Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Holiday by Beryl Ensor-Smith

Oom Fanie's orchestra falls apart and he finds himself at a loss, so his daughter-in-law sends him on holiday to Duiwelspoort, in Beryl Ensor-Smith latest delightful slice of Prentburg life.

Losing the last joint on each of three fingers of his right hand was a tragedy for Dolf de Lange. However, the way Oom Fanie carried on about it, anyone would have thought Dolf had deliberately put his hand into the new cutting machine and that the tragedy was Oom Fanie's. Which, in a way, it was, as Dolf was (or had been) one of the three remaining members of Oom Fanie's boere orkes. The past year had seen it decline in number from seven active members to three tired ones. Marius Steyn had been inconsiderate enough to die at age 82. (If he had looked after himself he could at least have reached 90, Oom Fanie grumbled.) Arthritis had overtaken the two Conradie "boys" so that they played more discords than concords on their guitars, finally admitting defeat, and the fourth member (a man of mean spirit, Oom Fanie maintained) had resigned in disgust, saying that the low standard of the remaining members was too evident now that the guitars weren't there to drown them out, and the high standard of his own playing was being adversely affected.

The other three had carried valiantly on, at first loyally supported by the locals. With the passing of time, however, sneaking sympathy developed towards the member who had "finked out" as Oom Fanie put it, for the standard of playing was indeed deplorably low and the tunes played very old-fashioned. When Dolf damaged his hand, it spelt the end of the orkes. Many residents of Prentburg breathed a sigh of relief.

Oom Fanie took it very badly. Since his retirement, his orkes had meant a great deal to him and he felt lost without it. He became even more difficult than usual and his daughter-in-law, Elsie Fourie, normally a placid woman, was driven to desperate measures.

"You do something, or else!" she threatened her husband, Japie. "He's enough to try the patience of a saint."

"I know he's been difficult, Elsie," Japie placated her, "but he's really miserable now that time is hanging on his hands."

"It's not only time that will hang," Elsie said determinedly. "One of these days you'll come home to find your pa strung up from the rafters and me beside him, unless you do something."

Japie was alarmed. His Elsie was not given to hysterics and normally she was fond of the old man. He thought things over for a couple of days and then took Elsie aside.

"I've found the answer. Pa needs a holiday to help him get over his disappointment. We'll send him to Duiwelspoort. There's a lot of activity there and he'll come back his old self."

"I'd rather he came back a new self," Elsie said resignedly. "A pleasant one. Duiwelspoort? Is that a good choice, Japie? From all accounts it's a pretty wild place with all sorts of goings on. Drink and heaven knows what else. There's no control across the border."

"Ag, come on!" Japie scoffed, "those are just rumours. It's got hot springs and there are lots of churches too, I'm told."

"Oh?" queried Elsie, doubtfully.

"Ja, and it's a lot less expensive than sending him to Durban. Now there is a den of iniquity!"

With much protesting Oom Fanie was dispatched to Duiwelspoort, some 300 kms away. Elsie arranged a lift with the Du Preez, who willingly made the detour through Duiwelspoort on their way to the Wild Coast. She had enquired through the Publicity Bureau and booked him into a private hotel run by a respectable widow. A phone call to the widow had elicited the promise that she would keep an eye on Oom Fanie and see that he visited the right places.

Oom Fanie was very displeased at being "pushed around" as he called it, but once the Du Preez had dropped him off at the boarding house, he took stock of things and decided life could be worse. For one thing, the widow running the place was a meek little thing and he would soon get the better of her! For another, on investigation, Duiwelspoort held a number of attractions. It had cinemas and a greyhound race course, just for starters, and one of the guests at the boarding house, a rather withered blonde of uncertain years but opulent charms, took a shine to him and promised to show him around. Oom Fanie was rather wary of her to begin with, being steeped in Calvinist teachings, but when she proved to have only friendly intentions, was pleased to allow her to shepherd him, as she seemed familiar with a lot of interesting places. The boarding house owner, Mrs. Loubser, shook her head doubtfully over their alliance, but when her conscience prompted her to warm Oom Fanie off, she remembered just in time that he would be staying only two weeks, while Nina de Villiers was a resident of long standing and met her rent bill promptly every month end. It wouldn't do to annoy her, and besides, Oom Fanie was surely old enough to look after himself? With that comforting thought, she pushed the matter from her mind.

Nina certainly knew her way around and what was more, proved very generous. Not only did she not expect Oom Fanie to pay for her on their jaunts, but she often stood him! At first their excursions were tentative. A visit to a travelling circus was enjoyable until one of the clowns was misguided enough to make Oom Fanie in the front row the butt of one of his jokes. He soon learned better. Without hesitating, Oom Fanie "bopped" him one on the end of his painted nose. While the clown was still squealing and the audience laughing, thinking it was part of the show, Nina hustled Oom Fanie out.

"My, you are a one," she said admiringly when they were safely on the bus. "For a man of your age, that was pretty good! You didn't even blink before bashing him, and he was much younger, too!"

While Oom Fanie didn't particularly relish the allusion to his age, her obvious sincerity was flattering and he didn't remind her that the clown, though younger, had been only half his own size. He turned around to meet Nina's thoughtful blue gaze.

"You've got spirit, Fanie. I know some places you'll enjoy. These days I like to be sure of people before taking them." She hesitated, flicking a blonde curl into place, "I took someone to visit these friends once. Afterwards he called the police." Her voice rose shrilly in indignation. "Bit the hand that fed him! They only just managed to hide the roulette wheel and clear the table. Luckily fat Mabel was there and she bundled everything under her skirt!" Nina laughed throatily at the memory. A nice laugh it was, Oom Fanie thought. Loud and unrestrained. Not the kind one heard much in Prentburg. A pang of guilt assailed him momentarily as he thought of his daughter-in-law's rare and fleeting smile. She was a good girl, Elsie, if a bit on the strict side. Looking at Nina in her modish dress, he knew Elsie would not approve, and was overcome suddenly with a roguish feeling of devil-may-care. For the first time in weeks - no, months - he felt truly alive!

Soon thereafter, Nina took him to the friends who ran a gambling den from their house. Oom Fanie was fascinated and also a little overawed. The "guests" all looked so posh in evening dress and the spinning of the roulette wheel under the dim lights held a mesmeric attraction. He was highly suspicious of the card players involved with "black jack", convinced that they were all cheating. This and his narrow upbringing prevented his participating. Nina was only slightly disappointed.

"I can see it's not your scene," she said kindly, casting a critical eye over his comfortable shabby clothing. "We should try the dog racing. You won't be able to resist that!"

Nor could he. The first Saturday when Nina led him into the stands, he felt a tingling sensation in the palms of his hands, a thing he had never experienced before. After the first race, he was completely captivated. A dog was something very different from a roulette wheel or a pack of cards. Luck had nothing to do with winning. Good breeding, good training and a firm hand now and again to show it who was boss! He could relate to dog racing. He did this to the tune of half the collection money Elsie had sent for him to put into the church plate - and felt vindicated when, at the end of the day, he had made a nice profit. Nina had introduced him to another friend who seemed to spend every waking moment at the race course and this Ted had given Oom Fanie "hot tips" that had paid off.

Nevertheless, in the stillness of his room that night, thoughts of his family and of Dominee Seibrand's attitude to any form of gambling plagued Oom Fanie to the point that he decided to go twice to church the next day to make up for his sins and to put more in the collection plate than Elsie had intended. That way no-one could say he didn't put his winnings to good use. At breakfast the next day he announced loudly that he would be attending both the morning and the evening church services and donating generously to church funds. Nina gave him a look of sceptical amusement, having learned that Oom Fanie was extremely tight-fisted. Defiantly he flashed two R50 notes.

"One for the morning service and one for the evening," he said gruffly.

Mrs. Loubser looked dumbstruck. If she'd known his family was moneyed, she'd have raised her fees, she thought peevishly.

It just so happened that Elsie phoned while Oom Fanie was still at church. She was pleased to hear from Mrs Loubser about his attendance, but rather puzzled when that lady replied tartly that he intended going again that night. Her eyes widened in shock at the further news that he had flashed two R50 notes around saying they were for the collection. Elsie spent the rest of the day in troubled speculation. When Japie arrived home from work, she met him at the gate.

"I'm worried about your pa," she said. "We should never have sent him off alone like that. He's too old. Japie, he's put nearly all his spending money into the church collection!" and she told him of her conversation with Mrs Loubser. Japie scratched his head doubtfully.

"That doesn't sound like pa! He's more likely to pretend not to notice the plate being passed along than to put extra into it! What do you suppose he's up to?" They stared at one another in perplexity.

Meantime, conscience appeased, Oom Fanie was once again up to form. He could visit the race course without qualm (it was to the church's advantage, wasn't it?) and enjoy the racing to the full. Nina's Ted gave him more good advice and he continued to win a little here and a little there until he had built up a tidy sum by the following Thursday.

"You know what you should do now, Fanie?" Nina said unexpectedly, "You should get yourself a nice set of false teeth! It would make such a difference to your appearance. Take years off your age," she finished craftily. She had hit upon Oom Fanie's weak point. He was very age conscious these days, what with Marius dying off and the Conradie "boys", his contemporaries, openly admitting they were past it. He gave the matter some thought and then allowed Nina to take him to a "painless" dentist she knew. Later he had a great deal to say to her about the dentist.

"That's painless? That butcher!"

"Come now," she said soothingly, "it will all be worth it. By Monday you'll have a lovely set of posh new teeth." And felt greatly satisfied that she would get a nice commission from the dentist for bringing him a profitable bit of business!

She had also introduced Oom Fanie to a greyhound breeder who, left with two runts from the last litter, was trying desperately to sell them off. Detecting a glimmer of interest in Oom Fanie, he extolled their virtues and their lineage at great length.

"I'm selling them off cheaply - letting them go for virtually nothing! Their dam's in whelp again and I can't have these two around when the new pups arrive. R300 each is all I'm asking. It's a give-away!"

Fanie grunted, saying nothing, but his mind was ticking cautiously over. If he bought the dogs, all his winnings would be gone. On the other hand, there was another week of holidays in which he could win more, and just think what he could make if he took those dogs back to Prentburg and got them racing! All he needed were two dogs. Later he could build up a nice little pack and really get going. A man needed an interest, didn't he? Of course, there were some problems to overcome. He discussed these with Nina.

"The volk in Prentburg are a very religious lot. They're against any gambling or stuff like that."

"But this wouldn't be gambling. Not really. You'd start off by inviting a few close friends to visit and then get the conversation around to the dogs, bringing attention to their racing features. Then all you do," she said artlessly, "is say that you bet, in a race, the one will win and as sure as we sit here, one of your friends, just to be contrary, will say, no the other would... and there you are!"

"There's a nice bit of flat veld behind Davenport's smallholding," Fanie admitted, "and you're right about my friends. If I say something is white, they'll swear it's black!"

"So you see, no problem!" Nina said cheerfully, mentally calculating what she could wheedle from the greyhound breeder for introducing Fanie as a buyer of the two runts.

"Ja, but how do I get those dogs back to Prentburg? Elsie will have a fit!"

"What we do is this," Nina said, and outlined a plan with which he could find no fault.

Nina's niece, Bessie, would be driving Prentburg way on Monday. She would take the two dogs and drop them off at Elsie's. When Bessie left Duiwelspoort, Fanie was to phone Elsie and tell her the dogs were on their way. She could hardly refuse to accept them when a stranger arrived, now could she?

"You don't know Elsie," Fanie said darkly.

"And you don't know Bessie," Nina returned. "She's very strong willed and quick witted. Can talk her way out of anything. Not that she's ever needed to," she continued hastily, "and of course when you phone Elsie you will tell her what thoroughbred dogs these are and how they'll bring in a lot of money. You won't mention racing, of course... let her think you mean to breed them. Something to keep you busy during the long days. You'll know what to say." She patted his hand encouragingly.

"Ja," Oom Fanie said doubtfully. "I'll give it a try."

Once he had paid R600 for the dogs he decided to give it a very good try indeed!

Monday proved to be an eventful day. First of all the new teeth were ready. They were far from comfortable, but the dentist assured him that after a few days they would "fit like a glove" and meantime Fanie must persevere. They certainly made a difference to his appearance, especially when he smiled. Gleaming white and beautifully even, he felt very pleased with them and showed them off at every opportunity. Nina's niece, Bessie, was vastly amused by him.

"You're quite a card," she laughed, helping Oom Fanie settle the two greyhounds into the back of her van. "What are you going to call this pair?"

"Jagter and Sport," he returned thickly, trying to manage his new teeth, grinning experimentally. "You'd better let them out now and then to pee. It's a long trip."

"Don't you worry, Oom," Bessie assured him, "they'll be fine... won't you?" turning to the dogs. They stared back at her dolefully. "I must say they're a sorry-looking pair. Skinny and weak." Catching the message in Nina's eyes, she amended "but just right, of course, for your purpose!"

Urged on by Nina, once Bessie had left, Oom Fanie put a call through the exchange to Prentburg. When he heard Elsie's voice answer, his tongue dried up in his mouth and his new teeth proved a real impediment to speech. Elsie, on the other end of the phone, battled to hear what he was saying.

"Who is it I must expect?" she asked anxiously. In reply she heard only the word "racers", quickly cut short and followed by a bout of loud coughing as Fanie correctly interpreted the nudge from Nina. "There'll be a couple," he said hurriedly. "Look after them, Elsie, will you? They'll prove their worth in a very short time. They're really good."

"But Pa," she was still protesting, when his courage ran out.

"The line is bad," he interrupted, letting his teeth clatter unintelligibly. "Just make sure you take good care of them for the sake of an old, dispirited man. They will revive my interest in life. Goodbye Elsie. God Bless."

Thoroughly mystified, Elsie replaced the receiver. What had got into the old man? Who was she expected to take such good care of?

The question was answered, or so it seemed, later in the day when there was a knock on the door and three long-haired young men graced - or disgraced, depending on the way you looked at it - her doorstep. They all looked as if they could do with a darned good scrubbing.

"Yes? she asked discouragingly. In the face of her obvious disapproval, the three stirred uncomfortably. The tall, black-bearded one pulled himself together.

"He said to come here. He said you might have accommodation for us."

Elsie stared at them aghast, light suddenly dawning. It really was too much! That Pa Fanie could expect her to house these unkempt creatures! Then she remembered the pathos in his voice when he'd spoken of being old and needing an interest.

"What are you to him?" she demanded. The three looked even more stupid, if that were possible.

"We're a rock group," the short, fat one said at last, totally at a loss.

Elsie shook her head. "Too much," she murmured, "but I suppose you'd better come in. You're the Racers?"

They looked taken aback. "No, we're the Rockets," the nondescript one said loftily. "We're very good musicians."

"He said so," Elsie replied sceptically. "I'm thinking where to put you... you'll have to share a room. It's a big one at the back of the house so you should be comfortable."

"That'll be fine," the tall one said quickly, unable to believe their luck. That store keeper they had asked about accommodation had seemed so surly and not at all interested in them and their troubles. He had tossed off Elsie Fourie's name and address almost contemptuously, with a nasty kind of knowing grin, yet he had obviously taken the trouble to phone her and had even spoken of their talent when he had never even heard them play! Just went to show you could never tell about people.

"What do you charge?" the little fat one asked cautiously.

Elsie shrugged. "We'll settle on something you can afford," she said pragmatically, thinking to herself that from their appearances she was hardly likely to profit from the arrangement. "I'm doing this for him, not for you, you understand?"

"Yes," all three chorused, so relieved at finally finding somewhere to stay in this unfriendly dorp that they would agree to almost anything, though they didn't understand at all!

You will all bath before dinner," Elsie said sternly, looking them up and down. "Roast chicken, sweet potatoes, new peas, rice and upside-down pudding."

"Yes, yes," they said as one man, mouths watering at the prospect. A bath would be a small price to pay for such a meal.

Elsie left them to settle into their new quarters, shaking her head. But if she'd imagined her troubles were over for the day, she was sadly mistaken. Just before sunset a van pulled up outside her gate and the strangest girl got out, leading a starved-looking dog. The girl had hair like a mop, scarlet lips and a skirt that stopped short mid-thigh. The dog looked drained of energy and dejected.

"Hi, you must be Elsie," the girl said brightly, unaware of giving offense at such familiarity. "Well, here's Oom Fanie's dog. I think this one is Sport," she said, peering doubtfully down at the animal. "From the way the other one took off into the blue when I let them out to... well, you know... he could only have been Jagter." Elsie stared at the strange girl, her jaw dropping.

"This is Pa Fanie's?" she asked unsteadily. The girl nodded. "There were two. Like I said, the other disappeared when I let them out. He was so quick I hadn't a chance of catching him. Tell Oom Fanie I'm sorry, will you? Such a nice man. Such a sparkling, friendly smile..." She laughed merrily before stepping back into the van and driving off, leaving Elsie holding the end of the rope to which the odd-looking dog was attached. It promptly raised its head and howled mournfully.

"Now just you stop that!" Elsie said automatically, staring at the dust of the receding vehicle, then returned her glance to the dog. "But I know just how you feel. Any minute I'll join in! Come now. I suppose the best thing is to feed you, you skinny thing. When did you last have a square meal?" Slinking down beside the woman with the brusque but kindly voice, Sport raised pathetic brown eyes to her.

"Ag, nee," she said, weakening and patting the smooth head. "'Sport' indeed! It really is too bad of Pa to do this to me!" Muttering to herself she led the way into the warm kitchen, Sport following more eagerly as the inviting smell of good food assailed his nostrils.

When Japie Fourie arrived back from work, he found his home a very different place from the way he had left it. There were three young men of the type he most disliked draped around the living room and when he went in search of Elsie to find out what it meant, was met in the passage by an apology of a dog that promptly growled at him. Elsie popped her head around the kitchen door.

"Oh, you're home," she stuck out her cheek to be kissed and as Japie leaned towards her, the dog leaped between them, growling again. Elsie laughed in astonishment. "He's protecting me! That's nice, you know. Perhaps your pa knew a thing or two when he got this dog."

"This is Pa's?" Japie questioned dully, glaring at the dog.

"Ja, and those three in the living room." Elsie quickly outlined the affairs of the day to her indignant husband.

"Now don't you go off pop," as he reacted angrily, "it's obvious that your pa's suffering some kind of breakdown."
"He's demented," Japie said heatedly. "If he thinks..."
"But you should have heard him on the phone, Japie," Elsie interrupted. "He seemed to be having trouble speaking and was quite emotional. He spoke of being old and of spirits and revival and finished off with something about God. It was a very strange conversation."

Japie was bereft of speech. Elsie suddenly clutched at a chair back and went white.

"That would explain it," she breathed.

"What is it, woman?" Japie was alarmed.

"Your pa! Think, Japie. Is it in his nature to go to religious services twice a day? To put his pocket money into the church collection? To collect stray dogs - she said there were two, that strange girl - and send them home to be fed? To befriend that type of youth?" with a jerk towards the living room, "and to phone especially to ask me to look after them? It adds up to only one thing," she said in distress. "He's been to one of those revival meetings in a tent and been converted! It's the only explanation. Oh, Japie," she wailed, "this is too terrible. What will Dominee Seibrand say?"

"No, no. That's not Pa. Never!"

"You think I'm lying to you? You're not the one who's spoken to him since he left. He's changed, Japie. I remember another thing... that girl who left Sport, she spoke of his sparkling, friendly smile! Now can you honestly say that your pa is the smiling, friendly type? The last time I remember him laugh was when Mrs. Meyer slipped in the street and broke her leg. He said it served her right for saying such bad things about his boere orkes."

"There's got to be another explanation," Japie insisted, "like sudden madness!"

They stared at one another in growing confusion.

"It's time to bring him home," Japie said at last.

"I knew we shouldn't have sent him off on his own like that! And to a place with a reputation like Duiwelspoort. I knew no good would come of it," Elsie said accusingly.

"So! Now you're blaming me," Japie grated and was forced to take a hasty step backwards as Sport lifted a lip and snarled at him. "I'm going to shoot this... this creature. How dare he turn on me in my own house?"

Elsie smiled widely and bent to pat the animal. "He's going to be a good watch dog, just wait and see!"

Japie strode up the passage towards the bedroom. Between that dog and a father and wife who suddenly seemed to find life full of laughs, he, Japie, was in for a bad time of it!

He had to postpone fetching his father for two further days as there was too much work to get through in the early part of the week to be able to take a day off.

"The terrible waste of it," he grumbled to Elsie. "A day's leave instead of fetching him at the weekend, and that Loubser woman refusing to refund money for the rest of the week. Did you tell pa I'm coming?"

"No," Elsie replied, "I thought about it, but with him acting so strange, he might decide not to be there. It's better that you just arrive."

His daughter-in-law knew Fanie better than she realised. Had he had any inkling of being taken home, he would immediately have gone into hiding. For one thing, he wanted to recoup the money he'd paid out for Jagter and Sport. For another, he was still sampling the delights of Duiwelspoort. Nina had taken him to a party the previous night where the food and wine had flowed freely. Especially the wine!

Consequently he was nursing a very bad headache when his son arrived unexpectedly and demanded that he pack as they were going home. In vain did Fanie argue. Japie's mouth remained a grim line and he personally threw his father's clothes any-old-how into the suitcase.

"Your Elsie will fix you when she sees what you've done to my clothes," Fanie flared at him. Japie merely muttered beneath his breath and hustled the old man rather forcibly to the car by the elbow.

"I want to say goodbye to Nina," Fanie protested. As if she had heard, a wild blonde head appeared at one of the open windows. A hand clutching a cigarette was extended and waved vigorously.

"Are you leaving early?" Nina called throatily.

"My God!" exclaimed Japie, gazing at her in consternation. "If you think Elsie will have it in for me, wait till I tell her what you've been mixing with!" He gunned the engine and they flashed out of Duiwelspoort.

Little was said en route home. Fanie sulked and was a little afraid. He wondered whether he should put his new teeth in to make him feel braver, but they were so very uncomfortable and a real waste of money! That brought him round to remembering the fortune he'd been done out of by being dragged home early. Another day or two and his winning streak was sure to have returned.

"I'm broke. Flat broke. I needed to stay on till the end of the week to get onto my feet again," he burst out.

Japie glared at his father. The old man was declining fast if he imagined that more time in that expensive place was going to improve his finances.

"Manna from heaven?" he asked acidly. Oom Fanie sniffed, but decided to steer clear of a subject that could prove dangerous.

When they arrived home, he went into the house ahead of his son, leaving Japie to contend with the suitcase. He was surprised to hear strumming guitars coming from somewhere down the passage.

"What's that?" he demanded of Japie.

"As if you don't know!" his son returned sourly, "and high time you came home to organise them and get them to work. I'm sick of tripping over hippies and musical instruments!"

Fanie looked at him uncomprehendingly. Japie gave an impatient sigh and carried the case through to his father's room. He passed Elsie on the way. Her eyes questioned him.

"Yes, he's here!"

"How is he?"

"Impossible! Remember how he complained when we took him on holiday? Well, you should have heard him moan when I arrived there to bring him back. Nothing satisfies him! He's also pretending complete innocence, making as if he knows nothing about those parasites out back."

"They're actually very nice boys, and some of those pieces they play set the feet tapping," Elsie said briskly. She continued on her way along the passage.

"Hello pa. Nice to have you home." She kissed the old man on the forehead. "Are you well?" Fanie grunted noncommittally.

"Where's my dogs?"

"Sport? He's sleeping in my bedroom. A different dog from the one that arrived, I promise you!" She raised her voice and called, "Sport, Sport boy." Before Fanie had time to blink, something streaked into the room. By the time his eyes focused on it, it was standing beside Elsie baring its teeth at him in a menacing sneer.

"What's this?" Fanie demanded peevishly, "and he's getting fat!" A fat racing dog was all he needed. Mind you, it wouldn't matter all that much if Elsie was feeding the other one up too. After all, two fat dogs racing one another were as evenly matched as two thin ones. The other dog became conspicuous by its absence.

"Where's Jagter?" his small eyes settled on Elsie suspiciously.

Elsie looked momentarily disconcerted. "That girl only brought Sport. She said the other one ran away when she let them out."

Fanie felt as though the mat had been pulled from under him. He turned white, then red, then puce with rage.

"She lost him? She lost Jagter?" he croaked.

"There, there," Elsie consoled, unhappy at the state Oom Fanie was in. "You've still got Sport and he's a very fine dog, aren't you?" beaming down at the animal. Knowing on which side its bread was buttered, Sport licked her hand and snarled at Fanie again. "See what a good watch dog he's turning into!"

"He's not a watch dog. He's a racing dog," Fanie said recklessly.

Elsie's eyes widened. "A racing dog? Nonsense! I wouldn't have anything so ungodly in my house. Sport is a watch dog!" and with that, she turned and marched away.

Fanie's shoulders drooped and he actually felt close to tears. All his dreams, all his plans, come to naught. Only one racing dog and that fast turning into Elsie's pet. He lifted his leg to give the complacent animal a kick but changed his mind when it bared its teeth, definitely not in a smile. That reminded him of his own teeth and the good money he'd wasted on them. Two minutes back home and he was feeling thoroughly miserable. Where was Nina with her friendly good humour? Oh, heavens, and if Japie told Elsie about Nina? More trouble ahead! With a deep sigh, the old man made his way to his room.

At dinner-time his gloom grew. There were three strange young men seated around the table, all grinning delightedly at Elsie.

"Well, boys," she said cheerily as she deposited steaming serving dishes onto the table, "the waiting is over. Your business manager has finally returned." She laughed across the table at them and they automatically responded, even though they had no idea what she meant. Elsie frowned at Fanie.

"Pa, where are you manners? Say hello to Marty, Ben and Al. They're your Rockets after all!"

Fanie shifted his glowering glance from her to them, but said not a word. His brain was ticking over but providing no answers. Rockets? What rockets, and why his?

"I've already spoken to Mrs Bonthuys," Elsie continued, giving her husband a fleeting smile as he entered the room. "Down off daddy's chair, Sport. To the kitchen, now!" The dog obligingly took himself off while Japie stared after it in disgust. He could accept Elsie's fondness for the animal. It was natural that not having any children, she should find a vent for her affection and the creature worshipped her. What he couldn't stomach was being referred to as "daddy" in terms of that cur! A mean and nasty thing it was.

"She's having a party in two week's time," Elsie continued, addressing Oom Fanie. "It's young Michael's 18th birthday and I told her you had this new with-it group that plays really well and she's willing to give you a try." She put her head meditatively to one side. "She was going to pay that band from Waterfontein R500 for the night, so I think you lot should ask for R400. That will tilt the scales in your favour and give each of you R100. What do you think, Pa?"

Fanie looked from her to the three young men, thinking furiously. All he was able to deduce was that there was R100 in it somewhere for him. Similarly, Marty, Ben and Al exchanged a glance, and being younger and more astute than Oom Fanie, concluded that their share of the spoils depended somehow on the co-operation of the disgruntled old man sitting opposite.

"We're really good," Marty, the bearded one said eagerly. "Ben's on drums, Al and I on guitars."

"Ja, and with your concertina, Pa, there'll be a nice, big sound," Elsie said encouragingly, quite missing the look of dismay that passed between the Rockets, "and after Mrs Bonthuys's do on the 15th, there's the Van Aswegen wedding on the 31st. She's half promised to hire you, if she likes the way you play at the party. You'd better start practising, mind! There's a lot of social things planned for the next few months, but you've got to prove yourselves."

Marty, Ben and Al looked meditatively from Fanie to Elsie, then to the table groaning with good food. Ben swallowed hard.

"We'll start after dinner," he said, "but we play only the latest hits. How fast can you learn?" challenging the old man. That caught Fanie on the raw and he was drawn into speech for the first time that night.

"You see this ear?" he said, clasping the lobe and pulling vigorously, "it is the best in the district. And the other one too! I have only to hear a melody once and I have it for ever!" (A slight exaggeration, as they were to find!) "As to learning quickly, it is you jongetjies that will have to be on your toes. I'm the one with knowledge of the district and the people. You're the ones that need to learn."
Al grinned across at him. "Let's just say that we can be of help to one another."

Thinking of the R100 from the Bonthuys party and further sums from other sources, Fanie grinned back. "Ja," he said, "let's just say that." He decided to have another try at wearing those teeth. If he was to appear with these youngsters, he had to look as youthful as possible.

So it was that after two months, Prentburg boasted another "orkes". Its sound was very different from Oom Fanie's last group and the melodies were all modern. The electric guitars were, it had to be admitted, a bit on the loud side, but that was all to the good, because although Oom Fanie played with renewed vigour, there were still many wrong notes needing to be hidden! All in all, though, the locals were very pleased with the new orkes and it found itself in great demand.

The Rockets, appearance now conforming more to the standards of their audience, were finding new scope for their creative ideas. (That was one good thing about having an uncritical audience - anything had to be an improvement on the old boere orkes.) Oom Fanie went about flashing his new teeth in genuine pleasure and putting all his energy into "managing" his boys and finding new appointments.

Elsie basked in the appreciation of her now well-paying boarders and the affection of her new pet. Even Japie had to admit that his home was a nice place to return to these days. The general contentment of its inhabitants gave it a good feeling. He even began to feel better about the dog when it stopped growling at him and turned its venom onto the unfortunate gardener. With training, it may yet come right.

As for Oom Fanie, in the quiet times of the night he sometimes found himself musing over the strange turn of events. There must indeed be something in that old story about one door closing and another opening. True, he didn't own a kennel of fine racing dogs, but then, it had been an unrealistic dream to imagine that the volk in Prentburg would abandon their scruples about gambling! Instead, through a chain of circumstances he didn't fully understand, he had a rock group on his hands. Those boys were really something! They were now so happy with their lot they'd found jobs locally and planned to settle in the district. He'd persuaded them to change their name too. Not merely "The Rockets", but now, "Oom Fanie's Rockets!" Yes, it had a nice ring to it, he decided, smiling to himself.

His new teeth grinned back at him from the glass they stood in on the night stand. He'd had a job explaining those teeth to Elsie and Japie. He said he found them lying in the road at Duiwelspoort and stuck to his story despite the disbelief in their eyes. Wisely, they decided not to pursue the matter, thinking it was probably better if they didn't know where the teeth came from.

Some good had come of his holiday, without a doubt, but Oom Fanie did not think he would go on another. There were too many strange goings-on at home in his absence!

2 comments:

  1. Fun read for someone from the other side of the pond, trying to stay with the local dialect! Deep within there's something to be said about finding yourself at any age.

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  2. This one had me giggling out loud :-)

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