Last week from my apartment balcony, I watched a lazy sun slide below the horizon, beyond the port of Melbourne. While my day passed with a lingering sigh, I savoured a particular drink. One I used to share years ago on another continent with someone close. Once assured the star had set, I came inside and wrote the following in single a sitting.
I like a handmade cigarette or a well pressed pipe, even though I have never actually tried one. There is a soft round scent to the smoke, a little heady at first then mellowing, encouraging you to appreciate it slowly. Most smokers these days appear edgy and furtive by comparison. Drawing quickly on their manufactured parodies of the real thing. Quite at odds with my first experience being in the presence of a smoker. My Grandfather very much enjoyed the vice, owning several pipes for various occasions. If he decided to indulge, he was polite about it and quickly became the only person I would forgo my usual scowling regard. Always sitting downwind and never lighting while folks still enjoyed a meal or talked in a close space. A certain level of etiquette long lost I feel.
It has been well over fifteen years since he and I sat out back of the farmhouse in countryside South Africa. The rear terrace was nestled against an inset corner of the house; white walls along the rear edges, hidden by a possessively clutching ivy that split about the sliding glass door to the interior. Deeply hued slate tiles covered the broad terrace, irregular in shape, each positioning the sign of a craftsman. A single white column stood to one side of outer edge, holding aloft a thick wood beam that jutted from the house wall. It seemed to serve little purpose except to amuse the ever expanding Ivy. Little else intruded upon the view of an impressive natural vista, painted in the subdued palette of a setting sun. Drawing your eye outward across the broad lawn, over a contoured dam and the velt beyond, the Drakensberg Mountains stood stoic many miles distant. Stepped ranges roughly rendered in several shades, each lighter than the first. Acrobatic swallows filled the fading sky, snatching their dinner in mid flight. Pigeons whistled in passing and cows called out across the property, gathering under favoured trees for the night.
Sundown had a familiar array of ingredients, yet the recipe always produced a unique result worth observing time and again. Spend a week on the farm and you became part of this ritual. Ending your chores on time, finding an appropriate roost to watch the light fade from the world. At a point when most in the city would be rushing to get home, lost amidst a living tide crossing streets, acrid car fumes biting their every breath. Unified only in restrained frustration and tested patience; I would be sitting back on one of two wire recliners, positioned just so, to take in the last moments of a rewarding day. Playing his part in the great mechanism, my Grandfather would appear from one side of the farmhouse or through the sliding doors behind. His prosthetic heralding with a click. Much like the farm utility near the sheds, the 'Farm Leg' was long part of my earliest memories as a toddler when I visited my grandparents many years before. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever saw the 'Town Leg'.
Crossing the terrace with a deft wave, he either appeared with a platter of items or passed to gather it from inside. Invariably on display were his pipe, tobacco wallet and two glasses with a small decanter of gin; accompanied by a fizzy beverage for myself. The appearance of latter became more erratic across the years of visiting the farm. This time though, it would be only the gin, soda and a lime for two. Regarding the view he would utter his catch phrase, 'Yah, yaah, yaaah...', each word more drawn out than the first while easing back into the wire chair. I would smile, either cleaning the bird gun or fussing with a more technical widget that needed unjamming or dismantling. Depending on the season it would usually be the gun, with the likelihood of a game bird in the kitchen, freshly plucked and cleaned by yours truly. Then delivered unto the tender ministrations of my grandmother, ensuring a richly flavoured meal in a few hours.
Glasses would clink as they shifted about the platter, my Grandfather measuring out alcohol by the finger. A well worn pocket knife would flick open to carve the lime; twisted slices dropped fizzing into soda concoctions. Wordlessly he would offer one up with an exchanged glance and nod, we would ring the edges and take a sample in unison. Always the most satisfying, the first taste led well, the rest merely continued to show up depending on how rough you feel. We would take stock of the day's achievements, exchange annoyances at some 'damned device' or sod of a thing'. I recounted my hunting of the pheasant in the oven and he would chuckle in the back of his throat as I mention nearly being flattened by a surprised Reedbuck, lying in the long grass about the lower dam, on my way back.
When the air took on a slightly cooler nip, his roughened hand would reach for the wallet and pipe. The flourish of leaf on opening is what I always remember, a rich heady scent. I usually kept quiet, enjoying the softly pungent fragrance, finishing up my task or testing the quality of my mixer again for consistency. On one occasion, he told me of the time he rested on a sturdy but unremarkable Triumph messenger bike, dust caked and dishevelled. Watching the North African desert sunset. He just happened to pull up parallel to a non de script road at the time. Idly rolling a cigarette then, with the same amount of care he was showing the pipe now, while paying what passing traffic there was little attention. Until he noted the stencilled Palm and Swastika repeatedly flick by. If there was ever a time he required the calming affects of a well made cigarette it was then. A few idle waves and a nod to passing passengers, he found a chance to slip through the German convoy and ride onward to deliver his dispatches and an extra bit of gossip on old Jerry.
A rasping swish of a match being lit, the pointed smell would hit my nose just before the first whaft of his pipe surged behind. There are few smells that get my attention like the first drawing on a pipe. The subtle crackle as the pressed tobacco embered, once, twice then a final draw burning deep into the contents. Leaning back again, my Grandfather would draw on the pipe a couple more times and idly place the wallet onto the platter between us. A sideways glance of satisfaction proving the leaf was good. After a few moments during one of our sundown reviews, he mentioned a similar end of day on an airfield in Italy. It was a year into his South African Air Force conversion course. Several pilots and himself sat gathered about on armchairs outside their billets, watching cargo planes land in the late afternoon. Each utility aircraft bringing the Americans for joint operations piece by piece. The South African's fully expected a few lanky yanks to appear, but only Coca Cola machines rolled out alongside other amenities. It would be a couple of weeks before the actual pilots appeared, but all their 'mod-cons' were at the front lines long before.
We always passed the time talking about various topics, some about the farm others about back in Durban on the coast. How my mother was and what mischief I was getting up to with my cousin. Mostly though it was relaxing, quiet. Savouring the bite of the gin while the scent of his pipe ensured my sense of smell was not left wanting. The swallows would dart in and out till the very limit of twilight, their nest at the end of a muddy tunnel, along the underside of a roof awning nearby. They would be gone by the end of the season to Europe, as would I in a couple of years. At the time however, these sundown drinks with my Grandfather seemed as fixed an appointment as the sun kept with us each day, talking and laughing about issues of the young and wisdoms of the old. Eventually my Grandfather's own sun set, and all I have are these memories, enriched by his own and the scent of Tobacco.
salute someone you miss tonight,
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