New original fiction in The JRB.
Do You Remember That Time We Saw the UFO Over Jansenville?
By Werner Pretorius
December holidays were supposed to be a break from routine, but ours were familiar with their own rhythms. We’d wake up as soon as Mom turned on the kitchen light, too excited even to have approached anything akin to deep sleep. We would stay in bed, though, hedge our bets on the outcome of the conversation Mom and Dad always had, without fail, like they couldn’t remember they had it last year. Mom would want to bring us our coffee in bed, the poor darlings, and Dad, ever practical, would want us to get up and drink it at the kitchen table in the light. The whole point of the exercise was to get us to wake up. It was only Ricoffy. Dad would gulp his down standing up and then start loading the car, which he would have reversed into the garage specially the afternoon before when he got home from work. We’d get dressed and do our own last-minute packing, fretting over what we would need, which toys or favourite books or magazines we couldn’t do without. And once our final decisions were made we had to pile up our bare minimum essentials for inspection. Dad would cut the pile down to three items and most of it would stay on our beds and have to be packed away once we returned in the new year, at which point, the holiday over, the chore felt like a kind of torture.
The vanity case would be the last thing to be packed, once our teeth were brushed and our toothbrushes dried. It was almost ceremonial. And then it would be off into the exhilarating night. Because you were younger you never lasted very long, the tall, marching rows of lamps next to the Ben Schoeman highway rotating the shadows on your sleeping face. I tried to make a point of staying awake to see the sun rise over the Free State. The horizon turned purple before the pulsing orange would leak light from the bottom, like an overturned cup of paint. I managed it most times. Once the sun was out and all the shadows were dispelled I lost interest in the endless pale yellow grass and would sleep then. But at this point you’d be awake—and hungry, negotiating your way to whatever sustenance was to be had. You knew the most effective way to press the parent buttons was to say that we would usually be having breakfast at this time, if we were home. If Dad was flush we’d stop at the Wimpy and eat burgers. We’d have to ask them specifically for the burger menu, otherwise the waitress would only bring the breakfast menu, which Mom and Dad would order from. If it hadn’t been a great year we’d have boiled eggs and frikadelle from a Tupperware container, next to the road if the weather was fine or in the car without stopping if Dad felt we were behind schedule.
We’d play games if we were bored. Car cricket was a favourite and we’d watch the oncoming traffic going the other way with intent. A transport truck was a six and a lorry or a kombi was a four. Italian sedans were threes, German sedans were twos and Japanese sedans were ones. The ones we didn’t know were no balls or wides. But a white Volkswagen was out. Sometimes when the roads were busy I had to help you tabulate your scores because the cars were passing too fast. And we would laugh. We would make jokes about everything we could lay our eyes or our imaginations on: the stupid stuff the radio announcers said, the lyrics of the songs. Everything an opportunity, a challenge to make the other one crack up—and the big prize was to make Mom or Dad laugh. Dad would always tell the story of people at work saying you must be glad the kids are back at school, after all the fighting over the holidays no one’s talking to each other, and Dad would always tell them that his only problem was getting the two of us to stop canning ourselves when he was trying to concentrate on the road.
We usually reached Ouma and Oupa’s house in Despatch around 4, 5, 6 p.m., depending on what the traffic was like and how well the trip had gone. We made that trip so many times they’ve all been welded together in my mind, so I can’t tell one from the other. There was one where I forgot Mom’s birthday and Dad was very upset with me and Mom was very sad. But I don’t remember why we were so delayed that time that we ended up getting to Jansenville after dark. Was that the time we stopped in Bloemfontein because Dad had business there, and Mom took us to the mall and we made her buy us plastic swords? Swords we put to good use, re-enacting He-Man or Thundercats or Treasure Island or whatever we were into, fighting each other until yours broke. Somehow you were always tougher on things than I was. Or was it the time Mom had to drop something for a friend in Kroonstad who was apparently the sister of a famous rugby player and the grownups had coffee and we ran around their huge yard that gave onto an open field until our chests burned and we couldn’t run anymore? We made that trip with many different cars. The Alfetta when we were very little, the Alfasud, the Honda Ballade, the RXi. I don’t remember us ever having car trouble, Dad was too meticulous in looking after anything mechanical.
But I do remember us ending up in Jansenville long after dark. It was a place we never stopped, probably hadn’t even known it existed until that specific trip, just another town we whizzed through. When we passed through Colesberg you asked Dad if he needed to put in petrol, which Dad always mentions when he tells the story because it was so out of character for you. But Dad looked at the fuel gauge, made a quick mental calculation and said we didn’t need to stop. He was trying to make up time after whatever the delay was. But then the fuel consumption wasn’t what he expected; it must have been the first trip with whatever car it was, and he had to coax it with clever driving techniques and freewheeling on the downhills. And we grew quiet in the backseat and Mom massaged Dad’s thigh in that nervous, absent-minded way she had. We made it. But then the 24-hour Total garage was closed and deserted and it was the only petrol station in town.
We drove to the police station on whatever last fume was left in the barren tank and Dad went in to speak to the officers on duty. Their solution was to phone the owner of the petrol station, whose farm was not that far out of town, to see if he would mind driving into town, unlock and refuel. It would be twenty minutes of waiting, all being well. But then there was no answer at the farm house. The next plan was to go to the hotel bar, which was where the locals drank on Saturday nights and watched rugby. Perhaps the petrol station owner would even be there. And if not, they could syphon some from the locals’ tanks, they were a jovial and helpful bunch, Dad was assured. But it seemed that friendly jollity didn’t extend to out-of-towners as the officer told us to wait at the station. It would be better if he went alone.
There was an offer for us to wait inside, but I guess Dad had taken one look at the hard wooden benches and declined. So we sat in the car, tilted slightly downhill, with a view over the valley and the star-speckled sky. At some point Mom needed the bathroom. Dad offered to accompany her, but she said she’d be fine, stay with the kids.
And it was while she was away that it happened. A clear white light appeared over the valley. It didn’t glow or flicker like a star but was constant, a perfect orb. It hung in the sky for what must have been three or four seconds, but felt much longer, before it curved towards the horizon; first in a convex arc and then seamlessly into a concave one. But it never reached the horizon, just blinked out of existence mid-arc. When I looked over at you your mouth was agape much as mine must have been. I was covered in goosebumps.
When Dad said he saw it too we were thrilled but also a little scared. It felt like we’d gained membership to our family’s supernatural club. Our other Ouma and Oupa in Pretoria had lots of ghost stories from their days on the farm in Vaalwater. Mysterious ladies brushing out their long, dark hair, bright lights shining in under the kitchen door late at night accompanied by strange winds. And Dad’s sister, they said, is met die helm gebore. She sometimes felt omens or premonitions that would come true.
We got our petrol eventually. The officer returned with a jerry can of syphoned life juice and Dad paid the man I think, even though he wanted to refuse. A note was crumpled into a back pocket and we were on our way into the night again. It was enough to get to the next town, where the 24-hour sign outside the petrol station proved trustworthy, and Dad filled the tank even though our destination was close now.
Ouma and Oupa were waiting on the stoep when we arrived, worried that we were so late. Supper would have to be reheated, but the usual tearful greetings took place, the warm embrace of family. Mom and Dad launched into explanations about what had happened, but there was no mention of the circular light that had hung in the sky over Jansenville for a few seconds.
I often think about how it was only the three of us in the car that night. Within a handful of years Mom would be dead and it would be only the three of us left in life as well. And it feels like we glimpsed the future that night, stranded in the glow of a police station, with the only light in our lives somewhere out in the sky over the koppies, inexplicable.
- Werner Pretorius holds degrees in Publishing and English from the University of Pretoria and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. His stories and short fiction have appeared in Something Wicked Magazine, Jungle Jim, Prufrock Magazine and in Die Laughing as part of the 2016 Short Sharp Stories competition. He lives and works in Cape Town. This is his first story for The JRB.