Oudoom looks on with an unusual degree of grave concern at the activity around the lorry from Kalahari Vervoer in front of Boggel’s Place. They’ve already downloaded fourteen cases of beer and are still carrying cases of brandy, Coke and even vodka into the storeroom at the back. It is obvious that Boggel expected a considerable crowd for New Year’s and that means Rolbos will have one huge party to see the New Year in.
The problem is that Oudoom has post-Christmas blues. Not only did the Nativity play end up with him, the Shepherd of the Flock, waking up in a barn (and the cow at the church), but he also completely forgot to take up an offering during the Christmas service.
Sure, the mere fact that he actually conducted a service may be viewed as a modern-day miracle in itself, but the Christmas offering is important. Every year the money collected on Christmas day gets donated to the little orphanage in Grootdrink – a NGO-run home for homeless AIDS children. Without the support of such donations, the facility cannot survive. And he, Oudoom, the Heavenly Ambassador of Grace and Goodwill, neglected to announce the offering on Christmas day. The people of Rolbos must have giggled in their proverbial sleeves as they walked out – they now had extra money in their pockets.
Worse: it doesn’t take particular prophetic ability to predict how they are going to spend New Year’s Eve; the offloading of the lorry makes guessing unnecessary. And this, while he was hoping to announce the first midnight service in the history of Rolbos! Taking up an offering then seemed the way to salvage the loss of income on Christmas day…
Boggel on the other hand, is ecstatic. He has promised Rolbos, Grootdrink and the district a bash they’ll never forget. The Desert Rats are going to provide music like only they can; which will result in lots of very energetic dancing – which will ensure a thirsty crowd.
Now, you have to know The Desert Rats to understand about the music. Actually, they are the Vermaaks, a small family-colony that ‘farms’ way out in the Kalahari. Farming is their word for stoking a vile and potent brand of peach brandy from the little orchard their grand-grandfather established around one of those mysterious waterholes one finds in the desert. This activity is, for most of the year, not very labour intensive and allows for many hours waiting for the peach trees to blossom and grow the fruit that made the family famous. Gertruida says the story that these peaches are responsible for the many babies born in the colony, is nonsense. It is a simple fact (according to her) that the family has nothing else to do for extended periods of time. She says that, when they’re not making babies (women get fed up too, you know?) the men play their various musical instruments. Pa Vermaak has mastered the saw, which he strokes with a bow fashioned from an old copper pipe. This creates an eerie, hollow sound reminiscent of the howling of an injured jackal. The brothers add a drum (old paint tin), a trumpet made from a disused spout from the still, a flute fashioned from a broken smoking pipe and a mouth organ played by the clever son that made it through primary school. Given enough of their brew, they get into a surprisingly hypnotic rhythm that encourages what they call ‘circle-dancing’. Men and women will fall into a line, form a circle, and stamp their feet in tempo with the screeching, drumming, whistling and clapping. Gertruida says that the family got the idea from Bushman trance-dancing – and in all probability, she is right (as usual).
The Desert Rats rarely perform to the public. To get them to play at Boggel’s Place is as exceptional as a South African politician admitting to corruption.
The 31st of December in Rolbos started with a bang. A real one. The Vermaak tractor with its trailer full of family laboured into town, approached Boggel’s – and promptly blew a gasket. Black smoke and steam spewed from the sawn-off exhaust (Frikkie Vermaak made a type of didgeridoo with it) and the long-suffering John Deere died next to the rusted sign proclaiming the existence of Voortrekker Weg. Platnees immediately realised that this meant an extended stay of the Vermaaks, went home and made sure all the doors were locked. Oudoom retired to his study to read up on what St John said about the End of Days.
But now it is mid-afternoon and Boggel’s guests arrive from far and wide. Dusty men and women get out of over-heated bakkies to file into Boggel’s Place. On the wide veranda Boggel employed the Platnees family to serve the almost-dehydrated newcomers with a Vermaak Special – made from the last, overripe fruits of that memorable good year of 2005. Something strange happened that season: it actually rained. The peach brandy from that season has a strangely pleasant, sweet taste, lingering just long enough on the taste buds to want to taste it again. Like the Vermaak music, it has a subliminal way of worming its way into your mind until you actually convince yourself that you really, really like it.
The evening’s entertainment started of with a Rolf Harris Tie me Kangaroo down, sport sound-alike. (Read: sound-alike to Vermaak ears.) Frikkie did the didgeridoo part of course, while Papa Vermaak wobbled a piece of sheet metal to make the whoopity-whoop sounds. While the tune was almost recognisable, the family substituted ‘kangaroo’ for ‘springbokkie’; much to the delight of Kleinpiet, who never could never understand the song before. He had always assumed kangaroo was another word for mother-in-law. What he thought about platypus duck, Bill, is not known.
Warming up to the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place, the Vermaaks start with their favourite medley of old Afrikaner songs, stitching Sarie Marais, Een aand op die trein na Pretoria, and Beautiful in Beaufort West together with peeps, hoots, the false harmonica and plenty of drumming. Frikkie gives random accompaniment with the John Deere exhaust, sometimes confusing the rhythm to such an extent that Mamma Vermaak’s screeching singing has to start the verse over again. The crowd (at this early stage) shows that they are seasoned lovers of all things musical and applauds with gusto.
By this time Oudoom has given up on the thought of a midnight service and, as the keeper of the town’s morals, decides to join in the festivities. During his many years’ worth of Rolbos-experience, he had come to realise that it is useless to piece together scandals after they had happened. The only way to deal with the resulting gossip of such events, is to have first-hand knowledge of what really happened. He therefore saw it as his responsibility – nay, his duty – to put Revelations aside and go and observe what the congregation is up to. When he walks into Boggel’s, the Vermaaks are busy with their own composition of Wat soek jou vinger in my p-o-e-e-e-ding bak. He hardly notices the glass Platnees thrusts in his hand; but because it is so warm and the words were so suggestive, he swallows the contents without thinking. When, five minutes later, he gets his breath back the Desert Rats are busy with Jy is my matras (en ek is so bly…). As he turns to leave this modern-day version of Sodom, Platnees hands him a fresh glass of Special. Still upset and still not thinking straight, he finishes that as well.
Gertruida says Frikkie was bitten by a puff adder once. The Vermaaks have only one cure for colds, flu, malaria and snake-bite: a glass of Pappa’s Special. Frikkie recovered of course; the snake was found dead the next day.
It is no wonder then, that Oudoom then marches up to the Rats and asks them to play something more religious. They comply – and fall in with a slow and pious version of Ver in die Ou Kalahari, daar soen die boere so….
After this, the party really catches on. In Rolbos it is important to have Oudoom’s blessing; and now, with him dancing along, there is no reason to hold back.
Alcohol, it is said, is the ultimate social lubricant. It oils the gears that make society tick (even when they belong to different model engines), it smoothes the uncomfortable edges of misunderstandings and distributes the spark of laughter to people who suffer with frozen sense of humour.
There is, sadly, another side to the effect of partaking fluids with a significant alcoholic content. For no particular reason, it may change the happy face of Doctor Jeckyll into the grumbling and ominous countenance of Mister Hyde. Boggel has often seen this happen over the years, and puts it down to the fact that the ingestion of liquor allows sunken grievances to float to the surface again. Gertruida (who knows everything) says good manners are heavier than alcohol, that’s why it sinks to the bottom. Whatever the reason may be, it happens occasionally – and is often followed by periods of intense remorse. Like life in Rolbos, it isn’t always easy or logical to try to explain why grown men would want to ridicule and belittle their best friends the one moment – and then cry on their shoulders the next.
While Oudoom does his version of the Dutch Reformed Shuffle on the makeshift dance floor (very reserved, no touching, no talking and a whispered blessing at the end), Vetfaan and Kleinpiet are trying to outdo each other in their comments on the reverend’s lack of coordination.
“It is a miracle! How that man reaches the lectern on the pulpit is a mystery. Look at the way his left hand doesn’t know what the right foot is doing.”
“Ja, man, it just shows you. You are now looking at the real Oudoom. Strip the veneer of being a preacher, and you get the lecherous old man dancing with Gertruida over there. Look at the way he watches Precilla’s bum over Gertruida’s shoulder. I tell you – his head is filled with thoughts of that lady in the bath during King David’s voyeur phase.”
The Vermaaks take a break to fill up with some of their product, allowing the dancers an opportunity to do the same. Oudoom wipes the sweat from his brow, walks over to the counter and squeezes in between Vetfaan and Kleinpiet.
“Dominee is really hot tonight, hey? Showing us how to do it and all. Maybe you should take up a collection for your effort?”
And that sparks the tears. All of a sudden Oudoom remembers the midnight service he had planned to make up for his lack of concentration on Christmas. Wave of remorse follows wave of regret as he slumps forward on the counter, more or less in the direction of the glass of Special strategically placed there by Boggel. As if touched by a Higher Wisdom, he suddenly realises how significant his oversight has been while the sad tears of repentance and sorrow drips on the glass rings on the counter. For no particular reason he remembers his efforts to build up his small congregation, the failed bazaars, the off-tune organ and the tower clock that never tells the right time.
“I’m just like the clock,” he announces between the sobs, “always a bit out.”
Vetfaan starts laughing at this, but something in the older man’s voice – and Kleinpiet’s morose look – stops him.
Pappa Vermaak has taken his seat again and his saw starts squawking out For Auld Lang Syne. Frikkie joins with the exhaust while Mamma Vermaak picks up the rhythm by striking the prongs of the garden fork with a hammer. When they reach And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet…everybody storm the bar for a refill. The Vermaaks stop in midstride (midnote?), initially confused by the sudden disappearance of their audience. When they realise what is happening, they start again from the beginning. Gertruida holds up a hand, silences the lot and solemnly delivers a lecture on the poem by Robert Burns, emphasising the fact that Burns ‘stole’ the first verse from James Watson who published it in 1711. “It is traditionally sung on Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year, but it also features in Zimbabwe as a funeral song. The Boy Scouts use it at their Jamborees and Shirley Temple sang it in a film in 1937.” Even the Desert Rats are impressed. “Now, the final verse says: and there’s a hand my trusty friend, and give us a hand o’ thine, and we’ll take a right goodwill draught, for auld lang syne. And you know what? This song is about real friendships, about loyalty and caring and about deep respect.” Everybody nods. “Now, I suggest we were very disrespectful to Oudoom last Sunday. When he forgot to take up the offering, we all sat there grinning. We calculated how much more we could spend on tonight’s Special. I think we are disgusting.”
You can hear a pin drop. Even the Desert Rats – the entire Vermaak family who belongs to no known church – looks guilty. Frikkie gets up, takes off his floppy hat, and starts a slow march through the crowd while wiping the occasional tear away with a dirty cuff. Hands find their ways to pockets as the hat slowly fills up. Then Pappa Vermaak starts making a round with the empty paint tin that served as a drum. You don’t say no to Pappa Vermaak. Not only will that be the end of your evening (and possibly a trip to Upington’s hospital), but far worse: he may just take the rest of the Special and disappear with his family into the Kalahari night.
Rolbos tears, Gertruida says, are different to those of other places: not only is it saltier, but also it causes an almost unquenchable thirst. When the drum and the hat are deposited at Oudoom’s feet, it was pretty Precilla who bends down, empties the contents on the floor, and starts counting the money. It is a lot. A huge amount. Oudoom mutters something about the bread and the fish at the Sermon on the Mount, shaking his head in wonder.
No wonder then, that everybody shows their appreciation for this miracle by toasting each other (repeatedly) with the Vermaak Special.
Sometimes we think of Rolbos as a backward place filled with simple people. It is not an unreasonable opinion, come to think of it. They can be quite stupid, callous, bigoted, opinionated, short-sighted, selfish and even cruel at times. If you attend any one of Oudoom’s sermons, you’ll hear him talk (at length) about it.
But not on this, New Year’s Day, 2013. For once Oudoom has a happy sermon about the Goodness Hidden in Mankind. For once his congregation is glued to his lips as he talks about caring and love and respect. And for the first time they sing Auld Lang Syne in church, accompanied by a rag-tag family with a strange musical taste and even stranger instruments.
Gertruida says this is the way church services should be: a beacon of goodwill in an evil world. Vetfaan agrees, but still prefers the out-of-tune organ to the John Deere didgeridoo.
Some readers may think this is just a story and that Rolbos is a virtual place in cyberspace. However, you don’t even have to stretch your imagination to understand life in Rolbos. Wherever you are in the wide, wide world, you’ll find a bit of Rolbos with you, around you and in you.
As we approach 2013, it’ll be great if we can all laugh at our little idiosyncrasies, giggle about our own stupidity and – most importantly – stop taking ourselves so very seriously.
In Gertruida’s immortal words: “May your new year be filled with old values, fresh dreams and some of the best wine you’ve ever tasted.” Boggel agrees, adding that world peace means nothing if you keep on fighting with yourself.
But it is Oudoom who has the last word. When he hands over the handsome sum of money to the orphanage in Grootdrink, he tells everybody that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Changing water into wine is certainly a feat, but to use the Vermaak Special to feed the children is maybe the biggest miracle of modern times.
So, from the upstanding and honestly crazy people of Rolbos: may you have a great 2013. Treat yourself today: close your eyes for a moment to forget all the artificial good wishes and synthetic text messages. Sit down for a second at the dusty bar in the Kalahari to smile at the little hunchbacked man serving your cold beer. And then, in that magical instant, experience what it means to be part of the real world.