The cool air and the fear of the unknown cause the artist to shiver as the men enter the chamber. They’re quite close now, and she can make out their words clearly.
“Look, the blue line disappears into that hole.”
“We’ll follow it.”
(Sounds of a man breathing heavily, followed by grunts and groans)
“I can’t get through this hole.”
“You’re too big, Colonel.”
“Then the two of you must go on. Take the torch. I’ll wait here.”
Darkness has immense power: it carries with it the fear of countless generations. Since the dawn of time, darkness is associated with danger, death and horror. Ghosts and zombies, cannibals and carnivores use the cloak of night to stalk unsuspecting prey.
Colonel Tshabalala is no exception – he hates darkness. This is not – as is often the case in Africa – due to superstition. In 1983 he was arrested after the Church Street Bomb incident and spent endless days in solitary confinement…in total darkness. His interrogators would drag him from that cell, question and torture him, and lock him up again. The complete disorientation, the pain and the utter isolation combined to drive him mad with fear. He had no concept of time; not the faintest warning of the next ‘session’ and no clue as to what had happened to his comrades.
Now, with the two agents gone with the torch, the demons of that time return to torment him. Curled up on the floor of the cave, he tries to dispel his fears. He’s never been particularly religious and doesn’t believe in prayer – but he now whispers as much of the Lord’s Prayer as he can remember. He gets to ‘…and give us today our daily bread...’ but can’t remember the rest.
He falls silent. It’s of no use. Then, to his utter surprise, he hears a female voice: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”
“This is it…” Boggel shines his torch in the new chamber they’ve just entered, letting out a drawn-out whistle. “Just look at this…”
Neatly stacked on the floor, the rows of stainless steel boxes stretch from wall to wall. They are clearly marked with letters and numbers, each box the size of a filing cabinet drawer.
“So we found it,” Servaas is tired and short of breath, “now what?”
“I-I’m not sure. Dad said there is one box I must find. It’s marked with an ‘I’. He said I had to destroy it.”
“But look,” Gertruida points, “all the boxes are marked ‘A 1, A 2,’ and so on. Here are the ‘G’s and there is a stack of ‘H’s.” She walks over to get a clearer view. “And here…here is a single box with an ‘I’ stencilled on it.”
They are crowding around the box when they hear a sound behind them.
“Eish.” Patrick Ngobeni can’t believe his eyes. They were following a single woman, and now suddenly they come across four people. Four! “W-What are you doing here?”
Boggel is the first to recover. “And who, may I ask, are you?”
“No, you tell me who you are and what you’re doing here.” Patrick tries to sound confident, despite the uncertainty in his mind. This is just too much!
“Look,” Gertruida says, “this isn’t going to get us anywhere. Let’s talk about this. I’ll tell you what we’re doing here; and then it’s your turn. There’s no need for this situation to get out of control. Come over here and let me explain…”
“So you came here to take photographs? That’s all?” The colonel has heard strange stories in his life, but this tops them all.
During the last half hour the two of them progressed from fear to a strange camaraderie. When they recited the Lord’s Prayer together, realising that they’re both alone, afraid and completely lost, they shared an uneasy silence for a while. Then, after the who-are-you and why-are-you-here questions, they moved towards each other’s voices to eventually huddle together.
“Yes, indeed. But who, then, are the other people? The ones that got here first?”
“I’m not sure. They must be the people I have been following – all the way from the Kalahari. They have a map of the cave, I think.”
“So…what’s so important about the map?”
While the colonel explains, the artist gasps in surprise. Can it be? Surely not? This cave? Noooo…!
“So.” Patrick swallows hard. “It’s all about this box? What’s inside there?”
“We’re not sure at all. My suggestion is that we take it outside and have a look. Then we can decide what to do, don’t you agree?”
It is in the dark chamber where the colonel and the artist waits that the strange events of the past few days reach a climax.
“I don’t believe it!” The artist views the group as they emerge from the narrow tunnel. “Rusty?”
Everything else fades into insignificance as the two women stare at each other in the light of the torches. Then the older woman rushes across to her daughter, whispering I-don’t-believe it over and over again.
Outside the cave, with the sun just above the horizon, the group divides in two. Mother and daughter have lost all interest in the box marked with the black ‘I’, and sit down on a large rock to marvel at the coincidence of meeting up like this.
“But why did you leave, Mom? And why didn’t you contact me?”
Divorce doesn’t affect two people. It affects family, friends, colleagues, pets, congregations and every person remotely associated with the couple. Sometimes couples separate because of small differences that grew larger as time went by. Sometimes it is impossible to pinpoint the day they both realised how stupid it is to try to make the marriage work. And sometimes, like in the Van Graan household, the bomb explodes with such ferocity that the date remains etched in memory.
She had been cleaning the house when, quite by chance, she happened to see a slip of paper falling from the waste paper basket she had been emptying. A single name was written on it: Eleanor – and a telephone number. Intrigued and suspicious, she phoned the number.
“That was the start. Eleanor was the name of the secretary of a certain Ferdinand Fourie. She and Ferdinand and your father went on regular ‘business trips’ which involved a lot of spying and a lot of danger. Somewhere, sometime they got…involved. Your father and Eleanor. When she heard it was me on the phone, she immediately assumed I knew – but I didn’t, not at that stage. So she broke down crying, saying how sorry she was and how terrible it had been to live with the guilt. Before I could say anything – I was speechless, like you can understand – she put down the phone.
“That evening your father came home to tell me she had committed suicide… Jumped from the building and fell to her death.
“I won’t tell you what happened during the rest of the evening. We ended up shouting at each other, saying things we didn’t mean; hurting, wounding words. Later, I told him I couldn’t live with him any longer. For years and years I fitted into the mould society expected me to fill, but no longer. I wanted out.
“He pleaded, but my mind was made up. Then he told me to get out. Go, he said, and don’t come back. I stormed out, angry as can be, with only the barest of necessities in my suitcase. I had a bit of money saved – my father left me a tidy sum after his death – and eventually ended up in De Rust.
“Of course I felt bad. Over the months I tried phoning him a few times, but he never returned my calls. I wrote letter after letter to you because I wasn’t brave enough to talk to you on the phone – but you didn’t answer, either?”
Rusty stares at the lined face of her mother in disbelief. “I never – never – got a single letter from you. Not one.”
Before they could say anything more, the shouts from the other group make them look up sharply.
“Mine! This is mine!” It’s the colonel’s voice, angry and frightened at the same time. “Stand back, or Ill shoot!”