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Jo'Burg Days: The Buttonback Chairs

So many memories, so much history is bound up in two button-back chairs. With those chairs as a starting point, Barbara Durlacher presents an engrossing, richly-detailed South African family saga.

The furniture was lovely. Two button-back armchairs, a grandmother and the larger a grandfather stood on either side of the fireplace. A spindly legged 'objets d'art' table glowed with the patina of years of loving care. A large copper preserving pan and two copper kettles shone in the corner of the room. Fine mahogany cupboards and tables, good pictures and china, oriental carpets and statuettes and, in a gilt frame on the wall a hand-written tribute to the fifty years during which the father had sung in the choir of the Cathedral of St Michael and all Angels in Grahamstown. A record fifty years without a single missed choir practice or a Sunday service. The family was justly proud of the commendation.

Ida, the youngest of the family of five sisters and one brother, carefully completed the artistic arrangement of irises, roses, carnations and dahlias that she had picked while the dew sparkled on their petals in the early summer's morning. Diamond points of sunshine had glinted through the foliage, while the soft cooing of doves heralded the start of another hot day.

Bert the eldest, and the only brother, came rushing out of the house in a hurry as usual, cramming on his cap and tucking his shirt negligently into his breeches. As he ran he hurriedly swallowed the last of his breakfast toast, and waved a hand to his youngest sister.

The other sister Ethel was starting the first of many hours of piano practice, while the next three girls, Constance, (always called Connie) and her favourite siblings Milly and Gertrude, were beginning the eternal daily dusting and sweeping. They hummed softly as they began the first of their routine tasks.

In the small dark house Matilda the mother, and the Pondo woman began their early preparations for the midday meal. The kitchen was hot and airless and Matilda wiped the beads of perspiration off her forehead, disdainfully turning her nose away from the rank smell rising from the other woman's unwashed body. Made even hotter by the large Dover stove, at least the heat meant that the bread would rise quickly and the meal would soon be on the table. The stove had been well stoked with logs for the twice weekly baking and Tilly quickly finished kneading the dough before putting it to rise in the six large bread pans set before the hearth.

Ida longed to get away from this dreary town dominated by the tall spire of the big cathedral, and her thoughts were always busy seeking a way out of the monotonous round of daily household tasks. She hated the cramped living conditions in the small tin roofed house in Hodges Street, with the red polished stoep and the cherry guava tree hanging over the white criss-crossed railings.

In this quiet frontier town it seemed that nothing would ever happen or change and she wondered how she was to get away from the future she could see so clearly in front of her. Years of dutiful attendance on her parents, and boring weekly church sermons loomed. All she could see was years of waiting for "Mr Right" to come along from the dwindling selection of 'suitable' young men, children of her mother's friends, none of whom offered any prospect of happiness.

In the workroom at the back of the house, her father, a black-browed Scot from Glasgow, Alistair MacTavish, worked at his jeweller's bench. There he fashioned delicate and beautiful necklaces, rings and bracelets from the gold, pearls, moonstone, jade and peridot supplied by his employer on a cost plus basis. These delicate items were sold in the jeweller's shop and found a ready market amongst the wealthy sheep farmers and their wives. As he worked he took frequent swigs from the whisky bottle conveniently to hand, his temper gradually mellowing as the alcohol worked its familiar magic. Unfortunately the combined effects of a hot meal, the heat, and the whiskey meant that his good intentions of an afternoon's hard work to complete the order were seldom achieved. As his alcohol dependence grew greater, he received many reprimands from his employer for his lack of delivery, even if it was an important order, and he knew that his job was now on the line.

The sun rose higher and the sounds of preparation came to and end. Soon Tilly would bang the gong for luncheon. Luncheon was a word she insisted they use; it was almost all that was left of her genteel past as the younger daughter of a Prussian landowner. Her father was a bearer of the coveted German honorific "von" and had never let his children forget the status this conferred. At the close of the Napoleonic Wars this younger scion of a noble family had enlisted as a mercenary and travelled out to the Colonies with Colonel Von Stutterheim to fight in the South African frontier wars of the 1840's.

When these futile and endless wars finally ceased, Alek von der Decken married a local farmer's daughter and settled down to sire a family in his adopted land. It was his daughter Tilly, who had married the strong blackbrowed Scottish jeweller's apprentice in a fit of rebellion against the confines of her strict father's dominating presence, who now laboured in the hot kitchen. She had rebelled against his Prussian sense of correctness and what was 'right' for well brought-up young ladies. However, as the years had passed, Tilly had had plenty of time to regret her impulsive action. How many times she wished that she had paid more heed to her father's words, and not married beneath her. Also that there had not been so many babies and that the surly Scot, his nature soured by failure, had been a better provider and father.

Whilst these thoughts ran through her mind, Tilly banged the gong again, summoning the family to the table. As Ethel came into the dark dining room, she said "Go and call your father to luncheon, and tell him to hurry, but not to neglect to wash before he comes to table. The linen has just been washed and starched and it must last the week out".

One by one the other children gathered at their places and waited for the father and head of the family to join them. Suddenly, they were startled by the sight of a distraught Ethel rushing into the room. "Mother, mother, come quick, something has happened to Papa, I can't get him to wake up". Tilly ran into the back room, but it was very soon apparent that he had suffered a massive heart attack and nothing could be done for him.

After the funeral and the disposal of his few assets, it was decided that Ethel would continue her studies to become a teacher. Constance would start training at the cottage hospital in the small town while Milly and Gertie would stay at home to help their mother. As the youngest, Ida was to take up a post as a governess with an influential family friend in Durban. Bert, at least, was self-supporting as he already had a position on Grocott's Mail as a copy boy with the possibility that in time, he might be allowed to report on boxing matches and horse races.

Tilly would try to manage on the small pittance her husband had left, whilst taking in sewing and alterations to augment her tiny income. It would be a terrible struggle and she could see many years of hardship ahead of her, although in truth, the situation would not be very much worse than the years preceding Alistair's death.

1917 and the country was beginning to wake after the years of semi-neglect by the Colonial Government. South African soldiers had served in France the 1914-18 War, but nothing had happened back home during those years. In 1920 the young golden boy, the Prince of Wales, is visiting Durban on a round-the-world tour, and tonight he would be ‘The’ guest of honour at a fashionable Mayoral ball.

Ida studied herself in the mirror and was satisfied with what she saw. Yes, she thought, she looked lovely, the long-waisted shimmering grey and silver dress suited her to perfection. The silver headache band with the grey aigrette plume lent exactly the right touch to complete the ensemble, and tonight she would dazzle. She would dazzle everyone at the Prince's ball, particularly the man she most wanted to impress, that handsome senatorial figure with his silver-grey hair and fresh high complexion who would be sitting up on the dais with the Mayoral party ready to welcome the Prince of Wales.

The Prince of Wales, the "World's Sweetheart" was here in Durban on yet another of his round-the-world Empire-building tours, travelling with the support and company of his cousin Dickie Mountbatten. The two young men were the toast of the town. Idly Ida whistled a few bars of the popular hit tune "I dream’t I danced with the man, who had danced with the girl, who had danced with the Prince of Wales" and decided that tonight, come what may, she too would '"dance with the Prince of Wales". She wanted to create an impression that her handsome senator would find hard to forget or overlook.

The evening passed in a blaze of music and dancing, high spirits, loud music, balloons and shimmying knees. "Charleston, Charleston, tra la la la, dance the Charleston" sang the crowd. Gaily dressed girls kissed their partners and waved unsmoked 'ciggies' stuffed into long slender holders, whilst they flashed their silken legs in the latest jazz dances. White gloved male hands were placed decorously on slender white backs, and bulbs flashed while press photographers strove to get that one definitive picture of gilded youth at play. As always, "dear David" danced with the most attractive girls, and did his best to do his duty to the stout and elderly matrons who too, thought of this as a night to remember.

A few years later the Abdication Crises would erupt when David's love for Mrs Simpson caused him to give up his throne to marry the woman he loved. But this Empire-shaking event was still in the future and tonight all was gaiety, laughter and fun for the young people who danced so frenetically to the music of the "hotcha" jazz band.

Years later Ida was to remember this night as the highlight of her years in Durban, and to thank her friend Peggy through whose connections she had so easily been accepted into the higher levels of society in this leisurely outpost of the Empire.

Many times she had cause to wonder how it was that despite her obvious good looks, her intelligence and charm, she had not been able to induce her senator to make the break from his boring wife and family and marry her. When she was being honest with herself though, she realised that a great deal of his charm lay in the power of his social position, his worldliness and the lure of the unattainable, and that she had never really been in love with him.

Well, those days were over, and to ease a broken heart she had moved to the Reef to start afresh. After a few weeks as a stranger in a strange town she had started to make friends. Now this sophisticated and charming German from Berlin had appeared. After some months he had proposed marriage and had repeated his entreaties again and again. He was such a contrast to the sunburned and rather immature men she had known and one day in a fit of pique, she decided to accept him and they were married. Realisation of his true nature came when she saw him preparing for bed, hairnet in place, chin-strap and face cream applied, hand cream and white gloves carefully smoothed on, and many bitter recriminations followed the loveless nights when she went frustrated and dry-eyed to sleep.

Rumblings of war were sounding from Europe and the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany and stories of atrocities were reaching across the seas. Thoughtful men in high places were wondering what negotiations with France and Poland would bring, but to the young colonies these were preoccupations of their Mother country and not food for thought for the farmer's boys and businessmen in the fledgling colony.

War came, and with it internment for the Nazi from Berlin. Zonderwater Prison was to be his incarceration for the four years of war and during that time Ida battled on, living alone and lonely in a small flat in the centre of Johannesburg. Despite her lack of training, she had talked herself into a job with a two-man firm of import/export agents whose secretarial requirements were minimal. These two Continental gentlemen were more often out of the office than at their desks, the workload was light and her natural abilities made it easy to cope. She was reasonably happy and to fill the hours of idleness, she soon started a small business, which she could do during working hours in the office. This was making beautiful hand-embroidered bridal lingerie of the most exquisite delicacy, working hour after hour on shimmering silks, satins and cobweb lace, taking orders from all over the Reef and quietly amassing a bank balance of sizeable proportions.

True to her upbringing, she remained loyal to her marriage vows. Every two months she made the arduous journey to Zonderwater Prison near Cullinan, north of Pretoria to visit this man to whom she was legally and unhappily joined by marriage. As the years passed, she saw him change from the suave sophisticated boulevardier to a foul-mouthed, sunburnt, embittered and defeated remnant of his previous cosmopolitan self.

Then, one day the senior partner in the small import/export agency died, and to everyone's amazement and intense surprise, left Ida a substantial sum of money. Malacious tongues wagged with the implication that this was for "services rendered", but Ida was, as always, the soul of discretion. Never, to the end of her long life, was there any confirmation that her association with the company had been in any other capacity than that of secretary, or that she had ever had a sexual liaison with her employer.

Rumours flew, and to some, the facts were hard to dispute. There was the large green leather couch in the senior partner's office, together with those long years of loneliness with her husband interned at Zonderwater Prison. Her undoubted charm and attractiveness could not fail to draw men into her orbit and in the end, who could blame her? She was intelligent, sophisticated and artistic; experienced in the ways of the world and the best listener a man could want. She had probably earned it, if only for the years of efficient service she had provided the partners in their small but successful business.

Shortly after this, Ida and the German separated, he going to live on a smallholding in the country and Ida moving into a rambling house in a charming quiet old suburb with her mother, Tilly. She had purchased the property with the proceeds of the inheritance, and the money earned from her sewing. Later she decided to divorce, and asked her recently married niece and family to share the house with her and contribute to the living costs.

When Tilly had moved from the small Eastern Cape town to the Reef she had brought all her lovely furniture with her. Ida lavished all her artistic talents on renovating and recovering the old Victorian chairs and polishing and re-finishing the other furniture, soon restoring it to its former beauty.

The years passed, Ida prospered and took a round-the-world cruise with her Durban friend Peggy, travelling to the Far East and Australia, Britain and Europe. Still attractive and full of life, bubbling with good humour and with hordes of friends, she lived a happy life. She had accepted the fact that although men were immensely attracted to her, they seldom wanted to marry her, but this was of no importance any longer, and small pleasures sufficed. A pretty piece of jewellery, a sapphire and diamond ring, a new outfit or a good meal at a famous restaurant, she and Peggy drank life's cup to the dregs, and never regretted a moment of it.

Then Tilly died at the ripe old age of 97, the niece and her family bought their own home, and Ida decided to sell up and move back to Durban, the place of her first happiness so many years ago. She bought a flat in the same building as her dear Peggy and it was there that several years later she died in Peggy's arms of a brain haemorrhage.

The gracious Victorian furniture, the velvet upholstered button-back chairs, the spindle legged occasional tables, the good pictures and china, oriental carpets, pictures and ornaments which she had loved and cared for since her early youth now had to be disposed of. As her various nephews and nieces had all been left small legacies, none of them was interested in those "old fashioned things" and it was left to two cousins to decide what to do with them. It was arranged that they would make the trip from Cape Town to Durban in order to sort out her things and see if there was anything of value besides the furniture and personal belongings which they might wish to take themselves. In the meantime, the administrators of the estate were ready to take a hand.

Some years previously, Bert, the eldest child and only brother, had married a divorced woman with a son of marriageable age. As things go, it was about this time that the young man became engaged. Strangely the young man happened to work for the very firm of administrators who had been appointed to look after Ida's estate. Within a few days, before the cousins were able to complete their arrangements to make the journey from Cape Town to Durban, this young man and his fiancée availed themselves of the opportunity to acquire valuable and rare Victorian furniture and other items, with which to furnish their first home. With the collusion of a senior man in the administrator’s office, a small sum was agreed on and the lovely old things changed hands. A few months later, the young couple decided to emigrate to England and the button-back chairs and other items were crated and sent to Britain, lost to the family forever.

So many associations and so much family history was bound up in those button-back chairs and the other furniture. So many memories of lovely Ida and her gay and ultimately successful life disappeared when the young man and his new wife departed for England. The greatest mistake the cousins reproached themselves for was not insisting that the furniture remain in the family that had nurtured and owned it for nearly one hundred and fifty years. It would have been a memento to a lovely woman, a lost way of life, and a link to the early settlers in this harsh, unforgiving land.


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