway at the dining room table, and secretly from the book on her dressing table.So I asked Miss Rose and young Master Phil instead."I don’t have time to explain," said Miss Rose over her shoulder, as she brushed her yellow hair in front of the mirror. "You haven’t any money so you probably don’t need to learn to count.""Why, they’re numbers, Ada!" said Master Phil, grabbing a pencil with a chewed end and drawing some of the strange shapes on a piece of paper. "They tell you about quantity, how many of something you’ve got. I’ll show you some more after cricket practice – here, take this, you can try." He stood over me for a moment, and corrected the way I held the pencil. "That’s right, just like that!" then ran off, his cricket bag banging against the banisters as he raced downstairs."Less noise, Philip!" came Master’s voice from below.But before the possibility of numbers, there was Madam’s book in her dressing room. It had a cover of dark red velvet, with a red satin ribbon that tied around its centre in a bow. I would stroke the velvet and the satin, and bend down and rest my cheek against them. Very often Madam didn’t bother with the bow and simply wound the ribbon around the book. I never meant to read it, I only started when Madam left it open one day and I had to move it during dusting. And it wasn’t as if I was stealing anything from Madam, like Mrs Pumile stole from her Madam. This wasn’t sugar or biscuits or jewels.At first I read for each letter, beautifully formed in black ink, a slanting pattern of unrelated thick and thin strokes.‘TomorrowIsailforAfrica...’Then, after many times of struggling, I began to separate the words.‘Tomorrow I sail...’What was this thing, "sail"?And then the words joined together to become sentences. And then the sentences began to tell me what Madam was saying to the book. And sometimes what she wasn’t saying.‘Five years of betrothal, Edward in Cradock, self in Ireland. Marriage is a step in faith, Father o’Connell says. But of course I still love him. And everyone says we’re made for each other.’
The book became a secret conversation between Madam and myself.