Friday, November 30, 2012

Fat Dog’s Last Walk

Mourning Minnie

Minnie’s book, “Walks with a Fat Dog”, went out of print in April 2012. Minnie outlived her book by just eight months.

All the Kaartman dogs have been the Best Kind: indeterminate Faithfuls just as totally descended from wolves as any snooty pedigreed woossies with bad hips and pink bows in their just-as-smelly powdered hair. The Official Birthday for all our dogs is July 5th. On July 5th this year Minnie turned 15. That’s supposed to be 105 in Dog Years, a helluvan age when blindness and deafness are just so very excusable, and manageable too.

Minnie came into our lives by mistake. Annie, her predecessor, chewed up some organo-phosphates left by a callous farmer to thwart his jackals, and died in agony in the vet’s arms in Vredendal, up the West Coast. Days after the Kaartmans returned home fighting tears a friend phoned. A friend of the friend had a dog, a brakkie that had stopped the traffic on the N2 near the airport. Fleeing in terror through squealing tyres from several overweight traffic cops, the brak had jumped eagerly into the opened door of the friend’s friend’s car. 

She was filthy and shaggy with dreadlocks, but the vet said that she was in good shape, a well-kept dog, probably just lost or stolen, a properly spayed bitch who had had at least one litter of pups. He cleaned her up and got her hair cut, and the friend’s friend called her ‘Sophie’ and set about finding a home for her because they already had five pooches of their own.

We renamed her Minnie because she was so like Annie that we kept using that name, and ‘Minnie’ seemed closer to ‘Annie’ than ‘Sophie’. Besides, she didn’t look much like Meryl Streep. She was the soppiest dog we’ve ever known, with a most fetching habit of snuggling her head up against you if you picked her up. 

Minnie had wondrously soft fur; we later discovered that, if not a thoroughbred, she was so like a breed called a “wheaten soft-haired Irish terrier” that she had to have lots of that amongst her varieties. She was wheaten coloured, soft-haired and, if truth be told, not the brightest spark as doggies go, but she was incredibly faithful and loving and a brilliant walker, too. She was never really fat, but her soft fur grew very rapidly and if not groomed every three to four weeks she blew up into a furry ball. We couldn’t call our book “Walks with a Fat Wife”, could we? – and Minnie didn’t mind being the patsy. 

Her white and wheaten coat would get pretty smelly and descend into that grubby-pyjamas look that tends to turn visitors into stand-offs, but whenever she’d been groomed everyone loved her. She was a helluva flirt, chasing the boy-dogs whenever she saw them, but toys like tennis balls were quite beyond her understanding.

The sadness that goes with your beloved pets’ short lives is a cliché, I guess, but you can’t avoid it. Unconditional love, forgiveness, hope, affection are tough things to lose. This morning when Minnie came into the kitchen I knew it was Time. Her legs just wouldn’t work properly; she’d messed herself; she couldn’t see me or hear me. She wagged her tail when I touched her, but she howled in pain when we tried to clean her.

“You’ll know when it’s time,” the radio vet had said. “Always remember this – you can do a kindness for your pet that you can’t do for your human loved ones. And your beloved pet will never hold it against you, either.”

Totsiens, hondjie.

Kaartman, November 30 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Being Abroad

Spent most of September 2012 in the United Kingdom, visiting family and parts previously unknown to us – Scotland and the Western Isles, northern Wales, the Northumberland coast ... a fabulous trip when Mrs Kaartman and I spent only one night of thirty out of the company of excellent friends or family.
The Cutty Sark [London];
the 1400-year old Chapel of St Columba [Mull of Kintyre]
It was an absolute treat. Travel leads to interesting reflections – despite being a born and bred Suid-Afrikaner with African roots snatching back to the 17th century, I find myself strongly drawn to those northern isles. I love them, even their grotty bits (and they have ’em!) – but I could not live there. Not sure why. Too cold? I love the sun-soaked, dry interior of my country – it speaks to me with very persuasive voices. I love empty spaces, too. We found one in the UK – I’m sure there are more. Rannoch Moor is remote; in the middle of it is a railway siding that is reached by a single, dead-end road. It is the place that is the furthest from anywhere else in the whole of the British Isles. It’s bleak, lonely and lovely, but it has not the colours, the skies, the scents of the remote Karoo. It’s too different: I loved the visit, even the proliferation of dank and cheerless Scots monuments, but I could not live there.
A gloomy Scottish B&B: no toilets;
A pale and gloomy Scottish knight
You might say that it’s too cold and wet, and there are too many people, so many that to accommodate them all and their cars the motorway lanes are terribly narrow, the houses small and viewless, the supermarkets inhumanly vast, the traffic always and everywhere congested. But we did not complain. Congestion is what happens when a country has too many people (imagine China or India!), and when you know you’re merely a visitor you love the lovable, you ogle and gasp, and you embrace a bit of a branch – it’s only one of many branches, hey – of your cultural roots. It’s not your place as a visitor to complain, to criticise; you don’t live there, your four weeks are too short for you to contribute anything at all. My fierce maternal grandmother always said that the rudest, most uncouth thing a guest could do was to complain about the house and household of his host. Her name was Grace; she was not a person one easily crossed.
Good thing Poms can’t read Afrikaans;
Was that
really Mrs Gripper’s first name?
Which is why I was perturbed by an email recently received from a friend of many years standing; and why I need to address some remarks to you, John. It seems daft and improbable that we were in England, unknowingly, only a few miles from where you now live, and even more daft that when, a few weeks later, you appeared in South Africa, we were away in the desert. So sorry to have missed you, old friend, and to have missed the chance to interrogate why and when you left SA – apparently with your boys? I have no problems with your emigration, your adoption of England as a your new home. Time was when we might have done the same – the Kaartmans even contemplated Australia, until we decided that we could stay here if – a big ‘if’ of course – we could contribute meaningfully to change. But that’s our story, for another meeting. This one is about you. 
Down the ages people have uprooted themselves and moved, given the chance. Down the ages people have rejected the “take root or die” option, and sought greener pastures. It’s why human beings occupy our entire planet, after all! Without that urge humanity might, for better or worse, have remained squatting around the fading firelight in Klasies River Cave, gnawing at an endless diet of blue mussels and half-done porcupine. I have no problems at all with your re-location.
Re-located Romans:
Kaartman inspects Hadrian’s defences; apartheid failed there too!
Kaartman being sacrilegious in the Sacrum 
But having relocated of your own free choice you’re now a Brit, and you’re a guest when you visit South Africa, a guest as Granma Grace described. Yet you wrote to me (and others), “I now desperately want to get home to the UK ... ”
Why were you, our guest, so desperate to get home to the UK? Because, as you also wrote, most B and B’s you stayed in in SA were like ‘toilets’? The Kaartman’s mapping takes us all over our country; we’ve stayed in a huge variety of lodgings, but hell man, you had bad luck – none of ours were like toilets. In fact, every single one of them was as good as anywhere we stayed in in the UK – and I include the Welsh Georgian hotel at £250 per night (for the same price, in Wales you could go ‘glamping’ in a luxury tent sourced from Cristy Sports, in Diep River, Cape Town, or bathe in a Sundance pool imported from Somerset West ... but I digress ...)
While in the UK we stumbled upon a Scottish Nationalist rally in Edinburgh; elsewhere, in Bristol, it was Party Congress time; and somewhere in London a cabinet minister told a policeman that he was a ‘peasant’. A man called Miliband made a speech on TV that had the media in raptures; another man, a Prime Minister perhaps, made a speech about the stumbling economy; the Scottish Nats made speeches about Perfidious Albion. The level of fatuous inanity in every one of these politicians’ sundry utterances made George Bush II seem like an admirable orator. Later, we passed through Campbeltown in Kintyre, a filthy, shabby place that was made the worse by the realisation that all its dirty, indigent inhabitants have enjoyed the benefit of a century and a half of free education and full democracy. And while they were enjoying that, their compatriots, masters, apparatchiks and idols were busy denying the same benefits to the majority of South Africans ...
Windsor Castle: Kaartman inspects this early British Nkandla;
Rannoch Moor: no toilets there either
On neither issue did we ever complain, either to ourselves or our generous, lovely hosts. Petrol might have been R20 per litre, bus fares out of sight, house prices beyond belief, TV licences over R1700 per year, but we did not complain. We were guests, and we behaved like guests, and in our emails to our friends we thanked them truthfully and sincerely for a really wonderful holiday, filled with hospitality, leaving us with great, great memories.
So I’m sorry we missed you in Cape Town, Johnno, old friend. You clearly needed a bit of cheering up, and if WP winning the Currie Cup didn’t do it for you, mebbe we could have – in our home, of course, not in a ‘toilet’. Next time maybe we won’t be away basking in the desert sunshine, relishing its empty spaces ... ? 
London: They must have imported this vaatjie from the Western Cape;
London: a typically warm, sunny day

Kaartman, November 2012

Friday, November 9, 2012

Notes for a Novel #2

... so I carried the smaller one to the house, while the other one followed me with small snivels through the dark garden. Mrs Kaartman put them both into a warm bath while I sorted out some soup and bread. Mrs K dressed them in two adult T-shirts; they supped their soup in silence, watching our every move with large, deep brown eyes.
We put them to bed in the spare room; Mrs K had the presence of mind to equip the bed with a plastic undersheet, a thoughtful move. Our own babies slept on; the dog was long in her own basket; the cat stalked outside somewhere in the night. By midnight everyone was asleep except Mrs K and I; we lay awake staring at the ceiling, our next move long talked out.
The morning was bleary but we felt it was necessary to find out what the story was. The father was a large man, an ex-policeman who had been fired from the force, not so much for his heavy-handedness with his arrestees as for being drunk on duty. It was a Friday night, of course. The children had been asleep in bed; the father was drinking with his poacher-friends around the outside fireplace; the mother was ... well, who knows. Wanting a bed for a friend who could no longer stand up, the father had woken the kids and chased them out. Discovering that one had wet the bed, he had started to take off his belt, whereupon the kids had escaped his grasping hands and run away.
The situation was dire; it was a very dark, moonless night and the streetlights of Plumfoot were, well, few and far between. The smaller boy had abandoned his wet, chafing onderbroekie, the better to run fast enough to keep up with big bro. With nowhere to go, the eldest had remembered coming to our house some weeks before, with his mother, on a begging expedition. It seems we already had a reputation of the “there be sandwiches” kind. 
They’d arrived breathless, tearful and probably terrified and, they said, knocked on the back door, but no one had answered.
They must have knocked very softly, very timidly, because we had not heard them at all – and nor had the dog. With no options left they had decided to ‘nest’ under a bush in our garden ...
Well, we had to find them some clothes etc etc etc, and we sent them on their way, noting their names and addresses for the social worker who, if they were lucky, would visit Plumfoot some time in the next month or so.
We called them ‘the waifs’, and over the next decade and a half we would encounter some forty of them, mostly boys, one little girl. They had varying and different stories, though alcohol abuse was a common theme. Most came to us unbidden; some were reported to us by others, runaway kids who had built nests in the bush somewhere, and we had to winkle them out and persuade them to return to the real world.
Friday nights were the most common, and if we were away we would leave the outside room unlocked with blankets on the bed and plate of fortified biscuits. The biscuits were always gone when we returned; the bed slept in. One small boy spent an entire week at our house, alone, while we were on a trip. I don’t know what he ate; he never explained.
Saturday nights were less common, but did occur. Thursdays became frequent for a while, too, which surprised us until we realised why. Thursday was not a drinking night, but Thursday was the day before pay day. By Thursday the money had run out and there was no food left in the house. There would be food at the Kaartmans, of course.
Our youngest waif was four years old. He knocked loudly on the door late one Friday evening; the dog exploded. We opened the door; Bessie – his nickname, it means ‘berry’ in Afrikaans – was so small that at first we did not see him. He was the size of a two year old and weighed 9 kg. In the morning his mother came looking for him, anger in her bloodshot, hungover eyes.
“Kom!” she screamed at Bessie.
“Nee!” screamed Bessie, aged only four, “Ek wil nie ’n dronk ma hê nie!” [No, I don’t want a drunk mother].
 The most we ever had all at once was six, but generally they appeared in a long, unbroken queue – sort out one or two, within days another would fill the vacant niche. They all came from unspeakably poor homes; they all had to be taught to use a flush loo – when you only have a bucket loo you stand on the seat, not sit – and warned not to jump into a hot bath until they’d tested the water. They were all terribly undersized and many were ill. One seven year old was literally fading away – he was riddled with TB and was too weak to feed himself. Our eldest son would hold him like a three  year old on his lap – he weighed 11 kg – and spoon-feed him.
I have many more waif stories, but in the meantime South Africa was rapidly unravelling. In 1978 P W Botha took over from John Balthazar Vorster as Prime Minister and from there it was down hill all the way. Unrest at schools and universities continued; in May 1980 Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” was banned. Bombs were going off all over and opposition politicians and press were being suppressed wherever the apartheid state could find them. In 1981 Desmond Tutu was arrested and his passport confiscated; Mandela and most of the ANC old guard were still firmly incarcerated on Robben Island. Our waif problems were finding no resolution in the face of a complete lack of interest by any form of ‘welfare’ authority. By 1982 we’d had enough; we went to the embassy and collected the forms. We took them home to Plumfoot, filled them in, and began to plan the logistics of emigrating, lock, stock, three kids and a small scruffy dog, to Australia.

Kaartman, November 2012

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Notes for a Novel #1

My favourite blogger, C is for Cape Town [and see Blog], recently encouraged us all to Help a Rural Child, a fantastic project that I fell instantly in love with.
Like C we too spent many years in the rural hinterland of the Cape, and Mrs Kaartman and I and the junior Kaartmanne were not uninvolved with the rural children of those times. There’s a story to be told here ... the occasional Kaartman blog might indulge. I have no fear of being sued, but I will say that I’m sure that all my characters are entirely fictitious, at least the guilty ones. Tuesday 13th November is an important anniversary in our particular struggle, too, as may eventually be revealed, if I remember.

Here’s the background. A few months after the 1976 Soweto tragedy the Kaartmans relocated to Plumfoot, a small rural town on the Cape coast. Its real name is, geographically speaking, just as dom as Plumfoot – you can call it Pruimvoet, if that sounds more authentic. The Kaartmans’ move had nothing to do with Soweto, but everything to do with some mapping contracts for the all-new National Hiking Way.
Don’t get me wrong – we were not politically naive, we’d had our share of the Cathedral steps, Twickenham protests, student unions, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd, but we were frankly absolutely skint with a small child, and there was a family holiday home going cheap at Plumfoot. We were almost, but not quite, remittance men [actually man, woman and girlchild].
We rapidly discovered that full-time living in Plumfoot wasn’t quite the same as our childhood holiday experience. For starters the social hierarchy was quite beyond our ken. At a crude level it went like this:
1. Afrikaners, with obligatory membership of the NG Kerk and the National Party; the “ruling elite”, like today’s ANC fatties.
2. Germans, mostly retired from Namibia, mostly living on pensions from the West German government;
3. Engelse like us, a teeny sprinkling of entrepreneurs and remittance men.
6. The Coloured population, the labouring class with a few self-employed poachers.
Each of these categories could be further subdivided several times: 
in category 1, depending upon favourite social activities; religious groupings in category 6; 
native or foreign born in category 2; 
and, in our category 3, age, income, dress habits and the probability that you were a secret communist. 
      There were no categories 7. Asians, or 8. Black Africans because neither of these population groups were represented. Actually there was a solitary Black African, who lived in a small tin shack at the bottom of the garden of a prominent retired Afrikaans professor, but he didn’t really count. He had no friends or social contacts at all and I always felt that for him life in Plumfoot must have felt exactly as it would if you were a solitary human, captured by aliens and forced to live amongst weird monsters in a galaxy far, far away.
Asians were completely unknown in Plumfoot. Many years later we landed in Durban with a bunch of Plumfoot kleintjies; to feed the hungry masses we ducked into a KFC. After a few minutes I felt a tug on my elbow.
“Pietta,” [my name] whispered Sandy Khoikhoi [his nickname], pointing to the shop attendants, “is dié almal Mexikane?”
The Plumfoot political breakdown was unspeakable. If there were any liberal, apartheid-hating Afrikaners at all we never came across them; of course, the entire community we knew must have died by 1994 because in that year there were no apartheid supporters at all still alive in Plumfoot.
The German community remained stolidly indifferent to all local and national politics. Secure in their multi-Deutschmark pensions they could no more contemplate getting politically involved in SA than fly the East German flag. Besides, some of them were ivory and diamond smugglers, of which more anon.
The Engelse kept their heads down and the Coloured community did not squeak. There was no tri-cameral parliament yet and resistance movements such as the ANC were but improbable rumours on the wind. The school children of the Scheme, the township, had not risen up in 1976 to confront the apartheid police.
The mayor of Plumfoot was a retired policeman, a surprisingly short, chubby little fellow, Colonel Johannes Jacobus Knoetze. Everyone knew him as “Kolonel” and in our first year at Plumfoot, in his Christmas message to the holiday makers who annually streamed into the village he placed his cards firmly on the table by describing Plumfoot as an “Afrikaner Seaside Resort” [his actual words were “Boere Kusdorp”]. This despite the fact that the majority of residents were Coloured, German or Engelse, in that order, and at least 50% of the holiday makers were Engelse, too, but facts, then as now, were not important if you were part of the ruling elite.
The elite’s racial attitudes were, to us, unfathomable. There was a retired dominee in the town – one of many, and we’ll meet more of them later – whom I always found to be a charming, educated and cultured man. Dominee Gysbert was tall and aristocratic; his family were part of the old Stellenbosch aristocracy and his brother was a prominent Advocate. Dominee Gysbert had won gold for South Africa throwing the javelin at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. He had been personally congratulated by the Fuhrer and had shaken Hitler’s hand; he was often rumoured to have been a personal acquaintance of the traitor, Robey Leibbrandt. 
Gysbert played a prominent role in the town’s White social life; he was a conservationist of note, but he was not known for charitable work amongst the poor and oppressed. I once asked him for a donation – he was a wealthy man – towards a bursary fund that sent impoverished Coloured children to high school.
“One thing you must understand,” the good dominee said to me, pulling himself up to his full, aristocratic, refined, educated, god-fearing height, “is that the Coloured people are still children. They might not be ready for high school education, they might be better off not reaching for heights which they cannot attain.” He declined to donate; he died before 1994, which I have always felt was a real pity. Maybe his god had mercy upon him.
There it is. May these notes set the scene, for what I hope will be an unfolding story of hope as much as its bizarre dramatis personae might allow. There was plenty of humour in Plumfoot as well as pathos; bathos as well as inspiring stuff. So what, prithee, does this all have to do with the rural child?
Well, there came an evening in Plumfoot when I put the dog out to wee before closing up the house for the night. From the bottom of the garden the dog, a small hairy mongrel, barked and barked. I took a torch, expecting to find a treed cat, a snared buck or even a snake. I found two tiny shivering children, boys, one seven, one eight, hiding in the bushes, staring out with huge, frightened eyes. One was wearing a dirty sleeveless vest and underpants; the other was wearing just a vest. That’s where my tale can rest, until another time.

Kaartman, November 2012