Fiona Basson sits slumped in the passenger seat as Fanny negotiates the track leading to Rolbos, her face buried in her hands. Before 1994 the road had been maintained in a relatively good condition, but now the ruts and potholes combine to force vehicles to slow down an impatient crawl.
“So much has changed,” Fanny tries to keep the conversation going. “much like this road.” She wants to add: and your life, but doesn’t. “The country has slipped into a spiral of crime and corruption and the government is losing the plot. But, I suppose, life goes on, doesn’t it?”
Mrs Basson doesn’t respond.
Vrede is one of those dogs.
He doesn’t bark.
He doesn’t snarl.
It’s been his life, you see? Before he ended up in Rolbos, he was an important link in the fight against drugs and crime. That’s before he realised how crooked the system was. Now, although he retains the skills, he abhors the system. Sure, he loves the life in Rolbos – it’s so simple, straightforward, uncomplicated. But an old dog doesn’t unlearn old habits…nor the lessons learnt in the past.
When Fanny gets out of the vehicle to jog around to open the passenger door, Vrede looks up, ears vertical, nose sniffing the scent of fear and uncertainty. This is the most common human scent. In fact, it is the first thing his nose recognised when he was still a puppy. Humans, he eventually understood, were habitually under stress. Rejection, mostly. Humans feared rejection.
Vrede doesn’t understand this. Whenever he meets other dogs, they sniff, prance and parade about a bit – just to get to know each other a little better. If you don’t like the new face, you raise a few neck hairs, strutt with stiff legs and lift an upper lip. The alternative is to start biting away, which is bound to be painful and rather unnecessary. Most dogs, Vrede will tell you, prefer to avoid painful confrontations – is so stupid.
But when Fiona Basson alights from the vehicle, Vrede knows. The heavy sense of despair wafts around the woman like a dense cloud, carrying the message of hopeless depression. She is, Vrede realises, lost in a dark, lonely world where joy and beauty died a long time ago.
He wags his tail to tell her not to worry, he’s just the town-dog; the friendly protector of the weak. He likes to think of himself as the people’s keeper; the faithful one; the wet nose with the caring eyes.
“Arf,” he says softly in what he assumes is a friendly manner.
Fiona Basson – already a picture of hesitant uncertainty – freezes next to Fanny’s car, staring at the dog.
“Arf, arf,” he tries again before lowering his body to the ground. Then, in a move his trainers would have been proud of, he leopard-crawls towards her. He wants her to know he’s her best friend – in her whole, wide, empty world. Look, he’s saying, I’m not judging you. Im not here to criticize or reject you. I’m just me, Vrede, and I’ve been given a really apt name by the kind folks of the town. Oh, by the way, you didn’t happen to bring along a bit of biltong, did you?
The townsfolk watch in amazement as Fiona bends down to pat the panting head. Is that a smile hovering on her lips? A smile?
Gertruida – because she knows everything – motions the group back to the bar with a commanding whisper.
“Leave her with Vrede for a while. Lets go inside and wait. Oh, and Kleinpiet? Go get her a chair – she’ll be much more comfortable, then. Precilla: where’s that nice straw hat with the broad brim? Won’t you fetch it for her?”
Wait…there’s something else – something subtle, hidden below the fear and the loneliness. Sniff. Sniff-sniff. Yes, it’s there, all too clear to ignore. Guilt. Tons and tons of guilt in her scent. I wonder why?
Fiona accepts the hat and the chair without acknowledging them. Gertruida wonders whether she even noticed it.
Arf? What is it with this woman? I’m not used to this smell any more. Way back then…yes, it was common. But here in Rolbos I’ve almost forgotten what guilt smells like. Except on Sundays, of course. When Oudoom puts on the strange black coat and starts talking from the platform in front of the church, I always detect a bit of guilt…even self-pity. It isn’t overwhelming, though: mostly I smell hangovers and boredom.
Hey, please don’t tell Oudoom this, will you? Whenever he feels unwanted, he smells of frustration. I don’t like that.
Fiona reaches out to scratch a spot behind Vrede’s left ear. The dog smiles up at her and thumps his tail on the ground, raising a small cloud of dust.
There. No, a little more towards the back. Yup, right there. Arf. Thank you, Sad Lady. That feels good. I wonder if you’d mind if I licked your hand? Just to show I like this? Some people don’t like licks. Mevrou scolds me when I try, but she’s just being herself, I suppose. She thinks I’m dirty or something. Gertruida once told her it’s my way of kissing, but Mevrou had such a creepy shudder and said she’d never allow even Oudoom to do something like that.
Hey, she likes it. Lick-lick. Lick-lick-lick…
“Oh no! He’s licking her hand. Argh! Slobbering all over her. Ugh! And now he’s going for her cheek!” Mevrou digs out a handkerchief from beneath her blouse to wipe her face. “Somebody! Go help that woman. Vrede’s going to give her some disease!”
Gertruida puts a reassuring hand on Mevrou’s shoulder.
“Not to worry, Mevrou. Fanny did a very clever thing to bring Fiona here. Look at her with Vrede: the two of them are getting along quite nicely, don’t you think? Vrede’s doing what people couldn’t – he’s making her reach out to something on the other side of her isolation. She’s just unlocked a closed door – and maybe it isn’t wide open yet, but it’s a start.”
“Well, you guys can’t just sit here and spy on the poor woman. Let’s have something to drink, then we’ll figure out how to help Fiona break down a few walls.” Boggel places the small glasses on the counter. Then, after pouring generous helpings in each, her shuffles back to the store room. There’s a nice piece of biltong back there – one with a thick layer of fat on the side. He knows he shouldn’t spoil Vrede like this, but today that dog certainly deserves a treat.
From: Tosca, by Puccini.
I lived for my art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Always with true faith
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?