Conversations with Rod

I remember the day Rod Conacher died.  It was a hot summer in Astros, Greece. Glorious for a beach holiday with my father and brother and his children. We lived in the air conditioned flats and moved into the sea for the morning and sat under the thatch pergola of Costa’s psarotaverna for languid lunches.

It was a Monday when Mom told us Rory had called her about Rod’s passing. We had to tell dad. He was in 7th heaven on holiday in Greece with his sons and grandchildren. But he was fragile. He had had his defibrillator for two years and was coming to terms with the loss of his daughter. Just earlier in Greece he had met his confessor at Agio Dimitri, the church in Tripoli where his parents were married. He needed to rest in the morning heat as we climbed the hill that housed the old harbour houses of Astros, overlooking two beautiful bays. On Tuesday Peter and Nico came with us, in their shiny basket ball long shorts and fancy running shoes. We jogged a bit ahead of dad, and joined him on the way back to get fresh pastries from the bakery for breakfast.

On Wednesday dad and I went walking alone in the heat of the early morning. Sometimes we could talk easily, sometimes things were awkward. This was an awkward walk, and I convinced him to sit at a coffee shop on the beach along the way from Costa, to have an iced tea or frappe or something. Then I just blurted out that Rod had died.  I swear my father died before me in that moment. Yet he was so full of life. The same thing happened three months later. He was so full of life, at the 80th birthday celebration of his friend George Bizos, yet he died at 430 am the next morning.

Rod and my father met when my father was chairman of the governing body at Alberton High and Rod was appointed Headmaster. He was a breath of fresh air, a leader ahead of his time. My father and he shared a passion for life and people and learning. They both respected everyone, from cleaner to teacher to banker to grandparent. They both believed in people. They both harnessed the power of other people to improve the world.

Rod managed to get my father on a wilderness trail in Zululand with Jim Feely. My dad took over by sourcing fresh prawns and Rustenburg wine from a small village bottle store and they had a party in the bush not quite in keeping with the traditions of the Wilderness Leadership School. But in keeping with life!

He advised Rod on financial matters. Rod bought a Peugeot, after dad was so happy with his 504. He made Rod keep his first house when he moved to Pretoria as an Inspector, and saved him from selling t a loss when the market was down. They met every now and then, at a function or just to meet, and recharged each other’s batteries.

Rod moved on to become Rector at JCE, the College of Education. His secretary would treat me like a visiting professor as she called him on the intercom to advise him that a distinguished visitor dressed as a sloppy student was waiting for him. We would always have tea and chat, and he would hold a real conversation.

Then he became head of Crawford College and developed the private system into what it is today. The last I saw him was in 2002 when he attended my 40th birthday at Mbona. He died in 2009. In those 7 years we shared conversations and spoke of dreams of finding the Lost City of the Kalahari.

A part of me died too when he died.

Conversations while Walking

The best time we had together was when we walked. We never walked together in Durban. It was too hot for my father, and he used to get chest pain in the heat. Also, to be fair, I work in Durban and I would rush off early to work and come back late.

We used to walk at Mbona. We would walk past the stables down the valley, over the dam wall and up through the wattle and pine plantation past my brother John’s place for coffee. Then we would contour in the grassland, past the zebra that always hide in a hollow and back onto the main road to our house.

Walking at home in Alberton was fun, because it was with the dogs. They would lead the way and set the pace. There were certain houses with enemy dogs that always required a stand of aggression, and there were other gates and poles that required a territorial marking. His attorney’s house always required the dog to mark with something more solid. The house was the last in the suburb without a fence, so it was easy to let the dog make a mark in the open. It was an abvious calling card.

We also walked in Astros. I only remember really hot days with early walks, past the village shops that were still closed, past the harbour with yachts lying unmoving in the still blue water. Past the Duck House in the middle of the harbour, and the amphitheatre at the edge of the harbour. Up the hill, with a rest at the church and sometimes to light a candle, then downhill, back into the village. Now the bakery was open and the heavy smell of fresh bread and pastries would force us to stop to buy breakfast; then laden with bags we would walk the few blocks home and devour the fresh bread with fig jam and share the apple pastries.

The best place to walk was Kakouri. He was always so happy heading off into the plain. Down the avenue of plane trees, the village fresh in the morning, the earthy smell of sheep not yet fermented in the day’s heat. After a while he would turn left into the fields, along a sand road, then left again to slowly walk up a long hill to the original spring of the village which still trickled fresh sweet water. He would stop for a drink and then continue up to the church of Agio Dimitri and then backtrack into a small ravine that separated the village from the mountain of Analipsi. From there onto a tar road studded with sheep droppings and into Keza’s Cafe, where the men were already sitting in the shade of the pergola covered with vines as old as the shop. Some were drinking coffee; a few others would always be nursing a brandy. The usual group was always chatty. More often than not someone who was not regular would come by, be offered a coffee and information would be exchanged.

I am sure the same happened at the socialist cafe up the road.

Conversations at Monasteries

Herodes Atticus had a villa near Astros, on the Arcadian beach. It lies in ruin, only having been excavated in the last century. As history should have it, it was first rediscovered by a Turk. It is fenced off and only accessible by appointment with the provincial archaeological authority. Having dealt with authorities in Greece, I am sure it would not be easy to get access. Still, the Athenian philanthropist who was a Roman senator did well to choose such a beautiful setting for his holiday villa.

The bay of Astros is nearby; a spring of clear water clears the sea blue and reduces the salinity for bathing. The climate encourages citrus, and slightly up the hill, olives and grapes.

Just a few hundred metres away there still stands an Orthodox Monastery, Tous Loukous. It dates back to the 5th century, and its name may be derived from the wolves (lykoi) that used to roam the area, or in honour of the ancient cult of Hera, Juno Lucina. I suppose it is easier to say it is named in honour of St. Luke.

The monastery lies along a breathtaking Arcadian coastal road that leads to Leonidio, in the province of Sparta. There are tall Arcadian mountains behind the walls of the monastery, and it is a short walk from the car park to wait under the thick shade of the chestnut trees at the main entrance. It is a peaceful place, with the church in the courtyard.

I remember one of my earlier visits with my father. The church had survived an attack by the Ottomans and although they had burnt it down, the main icon had survived. It was slowly restored, but that visit in the early nineties, along with free funding from the European Community, saw local and other European art students restoring the frescoes in the church. The Monastery is home to a cloister of nuns, and the students were all young woman. They were tanned golden brown; they wore shorts and T-shirts to manage the summer heat. I am sure their day started with a swim in the sea nearby.

My mother got to know one of the nuns very well, along with my father. This wise woman was in charge of the store they had under the eaves of the building on the edge of the courtyard. The nuns also sold painted icons. My mother’s name is Olga, and after a few visits the nun presented her with an icon of St Olga.

My last visit there was with Ines. The nun received us and treated us to Greek coffee and loukomia. She asked about us, and when it transpired that Ines was a surgeon, she was visibly moved. She blessed Ines’ hands, and tried to get around the origins of her name. We decided that it came from Agnes, and the closet Greek name would be Fotini.

The next year my father collected an Icon of Agia Fotini for Ines from the Monastery at Loukous.