Frans Viljee isn’t somebody who gets emotional about life easily. He’s just not that type of man, at all. Ever since he was small, he had this almost-untouchable attitude about the events surrounding his life.
Maybe it started at birth, come to think about it. He didn’t cry like other babies do – he simply seemed to accept his new environment with a resigned silence. Old Mrs Remington, the district’s acknowledged midwife, tried to get him to cry with all her usual pinching and slapping; but he simply gazed at her with his baby eyes and refused to let even one tear slip over his rosy cheek.
When his father was called up for military service on the border, he solemnly stood on the platform as the train pulled out – an impassive little boy surrounded by a teary little crowd of sad people. Two months later, when the pastor tried to convince his mother that her husband was a hero, little Frans went to the kitchen to make a jam sandwich.
And so, the stage for Frans Viljee’s life was set. He knew that nothing – nothing – ever worked out the way you planned them, and he refused to be surprised or saddened by the curve balls he always expected to come. His teachers and friends eventually accepted him as emotionally impaired, calling him a sardonic cynic behind his back. Stoically stunted, also featured in several conversations in town.
It isn’t surprising that he started farming out at Bitterbrak after school. What was somewhat unexpected was that he actually passed his final exam. Everybody expected him to live up to his reputation, fail, and be unmoved by the results. As a natural loner (he knew relationships can’t last – it’s impossible, so why go through the motions?), he set up a small house (more like a shelter) and watched his small flock of sheep like a hawk. He expected jackal and other vermin to be regular visitors, and made sure his flock was safely in the kraal every night. When a lynx took out half his sheep in one night, he started sleeping with the sheep in the kraal.
Frans only visits Rolbos when he runs out of paraffin, batteries or candles. This will happen maybe once in six months or so. The wild beard is offset by the placid eyes, which stare in a disinterested way at the world around him. He always dresses in the same khaki pants and shirt – his town-clothes – and a pair of scuffed boots without socks. Gertruida says he surely wears a loincloth on his farm, but that is pure speculation because nobody has ever ventured to the Viljee farm to see what is happening there.
He arrived early today in his old Ford pickup, chugging down the street in a cloud of blue smoke and huffing to a tired stop in front of Sammie’s Shop. Half-an-hour later, he loaded his purchases onto the back and got into the cab to return to his sheep. Sammie watched as he turned the key. Nothing happened. Then a tendril of smoke escaped from under the bonnet.
Sammie shouted that the engine was catching fire. Frans simply got out, took his stuff from the back, and walked over to Boggel’s Place.
“What about the vehicle?” Sammie scampered towards Frans, pointing at the column of smoke. With a laconic glance at the pickup, Frans shrugged and said it was bound to have happened sometime, so why fight the odds?
By the time he sat down on the veranda, Vetfaan and Kleinpiet tried to control the fire. Despite their best efforts, the old Ford was reduced to a smouldering wreck within a few minutes.
Now, sitting at the counter with a cool beer in his rough hands, he stares out at the street where the little crowd surrounds the burnt-out vehicle.
“What are you going to do now, Frans?” Boggel is still amazed at the way Frans accepts the day’s catastrophe.
“Go back. Farm. What else?” His expressionless face matched his voice.
“You can’t walk all that way, can you? You’ll need a lift.”
“I’ll walk. That’s the only way.”
Gertruida does her hippo-snort as she walks in. “The heat will kill you, Frans. Somebody will have to take you.”
Eventually Oudoom gets ‘volunteered’ to drive Frans back. As the leading Christian in town, he is the obvious choice – after all, he should set an example, shouldn’t he? Frans accepted in his dour way, lugging his supplies along.
“That man needs to have some fun,” Precilla says as Oudoom’s car disappears in a cloud of dust. “Nobody can live like that. He refuses to show any emotion because he’s afraid to be happy. And if life is such a drag…why live at all? No, we’ll have to come up with something. Can’t we get that pole-dancer from Prieska to visit him? That’s turn his propeller, I’m sure.”
Vetfaan smirks. “Can you imagine that? I bet he’ll say oops! at the height of ecstacy.” He sniggers at his own joke before going on: “Sorry, I can’t see him getting excited about the usual stuff. We’ll have to surprise him with something even he doesn’t expect. “
“No.” Gertruida uses her lecture-voice. “You can’t surprise Frans into being normal. A year or so ago, National Geographic had this article about regression. They said that, if somebody is acting abnormally, you have to take them back to where the pattern started. So, in Frans’ case, we’ll have to think what happened at – and before – his birth. If we know what went wrong then, we can help him.”
Kleinpiet draws a picture of a baby of the countertop, thinking hard. “Then we’ll have to ask somebody who knew his mother very well. I mean, she died a few years ago, didn’t she? Frans won’t be able to help us, either. So … anybody knows anybody from that long ago? Somebody we can ask?”
“The only one I can think of, is the midwife, old Mrs Remington.” Gertruida sighs. “And she’s in that Alzheimer place. I doubt if she can help us…”
Sundown Palace (known locally as Rundown Palace) is situated a few miles outside Grootdrink. The six inmates – or lodgers, as they are called – stay in the neat row of bungalows on Gert Groenewald’s farm. When the drought took off his livestock, Gert considered more secure ways of making a living. Providing safe environment for the old and the frail seemed to be the answer.
Mrs Remington stays in Bungalow Three, the one with the little red stoep in front of the door. This is, of course, necessary – each bungalow has a different colour stoep. This way, it is easier for the old people to remember where they stay.
“Mrs Remington?” Gertruida addresses the sleeping figure in the easy chair on the veranda.
“You talking to me?” A rheumy eye opens to inspect the new arrival.
Gertruida explains who she is and why she’s there. “…and I was hoping you’d be able to tell me about Frans Viljee’s mother?”
The eye closes up again, allowing the grey-haired head to wander back into the past.
“You know I’m a bit dotty, don’t you?” It’s a question that doesn’t want an answer – it’s more of a veiled statement. “And I can’t remember what I ate last night. Can you?” The lips crack up in what may pass as a smile. “Never mind.”
“But…” The lips go straight again as both eyes open – like an old tortoise waking up after winter. “I remember things. Long-ago things. Yes, I do. Mostly I remember things that aren’t important, so you won’t be interested. So, why are you here, anyway?”
Gertruida explains again.
“Oh my! Frans Viljee? Of course I remember him – he was most unusual. Yes. Indeed.” Mrs Remington’s eyes turn into slits as she thinks back. For a while Gertruida thinks the old lady has disappeared into the misty memories of the past, then: “Martha Viljee didn’t want the child. Unwanted, he was. Yes. She said it was wrong to bring a child into such a sick world – especially if you consider the circumstances. For nine months she tried to ignore the fact that she was going to give birth, and even when people called me to help her, she still said she doesn’t believe it. She said he was just a dream, a thought, a something that’d go away if she closed her eyes long enough.
“Of course, his father didn’t share her denial. He said little Frans was the most wonderful thing that ever happened. He said something about infertility and the mumps he had as a child – and that he never expected to be a father. Called it a miracle, he did. Then he went off to the war and left Martha with the child she didn’t want. “ Her voice trailed off into uncertainty. “I’ll never know, of course, but I think he knew. The little boy didn’t look like him at all. And Martha: well, I think she was glad about the war in a strange way. If her husband came back from the fighting, she would have had to tell him about the real father. So he didn’t and that just made Martha ignore the little one even more. She played ostrich, you see?
“Oh, she did the proper things, she did. Saw him through school and all that. But love? No, she didn’t love him. Not at all. Endured, maybe. But not love.”
Two days later Gertruida drives to the ramshackle homestead on the farm. Frans is sitting on the kraal wall, whittling away at a stick he wants to change into a shepherd’s staff.
“I went to see Mrs Remington,” she tells him.
“So you know.” His tone is even, unsurprised at her visit.
The silence becomes unbearable, but Gertruida waits for a further response. Eventually he sighs.
“Unwanted child. Unknown father. A wasted life. Big deal.”
Gertruida sits down on the stone wall next to him.
“Mrs Remington told me more. About the arranged marriage between her and your father, Frans. A loveless relationship because their parents wanted to combine their farms. Then the droughts came and everybody lost everything. It was during that time she fell pregnant – maybe it was her way of looking for some happiness, who knows? Your father must have known about the affair, but never breathed a word. It was their secret, and the shame of admission was unthinkable … for her and for him. Then the war happened and he died and she had to live with the guilt she could never share.
“Oh, and she told me who your real father was.”
This time Frans looks up with surprise written all over his complacent features.
“Yes. He was the clerk to the local magistrate. A young and handsome boy from a poor family. They had been friends since Primary School, but her family was still rich in those days and he was a nobody. Her parents disapproved, of course. But they saw each other occasionally and that’s how you happened…”
“What…what happened to him, Gertruida?”
“Oh, he studied and worked and became an important man. A judge, in fact. When Mrs Remington remembered his name – it took some time – I recognised it immediately. So I phoned him.”
This time the emotion cracks up the impassive face of Frans Viljee. “What…?”
People will remember the meeting in Boggel’s Place for a long time. The stooped figure of the grey-haired old man hugging – for the first time – his son, was reason enough for several tears to cruise down various cheeks. But the one thing they all still talk about, is the brilliant smile on the face of Frans Viljee, the man who (up to that point) refused to be surprised by life.