Boggel allows Gertruida to ramble on and on, telling him everything about Paul Harrison and the past. She’s on her third Cactus by the time she finally falls silent.
“Wow….that’s quite a story, Gertruida. And to think you never shared this with anybody? Kept it bottled up for all these years?” He reaches over the counter to pat her shoulder. “I suppose the rest must know, as well. If we want to prepare for his stay, everybody will have to be on the same page. What do you think?”
Gertruida only manages a small nod.
They started exchanging letters as soon as Paul settled in the small flat in the outskirts of London. At first the letters were what one would expect between good friends: news about the weather, lodgings and various mundane events scarcely filled the single page in each envelope. As friends-never-to-be-lovers, the need was to assure each other that life goes on and that they’re okay. Gertruida expected the letters to become less frequent with time, and after about six months it seemed as if she was right. By now she was studying political science at the University of Pretoria and stayed in a flat in Hatfield – both of these sponsored by Mister Harrison, the kind and generous lawyer in Calvinia.
Two months had gone by since Paul’s last letter, when he knocked at her door one evening. She was overjoyed, invited him in and offered coffee. With a nervous glance over his shoulder, he closed the door firmly before hugging her.
“I’m in a bit of a hurry, Gerty. I promise to stay longer next time, we’ve got a lot to catch up on. For now, I’d like to ask you a favour.” He put down his attaché case on the table with an apologetic smile. “A friend of mine will come to pick this up within the next few days. His name is Ronnie. Don’t give the case to anybody else, and make sure Ronnie is who he says he is. Don’t trust anybody. If he can’t tell you the name of the first opera I took you to, he’s not Ronnie.
“I’m sorry, this is all I can tell you now. I am on a very tight schedule, so I must leave immediately.” He barely finished his coffee before leaving.
His visit left her completely bewildered. He hadn’t explained anything, leaving the inquisitive mind of Gertruida to piece the puzzle together. Paul was involved in some undercover work and now has drawn her into whatever he’s busy with. Why? What does it mean? He did flee the country to escape being conscripted, didn’t he? And he did hope to meet up with communist-minded activists in London – about that he had been abundantly clear. So…surely he’s taking huge risks in coming back to Pretoria and that’s why his visit was so short. Whatever it was, the contents of the case held the answer.
She tried opening the case, only to find it surprisingly sturdy and fitted with a set of excellent locks. There was nothing to do but wait for Ronnie.
Two evenings later, her studies were again interrupted. The man said he was Ronnie and she had something for him. She asked and he answered: Carmen. She invited him in.
“Look..er…Ronnie, I may have something for you; but first I need to know some facts.”
Ronnie wasn’t keen, but Gertruida wasn’t going to let him off the hook. The case, she said, wasn’t there. Unless Ronnie cooperated, she won’t tell him where it was. Ronnie sighed, accepted coffee and gave her the bare minimum. It was enough.
Paul had indeed met some people in London. By the time he arrived in London, the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement had consolidated their relationship and were functioning well with the funds they received from the UN and other countries (including Britain, while still supporting the Nationalists). One of their many logistical problems was to communicate with their supporters inside South Africa, to accomplish a coordinated approach from both outside as well as inside the country. They needed volunteers to courier documents, pamphlets and news into South Africa – people who preferably knew Afrikaans and could easily pass as travelling businessmen. Paul, with a new passport and identity, fitted the role perfectly.
“Am I now an accomplice?” Gertruida was upset at being used so blatantly, “You must realise how important my studies are. I can’t risk everything by being part of a clandestine operation to overthrow the government? Surely you understand that?”
Ronnie put down his cup carefully while weighing his answer.
“You are already an accomplice, Gertruida. Whether you like it or not, you have already committed treason by accepting this attaché case. Better get used to it, girl.”
Boggel’s Place is packed to the rafters by the time Gertruida arrives. Her expression is tired and drawn, her shoulders slumped and even Servaas thinks she’s shrunk a little. The formidable woman they all admire, has been reduced to a shadow of her old self.
“Before you say anything, Gertruida,” Oudoom holds up a hand for silence, “let me assure you that we support you 100%. I’m not sure what this is all about, but you have done enough for this community for us to help you in any way we can.”
Gertruida thanks him with a hint of a smile.
“I’ll start at the beginning… My parents were members of the Ossewabrandwag – or the OB as they called it. Like you know, this organisation was against South Africa becoming involved in World War II. Over the years historians attributed Nazi-like characteristics to the OB, but in reality it consisted of men and women who felt passionate about an independent South Africa. Most of them were true patriots who failed to see why we had to send our young men to die in North Africa and Europe. Like so many of these organisations, the common people who make up the membership had little or no idea what policies were adopted by the top structure. If you loved your country, you joined the OB.
“It follows, then, that I grew up in a Nationalist home. From the beginning I was taught that the future of South Africa depended on the separate development and protection of the various cultures in our country.” She sighs as she scans the concerned faces staring at her. “We were all brought up like that, I think. If your parents, the schools, the church and the newspapers all told you exactly the same thing, you tend to accept it without question.
“And yes, preserving culture, tradition and language is important for every nation – the continued existence of groupings in society depends on it.
“But then, when I studied political science, I began to have my doubts. The draconian laws didn’t make sense. The idea that some sections of society are protected and benefited solely because of skin colour was ridiculous. To force people into locations, compounds and homelands, the government made more and more laws that verged on the insane.
“Okay – if you’ve got that background, I must tell you about Paul…”
In a hotel room, a thousand kilometres away, a man picks up the phone.
“He’s disappeared, Boss.”
“Gone. Vanished into thin air. I still followed him this morning to his flat. He locked his door. I was satisfied he’s inside. When night-time arrived, he didn’t put on any lights. I waited an hour, then rang his number. Nothing. I knocked on his door. Nothing.
“Then I picked the lock, Boss. He wasn’t there any more. He’s gone, like I said.”
“You bloody well find him, hear me! I don’t care what it takes, but you bring him in! This cat-and-mouse game has gone too far. I want him here!” The man drops his voice to a threatening whisper before going on, “And you better get him here…do you understand?’
“Yes, Boss. I’m on it, Boss.”