“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.