Karel Kadawer, the district’s undertaker, is a worried man. For several years he has watched the farmers move to the cities and towns as the drought, and cost of labour and fuel slowly strangled the life out of their dreams. Land claims, murders and politics contribute to farms being evacuated in the Transvaal and the ripple-effect of these factors washed over the provincial borders to the Northern Cape as well.
It is a simple fact, Kadawer says, that an undertaker needs a constant supply of lifeless bodies to keep his business alive. It’s not that he is insensitive to bereavement; it’s just the question of supply and demand all businesses face. He can supply, but the demand has slowly decreased over the last few years and now an entire month can pass without him having to polish the black station wagon in his garage.
Well, he decides, I can’t just sit around, waiting for some poor soul to pass on. If he doesn’t do something, he’ll have to find a new job – and he’s not disabled, black or female. There was some gossip that his great-grandfather on his mother’s side may have had a mixed ancestry –and that would have helped – but the diary of the old man disappeared mysteriously after Malan was elected in 1948.
That is why he puts on his funeral suit, drives over to Boggel’s Place in the polished station wagon, and surprises the customers with his announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he addresses them in his gravest funeral-voice, “I am so touched by the prospect of your immanent loss. If any of you had the possibility of surviving relatives, my visit today would have been unnecessary. But, alas, such is not your good fortune.” He ignores the shocked expressions of the patrons at the bar, pauses a second, and goes on: “Yea, you will all pass through the valley of death, my good friends. Soon, the streets of Rolbos will be empty and void of life. Even….Vrede will be no more.”
By now, Gertruida has recovered sufficiently to order a round of Cactus Jack for all of them.
“What in heaven’s name are you going on about? You can’t just walk into a bar to announce everybody is going to kick the bucket? You’re a sick man, Kadawer. It must be the peach brandy you brew up in that kitchen of yours. Sit down and tell us all about it.”
It is a well-known fact that Kadawer uses the off-cuts from the coffins he makes, to fire up his still. The few bottles he produces every month are famous for the hangovers they produce.
“No, my dear and soon-to-depart, beloved friends. I’m as sober as the Pope. I’m talking about the end of the world. It’s coming. Now, if you’ll all line up here, I’ll take your measurements.” Kadawer fishes the measuring tape and a small, black book from his pockets. “Ladies first, please?”
“Wait a second, Kadawer. What are you trying to do? Scare us to death? Why measure us, for goodness sakes?” Vetfaan gets up to snatch the tape from the undertaker’s hand.”Now you are going to explain, and you’re going to do it right now. I’m getting fed up with your nonsense.”
Karel Kadawer isn’t afraid of death – he’s seen it so many times – but an angry Vetfaan can be quite intimidating.
“Well, as you may know, the world is going to end in December. Ask Gertruida: she’ll tell you about the Mayans and how they worked it out.” He seems to regain some composure before gong on. “Now, I can produce only two coffins per month. At a stretch, maybe three. That means, in the six months before the End, I can help you with twelve to eighteen coffins. No more than that, I’m afraid. At least the people of Rolbos will have sufficient supplies to face that final hour; I don’t know what they’re going to do in the bigger places like Upington and Prieska. Oh, and I’ll throw in a box for Vrede as well, as a sign of goodwill.”
“So, you’re going to make coffins for us? The world is going to end and we’ll at least have enough coffins in Rolbos?” Precilla frowns. She was hoping to take a few days off in December. On the other hand, she has to pay a deposit on the little guest house near Kanon within the next week or so. Kadawer just saved her a lot of money. She gets up, takes the tape from Vetfaan and lies down on the floor. “Measure, already! I have to cancel a booking.”
“Oh, stop it!” Gertruida can’t believe they are all so gullible. “Sure, people are talking about the Mayan calendar. They say the Norwegians have a vault with all the seeds of plants in safekeeping. Some suggest we’re going to collide with another galaxy during the Northern hemisphere winter solstice. Others point to massive sun storms. Hollywood has been churning out asteroid movies.” She sips her Cactus Jack, sighs and goes on: “The world may well end some day. But ever since history got written down, there were predictions of this nature. There were predictions by Clement l in 90 AD, followed by a spate of others by Hillary of Poltiers, St Martin, Hippolyptus, John of Toledo – and that was within the first millennium. After that, the doomsday prophets multiplied and the Watchtower Society predicted no less than eight dates between 1914 and 1994 as the end of it all.” She signals for another Jack. “The point is, Karel, we don’t know.”
“But you have to be prepared, Gertruida. I’m only trying to help, that’s all.”
“Wait a second.” Kleinpiet draws a little coffin on the counter top. “You measure us, right? We pay you, and we get coffins? That’s what you’re saying?”
Kadawer nods with some enthusiasm, spilling some of his drink.
“So…who’s going to bury us, if nobody survives?”
It is Gertruida who suggests the solution. If she helps Kadawer to brew up a less vile peach brandy, the undertaker’s cash flow will sustain his business between funerals. It just so happens that she knows the old Dutch recipe of peach skins, pips and sugar. “The trick is to bury the bottles for three to four months, Karel. You’re good with that – burying, I mean. When you dig them up again, you’ll have the sweetest, strongest and best brandy in the district. If you start now, you’ll be in time for the Christmas rush.”
“But Christmas is after the 21st, Gertruida; what’s the point?”
“Exactly the same as buying a coffin for Doomsday, Karel. Exactly the same. Only difference is the one will take you down, and the other will make you high.”
And so, Karel Kadawer has the only funeral parlour with empty shelves, waiting for the bottles that are fermenting away under the hot Kalahari sands. Gertruida said the brandy will have enough kick to drop a mule. Kadawer’s eyes lit up when he heard her say that – he hopes the brandy will save his business in … some unexpected ways.