Tag Archives: birthday

The Birthday

ImageThe 12th of March. Ben Bitterwater tears the page from the calendar behind the bathroom door. Crunches it into a little ball and chucks it into the toilet. That, he feels, is where the day belongs.  Birthdays always make him feel sick. He gets to add another year to a miserable life, that’s all. Then he looks at the face in the mirror, combs the sparse hair into place and runs a calloused hand over the stubble. Oh well, he’ll shave tomorrow.

His farm, on the other side of Bitterbrak, is where the world ends. Even he isn’t sure exactly where his farm ends and the endless expanse of the Kalahari starts. In reality, the two aren’t distinguishable – they both form part of the arid sands that eventually become the Namib. As such, it really doesn’t matter where his farm ends. You cannot really lay claim  to anything here. Today you may own a dune – tomorrow it’s moved somewhere else.

Whichever way you look at it – beyond Bitterwater, there’s nothing. The world ends here.

Ben often wonders why he still tries to be civilised. Why he takes note of the date every day. Even why he washes his clothes. Or makes his bed. With not a soul within miles and miles, there isn’t any reason why he should care how he looks, or how his house appears to others. Yet he’ll make sure the dishes are done, the floor is swept and the fine layer of dust is removed before he leaves the home every morning.  Why? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe it’s his way of clinging to sanity.

He walks out to the backyard where the few chickens peck away at the dust all day. They only stay here because he puts out the plastic bowl with water here – otherwise they would have been gone. Or dead. It doesn’t really matter which. He scatters a few hands full of mealies in their direction and they run to peck up the food.

“Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday dear Be-e-en, happy birthday to me.”  If the chickens though he sang well, they don’t show it. “Too busy eating to care, you sods.”

At that moment the sound of an approaching vehicle has a greater influence on the chickens than Ben’s singing had. They stop pecking, stare at the farm road, and scatter when the old Land Rover drives through the cattle gate. Maybe they realise that, despite Gertruida’s vast knowledge of everything, she is a mediocre-to-bad driver.

They greet. He invites her in for a cool drink.  Custom dictates that – first the act of hospitality, then the reason for the visit. He waits.

“It’s about Godfrey’s widow, Ben.” She sees the sudden intake of breath; the momentary flash of pain in the eyes. “She wants to see you.”

Ben never talks about that hunting trip. Two young men; twenty years ago. The Kalahari offered good hunting, if you knew where the waterholes were and where the grazing was sufficient. Take enough food and drinkable water, a tent and a good rifle – and you’re set for an adventurous week in the wilds. You never know what you’ll find; an oryx, a lion, a majestic kudu?

Only on that trip – on their very first day – they never even pitched a tent. Godfrey was driving when they got stuck in the deep, loose sand of the Kalahari. They laughed about it at first, got out the shovel and started digging out the wheels. When the sun set, they realised there was no way they’d get their vehicle unstuck on their own. They needed somebody to tow them out – or winch them out – if they wanted to continue. Still, they had plenty of supplies, spent the evening in high spirits, and decided to walk the thirty-odd kilometers to the nearest farmhouse the next day. They were young and fit: it’d be a walk in the park.

They would have made it easily, if they had a fair chance. Only they didn’t. The puff adder got Godfrey after ten kilometers.

Puff adders are real bastards. They have a tissue-destroying venom, which is bad enough. But sometimes a very significant portion of the poison attacks the heart. This seems to be the case where a lot of venom gets injected into (or near) a blood vessel. Or maybe Godfrey had a heart condition nobody knew about? We’ll never know.

Ben realised the danger, and told his friend to lie down in the shade. There was no way he’d make it with twenty km’s to go; the poison would just spread faster. So Ben ran like he never did before. He ran in the midday sun until he felt he could run no more. He churned up the loose sand, fought the fatigue and thirst and told himself he’d make it in time.

The farmer immediately got his pickup out and they raced back. Ben was overjoyed that the man had some antivenin in his fridge. Things were going to work out. Inject Ben, drag the vehicle out, go on hunting. 1,2,3…

How wrong he was…

“What does she want?” Gertruida thinks she detects a note of…fear?

Ben had to tell her the whole story when he got back from that trip. A second-by-second report on the death of her young husband. About his failure to save his best friend. About the helpless feeling when he realised it was all over. She chased him out, after that. Told him to go as far away from her as possible and that she’d never, ever, want to see him again. She said other things as well, ugly things, things he still hears ringing in his head. Things that made him move to the end of the world. And now she wants to see him.

“You’ll have to ask her yourself,” Gertruida says. Then she walks back to the Land Rover to open the back door. Only then does Ben realise that there is a passenger on board. Not any old passenger, either. Betty, the woman Godfrey had married four weeks before their trip. Betty, whose husband is dead because he couldn’t save him.

They say the wheels of fate turn slowly. Little gears fitting into each other, turning and turning along to make the big machine we call Life, tick. They also say that our actions and words stay stored somewhere inside our brains until we die. If you think deep enough, you can remember the first ice-cream you ever tasted. Or feel the texture of the first lips you kissed. It’s all up there, filed away. Only the stuff you work with every day gets stored in the top layers, the rest gets put in the basement.

Betty, it seems, couldn’t forget what she said to Ben that day. Those words needed to be demoted to a deeper level, at last. She had married again, had two strapping young boys and was happy in a superficial kind of way. Godfrey was dead, there was nothing she could do about it. But Ben…the situation with Ben… if she wanted to be happy, she has to fix that.

Sometimes people (like Ta’ Hybie and Ta’ Siena) say that Gertruida is a real nosey-parker. Only the other day in Boggel’s Place, Hybie said that Gertruida is the most inquisitive person she ever knew. Quite the opposite to that Ben Bitterwater out there at the edge of the desert. But then, she asked, what would you expect of somebody who murdered his best friend; that Godfrey chap that was barely married before they buried him?  If Ta’ Hybie had her glasses on that day, she would have seen Gertruida listening in the doorway.

Ben still stays at the end of the world. He says he is at peace there. But he does come into town occasionally these days; and he’d always have tea with Gertruida on her stoep. Ta’ Hybie says she is sure Gertruida will tell them all about that murder one day – if you give her half a chance, Gertruida’ll figure it out. And then Sersant Dreyer will arrest that murderer and they’ll all line up for the interview with Die Huisgenoot.  Ta’ Siena believes every word. She has already written out her statement she’d give the reporters. It starts with: Ever since first I lay my eyes on that man, I knew he was guilty

But, as always, Gertruida has the last word. She says Life is a spider’s web of events – they are all related to one another in some way or other. And that she never realised her niece, Betty, was married to the Godfrey who used to be Ben’s best friend. She says that shows you: you can never say, you know everything

Boggel’s Birthday

If Gertruida didn’t know everything, it might have turned out differently. But she does, and so Rolbos will have to make peace with the new trophy above Boggels counter. Of course, if Boggel fixed the light on his stoep, it would have helped as well.

It started when Precilla decided to make a birthday list. Rolbossers, she realised, kept their birthdays secret. When she asked Gertruida about it, she got the explanation that some were sensitive about their age (Vetfaan and Oudoom), some were so stingy that they didn’t want to spend money on a party (Kleinpiet) and that some simply didn’t know when they were born (Platnees).  Precilla has always been a bit of a party animal and saw this void in their social calendar as an opportunity to reintroduce birthdays as additional reasons to liven up the town.

Of course, once a birth date is known and the party is organised, one is obliged to give a present in exchange for an evening’s free drinks. For some inhabitants it was easy: Oudoom got a bottle of brandy, Vetfaan got a bottle of brandy, and Kleinpiet got a bottle of brandy and so forth. The only exception was Gertruida’s big day, when everybody clubbed together to buy a year’s subscription to the National Geographic.

Then it was Boggel’s turn.

“What do you give a guy that has a bottle store or a bar? It’ll seem a bit stupid to give him some booze, won’t it?” As chief organiser of the Rolbos Birthday Society, Precilla wanted to make sure that birthdays remained special for everybody concerned.

That’s where things went wrong.

Vetfaan suggested a new cushion, something that surprised Precilla. She never thought that Vetfaan was so sensitive. Kleinpiet didn’t agree. “It’s too obvious. We have to surprise the man. It’s his bar, remember? If we can think of something really special, we can drink the place dry. He won’t throw us out at eleven if we think of something that’ll blow his hair back.’

“What hair?” Sersant Dreyer, always one to pay attention to detail, asked.

“It’s a metaphor, moron. Like in a proverbial sense, see. I could have said “something that turns his propeller ” and meant the same thing.”

“What propeller?” You can say many things about the policeman, but you cannot accuse him of ignorance.

“Ag, man, sometimes I think you’re ignorant.” Kleinpiet was getting frustrated. “I mean we have to do something special, that’s all. What does Boggel need to spice up his life a bit? We have to think outside the box a bit here.”

“What box?” Sersant Dreyer was starting to sound like a well-trained parrot. The rest ignored him.

 It was Gertruida who suggested they get a blow-up doll and dress her up, set her at the bar and tell Boggel it’s a reminder from them to encourage a return visit to the Vermeulen girl in Cape Town. The one with the hump and the smile.

“If she sits there all day without saying a word, he’ll keep on thinking about all the things they told each other. It’s the power of suggestion, see? Monkey see, monkey do…”

“What monkey?” Sersant Dreyer always thought he knew everything about Rolbos, but suddenly they’re talking about animals and aeroplanes he knew nothing about.

“There was an advert in Die Huisgenoot,” Precilla suddenly remembered. “Right below that article about Prez Zuma’s newest bride. I was reading about the cow they dismantled right there on the front lawn, when my eye caught the heading: Are you lonely? Do you stay in a remote area with nobody to share your desires with? Well, it seemed more interesting than the description of the blood all over the rose bushes, so I skipped the lobola bit and read the advert. It said the doll is easy to inflate and they’ll send it in plain brown paper wrapping without disclosing the contents”

 The packet arrived the day before Boggel’s birthday. Servaas brought it over to Precilla’s pharmacy in case Oudoom accidentally discovered it in the post office. As an elder in the church he felt that a certain amount of discretion had to be maintained under these circumstances. Gertruida told her to keep it wrapped up like it is and that they could stick the birthday card over the address label. Boggel, she said, would be thrilled.

 Boggel eyed the bulky package, rubbing his hands together. He hadn’t received a birthday present since that time in the orphanage – maybe they got him a new cushion? His smile just about reached his low-set ears.

“Wait!” Gertruida had an idea. “We’ll take it outside, prepare it properly and return with it. You’ll have the surprise of your life.” She was right, for the wrong reason. Everybody trooped out to the stoep. In the semi-dark Vetfaan looked for and found the valve. He huffed, puffed and wheezed until the life-size doll took shape. Precilla dashed off to find one of her old mini skirts, Kleinpiet found a T-shirt (so we can wet it later) and Gertruida fished some lipstick from her handbag.

The Great March from Aida remains one of the most awesome moments in opera. When the priests and slaves, the soldiers and animals stride onto the stage, the audience is usually silent for a while before the music is drowned by the applause. When the Rolbossers walked back into Boggels place, triumphantly carrying the doll to the counter, the effect was almost the same. Almost. There was a stunned silence from Boggel, to be sure. The applause, however, was lacking.

 Sersant Dreyer, ever observant and refusing to be part of the project (I have a career to think of, guys!) was sitting at the bar, chatting with Boggel about the Springboks and their quest for world glory.  He had the best view of the entering procession while Boggel was removing his old cushion below the counter. As the group opened the swing doors carrying their trophy, feet first, on their shoulders and giggling like a bunch of naughty kids, his jaw dropped with an almost audible ‘clunk’ on the badge on his chest.

Of all the things these crazy people could come up with, he thought, this one must rate in a class of his own. He indeed saw the sandals on the dolls feet. He also saw the skirt. He saw the athletic plastic legs. But, as a keen observer and gatherer of evidence, his trained eye also saw the rest.

Policemen are trained to put two and two together in a flash. He did, and yet he couldn’t come up with a logical answer. It was only when they put the doll down hat he found his voice.

“Oh, look, Boggel! They brought you company. Now you’ll never be alone again. They brought you a brother.” Satisfied that logic triumphed over confusion, he sipped his beer. “He may be a cross-dresser, but with the new gender-equality laws, we don’t lock up those guys anymore.”

 If you ever get to Rolbos, stop at Boggel’s Place. The beer is cold and the welcome warm. Buy a beer, chat with the locals. You may even wink at Kleinpiet or Precilla (depending on your preference). But whatever you do, do NOT ask questions about the brown paper packet on the shelf. The silence of Aida’s Great March still lingers on patiently and it’ll be unkind to disturb the peace in the quiet little town. Sersant Dreyer likes the place just the way it is..