Tag Archives: postaday

The Grain of Sand at Midnight

6021415053_58b80f448b“It’s a fallacy,” Gertruida says because she knows everything, “to talk about midnight. Nobody knows when – exactly – that is.”

A statement such as this is usually met with various nods and understanding looks, simply because you don’t argue with Gertruida. It is far better to lift you glass and toast her wisdom, than to start a debate. But Servaas, who still relies on his old Westclox (the one Siena gave him on their first anniversary), feels compelled to say something.

“It’s when the short arm and the long one both point north,” he says. “Everybody knows that.”

“That’s far too crude to be accurate, Servaas. The hands on that clock stay together for too long. Have you timed it? It takes about twelve seconds before you can see the hour-hand move. Even if you watched it closely, you can’t pinpoint the exact moment when the new day starts and the old one ends.”

“But I have a radio, Gertruida! And that Westclox runs on time, I can tell you. When the beeps for the seven o’clock news sound, that alarm clock agrees: it is exactly seven. Siena always checked it, now I do too.” He hesitates for a second, unsure whether he should continue the argument. “Anyway, since you got that new-fangled watch with the electronic numbers, you seem obsessed with time. Obviously you think that thing is more accurate than the old Westclox.”

‘It’s not that, Servaas,” This time, Gertruida is the one who pauses. “It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Well, I got to thinking about change, you see? One moment you feel this way, the next you change your mind…”

“Nt me, Getruida. That’s a woman-thing.”

She ignores the remark. “Everybody does that. It’s sometimes a conscious decision. Shall I buy a bread today? Must I go to church? May I have another beer?…And sometimes you don’t even know you made the decision, like when you slap a mosquito.”

She smiles, her point made. Yes, Servaas nods, one moment you’re faced with a situation, the next you’ve made the choice.

“That’s what I mean about midnight. Between the tick and the tock lies a thousand microseconds. Which one is the right one? And that’s what set me thinking about choices and change. Every day – in our minds – we throw the switch, chuck out the old and start with the new. And it’s not just about time, Servaas. It’s about the how and the why I’ve been thinking,

“You see, a clock has no choice in the act of ticking, provided it’s properly wound up. In our minds, however, the process of decision-making is a deliberate thing. We can decide whether we stay in a certain mode, or change to something new. But even if we decide not to change, that is change in itself? Don’t you see? Nothing remains constant – so if one decides to remain as is, that’s a change – because you stopped the process of progress. You would have ended up in a different situation if you decided otherwise.” She ignores the puzzled looks. ” And that, my friend, happens between the tick and the tock. I’m simply wondering how – and exactly why and when – that happens.”

This is far too deep for the group at the bar. Vetfaan tries to change the subject by expressing his dismay at the way the Malaysian aeroplane was shot down.

“There’s another example!” Gertruida isn’t finished. “An aeroplane crosses the sky. One moment the guy with his finger on the firing button isn’t a murderer, the next he is. He crossed his midnight and now he’ll never be able to return to yesterday.”

“Gertruida!” Kleinpiet throws up his hands in exasperation. “Good grief, woman! This is Boggel’s Place, not the Royal Society of Philosphers, Psychiatrists and Politiians. How on earth do you expect us to follow your reasoning? It’s unfair, to say the least.”

Boggel serves another round. “It’s like a scale, guys. Just before midnight, the scale is in perfect balance. Then a grain of sand – perhaps a very, very small one – is added to the one side. Now it tips to one side, the balance disturbed. That’s what Gertruida is trying to say…I think.”

She flashes him a grateful smile. “Yes, Boggel. I want to know what that grain of sand is and why it gets added to the scale. It’s just a simple thought, really. Didn’t want to start an argument.”

She almost sounds believable.

“Our history is determined by decisions. Between the ticks and the tocks of your old Westclox, Servaas, lies the determination of what we are and where we go. We live in troubled times – but who causes these troubles? I’ll tell you: men and women who cross a threshold, changes from yesterday to today, passes the midnight of indecision…and then comes to a conclusion.

“Take the strikes in our mining industry. Somebody made that decision. Hamas attacks Israel and Israel retaliates – who crossed that midnight-moment? Syria, Congo, Sudan…all the result of decisions some people made. One moment they considered peace, the next they rejected it.  Religious and ethnic conflict? It’s all due to a single moment when the grain of sand causes the scale to tip one way or the other.”

Once again her comments are digested with that faraway look farmers get when they wonder what this year’s wool-cheque is going to look like. But, because they like Gertruida so much, one or two nod to show her they’re listening.

“God created Time, Gertruida, to allow us to think.” Oudoom tries to contribute to the convoluted conversation. “Without Time, we simply cannot think, and therefore we cannot change. So, the way I see it, is that Time and Change are blood-brothers. You can’t have the one without the other. And right in between them – Time and Change – you have the grain of sand called Choice. Sometimes it takes a long while before the scale dips to one side, but it is due to Choice that it does so. In contrast to Servaas’ Westclox, we have a choice about Change. Left or right? Up or down? Yes or no? Love…or hate?” The old clergyman sighs. “The exact moment of midnight, Gertruida, is when we consider a thought that changes our ways. This can be good or bad. Evil or not. And that choice is the weight that tips the scale.”

“So,” Vetfaan says with a sardonic grin, “the answer is to make no choices? Leave everything just as it is?”

“That, my friend is impossible. The very nature of life – and of each one of our lives – is based on choice…and change. We can’t control time, but we can control the grain of sand we place on the scale. We, each of us, pass many midnights between past and future every second of our lives. We hold the bag of sand and we have to place it either on the right – or the left – of the scale as we go along. And that, Vetfaan is the way it works.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “Every decision? Every moment?”

“Yes, Vetfaan, every one of them.”

“Then, my grain of sand says I have to order another beer.”

They laugh at that. Maybe it’s relief that something funny has been said, or simply the fact that the burden of carrying that grain of sand can be a very weighty load to transport around. Perhaps, too, they think back on the midnights they have all had, and the choices to place those grains of sand on the scale.

Precilla wipes away a tear as she remembers her affair with Richard, and the way it all ended so tragically. Yes, she made a choice – the wrong one – and she’ll regret that for the rest of her life. What would have happened if she refused his advances in the beginning?

As if reading her mind, Gertruida pats her shoulder.

“It’s not about yesterday, Precilla. Once you’ve passed midnight, it’s gone…forever. Then you are in charge again, facing that scale with your grain of sand. That’s the point. We live, we learn, we become wiser. And we all make mistakes. Some midnights – or some pivotal moments – are crucial in determining the way the day will play out. And if we place that grain of sand carefully, we can sit back and await the dawn.”

***

Rolbos – or Life – can be such a barrel of laughs at times. Then, sometimes, the little bar in the town falls silent whenever Gertruida  forces the group to be serious for a change. Vetfaan says she’s such a wet rag when she does this, but it’s Oudoom – who’s seen so much – who’ll tell you how important it is to wait between the tick and the tock, to take a deep breath right then, and place the grain of sand just right.

But then, too, the patrons in Boggel’s Place have a lot to be thankful for. Gertruida could have started the discussion with Fernando Pessoa’s quote: “My past is everything I failed to be.” One can only imagine the profound silence that would have greeted that statement.

The Scent of Eternity

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

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

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

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

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

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

She once asked Oom Ben the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And dogs and cats and cows?

“No. Not them.”

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

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

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

Gertruida stops reading.

“What is, Oom Ben?”

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

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

“Oom Ben?”

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

Another pause to catch his breath.

“And…I can smell it.”

“What, Oom Ben? What do you smell?”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

The Many Names of Stephanus du Toit

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Same.”

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

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

Same. He’s always that. Same. 

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

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

***

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

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

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

...he catches the ball behind the sticks,

and Lordy, does he know the tricks

to get the others out

and he’d shout h-o-o-w-z-i-i-t! 

as he laughs and he jumps about…

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

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

‘Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…’

(William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality)

The Danger beneath the Lace

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

He’s still sniggering when he leaves them.

The Great Doggy Olympiad

Credit: ourworldofdogs.com

Credit: ourworldofdogs.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Her pups are due any day now.

,

The Man in the Mirror

(The final episode)

Credit: itbdigital.com

Credit: itbdigital.com

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time Maxwell is the one who hesitates.

“Diksarel?”

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

A year later…

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

The Man and the Chimney

(The story starts here)

chimneyBefore chimneys, Gertruida once said, mankind could not develop beyond just making fire. According to her, caves and huts and shelters filled with smoke would have rendered mankind useless – with sinusitis, rhinitis, conjunctivitis and asthma. But once they discovered chimneys, they started making progress and the wheel was invented. That, and swords and spears and knives and other things they used to kill each other with. Progress, she says, always has a price.

She says the same thing happens in our minds. If we don’t find an outlet for the results of anger or frustration or guilt, the fumes of resentment makes us blind and suffocates clear thinking.  It threatens our lives. And as usual, the little crowd in Boggel’s Place nodded happily, hoping she’d pay for the next round. Did they understand? Of course not…they just didn’t get the picture.

But, in Diksarel’s current frame of mind, he’d paint a picture of a home with smoke billowing out beneath the closed door.The fires of guilt, fear and uncertainty inside his head are so overwhelming, he doesn’t even notice the tray laden with snacks the butler brings in. What is the minister up to? How is he, Diksarel, ever going to get out of this mess? Yet, despite these worrying thoughts, there is the relief of knowing the truth about his father. Maybe even a long jail sentence is worth it all…

A long hour drags by before Minister Vilakazi returns. He’s talking rapidly into his cellphone – saying yes yes, I know, but something urgent has come up, as he ushers a ferret-faced short man into the room. Diksarel cringes: he recognises trouble when he sees it. This short man with his eyes set too far apart on the narrow face, with his claw-like hands and the peaked chin, seems the unforgiving type, When he’s introduced as Maxwell Mogale, Diksarel feels like running away.

Maxwell is a household name all over the country. A fearless fighter for justice, his appointment as the Head of the National Prosecuting Authority surprised many. His reputation rests on the fact that, despite his looks (or maybe because of it), he has had unprecedented success at prosecuting and convicting several government officials for bribery, corruption and various other crimes. He was responsible, for instance, for getting rid of the National Commissioner of Police. But he didn’t spend his time with government officials only; he’s prosecuted mine bosses, trade union leaders, tax evaders, drug lords… Nobody is immune to his scrutiny.

Maxwell, like the minister, doesn’t waste time. Diksarel has to tell his story all over again. This time, Maxwell takes notes and asks questions. Diksarel feels drained when, at last, the questions stop.

“Mmmm…” Maxwell scratches a patch of skull behind the pointed ears. “Yesss….”

“I’m sorry. Really, I am. I shouldn’t have…”

“Oh shut up!” The fire in Maxwell’s two small eyes makes Diksarel swallow the rest of the sentence. “You have destroyed evidence. You colluded with another person to defraud the the department of Internal Revenue. You agreed, for a certain payment, to transgress the basic rules of auditing. You were prepared to supply the authorities with a false report. And then you planned to flee the country.” The eyes swivel upwards, as if these things are just too much to contemplate. “You know what? I know about this case. I know about everything. And I know about RD+P.” He sighs. “In fact, they have contacted my office about you. Watertight case of a young clerk trying to pull a fast one. Makes a wrong inscription, diddles the figures, withdraws a large sum…”

“But I didn’t! I never withdrew money!”

“That’s not what they say, my friend.” The last word is hissed, devoid of any sense of kindness. “They have proof. A series of forged cheques. Signed, according to their handwriting analyst, by you. Twenty-odd million Rands over the last six months.”

Suddenly, it is so simple to understand. Of course! RD+P is in the process of framing him! The excess money in their account – the bribe they took to drop the case of the defective housing in Upington – disappeared from their books. And who better to blame than the man who discovered the fraud in the first instance? So, fabricate some evidence, get some smart-ass lawyer to lead this evidence in court, and he, Diksarel, will have no chance. Kneehigh will have her own version of what transpired, sealing his fate.

Diksarel flops down on one of the minister’s plush chairs, head in his hands. “That’s not true…,” he sobs.

“Maybe. Maybe not.” For the first time Maxwell’s tone softens. “In my line of work, I have to be extremely circumspect. All cases have two sides, and often they have more. But I do have a responsibility. A complaint has been lodged against you. That means I have to act. I can’t ignore the fact that I have here – you – a fugitive who was planning to leave the country after stealing millions from a reputable law firm…”

“I didn’t! I didn’t! I never touched money from any client. I swear!”

“That’s what they all say.” The steely note is back in Maxwell’s voice. “But your bank account shows a balance no auditing clerk should have. More than twenty million? Where, my friend, did you get the money?”

“Wha…?” Diksarel feels faint. Of course! To make the case against him, RD+P transferred money to his account, making him the obvious thief!

“The way I see it, there’s not much to discuss.I came here because I respect Vilakazi’s judgement. But now…I think it’s time for you to accompany me to the nearest police station.”

***

Gertruida’s chimney-theory is true. Anybody who has been so wrongfully accused (and some who were not), will tell you the worst moment is that instant when you know the game is up. The whistle blew, The penalty shoot-out is over and the scoreline stands. Nothing will change it now.

Diksarel sits, sobbing, as Vilakazi gets up to call the huge butler over. The small, ferrety man isn’t going to carry this burly clerk to his vehicle. No sir. The butler will have to do it.

The fire inside Diksarel’s mind flares up, causing the smoke to blind and suffocate him. Framed. Guilty. No way out. Jail…

This is when Mama Sarah gets up. “Wait,” she says softy as the butler bends to pick up the crying man. “I want to say something…”

The Man at the Soccer Game

 

Credit: pageresource.com

Credit: pageresource.com

(This story starts here...)

Gertruida says men can be so childish. Diksarel and Jason had this stupid little altercation to prove to each other that they’re proud of their past – despite the many shortcomings. After all, how much responsibility can you take for the mistakes of previous generations? Yet, despite the stupidity of it all, they both needed a gesture, a symbol, of the anger they have felt about what had transpired so many years ago. Shame has no sell-by-date, neither has guilt. No matter how we try to camouflage those feelings, they remain there – lurking – in the subconscious.

Now, each with a beer in the hand, they smile sheepishly at each other. Jason knows that Diksarel is as responsible for his family’s plight, as he is to their’s.

“You’ll have to do something about that Katie Leggings – Kneehigh, as you call her – to get out of this mess.” Mama Sarah says again. “Once the Revenue Service is looking for you, they won’t stop.”

Diksarel nods. It was that woman who started it all with the invoice she added to the pile of documents Diksarel received from RD+P…by mistake. After that came the cover-up and the promise of a holiday in the Maldives…and then the real chaos started. Sure, he was glad to learn the truth behind his father’s actions and saddened to realise how much the old man must have suffered – but his current situation begged some sort of solution. He can’t hide for the rest of his life, like his father did.

“My friend, the economist!” Mirriam sits up abruptly. “He’ll know what to do.” She looks up at Mama Sarah, who nods approvingly. “I’ll phone him.”

***

When you play stone-scissors-paper, you may find that the stone is always superior. It blunts the scissors every time. Mostly, when you want to see a minister, you can’t cut through the red tape. If, however, you added loyalty to the game, you’ll end up winning every time. It is better than stones, scissors or any paper you’d like to mention.

Miriam’s friend turns out to be the minister of finance, an old friend of the Plaatjies family. When her father left Upington in disgrace, he was the only person who supported the shamed family. More than most, he understood the nefarious ways of the Bureau of State Security. He hated the agency after they sent him a letter-bomb to his address in London. it was opened by his nephew…

“That Labuschagne’s son? The one you mentioned in that book you wanted to publish? Really?” Diksarel hears the incredulous note in the man’s voice after Miriam switched on the speaker-phone. “Sure. Come on over. I’m watching the soccer. You at Mama Sarah’s? I’ll send my driver.”

Diksarel shakes his head. Can this day become even more bizarre? Two beers later, still amazed, he watches as the new BMW stops in the potholed street.

“Come,” Miriam orders, “we’ll all go.”

***

The mansion in Bishop’s Court is unlike anything Diksarel has ever seen. The imposing gate. The rolling green lawns. The manicured rose garden. The heavy oak front door. Even a butler who shooed away the security guard…

“Doctor is waiting for you,” the giant in a tux tells them, “in the media room.”

Doctor Andrew Vilakazi barely glances at them when they enter the cinema-like room with the massive big-screen television dominating the decor. Plush seats and curtained walls create the impression of a modern-day theatre, while the commentary on the game emits from state-of-the-art speakers.

“We’ll talk later. The second half has only started. Can you believe the score? 5 – 0! It’s unheard of.” Vilakazi doesn’t get up to greet them. He’s absorbed in the game. Last night’s meetings prevented him from watching the game live and he couldn’t believe the headlines this morning. This is one game he simply has to see for himself. Diksarel notices how a tear streaks down the doctor’s cheek to fall on his yellow Brazil T-shirt. “Damn!, I don’t believe it.”

Soccer, Gertruida says, is like that stone-paper-scissors game. If you can outguess your opponent you’re home free. But, she adds, luck and skill often are more important than guessing what the opponents will do. And then, according to Gertruida, one must understand that psychology plays a major role. Once the mountain becomes to steep to climb, the spirit starts staggering around because there isn’t enough oxygen. When she says these things, the patrons in Boggel’s Place nod sagely simply because they have no idea what she’s talking about.

They sit quietly through the second half, watching Brazil being demolished in the most clinical fashion. The goal at the end brings out a wintery smile on Vilakazi’s face. At last the final whistle puts a stop to the carnage and the doctor switches the set off with a sigh.

“Damn!” Vilakazi is obviously upset.Then, composing himself quickly, he turns to his guests. “I have to be at my office – told them I had a family crisis to watch this game.” His smile broadens, lighting up his face. “Now, what is it all about. Keep it short, please.”

Somehow, Diksarel finds it easy to talk to this man. At about sixty, his eyes are alert and he nods from time to time to indicate he understands. Vilakazi, he realises, is one of those rare men who doesn’t have to open his mouth to seem clever. And he is an excellent listener, concentrating on every word.

Only when Diksarel gets to the end of his tale of woe, Vilakazi allows his eyes to wander over to Miriam and Mama Sarah.

“This is true?”

The two women nod in unison.

“And we restored honour to our families,” Jason adds proudly.

“Well, it’s a mess.” Vilakazi doesn’t waste words in his response. “I’m not sure what I can do, but I have to leave now. Make yourselves comfortable, I’ll get back to you.”

It is strange – and unfair – that people have this idea that African politicians never suffer from insomnia during meetings. Or, that they aspire to positions where they don’t have to do anything. Doctor Vilakazi is a case in point. He might be a fan of the greatest team to suffer such humiliation – ever – but, like the rest of us, he loves sport because it brings out the best in us. Win or lose, the result is something that should encourage us to rise above our disappointments and victories. Reality, in the end, teaches us about humility…and ambition.

That’s why Vilakazi leaves the room in deep thought. Life, he thinks, is a soccer game. You enjoy the spectacular moments of victory, but then – sometimes – you have to swallow the bitterness of defeat. Miriam’s family had to accept a shameful scoreline for so long, as had the Labuschagnes. To help them win their game would be difficult – if not impossible, But like that brave young man, Oscar, never gave up and scored Brazil’s only goal late in the game (knowing even this effort won’t make a difference), so too, Life expects us to keep on playing until the final whistle blows.

He barks an address at his driver.

“But, sir, the meeting? Your office called…”

“Later. This is important.”

Inside the mansion, the four settle down in the easy chairs, wondering what their host is planning; while on the pitch, the players line up after the penalty kick is awarded. One last chance. Just one…

The Man, Breathless…

Credit: gettyimages.com

Credit: gettyimages.com

(Follows on the previous posts)

People react to fright (and guilty consciences) in different ways, Gertruida is fond of saying. Mostly, their first thought is about their own safety. That is normal, she says. Once preservation of the self is ensured, attention to others become a reality.

Maybe Reverend Joseph should have thought about that. Or perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t. But when Miriam’s son appears in the doorway, Joseph has no idea of what is about to happen.

“Yes, what about the grudge?”

The three of them (Miriam, Joseph and an even more surprised – if emotional – Diksarel) turn to the door of the church, where a young man hissed the words. Despite not being quite himself, Diksarel recognises the youth as the one who brought him here from the sheneen. An alarm bell goes off in his mind – did Reverend Joseph not say he is dangerous…or something?

“You,” the newcomer points an accusing finger at Diksarel, “have ruined my family. You caused my grandfather and my mother – and me – untold misery…”

“Wait son!” Miriam is now the one pleading. “You cannot hold this white man responsible for what his father had done. Please…”

“No, Mom. Sorry. It is a matter of honour. His father, my grandfather.” He takes a deep breath, obviously trying to calm down. “Listen, White Man, if you don’t have a sense of heritage, or a sense of pride…well, that’s your bloody problem, isn’t it? But let me tell you: the Plaatjies family – all of us – aren’t like that. We are proud of who we are. Of what we are. It’s not about you and me, it’s about being a Plaatjies or being a Labuschagne. It’s our blood, White Man, crying out for justice.”

While Miriam’s son speaks, he walks down the narrow aisle slowly, ending up chest-to chest with Diksarel, who has retreated back to the little platform. He now has nowhere to go but stand and face his adversary.

“Stop it, Jason. This is a church.” Joseph’s remark is ignored.

“So.” The young man – Jason, Miriam’s son – takes off his jacket. “We’ll settle it here. Now. Let the Labuschagnes of the world know: we, the Plaatjies family, aren’t trash.”

The blow to Diksarel’s middle is unexpected, despite the preceding threatening words. He doubles up, gasping for breath.

“NOOO!” Miriam jumps forward to stop her son, but he brushes her off.

“This is somethng I wanted to do for a long time, Mom. For years and years I had to hear how one man wrecked our name. How this man – a white man – made my grandfather leave the church. And how your good name got dragged through the mud. You can’t expect me to take that lying down, for heaven’s sake!”

Diksarel fights to get his breath back. Now – almost back on his knees again – he holds up a hand.

“You….bastard! You think…only about…yourself.” Diksarel gasps for breath while he speaks. A white-hot anger is raging inside him – it is as if the decades’ worth of humiliation and being gossiped about, has burnt through the wall that has kept it at bay for all these years. “You life? Your family?” He coughs, straightening up. “You have no idea – not even vaguely – what I had to live through. And why? I’ll tell you why – your family. Your dear grandfather. Your mother.”

Diksarel feels the fear leaving him. Feels how the humiliation and rejection he had to endure all his life, rise from the ashes of his self-respect, Damn it! If this…this…Jason wanted a showdown, then bring it on! He, Diksarel Labsuchagne, has had enough. If this has to be the last chapter of his life, then let him have the courage to face it honourably. He raises his fists, ready to take on the younger man.

Conflict, Gertruida always says, is a useless exercise. She says it’s okay to have a clash of interests or a difference of opinion, but in the end conflict doesn’t settle anything. That’s how grudges are created and thoughts of revenge surface. The mightiest weapon in any conflict, she maintains, is a sense of humour.

Jason has never met Gertruida, but his reaction would have pleased her. Suddenly his scowl of anger is replaced by a brilliant smile.

“There. My family’s honour is restored. Now it’s your turn. Hit me.”

Reverend Joseph bursts out laughing in relief. Miriam sits down with a thump on the creaking pew. Diksarel stares at Jason in disbelief. What the hell…?

“Come on, White Man! Your family caused disaster in mine. I took revenge. My family wreaked havoc in yours. Now…be a man!”

Slowly, gingerly, Diksarel raises his fist. Jason doesn’t flinch. Then, when his hand is shoulder-high, he opens his fist, and lays the softest of slaps on Jason’s cheek.

“That all?” Jason is still smiling.

“Yeah. I’m not angry at you. Or your mother. Or your grandfather. I’m angry at society…and I can’t hit them all, can I?”

Yet, despite his words, Diksarel experiences a sense of relief. Here he is, at the source of the burden he has had to carry all these years, and yes…he feels a strange sense of relief at facing it. This meeting and this confrontation was necessary to get the whole picture into perspective.

“Then we can all go to Mama Sarah’s again. The beer is on me.” Jason steps aside to allow his mother to lead the way. “When honour is restored, friends should have a drink together.”

Revenge, Gertruida sometimes quotes, is a dish best served cold. Even better, is getting rid of the leftovers of anger and bake a conciliation cake.

Mama Sarah is overjoyed when the four of them sit down in her shebeen. She won’t accept payment for the four Black Labels she puts down in front of them. Apparently she already knows exactly what transpired in the church. There are no secrets in a township…

“Um…,” she says, getting their attention.  When they look up at her, she beams back. “And now there’s the little question of little Miss Kneehigh, isn’t there…?”

It hits Diksarel harder than Jason did.

The Man on the Escalator

Credit: gifbin.com

(follows on the two previous posts)

Gertruida says escalators are the great levellers of this world. They go up at one speed. Down the same way. And everybody is forced to travel at the same speed. Presidents don’t get to the next level any faster than the shack-dweller. Sinner or priest – we all progress at the same rate.

Occasionally you’ll find some dumbass somebody in a real hurry, trying to barge his way up or down an escalator. These people carry worried frowns and rarely smile as they do so. They also disregard the others on the electric stairway and never say sorry when they bump into your heavily-laden shopping bag, shattering the eggs. It is safe to assume such individuals are so desperate to hurry, they forget their manners.

One should always avoid them.

Diksarel doesn’t know much about escalators. They are rare in the Kalahari. But today, he finds out they are rather handy when you hurry.

You see, Diksarel isn’t stupid. As a bookkeeping clerk, he knows about balancing things. Column A must have the same number at the bottom as Column B – that sort of thing. He likes figures –  they don’t lie. Every inscription, every cent is important. The secret of a balance sheet lies in the accuracy of your reasoning: which figure belongs where? Logical thinking – that’s the bottom line of Diksarel’s line of work.

So, when he realises that Kneehigh might just not be around; that she of the beautiful body and heavenly eyes might have lied about meeting him here at the airport; he started thinking about what that might imply. Did she have an accident? Possible. But she would have phoned, wouldn’t she? Catching an international flight isn’t something you play around with.

Or…heaven forbid…did she lie on purpose? But then again…why would she give him a legitimate ticket on a real aeroplane to a fancy hotel on a tropical island? If something is too good to be true, it usually is, isn’t it? Life, Diksarel knows all too well, distributes lemons, not strawberries and cream.

He wonders about this. If she wanted him out of the way, why choose such an exotic destination? Surely the Maldives are a bit over the top, not so? Or did she want to implicate him as a corroborator in a tax scandal – something akin to what his father did so many years ago. Only, his father had an affair with a black lady, and now he’s involved in an even more sordid story with a white one. Colour, Diksarel decides, doesn’t determine the outcome…it’s the intention behind the action that counts.

So: Column A and Column B doesn’t match. Why…?

***

Not far away from him, the two men – Botha and Sithole – are watching faces, acting on a tip-off from their head office. They have a photo and a name. The man they’re looking for (so they were told) is involved in tax evasion and has brought the good name of RD+P into disrepute. Mister Radebe, himself, phoned the Revenue Service to lay a complaint against the unscrupulous clerk who wanted to defraud the law firm by stealing money – and now he wants to flee the country.

“Watch the passengers boarding the flight toe the Maldives. We have it on good grounds that he’ll be boarding that aeroplane. If you hang around there, you’ll get your man.”

Lawyers, like we all know, are good and solid, law-abiding citizens. They never lie. And no law firm like RD+P would try to pull a fast one: if they alleged that Diksarel was planning to skip the country after committing a felony, then the Revenue Service should surely act. And they did. That’s why they’re here…

Radebe’s reasoning is simple: Diksarel knows too much. If he started poking around and found out about the huge bribe the firm had taken to drop the case against the State, there’d be egg on many prominent faces. So…fabricate a bit of evidence! Film the man while he meets Kneehigh, document his willingness to tamper with legal documents and catch him as he leaves the country. Sure…afterwards Diksarel will tell his story, but how easy would that be for a clever lawyer to handle in court? To convince the judge that Diksarel is just trying to lie his way out of trouble, will be a piece of cake!

***

By now, Diksarel is convinced that something terrible is wrong. He’s on the airport. Kneehigh didn’t pitch. Is he to leave for the Maldives …alone? Of course not! The object of the trip was to get closer to the gorgeous curves of kneehigh, first and foremost. Had she suggested a remote cabin on the Skeleton Coast, he’d have agreed equally willingly.

No…he won’t go alone. As he gets up to see if, somehow, Kneehigh is around somewhere – a last chance gesture, despite the certainty in his mind that she isn’t – Botha and Sithole find their man at last. Shouting at Diksarel to remain where he is, they make their way towards him, fighting off the throng of tourists waiting to board.

Column A and Column B are now so utterly imbalanced, that Diksarel adds two and two together in a microsecond. Two men. Shouting at him. Kneehigh not there. Ticket in his pocket. That invoice…! Noooo!

The power of a guilty conscience! Knowing he had broken the basic rules of bookkeeping, Diksarel realises that those two men are here for no other reason than to question him about his actions.

Diksarel gathers his little suitcase (swimming trunks, spare shorts and shirt, toothbrush and the blue pills) and starts running. He doesn’t know where to go, but he doesn’t want to stay where he is and talk to the two strange men shouting his name. He might not be an expert on human relationships, but these men aren’t here to wish him a carefree trip, that’s for sure.  Their scowls and angry voices tell him as much.

Running blindly, he meets the first escalator he’s ever seen.

Ever tried running up an escalator coming down? It’s not fun. The people coming down don’t appreciate your athletic ability at all. In Diksarel’s case, one particularly large lady has ample reason to be upset.

Molly Malgas works at the Wimpy restaurant on the next level. She has five children to look after and struggles to make ends meet. She has a secret, too.

Every day, in the middle of her shift, she excuses herself to, er, powder her nose. What the obliging manager doesn’t know, is that Molly then takes a dozen eggs (stolen from the fridge), puts them in a shopping bag (with some stolen buns) and sneaks down to the lower level. Here she’ll meet Solly, her oldest son, who’ll take the food home to the hungry family.

Every day, without fail.

And it is here, on the escalator, while looking furtively over her shoulder to see if the manager paid any attention to her, that Diksarel barges into her. The shopping bag gets crushed. So do the eggs…

Now Diksarel has two sets of voices screaming at him. Molly – with the yolk dripping from the ripped bag – vents her anger with a huge backhand. Diksarel ducks. The man next to him gets the blow right between the eyes. It’s Botha, who staggers back on Sithole. They tumble back, allowing the escalator to carry them down at a faster rate than the rest of the people using the stairs.

Except Diksarel. Fright has given him more wings than any legal energising drink on the market. He’s squeezed past Molly and now runs up the down escalator in a record time. He doesn’t pause at the top. Still running in no particular direction, he ignores the hubbub behind him. Away. He must get away!

Perhaps Gertruida is right about escalators being the great equaliser. It has given the unfortunate bookkeeper a fighting chance against uneven odds. But now Diksarel needs to get away, fast, or face the wrath of the two bruised men making their way up the escalator. Not knowing where to go, he rushes down a set of ordinary stairs to find himself outside the building.

The howling hooter of the bus stops him in his tracks, He turns, just in time to see the double-decker bearing down on him.