“The people at Ngepi were wonderful. They insisted on hearing the entire story, and to my surprise, one of the workers (an illegal, by the way, with no papers himself) had family in Caramuti. Like it can only happen in Africa, he knew about the wounded soldier the villagers cared for – and that substantiated my story. After that, they couldn’t do enough to help me find my way back home.” The brigadier sighs. “But it turned out to be much more difficult than I expected.”
He phoned army HQ at Voortrekkerhoogte first thing the next morning.
“Ya-a-as.” The voice sounded bored.
“Good morning. I need to speak to General M——.”
The line went dead. After several minutes, the same voice told him there’s nobody by that name listed on his roster.
His tried his home number. An electronic voice informed him that the number was no longer in use.
The only other number he could recall, was Sergeant-major Grove’s.
“Grove.” The same old stern voice. Van Graan almost wept with relief.
“Sergeant-major, this is Kasper van Graan speaking. Do you remember me?”
“Is this a joke? A prank? You’re sick, man! Sick.” Click.
He tried again.
“Listen, it is really me. Don’t put the phone down again.”
“….But you’re dead…”
“I’m not! I spent two years in Angola, recovering from an abdominal wound. You have to believe me. You have to.” He didn’t know what else to say. “Please?”
They spent an hour on the phone. Grove told him how the general announced the death of Cell Q, describing how the three of them were killed in a land mine incident in the Caprivi strip. The Ratel they were using was destroyed in the ensuing fire and the exploding ammunition on board had made it impossible to collect any remains afterwards.
Hester accepted the news with sad reluctance. She said she always knew it would end that way. Her husband, she was quoted in the newspapers, was a dedicated soldier and gave his life for the country he loved.
“But a year later, what do you know? She’s on the front page of Die Huisgenoot, the smiling bride of Gary Pienaar, an accountant and the newest golfing sensation; the man who won the American Masters.”
“So there I was. A dead man whose widow found happiness – and millions – in the arms of a tanned man who never set foot on a parade ground.” He sighs, takes a sip from the glass while he allows the news to sink in. Even after all these years, it still chokes him up. “I was so upset. I wanted to find her – them – and set the record straight. But with time, I realised that would be cruel. She already worked her way through the shock and grief of my death – and she found the security and love she always sought. What good would it do if I rocked up at their front door? Can you imagine the mess?
“I asked Grove – begged him – to tell me what to do. He said he’d think about it, took my number, and promised to phone me back that evening.
“I had a whole day to think. I went down to that river and sat staring at the water streaming by. That river, I thought, was just like Life. Every drop passes a certain point but once, and when finally it followed the set course of the river bed, it sinks into the sands of the Kalahari, to disappear in the huge reservoir below the desert. Once. Only once. Then it’s gone. It starts as a little stream; it ends nowhere. Birth and death. Love and loss. Dust to dust. My life.”
Boggel rushes over with a mug of strong, sweet coffee. The Brigadier is obviously tiring and the alcohol is getting to him.
Grove did phone again that night.
“Listen, Van Graan, the news isn’t good. I still have contacts, but you must realise the game has changed completely. The ANC is now in control. They are throwing all the old hands out, replacing them with people who have no idea how to run the army – let alone the country. Here’s what I found out:
“The Nationalists can’t have you back. You’re dead, remember? If you now surface to show the world what liars they are, it’ll be a huge embarrassment. You were in Angola at the stage when they swore we had no troops there. They’ll get the spin doctors to make you look like a deranged madman. Or…they might very well want to eliminate the source of this problem. They can make accidents happen – a favourite is a botched hijack or burglary. You cannot underestimate them.
“The ANC will have similar thoughts, but for different reasons. You spent two years in Angola where you befriended the locals. A white man got the sympathy of the village he was supposed to blow up. That’s not good for their image. They want to portray whites as heartless, greedy, Nazi-like individuals – an analogy the world seems to find fascinating currently. If your story became known, they too, will be standing around with mud on their faces.
“They’d also assume that you know far too much about the war in Angola, There’s a lot they don’t want to publicise, understand? The way they treated civilians, how they forced young people to their training camps, how they poached the game in Angola… A man with such knowledge would be a threat to their already-tarnished image. They don’t need that. Such a man might expect trouble…”
The best thing, Grove told him, was to remain dead.
“Tell you what. My family has a farm in the Kalahari. Way back, my grandfather bought the place, hoping to farm with sheep; but the droughts took care of that. We sort of hang onto it still, but it is unused, deserted. You can stay there as long as you like – it’s the perfect place to hide.”
“You know,” by now the brigadier’s voice slurs heavily over the longer words, “that old man took his car, and he travel…travelled all the thoush – thoushands – kilo…kilometres, to come and fesh – fetch – me. All the way. I app…app..apprechiated tha’. Ver mush. Grand geshture, Wunnerful.”
Gertruida gets up to help the brigadier to his feet.
“Come on, Kasper. That’s enough for now. You need rest.” She’s using short sentences, pronouncing every word clearly. “Tomorrow. We’ll talk tomorrow,”
Vetfaan and Kleinpiet takes over, positioning themselves next to the man, as they help (‘drag’ is maybe the better word) him to the sofa in Gertruida’s library. He’s asleep by the time they settle the blanket over him.
“Poor man,” she whispers, “whatever will become of you…?” She knows she will not sleep tonight. Something has to be done..