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A fence between the Union and the Bechuanaland Protectorate, At Naude said. According to the radio, the two Governments were already discussing it.

"I hope they put gated in the fence, though, here and there," Chris Welman said, "otherwise how can we get to Ramoutsa siding?"

Yes, with a fence there, At Naude agreed, good we had ordered from Johannesburg could lie forever at the siding, and we none the wiser. "And likely as not we wouldn't even notice the difference," At Naude added. "We'd think it was just the railways a bit slow".

There was one queer thing about putting up a fence, Oupa Bekker said, that he himself had noticed long ago. And it was this. When you erected a fence around your farm, it never seemed to help anybody out. All you were doing was to fence yourself in, and with barbed wire.

In the meantime Gysbert van Tonder, with his somewhat extensive cattle-smuggling interests, had been doing a spot of thinking. When he spoke it was apparent that he had been indulging in no glad, carefree reveries. His reasoning had followed a severely practical line - as straight as the five-straight course, theodolite-charted, of the fence that would provide the Union and the Bechuanaland Protectorate with official frontiers.

"There should be a proper sort of a border: that I do believe in," Gysbert van Tonder announced piously. "It makes it a lot too hard, smuggling cattle from the Protectorate into the Transvaal, when there's no real line to smuggle them over. I'm glad the Government is doing something about it. These things have got to be correct. I've got discouraged more than once, I can tell you, asking myself well, what's the good. You see what I mean?

"Either you are in the Marico, or you aren't. And either you're in the Protectorate, or you aren't. When there's no proper border, you can be standing with a herd of cattle right on the Johannesburg market and not be feeling too sure are you in the Transvaal or in Bechuanaland. Even when the auctioneer starts calling for bids, you don't quite know is the answer going to come in pound notes or in rolls of brass wire.

"You almost expect somebody to shout out 'So many strings of beads'. So I can only say that the sooner they put up a decent kind of fence the better. The way things are, it's been going on too long. You've got to know if an ox is properly smuggled over or if it isn't. You've got to be legal.

The years he had put in at cattle-smuggling had imparted to Gysbert van Tonder's mind an unmistakably juridical slant. He liked arranging things by rule and canon, by precept and code. The next question he asked bore that out.

"In this discussion that our Government is having with the Protectorate government," he asked, "did the broadcast say rightly what kind of fence it is that they are going to put up? Is it the steel posts with anchoring wires kind that you cut? Or will it have standards that you pull out and bend the fence down by the droppers for the cattle to walk over on bucksails? There's a thing they should get straight before anything else, I'm thinking.

The conversation at that point took, naturally enough, a technical turn. The talk had to do with strands and surveyors, and wrongly-positioned beacons and surveyors and rails, and the wire snapping and cutting Koos Nienaber's chin open in rebounding, and gauges and five-barb wires, and the language Koos Nienaber used afterwards, speaking with difficulty because of all that sticking plaster on his chin.

"And so the surveyor said to me," Chris Welman was declaring about half an hour later, "that if I didn't believe him about that spruit not coming on my side of the farm, then I could check through his figures myself. There were only eight pages of figures, he said, and those very small figures on some of the pages that didn't look too clear he would go over in ink for me, he said.

"And he would also lend me a book that was just all figures that would explain to me what the figures he had written down meant. And when I said that since my grandfather's time that spruit had been used on our farm and that we used to get water there, the surveyor just smiled like he was superior to my grandfather. And he said he couldn't understand it. On the other side of the bult, in a straight line, that spruit was a long way outside of our farm.

"What that other surveyor, many years ago, was up to, he just couldn't make out, he said. With all his books of figures, he said, he just couldn't figure that one. Well, I naturally couldn't go and tell him, of course. Although it's something that we all know in the family.

"Because my grandfather had the same kind of trouble, in his time, with a surveyor more years ago than I can remember. And when my grandfather said to the surveyor: 'How do you know that the line you marked out on the other side of the bult is in straight line from here? Can you see through a bult - a bult about fifty paces high and half a mile over it?' - then the surveyor had to admit, of course, that no man could see through a bult. And the land-surveyor felt very ashamed of himself, then, for being so ignorant. And he changed the plan just like my grandfather asked him to do.

"And the funny part of it is that my grandfather had no knowledge of figures. Indeed, I don't think my grandfather could even read figures. All my grandfather had, while he was talking to the land-surveyor, was a shotgun, one barrel smooth and the other choke. And the barrels were sawn off quite short. And they said that when he went away from our farm - my grandfather having proved to him just where he went wrong in his figures - he was the politest surveyor that had ever come to this part of the Dwarsberge."

There would, he said, then, unquestionably be a good deal of that same sort of element in the erection of the boundary-wire between the Bechuanaland Protectorate and the Transvaal. More than one land-surveyor would as likely as not raise his eyebrows, we said.

Or he would take a silk handkerchief out of his pocket and start dusting the theodolite, saying that he shouldn't in the first place have entrusted so delicate an instrument to a row Mchopi porter smelling of kaffir-beer.

In the delimiting of the Transvaal-Bechuanaland Protectorate border we could see quite a lot of trouble sticking out for a number of people.

"I also hope," Jurie Steyn said, winking, "that when the Government sends up the poles and barbed wire for the fence to the Ramoutsa siding, there isn't going to be the usual kind of misunderstanding that happens in these parts as to whom the fencing materials are for. I mean, you'll have farmers suddenly very busy putting up new cattle camps, and the fence construction workers will be sitting in little groups in the veld playing draughts, seeing they've got no barbed wire and standards."

Anyway, so there was a fence going to come there, now, along the edge of the Marico, through the bush. Barbed wire. A metal thread strung along the border. Sprouting at intervals, as befitted a bushveld tendril, thorns.

"A fence now," Chris Welman said, "Whenever I think of a fence I also call to mind a kindly neighbour standing on the other side of it, shaking his head and smiling in a brotherly-love sort of way at what he sees going on my side of the fence. And all the time I am just about boiling at the advice he's giving me on how to do it better.

"Like when I was building my new house, once, that was to provide shelter for my wife and children. And a neighbour came and stood on the other side of the fence, shaking his head at the sun-dried bricks in a kind-hearted manner. Turf-clay was no good for sun-dried bricks, he told me, seeing that the walls of that kind of stable would collapse with the first rains. And I didn't have the strength of mind to tell him the truth. I mean, I was too ashamed to let him know that I had really meant those bricks for my house.

"So I just built another stable, instead, which I didn't need. And it was only a long time afterwards - through a good piece of the mud that he had smeared it up with in front crumbling away - that I found out that my neighbour's own house, which he always talked in such fashionable language about, was built of nothing more than turf-clay bricks, sun-dried."

Yes, Jurie Steyn said, or when you were putting up a prieel for a grapevine to trail over.

"And then the neighbour comes along and says, what, a shaky prieel like that - it'll never hold up a grapevine," Jurie Steyn continued, "And then you say, well, it's not meant for grapes, see? You're not that kind of a fool, you say. You're only making a trellis for the wife. She wants to grow a creeper with that feathery kind of leaves on it, you say.

"And then your neighbour says, well, he hopes it isn't very heavy feathers, because it won't take much weight on it to bring that whole thing down. By that time you fell about like a brown weevil crawling over one of the side-shoots of the grape-vine you intended to plant there. And it's a funny thing, but you never really take to the blue flowers of the creepers that you put in there, instead."

It was significant, we said, how you would on occasion come across a stable that looked far too good for just an ordinary bushveld farm, with squares and triangles in plaster cut out above the door of the stable. And with a stoep that, if you didn't know it was a stable, why, you could almost picture people sitting drinking coffee on it. And spidery threads of creepers twining delicately if somewhat incongruously about solid scaffolding with tarred uprights. Looking as though why the farmer made the pergola so sturdy was that the pale gossamer blooms shouldn't just float away. And it would all be because of the advice of a neighbour who had at one time stood on the other side of the fence, kind-hearted, but with his eyes narrowed. Almost as though he couldn't believe what he was seeing there. And his one hand would be resting easily on the wire, as if at any instant he could jump clean over and come and take what you're busy with right away from you, and show you how it should be done. His other hand would be up to his forehead so that he could see better. And he would be shaking his head in a kindly fashion in between making recommendations.

That was what a fence represented to us, we said. Young Vermaak, the schoolmaster, made a remark, then. It was the first chance that he had had, so far, to talk.

As far as he could see, the schoolmaster said, the effect it would going to have - erecting a fence between the Union and the Bechuanaland Protectorate - was that it was going to make the Union and Protectorate really neighbourly.