The power of prayer

2008-02-23 00:00

Me faether, now, he was from Dundee Scotland and proper canny. He learned from his own faether that you dinna marry and hae your bairns afore you were properly established and had enough money for it all, so he was well into his fifties when I scored the last sperm but one in his creaking old system. My sister Euphemia scored the very last one and got born in 1927. I was 1925. Me grandfaether, now, he was proper extra canny so he was pushing 60 when me faether scored the very last dribble of anything from his withered old scrotum. I tell you all this ancestral stuff because I want you to believe me when I say me grandfaether was a lad in the Crimean War, and that was 1854.

Me, now, I remember the Great Depression. Vividly. My maternal Oupa van Tonder was the only person I knew who wasn’t depressed. When my Ouma took to baking rusks to peddle round the offices of the Government Printer over the road, he took off for the diamond fields with a song on his lips. Come to think of it, the song was all he took; no shovel, no pickaxe, nothing, just the song. Certainly no money. And he just vanished. After a couple of years my ouma assumed he was dead and wore her black church threads for a week or so, and slowly, over the months, her existence became strangely calm; the rusk enterprise flourished and she took out a bond on a very genteel home with a row of genteel rooms back of a garden of great delight, with apricots, figs, kaalgatperskes and pomegranates, all in abundance. These rooms she let to genteel people from the offices where she sold her rusks. Life became very predictable, indeed sweet, for the first time ever.

Certainly nobody predicted the reappearance of Oupa Van. But reappear he did. Back from the dead, covered in mud, his corduroy broek all shredded from the thigh down, like a Hawaiian hula dancer, and stink. O Sweet Saviour what a stink! He was kippered in the smoke of burning grass or cowdung whatever the hell he’d been cooking his grub on. No diamonds, no money, no tools, nothing. Nothing except enterprise, that is, and the usual Faith. In a trice he had set up in my ouma’s orchard a pickled fish business requiring neither capital nor equipment, except offcut timber and some old broken bits of varnished furniture from a demolition site, two five-gallon paraffin tins and a certain quantity of stockfish brought up from the Cape under wet sacks in unrefrigerated trucks. It was rumoured that he’d a readier and fresher local supply, known as Magaliesbergse stokvis, which was, in fact, rinkals. Cobra. Also matches.

Oupa Van would sing his diamond-field ditties and hum away as he prepared the diamond-field delights:

Tarara boem-de-ay

Oom Paul het ’n vark gery

Afgeval en seergekry

Tarara boem-de-ay.

The recipe was fairly homely: Half-fill a paraffin blik with fish, scaled and disembowelled. Fill 3/4 with water. Boil. Add 1 cup salt and 14 onions, cut up with a knife. Buy 1lb tin of Windsor & Newton’s Patent British Curry Powder (By Appointment Royal Family & Sir Isaac) and fling in with other ingredients. Serve hot, with 1/2 loaf bread & Madam Ball’s Patent 98 Octane Prickly Pear Blatjang, according to available finance.

The disposessed of the Great Depression came from every corner of Pretoria, according to wind direction. No natives, of course: they had their own quaint way of coping with famine, by ceasing to eat. Also possible was that they valued the enamel of their teeth. And the rest of the digestive tract, come to think of it. Come to think of it, I myself would rather starve than go to Jesus via the route provided by Oupa van Tonder. And really, the pong was something cruel. My Auntie Aggie went into retreat to Know the Truth, as Christian Scientists do. The truth one had to know was: All evil things were untrue, unreal, they were Error. When she opened her door Oupa van Tonder and his fish would have proved illusory, since they were evil. Mind you, she was right about the fish.

But Oupa Van persevered in the Biblical miracle of the fish, the loaves and the multitude. The fearsome conflict between scriptural and metaphysical truth filled the aether with huge fields of crackling static energy. Great leaden grey-anvilled cumulonimbus clouds roiled up over Pretoria. Huge hailstones flailed the darkened city and lightning struck while the horrified populace smeared themselves with sheep dip and covered the mirror with brown paper to deflect the bolts. Science and faith strove for possession of the soul of personkind. When Auntie Aggie, looking drawn, opened her door a week later, old man and fish were indeed gone and the air murmured with the ambient melody of the last movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Oupa van Tonder was last seen headed W Nor’ W, where Kimberlite and companionship are a man’s love.

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