Monthly Archives: September 2012

Lucinda’s Carnival

“In Italy, we have tradition.” Lucinda swings her feet as she sits on the counter top. Today she is dressed in a flared skirt and a blouse with a frilly collar. The red high heels are magnets that constantly draw the men’s fascinated gaze. Not only do they allow an exquisite view on her slender ankles – the men have never seen such long spikes on any shoes of any description. “When it is the last day of September, we have carnival. Beeg carnival. Lots of music and dancing. People do silly things. La Pomposo Carnevale. Maybe you have such a day, too?”

“Not only in September, Lucinda.” Vetfaan isn’t going to allow the Italians to outshine his Boere tradition. “We have the opening of parliament, strikes by miners and lorry drivers, and protest against poor service delivery. People dance and do silly things here all the time.”

“Not like that, Vetfaan. We dress up and are friendly. Here you do differently. We never put stones in the road or break windows. In Italy the police join the carnival – here they use teargas. No, Italian carnival is much nicer.”

“So what do you do?” Kleinpiet forces his gaze away from the red shoes to look (somewhat guiltily) in Precilla’s eyes. She gives him a knowing look – like the one Gertruida said lions have.

“Because it is the start of the winter in Italy, the men prepare the women’s houses for the cold. They chop wood, paint the outside and afterwards they have a party. Men in Italy, are very … how you say…amoroso?”

“You mean loving, romantic?” (Gertruida, of course).

“Si, that’s right. So, when winter starts, they know they are going to spend much time in the ladies houses when it’s cold. It’s an old tradition, but they still do it today. It shows the men care, you see? And the men, they do it because they think of the long, cold, nights. I think it’s a good tradition. You no do that here?”

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t.” Servaas fumbles in his pocket for one of his heart pills. He, too, has been watching those swinging ankles. He remembers the day he met Siena: she didn’t wear shoes like that, but she sure had beautiful legs.

“There’s some paint left over from the time we painted the church. And  I do have a stack of wood after we cleared the area for a new kraal.” Kleinpiet is quite enthusiastic. “As for a dance and a party – well, that’s no problem. Boggel can put up a CD while we drink. Easy.”

“No problem.” Boggel likes the idea. “Precilla’s bungalow isn’t that big, Gertruida’s house needs a lck of paint, and the Verdana’s cottage won’t be a problem. If the men tackle those houses now, we can be finished tomorrow. Then Kleinpiet can cart in some wood, and we have a carnival – just like you have in Italy.“

Lucinda cups Boggel’s chin in her hand, squeezing his cheeks like one would do to a cute baby. “You, Boggel, are a true gentleman. I think I like you a lot.”

Gertruida watches with a sardonic smile, but Precilla can’t believe her ears. It’s been months now that she has tried to get Kleinpiet to help her redecorate her bungalow – end here Lucinda manages to get it painted by simply mentioning some carnival? The pretty Italian obviously knows how to work with men. She’ll have to ask Lucinda about that. Such power! Such finesse!

Old Marco excuses himself. “It’s my back. I can’t do paint or chop the wood. I watch.”

The rest of the men, even Judge, get to work in the hot sun. Gertruida discovers more paint in her garage and Sammie sells all his paint rollers in a flash. Boggel, not to be outdone, buys some red paint for the veranda in front of Lucinda’s cottage.  Gertruida has taken over the bar, where the ladies relax with cocktails in tall glasses; she has a whole book of recipes for mixed drinks and they are working their way through it. Every now and then a peal of laughter from the bar makes the men stare at Bogel’s Place with longing looks.

“The sooner we finish this, the sooner we can join them, chaps.” Vetfaan is covered with paint – there is only one ladder in town. Reaching high to get under the awning, he mumbles a curse as he receives another dollop of paint on his chin.

***

They finish before sunset and troop into Boggel’s Place. The women are in high spirits and have a lot of fun with the paint-speckled men.

“She said: paint the house, not paint yourselves! Look at you, Kleinpiet! You’re a whiter shade of pale. And Boggel is red-handed!”

“Where’s Vetfaan?” Gertruida tries to stop laughing.

“He’s the green one,” Precilla sniggers.

Judge sits down at the counter with a sigh, leaving a trail of paint-steps from the front door.

“You men did really well,” Lucinda praises. “The houses look very pretty.”

A short silence follows as the men down a few much-needed beers. “So, how does this carnival go, now that we’ve done the painting and the wood?” Servaas is ready for the dance.

The women burst out laughing once more.

“What’s so funny?” Judge doesn’t like being laughed at. “We’ve been working all day. We’re tired. We’re dirty. And all day we hear you girls laughing. Or is it an Italian tradition to laugh at men?”

Lucinda walks over to her father, who has been drinking quietly in his corner. Patting the old man on the shoulder, she refills his glass. “Thank you Papa,” she says.

“Thank him? For doing nothing? While we sweat and work all day? Thank him for what?” Judge is really riled now.

“Oh, for playing along. He could have ruined the day.” Lucinda smiles sweetly at the people in Boggel’s Place. They really are good, honest men. She feels a tinge of guilt, but pushes it aside. “I explain. In Italy, we don’t have a Pomposo Carnevale. The men, they don’t paint the women’s houses. They don’t chop the wood. I’m sorry.”

There is a stunned silence.

“You lied to us?” Servaas fumbles for another pill.

“No. Not lie. Told story. Like you did; remember the tame lion? The one that didn’t want to share Jantjie?”

***

Precilla sighs as Kleinpiet closes the front door to her cottage. Kicking off her shoes, she flops down on the couch while he lights the fire. It’s getting cold outside – like it always does before dawn in the Kalahari.

“It was a good party,” she smiles, “and my house is pretty.”

And Kleinpiet, despite himself, says a silent thank you to the pretty Italian who repaid them so handsomely for their deception. He hasn’t had so much fun in years. When he and Precilla did their version of the tango (only one table upturned) they received quite a nice round of applause.

“And so are you, my dear,” he says as he settles down beside her.

Boggel’s Hand

Boggel stares at the man. Precilla takes a deep breath. Gertruida has never seen anything like it.

The man is in his middel forties, dressed to the nines in black pants, white shirt with a bandana around the neck, and shoes made from an unfortunate crocodile’s remains. His rose-tinted glasses show enough of the eyes to reveal the crow’s feet. And he is handsome in the way people think film stars should be. Amongst the dusty and khaki-clad men in Boggel’s Place, this guy stands out like a diamond o a black board.

“Beer?” A good barman will always look after your thirst before asking questions.

“No. I don’t drink.” The other customers in the bar nod – they knew this man isn’t normal.

“Well, what I can do for you then?” If he doesn’t want to drink, he must be lost.

“I need to hire this venue for a day – and a night. Poker championship. International. We pay well.”

Boggel shakes his head. “If I hire this place out, the townsfolk have nowhere to meet – or drink something. I’m afraid…”

“Ten thousand bucks,” the man interrupts him. “The thousand for one day. US dollars.”

Several low whistles echo around the room. Eighty-thousand Rands! For one day? Surely…?

“Boggel leans over the counter after getting onto his crate. “Why?”

“Well, it’s like I told you. Poker. I represent some of the richest men in the world. They meet four times a year, alternating absolute luxury – like the Bahamas – with places completely in the bundu – like here. They fly in, play for big stakes, and then fly out again. It’s about the atmosphere, see? For this tournament they want a place in the desert, far from civilisation, and with plenty of cold beer. They don’t like lodges and they hate hotels. My job is to look for a place in South Africa that fits their wishes. They want to dress up like cowboys.”

“Oh no!” Lucinda gets up and marches to the man. “This is another lion story, no? You make fun of me again? Tell me!”

Of course he has no idea what she’s talking about. “No, madam, I’m serious.” He takes out a fat sheaf of notes and places in on the counter.

“Take it,” Vetfaan shouts, “take the money! We can set up a bar in Precilla’s shop for one day, and these guys can play their poker here. It’s a good deal.”

People seldom hear about these strange happenings in the rural areas. The big news corporations follow the TV crews from strike to unrest, from war to upheaval; feeding the sensation-hungry masses on as much gore, lies and deceit, financial and natural disasters all over the world, as they can muster. Most news hounds haven’t even heard of Rolbos – go on, ask a few and see the reaction. So, it is hardly surprising that four of the richest men in the world – one Chinese, one Englishman, one American and the obligatory Arabian gentleman – never reach the hallowed pages of print when they play their friendly game in Rolbos. At stake is only a few million; a paltry sum for these men; for they come here to escape and enjoy themselves. They are very careful to keep under the media-radar – even the helicopter flight that touches down next to Sammie’s Shop doesn’t appear on any register.

***

And fun they did have! First they had a ‘showdown’ in Voortrekker Weg, with fake pistols and blanks, then they sauntered in cowboy-style into Boggel’s Place and waited for the barman to fill their glasses. Gertruida, who has seen all the Clint Eastwood movies, tells the rest the men are dressed like real cowboys, and that the leather protectors on their legs aren’t a new fashion statement.

Boggel is the only local resident allowed behind the counter, and the nattily-dressed hunk does the serving. It is all very civilised and Boggel will later say he didn’t understand these men. They could have retired to any old club or retreat anywhere in the world, but they chose to land up in Rolbos. Gertruida will say that is the point – these men get bored, and unless they do way-out things, they get grumpy and the world economy suffers.

“Men like those,” she says, “are able to push the world’s finances this way and that – and sometimes they do it for fun. But always, always, they benefit. If the Dollar plunges, they buy. If oil goes up, they sell. Money begets money, guys; people like these gentlemen can make or break countries.”

Of course they all nod and say ‘yes’, but the concept is just too large to understand. Farmers work with ground and with sheep – important things – and have difficulty to grasp the intricacies of cellphone giants, quantum technologists and billionaires. They correctly place those under the heading of Not Important, simply because such people care little about the little men on the street. Surely: if someone isn’t concerned about you, you shouldn’t be bothered by them? It’s logic, according to Vetfaan.

***

At nine that night, the Chinese gentleman stares at his cards in disbelief. Four Aces! In his entire poker career, this has never happened to him. The bidding opens, and it is soon clear that every one of them had a special hand. Brit has a full house, Uncle Sam holds with a straight and the turbaned man is happy with his flush, king high. Like peace on earth, this combination of hands is virtually impossible, but it happens, right there in Boggel’s Place.

Soon the stakes are sky-high and they all have all their chips on the table. The trillionaires look on in disbelief as one hand after the other is revealed; and when Mr Ho puts down his cards, a few seconds of complete silence follows. Then laughter – incredulous at first –trickles across the table, but  soon they are laughing and slapping each other on the back. It’s been years since they had such a lot of fun.

Their day of fun is over. They’ve all get back to their private jets and plush offices manned by skimpily-dressed aides the next day; something that puts a damper on their high spirits. Mr Ho is keen for another hand, although the rules of their game state that as soon as one player cleaned out the rest, that player buys a round of drinks and they call it quits. Rich people are careful with money, Gertruida says. Yet, in the flush of his victory, Mr Ho pleads for another game. Just one more. The other three, by then convinced of their opponent’s run of luck, politely refuse.

“Ha! Mister Balman! You like play hand with me? I play you for this bah. What you say?”

Boggel was completely taken aback. His bar? “T-t-that’s all I have!”

“Okay. I undelstand. So we play faih. You put evelything on, I put evelything on. Faih game. No cheat.”

To Ho and his pals, this is just a game. If Ho lost a fortune, he’d simply start buying some commodity (gold, platinum, oil) and increase the demand on a product in short supply. The price then goes up, Ho sells, and billions flow his way once again. Easy. The four of them egg Boggel on, taunting him, making him wonder if he has the guts.

To their surprise, Boggel pulls over his crate. “Right. Lets play. Only one hand.”

When Gertruida later asks him why he agreed, Boggel tells her that a fifty-fifty chance represent good odds. On one single hand he had a chance of becoming richer than the Oppenheimers. If he lost, he’ simply have to start Boggel’s Place next door – even if it’s a tent. According to his thinking, the Chinese man made a very bad decision however: if he lost, he’d lose big. And if he won, Boggel says, who would support the bar if Mr Ho ran it? No, he wasn’t worried: his patrons would follow him.

My Movie Star deals and Mr Ho snatches up his five cards. He sits back, his emotionless face giving away nothing.

Boggel don’t touch his cards. Leering over at his opponent, he growls: “Ye-e-e-es?”

***

They still talk about that game. The Chinese gentleman asked what Boggel would like to put on the table. Boggel said “Everything,” without looking at his cards. Ho said this is not the way the game is played. Boggel replied that wasn’t his problem – did the gentleman want to play or not?

***

“So he left, Boggel?” Gertruida can’t believe what she is hearing. “Left, and said he wouldn’t play with amateurs?”

And Boggel smiles and said yes, that’s exactly what happened.

“So, after he left, did you peek at your cards? What did you have?”

Boggel shakes his head.

“No, he chickened out; that was enough. I shuffled those cards right back into the deck, and gave it back to Mr Movie Man.”

***

 Gertruida says that’s the way you should run a country. Don’t kill your opponents – just allow them the opportunity to doubt. That’s a death worse than dying. They don’t have to know what winning (or not) hand you’ve got. What counts is that they must think they can’t match you. That, she says, is like the battle between Zuma and Malema, or Obama and Romney. Here, too, one will have to throw in his hand and walk away like Mr Ho did. The only difference is that the loser will really lose everything.

Boggel agrees, sting the trick is never to take yourself too seriously. That’s when you lose to amateurs. Politicians do it all the time, he says – and not only in South Africa. All you need, he says, is faith…

A Lion’s Share (of love, amongst other things…)

Kalahari Lion

When Lucinda asked about the history of Rolbos, everybody chipped in with snippets of information. That’s why the story of Jantjie Lourens came up. Gertruida – who knows everything – says she knew someone who knew Jantjie;  and Servaas says yes, his name appears in the  church register, in the fifties… he got married to Katryn Klopper. She moved to a congregation in Cape Town a few months after the wedding.

It started (so they tell Lucinda) when Jantjie Lourens was out in the veld, looking for a lost sheep. Now we all know how sheep get lost. They’re not very clever. Sometimes they wander off into the bush and they never seem worried about finding their way back. Gertruida says you get people like that, too. Occasionally – not all that often – a lost sheep finds a lost sheep. And sometimes they stick together. That one sheep you don’t find today, might very well start a rogue flock somewhere – and if you happen on it a few years later, you suddenly own a whole bunch of vagabond sheep that hates being kraaled.

Servaas says this happened to him once. He found twelve ragged and woolly sheep in the kloof on the other side of Bokkop a few years back. And yes, he says with bristling indignation, of course they were his sheep.  He personally snipped his mark into the ram’s ear when he was a lamb – and lo! all the new sheep in that kloof had the same snips. They had to be the offspring of his sheep – and therefore they were his. Gertruida remarks that  it doesn’t work like that. Servaas tells her Darwin was a heretic and the church rejected his so-called theories. That’s when Gertruida asks Judge to hold her, for she feels a sudden urge to strangle somebody. They laugh at that and Servaas, despite his age, blushes to a crimson red. Gertruida always says you don’t have to convince the other guy he’s wrong, you only have to make him doubt his argument. That’s where you leave the discussion, she says.

Anyway, Jantjie scouted high and low for his sheep. He waited at waterholes. He climbed the little hills. He looked under the thorn trees. That’s when he found the cub.

People say that Jantjie had a a sort of an epiphany, right there. His sheep was resting under a bush with a baby lion at its side. You know – the picture of the lion and the lamb? Well, that’s what Jantjie saw. The cub was a sign. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but he was sure there was a message in that picture, especially when he bent to pick up the lamb and the little lion growled at him.

“What happened to the lioness – the mother of the cub?” Pretty Lucinda is puzzled.

They speculate about that. Vetfaan reckons she might have gone hunting, and got gored by a gemsbok. And, Kleinpiet adds, the farmers in those days put out poisoned meat for the jackals. Jantjie apparently also looked for the lioness, but not half as hard as he searched for his sheep. “I mean: what do you do if you find a lost lioness? Ask her to be a better mother?”

The cub must have been about a month or two old and Jantjie couldn’t get it over his heart to kill the kitten-like creature – so he took the sheep and the cub home. Now, Jantjie’s father – Grootjantjie – was an avid hunter of all vermin that have developed a taste for sheep meat. He took it personally if something started chewing on the odd hind leg pf one of his flock. Servaas says yes, he was in that house after the funeral, and the entire living room floor was covered in a carpet  made from jackal tails.

So Jantjie had to hide the cub in an unused shed near the wind pump, where he spent considerable periods of time with the growing lion. Soon after that, Grootjantjie got sick – Tuberculosis was still common in those days – and had to spend his last few months in bed. Jantjie could then take the lion out for walks, during which he tried to teach the animal to hunt for his own meals.

Gertruida says lions are cleverer than sheep. You can hand-rear a lamb and leave him in the veld; he’ll start feeding himself soon. Lions, according to her, are like cats. Once they know how to manipulate you, they don’t have to slink around the veld looking for prey. Cats own you – they’re never pets. They will sulk until you feed them; then they reward you with some purring and then you feel good about yourself. She calls it Feline Logic. Or human stupidity. It’s the same thing.

After Grootjantjie died, Jantjie and the lion inherited the farm. And the lion, knowing his next meal would be served up in the big bowl in the kitchen, never even glanced sideways at the sheep following him. The two of them, you see, had become attached to each other in a strange way. Even when the cub was kept in the shed, the sheep would hang around in the vicinity, grazing quietly and baa-ing his reassurance every now and then to let the cub know his best friend wasn’t far away. The two of them followed Jantjie everywhere, and he simply had to make peace with the fact that he had an unusual entourage wherever he went on his farm.

Lions, Gertruida knows, grow to be big animals. In the Kalahari they can weigh about 200 kilograms. Jantjie’s lion (according to local lore) was much bigger than that. Of course, it is rather difficult to convince the average lion to get on a scale and remain there until the needle stops quivering, so one must assume that this one was a fully mature and healthy animal when Jantjie disappeared.

It happened soon after his wedding, Kleinpiet remarks. The next day, in fact. Jantjie had fallen in love with a secretary he met at the auctioneers in Upington. The entire distric watched in awe as the two young people fell madly in love and eventually got engaged. Jantjie couldn’t do enough for her – it was an endless stream of flowers, chocolates, little love letters, messages and even a bottle pf perfume from Omar’s Emporium.

People say the ceremony was a quiet affair; with the pastor, Jantjie, Katryn and the few guests who took their chances with the lion. Everybody knew about the lion, of course. The animal – unlike the sheep who seemed quite happy to be left at home – developed the habit of driving everywhere with Jantjie.  People also knew you can’t shake Jantjie’s hand – the lion wouldn’t allow anybody near. It took, for instance, a lot of patience to make the lion understand that Katryn  was acceptable company – and even then she had to walk two steps behind her husband-to-be and the lion. Gertruida says that is how the pecking-order in the feline world works.They also say the lion kept poking his head between the bride and groom during the service. When Jantjie put the ring on her finger, the lion let out an almighty roar that filled the church. A single second later Jantjie and the lion stood abandoned in front of the pulpit – everybody else had fled to the vestry and locked the door. Jantjie had a stern chat with the lion, and it took a lot of talking through the locked door to convince the others to come out again.

Their wedding night was – again according to local gossip – a much disturbed night. Jantjie had locked the bedroom door, leaving the lion ititchen. All through the night the lion kicked up a fuss, roaring and growling and later even making mewing sounds. Apparently Katryn woke up the next morning to find Jantjie crying in the kitchen. The lion had eaten his sheep-companion during the night.

She told her parents the lion then came in and gave her a knowing look. Now, Gertruida has her doubts about that bit. The only look a lion can give you is a hungry look. Or maybe an angry look. They’re not much different, anyway: both are up-and-down scans before the yellow eyes settle on the little pulse in your neck area.

The lion padded over to Jantjie and lay down at his feet, emitting the growl-grumble-purr big cats do when they’re satisfied you understand them and their needs perfectly. Boggel remembers the cat they had in the orphanage: it did the same (only softer) if you rubbed the spot behind its ears.

That lion doesn’t like me, Katryn said, pointing at the lion with a trembling finger; and Jantjie, who knew the big cat well by that time, had to agree. He had to do something. Precilla also had a cat, a long time ago. She understands a bit about the cat-mind. Cats don’t share, she says. Either they get your full attention, or they start scratching at your furniture. A real upset cat will hiss displeasure or even bare it’s fangs to scare you back into behaving yourself.

Jantjie took a long look at his bride, nodded sadly and took the lion for a walk.

He never returned.

“This is such a stupid story, Vetfaan.” Lucinda shakes her head. “I’ve heard many stories in Africa, but nothing like this one. Do you really want me to believe this man had a grown lion as a pet, and the lion didn’t like sharing this Jantjie’s attention with his new bride? So he ate him?”

“Oh Lord no, Lucinda,” Kleinpiet parries, “the lion simply took back what he claimed to be his. Look, he ate the sheep to show he would sacrifice anything to be Jantjie’s only friend. The lion set the example, you see? If the lion wasn’t prepared to share Jantjie with the sheep, then Jantjie had to do the same in return.”

“True.” Precilla leans forwards to emphasis her point. “Remember, cats aren’t pets: they own you. With dogs it’s different – they submit to your authority. Cats however, are much more intelligent and much more emotional. They can love, hate, share joy, be mischievous … and unforgiving. You do something bad to a cat, and it’ll avoid you forever.  Cats feel love. They sense loyalty. They detest being ignored when they want attention. But…,” she pauses a dramatic second, “he didn’t eat Jantjie.”

Lucinda shakes her head. “So what happened?”

“No, Katryn stayed on the farm for a while. She waited and waited, hoping Jantjie would come back somehow. Search party after search party went out, looking for Jantjie or whatever remained of him. Eventually a Bushman found the tracks leading off into the desert. One lion; walking beside one person wearing a number nine boot; the same size as Jantjie.” Servaas takes a long sip of his Cactus and smacks his lips in appreciation. “The Bushman refused to follow the spoor. He said Jantjie was a tokoloshi, that he was under a spell. They believe in witchcraft, those guys.”

“Weeks passed. She eventually moved back to her folks in Cape Town. A year or so later the farm was sold on an auction.  The marriage was annulled, of course; and she married a much respected surgeon a few years later. She became one of the first women in South Africa to fight for animal rights, and was also involved in the establishment of transfrontier parks. There were several articles in the newspaper about her – Gertruida kept a few – where she said that humans shouldn’t prevent animals from roaming in their original territories.” Kleinpiet gives a wry smile. “I think she simply wanted that lion to be happy. As long as that lion was content, Jantjie was safe.”

Old Marco doesn’t buy it. “No. I may be Italian, but I no believe this story. You joking, si?”

“Nope.”Vetfaan is suddenly serious. “I bought that farm. I just arrived in the district when the auction took place and couldn’t believe nobody else was bidding on the property. Anyway, I was happy with the price and moved in as soon as I could. That’s when I first noticed the scratch marks on the bedroom door. Huge marks. Deep into the wood. Only later, when I heard the story, did it make sense. That cat wanted to share Jantjie bed on the night of the wedding…and when the door remained locked, he tried to show Jantjie the sheep wasn’t his companion. Jantjie was. And Jantjie knew that Katryn would be next unless he and the lion reconfirmed their friendship. That’s when he took the lion for a walk. A long walk. Because he was the lion’s pet, you see, and the lion wasn’t about to give him up. If you think about it, Jantjie must have loved that woman a lot, to leave her like that. He saved her life, if you ask me.”

“So this is love sory?”Marco guffaws his sarcasm. “We Italians like love story. Only ours end better.”

“No, Papa,” Lucinda says gently, “love stories tend to have tragic ends. Look at our operas. This one, I think, has best ending.”

On cue, Boggel puts on the CD. He loves Sonja Herold, and especially this song. Turning to serve another round, he watches the crowd at the counter with a sardonic smile hovering around his lips. These Rolbossers! They can cook up the most fantastic stories ever! Get them started, and the one ofter the other will add another bit, another twist, to create a convoluted narrative of note. No, it’s not lying, he decides. It’s how our forefathers sat around campfires at night, entertaining each other. It used to be the way families played with ideas before television took the fun out of evening-talk. It’s a gift…

“Lucinda?” He calls her to the back. “Now let me tell you what really happened.”

“Oooh! You crazy man! I think you were all fibbing back there!”

“Yes, my dear, I’m sorry.” He hangs his head in shame. “But let me fix it now…”

Head thrown back, Lucinda folds her arms while she taps out a staccato rhythm with the toe of her boot. “Ye-e-e-es?”

“I’m really sorry. I am. There was no lion…”

“I knew it! I knew!” She hisses the words from between clenched teeth.

“It was a leopard,” Boggel says with a twinkle in his eye. “A leopard…”

African Rhythm

Wherever you go in Africa, you’ll find rhythm. Unlike China and America, Africa exudes a simple rhythm; a strikingly basic one; and it is not generated by small plastic objects with LED lights and earphone plugs. In Africa the beat often blends so smoothly with the background that one has to concentrate to be able to hear it. Only then do you realise that Africa is, in fact, rhythm.

Of course, music is part of this pulse. So is the flapping of a big bird’s wings; or the stampede of hooves across the Serengeti. You can hear it in the beat in a thousand waterfalls, or in the tapping of a humble toktokkie. Africa is filled with it. And people – even people – contribute to the repeated melody that makes Africa so unique.So do events, wars and history. It’s been like that since the dawn of creation. It’ll be like that forever. Africa’s never-ending melody of recurring stanzas will continue to mesmerise future generations.

Ben Bitterbrak; the dour, angry-at-life farmer so aptly nicknamed; doesn’t hear Africa any more. He doesn’t need to. Africa – especially the South – made him that way.

It started way back in the sixties when the brown envelope arrived. He still had two years of schooling to do, but already the government was busy preparing him to fight. They were clever; these faceless minds that made young boys want to go to the army. South Africa, they said, was the last bastion of civilisation in Africa. Look, they said, at what happened up North. The Mau-Mau murders; the Uhuru shouts; the English driven from Kenya; the war in Rhodesia; the bloodshed in the Congo…  Africa was burning and it’s coming to your street, your people,  soon…

While America reeled from the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s murder, South Africa staggered when the Prime Minister was stabbed to death in parliament. Daily newscasts reminded the citizens of the Red Danger and the Black Danger; the only solution was to fight, the way they had to so often in the past. Remember Amajuba? Victory was assured; as long as State, Church and Citizens stood together in the frontline against Evil.

When Ben turned eighteen, he proudly shook his father’s hand at Upington station. He was going to defend his country. Father and son knew the risks involved, but no sacrifice was too big to protect the hallowed ground their forefathers fought for.

Ben breezed through the training camps. He was an excellent shot, superbly fit and totally committed to the cause. His almost-reckless bravery made him an obvious choice to join the new battalion stationed on the banks of the Okavango River, where he donned the beret with the buffalo emblem. Promoted to corporal, he wrote home to tell his father he then held the highest rank their family had ever attained.

War wasn’t just trenches and explosions and guns. There were endless patrols, nights in the rain and malaria. Sometimes their provisions ran low or the water ran out. Back at the base, drinks were cheap and hangovers were common. And there were times of unmitigated boredom when sitting under a tree and waiting for time to pass were the only options.

It was a Saturday afternoon that the chaplain sat down next to him and sighed. I’m sorry, he said, staring into the distance. Your father was involved in a landmine incident. Ben remembers those words. Involved. Incident. It sounds so much better than saying blown to pieces in a senseless attack on an innocent old man.

Later, after the funeral, Ben Bitterbrak went AWOL. Unlike some of his compatriots, he didn’t sneak off to Rundu or Katima for a taste of civilisation and some freedom – he went on patrol all by himself. They killed his father. They… Sure as Hell – they were not going to get away with it. He’ll punish them right back.

Late one night he crept across the no-mans land that separated South West Africa from Angola. There’s a village, unnamed and unimportant, where a few old men and women stayed. The young men were part of FAPLA or SWAPO – it didn’t matter – and it was here Ben headed before sunrise that morning. He carried enough ammunition, a rucksack full of hand grenades and a mind filled with smouldering rage – the perfect combination to fan the flames of revenge. An eye for an eye

The village – a few huts and a communal fire – woke up that morning to a beautiful sunrise. The red and orange and ochre painted the night’s dark canvas with light as the villagers slowly made their way to the fire. Shuffling old feet carried ageing bodies to the smoky remains of the previous night’s embers where a wrinkled old woman blew flames into the bundle of dry grass she put on top. Twigs, and later a log, made sure they’d be able to make a simple meal to lessen the constant hunger they endured.

Ben had a clear view of the opening between the huts. He had a good rifle. Taking care to remain quiet and unobserved, he slowly got the gun into position. The little lever to select automatic fire was in the right position, the safety was off. At the range of maybe fifty yards, he wouldn’t have any difficulty to finish them all off.

While he was selecting his first target, an old woman sat down next to the fire. To his surprise, he saw she had a guitar – and she started playing on it. One by one, the other villagers started swaying with the simple rhythm – to and fro, side-to-side – keeping in time with the tempo of the strumming fingers.

Ben Bitterbrak released the pressure on the trigger, watching the scene unfold before him. A moment ago he was looking at the people – now he saw them.  They were thin. Hungry. Old. Defenceless. Living in the most basic of conditions.

And they were dancing.

***

Nowadays, Ben comes into town occasionally.  Groceries, paraffin, booze. He never buys a newspaper, and when he stops for a beer at Boggel’s Place, Boggel turns the radio off. Ben once told him it’s all lies, you can’t believe a word. Ben is strange, in that way. You don’t argue with him. There are embers smouldering in his eyes that tell you to shut up and move away.

Oudoom once rode out to Ben’s farm, all the way out there near Bitterbrak. Ben saw the cloud of dust and waited at the gate. No, he said, no more lies. Oudoom had to turn around and drive all the way back.

Oudoom said Ben wasn’t angry or anything. He simply stood there with his hand on the gate, waiting for Oudoom to leave. But there was one thing that seemed out of place, Oudoom said later. He always thought Ben lived alone. The little collection of huts behind the house was a surprise.

That, and the strangely rhythmic melody drifting on the wind. Surely Ben doesn’t have a radio there, does he? Or was it somebody playing a guitar?

If Ben had the ability, he’d be able to explain what happened that morning in the bush. Or maybe the music does it better. Once you understand it, you’d know why Ben doesn’t listen for the rhythm of Africa any more.

He doesn’t need to.

He’s become part of it.

(PS: watch the lady’s crafty left hand – there’s a lot of grace and elegance in the way she plays)

Precilla’s Tango

“It’s the tango,” Gertruida says. “Ever since Precilla started with this idea, he walks like that.”

Kleinpiet sits down at the counter after taking several small steps across the room. He obviously has to concentrate hard to keep his feet moving with the right rhythm, and almost stumbled across old Marco, who is reading in the corner.

“It’s not normal.” Vetfaan frowns at the empty beer glass in front of him. “Kleinpiet is a farmer, man. You can’t teach a real Boere-Afrikaner to tango. Maybe a sakkie-sakkie, or a simple shuffle – but not this Italian thing Lucinda is helping Precilla with. Oudok will have to order a new supply of those new pills. The anti-stuff. It helps for sprains and bruises. At the rate Kleinpiet is going on, we’re all going to need it.”

Boggel bristles a little at the remark, feeling he should defend Lucinda. On the other hand: Kleinpiet has broken three glasses while he was twirling around last night. As much as he loves Lucinda, he has to admit the tango classes are a bit far-fetched.

“Listen, it’s not the dance – I quite agree with you. Precilla is an expert, stepping around like she’s floating on air. The problem is Kleinpiet. He’s like an elephant on roller skates. No co-ordination. And when he finally gets his feet in the right spot, he’s way behind the music. I watched while Lucinda gave him extra classes. She made him dance with a broom; but he broke it after five steps.” Boggel has to smile. “When I suggested a piece of pipe, Lucinda said it might be fatal.”

“But what is this sudden urge to teach him to dance? And a tango, nogal? Its not something we do around here?”

“Oh,” Gertruida smiles, “Precilla may be thinking about the First Dance. You know, like at a wedding?”

A stunned silence follows.

***

“Now look, Kleinpiet, you have to concentrate. It’s only five steps, two slow and three fast. T, A, ngo. Like that.” Precilla moves her pretty feet to demonstrate. “You have to do it like that.”

Kleinpiet is secretly (but extremely so) frustrated. He has accepted that his faux pas with the clothing; and his efforts to sound clever resulted in almost ruining the relationship. Although he promised himself he won’t do anything stupid like that again, he still can’t work up the enthusiasm needed for the dance.

“Look, I’ll try. You know I want to. It’s just my feet – they don’t work like yours do. I’m used to the veld and the rocks and the fences. This fancy stepping is all new to me.”

“Kleinpiet, when I was small, I promised myself I’ll get a boyfriend who can tango. One. Two. One-two-three. It was my way of escaping the reality of being poor. The tango had a message for me: it was smooth, sexy, grand – all the words that didn’t fit into my world. I could close my eyes and see myself floating in the arms of a man who understood exactly how my mind and my body works. I wanted to be the extension of his power. A graceful walk into the future – that’s how I saw it.

“Now, I know it’s difficult for you, but you have to try. Just to please me. You will, won’t you, Kleinpiet?” She flutters her lashes at him during the last sentence and he feels himself crumbling under the weight of her plea.

“It’s not just the feet, Precilla. I have to lead you, bend you this way and that, and even swing you around. It’s very intimate. Very personal. I get nervous when you’re so near.”

“That’s the point, you silly. The tango is like love – you become one person with four legs. One in mind. One in soul. To me, the tango is the dance of love.” She falters now, not sure whether it’s a good thing to bare her soul like this. “But Kleinpiet,” now she uses a little-girl voice, almost pleading with him to understand, “it’s something I’ve always dreamt about. It’s childish, maybe; even foolish; but it’s one way of breaking down the barriers between us.”

Kleinpiet understands this bit. They’re both grown adults – mature adults – on the verge of breaking new ground. Both of them have had relationships of varying degrees of intensity before and both of them have reservations about what it means to be in love. The baggage, he thinks, the baggage can sink this friendship. However, if they can allow each other into a communal and shared space, it’ll help to make them less aware of the obstacles in their way.

“Look, Kleinpiet. I’ve danced with men before. The usual stuff in garage parties. I can two-step and even get by doing the foxtrot.” She can see he doesn’t like the line she’s taking. “But I’ve never done the tango. Ever. It’s as new to me as it is to you. I dreamt about it like young girls do – a dream you never expect to fulfil. Like the perfect life in suburbia with a husband and kids and a dog named Rover. Picket fence and a few roses next to the front door.” She feels the emotion rising and swallows hard. “And I know that’s not the way my life turned out. I’ll never have children. The house turned out to be a cottage in the desert and the roses are a few withered shrubs in the sand. I can’t change that.” She’s crying now, angry at herself. “But I can still dream about the tango. And if there’s one person – one person in the whole wide world – I’d like to tango with, it’s you. Can’t you understand it?”

The human brain remains a mystery to even the most brilliant scientists today. How does it work? Where do thoughts come from? How do we conjure up images in the grey slush between our ears? We simply don’t know. It’s a miracle; an unexplainable process that we live with. We accept it as an everyday (everysecond?)  happening, which we seldom stop to analyse.

In Kleinpiet’s mind an unused neuron suddenly discovers a new protein. It’s called an engram, and it’s unique – he’s never known about this microscopic cell before. Yet, this single protein conjures up a line of thoughts; a series of images in Kleinpiet’s brain.

Precilla’s words and her emotion set this neuron off. People may say she touched a nerve – and maybe that’s much nearer to the scientific truth than we ever considered.

In that micro-second, Kleinpiet sees Precilla as she really is – a young girl trapped inside the body of a mature woman. The years roll back to a time of hope and innocence, when they both believed the world was their stage and the audience was waiting with bated breath. An invisible hand tears the pages from their history books, the war disappears, the tears get wiped. This, the neuron tells him, is possible. He can start anew. It is possible to make this woman’s dream come true. With her at his side, there is nothing he cannot face.

This neuron waited a lifetime for this moment. We call it self-discovery or acceptance or even love. One day a clever laboratory assistant will duplicate the process in a test tube, and the world will change. But now, inside Kleinpiet’s head, the engram-protein is working its magic.

He sees her watching him in this timeless moment. She wants him to answer, to laugh, to reject, to respond, to accept. Anything – but after she’s put her soul on the line, he cannot remain silent. Tell her, the neuron commands, and then dance her breath away.

***

It’s almost closing time and Boggel is serving the last round, when Vetfaan looks at his watch.

“Kleinpiet hasn’t been in tonight. I wonder if he has problems on the farm?”

“Don’t you listen, Vetfaan?” Gertruida cups a hand behind her ear. Faintly, above the buzz of conversation, faint music can be heard.

“Are they still at it? Gee whiz! That’s the third evening in a row. I never thought Kleinpiet would persevere. That tango-thing is a difficult thing.” He is quiet for a while before coming to a decision. “He’s too clumsy. He can’t dance.”

“Oh,” Gertruida says, because she knows everything, “I think you’re wrong. And…,” she wags a playful and naughty finger at Vetfaan, “I’m not sure they have their feet on the ground right now.”

Poor Gertruida. She doesn’t know everything. She’s right about one thing, though: inside Precilla’s cottage two people are dancing as one. They’re moving in perfect harmony, two slow, three fast. They sway and bend and tangle and float across the wooden floor while the music takes them back to the beginning, where they have to be: where innocence and hope are the keys to opening the new door they face. And yes – it’s as if their feet never touch the floor; like it should be; while the dance fuses the past and the future together in the sweet and sacred, intricate and delicate web we call Life. It is a dance of leading and following -blending into a common purpose.

It is the tango. Latin: tangere: to touch. Without it, Life means nothing…

Kleinpiet’s Chop

It is National Braai Day, one of the few official holidays celebrated in Rolbos. Woman’s Day does get recognised, but there are no youths or workers to be honoured with a single day. We’re all workers, anyway, Servaas said once, and we celebrate that every day in Boggel’s. It’s typical of the government to try to restrict us to one day a year. Well. Well show them! Easter and Christmas, on the other hand, aren’t viewed as real holidays – more like Sundays. And in Rolbos, the only difference between Saturday and Sunday is that Oudoom has to work on the latter.

Maybe the one who’s most excited about the day, is Vrede. He knows he’s going to get the leftovers and the bones. Being the diligent dog he is, he has already dug a number of holes to bury the excesses he won’t be able to handle today.

“That dog is as excited as a kid at Christmas time,” Lucinda tells Boggel. “Look at him! I’ve never seen him so happy.”

“It doesn’t take much, does it? The stuff we’re not going to eat is going to make his day. Wouldn’t it be nice if people were like that?” When he sees her quizzical glance, he explains. “Look, we always want the choice bits. Now, it doesn’t matter if it’s a meal or a friendship – we sort of expect to be served like kings all the time. Have you ever walked into a restaurant – and walked out because the floor is dirty or the food was bad? Or complained in a hotel that the room hasn’t been made up? We do the same with friendships: we always expect the best. If a friend makes a mistake or forgets a birthday, he gets crossed off the Christmas list.

“Vrede isn’t like that. He’s satisfied with whatever comes his way. He’ll look at you with those big, brown, pleading eyes, as if he wants you to deliver the most exquisite meal. And when you hand him the bit of sinew from your biltong, his gratitude knows no limits. That’s what I mean. People should be like that.”

When Kleinpiet walks into Boggel’s Place, a very surprised silence follows. He’s dressed in new jeans, a floral shirt, his church shoes and the pair of white socks peeps from below his pants leg. His hair is combed back, making him look like Jack Nicholson.  Old Spice follows him in an invisible cloud.

Precilla lets out a strangled sigh. Sure, they had a lovely time at the Oasis Casino, and yes, she did tell him she enjoyed it tremendously. But … ever since they came back, Kleinpiet has changed completely. It’s as if he is constantly trying to overwhelm her with his knowledge, his generosity and his humour. Last night he told her about the two blondes on opposite sides of the river. The one shouted How do I get to the other side, to which the other gril replied You are on the other side. While the joke is passably funny, Kleinpiet repeated it so often that it started to irritate her. The downside of that was that Kleinpiet redoubled his efforts to entertain her with progressively less funny stories. When she said goodnight in a rather abrupt manner, Kleinpiet looked crestfallen; but she didn’t care. She wants the old, rough Kleinpiet back – not this silly little schoolboy who tries to jump through all kinds of hoops to impress her.

Boggel pushes over a beer. “Trying to impress somebody?” Of course he knows the answer.

Kleinpiet has taken to trying to memorise The Upington Post – rather unsuccessfully, one must add – and now positions himself at the counter. Now he tells them about Syria: “I read in the paper they have a lot of problems there. The miners are on strike and the police have moved in. The paper says that’s why Italy’s money is in trouble. Oh, and they had a review of that woman in England who wrote a book about Harry Potgieter. She’s richer than that singer who died. Queen, I think.” He puffs out his chest. It took a long time to memorise all those facts. “Oh, and they’re going to get a new President in America. Mick Roomys. They say he’s got more wives than old Jacob over here…”

Vrede curls up on Boggel’s cushion, moving his fluffy tail over his face. He can’t stand the way Kleinpiet is making a fool out of himself. All he wants are the leftovers from the braai Servaas is busy with outside.

Kleinpiet swaggers over to where Precilla is sitting. “I’ve taken a new interest in life since you happened,” he informs her. “You make me think about things. Before, I only worried about the farm.” He takes a swig of beer, burping enthusiastically afterwards.

“It’s off,” she says softly. “I can’t do this.”

Kleinpiet blanches. “What…”

She wipes away an unwanted tear and seems to gather her thoughts while she folds her hands on her lap. “I used to like you, Kleinpiet.” The words become a torrent as she talks about the way things used to be. “Now look at you? You’re somebody I don’t know any more. What are you trying to do, anyway? Impress me with the fact that you have white socks? That you know such a lot? That you tell silly jokes? No, Kleinpiet, I’m not impressed. I think I must leave now.”

“But … but we haven’t eaten yet.” The smell of Servaas’ braai outside is the only thing that makes sense to him right now. He’s tried so hard! Precilla is a most desirable woman, and they’ve tried to establish a relationship in the past – and only remained acquaintances. Obviously he had to do something more. Something different. And now this…?

“Give mine to Vrede. At least he’ll be able to enjoy it. I won’t.”

***

After Precilla stormed out, a gloomy and subdued atmosphere settles in Boggel’s Place.

“National Braai Day! More like National Catastrophic Day, if you ask me.” Gertruida echoes the feelings of the little crowd. “Well, so much for celebrations, I suppose. Judge and I are going to finish our lunch and then go for a walk.”

It looks as if Kleinpiet has shrunk in the last few minutes. He remained seated after Precilla left, silent in his remorse and embarrassed at the hushed tones of conversation around him. Old Marco takes pity on him and shuffles over with a plate of braaivleis.

“I can’t eat now, thanks. Give it to Vrede.” His words are hardly audible. “I’ve been a fool…”

When Marco offers the meat to Vrede, the dog sniffs at it and takes it gently between his front teeth. Then he jogs out to the street.

***

Precilla looks up as Vrede pads into her room to deposit the chop at her feet.

Pavlov says dogs don’t think much. That they learn certain actions, and that they then expect certain rewards. Maybe that great scientist didn’t travel enough. He should have visited Rolbos before he started ringing bells and feeding animals.

Vrede, at Precilla’s feet, pushes the meat towards her with his nose, before staring at her with his doggy eyes. And n that brief moment, something flashed between the two of them. She saw him pleading, begging her to take the meat. It’s a peace offering, his eyes tell her. You are feeling miserable. Your friend is feeling miserable. Even the town, Precilla, is feeling miserable. There’s only one person in the whole world that can fix this.

***

Kleinpiet doesn’t dress fancy anymore. Pete was overjoyed when Kleinpiet presented him with an almost-full bottle of Old Spice.

Vrede watches the little mounds of earth on his hidden treasures very carefully. He must remember where he buried every scarp, every bone. The time will come when he wants to dig up a titbit  - that’s why he’ll do the rounds every so often to check whether his caches are still okay.

Precilla does the same. There’s a well-hidden treasure waiting for her deep inside Kleinpiet. She’s not going to allow him to spoil it again.

The Rolbos Fib

There are two types of laughter. The one is when you think something is funny. Today, however, there is a sense of gloom in Rolbos. Nobody’s laughing.

“If that shop comes to Rolbos, Sammie is finished. Those guys buy huge amounts of stuff at knock-down prices; then they sell cheap. Sammie has to drive to Upington for every toilet roll, and then he has to buy at the supermarket there. Of course things are more expensive in Rolbos – but it saves us the time and expense of going to Upington ourselves. Those big guys will throttle Sammie. He’ll have to leave.”

Vetfaan drums an impatient set of fingers on the counter. This won’t do. What Kleinpiet just told him, is most upsetting.

“But why would they come here? There are only a few of us, and it’ll take years to show profit on the initial outlay.”

“No man, it’s a war between the two big chains. Each of them wants to claim that they are the best represented brand in South Africa. Now they have stores in Calvinia and Prieska – even Springbok – and apparently they are neck on neck. So this man walks in here this morning, asking if the other guys have been here. When I tell him no, his face lights up and he tells me the whole story. One more store, he said, and they’d go public. Huge publicity stunt. He says it’s not unusual for them to spend thousands of Rands on an advert – so they’re not too worried. If they beat the opposition, they’ll get their money back, anyway.”

“But in the process, Sammie has to close his doors? That’s not fair.” Vetfaan can’t imagine Rolbos without Sammie. He can source a clutch for a tractor as easily as he can find a champion ram for sale. “I mean, it’s not just the condensed milk and the potatoes I’m worried about. Last year he even found you a windscreen for that old Ford. We have to do something.”

“Well, that man said he’d be back next week for a site inspection. Said they could either build a new place or take over Sammie’s place; but they’re in a hurry. They want to settle the score with their rivals before the end of the month. Something to do with Christmas and a national advertising campaign.”

In the days before the inspection, the townsfolk hold several meetings. All of them start in a somber atmosphere; but as the Cactus starts working it’s magic, the suggestions get more and more absurd. Servaas offered to lay siege on Upington with his rifle. Vetfaan wanted to dig trenches across the road to Grootdrink. The judge suggested an interdict. On the evening before the arrival of the delegation, Rolbos is still in a quandary. What to do? What to do…

****

The dapper little man gets out of the new 4×4, followed by a rather tall individual in a suit.

“That is him.” Kleinpiet says. “And that tall bloke must be his boss.”

They watch as the two men walk up and down Voortrekker Weg (it doesn’t take long), before they stop in front of Boggel’s Place. They are in deep discussion for a while, before nodding and walking towards Boggel’s Place.

“Well, I don’t care what you guys tell them; but we have to scare them off.” Boggel has to whisper because the men are obviously in a hurry to address them.

“Gentlemen – and ladies – I have an important announcement to make. What I have to say, unfortunately isn’t pleasant and I would appreciate you remaining silent while I talk. Afterwards, I shall give the opportunity for a question or two.” The dapper little man doesn’t bother to introduce himself: he simply stands in the doorway with his companion.

“Did the vet say anything about Vrede’s rabies?” Kleinpiet ignores the two newcomers. “He’s been salivating again a lot lately. And that child he bit, doesn’t look so good anymore, either.”

“Ag, you know how it is with rabies here, Kleinpiet. It’s all over the show. Even my prize ram attacked me this morning.”

“It’s the water,” Boggel quips, “I told you long ago it isn’t safe here. The water seeps through that old sewage system the mine built when they were still here. That’s even before they found out about the radiation, of course. I heard it drives the jackals crazy, that’s why they attack the dogs. And once you have rabies in irradiated animals, you can’t get rid of it.”

“No, it’s not that.” Servaas isn’t used to lying, but the truth won’t help them here. “That dog has been eating too much meat. The sheep around here carry those worms that gives you water bubbles in the brain.[i] I would have remembered the name, but I’ve had some of that meat, as well.”

The two men in the doorway exchange nervous glances.

“Yes, and next year the state vet is due for the annual inspection. They’ll most probably tell us to move from here, like they do every year. But, if we’re lucky, we can handle him like the last one they sent.” Gertruida get’s a far-away look in her eyes and sighs. “And it was such a beautiful funeral. Old Koos Kadawer even managed to cover those bullet wounds. They never suspected anything, did they?”

“My headaches are getting worse these days.” One would never guess Precilla isn’t talking the truth – she’s got a deep and pained frown between the eyes. “Oudok says it’s the mercury in our vegetables. The miners used to dump their old batteries in the dam, and now the whole area is contaminated. He says that’s why I can’t lose weight, either – mercury is heavy, you know?”

“Ahem!!” The taller of the two men clears his throat. “My colleague here has an announcement. Would you please all shut up and listen? This is important.”

“What did he say?” Servaas cups a hand behind his ear. “The antibiotics I use for my diarrhoea has made me deaf.”

“SHUT UP!!” Both men shout together.

Knowing they can’t postpone the announcement forever, the townsfolk sit down and stare at the men. The shorter guy takes a deep breath.

“We came here today to inspect the town. We planned to open a shop here. Unfortunately, I have to tell you we won’t be doing that any more. We realise this is a big disappointment for everybody, and want to apologise. You must, however, understand that Grootdrink is a much more suitable place. It’s on the tarred road, has a bigger customer base and is much nearer to our distribution depot. Now, are there any questions?”

****

They drive back in silence, and it is only when they near Grootdrink that they feel safe enough to start talking.

“You didn’t drink any water there, did you?”

The dapper little man shakes his head.

“No. Why?”

“I’d hate to see you like that.” The taller man smiles wryly.

They both laugh at that. A nervous type of laugh. The type of laugh you laugh when you’re not sure what you’re laughing at. Later, separately and without telling each other they did so, they’ll burn their clothes.
The other type of laugh, however, will take a long time to disappear from Boggels place. That’s the funny laugh of people laughing at themselves.

[i] He meant Cysticercosis.

Soulful Sunday:

Bluff

Saturdays  are quiet days in the Rolbos district. The sheep munch away at the stunted vegetation, the occasional Oryx gallops regally across the vast open spaces and Vrede will follow the shade around Boggel’s Place as the day wears on. It’s as if the animals sense the slacking of pace in the Kalahari as the farmers and townsfolk gather in the little bar to reflect on the events of the past week.

Usually, talk around the counter will centre around the drought and the price of diesel. Or somebody might make a remark about the Springboks and the way the referee bungled the last game. On exceptionally quiet days, the patrons will share a comfortable silence.

Usually.

Lately, however, there is much to talk about. With knowing glances towards Boggel and Lucinda – or winks when they talk about Gertruida and Judge – the townsfolk wonder and admire the romances that blossom in the small town. And, with Kleinpiet apparently making slow but steady progress in his clumsy attempts to woo Precilla, the conversations are lively, speculative and varied.

“The one man that needs help with his love-throttle is Servaas. He wears his black suit all the time, and finds fault with everything. Even Oudoom has been avoiding him lately. If we can get some woman to fluff up his feathers a bit, he’d be in a better mood. “  Boggel talks from below the counter, where Lucinda has joined him on his cushion.

“Forget it. That mechanism is so ancient; if some dame puts her foot on that pedal, it’ll break off.” Vetfaan orders another round. “And I’m sure he can’t remember what to do, anyway. No, if we want to improve his mood, we’ll have to think of something else.”

“I’m not sure if that is possible,”  Precilla smiles shyly. “He’s angry about everything. The new organ is too loud, Oudoom hasn’t said anything about Frans and Pete, and he twisted his ankle in that pothole outside. I think there’s nothing we can do. Maybe he’ll get better if we simply leave him alone.”

“Not a good idea, Sweetie.” Kleinpiet doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. “That old man has a way of simmering, building up steam – and then exploding. What we’ve seem so far, are a few mock charges. But … if something really awkward comes to his attention, it’ll light his fuse. I remember the last time he was like this. It was way back in the nineties, just after the election. He bought up all the baked beans and bully beef in Sammie’s Shop, dug a bomb shelter and wore his black suit all the time. He predicted a civil war. Well, nothing happened, and that made him even angrier. Then one day he insisted that Sammie must buy those supplies back. Sammie refused, of course. If Oudoom hadn’t walked into the shop at the right moment, we would have had our own civil war, right on our own doorstep. So, my thinking is we must defuse the old man before he gets to that point. “

“I’m to blame.” Gertruida drops the bomb without warning. With a nervous glance at Judge, she continues. “Old Servaas is jealous, that’s all. Before Judge arrived here in Rolbos, Servaas and me often shared a nightcap, or listened to music or simply chatted. I think he had a bit of a crush on me, and I didn’t see any harm in that. Two lonely people and all that. Of course nothing ever happened, but there you are: we were friends. Now, with Judge in my life, he most probably feels cheated. He’s angry because of me. I’ll have to fix it again.”

Judge Gericke puts a soothing hand on her shoulder. “I’m a big boy now, Gerty. I understand these things. I’ll go and have a chat with him, explain how things are, and beat the living daylights out of the old bastard. He’ll understand that; it’s how men settle their differences.”

Gertruida’s hand flies to her mouth. Not used to the judge’s sense of humour, she isn’t quite sure he’s just made a joke. He bursts out laughing.

“No, not like that, not at all. But I will talk to him. Being a judge requires considerable negotiating skills – you often have to mediate between various parties to get to the right answer. I’ll talk to him today. He should be in soon.”

***

Vrede looks up as Servaas shuffles towards Boggel’s Place. Dogs sense things. They are especially sensitive about moods and pain. They know when somebody needs a bit of love and attention. They also know when it’s better to stay away from somebody. Maybe it stems from the cavemen days, when an injured hunter had to be nursed back to health, otherwise there’d be no bones to gnaw on that night. Over generations and generations of dogs, survival of the fittest resulted in the canines we have today – they sense things. The others starved to death.

Vrede tucks his tail between his legs and scampers off. This caveman is in no mood to pamper.

Servaas slumps down in the chair in the corner, staring sourly at the laughing group at the counter. Drinking. Laughing. Soon they’ll be tipsy. Crack silly jokes. Waste time talking their silly little talks. The thoughts in Servaas’ mind are dark and gloomy. He can’t understand how good, Christian folks can spend their time talking nonsense. Tomorrow they’ll sit in church, holy-faced and pious, while they nurse their hangovers. The whole lot are two-faced pretenders, that’s all. He’ll have to talk to Oudoom about it.

Judge Gericke walks over with a dishcloth he borrowed from Boggel. With a flourish, he chucks it down on the table in front of Servaas.

“I challenge you to a duel, sir. A fight to the death. Right here, in front of Boggel’s Place, in Voortrekker Weg. The winner gets Gertruida. The loser will be buried with honour.”

Shock. Horror. Disbelief.  Silence.

The group at the counter didn’t expect this. Servaas is breathless. Gertruida feels the blood draining from her cheeks.

“Whaaa…?” Completely confused, Servaas struggles to talk.

“You hear me. We are both grown men. You have an interest in the woman I love. There’s only one way to settle this. Rolbos isn’t big enough for the two of us. So let’s do the honourable thing. And you can choose your weapon. I challenge. You choose. It’s not so complicated, surely? You do understand, don’t you?”

Servaas regains some of his composure. Why, this man arrives in Rolbos, flaunting his title all over the show and stealing Gertruida from him! And he’s always got an opinion about everything, expecting people to listen to his so-called wisdom all the time! Now he wants to make a fool out of him, Servaas, who has always been the pillar of righteousness in the community?  He feels the anger rising. Right! They’ll settle this here, permanently! No stupid judge is going to make a fool of the head elder in the congregation.

Getting to his feet, he snatches the dishcloth from the table and throws it back at the judge.

“Right. We’ll take it outside, right now. It’s time somebody puts you in your place.” With all the dignity he can muster, he stomps out towards the street.

“You all stay here, now. This is between Servaas and me. It’s a private matter and not a public display. One of us will come back. May the best man win.”

***

Boggel will say later that the atmosphere inside his bar defied description. Nobody expected the judge to act the way he did. And a duel? For goodness’ sakes – such things don’t happen in modern times!

For several long seconds they all sit there, transfixed, unable to move; totally unsure what to say. Then Gertruida lets out a drawn-out Nooooo! as she storms out to the street. On cue, the rest follow. Only Vrede, with his deep sense of decorum, slips inside to claim his place on Boggel’s cushion.

“I’ll use a gun,” Servaas hisses through his remaining teeth. “Like they did in old time. Back-to-back, twenty paces, turn and fire. That’s what we’ll do.”

“You use a gun, I’ll use my knife. I have a slight tremor, so my aim isn’t that good. I hope you understand?” The judge fishes a Swiss army knife from his pocket, flipping open the short blade.

“It’s your funeral,” Servaas says. “I used to be the champion marksman in the district. You’re going down, man!”

“Good. We’ll count the twenty paces, turn. You shoot. If you miss, I get my chance to approach you and attempt to stab you to death.” The judge is completely calm. “Are we agreed on these terms?”

“You’re even more stupid than I thought. But yes, I’m satisfied.”

Servaas scurries off to his cottage to return with his hunting rifle. In the meantime Gertruida and the rest plead with the two men to stop this absurd game. Judge just waves them off, but Servaas seems way beyond reason. Hurling abuse at the judge, he takes his position.

“I’ll kill you today!” He shouts. “Kill you dead.”

“Most probably.” Judge Gericke positions himself carefully. Back-to-back, in the middle of Voortrekker Weg, the two men ready themselves for the duel. “Of course, you’ll be doing in public, with lots of witnesses around. There’ll be a murder docket. You’ll be charged. Oudoom will kick you out of the church. And I doubt if Gertruida will want to continue her friendship with you, if you kill me. The crown of the winner rests heavily on the victor’s head, remember? But … lets get on with it. It’s hot out here.”

Something in the judge’s voice, or maybe the calm manner in which he spoke, seems to touch a nerve: “Murder? This is a duel! Self-defence. Protecting honour….”

“Ah yes, I can just see the court case unfolding. The judge looking at exhibit A and B. Please tell the court how you justify killing a man with a hunting rifle, when he’s twenty yards away from you and armed with a pocket knife.” Judge Gericke uses his formal voice to mimic the prosecutor’s question. “Not a difficult decision for the judge, I’d think.”

Servaas is angry all over again. “You! You challenged me! If anybody is guilty, it’s you! You are the murderer, not me. You forced me into this! The duel is your idea, not mine. I had no choice…”

Judge Gericke walks around to face Servaas. “Then I retract my challenge. I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life in jail – and I’d like to live a bit longer.” He folds the blade back into the knife. “But we have to talk…”

***

And they do. Vrede eventually comes out to see what  was happening, and found the two men on the veranda in deep conversation. The rest of the townsfolk realised the importance of privacy, and trooped back to the bar for some calming refereshments.

“….so, you see, I didn’t want to fight you at all. I simply wanted you to face up to your anger, acknowledge the nature of it, and get rid of your fury. I think you’re a sensitive man, Servaas. People don’t really know you – because you don’t allow people the opportunity. With Gertruida it was different, wasn’t it? You trust her, and you think my friendship with her is going to spoil your relationship. Well, let me assure you: I’d consider it an honour to have you as a friend.

“So, I have a better idea, Servaas. We walk into the bar, and I’ll apologise for my challenge. You accept, on condition that the rest of today’s drinks are on me. As a penalty, you see? You’ll be the hero.

“But here’s one more condition. You have to get rid of your black suit. The colour doesn’t suit you at all. On Monday I’ll take you to Upington, and we’ll get you something nicer. Now, what do you say?”

When the party becomes too noisy, Vrede leaves the cushion to look for peace on the veranda.  Inside, aided by an endless supply of Cactus Jack, the townsfolk are having a great time.  Some of them think the judge is a skilled negotiator. Others agree that he just pulled off an extremely stupid stunt. Gertruida can’t quite make up her mind whether she liked the way the judge went about the situation. Certainly it wasn’t necessary to go to such lengths?

Still, the one with the biggest smile on his face, is Servaas. In true caveman tradition, he defended his honour. He can see Gertruida glancing at him from time to time with a worried look in her eyes. And the judge isn’t such a bad sport, after all. His old suit is wearing thin and he really needs a new one. Scoring a suit out of the dispute isn’t such a bad deal.

But that isn’t the reason the old man is smiling. What tickles him, is the fact that the judge really though he’d shoot. He saw it in the man’s eyes. There were a lot of caution – and a tinge of fear – in those eyes when they talked out there in the street today. And yes, that gun is a deadly weapon most of the time, after all.

Most of the time. Especially if it is loaded.

Which it wasn’t.

Vetfaan’s Revenge

Kleinpiet sneaks into Boggel’s, glancing around to see if Vetfaan is there. Settling the little matter of the sheep may be difficult – if not painful. Much to his relief, only Boggel is behind the counter, shining some glasses.

“Vetfaan is looking for you,” Boggel announces unnecessarily, “he seems upset.”

“I can’t think why,” Kleinpiet says, trying to look innocent.

“Well, if he comes in here, you take your argument outside. Last time the two of you broke three chairs, a table and sixteen glasses. I don’t want that to happen again, you hear?

Kleinpiet remembers the fight about the ram that strayed into the no-man’s land next to the fence between their two farms. “I still think he overreacted. I mean – I didn’t steal the ram or anything like that. Only borrowed him for two days. And I personally took him back to make sure Vetfaan got his lost sheep.”

Boggel glances up with a smile. “Yes, you did. And about five months later your ewes had a spate of deliveries. Prize babies, they were. The thing that upset Vetfaan was that the ram was totally fatigued when you sent it back. You seem to forget that it was his stud ram, and that he wanted to make money out of him that season.”

“Ag, Boggel, you know how it is. You can’t stop nature when these things happen. It would have been inhuman to quarantine that ram on my farm. And, may I remind you: my ewes are the best looking in the district.”

“But for you to donate three of Vetfaan’s sheep for the church bazaar – under your name, nogal – well, that is stretching it a bit, isn’t it?” Boggel slides over a beer. “Anyway, you’ll have to come up something. Vetfaan won’t accept any old excuse – or apology, for that matter.”

***

 At six, Kleinpiet peeks around the door again; but this time Vetfaan spots him immediately.

“Oh, there you are, Kleinpiet! Was wondering what happened to you. Come on in, man!  Join us for a drink before we leave.”

Only now Kleinpiet sees Vetfaan has company. Precilla! He feels the blood draining from his cheeks. What, in heaven’s name, is Vetfaan up to?  He walks over to them with feet that want to run away.

“Boggel! Give him a Cactus. We have to hurry, though. Precilla and I are on our way to see the new show at the Oasis Casino in Upington.”

“B-b-but you can’t!” Kleinpiet’s tongue, like his feet, seems to have a mind of its own. Instead of the cordial greeting his brain sent down to his mouth, these words pop all by themselves.

“Oh yes, I can. And I will. And I did. While you were hiding on the farm, I told Precilla all about you and the sheep you so generously donated to the church. My  sheep! Mine!  Man, I can tell you: she was upset! So naturally I had to do something about it. You can’t leave a damsel in such a state and not want to help, can you? So I thought a change of scenery will do her the world of good. Who knows what the evening will bring? We may even spend the night in that fancy hotel – dangerous to drive back at night.

“So…bottoms up! Have a great evening.”

Kleinpiet has to concentrate to keep his jaw from dropping onto his chest. Now his ego – and testosterone – kicks in.

“Listen, Vetfaan! You drive out of here with Precilla, and I’ll…”

“What?” The interruption is clinical and vicious. “Steal some more sheep? I’ll have you know I have an armed guard on my property tonight. He has orders to shoot.”

“No, not that.” Kleinpiet struggles to find the right words. Precilla, he notices now, is dressed to the nines. She actually has dressed up for …Vetfaan? Because he asked her out on a date? Why hasn’t he, Kleinpiet, done the same – ages ago? “No. Precilla is special, you see?” He’s almost pleading now. “I like her. I like her a lot. And to think she’s going to spend the night with you … it’s too much. I can’t handle it.”

“Get used to the idea, Tiger. If you don’t keep your sheep or your girl from wandering into no-man’s land, you can’t expect them to stay on your farm – or in your heart. Somebody may just come around and nab them. Like now.” He hesitates for a long second. “Like I almost did.”

***

Friends – true, genuine friends – are extremely rare. They allow you to steal the occasional sheep, provided that they get the same opportunity as well. Like Vetfaan did when he found out Kleinpiet donated his sheep for the church bazaar.

And they’ll make you realise when you make a mistake – as Vetfaan did tonight. Precilla should have received an Oscar for her performance. She played along all the time, getting Kleinpiet to believe she was going out with Vetfaan. When at last Vetfaan burst out laughing and handed Kleinpiet the tickets for the show at the Oasis Casino, Kleinpiet stood there, completely dumbstruck.

“Now, Kleinpiet, leave my sheep alone. It’s such a hassle to climb over the fence and steal them back again. If you don’t, I’ll really ask Precilla out on a date next time. Who knows, she may even agree to go. Like they say in the movies: do you feel lucky, punk?”

“You mean the tickets are for me? For us?” Kleinpiet still doesn’t get it.

“I think you need a bit of entertainment for a change, Kleinpiet. Both of you do. I sure got mine tonight. Entertainment, I mean. Oh, the room is paid for, as well.”

“But why?”

Vetfaan signalled for another beer. “That’s what friends are for, you dummy. We’re supposed to forgive, forget, help and be kind to one another. Friends do things like that. They may steal each other’s sheep, but never their girlfriends.”

***

It is said that the most effective form of revenge, is kindness. Some may disagree, but Kleinpiet won’t.

Rolbos visits Mrs P

Somehow, Mrs P belongs in Rolbos. To those of you who don’t know her yet: Mrs P is in her nineties, insists on living in her house and is one very determined and wise woman. I used to write about my visits to her in the old Letterdash blog, but when she became so frail, I stopped. It felt like I was exposing her fragile and delicate state to the public – and it didn’t seem right.

Now, however, she is much better. In response to the many caring enquiries I received, we break away from the traditional Rolbos story for an update…

Lydia swings open the old door even before I ring the cowbell hanging from the security gate.

“She’s waiting for you,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

Ever since Lydia has been around, the house is spotless. I smell fresh tea brewing in the kitchen and something else – muffins?  The drawings against the wall – a legacy of her artistic days – no longer greet me in their haphazard, skew way: dusted and straightened, they now seem proud to tell me about her talent.

She waits in the bedroom, in her pyjamas and the red jersey with the little dog that says I wuf you.

“It’s Tuesday,” she says with a smile as I walk in. “You always say hello on Tuesdays, and I’ve been waiting for you.”

The transformation over the past few weeks is quite remarkable. After a lengthy argument, the family relented and now no longer insist that she should be in a frail-care environment. Lydia – a real angel – was the compromise. She comes in daily to look after Mrs P, and she’s very good at it.

“I’ve had my hair done,” she says proudly, and shows me the new nail varnish Lydia put on. “Do you like it?”

Yes, Mrs P, you actually look very sexy.

She laughs – a genuine, joyful chuckle – and says I’m a tease. Like last week, I have to tell her all about my recent trip into Africa. Her memory isn’t what it used to be, and she gasps and laughs at the same stories she’s heard a few times before.

“Oh, this reminds me so much of that trip I took with my daughter. The one where I met the man called Jesus on the train in Sudan…” She tells me about that journey – again. I gasp and laugh at the same adventures I’ve heard a number of times now.

We spend a lovely hour chatting. Lydia brings in tea. Kitty rests comfortably on the bed – right at the spot where the hot water bottle is.

Before I leave, I ask whether I can take a photograph.

“Oh, my! Like this?”

Yes, Mrs P. You’re beautiful just as you are.

 

When I leave, I realise an important fact: it doesn’t matter if you have the same chat every week. What matters, is that somebody actually wants to chat with you. Somebody is interested in your story. Somebody cares.

Somewhere, in the 50-odd countries where Rolbos is read, someone has an old relative. Or maybe you have a reclusive, aging neighbour. Or you have a parent in a frail care facility. Or something. If you do – well, take the time to visit; not once, but on a regular basis.

Pay it forward.

Some day, it’ll be your turn…