Coffee and Condensed Milk




Waiting for the weekend with not much to do I was easily convinced to attend a club rugby match in the Paarl. It was cold, rainy and all things Cape. The spectators were made up of grandparents, parents, girlfriends and me. Oom Alfie and Tannie Doris's grandchild was playing. And I promised.

While drinking some hot chocolate from Tannie Doris's hot flask, I noticed him. He must have been in his early seventies sitting all by himself watching the rugby. He was totally consumed by the action on the field. His hands moving with the teams as they were playing. His body trying to keep the ball in play after the flyhalf misjudged a kick. Every now and then he took a sip from his 500ml bottle of Coke. Quickly not wanting to miss any action.

During the interval, he stood up and started walking to the other side of the field. Seemingly in a serious conversation with himself. When he came back he sat down and stared at nothing. His head held in his two hands. Every now and then his lips moved. It seemed like he did not agree with his memories. Shaking his head very slowly. Still staring at nothing.

The whistle announced the start of the second half. Again his body made every tackle. His hands received the passes. He was not watching a rugby match he was experiencing it. He was living the match. Now taking sips from an empty Coke bottle. But he did not notice. I got tired just watching this gentleman play the game.

After the match, I greeted my hosts promising to visit them next Sunday before heading back to civilisation. I decided to wait for the old gentleman. Interested to hear his opinion of the game. But he just sat there. Staring at nothing. Every now and then his lips moved, his arms now folded in front of him, seemingly trying to warm his body. At that stage, the groundsman was ready to leave and switched off all lights. I decided to go and talk to him expecting him to be intoxicated or "slow" or even both.

I ask if he was ok and if I could join him. As I sat down it felt as if I was trespassing. And then he started to talk without me asking a question. As if he knew what I was going to ask. He told me about his two boys. He described a life known and loved by most Afrikaner families. One where rugby and kids ruled. He relived his boys' first matches as u/9's. Playing rugby no matter the conditions. Admitting that he preferred wet conditions. Then they could play in the mud without his wife fighting.

Rugby days was like a long road trip for his family. His wife packed two hot flasks with strong black coffee. Sandwiches with Peanut Butter and Appelkoos Jam. Four spoons of condensed milk, carefully measured into a holder. A cup of hot coffee and a spoon of condensed milk for energy was for the boys before and after matches. And she never forgot the dry clothes.

He explained to me how he organised his shifts at the Railway in order to never miss a match. Sometimes missing much-needed overtime pay, just to see his boys play. His boys were very good rugby players according to him. And then his words dried up. He slowly got to his feet and said he must leave. It is becoming late and he stayed a few kilometres away. He does not want to get home too late.

As we left the grounds my Volla was the only vehicle in sight and I offered to take him home. He accepted only after I assured him I wanted to and that I have nothing else to do. He stayed about 8 kilometres from the rugby fields and the silence was only interrupted when directions were given.

As he got out of the car he stopped, looked at me and asked if I would like a cup of coffee. Without waiting for an answer he left. As I entered his house I was greeted by a wall of photographs. I was introduced to his family one by one. His dear wife who passed away some ten years ago was first. The two boys were next. He recalled every place and reason for each photograph.

He made the coffee in complete silence. With a sad smile on his face, he reached inside a cupboard and asked if I would like some condensed milk in my coffee. His only sin, he admitted. Then as if answering my thoughts he started to talk again. Explaining that he watched as many rugby matches as his old legs would allow him to. Saying that is where he feels closest to his family. That is where they only knew happiness. That is where he goes to talk to them.

Then nothing, and I knew it was not my place to intrude any further. We sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and condensed milk. Two old men with their own memories. As I left the Paarl heading for Cape Town I realised I did not even know his name. I then remembered the lyrics of an old Neil Diamond song "Morningside" -

An old man died
And no one cried
He surely died alone
And truth is sad
For not a child would claim the gift he had
The words he carved became his epitaph
'For my children'

So tonight my prayers go to all the parents who witnessed their son's last matches during these past few weeks. May you be able to remember the days next to the rugby field WITH your children when you are old. May your children remember and appreciate what you have done for them and may they take you with them, when their children are playing.

To all the people I promised to watch rugby with on Saturday I do apologise. Thanks to some generous people from the Paarl, DSTV was installed at my new friends home. His subscription taken care of until whenever. I will be watching all the games on Saturday with a new friend, and a cup of strong coffee and condensed milk.