Conversations about a Shopping Centre

Bracken City is an open air shopping centre in the sprawling suburbs of Alberton that lead off from the heart of South African industries at Alrode and run down the gentle slope of veld to the Klip River. The suburbs all start with Bracken, an apt term for South Africa today where bracken invades more and more grassland in the more temperate areas of our mountains and hills due to the increased load of carbon in our atmosphere. Brackenhurst was first, with multiple extensions, and then Brackendowns, also with multiple extensions. This was where my father cemented his building business with the Flexihome.

Bracken City was his pride and joy in his property portfolio. It sprawls over an area of 300 by 200 metres and faces onto the main dual arterial way leading into the suburb off the main road from Alrode to Uncle Charlie’s Intersection. The outline has remained the same over the years, but the façade and interiors have changed as different tenants have moved in and out. The southern end has offices including a dentist and doctor, and used to house our favourite steakhouse. The building itself is single storey and runs north south with a small indent that leads to the main retail anchor, now a Pick ‘n Pay. Behind, between the shops and the adjoining school grounds, runs a service road for deliveries. For some reason, in the early years this road used to get easily flooded in the impressive Highveld summer thunderstorms. Hail blocking the drains helped push the floodwaters on the flat piece of ground into the shops and caused havoc in the stores and stress for my father.

I remember the opening night. I was doing my second year engineering and was an arrogant antisocial student who was forced to attend. There was a large marquee erected on the grass south of the offices and my father was proud, strutting around, posing for official photographs and making a speech. I do not have a copy of that speech. I am sure the priest would have been present and blessed the enterprise, but I cannot remember. I imagine there was a lot of muttering from the locals about this Greek upstart who had woven himself into the very fabric of their life by building their homes and shops.

My Uncle Lambro had a new large chemist facing north at the indent leading to the main retailer. It was pride of place. The chemical smell of the dispensary mixed with his tobacco aroma and it was always fun to visit him there. He was very advanced even then with electronic stock gadgets that had just been released in the pharmaceutical industry. I remember the days of pharmacists typing the drug orders and dosage labels on a small type writer.

Even in my father’s busy weeks where he had meetings galore in Johannesburg, at SAHETI, the Bank of Athens, the Greek Federation, he would always make time on the weekend to go to Bracken City on the weekend to check the stores and the traffic and keep a feel for the place. In the new millennium he made me do an internet search for open air shopping centre façades when they wanted to refurbish the centre. It was his pride and joy and important to be abreast of retails trends.

Satellite view of Bracken City

Conversations as I look past my feet

There is a photograph that was stored on my father’s small Olympus camera. He was in the alone in the village and had taken a whole lot of pictures of the house, the village, the mountains and the plain filled with red poppies. He was alone because from the time my mother had her spinal surgery travel became difficult for her  and she tried to limit flying because of the discomfort it caused her. So she went with him in summer for a few weeks, but stayed away in the colder spring, autumn and winter when he went to Greece to attend Bank of Athens board meetings.

He was very proud of this appointment and I believe he contributed to the bank and board in his stern principled manner. But secretly he was proud because now he had an excuse to go to Greece four times a year and instead of staying in a five star hotel in Athens near Kolonaki, he would stay in the Patriko, in his father’s house in the village of Kakouri.

On the day of  the board meeting he would arrange with his taxi driver Stavros, who was from Levidi, a bigger village nearby, to take him to Athens   and drop him off at the bank. No doubt he introduced him proudly to all the other board members. He was, after all, a sort of batman for my father. Stavros was also connected to important people. When he first met my father and started taking him to Athens, his cousin was the Head of Interpol in Brussels, and then took over as Chief Security Officer at the new Eleftherios Venizelos Athens Airport.

They would have left at 7 am from the village and got to Athens at about 9 am for the whole day board meetings. My father would have done his homework, studied all the papers and documents before hand, and after the meeting would return dead tired to the village, sometimes at 9 pm. Noula, who looks after the  house for us with her nieces, would have left a simple salad with cheese and bread for him to eat on his return. He would also sip some homemade Retsina.

Then he would crash into bed. He had chosen the south west corner room. It had windows on each corner wall, one with a view of Mainalon and the other west looking over the adjacent almond grove to a small hill and further on towards the little church he built, Agios Nectarios. The room was simply decorated, a typical village modern functional dresser, built in cupboards and the bed. On the bedside tables rested pictures of us, his children, and all six of his grandchildren. There were always magazines nearby, and the obligatory few comics for light entertainment. There was no television in that room.

So he took this photograph one day. He was the happiest man in that room, in that house, in that village.

17 May 2008