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Return to Groenfontein
Beverley Jansen

Lewis stepped out of his almost new car and locked the door on the driver's side. Then he remembered that this was rural Calitzdorp. No one stole cars here, especially not in broad daylight. The locals also had respect for the property of strangers. He walked across the wide main road towards the white washed cafe and glanced at the signs displayed —"Volstruis Biltong"—and Sonskyn droe perskes en rosyntjies. He looked at the buildings for a moment and realised that not much had changed. The post office was still there. The old Van Eck tailor's shop had been bought by a farmer and turned into a curio shop. The police station still had the ox-wagon wheels displayed on the lawn in front of the door. Little had changed. He stepped inside the cafe and took in the smells. Nothing had changed in this regard.

The large Boer woman behind the counter looked at him unsmilingly. He reminded himself that this was rural South Africa. A black was a black and nevermind the new constitution. She asked in a tone reserved for out of town visitors whether she could help. "May I please have a packet of Rothmans and a bottle of fresh orange juice"? The woman looked intently at him and then suddenly a smile lit up her leathery face. "My hemet Lewesie—after all these years! How could she forget? The child was often in here when he came to buy supplies for the Van Eck woman the tailor's wife. Those eyes so bright and penetrating. That face so fine and sensitive. Those high cheekbones. Her brother on the farm used to say the boy thinks he is an Ethiopian prince. "Are you coming to visit your family on the farm?" she asked. Lewis smiled kindly. He really did not expect this. He had his protective armour on in case she asked insulting questions or made remarks which insulted his dignity. "No," he answered, "my mother has passed away. I am here for her funeral." "Siestog my kind, I didn't know she was ill. I am sorry to hear about ou Siena, but God knows best." She then proceeded to ask endless questions about his life, his family. He was patient. He did not feel she was invading his privacy. He understood about loneliness. He understood that this was the highlight of her day. After the transaction he stepped into the bright sunlight and was momentarily almost overcome by the oppressive Karoo heat. He crossed the street and thought what life had been like in this dorp and on the farm, as a child of a farm labourer. He remembered the paralysing poverty, the slave-like laws and the cruelty of farm life...if you were black. He unlocked the car and climbed in, reversed for a short distance and sped off in the direction of Groenfontein.

Lewis knew that he should keep his mind on the road, that he should concentrate, but he could not help himself. It just kept on coming back. He saw his ma, a large woman always tidy with cornrow plaits and white apron. He saw his father, frail and persistently coughing with nicotine stained long bony fingers. He saw his brothers and sisters. Then he thought of the day during the December school holidays when he decided to take charge of his own life. He slowed the car and pulled over to the side of the road. At a distance he watched a mother ostrich strolling with her chicks and thought, "It's almost thirty years ago and yet it seems like yesterday."

He stared at the windscreen, into the past. His mother came into the tiny yard carrying a bundle of clean un-ironed washing. "Lewesie," she shouted in a stern voice, "Lewesie, the Baas wants to see you." He did not stop stacking the wood, did not look in her face. "Ma you know I have nothing to say to that man." She put the washing down on the wooden bankie outside the door and folded her arms across her wide chest. "If that man wants to see you, you will go. Do you want your father to get into trouble again?" Lewis scratched behind his ear and continued to concentrate on the task he was engaged in. After an awkward silence he ventured, "Ma, my Pa is already in trouble...he is always in trouble. Look around you—what do see? Have you heard him saying—Ja Baas-Nee Baas-prys die Here Baas. I hate it Ma and I hate them all." Siena wiped her hands on her apron as was her habit, looked at her eldest son without blinking an eyelid.

"If the Baas wants to see you, you will go and talk to him. Where do you think we'll go if he tells your pa to pack the donkey cart? For your pa's sake, for the sake of your brothers and sisters you will go and talk to the man," she hissed. Lewis knew when she had had enough. He did not argue further.

At half past five that evening, he waited for the farmer at the barn where the evening ration of cheap wine would be distributed. The men stood in the queue, each with a tin mug in hand. Um Karol, the chief laborer poured. The farmer noticed Lewis standing next to the tractor and said aloud to his father, "Lood, that boy is getting big and also too big for his boots. Look at him standing there looking at the boys as if they're cow mis. Come here you moerskond! I want to talk to you." Lewis stepped forward slowly, his heart beating violently. He did not lower his eyes, he stared straight ahead of him at the farmer. When he came face to face with the powerfully built white man, ail the workers stopped talking and laughing. The only sound was that of the chickens cluck-clucking. The farmer looked around for a moment and then saw the spade. He grabbed it with both hands. "This," he said, "is a spade. Do you hear me? A spade. This is what you need —a spade, not fokken books. You were born to use this. You are a Hotnot. You are going to use this spade to dig this ground. You are going to plough the fields like your father and your grandfather."

He pulled Lewis towards him by his threadbare green jersey, a cast-off of his nephew .Lewis noticed the beads of perspiration on the farmer's top lip. As he
tightened his grip on the frail fourteen-year-old he continued his tirade. "You have enough schooling, I told your father two years ago. Standard five is over enough. You can read, you can write. What more do you want?"

There was no fear in the stick-legged boy. He just gazed at the farmer and smiled—a strange cynical smile, a smile he reserved for those who filled him with contempt. His ma could not understand him, he always smiled when he was angry. When the farmer released his grip, Lewis took a few steps backwards and turned suddenly and strode off.

His ma never closed an eye that night. She worried about the boy. He never came home. Then came the news weeks later that he had enrolled himself at the dorp school. He was now in standard six. The girls and boys back home on the farm envied his guts and arrogance. They did not understand why he had to be different. Weekend shoppers gave regular reports of his progress to those left behind. He had found a place with the old tailor, Van Eck. He helped the old man in the shop after school. He scrubbed the floors, swept the yard, cleaned the windows and in return they gave him three nourishing meals a day and a warm clean bed at night. His teachers only had praise for the boy who only spoke when spoken to. The one complaint they had was that he had so much anger in him. So young...he must learn to forgive and forget, they said.

Lewis realised that he had gone very far back in time and noticed that the sun had set. He remembered why he had come to Calitzdorp after all this time. He put the key in the ignition and slowly pulled away again. He had driven for about fifteen kilometres when he decided to put on the radio. Music always soothed the demons in him. He drove until he saw the grave, which would eventually take him to Groenfontein where his family lived. He wondered if things had changed. The journey on the gravel road was bumpy, dusty and tedious. Eventually he saw the farmhouse in the distance, large and affluent in comparison with the workers' cottages.

As he neared the house, the farm dogs began barking and running next to the car. He passed the house and saw a curtain moving. He knew someone was watching. He drove slowly. The stretch between the farmhouse and the cottages was very uneven. That was still the same. He remembered how they hated going outside after dark. He brought the car to a gentle halt outside his ma's house. He thought, "I'm coming to bury my mother but was far away when my father died. Away in cold, grey, unfriendly London. Studying."

He switched off the engine and sat still for a moment. Then the front door opened and his brother Koos came out smiling. "Dag Boetie, so glad you could make it. Ma called for you every day since she got ill." Lewis shook his brother's hand warmly. He noticed that he looked just like their pa, nose and all. Soekie, his wife, came forward and planted a shy kiss on his cheek. All the children stepped into the small front room to greet their educated uncle from Cape Town. In an instant Lewis knew that little had changed. The people had not changed, the poverty had not changed. The chains had not been broken. Not here at least. Koos told of Ma's last days and how Soekie took care of her. Then he said, "Boetie, the Baas asked after you. He is very proud of you. He even cut your graduation picture out of the Banier. He said after the funeral you must come up to the house for a chat." Lewis remembered that fateful day thirty years ago and he smiled his special smile. "Koos if that man wants to see me he can come here. I still have nothing to say to him." Koos frowned as he thought of his brother's last remark. "Ja Boetie, the same thing you said thirty years ago."

The funeral would stay with Lewis for a long time. It brought the past to him. No smartly dressed mourners. No embarrassment at grief. Simple, yet dignified. Ma was placed in a pine coffin with brass handles. The dominee, a youngish man with small round specs on his face drove up from the dorp to bury ma. He spoke of her courage in the face of adversity, of her love for her children and her pride in her son Lewis who had left the land of his birth to study so far. Lewis, who had left the farm so he could be someone. After the service they went to the house for tea, biscuits and gemmerbier. Lewis did not feel uncomfortable. He was glad to be amongst his people. He chatted to his uncles and long lost second and third cousins. They did not notice the door opening. There was no knock. In the doorway stood an old man leaning on a stick. "Dag Baas," said Koos. All the others greeted him politely, except Lewis.

The old man moved forward and opened his mouth to speak and the words came slowly. Lewis listened out of respect for age as he was taught. "I thought if Mohammed would not come to the mountain, then the mountain should come to Mohammed." He smiled a little awkwardly. Lewis felt nothing—not pity, not hatred, just plain nothing. For a moment the two looked at each other in silence and the old man stepped forward with his hand outstretched. Lewis looked at the gnarled, weather-beaten hand. He took it and shook it without a word. "I came to say I am sorry," the old man said softly. The younger man could not believe what he had heard. The old man had come to apologize. "I know I had been hard all those years ago. I now know I was wrong. I have been reading about Mandela. He forgave. Can you forgive me?" Lewis felt a dryness in his throat and lifted the glass he held in his hand. The ginger beer was no longer cold. But it did not matter, any liquid would now help him to get rid of the dryness. The old man went on, "I am old now and will soon be gone. You must talk to the young people here. You must talk to all the people, they must learn. They must change." Lewis smiled. This time he smiled with his eyes. Not a smile of contempt. Just a smile-smile.

Lewis drove back to Cape Town the next morning, impatient to get home. Impatient to tell his children and his students that there was hope, because somewhere in the Karoo an old man had said, "Forgive me."

Former municipal councilor, mayor, and schoolteacher, Beverley Jansen is currently a full time community development facilitator. She writes in both English and Afrikaans.