“On the 29th of February, it is customary for ladies to ask men out on a date. The beauty is: the man may not actually refuse. If he does, he has to give the maiden a present befitting the occasion, or be flogged in public.”
It is Wednesday and the two girls have taken to the Cactus Jack quite early. Precilla said that, since the 29th is an extra day, she is not going to open her little pharmacy. It’s been a tough month and she has had enough. She has sent four short stories to four magazines, with no answer yet. The January batch yielded only the usual bunch of rejection notes. But, she says, she will keep on trying. Once editors realise how readers would love stories about Rolbos, they’ll pay her good money for her efforts. Gertruida made sympathetic sounds when she told her and ordered another round. That’s when she changed the subject to men.
“Oh sure, Gerty. You can see that happening in 2012? Public whipping, I mean. Impossible.”
“Maybe not always public whipping, but penalised, at least. Laws are laws, Precilla. The Scottish law of 1228 states that, and I quote: Ordonit that during ye reign of her maist blisset Majestie Margaret, ilka maiden ladee of baith high and lowe estait shall hae liberte to bespoke ye man she likes – albeit he refuses to talk he shall be mulcted in ye sum ane pundis or less. Some people think that the custom of reverse dating started there. Over the years it has become tradition, more than law. It would be most unkind of a gentleman to refuse the advances of a lady on the 29th. It simply isn’t done.”
“So what, exactly, are you brewing up in that brilliant mind?” Precilla wagged an unsteady finger towards Gertruida’s head. “I can see you are going somewhere with this.”
“Well, you know we are the only two unmarried women in Rolbos. Ta’ Hybie doesn’t count on account of her age and the fact that her dentures only arrive next week. And there’s Ouma Snyman who lives out at Bitterbrak. You’ll remember her; she’s the one that ordered that spring-thingy with the batteries from your pharmacy in 2006. I don’t think she needs a man.” Precilla blushed. They talked about the “winged instrument with a natural action” guaranteed to “satisfy beyond belief” for a long time. Ouma Snyman has a standing order for batteries at Sammie’s Shop. “So that leaves the two of us. And I think we must have a party.”
At six, just when the sun was dipping towards the horizon, Gertruida arrives at Boggel’s Place dressed to kill. She has dug out her floral jeans (summer of ’67) and spent most of an hour squeezing into it. The low-cut blouse is of more recent origin, as are the hoops in her ears. In contrast, Precilla went even further: she likes the Gatsby era.
When they walk into the bar, the men lets out a collective wolf-whistle.
The Kalahari is a lonely, dry, and harsh place. Months – and sometimes years – may pass without the hint of rain. When the clouds start rolling in from the North, people will spend many an hour staring at the sky, willing the clouds to become bigger and wishing them nearer. Even the promise of rain is better than an empty sky. That is why, when the two women walk into Boggel’s Place, the customers at the counter look at them the way they do when clouds gather on the horizon.
Kleinpiet is first to react. He puts a huge hand over his mouth to stop the nervous giggle, while Kleinpiet tries to look bemused. They have seen that cloud build-up move away to Namibia so many times. They don’t want to be disappointed again. Better just to look. Wait. Hope.
“So what are you ladies celebrating? You could have warned us.” Servaas is in a foul mood. Bertus, his prize ram, must have eaten something wrong. He has shown no interest in the ewes dor two days.
“You have to order us two ladies some real champagne, Servaas. It is leap year and you may not refuse.”
“Yes, and then we’d like you men to treat us like real ladies for just one night. Just one. Be kind and generous and make us feel like women.” Precilla takes off the small hat and shakes her hair loose.
“How much is your champagne, Boggel?” Vetfaan has become a successful farmer by watching his overheads carefully.
“I have only one bottle in the pantry. Moet et Chandon. Vintage. That’ll be about R600.”
“Typical.” Servaas downed is beer. “That’s the price of one whole sheep. A lamb I caught with these two hands, raised by feeding it properly, treated when it got sick and watched over for a year. Lots of work. Many hours. Now you open a bottle, pour it into a few glasses, and five minutes later we have to cough up the money? I’m out of here.” Grumbling his displeasure, Servaas stomps out.
Kleinpiet suddenly remembers that he forgot to turn off the pump at the borehole on his farm. “Jeez, ladies, I would have loved to stay, but if that hole runs dry, I’m in trouble. See you tomorrow.”
Boggel stands up a straight as he can, to look Vetfaan in the eye. “Well…?”
And Vetfaan fails the test. He tells them you can buy six bottles of Cactus Jack for that money. A whole week’s booze-value for a single round of champagne? No ways. And with him being the only male, paying customer around, it means he will have to pay for it all by himself? “I think I’ll go help Kleinpiet. That pump has been acting up lately.”
The two ladies and Boggel watch the doors swing shut after Vetfaan left.
“Aw, I’m sorry,” Boggel says. “They didn’t treat you well tonight, did they?” Then he shuffles to the back to fetch the champagne.
“But Boggel, who’s going to pay for it?”
And Boggel laughed. “This bottle was sold a year ago, when the Chinese mapped out the new cellphone network They got so drunk they ordered it, but forgot to drink it. So, it’s been paid a long time ago,”
“But you said it cost R600…”
“Of course I did. Just like I knew they’d all chicken out and find excuses to leave. And I hoped I could ask you ladies to join me for a glass of bubbly. Only…now I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Gertruida is aghast. “Why not? It’s been paid for, Boggel. What’s your problem?”
“It’s leap year, Gertruida. I can’t ask you. You have to ask me, remember?”
When Boggel locks up for the night, he whistles a happy tune. He smiles at the predictability of his customers and the happy evening he enjoyed in the company of two special ladies.
Outside Rolbos, on their way to Ouma Snyman, a slightly tipsy Precilla leans over to Gertruida. “Do you really think she’ll tell us what it’s like?”
Gertruida smiles back at her. “We can only try, Precilla. We can only try.”
For a moment Precilla wonders whether she should write a story about the evening; but then they arrive at Ouma’s gate and she dismisses the thought. Tomorrow. She’ll think about it tomorrow/
And far off to the North, just below the shining orb of the moon, a single cloud starts forming. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll bring relief.