Coal

Here is another South African memory from Mark Grolman:

I was lucky.  I lived in an architect designed house.  No project home for me.  In the small, gold mining town in South Africa where I grew up having an architect designed house was special. 

Besides the generous sized bedrooms, one of the things I remember is that the lounge and dining room had a slasto floor.  Slasto is a kind of stone, somewhere between shale and slate.  Not as hard as slate but not so soft it would crumble.  And yet, if not sealed, the slasto would flake.  Ours was sealed with a kind of varnish.  This was the fifties after all!  Slasto flooring was all the rage in South Africa in the 1950s – very “Modernist”.  That was before it became tacky and kitsch in the 1970s.  The tiles were all unique pieces, with irregular shapes and slightly uneven surfaces.

The rest of the flooring in the house was parquet tiles.  Our housekeeper would polish those wooden parquetry floors with an upright floor polisher – it was electric!  And had three polishing brushes!

At the far end of the lounge room was a big, open fireplace.  It pre-dated the Jetmaster but worked on similar principles of convection.  Above the broad, open fireplace was a rectangular, pillbox-like, slit from which came a stream of warm air drawn from a circulation system beneath and behind the fireplace.  But, to me, a young boy, that wasn’t the cleverest or coolest thing about our fireplace.  That was the fact that we burned coal in it!

My love of the coal fire started with the four or five, huge black guys who delivered the coal.  They looked as big as mountains to me and they drove an even bigger, battered dump truck.  It was piled high with heavy hessian sacks full of lumps of coal.  

The coal truck would come no more than twice a year.  The coal delivery, the Coming of the Coal, was a major event!  The guys would back the truck up to our front gate, put an empty hessian sack onto their heads and backs (like capes with peaked hoods) and carry the full sacks of coal, on their backs, up our driveway to the house.  There the sacks were cut open and their contents discharged into the coal scuttle in a cloud of coal dust.  

The coal scuttle was the size of a small, windowless, room with a waist high wall across the otherwise open, fourth wall.  Sack after sack of coal was dumped into that room until there was quite a pile and the giant coal bearers were glistening with sweat.  Then they were gone.  And the black dust settled.

Winter came; the weather turned cold; it was dark in the late afternoon.  I couldn’t wait until it was time to light the fire.  Olive, our domestic worker (I prefer to think of her as our housekeeper), and I would go out to the carport next to the coal scuttle.  There kindling was chopped and collected as well as some larger logs. After that, buckets of coal were hauled into the lounge room.  

Olive taught me.  First you screw up the newspaper.  Tennis sized balls.  Piled up in the middle of the fireplace.  The kindling goes around the pile of newspaper balls; like a wooden teepee.  A few slightly thicker bits of wood to top it off and your fire is ready to light.  

When I was too young I had to watch Olive light the fire but, later, she taught me how to use matches.  I think that’s where I got my pyromaniac tendencies.  There’s nothing better than watching those small licks of flame take hold of the newspaper, flare into life and then start devouring the kindling.

Actually, there is something better. It’s when the fire is well set. The kindling is largely glowing ash and the medium logs are well alight.  Then … THEN … you start putting coal on the fire!  One pitch black lump at a time.  Allow a little time for the few initial pieces of coal to take and then build on them.  The fire slows; heavy black smoke rises from it and disappears, in a thick, steady column up the chimney.  Oh, the vent must be fully open!  One of my jobs, being a big, strong boy, was to use the iron hook to wrangle the lever that worked the chimney vent.

Before long the lumps of coal were burning strongly, their edges vermillion with the heat and the mound of coal spread almost across the whole fireplace.  We brought in a few more buckets of coal to feed the fire and the job was done!

That fireplace warmed almost the entire house and was a source of fascination to me.  I could watch it for hours. 

But, you know, I realised many years later, that it wasn’t the fire that meant so much to me.  It was the time Olive and I spent together, on our knees, making the fire.  It was the care Olive took in teaching me.  The love she gave me.  

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