The Carpet King

The first we saw of the Carpet King was a cloud of dust coming along the road to the farm. My mother was sitting on the stoep, picking stones out of the dried beans in a big enamel bowl on her lap.

“That’s not the Extension Officer,” she said, screwing up her eyes at the shimmering heat haze. “Hansie’s not due until next month. I wonder if it’s the Tax.”

The Tax was a constant dread in our lives, arriving unannounced and demanding a head count of stock and a check on farm equipment. But we’d have known if he was on his way, because he had to pass through Kobus Potgieter’s farm to reach ours, and Mrs Potgieter would have rung my mother on the partyline and warned her.

We watched the cloud of dust stop five times, lurch forward, stop, then carry on as the driver opened and closed the camp gates. My dad sometimes talked of getting stock grids but had never bothered with the expense, as he always had Lang Jan on the back of his truck to jump down and deal with the gates.

Finally a small red pick-up emerged from the swirl of white dust and jerked to a stop in front of us. A dapper, neat little man emerged, smiling with his back teeth showing. Like a jackal, I thought.

“A very good afternoon to you, ladies.”

He bounded uninvited up the steps and took my mother’s hand in his.

‘Charles Andrews, the Carpet King, at your service, ma’am.”

“Margriet le Roux.”

“Mrs le Roux. I’m privileged to meet you. And your delightful little- er- daughter.”

I was already self-conscious about the haircut Ma had given me and that fatal hesitation slammed the door on any future relationship between me and Charles Andrews. Even if he hadn’t been English.

But in the face of his charm, my mother stood up clumsily, handing me the bowl of dried beans.

“Mr le Roux is out in the camps with the fencing. Would Meneer like some coffee while he waits?”

“Ah, Mrs le Roux, that would be too kind, too kind. I thank you. But in truth, it is your good self I have come to visit.”

“Me?” My mother wiped her hands on her apron uncertainly.

I’d never heard anyone speak like he did, using so many words to say so little.

“Indeed yes. It is always the lady of the house who decides on the beautiful things with which to adorn her domain, is that not so? I have come to show you the most wonderful, but also the most practical floor coverings you will see in the whole of Africa. I doubt that when you travel to Europe or the Americas, you will ever lay eyes upon carpets as magnificent as these I have brought here for you.”

I knew for a fact that my mother had no plans to travel further than Cape Town. When my parents had married in Brandvlei they had set off towards the Cape on honeymoon, but my dad’s truck had blown a tyre outside Tontelbos and they never got further than the Commercial Hotel there. She often talked wistfully of a holiday in the Cape one day. When things improved.

“I don’t think we want any carpets just now,” she said.

But the ‘I think’ gave him encouragement.

“If you’ll only allow me five minutes of your precious time, Mrs le Roux, it would be my pleasure to show you a few samples of these magnificent carpets. Each one a hand- knotted masterpiece. I would be happy for you just to feast your eyes. With no obligation on your part of course. Looking will cost you nothing. Not a penny.”

He hurried back to his pick-up and started to lift off the carpets, wrapped in plastic against the dust.

“Get the coffee, Grietjie,” said my mother. “And bring the rusks also. On the blue plate.”

I could see she was impressed by this rooinek from the city, with his three- piece suit and his black shoes so shiny they looked like wet plastic. When I came back through the screen door carrying coffee, two of the carpets were already spread out on the stoep.

I nearly dropped the tray, they were so beautiful.

Brilliant reds, blues, purples, greens and gold woven together in a complicated pattern of birds and flowers and mysterious shapes. They had an exotic smell of spices and far away places.

“These are Persian carpets, Grietjie,” murmured my mother, “They make them in the desert. Up there where the Bible comes from.”

Charles Andrews said nothing. He stood to one side, smiling slightly and allowed his carpets to speak to my mother in their foreign accents, to woo her with their fantastic patterns and tempt her with their shameless, vivid colours.

She was entranced. She walked slowly around them, her eyes never leaving the gorgeous designs.

Then she bit her lip and said quietly, “I will have to ask Mr le Roux.”

I knew what my dad would say. He was the biggest farmer in the district, running 8000 angora goats on the 70,000 morgen of dry, unforgiving land in the Kamiesberg but it had been three years since we’d seen any rain. The last wool cheque had been so small that he’d twice had to go to ask Mr Venter at the bank for a loan.

My dad would say no thank you, we’ve got a carpet already.

And he would watch Charles Andrews roll up his carpets and load them back onto his pick- up and he’d wait until he had opened the fifth and furthest gate, then he’d turn around to us and laugh and say,

“These blerrie rooineks! Think they can sell us all their rubbish!”

And that would be the end of it.

But to my surprise, when my dad came back to the house, he introduced himself and shook hands with the Carpet King, and listened without any expression while the salesman went through his speech once again. I could see my mother looking at him tensely, willing him to fall in love with the carpets as she had. Not both of course, but maybe one.

Charles Andrews started telling him what a good investment they were, how intricately they were knotted by expert fingers in far-off lands and how they would turn our house into a palace, but my dad interrupted him.

“Very pretty. Now I’ve got to check some stock in the bottom camp. So I’ll say goodbye.”

“Oh.. perhaps I could accompany you on your inspection? You have such a magnificent homestead here, such an enormous property. I would deem it a privilege to see something of it.”

“You want to see the goats? Come along then. You come too, Grietjie,” he grunted, and I caught a gleam of some devilment in his eye.

Charles Andrews hurried along trying to keep up with my dad, his shiny shoes getting smeared with dust, I was happy to see. He never stopped talking in that high, excited English voice of his, on an on, about how wonderful the farm was, what a sense of space he had just looking towards the horizon, how lovely the silence was, how picturesque the white goats were.

What excited him most was the fact that my great- grandfather Adriaan le Roux had trekked to this part of the Kamiesberg in 1863 and started farming with his wife and five sons. Our family had been living on Kareebosvlei for three generations- four, if you counted me.

“Ah, what a sense of history. What deep and solid family roots you have struck, a fortunate man indeed. To know ourselves we must know our history, isn’t that so?”

I thought, if he had to live here he’d soon get tired of all this space with nothing on it except goats and stones and he’d certainly hate the silence because it meant there was no one else to talk to for fifty miles in any direction.

My dad just grunted. I could tell he thought this rooinek was a simpleton who’d probably never done a real day’s work in his life..

On the way back to the house, my dad took him into the barn to show him the tractor, its metal seat worn shiny with the backsides of le Rouxs who had planted hopefully every year and waited for the rains to come.

“This was my father’s and it’s still going strong,” he said, smacking its green mudguard affectionately. “You can’t beat those old Massey-Fergusons”

He gave a nostalgic sigh and looked around the dim interior of the barn. I knew he was up to something.

The Carpet King didn’t take much notice of the tractor, but his busy little eyes lit upon an old wooden box in the corner. Lang Jan had used it for storing his family’s clothes until my dad gave him an old cupboard from the house.

“That looks like a good strong box,” he said, a bit too casually. “I could find a use for a box like that. Do you keep it for any special purpose?”

The cheek of the man! I expected my dad to tell him off, but he said mildly, “Not really.”

“If you’re not using it, perhaps you’d like to sell it to me?”

“That box? No man, I couldn’t sell that,” said my dad, shaking his head. “That box trekked on the ox wagons with my great- grandfather over the Hantam Mountains in 1860. That wa-kis has got a lot of history. No, I couldn’t ever part with that box.”

“Really?”

He tried hard to sound unimpressed but I could see crazy Charles Andrews was dying to possess that wooden box. I had to hide my mouth with my hand so he couldn’t see me laughing at him. That dirty old thing had been in Lang Jan’s smoky hut for years and before that, lying behind the feed shed.

“That’s a pity. It would just fit nicely onto my pick-up and be very handy. What would you say to fifty rand?”

I nearly choked. Fifty rand for that piece of junk!

“No, I couldn’t,” said my dad, shaking his head emphatically. “It wouldn’t be right. I have to honour my great- grandfather and keep it in the family. Look, he carved his name on the front. A. le Roux 1860”

“A hundred rand?”

“That’s a very well made box, you know. You won’t find a single nail in the making of it.”

Charles Andrews finally got it for two hundred rands, cash, which he pulled from his pocket and handed over with a pleased little smile.

My dad managed to keep a straight face the whole time but when the carpet salesman walked briskly back to the house to fetch his pick-up, he broke out into a triumphant grin.

“ I got him there,” he said smugly. “More money than sense, these people from Johannesburg.”

“Why do you think he likes it so much?”

“Who knows with these English. They’re all mad. Perhaps he thinks it’s full of treasure.” We sniggered together, happy at my dad’s cleverness.

“So now are you going to buy one of his carpets, Pa?”

“What for? We’ve got a carpet. What would we do with another one?”

The Carpet King loaded the old wa-kis on his pick- up and we drove back together to the house, packed tightly in the front cab. I sat between them, my dad with his familiar smell of goat and tobacco and the Englishman smelling of some sort of perfume. I’d never met a man who used aftershave, and I sat very still, savouring the spicy smell. It didn’t make me like him any better though.

Strangely, he didn’t mention selling his carpets again. My mother was busy inside the house and he simply rolled them up and slipped them into their plastic covers. Then he turned to my dad.

“I wonder if I might prevail upon you for a small favour?”

That was how he talked. He couldn’t just ask us, he had to prevail upon us.

“Now that I’ve put that box on board, there really isn’t room for these two carpets. I wonder if I could ask you good people to store them for me for a week or two until such time as I return to collect them?”

“ Yes, we can do that. LANG JAN!”

Charles Andrews looked startled at this sudden roar but Lang Jan came scuttling from behind the house and waited for instructions.

“Put them up in the roof with the coffins, quick- quick,” ordered my dad.

“Ja my baas.”

Charles Andrews was about to get into his pick-up when he thought of something else.

“I say – I wonder if you could do one more little thing for me?”

“Yes?” The two hundred rand had bought a certain amount of goodwill from my dad, but not too much.

“It’s just that my – er – principals in Johannesburg will want to know what I have done with the carpets. I wonder if you could kindly sign a paper saying you are storing them for me? This would account for their temporary absence and the fact that I haven’t- er-exchanged them for coin of the realm, as it were.”

My father was baffled. “He means money, Pa,” I whispered.

“It’s just paperwork to keep the office fellows happy.”

As he was speaking, he had pulled out a little book and was hastily writing something.

“Here, if you could just sign this. I’ve said here ‘This is to confirm that I am storing carpets for Charles Andrews until the end of the month of January.’ See?”

My dad shrugged and signed his name.

“They’re a careful lot in Johannesburg, eh?”

“Oh yes, well these are extremely valuable Persian carpets, works of art, absolutely irreplaceable.” He handed my dad the carbon copy and he stuffed it in his pocket.

“You’ll be back to fetch them at the end of the month?”

“Yes, the first week in February at the latest.”

He didn’t come back.

February came and went. March came and went.

We forgot about the Carpet King and life on the farm went on.

The cattle came down with miltsiek. The borehole nearest the house dried up for the first time and my dad had to haul water in ninety gallon drums from the windmill dam five miles down the road. Lang Jan chopped off the top of his finger while cutting a swaarthaak for firewood and my mother dipped it in pakbos juice and wrapped it up in an old kitchen cloth. Doctors were only for the emergencies my mother couldn’t deal with.

In April, we went into town. It was a three hour drive to Kamieskroon and my mother took her knitting and I sat in the back of the truck with Lang Jan and listened to his stories. He was a Baster from Namaqualand and had an inexhaustible supply of old folk tales, which he delighted in telling me. This one involved wily Jackal and poor stupid Baboon in a long complicated adventure stealing honey from a beehive, and of course cunning old Jackal outwitted his old enemy once again. Lang Jan cackled with laughter as he acted out the plot, his hooded eyes disappearing into his wrinkled yellow face.

“Why does Jackal always win?” I complained. “Sometimes poor old Baboon should get the better of him.”

I thought of Charles Andrews and his shiny jackal teeth, and remembered with satisfaction how my dad had had got him with that dirty old box.

“Jackal too clever. Jackal sharper than any other animal, he always be the winner.”

Not always, I thought smugly.

I loved going to town. It was always the same: first to the bank to talk to Mr Venter. Then the co-op for bags of feed and my mother’s kitchen list: fifty pound sacks of sugar and flour, packets of coffee and tea, cans of paraffin for the lamps. Then tractor spares from the service station and finally, to the café for an ice cream. On the way home out of Town we collected the mail from our post box.

For the return journey I squashed into the front cab and we shared a ritual packet of chocolate peanuts, my mother’s favourites. She opened the post as dad drove, commenting on each one.

“A letter from Auntie Dolly. She says Hannah’s having another baby, that will be her fourth. Mm, that’s a bit quick. A circular from Mostert Brothers, I see there’s a sale in execution at old Brand’s place next week.”

“Nothing we need from him,” grunted my dad. But he’d been looking black ever since his visit to the bank and I knew there wouldn’t be any money for going to a farm auction, one of the social highlights for the local farming families who brought their lunch and made a day of it. She tore open the next envelope.

“That’s funny, here’s an account. For nine thousand rands!” My mothers voice rose to a squeak of amazement.

“Oh well, it’s been put into the wrong box. This must be for the le Rouxs over at Stilfontein. I’ll phone Gerrie and tell him.”

She put it to one side and I leaned over and picked it up.

It was clearly addressed to Fanie le Roux, Kareebosvlei, PO Kamieskroon and it was from the Majestic Carpet Company in Johannesburg.

All the way home my father railed against this account. How silly the office people in Johannesburg must be to make such a mistake. How careless of Charles Andrews not to return for these valuable carpets. He had half a mind to charge him for storage when he finally came. Man! nine thousand rands. Who would ever pay that for a couple of carpets?

“But they were very beautiful,” said my mother softly.

The following month when we went to Town my dad went armed with a letter my mother had written to the Majestic Carpet Company, explaining their mistake. He dropped it angrily through the letter box and then went to collect our mail. On top of the pile there was an envelope addressed in red ink with DEBTOR: FINAL REMINDER!! printed across the top. He handed it grimly to my mother. My dad never had his reading glasses on him.

It was one thing being in debt to the Bank, that was normal, but he’d never owed anyone else a cent. Cash or nothing was the way we lived and there’d been mostly nothing for a long time.

The letter accompanying the account was printed in the same vicious, bright red with exclamation marks at the end of every sentence. My mother’s voice quavered as she read it aloud.

“I should have known that blerrie rooinek was a fool,” exploded my father. “We must phone these people and tell them to come and collect his carpets. This is too much.”

“Dad, what about that bit of paper he gave you? Have you still got it?”

He rummaged in the depths of his jacket pocket and handed it to my mother, water stained and flecked with shredded tobacco.

“What’s this?”

“He asked me to sign this to say we’d look after his carpets for a few weeks.”

“You mean we’ve had them all this time?”

“Ja, well, I put them up with the coffins in the shed. They’re safe enough.”

My mother read the scrawled words and sat very still.

“Fanie, it says here, ‘I promise to pay nine thousand rand for two Mehrabi carpets 3 metre by 4 metre and agree to make three monthly payments of three thousand rand over the period February- April.’ And you’ve signed it, Fanie.”

She ended in a whisper of disbelieve. “You signed it.”

The trip back to the farm was three hours of total silence. The folly of my dad putting his hand to something without reading it, and the enormity of this debt, seemed to crush all conversation and I knew better than to ask what we’d do.

After supper I went miserably to bed and heard a low angry murmur from their room which lasted until I drifted off uneasily. A nightmare about a shiny coated jackal tearing the angora kids with his teeth woke me and I went through to my parents bedroom, sobbing.

“Don’t worry, skattie, everything’s alright.” My dad snuggled me in between them and I fell asleep again. Of course he would make everything alright.

It took him four years. Half the wool cheque for the next three years, and then a sale of some heifers finally put a stop to those red letters arriving every month. I’ll never know what we went without to make those payments but I had turned fourteen before my mother was able to buy me a dress from the co-op, new, just for myself. When you’re young, you don’t miss what you’ve never had, really, and of course there wasn’t a TV to tell me what I should want. I suppose I thought every mother re-cut her own clothes to fit her daughter.

Whenever I remembered the carpets, I raged silently for the sake of my dad, so soundly tricked by that smooth- talking rooinek with his shiny shoes and gleaming teeth. .

Getting the best of a deal made fair and square was one thing, but cheating my father so shamelessly was unforgivable. It only confirmed what we le Rouxs had known all our lives. You couldn’t trust anyone from Johannesburg and especially not if they spoke English

But the fact remained, those carpets were beautiful and they were up there in our roof. When I asked my mother why we didn’t use them, seeing as how they were ours, or nearly, she snorted and said, “Throw nine thousand rands down on the floor to walk over? I’ve got more brains than that, my girl.”

She spoke as if she hated those carpets and we never mentioned them again.

Years later, I was sitting in the hairdresser in Vredenburg, looking through one of those glossy designer magazines they give you while they bake your head, when I saw my great- grandfather’s old box. It was in some smart sitting room in the Cape, cleaned up, with the mellow wood polished to a gleaming gold. The owner was touching it with her fingertips, smiling down at it.

“Mrs Thornton’s favourite piece is this antique yellowwood wa-kis, which belonged to her great-grandfather, one of the original trekkers. Today this lovely heirloom is valued at R5000”

I could clearly see A. le Roux carved into the front of it. How on earth had this Mrs Thornton got hold of it? And how dare this Englishwoman claim my great- grandfather as her own! My mouth went dry and my hands shook with fury, not wanting to believe the value of the box.

Charles Andrews. He must have sold it to her.

My dad had been so pleased with himself, outwitting the Englishman, but in the end, that smiling jackal had won.

My mother died, and my dad tried to carry on by himself. I visited him as often as I could but he was lonely, and tired of the struggle to keep the farm going.

The endless droughts and goat diseases had brought Kareebosvlei to the end of the road. The bank held the papers on the farm and had long ago refused to advance him any more money. The generator which gave the house sporadic electricity had been broken for over a year so he was back to using candle light and could no longer listen to the farmer’s news at five in the morning.

When Lang Jan died as a result of a scorpion bite that was the final blow. One of the pine coffins which, as a young farm hand, he had helped to make, was brought down from the store room roof and Kobus Potgieter and my dad buried him in the stony ground behind his hut.

My husband and I persuaded the old man to sell up the farm and move to a retirement home in Upington to be near us. I think if I’d had any sons he might have hung on, waiting for one of them to take over and try his luck on the land, even if his name wasn’t le Roux. But I had three girls, and he was slowly going blind.

On the day of the sale, I went back to the farm for the last time. My dad sat on the stoep, drinking coffee, his milky grey eyes looking towards the Hantam Mountains. He was going to find retirement in Upington very hard.

As keepsakes for my own daughters, I put aside my mother’s embroidered pictures, her candlewicked cushion covers and the patchwork bedspread I’d had on my bed twenty years before. Then I organised Lang Jan’s widow and daughter to make tea for the two hundred or so neighbours who would be at the sale, and wandered outside to have a look at the angora kids. The farm implements stood ready outside the barn and the stock had been brought up to pens behind the house.

Liempie Mostert, old Mostert’s son, came running up, red with excitement.

“Grietjie, we have found the most magnificent carpets up in the roof!”

“Oh, those,” I said, “Yes, I remember them.”

“Listen girlie, those carpets are worth a lot. More than all this stuff put together, I wouldn’t wonder. They’re Persian, you know. The real thing, not from Pakistan.”

I thought of the riot of colours and the foreign smell of them. I remembered how much my mother had wanted them, and all the misery they had cost us.

“So, sell them.” I said indifferently.

“They won’t fetch what they should, you know. These weren’t advertised. I didn’t even know they were up there until just now.”

“Sell them anyway.”

Liempie needn’t have worried. Farmers had come up from as far as Citrusdal for the sale, wealthy wine farmers and citrus growers who wanted to cash in on the new fashion for mohair goat wool. Some of them recognized what they were looking at, and the bidding closed at a two hundred and forty thousand rands. For each carpet.

When Liempie told him, my dad smiled broadly and took my hand.

“That’s shown that rooinek, eh, skattie? Thought he was dealing with a pack of baboons, didn’t he?”

“You got the better of him in the end, dad.”

“And that old box of your grandfather’s, got him there too, didn’t I?”

I went inside to make the tea.

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