The Great Prickly Pear Debacle

tsaz_huntley2.preview“Oom Fourie passed away last night.” Boggel raises a glass in a silent salute. “He must have been a hundred-and-something.” They all knew the old man had been teetering about on his last legs for the last few weeks and somehow the news of his demise is a relief.

Farty Fourie, who in the past had done his name proud by interrupting Oudoom’s sermon in a most antisocial way,  used to live near Grootdrink, next to the Gariep River (which once was called the Orange, but like most things in South Africa, it has become unfashionable to refer to it as a colour – which incidentally still is brown.) Here he had farmed with peaches, distilling the most exquisite brandy from the fruit. This – quite possibly – might have contributed to his nickname.

“That means….” Vetfaan doesn’t even want to finish the sentence.

“Ja, man, that’s the problem. No Farty means no peach brandy. At least, not his brew, anyway.” Klleinpiet draws a coffin with his beer-froth on the countertop, adding a little wreath for effect. “It’s a catastrophe.”

“We shall produce our own.” Gertruida, who has been wondering what she could do to liven up her mood, suddenly smiles. “I read an article on the Home Spirit Maker – apparently you can even make whiskey with it…” She wants to continue, but Servaas holds up a gnarled hand.

“You’ll have to call it something else. Oudoom will have a fit if we start producing spirits around here. He’ll preach us into irreversible sobriety.” The old man shudders at the thought.

“…if you’ll be so kind to let me finish.” Gertruida fixes him with a withering stare. “I was trying to say that we can quite easily produce our own still, there’s no need to buy one. All we need is a drum, a piece of pipe and containers to collect the brandy. Of course, we’ll have to ferment some fruit first, and that’s the biggest problem.”

Yes, they all nodded, at this time of year even the farms around the Gariep don’t have any grapes or peaches.

“I have some prickly pears on my farm,” Vetfaan ventures, “they don’t have any fruit on them, but the leaves are thick and succulent. Can’t we…”

“Mmmm…probably. I know the San people used honey – even honeycomb – to make wine. That means honey should promote fermentation, if you think about it. So if we added honey to some pulped cactus leaves, we might just be on to something. Once we have fermentation going, the distilling should be easy.”

***

One would think the patrons in Boggel’s Place should run out of ideas – and that there must be a limit to stupidity in any given group of people. So far, they have defied the laws governing statistical probabilities regarding this simple fact.

zambuk_ointment_tinVetfaan supplied the cactus leaves, which Kleinpiet attacked with a garden fork, poking them full of holes. Servaas proudly produced some honeycomb, having raided a nest after some severe smoking (him, not the nest). Although he bore the wounds of his efforts with pride, he actually enjoyed the way Precilla rubbed the Zambuk ointment into the stings.

And then they waited, watching the mixture in the cleaned-out drum very carefully every day.

Boggel worked up enough courage on day seven to dip a ladle into the foul-smelling liquid, introduced a tentative tongue into it, and declared that fracking in the Karoo wasn’t necessary. They have, he said, solved the world’s fuel problems.

***

Distilling, Gertruida said, was an easy process. Get a tight lid on the drum, run a piece of hose pipe from there – keeping it cool with some wet rags wrapped around it – and then insert the end of the hose into any container available. Once the setup was complete, a small fire under the drum should evaporate the alcohol, which would then condense to run into the container.

Kleinpiet and Vetfaan followed these instructions to the letter. The drum’s lid was sealed with duct tape, the hose fitting tightly as ordered.

“How big must the fire be?”

“I don’t know.” Kleinpiet scratched his head, then glanced at the sinking sun. “Gertruida didn’t specify.  I suppose we’ll get faster results if we boil it up properly.”

***

Robert Burns, that famous Scottish poet, penned a poem in 1875, called:  “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough” This poem could have been written for the recent referendum over there, or for the two men next to the fire under that drum.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

***

The explosion was heard in Bitterbrak, on the other side of Bokkop, some fifteen miles away. At least, that’s what Ben Bitterbrak said when he roared into town, ready to start the Third Boer War. What he found, however, left him speechless.

The front of Boggel’s Place – usually a drab Karoo-khaki colour – now sported a shiny, green appearance. A smoking drum was perched on the veranda, while two green-faced men sat on the steps, staring into the distance.

Ben isn’t a superstitious man. Then again, he’s a man of few words. Also, he’s a fiercely independent soul – he likes to make up his own mind.

He later apologised, saying any rational human being would have done the same. What do you do, he asked, when Martians invade your country? No matter that they have arms and legs like the rest of us, but the green colour is a dead giveaway.

Oudok also made himself hugely unpopular that day, laughing as he did while he removed the buckshot from the two (still green) patients. He also made the mistake of remarking that he didn’t accept payment from the Intergalactic Scheme for Infirm Soldiers.

But it is Gertruida, that astute woman who had recently suffered so from depression, who gained the most from the incident. For weeks afterwards, she couldn’t stop laughing at Kleinpiet and Vetfaan, who insisted it had all been her fault.

They all went to Farty Fourie’s funeral, of course. After the service, Oudoom introduced them to Finkie Fourie, the old man’s granddaughter. She’s a winemaker in Stellenbosch, specialising in the production of grappa. They’re now the best of friends.

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