“Ag you know, Boggel, things turned out all right for you. In the end, I mean. Look at you now: you’re the hub of our society. If we had a chamber of commerce, you’d have been the head honcho.” Kleinpiet draws a smiley on the counter top. “Sinatra sang that song about how it’s not important how you start, but how you finish. And that’s the way I see it.”
“Yes. Suppose they sent you to an orphanage in Brakpan, man. They really had mean role models on the East Rand back then. You’d either be in jail or parliament today if they did. You can thank your lucky stars they tried to hide you in Grootdrink.”
“Vetfaan, you can be so insensitive if you put your mind to it! Boggel just told you the saddest story, and you start talking about Springs and Benoni. Sis, man!” Gertruida does her hippo-sound in disgust. “I’m just glad that Boggel saw this opportunity in Rolbos. He could have chosen a bigger town like Keimoes to settle in. No, I think everything worked out well in the end. Rolbos would have been dead if it weren’t for our barman.”
Boggel smiles as he wipes the smiley from the counter. If it weren’t for his father’s stubborn gene, he might have considered the opportunity to join the diamond smugglers. Who’d have suspected an orphaned, deformed child of hiding the parcels, anyway? He could have made a million by now.
He looks up as Sersant Dreyer walks in, and tries to ignore the fleeting feeling of guilt. He didn’t do much wrong, did he? And yet, there will always be the lingering sense that he had been very, very lucky.
“Gimme a beer.” Dreyer has the look of a troubled man. Despite his abrupt way, he smiles at Boggel. “They’re at it again, Boggel. The main guy got discharged from prison a few weeks ago. Presidetial pardon, nogal. And it didn’t take long for the scum to drop under the radar again.”
Gertruida doesn’t know the story, so she moves over to insist on an explanation.
It’s ancient history, Gertruida. I didn’t want to talk about it – ever… But if that man is roaming the area, I suppose I should warn you guys. It’s my duty…
He first contacted me when I was fifteen, there in the orphanage. I didn’t have many friends, unless you consider Mary Mitchell – but she was more than just a friend, anyway. I didn’t get on with the other boys; they always made remarks about my back, calling me Hunchy Bunchy, the funny little man even the king’s horses couldn’t fix.
The result was that I spent most of my time alone. I found a spot under the big willow, next to the river, where I would read and study…and do the exercises that didn’t help. That’s where he contacted me, see? Just walked up to me and said he could change my life. Offered me more money than I ever dreamt of – a whopping fifty Rands! Said they’d give it in change, so nobody would become suspicious.
Now, that was a lot of money back then. An orphan in Grootdrink? We never got pocket money or anything like that. I asked, and the man explained.
He was a big bugger. Built like a boxer, with a broken nose and scarred forehead. He said he’d bring me something and I had to hide it for a while. When the time came, he’d get me below the willow again; I’d get the thing I hid, give it to him and I’d get the money.
Well I was fifteen, broke, parentless, friendless and lonely… and I jumped at the chance. The man said it was just a way of providing safe passage for important documents they were smuggling out of the country. Said I’d be helping the country like that.
I felt like a hero.
The packets arrived at irregular intervals: sometimes twice a week, sometimes only once in two months. Always in a metal box, flat, about the size of a Ouma’s rusks carton; always padlocked. Mister Boxer was the one friendly face I could look forward to and I was helping to free our country. What bigger adventure when you are on the brink of adulthood?
Eventually my curiosity got the better of me. Boys – especially in an orphanage – can be extremely inventive. You ever tried to lock a pantry in a hostel? Might as well save yourself the effort and buy a Rottweiler. Anyway, I sat looking at the box one evening and started fiddling with the lock. I stole a paperclip from the office, straightened it, and inserted the one end in the lock. After a few minutes of this, the lock sprang open! I wanted to read what they were smuggling around, see?
Of course there were no documents. Inside, carefully folded in bubble-wrap, were a number of stones. Shiny stones. Big ones. I was a kid, man, but I didn’t need an expert to tell me those diamonds were worth quite a bit of money.
By then I understood I was busy with something that could land me in a lot of trouble. What to do? Go to the police? Tell Mister Boxer I didn’t want the money anymore? Refuse to hand over the boxes? I found myself in an impossible situation…
“So what did you do, Boggel?” Gertruida leans forward, completely absorbed in the story. “I’m sure you did the right thing, though. Those diamonds must have been stolen in Kimberley, smuggled to Cape Town, and sold there? What happened?”
Soon after that, the police caught both of us, just when I was handing over the box. Apparently Mister Boxer used me as a halfway station- he’d get the diamonds to Grootdrink, allow a week or so to pass, to allow everything to cool down. That’s in case the theft was noticed, see? Then, when he was sure it was safe, he’d pick it up again and take the diamonds to wherever he had a buyer.
Well, the police apparently were just waiting to join the dots. When they were ready, they nabbed us just when I was handing over the last box.
I was in deep trouble. But you know what? Mister Boxer told the police I was an innocent participant in his scheme. Said I was the perfect patsy. I had to look it up in the dictionary to understand. He got sent to jail, I received a stern lecture and a caning, and that was that.
Well, if Mister Boxer is at it again, he might pop up here. I owe him my freedom, see? He knows it…
“You owe him nothing, Boggel. He used you. A man like that has no conscience. It was nice of him to tell the truth about you, but you certainly can’t feel you are indebted to him. If he rocks up here, we’ll sort him out.” Kleinpiet tries his John Wayne drawl, causing Vetfaan to snigger.
“Boggel, if that man contacts you in whatever way, you tell me about it, you hear. You can’t play with these guys. They’re dangerous…”
It’s way past midnight when Boggel wakes up, sure that he isn’t alone any longer.
“I have a packet for you, Boggel. The last one I’ll give you, I swear. This is my last run – the big one. After this, I’m off to Mauritius. This is for old time’s sakes. Bye, Boggel. You keep to the straight and narrow now, will you? You were a good kid back then – I’d hate to see anything…untoward…happen to you.”
As quietly as he came, he leaves. Boggel waits sixty slow seconds before he switches on the light. The room is empty; only the flat, Ouma-size box glares at him from the little table next to the door.
He gets up, filters some coffee, and sits down next to the box. It is exactly the same size, similar to the previous boxes. Then he notices: no padlock! The box is unsealed, inviting…
“Have you heard anything, Boggel? Headquarters are desperate – they had somebody trailing that man, but now he seems to have disappeared completely. They need all the help they can get.”
Boggel polishes a glass behind the counter, a deep frown on his forehead. How can he tell Sersant Dreyer about his midnight visitor? Especially after he read the note in the box?
Boggel looks up, meets Dreyer’s eyes, and smiles.
“If ever I see that man again, you’ll be the first to know. Trust me, I’ll tell you. I swear.”
And, like Peter lied three times to his Master, Boggel managed to do the same in one breath. If, indeed, it matters not how you started, but how you finished, Boggel believes something has changed in Mister Boxer’s life.
If he’s lucky, Sersant Dreyer won’t ask why he went to the trouble of framing a single fifty Rand note to hang behind the bottle of Cactus Jack