‘The trouble,’ At Naudé said, ‘about getting the latest war news over the wireless, is that Klaas Smit and his Boeremusiek orchestra start up right away after it, playing Die Nooi van Potchefstroom. Now, it isn’t that I don’t like that song.’
So we all said that it wasn’t as though we didn’t like it, either. Gysbert van Tonder began to hum the tune. Johnny Coen joined in, singing the words softly – ‘Vertel my neef, vertel my oom, is dit die pad na Potchefstroom?’ In a little while, we were all singing. Not very loudly, of course. For Jurie Steyn was conscious of the fact that his post office was a public place, and he frowned on any sort of out-of-the-way behaviour in it. We still remembered the manner in which Jurie Steyn had spoken to Chris Welman the time Chris was mending a pair of his wife’s veldskoens in the post office, using the corner of the counter as a last.
For that reason we did not raise our voices very much when we sang Die Nooi van Potchefstroom. But it was a catchy song, and Jurie Steyn joined in a little, too, afterwards.
Not that he let himself go in any way, of course. He sang in a reserved and dignified fashion, that made you feel he would yet go far. You felt that even the Postmaster General in Pretoria, on the occasion of a member of the public coming to him to complain about a registered letter that had got lost – well, even the Postmaster General would not have been able to sit back in his chair and sing Die Nooi van Potchefstroom in as elevated a manner as Jurie Steyn was doing at that very moment.
Before the singing had quite died down, Oupa Bekker was saying that he knew Potchefstroom when he was still a child. It was in the very old days, Oupa Bekker said, and the far-side foundations of the church on Kerkplein had not sunk nearly as deep as they had done today. He said he remembered the first time that there was a split in the Church. It was between the Doppers and the Hervormdes, he said. And it was quite a serious split. And because he was young, then, he thought it had to do with the way the brickwork on the wall nearest the street had to be constantly plastered up, from top to bottom, the more the foundations sank.
‘I remember showing my father that piece of church wall,’ Oupa Bekker continued. ‘And I asked my father if the Doppers had done it. And my father said, well, he had never thought about it like that, until then. But all the same, he wouldn’t be surprised if they had. Not that anybody would ever see the Doppers kneeling down there on the side-walk, loosening the bricks with a crowbar, my father added. Whatever they did was under the cover of darkness.’
At Naudé started talking again about the news of the war in Korea, that he had heard over the wireless. But because so much had been spoken in between, he had to explain right from the beginning again.
‘It’s the way the war news gets crowded by Klaas Smit and his orchestra,’ At Naudé said. ‘You’re listening to what the announcer is making clear about what part of the country General MacArthur is fighting in now – and it’s hard to follow all that, because it seems to me that sometimes General MacArthur himself is not too clear as to what part of the country he is in – and then, suddenly, while you’re still listening, up strikes Klaas Smit’s orchestra with Die Nooi van Potchefstroom. It makes it all very difficult, you know. They don’t give that General MacArthur a chance at all. Die Nooi van Potchefstroomseems to be crowding him even worse than the Communists are doing – and that seems to be bad enough, the Lord knows.’
This time we did not start singing again. We had, after all, taken the song to the end, and even if it wasn’t for Jurie Steyn’s feelings, we ourselves knew enough about the right way of conducting ourselves in a post office. You can’t go and sing the same song in a post office twice, just as though it’s the quarterly meeting of the Mealie Control Board. We were glad, therefore, when Oupa Bekker started talking once more.
‘This song, now,’ Oupa Bekker was saying. ‘Well, as you know, I remember the early days of Potchefstroom. The very early days, that is. But I would never have imagined that someday a poet would come along and make up a song about the place. Potchefstroom was the first capital of the Transvaal, of course. Long before Pretoria was thought of, even. And there’s an old willow-tree in Potchefstroom that must have measured I don’t know how many feet around the trunk where it goes into the ground. It measured that much only a little while ago, I mean. I am talking about the last time I was in Potchefstroom. But I never imagined anybody would ever write a poem about the town. It seemed such a hard name to make verses about. But I suppose it’s a lot different today. People are so much more clever, I expect.’
Oupa Bekker would have gone on a good deal longer, maybe, if it wasn’t that Jurie Steyn’s wife came in just about then with the coffee. Consequently, Oupa Bekker had to sit up properly and stir the sugar round in his cup.
‘I heard that song you were singing, just now,’ Jurie Steyn’s wife remarked to all of us. ‘I thought it was – well, I liked it. I didn’t catch the words, quite.’
Nobody answered. We knew that it was school holidays, of course. And we knew that young Vermaak, the schoolmaster, had gone to his parents in Potchefstroom for the holidays. Because we knew that Potchefstroom was young Vermaak’s home town, we kept silent. There was no telling what Jurie Steyn’s reactions might be.
Oupa Bekker went on talking, however.
‘All the same, I would like to know how many feet around the trunk that willow-tree is today,’ Oupa Bekker said. ‘And they won’t chop it down either. That willow-tree is right on the edge of the graveyard. You can almost say it’s inside the graveyard. And so they won’t chop it down. But what beats me is to think that somebody could actually write a song about Potchefstroom. I would never have thought it possible.’
Oupa Bekker’s sigh seemed to come from very far away.
From somewhere a good deal further away than the rusbank he was sitting on. We understood then why that Potchefstroom willow-tree meant so much to him.
And the result was that when Gysbert van Tonder started up the chorus of the song again, we all found ourselves joining in – no matter what Jurie Steyn might say about it. ‘En in my droom,’ we sang, ‘Is die vaalhaarnooi by die wilgerboom.’