“Nobody believes in ghosts any more. That’s a notion that belongs to the past. In this, the 21st century, we are realists. It is impossible for a spirit – of a dead person, that is – to appear in our dimension. There is a definite boundary between what we live in, and the realm of the metaphysical. So, sorry, I don’t believe all this nonsense.” Gertruida has that knowledgeable look – the one she uses to stop arguments.
Vetfaan isn’t buckling down. “You can believe what you want. But what about angels? Don’t you believe in guardian spirits that look after you? And what about all those stories in the Bible – are they wrong, too?”
Gertruida says something about more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, before waving a dismissive hand. “We’ll never know everything, I agree. Some things beg explanation, but we don’t know enough to explain them. Point is: I don’t know anybody who has seen a ghost lately. Not within living memory, at least. And that should tell you something, at least.
“The old farmers and trekkers were lonely, superstitious people. They imagined all kinds of stuff: there was a mermaid in Meiringspoort, a ghost in Uniondale and a variety of spirits in the old Concentration Camps. Hollywood took up this theme by filming Scrooge; that story was written many years before, when people were still gullible enough to think ghosts existed. Nowadays they resurrect this fascination with the paranormal with Harry Potter and a selection of vampires. But still, it remains a fantasy of the superstitious. They don’t exist. Full stop.”
Despite the tone of her voice, Gertruida doesn’t like talking about other dimensions. This is one area where her vast knowledge and her sense for logic fails her.
The discussion was prompted by Kleinpiet, who said his grandmother used to talk about a spirit that occasionally visited her. “It was a woman in a red dress, quite beautiful, although it was difficult to see exactly what she looked like. She timed her visits to occur before major events – like deaths and births.
“Grandma told us the woman never said anything. Over the years, she realised the way this woman tried to tell her something. She always danced – a slow dance for deaths, a polka for births. If she slid her hands down her slender body, it signified female – while strong arm movements indicated male. Grandma used those dances to predict, and she was never wrong.”
Gertruida scoffed at that, calling it luck or coincidence. Kleinpiet looked hurt.
“And there was a platoon of British soldiers that died in the Kalahari in the 1914 Rebellion. They went after General Maritz’s troops, but got lost in the desert. They all died of thirst. The old hunters used to see them marching through the desert, late at night, still looking for water.”
Gertruida tapped the side of her head, saying brandy can do terrible things to you.
Later, the cold Kalahari wind finds its way down Voortrekker Weg (the name is still spelled incorrectly on the skew pole), chasing a lazy dust devil between the buildings. Way out in the desert, a jackal howls in the darkness, while a rather large rat scampers across the road towards Sammie’s Store. The double Hoooo of an owl drifts on the wind, wakes those that have dropped off to sleep. It is the perfect night for spirits to wander around.
Servaas has other ideas. He has been tossing and turning while contemplating the debate in the bar that evening. Now, if he can scare the others – especially Gertruida – into believing in ghosts, he can have a good laugh at their expense. And as the plan takes shape in his mind, he bursts out laughing. Man, they’ll all be scared out of their wits…
As postmaster, Servaas has a more than rudimentary grasp of electronics. This is going to help him a lot tonight. He dresses in his old army uniform (with difficulty – he has to leave the fly open to get the pants on) before rigging the tape recorder to his back and hiding the speakers under the tunic. With a torch hidden under his shirt, he sets out for the upper end of Voortrekker Weg.
Minutes later, the townsfolk gather at their windows to stare in complete surprise at the apparition marching down the main road – to the blaring of There’ll be blue birds over/The white cliffs of Dover… With the torch switched on, the sight created by Servaas is more than convincing. Making sure that he remains in step with the music, he marches down the street as quickly as he can. At the end of the road he switches everything off and doubles back to his house, using the little footpath behind the buildings to conceal his return.
Undressing quickly in his dark kitchen, Servaas watches through the small window as the lights in the houses come on one after the other. Soon, Voortrekker Weg is bathed in light and people gather on Boggel’s veranda. Kleinpiet is jubilant – the story of the dead English platoon is right, after all! No longer will Gertruida make fun of spirits – they all saw the troops, didn’t they?
When Gertruida climbs up the steps to the stoep, they all fall silent.
“Well! Now that was an interesting little demonstration, wasn’t it? I almost missed the dragging of the tape towards the end as the batteries started to give in. Then, of course, the prankster made a fatal mistake.” She had their complete attention by now. “Shows you how much somebody knew about 1914.”
“Go on, Gertruida, tell us?” Vetfaan doesn’t like the thought of Rolbos being declared a ghost town.
“Wel, Burton and Kent only penned that song in 1941. How is it possible that the British soldiers from WW I march to the tune of a WW II song? And remember, even they made a mistake. There never were bluebirds in England – certainly not over the cliffs of Dover. The writers were American and got it all so completely wrong.
“That recording was made by Vera Lynn – born as Vera Margaret Welch – who was born in 1917; years after the Rebellion.
“So the question is: who in this town is a fan of Vera Lynn? And then I remembered the tape amongst Servaas’s collection: Vera Lynn Remembers – The World at War, given out, if I remember correctly, in 1974. Now, maybe, Servaas would like to explain why he woke us all up at this unholy hour.”
Of course they smile at his effort and soon everybody is back in bed with the lights switched off. Peace returns to Rolbos with the ease of the dust settling down after the wind dies down. It’ll pick up again just before dawn, as it usually does.
This is a pity, though. The early-morning wind will blow the red Kalahari sand down Voortrekker weg, obscuring the three neat rows of footprints down the street: footprints of soldiers following a song promising their return to England. Like that time in 1914, they’ll have to stay where they are. Maybe, one day when there really are bluebirds over those cliffs, it’ll be possible for them to return. In the meantime, they’ll have to keep on marching, marching, marching along through the Kalahari – where the drifting sands disguise the signs of their passing every morning.