“Mister Mistoffelees was a mythtery,” Gertruida says confidently, knowing she has to get the conversation in Boggel’s Place going again after the funeral.
“You started to lisp?” Vetfaan stops staring at the single distant cloud on the horizon, realising it’s not getting any nearer.
“No, Vetfaan. I’m talking about old Oom Meyer…the one with the strange eyes – remember?”
Of course he does. They all do. Oom Meyer was born with cat’s eyes – vertical irises that were similar to those you’d expect to find in the feline family. Coupled with the pointed ears, the sharp and fang-like canines, and underdeveloped chin, Oom Meyer certainly lived up to his nickname. That, and the story of how he died.
“Ja,” Kleinpiet says, “he was in the Korean War. Used to tell terrifying stories about how he was shot down twice..”
Another reason for his melodious moniker was the unruly mop of hair. Oom Meyer had Big Hair – a mane of prodigious proportions, parted in the middle, framing his narrow face .
“Didn’t he come down from Kenya or somewhere?”
“Yes,” Gertruida says, because she knows everything, “Before their independence. He used to be a commander in the King’s African Rifles regiment. Got wounded there, too.”
“But after that, in 1964, he was a mercenary in the Congo.” Kleinpiet remembers the time, when as a small boy, his family listened to the radio reports of the Uhuru massacres. “That’s where people started calling him Leo, because he was such a brave man. He believed he was immortal, I believe.”
“Yes, I heard he only got to be Mister Mistoffelees after the musical Cats became so popular.”Gertruida is lecturing again. “The wise and wily old cat was modelled after the mythical and evil demon, Mephistopheles, but is portrayed in the musical as a comical cat with many tricks up his sleeve. Another brilliant piece of by Andrew Lloyd Weber; based on the work by T. S. Eliot’s book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, of course.
“Cats opened on Broadway in 1981 and was an immediate hit. In 1983 the South Africans launched Operation Askari in southern Angola. Oom Meyer was then attached to Task Force Victor and assigned to engage the enemy near Cuvelai. He was wounded in a skirmish and had to be flown out – first to their base at Opuwa, then to Grootfontein and eventually to 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. By all accounts, he was half-dead when he reached 1 Mil, but he miraculously survived.
“Thats when they jokingly named him Mister Mistoffelees, because his survival reminded the nurses of the character in Cats. Maybe it was his looks, or the way he refused to die – but in the end that’s what they called him. So Leo Meyer became Mister M and the name stuck.”
They all knew that, of course; but nevertheless allowed Gertruida her opportunity to lecture – simply because she does it so well. But they also knew the heroic stories of how Oom Meyer played a decisive role in quite a few battles in the final phases of the Border War. This was the time that he so often infiltrated enemy lines, observed their positions and movements, and seemed to be able to move about in the bush at will without being detected. His fame as a behind-the-lines spy grew. People said he was as silent as a cat, as observant as a leopard and as determined as a lion. Once he picked up enemy tracks, nothing would stop him.
Well, almost nothing. A landmine in the final days of the conflict sent him back to hospital, where once again his recuperative powers astounded doctors and nurses alike.
“That cat-man must have nine lives,” a suprised specialist remarked one day as Oom Meyer carefully laid his crutches to one side and gingerly tested his weight on his injured legs.
“He was quite old when he bought that farm near Grootdrink.” Servaas remembers the first day he met the kindly old gentleman in the bottle store in Grootdrink. Servaas was staring longingly at a bottle of sherry when Oom Meyer softly padded up to him to introduce himself.
“Leo Meyer,” the old man purred, adding rather unnecessarily: “I’m new in the neighbourhood.”
Servaas introduced himself but couldn’t help staring at the unruly mane. In the Northern Cape baldness is considered to be an inevitable part of growing older. You earn respect that way. A completely bald pate ensures total silence by the younger ones when you get up to say something important during church council meetings. Why, just the other day old Pankop Pretorius suggested that maybe the congregation would sing better if a piano accompanied the hymns. Everybody knew it was absolute drivel, but not a single member at the meeting stood up to tell him so. Fortunately no funds were available, so the long, drawn-out singing could go on without being chased along by some new-fangled notion that the piano must determine the tempo of singing.
But, despite the dishevelled mop of hair, Servaas felt that Oom Meyer had a regal attitude – something in his demeanour made you respect the quiet old man. It was as if Oom Meyer had this independent air about him – he didn’t care a hoot whether you liked him or not – he simply made himself known when he felt like it. The inhabitants of Grootdrink accepted the solitary figure in their midst and would gossip about how he moved around his house – from east to west – as he shifted his chair to bask and doze in the sun.
At night – so a number of Grootdrinkers said – he often moved about in a random way, stopping here and resting there. One even swore he saw Oom Meyer chasing a rat, but that was a bit much for most to believe.
Then there was his fishing. Oom Meyer seemed to live on fish. Every Saturday he’d take his tackle and slink off to the Orange River. He’d sit there quietly for as long as it took him to catch seven fat smallmouth yellowfish, return home and have something to fry, grill or braai every evening for the next week.
And then, just last week, Oom Meyer drove over to see Oudok about the pains in his chest.
“I have had a full and happy life,” the old warrior said, “and I feel my time is running out. I don’t want you to prescribe anything or to send me to some clever specialist. I simply want you to confirm that my luck has run out. Do an ECG and tell me the truth.”
“That’s what I did,” Oudok now tells the little crowd in Boggel’s Place. “Had one look at that tracing and saw the abnormalities at once. His heart was in a bad way. So I told him the truth.”
“…and two days later, they find him curled up in his bed, as dead as a fence post.” Servaas wipes a tear. “I will miss him…”
“Well, even a cat has only nine lives. Oom Meyer certainly used his lives wisely.” Gertruida smiles at the absurdity of it all. “But there was a bottle of aspirin next to his bed, as well. We all know,” and here she smiles haughtily, “that aspirin is highly toxic to cats.”
“Ja, I heard that, too. A bottle of 30 aspirins, only 21 left…” Precilla loves an urban legend. “He took nine, it seems…”
Vrede’s surprised barking outside makes Boggel rush to the window to have a look.
“Verde’s barking a a cat.” His voice is full of wonder. “A cat? In Rolbos? We’ve never had one.”
Gertruida gets up immediately to have a look. Seeing Voortrekker Weg is deserted, she goes outside. Two minutes later she comes back with an apologetic smile.
“Couldn’t fnd a cat,” she says, “not even his tracks. It’s strange. Maybe there wasn’t a cat at all…?
“You won’t find nothing.” Vetfaan says. Then, as the cloud on the horizon changes shape, he tells them they might expect some rain. “Cats can predict the weather, you know.”
“Yes, and they come back.” Precilla adds.
“It’s a myth,” Gertruida smiles. “And a mystery. Just like I said in the beginning…”