The spirit leveller

A weekend getaway to the seaside dorp of Struisbaai evoked old childhood memories in the author
By Lisa Lazarus

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Recently we headed out to Struisbaai for a weekend away. This town, nestling next to the southernmost tip of Africa, is known for having the longest beach in the Southern hemisphere, for still being a sleepy little dorpie, and for the wind. It also has a restaurant named “Restaurant”.
 
As a child I’d gone camping there often with my parents. While my father windsurfed, my mother and I collected shells. We’d walk the beach for hours, eagle-eyed, and ever hopeful. There were swirly cones (very high value), perfect green sea urchins (moderately high value, but only if the creature inside had departed), bright pink fans (pretty but common), and a whole mass of ordinary shells, not worth the effort of bending down to pick them up.
 
That was then. This time around, before we arrived at the longest beach in this part of the world, we had the longest drive in the world. The bottom of the car kept falling off. I’m sure there’s a more technical term for the plastic undercarriage of the vehicle, but, well, we were heading to Struisbaai, where there’s a restaurant called “Restaurant”.
 
Luckily, we had a roll of duct tape. Greg said his best moments were spent out on the highway, lying under the car, taping it back together.
 
“It’s quiet out there,” he said. “I can’t hear the children or the dog.” (I thought that was a bit unfair. The dog wasn’t really making a noise, though it was making its presence felt in other more subtle ways.) “All I hear is the stillness.”
 
While he was lying underneath the car, the children fought furiously. They had developed an intricate Lego currency consisting of powerful and weak armies, rare pieces, and desirable mini-figures. Unfortunately, they had brought some of these items with them. The older one would make the younger one scream by claiming greater military power.
 
“The word ‘power’ is banned in this car!” I shouted at them. “In fact, it’s not just in this car. It’s banned. End of story. You’re both on the same team. Nobody’s army is better or worse than anyone else’s! Nothing has more value than anything else.”
 
Struisbaai hasn’t changed much in 35 years: there’s the supermarket on the right; a bit further down, the guys selling rooikrans on the side of the road. Things happen slowly. When we camped, I remember my father levelling the caravan for hours with a spirit leveller. I know it’s not quite called that – the term is like something from a Victorian séance – but that’s what I remember. Whatever he used, it required a great deal of concentration, silence from us, and shouting from him. I don’t remember if the caravan was ever level or not. Probably not. In later years, we just took a kombi and I slept across the front seat over the gear shafts. In some ways, children are much tougher than adults.
 
Our children stayed in a beach house, with clean white sheets. On the first day of our weekend away the wind picked up at 10am. My brother suggested a sheltered beach next to the harbour, a short drive away. Unbelievably, there were masses of sea urchins stuffed between the rocks.
 
“I can’t believe it!” I shouted at the children, pouncing on one. “I used to look for shells like these with my mother.” I held up a tiny serrated green urchin, symmetrically patterned with white dots.
 
They whooped and screamed, and searched for more. We collected a whole bunch of them and stuffed them in somebody’s shoe to keep them safe. The next day we returned early in the morning to scour the beach for riches.
 
“Naah,” I said to the younger one holding up a piece of mussel shell. “Look at this.” I held up a peachy cone. “Rare.”
 
My oldest son had found a crab. He watched it scuttle sideways towards the sea. It dawned on me then that it might not be true after all, that the entire “shell currency” had been made up by my mother to keep a small child occupied on a very windy beach.
 
The way back to Cape Town seemed shorter than the trip to Struisbaai. Weirdly, it often seems to take longer to get somewhere than to go back. The children took up their fighting. The dog did its thing.
 
“Alien Avenger is the strongest ever,” said the eight year old, holding up a vicious-looking white and blue Lego mini figure.
 
“Noooo!” screamed the smaller one. “I want it.”
 
I sighed. “I don’t want to hear the words ‘strong’ or ‘valuable’. They’re banned. Remember.” Then I added for good measure, “Or the word ‘power’.”
 
“Can I say ‘power-line’?” asked Greg, gazing wistfully out the window at the silent trees, and the many sheep in the distance dotting the yellow-green hills.

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