“That’s strange…” Vetfaan looks out of the window at the lorry from Kalahari Vervoer, as it trundles down Voortrekker Weg. “They usually don’t come in on Mondays, unless there is a special delivery.”
“Maybe Sammie needed extra supplies after the long weekend. I bought his last candles yesterday.” As usual, Gertruida is looking for a logical answer.
The driver stops at the empty little house at the end of the street, where it becomes a two-tracked meander towards Bitterwater. The group in Boggel’s Place looks on as he gets off to check some papers. Apparently satisfied, he walks over to unlock the front door. Returning to the lorry, he opens the big back doors, allowing the helper to alight. Together, the two of them start carrying boxes and some furniture into the old cottage.
“That was Klaas Horrelvoet’s home. Remember, he’s the artist that used to stay here from time to time…way back in the nineties, if I’m correct?” Boggel sports a puzzled frown. Horrelvoet was a bit of a legend, back then. He painted large landscapes – sand, dunes, the occasional gemsbok; that sort of thing. His work was in great demand and most of his paintings were commissioned by a large and well-known insurance company. When he switched to nudes, he stopped coming; which led to a mini-recession in Rolbos. “I wonder if he’s back?”
A single bed, a desk and a chair get carried into the cottage while they discuss the possibility of Horrelvoet’s return. Halfway through the next beer, an old Land Rover drives down the street in a cloud of blue smoke.
“That engine is in a bad state,” Kleinpiet remarks, “I doubt if it’ll last on our roads.”
A young woman hops out of the vehicle.
“Medium built, blonde, short skirt and boots…” Vetfaan moves closer to the window for a better look. “My, my, my. This may prove to be interesting.” He ignores the disapproving stare from Gertruida. “And younger than Precilla, I’ll bet. If she stays, I’ll have to start shaving again.”
“Oh, Faan, you’re an imbecile. Only in your dreams will she even glance sideways at you. Look at her: she’s half your age, man! Girls like that are dangerous to men your age.” They all know Gertruida’s argument: when an older man gets short of breath, starts sweating and trembles a bit – it is more likely a coronary than a climax. That’s why older men should stick to more mature ladies, she says; it can save lives if the symptoms are picked up accurately.
They watch as the young lady takes out a wallet and pays the driver. The lorry does a laborious U-turn as she disappears into the house.
“Well, whether or not Vetfaan is going to make a fool of himself,” Precilla says, “we should welcome her in town. We haven’t had a new face around for ages. I’ll go get a flask of coffee, Boggel can quickly whip up some sandwiches, and we can all go and say hello.”
They stand in a little huddle as Precilla knocks on the door. The woman (even younger than Vetfaan thought) opens the door with an exclamation of surprise.
“My goodness! This is such a surprise! Come on in.”
The cottage is a mess. The boxes are scattered over the dusty floors, the windows are so dirty, one can hardly see through it; and the spiders have left cobwebs all over the place. She introduces herself as Cathy Cuthbert, a name Gertruida recognises with a gasp.
“The Cathy Cuthbert? The writer? Your books are sold all over the world! You’re famous! What brings you to Rolbos?”
She tells them that she has been struggling to write lately. Her agent – a friend of Klaas Horrelpoot – helped arrange the rent of the empty cottage for six months.
“I need to get away from it all for a while; I have to find my way back into writing. After the success of my previous novels, my publisher is clamouring for more … but I just can’t get it together again.”
“Writer’s shock, eh?” Kleinpiet beams from ear to ear – this young filly mustn’t think he’s an idiot. He is rewarded with a wry smile.
“Yeah. I suppose you can call it that. And I need to get my mind around a plot, a storyline and some weird characters. – you know: stuff that’ll make people take notice. My readers have become so used to my style; I have to create something new that’ll draw them back to the bookshops.”
In the meantime, Precilla made the rest of them help with the sweeping, washing of the windows and dusting of everything. Servaas went over to Sammie’s to get some floor polish. Vetfaan arranged the bed next to the now-clean window in the bedroom, and has stood there with dreamy eyes ever since.
By sundown, the place is in great shape: the floors are shining; the kitchenette sparkles and the windows are as clean as the day they were installed. Cathy is overwhelmed and thanks the group. And, yes, of course she’ll join them for a drink at Boggel’s, for sure.
It’s an hour later, and they are all in Boggel’s, sipping beer while waiting for Cathy.
“She said she wanted new stories and new characters to inspire her next novel,” Gertruida says. “That means she will want to know our stories. She may want to use some of it as material for her next bestseller. We have to introduce her to Oudoom and Oudok tomorrow – they’ll be able to tell her a lot about our town and the people of the district.”
Vetfaan shakes his head. “Can you imagine? Writers are observers and they know which questions to ask. The next thing you know, she’ll write about the dancer whose fishnets Oudoom tried to hide. All hell will break loose if Mevrou were to know about that.”
“True,” Boggel slides some more beer over the counter, “and it isn’t like Oudok has a lilly-white past, either. Come to think of it, neither have I…” He remembers the time in the orphanage, and the events of that fateful night he’d rather forget. “Nope, my lips are sealed – there is no way I’m going to start chatting with that woman. Some things need to remain unsaid, that’s all. People in Cape Town and Johannesburg don’t need to read about us.”
Precilla nods. She’s buried her past to begin afresh in Rolbos. “Yes, even Vrede won’t like us telling her all about his past. If the police learn that their best drug-dog has found a new home in Rolbos, they may want him back.”
“Hey, you guys – we’d better all then just shut up when she starts digging into our past. I mean, Kleinpiet and me – we don’t have a lot of secrets in our past but then again, our lives are rather ordinary, aren’t they?” Vetfaan still hopes the story of that girl will never surface again. “And Sammie won’t want people to know how well he planned his revenge that day. Come to think about it, even Servaas won’t like people nosing around in his private affairs. So, you ask me – I’d say we say nothing.”
Cathy walks in wearing some exotic perfume, a smile and an attitude. In a place like Boggel’s, you’d expect the usual Kalahari atmosphere: khaki, sweat, stale smoke and the smell of beer. The men have never used Brut (why would they?) and the women aren’t into advertising. So when the sweet smell of perfect femininity wafts in as Cathy pushes open the door, the effect is electrifying.
Vetfaan – flushed and breathing hard – jumps off his chair and offers it to her with medieval chivalry. Boggel gets on his crate to be able to see better and Kleinpiet holds on to the bar counter to stop the dizziness.
It’s not only the scent that causes this commotion. Cathy is dressed in a blouse and skirt that accentuates her figure, her hair is combed into a pony tail and Precilla makes a note to ask her about makeup – she’s obviously an expert.
Cathy accepts a beer with a red-lined smile, sips and burps demurely. Vetfaan suppresses the urge to applaud.
“So…what can you all tell me about Rolbos and the people staying here?” She arches a well-cared for eyebrow.
The best-laid plans of mice and men….and the road to hell…
Cathy helped them finish the bottle of Cactus Jack, trading jokes as she did so. Gertruida and Precilla was only mildly upset by the amount of attention she drew from the men, knowing they will never work up the courage to spend time with Cathy alone. An international celebrity will be far too much for Vetfaan or Kleinpiet to handle. Plus, of course, she’s far too young to be interested in such old men.
At least, that’s what they are hoping for.
But it is Servaas, the clever old bugger, who surprises them all. He hasn’t said a word all evening, sitting quietly in the far corner of Boggel’s Place as he usually does. When Boggel calls for the last round amid the merry laughter, he gets up quietly to stand next to Cathy.
“Miss,” he says, “care if I walk you home? It’s dark out there…”
As the rest of them watch the old man holding out his arm to the charming young lady, they see the shy smile on Servaas’ lips. She gets up immediately, waves a cheery goodbye to the little crowd at the counter, and hooks up with the old man.
“He’s got high hopes.” Kleinpiet is clearly upset.
“No, he’s just protecting her,” Gertruida (who knows everything) says, eyeing Vetfaan. “He doesn’t want to spoil her Kalahari experience on the first night already.”
In the little cottage at the end of Voortrekker Weg, Cathy gets out a pencil and a notebook, while Servaas talks about Rolbos and its people. He talks about the Kalahari and Bokkop and Bitterwater and Grootdrink. Sipping fresh coffee from the little stove, she scribbles down the stories that tell about life in Rolbos.
When the sun starts colouring the Eastern sky, Servaas holds out his hand.
“Now, you must give me that notebook, please. You can’t keep it.”
“But why, Uncle Servaas? It’s all here?” She taps the cover of the notebook.
“Because, Miss, those stories are real. They happened to real people. You don’t want to write about that. It’s too personal. No, you need to write your own story – something you think out all by yourself. What I’ve been doing is to get your mind to open up to Rolbos and the Kalahari. You have to understand what it is like to live here. You must feel the atmosphere, see?
“So, after hearing all this, you can start writing tomorrow. Write a novel, a romantic one, something people in New York will enjoy. But…not about us. Not about the real people of Rolbos. Write about heroes and sunsets, villains and paupers and presidents and kings. Take your readers to far-away places where a humble old man can help a struggling author find her way back to the words that make her famous. Write about triumph and tragedy, laughter and tears.
“But not about us. We’re real people. We cry when we’re sad. We bleed when we’re hurt. We hide…when the world starts looking for us.”
“That’s why we live here, you see? There’s a reason why every one of us chose to stay in Rolbos. We’d like to keep things the way they are.”
And Cathy, the celebrated international author, understood something about writing for the first time.
It’s not the portrayal of hard facts that fascinate readers – it’s the magic of imagination that draws people to books. She smiles as she hands over the notebook.
“Thank you, Servaas. I got what I came for.”
“She’s gone,” Vetfaan says sadly as he watches the old Land Rover disappearing to Grootdrink.
“Yes, writers are strange people,” Gertruida says, because she knows everything, “maybe she’ll come back.”
Of course, Servaas knows she will. Her next book will be a romantic one, something that people all over the world will clamour to get their hands on. It won’t be about the people of Rolbos – it’ll be a romantic story about fairness and justice, love and laughter, joy – despite hardship. Even if she never returns to Rolbos, the town will remain with her forever.
“Hey Boggel – do you still have the tape of The Eagles? The one with those words.. you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave…?”
“It’s called Hotel California, “ Gertruida says, because she knows everything. “I didn’t realise you liked that music, Servaas?”
He just smiles, nods, and orders another beer.
“We all do, Gertruida, we all do…”