Mary’s Journey

She’s come a long way; and not just by road. Mary Mitchell – she with the sad eyes and the brilliant smile (a contradiction, one would think; but a fact) – sits in the coffee shop opposite to the cathedral, thinking about her life.  Yes, she’ll have to talk to Boggel. He always knew best.

*

It’s her father’s fault, of course. If he had not… But that is wishful thinking and surely one cannot change the past? Over the years she has tried to obliterate the memories of his late-night ‘advances’ and the early-morning beatings. Then, in the orphanage, she met Boggel, a boy of her age, with the severe physical handicap. And because of him, she was set free to live a life of her own choosing. The money from her father’s estate was enough to provide for a modest, if sufficient, income.

Oh, how she tried to escape her past! The heady days with the Kakamas Konsertina Klub, the first heavy metal boere orkes! They travelled from agricultural show to agricultural show, entertaining the rebellious youths and singing songs of protest and peace. Somewhere between Drie Susters and De Aar the brandy got too much, the raucous laughter too false and the music too loud. When they stopped at the service station to fill up, she disappeared into the night. She heard them calling, but the pot and the brandy made them get back into the Kombi. She watched as they roared off towards their next gig.

Maybe it was the way she fitted in her jeans, or maybe her eyes; for whatever reason, she never had difficulty to get a lift to the next town. Or the next. Or the next. Young men, old men, businessmen, salesmen – it seemed impossible for them to drive past the lonely figure next to the road. And always, always, they seemed quite happy to take her wherever she wanted to go.

She was quite clever in dealing with these men. Some – not all – got that look her father had when he pushed open her door at night. A few had the morning-after look; the look that said pain will make you forget. These men were easily left behind when you told them about your father, the much-feared General in charge of police.

That was strange: coming from a past where she abhorred the thought of a father, she had to seek refuge in an imaginary father; a hero and an avenger; to take care of unwanted approaches. The new ‘father’ was good and just and fierce and wonderful. Whenever she needed him, he was there – and she watched the thoughts flee from the eyes of the men who, seconds before, looked at her in the way men do when they shouldn’t.

Of course, her new ‘father’ gave her more than just safety. Some men – the good ones – provided meals, and even lodging, too. On the rare evenings when she had nowhere to sleep, a visit to the local police station sorted that out. No station commander, it seemed, would let such a golden opportunity pass. Getting into the General’s good books was never so easy… Mary often wondered what happened to those poor policemen if they ever reminded the General about the way they looked after his daughter. Sometimes – not often – she’d see the funny side of those conversations; more often she closed her eyes in a silent prayer for forgiveness.

For a while, she wasn’t sure where she was going. Merely travelling from one place to another seemed the right thing to do; after all, she didn’t want people to find her, did she? She was running, running from society, from her father, from the orphanage, and … from herself.

But, we all know: no matter how fast and how far you run, you have to stop eventually.

She arrived in Vosburg on a cold and blustery evening. Tired of lies and deceit, she walked from the service station to the local hotel. Red-roofed and wide-stoeped, the building seemed to exude a certain charm, inviting her in. And there, she met the man who offered her a meaningful life. Sure, she’d have to change her way of life, even her clothing and the way she talked – but it was different and new and inviting.

And so she knew she had to go back. There was one person, one single person, she had to talk to before taking the final step.

And so she did.

*

Servaas got the telegram. The ancient machine in the room that served as a post office, clacked and whirred and spat out the tape. He snipped the tape into three lines of typed text, pasted it on the form, and sealed it in the brown envelope.

It is of course, an open question why telegrams get sealed in an envelope. It’s ridiculous, really. Before the recipient tears open the flap, the entire town will know what tragedy or good luck has befallen the receiver of the news. This is not a bad thing, because good news rarely gets passed on by telegram. And if the town knows what sadness has crossed the path of one of its inhabitants, is it not better equipped to deal with the heartbreak? Surely it is a noble act to alert the rest of the people to be kind and caring towards the bereaved?

So it is only natural that the patrons in Boggel’s Place know all about the telegram by the time Boggel opens it.

Have to talk to you (stop)

Will arrive tomorrow (stop)

All my love Mary (end)

“What’s it say, Boggel?” Vetfaan tries to look innocent.

“Ag, stop it, Vetfaan! You know already. I’ll bet you a double Cactus that Servaas has already told all of you what this telegram says.” He can’t help smiling, though. “Mary is coming back. And it says here: with all my love!

“We’ll have to clean you up properly, Boggel.” Gertruida takes charge immediately. “Precilla can cut your hair, and we’ll make the bar look as good as new. I’ll go clean up your cottage. Kleinpiet, run over to Sammie’s. He’s hiding a new shirt somewhere – I told him to keep it for me. I thought it’d make a great Christmas present for Boggel, but he needs it now! And Vetfaan, you and Petros can polish the veranda. When Mary steps from her car, she must see that our Boggel has done well for himself. Come on, people, let’s get going.”

The day passes in a rush of preparations. When they sit down at nine, the change in the place is remarkable. Boggel, with his neat haircut and trimmed moustache, can’t believe it. The floor is spotless, the tables have new tablecloths and little arrangements of flowers (where did they get it?), and even the bottles on the shelves have been dusted. The stoep outside is red and shiny. It looks – he must admit – like a new place.

“I wonder how she’s going to get here.” Gertruida is always one step ahead of the rest. “If she gets here in a car, we can put up a gazebo for shade. Just to show her we care?”

“Har!” Kleinpiet suddenly guffaws. “There’s something else that’s going to happen tomorrow. Harhar. It’s going to be interesting.”

As the patrons turn to him, he waits for a long second before he reminds them that tomorrow, indeed, is the day Kalahari Vervoer is scheduled to do the Rolbos-run. “That’s the lorry,” he informs them, “carrying Sammie’s supplies. And of course…Lucinda, the sexy Italian girl. Harrumph. I just thought I’d remind you.” He leans over to Boggel. “You, my friend, are in for an interesting day, it seems.”

Vetfaan, however, has been worrying about something completely different during the day. He remembers Mary, the kind nurse; the one that talked the nights away in that dreary ward. His almost-love; the one he should have called again. What if… but that is impossible, isn’t it? Can’t be! Yet, some instinct, some deep-rooted intuition, keeps on nagging at him with the impossible question: what if … ?

“Heehee…” Servaas orders a new round of Cactus Jacks, “I’ll giggle myself into a stupor if Mary hitches a ride with pretty Lucinda!”

Rolbos can be a dreary place. Nothing much ever happens here. But tonight, on the eve of such mind-blowing events, the inhabitants of the small town find it difficult to surrender to the welcoming arms of a well-deserved rest. For a variety of reasons, each unique to the individual, they all ponder the same question.

What if?

*

They’re all up early, watching the road from Grootdrink for the tell-tale sign of dust announcing the arrival of a vehicle. Kleinpiet is taking bets on who will arrive first. Boggel works his way through a box of antacids while Vetfaan paces the floor, lost in his own uncertainty. If  this Mary is that Mary, will he be able to stand by innocently, or will it mean the end of his friendship with the little bent man behind the counter?

The day drags on, but at last, at about two, they see the dust.

“That’s a big cloud of dust,” Gertruida says, because she knows everything, “it must be the lorry.”

Kleinpiet is overjoyed. Being bookie-for-a-day may prove to be quite rewarding. Most of the patrons in Boggel’s betted Mary would be the first to arrive.

The lorry slows down at the beginning of Voortrekker Weg and comes trundling down the main street at a respectful pace.

“Look, there are two people in the cab! Mary must have hitched that ride. Oh my, how interesting!” Gertruida – who will never admit it – reads the occasional Mill’s and Boon, and loves the intrigue that so often accompanies relationships.

Life, it is said, is what happens while you’re making other plans; and nowhere is it more true than in Rolbos. The little crowd in Boggel’s Place will discuss this statement for many days, especially after that lorry stopped in front of the bar.

Lucinda gets out first. Dressed in a checked shirt, with a cowboy-style handkerchief around her neck, she has to be rather careful in alighting from the cab. The short skirt accentuates the lovely legs that swing out over the steps to the ground, causing even Gertruida to join in the men’s collective ooooh!.

Mary follows. Boggel stand transfixed. Vetfaan feels the blood drain from his face. Kleinpiet groans.

Yes, Mary did talk to Boggel. He listened, like he always did, and gave his blessing on her plans. Vetfaan didn’t bother with shot-glasses any more. He drank straight form the bottle, draining the Cactus in a few short minutes.

It isn’t a long visit. Lucinda has to get back to Upington and Mary wants to get back to her new life as soon as possible.

*

“Ag, ou Boggel, it’s just the way it works out, man.” The atmosphere in Boggel’s place is a bit subdued, to say the least. Kleinpiet had to return all the bets, Gertruida is still a bit bewildered and Vetfaan tries to look unconcerned – with no success.

“Yes, I suppose it’s for the best.” Boggel still looks rather fancy in the new shirt. “It wouldn’t have worked any other way. I wish her well.”

“She looks great, I must say.”

Yes, they all agree. She does. Clothes say so much about a woman, and some women will look sexy if they dress in rags. It’s the woman who makes the clothes look good, not the other way around. For even the nun’s habit failed to hide the beautiful figure of Mary Mitchell, the girl with the sad eyes and the brilliant smile.

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