JJ had left the desperate embrace of his mother and sister locked together in the old family driveway. He hadn’t looked back as he let the engine burble away at an idle down the street without allowing it its head.
In the cockpit the phone call he’d made rang through the speakers and Marsha answered.
“Could I stop by? It’s quite urgent,” he’d said.
The good news was that Dara was discharged and Al and Marsha would pick him up on their way home after some shopping in the town.
“We could have a quick coffee if you suggest somewhere,” she’d offered.
They’d met at the only option—where he’d had dinner with his sister the night before; Meerkat Restaurant.
Meerkat was surprisingly stylish as small-town establishments go. It’s décor and menu already anticipating the expected growth of a more discerning market of inbound professionals.
JJ had been a few minutes early and chatted mild pleasantries with the proprietor until they’d arrived.
Over coffee he’d briefly recounted to them the information he’d gleaned from his secret recording the night before.
“Jesus… They’re getting that lot involved now? We should probably have seen this coming,” Al had said, referring to the organizations that were planning a delegation out to discuss a resistance movement with their church counterparts. “They picketed some of my book and speaking engagements last month, with their ‘Burn in Hell’ placards. I do have to tell you, there’s just no reasoning with them.”
“It’s the old story,” JJ had agreed, “if you could reason with fanatics, there would be no fanatics.”
“Question is, what to do?” Marsha posed.
“I don’t think there’s much to do until they make the first move. I get a sense that your locals don’t grasp the magnitude, that it runs to billions of dollars and international influence,” Al suggested. “But the Americans will and they’ll throw plenty of cash at a fight too.”
“I woke early and skimmed ahead in my video recording, sampling; and something is up with a land claim they’re planning,” JJ had confided, “but I haven’t had a chance to really detail it—I’ll do that in Cape Town. I’ve got to get back as things there are unraveling… Unfortunately things here unraveled completely this morning with my family too.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Marsha said and JJ briefly outlined it before Marsha asked, “Land claim?”
“They’ve got some notion the Bushmen can get a bid in and tie this all up in red tape.”
“Sounds ominous,” Al had said.
After the meeting, JJ wanted one last chat with somebody. He could have avoided the road past the church but burned to see if the police van was outside, which meant Pa was inside.
His car slid down the road, it’s engine grumbling moodily to itself at the indignity of walking when it could run.
The van was there—but ma’s car was not. If she’d gone to church on a day Pa had duty, they’d have come separately, of that he was certain.
The issue gnawed at him and several times he resisted the urge to turn back for home to check in on her. He did not want to violate his father’s wishes, but he also did not want to re-inflame her agonies—or his own.
He knew that below the exterior of her gentle spirit lay a rod of iron—that she would right herself and immerse quickly into the mundane of being a policeman’s wife in a small town full of minor intrigues of major importance.
He’d call Sonja later and catch up on news from the home front.
When the asphalt ended the gravel began and JJ nursed the thoroughbred over its well-graded surface at a crawl. Oom Willem Bauer sure ran a tight operation JJ marveled, his roads always the best in the district, his storage sheds, livestock pens and staff quarters betraying his 2nd generation German roots, down from Namibia.
On the fork leading to the laborer’s housing the road suddenly degraded; the roots of the Australian blue gums making the surface severely uneven, so JJ halted in favor of caution.
Etiquette held that he should first take the main route to the farmhouse before visiting the farm laborers—to give greetings and at least hint at what business took him to see staff. But it being church time, the entire Bauer family would be absent till noon or beyond, and he reckoned if ever quizzed he could claim he’d undertaken the ritual but nobody was home to witness it.
He parked away from the shade of the trees, preferring the superheating of the sun to bird droppings that might corrode his precious darling’s paintwork; it would be hours before he could wash it clean.
The walk from the car was a pleasant three hundred meters in the shade of the trees, and a small delegation who had heard the unaccustomed rumble of the performance engine edging toward them had already gathered, their ears and instincts for changes in their environment tuned at uncanny levels of sensitivity. Some of the kids came in a racing gaggle heading directly toward him—several of them steering old bald car tires with planks of wood.
“Hello Baas JJ!” They exclaimed in excited unison when they recognized him, long before his dulled city eyes could pick them out as recognizable individuals.
“Hello kinders…” he replied, and he could see that as the road curved, their attentions were already past him and on his car in the distance behind him. This strange beast of a vehicle needed their expert attentions and they barely checked stride as they flew past and onward.
“…kyk, maar moenie aan die kar vat nie... hou daai tire ver van die kar af!”
Looking, but not touching was never going to happen and JJ didn’t mind; but he was genuinely concerned about the tire scraping the car.
“Jaaaaa baas!” They sang in unison over their shoulders as they tore off bare-footed, galloping down the thorn-laden track.
Most of the girls not interested in the car had whirled early and were running with hitched-up dresses howling like town-criers back in the direction they’d come, heralding to their elders—“Dis Baas JJ! Baas JJ.”
JJ arrived to an almost celebrity enthusiasm from the small group. Although it was still pre-noon several of the adults were already well inebriated and stumbled and tottered about, trying to fix a focus on JJ so that they could touch him—the sober ones scolding them away.
They all liked JJ—he’d grown up between the farms and most of the older generation knew him very well from when he was a rough and tough farm-boy with a good heart. Even then, as a boy, he’d had the uncompromising Calvinist ethos on the sports field and as a taskmaster; when their Baas Bauer had hired him to help oversee lambing season.
Oom Karel lay where he’d always be found if he had time off, under his favorite tree—an ancient battered FM radio producing tinny treble-rich renditions of tunes popular six or more decades earlier.
On seeing JJ he made to get up.
“Sit…. Sit maar Oom,” JJ gestured for him to stay put.
The old man gave him a haasbek grin—a single last tooth visible—his face disappeared into folds of delight, “Jaaaa my boy,” he said in Afrikaans. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
The reference to waiting caught JJ a little by surprise, “It’s kind of you to say so, Oom.”
JJ made to sit down cross-legged in the dirt but Karel forestalled him and yelled for his someone to bring a blanket. It was hurriedly folded for comfort and laid down with humble apologies for its threadbare state. JJ knew it would be the best in the house.
Some of the youngsters milled close by trying to remain inconspicuous yet within earshot to soak up whatever portentous news might promote their standing in the community if they heard it first-hand from this visiting luminary.
There was some small talk about the ongoing drought and distressed state of the farm and its livestock, and then JJ smoothly moved into the matter he’d come for—the snippets he’d gleaned from the video recording of the secret meeting in his father’s kitchen the night before.
“Ja, my boy. I know about this thing coming to us,” the Oom was just cagey enough for JJ to pick up that there was more afoot than what he’d get in one meeting. “My boy—my grandson Dawie, he tells me what they tell him at his school.”
‘Dawie…?’ JJ knew that name and then it hit him—the boy’s name had come up in discussions with both Dara on that first day and then through Marsha subsequently. By all accounts he was a bright boy. This connection was quite fortuitous.
“Is Dawie about?” he asked the Oom, “I’d like very much to meet him.”
Karel sent a runner to go fetch the boy who was off playing with a slingshot. Such an important errand caused some squabble among the boys, each wanting the honor—two took off racing one another out into the heat.
“I’m glad the kids are learning about this new development,” JJ was saying. “It is going to bring a lot of good here.”
Karel frowned, weighing this sudden turn of events.
“These ears are going to bring good?” He asked of JJ in a testing manner.
“Yes,” JJ volunteered, “…more work, more money to the town can only be good, no?”
The Oom began to worry at his chin with his nails, thinking… scheming what this meant.
“En Baas,” he inclined his head, “the Baas thinks it is not listening for the Devil?”
JJ chuckled—“They’ve gotten to him,” he thought. “No, my Oom. I’m certain the devil has nothing to do with this… But I heard some stories, Oom … that the Dominee came to talk to you.”
“Ja”, the Oom responded simply—his eyes now betraying no direction of his thoughts. “Didn’t the Dominee send you?” he asked tentatively.
JJ was confused by the question and frowned—Karel saw his genuine puzzlement.
“Baasie… you are a law man now, in the big city?”
“Yes, Oom—I’m a lawyer…?”
“And did the Dominee not send you then?” The old head was cocked to the side, shrewd suspicion in his eye.
“No my Oom, why would the Dominee send me?”
“Because, excuse me Baas—but the Dominee, he said that lawyers will come—you know… to help with our claim.”
It all began falling into place—the old man thought he, JJ, was here at the Dominee’s behest to fight the case for the land-use claim.
“Ah… yes, Oom—now I understand. No… no-no… The Dominee and your Baas Bauer don’t know I’m here; and I don’t want them to know I’m here,” he pointedly looked at the children close by who were eyeing him and straining to hear.
Karel tracked his gaze and understood.
With colourful expletive language and threats, Oom Karel promulgated JJ’s request into law to be disseminated to all others by everyone in earshot.
Enthusiastic nods accrued and the whites of eyes showed with earnestness that the insistence was agreed to.
“Ja Baas,” said the old man—his eyes twinkling now with conspiratorial cunning; he and his people loved a good intrigue—in the absence of television, it was their living soap opera. “Nobody will talk, I’ll see to that,” he assured JJ.
“Good,” JJ knew Karel wielded power beyond his frail appearance. He was a living representative not just of the surviving elders, but the departed ones too and nobody would cross that line; the wrath they’d face went several steps past the mere judicial law of the courts.
“Another lawyer will come,” JJ predicted, “…and I’m sure he’ll come with the Dominee and papers. They will tell you how much good putting your name to those papers can bring to all, but you must say that you need to think on it—don’t let them have your mark immediately.”
“Ja Baasie,” it’s what Karel had decided to do anyway.
“And you have Dawie ask his friend—the new boy, Dara, to arrange a copy for me. I’ll arrange for Dara and his mother to get them to me,” he paused a moment, not leaving anything to chance, “Nobody…. absolutely nobody must know what we’ve talked about,” he emphasized.
“That is the right idea, Baas,” Karel agreed, the cogs whirring behind his canny old eyes. And then he shouted out, “Where is that boy? Did those other boys fall asleep looking for Dawie? Somebody go find them!”
Another small delegation ran off into the sun and the bushveld.
“And I’ll be back soon to come help,” JJ assured. “I’ll bring something nice from the city.” He winked at the old man; “Now, when I leave here, Oom, send one of the boys, a trustworthy boy with me—I have something in the car for you.”
Karel’s face imploded into delighted wrinkles again and he cooed and swooned—it was sure to be tobacco. “Ooh… I hope it is very special,” Karel hinted, “Veeeery special… Some wild tobacco maybe?”
JJ just smiled. Wild tobacco was local code for dagga—marijuana.
In these climes low-grade versions of the plant grew wild and carried no social stigma; it had a long cultural legacy and a short legal sanction.
JJ chuckled, “Ja, Oom. That stuff will make you slow and stupid.”
“This old bushman is happy to be slow and stupid if it turns off the cold in his bones.”
Just then, Dawie came puffing up the dirt drive barefooted and dusty.
“Hello Meneer,” he greeted JJ and held his gaze with uncharacteristic assurance. The boy’s eyes were alive with knowing.
“This one is Dawie,” Karel said with great pride, his eyes sparkling with love for the boy.
“I’m very pleased to meet you,” JJ offered Dawie a handshake.
The lad’s grip was firm and dry, his small bony fist like a knot of hardwood.
“Thank you Meneer. Meneer is a friend of Dara?”
“Yes,” JJ confirmed. “I believe you spent a lot of time with him.”
“Ja Meneer. Meneer, how is Dara?”
“He is going home today, you can call him.”
The lad shuffled and looked at his feet, offering an unconvincing “I will.”
“Our phone eeees broken, Meneer. We need a new phone because it doesn’t work anymore,” one of the other boys on the fringes chipped in.
“Jy… voetsak…!”—Get away from here—Dawie’s backhand gesture emphasized as he scolded his peer. “Moenie kom staan en bedel nie,” he laid into his peer, warning him with several rapid versions of colloquialism to not come stand around begging.
JJ saw Dawie’s leadership role accepted from the others who all jumped with fright. He instantly liked the boy’s pride; his anger at not wanting to betray to an outsider their impoverished state that left them without even a phone between them.
“Let’s see…” JJ said to himself rhetorically when Dawie was done.
“Niks nie… nothing… You go to school every day?” He quizzed the lad.
“Jaaaa, Meneer!” Dawie replied with grave emphasis on the affirmative, “I never miss a day!”
The sea of little spectators who were pretending not to listen, as they most certainly shouldn’t have been, all nodded agreement as earnestly, two or three of them verbally chipping in positive murmurs confirming Dawie’s diligence.
“You have told your Oupa about the SKA? The telescope?”
“Every day!” He declared. “I am very excited about it. They have told us all about it at school.”
The old man was nodding sagely, leaving JJ relieved that sense was prevailing in this unlikely little corner of the region.
On a whim, so taken was he with the boy, JJ said something he hadn’t planned to say, “Do you want to come to the city?”
It was out before he even understood why he’d said it.
The boy’s eyes looked startled and he vigorously agreed without hesitation.
“A visit when Dara comes—we can arrange that—and then we’ll see…” JJ left what was on his mind unsaid.
“It would be good if he went to the city,” Karel chimed in. “A boy like this… he must learn so that he can grow and make us all strong.”
“I will look into it,” JJ promised. He knew Marsha was thinking along the same lines and on a whim had effectively offered to collaborate.
JJ stood up and the old man battled to his feet too—refusing orders to stay seated, “I must move these old bones,” he chuckled, “or they’ll take root.”
“I would like to stay, but it’s a long drive to my home still.”
JJ put out his hand to shake but the old man used it as a pivot to pull himself toward the big man. It was a first time ever—ever—that he had hugged a white man, but something in the moment commanded him to do so.
The act came as a surprise to JJ in whose culture men did not ordinarily hug—they certainly did not hug across a colour bar. But it was a natural moment, one he was glad for, allowing him to push another silent hidden artifact of a miserable legacy dormant within, away and behind him.
“In case we don’t meet again, Baas,” the frail old man was saying.
JJ could feel the truth of it in his bony shoulder blades, which seemed at this instant so much like angels wings.
“No talk like that,” JJ scolded him. “We all need you too much… your wisdom.”
“Any wisdom I have is in this boy now,” the old man retorted.
“I’m back shortly,” JJ assured, inclining his head for Dawie to follow. He turned and walked away toward the car.
The two made their way past the others doing Sunday things. Many farewell greetings later the giant and the urchin were rounding the gentle bend and obscured from sight by the trees.
Karel lay down again to think about this very strange turn of events—the son of the policeman, the Dominee’s once-favorite, taking a stand against them.
It made him laugh.
“You look after your grandfather,” JJ told Dawie. From his wallet he peeled a sizeable wad of notes, folded them and then surreptitiously slipped them to Dawie so the ragtag band of curious followers couldn’t see. “I want you to buy a mobile phone with that and some airtime. I’ll give you my number and email—you have computers at school—we’ll stay in touch. Your grandfather is going to need special attention—I am going to arrange that he gets properly assessed at the clinic on a regular basis… And, Dawie… there is some serious business going on here, I need you to be my agent.”
The boy was beaming—deputized as an agent, he seemed to have grown vast in stature; taller and walking like a giant next to one.
“You know who my father is?” He asked Dawie.
“When we’re alone you can call me JJ,” he said, and the boy looked abashed.
“Ja Baas… JJ,” Dawie responded coyly.
“All right… it will take some getting used to…” JJ reminded himself; the formal respects beyond the cities were still ingrained. “My father is a very good man,” he explained. “He sometimes seems angry, and as a policeman he is always suspicious—he is paid to be suspicious.”
“Ja Baas… JJ.”
JJ looked at the last few stragglers still nosing close by and they read his meaning; they fell back slightly, out of earshot. “And I love my father like you love your grandfather… But a father can be wrong, I can still love him and know that he is wrong.”
“I don’t want to hurt my father in any way. I don’t want to embarrass my mother in front of the volk,” he paused to let it sink in. “But there is a little trouble coming that will put me against my Pa and others. This can’t be helped. But the longer you and I… the longer we can keep this secret, the smaller the trouble, and the happier everyone will be.”
“Ja Baas… JJ, I understand,” the boy said with nodding resolve.
JJ opened the car and began to rummage in his bag for something. He found the package and held it as he spoke.
“I need you to control the others. Like your grandfather, you will become the clan leader one day—and this is where your leadership begins. Here, today.”
He handed the package over to Dawie.
“Dankie Baas…” he hesitated and repeated with much effort, “Dankie…” the baas’ name resisted leaving his lips without its respectful title, “…JJ.”
They were alone afterall, he thought, just as the Baas said it should be.
JJ squeezed his shoulder like a friend, surveyed up and down the road as if to check for prying eyes and stooped down into the bucket seat. The door shut with a precise-‘thunk’ and the muscular engine barked into life.
The other kids startled and shot back several paces. Dawie stood his ground. He had never seen such a machine close up and his heart matched the beat of its engine—his knees felt like boiled spaghetti, so he turned and began to walk, turning back to wave, walk, wave, walk.
JJ put the car in gear and eased away, careful to not disturb dirt or flick stones.
He saw Dawie sniff the bag in his hand and smile.
JJ wagged his finger and shouted after him, “If you want to come to the city, that is for an old man’s pain only.”