Category Archives: smalltown short stories

To eternity…and back (#9)

Matron, a painting by Edward Irvine Halliday

Matron, a painting by Edward Irvine Halliday

Matron sat down after making sure that nurse Botha had closed the door properly. To say she was uncertain would be an insult to the ruler of her hospital empire, but in reality, her heart was thumping away wildly. How was she to manage this situation? Yes, give her a shocked, comatose patient, and she’d be galvanised into organised activity immediately. Or bring on that difficult breech delivery – she could handle that with professional ease. But this….? What was she supposed to do with a rebellious nurse and a lover that ruined her life? She sighed and stared at her hands…she’d just have to come up with something…

The trio in front of her seemed equally unsettled – except for Vetfaan, who had a sardonic smile, as if he knew something she didn’t.

“Look, this is uncomfortable for all of us. I realise you didn’t expect me here, Jocobus.” Shorty shifted his weight, staring at his feet. “You expected to make amends with Servaas, not me. And I suppose one should commend you for that, despite my absolute misgivings about your past. You have singlehandedly been responsible for my unhappiness for the last four decades. You cannot expect me to simply smile and tell you everything is all right. I can’t because it isn’t. I’ll bear the scars of that time for the rest of my life. If you can’t understand that, you’re a bigger imbecile than even I have given you credit for.” There was no mistaking the suppressed anger in her words. “But…what was done, was done. You moved on, and so did I. I tried…Lord knows how I tried…to forget you and what you’d done. And, despite what I may feel about your rejection, I cannot undo the past.”

Shorty opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, but she held up a silencing hand.

“Don’t! Don’t say anything, Jacobus de Lange. Let me finish. I hate what you did, even if I forgive you. I…I suppose I’m still mad at you – and probably will be till I lay down my head. That is my problem and I can deal with it…provided I hear from you what I hope you were on the point of saying.”

She looked up expectantly, uncertainty written all over her face.

“Matron….Alice…I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve apologised to Servaas – that was easy. But you? How do I say ‘sorry’ when I’ve been bogged down with more guilt than you can imagine? How can I apologise when I can’t even forgive myself? How do I make amends for something I buggered up so completely such a long time ago?” Shorty wiped away the embarrassing tear coursing down his cheek with an impatient gesture. “So I’ll just say I’m sorry. Really. I’ve ruined your life as much as I’ve done my own. I know what I went through – I can only imagine what the effect on your life had been. And I…I have to live with that. Every day you think about what I did, is another day I look at myself in the mirror…and want to smash the bloody glass! I’m sorry, Alice. I’m so sorry…”

Much to especially nurse Botha’s surprise, the woman she had come to know as an emotionless, automated perfectionist, sat completely quiet during Shorty’s apology. Then her impassive face crumbled, melted, slowly deepening the furrows and lines on her forehead while the skin over her chin crinkled as if it had a life of its own. A sound – soft at first, almost inaudible – picked up volume and became a primitive wail; the oldest expression of grief known to mankind. By the time the tears started, Shorty was at her side, patting her back with no apparent effect.

Nurse Botha stormed out to get more tea. Vetfaan stood rooted to the spot, without the faintest idea how to manage the situation. He’d never had a clue what to do with crying women, anyway…

It took two cups of strong, sweet tea to calm matron Krotz down. Vetfaan, at last galvanised into action, produced a half-jack of peach brandy, which they shared between the four of them. It helped more than the tea did.

“Oh, bugger! It’s such a mess.” Krotz blew her nose with gusto, sniffed even more loudly and managed a wobbly smile. “I’m just glad every day doesn’t start like this.”

It was a lame attempt to lighten the atmosphere, but it worked. Nurse Botha giggled, Shorty shuffled his feet and Vetfaan wished he had brought more peach brandy.

“Matron…” Nurse Botha used the silence to get Krotz’s attention.

“What is it, nurse Botha?”Something in the matron’s demeanour told everybody she was fighting to sound stern, like her old self, but was failing miserably.

“I’m sorry I called you a …a…lady dog, Matron. I didn’t mean it. Really…”

They laughed at that. Long and hard, like people do when they don’t know what words to use to make things better.

***

Servaas had another dream that night – not a lucid one like he had before, but a dream he tried to remember afterwards and couldn’t. When he woke up in his own bed in Rolbos, he did feel much refreshed. He ascribed his euphoria to his home environment, not knowing that the answer lay at a much deeper level.

In the dream he was back on the dune – the exact same one of his previous dream – reaching out to Shorty, who he found easy to recognise this time. He did, indeed, rescue Shorty from the quicksand, but not like he imagined in the original dream. This time he was helped by all his friends from Rolbos, as well as a rather portly but friendly nurse.

***

Shorty never goes to Upington without stopping to have a cup of tea with matron Krotz. They seem to have reached a new understanding, in which they manage to talk about the old days without the anger and guilt that had burdened them so. While they agreed to let bygones be bygones, they are both old and wise enough to know they cannot retrace the steps to a romantic relationship. They do, however, pop in to Boggel’s Place about once a year to join the group at the bar. Just for old time’s sake, nothing more. (For now, at least.)

Servaas has made a full recovery. He firmly believes his illness had a purpose – something they all agree on. Oudoom asked him to speak about his near-death experience during one of the Sunday services, having invited some of the pastors and reverends from Upington. While the Rolbossers hung on to his lips, absorbing every word, the visiting learned clergymen afterwards dismissed his experience as a mere hallucination. Old people, they concurred, tend to romanticise and dramatise everything.

And nurse Botha? Why, you’ll find her in every hospital you ever set your foot (or other bits of your anatomy) in. She’s the one with the soft eyes; the shy, hesitant smile; the young lass sitting next to the critically ill patient, holding a withered hand. She may not be a beauty queen, but you’ll recognise her compassion as much prettier than the girls strutting about on the Miss World stage. If you see her, be kind. Tell her how important she is in a world that recognises power and money as the only currency. And do tell her she’s special. After all, no matron can run a hospital without her. She is, when all is said and done, everything that nursing – and caring and love – is all about.

Lastly: Servaas said something during his recounting of his near death awareness in church that pleased – and upset – Gertruida tremendously. He emphasised that nothing – nothing – is ever a coincidence. Whenever fate forces you onto an unknown path, look for the kindness, the compassion, hidden somewhere even in the most unfortunate circumstances. People don’t see it, he said, because they are too absorbed in their own planning of what they think they want in life. He quoted eloquently from Desiderata, reminding them that the universe will unfold just the way it has to – not according to the rather short-sighted roster each of us draws up for our own lives. And, he emphasised, although we so often doubt the concept, the basis of everything – life, the universe, relationships – is love. Without it, nothing in the past makes sense. Nor, for that matter, does the future.

When he spoke to the congregation, he made them repeat a sentence: There is a purpose to everything under heaven. To his and Gertruida’s dismay, the visitors didn’t join in. But then…when faith is based only on theory, one cannot blame them, can one? Maybe one has to die – or almost die – to realise this basic truth.

Or travel to eternity and back…

THE END

To eternity…and back (#8)

Credit:theguardian.com

Credit: theguardian.com

Perhaps it was the shock. After so many years of guilt (in Shorty’s mind) and anger (Alice Krotz), one might have expected things to go horribly wrong when Vetfaan unknowingly caused the two to meet again. After all, his goal had been to link Shorty up with Servaas again – how was he to know about matron Krotz? And matron, harbouring the deep hatred for the man who so ably ruined her romantic life forever, had ample reason to refuse to forgive the hapless Shorty, despite the best efforts of poor nurse Botha.

So, picture the scene:

The stage: matron’s office and the corridor in front of it.

The actors: Matron Krotz, seething with anger, staring at the closed door from behind her desk

Shorty, resting his head against the wall outside the closed door, emotionally drained,                          about to leave

Nurse Botha, storming out, having slammed the door, beside herself with fury

…and Vetfaan…

Vetfaan had been on his way to thank matron Krotz for taking such good care of Servaas, when his rather large bulk halted nurse Botha’s flight down the corridor.

People often look at Vetfaan, at his bulky frame and good-natured smile, and assume he’s this gentle giant of a man; maybe a little slow but with a good heart. And often, that’s exactly who Vetfaan is: the  last one to laugh at a joke, the first at the counter when drinks are on the house. But when he took in the scene in front of matron’s office, he instinctively connected the dots – correctly. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard, given the attitude and the appearance of the two people he encountered.

Nurse Botha, who had been storming blindly down the corridor a second ago, crashed into Vetfaan with a resounding thump! – and then felt the muscular arms fold gently around her. She resisted, trying to escape, for just a second, before surrendering to a gale of sniffling sobs. Vetfaan seemed to take it all in his stride as he rocked her softly, saying over and over again that everything will be all right.

Shorty, in the meantime, froze where he stood, half-turned to leave, yet sufficiently surprised by Vetfaan’s appearance to remain where he was.

“Difficult morning, eh?” Vetfaan kept his voice level as he addressed nobody in particular. “I just hate it when a day starts like this.”

“You…don’t…understa-a-a-a-nd,” nurse Botha wailed. “Th-h-hat …woman…is the…de-de-devil!” Vetfaan had to listen very carefully to make sense of the words between the sobs.

Shorty closed his eyes. Opened them again. Gulped. Spoke. “No she isn’t.” Something inside him forced him to speak. Over the years he had so often thought about Alice and the way he had treated her, and now the words insisted that he – at last – said them out loud. Even if he said them to strangers, there would be some relief. No more silence. No more denial… “She was – is – the sweetest girl I ever knew. She can be gentle, kind, compassionate, caring. I know that. I experienced that. But what I did, was as inexcusable as it was inevitable, I suppose. I was a wild one back then: always tempting fate to see how far I could go.”

By then, nurse Botha had stopped crying as she listened to Shorty’s confession.

“Alice – matron Krotz – was different. She had a naive innocence about her, and I was on course to destroy that. Fortunately, I never got that far. Before our relationship got to the next level, Fate intervened. Or God, if you like. Or the Natural Order of Things took over. Whatever… But, had we gotten married back then, the outcome would have been even worse than it is now.

“Well, little Jacobus came along, and he taught me so many lessons. He forced me to grow up, you see? Despite his many disabilities, he became my teacher. Life, I learnt, isn’t about the silly moments of laughter – it’s about love. And I loved that boy with all my heart – eventually. Once I had made peace with the fact that I’d made just too many mistakes in my past, little Jacobus became the focus of my future. I was determined to make him as happy as I could. My focus shifted from my own needs to his – a process that happened slowly over the years. And then, just when I finally understood why he had come into my life…he died…”

Shorty smiled wryly, despite the wetness around his eyes. By then, nurse Botha had turned around in Vetfaan’s hug, and the two of them stood listening to him with rapt attention. When Vetfaan made to loosen his arms around the nurse, she shook her head. She felt safe there…

“But Alice? I can understand why she does what she does – even how she does it. That spark of kindness and compassion never died, despite my stupidity. She became a carer for the sick, living and sharing her compassion with those most in need of it. And yes, she may be difficult and obtuse and stubborn…but why?” He paused before answering his own question. “Because her work had become her escape. It had to be perfect – if only to lessen the hurt I had made her suffer.”

Shorty straightened up. Life, he told them, first had to prune away his ego before – slowly, steadily – allowing him to discover the beauty of unconditional love.  “I once thought love was about being happy. How wrong I was! How stupid. Love isn’t a beggar wanting more. Love wants to give and give, even when you have nothing left.”

Vetfaan’s puzzled look didn’t worry him. If the burly farmer didn’t understand, then he will, one day. Anyway, he had said what he actually wanted to tell matron Krotz. The words were out, his burden ever so slightly less overwhelming. It was time to go.

“Thank you, nurse Botha, for trying. And thanks Vetfaan, for giving me the opportunity to talk to Servaas. At least I did that – talked to Servaas, I mean. It would have been nice to talk to Alice, but I don’t think she’d ever be prepared to listen to me, I suppose…”

At that moment the door cracked open and a  flushed Alice Krotz strode into the corridor.

“This is my hospital, and I will not have people discussing their private lives in public. It’s not done, dammit! Is this a confessional?   Do you think this is a psychiatrist’s office? This is…” she glared at them sternly, “…my hospital. My  corridor.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself to sound more reasonable. “Now, all of you get inside my office at once. Shees! What will doctor Welman think if he found us all here? I can just imagine his shock and horror! Go on…inside!” Was there the slightest hint of a smile on her face? “And you, nurse Botha, you go and make that damn tea you’re always going on about. And then you come back here, I have to talk to you about your manners.”

***

Gertruida says that human nature is a fickle thing.  The right word at the right time can change an explosive situation into a healing experience. Or vice versa, if one has to be honest, when the wrong thing is said at the wrong time.

When matron Krotz stared at the slammed door a few minutes before Vetfaan’s arrival, she was so ready to fire nurse Botha – even before she had time to resign. But when she heard Shorty speak to the others in the corridor, the reality of the situation settled in her mind. Shorty, as guilty as he was in wrecking her youth, was sorry! He even admitted his wrongs  – in public!  He had become a different man. And along the way, he had become the man she thought he would be. That meant – she reasoned – that she had been right all along, only at the wrong time. Shorty – like so many men – was a late developer. Male maturity happened to be, after all, such a different and tardy process compared to the female equivalent – which, in matron’s informed opinion, certainly proves the superiority of the latter.

And anyway, she had to admit to herself, she couldn’t run the hospital without the able help of that busybody, nurse Botha.

Matron stared at the three people – Vetfaan, silent and strong; Shorty, with uncertainty written all over his face; and nurse Botha, still visibly upset – over the rim of her steaming cup of tea.

For the first time in many, many years, Matron Alice Krotz had to wipe away a tear. Nothing in her training or experience had prepared her for a moment like this. How –  in heaven’s name –  was she supposed to handle this mess? But, being the woman she was, she set  her jaw firmly, swallowed hard, and prepared her speech in her mind. She’d show them….

(To be continued…)

‘And when they tell you that you’re crazy,
You’ve got to try to settle down,
You got to turn yourself around,
Life is more than just good times, and parties..’

…’

To eternity…and back (#8)

Credit:theguardian.com

Credit:theguardian.com

Perhaps it was the shock. After so many years of guilt (in Shorty’s mind) and anger (Alice Krotz), one might have expected things to go horribly wrong when Vetfaan unknowingly caused the two to meet again. After all, his goal had been to link Shorty up with Servaas again – how was he to know about matron Krotz? And matron, harbouring the deep hatred for the man who so ably ruined her romantic life forever, had ample reason to refuse to forgive the hapless Shorty, despite the best efforts of poor nurse Botha.

So, picture the scene:

The stage: matron’s office and the corridor in front of it.

The actors: Matron Krotz, seething with anger, staring at the closed door from behind her desk

Shorty, resting his head against the wall outside the closed door, emotionally drained,                          about to leave

Nurse Botha, storming out, having slammed the door, beside herself with fury

…and Vetfaan…

Vetfaan had been on his way to thank matron Krotz for taking such good care of Servaas, when his rather large bulk halted nurse Botha’s flight down the corridor.

People often look at Vetfaan, at his bulky frame and good-natured smile, and assume he’s this gentle giant of a man; maybe a little slow but with a good heart. And often, that’s exactly who Vetfaan is: the  last one to laugh at a joke, the first at the counter when drinks are on the house. But when he took in the scene in front of matron’s office, he instinctively connected the dots – correctly. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard, given the attitude and the appearance of the two people he encountered.

Nurse Botha, who had been storming blindly down the corridor a second ago, crashed into Vetfaan with a resounding thump! – and then felt the muscular arms fold gently around her. She resisted, trying to escape, for just a second, before surrendering to a gale of sniffling sobs. Vetfaan seemed to take it all in his stride as he rocked her softly, saying over and over again that everything will be all right.

Shorty, in the meantime, froze where he stood, half-turned to leave, yet sufficiently surprised by Vetfaan’s appearance to remain where he was.

“Difficult morning, eh?” Vetfaan kept his voice level as he addressed nobody in particular. “I just hate it when a day starts like this.”

“You…don’t…understa-a-a-a-nd,” nurse Botha wailed. “Th-h-hat …woman…is the…de-de-devil!” Vetfaan had to listen very carefully to make sense of the words between the sobs.

Shorty closed his eyes. Opened them again. Gulped. Spoke. “No she isn’t.” Something inside him forced him to speak. Over the years he had so often thought about Alice and the way he had treated her, and now the words insisted that he – at last – said them out loud. Even if he said them to strangers, there would be some relief. No more silence. No more denial… “She was – is – the sweetest girl I ever knew. She can be gentle, kind, compassionate, caring. I know that. I experienced that. But what I did, was as inexcusable as it was inevitable, I suppose. I was a wild one back then: always tempting fate to see how far I could go.”

By then, nurse Botha had stopped crying as she listened to Shorty’s confession.

“Alice – matron Krotz – was different. She had a naive innocence about her, and I was on course to destroy that. Fortunately, I never got that far. Before our relationship got to the next level, Fate intervened. Or God, if you like. Or the Natural Order of Things took over. Whatever… But, had we gotten married back then, the outcome would have been even worse than it is now.

“Well, little Jacobus came along, and he taught me so many lessons. He forced me to grow up, you see? Despite his many disabilities, he became my teacher. Life, I learnt, isn’t about the silly moments of laughter – it’s about love. And I loved that boy with all my heart – eventually. Once I had made peace with the fact that I’d made just too many mistakes in my past, little Jacobus became the focus of my future. I was determined to make him as happy as I could. My focus shifted from my own needs to his – a process that happened slowly over the years. And then, just when I finally understood why he had come into my life…he died…”

Shorty smiled wryly, despite the wetness around his eyes. By then, nurse Botha had turned around in Vetfaan’s hug, and the two of them stood listening to him with rapt attention. When Vetfaan made to loosen his arms around the nurse, she shook her head. She felt safe there…

“But Alice? I can understand why she does what she does – even how she does it. That spark of kindness and compassion never died, despite my stupidity. She became a carer for the sick, living and sharing her compassion with those most in need of it. And yes, she may be difficult and obtuse and stubborn…but why?” He paused before answering his own question. “Because her work had become her escape. It had to be perfect – if only to lessen the hurt I had made her suffer.”

Shorty straightened up. Life, he told them, first had to prune away his ego before – slowly, steadily – allowing him to discover the beauty of unconditional love.  “I once thought love was about being happy. How wrong I was! How stupid. Love isn’t a beggar wanting more. Love wants to give and give, even when you have nothing left.”

Vetfaan’s puzzled look didn’t worry him. If the burly farmer didn’t understand, then he will, one day. Anyway, he had said what he actually wanted to tell matron Krotz. The words were out, his burden ever so slightly less overwhelming. It was time to go.

“Thank you, nurse Botha, for trying. And thanks Vetfaan, for giving me the opportunity to talk to Servaas. At least I did that – talked to Servaas, I mean. It would have been nice to talk to Alice, but I don’t think she’d ever be prepared to listen to me, I suppose…”

At that moment the door cracked open and a  flushed Alice Krotz strode into the corridor.

“This is my hospital, and I will not have people discussing their private lives in public. It’s not done, dammit! Is this a confessional?   Do you think this is a psychiatrist’s office? This is…” she glared at them sternly, “…my hospital. My  corridor.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself to sound more reasonable. “Now, all of you get inside my office at once. Shees! What will doctor Welman think if he found us all here? I can just imagine his shock and horror! Go on…inside!” Was there the slightest hint of a smile on her face? “And you, nurse Botha, you go and make that damn tea you’re always going on about. And then you come back here, I have to talk to you about your manners.”

***

Gertruida says that human nature is a fickle thing.  The right word at the right time can change an explosive situation into a healing experience. Or vice versa, if one has to be honest, when the wrong thing is said at the wrong time.

When matron Krotz stared at the slammed door a few minutes before Vetfaan’s arrival, she was so ready to fire nurse Botha – even before she had time to resign. But when she heard Shorty speak to the others in the corridor, the reality of the situation settled in her mind. Shorty, as guilty as he was in wrecking her youth, was sorry! He even admitted his wrongs  – in public!  He had become a different man. And along the way, he had become the man she thought he would be. That meant – she reasoned – that she had been right all along, only at the wrong time. Shorty – like so many men – was a late developer. Male maturity happened to be, after all, such a different and tardy process compared to the female equivalent – which, in matron’s informed opinion, certainly proves the superiority of the latter.

And anyway, she had to admit to herself, she couldn’t run the hospital without the able help of that busybody, nurse Botha.

Matron stared at the three people – Vetfaan, silent and strong; Shorty, with uncertainty written all over his face; and nurse Botha, still visibly upset – over the rim of her steaming cup of tea.

For the first time in many, many years, Matron Alice Krotz had to wipe away a tear. Nothing in her training or experience had prepared her for a moment like this. How –  in heaven’s name –  was she supposed to handle this mess? But, being the woman she was, she set  her jaw firmly, swallowed hard, and prepared her speech in her mind. She’d show them.

(To be continued…)

 

‘And when they tell you that you’re crazy,
You’ve got to try to settle down,
You got to turn yourself around,
Life is more than just good times, and parties…’

To eternity…and back (#5)

_old_man's_hands_crutchServaas couldn’t bear to look up. He heard Gertruida say good afternoon to somebody and recognised Vetfaan’s subdued voice, but it was as if everything froze and time stood still for a while. Although the room was stuffy and warm – summer in the northern Cape  is never cool – he shivered as a chill ran through his body. Gertruida, what have you done…?

Then, almost in slow motion, he allowed his gaze to travel to the man standing next to Vetfaan – Shorty de Lange, the man he last saw in 1970.

Yes, it was Shorty alright. Tall, still athletic despite the years, the same handsome face although it gathered the wrinkles and lines associated with the passage of years. Servaas noted – with cynical satisfaction – the slight paunch, the mild stoop, the cane and the gnarly hands of arthritis. Nobody escapes the ravages of age, he thought, not even Shorty.

His overwhelming experience at that point was a mixture of fear, revulsion, guilt and an infantile desire to pull the blankets over his head in the hope everything will be alright by the time he reemerged.

“Hi, Servie.”

Servie. His old army nickname. He hadn’t heard it in decades. He managed to croak a reply of sorts. Then, gathering his bushy brows together, he closed his eyes firmly.

“Servaas, I brought Shorty to see you.” Vetfaan’s remark, superfluous as it was, as he tried to break the ice.

“I…I…don’t want to…” The rebellion in Servaas’s mind was obvious. Why did Vetfaan and Gertruida bring this man there, at that point, when he least expected – and needed – to be reminded of those terrible moments when he lost control and almost killed somebody he’d have described as a friend before?

“It’s a choice.” Shorty interrupted in a quiet voice. When Servaas closed his mouth so firmly that his dentures clicked upon themselves, Shorty launched into a monotone that touched them all.

“You may choose to ignore me, Servie, and I’ll understand. But let me tell you about choices, and maybe my being here will make some sense.

“You see, Servie, I made a choice that evening before you beat me up. A bad choice. And let me tell you, that was only one of the many bad choices I made in my life. Had I listened to you, my life would have been…different.

“Sure, you gave me a proper hiding. I deserved that, even if I didn’t think so at the time. I was conceited and self-righteous to the point where I called you a wet rag and secretly poked fun at your narrow-minded approach to life behind your back. But, what goes around, comes around. Choices have consequences. Let me tell you…”

***

When Shorty de Lange was discharged from hospital, he moved in with the beautiful young student he had met on that fateful evening before he and Servaas had the fight. She had visited him frequently in hospital, oozing sympathy and bringing little presents. On the day before his discharge, she told him she was pregnant.

“My world started to implode right there. I mean; one night with her, one careless fling, and suddenly everything changed. Her father turned out to be this conceited and overbearing minister in the church, a man with strong connections with the government. He arranged my transfer to a desk job in Voortrekkerhoogte, made the complaints against me – for the damage we had done to the barracks — disappear, and demanded that all the blame be put on you, Servie. Then he insisted that I marry his daughter. I didn’t know it at the time, but  that’s where my hell started.”

His newly-wed wife, Hester, seemed to blame him for everything – the pregnancy, the fact that she had to drop out of university, the small flat they had to stay in, even the way her once-shapely body adapted to the baby she was carrying.

“Most evenings ended in a shouting match. Then the baby was born…”

Baby Jacobus had a chromosomal defect – . Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease. The condition, Shorty told them in a hesitant, hushed tone, is characterised by spasticity, blindness and retarded mental development.

“Even now, I cannot bring myself to describe the shock to you. It was…overwhelming…

“You’ll never understand what it is like to take care of such a baby. Doctors, physiotherapists, medicines, constant – every second of every day – care and attention.

“Well, the good reverend distanced himself from his grandson, saying the most horrible things about the wages of sin. Hester held out for a year, then the situation became too much for her. Psychologists and psychiatrists didn’t help much. Our little flat had pills and medicines everywhere! For the baby, for her…and for me. When she suggested a divorce, I was only too happy to go along with it. One less thing to worry about, see? It was completely out of the question to allow her custody of the baby – there was no way she could take care of him.

“So, there I was, stuck in a stupid little flat with an abnormal baby. The only good thing the reverend grandfather did, was to obtain my discharge from the army and arrange work for me at a research facility  near Roodeplaat dam. At least they provided a house on the premises and I could afford to employ a nurse to help look after the baby.”

platRoodeplaat Research Laboratories did biological research – of the warfare type. Shorty’s job involved – amongst other duties – caring for a pond filled with frogs. The African Clawed Frog (Xenopus or platanna) is commonly used as  a source for fast-growing, large cells, making them ideal for biological research.

“Those frogs were a nightmare. I was responsible for breeding enough specimens to keep up with the laboratory’s demands and had to identify the females who produced the most eggs. I tried tagging them with bits of plastic, but that didn’t last. That’s when I started working on an idea to implant a small transponder under the skin and to develop an scanner to identify individuals.”

Shorty reminded them that he had an accounting background – another strangely humorously cynical coincidence.

“I had become a bookkeeper of frogs! Because of the ultrasecret nature of the research, my official job description was, indeed, that of an accountant. So there I was, looking after frogs in the daytime and taking care of my baby at night.” Shorty allowed a sad smile at that point. “In both cases, the level of intelligence was about the same…”

Baby Jacobus slowly deteriorated, requiring more and more attention. His spasticity and regular seizures progressed to the point where it was virtually impossible to care for him at home, but at that stage there were virtually no facilities to care for the needs of such children. The few that could, were prohibitively expensive.

The years rolled by and eventually Roodeplaat had to lay off most of its workforce as many of the projects had no bearing on the course of the Nationalists’ war against terrorism any longer. In the late 80’s, Shorty was a jobless father of a severely ill young boy.

“My life, you see, was an  endless struggle to make ends meet, take care of little Jacobus and simply surviving  – there was no time for socialising at all. That day, when I drove out of the gates of Roodeplaat for the last time, I was destitute. I had nowhere to go at all, no idea what to do.”

On the way back to Pretoria,  baby Jacobus had another of his seizures – only this one didn’t pass like previous ones did.. Shorty knew he had to get help, and get it fast. He raced to the HF Verwoerd Hospital, where the frail and dying boy was admitted to the paediatric unit.

“I left him there. Spent my first night alone since our fight in the barracks in the parking lot in front of the Union Buildings, crying, praying…and fighting with God. Why did He punish me so much? What did I do to deserve all this?

“And He gave me an answer. The word that came up in my mind that night, was ‘Choices’. I wasn’t being punished, you see? I was living the consequences of my own choices. My choice to ignore your admonishment that evening after the movie, determined the course of my life. Had I listened to you and went back to the barracks, i could have had a happy life. But I didn’t, did I…?”

***

Servaas listened to Shorty – at first with downcast eyes and wringing hands, later in silent sympathy. Then, when Shorty paused to dab his eyes, he spoke up for the first time.

“And then, Shorty?”

Shorty looked up sharply, blinking.

“I had to make another choice…”

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#4)

caregiverhandsFor a while after Gertruida had left, nurse Botha thought that Servaas suffered a relapse. The old man sat upright in his bed, staring into the distance with a completely vacant look. She approached the old man cautiously to fold her hands around his shrivelled hand, ever so gently. To her surprise, he started crying.

“I…I’m sorry, nursie. I just don’t know what to do.”

She sat there, listening to his account of his conversation with Gertruida, nodding as if she understood. Some people are natural listeners, making it easy to impart even the most painful thoughts. Nurse Botha was just such a person. She was neither old nor young, in between overweight and chubby and had the soft eyes of a Labrador. The words tumbled from her patient in an unstoppable torrent until at last he sank back in his cushion with the most distraught and fatigued look. She never interrupted, never asked a single question, knowing he had to hear himself  tell his story to work through this thing.

“So…you think you had this dream about Shorty de Lange for a reason?”

“Y-yes. I…I suppose so. It was too real to ignore and yet it sounds so stupid to take it seriously.”

“And yet you had this near-death experience, didn’t you? Did you take that seriously?”

Servaas blinked. “I did…I do, I mean. Yes. Siena was there, I’m sure. And something…more.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t hesitate to do the same with the dream? I mean, what harm can there be to find out where this…Shorty is? Maybe he’s dead already, and you’re worrying all in vain.”

The old man’s face brightened. He hadn’t thought about that! “But how do you go about finding somebody you last saw half a century ago? I don’t know where to begin.”

“Well, Oom Servaas, I might just be able to assist you with that.”

***

Wilhelm Röntgen's X-ray of Anna Bertha's - his wife - hand. 1895

Wilhelm Röntgen’s first X-ray. Anna Bertha’s – his wife’s – hand. 1895

Coincidence? Fate? Chance? Serendipity? Divine intervention…or divine planning? History is littered with hard-to-explain coincidental discoveries, ranging from penicillin, Viagra, anaesthesia, LSD, the microwave oven and – of course – X-rays. Even Alfred Nobel’s discovery of dynamite was the result of an accidental observation. Although mankind often benefitted from these ‘lucky’ incidents, we must also remember the iceberg that sunk the Titanic or the Curse of Tutankhamun which apparently killed Lord Carnarvon.

Still, the fact that portly nurse Botha had a brother working in the military archives in Pretoria could be considered a stroke of good luck – or an improbable inevitability in the strange set of events surrounding Servaas’s illness  during his stay in hospital.

Within an hour of her telephone call, Herman Botha reported that Jakob Arnoldus de Lange finished his stint as conscripted soldier in 1972, did the obligatory yearly call-up duties until 1986, and then was discharged from any further service. No, he didn’t know his present whereabouts, but he did supply the next link in the chain: the man’s ID number.

Enter Gertruida, our dear know-it-all with her contacts amongst the small but select group of people involved with the intelligence community. The ID number was  given to a retired colonel in the erstwhile National Intelligence, whose  son happened to be a professor in Computer Sciences (cost: 1 bottle of brandy and the promise of Kalahari biltong). and so the hacked records of the Office of Home Affairs supplied an address.

Much to everybody’s surprise, Shorty de Lange’s home address was a smallholding near Prieska, the town he used to represent as flanker on the rugby field.

***

“You mean you found out all that in the matter of about twelve hours?”

Gertruida stared at her shoes for a moment, slightly embarrassed. “Um…yes. I’m sorry it took so long..”

Servaas laughed at this – his first bit of mirth since his chat with matron Krotz dumped them both under a cloud of depression. Matron, by the way, had not reported for work that day; the first time – ever- she had missed a day on duty. Nurse Botha tried to phone, got no answer, and promised herself to visit her stern and unapproachable boss after her shift was over.

“I’ve thought about it.” Servaas sounded the way he looked: completely defeated. He didn’t want to be reminded of the one time he felt as if the devil had taken over his soul and he beat a friend to pulp. During the sleepless night after Gertruida had left the previous afternoon, he had forced himself to relive that incident. In the early morning hours he decided that his religious conviction had been the result of fear (that he might have such an ‘attack’ again) coupled with guilt (that he acted like a complete and demonic lunatic). Did Christ not heal such men through faith? Yes, he decided, Christ did; but he – Servaas – had used his faith as selfish protection against himself. He shielded behind religion to prove to others how righteous he was. That convoluted argument did absolutely nothing to improve his mood. “And I’ll have to see the man as soon as I’m better. Doctor Welman said my recovery will take several months. Maybe after that…”

“No, Servaas.” Gertruida – who knows everything – used her stern voice. “This thing is going to do more harm if you keep on postponing it. It’s not going to go away.You are obviously upset about meeting Shorty, and I understand that. You’re not, however, going to forget about it while you’re recovering. You’ve managed to bury the incident with Shorty under a layer of time – and had you not had that dream, you might well have lived out your life in denial. I don’t know why you had the dream, Servaas, but I think it’s the best thing to come out of all this.” She swept a hand towards the chart on the wall, showing his vital signs and progress. Seeing Servaas’s distress, she sits down on the bed next to him. “I need you to relax now. Breathe deeply and let go of the feelings of fear and guilt. Promise me that.”

“O-okay.” Hesitant, unsure.

“Okay then. Now I must ask you to prepare yourself. I sent Vetfaan to talk to Shorty. I expect them any moment now.”

Servaas’s eyes opened wide, his breathing shallow. “No! For goodness’ sakes, Gertruida. You can’t do this to me! I’m a sick man! I’m not ready, not ready at all!”

Nurse Botha entered the room with an uncertain smile. Her soft brown eyes took in the scene before she shot Gertruida an accusing look.

“I…um…well, the gentlemen are here. Shall I send them in?”

At that moment the door swung open.

Servaas closed his eyes in desperate prayer. Please, Lord, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me…

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#3)

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria, 1970

By now, the Rolbossers had drawn up a roster so that Servaas would have at least one visitor every day.  If one believed in coincidences, then it was by pure chance that it was Gertruida’s turn to drive all the way from Roilbos to Upington on the very same day Servaas had told matron Krotz about his dream and Shorty de Lange. Matron had, after her little outburst, locked herself in her office. It simply won’t be fitting for the nurses to see that she’d been crying. Matrons don’t do emotion – it’s unprofessional. And she, Matron Krotz, won’t allow anybody – anybody – to express any form of sympathy simply because she was upset. No sir, not at all…

Gurtruida brought along the obligatory little bag of biltong and the bottle of Coke (which had been cleverly doctored with a medicinal tot of peach brandy beforehand) and greeted nurse Botha with a slab of chocolates.

“How’s old grumpy today, nurse?”

Nurse Botha laughed softly. “He’s about ready to be discharged. Quite remarkable, really. Ever since matron took a ...special…interest in him, he’s made exceptional progress.” Then, in a conspiratorial whisper: “I think they’ve got a thing going, you know what I mean?” She winked and put a theatrical hand to her chin while rolling her eyes. “Just goes to show – the sky lights up with the brightest colours at sunset.”

This remark made Gertruida stare at the young nurse. Such wisdom…

Servaas greeted her with less than his usual enthusiasm, When Gertruida remarked on this, he gave her an abbreviated account of his chat with matron that afternoon.

“Gee, Servaas, you’ve had quite a time in the hospital. First you have this near-death thing where you get reminded of compassion and kindness. Then this austere woman, our beloved matron, suddenly mellows to become your best friend. Strange, that, don’t you think?” Gertruida noted – with some satisfaction – the blush creeping up the old man’s neck. “Anyway, then you dream about Shorty de Lange, somebody you last saw forty or fifty years ago, and it turns out that he’s the bastard who dumped matron for some other woman many years ago.

“Now, the way I see it, is that we have three persons involved here: you, matron Krotz and this Shorty guy. Without Shorty, I would have thought you and matron might hook up, but once you add this guy, you have to wonder why. And remember: he’s the guy sinking in the sand and you’ve been climbing that dune to rescue him. Now that makes you think, doesn’t it?”

It sure did. It made Servaas open a door in his mind – a door he steadfastly had refused to open for four decades…

***

Mana Pools

Mana Pools

It was just after they had returned from Rhodesia (called Zimbabwe these days). where their unit assisted the Rhodesian armed forces to guard the border with Zambia, near Mana Pools.  It had been a harrowing task: in fact, it was difficult to pin down the greatest danger: the wildlife (lion, crocodile, hippo, leopard, snakes etc), the insects (malaria-bearing mosquitoes and tsetse flies) or the insurgent freedom fighters that were called terrorists back then.

Nevertheless, when the two of them stepped from the train in Pretoria, they had one thing in mind: having the best time possible. Not knowing where the hot spots of social life was to be found, they headed for the ultramodern movie theatre called Sterland, where Love Story was showing. After months in the bush, they admitted – rather shyly, to be honest – that a romantic movie would be ‘nice’. The ulterior motive  – in Shorty’s case – was that it seemed logical that the audience would include a number of young ladies, which turned out to be true.

Servaas wasn’t all that interested. He had met Siena already but she was far away in the Northern Cape. Oh, of course he’d like to chat to a few girls after the stint in the bush with only male companions, but that was as far as he’d go. Shorty, however, had no such qualms. Even though he was engaged, he was determined to blow off some steam (amongst other things).

People who have never seen armed conflict often assume that soldiers spend their days cleaning rifles and discussing tactics. This is, of course, not true. Soldiers (especially the male sort) pass the time by discussing women, often in the most graphic terms. It was natural, then, for Servaas to know everything about Shorty’s fiancee, a nurse somewhere in the Cape Province. Shorty often bragged about the buxom young lady, boasting about his conquest. In contrast, Servaas kept mostly to himself while writing long and passionate letters to his dear Siena.

downloadOne can understand that Servaas sat in the darkened theatre, watching Ali MacGraw die, with an intense longing to be home. He dabbed his eyes, sniffed, and had to close his eyes to suppress a few sobs. Shorty didn’t even watch the movie. By sheer coincidence he occupied the seat next to a stunning blonde student, a lovely young thing with a charming smile to match the voluptuous figure,  who had just completed her final exams for the year.

After the movie, Servaas blew his nose and suggested they return to the barracks. Shorty would have none of it. He was going to party with this girl until the sun came up the next day, and he didn’t need a wet rag like Servaas to spoil his fun. They had a heated, albeit whispered, discussion about morals and needs, and parted on less than friendly terms.

Shorty returned to his bunk the next day, flushed with his success. The young lady, he informed everybody within earshot, was the best lay he’d ever had. He proceeded to – in lurid terms – describe every bit of her anatomy and what he had done with it. Maybe he was still a bit drunk, but the extent of his revelations far surpassed what Servaas considered to be in the worst possible taste of all. True to his nature, Servaas endured the pompous monologue for a short while before requesting – politely – Shorty to shut up.

The other thing about a military environment is testosterone. Soldiers have way too much of the stuff. Add alcohol and a touch of adrenaline, and you produce an unpredictable explosive concoction. During combat, this often produces heroes who seem to ignore danger to rescue a fallen comrade…but inside the confines of a bungalow filled with young men trained to fight? Well, that’s what they do, occasionally.: fight. A fist here, a slap there isn’t unusual when the provocation is sufficient. But that’s not what happened when Shorty snorted, lowered his head and stormed down on Servaas, who had been writing yet another letter to Siena.

The fight became the stuff of legends. At first it was Shorty who threw a few punches while Servaas tried to evade the onslaught. Then something happened in Servaas’s mind. A black veil seemed to lower itself over his consciousness. Pent-up exasperated frustration and aggression boiled over and suddenly Servaas wasn’t Servaas any longer.

Why did this happen? Even after all the intervening years, Servaas was unable to explain what happened. Maybe it was the latent but smouldering fear, uncertainty and trauma of the petrols along the border. Or possibly the even-tempered and mild young man simply reached a point where he simply couldn’t control the demons inside his mind – after living in the bush for too long, being shot at too many times, having killed too much. Whatever the explanation, he became a cold-blooded monster, ignoring Shorty’s efforts while he  waded into his former friend, delivering blows with devastating accuracy.

How long did the fight last? It depends on which version of the legend you believe, At the end, however, they had to cart Shorty off to hospital, where his broken jaw was wired. The damage to the barracks was considerable. Servaas got court martialed, and spent a week in the detention barracks. Afterwards, he was transferred to another unit.

He never saw Shorty again.

***

“Wha…what are you saying, Gertruida?”  Servaas suddenly looked so old, so frail, so tired…

“You heard me, Servaas. You’ll have to find Shorty to know what the dream was about…”

(To be continued…)

Adam’s Calendar…again?

Adams-Calendar-book-cover-268x300“Those guys are crazy.” Tipping the glass upside down, Vetfaan signals for another beer. “To imply that South Africa has it’s own Stonehenge is romantic and all that, but surely it’s outrageous to suggest that some aliens visited us to start our gold-mining tradition?”

He’s been browsing through Adam’s Calendar: Discovering the oldest man-made structure on Earth – 75,000 ago  by Johan Heine and Michael Tellinger, a book Gertruida donated to the church bazaar. It tells the story of  a series of ruins in Mpumalanga in which the authors describe their ideas of an ancient civilisation in that area.

Ale's Stones

Ale’s Stones

“Oh, people just love such ideas.” As usual, Gertruida has to show off her vast knowledge. “Look, there are megaliths all over the world. Most of these structures are badly eroded, for sure, but they retain a certain aura of mystery.

“How do you explain Stonehenge, or Easter Island’s Moai, or Ale’s Stones in Sweden? It is only natural that some will want to explain these as relics from a distant past as signs of a lost civilisation. There is a catch, however: why are these structures spread out all over the world? South America, England, Malta – you name virtually any country – even Russia – and you’ll find something there that science struggles to explain. So, because we don’t believe Neanderthals were capable of more intelligent thoughts than our parliamentarians, we grab at the next best thing: aliens.”

“Well, Genesis does say something about heavenly creatures who visited the daughters of man.” Servaas has never been able to explain Genesis 6, especially the ‘giants of men’ that were born afterwards. “Maybe it were those big fellows who stacked up stones everywhere.”

“And then the Flood came and wiped them out? After travelling a zillion miles across the universe, they drowned?” Shaking his head, Boggel serves another round. “I agree with Vetfaan about some explanations needing to be explained. Circles within circles, that type of thing. However much we delve into the legends of old, we still won’t understand what a pyramid means, or how it was built. Theories? Yes, there are many of them. But can we duplicate those phenomena by building similar structures with no computers and not even a sliding rule?”

Tellinger-Giant-Footprint

Credit: extraterrestrialcontact.com/

“Still, they say the Adam’s Calendar was used to predict solstices and equinoxes and plan for seasons. The other strange thing is that this so-called calendar is on the same longitudinal axis as the Giant Pyramids and Zimbabwe’s Ruins. And…” Vetfaan taps a calloused finger on the counter top, “they found a footprint.”

“Ag, Vetfaan! The fact that you only found out about these things now, doesn’t mean it’s new news. Mr Tellinger has been going on for ages about the strange finds, the gold mines, and extraordinary devices these ‘aliens’ were supposed to have used. According to him, they used river water and electrons to generate the energy to mine gold. There’s even a geneticist who supported the idea that this is where the ancient humans were genetically adapted to become superior beings.

sagancontact“But, as intriguing as these theories might be, they remain mere stories, suggestions, attempts to explain the inexplicable. The question is: why? Why bother with such things if you know very well you can’t really prove what you’re saying? Or do these ideas contain a certain fascination, some form of entertainment, that makes us forget the real issues of the day – like when you’re watching Carl Sagan’s Contact? ”  Gertruida sits back in her chair, apparently exhausted by her long speech.

“Okay, I get it.” You can count on Kleinpiet to muddle up a scientific discussion. He counts the points off on the outstretched fingers of his left hand. “First, you say primitive man erected massive buildings?” He gets a nod. “Then you maintain that these structures endured through the ages?” Another nod. “And that today, we cannot make head or tail of these things because we simply cannot explain why they were erected?” Yet another nod. “Nor do we have the faintest clue as to their function or use?” Nod, again. “And some allege that strange beings inhabited these places – possibly with the aim of digging for gold?”

A strange little smile – or is it a grimace – curls Kleinpiet’s lips upward when the group at the bar utters a prolonged and exasperated “Y-e-e-es? So what?”

P9200513

Adam’s Calendar

“Them, my friends, Adam’s Calendar isn’t unique or strange. We’ve just witnessed a similar structure being erected in modern times. It’s got all the characteristics: primitive man, no known function, inexplicable… It does have a protective wall around it and contains buildings that apparently are dwellings for a lot of people. It symbolises the solstice of the sun in the life of a single man, and now awaits the winter to come. I’ll bet it even stands on the same axis as the pyramids, the Great Zimbabwe Ruins and Adam’s Calendar – just draw that line farther south. And I predict that in a few years, that place will be as neglected as any site where you find archeologists poking around.”

Credit: timeslive.co.za

Nkandla. Credit: timeslive.co.za

They all get it immediately, of course.

“The only difference, Kleinpiet, is that with Adam’s Calendar we’re trying to explain the past.” Getruida pats Kleinpiet on the shoulder. She’s quite impressed with his analogy. “But with Nkandla, we already know what the future holds….”

The Kalahari Hiking Trail

images (2)It’s always the same – and probably predictable, when you consider the logic behind it all. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Kleinpiet would be bored senseless, once he’s finished stoking his still (highly illegal) he keeps in the rondawel behind his house. This seasonal boredom occurs when the last peaches have ripened properly in the drum outside the door – the sugar added at the right time and the yeast doing just fine, thank you – from which they were transferred to the still, where the patient job of monitoring the process seemed to take ages.

And it is this boredom – and not the peach brandy – which resulted in the brilliant idea of doing something out of the ordinary, for a change. Surprisingly, Kleinpiet’s suggestion met with universal approval, resulting in the advertisement on page 3 of the Upington Post.

NEW!!! The world’s first trans-Kalahari hiking trail is now open to the public. Expertly planned and professionally managed, this four-day, three night walking trail will take you to some of the remotest regions of our country. \Watch glorious sunsets! See fantastic dawns! Experience Africa! Overnight in comfortable lodgings along the way, where you’ll be spoilt with excellent cuisine and Afrikaner hospitality. Book now, avoid disappointment.

Mieliepap

Mieliepap

Although Vetfaan expressed his doubt about ‘excellent cuisine’ – saying that homemade bread, grilled chops and traditional ‘pap’ was a meal, not a ‘cuisine’ – he nevertheless agreed to be one of the hosts along the hiking trail. Kleinpiet’s farm would be the stopover for the first night, with Ben Bitterbrak offering his services for the last evening.

Surprisingly, a group of people booked for the following weekend. This caused some consternation, for the patrons in Boggel’s place merely agreed to Kleinpiet’s scheme in the same spirit that our government makes decisions in parliament. It is, like we all know – quite relaxing to pass laws and then forget about them. The cellphone ban in vehicles, the licensing of firearms, the laws against corruption – we all know that these were passed as window dressing, and never intended as a honest effort to make the country more civilised. So, quite naturally, the group at the bar thought that nothing would come of the outrageous idea to let cityfolk wander around in the barren wastes of the Kalahari.

Still: necessity is the mother of desperation and desperation in turn, occasionally turns out to be the match that lights the fuse. And so, within the few days at their disposal, the Rolbossers drew up a detailed map (Gertruida, of course) and marked out the route by whitewashing prominent rocks along the way (the men, who else?). By Thursday the three farm houses that would serve as overnight stops were spotless, the pantries stocked and clean towels hung on the coathangers in the bathrooms. They were as ready as they’d ever be.

On Friday they all waited on the veranda in front of Boggel’s Place, dressed in their Sunday best, waiting for the hikers to arrive. And, though they still couldn’t believe it, a ripple of excitement went through the group when they saw the minibus drive into town to deliver the group of hikers in front of the bar.

Even Gertruida was impressed. The five men seemed fit and ready. Deeply tanned and kitted out with the latest in hiking gear, they couldn’t wait to be off. Their leader – a huge man carrying a water bottle and a camera in one oversized fist – informed the Rolbossers that they didn’t need anything, thank you. “Just give us the map, we know what to do.”

So, while Kleinpiet loaded the sleeping bags and other baggage into his pickup, the hikers strode out of town, following the detailed map Gertruida had supplied.

***

DPP_0006_1

Fish River Canyon Credit: Findingafricablog

“So, who’s the man?” Kleinpiet sticks his thumbs into his armpits, strutting about like a proud rooster. “You guys thought my idea was a lame duck, didn’t you? Well, it just shows you, doesn’t it?  Once the word gets spread, the Kalahari Hiking Trail will become world famous, just like the Fish River Hike. And, let me tell you: we’re going to make oodles of money.”

Kleinpiet has to leave early, of course, to be the host for the evening on his farm. He tells the group at the bar that he’d be in town early, after waking the hikers for an early start. “Tomorrow it’s your turn, Vetfaan. I hope you’re ready…?”

Vetfaan waves him off and settles down with his beer. All this fuss about some chaps walking across a few farms? How bored must people be in cities! What is the world coming to?

True to his word, a jubilant Kleinpiet stops in front of the bar while Boggel is still having his early-morning coffee the next morning.

“Man! What a nice bunch of guys. They ate, they chatted, they had one glass of peach brandy each – and wham! Off to bed. Just like that! The easiest money we’ll ever make.”

“So, did you give them brebreakfast well, Kleinpiet?”

“Nah! They said they’ll sort themselves out. Offered to make their own coffee and maybe have a snack along the way – these guys are kitted out, man! Quite decent about it as well, I must say. So I left them to come and tell Vetfaan to make sure he’s got a bottle of the best on his farm tonight. If he dishes out a round just after sunset, he might not even have to make supper for them.” He snorts derisively. “Pfft...softies…”

***

That’s where things went wrong. Right there. But who was to know?

Vetfaan waited on his farm from early afternoon. When it became dark, he went looking for the group. And later, when he couldn’t find them, he drove to town to mobilise a search party.

By midnight they were all frantic. Where were the hikers?

“We must have scoured every square inch of the way between our farms, Vetfaan. Not a trace. Not a track. Nothing. It’s as if they disappeared into thin air…”

They kept on searching. When the eastern sky tinged itself with the purple hue of approaching dawn, they all gathered in Kleinpiet’s kitchen. The mood was somber after the group had walked back from Vetfaan’s homestead – again.

Gertruida was just about to suggest a helicopter search (the cost made her hesitate) when a disheveled man stared through the window with bleary eyes. He mumbled a question which sounded like ‘wha day ish thish’ in a voice right out of a Hitchcock movie.

***

The Kalahari Hiking Trail is now closed.

“Never again,” Kleinpiet said as they watched the minibus drive off that Saturday afternoon. “Too many things can go wrong.”

Gertruida went harrumph!, reminding the group that it’s such bad idea to tell your guests to make their own coffee in the morning – especially if they got the water from the bottles next to your still. Servaas laughed, saying that’s why a still is called a still. If you passed out there, you tend to be very quiet for a day or so.

Precilla is perhaps the only one who didn’t complain. She’s never sold her entire stock of Grand Pa’s in a single day before.

grand-pa

Old News

bad-news2-300x225Despite the many advantages of living in Rolbos, there are a few realities the inhabitants have to face. With no TV and a rather patchy radio reception, they live in a no-news bubble – which perhaps is to their benefit, when you come to think of it. The daily cascade of disasters, the political back-stabbing, the tragedy of major court cases – these things get viewed in retrospect, when they read about last week’s news in the Upington Post which arrives with the lorry of Kalahari Vervoer.

Gertruida once said the world is in the state it’s in because the news is so immediate, making people part of the events by demanding they push personal matters aside to be up to date with who-did-what-where-and-why. She maintained that our brains are like Windows: the more programs you run, the slower the computer. This caused Servaas to draw the curtains in an effort to pay attention to what she was saying.

Despite their remoteness, some news does filter through, though. Kleinpiet whistles as he reads the article at the bottom of page 3 in the previous week’s Post.

“It says here somebody won the Powerball. Millions! 58 of them. Somebody from Brakpan. That’s obscene.” He doesn’t specify whether it’s the money or the town that upsets him.

“Shew! Imagine standing behind that person in the queue in the bank. E-one, e-two, e-three…. It’ll take forever to count out the money.”

“Get a life, Servaas. These days everything is done electronically. They push a button in Pretoria and suddenly your bank account has a lot of zeroes in it. They had to develop the technology, simply because nobody – nobody – can walk around anywhere in the country with a suitcase full of money any more. They call it redistribution of wealth. Or affirmative balancing.  Apparently it is accepted practice.”

Credit: Land Rover

Credit: Land Rover

While they chat about the problems of having so much money, a brand new Land Rover purrs down the street. Of course this caused a stir, but it’s the driver that brings about a breathless hush in the bar. The blonde, middle-twenties girl at the wheel is – and they all agree on this – absolutely gorgeous. Long-haired, wide smile, perfect skin, pert nose, full lips…the list goes on. And when she gets out in a smooth, almost feline movement, the hush turns into an admiring silence…

“It’s not possible,” Vetfaan breathes, eyeing the long legs. Can so little cover so  much?

“Breathe, Vetfaan.” Boggel shakes the big farmers shoulders. “Relax and take deep breaths.”

The skirt may well be described as miniscule. The T-shirt defies description in conventional terms. And then there is the particular way her clothing (or lack thereof) displays the person underneath the scant material.

The young lady hesitates on the sidewalk for a second, staring first up and then down Voortrekker Weg. Apparently making up her mind, she shrugs and walks over to Boggel’s Place.

“Um…I’m lost,” she says after pushing open the door to the bar. She’s met with adoring stares.

“Oh.” Boggel, as a seasoned barman, is the first to say something.

“I wonder if you gentlemen can help me?” Even her voice makes Kleinpiet drool. “You see, I’ve never travelled much before, but my circumstances suddenly allows me to see a bit of the country.” Realising the men at the bar doesn’t understand, she tries again. “I started last week, see? Drove to the Drakensberg, then had a look at Bloemfontein and that big hole in Kimberley. Now I’m on my way to the Augrabies Falls, but I don’t think I’m on the right road.” She shoots a worried glance through the window. “There isn’t a river nearby, is there?”

Vetfaan points vaguely in the direction of Upington, Servaas wishes he had his glasses here and Kleinpiet fishes a handkerchief from his pocket to clean his chin. Realising that the same hanky was used when he checked the oil in his pickup last night, he quickly returns it to his pocket.

Boggel invites the newcomer to sit down at the bar so that he can draw a map with directions. She seems oblivious of the effect her sitting down on the high chair has on the rest of the patrons. The men at the counter simply can’t avoid staring at the smooth, athletic movements. Cat-like, they’ll agree afterwards.

“Oh, thank you,” she breathes when Boggel hands her the map, smiling at him. “You mean I go back to Grootdrink and turn right there? It seems easy.” She laughs coyly. “You know, us girls from Brakpan don’t travel much. But after what happened, I decided: no more miss Smalltown for me! I’m going to see the world – maybe even go as far as Cape Town. I hear there’s a nice mountain there, somewhere. And the beach! I’d love to see the sea. It’s amazing what money can do, isn’t it?”

“Um,” Servaas manages, nodding vigorously – which is more than Kleinpiet manages as he tries to close his mouth.

“Well, I’ll be off then. Toodles!” Hopping from the chair, she waves a playful finger at Boggel when she reaches the door. “Don’t give up, guys. Dreams do come true!”

They watch the Land Rover do a three-point u-turn, the driver eventually managing to point the vehicle back to Grootdrink successfully. Then, with the purr of the powerful engine, the girl from Brakpan disappears in a cloud of dust.

“What…what did she mean…dreams do come true?”  Now that she’s gone, Kleinpiet deems it safe to wipe his chin.

“She’s the winner, dummy! I tell you: that woman won the money.”  Vetfaan finds his voice again. It’s slightly hoarse, but still… “Think about it. Brakpan, new car, money…it fits.”

***

That’s the nice thing about Rolbos. For an entire week they discussed the wonderful time when a multi-millionaire blonde beauty was there, in the bar, chatting to the mere mortals in Rolbos. Although the men were gentlemanly enough not to voice their less-than-gentlemanly thoughts, the age-old flame to overwhelm and conquer burnt brightly just below the surface.

Gertruida was disgusted, of course. Men can be so shallow and inconsiderate! Look, she asked, why on earth would a bunch of older men slobber about a beautiful girl just because she dressed in a certain way, had a new car and lots of money. Isn’t that completely absurd?

This caused a momentary lapse in the conversation  – but just long enough for Boggel to serve another round.

It was only the following week, after the Upington Post arrived, that the discussion finally died down. The article on the front page did that. Catwoman strikes again. Under the heading and an identikit picture, the article tells the readers of the daring heist.

‘This is Catwoman’s third success. This time she managed to sneak into the bank after hours, open the safe, and get away with an undisclosed amount of money, Reliable sources informed this journalist that the pretty burglar took off with a brand new Land Rover the bank repossessed that very day.  The vehicle was stored in a secure parking bay behind the building, but that didn’t deter the intrepid thief. 

How does she do it? Police are following up a few leads, but this journalist has heard a rumour. Catwoman uses her charm and beauty to seduce bank officials into telling her things they shouldn’t. She plays the role of a coy, dumb blonde to perfection. Apparently her abundant charms are irresistible to especially older men, who are only too willing to fall for her act.

Be that as it may – the burglar the press dubbed ‘Catwoman’, is a dangerous and uncouth individual. During a previous robbery, she was  surprised by a security guard. This man is still recovering after she disarmed him and shot him in the leg. Police have asked the public not to approach any suspicious young female individuals resembling the identikit picture, but to report such persons to their nearest police station

***

That’s the problem with fresh news. It takes the mystery out of life by confronting the public with too many facts. There’s simply nothing to talk about once the clever presenters on CNN or BBC have discussed, debated, argued and dissected current events. In the old days society relied on opinions and speculations – things that made us talk to each other. Then, as news slowly filtered through, people had the opportunity to adapt opinions, talk some more, and formulate new insights. Nowadays, however, we are fed on a diet of digested facts, leaving the viewers with nothing to add.

Gertruida tried to convince Bogel to get one of those satellite dishes and a TV set for the bar. This was immediately vetoed by the men.

“It’s far better to drool over a girl for a week than to report a criminal to Sersant Dreyer immediately.” Coming from the ever-so-pious Servaas, the statement made Gertruida look up in shock. “Ag come on, Gertruida! If we have to choose between News and Imagination…only a fool would go for the former. No, Gertruida: News makes you feel bad, Imagination makes you smile. It’d so much more fun if we kept the Real News on the other side of the Orange River.”

For once, Gertruida had no answer.

The fish of the Kalahari return…to stay.

Credit: thefreedictionary.com

Credit: thefreedictionary.com

“No thanks.” Vetfaan waves the bowl of biltong away with a dismissive hand. “I’ve become vegetarian.”

This – quite naturally – causes a shocked silence. Vetfaan, burly sheep farmer and true Afrikaner, refusing biltong? And, even more astounding, becoming a vegetarian? He of the huge apetite, who’d consume several T-bones in a single sitting, now wants to live on cabbage and potatoes? No, that can’t be.

“You not feeling well? Any mosquitoes bitten you lately? Been to West Africa or something?” Kleinpiet just can’t wrap his head around this one.

413928_121026123658_DSC_0129“No, Kleinpiet. I just think it’s wrong to consume animals. I mean, what did they do to us? And yet we go about killing them so that we can have dinner. I read up about it, you know? There are millions of people all over the world who live to ripe old age with a plant-based diet.” To emphasise his point, he grabs a handful of peanuts from the old Voortrekker Monument bowl on the counter. “Live in harmony, I say. Live and let live.”

Gertruida goes harrumph! and orders another beer. “No animal products, Vetfaan? None at all?”

“None. My sheep and my chickens are safe.”

“Let me tell you about the Kalahari, then you think again.” The light in her eyes should have warned Vetfaan. There’ll be a lecture…and a lesson.

***

Ages ago, the Kalahari used to be a large lake – fed by the Chobe, Zambezi and Okavango rivers.

“This was where cichlids evolved – you know the ancestors of today’s Tilapia? Incidentally, the Scottish Zoologist Andrew Smith latinised the Tswana word for ‘fish’ – thlape – to name the genus Tilapia in 1840

Tilapia“Well, to cut a long story short, the earth’s crust moved and the lake drained. Rivers altered their flow, causing – amongst many other things – the Victoria Falls.The fishes of that great lake now started spreading to other parts of Africa. In later years, Lake Victoria held a large population of the species.

UGANDA-NILE-PERCH-WORLD-ENVIRONMENTAL-DAY“Then, along came the British, who introduced Nile Perch to the lake in the middle of the last century. The large fish was to become a major source of protein and income for the fishermen and local population – but they also posed a great threat to the Tilapia. The poor little fish had survived movements in the earths crust, millions of year of hardship, and now face near-extinction due to man’s manipulation of its environment.

“But let’s get back to the Nile Perch, which is the point of the story.”

The Lake Victoria perch is known for it’s huge fish bladder, also called a fish maw. Initially this organ was simply thrown away when the fish was gutted, but later developed a market (where else?) in the East as a delicacy.

“Then people realised how effective these bladders were in the clarification process while making beer and wine. It’s an important component in the fining process, where impurities are removed and wine and beer is allowed to ‘settle’ – which is why you can see me through your glass. They didn’t say they were using fish bladders, of course – they called it isinglass. However, the fact remains – many beers and wines you drink, are made using the once thrown-away humble fish organ of years gone by.

“So you can call yourself a vegetarian if you like, Vetfaan, but you’ll have to give up beer and wine…they contain the residue of those poor fishes.”

***

This is so typical of Gertruida. She’ll take something that started in the Kalahari many aeons ago, weave it into the present, and leave you thinking. And she’s clever about it too, for she allows you to draw your own conclusions. In this instance, she didn’t tell Vetfaan that the ‘bladder’ under discussion, was and air bladder, used to control the depth of swimming. That would have spoilt the effect. Nor did she say that the isinglass was removed when bottling the beverage. No, she sat there, telling her story and watching Vetfaan go green about the gills with the nonchalance of somebody explaining the use of corn in flour.

Gertruida then sat back, considering the mental odds of Vetfaan finishing his beer. It was an interesting study in the psychology of survival. Once colour had returned to the farmer’s face, he pushed his beer aside with a determined look. Then Servaas arrived, hot and sweaty after driving from Upington with Boggel’s beer supply for the week.

***

“Hey Boggel! Gimme a beer man. A cold one. It’s scorching out there.” Servaas sits down with a sigh, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. When Boggel slides the bottle over the counter, he takes a long, lingering sip before smacking his lips.

“Vetfaan?” He stares in horror at the glass of water in front of the new vegetarian. “Bumped your head? You know how unhealthy that stuff is? Your body excretes the stuff, man! It makes things rust. If you inhale it, you die. And it causes more burns to the skin than petrol does, especially in its gaseous form. It carries parasites, chemicals and bacteria that can kill you. It causes short-circuits in electrical systems.  It’s the most polluted substance in the world. And…” here he holds up a triumphant finger, “…they use aluminium salts when purifying water. That, my friend has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Gertruida nods. With Servaas’s point adequately made, she doesn’t elaborate on the dangers of fluoride or the leaking of Bisphenol A, or BPA, from plastic into bottled water.  

“You mean…water is bad for me?”

“Of course! Beer contains minerals and vitamins. That’s good. It is an antioxidant, increases bone density, and enhances creativity. Water can’t do that.” Gertruida winks at Servaas, who is enjoying Vetfaan’s discomfort with a huge smile.

“And you know what the French say about wine and heart disease…” Kleinpiet chips in with his two cents worth.

“And I believe beer makes you more virile. After a few, I even think Gertruida is sexy.” Servaas earns a friendly slap for the woman who knows he’s only joking.

Poor Vetfaan. No beer? No meat? No wine? And…no water? Sometimes the choices we face simply defy logical thought…

***

Today you won’t find Talapia in the Kalahari. But maybe a little bit of fish can be found in Boggel’s Place, in the glasses and bottles in front of the group in Boggel’s Place. Vetfaan is no longer a complete vegetarian – water is out and drinking beer, he found, is impossible without chewing a piece of biltong. He maintains he believes he started a new form of vegetarianism, Vegetable Enhanced Local Cow Residue Offcuts. He hopes it sticks. As far as he’s concerned, the biltong in the bowl started off as grass, and that’s good enough.