Kensington Chronicles #3: toktokkies on the koppie

litle black beetle from South Africa

Back in the 90s, I lived in the coolest town in Johannesburg—Kensington. I worshiped every stone and sand particle of it…because it’s where childhood resides. You know all those 80s movies where kids with mullets, caps and Dungeons & Dragons T-shirts cruise the neighbourhood on bikes wielding walkie talkies, with synth swooning in the background? Well, the Kensington Chronicles is my version—only with Monopoly, techno, the smell of African rain steaming off the hot tar and my own bare feet to get me around.

It was the TokTokkies that initially drew us onto the koppie, the persistent “tok-tok, tok-tok” that reverberated down the valley and into the keen ears of three children begging for incident. We’d follow the noise and the discovery of its originators was even better than a rusted tin or hobo’s shoe; thumb-sized black beetles scattered on rocks like guardians of the mound—tapping out Morse Code to comrades on the citadel. Or just friends hanging out, having a chat—tokking their butts in synchronous understanding. Science says that the males tap their abdomens on the ground in order to attract mates, which respond with their own tapping. Their symphonic tokking came to feel like home. As did the rush of wind through the leaves of the swaying Blue Gum tree that rose above our house, angled down towards our garden due to its slanted position on the hill. The whole tree would lurch in the wind – to and fro, forwards and backwards – and in the dead of night, after turning off my small lamp that gave light to the words of treasured books far later that I was allowed – Little Women, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Nancy Drew, Jane Eyre…and many other jewels of childhood – I’d dare a look through the clear glass doors of my bedroom at the back of the house, and imagine that giant swaying Blue Gum crashing down before bolting out of my bed to close the curtains and return to the safety of my fairy-themed duvet. 

I tempted the dark on a few other occasions. The wooden floors in our nigh-on-100-year-old house creaked and there was something exhilarating about escaping from my room when everyone and everything was asleep; invading the dark with no real purpose other than to see how quietly I could do it. One night, the giant swaying Blue Gum and its flailing arms got the better of me and I decided that I was going to sleep in the study, which was in the right wing of the house as you looked out the front door. In the old days 18 Somerset Road had a porch that wrapped around its front and sides but in newer times the side porches were windowed-up and converted into rectangular shaped rooms, leaving a porch only at the front. The study, as we called it, had a bed in it (for guests) and books. Lots of books. The smell of the pages—musty relics passed from father to daughter, and daughter to daughter; the scent of comfort. I figured that if the treacherous tree was going to fall on our house, I’d rather be the furthest away from the impact and if, indeed, I was going to get squashed it may as well be in a pile of books. I went back to my room the next night. 

Before I was offered the bigger room at the back of the house, my bedroom was in the left wing—the other side of what was previously the porch. It was a narrow, cosy space with big glass windows and a direct view of our long driveway (the route up to the garage, which had been a stable before horses became a myth of suburbia). My curtains were never closed, not even at night—just as I needed the view out the front windscreen when my mom was driving me to school each morning, I loved looking outside into the much scope for the imagination. One night I heard a noise, voices, and curiosity overcame fear as I got up to see what was going down—peeping out of my front bedroom window, which looked out onto the road, saw a car (not ours) parked in our driveway; two black guys (not anyone we knew – as if I knew any black guys in 1990, who weren’t the groundsmen at my school or the guy who sold litchi finger ice creams at pick up after school each afternoon) conversing in whispers. I was scared. I dived under the covers of my duvet (the fairy-themed one) and didn’t move until morning. Do you ever play the “what if” game? So, there are burglars (every 7-year-old South African kid knows about burglars) hanging out outside your bedroom window; what do you do? Me: play dead. I know what you’re thinking—“She’s the last person I’d want on my team in a zombie apocalypse”. Let me put your mind at rest. The Walking Dead has taught me loads about how to handle a life-threatening crisis. Look for the exits and run. If you’re 7, tell an adult. Or play dead.  

The fun part of this terrifying event was that our neighbours found a jewellery box in the road the next day; they took it to the police who said “finders keepers” and gave it to them forever. Like FORever.  It had nothing valuable in it, only costume jewellery; including two bedazzling rings—one with white diamonds and rubies and the other with yellow diamonds and topaz. I got those—or, I may have appropriated them from our neighbour.  


Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin

Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.

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