“Al-y-cia” The Brigadier says the word slowly, lovingly, tasting the syllables. “She was of mixed blood of course, like the rest f the villagers. No beauty. Straight hair, European nose, African lips… But her eyes…they were old-Africa eyes, the eyes of the Original Woman: understanding, caring, knowing. She had a way of looking at me to make me feel that she knew my journey. She could make me believe in my old self again: the person I used to be before the army turned me into a killing machine. I don’t know how she did it and can’t explain the impact she had on me, but she made a difference. A huge one.
“When I started taking notice of my surroundings, I realised we were not in the village any more. The villagers had moved the entire population to a deserted farm, way out in the bush, where they erected rough shelters for themselves. The only building – a deserted cottage which must have belonged to a farmer in the old Portuguese days – was where Alycia nursed me. Afterwards, when I could walk about, I felt ashamed. They gave me, the man who came to murder them, more than they allowed themselves.
“I was still naked, and asked for my clothes. Alycia told me they burnt my uniform – they couldn’t risk it being found. And somehow, it felt right: I was stripped of my soldier-being, defenceless, without rank or honour. I felt no shame either – being naked was better than wearing the uniform that made me their enemy. She made a dress from an old towel, like a kilt, and it was good enough for me.”
Van Graan takes a sip from his glass. It’s true: his body belonged to Alycia, anyway. She took care of everything – everything – while he was fighting the fever, the sepsis and the demons in his mind. He had nowhere to hide any more.
“I was bed-ridden for months. When I woke up, Alycia was there. When I dozed off, she was at my bedside. We talked a lot.”
“You have family, Soldier Man?”
“A wife, a child. Nothing more.”
The kind eyes clouded over. “You miss them, no?”
The wounded soldier considered the question with care. Hester had married him as a young man; a dreamer of a better future. Over the years she had become quieter, more reluctant, when he had the rare break between operations. She: the mother, the carer. He: the murdering destructor, who yearned for the company of his two comrades. He tried to explain that once, but she couldn’t understand. Why on earth would he feel safer with his mates than under his own roof? The silences became longer. His child became a stranger.
“Yes and no,” he said truthfully. “Life has changed me. Changed me a lot. And she – she became the perfect mother while I…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. To admit to what he had become, was a lethal bullet – one that asked no questions and wanted to kill the spark of hope that still endured.
“Shhh, Soldier Man. I know soldiers. My husband, he was one.”
“Yes. He fought for Jonas Savimbi. Like you, he very brave. Only, he died. There was nobody to take care of him. He died – in the bush out there.” She waved a non-specific hand in the general direction of the trees outside, but he understood.
“Things die out there, Alycia. Men. Women. Children. Animals. Dreams. It’s a wild world, a stupid war Alycia. When there’s no care, things die.” He was talking about himself.
She flashed him a rare smile, because she understood. “You not dead, Soldier Man. I care.”
“I can’t tell you when it happened. Maybe not even, how. But somewhere along the line, I discovered…feelings…for Alycia. It was a shock. How could I, an Apartheid soldier, develop these feelings for a woman of colour? It flew against everything I ever believed in, everything the church and the school and the army ever imprinted on me. And yet…here she was, selflessly taking care of my every need. And because I was naked, stripped of everything, broken…I could talk to her.
“I supposed we were both lonely. She lost a husband. I lost my country. But even that didn’t explain anything. There was a spark between us, an undeniable connection. I think we both fought it initially.”
The border isn’t a line on a map, a river or a mountain, he realises. The border is the point where you start exploring new territories. Maybe even: the border is where you change – and he changed the day he became a soldier. It was an gradual, slow process; but in the end he wasn’t the man (or boy) that climbed off the train on that first day. He crossed the border to being a soldier. Then another one to become an unfeeling being. Then another one to become a stranger in his marriage, Then another one to discover the exquisite tenderness of Alycia; his enemy, his lover. And that’s where his war started and ended, and he’ll never be able to understand it.
They did cross a border. In a strange and abstract way, Alycia felt that caring for this soldier was a tribute to her husband – as if steering the brigadier to health would compensate for the lack of care her husband had to endure. It was a rebellion against the war, an act of kindness against the chaos they had to live in. She even admitted caring for him was an expression of defiance against circumstances, rather than a desire to help a stranger.
But…then the storm happened.
In the small hours of that fateful night, the earth-shattering clap of thunder was so sudden, so intense, that Kasper van Graan cried out in fear. In that moment he was back on the battlefield, with whipping bullets and roaring mortar blasts all around. In the impenetrable dark, he couldn’t see anything; and his mind conjured up images of enemy soldiers bearing down on him, laughing as they swung long-bladed pangas above their heads.
The brigadier was terrified, alone, lost.
And then…then he heard her saying shhhh…and the images fled. And then she laid a soft hand on his bare chest.
“No be frightened, Soldier Man. Alycia, she is here. It only storm outside. Inside is safe.”
Her hand moved to the healing scar, hovered, went farther,
“I take care now. Alycia take care,” she whispered.
And she did.
And he crossed the border, to explore the unexplored; discover the undiscovered; experience for afresh the boy-man inside him who could still believe in tomorrow.
“That was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me. I knew then: I couldn’t deny it any more. I loved her; loved her with such deep emotion that I wept when I told her that the next morning.” The brigadier goes harrumph and ahhh, trying to hide his emotion.
“And what about Hester? Your child?” Trust Servaas to say the most undiplomatic thing under the circumstances…
The brigadier finishes his drink before answering. “You know? I didn’t think of them. Not then. Later, yes. But not then. It was as if the world has shrunk and everything we needed was right there, in that little cottage. She was the only woman and I was the only man.
“We spent the night like that – listening to the storm outside while we sheltered in the calm we had created. Both of us, I think, felt a sense of relief in the honesty we acknowledged in those hours. My enemy – the one I was planning to murder – had given me back my life.” He pauses again. “Isn’t that strange? I didn’t take her life. She gave me mine…”
Brigadier van Graan hides his face behind his big hands, “These fingers pulled triggers. These hands threw grenades, slit throats, broke necks… But that night…” he pauses to swallow hard, “…that night they touched innocence.”
He’s crying openly now and the group huddles around him, making soothing sounds. The brigadier snorts angrily, ashamed at his display of weakness.
“T-The next day the headman paid me a visit. He said it was time for me to go. They wanted to move back to Caramuti and were afraid to take me along.”
Precilla is so absorbed in the story that she gasps a noooo! when the brigadier says this. She’s rewarded by a wry smile.
“Yes… I wanted to ask Alycia to come with me, really did want to, but I knew it was wrong to even think about it. I was damaged goods, she had her own family, her own country. How could I expect her to leave it all behind? And then? Then take her to Apartheid South Africa? And what about Hester?
“They gave me some clothes and a bit of money. We said goodbye. And I started walking.” Three short sentences; but in those few words, they all knew, were locked up so much pain that the brigadier will never be able to say more about their parting.
Precilla gets up slowly and holds up a hand as if trying to stop the narrative.
“I can’t bear this any longer. It’s so sad,” she snivels. “How could you…?
“Wait, Precilla,” Gertruida makes her sit down again. “Let’s hear how it ended…”