Gertruida will tell you (because she knows everything) about Deception, but only after she’s sworn you to silence. Everlasting secrecy, nothing less. Otherwise she’ll just smile and tell you it’s all an old-wives tale. Of course, once your lips are promised to remain sealed for the rest of your life, in sickness and health (and all the rest), she’ll sit back and tell you the strange tale of a son gone wrong, and how he became one of the richest farmers in the Kalahari. It is essential to keep her glass full during the telling, mind you, or else she simply clams up like the old traps they used to catch jackals with.
Job van Niekerk wasn’t named after the biblical character at all – in fact, there was something decidedly unbiblical about the youth. Job replaced the more respectable Joseph Olivier Benjamin he was christened with soon after birth. Even then, when his infantile hand slapped instinctively at the dripping fingers above his forehead during the ceremony, people took it as a sign of rebellion.
“He’s a head-strong boy, that one.” It was Ta’ Hybie who started the legend after the service – right there on the steps of the church – just after ‘Amen’ let the forgiven people out to be sinners for another week. “I’m not sure if he’ll ever turn out to be a good man. If you start like that…”
But of course you can’t blame everything on him. His mother started it all at the agricultural show in Prieska, when she had one too many of Soetsarel’s witblits. It is said that he (Soetsarel) once won a bet with a pilot when they (in a not-so-sober-state) fuelled up (aircraft and pilot alike) and flew to Upington on the almost-pure ethanol. In Debbie van Niekerk’s case, it made her forget all about her conservative upbringing – and her son (most probably due to the witblits) was born a few weeks short of the expected date.
Job was a difficult baby. He had cramps. He had temper tantrums. He refused to sleep. In fact, whenever his poor mother tried to get him into a routine of eating and sleeping, she usually had to visit Oudok for more antidepressants.
The few years he spent at Prieska Primary School (now the Zuma Shelter for the Unemployed) resulted in the headmistress resigning. He broke windows. He cursed. He never, never did his homework. In Standard 1 (Now Grade 3) he set the classroom alight when he lit up his cigarette underneath the teacher’s desk. The list of his wrongs goes on and on…
During his sixth year at school (Grade 4) he could take no more beatings and announced his intention to go out into the world to seek his fortune. There were mixed feeling in town about this. His mother told everybody he’s too young (just shy of thirteen) and that she’d do anything to dissuade the poor boy from doing something so foolish – but she helped him pack his little rucksack and told him to leave early, in case somebody wanted to stop him.
Publicly, his departure was mourned and condemned with sad voices of concern. Privately everybody sighed with relief.
He got his name – Job – in Kenhardt, where he walked from business to business to ask for work with one single word: “Job?”. He mowed two dusty lawns and washed a rusted car halfway before taking to the road again. Stealing chickens and whatever food he could find along the way, he eventually drifted to the banks of the Vaal River, where a few die-hard prospectors still delved for diamonds near Christiana.
The life of a delver is a tough one. Living in the veld, they dig, sift through the gravel, and often have weeks going by without a find – even a small one. Old Martinus Rabe had been working his claim on the banks of a side-stream of the river for several years when Job joined him. ‘Joined’ is maybe the wrong word. He was forced to stay, actually.
Martinus – or Bull, as he was called – had a tent, an old suitcase filled with the rags he wore, a shovel and a sieve. He did his cooking in the same pan he boiled the water for his coffee (whenever he had some). And he had two chickens.
One can understand the big man’s rage when, wanting to see if there were any eggs for his next meal, only one chicken squawked forlornly in the rickety coop he had fashioned from the fencing he had stolen from the farm some distance off. Now Bull might have been an over-optimistic individual, but he wasn’t entirely stupid. Stealing was as natural to the delver’s lives as waking up with a hangover – and you only survived on your claim because you could protect it – drunk or sober.
Bull stormed over to the next claim, demanding his chicken back. Only when he and the owner came to understand each other properly (his neighbour pleading to preserve the only tooth left in his mouth while the raised fist above his head hovered ominously) did Bull believe the man. Yes, the neighbour said, I saw a boy with a chicken, walking that-a-way. When Bull got off the prostrate body and freed his hands, he walked off in the direction indicated after bidding his neighbour happy delving and good luck.
Bull found Job licking his fingers next to a small fire, and that’s when Job became a delver’s assistant – the first proper job he ever had.
At this point Gertruida will tell you how important a father figure is for a growing child, especially if such a boy is strong-willed and rebellious. She’ll also emphasise the critical ingredient of fair discipline. Sadly, she’ll remark that you can take a horse to water and all the rest of it.
Bull and Job had an uneasy relationship, to say the least. Being chained to the tree next to the seive, Job had no other choice but to throw the gravel on the sieve…for three years. Then, one morning, Bull didn’t arrive with the usual bread-and-water breakfast.
Job knew nothing about heart attacks. He thought Bull might have been too generous with his nightcap or maybe the old man was sick; but when the sun rose higher and higher in the sky without Bull delivering wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of gravel , he realised something was wrong.
The chain from his ankle to the tree was a sturdy one, with a rusted lock at each end preventing any form of escape. He had a shovel, nothing else.
“They say it took three days. For three days he hacked at that tree with the edge of his shovel before the tree toppled over and he could lift the loop of chain from the trunk.”
This is where Gertruida will shake her head sadly, like when you remember when a lorry ran over your dog, or how you feel when you discover a mouse in your bread bin. Some things just don’t recover when they are damaged.
Job, she likes to say, was like that. He hacked through the tree; but in the process, he also cut through the chains of his rebellion. When the tree toppled over, he sat down next to the tree and cried. He was a broken boy.
It was the neighbour who found him there. Digger Dickson, also already greying in the areas that weren’t bald, wanted to see if he couldn’t borrow a bottle of brandy from Bull. He found Bull in his bed; dead as the tree Job had cut down; and stayed there long enough to pray for his soul as well as finish the half-full bottle next to the bed. Suitably sustained, he rummaged through the tent, found nothing, and wandered down to the sieve in the hope of finding maybe a shiny stone waiting on the sorting table.
The boy had always reminded Digger of the young brother he had left in England when he set off for the diamond fields, and now, with the brandy tempering his usual harsh personality, he sat down next to Job and joined in the flood of tears.
Brandy does that. Especially on an empty stomach.
When you listen to Gertruida telling the story, you get two things: thirsty and impatient. She’ll tell you only thirst can be dealt with. Then she’ll smile, call over Boggel for a refill, and take a deep breath before continuing…