It was a year marked by the death of a pope, the assassination of an American president and the resignation of a British Secretary of War over his entanglement with a model. Closer to home ten opponents of apartheid went on trial for treason, one of whom would later be elected as South Africa’s first black president in a multiracial parliament.
1963 was also the year I visited Pretoria, my presence a footnote to the annual national swim championship – Currie Cup – in which my brother was competing for Western Province.
With heats in the morning and finals at night, we saw little of Pretoria outside the Hillcrest Pool. The meet organisers had thoughtfully laid on an invitation event for anyone too young to compete at senior level. The 50 metre freestyle dash was my first taste of competition at inter-provincial level and, for my efforts, I placed third and was awarded a teaspoon. I wish Mom had kept it.
I don’t recall much of Dad being there. He was either back at the Culemborg Hotel chatting with Uncle Louis, a relative and the manager of what was then the place to stay in Pretoria. Or more likely he was catching up on lost sleep leaving Mom, the swim coach to a few on the team, to deal with her charges and keep half-an-eye on me.
During the day I’d staked myself out on the lawn next to the grandstand, a sunny spot with a good view of the pool and a place to strategise. In my sights was Maureen Ross, one of my mother’s main rivals for the role of women’s team chaperone.
Like Mom, Maureen was a swimming mother. Her dark brown hair was always coiffed and the blonde highlights were way ahead of their time. She had what Alexander McCall Smith, author of the wonderful No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series refers to, when describing his leading character, as a ‘traditional build’. So did my mother, for that matter, but there was one important difference between the two women: my mother always wore a happy face. I don’t know if I liked Maureen less for her permanent scowl or because anyone so apparently miserable could be preferred as team chaperone.
I lined up my target, maybe some eight feet away. Already at ten years old I had an inkling that I’d inherited Mom’s aim, so getting in close was crucial. Guided by the invisible hand of my mother, I held my breath and squeezed the trigger. I think I hit Maureen on the knee. She said nothing, but the corners of her mouth moved ever so slightly downwards. The water pistol was taken away.
As a venue Pretoria did not come around again during my years as a competitive swimmer. Uncle Louis died in the late 1960s and his surviving family moved away, removing any reason for us to go there. On the many trips back to South Africa post-migration, the thought of making the half-hour trip there from Johannesburg didn’t enter my mind. That is, until I discovered I had a more personal connection with Pretoria than I could ever have imagined.