Yesterday’s news

2012-11-15 00:00

I REMEMBER it like it was yesterday. He had a nose that glowed in the smoky light of the Ansonia pub and soft and feeble hands that gripped the frosted glass as he leant forward in the chair.

“Let me get it straight,” he slurred. “You look like a surfer from Durban washed up here by a tidal wave (tsunamis hadn’t been invented then), you live in your car, you work in an abattoir and you spend your time in this loser joint. Then you tell me that you are a vet. And you expect me to believe you?” He looked at me with sceptical eyes, trying desperately to focus.

I nodded, fidgeting with the rolled copper bangles on my wrist. Even to me it seemed implausible. When I left school, I had a vague idea that veterinary science was my ultimate objective, but did not really have the direction nor the vision on how to get there. Even my entry into university was circumstantial. I was in the army, drafted to barracks in Grahamstown at the time and my mates had applied to go to varsity, curtailing their military career by a year. This sounded like a good idea to me, so I did the same. Thus began my academic career that spanned eight years at Rhodes and then Pretoria universities, until eventually I was done. A professional! Except that I hardly felt like one. Maybe I just matured late, but my first reaction was to head off down to the beach to work on my tan and finish what was left of my student loan. This I did with indecent haste until the hunger pangs in my abdomen (I was now qualified — I couldn’t refer to it as my tummy) suggested that I needed to find a job. As I had received a government bursary, I was obliged to work for them. By this time, however, all the new graduates who were organised thinkers and those who had cottoned on to professionalism the fastest, had received the plum government jobs. Me, last-in-the-queue me, was offered all that the others had rejected. Kuruman, Upington, Kroonstad and Cato Ridge. Take your pick, doctor! Well, as far as I knew, there was no beach close to the former three, so Cato Ridge was the logical option. Even if my first job was in an abattoir and I had spent a third of my life learning to save animals’ lives, at least I could live in Durban, a city I had visited once in my life as a child. A place, as I recalled, with semi-decent waves and tanned girls. So I piled all my worldly goods into my travelling home, a second-hand VW Kombi panel van that my family had given me as a 21st/graduation present, the back of which I had converted into a very rustic bedroom with a semi fold-up bed and a cupboard, and dangled some beads and things from the rear-view mirror, and set sail for Cato Ridge.

Hello, they said, welcome, and by the way our head office is PMB, so that is where you will live. Sorry, there is no sea view and the only waves you will find is when the Duzi floods, maybe once a year or so. But I wouldn’t try to put your surfboard in there — people get the s...s just by watching the canoe races. Also, you will only get your first salary cheque in three months or so if you are lucky, the government being the government. Welcome to the real world, pal!

So I limped into PMB and found the local caravan park, near where Hayfields Pick n Pay now resides. Scraping together the remnants of my student loan, I hired a spot under a streetlight alongside a paperbark tree near an ablution block. At least I could read at night with the Kombi sliding door open. But I soon got tired of going to sleep at 8 pm, so I started looking for some company in town.

“What do you do?” I asked my new-found friend, trying to divert the attention from my past.

“I was a lawyer — once,” he replied after a brief pause and with a tone indicating that he considered the discussion on his background concluded.

“But let me give you some advice,” he continued.

“Find yourself some good mates, get some direction and leave out places like this,” he concluded, waving an unsteady arm around his kingdom.

The year was 1980.

The pub no longer exists. The Duzi no longer floods. The caravan park is no longer functional, an embodiment of the principle of Entropy which states, as I vaguely recall from some physics textbook, that everything in nature tends to a disorganised state. The light is gone and the ablution block looks like the buildings close to the Hiroshima epicentre many years ago. The paperbark remains, a product of nature’s resilience within the debris of municipal mismaintenance.

And my mate? I never saw him again.

I took his advice. I hope he listened to himself.


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

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