2009-12-05 00:00

LOOKING back, I reckon the most horrible people I have known have been highly intelligent. Boring too. Which doesn’t mean in order to be nice you’ve got to be stupid, of course, it just means I don’t mind folks being a bit dof so long as they’re interesting. Mfanwe van Cohen was one such. Mfanwe, said I to her one morning in my little restoration studio back of the art gallery, are you Welsh or Afrikaans or Jewish? Are you some sort of racist or what? she replied. My family name was van der Koen, which sounds like I am some sort of Bantu, so I thought it okay to change it to something Caucasian, what’s wrong with that, hey? But Jews aren’t Caucasian, are they, said I, and anyway it sort of doesn’t match with the Mfanwe bit, does it, and where on earth did you get a name like that, hey? My great great grandmother on the farm Tweetarentaleopslagdoodmeteenskootsbult in the Kranskop area, said Mfanwe. She was the love-child of a very handsome lieutenant in the Welsh 24th Regiment of Foot in the Zulu War, and his mother’s name was Mfanwe, see? and this memorial canvas which is before us for restoration is in celebration of a long line of Mfanwes. That beaded milk jug doyley top left is an original from the Kranskop farm.

But I must explain, dear reader, what this fine art work is, which I am required to restore. It is a 1,5-metre x 2-metre piece of stretched deck-chair canvas and on it are attached left to right and top to bottom assorted symbolic objets trouves, which is to say odds and ends representing events in the lives of more or less a dozen Mfanwes, mothers and daughters all, over 130 years or so. After the doyley comes a hoofprint on calico from a horse called Bles, then feathers from a budgie name of Squeeky, which species was just getting popular in 1890; a menu with the Eiffel Tower from a French restaurant in Babanango in 1913; then a sad last love letter from a German lad who said farewell. He was about to be blown up in WW1 but in fact fled to Woolloomooloo, Australia and hunt rabbits rather than face marriage into the v.d.Koens and Kranskop culture. That sort of thing, about six to a line and four down, the last being a two-dimensional run-over toad about the size of a matzoh cracker and of the same texture, well dried and sort of crisp. The present Mfanwe had found this luckless creature on the N3 where it appeared to have met its fate under the eighteen wheels of an army tank transporter, and represented to her the transience of life and indeed the evanescence of love, her current Italian inamorato having just fled to Brisbane Australia to grow grapes. What dismay, then when recently she noticed certain flies settling on this, her toad, and realise it was neither matzoh nor biltong and was, in fact, putrifying.

Well I knew the materials and techniques of art restoration all right, I never gave up on any job. And thus it came about as I stood in the till queue at Pick’nPay one day pondering the quandary of decay that I found myself in convesation with a thin genial man who declared as follows: My friend, you have met the right person, I am a PhD specialist in buffology, which is to say a frog expert, and I assure you your only way out is to find a new toad, which I shall be happy to provide from my garden. So we’re off to his garden where after a bit we find a nice one about the right size, and he folds it up in the Sunday Times, which is a good thick newspaper. He then puts it in front of a wheel on his 4x4 and runs over it a few times with more newspapers until it’s squashed about 1mm thick like a matzoh and there’s no juice whatever left in it. He turns the deep-freeze to minus sixty and sticks the toad in there for the afternoon then rubs all the frost off with a nail brush. He then sticks it ten seconds in the microwave to boil off any last molecule of water and puts on a face mask and sprays it with formaldehyde. Afterwards we drive about with the toad hanging in the slipstream to get rid of the pong and I take it home. On arrival, I don’t just paint it with varnish, I dip it in polyurethane — nice and thick so the formaldehyde stink can’t escape — and I stick it back on Mfanwe’s memory lane canvas with epoxy. I rub it with a bit of turps so it doesn’t look too fresh and dab on a bit of raw umber oil paint for antique effect. Mfanwe declares herself enchanted. A tear comes to her eye. It-it-it’s so beautiful, she whispers, and natural. It-it-it’s as if it died only yesterday.

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