Just in time
Word count: 2410
Written by Johan van Rensburg
The rusty wheels scrape the pavement as the old man parks his wheelchair right next to the door of the small town pharmacy. A cautious eye peeks at the door of the pharmacy from under a bushy grey fringe. He is just in time. It is nine o’clock, and the door swings open in a warm welcome. Not only the pharmacy’s, but also the doors of the supermarket next to the pharmacy, and the bank next to the supermarket, and the furniture store across the road.
The old man is not the only one on guard.
Others shuffel near too. Old and sunscoarched they all seem, and within the next few minutes the majority of these selfappointed guards find theimselves standing upright next to the door of the shops in this small town shopping complex.
Those that couldn’t find a door in time appoint themselves as car guards, controlling the traffic flow in and out of the concise parking bay.
They are one of a kind: old, the skin on their wrinkled faces and forearms appearing leathery, scoarched by the merciless rays of countless hours standing in the ever glowing sun.
It never rains in Stilfontein.
Hanging through loops on their arms are used plastic bags filled with shamefull crumbs: their daily bread. An a used two litre soda bottle filled with untreated tap water.
Packed like sardines in a tin they fill the dirty pavement, waiting in antisipation for the first customers to enter their claimed territory. They are not here to shop – no – their paper thin wallets tease with mouths wide open. They are only allowed to nod a silent greeting to wealthy shop owners, and some of them even shows enough courage to share a thought or two, and then the wait for customers start.
A customer is a life giver.
A few cents put together makes a dollar, and a dollar provides the next meal.
These people have mastered the art of false interest. There is a total metamorphises in facial expression and body language whenever a posh car enters the parking bay. The poor man or woman practically gets helped from their car, they get escourted into the shop of their choice, a trolley gets wheeled to them, and all the while they are bombarred with how well they are dressed, how friendly the sun shines today, and how God is on their side....all of this while peeking out of the corners of their eyes if someone else is not coming to steal away their blessing to come.
These are the poor white South-Africans living in the small mining town Stilfontein, in the North-West province of South-Africa. They are well known to the residents. Most of the residents, of which young Karel Reynicke is a wealthy one, are keen of supporting them, whenever he can. Others, like mrs Reynicke, Karel’s posh mother, dare not to even speak with them. To her they are nothing but bums, too lazy to care about themselves, paralyzed to benefit anyone and simply a disgrace to the community.
The Reynickes are the first to enter the parking bay today. Although only past nine o’clock, the sun lets down its fury on the dry tar. Mrs Reynicke needs her perscription medicnine from the pharmicy.
Karel meditates on his mother’s body language as she gets out of the car. With neatly polished, ringed fingers she waves the people away, careful not to look any one of them directly in the questioning eyes. In her rush to get rid of them she flungs the pharmacy door wide open, not noticing how the door’s handle bumps against the wheel chair next to it.
Karel shrinks away behind the steering wheel, momentarily paralyzed by shame. The old man in the wheel chair looks at him. Karel cannot look away. The need to pardon his mother’s haughty behaviour overwelming in his chest. Karel opens the door on his side. Taking along a two litre of coke he makes his way towards the pharmacy.
The man looks rude.
Pulled forward in the wheelchair he looks elderly. Karel stares openly. The man’s hands tells the story of hard work in years gone by. The muscles of his legs are well developed and the man doesn’t appear to be lame at all! What story lies behind the wheelchair?
Brought back to reality by the swinging door Karel observes that the old man’s eyes also have weiged him. He looks down at the coke in his white, somewat skinny hands, and blushes a peach red. He hands the coke to him and turns around, overwhelmed by the feeling that he was found to be a featherweight.
Mrs Reynicke disinfects her hands. “Kareltjie, I do not want you to mix with these people, my boy.”
She puts the sunglasses on her eyes. “Give them one dollar today, they will not be satisfied with three tomorrow...and before you know it they rob you and leave you bare in the middle of the street!”
How will she react when she finds out about his new year’s resolution?
Will this year be the year where he will be able to pull it off?
Surrounded by mrs Reynicke’s thoughts and views about the people of the town, Karel finally drops his mother in front of their double storey house. The white giant chases him away today. He is fed up with all the things that makes the Reynickes better than the poor white South-Africans begging for acknowledgement of their existance...He laughs bitterly and put his car into gear.
For the second time today he parks right in front of the pharmacy.
Karel takes a deep breath. He can hear his heart beat in his ears.
This will be the year.
Karel makes his way to the old man, still sitting in the wheel chair.
He makes eye contact.
His hand shoots out in a sure, firm greeting. “Good morning, oom”.
The old man looks up – obviously disturbed.
“I am Karel.”
“They call me Piet van den Heever.”
Karel almost wet his pants. The man is talking to him!!
Now encouraged, the words rolls like high tide: “Oom Piet, if I may ask, what went wrong in oom’s life to make oom sitting in this heat in this wheelchair, day in and day out?”
Oom Piet weighs him again, Karel thinks. He waits patiently. He need to know – for the past three years now he have been wondering...contemplating...whishing...
It is a crucial day. And he won’t back down.
“Boy, how do you mean...what went wrong?”
Karel shifts his weight and put his white hands, which never knew a days hard work, in his pockets.
“It’s obvious that your life took a turn for the worst! You are sitting in a wheel chare, unable to work, are you not?”
Piet van der Heever smiles silently. “Karel, maybe, just maybe, something went right in my life for me to end up here...”
Karel swallows dry. His hands are sweating in his pockets.
“How can you say that, oom?”
“Don’t you know the town’s story?”
“No oom, I’ve only lived here for the past five years...”
And so the story of Stilfontein unfolds on the dirty pavement, in the scoarcing sun....
Stilfontein was a wealthy town in the mid-seventies. The establishing of Gold mines because of rich gold reefs caused residents to advance exponentially in earthly posessions...but sadly to say, not in wisdom.
Two thirds of the town’s residents worked at the gold mines. Week in and week out. Long hours. It was hard labour. And when the clockcard got chipped and shifts were done and dusted, rows of tired bodies cued in front of enticing shebeens and clubs. Wasting a week’s wage on beer, the love of money and material lust led to a demorilised town. Residents did not care about each other any more, let alone families and children...
Oom Piet wipes a wrinkled hand across the parking lot. “All these worked on the mines, either above or below...There at the supermarket, in the far corner you will see my wife, aunt Betty.” Oom Piet waves at her. She smiles back at him.”Next to me you will see Gert, he was a boiler maker on the mine. I worked as risk manager.”
Until the day that the mines swallowed the gold.
Hardened mine workers dug deep in the belly of the earth below, but, as easy and as effortless she spit her guts in the beginning, she now witheld with brutal force.
The mines were forced to close down.
Thousands of feet walked away on ground that was hollow and weeping because of their doing.
Promises of pension funds that was going to be paid out never saw the light.
The once arrogant miners dragged their feet and cursed the ground.
Luxurious homes and cars were given back to the bank. Properties were auctioned. Young families moved to the cities, where they could shake off the dust of disappointment and start afresh. Elders, like oom Piet van den Heever, lost all hope.
Shops closed down because of heavy drops in sales.
“It breaks a man’s heart when you see your friends end up living on the streets. The ones you partied with, in the festive houses with blue swimming pools and thousands of lights... When child protection services come take your children to children’s homes because you cannot feed or shelter them. You find yourself in a see of heartache that is slowly strangling all life out of you.”
Oom Piet’s drinking problem became a wormhole. Aunt Betty left him. She went on to stay with her parents. He was left all by himself and all alone in an empty house. He sold his furniture for beer money. He cursed the ground and drank from noon to night, to drown his sorrows.
On a rainy night oom Piet walked right in front of a truck. “I cannot remember if I wanted to commit suicide or was just plainly stoned to a state where I didn’t know my coming or going.”
He broke his neck.
Since then, the wheelchair became his crutch.
The doctor said that, with an operation there was a fair chance that he could walk again. If he only had the money...
“The time in the state hospital was the best time of my life.”
Karel shakes his head in disbelief. How can it be?
“I had time to reflect back on my life. I realized that was in this state because of my own doing. But...I got a second chance...no Karel...this wheelchair is the best thing that could ever happen to me...no I make every day count...it happend just in time.”
“Did you also loose your home, then?” Karel sits on the pavement, captivated by the life story of the old man.
Oom Piet laughs.
“The bank took everthing! Not even a knife or fork was left on my name. I only had the clothes I was wearing, and, of cause, my wheels.”
“Where do you stay then?” Karel sees his mom’s face in front of him and he hears her voice so clearly mocking his spirit.
“I stay in a miner’s squatter camp.”
“Where is that?”
Oom Piet smiles again. “On the old mining site, of cause.”
Karel feels shaky and hungry. The sun must’ve boiled him to roast by now. Oom Piet doesn’t seem to feel the sun on his face at all. He blinks at his watch: twelve o’clock. He should go now.
“Oom Piet...how can I say thank you? Thanks for sharing your story with me...I now know that wisdom is better than gold. Sadly I have to go now, but know that we will soon chat again.”
“And remember...all that glitter is not gold...”
Karel jumps in his car – not before giving oom Piet a solid amount of money from his bulging wallet.
Oom Piet looks at the money...and thank God with a silent glance to the heavens.
Karel’s tyres swiesh in the loose sand. It is the next morning. On his bike he breathes in the fresh morning air and feels alive for the first time in his useless life. Strange nê? He is nearing the the old mine from the backside of the town. At the next turn the full picture unfolds in all its splendour.
Quite a few wooden huts are piled next to each other on the old mining floor. There is a joint kitchen in the middle, and a washing bay – actually only a boma – and the aroma of freshly ground coffee grants a special homey feeling to the place. Women prepare breakfast, maize pap, men exchange jokes and barefoot children laughs and runs around.
Karel stands in awe. Never has he exerienced such a deep longing to be part of a group than now. Riches cannot buy this. This is love. This is what is lacking in his life. He needs the true love of a family that cares for him and that accept him as he is... Tears well up in his eyes. His mother’s rage fills his view. This is all he know. He will never be a part of this.
He is from the wrong side of town.
He turns his bicycle around and blindly finds his way back home – back to the arms of the silent white giant in the upper side of town. His mind is made up.
It was easy as pie to get the money from his trust fund. It was easier to arrange with the doctors. Money makes the world go round. And Karel finally manages to succeed in his long standing new years resolution: To make an outstanding difference in the life of one man...
It is exactly a year later. The luxurious car parks right in front of the pharmacy. Mrs Reynicke hops out and storms into the pharmacy, not looking to her left or to her right. Avoiding the pleading eyes – as always. Karel sighs as he turns of the car. Some things will never change.
Karel slowly opens the door on his side, a big smile wavering on his face. Some things, on the other hand, did change! Oom Piet, neatly dressed in his blue and white security uniform meets him on his way up the pavement.
Walking by himself.
They shake warm hands like old friends. Actually, like family...