The Situp Candle
Romance did not come naturally to Kim Phillips.
The ease of flattering words that trip off the lips
was always lost on this self-conscious, awkward young man. Poetic inspiration is a skill practiced only by those who exude self-confidence in every sphere of human conduct. The powerful drive to engage with the most beautiful and attractive of girls was omnipresent throughout my university years, but fear of rejection and all the other difficulties of adolescence combined to make the exercise far from pleasurable or easy.
Not that I am remotely looking for sympathy or concern. These are character forming experiences and we all sooner or later overcome them and move on. My African upbringing had something to do with it. For some reason many of my earliest encounters with the opposite sex revealed a tendency for South African girls to be named after car parts. Bonnet was the first one. She went with me to the St Stithians College Final Year Ball. She came with her mother, who sat in the foyer of the hall in Randburg. I never truly got to know Bonnet as the matriarch of the Van De Merwe family kept coming between us.
Then there was Stoffelina.
This is not a car part, but worth a mention. A young lady in Namibia with white blond hair and a glorious smile. In recognition of a difficult birth, this lady was naturally the apple of her parent’s eye. She was named after Dr Stoffel, the gynaecologist who brought her safely through prematurity and nurse Lina who worked tirelessly in the SCBU to monitor and support this young life. We were never sweet but had fun, hunting guinea fowl, on her parent’s farm.
Many years later my own daughter was born 11 weeks premature and we named her Caitlin. I was momentarily tempted to combine the name of the gynaecologist with that of the paediatrician but happily for Caitlin, we did not go there.
Celinda (pronounced Ce Linda )was a really interesting young lady. An Afrikaans girl at the University of Pretoria. To put this young lady in perspective I must introduce Ignatius. Ignatius lived at the bottom of my parent’s garden in Pretoria. To be clear, he lived in the flat attached to the garage at the bottom of the garden and as a student of music at the UNISA(another University), his flat was furnished with a drum kit, three types of saxophone and numerous guitars.
My German friend Jounnis, Ignatius and I would jam for hours in this tiny flat until either my parents or the neighbours could bare it no longer and brought our creativity to a ignominious end.
Ignatius had a feel for traditions and once he asked me if I knew what an “opsit kersie” was? I declined all knowledge, rightfully, and begged him to explain. In traditional Afrikaans circles an “opsit kersie” literally translates as a “situp candle”. A protective father would allow suitors to chat with his daughter on the veranda of the house only if the “opsit kersie” was duly positioned and lit.
Two chairs would be positioned on either side of a small table and the candle would be lit in between the young lady and the young man. No hanky panky here, then!
The flame of the candle would be sufficient to deter closeness and when the candle went out, so did the young man go out via the front door.
I plucked up sufficient courage to ask Celinda if I could take her out and she duly invited me to visit her at her house in Pretoria North. I thought I was onto a winner here and on the appointed night I took myself off ready with flowers and Beacon Sweets to strut my romantic stuff.
Little did I know that the invitation to visit her home was part of an elaborate paternal plan to ensure that the future of Afrikanerdom should remain untainted by the impurities of foreign influence especially from “rooinecks”.(The term for Englishmen who had a habit of getting sunburn around the collar from the midday sun.)
I don’t know if you have seen photographs of people from the turn of the 19th century? The fixed sepia gaze of the timed exposure look out over the decades. Particularly impressive are the photographs of men and women who
endured the two Boer Wars.
Boer commandoes with impressive beards looked both fierce and pious at the same time. For this is a God fearing community. While I am always happy to encounter these images in museums , exhibitions and in books, I do find meeting a living and breathing Doppelganger, very disconcerting.
I have this enduring image of President Kruger with his Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek Presidential Sash and top hat staring out through the sepia. His primary intention in sitting on the varanda looking out over the veld was described by him as "just sitting".
While the Western Media of the 1890's found this attitude to “just sitting” troubling, I can fully understand where he was coming from and attribute it in the style of a psychiatrist to the President’s youthful experience of the “opsit kersie”.
Celinda met me at the gate with a welcoming smile and a glint in her eye that on reflection indicated that she knew what was coming. After giving her a nervous peck on the cheek I was ushered into the sitting room to find three generations of family in attendance and I was introduced to each, rather like a visiting dignitary shakes hands with the entourage waiting at the bottom of the aircraft steps.
First came Ouma, a dignified lady in her 80's who welcomed me in Afrikaans and offered me a plate.
Then came Tant Rita who was very chatty in English and offered me a “koeksister” to go on the plate.
Oom Jaap was next with a handshake like a vice that brought tears to my eyes as the bones in my hand seemingly cracked.
“Biskuit?” asked Oom Jaap in a way that defied anyone to reject the offer as the koeksister was soon joined by an oat biscuit.
Mejevrou Katrina, Celinda’s sister, brought tears to my eyes as well but one look at papa indicated that he had only made provision for one “opsit kersie” and accordingly access was denied. Katrina however, was insistent that I try her “melk tert” slice.
Now there is something you should know about “melk tert”. This is a fine South African confection rather like an English custard slice but with a distinctive flavour and texture and an abundance of nutmeg. Melk Tert also has a contour forming pliability that makes it near on impossible to hold a slice in your hand without it slipping between your fingers no matter how tightly you keep them together.
Placed on top of a koeksister impregnated with sweet syrup and an oatmeal biscuit, the “melk tert” slice immediately begins to flow like lava over the undulations below in the direction of the edge of the burgeoning plate and towards inevitable disaster.
The rate of flow is best controlled by tilting the plate in the opposite direction to the direction of flow with the result that now the plate was being held at an angle in order to keep the “melk tert” stationary.
Such was the level of concentration required that each successive introduction became an act of mental exertion, so great, that beads of sweat were forming on the brow.
Eventually the final introduction to Mama and Papa sealed the state of physical apoplexy as the final handshake was replaced by a cup of coffee in the right hand which in turn was just beginning to sense the return of feeling as it recovered from the effects of Oom Jaap’s handshake.
Mercifully, at this point the members of Celinda’s family were gradually spirited away into the cool night air and Celinda and I were left on the porch with the candle burning brightly and a mound of confectionary between us.
It was only when I had become a responsible parent of a teenage daughter, that I came to realize the shear genius of the process I had endured so many years ago. Alas, the modern teenager would just not be up for this level of intrusion by his or her parents.
But was the opsit kersie a hindrance to two youngsters engaging in the task of getting to know each other? Surprisingly not. Apologies were exchanged about the parents and their old fashioned ways and that was the icebreaker. The candle lasted an hour which was long enough to hear Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band from beginning to end and as I recall- it was a fine night and I returned home to Ignatius' curious questions about how it went.
“It was cool!”, came my reply revealing nothing of the processes he knew would have befallen me!
Do you recall those days when in your youth you awoke in the morning and felt almost immortal? Your body feels in the peak of health, your vision of the world around gives 100% clarity? The air you breath is crisp and fresh and the spring in your step reveals an inner confidence and joie de vivre that portents that the day ahead will be perfect. In modern parlance, you are “hot” and there is no sense of foreboding that the day might not end as well as it has presently started!
The town of Springbok nestles in a hollow among the desolate hills of the Northern Cape on the national road from Cape Town to the border town of Upington situated on the Orange River. This in turn represents the border between South Africa and Namibia.
Desolate, is however, in the eye of the beholder for this is the region where despite extremes of temperature and seeming barrenness, infrequent rains lead to an explosion of life and colour on a scale that is difficult to take in. Seeds that have remained dormant for years spring to life and the countryside becomes carpeted by every flower and colour imaginable. A place of stunning contrasts and beauty.
On a September Sunday such as this, with life, health and vitality, the blood surges and one positively leaps out
of bed to the window to fling open the shutters to the fresh morning air and the vision of nature coming to life after the rains.
It is spring in the Southern Hemisphere and the sap is rising. Not surprising then that passersby, heading for Church in their Sunday best, are surprised to find themselves deflected from their focus on the forthcoming devotions by the sight of a half naked youth, standing at the window taking in the morning air.
Not that the young man would notice their embarrassment for he is in a state of self awareness on an awesome level and is on the cuff of announcing himself to the world in the full glory of his vitality and well being.
Yes well, we’ve all had those days, haven’t we? The best shirt is donned, the favourite tie, the “Paco Rabanne” aftershave mixed with the Gillette underarm spray. Whether or not a similarly inspired member of the opposite or even same sex, on this wonderful morning would be attracted to this bag of human “rubby dubby” is questionable, but the sudden appearance of varieties of flies, bees and the occasional passing wasp should warn him of pending disaster.
As he walks down the road towards the Kerk, a cheerful whistle is to be heard and he walks with a skip and a jaunty gate for today nothing can diminish his exuberance. On entry to the Kerk, he is confronted by the incredible colours of the new stained glass windows depicting the apostles and the Holy Land, not dissimilar to the hills that surround Springbok.
Rays of sunlight from the strengthening rising sun strike the coloured glass and turn the interior of the kerk into a kaleidoscope of vivid reds, blues and greens and our young man is further awestruck and entrenched in the view that today represents the zenith of his well being.
The Kerk is half empty and seeing a seat just off the central aisle he makes his way to this spot as without a doubt, from here he can see the splendor of the Church with its flower arrangements, the central position of the cross and table and the pulpit, from which the Dominie will give one of his inspiring sermons. All is set and his expectations of harmony continue to be heightened.
Tyra is a determined girl from excellent Cape family stock and with a flare for fashion, not common in an age where crimpline is the material of choice in this land of soaring temperatures and dry heat. For Tyra the key to being noticed is to surprise your audience and where better to find an audience than in the Kerk on a Sunday.
“God” she muses, “will not mind if I steel some of the limelight.”
Her confidence in avoiding the wrath of her maker comes not from the arrogance of one who spends her life trying out cosmetics, the latest fashions and altering her form through the artistic license of the cosmetic surgeon. Springbok, being miles from anywhere, is a town of invention, where women make their own clothes in preference to those sold in Woolworths and Edgars and their designs are there to be appreciated and/or criticized by the community at large wherever the opportunity arises.
For Tyra, aged 19, it has also afforded her the possibility of creating designs that would fit the fullness of her bust as she, like many, enjoys the delights of koeksisters, melktert and biscuit frequently seated on one side of the “opsit Kersie”.
On this bright and crisp September Sunday morning, not only has Tyra a creation of home made dress making to turn heads a plenty, but the “piece de resistance” is about to be rolled out to “cap” the entire creation in unforgettable splendour.
Today it is a hat to go with her beehive hairdo with all the fruits of the country, made of plastic and glued to a net, gracefully set on her beautifully coiffed auburn hair. Bananas, grapes, apples, peaches, pears, kumquats, figs and as a last addition, two oranges. The oranges were the most difficult to obtain. She has searched every toy shop from Springbok to Upington(two in all) and every green grocer in the vicinity and eventually it was Farnie’s Garage that ended her search.
For half a century, South Africans have sought to upgrade their motor cars in whatever fashion possible from go faster stripes to tailor made conversions to turn the Ford Anglia, Escort, Capri or Renault Cleo into an eye catching wagon of the road according to the money available to affect the transformation. For those of little financial means the prospect of bringing about an upgrade was still available in the form of the “ Citrus conversion” .
Plastic oranges, once the containers of an industrially produced juice that left teeth tinted with an orange glow after the beverage had been consumed, abounded as a source of litter, until some bright spark got the idea of sticking one on the top of his car aerial.
So was born a national tradition where cars would travel for their whole existence, from the show room to the scrap heap, adorned by one orange coloured plastic dimpled sphere on the top of the car aerial.
For Farnie, this was obviously a matter of pride, that every time he sent a car for scrapping, he would remove the plastic orange and add it to his growing collection in a cardboard box under the old tyres in the back storage room of his premises.
Quite how Tyra discovered this hoard is not exactly clear but it is known that Farnie’s son, JC , was keen on Tyra and it may be that the connection could be made there, with of course, the “opsit kersie” restricting any connection from being more than a platonic one.
At any rate, customers at Farnie’s garage were somewhat perplexed by the amount of swearing and cursing coming from the back of the garage with the accompanying sound of collapsing piles of tyres as someone searched for two choice specimens for Tyra’s creation.
Not that Tyra is concerned about the why’s and how’s of the affair. For her it is a matter of “no pain, no gain” and she proudly displays the oranges between the bananas and the figs. Add Tyra’s high heeled shoes, her 5 foot 6 height and the display of fruit on her head dress, and behold a sight that is bound to be noticed.
It was mentioned earlier, that when our young man entered the Kerk full of the joys of spring, the kerk was half empty. This is not strictly true, for by the time Dominee Van Zyl starts his sermon, the Kerk is never anything but full.
This also being the 1st Sunday of the month means that at the last moment the prisoners from the local goal will be led in to stand at the back so that the beneficial effects of the righteous and the word of God might waft over them and lead them to repentance. The Governor of the prison, Mr Gideon Ramapoza, is a good man who believes that even the most hardened criminal will melt in the sight of God!
It is therefore better to say that the kerk was in fact half full when this young man took up his seat on the isle in the centre of the kerk and we had left him in state of euphoria, contemplating the wonderful colours from the stained glass and the flower arrangements and now he is giving thanks to God for his well being.
How often in the Bible does the Good Lord contrive not to play ball? For it is not giving anything away if I am to say that from this point onwards, things go a bit downhill. A bit pear shaped or as the locals say!
In every event there are those things that happen haphazardly. They cannot be helped and there are those things that are planned and practiced and they are anticipated as being put into practice as they were intended.
For Dominee Van Zyl, the Sunday service is an event that is planned like a military operation and nothing, nothing ever goes wrong! At 6 o’clock in the morning, the Dominee climbs the steps to the pulpit and stands in front of a deserted church and delivers his sermon in full vigour with hand gestures, pauses for effect, amusement, amazement and wonder.
Only when his delivery is deemed “perfect”, will he step down and return to the vicarage for breakfast. Waiting in the isles at 7 am is the organist, Mrs Veronica Smuts, awaiting instruction as to what fanfare she should play to announce the sermon. This can only be decided when the atmosphere and tenure of the sermon are fully understood, an understanding that comes from God himself.
Now I can hear the groan from the readers of this missive that Dutch Reformed services are by their very nature puritan and fanfares are almost unknown. Almost, but not quite unknown since Dominee Van Zyl and his wife visited England and had the pleasure of attending a service in Chichester Cathedral and left with the conviction that the glory of God would be best served if the sermon was preceded by a fanfare.
Infact, it was the conviction of the Dominee that there should be a sermon sandwhich with two substantial slices of “fanfare” on either side of the sermon.
Majtjie, his wife put paid to that.
“One fanfare might be deemed to be to the glory of God” she scolded her hapless husband, “ but two fanfares is for self-aggrandizement, hey!”
Matjie was an avid reader of the Reader’s Digest and her choice of vocabulary was a thing to behold in the Springbok community even if they were never quite sure what she meant.
Nevertheless, there are definitely those in the congregation who frown on the whole idea of the “fanfare” and are convinced that this is the Devil’s work in one form or another.
The sermon today is about Moses and how he took God’s message about releasing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to the Pharaoh and how, if the Pharaoh did not listen, God would send a plague onto Egypt to show him he meant business. The reading from Exodus is in the Church pamphlet and our young man has taken to reading it in preparation for the service. Soon he is oblivious of the spectacular sights and sounds around him as the church begins to fill. The ladies in their home creations, the men clutching felt hats dutifully keeping a discreet distance behind their spouses in case “something” were to unravel or fall off.
In his mind’s eye he begins to see the effects of a plague of frogs and begins to reflect how such a plague would first be perceived.
Would it just be one frog, then a few?
A dozen followed by tsunami?
Maybe the Pharaoh would reject Moses simply to see what the next plague looked like. I mean things were pretty boring and seeing this many frogs must have been “awesome” Maybe this explains why the Pharaoh took so long to “get the message!”
Such was his absorption with the punishment of Goshen, that he only vaguely became aware of the deep shadow that fell across his vision, blocking out the bright colours of the sunrays that filtered through the stain glass windows.
So complete, however, was this encumbrance to light, that even the threat of another plague could not stop our young man from being brought back to reality with a jolt. As he raised his head from the “Kerk” pamphlet, he perceived the bright floral pattern of a crimpeline tent capped by what seemed to him, in his detached state, to be a platter of fruit.
This was the observation that brought him back to reality. The mental process of matching the factual information from the eye with the “reality box” in the lower cortex of the brain, setting off a sequence of warning signals to the primevil defence mechanism of the body to say in unequivocal terms…..
“This is a church, it is Sunday and I am looking at a bowl of fruit!”
Tyra took her seat. A carefully orchestrated glance to the right and then to the left confirmed to her that her attire was having the desired effect. All eyes were turned in her direction. Mrs Goosen, sitting five rows in front of Tyra was positioning the mirror of her powder case at an angle above her forehead so she could get a good view of the apparition installed further up the Church aisle. Others, especially the young boys and girls getting ready for Sunday school, were now balancing precariously on the backs of the pews in order to see above the heads of their parents the “cocktail” of delights that had just entered and had just sat down.
There was no time for him to reposition himself so as to regain a clear vision of the pulpit and the communion table. Veronica Smuts was already into the opening strains of Bach’s Prelude in C and the Church now was packed in every direction while the back of the Church was for standing room only, the prisoners having been marched in by the warden.
Our young man had to content himself with the view of Tyra’s back and the dominating chapeau of fruits that occupied its summit.
Faced with this new reality, it was either get up and leave or make the best of it. The Brain is a marvellous example of God’s creation. We know it works and all that and that it can be trained to increase its capacity. The side to the brain’s operation we are rarely aware of.... its coping mechanism. How would Duma’s “Man in the iron mask” have survived all those years in his island prison? How indeed did some of the prisoners in “Les Miserables” confront their isolation for a lifetime at the time of the French revolution?
To be sure, faced with any form of monotony, the brain will focus on something, no matter how mundane and banal. It will link that something to a passing rationale and then create an illusion of reality.
A bead of sweat formed on our young man’s brow. It was soon joined by similar exuded droplets from under the arms, around the neck and elsewhere.
This mixed with the excessive residue of Paco Rabanne and Gillette for Men began to produce the “rubby dubby” effect so well known among the fishermen from Paternoster Bay to the south. The pungent aroma in the sea that would attract sharks and barracuda from a kilometre away was now transformed into a airborne attractant beckoning to every passing horsefly, housefly, tsetse fly, wasp and fruit fly away from their abundant harvest of flowers in the post rain soaked surroundings of the town.
The eye of a fly is a thing to behold and to wonder at. It is made up of thousands of prisms and the fly is not given to crystal clear vision. Far from it. What the fly sees is a sort of infrared image rather like a badly tuned TV screen. This is exactly what it needs to seek out its food and together with its heightened sense of smell, it can single out its prey in an instant from a goodly distance.
While the infra-red vision of our young man would not be exactly what fly had expected in terms of prey, the contrasts of colours and shapes that were offered to it from an area just in front of the “rubby dubby” source was unmistakeably delectable. Little did it matter that they were made of plastic but of particular interest were the two plastic globes on the top of the image from whence came an odour of engine oil, aspartame, sugar and an industrial liquid of unknown molecular structure which reminded the horsefly of dead sheep.
To the receptacles of our young man’s brain came an impulse of understanding of divine dimension:
An answer to the dominant question of his earlier musings about how one might perceive the beginning of a plague? The answer was given added impetus by the immense sound of an organ fanfare which while it announced the arrival of Dominee Van Zyl’s triumphant climb into the pulpit in readiness for the sermon, so eagerly awaited by the congregation, this was lost on our young man whose consciousness was deceived into thinking that a divine answer was being given to him from on high together with a musical eulogy to the sheer genius of the occasion.
“One fly!”, came the utterance at that poignant moment where the Fanfare had terminated and Dominee Van Zyl was drawing breath to launch his sermon.
“That’s it,” came the reaffirmation.“One Fly!”
The congregation had no option but to shift attention from the pulpit on high to the aisle where Tyra sat oblivious of the storm brewing above her head. As it is undoubtedly the case that a plague of flies starts with one fly, it is also the case that it will soon be joined by a host of others. In fact, the outline of Tyra’s hat against the vivid colours of the stainglass windows of the Church was contrasted by the black cloud of insects circling like a whirlpool above her head.
Rather, I suspect, as the people of Egypt may have reacted to the sight of the approaching plague, those in the immediate vicinity of Tyra were taking precautions. The young man, now having been driven back to reality, began to fan the top of the fruit display with his hand in order to keep the swarm at bay.
All of a sudden the inevitable happened and his hand clipped a banana with the result that the hat exploded fruit in all directions and the now dense cloud targeted individual pieces as they landed in amongst the congregation who under normal circumstances would never flee the Dominee’s sermon, but in the face of an Old Testament plague were not keen to stick around.
Tyra, who was given to momentary expressions of rage, swung round to deal with the destroyer of her prized creation and hence the black eye which was to accompany the youth back to his lodgings.
As for Dominee Van Zyl, he had never seen his church empty out with such speed and this even before he had uttered a word.
He reflected later that there was probably divine purpose in all this but that he would patiently wait until God was ready to reveal its hidden meaning.
As for the town? The event was never forgotten and indeed around the tables of families sitting for the evening meal, it has been greatly embellished. Nothing has changed, however, in a land of traditions that are hard to break and life goes on.
Amongst the hardened criminals of the town there is a new respect for the Church for while hard labour and the monotony of prison walls is usually only broken by the showing of an occasional black and white movie, nothing beats the value of one of Dominee Van Zyl’s sermons, especially whenthe hand of God intervenes to liven things up!
As the Rabbi on the train said, we are all “the tools of God”.