Fiction Friendship

Damn! My car had hit a pothole, and now I am stuck in this hot, dry, and dusty little Karoo town until another tyre to fit my car could be located. I buy a cold drink and find a bench under a bedraggled excuse for a tree. I feel as bedraggled as the tree with me blouse sticking to my body and my hair hanging limply down my neck. As I try vainly to get the sand out of my shoes, I notice an old man who had been intensely watching me negotiate with the mechanic now limping his way to the bench to sit down beside me.

I have no idea why cars can’t be standard; why we can’t have ‘one size fits all’, and why mechanics all over the world shake their heads while trying to rub car grease off their hands with a cloth that is full of grease. Everyone knows that the car is not going in for an operation, and that it can be fixed, but if you are a woman, the mechanic has a field day; the only sign language he knows is how to shake his head and wipe the oil off his hands, and the more he shakes his head and studies the oil on his hands, the more you are going to pay.

I am so caught up in my own woes that I am barely aware of the man sitting beside me until a puff of smoke drifts past my nose. Cigarette smoke makes me nauseous, cigar smoke is even worse, but the aroma of this particular brand of pipe tobacco is not only welcome, it is intoxicating to my senses as it takes me back to a time when I was just a little girl over half a century ago.

There had been a major polio scare in the city and schools had closed as children were at high risk. To keep me safe, my parents sent me off to my Uncle Chappie who farmed in the Karoo. Perhaps it is because of returning to this arid area that my nostalgia has slipped in. No, it is definitely this rich smell of pipe tobacco that I remember so well. My uncle usually had his pipe clenched between his yellowed teeth, even when it was not lit. I can’t remember when last I had seen someone smoke a pipe; perhaps that is why the comforting smell makes me look at the stranger who smiles at me; I quickly looked away before he can start a conversation.

The aroma of blended tobacco takes me back to the little whitewashed rondavels with thatched roofs clustered around a courtyard. There was no electricity, no running water, and I loved it. I had my very own rondavel to sleep in, and a candle next to my bed. In the morning I would be up before sunrise, and along with Uncle Chappie, we would go down to the dam to brush our teeth. He would tell me how important it was to look after my teeth while I looked at his stained teeth that had worn away where his pipe sat.

Those halcyon days were spent learning how to milk cows and herd the sheep to different pastures. I learned to herd the sheep to the trough to drink as they did not drink from running streams. The farm worker’s son taught me how to communicate with the animals. I named him Hop-a-long, and we developed such a close bond with each other and with the animals that all of my uncle’s animals were thriving under our care.

I taught Hop-a-long to read, and he tried to teach me how to read spoor. He was an amazing tracker; he could tell the difference not only between the different types of animals (sheep, goat, or buck), but could even tell whether they were male or female. All I could discern was the difference between the spoor of cattle and of sheep.

My favourite time of the day was in the evening. I would sit next to my uncle on the bench watching the stars appear while we waited for my aunt who was preparing dinner. The delicious aromas that came from the kitchen were succeeded by the smell of the pipe tobacco.

Lighting the pipe was a ritual. The old tobacco would be knocked out on the heel of the boot, then a pipe cleaner would be found in a pocket somewhere; once it had been poked into the pipe a couple of times, it would once more disappear into a pocket. The tobacco box would be fetched, this was no ordinary box; it was small and rectangular with a picture of a boxer on the lid. I would hold the box and trace out the word ‘Chappie’ that had been engraved above a picture of a boxer whose legs seemed to be too skinny for his body. The tobacco was then pressed down into the pipe with a calloused thumb; only once it had been tamped to the correct degree was the pipe lit, and we would sit back and enjoy the cool evening breeze.

Well those days were long gone, I am about to go and find some water to drink as the cold drink had done little to quench my thirst, when the man sitting next to me starts knocking the tobacco out on the heel of his shoe. I shake my head. I must be hallucinating, this heat has obviously caused me to dehydrate. The man still says nothing, he just puts a little wooden box down on the bench between us. I give the box a perfunctory glance, then I stop and stare; the picture of the boxer has faded away, but I can’t take my eyes off the word ‘Chappie’ which is still clearly discernible.

I look at this man who is now beaming from ear to ear, and I can’t believe my eyes.

“Hop-a-long, how did you recognise me?” I sign.

He puts his pipe down to answer: “I could never forget the girl who taught me how to speak with my hands.”

October 02, 2020 15:31

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