To eternity…and back (#7)

paw-with-thornGertruida will tell you (she knows everything, remember?) that not all love stories have a happy ending. Mostly, relationships suffer mortal damage due to that silly trait people seem compelled to nurture when they are alone: the ego. They don’t realise there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Love’.

Matron Krotz, she of the ample bosom and rigid leadership, stood in the doorway, shaking with fiery and indignant rage. Shorty, on the other hand, was as white as a sheet, humiliated, shivering as if standing in an icy draft. After all these years, they met again in a whirlpool of anger, guilt, frustration and hurt. Nobody said anything for a full two minutes. Gertruida broke the icy silence.

“Matron?” She got no response and tried again. “Matron? Did you hear…everything?”

Matron Krotz finally turned her head ever so slightly to stare at Getruida – at first uncomprehending, but later recognising who had spoken.

“I do not need to hear anything, Gertruida. I know what that bastard did to my life, and that’s quite enough, thank you.” The words were clipped, said with great determination. “And this is my hospital. This piece of…piece of…” She searched for the appropriate word. “Piece of … garbage shall remove himself at once, or I shall be compelled to throw him out. Is. That. Clear?”

“She only heard the last bit, about Shorty selling those devices to Correctional Services.” Servaas sighed and went on with a tired voice: “She doesn’t know the rest…” He was, of course, the only one who had been facing the door during Shorty’s explanation. He also remembered – quite vividly at that moment – the dream he had about the dunes. “Look, we’re all grown-ups here. Matron has suffered tremendously because of Shorty’s stupidity in the past. But, come on folks, so did Shorty. There were no winners in this contest, guys. Everybody lost something – is it really necessary to continue making the same mistakes, to continue the losing streak? Or is there a way, any old way, we can stop the carnage and start over again?”

Servaas got a grateful look from Gertruida, accompanied by an almost imperceptible nod. They were witness to a pivotal moment in two person’s lives, and it was up to them to save Shorty and matron from destroying their one chance for reconciliation.

IMG_2647“I once heard a story.” The change of subject was so sudden, so unexpected, that all heads turned to Gertruida. She seemed oblivious of their surprise as she continued. “About a lion. A silly old lion. Funny I should think about that now.” She flashed an apologetic smile that fooled nobody. “He stepped into a thorn while chasing a ground squirrel one day. Isn’t that funny? The mean old lion wanting to eat a poor, innocent little squirrel. Ha. Ha.” Nobody joined the laughter. Gertruida didn’t seem to notice. “Well, the squirrel sat in the tree and the lion licked his foot down below, obviously in great pain.

“‘Hey,’ the squirrel said, ‘I can help you. I have hands, you see? And you don’t. If you promise not to eat me, I’ll remove that thorn for you’. But the lion, you see, was too proud, to angry, to accept help. He growled at the squirrel, who wisely climbed a bit higher up in the tree.

“Well, you can imagine what happened. That thorn festered and the lion’s foot became septic. It rotted off, quite literally. And then the lion died.”

There was a stunned silence in the room for a few seconds and then, bless her soul, nurse Botha giggled and started a soft applause. She walked over to the still stern-faced matron, put her arm around the broad shoulders, and suggested that the two of them retire to have a cup on nice, strong, sweet tea. To talk, she said, about thorns and stupidity. She said it lightly, jokingly, hoping to cool the austere woman’s temper. It was certainly a worthwhile and honourably brave act, despite the outcome.

Matro stood ramrod straight, blinked twice, and told nurse Botha to take a flying leap at herself. Then she stomped off down the corridor. The group around the bed heard her door slam.

***

Servaas recovered sufficiently to be discharged two days later. Doctor Welman and a surly matron Krotz did their final round that morning, making him promise to take it easy for a while and to take his tablets regularly. Servaas nodded happily, telling them that Vetfaan would be there soon to pick him up.

Back in her office, matron Krotz sat down with a sigh. Yes, she understood that Shorty had paid dearly for his stupidity way back then. And yes, she was still furious with the man. How many years have gone wasted because he had been such a fool? How many nights had she cried whenever she thought about her pain and loss? No, that stupid nurse was way off the mark when she suggested that she, matron Krotz, should try to understand…

A soft knock on her door made her look up.

“Yes?”

Nurse Botha stepped in, an uncertain little smile hovering on her lips.

“Matron, I’ve been thinking.”

The older woman let her head sink into her hands. This damn nurse! Can’t she mind her own business?

“It’s about you, Matron. And that thorn in your foot. And the way it’s poisoned your life. And how I see – on some of the morning rounds, not all that often – how red your eyes are and how you pretend to be such an awful old woman while you’re shouting at everybody.”

Matron Krotz half-rose out of her chair, ready to teach this impertinent nurse a lesson she’d never forget. Nurse Botha didn’t flinch – squaring her shoulders, she went on.

“You, Matron, still have…feelings…for that man. Maybe it’s anger, maybe it’s hate…or maybe it’s something completely different. Whatever it is, Matron, you have to face those feelings. Face them, deal with them, and do something about them. The way you chased Mister de Lange out of the hospital the other day…well, I felt sorry for him. He has a thorn in his foot, too. So I thought…” At this point she faltered, her bravado slipping. Biting her lower lip, she stood there, wringing her hands in uncertainty.

“Well, what did you conjure up in that silly little piece of grey stuff you call a brain, nurse Botha?”

Gertruida says we all have a saturation point: for insults, for injustice, for shame. Even for being belittled and scorned at for too long. That point, she says, is a dangerous moment in time when people do unpredictable things – some of them incredibly brave, others rather stupid. This was what happened on that day when matron Krotz made her snide remark, expecting nurse Botha to beat a hasty retreat. It didn’t happen. She, however, had reached that point, jutted out her jaw and took a deep breath.

“Listen, matron, for as long as I worked here, you stomp around with a chip on your shoulder. Always criticizing, never satisfied. People don’t like you, because you’re…you’re…such an unforgiving…bitch, if you’ll pardon the word.!” She wiped away an angry tear with an even angrier hand. There was no stopping then. “And I, for one, am fed up. Fed up, you understand? Had it up to here!” The hand made a motion across her neck. “So I’ve had it! Finished! I’m taking my bag and I’m going somewhere where people appreciate me. And you…you can wallow in your grief until the final trumpet blows. I don’t care. Go spend the rest of your miserable life in misery. I was going to ask Mister de Lange to come in and try one more time. Well, bugger it! You can go and do something unmentionable to yourself. Goodbye and good riddance!”

Just before the door slammed shut behind the upset nurse, matron Krotz caught a glimpse of the face of the man who had waited there to be called in. Had anybody been watching, it would have been difficult to say which of the three people involved was the most upset. Matron sank back in her chair, flabbergasted. Never, in her entire life, had anybody spoken to her like that!

But, standing in front of the closed door, Shorty de Lange stood defeated and alone.No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had suffered a loss even greater than the death of poor Jacobus, his only son. His son had been paralysed, retarded, compromised in every aspect of life. This was exactly how Shorty de Lange felt when he turned to leave. There just wasn’t any sense in hanging around.

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#8)

Credit:theguardian.com

Credit:theguardian.com

Perhaps it was the shock. After so many years of guilt (in Shorty’s mind) and anger (Alice Krotz), one might have expected things to go horribly wrong when Vetfaan unknowingly caused the two to meet again. After all, his goal had been to link Shorty up with Servaas again – how was he to know about matron Krotz? And matron, harbouring the deep hatred for the man who so ably ruined her romantic life forever, had ample reason to refuse to forgive the hapless Shorty, despite the best efforts of poor nurse Botha.

So, picture the scene:

The stage: matron’s office and the corridor in front of it.

The actors: Matron Krotz, seething with anger, staring at the closed door from behind her desk

Shorty, resting his head against the wall outside the closed door, emotionally drained,                          about to leave

Nurse Botha, storming out, having slammed the door, beside herself with fury

…and Vetfaan…

Vetfaan had been on his way to thank matron Krotz for taking such good care of Servaas, when his rather large bulk halted nurse Botha’s flight down the corridor.

People often look at Vetfaan, at his bulky frame and good-natured smile, and assume he’s this gentle giant of a man; maybe a little slow but with a good heart. And often, that’s exactly who Vetfaan is: the  last one to laugh at a joke, the first at the counter when drinks are on the house. But when he took in the scene in front of matron’s office, he instinctively connected the dots – correctly. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard, given the attitude and the appearance of the two people he encountered.

Nurse Botha, who had been storming blindly down the corridor a second ago, crashed into Vetfaan with a resounding thump! – and then felt the muscular arms fold gently around her. She resisted, trying to escape, for just a second, before surrendering to a gale of sniffling sobs. Vetfaan seemed to take it all in his stride as he rocked her softly, saying over and over again that everything will be all right.

Shorty, in the meantime, froze where he stood, half-turned to leave, yet sufficiently surprised by Vetfaan’s appearance to remain where he was.

“Difficult morning, eh?” Vetfaan kept his voice level as he addressed nobody in particular. “I just hate it when a day starts like this.”

“You…don’t…understa-a-a-a-nd,” nurse Botha wailed. “Th-h-hat …woman…is the…de-de-devil!” Vetfaan had to listen very carefully to make sense of the words between the sobs.

Shorty closed his eyes. Opened them again. Gulped. Spoke. “No she isn’t.” Something inside him forced him to speak. Over the years he had so often thought about Alice and the way he had treated her, and now the words insisted that he – at last – said them out loud. Even if he said them to strangers, there would be some relief. No more silence. No more denial… “She was – is – the sweetest girl I ever knew. She can be gentle, kind, compassionate, caring. I know that. I experienced that. But what I did, was as inexcusable as it was inevitable, I suppose. I was a wild one back then: always tempting fate to see how far I could go.”

By then, nurse Botha had stopped crying as she listened to Shorty’s confession.

“Alice – matron Krotz – was different. She had a naive innocence about her, and I was on course to destroy that. Fortunately, I never got that far. Before our relationship got to the next level, Fate intervened. Or God, if you like. Or the Natural Order of Things took over. Whatever… But, had we gotten married back then, the outcome would have been even worse than it is now.

“Well, little Jacobus came along, and he taught me so many lessons. He forced me to grow up, you see? Despite his many disabilities, he became my teacher. Life, I learnt, isn’t about the silly moments of laughter – it’s about love. And I loved that boy with all my heart – eventually. Once I had made peace with the fact that I’d made just too many mistakes in my past, little Jacobus became the focus of my future. I was determined to make him as happy as I could. My focus shifted from my own needs to his – a process that happened slowly over the years. And then, just when I finally understood why he had come into my life…he died…”

Shorty smiled wryly, despite the wetness around his eyes. By then, nurse Botha had turned around in Vetfaan’s hug, and the two of them stood listening to him with rapt attention. When Vetfaan made to loosen his arms around the nurse, she shook her head. She felt safe there…

“But Alice? I can understand why she does what she does – even how she does it. That spark of kindness and compassion never died, despite my stupidity. She became a carer for the sick, living and sharing her compassion with those most in need of it. And yes, she may be difficult and obtuse and stubborn…but why?” He paused before answering his own question. “Because her work had become her escape. It had to be perfect – if only to lessen the hurt I had made her suffer.”

Shorty straightened up. Life, he told them, first had to prune away his ego before – slowly, steadily – allowing him to discover the beauty of unconditional love.  “I once thought love was about being happy. How wrong I was! How stupid. Love isn’t a beggar wanting more. Love wants to give and give, even when you have nothing left.”

Vetfaan’s puzzled look didn’t worry him. If the burly farmer didn’t understand, then he will, one day. Anyway, he had said what he actually wanted to tell matron Krotz. The words were out, his burden ever so slightly less overwhelming. It was time to go.

“Thank you, nurse Botha, for trying. And thanks Vetfaan, for giving me the opportunity to talk to Servaas. At least I did that – talked to Servaas, I mean. It would have been nice to talk to Alice, but I don’t think she’d ever be prepared to listen to me, I suppose…”

At that moment the door cracked open and a  flushed Alice Krotz strode into the corridor.

“This is my hospital, and I will not have people discussing their private lives in public. It’s not done, dammit! Is this a confessional?   Do you think this is a psychiatrist’s office? This is…” she glared at them sternly, “…my hospital. My  corridor.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself to sound more reasonable. “Now, all of you get inside my office at once. Shees! What will doctor Welman think if he found us all here? I can just imagine his shock and horror! Go on…inside!” Was there the slightest hint of a smile on her face? “And you, nurse Botha, you go and make that damn tea you’re always going on about. And then you come back here, I have to talk to you about your manners.”

***

Gertruida says that human nature is a fickle thing.  The right word at the right time can change an explosive situation into a healing experience. Or vice versa, if one has to be honest, when the wrong thing is said at the wrong time.

When matron Krotz stared at the slammed door a few minutes before Vetfaan’s arrival, she was so ready to fire nurse Botha – even before she had time to resign. But when she heard Shorty speak to the others in the corridor, the reality of the situation settled in her mind. Shorty, as guilty as he was in wrecking her youth, was sorry! He even admitted his wrongs  – in public!  He had become a different man. And along the way, he had become the man she thought he would be. That meant – she reasoned – that she had been right all along, only at the wrong time. Shorty – like so many men – was a late developer. Male maturity happened to be, after all, such a different and tardy process compared to the female equivalent – which, in matron’s informed opinion, certainly proves the superiority of the latter.

And anyway, she had to admit to herself, she couldn’t run the hospital without the able help of that busybody, nurse Botha.

Matron stared at the three people – Vetfaan, silent and strong; Shorty, with uncertainty written all over his face; and nurse Botha, still visibly upset – over the rim of her steaming cup of tea.

For the first time in many, many years, Matron Alice Krotz had to wipe away a tear. Nothing in her training or experience had prepared her for a moment like this. How –  in heaven’s name –  was she supposed to handle this mess? But, being the woman she was, she set  her jaw firmly, swallowed hard, and prepared her speech in her mind. She’d show them.

(To be continued…)

 

‘And when they tell you that you’re crazy,
You’ve got to try to settle down,
You got to turn yourself around,
Life is more than just good times, and parties…’

To eternity…and back (#6)

images (1)Shorty de Lange nodded his thanks when nurse Botha brought in a chair. She had been listening at the door, her anger at Shorty for upsetting her patient slowly evaporating – to be replaced with understanding sympathy. She knew how hard it is to nurse able-bodied patients – this man must have gone through hell…

“My son, poor little Jacobus de Lange, died that night. Of course the hospital couldn’t reach me – ths all happened in the days before cellphones, remember? The effect of my sleepless night, my rebellion against God and the news that my son was dead combined in a white-hot anger. I ranted and raved so much that they had to sedate me.

“When I woke up, I was in the psychiatric ward. The doctors later told me they couldn’t decide whether I had an alcoholic dementia, suffered from post-traumatic stress, or simply – as they put it – ‘lost it’. They were sure about the diagnosis of depression, though.

“They allowed me to attend little Jacobus’s funeral, and the next day my case was taken over by doctor  Heidi Harmse. She was excellent. Took me back to my youth, the army, the later years. Showed me how everything fitted in with each other – one bad choice giving momentum to the next. She made me take a long, hard look at myself and I didn’t like what I saw. During my younger years I was an egocentric chaser of superficial and instant gratification. When everything went sour, I blamed God and became a morose, egocentric self-made martyr. I demanded that everybody should feel sorry for me and fed on that sympathy the same way those frogs went for their feed three times a day. Like the frogs, I became a bloated, self pitying worthless blob.

“Dr Harmse made me take myself apart…and then made me reassemble the bits so that I realised I must choose what my future should hold. I’ll always appreciate that.”

With nowhere to go after his discharge, he shacked up with his nephew in Prieska.

IMG-20121002-00082“I hadn’t seen Berie de Lange since childhood, but he welcomed me with open arms. Now that man, Bertie, showed me a different way of living. He lived on a smallholding where he built electrical control boxes for an off-road camper company. You know, that box where the main power supply gets split to supply the electricity to various points in the camper? Well, he built those for Conqueror, arguable the best off-road camper on sale. Knew quite a bit about electricity, he did.

“Anyway, Bertie is a great believer in – what he calls – The Natural Order of Things. You make a choice, you have to live with the consequences…that type of thing. He says events follow a natural course with decisions determining what happens next. Basically, without knowing it, he echoed doctor Harmse’s advice. He believed in paying it forward, which is why he took me in. When you approach Life in humility, he said, you will reap the benefits, even if it takes years.

“One evening – with nothing else to do –  we sat around chatting  and for lack of anything else to talk about, I told him about my idea to tag frogs. Not that he had any frogs to tag, but because he knew so much about electrical circuits and things. Just idle chatter, wiling the evening away, see?

“Bertie’s reaction blew me away. Quite excited, he was. He had, he said, been working on a similar line of thought regarding wild animals…as a sort of hobby. He couldn’t believe that I actually entertained the same idea. We chatted  right through the night.” Shorty smiled at the memory. “The next day we started working on a small device which housed a transponder and a little sending device. Theoretically, we’d be able to dart an animal an then trace it with our invention.

“Of course there are similar devices on the market, but the thing we came up with in the end was unique. Small, lightweight and accurate – but we lacked a delivery system. Despite it’s size, it was too big for a dart gun.

Electronic tag“Then we heard that the Department of Correctional Services was looking at electronic tagging for convicts on parole…”

And the rest, Shorty tells them, is history. After exhaustive meetings and negotiations, their prototype was demonstrated to a ministerial committee. Because of South Africa’s high crime rate, more than 10,000 parole violations occur annually, making it impossible for the Dept of Correctional Services to cope with their limited resources and manpower. The minister was delighted to announce the procurement of an initial 5000 units from Kalahari Advanced Tracking Systems.

“KATS have become quite a life-changer for Bertie and me. We now employ twenty workers and have to work in shifts to meet the demand. My life has finally turned a corner simply because I – for once – made the right choice. No longer Mister Egomaniac. No more vanity and pride and chasing instant gratification. I’ve learnt too many lessons and have sacrificed almost my entire life because of my stupidity.

“And that’s why, Servie, I have come here today. I need you to forgive me for being such an ass and being the worst friend you ever had. Our fallout has been weighing heavily on my mind lately, and I could not believe when Vetfaan rocked up at the factory to tell his story. It’s so weird, this coincidence.”

Nurse Botha wiped away a tear as the two men solemnly shook hands. Even Gertruida stood by the window, sniffing. It was Vetfaan who broke the spell.

“The list of coincidences in this situation is quite astounding. First we have Servaas as a young man, the same old pain in the butt we know today. He befriends Shorty on the rugby field, later meets him again in the army. They get leave together, go to a movie where Shorty meets this girl – who happens to have a particularly obnoxious father – purely by accident. I mean: what are the chance of the two of them sitting next to each other in Sterland? Then she falls pregnant by chance – just before a rather vicious fallout between Servaas and Shorty. Sadly, the baby isn’t normal, but they only find out about it after being forced into marriage. Incidentally, Hester doesn’t cope. To get rid of him, her father arranges a job which eventually leaves Shorty destitute…after conceiving an idea about electronic tagging. Quite by chance, the baby dies soon after he’s retrenched. And equally unpredictably Shorty ends up in Prieska, develops his idea with his long-lost nephew and finally becomes part of the human race again.

“Come on, you guys: what are the chances of such a chain of events? If you wrote a story like that, people will think it’s too farfetched to be believable.”

large-brown-nodding-teckel-sausage-dachshund-puppy-dog-car-toy-1486-p[ekm]340x255[ekm]They all end up nodding like one of those silly plastic dogs people from Benoni place on their dashboards. Kleinpiet once said it’s the ultimate sign of sophistication. He had ordered one, but the rutted roads bounced it’s head off, leaving just the torso stuck above the speedometer. The head is still missing somewhere beneath the seat. Gertruida remarked that it was a pity that heads come off so easily, but it’s uncertain whether she referred to the accessory or typical male behaviour.

“There is,” nurse Botha ventured softly, angry indignation crystal clear in her tone, “still one bit I don’t understand. What about matron Alice Krotz? I mean, it’s nice to have everybody living happily ever after and all that, but what about matron? Huh?”

“Krotz? Alice Krotz? Matron? What…?” Shorty blanched and started breathing rapidly.

“Yes, what about me, you scumbag. We were engaged, remember? Engaged to be married! I was set to become Mevrou de Lange, and you sent this stupid telegram to tell me it’s off. No explanation, no nothing. You buggered up my life, you bloody parasite. Made me suffer because you were too much of a coward to commit to a loving relationship. No, you had to go and disappear to do your own damn thing, chasing some floozy with a short skirt! So help me if I don’t ever want to see you again. Get out! Get out!

As if on a military parade, everybody turned to stare at the ample figure of matron Krotz in the doorway. Everybody, except Servaas, of course – he was already facing the right way. She must have arrived during Shorty’s long speech, but nobody knew how much she had heard.

“Oh. My. Lord.” Shorty whispers the three words separately as he gets up – slowly – from the chair…

“Get out, before I throw you out, Jacobus de Lange!!”

(to be continued)

“There is a road that you must follow
To the left or the right 
One is wide but the other is hard and narrow
Take this one and you can call it your own
There will so many voices trying to turn you round
Take a moment just to listen then carry on…

To eternity…and back (#5)

_old_man's_hands_crutchServaas couldn’t bear to look up. He heard Gertruida say good afternoon to somebody and recognised Vetfaan’s subdued voice, but it was as if everything froze and time stood still for a while. Although the room was stuffy and warm – summer in the northern Cape  is never cool – he shivered as a chill ran through his body. Gertruida, what have you done…?

Then, almost in slow motion, he allowed his gaze to travel to the man standing next to Vetfaan – Shorty de Lange, the man he last saw in 1970.

Yes, it was Shorty alright. Tall, still athletic despite the years, the same handsome face although it gathered the wrinkles and lines associated with the passage of years. Servaas noted – with cynical satisfaction – the slight paunch, the mild stoop, the cane and the gnarly hands of arthritis. Nobody escapes the ravages of age, he thought, not even Shorty.

His overwhelming experience at that point was a mixture of fear, revulsion, guilt and an infantile desire to pull the blankets over his head in the hope everything will be alright by the time he reemerged.

“Hi, Servie.”

Servie. His old army nickname. He hadn’t heard it in decades. He managed to croak a reply of sorts. Then, gathering his bushy brows together, he closed his eyes firmly.

“Servaas, I brought Shorty to see you.” Vetfaan’s remark, superfluous as it was, as he tried to break the ice.

“I…I…don’t want to…” The rebellion in Servaas’s mind was obvious. Why did Vetfaan and Gertruida bring this man there, at that point, when he least expected – and needed – to be reminded of those terrible moments when he lost control and almost killed somebody he’d have described as a friend before?

“It’s a choice.” Shorty interrupted in a quiet voice. When Servaas closed his mouth so firmly that his dentures clicked upon themselves, Shorty launched into a monotone that touched them all.

“You may choose to ignore me, Servie, and I’ll understand. But let me tell you about choices, and maybe my being here will make some sense.

“You see, Servie, I made a choice that evening before you beat me up. A bad choice. And let me tell you, that was only one of the many bad choices I made in my life. Had I listened to you, my life would have been…different.

“Sure, you gave me a proper hiding. I deserved that, even if I didn’t think so at the time. I was conceited and self-righteous to the point where I called you a wet rag and secretly poked fun at your narrow-minded approach to life behind your back. But, what goes around, comes around. Choices have consequences. Let me tell you…”

***

When Shorty de Lange was discharged from hospital, he moved in with the beautiful young student he had met on that fateful evening before he and Servaas had the fight. She had visited him frequently in hospital, oozing sympathy and bringing little presents. On the day before his discharge, she told him she was pregnant.

“My world started to implode right there. I mean; one night with her, one careless fling, and suddenly everything changed. Her father turned out to be this conceited and overbearing minister in the church, a man with strong connections with the government. He arranged my transfer to a desk job in Voortrekkerhoogte, made the complaints against me – for the damage we had done to the barracks — disappear, and demanded that all the blame be put on you, Servie. Then he insisted that I marry his daughter. I didn’t know it at the time, but  that’s where my hell started.”

His newly-wed wife, Hester, seemed to blame him for everything – the pregnancy, the fact that she had to drop out of university, the small flat they had to stay in, even the way her once-shapely body adapted to the baby she was carrying.

“Most evenings ended in a shouting match. Then the baby was born…”

Baby Jacobus had a chromosomal defect – . Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease. The condition, Shorty told them in a hesitant, hushed tone, is characterised by spasticity, blindness and retarded mental development.

“Even now, I cannot bring myself to describe the shock to you. It was…overwhelming…

“You’ll never understand what it is like to take care of such a baby. Doctors, physiotherapists, medicines, constant – every second of every day – care and attention.

“Well, the good reverend distanced himself from his grandson, saying the most horrible things about the wages of sin. Hester held out for a year, then the situation became too much for her. Psychologists and psychiatrists didn’t help much. Our little flat had pills and medicines everywhere! For the baby, for her…and for me. When she suggested a divorce, I was only too happy to go along with it. One less thing to worry about, see? It was completely out of the question to allow her custody of the baby – there was no way she could take care of him.

“So, there I was, stuck in a stupid little flat with an abnormal baby. The only good thing the reverend grandfather did, was to obtain my discharge from the army and arrange work for me at a research facility  near Roodeplaat dam. At least they provided a house on the premises and I could afford to employ a nurse to help look after the baby.”

platRoodeplaat Research Laboratories did biological research – of the warfare type. Shorty’s job involved – amongst other duties – caring for a pond filled with frogs. The African Clawed Frog (Xenopus or platanna) is commonly used as  a source for fast-growing, large cells, making them ideal for biological research.

“Those frogs were a nightmare. I was responsible for breeding enough specimens to keep up with the laboratory’s demands and had to identify the females who produced the most eggs. I tried tagging them with bits of plastic, but that didn’t last. That’s when I started working on an idea to implant a small transponder under the skin and to develop an scanner to identify individuals.”

Shorty reminded them that he had an accounting background – another strangely humorously cynical coincidence.

“I had become a bookkeeper of frogs! Because of the ultrasecret nature of the research, my official job description was, indeed, that of an accountant. So there I was, looking after frogs in the daytime and taking care of my baby at night.” Shorty allowed a sad smile at that point. “In both cases, the level of intelligence was about the same…”

Baby Jacobus slowly deteriorated, requiring more and more attention. His spasticity and regular seizures progressed to the point where it was virtually impossible to care for him at home, but at that stage there were virtually no facilities to care for the needs of such children. The few that could, were prohibitively expensive.

The years rolled by and eventually Roodeplaat had to lay off most of its workforce as many of the projects had no bearing on the course of the Nationalists’ war against terrorism any longer. In the late 80’s, Shorty was a jobless father of a severely ill young boy.

“My life, you see, was an  endless struggle to make ends meet, take care of little Jacobus and simply surviving  – there was no time for socialising at all. That day, when I drove out of the gates of Roodeplaat for the last time, I was destitute. I had nowhere to go at all, no idea what to do.”

On the way back to Pretoria,  baby Jacobus had another of his seizures – only this one didn’t pass like previous ones did.. Shorty knew he had to get help, and get it fast. He raced to the HF Verwoerd Hospital, where the frail and dying boy was admitted to the paediatric unit.

“I left him there. Spent my first night alone since our fight in the barracks in the parking lot in front of the Union Buildings, crying, praying…and fighting with God. Why did He punish me so much? What did I do to deserve all this?

“And He gave me an answer. The word that came up in my mind that night, was ‘Choices’. I wasn’t being punished, you see? I was living the consequences of my own choices. My choice to ignore your admonishment that evening after the movie, determined the course of my life. Had I listened to you and went back to the barracks, i could have had a happy life. But I didn’t, did I…?”

***

Servaas listened to Shorty – at first with downcast eyes and wringing hands, later in silent sympathy. Then, when Shorty paused to dab his eyes, he spoke up for the first time.

“And then, Shorty?”

Shorty looked up sharply, blinking.

“I had to make another choice…”

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#4)

caregiverhandsFor a while after Gertruida had left, nurse Botha thought that Servaas suffered a relapse. The old man sat upright in his bed, staring into the distance with a completely vacant look. She approached the old man cautiously to fold her hands around his shrivelled hand, ever so gently. To her surprise, he started crying.

“I…I’m sorry, nursie. I just don’t know what to do.”

She sat there, listening to his account of his conversation with Gertruida, nodding as if she understood. Some people are natural listeners, making it easy to impart even the most painful thoughts. Nurse Botha was just such a person. She was neither old nor young, in between overweight and chubby and had the soft eyes of a Labrador. The words tumbled from her patient in an unstoppable torrent until at last he sank back in his cushion with the most distraught and fatigued look. She never interrupted, never asked a single question, knowing he had to hear himself  tell his story to work through this thing.

“So…you think you had this dream about Shorty de Lange for a reason?”

“Y-yes. I…I suppose so. It was too real to ignore and yet it sounds so stupid to take it seriously.”

“And yet you had this near-death experience, didn’t you? Did you take that seriously?”

Servaas blinked. “I did…I do, I mean. Yes. Siena was there, I’m sure. And something…more.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t hesitate to do the same with the dream? I mean, what harm can there be to find out where this…Shorty is? Maybe he’s dead already, and you’re worrying all in vain.”

The old man’s face brightened. He hadn’t thought about that! “But how do you go about finding somebody you last saw half a century ago? I don’t know where to begin.”

“Well, Oom Servaas, I might just be able to assist you with that.”

***

Wilhelm Röntgen's X-ray of Anna Bertha's - his wife - hand. 1895

Wilhelm Röntgen’s first X-ray. Anna Bertha’s – his wife’s – hand. 1895

Coincidence? Fate? Chance? Serendipity? Divine intervention…or divine planning? History is littered with hard-to-explain coincidental discoveries, ranging from penicillin, Viagra, anaesthesia, LSD, the microwave oven and – of course – X-rays. Even Alfred Nobel’s discovery of dynamite was the result of an accidental observation. Although mankind often benefitted from these ‘lucky’ incidents, we must also remember the iceberg that sunk the Titanic or the Curse of Tutankhamun which apparently killed Lord Carnarvon.

Still, the fact that portly nurse Botha had a brother working in the military archives in Pretoria could be considered a stroke of good luck – or an improbable inevitability in the strange set of events surrounding Servaas’s illness  during his stay in hospital.

Within an hour of her telephone call, Herman Botha reported that Jakob Arnoldus de Lange finished his stint as conscripted soldier in 1972, did the obligatory yearly call-up duties until 1986, and then was discharged from any further service. No, he didn’t know his present whereabouts, but he did supply the next link in the chain: the man’s ID number.

Enter Gertruida, our dear know-it-all with her contacts amongst the small but select group of people involved with the intelligence community. The ID number was  given to a retired colonel in the erstwhile National Intelligence, whose  son happened to be a professor in Computer Sciences (cost: 1 bottle of brandy and the promise of Kalahari biltong). and so the hacked records of the Office of Home Affairs supplied an address.

Much to everybody’s surprise, Shorty de Lange’s home address was a smallholding near Prieska, the town he used to represent as flanker on the rugby field.

***

“You mean you found out all that in the matter of about twelve hours?”

Gertruida stared at her shoes for a moment, slightly embarrassed. “Um…yes. I’m sorry it took so long..”

Servaas laughed at this – his first bit of mirth since his chat with matron Krotz dumped them both under a cloud of depression. Matron, by the way, had not reported for work that day; the first time – ever- she had missed a day on duty. Nurse Botha tried to phone, got no answer, and promised herself to visit her stern and unapproachable boss after her shift was over.

“I’ve thought about it.” Servaas sounded the way he looked: completely defeated. He didn’t want to be reminded of the one time he felt as if the devil had taken over his soul and he beat a friend to pulp. During the sleepless night after Gertruida had left the previous afternoon, he had forced himself to relive that incident. In the early morning hours he decided that his religious conviction had been the result of fear (that he might have such an ‘attack’ again) coupled with guilt (that he acted like a complete and demonic lunatic). Did Christ not heal such men through faith? Yes, he decided, Christ did; but he – Servaas – had used his faith as selfish protection against himself. He shielded behind religion to prove to others how righteous he was. That convoluted argument did absolutely nothing to improve his mood. “And I’ll have to see the man as soon as I’m better. Doctor Welman said my recovery will take several months. Maybe after that…”

“No, Servaas.” Gertruida – who knows everything – used her stern voice. “This thing is going to do more harm if you keep on postponing it. It’s not going to go away.You are obviously upset about meeting Shorty, and I understand that. You’re not, however, going to forget about it while you’re recovering. You’ve managed to bury the incident with Shorty under a layer of time – and had you not had that dream, you might well have lived out your life in denial. I don’t know why you had the dream, Servaas, but I think it’s the best thing to come out of all this.” She swept a hand towards the chart on the wall, showing his vital signs and progress. Seeing Servaas’s distress, she sits down on the bed next to him. “I need you to relax now. Breathe deeply and let go of the feelings of fear and guilt. Promise me that.”

“O-okay.” Hesitant, unsure.

“Okay then. Now I must ask you to prepare yourself. I sent Vetfaan to talk to Shorty. I expect them any moment now.”

Servaas’s eyes opened wide, his breathing shallow. “No! For goodness’ sakes, Gertruida. You can’t do this to me! I’m a sick man! I’m not ready, not ready at all!”

Nurse Botha entered the room with an uncertain smile. Her soft brown eyes took in the scene before she shot Gertruida an accusing look.

“I…um…well, the gentlemen are here. Shall I send them in?”

At that moment the door swung open.

Servaas closed his eyes in desperate prayer. Please, Lord, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me…

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#3)

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria, 1970

By now, the Rolbossers had drawn up a roster so that Servaas would have at least one visitor every day.  If one believed in coincidences, then it was by pure chance that it was Gertruida’s turn to drive all the way from Roilbos to Upington on the very same day Servaas had told matron Krotz about his dream and Shorty de Lange. Matron had, after her little outburst, locked herself in her office. It simply won’t be fitting for the nurses to see that she’d been crying. Matrons don’t do emotion – it’s unprofessional. And she, Matron Krotz, won’t allow anybody – anybody – to express any form of sympathy simply because she was upset. No sir, not at all…

Gurtruida brought along the obligatory little bag of biltong and the bottle of Coke (which had been cleverly doctored with a medicinal tot of peach brandy beforehand) and greeted nurse Botha with a slab of chocolates.

“How’s old grumpy today, nurse?”

Nurse Botha laughed softly. “He’s about ready to be discharged. Quite remarkable, really. Ever since matron took a ...special…interest in him, he’s made exceptional progress.” Then, in a conspiratorial whisper: “I think they’ve got a thing going, you know what I mean?” She winked and put a theatrical hand to her chin while rolling her eyes. “Just goes to show – the sky lights up with the brightest colours at sunset.”

This remark made Gertruida stare at the young nurse. Such wisdom…

Servaas greeted her with less than his usual enthusiasm, When Gertruida remarked on this, he gave her an abbreviated account of his chat with matron that afternoon.

“Gee, Servaas, you’ve had quite a time in the hospital. First you have this near-death thing where you get reminded of compassion and kindness. Then this austere woman, our beloved matron, suddenly mellows to become your best friend. Strange, that, don’t you think?” Gertruida noted – with some satisfaction – the blush creeping up the old man’s neck. “Anyway, then you dream about Shorty de Lange, somebody you last saw forty or fifty years ago, and it turns out that he’s the bastard who dumped matron for some other woman many years ago.

“Now, the way I see it, is that we have three persons involved here: you, matron Krotz and this Shorty guy. Without Shorty, I would have thought you and matron might hook up, but once you add this guy, you have to wonder why. And remember: he’s the guy sinking in the sand and you’ve been climbing that dune to rescue him. Now that makes you think, doesn’t it?”

It sure did. It made Servaas open a door in his mind – a door he steadfastly had refused to open for four decades…

***

Mana Pools

Mana Pools

It was just after they had returned from Rhodesia (called Zimbabwe these days). where their unit assisted the Rhodesian armed forces to guard the border with Zambia, near Mana Pools.  It had been a harrowing task: in fact, it was difficult to pin down the greatest danger: the wildlife (lion, crocodile, hippo, leopard, snakes etc), the insects (malaria-bearing mosquitoes and tsetse flies) or the insurgent freedom fighters that were called terrorists back then.

Nevertheless, when the two of them stepped from the train in Pretoria, they had one thing in mind: having the best time possible. Not knowing where the hot spots of social life was to be found, they headed for the ultramodern movie theatre called Sterland, where Love Story was showing. After months in the bush, they admitted – rather shyly, to be honest – that a romantic movie would be ‘nice’. The ulterior motive  – in Shorty’s case – was that it seemed logical that the audience would include a number of young ladies, which turned out to be true.

Servaas wasn’t all that interested. He had met Siena already but she was far away in the Northern Cape. Oh, of course he’d like to chat to a few girls after the stint in the bush with only male companions, but that was as far as he’d go. Shorty, however, had no such qualms. Even though he was engaged, he was determined to blow off some steam (amongst other things).

People who have never seen armed conflict often assume that soldiers spend their days cleaning rifles and discussing tactics. This is, of course, not true. Soldiers (especially the male sort) pass the time by discussing women, often in the most graphic terms. It was natural, then, for Servaas to know everything about Shorty’s fiancee, a nurse somewhere in the Cape Province. Shorty often bragged about the buxom young lady, boasting about his conquest. In contrast, Servaas kept mostly to himself while writing long and passionate letters to his dear Siena.

downloadOne can understand that Servaas sat in the darkened theatre, watching Ali MacGraw die, with an intense longing to be home. He dabbed his eyes, sniffed, and had to close his eyes to suppress a few sobs. Shorty didn’t even watch the movie. By sheer coincidence he occupied the seat next to a stunning blonde student, a lovely young thing with a charming smile to match the voluptuous figure,  who had just completed her final exams for the year.

After the movie, Servaas blew his nose and suggested they return to the barracks. Shorty would have none of it. He was going to party with this girl until the sun came up the next day, and he didn’t need a wet rag like Servaas to spoil his fun. They had a heated, albeit whispered, discussion about morals and needs, and parted on less than friendly terms.

Shorty returned to his bunk the next day, flushed with his success. The young lady, he informed everybody within earshot, was the best lay he’d ever had. He proceeded to – in lurid terms – describe every bit of her anatomy and what he had done with it. Maybe he was still a bit drunk, but the extent of his revelations far surpassed what Servaas considered to be in the worst possible taste of all. True to his nature, Servaas endured the pompous monologue for a short while before requesting – politely – Shorty to shut up.

The other thing about a military environment is testosterone. Soldiers have way too much of the stuff. Add alcohol and a touch of adrenaline, and you produce an unpredictable explosive concoction. During combat, this often produces heroes who seem to ignore danger to rescue a fallen comrade…but inside the confines of a bungalow filled with young men trained to fight? Well, that’s what they do, occasionally.: fight. A fist here, a slap there isn’t unusual when the provocation is sufficient. But that’s not what happened when Shorty snorted, lowered his head and stormed down on Servaas, who had been writing yet another letter to Siena.

The fight became the stuff of legends. At first it was Shorty who threw a few punches while Servaas tried to evade the onslaught. Then something happened in Servaas’s mind. A black veil seemed to lower itself over his consciousness. Pent-up exasperated frustration and aggression boiled over and suddenly Servaas wasn’t Servaas any longer.

Why did this happen? Even after all the intervening years, Servaas was unable to explain what happened. Maybe it was the latent but smouldering fear, uncertainty and trauma of the petrols along the border. Or possibly the even-tempered and mild young man simply reached a point where he simply couldn’t control the demons inside his mind – after living in the bush for too long, being shot at too many times, having killed too much. Whatever the explanation, he became a cold-blooded monster, ignoring Shorty’s efforts while he  waded into his former friend, delivering blows with devastating accuracy.

How long did the fight last? It depends on which version of the legend you believe, At the end, however, they had to cart Shorty off to hospital, where his broken jaw was wired. The damage to the barracks was considerable. Servaas got court martialed, and spent a week in the detention barracks. Afterwards, he was transferred to another unit.

He never saw Shorty again.

***

“Wha…what are you saying, Gertruida?”  Servaas suddenly looked so old, so frail, so tired…

“You heard me, Servaas. You’ll have to find Shorty to know what the dream was about…”

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#2)

IMG_2826During the time Servaas spent in hospital, a few strange things happened. There was Matron Krotz, for instance, a formidable huge woman with a  short temper and a large (if sagging) bosom. She reigned over ‘her’ hospital with an iron fist and a booming voice. Hardworking nurses sweated and trembled through her morning rounds, while even Doctor Welman deferred to her many opinions. Called Attila behind her back, she lived up to the name with gusto.

Whenever she came to Servaas’s bed, however, her entire demeanor changed – every time. She’d smile (a phenomenon previously thought to be completely impossible), ruffle the old man’s sparse hair and ever so coyly ask him if he’d had a good night’s rest. Her temper would flare back up to it’s usual and frightening intensity if she noticed that he hadn’t had his morning coffee or if there was the slightest hint that his bed wasn’t made up properly.

Another weird thing she did, was to take her lunch break at his bedside. She’d close the curtains around his bed (‘The patient needs counselling, nurse Botha, and you’re certainly not gifted or qualified to do that properly. Now get out while I attend to the patient you are so obviously neglecting! Go!) and then spend the thirty minutes or so chatting with Servaas.

Nurse Botha grudgingly noted that, while Attila Krotz might be partly human after all,  matron’s conduct was probably proof that hormonal replacement had more benefits than just preventing hot flashes. And, to everybody’s surprise and well-hidden amusement, matron asked nurse Botha the strangest questions about eyeliners, lipstick and perfumes.

Servaas had recovered well enough to be acutely aware of matron’s presence and found it surprisingly easy to talk to her. Whereas other people experienced matron Krotz as an unapproachable and imperious professional, Servaas discovered that she was, in fact, a lonely woman. Her fastidious insistence on perfection in the hospital was simply a way to – as she  put it – do something useful with her life. The hospital, she said, gave reason to her existence.

“The universe never cared about me, Servaas. I’m about to retire – I have to – and then what? After a lifetime of caring for the sick and the needy, I have nothing. What’s a matron after retirement? An old hag with a cupboard full of old uniforms? A nurse with nobody to care for? What use is that?”

Servaas tried to say something about believing that, when God closes a door, He opens a window, but she cut him off. There’s no such thing, she said, only fools believed in such nonsense.

“No, I never married,” she said during one of their lunch hour chats. Servaas had been progressing slowly over the past three weeks, during which their daily chats slowly became more and more personal. Eventually Servaas told matron about Siena – and asked about Krotz’s past. “I was engaged, once.” She blushed, a wry smile eventually fading to a scowl.”Then this hussey came along and he left. I was….twenty at the time. That’s when I said to myself – well, dammit! I shall never allow a man to humiliate me like that again. And…” here she hesitated and glanced with vulnerable uncertainty at Servaas, “…well, I decided to study hard and become the best I can be. I did course after course, ambitiously working myself up the nursing ladder, until I was appointed matron here. That was fifteen years ago. Suddenly there were no more rungs in the ladder, Servaas. I’m stuck in this crummy hospital until I retire. Heaven knows what I’ll do then.”

The other unusual occurrences during Servaas’s stay in hospital, were the lucid dreams he had. These in no way compared to the very real experience during his coma, but they were so intense that he had no problem recalling them afterwards. While most of the dreams concerned past experiences – simple, everyday events – some of them stood out because they seemed so utterly inappropriate.

“There was this dune, you see? One of those dunes with the steep sides and loose sand.” Matron Krotz always listened with rapt attention whenever Servaas told her about his dreams. “Somehow I knew I had to get to the top of that dune, but I didn’t know why. Every time I took a step upward, the loose sand would carry me right back. So there I was: one step up, slide back. One step up, slide back. I was exhausted when I woke up.”

The next day, Servaas could add to the dream.

“I’ve never dreamt in chapters before, Alice.” By now they were firmly on first-name terms. “But my dreams seem to be in sequence these days. Anyway, last night I made some progress up that dune. It was painfully slow, much like you experience in those dreams where you run away from something, but your legs don’t work properly. Eventually, I could see the top. There was somebody there, but I couldn’t see who it was. I reached out, and when I was about to touch that person, the sand slid back again and I had to start all over.”

And then he had one more dream – the last one – before these nightly experiences simply ceased to happen.

“The person at the top of the dune was Shorty de Lange.” If Servaas wasn’t so absorbed in the telling of his dream, he would have noticed matron Krotz’s sudden intake of breath and her pallor as colour drained from her cheeks. “I haven’t even thought about him in years and years, but there he was. Large as life, right on top of my dune. He was slowly sinking into the sand – like quicksand, I suppose – and was pleading that I should help him. I didn’t know what to do…and then I woke up.”

“Who…who did you see there?” Her voice shook as she fought for control.

“Shorty. Shorty de Lange. You won’t know him. A tall, gangling chap I used to know, way back when. He went on to study accounting, I think, and we lost touch. But before that, we went to school together and did a stint in the army – like everybody else in those days. We used to be rather close.”

“Shorty?” The incredulous note in her voice was unmistakable. “Shorty de Lange? Six foot something, thinnish, used to play flank for Prieska’s first team? Brown hair and a little extra pinkie on his left hand?”

Servaas looked up sharply. “Ye-e-e-s?”

“That’s the bastard who left me in the lurch…for that stupid bimbo. May he rot in hell…” Her voice told him: Attila was back. Time to tread softly.

“Then why…why did I dream about him?”

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back

Credit: marybreath.com

Credit: marybreath.com

Servaas was sweeping the floor of his little cottage when the attack came. At first it was only a dizzy spell, but he soon had to sit down to avoid falling down. Oh, he’s had similar incidents in the past, especially after that new batch of Kleinpiet’s peach brandy was served in Boggel’s Place, but this was more severe, less ignorable and the headache didn’t wait for the next day – it was there immediately.

He tried to think, realising he needed help, but the more he tried to grab at thoughts – any thoughts – the less he was able to formulate a logical response. Yes, he knew he had to call out…or something. Maybe crawl to the door? Bang on the floor? Get something to make a noise with…?

And then the darkness started approaching. This, he could understand. The darkness would come and creep closer and closer until it seeped into every little crack in the floor. Then it would rise, grow bigger and stronger…and then there would be a bright tunnel of light. This was quite all right, he knew. It had to happen sometime, hadn’t it? And now, with this inevitability established, he felt a wave of resigned peace wash over him. Let it go…let it go…

At once he became aware of Siena. Not Siena the way she looked when she was in hospital after her stroke, no…Siena was young and vibrant and…beautiful.  Yes, he remembered that dress – the white, frilly one with the little flowers around the hemline. And oh! The inviting smile! She was just standing there, waiting with a hand raised, waiting for him to ask her to the dance in Sarel Rooidam’s barn on Saturday. He was trembling, fumbling for words…

“You may ask me,” she said with that familiar smile.

“But…”

He remembered that moment. Amongst the jumble of racing thoughts cruising through his brain right then, that moment froze, focussed, became startlingly clear. He couldn’t back then, neither can he now, bring himself to ask her to accompany him to Sarel’s barn.

“I know it’s hard to take that step, Servaas. So much uncertainty! So much to risk – what if she says ‘no’?. “

Hey, wait! Siena didn’t say that? Who did? It’s a different, more commanding voice. Servaas tried to look around, but his glasses had fallen off during the dizzy spell. Everything is so…unfocussed. Yet, he could make out the outline of …somebody?

“Yes, Servaas, it’s me. You often wondered, didn’t you? Well, no you know.”

An image of Oudoom’s church now flashed through his mind.

“Oh, I know you tried, Servaas. All of you did, even Oudoom – as you call him. But you know? You guys were only scratching at the surface of Truth. You created a man-made religion with man-made rules.” Did he hear a chuckle in the voice? “It’s funny, actually. I mean: how you pieced together the puzzle and got the completely wrong picture. So, so many wrong pictures, to be exact.”

A thought gelled at last. “Am I dying?”

“Everybody’s dying, Servaas, you just choose to ignore it. Nobody lives forever down here on earth.”

“Will I…will I go to…heaven?”

This time the chuckle is unmistakable. “It depends on whether you want to sing in a choir for eternity, or prefer living in a suburb with pearly gates and golden streets. Then, I’m afraid, the answer is ‘No!’. But, if you wanted to find Peace and Love at last, then I’d say you have a very good chance.”

“But…where am I going now?”

The image faded a little, the silhouette becoming hazy. “To hospital, Servaas. They’re going to make you better.”

The last image Servaas became aware of, is Siena waving a cheery goodbye, her dress held down by a shy hand as the wind threatened to expose a knee. Almost a Marilyn Monroe picture, he’ll recall later.

***

“Servaas….?”

Precilla wipes the sweaty brow with a damp cloth while she whispers his name over and over again. When did she become so fond of the cantankerous old man? Why, he’s forever being obtuse and garrulous, and yet here she is, next to his bed in Upington’s hospital, feeling so sad she could cry for days.

Doctor Welman – who treated him before – told her old Servaas had had a minor stroke but that nobody could predict the outcome. He may be paralyzed, lose some words or parts of memory, even be blind or deaf – who knows? Only time will tell.

There is the faintest suggestion that the frown on the forehead deepened slightly.

“Servaas…?”

***

Siena returned for the last time.

“You’re not ready yet, Servaas.” This time the dress was loose, faintly suggestive as a thin strap slipped from her left shoulder. She’s still smiling that inviting smile, her eyes sparkling with some inner humour. “Don’t worry, I’m waiting for you. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Wha…what is this?” He was thoroughly confused.

“Ag, Servaas!” A slight note of exasperation crept into her voice, like it always did when he asked a stupid question. “This is Life, Servaas. Different, but the same. Here, but everywhere.”

“”I don’t understand…”

She sighed, pulled back the strap. “I didn’t either, when I was still trapped in a body. Shame, man! I know it doesn’t make sense right now. But here’s what I can tell you: you’re living only a fraction of the life you have. You know a little bit of something so big, it’ll blow your mind to know more. You must tell Oudoom that.”

He remained silent, digesting what she had said.

“Listen, Servaas: when you get out of hospital, you must really try to be more…religious.”

This time, it was Servaas who rebelled. “Siena, you know me. Head elder. Upholder of morals. I sit with Oudoom every week to work out his sermion….”

She… giggled…? It was hard to tell, for she had hidden her lips behind a demure hand. “Oh, my old sweetheart!” Yes, there was definitely laughter in her voice. “I know you try so hard. But really, Servaas, do you think that is what it’s all about? Religion is so much more than a sermon or the desire to criticize. No, what I’m telling you to do, is to practice compassion and kindness. Religion isn’t about wearing black suits and white ties and sitting in the front pew. You have to live your religion – every hour of every day. Make people experience what you believe in by the way you act, the words you speak, the  smile to the stranger.” She took a step closer, but stopped suddenly as if she realised there was a barrier between them. “Reading the Bible and praying is good, Servaas, and please don’t stop. But, my dear, those are things you do by yourself and for yourself. That’s a teeny bit of what your religion should be all about. Your religion, Servaas, should be a beacon of light to others, not a series of selfish acts to soothe your conscience. It must be apparent to your friends, your family, the cashier at the till, the newspaper vendor on the street corner. It’s not about knowing which verse to quote under the right circumstances, it’s about living compassion.”

***

“Living…compassion.” Servaas’s eyes flicker open for a second.

“Hey, guys, Servaas is back! He sounds a bit confused, though.” Precilla motions the group at the door to gather around the bed.

“What did you say, Servaas?”

“Living…compassion.”

“Yep, he’s confused, alright! Doctor Welman said it might happen.” Vetfaan stares down at the gray-haired patient. “At least he can talk.”

“I can…do…more. I…must…do more.”

“Yeah, yeah, Servaas. One step at a time, will you? Relax now, everything is just dandy.”

“No…it isn’t. It never was…”

When Servaas slips back into the peaceful void, the little crowd around his bed exchange worried glances. Their old friend seems to be so very vague, so extremely abstruse…

They are so very wrong.

(To be continued…)

The Wings of War

Credit: Pinterest

Credit: Pinterest

Precilla received this email. How – in heaven’s name – did Manuel manage to find the address? Precilla, after all, only runs a little pharmacy in Rolbos – an extremely small enterprise which supplies Oudoom’s blood pressure medication and the pills Servaas needs when his gout acts up. This necessitates prolonged and frustrating communications with the medical aid companies, which is why Precilla had to get connected to the Internet.

Be that as it may, the letter remains proof of how small our world has become. It also serves to remind us how important it is to tell our stories with honesty and kindness.

(To understand these letters, please refer to the previous post.)

***

Dear Sir

I no write good English, sorry. I ask my son to help. He in school and has a smartphone. He reads many stories in WordPress – he say it makes his English better. 

I much sepru seprised when he read about Manuel in story. Manuel story is my story. I tell more, yes?

Nossa! When soldiers catch me, I very much afraid. Beeg trouble. But I good soldier, I tell nothing. Many days they ask me cue kwes question, I say nothing. No eat. No drink. Much pain. Then orderly come, he take me away. He hide me. Give naif knife. He say I must go back to farm.

Manuel, he walked back to Angola. Many days he walk. I get much tired a lot. I no know how long. Later, I get to my farm.

You see, I only poor farmer. One day, man with unyphorm uniphorm he come. Say all mans in the distric must go army. I say no, my place need my hands. The man hit me, hit my wife. Then I go. That is how I became soldier. Now, when I get back to farm, I say: no more soldier. 

My wife, she’s very good. Bonito, I say. She go soldier. Say I die in bush and she berry bury me. No mare Manuel, she say. They hit her again. Why? I don’t know.

Many months I hide, help on farm. Then one day the war is finished. No more soldiers. I go home to live with wife. 

Why I write this? Beeg kwes question, no? 

I say obrigado.Thank you. For war, for soldier, for man who made me escai escape. Why? Manuel learn many things in war. He see how war make enemys. Many enemys. Before war, no enemys. During war, many enemys. After war, no enemys. Manuel wonder about this, then decide: enemy only made by war. War made by hombres in Luanda and other places far away. War not made by Manuel’s farm or village. So, Manuel thinks, better to stay on farm. Manuel work hard. Make farm nice. Send son to school. (He write this)

Now, that orderly, he save my life. My enemy, he make me think we are all same. People all same. Have family, maybe a son, like me. Want to love wife and work hard – no? That hombre make beeg risk to help Manuel, but Manuel no forget. Every night Manuel, he pray for man who give Manuel life. And say thank you, Jesus.

So. Manuel say goodbye.

Manuel.

Precilla read the email with tears in her eyes,  How happy Kleinpiet would be when she tells him about the letter! She was about to print it out, when the ping of the computer announced the arrival of more mail.

Hi there.

I’m Manuel’s son, a teacher at our local school. I have sent my father’s letter as he wrote it, simply because I couldn’t have said it better. I think his rough draft conveys his appreciation far better than a formal letter of thanks. 

I have to tell you that he often tells us about the way he escaped. It has become a family and a village legend. I also use the story in class when I want to make my pupils aware of the horror of war – and how a single act of kindness can influence not only an individual, but his family and local community as well. 

Because the story appeared in Rolbos (I use many of these stories in class as well), I assume the author might know the orderly involved in my father’s escape. I’d appreciate you telling him that my father is well and that he speaks highly of him. Maybe he could use my father’s story to tell people how important it is to know that we are all human. Fighting will never solve problems. Uniforms, my father says, change people. That uniform might be a suit or involve tunics and brass – but once a person wears it, he loses his identity. He stops thinking as an individual and becomes a part of a machine with no conscience. This is true for politicians, soldiers and some businessmen. 

My father says we must remain human  – and humane. He taught me to live kindly. That’s why I became a teacher. My school isn’t grand, but we have about 500 pupils. Every year about 50 of my pupils finish school and go into the world to apply what I’ve tried to teach them. They might still find mathematics difficult, but they’ll never forget the story of Manuel and the way a single enemy soldier gave him wings to change our lives.

Kind regards

Manuel Cobado (Jnr)

***

Author’s Note:

If ever you come to Rolbos, ask Kleinpiet about these letters and what they have meant to him. Also ask him to show you these emails. He won’t have it with him, of course, but he’ll gladly go home to fetch it. He keeps it – neatly folded up – in his Bible, next to the sentence he highlighted in Matthew 5:9.

The Chains of War.

Sculpture-by-Bernard-Jack-001

By US sculptor Bernard Jackson.

“Faith, my friends, is loneliest word in the universe.” Oudoom stares through the window, his back towards the group at the bar. The Kalahari sky is strangely overcast, with the faintest of suggestions of a little rain. “It’s such a personal thing. I can’t believe in anything simply because the rest of the world believes it. I – myself – must be convinced about something before I can say I have faith in it.”

“Like love?” Precilla’s voice is soft, her eyes moist.

“Yes, like love.”

It’s been a tough week in Rolbos. They’ve talked, wondered and argued (more like debated than fought) about Kleinpiet’s startling announcement that he was leaving them for a while. Just like that. And then he pecked Precilla on the cheek after shaking hands with the rest…and got into his pickup to drive out of town. No explanation.

Oh, they speculated, of course. Gertruida said they should have picked up the warning signs over the past few weeks – Kleinpiet had been very quiet, sitting on the veranda and staring at the shimmering horizon most of the time. And that one time, when Vetfaan started talking about the Border War, Kleinpiet interrupted him rudely, saying it wasn’t a subject they should be discussing. Servaas reminded them of another conversation that ended bluntly.

“I was talking about Siena when Kleinpiet said I was a fool to love so intensely. He said Siena is dead and I must get over it. I was so shocked…”

“Ja, ” Oudoom said at the time, “he told me I’m a deluded old man when I said something about God loving us all…”

***

Nobody survives – unscathed – the ravages of war. The lucky ones get killed and buried. The rest go home – either as victor or defeated – to live with what they had seen and done. The living have to bear the burden of the dead – and that poison kills a little bit of life in every soldier who unlatches the front gate of his home after the politicians signed yet another meaningless peace accord.

Perhaps it is true to say that depression is born during times of conflict. While these times of frustration may involve less obvious stresses, they do tend to surface especially after periods of battle and bloodshed. And, like a hyena has the uncanny ability to find the carcass a leopard so cleverly camouflaged amongst the thorny bushes, so depression will hunt down the weak in the unguarded moments when memories cause sleepless nights.

***

Angola 1982

Secret

Report on Prisoner 2815 – Day 15 after capture

The subject still refuses to cooperate. After prolonged sessions of interrogation, sleep deprivation and starvation, he is weak but remains defiant. 

The man repeatedly denied any military involvement, saying he is an innocent farmer in Sector 45(a), north of Lubango (Map SAW 378, position D 22). He can give no reason why he ventured so far south, and was armed with an AK47.

His interrogation will continue after his medical today. 

***

Report on Prisoner 2815 – Day 26 after capture

The prisoner is in a much weakened state. No further information has been forthcoming. Medical orderly has expressed concern about his physical state. Will discuss possible scenarios during the briefing tonight. Consider  termination?

***

Report on Prisoner 2815 – Final

Prisoner was hospitalised three days ago on advice of medical orderly. Health and mental state stabilised and improving following intravenous medication and nutrition. 

Inexplicably managed to escape from the medical tent during the night at about 3 am. Medical orderly on duty at the time was writing reports in an adjacent tent and noticed the absence of Prisoner 2815 at 03h16, and raised the alarm immediately. 

Tracks were followed in a northeasterly direction, but disappeared in the shallow river three clicks away. Commanding officer withdrew the searching patrol due to upcoming offences. Medical orderly reprimanded.

***

At first it seemed as if Manuel Cobado might make it. The orderly had hidden him at the base of a huge baobab, just south of the Angolese border with South West Africa, providing him with a ratpack and water. Of course the orderly couldn’t visit him daily, but he kept up a steady stream of supplies whenever he could.

It must have been a week after the escape that the prisoner finally spoke up.

“Why you do this for me? Better that I die, no? You get shot if they find you here.”

The orderly managed a wry smile. “You speak English?”

And so a strange and halting conversation started. Manuel admitted to spying on the South African troops, noting movements and supplies. He was supposed to convey these to his superiors in Luanda, but the batteries in his radio had been defective and he abandoned the device before attempting to return to Angola. During his journey back, he was spotted and captured.

“Why didn’t you just tell them that? It could have saved you a lot of pain?”

Manuel shrugged. “Why you help me? What can I say? This is war, no? You soldier, me soldier. We fight, we kill. I no say nothing, I die. That’s okay. But I go back and I tell I was prisoner, they think Manuel tell lie. They think Manuel is now spy for you. They put Manuel in prison and ask many questions. Manuel no can say anything – so they shoot Manuel. Manuel die, anyway.”

This upset the orderly, who argued with his patient. But in the convoluted logic that only exists during wars, they both knew the rules – and that Manuel’s return after being a prisoner would be viewed with extreme suspicion by his superiors.

The orderly suggested that Manuel return to his small farm to wait for the end of the war. Manuel said it wasn’t possible, there were spies everywhere.

When the orderly returned the next day, the hideaway was empty. On the makeshift bed he found the pocket knife he had given to Manuel and a piece of bark on which the word ‘Obrigado‘ was carved out.

***

What happened to Manuel Cobado?  Was he the farmer-turned-spy he claimed to be? Did he make it back home – unarmed and as weak as he was? Did he sometimes sit next to a fire at night, remembering the days of war? And does he, after all these years, still have faith in his convictions? Or did the Russians (or Chinese, or Cubans)  throw him in jail, as he predicted? What happened to his family? And his farm?

Maybe not all soldiers have such questions in the years after the war. Triggers were pulled, men fell, mortars exploded, people were killed. That’s what war is about, after all. But if not all, then many men and women who stow away the uniform in the holdall they hope never to unpack again, will feel their hearts shrink when these memories surface during unguarded moments. Who was that man in the cross-hairs? That face that stared in horror over the low wall as the ccrrrrumph! of the mortar echoed across the killing field – did he have a family? The pitiful, mangled body behind the splintered tree trunk – who did he pray to when the bullets started chipping away at the wood? And do we not all whimper in the same language when the shrapnel tears a chunk out of the uniform? And…what about the ragged, dirty little child that ran to the prostrate body in the village square when the bombing started?

***

Near Rolbos, 2014

 Kleinpiet turns the pocket knife over and over in his hands. He’s camping next to a sandy hill, a few miles out of town. Maybe he’ll return tomorrow, or the day after. But first he has to make peace.

With himself.

With Manuel.

With Love and Faith.

Once he’s done that, he might just manage to shake off the chains…for now..

***

“I think he’s terribly selfish, going off like that…” Precilla dabs the Kleenex to her eyes.

“No, my dear, he’s terribly brave,” Gertruida says – because she knows everything. “Faith and Love…and depression…are like Ravel’s Bolero. It builds up volume and tempo from an rather inconspicuous start. The trick is to conduct the orchestra in your mind to play the correct instrument at the right time. Only if you do that, can you unshackle the wonderful melody of Hope.”

Of course Precilla doesn’t understand.