The three of them sit down heavily in Rundu’s Wimpy. They were lucky enough to have a day to themselves before the troop-carrier arrives to take them to Grootfontein, where the Dakota will pick them up to fly them back home. When they passed through here, three months ago, they were youths in their late teens, excited about joining the salted veterans on the border. They had new uniforms, new rifles and new hope that the war would end soon. With their efforts, it’d all be over within a few weeks.
Vetfaan – as the natural leader – now scans the faces of his two companions. The sun had burnt them all chestnut-brown, high-lighting the fuzzy growth of attempted beards. They’ll have to shave before they get back to civilisation; no girl would like to go out with such a scruffy face.
But there is more, he decides, while they wait for the disinterested waitress. It’s in their eyes. The innocence is gone. The sparkling boy-eyes died out there in the veld between the landmines and the ambushes. Now the two sets of eyes staring back at him carry a blank look, a look that knows the world has gone crazy. They’ve seen too much blood, too many bodies missing limbs, too many grown men break down after they soiled themselves. Nobody lives through war without being wounded. The lucky ones die…
After the time in the bush, all women are beautiful. The tea-pot figured waitress with the toothless smile is the sexiest thing they’ve ever seen. She lisps as she takes the order.
“Three milkshakes.” She writes down the words carefully, printing every letter. “One lime. One vanilla. Once chocolate. And one mix.” She looks up in surprise. “Mix? What mix, seh?”
They had beer in their base camp. Beer and Rum and Coke. Lots of it. The generals knew the young men needed plenty to drink after the days in the veld. They understood the thirst of men who needed to forget. After about the first two weeks of hangovers and rum-scented urine, they had come to a firm decision: as soon as they got out of there, they’d go to the nearest café and drink milkshakes. Huge ones.
“Yes, a mix. All the flavours together. Raspberry, lime, chocolate, vanilla – everything you’ve got. And plenty of it, as well. We want it to be perfect.”
“But seh, we don’t…”
In these years and at this stage of a young, returning, soldier’s life, you don’t argue. You don’t antagonise. There’s just too much residual adrenalin cruising through the angry and confused minds of the young men who have had to listen to the whoomp! of a mortar leaving the tube, and then not knowing where it was going to land. It’s an uncertainty that borders on madness; a derangement with no medical definition. It’s a helpless aggression that’d make men whimper for their mothers while they shoot and load, shoot and load…
Vetfaan is on his feet in a second, brandishing his bayonet in the air and threatening to cut off the waitress’ head there and then. He’d play soccer with it, he swears, and kick it through the window. Then, with the air of utmost calm, he sits down and tells her, yes, he wants a mix. Is there a problem?
The cashier has seen this quite often. The young men with the wild, empty look and the total loss of civilised conduct. Her son returned from the fighting six months ago, and she still has to tiptoe when she visits the bathroom at night. She walks to the ashen-faced waitress too lead her away gently.
“That’s how they become, dear. Bossies. You never argue with them. You don’t make sudden moves. You keep your voice down and avoid making loud noises.” She gives het a motherly pat on the shoulder. “It’s the war, sweetie, not you.”
The three men wait in stoic silence while the milkshake mixer whirrs away in the background.
“It sounds like the winch on the old Samil.” Vetfaan smiles wryly as he remembers how often they had to recover broken-down vehicles with that battered brown lorry.
“No, it’s more like those electric screwdrivers they used to close the coffins with.” There’s no smile on his companion’s face. He was one of the men who had to do this on more than one occasion.
“You’re right,” Vetfaan says quietly. He’s had enough of fighting. No need to start an argument now. Pulling the pin is easy – but you have to know what comes next.
The waitress delivers the milkshakes with downcast eyes and a slight tremor of the hands.
“I’m sorry.” Vetfaan’s mumble is scarcely audible. “But you know how it is.”
They finish their drinks, smacking lips in appreciation. Then, without another word, they get up, pay and leave.
“They haven’t even touched the mix,” the waitress says, “and it was the most expensive of all.”
The cashier nods. “They do that. You’ll see three men, they order four drinks. Or two men, they order four drinks. The patrols are four men, see? The most expensive, most extravagant drinks are for the ones that didn’t make it. My son – he does that too. Only he orders three he doesn’t drink. He’s the lucky one.”
Outside, a scruffy, fuzz-lined old face looks up at Vetfaan. “And that was Giraffe.”
“Yes.” Vetfaan says. “His mix. For all the milkshakes he’ll never enjoy.”
And, for no particular reason, the three men sit down on the curb. The Namibian sun beats down on them as a dust-devil dances down the street. They’re thankful for that. A bit of dust in the eye is not a sign of weakness, after all.