Boggel is engrossed in the article on Scott and the South Pole in the old Reader’s Digest, and shivers as he turns the page. Imagine suffering like that to fly a little flag on a spot in a remote and hostile environment? Then again, here he is in Rolbos, making a living in a bar – for a fleeting second he imagines that there are similarities between him and Scott – both pioneers with the well-being of their travelling companions at heart.
The way Kleinpiet and Vetfaan whisper over there in the corner worries him. They are busy hatching some crazy plan – or they are discussing something they want to keep from him. The latter seems more probable, as they keep on glancing his way as the conversation progresses. Vetfaan has the Upington Post in front of him, as well. What could they be reading?
It isn’t a big advertisement, and if Kleinpiet wasn’t so bored, he might have missed it. He reads it a second time – even a third – before he folds the newspaper again. It never ceases to surprise him what people advertise in the Upington Post. Just the other day they giggled over the ad for Hot Naught who offered Eastern Massages to Western Gentlemen; but this one is much more professional, much more serious. And it could change the way they live in Rolbos.
Under the counter, Boggel relaxes on his cushion as he looks at the second-hand of his watch approach the 60. It’ll be 11:30 soon, and he expects Gertruida to push open the door of Boggel’s Place exactly a minute later. With thirty seconds to go, he opens the beer and waits. It is a game he plays; enjoying the mock surprise from Gertruida every time the beer appears – as if by magic – from below the counter the moment she sits down. He shifts so he can see her enter through his little peep-hole below the till.
She’s on time. She sighs when se sits down. She gasps when the beer appears. But instead of their usual little chat, she gets called away by Kleinpiet. He crooks a finger at her and puts a finger to his lips. What? They want to talk about something he mustn’t hear? Some secret that he mustn’t share? Unheard of…
“What is it?” Her whisper is instinctive but urgent. It is evident Kleinpiet wants to tell her something that Boggel mustn’t hear. Something Boggel doesn’t know about. Even worse…something she doesn’t know about. The thought is as foreign as it is unbearable. She adopts the cat-in-front-of-the-closed-fridge-door attitude. Whatever it is, she has to know. That’s the other similarity of the moment – cats are curious, too. It sometimes kills them.
Department of Orthopaedic Surgery – Grootte Schuur Hospital
Prof Victor Lockjaw, internationally famous spinal surgeon from Leeds, will visit the Department in June. He specialises in Lordosis, Skoliosis and some cases of Spina Bifida. People with severe spinal deformities are invited to contact us, as such cases are needed for the Professor to demonstrate his techniques. The cost of the surgery will be covered by the University. Further information available at Miss Kromhout, tel no 012 8762986.
Kleinpiet steers her to the table in the corner; away from the counter; opens the paper and points at the advert.
Gertruida’s hand forgets about the beer as it flies to her mouth. “Him?” She points at Boggel.
“Yes, can’t you see? Once that Englishman has straightened out Boggel, he can have a normal life, like…” He falters. Nobody really has a normal life in Rolbos. Still, the point is made, and taken. “I mean, he’s not all that bad looking; he isn’t that old; and he runs a successful business: it’s just his back that causes him so much trouble. Once that’s fixed, he’s sure to find a girl friend.”
“Boggel is far too proud to contact the professor.” Gertruida frowns, the she snaps her fingers. “ Well, I suppose I can phone the Professor. I have a number of friends at the university. There’s the question of his travelling and lodging expenses, however.” Even as she says it, she knows they can hold a bazaar, sell some pancakes and get Vetfaan to raffle off a sheep. In her mind’s eye she sees a straight and proud Boggel – and momentarily wonders what they will call him then.
From below the counter, Boggel watches with growing concern. Alternating an ear or an eye to the peep-hole, he tries to get the gist of what they are talking about. However, despite his best efforts, the only two things he learns are that they are talking about him, and that it has some bearing on something in the paper. They seem to agree on something, and with surreptitious glances to the counter, they leave in a hurry.
Boggel shuffles over to the table, collects the two glasses and the paper and returns to his cushion. The glass rings on page three tell him that’s where they were reading something. And then he sees the damning article on the Tourism Board. The Board is visiting small towns and rural areas to inspect local taverns, bars and guest houses. Not only do they want to check on the star-grading of places offering accommodation, but they’ll use the opportunity to inspect kitchens, liquor licences and other legal requirements to run such establishments in a responsible manner.
He feels a cold finger running down his crooked back. Noooo! His kitchen! The long-drop toilet at the back! And, most horrible of all…the liquor licence! This inspection will be the end of Boggel’s Place! That’s why they were whispering and pointing at him. He feels the cold sweat dripping down his neck.
He always had hoped that nobody would poke around to find out he didn’t have a license. Because they have no health inspectors or other officials in Rolbos, he progressed from a-few-beers-on-the-stoep to Boggel’s Place. And as for kitchen and toilets – those are things he wanted to fix for a long time now. But try to find a contractor to work in Rolbos? Impossible! And although he could maybe talk his way out of that, the license is the iceberg waiting to sink the Titanic. They’ll close him down. They’ll lay charges. If he manages to stay out of jail, he’d have to find a new job.
And suddenly, another ugly thought starts worming around in the back of his mind. If those two were discussing the Tourism Board’s imminent visit, why did they keep the conversation from him? Or did they think they’d do something about the matter? Something, like asking Sersant Dreyer about the legality of Boggel’s Place? It is true that the sergeant saw the growth of the small business over the years and that he visits Boggel’s Place every now and then – and that he never enquired about a liquor license. Maybe he didn’t think about it in the past; but he surely will do so now.
Boggel sees himself in a few weeks time: either in the horrible orange overall of Correctional Services; or in a horrible khaki overall, driving Vetfaan’s tractor. The horror! The shame!
He is a pitiful figure – below the counter, with Vrede looking worried – when the rest of Rolbos (even Oudoom) marches into Boggel’s Place.
“Boggel! Boggel, where are you?” And like Adam trying to hide from the Lord, Boggel huddles closer to the dog. “Come out, we have to talk.” Oudoom uses his sermon-voice; the one with added authority and free-range righteousness.
Boggel gets out with a sigh, climbs on to his crate. “OK, so you want to expose me, humiliate me. Go on, I don’t care anymore.”
Vetfaan has a sympathetic look. “No Boggel, it’s not that. I see it more as a way to set things right. You can’t go on like this.”
“You’ve suffered enough, Boggel. It’s time to put an end to it.” Gertruida clears her throat, like she does when she wants to make a point. “I mean, what’ll happen in the future? Things are bound to get worse. Things like this can destroy one’s dreams, you know?”
Kleinpiet tries another approach. “Look, while you sort this out, I’ll run the bar for you. In a few weeks, or a month or two, you can be back. You’ll walk tall and look us all in the eye. With everything straightened out, your days will be a pleasure – not the hell you have to live with now.”
And Boggel knows his game is up. Sure, they’ll help him. Sure. But he, Boggel, will have to go to Upington. Apply for a license. Stand in queues. Talk to officials. Fill in mountains of forms. Explain why he has delayed his application so long. Be referred to the Police. Even if he gets out of that one, he’ll have to wait for months before they send out an inspector all the way to Rolbos. Then he’ll have to see the Inland Revenue people. They’ll ask more questions. Why isn’t he registered as a tax payer? How did he make a living up to now? Mmm, interesting. So, lets work out your arrears up till now. Add interest and penalties. Okay, if you pay us millions of Rands, we can clear you to go ahead with your business.
“Brother, we are only doing our Christian duty, that’s all.” Oudoom spreads his hands wide.
Boggel has had enough. “Listen, dammit! For years and years I was good enough for you. Never a whimper, never a complaint. Now suddenly you charge in here and you want to destroy…”
“Not destroy, Boggel, help.” Precilla is pleading now. “Calm down Boggel, we’ve collected the money and found out the Professor will see you. Then you can take it from there, at your own time.”
“…destroy my way of living.” Suddenly, the word professor unhinges his argument. “What professor? What are you talking about?”
It takes most of the Cactus Jack to explain everything. The paper gets opened to page 3 and they show him the advert. He tells them he didn’t realise…
“But guys, I am what I am. I live with my hump and I’m happy with it. We all have things that bother us, and we all learn to live with it.” Boggel’s relief is so immense that he places another Jack on the counter. He almost made a complete fool out of himself. Almost gave his game away completely. “But I know my hump must stay the way it is. To cut it up and realign everything sounds good…but I know there are a lot of risks involved. A specialist I saw – many years ago – took some X-rays. He said something about the nerves running down my spine and that surgery will damage them. So: thanks but no thanks.”
The Tourism Board did travel to Upington, where they stayed at the Kalahari Oasis and Casino for a few days, on the house. Before they left, one of them asked about other hotels in the area. The manager laughed and told them this was the Kalahari, not Sun City. He saw to it that they first had a hearty breakfast before he offered the aspirin. The Board left in good spirits, assuring the manager his five stars are safe,
The letter in Sergeant Dreyer’s bottom drawer has been there for sixteen years. It is a directive from the Area Commissioner to all station commanders, ordering them to check and report on all establishments selling alcoholic beverages. Sometimes, when the sergeant is bored, he’d take out the letter and smile on of his rare smiles. Then he’d look up to the police force emblem on the wall. The one with the motto: To Protect and Serve.
Maybe he’ll never end up as the hero in a Readers Digest like Scott did. Sometimes the biggest hero is the one with an unanswered letter in a bottom drawer
And he’d close the drawer, still smiling, mouthing the words serve, and, protect.
That’s what he has been doing all these years, he’d think. It’s a high calling.