Sunday afternoons are the worst. Happy families braai – especially when the day is as fine as this – and settle down in comfortable conversation. It is only in Rolbos, as Vetfaan sits on his stoep, nursing a slow Cactus Jack and a hangover, that this scene seems impossible. How on earth can he imagine the satisfaction of a companion if, after all, the rest of town is tumbling down the drowsy steps of an afternoon slumber? Boggel is doing his monthly stocktaking; Precilla has disappeared into her bungalow, and Kleinpiet said that he had urgent stuff to attend to with his sheep. Gertruida – and he isn’t sure about this – is most probably immersed in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, learning new things.
The Cactus Jack is not something you play around with. It plays with you. Period. Full stop. It has a way of making you see things clearly.
That’s why Vetfaan gets into his old Nissan and drives down Voortrekker Weg to see who is still moving in the small town. Oudoom, predictably, has closed his curtains, meaning that only if you are dying and on your way to eternity, you may knock. Otherwise nobody is welcome. Mevrou has this thing about Sunday afternoons and Oudoom has to stick to her rules. Precilla knows this, which is why she sends over the little blue pill on Fridays. Regularly.
At Boggel’s Place, the door is open and Vetfaan can see the little bent man on his counter, counting the bottles. No use popping in there for a quickie – when Boggel is busy, he’ll simply ignore you. Similarly, the door to Precilla’s bungalow is closed. Same message.
Surprisingly, Gertruida’s front door is open. Inviting. The Cactus Jack whispers encouragement that Vetfaan accepts happily. Any port in a storm… There is no man as brave as Mr C Jack.
When he knocks, there is no answer. Weird.
That is strange. Hê knows Gertruida is a bit paranoid about locking up doors and basic security. He often thought this is silly, especially on a place like Rolbos, where nobody ever reports crime to Sersant Dreyer simply because the whole concept of crime is so foreign in the area. People respect other people’s stuff here.
Vetfaan puts his foot into the sacred holiness of Gertruida’s house. She never invites people over. She says the place to talk and visit and gossip and interact, is at Boggel’s Place. That’s why the Almighty blessed them with Boggel, she says. “There is a reason for everything under the sun. Boggel was led here to create a place of meeting. I’m not sure the alcohol was involved with the initial planning, but there you are.” And with that, she drew the line: her house is her home – not the place to come visiting to exchange views and news.
The lounge is sparsely furnished but done with great taste. The Persian rug under the ball-and-claw furniture is thick and beautiful. Against the walls several paintings adorn the white walls. Vetfaan doesn’t know anything about art, but these pictures are originals and rich in colour. Several pieces of old silverware (bright and shiny) adorn the little tables between the chairs and the coffee table. Despite the Cactus Jack, which usually makes him cynical and slightly callous, he lets out a low whistle. Gertruida must be a woman of considerable means; something he never really thought about. Muted music wafts through the house.
‘Hellooo…” He tries again, not daring to venture deeper into the house.
He can see the door to the leading off to the kitchen to his left. It is marked ‘Kitchen’. To the right are ‘Bedroom’, ‘Library’ and a door with a picture of a stately woman, walking with an umbrella under her arm, on it. Must be the bathroom, he thinks.
Cactus Jack is in splendid voice this afternoon, telling Vetfaan to do the impossible: he has to go where no man has gone before. He does exactly that. With uncommon boldness, unheard-of bravery and a wee touch of stupidity, he knocks softly on the library door – and then gently pushes it open.
Gertruida is sitting at the desk, so engrossed in her reading that she doesn’t notice him. In front of her, an array of papers is spread across the desk’s surface: letters by the looks of it. The old gramophone in the corner is playing a Gè Kortsen record, which explains why she hasn’t heard him yet. A box of Kleenex sits on the desk, with the crumpled remains of quite a few dead tissues scattered on the floor.
Vetfaan sees all of this in an instant – the same moment the Cactus Jact shuts up and reason takes over. He flees – quietly – past the silent ball-in-claws, the shining silverware and the soft rug. Trespassing in the Holiness of Gertruida’s past wasn’t such an adventure anymore – he has violated her seclusion in the most awesome manner.
Boggel puts back the final bottle, noting the level of its contents, as Vetfaan sits down heavily. Something in the way he did it makes Boggel push over a beer before he sat down on his crate.
“Saw you driving around aimlessly this afternoon, Vetfaan. Even thought you visited Gertruida, but I was so busy with the bottles, I didn’t really take notice. You OK?”
He gets a sign as an answer.
“You know Boggel, I hate Sunday afternoons. When the town goes silent and people retreat into their past and into their dreams, it is better to sit here and say nothing. Oudoom takes a nap – or at least we hope he does – and some of the others go counting sheep, which has nothing to do with sleep at all. We all find some way to try to forget that we’re stuck in this godforsaken place with only you and our memories to keep us company. It’s a sad state of affairs, really.”
People think of Boggel as a funny little man with two good ears, like most barmen should be. They think that standing behind a bar makes you immune to life’s twists and turns. They don’t think about Boggel as a real-life person with a past, a present or even a future. That’s why they never really pay attention to his advice. He is there to listen; to absorb the punches life throws at his clientele; not to offer solutions or guidance. He is a dispenser of liquids, nothing more.
That’s why he can never tell Vetfaan all that he knows, nor about the letters Gertruida keeps in the drawer of her desk. Nobody will listen when he says he understands about Sunday afternoons.
It’s only Gertruida, who knows everything, who glimpses bits of this understanding on the few occasions she invites him over, late at night, when the town sleeps. She’ll put on a Korsten record and read the letters to him, because some memories are just too heavy to carry alone. Then, as the eastern sky starts announcing a new day, the two of them will sit quietly, waiting for the birds to start singing outside, while they contemplate the unfairness of living.
“Another?” Boggel pushes over a beer.
“Ja, thanks, man. I sometimes wonder about us lot here in Rolbos. If it were a bigger town, then we’d have secrets and stuff that other people don’t know about. Then we could gossip, you know? But because we know so much about each other, there’s nothing to gossip about, which is a pity. Maybe that’s why Sunday afternoons are so dreary.”
Boggel only smiles, nods, and sits down on his cushion below the counter. He knows Vetfaan visited Gertruida earlier, just like he knows she reads those letters on Sunday afternoons. Maybe Vetfaan will understand her a little better for that. Maybe her loneliness will cry out to him. Maybe…
And there, below the counter on his little cushion that Gertruida made, Boggel reaches for the Kleenex. Being a barman is a lonely work indeed. You don’t have friends, you have clients; and clients find their way back to life through drinking and talking, even though nobody really listens. It’s not what they say – it is the fact that they have said it that counts.
That’s why the Kleenex is there. A good barman should have more tears than words. Especially on a Sunday afternoon.