It was with this in mind that I went to Jacobson and Daughters some days after my pilgrimage up to Thales’ grave. I had gone to buy fertilizer for my roses but I knew perfectly well, as I drove down the main street, that I was on a mission to find out something more about the circumstances surrounding Thales’s gravestone.
There was an emptiness to the Jacobsons’s shop. The tawdry plastic signage that ran along its front wall had not been replaced in many decades. Its long squat Victorian frontage with its irregular Tuscan pillars and small Cape Dutch gable, did not suggest the cavernous warehouse that lay behind the facade. Inside, rough pallets, piled high with bulging sacks of fertilizer, manure, cement and compost, formed a labyrinth of darkened passages.
At the door, umbrellas stuck out from three clay pots like black dahlias. But it was the smell of manure and fertilizer that struck me first. It is a very familiar smell to any person who has grown up on the farmlands of this country. And it made me stand there for a while breathing it in and, for a few moments, I simply forgot my reasons for being there.
It was only when a voice came out of the general gloom of the store that I snapped out of my memories. ‘Hello Judge, how can I be of assistance?’ came a deep voice. For a second I could not locate it. The only people inside I could see were the two beautiful pale young daughters, who were sitting behind a glass partition some distance to my left.
‘Whose there? Who are you?’ I called out just as a black figure swooped down at me. There was a clatter of leather soled shoes on the concrete floor and I jumped back I moving quickly towards the umbrellas so as to find something with which to defend myself. It was only after a few seconds that I realised Daniel Jacobson had obviously been on top of one of the pallets above me.
Daniel was a thin pale young man with a long nose, a pair of black rimmed glasses and a wide fleshy mouth. He was, I thought then, the most unthreatening man in the district and the most unlikely looking person to be working in a builder’s merchant. He wore polished black leather shoes, grey hound’s-tooth trousers, a white collared shirt and a black patterned woollen tie. Only his green John Deere cap suggested that he had anything to do with the bricks, manure and fertilizer that were about us. ‘Sorry for startling you Judge, I was just completing some work up there,’ he said with a thin smile. And I got the feeling that he was somehow pleased with himself.
‘I am looking for 3-2-1 fertilizer,’ I said trying my best not to show that my heart was still beating a little faster than usual.
‘What do you need it for?’
‘My lawn and roses.’
‘Do you have weeds in your lawn?’ he said, walking down the aisle towards the fertiliser at the back. ‘The little ones with the white flowers that attract the bees?’
‘Yes, why do you ask?’
‘Just that 3-2-3 might be better. Also, Jean, from the coffee shop, swears by 3-2-3 for roses. She is something of an expert.’
‘All the same,’ I stated, ‘I would prefer 3-2-1.’
‘I know that the customer knows best, but perhaps in this case…’
‘Daniel Jacobson, have been told that you are a clever young man, but you should know not to question a judge’s decision.’
‘Oh, of course Judge, but I thought in a democracy that kind of thing was allowed?’
‘Not when it comes to gardening.’
‘I shall keep that in mind. What size bag do you want?’
‘20kgs I think.’
‘Are those Albertina Sisulus you’re growing?’
‘Yes,’ I said surprised to discover that he knew the name of the rose, ‘but as I have said to you, it is for the lawn as well. In fact perhaps I will take two bags.’
‘No problem hey, I’ll put it on your account.’ He lifted one sack onto his right shoulder and then, with a dexterity and strength that surprised me, he bent at the knees and manipulated another bag onto his left.
With the two bags on his shoulders I walked with him to my car and while doing so I began my enquiry. ‘I was up on Deacon’s Dune some days ago,’ I started.
‘Oh ja, there are some beautiful views of the valley from up there, hey.’
‘Yes, I did have that chance to take them in. Although I did go up for another reason.’
‘Personally, I only go up there for funerals and to remember the elders. I prefer St. Thomas. Do you know the one?’
‘The one above the mine? Is that not meant to be cursed?’
‘Ja, you know people say that, but I have no fear of dead miners,’ he said, his voice straining slightly.
‘But your family seems to go up to the dune not only to remember your relations,’ I continued. ‘They also go up there to lay headstones for people they don’t know.’ And with this I turned slightly so that I could see his reaction. But his face, which had begun to drip with sweat, was too distorted by the weight of the bags to reveal anything significant.
‘Oh ja, I take it you mean like the gravestone of the umbrella salesman?’ he asked, his voice cracking with the strain.
‘Yes, I did see that. And to be frank I was wondering just what motivated it?’
‘I don’t know hey, I wasn’t born then.’
‘But I take that you have been told something.’
‘Ja, Gideon, my father, has told me a few things about those days. My grandfather, like that umbrella guy, spent some time in Kaptein Joll’s prison. Joll was the, uh, man who ran this place under the old regime.’
‘Yes, I have seen the name,’ I confirmed. ‘What did he ever do to Joll? I have not come across a court record mentioning your grandfather.’
‘Oh, I don’t think it reached the courts. Uh, it was that detention without trial period. I, uhm, am not sure if you remember it?’
‘Oh, I need no prompting to recall that legislation! I was held under it too.’
‘Of course, sorry hey. Um, like, if you wouldn’t mind…’
It was only then that I realised that we were standing at my car and that Daniel was visibly straining with the bags. ‘Oh my dear, I am sorry,’ I said and I popped the boot open, allowing him to slip the bags from his shoulders into the car.
‘So, what exactly happened to your grandfather then?’ I asked wanting to get to the bottom the story of the gravestone.
‘I was told,’ he began still breathing heavily and wiping his forehead, ‘that Joll put my oupa in prison after it was discovered that he owned a copy of the biography of Groucho Marx. You see, Joll confused it with Karl Marx.’
‘Ja, well I am not really sure that’s true. He liked the Marx Brothers, but I found copy of Das Capital. He was also in a guild of some kind. There’s a medal of association in a kist upstairs. Gideon tells me guilds were banned in those days.’
‘But did he know this man Thales?’
‘Ja, I think the gravestone says he didn’t. Look, when I knew him – he died when I was nine – my oupa was something of a fundamentalist.’
‘Oh really!’ I said feeling like I might be getting close to the truth.
‘Ja hey, he was obsessed with one thing.’
‘And what was that?’
‘Judgement Day. All I remember of him was that he sat out in the backyard reading religious texts and praying. He even took up some Shembe traditions and he always carried their book with him. He came quite close to becoming some kind of sangoma by the end. Gideon felt he had gone a little mal.’
‘What brought all of this on?’
‘Fear of death I guess. But there’s a rumour that Joll tortured him. He was just bos as far as I could tell. Oh and I am not saying there’s anything wrong with the Shembe church,’ Daniel quickly popped in, perhaps realising that I might be annoyed by his association of Shembe and madness. ‘Shembe came here with the miners, you know.’
‘But why the gravestone?’
‘I think it was just a good act. My oupa was full of those at the end. He would often be seen picking up litter in the streets and blessing the homeless dogs. He wanted redemption.’
‘Redemption from what?’
‘That, hey, I couldn’t tell you. That’s a lot of fertilizer,’ Daniel said looking at the two bags lying in my boot.
‘I will find a use for it,’ I said closing the lid. ‘Well, if what you say is true about the gravestone, then God bless your family.’
‘And God bless you too Judge,’ Daniel replied raising his green cap. ‘I know that I speak for my family when I say we are proud to have you and your husband here. Although, juses, I imagine it can’t be that great for you. But with your loss, comes our gain.’ He smiled and waved his cap at me and stepped back into the coolness of the shop.