Oom Bulletjies, the troubadour and the man in the gabardine suit
Michigan may seem like a dream to you now that you’ve fetched up in the deep Karoo and have to learn to understand the terrain and the local ways if you’re ever to get out.
Kathy, I’m lost, Paul said, though he knew she was sleeping. I’m heavy and aching and I don’t know why we’re not counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike. Where are we now? This wasn’t in my song.
(If you don’t get the above reference, you’ll need to listen to this.)
If they all came to look for the Karoo, what would they see; if Paul and Kathy on the Greyhound came from Saginaw via the New Jersey turnpike during their 1964 road trip, or if a spy in a gabardine suit pitched up at the coach station in Johannesburg or Cape Town and asked for a one-way ticket to Nowheresville RSA, and landed up somewhere in the deep Karoo, South Africa, 2021; would they understand what they saw, or would they be as lost as Paul Simon was on that bus…
If you boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh or Paris or Berlin or Buenos Aires, or bought a train ticket at Kings Cross station and rushed headlong at platform nine and three quarters and landed in a whorl of dust that dissipated into an endless plateau punctuated only by a windmill, a forlorn cactus and a herd of perplexed sheep, what would you do, who would come to your aid, and would you understand them?
The man in the gabardine suit, and for that matter Kathy and Paul, having run out of cigarettes and tired of playing games with the faces, might all end up in Calitzdorp or Calvinia; in Hanover or Hopetown, or lost in the bundu somewhere between Niewoudtville and Nohopefontein. Kathy and Paul might end up busted flat in Beaufort West, thumbing a diesel down just before it rained and ending up being dropped nowhere they’d ever seen before.
Left standing at the roadside as the diesel truck disappeared in a dissipating spiral of dust, like shady characters in a Fargo season about a disingenuous spy whose minders had been told by The Boss to drop these guys somewhere they’d never escape from and their mothers would never find them. Somewhere like the road between Nieuwoudtville and Nohopefontein, the man in the gabardine suit might drift into the latter with its Dessert Spring Café Coke sign flapping in the restless wind and the tannie in her floral pink frock simpering at him from behind the counter because we don’t get foreigners here often, sir, and would you like a nice stukkie roosterkoek with pompelmoes konfyt to go with that coffee? Which would be far removed from the Mrs Wagner’s pie Kathy had bought for Paul before they boarded the Greyhound in, where was it again, and how the hell did we get here?
Would they ever be heard of again by anyone except their new friends in the bars and cafés of the sorry-but-the-horse-died towns they passed through, and who talked about them in hushed tones while passing a frown around the room in whispers, before they made a hasty departure?
The man in the gabardine suit would take to the road again next morning, that’s what he’d do, after the Dessert Spring Café tannie had pointed to the other end of town from where he’d traipsed in, in his dust-and-sweat-fouled suit and bowtie hanging at a less than jaunty angle, as if it might fall off and be wafted away in the wind that howled like a jackal that had scented prey. A desperate jackal. Human prey; any prey would do.
He’d been taken aback when he saw that the annoyingly cool couple with the guitar and the half-eaten Mrs Wagner’s pie had somehow managed to end up in the same goddamn hellhole of a godforsaken town in wherever-the-hell-they-were now. The woman in the café had had no idea what the foreigners were talking about when they kept asking her where the nearest diner was. Here, have some lekker roosterkoek, she’d said, unheard.
But the woman had smiled on the older man, and taken him home for the night because he looked like he needed a proper meal, so she and Hans had shared their springbok potjie with him. He hadn’t eaten much of it when he fell asleep in front of the kaggel and they had to cover him with a blanket.
In the morning the woman had packed padkos for the man, a tired banana, a stuk of boerewors and a bakkie of the venison stew left over from last night. Hans had sighed many times the previous night, ever resigned to his wife’s idiosyncrasies. She’d bring home a wandering tourist just as soon as a stray dog she’d found in the veld. It would come to no good and one day they would both end up dead on the werf with their entrails hacked apart by jackals, he had told her once or was it a thousand times.
The man had packed the padkos in his bag with a packet of rusks which the woman had said were like what you Americans call cookies but you could dunk them in your moerkoffie, which she’d made him and poured into a flask she’d found forgotten in a cupboard between the rusted meat mincer and the iron skillet with the rope handle. He’d finished the coffee and the rusks by midday, at his solitary vigil on the red clay crossroads beyond the town, and no one had stopped to pick him up even though he’d stuck his thumb out at seventeen vehicles, which he pronounced vee-HICKles as if he had the hiccups. Maybe that was why the four drivers who had stopped and given him the once-over had driven off looking as if they’d seen a serial killer, and probably ended up in the same hotel bar in Calvinia that night ogling the blonde engel behind the counter and telling embellished tales about the American outlaw they’d seen on the road with his devil eyes and bad outlander ways. But he was wearing a suit, one of them would say, and the others would snicker and say ja but that’s the point; he’s a devil in disguise, you know Americans and crossroads… and the entire bar would go quiet and everyone would disappear deep into their collective thoughts and remember names like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy.
The man in the gabardine suit had headed on down the road thinking that at least he might get to the next town by dusk if he were mobile rather than rooted to the side of the road. He’d stop in the next town for supper and at some or other doss house for the night and see if he could find an old car in the morning or a Greyhound bus station. Weird, he thought. He hadn’t seen a single Greyhound on the road all day.
He couldn’t get his mind off the bizarre reception he’d had when he walked into the hotel bar. The men at the bar had recoiled like snakes ready to strike, and one man had fingered a revolver in his pocket, or maybe he was hungry and reaching for his biltong. He’d slunk away as slowly as he’d slunk in, and found a strange and dark restaurant full of old No Entry signs, and one with a skull and crossbones saying Keep Out, where he ate the meal of the day, somewhere between breakfast and a hamburger that the waitress had called bobotie. She’s having a dig at my bowtie, he thought, but ate it anyway. Bow-bow-tie. He’d try to remember that. It was good, he thought, while making a mental note to try to look less like a desperado.
Oom Bulletjies had heard about the strange American serial killer in the funny suit said to be prowling the plains of the Hantam Karoo and was halfway to Sutherland when he spied him from the soundless trail of dust spewed out by his bakkie, and squinted his eyes and then frowned as he drew closer, for it wasn’t the outlaw he’d expected but a couple, a young man with a guitar slung over his shoulder who looked fidgety, like someone who’d run out of cigarettes, and a girl waving her arms while her beau removed his raincoat. Why would he be wearing a raincoat in the middle of the Karoo, Bulletjies pondered. A coat, maybe, because it is winter, but a raincoat? Must be tourists scared of the sun. The kid was carrying a guitar. A troubadour and his hippie girl. Maybe he’ll play me some Neil Diamond or Kristofferson, Oom Bulletjies thought.
The couple made no sense, gabbling on about not knowing how they’d ended up there, that they’d been on a bus in Michigan wherever that was and something about a portal and Harry Potter. Bliksem!, cried Bulletjies with a joyful expression on his stubbled face, Harry Potter! Then you must join us for dinner! For that was a name Oom Bulletjies knew very well. Harry Potter, a Briton who died in 1910 and was buried in the creepy cemetery on the outskirts of Cradock, his old home town. He had played marbles next to the grave as a little boy and almost felt he knew him, and would often imagine what the young foreign soldier might have been like; at least he presumed he had been a soldier, why else would he be in Cradock far away from his wife, who mourned him so achingly in her epitaph. He felt very sorry for him, dying in an unknown place in a strange land, although he never told his Pa, who would have had him shot as a deserter or a defector, or whatever you called little boys who befriended the enemy, even though the war was long over. Hensoppers, maybe. Nee wat.
Anyone connected with Cradock and especially with the legendary Harry Potter must be welcomed and honoured, he told his bemused guests, who had never heard of Cradock, so they would come to his house on the farm between Middelpos and Sutherland for supper and could be on their way the next morning. My wife will make some skaapstertjie stew for you, he promised, though their faces seemed less than delighted at this news. It’s lambs’ tails, he explained, but they seemed unappeased by this. Eating lamb wasn’t very big in America, apparently, let alone their tails. But they climbed into his bakkie anyway, seeing how they didn’t really have any other supper plans, and they could always eat the vegetables and pretend they were vegan, and off they went into a new unknown.
Into Oom Bulletjies’ bakkie they climbed and off they went to look for America or the Karoo, for Baton Rouge or Beaufort West, or wherever the hell they were now. Paul looked at the scenery, Kathy read her magazine, and the moon rose over the open veld. He turned to Kathy. Kathy, I’m lost, he said. I’ve had The Eagles’ Hotel California stuck on a loop in my head for hours. It’s creeping me out.
As the bakkie ventured deeper into the dusk, the moon disappeared behind giant tufts of ominous cumulus. The further they drove, the darker the skies grew and Oom Bulletjies warned them to wrap themselves up as the Hantam Karoo looked like it was about to deliver one of its rare, thumping storms. Lucky the kid has his raincoat, Bulletjies thought. In the back seat of his twin cab, the couple shivered and Paul held Kathy’s body close to his. Every night you keep me from the cold, he whispered into her hair. Oom Bulletjies eyed the Stygian horizon and sighed. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, he mumbled. That’s so true, said Paul. Nice lyric too. Ja ja, the great Kristofferson, said Bulletjies. Paul looked quizzical and wrote the line down on his hand. Before long the rain came and Paul hummed his songs with the windshield wipers slappin’ time.
Oom Bulletjies squinted into the distance as a shimmering mirage in the gloaming formed into the shape of a man shuffling along the side of the road with his thumb out. Kathy was dabbing powder on her face. Paul squinted too, then tapped Kathy on the shoulder. Look, he said, his heart in his mouth. It’s the man in the gabardine suit from the bus.
The man clambered in the back of the twin cab while Paul and Kathy shoved up, and peered suspiciously at Kathy’s Max Factor compact. Kathy looked away. Paul pulled his guitar out of its bag and strummed a couple of chords. He mouthed some words like songwriters do when they’re making up lyrics. I’m going to … he paused and thought, then… Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee….
Shouldn’t it be Pittsburgh rather, Kathy said.
Yeah, you’re probably right, he said, strumming… I’m going to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh… nah. He put his guitar back in its case.
Soon they rolled through a farm gate, being tossed about over the cattle grid, and on via a rocky track to the farmhouse against the far distant koppie where a shimmering light was a suggestion of life within. Clara Serfontein, for that was Oom Bulletjies’ surname, stood foursquare in the doorway on the broad farmhouse stoep as the bakkie clattered to a halt. We have guests from America!, he told his wife, giving her a kiss. They have to stop for the night.
Welcome to Nietgenaamd farm! said Clara. For that was the name of the farm. The farm with no name.
Such a lovely place, said the man in the gabardine suit.
This could be heaven or this could be hell, Paul whispered to Kathy. For a second he thought he heard a mission bell in the distance but it was a crow squawking.
Clara lit up a candle and showed them the way. They thought they heard voices down the corridor, but pushed them out of mind. They sat down at the green-painted Oregon kitchen table.
You must be dying of the thirst, Clara announced, and produced an urn. I will pour you some milk!
Is it almond milk? Kathy asked.
Fresh from the cows, this morning! was Clara’s reply. Don’t worry, we wouldn’t make you drink strange American milk here! Only pure farm milk for us, and butter, and the karringmelk rusks I made myself. Here, have some.
Do they contain preservatives? Kathy asked.
No, just goodness! Clara replied. She produced some dough and rolled it into elongated balls and slapped them on a hot pan in the fire.
What’s that? Kathy asked.
This is roosterkoek, Clara replied.
Are they gluten free? Kathy asked.
Are you hungry? Clara replied.
The supper wasn’t lambs’ tail stew, it turned out. Clara had made kerrie afval. Is it fish, the young man asked. We’re pescatarians.
Nonsense, you’re our guests! Clara said, serving them each a large plate of kerrie afval. We can’t have you eating things like that here in the Karoo.
But what is it, Kathy asked.
It’s offal curry, Clara replied, dishing up some rice, potatoes, pampoenpoffertjies, sousboontjies and slaphakskeentjies on the side. It’s all the best bits of the sheep, the liver, the kidney, the brains, a couple of other things I maybe shouldn’t mention in front of a lady. But not the eyes, my husband had those earlier. Bulletjies burped. Clara winked at them. Don’t worry, she said, everything is gluten free and preservative free and all the pescatarians around here love it. Kom, eet!
Oom Bulletjies chuckled behind his hat.
Would you like to connect to the WiFi, Oom Bulletjies asked the young man, passing him his iPhone. We’re farmers, we cannot do our business efficiently without WiFi. Here’s the password, you should tell your family you’re safe here with us.
But where is “here”, the young man asked. And can we check out any time we like?
You Americans love to speak in riddles, hey, Oom Bulletjies said, ignoring the question. I mos know that song too, I love the Eagles though I prefer Neil Diamond. Maybe you can play Sweet Caroline for us. Paul went silent at this.
The man in the gabardine suit was eyeing the cellphone with suspicion. What’s that? he asked Paul.
I’ve no idea, Paul replied. I don’t think they’ve been invented yet.
Clara served them all some malva pudding. Would you like some vla with that, she asked Kathy.
Is it… Kathy began.
It’s traditional Karoo kos, Oom Bulletjies interrupted her with a don’t-question-your-host sort of look. Do you not have custard in America?
The evening wore on and they all settled in front of the groot kaggel in the voorkamer. Oom Bulletjies drifted into sleep in his old armchair. Paul strummed his guitar somnolently. I can still hear those voices calling from far away, he whispered to Kathy conspiratorially. Kathy clutched her Max Factor compact to her breast. The man in the gabardine suit frowned. I hope you brought your alibis, he said.
I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday, Paul said to no one in particular. Oom Bulletjies shifted in his chair, opening an eye. Good lyric, nê? he mumbled. Paul wrote it on his arm.
Clara had been out of the house collecting firewood but suddenly burst through the front door and into the kitchen.
“SNOWFLAKES!” she yelled at the top of her voice, her face alight with excitement. Everyone leapt to their feet with a start.
“Who’re you calling snowflakes?!” Kathy and Paul said in unison, aghast.
“It’s snowing! Dit sneeu buite!” Clara yelled.
They all ran outside and down the steps onto the werf and danced and revelled in the joy of a rare Karoo snowstorm. In the icy wonderworld, questions floated like autumn leaves to collect on the earth and moulder there, suspicions melted like marshmallows in a warm mouth, and idiosyncrasies dissipated like snowflakes caressing a face.
Oom Bulletjies looked at the foreign visitors with sympathy and compassion. They are so far from home, he said to Clara, we must help them get back. Klim in, he yelled, pointing to his bakkie.
Clara looked at her young guests and decided they needed more kerrie afval to take as padkos.
Kathy and Paul looked at their hosts and smiled, then at the bakkie, but said, no, thank you sir, we’ll be just fine, we’ll hit the road.
The man in the gabardine suit stuck out his thumb while the young troubadour and his girl edged up to join him on the dirt track that led to the main road.
Thank you for the hospitality and the snow, Paul told Oom Bulletjies and Tannie Clara, for they had taught him to call her that, though he pronounced it Tahnee as if she were native American. Maybe I’ll come back one day and do an album here, he said to perplexed faces.
Paul looked at Kathy uncertainly. Are you sure…? She bobbed her head as if to say come, let’s go. But I’d trade all my tomorrows for just one more day here, he said after her. He turned to Oom Bulletjies. For a New York moment we thought of staying here and putting down roots, he said; well, at least I did. I’ve got some real estate here in my bag. He pointed to his guitar case. But he turned back to Kathy and the trio disappeared into the snowy night.
I never answered your question, Oom Bulletjies yelled after the retreating troubadour. Paul stopped and clung to his guitar bag as if it were a lifeline.
You must have known, Oom Bulletjies said, that you could check out any time you like, but once your soul has been to the Karoo, it can never leave. DM/TGIFood
To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected]
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