From ‘News Story’
In A Bekkersdal Marathon
by Herman Charles Bosman
‘The way the world is today,’ At Naudé said, shaking his head, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’
From that, it was clear that At Naudé had been hearing news over the wireless again, that made him fear for the future of the country. We did not exactly sit up, then. There was never any change, even in the kind of news he would bring us. Every time it was about stone-throwings in Johannesburg locations, and about how many kinds of bombs the Russians had got, and about how many people had gone to gaol, for telling the Russians about still other kinds of bombs they could make. Although it did not look as though the Russians needed to be educated much, in that line.
And we could never really understand why At Naudé listened at all. We hardly ever listened to him, for that matter. We would rather hear from Gysbert van Tonder whether it was true that the ouderling at Pilansberg really forgot himself, in the way that Jurie Steyn’s wife had heard about from a kraal Mtosa at the kitchen door. The Mtosa had come to buy halfpenny stamps, to stick on his forehead for the yearly Ndlolo dance. Now, there was news for you. About the ouderling, I mean. And even to hear that the Ndlolo dance was being held soon again, was at least something. And if it should turn out that what was being said about the Pilansberg ouderling was not true, well, then, the same thing applied to a lot of what At Naudé heard over the wireless, also.
‘I don’t know what’s going to happen,’ At Naudé repeated, ‘the way the world is today. I just heard over the wireless …’
‘That’s how the news we got in the old days, was better,’ Oupa Bekker said. ‘I mean in the real old days, when there was no wireless, and there was not the telegraph, either. The news you got then, you could do something with. And you didn’t have to go to the post office, and get it from a newspaper. The post office is the curse of the Transvaal …’
Jurie Steyn said that Oupa Bekker was quite right, there. He, himself, would never have taken on the job of postmaster at Drogevlei, if he had as much as guessed that there were four separate forms that he would have to fill in, each of them different, for a simple five-shilling money order. It would be so much brainier en neater, Jurie Steyn said, for people who wanted to send five shillings somewhere, if they would just wrap up a couple of half-crowns in a thick wad of brown paper, and then post them in the ordinary way, like a letter. That was what the new red pillar-box in front of his door was for, Jurie Steyn explained. The authorities had gone to the expense of that new pillar-box in order to help the public. And yet you still found people coming in for postal orders and money orders. The other day a man even came in and asked if he could telegraph some money somewhere.
‘I gave that man a piece of brown paper, and showed him the pillar-box,’ Jurie Steyn said. ‘It seemed, until then, that he did not know what kind of progress we’d been making here. I therefore asked him if I could show him some more ways, in regard to how advanced the Groot Marico was getting. But he said, no, the indications I had given him were plenty.’
Jurie Steyn said that he thought it was handsome of the man to have spoken up for the Marico like that, seeing that he was quite a newcomer to these parts.
Because we never knew how long Jurie Steyn would be, when once he got on to the subject of his work, we were glad when Johnny Coen asked Oupa Bekker to explain some more to us, about how they got news in the old days. We were all pleased, that is, except At Naudé, who had again tried to get in a remark, but had got no further than to say that if we knew something, we would all shiver in our veldskoens.
‘How did we get news?’ Oupa Bekker said, replying to another question of Johnny Coen’s. ‘Well, you would be standing in the lands, say, and then one of the Bechuanas would point to a small cloud of dust in the poort, and you would walk across to the big tree by the dam, where the road bends, and the traveller would come past there, with two vos horses in front of his Cape cart, and he would get off from the cart, and shake hands, and say that he was Du Plessis. And you would say that you were Bekker, and he would say, afterwards, that he couldn’t stay the night on your farm, because he had to get to Tsalala’s Kop. Well, there was news. You could talk about it for days. For weeks, even. You have no idea how often my wife and I discussed it. And we knew everything there was to know about the man. We knew his name was Du Plessis.’
At Naudé said, then, that he didn’t think much of that sort of news. People must have been a bit simpel in the head, in those old times that Oupa Bekker was talking about, if they thought anything of that sort of news. ‘Why, if you compared it with what the radio announcer said only yesterday …’
Jurie Steyn’s wife came in from the kitchen at that moment. There was a light of excitement in her eyes. And when she spoke, it was to none of us in particular.
‘It’s just occurred to me,’ Jurie Steyn’s wife said, ‘that is, if it’s true what they are saying about the Pilansberg ouderling, of course. Well, it has just struck me that, when he forgot himself in the way they say – provided that he did forget himself like that, mind you – well, perhaps the ouderling didn’t know that anybody was looking.’
That was a possibility that had not so far occurred to us, and we discussed it at some length.
We were in no mood for foolishness. Oupa Bekker took this as an encouragement for him to go on.
‘Or another day,’ Oupa Bekker continued, ‘you would again be standing in your lands, say, or sitting, even, if there was a long day of ploughing ahead, and you did not want to tire yourself out unnecessarily. You would be sitting on a stone in the shade of a tree, say, and you would think to yourself how lazy those Bechuanas look, going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, with the plough and the oxen, and you would get quite sleepy, say, thinking to yourself how lazy those Bechuanas are. If it wasn’t for the oxen to keep them going, they wouldn’t do any work at all, you might perhaps think.
‘And then, without your in the least expecting it, you would again have news. And the news would find a stone for himself, and come along and sit down right next to you. It would be the new veldkornet, say. And why nobody saw any dust in the poort, that time, was because the veldkornet didn’t come along the road. And you would make a joke with him and say: “I suppose that’s why they call you a veldkornet, because you don’t travel along the road, but you come by the veld-langers.” And the veldkornet would laugh and ask you a few questions, and he would tell you that they had had good rains at Derdepoort … Well, there was something I could tell my wife over and over again, for weeks. It was news. For weeks, I had that to think about. The visit of the veldkornet. In the old days, it was real news.’
We could see from the way At Naudé was fidgeting in his chair, that he guessed we were just egging the old man on to talk, in order to scoff at all the important European news that he, At Naudé, regularly retailed to us, and that we were getting tired of.
After a while At Naudé could no longer contain himself.
‘This second-childhood drivel that Oupa Bekker is talking,’ At Naudé announced, not looking at anybody in particular, but saying it to all of us, in the way Jurie Steyn’s wife had spoken when she had come out of the kitchen. ‘Well, I would actually sooner listen to scandal about the Pilansberg ouderling. There is at least some sort of meaning to it. I’m not being unfriendly to Oupa Bekker, of course. I know it’s just that he’s old. But it’s also quite clear to me, that he doesn’t know what news is, at all.’
‘On another day, say,’ Oupa Bekker went on, ‘you would not be in your lands at all, but you would be on your front stoep, drinking coffee, say. And the Cape cart, with the two vos horses in front, would be coming down the road again, but in the opposite direction, going towards the poort, this time. And you would not see much of Du Plessis’s face, because his hat would be pulled down over his eyes. And the veldkornetwould be sitting on the Cape cart, next to him, say.’
Oupa Bekker paused. He paused for a while, too, holding a lighted match cupped over his pipe, as though he were out in the veld where there was wind, puffing vigorously.
‘And my wife and I would go on talking about it for years afterwards, say,’ Oupa Bekker went on. ‘For years after Du Plessis was hanged, I mean.’