My first impression of this village was of the white bakkie roaring up the steep road as we drove down to it for the first time. The white woman alone in the cab, the black man in blue overalls, standing in the back, holding the roof. My second impression was of utter peace, impressed on me by the solemn coolness of the soft dirt road under enormous old firs.
We left the village that day to travel to the farm Doornberg, but returned later to mail some postcards from what was billed as The Funkiest Post Office in South Africa.
That was no lie.
Looking for the place we drove through the tiny hamlet whose picturesque streets spoke of pastoral calm.
And in we went.
At the counter I waited my turn to speak to the lady behind it, who was engaged in conversation with two elderly women, obviously well known to her. Without warning a horrible cold electric jolt shot through me. My arm hairs stood up, my body iced over and without thinking I interrupted the shorter and stouter of the two women: You can't say that.
She: I can say what I like. He is a kaffir!
Me: No, you can't. That is a terrible word.
She: Kaffir? No it's not, it actually originally means human.
Me: It is a racial slur and is loaded with racist prejudice!
She: Rape Pillage Murder.
Seriously, she gave me the whole speech. Here in Nieu Bethesda. Home of the Owl House. Home of the artist (whose death put the place on the map), shunned by the townsfolk, who put herself to death by drinking caustic soda. Inspiration for Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca. The playwright who wrote about black people when no one else would.
And then with confidence, she finished with a flourish: You're not even South African!
Finish en klaar, she rests her case.
Me, now explosive: Ek is in Bloemfontein gebore! Moenie vir my se ek is nie 'n Suid Afrikaner nie!
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Trembling with anger. Die blond en die blou. Ons vir jou Suid Afrika, the love of my childhood, the tears pricking, singing the old national anthem in the school hall, ons sal lewe, ons sal sterwe, me believing I would die for this country, that I should, the tears at the new national anthem...Flashbacks to riots on television, women burning alive with tyres around their necks (I know what she would say to that too, "they did it to each other"), my headmistress' husband chatting to me as I waited for the school doors to open one day, early in the morning: They should barricade the townships and let the kaffirs kill each other, my teenage idealism and passion for reconciliation, Mignon Hanow in science class: Marie, I hear you kissed a kaffir, after my sixteenth birthday party, my trip to the headmistress' office after slapping her; my certain hopeless teenage conviction that order could only come from children knowing each others' languages and lives, this whole pitiless spiral of South African chaos.
You're not even South African. What made her think that?
I don't remember what she said after that. I knew it was futile. I could not remember whether I'd paid the post mistress for the stamps. I had. She said, in a soft voice, I'll post them for you. No thank you, I said. Two very small boys who had been playing behind the counter stared at me tearfully. I turned on my heel, leaving Vince in some constellation of his own, and walked blindly into the bright street, crying.
In casual, everyday gossip at the post office in the enlightened dorp...
A minute later the second and taller of the two elderly ladies pulled up beside us as we walked, leaned through her bakkie window, touched my arm with her sunspotted hand and said, I am so sorry. Her arm was bandaged.
A tear slid from behind my sunglasses.
She: She is scared. They steal from her. It's all petty but they are on drugs. She's a frightened old woman. We're not all like that.
At the Owl House, we walked under a grape arbour whose sweet grapes I tasted and wondered whether Helen Martins ate them too. Sweeter than caustic acid. Sweeter than this.
The interior is lit with coloured glass, crushed.
The house was empty. We were the only visitors. Outside sat many black vendors selling scores of exact replicas of the sculptures.
Her sculptures were made by her coloured helper, Koos Malgas, to her instruction. And what was their relationship, really? If you don't know, I could, should go into a whole explanation of coloured. Not black, not white, coloured. It's complicated, and very simple. It is a relief, in fact, to be with South Africans who do not require the explanations but who have absorbed the distinctions through generations. I recommend Google.
This whole yard full of her people and animals.
Owls with big eyes. In South Africa, depending on your belief system, an owl sitting on your roof is a harbinger of death.
The storks we'd seen in the fields of Doornberg were there. Symbols of new life.
And lambs under the pepper trees. I could hear Handel's aria from The Messiah, Come unto me, all ye that labour. Come unto me, ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
A freize beside her back door.
We went back to the post office. I felt that I had launched a missile on a small place and that I should present myself in a more diplomatic light. I was, after all, a guest. I went in and apologized for throwing a fit. The same post mistress, an attractive woman nearer our own ages, said, No, she was sorry. That she thought I had been very "dignified." Funny. That once the lady had started on the tirade, she, the post mistress had gone cold as though watching an inevitable car crash in slow motion. We chatted a little.
But only a few feet outside in the soft dust of the quiet sunlit road I thought: if it was all so dreadful, why did you stay silent. Why did you say nothing?
Why did no one speak? Then?
[Update: please read the comments. There is a new postmistress in town.]