Life on the plot was always interesting. My Dad had always wanted to farm and this was his opportunity. He bought a small tractor and a variety of attachments so that he could cut down the long, thick veld grass and plough the land. The cut veld grass was collected and made into hay bales which was sold to various farmers as winter fodder for cattle. The hay bales were piled up under a tarpaulin fairly close to the house. Catherine and I were fascinated by the hay bales and my Dad gave us a few bales to play with. We were not allowed to damage the bales but we could sit on them and jump over them.
At this particular time, I was very enthusiastic about horses although I knew very little about them. I loved the idea of horses and show jumping. At my instigation, Catherine and I created a show jumping arena using the hay bales and piles of stones with broken tree branches between them for the various jumps. We then had an arena but what to do about a horse?
I had a beautiful old book of children’s nursery rhymes which I used to read to Catherine and to myself. It was one of my favourite books. One of my favourite nursery rhymes in this book was Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross. This nursery rhyme was illustrated with a picture of a fat little boy riding a hobby horse. The hobby horse in the picture was a horse’s head on a wooden pole. The little boy was standing astride the wooden pole and pretending to ride the hobby horse.
In the tool shed on the farm, there were a number of brooms made from a wooden pole and straw tied together to make the brush which was held together and attached to the pole with wire. These brooms would make perfect hobby horses and our hobby horses would even have tails.
I set to work making the heads of the hobby horse. I drew the heads onto thick cardboard which, with a lot of effort and a blister on my thumb, I managed to cut out. It is really hard to cut thick cardboard with fairly blunt children’s scissors but I was very determined. I then cut out the ears and bridle from bits and pieces of material out of my Mother’s work box and glued them to the cardboard head. I glued on old buttons for the eyes. Attaching the head to the broom was a bit beyond me and I had to ask for help. This I got from one of the workers who helped on the plot. He made two holes on each side of the neck of the horse and attached it firmly to the top of the broom with wire.
Catherine and I now had our horses and we were ready to hold show jumping competitions in our arena. The tails of our horses did prove to be a bit cumbersome as we had to lift the back of the broom up when we jumped over the bales and make shift wooden jumps so that it didn’t catch on the jump and pull it over. It was tremendous fun. We galloped around the plot on those hobby horses shouting the words to Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross which goes like this:
“Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse,
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes.”
We soon needed to dress correctly for our show jumping events. I never wore dresses but at this time an exception was made and I took to wearing my old pyjama trousers to serve as jodhpurs. I fashioned hats for Catherine and I from plastic bowls tied on with cut off pieces of elastic. This amazing game of ours went on until the hay bales were sold. I was very sad when that happened as it heralded the end of our game but the timing of the sale was actually very fortunate for my family.
Veld fires are very common in South Africa during the winter months as the dry grass is very flammable. A few weeks after the hay bales were sold and taken away in a truck we had a veld fire on the plot. My Dad had ploughed fire breaks in various places around the plot as a precautionary measure against veld fires. One afternoon we smelled smoke and we soon realised that the grass beyond the fire breaks was burning. There was a line of small trees all the way along the dirt track from the fields’ right up to the house. The fire soon jumped the fire break and the small trees caught fire. I was very scared and there was chaos in our house. My Mom, the farm worker and my Dad all went outside to fight the fire. They used wet grain sacks to beat out the tendrils of fire that crept close to our house and my Dad swiftly cut down some of the small trees so that the fire couldn’t spread right up to the house.
Fire is a very scary thing to watch as it jumps. One minute it is far away and within minutes it has spread and literally jumped about ten metres. Fire runs in lines that fan out in different directions from the central fire. Each line burns everything in its path and becomes a separate raging inferno.
Catherine and I sat in the house looking out of the window with baby Hayley. I can remember feeling very fearful watching the steadily creeping flames and the thick black smoke. My parents and the farm worker managed to put out the flames that came close to the house so no significant damage was done to our home or possessions. All the surrounding veld grass and the trees and scrub bushes were burned. When the fire finally burned out our house was surrounded by black, sooty and dirty clumps of burned grass and scrub bushes. The trees were sad and blackened skeletons. For weeks afterwards, ash would blow into the house and cover everything in a fine film of dust.
Subsequently, I have always been fearful of fires. Even now if we have a fire in the fireplace during the winter months, I always check on it and make sure that it has burned really low and there are only embers before I can go to bed and sleep.
Robbie and Michael Cheadle are the co-authors of the Sir Chocolate Book series