Protocol and Pink Slippers

Harold Strachan

Sort of eight o’clockish, at a guess, we’re low on petrol, as estimated, and we’re near Kokstad, as calculated, and it is now time to pull in here at the police station, as arranged and appointed, and tank up this vehicle and sign for it all and move on to Durbs, where I will be purposefully locked up solo once again and the dangerous interim of transit from die Rooi Hel Boep in die Baai* will be safely over.

But there at the police petrol pump stands the Sergeant Station Commander, Kokstad, and he and his missus have got themselves in a right old tizz of expectation because police brass plus a headline political prisoner are hauling in here for petrol. His right arm is near lame from saluting, because the Security Branch are elite in the force, hey, and Majoor Heistek and his SB gunman and driver are near shooting him from impatience. But I myself feel no urgency about leaving this place as the Station Commander explains that his wife has tea ready and we must be in need of refreshment after such a long journey.

It is true Afrikaner hospitality and, however odious my escort here may be, they are deeply embedded in this culture and they can’t say no to its hospitality. Besides, however pressing it may be to get me to Durban Central, they’ve had only one smallish meat pie each for their police padkos, and they’re three big strong men in need of big nutrition. And maybe there’ll be a little cake or two with this tea spread. Me, I’m all smiles. I’m in no hurry, time is what I’ve got plenty of and it’s just lovely to be out at night.

Alle wêreld! A cake appears such as I see again in the furious fantasy of the mind’s eye and salivate as I write these words: a coffee cake, with coffee icing and frillies at the rim in a lighter tone of coffee brown, then the top spread over with whipped cream and studded all about with glacé cherries and pecan nuts. It stands on a silver pedestal, as indeed such a noble creation should, and this pedestal is surrounded by plates of small sausage rolls and home-baked biscuits with chocolate topping and walnuts, and a great plate of heavenly koeksusters still warm from the cooking.

I regret, like the Emperor Caligula arriving at a Roman orgy, that I’ve already eaten my ill-shaven boiled pig four o’clock supper, and cabbage with the hot pig-fat poured over it. Of course, for koeksusters so beautiful and golden crispy and oozing syrup all over, and odorous, there will always be a small corner. But never big enough.

Well, maybe they’ll cheer up my fellow travellers a bit.

I am so busy drooling over these miracles that I fail to notice two small kids standing in their pyjamas and dressing-gowns at the door, a little boy and a girl just a bit bigger. Afrikaner kids are very polite, as kids should be, and their Pappie and Mammie are good examples of politeness, and Pappie, because he’s so polite, regardless of rank, doesn’t want to tell the Major but does so, with fumbling words, that he objects to his innocent children seeing a friendly, polite man like myself all chained up by the legs and hands, and ugly guns suspended from people’s bodies at the table.

There’s an interesting couple of moments, with eight pairs of eyes darting about and picking up all the nuances of the situation.

I know what Major Heistek is thinking, because he does sort of telegraph his punches, you know, and what he’s thinking is this prisoner’s an athlete who knows how to run but then, on the other hand, he’s an athlete who has had no exercise for six months, so maybe he won’t be able to run as fast as a bullet from W/O Van Vuurwapen’s Walther pistol. In any case, he schemes, all that makes no difference to the problem of these two brats’ presence; and even though I am senior in rank to the sergeant, according to family cultural protocol he has ascendancy here. And, what about the mother, in God se naam?

I didn’t think I would ever see one of these bullyboys so helpless. Nor, especially, embarrassed. Heistek is both now and looks appealingly at me. I cross my heart with my manacled hands and he gestures to W/O Van Vuurwapen to unlock me, although he clearly hates it. It occurs to me that it may just for now spoil his love of life, even love for these beauteous sisters of cakehood.

We take our seats at the table and the kids fetch a couple of high stools from the kitchen. They don’t speak, because they haven’t been spoken to; night-time is grown-ups’ time and they’ve been allowed to stay up late after their bath for a treat because of the importance of the occasion, and the cake, of course, which has been an afternoon’s hushed ceremonial creation.

It seems to me that tea would be out of place with this cake and, anyway, if this woman can make a cake like this with coffee, what sort of coffee will she make with it? My mind turns on these things, also on the notion that I’d better do something about table manners and not behave as I do with ill-shaven pigs, and I’ve decided to concentrate only on the cake for optimum pleasure, but politely. So I’ve had my second sociable slice, when I feel something warm at my right elbow and a small touch there.

I look down and round, and there stands the little girl. We smile. ‘Pappie sê die oom ith ‘n kunthtenaar?’ she declares. ‘Ja, dis waar,’ I say. ‘Thal oom vir my ‘n kwagga teken?’ she asks. Am I an artist and will I draw her a zebra? Nothing else on the entire earth could make me so happy, I reply. Make a change from eating pigs, or even coffee cakes, I think. Her slippers are a pair of pink rabbits and she puffs off in these to fetch her autograph book. She puffs back presently and pages through her trophies: a birthday greeting from her headmistress and a Bugs Bunny cartoon copy from the man at the pet shop who is also captain of the Kokstad cricket team. That sort of thing.

I feel, no actually I smell, a soapily perfumed, warm presence at my left elbow and there stands her kleinboet in his wee, tiny dressing-gown, his shampooed hair all smartly combed, with a nice straight parting, already smiling as I turn to look at him, because he knows something nice is about to happen. Without further ado, he starts climbing up on my knee, sort of clambering, as you would get up a tree or on a camel.

W/O Van den Gruweldaad, on that side, doesn’t know what the hell to do; am I going to run yelling out of the house now that I’ve got two kids hostage? He reaches reflexively for his pistol but that’s been dumped along with my personal ironmongery on the sideboard: as I say, you don’t wear your weapons to the table any more than you do your hat. What the hell would he do anyway? Shoot me in the middle of a tea party, or maybe kleinboet here, to stop his mountaineering? I reach down and get an arm around kleinboet and heave him up on my knee.

Kleinboet hasn’t reached the age of shedding teeth; he’s just finished growing his pearly new ones, so he doesn’t lisp. ‘As oom klaar is met die kwagga sal oom vir my ‘n errie teken?’

This autograph book has a good-sized page, good paper too, and I think: buggered if I’m going to hurry this , what with the SB crew caught in their cultural trap. I ask for a knife to sharpen the pencil and the sergeant unclips the jack-knife from his belt and politely opens the blade, and hands it to me without suggesting I might slit his children’s throats. It’s sharp sharp, too.

The whole thing becomes something of a ritual foreign to present company except the kids and me. There’s no conversation going and that’s okay. It’s time I had a bit of power and I take as much of that time as I need and draw for this sussie a galloping zebra which might be the best drawing I’ve ever done in the whole wide world, ever. I know equine anatomy; I once had a sort of horse of my own. Apart from the kwagga there’s a jagluiperd in the background and I’ve caught it in full stride, unbelievable in its elegance, like a Hawker Hunter, and the little girl says to her boet: ‘Kyk net die cheetah, nê?’

Man, if ever you want to try true hypnosis, just sit close and quiet by a kid when she’s drawing: the concentration of it, the unblinking, closely focused eyes and the breathing suspended to the last moment because these functions might distract the total removal from this world, and they do something similar when they’re watching you do it, so long as you know how to latch them in. It doesn’t depend on skill. It’s intentness, dedication to the moment. It’s really like having someone run fingers through your hair, or scratch your back.

Kleinboet hasn’t got an autograph book yet, he’s too small, so I say to him: ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll turn sussie’s book upside down, so her last page can be your first,’ and she agrees to this, because possession of paper is less important to her just now than the miraculous, hypnotic process of a real live kwagga appearing from nowhere and a jagluiperd too, leaping along in its five-metre strides.

The errie I draw for kleinboet is a Spitfire Mark XI, probably the most devastatingly brave and beautiful of its line, possibly any line anywhere, and it’s in the middle of a victory roll over Tangmere. I write this name on a hangar roof although there’s an anachronism here because at the time of the Battle of Britain and Tangmere they’d got only as far as Mark V. Never mind, kleinboet wouldn’t care and nor do I, so long as the spirit and the courage are there.

‘Hoekom vlieg hierdie oom onderstebo?’ Why does this uncle fly upside-down? ‘Because that’s what you do to show people that you’re the best.’ ‘Ek wil dit ook doen.’ ‘Nou ja, dan sal jy dit mos een dag doen, nê?, as jy werklik waar wil.’

Maybe the Spit was better than the zebra or the cheetah. It’s hard to say, because the techniques were so different. But I wish I could draw like that all the time.