The old man walks down Church Street – at least, that’s what it used to be called, way back then. Everything is different – the cracks in the pavement, the beggars, the whores, the filth… Even the buildings look dirty and tired now and the once-proud bust of Strijdom no longer adorns the square next to the theatre. How long, the man wonders, before they rip out Paul Kruger’s statue?
He drops a coin in the outstretched hand of an impossibly-thin boy, noticing the tell-tale lumps at the side of his neck. AIDS have become the norm, especially after the previous president tried to convince an entire generation they can cure the disease with beetroot and spinach. Like he sometimes does, he scans the throng of people waiting for a taxi, selecting ten people at random. Six of them look ill. The sins of the fathers…
This, he thinks, is what I’ve done. Thirty years of devotion, loyalty and hard work – for this?
In the beginning, things were different. There was hope. During the long meetings and many secret talks, everybody agreed that this country had a bright future. People would cooperate. Once the draconian laws were scrapped, there’d be a period of reckoning. After that, the real work would begin. The infrastructure was sound: railways, harbours, airports, hospitals, schools…these things were in place; it was now a question of expanding these services, getting the economy on track, and once again assuming the role of the flagship of Africa.
But it didn’t quite work out. The railways fell into disrepair. Hospitals became understaffed because the nursing colleges were shut down. Education suffered the same lot with the ‘merging’ of teacher’s training facilities; schools weren’t maintained and the lack of discipline (teachers and students equally guilty) resulted in dismal results. The ministry glossed this over by dropping standards and ‘adapting” the results.
The old man stumbles as he tries to cross the street. He didn’t notice the deep pothole and has to sit down on the broken and dirty bench at the disused busstop to rub his swelling ankle.
Yes, this is what I risked everything for, he thinks. When I flew all over Africa to help to facilitate the talks in Dakar, I had a different dream. Back then, I was the perfect double agent – working for the Nationalists, while supplying the ANC with vital information. And when the elections happened in 1994, I was the proudest man alive. To see everything crumbling away like this, is the saddest thing ever.
But he lost more than just his pride and ambition. He knows that. Thinks about it every day. That phone call changed everything.
When Ferdinand Fourie closed the door to his flat, still flushed with the romance of the evening, the shadowy figure in the corridor waited for him.
“You have compromised our position.” A flat statement, delivered in a whisper. “That woman is dangerous. She knows too much.”
For a moment, he was at a loss for words. The man wasn’t finished.
“We have arranged for her to be transferred to a less sensitive position, but that isn’t enough. You have to stop seeing her.”
Ferdinand tried to argue, telling the man he never discusses his work with anybody; that this was an innocent matter of two like-minded people finding love in a chaotic world. The man then ordered him to the waiting car outside. Fearing for his life – but with no choice in the situation – Ferdinand complied. He was taken to a deserted parking lot, where he was ushered into a minivan with a single occupant.
“You will leave for London. Immediately. You will deliver your report about your recent activities to the government-in-exile. Then, my friend, you will disappear.” Ferdinand recognised the voice. Cultured, with an almost-believable British accent, he didn’t have to see the stubble beard to know who he was talking to. “We have arranged everything. New passport. A modest bank account. A new life…
“You have done good work, Ferdinand,” Now the tone was kinder, almost apologetic, “and we are thankful for your contribution to the struggle. However, things are at such a sensitive stage that we simply cannot risk exposing your role. The best thing – for all concerned – is for you to disappear.”
And that is what happened. The same minivan took him north. At the border, he was smuggled into Botswana; and from there they ferried him to Lusaka, where he boarded a plane to London. His ‘new life’ included a British passport and a job as a librarian at a private school in Sussex.
For twenty years – twenty years – he lived under a bowler hat with the umbrella clutched under his arm. Even now, after all this time, he knows there will be people who remember him back home. The Old Guard, the right-wingers, the remnants of a power-mad system: they have long memories. He will be type-cast as a sell-out, a traitor, in certain circles.
To be honest, he smiles wryly, one can’t blame them. With the gradual and increasing murders of white farmers, rampant corruption, police commissioners in jail and the threats of nationalisation and land-grabs, the sentiment in the country isn’t one of complacent progress.
But he had to come back. This is the country he fought for. This is where he left the most important person in his life.
The visit to the doctor in London also contributed. Sure, he did feel out of sorts lately, and his weight loss did worry him. He ignored it for a time, but eventually sought help, hoping it’d be a thyroid problem or something silly a few pills would cure. Maybe he expected the diagnosis, but still…
He walks up to the imposing building, fingering the dog-eared ticket in his pocket. Yes, this was where he introduced her to opera. He closes his eyes to call up the image of the stunning dress she wore that evening, the one with the bare shoulders and the flowing lines. Oh, and with the previous show they saw – Madame Butterfly – how beautiful she looked that evening! And afterwards, always afterwards, they’d go back to his flat; their love-nest, to talk and drink wine and…
The pain in his chest is viciously sudden. As he sinks to his knees, he hears the music, the exquisite music she loved so much.
Gertruida, who knows (almost) everything, will never know about the John Doe they picked up outside the State Theatre. A man with no identity, with age-old tickets to Aida, an opera that was performed twenty years ago, when the State Theatre was a place to be proud of.