Tag Archives: postaday

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 (#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 (#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…?”

 

The Grain of Sand at Midnight

6021415053_58b80f448b“It’s a fallacy,” Gertruida says because she knows everything, “to talk about midnight. Nobody knows when – exactly – that is.”

A statement such as this is usually met with various nods and understanding looks, simply because you don’t argue with Gertruida. It is far better to lift you glass and toast her wisdom, than to start a debate. But Servaas, who still relies on his old Westclox (the one Siena gave him on their first anniversary), feels compelled to say something.

“It’s when the short arm and the long one both point north,” he says. “Everybody knows that.”

“That’s far too crude to be accurate, Servaas. The hands on that clock stay together for too long. Have you timed it? It takes about twelve seconds before you can see the hour-hand move. Even if you watched it closely, you can’t pinpoint the exact moment when the new day starts and the old one ends.”

“But I have a radio, Gertruida! And that Westclox runs on time, I can tell you. When the beeps for the seven o’clock news sound, that alarm clock agrees: it is exactly seven. Siena always checked it, now I do too.” He hesitates for a second, unsure whether he should continue the argument. “Anyway, since you got that new-fangled watch with the electronic numbers, you seem obsessed with time. Obviously you think that thing is more accurate than the old Westclox.”

‘It’s not that, Servaas,” This time, Gertruida is the one who pauses. “It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Well, I got to thinking about change, you see? One moment you feel this way, the next you change your mind…”

“Nt me, Getruida. That’s a woman-thing.”

She ignores the remark. “Everybody does that. It’s sometimes a conscious decision. Shall I buy a bread today? Must I go to church? May I have another beer?…And sometimes you don’t even know you made the decision, like when you slap a mosquito.”

She smiles, her point made. Yes, Servaas nods, one moment you’re faced with a situation, the next you’ve made the choice.

“That’s what I mean about midnight. Between the tick and the tock lies a thousand microseconds. Which one is the right one? And that’s what set me thinking about choices and change. Every day – in our minds – we throw the switch, chuck out the old and start with the new. And it’s not just about time, Servaas. It’s about the how and the why I’ve been thinking,

“You see, a clock has no choice in the act of ticking, provided it’s properly wound up. In our minds, however, the process of decision-making is a deliberate thing. We can decide whether we stay in a certain mode, or change to something new. But even if we decide not to change, that is change in itself? Don’t you see? Nothing remains constant – so if one decides to remain as is, that’s a change – because you stopped the process of progress. You would have ended up in a different situation if you decided otherwise.” She ignores the puzzled looks. ” And that, my friend, happens between the tick and the tock. I’m simply wondering how – and exactly why and when – that happens.”

This is far too deep for the group at the bar. Vetfaan tries to change the subject by expressing his dismay at the way the Malaysian aeroplane was shot down.

“There’s another example!” Gertruida isn’t finished. “An aeroplane crosses the sky. One moment the guy with his finger on the firing button isn’t a murderer, the next he is. He crossed his midnight and now he’ll never be able to return to yesterday.”

“Gertruida!” Kleinpiet throws up his hands in exasperation. “Good grief, woman! This is Boggel’s Place, not the Royal Society of Philosphers, Psychiatrists and Politiians. How on earth do you expect us to follow your reasoning? It’s unfair, to say the least.”

Boggel serves another round. “It’s like a scale, guys. Just before midnight, the scale is in perfect balance. Then a grain of sand – perhaps a very, very small one – is added to the one side. Now it tips to one side, the balance disturbed. That’s what Gertruida is trying to say…I think.”

She flashes him a grateful smile. “Yes, Boggel. I want to know what that grain of sand is and why it gets added to the scale. It’s just a simple thought, really. Didn’t want to start an argument.”

She almost sounds believable.

“Our history is determined by decisions. Between the ticks and the tocks of your old Westclox, Servaas, lies the determination of what we are and where we go. We live in troubled times – but who causes these troubles? I’ll tell you: men and women who cross a threshold, changes from yesterday to today, passes the midnight of indecision…and then comes to a conclusion.

“Take the strikes in our mining industry. Somebody made that decision. Hamas attacks Israel and Israel retaliates – who crossed that midnight-moment? Syria, Congo, Sudan…all the result of decisions some people made. One moment they considered peace, the next they rejected it.  Religious and ethnic conflict? It’s all due to a single moment when the grain of sand causes the scale to tip one way or the other.”

Once again her comments are digested with that faraway look farmers get when they wonder what this year’s wool-cheque is going to look like. But, because they like Gertruida so much, one or two nod to show her they’re listening.

“God created Time, Gertruida, to allow us to think.” Oudoom tries to contribute to the convoluted conversation. “Without Time, we simply cannot think, and therefore we cannot change. So, the way I see it, is that Time and Change are blood-brothers. You can’t have the one without the other. And right in between them – Time and Change – you have the grain of sand called Choice. Sometimes it takes a long while before the scale dips to one side, but it is due to Choice that it does so. In contrast to Servaas’ Westclox, we have a choice about Change. Left or right? Up or down? Yes or no? Love…or hate?” The old clergyman sighs. “The exact moment of midnight, Gertruida, is when we consider a thought that changes our ways. This can be good or bad. Evil or not. And that choice is the weight that tips the scale.”

“So,” Vetfaan says with a sardonic grin, “the answer is to make no choices? Leave everything just as it is?”

“That, my friend is impossible. The very nature of life – and of each one of our lives – is based on choice…and change. We can’t control time, but we can control the grain of sand we place on the scale. We, each of us, pass many midnights between past and future every second of our lives. We hold the bag of sand and we have to place it either on the right – or the left – of the scale as we go along. And that, Vetfaan is the way it works.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “Every decision? Every moment?”

“Yes, Vetfaan, every one of them.”

“Then, my grain of sand says I have to order another beer.”

They laugh at that. Maybe it’s relief that something funny has been said, or simply the fact that the burden of carrying that grain of sand can be a very weighty load to transport around. Perhaps, too, they think back on the midnights they have all had, and the choices to place those grains of sand on the scale.

Precilla wipes away a tear as she remembers her affair with Richard, and the way it all ended so tragically. Yes, she made a choice – the wrong one – and she’ll regret that for the rest of her life. What would have happened if she refused his advances in the beginning?

As if reading her mind, Gertruida pats her shoulder.

“It’s not about yesterday, Precilla. Once you’ve passed midnight, it’s gone…forever. Then you are in charge again, facing that scale with your grain of sand. That’s the point. We live, we learn, we become wiser. And we all make mistakes. Some midnights – or some pivotal moments – are crucial in determining the way the day will play out. And if we place that grain of sand carefully, we can sit back and await the dawn.”

***

Rolbos – or Life – can be such a barrel of laughs at times. Then, sometimes, the little bar in the town falls silent whenever Gertruida  forces the group to be serious for a change. Vetfaan says she’s such a wet rag when she does this, but it’s Oudoom – who’s seen so much – who’ll tell you how important it is to wait between the tick and the tock, to take a deep breath right then, and place the grain of sand just right.

But then, too, the patrons in Boggel’s Place have a lot to be thankful for. Gertruida could have started the discussion with Fernando Pessoa’s quote: “My past is everything I failed to be.” One can only imagine the profound silence that would have greeted that statement.

The Scent of Eternity

IMG_2516Old Oom Ben Kromhout has been dying for a long time now. Gertruida once said that one mustn’t pity people like this; although the lingering shadow of death may be upsetting for everyone concerned, the person at the centre of it all enjoys the singular privilege of saying goodbye, sorting out personal and financial issues and making peace with Life and God. Still, to see the old man wither away like he did, makes one doubt the statement. Perhaps Gertruida should have set a time frame to her statement – a three-little-bears clause, saying it shouldn’t happen too fast or too slow, but just right.

Living – and dying – on his farm Kromdraai, Oom Ben used to be an example of how one should integrate the reality of this world with the belief in the next. He applied his vast knowledge of the Old and New Testament to the way he lived, the hardships of the Kalahari and the way his wife left him for that travelling salesman, that Philistine, Frederik Kotze. 

“We are but like the grass of the fields,” he said at the time, “here today, gone tomorrow. And if a Kudu came around and ate it, then the grass won’t see tomorrow’s sun. And who, do I ask you, directs that Kudu? Not me or you,” he said as he swivelled his eyes heavenward, “not me or you.” And he’d smile his peaceful smile and say that forgiveness is the answer.

No wonder then, that he was the head head elder in the little church in Grootdrink, where he used to be a pillar of wisdom. The answers to all questions, he maintained, are there for all to read. Just open the Book, and you’ll find it, he always said.

Gertruida now sits at his bedside, holding the terribly thin hand – almost transparent, it seems – as she watches the laborious breathing. She wonders what will happen to all the memories and knowledge the old man had stored in his brain. A lifetime of gathering knowledge and filing away facts – does it simply disappear into a void once we die? Gertruida, who knows everything, shakes her head. No, that is the final puzzle, the question we cannot answer at all.

And what about the soul? Yes, she’s read SHIMMERstate, and it makes some sense – but who really knows what happens when the blood stops carrying oxygen to the grey matter in our heads? The people with near-death experiences didn’t go all the way, did they? Even so, she thinks, the answer must be within the brain. That mushy collection of billions of nerves must be where the soul lives. And if it does, does that mean all brains possess a soul? 

She once asked Oom Ben the question.

“Oh no, my child,” he said, “only Man. Humans have souls. It says so in the book. The animals and the birds and the scorpions and the fish? They don’t have souls. We, as humans, are the only creatures who’ll live on in eternity. The rest return to the veld, my dear, to become part of the very ground you tread on. For them, life is fleeting, a season, and then they’re gone…forever. No heaven for them.”

But, she asked back then, why do we find the same DNA in all living things. Yes, the codes for a Kudu and a Gemsbok and a lion may differ significantly from our’s…but isn’t DNA God’s signature? Isn’t that double helix a sign that everything was created by a single hand and that somewhere in the mysterious twirls of protein, the code for the soul is to be found?

“Ah,” Oom Ben said, “science! That’s the biggest threat to religion, my child. We want to explain everything. Now don’t you go meddling with those ideas, no, not at all. We know only a part of what is. We have to accept that simple fact. One day, when we face the Great Truth, we’ll have answers. All the answers. In the meantime, we mustn’t go about explaining God in our terms. The answer, my dear, is far too simple and much too complicated for us to understand.”

But, Gertruida said, it’ll be sad to believe there are no animals in heaven. What about Elijah, she asked, was he not taken to heaven in a chariot drawn by horses? Where did they come from?

Oom Ben thought about this deeply, sipping his coffee from the saucer in the way he used to when he rummaged through the files in his head.

“They were heavenly horses. Made up there, stayed up there. That’s what.”

And dogs and cats and cows?

“No. Not them.”

Her reverie is broken when the breathing becomes even more irregular. It is time, she knows. Oom Ben’s suffering is almost over. Taking the Bible from the bedside table, she starts reading Psalm 23.

“Aaaaah,” Oom Ben says suddenly as he opens his eyes wide. “How wonderful.”

He says this clearly, in a young voice, so clear that Gertruida will remember it for many years to come. And it’s not only the clarity of the voice. No, not at all. There is something else: a joy, a celebration of sorts, that tells you he’s smiling even if you can’t see it. 

Gertruida stops reading.

“What is, Oom Ben?”

“It’s so much more!” His voice is still smiling, but the eyes are closed now. “So much.”

He’s silent for a while as his chest heaves up and down.

“Oom Ben?”

“My child…” Now his voice seems to come from far away. “It’s so…beautiful!”

Another pause to catch his breath.

“And…I can smell it.”

“What, Oom Ben? What do you smell?”

Now the chest stops straining so much. It doesn’t have to. It’s almost over.

“Puppy-breath, my child….I…smell…puppy-breath.”

***

They bury old Oom Ben Kromhout in the little graveyard on his farm. It’s a dignified service led by Oudoom and attended by almost everybody in the district. They have come to pay their last respects to a man who lived as an example to them all. Some speak of how Oom Ben helped them through hard times, others remember a visit, a handshake, a smile. Kind words and tears mingle as the coffin gets lowered into the ground.

gemsbokAnd maybe it’s because of the tears, or perhaps the downcast eyes – but only Gertruida looks up when the group files past the open grave to throw handfuls of sand back into the hole while Oudoom intones the bit about dust to dust.

And Gertruida, who looks up at that moment, sees the Gemsbok on the rise beyond the little graveyard. It is a magnificent creature, seemingly standing to attention with his horns held high and his many-coloured coat shining in the sun.

And if you asked her, she’d say she was sure that he was smiling. It looked that way, even at that distance.

The Many Names of Stephanus du Toit

stumpingNobody calls him Stephanus any more. The story of his life is just too tragic to think about him as Stephanus. Over the years, various incidents contributed to the fact that the way people think about him, changed from time to time – and with it, the list of nicknames grew. At least cricket supplied something respectable.

As a baby, his parents had to hear the neighbours refer to their son as ‘that child, you know, Yellow du Toit?’, after a particularly severe attack of jaundice. Later as a toddler, when he got lost after wandering off, aimlessly, into the Kalahari, they made remarks about ‘that naughty child, Tracks du Toit’. And so it went on. Casts – after managing to break both arms by falling from the donkey-cart. Stitches, due to an altercation with a neighbour’s dog. Even later, Slow; because of his inability to progress past Standard Three. Now, in quick succession, add Crazy, Sleepy, Dopey, Smiley, Happy – all of them in a good-natured way because he was a rather loveable boy. 

Surprisingly, Stephanus had a particular talent for cricket. No, not as bowler or batsman, but as wicket keeper. He’d crouch down behind the wickets and watch every ball with exaggerated concentration. Then, should the batsman venture an inch beyond his crease, the bales would go flying through the air, accompanied by the triumphant shout of ‘Howzit!!!’. He made the town’s team as Howzit du Toit.. 

It was during that time, just when it seemed possible that he’d make a provincial team, that he was drafted to do his stint in the defence force.

The army, as we all know, was the Great Leveller. Here it didn’t matter whether you obtained a distinction in Maths or flunked matric. The sons of doctors and lawyers were treated exactly the same as ragtag boys of shunters and mechanics. The idea was (and probably still is in armies all over the world) to create a fighting animal made up of units of men. That was the key. The men had to be the muscles and sinews that made the creature move, relentlessly, towards the enemy. Arms and legs of a killing machine, indeed. Yet, despite the forced military mould, Stephanus stood out here as the best mine-sweeper. He became Mines du Toit because he had a particular slowness about him; a deliberate way of moving one step at a time with an endless patience; something quite rare in the adrenalin-filled atmosphere in the bush of the Caprivi border.

***

“I can’t believe it’s his birthday again.” Vetfaan slaps the dust off his jeans as he gets out of his bakkie. “It seems like yesterday we congratulated him on his fiftieth.”

Kleinpiet nods. Yes, time flies. How many birthdays have they celebrated here with this man? Ten? Maybe. And every year they drive out to the forlorn little house on the slope of the isolated hill to sing Happy Birthday to the man who can’t really see them, can hardly hear them. But they know: he knows they’re there. What’s left of his lips curl upward and he’ll rock from side to side in tune with the song. That’s when Vetfaan will lift a beer to the gash that once was the mouth and shout Cheers!. He’d swallow a slow gulp. Kleinpiet will dry the froth – and the tear – and then they have to leave.

“You won’t stay long, will you, Mister Vetfaan?” 

That’s the usual greeting from Aunty Beauty, his caretaker-nurse. She’s been there since forever – Kleinpiet once heard she helped with his birth. But you don’t ask questions to Aunty Beauty. She, like her patient, doesn’t say much. Only the most necessary words and then the blank face that tells you she isn’t there to make small talk.

“No, just sing and give him a sip. The usual. Is he…okay today?’

“Same.”

Vetfaan once said he doesn’t want to live like that. To be like that all day, saying nothing, staring into the veld…and that picture? No, he can’t do that. It’s better, he said, to be dead. They should have left him. Left him to die…

Vetfaan had been first on the scene, after that explosion. When the helicopter touched down to take Mines away, he told the medic it was all over. Nobody could survive such injuries. And afterwards, when he saw him again in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria, he was glad that Mines couldn’t see his tears or hear his sobs. 

Same. He’s always that. Same. 

They go in, stand around the chair with the broken man staring at the veld.  They sing. The gash opens, the corners lifting in what may be a smile. Vetfaan offers the beer. A laborious slurp follows, then a soft burp.

“Go now.” Aubty Beauty’s voice is soft but the finality in it is unmistakable.

***

“They gone,” she says as she watches the bakkie bump it’s way over the uncared-for track leading to the house. “You relax now.”

She sees the muscles unwind and the shoulders slump to their usual position. Then, almost effortlessly, she lifts the body to carry the man to his bed. She did this when he was small – she’ll do it to the end. Only, back then there was more of him, even when he was a baby. 

Stephanus du Toit has made it through another year. Aunty Beauty smiles down at the man as she arranges the cushions so he faces the veld outside. That, and the team photo on the windowsill. The one where he stands in the middle, with the big gloves on. She knows he likes it there. Every day she tells him it’s there, reading the names of the team mates out loud. And she’d sing, like only African mothers can sing: melodious verses with simple words, over and over, telling the story of a young man who plays cricket for his country. 

...he catches the ball behind the sticks,

and Lordy, does he know the tricks

to get the others out

and he’d shout h-o-o-w-z-i-i-t! 

as he laughs and he jumps about…

“You rest now, Mister Stumps. For a whole year, you can rest.”

Then she wipes a bit of froth from the chin and she’s rewarded by a slight movement of the gash. At least, she thinks, he’s didn’t lose that

‘Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…’

(William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality)

The Danger beneath the Lace

IMG_2725During one of his rare visits to Upington, Servaas stops to stare at a large shop window. Now, one must remember that he and Siena had been married for five decades and that the intricate mystery of the female body isn’t a complete enigma to the old man; but for a moment he is breathless.

Siena, that wonderful and sensible lady who had been mother to Servaasie, used to be very practical. Coming from the impoverished background like they both did, it was only natural for them to be careful how they spent their money. A thing had to last, see? And, like with cutlery and linen, so with clothes. These had to be sensible and durable. Especially sensible. Extremely sensible.

In their marriage, clothing had to cover the necessary bits, be warm in winter and cool during the day. During the colder winter months, Siena made sure that everything was snugly tucked in beneath layers of cotton and wool – she believed that kept colds and flu away. She also made sure she never had to visit a gynaecologist.

It is understandable, then, that Servaas eyes the mannequin in the window with such incredulous eyes. Is it possible to fit everything into that tiny…thing?

Of course, if he had the guts he could ask Gertruida – but that kite just won’t fly. There is no way he could phrase a question like that! It would be totally embarrassing and completely unacceptable for the head elder of the church to admit he knew anything about such things. Or that he looked at it. Or even thought about it. No, this is something that he must keep away from the little society of Rolbos. He is a man they respect for his steadfast conservatism,  Even if he never finds out how ladies do it, he’ll never, ever discuss the subject with anybody.

***

Back in Boggel’s Place, Servaas is unusually quiet while the group at the bar discuss the way Germany thumped the rest of the world in soccer.

“If only we could get Bafana Bafana to focus. You know, we have the players and the talent; but somehow the team just doesn’t gel. Maybe it’s a question of national pride…or the lack of it.” Gertruida is the only one in Rolbos who knows something about soccer. The rest are ardent rugby fans who can’t understand why you have to kick the ball all the time. Why do men have two hands, after all? Kleinpiet says it’s like having ears but insisting on using sign language.

“It’s like everything else, Gertruida.”  Having seen what the overseas players are paid, Vetfaan feels he must say something. “Money. The Germans made it to the top because they initiated a program to identify young boys with special talents. Then they put them in an academy, all expenses paid – and see what they managed after that? No, our government must wake up. If they don’t spend money on people, they’ll slowly destroy what little national pride we still have.”

“True.” Kleinpiet nods. He’s made it abundantly clear – over the past few months – that the government must invest in sport as a way to motivate the nation. “But you know how it is, Vetfaan. The ministers live in luxury. The president has…” He pasues, scratching his head. “How many wives? Six? And more than twenty children? Now give them all homes, schooling and a medical aid – as well as spending money, security guards and cars – and you realise we’ll never have a sporting academy of any sort. There isn’t enough money to go around, that’s all.”

“Oh, and don’t forget the ten traditional kings we have in the country. The Zulu king alone cost the tax payers more than R65-million over the last two years, I’d hate to know how many wives and children these guys have to support.” Tapping at the calculator in front of him, Boggel wonders if the mint will ever be able to print enough notes to fill all those wallets. “Talk about the legacy of Apartheid? Sure, that’s horrible and nobody defends that system – but what about the legacy of tribalism? Is there any logic in maintaining a system of headmen, chiefs, leaders, traditional healers and kings? Are we stuck in Dark Africa, or have we moved on?”

“Now don’t you go tampering with that, Boggel!” Gertruida is suddenly very serious. “Our people have traditions. They have a background in a certain way of living. Culture and tradition aren’t things you change by issuing laws the population cannot understand.  If you go tampering with the way rural people live, you’ll destabilize the whole country. We, my friends,” and here Gertruida adopts her lecturing tone again, “have inherited a country with all kinds of idiosyncrasies. The West meets Africa here. Cultures and languages differ remarkably. What is sauce for the goose, doesn’t cover the gander. And it is here, in our beloved country, that we’ll have to learn to live together. We’ll have to get to the point where we understand what is going on in the minds of our countrymen. If we don’t, we’ll destroy ourselves.”

“Nice lecture, Gertruida. But what about the subject under discussion?”

“What, sports academies? Soccer? The parliamentarians’ salaries? Tribalism? All of the above?”

This is when, in a stroke of genius, Kleinpiet changes the subject to talk about the drought. This, after all, is something they all understand.

***

It is also at this point that Servaas starts to grasp the significance of the tiny garment that shocked him so in Upington. Some things you can dress up. Some things you can squeeze into any shape you want. But then again. no matter how you cover some things, there’s no mistaking the dynamite hidden underneath.

Sniggering to himself, he gets up, thumps Vetfaan on the shoulder and smiles benignly at Gertruida.

“We need more women in government, Gertruida. At least they make a little go a long, long way. Just my opinion. Don’t quote me, though. But after what I’ve seen in Upington, I realise that lingerie and our economy have a lot in common. The smaller the garment, the more and more need to be covered by less and less. And therein, my friends, lies the rub…and not only in the way Shakespeare meant it.”

He’s still sniggering when he leaves them.

The Great Doggy Olympiad

Credit: ourworldofdogs.com

Credit: ourworldofdogs.com

“Border Collies are the most intelligent of all dogs.” Koos Swartberg – who doesn’t live near a black mountain, but inherited the add-on from his father, who once did – makes the statement with that superior tone of voice some preachers use.

Koos isn’t a regular in Boggel’s Place. His farm is quite a distance away, near the Orange River, where he farms with peach brandy and a few sheep. A struggling farmer – like the rest of them -he had been basically bankrupt when fortune decided to flash him a smile. A rich German’s car broke down. Koos stopped to help. They had a bit of his peach brandy while Koos tinkered about under the bonnet. The car still didn’t start, but the German was impressed. Kalahari Schnapps is now exported to the German’s exclusive liquor store in Munich.

“Ag, ever since you’ve become rich, you think you know everything.” Vetfaan doesn’t like the man much. Sure, he came to town to buy some of the dried peaches they all keep in their attics; and yes, they can all use the extra money; but Koos has a way of bragging that isn’t popular in Rolbos. “Who wants a dog that doesn’t understand Afrikaans, man? You have to whistle to tell them to go left or right. otherwise they’ll just keep on running to Cape Town. Can they swim? No, give me a dog that understands what I’m saying…and can think for himself – like Vrede, here.”

Now – everybody knows about Vrede, the town’s dog. Having retired himself from the police service, Vrede spends his days sharing Boggel’s cushion beneath the counter. He understands Afrikaans. Perfectly. Mention the word biltong, and he’ll be at your chair in a flash. Or say Selebi, and his head will hang in shame.

“My dog, Rocket, isn’t stupid, hey? Rocket looks after my sheep even when I’m not around and is  far superior to any other dog in the district.”

And so the argument begins. Who’s dog is the genius? Every time Vetfaan says something about Vrede, Koos Swartberg trumps him with Rocket’s abilities. Later (after quite a bit of Cactus Jack) Vrede can drive a Land Rover and Rocket is an expert mechanic. Anybody who has spent enough time in a rural pub, has heard such drunken arguments conversations. Gertruida says these things happen when alcohol makes you stupid, but it may equally be true that drinking improves a dog’s intelligence. At least, in this case, the two dogs in question became so intelligent, they could have become parliamentarians – according to the two men at the counter.

“We’ll hace a com..com..com…pe…ti..shun.” Koos has great difficulty to pronounce the word. “Rocket againsht  – wahtshisname – yes! Vrede.” He swnings a floppy finger through the air. “Rocket againsht Vrede. Ja. The win…winner takesh it all.” He glares in the general direction of where he imagines Vetfaan to be.

Business has been slow in Boggel’s Place lately, so the bent little barman offers to make his bar available for the competition. “You guys can settle it right here. Koos can bring Rocket and Vrede is here already. I’ll ask Gertruida to put up an obstacle course and Kleinpiet can bring a few sheep. Next Saturday. Let’s do it next Saturday. I’ll supply the peanuts.”

***

And so it happens that the world’s first canine intelligence Olympiad is held in Rolbos. Boggel’s Place is packed to the rafters when Koos Swartberg leads Rocket into the bar. Vrede, as usual, is fast asleep beneath the counter. Koos is wearing a small, silver whistle around his neck and a superior smile. Gertruida sits next to the counter, paging through a dictionary.

The rules are simple. Rocket has to obey the whistle commands, while Vrede has to listen to words before acting.

“This has to be a fair competition, guys. You know, no cheating?” Servaas has appointed himself as the judge. “So I read up a bit. We have to make sure the dogs don’t just go through some routine they learnt at home.” Vetfaan and Koos nods. “So, here’s what we’ll do: Vetfaan gets the whistle, Koos gets the dictionary.”

Chaos. Koos says it’s not fair at all, while Vetfaan shouts that Koos will only pick out impossible words. The rest of the group in the bar won’t be left out of the argument. And Boggel? He’s smiling. Business is good. It takes quite a while before things simmer down. By that time, Koos is slurring his words again.

“Right. Okay. We’ll stick to Left, Right, Front and Back.” He blows the commands on his whistle, which causes Rocket to dash this way and that. “See, it’s easy. You try…” He hands the whistle to Vetfaan.

Have you ever seen an inebriated man handle a dog whistle? Even when sober, it takes a bit of concentration to get the notes right. And don’t blow too hard. Or too soft. It involves an easy, sustained exhalation to produce the right sound. Vetfaan doesn’t know this, of course.

Taking a deep breath, he puts the whistle to his lips. Unfortunately, he’s forgotten about the peanuts in his mouth. A wayward nut feels how the inhaled breath – in anticipation of the effort of blowing the whistle – sucks itself down, past the tongue, over the soft palate and into the vocal chords. What follows may be quite natural, but the results are extraordinary.

Coughing with a whistle clamped between the front teeth can be extremely messy. First of all, bits of nut and spittle go flying all over the place. Even smaller pieces of the snack get lodged in the whistle itself. It takes a supreme effort to keep the whistle firmly between the teeth to prevent the instrument from flying through the window.

But it’s the effect on both dogs that is the subject of much discussion later. Both Vrede and Rocket are galvanised into action. Rocket doesn’t understand this new, rather urgent and piercing note, and stands stock-still. Vrede – who has been sleeping peacefully – sits up and notices the other dog for the first time.

Gertruida will later say one must understand these things. Vrede has been the only dog in town for so long, after all. He only did what is natural, one cannot blame him.

Blame or not, it makes no difference to what happens. Vrede lets out a howl and rushes towards Rocket. Koos Swartberg’s dog reacts instantly, heading for the door at great speed.

By the time Vetfaan stops coughing, the whistle is clean once more and the laughter has subsided, the two dogs are missing. Completely. Not a canine in sight.

***

The competition was called off, the town had a good laugh and Vetfaan discovered that Koos, despite his attitude, is actually a nice guy – he paid for the drinks they had while searching for their dogs.

Two days later Vrede was found when he slunk back to his cushion under the counter. A day later a passing motorist picked up Rocket, on her way back to Grootdrink. Recognising Rocket as his neighbour’s clever Collie, he returned the dog to her thankful owner.

Her pups are due any day now.

,

The Man in the Mirror

(The final episode)

Credit: itbdigital.com

Credit: itbdigital.com

Gertruida says mirrors changed the way we look at ourselves – in fact, mirrors changed society. Of course, this statement may seem superficial and childishly logical, but as usual the truth cuts deeper than one would think. She says the cosmetic industry would never have developed without mirrors. Fashion houses wouldn’t exist. Nobody would have opened a beauty salon and  King C. Gillette wouldn’t have patented the first safety razor in 1904. Mirrors, Gertruida says, are responsible for us taking ourselves so seriously these days. Without them, life would have been much simpler. Admittedly, she does concede that mirrors don’t lie and that a good look in the mirror helps us to be honest with ourselves.

These thoughts aren’t cruising around in Diksarel’s mind when he stares at the mirror in the luxurious bathroom in Minister Vilakazi’s home. He’s just listened to the most remarkable little speech Miriam had made – a speech that will change his life…

***

“I have to say something,” Miriam Plaatjies said, as Maxwell Mogale turned to go. The ferret of a man hesitated, turned around and raised an eyebrow.

Miriam told the story of her father and Meneer Labuschagne. All of it, without wasting words.

“You see, Mister Maxwell, I find it strange that we – the children of our forefathers – have been made to meet like this. I ask myself: why? Why would fate cause Diksarel to come here? Is the reason maybe that we should make the future worse than the past? Or is there a chance that something good may come from all this? I mean, let’s look at it carefully.”

Then, ticking off the facts on her fingers, she mentions the invoice, Kneehigh’s invovement, Diksarel being abandoned on the airport, the two revenue agents, the wild taxi-ride, and the role Mama Sarah played.

“What, Mister Maxwell, are the chances of a white man arriving at Mama Sarah’s? And then Mama listened to him and directed him to the one man who knows my story so well: Reverend Joseph, And it’s me who called the minister and he in turn, called you. It’s me who brought Diksarel here and that’s why you know the story.” Almost out of breath, Miriam paused a second. “Don’t you think, Mister Maxwell, that there’s a bigger picture here? isn’t it wonderful that Diksarel finally knows the truth about his father? That Jason and him could come to terms with each other? That through this set of…coincidences, you are presented with an opportunity like you’ve never had before?

“And, Mister Maxwell…do you really think Diksarel is a criminal? Would a thief have done what he did? No, sir, I don’t think so. I think Diksarel was coerced into a position to fit in with the real criminals’ plans. RD+P took a bribe, They needed a scapegoat. They framed an innocent man by using the oldest trick in the book – using a sexy lady. He shouldn’t have destroyed that invoice, that’s true. But to punish him and let the real criminals walk free, isn’t what I call justice.”

Then she proceeded to tell Maxwell why she felt so strongly about this.

“I had a dream a few weeks ago, Mister Maxwell. My father was sitting in his old chair and he called me over. He showed me our old home – the one in Upington. I could see it’s run-down and dilapidated. Then he gave me some paint and a very small brush. That’s when I woke up.

“And now I understand. If we wanted to restore our spiritual homes, our very souls, we can only do so by small acts. Little things. Like listening to a stranger and then discovering how much you have in common. Like speaking up in defence of the innocent. By refusing to remain silent in the face of injustice. By reaching out to others in their hours of need – or by stopping to blame the past. I think he tried to show me how all of us can live in peace if we just do those small things that come our way. There’s plenty of paint – but each of us only has a little brush.

“A small brush, Mister Maxwell, is all I have. My father told me to renovate our family’s home – the spiritual one – and that’s what I’m doing. I think he wanted to help Meneer Labuschagne and to help us all understand each other better. In fact, I think he was telling me the past…is past. The only way we can fix our house – our country – is by doing little things for each other. He didn’t give me a new house or a new life or a new past. He gave me a small brush…”

By the time she finished speaking, Maxwell Mogale had sat down again, waving the hovering butler away. He then stared at Diksarel – a long and penetrating look with those ferrety eyes.  Slow seconds ticked by in the complete silence that followed.

“A small brush…,” he breathed after a while, “is all that we all have…”

***

Diksarel turns from the mirror. He’s tired (when last did he sleep?) but still elated by the surprise of it all. Does fate organise such extraordinary events? Does God sometimes reach down from heaven to touch the life of a lonely recluse, a man without hope? And does He use ordinary men and women to work His miracles? Taxi drivers, shebeen owners, reverends and ministers?

Shaking his head, he walks out to get into Maxwell Mogale’s car.

“I’m ready,” he says as he settles in the seat.

***

Over the next few months, the newspapers had a field day reporting on the court case. Maxwell Mogale was brilliant. Bit by bit he convinced the judge about the way RD+P defrauded the government of millions of Rands. His evidence – stretching back fifteen years – revealed bribery and corruption on an unprecedented scale, involving a multitude of government officials, ministers and even a president. One set of evidence fitted into another, and another, and another, to finally paint a picture the public could only gasp at.

The star of the case, some papers agreed, was the state’s major witness – a seemingly unremarkable clerk who used to work in a dusty little office and who discovered an invoice that led to it all.

***

The sun shines brightly when they emerge from the imposing building Diksarel came to know so well in the time he had to spend there. It is, he hopes, the last time he’ll have to be near the High Court in Cape Town.

“You’re a free man now.” The ferrety man flashes a rare smile. “What will you do now?”

“I’m not sure. Mister Shewell has retired and a new man bought his business. I’ve heard he appointed a new clerk, so technically I’m unemployed. I suppose I’ll have to look for a new job.”

“You could help Miriam with her book, you know? Minister Vilakazi told me about it. The two of you could really put something very special together, if you want?”

Diksarel gives it some thought. Yes, that would have been nice.

“I have to live, Maxwell. I have to make some money. Writing books isn’t a lucrative job, you know.”

This time Maxwell is the one who hesitates.

“Diksarel?”

“Yes?”

“Let me paint a hypothetical situation for you. Let’s imagine…” He pauses dramatically. At the foot of the stairs, a black BMW is waiting impatiently for him. Diksarel sees a traffic warden approaching the vehicle with a determined look. ” Let’s imagine some thieves try to frame a man – using a lot of stolen money to make it look real. They deposit that money into their victim’s account. Things don’t work out the way they planned. They go to jail. The state is overjoyed at getting rid of so many corrupt officials. Justice has been served.”

Below them, the driver and the traffic cop are involved in a heated argument. The driver keeps pointing at Maxwell.

“Now. suppose that money remains in the intended victim’s account. Just say, for instance, that the powers-that-be considers it as an apt payment for a brave man. Would you not say that is the most wonderful way to close this case? Hypothetically, I mean.”

By now, the traffic warden has started climbing the stairs towards them, obviously furious at the situation.

“Anyway, I have to go. Can’t stand around here chatting to you all day. That cop is going to give me a ticket if I hang around much longer. Goodbye, Mister Labuschagne.”

***

A year later…

Diksarel stares at the mirror in his hotel room. He’ll have to have a haircut. The book launch is tomorrow. Like Miriam, he’ll want to look his best.

The Man and the Chimney

(The story starts here)

chimneyBefore chimneys, Gertruida once said, mankind could not develop beyond just making fire. According to her, caves and huts and shelters filled with smoke would have rendered mankind useless – with sinusitis, rhinitis, conjunctivitis and asthma. But once they discovered chimneys, they started making progress and the wheel was invented. That, and swords and spears and knives and other things they used to kill each other with. Progress, she says, always has a price.

She says the same thing happens in our minds. If we don’t find an outlet for the results of anger or frustration or guilt, the fumes of resentment makes us blind and suffocates clear thinking.  It threatens our lives. And as usual, the little crowd in Boggel’s Place nodded happily, hoping she’d pay for the next round. Did they understand? Of course not…they just didn’t get the picture.

But, in Diksarel’s current frame of mind, he’d paint a picture of a home with smoke billowing out beneath the closed door.The fires of guilt, fear and uncertainty inside his head are so overwhelming, he doesn’t even notice the tray laden with snacks the butler brings in. What is the minister up to? How is he, Diksarel, ever going to get out of this mess? Yet, despite these worrying thoughts, there is the relief of knowing the truth about his father. Maybe even a long jail sentence is worth it all…

A long hour drags by before Minister Vilakazi returns. He’s talking rapidly into his cellphone – saying yes yes, I know, but something urgent has come up, as he ushers a ferret-faced short man into the room. Diksarel cringes: he recognises trouble when he sees it. This short man with his eyes set too far apart on the narrow face, with his claw-like hands and the peaked chin, seems the unforgiving type, When he’s introduced as Maxwell Mogale, Diksarel feels like running away.

Maxwell is a household name all over the country. A fearless fighter for justice, his appointment as the Head of the National Prosecuting Authority surprised many. His reputation rests on the fact that, despite his looks (or maybe because of it), he has had unprecedented success at prosecuting and convicting several government officials for bribery, corruption and various other crimes. He was responsible, for instance, for getting rid of the National Commissioner of Police. But he didn’t spend his time with government officials only; he’s prosecuted mine bosses, trade union leaders, tax evaders, drug lords… Nobody is immune to his scrutiny.

Maxwell, like the minister, doesn’t waste time. Diksarel has to tell his story all over again. This time, Maxwell takes notes and asks questions. Diksarel feels drained when, at last, the questions stop.

“Mmmm…” Maxwell scratches a patch of skull behind the pointed ears. “Yesss….”

“I’m sorry. Really, I am. I shouldn’t have…”

“Oh shut up!” The fire in Maxwell’s two small eyes makes Diksarel swallow the rest of the sentence. “You have destroyed evidence. You colluded with another person to defraud the the department of Internal Revenue. You agreed, for a certain payment, to transgress the basic rules of auditing. You were prepared to supply the authorities with a false report. And then you planned to flee the country.” The eyes swivel upwards, as if these things are just too much to contemplate. “You know what? I know about this case. I know about everything. And I know about RD+P.” He sighs. “In fact, they have contacted my office about you. Watertight case of a young clerk trying to pull a fast one. Makes a wrong inscription, diddles the figures, withdraws a large sum…”

“But I didn’t! I never withdrew money!”

“That’s not what they say, my friend.” The last word is hissed, devoid of any sense of kindness. “They have proof. A series of forged cheques. Signed, according to their handwriting analyst, by you. Twenty-odd million Rands over the last six months.”

Suddenly, it is so simple to understand. Of course! RD+P is in the process of framing him! The excess money in their account – the bribe they took to drop the case of the defective housing in Upington – disappeared from their books. And who better to blame than the man who discovered the fraud in the first instance? So, fabricate some evidence, get some smart-ass lawyer to lead this evidence in court, and he, Diksarel, will have no chance. Kneehigh will have her own version of what transpired, sealing his fate.

Diksarel flops down on one of the minister’s plush chairs, head in his hands. “That’s not true…,” he sobs.

“Maybe. Maybe not.” For the first time Maxwell’s tone softens. “In my line of work, I have to be extremely circumspect. All cases have two sides, and often they have more. But I do have a responsibility. A complaint has been lodged against you. That means I have to act. I can’t ignore the fact that I have here – you – a fugitive who was planning to leave the country after stealing millions from a reputable law firm…”

“I didn’t! I didn’t! I never touched money from any client. I swear!”

“That’s what they all say.” The steely note is back in Maxwell’s voice. “But your bank account shows a balance no auditing clerk should have. More than twenty million? Where, my friend, did you get the money?”

“Wha…?” Diksarel feels faint. Of course! To make the case against him, RD+P transferred money to his account, making him the obvious thief!

“The way I see it, there’s not much to discuss.I came here because I respect Vilakazi’s judgement. But now…I think it’s time for you to accompany me to the nearest police station.”

***

Gertruida’s chimney-theory is true. Anybody who has been so wrongfully accused (and some who were not), will tell you the worst moment is that instant when you know the game is up. The whistle blew, The penalty shoot-out is over and the scoreline stands. Nothing will change it now.

Diksarel sits, sobbing, as Vilakazi gets up to call the huge butler over. The small, ferrety man isn’t going to carry this burly clerk to his vehicle. No sir. The butler will have to do it.

The fire inside Diksarel’s mind flares up, causing the smoke to blind and suffocate him. Framed. Guilty. No way out. Jail…

This is when Mama Sarah gets up. “Wait,” she says softy as the butler bends to pick up the crying man. “I want to say something…”