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Five-pound Notes

It explains in the newspaper how you can tell," At Naude said, "the difference between a good five-pound note and these forged ones. There are a lot of forged notes in circulation, the paper says, and the police are on the point of making an arrest."

"Bad as all that, is it?" Gysbert van Tonder asked. "Because I've noticed that when the papers say that about the police, it means that unless somebody walks into the charge office to confess that he did it, the police are writing that case off as an unsolved African mystery. There is only one thing worse, and that is when it says in the papers about a dragnet, and that the police are poised ready to swoop. That means that the guilty person left the country a good while before with a lot of luggage that he didn't have when he came into the country, and with his passport in order."

Gysbert van Tonder's lip curled as he spoke. It was sad to think that an occasional misunderstanding with a mounted man on border patrol should have led to his acquiring so jaundiced a view of the activities of the forces charged with the state's internal government.

"Yes, I know," Chris Welman interjected. "It's because the forged note is twice the size of the genuine banknote. And it's not properly printed, but is drawn just on a rough piece of brown paper with school crayons. And the lion on the back of it has got a pipe in his mouth.

"Oh, yes, and another thing - the portrait of Jan van Riebeck is all wrong. Because Jan van Riebeck is wearing a cap pulled down over one eye and a striped jersey with numbers on it. From that you can tell that the forger is in gaol, and he's forging five-pound notes just from memory, and he's forgotten that striped jerseys with numbers on isn't the way everybody dresses. If somebody hands you a five-pound note like that, you must say you're very sorry you haven't got change.

"Because it is quite possible that the person is entirely innocent and is giving you the note in good faith. He might have got it from somebody else, and hadn't noticed that there was anything wrong with it.'

Chris Welman's broad wink passed undetected by Jurie Steyn. Chris Welman was busy pulling At Naude's leg, and Jurie Steyn didn't know it.

"In good faith," Jurie Steyn repeated. "Why, if a man came and palmed a piece of nonsense like that off onto me, just drawn with crayons on a piece of brown paper, I'd know straight away he was a crook. Never mind the lion with the pipe, or the striped jersey, even. Just because it was not printed I'd know it was a forgery. I'd be very suspicious of a man who came to me to change a five-pound note for him that was drawn by hand, however neatly. And I wouldn't care, who that man was, either.

"Even if it was Dominee Welthagen himself that came along to me with that class of banknote, I'd start getting funny ideas about what Dominee Welthagen was doing in his spare time. No matter how reverently Dominee Welthagen might speak about accepting the lion with the pipe in his mouth in good faith, either."

Young Vermaak, the schoolmaster, said that this was giving him something to think about. It would be a new subject for a composition for the children in the higher classes. The adventures of a shilling, passing from hand to hand, was a subject he has already set several times, and the children enjoyed writing it. But one got bored of having the same thing too often.

"The adventures of a spurious banknote" would introduce a desirable element of novelty into school essays, he thought. Young Vermaak went on to say another thing that nobody in Jurie Steyn's voorkamer seemed to get the hang of, quite. He said that if the poet's purse was filled with the kind of brown-paper, crayon-executed banknotes that Chris Welman was talking about, then he could understand what the poet meant when he said that who stole his purse stole trash.

"How you can tell," At Naude continued patiently, "that it's a counterfeit five-pound note is not, either, because on the picture of the ship the sailors are standing round watching the captain doing card tricks. I mean, if Chris Welman wants to say ridiculous things, well, so can I. But the point is that it is actually very good imitational note. The only way you can tell it's a forgery is that it is better printed than the genuine note and that it's got the word 'geoutoriseerde' spelt right.

The schoolmaster looked interested.

"Well, they keep on changing Afrikaans spelling so much," he said, "that I don't know where I am, half the time, teaching it. Anyway, I'd be glad to know what is the right way to spell that word. But, unfortunately, I haven't got a five-pound note on me at the moment - and I don't suppose there's anybody here who would care to lend me one."

His tone was pensive, wistful, But he was quite right. Nobody took the hint.

"Just until the end of the month," young Vermaak said, again, but not very hopefully.

After an interval of silence, At Naude said that if somebody were to lend the schoolmaster a fiver - which, in his own opinion, didn't seem very likely - it would still not help him with the spelling of that word. Because it was the genuine banknote that had the spelling wrong - spelling in the old way. Only the counterfeit note had the correct new spelling.

"I mean, if nobody here were to lend you a fiver," At Naude said, trying to be funny again, since Chris Welman had started it, "I suppose it would be a honest fiver. I mean, I know there are a lot of things that a Groot Marico cattle farmer will get up to - especially in the time of drought - but I don't think that printing counterfeit banknote at the back of a haystack is one of them."

But Jurie Steyn said there was something that got him beat, now. Calling it a counterfeit note, Jurie Steyn said, just because it had better printing and spelling than a genuine note. It was one of those things that just made his head reel, Jurie Steyn added. No wonder a person sometimes felt in the world that he didn't know where he was. That was one of those things that made him feel, sometimes, that the Government was going too far. It was setting a pace that the ordinary citizen couldn't catch up with, quite.

"Saying that just because it's better than the real note," Jurie Steyn continued," then for that reason it's no good. That's got me floored, all right.

By and by it will mean that if a respectably dressed stranger comes here to my post-office, driving an expensive motor-car," Jurie Steyn said, "and he hands me a banknote that I can see nothing wrong with, except that it looks properly printed, then it means I'll have to notify the police at Nietverdiend. But if a Msangaan in a blanket comes round here and he doesn't busy stamps, even, but he just wants change for a five-pound note, than I'll know it's all right, because the banknote has bad spelling and the lion at the back is rubbed out in places, through the pipe in his mouth being drawn wrong the first time."

Oupa Bekker nodded his head up and down, thoughtfully, a few times. Yes, there were certain matters relative to currency as passed from person to person that did not always admit of facile comprehension, he said.

"Take the time the Stellaland Republic issued its own banknotes, now," Oupa Bekker said. 'Well, of course, the Stellaland Republic didn't last very long. And it might have been different if it had gone on a while. But I'm just talking about how it was when we first got our own Stellaland Republic banknotes, and of about how pleased we were all about it."

"For the trouble in that part of the country was that there were never enough gold coins to go round, properly. Even before the Stellaland Republic was set up, there was that trouble. You could notice it easily, too. Just by the patches a lot of the men citizens had on the back parts of their trousers, you could notice it.

"And so, when the Stellaland Republic started printing its own banknotes, it looked as though everything would come right, then. But the affairs of the nation did not altogether follow out the course we expected. One thing was land-ladies of boarding-houses, I remember. What they wanted at the end of the month, was, I remember very clearly, money. I don't think I have ever in my life, either before or since, heard quite the same kind of sniff, I mean, the kind of sniff a Stellaland Republic landlady would give at the end of the month if she saw you feeling in an envelope for banknotes.

"Then there was the Indian storekeeper.

"I was with my friend, Giel Haasbroek, in the Indian store, and I'll never forget the look that came out of the Indian face when Giel Haasbroek produced a handful of Stellaland Republic banknotes to pay him with. Amongst other things, what the Indian said was that he had a living to make, just like all of us.

"'But these notes are perfectly good,' Giel Haasbroek said to the Indian. 'Look, there's the picture of the Republic eagle across the top, here. And here, underneath, you can read for yourself the printed signatures of the President and the Minister of Finance - signed with their own hands, too.'

"I'll never forget how the Indian storekeeper winced, then, either. And the Indian said he had nothing against the eagle. He was willing to admit that it was the best kind of eagle that there was. He wouldn't argue about that. From where he came from they didn't have eagles. And if you were to show him a whole lot of eagles in a row, he didn't think he would be able to tell the one from the other, hardly, the Indian said. We must not misunderstand him on that point, the Indian took pain to make clear to us. He had no intention of hurting our feelings in any way.

"But when it came to the signatures of the President and the Minister of Finance, then it was quite a different matter, the Indian said. For he had both their signatures in black and white for old debts that he knew he would never be able to collect, the Indian said. And of the two, the President was worse than the Minister of Finance, even, The President had got so, the Indian said, that for months, now, on his way to work in the morning, he would walk three blocks out of his way, round the other side of the plein, just so that he didn't have to pass the Indian store."

Oupa Bekker interrupted his story to get a match from the schoolteacher. That gave us a chance to ponder over what he had said. For they had fallen strangely on our ears, some of his words. There appeared to have been a certain starkness about the texture of life in the old days that our present-day imaginings could not too readily embrace.

"But they never caught on, really, those Stellaland Republic banknotes, "Oupa Bekker continued. "Afterwards the government withdrew the old banknotes and brought out a new issue. But even that didn't help very mush, I don't think. Although I must say that the new series of banknotes looked much nicer. The new banknotes were bigger, for one thing. And they were printed in more colours than the old ones were. And they had a new kind of an eagle on the top. The eagle seemed more imposing, somehow. And he also had a threatening kind of a look, that you could not miss. It was like the Stellaland Republic threatening you, if you got tendered one of those notes for board and lodging, and you were hesitating about taking it.

"But, all the same, those banknotes never really seemed to circulate very much. Maybe that Indian storekeeper was right in what he said. Perhaps, after all, it wasn't the eagle, so much, that they should have changed, as those two signatures on the lower portion of the banknote. Perhaps they should have been signed so that you couldn't read them.

"And, as I have said, the queer thing is that there was nothing wrong with those Stellaland Republic banknotes. They weren't counterfeit notes in any way, I mean. They were absolutely legal. The eagle and the printing were both all right - they were the smartest-looking eagle and the smartest printing that you could get in those days. And yet - there you were."

We agreed with Oupa Bekker that the problem of money was pretty mixed up, and always had been. Shortly afterwards the Government lorry arrived from Bekkersdal. The lorry driver's assistant went up to the counter. "Change this fiver for me, please, Jurie," he said.

This was Jurie Steyn's turn to be funny. He took full advantage of it. He turned the note over several times.

"The printing looks all right," Jurie Steyn said. "And for all I know, the spelling is also all right. And the lion hasn't got a pipe in his mouth. What kind of a fool do you think I am - handing me a note like this? : About the only thing it hasn't got on is an eagle."

Since he didn't know what our talk had been about, the lorry-driver's assistant looked only mystified.