“Aaarghh!” Patric Ngobeni can’t move. Something big and heavy is pinning his head down. His companion, the soft-spoken and usually silent Sipho Mahlangu, stirs painfully on the bed Mevrou made for them last night. She had borrowed a large mattress from Sammie and moved the lounge furniture in the parsonage to make room for the unexpected guests.
“They don’t know Green Ambulances in Gauteng,” Oudoom said as they arranged the bedding the previous evening, “these guys will need Aspirin in the morning. And maybe,” he adds with a mischievous glint in his eye, “a good sermon about Loving Thy Neighbour.”
“Shame, Oudoom, whatever they did, they don’t deserve such harsh punishment. Did you see their tears when Kleinpiet served the last round? They showed real remorse then – I felt sorry for them. Sitting in an office year in and year out can’t be fun – and then suddenly you get orders to break into somebody’s house to steal papers. And, to top it all, you get blamed for missing a map that was never there. Shame, I took pity on them.”
“But I don’t think that Patrick guy should have phoned the colonel. When you tell your superior officer he can stuff his job right up his you-know-what, it usually has a negative impact on your career options in the future. And … I expect more visitors… Anyway, these two boys are in for a hard time.”
Of course, Oudoom was right. It takes Patrick a full five minutes to figure out that his head is weighed down by a monstrous headache, and another five to vaguely recall being helped to Oudoom’s house. When he finally moves his head far enough to get Sipho in his field of vision, he is relieved to see that his colleague is still breathing. And then, just as he considers dropping off again, he hears the distinct whup-whup-whup of helicopter blades…
“Boggel, you can sit in the back, if you like. You may be more comfortable there.” Servaas keeps his voice light, as if he’s doing Boggel a favour.
“Sure thing, Servaas. Thank you. Oh… Gertruida will do the driving today, so you two can have a nice chat in front while Rusty and I relax in the back.”
If he didn’t have a belt, Serrvaas’s shoulders would have slumped right to the ground. His disappointment is made worse by Gertruida’s hearty giggle – she’s actually enjoying his embarrassment.
“You old coot you! You were hoping to sit next to sexy Rusty, didn’t you? Now you’re stuck with me, Servaas…and yes – you may look at my legs while I’m driving.” Of course the others find this extremely funny. Servaas bites his lip, forces a smile, and gets in.
The drive to Oudtshoorn takes them through the awesome scenery of Meiringspoort. Gertruida lectures her passengers about the road that was opened in 1858, making it possible for the farmers of the Karoo to transport a milion kilograms of wool to the little export harbour at Mossel Bay by 1870. She also tells them how the sandstone ridges buckled and twisted to form the Swartberg Mountains while the continents of the world were still joined in the single landmass called Gondwanaland. Servaas takes great interest in this lecture, using it as an excuse to twist around in his chair ‘to look at the magnificent formations’. Rusty has to remind him that these formations are outside the car.
The little town called De Rust reminds Boggel of Rolbos, and they stop for a late breakfast at The Village Trading Post. Servaas is so preoccupied with Rusty’s legs, that he doesn’t notice the woman crossing the street with a camera bag slung over her shoulder. Rusty, on the other hand, doesn’t notice her either because she’s turned around to point an accusing finger at the old man. Doubled up in laughter, Gertruida and Boggel also pays no attention to the artist.
Before she drives off, the woman in the car glances over at the little group of people entering the restaurant. Tourists! Yes they are the life-blood of the town, but why do they always have to act like clowns? Then she notices the red hair of the one woman; and for a fleeting moment the unexpected memories of the past ambush her to cause an unwilling sob.
The atmosphere in Boggel’s Place is everything but happy when Colonel Tshabalala walks in through the swing doors. His two agents are trying to ignore the nausea which prevents them from drinking coffee, while Oudoom and Mevrou exchange guilty glances. What have they landed themselves in?
Somewhere in the military books, it states that an angry superior officer must voice his displeasure in a certain way. This is done with a ram-rod straight back, head thrown back, and an extremely loud voice (preferably with a baton tucked under the left arm, leaving the right hand free to amplify the spiced words). The colonel, despite his lack of sufficient experience, does a marvellous job. Standing six feet away from his two agents, he manages to rant for a full ten minutes without repeating himself once.
“Now,” he turns to Kleinpiet behind the counter, “you…!” He finally runs out of steam as he sees the surprised innocence on the stand-in barman’s face.
Tshabalala throws his hands in the air in disgust, dropping the baton.
“Come on you two! On the double! We’re tracking that Volkswagen, and it’s heading towards Oudtshoorn. Get in the bloody helicopter! March! And pick up my stick, you fools!”
As the sound of the rotors fade away, Oudoom sits down with a sigh.
“Better mix something green and strong for me and Mevrou, Kleinpiet. Get one yourself, as well. I think we’re going to need it.”
“That’s the entrance to the main cave,” Rusty points, “but there’s a footpath leading from the parking area. We have to follow that until we get to a stream. That’s where we veer off to the right and start aiming for a rock formation that resembles the contours of a face. Come, I’ll show you.”
“Let the men walk in front,” Gertruida says with a wink, “we women will follow. Snakes, you know?”
Giggling at Servaas’s disappointment, the two ladies fall in behind Boggel and the disgruntled old man as they start the long journey into the mountain; the torches and water bottles clinking softly in their backpacks.
There! That’s the scene in the photograph. The artist sits down to wait for the sun to dip towards the horizon When the light is right, she’ll get the perfect shot – the one that captures the atmosphere she wants to depict in the painting.
Inadvertently, her thoughts stray back to the colour of the young lady’s hair.
Before her own hair turned the colour of ash, that’s what she looked like. Red-headed, vivacious, lovely. Married… Yes, there were happy days. Many of them. But then she found out, and that was the start of the slow slide down the slope of unhappiness. The arguments got worse before the silences became more intense. And in the end – when the terrible finality of their incompatibility became a huge animal that was slowly devouring both of them – it was the unbearable sadness of being together that made the divorce so easy.
She walked out, leaving everything behind. Everything. Just took a bag with essentials, walked out, alone. Took the bus, got off in De Rust, started over. She had the art in her though, an animal that refused to go away – a friendly one that comforted her in those dark, lonely first years. And she fed that animal, made it bigger, stronger; refining her talent until at last it started feeding her.
And then her husband-that-was died and she felt more alone than ever. Maybe if she tried harder?
She shakes her head. No, that door is closed. He died. Yearning for what she has lost isn’t going to help anything. She’ll just sit here and wait for the right moment for her photographs, enjoying the silence and the comfort of these magnificent mountains.
The sound of approaching voices makes her look up sharply. People? Here? And she’s a woman, alone? Gathering her camera, she slinks away to hide behind a rock. Please, the last thing she wants now, is company.