A Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Oscar Pistorius.

Credit: starrfmonline.com

Credit: starrfmonline.com

Dear Oscar,

I imagine you’d be surprised by this – after all, one doesn’t usually write to imaginary friends…and then expect them to read such a letter. Imaginary friends, by definition, are supposed to be fictitious and only exist in the realm of the subconscious. You, however, aren’t anything like that. I think most people of the planet are aware of your existence by now. Be that as it may, I take the liberty of writing, expecting the letter to find you…even if the chances of your reading it are rather slim.

Why should you, even if you could? I caught myself thinking a few moments ago: most of your mail will be censored (if ever delivered) and the majority of those letters that make it to your cell, will (quite naturally) be hate mail. If I were in your shoes (please, no pun intended), I’d ignore any letter from anybody I didn’t know – so I’d understand if this letter gets chucked into the ‘I-simply-can’t-face-another-bit-of-scripted-abuse’ bin.

I wanted to tell you that you’ve been a wonderful imaginary friend for a long time. I followed your running career with some interest, often gaining strength from the way you refused to give up when the going got tough. Man, you were good! And then the olympics and the paralympics – you made me so proud.

So we never met – why should we? – but I thought of you as a role model and an icon and all those words one uses towards somebody you respect. My friend – imaginary, to be sure, virtual by the very nature of things – but indeed somebody I’d have liked to share a drink with.

And then Valentine’s Day happened and everybody screamed for revenge. Icarus had flown too near the sun, the wax had melted, the wings were destroyed. The world – so righteous and filled with sinless people who never did any wrong – bayed for blood. Driven by their lily-white personalities and oh-so-forgetful consciences, everybody watched in horrid fascination as you were paraded on television to millions across the globe. They saw your tears and remorse, and rejected it as playacting for the judge’s benefit. They heard your faltering voice stumbling down the straight of the advocate’s scathing questions while every tabloid dug and dug into the imperfections of your past.

My imaginary friend, it turned out, had feet of clay. Like me, he was riddled with fault lines that had eroded his dreams. Oh, he was still famous – but for all the wrong reasons.

And of course, there were the families. Your own stood by your side when the storm refused to abate. And Reeva’s kin followed you with sad eyes and thoughts of justice. Your world-wide family of supporters simply faded into the background. Like St Peter, they said they’ve never heard of you, ever before. No, they didn’t know you, never rejoiced in your successes.. Only this time, the cock’s crow was replaced by the judge’s hammer banging down after the sentence. Once was enough. Case closed.

But the case will never be closed, will it? Whether you spend ten months or a lifetime in custody, you can never undo the things you have done. Your prison has mental walls, the bars being the past and the bricks made during the sleepless nights  when the 14th of February will screen inside your head, over and over again.

You’ve incarcerated a lot of people in their own prisons too, I’m afraid. The Steenkamps will never recover, neither will the Pistoriusses. Whenever they think about you – which will be all too often – they’ll retreat to their own cells of misery and regret. Sadly, too, so will so many other erstwhile fans.

I’m writing this for me, if you can understand that? My imaginary, virtual friend is in prison and I have to grow up. My idol has fallen. I must greet you, say goodbye, and try to forget how I cheered you on so many podiums. Still, I do so with a sense of profound regret, and I want you to know about that. Walking away from a prodigious superstar, who inspired a nation into believing that there is, indeed, something good in our country, isn’t easy. However, it must be done, even if it is only for my own sake.

Despite having said that, I do wish you well. The burden you will carry for the rest of your life, must be born with dignity – and that will be hard. People will remark, point fingers, write less-than-complimentary words. And every night, when the sounds of the prison reverberate around you and the keys in the locks make their crunching sounds, you will remember things you’d rather forget. What I’m trying to say is this: may you find peace. I don’t think it’ll be easy.

My dear imaginary friend – the one I’ve never met and hardly expect to, either – this letter serves to tell you that I’m not prepared to cast the first – or any subsequent – stones. Bear your burden, serve your time. Make peace with the past and try to find the strength to forgive – yourself and others. And believe that not everybody thinks that time in prison will heal the wounds. The scars, my friend, are permanent. Because I understand that, I’m writing to tell you that – as a previously faceless, anonymous fan – I hope you’ll find new friends in a new life. Try to find a  way to climb the steep mountain of recovery, even when your legs refuse to move another inch.

As for me, I somehow accept that it’s normal for imaginary friends to have superpowers, even after I’ve said goodbye..

I think you’re going to need that.

Kind Regards,

Gertruida.

Everybody has a You (#15)

Gertruida gasps in surprise when she opens the door to find Sersant Dreyer standing there, an uncertain smile hovering below his trimmed moustache.

“Oh…Gertruida?” He seems surprised to find her there. “I need to talk to Mary. About the dead man, understand? This is business, nothing personal.”

Gertruida wants to tell the policeman to go away, this isn’t the time – but Mary’s tired voice calls from the bedroom.

“Let him come in, Gertruida. After talking to you all tonight, I realise I must face my life as it is. Face the consequences and take my punishment. I simply can’t…can’t live a lie any more.” She sobs the last words out.

Sersant Dreyer squeezes past Gertruida to sit down on the old settee. Waiting patiently for Mary to emerge from the bedroom, he proceeds to stuff his short-stemmed briar before putting a match to the tobacco. When Mary finally shuffles into the room, she has the look of defeat written all over her face.

“Go on, Dreyer. Arrest me and be done with it.?”

Sersant Dreyer shakes his head. “No, Mary. There’ll be an inquest, but that’s all…”

He tells the two women that something Mary said, rang a bell and made him reconsider the way they handled Brutus’s death.  “You mentioned his irregular heartbeat, the cocaine, and heart medication. We know that Brutus and Boggel endured a lot during the time they stumbled through the desert. So, when I left you in the bar, I went to phone a colleague – Dr Strauss – one of the top forensic experts in the police service. We go back a long time, but that’s not the point.

“You see, I think Brutus was responsible for his own death. Sure, you kicked him…but it is possible that his heart was already in irreversible failure. The lack of medication, the obvious dehydration and the extreme physical demands of walking that distance almost killed Boggel – and I think it was the last straws for Brutus. Your kick, Mary, was incidental. At most one can think of is a complaint of assault – if the victim was around to lay a charge, that is.

“Dr Strauss is sending a team of experts to dig up the corpse. I’ll accompany them tomorrow to show them the spot. I explained that we’d have brought the body here, but that we had no proper means of transport. He actually agreed that – under the circumstances – we did the right thing to bury the body, otherwise the jackals would have had a feast. The postmortem will show the condition of the heart muscle and probably establish the cause of death due to myocardial arrest due to infarction. Apparently – and I don’t understand everything that Strauss said – cocaine use has many effects on the heart muscle which may be seen both clinically and under the microscope. Coupled with blood and tissue samples, it should be no problem to make the diagnosis of cocaine-related terminal cardiac failure.  In short – an unnatural death due to natural – if induced – factors.

“So, Mary…that’s my news. Brutus is now legally dead and the blame of his sudden demise rests completely on his own shoulders.” Sersant Dreyer gets up to leave. “I thought you’d like to know that.”

***

Back in the bar, Boggel and Smartryk remain seated after the rest of the customers had gone home. Although they are both dog-tired, Mary’s story upset them to such an extent that they prefer to have another drink before retiring.

“What do you think, Boggel?”

Boggel can – when he relaxes – have the most disarming smile. It’s as if his face relaxes, the eyes light up and the crow’s feet around the eyes wrinkle with a secret, inner amusement.

“It’s up to her, Smartryk, not us. You know my – our – history and I appreciate the way you respect that. I also saw the way she looked at you. There’s a hunger in her eyes, a desire, that I’ve never seen before. To be honest, I wish that she’d look at me that way, but she doesn’t. For me, there’s kindness. For you – so much more. I can offer her a life in Rolbos but you can make her start afresh.

“The issue , of course, is how you weigh her past. If that burden is too much, you’ll have to be honest with her. On the other hand – if you think the two of you have a fighting chance to make it work, you have my blessing.”

***

Precilla was so mad at the little barman that she didn’t talk to Boggel for a whole week. She said he should have done more, said more, showed more of his real feelings – and maybe she’s right. But Gertruida sought him out, one evening after Smartryk, Dreyer, Mary and the forensic team had left to complete the formalities surrounding the aircraft’s crash and Brutus’s death in Upington.

***

“Are you okay, Boggel?” The concern in Gertruida’s question is unmistakable.

“I suppose.” Boggel played with the Voortrekker Monument sugar bowl on the counter, absently thinking that he must fill it up with peanuts again. “C’est la vie. Mary needed more than I could give.”

“No, Boggel, she’d have given you less than you needed. Rolbos is too small for her, my friend.” Gertruida nods her thanks when he pushes a beer over the counter. “You see, when you upset a pail of water, you can’t dry the floor with a small sponge. You need a large rag to absorb all the moisture. It’s like that with Mary. No matter how much you love her, she needs to disappear in a larger society. Over here in Rolbos, she’d have a label – The Good Girl Gone Bad. Oh, we won’t think about her like that consciously, not at all. But the stigma will remain in her own mind and it’ll eat away at her very core. But, in a different place, amongst new friends and people, she can start all over again. That’s what she needs and that’s what Smartryk can supply.

“Add to that the spark between them – we were all aware of it, weren’t we? It is only right for them to explore the promise of a relationship. If it works…well, good for them. If it doesn’t, she’ll come back. You, Boggel, have given her a chance. It’s up to her – and Smartryk – to make it work.

“We all have a you, Boggel, but only a few end up with that person. Sometimes that ‘you’ will forever remain beyond your grasp…and that may very well remain the most beautiful love story of your life.”

Boggel is no fool. He knows Gertruida is trying to cheer him up. He also knows that it would have been wrong to force Mary to stay. So he nods his agreement, telling Gertruida that she’s very wise and that he appreciates her concern. Later, after she leaves, he locks up his bar.

Then he sits down on his cushion below the counter to rub Vrede’s back. The dogs stirs in his sleep, opens a lazy eye, and thumps his tail on the wooden floor.

“Ja, Vrede. Love…” Vrede settles his head on Boggel’s lap, understanding every word. “I think the best love stories have no ending. Saying ‘I love you‘ seems so easy…The ‘love’ part isn’t the problem: finding the right ‘you’, is. At least I have…you.” He smiles wryly at the play of words as he pats the faithful dog’s head. “Damn it all, Vrede, why can’t the chapters of that book be written in plain language? If only I could read the words…”

Thump! Thump! Thumpity…Thump...

The End…

Everybody has a You (#14)

Credit: nationalgeographic.com

Credit: nationalgeographic.com

Mary Mitchell swallows hard before being able to continue her story. To bare her soul before the group in the bar is the hardest thing she’s ever done…and yet it seems the most natural thing to do. Here, in Rolbos, honesty lives at a lower level of society – in fact, it is the foundation these people build on. Unlike life in the cities where she has lived – where you create an image, a mirage, of the you, you want people to see – the Rolbossers care about the real you, the you hiding behind the facade. And somehow it’s so right, so proper to grant them the honesty they deserve – even if it meant their scorn and disapproval in the end. That, at least, would be real, too.

“One pill! One, lousy, stupid pill…and I was hooked. When I woke up that Sunday morning, I had no idea what happened. Brutus laughed at that, told me I simply dozed off – but I knew that wasn’t true. I had bruises and aches…my body told me something horrible had happened. We had a fight then, Brutus and I, and I dressed and stormed out. I finally found my little flat and slept for the rest of the day. The next morning – Monday – I tried to do my job at Dr Hartslief’s, but I was jittery. Couldn’t concentrate. Made mistakes with the bookings.

“I asked for the week off and went home. And there I….I knew I had to return to Brutus. I had to get something to make me feel better. I had to talk to him.  Oh! I told myself a thousand reasons why I should go back to that horrible man, but the real reason was this craving…the desperate need…for release. Something inside me wanted another of those pills. Just one – because the one thing I remembered about that Saturday night, was that I felt good about myself. Whatever happened after I had passed out didn’t matter so much. I wanted that feeling again..

“Brutus was waiting for me. Can you believe the nerve? And he was sooo friendly and nice again, asking me how I felt and whether I was all right and so on. And I…I hated myself, despised myself…but I begged him for another pill.

“I won’t bore you with details. Those pills gave me the strength to go on. After the third one, I didn’t pass out anymore. I felt good and strong and righteous. I could return to work and get things done. At night Brutus would entertain me in his penthouse, we’d have some pills – I knew then that it was Ecstasy – and later he had…friends…come over. Just to liven things up, Brutus said. The things we did…”

Of all the people in the bar, only Gertruida has a very good idea of what Mary was telling them. Reading between the lines is one of her gifts, and she feels an icy hand squeezing at her heart as the story unfolds. The poor, poor woman….

“He – that’s Brutus – had this irregular heartbeat. I only learnt later that Dr Hartslief was his cardiologist and that was  where he first saw me. I was one of the receptionists, see? Brutus told me one night that, when he saw me there for the first time, he knew we’d be ‘doing business together’, as he put it. The following day I peeked in his file, and saw that Dr Hartslief diagnosed an irregular rhythm due to cocaine use. That’s when I realised how deep in trouble I was…

“Things went seriously wrong after that. I had to have more and more of the Ecstasy. Brutus said it wasn’t a free ride, I had to help him. I…I was beyond caring. Sure, I said, anything. That’s when the real parties started.”

Brutus explained that he had some very influential friends he had to entertain: government ministers, senior police officers, politicians.

“At that stage I couldn’t care anymore. I didn’t even resign my job – I just stopped going to work. At night I was the plaything for these important men and for my…services…I was paid handsomely…and got pills. My mind went into a shut-down mode – I simply stopped thinking. And, as I started needing more and more pills, Brutus demanded more and more of me. I…” Mary lifts her chin, defying the group to say anything. “I slept with them all. I can name them, those important men, all of them. You think your ministers are upright citizens? Bah! If I told you what happened in that penthouse, you’d be nauseated…”

“Come, dear, sit down.” Gertruida leads the distraught woman to a chair. “Servaas, bring a glass of water. Oudoom, stop looking so pious and holy. Go fetch a blanket. Can’t you see she’s shivering? And you, Vetfaan? You can light the fire in the hearth. It’s getting chilly outside.”

Outside, night has indeed settled over the barren wastes of the Kalahari, followed – as usual – by the chill the darkness always brings. Still, the cold inside the bar isn’t just due to the temperature dropping outside – it was more – much more – than that. Everybody in the bar experienced the fear, the loathing, the horror of the story Mary has been telling them. And they knew: there wasn’t a fire big enough to fight off the chill that reality brought to the humble village of Rolbos that night.

“And that’s what you knew and what Brutus tried to silence?”

Mary ignores Sersant Dreyer’s question.

“So I went to those places quite willingly, knowing exactly what the score was. I also knew that Brutus would kill me if I didn’t cooperate or if I breathed a word about his activities. When they apprehended me in Rio, I was almost relieved.

251005_det“Prison? It was hell. It was also a blessing. They don’t dish out drugs in prison. Not at all. I had to go cold turkey – suddenly and terribly so. I went through it all – the sweats, the nausea, the cramps – everything. It was the purest form of hell imaginable. But somehow I made it. The other inmates were convinced that I was mad – and maybe I was, for a time. Over the weeks and months the cravings became less and less, and I started feeling human again. I changed from a jabbering idiot into a model prisoner, teaching the other women things I know, like crocheting and knitting and such. I even started a choir and taught them some Afrikaans songs!” For the first time this evening, Mary manages a real smile. “I think my conduct contributed to my early release. The mad witch became Pollyanna.”

It is quite possible that only Gertruida connected the dots to understand that Mary refers to Eleanor Potter’s story, but the group is so involved in Mary’s tale that she doesn’t interrupt.

“And that’s why Brutus came here. During my ‘introduction stage’, when I was plied with Ecstasy, Brutus wanted to know everything about me. At the time I thought he was genuinely interested in me, but of course he was doing a background check. When he learnt that I had no family, no close friends and no attachments, he must have been overjoyed. But the one name that cropped up all too often, was your’s, Boggel.” A soft sob ends the sentence.

***

Gertruida escorts the crying Mary back to Precilla’s bungalow behind the little pharmacy. After Mary’s telling of her life with Brutus and the drugs, Mary is exhausted, empty, drained of all emotion except for the incredible sadness that now has settled in her mind. What she now needs, Gertruida knows, is silence – and time to accept that finally her secrets are shared and the burden of guilt has shifted somewhat. She says a silent prayer that Mary will now accept her past, forgive herself and move on.

What Gertruida doesn’t understand, is the way Boggel – and even Smartryk – kept their distance during the time Mary was telling them everything she had lived through. She did, however, notice the two men exchanging glances and worried looks. And that Sersant Dreyer! Towards the end of Mary’s confession, he had the gall to get up and leave the bar! So, so unkind! Shaking her head at the men’s lack of insight, she puts on the kettle. A  cup of tea before putting Mary to bed is a good idea.

She looks up, startled, when there is a knock at the door.

“Mary? I have to talk to you.” It’s a man’s voice, muffled by the closed door. Not sure who it might be, Gertruida reaches for the door handle…

Everybody has a You (#13)

Ecstacy pills

Ecstacy pills

Neither Smartryk nor Boggel remebers much about the trip back to Rolbos. Smartryk, after the dose of painkillers and a herbal tea from Dawid Loper – and Boggel due to sheer fatigue – dozed, slept and rested during the long ride home. Sersant Dreyer took them on a detour to pick op Kleinpiet’s bakkie, which they refuelled. Then, with Dawid acting as guide, they drove through the night. When at last they stopped in front of Boggel’s Place, it was difficult to distinguish between the injured and the rest – they were all completely exhausted.

Gertruida got hold of Oudok, who examined the two men. Boggel – he said – only needed rest and liquids. Smartryk surprised the old doctor: when the bandages were removed, the wound was well on it’s way to complete healing. Dawid Loper nodded happily: it was exactly what he expected.

Now, after a good nights rest, the townsfolk gather in the shade of Boggel’s verandah, with Servaas doing duty as barman. They wait until noon before they send Kleinpiet to see how the patients are doing…

***

However, Bioggel and Smartryk have been awake since dawn. They shared Gertruida’s spare room, where she accommodated them in style – or whatever would pass as such in Rolbos. Two mattresses on the floor, clean linen and a huge jug of orange juice far surpassed their needs for the night. When dawn streaked the eastern sky with orange and red, Gertruida started serving strong, sweet tea, a huge platter with scrambled eggs and bacon and followed that with a Thermos filled with the strongest coffee possible.

What more could a man ask?

“Boggel?” Smartryk burped softly after finishing his breakfast. “We have to talk…”

“About Mary?”

“Yes…”

And talked they did. About Mary, about life…and about love. Smartryk described the strange emotion he discovered after meeting and spending time with Mary. He talked about serendipity, coincidence, chance and divine intervention. “Boggel, for all my life I knew there had to be more. And now…well, now I think I’ve found it.”

But, Smartryk said, he also understood that Mary came to Rolbos to see Boggel. He had been the compass that directed her journey back to her roots and to the Kalahari. And he, Smartryk, understood now why Mary had such a deep-rooted respect for the hunchbacked barman. “You saved her life…again, Boggel. You were prepared to perish in the wilderness to save Mary. I know of no other man that would have led Brutus into the desert like you did, knowing that his death would allow Mary to live. And that, Boggel, tells me her trust in you is not only justified, it runs far deeper than even she would admit.”

Boggel waited and listened patiently. Although he had a very good idea where all this was leading up to, he allowed Smartryk the opportunity to transform his deepest feeling from thoughts to words. This is, of course, something that is often required from barmen all over the world, and Boggel has plenty experience of this. Smartryk rambled, lost track, stumbled, gathered his wits time and again and eventually fell silent.

“Okay.” Boggel finished the last of the coffee with a sigh. “You think you love Mary. And you want my blessing.” He waited for Smartryk to nod before going on. “Well, it’s not up to me, Smartryk. It’s up to Mary. She’s the one to choose which which horse she wants to saddle up. I’d suggest you talk to her, not to me.”

***

One of the most important lessons in Barman 101 concerns the requirement to listen to problems and then to offer simple advice. For this, you don’t need an IQ of more than 160 at all. No sir. Most problems dispensers of drinks are faced with, involve the intricate and complicated relationships between men and women – and lately even the gender-tag has faded away, so that one may safely condense that statement to simply refer to ‘relationships’.

Boggel’s remark – about Mary having the last say – must therefore not be seen as abundantly chivalrous or altruistic, not at all. After all, does the nearness of Mary not cause his heart to skip a beat, and does something not melt inside his heart whenever he looks at her? But, like he sometimes has to tell a teary customer: you cannot force Love. If Love is meant to be, it’ll find a way. There is no force known to man that will stamp out the glowing embers of affection once that fire starts blazing, bringing light to the darkness we call loneliness.

Some may think that Boggel’s handling of Smartryk’s declaration of intent was short-sighted and stupid. Others – more wise and bearing the scars to prove it – will understand the depth of his wisdom when he encouraged Smartryk to follow his heart. It’s the old story about setting Love free to fly…and then waiting patiently to see if it returns to the safety of its origin.

***

It’s late afternoon when the two patients sit down in Boggel’s Place. The rest of Rolbos is there to welcome them with a hearty dose of peach brandy – which, for once, doesn’t have to be smallowed with one grimacing gulp. The talk – of course – is about the last few day’s adventure. Smartryk reminds them that he still has to complete his report on the Cessna’s crash.

“That’s easy, Smartryk. You attribute the accident to pilot error. Then Sersant Dreyer adds his statement that the unknown pilot seems to have disappeared. Yes, his tracks led to Kleinpiet’s farm and yes, he apparently stole a vehicle. The said vehicle was found in the desert after an exhaustive search, but the exact whereabouts of the pilot is still uncertain at this point in time…”

“Ja, he could be in heaven…or in hell. Who knows?” Vetfaan is on his fourth drink and seems to think he’s just made an extremely funny remark. The rest of the patrons ignore him.

“I have something to say.” Mary’s voice – soft and uncertain – makes them all turn to her. “I…I must confess, I suppose.”

“About what, Mary?” Smartryk puts his hand on her shoulder, concern written over his face.

“I… Oh hell! How do I do this?” Mary shakes off the hand, gets up, and walks to the door. There, framed by the doorway, she turns to address them.

“I’ve only told you half the story…I’m sorry. You see, this is all my fault. Yes, I wanted to see Boggel, and yes, I wanted to hide here and hope to start a new life. But, you see…” She stifles a sob, squares her shoulders. “I wasn’t the naive courier I made out to be. That trip was my third, not my first. Once I went to Hong Kong, and once to Bangkok. Every time the same – documents and cash.

“Did I love Brutus? The answer is an emphatic ‘No!’. But….when I met him, my life was in shambles. I did work at Dr Hartslief, the cardiologist, that’s true. But that was during the daytime. At night…I went to clubs. It was my way of escaping from the small flat I rented. I so desperately wanted company, but in a big city you can live between hordes of people, and still be lonely. It’s not like here…

“Anyway, one night some guy got fresh with me. I had a few drinks too many, and didn’t see it coming. Then, suddenly, the man started steering me to the door, saying we must go to his place. I didn’t want to go. The man insisted. And then Brutus stepped in and told the guy to bugger off. That’s how we met.” She shakes her head. “Swallowed by my own stupidity… It had all been a setup! Brutus was always on the lookout for lonely girls like me – and he had this way of picking them up, see? He gets one of his men to harass the girl, then he steps in as the hero. Anyway, how was I to know? So one thing led to the other and we ended up drinking far too much. He was good, I’ll give him that. At the end of the evening I thought he was the nicest man I’ve ever met.

b98f4057-a575-4ef5-99a2-6ebbd7bf1790“We started seeing each other. That Saturday evening we had dinner and then he took me to his penthouse in the Waterfront. His place blew me away! I’ve never seen so much opulence in my life! The carpets! The furniture! It was like a dream come true…” She sighs, remembering her wide-eyed wonder. “He offered me a pill after we had a few drinks. I remember it was white, with a dove imprinted on it. Said it was something innocent to prevent a hangover. Said he took it all the time, himself. And I…I didn’t want to look as if I didn’t trust him. I really wanted to believe…

“So I took the pill. And I woke up the next morning and my nightmare started…”

(To be continued…)

Everybody has a You (#12)

randall 002aDespite the dry mouth, the almost unquenchable thirst and still feeling dizzy, Boggel manages to stumble through the events leading up to his friends finding him. He has to pause frequently to sip water from the canteen Sersant Dreyer offers from time to time. Even the wounded Smartryk seems a bit better, sitting next to Precilla. If Boggel noticed them holding hands, he doesn’t remark on it.

He was closing the bar that night, he tells them, when the huge bulk of Brutus was framed in the doorway. The man seemed friendly…but he had a problem. Would Boggel please help him? His aeroplane had developed an uncommon splutter – something the man said he had noticed while on his way to Upington. To err of the safe side, he landed not far from town on an even patch of veld. He thought it’s the carburettor, but needed a specific spanner to get to it. A number 15, he said.

“Well, you all had left and there I was, talking to this guy. I didn’t want to wake anybody and I had just such a spanner in my toolbox. So, naturally, I agreed to help. That’s what we do in these parts, isn’t it? But when we got to the aircraft, the lights went out.”

Boggel says he was near the Cessna when he felt a tremendous blow to the back of his head.  “Must have been that spanner, I think. The next thing I knew, I woke up to the roar of the engine. I was strapped in one of the back seats, and I thought I saw somebody outside, waving.”

“That was me,” Sersant Drayer remarks. I thought I recognised you…”

Boggel nods before continuing. “Yes, that makes sense. Anyway, I took a particularly dim view of the situation, and whacked the pilot a proper one on his head with my fist. He let out a yelp of surprise – must have thought I was still out cold – and turned to belt me back. I must say: if I had known we were in the air at the time, I might have reconsidered my attack. Still, that’s what I did, and that’s what he did. To get to me, he had to let go of the controls, of course, which isn’t a nice thing for a pilot to do.

“But this man – Brutus? He has a nasty temper, as I was to find out later. Or maybe I already found that out when he turned to strike me. Once he gets angry, he retaliates immediately. Not clever, not clever at all. Especially not under those circumstances. He immediately realised his dilemma, of course. When the Cessna slewed to one side, he turned back to the controls, but by then it was too late.

“I suppose one must give the devil his due: he is – was – a great pilot. How he managed to belly-land that Cessna is a pure miracle. I gashed my shoulder during the landing and he banged his head on the control panel – but that was all. We could have…should have been killed.”

Despite Brutus’s injury, he remained a formidable, strong, giant of a man. Boggel tried to escape, but Brutus simply felled him with an almighty blow to the head.

“I had no chance, no idea what was going on, and no way to escape. He pinned me to the ground and told me to take him to the nearest vehicle.” Boggel shoots a guilty glance towards Kleinpiet. “I knew Kleinpiet always leaves the keys in the ignition and that we were somewhere near his homestead. With Brutus frogmarching me along, I had no choice but to lead him there.” He pauses, smiling shyly. “I’m sorry, Kleinpiet.”

“I would have done the same, Boggel. Don’t worry.”

Boggel bobs his head. “Thanks. Anyway, the man said we were going to Upington. He asked directions. And I thought: bugger you, laddie. Whatever you’re up to, I’m certainly not going to help you. And, because it was still quite dark, I had him drive towards the desert. It’s a shortcut, I said. He believed me – must have thought I was sufficiently scared to tell the truth all the time.”

With Boggel promising that they’d reach the tarred road any minute now, Brutus drove on through the desert…until the petrol ran out.

“Man, you should have seen him then! He was beside himself! I told him he should have let me know, and I would have filled up the tank properly, but he didn’t think it was funny. But then, my friends, the tables were turned. He knew I was his only hope to get him back to civilisation. He calmed down and then, ever so friendly-like told me to lead the way. I said no way, not until he told me what this was all about.

“We had a heated debate about that, as you can imagine. But I sat down on the sand, refusing to budge. He ranted and raved, but I knew I had him. He tried to lie initially – and later when I found out that he was a lawyer, I understood why. Still, after while, I told him to tell the truth or be prepared to die in the desert. That made him blanche. He told me not to say such things. Death, he said, is the only thing he was afraid of.”

Boggel shrugs,. The man’s sudden change from being the self-assured aggressor to confessing his fear of mortality shook the small barman. Brutus sank down on the sand next to him, suddenly all friendly and coy.

“He’s a psychopath,” Gertruida says. “Anything to manipulate you. No remorse, no conscience. At first he tried to scare you to do his will, then he swung around, trying to gain your confidence through pity. Typical.”

“Sure. That’s what I thought as well. He started telling me about his irregular heartbeat, his visits to the cardiologist and goodness knows what else. I thought he was mad. Didn’t believe a word he said, even after he told me he needed to get to his pills as soon as possible. That, I thought, was a blatant lie. A big guy like that, dependant of cardiac medication? So I said I was sorry to hear about his troubles, but what was the idea behind him abducting me in the way he did?

“And he said – I remember the words – there is a woman he needed to talk to. What woman, I asked? And he said Mary Mitchell.” Boggel closes his eyes. “The bottom fell out of my world, right then, right there. After a while, I managed to ask why? And he said she knew stuff about him, he’d rather keep to himself. I was the key, he said. If Mary knew I was with him, she’d come immediately.

“That’s when I decided to walk him to death. A man who is prepared to use me as bait to get to Mary,” and here he allows his gaze to rest on her, “must be crazy. I will do no such thing. By then I had serious doubts about his sanity…but no doubt at all about his violent tendencies. No, I thought, let me play along for a while, lead his deeper and deeper into the desert, and get us both completely lost. We had one water bottle – courtesy of Kleinpiet’s pickup – how long can we last?

“So we walked. On and on and on. Eventually – the next day or the next – I lost track of time – we rested under a bush like we so often had to. I woke up to find him gone. You know what? I couldn’t care anymore. I thought – so be it. There was no way he’d get much farther and I wasn’t up to much, either. So I closed my eyes. The next thing I know, you guys buried me and here I am…”

Gertruida fixes the bent little barman with a knowing look. She knows he’s left out a lot. The two days walking under the scorching sun, the freezing nights, the arguments along the way… Typical of Boggel, she thinks, to avoid telling them about the hardships along the way.

“It’s all my fault…” Mary’s eyes brim with tears. “Oh, Boggel, I’m the poison, the bane of your life. I’m so terribly sorry.”

Boggel shrugs. “I would have done the same for Gertruida, or Sersant, or…even for Servaas.” He smiles his lopsided smile again, takes a swig from the bottle, and sighs. “Life is never fair, Mary. You and I were dealt a hand of cards when we were born. Some people get winning hands, some don’t. We have no choice, really. Play with what we have is what we must do.”

“But…” Mary wants to protest, but Smartryk holds up a hand.

“Boggel, you’ve been incredibly brave…and unbelievably lucky. There’s a lot we have to talk about…a lot. But, seeing the sun is burning us all to a crisp, I suggest we prepare to get back to Rolbos. Maybe there, after cleaning up and with something cool to drink, the two of us can have a chat. Man to man…if you know what I mean.”

And Boggel, with the look you find on the face of a sad Basset, finds himself nodding. Yes, that’s what they must do. Mano a mano. He also realises that the hardships of the past days may fade in comparison with what lies ahead.

Everybody has a You (#11)

558“Is he…”

“Yes.” Sersant Dreyer drops the lifeless hand back in the sand. Getting up slowly, he walks to his van, where he gets into the cab and shuts the door. He needs time to think.

“I…I killed him… His heart…” Mary Mitchell stares down at the body of Brutus, the man she once thought loved her. The man who sent her on the mission that saw her spend time in that cesspool of a prison in Rio. The man who betrayed her, belittled her, disrespected her, The man who…used her. And she closes her eyes for a second, deep in thought, marvelling at the fact that she feels no remorse.

“Aaargh…..” Boggel opens his eyes, stares at the group with uncomprehending and unfocussed eyes. “Wha….?”

Servaas, still rubbing his head after his heroic storming of Brutus’s Bastille (or whatever you want to call the man’s reason d’etre) , bends down to smile at the barman: “Like a Cactus?”

He’s rewarded by a weak twist of the chapped lips – a feeble but honest effort to return the smile. Boggel tries to move, finds himself buried, and starts wriggling out of the sand.

“I’m not dead yet, you guys. Can’t you wait with the funeral?” His voice is hoarse and cracked, but everybody gives a little cheer. Boggel is back! Weak, barely able to sit up, but still…

“When you lot have stopped fussing over Boggel,” Gertruida pauses while they turn to her, “I might remind you that we have to get a pressure bandage on Smartryk’s wound. Now, if you don’t mind, I need some help.” She’s still bent over her patient, applying pressure to the rupture artery.

“Here.” Dawid, who has stood quietly watching, while rubbing his neck where Brutus’s fingers bruised the tissue, holds out the small pouch he always carries on the piece of leather that holds his loincloth in place. “Press this leaf on the bleeding.”

Gertruida stares at the leaf for a moment. It’s a leaf – a nondescript, common, everyday leaf. The type of leaf you’d see on the ground and never think twice about it. Heart-shaped and small, it looks like a thousand others one would find on the stunted bushes in the Kalahari. Still, when she sees the imploring eyes of the Bushman, she shrugs and places the leaf on the spurting artery.

The bleeding stops immediately.

“Now put this on the wound,” Dawid says, “before you put on a bandage. It’ll help healing.” This time he pours an ash-like powder from an even smaller bag  in the pouch.

Gertruida needs no convincing. Using a bandage from Precilla’s first-aid kit, she binds up the wound. Smartryk, who has been silent for the whole time, now sits up, looks over to Boggel, and waves a fluttering hand in the barman’s direction. “You must be Boggel?”

“The same,” Boggel’s voice has improved to beyond the croaking stage. “Will somebody please tell what is going on here? I thought I was going to die…”

While Gertruida tries to put the Rolbosser’s reaction to Boggel’s disappearance and Mary’s visit into some perspective, Mary plops down on the sand. Drawing her knees to her chest and resting her chin on her folded arms, she now stares at Boggel and Smartryk in turn. She, too, has to organise her thoughts. Sure, the reason for her coming to Rolbos, was to see Boggel. And yes, she is glad to see him…or is she? Was he not, just a few moments ago, one of the reasons why she kicked that despicable man? And wasn’t it silly to hope that he – Boggel – would await her with open arms and that they could pick up where they left off, all those years ago? A sudden flurry of doubt creases her brow.

And Smartryk? Well, now there’s a question, isn’t there? After all, she hardly knows the man… Travelling with a stranger for two days is hardly a foundation for a long-term relationship. What she needs, is security – not only financially, but especially emotionally. Smartryk seems nice enough, but…

Her thoughts and Gertruida’s lecture are interrupted when Sersant Dreyer gets out of the van, slamming the door.

“I’ve got it,” he says triumphantly. “Come, let’s bury this piece of scum.And we have to talk…”

***

“Let’s just think for a minute. If we involved the authorities, we’ll have to explain why Boggel is in the state he’s in, what happened to Smartryk…and that.” He jerks his thumb towards Brutus. “I don’t have to tell you: there’d be questions – a million of them – and investigations and interviews and goodness knows what else. Brutus’s affairs will be under a microscope, end there’d be the issue of manslaughter…or murder.”

Smartryk nods weakly. The last thing he’d want is to see Mary go through a protracted – even a sensational – court case. He has sensed her vulnarability over the past two days – and her pent-up fury of a few minutes ago underscored her utter fragility.

“So here’s what I think. First, we make sure that Smartryk and Boggel are fit to travel – that is, after we’ve buried that corpse. Then we take the two patients to Oudok, and get them fixed up. Like Dawid said: it may involve a two-day trip, but that’s what we’ve got to do. Once we’re all safely back in Rolbos, we simply continue with life as we know it.” He flashes a rare, but disarming smile. “Brilliant, isn’t it?”

Complete silence.

“But then…what…what about….this?” Oudoom makes a vague gesture to encompass them all, the area, and Brutus.

“It never happened, Oudoom. This incident didn’t occur. We’re not here.”

“But we can’t…”

“Oh yes, we can!” Gertruida’s emphatic statement swivels all the eyes in her direction. “Sersant Dreyer is right. The only thing that’d come from making this public, is a pack of investigators, followed closely by a court case, television crews and the Huisgenoot. And what will happen? Mary has a criminal record and could quite possibly end up in jail for manslaughter. You know how the legal system works – I don’t have to explain that to you. Even if Mary is acquitted, there might be a reaction from the drug cartel Brutus was involved with. In the end she’d be a target – either by the law – or the…others. If we go home quietly, the world will keep on turning. Cops will hunt robbers, politicians will lie and lovers will love.

“Look at the hullabaloo surrounding the Oscar Pistorius case. How many millions were spent by the news channels of the world and how many millions of people wasted days – weeks – following the trial? And what did it change? Nothing, that’s what. Reeva is dead, Oscar’s career is in tatters and the state spent 15 million Rands on the case for the prosecution. That, my friends, could have supplied water and electricity to quite a number of households.

“Justice…” Gertruida says the word slowly, almost dreamily. “What is justice – especially for the victim? Is it not to give him or her the life back…the life once lived, carefree and happy?”

It is, everybody agrees, one of Gertruida’s better speeches, earning her a number of nodding heads.

“Before we take the law in our own hands,” Servaas says, “I think we should hear Boggel’s story.”

This puts a lid on Gertruida’s plea for the time being. The group now turns to Boggel, who is still sitting up on his heap of damp sand.

“Okay, then,” the barman sighs. “It’s only fair. Let me tell you…”

‘Everybody wants to be understood
Well, I can hear you
Everybody wants to be loved
Don’t give up because you are loved…’

Everybody has a You (#10)

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????In the strange, inexplicable way time slows down during times of catastrophe, a lot may happen in the shortest little period of time. For instance: in that second after Smartryk was shot, a multitude of actions took place simultaneously; yet it remains difficult to describe – let alone explain -how the hapless group of Rolbossers managed to get it all done in such a short time.

***

Boggel, of course, is the only one not to react. Well ensconced in his unconscious state, he remains exactly where he is – hidden under his heap of wetted sand. The same cannot be said for the rest of the group.

Kleinpiet and Vetfaan recognises the sound of the shot immediately. The instinct (rather than discipline), so rudely formed during their days as army conscripts during the Border War, kicks in immediately as they fling themselves to the ground. Oudoom, bewildered and never having  been under fire before, starts running away from the sound as fast as his ample frames allows movement; while Precilla and Gertruida does the sensible thing to cower down behind the bulky frame of Vetfaan. The overburdened Mary, panicked beyond measure, does an even more sensible thing: she falls down in a dead faint. And Sersant Dreyer? He scrambles for cover behind the police van, like a good policeman should.

Servaas stands rooted to the spot for a microsecond – but galvanises into action when he sees Dawid running. Despite his age, he does a sterling job of catching up with the Bushman. Did he – at that stage – know what he was getting himself into? Probably not. But still, his action will raise a few glasses in the days and months to come: the patrons in Boggel’s Place owe him that, at least..

Dawid’s reaction may be understood if you knew the history of the Bushmen. Centuries of persecution and scorn have driven these men and women into the most inhospitable parts of Africa. They chose to hide here rather than fight against overwhelming odds of civilisation and gunpowder. The sand and the dunes formed their fortress against these formidable enemies of their way of life. Now, as one of the last of the remnants of a once-great culture, Dawid lives in this barren and desolate area, the last refuge available to him and his kin. He’s no coward, though. He’ll face a lion – or a leopard – with dignity: not with the aim of killing such a beast, but to reassure the animal that he, Dawid, respects the animal’s right to hunt where and when it pleases. And, he’ll tell the ignorant westerner, it’s due to this reciprocal respect that man and animal may find the way to peaceful coexistence.

But…being shot at does not in any way fit in with his concepts of respect and coexistence. Being shot at implies the possibility that you may be hurt – killed, even – and that is the most profound form of disrespect shown to any man.  Also bear in mind that he found himself on Zosi Plain – a flat and empty space. There simply isn’t anywhere to hide. So Dawid did what he did, because there wasn’t anything else to do.

With the acute hearing Bushmen have, Dawid not only discerned where the shot came from, but also how far away the shooter should be. And then, instinctively or not, he ran, crouching all the way, straight in that direction, not knowing that Servaas was right behind him.

***

Under different circumstances he would have hesitated when he saw the man holding the pistol. After all, you don’t take on a giant of a man if you only weighed about 50 kg and could barely reach his shoulder. But the man had a gun and Bushmen know all they need to know about guns: they kill. What Brutus Malherbe thought at that stage, will never be known. Most probably he registered surprise or even disbelief at the small man storming at him. He did, however, manage a guffaw – but whether that was due to his natural feeling of superiority or simply an incredulous outing of astonished contempt, we’ll never know. When Dawid dived at him, Brutus stepped aside, caught him by the scruff of his neck and hoisted him high. He needed both hands to do this –  dropping the pistol in the process.

Gertruida later said Brutus had the look of a madman at that moment. He, too, was covered in dried blood – some fresh bleeding was still evident from a long gash over his forehead. With his clothes in no better state than Boggel’s and his skin and face similarly affected by heat and thirst, he seemed completely out of control. While one may speculate about his sanity at that moment, there could be no doubt what he was trying to do: his huge hands were wrapped around the thin neck of his dangling and helpless attacker…

***

Servaas doesn’t think. For a while he might have thought that Dawid was leading him to safety (something he’ll emphatically deny afterwards), but when he sees Brutus and the way he looks at the pathetically squirming man in his grasp, Servaas managed to find another gear to power his aging legs. He lowered his head, and – bull-like – bellowed as he rammed his bald cranium into Brutus’s middle. Or, at least, where he thought Brutus’s middle might be. Suffice to say that a bent-down Servaas might just reach the height of Brutus’s hips – or thereabouts…

Take any man – big or small, old or young – and take a swing at the core of the nuclear power station. Remember the axiom of aiming an unstoppable force at an immovable object? Well, If that force should connect the immovable object right on the male main switch, the power goes off and the lights go out. The circuit blows. Elvis leaves the building. The fat lady sings. It’s simple physics.

True, Servaas was stunned a little by the impact, and Dawid dropped like a sack of corn next to him, but the real damage was done to Brutus while the others – cowering as they did – let out a protracted ‘…ooooooo...!’. Even the astute Gertruida winched.

***

“Quick, Mister Vetfaan, tie him up!” Dawid is the first to recover. He scoops up the pistol and hands it to Sersant Dreyer, who has  left his hiding place behind the police van. The three of them – Dreyer, Vetfaan and Dawid – get busy unlacing the boots of their adversary and tying his huge wrists. A belt suffices for the ankles.

“Help! Somebody please help Ryk. He’s bleeding…” Mary’s anguished cry cuts through the mayhem of the moment. Getruida rushes over, takes a look at Smartryk, and takes a deep breath.

Gertruida doesn’t panic. Well, not usually. Now, however, she feels faint at the sight of so much blood. Gingerly, with trembling hands, she undoes the buttons of the soaked shirt. Then, folding back the flaps of the shirt, she inspects the damage.

“Let’s see…” Her voice is as unsteady as her hands, but she presses on regardless.

A long, cut-like wound courses across Smartryk’s chest. Apparently Smartryk was standing side-on to the shooter and the bullet raced across his chest from right to left, cleaving the skin and flesh open to the bone. In the middle of the wound a severed artery spurts a little fountain of red.

breast_artery_2“It’s the Thoracoacromial,” she announces in a much relieved tone. “One of the arteries to the chest wall.” Applying a delicate thumb to the bleeding artery, she presses down gently. The bleeding stops immediately. “The shock of the bullet hitting the ribs must have caused a faint. See – he’s already moving.” Making soothing noises, she tells Smartryk to lie still.

***

Take a moment here. Forget the tied-up Brutus, the unconscious Boggel and the wounded Smartryk. Push aside thoughts of anger and pity, and don’t – for the moment – worry about how the group is going to get back to civilisation. Most of all, don’t contemplate the delicate situation with Brutus’s heart – remember his cardiac condition? No, ignore all these issues for a moment and consider the turmoil in Mary’s mind.

Look at her now – there where she’s standing motionless on trembling legs, with Brutus a few yards away, Boggel under the damp sand and Smartryk being attended to by Gertruida and Precilla. Scattered around her you see the fragments of her past, her present and – what she hoped for – her future. Yet now it doesn’t make sense, not at all, as her anger at men – all men – boils down to a reduction of white-hot rage. Damn Brutus for causing all this! Damn Boggel for not pursuing their friendship back then, when they had so much time and so much innocence! Damn Smartryk for getting hurt and…and…being so bloody nice, for goodness’ sakes!

Gertruida says all people experience at least short periods of insanity from time to time. It’s quite normal to feel control slipping and then to do something totally irrational: like commenting on a speeding ticket you got a minute ago, or laughing at our president, or falling in love. Some things, she says, just aren’t rational and some actions simply cannot be explained in a logical way.

So, go on, just accept that Mary cannot be held responsible for what she felt and did at that moment. The years and years of struggle, of being abused and misused, of being deceived and disappointed, of hoping and then seeing her dreams shattered… Well, all these emotions burst into an all-consuming blaze in her overloaded mind; white-hot and with an anger so intense that it made her vision shrink to fade out everybody…except for Brutus, who started screaming obscenities at that moment.

Mary Mitchell lost control…maybe that’s the way one should look at it. She rushed over to the tied-up brute of a man who now became the focus of her wrath. In her helpless bitterness, she kicked at Brutus. She kicked hard, venting the years of pent-up resentment in the force of that kick. In the moment before her boot struck the broad chest of Brutus Malherbe, she let out a primeval scream, causing the man to turn his head away from her, as if he saw the madness he had caused in the once-pretty girl. Then, with her face screwed up in a paroxysm of hatred, her heavy boot thudded against the ribs.

And Brutus – the strong, invincible, ruthless, abusive, crooked lawyer – felt his heartbeat skip, take, skip…and stop.

Everybody has a You (#9)

footprints in sandGertruida – who knows everything – often has to tell the patrons at the bar to stop shouting at the TV screen during rugby matches. It doesn’t help and it leaves you so hoarse you have to order Bells at the end of the match – to soothe the sore throat. And that, she says, is an expensive way of expressing an unwanted opinion. It’s like people insisting that Oscar Pistorius be jailed or not: everybody knows Judge Thokozile Masipa is going to make up her own mind. And, just like the crowd at a rugby match, half of them will blame the ref for wrong decisions while the other 50% will applaud their team. In contrast to the game of rugby, there is no such thing as a draw in a court of law.

The people in the two vehicles following the jogging Bushman realise something of this as they draw nearer to what must be the end of their search. Boggel is going to be fine…or not. The outcome is unpredictable…and unavoidable. After a few days in the desert, with no obvious means of support, both Boggel and his kidnapper must be near the end of their endurance. But, whatever will be, will be. If they’re too late, then there’s nothing they can do about it. They time for shouting is over. Oudoom tells them so and bows his head in silent prayer.

About an hour after Dawid Loper found the tracks, he finds a place where the two men rested in the shade of a stunted bush.The signs where they sat down, the pool of almost congealed blood and a discarded – empty – water bottle tell the tale.

Around them, a vast empty plain stretches to the horizon.

“Zosi Plain,” Gertruida whispers. Dawid nods, yes they are here…

“This must be where the English soldiers caught up with the Afrikaner rebels in 1914. I read that a skirmish followed and that most of the rebels were killed here, somewhere.” She allows her gaze to travel the full circle of the empty horizon. “A godforsaken spot to die for a lost cause…”

“Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself here,” Servaas places a hand above his brow as he, too, stares into the distance. “We don’t need more deaths.”

“Mister Boggel isn’t dead. The other man is.” The statement by the bushman is so unexpected, so surprising, that nobody reacts for a few seconds.

“Come again, Dawid?”

“Mister Vetfaan, I can still feel Boggel, but only him. I can’t feel the other man anymore.”

“Which way?” This isn’t the time for arguments of explanations – Vetfaan feels an urgency building up inside him. They have to find Boggel…now!

The bushman squints against the glare of the sun, looks down at the fresh tracks, and points. “That way. Hurry…”

They find Boggel a few hundred yards later. Well, what’s left of Boggel, in a manner of speaking.

“Oh. My. Word!” Precilla is the first to jump down from the police van as she rushes to the prostrate figure.

Boggel is barely recognisable. His clothes have been torn to tatters, his left shoulder caked in dried blood and his lips blistered and torn by dehydration and the sun. He doesn’t move when the vehicles stop.

“Is he breathing?” Gertruida now kneels down next to him, leaning over with her ear next to the parched lips. “Quick, get water!” She reaches for – and gets – a water bottle.

“Slow, Miss Gertruida, slow. Not fast. Wet a cloth and hold it to his mouth. Mister Kleinpiet? There’s enough water in the pickup. We must wet some sand and cover Mister Boggel.” Dawid Loper suddenly isn’t a simple aborigine any longer. His normally soft voice now has the authority of an expert. He’s seen this before – many times – and knows exactly what to do. His quiet assurance galvanises everybody into action. Dreyer finds an umbrella; Gertruida scratches in her overnight bag to produce a tin of Zambuk ointment which she applies to Boggels blistered face, while Kleinpiet and Servaas fill a bucket with water to wet the sand.

“Here, let me…?” Dawid takes the wet cloth from Gertruida and holds it to Boggel’s lips. After moisturising the area, he wrings the cloth gently to allow a few drops to drip into Boggel’s gaping mouth.

While the others busy themselves around the unconscious figure, Mary stands to one side, covering her mouth with a trembling hand.

“I did this,” she whispers over and over again.When Smartryk wlaks over to her, she shoo’s him away. “It’s my fault,” she says softly. “It’s my fault…”

***

“We’ll have to get him to a hospital.” Servaas  looks down at the now-buried Boggel under the damp sand – only his head is visible where it rests on a makeshift pillow made from Precilla’s sleeping bag – and shakes his head. “This Bushman trick isn’t enough.”

Suddenly the meek and humble Dawid is on his feet, his nose only an inch from Servaas’s. “Mister Boggel will die if we put him on the pickup. First  we must get water into him – sweet water with sugar and a bit of salt – and get him better. Your hospital is two days away…and it’s hot.” The fire in the Bushman’s eyes makes Servaas back down.

“Well said, Dawid,” The approval – and admiration – in Gertruida’s voice is unmistakable. “Once we’ve rehydrated Boggel a bit, we can move. Until then…” She doesn’t have to finish the sentence. She’s already examined the bent little barman, and noted the gash on the shoulder which she cleaned and bandaged. “He’s exhausted and dry – those are the main problems. The wound isn’t so bad – it looks as if he has a huge bruise with a ragged gash in the middle on his shoulder. Must have happened when the Cessna crashed, I think.”

“Will he be alright?” Mary’s timid question reaches the group crowding around Boggel and everybody ends up looking at Dawid and Gertruida  in turn.

“Yes, Mary, he will be fine, don’t you worry.”

Surprisingly, the reassurance doesn’t come from Getruida. Mary’s question is answered by Smartryk, who now puts a protective arm around her shaking shoulders.

Gertruida is about to say something, when a shot rings out. One vicious, sudden crack of sound. Unexpected. Frightening. Shocking. Startling.

For a moment they all stand frozen.

Then Smartryk sinks to his knees, clutching his chest where a red stain seeps through his shirt. A puzzled glance toward Mary; a brief, questioning look…and then a feeling of devastating loneliness enfolds him before he falls – face down – into the sand.

Everybody has a You (#8)

IMG_2598Nobody sleeps much that night. The discomfort of sleeping on the sand (it isn’t soft after ten minutes anymore), the cool of the night (which progresses to the chattering-teeth stage later) and the worry about Boggel keeps them all awake – or at most, only allow a very superficial slumber. When the predawn sky begins to fade from black to the promise of orange, they huddle around the fire with steaming mugs of coffee to warm the freezing hands.

Only Dawid loper, with his attire of a simple loincloth and a handmade jackal-tail cap, seems unaffected by the cold and the circumstances. His almost impassive face contrasts with the worried looks of his companions; he appears – Gertruida remarks on it – quite confident and at ease. Happy, even.

DSC_0828“You see, Miss Gertruida, I had a dream.   An eland ran over the plain while overhead an eagle watched. The eland ran and ran, but the eagle only held its wings out and soared on the wind. And then, Miss Gertruida, the eagle saw a lion, waiting quietly behind a bush, right in the eland’s path. And the eagle cried out, loudly, altogether frightened and angry at the same time. But then the eland lowered his head, bending his back like this,” he used his two hands to indicate how severely the eland did this, “and ran right through that bush. When it got to the other side, the lion was stuck to the eland’s horns. Now, Miss Gertruida, an eland doesn’t have long horns, not like the kudu or the gemsbok. No, it’s horns are short and stubby, so they don’t kill by penetrating like those other antelopes do.

“You see, Miss Gertruida, in my dream the lion had all the wind knocked from his body, and it had no power left to fight or attack. That’s what I dreamt.”

Gertruida stares at the old man, trying to work out what it all means.

“And…”

“The eagle saw it all, Miss Gertruida. We,” and here the Bushman’s hand sweeps over the group, “are the eagle. We’ll see it.” And with those words, Dawid Loper turns on his heel, scouts the sand around them, and starts jogging. “Come, we have to hurry!”

***

Bumping along on the back of Vetfaan’s pickup, Mary finds herself staring at Smartryk – or simply Ryk, as she has started thinking of him. He’s unlike most men she had met in the past decade or so. In fact, he seems lost in his own world most of the time, quite content to share silence rather than chatting her up.

This morning, when she washed her face and brushed her teeth using the small basin of water Ryk had brought to her side, she felt a rush of strange emotion when their fingers touched. Had he been aware of it too? Or was she being silly, looking for something as real as the mirages that play on the horizon of this desert? After all, she hardly knows the man: a loner, a pilot and an investigator of crashes. She smiled at this despite herself, thinking that the biggest crash she’d like him to investigate was her own. Her life has lurched from catastrophe to crisis ever since she’d left the orphanage in Grootdrink where she and Boggel grew up. And now, in her search for security (and love, to be honest) she meets somebody by sheer chance – and somehow feels a bond with him? Unlikely, strange…weird…and yet…

Her thoughts stray back to the prison in Rio and the man responsible for involving her in an international drug smuggling racket. How stupid she had been! How naive!  But – she defends herself – loneliness drives people to such strange relationships. And how desperately she wanted to believe that Brutus was the real thing! She had made the conscious decision to do everything she could to make the relationship work and would have walked through fire for the man. Come to think about it: she had done just that.

The thought of the injustice and the humiliation causes a tear to streak down her cheek. She’s almost not surprised when Ryk leans over to offer his handkerchief.

***

Sersant Dreyer, in the leading vehicle, slews to a stop in the loose sand. Dawid Loper is bending down on the sand, apparently studying some tracks. Vetfaan gets out to hear what the story is.

6262557776_e9dc9c2d54“Look, Mister Vetfaan, a porcupine walked here this morning early. They walk at night. And here,” he points to an indistinct depression a few yards away, “here the porcupine walked over the spoor of a man. There’s another. Two men. Yes. Look at the way the night wind disturbed the porcupine’s tracks and also look at the boot’s imprint. That means those men walked here late last night.”

“Two men, walking together?”

“No, Mister Vetfaan. The one man walks with a limp. Look, you can see the right boot makes a deeper track than the left. He’s also walking in front, because the other boots sometimes cover his tracks. But…the man at the back is bleeding – look, here’s a drop. His steps aren’t regular either – sometimes they’re farther apart and sometimes not.”

“What does the spoor tell you, Dawid?”

“Mister Boggel has a limp because of his back. There’s a man behind him, a wounded man who staggers. They aren’t making good progress at all. They’re near.”

“But they stole Kleinpiet’s pickup. What happened to the vehicle?”

The bushman shakes his head. No he doesn’t know. He explains that he felt the tapping inside his chest, telling him about Zosi Plain – and that’s why they came here. He says that he only cut across the tracks a few minutes ago.

“What happened back there,” he jerks a thumb over his shoulder, “happened back there. I don’t know. But they’re on foot and we’re on the right track. Maybe we’ll find them soon.”

With the two vehicles following, Dawid sets off on the spoor again with the characteristic gait of the Bushman. Smartryk meets Mary’s worried look with a lopsided smile. His eyes tell her that everything will be alright, but her heart feels heavy in her chest. What if they find Boggel? What if they don’t? Is he injured? Why is this man forcing Boggel to stumble along blindly in the desert? What happened to Kleinpiet’s pickup? And, once they find the two men…will there be any danger?

Mary sighs. Must life be such a Greek tragedy? Always a twist in the tale – especially just when you think you’re in smooth waters? She feels Ryk’s eyes on her and meets his gaze.

Yes, she thinks with a wry smile, a twist indeed.

Everybody has a You (#7)

thescientistThe events leading up to Dawid Loper’s visit to Vetfaan must be seen as one of those strange, inexplicable situations we all experience from time to time. If one tried to arrange these happenings in a logical fashion, it all seems to sound so farfetched and illogical – causing the sceptic to walk away with that superior smile that says one should not be so gullible and stupid: coincidences happen all the time, don’t they?

But in the Kalahari the people have long learnt to keep the doors of scepticism firmly closed. Oh, like Vladimir Nabokov, they retain a sense of humour when it comes to such things, and laugh at Gertruida when she quotes the great author when he writes: “A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.” But they also subscribe to Albert Einstein’s famous words: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Boggel says both these men grasped the deeper truth behind a coincidence: sometimes Life mixes up laughter and tears to make us realise we will never be able to explain everything. Sometimes, Oudoom says, Boggel has the uncanny and surprising ability to condense complicated issues like Faith into a single sentence.

When Dawid wioke up three mornings ago in his simple hut in the dunes, he watched an eagle flying high overhead. And he felt the tapping in his chest – that strange unease, telling him about somebody who needs help. Who it was, and where, he wasn’t certain at first, but later when he saw the spoor of an eland leading off to the east, the tapping became more intense. He followed those tracks to the rise on the small hill on Vetfaan’s farm, where he immediately understood: this was where he had to be.

Now, just after the group in the bar has fallen silent – he opens the door to Boggel’s Place.

“I heard,” he said, looking at Vetfaan.

Tsamma melons (Citrullus ecirrhosus). Sesriem. Namibia.In Western society it is considered rude to be eavesdropping. Not so with the Bushman tribes. To survive, you have to gather as much information about your circumstances as possible. Wind, weather, spoor and veld provide clues to where the next meal might be found. That, and what other’s say. A family member might mention the field of tsamma plants in a deserted valley, or talk about a water source a grandfather mentioned a long time ago. Knowledge ensures survival as much in the Kalahari as in the stock exchanges all over the world.

The major difference between the so-called modern world and the Busman? The latter have retained the ability to listen – really listen – to nature, to their surroundings and to other people. The art of shutting up and paying attention was lost when Man invented the telephone – an instrument invented because we needed technology to force others to listen. Of course, poor Mister Bell meant well, but it only made matters worse: the telephone in reality created a platform to mostly broadcast one’s desires. And just when we thought our ego-driven society had reached the bottom rung, along came Facebook. We talk, we want others to see and listen…but it’s generally a one-way street.

The small, yellow people of the Kalahari avoided this downward spiral in communication. They actually use their ears – under all circumstances. Even under the window of Boggel’s Place.

“You were listening at the window?”

Dawid nods – a little shyly, because he knows the strange ways of the white people: they have this obsession with privacy.

“Good, then I won’t have to explain.”

“I felt him, mister Vetfaan, felt him here.” He taps a stubby finger against the creased skin of his chest. “I didn’t know who, but the spoor led to your farm.So…I came.”

“And now, Dawid, do you ‘feel’ Boggel? Please help us, man?”

The Bushman slowly sits down on the floor, resting his head on his hands. The people in the bar remain completely silent while they watch the man as he starts rocking to and fro. At first inaudible, they later hear the monotonous tune he hums. Vetfaan holds a finger to his lips while he watches – he’s seen this before when Dawid helped him find the lost ram.

It seems to take a long time. After the excitement of Mary and Smartryk’s arrival and the terrible realisation that Boggel may be in mortal danger, it is almost impossible to sit quietly while watching the shrivelled old man. But they have to – and they do. Servaas and Oudoom exchange glances:  their way of thinking shies away from the mystical and unexplained…yet this may very well be their only hope of finding Boggel again. This, they realise, is not the time to voice their concerns.

Eventually – after what seemed like an eternity – Dawid starts tapping his chest. Slow, deep, thudding taps. His eyes are closed when he starts talking.

“Yes, I feel him. Mister Boggel. He is…far. And I think he is injured. And…he needs help.”

“Where is he, Dawid? Can you help us?”

Again the old man is silent for a few long minutes.

“Yes. We must go.” The tapping stops. He looks up. “Immediately.”

The would-be rescuers assemble everything they need in record time. Blankets, sleeping bags, Precilla’s first-aid kit, tinned food, water and – of course – a solid supply of Cactus Jack. This gets loaded into Vetfaan’s pickup and Sersant Dreyer’s police van. Somehow, they all squeeze into the vehicles and are set to go within an hour.

“Where to, Dawid?”

“”Beyond the dunes, Mister Vetfaan. Near the dry river bed, I know the place. – we call it Zosi Plain.”

Gertruida feels a pang of panic rising in her chest. As the only Rolbosser to understand some of the San language, she knows ‘Zosi’ means ‘those without hooves‘. In other words, dangerous people, like predators. The Bushmen, she knows, associate themselves closely with the animal kingdom, where the eland reigns supreme. And, if a man ‘has no hooves’, it implies that he – unlike the Bushmen – is coupled with hunting animal with paws and nails and canines.

“Tell me about Zosi Plain,” she prompts the old man gently.

“Many summers ago, Miss Gertruida, there were men with guns. Many guns. They were hunting other men. Some of my family got shot there.”

This, Gertruida thinks, must have been during the 1914 Rebellion, when some South Africans refused to fight in WW I. They remembered the Anglo-Boer war, the burnt farms and the 26,000 women and  children who died in the concentration camps – and refused to battle alongside their former enemy, the British. Some of the rebels fled to the Kalahari,but were pursued and hunted down before they reached German West Africa – the country we know today as Namibia.

“And what did you see – or feel – about this plain, Dawid?”

Dawid Loper stares at the horizon, where the shimmering heatwaves cause heaven and earth to mix in a hazy line where it is impossible to say where the one ends and the other starts.

“Mister Boggel is weak, Miss Gertruida. He is alone. But he has a Zosi following him. We must hurry.”

Although Vertfaan and Sersant Dreyer have a lot of  experience about driving in the deep, loose sand of the Kalahari, their progress is slow. When at last they stop for the night, Dawid tells them they have only gone as far as the hips – his way of estimating halfway. Despite the urgency, the group realises the futility of attempting to cross the dunes at night.

“First thing in the morning,” Vertfaan says, “we’ll be off. According to Dawid, we should be at the plain at about midday. That’s the best we can do.”

Smartryk nods. He’s seen the Kalahari from the air while flying, and realises how dangerous the place is.

“Mary,” he now says, “tomorrow we’ll find your Boggel, don’t you worry.”

And Mary Mitchell, the woman scorned for so long by men and life alike, looks up to the kind eyes of this strange man she’s just met. She’s aware of a weird feeling welling up inside her – a warm, comfortable sensation she can’t define accurately – and finds herself smiling. Here she is, in the middle of nowhere, with somebody she hardly knows. And yet…he’s been there all day, sitting quietly next to her. Just his presence, it seems, made it possible to face the last two days. He doesn’t speak much…but even his silence was enough, made her stronger.

“You’re such a sweet man, Ryk,” she says, choosing to omit the first part of his name. ‘Grief’, she reckons, should not be part of the way she thinks of him. She toys with the name, coming up with ‘Liefryk’, blushes at the silly thought, and looks away. “I really do appreciate…”

“Shhh.” He interrupts her gently by laying a finger on her lips. “Rest now. Tomorrow will be a long day…”