Tag Archives: peach brandy

The Great Prickly Pear Debacle

tsaz_huntley2.preview“Oom Fourie passed away last night.” Boggel raises a glass in a silent salute. “He must have been a hundred-and-something.” They all knew the old man had been teetering about on his last legs for the last few weeks and somehow the news of his demise is a relief.

Farty Fourie, who in the past had done his name proud by interrupting Oudoom’s sermon in a most antisocial way,  used to live near Grootdrink, next to the Gariep River (which once was called the Orange, but like most things in South Africa, it has become unfashionable to refer to it as a colour – which incidentally still is brown.) Here he had farmed with peaches, distilling the most exquisite brandy from the fruit. This – quite possibly – might have contributed to his nickname.

“That means….” Vetfaan doesn’t even want to finish the sentence.

“Ja, man, that’s the problem. No Farty means no peach brandy. At least, not his brew, anyway.” Klleinpiet draws a coffin with his beer-froth on the countertop, adding a little wreath for effect. “It’s a catastrophe.”

“We shall produce our own.” Gertruida, who has been wondering what she could do to liven up her mood, suddenly smiles. “I read an article on the Home Spirit Maker – apparently you can even make whiskey with it…” She wants to continue, but Servaas holds up a gnarled hand.

“You’ll have to call it something else. Oudoom will have a fit if we start producing spirits around here. He’ll preach us into irreversible sobriety.” The old man shudders at the thought.

“…if you’ll be so kind to let me finish.” Gertruida fixes him with a withering stare. “I was trying to say that we can quite easily produce our own still, there’s no need to buy one. All we need is a drum, a piece of pipe and containers to collect the brandy. Of course, we’ll have to ferment some fruit first, and that’s the biggest problem.”

Yes, they all nodded, at this time of year even the farms around the Gariep don’t have any grapes or peaches.

“I have some prickly pears on my farm,” Vetfaan ventures, “they don’t have any fruit on them, but the leaves are thick and succulent. Can’t we…”

“Mmmm…probably. I know the San people used honey – even honeycomb – to make wine. That means honey should promote fermentation, if you think about it. So if we added honey to some pulped cactus leaves, we might just be on to something. Once we have fermentation going, the distilling should be easy.”

***

One would think the patrons in Boggel’s Place should run out of ideas – and that there must be a limit to stupidity in any given group of people. So far, they have defied the laws governing statistical probabilities regarding this simple fact.

zambuk_ointment_tinVetfaan supplied the cactus leaves, which Kleinpiet attacked with a garden fork, poking them full of holes. Servaas proudly produced some honeycomb, having raided a nest after some severe smoking (him, not the nest). Although he bore the wounds of his efforts with pride, he actually enjoyed the way Precilla rubbed the Zambuk ointment into the stings.

And then they waited, watching the mixture in the cleaned-out drum very carefully every day.

Boggel worked up enough courage on day seven to dip a ladle into the foul-smelling liquid, introduced a tentative tongue into it, and declared that fracking in the Karoo wasn’t necessary. They have, he said, solved the world’s fuel problems.

***

Distilling, Gertruida said, was an easy process. Get a tight lid on the drum, run a piece of hose pipe from there – keeping it cool with some wet rags wrapped around it – and then insert the end of the hose into any container available. Once the setup was complete, a small fire under the drum should evaporate the alcohol, which would then condense to run into the container.

Kleinpiet and Vetfaan followed these instructions to the letter. The drum’s lid was sealed with duct tape, the hose fitting tightly as ordered.

“How big must the fire be?”

“I don’t know.” Kleinpiet scratched his head, then glanced at the sinking sun. “Gertruida didn’t specify.  I suppose we’ll get faster results if we boil it up properly.”

***

Robert Burns, that famous Scottish poet, penned a poem in 1875, called:  “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough” This poem could have been written for the recent referendum over there, or for the two men next to the fire under that drum.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

***

The explosion was heard in Bitterbrak, on the other side of Bokkop, some fifteen miles away. At least, that’s what Ben Bitterbrak said when he roared into town, ready to start the Third Boer War. What he found, however, left him speechless.

The front of Boggel’s Place – usually a drab Karoo-khaki colour – now sported a shiny, green appearance. A smoking drum was perched on the veranda, while two green-faced men sat on the steps, staring into the distance.

Ben isn’t a superstitious man. Then again, he’s a man of few words. Also, he’s a fiercely independent soul – he likes to make up his own mind.

He later apologised, saying any rational human being would have done the same. What do you do, he asked, when Martians invade your country? No matter that they have arms and legs like the rest of us, but the green colour is a dead giveaway.

Oudok also made himself hugely unpopular that day, laughing as he did while he removed the buckshot from the two (still green) patients. He also made the mistake of remarking that he didn’t accept payment from the Intergalactic Scheme for Infirm Soldiers.

But it is Gertruida, that astute woman who had recently suffered so from depression, who gained the most from the incident. For weeks afterwards, she couldn’t stop laughing at Kleinpiet and Vetfaan, who insisted it had all been her fault.

They all went to Farty Fourie’s funeral, of course. After the service, Oudoom introduced them to Finkie Fourie, the old man’s granddaughter. She’s a winemaker in Stellenbosch, specialising in the production of grappa. They’re now the best of friends.

The Brandy, the Bottle and the Broad…

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“The devil is in the details, ” Vetfaan says as he looks at those legs.

“I always judge a woman by the skin of her knees.” Servaas doesn’t want to look, but he can’t help himself. “A real lady has smooth knees, without callouses and wrinkles. This woman must have been to a finishing school.”

Kleinpiet glances around to make sure Precilla isn’t near – he doesn’t want to upset her. “And those thighs are so smooth! Just look at them! You can see she must have used one of those new-fangled razors with more than one blade. A new one, at that.”

The three men let out a collective sigh of undiluted male appreciation as they stare at the label of Jan Omdop’s newest product. He usually collects the substandard peaches from the farmers on the Orange River at the end of the season, cuts them up, and then proceeds with the slow process to produce his own unique brand of peach brandy.  Omdop Special is a much sought after brand in the clandestine world of illicit liquor in the Northern Cape; and you’ll find a bottle hidden away somewhere in most homesteads. Although it is rumoured to cause temporary blindness, it has been used with great success to cure month-end-blues, a variety of headaches, two cases of infertility, one case of measles and Jan himself says his broken arm recovered overnight due to the miracle of his brew.

Over the years, Jan’s reputation as a brandy maker grew in direct proportion to the amount of unclad flesh on his notorious labels. It started off with a picture of his long-suffering wife, posing with a spade held high.  Jan tells the story that his wife threatened to destroy his distillery and that he had to make her understand he appreciated her more than the brandy. A potent drink needed a potent label, he said.

When she finally left him, Jan started cutting photos from magazines to paste onto his bottles. That caused some to think his Bikini Brandy was better than the Jeans version, although – like Jack Daniel’s old Number 7 –it was a simple matter of labelling a thing right to develop a niche market.  Nowadays he has a special photo taken; so that a specific year will be a Blonde Brandy, or Brunette Mampoer, or Redhead Fury. It is his way of ensuring his stock gets sold at the fastest possible rate – clearing his little warehouse and making sure there’s nothing left when the police do their obligatory annual raid on his farm.

This year, the cloth-to-flesh ratio is at an all-time low. The girl is dressed in a micro-mini and what seems to be a wet T-shirt. The large straw hat is angled so that only the cascade of  curls is visible at the back of her neck – while the front of her face is almost completely obscured. A very pert little nose peeks from below the brim of the hat, as does the glossy-red lipstick.

“She can’t be local.” Vetfaan believes he can recognise any face in the district. “Must be a model or something. But to pose like that…”

“It’s a way to get the guys to drink more,” Boggel says. “You can imagine any face behind that hat. And, after two or three glasses, most men start thinking about the loves they lost in the past. That makes them thirsty, see. So Jan puts a sexy, faceless babe on the label – and men drink to show how sorry they are to have let the big one slip through their fingers. With this year’s batch I’ve seen it happen a number of times. After glass number five, the men sit and stare at the label with tears in their eyes. It’ll make Jan happy to know this girl makes the men so sad. It’s a sure sign of a good year…”

“But she’s so beautiful…” Vetfaan runs a finger over the smooth contours of her neck. “Imagine…”

“Yes.” Servaas finds it difficult to talk. His lower lip starts trembling while his cheeks feel numb. “It’s not wrong to admire beauty. Siena used to…” He decides not to trust his vocal ability much further and sips his drink.

“So sexy,” Vetfaan slurs. “I’d do anything…”

 ***

The manager of Pep Stores in Upington looks up in surprise when Jan Omdop makes the offer.

“You want to buy her? Geez, I don’t know, man. Hiring her out this year was a risk already – if my head office found out, they’d have a million questions. So we compromise: I’ll dress her and you’ll photograph her. After hours, with no-one around. All above board. Come Monday morning and nobody’s the wiser. But if I sell her to you, I’d have a lot to explain. Nope. No can do. Sorry.”

“But promise me then: I want to use her again next year. Please man. Her picture was such a hit this year…”

After another dose of brandy, the manager agrees on condition he gets two bottles of the next batch.

“But you photograph her in the back room, like this year, understand? And I’ll supervise every step. If that mannequin gets  damaged you’ll have to pay for a replacement. And I’ll have you know – these dolls aren’t cheap.”

“She’s quite something…” Jan has a faraway look in his eyes.

“She’s an it,” the irate manager snubs. “A manequin for the window. A sexless doll.”

“Have another,” Jan smiles as he offers the bottle, “you’ll see what I mean…”

I couldn’t find this on YouTube – click the picture and look for the play button at the left-hand bottom of the screen. This is a real South African Oldie…

Look for the Real World in 2013

Oudoom looks on with an unusual degree of grave concern at the activity around the lorry from Kalahari Vervoer in front of Boggel’s Place. They’ve already downloaded fourteen cases of beer and are still carrying cases of brandy, Coke and even vodka into the storeroom at the back. It is obvious that Boggel expected a considerable crowd for New Year’s and that means Rolbos will have one huge party to see the New Year in.

The problem is that Oudoom has post-Christmas blues. Not only did the Nativity play end up with him, the Shepherd of the Flock, waking up in a barn (and the cow at the church), but he also completely forgot to take up an offering during the Christmas service.

Sure, the mere fact that he actually conducted a service may be viewed as a modern-day miracle in itself, but the Christmas offering is important. Every year the money collected on Christmas day gets donated to the little orphanage in Grootdrink – a NGO-run home for homeless AIDS children. Without the support of such donations, the facility cannot survive. And he, Oudoom, the Heavenly Ambassador of Grace and Goodwill, neglected to announce the offering on Christmas day. The people of Rolbos must have giggled in their proverbial sleeves as they walked out – they now had extra money in their pockets.

Worse: it doesn’t take particular prophetic ability to predict how they are going to spend New Year’s Eve; the offloading of the lorry makes guessing unnecessary. And this, while he was hoping to announce the first midnight service in the history of Rolbos! Taking up an offering then seemed the way to salvage the loss of income on Christmas day…

Boggel on the other hand, is ecstatic. He has promised Rolbos, Grootdrink and the district a bash they’ll never forget. The Desert Rats are going to provide music like only they can; which will result in lots of very energetic dancing – which will ensure a thirsty crowd.

Now, you have to know The Desert Rats to understand about the music. Actually, they are the Vermaaks, a small family-colony that ‘farms’ way out in the Kalahari. Farming is their word for stoking a vile and potent brand of peach brandy from the little orchard their grand-grandfather established around one of those mysterious waterholes one finds in the desert. This activity is, for most of the year, not very labour intensive and allows for many hours waiting for the peach trees to blossom and grow the fruit that made the family famous. Gertruida says the story that these peaches are responsible for the many babies born in the colony, is nonsense. It is a simple fact (according to her) that the family has nothing else to do for extended periods of time. She says that, when they’re not making babies (women get fed up too, you know?) the men play their various musical instruments. Pa Vermaak has mastered the saw, which he strokes with a bow fashioned from an old copper pipe. This creates an eerie, hollow sound reminiscent of the howling of an injured jackal. The brothers add a drum (old paint tin), a trumpet made from a disused spout from the still, a flute fashioned from a broken smoking pipe and a mouth organ played by the clever son that made it through primary school. Given enough of their brew, they get into a surprisingly hypnotic rhythm that encourages what they call ‘circle-dancing’. Men and women will fall into a line, form a circle, and stamp their feet in tempo with the screeching, drumming, whistling and clapping. Gertruida says that the family got the idea from Bushman trance-dancing – and in all probability, she is right (as usual).

The Desert Rats rarely perform to the public. To get them to play at Boggel’s Place is as exceptional as a South African politician admitting to corruption.

The 31st of December in Rolbos started with a bang. A real one. The Vermaak tractor with its trailer full of family laboured into town, approached Boggel’s – and promptly blew a gasket. Black smoke and steam spewed from the sawn-off exhaust (Frikkie Vermaak made a type of didgeridoo with it) and the long-suffering John Deere died next to the rusted sign proclaiming the existence of Voortrekker Weg. Platnees immediately realised that this meant an extended stay of the Vermaaks, went home and made sure all the doors were locked. Oudoom retired to his study to read up on what St John said about the End of Days.

But now it is mid-afternoon and Boggel’s guests arrive from far and wide. Dusty men and women get out of over-heated bakkies to file into Boggel’s Place. On the wide veranda Boggel employed the Platnees family to serve the almost-dehydrated newcomers with a Vermaak Special – made from the last, overripe fruits of that memorable good year of 2005. Something strange happened that season: it actually rained. The peach brandy from that season has a strangely pleasant, sweet taste, lingering just long enough on the taste buds to want to taste it again. Like the Vermaak music, it has a subliminal way of worming its way into your mind until you actually convince yourself that you really, really like it.

The evening’s entertainment started of with a Rolf Harris Tie me Kangaroo down, sport sound-alike. (Read: sound-alike to Vermaak ears.) Frikkie did the didgeridoo part of course, while Papa Vermaak wobbled a piece of sheet metal to make the whoopity-whoop sounds. While the tune was almost recognisable, the family substituted ‘kangaroo’ for ‘springbokkie’; much to the delight of Kleinpiet, who never could never understand the song before. He had always assumed kangaroo was another word for mother-in-law. What he thought about platypus duck, Bill, is not known.

Warming up to the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place, the Vermaaks start with their favourite medley of old Afrikaner songs, stitching Sarie Marais, Een aand op die trein na Pretoria, and Beautiful in Beaufort West together with peeps, hoots, the false harmonica and plenty of drumming. Frikkie gives random accompaniment with the John Deere exhaust, sometimes confusing the rhythm to such an extent that Mamma Vermaak’s screeching singing has to start the verse over again. The crowd (at this early stage) shows that they are seasoned lovers of all things musical and applauds with gusto.

By this time Oudoom has given up on the thought of a midnight service and, as the keeper of the town’s morals, decides to join in the festivities. During his many years’ worth of Rolbos-experience, he had come to realise that it is useless to piece together scandals after they had happened. The only way to deal with the resulting gossip of such events, is to have first-hand knowledge of what really happened. He therefore saw it as his responsibility – nay, his duty – to put Revelations aside and go and observe what the congregation is up to. When he walks into Boggel’s, the Vermaaks are busy with their own composition of Wat soek jou vinger in my p-o-e-e-e-ding bak. He hardly notices the glass Platnees thrusts in his hand; but because it is so warm and the words were so suggestive, he swallows the contents without thinking. When, five minutes later, he gets his breath back the Desert Rats are busy with Jy is my matras (en ek is so bly…). As he turns to leave this modern-day version of Sodom, Platnees hands him a fresh glass of Special. Still upset and still not thinking straight, he finishes that as well.

Gertruida says Frikkie was bitten by a puff adder once. The Vermaaks have only one cure for colds, flu, malaria and snake-bite: a glass of Pappa’s Special. Frikkie recovered of course; the snake was found dead the next day.

It is no wonder then, that Oudoom then marches up to the Rats and asks them to play something more religious. They comply – and fall in with a slow and pious version of Ver in die Ou Kalahari, daar soen die boere so….

After this, the party really catches on. In Rolbos it is important to have Oudoom’s blessing; and now, with him dancing along, there is no reason to hold back.

Alcohol, it is said, is the ultimate social lubricant. It oils the gears that make society tick (even when they belong to different model engines), it smoothes the uncomfortable edges of misunderstandings and distributes the spark of laughter to people who suffer with frozen sense of humour.

There is, sadly, another side to the effect of partaking fluids with a significant alcoholic content. For no particular reason, it may change the happy face of Doctor Jeckyll into the grumbling and ominous countenance of Mister Hyde. Boggel has often seen this happen over the years, and puts it down to the fact that the ingestion of liquor allows sunken grievances to float to the surface again. Gertruida (who knows everything) says good manners are heavier than alcohol, that’s why it sinks to the bottom. Whatever the reason may be, it happens occasionally – and is often followed by periods of intense remorse. Like life in Rolbos, it isn’t always easy or logical to try to explain why grown men would want to ridicule and belittle their best friends the one moment – and then cry on their shoulders the next.

While Oudoom does his version of the Dutch Reformed Shuffle on the makeshift dance floor (very reserved, no touching, no talking and a whispered blessing at the end), Vetfaan and Kleinpiet are trying to outdo each other in their comments on the reverend’s lack of coordination.

“It is a miracle! How that man reaches the lectern on the pulpit is a mystery. Look at the way his left hand doesn’t know what the right foot is doing.”

“Ja, man, it just shows you. You are now looking at the real Oudoom. Strip the veneer of being a preacher, and you get the lecherous old man dancing with Gertruida over there. Look at the way he watches Precilla’s bum over Gertruida’s shoulder. I tell you – his head is filled with thoughts of that lady in the bath during King David’s voyeur phase.”

The Vermaaks take a break to fill up with some of their product, allowing the dancers an opportunity to do the same. Oudoom wipes the sweat from his brow, walks over to the counter and squeezes in between Vetfaan and Kleinpiet.

“Dominee is really hot tonight, hey? Showing us how to do it and all. Maybe you should take up a collection for your effort?”

And that sparks the tears. All of a sudden Oudoom remembers the midnight service he had planned to make up for his lack of concentration on Christmas. Wave of remorse follows wave of regret as he slumps forward on the counter, more or less in the direction of the glass of Special strategically placed there by Boggel. As if touched by a Higher Wisdom, he suddenly realises how significant his oversight has been while the sad tears of repentance and sorrow drips on the glass rings on the counter. For no particular reason he remembers his efforts to build up his small congregation, the failed bazaars, the off-tune organ and the tower clock that never tells the right time.

“I’m just like the clock,” he announces between the sobs, “always a bit out.”

Vetfaan starts laughing at this, but something in the older man’s voice – and Kleinpiet’s morose look – stops him.

Pappa Vermaak has taken his seat again and his saw starts squawking out For Auld Lang Syne. Frikkie joins with the exhaust while Mamma Vermaak picks up the rhythm by striking the prongs of the garden fork with a hammer. When they reach And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet…everybody storm the bar for a refill. The Vermaaks stop in midstride (midnote?), initially confused by the sudden disappearance of their audience. When they realise what is happening, they start again from the beginning. Gertruida holds up a hand, silences the lot and solemnly delivers a lecture on the poem by Robert Burns, emphasising the fact that Burns ‘stole’ the first verse from James Watson who published it in 1711. “It is traditionally sung on Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year, but it also features in Zimbabwe as a funeral song. The Boy Scouts use it at their Jamborees and Shirley Temple sang it in a film in 1937.” Even the Desert Rats are impressed. “Now, the final verse says: and there’s a hand my trusty friend, and give us a hand o’ thine, and we’ll take a right goodwill draught, for auld lang syne. And you know what? This song is about real friendships, about loyalty and caring and about deep respect.” Everybody nods. “Now, I suggest we were very disrespectful to Oudoom last Sunday. When he forgot to take up the offering, we all sat there grinning. We calculated how much more we could spend on tonight’s Special. I think we are disgusting.”

You can hear a pin drop. Even the Desert Rats – the entire Vermaak family who belongs to no known church – looks guilty. Frikkie gets up, takes off his floppy hat, and starts a slow march through the crowd while wiping the occasional tear away with a dirty cuff. Hands find their ways to pockets as the hat slowly fills up. Then Pappa Vermaak starts making a round with the empty paint tin that served as a drum. You don’t say no to Pappa Vermaak. Not only will that be the end of your evening (and possibly a trip to Upington’s hospital), but far worse: he may just take the rest of the Special and disappear with his family into the Kalahari night.

Rolbos tears, Gertruida says, are different to those of other places: not only is it saltier, but also it causes an almost unquenchable thirst. When the drum and the hat are deposited at Oudoom’s feet, it was pretty Precilla who bends down, empties the contents on the floor, and starts counting the money. It is a lot. A huge amount. Oudoom mutters something about the bread and the fish at the Sermon on the Mount, shaking his head in wonder.

No wonder then, that everybody shows their appreciation for this miracle by toasting each other (repeatedly) with the Vermaak Special.

Sometimes we think of Rolbos as a backward place filled with simple people. It is not an unreasonable opinion, come to think of it. They can be quite stupid, callous, bigoted, opinionated, short-sighted, selfish and even cruel at times. If you attend any one of Oudoom’s sermons, you’ll hear him talk (at length) about it.

But not on this, New Year’s Day, 2013. For once Oudoom has a happy sermon about the Goodness Hidden in Mankind. For once his congregation is glued to his lips as he talks about caring and love and respect. And for the first time they sing Auld Lang Syne in church, accompanied by a rag-tag family with a strange musical taste and even stranger instruments.

Gertruida says this is the way church services should be: a beacon of goodwill in an evil world. Vetfaan agrees, but still prefers the out-of-tune organ to the John Deere didgeridoo.

Some readers may think this is just a story and that Rolbos is a virtual place in cyberspace. However, you don’t even have to stretch your imagination to understand life in Rolbos. Wherever you are in the wide, wide world, you’ll find a bit of Rolbos with you, around you and in you.

As we approach 2013, it’ll be great if we can all laugh at our little idiosyncrasies, giggle about our own stupidity and – most importantly – stop taking ourselves so very seriously.

In Gertruida’s immortal words: “May your new year be filled with old values, fresh dreams and some of the best wine you’ve ever tasted.” Boggel agrees, adding that world peace means nothing if you keep on fighting with yourself.

But it is Oudoom who has the last word. When he hands over the handsome sum of money to the orphanage in Grootdrink, he tells everybody that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Changing water into wine is certainly a feat, but to use the Vermaak Special to feed the children is maybe the biggest miracle of modern times.

So, from the upstanding and honestly crazy people of Rolbos: may you have a great 2013. Treat yourself today: close your eyes for a moment to forget all the artificial good wishes and synthetic text messages. Sit down for a second at the dusty bar in the Kalahari to smile at the little hunchbacked man serving your cold beer. And then, in that magical instant, experience what it means to be part of the real world.

Living in a Chugga-chugga world

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“It’s not the carburettor.” Vetfaan twists his long face into a scowl. “I’ve replaced the thing, and it still doesn’t want to start.”

“How old is that Massey Ferguson?” Boggel glances over while he polishes the glasses. Vetfaan’s tractor is a bit of a legend in the bar – whenever anybody wants to break an unwanted silence, he can just ask Vetfaan how the old machine is doing. That’ll ensure at least an hour’s tribute on the wonders of the ancient machine; much like the imbongi does with the president.

“It’s a ’57 MF 35, Boggel. And she’s been the most reliable machine I’ve ever had.” He launches into the narrative as if it’s all new to Boggel. The whole story: how he bought her as scrap at an auction, the endless task of restoring the tractor to be a regular work-horse and the faithful service over the years. By the time he pauses to signal for another beer, Boggel has cleaned the glasses, swept the floor, put on new tablecloths on the little tables and polished the counter top.

“But now she refuses to start. I’m quite confused, Boggel; she should be up and running. She simply stands there in the barn, all droopy-eyed and sad, and only goes chugga-chugga-chugga when I try to start her. I don’t understand it at all. She’s never done this before.”

Gertruida wanders in to sit down with a sigh. “You guys talking about Miss Massey again? How is she?”

This time Boggel cleans out the store room, replenishes the fridge and does the windows before Vetfaan is finished.

“Listen, I think it’s time for you to get a new one. Something that works, I mean. Over the last few years that tractor cost more in repairs than the deposit on a new one, I’m sure.” Gertruida has her wiser-than-thou look as she sips her beer. “Sometimes a thing is so broken, fixing it makes it worse, that’s all. The only thing you manage by fixing something on that tractor, is to encourage something else to break.” She shakes her head sadly, as if she really cares. “When you got it going last time, the fan-belt went. And when you fixed that, the radiator leaked. If I recall correctly, once you plugged that hole, the generator had to be replaced. It’s a never-ending series of calamities now, Vetfaan. Time to change.”

Behind the counter, Boggel stops dusting the shelves while he listens to Gertruida. She’s right, of course. Once you’ve fixed a thing too many times, even the fixes wear down to the point where the fixes need to be fixed.  He’s seen it happen. In the orphanage they had an old aluminium pot with several holes in the bottom. It was the only pot big enough for the morning-porridge, and it was his task to solder the leaks every week. Eventually, the bottom fell out and they used it for a discus competition.

For some reason – maybe the reminder of the days in the orphanage – his mind strays to Mary Mitchell. Ever since she came back from Upington, she’s been acting strange. Whenever he wanted to talk to her, she gave him a curt reply. And yesterday she sat at the bar talking to Lucinda, only to start crying. Out of the blue, the tears started rolling down her cheeks. Lucinda gave him an accusing look before she helped her out of the bar. And all this, because he said something about the world not ending on the 21st.  It was an innocent remark, yet Mary seemed to latch on to it as if it predicted the end of everything.

Then again, Lucinda hasn’t been a bag of laughs lately, either. She’s been treating him in an aloof sort of way, making wonder if he’d done anything wrong. Kleinpiet says women do that sometimes – he’s seen it with Precilla as well. When she doesn’t get her coffee in bed in the morning, she forgets to make his breakfast. Kleinpiet says women have domino-minds: if the first one topples, the rest come crashing down as well. You start with a misjudged little comment – say, about weight – and you end up in ICU with multiple fractures and a lawyer who’s keen to speak to you. Boggel didn’t quite get what Kleinpiet was on about, but smiled anyway, like a good barman should.

The door creaks open as Servaas shuffles in as well.

“Don’t ask him about Miss Massey,” Boggel whispers as the old man sits down, “he’s got trouble with her again.”

“No, man, I need something strong.” Servaas is dressed in black again. Something must be bothering him. “And I don’t want to talk about mechanical things I know nothing about. There are more important things in life, you know?” Clearly irritated, he orders a peach brandy. Tripple. Straight up. No ice. In a tall glass.

Gertruida escapes the Ferguson tragedy by turning to Servaas. “Somebody stole your biltong? Discovered some digging insects in your bread? Toilet won’t flush?”

Servaas ignores the taunt, but the fixed stare under the furrowed brow tells her it’s no time for jokes. Then he produces the newspaper clipping from a pocket.

“Here: see for yourself.”

It’s a short article, telling the world about the ruling party’s congress near Bloemfontein. “President probably to be elected again” the caption reads.

Boggel winks at Vetfaan and asks him what sound the tractor makes these days.

Chugga-chugga-chugga…” Vetfaan intones dutifully.

“It’s like dominoes, Servaas. The first one toppled long ago. The rest has no choice but to follow.” Boggel likes puzzling Servaas. “We’ve been talking about it all morning.”

They all laugh at that – dutifully – like when a barman says something passably funny. It’s Gertruida who has an idea of what Boggel is trying to say about politics, relationships and tractors. They all follow an ancient law about Life.

“It’s the age-old conflict between vice and virtue, gentlemen,” she says with her lecture voice,” and Cicero wrote about it before Christ was born. Life is a constant battle between Good and the many forces against it; and Cicero depicted it as a fight between vice and virtue. If vice is not tempered by virtue, chaos takes over. Take a tractor for instance: without petrol, Vetfaan isn’t going to get that engine running. Or love: it’ll die without hope. Again, when virtue lacks in government, vice will take over. When you analyse history, every broken heart, every stalled machine and every toppled empire followed that law. We can’t escape it. It’s the natural order of things.”

Of course the rest of them just gape at her.

“Where did that come from, Gertruida?” The annoyed expression on Servaas’ face says a lot more than his words. “We’re talking about having to face the future with a polygamous, probably corrupt and definitely devious leader for the country.”

And I’m worried about Mary and Lucinda, Boggel thinks, which has nothing to do with politics.

Vetfaan simply sits there with a blank expression.

“Oh for goodness’ sakes, guys,” Gertruida rolls her eyes in desperation. “Come on, Vetfaan, make that sound again? The one your tractor makes when it won’t start? It’s the same thing. And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear it coming from Zimbabwe, Congo, Egypt, Syria – many, many countries sound like that. Vice got to them, you see? And it gets to relationships when people take themselves too seriously, too – or when you forget to check the fuel pump while you’re fixing the carburettor. You’ve got to understand the analogy – Cicero was right.”

Vetfaan goes chugga-chugga-chugga? again – as a question and with a puzzled expression.

This time nobody laughs.

It’s just not funny any more.

Mrs Remington’s Peace

(Following on Frans Viljee’s Smile)

Rose Remigton eyes the little red stoep with some uncertainty. Next door’s one bungalow has an orange veranda, the other one’s green. She stays in red, doesn’t she? She shrugs – it doesn’t really matter. If she walks into the wrong dwelling, the world isn’t going to end, is it?

Ever since that woman came to see her, she keeps on thinking about Martha Viljee and the baby she had. It must be about thirty years now, maybe more, but she somehow remembers that specific birth quite clearly. She should, given the circumstances.

Being the district’s midwife wasn’t easy. She had to travel from farm to farm, always at the last minute but never late. Often, these visits resulted in a stay of a few days, even a week, before she felt it was safe enough to leave the mother to take care of the new arrival. Society had a strange way of dealing with midwives: when you were needed, you were expected to respond with urgency. However, between deliveries, one got the impression that one was an embarrassment – just like the Gerickes were.

She had known Martha Viljee before she got married, of course. Although she was a good ten years older than Martha, the district was so sparsely inhabited that age didn’t necessarily impact on your choice of friends. Being young meant you were below forty and that implied a possible friendship. Old was a relative term in those days. Maybe the clearest distinction was whether you participated in the occasional dances that took place for various reasons. The wool cheque, New Year’s Eve and birthdays supplied enough excuses for the younger group to party – while the older generation used these occasions to sip peach brandy and complain about the way the children misbehaved on the dance floor.

Yes, and she remembers the way Martha used to look at him. Kobus Gericke. The clever one – whose father used to grade the gravel road between Upington and Grootdrink. The Gerickes were not amongst the Chosen Ones when one arranged seating at a wedding or at Communion; they were expected to (and they did so themselves, really) sit at the back, away from the important guests, as if they were left-over patches to be worked into the quilt of society. So Kobus rarely made it past the barn door at a dance; he was allowed to be there, to look on; but that’s where his participation was expected to stop. A child of such a lowly standing would surely feel out of place in the arms of a beautiful young lady? No, it was for his own good that society decreed his presense-at-a-distance. To protect him, you see? It’s not that they were snobs or anything like that. Why allow the boy to dream if it could only end in tragedy?

But Mrs Remington remembers the way he looked at Martha as well, just like a cat does when one opens the fridge door; or a dog would, if you eat biltong. There was a hunger in those eyes; a desire reflected in Martha’s as well. Rose Remington knew – just like with pregnancies – that life contains certain inevitabilities; and that nature will not be denied by stature, bank balances or social pressure. Kobus and Martha may have been separated by communal decree, but the pull of attraction would always be stronger than the forces that kept them apart.

The wedding of Frans Viljee and Martha was a disaster. The drought had taken its toll and both families were about to lose their farms – and with it, their social standing. In a last-ditch effort to impress their guests, the barn on the Viljee farm was converted into a concert hall – complete with electric loudspeakers and several long-playing records. To a community only used to the wind-up, His-Master’s-Voice type of gramophone, this was supposed to be the ultimate in entertainment. Martha’s father said it was even better than having Charles Jacobie there – the speakers were so clear  you could hear the rasping of the fingernails across the guitar strings.

The system needed electricity – another rather new idea in the district. That’s where Kobus Gericke came in. He and his father had to lug a generator all the way from Upington to Grootdrtink for the occasion.  As the grader had to do the route anyway (albeit slowly…), it was a logical choice. And when the old grader broke down, ten miles from Grootdrink, the only way to tell anybody about the catastrophe, was  for Kobus to run ahead with the news.

For the first time ever, Kobus had a legitimate reason to knock on the door of the hallowed family whose daughter was about to get married. Martha opened the door, eyes stretching wide in pleasant surprise. He told her. She cried. He comforted her. She invited him in. She found herself sobbing on his shoulder: about the wedding, about her unhappiness … and about her love for him.

Who can explain the thrust and power of such moments? Science will forever fail to clarify the energy created by a distraught maiden in the comforting arms of a lost love. Then again, one shouldn’t dwell on such issues, nor try and describe what happened next; as this is, like so many intimate moments, a very private affair. Suffice to say that Martha walked down the silent isle with considerably more inside her than just the remorse of what they had done.

Mrs Remington feels her face crack up with a rare smile. Yes, this is exactly what Martha told her, that night the baby was born. That someday, when life has smoothed the rough edges of anger and remorse and resentment, she would like to see father and son united again. That the circle would be completed. And how she prayed that she, Rose Remington, would be instrumental in helping that to happen!

Yes, she thinks, now at last the book can be closed.

There is something else she remembers. Kobus came to see her one evening. He wanted to know more about his son, and she was the only one he could trust. She told him about the quiet little boy who refused to cry.

“He’s going to be a lonely man, Kobus, but he’ll be strong. Now you, young man, must face up to reality. You can never go near Martha again. One scandal is enough. The only solution is to allow her to live her life without wondering what gossip is cruising through town. No, you must leave. Go to Cape Town, do some studying. Become somebody. And then, when the time is right, you may have another chance to fix all this. Not now…later…

“Mark my words: life is like a pregnancy – a mother can’t decide when to have a baby. Nature does. And so it will be with you. If you are patient enough, the delivery will be painless. However, if you try to force the issue, the baby and the mother may very well end up dead. That’s the way it is. Accept it.”

“But how, Aunty Rose? How?”

That’s when she started putting money in the Post Office savings account, pinching off as much as she could. Funny, now that she thinks of it, she never missed that money. And Kobus paid it all back eventually. Fancy: a midwife putting a young man through university? It must be said that he did his bit, too: his hard work was rewarded by a bursary that covered most expenses.

Yes, the circle is complete now. Kobus will look after Frans, like a father should. Frans will start anew. Just like a pregnancy. There’s no sense in rushing events in life – there is a time for everything.

The sun has moved along its course and she feels her legs warming in the afternoon’s glow. It’s been a good life, she thinks. Now she can face the last episode with peace. Rose Remington, born as Rosalie Gericke, can relax at last.

The smile on her face broadens. The Gerickes have always had a way of managing scandals. Why, she married an Englishman, for goodness’ sakes! And Kobus never married, but had a son. Lord only knows what poor Frans will get up to in the future…

 

Measuring up to…The End?

Karel Kadawer, the district’s undertaker, is a worried man. For several years he has watched the farmers move to the cities and towns as the drought, and cost of labour and fuel slowly strangled the life out of their dreams.  Land claims, murders and politics contribute to farms being evacuated in the Transvaal and the ripple-effect of these factors washed over the provincial borders to the Northern Cape as well.

It is a simple fact, Kadawer says, that an undertaker needs a constant supply of lifeless bodies to keep his business alive. It’s not that he is insensitive to bereavement; it’s just the question of supply and demand all businesses face. He can supply, but the demand has slowly decreased over the last few years and now an entire month can pass without him having to polish the black station wagon in his garage.

Well, he decides, I can’t just sit around, waiting for some poor soul to pass on. If he doesn’t do something, he’ll have to find a new job – and he’s not disabled, black or female. There was some gossip that his great-grandfather on his mother’s side may have had a mixed ancestry –and that would have helped – but the diary of the old man disappeared mysteriously after Malan was elected in 1948.

That is why he puts on his funeral suit, drives over to Boggel’s Place in the polished station wagon, and surprises the customers with his announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he addresses them in his gravest funeral-voice, “I am so touched by the prospect of your immanent loss. If any of you had the possibility of surviving relatives, my visit today would have been unnecessary. But, alas, such is not your good fortune.”  He ignores the shocked expressions of the patrons at the bar, pauses a second, and goes on: “Yea, you will all pass through the valley of death, my good friends. Soon, the streets of Rolbos will be empty and void of life. Even….Vrede will be no more.”

By now, Gertruida has recovered sufficiently to order a round of Cactus Jack for all of them.

“What in heaven’s name are you going on about? You can’t just walk into a bar to announce everybody is going to kick the bucket? You’re a sick man, Kadawer. It must be the peach brandy you brew up in that kitchen of yours. Sit down and tell us all about it.”

It is a well-known fact that Kadawer uses the off-cuts from the coffins he makes, to fire up his still. The few bottles he produces every month are famous for the hangovers they produce.

“No, my dear and soon-to-depart, beloved friends. I’m as sober as the Pope. I’m talking about the end of the world. It’s coming. Now, if you’ll all line up here, I’ll take your measurements.” Kadawer fishes the measuring tape and a small, black book from his pockets. “Ladies first, please?”

“Wait a second, Kadawer. What are you trying to do? Scare us to death? Why measure us, for goodness sakes?” Vetfaan gets up to snatch the tape from the undertaker’s hand.”Now you are going to explain, and you’re going to do it right now. I’m getting fed up with your nonsense.”

Karel Kadawer isn’t afraid of death – he’s seen it so many times – but an angry Vetfaan can be quite intimidating.

“Well, as you may know, the world is going to end in December. Ask Gertruida: she’ll tell you about the Mayans and how they worked it out.” He seems to regain some composure before gong on. “Now, I can produce only two coffins per month. At a stretch, maybe three. That means, in the six months before the End, I can help you with twelve to eighteen coffins. No more than that, I’m afraid. At least the people of Rolbos will have sufficient supplies to face that final hour; I don’t know what they’re going to do in the bigger places like Upington and Prieska. Oh, and I’ll throw in a box for Vrede as well, as a sign of goodwill.”

“So, you’re going to make coffins for us? The world is going to end and we’ll at least have enough coffins in Rolbos?” Precilla frowns. She was hoping to take a few days off in December. On the other hand, she has to pay a deposit on the little guest house near Kanon within the next week or so. Kadawer just saved her a lot of money. She gets up, takes the tape from Vetfaan and lies down on the floor. “Measure, already! I have to cancel a booking.”

“Oh, stop it!” Gertruida can’t believe they are all so gullible. “Sure, people are talking about the Mayan calendar. They say the Norwegians have a vault with all the seeds of plants in safekeeping. Some suggest we’re going to collide with another galaxy during the Northern hemisphere winter solstice. Others point to massive sun storms.  Hollywood has been churning out asteroid movies.” She sips her Cactus Jack, sighs and goes on: “The world may well end some day. But ever since history got written down, there were predictions of this nature. There were predictions by Clement l in 90 AD, followed by a spate of others by Hillary of Poltiers, St Martin, Hippolyptus, John of Toledo  – and that was within the first millennium. After that, the doomsday prophets multiplied and the Watchtower Society predicted no less than eight dates between 1914 and 1994 as the end of it all.” She signals for another Jack. “The point is, Karel, we don’t know.”

“But you have to be prepared, Gertruida. I’m only trying to help, that’s all.”

“Wait a second.” Kleinpiet draws a little coffin on the counter top. “You measure us, right? We pay you, and we get coffins? That’s what you’re saying?”

Kadawer nods with some enthusiasm, spilling some of his drink.

“So…who’s going to bury us, if nobody survives?”

*

It is Gertruida who suggests the solution. If she helps Kadawer to brew up a less vile peach brandy, the undertaker’s cash flow will sustain his business between funerals.  It just so happens that she knows the old Dutch recipe of peach skins, pips and sugar. “The trick is to bury the bottles for three to four months, Karel. You’re good with that – burying, I mean. When you dig them up again, you’ll have the sweetest, strongest and best brandy in the district. If you start now, you’ll be in time for the Christmas rush.”

“But Christmas is after the 21st, Gertruida; what’s the point?”

“Exactly the same as buying a coffin for Doomsday, Karel. Exactly the same. Only difference is the one will take you down, and the other will make you high.”

And so, Karel Kadawer has the only funeral parlour with empty shelves, waiting for the bottles that are fermenting away under the hot Kalahari sands. Gertruida said the brandy will have enough kick to drop a mule. Kadawer’s eyes lit up when he heard her say that – he hopes the brandy will save his business in … some unexpected ways.