Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Sins of the Fathers

Dr Fanny Hiscock pulls off the gloves and smiles at her pretty patient.

“I think you’re just fine, young lady. Get dressed while I fill in your file, will you?”

Lucinda hates these check-ups, and avoids them as far as possible. Her gynaecologist in Italy suggested a yearly follow-up after she had some abnormal cells on her PAP-smear; something to do with a virus of sorts. He assured her it was nothing like the immune suppressing viruses, but still insisted that she should not neglect it. Now, with the prospect of a serious relationship on the horison, she finally made an appointment to see the visiting gynae in Upington. Despite her name, she has a good reputation. Gertruida said so…

The doctor is professionally friendly when she sits down at the desk. Yes, there are no signs of anything wrong, but they’ll have to wait for the smear. The blood tests will take another few days. If there’s anything else…?

“Yes. I was wondering about hunchbacks. My father has one, you see? Is it possible – should I ever fall pregnant – that my baby will be affected?”

“Ag, no, my dear. The chances are slim. There is a condition called congenital kyphosis, which may involve a recessive gene. That means it is highly unlikely to ever affect your baby. You obviously didn’t inherit anything like that, although you may be a carrier. That means only an affected man will put your baby at risk. But then – a woman like you will land the most handsome of men, and certainly not get stuck with a hunchback, will you? The rich and beautiful young farmers must drive you crazy with their attentions. No, sweetie, you’ll be fine.”

Lucinda doesn’t remember how she got out of that consulting room. She can’t recall how she wandered through the wide streets of Upington for the next two hours. Worrying about a PAP-smear is one thing, but now an innocent question and a straight answer suddenly upset her entire universe.  If she and Boggel were to get married, the chances are… The thought kept on circling around in her head, obliterating the happiness that existed there a few hours before. The visit to the doctor was supposed to be comforting; telling her to go ahead, and not to worry, everything’s fine.

Now, with dreams shattered and hopes  dashed, there seems no point to continue a doomed relationship.

Life is full of what-ifs. What if Lucinda never came to Rolbos? And what if she never realised what a sweet and gentle man Boggel is? What if she had a normal father? What if … she didn’t run into Mary Mitchell that day? What if Mary had a happy childhood?

Mary sips her coffee under the umbrella outside the Wimpy. She had to buy some cosmetics, and bummed a lift with Vetfaan and Lucinda when Vetfaan announced the trip to buy a new carburettor for his tractor. With her shopping done, she’s enjoying the milling crowds and the shouts of the street hawkers. It’s so much different to Rolbos: the place is alive with activity.  The music store across the street emits the sounds of Africa, complete with some shoppers doing an impromptu jive on the sidewalk. Like in all towns and cities in Africa, a few rather thin girls dressed in miniskirts attempt to draw the attentions of men, who try to give the impression they’re not interested. On the corner, a boy is selling cooldrinks from a bucket. A white madam, complete with the au pair pushing a pram, lifts a disdainful nose when she gets into her new Mercedes.

Enthralled by the throng – and with Vetfaan still not back – Mary orders another coffee, changes her mind, and asks for a milkshake. It’s been years since last she had a pink one. That’s when she sees Lucinda stumbling along on the sidewalk, completely unaware of her surroundings.

Telling the waiter she’ll be back in a minute, Mary runs to intercept the crying Italian.

In the time they wait for Vetfaan, Lucinda blurts it all out. The whole story of the virus – Mary says it must be HPV – and, of course, the potential to have abnormal children, especially if she married the wrong man.

“I hoped so, Mary, I hoped so my life would get direction now. Of all the men I can fall in love with, I fall for the one man in a million who will help me make an abnormal baby. It’s so unfair! My life is worthless! And with that damn virus in the background, I’m not sure any man will be interested in me, anyway. My life, Mary, is over.”

Mary has no idea what to say. Sure, she realised Lucinda had feelings for Boggel – but then again: everybody does. He’s sweet and kind and gentle; the ideal friend and companion. But to grasp the depth of Lucinda’s feelings for the bent little man, is a bit of a surprise; not a pleasant one, either.

Yet, it makes no difference. She and Lucinda are in the same little boat with this one. Lucinda may have a gene that’ll cause future problems, but Mary has a problem that is much more immediate.

Boggel shot her father: a crime he was never suspected of. A justifiable murder, to be sure, but still a secret the two of them have to live with. Lately, her frustration at her past has caused a lot of problems. She asked Gertruida about this, and was told that unresolved issues often exhibit themselves in acts of aggression. No, she didn’t tell her about her father’s death, only about her youth. It was enough.

“It’s as if the mind seeks to release pressure in other ways, Mary. You live with the guilt and the shame and the anger of your childhood abuse. It’s festering away inside you, despite the fact that your father no longer holds a threat for your security. It is those thoughts, those endless thoughts, which keep popping up to remind you of what happened. And you know what? Unless you forgive your father – and yourself – the problem will grow and grow and eventually boil over in aggression. That’s why you attacked Mother Superior. That’s why you disarmed Francesco.  For years and years the abuse has been festering away in your mind; and now that there is no more space for that, it influences the way you conduct yourself. You simply can’t compensate for the past any more. No, Mary, without forgiveness, these incidents will become more and more common. It’ll destroy your life. It’ll destroy your relationships with other people.”

“But suppose I suppress those outbursts, Gertruida? Suppose I overcome my tendency for aggression, to live quietly and calmly? I can do it, you know? For years I’ve been able to control my temper. Other people don’t see it, I’m good at it.”

The older woman got up at that stage to put a sympathetic arm around her shoulders. “Dear child, that isn’t the answer. Frustration has two children. The one is called aggression. The other: depression. If aggression is suppressed, depression will follow. Think about it: have you been sleeping well lately? What about your diet? And the quiet, dark moods you hide so well? The feelings of worthlessness, helplessness? That, and the impression the future is dark and filled with gloom? Recognise those? Now – do you understand what I’m saying?”

Mary didn’t answer the questions. Gertruida was telling her to do the impossible: forgive her father, forgive herself, accept the past, face the future…

She glances over at Lucinda’s red and swollen eyes. She wants to tell her she’s lucky, at least she can be friends with Boggel. She can chat and have a beer with Boggel without worrying about a time-bomb ticking away in the dark recesses of her mind. But Mary Mitchell, the sweet little teenager who wooed Boggel in the orphanage, is no more. There are dark clouds and flashes of thunder in her mind – conditions she has no control over. And even if she tried her best, her temper – or her moods – will ostracise the best man she’s ever met.

When Vetfaan stops his Bakkie, he apologises for being late. He watches as the two teary-eyed ladies get in.

“I’m really sorry. Really! It just took so much longer to get the spares.” By now Lucinda has covered her face with a tissue, crying uncontrollably. Mary sits, stone-faced, staring at the irritating people on the sidewalks.

“Jeesh! I said I’m sorry, for goddness’ sakes!” Vetfaan drives off in silence. Women can get upset ay such little things! It’s not his fault it took so long, is it? He wants to tell them to pull themselves together, but is wise enough to remain silent.

On the long road to Rolbos, one has to cross the river with its lush and green banks, pass the vineyards of Grootdrink, and then get onto the rutted and dusty track to Rolbos. It’s a kaleidoscope of landscapes – the Northern Cape at its best. In Upington there are crowds of people milling around, but in Rolbos they only have Boggel’s Place … and the church, of course. The Kalahari, one may say, is a condensed version of society at large. Most people get lost amidst the masses, where they are trained to watch the news every evening and to worry about Syria and the Congo and Greece. It’s as if it is important for those in control of the media, to make people worry about other people, provided they are far away. The glib news anchors will do everything in his power to direct your attention towards problems and conflicts that have little bearing on the way you dress tomorrow.

Maybe that’s what makes Rolbos different. With no TV – and only a weekly paper – people here care for each other. It’s an immediate thing. It’s a here-thing, a now-thing.

That’s why Vetfaan tells the girls he’s sorry – several times. And even if it is for the wrong reason, he gets wintry smiles from both of them once they hit the track to Rolbos.

“It’s not you, you silly oaf,” Lucinda tells him, “It’s just that we left something in Upington. Something important.” She manages to get through the sentence on the first try.

He immediately offers to turn around and get it.

“No, Vetfaan. You don’t understand. We didn’t leave it there today. It happened long ago…”

“Oh,” he said with male practicality, “then you’ll have to say goodbye to it, won’t you?”

“I can’t,” they whispered simultaneously, before exchanging shocked glances.

Daily Prompt: Audience of one

The challenge is to write a letter to the one person you’d like to see reading your blog…

Image

Hey there,

I’ve been meaning to write for some time now, but you seem to be everywhere at once. It’s difficult to get a forwarding address, see? Still, I hope this letter finds its way to you.

Life in Rolbos is bubbling along nicely. It’s a small community, although we do get a surprising amount of visitors from all over the globe. There’s a party on in Boggel’s Place tonight, as usual. They’re all here, listening to Gertruida’s explanation of the intricate way fracking will have an effect on the Karoo. She must have read something in National Geographic again.

The reason for my letter is to remind you that I’m still keeping that special bottle of wine for the visit you promised before the end of the year. You’ve been such a loyal reader of the unfolding events in our little town, and it’s the least I can do to say thank you.

Oh, and Vrede’s looking forward to your visit as well. He seems to have formed a special bond with you, and he gets quite grumpy when you stay away. Remember to bring some of those biscuits he likes so much?

Don’t worry about accomodation. We can always fit in an extra soul – you know we do. Kleinpiet has left a few chops and a string of wors in the fridge, and Vetfaan unloaded a stack of wood for the fire. Cactus? There’s always a  few bottles in the fridge.

So, you can see we’re ready to receive you with open arms. Please don’t feel like you’re intruding – Rolbos will certainly be the poorer for it if you didn’t come.

In happy anticipation,

Boggel.

Half-mens vs Willow

The arid wasteland of the Kalahari contains many surprises. Fountains of clear water occur in the most unlikely places, although most of them are hidden below the sand. It requires a thorough knowledge of nature to know where to look for the life-saving little reservoir, which often will supply a mouthful of two before the water disappears at the bottom of the little well you dug. The area is home to the graceful oryx, the gentle tortoise and thousands of elegant springbuck. Here too, the spoor of last night’s lion will circle your campfire (when you discover a jackal made off with your biltong) in the morning.

Vetfaan knows all about these things, of course. He left his supplies safely locked up in his bakkie before turning in. Now, with the dawn edging out the night, he emerges from his tent to add a few sticks to the still-glowing embers of the fire. He smiles at the lion tracks as he salutes the murky darkness around him. It is a sign of respect, a submission to the king of the desert.

Once or twice a year, Vetfaan will greet the people in Boggel’s Place, to disappear into the desert. He tells them he needs solitude, and that is true. He also maintains he needs the silence, which is (almost) a lie.

His camp is in the lee of a lone hill, where the thick sand prevents most people from getting there. It requires considerable driving skills to negotiate across the treacherous terrain and even Vetfaan is always relieved when at last he arrives to pitch his tent.  It is here, in this remote spot, a single half-mens (Pachypodium Namaquanum) has listened to Vetfaan for many years.

The visits started soon after his return from the army. Devastated by the experience of shooting and being shot at – as well as the death of Madelein – he simply drove into the desert in a futile attempt to escape the demons of the border war. When he reached this spot, he stopped. The half-mens was waiting for him there, bent to the North in a silent prayer that Africa would come to her senses. And there, isolated in silence, Vetfaan poured his heart out, told everything, and waited for the red, forgiving sand to seep up his pain.

He decided the half-mens was female. It was easier that way. The top half was straight and shapeless, but (he always smiles at the idea) at least the bottom half may have a passing similarity to some ladies. He called her – naturally – Madelein. Initially, he only thought their conversations. He formed words inside his head, knowing she’d hear them, anyway. Over the years it became easier to talk to her. He feels it creates a more normal conversation, even if it’s only a half-a-chat, seeing she can’t answer in the normal way. Half-chats with a half-mens seemed quite normal, once he got used to the idea.

“It was cold last night,” he tells her, “and I see the lion was here again, as well.” Like old lovers, they don’t have to do the good-morning-thing; it’s not necessary. “And you’re looking quite spiky this morning. I like your bald look – reminds me of Sigourney Weaver in that space movie.  Then again, when you grow your leaves in winter, it gives you that tousled morning-after look, like Goldie Hawn. I like that, too.” He smiles at the plant, knowing she likes being complimented.

He fills the old, black kettle from the container on the bakkie and settles it next to the flames.

“I need to talk with you.” It’s a senseless statement. Why else would he be here, anyway?  “About you being here – alone, I mean. Look around you – there’re no other plants. Oh, I know about the little bush over there, and the clump of grass next to those rocks; but they’re no real company, are they? And why would you choose to live in a place like this?” He sweeps his hand towards the empty horizon. “You could have chosen a better spot; like a willow, growing next to the river. But no! Miss Smartypants chose the desert. Alone. Forlorn. Almost forgotten. I don’t understand you.”

The dry desert-breeze sighs through the thorns on her side. This is what I’m made for, Fanie. She always addresses him in the diminutive form; Vetfaan likes it that way. Willows belong next to water. They’re weak trees – you know that, don’t you? Without all that water, they die. Now me? I’m different. You give me so much water, and I’ll die. I’m tough – I only need a little moisture. And when it rains, I store some of that water in my trunk. You say it’s for a rainy day; but out here, it’s for the many unrainy days.

Vetfaan throws a hand-full of ground coffee beans into the kettle while he contemplates this. “But that means you’re destined for a lifetime of loneliness. There’s no one to keep you company. Even the seeds you make float away to grow miles from here. Listen, I don’t want to be rude, but what fun is that? Being lonely, I mean? What about love?’

She waits until he’s poured the coffee into the tin mug and he’s settled on the log next to the fire.

Love is also a choice, Fanie. It’s not something that just happens. You can choose to love – or not. Your choice depends on who you are: is you’re a willow, you have to spend your life at the river side. You’ll have plenty of water until a flood washes you away. If you’re like me, you only need a little love to last for many, many years. And, of course, I never fear floods.

“But you still remain a lonesome half-mens, Madelein. Alone, with just the memories of the past to keep you company.”

That’s the test, Fanie. People seem to think love is something they can build a future on. They expect love to rescue them when times are tough. But look at me, Fanie. It hasn’t rained for so long now, and still I’m fine. I can remember my love – and that’s why I survive. Love – even if it is short-lived like ours – can sustain you through the drought. That’s why love must have roots, you see? To dig into that moment you made a choice. Remembering.  That’s where the nourishment comes from. Then you have to store it, otherwise it’ll evaporate. It’s the only way to grow…and survive.

“So you mean a little love in the past, may be enough? “

We’re not all willows, Fanie, I’m still here..

***

Vetfaan never talks about his excursions into the desert, partly because people may think he’s strange. Even mad. Talking to a half-mens isn’t exactly normal, according to conventional thinking. But Vetfaan always comes back without the anxious look he took with when he left town. Gertruida says it’s because he needs the solitude out there in the empty space beyond the horison.

She’s only half-right, of course.

He needs the company. There are lions out there. And jackals. We all do, when you come to think of it. There’s a pachypodium growing in each of us, if we care  to admit it. So Vetfaan camps there – in the middle of nowhere – to find answers.

And Madelein, the half-mens who refuses to be a willow.

And, of course … himself.

The Fountain

The two women manage to extract themselves from the throng at the bar. It’s been a long day of celebrations and both of them need a bit of peace and quiet on the veranda outside Boggel’s Place.

“Didn’t you just love the way that Francesco wanted to stay? I mean, he’s a hardened criminal and all that. He even apologised.” Mary smiles as she remembers the way the assassin greeted her. She now repeats his words with the Italian accent. “ Senorita, I do apologise. I have never met people like you. In Italy, I would be dead. But here, you give me food and Mevrou, she tell me so much.”

Lucinda nods. “Yes, in Italy… But after those sessions with Mevrou, I almost feel sorry for Giovanni. Francesco said he was finished with the Mob, but only time will tell. And let’s drink a toast to Oudoom: he was so patient when Francesco started crying.  Even Mevrou chipped in with her home cooking. “ The memory makes her laugh. “Whatever Francesco does now: it’s up to him. Some bad men can’t change, I know. But this one … maybe …”

“What is this thing with men, Lucinda? Some of them just never seem to understand the principle of respect. Or kindness. Or love, for that matter. Oh, and it isn’t just the men, I suppose. Some women can be cruel, as well.” Despite the situation, Mary giggles softly as she remembers the surprise on Mother Superior’s face when her hands found the sister’s throat.

She gets a wink from Lucinda. “Sure. Take Giovanni, for instance. He’s clever, he’s witty, and – my word! – he can be charming! I so wanted to believe he wanted to see me because he cared; but when I got there ….” A single tear streaks down her cheek. “I-I could not believe the things he said to me. He wanted to keep me as a type of … you know?” Mary shakes her head. She doesn’t want to hear it. Despite this, Lucinda continues; she has to get this out. “Like a kept woman. A plaything. Something to use when the need arises. He locked me in a room with bars on the windows… And cupboards. Three cupboards filled with gaudy clothes. School uniforms. Nurse uniforms. Leather clothing. Perverted stuff that made my skin crawl. I was there to please his stupid fantasies.” She starts crying now. “..A-a-and I thought … I thought…”

At loss about what to do, Mary puts an arm around her friend. She tells Lucinda – not everything, but enough – about her childhood and the heavy footsteps, late at night, coming down the corridor. “At least you aren’t related to Giovanni. In my case, it was my father. Family. Somebody that should have commanded respect. I don’t think this is a competition, Lucinda – but I do think you, at least, can now put this thing behind you and get on with your life.”

She gets a wet snort as a reply. “I’m not so sure, Mary. I mean; how can I ever trust a man again? Or, more honestly: how can I ever trust my instincts again? Giovanni is but one of many: every time I fall in love, I choose the wrong guy. I seem to have the ability to sniff out bad men, just like Vrede sniffs out the bones he’s buried. I’m doomed to repeat the same mistake, over and over again.”

Vetfaan coughs softly to make them realise he’s there. “I brought you girls something to drink.” Handing over the beers, he sits down. “You two seem to be extremely serious on a day everybody is celebrating. Is something wrong?”

Vetfaan detests being a bachelor. The lonely evenings and the long nights tend to depress him. But, he’s realised a log time ago, being labelled a confirmed bachelor does have certain advantages. Women accept him as not dangerous. They know he’s too shy, too awkward and too set in his ways to make untoward advances. Therefore: he’s harmless.

“Ag, Vetfaan, we’re just talking girly stuff. You know: about how stupid men are and such.” Lucinda tries to smile but doesn’t quite manage.

“Oh yes. I know all about that. The great mystery of a solid relationship. The reason most people get married – and then fight for a divorce afterwards. And then some fool tries to convince us that having loved and lost, is better than never having loved at all. Well, let me tell you: it isn’t as easy as that. One should be very careful about love.”

“Sure Vetfaan, then you end up living alone in a cottage on your farm. You start talking to the chickens and the pictures on the wall. And the rest of the time, you drink the days away in Boggel’s Place, wishing you had someone to go home with. What kind of life is that?” Mary pats his arm to apologise. “Sorry, I didn’t want to sound rude; but that’s how I feel about being single. I desperately want a companion, but the doubt and the fear and the guilt keep on stopping me. And, for different reasons and similar sentiments, Lucinda feels the same. We want to belong, but we can’t. So much water under the bridge…”

Vetfaan guffaws in delight. “Okay, ladies: the two of you can move in on my farm. There’s a shed at the back – the one we kept Francesco in, remember? Mevrou made me clean it up and Francesco painted the walls while we waited for Lucinda to come back. It’s quite a nice place now. The two of you can move in there. And, for good measure, I’ll be your man-judge from now on. Before you date anybody, you ask me. I’ll tell you who is good and which ones you must dump.” He reflects for a while as the two women exchange disapproving glances. “But what about Boggel, anyway? He’s such a good man…”

Ever since Lucinda came back to Rolbos, Mary has been careful not to discuss the issue with Lucinda. Yes, she knows they were good friends – very good friends – before Lucinda traipsed off to Italy to see Giovanni. And Boggel; the dear, sweet, sensitive barkeep; well, he seems to have taken it all in his stride. He was happy to see Lucinda. He was happy to see Mary. Did Lucinda’s trip influence his feelings for the Italian? And in the same breath – does he really harbour any romantic ideas for either of them?

“Ag, you know Boggel. Everybody’s friend, he is. He dishes out smiles like he serves Cactus – but it’s difficult to guess what’s happening inside him. I’m never quite sure…”

Vetfaan is a farmer. He knows a lot about sheep and drought and broken tractors. Talk to him about love, and he’ll most probably shrug. Yet, on this occasion on Boggel’s veranda, he tries to contribute to the discussion.

“Listen. You’d have noticed how many farms in the Northern Cape are called by water-names. Bitterbrak, Verlorenfontein, Rooidam, Kraaifontein, Koelwater – there are many such names. This happened because some farmer found a fountain or a spring next to a hill or in a valley. Some of these fountains were strong, and the farmer could fill up a dam with the water. Some, however, only gave enough water to slake the thirst of an occasional antelope or rabbit.

“Now, these fountains had been there for ages. A long-long time. Until the farmers came. They needed water to survive and for their ever-increasing stock and lands. They started planting lucerne and wheat, and obtained more water by pumping from their boreholes. Big pumps gave more water. More water gave bigger harvests. So they put up more pumps.

“Then the water table started dropping and the pumps ran dry. Desperate farmers drilled deeper holes to survive – until they, too, stopped yielding water. Eventually these once-rich farmers moved to the cities, where they worked in bakeries and service stations. Their ambitions  eventually killed their dreams.”

Satisfied that he told them what they needed to hear, he takes a long swig of beer.

“But that’s a stupid story, Vetfaan! What are we supposed to learn from that?”

“It’s simple, really. Only the farmers who relied on wind pumps, survived. They only work when the wind blows, and then they produce a trickle of water. Wind pumps don’t dry up the water beneath the Kalahari. It was the impatient farmer who wants to make a lot of money quickly, who depletes the precious  resource he was entrusted with. It’s a question of supply and demand: if there is just so much water available, it is stupid to try and pump out more. Sometimes, the fountain is all there is.”

Maybe that’s the big difference between men and women: men think in different pictures. Male pictures are simple and straightforward – female ones tend to be a bit more complicated. And sometimes the really simple pictures – like so many petroglyphs in the Kalahari, defy translation by even the most scientific brain. To Vetfaan the argument is abundantly clear: respect the life-giving source of love and never think it’s an everlasting thing. Abuse it at your peril. Simple.

The two women glance at each other. Vetfaan must have had too much to drink. They get up without a word to go back inside.

“He’s a weird man, isn’t he? Talking about boreholes  and water and pumps – while we’re talking about relationships and love.”  Mary shakes her head. “Now I know I don’t understand men at all. Maybe I must stop trying.”

Gertruida, as always, has been eavesdropping. She thinks it is the wisest thing Vetfaan has ever said. Love is a precious commodity, even a scarce commodity; something people expect to supply them with instant results. It is the couple who respect the source that will survive in the arid world we live in.

She walks out to put a soothing arm around his slumped shoulders. He spreads his arms wide to say he doesn’t understand women.

“It’s the fountain, Vetfaan. Sometimes the water isn’t enough.”

“Ja, Getruida. You can’t farm everywhere…”

Petroglyphs and the Man from Stone

“Isn’t that Francesco a work of art? Gee, since we’ve locked him up in that shed, he’s a changed man.” Kleinpiet is drawing weird little pictures on the counter top to as he speaks. “He even seems keen to stay on in Rolbos.”

“Fat chance!” Gertruida glances up from the book she’s reading. “We won’t let him. He belongs in Italy, that’s what.”

“True. And Oudoom is quite horrified about the things this guy does for a living.  It’s after he sent Mevrou to talk to him, that the poor man wants to stay. Apparently he is quite ashamed of himself.”  Vetfaan sips his beer, glad that he didn’t have to endure a lecture by Mevrou. “As soon as Lucinda arrives, we’ll arrange with Kalahari Vervoer to take him to Upington Station. Hopefully we’ll be able to close this chapter then – it’s been quite an experience.”

“It’s funny how life turns out for some people. I mean – we all get issued with the same sort of soul, don’t we? One soul isn’t a souped-up version with more attributes than the other, after all. But, in the genes we inherit and the way we are brought up, we turn out to be completely different to each other.” Vetfaan is on his fifth Cactus Jack – a time when he can get extremely philosophical. “Still, I find it difficult to think Francesco is all bad. Mevrou is right: he can still pull himself together. Maybe that’s what forgiveness is all about – trying to see the positive in everybody else.”

“The only positive is that man is going to leave Rolbos. Did you see the photo’s in his luggage? All those young boys! It’s disgusting.” A shiver runs down Precilla’s spine as she recalls the fear in the eyes of the youths. “I don’t think even the lecture by Mevrou will change that man. Sometimes people simply can’t find the way back, because they’ve strayed too far.”

An uncomfortable silence settles in Boggel’s Place. Francesco is arguably the most evil man they’ve ever had in their midst and it has had a huge effect on the all. Not only is he a murderer and a paedophile, they also found several bags of TIK in his baggage. When Mevrou asked him about it, he said it was what he used to get boys to like him. At first she thought it was castor sugar, but when Sersant Dreyer identified the substance, Mevrou broke down in tears.

Vetfaan, who kept watch on their conversation with his old Lee Enfield across his knees, told them about the incident. At first, Francesco laughed when Mevrou started crying, Then he looked uncomfortable. And then he took Mevrou in his arms to tell her how sorry he was. Oudoom said that was a miracle, but Mevrou shook her head. “No, he said he liked to shock people. It made them take notice of him, he said. But to him, shock and horror were the only ways he could make an impact on others. When he saw my sadness, it shook him to the core.”

Vetfaan said yes, that’s exactly what happened. Francesco discovered his shame in the tears of a stranger. Somebody who owed him nothing; somebody he didn’t even know – cared so much that she cried about his life. Francesco said this has never happened to him before; nobody really cared about him as long as he did what his brother told him to do. “Deep down, everybody hates me,” he said, “because of what I do. Hate and fear, my only two friends… And I’ve used them to impress others. People are scared of me. It’s better than nothing.”

And there, in the shed – with Vetfaan keeping guard – Mevrou talked and talked. The morning became an afternoon. The sun set. Oudoom came over to pray with them, but Francesco objected: he was a Catholic after all, and Oudoom a Protestant.  Oudoom told him that, as far as he knew, there weren’t different services for different denominations in heaven. And when Mevrou walked out of that shed late that night, the brute the world knows as Francesco the Assassin, took the older woman in his arms to thank her.

This has split the town right down the middle. Some believed Francesco would  repent and stop his evil ways; while the other half of the inhabitants thought it impossible for such an evil man to live an honest life. Servaas believes it’s all just a sham. He says a zebra can’t change it’s stripes.

Boggel, who knows the answer, asks the question to break the pause in the hum of voices. “So he’s still in the shed, waiting for Lucinda to arrive?” It’s one of those nonsensical things a barman does to keep his patrons comfortable. A quiet bar is an unhappy bar.

“Yes, all safely locked up. He promised not to try and escape.” Vetfaan downs his beer. “I’ll check when I go home.”

This draws a disparaging snort from Servaas, which in turn results in a disapproving glance from Gertruida.

“I like this book. It’s funny. I’ve just read The Namib Chocolate Factory, and it touches a nerve. It tells of an abused woman who eventually enlisted the help of two wayward youths to establish a successful business. The point of the story is that one can never assume anybody is just good or just bad. Given the right circumstances, good will triumph over evil. It’s as simple as that.”

“And given the wrong circumstances, evil will be the victor in the contest.” Servaas shakes his head. “I don’t believe…”

They all turn as the door bangs open. A dishevelled Francesco is framed by the doorway, the Lee Enfield in his hands and a grin twitching at his lips. This time, no superficial question by the barman will recharge the conversation. This time the silence is absolute.

The group at the counter follow an old herding instinct to huddle together in a pale and breathless collection of despair.  They watch as the Italian steps inside to close the door behind him. Gertruida remembers the article in National Geographic about the psychopaths who’ve shot people at random in restaurants overseas. Despite his fear, Servaas finds himself nodding: he was right, after all… Precilla discovers  her legs won’t support her anymore and sags slowly in Kleinpiet’s arms.

“Uh,” the assassin suddenly seems unsure, “the lock on the door wasn’t hard to pick. And I didn’t want to walk to town without some protection, so I borrowed this.” He lifts the gun a fraction. “But I did get lonely.” His laugh makes Servaas cringe.

“What do you want?’ Boggel tries to sound confident,

“Same as you guys. A drink?”

***

It turns out to be quite a party. Francesco thanks Vetfaan for the loan of the gun, sits down at the bar and asks Boggel for a beer. The surprised group watch from a distance as the Italian gulps down the beer, wipes his lips with the back of his hand and smiles.

“This is not bad! If you don’t mind, I’ll have another.” Seeing that the other patrons started shuffling towards the door, he holds up a hand. “No, you don’t have to go. I promised not to escape, and I won’t.” His smile, Gertruida will say later, is an apologetic one. “How can you know to trust me, if I stay behind the locked door? You’ll never believe me like that. Now you know.”

Later, Gertruida asks Kleinpiet about the strange pictures he drew on the counter top with his beer froth. He explained there are stones on his farm with these figures on them, and that he doesn’t know what they mean.

“Those are petroglyphs, Kleinpiet. Chiselled and scraped images created on rocks by the San people. Some are 10,000 years old. The Shamans believed humans can turn into animals and drew weird pictures of people emerging out of rocks. It is said humans can enter rocks to become purified – and when they come out, they exhibit extraordinary wisdom. They did this art in a trance-like state after they accessed a deeper, common consciousness. Today, of course, we don’t understand the geometric patterns and the images of animal-like humans, but there you are. You’ve got a living piece of history on your farm.”

“Creating human-like forms out of rock must be extremely hard. And to think they’re still there after all the millennia… “ Kleinpiet shakes his head in wonder.

“It’s rare, of course,” Gertruida says, “but it is arguably the most enduring art-form on earth. Those men getting out of the rocks will be there long after we’ve all gone.”

It is Vetfaan who stares at the big Italian while they’re discussing petroglyphs.  Maybe, he thinks, just maybe the shamans were trying to tell us something. Men can emerge from rocks. They’ve seen it tonight.

He wonders whether our president can do the same…

“I’m changin’, arrangin’, I’m changin’
I’m changin’ everything, ah everything around me
The world is a bad place, a bad place
A terrible place to live, oh but I don’t wanna die..”

Is the Newsreader Responsible for the News?

After a lifetime of being the anchor at the Afrikaans news on SABC, Riaan Cruywagen read his last newscast tonight.

“After decades of reading the news, Riaan Cruywagen stepped down tonight.” Gertruida – because she knows everything – announces. “It’s been a long haul from Apartheid to Democracy.”

“I’ll be sad to see him go,” Vetfaan says, “because he always seemed so professional.”

“Yes, I know. He read us right through from the Nationalists up to the ANC. Once, twenty years ago, the Whites suppressed the Blacks. Now the roles are reversed.” Kleinpiet draws prison bars on the counter top. “Only, our jail is more secure that it was in the old times.”

“What do you mean, Kleinpiet?’” Gertruida lifts an interested brow.

“There’s nobody left to read us back to normality now.”

The Unfortunate Pilgrim

Francesco dreams about the mountains in Afghanistan, where the myriad of tracks lead to safe-houses, fortresses and caves. There are eyes everywhere – even the rocks are looking at him – as he works his way up the slope towards Giovanni, who waits at the top. His older brother is dressed in a general’s uniform as he sits at a table laden with fruit and wine.

There seems to be a problem with his backpack – it’s too heavy and it prevents him from progressing up the mountain. Irritated, he reaches for the straps to shift the weight on his shoulders.

“Now, Mister, you just stay where you are.” The voice is harsh, with a guttural accent. “We want to talk to you.”

Francesco wakes up in a flash. This isn’t happening! His eyes struggle to accommodate as the light is suddenly switched on. A huge man is sitting on his shoulders while some hunchback is talking in his face. To one side, two women look on with worried expressions.

Four. There are four of them. Think, Francesco! There is a gun under the pillow and only one able-bodied man. The women won’t try anything and the cripple isn’t much of an opponent. If he can worm his way to the gun, the fat one will get the first shot. The others won’t put up much of a fight.

“What do you want? If it’s money, I can’t help you.” Of course it’s not that. This – two men, two women – can’t be a burglary. Whatever it is, it’s unwelcome and must be sorted out quickly. The contract on Marco can’t be jeopardised by some silly people in his room.

“I checked at reception. You are Fancesco Francoli. From Milan. And you know what old Marco said? He says you’re Giovanni’s brother! Now that’s strange, isn’t it? What would somebody like you be doing in a dump of a motel in the Northern Cape? When old Marco heard it was you, he said we must call the police. He said you aren’t a nice person.” The older woman seems to be very sure of herself. “But, if you don’t believe me, you can ask him yourself.”

Francesco’s fingers touch the butt of the gun. Slowly now, slowly…don’t make any sudden moves. Keep them talking before they get a huge surprise…

“I don’t know what this is about, woman. And get this brute off my back – I can’t breathe properly.”

“No. That man he stay. First you tell me where my daughter is.”

Francesco turns his head fractionally. Only now can he see old Marco, standing next to the door. Perfect! Once he sorts out the rest, he can finish off the old man… they are playing right into his hands! His fingers find the trigger-guard as he palms the gun. It feels cold and familiar; an old friend that has solved so many problems in the past.

Francesco’s  move is sudden and unexpected. With a mighty heave, the surprised Vetfaan is sent sprawling as the Italian leaps to his feet. Vetfaan stumbles across the room to stare at the barrel of the gun.

“All of you! Now! Against that wall. Go on join your fat friend.” Francesco waves the gun at the rest. “And no fancy tricks. We don’t want to disturb the other guests of this illustrious establishment, do we?”  He smiles his satisfaction at the success of his move. Old Marco seems to deflate like a punctured balloon, and shuffles over to the fat one. The woman who spoke a few seconds ago follows suit, as does the stupid hunchback. The four of them form a pitiful huddle below the faded picture on the wall.

It’s funny how one’s mind focuses on things in times of stress. The picture – an old and faded photograph -  is of a running Springbuck. It’s leaping high into the air as it rushes across a barren landscape.  It’s the first time Francesco has ever seen a Springbuck and for a moment even his racing mind has to admire the grace of the antelope.

“You!” He points the gun at the thin woman, who seems rooted to the floor. “You too! Come on, now!” She hasn’t joined the others. There’s no time to waste.

“I can’t” Despite the situation, she seems unruffled.

Francesco can’t be blamed for not understanding. How could he, if he doesn’t know what flashes through her mind at this moment? He surely  has no idea of the years of pent-up frustration, the horror of remembering times when she wished she had been strong enough to tell her father to stop.  That, and the fear.

She has become so used to being afraid over the years! At first there were the footsteps, late at night, coming down the corridor to her room. Later fear threatened to drive her mad, as she relived those moment when she woke up to the alcoholic fumes in her father’s breath. There was fear of being discovered, and fear that nobody will ever know. Fear stalked her throughout her life, making her days miserable and making it impossible to sleep at night.

And now .. now this man is waving a gun at her and telling her what to do. She can see it in his eyes: the same mad and obsessed look she saw when those rough hands switched on the light in the room of a frightened little girl. This time, she knows, this time fear will make them all lose their lives. The eyes tell her. Murder lurks there…

“Can’t? Can’t? You miserable little wretch! You shall do as I say! Go on! NOW!”

Inside Mary Mitchell’s mind Francesco isn’t a handsome Italian any more. His face – his entire being – has transformed into the person she hates. It is her father standing there, calling her names and ordering her around. And her father is dead, isn’t he? Dead people can’t order you to do … those things … can they?

“No.” She lifts her chin in defiance. “I won’t.”

Three words. The three words she knew were somewhere inside her, but could never find when she wanted to use them. Three words that suddenly seem so natural; so surprisingly easy; that it causes her to smile.

Francesco hesitates. This is stupid! He’s got a gun. This waif is not armed. She should be quaking with fear and doing what he’s ordering her to do.

“Get. Over. There.” Each word is deliberate, a final warning.

Mary’s  self-confidence wanes as the big man takes a step towards her.

“I’ve taken the bullets from that gun, you oaf. You’re holding a worthless piece of iron.” The statement from the older woman is so unexpected that Francesco stops in midstride. “Before you woke up, I did it.”

Francesco looks at the gun and presses the release button for the clip. It shoots out to land in the palm of his waiting hand. Eight bullets. All of them neatly arranged in the clip, waiting to be fired. He’s about to slip them back into the gun, when everything happens simultaneously.

First the thin, defiant woman storms at him, mouth agape in a silent scream. He feels her nails dig into the flesh of his wrist, tearing the gun from his grip. Then the big man tackles him from behind, knocking his breath out. The older woman swings a chair at his head. And, the ultimate humiliation, the hunchback lands a perfect uppercut on the tip of his jaw.

Only old Marco doesn’t participate in the fight. He’s sat down on the bed, laughing so much he has to dab the tears from his cheeks.

***

Old Marco does the negotiations on the phone. Yes, Giovanni can have his young brother back. He’s unharmed, by the way, except for the chipped front tooth due to that blow that knocked him out. Sure, they’ll give him enough money to get to Cape Town and no, they won’t call in the police. The rest of the cash Francesco had hidden away in his suitcase will be used to defray costs, okay? Yes, they’ll do it … as soon as Lucinda sits down at the counter in Boggel’s Place. Without Lucinda, they’ll just have to keep Francesco locked up in the shed behind Vetfaan’s house. No, he can’t escape. Those chains are the ones Vetfaan uses to drag his tractor to town if it breaks down. And oh, Kleinpiet and Precilla will enjoy the two weeks in the Game Reserve – they say a big thank you. Most generous, really.

“Listen, we both know we can’t speak about this. If I tell your friends in The Family your young brother made a complete fool out of you, you’re finished. You’ll lose the respect of all the others – and without respect, they won’t support you anymore. So, as a sign of goodwill, I asked Francesco nicely to sign a paper. It’s not a long letter, just a simple note about what happened. And that you lured Lucinda to Italy so you can brag you took revenge on an old enemy. Oh, and that you sent your brother to take me out.  And some details about some of your business..

“Now, that paper I’ll give to somebody. If anything … unforeseen … happens to me or Lucinda or anybody in Rolbos, that paper goes to all your friends and the police. Capisce?”

Gertruida says se saw old Marco in a completely different light when he made that phone call. It was as if the years suddenly rolled back and something of Marco, the young man on his way to the top, surfaced again. Vetfaan still brags about that tackle, and when Boggel is in a good mood, he rubs his knuckles.

But, while the others had a good laugh about it afterwards (except Francesco, of course), it is Mary Mitchell who doesn’t brag about the events in Dusty’s Inn that night. When the others smirk about the crest-fallen Italian who believed Gertruida about his unloaded gun, Mary remains silent. Somehow her altercation with Mother Superior and with Francesco were rather similar; and in a strange way she is grateful for the Italian’s visit. He finally made her discover the three words she searched for all her life.

No. I won’t.

It’ll change her life.

Without them, the she’d never have found the other three.

Yes. I can…

The Dreams of an Assassin

Abuse is the foundation for uncertainty – Mary Mitchell knows that all too well. It doesn’t matter if that maltreatment is emotional or physical; whether it happened during childhood  or in later stages of life; or even if it occurs randomly or on purpose – it eats away at self-esteem, causes hate and erodes trust. The most important trust that eventually slides down the steep slope of guilt and anger, is the trust one has in one’s own ability.

The first time she heard this argument, was shortly after her father’s death. The bank manager implied it was some shoot-out, and that her father was linked to a syndicate exploiting children – that, she knows, is the official version. The people of AAA – Action Against Abuse, a NGO concentrating on supporting abused girls – were extremely helpful. After her father was shot, she had been the prime suspect. But with no proof – and the mass of evidence against her father (other girls came forward, the smut on his hard drive and the video tapes in the lounge) – the State not only agreed she was innocent, but also made sure she would never be haunted by any further investigations. Mary simply disappeared from the orphanage’s records and her touring with the band made her almost untraceable.

That’s why the bank never found her. And that’s why nobody ever suspected Boggel of being involved. The two of them share the dark secret, something that wil bind them together for the rest of their lives. The killing was ascribed to ‘person or persons unknown, bent on taking revenge’. That much, it must be said, was true.

But at the core of her being, uncertainty lingers. What will happen if they find out what Boggel did – whoever ‘they’ may be?  And … why did she not resist her father’s unwanted advances with more aggression? Okay, it started at a young age – an age when nobody would expect her to know right from wrong – but certainly, when she was in her teens … she must have known it was wrong to accommodate his perversion?  And that single thought haunts her as she sits down with Boggel on the veranda outside Boggel’s  Place.

But then again – he was her father, for goodness’ sakes! He was the man in the house, the patriarch, the one who ruled and the one they all respected. He was the bread-winner and the provider. Surely such a man would not err, would not do wrong? Whatever he wanted in return for his generosity, wasn’t  something to be ashamed of?

Now, years later and as an adult woman, she has to face the fact that she was as wrong as he was.. Perpetrator and victim carry the same amount of guilt, for did she not allow those actions? If he was wrong in seducing her, was she not equally to blame for acquiescing?  Should she not have done one of a thousand things: run away, go to the police, told a friend, spoke to a teacher? But no, she didn’t; so it went on, and on, and on. And the further she went down that path, the less she was able to do anything about it.

Why did she involve Boggel? He took the life of a man – a bad man, to be sure – but still…

Like so many times before, there is only one conclusion: she was too weak. Correction: she is too weak. There is something wrong in her mind, that’s why. She’s not the woman she wants to be, simply because she’s a weakling; an unsure, insecure person with no morals and definitely no self-esteem. An outcast not fit to belong to a normal society.

She doesn’t listen to Boggel’s voice, droning on about how glad she is there. Boggel has got the Italian, why would he bother with her? She has a past she can’t talk about; a guilt she will carry for the rest of her life and memories that’ll nauseate the most forgiving person in the world. In stark contrast, the Italian is vivacious, bubbling with self-confidence and an absolute beauty. By Lucinda’s own admission, no man can withstand her charms.

Why did she even bother to come to Rolbos?

Old Marco suddenly appears on the stoep.

“Boggel! People! Lucinda, says Giovanni he says she no coming back!” The panic in his voice is unmistakable. “She say Giovanni he send a man to come here. He bring important message, she say.”

Boggel’s voice stops in mid-sentence. “What’s this all about, Marco? Why would Giovanni send back somebody here with a message? If she could telephone you  – why can’t he?”

The veranda fills up with people thronging around Marco. Everybody asks questions and the old man has to raise his withered hands to quieten them. “I don’t know. Giovanni, he is a man of great power. He rule a piece of Milan where he is the law. Now, I don’t know why Lucinda went there, and I don’t know why she stay … but I do know this: If Giovanni send a man here, it is not to say hello to me. Lucinda, my daughter, she is trying to tell me something, I think. I think is bad news. For me, for you, for everybody.”

This is where the Great Mafia Debate starts. Old Marco is so distraught, he simply flops down at the counter to order a Cactus Jack. Gertruida, however, has a completely different view on the matter. If the Mafia wants to come and get old Marco, they will have to outsmart Rolbos.  Vetfaan tells everybody how his great-grandfather shot down the English at Amajuba. Servaas -  not to be outdone – remarks on a much earlier generation when one of his clan single-handedly sorted out a rabid lion. Kleinpiet has to better that and tells them all how he tracked and took prisoner a speedcop near Upington, when he was speeding under the influence.

It is clear to everyone that the guy from the Mafia will stand no chance to do harm in Rolbos … everyone, that is, except Mary Mitchell, the only one to understand the workings of devious minds. In her state of doubt and uncertainty, she has a feeling of doom about the visitor from Milan. Those guys, she imagines, can wipe out the town without even blinking an eye.

“When will he be here, Marco?” Boggel – forever the practical one – wants to know.

“Today. Tomorrow. I don’t know. Soon, I think. Yes, maybe tomorrow. She say he already left Milan yesterday. She only  get to a telephone now to warn me.”

Gertruida gets that faraway look she gets when she’s working something out. “Okay you guys, listen up.  If he left Milan yesterday, he would have landed in Cape Town this morning. If he hired a car, he’d be at Upington about now. That means he’ll stay over there and be here, first thing tomorrow. Now that gives us a bit of time to prepare.  I suggest we all retire to the bar, get a few drinks, and discuss what we’re going to do. And Mary, wipe that sorry-for-myself look from your face. The world isn’t going to end now, For you, my dear, it’s only starting…”

 ***

Francesco Francoli isn’t a small man. Standing almost two meters tall in his socks, he resembles most lady’s mental image of the proverbial Adonis. He’s just had a cold shower to rid himself of the fatigue of the long flight and the dreary road trip to Upington. Tomorrow is the big day – he’ll sort out that old man and then enjoy the two weeks in the Kruger National Park. By that time the murder of an old man in the Northern Cape would be old news – Giovanni assured him of that. And who would look for the murderer in a national park – especially and Italian tourist who wants to relax and get away from it all? No, Giovanni told him, the police will bungle it up: they’ll be looking at a burglary gone wrong – they’d never suspect a professional hit.

Giovanni. Now there’s a true leader! With his network of drug dealers and smugglers and traffickers, he controls almost the entire Italian market in illicit trade. You want abalone, or cocaine or a nice young girl? Giovanni supplies them all. Yes, Francesco thinks, his older brother is a genius. Without Giovanni, he would have been nothing – a faceless Italian trying to eke out a living in recession-hit Europe. It was Giovanni, fifteen years older and so much smarter, who made sure that he, Francesco, was trained in martial arts. Giovanni sent him to Afghanistan to learn about guns and bombs and the other finer arts to get rid of troublemakers.  And it is Giovanni who supplies the boys he needs to live out his fantasies. Yes, Giovanni – the man he’ll serve without question for the rest of his life.

He glances at his Rolex: it is ten o’clock. Time to turn in and get a good night’s rest. He’ll need to be sharp tomorrow…

***

Outside the motel, the group in the pickup van is having an argument.

“Listen, he won’t stay in a dump of a motel like this! Look at the place: it lives up to it’s name. Dusty’s Inn! Giovanni’s helper won’t stay here.” Vetfaan is thirsty and tired. It’s a long way back to Rolbos.

“Oh, shut up Vetfaan.” Gertruida has had enough. “We’ve been everywhere. This is the last place we haven’t checked out already. The point is: we have to find him before he finds old Marco. So be patient while I go and talk to the clerk at reception.” She gets out and walks off into the darkness.

***

Francesco sighs as he pulls the thin blanket over his body. The silenced 9mm pistol makes an uncomfortable lump under the cushion and he has to move it a bit to settle down. He falls asleep to dream of Luigi, the twelve-year old boy Giovanni has promised on his return…

Nobody shall sleep!…
Nobody shall sleep!
Even you, o Princess,
in your cold room,
watch the stars,
that tremble with love and with hope.
But my secret is hidden within me,
my name no one shall know…
No!…No!…
On your mouth I will tell it when the light shines.
And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine!…
(No one will know his name and we must, alas, die.)
Vanish, o night!
Set, stars! Set, stars!
At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!

What Vrede Saw…

Vrede wakes up with a start, turns his head to the side and then lowers his paw to the floor. Yes, there it is: the distinctive vibration of a vehicle approaching – from the Grootdrink side. No, it’s not the lorry, so it’s not worth it to storm outside to bark at the new driver. It’s something much smaller; one of these cars that run on electricity some of the time. He likes those cars – they stink less.

He gets up to stre-e-etch, shakes his head and looks up at Boggel, who is standing on his crate, talking to the big man. Getting no response, he pads out to the veranda. That one pillar has lost some of his scent: he’ll have to fix it quickly. If a stranger should arrive, he must know: this is Vrede’s patch…

It is, indeed, one of those funny cars that whirr more than they thump. Vrede watches as it approaches the town slowly, quietly; to reach the start of Voortrekker Weg. So far the humans at the counter hove not heard the vehicle. They’re talking about important things: Vrede heard about how the ANC in Potchefstroom shot themselves in the foot, something that made him cringe. Imagine firing a gun at your own paw? It must be terribly painful. If a dog were to do that, he’d be very angry at himself, that’s for sure!

The car slows down even more, whirring silently (almost, but not to a trained police dog) down the street. Vrede has seen such vehicles before, during his term of duty in Pretoria. Not many criminals use them, chiefly because they don’t know how. Bad humans prefer cars that make a lot of noise and leave tyre marks on the tar, for some reason. Then as the vehicle stops in front of Sammie’s Shop (why there?), the whirring stops … and nothing happens. He can see it is a woman behind the wheel – quite a nice-looking lady, even if she’s a bit too thin to his liking. Vrede likes a well-fed human – they’re usually friendlier. The thin ones don’t share biltong that easily and they laugh less.

When the woman climbs out eventually, his interest is aroused. This one he’s seen before. Smelled before. His trained nose sniffs the air as he lets out a small whine. Who is she? Damn! He’s losing his edge. All that sleeping under the counter is taking its toll. Think, Vrede, you have to remember!

As the molecules stimulate the nerve endings in his nasal sinuses, a memory in his brain gets triggered. Woman. Some time ago. Here, in Rolbos.  Friendly with Boggel. A woman…with sad eyes and a sadder smile…

Of course! She’s the one that came here with that other lady. They call her the Italian, the one that stays with the old man down the street. She’s quite well fed and very friendly. And she drove the lorry that brought the thin one, called … ? Boggel called her … come on Vrede! … yes, that’s right! He called her Mary.

Suddenly the street fills up with people. Boggel, despite his hunchback, leads the group, with the one they call Gertruida hot on his heels. She’s shouting something like I knew you’d come, while the fat one huffs along at the back.

Vrede knows better than to rush up and jump against Mary. She’s too thin, anyway – she may just fall over and then everybody would scold him. No biltong for tonight – it’s not worth it. Being the clever dog he is, Vrede sits down in the shade of the car to watch the meeting. For some reason the thin one is crying. Now, that’s something even a police dog fails to understand. Imagine one dog going to the trouble of travelling miles to meet another dog … and then to sit down whining? It’s not done! If you’re glad to see your dog-friend, you bark excitedly and bound around. And if you’re not glad – then why go to the trouble of meeting, anyway?  Humans have a lot to learn…

Now the thin one settles down, blows her nose in a tissue and tells Boggel they must talk. Vrede shakes his head. They can talk the day away, if they wanted to, later. In the dog-world they’d be sniffing each other to find out where the other one had been, ran one or two circles to show joy, and even licked a bit of anatomy here and there. Humans haven’t learnt that yet. They don’t do much sniffing and licking when other humans are around – they prefer to talk. It’s so primitive! It’s only when they’re alone that they revert to more modern habits. Vrede has seen Kleinpiet doing it at night. And last year, after Oudoom visited the bar, it even happened in the pastorie…

Vrede watches as the others return to Boggel’s Place, leaving Mary and Boggel alone to talk on the veranda. Boggel is quite serious, Vrede can see that. When he frowns like that, you know he’s trying to look important, like when he asks you if you’d like some biltong. But Mary – now there’s a work of art for you! She starts off by crying copiously. With the tissue drenched, Boggel has to hand her a handkerchief. If that’s not enough, she starts laughing. Not any old ha-ha laugh like Gertruida does when they tell her an old joke; a laugh that makes her cry all over again. If Vrede ever turned into a human, he decides, he’ll have a bag full of handkerchiefs ready every day. The rate at which women are able to shed tears, is astounding. No, dogs are better off. They don’t go about life in such a clumsy way. Have you ever seen a dog with a spare handkerchief? They don’t need it. They’re far too civilised for that.

Now Boggel and Mary sit down on the veranda, holding hands. Vrede can see how the rest of the town crowds the window to peek at them. That too, is stupid. A dog wouldn’t do that. If a dog wants to see something, he’d come skidding around the corner. And if he’s well-brought up, he’d even try to look guilty. Not this lot. They’re like the baboons on the fat one’s farm: whenever he (Vrede) is around, they peek from behind the trees, thinking he can’t see them. Not very intelligent, are they?

Vrede flinches as Boggel and Mary kiss. It’s so disgusting! Man! Dogs do it much better. They’ll inspect and look and sniff – but they always respect the other dog’s space. This thing with kissing is so totally weird! Why would you slobber all over your friend to show you like him? And that tongue-thing is simply disgusting…

For some reason the lot behind the window starts cheering. Vrede, in exasperation, bends his head towards his rump, so his hind paw can reach his ear. It always itches there when he gets frustrated. Why on earth, if they wanted to tell Boggel and Mary they’re happy, don’t they come out and tell them so?

With a resigned aaarf, Vrede gets up and walks to the bar. Maybe it’ll be better if he takes a nap beneath the counter. By the time he wakes up, the people may have come to their senses. And maybe, if he’s lucky, one of them will feed him a slice of biltong…