Living in a Chugga-chugga world

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“It’s not the carburettor.” Vetfaan twists his long face into a scowl. “I’ve replaced the thing, and it still doesn’t want to start.”

“How old is that Massey Ferguson?” Boggel glances over while he polishes the glasses. Vetfaan’s tractor is a bit of a legend in the bar – whenever anybody wants to break an unwanted silence, he can just ask Vetfaan how the old machine is doing. That’ll ensure at least an hour’s tribute on the wonders of the ancient machine; much like the imbongi does with the president.

“It’s a ’57 MF 35, Boggel. And she’s been the most reliable machine I’ve ever had.” He launches into the narrative as if it’s all new to Boggel. The whole story: how he bought her as scrap at an auction, the endless task of restoring the tractor to be a regular work-horse and the faithful service over the years. By the time he pauses to signal for another beer, Boggel has cleaned the glasses, swept the floor, put on new tablecloths on the little tables and polished the counter top.

“But now she refuses to start. I’m quite confused, Boggel; she should be up and running. She simply stands there in the barn, all droopy-eyed and sad, and only goes chugga-chugga-chugga when I try to start her. I don’t understand it at all. She’s never done this before.”

Gertruida wanders in to sit down with a sigh. “You guys talking about Miss Massey again? How is she?”

This time Boggel cleans out the store room, replenishes the fridge and does the windows before Vetfaan is finished.

“Listen, I think it’s time for you to get a new one. Something that works, I mean. Over the last few years that tractor cost more in repairs than the deposit on a new one, I’m sure.” Gertruida has her wiser-than-thou look as she sips her beer. “Sometimes a thing is so broken, fixing it makes it worse, that’s all. The only thing you manage by fixing something on that tractor, is to encourage something else to break.” She shakes her head sadly, as if she really cares. “When you got it going last time, the fan-belt went. And when you fixed that, the radiator leaked. If I recall correctly, once you plugged that hole, the generator had to be replaced. It’s a never-ending series of calamities now, Vetfaan. Time to change.”

Behind the counter, Boggel stops dusting the shelves while he listens to Gertruida. She’s right, of course. Once you’ve fixed a thing too many times, even the fixes wear down to the point where the fixes need to be fixed.  He’s seen it happen. In the orphanage they had an old aluminium pot with several holes in the bottom. It was the only pot big enough for the morning-porridge, and it was his task to solder the leaks every week. Eventually, the bottom fell out and they used it for a discus competition.

For some reason – maybe the reminder of the days in the orphanage – his mind strays to Mary Mitchell. Ever since she came back from Upington, she’s been acting strange. Whenever he wanted to talk to her, she gave him a curt reply. And yesterday she sat at the bar talking to Lucinda, only to start crying. Out of the blue, the tears started rolling down her cheeks. Lucinda gave him an accusing look before she helped her out of the bar. And all this, because he said something about the world not ending on the 21st.  It was an innocent remark, yet Mary seemed to latch on to it as if it predicted the end of everything.

Then again, Lucinda hasn’t been a bag of laughs lately, either. She’s been treating him in an aloof sort of way, making wonder if he’d done anything wrong. Kleinpiet says women do that sometimes – he’s seen it with Precilla as well. When she doesn’t get her coffee in bed in the morning, she forgets to make his breakfast. Kleinpiet says women have domino-minds: if the first one topples, the rest come crashing down as well. You start with a misjudged little comment – say, about weight – and you end up in ICU with multiple fractures and a lawyer who’s keen to speak to you. Boggel didn’t quite get what Kleinpiet was on about, but smiled anyway, like a good barman should.

The door creaks open as Servaas shuffles in as well.

“Don’t ask him about Miss Massey,” Boggel whispers as the old man sits down, “he’s got trouble with her again.”

“No, man, I need something strong.” Servaas is dressed in black again. Something must be bothering him. “And I don’t want to talk about mechanical things I know nothing about. There are more important things in life, you know?” Clearly irritated, he orders a peach brandy. Tripple. Straight up. No ice. In a tall glass.

Gertruida escapes the Ferguson tragedy by turning to Servaas. “Somebody stole your biltong? Discovered some digging insects in your bread? Toilet won’t flush?”

Servaas ignores the taunt, but the fixed stare under the furrowed brow tells her it’s no time for jokes. Then he produces the newspaper clipping from a pocket.

“Here: see for yourself.”

It’s a short article, telling the world about the ruling party’s congress near Bloemfontein. “President probably to be elected again” the caption reads.

Boggel winks at Vetfaan and asks him what sound the tractor makes these days.

Chugga-chugga-chugga…” Vetfaan intones dutifully.

“It’s like dominoes, Servaas. The first one toppled long ago. The rest has no choice but to follow.” Boggel likes puzzling Servaas. “We’ve been talking about it all morning.”

They all laugh at that – dutifully – like when a barman says something passably funny. It’s Gertruida who has an idea of what Boggel is trying to say about politics, relationships and tractors. They all follow an ancient law about Life.

“It’s the age-old conflict between vice and virtue, gentlemen,” she says with her lecture voice,” and Cicero wrote about it before Christ was born. Life is a constant battle between Good and the many forces against it; and Cicero depicted it as a fight between vice and virtue. If vice is not tempered by virtue, chaos takes over. Take a tractor for instance: without petrol, Vetfaan isn’t going to get that engine running. Or love: it’ll die without hope. Again, when virtue lacks in government, vice will take over. When you analyse history, every broken heart, every stalled machine and every toppled empire followed that law. We can’t escape it. It’s the natural order of things.”

Of course the rest of them just gape at her.

“Where did that come from, Gertruida?” The annoyed expression on Servaas’ face says a lot more than his words. “We’re talking about having to face the future with a polygamous, probably corrupt and definitely devious leader for the country.”

And I’m worried about Mary and Lucinda, Boggel thinks, which has nothing to do with politics.

Vetfaan simply sits there with a blank expression.

“Oh for goodness’ sakes, guys,” Gertruida rolls her eyes in desperation. “Come on, Vetfaan, make that sound again? The one your tractor makes when it won’t start? It’s the same thing. And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear it coming from Zimbabwe, Congo, Egypt, Syria – many, many countries sound like that. Vice got to them, you see? And it gets to relationships when people take themselves too seriously, too – or when you forget to check the fuel pump while you’re fixing the carburettor. You’ve got to understand the analogy – Cicero was right.”

Vetfaan goes chugga-chugga-chugga? again – as a question and with a puzzled expression.

This time nobody laughs.

It’s just not funny any more.

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