“I remember when I was the most afraid in my life. It was during the war. I was horrible.” Vetfaan can now smile about the experience; it fits in nicely with the conversation tonight. Gertruida started it when they all sat there, quietly drinking during a lull in their talk. She has an uncanny knack of getting things going again. “It was a sandy track up in the northern Caprivi. We were approaching a suspicious-looking group – very softly, very slowly – when I felt my foot go down on something harder than what the sand should have felt like. Then there was a soft ‘click’. Just like that.” He taps his glass against one of his teeth to demonstrate. “That’s when I realised it was a landmine.”
Like any good story teller should, Vetfaan sits back, gives a guffaw and signals for a new beer. He seems oblivious of the anxious faces around him as he starts sipping. The silence stretches on.
“Oh, come on, Vetfaan! What happened?” Servaas is in no mood for suspense.
Boggel can see this is going nowhere. He has a sudden flashback to the dark little room behind the pantry in the orphanage. It was once used as a store room for extra supplies, but the dwindling support of the orphanage eventually ensured that it remained empty. Once it had been a place of plenty – later it was useful as a mini-torture chamber.
Oh, there weren’t all kinds of racks and electric wires and red-hot irons – it was much worse than that. The darkness and the silence saw to that. Old Mister Kotze saw to that. He was an expert.
It started when Mister Kotze slipped on the crumbling step up to the kitchen. He’d sneak up there after the children had been (forcefully) put to bed and the lights were off. That’s when the old man unpacked the donations that came from Women’s Organisations, congregations and other well-meaning individuals. And that’s when he gorged himself with all the chocolates and sweets that should have gladdened the orphan’s hearts. So, when he fell, the children said a collective prayer of thanks, renewed in their faith that God, indeed, was on their side.
For a day they marvelled at this justice. Mister Kotze broke his right arm, the one he caned them with for any and all insignificant reasons. Their reprieve was short-lived. Kotze started using the dark little room to mete out his perception of justice. First, he’d give a long and angry speech to his victim, calling down the wrath of all that’s holy on the hapless child. Then he’d describe – in graphic and lurid detail – how the demons and the devil will visit that dark room to torment the prisoner because of his or her unspeakable sins. The reasons for confinement were many: ranging from an untidy pillow on the bed, to a speck of dirt on the old yellowwood floor. Mister Kotze was famous for his reasons – he thought them out as he went along from bed to bed on the morning inspections.
Boggel – like the rest of the children – spent many hours in that room, fighting the monsters that lurked in the dark. Some children couldn’t stand it, and would shout and scream hysterically for hours at end while Kotze smirked and told everybody such are the wages of sin. Grietjie Maritz made drawings of the demons that tormented her. The other children looked and said yes, that’s exactly what they saw, too. That was one of the few times the orphans actually saw Mister Kotze laughing. He really enjoyed those pictures. Later, he confiscated them and used it as visual aids during his pre-confinement lectures. It proved to be very effective.
Grietjie didn’t draw any pictures after that.
Life is full of coincidences. When Boggel had to leave the orphanage at the age of eighteen, two other boys – Bangbroek le Roux and Snotneus Pretorius – also celebrated their last day as official orphans. They were adults now, on their way to Upington to find their way in the big, wide world out there. A world without little dark rooms, where demons eagerly awaited your stay; to torture you about your many sins and inadequacies. No Mister Kotze to inspect the way you arranged your socks on your diminutive shelf. No long, drawn-out lectures of what an excuse for a human being you are. Where you can buy a chocolate bar and enjoy it openly without the fear of the horrible old man snatching it from your grasp.
And it was the three of them – almost-grown men with a too-old grudge – who took Mister Kotze and locked him up in that room. They thought it was funny. Maybe they thought it was revenge. Maybe it was the most natural thing to do. Whatever they thought, did not include the old man going stark, raving man in the darkness of that room. He lost it completely. When the kitchen staff reported for duty the following day, only his pitiful mewing alerted them to the prisoner in the little room behind the pantry.
Boggel visited him once; there, in the padded cell in the asylum in Kimberley. He hitch-hiked all the way to say he’s sorry, he didn’t mean it like that. He came back two days later with a sheaf of drawings. Horrible pictures. Little-dark-room demons with fangs and talons and teeth; all of them holding forks in their too-small hands. Hands like children’s hands, fitted to devils with fire in their eyes.
Boggel burnt those pictures. All of them.
“Ag, Vetfaan, man! Tell us what happened?”
Vetfaan pretends to wake up from his reverie, shakes his head and says oh! again.
“No, it wasn’t a landmine, after all. I ran off and nothing happened. Then I went back and found it was an old sardine tin. It was rusted, and when I put my foot on it, the tin collapsed, making the sound.“ He gives an embarrassed laugh. “While I was standing there, wetting myself from fear, it was only a sardine tin. I was afraid of something that didn’t exist… My imaginary landmine didn’t exist…” He repeats himself, shaking his head in wonder. To be afraid of a sardine tin..!
Boggel gets off his crate to fetch fresh beers from the store room at the back. Making sure the light is switched on, he collects the bottles and carries them back to the bar.
If only we knew where the sardine cans are hidden in life, he thinks, and where the real landmines await the unwary foot. But, he decides, most demons need a Mister Kotze to give them life. Fear is a natural phenomenon; but terror is a learnt skill. You have to study it to become an expert in it. Boggel knows this for a fact.
At least, that’s what Mister Kotze said in the only lucid moment he had in that padded cell, before he started drawing devils again. The poor man never discovered the difference between landmines and sardine cans. Some people never do…