“It’s the brigadier,” Vetfaan whispers in awe, “he’s actually come to town!” His shout is evident, despite his hushed tone.
“Impossible,” Servaas says.
“Not in your life,” Kleinpiet exclaims.
But it is. Brigadier Kasper Albertus van Graan – himself – climbs out of his old Toyota pickup to stand, alone and for all to see, in Voortrekker Weg. He’s dressed in drab khaki, old boots, and a wide-brimmed hat. His lined face is tanned from the many years in the veld, while his skeletal frame says something about his frugal lifestyle.
“I can’t believe it,” Boggel breathes as he shuffles towards the door. “The Brigadier, nogal. Himself? Really?”
But it is. Kas van Graan steps towards Boggel’s Place, rigid and tall in his old uniform. When he pushes the door open, he’s greeted by a silence that threatens to hurt ears. Seemingly unperturbed, he walks to the counter to order a beer.
“You’ve been scarce,” Boggel says, referring to the last fifteen years. “Welcome back.”
The Brigadier has aged considerably since his last visit. He fights the natural stoop of his figure, but his hair has gone. So has that determined look in his eyes. He seems, for all the world, like any old man you’ve ever seen – the type that refuses to acknowledge the passage of time. You get them all over the world – at least, Gertruida says so. Except for the uniform, of course…
“Don’t patronise me,” the old army is still in his voice, “just give me a beer. Or didn’t you understand my request?”
“We’re just happy to see you, sir,” Boggel lies, “it’s been some time.”
“Been busy,” the brigadier lies back. “on the farm.”
Everybody in the bar knows it’s not true. Nothing ever happens out there. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission forgave the brigadier, he came here to hide. Him and his pension and the ghosts from his past.
In 1964, with H F Verwoerd at the pinnacle of his political career as President of the new Republic of South Africa, Kassie van Graan understood nothing about the intricate and complicated problems facing the country. Barely into his teens, he accepted the racial divide in the country as normal – a concept supported by everything he was exposed to. The all-powerful radio, the church, his school and his parents were unanimous: different cultures had the right to exist and required a safe space to develop further. It seemed so natural, so logical,
Kassie had no idea of the laws that enforced this policy. The forced removals, the brutality associated with segregating the society, the pass laws – these were carefully tucked away behind the camouflage the Nationalist government used to hide their true intentions. Look – the radio, the church, the school, his parents, said – we are helping people to help themselves. It is our Christian duty to guide people to their destiny.
And Kassie thought it was all okay as he fantasised about Hester, the neighbour’s daughter with the tanned legs and the promising buds that contoured he blouse. Here, the church and his parents instilled in him, was the danger of sin, a danger that overshadowed anything else going on in the country. The fear of going blind or growing hair on his palms was much greater than his concern for his own, personal safety on the streets of Brakpan, where he grew up.
It all changed on the cold winter’s day – the 24th of July of 1964 – when he joined his mother on a shopping trip to Johannesburg. They travelled comfortably on the green leather seats of the Second Class carriage, a natural choice for most White people, while the Others were crammed into the Spartan 3rd class coaches. This was just another normal day in the (in Kassie’s opinion) quiet and peaceful and safe Republic.
After shopping at the OK Bazaar and a late lunch at Garlick’s, they were on the platform – waiting for the train back home – when the bomb exploded. The crash of the blast, the smoke, the screams were burned into his young mind, and he never forgot the bleeding, burning, screaming people who stood and ran and lay about; while the horrible realisation that the Republic wasn’t a safe place any more, got imprinted in his juvenile mind.
They escaped major injuries. His mother was deaf for months, and Kassie could brag with his few scratch marks when next he met Hester. However, the damage was the unseen uncertainty, the fear that developed in young boy’s mind.
Simething was wrong in South Africa, he realised that. The church blamed the Communists, the government blamed the African Resistance Movement, and his teachers told the school that they must follow the news in the papers – the truth will surface. John Harris, they said, was a disillusioned man, a misguided soul, and everybody sighed in relief when he was hanged for his deed on 1 April 1965. April Fool, they called the only White man ever to be hanged for the struggle against Apartheid.
Kassie started reading the newspapers. He learnt about Nelson Mandela – a name he’d never heard before – was in prison for treason. He read – mostly between the lines – that the South African society rested on many fracture lines, and that there was a very real danger that the stable and happy Republic could go up in flames. The problem was the Communists, the papers said, as article after article appeared, showing the public what was happening in the rest of Africa. Uhuru and Mau-Mau became the justification to suppress any action that might threaten the State.
The situation deteriorated. Sharpville happened. Verwoerd was murdered. Fear grew as Africa became the place of Unrest.
When his call-up papers arrived, ordering him to report for duty in Voortrekkerhoogte on his eighteenth birthday, he was more than ready. This was his country and like ancestors, he was quite prepared to lay down his life to defend his right to be here.
“He can’t escape the nightmares of his past,” Gertruida whispers, “look at him: he’s a broken and depressed man.”
Precilla nods. “I only heard about him. This is the first time I’ve laid eyes on him. I almost feel sorry for the man.”
“I wonder how he feels about his past.” Vetfaan takes a more pragmatic line. “It can’t be easy.”
Brigadier van Graan ignores them. They don’t, won’t, can’t understand. He signals for another drink. How can they, anyway? Were they on that platform when the bomb exploded? And afterwards…afterwards – where were they then? While he fought his way across Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola; while he watched young men die and wrote letters to grieving parents – where were they then?
“It’s a bugger-up,” he mutters.
“You need to talk about it, Brigadier. You really do.” Boggel pushes another beer across to the man, telling him it’s on the house.
“Can’t.” A single word, saying so much.
Gertruida walks over to sit down next to Van Graan. “I used to work for National Intelligence. Did you know that? And sometimes – late at night – I remember things. Bad things. It keeps me awake.”
He turns to stare at Gertruida, his eyes suddenly uncertain. “Too much death. It became part of me.”
And Gertruida, who knows everything, settles in the chair next to the troubled Brigadier. She understood exactly what he has just said.
“If you don’t get rid of it, Brigadier, you’ll never live again.” Her tone is kind, understanding.
“As if you care.”
“Strangely enough, I do. We all do. It’s our country too, you know?”
“It was the bomb…” he says.
“Maybe that’s a good place to start,” Gertruida now does something she is very good at. She turns to him, her attention completely focussed on him, and adopts the ‘listening position’ with her chin resting in the palm of her hand. “Go on – you can do it. Be the brave man you’ve fought for so hard.”
Brigadier van Graan, much to his own surprise, finds himself travelling back in time, to the years of hope and glory. Oh, how great was the dream…