Saturday, November 30, 2013

Short story: Spanners and mealies

Spanners and Mealies in Bloekom Road

Oom Sakkie worked on his Isuzu van. His legs stuck out from underneath to reveal crumpled pants and battered shoes that were on the edges of useful existence. “This bladdy bolt! Pass me that brake fluid. It’s in the boot or cubby”.

He was talking to Doeff, a huge baobab of a man who wore a natty bib type overall and a red T-shirt inside it. “Jislaik. You are really sukkeling with that damn thing. How long your car’s been on the blocks?” he shook his head and shuffled towards the boot.

A women’s voice shouted from a window – it was Aunt Joyce, who was married to Oom Sakkie, calling from the house: “Hey, come watch the TV. It’s about Mandela; he’s coming out of jail. It’s like the bladdy opening of parliament.” The voice went softer, as the face turned inward to get the action. “I’d never thought I’d fokken see the day. Die boere gaan kak.” The voice trailed off.

“Ja, I know,” Doef was answering anyway. “Yarrr, that ou is like a king, the leader of chiefs!” Bending under the car, he passed the brake fluid to Oom Sakkie. The old man didn’t respond. Sounds of exertion mixed with the clang of metal-on-metal came from under the car. “This thing can never beat me, stubborn as it is. It hasn’t got a mind or a heart like me.” Spoken through gritted teeth, the words sounded as if they had been bent and skewed in a vice.

“You can hear on the news”, said Doeff, “they are even starting to call him mister and doctor.” Another voice broke in. “They will never release him. I don’t trust the Boers.” It was Pops, a first year student and Oom Sakkie’s nephew who had just strolled up. He was the first person ever in the street, or the district for that matter, to make it to first-year university. Doeff’s voice was chastising but also triumphant: “Have you been sleeping, studying or what? Yesterday already they announced the man would be out of the mungs today!” Directing his voice under the car, Doeff added: “These lighties want to talk politics but know bugger-all about what’s going on.”

“Boycotts, boycotts.  That’s all these students know,” Uncle Sakkie said, wrenching away as he spoke. “Can they help you fix a car?  Never.  Can they do some work cleaning up the yard?  No. All they want is money from you.” Rhythmic squeaking now suggested the bolt was finally loosening its teeth from the bakkie’s frame.

Pops felt like defending himself against the accusations but thought better of it. He put his hands on his hips and, for a second, twisted the corner of his mouth. He was more concerned with catching up on developments. “What time? Where is Mandela being released, Doeff?”

“Get inside there, boytjie.” The big man enjoyed his moment of superiority.  His thumb pointed sideways to the house where a muffly electronic voice leaked through the off-white lace curtains.  “It’s on TV now.”

The boy dashed off. Doeff told himself to remember to watch television the main news bulletin later. He would be a mamparra if he missed it. He had a reputation at his worksite for being in the know, the guy with the last word on what really happened after everyone else dabbled in hearsay and buzz.

“So what do you think of all these things Uncle Sakkie,” Doeff asked, as under the car knees bent and the body scraped further underneath, probably to tackle another intransigent bolt..

“If you ask me,” said Oom Sakkie, “I’ve known those boer-ous for a long time. They will never change. Them give up the colour bar?  Never.” He took a pause from his work, and said. “I’ve worked with whites for years and years. They will never throw away their privileges. But things are better now. Verwoerd, Vorster, first class bastards. Things are better now.”

“But what about this Mandela, Oom Sakkie? They skrik for him, what do you think of him?” asked Doeff.

“Mandelas, Tutus, haikhona. Look, these lighties – Pop’s mates – tell me that it’s our own people. But, no thanks. Things will be worse. There’s no unity, man. Too many bulls in the same kraal. Look at Pietermaritzburg, what’s happening there! It’s like Shaka, Dingaan and Mpande all over again,”

Doeff laughed his deep-chested laugh, so loud it carried down the street. He thought: “Old people can be so out of touch, so backward sometimes.” But he could never say so to an older person. Still, it was funny and he laughed heartily. He had known Oom Sakkie for many years, before the edges of his hair had begun to turn grey-white. The old man had grown up in the Transkei and spoke fluent Xhosa alongside English and Afrikaans. Doeff had never seen Oom Sakkie treat any person disrespectfully, unless they had wronged him. His fair-mindedness applied to even to complete strangers. Doeff remembered the zapping he got from the old man after he swore at workers who, having never worked with cement before, were slow and messy in helping him spade concrete for a driveway he was building. Calling him aside, Uncle Sakkie had told him: “Stop your nonsense. These guys are getting really angry at your swearing. You don’t like your foreman calling you a hotnot or an idiot, do you?”


The light wasn’t fading yet in Bloekom road, but the horizontal rays clearly signalled that daylight was on the wane.  Oom Sakkie, his hair, overall and parts of his shoes dyed with red-brown sand, emerged only once from under the bakkie, to plod off in search of the loo.  Doeff felt it his duty to stay with his uncle – even if he did not actually stain his hands with grease from the old Isuzu. He regaled Oom Sakkie with his wealth of knowledge and advice: how to get a house built cheaply – his plans to subcontract – what make of cars are best – how to deal with a son who was in and out of jail. Once or twice Doeff shuffled his feet and wiggled his shoulders to the beat of the township pop music that blared from a nearby house.

Every now and again Oom Sakkie would say: “Hell, thanks, Doeff, you’re really helping me out. None of my damn four sons are to be found when I need a hand. Football is their god.”  Doeff winced slightly at the appreciation – because he knew that passing spanners, screwdrivers and brake fluid and keeping conversation did not really count as help, especially not for a hefty man with ample knowledge of cars and mechanical things. He said: “It’s nothing Oom. I would actually fix this thing for you. But I’m waiting for another ou. Wants me to check his stove – only one plate’s working. Why don’t you leave it now? Stop working and I’ll do it for you next week. “

“No, don’t worry, “ Oom Sakkie said. Nice as Doeff was, his frequent postponements were well known in family circles. “Must have this thing on the road by Wednesday.  That’s when Vic – you know, the bloke who gives me a lift to work – goes on leave.”

From time to time people passed, some greeting the two, but because it was a cul de sac, the street was quiet. A railway line ran behind the houses and then, about 500 metres along, bent to run at right angles to Bloekom Road. Further up the street a few youths toyed with a plastic ball – a body leaned backward as a foot extended to knock the ball; a head stretched forward as the ball thudded against a forehead. Some played cautiously, clearly wanting to keep their clothes clean, keeping to the outer edges of the circle. They were there for the company or to kill time, but they had other things on their mind.


The sun glistened sharply just above the roofs of houses on one side of Bloekom Road and the street itself was almost covered in shade. Oom Sakkie and Doeff were still in leisurely conversation about one of the old man’s daughters and the trouble she was having with her man when suddenly they heard a commotion down the street.

They could make out taunting, jeering voices, contending with a half-angry, half-pleading voice. Doeff and Oom Sakkie could make out the mealie-vendor in the middle of the road. Doc was a wiry man in his mid-forties who was well known in the street. “Bring those damn mealies back. I not in the mood for monkey games,” he was saying. A youth held out the mealies, grinning at Doc. As the frustrated old man lunged, the youth jerked the mealies back. Doc’s arms and bodies crashed into the youth, but the mealies were already passed backwards into another boy’s hands. Oom Harry and Doeff spotted Gunner, a youth who was first making a reputation as much as a goal scorer as in fist- and knife-battles. Gunner was shoving Doc who had collapsed into him and saying: “Keep away from me, you stupid old man. I’ve got nothing of yours”. Doc chased after one youth and then another. But the two mealies were passed along like rugby balls. Doc turned to see another youth reaching into his two wheel push-cart; with a swift action he swung around and lunged, catching the jacket of the boy. His right hand came up fast and hard, hitting the boy’s cheek.

“Now you asked for it, you crazy bugger,” said Gunner as he looked at the trickle of blood on his younger brother’s cheek. He was self-assured in situation like this – an attitude backed up by a well-honed torso and tight biceps. As he moved to the mealie-seller, three of his mates also closed in. Doc braced himself, fists up, but his confidence was beginning to crumble. He was kicked from behind, then hit with a stick from the side. He tried to break through a gap in the four – to try and make a run for it. But a well-timed trip sent him flying heavily into the stony road surface.

The four moved in like crocodiles on a calf. Doc winced as a shoe dug into his back, another clicking hard against his jaw. As the blows multiplied, Doc saw himself at the top of Bloekom Road a short while ago, wondering whether to skip this short dead-end street. He had many other customers in other streets and it was getting late. Then he saw himself leaving home that morning. His last born, Nelson, twelve years old, was at the gate; they talked about attending a soccer match together the next day. These recollections retarded the pain of the kicks for no more than a flash of time.

It was all happening very fast. “Shit,” Oom Sakkie said, and moved towards the feud, Doeff close at his heels. The blows, hard and stinging, caught the youths by surprise. Most of them backed off, with the exception of Gunner who picked up a stick and, closing in on Doeff, took a swing. It was a hopeless attempt. Doeff blocked, grabbed Gunner’s shirt front, and simultaneously kicked his feet so he scudded into the dust. Doeff grabbed the stick, and was pointed it menacingly in the fallen lad’s face. Gunner propelled himself backward and made a scramble to his feet.

“Fuck you Doeff. We’ll get you.” Gunner’s mouth was spurting expletives. “You think you’re the damn mayor. Don’t forget you killed a man.” It was true that Doeff had killed someone five years before; but he had pleaded self-defence and walked free. Since then, and more so since his marriage, the big many has opted for a quieter life, attending the odd football match, drinking a beer at home, and using his wit to play the know-it-all in the workplace. But Doeff still hurt inside at the mention of the terrible incident.

“Voetsek!” Doeff called out, feigning to sprint after the boys and Gunner. The boys, breathing rapidly and dusting themselves, pulled back even further, disempowered despite their insults. Up the road, Mrs Gama leaned from her window and shouted at the troublemakers: “Shut up and go home, we’ve had enough of your nonsense.” The swearing died down abruptly and the boys stalked off, talking among themselves.

Oom Sakkie said: “Rubbishes. Bloody disgrace to Bloekom Road”. Doc had gotten off the ground, flustered, bruised, a cut on his hand and sore in various body parts, but he wasn’t badly injured. Doc said: “Here Mr Sakkie,” and pulled 6 mealies from his cart. Oom Sakkie shook his head. “Don’t worry man. I don’t want to do you down. In any case, I bought some mealies in town yesterday.” Doeff looked up from dusting his shoes with his hanky. “Hey Doc, I’ll have some. Just two, for me and the wife.”

Doc turned down Oom Sakkie’s invitation for a bit of first aid treatment – an offer of plaster, a pain tablet, some ointment – from inside the house. He had to go immediately, Doc said, and asked to park his two-wheel cart in the yard, on the side of Oom Sakkie’s house. After leading the vehicle into the yard, Doc transferred the mealies into a sack which he then slung across his back. It was darkening in Bloekom Road as Doc headed up the road in search of a taxi and Oom Sakkie began to pack his tools away.
Frank Meintjies (circa 1993).

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