“That ram of mine is driving me crazy. Oh, he does the job all right I suppose – another six ewes had lambs last week. The problem is two of them have only one ear – like he does. Maybe it’s not such a big thing, but it looks funny.” Kleinpiet draws a woolly sheep on the counter top with a lob-sided head and one ear.
“But that’s the ram that the jackal almost got, isn’t it? And that’s how he lost his ear?” Gertruida – because she knows everything – shakes her head. “It can’t be hereditary, Kleinpiet. It must be a fluke.”
Vetfaan is just about to chip in, when Servaas shuffles in. The bent shoulders and furrowed brow say something about his mood and everybody falls silent for a while. You don’t fiddle with box of matches when you’re sitting on a pile of dynamite.
“There was a time,” Servaas says, “when Rolbos was a lonely and desolate patch of arid ground, where the tumbleweeds were the only things that lived here. It was a long time ago. In those days, before people came here, the Kruiper family occasionally hunted in the vicinity. You know here that fountain is near Bokkop? Well, that’s where they got springbuck, gemsbok and rhinoceros. And next to the orange River, they’d find elephant, as well. And lions, of course. Always lions. At least they’re still around. The lions, I mean.”
Annually, when the rest of Rolbos start reflecting on the events of the past year; Servaas gets all morose and depressed about the way time sifts through our fingers, much like when you try to scoop up the red Kalahari sand. And during every Christmas season, at least half of Rolbos will tell him he shouldn’t worry about it so much, he still looks as young as last year. It doesn’t work, of course. And somehow, the old man gets around to the story he always tells on his birthday – a date he never shared with anybody. In Servaas’ mind, birthdays are little signposts along your way; every one you pass, is one less you have left. According to his thinking, birthdays should not be celebrated. Rather, it’s better to keep it secret and pretend it’s still in the future, somewhere…
“In those days, the mine was still digging out sillimanite, there where the hole in Bokkop’s side is. Those were heady days, I tell you. People were young and carefree. The women were wild. And I met Siena here, who now rests under the white headstone behind our church.”
Kleinpiet glances over at Vetfaan. If they don’t stop the old man now, he’s going to have them all looking the way Vrede does when Boggel forgets to feed him. It’s a mix between accusation, depression and anger – not a good cocktail to serve before Christmas.
“Servaas, those days are thankfully past, man,” Kleinpiet tries to sound happy. “You had no TV, no newspapers and the radio only reached Upington. Now, that must have been hard. How on earth did you know what’s happening in the world out there?”
Vetfaan pumps him in the ribs, leans over, and whispers: “We still don’t have those things, Kleinpiet. Think of something else to divert him. He’ll tell us the mine captain’s story if we don’t stop him.”
Servaas ignores them. “There used to be a pub down the road, more or less where Gertruida stays now. Not an evening went by without a fist fight. That’s in the time Mankmanie busted his knee. Never walked up straight after that, not at all. It ruined his life.”
“Let him be,” Kleinpiet whispers back, “It’s almost Christmas, so if he tells the story now, it’s done for this year. Otherwise he’ll relate it nearer to Christmas and spoil an entire evening. He’s almost at the point where Mankmanie runs off with the mine captain’s wife, leaving the captain all distraught and unhappy. And, remember, Mankmanie didn’t get that knee in a fight, it’s when the horse kicked him.” Vetfaan sits back with a resigned look and beckons for another beer. Like a good doctor would hand out painkillers, Boggel obliges.
Servaas gets all teary when he tells them how the mine captain disappeared into the Kalahari one night, vowing to find his beloved. He promised he’d look after her better in future, and not lose his temper so much anymore. People didn’t quite believe him, because of what he said he’d do to Mankmanie when he found him. And, he had promised, he’d give her that diamond he traded from the smous who always came around with sugar and tobacco.
“Yes,” Vetfaan says softly, “when he gets to the part where his wife comes back because Mankmanie also had a short temper, you must order a double Cactus for him. She arrived back in town only to discover the captain was missing. He always struggles to keep talking about how she went looking for him. It’s very sad.”
Servaas wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “They went looking for him, you know? Even had some of the Bushmen help them find his tracks, but by then the wind had blown everything away and they didn’t know where to look for him. One expedition stayed out for two weeks. Two weeks! But nothing…”
Boggel leans over. “Have they found him yet?” he asks behind his hand. He wants to be sure to get the timing of the Cactus right. Too soon, and Servaas goes home without finishing the story. Too late, and everybody will get upset by his sobs.
“No,” Kleinpiet whispers back. “They haven’t looked in the mine’s store room yet.”
“Well,” Servaas fights to regain his composure, “so they all sat in that bar, staring silently at the ceiling, waiting for him to come back. His wife tried her best to act normal – especially after Mankmanie also returned, looking for work at the mine again. With no mine captain around, nobody knew whether to re-appoint him or not. It was awkward, I tell you. I mean, she did run off, didn’t she? And Mankmanie was the cause of everything, wasn’t he?”
“This is the best part,” Vetfaan is quite excited, “the horse is going to kick him now.” He rubs his hands together in anticipation. He loves it when a story has a moral.
“So Mankmanie took his horse and said he would fix things up again. He’ll find that mine captain if it was the last thing he does, he said. With that, he rode out of town. He didn’t tell the people he was going to stop at the mine’s store room to get supplies – that would have added stealing to his repertoire as well, and he had enough hay on his proverbial fork already. But he stopped there and broke the lock. Only the mine captain had the key, see?”
Boggel reaches over to the bottle of Cactus Jack, got the glass, and poised to pour.
“And that’s where he found the captain. The man must have been dead a long time. He was sitting behind his desk, with a bottle of peach brandy in front of him. And there, on the desk…” Servaas gets out his handkerchief to dab his eyes, “…on the desk was a letter and the diamond. The letter…” Now he swallows hard to get a grip on his emotions while the group around him exchange knowing looks.
“The letter was to his wife. Said he loved her, and he’s sorry. People said it was funny, he was always a meticulous man, but the writing on the letter was all skew and squiggly. He wrote he was in a lot of pain. And people must watch out for the mamba between the boxes back in the store. He didn’t have a lot of time – he wrote – but he hoped…”
“Ja,” Vetfaan whispers, “ he never said what he hoped for. The letter ends there. Some thought he hoped his wife would come back; others said no, he hoped Mankmanie would blow himself up with dynamite.”
Boggel starts pouring as Servaas attempts to go on. “That Mankmanie took the diamond and fled. He wasn’t sure about the mamba, but he wasn’t taking chances. His horse got such a fright when he stormed out of the building, it reared up on it’s hind legs. And when he grabbed at the reigns, the horse kicked him. Right there.” He points at his knee.
“And the diamond, Servaas? What happened to the diamond?” Vetfaan eggs the old man on, eyes shining in expectation.
“He took it to the mine captain’s wife. Said the mine captain wanted her to have it.” Pocketing his handkerchief, he sighs as Boggel pushes the glass towards him. “And then he left. Just took the road to Grootdrink, hobbling along towards civilisation. He sold the horse, of course; said he couldn’t trust it no more.”
“And the captain’s wife remained behind?”
“Yes. It was only after the funeral she found out she was pregnant. Big scandal, it was. She wasn’t sure who the father was, you see? It could have been either of the men, how was she to know? But there you are. Such a sad story.”
Vetfaan nods. “Sure, very sad. And to think it all happened here. That poor boy must have had a terrible youth – I mean, everybody would have wondered about his father. Mankmanie was gone, the mamba got the mine captain, and the poor woman had to live with the gossip. It couldn’t have been easy.”
Servaas nods, finishes his drink, and gets up to shuffle towards the door.
“No man!” Kleinpiet gives his friend an angry look. “You interrupted his thoughts at the crucial point. You should have let him finish where she tried to sell the diamond, only to find out it’s a piece of glass.”
Vetfaan turns around to lean his elbows on the counter to stare at the old man as he disappears into the night.
“Such a sad story,” he says.
“Ja,” Kleinpiet sighs, “and his limp is getting worse every year, too.”
“It can’t be. Genetics don’t work like that.” Gertruida shakes her head.
“It’s a coincidence, Gertruida. Like my one-eared sheep. A fluke. That’s all.”