Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

In the Post Office

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, July 19, 2006 | Category: |

The following is a story I wrote, although it's not really a story, but more like the prose-equivalent of a ditty. Please don't take it seriously. If I had a wider readership I would worry about Thom Eaton-equivalent threats of lynching, but I think that my friends have some idea of my sense of humour.

There is a way certain fat men stand, the thumbs of their ample hands planted in their pockets, as if they are unable to cross them over their midriff. Their feet root to their ground, slightly splayed in a way that would provide support for a solid weight – the way that wooden houses in bayous are held up by thin stilts – these men's legs look smaller than they should do for the comparable weight that they hold up. From the back their shorts (and they are always shorts in South Africa) kruip up into the small space between their legs as if to evade the world beyond the mass of fat with which their fabric is familiar. Tomas was such a man. Had you looked at his legs, his abdomen or torso then you would have gotten a certain indication as to his character, feet covered by strops indicating something as pertinent as we could imagine. But all of this seemed out of place when looking at Tomas's face. His face lit up in a friendly manner on almost all occasions. Again, I say almost all because today Tomas was in the Post Office of Plettenbergbaai and he did not smile as much when he was, of necessity, in the post office. At this juncture it is pertinent to note that Tomas's name should be pronounced as an Englishman would pronounce Tour-mus, although the r would not be strongly annunciated. Yes, he was an Afrikaner. He was also a boer, in the readily available translation of the word – a farmer. Agriculture, or landbou (literally building the land), was, and quite happily is, his calling.

Anyway, I get beyond myself in these arbitrary anthropological recollections. Tomas was in the Plettenbergbaai Post Office. He was here because he had received a notice telling him to pick up a long-awaited parcel from a relative in the Orange Free State (he still applied the prefix 'Orange', rather like Zimbabweans who call the country Rhodesia and their hometown Salisbury). His prodigious family had had a diaspora at the beginning of the previous century and their were tannies and ooms spread all over the country, with a large concentration of them around Bloemfontein. In fact it was Oom Petrus and Tannie Petronella (don't ask how that happened) who were sending him this very package. Yes, his was also the kind of Afrikaans family who would always prefix (again that word) family and friends with the title 'Oom' or 'Tannie', this is a strange custom not only amongst Afrikaners in South Africa. In fact many of them, subsequent to the democratisation of South Africa (ongelooflik, ek weet), were disturbed to find out that Black Africans had a similar tradition, but again I move away from the core of my tale. The package. Yes, the package.

Tomas had been waiting for some while for this package. He was certain in fact that it would have taken longer, but was quite surprised to find that the post office did not live up to his expectations and he had received the notice of the package's arrival far earlier than anticipated. (Oom Petrus had said something along the lines of 'Die nuwe kaffirpos gaan glad nie werk nie, maar ek gaan dit gewoontlik vir jou stuur.' Tomas had remained optimistic nevertheless). Seemingly, his optimism had paid off. Having queued for some time in the madness of the Wednesday morning 10am rush at the post office (for the sceptics among you this seems a prevalent phenomenon in the town of Plettenbergbaai), he was finally at the front of the queue where I could observe his behaviour with some intrigue.

Apart from the pose which he struck, as described above, he seemed to have another in which he rested his documents and his hands on the upper lip of his protruding belly while leaning back slightly to maintain his balance. I think that balance must be a very carefully learned skill once one reaches a specific threshold of weight. For example, if one suddenly gave a man who weighed in at sixty kilograms an additional eighty kilograms of mass then that man would struggle to keep himself upright, he would not have learned the apposite skills to hold himself proud, or slightly skew as Tomas was doing. Do not begrudge the proudly stout their abilities.

So he had been waiting in the queue, mostly in stance two, then having reached the front and now, standing in front of a cashier he observed stance number one. He held out his notice and his Identity Document, the picture of which held a likeness that was significantly more hirsute than the person with whom we were confronted this fine morning. Nonetheless, the assistant, a bored-looking Xhosa lady, gave it a few glances, gave him a few interrogative looks, then decided that the picture was simply of the same man at a much younger age and possibly in a better disposition (one's photos for one's ID document are often taken before one has stood in the mind-numbing and time-altering queues of the Home Affairs office, Kafkaesque one could call them, hence a dramatically different disposition – a happy Tomas – relative to the disgruntled one with which she was now presented).

Tomas's father was also one of those Afrikaners who insisted on speaking to public officials in Afrikaans and he had instilled this in Tomas. However, Tomas had realised, quite fortuitously, that doing so with this lady was probably not the method to adopt. So they both spoke in their second language, English, to try to convey information to one another. Luckily, not much was lost in their in their translations, despite the prevalence of of strange verb alterations, misplaced plurals and the like.

“Yous are wanting to be finding for me this parcel that my Oom Petrus had for wanted to be sending for me.” Tomas stated with applomb.

“Yes, seh, thet is theh case. She is in theh beck room.” She responded in kind.

(An aside: This reminds me of how I have never understood why many Nguni language speakers always seem to make all pronouns of the 'He/She/It' class into 'She'. It confounds.)

The lady took his slip, and moved towards the back room. While moving she started a loud conversation with a Xhosa man halfway across the room, I was unsure whether they were picking up from where they may have started off a moment before, or whether this was a new conversation, truth be told I had not been paying much attention to the lady or any of my surroundings other than Tomas, but it was quite characteristic. So this did not strike me as odd behaviour. The German man in the queue behind me was quite taken aback by this behaviour and asked me,

“Iz zere somesing wrong here?” His face was scrunched up in Nordic worry. (The kind of worry where it may seem as though others may be be inferior to you and you may feel dutibound, but exceedingly worried about having to correct their inefficiency – this is a fairly typical German response when spending time in Africa).

I assured him that there were no problems and that he needn't worry himself. All of this was quite customary.

Anyway, the lady spent some time in the back room then came out speaking loudly in Xhosa with her head tilted in a different direction than that which it had held for the first conversation, noting which I assumed she was talking to someone else. This was made evident by the appearance of very short, verging on dwarf-like coloured man. (Another note: I don't particularly encourage the appellations white, coloured, black, etc, but they are expedient and thus serve a purpose). He was rattling off at her in Xhosa, then switched to Afrikaans for the Tomas at the desk, over which the man was struggling to look over, which made the scene all the more comical. One often has the idea that bureacracy is a slow-moving lumbering machine and that the representatives should be equally large and slow moving, this was definitely not the case with this little man. He moved quickly, spoke quickly and much of this speedy movement seemed to be in compensation for his diminutive size. This was possibly the reason why he also spoke Afrikaans, Xhosa and then English with such force and efficacy.

“Jammer meneer, maar dit lyk asof jou package nie hier is nie.” (His wasn't suiwer Afrikaans, but rather the more efficient form of the language that seems to have sprung up subsequent to 1994 in which it is fashionable to throw in the occasional English word – to prove that you aren't too old school).

“Dus, moet ek noua bietjie rond soek en dan kan ek iets vir jou sê oor die location daarvan. Awright?”

Ja, dis ok. Maar, ek wil mos hier sit en wag. Dis a lang distance te travel om hier to kom en net weg te jaag.” (Tomas was trying his best to be equally fashionable in the face of this adversity).

Ok meneer, sit bietjie ek gaan soek...”

Tomas stood to the side of the opening, preferring to remain standing than to sit down. I imagine that for large men this may be preferable. Once they are standing it is easier for them to remain so because of the possible expenditure of energy and effort to roust themselves from their seats.

Suddenly from the back I heard something that was almost like a repeated gunshot. Kehkehkehkehkeh... it reported. It turned out to be the Xhosa lady laughing.

Sorry seh.” (loudly)

Sorry seh!” (even louder).

Maneeyah!” (actually 'Meneer')

Tomas turned around looking chastened.

We hev found yo peckege. She was in theh beck of theh beck, she is so beeg.”

Ja, goed. Dankie Juffrou. I mean, thank you Merrem.”

Again a comical scene took place. The miniature man, who turned out to be the post master, was carrying a very large box. It was so large that he could barely get his head around the side to look where he was going. In fact he bumped into the stalls a number of times and, when it was necessary for him to get the package up onto the top of the desk, it sounded as though he was engaging in a weight lifting competition. We in the queue were quite at a loss. It was one of those awkward situations where you want to help, but are entirely unsure whether you will cause more embarrassment by offering your aid or by doing nothing. Saving us all, Tomas, took a couple of seconds to register this general opinion and leaned over the desk to take the package from the little man. A strange struggle ensued where the man, unable to see Tomas trying to take the package, assumed that something was going wrong with the weight of the package and thus he spent even more effort trying to control it. Tomas then leaned even further over the desk trying to keep the package balanced and to take control of it. Once Tomas's feet left the ground we knew calamity was approaching. Luckily, the Xhosa lady noted what was happening and took control of the situation with loud.

Hayi, Boss, sjoe let go of theh peckege.”

Predictably, both men thought that they were the 'Boss' to whom she was referring. Tomas for reasons historical. The small man for those hierarchical. Thus it was that the hierarchy of the box swiftly began to squash the little man. Tomas noticed this and picked the box up with ease, now that it was no longer being held by the postmaster.

Somehow, we queue-members had been able to restrain ourselves to internal vibrations rather than outright laughter. Tomas was now happily moving away from the desk having signed the mandatory forms in triplicate.

The box, its packaging a bit torn on one side after its travails, looked as though it contained something quite exciting.

Sadly, that is where my story ends. I was lucky enough to be the next in line and I hastily procured my stamps, and sent my envoy of a postcard on its way, chuckling as I did so. I know furthermore that this recollection does not have much point, but then again, many don't. It is simply the observation of the actors that made it pleasant for me, rather than the knowledge of what was in the box. Moreover, I don't really know if the man's name was Tomas, but I thought it apt and constructed it as such. He was a charming fellow in my minimal interactions with him. As were the lady and the postmaster. Charming. For sure.

Currently have 1 comments:

  1. Si,

    This had me sitting in hysterics at my desk yet unable to explain my tears of mirth to the people around me. I'm going off to find other South Africans in the office to get them to read it.....