The next morning sees Gertruida in an exceptionally good mood.
“I have a plan,” she whispers excitedly to Boggel, before placing a finger in front of her lips. “I’m not sure how to go about it, but if it works…”
The brigadier – despite the previous evening’s excesses – manages to get to Boggel’s Place just as the coffee is ready. “I’ve always been an early riser,” he mutters.
Nothing much happens in Rolbos without the whole town knowing about it. Five minutes later; in varying stages of dress, hair uncombed and eyes still heavy with sleep; the townsfolk all wait for Boggel to brew the second pot of coffee.
“So, Sergeant-major Grove drove up to meet you?” Precilla just can’t stand the suspense any longer. She get’s a surprised look from the soldier.
“I got that far last night?” He really can’t remember.
“Yes, you did. But we don’t know what happened next.”
Van Graan was shocked to see the sergeant-major. The stooped, grey-haired man getting out of the car was almost unrecognisable.
“They buggered up the army, Van Graan. I was forced into retirement. The old units are gone. It’s a mess.” He started explaining how bad things were, but the brigadier stopped him.
“Come, have breakfast first. You’ve come a long way.”
This apparently shook the older man.
“Since when have you gone soft, Van Graan? You’re not supposed to care about me.”
“I learnt a lot in the last two years, Sergeant-major. A lot. And I can see you need to stretch your legs and have a bite to eat. Caring? Only the strong can care. The weak will never understand the meaning of the word.”
“He had grown old. His world collapsed when the discipline went. Remember: he was forced to retire. Grove never married, you see? He always said the army was his first and only love – and when that was taken from him, his universe imploded.
“After breatfast, he sat me down and explained what he had managed.”
“The deal is this, Van Graan. You’re a captain now. The new general was horrified to hear your story – and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to get to meet him. But I did.” Van Graan could only imagine the strings the old man had to pull to manage that. As a lifetime soldier, he knew many secrets. “General Modise is in charge of covert operations now – it’s just a name, they don’t do anything. Nothing! But he has an office and a BMW and a rank – and he’ll like to stay there. Housing, annual bonus, travelling expenses, you name it.
“Anyway, once he grasped the outlines of your case, he was at pains to explain how important it is for this to be kept under wraps. He suggested you remain in the Kalahari, like I told you is possible. For some reason, he was adamant that you stay below the radar. They’ll elevate your rank and your pay to that of a brigadier -retrospective to your date of death, provided you stay out of circulation. He said a quiet life is better than no life at all.”
Gertruida quietly excuses herself, saying she’ll catch up later. Nobody takes notice – they’re too absorbed in the story.
“I refused, of course. Well, the rank I accepted. Maybe it was just to show my goodwill, or maybe it was vanity, but I liked the idea of being a brigadier. As for the money…that posed a problem. It sounded so much like the thirty pieces of silver Judas needed to betray the Lord. I suggested they pay out the money and the monthly salary to Hester, as a type of pension. It transpired later that they loved the idea – it was so much less complicated to pay out pension to a widow, than to justify a dead man still drawing a salary.
“And so Grove smuggled me across the borders in the boot of his car. I think a few bribes paved the way, but he never told me why his vehicle wasn’t searched. We entered South Africa at McCarthy’s Rest, and he proceeded to drop me off on the farm. And there, like you know, I have stayed for almost two decades.”
“Gee, Brigadier, that is so sad. What did you do on the farm – all alone by yourself? It must have been horrible.” Precilla reaches out to pat the man’s shoulder.
“For the first few years, I fixed the house, building on extra rooms and making furniture from the natural trees in the area. It was hard work. I had the dream, you see, of returning to Angola to look for Alycia. But time heals many things. My yearning to be with her diminished the longer I thought about it. Why would she want to live with me? Surely she has moved on, married a man, had a new family?
“I started doing charcoal drawings, using the burnt-out sticks of the fire I use to cook on. They helped a lot. I drew pictures of my youth, my early army days, Angola…and Alycia, of course. There must be a stack of paper this high,” he holds out an arm, “in that house. The more I drew, the more realistic the pictures became,
“Yes, those pictures…” For a while it was a form of insanity. He’d draw Alycia as he remembered her – bending over him, applying the bandages, making bush-tea, smiling, frowning, talking. He’d draw her hands, her feet, her back, her neck. And yes…he did the rest, too. All of it. It was as if the images of Alycia kept on regenerating themselves, demanded to be recognised, kept on forcing him back to the drawing table over and over again. The only way to get rid of a mind-image, was to make it a paper-image – and then, as if the image expressed its satisfaction on having been recognised, it would be replaced by another – and another – and another.
And then it changed.
The images turned into gentle pictures of femininity: the simple curve of a thigh, the light on a sweat-soaked biceps, the dimples at the base of the spine. Alycia was fragmenting in his mind, slowly decomposing into the bits and pieces that once were the woman he loved.
“And one day, not long ago, I realised I was losing her. My memory banks of Alycia was running dry, I couldn’t remember her as clearly any more. I had a choice: either I let it go…or not.”
Precilla, still gripped by the sadness of the brigadier’s loss, sobs quietly.
“W-why d-d-didn’t you g-go back, y-you bloody o-old f-f-fool?” She straightens her back, blows her nose and tries to compose herself. “If you cared so much, why didn’t you?”
He takes his time in answering.
“I was scared, Precilla. I didn’t have papers, I don’t have money, and I don’t know what has happened in Caramuti.” He smiles sadly. “I don’t have much to be proud of, my dear. My life has been a mess. I killed people – and now they have killed me. Look at me…and you’ll see a wasted life. An empty shell. And…I don’t want to be hurt any more.”
Precilla is on the verge of answering him, when Gertruida comes skipping in. She’s wildly excited, shouting whoopah! as she sits down at the bar.
“Boggel! Bring me a beer.” She leans over to touch the brigadier’s thigh. “You’ll never guess what I did just now.”
As she throws back her head in happy laughter, the brigadier convinces himself that this woman is as mad as he is.