There are no photographs to add to this post, but I hope the words are sufficiently vivid.
In my previous post I spoke about my grandparents, Tommy and Hilda Huckell. Since then I’ve been in touch, after a break of many years, with my cousin Paul Moulang in Pretoria, and we spent a wonderful hour sharing memories of the oldies. Paul’s recollections of the market mornings were very similar to mine, and as we spoke, more and more things came back to me.
One of these, which Paul remembers as clearly as I do, was the inevitable sequel to the Saturday morning foray to the old market. It’s difficult to believe, but this scene was played out faithfully after every expedition. It became like watching the same movie over and over. The cast never varied, the dialogue only slightly, the lighting and props changed only with the seasons. Only the audience underwent major changes; there was usually none, and when there was, it was made up of just one person, usually a grandchild, wide-eyed and disbelieving.
At the centre of the stage of this near-theatrical production was a small porch at the back of the house. Onto this porch opened the kitchen door and a window, also from the kitchen. Immediately under the window sill was a wooden table, painted a serviceable dark grey, chipped and scarred from years of re-enactments of the market aftermath.
Back from the market, Tommy parked the gleaming Morris in the driveway to off-load the booty. All the items were placed on the grey table, arranged far more tidily than they had been at the market, ready for the ordeal. Once he was satisfied with his handiwork he went off to park the car in the garage and lock up, then back he went to the kitchen porch.
By this time the window had been opened, giving him the cue to call in his best imitation of a love-sick mule, “Hildaaaaaaah!” Said Hilda had been in the kitchen all the while, and was at the window in a trice, giving a reasonable impression of surprise at so being summoned.
It must be explained here that there was a rigid system of finances in the Huckell household. Money was tight, as it was for all pensioners, and these two were frugal if nothing else. At the beginning of each month Hilda was issued the stipulated sum of money for housekeeping, which had to be stretched and coaxed to cover expenses like consumables, ingredients and food. How the amount had been pegged was anyone’s guess, but it didn’t seem to be open to negotiation. All of this meant that the goodies that Tommy brought back from the market, having paid for them out of his own pocket, were to be refunded out of the housekeeping budget. And so….
Tommy cut a soldierly figure in his suit trousers and smart shirt, sleeves unbuttoned and rolled up two turns, and no tie. He stood as if on the gallows platform with the rope already tight around his neck, expecting the worst. Hilda, peering out between the burglar bars, had eyes for nothing other than the merchandise, and was already assessing the pros and cons of the offering on the table. Then the bargaining began. The items were dealt with strictly in the order in which they’d appeared on the list given to Tommy.
“Those tomatoes are too ripe,” was Hilda’s first salvo. “I’m not paying for them. The pawpaw looks all right, and the beans and peas are also fine.”
“But those were the only tomatoes I could get,” countered Tommy, who’d scoured the halls and sheds, knowing full well that the tomatoes were first on the list, and if what he bought wasn’t up to scratch, that would set the tone for the bartering session. “They’re too ripe,” repeated Hilda. “I’m not taking them.” The scene was set. One by one the vegetables and fruit were duly inspected from the security of the kitchen window though the door right next to it stood wide open. Eventually the last item received the old lady’s pronouncement, and the former neat stack had been transformed into two somewhat less neat stacks. The acceptables were carried through into the kitchen by Tommy while Hilda did her arithmetic, totting up the combined price of everything she’d found to her liking.
She then went scrabbling in her purse and emerged bearing the correct amount from the housekeeping funds, and handed it over to Tommy who carefully counted it, and when satisfied, stashed it in his wallet. Then he went back to the verandah and proceeded to carry the rejects into the kitchen too, and stacked them with the first lot. Hilda took them anyway. It was her way of swelling the housekeeping fund.
In the family we’ve often joked about these proceedings as well as some others that I may still tell you about, but as I’ve thought more about those mornings I’ve realised how sad it was to see two intelligent people who’d spent so many years together and who’d survived so much as a unit, permanently fencing, always at odds. I’ve never understood the dynamics of their relationship, but there was an all-pervading brittleness in that house that affected me, even when very young. Hilda was always doing things for us, and gave us extra pocket money (probably what she saved in the haggling on Saturdays,) always with the injunction that Tommy shouldn’t know. The old man kept his distance, immersing himself in his books and records. How sad, and I’ve realised that we grandchildren were being loaded with the need to choose between them. I don’t think I ever chose then, but were I to do so now, I should choose them both for the values they upheld, and for the solid basis they created for the future generations. They were good folks.
Then, suddenly, one afternoon in 1962, being visited at home by a young neighbour, Rene Jacobsen, Hilda suffered a heart attack and died, Tommy being at work. We arrived at the house in Soutpansberg Road at dusk, to be met by Tommy, weeping like a child for the loss of his beloved wife. “They’ve taken her away,“ he sobbed over and over, inconsolable. I was fifteen years old then, and too young to appreciate the finality of this end of a decades-long partnership.
I see it now.