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…

The Kalahari Biker Rides On

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

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

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

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

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

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

Servaas didn’t know what to say.

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

“Why?”

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

A cackle of laughter surprised Servaas.

“He escaped a long time ago.”

“The tortoise?”

“Yes, him too. Now go away.”

“But…”

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

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

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

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

“You sure it was the same tortoise?”

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

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

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

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

“He’s dead?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…And that rectangular rockery where nothing grew.

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

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

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

 

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.

Photo Challenge: Containers

Storage: that’s the key to survival in any remote area. Africa has lots of them – remote areas as well as strange ways of storing, preserving and transporting essential items.

Come see our village, the man at the camp said. We are a prosperous family, living not far from here. So I went and  I asked the old Himba woman permission to see her house. It is not mine, she said, but you are welcome.

335The hut contained a young mother and her baby. No, this photo wasn’t photoshopped. The red colour is real. I looked around  after greeting her and receiving a shy smile in return. See, she said, this is my house, my life. Look at all the things I have. I am a blessed woman, she said, holding the baby out to me.

37Then she proudly showed me her container with the aromatic herbs. Picking up a glowing ember with her fingers, she dropped in into the herbs so I may smell the scent of the veld, the aroma of Africa…

36And look, she said, I have a pail, a calabash and a funnel.

I looked. And I saw the funnel was made of wood and s strange bit of copper or brass. What is that? I asked.

The old woman heard the question and laughed. It used to contain a bullet, back in the days of the war, she murmured.  Now it pours the goat’s milk from the pail to the calabash38

I marvelled at that. These women have so little…and yet so much. The spent cartridge a soldier had thrown away, now served as an important component to the primitive funnel.

Oh, let me rephrase that… The word ‘primitive’ doesn’t belong here. Not in this society where the scrap of wartime now helps them survive. Maybe we should learn from them. We, in our large houses and with our many possessions and running water and electricity – we keep on making guns and shooting down aeroplanes. We are hamsters on silly little wheels, constantly wanting more. How primitive is that?

I walked out in the sunshine, past the kraal filled with goats and the little ‘hut’ for the chicken swinging gently in the breeze. It contains the eggs, keeping them away from vermin.39

My visit left me wondering whether the minds of these people contained more wisdom than I originally gave them credit for. Are we really sure that our way of life contains everything to make us as happy as they are? 40

Or should we admit that they have more reason to smile than we do? Shouldn’t we discard the trappings of luxury and sit in the sun more often while we contemplate the joys contained in a simpler life?

 

 

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.