Following on Vetfaan’s Surprise
The old pickup creaks and wobbles over the ruts and rocks of the two-track road to Verlorenfontein. Fanny Featherbosom has managed to get in the passenger seat with some difficulty, and now sits cramped up in a sweaty silence as Vetfaan negotiates the overloaded vehicle over the obstacles.
Vetfaan is still in shock. He expected beauty, a model, a celebrity…and now he’s stuck with this silent hippopotamus who stares in undisguised horror at the empty and dry veld of the Kalahari. He doesn’t know what exactly she expected, but it is patently obvious they both are fighting to remain civil – even if it’s just for appearance’s sake.
“This is…the Kalahari?” She breaks the silence in an awed whisper.
“Ja, isn’t it beautiful? It’s open and quiet and peaceful.” Vetfaan glances at the mass of wobbling anatomy next to him, noting the fear in the eyes, the frown, the thinly-compressed lips. She’s one unhappy lady, he thinks, the week is going to be hell..
“Do you have a house?” There’s an edge to the question that makes Vetfaan sit up straight.
“Why did you come? I don’t think you want to be here.” He realises he hasn’t answered her question, and adds quickly: “Yes, I do have a cottage. It’s got two bedrooms, if that’s what you are worried about.” He is rewarded by a relieved smile.
Vetfaan’s farm is typical of the homesteads you’ll find in the Kalahari. Built by a previous generation, it has a certain run-down look, but it stands proudly between some thorn and bluegum trees, and the rusty old windpump. It hasn’t been painted for quite some time. The few succulents in the rock garden contrast sharply with the barren surroundings, and have sprouted defiant little flowers after the recent light shower.
“This is it? This is where you stay?” The full lower lip quivers as they roll to a stop.
“I’m afraid so. Home sweet home. Come on in, let me make you a nice cup of coffee.” During the trip to the farm, the woman’s obvious discomfort made him feel sorry for her. She – very clearly – is not his type, but that doesn’t mean he has to make her suffer for it. The best thing to do, he’s decided, is to make the week pass as quietly and as quickly as possible. The farm is a lonely place; to spend time there is hard enough already. To spend it in open animosity, is stupid.
He opens the door and holds out a hand to assist her. He doesn’t want a repeat of the events in town. She flashes him a weak smile and manages a more stately dismount. Vetfaan gathers her two large suitcases from the back, and staggers ahead to his back door. Whatever she’s packed, she must have brought everything, the proverbial kitchen sink as well.
“This is the kitchen.”
“I assumed you wouldn’t have a stove in the bathroom,” she says. Vetfaan can’t decide whether she’s sarcastic or trying to joke.
Her room, right opposite his, is just down the short corridor and next to the bathroom. Vetfaan is rather proud of his preparations. He’s swept the floor, cleared the cobwebs and put in a new candle in the holder. The bed – one of the old copper-topped four-posters – boasts the new sheets he bought from Sammie. The springbok karos will keep her warm. Surely no woman can ask for more?
“May I use your bathroom? It’s been a long trip…”
Vetfaan shows her the way and gets back to the kitchen to fire up the old Primus for coffee. He tries to ignore the sounds emanating from his bathroom. It sounds as if a very large animal is bumping around inside – the reality of the thought makes him smile. It can’t be easy to be like that. She must be uncomfortable all the time. He makes sure he grinds the coffee beans to a fine powder in the grinder, shakes it into the old linen bag, and drops it into the boiling water.
The floorboards protest loudly as she makes her way to the kitchen, where she inspects a chair carefully before sitting down.
“There’s no bath,” she says.
Vetfaan blushes. “No. I use the big basin and the jug. Saves water that way, you see? And I take a dip in the cement dam next to the windpump every so often. To wash my hair…” He sees the disbelief in the big, round eyes. “You may, too – if you want?”
By this time it is obvious that Fanny Featherbosom believes she’s been abducted by aliens. She manages to shake her head and stares out of the window the way a captured animal would. Vetfaan once trapped a lynx that was intent on destroying his flock. Once the cat stopped spitting and hissing, it simply stared out of the box-trap, resigned to it’s fate. Vetfaan took it far into the desert and released it.
She accepts the coffee and asks for milk and sugar. Vetfaan blushes again.
“No sugar, I’m afraid. I drink my coffee as it comes out of the pot. I thought everybody…”
She sighs and takes a tentative sip. The rich brown fluid is unlike any coffee she’s tasted before.
“…but I have added a bit of Cactus, just to make you feel at home. Special coffee for a special lady.” He might as well try to be friendly.
After the third mug, Fanny starts relaxing. When Vetfaan asks, she tells him of her life in London, where she’s studied and worked in the Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road.
“I have a special interest in palaeontology, and am in charge of the section of the library concerned with the early work in the field. Most days, I do research for a thesis I’m writing about the discovery of fossils in Africa by the explorers in the 1800’s. It’s quite fascinating, really.”
By now, Vetfaan has learnt not to interrupt his guest. Once she got talking, her whole personality changed. Maybe the Cactus helped, but when she explains about the work of Blumenbach, Feuerbach and Larmarck, she becomes animated and excited to such a degree that even Vetfaan gets enthusiastic about her work.
“You see, those early researchers maintained the human race is a single race. We’ve developed different skin colours, hair characteristics and cultural habits; but we are one. I want my thesis to show how those early researchers influenced the way we live. The church, for instance, came out strongly against such an absurd theory. Scientists scoffed. Politicians rejected the notion. Can you imagine what would have happened if – at that early stage – people embraced the idea that we are all brothers and sisters? The world, Vetfaan, would have been a much better place.” She finishes with a flair and holds out her mug for more.
Vetfaan sits back in wonder. When Fanny gets excited, she sheds the dour expression and gloomy attitude as if they were layers that protected her from other people. Here, in his humble little kitchen, he’s witnessing a complete transformation.
“Oh my,” She exclaims as she drains yet another mug of Vetfaan’s special coffee, “am I not the world’s biggest chatter-box? I must be boring you silly with all this talk about stuff you have no interest in, you poor man.” She yawns behind a fleshy hand. “Tell you what: I’m going to test-drive that wash basin, get into something more comfortable, and then you can tell me all about yourself.” Heaving herself from the chair, she starts down the corridor with the fixed stare of somebody who has to concentrate to remain upright.
Vetfaan starts a fire in the fireplace outside, selects a couple of lamb chops from the fridge and sets about fixing a salad. Halfway through, a loud thump in the bathroom makes him stop.
“You okay?” He shouts, but gets no answer. Not sure what to do, he tip-toes to the bathroom door and knocks softly. Still no answer. He now bangs on the door…with the same result.
Dreading what he might find, he pushes open the door. Fanny Featherbosom has had her basin-bath. Her clothes are neatly folded over the stand. She managed to get into a large white robe before she passed out…
For the second time today, Vetfaan has to struggle to manage the copious frame of Fanny. This time he is exhausted by the time he’s dragged her to her room, and has given up the efforts to get her onto the bed. He settles for getting the mattress on the floor and rolling her on it. Then, drawing the karos over the soundly sleeping woman, he leaves quietly and closes the door.
Jaa, Faan. You’ve hit the jackpot. You oaf! You gave her too much Cactus Jack, so why are you surprised at the result? Well, you got through day one…what are you going to do with this woman for the next six days? Realising there’s no answer, he takes the chops outside to braai them over the coals.
Vetfaan jolts upright in fright.
“It’s me, !Ka. I’ve come to tell something. And I smelled the meat on the coals.” !Ka’s face crinkles up into a million criss-crossed lines when he smiles. “But I didn’t want to bother you while the woman was with you. Mister Vetfaan, you won’t believe what I found…”
(to be continued….)