Tag Archives: daily prompt

Letting go of Sixteen.

“When I turned sixteen, I received my call-up instructions for the army.” Vetfaan sips his beer, smiling at the memory. “Man, was I proud! I had barely started shaving and my country needed me already! I still had to finish school, though. Couldn’t wait to go.”

“Ja, I remember those days.The war had just started and the newspapers bombarded us with bad news. Terrorism this and unrest that. They really did a good job of deceiving an entire nation, especially later when the media painted such a rosy future in the 90’s. First they told us how bad majority rule would be, then they switched around completely and convinced everybody that our troubles were over.”

“Just goes to show, Gertruida, that public opinion is a fickle thing. Today’s heroes are tomorrow’s villains.” Shrugging as if to get rid of an unwanted weight off his shoulders, Servaas continues: “Whatever happened to common sense? Look at us today: some still believe everything will be fine.”

“But that’s the magic of being sixteen, Servaas. You’re old enough to start thinking for yourself, but far too young to understand. It’s a sort-of inbetween age when it’s still possible to believe in miracles. Kids have more hopes than fears while they can still dream reality away.” Gertruida closes her eyes to imagine that time of her life. “Oh, I dreamed big, didn’t I? The perfect picture: a handsome husband, a pair of kids, the Labrador and the white picket fence…the picture of utopia. I imagined what it would be like to be a pretty student with a wardrobe of sexy dresses – and how I’d pick and choose amongst a troupe of would-be suitors to go on exciting dates in the big city. Yes, and busses! Remember those old red doubledeckers? That was my fantasy. We had nothing like that in the small town I grew up in…”

“We all had dreams.” Servaas knits his brows together. “That’s what you do at sixteen. You dream, because you have no idea of reality. Up till then you were a child, cared for by parents.” He stops suddenly, remembering Boggel’s early years in the orphanage.”Except you, Boggel, of course. You had it much harder.”

“Oh, I dreamed a lot, as well. Remember Mary Mitchell? Oh, I adored that girl! She made me dream of much more than a Labrador.” He flashes a shy, wobbly smile at the group at the counter; knowing they had such thoughts too, when they were that age. Boggel remembers Mary’s sad eyes, the way she smiled…and the shapely legs peeking from under the school uniform (which was always a size too small). “But, despite everything that happened during the intervening years, I still remember those days as the happiest in my life.”

They fall silent at that. Yes, sixteen is a sweet, sweet age. How they all cherish the memory of the uncomplicated time when nothing was ever serious enough to keep you awake at night. Nothing, of course, except the first fluttering awareness of love? In the real world, adults struggled with politics, the economy and war – but at sixteen this didn’t concern them in the least. Those issues were just too abstract to worry about. But that strange attraction, the allure, of finding somebody to love? Now that was a goal worth pursuing! And then…oh, the bliss!…of being loved! To belong… Ah yes, at sixteen they all dreamed; they all believed that love would find its way and that they’d live happily ever after.

“But it didn’t happen, did it?” Servaas breaks the reverie, voicing the unsaid thoughts of the group in the bar. “I mean, Life happened, didn’t it? The dreams of sixteen turned into the nightmare of reality. We all loved…and lost. The war came to an end and it only changed things for the worse. And we still don’t understand politics…or the economy.”

“Ja, if I were to meet a genie, I’d ask that life stays the way we saw it at sixteen.” Vetfaan’s wry smile underlines the irony in his voice. He starts humming To Dream the Impossible Dream.

“No, thank you.” Gertruida shakes her head. “That would be stupid. At sixteen we didn’t have the tools to understand love or life. My gosh, even at twenty – no, thirty – people like to think they’re grown-ups! And we all know that’s not true.” She raises an inquiring eyebrow. “When do we make the most disastrous mistakes in life? Hey? Come on, think about it. It’s in the time we want it all – the dog, the picket fence and the perfect life.” She pauses to allow the idea to sink in. “Life is a funny old thing: when you think you have all the answers, you end up with broken dreams. No, my friends, Life demands more than dreams – that’s why we make less and less mistakes as we get older. It’s called experience. And you know what that is? Experience is the mistakes you made in the past. And that, unfortunately, means you have to let go of sixteen and reach for fifty.”

“And in the meantime? Between sixteen and fifty? What do you do with those years?”

“You grow up, Servaas. You make mistakes. You believe what the media tells you. You go about trusting people. You desperately cling to the concept of an ideal family. You try to convince yourself that your children won’t make the same mistakes you did. You invest money and effort in silly stuff that never works out. You try to keep the dream alive…and then, finally, you let go. You reach the point – at last – where you have enough experience of failure to start understanding what success means.”

“And what, dear Gertruida, is your definition of success?” The sarcasm drips from Servaas’ wrds.

“Oh, that’s simple, really. Success is acceptance. You are who you are. Life is unfair. Love is rare. Trust is mostly an illusion.And, above all, success is the ability to use your mistakes as hard-earned fertiliser to grow a meagre crop of happiness – not too much, but enough to be content.”

“Still, I’d like to be sixteen again.” Precilla sighs at the thought. “But only if I knew what I know now.”

“That,” Vetfaan says is a moment of clarity, “would take away the magic. No, you have to experience the naivety of sixteen to understand what life is not about…”

Sometimes Vetfaan surprises Gertruida with remarks like these. Even she, the wisest of them all, has no return on his statement. She ends the conversation with a decisive nod, gets up and walks to her home. The lines on her face is more pronounced as she sits down on her porch, enjoying the solitude of the midday silence. Yes, sixteen was good. It is a milestone on a long, long path to understanding that the candles on the cake must be blown out before one can embrace the darkness of reality.

Such a pity.

But, then again, that’s life

Places – Outside The World Outside

When the conversations in Boggel’s Place falls silent and the night pulls a blanket over the barren wastes outside, the patrons at the bar often reflect on The World Outside. Some memories are precious, others make them frown – still, The World Outside contains the places they’ve been to and the experiences they had. And that, after all, made them what they are: Outsiders of the World Outside.

windpomp

The World Outside starts at the last windpump you get just before Grootdrink. Beyond that, the reality of modern society is just too stark, too obvious, to ignore.

later randall 013The World Outside is  a crowded place, with people crammed into every nook and cranny. Even if the authorities tried to deny it by entertaining prisoners in jail, the cells are overcrowded.

IMG_4048Businesses have funny names and say nothing about who runs it. In Rolbos the owners are proud to display their names above the door. After all, Sammie’s Shop says it all, doesn’t it?

IMG_4169And the people erect the most amazing signs everywhere, with words and pictures for those who cannot read. In Rolbos it isn’t necessary. Vrede never ventures far from the cushion under the counter.

IMG_2506Worst of all, whenever you find a nice pub, you can’t smoke there!

IMG_2689Anyway, the hotels are far too fancy…and expensive!

IMG_2597No, the true Rolbosser will always find the way home, to The World Inside, where solitude and isolation ensures peace of mind. Forget the retreats and the spas and the costly weekends-away-from-it-all…in the Kalahari you don’t need such escapes to be yourself.

Three Shots: Waiting for Sunrise.

Daily PromptTake a subject you’re familiar with and imagine it as three photos in a sequence. Tackle the subject by describing those three shots.

Waiting for sunrise in Africa.

The old lion was tired. After a lifetime in the desert, it was time to move on.

b

He glanced around, appreciating – for the last time – the company of his loved ones.

c 4It’s getting lighter. A last drink, a last moment…

IMG_4029dAt last…release! Time to join the others in a magnificent display of light.

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.

 

Riding a Rhino

the day after 1_edited-1

“It is a great talent – a gift – to be like that,” Gertruida says. “A truly remarkable display of either statesmanship…or stupidity.”

“Nah, he stuck to the written script.” Kleinpiet draws a rhino on the counter top with his beer froth. “He didn’t dare acknowledge what had happened – that would have been political suicide. I mean: how could he answer the question? He can’t. No matter what he says, it’ll just drop him deeper into the doodoo. It’s like when the lawyer asks a man whether he still beats his wife. Either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ implies guilt.”

“It will have the usual consequences,” Servaas’s bored tone indicates his displeasure. “The ruling party will say it was a despicable display of childishness, a terrible contravention of parliamentary protocol, and an indication that Malema should be banned from attending future proceedings…”

“”Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Boggel interrupts the old man. “Can you imagine the chaos if that man should ever be in a more powerful position? I can just see him shaking hands with world leaders in that red overall.”

“…while the opposition parties will be unrepentant.” In true Zuma style, Servaas ignores the interjection. “They all speak so fat and say so lean.”

Rubens_Venus_at_a_Mirror_c1615“Those scenes were hugely entertaining, guys; best thing since sliced bread! But you raise the point that bothered me most.” Kleinpiet now draws a rather Rubenesque figure next to the rhine. “Man, our taxes are being used to good effect! Too good! Some of our esteemed leaders could hardly manage the stairway. It’s no wonder they get paid so well – can you imagine how much they have to spend on XXXXXL attire? It’s not like they’d fit into regulation clothing.”

“It’s a circus.” Even Precilla seems depressed. “Jamming cellphones, armed men in the parliamentary chamber, chaos all over. The banana republic shown to the world in the most embarrassing way. Whatever will Aunty Merkel or Madam Elizabeth think of us? I can honestly say I’m not proud of the way the president handled things. And then: that speech! Pffft! What did he say?”

“Nothing new. He’s still insisting on driving the country into even further problems. Land reform is no longer a question of willing seller and willing buyer. He blah-blahed about the energy crisis, omitting to tell the truth about his nuclear deal with the Russians. He admitted their inability to get the economy boosted and said ‘Cheers!’ twice. He takes his cues from Escom: it really takes a lot to keep the country in the dark like that.”

“You’re right, Servaas. But mark my words: we should remember this State of the Nation Address. It was a turning point in our history. They’re going to rewrite parliamentary rules, suppress robust debate and try to regulate conduct in the chamber. This won’t work, of course. Good manners, respect, work ethic and  statesmanship aren’t things you can teach people with a handbook of rules. Parliamentary culture is something you feel, an undeniable inner voice, permitting free speech but also allowing for a sense of decorum. And that, my friends, is not the way we’ll see things done until sanity returns to the hallowed halls of government.”

“And when will that happen, Gertruida?”

She sighs and signals for another beer. “Who knows? Maybe never. But yesterday’s fiasco was a start. We heard the last State of the Nation Address from Zuma – of that I’m sure. He’s become a Jonah on the ANC ship. They are just stalling, unsure of who will be chosen to give him that final shove. Then, they’ll replace him with Ramaphosa, who’s been doing the job for months now, anyway. And then, after the next election, we’ll hopefully have a more balanced parliament where one party doesn’t call all the shots. Maybe then…”

“That’s the future, Gertruida, and even you are uncertain about how things will unfold. At this moment we’re still stuck with the situation as it is.”

“Ever tried to ride a rhino, Servaas? You can only stay on top for so long…”

The Way to Rolbos

I’ll simply have to crook. 300 Words to describe Rolbos? That’s impossible. With a picture worth a thousand words, we’ll just have to go the scenic route…

The road there is a narrow gravel track, immediately telling you that you've left the city with all its pretence and false values behind.

The road there starts as a narrow gravel track, immediately telling you that you’ve left the city with all its pretence and false values behind. Please slow down. Drive with care…

The scenery around Rolbos is - according to some - dull and uninviting. Yet it is here that you'll discover the solitude to find yourself.

The scenery around Rolbos is – according to some – dull and uninviting. Yet it is here that you’ll discover the solitude to find yourself. The truth you seek isn’t found in lectures and books, TV shows and sermons – it is patiently waiting inside you to find it where it’s always been.

The big weaver nests suggest something of the values you'll find here. It's about cooperation, family life and accepting that each inhabitant has a role to play.

Along the way, the big weaver nests suggest something of the values you’ll find here. It’s about cooperation, family life and accepting that each inhabitant has a role to play. These birds work hard to take care of the nests – without having to resort to violence. Look at them carefully: they’re living in harmony, which is more than we can say.

Getting there isn't always easy. Often, people turn back because they are afraid of the challenge.

Getting there isn’t always easy. Often, people turn back because they are afraid of the challenge. Perseverance is the key. Instant gratification – the promise all politicians make – has no place here. Guts, determination and hard work are the key elements required to succeed.

The people around here are used to hardship and make do with what is available. Forget the mall and the large shopping centres, life here doesn't need bling to impress others.

The people around here are used to hardship and make do with what is available. Forget the mall and the large shopping centres.,Life here doesn’t need bling to impress others.

IMG_2772

At last! The small town of Rolbos on the horizon. To get here, you have had to shed pretence in favour of perseverance, exchanged the mad politics of the world for hope, and swapped the cynical smile for a peal of genuine laughter. The way ahead, you realise, is through faith, love and kindness. And somehow you know – with a new certainty – that this is what Rolbos is all about. Welcome! Don’t worry – you won’t find the place crowded. Not many people are brave enough to face the simplicity that is the essence of Rolbos culture.

Mister K’s Pet

Daily PromptTell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?

images (5)People often shy away from Gertruida because she gives the impression of knowing everything. Add to that her time in National Intelligence, and you end up with a lady with an incredible ability to store and recall facts, but there is something more: she seems to harbour an immense store of secrets – some of which may indeed contain information that should best be kept secret. In a way, that is why she chose to move to Rolbos – far from the maddening crowd and amongst the few friends she can trust.

But, no matter how others sum up this remarkable woman, even the Rolbossers have no idea why she turned out to be the way they know her. They weren’t there in Standard 8 (Grade 10, these days) when her mathematics teacher wanted to educate her beyond the approved curriculum of the day.

download (4)Gertruida wasn’t one of the beauties of the school. Most schools have the bevy of ‘in’ girls with rich parents, the branded clothing of the newest fashion and curves that make grown men slobber. Gertruida was a plain girl, slightly above the average in her class and with parents she viewed as losers. Her father worked on the railways and was away most of the time. Her mother had to work in the local OK Bazaars as a cashier to keep the household running. Of course Gertruida dreamt about a better life; a life of comfort, loving parents and…a handsome boyfriend others would be jealous of.

Mister Kromhout taught mathematics. He was a bachelor, a loner, a man with long, oily hair and a set of uneven, discoloured teeth. What his previous romantic life involved, is uncertain – but at the time the other girls gossiped that Mister K (as they called him) had never been, nor would he ever be, successful in that department.

Mister K had a secret. He’d be on the lookout for a struggling girl in his subject, offer extra classes, and then proceed to seduce her. These affairs never reached the public ear at all – secrecy was maintained by bribery. If the young girl threatened to expose him, she’d fail mathematics. With that, her chances of ever enrolling in a university would fade away and her future would be considerably darker and more difficult. So K was careful: he didn’t go for the slower kids – they’d never want to attend an institution of higher learning, anyway. And he’d avoid the clever girls with the rich parents – too risky. No, his aim was directed at the middle of  the class, where the average kid with the poor parents drew his attention. Devious, devilish – he went for the vulnerable girls.

Gertruida thought she had picked up a wrong vibe from the man when he suggested extra classes. Not sure, she asked her mother that night what she thought. The mom suggested Gertruida should discuss the matter with her dad, who was due to be back the next evening. And Gertruida sighed, knowing how her father would be after every stint away from home. He’d flop down in the dusty old easy chair, open a bottle of brandy and disappear into a depressed mood. He never seemed to care about what happened at home. The world, according to him, was a terrible place where the rich had all the privileges and poor buggers like him had to do the work. He once told Gertruida that he would have become a lawyer or maybe even a doctor, but that a lack of funds forced him into the railways, where he felt trapped for the rest of his life.

No, talking to him, wouldn’t help at all.

Mister K was careful. Over a period of weeks he softened Gertruida up by listening to her problems and making sympathetic sounds as the adolescent described her life. He crafted a ‘safe’ place for her to vent her frustration and share her dreams of a better future. For a while, Gertruida even thought how wrong the other kids were to laugh at him behind his back.

And then the day that Mister K waited for, arrived. Gertruida was most upset at her father’s drinking the previous night, when she had heard her parents engaging in one of their ongoing fights about money. Her mother had slapped her dad, who retaliated by flooring his wife with a vicious uppercut. Gertruida had stormed out of her room, hysterically trying to assault her father with a kitchen chair.

Mister K hugged the distraught girl, made her sit on his lap, and told her she was the most beautiful creature God had ever created, This, of course, was music to the young girl and she found herself relaxing against his broad chest. She felt so safe…

But only for a few seconds. Then she felt his hand creeping up her thigh. And then she knew…

She rushed home and collapsed on her bed. Her father found her there and, still ashamed of the previous night’s episode, made her tell him everything.

Four men visited Mister Kromhout that night – her father and three of his railway friends. Later, when the police arrived, they broke up the fight. Mister K, nursing a broken right wrist, several fractured ribs and speaking past the missing teeth, declined to press charges. He was discharged from hospital a week later and immediately requested a transfer to another school.

Gertruida never talks about this, but in her mind she thanks her lucky stars. Mister K had given her the most precious gift any teacher can convey to his students: the ability to consider the unobvious, the talent to discern truth and lies, and the will to become independent. Gertruida flew through the rest of her school years with ease because she started studying with new vigour. She realised that the only way she wouldn’t end up like her parents, would be to use the brilliant mind she had received at birth.

Her father, too, had changed that night they beat up Mister K. It was as if the realisation of Gertruida’s vulnerable future suddenly dawned on him. He stopped blaming the world for his position in life, got a job at the local farmer’s co-op and started studying accounting through the post. When Gertruida left for university, he had risen to the position of manager. Her mother responded to her husband’s new life with so much enthusiasm that she became a prominent motivational speaker.

And, because of the way Gertruida then viewed the motives and actions of other people. she slotted into National Intelligence with perfect ease. She had found her niche.

One may well ask how she views Mister K today? Being her teacher’s petting object had been the most degrading, the worst insult, she had ever lived through. But…she knows that such incidents happen to all people at some stage of their lives. Not that these events all involve a lecherous teacher and an innocent school girl – not at all. These episodes may involve a skipped promotion, an unfair round of gossip, a prejudiced remark or simply a blatant lie involving an individual’s integrity. In short – an unjust. if not wicked, uncalled for action leading to great hardship (and heartache) of the victim.

Gertruida often says it’s how we respond to hardship that make us grow. It’s a choice, she says, to use such times as  a step in the stairway to success and happiness. To conquer evil by stepping over it towards a brighter future isn’t easy, she maintains, but that is the only way. The alternative is the deep, dark pool of depression; a quagmire that traps growth for a long time…if not forever.

Yes, she remembers Mister K. Not fondly, mind you. But still with a degree of gratitude.

The Scent of Wet Kalahari Sand. (A conversation in Boggel’s Place)

IMG_1985 a“Intoxicating.” Servaas murmurs as he sniffs the air while suppressing the little shiver that threatens to crawl down his spine. Precilla has just walked past, neat a freshly shorn prize ewe in her tight fitting jeans and white T-shirt, and smelling like spring (Vetfaan’s thought).

Vetfaan glances around to make sure they’re alone before nodding. Yes, indeedy!

“That perfume should be sprayed all over the world. We’d have a global Woodstock with flowers and music….and love, of course.”

“But,” Boggel interjects, “it’s artificial, chaps. Fake. Phoney. Unnatural. Women – as well as men, for that matter – were never supposed to smell like that. We’re earthy creatures, reeking of sweat and dust. Now, don’t get me wrong? Precilla sure smells nice, but it comes out of a little, expensive bottle. She’s saying: sniff the air, boys, I’m woman with a capital W. But it remains the oldest trick in the book to advertise your femininity. It’s not real.”

His two comanions on the veranda stare at him in horror.

“Gee, Boggel! Had a bad dream last night? Any tick bites on your legs? You can be such a wet rag when you set your mind to it.”

The bent little barman blushes at the rebuke. “Slept like a rock, I’ll have you know.  But…I’m simply stating a fact. Why should a mixture of plant oils and alcohol make a woman seem more attractive? My point is this: perfume is all good and well, but the real allure of a lady should be her mind, not her scent.”

Of course he gets nods of complete agreement. No, they never implied that the feminine mind wasn’t important. Golly gosh! The outward appearance and the aroma surrounding a curvy figure only serve to attract the bees to the flower – but it is only a superficial allure. The real connection is a mental one, just like Boggel said. Especially if the said woman happened to wear a miniskirt and high heels. Then the mental attraction is irresistible.

Of course! 

Boggel goes pffffft! at this lie and goes out to get a fresh crate of beer.

***

“Another borehole dried up yesterday.” Vetfaan sits down heavily and snaps his fingers impatiently to order a beer. “I’ll have to start selling some sheep. I simply don’t have enough water for my flock.”

IMG_2751The  Kalahari is perhaps the healthiest place on earth to live. The bloody conflicts in the rest of the world are far away, crime is almost nonexistent, cellphone connections are patchy and – best of all – people still care about each other. There is a downside, however: the area is prone to regular droughts. Not droughts like in a few months without rain – real, championship droughts that last for years and years. And, even worse, when the rain comes, often only a few drops splatter down before the clouds evaporate before the unforgiving sun.

“Oudoom is planning a prayer service on Sunday.” Boggel pushes over the beer. “For rain,” he adds unnecessarily.

“I’ll be there,” Vetfaan’s determined frown doesn’t lessen when he downs the ale.

***

“Politicians,” Servaas remarks, “are just like women. They create an image, a promise, you’dd like to believe in, and then they leave you high and dry.”

“Clouds that don’t rain.” With his glass empty, Vetfaan signals for another. “People do that, too.”

“Yes, I remember how the prez promised jobs and houses and electricity in every home.” Servaas gathers his brows in an angry line above his eyes. “Now we have loadshedding every day and Number One says it’s Apartheid’s fault. Twenty-one years later he still blames the whites. I mean, the way he drove out Jan van Riebeeck’s spirit the other day was simply atrocious!”

“Ja, without old Jan, he’d still be herding cattle. Now he’s stuck with Nkandla…and the 700 cases of corruption he  used his position to disappear. That’s real progress.”

“Disappearing clouds, Kleinpiet. Our parliament should have a cloud in it’s coat of arms.”

Boggel knows his customers. Once they get into politics, it fouls up the atmosphere in the bar. He has to steer the conversation away from Jacob Zuma or else they’d all go home early.

“Girls, politicians…they all use perfume to attract. And, after all the aeons of time, generation after generation falls for it. One would have thought that evolution would have sorted out the gullible amongst us, but no! We sit back and allow the sweet scent of improbable promises lure us into disappointment.. When will we ever learn?”

Suddenly, a far-off rumble causes them all to sit up. Thunder?

Thunder!!

They rush outside to watch a dark cloud building up behind Bokkop. It’s a wonderful, black cloud with a white crown. The wind around it whips up huge masses of water to obscure the sun.

Gertruida stands alone, in awed silence, as she remembers the words of that great poet, Jan F Cilliers:

Soos ’n vlokkie skuim uit die sfere se ruim
kom ’n wolkie aangesweef,
maar hy groei in die blou tot ’n stapelbou
van marmer wat krul en leef –

(Like a fleck of foam from the heavens/ a small cloud comes a-drifting/ Growing in the sky to a stacking/ of marble that curls with life)

“I can smell it!” Vetfaan’s jubilant cry causes Oudoom to rush from his study to also stare at the sky.

“It’s the scent of Life,” he breathes as he folds his hands together.

“It’s the promise of survival,” Vetfaan sighs.

“The sweet smell of truth, ” Boggel whispers in awe.

Precilla emerges from her little pharmacy to join the small crowd in the street. This time, not a single head turns her way as the first drops fall heavily into the dust at their feet.

A Moment to Remember

415

“This tree,” Vetfaan says as he slides the photograph over the counter, “is special. It didn’t give up.”

Boggel studies the picture. He has seen it before – several times. When Vetfaan slips into one of his pensive moods, he sometimes produces the photo. It seems to give him strength to overcome his depression – a rare but not unknown occurrence

“It’s the one in Caprivi, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Grows there in the barren soil, amidst the rocks where everything else struggles to survive.”

“That’s where the ambush was.” Boggel doesn’t have to ask, he knows the story.

Vetfaan closes his eyes deliberately, as if he wants to kill the picture in his mind. He doesn’t succeed, of course. Not now.

Some moments in time get burned so deeply into the circuitry of the brain, they remain sharp and fresh for a lifetime. Nothing – not time nor age – will spontaneously fade those moments away to insignificant grey graphics; especially if the horror of those moments are nurtured by clinging to them. That’s the trick, of course: the ability to let go. It is necessary to replace the memory with the reality of the present. Unlike the yellowing photographs in an old album. these pictures retain colour, focus and even sound as long as they are allowed to torment by revisiting them. Even now, the crash of gunfire and exploding grenades reverberate in Vetfaan’s ears.

“Why did you take that picture, Vetfaan? Surely you need to forget those days,”

When Vetfaan opens his eyes, Boggel notices the incredible sadness in them.

“I went back, Boggel, many years later.” Boggel knows this, too, but like the good barman he is, he listens intently. “To see. To remember. To forget.” Vetfaan sighs heavily. “I wanted to see if the blood had washed away in the meantime. And you know? No matter how hard I tried not to see it, there was blood everywhere. Gunfire. Screams.

“So I took the photo. See that tree? The rocks didn’t stop it from growing. It gives me hope.”

Boggel slides another beer towards his friend. “It looks like the tree is lifting the rock up – breaking it in two.”

“It does, doesn’t it? And on the picture, there’s no sound, no blood. That only remains up here.” He taps his head with a calloused finger. “I so wish this picture can be there as well. Maybe if I looked at it long enough…?”

Boggel nods patiently. One day he’ll tell Vetfaan that memories can be like that rock. Slowly, gently, the mind will grow around the agony of the past, lifting it, breaking it. The blood and gore will wash away. And, in contrast to what the mind remembers, the real, true, picture will eventually break the chains anchoring Vetfaan to the yesterdays he so desperately needs to forget.

“It takes time, Vetfaan.”

“Yes, Boggel. I’ll get there. Just like that tree. One moment at a time.”

Fly Away (#7)

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

When the cars stop at the retirement village, Mister Blum is reading under the shady tree in the park. As a conservative follower of his faith, he has always been intrigued of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the father of the Chassidic movement. Living in the 1700’s, the Rabbi taught his followers to forgo their own needs for the sake of others. Blum runs an arthritic hand over his flowing white beard – yes, that is very noble. But what would business and economy be when nobody works for a profit?  On the other hand, it is quite true that he, Abe Blum, used to do a lot of pro bono work. Maybe the Rabbi was right when he said that we should dance to the melody issuing forth from every living thing in creation? He’s still contemplating this wisdom when he becomes aware of Gertruida standing next to him.

“Um…Mister Blum?”

He looks up in surprise, his frown changing to a welcoming grin when he recognises the lady who’d visited him recently.

“Oh…Miss Gertruida? How nice of you to come and say hello…”

“Actually, this visit is not about me, Mister Blum. It’s your daughter, Annatjie, who wants to see you.”

The smile disappears. Deep furrows develop between his brows. His lips form a straight, thin line.

“Annatjie? Here? To see me?….Why?”

Gertruida has peeked over his shoulder at the piece he’s been reading. “Don’t be deaf, Mister Blum. You can hear the melody, now it’s time to dance…”

***

If Mister Blum is apprehensive, it is true to say Annatjie is absolutely petrified. Literally. She stands as a frozen statue while her eyes follow Gertruida to the old man on the bench. Is this…Papa? This old man?  The picture in her mind has always been of this strong, invincible man…and now he’s turned into a diminutive, shrivelled octogenarian?  Is it possible? Clutching the box of letters to her chest, she feels a wave of…what?…sympathy? empathy?…wash over the beach of of her isolation. As if by magic, the years roll back as memories – so long denied – bubble to the surface once more.

Yes! It is Papa! How could she forget those eyes, the way his kippah always seems so skew on his big head? Time disappears and suddenly she is a young girl again. A young girl, wanting to be comforted by her daddy. Her feet take over. Her arms, too. The next thing the Rolbossers see, is how she forms a small bundle on the surprised old man’s lap. His arms, too, move without waiting for the command from above. They wrap themselves around the shaking shoulders of his little girl…

“He’s dead, Papa,” she sobs. “He died….”

***

Nurse Lucy Kruiper brings out a tray with a large teapot and homemade cookies.

“Nap time, Mister Blum. But if you promise to be good, you can stay out just a little bit longer.” She bends over to resettle the kippah properly on his head, then whispers: “If I didn’t know it’s your daughter, I’d have been jealous!”

Mister Blum reaches out to pat the pretty nurse’s trim bottom. She responds with mock surprise, (she expected him to do it, like he always does) placing a theatrical hand over the perfect ‘O’ her lips make. Jutting a seemingly indignant nose in the air, she marches off to the buildings to the gentle laughter of the rest.

Father and daughter find it hard to talk at first. The years apart have created a gulf of unfamiliarity between them, making it difficult to pick up the broken lines. Yet, with gentle prodding from Gertruida and the rest, the two manage to fill in some of the gaps of the intervening years. By the time a stern-faced Lucy comes to tell them – for the fourth time – that it really, really is time for Mister Blum to turn in, they say reluctant goodbyes and leave with the promise to return soon.

At the gate, Lucy tells Gertruida that it may be possible for Annatjie to find accommodation there. “We’re adding a new wing to the single’s quarters, Miss Gertruida. Maybe…”

***

images (3)Gertruida says not all stories have happy endings. That’s as true in life as it is in fiction. One of the little cogs that turn the Wheel of Life can get broken – or just lose one it’s tiny teeth or simply wear out a fragile miniture axle. It takes a miracle – she maintains – to go through life with the wheels and gears spinning precisely right to produce an eternal happy smile. It simply doesn’t happen. The wrinkles of older people, according to her, are produced by these very little wheels spinning at the wrong speed – or not at all.

But sometimes – miraculously so – the cog gets nudged on a notch and suddenly the engine of Life starts running smoothly again. This, in a nutshell, happened to Annatjie the moment she threw herself into her Papa’s lap. That, Gertruida will tell you, is the power of Love. Nothing on earth is as powerful a cog-nudger as the affection of a loved one. Like Paul said: it overcomes everything.

Back in Rolbos – Precilla insisted that Annatjie stayed with them until her room is ready at the retirement village – Gertruida watches the trembling hands of Annatjie turning the sealed envelope over and over.

“Are you going to open it?” She has to know…

Annatjie blinks away a tear.

“No, Gertruida. After all these years I don’t need to read what he wrote. He’ll tell me he loves me and that he’s fighting bravely to defend our country. He’ll say something about the heat and the hardships, but not enough to make me worry. And he’ll tell me he can’t wait to come home.” Ever so carefully, she slips the envelope back into the box. “It’s not about the letter, Gertruida. It’s about what I remember. That’s what I want to keep alive.”

She’s still so frail, so vulnerable, Gertruida thinks. Poor woman.

“I have to let go, I suppose. Let bygones be bygones. Move on. Live a little again.” Annatjie almost succeeds to smile. “After all, Hennie gave his life so I may have mine. I owe him that.”

Gertruida swallows away the lump in her throat. If Annatjie wants to move on (as she put it), then she must find closure on who and what Hendrik was.  She sighs. She hates lying…

“You know, Annatjie, I made enquiries about Hendrik Meintjies. Oh, such glowing reports! Such praise! He was a true patriot and such a brave soldier. You can really be proud of him…”

And so, while the sun sets in a blaze of orange, purple and red, the group in the bar falls silent. Hendrik Meintjies may have done the wrong thing for the right reason. Gertruida did too, when she lied to Annatjie. But as in war, so in love: there are nor rules. Tonight, when sleep slips into the homes of the tiny settlement of Rolbos, Gertruida will pray about her sin. And then, perhaps in her last wakeful moment or maybe in a dream, she’ll see a vision of a young soldier. Standing to rigid attention and dressed in his step-out uniform, he’ll salute her smartly before marching off.

The End

PS

Why did Hendrik Meintjies defect? Or more precisely: did he?

The question gnawed at Getruida’s mind for a full three months  before Colonel Gericke’s letter arrived in Rolbos. A part is reproduced here as he wrote it, but some names have been omitted for obvious reasons.

I have made further enquiries. You know how the intelligence world works! Remember Luis Gattorno? My opposite number in those years? Well, we’ve become sort-of pen palls after 1994 (easier these days with e-mails and such) and have taken to swap experiences. He’s actually writing a book on the Cuban involvement in Angola. He supplied a surprising piece of the jigsaw…

Lance corporal Meintjies – much against his wishes – was assigned to the high-security section where they kept the caught terrorists prisoner. Apparently a captain – his name is known to me – was rather creative in his methods to make these prisoners reveal certain facts. Without going into detail, I can tell you that – according to several classified reports – our troops were forced to participate in these interrogations. Hence, as you can imagine, the level of post-traumatic stress observed in troops from this particular base. 

One can only imagine why Meintjies did what he did. In retrospect, he may well have done the honourable thing. According to Gattorno, the Cubans found a manuscript amongst the wreckage. Although they never shared the exact contents with us (naturally!) it apparently contained a detailed plan for an armistice, pleading for a political solution to the conflict.

And then, Gertruida, I got the shock of my life. The passengers in the plane were not members of his patrol or anything like that. Meintjies, it seems, was part of a secret delegation dispatched by moderate ministers in parliament. That’s why the flight was ‘unscheduled’. Well, the infighting between the politicians and the generals – which so characterised the Border War – resulted in them spying on each other. Thee one hand  never quite knew what the other was doing.

On board that plane was a senior diplomat and a junior minister. Gattorno thinks Meintjies was selected to go along because he was trustworthy and known for his aversion towards the war. They needed somebody with navigation and survival skills on the trip and he fitted the bill precisely. It is probable that the presence of a soldier in the delegation would have strengthened the case they wanted to present in Luanda, as well. Or maybe he was just the wrong person in the wrong place at the time – you know how the army worked! I guess we’ll never know..

Gattorno confirmed the shooting down of the Cessna by a Mirage. He maintains that it wasn’t done because they ‘defected’, but because the generals wouldn’t allow the politicians to reach Luanda. Or that the commanding officer on the day had no knowledge of the plan. Once again, we can only speculate.

It would take another twelve years before sanity finally prevailed and the ‘rogue’ delegation had talks with the ANC in Dakar. But that story you know well, having been there yourself

 The fact that the ‘accident’ was never made public, the colonel writes, was due to the paranoia of the time. Telling the world that South Africa was seeking peace and that there was dissent in the government, was unthinkable. It was better, they decided, to bury the incident..

They almost managed to do so…

Old Mister Blum would have been encouraged if he knew this history. Hendrik Meintjies, staunch Afrikaner, may very well have been the best example of a chassidic personality he’d ever met.

And Annatjie? Oh, she’s okay, I suppose. She’s the Bingo champion at the retirement village. On her good days, she wanders through the garden without her precious box of letters.