Monthly Archives: December 2012

Look for the Real World in 2013

Oudoom looks on with an unusual degree of grave concern at the activity around the lorry from Kalahari Vervoer in front of Boggel’s Place. They’ve already downloaded fourteen cases of beer and are still carrying cases of brandy, Coke and even vodka into the storeroom at the back. It is obvious that Boggel expected a considerable crowd for New Year’s and that means Rolbos will have one huge party to see the New Year in.

The problem is that Oudoom has post-Christmas blues. Not only did the Nativity play end up with him, the Shepherd of the Flock, waking up in a barn (and the cow at the church), but he also completely forgot to take up an offering during the Christmas service.

Sure, the mere fact that he actually conducted a service may be viewed as a modern-day miracle in itself, but the Christmas offering is important. Every year the money collected on Christmas day gets donated to the little orphanage in Grootdrink – a NGO-run home for homeless AIDS children. Without the support of such donations, the facility cannot survive. And he, Oudoom, the Heavenly Ambassador of Grace and Goodwill, neglected to announce the offering on Christmas day. The people of Rolbos must have giggled in their proverbial sleeves as they walked out – they now had extra money in their pockets.

Worse: it doesn’t take particular prophetic ability to predict how they are going to spend New Year’s Eve; the offloading of the lorry makes guessing unnecessary. And this, while he was hoping to announce the first midnight service in the history of Rolbos! Taking up an offering then seemed the way to salvage the loss of income on Christmas day…

Boggel on the other hand, is ecstatic. He has promised Rolbos, Grootdrink and the district a bash they’ll never forget. The Desert Rats are going to provide music like only they can; which will result in lots of very energetic dancing – which will ensure a thirsty crowd.

Now, you have to know The Desert Rats to understand about the music. Actually, they are the Vermaaks, a small family-colony that ‘farms’ way out in the Kalahari. Farming is their word for stoking a vile and potent brand of peach brandy from the little orchard their grand-grandfather established around one of those mysterious waterholes one finds in the desert. This activity is, for most of the year, not very labour intensive and allows for many hours waiting for the peach trees to blossom and grow the fruit that made the family famous. Gertruida says the story that these peaches are responsible for the many babies born in the colony, is nonsense. It is a simple fact (according to her) that the family has nothing else to do for extended periods of time. She says that, when they’re not making babies (women get fed up too, you know?) the men play their various musical instruments. Pa Vermaak has mastered the saw, which he strokes with a bow fashioned from an old copper pipe. This creates an eerie, hollow sound reminiscent of the howling of an injured jackal. The brothers add a drum (old paint tin), a trumpet made from a disused spout from the still, a flute fashioned from a broken smoking pipe and a mouth organ played by the clever son that made it through primary school. Given enough of their brew, they get into a surprisingly hypnotic rhythm that encourages what they call ‘circle-dancing’. Men and women will fall into a line, form a circle, and stamp their feet in tempo with the screeching, drumming, whistling and clapping. Gertruida says that the family got the idea from Bushman trance-dancing – and in all probability, she is right (as usual).

The Desert Rats rarely perform to the public. To get them to play at Boggel’s Place is as exceptional as a South African politician admitting to corruption.

The 31st of December in Rolbos started with a bang. A real one. The Vermaak tractor with its trailer full of family laboured into town, approached Boggel’s – and promptly blew a gasket. Black smoke and steam spewed from the sawn-off exhaust (Frikkie Vermaak made a type of didgeridoo with it) and the long-suffering John Deere died next to the rusted sign proclaiming the existence of Voortrekker Weg. Platnees immediately realised that this meant an extended stay of the Vermaaks, went home and made sure all the doors were locked. Oudoom retired to his study to read up on what St John said about the End of Days.

But now it is mid-afternoon and Boggel’s guests arrive from far and wide. Dusty men and women get out of over-heated bakkies to file into Boggel’s Place. On the wide veranda Boggel employed the Platnees family to serve the almost-dehydrated newcomers with a Vermaak Special – made from the last, overripe fruits of that memorable good year of 2005. Something strange happened that season: it actually rained. The peach brandy from that season has a strangely pleasant, sweet taste, lingering just long enough on the taste buds to want to taste it again. Like the Vermaak music, it has a subliminal way of worming its way into your mind until you actually convince yourself that you really, really like it.

The evening’s entertainment started of with a Rolf Harris Tie me Kangaroo down, sport sound-alike. (Read: sound-alike to Vermaak ears.) Frikkie did the didgeridoo part of course, while Papa Vermaak wobbled a piece of sheet metal to make the whoopity-whoop sounds. While the tune was almost recognisable, the family substituted ‘kangaroo’ for ‘springbokkie’; much to the delight of Kleinpiet, who never could never understand the song before. He had always assumed kangaroo was another word for mother-in-law. What he thought about platypus duck, Bill, is not known.

Warming up to the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place, the Vermaaks start with their favourite medley of old Afrikaner songs, stitching Sarie Marais, Een aand op die trein na Pretoria, and Beautiful in Beaufort West together with peeps, hoots, the false harmonica and plenty of drumming. Frikkie gives random accompaniment with the John Deere exhaust, sometimes confusing the rhythm to such an extent that Mamma Vermaak’s screeching singing has to start the verse over again. The crowd (at this early stage) shows that they are seasoned lovers of all things musical and applauds with gusto.

By this time Oudoom has given up on the thought of a midnight service and, as the keeper of the town’s morals, decides to join in the festivities. During his many years’ worth of Rolbos-experience, he had come to realise that it is useless to piece together scandals after they had happened. The only way to deal with the resulting gossip of such events, is to have first-hand knowledge of what really happened. He therefore saw it as his responsibility – nay, his duty – to put Revelations aside and go and observe what the congregation is up to. When he walks into Boggel’s, the Vermaaks are busy with their own composition of Wat soek jou vinger in my p-o-e-e-e-ding bak. He hardly notices the glass Platnees thrusts in his hand; but because it is so warm and the words were so suggestive, he swallows the contents without thinking. When, five minutes later, he gets his breath back the Desert Rats are busy with Jy is my matras (en ek is so bly…). As he turns to leave this modern-day version of Sodom, Platnees hands him a fresh glass of Special. Still upset and still not thinking straight, he finishes that as well.

Gertruida says Frikkie was bitten by a puff adder once. The Vermaaks have only one cure for colds, flu, malaria and snake-bite: a glass of Pappa’s Special. Frikkie recovered of course; the snake was found dead the next day.

It is no wonder then, that Oudoom then marches up to the Rats and asks them to play something more religious. They comply – and fall in with a slow and pious version of Ver in die Ou Kalahari, daar soen die boere so….

After this, the party really catches on. In Rolbos it is important to have Oudoom’s blessing; and now, with him dancing along, there is no reason to hold back.

Alcohol, it is said, is the ultimate social lubricant. It oils the gears that make society tick (even when they belong to different model engines), it smoothes the uncomfortable edges of misunderstandings and distributes the spark of laughter to people who suffer with frozen sense of humour.

There is, sadly, another side to the effect of partaking fluids with a significant alcoholic content. For no particular reason, it may change the happy face of Doctor Jeckyll into the grumbling and ominous countenance of Mister Hyde. Boggel has often seen this happen over the years, and puts it down to the fact that the ingestion of liquor allows sunken grievances to float to the surface again. Gertruida (who knows everything) says good manners are heavier than alcohol, that’s why it sinks to the bottom. Whatever the reason may be, it happens occasionally – and is often followed by periods of intense remorse. Like life in Rolbos, it isn’t always easy or logical to try to explain why grown men would want to ridicule and belittle their best friends the one moment – and then cry on their shoulders the next.

While Oudoom does his version of the Dutch Reformed Shuffle on the makeshift dance floor (very reserved, no touching, no talking and a whispered blessing at the end), Vetfaan and Kleinpiet are trying to outdo each other in their comments on the reverend’s lack of coordination.

“It is a miracle! How that man reaches the lectern on the pulpit is a mystery. Look at the way his left hand doesn’t know what the right foot is doing.”

“Ja, man, it just shows you. You are now looking at the real Oudoom. Strip the veneer of being a preacher, and you get the lecherous old man dancing with Gertruida over there. Look at the way he watches Precilla’s bum over Gertruida’s shoulder. I tell you – his head is filled with thoughts of that lady in the bath during King David’s voyeur phase.”

The Vermaaks take a break to fill up with some of their product, allowing the dancers an opportunity to do the same. Oudoom wipes the sweat from his brow, walks over to the counter and squeezes in between Vetfaan and Kleinpiet.

“Dominee is really hot tonight, hey? Showing us how to do it and all. Maybe you should take up a collection for your effort?”

And that sparks the tears. All of a sudden Oudoom remembers the midnight service he had planned to make up for his lack of concentration on Christmas. Wave of remorse follows wave of regret as he slumps forward on the counter, more or less in the direction of the glass of Special strategically placed there by Boggel. As if touched by a Higher Wisdom, he suddenly realises how significant his oversight has been while the sad tears of repentance and sorrow drips on the glass rings on the counter. For no particular reason he remembers his efforts to build up his small congregation, the failed bazaars, the off-tune organ and the tower clock that never tells the right time.

“I’m just like the clock,” he announces between the sobs, “always a bit out.”

Vetfaan starts laughing at this, but something in the older man’s voice – and Kleinpiet’s morose look – stops him.

Pappa Vermaak has taken his seat again and his saw starts squawking out For Auld Lang Syne. Frikkie joins with the exhaust while Mamma Vermaak picks up the rhythm by striking the prongs of the garden fork with a hammer. When they reach And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet…everybody storm the bar for a refill. The Vermaaks stop in midstride (midnote?), initially confused by the sudden disappearance of their audience. When they realise what is happening, they start again from the beginning. Gertruida holds up a hand, silences the lot and solemnly delivers a lecture on the poem by Robert Burns, emphasising the fact that Burns ‘stole’ the first verse from James Watson who published it in 1711. “It is traditionally sung on Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year, but it also features in Zimbabwe as a funeral song. The Boy Scouts use it at their Jamborees and Shirley Temple sang it in a film in 1937.” Even the Desert Rats are impressed. “Now, the final verse says: and there’s a hand my trusty friend, and give us a hand o’ thine, and we’ll take a right goodwill draught, for auld lang syne. And you know what? This song is about real friendships, about loyalty and caring and about deep respect.” Everybody nods. “Now, I suggest we were very disrespectful to Oudoom last Sunday. When he forgot to take up the offering, we all sat there grinning. We calculated how much more we could spend on tonight’s Special. I think we are disgusting.”

You can hear a pin drop. Even the Desert Rats – the entire Vermaak family who belongs to no known church – looks guilty. Frikkie gets up, takes off his floppy hat, and starts a slow march through the crowd while wiping the occasional tear away with a dirty cuff. Hands find their ways to pockets as the hat slowly fills up. Then Pappa Vermaak starts making a round with the empty paint tin that served as a drum. You don’t say no to Pappa Vermaak. Not only will that be the end of your evening (and possibly a trip to Upington’s hospital), but far worse: he may just take the rest of the Special and disappear with his family into the Kalahari night.

Rolbos tears, Gertruida says, are different to those of other places: not only is it saltier, but also it causes an almost unquenchable thirst. When the drum and the hat are deposited at Oudoom’s feet, it was pretty Precilla who bends down, empties the contents on the floor, and starts counting the money. It is a lot. A huge amount. Oudoom mutters something about the bread and the fish at the Sermon on the Mount, shaking his head in wonder.

No wonder then, that everybody shows their appreciation for this miracle by toasting each other (repeatedly) with the Vermaak Special.

Sometimes we think of Rolbos as a backward place filled with simple people. It is not an unreasonable opinion, come to think of it. They can be quite stupid, callous, bigoted, opinionated, short-sighted, selfish and even cruel at times. If you attend any one of Oudoom’s sermons, you’ll hear him talk (at length) about it.

But not on this, New Year’s Day, 2013. For once Oudoom has a happy sermon about the Goodness Hidden in Mankind. For once his congregation is glued to his lips as he talks about caring and love and respect. And for the first time they sing Auld Lang Syne in church, accompanied by a rag-tag family with a strange musical taste and even stranger instruments.

Gertruida says this is the way church services should be: a beacon of goodwill in an evil world. Vetfaan agrees, but still prefers the out-of-tune organ to the John Deere didgeridoo.

Some readers may think this is just a story and that Rolbos is a virtual place in cyberspace. However, you don’t even have to stretch your imagination to understand life in Rolbos. Wherever you are in the wide, wide world, you’ll find a bit of Rolbos with you, around you and in you.

As we approach 2013, it’ll be great if we can all laugh at our little idiosyncrasies, giggle about our own stupidity and – most importantly – stop taking ourselves so very seriously.

In Gertruida’s immortal words: “May your new year be filled with old values, fresh dreams and some of the best wine you’ve ever tasted.” Boggel agrees, adding that world peace means nothing if you keep on fighting with yourself.

But it is Oudoom who has the last word. When he hands over the handsome sum of money to the orphanage in Grootdrink, he tells everybody that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Changing water into wine is certainly a feat, but to use the Vermaak Special to feed the children is maybe the biggest miracle of modern times.

So, from the upstanding and honestly crazy people of Rolbos: may you have a great 2013. Treat yourself today: close your eyes for a moment to forget all the artificial good wishes and synthetic text messages. Sit down for a second at the dusty bar in the Kalahari to smile at the little hunchbacked man serving your cold beer. And then, in that magical instant, experience what it means to be part of the real world.

Daily Prompt: Faithful

Faith is in the sunset, Hope in the dawn

“Faith,” Oudoom leans his elbow on the counter to keep his balance, “is an important thing. Without it, we may as well stop trying.”

He gets a chorus of silent nods for his effort. It’s been a long day in Boggel’s Place while they reminisced about the past year.  Boggel has found some of the Vermaak’s peach brandy, and it always surprises the patrons with its quality.

“Well, we’ve got nothing else, Oudoom,” Kleinpiet tries to be helpful, “as the politics and the economy seem to be sliding more and more out of control.” He straightens up a bit, remembering something important. “But we do have each other. Yes. Faith, and company. We can survive a long time on that.”

Gertruida almost manages to stop a ladylike burp. She smiles apologetically. “With faith and company, hope will follow. Even love. And happiness.”

“No, man. Look at me – I’m single.” Vetfaan is feeling a bit sorry for himself again. “Like Servaas.” He glances over for support and the old man replies with a slow wink. “We don’t have company or love. But we’re happy and we’ve got faith. So you don’t have to have a full house. A pair is enough to win this hand.”

They all turn to Kleinpiet and Precilla who’s sitting quietly in the darker corner of Boggel’s Place. The two of them have had a most romantic first Christmas together, and they’re still cooing at each other.

“They’re disgusting.” Servaas wipes his mouth with the back of his hand as he lowers his voice. “Look at them. They should be doing that at home – not in public. All this whispering, giggling and smooching is extremely unsettling. This is a bar, not a knock shop.”

Gertruida bursts out laughing. Servaas can be utterly cantankerous  over Christmas time – it’s been like that for several years now. Ever since Siena passed away, Servaas seems to detest the festivities around Christmas time.

She squares her shoulders. It’s time to do something about it.

“Servaas?” Gently. Softly. Voice filled with kindness. “We know you’re sad and lonely. Most of us are, this time of year. We wish we had a little fire in the hearth at home, with kids and grandchildren and aunties and uncles and friends and family. Then we’d be at home, cooking up a storm in the kitchen with venison pie, yellow rice – and dumplings for pudding. The small children would sing carols and somebody would play Father Christmas.

“But we don’t have that, do we? At least, not everybody does. And you know why?” She waits a long second before going on, allowing her question to sink in. “Because it’s alright like this. It is meant to be like this.

“You’ve had Christmases with your family – and with Siena. They’re some of the most precious memories you possess. You cherish those and you protect those … but you also resent them. That’s wrong. You feel angry because of them. You keep on comparing now, with then. And when you come up short, you lash out at others who are building little memory castles they will dwell in, in later years.

“You know what faith is? Faith is the hope for the future, but it is also the firm knowledge of the past. Faith says: maybe you have had better times, but the best is still to come. Faith says there is hope. And faith is the foundation of love and happiness. That’s the best company anybody could wish for.”

Servaas starts breathing deeply, trying to get his emotion under control. With a quivering voice he tells that that’s all fine and dandy, but he misses Siena. He misses her desperately.

“That’s why faith is necessary,” Oudoom says, “without it, your past is just a memory. Useless events that came and went. But if you add faith to your memories, it lights up like one of those Christmas trees in Upington. Then you believe there is a time for everything. Some of us are lucky enough to have fond memories of previous Christmases, and that’s good. If your current Christmas is different, it simply demands that you cherish those times.

“You know, we don’t know whether Christ ever had a birthday party. Imagine: thirty-three years without a day when people make a bit of fuss about you? Maybe He would have loved to put His feet up, be spoilt and have people singing to Him. But He had faith like no other. He trusted His Father completely, knowing the time will come when the whole world will celebrate His birth. That was good enough for Him.”

“What Oudoom is saying, Servaas, is similar to the old saying: enough unto the day is sufficient thereof. Don’t be unhappy because you were happier in the past. Don’t be a grumblebum because you think this is all there is. Celebrate your past, be content with the present, and hope for the future.  That’s what faith is about. It’s simple, really.”

Boggel leans over with a tissue for the tears on Servaas’ cheeks. The old man blows his nose enthusiastically. Then he manages a wobbly smile.

Kleinpiet glances up from his conversation with Precilla to signal for another beer. Precilla and he has fallen silent as they listened to the conversation at the counter. Reaching over, he takes her hand to give it a gentle squeeze.

“One day, hopefully a long, long time into the future, one of us may be sitting here alone during Christmas time. Whether it’s you or me, doesn’t matter. Then the remaining one must remember these words; maybe even repeat them. We are the lucky ones tonight, and we must appreciate every second. Nothing, however, remains the same forever.”

“No, we won’t forget it, Kleinpiet. Love will see to it.”

“Only if you have faith,” Boggel says as he shuffles over with their order, “only if you have faith…”

Weekly Photo Challenge: My 2012 in Pictures

2012 has had it all. Drama, hardship, joy, beauty, happiness, grief. Looking back, I realise how blessed I was during this time, and how thankful I am that it is almost past. Yet, to concentrate on the positives:

Rolbos was born, and we had a lot of fun at the bar

Rolbos was born, and we had a lot of fun at the bar

I visited 'The Hell', or Gamkaskloof, a wonderful, magical trip and a great place to camp

I visited ‘The Hell’, or Gamkaskloof, a wonderful, magical trip and a great place to camp

I live alone, something other people find hard to understand. This remains a constant source of gossip. Yet, I prefer my neighbours to be the quiet, mysterious type.

I live alone, something other people find hard to understand. This remains a constant source of gossip. Yet, I prefer my neighbours to be the quiet, mysterious type.

It was a privilege to witness the migration of thousands of  Carmine Bee-eaters on the banks of the Zambezi

It was a privilege to witness the migration of thousands of Carmine Bee-eaters on the banks of the Zambezi

Trip 2012 335

Africa is never without a smile, despite the politics – this is a fenced pool in the Okavango River (to keep the crocodiles out)

An elephant peeked around the bush, curious about what I was cooking on the fire.

An elephant peeked around the bush, curious about what I was cooking on the fire.

A brand new addition to the family..

A brand new addition to the family..

Mrs P had a birthday - and she is doing well. My visit with her is a highlight every week.

Mrs P had a birthday – and she is doing well. My visit with her is a highlight every week

And then, ther's writing. Always writing...Check it out - click the picture...

And then, ther’s writing. Always writing…Check it out – click the picture…

So, as the sun sets on this year, I'm looking forward to a new one, filled with letters and words.

So, as the sun sets on this year, I’m looking forward to a new one, filled with letters and words.

May 2013 bless you all with grace and kindness…

The President: ‘Pets are too White’.

“Zuma did it again.” Gertruida issues the flat statement with an air of despondency.

Boggel puts down the Cactus Jack in front of her, raises an eyebrow. “Another wedding? Twins? More improvements at Inkandla?”

“No, Boggel. He’ll need the services of an orthopaedic surgeon this time.” She takes a swig, sighs happily, “Boy, am I glad we live in Rolbos. At least we’re too unimportant to notice, otherwise he would have had a dig at us, too.”

“What are you going on about, Gertruida? You don’t make sense…” The question marks in Servaas’ eyes are all too plain to see.

“Our dear president,” she pauses a second to emphasise her point, “has just said that Africans should not have pets. And if they do, they shouldn’t take them to a vet. And may I remind you his massive complex is situated in KwaZulu Natal, one of the places with the highest incidence of Rabies. Oh, and he didn’t stop there. He said Africans should stop trying to be White. Only White Africans are supposed to keep pets – it’s a bad habit. According to him, straightening hair is a denial of their heritage. He wants to implement a program to ‘correct’ the thoughts of the younger generation – so they can learn how to be African again.”

“But that has been the purpose of other governments in the past, as well. I mean: to ‘educate’ the population to think correctly. Go look at the history of Europe, you’ll find it there.” Sammie doesn’t like politics or discussing it. He says Jews have suffered enough – he wants to be left in peace, that’s why he set up shop in Rolbos.

“Yes, and he lashed out at the fashion industry as well. Said women shouldn’t use facial creams, especially if it lightens their complexion. And that young girls should have children, because it’ll teach them to be mothers.”

“That must have been quite a speech,” Kleinpiet shakes his head, “was he sober?”

“Ag man, he usually makes funny statements. A few years ago he said he cannot tolerate gays.  I don’t think he always follows a prepared speech – he simply rocks up at a meeting – any meeting – and says whatever comes to his mind. And you know what? People love it. They cheer themselves hoarse and sing his praises. Then they go home to feed their dogs and pets – and put on skin-lightening cream while they straighten their hair. It’s all a show, Kleinpiet. Just a show.”

“So why, Gertruida,” Boggel brings her back to her initial statement, “would he need an orthopaedic surgeon? It sounds more like he needs lessons in diplomacy?”

“It’s called the incurable and highly contagious oropedal deformity, Boggel. It’s an extremely serious condition for people with a high public profile. In fact, it’s often the cause of a spectacular fall from esteem, tending  to end up with them flat on their faces.” This, she can see, is way over the heads of her little audience. “It’s a form of foot-and-mouth disease, guys. When it’s in that deep, only a qualified surgeon will be able to dislodge the foot from the mouth. There’s only one condition with a worse prognosis: the infamous cranio-anal malformation.”

Of course, she doesn’t have to explain any further. If you’ve lived in South Africa long enough, the antics of politicians can’t surprise you any more. And we don’t laugh about it anymore, as well.

It hurts too much.

Daily Prompt: Immortalised in Stone

Daily Prompt Challenge: Your personal sculptor is carving a person, thing or event from the last year of your life. What’s the statue of and what makes it so significant?

This rock, on the Kafue river in Zambia, was sculpted a long time ago by the forces of nature. It reminded me  of a lion. Or is it a mutilated face? Or is there a person inside the rock, straining to get out?

In some ways, it tells the story of struggle and survival. Of endurance. Even of the soft erosion Life is capable of: the forming and shaping of our personalities over long periods of time. At last, when the features become clearly distinguishable, the result is stark, and eternally visible..

The Christmas Cow

“I suppose we’ll have to clean up this mess,”Gertruida says with a sigh. As usual, she is right. Boggel’s Place is strewn with wrapping paper and the skeletons of used Christmas crackers. The leaking ice bucked was responsible for the little pond in the middle of the room while Vetfaan may be blamed for the streamers dangling from the fan in the ceiling. “If Boggel sees the place looking like this, he’ll have a fit.”

Last night’s Christmas party was a huge success. It had been Kleinpiet’s turn to be Joseph this year while Precilla filled her usual role as Mary. Vetfaan says he doesn’t think the two Biblical figures could have had such a close relationship: them being unmarried at the time, understand? It was left to the three wise men to separate the two – Oudoom, Vetfaan and Platnees intervened just as the smooching got too serious.

Gertruida says it’s a lesson learned: next year the Christmas play should be held at the beginning of the evening, and Joseph may not attach some mistletoe to the rafter above the counter. Not ever again. A virgin birth should imply purity, after all.

“Hey, but you must agree that we weren’t responsible for all the mess. Those sheep Vetfaan brought must have eaten something odd before they came here. And it’s not as if they had the good manners to choose a designated spot at all. They spread more than goodwill all over the floor.” Kleinpiet has donned a glove and points to the accumulating evidence in the bag he’s holding.

“Don’t blame my sheep, Kleinpiet!” Vetfaan leans on his shovel, breathing hard behind the handkerchief over his nose. “Your cow made a considerable contribution, as you can see very clearly.”

“I wonder how Boggel is feeling this morning? I’ve never seen him lose the plot like he did last night! One moment he was a shepherd gaurding the sheep at night, the next he handed out the peach brandy – even Oudoom had three glasses.” Precilla feels much better after the three Brufens she had for breakfast.

Gertruida unravels the streamers from the fan, balancing on a chair. “But you must admit he was a huge success as a Russian dancer. He could have won fair and square. I thought he was very good at it – never knew he could do those funny moves while balancing on one foot.”

“He had some help, remember? With his hunchback and the support of the cow’s leg, he made it look easy. It’s such a pity that the cow didn’t cooperate, though. Ten more seconds, and he would have completed the dance.”

They fall silent as each one remembers the plaintive moooo! before the cow decided she has had enough. The kick was executed with bovine flair – landing perfectly on Boggel’s wriggling rump to propel him on a crash course with the mistletoe. Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men managed to drag Boggel to bed, placing (as it was Christmas, after all) two cold beers on his table before leaving. Gertruida (who knows everything) said Boggel’s condition was due to the kick – from the peach brandy, not the cow.

Just when the last sheep dropping is carefully cajoled from under the counter, Boggel stumbles into the room. Except for the lump on his forehead (he landed on the table on his way down, but a considerate sheep softened his fall to the floor), he seems to be all right. On the third attempt he manages to croak a recognisable Good morning and then“Is Christmas over?”

 

Fortunately for Boggel, it is. It’ll be a full year before it is Christmas again. With most of the mess cleared up, the Rolbossers sit down at the counter to discuss the evening’s events. Boggel manages to find some cold beers to shove over the counter.

“Where’s Oudoom?”

“Nah, I think he won’t be in today. Said a nativity play shouldn’t be like ours. Once his headache is gone, I’m sure he’s going to work on a sermon for next Sunday.” Precilla sounds worried. “I think he’s upset.”

“He should be. Platnees had to take him home.”

“No man, Platnees took the cow to the shed. He said so himself.” It’s Vetfaan’s turn to look worried.

“Ahem.” When Gertruida says Ahem! like that, you know she knows something that you should know, but don’t. “Then what is the cow doing on the lawn in front of the church?”

 

Maybe it’s a good idea to leave Rolbos right now. Some things are better left unsaid – especially since the cow can’t (and the rest won’t) tell you why that was the last nativity play to feature in Boggel’s Place. I can reveal that Oudoom recovered sufficiently to deliver a long sermon on Love thy neighbour enough to see him safely home; and that Boggel refuses to ever do his Kossak imitation again.

But all is not lost. Gertruida is working on a new play for next year, based on the story of the Nutcracker. She says there are more animals in the story and she’ll see to it that nobody drinks a drop before the performance.

Shows you: even she can be wrong sometimes.

Please do watch out for the cow if you ever should visit Rolbos. She’s the one with the innocent eyes staring at you from beneath the alluringly long eyelashes. You’d swear she’s the kindest, friendliest, nicest cow you’ll ever see. But…people who know, say that she changes her expression when you are a few feet away. They say she is the only cow on the planet capable of an evil smile…

The Wounds of War

It was between Christmas and New Year’s – dates didn’t matter much back then – that Vetfaan crawled across the hot sand of the Caprivi to check out the strange mound in the track. Potholes and ruts were common; mounds could signal danger. A booby-trapped hand grenade or a landmine might be concealed beneath that heap of earth.

There! The glint of sun on metal! The arming pin – pulled out once the mine is set – had been thrown away at the side of the track. Vetfaan was sure then: the landmine was a given fact; the possibility of an ambush an almost-certainty. He froze for a second, then lifted his hand in a signal to the rest of the patrol to disperse.

The effect was catastrophic. As the men stepped sideways into the bush, the carefully laid minefield exploded. The ambush was not by an invisible force armed with AK 47’s; the enemy had been much more devious in their planning. Knowing the scouting group would be suspicious about the little mound of earth, they mined the immediate area around the path.  Vetfaan’s platoon was out-thought, outsmarted and wiped out. Even the arming pin had been left there on purpose.

The human mind is able to process information at incredible rates. The hand on the hot stove gets whipped away before damage is done. A foot will find the brake pedal before the eyes register the running child in the street. The brain is, literally, quite amazing in analysing and reacting to the unexpected.

But sometimes, rarely, when the input of information is so unexpected, so grotesque, so massive, the brain cuts out. The neurons simply stop firing. Memory patterns halt. Analysis stops. Activity ceases. The body belonging to such a brain in those moments, ceases o function in a logical manner.

Vetfaan doesn’t know how long he lay there. He can’t really say. It could have been a second, or an hour. To this day, the black cloud of amnesia – the reaction to block out unacceptable events – still shrouds his ability to remember exactly what transpired in that time. He didn’t black out; he was aware of his surroundings all the time. It’s just that he was so paralysed with fear and anger and surprise and revulsion that time simply ceased to exist.

Later, when his arms and legs started obeying his mind once more, the absolute silence made him sit up. After the explosions, there were no whoops of victory from the enemy. No shots of an ambush. And in the eerie quiet, even the birds and the veld had become quiet; as if to apologise for what had happened. Sorry, Mother Nature was saying, so sorry.

It was an absurd thought.

Slowly, gingerly, Vetfaan glanced around him. It must have been some bounding Valmara VS 69’s. Vetfaan had seen a demonstration of such a mine: exploding at chest-height level, it had a killing zone of 30 yards. The three men in his group had no chance. Obviously the mines – he guessed there would have been five – had been laid to eliminate anybody stepping off the track. What saved Vetfaan, was the fact that he was laying down at the time of the explosions.

In slow motion, Vetfaan crawled away. There was no point in lingering – his men had been mutilated beyond recognition, shot to pieces and obviously dead. To venture off the track carried the risk of detonating even more mines. With the radio destroyed, his best chance was to try and get back to the base, report the incident, and let them dispatch an expert group to recover the bodies. Retracing his steps, he backed away from the mound, made a mental note of the position, and started the long and lonely road back to safety.

He must have progressed a kilometer or so – it may have been two, it may have been five – before the delayed reaction set in. When his brain finally started computing what happened, the enormity of the situation started filtering through. Up till then, his only thoughts had been about getting away, getting back to safety; but then the images of his mutilated patrol popped up again, demanding to be filed away under some heading in his mind. For a while he mulled about that: was it Sad, or Unnecessary, or Stupid, or Negligent, or Unavoidable, or … It seemed terribly important to find a category to suit the massacre.

And then a great sadness overwhelmed him. He had known those three men well. The one had always bragged about his little daughter at home. They had always laughed at his corporal’s jokes. And then there was the ferrety little bloke, who had dreamt of the ultimate love affair once he got discharged. They had been real, live, people. And now they’re dead.

Vetfaan found a tree, sat down, and cried. Great racking sobs ripped through his body, tears streaking down over his dusty cheeks. It seemed as if something inside him just gave way; he wasn’t crying out of sadness. Nor even frustration. He was weeping because there was nothing else to do. It didn’t help to feel sad. He couldn’t bring those men back. Like a mother holding a dead baby, he cried because the promise of tomorrow had been broken.

For a while, he tried to blame somebody. First of all, he wondered if he should have been more careful. Then he blamed the hands that set the mine. Later he shifted responsibility to the factory in Italy, where the greed for money allowed the manufacture of these killing devices and they traded death for Dollars. Inevitably, eventually, he charged the politicians for killing his mates. Fat, unfit, whiskey-drinking men in oak-panelled offices sent his little patrol of fit young men to fight their battles. The cowards, he decided, were the men who refused to commit to compromise.

Vetfaan got back to the base. He reported the incident. The bodies were recovered, the flowery letters sent to the grieving families, and a clerk in Headquarters filed the report neatly with the others – all marked by the little black ribbon on the right-hand corner. The admin was done. The politicians used the facts to escalate the war. Peace on Earth – at what price?

Constant war?

During the rest of the Border War, Vetfaan participated in several skirmishes with the enemy. He joined the ranks of men with their stuttering guns – but he always made sure he aimed too high. That was the only way to protest the stupidity of it all – a one-man non-fight for peace.

Now, in the time between Christmas and New Year, Vetfaan will always saunter into Boggel’s Place and order the old army-drink. Rum-and-Coke. Four of them. Doubles. His salute is always the same:

“Broken Promises! Lost innocence! And lonely ladies!”

The other patrons think it must be some old Irish toast, or maybe it’s a Greek one. They’ll raise their glasses and salute silently.  It’s only Gertruida who notices the cold, cold look in his grey eyes when he drinks the one Rum after the other, finishing the four drinks in silence. And later, when she helps him to get home, she’ll have to assure him there are no mounds in the road. Not a single one, Vetfaan. It is safe. It’s okay.

One day she’ll rustle up enough courage to ask him about it; but some instinct warns her to wait. Sometimes the wounds of war take a long time to heal.

In some cases, they never do.

Boxed in on Boxing Day

“At least Christmas is over.” Vetfaan rubs his hands together in anticipation. Boggel doesn’t open the bar on Christmas, and by now the collective thirst of the town is almost as overwhelming as the drought in the district.

“Ag, Vetfaan, show some respect!” Servaas – who shares the thirst, but feels he should set an example as elder in the church – wags and admonishing finger in the direction of the big farmer.

“At least we don’t have to put up with the bustle in the big cities.” Kleinpiet tries to change the subject. “I hear the people bought just about everything in the shops. Imagine that happening to Sammie? Well have to wait until next week for the lorry of Kalahari Vervoer to restock. Worse: what’ll happen if we drink Boggel’s dry? That’ll be a catastrophe.”

This is a serious question, which causes a shocked silence. Even Servaas has to admit – respectfully, but still – that the town without Boggel’s Place would be unthinkable. Sure, people drink there – and maybe sometimes a bit much – but this is where they gather to exchange news, talk about the drought, listen to each other’s hardships and small delights, and tell everybody next year will be better. Except for the brief chats in front of Oudoom’s church, this is where they share hope and joy and grief.

“It won’t happen.” Vetfaan is adamant. “I saw the extra boxes he ordered from Upington. It’ll last well past New Year’s.”

And Gertruida, who sits a little apart, thinks, yes, it’s all about boxes. Cities marching outward with little box houses, box lives, box schools, box churches. You either fit into the box, or you don’t; which means you won’t last. Millions upon millions of individuals, being taught that you have to fit into the mould. Radio stations, newspapers and TV stations telling people to conform to fashion, politics and religion. Think this. Wear that. Lip-gloss so. Vote for the right guy. Bank here. Go to the right church. Move with the masses and be safe. Artificial satisfaction guaranteed at the end of the queue for gratification. Come on! Be politically  correct and environmentally friendly. Swim against the stream and some horrible fate awaits you: a label screaming: Not Normal!

Not long from now, she thinks, there’ll be surgeons paying off expensive cars with their ability to bore little holes in the rebellious skulls to make them all good ol’ jolly fellows en route to Valhalla.  At least now, she thinks, some people still think for themselves – but for how long?

“You’re pensive, Gertruida. What’s wrong?” The little frown of disapproval creates a skew furrow on Precilla’s brow.

“Just thinking about Boxing Day, sweetie. About what people are allowing other people to do to them. How we are blind to Syria and sad with Sandy Hook. Mugabe and Zuma hammering the lid shut on justice. People boxed in by following stupid trends. thinking it’ll set them free. Small lives being governed by insecurity. And insecurity fanned on by fashion houses and politicians, to make you buy and spend and fit in with a constantly changing environment. The impossibility of a forced, homogeneous society. You know…everybody’s so boxed-in?”

Precilla nods – she knows better than to ask for an explanation. Gertruida sometimes has such outlandish ideas.

“Ah, here comes Boggel. Come on, Gertruida, let me buy you a drink.”

And Gertruida trudges along willingly, not keen to pursue the line of thought any further. The fate of those poor people…!

She’s right, of course. In Tokyo and New York and London and Cape Town, millions of people stand in front of overfull cupboards, uncertain what to wear for the obligatory lunch dates with the Trendsetter Family and The In Crowd. They have to fit in, you see? Their lives depend on it…

Oudoom’s Christmas Wish – for you, especially…

Oudoom hesitates before he opens the Bible. The little congregation waits as the pastor shakes his head, looks up and takes a deep breath.

“I’ve prepared a sermon for today.” He seems to relax a bit, as if he’s told them everything they should know. “You know: the usual: the shepherds and the star and the three wise men. No place in the inn. Angels singing. Presents.”

Vetfaan glances towards Gertruida, who shrugs in return. Oudoom’s Christmas sermons are very predictable – they’re always the same. Obviously the old man had something different in mind this time.

“But today I feel it is wrong to rehash something you all know by heart. I won’t preach about the history you have heard repeated so often on the 25th of December.” He pauses, gathering his thoughts. “Do you realise that the only mode of transport Jesus ever used – other than his two feet – was a donkey? Although the Bible doesn’t mention Mary riding on a donkey on the way to Bethlehem, the Protoevangelium of James does. And we know He entered Jerusalem on a donkey towards the end of His life. Of course, He used boats as well while on water (when He didn’t walk on it!); but one estimate states that He travelled more than 21,000 miles by foot during his life.

“In those days they had carts and oxen, horses and camels – but He preferred His own two feet.”

“What’s this got to do with Christmas?” Kleinpiet whispers during the pause in Oudoom’s sermon, only to get another shrug from Gertruida.

“In those days the Romans had already established major, paved highways between towns. Julius Caesar started his career as a minister of transport.” Oudoom waits for the subdued laughter to die down. Only Gertruida knows that is true.  “And along those roads travelled the traders, the merchantmen, the postal services, the army, those on official errands and ordinary people on their way to weddings, churches, funerals and everyday work. This was the old Internet, the Facebook of ancient times, where people from different backgrounds and countries were thrown together – on a journey together.

“I’ll make it short and sweet.” Oudoom realises his audience isn’t on the same page as he is. “Jesus met people where they were. He didn’t rent the Colosseum to address masses during a rally. He didn’t have a big marketing campaign driven by some famous advertising company. He didn’t dress in an outrageous fashion or used scantily dressed entertainers as an opening act… He simply walked with people. People with dirty feet. People with dusty hair and grimy clothes. People stinking of sweat, unshaven and tired. “

Now Gertruida nods her head. Travelling in Biblical times was a dirty business. Although there were villages and resting places approximately twenty miles apart, she has read in National Geographic how arduous journeying through the desert-like conditions in the Middle East may be. She closes her eyes to see the throng of people, walking this way and that, making their ways to distant destinations. And there, amongst them, the Man in the white robes, chatting away the miles on His way to the next stop.

Yes, Servaas thinks, He does that. Jesus may be spoken of in church, but it is in the lonely hours on Life’s road that He takes time to meet each of us. While we’re on our way to a personal destination, He pops up next to us to guide us to a Place of Rest; a place where we can wash off the fatigue of struggling along; a haven we all strive towards…

“So….” Oudoom spreads his arms wide in a benediction, “it is my prayer that we should follow His example. During the year, we’ve had many, many visitors in Rolbos. People stopped by to meet us  – from more than 100 countries – 25000 times. That’s more than one for every mile Jesus walked. Now, my question is: what was the result of those encounters? Were we able to make them laugh with us? Cry with us? Did they leave our little town with a smile or a frown? Did we do what we were supposed to do: meet them where they were?”

Vetfaan looks down at his farmers boots. Well, he thinks, we don’t have any masks in this town. We celebrated the good times and grieved the sad ones. We laughed at the stupidity of our politics and the shallowness of believing possessions make people happy. We were saddened by loss: superstorms and idiots with guns made us cry. And through it all, He was there, at our side, walking along with us – and we weren’t even always aware of His soft footsteps.

Oudoom smiles down at his little flock. “Please join me in wishing our visitors a Christmas on the road. May each of them, as they journey to a next destination, be aware of the travel companion who’ll never leave them. May their feet follow His, and may His Place of Rest await them at the end of their journey.

“More importantly: this is Christmas. In simple terms, we celebrate the Life of Jesus – a remarkable life of sacrifice, hardship and perseverance. Why do we do it? I’ll tell you: it’s because He came to tell us  - not only about forgiveness and redemption – but about kindness and love. This is the day we remember that, and unfortunately, this is the day many people forget about it as well.”

Oudoom looks up, allowing his eyes to gaze out, through the open doors of his little church, towards the distant  horizon. He imagines he can see people all over the world – weary people, dusty people, sad and lonely people, even people worrying about the year ahead. People on their way to distant locations, dragging themselves along on a journey with an uncertain end. People struggling with loss. Grieving people. He shakes his head, as if to clear his vision. Are there, amongst the thousands of people, so few happy faces?

Without looking down again, he clears his throat, hoping his words will be heard in the hearts of every visitor to Rolbos.

“Go now. Be aware that you’ll never travel alone. And may Goodness and Kindness follow you henceforth, for Christmas is not just a day. It’ll last as long as you listen for the gentle footstep at your side. It’s up to you to make Christmas last.”

 ***

Okay. Close your eyes. See Vetfaan smiling at you. Precilla’s hug is warm and gentle. Gertruida and Judge pat you gently on the back. Kleinpiet’s handshake is firm. Servaas will tell you – in a happier voice than usual – that he wishes you well. Oudoom and Mevrou invite you over for coffee and rusks.

And Boggel, standing on his crate behind the counter, presents his cheek for a Christmas kiss. See: he’s even attached a piece of mistletoe to the rafter above the bar.

May the good wishes from the little town in the Kalahari brighten your day. And may your Christmas last longer than 24 hours – just listen for those footsteps next to you, and it will.