Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Relief of Rolbos

Image“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.

29 February 2008

ImageThe way the old man shuffled into town had everybody watching from the stoep in front of Boggel’s Place. It wasn’t just the fact that it was rare to have a visitor in Rolbos, either; this man was strange in other ways as well. For one: he was dressed in a dusty suit, like you’d find in the old photographs of your grandfather. Back in those days, people dressed up when they attended important events – such as dances or when they went hunting.

And then there was his absolute haggard appearance. It looked as if he had spent his entire life out in the sun; red blotches where the skin had burned and wrinkles everywhere else.

Platnees took one look at the man, turned around, and fled to the safety of Boggel’s shack behind the bar. Gertruida – who knows everything – should have known better; but she walked up to the traveller and invited him to come and sit in the shade of the stoep.

“No, thank you, Madam; but I dare not stop. I’m on the trail of the man who cheated me and I want to see him today. I have to go on.”

Now, everybody knows you can’t say something like that to a woman like Gertruida, and hope to get away with it. It’s like asking the taxman for a refund: the response is predictable. She again offered the stoep, promised something cool to drink and quite literally begged the man to rest a while.

“How long have you been after him, sir?”

“Thirty-two years, Madam. Thirty-two. It’s been a long time. But he is near. Today I’ll get him, I’m sure.”

Gertruida doesn’t get surprised over a lot of things, but when the man said his piece, her mouth fell open. Thirty-two years!  “You have tracked this man for thirty-two years? All this time?” She wanted to add that it was impossible, but stopped the impulse in time.

The man started walking down Voortrekker Weg (as the rusty sign had it. The mistake was never corrected), but Gertruida was adamant.  She wanted a name, at least.

“Gert Griesel, Madam. Now I have to go.’” And with long, purposeful strides, he walked out of town, towards the desert, in the direction of Bitterwater.

They were still talking about the dusty old man, when Sergeant Dreyer came in for his usual after-work destressor. 

“Gert Griesel? I know that name. He was murdered a long time ago.” He left to go check on the records at the police station and returned with some news later. “Griesel was a travelling salesman in the late seventies. Went from farm to farm, selling essentials the farmers needed. He did very well for himself. Then, on the 29th February, 1978, he was murdered. Apparently he camped near Bitterwater in a dry riverbed, where he was attacked and killed. His murderer was never found, although some evidence pointed towards Skelmdaan Struwig, the old miser who still farms there. Apparently some of Gert’s goods were found on his farm, but he claimed he had bought it the day before. Eventually the murder was blamed on persons unknown and the case was closed.”

“Then it makes sense,” Gertruida suddenly said. “Do you know where this Gert Griesel was buried, Sarge?”

“What do you mean – it makes sense?” This woman can be so bloody superior! “ Buried? He had family in Port Elizabeth. I suppose that’s where he was put to rest.”

Gertruida smiled that cleverer-than-thou smile, ordered a beer, and waited for the others to beg her to explain. They hate it when she does that. Makes them feel stupid. But, as always, they asked nicely and she complied.

“There is an old legend that says something about people dying on 29th February. In medieval England they had a song that went something like this:

Leapyear dead gets to your head

And slows down both your feet

Leapyear wrath is oh so slow

But ends up just as sweet

One day a year the spirit lives

In the fourth, that’s all

When February adds a day to it

You’ll hear the spirits call.

You see? That poor bloke only had the 29th of February to travel in – every four years. It adds up, if he walked from Port Elizabeth. It means he had eight days to travel – a single day every four years. And he’s still at it.”

“Oh, come on, Gertruida! That’s a load of bull. Spirits. Ghosts. Strange beings that live one day in four years. I know you know more about anything than all of us combined, but this is just too much.” Kleinpiet won’t admit it, but he inherited a superstitious gene from his great-grandmother (she had an irrational fear of uniforms after a short-lived affair with a British officer). Life was hard enough as it is, he didn’t need to add a whole day to worry about wandering spirits.

At that moment the telephone rang. Boggel picked up, listened, and handed it to the sergeant. “It’s for you,” he said.  “The constable says it’s urgent. There’s trouble at the Struwig place.”

A Trio of Lights

Image Boggel fills the porcelain bowl with peanuts. He has to keep busy today; otherwise his thoughts will continue to circle around the image of Mary Mitchell, her soft brown eyes and the touch of her hand he can never forget.

“Boggel, when you’re like this, nobody gets served. You have that far-away look Vrede gets when the biltong is finished.” Vetfaan is impatient. He has spent the day trying to fix the oil seal on his tractor and really needs to relax now.

Without a word, Boggel slides a beer across the polished surface of the counter.

Gertruida (who knows everything) is extremely sensitive to any frost in the atmosphere, and changes the subject.

“But isn’t that one of those Chinese bowls, Boggel?” She picks up the delicate sugar bowl which was demoted to be a humble peanut-holder. Lifting it high, she points at the bottom.  “Look, it’s a Minton. This is a rare piece, Boggel.”

“Oh that stuff! I use it to clean out my bathroom once a year. Got bottles full of it.” Vetfaan doesn’t want the rest to think he’s stupid.

Minton, Faan, not Milton. Thomas Minton was an expert with porcelain: started manufacturing in 1790 – and 200 years later his patterns are still being copied. This one, however, is an original. Back then, everybody wanted Willow Pattern crockery and today they are much sought-after collector’s pieces. Anyhow, I doubt whether you ever heard about the story of the beautiful Koong-Se and Chang.” Gertruida never misses out on an opportunity to dangle out the bait. Giving lectures on history is one of her favourite pastimes. Boggel gets down his from his box behind the counter to settle on his cushion. He knows that story. Ai Mieta, the rotund woman with the kind heart, used to sing the song when she dished out the watery porridge in the orphanage. That (the song, not the porridge) is one of the few fond memories he has of that time.

Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

When he closes his eyes, he can still see the rickety table; where the parentless kids tried to get enough elbow room to eat in peace. They had to wait until Mevrou Steenkamp finished the long prayer of thanks (the weather, the food, the church, the hands that prepared to food, the government – she had an impressive list of benefactors, Jesus being saved for the climax); before they were allowed to touch their spoons. And next to him – oh! so near – Mary Mitchell. The girl who would be part of his memory forever.

“That is one sad story, Gertruida.” Kleinpiet draws a willow tree on the counter with the froth on his beer. “My mother used to tell us bits of the story when she served melkkos. The soup plates had those Chinese pictures on it.”

Boggel doesn’t listen to Gertruida’s lecture. He remembers how Ai Mieta explained that the two lovers had to flee after Koong-Se’s father had promised her to an English nobleman. They managed to hide on an island for a while, but her cruel father eventually found them and had them killed. The gods took pity on their souls and changed them into doves; so that they may be free in the skies, forever.

‘What a horrible father! Killing his own daughter…” Vetfaan isn’t one to get emotional, but this is too much. He wipes away a tear. “Whatever happened to love and human rights? The papers are full of it these days.”

OH, Vetfaan, You buffoon!  Boggel just can’t get his mind to concentrate on the present. Mary with those eyes… Life is a harsh and cruel place. You may write down all the rights you like, in as many constitutions you can imagine, but love will always do as it pleases. The moment the first, faint, tendrils of smoke rises from Love’s fire: that’s when the trouble starts. There are always people around to smother those delicate flames, simply because they cannot stand the thought of your happiness. They don’t understand it. Just like that father – he killed the fire because he didn’t understand.

Ai Mieta always told them that children in orphanages are like those two little doves. They’ll see, she said, when they take to the skies one day. God takes pity on all those that suffered because of love; it is a noble thing, she said. And because the children in that home loved the kindly woman who dried their tears when the loneliness got too much, they always nodded when she said this. They didn’t understand, but there was no reason to believe she’d lie to them.

Sometimes, long after the lights were switched off, Boggel would imagine being a dove. A beautiful bird with long wings and a straight back. Then he’d bury his face in his pillow to cry silently. He didn’t want to wake the other doves.

Gertruida wets her lips on her beer. “What do you know about love, Vetfaan?” Her voice is soft, almost sad. “Maybe the question should be: what do we know about love? Look at us! Here we are, like every night, sitting in Boggel’s Place because we have nowhere else to go. This town shouldn’t be called Rolbos – in should be Solitude or Yearning. At least it would reflect the mood around here.”

Down below the counter, Boggel nods to himself. They are all looking for something – someone – to complete their lives. Yearning; now that would be apt, wouldn’t it? Some of them handle it better that others, but it is there; always there. The small town of Rolbos is where Searching for Love and Belonging, finally met up with Reality and Despair.  A tumbleweed with a fence blocking its way.

Well, the rest of the town may reflect on broken dreams and unfulfilled promises, but at least he still has that sugar bowl. The one with the lovers and the doves. The one Mary gave him when they came to take her away.

“At least the legend survived, Gertruida,” Boggel’s voice sounds strangely hollow and distant from below the counter.“Those lovers must have existed somewhere. The roots of the legend must surely contain some truth. And for more than 200 years people have copied it, told the story, felt for the two doomed lovers.  I think it is like the Bible: it’s a message of hope and love and survival of good. In fact, this little bowl contains all the principles Oudoom preaches about every Sunday.”

“It’s just a story, for goodness’ sakes, Boggel! No father will ever kill his own daughter.”

But Boggel knows. He knows that Mary Mitchell suffered worse than murder at her father’s hands. He gets up with a sigh to serve a few more beers. Before he retires to his cushion again, he removes the sugar bowl from the counter. He needs – really needs – to look at it now.

Tracing a finger over the fleeing figures and the chasing father, he marvels again at the intricate pattern. There is so much to see, so much to understand about the picture. And yet, despite the story, Ai Mieta always said that Love won in the end.

“See, Humpy,” (she always called him that), “they escaped to be free, in the end. If you can remember you are free up here,” (she’d tap a thick brown finger to the side of her head, where the first grey hairs started appearing) “well, then nobody can kill the freedom inside you. Nobody. This is where we live. This is where we remember. As long as the memory of love survives up here, you are as free as a dove in the sky.

Vetfaan’s impatient hammering on the counter stops his reverie. “Hey, Boggel! Where’s the peanuts, man?”

Boggel gets up with a sigh to push the little bowl over the counter. “You’re all lost in your thoughts today, Boggel. Thinking about free love and voluptuous ladies, are you?” Vetfaan laughs at his own joke and doesn’t notice the sad smile Gertruida directs at Boggel.

“It’s this sugar bowl, isn’t it, Boggel.” It’s not really a question. Gertruida knows a lot, remember?

Boggel nods silently.

“Tell you what. I’ve got a Voortrekker Monument bowl at home. I’ll bring it and you can serve the peanuts in it. This one is far too valuable to stand around on the counter.”

 Doe she know? But, despite his surprise, he knows she is right. Those little doves do not belong on the counter – it is something to cherish and protect, just like Ai Mieta told him to. It is, after all, not the Minton bowl that means so much to him; it is the Mary Mitchell bowl that is invaluable. It is in the remembering of two small hands touching, reaching out, under that rickety table that the bowl becomes precious, irreplaceable.

“Thank you, Gertruida.” Boggel takes the little blue bowl and shuffles, back all askew, towards the back.

“Now, what is it with you two today? Am I missing something here?”

“It’s the doves, Vetfaan, they’re out there, flying.”

One will never know how much Vetfaan understood. Broken oil seals and sugar bowls do not have a lot in common. Or maybe they do…

“It’s an illusion, chasing daydreams, Getruida.” Vetfaan starts humming I don’t believe in love, anymore… “Just a story, Gertruida.”

“It’s called Life, Vetfaan. Some people have a Minton bowls. Others have John Deere tractors. Even others sit around in Boggel’s place, drinking beer and remembering all kinds of things they wished they could forget.” Of course she knows Vetfaan won’t have the faintest idea what she’s talking about.

But, in his little shack behind the bar, Boggel places the sugar bowl between the bedlight and his Bible. A Trio of Lights, he thinks. This is where the doves are free….

A Trio of Tragedies


Click to enlarge

So there I was, resting comfortably on Boggel’s cushion, when in walked this man. I know him – or know his scent, to be more precise. The last time we met, he shot at me.

“Good afternoon, good people of Rolbos,” he says cheerfully, “I hear this is the place with the coldest beers in the Kalahari.” He sits down next to Precilla.

My hairs stand on end – but I had proper training in the old days, so I wait. These days they admit any old dog to the training sessions. It makes me sick to think about that. They train Alsatians as attack dogs, Dobermans for protective duties, Labradors for drugs, Jack Russels (can you believe it?) to inspect cargo holds. In my day, you had to do everything.  If you failed, you got more than a slap on the paw, like they do now. I hear they give preference to blind, lame and sickly dogs currently. Imagine that! Not that I despise disadvantaged dogs at all: it’s just that we had to do it all way back then.

Funny thing people have with punishment, isn’t it? All that psychology stuff makes me mad. Take away privileges. Explain – in great detail – what rule was transgressed. Talk about consequences. If you asked me, I would have told you what was wrong with that. It doesn’t help if the punishment doesn’t fit the crime – act immediately, scold and tell me what I did wrong. Give me a good old-fashioned whack if you have to. I understand that. This way of talking and explaining doesn’t help much. If that’s the worst that can happen, I’ll just steal your biltong again. And again. I hear humans aren’t even supposed to punish their children any more these days. Boy, will they pick the fruits of that one!

So there I was, below the counter, listening to this man and smelling his scent.

“You’re a very special lady,” he said, “I can tell.”

Nobody has spoken to Precilla like that during the time I spent on Boggel’s cushion. But then again, she is a rather special woman. She has the scent of a female human looking for a companion. It is flavoured with musk and cinnamon – a special smell I recognised a long time ago. I suppose the males in town don’t realise her need.

“Thank you,” she said demurely. I could smell her desire.

They talked. She laughed. I cringed.

What does a dog do under these circumstances? If I attack the man, they’ll pull me off. There is a lot of rabies around, so chances are they’ll think I’m mad and even end up shooting me. If I do nothing, Precilla will spend the night with a serial killer.

Yep, that’s right. Serial killer. I was in charge of the hunt for the Bay Butcher, as they called him in Port Elizabeth. He seduced women, took them home and carved them up. When the police got involved, he disappeared. In came the Dog Squad. I sniffed one his shoes they had found and scouted around until I found the trail; followed it until I found him hiding in a disused store. That’s when he started firing.

When Boggel rings up some drinks on the till, I grab his boot, growling softly. He thinks I want to play and shoos me off. I snarl at him. He delivers a whack on my head, telling me I have to behave myself.

That leaves me no option. I trot over to Gertruida, who sits away to one side, reading her National Geographic. Grr-Arf, I say. She looks up with a puzzled from. Grr-Arfarf, to emphasis the point.

“Now, Vrede, I know you want to tell me something. What is it?” Of all the people I have met in my lifetime, Gertruida is the most intelligent. If she were a dog, I would have tried my luck.

Grr-Arf, I say. Then I roll over on my back and let my tongue dangle from my half-open mouth.

“Playing dead, are you?”

I roll back and put my paw on her knee to tell her she’s right. Now I pull my lip up, showing my teeth and snarl.

“Okay. So you’re an angry dog and you play dead. That’s very clever. So what?”

I do the unthinkable. I scamper over to where Vetfaan and Kleinpiet are discussing the merits of tax evasion and do the doggy-thing on Kleinpiet’s leg. He gives me a clout but I run back to Gertruida to do my begging stance.

“Dead. Angry. Sex. That is a strange combination, Vrede. Who or what are you talking about?”

Mission accomplished! Making sure Gertruida watches me, I saunter over to the man next to Precilla and sit down right behind him.

Now you may think this is all far-fetched and that I should pull the other one; but Gertruida gets up and returns with Sergeant Dreyer.  It’s all over in a minute. Dreyer recognises the man, tells everybody he is an escaped prisoner and carts him off. Gertruida says there was a photograph of him in the Upington Post.

Now I’m back on Boggel’s cushion. Gertruida gave me a whole length of biltong and everybody patted me, telling me (in those funny high-pitched voices humans use when they address animals) what a good dog I am. As if I didn’t know!

But I feel sad, despite the way things turned out. Precilla’s scent has changed. The desire-smell has gone completely, making room for the aroma of utter loneliness. It, too, is very distinct. It smells like old cigarette ends and empty beer glasses. Faintly sour and somewhat pungent.

I know that smell all too well. There’s a lot of it in Boggel’s cushion. Sometimes I find it difficult to say whether it belongs to me or the hump-backed man who owns the place. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we all wish our lives were different. A lonely dog, a deformed man and a lonesome, lovely young woman – a trio of tragedies.

Gertruida says loneliness is all in the mind, but for once she is wrong. It’s in the nose.

We all smell just the same.


Longdrop to Freedom

I’m not going in there.” Gertruida wrinkled her nose at the thought. “I’ve read that more people drown in long-drops than in boating accidents. And there’s the question of snakes and rodents. They carry Rabies remember. Plus, there’s no guarantee that the platform holding that seat up, is going to be strong enough. I’ll wait.”

Now, anybody who knows Gertruida, will recognise that look in her eyes. It says: “More people die in longdrops than from constipation.” Vetfaan was sure that she’ll even know some statistics about these situations, but he was wise enough not to ask.

The other Rolbossers were scurrying around, pitching tents and making fire on the banks of the Orange River, not far from Grootdrink. It was Oudoom’s idea.

 “Look at what happens over weekends: you spend 50% of your time in Boggel’s Place, 40% of the weekend is used for sleeping, then another 5% goes into the treatment of hangovers and 3% is used for eating. Only 2% gets used for the Church. I think it’s time we fixed it.”

Boggel wanted to say that Rolbossers use 100% of their wakeful hours talking nonsense, but he was afraid he’d contribute to that figure. Anyway, Oudoom wasn’t finished yet.

“I suggest we go somewhere else for a weekend. Somewhere quiet, with no bar, no TV, and even no church. Then we all spend time with each other and share our feelings and emotions while we experience nature. We’ll certainly have a more interesting time there, compared to sitting on bar stools all day.” Oudoom waited a second, building suspense. His little flock knew there was more. “On this weekend, we’ll be pure in mind and in body. No smoking, drinking or cussing. See it as a modern-day spiritual detox.”

The funny thing about sitting in church is that communication is a one-way thing. You get told about right and wrong – it is not acceptable to go into a debate, like the old Rabbi’s did. If Oudoom said something, it was tantamount to Moses coming down the mountain with a message. You don’t argue. You may grumble, but only in silence.

After that church service, everybody (except Oudoom, of course) trundled over to Boggel’s Place to discuss this announcement. A weekend away from the town was unthinkable. Servaas lit his pipe, blew out the smoke and sighed.

“I won’t be able to make it, guys. Two days without my pipe, and you may as well bury me.”

“I’ll manage the smoking bit,” Precilla sipped her beer, “but no beer or wine is going to be impossible. My liver won’t know what hit it.”

 Despite all the guarded (some of them legitimate) excuses, the Church was not to be denied. Oudoom announced the dates, found a camping site next to the river and Vetfaan had to use his bakkie to ferry the tents, braai wood and a little podium (Sunday’s service) to their Place of Purity, as Oudoom called it. Gertruida handed out lists to everybody: meat, bread, vegetables, salads, puddings and utensils were divided amongst the members of the congregation. Somehow, they found themselves looking forward to a weekend away – it has never happened before.

The campsite was under some huge trees next to the river. They arranged the tents in a big circle with the fireplace in the middle. Oudoom’s podium occupied a strategic place next to the trunk of one of the trees, under a canopy of leaves. Some of the ladies went to great lengths to make it look like a pulpit, arranging a mattress in front of it – covered with a few cushions and some flowers. The photograph Precilla took, still hangs behind the door in Boggel’s Place.

But, whichever way you look at that weekend, it was the longdrop that had more influence on the congregation than anything else. Gertruida was convinced that the dangers involved in visiting the reed-enclosed facility outstripped anything that Oudoom ever preached about.

“We all know about sloth and gluttony and greed; and we all try to stick to the rules. But that place,’ she pointed an accusing finger, “is the work of the devil. You enter that and there’s no telling what evil will overcome you. Imagine that sinking feeling on your way down after the seat collapses! And then you still have to land in place worse than purgatory afterwards.”

Precilla added that purging, purgatory and the Afrikaans word ‘purgeermiddel’ were all related, which didn’t help at all. Gertruida gave her a withering look and walked away.

Vetfaan and Kleinpiet discussed their days in the army. Of course they knew Gertruida was listening. “It’s the absence of that satisfying plop that gets me. You never quite know when the stuff hits the ground, man. It’s difficult to know hen the ceremony is over, see?”

“Ja, I remember those days. Our Corporal used to imagine bungee stuff while he did his thing. Had a mortal fear that it will somehow bounce back on an invisible rope to hit him smack in the middle of his you-know-what. Then there was another chap who said he imagined the longdrop as a hole right through the earth – he always felt sorry for the Chinese at the receiving end. You’re right, without that plop it just isn’t the same.”

 It was during the Sunday service that things came to a head. Servaas was in the agony of nicotine deprivation and the rest felt that they had joined the AA. Boggel was making mental calculations about his weekend’s losses. Oudoom was in full cry, going on and on about the sick world we live in.

And deep inside Gertruida, Mother Nature cared not a wit about these less important things. With a colon stretched to its limit (the previous night’s lamb curry), there was only one salvation she was interested in. When the all stood up to sing, she quietly sneaked off to face the demon that haunted her all weekend. It was time, and time was unforgiving. While the song filled the air, the congregants nudged each other and winked: Gertruida was going to do it!

When the notes died down, a moment’s silence followed while Oudoom ruffled through some papers. He opened his mouth to start afresh, when a loud crack – followed by a terrified scream – made sure that the rest of the sermon simply wasn’t important enough to hear. They all stormed the bastion of terror, grouping respectfully around the reed walls.

“Gertruida?” Precilla called softly, not sure what to expect.

“I’! OUT! Now!” The panic in her voice galvanised them all into action. Vetfaan poked hie head around the makeshift door but had to retreat when several ‘OUT!”s followed. Precilla then tried.

 It took two hours.

At first Servaas said (barely able to stop sniggering) that maybe if they walked around the place seven times, the walls will cave in and Gertruida will be able to climb out all by herself. Kleinpiet suggested that they find a ladder, but that would mean travelling back to Rolbos and that would take too long.

A rope from one of the tents broke twice, resulting in further shouts on indignation. The longdrop was an example of the thorough way things used to be done in the Old South Africa; and with only the top of Gertruida’s head visible and her arms pinned at her sides, it seemed as if she was going to stay there for a long, long time.

That’s when Vetfaan remembered the gift he got from the fertiliser company. “I’ve got it! Those guys from U-pooh gave me a rope-thingy to pull out tractors when they’re stuck in the loose sand. Don’t know how it works, but I’ve got it in the bakkie.”

Vetfaan didn’t know the difference between a snatch-strap and a chain, but soon everybody was crowded around the coiled strap in its plastic container.

“Look it says here: Attach one end to the stuck vehicle with suitable slack. Attach other end to towing vehicle. Take up slack while accelerating slowly. Whatever you do, don’t brake. Congratulations on purchasing a Sproing-Boing Strap. Sounds simple. One end around Gertruida, one end fastened to the bakkie, and we can all go home.”

Kleinpiet has always been a bit of a thinker: “We’ll have to get her unstuck in an upward direction. If you just pull her like she is, she’ll have to mole her way out. Lets make a tripod with the big tent’s poles and make like they do at mining shafts. Then we’ll pull her upwards and that’s the way to get her out of there.”

Another half-an hour was spent erecting the tripod while the end of the Sproing-Boing was manoeuvred down to Gertruida’s pinned arms. She had enough movement of her hands down there to wriggle it around her middle and attach the clasped end to the upward strap.

 Vetfaan took the instructions literally. He didn’t brake. Several things happened in quick succession as he (he swears he didn’t speed) ‘accelerated slowly’.:

  • The Sproing-Boing stretched like it was supposed to
  • It reached the maximum stretch in alarming quick time
  • Gertruida was airborne a microsecond before the tripod collapsed
  • She missed the crashing poles by sheer miracle (Oudoom’s words)
  • Accounts of the height Gertruida reached vary, but most agree that it must be a record
  • Because the bakkie didn’t brake, her upward movement was replaced by a more lateral flight.
  • Vetfaan eventually realised the Sproing-Boing did its job and brought the bakkie to standstill
  • Gertruida flailed helplessly through the air for what seemed eternity, trailing some of the contents of the longdrop behind her like some fancy jet vapour.
  • Because gravity is stronger than fear, Gertruida started an inevitable descent
  • She landed in a most unladylike fashion on the mattress, cushions and flowers in front of Oudoom’s podium.

 Gertruida spent two days in Upington’s Hospital. Most of the time the nurses (suitably prepared with plastic gowns, gloves and masks) cleaned her up. The rest of the time the local psychologist tried to tell her that such experiences are ‘growth opportunities’. When Vetfaan visited her, the whole hospital smelt like Jik, but he didn’t say anything. Her white hair was warning enough to silence him. He gave her the half-bottle of Old Spice he found in his cupboard and left without a word.

 That was the last time Oudoom arranged a church camp. He says his congregation is much safer in Boggel’s Place and that he never, never heard anybody use English the way Gertruida did when she landed on that mattress. At least in Boggel’s they tell dirty stories, but remain sort of civilised.

Long after Gertruida’s hair grew out again to replace the white-bleached mop she had to contend with, she eventually saw the funny side of her ordeal. When Boggel recounted the events, everybody chipped in.

“That was the most impressive sermon ever given under those trees! Man when you landed, you spoke with an eloquence rarely heard.” Boggel sniggered. “And then suddenly everybody crowded around, and Servaas lit his pipe. It was so funny when Oudoom snatched it away from him to start puffing himself.”

“Ja, but you saved the day, Boggel. That was the fastest bottle of Cactus Jack ever!”

Gertruida says you get longdrops and long drops, and that she is the only woman in the world to have done both within seconds from each other. Statistically, she says, it is impossible. That’s when Oudoom looked up from his Cactus to say that it shows you: the church isn’t bound to statistics.

Oudoom can be very dry at times – almost cynical, one may say. The one positive thing that the camp did, was that Oudoom now joins his flock in Boggel’s over weekends. He muttered something about Mohammed and the Mountain. Servaas asked him whether that was Christian teaching, but Oudoom just shook his head. He said later that religion is like a snatch-strap: “You need the right speed to get faith moving, Servaas. And that means you can go too fast, too slow or just right. It’s a bit like the three little bears, see? A good leader walks behind, not in front.”

Servaas lit his pipe and thought about it. As usual, Oudoom was right. To get his congregation out of the muck of civilisation, he needed the Wisdom of Solomon to go to his mountain. That’s why he supports Boggel these days: mostly lemonade, but occasionally he works his way through a Cactus, just to be one of the boys. Snatch-straps only work on movable objects, after all.

And Gertruida? She got Platnees to build supports in her bathroom. She says faith is not enough.

Madame Zavira

Image“Old Servaas is looking decidedly unhappy these days,” Vetfaan said as the watched Servaas shuffling past Boggel’s Place. “Disgruntled, is the word.”

“Ja, man. That’s what happens if you get a CSO. Chronic Sperm Overload. All work and no nooky makes Jack a very unhappy boy. Seen it happen in the army lots of times.” Kleinpiet drew patterns in the froth of his beer. “We’ll have to ask Gertruida. She’ll know what to do.”

Of course she knew. “But you have to understand: some problems can’t be solved. Sometimes it’s best to leave Mother Nature to sort things out. At his age, he must rather walk the horse instead of trying to get a leg over.” Vetfaan didn’t get it and Kleinpiet didn’t want to explain, so the matter was left there.

A week later the chug-chug-chug of a  lorry using its airbrakes disturbed Vrede to such an extent that he ran, howling, into Boggel’s Place to hide below the counter. This, in turn bothered  Boggel, who woke with a start. It is not unusual for barmen to rest during the day, you see, especially if you consider the hours they put into their jobs.

What sounded like a huge machine, turned out to be a smallish truck without a silenced exhaust. It had canvas banners on the sides, advertising Madame Zavira and the Talking Cards. A byline read: Manicures for man and beast at discount prices.  Now, both of these statements caused a bit of discussuion at the bar. Surely this Madame was a straightforward fortune teller, a purveyor of lies and deceit, a sinful bender of desires, somebody that would have you believe she could see into the future. But, as simple as the analysis of her fortune-telling personality may be; a manicurist? Of man and beast? Who on earth would have a sheep manicured?

Of course such a complicated question warranted a lengthy discussion over several beers. It would have been easier if Gertruida was around; she would have known what to do. A market analyst in Upington invited her to give a talk at the Northern Cape Economic Forum, so she wouldn’t be back until later that afternoon.  It was Boggel who suggested the drawing of lots. Somebody would have to find out what this Madame was all about and what, exactly, she did for a living. Maybe it’s because Servaas drew the last straw, but he got the short one in the end.

By this time, Madame Zavira had set up a little table at the back of the truck and sat there, waiting for customers. She was a sight to see: huge hoops in her ears, a bandanna that allowed a few stray hairs over her forehead and several shiny bracelets on each arm. She wore a flowing caftan and boots. Huge sunglasses, a smile and a lot of lipstick completed the outfit.

Now, Servaas is the head elder in the church, remember? It would be unseemly for him to rock up as a representative of the congregation – Oudoom would certainly disapprove. With the help of Vetfaan, who knew something about camouflage in the border-war days, Servaas eventually sported a floral shirt; shades  and one of Precilla’s wigs she used when she was a chorus line girl. Even Boggel had to do a double-take when he saw him.

Servaas gathered the hapless Vrede under his arm, took a final swig from his glass and set off to talk to this Mistress of Sin, Madame Zavira.

She looked up as he approached the little table; this was the first time Servaas saw her eyes. They were huge. A mass of mascara. Big and blue and beautiful.  Sparkling and shining. Deep pools of compassion and understanding. They seemed to draw him nearer, draw him in, call him closer and closer.

“Ah, I see you haf come,” she said with a heavy accent. “You hat to, no? You were leetle afraid to see Madame Zavira, but here you are. Vell done.”

“We drew lots…”

“Yes, yes, I know. You were chosen. It vas in-ev-i-table.” The last word was broken up in syllables, each pronounced separately to emphasise the fact he had to be there.

“Come. Come inside. Ve haf to talk.”

The back of the truck had been converted to look like a small lounge. A single red bulb hung from the ceiling, creating a twilight-feeling in the area that contained a sofa, a table and a chair. Make-believe curtains masked the sides and a thick carpet covered the floor. She swept her hands around in a regal gesture to welcome him. He noticed the many rings. The tinkling of her bracelets seemed to echo in his mind.

“Feel velcome, no? Thees sees my consulting room.” Con-sul-ting got broken up into three words. “You vill sit dere.” Servaas sat down on the Sofa.  “Now, let us see.”

She took some cards from the stack on the table, shuffled them and laid them down on the table.

“Most in-te-resting. Very. Mmm.” Servaas craned forward. This woman was fascinating him., despite the undertones of shame and disbelief in his mind. He didn’t want to come here at all, yet… “Bot ferst ve do de doggy. He looks, um, peaceful, no? Vot is his name?” Servaas said it was ‘Vrede’ and that he didn’t like strangers. She said it vos a co-in-ci-dence, no? Look, he is happy to see her…

Vrede had his manicure in complete silence. His big dog-eyes followed her movements as she clipped the long nails. When she was finished, he licked her face and she laughed. Servaas was spellbound.

“Now for you. De cards says something about you. Dey say, you very lonely, no? And I see a church con-nect-ion.  Very re-li-gious. Den dis card, dis von, dis card she says you vill be asked for, um, how do you say, dinner? Yes, dinner. Or supper. Something to do in the e-ve-ning. She says you vill go. You vill tell de lady…um… yes it vill be a lady…um…you vill tell her something she did was a good ting. She vill gif you vine. You vill haf a good ee-ve-ning. Dat’s all.”

She waited another hour at her little table outside Boggel’s, but no one else had the guts to go and see what her cards said. And with Vrede the only dog in town, no other animals needed a manicure, anyway. Boggel’s patrons watched as she packed up her stuff, slammed the door and drove off in the direction of Grootdrink. Rolbos survived the attack of the Sinful Gypsy. Servaas ordered a round of beers. Only Vrede seemed unperturbed. He slept on Boggel’s cushion under the counter.

Of course the patrons in Boggel’s discussed Madame Zavira’s conversation in great depth.  “When Gertruida gets back from Upington, we’ll have to ask her about cards and stuff. She’ll be able to explain how this Madame knew about Servaas’ church connection.” They scoffed at a woman who will ask Servaas out on a date, saying it is impossible. Servaas doesn’t have women friends, so that part of the prediction didn’t matter. But the church…how did she know that?

Just before sunset, Gertruida drove into town, stopped in front of Boggels and sat down at the counter to order a beer. Vetfaan told her about the Madame.

“That is sacrilege!” Her response was immediate and condemning. “How can you believe anything like that? She knows the people in small towns are all involved in the church in some way and most of them are deeply religious. She took a chance and you all fell for it. And Vrede is a peaceful dog; that was just luck on her part. She couldn’t very well say he was beautiful or fierce, could she?” Vrede ignored the remark and she went on: “Servaas, the gypsies have a way of hypnotising people without them knowing it. They can get you to tell them anything. She could have made you tell her where you hide your cash, or your bank account details. This is very serious, people!”

Everybody knows Gertruida knows everything, so it wasn’t unnatural for Servaas to ask what he had to do then?  If that woman tapped into his brain, she could ruin him.

“There is a way to find out, Servaas. I have a book on Gypsy spells. It details how the Gypsies originated in Afghanistan, but eventually became known as the Romanies in the Middle Ages. It contains detailed information of their many spells, and also how to break free from them. I would suggest you come with me immediately and let’s find out what damage that woman did. I think you are in deep trouble.”

A worried Servaas followed Gertruida to her house. He gladly accepted a glass of cool wine while she paged through a rather large leather-bound volume.

“Ah, here it is. It says we have to light a candle, turn off the lights, and concentrate on something good. ‘Nice and pleasurable things’ it says here. There has to be complete silence. The spell-breaker must sit opposite to the victim, hold his hands and wait. If the victim is under a spell, his hands will start shaking. The spell-breaker must blow out the candle immediately. Then the victim is free.” She closed the book, returned it to the shelf and went on, “It sounds rather simple, doesn’t it? Do you want to try?”

Well, you know how it is. They lit the candle. They put off the light. They sat in silence thinking about good things. Servaas found his hands shaking. Gertruida blew out the candle.

Afterwards Gertruida gave a throaty giggle. “Now dat vos very good, no?  You vere fan-tas-tic.”

Few people understand the bond of trust between Gertruida and Boggel; but then again, a barman is privy to many secrets. Late at night, when loneliness becomes a weight too heavy to carry alone, people talk to the man serving the drinks.

Rolbos watched as Servaas walked down the street the next day.

“He looks twenty years younger,” Kleinpiet said.

“Maybe more,” Vetfaan observed.

It was about midday when Oudoom shuffled over to the pharmacy.

“No way. No way at all,” Gertruida said as Vetfaan stared at the reverend with an arched eyebrow.

Skeletons of Valentine Past

The day after Valentine’s is a difficult one in Rolbos. Precilla opened her little pharmacy as if nothing happened. Vetfaan sauntered down Voortrekker Weg, trying to look inconspicuous. Kleinpiet and Boggel pretended to talk about the weather.
But Gertruida knows, of course. She saw the sheepish smile on Vetfaan’s face when he sneaked out of that bungalow. Men smile like that when they get the motor running again. Or fix the light fitting. Or return to the cave with an antelope slung over the shoulder. It’s been like that since forever. She sighs, puts on her churchy face and walks over to the pharmacy.
“Tell me you didn’t do it?” She doesn’t waste time greeting.
“Did what, Gertruida?” Very innocent, very demure.
“That thing with Vetfaan. You know?” She seems to find it difficult to express herself properly. “I saw him smiling. You did it, then?”
Precilla hums softly to herself as she rearranges the cosmetics below the glass-topped counter. “And why would you like to know, Gertruida? And what would you do, if you knew? You know how the town will gossip, don’t you? So, I’m saying nothing. You’ll just have to guess.”
“Young lady, I will not be spoken to like that. I came in here to ask you a friendly question. A direct one. The least you can do is to offer me a direct and friendly answer”. She draws a deep breath. “So, did you?”
Precilla straightens up. “A lady never tells, Gertruida. You know that, don’t you? Whatever we did, or didn’t do, happened between two people. It was Valentine’s, anyway. People get lonely. Things happen sometimes, and sometimes they don’t.”
Knowing she won’t get a straight answer, Gertruida throws her hands in the air, turns around and stomps out. She has to know…
Boggel watches her approach and almost makes it to his hiding place below the counter when she sits down. “Gimme a Cactus Jack, Boggel. Make it a double.”
“Bit early, isn’t it?” However, you never argue with Gertruida when she’s in such a mood. He pushes the glass over to her, watching in awe as she swallows it down in one gulp without grimacing. “Another?” He gets a nod.
“You’re upset about Vetfaan, aren’t you?”
“Damn it, Boggel! We have morals in this town. We are supposed to be honest, God-fearing citizens with respect and integrity. We can’t allow people to go gallivanting around at night, doing all kinds of things, and still be proud of who and what we are? Rolbos isn’t like that at all. We have standards.”
Like a good barman should, Boggel knows when to shut up. This is one of those times. It won’t do to agree, because that would condemn Vetfaan. And if he disagrees, Oudoom will be on his case. He pours another Cactus.
Some people don’t believe in fate and kismet and josh and strange alignments of stars and planets. Oudoom frowns on it as well. But whatever the explanation might be: as Boggel pushes the glass over the polished counter, the door to Boggel’s Place gets pushed open by a tall man in a black coat. He looks like a youngish Clint Eastwood with his shiny boots and the flat-topped hat. A cigar dangles from the sardonic smile. Boggel is almost disappointed when the stranger walks to the bar without the tell-tale clanking of spurs.
“Beer. A cold one.” Gertruida is about to tell the man they don’t smoke in the bar before six in the evening (health inspectors have to drive all the way from Upington, so the evenings are safe), when the man turns to her.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
Now, Gertruida knows everything, we know that. Her vast knowledge helps her to sum up situations and solve problems. You don’t surprise Gertruida. Can’t be done. But now she is at loss for words. She merely raises her left eyebrow as she shoots back the last of the Cactus Jack before motioning she wants another.
“Remember the beach party?” The question is so unexpected that Gertruida does a double-take. She shakes her head and stretches for the next drink. “Let me remind you. Twenty-five years ago. Uvongo beach. You were alone. You said something about helping with sardine research. There was a party. You had a white bikini.” The cigar remains in place as the man talks in stunted sentences. “You danced.”
The third Cactus, they say, is the one that gets you. Number one shakes you up a bit; number two brings the hiccups; but it is number three that makes you happy. It sedates the bad neurons that make you sad and responsible. It also makes you very, very clever.
“Of course I remember! It was on that little beach; we had a bonfire and some idiot played guitar. I had a wonderful time, despite the off-key musician.”
The man removes the cigar, gulps down the beer. “Yeah. The music was terrible. You complained and the guitar-man gave you a joint. You said smoking improved your hearing. You liked the music after that.”
“I hate to admit it,” Gertruida is giggling now, “but I can’t remember much of that evening. Everything got blurred after the joint. But yes, I do remember dancing on the sand. Had a hell of a hangover the next day, too.”
“Yes, you had to leave early – to go back to the university, you said. When I woke up, you were gone. Just left a note to say goodbye.”
Gertruida can feel how this conversation is spiralling out of control. Sure, she remembers the party – but what happened afterwards? The bus left early the next morning and she barely made it in time. Who is this man? What does he want? She waves the empty glass at Boggel. Number four may do the trick.
“That is so long ago…I can’t remember exactly. Why did you come here?” Although she tries to remain calm, she finds it difficult not to giggle.
“I played the guitar. Not very well, but I did. You told me to go see Fingers Mofokane, the Sowetan guy. A magician with the guitar, you said. I did. It was the start of my international career.” He finishes his beer. “I’m doing a show at Upington’s Oasis Casino tonight. I saw your article on Alfie’s Earwig in The Upington Post. Reckoned it had to be you. It was. Never could forget you, understand? Always wondered what happened to you. Now I know. I’d like you to come.”

That evening Boggel serves his usual customers as they wait for the Kalahari heat to give way to the night’s cool. Vetfaan sits next to Kleinpiet, discussing the weather, when Precilla walks in. He gets up and escorts her to a chair. They smile at each other, cherishing a sweet memory. Kleinpiet inspects the ceiling for a while before coughing politely behind his hand. “Anybody seen Gertruida? Seems funny without her tonight.”
Boggel pauses his glass-polishing. “Ag, you know how it is. Some guy from the casino asked her to come and give an opinion on some musician. She’ll be back tomorrow.”
Precilla sighs. “Oh well. Then at least we’ll have peace tonight. She’ll start the Spanish Inquisition again tomorrow.”
Vetfaan groans. “Yes, when she starts asking questions, she never stops. We might as well tell her everything.”
Precilla knows Vetfaan wants to clear the slate and stop the gossip before it starts. He’ll want to tell Gertruida how they listened to Leonard Cohen, how she made him drink the strong, sweet coffee and how she tucked him in afterwards. He’ll want to say he made a few clumsy advances and relate how she – very kindly but firmly – told him it was a bad idea. If he is brave enough, he’ll admit to the soft kiss on his cheek when he left this morning. And he may then tell her how glad – how proud – he was that nothing serious happened between the two of them. Their friendship is worth more than a sweaty and somewhat drunken tumble in the proverbial hay, after all.
Boggel puts back the shiny glasses. “Oh, I don’t think you should, you know? For all you know, she has a few skeletons rattling away in her own cupboard. I think she’ll come back tomorrow with a whole new attitude. I read in the Reader’s Digest that casinos do that to people. With all those machines clanging away, one tends to develop short-term memory loss. It’s a medical fact; nothing you can do about it.”
They say a prophet mustn’t expect recognition in his hometown. This is quite true in most cases. In Rolbos, however, we have an exception. When Gertruida returns tomorrow, she’ll have that look cavewomen had when the man brought home a smouldering log to start the fire. It’s a mixture of pride and satisfaction. It tells of a happy feeling that tends to forget recent problems and issues. Maybe it is right to say it is a forgiving and understanding look.
And tomorrow, when Vetfaan asks Boggel how he knew it would be so, Boggel will smile and tell him it was a feeling, that’s all. “Everybody needs somebody, sometimes,” he’ll say. And Vetfaan will order a round on the house; while all around the customers try to hush the rattling of the skeletons in their own little dark and secret cupboards.

A little Valentine’s goes a long way…

Image“The problem with Rolbos is that we don’t have enough love going around. We have enough beer, a good Dominee and Sammie’s shop supplies our needs. But where, I ask you, is the love?”

It’s past eleven already and Boggel wants to close the bar. Vetfaan and Kleinpiet are the only remaining customers, but they are in no hurry to leave. When Boggel said he had to stop serving them, Vetfaan started complaining about the lack of love. He hoped Boggel would catch the hint.

“Well, you can always see in Precilla is up still? She’s probably lonely, too?” Kleinpiet knows Vetfaan well enough. It isn’t pretty when he gets morose.  “And she usually has a bottle of wine in the fridge.”

“No man. I wasn’t talking about that kind of love. I’m talking about passion! I’m talking about obsession and zeal! I’m talking about the one thing no man can go without. The thing that makes the world go around and smooths over all differences.”

“Beer?” Boggel has been a barman for a long time.

“Yes! Beer! And you want to deny me the simple pleasure of enjoying a sip of the best! It’s people like you that cause wars, you know? Short-sighted and obtuse.  Have you ever heard of soldiers fighting with a beer in the one hand and a gun in the other? No, man: they are mutually exclusive. Either you drink or you fight. It’s pure logic.  Give the world a beer, and nobody fights anymore.”

Kleinpiet has heard this before as well, and starts singing their favourite song. What the world needs now, is beer, just beer/ it’s the only thing that there’s just to little of… Boggel caves in and serves them the last round. “Then you’re out of here, understand? If sergeant Dreyer checks up on me, Rolbos may end up without a bar.”

Later, on the dark stoep outside Boggel’s, Vetfaan finds himself looking at the light in Precilla’s window. What would she be doing this time of night? Maybe she is lonely, too? On impulse he weaves his way over to her bungalow. A quick peek trough the gap between the curtains reveals nothing of interest, but he can hear soft music coming from the inside. Nat King Cole? Suppressing a hiccup, he sits down on the stairs to her front door. Surely he can’t go barging in there, at half past midnight, and expect her to be glad to see him? Anyway, he has had quite a number of beers and that might put her off a bit.

His thoughts go back to Betty, the girl he loved once. She would have understood. She always did, way back then. Or so he thought at the time. They were young and full of life; a happy couple enjoying the brink of responsible life. They explored the joy of discovery – of emotions, of caring, of….love. On their last weekend together, she promised to wait for him. He said the two years in the army would fly by. They both knew they lied.

The war in Angola changed the innocent young man. He saw death and destruction under the worst of conditions. He had to drive an armoured vehicle before he knew how to drive a car. He had to shoot at people before he could cast his vote in a national election. And in the evenings, the cheap booze in bars of the defence force made it easy to forget what he saw during the day. When at last he went home, his life had changed. He gained a lot of experience and lost his innocence. It was only a mild surprise to meet Betty’s new husband and their daughter. The letters, after all, had dried up a long time ago.

That was when Vetfaan hired the piece of land next to Bokkop. It was cheap, isolated and bare. It was with trial and much error (and a lot of luck) that he built up quite a sizable bank balance; enough to buy the farm eventually. He worked hard to forget Betty with her sparkling eyes and the perfect teeth, almost succeeding at times. And yet, she always found her way back through his jumbled thoughts; especially late at night when the loneliness became too much to ignore.

Precilla had heard his boots crunching on the gravel outside her window. She knew why he was there, just as she knew she didn’t want to be alone on this Valentines morning. The other days of the year didn’t bother her so much, but it was on Valentines that Freek Basson stood on her doorstep with the flowers. Freek, the tycoon; the businessman with the Porsche and the penthouse in Cape Town’s Waterfront.  

Her doorstep.

That’s where they arrested him. He was about to give her the flowers when they swooped in and took him away. Illicit Diamond Buying. IDB. Three letters that put him in jail. In the court she heard about his other schemes, the smuggling and the connections with the gangs on the Cape Flats. She remembers how dirty she felt and how the shame of their relationship made her a social outcast. Rolbos provided the safe haven she craved for.

She watches as Vetfaan struggles to stand up, how his swaying steps carry his large body down the street, away from her doorstep. She sees him stop to turn around in surprise when she calls his name. Tonight, she decides, it doesn’t matter who knows. Rolbos has no secrets, anyway; the town is too small to have secrets. But it is Valentines, after all…

“You called?” Vetfaan manages not to slur.

Taking his hand, she leads him back to her bungalow, her home.  

The Kalahari is like that. Sometimes the people there are convinced it’ll never rain again, no matter how hard they pray. The ground gets cracked and parched while the few bushes shrivel up. At times, even the fountain next to Bokkop dries up completely. And sometimes, after years of drought, the winds are right and the clouds build up. When it rains, it is as if those drops were always there, just waiting, waiting, for the right moment to come pouring down.

When Precilla closes her door on that early Valentines morning, a cloud moves in front of the moon over Bokkop. It’ll rain that night – a soft drizzle that won’t make a huge difference to the veld. But a little rain is better than no rain, even if the two people in the bungalow won’t notice the patter of drops on the roof.  Their lives won’t change either, just like the veld won’t suddenly bloom after the short shower. But like rain, a little love is better than no love at all.

We all need love; just a little will go a long, long way. Even if you hide in a dismal little town like Rolbos.

Alfie’s Earwig

ImageGertruida (who knows everything) says Alfie Schwartz isn’t normal. What else (she asked) did one expect the poor child to be when he grew up, anyway? With a German father and an Italian mother, you can expect one of two things to happen: you either get a temperamental perfectionist, or a perfectional  temperamentalist.  Precilla looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary on Gertruida’s shelf, and informed the learned lady that there are no such words as perfectional and temperamenatlist. Gertruida said it just goes to show how abnormal Alfie is; if even the Oxford made no mention of his condition, he must be seriously flawed, after all.

Alfie (Alfonso Ronaldo Servano Enrico Schwartz to be precise) grew up in the orphanage in Grootdrink. Although quite intelligent, he refused to do anything but draw pictures. If you asked him to write his name, he’d fly into a rage. His teachers suspected it had something to do with his initials. So, from and early age, he’d go somewhere quiet with his pencils and paper; returning with weird pictures of nature.  He had a knack for observing the bizarre ways of nature, focussing on conflict and survival. Don’t look for pretty sunsets or raindrops on succulents amongst his drawings. You’d rather find two geckos fighting; a dead beetle carted off by giant ants; or maybe the corpse of a dead frog, on the paper. And always, always, his drawings were unsigned. He refused.

Oudoom decided on one of those quiet days in Rolbos (there are many, so don’t try to date this one), that Rolbos should hold a craft festival. The church needed painting. If all the crafters and artists in the district held an exhibition, the profits would cover the cost of the paint. Then the townspeople could combine forces (Platnees to paint, the rest to encourage) and the church would be as good as new. The motion was carried unanimously, so the event got advertised in the Upington Post.  So far, you’d say, so good.

But then fate intervened. A group of entomologists was on their way to the Kalahari to study the varied insect life of the area. Very important scientists, they were. Came from all over the world; sponsored by Shell. (This was apparently in response to the publicity their fracking plans received. Now they were showing the world how much they cared for the environment.)  The tour was arranged with the maximum publicity and the scientists were treated like kings (the one lady doctor – subspecialty centipedes – objected, preferring the term royalty). The bus they used was ultra-luxurious, with a bar and separate toilets for the 23 men and the objecting lady.  This palace-on-wheels travelled through the warm Karoo without a mishap, but just before Grootdrink, an argument broke out on board.  Doctor Yamanutshi felt it was time to off-load some of his ingested cargo while Doctor Walnut-Smythe occupied the proverbial throne.  Bowing respectfully to Doctor Ingrid Lindquist, Yamanutshi opened the door with the stick-woman on it.  Doctor Lindquist was horrified and gave a very verbal opinion. Yamanutshi couldn’t wait, excused himself and closed the door – from the inside. Lindquist went ballistic. 

The rest of the scientists thought this was great entertainment, formed a Mexican wave, and shouted their approval.  Lindquist would have no more. She ordered the driver to stop, got off and told them all what they could go and do with themselves. The scientists roared their approval and told the driver to get on with it. Upington was still an hour or so away and the beer was almost finished.

And so it happened that a world-renowned expert on centipedes found herself next to the road in one of Africa’s driest and hottest places. After an hour or so, she realised this particular road was no highway. She would have hitched a ride if there were any traffic. But there wasn’t and she couldn’t.

Until Vetfaan passed her on his way to Rolbos, that is. He had to do a Paul Revere-run for Boggel, who realised his supply of beer was insufficient for the craft festival. He was singing merrily to himself (radio broke three years ago), when suddenly there was this crimson women next to the road. Gertruida said later it would have been impossible to miss her: Norwegians turn that shade of red when they are left in the sun for a while. The doctor didn’t care where Vetfaan went, she wanted to get out of the heat, out of the sun, out of the country and out of trouble. Vetfaan doesn’t understand English so well, but he can recognise the language when he hears it. This woman wasn’t speaking English; it sounded as if she had a hot potato in her mouth. He asked her if she was eating something, but she couldn’t understand Afrikaans. Vetfaan pointed at himself, and told her his name. She did the same. He raised his eyebrows (wanting to know what the matter was) and she slapped him (his eyes had strayed to her rather impressive curves). Then she got in, pointed to the road, and made shooing motions with her hands. Vetfaan said you don’t argue with a woman with such strong arms. Gertruida said it’s the Viking-gene.

When they arrived in Rolbos, Vetfaan immediately sent for Gertruida.  She informed the Rolbossers that the stranded doctor spoke a variant of Norwegian, mainly used in Oppdal, with characteristics common to the dialects found in the northern Sфr Trф ndelag and Gudbrandsdalen to the south. Kleinpiet told the community that for once, Gertruida was taking them for a ride. Gertruida shut him up with an icy stare, went home and returned with a dusty dictionary.

In Boggel’s Place,  Doctor Lindquist got very excited when Gertruida ordered Hansa beer. Originally brewed in Bergen, Gertruida knew this was the best way to show the doctor that Rolbos was an educated place filled with sophisticated people.  Then the two of them settled down with the dictionary to start a lengthy, if difficult, dialogue.

Lindquist wanted to see what the town was like, so Gertruida took her on a guided tour to Sammie’s and the church.  Lindquist wanted to see the craft market. Gertruida shook her head.   She wasn’t going to throw away all her hard work, now that the doctor had such a good impression of Rolbos.

Vikings didn’t conquer Brittain because they had such a wonderful way with words. They are headstrong, single-minded and focussed. Lindquist wanted to see the market, and she did. Gertruida steered her away from Kleinpiet’s dried peaches and the rolls of dried sausages. She almost succeeded in getting past Alfie’s stand, when the doctor let out a shriek.

“Se! Se!” Gertruida knew by then it was Norwegian for ‘Look! Look!’. “Ukjent dyr!”  This Gertruida had to look up later. It translates as ‘unknown animal’.

The doctor stormed Alfie’s stand to admire his work. There, a blue-and green earwig stared back at her.  “Tilsammen ukjent”. When Gertruida got the dictionary, she translated it as ‘totally unknown’. Lindquist immediately bought all his drawings and had him understand they should do a field trip to the place he found that specimen. When Gertruida explained this to the surprised artist, he readily agreed.

And so, Rolbos attained international recognition at last. Lindquist took Alfie along when she returned to Norway. The two of them apparently found ways to make them understand each other..Alfie smiled a lot after their excursions into the veld. Doctor Lindquist wanted him to show her students how to depict, with such great and delicate accuracy – and only a pencil and paper – the specimens they find in nature. Alfie was overjoyed.

It is now recognised that the species, Dermaptera Rolbossius ARSEii only occurs in the Rolbos and Grootdrink area.  Lindquist included Alfie’s initials, not knowing how much hilarity it caused. It seems to be the only earwig in the world that lost its way and refuses to be interested in ears. There are other, more sensitive, areas in the body which it prefers. Gertruida says the Norwegian word should have been used. Endetramenii is a bit softer on the ear than ARSEii.

Oudoom doesn’t care; his church was painted, anyway. He delivered one of his better sermons when they celebrated the ‘new’ church. It wasn’t the craft market, he said. It wasn’t the money. The Lord, he said, knew they would have to paint the church at some stage. So, long ago (very, very long ago), He placed  ARSEii in the Rolbos district. Without so many ARSEiis in Rolbos, the church would have remained very dirty, indeed. Oudoom concluded with his own rendition of All things bright and beautiful.

Sometimes, when a tired Boggel announces he is closing the bar, his customers would have a final toast. “To Lindquist’s  ARSEii!” they’d shout.  On the rare occasion when Rolbos is host to a stranger, it always leads to a lengthy explanation. And at least another round of beers (or two).

Sammie’s Revenge

People don’t believe how your usual, innocent-looking man can harbour all manner of untoward thoughts and ideas, but sometimes you will hear them laugh when nobody else is listening. They say he who laughs, lasts – and maybe it’s true. Take, for instance, the case with Charlie Cutthroat. It started when his car slewed to a halt next to the only tree next to the road (if it can be called such) to Grootdrink. Charles Cutthroat – called CC by those who know him well enough – climbed out to inspect the shredded tyre, shaking his bald and egg-like head. Having a flat that morning was definitely not part of his carefully planned schedule.

CC is a meticulous man. He is one of those people who leave nothing to chance – that’s why he is so successful in his line of business. If you need extra cash (buying supplies, erecting a new fence or drilling for water), he’s your man. The cash gets handed over in an envelope and you’re on your way.

Then the fun starts. His usual arrangement is that you pay him back over six months, with the 50% interest accumulated over the period of time, of course. Should there be a default of any magnitude, CC will pay you a visit to give you a fair chance at correcting your mistake. These visits are friendly and he’ll usually bring along a bottle of brandy, explain the consequences of the problem and offer an extension of another six months; not forgetting to add the interest, of course. If this arrangement fails, CC will start carting away anything of value he fancies. Anything. This he does quite openly, arriving with a team of ‘workers’ and a lorry. He might take a few sheep, the newly-erected wind pump, your dining table or your car – depending on the owed amount.

Now, in Rolbos everybody knows that Sammie has been borrowing from CC to expand his little shop. The small room at the back now houses the new fridge, one of those flat ones where the shoppers can see the array of goods for sale. This modern arrangement was welcomed by one and all in Rolbos; to actually be able to buy reasonably fresh vegetables and fruit is an unknown privilege and a tremendous leap into modern shopping. The nearest alternative was the Checkers in Upington – and trying to get back to Rolbos without your veggies wilting away to limp and unappetising lumps of merchandise is just about impossible.

Not surprisingly, the recession has found its way to Rolbos as well. The inhabitants have a choice: support Boggel’s Place or spend their meagre finances at Sammie’s. It’s a no-brainer. The result was that CC was on his way with his bottle of brandy and a carefully worked out speech to deliver to poor Sammie, who’ll never be able to come up with the cash, anyway. Rumour had it that the shop will soon be know as CC’s Cash and Carry.

But now of course the blown tyre has, in a manner of speaking, thrown a spanner into the works. Being a particularly stingy man and one never to spend money on unnecessary extras, CC is driving the old Chev he took from Sly Viljee after financing his debt at the casino. And Sly, being so deep in debt and all that, has sold anything he could to be able to tackle that slot machine again. “That machine is warm, man. It’ll pay out any minute now.” Hence: Sly’s Chev (technically speaking, of course) became CC’ Chev, devoid the  spare wheel  that financed his last few spins in his failed attempt to line the 7’s up..

CC sits down on the running board of the old vehicle. His only hope is that some farmer will pass by – in any direction – to give him a lift back to civilisation. At least he has the brandy…

Three warm and uncomfortable hours later, Kleinpiet passes the stranded Chev next to the road. In a place like the Kalahari, news about people’s lives has a way of spreading from farm to farm – sometimes at surprising speeds. The story of Sly and his hot slot machine – and the subsequent loss of his Chev – is old news already. The impending visit by CC to Sammie is the leading news of the day.

The other thing about Kalahari people is that they are slow thinkers and fast decision makers. When Kleinpiet approached the stranded vehicle, he thought slowly. And when he saw the inebriated CC slouching against the Chev, he made up his mind quickly. That’s why he drew his hat down a degree, flattened the petrol pedal, and sped past the hapless CC who waved a drunken finger at the disappearing bakkie.

At Boggel’s Place, the news of CC’s misfortune earns a animated discussion. Boggel is in a good mood. If the tormentor of his good friend Sammie is stranded next to the road, it calls for a celebration. Beers are handed out on the house – a rare occurrence in Boggel’s – and the discussion turns to what, if anything, they should do to the stranded CC.

“I say let him rot. He’s a vulture, man! When we’re in trouble, he’s quick to hand out cash. But when things are tight on our side, he simply helps himself. And remember – charging 50% interest is against the law, anyway. No, let him suffer for a few days. Maybe old Sly can get his Chev back.” Vetfaan has no sympathy for the loan shark. He remembers all to clearly the day CC carted his prize ram away.

“Hey, we can’t do that!” Precilla is in one of her benevolent moods after her third beer. “Maybe we don’t like him that much, but he’s still a person you know? A stranded person in the middle of the Kalahari. Whatever we may think of him, we can’t just leave him there.”

Sammie never drinks. It’s against his religion, he says. Look what happened to Noah and Samson. He’s your conventional Coke-and-lemonade guy, so he rarely visits Boggel’s. He waited for CC for an hour or so, then he ambled over to Boggel’s to see if anybody knew anything about his whereabouts. He found, to his surprise, a very happy group of people, discussing the merits of various types of torture.

“String him up and make a small fire beneath his feet.”

“No man, that’ll mean we have to sit around for hours, feeding twigs into the fire. I think we should just take his shoes and make him walk here.”

“I heard that the best way to humiliate somebody, is to leave his shoes and take his clothes.”

“What happened to horse-whipping, anyway?”

It doesn’t take long before Sammie hears the whole story. He tells them he doesn’t want to be part of such violence and that paying debts is a matter of honour. He’ll just have to renegotiate with CC and that’s the end of it. Looking morose and dejected, he leaves them to come to their own decision as to how to help/not help the man with the broken-down vehicle.

When the old Datsun appears in a cloud of smoke, CC runs to the middle of the road on unsteady legs. There is no way he’s going to allow another vehicle to pass without stopping. To his drunken surprise, he recognises the vehicle as Sammie’s old bakkie, with Sammie behind the wheel. The vehicle stops about twenty yards from him and sits there, not moving, in the middle of the road.

“Sammie! My friend! I desperately need a lift, man! My Chev…”

Before he can finish his sentence, the bakkie reverses a few yards.

“Hey, Sammie! Come here, man! I really need to get a lift. You see how that tyre looks? I’m stranded here, man.”

The bakkie reverses another yard or so. CC is getting desperate.

“I’ve got no water here and the brandy is finished, Sammie. I’ve got nothing. I’ll die if you don’t help me.”

Around them the heat waves shimmer away in the midday sun. A solitary gust of hot wind blows a dust devil across the road. CC stumbles towards the Datsun only to see it reverse further.

“Noooo! Please, Sammie. I need you to help me. I’ll do anything! I swear! Anything!”

Only now, at last, does Sammy allow his ancient bakkie to roll forward.

Of course they discussed terms and conditions before the lift is offered. CC would forfeit all interest. Sammie will take him back to Upington, get a spare wheel, and then take CC back to his Chev, provided a new settlement gets offered to Sly.

When they return, Sammie offers to change the wheel – and CC gladly accepts. Sammie tells him the ruined tyre is worthless, and buys it as scrap for the halfjack of cheap brandy he happened to have in the Datsun.

Now, some people may think this story is a bit farfetched and that it was just too much of a coincidence that CC had the blow-out there; while on his way to Rolbos to talk serious business with Sammie, who couldn’t pay the interest on his loan. Or that Sammie should have allowed the Rolbossers to take revenge on the man that squeezed so much money out of them.

But that – like the uninitiated often do in the Kalahari – would be to take everything at face value. You had to be there that night, when Platnees parked his bicycle next to Sammie’s shop. You’d have seen the two men talking and Sammie handing over the packet of fresh tomatoes, lettuce and carrots to his thankful ally. If you looked carefully, you might have seen Platnees handing back the envelope with the rest of the six-inch nails to Sammie.

And, if you weren’t drinking like the rest of the town did in Boggel’s Place, you’d have heard Sammie laughing heartily when he locked up his shop that night. Like those guys in the A-Team, he loves it when a plan comes together.