Much to everybody’s surprise, Bertie Bragass rushes in to Boggel’s Place, his flushed cheeks more prominent than ever.
Gertruida was the first to notice him when his old Land Rover huffed to a stop in front of the bar. Initially, she thought it must be somebody else. Vetfaan’s story of Bertie disappearing down a giant meerkat burrow had been entertaining – convincing, even – and they are still discussing the possibility of a rescue operation.
Now, one must understand that rescue operations in the Kalahari are complicated things. You don’t just get into the first vehicle and rush off into the desert. No, you have to be sure the vehicle is capable of handling the sand, and that the petrol tank is full. Then, of course, there is the minor detail of how much beer you have to take along – and who’ll pay for it. And having settled that, the question of how you’re going to fit in the rescue party on the already overloaded vehicle.
It is on this important discussion that Bertie storms in, arms flailing and sand running from his hair.
They all stare at the diminutive man. At four foot eight, he is arguably the smallest adult in the Kalahari. His is – in Gertruida’s words – cosmetically disadvantaged. The ears are to small, the pug-nose too big and the eyes slant ever so slightly downward. Add to that the almost cmplete absence of a neck – causing his chin to rest on his broad chest – and you have the Hunchback of Notre Dame without the hunch.
“Damn! That meerkat almost had me! Gimme as beer, Boggel!”
Gertruida says Bertie has to exaggerate everything to make up for his size. Take a small man, she says, and ask yourself: how does he make his mark in life? People like Bertie won’t win races, the long jump or hurdles. Bertie can’t handle a rifle (the barrel is too long for his short arms) and his legs don’t reach the stirrups, making him one of the few farmers who hates horses.
So, Gertruida explained one day, Bertie has to tell stories. Whatever he does (or sees) has to be bigger than the usual. Although she concedes that his ground-level view might have an influence on his impression of the size of things, there can be no doubt that Bertie has established himself as a liar of note. But, she says, this is something other people should understand. Bertie simply has to inflate his stories to compensate for his small frame. Gertruida calls it a physical/psychological balance.
That’s why the group at the bar share a collective, tolerating smile while they listen to his newest effort at impressing them.
“That Meerkat dragged me down that hole at an amazing speed, man! Tore my pants and scuffed my elbows. Look!” Bertie shows them how much damage the meerkat did. “But I fought, hey! Shew, I fought like a Trojan! Kicked and hammered with my fists, but that meerkat just kept on dragging me down that dark tunnel. I was convinced my time had come.”
Bertie takes a mouthful of beer, peering at his audience over the rim of the glass. Well, they seem to buy the story so far…
“You won’t believe what I saw down there. Talk about a meerkat manor! There were bedrooms, a large lounge where the others gathered and even a nursery filled with baby meerkats. And they all stared at me and I was almost wetting myself with fright. I knew I had to do something and I had to do it soon.
“Well, you know how meerkats like fighting with snakes, don’t you?” He waits for the collective nod. “So I took off my belt, swung it around a while, and threw it into the farthest corner of the room. Man! You should have seen them! All of a sudden every meerkat down there scrambled to get at that snake…and forgot about me for a second.
“That was enough. I gathered myself after the meerkat dropped me, and ran as fast as I could up that burrow. I ran and I ran and I ran. The meerkats were furious, and they chased after me, howling with rage. I made it to my land Rover just in time, slammed the door as the first meerkat crashed into the vehicle, and raced here.”
Bertie finishes his beer to sit back with a contented smile. “Being small helped me a lot. I’d never have made it up that burrow if I were as big as Vetfaan, for instance. But hey, here I am in one piece, and I’m thankful for that. And, here’s another fact: I won’t be returning to my farm for a while. I’m sure the meerkats will move off some time, and then it’d be safe. I’ll go visit my cousin in Kimberley, I think.” He pauses as a thought apparently strikes him. “Oh, it may be a good idea if you guys stayed away from the farm as well. I noticed a fresh burrow not far from the house, so there may be more than one nest of the critters. Good advice? Stay away. I’ll tell you when it’s safe.”
Then, as abruptly as the little man arrived, he gets up, waves them goodbye, and drives off.
People tend to think that the inhabitants of such small, far-flung villages are a bit backward. After all, why stay in such a hovel, when life is so much easier in larger communities? But we know that’s not the way to look at it. The inhabitants of Rolbos stay there because even the small incidents become subjects of lengthy debates.
Take, for instance, the police van that stopped there a few hours after Bertie left. There’s been a burglary, they said. One of the major banks in Upington got robbed. The robbers gained access to the building during the night, using the antiquated sewerage system with it’s narrow pipes.
“We’re looking for a suspect – a small individual – who made off with two bags of money. Have you seen anything suspicious lately?”
Yes, of course, Servaas said. Bertie Bragass. He could fit the description, but unfortunately he had a solid alibi. He had been stuck down a meerkat hole last night, so it couldn’t possibly be him.
And the policemen found that exceedingly funny, said goodbye, and rushed off to Grootdrink to see if they could find anybody who might not have a watertight alibi like that. Somebody small, with scuffed elbows, for instance.