This is the story of a judge, a Turkish grande dame, a rich young man, an ostentation of peacocks – and a cherry tree. And like George Washington in the famous story, I do not lie.
At the centre of my tale, one of a dispute between two property owners united in their love of an enormous cherry tree, is that most eccentric of South Africa judges, Nigel Willis.
He floats down into the story after Shaun Roseveare discovered that a boundary wall of the subdivided property he had bought in Houghton, Johannesburg, was not straight: the original owner, our Turkish grand dame who lived on the other side of the wall, had deliberately kinked it so the cherry tree stayed on her side of the garden.
Roseveare’s builders discovered the problem when they couldn’t locate the original boundary, but while the kink was obvious from his upstairs balcony, on the other side, home of Yuksel Katmer, the crookedness was completely disguised.
The judge describes with relish his on-site observations: On [Katmer’s] side of the property there is a forest of trees in front of the cherry tree such that its trunk and the surrounding ‘kink’ are barely visible, particularly if one sits on [Katmer’s] verandah, sipping coffee and nibbling upon Turkish delights (and other similar delicacies) to which the full contingent of the court, including the parties, together with counsel, pupils at the Bar, attorneys and clerks were treated during the inspection.’
A judicial footnote tells us more: ‘[Katmer] gave evidence that she is now in her sixties but that in her youth she had been a cause celebre as a hugely popular singer and entertainer in her home country of Turkey. Time and chance brought her to Johannesburg in 1999. She has settled here. Jo’burgers may be charmed to know that she considers Houghton to be a rustic idyll. In the opinion of [Katmer], the grander suburbs of her native Istanbul cannot compare with Houghton’s tranquil atmosphere. During the inspection in loco she showed us photographs of herself with many famous people. I hope that she will not take it amiss when I say that her popularity is quite understandable just by having regard to her beauty. Living in a beautiful home, surrounded by fine art and antiques, she is today a grande dame.’
The judge noted that the cherry tree was much loved on both sides of the wall. Roseveare didn’t want it damaged and happily agreed to an order restraining him from cutting it down. Katmer on the other hand said that when she died or if she ever sold the property, she would be just as happy for Roseveare to have it.
Katmer tried to protect her appropriation of the cherry tree by writing into the sale agreement that the purchaser was ‘aware’ of the slight deviation in the wall to ‘protect a boundary tree’ and that the purchaser ‘accepts the boundary wall as it stands’. As far as Katmer was concerned, that was the end of the matter: the buyer had agreed the kink would ‘remain in perpetuity’.
Roseveare had another view. He told the court that he had visited Katmer twice to discuss straightening the cherry tree kink and had understood that she agreed to his plan. This was disputed in court with witnesses contradicting each other, Katmer denying she had made such an agreement and the judge concluding that ‘her command of English is not excellent’.
Which brings us to the peacocks. Roseveare, convinced they belonged to Katmer, said they damaged his expensive cars by ‘pecking at them when they saw themselves reflected in the rear-view mirrors and highly polished metal surfaces of his motor cars.’ They were noisy and made a mess in his garden. Katmer said they were ‘feral’, had escaped from other neighbours’ properties and that she had no control over them. It was true, said the judge, that municipal by-laws required a permit for keeping peacocks, and then added this vignette: ‘When we held the inspection in loco, a large ostentation of peacocks paraded around [Katmer’s] garden.’ He noticed their wings were clipped and added, ‘If one may judge from the manner in which, with heads tilted to one side, they waited expectantly for tasty morsels from her sumptuous garden table, they were quite tame.’
Emerging from this strange Houghton idyll the judge came to his conclusion: the wall should be straightened, with a lintel over the roots to protect the cherry tree, the peacocks should be found proper homes and the two sides should each pay their own legal costs.