Today’s prompt: Photographers, artists, and poets: show us NATURE
Today’s prompt: Photographers, artists, and poets: show us NATURE
“What’s this with Obama visiting us? Doesn’t he have enough problems elsewhere – especially at home?” Kleinpiet turns off the radio – he has been trying to figure out how Madiba is doing – or if he’s doing anything at all.
“This is the smoke and mirrors of international politics, Kleinpiet. The Americans don’t like the idea that China is taking over Africa, so their president has to come over with his helicopters, half the CIA and his family. They’ll meet all the important people, look terribly grieved on Robben Island, and tell us how fortunate we’ve been to have had Madiba around. Of course, they’ll say nothing about the fact that they supported Buthelezi in the 80’s and Vorster in the 70’s. It’s a show, my friend, the greatest show on earth.”
“But,” and here Vetfaan lifts an admonishing finger in the air, “they won’t forget that we helped them win the war in the 40’s, nor the fact that that there’s a lot of money involved in exports and imports between us and them. Without us, America won’t be able to influence the political future of Africa. We are, my friends, very important to Mister Obama.”
“Yes, and our president will want to make sure our exports to the US of A aren’t taxed out of the market. So he, too, will suck up with gusto. And there’s American aid to think of, too – as well as the possibility that some athletic accounting gymnastics may very well result in some of that aid landing in the pockets of certain men and women.” Servaas winks and fingers his nose,” you know what I mean…”
Precilla almost manages to suppress a hiccup. “Where I’d like to be a fly on the wall, is the meeting between the First Ladies. There, we’ll have the power of numbers, at least. Democracy at it’s best. Poor Mister Obama has only one wife, while President Zuma obviously is in a far superior numerical position. Maybe they should leave all the decisions to the Ladies’ Meeting?”
“Yeah, and if the kids get the opportunity to meet, South Africa will be proud of what we’ve managed. The odds are 24 to 2 that they’ll play African games.”
“You know,” and here Vetfaan lets out one of his protracted sighs, “the world of politics is in denial of the past. They live on promises and maybes of the future. They hope for a better tomorrow than yesterday. And they don’t care about you and me: look at land reform, or BEE. You think they care? What has Obama done or said about Zimbabwe? Or did he make a statement about the farm murders, crime, and poor service delivery? Wake up man, you’re just a puppet in a big play. They don’t worry about Vetfaan or Kleinpiet in New York – they only want to hear important people saying things that sound nice, that’s all.”
“So it’s all a sham?”
“Yes, Servaas. It’s a game. While the players are on the field, the score is unimportant – just like you are. Or poor Madiba, come to think of it.. We get to be marionettes, that’s all. Little pieces of broken glass in the grand mosaic of international power games. Like it or not – the final score is not about you and me; it’s about people who want a piece of the pie. And that, my friend, is not about us simple folk – it’s about the ego of a few individuals. Get used to it: it’s been like that since the dawn of time, it’ll be like that forever.”
“So what can we do?” Fanny is clearly upset.
“We can stop believing and hanging on to every word that’s said. Look,” Gertruida uses her lecture voice again, “when they caught out Lance Armstrong, it was a scandal. When they detect match-fixing in soccer or cricket, the world howls it’s disgust. But somehow we accept the crazy game of politics, with its illusions and fake values. It’s the biggest, grandest, most obviously fixed game in the world – ever.”
“But guys, without international politics the way it is now, we’d be back in the middle ages. We have to have international relationships. Leaders have to chat with other leaders and come to understand the way the rest of the world lives. They have to exchange opinions and find out how to reduce conflict.” Boggel spreads his arms wide in a gesture of dismay. “It’s a Catch 22: it’s called denial if we don’t accept it – and called statesmanship if we do. However, in both situations we may very well end up on the losing side. I mean: no matter how open and honest the two presidents are, Obama isn’t going to tell Zuma to donate Nkandla to the nation, is he?”
Gertruida finds this amusing. “Har! Well, I’ll tell you what I hope for: that our government will realise that the global village is a bit bigger – and smaller – than they thought. That there are eyes and ears out there that see and hear – even if the mouths don’t choir their disapproval. And I really, really hope our dear president will be sensitive enough to hear – not only the words of praise and encouragement, but also the unspoken encouragement for South Africa to become a great nation once more. If Obama manages to make a few of our leading politicians do a bit of introspection, this visit may well be the single factor that was needed to bring us back on track.”
As usual, Gertruida’s little speech is followed by a reflecting silence. Her audience knows: in the match-fixed game of politics, nothing is quite the way it seems. Hoping that the odds might swing in the favour of the little people on the streets is maybe too much. The best, they realise, would be if Obama told the world that he found in South Africa not only an ailing Madiba; but also a society sick of broken promises, poverty and crime.
Maybe, even, Obama can take up the cry of Amandla! on behalf of the nation…
But it won’t happen. He’d be scoffed at if he spoke the truth.
“I remember when Oom Blackie Swart died. When was that? In the sixties?” The frown on Servaas’ forehead says something about his uncertainty.
“No, he died in ’82, Servaas. I remember that procession down Church Street – it was such a solemn occasion. The whole country mourned. Everybody.” Gertruida smiles at the irony of it all. “He was a most interesting man, Oom Blackie. Imagine being the first president of a Whites-only government, and your surname is Swart? Still, he was a kind-hearted and honest man, and people respected him for that.”
“Wasn’t he interned in the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War? I seem to remember that.”
“Oh, he had an interesting life. Sure, him and his mother spent time in Winburg’s famous concentration facility, where his one brother died – the conditions were atrocious. And his father was wounded at Paardeberg, captured, and was a prisoner of war until 1902. Then little CR Swart went to a government school at the age of seven, and passed his final exams when he was13. At 20, he was a lawyer in Bloemfontein.
“But then his life took an unexpected turn, and he went to Hollywood, where he starred in a few silent movies! Imagine that? A boertjie in Hollywood? Anyway, he was back in Bloemfontein in 1919, and that’s when his political career started.”
“…To become Minister of Justice in the 50’s?”
“Yes. He believed that each nation must have the opportunity to develop independently, and that people should protect their heritage. Of course, that’s the background of Apartheid and South Africa became the object of much blame and criticism. Sadly, everybody conveniently ignores the fact that Nat King Cole had to use the back door to enter the theatres he sang in because he couldn’t use the ‘White’ door and all Americans could only vote in 1966.”
“It’s funny how the rest of the world targeted South Africa on this issue. I mean, racism and homophobia and gender inequality were world-wide phenomena. Of course, it is difficult to compare the philosophy of the Fifties with the current situation. It took independent America more than 230 years to get their first Black President. We did it in 30.” Boggel shrugs at this, knowing you can’t draw too many parallels, given the context of time.
“Yes, we’ll suffer the legacy of Colonialism for a long time. It’s wrong to say it’s all Britain’s fault, of course, but they sure as nuts established Apartheid in all their colonies.” When Gertruida points at her empty glass, Boggel shuffles over with a new drink. “But there is a reason why I’m thinking about Oom Blackie today. He was a special man.” She waits for the questioning looks before continuing. “He was humble. That. like with Nelson Mandela, was his most endearing characteristic. He used to drive his own car. Going to church wasn’t an official function, so the government’s Mercedes remained in the garage on Sundays. He hated corruption. And he always kept his word.
“In that sense it is interesting to think about the first White president of the Republic of South Africa, and the first Black one. Both of them had a history of being oppressed, interned, and unjustly treated. Swart acted in movies, Mandela was a boxer. Swart signed certain acts into law, Mandela approved the explosion of bombs that killed innocent people. And both of them believed vehemently in their cause, but remained almost unbelievably humble.”
Servaas, still rather conservatively right-wing in his mind, shifts uncomfortably. “You’re saying that Swart and Mandela will be remembered for the good they tried to do, despite everything?”
“Exactly, Servaas. When that procession moved down Church Street that day and all the flags hung half-mast, Swart was honoured for his personality and his service. No matter how history judges his actions today, he believed in his cause. Like Mandela, Swart tried to create a society where everybody could live in peace. Sure, we know how skewed it all turned out, but then again: do you think Mister Mandela would be proud of what he established – if he were to see what has happened to his dream?”
“Then, Gertruida, you’re telling me we should remember selectively? Forget the Apartheid laws and the bombs and the mayhem it all caused? That’s like telling me I must forget who I am, and become some kind of programmed robot.”
“No Servaas.” Gertruida smiles benignly. “I’m saying you can travel the world and try to look for one single country, one single nation, with an unblemished past. It simply doesn’t exist. Everybody makes laws and everybody makes mistakes. Sometimes, that very mistake is important to generate a new understanding of what it means to be a nation – and the importance of other people’s rights. After all, it only took the entire span of history to establish equal rights for women, gays, minority groups – and even now the world is filled with prejudice and misconceptions.
“What is important, my friend, is that our leaders remain humble. Oh, they’ll still make mistakes, and we’ll have to live with that. Society has become so complex, that there are no easy answers left. But…give me an honest, humble leader, and I’ll be prepared to journey with him.”
“The world will remember Nelson Mandela like that.” Vetfaan signals for another beer and sighs happily when Boggel obliges. “But you know? I’m not too worried about the past – in fact, we can’t change it, anyway. I’m worried about the present. Where is the honesty, the integrity, the belief in policy? And, sadly, where is the humility?”
This time, Gertruida doesn’t have to respond.
They all know the answer.
“I think he’s gone,” Boggel says as he places the bottle of Cactus Jack on the counter. “Just a feeling, despite the president saying he’s a bit better.”
“Well, when I was in Upington to fetch that new carburettor for the tractor, everybody was talking about it. Some said it’s all a hoax, he isn’t that sick at all. Others were preparing to hold a wake in his memory. It’s so confusing.” Vetfaan gulps down his beer and reaches for a Cactus.
“But that Mac guy said he’s ill. Critically so. I heard him on the radio – and he’s the presidential spokesman, after all.”
“Ja, Precilla. Remember the little boy who cried wolf? He lied so much. nobody believed him in the end, even if he was speaking the truth.”
“My point, exactly.” Gertruida sighs. So many lies, so little to believe. “When they wanted to keep Nkadla secret, they passed a law to prevent us from finding out. They lied about the schools and the matric results. Loads of money disappear into already well-lined pockets. Our public hospitals are in such a bad shape, no minister ever gets admitted to to one. And where do you think the minister’s children gets schooled? There’s a good reason why they won’t set a foot in a government-run institution.
“And, remember, our president said – just the other day – things have never been better in South Africa. That’s while they’re considering nationalising the mines and telling the public Zimbabwe is a good example for land reform.
“Meanwhile, people are raped and murdered at such a rate that the courts can’t keep up and the jails are overcrowded. Our farmers live in fear. The promised reduction in jobless people never materialised. Our Air Force is crippled because they can’t do maintenance on the planes, and our war ships are rusting away in the harbours.
“And yet the president makes jokes about the economy, telling journalists to write nice things about our country.”
“Gee, Boggel… Give me that bottle. Gertruida is talking me into a depression.”
“No, Vetfaan, it’s not me…it’s the government. We simply cannot believe them any more.”
Servaas raps the counter and points at his empty glass. “Well, next year we’ll have an election. Things will change.”
“Sure.” Kleinpiet shakes his head. “That’s what they believed in Zimbabwe, too.”
“But is Mister Mandela dead, or better? I still don’t know.”
“He died a long time ago, Servaas. Him and the dream of the Rainbow Nation. Remember the optimism during his term as president? That was his dream, his life – and over the last ten years, it all went up in smoke. And why? Because his legacy wasn’t what the government wanted. Instead, they allowed the police force to become an ill-disciplined group of people. The army was deployed all over the show, even to he DRC, where they lost soldiers because the president – in his wisdom – decided they had to protect interests there. What interests?
“And then the Guptas? You think Madiba would have done something like that?
“No, guys, Madiba had a dream…and it was kept alive on life-support for a while. It’s time to realise the dream never made it through Intensive Care. Those entrusted with the responsibility to sustain it, failed.”
“Agge nee, Gertruida! You’re generalising now. Not all of us feel that it’s hopeless.”
“Wake up, Kleinpiet. We’ve got to stop thinking that Madiba – in spite of his huge contribution – was the only one that could save the country. No, we need a new dream, a new hope. We need to rebuild a nation of honest, God-fearing people, who respect each other. We need responsible, accountable people in parliament, who are there to serve the masses, not exploit them. We need public servants to become just that: public servants.
“And that’s why we must be open and honest in our conversations with other people. They must know next year’s election is an opportunity to get back on track. Madiba won’t be there when the votes get counted, but we can keep his dream alive by honouring the ideals he tried to establish in our government.”
“And if that doesn’t happen?” Vetfaan raises an eyebrow, his face a picture of despair.
“Oh, that’s easy. Then the dream will become a nightmare, that’s all.”
“Listen, I tell you: it’s all been orchestrated.” Gertruida sits back with a smug look. “They’re going for big stakes here.”
“What are you talking about, Gertruida? You’re not making any sense.” Boggel fetches new beers, just in case the conversation heats up. It’s been a dull day in Boggel’s Place, and they can do with a little excitement..
“Tata Madiba,” she says softly. “Who else?’
“What about him?” Even Vetfaan wants to know.
“It’s simple. The ANC is in trouble. They’re losing support, corruption is rife, the president isn’t popular any more. They have to do something to seem important.”
“Sooo…?” Patricia dangles the question in the silence.
“So they’re going to keep him going for a while. Obama is coming to visit South Africa tomorrow. They’ll roll out the red carpet, and fly by the few Air Force helicopters they’ve managed to keep going. I’m sure they’ll rustle up a brass band that can play The Stars and Stripes; get a caterer that can serve something else than sushi on naked ladies, and get Johnny Clegg to sing.
“And believe me, they’ll show poor old Obama all the things that’s doing well in the country. Most probably a tour of Mandela memorabilia, Table Mountain, and Vilakazi Street. America’s president will make all the right noises, and the ANC will be keen to improve American relationships – because a lot of money is involved.
“Then, on Saturday – even Sunday – the announcement of Nelson Mandella’s death will come. The nation will go into mourning. There’ll be calls for several days off work by the Unions. The SABC will show – over and over again – how the ANC was responsible for freeing the masses. There’ll be pictures of Mandela on every front page, the world over.”
Gertruida pauses here to contemplate the enormity of it all.
“The fact is,” she continues, “that any other person of that age, would not have been of life-sustaining machines any more. He’s ninety-four, for goodness’ sakes! He’s had a full life. He served his country. Why prolong his agony?
“You ask me, and I’ll tell you: I think he’s not with us any more. They’re keeping him going for some reason. And I think they want to get Obama out of the way before they start the show.”
“You know, Gertruida, I think you’ve been smoking something. Your theory is as far-fetched as the one saying that new party, Agang, is funded by the CIA. Where do you get your ideas from?” Servaas snorts – this is just too much!
“And don’t you for one moment think it wouldn’t be the most televised funeral the world has ever seen. The ANC will get more coverage than the Moon Landing. That is their goal. You just wait…you’ll see.”
But somehow, her words cause a subdued silence in Boggel’s Place. They’re all asking themselves one simple question.
“Boom,” Servaas whispers as Boggel places a new beer before him. For once, the bent little barman doesn’t understand. How could he, if he didn’t know about that gun on Signal Hill?
1958 is a year most South Africans have forgotten about. Why, after all, remember it? Who cares that the United States agreed to supply a nuclear reactor and fuel just before the start of that year, or that South Africa severed ties with Russia? Or that the then Prime Minister, J G Strijdom died in August, leaving his widow (and aunt to F W de Klerk) to witness the rise and fall of Apartheid over the next four decades?
But to Servaas, the year stands out as one of the most important of his life. In fact, he can be more specific: he remembers noon of the 14th of December as the pivotal moment. That’s when the canon on Signal Hill boomed, right on time, to announce noon on that Sunday; causing knowing nods from Capetonians and nervous smiles on the faces of visitors.
Servaas Visagie had been watching the ankles of Siena Malan, feeling deliciously sinful and guilty, when the officer lowered his hand and poked his fingers into his ears up on that hill. Siena, it must be said, had the most beautiful legs; something Servaas could only speculate about at that stage. She was dressed in the fashion of the time – long dress revealing the last few inches of leg, buttoned up demurely at the neck, waist taken in to accentuate the thin middle.
He ran his fingers across the soft fuzz of his attempted moustache, imagining how nice it would be to have a woman like that in his life, and allowed his eyes to travel onwards, downwards to the smooth skin below the hem of the dress. Naturally, due to the many sermons he had to sit through (most of them expressing God’s approval of the policies of the National Party, while the others described the tortures of Hell for the sinners who had ‘unpure‘ thoughts) he was deeply under the impression of the wrong he was doing.
So unpure were the thoughts cruising through his mind in that second, that when the gun went off, he thought – only for a second – that it was the Wrath from Above that was descending to snatch him up (or down?) to the raging fires, where he would join the likes of drunkards, thieves and those who opposed Apartheid.
It was thus completely involuntary that he let out an extremely un-manlike yelp.
Those days (and maybe even today) men didn’t yelp. They gave orders, talked in clipped sentences and tried to imagine that they were important. Of course, that was before formidable women like Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton appeared on the scene to prove, once and for all, that men really don’t understand politics; finally relegating men to concentrate on more important things like corruption and crime. Without such women, South Africa would still have had factories churning out ‘Whites Only‘ signs.
But Servaas, knowing how wrong it was to think what he was thinking, yelped.
One can’t blame the poor young man. He was sitting on the bench, waiting for the bus to take him back to the station, while Siena Malan bent over to inspect the Proteas in the bucket of the flower seller nearby. As the hem of her skirt rode up to reveal the upper part of two shapely calves, Servaas allowed his imagination to run wild. But then the crash of the shot and the yelp of guilt put an end to all that.
She straightened, looked around to see if a puppy or cat had been run over, and finally rested her beautiful eyes on the only other living being nearby. Servaas tried to shrink his athletic frame into mouse-size, didn’t succeed and blushed.
“Are you all right?” He watched in awe as the fire-engine red lips formed the words, found himself unable to speak, and nodded.
Siena wasn’t fooled. She’d just completed her first year as assistant nurse and knew how embarrassed young men can be about admitting to problems. If this young man – looking rather dashing in his Sunday best – yelped, he must be in pain. And did she not, especially as a result of her intense desire to make a difference in other people’s lives, enrol to become a nurse, so that she may alleviate such suffering?
“I’ve been to church,” he managed. This was not what he wanted to say, but his tongue and his brain seemed to have disconnected. Maybe, even, it was a plea to soften the inevitable stay in Hell. Church-going sinners should get better treatment up (or down?) there, as opposed to those that chose not to listen to those long sermons, shouldn’t they? Seen in that light, his plea in mitigation may have been, after all, the right thing to say.
“Oh? So have I.” To his surprise, she smiled.
“Waiting for the bus.” He pointed at the Bus Stop sign. “Going to the station.”
“Oh? So am I.”
And so it happened that the two of them became companions on the journey through life. It’s the oldest story ever told: a young man, a girl, a bit of embarrassment, lots of doubts and fears…and a few best intentions laced with enough curiosity and a sprinkling of hormones. Often, such circumstances may combine to have disastrous results – resulting in lawyers driving around in expensive cars – but in Servaas and Siena’s case it was the start of the ultimate dream: a life filled with laughter, tears and hope and disappointment.
They had the best of times – and the worst, too. Yet, whenever times were harsh and problems had to be faced, Siena would remember the yelp. That, and the fact they were saved from being strangers by the boom of a gun. She’d only have to mention these things during such times to remind themselves how fortunate they were.
“Boom. Yelp.” Servaas drains his beer, gets up unsteadily, and aims for the door. He doesn’t protest when Vetfaan gets up to take his arm.
“What’s with him today?” Boggel’s question isn’t aimed at anybody in particular.
“You don’t know?” Gertruida’s smile says something about her satisfaction at knowing everything. “Today is his anniversary. He would have been married for fifty-three years today.”
“Shame, no wonder he’s sad.” Boggel gets the used glass and is about to put it on the tray with some others, when a thought strikes him. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could erase some memories? You know, the really sad ones – like those we loved and lost? Marriages and funerals and things like that. Even the really good ones – the days of laughter and joy: they make us sad because they’re in the past and we can’t get them back.”
“Come on, Boggel! Then we’d be mindless robots!” Gertruida snorts her disgust.
She’s right, of course, but not everybody knows that. Our country’s history was written by men and women who chose to have selective amnesia. They tend to forget the good times when we all cheered Joel Stransky’s drop goal. They’re in a hurry to forget Marikana and the Arms Deal and the corruption that is killing our government. And sadly, because this is the example that is set, the nation accepts it as normal. Maybe Boggel touches a nerve with his statement: we’re in danger of becoming a forgetful nation, run by mindless robots – just like we were in 1958.
But not Servaas. He needs only two words to remember every minute he had spent with Siena.
He won’t forget.
In a town like Rolbos, secrets don’t survive long. In fact, the townsfolk realised long ago that it’s far better to tell it like it is – then nobody has anything to gossip about.
That’s why Boggel’s Place soon looks like a mini auditorium, with rows of chairs around Dreyer and Lucia, while they share the stories of their lives. Boggel – never slow to increase business – keeps himself busy refilling the glasses.
“You see, Dreyer, it came as quite a shock to learn that my Dad wasn’t my real father. And, as an only child, I was so excited to learn I had a sister. Then, the deep disappointment that she died, especially the way she did…”
Dreyer sits, slumped forward on his elbows, looking at the glass in his hands. He still can’t look at Lucia’s face – those eyes…
He tells her everything; the whole sad story from their first meeting when the drunkard brought her in because she didn’t want to play his games, everything, up to the funeral and how Jack Okapi died. Lucia listens with her head tilted slightly to one side, absorbing every word, wiping away the occasional tear.
When he falls silent, the other customers sit quietly on the creaking chairs, aware they have just gained a completely new understanding of the quiet policeman. Gertruida often remarked on his introverted personality – but now, with his story told and the tears dried, they view him with a new kind of respect. To imagine he lived with his hurt and pain for such a long time, and never even breathed a word about it?
Dreyer reaches into his pocket to produce his wallet. “This is the only photograph I have of her. I didn’t want to take photos…later…when she was so ill.”
The pretty face smiles at the camera, her eyes shining with some inner mirth. It was taken in the time when she stayed in his flat, before she went back to her father. She’s holding a stray dog that she used to feed with the scraps from the kitchen. She’s not wearing much make-up and her hair frames the high cheekbones in the most endearing way. The picture tells of a person so comfortable, so happy, that her joy is patently obvious. Even though it is only a picture of Cathy, the deep liquid-brown eyes seem to stare at the onlookers, to reach out to them, an eerie and almost hypnotic gaze.
“You have the same eyes,” Dreyer says. “It’s uncanny.” He wants to tell her that he similarities doesn’t stop there, but can’t find the words. Nobody can be like Cathy. She was unique, special.
“I’m so sorry,” much like her half-sister had the habit of doing, she reaches across the table to touch Dreyer’s arm. He resists the impulse to draw back. “I know this must have been hard for you.” Cathy’s voice, hurting him because he missed it so much.
“I think it was good of you to come here and listen to him talking,” Gertruida assumes the role of village psychologist once more. “He needed to hear himself say the words that he’s bottled up for such a long time. It isn’t easy…”
“I-I think I must go now.” Lucia’s voice is uncertain, hesitant. “I came, I heard. That’s enough.”
Dreyer gets up suddenly and holds out a hand. “I need fresh air, lets go for a walk…”
They leave the bar while the patrons line up for new drinks at the counter. For once, Boggel’s Place is quiet – they’re all a bit overwhelmed by what they’ve just heard.
Dreyer – rather tall and straight with his athletic build – leads the way towards Bokkop, his favourite thinking spot. Lucia has to stretch her stride to keep up.
“You okay?” He stops when she asks the question.
“I suppose so.” He points at a rock and they sit down. “It’s so weird, Miss van Wyk. I’ve never said goodbye to Cathy. You never had the chance to say hello to her. It’s as if the two of us represent the two extremes of knowing her. And yet…you have so much in common. It’s almost scary.”
“You know, all my life I felt sort of alone. I thought it was because I was an only child. I’m used to fighting my own battles, see? But now – now I think it’s because something inside me was incomplete. Knowing who my real father was, and why he went off the rails so badly, helps to arrange the pieces of my Life-puzzle. And Cathy… Well, my heart simply breaks when I think what she must have gone through. In a strange and convoluted way, she gave her life so I can lead mine.” When she sees the puzzled frown on Dreyer’s face, she continues. “See, if my real father married my real mother, I would have been brought up in that house. And who knows what would have happened? I could very well have ended up like her – such a sad, sad situation.”
Dreyer nods. “I understand, yes. The one thing I’m glad about your coming here, is that I can now believe there’s a little bit of her left in the world. That she didn’t die and leave nothing behind. You’re living her life – as well as your own – now. You’re bright, pretty, and have all the opportunities she never had.”
A slow blush creeps up her cheeks.
“I really think it’s time to leave. Do you mind?”
It’s Dreyer’s turn to hesitate. “You can consider staying a while, Miss van Wyk?”
Her hand finds it’s way to his arm again.
“No, Dreyer. In another life. Another time and place… Who knows? You’ll always see me as Cathy – and she’s much too precious to the both of us to be treated like that.” She blinks away a tear. “You have wonderful memories of a wonderful woman. And I…I now have peace, knowing what I now do.”
They walk back to town, where she says a trembling goodbye to the patrons in Boggel’s Place. They crowd the window when Sersant Dreyer accompanies her to the car.
“You can have the photograph,” Dreyer says. “I don’t need it any more.”
She stands on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you…”
And then she drives off – slowly – on the rutted road to Grootdrink, leaving Dreyer standing on the dusty pavement next to Voortrekker Weg. He waves once before sitting down on the kerb. Why…? The old question starts rummaging around in his mind once more.
“That was kind of you.” Dreyer looks up in surprise as Boggel shuffels over with two beers. “Giving her the photo, I mean.”
The beer is cold and refreshing. When Dreyer puts down the empty bottle, he gives Boggel a man-hug. “Thanks, pal.” Then he moves an inch or two away, almost embarrassed at the show of affection. “Yes, the photo – I don’t need it any more.”
“You said goodbye, didn’t you?” Boggel’s voice is gentle.
“Yes, I did,” Dreyer says as he watches the line of dust on the road to Grootdrink. “It was time.”
Boggel shrugs. “Memories, Dreyer, are so precious. Sometimes they are better than the reality we so wish for. Strange, that.”.
The soft breeze sweeps the dusty line on the road off to the veld, where it’ll settle; much like the waves did to that sand castle on the beach so many years ago. Life is like that, Dreyer thinks, nothing is permanent.
“We’re just a bunch of sand castles,” he tells Boggel as he gets up to go.
And Boggel, with the wisdom barmen accumulate over the years, knows he shouldn’t ask. Not now. Maybe later. So he simply nods as he watches the tall man saunter off to his little police station, where the new layer of dust covers the counter. Once safely there, he closes his eyes to remember hers. For the first time is so many years, he can now remember them as being alive.
And sometimes remembering, just like Boggel said, is as good as it gets.
Sersant Dreyer pushes open the door at Boggel’s Place and pauses in the doorway for a moment. This bar has been a refuge over the years, providing a sort-of sanctuary when he wanted to escape the memories of that time. Now they come flooding back..
Sersant Dreyer shakes his head to clear the thoughts of those final minutes. When Cathy died, something inside him simply stopped living. It was as if a fuse was removed from some critical circuit in his brain, leaving him to be with the empty feeling he could never get rid of.
Oh, he tried.
The investigation into the murder of Cathy’s father had reached a dead end. Like it so often happens in South Africa, the docket got ‘lost’. The gang simply bribed their way to freedom. The administrative clerk responsible for the blunder was never identified and Jack Okapi remained untouchable.
Until the night Sersant Dreyer heard that Jack was planning another murder. The sympathetic neighbour, who covered the bleeding body of Cathy after the attack, phoned to tell him Jack and the gang was on their way to ‘necklace’ somebody they suspected of being an informer.
“Please sir, you must help. Please...”
Dreyer then did the unthinkable. He took off his uniform and dressed as a labourer. He went to the evidence room and got a gun. Then he ‘borrowed’ a vehicle from the pound and set off.
The report on the incident states that an unidentified man in a stolen vehicle drove past the angry mob and that three shots were fired before the suspect sped off. Because it was dark, no description of the man could be obtained. The bullets recovered from a certain Jack Okapi were not suitable for ballistic analysis because the shooter had turned them into dumdums that shattered on impact. The police were at loss to explain how a vehicle disappeared from the pound.
It was all over n half-an-hour’s time. The reports of the shooting were just filtering through when Dreyer walked back into the office, a steaming mug of coffee in his hand.
“It’s the Pretty Boys,” he announced. “I’m sure of it. They’ve been after that Satan’s Knives gang for some time now. Hopefully they’ll sort it out amongst themselves.”
And that’s exactly what happened. In what became known as the Battle of the Cape Flats, a major war broke out between the two rival gangs. Over a period of three weeks, fifty gang members were killed and an unknown number injured. The police intervened with less enthusiasm than one would expect, allowing the Battle to take care of the criminals that always managed to escape being caught.
Despite the satisfaction (and he was careful never to show it) of having killed Jack, the emptiness didn’t leave the troubled mind of Sersant Dreyer.
Even the killing of the killer wasn’t enough. Fifty dead bodies didn’t bring Cathy back. Sersant Dreyer. despite his promotion, remained a man who lost the one woman he loved. When the post in Rolbos was advertised, he was the only applicant.
And now the letter was a voice from the past, reopening the old wounds of a love – the scars that just won’t go away…
“What was the letter about?” It’s Gertruida of course, who knows (almost) everything, who jolts Dreyer back to the present.
“I have to get your advice on it,” Sersant Dreyer says as he sits down.
“You have to answer the letter, Sersant,” Gertruida says gently, “You simply have to help her. I mean, if Cathy meant so much to you, you owe it to her sister – or half-sister in this case. She’s family, after all.”
“It’s easy for you to say that, Gertruida.” By now Sersant Dreyer seems downcast and reluctant. “This is part of my life I so desperately tried to forget. Cathy was the world to me…and I can still not explain why…”
“It’s simple, Sersant,” Gertruida interrupts without apologising, “It’s called love. You can’t explain it. If you can, you can call it fascination, infatuation, or even plain lust. Love, my dear Dreyer, isn’t something you can put in a little box. If it’s there, it fills your world. And, may I add, it’s something that never leaves you. Love is like Einstein’s energy: it may change, but it can’t ever be destroyed. I’m afraid you’ll just have to live with it – for the rest of your life.”
She gets a few puzzled frowns from the men, but Precilla and Fanny nods their understanding. Even Mevrou smiles her approval.
“Tell you what,” Boggel refills the empty glasses on the counter, “you’ll never settle this thing by writing letters. There’s only one way to settle this: invite the woman to come and visit us. You can never tell her what Cathy meant to you by writing words on paper. She has to see you, see your eyes, hear your voice, to understand who and what Cathy was. Remember: she never met her half-sister. You’re the only link to her family. You owe her that.”
And so, on a dusty winter’s morning, with the sun desperately trying to warm up a blustery and cold day, Sersant Dreyer opens the door of the car Lucia van Wyk got at Upington Airport.
“I’m Dreyer,” he tells the extended hand of Lucia van Wyk, not daring to look into her eyes for fear of recognising something of Cathy in them. “Let’s go inside, Boggel has a fire going.”
“Okay.” One word, that’s all she needs to say.
It is Cathy’s voice.
And when he looks up he closes his eyes quickly. In them, in this very instant, he’s taken back to the beach at Hout Bay, cradling the woman he loves in his arms, watching the sun set over the distant horizon. Near them, the family building the sand castle gives up as the waves start destroying their beautiful building.
And he hears her voice, that precious, weak whisper, asking him why everything turned out the way it did.
He could never answered that simple question.
There is no answer…he said it, as the waves smoothed the beach while he held her lifeless body with a tenderness he never thought possible.
Oh my dear father,
I like him, he is very handsome.
I want to go to Porta Rossa
to buy the ring!
Yes, yes, I want to go there!
And if my love were in vain,
I would go to Ponte Vecchio
and throw myself in the Arno!
I am pining and I am tormented,
Oh God! I would want to die!
Daddy, have mercy, have mercy!
Daddy, have mercy, have mercy!
(from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (1918))
Sersant Dreyer wipes away an unwanted tear. After all these years the memories of Cathy still chokes him up with emotion. Surely he should have gotten over it by now?
But no. The letter reminded him that Cathy – she of such purity and kindness, and so defiled by her fellow man – will forever be The One. Funny, he thinks, that he should feel this way about a woman he never even once slept with. Their attraction never was a sexual one, he has to admit – it was so exhilarating, so exiting to explore her mind. He saw the beauty lurking inside that ravaged body, the tormented soul; and that attracted him is such a way that he’ll never be able to think of her purely as being female. She was so much more than just a woman.
Maybe, he thinks, the world has warped the whole concept of love. It shouldn’t be a primitive, grunting, emotion. It should be the ability to see the soul of somebody else; that significant person that resonates with such sheer joy in the deepest thoughts of the mind.
He sighs, gets up, and fetches the dishcloth from the little area that serves as a kitchen. Slowly, deliberately, he cleans the surface of the counter top. It’s been a long, long time since last he has done that.
Then, with the gentlest of hands, he spreads the letter he got today on the shining surface.
…or should I call you Sersant, like the rest of the town does? Or simply Dreyer, like my half-sister did? That’s what the other officers at the station said, when I enquired there. Whichever you prefer, I hope you don’t mind me sending this letter.
Let me explain?
Cathy’s father was a man of integrity – until, of course, his wife developed cancer and ruined his businesses. I’m sure she told you they had been quite wealthy at a time. And, of course, you know the later part of her history.
But…when he was younger (before he met Cathy’s mother) he was a bit different. Wild, maybe. iI suppose you can say he played the field. That’s when he met Lucia le Roux, my mother. It’s a long, complicated story, and maybe we’ll talk about it – if ever we have the chance to do so. To get to the point: he was still seeing my mother after he got engaged to his future wife. And, as a last-gasp grab at freedom, he slept with her on the night of his bachelor’s party – a week before his wedding. Lucia said they shed a lot of tears that night – he was in love and in awe with his future bride, but he still had these strong feelings for Lucia. You may think this to be sordid, but it really happened.
After the wedding, my mother found out she was pregnant. Can you believe that? It was a catastrophe! Mom said there was another man in her life, and grabbed at the straw. She seduced him into a quick marriage to save the family the scandal. I was born – according to family legend – a few weeks premature. I checked. I weighed 3,25 kg at birth. You do the maths…
Of course, I never knew anything about this. I had a Mom and Dad, and grew up in a stable, if rather loveless home. Dad was always good to me. He was a bit older than Mom, a businessman in his own right, when he had a drink in McGoo’s bar in Durban on June 14, 1986. I was just six years old when that bomb went off. I’m sure you know the history how the ANC bragged about killing those innocent civilians who had nothing to do with the politics of the time.
Anyway, Mom brought me up and gave me all I needed to become an independent woman in my own right. Today, with my degree in law, I make ends meet quite comfortably, thank you.
I wouldn’t be writing this letter if Mom hadn’t developed cirrhosis of the liver. This happened as the result of some virus she contracted after a blood transfusion. She had been involved in a car accident, and ruptured her spleen. In the haste to resuscitate her, she received blood of her rare type, without it being properly screened. Needless to say, she survived the trauma, but not the long-term results of that damn transfusion.
And it was on her deathbed she finally told me who my real father was. She said she could not die with a clear conscience, if she didn’t tell me the truth. I was shocked, naturally.
After her funeral, I started digging up as much as I could about this man. I found out he used to manage a few successful companies. At Home Affairs I got the names of his wife and Cathy – they also gave me the dates of their deaths. I was devastated – I had hoped to arrange a meeting with him.
With this dead end in my investigation, I wondered whether Cathy ever had a significant other in her life. My investigation led me to the hospital she was treated in.
I’m so glad we live in this computerised world. There, sure enough, I found the evidence of a man who arranged a voluntary discharge from the clinic where they tried to treat her AIDS. I also found out more about the murder of my father through the police archives. And in both cases, you featured rather prominently.
Now Dreyer, you might think me a bit strange. But I’m so desperate to know more about my family – my roots – that I write this letter in the hope that you’ll be kind enough to tell me more.
You’ll find my address and telephone number at the bottom of this letter. I’d appreciated hearing from you.
Please try to understand?
Lucia van Wyk.
Dreyer sighs again as he refolds the letter.
There’s only one way to deal with this.
He’ll have to talk to Gertruida.
Stuffing the letter into his shirt pocket, he trudges over to Boggel’s Place, where the rest of the town is discussing this afternoon’s match between the Springboks and Samoa. Oh, what the hell, he’ll just tell them all! The more the merrier. And they’ll know about the letter soon enough, anyway.
Yes, let them help him in this. It is just too much to handle alone…
Dreyer visited the house on a daily basis, each time to hear she doesn’t want to see anybody. Eventually, after two weeks, Cathy relented and allowed the nurse to bring him to her room.
Policemen get desensitised quickly, once they are introduced to the chaotic mayhem of township life. Violence and death get to be tolerated as something normal; daily occurrences that need to be investigated, written up, and filed. After a while, the nightmares stop. The nausea passes. And the recruit becomes used to switching to a type of automated, state-owned machine in order to distance himself psychologically from the mangled bodies, the anger and the grief associated with death and dying.
But when Dreyer walked into Cathy’s room, he had to swallow hard to keep a straight face. He knew she was extremely ill, and that she was getting special treatment for the viruses that now lived inside her – but he never expected to see her like that: a skeletal and pathetic creature, propped up by pillows in a neatly-made bed.
“I look terrible,” she whispered.
“Not your eyes, Cathy. They’re just like I remember them.”
Her thin pale lips curled upwards in what might have been a smile. “They are the only things in my body that have grown lately.”
She was right, of course. While her cheeks melted away to expose the hard lines of her skull beneath the skin, her eyes had become larger; making her look like a badly drawn caricature of end-stage cachexia. They now swung around slowly to stare at him.
“You’ve seen me now. It’ll best if you leave, I think.”
Dreyer shook his head.
“No.” It came out harsher than he meant, so he softened his tone. “I feel terrible about what happened…to your father and to you.”
“It’s not your fault. He brought it on…sadly. His drinking never stopped – he tried, but it didn’t work.”
“It doesn’t matter, Dreyer. What happened, happened. I can’t stop this process.” She waved a frail hand at her body, which seemed so delicately fragile under the too-big pyjamas. “Only the final act in the drama remains.”
“Can’t they do anything?”
“They tried.” Her voice was tired, defeated; like the wilted palm tree next to the window outside. “I lose weight every day. Not long now…”
“You have to hang in there, Cathy. You’re young…there’s a lot of living to be done.”
“With an empty pelvis and raging AIDS? You lost your mind or something?” Anger tinged the edges of her voice.
“Because…” he hesitated, aware of the large eyes probing his, “because I care. Really…”
He watched as her pupils narrowed down to almost pinpoint size – as if she suddenly gazed into blinding light.
“I-I don’t know, Cathy. Maybe because you sewed my button back on. Maybe because you walked all the way home to get the right colour thread. Or maybe because I saw you for what you really are: a caring, loyal, loving person…” He didn’t know what else too say.
The limp little hand that belonged to her arm searched for his from under the blanket. Her eyes changed then: then became softer, mellowing at his words.
“That’s the sweetest thing anybody has ever said to me…” A giant tear formed at the corner of an eye. Her gaze dimmed for a moment, as if she retreated to a distant corner in her mind. Her chin came up when she made the decision.
“If you cared, you’d take me out of here, Dreyer. I don’t want to die in this bed. I want to feel the breeze on my skin, the sun on my body. I want the freedom I never had.”
Dreyer didn’t argue. He saw the hunger in her eyes, the pleading for release. They told him about a life so sad, so wasted, that only these final days and hours remain to reclaim something of the hope she had when her mother was still alive.
He arranged everything and signed the voluntary discharge forms. The doctor objected, of course, but admitted eventually that yes, maybe, it was for the best. It took two days of arguing and preparation before he carried the little weight she still had to his car outside.
“First we’ll settle you in the flat,” he said. “Or would you like to go for a drive over Chapman’s Peak first?”
This time, her smile reached her eyes.
Dreyer had spoken to his commanding officer, who allowed him to take his annual leave. He had three weeks. Cathy knew that. They didn’t dare discuss what would happen when the time ran out – the only important thing was that she remained comfortable. By that time, her meals had to be liquefied and Dreyer had a full-time job keeping her and the bed clean.
It was on a Sunday afternoon that she asked him to take her to Hout Bay.
The little beach, Dreyer, next to that café. I want to see the sun set. With music. Please?
The over-large orbs of her eyes said it all. He understood.
The sun was dipping towards the horizon when she asked him to put the CD in the portable player. Off to one side, a family was building a sand castle while the small waves lapped at the buttresses. High tide would smooth the beach in less than an hour’s time: the castle would only last for a few minutes.
“This is my song for you. I want you to do these things for me,” she said. “Take me along, will you? There’s so much I still wanted to see. You can be my eyes…”
Cathy tried to sing along in her weak whisper, her eyes searching his. And when she came to …fly the ocean in a silver plane/ see the jungle when it’s wet with rain… she fell silent.
And closed her eyes for the last time.