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….