Your memory can play games with you, if you give it enough time. In my mind it was always four Ford Capris – three red and one light blue, and four boys named Chris. But now, when I sit down to capture the story in a paper net, I can only remember the names of 3 boys called Chris.
It’s summer, and I’m hanging around the neighbourhood. For reasons I won’t go into here, I’m safer and happier spending time in the houses of friends and making myself vaguely useful in the garages and driveways of Rondebosch and Sybrand Park. Before you put any weird spin on that, you have to understand that this is a different time. These kids don’t have computer games, designer labels and expensive tech toys – these kids have only just gotten television. In this time, the greatest fun any boy can have fully clothed is tinkering with a motorbike or modifying a second-hand car. And this summer the air is blue with petrol and 2-stroke fuel.
In one part of Sybrand Park some kid – may have been John McKenzie – had managed to get a trashed beach buggy going. In itself, this is no big thing, but it assumed epic proportions the day that he hurtled around the corner of Dagbreek Road carrying 9 kids on the back – he was going so fast that the buggy took the arc on two wheels and boys flew off the buggy like ants. One boy landed on his feet running – looking back laughing at them, he collided with a pole. Another boy, Anthony Hare, landed on his backside and slid a couple of metres. The only thing that got hurt were Anthony’s new jeans.
Back in Park Estate, Rondebosch, there was a biking legend called John De Goede. He lived in a little house with a soft sand driveway in the middle of a field and I passed his house every day. At least 8 years older than me and a rough biker, I don’t know how I got to know John. It may have been because of an ongoing personality clash between his grandmother and my Labrador, but I’m not sure.
All I know is that I did some time that summer, aged maybe 15, sitting in his driveway guarding screws, nuts and bolts while he performed delicate first-aid on his big chopper motorbike. It was my job to make sure that nothing got lost in the sand – if he took off 3 nuts, I had to make sure that he got 3 back. It was vitally important as John’s bike was already held together with McGyver-like twists of wire and gum. Legend tells it that every year he’d roar off to the Buffalo Rally with only enough gas to get there, where he’d win the Ugliest Bike prize and use it to buy enough gas to get back home. I have a lovely memory of him grunting that bike across the field with his fierce little white-bunned gran on the back as he took her to the supermarket.
But the best cars that year were the ones owned by Chris Townsend, Chris Pay and Chris Baart – I still have a feeling that I’m missing a Chris, but I’m going to err on the side of truth. Chris Baart owned a light blue Ford Capri and the other two each had a red one.
It would be hard to find three more disparate guys – Chris Pay hailed from an academic British family that lived in a big house on the corner of my street, the kind of house where his professor father took tea at four and there were wellington boots in the hallway for rainy days. Chris Townsend was a beautiful boy, from a very different UK background, he lived with his mom and older brother a few blocks away. Chris Baart came from German working stock and lived in a wood-pannelled house over in Sybrand Park near the golf course. The Capris were the one thing they had in common.
My connection to them came through a mysterious kid who seemed to charm his way through every circle in the area, Ray was friends with all of us in one way or another. He hung with us girls because it guaranteed him endless cups of coffee and a couch to crash on at need, but he hung with the boys because he got to drink their beer and drive their cars.
And he is the reason why, and I can’t even remember how, I got invited to join him in and Chris Baart the light blue Capri on the day that these boys decided to dice their cars down Chapman’s Peak. Really. Up until then it had just been a good excuse to put off going home, but on that day I found out what it feels like when someone grinds through the gears on a muscle car, floors it on the straight and fish-tails it around hairpin bends. I’d like to tell you that I was scared, but I’d be lying. I can’t even tell you who won.
What I can tell you is that it was 30+ years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. Less than three years later beautiful and sweet-spirited Chris Townsend would be dead – swerving his motorbike on a balmy week-day afternoon to miss a dog, he hit one of the big tree-roots on the edge of Rondebosch common and ended up losing his life. Chris Baart would go on to reach the age of maybe 45 before he died suddenly of cancer, and I can only hope that Chris Pay is somewhere going strong as an architect, or rocket scientist.