Category Archives: smalltown short stories

The Prince of Words

Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes

“So they found him at last,” Gertruida says with a satisfied smile. “He can now be buried properly, monument and all.”

“Who? The president?” Servaas looks up sharply – it sounds like good news.

“No, you dummy, Miguel Cervantes.”

“He the new president?”

Gertruida rolls her eyes. Such ignorance! “Cervantes, Servaas, was one of the greatest writers Spain ever produced. He was born a long time ago, in 1547, the same year Edward VI banned execution by boiling in England.”

“And they say we are backward?”

“The point is – if you’ll stop interrupting me – that Miguel Cervantes created Don Quixote, an erant knight with high ideals. Despite his blustering stupidity, he was an extremely wise man.”

“Now that, Gertruida, makes a whole heap of sense. Just like our parliament.”

“Well, I’ll have you know he could have written a speech for the country, seeing the vote of no confidence in the president was defeated by the ruling party’s inability to see the wood for the trees. Listen to what he wrote in 1605: Don Quixote was addressing his faithful squire, Sancho Panza at the time, after suffering severe setbacks.”

Bear in mind, Sancho, that one man is no more than the other, unless he does more than the other. All these tempests that fall upon us are signs that fair weather is coming shortly, and that things will go well with us; for it is impossible for good or evil to last forever. Hence it follows that the evil having lasted so long, the good must now be nigh at hand. So you must not distress thyself at the misfortunes which happen to me, since you had no share in them.

Servaas doesn’t know much about knights, old-time chivalry or squires, but he understands the bit that evil can’t possibly last forever. In his mind, parliament has degenerated into a circus: good enough for entertainment but not really huge in the problem-solving department.

“And, whats more, Servaas, he wrote something else that comes to  mind…”

I do not deny that what happened to us is a thing worth laughing at. But it is not worth telling, for not everyone is sufficiently intelligent to be able to see things from the right point of view.

“Wow! He should have been our president, Gertruida.”

“You wish. But still, even though he died a poor man, at least he’ll be honoured by a monument. People from all over the world will come to pay homage to his genius.”

Servaas thinks about this. Cervantes, dead but honoured for his honest wisdom. The president, alive, and scorned for his devious ways.

“We live in a crazy country, Gertruida.”

“Indeed, Sancho.”

“My name is Servaas.”

“Oh…but you sound like him.”

Boggel’s Competition

b2Boggel’s Place has been the only option for many years. It’s the place to be. This is where you sit down with a cold beer to talk about the drought and the president’s wives – important enough to note, but way beyond anybody to influence. When the storm clouds gather on the horizon, these things will develop as they must – and watching them with a beer in hand is so much more sensible than wasting a lot of adrenalin in getting excited about it.

Then the rumour started. Ronnie – that famous, intrepid entrepreneur was considering opening a branch in Rolbos. Why? Because, like the restaurant and pub he established in the middle of nowhere, Rolbos also had nothing going for it. Snatching success from the jaws of failure has been Ronnie’s secret, and Rolbos provides the perfect backdrop for a venture that is sure to flounder.

Gertruida had to explain who and what Ronnie represents:

Of course, this news leads to a lively debate, increasing Boggel’s turnover with a considerable margin. Ronnie is, after all, a national figure of great importance. Although his bar was never designed or planned as a house of ill repute, the very name of the place ruffled many a conservative feather. Amongst the narrow-minded puritans, the place conjured up visions of carnal adventures and represented the gateway to the dark and tormented underworld made famous in a thousand sermons every Sunday. Of course, these intellectual giants have never (and would never, either)  even think of visiting the bar to enjoy one of Ronnie’s famous rose-water milkshakes. When such a person has no option than to take the R62 route, the children in the vehicle are told to inspect the carpet of the footwell until they are safely past the object of so much scorn.

Gertruida tells them about Ronnie, his long silver-grey ponytail and his establishment set in the dusty veld of the Klein Karoo.

“Originally he had a farm stall there, selling fresh produce and a few cooldrinks. Business was slow. And then one day, his friends added the dreaded ‘S’ word next to his name, and everybody stopped for a drink. It became a lovely, humorous joke –  a tongue-in-the-cheek place to stop for something cool in the heat of the Karoo. Ronnie has never looked back.”

“But then Boggel will have no chance. If Ronnie opens the Kalahari Sex Shop, even Oudoom will have to visit there to be one with his flock. You know how he feels about these things. He says it’s of little value to preach in the church  – everybody who goes there, tithes already. He maintains that the way the expand his congregation (the electrical wiring has to be fixed, after all) is to spread his message to the ‘other’ folk – you know, people who don’t attend church. And if Oudoom goes there, we’d have no choice but to follow suit. Talk about a bull in a china shop…”

“Ja, he’ll drink the place dry to show he’s one of the boys.” Kleinpiet eyes Servaas, who’s showing signs of severe agitation. “Even Servaas will be obliged to go.”

“Me? Never! A head elder in a place like that? I’ll be the laughing stock of Upington, man! Won’t ever be able to show my face in public again.”

“It’s just a name, Servaas! Nothing much ever happens there  – at least nothing more than in Boggel’s Place. And Ronnie also provides meals – which is more than we can say about Boggel’s. The name of his cafe is a bit misleading, but his hamburgers are delicious.”

b1

“So we’ll just allow Boggel’s Place to become a deserted ruin?” The very thought causes a shudder down Vetfaan’s spine.

“No. If Ronnie wants to expand his business, we’ll have to convince him that he can make more money elsewhere. I’ll simply write him a letter.” Gertruida frowns while concentrating hard. “Yes, that’s it! China! Millions of people, lots of thirsty throats and an expanding economy. He can even introduce them to Boeremusiek.”

***

And so it came to pass that Boggel still has the monopoly in Rolbos. Ronnie’s  性别 Shop could be the biggest cultural revolution to hit China since Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The peculiar penchant of the Chinese for Boeremusiek could be the start of a massive Chinese exodus out of Africa, back to where they belong.

Rolbos University to Offer Postgrad Degrees

edukacja_1“They should be more careful.” Vetfaan points at the photo of our ambassador to Japan and grunts. “I mean: why claim you’re a doctor when it’s so much more impressive to say you’re a professor? The problem with our politicians – as I see it – is that they lack ambition. If you have to lie about your academic achievements, lie big. Tell the world you were the rector of some university, don’t settle for a mere PhD.”

“But that’s the problem, Vetfaan. To make it stick, you have to have a legit university. Putting a fake degree or a fake university on your CV is stupid. Ellen Tshabalala, Pallo Jordan, Carl Niehaus, Tembakazi Mnyaka,  Mninwa Mahlangu and Mohau Pheko have all tried hard to hoodwink people into believing they were cleverer than they are, just to expose their lack of insight when their claims were investigated.”Gertruida adjusts her glasses like the president does to emphasise her point.”Mind you, it shouldn’t be that difficult….” She allows the unfinished sentence to hang in the air.

“What?’

“How difficult can it be? Why can’t a group of individuals get together, establish a university, and dish out certificates. Instead of our politicians having to send out thousands of dollars to some fake institution overseas, we can make it so easy: keep the money in the country, issue the degree in one of the eleven official languages and create new degrees. No politician worth his salt will be able to withstand a degree in Culinary Sciences – they have to know how to make KFC in the office. Think about the time saved if they don’t have to stand in a queue at McDonalds? ”

Kleinpiet’s suggestion that he be appointed as Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Sport raises a few eyebrows until he explains. “Stretching the Truth 101 should be an obligatory course before being allowed in parliament. Jumping the Queue will be popular too, as will Slight of Hand as an advanced course. Running for President, Shooting the Breeze and a Certificate in Nepotistic Relay will surely draw many students.”

“I still think the way to a politicians heart is through his stomach. A PhD in Advanced Sushi will see you right to the top.”

“Even better,” Boggel adds, “will be a legal faculty to issue degrees in Parole Law, Advanced Dossier Misplacement and Legitimate Corruption.”

“No, you guys. This is wrong in so many ways. Shame on you for joining our leaders in their quest for dishonesty.” Oudoom seems genuinely upset. “Any form of fraud is a crime, you should know that by now.”

“But that’s the point, Oudoom. Instead of tempting our esteemed politicians to lie about fake degrees, we are going to help them stay on the straight and narrow by offering them a honest alternative. We’ll offer nice certificates” They all crane their necks to see Precilla’s drawing.

stanton_degree copy_edited-2 copy

In the end, they all agree that this is, after all, a good idea. If all the fraudulent degrees originated from a central source, the government would save millions by not having to pay agencies to do background checks on ambassadors, senior officials and other political appointees. One simple telephone call would be all that is necessary. Servaas even suggested that they be made the official fake university, which earned him a round on the house.

“Look, we advertise it the way it is: a discombobulate faculty for incongruity. That way, everybody will know what it’s about.”

Oudoom grudgingly accepted the proposal on the condition that they replace the words ‘Rolbos University’ with something more academic, like ‘The African School of Learning’.

They are still arguing about it…

The Sad Moon of Solitude…

Sir Philip Sidney, 1554 - 1586

Sir Philip Sidney, 1554 – 1586

One should be careful when asking Servaas about solitude: his answer is too brutally direct and honest if a sensitive soul should dare being so inquisitive. As a confirmed introvert with his own set of rules, he does adapt to living amongst others…but only just. Oh, he can spin a yarn and debate the issues of the day as well as anybody else (provided you accept his narrow-minded conservative approach and offer the obligatory tot of peach brandy), but deep down he is a loner. Has been all his life, will be until they lower him into the ground. And, as  a man comfortable with his own way of analysing issues, he does tend to be a bit overbearing – which doesn’t bother him in the least. He doesn’t like pretence: if you don’t like what he says, it really isn’t his problem at all.

Oudoom, naturally. disagrees with his head elder on this matter. People need people, according to the pastor, and that’s why we need many, healthy relationships. No man is an island, he’s fond of saying – but Servaas likes to remind him that as the Lord created continents, so too did He make islands.

It takes all kinds…

breekyster 2010 153But a passer by – a few years ago – did venture to ask the question. She was the sprightly widow Violet Hancock; a kind and sympathetic woman who toured the country, taking photographs of isolated places. She said it was her way of managing her sudden change in social standing – from being the wife of a famous actor, to being…well, nobody at all. Whereas before the maitre d’s and the photographers would do anything to please her, she found herself stranded on that lonely island called Isolation. Photographing the wide expanses of the country, the old ruined farm houses and the dilapidated windpumps, reminded her that all life – like all fame – was but a fleeting moment. These pictures, she said, made her feel better: she wasn’t alone in her lot.

“You see,” she told Servaas on the afternoon she visited Rolbos to take shots of the Kalahari at sunset, “my husband used to be the reason for my importance. Because he was such a huge figure in the public eye, everybody was nice to me. After he died, there were a few bouquets of flowers, a stack of sympathy cards, a ton of calls…and then it stopped. Society had settled their account –  they owed me nothing. Being nice with me wasn’t important any longer – and the public eye roved around as it must, and found somebody else to idolise. Here today, gone tomorrow.”

The two of them sat, discussing the fickle nature of mankind in general and fans in particular, and later a comfortable silence settled between them. Servaas could feel her eyeing him and started feeling really uncomfortable. Did she think…? He dismissed the thought immediately.

“And you, Servaas? Don’t you feel lonely at times? How do you handle it?”

It was a trick question – he could feel it. Still, it was only right that he should answer it honestly.

“You know? Only people who aren’t comfortable with themselves feel lonely. They need company to prop up their self esteem. They love having people around, especially if they make a fuss about them. Now, according to my reckoning, that’s more than 90% of the population.

“They play this game, see? You tell me how special I am, and I’ll be nice to you. Now for some – your husband might have been one – it is an easy game because society elevated them to star status. Actors, politicians, some pastors and a few businessmen are like that. For them it is the way to remain on top of the heap – but they seldom ask what the heap is made of.

“I’ll tell you: it’s all pretence. To be popular, you have to understand Pavlov’s dog. You have to know how the psychology works – and then use it to manipulate others into thinking you’re different. And people fall for that all the time.” His bushy eyebrows rose high as he got got excited about the subject. “Why be different? Why increase your bust size, wear outrageous clothes and makeup to try to draw attention to yourself?” He paused and, seeing she remained quiet, answered on her behalf. “Because people can’t accept the way they are. They feel they have to stand out to be noticed.  Better to hear them say ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ than to endure the silence of being considered only average.

“So they start pretending. They play to the audience. They build up a fan base. They have lots and lots of people they call ‘friends’, but who – in actual fact – rely on the friendship only for what’s in it for themselves. It could be money, or recognition or simply bragging rights, but in the end those ‘friends’ are social parasites, feeding off  the noticed in the hope of becoming memorable.”

“No friends at all – is that what you’re saying?'” Violet seemed exceptionally sad when she asked the question.

“No, my dear.” He softened his tone. “True friends are rare. Anybody who is honest with himself, will realise you only have a handful of real friends – if you’re lucky. These are the people you can phone at two in the morning or simply share silence with. These are effortless relationships because the commitment to respect and kindness is so natural, so spontaneous, that it sustains itself. These are very special people who can tell you what they really think without being afraid that you’d either reject them or play them along. It’s a non-judgemental association between two persons who’ve accepted each other just the way they are.”

“But…” she hesitated, “…that doesn’t exist, Servaas. I’ve never experienced that type of friendship – and believe me, I had a million friends back then.”

“And where,” Servaas asked, “are they now?”

***

IMG_0140They sat on Boggel’s veranda until the full moon managed to light up the veld from behind some rare clouds. Mrs Hancock sniffed loudly at times, but refused the handkerchief Servaas offered. Then she glanced up at that moon and addressed it with a bit of Sir Philip Sidney’s poem: To the Sad Moon:

Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call ‘virtue’ there— ungratefulness?”

Servaas, of course, had no idea what she was talking about. He nursed his peach brandy and listened to the cry of a distant jackal. Still, he felt he had to say something.

“Love, like friendship, is a rare joy, Violet, just like the moon you see over there. Search for it  when the season is right. Cherish it when you find it. Nurture it when you have it…. And appreciate it when it’s gone.”

“Full moon. Dark moon. And yet, even when I can’t see it, it is still there?”

“Yes Violet. It is still there….and alone. And you know what? It’s okay. It waxes and wanes without complaining, ever spinning around an ungrateful world. That moon,” Servaas pointed, “is the keeper of a secret – although it is a constant companion to the earth, it needs distance to remain what it was created to be.” He sighed softly, patted her shoulder and smiled. “You’ll be alright, Violet, if you remember this.”

Violet Hancock left Servaas there, on the veranda in front of Boggel’s Place. Drove off and eventually settled in a cottage she rented on a deserted farm. Her photographs have won national and international prizes, but she never attends these ceremonies. She maintains – according to the single reporter she allowed an interview – that her solitude is more gratifying than recognition. This remark caused quite a debate in a popular weekly magazine in South Africa, with most readers commenting on such selfish behaviour.

Servaas saw the article, read it twice, and sat down on the bench on the veranda in front of Boggel’s Place. He smiled proudly, blew his nose, and waited for the moon to appear from behind the dark and distant horizon.

They’re Killing the Wrong Past

Credit: ibtimes.com

Credit: ibtimes.com

“It’s a disgrace,” Gertruida says as she folds the newspaper, “an absolute tragedy. Imagine destroying those old artifacts? What on earth will that tell the world about Isis?”

“Not much more than we already know, Gertruida.” The bushy brows knit together as Servaas sits down with a sigh. “I’m not opposed to Islam, but this makes them really look bad. Would God really command the beheading of people and the destruction of statues? No, I don’t think so – not in the way I think of a loving God, at least.”

“You can’t blame Islam, Servaas. It’s not the religion – it’s the people who interpret the Quran in a certain way.”

“Oh, and now you’re an expert?” The remark sounds more aggressive than he intended, so Servaas hastens to add: “No offence, Gertruida, but you know we don’t know much about the Quran as such. Few Christians read it, after all.”

“I’ll have you know that the Quran does have a lot to say about how believers should conduct themselves. It says: ‘They enjoin good conduct and forbid wrongdoing, and they hasten to do good works.  These are among the righteous.’  And it says something about religious tolerance, too. ‘Certainly, those who believe, those who are Jewish, the Sabians, and the Christians, whoever acknowledges God and the Last Day and does good, will have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.’.  The problem isn’t the Quran or Islam – it’s far more complex than that. It’s about the Sunni and Shia groups that simply won’t let the sun shine on each other.”

Servaas is silent for a while, impressed by Gertruida’s knowledge. “But why? Why can’t they live together?”

“It goes back to the death of the Prophet, Servaas, in the year 632 AD. a Caliph or successor was chosen – a man named Abu Bakr. Some thought he was the wrong choice and under the leadership of Ali, the Shia movement started. Well, Abu Bakr was assassinated and eventually Ali became the fourth caliph in 656. Again there was revolt over this choice, and the Sunni’s gathered against him. Ali was assassinated in 661 – and since then the fighting never really stopped.

“Today the Sunnis claim – as part of their perceived rightful heritage – portions of Iraq and Syria as land that belongs to them. The fact that there’s a lot of oil underground, is  – according to them – of no consequence. But you and I know: logic whispers, money shouts. And sometimes, it shouts louder than religion, too.”

“So…you’re telling me they simply can’t let go of the past? And have been killing each other for 1500 years for that and the wealth under the ground?” He gets a nod from Gertruida. “Then, Gertruida, we’re in big trouble.”

“How so, Servaas?”

“Look at us, Gertruida. Look at what’s happening in the country. Poor old Jan van Riebeeck gets blamed for all the problems in the country – much like this chap…what did you call him?…Abu Bakr. And now the fight is on for land reform, just like in Zimbabwe. Or Iraq and Syria, if you like.  Here, they change names of towns and streets to reflect only a certain heritage, to emphasise the history of just one portion of society – while over there they destroy statues that are ‘foreign idols’. What’s the difference? It’s the same thing.”

1502574_689750454457656_4131447609257149473_n“You’re right, of course. But it’s not ‘them’, or ‘they’…it is the leaders of the organisations that keep on festering hate and intolerance. Do you think the average man in the street wants xenophobia or racism or violence and abuse…in any form? Of course not. Mister Average wants a job, a loving wife and obedient kids. Two out of three isn’t bad. Hell, one out of three will do. But then the so-called leaders; the ones people perceive to be on their side; start considering other issues – like money and status and more wives and grand homes. The foot soldiers get lost in the less important matters of the day while Mister Big thinks out clever things to say to impress voters”

john“But why do people bother listening to such leaders, Gertruida? That John fellow didn’t behead people on his own accord – he belongs to a movement and that movement has a leader. Once he was an innocent-looking schoolboy, now he’s turned into a monster. Why did he allow himself to be turned into a despicable being? Surely even the superficial grasp of religion teaches us that all life is sacred, coming from God?”

“Ignorance, Servaas, is the pillow on which the uninformed head rests. Listen to what the Prophet said: ‘O you who acknowledge, one people should not deride another, for it may be that they are better than them; nor should some women deride others, for it may be that they are better than them; and do not insult each other or ridicule each other with nicknames.’ He warns against false leaders: ‘And if you obey most of those in the earth, they will lead you astray from Allah’s way; they follow but conjecture and they do but guess.’ And the Prophet writes: ‘Surely the worst of beasts in God’s sight are those that are deaf and dumb and do not reason.’. 

“But, my friend, people have forgotten how to think. They follow blindly and do not listen to all sides of the argument before making up their own minds. They’ve become, just like the Quran says, deaf and blind.”

“And destroying statues help to promote the goals of a few leaders?”

“They’re killing the past, Servaas, in an effort to establish a new future. What they don’t realise is that they’re keeping the wrong past alive by alienating the rest of humanity. Just like the continuous accentuation of the wrongs in any history will keep on dividing people, so the beauty of coexistence will make people want to forget about the atrocities of Huns and the Nazis and all the horrors of the past – every nation’s history is riddled with wrongs, after all. And I don’t mean forgetting like in totally wiping out the memory – we have to learn from history, after all. What I really mean is that we must take note – and not make it the basis of an ongoing, neverending struggle.”

Servaas sighs and sinks back in his chair. “Sometimes – just sometimes – I wish that all the energy going into evil could go into something positive. What a world it’d be! But then I realise how many people rely on the past to justify their present, and then I know: people will use scriptures to promote the most weird ideas. From fighting wars to beheading people – if you want to justify evil, you can quote verses completely out of context – and some fools will believe you. Evil, sadly, is part of everybody. If you feed it, it will grow.”

They fall silent after that – there really isn’t much more to say. Mankind has been created with both evil and good lurking inside every heart – and for some reason, evil will always – like love sometimes – find a way.

That’s why the Wrong Past will continue to spawn Evil next to the hearth of Greed, while love and friendship will huddle outside, shivering in the cold reality of a world where care is just another four-letter word.

The Goldilocks Zone of Kindness.

extra-Paint-CansBoggel, the bent little barman behind the counter, often tells his customers that kindness and rain have a lot in common. Too little makes things die. Too much, on the other hand, washes away the honesty of caring. Like the theme in the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears suggests, the trick is to get it ‘just right‘. Too little – or too much – will spoil the original intent of empathy and care.

While his patrons might debate this issue, Boggel can’t forget an incident – so many years ago – just after he had left school to seek his fame and fortune in the big, wide world out there.

***

Having managed to pass matric, Boggel had to leave the orphanage. This was a sad day, indeed, when he hugged the others before closing the garden gate behind him for the last time. His worldly possessions included the clean change of clothes in his little suitcase, a small Bible in his pocket, and fifteen Rands and seventy-five cents carefully knotted in the washed handkerchief in his hand. With no specific plan how to conquer the world, Boggel felt like the loneliest young man in the world.

He timed his leaving well, and had just reached the bus stop when Kallie Mann stopped the lumbering bus next to the bench under the huge old Acacia.

“Going places?”

“Ja, Oom. Upington, I think.”

Kallie wouldn’t accept a bus fare from the young lad, knowing all too well what his background was. In a place like Grootdrink, even the orphans were celebrities (of sorts). Anything or anybody out of the usual, mundane normality, was a source of debate, discussion or plain gossip in the little town. Boggel, as a hunchbacked orphan, was a well-known and much talked about young man.

 Kallie, too, had a bit of history. He had married his childhood sweetheart, Sally Kleyngeld, set up home, and was soon able to announce the imminent arrival of their first child. It was not to be. A complicated birth, two graves (a big one, a small one) and an empty house termitted away at the life of this once-popular man. He resigned his work at the bank and became a bus driver. That way he rarely had to spend an evening amongst the ghosts and shattered dreams of his of his past. He said he needed the openness of the veld around him – the small office in the bank had too many walls.

A few miles out of Grootdrink, Kallie asked his only passenger what his plans were. Boggel shook his head.

“Why don’t you move in with me for a while? Until you find something else, I mean. The place is huge, I’m alone and you need a bed. Seems the logical thing to do.”

And that’s what they did. Boggel moved in. Kallie’s house, however, was in a state of total disarray. Kallie apologised, saying he’s never at home and…anyway…cleaning the place would be like throwing Sally out. Her towel. Her nighties. Her slippers. These all remained where she had put them before the catastrophe. Even the baby room, so carefully prepared, waited in vain for the whimper of a hungry infant.

Boggel started knocking on doors the next day. The butcher said his back would never be strong enough. The postmaster shook his head. The restaurant advertised a job for a waiter, but the manager said he was afraid the hunchback would scare his customers away. Door after door closed behind him. The message was clear: conquering the world was reserved for ‘normal’ people, not for cripples like him.

013001056A week or two later, Kallie had to take a busload of tourists to the Augrabies Falls; after which followed a week-long sojourn in Springbok to view the magnificent splendour of the annual flower season. Kallie said goodbye to a depressed and dejected Boggel, who vowed to have a job by the time his benefactor came back.

Boggel redoubled his efforts to find employment. The hospital didn’t need porters, the undertaker had no vacancies for grave diggers and the municipality said they’re sorry, their budget won’t allow another road worker. He had knocked on all the doors. Upington would not be the launching pad of his brilliant career.

Boggel didn’t know what to do. Being idle had never been part of his character, and there he was: unemployed, bored, and disappointed.

Well, he could fix up Kallie’s house, couldn’t he? The idea galvanised him into action. He swept. He dusted. He washed. He tidied room after room, cleaning windows and washing curtains as he went along. Then he took his money to the hardware store and asked the owner for as much paint as his money could buy. The owner took pity on the young lad, and produced a variety of half-empty paint containers – left over from the contract to renovate the town hall. No, he said, no money. He had seen how the hunchbacked youth tried to find employment and took pity on him. Do a good job – and maybe it’d be the start of a career, the man remarked.

Boggel was overjoyed. He painted from dawn to dusk. His back was a problem, of course. To get to the higher parts of the walls was impossible with his hunchback, so he painted as far as he could reach while standing on a chair. Room after room he did in this fashion. Kallie, he was sure, wouldn’t mind doing the upper bits of the walls.

The lounge was blue. There was enough green for the kitchen. The dining room looked magnificent in beige, while the large container of yellow sorted out the rest of the house. Boggel realised he was a very, very good painter. Not a drop was spilled on the carpets or furniture. The dried walls were a smooth as plastic, with no streaks and sloppy lines. This, he told himself, was a huge success.

Kallie nearly died when he returned. When he pushed open the front door, he stood riveted to the floor for a very long time. Then he started – softly at first, but growing in volume – repeating a single word.

“No….no….no.…”

He calmed down after a while. Sat staring at the blue walls around the fireplace, talking to himself. Or rather, talking to Sally, who wasn’t there. He asked her to please, please, come back.

Boggel left that same afternoon. Got on the train after buying a ticket to Cape Town, where he eventually learnt his trade in a tavern near the harbour. (Nobody wanted to work there – it was considered too dangerous.). Here, Boggel’s disability and the way he handled it, generated not sympathy but respect from the rough men who had come ashore from the ships. He built up a reputation as a fair barman, especially after sorting out the wrestling champion with a cricket bat. It’s quite a story, but he rarely talks about that time. He is an outspoken pacifist and hates to be reminded of his more, er, angry days. Even so, his little altercation with the burly athlete saved them both a lot of trouble. The wrestler apologised to the pretty barmaid and became a huge fan of the tavern. laughing at the way Boggel placed the bat on the counter every time he walked in…

***

The_three_bears_pg_11Boggel says that’s the way to dispense kindness. A lick of paint – or a cricket bat – at the right time, can work wonders. But the key is to time it right.

And…not too little.

Not too much.

Just right.

Just like in the story of Three Bears.

 

Gertjie and the Inevitability Syndrome

20140916_083622_1st_500“That is one unhappy camper.” Vetfaan saunters over to the window for a better look. “It’s been a long time since I saw such a sad face…. It looks like Gertjie – that chap with the short fuse. We’d better watch out…”

That much, they all agree, is true. Gertjie – medium-sized, mousy hair, 5-day stubble and yesterday’s clothes – kills the rattling engine of the old Volkswagen and gets out. His drooping shoulders, mouth corners and arms tell a story as he turns slowly to face Boggel’s Place. After a moment he seems to come to a decision, straightens up a bit and walks over to the bar. At this, the patrons in Boggel’s rush back to the counter to discuss the weather.

A timid knock.

“Can you believe it?” Kleinpiet strides to the door and yanks it open. “Nobody knocks here, Gertjie. Come on in.”

“I…I really don’t want to.” Hesitant, soft, unsure. “I need a place to rest after…what happened. I was hoping to find a bed. A place to stay. For a while.”

Now, in a place like Rolbos, saying things like that is like telling children there is a circus in town. Gertruida is already lining up questions in her mind while Precilla – with a guilty sidelong glance at Kleinpiet – feels sorry for the man. Gertjie’s short-tempered reputation seems completely inappropriate as he shuffles in.

“No hotel in Rolbos, you should know that. Only cold beer. There is a guest house in Grootdrink, though. You must have passed it on your way here.” Boggel offers a beer, but the man shakes his head.

“N..no, thank you. Need water.” Nevertheless, he sighs heavily as he sits down mumbling: “No hotel. Typical.”

Gertruida (who else?) takes the lead. Telling Boggel to get a glass of cold water (an almost impossible request – nobody drinks water here) she sits down next to the man and introduces herself.

“Oh…sorry. I’m Gertjie Bosman. From Prieska. My dog is gone.”

“That’s a shame. We love dogs here. We’ve got Vrede.” At hearing his name, the town’s dog thumps his tail on the floor below the counter, where he naps on Boggel’s cushion. “I’m sorry.”

“Ja, it was the tractor. The tractor took him.”

“Didn’t they see him?”

“Not like that, it was dark. He was brown. And the flames weren’t as big then.”

“Flames?”

“At that stage it was only the barn.It was before….before the house, you see. The flames were small then.”

“Your barn and your house burnt down? That’s terrible.”

Gertjie sighs again and downs the water. “My wife has left me. On the tractor. It…it was the new one. Bought it only last year. Still have to pay back the loan. The bank will fry me.”

“Sounds like you’re fried already,” Vetfaan gets a nasty look from Gertruida, but Servaas has to concentrate hard to keep a straight face.

You can only test Gertruida’s patience that far before her curiosity takes over. “Maybe you should tell us what happened?”

The story gets told in bits and pieces. Gertjie used to be a successful farmer. Living with his wife on the piece of land he had inherited, he slowly built up the place and managed a sizable flock of sheep. Some chickens supplied eggs to the shop in town and the lucerne growing next to the small dam not only saw them through winter, but he could also sell some to his neighbours.

“We were happy, you know. Tess an me. Things were going our way.” Gertjie falls silent. “But we needed more water. To expand, you see? Water was the problem. The dam was enough for the lucerne and the sheep…but just. I reckoned that we needed another borehole and a cement dam – then we could support another hundred or so sheep.”

“Bigger is better,” Kleinpiet says.

“But it’s the money. Always the money. After the loan on the tractor, I didn’t want to dip deeper into debt.” He falls silent, shaking his head.

“And…?” Gertruida shifts about on her chair. This is exciting!

“I had to go to Upington. For supplies, understand? Had enough money for the stuff I needed to buy, a hamburger and a Coke. Worked it out nicely. The supplies weren’t the problem. It was the hamburger. The price had gone up since last I was in town. And they don’t sell half hamburgers. So I stood there at the counter and counted my money. They offered a toasted cheese, but I wanted a hamburger.”  Suddenly angry, he bangs a fist on the counter, apologising immediately.

“Damn it! After working so hard, a man should have a hamburger! No, they said, no hamburger. I didn’t have enough money. So I stormed out, see. Ashamed and angry. And I drove off. That’s when I saw the Oasis Casino. And the sign said they had a jackpot. A million Rand!” He drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Imagine what I could do with that? A deeper borehole, a new dam, and as many hamburgers as I like! So I turned in there and went in.”

By now, even Vrede is listening.

“I stood in a queue for that machine. Everybody was losing their money – everybody. And I thought that was a good thing, because they were increasing my chances. Eventually, the chap in front of me said something ugly as the machine swallowed his last coins and left. It was my turn. I had nineteen Rand. Pulled that lever eighteen times, I did. Nothing. Then I put in my last coin. Pulled the lever. And four sevens lined themselves up neatly on the line.

“I jumped up and shouted hallelujah! And then the power went off. The whole place was dark. Later they said it was load shedding. When the generator kicked in, all the machines rebooted. No more four sevens.

“I made a hell of a fuss. The floor manager said there was nothing he could do. If it wasn’t on the machine, I had no proof. I shouted at him. Told him he was a nasty man. And they tried to throw me out. Just like that. Disturbing the peace, they said. Unruly behaviour. They called the cops when I refused to go.

“Didn’t have a choice, did I? Had to leave in a hurry, or spend the night in jail. So I raced back to the farm. I don’t know how I got there, I was so angry. And I looked at the electricity pole next to the barn. It was them! The electricity people. Escom! They cheated me out of a fortune. I walked over to that pole and kicked it. Almost broke my foot, but the pole didn’t feel a thing. So I told the pole I’d show him and fetched and axe.”

“And burnt down your farm?”

“No.” The man drooped even more. “When I looked for the axe, I had to hobble over to the shed, where we kept the firewood. That’s when I saw them.”

“Them?” The group at the counter chorussed.

“Ja. Japie Verster, my neighbour. Him and Tess. In the shed. My blood was still up, understand? What were they doing in there? I stormed at him and whacked him a solid blow to the jaw. Tess screamed at me, but I paid her no heed. Whacked him some more until Tess bopped me one with the spade. Right over here.” He parted his hair at the back of the skull, where an impressive lump was visible.

“Tess was still shouting at me, but Japie took off like lightning towards the barn. I followed. There was lucerne – bales and bales of it – stacked in the barn. I knew he was hiding somewhere.” Gertjie swallows hard. “So I started looking, but it was dark in the barn. Lit the lamp and looked some more. Put the lamp on a bale and told him to come out and fight like a man.”

“Was he there?”

“I don’t know. I was dancing around, showing him that I know something about boxing. I was practicing my uppercut when I bumped the lamp from the bale. Tess stormed in, got on the tractor and drove off while I was trying to put out the flames.” A soft sob. “Rover – my dog – went with her.”

***

Gertruida says Life works like that. A simple thing – like the price of a hamburger – could be the start of a series of unforeseen events that is totally out of proportion to the initial issue. She calls it the Inevitability Syndrome.

“It happens everywhere, guys. Something seemingly insignificant crosses your path and you decide: ‘Mmm…maybe it’s not a bad idea‘. And you make a choice, only to find that it leads to another decision and another decision…and another decision. And every time you decide, it leads you deeper into trouble. And then, when you wake up at last, you can’t get out of it any longer. You are stuck with the result of a series of bad decisions and now you’ll have to live with the consequences.

“This happens to all of us – even with friends and with family. Decisions determine the way we see people – it tells us who they are – and sometimes that’s the key that locks a door forever. Not avoidable…inevitable. “

Boggel says that is true. Gertjie burnt his farm down because he wanted a hamburger. And he never bothered to ask Tess why she and Japie were in the shed when he got home. How was he to know that Japie, too, needed and ax after his one snapped its handle that fateful morning?

But, Kleinpiet says, that’s nothing. Gertjie’s insurance will pay out. Tess might want to return with Rover if Gertjie plays his cards right. But…our president? Did he consider carefully what his friendship with Eastern businessmen would lead to? Or that the architect’s suggestion of golden taps in Nkandla would cost him the respect of the country in the end?

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, Gertruida says, and it would have been nice if the Inevitability Syndrome postponed the lasting consequences of bad decisions until after death. It doesn’t. The skeletons of some burnt barns – and bridges – are just too visible to ignore…

Will the Honourable Cockroach please step forward?

Julius-Malema1“Politicians are a really crazy bunch of people. Imagine calling somebody a cockroach?” Precilla pulls a face, disgusted at the thought.

“Oh, I don’t know…” Obtuse as always, Gertruida jumps at the chance to differ. “Cockroaches have been around since forever, and they still will be – according to some – long after humanity finally manages to be stupid enough to start pushing little red buttons on firing consoles. They’re very resilient – able to withstand freezing, submerging and the lack of oxygen. While most people think of them as pests, one has to admire the way they survive under even the most inhospitable conditions.”

“You just love arguing, Gertruida.” Servaas bunches his bushy brows together in protest. “You don’t call anybody a cockroach in Africa. The Hutus did so with the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide in ’94; completely dehumanising them. No, let’s face it: a cockroach is a pest, an unwanted, despicable insect nobody likes having in their homes. By comparing poor mister Malema to such a creature, is an insult.”

Boggel suppresses a snigger while he serves another round of beers. Poor mister Malema, indeed!  Servaas has been an outspoken critic of the EFF in previous weeks, but since they kept on insisting that the president must pay back the money,  Servaas has toned down his disapproval. He says a man must use what’s available. If you don’t have the right spanner, a monkey wrench will just have to do. It’s a variant of the old adage about my enemy’s enemy…

“Ag, drop the pose, Servaas!” Gertruida sees how the old man’s jaw sets and hurries to defuse the situation. “You’re right, although cockroaches aren’t just bad. All I’m saying is that it won’t do much harm to take a new look at one of the world’s most common insects. They actually have their place in folklore and literature.”

“You telling me somebody was deranged enough to write a story about a cockroach?” Precilla shivers at the thought.

150px-Metamorphosis“Well, many authors did. Maybe the story of Gregor Samsa by Franz Kafka is the most notable. In Metamorphosis, the travelling salesman is transformed into a giant, cockroach-like creature. He withdraws to his room after being paralysed by his father throwing an apple at him – and dies there eventually. It’s a poignant, sensitive, moving novella about acceptance and rejection – and what it means to be a family. It is, arguably, one of Kafka’s greatest works.

220px-TheRevoltOfTheCockroachPeople“More to the point, Revolt of the Cockroach People is a book about the downtrodden minorities in America in the previous century. Acosta’s protagonist, Buffalo Zeta Brown, rises in protest against an unfair society, even when he knows that he has no chance to win the battle against the laws and conditions of the time. Still, the book speaks of survival despite overwhelming odds.”

Precilla studies her shoes – she has no desire to hear how wonderful cockroaches are. They’re creepy, they’re horrible and they’re pests.

“Moreover,” Gertruida isn’t finished yet, “they have medicinal uses.”

Precilla’s face gets a green tinge as Gertruida continues with a smile.

“In olden days they treated diseases with cockroach tea – did you know that? Killed them, boiled them up, and added a bit of honey for flavour. And in northern China they extracted molecules from cockroaches that can be used to cure heart and liver diseases. Apparently those substances are great for treating burns and other wounds as well.”

wall-e3“Look, nobody’s going to give me a cockroach pill when my liver packs up.” Vetfaan runs his calloused hand over his tummy. “But I did enjoy the cockroach in Wall-E. A real little hero, that one. I remember he was called Hal, after the producer, Hal Roach. Har! Now there’s a movie I enjoyed; not the drivel the modern artists turn out.”

“Well, Madonna made a famous statement.” Oudoom almost bites his tongue – he doesn’t want the group at the bar to know about his secret fascination with the wild personality. Still, her quote is apt under the circumstances. “I am a survivor. I am like a cockroach, you just can’t get rid of me – her words, not mine. I think it implies a certain determination to ignore criticism.”

“Our clergyman have emerged from his dark and humid cupboard, guys!” Kleinpiet high-fives the reluctant reverend. “Like Gregor Samsa, he has to show his true colours!”

“Leave Oudoom be, Kleinpiet.” Gertruida’s scowl is enough to make his sit down again. “Do you know who the first mother in space was? Of course not. She was Nadezhda the cockroach, who mothered 33 babies in space. In Russian, her name means ‘Hope’ and she was returned to earth successfully with her offspring.”

When Gertruida falls silent (at last!), the group at the counter settles down in deep thought. As usual, Gertruida surprised them with her vast knowledge. Servaas says Gertruida should write a letter to Malema, explaining that being called a ‘cockroach’ is actually a compliment, but Vetfaan disagrees. He reckons the political waters in the country is muddled enough after the president jumbled up our history into an unrecognisable piece of fiction, forgetting the Xhosa-Zulu struggle completely and omitting the atrocities of Mzilikazi.

No, Vetfaan thinks as he watches a flat, black insect scurry across the floor, being called names isn’t the problem in the country. Maybe some of our public figures are comparable to the insect family regarding the degree of collective intelligence, but they differ considerably in the amount of legs possessed and the habit of self destruction. Some, however, are better at scavenging and – admittedly  –  live in the cracks only found in the convoluted world of politics.

He considers the trembling antennae of the insect before it disappears behind the counter. Cockroaches? He smiles. No, we won’t get rid of them…

The Crows Are Here.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com“Crows,” Gertruida said as they listened to the squawking outside, “are most intelligent. They can manufacture and use tools, but they prefer living in areas where they can feed on refuse and garbage and food they didn’t have to work for. Most of them gang together in groups and scavenge for a living.”

“I don’t like crows,” Precilla wrinkles her nose. “On Kleinpiet’s farm they have taken to catching tortoises. They spy a small one, and they’ll grab it with their claws and lift it high above the ground. Then they’ll look for a suitable rock and dash it to death – and then feed on the corpse. They always target the weak and defenceless. Quite disgusting. Maybe that’s why the collective term for these birds is a murder of crows…”

“Ah yes…and there’s a story the Bushmen tell,” Gertruida rejoins, “about the way crows are the messengers of disaster – especially to the unjust and the proud…”

 ***

Long ago, after !Kaggen caused mankind to step from the tree, there was peace on earth. There were no conflicts, no war, no bloodshed. As mankind multiplied, they spread out over the land so that every family had enough space to hunt freely. After the first rain of summer, the families would get together to tell the others what had happened during the last year.

Oh, these gatherings were joyous affairs, with lots of eating, dancing and talking. Such was the excitement, that they sang a new song every year – a song dedicated to their happiness and love for each other, for life and for nature. 

One year, the Biggest Family sang their own song:

                                                             We have multiplied, we are blessed                                                                                                         We are wonderful, we are the best.

The Other Families listened to the song, and an Old One stood up and said it wasn’t the way they did things. Nobody is better than anybody else, for did !Kaggen not create them all equal? Why would the Biggest Family want to be better than the rest? It’s not done, he said, sitting down sadly.

But lo! The Biggest Family then became exceedingly angry and beset themselves onto the others, The fight was short and bloody. When the sun set that day, only a few of the Smaller Families were left. They had fled from the wrath of the Biggest Family, hiding high up in the mountains. There they gathered once more, but not with either joy or excitement. Now their meeting was one of fear – even loathing – for they had seen what the Biggest Family had done to their kin.

Some of the younger men suggested an ambush while others wanted to attack them at night – but the Old One held up a hand and said they were too weak to attempt such a folly.

“No,” he said, “that won’t do. We must not do something we’d be ashamed of. Look, we know there are too many of them. And, my children, killing your enemies will only result in more killings. Does the tree not put out many shoots once lightning has struck it down? We, my children, must wait.”

The Young Ones respected the Old One’s words, but still couldn’t refrain from asking him what they must wait for.

“The crows, my children. We’ll wait for the crows.”

And the Young Ones became much frightened, for they thought the crows were the spirits of the dead – they weren’t like the other birds at all. A trembling young voice asked again, and was answered by the Old One.

“Mankind is as the sand of the desert. The wind blows it here, the wind blows it there. But…the wind can not blow the sand away, no matter how hard it tries. See the dunes out there? It’s sand. It’s the same sand I saw when I was young. It doesn’t go away.”

The Young Ones listened patiently. It would have been rude to interrupt.

“We are a people, as are the others. All people form a dune, that the wind blows this way and the wind blows that way. But no matter how hard the wind blows, the dune will still be here tomorrow and the days after that.

“And, my children, our actions are as the sand of the desert as well. Like us, our actions gather, become more, and create dunes around us. The wind may blow it here, the wind may blow it there, but the dunes will be here tomorrow and the days after that.”

The Young Ones finally understood the wise words. A done deed cannot be undone. It is added to the dunes forming around us and can never be blown away, no matter how hard the wind tries to do so,

“And the crows, Old One?” A small boy at the back wanted to know more.

“Ah, the crows. Some believe them to be the spirits of those departed. But no, my children. Those black birds are more than that – they are shamed beings, but also messengers, prophets, scavengers of the future. Let me tell you about crows…”

When the world gathered her horizons around her and the wind was born, the wild animals were given tasks. Lion was to be king, dove was  a peacemaker and oryx the judge. There were animals which dug the earth, which cleaned the veld and which kept the rivers clean. But crow? He was lazy and not fond of work. He flew away when the tasks were given and hid in the night.This, the other animals said,was wrong. Crow was then given a black coat and sent away in shame.

Now, the crow couldn’t return to the other animals. It became angry and began hunting the weak and the vulnerable. It had become a scavenger of left-overs.

“But why would the crows want to go to the Biggest Family?”

IMG_2828“The dunes of the actions of that family contains much shame,” the Old One said. “The crows would feed on that. The Bigger Family will think the crows have come to eat away their shame and wrongs, and then – relieved of that burden – they will do even bigger wrongs. The crows will eat and eat and the wrongs will become more and more. The wind will blow the dunes this way, the wind will blow the dunes that way – but they’ll just keep on growing and becoming bigger.”

“And then, Old One?”

“The dunes will become too big to remain where they are. The sand will start trickling down their slopes. The bad the Bigger Family had done, will run down the slope and cover them, suffocating them in their own wrongdoing.”

And the leftover families listened to the Old One and waited for the crows.

***

“That’s a crazy story, Gertruida. Crows and sand dunes and wind…? These old stories are fun to listen to, but sadly – their meanings have been lost in time,”

“Not so, Vetfaan.” Gertruida wags a knowing finger in the air. “The government is of the opinion that their actions are condoned by the masses on the dunes around them. They are feeding the crows, my friend…”

For those who can’t follow the Afrikaans words:

I know an age-old song
about life’s joys and woes;
about shipwrecks long forgotten
to the cellars of the sea.

The words are lost forever
but still, the tune remains —
like a vaguely recalled image
from a very old folk tale.

Visions, dreams, and names,
have been scattered by the wind
and where all the words went
only a child could see.

Nomads, with no direction;
Seekers that won’t find…
In the end, we are all just
children of the wind.

The Half-eyed Girl and the President.

Twitch-Inside-Image-1Klaas Vermaak and his wife, Sophia, had only one child, born in the year Armstrong stepped out on the lunar surface: the strange and almost sightless waif called (quite inappropriately) Hope. Gertruida said her problems were due to the Uranium people later found underneath their farm, but more popular opinion had it that she carried the heavy burden of her grandfather’s sins, who had been a minister in D F Malan’s cabinet. In the end it didn’t really matter who or what got blamed, it was poor Hope that suffered.

Except that she was exceedingly thin and remarkably pale, her most obvious abnormality was the curious way her pupils had formed. Like upside-down half-moons, only the lower parts of the pupils were black, indicating that only those bits of the lenses allowed light to be focussed on the retinas. This, as one can understand, allowed Hope only to see the few metres on the ground in front of her. If she really wanted to see ahead, she had to tilt her head completely back to squint past her pert nose and over her pale upper lip. Despite this, her partial sight allowed her to get by without a white cane or a friendly Labrador as guide.

Sometime in her infancy, her desperate  parents took her to a clergyman to pray for her – after visits to the country’s top specialists advised against surgery. The religious healer prayed long and with passion…but when they went home, her eyes remained just the same.

Resigned to her fate, little Hope lived with her parents in sad isolation. She had no friends, didn’t go to school, and never had a birthday party or a sleepover. Hope took to reading after her mother taught her the basics of the alphabet. This, she found, was something she could do relatively normally, with her head up high and the book held tight against her chest. Not really being able to help her father on the farm or her mother in the kitchen, both parents were overjoyed that their daughter started devouring books to pass the time. In the beginning that involved the two books in the house: the Bible and a collection of hymns. Realising the need for more, Klaas Vermaak started buying books at bazaars, auctions, the second-hand book store in Upington and whenever the library sold off its old, dilapidated stock. The result: Hope knew almost everything about everything there was to read about by the time she was twelve. She could quote Tolstoy, the Bible and Fitzgerald with consummate ease although she found the work of Stephen Hawking rather challenging.

Around the time she turned sixteen, her fame as a very knowledgeable person  had spread through the district. She was, as Gertruida puts it, the first human Google. Whenever a child wanted to score extremely well in a school project, all they  had to do was to get in the car and drive over to Klaas Vermaak’s farm. There, within an hour or two, the project was completed with so much information that an extra exercise book was usually necessary.

Hope, however, found these visits boring and frustrating. People didn’t come to visit her – they were only interested in what she could do for them. Still, it was better than spending the days alone – especially after she had found a new interest in the process: shoes!

Shoes fascinated her . As she could not see the faces of her visitors, it was quite natural for her to study the footwear of those in her company, Soon, she associated specific shoes with specific people, and created a type of catalogue of shoe-people in her mind. She read a lot in the scuff marks (walking in the veld, playing games at school, roughing it up with other boys), shiny shoes (diligent student, strict parents, poor family) and raised shoes (spinal abnormalities and low self-esteem). Gym shoes, church shoes, high heels, platforms, sandals, boots, pumps – all these spoke to her, telling her about the personality and habits of the wearer outside the confines of her tiny room.

It became a game, a pleasurable intellectual exercise, to guess these things, making her look forward to the next hopeful who awaited her encyclopaedic  explanation of lesser-known facts. This was her personal, private form of amusement; something she didn’t share with her parents.

Klaas Vermaak was a staunch Nationalist, whose family helped bring about the Apartheid regime in 1948. As a elder in the church and a member of the Day of the Vow committee, he upheld the policies of Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha – whose photographs were displayed prominently in the lounge of their home. When the finger wagging, lip-licking Botha and his entourage paid a visit to the electoral constituency of Upington, the Vermaaks were chosen to show the president the way the farmers eked out a living from the dry Kalahari soil.

Sophia – as can be expected – panicked. A president in her humble home? Here? Yes, Klaas assured her, PW  was on his way and they’d better make sure he left with a favourable impression. It’d only be a short visit, her husband declared, just for tea. The president, she ought to know, was a busy man.

The house was cleaned. A cake baked. Cups and saucers were borrowed, the silver spoons (a heirloom, reputedly brought over by an ancestor from Europe, never used in living memory) polished, and Ouma Vermaak’s doilies arranged just right in front of the best chair in anticipation of the visit. Klaas’s church suit was pressed. Sophia carefully stitched the loose bit of lace back to the bust of her wedding dress. The president was coming and they’d look their best.

Botha surprised them by arriving in khaki. To identify with the farmers, see? Short-sleeved and immaculately ironed slacks, the important man smiled his tight political smile when the Vermaaks greeted him at the door in their best attire. Sophia introduced their daughter, who stared straight ahead and thus was able to grasp the outstretched hand of the president with the first try.

The cake was superb. Botha complimented the tea set, admiring the spoons. The president chatted amicably about the conditions in the Kalahari. He told the family that he, too, was a simple man working under difficult conditions. Like them, he was a humble Afrikaner who feared God and followed biblical directives. They shouldn’t think that he, as president, occupied the highest seat in the country because of fame or money, Botha said, not at all. He simply did what was best for everybody, keeping the communists out and ensuring stability in the country.

“Not true,” Hope whispered in the silence that followed Botha’s monologue. Her parents were horrified, the president kept on smiling, and she repeated the two words.

berluti

Berluti: Verona Leather Oxford Shoes £1,400

Klaas then quickly ushered the president outside to show him the sheep and the tractor he had cleaned up for the occasion, telling the big man that his daughter had…certain…health problems. The president understood, yes? Botha nodded, smiling still.

But, banned to her room, Hope wiped a tear from her half moon eye. She was right, she knew it! The shoes, that’s what gave the president away. Berluti shoes. The most expensive shoes in the world. No true Afrikaner would wear those on a farm, even if he could afford them.

The president was a fake. His smile was fake. And his compliments were fake.

***

Jacob-Zuma-dancingGertruida says Hope was sent away after that – to Worcester, where they had a school for partially sighted children. There she eventually consulted a new eye surgeon, who corrected the defect in her eyes with the most modern equipment. At the age of 25, she finally was able to see properly; but she still looked at shoes whenever she met somebody, playing her shoe-game in her mind.

She says her vote will go to any candidate with scuffed, well-worn shoes; a hard-working, honest man whose shoes tell of commitment and trust. Of course, this isn’t going to happen in the near future, but she lives up to her name in quiet desperation. Until then, she prefers to look at the world like she did before: only a few metres in front of her feet. The view, she says, is much less disturbing.