“Rolbos used to be a quiet place.” Vetfaan stares at the window, where the sun is setting slowly. “I liked it here. It was you and me and Boggel – sometimes Vrede as well – and we swapped stories about rugby and the drought. That was nice. Now we have the Italians, a judge, those two men living out there at the edge of the desert … and little Cupid is running wild. Gertruida only talks to the judge; Boggel eyes Lucinda and old Marco is jealous because he thought he had a chance with Gertruida. And that Frans guy changed from a recluse to a socialite overnight, because he discovered Pete. No, man, I tell you: Rolbos isn’t the place it used to be. I might as well move to Upington.”
“Can it Vetfaan.” Kleinpiet stares at the empty bottle in front of him. “Things never remain the same. In fact, the only time it does, is when you’re dead – then nothing much matters any more. So what if there is a bit of love in the air? I think it’s a pleasant change.”
“Ja, but all this poetry makes me sick. In the old days we talked about the Springboks. At least they won the occasional game back then. Now it’s Keats and the hidden messages in his rhymes. Talk to me about tractors – then I’m your man. Or about sheep. Even the drought. But please, don’t expect me to talk about fancy stuff and knitting patterns.”
Boggel’s Place is strange in this regard: the moment you start gossiping about somebody, you can bet your next beer the person under discussion walks in. And of course, the sudden silence will tell that person exactly who was the subject of the previous conversation. In this case, Pete would have to be an idiot not to realise he had been the reason for the hush as he orders his beer.
“You guys have been talking about me.” It’s a statement and not a question.
Vetfaan bristles. “Ja, man. I can’t do this pansy talk about nail varnish and stuff. I want to talk man things. We may as well paint Boggels a hazy shade of pink. I don’t like it.”
Kleinpiet knows his friend too well to interrupt. Vetfaan is in a bad mood and is spoiling for a fight. At times like these, you keep your mouth shut and move breakable objects to a safer place. The last time he saw Vetfaan in such a mood, was when the speedcop from Upington caught him in a speed trap. That was most unkind – everybody knows the speedometer in the old Chev doesn’t work any more. In the ensuing argument (the car not being roadworthy, speeding, insulting an officer of the law and the run-down tyres) the cop’s gatsometer was smashed. The magistrate in Upington took a very dim view of these events…
Pete simply smiles and orders a beer.
“Typical.” Vetfaan’s temper is near boiling point. “Mamma’s boy is too scared to say anything. You march in here and change everything. And when you get challenged, you order a beer. I didn’t expect anything else. Too afraid to chip the old nail varnish, huh?”
Pete still ignores the taunt, but Vetfaan isn’t through. He waits until the glass is near Pete’s lips before giving his shoulder a shove, spilling the beer on the fancy shirt.
“Listen man, I came in here for a beer. You are obviously here for some other reason. Please leave me alone, will you? Fighting won’t solve anything – in fact, it’ll make things worse. And you can’t afford to lose to somebody like me. People will laugh at you.”
The bull. The red rag. The outburst. For a moment it looks as if Vetfaan can’t believe what he’s just heard. Then he lowers his head and storms the smaller guy. Now, to understand the situation, one must compare the two men. Vetfaan – burly, sunburnt, strong as an ox with upper arms strengthened by lifting sheep onto lorries. Pete – considerably smaller, sinewy and pale. Kleinpiet joins Boggel in shouting Noooo! but Vetfaan is way beyond the point of reason. This little excuse of a man challenged him and he’s not going to let him get away with it.
Two steps away from Pete. The smaller man bends his knees, pivots on his left foot and does a sweeping action with the right. Vetfaan suddenly finds himself without a foot on the ground as he does an extremely ungraceful summersault through the air.
“Ashi Barai,” Pete says.
Gathering himself, Vetfaan launches into a new attack, fists flying. Pete dodges three well-aimed punches, then uses his pointed elbow to strike at Vetfaan’s neck.
“Mae empi uchi.” Pete says.
By now, Vetfaan is winded, sore and as mad as he can get. He storms in one more time, this time to see Pete twirl around on his feet, much like a ballerina would, before a foot gets shot out, striking him in the upper abdomen. He feels the air rush from his lungs and has to collapse on his knees to remain conscious.
“Mawashi giri. Josokutei.” Pete says.
The fight is over. Pete steps over to Vetfaan, who covers his head in anticipation of a blow. To his surprise, he sees Pete’s hand reaching down to help him up.
“Where the hell did you learn to fight like that?” He gasps out the barely inaudible question.
“Ag, you know how it is. Some people think guys like me are sissies. We get picked on from time to time by big burly men with bad attitudes. One has to defend oneself, not so? So I’ve done a bit of karate. Roku Dan.”
“What the dickens does that mean?” Vetfaan sits down heavily. Boggel slides over two beers for the men.
“That, Vetfaan, is a 6th Dan. In karate that’s something of an achievement. And you, you ox, just got your ass whipped real good. Classic display of a master who defends himself, without wanting to hurt his opponent. You can thank your stars. He could have killed you.” Nobody noticed Gertruida hovering in the doorway until she speaks.
“Karate? Ka-ra-te? You think you can beat me with some Japanese tricks and get away with it?” For a moment the anger flashes in Vetfaan’s eyes.
“I’m afraid so. I just did. I don’t want to do it again, mind you.” The smile on Pete’s face is one of genuine amusement.
People kill each other every day. In Syria, in Uganda, on farms in South Africa. The Afghans and the Hutu’s and the Norwegians, even in France – it happens all over the world. The rules are simple- if you kill your opponent, you’ve won. That’s a sad state of affairs. Killing somebody doesn’t prove you’re better than him – it simply means you are so weak that you must get rid of the other guy in order to face life.
Now, the real strong people in this world (and there are very few of them) will handle conflict in such a way that opponents are allowed to live on in harmony. You don’t have to agree with everybody on everything – but you can allow everybody a little place in the sun.
In Africa (possibly in the rest of the world), it is the dearth of humour that causes people to fight. When last did you see (or hear) a President or a King crack a good joke? Or hear a diplomat laughing – really laughing – on the TV? We have become so used to stern faces and make-believe smiles, that we’ve accepted it as the norm. Conflict and fighting are part of our lives. We like it so much that we use movies and computer games to condition our children from the first day we park them in front of the telly. We give them toy guns. We educate them on a diet of Bruce Willis and horror films, and then expect them to live respectable lives.
But here, today, in Boggel’s Place, Vetfaan stares at the puny little man who just taught him a lesson – and guffaws. He, the undisputed Strong Man of Rolbos got beaten by … this other guy. A man with skill. A calm man who doesn’t brag about his abilities. A crazy runt with no fear. Well, he has to admit, the best man won.
“Okay, you earned a beer. Next time I’ll be more careful with who I pick a fight with. That speedcop from Upington is a better choice. Now,” he manages a real smile, “you must tell me about mash macaroni.”
“Mawashi giri,” Pete corrects him. “But first, Vetfaan, you must explain to me why that Meyer chap keeps on believing that poor Morné can kick as well as he did in the old days. We could have beaten the All Blacks on Saturday. I can’t tell you how frustrated I was when kick after kick sailed all over the place. I was almost as angry as you were when I walked in here this morning.”
That’s the other thing about Africa. She is a constant source of surprise and wonder. Gertruida watches the two men get involved in a discussion about rugby and fighting and shakes her head. Kleinpiet calls her over and orders a beer from the smiling Boggel.
“At least they didn’t break anything,” Boggel says as he sits down with them.
“But they did, Boggel. They broke through to each other. Look at the two of them – one would swear they are the best of friends.” Gertruida suppresses one of her harrumphs. Men sure are strange.
“Vetfaan made a new friend,” Kleinpiet muses. “He lost the fight and won a friend. That’s weird.”
“No, Kleinpiet. He didn’t lose a fight. He triumphed over something he didn’t understand. And that, guys, is the hallmark of a true hero.”
Boggel nods as if he understands. Sometimes it’s easier to do that, than to ask Gertruida to explain these deep opinions she airs from time to time. She’ll only start talking about good old-fashioned values and they way people respected each other in the past. Then she’ll get nostalgic and sad.
“Yes, Gertruida,” he says quickly, “you’re right.”