‘Ah, this is nice,’ Val sank into the veranda chair and sipped the sundowner Ian had poured her. ‘Thanks for helping me out today, love – everything ok?’
Ian thought about his day in Val’s village store. Born and raised in rural Kwa Zulu Natal, she had run it most of her life. He occasionally lent a hand if she needed a break.
‘All good … takings a bit on the low side. Oh, there was a hobo looking for you – said his name’s Hopalong?’
Val remembered the man well. Always dressed in the same unravelling pullover and threadbare denims, he would limp into the shop, his walking stick fashioned from a branch, its raw end splaying onto the floor.
Then would follow the familiar begging story. ‘Missus give Hopalong money? Many children to feed. No work.’ Val recognised the hardships countless black South Africans faced. She sighed, knowing how Ian resented her copious handouts. ‘I hope you gave him something, even a …’
Before she could finish, a frenzied barking interrupted their peace.
‘Now what?’ Ian rose and flicked a switch. Light filled the garden. He pushed open the stable door and two German Shepherds leapt out.
Ian followed, shouting in Zulu, ‘Who’s there, what d’ya want?’ Reaching the hedge where the dogs had disappeared, he bent to find a rock. Better than nothing, he thought. Before he had the chance, he felt a hot breath on his cheek and sprang back. ‘What the …?’
‘Baas. Don’t kill me.’ A scared face peered up at him.
‘What the hell are you doing here? Out of my hedge … get off my property.’
‘Baas. I very fright. Men chase me. I come from city.’
Ian had heard how gangs roaming at night, beat and often killed people who were not of their tribe.
‘Come with me.’ Ian walked back towards the house and showed him down the driveway. ‘Better you stay in at night.’ he warned. ‘There are many bad men who will kill you.’
‘Ngiyabonga kakhulu’, the young man thanked Ian, and melted into the blackness.
Some weeks later, Ian unlocked the shop door. ‘Last Saturday before Christmas … thank God.’ He’d been helping Val during the rush. She was happy with the sales but there’d been a surge of shoplifting. Someone had even taken an orange football. With only fifteen minutes before opening, he left the door slightly ajar, the ‘CLOSED’ sign still in place. Making coffee in the kitchenette, Ian heard the bell over the door jingle. ‘Can’t people read’, he muttered, going back into the shop. It was a man in a black skullcap.
‘Sawubona, Baas,’ came the customary Zulu greeting, ‘last week I buy, but cash slip gone. You give me another one.’ Unwrapping a newspaper parcel, the missing orange football appeared.
‘Sorry, I can’t do that. You say you bought that football here, in this shop?’
‘Yes, Baas. I pay good money. I want cash slip.’
‘How much did you pay for it?’
‘Seventy Rand. To the Missus, Baas.’
‘No, that ball was twenty rand. It was stolen from this shop. Where did you get it?’
A sudden flurry. Ian saw a knife. A sharp pain erupted in his arm. He shoved the man and dashed behind the counter, shouting for help.
But his attacker leapt onto the counter and straight on top of Ian. The knife ripped into his shoulder and slashed across his chest.
Frantically, Ian turned and tried to scramble away, but the madman was relentless. Head spinning, Ian had one thought … must get outside, gotta get outside. He was on his knees now and the pain, such pain. Slowly, a black haze froze his vision.
The dust billowed out behind as Val drove into the village that morning. She noticed a crowd outside the shop. ‘They really love that Santa display’, she smiled. But as she pulled up, she saw they weren’t looking into the window. They were crowded round Johan’s police van.
‘Why’s he here?’ When they saw her, the hubbub of voices fell silent. Some women began to wail noisily.
Alarmed, Val pushed through the crowd and into the store. A group of people knelt round someone bloodied and motionless. It was Ian.
‘Nooooo,’ she rushed forward, but Johan grabbed her.
‘Leave it to them,’ he urged, we’re taking him to hospital. He’ll be ok.’ Val struggled feebly, then her legs crumpled.
Anxious to start investigating, Johan gently nudged Ian’s memory. His bandaged head and torso ached endlessly, but Ian was equally keen to nail this monster.
‘Don’t know who my attacker was – he looked familiar. Probably been into the store.’ Ian paused, frowning, ‘I do remember something though. Just before I passed out, on the floor in front of me, I saw the end of a walking stick made from a branch of a tree.’
Val’s breath caught, ‘Hopalong. That’s his stick. No one else uses a stick like that. Bastard! I can’t believe it … I helped him so much.’ Incensed, she gave Johan a meticulous description. But Hopalong had vanished.
A few months later, Val and Ian threw a lunch party to celebrate Ian’s recovery. The bash was going full throttle when a commotion stopped everyone mid-tracks.
Two struggling men emerged from the shrubs nearby. One, wearing a skullcap, had a rope round his neck and was being yanked by his captor.
‘Missus. I bring him for you. This man try to kill Baas.’ He pushed the roped man to the ground and, ruthlessly jabbing his walking stick onto the man’s throat, grinned triumphantly.
‘Hopalong!’ Val gasped, but Ian pointed at the cowering man. ‘It’s him – that’s the bastard I helped some weeks ago. He was hiding under my hedge … he’s the one who attacked me.’
On that lethal day, Hopalong had come into the village earlier than usual. He’d heard Ian’s shouts and hurried inside. ‘I come round counter. I see man stabbing Baas. I lift my stick, hit head many times. I think I kill iqaqa (skunk). But he run … his head, it is come from stone.’
Hopalong ripped the skullcap off the prone man’s head. No more proof would be needed.
The Australian Literature Review