From ‘Toys in the Shop Window’
In Selected Stories
by Herman Charles Bosman
‘You ought to see David Policansky’s store,’ the lorry driver’s assistant said. ‘My, but it does look lovely. All done up for Christmas. It’s worth going all the way to Bekkersdal, just to see it. And the toys in the window – you’ve no idea.’
Thereupon, speaking earnestly to him because this was no time for foolishness, Gysbert van Tonder said to the lorry driver’s assistant that he hoped he hadn’t been talking about the toys at every Bushveld farmhouse and post office that the lorry had stopped at, on the way north from Bekkersdal. Because if he had, why, the children would make their parents’ lives impossible, between now and Christmas. He himself had several children of school-going age, Gysbert van Tonder said. So he knew.
The lorry driver’s assistant looked embarrassed.
‘Well, I did talk a little,’ he admitted. ‘But I didn’t say too much, I don’t think. Except maybe at Post-bag Laatgevonden. Yes, now I come to think of it, I did, perhaps, say one or two things I shouldn’t have, at Post-bag Laatgevonden. You see, the driver had trouble with a sparking plug there, and so, in between handing the driver a spanner or a file, I might have said a few things more than I should have done.’
The lorry driver’s assistant was in the middle of telling us about something else that Policansky was arranging to have in the toy department of his store, for Christmas, when the lorry driver called through the door, asking whether the assistant thought they could waste all day at a third-rate Dwarsberge post office, where the coffee they got was nearly all roasted kremetart root?
By the time Jurie Steyn had walked around, from behind his counter, to the front door, the lorry was already driving off, so that most of the long and suitable reply that Jurie Steyn gave was lost on the driver.
Before that, with his foot on the clutch, the lorry driver had been able to explain that his main grievance wasn’t the coffee, which he was not by law compelled to drink. But he did have to handle Jurie Steyn’s mailbag, the lorry driver said. And although he was pressing down the accelerator at the time, we could still hear what it was that the lorry driver took exception to about Jurie Steyn’s mailbag.
By the time Jurie Steyn had finished talking to the driver, the lorry was already halfway through the poort.
‘What do you think of that for cheek?’ Jurie Steyn asked of us, on his way back to the counter. ‘He’s just a paid servant of the Government, and he talks to me like I’m a Mtosa. I mean, he’s no different from me, that lorry driver isn’t. I mean, I am, after all, the postmaster for this part of the Dwarsberge. I also get paid to serve the public. And that lorry driver talks to me just like I talk to any Mtosa that comes in here to buy stamps.’
We felt that it was a pity that this unhappy note should have crept into what had, until then, been quite a pleasant summer afternoon’s talk. What made it all the more regrettable, we felt, was that it was only another few weeks to Christmas. The way Jurie Steyn and the lorry driver had spoken to each other did not fit in with the friendly spirit of Christmas, we felt. Nor did it fit in, either, with the even more friendly spirit that there should be at New Year.
‘And did you hear what he said about my mailbag?’ Jurie Steyn demanded, indignantly. We confessed that we had. Indeed, we would have had to have been more deaf than Oupa Bekker to miss any of the lorry driver’s remarks about the mailbag. Even though the engine of his lorry was running at the time, the driver had spoken so clearly that we could hear every word he said. And what had made what he said even more distinct was that kind of hurt tone in his voice. When a lorry driver talks like he’s injured, you can hear him a long way off.
‘But what about my fowls?’ Jurie Steyn burst out. ‘That’s what I can’t get over. When he spoke about the mailbag that my fowls had … had been on.’
Jurie Steyn was expressing it, well, more politely that the lorry driver had done, we thought.
‘And he said he had to handle that mailbag,’ Jurie Steyn continued.
Several of us spluttered, then, remembering the way in which the lorry driver had said that.
‘And he declared that my fowls were a lot of speckled, mongrel, dispirited Hottentot hoenders,’ Jurie Steyn finished up, ‘with sickly hanging-down combs. Well, that got me all right. There isn’t a hen or a rooster on my farm that isn’t a pure-bred Buff Orpington. Look at that hen pecking there, next to At Naudé’s foot, now. Would you call it a speckled …’
Words failed Jurie Steyn, and he stopped talking.
It was then that Chris Welman remembered what the lorry driver’s assistant had been saying, just before the lorry driver shouted at him to get a move on. And it was as though the cloud, that had come over us, had suddenly lifted.
For David Policansky had said that he was going to get a Father Christmas at his store again, this year. He said he had to have a Father Christmas. The toy trade was no good without a Father Christmas with a red cap and overcoat and white whiskers, shaking hands with the children in the toy department, Policansky said. We laughed, and said we would have thought that the toy trade was no good with a Father Christmas. We also said we hoped, for his own sake, that this year Policansky wouldn’t get old Doors Perske to be Father Christmas again, as he had done last year.
We went on discussing last year’s Father Christmas at Policansky’s store for quite a long time.
As far as looks went, Doors Perske should have made a very good Santa Claus. He was fat, and he had a red face. The circumstance of his face being, on some occasions, more red than on others would, as likely as not, escape the innocent observation of childhood.
But where Doors Perske went wrong was in his being, essentially, an odd-job man. For years he had contrived to exist in the small town of Bekkersdal by getting a contract to erect a sty, or to chop wood, or to dig a well. And that was how he had learnt to sub.
So, when he was Santa Claus in Policansky’s store, Doors Perske would, every so often, go and get a small advance against his pay from the bookkeeper. After a bit, the sight of Santa Claus entering the local public bar, for a quick one, no longer excited comment. The bartender no longer thought it funny to ask if he had come down the chimney. And no scoffing customer asked, any more, whether he could go and hold Doors Perske’s reindeer.
In Policansky’s store, too, everything was, at first, all right. If, in shaking hands with Doors Perske, a small child detected his beery breath, the small child would not think much of it. Since he had a father – or, maybe, a stepfather – of his own, the small child would not see anything incongruous in Father Christmas having had a few.
One day Doors Perske’s wife had come charging into the toy department, swearing at Father Christmas and loudly accusing him of subbing on his wages, on the sly. And Doors Perske had called his wife an old – and had ungraciously clouted her one on the ear before bundling her out of the store. But even that incident had not had a disillusioning effect on the minds of David Policansky’s juvenile clientele.
For the altercation had taken place at a counter where there were prams and dolls’ houses and little crockery sets, and the children thronging that part of the shop were familiar with domestic scenes of the sort they had just witnessed. All they thought was that Father Christmas had just had a fight with Mother Christmas.
It was the day before Christmas Eve that Doors Perske got the sack. He had just come back from the bar, again. And the first thing he did was to stumble over the shilling dips. Then, to save himself, he grabbed at an assortment of glassware stacked halfway up to the ceiling. This was foolish – as he realised the next moment. The glassware offered him no sort of purchase at all. All that happened was that the whole shop shook when it fell. The next thing that went was the counter with the toy soldiers. And there wasn’t anything martial in the way the little leaden soldiers – no longer in their neat toy rows – were scattered about, lying in heaps, with pieces broken off them. It looked too much like the real thing. Grim, it looked.
When Policansky came rushing in, it was to find Doors Perske sitting in the wash-tub, with a teddy bear in his arms. His red cap had come off, and his Father Christmas beard was halfway round his neck. And from the position of his beard, the children in the shop knew he wasn’t Father Christmas, but just a dressed-up drunk.
‘I couldn’t get a proper grip on those glasses,’ Doors Perske explained. ‘That’s how I fell.’
Policansky got a proper grip on Santa Claus, all right. And he ran him out of his shop, and when he got to the pavement, he kicked Father Christmas, and told him not to come back again.
‘Go on, there isn’t any Father Christmas,’ Doors Perske jeered, suddenly recovering himself when he got to the corner. ‘It’s just a lie that you make up for kids.’
David Policansky’s face twisted into a half-smile.
‘I wish I could believe you,’ he said, surveying the wreckage of his shop through the door. ‘I wish I could believe there wasn’t a Father Christmas.’