No person arrives to fix the pass and with alcohol sales restricted the townspeople soon begin to make their own alcohol. The dorp’s bad luck starts to be blamed on the new arrival, Joseph Bain.
By now we were at the beginning of the crisis and, although we hardly knew it at the time, Albertsburg was at the brink. Captain Mandel had even by then begun to take control of not only the pass but the dorp itself. It was the second week after the pass had washed away and we had heard nothing with regards to an engineer’s arrival. The reconstruction of the dry-stone walling that had collapsed was a distant hope.
In the first few weeks very little changed in the mentality of the people. Although supplies dwindled, most of Albertsburg believed that the god in the machine of government would act and all the troubles would simply blow away like clouds. As my next-door neighbours, the Williamsons, said to me, while I was watering my hedge one evening, as they set out for their usual night at the cinema: ‘It won’t be long before your friends in government send us the engineer, I am sure. Do you not think?’
‘With this government?’ I replied. ‘As my husband said to me the other day “I would be less surprised if the Easter Rabbit arrived to fix it over Christmas”.’ They laughed at this, but then seeing that I was not laughing with them Mr Williamson, looking slightly concerned, asked: ‘But your husband and yourself must have old friends in government who could help? Surely all it would take is a few phone calls? We could pay them. I mean even under the counter, if that’s what it takes with your lot.’
I ignored the final comment and instead I chose simply to answer him as truthfully as I could. ‘I am not sure that is how political redeployment works. I am afraid as the saying goes: when days are dark, friends are few. I very much doubt there’s anybody amongst our ‘old friends’, as you put it, that would so much as forward an email to help either me or my husband – not in the current climate. We are here because we are considered, by the president, to be infectious.’ At this they both laughed and Mr Williamson patted me on the arm as if he took me for a shameless prevaricator.
Like the Williamsons the population simply assumed that some solution would and could be found to the problem of the pass. And so both luxury and basic goods had begun to run out after a week. Indeed, by the end of week two Albertsburg’s corner café was empty of all but washing powder and a few pieces of stationery. A large basket of sun-bleached and half-deflated plastic soccer balls sat feebly in a basket at its door, next to empty wooden pallets that had, only a week before, been filled with fruit and vegetables. A chalk board outside the butcher’s informed everybody that nothing but ostrich remained and that the price of this had risen four times. Boetsman too had run out of almost everything. Beer was not available and brandy was only served as a single shot. What was more he had started advertising a new special cocktail of rum, honey and rooibos. ‘We will be onto ship’s biscuits soon,’ Jean had quipped when sampling the new concoction.
‘Ag, I thought I had seen the last of those,’ Boetsman stated as he sat at the bar sharpening his knife on a well-worn whetstone. Out of everybody in Alberstburg it was he who had felt the sense of depression first. A sense that would soon consume much of the population. His smooth jocular manner had changed to one of doleful irony and he seemed to walk about the bar as if he were a prisoner. ‘It’s not Mandel,’ he said to me on one such occasion, his voice drawling out the words. ‘It’s not that one man dominates over us. For that is, you know, the way of men. I should know. I have been part of that myself, I can tell you. Huh, we must sometimes take that freedom power allows us,’ he said flinging back his head in disdain. ‘Power, this is a natural thing, power can have its goodness too. But, here it is this thievery that is bred-in-the-bone of this place.’ He motioned with his hand in the direction of the door. Then he fell silent for a while. But I knew he would begin again if I said nothing. ‘For the most part I don’t care about what others do,’ he broke out in an angry tone, ‘but power here is simply the hippo’s ears, as they say in my part of the world. What lies beneath those ears is the slavish worship of money, the ripping out of everything that is to be got without a care for anyone. Thievery!’ With this he spat onto the dusty wooden floor of the bar. ‘I too have been a slave to this devil. I too…’ He trailed off. And then after another protracted silence. ‘You know the story of the money I have buried under the bar? Huh? The fools. But they are not so wrong about that. They are more right than they know … You, Judge, sitting here, you would not have to look very far to discover what I have done in the name of the devil of this country.’
‘I can’t imagine what you mean,’ I said.
‘As you know judge, you don’t need to rob a bank in this country to steal money. Get into the business with the right kind of person in government … you can steal just as well.’
‘Boetsman, please don’t tell me you were involved in this corruption?’ I said feeling a breaking sense of helplessness grip me by the throat.
‘Me? No, God save me, no. But if you know how to use a gun, then those who are will find you sure enough. Me, I did not know to begin with. The dogs! But what is the use of claiming innocence. Yes, I stole. Not me personally, but it might as well have been me. I protected them. I served them. Much like you and your husband did.’ He paused once more. ‘Judge, I was on your side. I still am on your side. I worked for people who I thought were like you, honest. I worked for …’
But just then there was a foot fall on the stoep. Boetsman turned his head, slowly sliding his knife along the whetstone. ‘Fuck you Enoch, for a big man you have a light step. What do you want? You know Judge, this man is a Peeping Tom. I would close your curtains if you don’t want him seeing your private business.’
Enoch’s face had turned bright red. ‘Ag come on Boetie, I only ever looked at that Bain oke. And that is only to protect us.’
With this Boetsman began to laugh. ‘Ja, ja Enoch my friend you can say that till your ostriches come home to roost. But we all know that you’re a bloody pervert. Now what do you want my brother?’ Enoch was standing at the door carrying two supermarket packets of tinned vegetables bought from the black-market traders – the so called Kwerekwere – who had infiltrated the town, bringing with them food and drink. ‘Have you got any bottles of brandy to sell? Those bloody what-you-ma-call-thems have none. Mandel’s men have confiscated the lot and his kops are selling them out the back of the police station at five times the price.’
Boetsman shook his head. ‘No, I have no bottles to sell you, but you can sit down and have a single with the judge if you want.’
Enoch looked disappointed but came in and pulled up a stool.
As you may have gathered I am not particularly fond of Enoch and even by then I felt a certain uneasiness in his presence. I did my best to down the remnants of the lukewarm greasy rum and rooibos. However, I could not get away quickly enough.
‘You know Judge, it is now no secret that I am keeping an eye on things,’ Enoch began just as I was getting up. ‘And that man Bain, that guy you’re making friends with, he has something of the, what-you-ma-call-it, of the spirits about him.’ Enoch downed his cocktail and pointed at Boetsman to pour him another.
‘I’m not sure I understand you. You mean he is making his own alcohol?’ I said trying my best to pay up and leave.
‘No Judge. It’s more serious. I mean like black magic, devil worship. I mean that kind of thing.’
‘Oh, I’m sure that’s not true. I thought he was an abstract painter that last time we spoke.’
‘No, no, I know now that it’s not painting he’s doing. You know, he came on me like the bloody devil the other day.’ Enoch had now begun to raise his voice. ‘I did not hear any movement. And he was suddenly there,’ he said in an angry tone and then getting up from his stool and raising his hand he slapped his palm down onto the bar. ‘It was like bloody magic!’
‘Easy there Enoch. You are scaring the judge,’ Boetsman said, calmly watching Enoch’s movements.
‘I’m scaring her? He scared the living befok out of me! I am telling you judge, that man should be watched.’
‘Are you not doing that for us?’ I asked, laying the money I owed Boetsman on the bar.
‘Oh, I do I do, I can tell you that. But a man must rest at some point.’ Again another cocktail went down the hatch. And again he pointed to Boetsman for another. ‘God knows what he does when I fall asleep. I can’t watch him all the time, I have work to do.’
‘Well, good day to you Enoch,’ I said. But Enoch held my arm for a second, stopping me from leaving.
‘He’s a Jonah, Judge. Look what’s happened to this city since he arrived.’
‘But Enoch,’ I said as calmly as I could, for he had begun to hurt my arm in his grip, ‘Jonah was favoured by God. No harm will come to us from him. There are others in this place we should be watching. But Bain, I am sure, is not one of them.’
‘He will destroy us all. I tell you this Judge. To survive we must cast him into the waters.’
‘Enoch!’ Boetsman shouted. ‘Bloody hell, let the Judge’s arm go.’
He paused and let my arm go as if he suddenly realised his own absurdity, ‘Sorry, sorry. But Bain needs to go back to where he came from. We don’t want him here.’
I looked at Boetsman, and for one moment his more usual jocularity took hold of him, and winking at me he said: ‘There are no whales here Enoch. Unless that fat Sergeant of Mandel’s outfit, that van Rooyen, can fit him in to that beerboeb of his. I’d give you a bottle of brandy to see that.’
‘You laugh Boetie, but I tell you man, that oke is the devil. He must go back, he doesn’t belong here. It’s him whose is bringing the trouble. And he’s always planning and watching from his rooftop. I am telling you he is engineering something. There are papers in that study that role themselves up.’
By this time, having had just about as much of this nonsense as I could take, I was at the door. I waved to Boetsman and he, in return, flashed a tooth filled smile at me, winking as he did.