Monthly Archives: September 2012

Paul’s Message

Ever since the fight between Pete and Vetfaan (nobody dares mention it, but everybody treats Pete with a new respect), Boggel’s Place is abuzz with the newest bit of news – Judge isn’t dying any more. Oudok contacted the previous doctor, got the reports and then sent them off to a professor at the university.

“It’s a leukomoid reaction, Judge. It looks like leakaemia, but it isn’t. During your initial consultation, you said you lost your spleen after an accident many years ago. Well, that got me thinking. Sometimes asplenia – the absence of the spleen – is associated with an immune deficiency and infections like Pneumococcus, and that can be subclinical at times.  Of course, the disease is usually much more severe, with fever and coughing; but in your case you simply became ill. Loss of weight. Short of breath. Anaemia. High white-cell count. It is entirely possible to confuse the picture with leukemia.

“But the professor looked at the specimens, inspected the blood smears carefully, and suggested we start you off on a strong antibiotic. Then we’ll follow up and see.”

The town watched as the judge regained colour in his cheeks, and his brisk walks in the morning later even left Gertruida breathless. His appetite caused Gertruida to visit Sammie’s Shop daily and Vetfaan has to bring in fresh milk every day.

“That old man is going to live to a hundred, mark my words.” Precilla watches as Judge minces his way across the street. “Unless he insists on wearing those pants. They have grown way too small for him – he’s literally bursting at the seams. Gertruida will have to order new clothes for him.”

“Yes, the two of them have become quite inseparable, haven’t they? I wonder if they…” Kleinpiet  smiles. “At his age it would be quite a feat.”

“Now, now! Age has got very little to do with it. Drag a young filly past and old goat, and you’ll feel the earth move.” Vetfaan has never been big on metaphors, but he still manages to get his message across. “Anyway, he is improving so fast, there’s no telling where he’ll end up. He may even take on Pete one of these days.”

“Come on, Vetfaan? You’re surely not sore at the hiding you got?”

“That was no hiding. I broke nothing and didn’t even have a bruise afterwards. Man, that was just two grown boys playing around a little. Anyway, Pete’s a great guy. He helped me fix my tractor yesterday.”

While they talk (gossip, actually) about Judge’s  medical status, other questions lurk beneath the surface. Will he pop the question? Is he brave enough? What’ll Gertruida’s reaction be? Nobody has the guts to ask them though. They want Gertruida to be happy, but they also know her as a strong-willed individual who likes her privacy. If she was to share her life with somebody, it would mean that she’d have to give up the time she spends reading and thinking and writing and whatever else she does when she’s at home. Will she surrender her lifestyle for a companion?

***

Oudoom scans the congregation as he opens the Bible. He’s quite pleased with the attendance: ever since the newcomers have come to town, the collection has taken on respectable proportions.  They’re all here today: Lucinda and old Marco sitting with Boggel, Judge and Gertruida huddled together and Frans and Pete right at the back. Servaas, he sees, is dressed in his black suit – that may be a warning of things to come. When he dresses up like that, he usually aims at airing something important during the service.

His sermon today is about tolerance. With the influx of strangers, he has picked up on a degree of tension in town. Mevrou says Pete and Vetfaan fought in the bar the other day, and Sammie told him old Marco isn’t his cheery old self these days.

“Did you know the word tolerance doesn’t appear in the Bible? Not once in the English translations I looked up. It’s as if the original texts were too careful to use such an important word. They must have been scared about what we’d do with it. But read in Romans 14: Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. The Book doesn’t want us to struggle with what we mean by tolerance. Definitions cause people to fragment the original idea. We can be very clever when it come to definitions – we make them up to suit our own goals. Look at what the church did with so many wars through the ages – we actually used the Bible to justify our means.

“That’s why Paul wrote to the Romans, to tell them to stop judging each other. The one isn’t better than the other. No single church today – and there are many – has the right to judge another church. The people who are running amok in the world, using religion as an excuse for anarchy, are making up definitions to justify their deeds.

“This is not what Paul wants. He’s telling them to be tolerant. To be loving. To be kind. And he tells us to help each other over the obstacles in life, so that nobody has to stomach the shame of rejection.”

Servaas swallows hard. He has prepared himself to ask Oudoom what the Catholics are doing in his church. And what about the two men at the back, sitting there with holy faces? Do they know what Leviticus says about them? And the learned judge, sharing a house with Gertruida – surely nobody can condone that? No, he has to speak and call them all to order. Religion isn’t some game you play – you abide by the rules and that’s it. And if the congregation doesn’t like it, so be it. At least he, Servaas, head elder , would have done his duty.

“Now remember what Jesus said? Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone? He is telling us that we all have faults. Nobody’s perfect. Why, you know the story of me and my wife – you all had a good gossip about that, didn’t you? And then there was that Sunday where you all came forward to tell the congregation about the … little missteps …you had in the past. We called it the Miracle of Rolbos, remember?

“So. We aren’t here to condemn one another. Neither can we play ostrich and ignore the problems that surround us. But we can stop judging. We can stop being intolerant. We can listen to Paul’s advice.”

Oudoom sits down as the congregation drag their voices through a hymn. He’ll have to get them to sing with more enthusiasm, somehow. When the notes die down, Servaas is on his feet, demanding attention.

“I have to say something. It’s about those two men at the back…”

Vetfaan is up in a flash. With uncanny speed he makes his way to the pulpit, to stand in front of Servaas.

“I want to add to what the honourable Elder has to say. That young man,” he points at Pete, “knows more about tractor engines than anybody I know. And he’s fights fair. What is more, is that he’s brought new life to our brother, Frans. We all knew him in his sad days. Now, with Judge here, and with a new friend, he has developed into a friendly, happy individual. In fact, I understand the he gave two slaughtered sheep for next week’s bazaar.  We all know that is even more generous than Servaas, who always gives half-a-sheep.

“My friends, Rolbos is in a time of change. We have new brothers and sisters joining us every Sunday. That is a good thing.

“You know? I read in the Upington Post about some religion that declared war against others – and that they even killed an ambassador. They are using violent protest and murder to convince other people they are holy. Now that, I think, is stupid. That’s intolerant.” He turns to Oudoom. “So, dominee, I think we should ask the congregation to make their views public. If anybody has any problem to anybody inside this church, let him or her stand up now and talk about it – or forever hold their peace.

“In the meantime, let me remind you that we are living in a time of Miracles. Judge, here, has had some good news about his tests. But need I remind you that here, in this very congregation, we’ve had a miracle cure. We all remember how Servaas suffered before the Lord took away his disease, don’t we?[i] We are all here by grace, and not because we are so terribly holy, Bothers and Sisters.”

Servaas sits down with a thump. Now that is one story he’d rather forget! Please, please, that truth must stay hidden.

“He’s leukemoid,” Gertruida whispers. “He wants to be aggressive, but he’s just been unmasked as harmless…”

Nobody gets up.

Then Judge asks if he could sing something. For the congregation, but especially for Gertruida. Oudoom nods his thankful assent – anything is better than the congregation’s long drawn-out efforts. To everybody’s surprise, the judge has a raspy, but melodious voice.

When his voice fades towards the end, Rolbos yields to a comfortable silence. They have to. They don’t want to lose the magic of the moment while they all pretend not to see the tears running down Gertruida’s cheeks. Paul would have been proud…

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Vetfaan’s Fight

“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.”

Lucinda’s Song

 “Women! Man, you just can’t understand them. Look at the way that Italian girl is treating Boggel: at first it was all eyes and smiles and little hugs – now she spends time with Frans and Pete as if our barman doesn’t exist.” Kleinpiet draws a gallows on the countertop, with a stick-man dangling from the rope.

“She wants girlie-talk, that’s all. She and Pete are comparing nail varnish. You can’t expect Boggel to know anything about Revlon, can you?” Vetfaan is being practical. “And yesterday they swapped knitting patterns.”

“But it’s this hot-and-cold thing that gets me. As soon as you think you are maing progress with a dame, they suddenly chill down. It’s happened to me before. Most frustrating.”

“My tractor did it once. Overheated as soon as the engine started working hard. Couldn’t figure it out, until I checked the oil sump. The oil was so old, it lost its ability to lubricate.  Seems the engine needed all that lubrication to keep it going properly. “

“So what did you do?”

“Changed the oil, that’s all. As soon as it circulated properly, the engine was happy again. You only have to understand the mechanics to understand it. Took me a while, though.”

Ever since old Marco told Gertruida that it is not very feminine to do a hippo-snort, she has been concentrating hard not to do it. This time she loses the battle.

“Is that all you guys ever think about? Oil and lubrication and overtheated engines? That woman,” she points at Lucinda, “is simply playing the oldest game in the book. Boggel will have to work hard to get – and keep – her attention. He’ll just have to up the ante.”

“If he can still get that ante to work, that is.” Vetfaan  giggles at Kleinpiet’s remark. “You know how it is with engines that haven’t run for a while.”

“Ag sis, man! Stop it, you guys. Rather go and talk to Boggel. He’s been miserable since she changed her tactics. Go on, tell him it’s a woman thing and nothing to worry about. And that he’ll have to work harder at the relationship.”

***

Boggel shuffles over to the table where Lucinda is chatting with the two men. Frans is talking about John Keats, and explaining some of his verses.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain…

“You see, people think he is saying something about death and mortality, but that’s not the way I see it. He’s afraid. In When I have Fears, he tells us that he’s afraid he’ll die before he discovers true love. Listen to this:

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love…

“He’s talking about the power unreflecting love – love that gets absorbed, accepted. He’s afraid of one-sided, single, shunned, ignored, not returned, love. And that is the tragedy of humankind – we want to absorb love, but we don’t give it.”

Pete hangs onto every word. Frans’ wisdom with poetry is absolutely astounding. In school they did a few verses of Visser and Keet, but Frans is much more intense and obviously spent a long time with the older English poets.

“In Italy, we have il Sommo Poeta, the great Durante degli Alighieri, or as the world knows him, Dante. He lived 800 years ago and is still considered to be one of the world’s best poets. He wrote about love and God and hell. Most interesting man, he was.”

Boggel asks if they want to order anything, but the group is so deep into the Inferno, that they ignore his question for a while. He clears his throat – he’s had enough.

“Listen. I don’t know much about poetry. I’ve heard of Dante, can’t recite Keats, and once knew the words of Winternag. But you know something? Poets write about love and death because they fear the one and crave the other. Sometimes it’s difficult to say which one is feared and which one they long for. Seems to me, they often crave love – and then long for death once they’ve found it. And listen to the words of most songs – they all say the same thing.” Boggel, who listened carefully to Vetfaan and Kleinpiet, ignores Lucinda while he addresses Frans. “Everybody is looking for love. They sing about it, write about it, cry about it – and once they’ve found it, they manage to bugger it up most of the time. Some people even manage to wreck it – even before they get started.

“Vetfaan says it’s like the oil in his tractor. Love needs lubrication.” Seeing Pete’s eyes go wide, Boggel smiles. “Lots of lubrication.  Love needs to be nurtured and cared for. You have to keep an eye on the oil level all the time. Check the engine’s temperature. Be careful not to go too fast – and watch out that you don’t stall the engine. You don’t need a poet to tell you that.

“Now, would you like to order something?”

That’s the thing about good barmen – they’re extremely rare. They must be able to listen to good advice. They must have the ability to talk about engines and love and poetry. And sometimes they must say one thing, but at the same time, convey a much deeper message. Most importantly, they are there to serve. Good barmen, come to think of it, should be good lovers.

Lucinda watched him as he spoke. Now she’s trying to catch his eye, but he’s already turned to go.

“Boggle?” She still has difficulty with the pronunciation.

“Ye-e-es?”

“We must talk…”

***

Rolbos doesn’t have a book club, or a poetry society, or a literary group. Except for Gertruida and Frans, nobody is knowledgeable enough to contribute much to what the great writers of the world have penned over the years.

Then again, maybe they don’t need it.

In contrast to Dante’s dark verses and Keats’ hunger for love, Rolbos lives in the reality of possibilities. They fail sometimes, lose the plot here and there and mostly suffer the consequences of their own mistakes. Yet, despite their shortfalls, there is an honest, if convoluted, yearning to belong – and even to love.

Maybe one should look at Rolbos not as a town. Maybe it’s a condition. Or, if you’re a real romantic, you can see Rolbos as a poem.

***

“I’m afraid, Boggle,” Lucinda says later, after the other customers have gone.

“It’s harder to give, than to receive, Lucinda. But only the brave will experience the fairy power Keats wrote about. Sometimes one gets hurt in the process – but if love is given and accepted by both parties involved, it is a sign of great bravery. It’s letting down all your defences and allowing somebody else into the driving seat. And if only one person does this, the end result is tragedy. Love and tragedy is separated by a very thin line; the only thing that keeps that line from breaking is trust and loyalty.”

Lucinda nods slowly.

“I have a CD here, Boggel. Sometimes I speak not easily when I speak of love. But maybe this song will tell you something.”

He puts it on.

Rolbos , they decide later, isn’t a poem.

It’s a song…

Gertruida’s Hope

Judge Gericke sits down on the bed with a sigh. Life can be so complicated at times! At the point of his life when retirement changed from being a reward  for a lifetime of service to society, into the prelude to death, he now has to deal with issues he’s not at all comfortable with. To many new things have suddenly become part of his life. Discovering the son he’s wondered about so much, has become a mixed blessing. Relocating to this dusty little town? Well, the jury is still out on that one. And now this kind, intelligent woman convinced him to move into her library – and woke up feelings he has always been at pains to ignore.

Love.

The word stumbles through his brain like a groggy bull in a china shop, upsetting everything in its wake.  Oh, he’s always had an open mind about people living together and caring for each other. That, at least, he has no problem with. But to have his own son in a relationship with another man? That really cuts a bit close to the bone. The truth? He’ll be happy if his son is happy; it’s just that such a relationship may very well turn out to be a minefield of problems. What about the attitude of the small, conservative community in the district? The little he knows about his son, makes him uneasy as well. Frans is an intense, reclusive sort of man – should this relationship turn sour, the effect may quite well be catastrophic.

And then there’s Gertruida. He has never met a woman with such an intellect. And … she’s quite good-looking, as well. Even … sexy! Despite the pale hue his face has taken to over the last few months, he feels himself blushing.  Come on, Kobus Gericke, you’re almost seventy. You have leukaemia. Death awaits. And now – now you’re thinking like a schoolboy? You’re a man of logic – what future do you have? What can you offer the woman? You’re crazy to think like this!

A knock on the door disturbs his thoughts.

“I brought you some tea,” Gertruida says lamely. “And I’ve been reading.” She waves a sheaf of papers in the air. “

——–

“The doctor said I had to have chemo, Gertruida. He said it was my only chance. Like you know, I was on the verge of going for it, when you arrived to tell me about Frans.” Judge Gericke has regained some of his composure, and uses his courtroom-voice. “The verdict, based on the available evidence at the time, was three months without chemo, eighteen months with. I had to decide whether it was worth it to go to the expense of the treatment to live a bit longer – or call it quits and face my last days.

“My doctor is a nice man. He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t like questions. He gives you the information you need and that’s what you have to use to come to a decision. But, anyway, that’s water under the bridge. He said if I didn’t start the treatment within a week, I wouldn’t benefit any more. Said I was lucky to still be at a stage where treatment can help. And he said I had a week’s window before it’s too late. It’s too late now.”

Gertruida can’t believe what she’s hearing. The judge, after all, isn’t a fool – and he fell for that?

“Listen, Judge, you must go on appeal here. Who’s that doctor to play God like that? Is he the new prophet? That argument is all skew and wrong! A week’s window? Last chance? Three months this way or eighteen months the other?

“Listen – he might be right up to date with statistics, but there’s no way he can tell you that’s exactly what’s going to happen to you as an individual! Why, do you even know what type of leukaemia you have?”

The judge scratches his head. This woman is exasperating! Of course he doesn’t know. Leukaemia is leukaemia, for godness’ sakes! “He said something about chronic. Oh – and lymph, something about lymph. He showed me the report, but I was so shocked I couldn’t read it. And it said it was probably indolent. I don’t think that is good. Sounds aggressive to me.”

Gertruida bursts out laughing, checks herself and apologises.  “Sorry, Judge.” She fights to control herself, sniggers and wags an admonishing finger at the old man. “You should brush up your English, sir!”

Judge Gericke isn’t used to ridicule and is about to retaliate, when her words sink in.

“What do you mean? My English is perfectly good, thank you.”

Indolent. Adjective. Meaning slothful, lazy, slow to progress, subclinical. It comes from the original Latin, meaning without pain:  in- dolēre. If this is what the report says, the doctor overplayed his hand. That means you have a problem, but it’s not half as bad as he said.  Soooo… Judge… we’re going to get all the information we can lay our hands on. Let’s get that report and get a second opinion. I’ll get onto it first thing in the morning. After your exercise, of course.”

He can only gape at her. “Exercise? What exercise?”

“You should know this as well, you old fool…” she checks herself to peer at him. Indeed, he bristles at the remark, but the smile finds its way back to his lips when she asks if she can approach the bench.  “Lifestyle change. No drinking. Exercise. Healthy diet. Happy thoughts. No anger. Lots of laughter. No stress. And you are gong for all of the above, as from now.

“Then we’re going to get all the information we can lay our hands on, and make an informed decision.”

Long after she’s taken the teacups away, closing the door softly behind her, Judge Gericke sits quietly in the chair, surrounded by the many books in Gertruida’s library. Some words keep on echoing in his mind… we’re going to get all the information we can lay our hands on… not half as bad… you old fool…

After all these years of fighting his own battles, this woman marches in and jumps into the frontline with him. Not only that – she lectures him about English! And she makes a damn fine cup of tea…

Well. He mustn’t get his hopes up, must he? Wordplay is fine, but the diagnosis still stands. Still, Gertruida has managed to peek between the cracks of his armour and somehow he likes the idea of having  somebody around to bring in tea at night. To tell him he’s an old fool. And to bring new hope to a drama that was about to turn into a tragedy.

Shuffling over to the bed, he pulls off his slippers. Clean, soft sheets. A comfortable cushion. And a woman to help you face the future.

What more can a man ask for?

He slips into a deep, dreamless sleep with the smile still hovering quietly in the darkness.

Somewhere, over the Rainbow…

“They seem happy together,” Vetfaan’s voice is full of disbelief as he stares at Frans and Pete on the veranda. “Look at them sitting over there, heads together, catching up on old times.. Man, I can’t understand it.”

“”Ja, we never had something like this in the Kalahari before. I wonder what Oudoom will say?” Kleinpiet draws a church steeple on the counter top. “It’ll be fun to hear his sermon on Sunday. All that fire and brimstone, and this time it’s not directed at us.”

“You know what? You guys are sick!” Precilla’s cheeks are flushed with anger. “At least they like each other. Even … love each other. And you two burly men are still unloved and single. I think it’s purely because you are so in love with yourselves, so selfish, that you have been afraid to venture into a proper relationship. No, if Oudoom says anything, he should be lashing out against men who are too scared to love. Now, that’s a sermon I’d like to hear.”

Vetfaan hates it when people insinuate he’s afraid on anything. Ever since the time on the border, he has worked hard on his macho image. (https://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/26th-march-cowards-day/)

“Scared? Me? You’ve got to be joking, woman. I’m not scared of anything. It’s only … well, the right woman hasn’t crossed my path…”

Gertruida does her hippo-snort: “And so there you are, sitting by the roadside like a rusted mousetrap, waiting for some poor, ignorant soul to plead you to take her home? That’s not the way it works.” Gertruida has waited a long time to lecture Kleinpiet and Vetfaan on their lives. Now the opportunity presents itself, she isn’t going to let it slip by. “You two men should be out there, hunting for love. You should wash, shave, comb your hair, buy new jeans at Sammie’s and woo somebody. When last did you pick flowers to give to somebody?  Or took a girl on a picnic? Bought perfume? I can tell you: never! Real men don’t do stuff like that, do they? They sweat, drink beer and burp.

“You guys are still in caveman-mode. If some damsel doesn’t crawl all over you, you sit at your fire and try to convince yourselves that this is as good as it gets. My word! If I was a man, I’d be on my horse, cruising through the district, looking for somebody to share my quiet moments with.

“And what’s wrong with Precilla, here? Kleinpiet, you should pay more attention to her. She’s a beautiful, attractive, sexy woman – and all you guys do is to talk about the drought and your sheep! No – if you want to be a real man, you should risk the perils of love. Show you’re not afraid to be honest about feeling lonely sometimes. Brave enough to accept that you need love and understanding in your lives.

“Now – those two on the veranda are much more than you’ve ever been. At least they venture. They risk. They’re brave enough to be honest. In fact, I think you two boys should ask them to teach you a thing or two.”

Precilla’s cheeks are still flushed – but this time not by anger. She can’t decide whether she should be glad that Gertruida prodded Kleinpiet along, or if she should be embarrassed. In stark contrast, the two men developed a sudden and intense interest in their beers.

—————————

“Now, Lucinda, you know your Papa, he loves you very much. And that I’ve always been on your side, no? So I have to say this thing.” Old Marco eyes his daughter carefully. So far she’s been listening quietly – it may be safe to continue. “I see the way you look at Boggel. You have that … hunger … in your eyes again. He is a good man, Lucy.” He only calls her Lucy when he wants to soften the impact of his words. She knows it, waits for the rest.

Of course she knows where this is leading to. It’s that speech again! She sighs. What he is about to say is quite true, she knows that. No matter how she tries to explain that she isn’t an ‘easy girl’ (his phrase in these conversations), her father doesn’t understand how much she needs a man to love her.  Someone to look up to, to respect … and to love with all her heart. Oh sure – there was that baron in Germany, the count in Rome, the lord in England. Always the cream of the crop – and when she starts believing that this time it’s the real thing, there’s always a disappointment. Drugs. Other women.  And worst of all: as soon as she submits to them, they think they own her, like the Ferrari in the garage, the island in Maldives or some stud horse they can brag about. The Sudanese prince was charming, and so was the guy from CNN and the CEO of the oil company. And yes, she did like their attentions and every time – every time – fell madly in love.  She so desperately wanted to believe the illusion created by these men of the world. But soon, in every case, it became apparent that she was only an acquisition, an asset, to parade amongst the rich and successful men who boast about such things.

How can she explain the need to belong? To have a man with her; somebody who really cares and wants to spoil and protect her? Maybe it’s her Italian blood, who knows? But there is a deep craving inside her to wake up next to a loving man and to know the day will be filled with joy. Papa thinks she is overeager, too much in a hurry to find the right man, that she should be patient. But every time someone whispers sweet words in her ear, she tumbles down the steep slope of love, hoping that this man, this time, will be the one.

Nobody owns Lucinda Verdana! Only Papa, maybe. Kind, soft Papa who set such a high standard for any suitor to woo her. He always said he can see right through them, and he was right. And now Papa is warming her not to be foolish with Boggel. Give it time, he says. Let him prove himself.

Papa also says she must remember she is a very rich woman, and that the Verdana fortune will be hers one day – and it’s true. Men may have all kinds of motives when they tell her they love her. But she, she doesn’t care about money! She wants love. No, even worse: she desperately craves being loved.

And, he tells her, she is a very beautiful woman. Men like to be seen with such attractive ladies for many reasons. He’ll quote Gibran to say: Beauty is not in the face; it is a light in the heart. “And you Lucy, must protect that light – it’s burning strongly inside you.” Always he says that, and always it signals the end of his argument, as if it is the most important thing he wanted her to hear.

“I know, Papa,” she says when he finally finishes, “I know all these things. But Boggel isn’t a prince or a sheik or a lord. He’s like you, Papa. In so many ways. Always, with the men, I was looking for you. And always I was so disappointed, because there is only one Papa.

“So yes, this time I will be more careful. I’ll make him do the work. If he’s serious about me, he won’t do what those other men did – he’ll be patient and kind and he won’t hurt me. I think he’s like you Papa, but first I will make sure. Si, that man is going to have to work hard to convince me.” She smiles wryly. “So, Papa, this time I listen to you. I’ll be careful. And maybe, just maybe, he is the one. Will that make you happy, Papa?”

Aging is a journey into honesty. When the old man nods, he suddenly finds it’s hard to talk. Instead the tear running down his cheek says yes, that’s exactly what he wanted to hear.

—————————-

The sun is already on its downward course when Judge Gericke shuffles into Boggel’s Place. It’s been a long day. He has briefed the architect in Upington; started ordering building materials; found a builder that seemed to be more-or-less honest; sorted out the situation with Kalahari Vervoer and phoned his physician, telling him he won’t be coming in for the chemotherapy. Now, exhausted and hot, he flops down at the counter for a beer.

He smiles when Gertruida walks in after his first sip. Now here’s a woman with poise, dignity, intelligence and style. She reminds him a bit of Martha, way back when they could still laugh and the world seemed to have rosy edges. Oh, to be young again…

“Had a busy day, Judge?” Despite his protest, the townsfolk insist on using his title when addressing him. He’s given up trying to make them use his real name.

“This and that. Starting to get people to build Frans a proper house. Have you seen him today?”

“Yes, he and Pete came into town to order stuff from Sammie’s. A couple of beds, mattresses and blankets. They had a quick beer before returning to the farm.”

Judge Gericke twists on a lob-sided smile. “Yes, the furnishings in that house is rather Spartan, I agree. And now that Pete visits there so often, I feel I must get somewhere else to stay. Two’s company…”

“Are you okay with Pete around?” Gertruida has to know everything –it’s her way of dealing with life.

“I suppose. Was a bit of a shocker in the beginning, but when I see him so happy, I know I can’t deny him that. And it’s a question of options. Would I rather see him sad and alone, or happy in company? It’s a no-brainer. I want my son to be happy, of course.”

“And Pete?”

“I’m not in a position to judge.” He smiles at the wordplay. “No, they are both grown adults – they must work it out for themselves. That’s why I must look out for new lodgings – a conservative, decrepit and sick old man doesn’t belong there. Do you know of any accommodation in town?”

“No, Judge. The Verdana’s have taken the last empty cottage.” She hesitates, studying him. “But I have a separate room at the back. It’s more like my library, and rather cramped, but it does have a small bathroom. You’re welcome to use it while you scout around for more suitable lodgings. And…it’ll be nice to have company…”

Their eyes meet for a second – a lingering look, lasting just a little bit longer than they intended.

——————-

Three rather important conversations in one day. The first about commitment, loyalty and respect The second about the necessity of caution, even abstinence. The third about possibilities.

And they all, in their own individual and unique ways, address the same issue. They represent the oldest quest of all mankind – which so few ever figure out…

Falling in Love Again

“Dad?”

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?”

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…

A Thing of Beauty

Judge Kobus Gericke frowns as Boggel slides another Cactus over the counter. It’s been years since last he had so much to drink and he really shouldn’t have another. But then again – he glances at the happy faces around him – it’s been years since he had anything to celebrate, anything at all…

“Well, here’s to the first judge to visit Boggel’s Place!” Vetfaan’s cheeks are flushed already.

Despite the festive atmosphere, the old judge struggles to escape from the cold grip of the memories. When Aunt Rose sent him off to Cape Town, he knew he would never see Martha again. That hurt. What was even worse, was the thought of leaving her to raise his son. Oh, how he suffered with that! And when Frans Viljee died in the war, he was so tempted to return and claim his rightful place.  But, being an advocate and aiming to be a judge, he contemplated the possibilities carefully. If it became known that he had an illegitimate child after seducing another man’s bride on the eve of her wedding – well wouldn’t the tabloids have a field day with that one? And if he couldn’t practice law – what was the point of returning? He’d be the outcast all over again. He made a choice; and although it was the logical one, it was the only option at the time and one he regretted all his life.

No, things are the way they are, and he has to make peace with that.

Kleinpiet lifts his glass to toast his health. He acknowledges the gesture and takes the smallest of sips from the glass. Health…such a fleeting phenomenon on the canvas of life.  How we all consider normality to be a right! As if some law says we shall be healthy forever – which we don’t, not even the strongest manage it. And after the visit to the physician last month…

Kobus Gericke lets his gaze rest on Frans Viljee, his son who was raised with another man’s name by the only woman he ever loved. To finally meet him was a shock, truth be told. He expected Frans to be a successful person in his own right and never even considered him to be a social recluse at all. And now he had to hear that Martha told the boy everything. Everything except who his father really was. He knows, for instance, that Martha didn’t love the man she married, and that the wedding was an arrangement to combine two farms – that is, before the drought came and sank that dream. The boy lived through the family’s fall from grace. Once wealthy and influential, the Viljee’s ended up being the gossip of the district; a family scorned and laughed about behind their backs. Without their financial backup, they ended up where the Gerickes used to be: poor and rejected.

The influence of this history, coupled with the knowledge that his real father wasn’t involved in his growing up, had a devastating effect on Frans. Over the years (possibly aided by his mother’s depression), Frans became a social misfit; an outcast by choice who shunned all and kept to himself. It was, the judge realise, purely a self-protective action; an effort to avoid further pain and humiliation.

“I have to say something.” His voice, after years on the bench, carries a certain authority that commands attention. The buzz of conversation dies down obediently.

He tells them about his lonely years. Studies demanded all his time and then he started climbing the legal ladder. There was no time for romance. But there was Martha, always Martha, who returned to his dreams at night.

“It reminds me of a poem.” To their surprise, he launches into John Keats:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever;

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

“That is the poem tells the story of the love between a lowly shepherd and the moon-goddess, Selene. Keats renamed her Cynthia, of course. It’s an impossible love affair between a mortal man and an immortal goddess, borrowed from Greek mythology.

“Now this, I must say, reminds  me of my love for Martha. It was an affair doomed by reality. She died, and I’m still here. Like Endymion, the shepherd, I have travelled the world, looking for peace. That poor man searched high and low until he came to Mount Olympus, where he finally made peace with the love of his life.

“Today I can say I understand the poem for the first time. It took me a lifetime to come here, to Rolbos, to find my son and tell him I love him. That, through all the years, I never passed a single day without thinking about him, worrying about him and wondering about him. A thing of beauty, indeed…” Overcome by emotion, the old man breaks down and has to lean on Gertruida to remain upright.

Frans Viljee, true to his nature, listened quietly while the old man spoke. Now he gets up and holds a hand aloft – like a child would, in class. Boggel nods his approval.

“I, well, I’m not used to people. I don’t do the talking thing. Never did before, anyway.” He swallows hard. “So, all I can say is thank you.” He nods in Gertruida’s direction. “And it’s time for Dad to come home. It’s late.” He’s almost at the counter before he stops. “Oh, yes. That poem. It ends with Cynthia telling Endymion how she tried to forget him, but to no avail. Then she says: ‘There is not one,/ No, no, not one/ But thee.’ Maybe that says something about both of us. Or about all of us, come to think of it.”

The old man stares at his son. “You know Keats?”

“It gets lonely out there with the sheep. I read a little…”

 

Life is a maze of twists and turns, and not one of us can guess where love begins or hate ends. The journey is one of constant surprises and moments of awe. No matter how well we plan the next day, the next week or worse still – the next year – we are bound to gasp at the reality we have to face when it becomes clear that no planning is ever perfect. For who would have guessed the lonely hermit, farming on the fringe of the desert, would end up in Boggel’s Place, hugging the father he never knew? And yet, even in their moment of joy, they hoped the moment would last. That would require good planning and fair health – commodities sadly lacking in the heady mix of laughter in Boggel’s Place that night. Especially after the visit to the physician…

Judge Gericke is arguably the only one who recognises this amidst the festivities. He has one dream left – to see his son marry someone he loves. That, he thinks, will be the completion of a circle he and Martha never could.  He scans the little crowd and feels his gaze pulled, time and again, to the lovely Lucinda, the Italian girl, chatting merrily with Boggel. Now, there’s a woman with spunk and determination.  If he can get Frans to hook up with her, his son would have a woman who can help him become a respected member of society again.  He’s made sure she wears no ring, so she isn’t claimed yet.

Fair game, the old judge smiles, fair game and obviously available. He allows his son to slip an arm around his waist. He’s so tired…

Tomorrow.

He’ll talk to her tomorrow.

In his minds eye he can just imagine how happy they’ll be…

Mrs Remington’s Peace

(Following on Frans Viljee’s Smile)

Rose Remigton eyes the little red stoep with some uncertainty. Next door’s one bungalow has an orange veranda, the other one’s green. She stays in red, doesn’t she? She shrugs – it doesn’t really matter. If she walks into the wrong dwelling, the world isn’t going to end, is it?

Ever since that woman came to see her, she keeps on thinking about Martha Viljee and the baby she had. It must be about thirty years now, maybe more, but she somehow remembers that specific birth quite clearly. She should, given the circumstances.

Being the district’s midwife wasn’t easy. She had to travel from farm to farm, always at the last minute but never late. Often, these visits resulted in a stay of a few days, even a week, before she felt it was safe enough to leave the mother to take care of the new arrival. Society had a strange way of dealing with midwives: when you were needed, you were expected to respond with urgency. However, between deliveries, one got the impression that one was an embarrassment – just like the Gerickes were.

She had known Martha Viljee before she got married, of course. Although she was a good ten years older than Martha, the district was so sparsely inhabited that age didn’t necessarily impact on your choice of friends. Being young meant you were below forty and that implied a possible friendship. Old was a relative term in those days. Maybe the clearest distinction was whether you participated in the occasional dances that took place for various reasons. The wool cheque, New Year’s Eve and birthdays supplied enough excuses for the younger group to party – while the older generation used these occasions to sip peach brandy and complain about the way the children misbehaved on the dance floor.

Yes, and she remembers the way Martha used to look at him. Kobus Gericke. The clever one – whose father used to grade the gravel road between Upington and Grootdrink. The Gerickes were not amongst the Chosen Ones when one arranged seating at a wedding or at Communion; they were expected to (and they did so themselves, really) sit at the back, away from the important guests, as if they were left-over patches to be worked into the quilt of society. So Kobus rarely made it past the barn door at a dance; he was allowed to be there, to look on; but that’s where his participation was expected to stop. A child of such a lowly standing would surely feel out of place in the arms of a beautiful young lady? No, it was for his own good that society decreed his presense-at-a-distance. To protect him, you see? It’s not that they were snobs or anything like that. Why allow the boy to dream if it could only end in tragedy?

But Mrs Remington remembers the way he looked at Martha as well, just like a cat does when one opens the fridge door; or a dog would, if you eat biltong. There was a hunger in those eyes; a desire reflected in Martha’s as well. Rose Remington knew – just like with pregnancies – that life contains certain inevitabilities; and that nature will not be denied by stature, bank balances or social pressure. Kobus and Martha may have been separated by communal decree, but the pull of attraction would always be stronger than the forces that kept them apart.

The wedding of Frans Viljee and Martha was a disaster. The drought had taken its toll and both families were about to lose their farms – and with it, their social standing. In a last-ditch effort to impress their guests, the barn on the Viljee farm was converted into a concert hall – complete with electric loudspeakers and several long-playing records. To a community only used to the wind-up, His-Master’s-Voice type of gramophone, this was supposed to be the ultimate in entertainment. Martha’s father said it was even better than having Charles Jacobie there – the speakers were so clear  you could hear the rasping of the fingernails across the guitar strings.

The system needed electricity – another rather new idea in the district. That’s where Kobus Gericke came in. He and his father had to lug a generator all the way from Upington to Grootdrtink for the occasion.  As the grader had to do the route anyway (albeit slowly…), it was a logical choice. And when the old grader broke down, ten miles from Grootdrink, the only way to tell anybody about the catastrophe, was  for Kobus to run ahead with the news.

For the first time ever, Kobus had a legitimate reason to knock on the door of the hallowed family whose daughter was about to get married. Martha opened the door, eyes stretching wide in pleasant surprise. He told her. She cried. He comforted her. She invited him in. She found herself sobbing on his shoulder: about the wedding, about her unhappiness … and about her love for him.

Who can explain the thrust and power of such moments? Science will forever fail to clarify the energy created by a distraught maiden in the comforting arms of a lost love. Then again, one shouldn’t dwell on such issues, nor try and describe what happened next; as this is, like so many intimate moments, a very private affair. Suffice to say that Martha walked down the silent isle with considerably more inside her than just the remorse of what they had done.

Mrs Remington feels her face crack up with a rare smile. Yes, this is exactly what Martha told her, that night the baby was born. That someday, when life has smoothed the rough edges of anger and remorse and resentment, she would like to see father and son united again. That the circle would be completed. And how she prayed that she, Rose Remington, would be instrumental in helping that to happen!

Yes, she thinks, now at last the book can be closed.

There is something else she remembers. Kobus came to see her one evening. He wanted to know more about his son, and she was the only one he could trust. She told him about the quiet little boy who refused to cry.

“He’s going to be a lonely man, Kobus, but he’ll be strong. Now you, young man, must face up to reality. You can never go near Martha again. One scandal is enough. The only solution is to allow her to live her life without wondering what gossip is cruising through town. No, you must leave. Go to Cape Town, do some studying. Become somebody. And then, when the time is right, you may have another chance to fix all this. Not now…later…

“Mark my words: life is like a pregnancy – a mother can’t decide when to have a baby. Nature does. And so it will be with you. If you are patient enough, the delivery will be painless. However, if you try to force the issue, the baby and the mother may very well end up dead. That’s the way it is. Accept it.”

“But how, Aunty Rose? How?”

That’s when she started putting money in the Post Office savings account, pinching off as much as she could. Funny, now that she thinks of it, she never missed that money. And Kobus paid it all back eventually. Fancy: a midwife putting a young man through university? It must be said that he did his bit, too: his hard work was rewarded by a bursary that covered most expenses.

Yes, the circle is complete now. Kobus will look after Frans, like a father should. Frans will start anew. Just like a pregnancy. There’s no sense in rushing events in life – there is a time for everything.

The sun has moved along its course and she feels her legs warming in the afternoon’s glow. It’s been a good life, she thinks. Now she can face the last episode with peace. Rose Remington, born as Rosalie Gericke, can relax at last.

The smile on her face broadens. The Gerickes have always had a way of managing scandals. Why, she married an Englishman, for goodness’ sakes! And Kobus never married, but had a son. Lord only knows what poor Frans will get up to in the future…

 

Frans Viljee’s Smile

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.

“Yes.”

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.

Against all odds…

For some reason, Papa Verdana doesn’t seem keen to visit Boggel’s Place. One would think the special bond between Boggel and Papa – both being hump-backed – would be some reason for the two of them to get on well. However, although Lucinda often visits the bar, the old man stays at home most of the time.

“He doesn’t like Boggel,” Kleinpiet says. “All fathers are like that. The moment their little daughters get involved with some hunk, the father gets jealous. I’ve seen it happen. When I was in matric, I fell in love with a lovely woman and her dad nearly killed me.”

Vetfaan sighs. “Sure Kleinpiet. Tell the whole story. That woman was forty and you were eighteen. You can be glad her husband was overseas at the time. Courting your teacher isn’t such a clever thing, is it? I still visited you in hospital, remember?”

“Really?” Precilla hasn’t heard this story before, and frowns at Kleinpiet. “Sis, man! How could you?”

“Oh, nothing happened. She gave me sandwiches and cooldrink when I fixed the tap in the kitchen. Then, all of a sudden, she rushed me. She had hungry hands all over me in a second – and then her dad walked in. I was innocent, I swear.”

“Pull the other one, Kleinpiet. I saw the photos in your album. You were quite sexy in those days. I’m sure you were quite a Cassanova.”

“No, I didn’t have a car.  Anyway,” he says, steering the conversation back to a less personal level, “I’m sure old Papa Verdana is simply jealous. With Lucinda obviously keen on Boggel, we have to do something to make the old man comfortable with the idea. Any suggestions?”

It’s Gertruida who comes up with the solution – as always.

“The Upington Post wrote about the London Paralympics…” at  this point she has to explain what it is, “and there people with all kinds of disabilities compete against each other. Now, we have two disabled people in town…” They didn’t get it, of course.

“So…..?”

“We’ll have our own Paralympics, that’s all. Papa Verdana and Boggel can compete against each other. We make Boggel lose. Papa’s pride is restored and he establishes himself as the champion of Rolbos. That way he won’t feel threatened by Boggel’s attention to Lucinda. It’s pure logic, you guys!”

It takes several rounds of Cactus to make them understand. Boggel, who was quite curious to know what they were whispering about, couldn’t understand the secrecy. If the townsfolk are like this, they’re up to no good.

“Boggel,” Gertruida eventually announces, “we’re going to have some Paralympics.” She explains what it is all about,

“You want me to compete against Papa? He’ll kill me!”

“That’s the general idea, Boggel. If you lose, he’ll love you. If you win, you can kiss your chances with Lucinda goodbye. If you don’t do anything, you’re going to lose her, anyway. Italians are like that. The family always comes first. So if Lucinda has to choose between you and her father, guess who’ll win? No, Boggel, this is the only way.”

 

It’s the next day, and Voortrekker Weg has been transformed into an athletic track. The pothole is barely visible after Vetfaan dumped some sand into it, and Kleinpiet took a lot of time to get the two lanes just right. Three almost-straight white lines bisect the town- Sammy donated a whole sack of flour, Kleinpiet loaded it onto a wheel-barrow and cut a small hole in it. The trick was to walk straight down Voortrekker Weg with the flour pouring from the sack.

“Kleinpiet did a great job,” Vetfaan says, “those guys in London would have been proud.”

“Ja, it’s only there where Vrede chased the ostrich that the lines aren’t straight.” Precilla points at the section in front of Boggel’s Place. “Then he had to make the other two lines take the same curve. At least, he says that’s what happened. Maybe he was just thirsty.”

“But will the old man agree? I mean, he may very well refuse, and then all this effort would have been in vain.”

“Boggel told Lucinda this is our yearly festival. A tradition, you understand? Italians can’t break tradition. Gertruida says it’s a genetic thing. He’ll come, I’m sure.”

At eleven, they all gather on Boggel’s veranda. Boggel borrowed Kleinpiet’s old rugby pants while Oudoom fished out a pair of tennis shoes from the charity-box the congregation in Upington sent last year. Precilla insisted he should wear a head-band, so that it is easier to distinguish between the two hump-backed men. The T-shirt – advertising Massey Ferguson – was Vetfaan’s contribution.

Papa Verdana walks down the street at five-past. He looks great in the well-fitted track-suit and Nikes.

“Now, where-a are the tradition, hey? Me, I’m-a hot, see? Why you all stare at me? Bring Boggel.”

Lucinda walks the two men down to the start line at the end of the street. Oudoom, as the most just and honest man in town, fingers Vetfaan’s  Remington rifle gingerly and tells the two men he wants a clean fight, no gouging or clinching and that the judges decision will be final. No correspondence will be entered into. He ends off with “Now, what is your answer to this?” and has to restrain himself from adding “You may now kiss the bride”.

Then he raises the gun, pulls the trigger, and gets knocked over by the recoil.

Boggel thought he would have to hold back to let the old man win, but after only five yards he realises he will have to really put in a huge effort to remain more-or-less in contact with Papa Verdana. He is surprisingly agile for his years, sprinting with considerable ease despite his deformity.  By the time they pass the church, Boggel is several yards behind, panting heavily.

“Maybe, we-a stoppa for a drink, o?” The older man smiles over his shoulder. “You looka like you could use a rest.”

Boggel can only nod.

After the second beer, Boggel has recovered sufficiently to talk.

“Where did you learn how to run like that, Mister Verdana?”

“Oh, I was on Italian team to Beijing.  I was coach to the runners, si? Always keep fit, thatsa what I say.”

At this point, Boggel concedes the race. “You win, I give up. There’s no way I can make it to the finish. You’re the best, Papa.” The Papa slips out but the old man doesn’t seem to mind.

It is Gertruida’s job to hand over the trophy. Bending over Papa, she places the medal (two bottle tops on a string) around his neck and gives him a peck on both cheeks. In the National Geographic, they say that’s how Italians kiss. To her utmost surprise, he puts a hand in the small of her back to make her sit down on his lap.

“Gertruida,” he sighs, “You look like-a Sophia Loren to me. So clever. So voluptious. So sexy. Me, I like-a you very much.”

 

Tonight they will have a party in Boggel’s Place to celebrate their paralympic champion.  They’ll laugh and talk and listen to Papa’s stories about Beijing. He’ll tell them how happy he is that Lucinda has found a soul-mate. And later, when the talk is over, he’ll whisper in Gertruida’s ear.

“I was so afraid you no like me. That’s-a why I stay away. But when you kiss me like that – like Sophia would – I feel I can … how you say … well, it’s okay to talk, see? If you no like me, I no can visit here with Boggel. But Lucinda, she tell me why you think of race. She tell me you wanta me to win. Me, I think that says you care. I like that, very much. You understand?”

And, for the first time in years, Gertruida will feel the rush of blood to her cheeks. To think that such a sophisticated man; a world traveller, somebody who’s been to China; compares her to Sophia Loren! And that he was too shy to visit Boggel’s because he thought she wouldn’t like him?

When, later, Papa escorts Gertruida back to her house, Boggel will shake his head and announce a round on the house. Lucinda will smile – a small secret smile, the smile daughters have when their fathers are happy.

 

No, Rolbos will never know how well South Africa’s team did in London. It’s not that they don’t care – it’s just that they have enough to celebrate already. Like in London, the biggest goal isn’t winning – it’s Love.

The video says it all…