Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Miracle of Rolbos…

A toga has a certain dignity to it. It changes the wearer from a average person to somebody with authority. Or knowledge. Or wisdom. Maybe even into an extension of some higher power – especially amongst the faithful who flock to churches every Sunday. The message from the pulpit becomes a missive from Above, and not the ramblings of a Common Joe who fretted a week long to find new words to describe sin. Without the toga, the sermon loses its weight, and the congregation gets exposed to a preacher who can claim no more influence than they can.

Oudoom has always been meticulous about his toga. A crumpled toga belongs to a negligent pastor. A dirty toga (thank goodness it’s black) is unthinkable. During all the years of guilt and anger, he needed that toga to give him the strength to climb the few steps to the small pulpit in the tiny church in the diminutive town of Rolbos.

But not today. After glancing over to Mevrou, he pauses longer than usual at the steps as a murmur of surprise ripples through the gathering. What? Oudoom in jeans and a plain shirt? No tie? Where’s the man’s toga, for goodness sakes! She nods with a sad smile, and he climbs up to the pulpit.

The whispers subside when he looks up; as if in surprise at their reaction; when he reaches the top stair. He greets them with is usual salutation, sighs, and sits down so they can sing the first hymn. As usual, the congregation follows the slow pace of the organ, stretching the words into almost-unrecognisable forms. Oudoom often wonders if the Lord likes slow singing – or if it matters at all how these songs are sung. Is it simply a matter of repeating the right words – without having to grasp the depth and the meaning of the hymn? Funny how he never worried about this – and now, today; on this most important day; these thoughts are bothering him. Toga’s and hymns; the opium to the masses? The thought causes an unexpected smile.

When at last the congregation sits down, Oudoom gets up with slumped shoulders. Better get this over with. Tell them about the past, greet them, and get out – three main points, like a good sermon should have.

Before he starts speaking, he notices old Marco and his pretty daughter sitting in the bench near the door. Prabably came to gloat, he thinks, to see how my life finally caught up with me. Ah, well, maybe just as well. Now they will hear the news first-hand and won’t have to rely on gossip.

“Today I want to talk to you – not as your pastor, but as a man. A simple man. A man that has lived a lie for too many years. Don’t look at me as your Dominee today, or even as Oudoom … today it is I, Hendrik Vermeulen, husband of Issie, who wants to talk to you.”

Again the murmur – only Gertruida knew Mevrou’s name. Oudoom coughs, holds up a hand, and continues.

“Issie and I know about your meeting last night. I’m sure you discussed the … developments … of recent times in detail. I see Mister Verdana and his daughter are here today, as well, and that makes it easier to say what I have to.

“I want to start with the reason why I came to Rolbos. I need to confess…”

“Excuse me, Dominee.” Servaas – dressed in the obligatory suit and white tie – uses his church voice to interrupt. “I have something to say.”

Oudoom hates interruptions; everybody knows that. A small irritated frown forms on his forehead, but he manages to nod. Servaas gets up to address the pulpit.

“You know we are taught – every Sunday – about morals. About right and wrong. About sin.”  Servaas talks to Oudoom directly, with his back to the audience. “You have scolded us when we were – in your eyes – straying from the path of righteousness. And you know, Dominee, that’s what we talked about last night. We simply cannot go on the way we are doing. It’s not right. The Lord will frown down on us if we don’t cleanse this congregation of falsehood and deceit.”

Several heads nod amongst the people in the benches. Yes, they’re saying, Servaas is right, we’re with him on this one.

“Rolbos, Dominee, is a small community. We depend on each other. Why, the other day when Vrede went missing, we all looked for him. And when we found him quietly gnawing a bone behind Sammie’s Shop, we were glad. And when Boggel needed a new roof, we all worked together to fix it. That’s how it is in Rolbos. We know we can depend on honesty and if one of us has a problem, we stand together to fix it.

“That’s what we talked about. Gertruida told us. She said you carry a heavy yoke and you never had the courage to share it. Now we, Dominee, take a dim view of that. Very dim. We are your flock and we expect you to share with us.

“But Gertruida also said another thing in Boggel’s last night. We didn’t want to hear it, no sir! It cut too near the bone! So we talked about it a lot and came to a decision. Maybe it’s not what you and Mevrou would approve, not during a service, but that’s what we decided and that’s what we are going to do.

“Now Dominee, we decided…”

“Oh for goodness sakes, Servaas, get on with it.” Vetfaan’s irritated voice drowns Servaas’ monotone. “Let’s get this over with. It’s hard enough the way it is.”

Servaas turns around to face Vetfaan. “Listen, I am the elder, and it is my duty. Now why don’t you just remain quiet while I do my job. I remind you that Oudoom appointed me as head elder and not you.” He stares Vetfaan down, who drops his head in his hands, muttering something about somebody’s inflated ego.

“So, as I was saying, Dominee, we came to a decision.” Servaas turns on his heel and takes his seat next to Vetfaan, who gets an elbow in the ribs.

“And what, Elder Servaas, is that decision?” Oudoom knows – from years of experience – that a Dominee must always listen to his congregation. If they have something to say, it’s better to let them air their opinions. You don’t have to agree, but you must seem to be interested in their drivel.

To his surpise, Boggel shuffles to the front after Servaas stared at him. This, Oudoom decides, is something they agreed on.

Boggel, despite his hunchback, straightens himself as well as he can.

“Dominee, I grew up in an orphanage. There I fell in love with a girl. Her father abused her…” Boggel speaks for a full ten minutes, telling them about his past[i]. When at last he finishes, Kleinpiet gets up and tells them about the girl he left when she fell pregnant. Then it’s Precilla who – blushing and stuttering – informs them how she made money to pay for her studies, and what price she had to pay for it eventually. Sersant admits he hates his job and how he struggles to understand the way the police force works these days.

To their utter surprise, Sammie walks into the church at that point, and confesses how he has been diddling his books to avoid paying taxes. Ben Bitterbrak tells them about his childhood and how he learnt to curse like he does. He manages with only three bloodies and a single f-word. Gertruida takes them back to her affair with Ferdinand, the spy, and their evenings in his flat.

And so, one after the other, the members of the congregation impart their deepest secrets. By this time, Mevrou has joined Oudoom on the pulpit, where the couple listens with tears streaming down their cheeks.

It becomes one of the longest services the little church has even seen. Wiele Willemse stands up to say he’s sorry for all the fake sick notes he has handed in at Kalahari Vervoer. It is almost as if they are all overwhelmed by the need to get rid of the stuff that has been bothering for years. At last, Servaas confesses to the communion-wine debacle.

The meeting falls silent. In a long, drawn-out few minutes, nobody dares to speak. Oudoom tries to clear his throat and is about to start talking when an extremely guilty-looking Vrede ambles down the aisle. In his mouth is a piece of biltong he just stole from Servaas’s stoep. With a muffled grrrr-arf  he flops down in front of the pulpit.

All of a sudden, the spell is broken. The congregation collapses in laughter; but whether it is relief, or mirth or just the fact that everybody got rid of some nasty baggage, is difficult to say. Servaas gets up, bends down to take his biltong back – but straightens up again, shaking his head.

“You see, Dominee, we all have secrets. Maybe we have less of them after this service, but last night we decided it is wrong to live with so much pretence. Now, Dominee, Gertruida refused to tell us what this yoke is that’s bearing you down. She also said there is a season for everything. She assured us you have other priorities now, and that you and Mevrou will need some time to sort things out. You’ll tell us when you’re good and ready and when the Lord leads you to do so.

“So we all chipped in, Dominee. We think you and Mevrou need a bit of time to yourself. Sammie, here, has a brother who has a flat in Onrus, that little seaside village near Cape Town. We want you to take Vetfaan’s pickup and drive there today. Lucinda packed some padkos, Marco gave some wine and the rest of us want you to accept this small donation we collected last night.” After stretching to place the envelope on the pulpit, he turns to the congregation. Servaas spreads his arms wide and blesses them with the benediction.

Oudoom is left gaping as the people file out. Here he was, ready to resign, and … He turns to Mevrou with a trembling lip.

“This isn’t happening,” he says.

And Issie, with a tenderness so long forgotten, tells him yes my love, it is.

*

When the pickup drives down Voortrekker Weg, the crowd in front of Boggel’s Place waves until the dust on the road to Grootdrink settles.

The woman next to the driver glances back with a wry smile.

“You know that lot is going to have a week-long party, with you out of town and nobody to guide them?”

The driver laughs. “Honeybunch, it’s okay. They taught me more about faith in a single morning than the university did in all those years. Let them be. They deserve a break from us.”

*

“You know, this is special town,” Marco says as Boggel shuffles over with some wine. “I never hear something like this. You make history today.”

“No, Marco, not history. We just did the right thing.” He smiles at Lucinda who blows him a kiss. “And we made a memory.”

“And you make two people very happy,” Lucinda says. “I like that.”

Servaas storms in, red in the face and out of breath. “Has anyone seen that damn dog? If I find him, I’ll skin him alive! He took ALL of my biltong.”

“No Servaas,” Gertruida calms the old man down. “I took it and hung it on my porch. The roof is higher. It’s like we did with Oudoom and Mevrou – it’s safer when you move nearer to heaven…”

…………………………………

And so, after reading about 160 Rolbos stories (and writing them), it is time for us to leave Boggel to pursue the lovely Lucinda; for old Marco to settle in the community; for Gertruida to catch up on her reading of  National Geographic;  for Vetfaan and Kleinpiet to do a bit of farming for a change; and for Mevrou to unpack (to Oudoom’s delight) her new frillies – which, incidentally, helped settle many problems in the pastorie. Precilla still dreams of love, Sammie hopes for a bumper season and Wiele Willemse hopes Kalahari Vervoer will buy a new lorry..

To all the readers who lived in Rolbos for the last six months – a BIG thank you. God willing, the journey will continue in September…

Bless you all.


[i] http://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/framed/   Boggel did a few nasty things, he even lied to Sersant dreyer

Shadows of Yesterday

 

When Oudoom staggers home after a most enjoyable afternoon in Boggel’s Place (Marco never breathed another word about the secrets of Rodriquez da Silva), he is in great spirits -  in more ways than one. He’s never let his hair down like that, and it was great to be comfortable amongst friends. Mevrou always has this haughty approach when she talks to members of the congregation – something she encourages him to do, as well. He tries, Lord knows, he tries. But this afternoon he felt so much closer to his flock, so much nearer to the heartbeat of the little society.

“Hey, Honeybunch, I’m ho-o-ome!” Oudoom giggles as he pushes open the door. That’s what they called her in the time she stayed in the small servant’s room behind the house. It was a house joke – whenever any of them came home, they’d call her that. It made them feel more domesticated than having a lowly servant around. And back then, when she was young and shapely and still seeking the illusive husband, she’d be there, waiting with some freshly brewed coffee and rusks.

“You watch your step, Oudoom,” she never uses his first name these days, “I can tell you’ve been drinking again. I hang my head in shame, that’s all I can tell you. The shepherd that leads his flock astray. You’re as bad as them all. Sies, man!” The muffled voice behind the door is angry, spoiling for a fight.

“You’ll never guess what we talked about,” he shouts back happily.

Silence.

Eventually, curiosity kills the cat. “What?”

“Remember your friend Rodriquez da Silva? The one who collected the rent every month?” Oudoom forces the mirth from his voice. “Well, he’s coming to visit. Fancy that?”

Mevrou feels the earth opening beneath her and prays that it’ll swallow her so deep, no trace will be left behind. Of course she remembers him. He was her pocket money every month – how else could she survive? And how else would she have been able to buy wine for the graduates after their exams? And Rodriquez, the gambler who knew everything there is to know about everybody, duped her into submission by threatening to expose her past activities to her current employers.

It was a game she understood well after the law firm asked her to leave. She was prepared to do anything, anything, anything, to be sure of a roof over her head. Back then her father still refused to talk to her and she had nowhere to go. So when Rodriquez said his silence is for sale the, er, transaction was done.

If Oudoom knew the details of that affair, he’d kick her out, just like her father had back then. If Rodriquez breathed a word of her attempts to secure a well-to-do husband, Oudoom, the congregation, the entire district – even the Synod – will come crashing down on her like a ton of accusing bricks.

And, after all these years, the people will laugh at Mevrou, the iron woman with the clay feet. They’ll realise she is a fake, a false prophet, a woman with a much-tainted past. She, the source of so much embarrassment to herself, her husband, everybody. The laughing stock of the Northern Cape. That is if Die Huisgenoot –  or worse – the Upington Post don’t start writing about her.

She opens the door on a crack. “What?” Breathless, anxious.

 

Mevrou sinks to her knees behind the door. No. Nooooo! This can’t be happening! After all these years? Oudoom never said anything, and now…

Oudoom saunters over to the cabinet where the communion wine is kept. “Want a drink, Honeybunch?  Our house special, not really heavy on the palate, but that’s all we’ve got. I’ll have a double myself, thank you.”

“But we don’t drink, you know that.” Funny how old habits die hard – even in the face of the firing squad, some people still try to convince others they are wrong. What’s the use?

“We.” Oudoom gets up to do a curtsy. “Oh, your royal highness, I do beg your pardon! I bow low before your radiant eminence.”

“You’re drunk! That’s it! You’ve made up that story about Rodriquez to keep me off your back – because you’re drunk. Oh, how low can you go, Dominee?” She spits out the last word as she marches down the corridor towards him. “You lied, didn’t you? Tell me you lied, you miserable man! Tell me! Tell me now…!”

Oudoom sways a little as he toasts the window. He never realised how bad he used to feel until now. Trying to keep his balance, he mulls over this wisdom. Now, in this euphoria, it is so easy to see how the wasted years affected his calling. Somehow, he finds it funny (or fonny, as Marco says) that he found this truth not in some holy handbook, but in a bottle of Cactus Jack…

“It’s so fonny,” he says, “so terribly sad and fonny…” He finally manages to coordinate his swaying with the erratic movements his eyes seem to favour. Mevrou swims into focus.

Mevrou… When did he start calling her that? Isabella Franciska Badenhorst – that’s her maiden name. He used to call her Issie – way back then, when he still thought they could manage to be civil with each other. But, somewhere along the way, he became Oudoom and she, Mevrou.

There’s some logic to that, he decides. After all, were their roles not defined by their functions as church leaders? And did those functions eventually become the two individuals they are? They lost … what? Their personalities? Their humanity? Whatever they lost doesn’t matter: they’ve become automated beings – machine-like because they were programmed to perform certain functions.

“No, Isabella Francisca, I did not lie.” A wave of nausea starts building up, but he swallows it away. “Mevrou is about to meet her past, and the whole town will be witness to it. We, my dear and beloved wife, are finished.”

Mevrou watches her husband collapse in the rocking chair next to the fireplace.  This is his favourite retreat when he’s working on his sermons. When he’s in that chair, gently rocking and staring into the flames, he ventures into a world of his own – a silent world where her biting remarks and sarcasm can’t reach him. It’s almost as if he leaves the room to be somewhere else – somewhere where clouds are rosy and people are kind.

To her utter surprise, he starts crying.

She’s never seen him react with emotion. Even on funerals he keeps his stern face, unmoved by grief and untouched by the sadness of a final good-bye. When she taunts him, he simply becomes stone-faced and waits for her anger to fizzle out. He doesn’t smile on weddings and he never does the coochie-coo-thing with babies.

Now, he’s come back from that Italian – first laughing and now crying – with the most upsetting attitude. And she’s never – never – heard him use her first names like that. He is, by all accounts, as drunk as a lord.

The knock at the door crashes into her thoughts. People! Damn! Oudoom is drunk, she is dishevelled, and now there are people at the door! She can’t possibly allow people into her house now? What’ll they think?

“Open up, Mevrou, it’s Gertruida. Please?”

Well, at least it’s Gertruida. Maybe she’ll understand? She was in the bar as well, wasn’t she?

Gertruida  walks in when the door is opened. She murmurs a soft hello before going over the slumbering figure of Oudoom.

“He passed out, did he?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. Very unusual, I must say. Not like him at all. Can I help you?”

“No, Mevrou, I can help you. First we must get Oudoom to bed, and then we’ll talk. Come, help me get him to the bedroom…”

With no choice in the matter, Mevrou helps Gertruida to drag the slumbering Oudoom down the corridor. While Mevrou takes off the clergyman’s shoes, Gertruida scans the pictures on the wall.

“This is … you?” She points at the picture of a pretty young lady on the wall. Glancing over her shoulder, Mevrou simply nods.

“You were – are – beautiful! My, I never realised…”

“That was a long time ago, Gertruida. Long. Many years. Everything has changed over the years. Look at me now.” Her tone is harsh – now, don’t you patronise me…

Gertruida looks.

An older woman well past her prime, that’s for sure. The wrinkled brow speaks of sleepless nights and deep torment. The thin lips that find it so difficult to curl up in a smile. The loose skin on the once-beautiful neck. And the eyes – the incredible, terrible sadness lurking there. Somehow, Gertruida realises, she has never looked at Mevrou. Not like this.

“We were both young once.” It sounds so lame…

Mevrou sits down next to Oudoom, brushing away the sparse hair from his forehead.

“Yes, Getruida, we all were. Even this old bag of bones here,” she gestures towards Oudoom, but there is a new softness in her voice. Not knowing what else to say, she adds: “We had a party, once. We even danced.”

“Young girls tend to do that,” Gertruida smiles at the memories of her own youth. “I had a special friend back then. Ferdinand…[i] Wow! How that man danced! But he … went away. Life was never the same after that. But I suppose that’s what happens.” She pauses as she glances at the prostate figure on the bed. “Is he okay? That’s what I came to find out, sorry.”

“No, I don’t think so. He came back from that bar and he wasn’t himself. I’ve never seen him like that. Not like him at all. What happened there, Gertruida?”

Gertruida tells her how Marco can talk the tail off a horse – and that he must have a teflon-lined liver. “You know, Mevrou, Oudoom even laughed out loud! It was so good to see him like that. Lately he seemed so depressed and … even lonely, if you’ll excuse me saying it.” She waits for the rebuke that doesn’t come. “Anyway, we just listened as old Marco rambled on and on. He’s really a most interesting character. Been around the world a few times and has such a lot of funny stories to tell. He even told us about a nephew he met in the Cape. Rodriquez somebody..” She stops when she sees Mevrou blanching. “Oh, Mevrou! Anything wrong?”

Then he did tell the truth! That’s why he drank so much! Oh, no…they’ll all find out.

“No, just feeling a bit dizzy, that’s all. Too much for one day, really!” She gets up and puts on her formal face again. “Well, thank you, Gertruida, I appreciate your help. I think I’ll just sit here with him for a while…”

“Mevrou…?” Gertruida dangles the question in the air, afraid to finish the sentence.

“Yes?”

“Why are you and Oudoom so upset by this Rodriquez character? When Oudoom heard his name, he almost fainted. You had the same reaction just now. If he hurt you in the past…?

Mevrou shakes her head. “No, it’s not like that. Go now.”

“It’s somebody you both knew, isn’t it? Somebody in the time before you moved to Rolbos. Somebody … who had something to do with both of you.”

“Gertruida, I don’t want to talk about it. Go now!”

Oudoom stirs, shakes his head, groans – and sits up. His movements are tentative, but his eyes are much more focussed.

“No, Issie. Stop it. I can’t live like this any longer. I know Gertruida – and I trust her. Won’t you make me a cup of coffee, then we talk about Rodriques da Silva and the lawyers and the doctors and Lord knows who else. We’ve ignored this thing long enough.”

*

Gertruida leaves them long after the jackals in the desert stopped howling at each other. In fact, she can identify Venus over the eastern horizon as she walks home.

In the parsonage two old people sit, staring wordlessly at each other until Oudoom sighs.

“We should have talked about this a long time ago, Issie. We’ve bottled up those words until it choked the both of us – now it’s out. I must say, I feel much better.”

Isabella Francisca Vermeulen smiles – not hugely so, but still – at her husband. She loves the way he says her name. A sudden thought wipes the would-be smile away.

“But nothing has changed, you know that. I’m still the scarlet woman in this town; you’re still the man tricked into an unhappy marriage and that … that Italian is going to ruin everything. Gertruida might not talk about it, but once Rodriquez comes, we’re done for. Can you imagine how they’ll talk…”

*

It’s way past eleven when Mevrou brings in a tray with fresh coffee to the bedroom.

“We were fools. That Gertruida has called a meeting for tonight – in Boggel’s Place. And I can tell you what that hussy is going to do – she’ll jump the gun: by the time Da Silva comes, he’ll be too late to do any more damage. Gertruida is going to sink us at this meeting. I know it. We might as well leave.”

Oudoom runs a hand trough her greying hair. Oh, how beautiful it was when they first met! Her hair always had a special way of reflecting the sunlight on a summer’s day – now it is dull and grey and lifeless.  This is what we’ve become, he thinks.

“I was called to serve this congregation, Issie. Tomorrow is Sunday. Let them gossip all they want tonight, I’ll serve my resignation during the service tomorrow. But I won’t run away. We won’t run away.  If they want to crucify us, then so be it. No, let them talk. But we – you and I – were joined in a holy union. And we’ll honour those vows – till the end. And, in exactly the same manner, we’ll approach this problem with the congregation.”

“But, Hendrik,” must his name feel so foreign on her tongue? “Now that you know everything about me – Lord knows, I was so ashamed to tell you those things – how can you say that? I’m nothing but a … a … harlot!”

“And, much like Noah, I got drunk. And remember the weekend that dancer stayed in here? The one with the fishnets?  I’m as guilty as you are. My sin isn’t bigger than yours, and we’ve both been living a lie for too long. I married you out of guilt. You married me out of desperation. Who is the bigger sinner? We both did wrong.

“But now – now at last – we were brave enough to talk about it. And whether Gertruida spills our beans or not, she did us a favour to get us talking. Even that silly Italian helped. I don’t know about you, but I feel like a weight has been removed from my shoulders.

“Come here.”

For the first time in …thirty, forty, years? … Issie settles in the arms of her husband.

Fonny,” she smiles as she deliberately mimics the Italian she’s never met, “I used to fit in better in the old days.” Snuggling in a bit deeper, she sighs: “Tomorrow we’ll start a new life, Hennie. We’ll go away. And we’ll start over.”

“No, my dear – not tomorrow. We’ll start a new life today.” She feels his hand move slowly down her spine to cup the rather voluptuous cheek down there…

*

Afterwards it was his turn to mimic. “Its fonny – those bits still fit perfectly well, don’t they?”

Issie cuddles up to the broad chest, still surprised at the grey hair she never noticed growing there. Yes, let them talk. Tomorrow, from the pulpit, her husband, Dominee Hendrik Vermeulen, will do the honourable thing. And then, somewhere far away, they’ll start a new life.

A happy life.

The life both of them wanted for so long…

Mevrou’s Past

Mevrou puts on her baggy pyjamas before getting in bed. Passing the long mirror in the bedroom, she grimaces. Has it come to this? When she met Oudoom, all those many years ago, she was rather proud of her appearance. In fact, she used to be beautiful. Pretty. Like that damned Italian girl… Now, however things have changed so much.

Pulling the blankets tight around her neck, she allows herself to wallow in the luxury of self-pity. Yes, those years were years of poverty, patched dresses and empty cupboards. After leaving school in Standard 8, she worked as a secretary in one of Stellenbosch’s oldest law firms. Well, not strictly as secretary; more like a typist-cum-office girl, but that’s the same thing, isn’t it? Coming from a poor family, her position was cause for celebration.

However, even her father said she should think of her future. Land yourself a rich husband, he joked (or did he?), or you’ll never get anywhere if life. Look at me – I will have to work till I die. But you? But you, you are young and beautiful. Nothing wrong if you landed yourself an attorney or maybe a doctor. That’s your ticket, my girl. That’s how you go up in life.

That, arguably was the worst advice she ever got in her entire life.

She then, progressively and with increasing success, began seducing men of some social stature. Oh, she was most discreet about these liaisons, always taking great care to protect the integrity of her suitors. But, as men will brag about their conquests in the bars and clubs in the town, she soon earned the label as an easy target.

The road from socialite to harlot is a steep and slippery slope. Once the tyres lose their traction on that icy hill, there’s nothing to stop the harlot from becoming the plaything of the unscrupulous.

She lost her job because of her unsavoury reputation. A law firm must have the respect of the community, Miss. We stand for integrity, values, trust. We have had several reports about your after-hours … activities. I’m afraid we cannot afford this type of gossip, Miss; you’ll have to go.

By now, her life was in shambles. Having tried her best with the young doctors, lawyers, engineers and a variety of desperate dates with rather enthusiastic students, she had run out of options. Her father was furious about the job and wouldn’t listen to her explanation that she had simply been trying to land the big one, Daddy. They may be poor, he said, but they have always been honest and proud. Now, he sighed, she’d gone and ruined the only thing they had left – a good reputation. No, no more. If she wanted to life the life of a whore, she was no longer welcome in his house.

It’s the word that did it. Whore… her father called her the most despicable word in his vocabulary. That’s what he thought of her – while she did her best to escape from the run-down cottage in the wrong side of town. And she – still beautiful and desirable – fled her father’s house, because she knew he had been speaking the truth.

Her exploits did have certain benefits: before submitting to her suitor’s advances, she usually demanded (and got) ‘presents’. This was not payment for services to be rendered, you must understand, it simply confirmed the young man as rich, determined and a possible target for her future attentions. How else would she know what his worth was, anyway? But somewhere; between the pendant, the bangle or the ear rings and the second or third date; something always went wrong. The man drank too much. The man became abusive. The man demanded secrecy. The man was married already. Something. Always.

Now, with a little stash of golden trinkets, she swallowed her pride and visited old Mister Levy, the local jeweller. Would he be interested? Yes he was, and bought the ornaments for a pittance -  the same ones he originally sold at inflated prices. She had enough money to survive two months in the lice-ridden motel outside town, with a shattered reputation and no prospects. Her desperate phone calls to previous lovers and friends usually ended with a distinct ‘click’ at the other end of the line.

Realising she was nearing the end of the line; she walked from house to house, looking for a job. Anything. She can be a servant, an au pair, a gardener, a dish washer – anything. Please?

The last house in the street that day belonged to Rodriquez da Silva, the shady Portuguese gambler who owned several properties in and around Stellenbosch. He rented his houses to students for a very specific reason – the parents of students rarely defaulted. And he, Rodriquez, didn’t become fabulously rich by taking untoward risks.

Oudoom, much younger and still in his final year, opened the door to her knocking. She asked for work. He saw the desperation. No, sorry, we do everything ourselves. Please, she said, I have nowhere to go. She started crying.

We can’t have a woman staying here, he said, we’re students of theology. Next year we’ll be reverends. We have to be sensitive about these things, our professors… You must understand…

Yes. I do, she sobbed. I understandYours is the Christian way. Turn away the destitute, trample on the fallen, spit on the lowly. Love thy neighbour only when it suits you. Go ahead, your professor will be proud...

The young student stood dumbfounded. The accusations stung. After a lengthy discussion with the four other students in the house, a compromise was struck.  You can stay in the servant’s quarter at the back. We can’t pay you, but if you cook and do the washing, you can eat with us. She wept again, this time at their generosity.

The day of Oudoom’s final exam witnessed a rare party at the student’s house. They had made it! Now society awaits their sermons, their guidance and their care. Mevrou, as the cook, made a special bredie with yellow rice and served some wine (bought out of her own precious and diminishing funds). It was a heady celebration to mark the end of years of sacrifice and toil, and the wine – so studiously avoided because of their divine calling – added to the atmosphere of release, of joy and … fun.

Somebody put a record on the player. Surely, if they drank wine, dancing is acceptable? And so, for an entire evening, Mevrou danced with them: sometimes singly, sometimes in a group. They laughed the way young people do, when the world’s your oyster and you’ve reached the top.

But there was a problem, of course. If the students left – Mevrou had nowhere to go. And so Mevrou, the poor, desperate girl who had dreams of becoming somebody, did what poor, desperate girls do when the last chance comes around.

Oudoom woke up the next morning with his first hangover, a dry mouth and a guilty conscience. When he moved his eyes (sooo painful!) the tussled head next to him smiled back. I hope I’m not pregnant, the head said. Oudoom closed his blood-shot eyes and saw his future disappearing in a haze of scorn by his peers. He then did what desperate men do: I love you, he said.

Mevrou became Mevrou soon after. The guilt and fear in the ignorant mind of Oudoom left him no choice and they were married in a small ceremony, very private, by one of his favourite professors. And because everybody knew about her reputation, Oudoom was forced to accept the calling to the smallest, most distant, congregation willing to appoint him.

*

Of course she wasn’t pregnant. Oudoom found that out soon after he proposed; but by then it was too late to backtrack. He accepted, with great regret, the irony that she never fell pregnant. Apt reward for my rash and drunken behaviour

Over the years they did have some consolation. Rolbos accepted them with quiet resignation, feeling more secure that a Man of the Cloth now lived amongst them and that baptisms, weddings and funerals (Boggel calls it the Hatch, Match and Dispatch Business) could now be done on their doorstep. This gave a certain stature to the clergyman and his wife and at last, after all her failures, Mevrou worked hard at building the impeccable image of the loyal vicar’s wife.

Her father visited them once – dressed in his best old suit and wearing a proud smile. Father and daughter tried to keep their relationship alive after that visit, but with her new high standing in society, her father felt too uncomfortable to impose. In the end, Mevrou saw it as one of the sacrifices she must make to support Oudoom – both of them didn’t need to be reminded of a troubled past. And was her father not the one who directed her on the path to eternal unhappiness? So Mevrou lived the life of an unloving wife married to an unhappy man and isolated from her family.

As the years went by, Oudoom became more and more disgruntled with their relationship. He felt – but could never say it – that she tricked him into an inappropriate marriage. And as the once-beautiful swan turned into a fat duck, the only thing that kept them together was the fact that he served the Church, and divorce was out of the question.

*

“We worked hard to bring this congregation to where it is,” Mevrou says the next morning after a fitful seep, “and you cannot allow some foreigners to come in and corrupt our little community. That woman with the short skirts has every man in town lusting after her. And look at the way she laughs! It’s an open invitation to debauchery. And this, my husband, is happening right on your doorstep. And what about her father? Just coming in here as if the town belongs to him? It’s not right, I tell you – it’s not right. And you – you are as bad as the rest of them. I see the way you look at that woman! Don’t think I’m blind!

“And did you see the amount of wine they brought here? Need I remind you what wine does? It ruins lives, that’s what! And you stand by as if nothing is wrong. No, you are neglecting your duty as a servant to the Lord.” She seems to run out of steam, panting with the effort. “I swear they’re in a different church as well. Praying to some pagan god, they are. And you simply allow all this to happen as if there’s nothing wrong. I am ashamed, that’s all I can say to that. The Spineless Servant, the Demented Dominee. He does nothing.”

Satisfied with her outburst, she stomps from the room. Oudoom lets his head hang, cupping it in his hands.  When she’s in this mood …

Oudoom makes sure she’s locked the bedroom door; like she always does when she has these tantrums. Then, knowing she’d be watching from the bedroom window where the chintz curtains allow her to watch Boggel’s Place without being seen, he marches over to the bar, where the group is gathered around the table where Marco and Lucinda is talking.

“Ahem,” he announces at the door, so they must know he’s near. They always curb their language a bit when he’s in their company.  “I’m sorry, but I have to talk to Lucinda and her father.”

“Oh, you’re the pastor! Please, come sit. Maybe you drink some of this, a, what you call it? Cactus! That’s right. First time I taste, I tell my daughter: this is coodrink. But this morning, I wake up and I know it’s not.” The old man laughs heartily, pointing to the empty chair next to him. As Oudoom sits down, Marco simply rambles on, “I’m so glad we find this place. When my daughter she starts her trip in Africa, I tell her to look everywhere for such a nice place. She look all over – here and there and everywhere.”

Marco has the Italian gift for incessant talking.  Boggel’s Place has never seen anything like this and the old man fascinates them. Once he starts speaking, he doesn’t seem to be able to stop

“Now I fly to Cape Town, I get such a surprise. Who do I find at airport? My nephew! He’s the son of my sister. She – she’s funny.” He says fonny. “She marry a Portuguese man, a Da Silva. He was there to meet his son Rodriquez, a very rich boy, that one. He fly with me and I never see him. Can you believe that? I always know he lives in South Africa, but to meet him there, with the first time I land in Cape Town? I think God is good, yes? Now I have family here…”

Oudoom doesn’t listen anymore. He remembers Rodriquez da Silva, his landlord from many years ago. Shocked, he accepts the Cactus Jack Vetfaan places in front of him, downs it and holds out his glass for another.

“….and he say he knows Rolbos! Can you believe? He say one of his students live here. It is such a small world, no?”

Oudoom suddenly feels as if the walls of Jerusalem tumble around him. This sanctuary, his fortress, of secrecy he’s built so carefully around his past, is starting to crumble and fall to the ground. If Mevrou’s past came back to haunt them, he might as well lock the doors to the old church. And how will they laugh in Boggel’s Place if they knew he, Oudoom, was tricked into marrying a woman of ill repute? For the second time today, Oudoom rests his head in his head, feeling totally defeated and deflated. His sins have finally caught up with him.

Finding his voice, he croaks out the question between his clasped hands. Please Lord, if it has to happen, make it quick.

“And what did this … this Rodriquez tell you about Rolbos?”

“Oh, he say it nice place. He say this place has good people. And he say here are many secrets. I no understand, so he say maybe he tell one day, I must find out myself, if I want to. But, he say, the past is the past. Better look ahead, he say. And, he say, he come to visit.  I think he come soon.”

There is a complete silence in Boggel’s Place. Precilla remembers the shots that landed her in hospital[i]; Servaas shivers as he remembers the time he got drunk and got cheated out of the communion wine[ii]; Kleinpiet thinks back to the time when he walked away from his pregnant girlfriend [iii], while Vetfaan lets his head hang when he remembers the love he lost during the war[iv]. And Boggel thinks back to the last day of his father’s life – does this man know anything about that?[v] Without realising it, Marco has  – in a few simple words – reminded them all of the wrongs in their past. Everybody, except Oudoom, wonders who this Da Silva might be, and what worms will crawl out of the woodwork if he ever came to visit. Is he somebody – one of those coincidental people you meet in life while you’re going on with your own business – who saw something, heard something or simply happen to know something you’d like to keep to yourself?

“So – now you all quiet, so suddenly? I think Rodriquez, he right. Many secrets, yes? Just like my town in Italy, Fillettino. Huh! Now those people, they have all kinds of secrets. You know, this one, he sleep with that woman? And Antonio, he stole money from Umberto? Such things. All towns have that. I no expect Rolbos to have no secret? No! I want to stay where people are real people. They make the mistake. They lie a little. Sometimes they get a bit too … adventurous, maybe? Real people live life. Live! It’s like Bombolini – the mayor in the cinema about Santa Vittoria. You see that? No? When my things come, I invite you all to come watch. I make the pizza, you bring the Cactus and we have fun. Good idea, no? We have a Bombolini evening. Not so, Lucinda?”

*

Despite themselves, the group starts smiling at the old man with a bigger curve in his back, than even Boggel has. Oudoom,now on his third Cactus, cannot help but to feel comfortable in the conversation that follows.

From behind the chintz, Mevrou watches as Oudoom and the old Italian chat away the afternoon. Either he’s really laying it on thick, or – like she knows he occasionally does – he’s bungled his speech and now needs a lot of time to get his message across. Whichever way, she doesn’t care. She is Mevrou, a woman of impeccable standards, the pastor’s wife. Rolbos may be a small town, but here she rules the roost. People look up to her for moral leadership, and by all that’s holy: they will –will – respect her for her position and respect her for what she stands for.

No little hussy with a short skirt is going to steal her thunder. She is Mevrou, the undisputed centre of of moral standards in the town. If everybody suddenly starts ogling a nice pair of legs on an Italian nobody, she’ll fight to get her position back – as the bastion of personal integrity, purity and cleanliness.

Mevrou is the woman who runs this town.  She earned it. She fought for it. And with or without Oudoom, she’ll see to it that they respect her for it.

Lucinda’s Waltz with Fate and Melkkos.

“Tomorrow my Papa comes. I wrote to him and told him he’d like it here. It’s okay for him to come, no?”

Boggel has been fearing the arrival of Lucinda’s father. She told him quite a lot about the strict old man and he’s formed the mental picture of an astute gentleman with bushy eyebrows and a gravely voice. How will the old man react to Rolbos? Or, for that matter, to Boggel’s Place? And what about Oudoom, who still believes all Italians represent a different kid of faith? And … lastly, will her father accept that his daughter, his only, beautiful, daughter may be interested in a cripple?

“It’s okay,” he says without much conviction. “I’m sure everybody will be glad to meet him.”

“Ja,” Vetfaan smiles, “we’ll give him some real boere-afval, he’d like that.”

“It’s called offal in English, Vetfaan. Don’t confuse the girl.” Gertruida has taken a liking in Lucinda and wants her to feel at home.

“What is this … awful?”

“Oh, we cook up the stomach and feet and heart and tongue of a sheep in a sauce of sherry and sugar. Salt, pepper, garlic and curry get added; we chuck in a few potatoes and onions – and that’s it. It’s delicious.” Kleinpiet has a naughty twinkle in his eye: if the Italians eat this, then they’d fit in nicely.

“Oh, you mean  quinto quarto? Papa will love that. We make it from the head and the tail and the heart and the stomach.” She explains that the term fifth quarter originated in the time when the best quarter of the meat went to nobility, the second best to the clergy, the third best to the bourgeoisie and the least-sought after meat to the soldiers. The fifth quarter, the glands and lungs and all the other bits and pieces, was given to the poor and the labourers. “Papa makes it with the artichokes, a little lemon and some white wine. Of course he use garlic too, but no sweet wine and curry. I ask him when he comes, he make for you. You like?”

Kleinpiet’s jaw almost drops faster than Gertruida’s. This girl is quite something. Not only did she trump Kleinpiet in the nicest possible manner, but Gertruida didn’t know about the quinto quarto bit.

Servaas giggles behind his hand when he orders another beer. “I think your father will like it here. He can teach us to cook, then.”

“Oh si, Service. He make chianini fillet for you. Or mabe a nice tagliatelle, chicken cacciatore, some frittata or maybe a simple pizza. Papa, he loves cooking. But,” she adds diplomatically, “he not know so much as Gertruida, here. He will want to know about bobotie and koeksisters and melktert. The other day Gertruida make that other thing with the milk. You call it, mmm , melkbos?”

“No, it’s melkkos – milk food, if you translate it into English. It’s quite easy, if you know how.” Gertruida likes the gentleness about the new addition to Rolbos. Wiele Willems pleaded with Kalahari Vervoer to get his old job back, and Lucinda has moved in to the empty cottage at the end of Voortrekker Weg. “I’ll teach you, and you can make it as a welcome-dish for your Papa.”

As the two women leave Boggel’s Place, the men at the bar all turn to look at the shapely legs of Lucinda. As usual, despite the early-morning chill, she is dressed in a short skirt.

“Shame on you all,” Precilla mocks them with an angry face. “Staring at the poor girl like that. One would swear you’ve never seen a beautiful girl before. How must I feel?” She pouts as she strikes a Marilyn Monroe pose.

Kleinpiet blushes from neck to brow. “I was looking at Gertruida, honey. She’s put on weight, I think.”

*

Boggel escapes to his cushion to arrange his thoughts. Lucinda is  – next to Mary Mitchell, of course – the best thing that has happened in his life. However, there are so many things to consider! If she moves in permanently, Oudoom will have something to say. And the slight undertone of Precilla’s jealousy and Kleinpiet’s subtle taunting bothers him as well. Vetfaan doesn’t seem to mind, and neither does Servaas – who allows her to call him Service without correcting her all the time. Given that they are a very stable and compact community: how will the addition of two foreigners affect the relationships in town? Sersant Dreyer might be interested in Lucinda as well. And then there is the huge and unwashed Ben Bitterbrak, the garrulous farmer at Bitterwater – his language alone is enough to scare people away.

He doesn’t even want to think about Papa Verdana. He sounds like a no-nonsense man, and if he disapproves of the town – let alone his (Boggel’s) interest in his daughter – then the happy dream will turn into a nightmare. No, he decides with a grimace, the chances of everything working out like an old-fashioned love story are extremely slim. He’d better get used to the idea.

Boggel spends the evening serving his customers. Gertruida and Lucinda breeze in just after nine, excited about their exchange of recipes and the success of the melkkos. They order some Cactusses, but their animated conversation makes it impossible for anybody to get a word in sideways. Later, as if it is the most natural thing in the world, Gertruida announces that Lucinda is like the daughter she always wanted.

“I just love her. She’s intelligent, has a sense of humour, and makes me feel young again.”

Somehow, this statement upsets Boggel. It’s bad enough if Lucinda causes a rift in relationships in Rolbos – but now Gertruida wants to stake a claim? Where does it leave him? Out in the cold and lonely again? Or is it possible that he’s jealous? Of a woman?

*

By ten the next morning, Boggel’s Place is packed. Lucinda is more radiant than ever, and waltzes from table to table, bubbling over with excitement. Boggel, assured by now that he must rather curb his feelings of love and settle for being a barman, serves the beers without a smile.

“Hey, Boggel, do you think her old man will like you? Lucinda says he’s quite a character.” Kleinpiet is taunting him again and Boggel ignores the remark.

Precilla digs an elbow into Kleinpiet’s ribs. “Can’t you see he’s nervous, you ape? Shees! Sometimes I think you have the commonsense of an eight-year-old. Let him be, will you?”

Kleinpiet goes red again and draws a heart on the counter top.

“There’s dust on the road!” Servaas has been watching the road from Grootdrink and is the first to spy the approaching vehicle. “Your old man’s on his way,” he tells Lucinda, who runs out to the veranda. They all follow – except Boggel, who stays behind, perched on his crate behind the till. There’s no use in rushing towards your doom, is there?

The black BMW stops in front of the building as the population of Rolbos gathers around the vehicle. Boggel can hear Lucinda’s excited voice welcoming her father in Italian, with shouts of Ciao! and Benvenuto Papa!. And yes, there is the gravely voice she told him about, saying Grazi, Lucinda, tesoro

Lucinda takes ages to introduce everybody. Every time she tells the old man who the person is, and how kind they all were towards her. And every time the old man shakes a hand, saying Thank you, thank you over and over. At least, Boggel thinks, he isn’t in a bad mood.

Lucinda suddenly stops, looks around and waves at Boggel. Hey, Boggle, come here. You must meet my Papa, yes? No stand there behind the counter, come, come meet Papa. Sighing heavily, he shuffles towards the door.

The townsfolk stand back a little to allow the two men to size each other up. Yes, they know how important first impressions are. Even Lucinda looks a bit worried, for if Boggel and her Papa don’t get along, the consequences will be disastrous. She sees Boggel approaching slowly, stop and stare. For a second he looks confused, but then he regains his composure.

“Papa, this is Boggle. I never get his name right, they say Bog-gel.” The little crowd smiles at her effort to get around the guttural G. “Papa, this man, he reminds me of you. I love him, Papa, and I hope you will, too.”

Boggel almost trips over his own feet as she says this. They’ve been very careful with the L-word. They’re not children anymore, and life hasn’t always been easy. For her to say this, here, in front of her father…?

Only then the old man breaks out a brilliant smile. “You! Lucinda, she write to tell me about you. She say we have much in common, but I never realised it was so obvious. See?” Old Marco Verdana turns around to point an arthritic finger at his back. The hump is more pronounced than Boggel’s. “We’re birds of a wing, no?”

“Feather,” Gertruida corrects.

“You see, Boggle, Papa also has a bog-gel, like you. When I saw you, I think: maybe it’s a sign. Then you find the diamond Papa gave me. Another sign, I think. And when Kleinpiet starts talking about quinto quarto, I know. Too many signs.

“Now, help Papa up the stairs. Gertruida and me, we’ll fetch the quinto and the melkbos, and we eat. We Italians love to eat. So there. We celebrate my Papa coming to Rolbos, yes?”

Vetfaan fetches the boxes of Chianti from the boot of the car as the two bent men shuffle up the stairs. Boggel finds there is a camaraderie between people with a disadvantage – in fact, it becomes an advantage sometimes.

“Lucinda, she didn’t write right. She no tell me about your bog-gel. She only say how good you are. My daughter, she is like that. She no look at men with woman eyes. She only see inside. You follow?”

Boggel can only nod.

“That’s why she never marry. Inside of too many men is the quinto – is the wrong quarter, yes? My Lucinda, she deserve primo quarto…only the best for her. Today we eat, we drink some wine, and we talk. If what she say is right, we must become good friends, no? Best friends. My beautiful Lucinda, she must be happy. Is so important. Now, get us a bottle of Chianti, we have lot to talk…”

And so Boggel sits down with old Marco, to open the wine and discover a world where hunchbacks have beautiful daughters and beautiful daughters (like so many women) look for their fathers when they want to settle down.

“They make a beautiful couple,” Kleinpiet whispers in Precilla’s ear a bit later.

“Oh? Boggel and Lucinda?”

“No, Boggel and the old man. I’ll bet Boggel finds a father in him, in more ways than one.”

It’s Precilla’s turn to be surprised. Kleinpiet? That sensitive? My, my … she’ll have to give him a second chance if he goes on like this. To Kleinpiet’s utter amazement, Precilla kisses him full on the lips, there, in front of the whole town.

“Thank you, Kleinpiet,” she whispers. He, of course, has no idea what it’s all about.

From across the street, Oudoom and Mevrou watches the crowd celebrating in Boggel’s Place. Oudoom wishes he could saunter over to say hello. Mevrou, on the other hand, harbours different thoughts. If the town is to stay sober and proper, she’ll have to get rid of the Italians. She walks off to the kitchen, leaving her husband to stare at the scene. She’ll fix him. She’ll fix them all.

Cold Nights

The meerkat notices the bright and shiny object the moment he pokes his head from the burrow. It is just after dawn, after a cold Kalahari night spent huddled with the family. Unlike humans, meerkats have no use for names, although they have a language of their own. The high-pitched warning about danger is distinct from the low-toned grumbling when food is found. This time, he lets out a short little squeak of excitement as he approaches the object.

He doesn’t know – or care – much about diamonds. They are simply bright stones they occasionally scratch out of the way when digging for a root or a tuber beneath the sand. However, this one is attached to a bright chain, which makes a nifty plaything. Scurrying back to the burrow, he lets out a series of grunts to call the siblings. This new toy will keep them busy for hours at end while they wile away the hours of the new, hot day…

*

“Oh, Boggle, I lost my pendant. It is tragedy, no? My Papa gave me this thing; he said it is good luck for me in my travels. Now it is gone. I’m so … triste. More than sad. Breaking heart you say, I think?”

“Heart broken,” Boggel helps her with the term, “and I’m sorry.” They’re sitting on the veranda in front of Boggel’s Place, sipping a cold beer. The rest of the town is still busy with their usual Monday-routine, and will arrive soon; in the meantime, they have the place to themselves. “I’m sure you didn’t lose it here, though. I swept the floor, polished the counter and put new table-cloths on the tables – and I didn’t see it at all. I remember that pendant; it is quite exquisite. Must have been expensive…”

“Oh, yes. It is special diamond. Belonged to my grandmother. Papa says it is part of the Star of Africa. When they cut that diamond, this was piece of it, si? No can replace that.”

Boggel doesn’t know what to do. How do you console a pretty woman who has lost a unique piece of jewellery? Even if he had the money to buy a new pendant, it’d never compensate for the loss.

“I looked in the lorry, but nothing. I’m sure I had it when I left here, but when I come to Upington, it gone.”

“But then it must be in the cab – unless you stopped somewhere?”

Lucinda brightens, but suddenly blushes as she peers from below the fringe of hair on her brow. That’s the way Princess Di used to look at the world, back then before everything went sour, Boggel thinks.

“Yes, Boggle, I did stop somewhere. Near a tree and an heap for ants. I … I had to think about things. So I stop.” She seems uncertain about going on. “It’s on the road to Grootdrink, not far from here.”

Boggel arranges with Vetfaan to be barman and gets into the lorry with Lucinda.

*

“I’ve never seen Boggel like this,” Vetfaan says as he serves the patrons, “all googly-eyed like a schoolboy at a netball match. If I was in his shoes, I’d tell the girl I like her a lot and take it from there. But not Boggel. He’s too much of a gentleman to do that. Maybe we must help him to get over this phase? Otherwise we’re going to be stuck with a barman who forgets to order supplies while he dreams of ways to woo this Italian.”

Gertruida snorts as she listens to him. “You, Vetfaan, are just as big a coward as Boggel is. At least he’s spending time with her, and that’s good. Men are all the same: put them in the company of a beautiful woman, and they regress to pre-teen jitters.  Let them be; they’ll get to be where they have to be. Don’t interfere.”

Vetfaan knows better than to argue with Gertruida’s advice. However, he’ll take it up with Kleinpiet, and then they’ll make a plan…

*

“You see – it was here. There is heap for ants, here is tree. I sit here” she points to the spot, “and I see the funny roditore … “ she searches for the word and eventually mimics the stance of a meerkat, peering at the horizon. Boggel laughs so much he has to hold on to the lorry-s fender to stay upright.

“You mean meerkat?”

“Yes, yes, that thing. I park too near their house, so I had to move lorry, see?”

Boggel knows how inquisitive meerkats can be. If they found the pendant, there isn’t a chance they’ll find it again. Despite his doubts, he starts searching the area. At least, he thinks, I have an advantage over normal people. With my back the way it is, I have a much better view of the ground…

“Okay, Lucinda, I’ll look over here, and you search the area over there. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Two hours later, they sit down on the step to the cab of the lorry. They’ve scoured the vicinity and came up with nothing. Lucinda is clearly crestfallen, while Boggel is totally out of his depth – how can he fix it?

“It was same time of day, Boggle,  just before the sun goes away. That’s when the cats came home.” Boggel wants to tell her that meerkats aren’t cats, but ends up smiling. “You think something funny, maybe?”

Boggel glances up at the girl next to him. Sure, she’s beautiful. Yes, she’s got a way of looking at him that makes him breathless. And oh! When she smiles, it makes his heart miss a beat… If he had the courage, he’d tell her that. Tell her, and then kiss those pretty lips. Tell her, kiss her and then get into the cab and…

That’s when he sees the little family returning to their burrow. He’s about to tell Lucinda to sit quietly while the meerkats approach, when the brave one – always the first to inspect strange things – gets up on his hind legs to see what the humans are doing on his turf. He’s obviously the leader of the pack, as the others huddle around him in a worried bunch. Two little ones – too small to know much about being cautious – continue their romping behind the rest.

And that’s when Boggel forgets about all his good intentions; for suddenly fate has opened up the door to a new level of friendship with Lucinda. There, just a few yards away, the two little ones were playing with a golden chain, with the attached diamond sparkling in the sun…

*

When they drive back into town, they gape in awe as all the townsfolk seem to burst from Boggel’s Place. People are running this way and that as they scamper to get to their homes. Surprised, Boggel gets down from the lorry to see what has happened in his bar during his absence.

The note on the till tells it all:

Boggel

We all went home.

You’ll find the money from the drinks in the drawer of the till.

Everybody is tired, so we went home early.

Vetfaan.

(We’re not coming back, either. Good night)

Lucinda reads the note and burst out laughing.

“Your friends; they are good ones, I think. You are very lucky man…”

And Boggel looks into those eyes and nods. Yes, he is lucky, so, so lucky. To find that pendant was pure luck. To have friends who grant you a bit of space when you need it, is precious. To see Lucinda laugh….

He walks around the counter to get on to his crate. “Now I can look you in the eye,” he says, “and I …” He wants to tell her all the words he has been thinking about, stutters, and ends up saying, “I can see why you were sad. About the pendant, I mean. It is nice, er, beautiful. I’m glad”

Lucinda reaches over the counter to lay a soft hand on his. “I’m happy. Very happy. This diamond, it came back to me – because of you. And this diamond, I think is good-luck diamond. First Papa give me diamond, now you. You give diamond my Papa give me. I think more – I think diamond maybe say something about love, no?”

Somehow Boggel summons up the courage. “Um. Lucinda, er, yes…well. Mmmm.” He coughs, runs a hand through his hair and swallows. “Look. You’re beautiful. I…I’m not. I have this back, see? And I, well, um,  well, you couldn’t possibly…”

He wishes he could tell her the thoughts racing through his mind. About being crippled from birth. About the pains that wake him up at night. About knowing you’ll never be normal like other people. About being so uncertain that women will ever find him acceptable.

Lucinda smiles. She knows how men get confused when they can’t say what they want to say. She also understands Boggel’s deep-rooted uncertainty because of his deformity. But then again, something in the bent little man resonates with her – he’s clever, determined, funny, brave …  and honest. She really likes him. In fact, she likes him a lot.

*

The two infant meerkats cuddle close as the night wind brings the cold to the burrow. It’s been a difficult day, especially when that human started chasing them all over the show. The brave one shrieked the danger signal, the one usually reserved for life-threatening situations, like when an eagle circles overhead. Then the thundering feet, chasing, coming closer … and suddenly stop. The man picked up the plaything with the stone in it and walked away.

Humans are stupid. Why fuss over a shiny stone like that? Tomorrow they’ll dig up a new stone to play with – one that isn’t attached to the funny root-like thing the woman put around her neck.

As the cold seeps deeper into the burrow, the brave one presses his body closer to the small ones. They need the heat…

*

Boggle…?”

He’s switched off the light after Lucinda went to bed. He’s on the couch, thinking the words he couldn’t say.

“Ye-e-es?” He hopes she is warm enough.

“You a good man. Thank you.”

And so, the Kalahari slips quietly into the world of dreams. The creatures – big and small – fight the cold night as well as they can. They have to rest, for tomorrow will bring new challenges. In Boggel’s cottage, the woman smiles as she buries her face in the cushion the man usually sleeps on. In the darkness, she imagines him there, next to her, sharing the warmth of love she so desperately craves. And Boggel, poor Boggel, turns around on the couch. Beauty and the Beast, he thinks, as he dries the unwelcome tear on his cheek.

The Meerkat-answer

Lucinda allows the lorry to slow down in the thick sand of the Kalahari and coasts to stop next to a thorn tree. She needs time to think, to contemplate the unexpected rush of excitement Boggel has caused in her life. Listening to the engine creak as it cools down; she opens a beer as she sits down on the step to the cab.

Africa had been an act of defiance. She had to get away from the fighting and squabbling about money – the entire Eurozone crisis and the austerity measures made life difficult in Filettino, the small town where she grew up. Near enough to Rome to attract to occasional tourist, but far enough away to keep its rural atmosphere, Filettino is home to about 500 inhabitants. When the austerity measures to make Italy solvent again required them to merge with their bigger neighbour Trevi, the townsfolk revolted.

They are like that: independent, strong-willed, and sometimes even obtuse. Their mayor, Luca Sellari, declared the town as a principality and printed their own money. He said they needed to stand on their own feet, and that it was unfair to punish Filettino for the mistakes made in Rome.

It was her father, Marco Verdana, who prompted her trip to Africa. Go, he said, and look for a place where the people are more important than the politics. Find somewhere, where morals are worth more than money. Somewhere, where there is enough humour to rub out hate; enough laughter to kindle love and enough compassion to ensure kindness. And when you find it, my daughter, you come back here and tell me about it.

I am old, he said, and I want to spend my last days in peace. In Italy, we have many problems. People fight all the time – even our town wants to be separated from our mother-country. No, I don’t want this. You go, you come back, we move.

And so her journey through Africa began. With the considerable Verdana fortune at her disposal (her grandfather  was the nephew of Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of the Fiat company, and inherited a sizable chunk of shares in the original business), she travelled from country to country. Sometimes she worked, to keep the boredom away; but mostly she sought out the small villages to see how they live.

Was it in Ethiopia, or Kenia? Somewhere her knowledge of trucks and engines became a useful tool. Africa has more broken vehicles per square kilometer than any other place on earth and mechanics are in short supply. The time spent in the Fiat factory in Turin (her father arranged work for her there, every holiday, to earn pocket money) suddenly became her passport to acceptance wherever she went.

She soon added two and two together: if she started driving trucks, travelling in Africa not only became cheap (and she got paid, too!); she also got to places where the usual tourist would never see. And so eventually, at last, she found Rolbos.

When she first arrived in the dusty little town, she mentally ticked it off as just another of the small villages that dot the African landscape. Still, she kept an open mind and asked Sammie where she could have a beer. That’s when she met the funny little guy with the hump in Boggel’s Place. He was easy to talk to, a good listener and a man with an extravagant sense of humour. Soon, she found herself laughing at his remarks and told him about her quest to find a place for her father to spend his last days in.

Boggel told her about their idea to become a Republic, and how they also printed their own money. She laughed and showed him the notes they had printed in Filettino, with mayor Sellari’s face frowning at the world. Several other people arrived in the bar. More talk followed. Eventually she spent the night in Boggel’s bed, with him sleeping on the couch.

Now here, she decided, is a special place. Boggel treated her like a lady and the people embraced her with their kindness. But then, when Boggel served her breakfast in bed, she saw him smile.

It was an uncertain smile, the smile of a man serving a simple breakfast, hoping she’d approve. There was a gentle plea in that smile, begging her to see him – not as a deformed man, but as a human being, a gentle soul, offering her the best that he can. She saw loneliness in that smile, a solitude she was no stranger to.

An how can she forget the sparkle in his eyes when she complimented him on the meal? She had to look away, to give him time to wipe away an unwelcome tear. Was her approval worth so much? Did he want to please her with such emotion? She felt the tug of appreciation turn to … something much more. Was this what love felt like?

Sipping her beer, Lucinda watches the sun sinking in the west. This is the best time in Africa, she decides: the transition between light and dark, warmth and cold, a quiet time to contemplate the past and the future.

A movement near the tree catches her attention.

A meerkat! Oh she’s seen these little creatures many times on her trip through Africa; but this one is staring at her in deep concentration. Then another appears…and another. The whole family gathers, staring at her.

And then she realises – she must be sitting near their home! She’s parked her truck in their backyard…and they want to turn in after a long day in the veld. Scouting around, she soon sees the burrow, right over there in the ant heap, next to the tree. She gets up quietly, starts the engine, and watches them flee in fright. Letting the truck roll on a few yards, she stops to watch what happens. After a minute or two, the brave one of the pack scoots over the sand to disappear in the hole. For a few seconds nothing happens – then his head appears from the burrow again.

It’s like he scouted, and now he’s waiting for the family, she thinks. Soon, the rest of the group scamper towards the sanctuary, to disappear below ground in a huddle.

Smiling to herself, Lucinda drives off. Yes, she’s found the answer she was looking for. That’s how Africa works – if you’re patient enough, the answer will always be given to you. Like that little brave one, she has to consider the options and make a choice. If she’s right, she soon will be comfortable in the warmth of a family. A new family. In her own little burrow called Rolbos.

Dreams of Love

Servaas tries to concentrate on his beer and not stare at the tanned legs of the pretty Italian. She’s standing at the bar, chatting to Boggel and laughing at his jokes. She is, he must admit, extremely attractive, sexy and  … funny.

“You know, Boggel,” she pronounces it as Boggle, “I have travelled the world but this place, this Rolbos, you  – never have I seen such theengs. I theenk I like it here. Very much.”

Yes, Servaas thinks, poor Boggel will have no chance with this one. He’ll fall for her heavily – and when she leaves, guess who’ll have to pick up the pieces again?  Despite his rather austere and stern appearance, Servaas considers himself a man of the world. Why, did he  not rightfully earn the nickname, Nightrider, way back in his younger years? When many a young lady would sit at the window, waiting for the clip-clop of his horse’s hooves to announce the arrival of the most-sought-after suitor in the district? Ridder in die Nag – that’s what they called him. And the equestrian-sounding term did not only apply to his skill with horses, either.

But that was a long time ago – before Siena – and now he is left with the memories (or the wisdom?) of those days.  If he could start over, he’d leave school, start farming and marry Siena – in that precise order. All that courting and visiting, the late-night trips back and forth, the fear and the adventure, had been a waste of precious time. Nothing, after all, came from those visits, did it? He should have concentrated on the important stuff.

“Boggle, tell me more about these place. I love to hear?”

Ja, Servaas thinks, they all are like that in the beginning. They hang onto every word you say, they laugh at your silly jokes, and then they leave, or die – like Siena did. After all, no relationship lasts forever, does it? Somewhere along the line, the lines get crossed, or broken or lost…

Despite himself, he smiles as he remembers those days. The angry fathers. The worried mothers. The anxious daughters. Grumbling older brothers. Flirting younger sisters…  It was a heady time and no sacrifice was too big, no distance too far, to prevent him from saddling up and riding over to woo a rosy-cheeked girl. They all had the same routine: hair neatly done, Sunday-best dress, and the well-off girl on Weltevrede even wore silk stockings when she knew he was coming.

Then, later, when the parents went off to bed, they’d have a few minutes of privacy next to the half-burnt candle. It’s amazing what a young man and woman can manage on a couch in the time it takes the candle to burn down…

Lucinda gets up to peck a kiss on Boggel’s cheek, exposing enough thigh to make Servaas splutter in his beer.  Oh, how he remembers those days! The furtive glance at smooth skin behind the lacy top as Siena placed the tray with coffee on the low table; even the first time she held his hand. They were innocent back then, innocent and excited and in awe with the discovery of mutual attraction.

And yet…it all peters out in the end. No matter how he analyses the path of love in his life, in the end it came to heartache. Somebody leaves. Somebody dies. And somebody is left behind. Part of him wants to jump up and tell Boggel to stop looking at Lucinda like that. He wants to warn him of the heartache and the loss – after all, if you apply the brakes early enough, no crash will follow…

Boggel announces a round on the house, toasting Lucinda and telling them Rolbos has never had it so good.

“Servaas! Come over here man! You’ve been sitting at that table, watching the bubbles in your beer for hours at end. Lucinda, sweetie, if you move this way a little, Servaas can sit next to you.”

Lucinda watches as the sad old man ambles over to sit next to her.

“Yes please. You’re Service, no? Do come sit here. I see much sadness in you today, it makes me unhappy… No want to see you sad, no? Come, we talk, we laugh and Boggle will make some Cactus for you. Maybe I make you smile again, yes?”

It’s funny how a word can trigger a whole set of thoughts to surface all at once. When last did he smile? Not the pretend-smile you use when you greet Oudoom in front of the church, or the thank-you smile when Sammie gives you a discount. The real smile, the genuine article, the one that gets flashed with a sparkle in the eye and a feeling of gratitude and joy?

“Oooh, you not smile that much? Maybe you are very serious?” She frowns in mock anger, then bursts out laughing. “No, Service, you much too – how you say – silenzioso, triste? You have to, um, ridere. Yes?”

“Me? Ridere?”  Servaas suddenly feels the need to defend himself. This young girl is making fun of him! “I was called the Night Ridere in the past, I’ll have you know! I was famous, back then.”

Boggel has picked up a few words of Italian by now, and bursts out laughing. “Not Rider, ridere – to laugh, Servaas!”

“You do that for me? No? Small smile for a young lady? Please?”

Despite himself, Servaas allows the remark to tug his lips in a slow smile.

“Now, look how much younger you look. Suddenly, sad old man is handsome young man again. That’s better, Service, much better.”

“It’s Servaas, actually, miss.”

Lucinda’s hand flies to her mouth. “Oh no! I have offended you? I’m so sorree…”

Servaas sees the concern in her eyes and finds himself patting her on the shoulder. In that single moment he recognises the loneliness of the Italian woman. Like himself, she’s been looking for a companion, a friend, somebody to share a bit of life with. She has the softness, the kindness, that is so rare…

“You’re a lucky man, Boggel,” he says as he gets up to leave.

He doesn’t want to spoil their day with old-man tears. They deserve the joy of discovering where their path leads them to. Maybe it’ll be bumpy. Maybe not. But they’ll never know if they don’t step out and start the journey.

Yes, Servaas thinks, there are many stop-and-start relationships in everybody’s life. Most of them end with a tinge of sadness. But life without love is an empty existence, is it not? And love without laughter is certainly impossible.

He draws Lucinda near, smelling the faint perfume she dabbed on for Boggel, and takes her hands in his.

“Oh, to be young again…,” he whispers as he turns to go.

“You theenk old Servaas… you theenk I offend him, Boggle?” She watches as the old man shuffles out the door.

“No, Lucinda. You made him realise how precious his memories are. All of them. I think you’ve made him happy.”

*

Gertruida says life is about living. She says that means we all hurt sometimes. We have to, she says, otherwise we’ll never know what happiness is.

Two-people Music

Kleinpiet and Precilla – with their on and off relationship that never seems to find peaceful waters – have been the subject of discussion lately. They can often be seen, heads together, in whispered conversations in the far corner of Boggel’s Place. While the others give them a wide berth (love is such a rare thing!), Boggel serves them by placing their drinks on the table next to theirs, so as not to disturb them. They’ll interrupt their conversation while he’s near, and continue whispering as soon as he’s out of earshot.

“What do you think they’re up to?” Gertruida can’t stand intrigue – she has to know everything. “Either he’s popped the question, or they’re up to no good. I don’t like it.”

“Let them be, Gertruida. If they have a secret, that’s all right. By tomorrow we’ll know, anyway. You know how things work here: we all know everything about everybody.” Vetfaan likes to think of himself as a bit of a philosopher. “I think somebody said: three can keep a secret if two are dead. And that’s true. Especially here.”

“That was Benjamin Franklin, Vetfaan. George Orwell said you can only keep a secret if you hide it from yourself.  So, we’ll just have to wait, I suppose.” She still has the puzzled frown, though. “I sure hope it isn’t something that’ll upset Oudoom. He’s been cantankerous lately.”

*

Oudoom certainly has troubles of his own. Not the usual stuff with Mevrou criticising his sermons or her remarks about his surreptitious visits to Boggel’s Place (only to keep them in line, Liefie. You really don’t think I go there to enjoy myself, do you?). No, he’s concerned about the way Boggel looks at that Italian lady. She dresses inappropriately (just look at that short skirt!), she’s not local (he had to check the Atlas to find out where Italy is – and it’s not even in Africa), and she probably belongs to one of those funny faiths they have in Rome. Mevrou said they have no Afrikaans Churches in Europe – it’s all German and French and Chinese these days. Then there’s the way she laughs –  a full-throated laugh with tears streaking down the rosy cheeks. Mevrou would never laugh like that; she has had a good upbringing and she knows how a woman should behave (at least, that’s what he tells Mevrou, just to keep her off his back).

Every week, when that lorry from Kalahari Vervoer stops at Sammie’s Shop, the same thing happens. She hands over the manifesto and invoices to Sammie, then she skips across the road to Boggel’s Place, where the bent little man waits for her with a huge smile and a cold beer. How can he, Oudoom, ignore the signs of an imminent disaster? If Boggel pursues the relationship, he can expect one of two results: either she’s going to make a fool out of him (where on earth would a woman with curves in all the right places fall for a barman with curves in all the wrong places?); or else they’re going to get serious and she’ll bring in a new religion, a new church and, (goodness me) a new pastor. Two churches in Rolbos? Not a good idea. A shrinking flock is the last thing he can afford right now. Mevrou said he has to do something about it, and he will.

*

When the lorry trundles into town, Oudoom is strategically placed to intercept the beautiful Italian before she gets to Boggel’s. Mevrou worked it all out: if he waited in the lapa behind Boggel’s, he can make as if he was simply looking for Vrede – and once he hears the lorry, it is a brisk walk to the stoep in front of Boggel’s, where he’ll accidentally bump into lovely Lucinda. Then, just like Mevrou said he should, he’ll ask her what her intentions are with the bartender. Mevrou assured him she’d take fright, give some lame answer, and get the message. And, Mevrou said, that’s how you solve problems. Don’t wait for them to explode in your face – she said – it doesn’t help worrying once those Romans start building a Cathedral on your doorstep. Don’t cry over spilt milk – keep the bucket upright in the first instance.

Then the fickle finger of fate…

Last night Oudoom waited for Mevrou to sleep, before he sneaked out for a quickie in Boggel’s Place. Knowing he would be in deep trouble if she were to wake up in the night (she’s got a weak bladder), he ate a piece of Roquefort cheese after brushing his teeth and before slipping in between the starched sheets. He didn’t notice the piece of cheese that slipped into the turn-up of his pants.

But now, as the lorry sighs to a stop, Vrede notices the pungent smell. In his training as police dog, he was taught to accost, apprehend or stop anybody with a suspicious scent. It must be said that Rolbos is a place of bland scents during the long periods of drought. A strong smell like that in the sensitive nasal apparatus of one of South Africa’s finest canines, demands attention. Immediate, and decisive attention, like he was trained to do.

When Oudoom reaches the stoep, two things happen simultaneously. One: he opens his mouth to greet her before launching into the speech Mevrou prepared so carefully; and Two: Vrede grabs him by the left arm (police dog training), to hurl him to the ground.

When Boggel storms out, he is struck dumb by the scene. Not only is Vrede sitting there with a satisfied grin and a piece of Oudoom’s suit hanging from his jaws; but also: Lucinda is bending over the hapless clergyman, who thinks he’s been struck down by something from the sky. Of course, it takes some time for Boggel to pay attention to the man and the dog – the pretty figure of Lucinda offers just too much to see.

*

Oudoom sips his beer (medicinal reasons, he assured Boggel, for shock) while he contemplates his next move. To go home and face Mevrou without delivering his speech, is unthinkable. He’ll just have to do it here and now, and get it over with.

And then Precilla appears. She’s dressed in leathers (where did she get that?), has blackened her fingernails and wears heavy mascara. A silver chain dangles from her right pocket, while her hair is combed upwards and held there by some invisible force. Oudoom blinks twice, and wonders if a horse of the Apocalypse dropped its rider in the desert. The shock is even bigger when Precilla sits down next to Lucinda and whispers in her ear.

Lucinda seems a bit dazed, but nods. Precilla gives her a sisterly punch on the shoulder, hitches up her pants, and saunters over to Oudoom like John Wayne does,  on his way to a duel.

“I’ve got feelings for that woman, Oudoom. And I’m worried. What’ll I do?”

Oudoom swallows his beer slowly. He has to think this one out – Mevrou isn’t here to help.

“Do you think I must try to go out with men, instead, Oudoom” Precilla switched to her little-girl voice. “Must I force these feelings aside, and consider a date … with Kleinpiet, for instance? Will that help to save me? Will it save Lucinda?”

*

Mevrou is extremely proud of her husband these days. Yes, Oudoom had that chat with Lucinda, and encouraged her to visit Boggel as often as she can. And just look how sweet and feminine Precilla dresses these days when she sits next to Kleinpiet in the corner. Nobody, she reckons, can fault the way her husband handled the situation. And, oh, just like Oudoom explained, he simply has to keep an eye on developments, that’s why he spends so much time in Boggel’s place.

*

“Are you guys going to get serious?” Kleinpiet asks Boggel over a beer a few evenings later.

“Nah. We’re just like you two. Lonely and happy to find a friend you can share thoughts with,” Boggel smiles. “Friends. Good friends. Who knows what it’ll lead to?”

“Ja, love is a funny thing,” Kleinpiet says, “it’s like music. Two-people music. If you know what I mean? That’s the secret we are all tinkering with. Even Oudoom.”

Boggel simply nods.  “It’s an illusive melody, Kleinpiet. Most people go off-key at some point.”

In the cab of the lorry grinding its way along the roads of the Northern Cape, a young woman hums a tune. It’s quite beautiful the way she harmonises the notes, but it’s actually music for two.

A Calabash Full of Wishes for Madiba

“We can’t have Mandela Day without a celebrity.” Gertruida has that stubborn look she gets when she can’t have her way. “And no celebrity will come all this way into the Kalahari to visit a no-place like Rolbos. They’re all tied up in celebrations in bigger places, like Keimoes and Pofadder. It looks like we’ll have just another usual Kalahari day, like we always do.”

Boggel gets on his crate so he can see Gertruida pout. It isn’t often that she does so, and he reckons it’s well worth the effort. She gets that ET h-o-o-o-me  expression. The cold has driven all the other customers home early, but he always enjoys his one-on-one chats with Gertruida. She can be very stimulating … but tonight she is in mope-mood.

“Unless we manufacture a celebrity, Gertruida. If we can disguise somebody to look like a celebrity, it’ll mean much for the morale in the town. Think about it. All we need is somebody to play along.”

Gertruida’s brow shoots up in anticipation. “You mean we fool the guys into thinking we have somebody famous in town? Wow! That’ll be something.”Then she frowns again. “But who will we impersonate?”

“Ag, Gertruida! You know how we all are. We don’t have a cooking clue who’s who out there. We dress up one of the guys, tell everybody he’s some big shot, and he delivers a stirring speech in a funny voice. Then he leaves, and we have something to talk about for weeks to come.”

By now, Gertruida is hooked. “Yes! … But wait, there’s more. We dress him up like a woman. Like Tannie Evita! Then, surely, nobody will be suspicious. We say it is Tannie Nkosasana, the new head of the African Union. She does have a funny voice, and I bet you – not one of the Rolbossers has ever seen her in person. A bit of boot polish, a wig, and a gaudy dress. Even seasoned ministers won’t be able to tell the difference. Oh, Boggel…you are a genius!”

Gertruida then spends the next ten minutes explaining who Pieter-Dirk Uys is, what the African Union means and how Mrs Dlamini-Zuma fits into that picture.

Two rounds of Cactus later, Boggel pops the all-important question. “Who, Gertruida, will be our celebrity? Kleiniet and Vetfaan are too obvious. Servaas will forget the speech. Oudoom will never try to fool his flock. We must get somebody else.”

“Sammie, Boggel! He’s forever cheating us with prices. He’s used to swindling, and he’ll have no qualms. He’s the ideal candidate.”

*

Sammie always works late. He’ll sit in the little office behind the shop, totalling sales and balancing it against stock. Gertruida once said he should be in charge of the big OK Bazaar in Upington, but he only smiled and said he liked Rolbos better. When Gertruida marches in – with Boggel shuffling along several yards behind – he looks up in utter surprise.

Boggel had the foresight to bring the Cactus along, so Gertruida waits for the tequila to lubricate her argument before she tells Sammie what the visit is all about. Sammie isn’t used to the volumes of alcohol consumed in Boggel’s Place, and it doesn’t take much to get his cooperation with the plan.

It is said that tequila can make grown men cry – or that it’ll make them incredibly brave – or both. You can see these reactions at most late-night roadblocks  in bigger towns like Malmesbury. The tequila-crowd will first fight off the diligent policemen, before breaking down in tears in the back of the police van. In Sammie’s shop, with just the right dose of Cactus Jack, Sammie has the brave-reaction. Of course he’ll do it. Piece of cake. What a wonderful idea. Etc, etc.

*

After a fitful sleep (Sammie has tequila nightmares, Gertruida has to write the speech, and Boggel wakes himself up with his giggles), they’re back at Sammie’s before dawn. Boggel is in charge of the make-up and garderobe departments, while Gertruida goes over the speech again and again. Sammie  – despite his headache – is a fast learner, and is just about word-perfect by seven.

Spreading the word about the state-visit (Gertruida’s term) is easy. Gertruida simply whispers the news to Servaas, and by eleven, Boggel’s place is abuzz with expectation. Ben Bitterbrak brought his family all the way from Bitterwater. Vetfaan brought the Platnees family. Even Oudoom is there, dressed in his Sunday best, and sufficiently far enough from the counter to appease Mevrou. Gertruida told Servaas she had to go to Grootdrink to pick up the illustrious guest, so when she stops in front of Boggel’s Place, everybody rushes to the window to get a look at the important political figure.

To be fair, one must admit Sammie is convincing. The pillow beneath the dress gives the right silhouette, while the two pairs of rugby socks (very strategically taped to his chest) complete the disguise as far as the body is concerned. His face, however, is a work of art. Below the Afro wig, Boggel’s work with the boot polish is a masterpiece. The cotton wads in the cheeks help a lot, as well. And, as a final touch, Sammie had his feet squeezed into a pair of high-heels, giving him and authentic wobble as he walks.

Boggel shuffles out, hand extended, to greet their celebrity. Then, as triumphant as Caesar and as proud as only a true member of the ANC can be, he leads their celebrity-for-a-day into Boggel’s. Gertruida planned it well, and had Kleinpiet start the tape with the Great March of Aida at that moment.

Tannie Nkosasana has to hold up a polished hand to stop the applause.

“Eish, Comrades, that is enough…thank you.”  Sammie waits until the room is quiet before going on in a falsetto voice. “I have many more appearances to make today, Comrades, so I will have to be brief. Miesies Gertruida must take me away in a few minutes, you see?

“Now, as you know, today is Mandela Day. It is an important day. It is also an important day for you in Rolbos. In fact, I’m sure you all are aware of the importance of this day. Comrades, do not think Rolbos doesn’t feature in our serious discussions in parliament. Just the other day I said to Jacob: Jacob, Rolbos is important. And, Comrades, he nodded. Yes, the president of the country – your country, my country, he nodded. He knows Rolbos is important.

“And that’s what I have come to tell you, Comrades.

“Viva, Rolbos, Viva!”

Platnees then joins in the chant, and leads Rolbos in a toyi-toyi, while the vivas! roll over the veld outside the little town.

Sweating profusely, Sammie has to join the dancing circle in Boggels. He can feel the pillow slipping, and has to sit down at the bar. Vetfaan is at his side in a flash with a double Cactus to cool the celebrity down. With a come on, Mrs Minister, this is just boere hospitality, Sammie has no choice but to down the drink.

Of course, Kleinpiet is next. Then Servaas. Precilla toasts women. Oudoom doesn’t toast, but he feels it his Christian duty to extend his welcome as well.

The situation might still have been saved, had Platnees not spoken up right then.

Hau, Nkosasana,” they are all on first-name terms by now, “eish, this is discrimination. You only drink with white people. Ag nee man, sies! Here, I brought you some Bushman beer as a gift. Come sit with me and we’ll share a calabash.” He pats the seat next to his.

By now Sammie’s pillow is thigh-high and the heels refuse to keep him up straight. He does make it to the chair and flops down, holding out an unsteady hand for the calabash.

Most people who have lived in the Kalahari know about the honey-beer that is brewed in the desert. It is rumoured you can run a tractor off the stuff, or use it to remove old paint from walls. One does not drink it, unless you have more than one gun pointed at you. Most people know it. Sammie doesn’t.

He accepts the container, admiring the natural form, and remarks that he’s never seen something quite like it. Then, under the unbelieving gaze of everybody present, he drains the contents with a series of well-timed swallows.

Platnees lets out a slow, admiring eeeiiish!, and claps his hands in appreciation. His gift to Her Eminence has been accepted; even more important, it was swallowed down in a way that expressed deep respect for his brewing abilities.

Sammie, on the other hand, doesn’t quite share his enthusiasm. By the time the brew hit his stomach, he felt as if a hand grenade went off somewhere below his diaphragm. His eyes bulged, his nostrils flared and he lost the one cotton wad from his left cheek. Boggel will say later that he saw a green tinge despite the shoe polish. Then, clutching his pillow in a desperate attempt to keep up the disguise, he stormed out. His shoes, of course, stays behind. If Gertruida didn’t open the door to her car, he would have sustained concussion as well. Gertruida says hangovers and concussions are bad combinations.

*

If you ask the people in Rolbos about Mandela Day, they’ll say it was a big success. Everybody had a good time, even that minister who came all the way from Cape Town. It’s funny how politicians act, they’ll tell you. They simply can’t hold their drinks down. And they have to pad themselves to look rich and fat. No, they’ll tell you, politicians are fake, they’re disguised as normal human beings; but they’re not, you see? If you want to know who they really are, you have to get them to Boggel’s Place – then they show their true colours.

Gertruida and Boggel will never tell the rest about Sammie and his role as Tannie Nkosasana. It’s not that they deliberately want to spread lies, they only think he’s suffered enough already.