Category Archives: smalltown short stories

When the Black Dog Gets You

_65927423_cingulumcloseupx1Gertruida, as we all realise, knows everything. She is opinionated, passionate about the truth, and seldom hesitates to respond to the most impossible situations. This, Servaas says, is both a blessing and a curse, and maybe he’s right. After all, when Gertruida started staying at home while they all partied at Boggel’s Place, they all knew something was terribly wrong. And later, after Precilla said that  she had seen Gertruida walking up and down Voortrekker Weg at 3 am (she was closing the window because of the cold), it was Oudoom who remarked about the sleep disturbances you get with depression.

Servaas, of course, blames himself. Before he went on his memorable road trip, is had been he, Servaas, who wore black and was cynical about everything. At that time it didn’t bother him in the least that the townsfolk joked about his morose nature – in fact, he rather relished the attention he received as a result of his dark moods and comments. But now, after enjoying the time on the old Enfield so much – and having met such wonderful people – Servaas simply loves being called The Kalahari Biker. Men of all ages admit (some under duress) to a strange phenomenon: if you manage to astound your peers, you get a weird sensation of superiority. It’s a primitive, childish reaction, yet this is exactly the stupid reason why men climb mountains, participate in drinking competitions or go to parliament.

And who can deny that the Servaas who came back from that trip, is a completely changed man? The bushy eyebrows no longer gather in disapproval, the kudu-ponytail bobs up and down when he laughs, and the dark suit seems to be a thing of the past. Oudoom says the change is a miracle, while Mevrou occasionally pokes fun at the much shorter church council meetings – Servaas seems completely happy with the sermons these days. In short: the cantankerous old man has become the life and soul of the parties in Boggel’s Place.

And this new-found happiness has had a devastating effect on Gertruida. Somehow she seemed to have found solace in his depressed state in the past – as if his dark moods were confirmation that somebody else in town was worse off than she was. With both of them being single, she could always point out that Servaas was more lonely, more obtuse and more depressed. But now, with Servaas regaling them with stories of his adventures, Gertruida has had to face the fact that her life is empty and dull. Sure, she has this vast knowledge and can contribute to any intellectual discussion…but where is the fun, the adventure, the joy? Servaas has broken out of the prison of self-pity and solitude, explored the wide world out there, and came back as a new man – while she, Gertruida, still has to read the National Geographic to kill her many lonely hours.

***

“We have to do something,” Vetfaan says when Oudoom sits down with a contented sigh. It’s Monday and he’s already worked out the next Sunday’s sermon. Servaas actually suggested the theme of ‘Joy’, and supplied several verses which turned out to be most helpful.

“About Gertruida?”

“Yes, Dominee. She doesn’t join us here anymore, rarely leaves her house and refuses to answer the doorbell. Precilla tried to talk to her, but Gertruida slammed the door in her face.”

Oudoom sits back, laces his fingers behind his head and stares at the ceiling.

“I think,” he says after Boggel pushed a beer over the counter, “that she’s depressed because we’re too happy. And, because she knows everything, she realises the problem isn’t the fun we’re having – but the lack thereof in her own life.” Quite accurately, the clergyman sums up that the change in Servaas’s demeanour precipitated the plunge in Gertruida’s mood.

“Well, I like Servaas the way he is now. Wouldn’t change it for anything.” Vetfaan shrugs. “But that doesn’t solve the problem with Gertruida…”

“No, it doesn’t. We’re really stuck, aren’t we? There isn’t any eligible bachelor in the district we can ask to help, either. And she doesn’t come to church anymore, so my sermon on Joy isn’t going to be useful either.”

hjarna3Boggel shakes his head. “We will just have to be inventive, that’s all. The latest National Geographic has an article on Professor van Wedeen, a neuroscientist working in Massachusetts. It’s fascinating. They use a scanner of sorts, a huge thing, that uses enough electricity to power a submarine. They are trying to explain how the brain works, see? Now, if we can get Gertruida to talk to him, it’ll boost her morale, don’t you think?”

They gape at him.

“Sure, it won’t be easy…but it’s worth a try.”

“Are you suggesting that we phone the professor in America and ask him to be interviewed by a woman – not even a journalist – from a place that’s not even on Google Maps? What are the chances…” Vetfaan purses his lips – Boggel can be so naive…

“Well, what about a journalist phoning her for an opinion?” Clearly desperate to find an answer, Boggel shrugs as he spreads his arms wide. “What can we lose?”

It takes three rounds of peach brandies to hatch the plan. Since they know no journalists, they decide to manufacture one. If they can get Sammie to talk with two ping-pong balls stuck inside his cheeks…? Of course! Great idea…! (The logic behind this idea will confound even the esteemed professor van Wedeen, but we all know how convincing peach brandy can be after the second tot.)

***

“Hello (mumble-mumble-click), is that Gertruida?’

“Yes, what do you want? I’m busy.”

“Ghood. (mumble). Ah’m phoning in connection (mumble-click) with that ahrticle about van Wedeen. Ah, mmm, the phrofessoh. We nheed infohmation abaht his wohk (mumble) foh ahn ahrticle (click) foh tha Uhpingthon Phost.”

The group in the bar wait with bated breath. Will she take the bait? A long silence follows.

“Juhst youhr thoughts. (mumble-click-mumble). Youh’re the ohnly pehson who chan hhelp ush.”

For a moment they thought they had her. Then…

“Oh, for Pete’s sake! Sammie? Take your bloody balls out of your mouth and speak properly. Goodbye!”

***

Prof van Wedeen is most probably the world’s best researcher into the working of the human brain. Using the powerful scanner, he has mapped out the pathways thoughts travel and has formulated new theories about brain function. For this he deserves praise.

But in Rolbos – in the humble bar run by a hunchback – they’ve discovered the cure for depression. It’s not anything new, mind you. It’s called laughter.

When Gertruida stormed into Boggel’s Place after the phone call, she was spoiling for a fight. She was met by such sheepish looks and suppressed giggles, that she considered turning around and leaving the silly group to continue the party.

But then she saw Sammie, who couldn’t get the ping-pong balls out of his cheeks; looking for all the world like an overgrown chipmunk who had just robbed a chestnut warehouse.

And she found – much to her own surprise – the corners of her lips moving upward.

“If you can whistle, I’ll forgive you,” she said, forcing a straight face.”Otherwise I’ll have to kill you.”

***

Isn’t it strange that a single event can jeopardise a life-long friendship? Or, on the other hand, how a single giggle can defuse the most depressing situation? Still, Servaas isn’t taking any chances. He’s taken to wearing his black suit again, and tucks the kudu-tail under his hat when Gertruida is near. He’d rather fake a black mood than face Gertruida’s black dog. Still, although he tries to hide his new-found sense of adventure, he can’t disguise the glint in his eye.

Oudoom did give his sermon on Joy that Sunday – a powerful message of faith if ever there was one – and concluded that joy is a most fragile commodity.

“Joy, brothers and sisters, is a state of mind. It is the source of contentment, of acceptance, of the will to go on. Without it, faith – even life or love – cannot survive. But…,” and here he paused dramatically, “it needs to be nourished. And how do we do that? I’ll tell you.

“Joy lies not in what we have experienced in the past – although we might cherish some wonderful memories – but it is in the realisation that the future is what we are destined for. We nourish joy by hope. Without hope, there can be no joy.

“So, when we find that joy has left the building, we must look at what we’ve let in.” He ticked off several points at this stage. “Dispair. Self-image. Taking ourselves too seriously. Losing faith. And what are these things, my brothers and sisters? They are self-made – they are produced up here, in our own minds.” He tapped the side of his head. “If you are not the master of your own thoughts, you will be a slave to your own self-destruction.”

Boggel reckons Oudoom can teach that professor something, but that could be the peach brandy talking. In the meantime, he keeps two ping-pong balls under the counter. He says it’s a better antidepressant than Prozac.

The Dowser of the Dunes

350x379xdosing.jpg.pagespeed.ic.U5jrWbyjaO“That man gives me the creeps.” Precilla has goosebumps all over her arms. “When he looks at you with those reddish-brown eyes…” She doesn’t have to finish the sentence.

“Ag, you know, he’s harmless.” Gertruida – who knows everything – smiles at the figure of the short man walking down Voortrekker Weg. She knows all about Frikkie Brand, the so-called Dowser of the Dunes. “His father was Dawid Brand, who used to be a shepherd for Oom Jan Tille van Niekerk, who farmed near Gamoeb. When Dawid was twelve years old, he started realising he had a special gift. After that he became famous as a water diviner all over the Northern Cape – even as far as South-west Africa. It’s only natural that his son inherited the trait from his father.”

“Oodoom says it’s sorcery.” Servaas still insists on wearing the kudu tail under his hat, making his statement sound a little wayward. “And I believe these chaps look at the rocks and the vegetation and ant heaps to guess where water may be. Charlatans, if you ask me.”

“That some dowsers may be fake, is true,” Gertruida concedes, “but there are many accounts of people – often children – who had the uncanny ability to ‘see’ water under the ground. Recently I read about Jean Parangue, aged fourteen, from Marseilles. ‘This child can see through the ground, springs and waterpipes however deep they may be. He sees water there as we see wine in a glass.’ This was way back in 1772, I may add.She loves to quote from old books and finishes the sentence with a flourish.

“There was another boy…” Vetfaan scratches his head, a puzzled frown on his forehead. “They said he had X-ray eyes…”

“You’re talking about Pieter van Jaarsveld.” Gertruida, of course. “He became quite rich back in the 50’s, asking £25 to point out the place to drill. He said he saw a beam of light on the ground where the water was – something like moonlight striking a window pane. He could follow underground water like that, even in the dark.”

“But what is Frikkie doing in town? Did somebody call him? Is anyone looking to sink a borehole?”  Feeling decidedly ill at ease, Servaas nods to tell Boggel to serve another round.

“Maybe not water.” Gertruida hasn’t finished lecturing yet. “Frikkie, like many other dowsers, claim to be able to find other lost things as well. Coins, rings, things like that. And some even suggest they can see inside bodies. It’s quite extraordinary to think a dowser can look at you and see what you had for breakfast.” She meant it as a joke, but Precilla turns green at the thought.

Frikkie pushes the swing doors open and hesitates before stepping inside Boggel’s Place. The group at the counter chorus a ‘Good morning’ and is rewarded by a shy smile in return.

Frikkie is, as always, barefoot. Gossip has it that he feels more in touch with the earth this way, and that he senses a tingling in his soles whenever he passes over underground water. He is a short man, five-foot-something, bald and slightly stooped. His eyes – those reddish-brown eyes – now sweep over the group to finally rest on Servaas.

“I’ve come far,” he says, “to find something.”

“Oh? Water?” Kleinpiet draws a little rivulet on the counter top with the foam on his glass.

“No…” Frikkie seems uncertain, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Something else. And I walked and walked – and came here. Something is lost, and I want to find it.”

“Come, sit down and have a beer. Then you can tell us all about it.” Gertruida pats an empty chair.

“No beer. Only water.” He does, however, sit down.

“Has anybody lost anything?” Sliding the glass over the counter, Boggel addresses his patrons with an arched eyebrow.

“Not you. Me. I’ve lost something. I need to find it, and I know the answer is here.”

Frikkie then tells them a sad tale of love found, love lost.

“I met this woman when I was looking for water on a farm – almost a year ago now, maybe less – and we…well, we talked. She had a daughter who was pregnant. We had plans, you see? I saw so much kindness in those two… Anyway, I had to go deep into the Kalahari to find water for another farmer. By the time I got back, she and her daughter wasn’t on the farm any more. The farmer was gone, too. Something about the redistribution of land. The place was in shambles – all the old workers had been told to go.” Frikkie shakes his head. “That’s when I started walking…and now I’m here.”

Servaas shifts uncomfortably. Is this man talking about…?

“I can’t tell you much more, I’m afraid. Her name is Fransie, and she plants herbs. Does anyone know her? Is she in town?”

Ashen-faced, Servaas opens his mouth to say something, His voice doesn’t cooperate, but he manages a nod. Sure, he knows exactly what this man is talking about.

***

Dowsers can’t explain their gift. Scientists have tried over the years to find a logical reason for their abilities, but even in this day and age, nobody has been able to conclusively say how they do it. Gertruida says it has to do with electromagnetic fields and vibrations, but that doesn’t sound right. Servaas doesn’t even try to understand. He says there are things we just have to accept.

Still, when Frikkie walks back towards Grootdrink, the silence in Boggel’s Place is deafening.

Yes, Servaas told Frikkie, he had met Fransie and her daughter. He even delivered the baby. And, he said, Fransie and Agnes were going to farm with herbs. He added that he thought Fransie would love to see him again – maybe he could show them where to dig a well?

Sometimes things happen in Boggel’s Place that leave the townsfolk completely flummoxed. It doesn’t happen often, though. The Dowser of the Dunes managed that, as did Boggel, once, a long time ago when he announced that the beer was finished. On such occasions the patrons in the bar will sit quietly, thinking deep thoughts and occasionally shaking a head.

Gertruia, as always, has the last word.

“Frikkie is known to be able to follow things, find things. This time, it’s his heart. Such a pity that this gift is given to so few…”

The Return of The Kalahari Biker

cropped-boggel-se-plek1By the time Servaas sputters the old Enfield down Voortrekker Weg, he is tired, bone-sore and as dry as the rocks on Bokkop. He has spent a full day on the motorbike, leaving him with only one thought: his favourite chair in Boggel’s Place. He’s been fantasising about that chair with the comfortable cushion and the easy backrest…

bronsonHe allows the old engine to die while he kicks out the stand. Getting off is a slow and delicate task. And then he adjusts the kudu tail, rams down the hat firmly, and tries to be a  Bronson look-alike when he staggers up the steps to Boggel’s veranda.

Yes, the fluffy hairs above his ears have grown ever so slightly and the moustache has become a bit unruly – but what he lacks in looks, he makes up in attitude. Has he not completed an epic journey, something most men in their seventies wouldn’t even vaguely consider? And has he not had adventures the others can only dream of? No, he is Servaas, The Kalahari Biker, and he’ll make a grand entrance…

Taking a deep breath, he slams open the swing doors with gusto, to see….nothing. The place is empty. Not a soul in sight, not even Vrede, who usually sleeps under the counter on Boggel’s cushion.

“Well, that’s a fine home-coming,” Servaas mutters under his breath, “a real welcome to a weary traveller.” Snorting loudly, he shuffles around the counter, selects the Cactus Jack, and pours himself a generous tot.

“Here’s to a warm reception,” he swings the glass towards the empty room, gulps down the fiery liquid and refills the glass. Then, feeling slightly better, he makes his way to the chair. Oh, for a nice rest…

The chair is not there. It’s gone. No chair…

While he gapes at the empty space, the group in the store room simply can’t contain themselves any longer. Guffawing and sniggering, they emerge to crowd around Servaas.

“Your chair, sir…” Kleinpiet and Vetfaan had hidden the chair behind the building, and now carries it back to its original place.

Smiling sheepishly, Servaas sags down with a contented sigh.

“Come on, Servaas, tell us all? What happened? How was the trip?” They all seem to be talking together.

“Ag, you know, I had some fun, but I’m glad to be home again. Got arrested, spent some time in jail, caught a baby – things like that. Nothing special, you see?”

***

Gertruida says that’s the way one should live: a bit closer to the edge. Comfort zones, she’ll tell you, are the most dangerous of all places: one must avoid these very carefully. Oh, she’ll warn you not to be stupid or anything like that, but still: complacency is the first step on the road of slow self-destruction. Once you settle in a certain groove, you’ve got to ask yourself: what’s next?

Oudoom agrees. He likes to quote Romans 8:15 from the Message: This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?”

Servaas isn’t so sure. He’d like to remain in his chair for a while, thank you very much.

But…there was the discussion he had in Nieuwoudtville, where he met that friendly mechanic. What was his name again – that chap at Protea Motors? Thinus, that’s right! He said something about microlight aeroplanes, and how one could build one powered by a motorcycle engine. Now there’s a thought!

Maybe…he thinks, just maybe….

The Kalahari Biker Reflects

Servaas settles down in the large chair, sighs, and sips the ice-cold beer. He’s finally arrived in Calvinia, where he discovered – much to his surprise and joy – the Rolbos Guest House. Of course he took that as a sign and immediately stopped to enquire about a room for the night. The hospitality of his hosts was outstanding.

IMG_3500He remembers the shell of the old tortoise, and imagines how it must have been like when it was alive. That animal must have been quite old, must have seen so much…

nAnd then there was the memorable visit to Pella and all the date trees. Yes, that was quite something…

82Ce4SjOf course he’ll remember his visit to Doctor Patric in that rural clinic. That man really helped him a lot!

clinic

Servaas sighs contently as he drains the last drops from his glass. The trip has changed his life, indeed…

P4010880Shall he ever – EVER – forget his visit to the nudist camp? He still blushes at the thought…

young_old2

Then there was Madame Esmeralda. If you look carefully, you’ll see both the old woman he met, and the young lady Servaas left there…

1a

 

And yes, He’d remember that shack where he helped to deliver a baby for a long time. Surely Nature will claim it back, now that the old woman and her daughter have been employed by Agnes?

***

Mrs Rootman finds the old man fast asleep in the comfortable chair.

“Shame,” she tells the maid, “old people drift off so easily. It must be boring to have so little to do when age catches up with you.”

Smiling gently, she drapes a wooly blanket over the sleeping figure.

 

The Kalahari Biker – Midwife…

Credit: growingmychild.com

Credit: growingmychild.com

Still smiling about the splendid night he had spent with Esmeralda-who-turned-into-Agnes-again, Servaas was guiding the old Enfield through a sandy patch on the road to Omdraaisvlei (about halfway between Britstown and Prieska), when he saw the bedraggled figure waving frantically at him. Already going slow, he stopped next to her in a cloud of dust.

Servaas – also a sight for sore eyes under the layer of dust and sand – stared at the person for a while. He made out that it was a female – the ragged and torn dress suggested as much – but that was where deduction stopped and guessing started. How old was she? And…was it just a deep tan or was she San or of mixed descent? The wrinkles and lines on her face suggested a lifetime of hardship while the bare feet must have walked for many miles since the last bath.

“Morning…” Servaas said courteously.

Môre Baas.” Well, that sounded strange to Servaas. White people aren’t called Baas (Boss) anymore, not like in the 60’s and 70’s, when Apartheid herded people into unnatural layers, sedimenting some lower than others.

“I’m Servaas,” he corrected the old woman.

“You must help, Baas Servaas, my daughter…”

The toothless mouth explained – in a mixture of broken Afrikaans and English (with a few click-sounds thrown in for good measure) – that her daughter was dying in a hut nearby. When she heard the motorcycle, she ran to the road in the hope of finding help. Would the Baas please come…?

What could he do? That was no time to discuss the changed politics in the country, let alone giving the old woman a lesson in correct use of language in 2014. Following the slowly jogging woman, Servaas putt-putted along behind her to reach the wooden shack a few hundred metres into the veld.

“Come Baas, help…” She beckoned him inside.

The sight that met Servaas when he entered the gloomy interior made him blink a few times before he took off his hat and used it to cover his eyes. Yes, he’d seen naked women before…not long ago, in fact, in the nudist camp. And yes, he promised wholeheartedly never to lay eyes on such a sight again… And how unexpectedly ironic was this?

The woman in question was laying down on a threadbare mattress, as naked as the day she was born and moaning softly. A sheen of sweat covered the copper-coloured skin that stretched over the distended abdomen.

“She’s having a baby?” Servaas had to repeat the question from behind the hat.

“Yes, Baas. Since last night. I’ve burnt some herbs and danced for her, but it didn’t help. You must do something, please, Baas.”

What followed, might be described as Servaas’s worst nightmare. Peeking from behind his hat, he tried to make sense of what he saw, and quickly covered his face again.

“I…I…can’t…”

A desperate argument ensued. Realising that his ignorance and the woman’s desperation weren’t doing any good at that moment, Servaas eventually knelt down to inspect the uninspectable.

“I can see the head…,” he whispered. “It seems to be facing the wrong way.”

When Siena was giving birth to Servaasie, Oudok gave a running commentary on what was happening while Servaas cowered behind the door. He remembered how Oudok described how the head crowned, how the shoulders were released and the little body extracted. Quite clearly, Oudok described the boy’s face before the birth was complete – he said something about Siena’s nose. That meant the baby was facing…upwards? Or was that at a later stage?

Gritting his teeth, Servaas touched the head gingerly. It was warm and moist and covered with blood. And then…something extraordinary happened. It was as if the feeling, the touching, of the human infant transformed Servaas into an automated being. No longer did the sight of the naked woman have an impact on him. No longer did his mind work like an elder’s as he became unaware of his surroundings. He didn’t think about him as a male or the woman as female. The only thing that mattered, was the child – and the realisation that if he didn’t do somrthing, a life (or maybe even, two) would be lost.

The mother-to-be relaxed between the contractions. Tentatively, carefully, Servaas tried to push the little head backwards. To his utter surprise, the head did, indeed, move. The next contraction started, accompanied with a tired groan from the mother. And then, amidst a gush of fluid and blood, the head slowly progressed to eventually rest in Servaas’s trembling hands. By now he was praying loudly.

The little body followed. Shoulders, arms, torso, legs…and then the little boy lay limp and still on the mattress.

He’s dead, Servaas thought. I’ve delivered a corpse…

The old woman snatched up the baby, held it against her chest, and started crooning something that sounded like a lullaby. Still the infant remained quiet.

“Slap it!” That’s what Oudok did after Servaasie was born. Held him upside down and slapped the pink little bottom rather smartly.

The old woman looked at Servaas, not understanding what he meant. Servaas sighed, reached over with a blood-splattered hand, and whacked the baby on the bum.

It wriggled a bit.

The little chest heaved.

And it let out a mew-like whimper.

***

The two women wouldn’t let Servaas leave.

“Stay for the night, Baas. Please. Just for the night. You can leave tomorrow, but don’t leave us alone now. We may need your help…”

And so he did. The mother recovered surprisingly fast and Servaas watched – not ashamed, but in complete fascination – as the baby took the mother’s breast to suckle contently. The old woman busied herself by cooking some porridge, which Servaas truthfully declared to be the best meal he’d had in some time. Afterwards, when the mother and the baby drifted off to sleep, Servaas listened as the old woman described their life of hardship and suffering.

“We’re simple people, Baas. My daughter can do house-work, and I like to plant herbs..but that’s all. Nobody gives people like us work anymore. It’s not like the old days…”

“You mustn’t call me Baas – my name is Servaas.” Then he remembered how Agnes planned her new future. She had told him how her life as a gypsy had been a sham, and how she was going to find a patch of ground. Herbs, Servaas, she had said, that’s the future. Organic herbs. Fresh. I’m going to grow herbs and supply shops and restaurants. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be honest. I like that.

***

The next morning he said goodbye to the thankful two women.

“I’ll name him after you,” the mother said, smiling.

Servaas started the Enfield and rode off, leaving the women waving. They watched as he turned into the gravel road leading to Omdraaisvlei, then hugged each other.

“Baas Servaas.” The young mother whispered as she tickled her son’s little chin. “You’ll go far…”

The Kalahari Biker in Court

Credit: Leon Schuster

Credit: Leon Schuster

Catastrophe has a way of finding you, no matter how far you go to avoid trouble. History records many such instances: from people drowning in a tsunami of molasses in Boston (1919), to the B-52 that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945 (an accident, but chillingly similar to the events of 9-11). Since biblical times mankind has never been fast enough to escape the long and surprisingly sticky fingers of fate.

And Servaas – having left the nudist camp only that morning – wasn’t even going fast on the old Enfield. In fact, he was riding along at a sedate speed when the traffic cop suddenly appeared from behind the bush, one white-gloved hand held high while the other tried to button his fly

Philip Petrus de Lange had suffered from a weak bladder since childhood, causing much embarrassment and resulting in him being ridiculed in school. His initials did not improve his lot at all, either. This sad state of affairs caused Philip to avoid social contact and he grew up to be a morose individual with a huge chip on his shoulder. When he had to choose a career, he narrowed it down to either being a traffic cop or working at the local funeral parlour. Quite logically, he assumed that harassing living individuals would be much more satisfactory than burying his erstwhile tormentors (who obviously wouldn’t be aware of his actions), so he chose the former. Another factor in his decision was that he didn’t want to wait so long before having his revenge – he wanted to get even…soon!

And so Officer PP de Lange spent his days alongside the roads of the district, becoming an important source of income for the local municipality and the bane of everyone who used public roads in the area.

Servaas stopped, killed the engine, and took off his hat after making sure the kudu tail was still neatly in place.

“License.”

PP wasn’t one to waste time. Revenge might well be a dish best served cold, but in his case he liked to pounce, strike hard and leave his victims fuming. Being courteous wasn’t part of his default personality.

Servaas, feeling slightly guilty about enjoying his recent experience so much, shook his head. Perhaps, he thought, the encounter with a traffic cop (here in the middle of nowhere), was an apt punishment for his actions. Best to be honest and get it over with.

“No, I don’t have one.”

PP’s eyes lit up with unmitigated pleasure. A real catch! He’d simply throw the book at this old man – it’s been a quiet day, but this one will satisfy his daily need to get even with society.

“Then you are under arrest for driving without the necessary documentation. No license, hey? Isn’t that nice? Who do you think you are? Get in my car…now!”

Despite Servaas’s protestations, PP led the old man to the well-hidden vehicle, made him get into the back after checking the child locks, and drove off. The Enfield, PP informed him, would be Exhibit A in court and be fetched later.

***

The jail in town was as much a surprise as his arrest had been, only marginally more unpleasant. The little shed behind the municipal building – itself not a grand affair – housed a fire extinguisher, a few spades and a drum of tar. Servaas sat down on the extinguisher after the rusted door banged shut. This was, he decided, a real catastrophe.

Still, he considered his options. He could bang down the door with the extinguisher. Or dig his way out. Or light the tar and start a fire… But no! He must face his punishment with dignity. While it was true that he had no license to operate a two-wheeled motorized vehicle, it was also true that the time in the nudist camp had been most…entertaining. If he had to get punished for that, then he’d just have to face the wrath of the law and get it over with. Servaas knew about rights and wrongs – his years as elder in Oudoom’s church saw to that.

He spent a miserable night in that shed, thinking about the nudist camp, begging for forgiveness and promising that – if he could get out of jail – he’d never, ever, visit people who didn’t dress properly again. He closed his eyes, but before he drifted off to sleep, he considered the double disaster he had landed himself in. He’d lose his bike. He’d go to jail. Just before he drifted off to an uneasy slumber, the word ‘jeopardy’ lodged itself in his mind. Indeed, he thought.

The next morning Officer PP – dressed in his finest uniform, complete with the shiny buttons and the peaked cap – escorted his prisoner to the mayor’s office. Servaas was, understandably, a sight for sore eyes. Or his sight would have caused sore eyes, if one wanted to play with words. Hungry, dishevelled and dusty, he looked like a homeless vagabond.

Mayor Struwig was the town’s only lawyer, a man who made quite a decent living buying out farmers who couldn’t service their debts, holding on to the property for a year or so, and then selling it to the rich Gauteng yuppies who thought farming would supply a much-needed tax break. Of course, a year or so later, the same yuppie would beg the Honourable Mayor to find a willing buyer again. It was a game he couldn’t lose.

Struwig was a ferrety man with pointed ears and a receding jaw. Completely bald, his squint didn’t add to his appearance. Like Officer PP, he wasn’t exactly a social butterfly and used his job to inflate his ego. He was also the local magistrate. In this capacity he then faced the bedraggled old man from behind his polished desk.

Miss Agatha Droogsloot (called thus because of her little farm outside town) took the notes.

Struwig: “How do you plead?”

Servaas, hesitant: “Plead to what…sir?”

Struwig, impatient: “Driving a motorised two-wheeled vehicle without a license?”

Servaas, (pause), brightening: “Not guilty, your honour.”

Struwig, angry: “What?”

Servaas:”I have a question, your honour.”

Struwig, frustrated: “What”

Servaas, “What’s the story with double jeopardy?”

Struwig, quoting from memory: “Double jeopardy is a procedural defence that forbids a defendant from being tried again on the same (or similar) charges following a legitimate acquittal or conviction.”

Servaas, smiling: “Then I want the charge against me on record, your honour.”

Struwig: “It is on record, you fool!”

Servaas: “If it pleases your honour, then read it again, so I can justify my plea.”

Struwig, clearly irritated: “That you drove a motorised two-wheeled vehicle without license.”

Servaas: “That all?”

Struwig: “Dammit! Yes!!”

Servaas: “Then may I hold it to the  court that driving is something you do with motor cars and lorries, even cattle. Or you can drive people to distraction. But motorcycles? You ride them, your honour. Ride. That’s what I did. Not drive. That’s why you should dismiss the case. I’m innocent of the charge against me – I never drove a motor cycle.”

Struwig, foaming: “I’ll. Simply. Change. The. Wording. You. Old. *&%#!”

Servaas, shaking his head: “You can’t do that. First you must find me not guilty as charged, then you have to change the charge, and then – your honour – you get to that little bit of the definition you just read; which says something about the same or similar charges being brought against an innocent man.”

***

Officer PP de Lange watched as Servaas – still without a license – pushed the old Enfield out of town. He’ll follow that old man to the ends of the world, but he wasn’t going to let him get away! Getting into his patrol car, he followed the slow progress Servaas made, anticipating the glee of arresting him again – only this time, he’ll get the wording of his charge right. So maybe the old man could play the double jeopardy card again, but he’ll get him for speeding, or loitering, or something.

An hour later, his old problem acted up again. He stopped and was doing what he had to do when he heard the motor cycle roar to life.

Now, ask any man who is halfway through the process of answering a call of nature – especially when it is urgent. Stopping, buttoning up and getting back to the vehicle takes a minute or two.

By then, Servaas had taken a sharp left along a footpath, crossed the dry bed of a creek, and was heading towards some far-off hills – the kudu tail bobbing gaily up and down as he negotiated the uneven terrain.

Officer PP resigned the same day. He told Mayor Struwig that he’d prefer to work with dead people. They didn’t run away while he attended to his problem, he said. And, he added, they can’t come up with some lame defence – there’s no such thing as double jeopardy in a funeral parlour.

The Kalahari Biker in a Rural Clinic

mhin91MWith the front wheel fixed, Servaas left the Klein Pella Guest Farm to continue hus journey. He wanted to get to Springbok before continuing to Hondeklipbaai, that sleepy village next to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s been years and yeas since last he saw the sea. Rolbos, is, after all, in the middle of the desert and he’d simply love to see the endless mass of cold water separating South Africa from the rest of the Western World.

The ache in his left shoulder began an hour later. At first it was a mild twinge, but soon the discomfort became so bad, he had to let go of the handlebar and rest his left hand on his lap. Then the pain spread down the arm to his elbow, becoming more intense…

***

Patric Modise always wanted to be a doctor. When he was small, he’d be the one applying various leaves and mixtures (feathers and mud, grass and mud, ash and mud…etc) to the many cuts and bruises his childhood friends endured. In the village this was tolerated with understanding smiles, for will little Patric not (like the rest of the children) end up working for some mining company or – if he’s lucky – for a farmer? To be a labourer is about as far as one could go in that region and dreams of becoming an independent professional were completely crazy. Still, kids will talk such silly things and his parents didn’t want to kill his fantasy too soon.

Patric worked hard in school – or what passed as school in those days. Everybody had been so excited when democracy arrived and the new government promised houses, education and a chicken in every pot every Sunday. Patric’s father, Sipho, tried to tell the village that there wasn’t enough chickens around to fulfil that promise, but he still believed the housing and education promises. Well, as it turned out, nothing changed at all. They got to draw little crosses on ballot papers, which meant an extra holiday every five years; but that was all.

When he passed Standard Five, Patric persuaded his father to allow him to stay with an uncle in Upington, where he attended the Secondary School. Due to his diligence, he passed Matric at the top of his class with an average of 69%. This was a school record, causing the headmaster to predict a bright future for the industrious student.

And it all came to a grinding halt…

Patric sent letters to every university in South Africa. He was, after all, a good student, had a disadvantaged background and his family supported the ANC. Surely that was enough to make any dean of any medical faculty sit up and beg the lad to grace the university with his presence? Patric included – in every letter – some of his more successful recipes for the treatment of cuts, scorpion stings and various rashes, just to prove his serious intent to contribute to medical knowledge. When not a single letter from any university arrived, Patric tried to convince himself it was due to just another strike: either the postal workers or the railways or maybe the Typist’s Union. He then bade his family a teary goodbye and hiked to Cape Town.

 The shock of seeing so many townships filled with so many desperate people near Cape Town, caused a flutter of anxiety. And when he arrived, dusty and travel-weary, at the university one Friday afternoon, he had to plead and beg his way to the dean’s office. He never talks about that interview. At the end of it, the exasperated dean palmed him off to the matron of Tygerberg Hospital, where he was appointed to the staff as an orderly.

This story, however, is not about the time he spent in that huge complex while pushing trolleys around. Suffice to say that, after twelve frustrating months, Patric was no nearer to fulfilling his dream. He hung up his white coat one day, left the building and hiked home again.

Much to his surprise, the government had built a small clinic near his village in the meantime. It was a neat, two-room affair, with a filing cabinet and a date stamp (no ink for the pad). It was also unmanned. Patric wrote another letter, this time to the matron who appointed him a year ago, explaining his intention to apply for a job at the empty clinic. The matron, who had a secret little affair with the Minister of Health, mentioned this to the important man after a sweaty afternoon in the Mount Nelson Hotel, which resulted n the Minister proudly announcing in his next press conference that yet another clinic ‘is now fully operational in one of the country’s most remote places’.

***

And so we get to the point where Servaas, ashen-faced and whimpering with pain, saw the red cross on the sign next to the road. Help! He needed help! And how fortunate he was to stumble across a hospital here, in the middle of nowhere!

Patric was busy sweeping out ‘his’ clinic when the Enfield slowly approached the little building.

“Where’s the hospital?” Servaas could barely speak, due to the pain.

“This is the hospital,” Patric announced rather proudly.

“Are you the doctor?” The fact that Patric held a broom caused Servaas to wonder about the young man, but he did wear a white coat and he seemed bright enough.

“That’s what they call me around here,” Patric said truthfully.

“I’m having a coronary,” Servaas croaked.

Crisis! A real crisis! Patric kept his calm – but felt like dancing. Dishing out tablets to the AIDS victims in the area was hardly exciting. How he had longed for an emergency like the ones he saw being rushed hither and thither in Cape Town! Man, over there the doctors brought people back from the very brink of death! And wasn’t that his dream? To help the hopeless, cure the terminally ill?

Patric helped the old man from his bike and had him lay down on the examining couch. Haltingly, painfully, Servaas told of the pain in his left shoulder, the radiating discomfort down the upper arm and now, lately, the spreading of the pain upwards, to his neck.

What to do? Patric knew enough of medicine to know that his clinic had no facilities to sort out this problem. ARV’s were of no use in cardiac cases. The bottle of Codeine Sulphate helped for diarrhoea and coughs. He did have a big container with Vitamin B tablets, but those were for pregnant women and would certainly not help his current patient.

So Patric did what he could. Mixing some ash with mud, he applied a poultice to Servaas’ shoulder and told him to rest. Servaas suggested they have a tot of the Cactus Jack in his rucksack.

***

Servaas left the next day – a completely cured (if hung-over) patient – after Patric supplied Aspirin for them both as breakfast. The entire village had come to greet the old man as he got onto the Enfield, all of them expressing their admiration for their ‘Doctor’ Patric, who single-handedly saved the old man’s life in their most modern medical facility.  

FROZEN_SHOULDERWhen Gertruida heard about this episode, she went ‘harrumph!’, muttering that the pain had not been to a cardiac condition at all, but was simply the result of muscle fatigue in the ancient shoulder. She said something about a Rotator Cuff and  a Frozen Shoulder; but the patrons in Boggel’s Place immediately rejected that as being impossible in the heat of the Northern Cape.

Still, Servaas was extremely thankful for the help he got at Patric’s Clinic, and sent a batch of frozen chickens  from Springbok. ‘Doctor’ Patric then told his father that some of the government’s promises take a long time, but they did – at last – have a chicken for every pot on that Sunday.

Was it a coronary? Servaas still believe it was. The pain recurred from time to time while he rode on that Enfield, but by then he knew exactly what to do. Ash and mud, he says, have saved his life several times.

 

 

The Kalahari Biker Rides On

IMG_2398What made Servaas turn off the main road to Springbok? Was it his tired hips or the arthritic fingers on the throttle? Or perhaps some hidden spiritual instinct that told him to do so? One cannot always explain these things – we all do something at times and then try to tell ourselves some intuition guided us to do so. 

Oh, he’ll tell you it was the sign at the open gate, but  – as obvious as it may seem – that’s not true. He decided to turn off long before he saw the gate. The solitary little rondawel next to the big Bluegum tree and the slowly-turning windpump made a pretty picture in the emptiness of the barren veld around it. And yes, he was tired. His aching backside – not used to the uncomfortable seat – demanded a bit of respite. But there was a tug, a desire, to  ride through to that cottage that he later couldn’t explain. 

When he stopped his Enfield (with a relieved sigh) next to the small verandah, the place seemed to be deserted. A tired rectangular rockery sported a few dead twigs while the stoep was dusty, the steps unswept for a long time. Wilted weeds struggled to survive in the cracks in the steps. But there was a tendril of smoke coming from the chimney, suggesting some life inside – and that’s what made him knock on the door which stood slightly ajar. While he waited, he noted the one hinge hanging loose – the place was obviously in a bad state of repair.

The cottage had a wooden floor and after his third knock, Servaas heard the shuffling of feet inside. An ancient face peeked through the gap between the door and the frame. 

“Ye-e-e-s?” Suspicion weighed the question down.

The voice belonged to an old woman. Sparse grey hair, mole on the prominent nose, pale lips, wrinkles. Too many wrinkles. It was the face a photographer dreams of – it told of hardship and endurance; a lifetime of struggling and disappointment. The eyes – barely visible between the wrinkles – were dull and uninterested.

Servaas didn’t know what to say.

“I thought I’d stop by to say hello.” It sounded as lame as it was. 

“Why?”

“The sign said to keep the gate closed. It was open.”

A cackle of laughter surprised Servaas.

“He escaped a long time ago.”

“The tortoise?”

“Yes, him too. Now go away.”

“But…”

“Listen, that tortoise was mine. Mine! And he shouldn’t have left.” For a moment, Servaas saw fire in those dull eyes and felt ice slip down his spine.

Servaas is no fool. Here was a woman with a temper and a  touch of insanity – there could be no doubt about either. The dishevelled appearance, the unkempt hair, the rags she wore…no, this one wasn’t normal, he was sure about that.

“He escaped?” In his mind, Servaas saw a running tortoise shooting anxious glances over its shoulder, scowling to see through the dust. The image made him smile.

“He sure did, that mean critter! Took to the road and thought he’d get away with it. Got him half a mile down the main road the next day and brought him back.”

“You sure it was the same tortoise?”

“Of course! I painted my initials on his stomach. Come, have a look.”

The strange woman then led Servaas into the dark interior of the cottage. She seemed to have forgotten that she recently ordered him off the property and was now humming to herself when she stopped to point at the object next to a well-worn sofa. 

“There,” she said, “you can see for yourself.”

IMG_2430The ‘object turned out to be an empty tortoise shell, quite large by local standards, even larger than one Servaas had to swerve to avoid that morning.

“He’s dead?” 

“Of course he’s dead, Mister! Are you stupid or something? That’s his shell. And here’s my initials.” She turned the shell over to show the faded paint paint spelling DdM. “Dorothy de Meyer, that’s who I am. See?”

Just like Daisy de Melker, Servaas thought with a shudder. Not wanting to offend her, he nodded.

“Are you staying for dinner? My husband – he adored that creature – won’t be in, so it’ll be just the two of us. Liver patties. They keep surprisingly long in the  freezer if you add enough salt and pepper.”

Again, her sudden hospitality surprised Servaas. She was, he decided, quite unpredictable.

“Why did he die?” His curiosity got the better of him.

“Chopped his head off, I did. Made a lovely soup. He’s not going anywhere, ever again…but I keep the sign up, just in case.” She stared out of the window. “You never know, do you?”

“Where did your husband go? Won’t he join you for dinner?”

She laughed again: a cackling, raspy noise emanating from her ancient chest. “Hardly likely, I’d say.” Her eyes had suddenly become hard and icy again, measuring Servaas from head to toe. “Well…?

“No.” He’d made up his mind by this time. “I just came to tell you about the gate.”

“He ain’t going anywhere,” she said, pointing at the shell, “I saw to it.”

Servaas made his way to the door, stopped to stare at the rectangular rockery, and shook his head. 

“I’ll be on my way, then. Thanks for the offer for dinner, but I have to go. Give my regards to your husband, will you?” He had to get away from that place, from the suspicion slowly growing inside him. As he laboured his leg over the frame of the Enfield, he saw her watching the rockery with unusual intensity.

“You sure about the liver patties?” Her rasping voice was almost drowned by the starting of the engine.

41Servaas engaged a gear and rode off, shaking his head. He had to get away from that woman. And the tortoise shell.

…And that rectangular rockery where nothing grew.

To make sure, he closed the gate behind him. One cannot take chances with such things. Servaas isn’t a superstitious man – not at all. But just like gates aren’t supposed to keep tortoises in (and, of course, they don’t pay much attention to people telling them where to stay), so one cannot always assume that the liver patty you get for dinner has its origin in the butchery in town. After all, the old woman’s remark about the freezer sent a chill down his spine, didn’t it?

No; Servaas will confess if you give him enough peach brandy, sometimes it is far wiser to ride off into the sunset than to ask one more question – or to wonder about the urge that made him stop there. And, he’ll whisper, it’s not only animals that want justice. But justice, he’ll go on, comes at a price. A man must decide whether it is worthwhile to pursue the matter before committing yourself.

Maybe that’s what the old woman’s husband found out eventually, as well…

 

The Madness of Frikkie Coetzee

Credit: Toyota

Credit: Toyota

“It’s haunted!”

Frikkie Coetzee, that round block of muscle with the unshaved face, is arguably the most superstitious man in the Kalahari. Always gets out on the right side of the bed; avoids black cats; hates lightning and never upsets the salt at the table. Sammie once tried to sell him a cracked mirror (it was a bargain), and that’s why Frikkie never stops in Rolbos any more. He races right through town when he’s been to Upington, driving hard towards his farm near Bitterbrak. He told Vetfaan the town is in for a nasty surprise and he doesn’t want to be near when it happens.

That was five years ago, but Frikkie says that doesn’t matter. Fate doesn’t care about time. It’ll happen when it’s good and ready, just you wait and see.

But today, on this crisp winter afternoon, Frikkie didn’t depress the petrol pedal on his new bakkie when he reached Voortrekker Weg. Instead, he braked hard, slewed to a stop, and emerged from the cloud of dust with the whites of his eyes glowing like a demented Kudu’s –  after the lion attached itself to its neck

“Ghost!” His frenzied shout brings the patrons in Boggel’s Place to the window, where they watch the apparently demented man storming towards Oudoom’s church. Being Wednesday, they all know Oudoom is in the middle of his weekend (clergymen have it in the middle of the week), so it’ll be only a matter of time before Frikkie will seek the safety of the only other place in town where he might find salvation. There’s no need to storm after the frightened man…he’ll come to them.

And he does.

Arms flailing, eyes wide, Frikkie runs towards Boggel’s Place when he finds out the church doors are locked. “HELP!!” He cries, “GHOST!.”

Now – one must remember that the Rolbossers are very much down-to-earth people. They don’t scare easily. Well…not usually, anyway. There was the time the dead soldiers marched through town, but that’s quite another story. So, it isn’t strange that the group in the bar finds Frikkie’s antics rather funny.

“Calm down,” Vetfaan shouts, “Gertruida looks like that when she doesn’t comb her hair.” His remark draws the expected – if almost-too-enthusiastic – slap on his cheek. “She’ll look better, later…”

“No, man! It must be Oudoom with his toga!” Kleinpiet rocks with laughter. “Or maybe he saw Platnees weeding the little graveyard.”

“It’s not a he! It’s a she!” Frikkie crashes open the door. “A she!

“Give the man a beer. It’ll calm him down.” Boggel knows a lot about people who – let’s say – are not completely in control of themselves.

“What’s she look like? Tall? Short? Blonde? Skirt or jeans?”  Even Servaas is amused.

“Invisible!” Downing the beer, Frikkies calms down somewhat.

“Then, how do you know it’s a she?”

***

Living in the Kalahari has many advantages. Here you won’t find daily newspapers delivered to your door, so you won’t know much about the turmoil in Croatia or Gaza, for instance. Some may argue that such ignorance isn’t a good thing, but it also means the Rolbossers don’t waste time discussing the way the country is deteriorating.

Just the other day Vetfaan chatted to the shop owner in Upington, when he had to buy a new fan belt for his tractor.

“The situation is getting worse,” the man said, “and the government won’t stop.” He was talking about the way commercial farmers are forced off their land by the many land-claims lately. “Eighty five percent! Can you believe that? Eighty five! That’s how many farms fail after being given to people who don’t have the faintest clue about farming. But…because some ancient grand-grand-grandfather lived there, these guys now claim the right to own the title.  That’s like the Israeli’s saying they own the world, man! I mean, if old Abraham wasn’t so fertile and the Jews stayed in Egypt, Europe wouldn’t have been populated. And what about the Vikings? Surely they can claim England?”

Scientists working in Pinnacle Point Cave, where they claim  the oldest human remains yet, have been found.

Scientists working in Pinnacle Point Cave, where they claim the oldest human remains yet, have been found.

The man shook his head, quoting something about the Cradle of Mankind. “If you go right back to what the scientists say, then the ancient San people ventured forth from somewhere near Mossel Bay to inhabit the world. That means the Bushmen own the world. First there, gets the land – apparently that’s the rule. Oh, that means the Americans get the moon…”

Talk like that makes Vetfaan nervous. In fact, it scares him. He’s tried to ignore the reports of once-proud homesteads reduced to rubble and the cultivated lands turned to wasteland – hoping the Kalahari would escape the scourge of politically motivated land-claims.

protest squattersBut recently another farmer told him how the new – government driven – farmers simply dismantle everything built up over decades, to sell as scrap. One new ‘farmer’ makes a living by renting out the farmland to squatters, he said.

Gertruida said something about the original land invaders. Old Queen Victoria sent her armies too occupy large tracks of land in the Eastern Cape – so England’s current queen must now offer compensation to the Xhosa people. Of course they all laughed at the absurdity of it all, but their laughter sounded forced and strained, even to themselves. One shouldn’t joke about such serious issues.

What would happen, Vetfaan thought, if people kept on insisting on being pawns in the government’s strategy to disown land? The consequences are too terrifying to contemplate. Like Zimbabwe, South Africa would not be able to produce enough food for the population. An exporter of goods would become an importer of essentials. The Rand would plummet. Poverty would follow. And once poverty reaches a critical level, the people can only resort to crime if they wanted to survive.

Add to that the endemic disease of strikes. Surely there are civilised structures in place to make wage negotiations more peaceful and less destructive? But no! The government made the laws and the laws are slanted towards the workers. Land owners and factory bosses are the new targets.

Servaas summed it up the other day: “Anybody who’ve done anything positive in the country, is now unwanted. And it’s not just previous generations, either. Look at the emigration of doctors, engineers and people with special skills. You’d think the government would want them to stay and build up our country. But no! Positions are simply left vacant, or somebody is appointed to sit in a chair while earning – and I use that word sarcastically – a huge salary for doing nothing.”

“You’re right, Servaas,” Gertruida sighed, “but there is another side to the argument as well. Fair living conditions and a fair salary are must-have ingredients for stability.”

“True. But there must also be fairness to the farmers.”

The debate lasted long into the night and it was only after Boggel fell asleep on his cushion beneath the counter that the patrons went home. Solving the conundrum of South Africa isn’t so easy…

***

It’s Gertruida who puts Frikkie out of his misery.

“You heard a voice in your bakkie. That’s nice, It’s called progress, Frikkie. That woman lives in the navigation aid the Japanese built in your vehicle. She’ll tell you where to go and how to get there. Mostly, she is right, but you still have to think for yourself.”

Old Servaas chucks a peanut into his mouth and crushes it between his gums. “Ja, you must be careful, Frikkie. Keep on following that woman can get you lost, you know? She doesn’t know all the tracks in the Kalahari, but you do.” He washes the peanut down with some beer. “It’s like us, man. The government makes all kinds of noises, but if we follow them blindly, we’re in for a hard time. Common sense, that’s what we need.”

Frikkie calms down when Gertruida explains about the GPS in his bakkie. They have a jolly old laugh at the stupid voice in the vehicle that tried to tell Frikkie to turn left into the desert. But Vetfaan? He’s the one who wanders out to Voortrekker Weg, wiping his brow and trying his best to hide his fear. Maybe, he thinks, Frikkie was right about that cracked mirror and the impending disaster.

For once, he is glad Rolbos is so small. It isn’t even on the map. Perhaps that’ll help them one day…

The Grain of Sand at Midnight

6021415053_58b80f448b“It’s a fallacy,” Gertruida says because she knows everything, “to talk about midnight. Nobody knows when – exactly – that is.”

A statement such as this is usually met with various nods and understanding looks, simply because you don’t argue with Gertruida. It is far better to lift you glass and toast her wisdom, than to start a debate. But Servaas, who still relies on his old Westclox (the one Siena gave him on their first anniversary), feels compelled to say something.

“It’s when the short arm and the long one both point north,” he says. “Everybody knows that.”

“That’s far too crude to be accurate, Servaas. The hands on that clock stay together for too long. Have you timed it? It takes about twelve seconds before you can see the hour-hand move. Even if you watched it closely, you can’t pinpoint the exact moment when the new day starts and the old one ends.”

“But I have a radio, Gertruida! And that Westclox runs on time, I can tell you. When the beeps for the seven o’clock news sound, that alarm clock agrees: it is exactly seven. Siena always checked it, now I do too.” He hesitates for a second, unsure whether he should continue the argument. “Anyway, since you got that new-fangled watch with the electronic numbers, you seem obsessed with time. Obviously you think that thing is more accurate than the old Westclox.”

‘It’s not that, Servaas,” This time, Gertruida is the one who pauses. “It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Well, I got to thinking about change, you see? One moment you feel this way, the next you change your mind…”

“Nt me, Getruida. That’s a woman-thing.”

She ignores the remark. “Everybody does that. It’s sometimes a conscious decision. Shall I buy a bread today? Must I go to church? May I have another beer?…And sometimes you don’t even know you made the decision, like when you slap a mosquito.”

She smiles, her point made. Yes, Servaas nods, one moment you’re faced with a situation, the next you’ve made the choice.

“That’s what I mean about midnight. Between the tick and the tock lies a thousand microseconds. Which one is the right one? And that’s what set me thinking about choices and change. Every day – in our minds – we throw the switch, chuck out the old and start with the new. And it’s not just about time, Servaas. It’s about the how and the why I’ve been thinking,

“You see, a clock has no choice in the act of ticking, provided it’s properly wound up. In our minds, however, the process of decision-making is a deliberate thing. We can decide whether we stay in a certain mode, or change to something new. But even if we decide not to change, that is change in itself? Don’t you see? Nothing remains constant – so if one decides to remain as is, that’s a change – because you stopped the process of progress. You would have ended up in a different situation if you decided otherwise.” She ignores the puzzled looks. ” And that, my friend, happens between the tick and the tock. I’m simply wondering how – and exactly why and when – that happens.”

This is far too deep for the group at the bar. Vetfaan tries to change the subject by expressing his dismay at the way the Malaysian aeroplane was shot down.

“There’s another example!” Gertruida isn’t finished. “An aeroplane crosses the sky. One moment the guy with his finger on the firing button isn’t a murderer, the next he is. He crossed his midnight and now he’ll never be able to return to yesterday.”

“Gertruida!” Kleinpiet throws up his hands in exasperation. “Good grief, woman! This is Boggel’s Place, not the Royal Society of Philosphers, Psychiatrists and Politiians. How on earth do you expect us to follow your reasoning? It’s unfair, to say the least.”

Boggel serves another round. “It’s like a scale, guys. Just before midnight, the scale is in perfect balance. Then a grain of sand – perhaps a very, very small one – is added to the one side. Now it tips to one side, the balance disturbed. That’s what Gertruida is trying to say…I think.”

She flashes him a grateful smile. “Yes, Boggel. I want to know what that grain of sand is and why it gets added to the scale. It’s just a simple thought, really. Didn’t want to start an argument.”

She almost sounds believable.

“Our history is determined by decisions. Between the ticks and the tocks of your old Westclox, Servaas, lies the determination of what we are and where we go. We live in troubled times – but who causes these troubles? I’ll tell you: men and women who cross a threshold, changes from yesterday to today, passes the midnight of indecision…and then comes to a conclusion.

“Take the strikes in our mining industry. Somebody made that decision. Hamas attacks Israel and Israel retaliates – who crossed that midnight-moment? Syria, Congo, Sudan…all the result of decisions some people made. One moment they considered peace, the next they rejected it.  Religious and ethnic conflict? It’s all due to a single moment when the grain of sand causes the scale to tip one way or the other.”

Once again her comments are digested with that faraway look farmers get when they wonder what this year’s wool-cheque is going to look like. But, because they like Gertruida so much, one or two nod to show her they’re listening.

“God created Time, Gertruida, to allow us to think.” Oudoom tries to contribute to the convoluted conversation. “Without Time, we simply cannot think, and therefore we cannot change. So, the way I see it, is that Time and Change are blood-brothers. You can’t have the one without the other. And right in between them – Time and Change – you have the grain of sand called Choice. Sometimes it takes a long while before the scale dips to one side, but it is due to Choice that it does so. In contrast to Servaas’ Westclox, we have a choice about Change. Left or right? Up or down? Yes or no? Love…or hate?” The old clergyman sighs. “The exact moment of midnight, Gertruida, is when we consider a thought that changes our ways. This can be good or bad. Evil or not. And that choice is the weight that tips the scale.”

“So,” Vetfaan says with a sardonic grin, “the answer is to make no choices? Leave everything just as it is?”

“That, my friend is impossible. The very nature of life – and of each one of our lives – is based on choice…and change. We can’t control time, but we can control the grain of sand we place on the scale. We, each of us, pass many midnights between past and future every second of our lives. We hold the bag of sand and we have to place it either on the right – or the left – of the scale as we go along. And that, Vetfaan is the way it works.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “Every decision? Every moment?”

“Yes, Vetfaan, every one of them.”

“Then, my grain of sand says I have to order another beer.”

They laugh at that. Maybe it’s relief that something funny has been said, or simply the fact that the burden of carrying that grain of sand can be a very weighty load to transport around. Perhaps, too, they think back on the midnights they have all had, and the choices to place those grains of sand on the scale.

Precilla wipes away a tear as she remembers her affair with Richard, and the way it all ended so tragically. Yes, she made a choice – the wrong one – and she’ll regret that for the rest of her life. What would have happened if she refused his advances in the beginning?

As if reading her mind, Gertruida pats her shoulder.

“It’s not about yesterday, Precilla. Once you’ve passed midnight, it’s gone…forever. Then you are in charge again, facing that scale with your grain of sand. That’s the point. We live, we learn, we become wiser. And we all make mistakes. Some midnights – or some pivotal moments – are crucial in determining the way the day will play out. And if we place that grain of sand carefully, we can sit back and await the dawn.”

***

Rolbos – or Life – can be such a barrel of laughs at times. Then, sometimes, the little bar in the town falls silent whenever Gertruida  forces the group to be serious for a change. Vetfaan says she’s such a wet rag when she does this, but it’s Oudoom – who’s seen so much – who’ll tell you how important it is to wait between the tick and the tock, to take a deep breath right then, and place the grain of sand just right.

But then, too, the patrons in Boggel’s Place have a lot to be thankful for. Gertruida could have started the discussion with Fernando Pessoa’s quote: “My past is everything I failed to be.” One can only imagine the profound silence that would have greeted that statement.