My mother always spoke disparagingly of Philipolis. The fact that I was almost born there was presented as an aggravating, not a mitigating factor.
The story, in essence, is as follows. Fifty eight years ago my father rolled the car just outside the little town, and he and my mother spent a cold and lonely winter’s night upside-down under a bridge, close to a running stream. My mother was very pregnant with me, and because of the shock, and the drama of the moment, there was every fear that I would be startled out of my comfortable slumber, and choose that moment to make my way out into the world, to see what on earth was going on.
Fortunately I didn’t, and was born properly, on 2 August, in Cape Town, in a nursing home I believe. A Sunday’s Child, what is more.
So perhaps in its quirky way, and notwithstanding my mother’s hostility, the little town of Philipolis was smiling on us all, and sending us on our way with the universe’s caution and blessing, and not its curse.
So it was that all these years later, Rob and I spent Friday night in Philipolis, on our way back up to Johannesburg en route to Canada, and were intrigued and happily surprised.
On the advice of our host at Die Groenhuis, the B&B where we had booked in for the night, we phoned ahead and arranged to go for dinner at Oom Japie se Huis, a turn-of-the-last century house become second-hand bookshop, pub and restaurant. Philipolis, we learned on our way back into town – we passed the museum with his image and name on the outside wall – was the birthplace of Sir Lourens van der Post, the writer, philosopher, sage and friend, so one is told, of Prince Charles. Oom Japie se Huis, however, turned out to be run, not by Oom Japie, but by a silver-haired, silver-tongued, genteel English gentleman, who ushered us into the bar and introduced us to everyone there – a local sheep farmer and his wife, a man who was talking about bird-watching to a visiting friend, a couple from Pretoria. Before coming in I had asked Richard, the proprietor, if he would mind very much if we brought our own bottle of wine to have at dinner; we would be happy to pay corkage. It was a bottle from the Cloof Estate, bought on our way back to Cape Town at the end of our stay in Paternoster.
‘No need for that,’ Richard double-barrelled surname said, ‘you can let me taste the wine instead!’ We said we would like a table outside, on the covered stoep fronting the street, if that was convenient, and as we passed indoors he placed our bottle on a table – the stoep was deserted – and went ahead to show the way.
Rob and I looked at each other, in some alarm. ‘Oh no,’ Richard said airily, turning when he realised we had fallen behind. ‘No-one will take it.’ And no-one did.
How long had he lived in Philipolis, and what had brought him here? ‘Seven years,’ he answered, and went on to explain that this was the first town to have been established across the Orange River, in 1822, by the early settlers; it had started out as a mission station. The following morning, as we were lying in bed, the other shoe dropped – the town must be named after Dr John Philip, the historical figure from the London Missionary Society, whose establishment of mission stations for ‘the natives’ was so loathed and resented by the Dutch farmers who would spend much of the nineteenth century trekking inland to get away from the pernicious native-loving British.
The source of Rob’s amusement, however, was Richard’s wife, whose name I forget – a rouged and obviously once-attractive woman, with elaborate golden hair, who was overheard saying, in tones of despair, ‘there is simply no way we can cope! this is too much!’
Two additional guests had walked in off the street, without a reservation, and eight guests for dinner, all at the same time, was beyond her ken.
We sat out on the porch, at a table which we had offered to share with the Pretoria couple, much to the slightly flustered Richard’s relief. The tomato soup was excellent; the springbok potjie was passable, and the preserved fruits with ice-cream were homely and quite good. I don’t think a single car passed by us in the quiet main street, while we were eating and talking.