“Christmas,” Vetfaan tells the group at the bar, “is such a waste!” He waits for a reaction, gets none, and is forced into a submissive smile. The townsfolk know him so well! His inability to endure silence in Boggel’s Place often makes him say controversial things to get the conversation flowing again. Today, being Saturday and after the festive days of Christmas, the patrons at the counter seem content to share a reflective quiet, which doesn’t suit Vetfaan at all.
“I mean, all that paper!” He glances around hopefully, but still nobody responds.
“Okay. Here’s the thing. How about we discuss something and I buy a round for everybody?” This, of course, results in everybody’s complete and undivided attention. Naturally, they wait for Boggel to serve the promised round before Servaas lets out a protracted ‘Ye-e-e-s?”
“Look, every Christmas we exchange gifts. Right? And so do the people in Grootdrink and Upington?” All eyes now on him, he proceeds to expand on his plan. “And that’s nice. But…what about the wrapping? Tons and tons of paper, ripped and torn and useless?” He pauses.
“Is that a rhetorical question, Vetfaan? Nice one.” (Gertruida, of course.)
“No! Think of all the trees! And don’t forget that paper gets made in huge factories that aren’t always environmentally friendly. Paper, my friends, shouldn’t be thrown away after a single use. We’re killing the planet…”
“That’s true. The carbon footprint of paper is more than that of plastic. There’s this professor…mmm… I think it’s David Tyler, who worked it all out. He’s not all that keen on paper at all.” Now it’s Gertruida’s turn to smile. “He’s made a few strange statements, though. He says the environmental impact of owning a dog, is worse than driving a 4X4!.”
Vrede, dozing quietly on on Boggel’s cushion below the counter, looks up proudly, wags his tail…and slips into his doggy-dreamworld again.
“The point I want to make is this: we owe it to the planet to do something with the paper.” Vetfaan refuses to be sidetracked. “I suggest we collect as much paper as we can, and then build a statue or something. You know, with that porridge you make with paper…?”
“Paper mache.” (Getruida, again.)
“Whatever. But something useful, understand? So we can help the planet.”
It is quite evident that Vetfaan must have spent a great deal of thought on the subject, and Kleinpiet is suitably impressed. Even Servaas seems mildly enthusiastic.
“But it has to be something useful, Vetfaan. It won’t do to make a sculpture of a cow, like they did in America. In Redwood Falls, if I remember correctly – The Calf Fiend Cafe. Those Americans are great at coming up with useless ideas. Look at what it cost to put a man on the moon? I mean…why?” Gertruida allows a moment for them to come up with a reason why it was important to take a small step for man, a huge leap for mankind. “No…whatever we do, it must serve a proper purpose.”
“We’ll build a house! Wow!” Obviously impressed with the idea, Precilla jumps up with a commanding finger in the air. “Think about it! If we can perfect the building of a Christmas-paper home, we can patent the design. We’ll make millions! With the entire South Africa’s Christmas wrappings, the government won’t have homeless people to worry about anymore! The next Nkandla will cost next to nothing!”
They all agree that Precilla has just come up with the best idea to come out of Boggel’s Place for 2014 – an honour that deserves to be rewarded by a round of peach brandy.
“A house? Well…that could be tricky.” Gertruida – always the practical thinker – tells them that they’ll have to experiment a bit. “While paper mache should dry extremely well in our weather, we have to make sure it’s strong enough to hold a roof. I don’t know…”
“We’ll build a model.” Determined enthusiasm in his voice, Vetfaan takes command of the conversation again. “Something small. Like architects do. And if it works, we go big. Really BIG!”
One of the strange things about small, rural towns, is the phenomenon Gertruida calls the ‘collective communal mind’. She says it’s a universal thing. If, for instance, somebody did something wrong, the community unites in it’s disapproval. Or if somebody comes up with a brilliant idea, everybody believes he or her initiated the project. In cities the community is too large to accommodate collective thinking, which (according to Gertruida) is why you have drugs and parliaments in such places.
Be that as it may, Boggel’s veranda soon resembles a scene from one of those American movies, where they depict the aftermath of a tornado or one of those asteroids that they are so keen on these days. Oudoom is greatly saddened by this tendency. He laments the fact that the end of the world draws more people into movie theatres than the church does.
Paper of all colours and sizes flutter about on the veranda: shredded paper, old newspapers, cardboard boxes from the shed behind Sammie’s Shop, beer cartons, milk cartons, boxes of many sizes and shapes. Paper piled up to the window sill, forming a mountain of waste.
Gertruida (who else?) supplies the recipe for paper mache, using flour and water…and shredded paper products. The townsfolk’s enthusiasm is directly proportionate to the amount of peach brandy Boggel supplies, resulting in an almost-Shakespearian scene where the witches dance around the boiling cauldron.
When at last they’ve boiled down the waste, they stand around the huge pot, looking down at the meagre result.
“All that paper…and we’ve only got this much mache?” Vetfaan’s disappointment is obvious.
“We’re only building a model, Vetfaan. It doesn’t have to be much for that. Have another.” Kleinpiet pats his friend’s back while offering a tot from the next bottle.
“It’ll have to be a hut.” With a shake of his head, Vetfaan tells them a Nkandla would take about as much wasted paper as one would find in the Union Buildings.
The traditional Zulu hut is a masterpiece. Carefully formed over a mould of chicken wire, it draws an appreciative applause when Gertruida smooths own the dome. The model gets parked in the middle of Voortrekker Weg to dry while the hard-working townsfolk retire to the bar for some well-deserved refreshments.
They have, they tell each other, just solved the housing crisis in the country. However, Vetfaan’s remark that even the president would want to live in one of these huts, just doesn’t ring true. Like Gertruida has to remind him: these huts are only supposed to accommodate normal families.
When they return to Boggel’s Place the next day, the fatal flaw in their thinking is obvious.
“It’ll only work if there are no dogs around.” Vetfaan scowls at Vrede, who yawns his embarrassment.
“Ag, come on, Vetfaan! It was a great idea. Dogs will be dogs, you know? And how could we know that Vrede had this affinity…this taste…for paper mache?”
“That, and the other problem, of course.”
The stand around the dried model with the somber looks one reserves for a wake. Vrede did an excellent job at shredding the model, that’s quite obvious. The more subtle damage is, however, the most upsetting.
“Imagine a simple act like that causing so much destruction?” Pointing at the fresh hole in the structure, Vetfaan shakes his head. Rimmed by a yellow stain, there is no doubt as to what (or who) caused the new opening.
“Maybe….” Servaas smiles impishly, “maybe we can market it as doggy toilets? You know, for beaches and parks and things like that.”
Boggel’s Place is known for it’s comfortable, friendly atmosphere. Usually. Unless you ask Vetfaan about paper mache houses. For some reason, it causes a twin growl – one from below the counter and one from above…