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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)

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.