Home » The Deputy Director of the Wheat Board.

The Deputy Director of the Wheat Board.

As a learner grain trader, I was tasked with ensuring that a consignment of wheat to Zimbabwe was completed by month-end. The problem was the railways were not taking our deadline seriously and despatched rail trucks only when it suited them.

I tried pleading with the various station masters over the phone – but to no avail. The consignments still stalled. Eventually as month-end drew near, and my boss reminded me for the umpteenth time if the shipments weren’t completed, how much money ‘I’ would be losing the firm, I had an idea.

“Do you mind if I get someone from the Wheat Board (WB) to accompany me around the stations to schmooze the station masters – maybe pretend the guy is very senior and make the stations think they are doing the government a favour?” I asked my boss.
“Whatever you like,” he responded, “just get the stuff there…”

After a brief negotiation, one of the deputy directors of the Wheat Board, Chris Burger agreed to visit the stations with me. He appeared an agreeable fellow, but not over confident. I was pleased, although I wondered if he had the necessary charisma to impress the station masters.

Nevertheless, I hired a big Mercedes Benz, bought a case of brandy, collected a palpably nervous Chris and headed for the first station. We arrived to discover our fully laden wheat trucks on a disused shunting track. With my anxious WB man in tow, I headed for the station master’s office.
“Are you sure this is going to help?” Chris enquired plaintively from behind my left shoulder.
“It had better or I am out of a job,” I replied as politely as I could.

The station master sat at his desk chatting on the phone. He ended his call and without looking up enquired disinterestedly, “How can I help you gentleman?”

“This is Chris Burger a Director of the Wheat Board who would like to inspect the despatch of my company’s wheat from your station.” I said, purposefully leaving out ‘deputy’. “We are working our way up the line visiting all the ‘wheat’ stations and yours was first.”

The station master’s reaction was astonishing. He immediately jumped up and shook Chris’s hand.
“What an honour,” he gushed. “What an honour. Just this morning we were getting ready to move the wheat. Coffee, Director?”  Over strong sweet coffee and homemade rusks, which seemed to materialize out of nowhere and lots of bowing and scraping by the station master, a fumbling Chris awkwardly presented him with a bottle of brandy.
“In anticipation, uh… of you doing a fine job, uh… which I know you will”. Moments later we found ourselves happily on our way to the next station. Evidently no-one of importance ever visited the station masters.

“You were great,” I enthused.
“Was I?” Chris seemed dumbstruck by the startling affect he as a mere humble (Deputy), Director of the Wheat Board, had on the station master.
“If they all work like that we will easily get our wheat to Zimbabwe in time. And it will be thanks to you,” I casually threw in.

Looking decidedly more confident Chris settled into his seat and started telling me how actually, he practically ran the Wheat Board.

“I know I am only one of the Directors,” he too dropped the ‘deputy’ no doubt in the interests of brevity, “but you know I do have a lot of influence on policy.” I nodded.

The next station was a carbon copy of the first. Our wheat trucks were standing on a very shabby stretch of track. Clearly they were going nowhere. We waited a few minutes to see the station master; however the moment he was informed a ‘Director’ had arrived, he miraculously appeared and was breathlessly grateful to Chris for visiting his station.
“Oh we should have that wheat rolling by tomorrow. We were just getting it ready while we waited for the last truck, which arrived this morning. Coffee? Rusks?” When Chris later presented him with a bottle of brandy, the station master was speechless and it was perfectly clear we were onto a good wheeze.

Back at the car Chris stood alongside, but made no effort to get in. I soon realised he was waiting for me to open up.
“Here let me help you,” I said. Opening the passenger door with a flourish, I stood back diffidently in perfect imitation of a chauffer. Getting in I glanced at him and smiled self-deprecatingly at my little cameo. Chris simply ignored me. He appeared deep in thought; no doubt formulating policy for the next month’s Board meeting.

As we moved up the line the station masters responded progressively more obsequiously. I suspected the ones we had visited, phoned ahead and warned we were on our way.

At the third station, Chris waited in the car until I got out and opened the door for him. At the fourth he elbowed me aside, strode in front and demanded to see the station master immediately. At the fifth, despite us being on a ridiculously tight schedule, he asked for a guided tour of the warehouses. The station master did explain that the grain would arrive by road and be loaded straight into the rail trucks. Chris nevertheless thought it important to inspect the storage facilities, even though they never contained any wheat.

Then, as he would hand over a bottle of brandy to each station master, to lend the presentation more substance, Chris would subtly intimate that it came from his own private collection. This made me regret that I had bought such a cheap brand. Before we moved on to the sixth station, Chris relocated to the back seat of the Mercedes.
“So I can do some work,” he said by way of explanation. To be fair, there was more room in the back.

At the seventh station he gave the entire office staff of five, a lecture on how it was vital to get the wheat to Zimbabwe before the end of the month, ‘to avoid an international incident’.

Following visits to a further two stations where, by shrewdly comparing shipping wheat to fighting for one’s country, Chris instilled a sense of patriotic duty in the station masters; we arrived at the last one. He appeared very aloof as he waited for me to open his door, but I knew he was probably just tired. He got out, stretched imperiously, then flapped his hand and disdainfully motioned for me to proceed.

It soon became obvious this station master, a veritable giant of a man, hadn’t been warned of our imminent arrival. Despite balefully observing us sitting in reception, he continued to chat on the phone for a good thirty minutes. As we sat there overhearing him discuss for the sixth time how drunk he had been the previous Saturday, Chris got decidedly agitated.
“I think I am going to have to talk quite sternly to this large gentleman; once you have told him who I am, of course.” He got up and with his hands behind his back began pacing to and fro; frowning. “He must realize that people like myself, a Director of the Wheat Board cannot be kept waiting while he phones friends to discuss mere trifles. I don’t think he has any idea of the seriousness and importance of my mission. I will have to warn him that I may consider reporting him.” He cut an imposing figure in his khaki Safari Suit, even though it was slightly creased from when he had fallen asleep in the back of the Mercedes and he was only barely over five foot. I thought I should point out his collar was half folded under itself, but I didn’t want to disturb his little speech.

Just then the massive station master yelled for us to go in.
“JA, what do you bloody fellows want?” he barked malevolently at Chris, who studiously looked at me to answer.

“My company is shipping the wheat that has arrived at your station sir,” I said courteously. “Uh… this is Mr Chris Burger a DIRECTOR of the Wheat Board and he is doing an inspection on behalf of them.”

“You hopeless people from that ridiculous Wheat Board,” he snarled in Afrikaans and wagged a finger the size of a pork sausage in Chris’s face. “Elke jaar mors julle my rond, en ek is nou gatvol daarvan.”  (“Every year you mess me around and I am now thoroughly fed up”). He almost spat the last words at a visibly shaken Chris.

“Excuse me Mr Station Master,” Chris responded with as much dignity as he could muster, “where is your toilet?” He obviously hoped if he removed himself it would give me time to smooth things over.

“Wil jy pis of wil jy kak?” The station master growled at him. (“Do you want to piss or crap?”)  Like a deflating li-lo, Chris hissed a faint, “Pis…”

“Goed, gaan buite en pis om die hoek. As jy wou kak het – die toilet is ver agter daai gebou”. (“Good go outside and piss around the corner. If you wanted to crap, the toilet is far away behind that building.”)

Matters degenerated from there. When Chris meekly returned, the largest station master in the world told him in no uncertain terms that he would ship the wheat, when he was ready. And why he wanted to know, was the Director giving him a bottle of brandy.
“Are the bladdy tax-payers paying for your bribes?”

As soon as I could safely interrupt, I apologised in Afrikaans for coming and backed Chris out of the disgruntled colossus’s office. In no time at all, without waiting for his ‘chauffer’ to open the door for him, Chris collapsed into the front seat of the Mercedes. During the journey back he was strangely silent and no longer wanted to discuss Wheat Board policy. Curiously, when I finally dropped him at home, the (Deputy) Director of the Wheat Board was as nervous as when I collected him earlier that morning. With eyes averted he bade me farewell and without waiting for me to open his door, let himself out.