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From A Bekkersdal Marathon
by Herman Charles Bosman
‘It said over the wireless,’ At Naudé announced, ‘that the American astronomers are moving out of Johannesburg. They are taking the telescopes, and the things they have been studying the stars with, to Australia. There is too much smoke in Johannesburg for them to be able to see the stars properly.’
He paused, as though inviting comment. But none of us had anything to say. We weren’t much interested in the Americans and their stars. Or in Australia, either, for that matter.
‘The American astronomers have been in Johannesburg for many years,’ At Naudé went on, wistfully, as though the impending removal of the astronomical research station was a matter of personal regret to him. ‘They have been here for years, and now they are going because of the smoke. It gets into their eyes – just when they’ve nearly seen a new star in their telescopes, I suppose. Well, smoke is like that, of course. It gets into your eyes just at the wrong time.’
What At Naudé had said now was something that we could all understand. It was something of which we all had experience. It was different from what he had been saying before. Getting smoke in your eyes, at an inconvenient moment, was something everybody in the Marico understood.
Immediately, Chris Welman started telling us about the time he was asked by Koos Nienaber, as a favour, to stand on a rant of the Dwarsberge, from where he was able to see the Derdepoort police post very clearly. Koos Nienaber, it would seem, had private business with a chief near Ramoutsa, which had to do with bringing a somewhat large herd of cattle with long horns across the border.
‘I could see the police post very well from there,’ Chris Welman said. ‘I was standing near a Mtosa hut. When the Mtosa woman lifted a petrol tin onto her head and went down in the direction of the spruit, for water, I moved over to an iron pot that a fire had been burning underneath all afternoon.’
He could still see those two policemen – dealing out the cards to each other and taking turns to drink out of a black bottle – quite distinctly, Chris Welman said, when he lifted the lid of the iron pot. He wasn’t in the least bit worried about those two policemen, then. Actually, he admitted, he was, if anything, more concerned lest the Mtosa woman should suddenly come back to the hut, with the petrol tin on her head, having forgotten something. And it had to be at that moment, just when he was lifting the lid, that smoke from the fire crackling underneath the pot got into his eyes. It was the most awful kind of stabbing smoke that you could ever imagine, Chris Welman said. What the Mtosa woman had made that fire with, he had no idea. Cow dung and bitter-bessie, he knew. That was a kind of fuel that received some countenance, still, in the less frequented areas along the Malopo. And it made a kind of smoke which, if it got into your eyes, could blind you temporarily for up to at least a quarter of an hour.
Chris Welman went on to say that he was also not unfamiliar with the effects of the smoke of the renosterbos, in view of the fact that he retained many childhood memories of a farm in the Eastern Province, where it was still quite usual to find a house with an old-fashioned abba-kitchen.
Chris Welman sighed deeply. Partly, we felt, that sigh had its roots in a nostalgia for the past. His next words showed, however, that it was linked with a grimmer sort of reality.
‘When I got back to the top of that rant,’ Chris Welman declared simply, ‘the two policemen weren’t there, at the police post, anymore. And Koos Nienaber had been fined so often before, that this time the magistrate would not let him off with a fine. Koos Nienaber took it like a man when the magistrate gave him six months,’ Chris Welman concluded.
More than one of us, sitting in Jurie Steyn’s voorkamer, sighed, too, then. We also knew what it was to get smoke in your eyes at the wrong moment. And we also knew what it was to hold a sudden and unexpected conversation with a policeman on border patrol, while you were nervously shifting a pair of wire-cutters from one hand to the other.
Gysbert van Tonder brought the discussion back to the subject of the stars.
‘If the American astronomers are leaving South Africa because they can’t stand our sort of smoke,’ Gysbert van Tonder declared, ‘well, I suppose there’s nothing we can do about it. I didn’t think that an astronomer, watching the stars at night through a telescope, would worry very much about smoke – or about cinders from looking out of a train window, either, for that matter – getting into his eyes. I imagined somehow that an astronomer would be above that sort of thing.
Young Vermaak, the schoolteacher, was able to put Gysbert van Tonder right then. ‘It isn’t the smoke that gets into their eyes,’ he explained. ‘It’s the smoke in the atmosphere that interferes with the observations and the mathematical calculations that astronomers have to make to get a knowledge of the movement of the heavenly bodies.’
We looked at each other, then, with feelings of awe. In general, of course, we’d never had much respect for the schoolteacher, seeing that all he had was book-learning, but what did give us pause for reflection on this occasion was the thought that just in his brain – just inside his head, that didn’t seem very much different from any one of our heads – the young schoolmaster should have so much knowledge.
Only Jurie Steyn was not taken out of his depth.
‘It’s like that book my wife used to study a great deal before we got married,’ Jurie Steyn said. ‘I have told you about it before. It’s called Napoleon’s Dream Book. Well, that’s a lot like what young Vermaak has been talking about now. At the back of the Napoleon dream book, it’s got ‘What the Stars Foretell’ for every day of the year. It says that on Wednesdays you must wear green, and on some other day you must write a letter to a relative you haven’t seen since I don’t know when. Anyway, I suppose that’s why those American star-gazers are leaving Johannesburg. It’s something they saw in the stars, I expect.’
Chris Welman said he wondered whether what the American astronomers had been seeing through their telescope was that the star of the American nation was going up, or that it was going down.
‘Perhaps Jurie Steyn’s wife can work it out from the dream book,’ Gysbert van Tonder said.