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Memoirs of an Old Timer - Oct/Nov 2023

The serpent

The serpent

Mr Jones had to inspect the office and naturally I had to accompany him on that first and fateful Friday evening. Between us we had only one torch for our return journey to the hostel. Obviously, there was no light and our path was a potential minefield of unknown dangers.

We had just finished, and I was leaving the office with some files under my arm. As I stepped onto the wire mesh doormat just outside, I heard an ominous hissing sound. Looking down I was just in time to see a night adder in the beam of light falling diagonally across the stoep. I leapt out of the way, letting out a bloodcurdling “snake, snake!”

“Where, where?”, was the response from a wide-eyed Mr Jones, cautiously peering round the doorframe. He was certainly no lover of the serpentine family either.

That night I slept fitfully. I dreamt of spiders with gleamy eyes and saw-tooth mandibles, and dragons with forked tongues, stinking breaths and smothering smoke twirling from their cavernous nostrils.

The hot days dragged drearily by amidst lesson preparations, room inspections, teaching, study sessions, etc.

One afternoon one of the senior girls came running to my flat, beckoning me to go to Martie’s room (by then we were on first-name terms) where there was something that scared the living daylight out of her. I immediately conjured up images of a puff adder under her bed, and momentarily thought of telling the girl to call the bloody fire brigade or police, just cut me out. I had no intention of becoming a dead hero of any kind whatsoever.

On arrival I found her standing on the other side of the room between the bed and the wall – clutching a towel, but at least fully dressed. She attempted to tell me what was wrong but instead let out a frightened whoop and ducked down as far as the small space would allow to get out of the way of a weaving bat that was just as panicky as she was.

I got rid of the bat and did indeed become the local hero as far as the female contingent of the hostel was concerned.

It was close to the end of the first term when the dreaded letter arrived from Upington from my teacher girlfriend. She had met another guy and I was shown the door. I couldn’t believe it but was somehow relieved.

At a teachers’ conference in Keetmanshoop early in the second term, I found Martie in tears during a tea break. For reasons of her own she had broken off her engagement. I felt very sorry for her, but simultaneously experienced an inexplicable joy.

A few months later, on my birthday, there was a soft hesitant knock on my door. There she was with a small present for me. At that moment I knew that I had fallen in love with this girl who would become my wife 18 months later, and the mother of my children. My assignment to this (in my mind) godforsaken place at the fringe of the Kalahari Desert, all my frustrations, sweat and toil had one singularly important meaning – I had found my soulmate who would be by my side for forty-five years.

Nick van Zyl

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