There’s a boar’s head on the wall. From each of its tusks, there hangs a bra.
“They call this the center of the universe because of the ley line running through Bathurst. That’s why everyone’s so nuts. There’s a dungeon under the dining room floor of the Pig & Whistle, you know? I removed the floorboard myself and saw the steps leading down…”
Says the ex-military South African Police Colonel, the kind that was in service during the Apartheid years. He’s drinking because he heard that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a warrant out for his arrest. What did he do? Do I even want to know? I do. I have to ask.
“I did what I was told to do,” came the infuriating answer, bleeding with pathos.
The ex-Colonel lightens the mood quickly, somewhat desperately,
“I have a young wife. Still get breakfast in bed. She still wants to shower with me. She still wants to get naughty even though I can’t. I just get heartburn.”
A mini-ladder in the bar drops suddenly and the rigid Colonel jumps out of his skin, nearly falling off his chair like he’s just heard a close-range bullet soar past. PTSD.
“Very strong ley lines here,” Colonel says to me, dark beret pulled low over his head, “There’s a ley line going right though this bar.”
I shuffle in my barstool. I haven’t even been in this town for an hour yet. Ley lines?
“So hold onto your stuff because some crazy shit goes down here.”
What kind of shit, Colonel? I wonder.
“I mean it’s a town with one Stop Street and five bars. There’s gotta be something suspect.”
His smiling wrinkles deepen the creases around his mouth, “So, welcome to Bathurst. You look like you belong here.”
I’m in pineapple country. I drove 20km/h behind a cow on a road of geckos and chameleons to get here. Fast was not an option in travel. I find myself sitting next to some resident drunken Socrates in the next bar, who, in all his tweaked extravagance, welcomes me with a very straightforward:
“I’ll take it for granted you are my friend.”
The old man has a bald patch with long white hair flowing around it, a laugh as robust as his thick thighs spread apart on a bar stool that barely carries his weight. He cuts right to the chase,
“So what you wanna do one day? Find a husband? Settle down? Buy a VW? Be woken up when it breaks down?”
He smiles, “Do you want money?”
He waits for my answer. I don’t reply. I know this is a trick. He continues,
“I have nothing, you can have half.”
He roars with intoxicated laughter. I wait to hear the note of insincerity – that bitterness that accompanies having nothing. It doesn’t come.
Where am I? Very, very far from the rat race. A steel string reverbs from a tortured hippie in the corner, no stage, on this warm Sunday night.
“Do you paint?” I venture, looking at his stained clothes.
“Yes,” he says, “Do you?”
I give him a dismal smile, reflecting on my failed attempt at being an artist, remembering the countless paintings I left back home. I don’t answer.
“Aaah,” he sighs, “I can see it in the smile. We get to the apex of things, you know, so we… We’re really the Bosses.”
Ain’t that the truth.
The wise-cracking old man is an artist who refuses to reveal his work, explains Shannon, the poet. Just how many artists are there in this town? I wonder, sitting between Shannon (the poet) and the boozing painter.
“So you a writer too?” asks Shannon.
“Yes, I guess.”
“Well that depends on how dedicated you are to your craft.”
No answer from me.
“What’s the colour of your silence?”
Right in the deep end, he shoves me. Like I should know this immediately. I can’t answer the poet’s question. But the balding, bulging artist jumps in. He knows the colour of his silence,
“Predominantly white with touches of gun metal.” – without even thinking about it.
“Bathurst seems to attract lost souls,” says Shannon, eyeing me like he knows.
Does he know? Could he possibly know? Just how aimless, forlorn, raw and depleted I am? Shall I unveil my buffet of vulnerability?
“So you’ve just finished a novel. You have something in your hand. And now you’re left with this pregnant space. It’s terrifying and beautiful,” Shannon pauses, “Write another.”
“Can’t. No money.”
“How much of yourself did you put into that novel?”
“So what do you have left?”
“So then, you have nothing left to lose.”
“Write the first line of your next one.”
The poet pauses.
“You can try and guess who others think you should be. You might be wrong. And wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Be brutally yourself.”
One broke writer consoling another in the Bathurst Arms Pub, in a tiny 1820’s town steeped in a turbulent military history. Twelve kilometers inland in the economically destitute Eastern Cape Province of South Africa: Nowhere. His words should have no bearing. They should hold no gravitas. He’s just a big city outcast, like me. In a place filled with big city outcasts, like me. Home, so nice to finally have met you. So sad that I cannot stay.
I’m sojourning at the Pig & Whistle, the oldest pub (doubling as a Bed and Breakfast) in South Africa, also penetrated by this infamous ley line they all speak of. After a soak in the Pig & Whistle’s bathtub on feet, I venture out again. Just downstairs, to the pub (yes, another pub).
Well, I need a bottle of Stuyvesant and a packet of gin. Or maybe I just need Bathurst. Never to leave Bathurst. Where it’s all okay. Where the ley lines cross and the bohemians gather to eke out an existence and live for their craft in the middle of nowhere, drinking rainwater from tanks on the roof, surrounded by antiques, twenty-one vintage tractors, reading used books, not flushing when you pee – did you know it takes 9 liters of water to flush your 500ml of pee? Found out from a local today at the toposcope on the town’s highest point.
Copper and bronze plaques on Bathurst’s toposcope name the important 1820’s Settlers, their ships and their original land (Holland). Of course, at least half of these bronze and copper plaques have already been stolen and resold by people in the surrounding slums. The slightest karma, I guess: The poor destroying the memory of the colonizers.
“There seems to be a hole in your glass. Let me fix that for you.” Says Tony, the Pig &Whistle barman. This is where I hear about the biggest drama in the town. John, the regular, sits on the bar stool in his leather jacket with his dogs.
“I only get voluble about certain things,” says John, a soft-spoken chap, “But I told him to have decorum. And still, he got into a fight.”
My ears prick up. Who got into a fight? When? Where? John continues,
“Dunno why he gets himself into these situations. – And over a girl!”
A fight. Over a girl. In this town? I’m astonished.
Tony nods at John, agreeing with him: Yes, the silly bloke, fighting over a girl.
“He was hurt quite badly too. Bleeding all over the place.”
It was only half an hour later that I realized they were speaking about a dog. More dogs than people in this pub sometimes, I hear.
Towards the end of the night, a dread-locked blonde hands me a ticket to Far-Away. I drive with a dark-haired blues-singer to a house where the wise-cracking artist sits laughing like a lunatic, seven happy dogs laze about and a girl with a Tracy Chapman voice hands me a lovely ceramic cup. Here, I enjoy the most glorious clay cup of hot marijuana-rooibos tea with organic milk.
Before I leave Pineapple country, I go to the Big Pineapple building – 16.7m tall – overlooking the pineapple fields, the hippies, the poets, the ex-Colonels, the dogs, the artists… the lost souls of a frugal bohemia.
On clear days, the 360degree view includes the sight of the Indian Ocean. Why go to the Big Apple when you can go to the Big Pineapple?
Original, shorter version published on We Said Go Travel at the following link: http://www.wesaidgotravel.com/south-africa-home-lost-souls