There are just certain things in life a man needs to hide. Especially in this part of the Eastern Free State.
Like for instance your neighbour’s cattle, that incidentally came strolling on to your farm as a result of a broken fence down by the poort. Or perhaps the collection of Martini-Henry rifles, taken from the Kakies in the Anglo-Boer war, now buried under a poplar tree not far from your home.
According to the law, these rifles are still government property but few of us farmers here in the Clocolan district agree with the new government or their policies. If it were up to us, we would still be fighting the English. I figure the only reason we didn’t go over to conquer Britain is that we are not interested in an island where the farms are the size of our own backyards.
I, on the other hand, did not feel the least bit of remorse about my stubborn neighbour, Pieter Wiese’s cattle on my farm and I felt even less guilty about the English rifles that I had taken. I was, however, ashamed about the fact that next to me, in my voorkamer, sat a very lovely and splendid looking lady by the name of Susan, and I could not even offer her a cup of coffee. The reason for my predicament starts with a whole different story that took place on the farm just before the war ended.
Chris Serfontein, together with five of us Boers were ordered to ambush the Kakies by the poort at a time when it was still his farm. The British had taken Pretoria and that did not sit well with us. We, along with many of our Afrikaner families, were more than willing to let the English know the war will be over when we say it is over.
We waited in the tree line until rather late at night and were much excited to see the English officers coming through the poort, but became more and more concerned about our own welfare when we saw that they were accompanied by little less than a regiment.
The six of us has seen some tough battles in the past few years, but somehow we didn’t seem very enthusiastic about starting a fight with a whole regiment. The only exception was Danie Strauss.
Danie Strauss had read in the family Bible about how Gideon had taken on a whole army and Danie thought it rather brave and for reasons unknown to this day, convinced himself that we should do the same. Danie and I were the only ones young enough not to have families of our own yet, and the rest of the company of men seemed to view themselves as responsible husbands and fathers.
To us, there wasn’t really an argument, but Danie needed some convincing, and we sternly reminded him that Gideon had three hundred men at the time, and we were only six.
It came to pass that without any further need for words, awkwardly suppressed facial expressions or low kept hand gestures, we quietly drew back to Chris Serfontein’s farmstead for a cup of coffee and a bit of rest from the long and hard day’s waiting.
To our surprise, Kobus Bosman mentioned that if we had one or two more men, we would have walked right over that regiment. We all agreed while purposefully avoiding eye contact with Danie who only shook his head in disbelief. Kobus Bosman did mention it however, while sitting comfortably on a riempies chair in the leisure and safety of Chris Serfontein’s farmhouse, and Danie revealed his thoughts quite clearly when he mumbled something about it impossible to please the Good Lord without faith and without the willingness to fight for what one believes in.
We didn’t have time for much conversation, for some of the soldiers from the regiment broke away and decided to investigate the one and only building on the farm which coincidently constituted of Chris Serfontein’s house.
Naturally, all candles and lanterns were put out but even with the moon shining, we couldn’t make out the exact number of soldiers kneeling down some distance from the house. It was chillingly quiet and the slight breeze we felt against our cheeks earlier the evening, disappeared as well.
Suddenly as vicious as thunder, the order came from an English officer for all of us to come out and present ourselves with our hands held up high, or they will (to put it in his words) blow the house up with shells that even the residents of Kimberley will hear.
We thought it very arrogant of this officer to be giving orders like that. We knew for a fact that Kimberley was at least four hundred miles away and without the slight breeze, or any wind for that matter, the sound will not reach even the church tower in Clocolan.
We also knew that the population of Kimberley are so deep in a hole, hauling out diamonds, they wouldn’t hear cannon fire, even fired from the kerkplein right in the middle of Kimberly. Based on the foolish words of the officer, we decided not to listen to a rooinek that doesn’t know what he was talking about, and just kept our heads as close to the kitchen floor as possible.
In the end, the English didn’t blow up the house like they said they would. They only sent what seemed like an endless amount of bullets through the windows of the house and after that, through the corrugated iron roof. Their reasoning must have led them to the conclusion that we cannot be anywhere else but within the roof, above the ceiling of the house.
What exactly these soldiers were thinking, I cannot tell, as I have never heard of any Boer foolish enough to hide in the roof of a house. I suppose it must have been easier, and in the minds of the fighting men, safer, to try and shoot every bit of the house to pieces, rather than risk coming closer. And who could blame them? In those days, a decent amount of stories ran through the English rank about how barbaric the Boers were, and what seven sorts of hell awaited the reckless soldier who happens to get himself caught.
To us who were keeping our heads low, it sounded worse than a hail storm coming down, and I more than once wondered if there were any corrugated iron roofs in Heaven, seeing that I was about to meet a few Biblical figures that very evening.
I did not go to heaven that evening.
Instead, all six of us fled through the low kitchen window at the back of the house which ran by the chicken coop and made our way to beyond the Bluegum trees. We were all in accord there and then that our families must have been missing us a great deal, and that it would be best to return to our homes, at least for a while. Those of us that didn’t have any immediate family, felt the same in the way that our cattle and farm workers must be longing to see us. The only mishap was that we had to do without our horses, but with the vigorous sound of gunfire behind us, we didn’t give it too much thought.
Soon afterward, Chris Serfontein made the huge mistake by cutting the points of his bullets, making them dum-dum bullets and was executed right in front of his home. Not before he said some harsh words to the English officer about how dumb-witted he think the English were for shooting hundreds of holes through his roof and that Igor, his pig had more brains than all of the rooinek soldiers put together.
The war ended and I eventually took over Chris Serfontein’s farm with the vast amount of holes in the roof. Money was scarce and most of us had to rebuild our farms all over again. Burned down fields and houses and the mass slaughtering of livestock ensured that a fixed roof, if it didn’t consist of grass, was considered a luxury.
“The trouble with a leaking roof is,” I said to Susan, “is that all my coffee cups are occupied in preventing the water falling on the wooden floor.
I did not care to mention that I had, in fact, only four cups I inherited from my Grandmother, (One I accidentally broke and another was violently lost during an argument with the Sotho woman who worked in the kitchen.) Even these with their accompanying saucers were not entirely enough to keep the water at bay, but a Boer made a plan, and that was a close to a plan as I could get that evening.
Susan, who sat by my side, gave a shy smile and it is amazing how a smile like that can fix one’s mind on matters other than protecting a floor. By candlelight, her red lips and dark brown hair caught my attention to such a degree that I never noticed the cups getting fuller and fuller as the rain came pouring down on the house.
There was no need for coffee. There was no need for little or much conversation. There was no need to brag about the heroism of Boers during the war, or the sorrows of the loved ones who were lost in the concentration camps.
There was only the warm atmosphere, the sound of soft rain on the roof, and two people who enjoyed each other’s company, entirely indifferent to the troubles of this world, or what the future held.
I never knew how tender the touch of her soft, white hands could be, nor the sensation of her eager young lips, which gave way to a passionate moment, we both never wanted to end.
Like the cattle of Pieter Wiese on my farm and the English rifles buried under the poplar tree, the happenings of that evening with just the two of us in my voorkamer is something else I need to hide, particularly from the new Dutch Reformed reverend in town.
The happenings of that evening, of which I will leave the details to your imagination, is also something that I am not the least sorry about.
Only the next morning was my attention drawn to the joy of a new day dawning, and an utterly ruined wooden floor.