One winter, several years ago, my husband and I decided to spend the night in a tiny Free State town. We booked into a country-style hotel – the only accommodation available – and settled into our rondavel-type accommodation. We then inquired about supper for this was not the kind of town to support the usual array of fast food franchises. The only restaurant we had come across during our late afternoon walk through the town displayed a discreet notice on the door that announced it was only open on Friday and Saturday evenings. We happened to be there on a Wednesday.
We walked to the main hotel building where one of the hotel staff pointed us to the large, well-appointed dining room. The tables were bedecked with thick white table cloths and a dark maroon overlay. The silver cutlery shone in the soft light and the tall wine glasses each held a starched white cloth serviette. I was the only one in the room. “Ask for a menu while I see if I can rustle up a drink”, my husband said cheerfully as he headed for the bar.
No menu was offered. No-one even peered into the dining room. There was only me and my reflection in a dusty mirror above a highly polished sideboard. The room was eerily silent except for some muffled laughter somewhere in a distant part of the building.
After what seemed an age, my husband appeared grinning broadly. “They don’t use the dining room. We have to eat in the pub.” He led the way through a labyrinth of polished passages to a narrow room filled with men and women drinking and laughing – it took only a second to realise that we were the only English-speakers there. The patrons were seated around the only two tables and some were perched on the arms of the motley collection of low chairs. Others stood quite comfortably whilst quaffing their drinks of choice.
Our only option was to sit on the high stools shoved against a very high bar counter. We ordered our drinks and perused the tiny, rather sticky, plastic-coated menu: fried chicken and chips; beef burgers and chips; or steak and chips. The barman was busy. The other patrons were very thirsty and loud. We sipped our drinks and surveyed the scene from our lofty perches. After a while, I waved the menu to attract the attention of the barman. He took our order and disappeared.
It was clearly a busy night and we were in no hurry. The barman dispensed drinks and disappeared; dispensed more drinks and disappeared; added his comments to the general conversation and eventually brought our supper. It turned out he was both the barman and cook!
Believe me, it is not easy eating a meal placed on a counter that is level with your nose. I looked around for a cushion, but there were none to be had. My husband and I were sitting slightly apart to allow for some elbow room in that confined space. I was finishing the last of the chips that had been liberally doused in tomato sauce by the barman when the door behind me opened, letting in a chilly breeze.
The two men who entered were welcomed enthusiastically by the seated crowd. Everyone obviously knew each other well in this pub. Both ordered a drink and exchanged pleasantries with the barman. One squeezed into a space between his mates while the other man ordered four take-away hamburgers and chips. He turned to the assembly. “Ons neem warm kos vir ons koue vrouens.” [We’re taking warm food to our cold wives].
With that, he pulled out a bar stool and sat between me and my husband. “Tickie,” he introduced himself and chatted about the work he did in the area, about the difficulties of sheep farming, the drought and about some of the local characters. He ordered more drinks for the three of us, moving his stool closer to the counter whilst turning his back slightly on my husband.
At one stage Tickie asked the barman to “maak gou” [hurry up] with their food, teasing him about having to catch a cow and slaughter it before he could make the hamburgers. Everyone laughed at that one. It was obviously a well-worn joke.
By the time Tickie had ordered another round of drinks for him and his companion and was telling me about hunting springhares by the lights of his vehicle, he had turned his back on my husband completely so that he was focused solely on me.
The barman indicated the polystyrene take-away containers he had placed on the counter. The ordered food was ready. Neither Tickie nor his friend were in a hurry to leave. By now all the patrons were contributing their hunting stories, their laughter and gestures graciously including the two strangers in their midst.
A considerable time had lapsed before the barman reminded Tickie about the food he had ordered. A sense of urgency must have trickled through his brain while he drained his glass for he called to his friend and pointed to his wristwatch in an exaggerated fashion. “Kom Frikkie, ons moet nou huis toe gaan.” [Come Frikkie, we must go home now.] The two men laughingly gathered their containers and staggered to the door. After bidding everyone farewell, Tickie announced “Nou neem ons koue kos vir warm vrouens.” [Now we’re taking cold food to warm wives]. Then the two of them slipped out into the wintry night to face the wrath of their wives at home.