Gluttony is not for the faint-hearted

2013-08-08 00:00

I WASN’T even hungry. It had become a habit, a greed cultivated over 30 years. Whenever my work took me in the vicinity around lunch time, I would pull up outside the sign that loudly proclaimed “Alby Wareings Log Cabin”, kick my gum boots against the kerb to loosen the farmyard debris caught in the treads, wipe them vigorously on the entrance mat, nod to those inside and stand patiently at the counter and wait my turn. The routine was predictable. A pepper-steak pie or two, a bottle of water and a roll of mentholyptus sweets to soften the blow for anyone standing too close during a consult thereafter. My schedule never allowed me the luxury of a leisurely lunch and by the time I got back in my pick-up, the mouth-watering aroma would insist that I partake even before I had engaged third gear. The pie was invariably far too hot, necessitating nimble movements to avoid irreparable damage to my tongue and mouth that resulted in an overflow of gravy larva being deposited on my lap or smeared on the steering wheel and pedestrians running for cover, as the vehicle lurched drunkenly towards the pavement. Gluttony is not for the fainthearted, but the mess was always worth it. It was a world-class meal.

That day was no exception and, with my stash having been procured from the kiosk window, I stood in the queue in front of the cashier. “R30,50” she said and I reached for my wallet. It was embarrassingly empty. My dearly beloved had probably run short of milk and bread money, and had helped herself. “Don’t worry,” said the friendly cashier, “there is an ATM machine down there in the corridor,” pointing through the window behind her. I hesitated. I wasn’t that hungry and I was an ATM novice. Housekeeping was the role of my wife, and, if necessary, I preferred the intimacy of the bank queue. Anyway, the media was full of stories of ATM fraud. But the cashier had already entered the amount on the cash register, so I ambled out of the shop and down the passage, which skirted a courtyard opening up into the street where our cars were parked. An elderly man was at the machine and appeared to be concluding his transaction. Behind him was a big guy, facing away. He had some bank notes in his hand and an ATM slip, which he was examining. Once the old man was complete, the large person turned around and beat me to the machine. I stood back. He wore an impressive leather belt imbedded with large brass studs, which held up a pair of grey slacks with faint vertical white stripes moulded tightly onto an oversized backside. I hoped he did not bend over. I was sure the trouser stitching would not take the pressure. He pushed a couple of buttons on the machine, fiddled around for a while, and retreated. My turn. I put my card in. Nothing happened. No instructions. No lights flashing, nothing. Once again, I am almost an ATM virgin. I am intimidated by objects that function without a spleen or a liver, or a heart beat. Amid my confusion, I heard an assertive voice behind me. “Push that button,” the big guy said, and I noticed a fat forefinger appearing over my right shoulder. At this stage, let me explain to all of you who know exactly what is about to happen that throughout my life I have carried around with me the philosophy that all people are good until proved bad. I believe that this has helped keep an impoverished smile on my face most of the time. So gratitude was my initial reaction, but I became wary when he suggested that I put my pin number in and lent over to assist me. By this time, alarm bells were ringing in my tiny little mind, but not loudly enough for me to be entirely inhospitable. “Thanks, I’ll do it,” I muttered, quite gruffly, trying my best to shield my activity. I punched in the number with one digit wrong. I am not sure if this was a valid mistake, or a subliminal test of my niggling concern. “You have got it wrong,” came the voice over my shoulder. I shielded the machine like a black heron creating a shadow to attract little fish and punched in the right number. I was sure he could not see it. Still no response from the machine. It was quiet behind me as well and I glanced over my shoulder. He was gone. So, apparently, was my card, swallowed up by the machine. Or was it?

Debbie Wareing had appeared behind me. “Is there anything wrong with this machine?” I asked. “It has gobbled up my card and nothing is happening.” She came over, asked a couple of questions and we discussed life in general for a few minutes. Just then an SMS came through on my cellphone. It was 12.29 pm. R2 000 had been withdrawn from my account.

“Oh gee!” I blurted.

“Oh gee!” she shrieked. “Cancel your card, cancel your card!” The quiet midday siesta was suddenly transformed. Passers-by stopped and stared, and there was a background babble. Mynahs did a noisy retreat out of the courtyard.

12.30 pm. Another R2 000.

“Cancel your card!” she screamed repeatedly. My brain had engaged reverse gear. I recall wondering how I should cancel the blasted thing if I didn’t know where it was. If I did, it would be easy. I’d stand on it or tear it up or something.

“The number on the wall in front of you,” she gesticulated at the red Absa sign.

Look, I castrate cats for a living, a procedure far removed from the dexterity required to operate a smartphone in a hurry. Touch screens, sweaty fingers and a brain still trying to comprehend what had happened are not a good mix. Were I a computer, there would be a large sign on my forehead. “System failure,” it would proclaim in bold letters. But I eventually got a ring tone and was put into the Absa phone queue.

12.31 pm. Again, this time R1 000.

By now I had the sense to see that the SMS indicated that the transactions were occurring at the machine outside Dunbar Spar, the other side of the highway, a few 11 metres away.

“Go catch them!” she screamed.

“Who, me?” I said. “How? Do I look like the Caped Crusader?”

At this time, I got put through to an operator. “Why are you phoning me to cancel your card when you bank with FNB?” Dumb, Dumb, I scolded myself. But she had the grace to give the correct number and I plugged it into my cell.

12.36 pm. A further R5 996,60 withdrawn. 12.38 pm. I eventually got through to FNB and cancelled the card, then took off like a Keystone Cop to Dunbar Spar, still unsure what I would do if I found him. He was unlikely to be intimidated by a scruffy individual in cut-off overalls, a figure more consistent with Peter Falk in Columbo than Daniel Craig in Skyfall. There were many males with large butts in the Friday afternoon melee, but none with a wide brown belt and grey stovepipe pants. Back in my vehicle, I checked the last transaction. “Camperdown Tops”, it read, a liquor store just up the road and I sped off in that direction. “Yes,” said the cashier behind the counter. “Yes,” said the security guard at the door. “You’ve just missed them. They must be throwing a big party!” I reckon they are right. I hope the hangover is life-threatening.

Total stolen: R10 996,60. Enough to buy 751 pepper steak pies from Alby Wareings Log Cabin!

• The author is a practising vet with a passion for his profession and a giggle in his heart.

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