From Jurie Steyn's Post Office
by Herman Charles Bosman
‘You won’t listen to me,’ Oupa Bekker said. ‘You never let me finish what I’m trying to say. Always, you just let me get so far. Then somebody says something foolish, and so I can’t get to the important thing.
‘Now, what I wanted to say is that At Naudé is quite right. And Johnny Coen will come here. He’ll come this afternoon because he wants to know what we think. A young man in love is like that. He wants to know what we’ve got to say. But all the time he’ll be laughing to himself, secretly, about the things we’re saying. A young man in love is like that. And his titivating himself – with the short blade of a pocket knife and a handful of dry grass – well, you’ve no idea how vain a young man in love can be.
‘And he’s not making himself all stylish for the girl’s sake, but for his own sake. It’s himself that he thinks is so wonderful. He knows less than anybody what she’s like – the girl he’s in love with. And it’s only the best kind of pig’s fat he’ll mix with soot to shine his bought shoes with. Because he’s in love with the girl, he thinks he’s something. Oh yes, Johnny Coen will come here this afternoon all right. And what I want to say –’.
At this point, Oupa Bekker was interrupted once more. But because it was Jurie Steyn who broke in on his dissertation, Oupa Bekker yielded with good grace. The post office we were sitting in was, after all, Jurie Steyn’s own voorkamer. There was something of the spirit of old-world courtesy in the manner of Oupa Bekker’s surrender.
‘– you, Jurie Steyn,’ Oupa Bekker said. ‘You talk.’
Several of us looked in the direction of the kitchen. We were relieved to see that the door was closed. This meant that Jurie Steyn’s wife had not heard the low expression Oupa Bekker had used.
‘What I’d like to say,’ Jurie Steyn said, ‘is that I had the honour to drive Juffrou Pauline Gerber to her home in my mule-cart, that day she arrived here at my post office, getting off from the Government lorry and all –’.
‘What do you mean by “and all”?’ Gysbert van Tonder demanded.
Jurie Steyn looked around him with an air of surprise.
‘But you were all here,’ Jurie Steyn declared. ‘All of you were here. Maybe that’s what I mean by and all. I’m sure I don’t know. But you did see Pauline Gerber. You, each one of you, saw her. When she alighted here that day from the Zeerust lorry, on her return from the Cape finishing school. You saw the way she walked around here in my voorkamer, picking her heels up high – and I don’t blame her. And her chin up in the air. And as pretty as you like. You all saw how pretty she was, now, didn’t you? And the way she smelt. Did you smell her? You must have. It was too lovely. It just shows you the kind of perfume you can get in the Cape.
‘And I’m sure that if a church elder smelt her – even if he was an Enkel Gereformeerde Church elder from the furthest part of the Waterberge, I’m sure that the Waterberg elder would’ve known that Pauline Gerber had class – just from smelling her, I mean. I’m sure that the scent that Pauline bought at the Cape must have cost at least seven shillings and sixpence a bottle.
‘Take my wife, now. I once bought her a bottle of perfume at the Indian store at Ramoutsa. And I can assure you – you can smell the difference between my wife and Pauline Gerber.’
Chris Welman, who had not spoken much so far, hastened to remark that there were other ways, too, in which you could tell the difference.
It was an innuendo that, fortunately, escaped general attention.
For it was at that moment that Johnny Coen came in at the front door of the post office. In one way it was the Johnny Coen we’d always known; and yet it also wasn’t him. Somehow, in some subtle fashion, Johnny Coen had changed.
After greeting us, he went and sat on a riempie chair, and he sat very upright.
From his manner he seemed almost unaware of our presence as he whittled a matchstick to a fine point, and commenced scraping out the grime from under one of his fingernails.
Gysbert van Tonder, who always liked getting straight to the point, was the first to speak.
‘Nice bit of rain you’ve been having out your way, Johnny,’ Gysbert remarked. ‘Your dams must be pretty full.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ Johnny Coen answered.
‘Plenty of water in the spruit, too, I’d imagine,’ Gysbert continued.
‘Yes, that’s very true,’ Johnny Coen replied.
‘New grass must be coming along nicely in the vlakte where you burnt,’ Gysbert van Tonder went on.
‘Yes, very nicely,’ Johnny agreed.
‘What’s the matter with you, man – can’t you talk?’ Gysbert demanded. ‘You know very well what I’m trying to say. Have you seen her at all since she’s been back?’
‘I saw her yesterday,’ Johnny Coen said, ‘on the road near their house. I had to go quite a long distance out of my way to be passing by there, at the time.’
Gysbert van Tonder made a swift calculation: ‘About eleven miles out of your way, counting in the short cuts through the withaaks,’ he announced. ‘Did she have much to say?”
Johnny Coen shook his head. ‘Please don’t ask me,’ he almost implored Gysbert, ‘because I really can’t remember. We did speak, I know. But after she’d gone, there was nothing we said that I could recall. It was all so different after she had gone. I wish I could remember what we said. What I said must have all sounded so foolish to her.’
Gysbert van Tonder was not going to allow Johnny Coen to get off that easily.
‘Well, how did she look?’ Gysbert asked.
‘I also tried to remember that, afterwards,’ Johnny Coen declared. ‘How she looked. What she did. All that. But I just couldn’t remember. After she’d gone, it was as if it had all been a dream, and there was nothing that I could remember. She was picking yellow flowers, there by the side of the road, to stick in her hair. Or she was carrying a sack of firewood over her back for the kitchen fire. It would’ve been all the same to me, the way I felt. But I don’t know. Afterwards, all I was able –’.
‘That’s what I was trying to explain to them, Johnny,’ Oupa Bekker interjected, ‘but they never let me finish anything I start to say. They always –’.
‘Afterwards,’ Johnny Coen repeated, ‘after she’d gone, that is, there was a kind of sweetness in the air. It was almost hanging in the air, sort of. At one stage I even thought it might be a kind of scent, like what some women put on their clothes when they go to Nagmaal. But, of course, it couldn’t have been that. Pauline wouldn’t wear scent … I mean, she’s just not that kind.’
‘What I wanted to say earlier on, when you all interrupted me,’ Oupa Bekker declared, then – with an air of triumph – ‘is that a young man in love is like that.’