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U3A Writing: Weep No More

…One day at the beginning of winter, standing on the cold blustery veranda, Thomas attempted to say something, but everyone continued talking as though he’d not spoken. He was coughing badly and the pouches under his eyes were more pronounced than ever. The frayed scarf around his neck gave him the appearance of a tortoise as he craned his head this way and that.

“I’ve got my coffin alright.” We stopped talking. “Had my coffin up there in the shack for the past three years.”…

Ida Smith tells an astonishing and unforgettable South African tale.

It was during the war when most of us walked or rode by bicycle to the little farm store to collect our mail. Post days were Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Those were the days we looked forward to eagerly. If there was no letter from “Up North” today, there were the other post days to look forward to; but letters were pretty regular in those early years of the war.

Most of us who assembled on the dusty, chipped stoep had sons fighting in the war. Others did not. Their sons came for the odd newspaper or circular. They were usually antagonistic and sullen and would stand on their own, away from us. One of them was Paul Hartsberg, a tall, lanky youth who irritated everyone with his nervous sniff.

One day, we realised that Paul had not been seen for some time. At least we were not aware of his absence until his father, old Thomas Hartsberg, came galloping along the narrow farm road one post day. We watched the powdery dust lifting in a long streak behind the horse and rider as they approached. He alighted, slipped the reins over one of the fence poles, flicked his riding crop against his baggy trousers in a self-conscious gesture, and stepped onto the shop veranda. He was an ugly man, his skin grey and transparent and there was a look of sickness about him. His small blue eyes were smarting from the ride and he appeared to be weeping as he greeted us guardedly, for he knew that his timidity and lack of personality usually evoked a feeling of disdain among us, the farm folk.

After he had settled himself comfortably, he squirted a long thin stream of brown tobacco juice out of the corner of his mouth, which fell with a dull plop onto the cement floor. We turned our heads away in disgust and would have walked off had he not, while looking at Chris de Lange, said in an agitated voice, almost apologetically, “Paul’s gone and joined up you know!”

Well, we were surprised in a way, as both Thomas and his son Paul had been involved in a planned incident of sabotage and, though nothing had been proved, it did not prevent a great deal of ill-feeling towards these two for months afterwards.

“Uh-huh,” Chris de Lange grunted. Old Thomas grinned at us and stroked back his coarse, stained moustache. “Yes,” he said, with a suppressed air of pride. ”Hope for a letter today. Said he’d send me his pay to keep. I’ll keep it for him alright. And after the war, he’ll have a nice little start.” The arrival of the postman with the mail bag lashed to the carrier of his battered cycle was the cue for us to enter the shop.

Thus the months, and then the years, passed. The Almighty was always thanked whenever a letter from ‘Up North’ arrived. Old Thomas beamed with pleasure when Paul’s money arrived. We felt that Paul at least brought a little bit of happiness to this forsaken little man whose wife, we had heard, was a shrew and who had, years ago, refused to have him in the house. He’d rigged up a shack outside, and here, filled with resentment and shame, he lived.

One day at the beginning of winter, standing on the cold blustery veranda, Thomas attempted to say something, but everyone continued talking as though he’d not spoken. He was coughing badly and the pouches under his eyes were more pronounced than ever. The frayed scarf around his neck gave him the appearance of a tortoise as he craned his head this way and that.

“I’ve got my coffin alright.” We stopped talking. “Had my coffin up there in the shack for the past three years.” He began to cough violently. What he’d just said did not shock us in the least. It was nothing unusual even in those war days, for some folks to have coffins in readiness in case of a sudden death. It saved, they said, time and petrol, not to have to travel to the nearest undertaker.

But old Thomas’ cough sounded ominous. Half-heartedly, Oom Koos reprimanded him. “Coffin or no coffin – you had no business coming out in this weather, man.” Thomas, overcome by these few words of sympathy, croaked almost happily, “Well, Paul’s getting his leave, you know. He should be here by tomorrow. I thought there’d be a telegram or something to say he’d arrived.”

None of us had letters that day except old Thomas. Paul had written from Pretoria that he’d at last arrived from Italy where the armies were fighting. I was so happy for the old man. Paul was the light of his life, bringing warmth into his drab existence.

That afternoon while the wind blew the dry husks and the dust rose in little eddies and there was a sadness and dreariness about everything, the note came to say that old Thomas had died. The farm worker, Naftali, shivered in his tatters and said that the old man had come home and told him to ask the old woman to bring him some coffee for he was very sick. Naftali said he’d just gone to round up the cow for milking, when he heard the old woman shouting. When he got to the shack, the old man was already dead. The funeral would be on Monday and Paul would have arrived by then, but too late to see him father alive.

I had not been to old Thomas Hartsberg’s place for years and as I rode up the steep hill for the funeral, I was filled with remorse at my abruptness to him in the past. The top of a bluegum in the distance indicated the homestead.

My cycle ploughed through the dust of the footpath through the lands, between the spiky, brittle stalks left after the harvest. The weeds stood like brown ghosts, shaking off their seeds into the wind, to roll amongst the dry, red clods and germinate after the spring rains.

When I rode into the Hartsberg’s yard, tired and with the taste of the gritty dust in my mouth, I found a few of their neighbours already there. Under the bleak bluegum with its long strips of fluttering bark, resting on two rickety chairs, was the coffin. Chickens scratched beneath it until a flying pebble from one of the mourners sent them clucking into the bushes.

Nearby was the house; small and low with its thatched roof hanging low, like a torn and tattered hat. Peering from the front door stood the widow, dressed in black.

“Tsk,” she said, after I had condoled with her and had pressed her moist fleshy hand. “I wish Paul would come. Ag, we have to wait for Paul,” she reiterated. “He…” she indicated the coffin with a nod of her head, “would never forgive us if we went ahead without him”.

Time passed. It was getting late. Donkeys, spanned into the carts which had brought the mourners, shook and shivered in their harnesses. The sun was pale and the sky a lonely grey. And still Paul had not arrived, and the younger children began fighting and squabbling, tired of keeping their cheap, new clothing clean.

The mourners too, were becoming restless. The wind was blowing strongly, bitingly cold, whipping around our legs and covering everything with dry highveld dust. The bluegum clicked its leaves and shook the dust from its white branches onto the coffin beneath it. Still no sign of Paul.

I secretly cursed the snivelling, stupid fool. The predikant had sent a telegram to come as soon as possible, but there seemed to be some hitch. That was two days ago.

The predikant, who had been sitting on the only other chair on the warm side of the house, now appeared, rubbing his pale hands together. The dust, mingled with the moisture in the lines of his face, made him look old and tired. He wanted to proceed with the funeral, Paul or no Paul.

Six men ambled up to the coffin and lifted it off the chairs. We all moved in solemn silence, crunching over the stony path to the little cemetery. Everywhere the wind was churning up swirls of dry grass and dead leaves.

At the graveside, the predikant, in his stiff suit, his back aching in the bitter cold, spoke his dry, cheerless words to the dead Thomas, to the widow and to those present. A mournful, out-of-tune hymn followed. The first clods fell onto the coffin. The sun was setting. The wind died and suddenly there was beauty in the brilliant fiery sky and the long shadows flowing and mingling over the brown bush beyond.

It was then that we heard the sound of a car and saw the cloud of dust. What a bitter blow for Paul, arriving too late. As it came over the rise, we saw that it was Hans’s taxi and there at last was Paul.

The grave had been filled. With great sadness the predikant turned to the figure in uniform running towards us. Paul breathed in great gulps of air as he ran, his eyes wild and tormented. His mother rushed forward and clutched his slim body to her. He shook her free. “Pa!” he called, “Pa!” He burst into great sobs, bending over the fresh grave. ‘Well,’ I thought, “blood is thicker than water. Old Thomas, here’s your pride and joy, and shedding real tears for you!’

At a signal from the predikant, the people moved off quietly, leaving Paul and his mother standing beside the grave. The shivering donkeys needed no prompting as they trotted stiffly from the yard, the carts jingling and squeaking. I could not bring myself to go immediately. I felt I could perhaps say something to Paul to comfort him, so after a while, I walked back to the cemetery. He was there alone, wringing his hands and weeping in anguish. Then he turned. A unearthly wail pierced the silence. A turkey, roosting in a nearby tree, gobbled in terror. Then his frenzied words froze my blood.

“You fool! You fools!” Scooping up great handfuls of earth from the grave, he flung it about him. He became aware of me and rushing up to me shouted, “What have you done? Couldn’t you wait a little longer? My army pay – three years of army pay!” he screamed and looked at me. “All that money was hidden away in the lining of his coffin. He wrote and told me he was hiding it there!”

What was to be done? He would probably have to get special permission to exhume the body. How dreadful, how bizarre!

“Look Paul,” I said desperately in the darkness around us, “perhaps he put it somewhere else. Let’s go and look. Perhaps… before he died he had a feeling… you know…”

He turned and ran towards the dark shack. I could see matches flaring as he hunted madly for his treasure. As I reached the door there was a howl from Paul. “Hell man!” he shouted. “You were right! Here it is under the mattress. Gee, that’s luck for you!”

Laughing, he led me to my bicycle.

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