Everybody has a You (#4)

Crashed-Cessna1Smartryk glances down at the relaxed face of the woman on his bed. If she took care of her hair, used a bit of make-up and lost the disheveled look, she could be so pretty. He blushes at the thought.

After she had fainted on the veranda, several waiters helped to carry her to his room. His room. The lodge had no other accommodation available, so it was impossible to get her a suite of her own. His original thought – to sleep in his old Golf – is out of the question now; he cannot just leave her like this, can he? He orders some coffee and settles down next to the bed. Mary’s breathing is deep and regular, making him believe that the faint had progressed to a deep sleep. And, after what she’s told him, he realises how tired the poor woman must be. Best to let her sleep it off…

logo5391866While sitting there, watching the woman sleep, Smartryk thinks about the string of events leading to his being here. There must be some logic, some reason, for all this… Sighing heavily, he opens the envelope bearing the imposing emblem he received in Cape Town.

Always something new in Africa, he thinks as he opens the dossier. As an accident investigator, he’s seen it all: mechanical problems, human error, freak accidents. But this one – happening out here, for goodness’ sakes – seems to be quite unusual…

***

Under the usual heading and initial paragraph, the provisional report on the crash of the Cessna near Grootdrink follows. Smartryk reads his instructions again: investigate the cause of the crash; gather information on the report by one Sergeant Dreyer that foul play was involved – and cooperate with the South African Police Service if necessary. It sounds so simple. One paragraph stands out.

According to an unconfirmed statement by one Sgt Dreyer, a man was abducted from a small town near Grootdrink and forced into the aircraft. The pilot then took off on an unscheduled flight to destination/s unknown. A few minutes after take-off, the Cessna lost height spiralled to the ground and made a forced landing on a gravel road. The pilot and his passenger escaped with apparently no injuries. 

Abduction? In all the years Smartryk has been involved with the SACAA, he’s never had to investigate a crash of this nature. Well, tomorrow he’ll interview this sergeant and get on with his inquiry. For now, however, he is stuck with the sleeping woman on his bed. He orders more coffee.

***

Mary wakes up to the sounds of the birds outside. For a full minute, nothing makes sense. Where is she? The memory of the many mornings she woke up in the prison in Rio flood her mind and for a moment she is struck by a wild panic. Her stifled scream wakes the man next to her bed.

“Shhh…,” he says as he sits up. “You’re okay, Mary. Had a bit of a faint last night, didn’t you? But everything is all right now, you’ve had a wonderful sleep. Wait, I’ll get you some coffee.”

“Wha…?”

Smartryk recaps the outlines of the previous night. “I think it must have been the wine. You…well, you passed out and slept it off. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have ordered that second bottle of wine. But…nothing a good sleep can’t cure, is there? You must be thirsty. Need something for a headache?”

Truth be told, Mary hasn’t felt so rested in many months. A night’s undisturbed sleep had been completely impossible in that hell-hole in Rio. She manages a weak smile.

“Coffee, please.” She hesitates, thinking deep. “Oh yes! I remember now. You told me about the crash.” A worried frown settles on her brow. “You said something about Boggel…”

She tries to explain over coffee. Smartryk, in turn, tells her of the phone call to Sersant Dreyer, the policeman in Rolbos who notified the Aviation Authority. By the time they’re on their third cup of steaming coffee, the picture starts to make sense.

“So…this Boggel…he’s the barman with the spinal problem? And you were on your way to see him? And now he’s been kidnapped or abducted or whatever, and this is the crash I have to investigate? This is most unusual…”

And unusual it is, too! The coincidences are just too many.

“I think,” Mary says at length, “that this incident – this crash and everything associated with it – has something to do with my coming back to South Africa. Why, for heaven’s sake, would somebody abduct Boggel? It doesn’t make sense?? And this within days of my return? I mean – come on – why the hell would a barman in a nothing town suddenly be so important as to be kidnapped?”

Smartryk can only shake his head.

***

To describe the chaos in Rolbos would be impossible. The townsfolk have all gathered in Boggel’s Place, where Servaas has taken over the duties of barman. As may be expected, Gertruida has appointed herself as chairperson of this emergency meeting.

“Come on guys, settle down. It’s no use everybody talking together. Sersant, please tell us – again – what happened?”

“I think you all know the story by now, Gertruida. I woke up four nights ago – thought I heard the sound of an aircraft overhead. It sounded low and near, but I didn’t think it was in trouble or anything like that. Well, the sound disappeared after a while and I went to the bathroom for a glass of water – you’ll remember that we celebrated the Springbok’s victory over the Kiwis that evening and I was thirsty – when I heard Vrede barking. It wasn’t his usual bark at all – he was clearly upset about something.

“So I went outside, see? And Vrede took hold of my pajama pants and started dragging me to Boggel’s rondawel. I thought the dog was mad or something, but I went along anyway. When I got there, the rondawel was empty. No Boggel.”  Dreyer tells them how he scouted around, looking for Boggel all over the place. “Then, suddenly, I heard the roar of an aircraft’s engine. It was quite dark still, but the moon was bright enough and I could just make out the Cessna in the veld outside town. That pilot must have glided the plane down when he landed, because nobody heard it arrive.” He waits for the heads to nod before going on. “The landing lights came on and for a second the interior was illuminated. I quite dimly saw the outline of the pilot, but Boggel I recognised immediately. He was staring through the window…. I have never seen such fear on a man’s face.

The pilot took off, flew in a lazy circle, and was heading back towards Grootdrink when it suddenly started losing height. “I don’t know what went wrong. For a few seconds I thought they’d crash headlong into the ground, but then, at the last minute, the pilot apparently got the nose up and they barrelled – belly first – into the ground. Of course I ran there as fast as I could, but when I got here, not a trace of Boggel or the pilot was to be found.”

“By that time we were all in the street,” Vetfaan interjects, “and eventually found you at the wreckage. And then, while you were telling us what you saw, we heard the sound of a vehicle roaring off in the direction of Grootdrink.”

“Ja, my bloody bakkie!” Kleinpiet looks suitably aggrieved. “Didn’t realise it was my pickup before I went home again.”

“You shouldn’t leave the keys in the ignition, Kleinpiet.” Dreyer’s frustration boils over. “Anyway, I contacted the chaps at Grootdrink, telling them to set up a roadblock – but nothing happened. They didn’t go there.”

“But we’ve looked all over, Dreyer. For the last few days we’ve searched high and low. No Boggel. They must be somewhere, damn it all!”  Precilla can’t understand why Dreyer couldn’t get a helicopter to help them search, and tells him so.

“A helicopter? Here? Sorry Precilla. This is the New South Africa. They have three helicopters in Upington. One is without landing gear after an rather unplanned landing, another is waiting for a new rotor due to a telephone pole the pilot didn’t see and the third is on standby for some minister who is entertaining some Chinese delegation. Oh, and they used to have a fourth ‘copter, but that has been stolen.”

“It’s up to us, then.” Gertruida takes charge again. “We’ll have to…”

“Look!” Servaas’s shout stops her in mid sentence as he points to the window. “There’s a car racing towards town. It looks like an old CitiGolf. I wonder who could it be…?”

 

Everybody has a You (#3)

17483“Why now, Mary? After all these years you suddenly decide to visit an old friend in Rolbos…what made you do it?”

Smartryk has ordered a second bottle of wine, which they now enjoy on the veranda of the lodge. With the heat of the day broken, it is extremely pleasant and comfortable to lounge in the gloom of evening, enjoying the atmosphere. Travellers in Africa know this feeling of bonhomie – it’s almost as if the universe shrinks into the circle of the lamp’s light, making the worries and cares of everyday life seem insignificant and irrelevant.

Add, too, the fact that they have just enjoyed a magnificent supper of kudu steaks, finishing with a perfect crème brûlée, and that they’ve discovered a common interest in conservation. Their conversation drifted this way and that until Smartryk asked the question that had been bothering him all afternoon. Mary must obviously be down in her luck – hence the hitch hiking – and surely her reasons for getting to Rolbos must be to find accommodation, help, or work…or something? So…why? Why now? Why is she so desperate to get to Rolbos – even if it involved all the risks for a woman hitch hiking all alone in one of the most remote areas of the country?

Mary sighs. Should she tell this nice man everything? Will he understand? She decides to take the risk and straightens her shoulders.

***

Love affairs – we all know – are fragile relationships. Friendships may endure a lot of abuse and disappointment, but love is more demanding. It requires a deeper respect, more loyalty and uncompromising commitment. The fabric of such a liaison is delicate and it sometimes takes an almost insignificant incident to rip the fibres of the canvas that once contained the promise of joy. And then, with the power of hindsight, it may become painfully obvious that that promise was only a dream, a desperate mirage, and that the relationship had no other foundation than loneliness.

“I had many of those,” Mary tells Smartryk, “until I met Brutus Malherbe, the lawyer. Oh, he was handsome and caring and…” she blushes, “…rich.” It pains her to admit it, but his obvious wealth had been, indeed, a factor. “I was working as a receptionist in Dr Hartslief’s practice – you know, the famous thoracic surgeon? Anyway, one day Brutus walks in there for an annual checkup. Apparently he had had some chest pains before and Hartslief was treating him for a slightly irregular heartbeat.

“When he walked into that consulting room, we looked at each other…and we knew. At least I thought both of us did. It was just one of those moments when the world stops turning and your entire being focusses on somebody very, very special. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but in that second, I knew this man would play a significant role in my life.

“Well, he did. Only not in the way I thought…”

He asked for – and got – her telephone number. A week went by and then, one evening, he called. They chatted. He asked if she would like to have dinner with him. She said yes, of course.

“For three months he wooed me like I’ve never been wooed before. Flowers, chocolates, everything.”  Then, one evening, Brutus told her he had a problem. Some very important documents had to be delivered to a man in Rio de Janeiro. No copies, no faxes, no e-mail – the originals had to be hand delivered. Only – Brutus looked so worried when he said this – he had an important court case coming and he couldn’t afford to do the trip himself. It’s only a matter of a few days, but…

Mary then looked at the man who had been so good to her, saw his anguish, and offered to take the documents herself.  He was overjoyed. The documents, he said, would be sealed in an attache case. Just take it to the airport, a man would be there to receive it. No problem, just go and come back. Then, when his court case is over, they’d have a little holiday in Maldives – if she’d like to go?

“Well, when I landed in Rio, the cops were waiting for me. They demanded the attache case. and I…well, I handed it to them. They seemed to know exactly what they were looking for. They broke open the case – and it did contain some documents….as well as a million dollars .” Mary shakes her head. Even now, after such a long time, the sting of that horrible moment still causes tears to flow.

“Brutus, you see, was busy importing cocaine.My wonderful lawyer, my lover, was a drug smuggler! The police had been on his trail for some time and suspected that he used couriers to ferry money out of South Africa. Couriers! Stupid, everyday girls like me! And I was the lucky one to be on the spot when the police were ready to pounce!”

A nightmare followed. First it was a police cell in Rio. Then a prison – Bangu Penitentiary Complex – and later Presidente Prudente Supermax institution. Mary doesn’t elaborate on the months she spent there – despite the intervening years she still finds those memories too painful to contemplate. The court case was a disaster. Brutus, it seemed, had disappeared. The authorities had her, had the Brazilian drug lord Fernandinho Beira-Mar, and had the documents and money. Oh, she had the privilege of an attorney, but he had no interest in defending a foreign woman caught in a drug deal. The case lasted two days. The sentence was delivered immediately. Five years for her, life for Fernandinho.

“Somehow, Fernandinho managed to get messages to me – telling me he admired the way I conducted myself during the trial. He wrote letters, Smartryk, long ones, which the warders slipped under my pillow. His influence was obvious, even in prison. Over and over he said that he’d like to get to know me better.” She blushes at the thought. “You know how those Latin-American men are, Smartryk – they make you feel like a woman all over again. I wrote back, leaving the letters under my pillow as well, and he obviously got these. I poured out my heart in those letters – I think that was the only thing that kept me sane during my time in that prison…

“Being associated with Fernandinho turned out to be a very well disguised blessing during my time in the women’s section, called Talavera Bruce. Here his name offered me some protection against the other inmates, see? At least, it kept them at a distance. But the authorities! The filth! The conditions! The food….” She pauses, unable to continue…

“Brutus was eventually found in the East somewhere. They escorted him back to South Africa, where he stood trial He denied everything, of course, even that me sent me to Rio, but the state had a watertight case against him and he got twenty years. However, he served only two months before he managed to get parole on medical grounds. He got some cardiologist to swear he’d die in prison, using poor Dr Hartslief’s records to lend  weight to the parole application… Money, Smartryk, can buy you anything…even freedom.”

Mary swallows the rest of the wine in her glass, wipes off her lips with the back of her hand, and manages a wobbly smile.

“Anyway, I got out last week. Only arrived in Cape Town a couple of days ago. And now…now I need to return to my roots and the only man I ever really trusted. He’s a barman in Rolbos.”

“That’s strange…” Smartryk draws a deep breath. “The accident I told you about? The passenger was a barman, too. Apparently a guy with some sort of spinal deformity.”

This is the moment we all dread in life: when suddenly the trapdoor opens up beneath us and there is only one way to go: straight down. Mary stares at Smartryk for several seconds, blinking her eyes mechanically while her mouth tries to form words. Then, mercifully, the curtain drops and she slides to the ground in a dead faint.

Everybody has a You (#2)

Blaine STUBBLEFIELD, son of Mickel STUBBLEFIELD & Edith Belle DAVID, WWISmartryk Genade may – quite possibly – be one of the last of the Great Gentlemen. He loves life, he loves the twists and turns in the seemingly boring survival from day to day,  and he simply adores the fact that he – despite his history – is still involved with aviation. Nearing his middle-fifties, he is an exception to the rule that men wither and wilt as the years roll by. It’s almost as if he matured late and only now, with old-age beckoning, has developed that dashing flair most men wish for in their twenties. Sure, his remaining hair has changed to silver, but his body is as firm and toned as a teenager. Regular exercise and a life of abstinence from excesses have rewarded him richly.

Arguably his most impressive characteristic, is the way he handles his fellowmen and, of course women. Always discreet, ever so interested and flawlessly diplomatic,he creates the impression that he should have studied theology – which he certainly didn’t. The twinkle in his eyes should tell you that.

Now, as one of the extensive teams to investigate aeroplane crashes in the country – there’s been too many of them lately – he hums a tune as he speeds along the rutted road towards Grootdrink. Three days ago a Cessna came down in the vicinity – an incident reported by a Sergeant Dreyer from a remote village called Rolbos. Apparently nobody was hurt, but still the investigation had to be done. Simple things have to be checked: who was the pilot? What was the flight plan? Was there enough fuel? Any sign of neglect…etc. Forms have to be filled in and the report has to be filed.

He almost didn’t see her. A lonely woman next to the road…here? Surely she must be in some sort of trouble? He skids to a halt.

“May I be of assistance?” His voice sounds unnaturally loud in the vast silence of the arid Kalahari.

“Oh…thank you. I need to get to Grootdrink.” Mary Mitchell eyes the dapper man behind the wheel and says thank you again in her mind. Kiewiet Rooi has just dropped her at the intersection and she wasn’t looking forward to spending the night out here, next to the road.

mmv-760932_RR_RRS_Empty_Quarter_Challenge_041113_11_71143Of course – being the gentleman he is – he opens the door for her and loads up the small suitcase after he introduced himself properly. Mary reciprocated by giving her first name and settling in the uncomfortable chair of the old Golf. Some women might think this strange, but in the Kalahari (like in life) you don’t ask too many questions when a Good Samaritan lends a hand. You either take your chance or remain stranded.

While Smartryk doesn’t do much flying these days, he makes up for it with his driving. Speed – in the air or on ground – is what makes him tick. So, thirty seconds after closing her door, the Golf’s engine whines at maximum revolutions as he negotiates the car across the corrugated surface.

“Where are you heading?”  He has to shout to be heard.

“Rolbos, actually.” Mary’s voice is thin as she clutches the end of her seat with worried hands. “Can you go slower?”

“It’ll be quite a challenge,” Smartryk says truthfully, “but I’ll try.” The engine’s sound eases a fraction.

“I…I need to get there alive.” She intended the remark to be funny, but it is lost on Smartryk.

“I investigate crashes, Miss, I don’t cause them.” He glances over at the ashen face of Mary and feels guilty all of a sudden. “Didn’t mean to snap, sorry. I’ll slow down some more.”

It’s an unlikely start to a conversation – but haven’t we all experienced this? Right in the beginning you say something wrong and then you spend the best part of an hour repairing the damage. Sometimes it works – mostly it’s the flogging of a dead horse. But, for whatever reason, this is one of those times when it does work out. Before they’ve covered another ten kilometres, they’re chatting away like old friends.

Funny, isn’t it? One day some clever psychologist will come up with an easy answer – what is it that makes you feel comfortable with a stranger within minutes, while some others might make your hair stand on end even before they’ve said a word? Is it a subconscious analysis we’re not aware of? A hormonal thing? Something to do with pheromones? Whatever it is, it exists between the sad young lady and the driver of the car.

Smartryk tells her of his life as a pilot – the typical story of a bachelor’s life in which long periods of loneliness were interspersed with evenings of short-lived pleasure.

“There was a young girl once.” Smartryk doesn’t avoid Mary’s question about love, but does hesitate before telling her more. “Herbert. Funny name for a girl, eh? I was more of a father to her, but I did love her deeply. She was so…perfect. But I was too old and she was too young and people started saying nasty things. So I left. Still visit her occasionally, though. She’s married now, two kids and a labrador and a picket fence. Somehow she seems to have shrunk – life in suburbia took away her sense of adventure.” He stares at the road ahead, consciously relaxing his shoulders. “Ce’st la vie, I suppose. Such a pity that some women lose their spunk once they start changing diapers and washing dishes is the highlight of the day.”

Mary remains silent as she listens to the older man talk. Oh, how she would have loved a life like that – a simple, easy existence in a town somewhere, where the biggest problem of the day is making sure that her husband (oh, how nice does that sound!) has a hearty meal when he comes home at night.

“It sounds enticingly boring,” she smiles at Smartryk, “perfectly, deliciously, superficial.”

They laugh at that: Smartryk, the eternal adventurer with the love for speed and derring-do, and Mary, the woman who longs for a life where one day simply flows into the other and happiness is the security of knowing she is loved.  w136350_7330_augrabies-falls-national-park_falls-after-the-floods-of-early-feb-2010

“I’ve booked a room at the Augrabies Falls Lodge,” Smartryk seems a little embarrassed at the situation. “Lovely place to overnight and we may well have enough time to have a quick look at the falls, as well. Only one room, though. Sooo…I can drop you at the turn-off, or you can join me for the evening.” He feels a blush developing when he realises how it sounds. “I’ll sleep in the car,” he adds hastily.

***

Gertruida says there is no such thing as coincidence. Life, she maintains, is all mapped out for every individual. But, she’s fond of saying, we’re rather stupid when it comes to following the breadcrumbs that will lead us to our destiny. According to her, we often stray all over the place before – at last – we stumble across the original route we were supposed to have taken many years ago. If only we stop trying so hard to make our own plans – Gertruida is rather adamant about that – we’d find life so much easier to live.

That’s why, if you should ask her – she’d tell you that Mary may quite possibly be busy with the most important trip of her life, and that the people who so kindly have offered to help her along the way may very well be there for a reason.

“The problem,” she once told Boggel, “is that it is so difficult to distinguish between right and wrong. Some people cross your path to lead you astray, others are there to help you. Which is which? There’s no book with answers, no map to check your course. It’s only in hindsight, when you look back from calamity, that you realise how far off course you’ve drifted and why you got lost.”

And so, when Smartryk and Mary sit down to supper in the dining room of the lodge, they both wondered about their chance meeting and what it might mean.

“I’ll take you to Rolbos tomorrow,” Smartryk glances at Mary over the rim of his glass. “Tomorrow. But we still have tonight…”

Everybody has a You

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credit: advrider.com

Mary Mitchell, she of the chequered past and the many days she’d rather forget, steps up to the roadside when she sees the big eighteen-wheeler roar down the slope of the hill. It’s been two days now, and the only two other vehicles to pass here didn’t even slow down. (One was a fully laden donkey cart, the other carrIed a surprised and very tired cyclist on his way to the shanty next to the dry river bed.) Smiling in a manner which she hopes to look sexy, desperate and hopeful at the same time, she lifts a thumb as the big truck approaches.

It works…

“Whatcha girl like you doin’ in a place like this?”

How can she dare tell him? She looks up at the rugged face, the tussled hair, the unshaved cheeks and the tattooed shoulders of the shirtless driver. Of all the unsavoury characters…! The half-chewed match dangling from the thick lower lip doesn’t help to improve the picture.

“Oh, I…” No, she’ll not tell him of the farmer who left her here after she refused his unwelcome advances. But, despite her obvious doubt of the driver’s character, she realises that beggars can’t always be choosers. That ploy only works if you’re what the politicians call ‘previously disadvantaged’. “I’m Mary Mitchell,” she finishes lamely, as if that explains everything. Come to think of it, it does – in her mind, anyway. Does her name not encompass every hardship she’s ever had to endure?

Kiewiet Rooi stares down at the young lady. Well, not so young any more, if you cared to look carefully. The lines on her face, the lack of make-up, the coldness in the eyes…yes, this one has been through the mill a couple of times.

Wind-Turbines03-1170x820“I’m on my way to the new wind-farm with a gearbox and some stuff for one of those big things,” he jerks a thumb towards the back. “Took what I thought would be a shortcut – never thought the road would be this bad. Could use some company, though.”

There is a spark of kindness in the voice, despite the rough appearance of the man.

“I…I need to get to Grootdrink and then to split off to Rolbos.” Mary watches as the man continues to chew the match. Doesn’t he look familiar?

Kiewiet suddenly brightens.

“Mary? MARY MITCHELL? Can you believe it? I’m Kiewiet! Remember me? I’m Ai Mieta’s son! Of the orpohanage. You were there …a million years ago, weren’t you?”

And suddenly, as if a curtain goes up to reveal a magnificent stage, Mary’s hopeful, desperate smile turns to laughter. Yes, she remembers the little boy who often helped Mieta in the kitchen. Kiewiet! Yes, it’s him! When the driver gets out to hug her – there next to the road, in the middle of nowhere – she hugs him right back, wetting a tattoo of an anchor with happy tears.

“You’re crying?”

“Just a little.” Loud sniff. “It’s been years since last I saw somebody I could call a friend.”

***

They talk as the truck negotiates its way across the uneven road surface. Kiewiet tells her how he left Grootdrink to look for fame and fortune in Cape Town.

2013_8$thumbimg118_Aug_2013_163357325“I was bad, Mary. Real bad. Joined the Americans…I had to, to survive. Of course the police got me in the end, it was inevitable. Went to jail, got taken up by the 26. I was a number, Mary…and set to continue a life of crime as soon as I got out. Drugs…there’s a lot of money in drugs…” Kiewiet pauses, fishes out a cigarette, stabs it between his lips angrily. “When I was released, I went straight to the shebeen. I wanted my old life back, see? It was the only life I knew. Well, I got there and landed myself in a lot of trouble.”

“What happened, Kiewiet?”

“Apparently the Americans picked up a scrap with the Boys. They were busy shooting each other to pieces when I arrived there. It was horrible. I saw one of my friends stagger from that shebeen, blood streaming from his neck – and then the Boys kept on shooting, shooting…”

Kiewiet falls silent for the next kilometre or so, lost in thought.

“You know, Mary, I often think of that moment. The way that man lived, the way he died. Senseless, totally senseless. Still, when it happened, I ran into the first house I saw. Ran like a scared rabbit. There I was, barely an hour out of jail, and I was in the middle of the war again. No, I couldn’t face it, not then, not now.  Anyway, while the shots kept on and on, I crashed through the door of that house and threw myself on the ground. I actually – would you believe it – found myself praying.” His smile is cynical now as he shakes his head. “Praying! Kiewiet Rooi lay there, praying like Mieta taught me when I was a boy still: If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. 

“After a while the sirens came and the shots stopped. I lifted my head…and saw the most beautiful thing I ever did see. Prudence April. Eighteen years old and so pretty it hurt my eyes.”

Prudence was scared, Kiewiet tells Mary, scared of this crazy man with the tattoos and the tears. But, he says, she kept her cool and ordered him out.

“I told her I couldn’t – not after what I saw. Then I begged her to stay. She looked at me a long time, then she asked if that was the only prayer I knew. I said it was the only one I remembered. And she smiled, Mary, she actually smiled! It was like the first rain of the summer in the Kalahari. I told her so. And then she asked if I knew what I was talking about, and I said yes, I do. She asked where, and I said Grootdrink.” Kiewiet lights the cigarette, puffs deeply.

“Turns out her family was from Noenieput originally – not that far from Grootdrink. And she offered tea and we sat there, talking haltingly at first, until the talk became easy. And that’s where, Mary, I said to myself: Kiewiet, there’s a different life out there. It’s time…”

They watch the barren veld roll by in silence for a while.

“Sooo…did you stay there?”

“No, Mary. I couldn’t. Not with my past and the jail and my tattoos. I was a bad man; she was this angel; this pure, young thing. I told her I’d come back when my life was sorted out. I think she believed me. Over the next few weeks I visited there often, despite her parent’s doubts. They looked at me and saw Kiewiet, the gang member. But as time went on, they softened because they saw I was trying hard. Then her father introduced me to a pastor who ran a program for chaps on parole. It was he who helped me get a driver’s license for big trucks. And then I started working for this company. I had to do short runs at first, always with a co-driver to keep an eye on me. When they saw I was really trying hard to be trustworthy, they took away the other chap. Then the hauls got bigger and longer.”

“And Prudence?”

Kiewiet takes out another match to start chewing again.

“After one of the longer trips, I got back and immediately went to visit. Her father let me in. The house was filled with flowers, I immediately knew something was horribly wrong…” Kiewiets face crumbles at the memory. “She was shot, Mary…shot while she walked down the street. Got herself caught between two gangs, fighting for territory.” He’s crying now, and Mary has to lean over to pat the shaking shoulders. “…I never went back…”

Mary stares at the road through the insect-spattered windscreen. Yes, she thinks, Life is like that. The best laid plans of mice and men… Kiewiet’s story is so similar to her’s.

“We’re all orphans, Kiewiet,” she says softly, “orphans of Life. Once we face the reality of surviving from day to day we have to cope with ourselves, with all the goodness and sadness and dark thoughts contained inside our minds. It’s a struggle to keep faith and an even greater fight to keep on believing that the only thing worthwhile fighting for, is love. No father and no mother can teach us that – despite all their good intentions. Life throws itself at us and we have to discover this truth all by ourselves.

“Ai Mieta was maybe the only real mother I ever knew and I know how much love she gave us small ones. She set such a beautiful example. But then I grew up and made so many mistakes, I stopped counting. I simply lost the way, just like you. So many lost opportunities, so many regrets.”

The truck lumbers on towards a crossing. The two people in the cab are silent – there is so little left to say. Kiewiet reaches over to pat Mary’s leg.

“I turn off here,” he says, “the road to Grootdrink is straight ahead. Unless…?” He doesn’t finish the sentence.

“I have to get to Rolbos, Kiewiet.” Mary almost manages a brave smile. “It is important.”

***

She watches the truck until it disappears over a distant hill. Then she looks up.

“Aren’t we all lost, Lord? Little ants running to and fro, trying to make sense out of it all? “

She sits down on her tattered little suitcase, a traveller through the desert, waiting, waiting for Life to smile down on her. Just for once, it’d be such a wonderful change…

Mind the Gaps

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

“Why do we always have to talk about Greek and Roman history?”

Vetfaan’s question makes them all look up. Surely they haven’t just talked about Greece and Italy? But then they see the glint in the burly farmer’s eye and realise he’s up to something.

“Ye-e-es? What’s on your mind, Vetfaan?”

“I just think that we have some perfectly good myths in South Africa, that’s all. Instead of jabbering on about how wonderful the ancient Mediterranean peoples were, how about talking about our own stories? At least we can relate to them much better than these foreign tales.”

“You mean like the story of the hawk and the chickens?”

***

It is said that, a long time ago, Hawk and the Chicken family were great friends. Because Hawk could fly, it was he who visited the flightless family every so often. They’d sit down and talk all day long, swapping stories and news. As for Mrs Hen, she welcomed these visits because Hawk never failed to bring toys as presents for the little ones. This went on for a long, long time.

Then, one day, Hawk arrived for a visit, but he had forgotten to bring along any toys. Saddened by his oversight, he produced the key to his house for the little ones to play with. Clucking happily, the chickens scooted off to the ash heap. where they played catch with the shiny key. But, like little chickens are, they soon tired of the game and found something else to play with.

When the sun was about to set, Hawk thanked Hen and Cock, and prepared to leave.

“Where is my key?” Hawk called the little chicks and glared at them.

Oh! The little ones took fright and ran over to the rubbish dump, where they searched for the key. Hawk waited and waited. When it became clear that his key was lost, he became very angry.

“My food is locked in my house!” His eyes blazed with fury. “What am I supposed to eat tonight? Get my key.”

But look as they might, the chickens couldn’t find the key.

Then, Hawk flew high into the air, swooped down again, and caught one of  the little chickens. 

“I shall return tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, for my key. You had better find it, Chickens, or I shall be forced to feed on all your children.”

And so it came about that Hawk will forever patrol the skies to prey on his erstwhile friends.

And the Chicken family?

At dawn every day, Cock is up first, shouting: ‘Get the ke-e-ey! Get the ke-e-ey.’ And for the rest of the day the whole family will scratch, scratch in the ground and on the ash heap, hoping to find Hawk’s key at last.

***

“Is that a real myth, or did you make up that story, Gertruida?”

Tales_from_Southern_AfricaFor once, Gertruida seems uncertain. “I read a book, many years ago. It was a collection of Southern African stories, compiled and translated by A C Jordan. Fascinating stuff, I have to admit. But is was some time ago, so I may have changed the story a bit.”

“But what does it mean, Gertruida? Sure, it tells the story of why hawks hunt chickens, why the cock crows so early in the morning, and why chickens scratch around so much…but surely there is a deeper meaning? African tales are famous for what they don’t tell; even our oral historians specialise in that.”

“You’re so right. In Africa you have to be careful not just to listen to the words – you have to fill in the gaps yourself. Stories, speeches, statements – almost any communication, especially when delivered from a public platform – these all contain messages inside the message. Maybe it is true for politicians everywhere, but in Africa we have the masters of the art. Our politicians come from a tradition of storytelling, it isn’t something they have to learn. We don’t need spin-doctors like the Americans do – our politicians are DIY-spinners themselves – and experts at it.”

“But still, ” Servaas bunches the bushy brows together, “there must be a moral to the story?”

“It’s the key, Servaas. The key.” Gertruida takes a thoughtful sip of beer before continuing. “A hawk comes along and gives the chickens a shiny thing to play with. The chickens are overjoyed. Then the chickens mess things up and the hawk starts feeding on them.” She pauses, sees that Servaas still doesn’t get it, and sighs. It’s so obvious! 

“Look at what’s happening in Africa, my friend. Russia wants to ‘help’ us by building nuclear power stations. China ‘assists’ many African countries by building roads and bridges and dams and schools. American aid ensures the survival of several governments – and the European Union supports a number of environmental and social programs. Do you think they do this because they have an obligation to render help to impoverished countries? Or are these efforts merely the key to gaining access to the raw materials Africa is blessed with? There’s an old rule about investing: you want to get more out of it than you put into it. It’s so simple…

“And don’t think the story only applies to politics, either. Most relationships contain an element of this give-and-take attitude. That’s why so many friendships get shipwrecked and why the divorce lawyers drive around in flashy cars. Too many individuals turn out to be hawks with shiny keys…it’s so sad.

“I think the old Xhosa storytellers were wonderfully creative in telling their bits of folklore. They contained great wisdom and some serious warnings. If only we could learn from that and fill in the gaps, we’d be so much better off.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “So…Gertruida? Did the little chickens find the key?”

“Oh Vetfaan! Sometimes I wonder if you are capable of intelligent thought! It’s a story, for goodness sakes!” Then, eyeing him critically, she smiles wryly. “You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?”

“Fill in the gap, Gertruida, fill in the gap….”

Spinning the Web

spider+web“History is the template,” Gertruida said – because she knew everything – when she concluded her lecture on Nero. “It’s almost inevitable that it should repeat itself. So: know the past, and the future will not be a mystery any longer.”

“That may be true, Gertruida. But when you go back far enough, history and myth are so entwined and mixed that we no longer know what – exactly – happened in the beginning.”

Servaas scowled at this , muttering that Precilla should read her Bible properly. “It’s all in there,” he said.

Credit: TimeMaps.com

Credit: TimeMaps.com

“Of course Servaas. We all know that. But Precilla has a point. The oldest stories we have come from Herodotus  and scribes like him. The area we know as the Middle East was a rich source for such stories – with the countries of Canaan, Babylon, Egypt and Assyria providing the background  for these.” Gertruida closed her eyes to visualise the area. “And oh! Those people loved stories! This was, you’ll remember, before TV and newspapers. If you could tell a rollicking good story, you had a captive audience.”

“Do you know any of those?” Vetfaan was bored. History wasn’t something he felt passionate about. But stories…now that’s the stuff to listen to in Boggel’s Place.

Scratching her head, Gertruida stared at the ceiling for a minute. “Well…” she said….

***

1_400“There was this young lady, Arachne, the daughter of a humble shepherd. At a very early age she began working with wool, and soon she took up weaving. Her skill developed until nobody could work the loom like she did – as a spinster she had no equal. She wove pictures into her cloth that seemed so lifelike that people started saying she received her skill from the gods – a statement that made Arachne extremely angry.

No, she said, I taught myself. The gods have nothing to do with this. And, by the way, my weaving is far superior to anything even the immortals can do. So there!

Then one day, an old lady appeared at her doorstep.

You shouldn’t boast like that, my child. You’ll have to apologise, otherwise those gods may want to punish you.

Oh, hogwash! If the gods think they can do better, let them come down here. We’ll have a little contest, see? And then I’ll prove their weaving to be inferior.

All of a sudden, the old lady changed into the most splendid sight. There was Athena, the goddess of art and craft, in all her splendour.

By Zeus! You little hussy! Now you’ve done it! We’ll have a contest here and now. The one who loses, must promise never to touch a spindle or loom – ever again. Understood?

Arachne wasn’t phased in the least. So confident was she that she agreed to the challenge, and the two women started weaving immediately.

Arachne used all her skill to produce the finest, most beautiful tapestry she had ever created. The cloth was so thin, she could see her hand through it. And on it she used many colours to depict various pictures in which the deceit and cunning of the gods were portrayed.

But Athena! Oh, she used fleece as her background, colouring it with the blue of the sky, the green of the pastures, the yellow of sunshine and the purple hues of autumn.  So magnificent was her weaving, that Arachne immediately knew she had lost.

Arachne did the typical female thing: she burst into tears. No, cried she, I cannot live without my weaving!

Athena took pity on the bawling lass, but a bet is a bet: Arache would never touch a loom or a spindle again. What to do? The wailing was just too much for Athena to bear.

So she took her spear and touched the unfortunate Arachne – turning her into a spider. That way, the goddess reckoned, Arachne could go on doing what she did best: spinning and weaving – but without touching a spindle or loom.”

***

Gertruida sits back with a satisfied smile. “That’s why we still talk about the spiders as arachnids today – remembering the weaver who boasted herself into spinning webs for the rest of her life.”

Servaas nods happily. “Pride before the fall, huh?”

“It is always wrong to overemphasise one’s abilities.” Oudoom wonders if it is wrong to bring mythology into next Sunday’s sermon, mulls over it for a second and decides against it. His congregation might very well remember the story and not the message.

The group at he bar falls silent for a while. They think of recent events – involving so many politicians, sportsmen and women, actors and performers – and contemplate the intricate tapestry people weave to prove their superiority. How many of them end up being consumed by the opinion they hold of themselves? Too many? All of them?

“The world is filled with spiders,” Servaas says at  length. “So many spiders…”

“Mmmm…” Precilla wrinkles her nose, imagining the earth caught in a spider’s tapestry. “So Arancha was rewarded, blessed and cursed – all at the same time?”

“Yes, my dear.” There’s a  sardonic smile on Gertruida’s lips. “Just like us… Caught in a Web we’re spinning ourselves, doomed to eternal creative captivity.”

Of course the patrons at the bar don’t understand. So few do…

Nero’s Nkandla

 Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also known as  Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus   Dec. 15, 37 —June 9, 68

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also known as
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
Dec. 15, 37 —June 9, 68

“The ancient Greeks were an interesting lot,” Gertruida says – because she knows everything. “They gave us myths and stories, developed mathematics and invented democracy. The world would have been so much poorer without them. After them came the Romans, of course.”

Servaas gathers his brows together, shaking his head. As one of the few hippy-elders of the world, he feels he has to respond.

“But they had tyrants – like Nero. He didn’t like Christians much, setting a bad example for today’s extremists, like ISIS.”

“Ah, yes – the much maligned Nero. Yes, you’re right about the Christians – but he wasn’t a tyrant. A tyrant, according to Plato, is “one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and uses extreme and cruel tactics—against his own people as well as others”  This description, quite clearly, doesn’t fit Nero. He was extremely popular at the time, the masses loved him, and he stuck to the law. At least, he used the law to solidify his position as ruler. Clever, no?

“But he wasn’t a nice man. His stepfather – Claudius – had another son, Britannicus, a few years younger than the adopted Nero. Some wanted Britannicus to be the emperor after Claudius’s death –  who incidentally died after eating some mushrooms. Poor Britannicus also died after ingesting poison on the day before he would have been proclaimed an adult. which would have strengthened his claim to the throne. The list of murders in which Nero was supposedly involved, is a lengthy one. If you dared cross him, you were simply removed from the scene. Even his mother didn’t escape his wrath.

“Despite all this, he was also rather popular with the ladies. He married three times – taking women from higher and lower in social standing – and is rumoured to have had a number of willing lassies waiting for his call. Isn’t it strange how women gravitate toward men in power? No matter what the man does or how he conducts his affairs, some ladies simply can’t resist sucking up to them, if you’ll excuse the pun.

tumblr_mdfrgfMYc61ryfivao1_1280“And then there was the Great Fire in Rome in 64 AD. Many historians blame Nero for the fire, but the debate on the cause still goes on. What is known, is that Nero certainly didn’t play a fiddle while Rome burnt – the fiddle would only be invented almost a thousand years later. But he may well have played a lyre, which may have been the granddaddy of the violin. Anyway, he wasn’t in Rome when the fire started, according to Tacitus, he was in Antium. But…of course he wouldn’t have run through Rome with a box of matches himself, he was the Emperor, for goodness’ sakes! A man like that had many servants, not so? If you’re the ruler, you’re supposed to be distanced from any criminal activity. It’s just like the Arms Deal: you have to make sure you have enough other officials to blame in order to make yourself look good.

“Anyway, Nero knew that popular support was important to anybody who wanted to stay in power. So, after the fire, he set about doing charitable deeds. He had Rome rebuilt, providing his subjects with brick houses to replace the shanties they had lived in before. While he was keeping the populace happy with their fine, new, one-roomed dwellings, he quietly had his architects design a new palace for him: the Domus Aurea or Golden House. This was  – quite coincidentally – situated on a piece of ground recently bared by the fire.

e2133 Domus aurea print1

Domus Aurea

“Now this palace was something else! Situated on a hillside, the grounds sloped down through an amazing garden which bordered the man-made lake. It had 300 rooms, and the main dining room had a revolving ceiling, resembling the movements of heaven! Other ceilings were covered in mosaic and there was a large statue of Nero, himself. And oh! The decorations! There were paintings and frescoes and and ivory and marble – every conceivable luxury of the time was displayed to emphasise the importance of the man we know as Nero, the Tyrant.

“In the end, Nero committed a sort-of suicide four years after the Fire of Rome. There were several reasons for this, notably the way he started taxing the rich and influential people of the day. Italy simply couldn’t sustain the extravagance of their emperor any longer. A revolt started, causing Nero to flee Rome. He later returned to the palace but found his loyal supporters had all left. The Senate convened, declared him a public enemy, and sentenced him to death. Upon hearing this, Nero sought refuge at some friend’s house, where he forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to stab him to death.”

“A fitting end to a man who caused so much hardship.” Servaas nods. “What ye sow…”

“And his palace?” Vetfaan has to know.

“It became an embarrassment to his successors. The ivory and gold were stripped, but the edifice remained. Then they filled up the entire area, covering the palace with ground. The Baths of Titus were first built, followed by an amphitheatre and the Temple of Venus and Rome. Within 40 years the palace was buried beneath the soil.”

“Surely the people rejoiced at all this?”

“Some did, Precilla, but not all. The lower classes still held Nero in great esteem, revering his memory. It was only the people who understood what he had been doing who had reason to feel relieved. Still, it took a number of years for things to settle – a situation like that doesn’t end when the tyrant goes.

“And don’t think it’s an isolated case in the history of mankind. Rulers and kings have stayed in power by being supported by the people they reign over. It’s only when popular dissent grows from a grumble to a scream that things change. Rulers understand that. Remember: logic whispers, money shouts? That’s why President Zuma could say with so much confidence: “….only very clever and bright people care about…Nkandla.” He implied that his support came from the poor and disadvantaged part of society. It was true in Nero’s time, it’s still true today..”

“But the palace…the palace started the slide in his career, didn’t it?” The pleading note in Servaas’s voice is unmistakable.

“Back then, yes.” Gertruida sighs. “Who knows? Maybe history does keep on repeating itself, after all…”

The Father of Our Tragedies

Aeschylus_Bust

Bust of Aeschylus

“When an elephant gets angry at you, he settles the score by resting his head on your chest. Really hard and really long – after he pinned you to the ground. That’s what I heard, at least.”

Vetfaan shudders at the thought. It’s been a quiet day in Boggel’s Place, and the conversation slewed to the many different ways in which life may end – or dying, to be more specific. With the political scene constantly moving south, this seemed to be a very natural thing to do.

“Ag, Vetfaan, being crushed by an elephant may be an apt metaphor when you think about it. We small people don’t really feature in the greater scheme of things. If Zuma builds a new home, takes a new wife or buys eight nuclear power stations…what can we do? Death, taxes and silly governmental decisions – those are inevitable. We might as well stop worrying about it.” Shrugging her shoulders, Precilla orders another beer.

“There is the story of Aeschylus, of course…,” Gertruida says with an appropriate pause at the end. She knows they’ll want to know what she’s talking about. They don’t disappoint her.

“Well, he lived about 500 years before Christ. He was a writer.” Again the tantalising silence as she sips her beer. Kleinpiet rolls his eyes and stares at her with pleading eyes.

“Oh, come on! You guys should know all about that famous Greek? He was the father of soapies.”

When Servaas slaps her playfully, softly, on her cheek, she smiles and relents by telling the story.

“Aeschilus was a playwright, you see? Before he appeared on the scene, the Greeks certainly staged plays, but they had a single actor on stage, backed up with a chorus. It was more – as I understand it – a way of musical story-telling. Then Aeschilus changed all that. He brought in the concept of tragedy by placing two actors in a conflict situation. The chorus wasn’t so important anymore – the actors acted out the story. And of course, there had to be a winner and a loser, hence the tragedy. He wrote plays which enthralled the audience so much that – according to an old book, The Life of Aeschilus  – ‘they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labour.’

“In those days trilogies became popular, with tragic episodes following each other; much like the Americans do with their TV programs. And, in contrast to preceding efforts, his actors had to dress up and be made up to look like the character they portrayed: like Zeus or Achilles and so on.

“Anyway, today we honour him as the Father of Tragedy, the one who introduced mankind to the reality of everyday life – on stage. He was hugely successful in his time, but I think only seven of his plays survived.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “What has that to do with unusual deaths, Gertruida? That’s what we were talking about.”

“Oh that?” She smiles enigmatically. “Of course. You see, he heard a prohesy about his death. It was said that something would fall on his head, killing him instantly. So he solved the problem by staying outside, never venturing into buildings and cities. He thought he was safe.”

“So he died of old age?”

“Nope. According to Pliny in Naturalis Historiæ and an earlier writer, Valerius Maximus, an eagle  carried a tortoise high into the air, looking for a suitable rock to dash it on. Mistaking Aeschilus’s head for a rock, the eagle dropped the tortoise on target, killing the playwright.”

“So the father of tragedy died as a result of a flying tortoise?”

“Indeed. You see, if you are destined to die on a certain day in a certain manner, that’s the way it’ll be. You can’t escape fate.”

Oudoom clears his throat. He doesn’t like this type of argument.

“Don’t worry, Oudoom, we all know that such old tales are often fables and bits of oral history that get distorted over time, And, remember, those stories were written up long before Christ, which must make us look at them in context.”

With Oudoom suitably placated, a comfortable silence settles in Boggel’s Place while they mull over the life and times of that old Greek.

Credit: Independent Newspapers. File picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

Credit: Independent Newspapers. File picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

“Yes,” Servaas says suddenly. “Tragic trilogies. Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma. Today our modern playwright is the Parliament and let’s agree – they certainly dress up according to the drama they depict. They still use a chorus, though, when they protest.”

“Aeschilus all over again?” Vetfaan raises an eyebrow. “So we wait for a flying tortoise to bring sense back to our politics?”

He gets a slow nod from Gertruida. “Something slow is going to happen really fast one day. You’ll see, it’ll happen. Already the press and the media are baying for the head of our beloved President. It’s almost as if they know something we don’t. Or perhaps they are busy preparing the nation for a change. But, in the end, we have to agree that a tortoise can be as deadly as an elephant. It’s surprising how effective they can be under the right circumstances.”

“Falling tortoises and waning support…you may be right, Gertruida.”

Gertruida merely smiles that  smile again. She’s wondering who will be the eagle, and what form the tortoise will take. The tragedy, she thinks, is that the play on our political stage is so well written, that – like Aeschilus proved in his plays and with his demise – the end will come as  a surprise to everybody.

One of the main actors may be sacrificed, but the play will go on – and it can never be a comedy. Yes, she thinks, we’re doing Aeschilus proud…

When day has gone…

Nighttime in Africa is so special. That’s when the shadows deepen – not only in the bush, but in your mind as well. And you get visitors…

IMG_0134aThe spooky moon fills your mind, creating images you’d rather not endure.

IMG_3246Quick! Add wood to the fire…! Listen…the soft padding of approaching paws!

109_0935

Oh joy! It’s the resident badger, scouting for scraps. But…isn’t that another shadow moving behind it? Oh no…there are two of them!

108_0844A jackal and a brown hyena followed the badger in the hope of robbing him of supper!

Trip 2012 043And then you realise – the biggest of them all has been watching silently all along.

x23aWhen at last dawn releases you from the claws of darkness, you get the fire going for a mug of black coffee. Another day of adventure awaits…

e4

PS If you like Africa and her stories, you may want to have a look at Imagine: Africa..

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