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…”

Rolbos – The Book

Finally!

Rolbos-eng

Click picture to go to Amazon.com

Due to international demand Because I enjoyed sharing Rolbos with so many readers, my ego drove me  it seemed only natural to give Rolbos wings. And so, after exhaustive writing, editing, and months of effort…the book is available. Marinda Ehlers did a sterling job of compiling, correcting and coercing the text into a readable format – and I thank her for that.

The dream of an Afrikaans version will have to wait, though. (I personally think it is far superior slightly better than almost as good as the English version. Who knows what the future will bring? )

So, there you are. The story of Everybody has a You will continue tomorrow.

Everybody has a You (#6)

bots-bush-sc-06_screen“Wha…what do you mean?” If at all possible, Mary’s face seems even more drained than before.

“There has to be something…something Brutus wants from you. I mean, if I’m right, he removed Boggel from Rolbos – let’s call a spade a spade and mention the word kidnapping – and one is left with the obvious: some demand or ransom.” She lets out a sarcastic guffaw. “And anybody who demands a ransom from us Rolbossers, must be crazy. We may be happy, but we’re not rich. Soo…it can’t be about money, can it?”

“But…but why do all this?” Mary sweeps a trembling hand toward the door, as if Brutus and Boggel were standing there. “Why not just contact me?”

“Ha! And after he was the cause for you spending time as guest of the Brazilian government? He set you up, you know it…and you probably hate the guy. Credit the man with some intelligence, will you? He knew the chances that you’d welcome any contact with him, were zero. He had to find a way to get your cooperation – and that’s why Boggel was abducted.”

All eyes now bore into Mary as a tear streaks over her pale cheek.

“Come on, Mary.” Precilla fishes out a Kleenex from her purse. “Didn’t Brutus give you something before you left for Rio? A box, an envelope, some other documents…anything?”

“N…no.”  Glancing up when Servaas approaches with a steaming mug of bush tea, she manages a thankful smile. “Oh…he gave me presents, yes. Personal stuff. Flowers and lingerie and some costume jewellery – but nothing that would warrant…this.” Again her hand flutters aimlessly in the air. “I…I don’t understand.”

“There must be something,” Gertruida won’t let up.

Mary holds the mug with both trembling hands as she brings the hot, sweet liquid to her lips. Then she looks up suddenly. “Maybe he wants to…get rid of me.” She ignores the surprised looks. “Yes, that could be it…”

During the months she spent with Brutus, they became what is socially known as an item. They were seen in all the right places – theatres, restaurants, parties, even church. And they visited friends…lots of friends.

“Jail gave me plenty of time to think – there wasn’t anything else to do, after all. After realising that I had been only a convenient link in a drug smuggling chain, I naturally wondered where Brutus got his supplies from, what he did with the drugs  and who the other people in this…business…might be. So I played this mental game, see? I tried to recall the people he introduced me to, where we went and who he met there. Who, I wondered, might be his contacts?

“And then I remembered a very specific man, an extremely rich guy, living in Hout Bay in one of the biggest mansions I’d ever seen. Amongst everybody I met in that time, he stand out by a mile. We visited him at least once a week – sometimes for supper, on weekends for a picnic in the huge garden, and sometimes just to have a drink. That man! I remembered the Dom Perignon, the caviar, the massive parties  – and the yacht.” She closes her eyes, calling up the images from an apparently carefree era. “And I remembered how I wondered about his wealth. How did he get so stinking rich? That’s when I started thinking this man must be the big boss. the kingpin.Then there was a man that often phoned – late at night. Never knew who he was, but Brutus always gave him legal advice…or so Brutus said. He once remarked – Brutus did – how politicians can be so ignorant. But…those two came to mind when I sat in that prison – and that’s all I can think of. Brutus, I realised, had been very careful not to make me suspicious while he was dating me.”

Credit: Beeld

Sheryl Cwele. Credit: Beeld

“That’s a possibility,” Gertruida says quietly. “You remember that Beetge woman: the one who was locked up in Brazil as well? Your time there must have overlapped with hers. And she, I may tell you, had been a drug mule for Sheryl Cwele, the former Director of Health and Community Services. Used to be married to nobody else than the Minister of State Security, Siyabonga Cwele.

“Now, I’ve always held the opinion that she was only the tip of the iceberg – the rot in our government runs deeper than one individual. It is entirely possible that some people might want to wipe out any traces of wrongdoing – especially involving dealings with Brutus – by eliminating those involved with your trip to Rio.”

Gertruida sighs – the possibilities have suddenly increased dramatically! Brutus seemed a logical choice for the kidnapper, but now Mary has opened a huge can of worms. But, she thinks, her theory still holds water. Boggel was abducted as bait. Mary has something – or  possibly some knowledge – which somebody considers dangerous. And yes, if she knew who Brutus’s contacts were, that knowledge might quite conceivably put her life in grave danger.

“O-o-o-kay then,” she says slowly, “then we simply must find them. Only…we can turn the tables when it comes to baiting. If we can get Brutus to know that Mary is here…?”

Vetfaan gets up suddenly, his face shining with excitement.

“We’ll use the bushman-telegraph! That’s how we’ll find them.”

***

One of the unexplained phenomena of the Kalahari, is the extraordinary way in which one Bushman clan will know what is happening in other families. It’s uncanny, to say the least. Bleek and Lloyd, in their famous book (Specimens of Bushman Folklore, George Allen and Co, London, 1911), describe the apparent extrasensory perception in the San people. Laurens van der Post expands on this idea in The Heart of the HunterAlthough the people of the Kalahari rarely talk about this (who can explain it, anyway?) it is something they are very much aware of. Last year for instance, when Vetfaan discovered his prize ram missing, he called on Dawid Loper, the Bushman he had once helped when a child developed an illness the herbs won’t cure. Oudok removed a very sick appendix from the infant, thus causing a bond between Dawid and Vetfaan. To cut a long story short, Dawid ‘felt’ the ram at a specific spot – and that’s exactly where Vetfaan found the animal.

Oh, there are many myths about the San people of the Kalahari. Can they really change into animals? Is the ‘tapping’ which Van der Post so vividly describes, not just romanticising the abilities of these men and women we like to view as primitive? Do the men ‘feel’ the babies inside their wives, and do they really grieve even before the tidings of death arrive at their circle of simple huts? The answer isn’t easy. If you live in Cape Town or New York, it is all too easy to scoff; but here, in the Kalahari, there is a deep-rooted respect for the small, yellow men and women who manage to survive where even animals cannot.

***

“Is Dawid Loper around?” Gertruida looks up sharply. This is one possibility she has overlooked.

“He actually arrived at my farm yesterday night, Gertruida.” Vetfaan shakes his head: another coincidence? “I thought he just came to see if he could beg some sugar or meat…but now I understand…”

Mary allows her head to sink onto her hands. When she starts sobbing again, it is Smartryk – and not Boggel – who lays a soft hand on her shoulder.

Amapola
My pretty little poppy
You’re like that lovely flower, so sweet and heavenly
Since I found you
My heart is wrapped around you
And loving you it seems to beat a rhapsody
Amapola
The pretty little poppy
Must copy its endearing charm from you
Amapola, Amapola
How I long to hear you say, “I love you.”

Everybody has a You (#5)

SadWomanThe arrival of Mary Mitchell and Smartryk Genade in Rolbos might just go down in the town’s history as one of the strangest the inhabitants have ever experienced. Of course the patrons at the bar all knew  about Mary – she’s visited Rolbos before - but they have to look twice to recognise the once-vivacious girl they’ve met before.

“I don’t believe it,” Precilla breathes as Mary gets out of the Golf. “Is it who I think it is?”

“Yes, it is, Precilla. And I think a lot of water has run into the sea since last we saw her.” Gertruida takes in the mousy hair, the unkempt appearance and the wrinkled brow. “Whatever she’s done during the last few years hasn’t done her any good, I’d say.”

Still, when the two travellers walk into the bar, Smartryk hardly gets the opportunity to introduce himself. In rural South Africa there is an unwritten law regarding such events: you first act overjoyed – saying how well the years treated the new arrival – then you offer something to drink while making small talk, and only then is one permitted to ask questions. Today, however, that rule is completely ignored as Mary shuts them all up, to ask about Boggel.

Silence.

They don’t know.

“Maybe…,” Mary draws a deep breath, “I should tell you my story.

“You see, I only landed in Cape Town a few days ago – and that same night you guys get an aeroplane landing in Rolbos and Boggel disappears. That – to me – is just too much of a coincidence. I fear it has something to do with my return.” She proceeds to tell them everything she told Smartryk the previous evening. The townsfolk listen in complete silence, exchanging worried looks while she’s talking. When she finishes at last, nobody says a word either.

“Mmmmm….” Gertruida has that look. “Servaas, pour me a double, I need to think.”

While the others converge around the two new arrivals, Gertruida takes her drink to sit outside on the veranda. She knows about the drug scene in Rio and have read about Fernandinho, but he’s still in jail, isn’t he? Now, that Brutus Malherbe….he stood trial, got sentenced, and was released on grounds of a medical condition. Even if he wasn’t locked up any more, he still had to comply with his parole restrictions, hadn’t he?

“Sersant! Dreyer…come here.”

A few minutes later, Dreyer trots off to his office to make a phone call. Gertruida rubs the frown between her eyes, sighs, and returns to the bar for a refill.

“Look, all we know is that  whoever flew that plane, took Boggel along. We have no proof of abduction, no letter of demand , to know that Boggel went against his will. The frightened face Dreyer saw? Well, we all know Boggel hates flying, anyway. The aircraft crashes for whatever unknown reason… and then we know they raced off towards Grootdrink, but they never got here. We all drove that road, and we know there hadn’t been an accident to explain why they never got to the roadblock. Deduction? They veered off into the Kalahari and are lying low.

“Who was the pilot? Person unknown, as far as I’m concerned at this stage, but… He – let’s assume it’s a man – could logically have something to do with Mary…or not. Boggel doesn’t have any enemies. So let’s go with Mary’s suggestion that her presence in the country could have something to do with this fiasco. Now that, my friends, opens another set of questions. Who knew about Mary’s involvement with Boggel? Who connected those dots?  And, assuming somebody did so, why abduct Boggel? What possible value could our Boggel have in this situation?

“I’ll give you a hypothesis…” Everybody stares at Gertruida while she waits for Servaas to fill her glass. They know she just loves to parade her superior intellect about and that it won’t help to rush her along.

“I’ll tell you what I think. Somebody – and it could be the pilot – knows a heck of a lot about Mary. Intimately so, I might add. This somebody knew she was back in the country. He had no way of knowing what her movements here would be…unless he guessed that she would want to come to Rolbos – which is farfetched. But he knew about the loyalty between Boggel and Mary, so he kidnaps Boggel to use as bait. He wants to lay his hands on Mary, see? If he wanted Mary to come to him, he only had to make it known hat Boggel was in his care.

“Now why would a person do that?” She pauses dramatically, a cynical smile hovering on her lips. “Why land an aeroplane here – at night – take all the risks, and steal our Boggel? Only to get Mary to come to him for a chat? Noooo, my friends. It’s because he needs something from Mary, that’s why. This man is so desperate to talk to Mary, that he hatches an evil, criminal plan to get her to come to him. Using Boggel is as brilliant as it is stupid. Brilliant, because the police would never have connected the disappearance of our barman with the return of a criminal from Rio. Stupid…because he obviously planned in haste – hence the aeroplane and the risks. This man knew about Mary, but didn’t know about her return until the last minute.

“We have two men she told us about. Fernandinho – as far as we know – is still locked up in Rio. And anyway, he would have known about her release. Didn’t she tell us that he took care of her in prison? No, he kept tabs on her and would have known.

“But Brutus? Now there’s a possibility. He got her involved in the first instance, didn’t he? He spent months dating her  – softening her up to be a courier – and I’m sure he knew as much about her as anybody ever did. He would, I’d guess, have known about Boggel…”

“Oh. My. Word.” Mary sits down heavily, ashen-faced and distraught. “Yes… I…I told him everything…”

They all start talking together when Dreyer storms in.

“You’re right, Gertruida! Brutus Malherbe has skipped. His parole officer reported him missing last night: he last visited Malherbe a week ago. And…that aeroplane, the Cessna? It was stolen from Lanseria the same day Mary landed in Cape Town. Malherbe’s home is five kilometres away from that airport…”

“Okay then.” Gertruida sits down next to Mary. “Suppose you tell us what Malherbe wants from you? What have you got that he wants so desperately? Come on, Mary, Boggel’s life may very well depend on you being honest with us?”

At this point Mary starts crying uncontrollably. Her life is a mess – always has been, always will be. And now she quite possibly have ruined Boggel’s life – if not all the people of this little town…

Everybody has a You (#4)

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Wha…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smartryk can only shake his head.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Everybody has a You (#3)

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody has a You (#2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody has a You

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credit: advrider.com

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

It works…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiewiet suddenly brightens.

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

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

“You’re crying?”

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

***

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

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

“What happened, Kiewiet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sooo…did you stay there?”

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

“And Prudence?”

Kiewiet takes out another match to start chewing again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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