Tag Archives: writing challenge

The Doggy in Boggel’s Place

(Daily prompt: allow a non-verbal subject to address your audience.)

IMG_3608My name is Vrede, and I’m the guardian and pride of Rolbos. Guardian? Sure, there hasn’t been a single burglary while I’ve stayed here. (Okay, neither before, but that’s irrelevant.) I’m an ex-police dog, a sniffer who can tell drugs a mile off. I’ve also made an in depth study of human scents, which has helped me apprehend a number of criminals, including a police commissioner.


Click to buy. Arf, arf..

I tell some of my stories in a book, so I’ll not repeat them here. Suffice to say that these stories have spread my fame all over the world, and that I’ve received fan mail from Europe, America and even Gauteng. It’s not something I brag about, mind? Just barking the breeze, understand?

I love the cushion under the counter, here in Boggel’s Place. I get to hear all the gossip first-hand, get rewarded by treats whenever I sit up and beg, and can snooze away the hours while the townsfolk dream up stupid schemes to pass the time.

Was I born and raised here? In a manner of speaking, I suppose. According to the stories on the blog, I arrived here after exposing a corrupt official in the police force. But, if I had to be honest, I wasn’t really born. Not in the usual manner. I was, however, created; which is something completely different.

How did this happen, you ask? Well, you only have to park a writer in front of a keyboard, add a bit of writer’s block, and stir in a warped imagination. Go on, do it! Voila, you’ve got a doggy of your own. You can name him – or her – anything you want. We feed on virtual bones and titbits, never embarrass our owners and are loyal forever.

See, dogs like me can’t die. We just don’t do that. Oh, it’s nice to live in the computer like I do, but once your story is in a book, you’re immortal. (Which is more than real people and dogs can say.) This makes me a perfect pet, for I’ll entertain untold generations with my wit and wisdom. And what’s a dog if he can’t curl up in your mind and make you wonder about what it means to live a virtual dog’s life?

So, to those of you who received the gift of imagination, I’d like you to create more of us. Go on, try? While the real world is becoming overcrowded, there’s no such problem in the virtual one. We don’t bark when you want to sleep. We don’t whine when we’re hungry. We don’t go about humping important guest’s legs or stuff like that. Oh, we’ll accompany you to work occasionally, and even make you smile while you’re filling in your tax returns – but we’d never, never bother you.

So there. Now you know about me. You won’t ever feel lonely again. Ever.

Bark-bark-arf. (That means goodbye for now.)

The Picture


That picture! Gertruida stares at it for a long time. The memories! The shock!

the-beautiful-and-the-damnedShe knew it had to be here, somewhere – and now she’s found it, wishing she didn’t, between the pages of The Beautiful and the Damned, the Fitzgerald novel she had been reading at the time. Oh! She remembers the sad and poignant tale of Anthony Patch, the lazy, egocentric youth who believed the world owed him a life of luxury. And, of course, there was his wife…the beautiful and equally shallow Gloria. Gertruida smiles wanly when she remembers the almost-bitter but brilliant ending of the book which so aptly underscored the futility of both beauty and wealth. Yes, she thinks, that book was such a fitting read for the time she spent with Gerald Grimes, the man with the most endearing smile.

How old was she at the time? Eighteen? Nineteen? And then she met Gerald, charming, handsome Gerald, on Durban’s Golden Mile, during one of the rare breakaway-weekends she allowed herself while studying. In those days you could walk along the beach for hours – there were no loiterers, no muggings, no danger. She had walked, read, dreamed, tanned and was about to return to the little flat she had rented, when he walked right up to her and asked whether she’d like to have dinner with him. Just like that! She didn’t know who he was, what his intentions were or even anything at all about this tall, athletic man…but said yes, she would, just because she couldn’t think of anything else to say. The age of innocence…

He accompanied her to the flat after introducing himself and apologising for his impertinence. “I’ve found it such a waste of time to go through the long preamble of playing stupid games. It’s so boring. And…I travel such a lot that I rarely have to privilege of going through social rituals.” He smiled the most disarming smile. “I liked the way you concentrated on your reading and thought: This girl has depth. I’d like to meet her. So there. Now we can have dinner together and we’ll chat. No strings. Not at all.”

They had dinner in the Royal Hotel, a scrumptious affair with  oysters and crayfish and the most delicately prepared choice of desserts. Afterwards they ambled up West Street, where they found this late-night cafe serving coffee.

“I read a lot,” he said, “especially the old authors – Fitzgerald, Poe, Haggard, Dafoe. They had such a wonderful way with words – even if they used a type of style and language we don’t even recognise today.”

“Like trammels, feckless,sanguinary, impecunious and erudition?” Gertruida warmed to the subject.

“Yes,” he said, “and we often can learn so much from them.”

On_the_Heels_of_de_Wet_1000170260“Ah yes,” Gertruida smiled. “There is a book on the Boer War, On the heels of De Wet by Lionel James. He had a rather severe opinion of what political change would do to South Africa. Remember, he wrote his book in 1902 and quite a visionary he turned out to be. He said…” She closed her eyes to remember the exact words. “But they have been pampered by us enough to make them imagine vain things, and vain imaginings may result at no distant period in a repetition of that rapine, pillage, and massacre of white settlements, which has ever furnished the saddest stones in the cairn of our great Empire.”

Gerald marvelled at her phenomenal ability to quote so accurately and said so. Then they started chatting about the way the old authors managed the extremely long sentences – almost unreadable, yet so lucid in their description of events and people.

This man, Gertruida realised, was the most widely-read person she’d ever met, and they sat there, chatting about books and authors, until the poor cafe-owner stared at them with tired eyes and they took pity on him. At that point the only other customer was a suited man who simply sat there, not drinking anything, apparently lost in deep thought.

They were getting up to leave when the silent customer got up, apologised to Gertruida, and asked Gerald to accompany him.

“Why…” Gertruida wanted to protest, but the man held up a hand.

“Please, Miss, this is official business. We’ve been looking for him all over. I didn’t want to cause a scene, but he’s not going to get away – again – this time.”

Suddenly, they were surrounded by a number of other men, all in suits, who escorted Gerald to a waiting vehicle – a Mercedes with tinted windows and no number plate. And then, barely a few seconds later, Gertruida sat down at the counter, all alone and completely confused. What had just happened? Neither she, nor the cafe owner, had any idea,

A few months later, she received a letter.

My dear Gerty

I must apologise for the way our lovely evening ended. I sincerely regret having to have left you like that, but you’ll remember that I had little choice in the matter. 

You see, I work for a government your people don’t approve of. I was – still am, I suppose – a persona non grata in South Africa. My work involves the gathering of information, something your authorities frown at. Enough said…

Well, I spent some time as a guest of your government in Pretoria’s Central Prison, where I wiled away the time by sketching. Most of my drawings were confiscated, unfortunately, but this one survived. 

I’m in London now, after being exchanged. The deal had been a complicated one, but it involved the release of an Israeli scientist who had been in custody in Moscow. I believe he’s working for your government now and is involved with a secret project involving missiles. 

There. True to my nature, I didn’t waste too much of your time, did i? But now you have the bare basics – a skeleton you can build the bigger picture on. I don’t suppose we’ll meet again, which saddens me much. However, suffice to say that I enjoyed the evening with you and have the fondest memories of a few hours spent with you.

Kind regards,



Gertruida puts the letter back between the pages of the book. A sentence seems to jump off the page at her:

Halcyon days like boats drifting along slow-moving rivers, spring evenings full of plaintive melancholy that made the past beautiful and bitter, bidding them look back and see that the loves of other summers long gone were dead with the forgotten waltzes of their years.

Taking great care, she closes the book before slipping it back onto the shelf. Then she sits down in her favourite chair to stare at the picture. Perhaps, she thinks, it is the lost loves that makes life so bearable. Or maybe these chance meetings serve to remind us that everybody has a story and that everyone shares the bond of loneliness.  It doesn’t matter who you are and what your convictions may be – in the end we are all strangers shuffling through Life’s night.

For some reason, the thought causes an immense feeling of sadness to envelop her. When she looks down at the picture again, she’s not surprised to see the smudge caused by her tears. Like the memory of that evening, it is only fair that the picture should fade, as well…

The Terrible Reality of being a Hybrid Society

adam-and-eve-24 (2)“The original sin,” Oudoom tells the group at the bar, “wasn’t something stupid like eating an apple.” He waits until Servaas stops shaking his head before going on. “It was defiance. There were rules and the First Man, Number One, decided to challenge them. That, my friends was the start of all sin: the intent to break the rules. It began when Number One thought those laws applied to everybody else – but not him.”

The patrons in Boggel’s Place shift around uncomfortably. Oudoom is right, of course…it’s the implication of what he’s saying that worries them. Thoughts are private things, after all, and do they not – all of them – sometimes think thoughts they are not proud of? Gertruida is quick to change the subject.

“There’s a legend about the apes that used to live in the Kalahari, It’s an old story, but it ties in with Oudoom’s statement. And it says something about the result of sin as well…”


A long, long time ago, in a cave near an oasis in the desert, a group of apes lived happily together. They’d share food, groom each other, and watch the children play. They lived a simple life, never quarrelled and slept soundly at night.

One day, because it was winter and the cold wind forced them to remain in the  cave, they were faced with a problem. The small ones were hungry while the adults huddled close. At last – not being able to listen to the whimpering of the hungry children any longer – one ape stood up and said they had to do something about it.

“Look,” he said, “we can’t listen to this wailing all day. One of us must go to fetch some roots and berries for the children to eat.”

“Who are you to tell us such a thing?” One of the females scowled at the One Who Had Spoken First. “If one of us must go, we all must go.”

“Think about it,” the One Who Had Spoken First said, “the rest of us will remain warm in here while only one will suffer a bit. We can, of course, reward the one who fetches the food with an extra portion. That way, it will be worthwhile to face the cold and everybody will be happy.” 

“Then you should go. It was your idea.” 

“No, I can’t.” He held up a perfectly healthy foot. “I sprained my ankle, see? One of you will have to go.”

They all knew he was lying, of course. But, because they didn’t want to confront him with the lie, they all remained silent.

“Then we’ll have to choose one to go,” the female said eventually. Even in those times, they thought elections were the way to solve issues. Somehow this idea still persists to this day, even though everybody knows it only causes more problems.

And that’s how the first elections took place. Yes, they all agreed, the One Who Had Spoken First should go. He grumbled, declared they were all unfair, and sulked in the corner. The rest of the tribe wouldn’t have any of that and said they’d all go out .

“We’ll gather enough food for all of us and come back. But…you won’t get anything. If you don’t want to share in the work, you can’t expect us to feed you.”

And so it happened that the shivering troupe of apes went out in the freezing wind to fetch food for the little ones and for themselves. During their search, they came upon another cave, a bigger one, much better protected and warmer than their old home.

“I’ll go fetch the children,” the Female Who Had Answered the One Who Had Spoken First said. “We’ll stay here. It is nearer to the water and there is enough berries around to feed us all through the winter.”

And this she did. When she got to their old cave, the One Who Had Spoken First was glad to get rid of the wailing children. He also thought it was a trick to get him working as well, and refused to go along. He stayed behind in their old cave.


“Now, one must be very careful with good fortune. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – we all know that.” Gertruida sighs. “But those apes didn’t. They couldn’t believe their good luck. They moved into that new cave, without The One Who Had Spoken First , celebrating with the berries they had found.”


However, there was a very good reason why that cave was uninhabited – or at least seemed empty. Far back in the dark recesses of the cave lived a huge python. It was his cave, And any traveller or animal that sought shelter there, was sure to end up as the python’s next meal.

The python couldn’t believe his good luck. He was also very clever. No, he decided. he won’t eat them all at the same time. He’d slither out of his hiding place late at night, and swallow one of the apes every time the moon turns dark. The apes were upset, but they never realised what – exactly – was happening. All they knew, was that every so often, one of them would disappear. 

Then, one day when there were only a few left, the apes decided to return to their old cave. They discussed moving the next morning, not realising the python was listening to everything they said. So, that evening, the python set about swallowing the rest of the apes. One by one he’d slither up to a sleeping figure and do what he did best – first strangulating his victim before gorging himself.


“Well, you can imagine the scene: slowly, relentlessly, that snake devoured every single member of that clan. By the time he reached the last ape, the python was so full, he could hardly move. His movements became sluggish and slow. Exhausted by his efforts, the snake tried to wrap himself around the last ape’s neck.” 

Gertruida’s story has them all hanging onto every word. Here and there a hand went up to a throat, while an involuntary shiver ran down quite a few spines.


The remaining ape woke up with a start. He saw the snake. He looked around. And he screamed like no ape had done ever before. The python, however, would not be denied, and although he was very slow about it, he eventually silenced the ape by swallowing him as well.

The One Who Had Spoken First, heard those terrible screams during the night. Not daring to venture out in the dark, he waited until dawn to investigate. He came upon that cave where the huge python lay with the massively bloated stomach. His fright at finding that such a horrible thing had happened, was complete. Regret about his selfishness and unwillingness to help his family, mixed with the realisation that he was responsible for the demise of the clan, made him stand there, mouth agape, unable to move.


7“He’s still there, on the other side of Bokkop, if you cared to look, you’ll find the place where he’s still standing. Over the years he has turned to stone as a reminder of the terrible destruction one causes when the intention to lie becomes a way of life. Anyway, that’s why we have no apes here in Rolbos.” Gertruida finishes her story so suddenly, that the group in the bar lets out a collective groan.

“Magtag, Gertruida! That’s a terrible story.” Servaas pulls at the collar of his black suit. “Whatever has that to do with Oudoom’s statement. You know? The fact that the original sin wasn’t eating the apple, but the intention to do so?”

“You should have a look at that boulder, Servaas. It is both ape and rock. It’s a hybrid, you see? Just like we are hybrids:  we mix lies and truth. We love and we hate. We have the capacity to laugh and to cry. In the end, we’re composites of quite a number of conflicting abilities and emotions. Most of all, we manage to mingle good and evil into our daily lives so delicately, we don’t even notice it any more.

“Think about the ape who spoke first – he was just lazy. Then he told a little lie about his foot. and that, my friend, caused the destruction of the whole clan. One individual, their Number One, wasn’t truthful about a small thing. What happened?” Gertruida pauses a while, letting her words sink in. “Number One destroyed their happy way of life, that’s what. That stone on Bokkop is a monument of the horror he had caused by his intention to make the others do all the work.”

Oudoom shrugs. “Ja, Gertruida. Our Number One will do the same. Already we have many monuments to attest to his intentions. Schools without books. Hospitals with no back-up generators. Corruption. Crime. Rape. Murder. Our beloved country is a hybrid of beauty and horror.The python is swallowing the country, while we sleep on blissfully.” He leans over to pat Servaas’ slumped shoulders. “Maybe that’s our biggest sin…”

“You mean, it’s goodbye Paradise for us, Dominee?”

“We left Paradise a long time ago, Servaas, when we became hybrids.  A very long time ago, when lies stole our purity  and we got swallowed by the python called politics…”

Writing Prompt: A form of Flattery – A tribute to Herman Charles Bosman

HC_BosmanWrite a post about any topic you want, but in the style of an author or a blogger you admire.

Herman Charles Bosman was born in 1905 in Kuils River. As a school teacher, he spent a mere six months in the Bushveld, where his Groot Marico tales started germinating. Then, in a terrible accident reminiscent of the Pistorius case, he fired into a darkened room where his stepbrother was involved in a tussle –  killing him instantly. Bosman attempted suicide directly afterwards, but recovered to stand trail. Convicted of murder, he was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted afterwards and he spent four years in prison,

He then started writing under the name Herman Malan (his mother’s maiden name), becoming especially known for his dark stories and macabre plots. Later, paradoxically, he started writing extremely humorous stories in which Oom Schalk Lourens was the narrator.

Bosman died in 1951, aged 46. It was only after his death that the public took notice of his work and recognition- like it so often and so cruelly does – finally came for the brilliance of this enigmatic man.


“Now look,” Oom Schalk Lourens said, puffing his pipe as he stared at his empty glass, “those scoundrels at Rolbos must think they’re quite fancy because their stories are read in so many countries. In my time, Herman used a pencil and paper. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. He wasn’t paid much –  three guineas for a thousand words. I remember something he wrote:

I, like other simpletons, sweat, pore, write, rewrite, retype (many times over), curse, burn midnight oil to produce something between 2000 and 4000 words… I have spent a few bob at the races with just as much chance of remuneration (or loss) as writing a short story.

“Ja, I remember those days. Good days they were, even though they were bad. It’s like the way life treats you, man. Some days the sun burns the hell out of you, but at night the cold wind bites through your blanket.”

Jurie Els shakes his head. They’ve been sitting in the old post office drinking peach brandy all afternoon, and Oom Schalk keeps on harping on about the old days. Can’t the man move on with the times? After all, the town has progressed remarkably in the last few years.

“Oom Schalk, let that sleeping dog be, man. We’ve got a black mayor now, and he’s promised to fill up the potholes in the street – as soon as he’s finished building a few more houses in the location.”

“That’s the problem,” Oom Schalk sighs, “the location has been upgraded to a township now. Whatever will they think of next? We don’t even have squatters now; they live in an ‘informal settlement’. You’d think that would bring down the number of thefts in town – but what happens? People don’t steal any more. They call it affirmative action. No man, I liked it when somebody stole and you could call him a thief. Now they say everything is a legacy of the past.”

He sighs, staring at the unopened postal bags. “The past…man, those were good days. You worked, you got paid. Now people get paid for doing nothing. Look at those bags: when do you plan on opening them?”

“I’m on strike,” Jurie says, smiling broadly, “it’s my constitutional right, see? It’s like a holiday. And when enough people didn’t get their post for long enough, they will say yes, Jurie does a sterling job. That’s when they will increase my salary. It’s the modern way, Oom Schalk.”

Sometimes, Oom Schalk Lourens says, he thinks back on the time he spent in jail, that time he tried to smuggle cattle from Bechuanaland. He talks about the clothes he got for free and the three meals every day. He also got a few other things, like lice, for instance. But, he says, that’s progress for you – it always comes with a price.

We always laugh when he talks about these things. Laugh loudly, slapping him on the shoulder and telling him how good his memory is. We want to make him talk about long ago, see, so he won’t talk about the present. And when he gets going, we make sure his glass remains full and then we laugh some more.

But always, when the bottle is empty, Oom Schalk falls silent and tells us his hayfever is acting up again. That’s when he borrows Floris van Barneveldt’s handkerchief to wipe his eyes and nose. And then he’d stare out of the window; stare at the potholed road that leads to the township; and he’d shake his head.

“There was a time you could tell these stories. You know, the things that really happened. But now we can only sit on these post bags and talk about them softly.” That’s what he said last time. “I’m glad Herman isn’t around to see this. He wouldn’t be able to write his stories now. They’d call him names, they would. But, ” and here Oom Schalk took his time lighting his pipe, “maybe it’s good to think back on the life and times of Herman Charles Bosman. No matter what the politicians do, they can’t wipe out his words.”

Of course we laugh when he says this, like we always do. This time Oom Schalk surpises us by digging out his own handkerchief. He says nowadays a man must carry his own in his pocket, because there’s so much dust in the air.

And we won’t laugh at that. No sir. Something as serious as that deserves a quiet moment. We’ll just sit there and wait for the next bottle of peach brandy to be opened. After all. the past is always present, not so? Especially these days…

Writing Challenge: Writerly Reflections – Two Oceans, Two Dreams…

The challenge: tell the story behind your writing. Why do it?

Tired me applauding a fresh-looking Hannes on completing a 100-miler

Tired me applauding a fresh-looking Hannes on completing a 100-miler

This is up close and personal, but on a special day like this, I suppose it is only right to say something about my crazy dream to become a writer.

Way back in 1994 many things happened in South Africa. We buried Apartheid and became a democracy. That was a major event, the culmination of lots of talks, massive political posturing and a bloody war. It is not surprising that this is why 1994 will be remembered. What never reached the headlines, was the slightly overweight, middle aged man who took up running. It is true to say that it changed my life more than the politics did. Running became an escape from an unhappy background even more than it helped me get back into shape again.

I loved the long runs and the ultramarathons. It gave me time to think. It also became the time I could talk to God – which eventually resulted in Facing Surgery with Christ and later, SHIMMERstate. Back then the editor of Runner’s World offered me a column and I took up the challenge with great joy and some trepidation. The column ran for a few years and got me into the routine of regular writing. The two things – running and writing – became a common challenge, urging me on to try to do better every time.

Well, my running got better, at least. I’m still working on the writing side.

Eventually, after attaining permanent numbers in the Two Oceans, Comrades marathons and Golden Reef 100 miler, I reached the goals I set myself for running. I was getting older and slower. I started looking at reasons to stop writing as well – but found out that the lure of writing something significant just wouldn’t let me go.

In the meantime, my children took up running. This turned out to be one of the best things we share as a family. The silence of the long-distance runner is much more than not talking. It’s a sharing of a very special passion. How many miles did we slog off in the pre-dawn hours? How many races did we complete, smiling in understanding while the odd tear threatened to embarrass? How much did it contribute to the mutual respect we have for each other to this day?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. I still jog. Here at the coast it is not at all uncommon to to find the breeze quite strong when I do my old-man shuffle on the beach. That’s when I hear the voices of my kids, telling me I just have to hang in there, I can still make it. The finish-line, they say, isn’t a tape strung between the winning posts. No, they declare, I have to pursue my dreams and keep on believing that someday, somehow, my writing will be as good as I can get it.

That, of course, is the answer. I never won a race (although it came close once or twice)(well, once, to be precise, okay?); but every race left me with a wonderful sense of achievement – and wondering if I could do better. You may say that my racing caused euphoria and a feeling that there may be more. Not depressing, mind you, just the call to try harder next time. And as with running, so with writing. I still hope to improve.

A few books later – and with three more in the process of writing, editing and polishing – I’ll quicken the pace on the downhills and slog it out on the upward slopes. I know I’ll never be the recipient of an internationally acclaimed literary prize – but what the heck, I’m having the time of my life. The joy of moulding a story into something readable remains the reason why I’ll toe the line every time the muse starts whispering sweet nothings in my ear.

Today is a special day for me. Son Hannes is doing his tenth Two Oceans Marathon as I write this piece. I look at him and I recognise the determination, the gritting conviction, that completing the race is what it’s all about. Sometimes the medal is a nice reward, sometimes the silver turns out to be a bronze. It really doesn’t matter, does it? But I know – when he crosses that finishing line at UCT – he’ll be smiling. He’ll promise himself that this was the last one, and never, never again.

And I know he’ll be out on the road again in the pre-dawn chill, pounding the tar with renewed energy one of these fine mornings. Strange, writing does exactly the same thing to me. Every time I close Microsoft Word, I think I have done all the writing that I can. And then…

So, today I dedicate this post to Hannes. Run well, my son. Finish well. And don’t donate your running shoes to some charity – you’ll need them soon again.

And my marathon with writing? I think I’ve passed the halfway mark. The course is getting difficult now. Fatigue has become an enemy..and a friend. It tells me to slow down, but it also tells me that the ultimate piece of writing within me must be getting closer.

I look forward to the full stop at the end of a perfect essay. At the same time I know: in this race of writing, there is no finish line – just the anxious joy of lining up at the start every time I sit down at the keyboard. So maybe writing is a marathon with no end – a race where the prize is in competing, not giving up, and smiling bravely when the going gets tough.

The finish line beckons, Hannes. Go for it. Show the world what you’re made of. Wipe the tear with pride when they hand you the medal. And know you’ll be back again next year, pounding your way up Chapman’s Peak with the wind in your face and the steady rhythm of your stride carrying you onwards.

That is the beauty of running. It is also the joy of writing.

With luck, we’ll both make it.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Characters that Haunt You: Vetfaan.

The Challenge: Pick one of the characters that inhabit your brain…well. there’s nobody more perfect for this challenge than Vetfaan.

Vetfaan’s War

Credit: en.wikipedia,org

Credit: en.wikipedia,org

“It was the war,” Vetfaan sighs as he sips his brandy, “that, and the woman with the strong forearm.”

Boggel just asked why he had started farming in the Kalahari, thinking he’d get the usual answer: to get away from it all.

Kleinpiet stops his drawing on the bar counter when he looks up. He’s never heard this story before, and he has known Vetfaan for ages; ever since they first met in this very same room, way back in ’95. Oh, they’ve talked about rugby and failed relationships; like educated, mature men do when they drink too much, but never about the war.

Kleinpiet was a medical orderly back then. The things he saw, does not make for light conversation. And of course, most of it should not be remembered at all. The broken bodies of young men – not old enough to vote, but old enough to kill – are best filed in the dark cabinet marked ‘Out of Bounds’. All men who have seen action, know that’s how it is. You don’t go there. It is the stuff nightmares are made of, and veterans have enough of those.

“She came to the camp on a Friday evening. We had just returned from a patrol and were two men short. We couldn’t bring them back, see? Too far. To many casualties. We had to bury them under a baobab tree. Later we went back, but we couldn’t find the tree again. Too many of them.” Vetfaan glances over to the almost-empty brandy bottle, and nods at Boggel. “For a long time I thought I could forget it; and I really tried. But sometimes, every so often, I have a dream about that day.”

Vetfaan has been drinking heavily all day. Boggel has seen him do that before, and somehow knows he should not interfere – not when Vetfaan is in this mood. The big man will finish his bottle of brandy and Kleinpiet will take him home. Something, Boggel knows, is festering away inside Vetfaan; a demon of the past, a memory, an experience? Whatever it is, it’ll come out one day, when nature wants to heal the wound.

In cities people see psychologists; but that, of course, doesn’t help either. Ask any barman: he’ll tell you. The only way to kill the demon, is to give the patient enough time to run out of excuses. When the victim finally summons up the courage to face the memory, the healing will start. That’s why brandy helps so much. It gives courage, even if it is false.

It’s better than nothing.

“Those of us who could, had a shower and put on some clean clothes. Do you know what clean clothes feel like after all the blood and vomit and…?”  Vetfaan peers myopically at Boggel, who simply nods. He has his own demons to fight, as well. Then, almost as an afterthought: “In those days they brought in entertainers…”

Kleinpiet remembers the girls who got flown up to the base camps. While the rest of South Africa stumbled on in a Calvinistic haze, the powers-that-be supplied the eighteen-year-olds on the border with cheap alcohol and free entertainment. Evenings were spent in bars in the bush where the young soldiers got drunk while they screened movies about the patriotic and Christian heroes on the borders, fighting heathen terrorists. Occasionally, live entertainment travelled from camp to camp, with singers and dancers carefully chosen for their age and looks.

“That evening some girl sang. Old Afrikaans songs about the Transvaal and Karoo and Kalahari. She was beautiful.” His eyes glaze over as he hums Daar doer in die bosveld. The rest join in until he falls silent. “I remember it clearly: it was my birthday…There was another girl there, a dancer. Beautiful body, even better face. Great hair. A body to die for. Madelein Coetzer. She had a way of moving her body that made me feel more alive than I have been for months. All over.” Kleinpiet snorts, but Vetfaan ignores him. “After the horror of the day, she was too beautiful. It didn’t match, you see? One moment you’re crawling through dust and soiling yourself, and a few hours later you smell like Brut while ogling the breasts of an untouchable woman. It was difficult to distinguish which was the greater agony – the fear of death or the futility of life.”

“When the show ended, this girl stepped up to the microphone and challenged the men to arm-wrestle with her. If somebody could beat her, she’d be his for the night, she said. Best out of three, she said. Now, this is something we sometimes did, and nobody – nobody – ever beat me. I was young and fit back then, and everybody turned to me, knowing I was the birthday boy. Oh, they all wanted a go, of course, but they were afraid I’d beat the hell out of anybody who jumped at the opportunity. This, we all knew, was my chance.

“The army does that, you know? We were a living organism – we needed each other to survive. You need a sniper, you ask Sharpeye Schutte. Your Unimog broke down? Get Spanners Snyman. And when something impossible needs to be carried around, I was the natural choice. It was like that. We got things done for each other – not for some general.”

Vetfaan finishes his brandy, and nods for the last drops from the bottle to be poured in his glass. He tells them that he was shy. This woman can’t be a match for him, can she? And what if he won? H’s never been with a woman before – not like that… And if he lost, he’d be the laughing stock of the camp. Either way, the uncertainties contained in the match made him hesitate.

“You can’t turn your back on such a challenge. The guys cheered me on. I walked to the stage and introduced myself. I could see how she measured me up with those beautiful eyes. I was embarrassed, to say the least. Of course I’d win, and then have to face the prospect of spending the night with her.”

He tells them how they sat down at the table they set up on the small stage. He looked around for one last time, saw the gleaming faces of his comrades and the lust in their eyes. If he won, at least one of them would have a great night. They wanted that satisfaction, even if it were only his pleasure.

“Well, she positioned herself and invited me to extend my arm. I did. I grasped that fine, clean little hand with the manicured nails and told myself it’s a mismatch. The next thing I knew, my hand was slammed back onto the table with a force that jarred my teeth. I said I hadn’t been ready and she laughed.

“The next time, she gave me ample time. She asked if I was ready. When I nodded, she made her arm go limp and allowed me to win. She was putting up a show, to get the guys involved. They cheered and screamed and went on like little boys around a schoolyard fight. But then the third round happened. At one all, the winner of this round would be the overall winner. And I wasn’t sure; her first attempt jarred my confidence, and she let me win the second. The nagging though in the back of my mind was: what if…”

“What happened, Vetfaan?” Boggel opens a new bottle of brandy, and pours a modest single in Vetfaan’s glass.

“She won – well, sort of. Forced my hand back to almost the table top. I looked into those lovely eyes. The men fell silent, totally disappointed in the inevitable outcome. In my mind, I was back on that bloody trail we walked that day. I saw the blood and the gore and the vomit and I felt the dampness all over again. I heard the screams…”

By now, Vetfaan has to wipe away a tear and everybody suddenly finds something to do. Kleinpiet ties his shoe laces, Boggel fetches some ice.

“Well, I think she saw that in my eyes,” Vetfaan continues after a while, “So she allowed my hand push hers back to the middle. And so we sat – frozen between defeat and victory. Whenever I tried to force her hand over, she simply countered. She only went halfway, every time. Once, I thought I had her, but the final push didn’t work.

“After about ten minutes of grunting and sweating, Captain Krizinger suggested we declare a draw. She nodded and I was relieved to sit back. That’s when we started talking.”

And talk they did. Until dawn the next day, they sat at the table on that stage, talking. She told him about her life and the struggle to make money to keep her mother in an old-age home. He told her about the patrol and the war and the baobab tree. She stroked his arm and he thought it must be how an angel’s touch feels. They laughed at each others jokes. They shared silence. In short, it was the best night of his life…

“But, she said, when it was all over, she wanted to be like that woman who had a farm in Africa. Karen von Blixen…I remember the name. She said it was the most beautiful book she had ever read. We were a bit drunk by that time and the camp was starting to stir as the darkness slowly gave way to dawn. And I…I said, when it was over, I’ll be on that farm, waiting for her.”

Vetfaan sways a little as he makes a rolling gesture with his hand. “Last one, Boggel.”

“Did she come?’ Kleinpiet has never heard of a woman on Vetfaan’s farm.

“A landmine took out their bus on their way to the next camp. She died, like the rest of us.”


If you visit Rolbos, you may find Vetfaan in one of his moods. He’s doesn’t get violent or anything like that. It’s just that he drinks a bit more than usual and becomes a bit teary. Boggel says it’s a good thing, that demon must get out before Vetfaan will be all right again. Kleinpiet reckons it isn’t necessary; Vetfaan will drown the bastard at this rate.

But both of them are wrong.

The war on the border destroyed more dreams than lives. It destroyed more families than individuals. The deaths caused by the senseless fighting were bad enough, and will haunt South Africa for generations to come – but death is a singularity; it happens once and then the living must accept the inevitability of it’s reality.

But love? Love is crueler. The loss of love creates a void nothing else can fill. Not even a farm in the Kalahari will help. When Vetfaan stumbles up his stairs at night, he has to sit down halfway. It isn’t the brandy that makes him dizzy – it is the burden of loss that wears him down.

Writing Challenge: History – The Wrong Turn

criminal-lawThe Challenge: Show us how history is something we are part of, not some external event taking place in a palace, office, or war zone far away.


His name is not important – he wouldn’t want you to know him if you should meet him in the street – but he is a man, a grown adult of 40-odd years, and he wants a second chance. Or maybe it’s the fifth or fiftieth chance he is begging for. The number isn’t important; what counts is the desire to be somebody again.

My path crossed his by chance. The circumstances are not important – but it resulted in us having a serious conversation. He is a street artist, a sign-writer, a dreamer, a rebel and has spent many years in jail. Now he is a loner, a reject, an outcast, a hermit.

“Will you help me fix my life?”

The question caught me off-guard, but the plea in his eyes was so obvious that I agreed.

His life started wrong. His mother died (‘I was two – I can’t even remember her face’) and his father had no time for him. His grandmother was a ‘walker’. (In Afrikaans he describes her as a ‘Loper’ – a word with more than one meaning), who travelled from town to town, earning money in the only way she knew. The result was a string of fatherless children, who had to survive in any way possible. At the age of four, his father was ‘sold’ to a rich man as a little slave to play with the only child in the household. When he was sixteen, he escaped to seek his fortune in the bigger towns and cities of the Western Cape.

After his mother died, my new acquaintance became a conglomerate of many personalities. He didn’t like school, but was fascinated by the church, where he became an altar boy. This did not prevent him from stealing at all, and so he had a Jeckyll and Hyde existence – a pious criminal.

His rebellious nature prodded him towards life as a gang member, he joined the youths who protested against Apartheid…and he dreamt of becoming the President of the country one day. After being arrested for assault, he spent twelve years in jail.


Why am I writing this? To be part of a writing challenge? No…a thousand times no!

The object of sharing a bit of this man’s history, is that we are quick to judge. We look at a lined face and expect to find cruel eyes staring back. We look at the history and not at the heart. The words in court documents – history – condemning the wrong turns in a person’s life, end up directing our aversion, forcing people to stay the way they were.

A kind word and some understanding may very well be the answer to the many social ills we are so acutely aware of in South Africa – and the world out there as well. Must we continue to crucify everybody on the cross of the past? Or must we forgive, seven times seventy and even more, and get on with living in harmony?

Am I saying everybody deserves a second chance? Maybe. I also know there are many exceptions and that a naive approach is completely illogical. But…and this is important: let us not be so judgemental. Sit down with an outcast, a rebel, a wrong-doer. Listen. Look at the eyes. Hear the heart.

And then, sometimes and certainly rarely, you’ll find an individual with the genuine desire to take – maybe for the first time in his or her life – the right turn.

Me? I’m taking a chance. I’ll have regular meetings with him, listen to his story and try to offer advice. He’s an intelligent man, making me believe that by simply telling his story, knowing he is being listened to, will already have a healing effect. I know the risk of disappointment is there. But, at least, I’ll be able to say I tried.

Look around you. The man delivering a parcel. The beggar at the traffic light. The woman with the few notes clutched in an anxious hand, staring at the shelves in the supermarket. The youth outside the liquor store…

See the hopelessness in the eyes.

And then decide whether it isn’t time for you, too, to get one sad and rejected little starfish back in the ocean?

Just one.

Fanny’s Surprise (# 8)

 Fanny looks up in shock. Take off her clothes? Sit here naked? She sees Vetfaan turning to go.

“Wait…”  She Holds up a restraining hand before turning to !Ka. “You have to help me here, !Ka. What is this all about? What does she want to do?”

!Ka confers with the old woman before answering.

“There must be a dance. A long dance, for as long as the full moon lasts. Round and round the fire, shuffling. She’ll teach you the words. After a while you’ll enter another world, a deep world, where you’ll see another Life. She calls it The Different Way. After that, your gift will develop. You’ll be able to see,” he taps his head, “up here.”

Fanny gets up and walks away from the circle of light around the fire. !Tung holds out an imploring hand as if wanting to stop her, but the younger woman ignores it. The events of the day are too surreal to digest in such a short period of time. To think the bones they buried here, were from  her own family? And that coincidence after coincidence eventually brought her back to this place, these people? That, without the Busmen’s help, that little boy would have died and she wouldn’t have been here? The story is so absurd, so fantastic…and yet it has a ring of truth to it.

And now, old !Tung wants to dance her into a trance to awaken something she inherited from her mother, who received it from her grandfather?

Vetfaan walks over to her to put a protective arm around her shoulders.

“If you’re confused, girl, so am I. This day rates as the strangest I’ve ever lived through. I can’t tell you much about anything right now, but I can try to help. If you don’t feel like doing this dance…well, then, don’t. You’ve got a wonderful life as it is, why meddle with things we don’t understand…?”

“I don’t want to do this, Fanie. It must b scary to know what’ll happen tomorrow or the next day.  What would I do if I knew you’d die next week? Or what’ll happen to you and me and Henry?  These are strange, spiritual gifts and talents and abilities I don’t want to meddle with. We weren’t created to know the future until we arrive there. That’s the secret of Life, isn’t it? To seek, to find and never, never give up?”

Vetfaan nods. “I agree. You have everything you need.” He wants to add ‘including me’, but doesn’t. “Let’s go talk with them.”

“I’m not sure about this, !Ka,” she tells the two Bushmen at the fire. “It may be different in your culture, and I respect that. But I don’t think I’m comfortable with awakening things I don’t understand. Can’t I think about it and meet here again next month? This is all too sudden, too much.”

Vetfaan clears his throat. “You see, !Tung, we have a great Book that warns us about such things. For you it may be something you grew up with and accepted as normal. But we believe the spiritual world is forbidden. We don’t understand such things, see? That’s why the Book says we may only pray to God, and Him alone. If we listen to Him, He will provide all we need. That’s why we don’t have shamans. We don’t need them.” Although his tone is kind, there is a firmness to his words that brooks no argument. Fanny’s hand find his in the dark to give it a little squeeze. Suddenly Vetfaan feels ten feet tall.

!Tung smiles sadly. “A part of me believed this would happen, but I had to try. This thing must happen with the full moon, and this is my last. Look.” She slides the skirt made of soft skin to one side, to reveal large irregularities in the region of her groin. She also shows several more glands under her arms. “This disease does not go away with plants.” She asks !Ka to translate again.

My mother had this. So did my grandmother. It is something that happens. First you get weak. Then these swellings come. Then you die. Her tone is matter-of-fact, as if the words have nothing to do with her. Next month I’ll be in the New World.

“It must be some form of cancer,” Fanny whispers. They all sit down around the fire, each with a muddle of  own thoughts.  !Ka slumps back, tired after the day’s exhaustion and fatigued by pain. Vetfaan fishes out the last beer and shares it with Fanny.

“I must tell one more thing, then.” !Tung glances at !Ka who is soundly asleep. “To see in the mind is good and bad. Easy and hard. It gives you the respect of people. “ She sighs. “But it also makes you lonely. People fear me.”

“I can understand that, !Tung.” Fanny moves over to sit next to the old woman. “You have been very good to me. You taught me a lot while I was here. But this thing…I can’t do this. You understand? You were born into a certain way of life.  With me, it is different. I don’t want to know…”

“You are wiser than I thought.”  There is a glint of light in the old woman’s eyes. “Wiser.” She works her lips around the word as if it is something exquisitely foreign. “Then it will be so. My work is finished.”

She gets up to walk over to !Ka, shaking his shoulder gently to waken him. Vetfaan and Fanny listen to the steady stream of clicks as they talk. Then she returns to the fire.

“Mister Vetfaan, tomorrow !Ka will be better. You’ll take him to the doctor who will help him. Thank you for being his friend – he will need your help in the future many times. And Miss Fanny, I see you growing old as a happy woman. You’ll have a good husband. I can tell you who, but it will take away all the adventure of discovering.

“Now I have to go.”

She bows down slightly before allowing Fanny and Vetfaan to give her a hug. The night’s darkness folds around her like a cloak as she walks out of the light, with small, purposeful steps carrying her to her destiny.

“Will she be back?”

!Ka looks at her incredulously. “ Of course not.”

Coming soon…604043_532682216772817_1360375968_n

Viva Graca, Viva!

Graca Machel (AFP)

Graca Machel (AFP)

“I quite agree with Graca Machel,” Gertruida says as she puts down the newspaper. “People – worldwide – see us as a violent nation.  Time had that horrible statement about Oscar being a gunman, and we all felt it was a bit much. But here Graca says: South Africa is an angry nation… We are on the precipice of something very dangerous with the potential of not being able to stop the fall. The level of anger and aggression is rising. This is an expression of deeper trouble from the past that has not been addressed. We have to be more cautious about how we deal with a society that is bleeding and breathing pain, 

“I believe she’s right. The amount of bloodshed in our country is unacceptable. It’s not just the farm murders – that’s bad enough already – but the country is losing it’s grip on reality. We’ve a president with enough children to fill a classroom. He still has to explain his role in the Arms Scandal. He’s getting rid of the voices of opponents in his own party. I don’t think he is a good example for other politicians.”

“It’s not just that, Gertruida.” Vetfaan reaches for a new beer. “It’s the way the criminal elements rules the country. I hear you mustn’t stop if a police car flags you down. The chances are that you’d be robbed or raped. They say you have to drive to the nearest public spot, like a petrol station, before stopping. Sure, some policemen are honest, hard-working guys; but others find creative ways of filling their pockets. Maybe that’s why Oscar didn’t phone the police: most burglaries are inside jobs and it is an open question whether you’ll get a prompt and honest response. We stopped trusting the people who must protect us.

“And Mrs Machel hit the nail on the head when she said society is getting more and more violent; causing the police to act in kind. It’s a vicious circle.”

“Well, there’s no such thing as peaceful protest any more either. People seem to think the only way their voices can be heard, is by destruction. Burning buses, trains and buildings are apparently the only ways to get the government’s attention. If service delivery is poor, you ransack the municipal offices. That’s on local level. What’ll happen if these protests become a unified, national movement?” Boggel takes a reflective sip, thinking on the chaos that will follow such events. “But maybe that’s what the government wants. Maybe they think these protests are the way to divert attention from the bigger picture. They can’t govern fairly, and there are deep feelings of distrust amongst large segments of society. Soo…create chaos and make people worry about their own safety, rather than allowing government to get involved in a debate they can’t win.”

Gertruida nods. “It’s an old trick. The Nationalists did the same with the Right Wing in the seventies and eighties. They used the Right Wing to scare people into submission. Remember Mafeking? Even after all these years, we don’t know everything…but sure as nuts, that was an orchestrated event. And don’t forget the lies about the famous Third Force in the nineties. Destabilise and rule. It worked in other parts of Africa, why not use it here as well?”

“It’s sad, isn’t it? In the old days, the Nationalists had a lot to say about the Black Danger and the Communists. Now our parliament has a new way of using the exact same tactics. Only the danger is now multicoloured and the Whites are everybody’s favourite scapegoat. It’s us, they say, who are at the root of all the problems in the country. Shoot the farmer, kill the Boer, indeed.”

“It’s going to get worse.” Servaas rests his chin on his folded arms. “We better know that. I can’t see the government getting a grip on this mess. Look at the cock-up in the Congo. What the hell were our soldiers doing there, anyway? And where was their support?

“It’s a sign, guys. Our rulers don’t plan. They do. And if it doesn’t work out, they appoint a commission of enquiry to point fingers at some poor sod who didn’t take the initial decision. More than likely, it’ll be swept under the carpet, like everything else.”

The group at the bar falls silent. Rome is burning. Nobody can stop those flames… Maybe, just maybe, the plaintive voice of Graca Machel will reach beyond the borders of our devastated country.


Daily Prpmpt: What’s the most surreal experience you’ve ever had?

(This is a reblog, but it fits in so nicely with the theme…)

images (22)“Nobody believes in ghosts any more. That’s a notion that belongs to the past. In this, the 21st   century, we are realists. It is impossible for a spirit – of a dead person, that is – to appear in our dimension.  There is a definite boundary between what we live in, and the realm of the metaphysical. So, sorry, I don’t believe all this nonsense.” Gertruida has that knowledgeable look – the one she uses to stop arguments.

Vetfaan isn’t buckling down. “You can believe what you want. But what about angels? Don’t you believe in guardian spirits that look after you? And what about all those stories in the Bible – are they wrong, too?”

Gertruida says something about more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, before waving a dismissive hand. “We’ll never know everything, I agree. Some things beg explanation, but we don’t know enough to explain them. Point is: I don’t know anybody who has seen a ghost lately. Not within living memory, at least. And that should tell you something, at least.

“The old farmers and trekkers were lonely, superstitious people. They imagined all kinds of stuff: there was a mermaid in Meiringspoort, a ghost in Uniondale and a variety of spirits in the old Concentration Camps. Hollywood took up this theme by filming Scrooge; that story was written many years before, when people were still gullible enough to think ghosts existed. Nowadays they resurrect this fascination with the paranormal with Harry Potter and a selection of vampires.  But still, it remains a fantasy of the superstitious. They don’t exist. Full stop.”

Despite the tone of her voice, Gertruida doesn’t like talking about other dimensions. This is one area where her vast knowledge and her sense for logic fails her.

The discussion was prompted by Kleinpiet, who said his grandmother used to talk about a spirit that occasionally visited her. “It was a woman in a red dress, quite beautiful, although it was difficult to see exactly what she looked like. She timed her visits to occur before major events – like deaths and births.

“Grandma told us the woman never said anything. Over the years, she realised the way this woman tried to tell her something. She always danced – a slow dance for deaths, a polka for births. If she slid her hands down her slender body, it signified female – while strong arm movements indicated male. Grandma used those dances to predict, and she was never wrong.”

Gertruida scoffed at that, calling it luck or coincidence. Kleinpiet looked hurt.

“And there was a platoon of British soldiers that died in the Kalahari in the 1914 Rebellion. They went after General Maritz’s troops, but got lost in the desert. They all died of thirst. The old hunters used to see them marching through the desert, late at night, still looking for water.”

Gertruida tapped the side of her head, saying brandy can do terrible things to you.

Later, the cold Kalahari wind finds its way down Voortrekker Weg (the name is still spelled incorrectly on the skew pole), chasing a lazy dust devil between the buildings. Way out in the desert, a jackal howls in the darkness, while a rather large rat scampers across the road towards Sammie’s Store.  The double Hoooo of an owl drifts on the wind, wakes those that have dropped off to sleep. It is the perfect night for spirits to wander around.

Servaas has other ideas. He has been tossing and turning while contemplating the debate in the bar that evening. Now, if he can scare the others – especially Gertruida – into believing in ghosts, he can have a good laugh at their expense. And as the plan takes shape in his mind, he bursts out laughing. Man, they’ll all be scared out of their wits…

As postmaster, Servaas has a more than rudimentary grasp of electronics. This is going to help him a lot tonight. He dresses in his old army uniform (with difficulty – he has to leave the fly open to get the pants on) before rigging the tape recorder to his back and hiding the speakers under the tunic. With a torch hidden under his shirt, he sets out for the upper end of Voortrekker Weg.

Minutes later, the townsfolk gather at their windows to stare in complete surprise at the apparition marching down the main road – to the blaring of There’ll be blue birds over/The white cliffs of Dover… With the torch switched on, the sight created by Servaas is more than convincing. Making sure that he remains in step with the music, he marches down the street as quickly as he can. At the end of the road he switches everything off and doubles back to his house, using the little footpath behind the buildings to conceal his return.

Undressing quickly in his dark kitchen, Servaas watches through the small window as the lights in the houses come on one after the other.  Soon, Voortrekker Weg is bathed in light and people gather on Boggel’s veranda. Kleinpiet is jubilant – the story of the dead English platoon is right, after all! No longer will Gertruida make fun of spirits – they all saw the troops, didn’t they?

When Gertruida climbs up the steps to the stoep, they all fall silent.

“Well! Now that was an interesting little demonstration, wasn’t it?  I almost missed the dragging of the tape towards the end as the batteries started to give in. Then, of course, the prankster made a fatal mistake.” She had their complete attention by now. “Shows you how much somebody knew about 1914.”

“Go on, Gertruida, tell us?” Vetfaan doesn’t like the thought of Rolbos being declared a ghost town.

“Wel, Burton and Kent only penned that song in 1941. How is it possible that the British soldiers from WW I march to the tune of a WW II song? And remember, even they made a mistake. There never were bluebirds in England – certainly not over the cliffs of Dover. The writers were American and got it all so completely wrong.

“That recording was made by Vera Lynn – born as Vera Margaret Welch – who was born in 1917; years after the Rebellion.

“So the question is: who in this town is a fan of Vera Lynn? And then I remembered the tape amongst Servaas’s collection: Vera Lynn Remembers – The World at War, given out, if I remember correctly, in 1974. Now, maybe, Servaas would like to explain why he woke us all up at this unholy hour.”

Of course they smile at his effort and soon everybody is back in bed with the lights switched off. Peace returns to Rolbos with the ease of the dust settling down after the wind dies down. It’ll pick up again just before dawn, as it usually does.

This is a pity, though. The early-morning wind will blow the red Kalahari sand down Voortrekker weg, obscuring the three neat rows of footprints down the street: footprints of soldiers following a song promising their return to England. Like that time in 1914, they’ll have to stay where they are. Maybe, one day when there really are bluebirds over those cliffs, it’ll be possible for them to return. In the meantime, they’ll  have to keep on marching, marching, marching along through the Kalahari – where the drifting sands disguise the signs of their passing every morning.