THE TRUEST TRANSLATION MUST BE IN THE EYES

“Walter is the most attractive man I have ever met!” Frances unpinned her long, glossy brown hair, pulled a brush through it and reapplied her lipstick. She stood back to check her appearance in the mirror. “What do you think, Emily? Do you think he will notice me in the crowd?”

“Given that he is meant to be keeping an eye on the smooth running of the sports schedule, he might not actually have the time to notice anyone other than the next hockey team.”

Frances sprayed her neck and wrists with her favourite perfume. “Is he a primary school teacher? I’m not sure I could spend the rest of my life around sticky-fingered, sock-smelling little boys.”

“Actually, he’s a farmer standing in for Ben Lovemore who has ostensibly flown to Jo’burg for his parents’ wedding anniversary.”

“Are they good mates then?”

“They were at school and university together. Ben has something else up his sleeve I think. Whatever that might be is certainly important enough for Walter to step so far out of his comfort zone to help out.”

The two young women left the senior school ablution block together. “I must say hello to the Rogers family. See you later, Fran.” Emily left her colleague to hover near Walter while she made the Rogers family feel welcome at their first school derby day.

“I like the way you’ve redecorated your apartment, Em. I should have brought you a succulent or two from the farm.” Walter stretched his long legs out in front of him.

“You don’t mind fish for dinner?” Emily held up a box of frozen fish for him to see.

“I’m famished. Any hot food will go down well. By the way, your friend Frances made a show of being interested in farming this afternoon.”

“Oh? She got near enough to chat to you then?” Emily placed the tray of fish in the oven.

“Nearly drowned me in her perfume too! She told me over tea that it must be wonderful to work in an area ‘in which pollen turns into edible seeds’”.

“Walter, your sin is the way you give pretty girls a bear hug. They go all weak at the knees. You didn’t tell her you farm cattle?”

Emily poured them wine and perched on the high stool at the counter where she had placed their food. “You’d better chew carefully; whatever is written on the box, someone always ends up with a bone!”

They ate in silence for a while until Walter stood up to fetch the wine bottle from the shelf next to the stove. “How did your presentation on study methods go down? Did your audience buy into your ideas about homework?” He refilled their glasses.

“You remembered!” Emily flushed slightly and ran a finger around the rim of her wine glass. “They were polite enough. One oldish chap said he’d worn out several rubber soles over the years trying to deal with individuals in the classroom and he therefor knows that homework is an easier way of tracking a child’s academic progress.”

“So, he reckons he is a top dog in the profession?”

“His influence was dangerous enough to upset me.”

“See it as a bump along the way.” Walter placed his hand briefly over hers. “As you know only too well from my experience, we can’t always be successful from round one.” He smiled knowingly.

“Walter has invited me to the carol service at the little church on Chisholme Farm on Sunday,” Frances announced happily as the two colleagues opened their boxes of take-away food bought at the end of a long staff meeting.

“That’s good, I’ll see you there as I’m going with Jack. He’s going to play the organ and I have been invited to do the First Reading.”

“Do you go often?”

“Most years. The service is held early – before the farmers depart to other climes for their holiday period.” Emily tucked her paper serviette into the take-away box. “Is he fetching you?”

“Sadly not, but he’s arranged a lift with Joe and Chiara Kannegiesser. Joe apparently grew up in the area but works as an accountant in town because his older brother inherited the family farm.”

Emily could almost feel the current of interest swirl around the tiny wattle-and-daub church when she arrived with Jack. Along with the stiffening breeze came furtive looks and whispers from turning heads as Walter joined Frances after the Kannegiessers had ushered her in and introduced her to the priest standing at the door. Jack rose to play the portable electric organ set up in the chancel.

As the first notes drifted across the congregation, two young boys reached up to pull the bell rope. The church bell clanged loudly once, followed by howls of laughter as one of the two barefoot lads leapt up to catch the rope while the other was doubled up on the floor waving the broken end of it at the priest. Guffaws of laughter rippled through the little church.

Then the organ sputtered and failed to respond to Jack’s gentle touch. “Load shedding,” the congregation groaned collectively. Walter and Len rose from their respective pews and returned moments later carrying a car battery and extension cords. With the unexpected entertainment over, the priest began the service with as straight a face as he could muster. Jack’s music encouraged even the most unmusical among the congregation to sing the well-known carols with gusto. When Emily caught Walter’s eye as she stood up to read the First Lesson, he winked at her.

Some of the women left the church before the end of the last carol to set up folding tables in the church garden. These were soon groaning with a variety of home-made eats ranging from savoury to sweet. While water was being boiled on gas stoves to fill the large tea pots, some of the men collected cooler boxes of drinks from their trucks parked nearby.

Frances watched some of them twist tops off their beer bottles, while others poured brandy and ginger ale into glasses for, she presumed, their wives. She glanced round at the queue of people waiting for tea and edged closer to Walter. “Alcohol was the last thing I expected to see being offered after a carol service,” she commented quietly.

“This carol service is an integral part of our calendar,” he explained. “It’s for the kids as much as the adults. This brings us all together and provides an opportunity for people around here to catch up with each other before we go our separate ways. Farming can be a lonely life for some.”

She tucked her arm into his. “Do you think there might be some whisky on offer?”

“If there is, it would be shared privately.” Walter’s attention turned towards two cows that had wandered into the church yard. He smiled at a group of small boys chasing them off.

“Domestic animals turn up without passports!” Emily laughed as she handed them each a cup of tea. “It’s going to be a slow process filling these tea pots unless someone brings another pot and a gas stove.”

The truest translation must be in the eyes, Frances realised with a jolt: not a word, yet they are genuinely pleased to see each other. She briefly felt like the outsider she was until Walter nudged her elbow. “Let me show you the outside of this church, which is over a hundred years old already. The corrugated iron roof is still the original.” He led her past the tables to pick up a few of the snacks so temptingly laid out.

Emily was chatting to a group of women near the gas stoves. Everyone looks so content, Frances observed as she heard the adults indulgently listening to the small boys telling their tale of ‘capturing the cattle’. Two men near her were discussing the pros and cons of the latest batch of cattle licks available at the farmer’s co-op. She noticed another knot of people engaged in a conversation amidst a lot of laughter.

Walter began telling her about the history of the church and the local farming community. “Some of our families have been here for generations,” he was saying when an older man approached them. He used his walking stick to point towards some trees that had seeded themselves very close to the western wall of the church.

“I reckon a couple of you lads can sort these out with your chain saws,” he commented as if he were in the middle of a conversation. “We have to keep the wilderness at bay,” he explained to Frances before moving on.

“So, Frances. How do you feel about this farming community?” She thought she detected a note of teasing in Walter’s voice.

“It can be challenging, I imagine.” She bit her lower lip at the sight of Emily helping to clear the tables. Jack was nowhere to be seen. In her mind’s eye she saw endless carol services that doubtless meant a clarion call to bakers and cooks. No intimate dinners in restaurants; no regular musical evenings; no popping into the shops on a whim. She looked at young women hoisting babies to their hips and men clapping each other on the shoulder.

“Well?” Walter was smiling down at her, his eyes twinkling with amusement. Was it amusement?

“Do the Kannegiesser’s know they’re meant to be taking me home?”

“I saw Joe putting his cooler box away a moment ago. Come, let’s find them,” he said pleasantly.

Emily wiped her hands on her jeans and smiled at Walter as he approached. “All go well?” she asked brightly.

Walter put his arms around her and kissed both her cheeks. “That ship’s left the harbour,” he grinned against the background of applause from the few people still packing up.

“You had us all fooled for a moment,” Len called from his bakkie.

“Never!” Walter responded, drawing Emily closer. “Let’s go home, Em. There’s time enough to light a braai fire before the sun sets.”

They both knew what the hearty clapping meant. Walter pressed his hooter cheerfully in farewell as they left to drive down the narrow dirt road that would lead to his farm.

SINGLE FURROW PLOUGH

In farming ploughs are used to turn over the uppermost layer of soil in order to bring fresh nutrients to the surface whilst burying weeds and crop remains to decay and so create more nutrients. Of course a single furrow plough can only create one furrow at a time! Using one makes the task of preparing a land for planting a time-consuming one – yet this was all my parents had when they began farming.

This one is displayed outside the popular Daggaboer Padstal situated along the N10 to Cradock – another relic of farm implements from bygone days.

THE SCATTERBRAIN

Crystal had long been regarded as a scatterbrain by her friends. There had been the ‘introduction incident’ they still loved teasing her about: Crystal and her husband Rudie visited their friends, Rebecca and Karl, for a braai at their farm one evening. It had been a difficult week and so they had been enjoying a few drinks and snacks while waiting for the coals to be ready. Karl was about to put the meat on the grid to cook when car headlights at the end of the drive alerted them to the arrival of unexpected visitors.

“Don’t tell me these are the Baxters,” Rebecca groaned. “They’re only due tomorrow.” She leapt up to greet the visitors, returning moments later with Letty and George Baxter in tow. “Do join us for a drink while I air your cottage.” Rebecca made the introductions and looked meaningfully at Karl. “We’d love you to join us for our braai supper.”

Crystal set off for the kitchen to collect extra plates and glasses while her friend hared off to the tiny cottage some distance from the house. “Talk to them Crystal,” Rebecca had pleaded. “Just help to make them feel at home.”

Half an hour later another vehicle crunched along the driveway. The two occupants strolled towards the fire. “Hello, we are Norma and Ethan Spence.” Norma, whom they couldn’t see well in the semi-darkness, sounded confident. “I know we’re only booked in from Sunday, but it has been pouring with rain at the coast and so we thought we’d test the alleged hospitality of the farming community.”

Karl stopped spearing cooked meat into the metal warming dish. “Come and join us,” he said jovially whilst pointing to the chairs he and Rebecca had vacated. “My wife will sort you out, meanwhile I am sure Rudie here can rustle up some drinks for you.” He glanced helplessly in Crystal’s direction.

Taking the hint, given the absence of her friend, Crystal greeted them warmly. “Hello, I’m Letty Baxter, this is Karl, Rudie, George and Letty.” She waved her arm around the circle, stopping suddenly at the outburst of laughter.

“I’m the real Letty,” she heard Letty announce laughingly. “I think her name is Crystal.”

Crystal melted into the darkness to fetch more dinnerware and to warn her friend about the new arrivals. She was quick to offer to get the other guest cottage ready.

Then there was the time she had invited friends to dinner. Crystal set the table on their veranda for four, picked flowers for a vase and went in search of the pretty linen serviettes her grandmother had embroidered with intricate cross-stitch designs. Beth had always admired them. They had settled down for drinks on the lawn while watching the sunset when a truck pulled up under the white stinkwood tree near the kitchen. Rebecca and Karl emerged from the gathering gloom and handed Crystal a bottle of wine.

“Wow, this is a lovely surprise!” Crystal beamed at them. “How good of you to stop by.”

Rebecca took in the table set for four. “Crystal, I’m going to need a very large glass of wine!” She cornered her friend in the kitchen. “You did invite us you know; two weeks ago at the cattle auction.”

Crystal put her hand to her mouth. “Oh Becks! I feel such a clot! How could I have forgotten? Fortunately, you know me, I always prepare far too much food, so we won’t starve.”

This time, the consequences were potentially far more serious. Crystal needed to work out the wages and check on the loans made to their farm workers – a task she did every month – only now it overlapped with her commitment to embroider squares for a large bed cover to be raffled to raise funds for the local feeding programme. Her Sewing Circle had set four days aside for the task.

On the first day, Crystal drove into town filled with enthusiasm. Her basket of embroidery threads, needles and sharp scissors seemed to wink at her happily from the foot well of the passenger seat. It had been far too long since she had been able to get stuck into being creative! The morning passed in a flash as the women compared designs, discussed the colours and stitches to be used and then made their choices. It had been heaven sitting around a large table chatting to each other whilst stitching.

During the lunch break, however, Crystal found a shady step to sit on and hauled out the time book so that she could work out the wages. She gave up when her companions opted to join her with their tea and sandwiches.

Crystal got home much later than intended and threw together a scrappy meal. Afterwards, Rudie waited impatiently for her to finish working out the wages. “I need to know if Siya can really afford to borrow R500 for a heater,” he grumbled. “Mawande is already making excuses about not paying off anything this month because there is to be a family christening.” It was already after ten o’clock before Crystal could finally settle down to finish embroidering her square.

They were finishing breakfast the next morning when Rudie’s mother phoned to announce her arrival for a three-day visit. “When’s she coming?” Crystal’s mind was already reaching out to everything that would need to be done.

“She plans to come tomorrow before lunch.” Rudie sounded glum for his mother had never understood that farming is a full-time job.

“Shucks, Rudie. I’m committed to the team embroidery!”

Crystal rushed to town, waited for her square to be scrutinised for quality, collected two more squares and drove home in a cloud of dust. She spent the rest of the day frantically preparing a room for her mother-in-law and tidying the house from top to bottom: nothing missed Gwenda’s eagle eye! She was hastily embroidering her second square when Rudie sat down heavily next to her on the sofa.

“Have you drawn the wages yet?” He sounded fretful.

Crystal gasped. “Oh no! I meant to do that this morning, but cleaning the house for your mother and planning the meals … I’ll do it before embroidery tomorrow.”

As promised, Crystal withdrew the large sum of money from the ATM before joining the others at the Trinity Church Hall. She kept a close eye on her handbag as the group of women settled down to their embroidery. Rudie called her shortly before lunch. “My mother has arrived, but she’s brought a friend with her ‘for company’. What must I do for her?”

Reluctantly, Crystal collected another two squares, apologised to her co-embroiders and raced back to the farm. “How lovely to see you both,” she smiled while allowing her mother-in-law to embrace her stiffly. She scuttled into the kitchen to augment the cold lunch she had already prepared.

“Crystal, you haven’t shown Nellie to her room yet,” Gwenda reprimanded her primly. “I assured her that farm houses and farmer’s wives are always ready to welcome unexpected visitors.”

“And so they are, Gwenda,” Crystal lied. “I thought tea and a light lunch first would refresh you both after your journey.” She turned to Nellie with a disarming smile. “I’ll make up your bed and then you can settle in.” Crystal opened the windows wide, collected fresh towels from the laundry and grabbed a cake of scented soap from her emergency gift selection.

That evening she looked for her handbag to get the wage packets ready. It was nowhere to be found. “Rudie,” she whispered hoarsely. “I’ve left my handbag with all the money in it at the church hall!” As there was no-one she could contact at that late hour, Crystal turned to her embroidery with trembling fingers and tear-filled eyes.

As soon as breakfast was over – why did her mother-in-law insist on lingering over tea – Crystal drove into town, her heart thumping anxiously all the way there. So great was her relief that she burst into tears when she found her handbag with the contents intact where she had left it.

“We’ve done so well that we each have only two more squares to embroider before we can block them all to be sewn together.” Doreen held up the backing to which a white frill had already been attached. “If you would all hand in yesterday’s squares, we’ll be able to see how our project is coming together.”

With a jolt, Crystal realised she had left her squares at the farm. “I’m sorry, Doreen, I’ll have to fetch them and finish my squares when I get back.”

Gwenda expressed her strong disapproval at the lack of attention they had received from Crystal. “I thought farmer’s wives were meant to be devoted to entertaining their guests,” she sniffed.

“They can be, but I have a community crisis on my hands.” Crystal rummaged in the sideboard to retrieve a Scrabble set and two packs of cards. “I’ll play the winner when I get home this afternoon,” she offered gaily then backed away to sort the wage packets in Rudie’s study next to the kitchen.

With only an hour left, the women sat in a wide circle, their heads bent over their work. Crystal slipped in and picked up her embroidery frame. Fortunately she was a quick worker and her final design was a fairly simple one …

She could smell the braai fire as she neared the farm house. Rudie had already dispensed drinks. His eyes lit up when he saw Crystal. “Hello love,” he greeted her with a one-armed hug. “I forgot to take the food you’d prepared out of the freezer,” he admitted sheepishly. “Will boiled potatoes do?”

“Perfectly,” she said with a confidence she didn’t feel. Crystal eyed the meat he had put ready and glanced at the two women staring across the garden. “I’ll make a salad and then join you all,” she announced to no-one in particular.

The air of contentment that had mantled the foursome while they were eating was shattered when Gwenda wiped her mouth with a square of paper towelling – Rudie hadn’t been able to locate the pretty paper serviettes and Crystal was too tired to care – and looked squarely at her son. “I don’t know how you manage to run this farm with such a scatterbrain for a wife, Rudie. It must be such a burden for you.”

Crystal nearly choked on her wine. How could she?

Rudie laughed – that disarmingly confident boyish laugh. “You’ve got it all wrong, mother. I wouldn’t be able to run this farm without her. Crystal is a real brick!”

Note: This story was inspired by a blogpost written by Toortsie.

A RELIC OF OUR FARMING PAST: RIEMS

What do you do when you need rope, or require a long stock whip and you live hundreds of miles from the nearest town – or there is no town, as was the case for the early settlers in this country. The answer is that you make your own. Pliable strips of rawhide, or thongs, are known as riems in this country. There is even a settlement in the Northern Cape, just north of the Augrabies Falls, known as Riemvasmaak.

It is this relic constructed of old sneeze-wood poles outside the Daggaboer Padstal near Cradock that set me thinking about how farmers managed in the past:

To get back to these riems or thongs: making them requires a long process involving cutting the rawhide into strips, removing the hair and any remaining tissue and fat. The hide then has to be treated to preserve it before it can be made into leather. It has to soak for at least a week – this depends on the weather – and stirred daily until the hair is ready to come off. The hide shrinks up to about a third of its length while it dries; the strips having been cut while it is still damp. The strips (riems) are then placed over a pole or a strong branch of a tree and are attached to a heavy stone – some of which had a hole made in the centre for this purpose – and wound around this until the full length of the riem has been used up. The weight of the stone will stretch the riem so that it dries straight. Sometimes the stone would also be spun around to assist in creating elasticity in the riem.