When people pass the turn-off to Rolbos, they often do it without even the slightest sideway glance; as if it were a place of no significance. One can understand it: who really knows about the little town, anyway? They don’t manufacture anything you’d want to buy. No great writer lives there. No politician ever mentions it.
The small collection of houses and Boggel’s Place does not deserve a place amongst the famous places like Polokwane or Tswane or Jozi, after all. No Youth Leader has called it his home. Evita never visits here. Nor does it have a little statue of a former political leader. It, sadly, boasts a misspelled Voortrekker Weg, which may (or may not) be significant. No gold or platinum here, unfortunately.
But it is a shelter.
The few inhabitants of Rolbos accept their anonymity with the kind of acquiescence you only find in (extremely) rural areas. The Kalahari has it. It’s there, in the Namib, as well. Maybe you’d find it in your suburb too. All you need is isolation. Most people have some of it, come to think about it.
Servaas received the telegram just before Boggel unlocked his door on that Tuesday morning. As local postmaster, he was – quite naturally – the first to know about the message that filtered through the wires. It was a terse note, barely 13 words long. (You pay per word, remember) . Servaas, you may want to know, has been suffering from triskaidekaphobia since lightning struck his school when he was seven. (On Friday the 13th)
Your great-grandchild to be born next week. Hope to see you there. Love.
It was clearly addressed to him. It had his name on it. There can be no mistake.
Now, you will remember Servaas as the man with few relationships, fewer close ones than the rest, and basically as a loner. Sure, he is a loyal friend and a great confidant; but he keeps to himself and never talks about his past. Never.
He folded the piece of paper, stuffed it in his pocket, and went home to contemplate the telegram. Who sent it? Why? It came from Cape Town, which is ominous. He stayed there, while Siena was still alive; but even back then he rarely socialised. But who?
A phone call to the Cape Town post office frustrated him even more. The disinterested: ‘yaass?’, confirmed his belief that they only appointed people with severe mental deficiencies these days. It was impossible to talk to that man. There was no way.
He did the only thing left or him to do: he walked over to Gertruida. If anybody knew how to unravel the mystery, she would. As usual, she was reading her National Geographic in the sunny corner in Boggel’s Place. He explained. She listened. Boggel brought over two Cactus Jacks. They talked some more.
“It is obvious that this is somebody that knows you, Servaas. Intimately. You must have…”
“No, Gertruida, never. Read my lips. I had no sexual relationships with any other woman. Never. I kissed a few. Went out with a few. Even took one or two to the movies. And once, in the back of my old Volkswagen, I actually touched a knee. But not that type of contact. Not me. Not when I was that age. Only later, when I met Siena…” Despite his age, he blushes. She smiles. They leave it at that.
“But you had a son, Servaas. The one that went to the war.”
That is a forbidden subject. Servaas indeed married Siena, the girl from Vishoek – a lovely woman, if you cared to page through the one album he still keeps. Little Servasie grew up to be a handsome young man. Then he got conscripted. And then he ran his armoured vehicle over a landmine. Three long days later, he died. Even in Boggel’s place, it is a banned subject. Nobody talks about it.
“My sons is dead, Gertruida. Dead. I can’t have grandchildren.”
“But didn’t he marry or something?”
“No. He had a girlfriend, that I know. He mentioned her once only. But then he left on that train and I never saw him again. Or heard from her. That telegram must be a hoax. Or a joke. A sick one, at that. Cruel.”
Gertruida thinks on this for a while. “I think you must trace that woman. She sent the telegram from Maitland in the Cape. Look, it says so down there.” She pointed. “ Think, Servaas, Think. There must be someone in Cape town you know about?”
It was in June 1988 that Little Servaas (quite a strapping young lad at the time) came home for the last time. Siena was still alive, back then. They sat outside on the patio, drinking brandy as equals.
“I have six months to go, Dad, and then it’s back to civvy life. Only six months. Then there’s a girl I’d like you to meet. She’s rather special. We might want to make a go of it.”
“It’s wartime, you know that. Testosterone does wonderful things in wartime. I was born, you will remember, because of WW II. My parents celebrated the night Jan Smuts made that radio announcement. The country went mad.”
“I know, Dad. But…I have a bad feeling. We’re going back to Angola for this last stint. It’s bad up there.”
“My prayers go with you, my son.”
The prayers didn’t help.
“Look, you have to sort this out. Phone the Maitland Post Office, but don’t speak to the postmaster. Talk to the clerk that works on the counter. I’m sure they don’t send a lot of telegrams to Rolbos. Maybe the clerk will remember.”
The clerk, Miss Kotie Cronje, remembered, indeed. All too well. She should have, by the way: she sent the telegraml.
“Then…what’s this about a grandchild? How did you find me? Are you pregnant? How old are you? How…” The questions stampeded down the wires to Cape Town, causing a long silence.
“It’s , well…complicated. I wish we could have this discussion face to face, you know? But here goes.”
When Servasie got onto that train, she was already on it. Booked a compartment for the two of them all the way up to Grootfontein in Namibia. The trip took three days. They talked most of the way. They both had a bad feeling about the last few months of his military service. And, somewhere between Windhoek and Otjiwarongo – or was it Otavi? – they stopped talking. Words weren’t enough any more.
“And so, five months after Servasie died up there in Rundu, little Gezina was born.”
A lovely child; gifted, clever. Kotie worked hard to give her all she needed: piano lessons, ballet classes, sport – there was nothing she wasn’t good at. Just like Servasie.
“But why didn’t you contact me? Why?”
“With the final shame on his name? So that people won’t remember him as the soldier who died for his country, but a young man who fathered an illigitimate child and to add to your misery? No sir. I wouldn’t do that. Gezina was my child, my burden. I had to show Servasie that I could look after our child properly. Now she’s married and happy and pregnant. I think it’s time for the two of you to meet.”
Oh, she told little Gezina – Siena – about her grandfather who lived far, far away. She grew up, knowing they’d meet one day.
“Then why the nameless telegram?”
“I had to make sure you really wanted to talk to me. If you went to all that trouble to trace me, then I think we’ll be all right. If you didn’t want to…well, then you didn’t want to. Simple as that.”
Gertruida watches the lorry of Kalahari Vervoer disappear down the road to Upington. She has just helped old Servaas load the little suitcase into the cabin where Honest Harry waited with a smile and a packet of sandwiches for the road. Servaas looked back once – a furtive glance at the small town that became his shelter against the grief and loss. Then he settled in and stared stoically ahead.
It may be true that nothing of great importance ever happens in Rolbos. You’ll find no monuments or museums here, nor does anyone ever take that turn-off to Rolbos unless he really has to – or got lost. And that, maybe, sums up what Rolbos is all about: you either have to be there, or you are lost.
Like, I suppose, all of us.
All over the world.
Except, of course, for those of us who prefer to hide; like Servaas did. Then Rolbos works for you, as well.