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The Miracle of Silent Night (#5)

The memorial chapel in Oberndorf

The Mohr memorial chapel in Oberndorf

Gertruida tells them their journey with the history of Silent Night is nearing its end. The work of Gruber and Mohr had been published under Authors Unknown by Anton Friese and although the melody was not the exact original score by Franzl Gruber, at least the words were preserved.

Other publications started featuring Silent Night as well and in 1844 and 1848 it was included in Finck’s and Dr. Gebhardt’s collections of Tyrolean songs.

But, much more important than the printed version was the way the song spread from home to home, from town to city and from country to country. There was an irresistible charm to the simplicity, the harmony and the beauty of the lyrics and its melody. It was a song for commoners and royalty alike; poor people sang it around their meagre collection of hand-made presents; congregations loved its harmony and kings joined in when the smartly dressed choirs sang it at Christmas time.

More and more people started wondering about the origin of Silent Night. Over time it was ascribed to Beethoven, Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn and his younger brother Michael – but uncertainty remained.

fade03Today the ski-resort of Wagrain in the Arlberg is the vibrant playground of the rich and the fortunate. Way back in  the1800’s it was a poor village with a simple chapel. When Joseph Mohr was appointed as vicar of the parish, it was a lateral promotion into obscurity. For twenty years he laboured as much-loved priest and friend and when the song was finally published in 1848 in Berlin, he had already died a poor and penniless man. It is said that his only pleasure was the rare evenings he spent with the farmers in the local Bierstube, where the songs of Tyrol were given new life by his fine tenor voice. His funeral was as unpresumptuous as his life –with no funds of his own, the community interned his body in a simple grave.

According to a later statement by Gruber, Joseph Mohr wrote many a poem and song in his life – but not one remains for us to celebrate the life of this humble priest. His only work, his only contribution, still alive today, is the lullaby he wrote in his loneliness.

images (3)We have no picture of Mohr – no sketch, no painting, nothing.  He had lived humbly for 55 years, donating most of his small salary to the aged and promoting education amongst the children of his congregation. Having his features immortalised on canvas just didn’t fit in with his character. When at last, in 1912 he was credited for writing the famous song, it was decided to exhume his remains, to examine his skull and pay an artist to reconstruct an image of his appearance. There was a problem, though: in the neglected pauper’s graveyard the gravestones had become eroded, some had fallen over and some graves were unmarked. In the end the oldest people of the parish had to point out where the grave was and work could start on the grizzly task at hand. The memorial plaque he created was destined for the small memorial chapel in honour of Silent Night.

gruberLife was less harsh on Franz Xaver Gruber. When he was appointed as choirmaster and organist in the church in Hallein (a bustling town not far from Salzburg), he could finally immerse himself in music for the rest of his life. When he died at the age of 75, he left behind 90 compositions, mostly of a religious nature. He had sired 12 children and lived a comfortable and happy life. His children inherited some of his musical talent and one may assume that many an evening was filled with music and song in the Gruber home. It is not known whether he ever saw Joseph Mohr again. Because of his stature in society, he had a painting done in his middle age and some photographs of him in his later years were preserved.

Both these men must have known that the song was sung in various places under the tag of Authors Unknown. What Mohr’s reasons were for not claiming authorship, one can only guess. Gruber later stated that the transcript by Anton Friese didn’t contain the exact music he had written. Friese’s version, remember, was jotted down in shorthand and later transcribed, which explains the discrepancy. However, Gruber and Mohr didn’t think about claiming ownership – it just wasn’t important to them. What was important was that people embraced their song. In contrast to the rejection of Father Nostler, it was through the voices of so many simple folk that Gruber and Mohr found their reward.

salzburg___stift_sankt_peter_by_pingallery-d48eqddSo, how do we know that these two gentlemen actually were responsible for Silent Night? There are different versions of this part of the story, but Gertruida tells her audience, she simply loves the legend involving choir director Herr P. Ambrosius Prennsteiner of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter in Salzburg. This, she reminds them, represents perhaps the biggest miracle of Silent Night…

In 1854 the Abbot wrote Prennsteiner a letter, conveying the request by the Kapellmeister of he King’s Orchestra in Berlin for a copy of the score for Silent Night, presumably by Michael Haydn. The reason for this approach was that the younger Haydn had been Kapellmeister there for 43 years before his death in 1806; and it was presumed that the score would be in the extensive library amongst the other 350 compositions he had written during his tenure there.

The Kapellmeister knew that such a search would take ages. However, he had several students under his care and by one of those inexplicable twists of fate, he chose young Felix Gruber to assist in the quest. Young Felix, amazingly, just had to be the youngest son of…(wait for it and enjoy the moment)…Franzl Gruber! When told to look for the score of Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!, the young Gruber exclaimed that this song did not originate by Michael Haydn’s hand at all, but was written by his father, Franzl. Although the Kapellmeister must have been sceptical, he did write to Herr Gruber.

Not long afterwards the Director of the King’s Orchestra in Berlin received a letter containing, amongst others, a sheet of music titled Weihnachtslied. The letter contained a short and very modest description of the events leading up to that mass on the evening of the 24th December.

Skip ahead to 1867 when Durlichter published a handbook on Pongau, the area in Austria stretching from St Johann to Wagrain. Of the little village of Wagrain not much could be said, except that it had been the parish of one Joseph Mohr, who, along with Franz Gruber of Hallein, wrote Silent Night. It was the first ‘official’ acknowledgement of their combined efforts in 1818. By this time, however, both of them were dead.

***

With the story told, Gertruida sighs happily. This is the graphic part of the story, where her listeners must close their eyes and take an imaginary trip to a village far, far away.

“Such then, is the story of the most famous of Christmas songs. But come now, on the eve of Christmas, and let us join the people in the village of Oberndorf, where the choir and people with less musical voices will join in the singing of Silent Night. Look for the gathering of crowds on the exact spot where the song was born. Bring along some warm mittens – preferably of the calfskin variety that made the Stassers famous. Watch as Franzl Gruber’s original guitar is carefully unpacked from its case and the guitar player turns the screws on the handle to make sure the notes are exactly right. Maybe, as a sign of blessing, a sprinkling of snow will float down on the crowd – divine applause for  the two men whose friendship and determination sought to undo the damage the mouse had done to an ancient organ in 1818.

“And then, with the plaintive notes of the guitar as guide, soar with the voices of the Rainers, the Stassers, the peasants and kings, to sing the song that causes the lump in your throat. Hear again the loneliness of Mohr and the brilliance of Gruber as tears streak down your cheek to freeze on your collar. And when the last sounds drift away into the mighty peaks of the white Alps, there will be an awed silence, an emotional quiet, when not a single member of the gathering dares to say anything.

“It is in the quiet peace and acceptance of Life following the song that the true power of Silent Night becomes evident. It is a lullaby for us all: there to comfort our worries, to support hope, to spread love and goodwill and to reassure us that Jesus der Retter ist Da… We may, indeed, rest in heavenly peace.

“One last act is necessary before we leave the town of Oberndorf. Join me at the local Bierstube for a glass of glühwein. Let us lift our glasses high and toast the memory of two remarkable men – men who sought not glory or fame, but who were content to leave us the music and words of a humble song. In their small way, they changed the world for the better; may it continue doing so for all generations to come.

“Franzl Gruber and Joseph Mohr: we salute you! Kings and Presidents will come and go. Most of them will be forgotten. But your song, your Silent Night, will be with us forever.”

Gertruida says a good ending can never be rushed, and it is so with this story. She refuses to say ‘The End’ when the story is told. It has no end, she says. We shall sing the song with our loved ones and our children. In years to come, they will do so with theirs. And so the echoes of Silent Night will pass from generation to generation, reminding us that we are never alone. In the silence of the night – any night – Joseph Mohr ‘s words will comfort us in the year ahead. Inevitably, because that’s what Life is like, we’ll face hardships, disappointments and a few goodbyes. We’ll maybe also reach a few goals and have a couple of laughs. There’ll be tears of joy…and sadness. Every single one of us will feel the pain of an abandoned child at times – just like the humble Rev Mohr did. And then, in those quiet moments, Joseph Mohr is there to remind us: der Retter ist da…the Saviour is there, as well…

Gertruida has a bit of advice to every parent telling this story to a sleepy-eyed child on the eve of Christmas. She says the final sentence should be: “It started with a mouse….and it has no end…”

To eternity…and back (#7)

paw-with-thornGertruida will tell you (she knows everything, remember?) that not all love stories have a happy ending. Mostly, relationships suffer mortal damage due to that silly trait people seem compelled to nurture when they are alone: the ego. They don’t realise there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Love’.

Matron Krotz, she of the ample bosom and rigid leadership, stood in the doorway, shaking with fiery and indignant rage. Shorty, on the other hand, was as white as a sheet, humiliated, shivering as if standing in an icy draft. After all these years, they met again in a whirlpool of anger, guilt, frustration and hurt. Nobody said anything for a full two minutes. Gertruida broke the icy silence.

“Matron?” She got no response and tried again. “Matron? Did you hear…everything?”

Matron Krotz finally turned her head ever so slightly to stare at Getruida – at first uncomprehending, but later recognising who had spoken.

“I do not need to hear anything, Gertruida. I know what that bastard did to my life, and that’s quite enough, thank you.” The words were clipped, said with great determination. “And this is my hospital. This piece of…piece of…” She searched for the appropriate word. “Piece of … garbage shall remove himself at once, or I shall be compelled to throw him out. Is. That. Clear?”

“She only heard the last bit, about Shorty selling those devices to Correctional Services.” Servaas sighed and went on with a tired voice: “She doesn’t know the rest…” He was, of course, the only one who had been facing the door during Shorty’s explanation. He also remembered – quite vividly at that moment – the dream he had about the dunes. “Look, we’re all grown-ups here. Matron has suffered tremendously because of Shorty’s stupidity in the past. But, come on folks, so did Shorty. There were no winners in this contest, guys. Everybody lost something – is it really necessary to continue making the same mistakes, to continue the losing streak? Or is there a way, any old way, we can stop the carnage and start over again?”

Servaas got a grateful look from Gertruida, accompanied by an almost imperceptible nod. They were witness to a pivotal moment in two person’s lives, and it was up to them to save Shorty and matron from destroying their one chance for reconciliation.

IMG_2647“I once heard a story.” The change of subject was so sudden, so unexpected, that all heads turned to Gertruida. She seemed oblivious of their surprise as she continued. “About a lion. A silly old lion. Funny I should think about that now.” She flashed an apologetic smile that fooled nobody. “He stepped into a thorn while chasing a ground squirrel one day. Isn’t that funny? The mean old lion wanting to eat a poor, innocent little squirrel. Ha. Ha.” Nobody joined the laughter. Gertruida didn’t seem to notice. “Well, the squirrel sat in the tree and the lion licked his foot down below, obviously in great pain.

“‘Hey,’ the squirrel said, ‘I can help you. I have hands, you see? And you don’t. If you promise not to eat me, I’ll remove that thorn for you’. But the lion, you see, was too proud, to angry, to accept help. He growled at the squirrel, who wisely climbed a bit higher up in the tree.

“Well, you can imagine what happened. That thorn festered and the lion’s foot became septic. It rotted off, quite literally. And then the lion died.”

There was a stunned silence in the room for a few seconds and then, bless her soul, nurse Botha giggled and started a soft applause. She walked over to the still stern-faced matron, put her arm around the broad shoulders, and suggested that the two of them retire to have a cup on nice, strong, sweet tea. To talk, she said, about thorns and stupidity. She said it lightly, jokingly, hoping to cool the austere woman’s temper. It was certainly a worthwhile and honourably brave act, despite the outcome.

Matro stood ramrod straight, blinked twice, and told nurse Botha to take a flying leap at herself. Then she stomped off down the corridor. The group around the bed heard her door slam.

***

Servaas recovered sufficiently to be discharged two days later. Doctor Welman and a surly matron Krotz did their final round that morning, making him promise to take it easy for a while and to take his tablets regularly. Servaas nodded happily, telling them that Vetfaan would be there soon to pick him up.

Back in her office, matron Krotz sat down with a sigh. Yes, she understood that Shorty had paid dearly for his stupidity way back then. And yes, she was still furious with the man. How many years have gone wasted because he had been such a fool? How many nights had she cried whenever she thought about her pain and loss? No, that stupid nurse was way off the mark when she suggested that she, matron Krotz, should try to understand…

A soft knock on her door made her look up.

“Yes?”

Nurse Botha stepped in, an uncertain little smile hovering on her lips.

“Matron, I’ve been thinking.”

The older woman let her head sink into her hands. This damn nurse! Can’t she mind her own business?

“It’s about you, Matron. And that thorn in your foot. And the way it’s poisoned your life. And how I see – on some of the morning rounds, not all that often – how red your eyes are and how you pretend to be such an awful old woman while you’re shouting at everybody.”

Matron Krotz half-rose out of her chair, ready to teach this impertinent nurse a lesson she’d never forget. Nurse Botha didn’t flinch – squaring her shoulders, she went on.

“You, Matron, still have…feelings…for that man. Maybe it’s anger, maybe it’s hate…or maybe it’s something completely different. Whatever it is, Matron, you have to face those feelings. Face them, deal with them, and do something about them. The way you chased Mister de Lange out of the hospital the other day…well, I felt sorry for him. He has a thorn in his foot, too. So I thought…” At this point she faltered, her bravado slipping. Biting her lower lip, she stood there, wringing her hands in uncertainty.

“Well, what did you conjure up in that silly little piece of grey stuff you call a brain, nurse Botha?”

Gertruida says we all have a saturation point: for insults, for injustice, for shame. Even for being belittled and scorned at for too long. That point, she says, is a dangerous moment in time when people do unpredictable things – some of them incredibly brave, others rather stupid. This was what happened on that day when matron Krotz made her snide remark, expecting nurse Botha to beat a hasty retreat. It didn’t happen. She, however, had reached that point, jutted out her jaw and took a deep breath.

“Listen, matron, for as long as I worked here, you stomp around with a chip on your shoulder. Always criticizing, never satisfied. People don’t like you, because you’re…you’re…such an unforgiving…bitch, if you’ll pardon the word.!” She wiped away an angry tear with an even angrier hand. There was no stopping then. “And I, for one, am fed up. Fed up, you understand? Had it up to here!” The hand made a motion across her neck. “So I’ve had it! Finished! I’m taking my bag and I’m going somewhere where people appreciate me. And you…you can wallow in your grief until the final trumpet blows. I don’t care. Go spend the rest of your miserable life in misery. I was going to ask Mister de Lange to come in and try one more time. Well, bugger it! You can go and do something unmentionable to yourself. Goodbye and good riddance!”

Just before the door slammed shut behind the upset nurse, matron Krotz caught a glimpse of the face of the man who had waited there to be called in. Had anybody been watching, it would have been difficult to say which of the three people involved was the most upset. Matron sank back in her chair, flabbergasted. Never, in her entire life, had anybody spoken to her like that!

But, standing in front of the closed door, Shorty de Lange stood defeated and alone.No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had suffered a loss even greater than the death of poor Jacobus, his only son. His son had been paralysed, retarded, compromised in every aspect of life. This was exactly how Shorty de Lange felt when he turned to leave. There just wasn’t any sense in hanging around.

(To be continued…)

Everybody has a You (#6)

bots-bush-sc-06_screen“Wha…what do you mean?” If at all possible, Mary’s face seems even more drained than before.

“There has to be something…something Brutus wants from you. I mean, if I’m right, he removed Boggel from Rolbos – let’s call a spade a spade and mention the word kidnapping – and one is left with the obvious: some demand or ransom.” She lets out a sarcastic guffaw. “And anybody who demands a ransom from us Rolbossers, must be crazy. We may be happy, but we’re not rich. Soo…it can’t be about money, can it?”

“But…but why do all this?” Mary sweeps a trembling hand toward the door, as if Brutus and Boggel were standing there. “Why not just contact me?”

“Ha! And after he was the cause for you spending time as guest of the Brazilian government? He set you up, you know it…and you probably hate the guy. Credit the man with some intelligence, will you? He knew the chances that you’d welcome any contact with him, were zero. He had to find a way to get your cooperation – and that’s why Boggel was abducted.”

All eyes now bore into Mary as a tear streaks over her pale cheek.

“Come on, Mary.” Precilla fishes out a Kleenex from her purse. “Didn’t Brutus give you something before you left for Rio? A box, an envelope, some other documents…anything?”

“N…no.”  Glancing up when Servaas approaches with a steaming mug of bush tea, she manages a thankful smile. “Oh…he gave me presents, yes. Personal stuff. Flowers and lingerie and some costume jewellery – but nothing that would warrant…this.” Again her hand flutters aimlessly in the air. “I…I don’t understand.”

“There must be something,” Gertruida won’t let up.

Mary holds the mug with both trembling hands as she brings the hot, sweet liquid to her lips. Then she looks up suddenly. “Maybe he wants to…get rid of me.” She ignores the surprised looks. “Yes, that could be it…”

During the months she spent with Brutus, they became what is socially known as an item. They were seen in all the right places – theatres, restaurants, parties, even church. And they visited friends…lots of friends.

“Jail gave me plenty of time to think – there wasn’t anything else to do, after all. After realising that I had been only a convenient link in a drug smuggling chain, I naturally wondered where Brutus got his supplies from, what he did with the drugs  and who the other people in this…business…might be. So I played this mental game, see? I tried to recall the people he introduced me to, where we went and who he met there. Who, I wondered, might be his contacts?

“And then I remembered a very specific man, an extremely rich guy, living in Hout Bay in one of the biggest mansions I’d ever seen. Amongst everybody I met in that time, he stand out by a mile. We visited him at least once a week – sometimes for supper, on weekends for a picnic in the huge garden, and sometimes just to have a drink. That man! I remembered the Dom Perignon, the caviar, the massive parties  – and the yacht.” She closes her eyes, calling up the images from an apparently carefree era. “And I remembered how I wondered about his wealth. How did he get so stinking rich? That’s when I started thinking this man must be the big boss. the kingpin.Then there was a man that often phoned – late at night. Never knew who he was, but Brutus always gave him legal advice…or so Brutus said. He once remarked – Brutus did – how politicians can be so ignorant. But…those two came to mind when I sat in that prison – and that’s all I can think of. Brutus, I realised, had been very careful not to make me suspicious while he was dating me.”

Credit: Beeld

Sheryl Cwele. Credit: Beeld

“That’s a possibility,” Gertruida says quietly. “You remember that Beetge woman: the one who was locked up in Brazil as well? Your time there must have overlapped with hers. And she, I may tell you, had been a drug mule for Sheryl Cwele, the former Director of Health and Community Services. Used to be married to nobody else than the Minister of State Security, Siyabonga Cwele.

“Now, I’ve always held the opinion that she was only the tip of the iceberg – the rot in our government runs deeper than one individual. It is entirely possible that some people might want to wipe out any traces of wrongdoing – especially involving dealings with Brutus – by eliminating those involved with your trip to Rio.”

Gertruida sighs – the possibilities have suddenly increased dramatically! Brutus seemed a logical choice for the kidnapper, but now Mary has opened a huge can of worms. But, she thinks, her theory still holds water. Boggel was abducted as bait. Mary has something – or  possibly some knowledge – which somebody considers dangerous. And yes, if she knew who Brutus’s contacts were, that knowledge might quite conceivably put her life in grave danger.

“O-o-o-kay then,” she says slowly, “then we simply must find them. Only…we can turn the tables when it comes to baiting. If we can get Brutus to know that Mary is here…?”

Vetfaan gets up suddenly, his face shining with excitement.

“We’ll use the bushman-telegraph! That’s how we’ll find them.”

***

One of the unexplained phenomena of the Kalahari, is the extraordinary way in which one Bushman clan will know what is happening in other families. It’s uncanny, to say the least. Bleek and Lloyd, in their famous book (Specimens of Bushman Folklore, George Allen and Co, London, 1911), describe the apparent extrasensory perception in the San people. Laurens van der Post expands on this idea in The Heart of the HunterAlthough the people of the Kalahari rarely talk about this (who can explain it, anyway?) it is something they are very much aware of. Last year for instance, when Vetfaan discovered his prize ram missing, he called on Dawid Loper, the Bushman he had once helped when a child developed an illness the herbs won’t cure. Oudok removed a very sick appendix from the infant, thus causing a bond between Dawid and Vetfaan. To cut a long story short, Dawid ‘felt’ the ram at a specific spot – and that’s exactly where Vetfaan found the animal.

Oh, there are many myths about the San people of the Kalahari. Can they really change into animals? Is the ‘tapping’ which Van der Post so vividly describes, not just romanticising the abilities of these men and women we like to view as primitive? Do the men ‘feel’ the babies inside their wives, and do they really grieve even before the tidings of death arrive at their circle of simple huts? The answer isn’t easy. If you live in Cape Town or New York, it is all too easy to scoff; but here, in the Kalahari, there is a deep-rooted respect for the small, yellow men and women who manage to survive where even animals cannot.

***

“Is Dawid Loper around?” Gertruida looks up sharply. This is one possibility she has overlooked.

“He actually arrived at my farm yesterday night, Gertruida.” Vetfaan shakes his head: another coincidence? “I thought he just came to see if he could beg some sugar or meat…but now I understand…”

Mary allows her head to sink onto her hands. When she starts sobbing again, it is Smartryk – and not Boggel – who lays a soft hand on her shoulder.

Amapola
My pretty little poppy
You’re like that lovely flower, so sweet and heavenly
Since I found you
My heart is wrapped around you
And loving you it seems to beat a rhapsody
Amapola
The pretty little poppy
Must copy its endearing charm from you
Amapola, Amapola
How I long to hear you say, “I love you.”

The Liberation of Herbert Vermeulen

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart

Whenever Gertruida is teased about her vast knowledge, she tells the group about poor Herbert and the way things turned out to be.

***

Why she was called Herbert, is an open question. Some say her father, Herbert Vermeulen, really wanted a son and a heir. Others say, no, that isn’t so; Herbert chose the name when she was three, because she adored her father so. And there is the undecided group that insists it’s her mother’s fault because she always wore long pants (in the days when the church still frowned upon such sinful attire).

Whatever the reason, Herbet grew up to be just like her father: steadfast in her ways and rather stubborn. See, her father was the local attorney. He knew everybody and almost everything that happened in the district. Almost. He knew, for instance, why the young Pastor Brown had to leave so suddenly – long before everybody else. In those days relationships were strictly between men and women, and certainly confined to what was called back then ‘according to the group you belong to’. Back then the state and the church combined in their efforts to promote ‘separate but equal development’, which turned out to be the oxymoron of the century.

But, although he had such a sensitive finger on society’s pulse, Herbert’s father had absolutely no idea what his daughter was up to while he sorted out the district’s legal wrangles. Herbert, you see, had two major passions in her life: reading (which she got from her father) and flying (goodness knows where that came from). Ever since she could read with some confidence, she had been drawn to pictures and books about aviators and flying. By the time she was seven, she was able to recite the history of the Wright brothers, recount the adventures of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and comment on the life and times of Chuck Yeager.

Growing up on an isolated farm like she did (outside Vosburg, in the Great Karoo), she ignored the curious looks she got whenever they went to attend church in town. She always dressed in khaki: short pants, shirt and hat. Even her socks were brown, as were the boots. The more sophisticated little girls in town dressed the way their mothers and the church dictated: floral skirts and sensible blouses. As time went by, the curious looks changed to overt stares of horror accomponied by constant jeers and teasing. Herbert’s parents seemed oblivious to this disapproval – in fact, her father told everyone who wanted to hear how special his daughter was.

Herbert, however, became increasingly uncomfortable with the silent (and not so silent) rejection she experienced and withdrew more and more to her father’s study, where she spent days on end, reading quietly. As most parents know, there comes a time in little girls’ lives when they’re not little girls anymore. This can happen overnight, like it did with Herbert. It wasn’t as if she developed pimples or curves or anything like that; she simply got up one morning to announce to her surprised parents that she wants nothing to do with society any longer.

“People are hypocrites, Pappa. They smile at you and then gossip behind your back. Society is based on pretense and lies. I shall refrain from having friends in the future.”

Now – as every parent knows who has guided a twelve-year-old into adulthood – one is best advised not to take every opinion expressed by  hormone-tormented teenagers as the ultimate statement of truth and wisdom. A quiet nod and indulgent smile would usually suffice to allow the storm to blow over. This was the approach Herbert’s parents tried at first, but after two weeks they were an extremely worried couple. Herbert slept, ate…and then retired to the study to read. Day after day, her routine remained the same.

They talked to her, of course. What about school, they asked? What about church? And Herbert shook her head and said no, she never, never wants to go to town again. Then her father had a brilliant idea.

“What about flying lessons, Herbie? Real ones, in Beaufort West. One of my clients has a small strip and an aeroplane – he occasionally uses it to fly sick people to Cape Town, but mostly he simply loves flying. It’s in his blood, you see? He says that’s why he was born – to fly. Don’t you think…?”

That was the start of Herbert’s liberation. For the next four years her father drove her – every second weekend – all the way to Beaufort West. Her teacher turned out to be the ungainly Smartryk Genade, a man in his forties with an disarmingly shy smile and a way of making complicated things sound simple. By no means handsome, he seemed a rather morose individual at first. Like Herbert, Smartryk had a strange name which had caused him much pain over the years. And like his new pupil, he abhorred society.

“I’d much rather escape to heavens than than to talk about rugby around a braai where I didn’t want to be, anyway.” Herbert understood that all too well.

By the age of eighteen Herbert and Smartryk were quite a team. By now Smartryk had two aeroplanes and the contract to fly post to the bigger sorting offices at Upington and Cape Town. (Although these things happened  long ago, some older readers might vaguely recall the time when the Postal Service actually functioned well.) On weekends the two of them were much in demand as Smartryk and Herbert’s Flying Circus at the various agricultural shows throughout the Karoo. They’d do a few loops, several fast fly-by’s and then a coordinated,wingtip-to-wingtip landing, earning quite a bit of money for their bravery.

But, inevitably, people talked. This older man with the lively young girl? This couldn’t just be about flying in the air, could it? Surely they rock the landing gear on occasion? Whoever said it first would certainly not have foreseen the tragedy these questions would bring. The gossip spread – as it is wont to – like a veld fire on a hot summer’s day. Shows got cancelled. Smartryk bore the brunt of the remarks thrown at them (at first obliquely but later blatantly to his face) about how ashamed he should be to be such a wretched old man, and that with a willing little hussy half his age.

Then one day, Smartryk took to the skies and never returned. They found the burnt-out wreckage on the mountain range to the south of Beaufort West, where the Karoo National Park is situated these days. So badly was the wreck burnt, that only a few fragments of charred flesh were found.

Yes, the people said, you reap what you sow. God doesn’t turn a blind eye to sin, now see what has happened? And they pointed fingers at Herbert, telling her she was to blame and she must just wait, her time was coming.

Herbert grieved deeply. Her father, who knew his daughter was still as pure as the day she was born, tried to sue some of the worst gossip-mongers, but the magistrate was in a bad mood that day and the case was dismissed. Of course, the gossip only increased after that.

In desperation, her father convinced her to attend a church service.

“This one is different, Herbie, I promise you. This man heals people. He performs miracles. Maybe he can help you feel better?” And, because her father was the only man she could trust, she nodded and said it’s okay, she’d go even if it’s a waste of time.

We’ve all seen such preachers. The suit has to be according to the fashion of the day. The shoes are important: unsuccessful preachers wear old, scuffed shoes. If you’re a miracle man, the shoes must be new and shiny. Most importantly, the miracle worker must have sympathetic eyes, a wide, white smile and a commanding attitude. The voice is of great significance: it has to be authoritative but kind; well-modulated but with the ability to project a whisper to the most hard-hearing member of his audience.

People still talk about that service. The preacher (who called himself Prophet Jacob), was at the point when he wanted the sick and the weary to come forward, when an almighty roar sounded from outside the church. The people glanced at each other in fright, hands flying to mouths, eyes large and scared. Somebody cried out, welcoming the Lion of Judah. Prophet Jacob tried to hide his confusion.

And then, there he was. Smartryk Genade, in a tattered flying suit, strode down the aisle, glared at the prophet, and took the microphone from his trembling hands.

“You sinners!” His shout echoed through the silent congregation. “You spreaders of lies! You festering cesspit! You have taken pleasure in spreading lies and completely unfounded stories.” The aviator’s eyes shone with anger as he spat out the words. Then, to Jacob’s utter surprise, Smartryk put an arm around his shoulders. “Now, this man,” he hugged the preacher, “has come to perform miracles. Hallelujah! ” The crowd was silent. Smartryk glared at them, shouting hallelujah! again. This time, they chorussed the word after him.

Smartryk turned to the prophet. “Listen, man. You perform wonders, don’t you? Well, here’s your chance! I command you to cleanse this community. Let them all come forward for you to lay hands on them. Every single soul, no exception. And then, then let them apologise to Herbert over there for the terrible things they said about her.”

***

Gertruida sits back with a satisfies smile. “And that’s exactly what happened. That poor preacher had to lay hands on everybody – except Herbert and her family – and afterwards they all had to apologise. Then Smartryk waved a little salute to Herbert, stalked out and got into the plane he had just landed. Herbert stormed out but the throng of people was so thick, she only managed to see the little plane hop once or twice down the main road before it took off into the blue.”

“So, what happened, Gertruida?” So engrossed in the story is Boggel that he’s sitting on top of the counter.

“Nobody knows, Boggel. Some say his appearance after that horrible crash is the biggest miracle of modern times. Others maintain that Smartryk staged it all and that he now ferries tourists to and from lodges somewhere in Africa. The funny thing is that people almost stopped gossiping about him and Herbert – and that’s enough of a miracle.”

“Almost?” Vetfaan arches an eyebrow.

“You know how it is, Vetfaan. Today hallelujah, tomorrow it’s ‘did you hear…’” Gertruida shrugs. Some things never change.

“But Herbert? She says it’s all so typical of Smartryk. He could always make complicated things sound so simple – it’s his gift.  She stays at the small strip outside Beaufort West and does the flying these days. People say – and it’s not gossip, they actually swear they heard it – they say that sometimes, late at night, you can hear the drone of an aeroplane landing there. Then after a while, they say you can hear merry laughter coming from that hangar.”

At this point, Gertruida smiles sadly. “You always joke about me knowing everything. Well, I’m glad to inform you that I don’t…”

Another you,
Where to find her?
Another who
Would surprise me.

Another you,
Similar misfortune..
Who knows if
There is another you.

From: Un’altra te, words and music by Adelio Cogliati, Eros Ramazzotti and Pierangelo Cassano.

The Kalahari Biker and the Gypsy

30afd318136c6aa223f6ea551aefe888Madame Esmeralda, Clairvoyant.

That’s all the sign on the side of the caravan said. Three words, but enough to make slow down, stop, and readjust the kudu ponytail protruding from under his hat.

Why did he stop? Afterwards he’d think of several reasons to explain why he – an elder in Oudoom’s church, pious and not given to superstition – felt the need to study those three words. It was true that he was tired and sore from the journey after his uncomfortable night in the makeshift jail; equally it was a fact that he was hungry and thirsty. He’d also try to convince himself that the caravan stood next to a lonely clump of trees and that he planned to camp there for the night.

But that wasn’t the real reason. It was the name: Esmeralda. Gertruida once told the story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, that famous story by Victor Hugo, in Boggel’s Place. She related how this gypsy girl, a tragic and compassionate figure, tried to save Quasimodo’s life and ended up being put to death herself. Gertruida described the story of the girl’s life in such dramatic detail that everyone was sniffing loudly when she finally fell silent.

In Servaas’s mind, the character of Esmeralda had become similar to dear Siena, his departed wife, a honest and caring person who he had loved and admired so much. Siena, the once-beautiful girl who stole his heart and changed his life. It was Siena who had him say goodbye to the wild life of a young, directionless man, and had turned him into a respected postmaster and elder. And like Quasimodo, Servaas felt the void she left after her death with such intensity that he often took to wearing black suits when the dark dog of depression growled at him.

Esmeralda.

Of course he had to stop to stare at the sign. It was inevitable.

Esmeralda looked up from the book she had been reading on the steps of the caravan.

“A traveller,” she said softly. “Come, let us talk.”

Servaas took in the dilapidated caravan, the tired-looking pick-up parked to one side and the faded paint of the sign, and got off the old Enfield (slowly, with some difficulty). Esmeralda, he saw, wasn’t in a much better condition. The sandals on her feet were well worn, the dress as faded as the sign and her hair swept back under a bandanna that had seen better days. No make-up to disguise the many lines on her face. In her eyes, however, he imagined he saw a strange combination of fatigue and curiosity, like one would find in a sleepy Basset confronted with food. There was a softness in those eyes, a vulnerability that spoke to Servaas.

“Oh?”

***

Esmeralda wasn’t her real name, of course. Agnes Grove grew up in Waterkloof, that prestigious suburb in Pretoria where the white elite lived. Her father was a respected member of the Broederbond, a secret organisation that promoted white interests. He also had an important job as an advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.They had two servants (Lovemore in the garden, and Innocence inside the sprawling house).

Margate-Hotel-plus-extentionOnce a year they’d have a two-week summer holiday in the Margate Hotel, where Mr Grove drank his special KWV and her mother read the latest Heinz Konsalik or Lawrence Green. At the time, Agnes thought life couldn’t get any better. She was right.

Then she met Japie, the son of Pieter and Margeret Coetzee who owned a large farm in Northern Transvaal, on the beach in front of the hotel. It was the day before Christmas, sunny and warm – and she wore the first-ever bikini she had persuaded her parents to allow.

Japie had grown up like most young boys did in those days. He had no clue. Not about those things. Neither did she, for that matter. But Mother Nature supplied them, like she had done for all generations since forever, with a healthy dose of heady hormones and an uncalvinistic curiosity. And, if one wanted to, there were several convenient and secluded spots amongst the rocks on Margate beach where one could discover so many things your parents were loath to discuss with you…

And so, when summer turned to autumn the next year, Mr Grove and Mr Coetzee discussed the situation. Yes, Japie will do the honourable thing. And yes, Mr Grove will help set them up in a small flat in Sunnyside. And no, they wouldn’t tell the neighbours and friends, not with Mr Grove’s reputation at stake and seeing that Mr Coetzee was an elder in the church.

For a short while that was that. Life continued. The little baby was born and Japie worked hard at the job Mr Grove had organised in the National Archives – specially arranged to keep the young man confined to the basement in the Union Buildings. Here, the parents agreed, the shame of the situation would be kept from public scrutiny.

And then 1994 happened. Democracy arrived with many promises, the world applauded…and Mr Grove lost his job. The Coetzee’s didn’t do any better – their farm was one of the first to be ‘redistributed’ to a ‘previously disadvantaged’ group of people, who claimed that their ancestors lived there in 1876.  Predictably, Japie also had to leave the archives when the new government applied their quota system of employment.

***

“Esmeralda,” Servaas said slowly, savouring the sound of the name. “It’s a name with special meaning for me.” He sat down on the steps next to her.

She arched an eyebrow, shrugged and stared at her sandals with those tired eyes. “It’s just a name.”

Servaas shook his head. “No, it suggests strength, hope…and sadness.” He then proceeded (why, he could never explain) to tell her about Quasimodo and the story of Notre Dame.

“So she died? After all she did and having been misled by men? And the poor hunchback perished as well?”

“I suppose. But, she followed her heart, did her best and died a heroine. And, in the end, the love of her life – that disfigured and ugly man – remained loyal  even after death. It’s as sad as it is precious.” He sighed. “Life is like that, Esmeralda: not all stories have a happy ending.”

The tired eyes then searched Servaas’s face, an uncertain smile quivering the corners of her lips. “I’m not really a gypsy, you know?. I’m not even clairvoyant. I’m just…me. A silly girl who lost her way. Lost my husband. Lost my child. Lost everything. And now I have this caravan and I live by telling lies to people who want to hear the future will be better than the past.”

***

Japie Coetzee tried to find new employment. He really did. Day after day he trudged from office to office in the city, talking, pleading, praying. Eventually they had to leave the flat to live in a caravan in Fountains Park. The winter had been harsh that year and when their baby girl caught pneumonia the home remedies didn’t help. She died in Agnes’s arms. The next day, driven by guilt and sadness, Japie committed suicide. They were buried together. Agnes became Esmeralda after the funeral: she didn’t want  to be – couldn’t face – the helpless creature she had been forced to become.

***

Servaas listened to her story quietly, not interrupting or commenting at any stage. Then, when she fell silent, he moved closer to her to put an arm around her shoulders.

“I can’t cry any more.” Despite the statement, she wiped a tear from her cheek. “There’s nothing left.”

“Yes,” Servaas said, thinking of Siena. “We live until the sands run out, then we wait to die. Then we rage, rage against the dying light.”

She looked up suddenly, the smile now more secure. “Do not go gentle into that good night? Dylan Thiomas? Look, I’ve been reading it when you arrived?” She showed him the old book. It was Thomas’s 1952 collection In Country Sleep and other poems. 

***

Isn’t it strange how we meet people – apparently by coincidence or chance – only to discover we are all different and the same? Dylan Thomas summed it up nicely:

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Our frail deeds can, indeed, dance in a green bay, if only we cared to stop to listen to others. We need to stop and stare for a while to see how bright these deeds dance on the surface of Life. That’s why, when old Servaas heaved the sore hips onto the seat of the Enfield the next morning, Agnes cried for the first time in many years. Her tears, at last, were happy tears, thankful tears, for she had become Agnes again. Agnes, who had lost so much and had so much to live for, had come to understand that Dylan’s poem was not just about dying, but about living as well. Esmeralda had read the poem and resigned herself to defeat. Agnes, on the other hand, realised the value of fighting till the end – giving new meaning to her life.

“Will you visit me again?” Agnes dabbed her cheeks with the handkerchief Servaas had given her.

“No, my dear.” The old man’s voice was kind, soft, caring. “You’ve lost too much already.”

And she, understanding too well what he said, stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Then the old engine rattled to life, drowning her last words. It didn’t matter, really. Servaas understood perfectly – the kiss said it all.

Humanity: a Picture of Us in Africa

Taking a photograph isn’t as easy as simply aiming the camera and pushing the button. You can do that if you like, but somehow it doesn’t always satisfy the need to capture that special moment or the specific atmosphere of a situation. Now, in Africa that challenge is even greater, for the instinct to take pictures of the landscapes and animals is almost overwhelming. And then you get the graphic images of war and bloodshed on the TV – leaving you confused: what is the true picture of Africa? That’s when you start looking at the people, and get to know the real face of Africa.

aYou meet Rosy, the game ranger in Damara Land, who knows every desert elephant in her region by name.

590Johannes, the friendly cook in Luderitz, is always ready to crack a joke. Here he is, insisting I take him along on the trip.

aAt an athletic day for the elderly, the past is forgotten when the teams do well.

Petro 6Up and coming rappers dream of making it on a greater stage. Andile (on the right) might just grace the cover of a CD in New York one day.

aTradition and culture remains, despite progress. To be really handsome, you have to file that tooth down properly…

cMeanwhile, Bright wants to tell you about the old times, the hard times, when life was…easier?

IMG_1914But still the animals rule the roost. This leopard was darted to be relocated to a safe environment. One little (sleepy) growl sent the helpers running!

Maybe it is true to say Africa isn’t a picture. Africa is much too complicated for that. Africa refuses to be confined to a 5×7 print – she wants to be alive, vibrant, in your mind…

The Kalahari Biker meets the ANC

5The morning after Servaas left Springbok was hot and windy, causing the old man to tuck his Kudu-ponytail under his helmet and ride along at the best possible speed to cool him down. Although his shoulder still bothered him, Servaas was determined to reach Clanwilliam in good time: he wanted to camp out somewhere in the Ceder Mountains, He had heard about the scenic beauty of the remote area and wanted to enjoy peace and quiet for a few days. He had biltong, a few bottles of Cactus Jack and a sleeping bag – what more could a man ask for?

Despite the heat and a swarm of locusts, he reached the gravel road to Uitkykpas by late afternoon, turned left, and started looking for a suitable place to settle down for the night.

Isn’t it strange to witness the changes in an older man once you put him on a motorbike? Add the ponytail, the desire to get away from it all and a few swigs of Cactus, and the pious elder becomes a rebel. That’s why, bike-tired and thirsty, Servaas skidded to a halt when he saw the sign on the gate next to the road.

ANC – PRIVATE – Keep Out.

You can say a lot about Servaas, but he’s not stupid. He knew all about the ANC. Did he not read about the gravy train, the leader’s lives of luxury, the lush parties? Surely anything that has to do with the political party should involve lots of food, soft beds and free booze? Anyway, what did PRIVATE mean? They represented the government and the government belongs to the people. In theory that means nothing about the ANC can be labelled as private, not so? If the government was there to serve the people, he, Servaas, was entitled to a slice of that service.

IMG_1624And so – ever the rebel – Servaas opened the gate and put-putted down the track. By then it was dusk was setting in, changing the mountains around him into dark shapes against the purple sky. Servaas thought it was rather eerie – almost spooky – but kept going until the night claimed the last of daylight. He realised he had to camp down where he was, or risk riding over a cliff or into one of the huge boulders that were strewn around. 

 Servaas stopped, sighed, spread out the sleeping bag and opened the Cactus. He’d explore the ANC-place the next day, absolutely sure that there would be a hearty breakfast and maybe some lodgings for a few days. While he was chewing on the biltong, he imagined hearing the sounds of a party  far-off. Sound  carries far in the silence of the great Ceder Mountains, and he distinctly heard laughter and sounds of revelry. Yes, he thought, tomorrow he’ll join them…

Sleep came slowly that night. His aching body just couldn’t find a comfortable position. Later, he gathered enough grass to create a make-shift mattress and folded his clean shirt to cushion his hips. Then he closed his eyes and imagined the soft beds the government would have supplied to the ANC camp.

Dawn found the old man next to a small fire, sipping Cactus and waiting for the light to improve. Soon the sun rose above the peaks, and Servaas started up the Enfield after loading his few belongings into the box he had mounted behind his seat.

It took another two hours of slow riding to get near the ANC camp. At first he only saw a lonely spiral of smoke curling into the sky, and later he heard voices. They were certainly not as boisterous as the previous evening, but when he stopped, he heard laughter.

“They are a happy bunch,” he thought, “which will make it easier to negotiate a few favours from them.”

download (14)Still listening – and trying to figure out where the people are – Servaas heard something else. The voices weren’t African voices. He found this strange, especially after he thought he heard an American drawl. Servaas loved the spaghetti-cowboy movies and admired Clint Eastwood as a gun slinging do-gooder. There could be no doubt – there were Americans around…

Dismissing the cowboy image, Servaas decided that the ANC must have invited a few American advisers to the country and were now treating them to a much-needed break in the mountains. That would, he realised, make it easier for him. The government would have to show how well they treat all citizens in the country and be forced to accommodate him. Politics, Servaas knew, involved the art of lying to everybody. So, even if the ANC wanted to turn him away, they just wouldn’t dare. Humming happily to himself, he set off again.

As soon as he saw the camp, he realised something was dreadfully wrong. He had imagined a lodge or a collection of modern chalets, mown lawns and umbrellas. The ANC should have waiters, luxury cars and a helicopter pad. He gaped at the four tents scattered in a haphazard way under some trees next to a brook, the smoky fire and the single coolbox next to a fold-up table. 

“Wha…?”

And then he saw her,

The lady (there was no mistaking her gender) must have been about ninety years old. She was bending over the fire, stirring something in a biggish black pot. There was, Servaas thought, several things wrong with the picture. Not only was the lady white, she was also completely naked. 

Servaas had seen naked people in the past. Servaasie, when he was born. Glimpses of Siena on their honeymoon in Margate. And once, just after the Oasis Casino had opened, he sneaked into one of those movies. But this woman, whose anatomy had given up the fight against gravity a long time ago, was nothing like he had ever seen (or imagined) before. Then, while he was still staring at the woman in horrid fascination, he saw a man join her next to the fire. He was even older and dressed – if wearing a Stetson counts as being clothed.

Had the ANC gone mad? Servaas shook his head and tore his eyes from the couple. Only then did he see the minibus. An old one, with an emblem on the side. 

***

When Servaas tells this story in Boggel’s Place, he is rewarded with a gust of laughter every time. To stumble upon the group of people must have been quite something, Vetfaan will say, shaking his head. Gertruida – who knows everything – usually then says it isn’t such a strange thing: people all over the world do it. They should be left in peace, she tells them, because they are discreet and harm nobody. Oudoom will then object, muttering about the morals of the world decaying at an alarming rate.

But Servaas? He remembers the breakfast he had with the Alabama Nudist Club with a smile. They turned out to be extremely accommodating, inviting him to stay for a few days.

Did he stay? Did he go?

Servaas isn’t saying, but the glint in his eyes should tell you something. He’ll never mention the old couple’s three granddaughters, nor the way he introduced them to Cactus Jack. Bikers are like that, especially when they get older. The young ones brag about their adventures in graphic details. The older – wiser – biker will tuck his Kudu-ponytail under his helmet, smile at the memories, and tell you just enough to make you jump to your own conclusion. Sometimes that’s even better than the real thing…

 

Adventure – an Elephant’s Tale

PHOTO CHALLENGE

Adventure!

Whether your own or someone else’s, literal or figurative, take us on a photographic adventure

***

 

I don’t really have a name – not like you humans do, anyway – but I know I’m me and my family knows me. That’s good enough.  

a

That’s me, a little while back when I was really small, with Mom and my brother. Every day is an adventure over here.                                                    

dThe thing I like best, is scaring humans who come to have a look at us. I can stamp my feet, flap my ears and trumpet real loud. You should see them rush off to safety!

cAnother daily adventure is crossing the river to have lunch on the little island. Man, now that’s an excellent meal! We have to watch out for crocs, though. They’re real mean. They got a bit of my aunty’s trunk…                                                            fShe’s very shy, but we help her with feeding and drinking. In our language, we call her ‘Shorty’.                                                    bI love wrestling with my nephew. If I get a hold of his trunk, I can head-butt him! That’s great fun!                                              gOops! Here comes Dad! I have to go…he doesn’t like me talking to strangers. But I guess you got the message – my life is an adventure. I love it here….

The Kalahari Biker and the Beauty Queen

The cathedral at Pella

The cathedral at Pella

To say Servaas was enjoying his stint as The Kalahari Biker (as the people started calling him), would be a bit of an understatement. After all, no man at the age of 73, would object to such a flattering moniker, not so? While most of his peers were playing endless games of bridge while discussing the pro’s and cons of various undertakers, Servaas was as free as the breeze as he sputtered along on the ancient Enfield. And, after escaping certain death and a rockery-monument, Servaas was feeling particularly happy to be alive as he watched the sunset from behind the visor.

However, no matter at which age one should chance upon such happiness, nighttime brings on the inevitable question of where to sleep. At Servaas’ age, one must understand that most of his anatomy was protesting against this new form of transport – especially the fat-free posterior, which had been taking the brunt of the shocks and jars the Northern Cape roads dished out so freely. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to visualise the skinny derriere bumping up and down on that hard seat, and then understand that Servaas had to stand up on his bike to keep going.

It was during this phase of upright riding – near Pella, as he tells it – that the girl in the little red CitiGolf stared at him when she overtook the ancient Enfield. This, in itself, was a dangerous move: not only are the roads particularly bad in this area, but young girls should not stare at old men with such obvious admiration. It is downright irresponsible.

The young lady in question – Jenny Grove, a final-year student in architecture – was on her way to Pella to photograph the little cathedral in the remote town as part of a thesis she was writing about the original churches in South Africa. Amongst her many talents and attributes, she had also made it to the finals of Miss South Africa. And…it was a typical Kalahari day: hot and extremely dry…

Servaas glanced over to the passing motorist, taking in the pretty face and the skimpy dress and felt his heart skip a beat. She was staring at him, a beautiful smile conveying her surprise at finding a man like him on a bike like that. And she waved…and blew a playful kiss.

And Servaas, overwhelmed by such generosity, didn’t see the pothole.

The bike stopped before Servaas did. He flew a few yards, tumbled several more, and was eventually brought to a standstill against a rather well placed anthill (fortunately abandoned, otherwise the termites might have considered his bruised backside for supper). When the dust cleared, Servaas remained in a rather awkward position, his back bent over the mound, face up, with his thin legs – protruding from the khaki shorts – pointing more or less north.

“Are you all right?”

Servaas will always remember these words as the ones that wrenched him out of a rather dark tunnel with a bright light at the end of it. For a while, he felt weightless, comfortable and completely relaxed as he progressed towards the light; but the voice – conveying so much care and concern and delivered in such a sweet tone – turned the current and he opened his eyes.

The sight greeting him, made him forget the pain of his halted progress. Jenny – curvaceous, pretty, smelling of some exotic perfume – was kneeling at his side and holding a damp cloth to his forehead. The flimsy blouse revealed more than just the little pendant she wore around her neck while the worried eyes searched his face.

Now: it is a well-known fact that sick and injured men should be nursed by less-than-beautiful nurses. They recover much faster when some witch looks after them. Put a pretty nurse next to an ailing man, and he’d instinctively want to prolong his stay. It’s a matter of simple male logic, see?

That’s why, without thinking about it consciously, Servaas groaned and gave one of his more impressive wheezy coughs while shaking his head. He touched various parts of his body, exploring for wounds and fractures, and groaned a bit more. Deep inside, he knew the only way to extend his time with this absolute angel, would be to remain as properly injured as he possibly could. This is not deception at all; one must understand that, too; but the basic default program in any male when confronted with such beauty. In contrast to the rest of the aging male, this is the single one characteristic that is enhanced by the passage of years. Older men are simply better at playing dead than younger ones. Of course, they will eventually succeed in putting on a more permanent show, but before that, they love to practice.

Jenny was not completely fooled. As the top student in her class – and having had to endure the attentions of many a man who tried his luck with her – she was only mildly worried about Servaas, who sported no obvious injuries. The thing that bothered her most was that she may have caused the accident. All young people – all over the world – watch programs like CSI and Judge Judy and I Sued The Pants Off That Moron. If this old man were to allege that she distracted him and that’s why he landed up in hospital, the resultant payout for injury and treatment could ruin her studies.

Her best option, she decided wisely, was to at least appear concerned, dust the old man off and bid him a flirtatious goodbye. But, although she knew very little about engineering and things mechanical, she knew that strategy would only be partially successful. The bike, she realised, would need a new front wheel. Fond farewells at this point would be impossible.

Klein Pella Guest Farm

Klein Pella Guest Farm

And so started one of Servaas’ most memorable evenings of his solo trip – which turned out to be not so solo that night. Jenny found a few beers in her cooler, managed to revive the apparently near-dead Servaas in a record time, and convinced him to leave the bike where it was. She’d get somebody in Pella to bring it to town, she said. She was going to stay at Klein Pella Guest Farm, and happened to know she would be the only patron. Would Servaas mind if she took him there?

Of course he didn’t. His day on the bike had been long (and painful!) and he desperately needed a place to rest. A bath, a bed…and good company? Yes, he’d like to join her, please…?

On their way to the farm, Jenny told Servaas about her interest in Pella. “Fathers Wolf and Simon built that cathedral with their own hands,” she told him, “although they did have help from the Order of St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers.” She elaborated on how the two priests used a picture in the Encylopedie des Arts as a guide to construct the church. “The building was almost ruined by a flood in 1984,” she said, “something that is hard to believe in this arid part of the world. And they started the date industry here. At Klein Pella, there are 17,000 date trees, rendering fruit with the unique taste that makes them so sought after.”

As she chatted – and on his third beer – Servaas  found himself staring at the sun-tanned legs, the short miniskirt, the flimsy blouse and the slender neck. Later on, he’d be able to describe these in great detail; but when asked about her face, he’d simply label it as ‘pretty’. She, of course, was aware of his scrutiny, but a girl has to do what a girl has to do. Being ogled at was far superior to being sued.

After checking in at the guest farm, Servaas had a long shower, dressed in his other set of clothes (the garments from the crash were hardly fitting for the occasion) and joined Jenny for drinks on the veranda.  She informed him that she’d arranged to have his bike picked up and repaired. “The owner, Mister Karsten, was most helpful. He has had a look at that wheel and is having it fixed in his workshop. I’m so relieved…and glad you’re okay.”

They had supper together. Servaas told her about his old-age crisis, and she laughed till the tears ran down her rosy cheeks. Then he entertained her with stories of Rolbos and Gertruida, which made her smile. Jenny was a good listener and even better at refilling Servaas’ glass with wine from the Orange River vineyards. She had heard that older people get tired and sleepy before they get drunk, but even so she was mildly surprised at Servaas’ capacity to ingest two bottles of Sauvignon Banc before he teetered off to his room. Although she found the old man mildly entertaining, she made him believe she was enjoying the evening tremendously. This pretence, she told herself, was necessary to make Servaas feel so good, he’d never consider taking legal action against her.

Legal action? Servaas would never have done that. He crashed the bike and that was that. But there he was, chatting with a girl that could have been the daughter-he-never-had. And somehow, he found her presence even more exhilarating than the ride on the Enfield.

The next morning Servaas fumbled two aspirin’s past his gums before brushing his tongue and combing his sparse hair carefully. He even slicked down the bushy eyebrows before making – in his opinion – a grand entrance in the dining room.

“Noo, Meneer, the young missy left early – to get the light right for the photographs.  She said to thank you for the lovely dinner.” The servant tried to hide a smile. As an older man himself, he understood Servaas’ disappointment only too well. “But the Meneer can be happy. She fixed up the account and paid for the repairs to the Meneer’s motorbike. Meneer must be quite something to make such a girl settle his bills.”

***

When Servaas is asked about the incident, he’ll brag about how charming he was. “I mean, there was this almost-Miss South Africa, and I spent an evening with her. She even settled the bill. Now, I ask you: doesn’t that tell you she fell mildly in love with me? I was a father figure to her, and she lapped it up. Why else be such a wonderful companion? No, I’ll tell you: I’m finally maturing into a world-class gentleman. Maybe I’m a late bloomer, but at least I’m getting there.”

And Jenny? She took her photographs, finished her thesis, and joined a huge firm of architects in Cape Town. She entered one of her photos in a competition and won a week’s trip to Mauritius – much to her delight. The judges commented of the style and composition, mentioning the fine balance between the upturned bike and the thin legs of the victim pointing skyward. It’s one of those unusual moments, they wrote, making this photo – with the title ‘Antique Folly’ – both humorous and sad. It tells the story of Man’s desire to be young forever; but it also depicts the inevitability of his failure. A picture is worth a thousand words, and this one: much more.”

Servaas never found out about the photo – or about Jenny’s later life. That, one may say, is a good thing.  Jenny married a dashing young architect, who stole most of her brilliant ideas and left her destitute. The promise of a wonderful career vanished in a haze of antidepressants and drugs, and she now sells sketches next to the highway near Elgin (near Cape Town).

What would have happened if she had not been so scared that Servaas would sue her? If she acted and listened normally to his stories of a simple life in a simple town with some simple people? Would she have seen the kind heart in the old man, the desire to be a guide, a protector, rather than a legal risk?

Ah, yes, one could wonder about that. But that is what the patron saint of writers, Francis de Sales would have loved – for it is in the very nature of writers to conjure up stories that makes Life liveable and joyful.

Sadly, we mere mortals know: happy endings are rare.

That’s why we cherish them so…

Servaas, the Kalahari Biker

IMG_2750Perhaps the townsfolk would have taken longer to notice the change, if old Servaas didn’t cut the tail off the Kudu skin that serves as a carpet in the vestry. That skin has been there for ages, ever since Ben Bitterbrak donated it in lieu of his yearly tithe. He said – at the time – that Oudoom should consider the drought and the rising cost of living, and that the skin was the best he could do. As for the rest of the Kudu…well, he would have donated that as well, only he couldn’t. The biltong was just too tasty, and the donkey pulling the cart was too slow…

When Oudoom noticed the absent tail, he naturally thought some mice must have taken a liking to the skin. Still, he mentioned it in Boggel’s Place the next Saturday, when the conversation dried up and the creaking of the corrugated iron roof became too much to bear.

“But didn’t I see old Servaas walking down Voortrekker Weg with a funny thing in his hand? I thought it was a fly whisk, like Kenyatta used to have. That whisk was a gift from Haile Selassie and Kenyatta used it as a symbol of wisdom.” Gertruida frowned. “I wonder what Servaas is brewing up? Must be something extraordinary. Maybe he wants to give it to Zuma?”

“Nah.” Vetfaan shook his head. “But he has been acting strangely for a while now. Every time I ask him what he’s doing in his garage, he says the same thing. ‘Cleaning up my Enfield.’.” He immitated the old man’s raspy voice, much to the amusement of the group at the bar. “Now, how long can a man fiddle around with an old gun? Clean the barrel, oil the stock, check the trigger. Shouldn’t take more than an hour or so, even if you’re slow. But it’s been weeks – months – now, and he says he’s still busy.”

“Enfield?” Gertruida got that look again. “You don’t mean… Oh, my gosh, Noooo…!”

***

It used to be Vetfaan’s uncle’s bike. During the sixties everybody got onto the bike-wagon. Well, almost everybody. If you had a pair of jeans, John Lennon shades and a bike, you were automatically called a rebel – which was the object of it all. The church frowned on you, your parents tried to ignore your ponytail and the girls – they were called sheilas or – in colloquel Afrikaans – ‘n stuk or ‘n sleep. (a piece or a drag….) (not that type of drag, the nice type)  – well, the girls trooped along behind you. A rebel, in real James Dean style, made the young ladies draw in a breath, pull back the shoulders and smile innocently while they hitched up the mini a fraction. At least, that was what the ‘rebels’ thought. Like so many other urban legends, that one didn’t quite work out that way for Uncle Frankie.

To cut a long story short: Frankie fell in love with Sissie Mostert, a rather rotund young lady with mousey hair, a small moustache and a bumper crop of pimples. Sissie was the product of a finishing school in Paarl – her parents knew she needed every bit of help to catch a man, any man. Her subjects included Housekeeping, Cooking, Sewing and Music.

Legend has it that the Lennon-bespectacled Frankie went through a guitar-phase in the hope of eclipsing the Beatles. For this, he needed a band. Now, you go hunting for real musicians in the Kalahari and you’ve got about the same chance for success as looking for biltong on Vrede’s cushion. Some things simply are impossible.

But Sissie? She could read notes and bang pots and pans around like nobody else. When she and Frankie teamed up to create the Keimoes Kamerorkes, her parents took a dim view of the band. As fate would have it, they received a call from the headmistress of the finishing school a week later, politely informing them that Sissie cannot return for the next term. She was a nice girl, but…with little or no talent (for anything).

Whatever one can say about Sissie, she wasn’t stupid. One evening she banged more than the makeshift drum set in Frankie’s garage…and the rest is history. Once she got her man, she slowly asserted her position by taking care of Frankie’s house, his bike and his life. Oh, they were happy enough – the six children stand as evidence of that – but Sissie had this burning desire to be a somebody in society. After a lifetime of rejection, Frankie was her ticket to becoming a socialite.

And she did. Frankie joined the railways as a stoker, became a deacon in the church and a member of the Rapportryers. His prized Lennon glasses fetched a few Rands at the next church bazaar and his ponytail was sacrificed in the name of love. (Which goes to show that one shouldn’t be too hasty to judge a less-than-pretty girl on her looks alone. Drumming apparently has its advantages. You know, with the banging and all that.)

Frankie’s bike had to go, as well, of course. It ended up in Vetfaan’s father’s garage, where it gathered dust until the old man’s death. Vetfaan inherited the rusty old motorbike, stored in on his farm…and was completely flummoxed when Servaas offered to buy it.

***

enfield03102301Gertruida was right, of course. The Enfield that occupied Sevaas’ mind lately, is a Royal Enfield Bullet, a collector’s dream if ever there was one. And when Servaas stops the thundering machine outside Boggel’s Place, the patrons at the bar can’t believe their eyes. The bike surely looks like it’s just come from the dealer’s showroom!

“What on earth…” Kleinpiet walks around the bike, admiring the chrome and the engine. “Servaas? I never knew…”

“Ta-daa!” Servaas prances around the renovated bike with obvious pride. He’s dressed in his old khaki pants (short), a floral shirt (really old) and a hat with leopard skin trim.

“What on earth has happened to you? Where’s the black suit?” Gertruida gapes at the sight of Oudoom’s head elder, dressed as a Kalahari-hippie.

“Late-life crisis, Gertruida. Boys go through puberty, then everybody tells themselves it’s only a phase. Then men go through midlife crises, and people say that’s normal. Well, me? I’ve got a late-life crisis, old girl.” For once, Servaas’ smile is genuine. “Why must I spend my last days as a morose old man? Black suits and depression? No thanks. Not for me. Me and my bike…we’re going to hit the back roads and explore the world beyond Upington and Springbok. Last time I ventured beyond the known universe, was when I was in the army. Now it’s time to broaden my horizons…”

“Did you bump your head? Forgot to take your pills? Ate some mushrooms?”

“Not at all, my girl. Not at all. No, I’ve been thinking. Siena has been dead for a long time now. I did my bit for Oudoom and the church. And I thought to myself: what’s left? A funeral?  No…there must be more. So here I am, ready to embrace my crisis and live a little.”

Servaas walks up to each member of the group, shaking hands solemnly.

“When you see me again, I’ll be a new man. Take care of yourselves, will you? And tell Oudoom the communion wine is almost fiunished – he must order some before the next one. So…wish me luck as you wave me goodbye…”

He manages to get onto the bike with his third attempt (arthritic hips) and pushes the hat down firmly before he kicks the engine to life. He leaves the flabbergasted group standing in Voortrekker Weg as he putt-putts demurely down the street towards Grootdrink.

“My word,” Kleinpiet doesn’t know what to say.

“My gosh,” Gertruida, too, is speechless.

“My Kudu tail,” Oudoom has joined them, staring at the makeshift ponytail bobbing about under the hat.

****

And that’s where I’ll leave you for now. The story of Servaas, The Biker, will continue after I’m back from a trip to Botswana and the Caprivi, where I hope to chase a tiger fish and maybe a few stories. So, spend some time with the older stories on the blog, buy one of the books in the side panel, or wait for the two Rolbos books about to be published.

Or simply sit down in Boggel’s Place and have a cold one. There’s always something to talk about in the bar – especially now that Servaas surprised them like this.

(Thanks Michelle, for the link to Zambezi)