An examination of racial tensions in a small, rural, conservative town in South Africa
The arrival of a tank of lobsters in a local shop in Klippisfontein, South Africa, sets the community talking. Local kids and adults watch on with fascinated delight, but an undercurrent of suspicion and dislike soon begins to surface—and it's not all about the lobsters. In a town troubled by undercurrents of racism, prejudice, and poverty, some people show their worst traits while others shine through with humor, warmth, and affection. A funny and touching story of friendship, marriage, kindness, redemption, and brightly colored shellfish.
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Colette Victor grew up in South Africa. She has written five novels, including a young adult novel which was shortlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. What To Do With Lobsters in a Place Like Klippisfontein was one of three finalists for the Dundee International Book Prize.
Read an Excerpt
What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein
By Colette Victor, Ottavia Pasta
Cargo PublishingCopyright © 2015 Colette Victor
All rights reserved.
No one in town had ever seen anything like it. Well, except for that advert on TV about the bottled water. Of course, Fanus' aquarium with the exotic fish that everyone ogled over was sort of down the same line. But a lobster tank with a bright blue background and brown lobsters, their claws taped up with yellow sticky tape ... Not in a million years would anyone have guessed that something like that would end up in Klippiesfontein.
At first, the supply van pulling up outside Oom Marius' General Store evoked the same kind of mild interest it did every week. Familiar stragglers hanging out on the street ambled over lazily to see what this week's load had brought. That's when it appeared. The delivery guy took his cart to the back of the lorry, hitched the forked teeth under the tank, and lowered it to street level. Interest was piqued. An excited murmur passed through the small crowd.
"Oom Marius," Lenny called, trusting the stagnant air to carry his voice all the way inside the shop, "what's this tank thingy you've got here?"
"Oh that," Oom Marius called back. "It's a lobster tank."
His voice was calculatedly casual. It was at that point that everyone knew something big was at hand. Fake-casual was simply not Oom Marius' way of doing things. Clearly, they concluded, this had something to do with Patty.
Five or six men followed the delivery guy into the dark shop smelling of washing powder and paraffin. They watched intently as Oom Marius plugged the thing into a socket and filled it with water.
"What you mean, Oom Marius?" Frikkie asked. "You going to throw lobsters in there? Aren't they going to start stinking the place out after two days?"
"Don't you know anything?" Oom Marius snapped. "You don't throw dead lobsters in there."
"You mean they're ..."
Just then the delivery guy returned with another load. In his arms he held a white polystyrene box which he placed carefully at Oom Marius' feet. He handed him a clipboard and waited for the cheque.
After he'd left, Oom Marius nodded at Petrus, his faithful assistant, to start unpacking the boxes.
"This one you leave for me, you hear?" Oom Marius called, gesturing to the white box.
The mute Petrus nodded.
Oom Marius spent the whole afternoon fussing with his lobster tank. Reading the instructions, shoving a thermometer in and out of the water every so many minutes, acting as if this was what he did all day, every day. The crowd both inside the shop and outside on the blistering veranda, grew. At twenty to two school was let out and the throng filled out even more with barefoot boys in grey shorts and shirts and girls in red pinafores. They carried the smell of dust inside with them.
"Oom, wat het Oom daar binne in die boks?" a little one ventured.
"Come then, let me show you what I have in the box, child," he relented. Like the Pied Piper, the giggling kids followed him from counter to lobster tank where the mysterious box still stood untouched.
Taking his penknife from his belt, Oom Marius deftly slit open the tape holding the lid down. With the flair of a circus ringleader, he yanked off the lid and held it above his head. The smell of sea trapped too long inside plastic overwhelmed the children standing in front. As everyone caught a glimpse of the inside of the white box, a chorus of aaahs went up from youngsters and adults alike.
With the sudden exposure to light, the four lobsters started wriggling and moving about and the aaahs turned to excited yelps. Gingerly (though by watching him no one would've guessed he'd never touched a lobster before in his life), Oom Marius stuck his hand into the box, took hold of one of the creatures' shiny backs and picked it up. He swung it close to his audience. The thing squirmed in his hands. Everyone stepped back. Holding it above the tank, he dropped the animal into the water. With the same showmanship, Oom Marius proceeded to plunge the other three in as well.
"You going to sell these things here in the shop?" Frikkie asked.
"Of course. Modern supermarkets all over the world sell lobsters like these. Why should Klippiesfontein be any different?" he proclaimed proudly.
"Who's going to buy them, Oom?" young Daan's blue eyes stared trustingly at the proprietor.
"What are you supposed to do with them? Are they like puppies?"
"They're to eat, child. To eat."
Spontaneously the group broke out laughing. The tension that had been hanging in the shop all day was broken. Oom Marius had finally provided proof that he was mal. Crazy. The band of kids broke loose and rushed outside to find something better to do than stare at giant water cockroaches that somebody was supposed to eat. The adults drifted away too. Only Frikkie and Lenny hung around on the veranda, smoking cigarettes and calling greetings to passersby.
It was dark and cool inside the late afternoon shop. This was the time of day Oom Marius loved best. A temporary lull in business, the only sound was Petrus' rhythmic swishing of the broom for the tenth time that day. You could call that Petrus many things, but the one thing you couldn't say about him was that he was lazy.
As far as anyone in town knew, Petrus had never spoken a word in his life. Of course, no one had bothered asking Petrus' mother because, at the time he came to work for Oom Marius twenty-two years ago, white people didn't bother asking black people much. Barking commands was more the order of the day.
It had been at the time Oom Marius was looking for someone to clean his shop, help unpack the shelves, and do his bidding and calling. He'd taken pity on a scraggly black woman who spent her days struggling around town asking people for spare change so she could feed herself and her idiot boy. One look at the wretched woman and Oom Marius knew he couldn't have her standing in the shop. She'd chase away the customers with that malnourished look of hers.
He walked up to her, "Hey you, what's the child's name?"
"This is Petrus, Baas," she answered.
"How old is he?"
"He's eight, Baas."
"Is he strong?"
"He's strong, Baas."
"Have him here at seven tomorrow morning so he can start work. And make sure you bath him tonight. I don't want him smelling of wood fire."
"Thank you, Baas. Thank you, Baas," she tried to grab Oom Marius' hand.
"Go home now. And here, take this," he grunted, shoving a plastic bag with a loaf of bread, a block of bright orange cheddar cheese and a litre of milk into her hands. "Now don't tell anyone where you got this from, you hear me?" he barked. "Or else I'll have every bastard from the township on my front step tomorrow morning."
"Thank you, Baas. No, Baas, I won't say anything."
As the afternoon wore on and the hour hand ticked closer to five, Oom Marius became more agitated like he did every afternoon round the same time. Petrus noticed that the glances at the wall clock and quick spurts from behind the wooden counter at the back of the store out to the veranda to peer down Main Street were more frequent today, more frenzied.
It had to have something to do with Missies Patty, Petrus concluded. At five o'clock the school bus would pull in from Springbok where she worked as a secretary for the high school. The students would spill out onto the pavement in front of Baas Botha's Butchery in their green and white uniforms. Then Missies Patty would step off the bus in that deft way of hers and cross the road to the General Store for her and her husband's cigarettes. This, as everyone in town knew, was Oom Marius' favourite part of the day.
No one could remember when it became public knowledge – the way Oom Marius felt about Missies Patty. It seemed it had always just been that way. Of course, Oom Marius didn't tell Missies Patty how he felt and she pretended she didn't know. In fact, the pretending in this town was so good that even Missies Patty's husband, Shawn, and Oom Marius' wife, Tannie Hettie, pretended they didn't know. It was a good town for pretenders, this Klippiesfontein.
Even though no one could remember when he started feeling this way, everyone knew why he did. It was because Missies Patty had lived in the big city for many years and knew big city things that no one in Klippiesfontein knew. It was because Oom Marius had always dreamed of living in the big city himself and learning big city ways. It was like it always is in life. One person has something that another one wants. And normally they'll go far to get it. At least, that's the way Petrus saw it. Missies Patty had big city ways. Oom Marius longed for big city ways. And now there was a lobster tank inside the shop.
At five to five Oom Marius barked at Petrus, "Go sweep the veranda and tell me when you see her coming."
With patience born from years of servitude, Petrus nodded, collected his broom and ambled slowly out onto the shaded veranda.
Swish, swish, swish went the rhythm of the broom. From force of habit, Petrus took in the details of the slow happenings of the crossroads. On the veranda of the Royal Hotel, white men, usually the same white men, sat drinking their cold beers. And they said that black men were lazy, Petrus scoffed. On the opposite side of the street, a farmer was parked at the petrol pump with his bakkie, filling jerry cans with red diesel for his tractor. And at Henk Coetzee's Hunting and Fishing Store, he could see the owner staring out the window, probably thinking about some or other animal he'd shot over the weekend. Swish, swish went the broom.
"Petrus," came Oom Marius' slightly frenzied voice from inside. "Where's that yellow lappie? There are kids' fingerprints all over this bloody tank."
Leaning his broom against the wall, Petrus ambled inside and went into the small storeroom at the back of the store. He emerged with a bottle of Windowleen and the yellow duster which he proffered silently to Oom Marius.
"Who's keeping an eye on the bloody bus if you're in here?" snapped Oom Marius.
Dragging his feet, Petrus went back outside, picked up his broom and continued his sweeping. He heard the spssht, spssht inside as Oom Marius sprayed Windowleen on his precious tank. Then he heard the heavy gears of the bus moaning their way up the road. Leaning on his broomstick, he watched the usual faces disembarking, holding up hands in casual salutations, shouting goodbyes and crossing the street without looking for cars. Klippiesfontein wasn't the kind of town where you had to pay too much attention to cars. At last he saw Missies Patty coming down the bus steps. She rubbed her palms over her thighs to get the creases out of her pencil skirt, tossed her blond hair over her shoulder, and headed for the General Store.
Broom up against the wall again, Petrus walked back inside. He crossed the floor until he was standing right behind Oom Marius who was still polishing the tank. He touched his shoulder.
Oom Marius spun round, "Is she there? Is she coming?"
"Come. Get out. Take out the rubbish or something. Come on. Get a move on, you lazy bastard."
Petrus heard this line spoken to him every afternoon when Missies Patty was crossing the road on her way to the General Store. Other men, they might have been angry to hear words like this spoken to them but Petrus ... he didn't get angry. Petrus understood Oom Marius' excitement at seeing Missies Patty. Petrus felt the same way when he saw Precious. Maybe he'd also swear at anyone hanging around if she ever walked up to him.
Petrus carried the rubbish out to the dark, narrow alley between the General Store and the video shop next door.
He heard the bell above the door ring as Missies Patty walked into the store.
"Afternoon, Oom Marius," she called with her voice full of music.
Oom Marius laughed his pretend-shy laugh. "How many times must I tell you Patty, just call me Marius."
"OK," she answered. Friendly, like Missies Patty always was. "Can I have a pack of Bennies and Hennies and some Camel Filters for Shawn, Marius?"
Petrus heard a rustle from behind the counter as cigarettes and money were exchanged.
"Is Tannie Hettie feeling better today?" Missies Patty asked.
Petrus knew what was coming now. The only thing Oom Marius couldn't stand of Missies Patty was when she mentioned his wife. And Oom Marius wasn't much good at hiding things he couldn't stand.
"Better? What's she got to feel better about?" he snapped.
"I saw her coming out of Doctor Brown's office yesterday afternoon," Missies Patty explained.
"Ag, it was just her routine check-up, Patty. It was nothing. You know Hettie, she likes to be on time with these things. But tell me, why were you at the doctor's off ..."
"No, Oom. She was crying when she came out. There was definitely something wrong."
"Yes, Oom. She was crying."
Oom Marius stood quietly for a few seconds. Petrus knew he was thinking about Missies Patty's words. He spoke again. "It's probably just some of this depression thing going around. You know, women and doctors are very fond of it. I'm sure if Hettie was sick she'd tell me."
"If you say so, Oom. Look, thanks for the ciggies," she called. Her departing heels sounded on the wooden floor.
"You see what I got today?" Oom Marius called rather desperately after her.
"What have you got?" Petrus could hear a smile in her voice.
"Look there, in the corner," he replied proudly.
"Oh my God, Marius," Petrus heard her squeal in obvious distress. "That's just awful. Where did you get that from?"
"From the sea, Patty. They've got divers and metal cages and they go down really deep to catch them. You used to live by the sea. Why do you say it's awful?"
"Marius, it's terribly cruel. They throw them live into pots of boiling water and you hear them scream as they boil to death. Oh I can't stand it, Marius. Promise me you'll get rid of them?"
"Of course, Patty. Of course. I didn't know. I genuinely didn't know."
Petrus heard the tapping of Missies Patty's high heels grow fainter as she headed for the door.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Oom Marius," she called.
"How many times must I tell you, just call me ..."
But he never finished his sentence.
Petrus waited for the sound of his name.
"Petrus," came Oom Marius' gruff voice, "get inside here and pack out those bloody pilchards. That box has been standing here since this morning."
Petrus let the lid of the rubbish bin clang shut. Shrugging his shoulders, he headed back inside.CHAPTER 2
"Jissus God, wat gaan ek nou met die blerrie goed doen?" Oom Marius called after the delivery guy.
Jesus, God, what am I going to do with these bloody things now?
Oom Marius watched him cross the dusty veranda, take the three steps down to road level and head for his supply van parked out front under the Acacia for the bit of shade it so sadly offered.
Acacias, or thorn trees, as they were generally known, were just about the only things that grew here in Klippiesfontein. And grass. Of course, there were vast plains of arid, yellow grass interspersed with outcroppings of haphazard rock piles and lonely steel windmills trying to suck what little moisture there was out of the red earth. Space – that's how most people would describe the area. There wasn't much more that could be said about it other than that it had a lot of space. Oom Marius hoped the delivery guy would have an especially hot and long journey back to the closest town, Springbok, one hundred and sixty-seven kilometres to the east.
Damn him, thought Oom Marius. Now he was stuck with it. With them. The four leather-coloured creatures staring out of their prison at him all day long. What was he going to say to Patty? What about the rest of the townsfolk? Oom Marius was no longer a respected businessman of Klippiesfontein. No. Now he was its laughing stock. Lobster babysitter. That's what his rash decision had reduced him to. He didn't even know what the damned things ate, but one thing was sure, if he let them starve to death, Patty would stop talking to him.
Oom Marius heard the door between the shop and his home creak open. He should tell Petrus to put some oil on the hinges, he reminded himself. He turned round to see Hettie, his wife, shuffling into the shop. He raised his eyebrows. Hettie never came into the shop. If she wanted anything she invariably sent Anna, her domestic, to ask for it.
"Dag vrou," he said.
Good day, wife.
Excerpted from What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein by Colette Victor, Ottavia Pasta. Copyright © 2015 Colette Victor. Excerpted by permission of Cargo Publishing.
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