It’s the day after Henry Hartford left, and Rolbos is searching for the old, comfortable routine of waking up and finding an excuse to gravitate towards Boggel’s Place. Somehow the events of recent times seem to have put a damper on the usual atmosphere of casual coexistence, forcing the townsfolk to talk softer and choose their words carefully. Why, after all, did these events occur? What does it mean to each of them? What is the reason…? It’s as if a deeper level of introspection and respect settled amongst them
Fanny, on the other hand, struggles with a completely different situation. While the prospect of a relationship with Henry Hartford held the solution to a potential problem, the possibility of a liaison with Vetfaan – her Fanie – is much more problematic. If anything, the recent events brought that into sharp focus.
The problem is her mother.
It started with Princess Henry of Battenberg, the ninth and last child of Queen Victoria: who passed on the gene to four of her children. One of them – forever to be unnamed – had an illegitimate child. The mother; a barmaid and later a woman of considerable influence due to a rather generous stipend from the royal house; married an out-of-luck trader. As a result of her entrepreneurial skills, she started what would eventually be the Featherbosom empire, when one of her daughters married into the Featherbosom family.
Scientists still argue about where (and how, exactly) Queen Victoria pciked up the gene that caused the problem. Was it a spontaneous mutation, or something more scandalous: could it be that some infidelity amongst her forebears resulted in her carrying the gene that killed off the males at a young age? We’ll never know…
But… It is in this intricate family tree – which combined the lost boy of the Kalahari, the royalty of England, and the eventual connection with the Featherbosoms – that the gene was carried over from one generation to the next. Invariably, the women lived to a ripe old age. It was the men who didn’t have that privilege Half of them never made it past the age of twenty. When science finally brought answers, the news was devastating – the family was trapped in a never-ending tragedy.
Fanny’s father wasn’t the problem. The woman he married – Fanny’s mother – carried the gene. The only son born to their union died during a simple operation for his chronic tonsillitis. That’s when they decided never to have any more children, which left Fanny as the sole heir. Fanny was later tested for – and found to have – the potential to convey the gene that’ll cause misery to her sons: the male descendants had a 50:50 chance of inheriting the disease we know as haemophilia.
Henry – the shy financial genius – had a different problem. At the age of five, he contracted mumps. A rather severe form of the disease not only affected his salivary glands (giving him the typical Bugs Bunny appearance for a while) – it also caused pancreatitis and severe orchitis. Henry Hartford would never have any children – he was infertile.
Of course, this explains many things. The delayed puberty, the lack of sexuality, the feeling of inadequacy. It also explains the compulsive drive by his father to make him a ‘man‘.
It seemed a good idea if an infertile male and a woman carrying the fatal gene, matched up in marriage. The parents, at least thought so. Why, they could adopt – if they wanted to – couldn’t they? Maybe, Henry Hartford II thought, this was their destiny and a perfect solution?
That’s why Fanny Featherbosom sits at the end of the bar today, watching the men discuss politics. Vetfaan – virile, manly, the epitome of what it means to be male – is busy criticising the government’s management of the Gupta marriage. He is gently forceful in his arguments, determined and convinced that the rifts within the ANC will cause it’s ultimate demise. A man’s man… In her mind’s eye. she can see him with a rugby ball in hand, telling his son to catch, chip-and-chase, and fool the defence of the opponents.
How can she tell him that boys with this bleeding disorder cannot stay on a farm – far away from medical care? Indeed: that children with haemophilia should plan office-bound careers and not become farmers? And that those boys will inadvertently have sons with the disease?
Vetfaan, after convincing everybody that South Africa’s government deserves to be labelled the most corrupt on a corrupt continent, does a moonwalk towards her. It’s been a quiet morning, but not without adequate amounts of Cactus,
“Hey Fanny…I’m so sorry.” He looks like Vrede when somebody takes away his biltong. “And you seem awfully quiet?”
“I am a bit quiet today, Fanie.” The question in her eyes grow larger. “What are you sorry about, anyway?”
“I wanted to tell everybody here I love you.” Even his tan can’t hide the blush. “But that old Hartford and his speech sort of stopped me in my tracks, see? And I wanted to ask you the most important question, there, in front of everybody.”
Fenny’s eyes are suddenly moist. She drops her gaze to stare at Vetfaan’s well-worn boots. How must she respond? How can she manage this? Vetfaan is a farmer with a dream. He’s built up the farm through hard work and lots of dedication – and will certainly dream of having a son to continue his labour?
“Fanie….” Must she tell him now? Here? Noooo! “You are the sweetest, most endearing man I’ve ever met. We’ve been through quite a lot in such a short time.” She swallows hard before going on. “But we need more time, dearest. You must meet my father. And I need time on the farm, to see how I manage. It’s not that I don’t love you, Fanie… It’s just… I thnk we must take it slow, that’s all.” She has to admit it doesn’t sound convincing at all; rather lame, at best.
“What’s wrong, Fanny?” Vetfaan sits down next to her, concern written all over his face.
“There are things I haven’t told you…” She chooses her words carefully. “Important things. Things you should know. But…I’m not sure I can. Oh, Fanie, Life is so cruel! I don’t know what to do!”
When his tractor breaks down, Vetfaan has the same experience: a feeling of exasperation, frustration and desperation rolled into one single emotion. What is this? What in her past can be so important that she cannot share it with him? An illegitimate child? Some scandal she doesn’t want to talk about? An affair with some politician?
The moment next to the tractor is easier: Vetfaan will give vent to his rolled-up emotion by kicking the big tyres or saying things that’ll make Oudoom cringe. But now, here in Boggel’s Place, there are no wheels and too many ears. He straightens his back, takes a deep breath and starts to turn.
“Oh well, whenever you’re ready,” he says over his shoulder. “I’ll join Kleinpiet for another Cactus in the meantime.”
Fanny stares at the broad shoulders and the muscled arms as he walks away. That’s what a man should look like, she thinks. Healthy and strong. He should have children like that.
When Gertruida asks her a few minutes later if she’d been crying, Fanny tells the oldest lie, saying nothing is wrong, thank you.