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From ‘Secret Agent’ in Voorkamer Stories
by Herman Charles Bosman
Well anyway, here was this stranger, Losper, a middle-aged man with a suitcase, sitting in the post office and asking Jurie Steyn if he could put him up in a spare room for a few days, while he had a look around.
‘I’ll pay the same rates as I paid in the boarding-house in Zeerust,’ Meneer Losper said. ‘Not that I think you’d overcharge me, of course, but I’m only allowed a fixed sum by the Department for accommodation and travel expenses.’
‘Look here, Neef Losper,’ Jurie Steyn said, ‘you didn’t tell me your first name, so I can only call you Neef Losper.’
‘My first name is Org,’ the stranger said.
Well then, Neef Org,’ Jurie Steyn went on. ‘From the way you talk I can see that you’re unacquainted with the customs of the Groot Marico. In the first place, I’m a postmaster and a farmer. And I don’t know which is the worst job, what with money orders and the blue-tongue. I’ve got to put axle-grease on my mule cart and sealing wax on the mailbag. And sometimes I get mixed up. Any man in my position would. One day I’ll paste a revenue stamp on my off-mule and brand a half-moon and bar on the Bekkersdal mailbag. Then there’ll be trouble. Trouble with my off-mule, I mean. The post office won’t notice any difference. But my off-mule is funny, that way. He’ll pull the mule-cart, all right. But then everything’s got to be the way he wants it. He won’t have people laughing at him because he’s got a revenue stamp stuck on his behind. I sometimes think my off-mule knows that a shilling revenue stamp is what you put on a piece of paper after you’ve told a justice of the peace a lot of lies ...’
‘Not lies,’ Gysbert van Tonder interjected.
‘A lot of lies,’ Jurie Steyn went on, ‘about another man’s cattle straying into a person’s lucern lands while that person was taking his sick child to Zeerust …’
Gysbert van Tonder, who was Jurie Steyn’s neighbour, half rose out of his riempies chair, then, and made some sneering remarks about Jurie Steyn and his off-mule. He said he’d never had much time for either of them. And he said he’d prefer not to describe the way his lucern lands looked looked after Jurie Steyn’s cattle had finished straying over them. He said he would not like to use that expression, because there was a stranger present.
Meneer Losper seemed interested, then, and he sat forward to listen. It looked as though Gysbert van Tonder would have said the words, too, only At Naudé, who had a wireless to which he listened in regularly, put a stop to the argument. He said that this was a respectable voorkamer, with family portraits on the wall.
‘And there’s Jurie Steyn’s wife in the kitchen, too,’ At Naudé said. ‘You can’t use the same sort of language here as in theVolksraad, where there are only men.’
Actually, Jurie Steyn’s wife had left the kitchen, about then. Ever since that young schoolmaster with the black hair parted in the middle had come to Bekkersdal, Jurie Steyn’s wife had taken a good deal of interest in matters educational. Consequently, when the stranger, Org Losper, had said that he was from the Department, Jurie Steyn’s wife thought right away – judging from his shifty appearance – that he must be a school inspector. And so she sent a message to the young schoolmaster to warn him in time, so that he could put away the saws and hammers that he used for the private fretwork he did in front of the class while the children were writing compositions.
In the meantime, Jurie Steyn was getting to the point.
‘So you can’t expect me to be running a boarding-house as well as everything else, Neef Org,’ he was saying. ‘But all the same, you’re welcome to stay. And you can stay as long as you like. Only, you mustn’t offer to pay again. If you’d known more about these parts, you’d also have known that the Groot Marico has got a very fine reputation for hospitality. When you come and stay with a man, he gets insulted if you offer him money. But I’ll be glad to invite you into my home as a member of my own family.’
Org Losper then said that that was exactly what he didn’t want, anymore. And he was firm about it, too.
‘When you’re a member of the family, you can’t say no to anything,’ he explained. ‘In the Pilansberg I tore my best trousers on the wire. I was helping, as a member of the family, to round up the donkeys for the watercart. At Nietverdiend a Large White bit a piece out of my second-best trousers and my leg. That was when I was a member of the family and was helping carry buckets of swill to the pig troughs. The farmer said that the Large White was just being playful that day. Well, maybe the Large White thought I was also a member of the family – his family, I mean. At Abjaterskop I nearly fell into a disused mineshaft on a farm there. Then I was a member of the family, assisting to throw a dead bull down the shaft. The bull had died of anthrax and I was helping to pull him by one haunch, and I was walking backwards, and when I jumped away from the opening of the mineshaft, it was almost too late.
‘I can also tell you what happened to me in the Dwarsberge when I was also a member of the family. And also about what happened when I was a member of the family at Derdepoort. I didn’t know that that family was having a misunderstanding with the family next door about water rights. And it was when I was opening a water furrow with a shovel that a load of buckshot went through my hat. As a member of the family, I was standing ankle-deep in the mud at the time, so I couldn’t run very fast.
And so you see, when I say I would rather pay, it’s not that I’m ignorant of the very fine tradition that the Marico has for the friendly and bountiful entertainment it accords the stranger. But I don’t wish to presume further on your kindness. If I have much more Bushveld hospitality, I might never see my wife and children again. It’s all very well being a member of somebody else’s family, but I have a duty to my own family. I want to get back to them alive.’
Johnny Coen remarked that the next time Gysbert van Tonder had an American tourist on his hands, he need not take him to the Limpopo, but could just show him around the Marico farms.
It was then that Gysbert van Tonder asked Org Losper straight out what his business was. And, to our surprise, the stranger was very frank about it.
‘It’s a new job that’s been made for me by the Department of Defence,’ Org Losper said. ‘There wasn’t that post before. You see, I worked very hard at the last elections, getting people’s names taken off the electoral roll. You’ve no idea how many names I got taken off. I even got some of our candidate’s supporters’ names crossed off. But you know how it is, we all make mistakes. It’s a very secret post. It’s a top Defence secret. I’m under oath not to disclose anything about it. But I am free to tell you that I’m making certain investigations on behalf of the Department of Defence. I’m trying to find out whether something has been seen here. But, of course, the post has been made for me, if you understand what I mean.’
We said we understood, all right. And we also knew that, since he was under oath about it, the nature of Org Losper’s investigations in the Groot Marico would leak out sooner or later.
As it happened, we found out within the next couple of days. A Mahalapi, who worked for Adriaan Geel, told us. And then we realised how difficult Org Losper’s work was. And we no longer envied him his Government job – even though it had been specially created for him.
If you know the Mtosas, you’ll understand why Org Losper’s job was so hard. For instance, there was only one member of the whole Mtosa tribe who had ever had any close contact with white people. And he had unfortunately grown up among the Trekboers, whose last piece of crockery, that they had brought with them from the Cape, had got broken almost a generation earlier.
We felt that the Department of Defence could have made an easier job for Org Losper than to send him around asking those questions of the Mtosas – they who did not even know what an ordinary kitchen saucer was, let alone a flying one.