It was an old Afrikaner tradition that when young men went courting, they had to go home when the candle had burnt out.
And when I think of this opsitkers or ‘courting candle’, images from Manakwalanners, the delightful TV series set in 1944, immediately come to mind. The producer, Johan van Jaarsveld, had a rare talent for reflecting humankind at its humble best.
Take Sussie and Boerie, played by the inimitable Lizz Meiring and the young Jan Ellis. Boerie was totally besotted with the voluptuously curvaceous Sussie, who effortlessly reduced him to a sweating wreck whenever he went calling on her, hat in hand, at the general dealer’s store.
And like so many of the female persuasion, she kept him on his toes; you could tell by the tortured stammering with which he clumsily tried to woo her…
Sussie pouts while feigning an unawareness of what’s going on, but from under those black lashes she peeps at Boerie’s beautiful eyes, his broad shoulders, and his almost equally broad, dazzling white smile. Boerie’s buying sweets from the jar, the ones with words on them, all in washed-out ice-cream colours. They are powdery sweet confections that always tasted to me as though they hadn’t been properly dusted.
He buys a handful and then carefully, silently, reads each one.
Finally, he plucks up the courage and places one in Sussie’s hands, blushing right to the roots of his hair.
Sussie looks at the pale pink sweet and reads: Ek wil vry (‘I want to woo’).
Her eyelashes sweep downwards like those of a donkey mare, she studies her shoes, smoothes out her apron, then coyly looks up as she pops the sweet into her mouth.
‘Yes, Boerie. You can come.’
Boerie’s face lights up as if he could power the entire Koeberg nuclear station all by himself. Stumbling over his own feet, he mutters a ‘’Till later then, Sussie’ as he leaves the store.
Early that evening, Sussie bathes in the bathroom on the stoep. The geyser’s gas flame sounds just as hoarse as Boerie, she thinks to herself as she dries herself and liberally douses her body with Johnson’s baby powder. Next, she settles down at the dressing table in her room and brushes her hair out until it swirls like the waves of the ocean. She applies two dabs of lipstick to her cheeks and rubs them in, then applies lipstick to her mouth, blotting and smoothing until they shine like two ripe strawberries. She slips on a pretty pink floral dress and dabs some KWV cologne behind her ears. She hears a horse galloping up outside, and her suitor’s hasty dismount.
From inside, her mother calls: ‘Sussie, Boerie’s here!’ Hips swaying and eyes shining like two coach lights, she walks into the sitting room.
Boerie stands there, looking as though he’s just been attacked by the north wind, as windswept as Namaqualand after a sandstorm. The living room is silent, with only the gas lamp hissing. They drink coffee from the Sunday cups with the pink roses. Her father drinks his from the saucer, bringing it to his lips to blow it cooler.
Then he gets up, lights the tallow candle and says, ‘Come, woman, let’s let the children alone’.
Boerie can’t control himself.
Stuttering like a Standard Three pupil, he asks Sussie if he can sit next to her on the settee. He sits down, almost missing the settee. But he does manage to sit.
The grandfather clock ticks away in the hall. ‘Ja, Sussie,’ he sighs. ‘Ja, Boerie,’ she sighs in return. Then the two stare straight ahead into the gloom.
The candle burns on. Boerie looks at it, and then inches towards Sussie.
Finally, just before the candle flame flickers out in the candleholder, the poor tongue-tied man wraps his arms around Sussie. ‘Boerieee’, she sighs.
Then her father coughs from the bedroom. ‘Come, Sussie, it’s bedtime.’
Boerie straightens his clothing, puts on his hat and, with eyes ablaze, opens the door, first the top, then the bottom. He looks straight into Sussie’s eyes. ‘G’night, Sussie.’ ‘G’night, Boerie.’ And with her chest flushing red, she quietly closes the door as the horse gallops off into the night…
With gratitude for the images etched into my memory. Manakwalanners, directed by Koos Roets.
Translated by Jan Venter