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Trevor Romain: Remembering the Corner Cafe in South Africa

When we were young and the days were long, the corner cafe was the place to meet and greet and make up and break up… writes South African expat, author and motivational speaker Trevor Romain. It was the place where you stole at least one piece of liquorice or one of those yellow plastic sherberts […]

When we were young and the days were long, the corner cafe was the place to meet and greet and make up and break up… writes South African expat, author and motivational speaker Trevor Romain.

trevor romain

It was the place where you stole at least one piece of liquorice or one of those yellow plastic sherberts with the red lids or a bag of Jelly Tots. (Jelly Tots, one two three, Jelly tots, Jelly Tots, all for me.)

It was the place where Chappies was change and you ate the inside of the bread while walking home or driving home on your bicycle.

Where you hoped to catch a glimpse of the love of your life.

It was the place where your mom found out what random kak you had been up to from the other parents in the neighbourhood.

It was the place where you got the news and opinions and social commentary. Where you put down other schools rugby or cricket or hockey or netball teams and talked about getting flapped for not doing your homework.

It was the place where you learned swear-words in Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Lebanese and Fanagalo. Where the cafe owner knew you by name and promised he was going to tell your father what you had done in his shop.

It was the place you went if you were lonely and knew you’d find someone there to talk to.

Where you swapped soccer cards and matchbooks and klapped your dingbat and bought a Coca Cola or Fanta yo-yo or extra yo-yo strings. Where you tried to figure out what the word yo-yo meant and everyone had a different story depending on which ethnic neighbourhood the cafe was in.

My grandfather was a farmer in the Free State and the cafes in little towns across the country, like Vredefort, Bethel, Koppies, Springbok, Pofadder, Tweebuffelsmeteekskootdoodskeitfontein, were the central news agency for the farming community.

It was the village square, the village green, the hub of the hood and the place where the village idiots, and I include myself here, hung out.

Ja. The corner cafe. Now a distant memory. When I think back I can still hear the hustle and bustle of the cafe and the munching of Simba and Willards chips. And eating a Walls Eskimo Pie.

And on a hot day you could hear the refreshing, hissing, sound of a Coke bottle being opened with a bottle opener that was tied to a string at the end of the counter.

And I can still hear the sound of the pinball machine in the background dinging away as the local hooligans bumped and tilted and shook the machine for all it was worth. And then some.

And on the street outside the cafes, in the cities, the red double-decker busses.

Ya there was plenty of shenanigans on those busses when I was a kid.

The Klippie (bus conductor, so named because he would clip your ticket) would get so cross with us when we rang the bell twice for the bus to go, then we would jump off the bus as it started moving. The Klippie would yell at us as we ran away.

One time on the way home from school, my friend Ronnie jumped (or was pushed) off the bus and he ran smack bang into the open door of the Atlas bread van that was double parked outside Thelma’s Fish and Chips.

And talking about high school how about the matric dance hey?

Oh yes, I can see it in my mind’s eye, like a movie.

I took my date in my very first car, a hand-me-down from my dad. It was a Renault 16, possibly the ugliest car ever designed. And it was yellow. The latch on the front passenger seat was broken and every time I accelerated the girl shot forward and every time I braked she shot back.

I had to drive holding the seat in place with my hand while simultaneously changing gears. Not the romantic start I had hoped for. (And no I did not score. Mainly because she has a tribe of big brothers and I wanted to stay alive. Insert a sheepish smile and a royal wave here because she reads the pages I post on this group.)

And what about sixteen-millimeter movies?

I have such vivid memories of going to those movie shops and renting sixteen millimeter projectors and hiring cowboy skop, skiet en donder movies. Also known as spaghetti westerns, which included, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, ‘A Fist Full of Dollars’, ‘They call me Trinity’, and, ‘God forgives…I Don’t’ with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.

Also movies like Paint Your Wagon, Kelly’s Heroes, and all the Pink Panther movies of course. And there was always a ‘short’ that came with the movie like The Big Valley, The Persuaders and The Avengers, with John Steed and Emma Peel. can you remember any others?

And then you have the date movies: Romeo and Juliet, with the beautiful Olivia Hussey, Love Story with Ryan O’Neil and Ali McGraw and Jaws, which guaranteed hand holding.

My first movie star crush. Tracy Hyde who acted in the movie Melody with Jack Wilde and Mark Lester. It was so pitiful. I even wrote her a love letter. And believe it or not…she didn’t write back. I was heartbroken. She bust up with me before we even started dating.

And now the memories are flooding back in no particular order or sequence. Like the crazy things we (mainly boys) did, like:

Shoot sky rockets out of glass Coke bottles on our shoulders like bazookas?

Put our tongues on a nine volt battery?

Climb into storm water drains and caves and jump into swimming pools from roofs?

Slide down mine dumps in cardboard boxes? (There was cyanide in them thar hills.)

Blow up plastic two litre Coke bottles with a mixture of pool HTH and Jeyes Fluid. (Yes, I know, girls didn’t do such stupid things)

This reminds me of other random South African memories that often float through my ‘nostalgia generator’ like:


Cobra floor polish on a red concrete stoep.

The deep blue Transvaal sky in winter.

Namaqualand daisies, in the Karoo, that follow the sun.

Phone booths with frustrating tickey boxes that never worked.


Beer shandies.

Making Shongololos curl up when you touch them with a stick.

The smell of sunlight soap.

Shops closing at lunchtime on a Saturday.

Coke or Fanta bottles with holes punched in the lid and used for vinegar at the fish and chips shops. And those bright red Russian sausages that went so well with slap chips.

Popping blue bottles on the beach with your flip flops.

Chasing girls and trying to kiss them in nursery school.

Getting klapped by the girls in nursery school for trying to kiss them.

Safari suits with long socks and combs tucked into the socks. My dad wore those and he never went on one safari.


Alice Bands.

Choc 99. (If you haven’t heard of one, you probably never had one.)

‘Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me.’ – Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Crib notes at school.

Pretending to be sick and staying home from school and the only thing to listen to was Hospitaal Tyd on the radio with Esme.

50cc motorcycles with names like Zundapp and Lambretta.

Going for a drive on Sundays, to nowhere in particular, but landing up at someone’s house for tea.

For those who grew up in Johannesburg. The Wits rag with all the floats and drommies. Yes drommies. And the ‘Wits-Wits’ magazine.

Calling youngsters ‘pipi jollers’.

Making Scoobydoo’s at school while trying to hold up your pants because the marbles where so heavy in your pockets.

Surprising your pal by frantically pumping a bicycle pump and touching the metal part to the back of his neck when he wasn’t watching. This was usually followed by a scream and an eina and the high probability of a punch to the face. (But you still did it.)

Taking your driving test with a high-ranking municipal official. The old toppie who took me for my driving test had no sense of humor when I asked him if he was poep scared.

Peeling Bostik off my fingers.

And, the sound of silkworms.

Which reminds me of the day of my first heartbreak. Indulge me if you will.

You see there was this girl that lived in our street when I was in about standard six. She was leaving South Africa I wasn’t sure if I would ever see her again. I lay in bed praying that her family would suddenly change their minds. That they would not move to England.

I didn’t want her to go.

She was my first love. And that love was so deeply imbedded in my heart it actually hurt when I thought about her even if she was sitting in the same room as me.

I didn’t want this magical time in my life to end. At fourteen, I was not particularly religious but I begged God and the angels and Buddha and Shiva and any other gods or near gods or god representatives that I could think of, to help me out.

But unfortunately I did not pray hard enough or said the wrong prayers because the family left Johannesburg, as planned, the next day.

I could not sleep the night before she left. The ache in my chest was keeping me awake.

As I lay counting sheep I heard the sound of silkworms. They were in a shoebox under my bed. They were crunching away at the pile of fresh mulberry leaves I put in the box before I went to bed.

Thankfully a school friend gave the mulberry leaves to me because there were very few of those trees in my neighborhood.

I had pretty much grown out of the silkworm phase by the time she announced to the kids in the neighbourhood that her family were moving to England.

I’ll never forget the day she told us she was leaving. She was so excited. I was so devastated. It felt like someone stuck a knife into my heart. I was so desperately in love with her I could hardly think straight.

It was true love.

We were best friends she and I. We did everything together. We were pretty much inseparable before she moved to the UK.

We had been going steady and dating for over three years. Actually let me qualify that. I was going steady with HER for three years. Sadly, she didn’t even know we were dating. And to my knowledge she still doesn’t. You see, much to my dismay, she loved my younger brother, not me. This complicated my one-sided romance with her immensely.

“I love her,” I told my brother one day.

“Hey you can have her,” he replied. “I just like to kiss her that’s all.”


I mean, truth be told, she knew I was in love her. It was painfully obvious. I was like a puppy with his tongue hanging out when I was around her. And she took full advantage of that. She had me wrapped around her pinky finger. She played with my world like it was a little toy.

I tried everything in the book to get her to fall for me but she only had eyes for my brother. The crazy thing was that my handsome, blue eyed little brother, had a bunch of girls after him and he didn’t particularly care one-way or the other.

“Why don’t you just tell her you love her,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

Easy for him to say.

Which brings me back to the night before she was leaving and the sound of silkworms.

I decided to take my brother’s advice and tell her that I loved her before she left. I was going to get it off my chest. I was going to give her my love to carry to England.

I didn’t know how to tell her though. I didn’t want to write a letter because I knew she would show it to her older brother who was my idol. I didn’t want him to think I was a blithering idiot. Which I was when I was around her.

It was not easy and very expensive to phone overseas in those days so I knew I would not be able to tell her over the phone once she had arrived there.

That’s when my little sister came to the rescue.

“Look at this,” she said, earlier that day as I was walking past her room.

She lifted the lid of her silkworm box and pointed inside.

“Look what me and mommy made,” she said, excitedly.

My mom had cut a heart shape out of cardboard, glued it on to the top of a pin and pushed the pin into the bottom of a shoebox. She the put a silkworm on the heart and as the little silkworm crisscrossed the cardboard looking for a way off; it spun a beautiful, paper-thin, golden, silk heart.

Then it hit me. I needed to give the girl a silk heart to take with her to England as a token of my love.

I bought a bunch of silkworms and leaves from one of the kids down the street.

I punched some holes in a shoebox with my yellow Bic pen and put the silkworms and Mulberry leaves in the box. Then I cut a small heart out of cardboard and glued it to a pin, which I stuck into the bottom of the box. I took a little silkworm that had started spinning and put it on the heart.

I closed the box and put it under my bed.

I lay awake all night with the most awful pain in my chest. Without knowing it I was experiencing a deep grief. In truth, I was not only pre-grieving the loss of my first love, I was grieving a magical time that I knew, deep down, I would never have again in my life.

I finally went to sleep with the sound of silkworms in my ears.

I woke up the following morning with the sound of Hadeda’s in my ears.

The day had come to say goodbye.

I had butterflies and I was nauseous.

A group of us kids and a few parents from the neighborhood huddled around the car to say goodbye. There were tears and laughter from the group with promises of being in touch and never forgetting and always being friends.

As everyone waved farewell my eye caught hers and she smiled. I’ll never forget that smile. It was warm and sincere and beautiful.

Oh my God!

That’s when I remembered the silk heart.

I turned around and rushed inside.

People thought I was upset and didn’t want to say goodbye, but I was actually running to get the heart and the note I’d written to go with it.

The car pulled off as I reached the gate. I can still see her face looking back through the rear window.

I scrambled inside and hurried into my room. I grabbed the envelope and made it outside just in time to see the car turn the corner.

The group continued waving at the disappearing car, even after it was gone. Then one by one they lowered their hands.

After the group dispersed and everyone went back their homes I stood waiting, just in case they came back.

They never did.

I think that silk heart is still in a box somewhere at my ma’s house.

Just like that my first love was gone.

Gone like a number of memories I have mislaid in my brain that I simply cannot recall.

I am trying to bottle and preserve as many memories as I can on these groups.

With gratitude and appreciation I thank you all for pushing me and encouraging me to continue sharing them so they are never forgotten. When a person dies, their library of stories dies with them.

I urge you my fellow South African’s to write down your own stories and memories, even if it’s just a few sentences, in a little notebook, so your family can treasure them for generations, long after we are gone.

By Trevor Romain

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