Piles of thatching

The minute I saw the swing seat, I thought at once of grass fences so common until about the 1970s in the country now known as Zimbabwe. You might think that is a curious association to make when faced with Christmas decoration in a Portuguese town square. Let me explain.

In a land where the grass grows as high as an elephant’s eye, as my mother was fond of saying, it made sense to use the natural resources available to demarcate one’s residential property. Their chief purpose, as far as I can tell, was to keep stray dogs out, and little children in, nothing more.

Mendicant fence makers used to ply their trade by carrying large bundles of cut grass to their worksite on the back of their bicycles, the heavy black sturdy kind. Each day they would remove the old, grey fencing, and replace it with fresh thatch of the much more pleasing golden honey colour pictured below.

The new fences looked like this, only a little thinner, and only about one metre tall.

At the time of one such re-fencing, we lived in a rented old double-storey house with an impressive crack in the dining room wall, the thickness of which seemed to vary with the seasons. Clay soil, you see. The garden was large, featuring cut grass rather than lawn, an enormous bouganvilla pruned to serve as a type of girl-cave, two jacaranda trees that were good for climbing, and a vegetable garden.

Although the property was enclosed on three sides by fir trees, only one side had a thatch fence running along the outside of the row of tree trunks. This was the side closest to the huge jacaranda tree from which a strong rope hung, and my sister and I could play Tarzan to our heart’s delight. Just outside of the jacaranda canopy was a swing, the direction of which was parallel to the thatch fence.

My mother trained us to remove our school uniforms as soon as we got home, and put on other clothes. I suspect she also trained us to run outside into the garden and play for most of the afternoon, but perhaps we just liked doing that anyway. One day when we got home from school, there was a large pile of old thatch with grey-black streaks running through it. It lay right in front of the swing, impeding its movement.

With a couple of shoves, we moved the pile of dirty thatch a few metres away and began taking turns (another part of the maternal training) on the swing. This was not as virtuous as it sounds, since if my sister was on the swing, I could idly swing on the rope while waiting for my turn, and vice versa.

“Look!” says my sister. I turn to see her on top of the pile of hay. She had been swinging, and then decided to let go at the perfect moment so that her body catapaulted through the air, and landed safely amid giggles of delight on the soft but dirty mound. Well didn’t I just leave that rope dangling and jump onto the swing before she could get off the pile of thatch!

Soon, we were swinging as high as we could, flying through the air and landing on the soft pile of old thatch. Of course, the best experience meant we had to collect up all the old thatch and pile it as high as we could. There was a science to positioning the pile the correct distance from the swing.

Flying through the air: an inaccurate depiction, for we were barefoot.

Of course, achieving the best experience of prolonging flight through the air and ensuring the softest landing meant we had to collect up all the old thatch and pile it as high as we could. Then, there was the science of positioning the pile at the correct distance from the swing. There was a fair amount of good-natured trial and error, and we pretended we had not hurt the soles of our feet on landing.

Just when we were in full swing, as it were, the mother-figure appeared at the kitchen door. We were quick to prove how safe our new game was by jumping up and down on the thatch, which was not as bouncy as we tried to make it look. That did not seem to worry her as much as how dirty we and our clothes were. My sister came to the rescue with the powerful argument that there was no harm in letting us continue to play, since we were already dirty. She was brilliant like that, my sister.

Almost fifty years later, I sat down on the Christmas swing seat, even though I knew it was a bit wet and rocked gently back and forth a few times. Life has taught me that wet things do dry and dirt and dust don’t always matter. I saw a little kid coming towards the swing seat. I got up and left; a silent acknowledgment that my turn was over.

©2022 Allison Wright

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