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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.

The Scent of Eternity

IMG_2516Old Oom Ben Kromhout has been dying for a long time now. Gertruida once said that one mustn’t pity people like this; although the lingering shadow of death may be upsetting for everyone concerned, the person at the centre of it all enjoys the singular privilege of saying goodbye, sorting out personal and financial issues and making peace with Life and God. Still, to see the old man wither away like he did, makes one doubt the statement. Perhaps Gertruida should have set a time frame to her statement – a three-little-bears clause, saying it shouldn’t happen too fast or too slow, but just right.

Living – and dying – on his farm Kromdraai, Oom Ben used to be an example of how one should integrate the reality of this world with the belief in the next. He applied his vast knowledge of the Old and New Testament to the way he lived, the hardships of the Kalahari and the way his wife left him for that travelling salesman, that Philistine, Frederik Kotze. 

“We are but like the grass of the fields,” he said at the time, “here today, gone tomorrow. And if a Kudu came around and ate it, then the grass won’t see tomorrow’s sun. And who, do I ask you, directs that Kudu? Not me or you,” he said as he swivelled his eyes heavenward, “not me or you.” And he’d smile his peaceful smile and say that forgiveness is the answer.

No wonder then, that he was the head head elder in the little church in Grootdrink, where he used to be a pillar of wisdom. The answers to all questions, he maintained, are there for all to read. Just open the Book, and you’ll find it, he always said.

Gertruida now sits at his bedside, holding the terribly thin hand – almost transparent, it seems – as she watches the laborious breathing. She wonders what will happen to all the memories and knowledge the old man had stored in his brain. A lifetime of gathering knowledge and filing away facts – does it simply disappear into a void once we die? Gertruida, who knows everything, shakes her head. No, that is the final puzzle, the question we cannot answer at all.

And what about the soul? Yes, she’s read SHIMMERstate, and it makes some sense – but who really knows what happens when the blood stops carrying oxygen to the grey matter in our heads? The people with near-death experiences didn’t go all the way, did they? Even so, she thinks, the answer must be within the brain. That mushy collection of billions of nerves must be where the soul lives. And if it does, does that mean all brains possess a soul? 

She once asked Oom Ben the question.

“Oh no, my child,” he said, “only Man. Humans have souls. It says so in the book. The animals and the birds and the scorpions and the fish? They don’t have souls. We, as humans, are the only creatures who’ll live on in eternity. The rest return to the veld, my dear, to become part of the very ground you tread on. For them, life is fleeting, a season, and then they’re gone…forever. No heaven for them.”

But, she asked back then, why do we find the same DNA in all living things. Yes, the codes for a Kudu and a Gemsbok and a lion may differ significantly from our’s…but isn’t DNA God’s signature? Isn’t that double helix a sign that everything was created by a single hand and that somewhere in the mysterious twirls of protein, the code for the soul is to be found?

“Ah,” Oom Ben said, “science! That’s the biggest threat to religion, my child. We want to explain everything. Now don’t you go meddling with those ideas, no, not at all. We know only a part of what is. We have to accept that simple fact. One day, when we face the Great Truth, we’ll have answers. All the answers. In the meantime, we mustn’t go about explaining God in our terms. The answer, my dear, is far too simple and much too complicated for us to understand.”

But, Gertruida said, it’ll be sad to believe there are no animals in heaven. What about Elijah, she asked, was he not taken to heaven in a chariot drawn by horses? Where did they come from?

Oom Ben thought about this deeply, sipping his coffee from the saucer in the way he used to when he rummaged through the files in his head.

“They were heavenly horses. Made up there, stayed up there. That’s what.”

And dogs and cats and cows?

“No. Not them.”

Her reverie is broken when the breathing becomes even more irregular. It is time, she knows. Oom Ben’s suffering is almost over. Taking the Bible from the bedside table, she starts reading Psalm 23.

“Aaaaah,” Oom Ben says suddenly as he opens his eyes wide. “How wonderful.”

He says this clearly, in a young voice, so clear that Gertruida will remember it for many years to come. And it’s not only the clarity of the voice. No, not at all. There is something else: a joy, a celebration of sorts, that tells you he’s smiling even if you can’t see it. 

Gertruida stops reading.

“What is, Oom Ben?”

“It’s so much more!” His voice is still smiling, but the eyes are closed now. “So much.”

He’s silent for a while as his chest heaves up and down.

“Oom Ben?”

“My child…” Now his voice seems to come from far away. “It’s so…beautiful!”

Another pause to catch his breath.

“And…I can smell it.”

“What, Oom Ben? What do you smell?”

Now the chest stops straining so much. It doesn’t have to. It’s almost over.

“Puppy-breath, my child….I…smell…puppy-breath.”

***

They bury old Oom Ben Kromhout in the little graveyard on his farm. It’s a dignified service led by Oudoom and attended by almost everybody in the district. They have come to pay their last respects to a man who lived as an example to them all. Some speak of how Oom Ben helped them through hard times, others remember a visit, a handshake, a smile. Kind words and tears mingle as the coffin gets lowered into the ground.

gemsbokAnd maybe it’s because of the tears, or perhaps the downcast eyes – but only Gertruida looks up when the group files past the open grave to throw handfuls of sand back into the hole while Oudoom intones the bit about dust to dust.

And Gertruida, who looks up at that moment, sees the Gemsbok on the rise beyond the little graveyard. It is a magnificent creature, seemingly standing to attention with his horns held high and his many-coloured coat shining in the sun.

And if you asked her, she’d say she was sure that he was smiling. It looked that way, even at that distance.

Found in Translation

download (13)“He’s back! It’s Henk Kleingenade. He’s in the bar…” Gertruida went over to Sammie’s to tell Vetfaan, who had been talking to the shop owner about ordering a new battery for his Massey Ferguson.

“Is he…?”

“Yes, The usual. Sits in the corner, drinking coffee and reading that Bible.”

Hendrik Malherbe is a quiet man who farms with goats (he’s got a contract to supply goat’s milk to some baby-food company) on Kleingenade, not far from Grootdrink. His visits to Rolbos are rare; usually he pops in for coffee, before he has a chat with Oudoom. Then he’d get into his old Ford 100, and the townsfolk wouldn’t see him again for extended periods of time. Like so many of the farmers in the district, he lives an isolated life, not bothering others and relying on himself – and Mother Nature – to get by.

His infrequent visits are – of course – ample fuel for discussion. Why does he come here? What is this thing he has for talking to Oudoom? And why – oh why? – does he only drink coffee? Everybody knows Boggel’s coffee tastes like donkey droppings without Amarula, yet there the man sits, sipping the stuff with that faraway look on his suntanned face.

***

May 1986, Somewhere in southern Angola.

The young soldier was frightened. Not scared like the youths of today when they watch Nightmare on Elm Street or a stupid movie about sharks or chainsaw murders…really, really frightened like in soil-yourself-while-praying-scared. There was nothing virtual or unrealistic about his surroundings, no pause-button to push and no way to stop the carnage around him.

His patrol had simple orders: survey the countryside around the little village at the confluence of the Cuzizi and the Lomba Rivers – a hovel with a few goats and chickens and some old people. These civilians were, like so often happens, unfortunate victims of war. Operation Modular was about to start and the South African forces planned to engage the combined forces of FAPLA, FNLA and some Cubans in this region. The object? To strengthen the only allies Pretoria had in Angola – Savimbi’s UNITA.

Although the young soldier’s patrol reconnoitred an outlying fringe of the planned operation, they were nevertheless in confirmed enemy territory and very well aware of the danger. They planned well. With enough food and ammunition, they should have been able to face almost any opposition and slink away into the bush.

Should have.

But they were not to know about the light armoured vehicle  travelling to the same little village with the same object. War is like that: all generals will want to know about the terrain, the roads, the infrastructure. And, after FAPLA’s losses during Operation Iron Fist the previous year, it was only logical for the Cubans and Russians to do their homework after they received news of the South African build-up just south of the border.

The South African patrol entered the village confidently. The latest intel-report stated that the people there supported Savimbi; so after chatting with an old woman they found on the track leading to the village, they were quite happy to follow her there. She’d introduce them to the local chief, enabling them to check and gather more information.

And, while they sat under the branches of a large acacia tree, the armoured vehicle appeared. Who was more surprised? It’s hard to tell. For a few seconds the scene in the village froze. Everybody simply stopped what they were doing, standing and sitting stock-still, hardly remembering to breathe. Then all hell broke loose.

To describe what followed, defy the rules of writing. No amount of words, no matter how cleverly they get strung together and irrespective of the genius of the writer, can paint the picture accurately enough for the reader to live through such carnage. The crashing of the little canon in the turret of the vehicle, the malicious crack of rapid rifle fire, the terrified screams, the awful boom of hand grenades…

The young soldier remembers these, of course. The picture in his mind doesn’t have to rely on words – he was there! And he remembers how a chicken fled in a mad dash to get away and how it simply disappeared in a explosion of feathers and blood when a stray bullet put and end to its escape.

And then, suddenly, it was over. The armoured vehicle stood burning in the clearing. There were bodies. Old ragged bodies. Young uniformed bodies. A dog lay to one side, whimpering, bleeding. A hut billowed smoke.

Silence. The dog died quietly.

The young soldier moved. His hand patted his legs, his body, his neck. Somehow, he seemed to have escaped any damage. Tentatively, carefully, he rolled over. He had to brush the sweat and dust and tears from his eyes to see.

And he saw. A man – a Cuban? – was looking at him from behind an upturned drum. not ten yards away from him. He had a streak of blood across his face. He had a Cuban uniform. He had a rifle. It was pointing at the sky.

“No more shooting, for God’s sake!” The young soldier’s voice cracked like a teenager’s.

The Cuban put down his rifle.

The next ten minutes saw them moving about, checking bodies. At first, the Cuban looked at the Cuban and black soldiers, the South African at his mates. Then they didn’t care any more and checked whoever they found.

“They’re all dead.” The young soldier said, like one would announce the score after losing a rugby match.

The Cuban muttered something that sounded like ‘muerto’.

Later, afterwards, they sat down outside the burning village, enemies united by loss. The smell of death bound them together in a quest for survival. The Afrikaner boy and the Cuban youth and the pungent scent of cordite and smoke and blood sat down next to a thorn tree. They couldn’t  speak to each other for many reasons, their different languages being the least of these.

After a while, the young soldier took the little red Bible the army had given him from his breast pocket. He paged to Psalm 23. To his surprise, the Cuban produced a small black book, glanced at the young soldier’s, and found the same psalm in his own language.

They read the psalm out loud, each in his mother tongue, sentence for sentence, listening to the strange sounds telling the same message.

And then the exchanged Bibles, shook hands, and set off in opposite directions.

***

Oudoom watches as Henk Kleingenade strolls down Voortrekker Weg. He actually enjoys these visits, rare as they are. Henk wants Oudoom to read Psalm 23 again, as usual. And while Oudoom gives life to the letters in that psalm, Henk will stumble over the strange words in the little black Bible, And they’ll do it together, marvelling that you don’t have to know all the words of all the languages to embrace David’s message.

The Many Names of Stephanus du Toit

stumpingNobody calls him Stephanus any more. The story of his life is just too tragic to think about him as Stephanus. Over the years, various incidents contributed to the fact that the way people think about him, changed from time to time – and with it, the list of nicknames grew. At least cricket supplied something respectable.

As a baby, his parents had to hear the neighbours refer to their son as ‘that child, you know, Yellow du Toit?’, after a particularly severe attack of jaundice. Later as a toddler, when he got lost after wandering off, aimlessly, into the Kalahari, they made remarks about ‘that naughty child, Tracks du Toit’. And so it went on. Casts - after managing to break both arms by falling from the donkey-cart. Stitches, due to an altercation with a neighbour’s dog. Even later, Slow; because of his inability to progress past Standard Three. Now, in quick succession, add Crazy, Sleepy, Dopey, Smiley, Happy - all of them in a good-natured way because he was a rather loveable boy. 

Surprisingly, Stephanus had a particular talent for cricket. No, not as bowler or batsman, but as wicket keeper. He’d crouch down behind the wickets and watch every ball with exaggerated concentration. Then, should the batsman venture an inch beyond his crease, the bales would go flying through the air, accompanied by the triumphant shout of ‘Howzit!!!’. He made the town’s team as Howzit du Toit.. 

It was during that time, just when it seemed possible that he’d make a provincial team, that he was drafted to do his stint in the defence force.

The army, as we all know, was the Great Leveller. Here it didn’t matter whether you obtained a distinction in Maths or flunked matric. The sons of doctors and lawyers were treated exactly the same as ragtag boys of shunters and mechanics. The idea was (and probably still is in armies all over the world) to create a fighting animal made up of units of men. That was the key. The men had to be the muscles and sinews that made the creature move, relentlessly, towards the enemy. Arms and legs of a killing machine, indeed. Yet, despite the forced military mould, Stephanus stood out here as the best mine-sweeper. He became Mines du Toit because he had a particular slowness about him; a deliberate way of moving one step at a time with an endless patience; something quite rare in the adrenalin-filled atmosphere in the bush of the Caprivi border.

***

“I can’t believe it’s his birthday again.” Vetfaan slaps the dust off his jeans as he gets out of his bakkie. “It seems like yesterday we congratulated him on his fiftieth.”

Kleinpiet nods. Yes, time flies. How many birthdays have they celebrated here with this man? Ten? Maybe. And every year they drive out to the forlorn little house on the slope of the isolated hill to sing Happy Birthday to the man who can’t really see them, can hardly hear them. But they know: he knows they’re there. What’s left of his lips curl upward and he’ll rock from side to side in tune with the song. That’s when Vetfaan will lift a beer to the gash that once was the mouth and shout Cheers!. He’d swallow a slow gulp. Kleinpiet will dry the froth – and the tear – and then they have to leave.

“You won’t stay long, will you, Mister Vetfaan?” 

That’s the usual greeting from Aunty Beauty, his caretaker-nurse. She’s been there since forever – Kleinpiet once heard she helped with his birth. But you don’t ask questions to Aunty Beauty. She, like her patient, doesn’t say much. Only the most necessary words and then the blank face that tells you she isn’t there to make small talk.

“No, just sing and give him a sip. The usual. Is he…okay today?’

“Same.”

Vetfaan once said he doesn’t want to live like that. To be like that all day, saying nothing, staring into the veld…and that picture? No, he can’t do that. It’s better, he said, to be dead. They should have left him. Left him to die…

Vetfaan had been first on the scene, after that explosion. When the helicopter touched down to take Mines away, he told the medic it was all over. Nobody could survive such injuries. And afterwards, when he saw him again in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria, he was glad that Mines couldn’t see his tears or hear his sobs. 

Same. He’s always that. Same. 

They go in, stand around the chair with the broken man staring at the veld.  They sing. The gash opens, the corners lifting in what may be a smile. Vetfaan offers the beer. A laborious slurp follows, then a soft burp.

“Go now.” Aubty Beauty’s voice is soft but the finality in it is unmistakable.

***

“They gone,” she says as she watches the bakkie bump it’s way over the uncared-for track leading to the house. “You relax now.”

She sees the muscles unwind and the shoulders slump to their usual position. Then, almost effortlessly, she lifts the body to carry the man to his bed. She did this when he was small - she’ll do it to the end. Only, back then there was more of him, even when he was a baby. 

Stephanus du Toit has made it through another year. Aunty Beauty smiles down at the man as she arranges the cushions so he faces the veld outside. That, and the team photo on the windowsill. The one where he stands in the middle, with the big gloves on. She knows he likes it there. Every day she tells him it’s there, reading the names of the team mates out loud. And she’d sing, like only African mothers can sing: melodious verses with simple words, over and over, telling the story of a young man who plays cricket for his country. 

...he catches the ball behind the sticks,

and Lordy, does he know the tricks

to get the others out

and he’d shout h-o-o-w-z-i-i-t! 

as he laughs and he jumps about…

“You rest now, Mister Stumps. For a whole year, you can rest.”

Then she wipes a bit of froth from the chin and she’s rewarded by a slight movement of the gash. At least, she thinks, he’s didn’t lose that

‘Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…’

(William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality)

The Danger beneath the Lace

IMG_2725During one of his rare visits to Upington, Servaas stops to stare at a large shop window. Now, one must remember that he and Siena had been married for five decades and that the intricate mystery of the female body isn’t a complete enigma to the old man; but for a moment he is breathless.

Siena, that wonderful and sensible lady who had been mother to Servaasie, used to be very practical. Coming from the impoverished background like they both did, it was only natural for them to be careful how they spent their money. A thing had to last, see? And, like with cutlery and linen, so with clothes. These had to be sensible and durable. Especially sensible. Extremely sensible.

In their marriage, clothing had to cover the necessary bits, be warm in winter and cool during the day. During the colder winter months, Siena made sure that everything was snugly tucked in beneath layers of cotton and wool – she believed that kept colds and flu away. She also made sure she never had to visit a gynaecologist.

It is understandable, then, that Servaas eyes the mannequin in the window with such incredulous eyes. Is it possible to fit everything into that tiny…thing?

Of course, if he had the guts he could ask Gertruida – but that kite just won’t fly. There is no way he could phrase a question like that! It would be totally embarrassing and completely unacceptable for the head elder of the church to admit he knew anything about such things. Or that he looked at it. Or even thought about it. No, this is something that he must keep away from the little society of Rolbos. He is a man they respect for his steadfast conservatism,  Even if he never finds out how ladies do it, he’ll never, ever discuss the subject with anybody.

***

Back in Boggel’s Place, Servaas is unusually quiet while the group at the bar discuss the way Germany thumped the rest of the world in soccer.

“If only we could get Bafana Bafana to focus. You know, we have the players and the talent; but somehow the team just doesn’t gel. Maybe it’s a question of national pride…or the lack of it.” Gertruida is the only one in Rolbos who knows something about soccer. The rest are ardent rugby fans who can’t understand why you have to kick the ball all the time. Why do men have two hands, after all? Kleinpiet says it’s like having ears but insisting on using sign language.

“It’s like everything else, Gertruida.”  Having seen what the overseas players are paid, Vetfaan feels he must say something. “Money. The Germans made it to the top because they initiated a program to identify young boys with special talents. Then they put them in an academy, all expenses paid – and see what they managed after that? No, our government must wake up. If they don’t spend money on people, they’ll slowly destroy what little national pride we still have.”

“True.” Kleinpiet nods. He’s made it abundantly clear – over the past few months – that the government must invest in sport as a way to motivate the nation. “But you know how it is, Vetfaan. The ministers live in luxury. The president has…” He pasues, scratching his head. “How many wives? Six? And more than twenty children? Now give them all homes, schooling and a medical aid – as well as spending money, security guards and cars – and you realise we’ll never have a sporting academy of any sort. There isn’t enough money to go around, that’s all.”

“Oh, and don’t forget the ten traditional kings we have in the country. The Zulu king alone cost the tax payers more than R65-million over the last two years, I’d hate to know how many wives and children these guys have to support.” Tapping at the calculator in front of him, Boggel wonders if the mint will ever be able to print enough notes to fill all those wallets. “Talk about the legacy of Apartheid? Sure, that’s horrible and nobody defends that system – but what about the legacy of tribalism? Is there any logic in maintaining a system of headmen, chiefs, leaders, traditional healers and kings? Are we stuck in Dark Africa, or have we moved on?”

“Now don’t you go tampering with that, Boggel!” Gertruida is suddenly very serious. “Our people have traditions. They have a background in a certain way of living. Culture and tradition aren’t things you change by issuing laws the population cannot understand.  If you go tampering with the way rural people live, you’ll destabilize the whole country. We, my friends,” and here Gertruida adopts her lecturing tone again, “have inherited a country with all kinds of idiosyncrasies. The West meets Africa here. Cultures and languages differ remarkably. What is sauce for the goose, doesn’t cover the gander. And it is here, in our beloved country, that we’ll have to learn to live together. We’ll have to get to the point where we understand what is going on in the minds of our countrymen. If we don’t, we’ll destroy ourselves.”

“Nice lecture, Gertruida. But what about the subject under discussion?”

“What, sports academies? Soccer? The parliamentarians’ salaries? Tribalism? All of the above?”

This is when, in a stroke of genius, Kleinpiet changes the subject to talk about the drought. This, after all, is something they all understand.

***

It is also at this point that Servaas starts to grasp the significance of the tiny garment that shocked him so in Upington. Some things you can dress up. Some things you can squeeze into any shape you want. But then again. no matter how you cover some things, there’s no mistaking the dynamite hidden underneath.

Sniggering to himself, he gets up, thumps Vetfaan on the shoulder and smiles benignly at Gertruida.

“We need more women in government, Gertruida. At least they make a little go a long, long way. Just my opinion. Don’t quote me, though. But after what I’ve seen in Upington, I realise that lingerie and our economy have a lot in common. The smaller the garment, the more and more need to be covered by less and less. And therein, my friends, lies the rub…and not only in the way Shakespeare meant it.”

He’s still sniggering when he leaves them.

The Great Doggy Olympiad

Credit: ourworldofdogs.com

Credit: ourworldofdogs.com

“Border Collies are the most intelligent of all dogs.” Koos Swartberg – who doesn’t live near a black mountain, but inherited the add-on from his father, who once did – makes the statement with that superior tone of voice some preachers use.

Koos isn’t a regular in Boggel’s Place. His farm is quite a distance away, near the Orange River, where he farms with peach brandy and a few sheep. A struggling farmer – like the rest of them -he had been basically bankrupt when fortune decided to flash him a smile. A rich German’s car broke down. Koos stopped to help. They had a bit of his peach brandy while Koos tinkered about under the bonnet. The car still didn’t start, but the German was impressed. Kalahari Schnapps is now exported to the German’s exclusive liquor store in Munich.

“Ag, ever since you’ve become rich, you think you know everything.” Vetfaan doesn’t like the man much. Sure, he came to town to buy some of the dried peaches they all keep in their attics; and yes, they can all use the extra money; but Koos has a way of bragging that isn’t popular in Rolbos. “Who wants a dog that doesn’t understand Afrikaans, man? You have to whistle to tell them to go left or right. otherwise they’ll just keep on running to Cape Town. Can they swim? No, give me a dog that understands what I’m saying…and can think for himself – like Vrede, here.”

Now – everybody knows about Vrede, the town’s dog. Having retired himself from the police service, Vrede spends his days sharing Boggel’s cushion beneath the counter. He understands Afrikaans. Perfectly. Mention the word biltong, and he’ll be at your chair in a flash. Or say Selebi, and his head will hang in shame.

“My dog, Rocket, isn’t stupid, hey? Rocket looks after my sheep even when I’m not around and is  far superior to any other dog in the district.”

And so the argument begins. Who’s dog is the genius? Every time Vetfaan says something about Vrede, Koos Swartberg trumps him with Rocket’s abilities. Later (after quite a bit of Cactus Jack) Vrede can drive a Land Rover and Rocket is an expert mechanic. Anybody who has spent enough time in a rural pub, has heard such drunken arguments conversations. Gertruida says these things happen when alcohol makes you stupid, but it may equally be true that drinking improves a dog’s intelligence. At least, in this case, the two dogs in question became so intelligent, they could have become parliamentarians – according to the two men at the counter.

“We’ll hace a com..com..com…pe…ti..shun.” Koos has great difficulty to pronounce the word. “Rocket againsht  - wahtshisname – yes! Vrede.” He swnings a floppy finger through the air. “Rocket againsht Vrede. Ja. The win…winner takesh it all.” He glares in the general direction of where he imagines Vetfaan to be.

Business has been slow in Boggel’s Place lately, so the bent little barman offers to make his bar available for the competition. “You guys can settle it right here. Koos can bring Rocket and Vrede is here already. I’ll ask Gertruida to put up an obstacle course and Kleinpiet can bring a few sheep. Next Saturday. Let’s do it next Saturday. I’ll supply the peanuts.”

***

And so it happens that the world’s first canine intelligence Olympiad is held in Rolbos. Boggel’s Place is packed to the rafters when Koos Swartberg leads Rocket into the bar. Vrede, as usual, is fast asleep beneath the counter. Koos is wearing a small, silver whistle around his neck and a superior smile. Gertruida sits next to the counter, paging through a dictionary.

The rules are simple. Rocket has to obey the whistle commands, while Vrede has to listen to words before acting.

“This has to be a fair competition, guys. You know, no cheating?” Servaas has appointed himself as the judge. “So I read up a bit. We have to make sure the dogs don’t just go through some routine they learnt at home.” Vetfaan and Koos nods. “So, here’s what we’ll do: Vetfaan gets the whistle, Koos gets the dictionary.”

Chaos. Koos says it’s not fair at all, while Vetfaan shouts that Koos will only pick out impossible words. The rest of the group in the bar won’t be left out of the argument. And Boggel? He’s smiling. Business is good. It takes quite a while before things simmer down. By that time, Koos is slurring his words again.

“Right. Okay. We’ll stick to Left, Right, Front and Back.” He blows the commands on his whistle, which causes Rocket to dash this way and that. “See, it’s easy. You try…” He hands the whistle to Vetfaan.

Have you ever seen an inebriated man handle a dog whistle? Even when sober, it takes a bit of concentration to get the notes right. And don’t blow too hard. Or too soft. It involves an easy, sustained exhalation to produce the right sound. Vetfaan doesn’t know this, of course.

Taking a deep breath, he puts the whistle to his lips. Unfortunately, he’s forgotten about the peanuts in his mouth. A wayward nut feels how the inhaled breath – in anticipation of the effort of blowing the whistle – sucks itself down, past the tongue, over the soft palate and into the vocal chords. What follows may be quite natural, but the results are extraordinary.

Coughing with a whistle clamped between the front teeth can be extremely messy. First of all, bits of nut and spittle go flying all over the place. Even smaller pieces of the snack get lodged in the whistle itself. It takes a supreme effort to keep the whistle firmly between the teeth to prevent the instrument from flying through the window.

But it’s the effect on both dogs that is the subject of much discussion later. Both Vrede and Rocket are galvanised into action. Rocket doesn’t understand this new, rather urgent and piercing note, and stands stock-still. Vrede – who has been sleeping peacefully – sits up and notices the other dog for the first time.

Gertruida will later say one must understand these things. Vrede has been the only dog in town for so long, after all. He only did what is natural, one cannot blame him.

Blame or not, it makes no difference to what happens. Vrede lets out a howl and rushes towards Rocket. Koos Swartberg’s dog reacts instantly, heading for the door at great speed.

By the time Vetfaan stops coughing, the whistle is clean once more and the laughter has subsided, the two dogs are missing. Completely. Not a canine in sight.

***

The competition was called off, the town had a good laugh and Vetfaan discovered that Koos, despite his attitude, is actually a nice guy – he paid for the drinks they had while searching for their dogs.

Two days later Vrede was found when he slunk back to his cushion under the counter. A day later a passing motorist picked up Rocket, on her way back to Grootdrink. Recognising Rocket as his neighbour’s clever Collie, he returned the dog to her thankful owner.

Her pups are due any day now.

,

So, what happened to Kneehigh?

images (74)(Quite a few readers e-mailed me about Kneehigh. What happened to her, they want to know? I hesitated to tell her story because of the…sensitive…nature of her personal life. But, because I hate loose ends, I’d rather relent and give in. Here then, is the truth. Warts and all. Sensitive readers might want to skip this episode.)

When the judge glared at Miss Katie Leggings (known locally as Kneehigh), after he had read the sentence, he wondered if he shouldn’t have added to her ten-year spell in jail. Sure, the defence described her background in great detail, pleading mitigation. But, he secretly admitted, she was a really sexy lady – maybe she would have enough time (while still in her prime) to settle down in a normal society. He had imposed the lightest punishment allowable under the law, considering the massive fraud she had been involved in over the years.

RD+P had used her as honey to attract the bees. Whether they wanted an investor in some hare-brained scheme, or found it necessary to offer (or accept) a bribe, Kneehigh was their trump card. Once let loose on a man, she always managed to swing the deal.

And she wasn’t shy at all, was she? In fact, she was proud of the fact that her…favours…could make her so powerful.  Coming from a much-deprived childhood where her mother never quite made ends meet, Kneehigh had found it surprisingly easy to get men to fall for her charms – and then she loved the way she made them cringe and beg once they realised what she had done. But by then it was too late. A few explicit photographs and the occasional tape recording sorted these unfortunate men out. They never dared to consider exposing her – the danger was too big. Who would risk his job, his family and his future on stakes this high?

Katie Leggings was a predator in the modern money-jungle, and her bank account was proof of her success.

So the hammer banged down hard on the wooden bench and Kneehigh was led away to prison; allowing the judge one last look at those shapely legs that made her so irresistible.

***

In jail, Kneehigh soon learnt the ropes. Make the right sounds, say the right things, go through the right actions. The social worker wrote glowing reports. After three years, the question of parole came up. Kneehigh was, by all accounts, the best example of a rehabilitated criminal the prison had ever seen.

By then she had been seeing the prison psychologist for some time. Doctor Rod Stroker was three years her senior, single and apparently dedicated to his job. Slowly, over a period of months, his consultations with her resulted in Kneehigh developing a profound change of heart regarding her previous life. An inscription in her diary says much of Doctor Stroker’s success.

I am so ashamed about the things I had done. To use my personality and my body as a way to deceive unsuspecting men, was completely unacceptable. I realise now how much I owe to Dr Stroker. He is a wonderful man and he’s turned my life around. I shall, once I leave here, devote my life to someone such as he: honourable, respectable, hard-working. How wonderful it would be to share Life with  such an astute pillar of society!

Later, in the same diary, there are signs that her relationship with Dr Stroker had advanced even further.

Rod is so good to me. Today he brought two books I have to read. ‘The Dummy’s Guide to Housekeeping’ and ‘Prudent Women Achieve More’. He says I might be considered for parole soon, and that he’d help me afterwards. I’m so grateful! I don’t deserve everything he does for me. He did show me the report he is preparing for the Parole Board. When I think back, I can hardly recognise myself in his notes. Rod is wonderful!

Turning to an even later entry, Kneehigh tells of her joy and future expectations.

Parole! I can’t believe it! Freedom at last! Rod has once again managed a miracle.

First he has changed me into an honest woman, who desperately wants to settle down and live a normal life. I want to worry about a husband and at least two children. I’ll find a job, join a church and establish myself in some charitable organisation. Oh my, I can’t wait!

But then – if that’s not enough, he’s convinced the Parole Board of my rehabilitation. How will I ever be able to thank him for that? I’m so humbled by his dedication… And now, today, he shyly asked me if I would consider moving in with him after my release! How lucky can a girl get? Not only did this gesture of his help to convince the authorities to release me this early, but I’ll have a home, a life, and a man I love. 

***

Gertruida says the wheel of life is round. It’s one of her silly statements the patrons in Boggel’s Place nods at, saying that it’s so true, they all know it. What goes around, comes around and all that. But people say such things without thinking that it’s not just true for other people – in the end we all sow what we reap. Or reap what we sow. Whatever – Life has a strange way of levelling things out.

The problem is that we seldom have the perverted satisfaction of knowing when that wheel turns and then where it rolls to – or who it catches in it’s thorny tracks when the wheel does turn.

That’s why it’s rather stunning to read the last page in the diary Dr Stroker found after she left.

I have to get away! Shock! Horror! Shambles! I cannot believe what’s happening to me!

Dear Rod Stroker is a two-faced psychopath! How could I not see this coming? The quiet, understanding man turned out to be my worst nightmare! 

Dear Diary, I should have realised his game when I first set foot in his secluded home outside town. I mean, I had no transport, still was under my parole restrictions, and didn’t see the burglar bars in front of the windows. I was a prisoner once more, only this time I had only one warder. And he, Dear Diary, is a monster! Realisation only started dawning when I discovered the whips, leather clothes and handcuffs in the linen cupboard that first day. I thought I’d clean up a bit, and got the shock of my life. Leather clothes! Whips! Handcuffs! And then those horrible books and despicable videos! Here is a man living out his fantasies…and I…I am helpless to stop him!

Dr Stroker reported her escape, of course, saying that she had had a relapse and was now an even greater menace to society.

What he doesn’t know – cannot know – is that a distant relative met up with her in the Bahamas. Kneehigh was ambling along the beach at the arm of a dashing older man. The two of them were in deep conversation and the relative thought it prudent not to interrupt. The relative also didn’t connect that incident with a newspaper report – a month later – about a Mister Buffet who seems to have lost a few million Dollars in a well-worked scam.

Miss Katie Leggings hasn’t been seen since.

The Man in the Mirror

(The final episode)

Credit: itbdigital.com

Credit: itbdigital.com

Gertruida says mirrors changed the way we look at ourselves – in fact, mirrors changed society. Of course, this statement may seem superficial and childishly logical, but as usual the truth cuts deeper than one would think. She says the cosmetic industry would never have developed without mirrors. Fashion houses wouldn’t exist. Nobody would have opened a beauty salon and  King C. Gillette wouldn’t have patented the first safety razor in 1904. Mirrors, Gertruida says, are responsible for us taking ourselves so seriously these days. Without them, life would have been much simpler. Admittedly, she does concede that mirrors don’t lie and that a good look in the mirror helps us to be honest with ourselves.

These thoughts aren’t cruising around in Diksarel’s mind when he stares at the mirror in the luxurious bathroom in Minister Vilakazi’s home. He’s just listened to the most remarkable little speech Miriam had made – a speech that will change his life…

***

“I have to say something,” Miriam Plaatjies said, as Maxwell Mogale turned to go. The ferret of a man hesitated, turned around and raised an eyebrow.

Miriam told the story of her father and Meneer Labuschagne. All of it, without wasting words.

“You see, Mister Maxwell, I find it strange that we – the children of our forefathers – have been made to meet like this. I ask myself: why? Why would fate cause Diksarel to come here? Is the reason maybe that we should make the future worse than the past? Or is there a chance that something good may come from all this? I mean, let’s look at it carefully.”

Then, ticking off the facts on her fingers, she mentions the invoice, Kneehigh’s invovement, Diksarel being abandoned on the airport, the two revenue agents, the wild taxi-ride, and the role Mama Sarah played.

“What, Mister Maxwell, are the chances of a white man arriving at Mama Sarah’s? And then Mama listened to him and directed him to the one man who knows my story so well: Reverend Joseph, And it’s me who called the minister and he in turn, called you. It’s me who brought Diksarel here and that’s why you know the story.” Almost out of breath, Miriam paused a second. “Don’t you think, Mister Maxwell, that there’s a bigger picture here? isn’t it wonderful that Diksarel finally knows the truth about his father? That Jason and him could come to terms with each other? That through this set of…coincidences, you are presented with an opportunity like you’ve never had before?

“And, Mister Maxwell…do you really think Diksarel is a criminal? Would a thief have done what he did? No, sir, I don’t think so. I think Diksarel was coerced into a position to fit in with the real criminals’ plans. RD+P took a bribe, They needed a scapegoat. They framed an innocent man by using the oldest trick in the book – using a sexy lady. He shouldn’t have destroyed that invoice, that’s true. But to punish him and let the real criminals walk free, isn’t what I call justice.”

Then she proceeded to tell Maxwell why she felt so strongly about this.

“I had a dream a few weeks ago, Mister Maxwell. My father was sitting in his old chair and he called me over. He showed me our old home – the one in Upington. I could see it’s run-down and dilapidated. Then he gave me some paint and a very small brush. That’s when I woke up.

“And now I understand. If we wanted to restore our spiritual homes, our very souls, we can only do so by small acts. Little things. Like listening to a stranger and then discovering how much you have in common. Like speaking up in defence of the innocent. By refusing to remain silent in the face of injustice. By reaching out to others in their hours of need – or by stopping to blame the past. I think he tried to show me how all of us can live in peace if we just do those small things that come our way. There’s plenty of paint – but each of us only has a little brush.

“A small brush, Mister Maxwell, is all I have. My father told me to renovate our family’s home – the spiritual one – and that’s what I’m doing. I think he wanted to help Meneer Labuschagne and to help us all understand each other better. In fact, I think he was telling me the past…is past. The only way we can fix our house – our country – is by doing little things for each other. He didn’t give me a new house or a new life or a new past. He gave me a small brush…”

By the time she finished speaking, Maxwell Mogale had sat down again, waving the hovering butler away. He then stared at Diksarel – a long and penetrating look with those ferrety eyes.  Slow seconds ticked by in the complete silence that followed.

“A small brush…,” he breathed after a while, “is all that we all have…”

***

Diksarel turns from the mirror. He’s tired (when last did he sleep?) but still elated by the surprise of it all. Does fate organise such extraordinary events? Does God sometimes reach down from heaven to touch the life of a lonely recluse, a man without hope? And does He use ordinary men and women to work His miracles? Taxi drivers, shebeen owners, reverends and ministers?

Shaking his head, he walks out to get into Maxwell Mogale’s car.

“I’m ready,” he says as he settles in the seat.

***

Over the next few months, the newspapers had a field day reporting on the court case. Maxwell Mogale was brilliant. Bit by bit he convinced the judge about the way RD+P defrauded the government of millions of Rands. His evidence – stretching back fifteen years – revealed bribery and corruption on an unprecedented scale, involving a multitude of government officials, ministers and even a president. One set of evidence fitted into another, and another, and another, to finally paint a picture the public could only gasp at.

The star of the case, some papers agreed, was the state’s major witness – a seemingly unremarkable clerk who used to work in a dusty little office and who discovered an invoice that led to it all.

***

The sun shines brightly when they emerge from the imposing building Diksarel came to know so well in the time he had to spend there. It is, he hopes, the last time he’ll have to be near the High Court in Cape Town.

“You’re a free man now.” The ferrety man flashes a rare smile. “What will you do now?”

“I’m not sure. Mister Shewell has retired and a new man bought his business. I’ve heard he appointed a new clerk, so technically I’m unemployed. I suppose I’ll have to look for a new job.”

“You could help Miriam with her book, you know? Minister Vilakazi told me about it. The two of you could really put something very special together, if you want?”

Diksarel gives it some thought. Yes, that would have been nice.

“I have to live, Maxwell. I have to make some money. Writing books isn’t a lucrative job, you know.”

This time Maxwell is the one who hesitates.

“Diksarel?”

“Yes?”

“Let me paint a hypothetical situation for you. Let’s imagine…” He pauses dramatically. At the foot of the stairs, a black BMW is waiting impatiently for him. Diksarel sees a traffic warden approaching the vehicle with a determined look. ” Let’s imagine some thieves try to frame a man – using a lot of stolen money to make it look real. They deposit that money into their victim’s account. Things don’t work out the way they planned. They go to jail. The state is overjoyed at getting rid of so many corrupt officials. Justice has been served.”

Below them, the driver and the traffic cop are involved in a heated argument. The driver keeps pointing at Maxwell.

“Now. suppose that money remains in the intended victim’s account. Just say, for instance, that the powers-that-be considers it as an apt payment for a brave man. Would you not say that is the most wonderful way to close this case? Hypothetically, I mean.”

By now, the traffic warden has started climbing the stairs towards them, obviously furious at the situation.

“Anyway, I have to go. Can’t stand around here chatting to you all day. That cop is going to give me a ticket if I hang around much longer. Goodbye, Mister Labuschagne.”

***

A year later…

Diksarel stares at the mirror in his hotel room. He’ll have to have a haircut. The book launch is tomorrow. Like Miriam, he’ll want to look his best.