Travel through Africa, and you’re guaranteed a surprise or two…
The first Sunday in December is always a special one in Rolbos. Oudoom usually delivers his End-of-Year sermon, which causes Boggel’s Place to remain open longer than usual. In some respects Oudoom’s timing is excellent: the rest of the year will pass in a happy in-between state, with farmers waiting for some rain and the townsfolk lazing the hot days away on the stoep in front of Boggel’s Place. One may argue that these days are no different to the rest of the year, but it’s been a silent agreement that they will not discuss it in this way. It is, after all, nice to think of December as a time of rest and easy living.
Oudoom outdoes himself on the little pulpit.
There is a time for everything, Brothers and Sisters. A time for toil and a time to rest. A time to gather in the harvest and a time to wait for the sheep to grow more wool. And, of course, there is a time to spend on friendship and kindness, which is about right now. Now, I know that’s not what it says in Ecclesiastes, but believe me, it’s what it means.
We’ve had an interesting year in Rolbos. There were times of change, times of love and times of worry. Some people joined our little flock and some have passed through, hurrying on with the business of Life. But we, the people who stay in this arid land we love so much, we are still here. We look back on the year with gratitude. It’s been a good year.
He lets his eyes roam across the congregation, taking in the smiling faces of Vetfaan (his tractor is running again, after he fixed the fuel pump Gertruida said he should) and Gertruida (who always knew that tractor won’t go with all the dust in the filter). Judge sits up straight, listening attentively. Mary and Lucinda seem to huddle together, not taking much note of what he’s saying; while Kleinpiet hangs on to Precilla’s hand as if he said something wrong earlier. In the elder’s bench, Servaas is dressed in his black suit because he’s worried about the presidential nomination that must be announced soon. He’s hoping for somebody wise and wonderful to lead the country.
But, despite the season of rest, I want to warn about settling into a non-existent comfort zone. Now, the Bible doesn’t mention the term comfort zone at all. The old Israelites were forever in turmoil, Jesus never had a holiday and the disciples never retired. In fact, when I looked through my Bible yesterday, (Oudoom says this every year) I found not one instance where the word ‘relax’ is used. On the contrary, words like ‘worry’, ‘vexation’,’ fret’, and ; ‘anguish’ are quite frequent.
Now, you may therefore think the Bible was written for the down-trodden and the desperate – and maybe it was –but there is more to this than meets the eye. It is the human condition to worry. We care about things. Oudoom allows his gaze to rest on individuals, especially the ones he knows are in turmoil. That’s why ‘hope’ is used only 11 times and ‘work’ gets 416 mentions. ‘Wait’ is an often used order, while ‘Patience’ occurs 33 times. There are almost 400 verses that use the word ‘love’, and ‘forgive’ appears in 53.
So, as we approach the end of the year and all the festivities associated with it, we will do well if we don’t see this as a time to forget about everything and switch off. We’ll become like Vetfaan’s tractor; running sometimes and at others simply a source of frustration. He smiles benevolently at Vetfaan, who blushes to a bright crimson. Let us see this time as a time of kindness, respect, patience and forgiveness. Above all, let us show the world what love is. That is the work we can never retire from… Allay your fear – Christmas (the real one, not the one on the calendar) is near.
Oudoom finishes with a flourish as he whips out his handkerchief to wipe his brow.
And now, at this precise moment with the congregants exchanging kind looks and happy glances, a vehicle stops in front of the church amidst the screeching of brakes and a cloud of dust. Heads turn as heavy boots stomp their way into the little church.
The man is big. Huge. With close-cropped hair and a pug-nose, he has the appearance of a professional fighter. His shirt seems two sizes too small and a little forest of curls obscure the short neck. A straight, thin line suggests where his lips might be; accentuating the square jaw. His eyes are unapologetic and cold as he marches towards the pulpit. Oudoom seems to shrink behind the low dais.
“I not used to church. And I in beeg hurry. Who is Mevrou?” He says muh-phrow.
An eerie silence rests on the congregation. This man is Italian – and do they not all remember Francesco? The man sent to kill old Marco? The man who suddenly – well, he claimed it – became a pacifist? The brother of Giovanni, the Mafia boss? And now, in the middle of Oudoom’s best sermon ever, he comes in, interrupts proceedings, and asks for Mevrou?
“Lis-ten,” Vetfaan splits the word into two syllables, “we’re busy with a sermon. You are bothering us. Either you sit down and listen, or you get out.” Vetfaan gets up to stand between Mevrou and the newcomer. He is an inch shorter and has to look up to the giant of a man.
“No. No sit. I hurry. No time. Where is muh-phrow?” His voice carries a determined tone despite Vetfaan’s presence.
“Whatever you have to say to her, you can tell us.” Kleinpiet joins Vetfaan in front of the man. They’re not as tall as the Italian, but definitely broader, flashes through Precilla’s mind.
“And you’re interrupting this service.” This time even Servaas works up the courage to address the man as he joins Vetfaan and Kleinpiet.
“Oh, you men!” Mevrou pushes them aside to confront the Italian. “You’re looking for me. What do you want?”
“I sorry for interrupt. Francesco he say I come. He tell me to bring you this.” He produces a small parcel from behind his back. “Now I give. I go. Goodbye.”
A stunned congregation watches as he does an abrupt turn around, marches out of the church, and roars off in a flat, flashy car.
Oudoom says a hasty Amen to signal the end of the service. Now, shedding the toga and the responsibility associated with it, he can assume his role as husband and man again. He rushes down to Mevrou, who still stares undecidedly at with the parcel.
“What is it?” The question comes from various people; it is difficult to say who asked it first.
Mevrou shakes the parcel and holds it to her ear. The faint tick-tock seems to echo in her mind.
“It ticks,” she says lamely.
It is surprising how quickly the church can empty. Even Oudoom’s most damning sermon never managed to get everybody out in such a hurry. Mevrou leaves the parcel in the aisle when they all storm out. At a safe distance (Boggel’s stoep), the little group merges again to discuss the best way to manage a time-bomb. Vetfaan, who has seen most of Chuck Norris’ movies, says if you cut the red wire, the thing will go off instantly. Kleinpiet says no, in the Bond movie, it was the black one. Oudoom doesn’t care, he says anybody who blows up his church, will have a lot to answer for.
“Look,” Gertruida says, “if it s a bomb, it’ll go off soon. It was delivered during the service and the man was in a hurry. I don’t think we must try to disarm it. The best thing to do is to wait and see what happens.”
Oudoom says yes, that’s what the sermon was all about. Waiting. Patience. “This is true vexation, people. There is a time to worry and a time to wait. Boggel,” he looks around to find the little man, “I think I’ll have a small Cactus, if you don’t mind.”
And so the wait begins. Boggel’s Cactus supply diminishes with an alarming speed as Mevrou joins the waiting.
“This is quite good, Boggel,” she tells him at one point, “almost like Crème Soda, only a little more sour. I think I’ll have another.”
When you wait for something in Boggel’s Place (or anywhere else, for that matter), you have to kill the time. Vetfaan tells them how well Miss Massey is going now, but Precilla shuts him up to say how she’s planning to redecorate Kleinpiet’s cottage. Mary and Lucinda sit to one side, discussing the strange visit, while (after the third Cactus) Kleinpiet high-fives Vetfaan on their bravery. At the counter, Mevrou asks Oudoom why he never told her about Cactus Jack?
At two o’ clock, Boggel asks if they don’t think it’s safe to see what the parcel is all about. “Surely, if it were a time-bomb, we’d have heard something by now.” This is a sudden reality check and causes the hum of conversation to die down. Servaas says it’s Sunday, they shouldn’t fiddle around with bombs on the day of rest; but Mevrou, quite pumped up by her new-found liking in Cactus, suggests this is an exception. When nobody volunteers to go and check, she marches out of the door with the determination of a sergeant-major intent on finding fault on a parade ground.
She almost bumps into Vrede, who arrives with the parcel clamped between his teeth. The ex-police dog puts it down at her feet, sits down and looks up at her with his big brown, innocent eyes.
Oudoom says we must learn to trust more – the problem with this world is that we are taught to be suspicious of everything. At the slightest hint of a problem, we go overboard with our anxieties.
The note in the parcel thanks Mevrou for all she’s done. He – Francesco – sends this antique clock as a memento of the time he spent in Rolbos. He also apologises for not delivering it personally, but since he enrolled at the monastery, he has sold off all his assets. He also encloses a debit card, PIN number 2512, with enough cash to renovate the church completely. I have made peace with my brother – this is the only way. Maybe, if I’m ordained one day, I will be able to reason with him as a priest, and not a sibling. Umberto, who brings this, is still a wild and wayward man. Please accept his abrupt manner – he doesn’t have many social skills. He is a friend from the past, somebody I’ll have to spend a lot of time with.
Vetfaan says Oudoom gave his best sermon today and even Servaas agrees. There is a time for everything, indeed. There’s a time to lie awake, worrying about things you can’t do anything about. And there is a time to call Boggel over to fill your glass. And sometimes, there is a time to reflect on the year that has passed: not only the bad and horrible experiences we all have to face from time to time, but also the surprises of unexpected grace – the small things we expect to be time-bombs, but turn out to be little crafted works of art by the Master of All Time.