Monthly Archives: March 2012

Friday Flash – Autumn

Sunday afternoon, late March, and Kleinpiet finally worked up the courage to ask Precilla out on a date. Braaivleis at the fountain next to Bokkop. To his utter surprise, she smiled and said yes.

He prepared with care. Fresh loin chops, a cool bottle of Chardonnay,  some wood. Fresh bread and butter and fig jam.  A blanket – no chairs; he felt slightly guilty about that.

She waited for him at her front door, chequered shirt, jeans, sensible shoes. Cowboy handkerchief around her neck. She looked gorgeous. He felt better about the chairs.

Under the only tree next to Bokkop, he made them comfortable. It is autumn, and a single brown leaf settled on her hair. They laughed.

The wine was excellent, the meat done just right. The shadows grew longer.

“I love you,” he said.

At first she gasped, not wanting to believe a man could say such a thing to her. Then she saw his soft eyes pleading, wanting, asking.

And she got up, crying, and ran back to the safety of town; while he picked up the leaf that had settled a few hours ago on the crown of freshly-washed hair. And he tried and tried – but couldn’t make the leaf stick to the branch again.

The season was over. Winter was on its way.

The License

Boggel is engrossed in the article on Scott and the South Pole in the old Reader’s Digest, and shivers as he turns the page. Imagine suffering like that to fly a little flag on a spot in a remote and hostile environment? Then again, here he is in Rolbos, making a living in a bar – for a fleeting second he imagines that there are similarities between him and Scott – both pioneers with the well-being of their travelling companions at heart.

The way Kleinpiet and Vetfaan whisper over there in the corner worries him. They are busy hatching some crazy plan – or they are discussing something they want to keep from him. The latter seems more probable, as they keep on glancing his way as the conversation progresses. Vetfaan has the Upington Post in front of him, as well. What could they be reading?

 

It isn’t a big advertisement, and if Kleinpiet wasn’t so bored, he might have missed it. He reads it a second time – even a third – before he folds the newspaper again. It never ceases to surprise him what people advertise in the Upington Post. Just the other day they giggled over the ad for Hot Naught who offered Eastern Massages to Western Gentlemen; but this one is much more professional, much more serious. And it could change the way they live in Rolbos.

Under the counter, Boggel relaxes on his cushion as he looks at the second-hand of his watch approach the 60. It’ll be 11:30 soon, and he expects Gertruida to push open the door of Boggel’s Place exactly a minute later. With thirty seconds to go, he opens the beer and waits. It is a game he plays; enjoying the mock surprise from Gertruida every time the beer appears – as if by magic – from below the counter the moment she sits down. He shifts so he can see her enter through his little peep-hole below the till.

She’s on time. She sighs when se sits down. She gasps when the beer appears. But instead of their usual little chat, she gets called away by Kleinpiet. He crooks a finger at her and puts a finger to his lips. What? They want to talk about something he mustn’t hear? Some secret that he mustn’t share? Unheard of…

“What is it?” Her whisper is instinctive but urgent. It is evident Kleinpiet wants to tell her something that Boggel mustn’t hear. Something Boggel doesn’t know about. Even worse…something she doesn’t know about. The thought is as foreign as it is unbearable. She adopts the cat-in-front-of-the-closed-fridge-door attitude. Whatever it is, she has to know. That’s the other similarity of the moment – cats are curious, too. It sometimes kills them.

Department of Orthopaedic Surgery   – Grootte Schuur Hospital

Prof Victor Lockjaw, internationally famous spinal surgeon from Leeds, will visit the Department in June. He specialises in Lordosis, Skoliosis and some cases of Spina Bifida. People with severe spinal deformities are invited to contact us, as such cases are needed for the Professor to demonstrate his techniques. The cost of the surgery will be covered by the University. Further information available at Miss Kromhout, tel no 012 8762986.

Kleinpiet steers her to the table in the corner; away from the counter; opens the paper and points at the advert.

 Gertruida’s hand forgets about the beer as it flies to her mouth. “Him?” She points at Boggel.

“Yes, can’t you see? Once that Englishman has straightened out Boggel, he can have a normal life, like…” He falters. Nobody really has a normal life in Rolbos. Still, the point is made, and taken. “I mean, he’s not all that bad looking; he isn’t that old; and he runs a successful business: it’s just his back that causes him so much trouble. Once that’s fixed, he’s sure to find a girl friend.”

“Boggel is far too proud to contact the professor.” Gertruida frowns, the she snaps her fingers. “ Well, I suppose I can phone the Professor. I have a number of friends at the university. There’s the question of his travelling and lodging expenses, however.” Even as she says it, she knows they can hold a bazaar, sell some pancakes and get Vetfaan to raffle off a sheep. In her mind’s eye she sees a straight and proud Boggel – and momentarily wonders what they will call him then.

From below the counter, Boggel watches with growing concern. Alternating an ear or an eye to the peep-hole, he tries to get the gist of what they are talking about. However, despite his best efforts, the only two things he learns are that they are talking about him, and that it has some bearing on something in the paper. They seem to agree on something, and with surreptitious glances to the counter, they leave in a hurry.

Boggel shuffles over to the table, collects the two glasses and the paper and returns to his cushion. The glass rings on page three tell him that’s where they were reading something.  And then he sees the damning article on the Tourism Board.  The Board is visiting small towns and rural areas to inspect local taverns, bars and guest houses. Not only do they want to check on the star-grading of places offering accommodation, but they’ll use the opportunity to inspect kitchens, liquor licences and other legal requirements to run such establishments in a responsible manner.

He feels a cold finger running down his crooked back. Noooo! His kitchen! The long-drop toilet at the back!  And, most horrible of all…the liquor licence! This inspection will be the end of Boggel’s Place! That’s why they were whispering and pointing at him. He feels the cold sweat dripping down his neck.

He always had hoped that nobody would poke around to find out he didn’t have a license. Because they have no health inspectors or other officials in Rolbos, he progressed from a-few-beers-on-the-stoep to Boggel’s Place. And as for kitchen and toilets – those are things he wanted to fix for a long time now. But try to find a contractor to work in Rolbos? Impossible!  And although he could maybe talk his way out of that, the license is the iceberg waiting to sink the Titanic. They’ll close him down. They’ll lay charges. If he manages to stay out of jail, he’d have to find a new job.

And suddenly, another ugly thought starts worming around in the back of his mind. If those two were discussing the Tourism Board’s imminent visit, why did they keep the conversation from him? Or did they think they’d do something about the matter? Something, like asking Sersant Dreyer about the legality of Boggel’s Place? It is true that the sergeant saw the growth of the small business over the years and that he visits Boggel’s Place every now and then – and that he never enquired about a liquor license. Maybe he didn’t think about it in the past; but he surely will do so now.

Boggel sees himself in a few weeks time: either in the horrible orange overall of Correctional Services; or in a horrible khaki overall, driving Vetfaan’s tractor. The horror! The shame!

He is a pitiful figure – below the counter, with Vrede looking worried – when the rest of Rolbos (even Oudoom) marches into Boggel’s Place.

“Boggel! Boggel, where are you?” And like Adam trying to hide from the Lord, Boggel huddles closer to the dog. “Come out, we have to talk.” Oudoom uses his sermon-voice; the one with added authority and free-range righteousness.

Boggel gets out with a sigh, climbs on to his crate. “OK, so you want to expose me, humiliate me. Go on, I don’t care anymore.”

Vetfaan has a sympathetic look. “No Boggel, it’s not that. I see it more as a way to set things right. You can’t go on like this.”

“You’ve suffered enough, Boggel. It’s time to put an end to it.” Gertruida clears her throat, like she does when she wants to make a point. “I mean, what’ll happen in the future? Things are bound to get worse. Things like this can destroy one’s dreams, you know?”

Kleinpiet tries another approach. “Look, while you sort this out, I’ll run the bar for you. In a few weeks, or a month or two, you can be back. You’ll walk tall and look us all in the eye. With everything straightened out, your days will be a pleasure – not the hell you have to live with now.”

And Boggel knows his game is up. Sure, they’ll help him. Sure. But he, Boggel, will have to go to Upington. Apply for a license. Stand in queues. Talk to officials. Fill in mountains of forms. Explain why he has delayed his application so long. Be referred to the Police. Even if he gets out of that one, he’ll have to wait for months before they send out an inspector all the way to Rolbos.  Then he’ll have to see the Inland Revenue people. They’ll ask more questions. Why isn’t he registered as a tax payer? How did he make a living up to now? Mmm, interesting. So, lets work out your arrears up till now. Add interest and penalties. Okay, if you pay us millions of Rands, we can clear you to go ahead with your business.

“Brother, we are only doing our Christian duty, that’s all.” Oudoom spreads his hands wide.

Boggel has had enough. “Listen, dammit! For years and years I was good enough for you.  Never a whimper, never a complaint. Now suddenly you charge in here and you want to destroy…”

“Not destroy, Boggel, help.” Precilla is pleading now. “Calm down Boggel, we’ve collected the money and found out the Professor will see you. Then you can take it from there, at your own time.”

“…destroy my way of living.”  Suddenly, the word professor unhinges his argument. “What professor? What are you talking about?”

It takes most of the Cactus Jack to explain everything. The paper gets opened to page 3 and they show him the advert. He tells them he didn’t realise…

“But guys, I am what I am. I live with my hump and I’m happy with it. We all have things that bother us, and we all learn to live with it.” Boggel’s relief is so immense that he places another Jack on the counter. He almost made a complete fool out of himself. Almost gave his game away completely. “But I know my hump must stay the way it is. To cut it up and realign everything sounds good…but I know there are a lot of risks involved. A specialist I saw – many years ago – took some X-rays. He said something about the nerves running down my spine and that surgery will damage them. So: thanks but no thanks.”

 

The Tourism Board did travel to Upington, where they stayed at the Kalahari Oasis and Casino for a few days, on the house. Before they left, one of them asked about other hotels in the area. The manager laughed and told them this was the Kalahari, not Sun City. He saw to it that they first had a hearty breakfast before he offered the aspirin. The Board left in good spirits, assuring the manager his five stars are safe,

 

The letter in Sergeant Dreyer’s bottom drawer has been there for sixteen years. It is a directive from the Area Commissioner to all station commanders, ordering them to check and report on all establishments selling alcoholic beverages. Sometimes, when the sergeant is bored, he’d take out the letter and smile on of his rare smiles. Then he’d look up to the police force emblem on the wall. The one with the motto: To Protect and Serve.

Maybe he’ll never end up as the hero in a Readers Digest like Scott did. Sometimes the biggest hero is the one with an unanswered letter in a bottom drawer

And he’d close the drawer, still smiling, mouthing the words serve, and, protect.

That’s what he has been doing all these years, he’d think. It’s a high calling.

The Rolbos Factfile

Rolbos is the remains of a small mining town in the Kalahari, after the Sillimananite was finished. During its boom years, the church was built and the main street got a name. Voortrekker Weg, spelled wrongly, does however help tell the story of the town and what remained of a once-flourishing community. Sammie’s Shop, Boggel’s Place and Precilla’s Apteek all line the street, as does the church, the diminutive post office and the police station. http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/joost-and-the-slushmobile/ and http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/the-spirits-of-rolbos/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/the-problem-with-the-president/

Bokkop is the hill where they mined the Sillimanite, and is about a kilometer from town. It also has the only fountain with drinkable water in the area.

Grootdrink is the nearest town, on the way to Upington.

Boggel – deformed since birth and getting worse. A good listener who rarely interrupts the late-night drunken flow of words in his bar. Shares a cushion below the counter with Vrede, the town’s only dog, where he (Boggel, not the dog) reads old Reader’s Digests.  When the conversation in the bar warrants it, he’ll get on an old beer crate to be able to see over the counter, otherwise he’ll just shove the beers into the direction of the sound of an empty glass. He never talks about his past.

http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/the-good-barman/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/a-trio-of-lights/ http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/skeletons-of-valentine-past-2/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/just-another-winters-tale/

Boggel’s Place – the bar where most of the action takes place. http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/22/scottys-legacy/

Gertruida – the woman who knows everything. She has an impressive library at home and is an avid reader of The National Geographic Magazine. Rumour has it that she is the only person in Rolbos with a modem-connected laptop to surf the Internet, but that has never been proven. She has a shady past, something to do with National Intelligence, about which she never speaks. Vetfaan once asked her if she used to be a spy. He had to see Precilla after that, to get some Brufen.

http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/the-birthday-3-2/ and http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/oxymoron/ as well as http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/alfies-earwig/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/gertruidas-lie/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/sunday-afternoon-kleenex/ http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/the-luck-of-spin/

Vetfaan – after a heart-wrenching break-up with the love of his life, he farms alone out on the other side of Bokkop, but spends most of his time in Boggel’s Place. Used to play lock for Kenhardt’s first team, where he learnt that beer is made from vegetables, wine from fruit and chocolate from nuts. Not the sharpest pencil in the box, but with a heart of gold. He sometimes makes a pass at Precilla, but she’s way too clever for him. http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/the- survivor/    http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/boggels-birthday/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/rolbos-the-sheepthrowing-competition/

Kleinpiet – the other successful farmer in the district. Specialises in producing stud rams and tall stories. He is also the only known beer-foam artist in on record to have done the Union Buildings on Boggel’s counter.  When he was much younger, he played flank for De Aar C. He, too, will chat Precilla up from time to time, but his natural shyness prevents any lasting relationships.

After they were confronted with crime, Precilla and Kleinpiet eventually got married – in the desert. Now living happily on the farm outside Rolbos, they’ve adopted Nelson Kruiper.

http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/joost-and-the-slushmobile/       http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/the-rolbos-news/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/national-dock-day/

Oudoom – a disillusioned pastor who settled in Rolbos for political reasons. Married to Mevrou, who forbids him to visit Boggel’s Place. His sermons are well attended when he preaches about love and hope. It once rained during one of his prayer meetings. Despite the weight of his occupation (and Mevrou’s moody greeting afterwards) he will sometimes sneak into Boggels for a quick pint.

http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/freedom-in-captivity-3/ and http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/the-confession/

Precilla – the beautiful young pharmacist who fits into her Levi’s like no woman should. Her abusive youth left her with major issues with men, although she does blossom when the conversation is light and merry. Her love affair in high school ended badly. http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/precillas-letter/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/a-little-valentines-goes-a-long-way/

Now married to Kleinpiet and mother to little Nelson, she feels her life is back on track.

Vrede –  the town’s dog. No less of a character than the rest. A policedog that rebelled against the way things get done in the force these days, and a dog of high morals. http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/its-in-the-eyes/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/rules/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/a-tro-of-tragedies/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/vredes-tale/    http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/unidentified-flying-dogs/

Servaas – the local postmaster, who should have retired while de Klerk was still president. An enigmatic man with dark desires and an acid sense of justice. Deep into his seventies, he still is on the lookout for a good time. Stalks poor Precilla sometimes. As head elder, he sometimes dresses in his black suit to lecture the town on morals.

http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/tick-tock/ and http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/the-telegram/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/old-oom-hattings-eyes-4/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/madame-zavira/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/tick-tock/

Sammie – the local shopkeeper.An astute businessman who takes care of his customers. Still works ‘on the book’, and not in a hurry to be paid. A rare specimen, like the rest of the townsfolk.

http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/sammy-and-the-actress/  http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/sammies-revenge/

Sersant Dreyer – who bends the rules occasionally by turning a blind eye.

Lucinda Verdana – the pretty Italian who settled in Rolbos with her father, old Marco. It is said they have a shady past, but Boggel doesn’t care. Lucinda is often seen with Boggel, leading to much speculation and gossip.

Judge Gericke – retired judge and father to a son he almost lost. He is convinced Gertruida is the cleverest woman on earth and has moved in to her study permanently, where he writes his memoirs.

Nelson Kruiper – son of a vagabond criminal and an alcoholic mother. His family roots are tied to the Kruipers, who insist on his learning of the San way of life. Now in the care of Kleinpiet and Precilla, he is growing up where two worlds meet. He tends to be naughty sometimes – something that bothers Precilla tremendously.

The Good Barman

The old man sits – like somebody much younger would – on his haunches as he blows the smouldering grass to flames. He’s done this so many times in his life, he doesn’t even think about what he’s doing. His eyes scan his immediate surroundings: this valley is renowned for its snakes and scorpions.
He’ll wait till only the embers of the fire remains before he places the rabbit’s carcass on them. In the meantime, he’s got nothing to do but wait.
His journey has been a long one; happy and sad, easy and hard, like most older people may say. However, the secret of the family now rests upon his shoulders and he has to trust somebody to carry it into the future. He looked at the Moon last night, and saw the message: it is time for him to go home.
But what about the secret? The Moon said nothing. It is up to him, now.
The secret has been in the family since before other people came here. Before the blacks and the whites and the others. His grandfather used to say they are the oldest family in the Kalahari and that they already stayed here when the Great River still flowed across the Makgadikgadi Pans, many, many years ago. There were giants in those days, huge men in flowing white robes that sailed across the water of the pans that was a sea back then. They transported gold from up north as well as many slaves. His grandfather didn’t know where these men came from, but said they had big stone houses, and they lived near another great river.
Then, according to the grandfather, the Moon saw what was happening and shook the earth, like a dog would shake his body to get rid of the sand. And the earth shook and trembled, And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed all the water, so that only the bottom of the sea remained, The shells and the fish died and the men in the flowing robes went away. That’s what his grandfather said.
The Moon felt sorry for the small family that lived at the edge of the great lake that once provided them with abundant food.
Look, the Moon said, I had to punish those men who came here to take away the gold and the slaves. I shook the world and they fell from it, even like sand does from a dog’s back. But now this family has lost its way of living. I will have to give them something else.
The Moon thought and thought. Now the country was dry the small family, that used to stay at the edge of the great lake that used to be there, grew very thin and weak. The Moon felt sorry for them and taught them how to hunt. It showed them where to look for water. And it gave to them the secret of fire.
And it showed them the Cave of Stones. The Moon said: These are the hardest stones on Earth. They are also very beautiful. If other men knew about this cave, they will do what the men in the flowing white robes did. They will take it away from you and you’ll become their slaves. Only you and one person out of every generation must know about the cave. Tell the secret once, only. Show the cave once, only. And in doing so, many, many years from now, the last one of the family must be buried here. For when all the seasons have passed, I shall return to look for my stones. If the family has looked after the cave well, I will make them live next to a great river once more, where there are fish and good hunting and honey and many trees with sweet berries.
The old man knows those words by heart, for he has said them over many fires, for fear of losing them. If he keeps the words alive, he won’t forget them. Now that it is time for him to return to his family, he must make sure he gets buried in that cave. But who can he trust and who can he tell?
Then, a few days ago, he came across another family in the desert. They shared water with him and they talked late into the night. When they asked him to travel with them, he smiled and said he was too old. But there was something he wanted to know…
Oh, said the one. There is a man in the town near Bokkop. You may trust him. People tell him all kinds of secrets, but he’ll never say anything to anybody about it. You’ll know him when you see him. He is bent like a broken branch. And: I’ll ask my nephew to tell him about you. I’ll ask my nephew to ask him to come.

Three days later, Kleinpiet walks into Boggel’s Place to find Gertruida behind the counter.
“Well, I never! A woman to serve our drinks for two days in a row! Now, I can become used to that…where’s Boggel?”
Gertruida shrugs. “He left in a hurry. Remember he drove into the desert yesterday after Platnees spoke to him? He said he felt the need for some peace and quiet. Well, he came back this morning and asked me to look after his bar for one more day. Said he needed a bit more time.”
Sammie walks in and waits for Vetfaan to buy him a beer. “Only two months to go, Vetfaan, then you’re all square and I’ll buy my own beer again. Don’t sulk, now.” He turns to Gertruida: “Boggel told me you’d be here today. I saw him at the shop just after I opened.”
“Oh?” Curiosity gets the better of her. “What did he buy?”
“That’s the strangest shopping list I ever had. One Bible and two sticks of dynamite. I asked him what he up to, and he said he was going to save the world. When I wanted to know more, he simply clammed up. And, even more strange, he paid in cash. That’s the last I saw of him. Got into that old Land Rover and headed for the desert.”
Vetfaan scratches his head. “I can understand the dynamite. Maybe he’s found an old well or a fountain. Sometimes you can get them flowing again if you use some explosives. But the Bible…now what would he want with a Bible?”
“Well, I disagree. I think the Bible is for meditation. Or maybe he’s found somebody that needs one. It’s the dynamite that puzzles me.” Even in Gertruida’s mind, the two things cannot be made to fit together.
Kleinpiet suggestion about a heavenly blowjob gets cut short by Gertruida’s withering stare.

That evening, Boggel is behind the counter as usual. Between serving beers, he rests on his cushion below the counter, where he pages through the old Reader’s Digests. Eventually, Vetfaan can’t stand the silence any more.
“Come on, Boggel, tell us! Where did you go today and what did you do?”
But you know how it is. Barmen hear all kinds of stories, some of them are gossip, others contain great wisdom and even occasionally, a secret will cross the counter. A good barman must sometimes give the impression he heard nothing, even if he did. At other times he must listen carefully, and do his best to look sympathetic. There are occasions, too, when his advice is sought or where he may be required to help smooth over a troubled relationship.
But always, always, a good barman knows when to keep his trap shut. So, when Vetfaan asks the same question for the third time, Boggel looks up from his Readers Digest.
“What is the most important right now, Vetfaan? To be served another beer or hear the answer?”
Of course he chooses the beer.
That’s another thing a good, trustworthy barman must be good at. He can tell you to go screw yourself with a smile and without saying a word.

Sammie and the Actress

Sammie’s Shop, right across the street from Boggel’s Place, was once described (by Gertruida, who knows everything) as better than the Checkers in Upington. Sure, you’d find no aisles filled with a myriad of choices for tinned sardines nor have to chat to the tired ladies trying to convince you that you can’t go home without buying Colgate or Royco; Sammie doesn’t believe in harassing his customers. He doesn’t have to: he knows exactly what everyone needs and stocks up with that.  And, of course, over the years the townsfolk have formed a collective taste:  you’ll find the same salad dressing or toilet paper in every home.

When the film crew camped outside town to do the final shoot for Apocalypse 9[i], the athletic girl with the long, long legs walked into Sammie’s to look for something to read. Sammie offered the old Reader’s Digests he pages through on quiet days, but she wanted something more recent. Sammie apologised. They talked. Sammie fell in love.

Gertruida says it happens like that, sometimes. The lonely shopkeeper and the unknown actress have a lot in common, when you think about it. She has the body. He has a shop. They both supply in the needs of people. They both need people to survive. And sometimes, rarely, a spark of kindness will ignite a fire of passion in the most unlikely situation. Whatever the reason was: when she walked out of the shop, Cupid was rolling with laughter.

Vetfaan says it only happens in movies like The Sound of Music or Pretty Woman, but Precilla reminded him of that girl who married a prince or something in Monaco – or some other island over in Europe. This causes considerable debate about what it means to marry up, or down.

“No, man. Marriages don’t work like that. It’s not a matter of up or down at all – love is an equal thing. You don’t climb up ladders or fall down from the balcony when you fall on love…”

“You see!” Precilla doesn’t let Kleinpiet finish his sentence. “You fall in love. And you don’t need Gertruida to tell you that falling implies a downward movement. Nobody falls up. So love means you surrender to gravity. And remember, nobody dies from simply falling – it’s the sudden stop at the end that kills you.” Like the rest of Boggel’s customers, she is sceptical about love. Only Kleinpiet may be considered to be a mild romantic at heart, but he doesn’t count: you have to have some experience with love to call yourself an expert.

They’re still arguing when Sammie steers the actress into Boggel’s Place. Precilla notices that he’s combed his hair and is wearing shoes – he must be determined to impress the girl. Vetfaan and Kleinpiet aren’t looking at Sammie; they’re trying not to stare at those legs.

“Gents, this is Marlene McGuire. She plays the role of Kitty Hawk, the girl who almost defuses the atom bomb that destroys the world.” Sammie sounds happy about that. “We’ll drink on that. A round for the house, Boggel. It’s on me.”

Gertruida says this is typical: a man in love loses his sense of values. Sammie, the ultimate miser, never visits Boggel’s Place and never gives anything away. But today, with this woman at his side, he is Mister Handout himself. One round follows the next as Marlene tells them about her career as an actress.

“Oh, I started out in Vosburg: played the part of the wolf in Red Riding Hood. Later, in high school, I sang and danced a bit.” They hang on to everything she says as she tells them about the drama school in Wellington and how she started acting in local productions. Then her big break came with Apocalypse 1: she accidentally broke the lead actress’ nose during rehearsal. “I was cast as a baddie, you see, and had to lose a fight against the heroine. I didn’t like her much, anyway.” Vetfaan and Kleinpiet exchange knowing looks. “So the baddie became the goodie and the rest is history.”

By this time Sammie is quite beyond himself. Marlene has moved her chair so that they are sitting close to each other and Precilla notices how she is actually talking to Sammie, and not the rest of them.

“When we finish this movie, I’m off to Italy, where I star as Mussolini’s lover. He was a famous general, I think. And they got some American to play the role of an Italian war hero – how cooked-up is that? Kevin Coetzee or somebody.” They all agreed it was cooked-up. Kleinpiet didn’t know there were Coetzees  outside Upington.

Sammie is suddenly sober. “So, when are you leaving? Italy is far and it’ll take a long time to get there.”

“Oh, tomorrow, first thing. They’re just taking a few shots of the Kalahari today, and then we’re finished here. They’ll drop me at the airport in Cape Town. After that: fame and fortune… Well, thanks for a delightful chat, you guys. They teach us to be nice to the public at the drama school; they say today’s chats are tomorrow’s fans. And what, I ask you, is the sense of acting if you have no fans?  I’ll leave you with a song, so you can remember me. It’s from the movie. I think it was a German song.”

With theatrical flair (despite the micro skirt) she gets on the counter to sing:

Wish me luck, as you wave me goodbye.
Cheerio, here I go,on my way.

Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.
With a cheer, not a tear,make it gay.

Give me a smile,I can keep for a while,
In my heart while I’m away.

Till we meet once again you and I,
Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.

Wish me luck, as you wave me goodbye.
Cheerio, here I go, on my way

Wish me luck, as you wave me goodbye.
With a cheer, not a tear, make it gay

Give me a smile, I can keep for a while,
In my heart while I’m away.
Till we meet once again You and I
wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.

 

Five minutes later Gertruida walks into Boggel’s Place to find the silent group huddled at the counter.

“I thought I heard that Ovaltineys with Gracie Field’s song – a World War II thing – if I remember correctly. Didn’t know it is still popular.” She stops and stares at the shopkeeper. “My word! Sammie? What a surprise to see you here! ”

Sammie doesn’t look up: he circles a finger in the air to tell Boggel to serve another round.

Precilla leans over to Sammie to rub his back. “Don’t bother him, Gertruida. It’s the sudden stop that got him.”

 

These days, if you were to shop at Sammie’s, you’ll notice the sign above the door saying that no actresses are allowed inside. They must place their orders at Boggel’s, who will sort them out. Sammie keeps it there to jog his memory about German songs and Italian war heroes. He says it reminds him why he is so happy in Rolbos. At least, as he tells everybody, real people stay here. It’s not like a movie where life is as plastic as the reels they record it on.

Gertruida says the variety of products must never overwhelm the market: it confuses customers if they get presented with too much of a choice. That’s why Sammie’s Shop is so much better than Checkers – he only stocks what they need.

And Sammie, who took two weeks to recover, now occasionally visits Boggel’s Place where he waits for the rest to offer him a drink. He’s calculated it’ll take about six months for the Rolbossers to repay him for his short-sighted generosity that day when love clouded his judgement. He says Kevin may have gotten the Oscar, but he has the memories; sometimes that’s better than the real thing. Who needs anything more, in his words.

Friday Flash, Apocalypse

“Did you see the legs on that woman?” Vetfaan struggles to keep his breathing normal.

“Ja, if the tracks look like that, can you imagine the station?” Kleinpiet isn’t even playing with his foam on the counter top any more; he just gapes at the tall and athletic woman striding down the road known as Voortrekker Weg,

It’s been a full day since the film crew arrived to camp under the only tree at the edge of the town. The guy with the ‘DIRECTOR’ cap said they didn’t want to film the town: they wanted to have the backdrop of an endless desert for their production of Apocalypse 9, the last in the series.

“What’s an apocalypse?” Gertruida is busy helping Precilla to take stock and cannot supply an immediate answer. Vetfaan mulls over the word and decides it must be American.

“It’s the end of all known things, Vetfaan.  Like the station. It ends there”

Servaas doesn’t laugh, because Kleinpiet just lied.  He knows a station is just the next step in the journey; and once there, there’s no turning back. Apocalypse, indeed. It means ‘disclosure’ or ‘revelation’. A long time ago he tried to fight it. He used to be young and adventurous, but the Kalahari won.

Scotty’s Legacy

Image“How old do you think she is?  Oudoom says she was here when he originally got here, and that was almost sixty years ago! He says she was already past her prime when he first saw her.” Vetfaan studies Ouma Van Niekerk as she walks over to Sammie’s Shop. “Not bad for an old woman, I must say.”

Boggel gets on his crate to see. “Well, I can tell you: there’s nobody who knows the history of Rolbos the way she does. Not even Gertruida. If you want to know about the Sillimanite mine or the cement factory, she can tell you all about the who, the what and the why. Clear as a bell, that mind of hers.”

“Gertruida admitted the other day – it was very hard for her – that she doesn’t know who the very first farmer was that settled in the district. Before the mine, that is. She knows the Sillimanite was found after a propector saw the rocks a farmer used to build his chimney with – but who was the farmer? Maybe we can ask Ouma Van Niekerk and then poke fun at Gertruida; we’ll know something she doesn’t know for a change. She’ll be mortified!”  Kleinpiet draws a smiley face on the counter with the froth on his beer. This could be fun!

Ouma Van Niekerk always stops at Boggels for a glass of tonic water. She says it tastes a bit better than the brackish water of the fountain on her farm.  It is during these visits that the locals get a chance to chat with her – otherwise she’s always in such a rush that it is impossible to strike up a conversation. Her trips to Rolbos are infrequent and rare; Gertruida says she’s a bit of a recluse and that she produces her own vegetables, honey and coffee (from the roots of the Witgat trees).  The only reason to come to town is to get spares for the wind pump or to sell a few sheep. Today’s visit is the result of a rusted bucket that finally leaked so much that she couldn’t water her garden with it any more.

When Ouma walks into Boggel’s Place, Kleinpiet gets up and offers his chair at the counter. She smiles, takes a seat and raps her knuckles on the bar top. Boggel promptly serves the tonic water.

“Tell me, Ouma, who was the first farmer in the district? We talked about it the other day and couldn’t figure it out.”

“Well now, young man,” her voice is surprisingly young for her age, “that takes me back quite a while. Now let me see…yes, it was Sam Kemp, the man Scotty Smith almost killed when Scotty tried to steal Kemp’s diamonds. Smith went to jail, of course, but Kemp used the recovered diamonds to set himself up as a farmer not far from here. Smith was a scoundrel, a thief, lots of fun and a great lover. No lady could resist his charms and no jail could hold him.” Ouma van Niekerk gets a far-away look as she tells the story. “But Sam; now there was a man! Honest and caring. A hard worker. Before the robbery incident, he and Scotty would go hunting in Bechuanaland. Oh what adventures they had there! They met many Bushmen who taught them all about the veld and the animals and the plants…”  She stops abruptly, puts a hand to her mouth, and gives an embarrassed laugh. “Oh, my! How I ramble on today! You must think I’m a blabbermouth. Well,” she finishes the tonic water, “I must be off. It is a long way to the farm and I have lots to do.”

They watch her scurry out to her ancient Ford pickup. The new bucket on the back catches the sun as she roars off.

“An amazing woman,” Vetfaan reflects. “Imagine: she can remember names like Sam Kemp, just like that! Most older people have to dig old names from the bottom of their minds, but not Ouma van Niekerk, oh no. She rattles off that history like she’s read it yesterday.”

When Gertruida sits down for a beer an hour later, they are still talking about Ouma van Niekerk. In a town like Rolbos, even the smallest event gets to be dissected and examined minutely – there’s nothing else to do, anyway.

“I see Ouma was here a little while ago,” Gertruida says. “Weird woman, that. Give me a beer, Boggel.”

“So what do you know about Scotty Smith, Gertruida?” Kleinpiet wants to prepare the ground before he drops the facts about the first farmer.

“Oh, Kleinpiet! Why do you insist on using that name? His real name was George St Ledger Lennox, and he was a veterinarian, a prize fighter, a soldier and a Robin Hood. He traced his ancestry to some royal family, I believe. And he once posed as the President of the Free State – while he was still in jail. A colourful character, to say the least. He explored Bechuanaland and helped the Bleeks to make a comprehensive record of Bushman words and their stories.  It is said that he knew many of their secrets. Oh, and he died in the Great Flu Epidemic in 1919.” She sips her beer appreciatively. “Why?”

 

When Ouma van Niekerk gets home tonight, she’ll make the special tea with the herbs she grows in her garden, and add the teaspoon of ground Welwitchia leaves. It is an old habit her husband started when they spent so much time with the San people in the desert.

“This plant lives for long. Your life, and another and many others: that’s the time for this plant. It keeps the secret of life in its roots, deep in the ground.” That part, she knows, is true. They once tried digging out one of these ancient plants, but never got to the end of the roots. “The leaves only carry the words, but the memory is down there” The man had pointed to the earth, making clicking sounds as he explained how deep one would have to go. “It is so deep; no one knows its end.”

Tomorrow, when she waters the garden with the new bucket, she’ll tend to the grave of her lover and friend. She should have married him, instead of Scotty; but who could resist the nobleman’s advances?  She smiles at the thought. Yes, I had it all: an adventurous lover, a royal scoundrel for a husband, and the opportunity to learn so much about the vegetation of the desert. Sadly, dear Sam never believed the Bushman’s story and Scotty got carried off by the flu.

 

Back in Boggel’s Place, Gertruida is still lecturing the others on the life and times of George St Leger Lennox.  When she mentions that he married a Miss van Niekerk in 1892, nobody pays special attention. Why should they, anyway? It’s just long-ago history – not anything of importance today. They want to get her to admit she never knew about Sam Kemp – now that’ll be something really worth remembering…

Freedom in Captivity

ImageMevrou watches as Oudoom gets down from the pulpit. He’s really getting old now. The thought worries her. She remembers how he used to walk when they were students…

She remembers the time when Professor Holiface suggested they work on that assignment together. Albertus Viljee had the reputation of being a bit of a rebel; an unwelcome tag for a student in theology.  As a student in Social Sciences, she  was very careful to be seen with the ‘right’ people. An astute believer in a Better Tomorrow could not start with a Bad Yesterday, after all. The professor insisted, however. Much to her surprise, she found her co-worker to be quite brilliant. Her thesis on The Advancement of Deprived Households was said to be the best in her class.

They dated in the fashion of the day. A movie here, a cup of coffee there. Not like the young adults of today. She found herself drawn to the serious young man who rarely smiled. He laughed only once she can remember:  she had said he would become a member of the synod – no, he’d be the chairman. A leader amongst men. Somebody to look up to. And he laughed…

But she knew. Always she knew. Connie Cromwell was never far from his mind. Oh, they never corresponded, she was sure of that. Connie fled to England soon after the Treason Trial where Nelson Mandela almost got sentenced to death. As an activist who promoted liberal ideas on the social development of South Africa, she drew a lot of attention from the media. Some papers described her as a fearless lioness; others blamed the riots and uprisings on people like her.  She saw how Albertus devoured every scrap on newsprint about that woman.

The two of them were developing in different directions. She was convinced the future of the country rested on the separate development of the different peoples in the country; he believed everybody was a child of God – and therefore should be equal before His eyes. Mevrou knew it was that Connie’s fault. It was she who poisoned his mind with those liberal thoughts.

The two of them split up because the arguments became too intense. Yes she liked him as a man and as a brilliant thinker; but they could not agree on the course to the perfect society. She believed in an exclusive approach while he believed in inclusivity. Professor Holiface called her in again.

“Albertus Viljee is an outstanding student, one of the best the faculty has seen. However, his liberal ideas are unacceptable. No congregation will want a Dominee who is at odds with the decision of the Synod.” She knew about the sanctioning of Apartheid by that austere body in 1957. Theologians declared that the Bible was, indeed, the basis for the policy of separate development. That was, after all, the foundation of her reasoning. And the Synod was always right. “I  know I suggested you see him, and I hoped your level-headedness would bring him to his senses. Sadly, it didn’t. “

The professor did, indeed, look sad.

“Now, there is no reason why he shouldn’t graduate; his marks are far too good for that. He will receive his degree, I’m afraid. However, I will make sure he doesn’t get called to serve in a congregation. He’ll have a theological degree and that’s all. The Church will not accept him as a leader of a flock.”

She knew the professor was warning her off. Get yourself another boyfriend, the dean was telling her. And she did. Just like the professor predicted, Albertus got a degree and then…nothing happened.

Albertus Viljee also fled, but not in the way Connie did. He found a small town with a church and no dominee somewhere in the Kalahari, she heard. A town, where the radio and the newspapers never got to. A has-been town, a burnt-out mine and a few inhabitants that refused to move with the times. A town that asked no questions.

She, however, was much in demand in the Cape. With her doctorate in Social Sciences, she was appointed to be in charge of the move of ‘undesirable elements’ from District Six. The people had to be accommodated in ‘more suitable’ environment. She sat in on the planning of the relocation and listened to the arguments that the area was a slum beyond saving; that crime and gangsterism made the place uninhabitable; that it was a breeding place for disease and crime. On paper, she not only saw the benefits for society, she endorsed the plan completely.

Then, on the 11 February 1966, she was present when the bulldozers moved in, and the inhabitants tried to save their meagre households and belongings. Despite her erstwhile enthusiasm to help these people live a better life elsewhere, she saw their reaction as their lives were wrecked. The tears and the despair were just too much. Her heart broke. In a desperate attempt to stop the atrocity, she lay down in front of a bulldozer.

The newspapers had a field day. The staunch planner of the removals was photographed with the machine-monster bearing down on her. Questions were asked. Within a day, she was the pariah dog of the Nationalist government. She lost her job and nobody would employ her. The new boyfriend promptly told her she had no place in his future. The final blow came when her father phoned her to say he never wanted to talk to her again.

And Mevrou (then still Juffrou) fled, like Connie fled and Albertus fled. She found Albertus in his god-forsaken little town and told him what had happened. He took pity on her, arranged accommodation and allowed her to take care of the welfare issues in the district. Their marriage was a quiet affair in the magistrate’s office in Upington; Albertus said the Law commanded more respect in those days than the Church did.

 

Now, as the old man shuffles his aged legs down the steps from the pulpit, her usual stern face softens into a rare smile. The ways of the Lord are strange indeed. If it weren’t for that liberal little hussy, she would never have met Oudoom. If she hadn’t  listened to the professor, if she didn’t go to District Six, if …

She walks towards her man, her husband, and offers him her elbow. There’s tea in the vestry.

 

“Was that a smile on Mevrou’s face when she walked towards Oudoom?” Vetfaan can barely hide his surprise.

“Nah. I don’t think so. Must have been a cramp or something.” Kleinpiet knows: Mevrou never smiles.

“Shame on you, Kleinpiet. Mevrou may have a stern face, but her heart is in the right place. And don’t be so quick to judge, either. Didn’t you listen to the sermon? One day I’m going o rustle up the courage to ask Mevrou how the two of them met. It should be an interesting story.” Gertruida is chatting away as they walk over to Boggel’s Place. “But somehow I think she won’t tell me. Oudoom once told me she never talks about the past. He said it’s better that way.”

 

And somewhere in London, an old woman looks over the cot railings. It is cold, as it always is. The nurse (what is her name again?) should be around with the tea tray soon. Like Mevrou, she doesn’t talk about her past. The difference is that Mevrou remembers the past all too clearly; old Miss Cromwell doesn’t.

Gertruida once said there are two types of memory: those that build your future and those that break down your past. Connie Cromwell – if she could still talk, that is – would have said there is no difference: all memories have an element of pain. That’s why they haunt us so.

The Confession.

ImageWhenever he climbs up the stairs to the little lectern, Oudoom pauses right at the top to bend his head. The congregation thinks he says a short prayer in that moment; a request for guidance and strength. It is, however, a confession. And an apology.

On the September night in 1962, when the students attended the formal ball in the hall on the campus, Albertus Viljee dressed in his finest. The school blazer, university tie, pressed flannels and church shoes, blended in a statement of serious intent: he wanted to make an impression. A man doesn’t go hunting without a gun, after all. The target of his meticulous planning was a certain Miss Cromwell (Connie, to her friends), who could bring the campus to a standstill by merely walking from the library to the cafeteria.

Now, Albertus new his prospects for success were limited – and that even assuming he had a chance, was optimistic. Young men will play this game till the end of time: they aim for the impossible. Defeat means they move one rung down the ladder to attempt a more attainable goal. They work their way from the top to eventually reach the girls that tell them how wonderful they are. Maybe Darwin was right: that’s why the rich and the beautiful rule the world. That’s why we learn to follow, with  the others at the bottom of the ladder.

But Albertus was too young, too inexperienced, to know that. The world was his oyster and his pearl was waiting…

He did get to dance with her that night. Afrikaner boy met English girl. The Nationalist government chatted with the United Party. Calvinist and Catholic sat down to coffee, looking into each other’s eyes – and wondering why the heck society drew boundaries between people. For some reason, (and who can explain the intricacies of Love?) they developed a fascination with each other. The lively Arts student fell for the dour Theologian.

He was, of course, the envy of the men on campus. The student men, that is. His professor, the honourable Horatio Holiface, didn’t share in this admiration. Miss Cromwell was too well known. Flowers in her hair; short skirts and her love for the new way of dancing separated her from the other young ladies. She was a wild one. She was English. She had the audacity (or stupidity) to criticise the government. She even drank beer…from the bottle.

Holiface called Albertus in. This affair with the liberal, English, Catholic girl has to stop. The church does not tolerate such things. What will it lead to? People would say the Church had lost its way and that the faculty now condoned progressive and liberal thought. And where would that lead to? I’ll tell you, Mister Viljee: it’ll destroy the credibility of the faculty and what we’ve built up over the years. It’ll make a mockery of the church. You will not – not – see her again. Is that clear?

The choice was simple: either he continued in his studies, or he continued seeing Connie.

He knew there was no way out. His entire family suffered to get him this far. Sheep farmers in the Northern Cape weren’t all rich people. His father had to borrow extensively to realise the dream of a Dominee amongst the Viljees. Dominees were important people; men that commanded respect. To have such a man in the family would be the crowning achievement on years of toil and hardship.

Whenever he pauses on that top step, before opening his Bible on the lectern, he’d look down at the small flock he leads. He’d see Gertruida with her Dake’s Annotated Bible; Servaas with his hangover; Precilla, who always has a sad look on Sundays; Vetfaan with his collar undone (no tie, for goodness’ sakes!); and Kleinpiet, fighting to keep his eyes open. Always late, Boggel will shuffle in just now, to sit in the chair next to the door – last in, first to escape. He has a bar to open as soon as the service is over.

And Mevrou. The Afrikaner girl from Keimoes. Right politics, right church, right family.  Always there, right in front, right in the middle. Now well past her prime, she still retains the haughty look that Professor Holiface found so appealing. A capable help meet, a bedolach in Hebrew, as Genesis calls it. He looked it up one day. The word means something in pieces, or a fragrance  – something which wholeness is never complete.

Gertruida says there are two types of people. Those that run towards pleasure…and those that run from pain.  Pleasure is something you forget easily and makes you want more; but pain makes you remember and makes you want less.

That’s why Oudoom confesses every time he reaches that step. He has been running all his life, but all he’s found, was pain. And then he apologizes to the one true love in his life. The love he had to kill to please his family and society.

After that moment, he always decides to end the farce and tell everybody to stop running – even if it is just for a second. And every time he knows he won’t do it. He’ll sigh, open the Bible, and deliver a sermon on Love or Hope or Faith – the things he had to leave behind, way back in 1962.