‘It explains in the newspaper,’ At Naudé said, ‘how you can tell the difference between a good five-pound note and those forged ones. There are a lot of forged notes in circulation, the paper says, and the police are on the point of making an arrest.’
‘Bad as all that, is it?’ Gysbert van Tonder asked. ‘I’ve noticed that when the papers say that about the police, it means that unless somebody walks into the charge office to confess that he did it, the police are writing that case off as yet another unsolved African mystery. There’s only one thing worse, and that’s when they write in the papers about a dragnet, and that the police are poised and ready to swoop. That means the guilty person left the country a good while before with a lot of luggage that he didn’t have when he came into the country, and with his passport in order.’
Gysbert van Tonder’s lip curled as he spoke. It was sad to think that an occasional misunderstanding with a mounted man on border patrol should have led to his acquiring so jaundiced a view of the activities of the forces charged with the state’s internal government.
‘How you can tell,’ At Naudé continued patiently, ‘that it’s a counterfeit five-pound note is that it’s actually a very good imitation note. The only way you can tell it’s a forgery is that it’s better printed than the genuine note, and that it’s got the word “geoutoriseerde” spelt right.’
The schoolmaster looked interested.
‘Well, they keep on changing Afrikaans spelling so much,’ he said, ‘that I don’t know where I am, half the time, teaching it. Anyway, I’d be glad to know what the right way is to spell that word. But, unfortunately, I haven’t got a five-pound note on me at the moment – I don’t suppose anyone here would care to lend me one.’
His tone was pensive, wistful. But he was quite right. Nobody took the hint.
‘Just until the end of the month,’ young Vermaak said, again, but not very hopefully.
After an interval of silence, At Naudé said that even if somebody were to lend the schoolmaster a fiver – which, in his own opinion, did not seem very likely – it would still not help him with the spelling of that word. Because it was the genuine banknote that had the spelling wrong – spelling it the old way. Only the counterfeit note had the correct, new spelling.
Jurie Steyn said that that was something that had him beat, now: calling it a counterfeit note just because it had better printing and spelling than the genuine note. It was one of those things that made his head reel, Jurie Steyn added. No wonder a person sometimes felt that he didn’t know where he was in the world.
‘Saying that just because it’s better than the real note,’ Jurie Steyn continued, ‘then, for that reason, it’s no good – that’s got me floored all right.’
A situation like that opened up possibilities on which he, personally, would rather not dwell, Jurie Steyn went on.
‘By and by,’ Jurie Steyn said, ‘it will mean that if a respectably dressed stranger comes here to my post office, driving an expensive motor car, and he hands me a banknote that I can see nothing wrong with, except that it looks properly printed, then it means I’ll have to notify the police at Nietverdiend. But if a Mshangaan in a blanket comes round here and he doesn’t buy stamps, even, but he just wants change for a five-pound note, then I’ll know it’s all right, because the banknote has got bad spelling and the lion on the back is rubbed out in places, through the pipe in his mouth having been drawn wrong the first time.’
Oupa Bekker nodded his head, thoughtfully.
‘Yes, there were certain matters relative to currency, as passed from person to person, that did not always admit of facile comprehension,’ he declared somewhat pompously.
‘Take the time the Stellaland Republic issued its own banknotes, now,’ Oupa Bekker said. ‘Well, of course, the Stellaland Republic didn’t last very long. And it might have been different if it had gone on for a while. But I’m just talking about how it was when we first got our own Stellaland Republic banknotes, and about how pleased we all were about it.
‘The trouble in that part of the country was that there were never enough gold coins to go around, properly. Even before the Stellaland Republic was set up, there was that trouble. You could notice it easily, too, by the patches a lot of the men had on the back parts of their trousers.
‘And so, when the Stellaland Republic starting printing its own banknotes, it looked as though everything would come right. But the affairs of the nation did not altogether follow the course that we expected. I remember the boarding-houses landladies. What they wanted at the end of the month, they said, was – I remember very clearly – money. I don’t think I’ve ever, in my life, either before or since, heard quite that same kind of sniff. I mean, the kind of sniff a Stellaland Republic landlady would give at the end of a month when she saw you feeling in an envelope for banknotes.
‘Then there was the Indian storekeeper.
‘I was once with my friend, Giel Haasbroek, in the Indian store, and I’ll never forget the look that came over the Indian’s face when Giel Haasbroek produced a handful of Stellaland Republic banknotes to pay him. Among other things, what the Indian said was that he had a living to make, just like all of us.
‘“But these banknotes are perfectly good,” Giel Haasbroek said to the Indian. “Look, there’s a picture of the Stellaland Republic eagle across the top, here. And here, underneath, you can read for yourself the printed signatures of the President and the Minister of Finance – signed with their own names too.”
‘I’ll never forget how the Indian shopkeeper winced, then, either. The Indian said that he had nothing against the eagle. He was willing to admit that it was the best kind of eagle that there was. He wouldn’t argue about that. Where he came from, they didn’t have eagles. And if you were to show him a whole lot of eagles in a row, he didn’t think he’d be able to tell the one from the other, hardly, the Indian said. We must not misunderstand him on that point, the Indian took pains to make clear to us. He had no intention of hurting our feelings in any way. He would not take exception to the eagle in any shape or form.
‘But when it came to the signatures of the President and the Minister of Finance, it was quite a different matter, the Indian said. For he had both their signatures in black and white – for old debts that he knew he’d never be able to collect, the Indian said. And of the two, the President was worse than the Minister of Finance, even. The President had got so, the Indian said, that for months now, on his way to work in the morning, he would walk three blocks out of his way, round the other side of the plein, just so that he didn’t have to pass the Indian’s store.’
Oupa Bekker interrupted his story to get a match from the school-teacher. That gave us a chance to ponder over what he had said. For they had fallen strangely on our ears, some of his words. There appeared to have been a certain starkness about the texture of life, in the old days, that our present-day imaginings could not too readily embrace.
‘But they never caught on, really, those Stellaland Republic banknotes,’ Oupa Bekker continued. ‘Afterwards the Government withdrew the old banknotes and brought out a new issue. But even that didn’t help very much, I don’t think. Although, I must say, the new series of banknotes looked much nicer. The new banknotes were bigger, for one thing. And they were printed in more colours than the old ones. And they had a new kind of eagle on top. The eagle seemed more imposing, somehow. And he also had a threatening kind of look, that you couldn’t miss. It was like the Stellaland Republic threatening you, if you got tendered one of those notes for board and lodging, and you were hesitating about taking it.
‘But, all the same, those banknotes never really seemed to circulate very much. Maybe the Indian storekeeper was right in what he said. Perhaps, after all, it wasn’t the eagle, so much, that they should have changed, as those two signatures on the lower portion of the banknote. Perhaps they should have been signed so that you couldn’t read them.
‘And, as I have said, the queer thing is that there was nothing wrong with those Stellaland Republic banknotes. They weren’t counterfeit notes in any way, I mean. They were absolutely legal. The eagle and the printing were both all right – they were the smartest-looking eagle and the smartest printing you could get in those days. And yet … there you are.’
We agreed with Oupa Bekker that the problem of money was pretty mixed up, and always had been. Shortly afterwards the Government lorry arrived from Bekkersdal, and the lorry-driver’s assistant went up to the counter.
‘Change this fiver for me, please, Jurie,’ he said.
Now it was Jurie Steyn’s turn to be funny. He took full advantage of it. He turned the note over several times.
‘The printing looks all right,’ Jurie Steyn said. ‘And for all I know, the spelling is also all right. And the lion hasn’t got a pipe in his mouth.
‘What kind of fool do you think I am, handing me a note like this? About the only thing it hasn’t got on it is an eagle.’
The lorry-driver’s assistant looked at Jurie Steyn, mystified.