The old man stirs as the sun rises on the distant, dry horizon. He realises his son – his son! – must be an early riser. There’s so much he knows about the boy he’s never seen. It was Martha who told him, three months after the wedding, about the devastating effect mumps had had on her husband. He remembers how shy she was, but also that the news she brought was important enough for both of them to shunt convention aside.
“They’re like raisins,” she said, “and if you don’t know where to look, you’d think there’s nothing there. And that’s not all, Kobus. Due to the … raisins … he can’t…” Her voice had trailed off into uncertainty. “And now I’m pregnant. You know what that means, don’t you?”
Of course he did. Frans would know it isn’t his baby. That’s why he spoke to Aunt Rose that time, before she sent him away to Cape Town. But even then he couldn’t leave. He had to speak to Frans and tell him he was sorry. It was the most difficult thing he’d ever done.
“You are a low-life, opportunistic weasel! You don’t deserve to be here at all, coming from your bankrupt little family. Why, I should…” That went on for a while until Frans said everything a man under such circumstances should say. He scolded, cursed, degraded, belittled, accused, ranted and raved … and then sighed. “At least you gave me an heir. I should be thankful for that. Somebody to carry my name.” He was silent for a long time, Kobus not daring to speak. “You know I can’t live with you hovering in the background. You and Martha… Now, I want you to do two things. One: get out of town. Two: I want you to swear, by all that’s holy, that you’ll never have any contact with Martha again.”
Kobus Gericke opens his eyes to gaze at his son. Now in his mid-thirties, he had the tanned look of a farmer, piercingly blue eyes (Martha’s!), a shock of auburn hair and slightly protuberant ears – a Gericke characteristic. His son, Frans Viljee, is holding out a mug of steaming coffee towards him.
“I know so little about you,” he says, sipping his coffee, “we’ll have to talk a lot. Much catching up to do.”
“I suppose. But I can’t talk – not used to. We can see how it goes.” Frans hesitates. “How long are you staying?”
Judge Gericke is at loss for words. He was hoping for a grand reunion, lots of fun and laughter, time to repair the damages of the past and maybe, just maybe, move in with his son. A protracted stay is called for, not a weekend visit, for goodness’ sakes! And here he gets the distinct message that his son, glad though he might be to be reunited with his true father – even calling him Dad – wants to know when he will leave.
“I don’t know. As long as it takes. I don’t want to inconvenience you, though.” He lets his gaze wander through the sparse room. The house – more like a shelter, really – is a simple affair of rock walls and a thatch so thin you could see the stars at night. Frans let the old man sleep on the only bed while he settled on the Kudu-skin that served as a carpet. The house had one room – kitchen and bedding merging into each other more-or-less where the two chairs stood. The awkward little table served as a place to eat, wash dishes and shave. “But could help to spruce up the place a little, if you like?”
He sees his son stiffen, his back suddenly very straight, before Frans turns around with the excuse that he has to check on the sheep.
Getting to town with his rented vehicle takes a good hour or so, and Judge – as the townsfolk have taken to calling him – uses the time to reflect on his new life as a father. That his son is having difficulty in adapting to ‘normal’ society is without doubt. But why? He, Kobus Gericke, came from a much worse background, pulled himself up but his own bootstraps, and became a respected judge. The fact that the Viljee’s fell on hard times, is surely not enough to explain his son’s strange way of life?
In court, he has seen drug addicts, psychopaths, social misfits and a variety of neurotic and weird people. His son doesn’t fit into such a mould, does he?
No, what Frans needs, is a wife! Somebody to look after him. A caring person with a good sense of humour; somebody who won’t be scared off by his way of living. Of course, the house would have to be scrapped. A new, proper home with proper amenities is what is called for. Running water, solar panels and some furniture. A rug or two. Beds, chairs… he makes a mental list of the requirements needed before his son can introduce a wife into his life. Having lived a frugal life while working as a judge has made him financially independent; and particularly after the visit to the physician, there is no need to save for some distant future needs. No, he’ll use his money to set his son up.
And in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with testing the waters with that Italian girl. Frans will need time to get used to having a girlfriend (he smirks at that) and there’s no need to rush the youngsters into a relationship. But – a good fatherly talk with the girl and her father won’t do any harm, will it?
As he drives into town, he sees old Marco Verdana and Gertruida enjoying an early morning coffee on Boggel’s veranda. Perfect! Just the two people he needs to talk to before he tackles the girl. With their co-operation, it’ll be easy to convince Lucinda to spend time with Frans.
“But we don’t need your money, Your Honour.” Old Marco screws his eyes tightly shut to keep his voice level. “We, my daughter and me, we have enough. Thatsa not our problem. “No, my Lucinda, she’s a wild one. You try to fix her up with a man, and you’ll end up dead. No longer we talk about this. I go now.” With an indignant hands-in-the-air gesture, Marco stomps off.
“You could have used more tact, Judge.” Gertruida likes the old man, and the direct way he has of addressing problems; but he certainly misjudged this issue. “Marco is a proud man and one quite able to make his own decisions. I think you offended him.”
“You’re right, Gertruida. I know. It’s just that I don’t have a lot of time and I need to see my son settled and happy before I go.”
“You’re leaving us?”
He tells her about the visit to the physician. “It’s not like the acute leukemias, you see? This one is a slow-moving but relentless chronic form. They gave me the choice of chemotherapy and while I was considering it, you showed up and told me my son is alive and living in the Kalahari. There was no choice. The previous time I chose a career and kept my word of not returning. This opportunity may very well be my last chance to do something for the son I never did anything for. But please – not a word to anybody. Frans must never know about my condition.”
Gertruida sips her coffee and wishes the bar was open. She could use a Cactus right now. When Judge talked to old Marco about Lucinda, she thought he was a callous and insensitive old coot; now she realises he is a man on the verge of his final phase of life, desperately trying to make amends for his mistakes in the past. She allows a respectful minute to pass before saying she’s sorry to hear about his problems. He shrugs. “That’s life,” he says.
Boggel comes out with two special coffees: coffee with Amarula and a sprinkling of cinnamon and hot chocolate powder on top.
“Hey, you guys are serious this early in the morning,” he quips, “anything I should know about?”Despite Gertruida’s warning look, shake of the head and wagging finger, Judge tells Boggel about his conversation with Marco. How many feet can the man fit into his mouth, anyway?
“Old Marco was seriously offended, Boggel.” Gertruida, who knows exactly how Boggel feels about Lucinda, tries to limit the damage the judge is causing. “And Judge just told me he only wants to help his son. It’s an innocent gesture, Boggel, really.”
If you’ve got a physical disability, you approach life in a slightly different way than ‘normal’ people do. You get tough. Perseverance and commitment takes on a darker hue. You learn to take knocks and overcome them. And you learn that stupidity – especially when it comes to remarks and opinions – is the hallmark of the insensitive. People, Boggel will tell you, don’t think. Even so, he feels he world reeling around him. Lucinda – his Lucinda – being auctioned off to the highest bidder? How could Frans’ father even consider that?
At that moment, Frans stops his new pickup in front of the bar. It was a present from his new-found father, a sort of coming-home gesture to impress upon his son that he wanted to fix all the wrongs of the past. In his uncertain and reluctant way, Frans sidles up to his father.
“You okay?” He asks, rubbing the old man’s shoulders.
“Nope. I made a mistake.” He gives Frans a rundown of his conversation with old Matco.
To everybody’s surprise, Frans bursts out laughing. Upon seeing the arched eyebrow of the judge, Frans splutters: “But I am gay, Dad. So gay…” he can’t stop laughing.
“That’s queer, but I’m glad if you’re happy…” the old man starts saying. Then his pale lips form a perfect ‘O’, his eyes grow wide and surprise gets written all over his face. “Really?”
“I thought everybody knew, anyway. I thought they told you? No?” Hr looks over to Gertruida, who shakes her head. No, not even she had any inkling. “That’s why.” He reverts to his uncertain way of talking. “I can’t stay in town. People talk. And…I … well, if I can’t live my life the way I like, I’d rather be alone. Enough shame. No father. Mamma’s depression. Being nobody.” His eyes are pools of hurt and shame. “And now you want to fix me as well! Get me shacked up with some hussy? Well, the answer is no!” His tone is getting progressively angrier. “So, I think you should go. Leave me alone. Thanks, but no thanks!”
There are people who believe in fate. And there are other who think life is a random series of events – that we are the product of a series of coincidences. Whichever way you try to explain life, it will remain quite a feat to understand how Frans can write off two bakkies in the course of a few days. The first one, quite explainable really, burnt out in front of Sammie’s Shop. That’s still okay.
But the second one bears thinking about. When Frans roars off, mind filled with hurt and anger, the lorry from Kalahari Vervoer is trundling down Voortrekker Weg. Nobody uses indicators in Rolbos – people know where you are going to, anyway. But Frans, not used to this practice, doesn’t know the lorry needs to make a wide turn to park in front of Sammie’s. And Quintus Ferreira, the new driver who took over from Lucinda, never expected a vehicle to storm down Voortrekker Weg at such speed. The crash is loud enough to stop all activity in town.
That brings us to the real coincidence…
Fearing another fire, Vetfaan and Kleinpiet drags the almost-unconscious Frans from his vehicle while Quintus is so upset he does a workable imitation of a Riverdance routine.
“Oh my word! I’m going to get fired! I’ve killed a man and wrecked the new lorry and now they’ll burn me at the stake. I’m doomed, I’m doomed!”
And that’s when Frans sits up to watch the man whose lorry he almost wrote off.
Pete Small was his best friend in high school. They had a lot in common: both came from poor families; Pete’s father was absent most of the time, working on an oil rig in Nigeria; they loved to read and had the same taste in music. They lost contact after school, both of them totally unsure of the fondness that grew between them. Surely…surely….they were normal young men, weren’t they? But still, even after all these years with no contact between them, a slow smile spreads over the troubled face of Frans.
The dancing stops. “My! You’re alive! You’re okay! You’re…here?” Pete’s elation turns to uncertainty.
Somewhere out there in the Universe, the Book of Life was written aeons ago. The Writer was meticulous about atoms and molecules, star systems, planets and the way flowers only bloom when the season is right. What is most comforting is that the Creator also used a fair amount of humour when He decreed that people should inhabit the Earth. He must have had fun designing humans, come to think of it. Love and hate and laughter and tears – these things He instilled into our very being, making us the persons we are. And somehow it doesn’t take much then, to picture Pete and Frans chatting away in Boggel’s Place afterwards; with a relieved Boggel serving them while a smiling and happy Lucinda looks on.
And look over there: Gertruida and old Marco are talking up a storm. Judge Gericke is on the phone with the people of Kalahari Vervoer, saying he’ll see to it that the insurance will sort out everything. Vetfaan watches as Kleinpiet draws little lorries on the counter top. Precilla seems happy talking to Oudoom about the bazaar next month.
Yes, one would think this was all a coincidence and that life in Rolbos would be smooth and carefree for a while. But that’s not the way life works…especially if you understood the worries in old man Marco’s mind. His daughter has, you see, a problem. A huge problem. A problem he has been trying to solve for a long, long time. He hopes Rolbos can cure her, but if he looks at the people around him, he has serious doubts…