As the lights dim on the last drive-in theatre in Johannesburg, the allure of the al fresco screen lives on in memory
The crescent moon was hanging in the sky like an apostrophe, and above it shone the asterisk of the evening star.
The night was punctuated with the promise of adventure and romance, as we pulled up at the gateway of the Velskoen, handed our toll to the man in the booth, and blazed a trail across the rolling waves of tar.
The lamps of our galleon rose and fell, illuminating the wayfarers as they set up camp, unfolding canvas chairs, hefting baskets of provisions, spreading picnic blankets on the ground.
The word had got out. The last drive-in theatre in Johannesburg would be closing soon, cleared to make way for an office park. And suddenly, the place was full.
In the flood of lights, sweeping along the potholed alleys, my childhood memories came flooding back: how we would button up our pyjamas and clamber into the back of the station-wagon, hiding tjoep-stil in the well between the seats when we got to the box-office, then running to play on the slide and swings beneath the towering silver screen before the night got dark enough to watch a movie by.
One night, in the rush to beat the exodus at the end of the second feature, my dad forgot that the speaker was still inside the car, and we pulled off with a clamour of metal as the twirly cable pulled taut, halting us in our tracks and rousing me from a dream of gunshots and galloping hooves.
But tonight, there were no speakers attached to the little hitching-posts at the drive-in.
You simply had to tune your car-radio to the correct FM frequency, and adjust the volume to your liking.
“Too loud, too loud!” yelled Rachel, sitting in the boot with her friend, Stephanie, the door angled in salute to the last glowing embers of twilight.
There was still time to trek to the cafeteria before the trailers started, so we set off over hill and dale, towards the buzzing scribble of neon.
On the way, we saw a troop of children perched on the roof of a car, their legs a-dangle over the windscreen, as they jostled for the best spot to watch the main attraction.
A little further along, we saw a man stoking the coals of a portable braai, the spiral of boerewors sending a wisp of smoke into the sultry air.
There was a tremor of bass in the sky, and a silent flicker of lightning beyond the looming screen. The moon slipped into a pocket of cloud, and it was dark.
“Hurry,” I said, as the girls stood in line for their popcorn and candy-floss.
The show was starting without us: I could see people mouthing at each other on the screen, their voices a muffle of soundtrack caged within the cars.
One night, long ago, I got lost on the way back from the cafeteria, my arms piled high with food, wandering up and down the rows, squinting at numberplates, peering through windows. Tonight, we had our cellphones.
We found the way back to our mooring, and the children sat in the boot with their pillows and duvets, rolling their eyes at reminders not to spill popcorn all over the place.
The grown-ups sat on their camping chairs, al fresco, wondering whether it would rain and whether the car battery would be okay with the radio on all night.
Here and there, an engine roared into life, idled, and then shut down. Someone flicked their lights, washing the colours from the screen, and someone else flicked their lights to tell them to flick their lights off.
I watched the movie for a while, and then my eyes wandered to the stars and the clouds, and I followed the blip of a red light drifting across the sky.
The Top Star, the Starlight, the Hillfox, the Velskoen, the 5-Star, the Willows.
Soon, the drive-ins, with their double-features and cafeterias and their canvasses radiant with giant figures in the night, will be history. But they will always play on in our memory, like a movie.
*This also appears in the April edition of Your Family magazine