Monthly Archives: November 2013

Weekly Photo Challenge: Let there be Light – A night in Africa…

You need light to survive here…

IMG_2095

 

Oh, for more light than just the flickering campfire! . Was that a twig snapping? And…is it the wind or something breathing rather heavily?

IMG_0134aThe bleak moon behind the warped map of Africa doesn’t help at all. The sound of…feet? What is that?

bufIs it an angry buffalo, sneaking up with only parking lights to guide him?

badNo! Thank goodness! It’s just a badger – headlights turned to ‘Bright’, sniffing around for scraps.

elWhen at last Light dawns, Africa becomes Paradise again, with endless vistas and peaceful neighbours.

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Mrs Basson’s Whisper (# 4)

senior with oxygen mask in blue toneFanny sits down on the bed, facing Fiona Basson, who keeps on staring at her hands on her lap.

“It’s been a long time,” Fanny says after a while. She gets no response. “I tried to remember how long ago I listened to you in the Royal Albert Hall…it’s scary how fast the years roll by. I was young back then. Innocent. Stupid. Naive. In the meantime such a lot has happened and Now I live in Rolbos, married to Vetfaan – the burly one, remember?”

If Fiona remembers their recent visit (only yesterday), she gives no indication of it.

“It is here,” she sweeps a hand towards the window, towards the Kalahari, “that I found myself again. I met the most wonderful people. They care. Really care…” What else can I say to make her pay attention? I might as well be talking to a log. “Don’t worry, Fiona. You don’t have to say anything. We can just sit here a while.”

***

“Hymie says Mrs Fiona Basson is comfortably wealthy. Not super rich, but comfortable. She had a house in Rome, which was sold after she decided to stay in Grootdrink. Apparently most of her funds are invested in a set of blue-chip stocks – and given her modest expenses, her initial capital has grown significantly.” Sammie places the fax he’s just received on the counter. Precilla gasps when he sees the amount under Total while Kleinpiet lets out a long, low whistle.

***

Fanny picks up one of the scattered books and tries a different approach: “You write a lot,” she says as she scans through the pages.

Edgar Allan Poe jumps at her from a page:

 ‘Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone;
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.’

“I studied literature as a pre-grad. Used to love Poe – he was such a master of metaphor and delusion – and delightfully depressing. This is from Spirits of the Dead, isn’t it?”

She looks up to find Fiona studying her as if it’s the first time she’s actually seen her. When their eyes meet, Fiona nods feebly.

“I remember bits of Poe,” Fanny persists, “…let me think… There was a poem of a haunted palace… Oh yes!”

‘And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.’

“I love the bit about glory that blushed and bloomed. It’s so vivid! I always imagined my life would blush and bloom, but it never works out exactly the way we anticipate, does it?” She pauses, remembering more. “And he must have loved a girl named Helen. I wonder what became of her? He said something like this:

‘And thou, a ghost, amid the entombing trees 
Didst glide away. Only thine eyes remained; 
They would not go- they never yet have gone;’ 

“…Only her eyes remained. Those distant, tantalising, mesmerising eyes of the one he loved. Everything else changed, but her eyes were constant reminders of what had been. They didn’t disappear. Our memories of love and loved ones are like that.”

Fiona turned to face the window, where the curtain is still open since the previous visit. Out there is space. Birds. Trees. Freedom. Also people and death. Life… 

“We all become the ghosts of our dreams, don’t we, Fiona? And when the old ghosts won’t go, we can’t move on to dream new dreams. We become stuck in a no-man’s land of empty days. Maybe that’s what depression is all about, or maybe each of us has a different way of dealing with loss – but sometimes we run out of dreams.”

Out there, beyond these walls, people want to have dreams. I don’t. It hurts too much. Fiona Basson sighs. This is where I belong. This is all that’s left…. Walls and paper and words nobody will ever read. She closes her eyes. What’s the use?

***

Spy Snyman is more helpful.

“It was just another burglary gone wrong – that’s what the newspapers said. Two old people. Soft targets. The criminals went in, found the daughter there. Left them all for dead. They were caught afterwards, and one pleaded guilty. The police found a purse, some cash, a few credit cards belonging to Fiona Basson, and the oxygen cylinder in the perpetrator’s shack. Can you believe it? They even took the oxygen! Why? To sell as scrap metal?

“Anyway, it is a tragic story. Amongst the other stories of rape, crime and corruption, this one didn’t even reach the front pages. Apparently Fiona Basson instructed her lawyers to protect her identity – almost as if she felt ashamed or guilty about what happened.

“Sad, extremely sad…”

***

Paul Scribbles didn’t have to consult the archives. He remembers the case well – it was his first real homicide case.

“It was horrible. Fiona Basson was hit and fell to the floor. Completely unconscious, unable to do a thing. The robbers slapped the old man around some more, which caused his oxygen mask to fall off. They wanted the safe and he tried to tell them they don’t have one. The one robber turned state witness and told everything in court.”

Even the judge was horrified. Fiona’s father struggled to breathe. His wife tried to help. She was shot. The old man had a heart attack brought on by the loss of his life-giving oxygen mask. The criminals took what they could – including the oxygen cylinder.

Later, when Fiona came to, she couldn’t understand….

“Apparently the blow to her throat damaged the little Hyoid bone attached to the larynx. She had to write down her testimony in court because she was unable to speak. After the court case, she disappeared completely, and the newspapers found some other scandal to entertain their readers with.”

***

“I think,” Fanny gets up while holding on to Fiona’s hand, “you need a change of scenery. Let’s get out of here – I want you to meet somebody…er…something, actually. I think you’ll like it.”

Despite the desperate uncertainty in Fiona’s eyes, she follows Fanny to the door.

The door that’s been the outer limit of her life for two decades.

The door that she shut because fear kept her inside.

The door she kept closed because the silence was too terrible to share.

She hesitates when they come to the little step leading down to the red Kalahari sands. When she feels the warm sun on her marble-like skin, she tugs back. Noooo! I can’t! Please don’t drag me back to Life? I want to…I need to…die…

Mrs Basson’s Whisper (# 3)

3013666-evil-criminal-with-a-knife-wearing-balaclavaHer parents were overjoyed to see her again. The money she had sent back from Europe helped to improve their circumstances significantly: the two old people now lived in a modest retirement village near Stellenbosch. Although her father still couldn’t survive without the oxygen cylinder next to his bed, they were having the best times of their lives.

“It’s so nice of you to spend your holiday with us,” her mother said on that fateful day after she’d unpacked her suitcase. They were sitting around her father’s bed, happy to be reunited. “This is not a much, but compared to what we had in the past, it’s a mansion.” 

Fiona smiled brightly. Yes, she’d become used to so much more: the luxury hotels, the gourmet meals, the flashy limousines…but this was home, this was where she belonged.

“You know, Mom,” Fiona remarked as she stirred her rooibos tea, “I owe it all to you…and Dad, of course.” She hastily added her father, not wanting to hurt his feelings – but the two old people knew she was just being polite. It was her mother’s hard work that kept them from bankruptcy during her childhood years. And it was her mother who had taught her the wonder of music and song.

“O, Fiona, you’re such a liar! I didn’t do much, you had all those melodies inside you even before you were born. Singing was your destiny.”

“I remember,” the memory caused a smile to play around Fiona’s full lips, “how you taught me to sing the old Afrikaner songs. You loved those, didn’t you? But you always insisted that I pay my respects to the music and the song. The words and the melody had to be spot on, otherwise you told me to start all over again.”

The two women share a light-hearted chuckle as Fiona sings a few lines from ‘O, Boereplaas’. That used to be their favourite a long, long time ago.

And then, like Life so often does, the beauty of the moment was shattered as the two masked men appeared in the doorway.

***

Gertruida puts down the telephone, with a sigh. Apparently oblivious of the rest of Rolbos waiting to hear whether she had any news, she signals Boggel to serve another beer.

“Did you find out anything?” Fanny leans forward in anticipation.

“Yes…and no.” She pauses as she gathers her thoughts. “The man who brought her here was from Barnard, Fourie and Botha, the law firm in the Cape that pays her rent. That much was easy. Ouma also confirmed that the rent is paid by this firm; that’s why I phoned them first.

“But that’s where I run into a brick wall. Privileged information. Client confidentiality. Professional ethics.” Gertruida sighs. “Typical. They don’t care what condition she is in, as long as she’s alive and living at Ouma’s. For them she is simply a bill to pay. If she’s breathing and staying at a certain place; and if the rent is paid, their job is done. No compassion.”

“But the money must come from somewhere, Gertruida. No self-respecting lawyer is going to fork out money for charity. There must be a fund taking care of Fiona.” Of them all, Sammie  must be the most astute businessman; he understands cashflow.

“The banks are worse than the lawyers, Sammie. They won’t tell us anything either – even if we knew where the account is held.”

“That may be true, Kleinpiet. But I have a nephew in Cape Town. If anybody can ferret information out of any bank, Hymie can do it. He’s a consultant for Sanlam, the life insurers.” Sammie tells them about Hymie’s job. “You see, there’s a lot of fraud going on. People take out life-insurance policies and then fake their deaths. Or – Mr A takes out a policy on the life of Mr B, who then obliges by dying a month or two later. Murder, suicide, abduction…you name it and you’ll find it crossing Hymie’s desk. So…it is in the best interests of the banks and the insurers to grant someone like Hymie access to their records. You won’t believe the millions involved with these scams.”

“Great idea, Sammie.” Sersant Dreyer lifts his glass in acknowledgement. “I’ll phone Spy Snyman. We go back a long time: we were stationed in the Caprivi during the Border War. Nowadays he runs a small private investigation company in Cape Town. He can maybe find out more about Mrs Basson’s past.”

“Yes, that’s great. And I…” Precilla blushes as she glances over at Kleinpiet, “I had a …friend …while I was studying. He ran the student newspaper and later joined The Cape Argus as a reporter. Great investigative journalist. Paul Scribbles.” Seeing Kleinpiet’s reaction, she quickly adds: “I haven’t had contact with him in years, but I’m sure he’ll help…”

***

Please don’t hurt us, her mother said. The one man laughed, told her to open the safe.

What safe, her mother asked. The man walked over to her and punched her in the face. The sound of knuckles breaking the old woman’s nose, was sickening. Her father tried to get up, but another blow flattened the frail old man. 

The safe, the man said again. His companion moved over to the bed to lay a knife against her father’s throat. Despite the blood streaming from her mother’s nose, she cried No! and stumbled towards the bed.

For a while Fiona stood rooted to the spot, too shocked to move. Then with a strangled cry, she rushed towards the man who kept on asking for them to show them the safe. She knew her parents had no safe – in fact, they had very few valuable possessions. The blatant brutality of the men scared her, causing an adrenaline surge that smothered logic. She had to protect her parents!

With her fist pulled back and murder in her eyes, Fiona got to within a yard of the criminal. He calmly stepped aside, pivoted on his one leg, and delivered a blow to her throat. She went down like a bag of flour.

***

“Now we can only wait,” Gertruida says. “One of our contacts will certainly unearth something.”

“I’m going back to Fiona. Sitting here doing nothing isn’t going to help – it’s frustrating, to say the least. You guys wait for some news while I go talk to her.” Fanny gets up to go. When Vetfaan wants to join her, Fanny shakes her head. “No – wait with the rest, Fanie.” Her tone is kind, soft – but commanding. “Sometimes a one-on-one is more effective. I’ll phone from Ouma’s if I manage anything.”

***

Fiona Basson doesn’t look up when Fanny enters the rondawel. She doesn’t care. Her life ended the day her parents died.

 

Mrs Basson’s Whisper (# 2)

Lucia di Lammermoor Credit: Seattleoperablog.com

Lucia di Lammermoor
Credit: Seattleoperablog.com

The little girl always sang. 

Always. 

Well, maybe not with words all the time: she’d hum or whistle – or simply played the tune inside her mind. Her aunt said it was because she inherited her talent from the Hanekoms that used to tour the country and maybe she had a point; but her father told everybody that God sometimes blesses a child with an exceptional talent and that He deserves the praise. And of course: there was the influence of her mother…

Despite her obvious gift, little Fiona Basson lived in the cul-de-sac of poverty. There was no money for a proper education, no prospect of attending a conservatorium, no hope for receiving training for the sweet juvenile voice. Her father used to bring home just enough money to sustain the family; but coal-mining is a dangerous occupation and the feared Black Lung forced him to be bedridden by the time she was eight.

Her mother worked as a shop assistant, which didn’t even pay the rent. Little Fiona, a hard worker and somebody who knew at a terribly young age her mother needed help, eventually found a job: a dishwasher at the Greek’s cafe a few blocks away. Her  sunny nature and diligence resulted in her being promoted to be a waitress when she turned twelve.

And all the time music accompanied her wherever she went. In the Greek’s establishment (rather tacky, but serving an excellent mixed grill and equipped with a second-hand jukebox he swindled from his brother) she’d serve the customers with a smile while she hummed the latest melody on the hit parade. In the kitchen she’d sing (not too loudly) the songs on the Vinyl 78’s in the jukebox: Callas, Piaf, Mario Lanza…

And it was there, shortly after her thirteenth birthday, that Hendrik Brandt heard her sing for the first time.

***

The little crowd inside the rondawel can’t really decide what to do. Fiona Basson, they now know, once was a famous soprano – a woman with the opera-world at her feet. But now, that Fiona Basson is no more. The Silent Woman took over the life of Fiona Basson, robbing her of her voice, her life and a future that promised so much. Like a hermit crab, The Big Nothing invaded her very existence to obliterate the dreams that once were.

“Maybe she had one of those mini-strokes,” Servaas ventures in a whisper, remembering Siena. “Maybe she simply lost the ability to speak? You know: unable to find the words to express herself.”

Gertruida nods. “It is possible, but I don’t think so. Look at the books.”

Gertruida – as always – is right. The books are everywhere – on the floor, next to the chair, under the bed. All of them similar, all of them simple school-exercise books.

Fanny, who’ve been paging through one, agrees. “She’s not at loss for words, that’s for sure. Look at this: pages and pages filled with poetry.”

“Fiona?”

The withered face turns slowly, very slowly, to look at Gertruida. The pain in the eyes makes Gertruida flinch.

“Can you understand me?”

Nod.

“Can you speak?”

The eyes swivel downwards again to stare at the arthritic hands folded on her lap.

“Something happened, didn’t it? Something bad, really bad? Way back then?”

This time, Fiona doesn’t respond. She just sits there, waiting for them to go.

***

When he heard the sweet sound of her voice drifting from the kitchen, Hendrik Brandt immediately recognised the gift the young girl had. Hendrik had dropped in for a quick bite; he was hungry and in a hurry ; but the voice – the clarity and beauty – made him forget all about his immediate needs. This was talent…genuine talent.

As the musical director of CAPAB (Cape Performing Arts Board), Hendrik had heard, judged, rejected or promoted so many artists, that he thought he had heard the full range of  vocal capabilities in his time. But now, staring down at the greasy steak and two eggs, he felt goosebumps developing all over as the voice carried to him amidst the aromas emanating from the kitchen. He got up, pushed open the door, and gazed in wonder at the child-woman setting up the next tray.

Two months later, Fiona moved to a modest flat near the Nico Malan Theatre, where Brandt personally supervised her tutelage under the stern eye of Madame Gudrin Sjodin. She became part of the choir soon after, but progressed to minor solo roles by the time she was sixteen. At eighteen she starred in Carmen and two years later she sang the lead in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. It was her rendition of Il Dolce Suono; written in F Major, and ending on a high F above high C; that landed her the contract with La Scala.

***

“I think she’s mad.” Servaas pulls at the lapels of his black suit as they get out of the car at Boggel’s Place. “If she had a minor stroke, she certainly chose a strange way to treat it. Why sit cooped up in a bungalow? And Ouma says she doesn’t take pills or anything like that. No…I think she lost her marbles.”

“That’s harsh, Servaas.” There’s no mistaking the rebuke in Precilla’s voice. “I think she’s hiding from the world. And did you even look at the poetry? I read a few verses, and it’s filled with pain. And…she knows her poetry. I saw a bit of Aleksandr Pushkin amongst her verses:

Not long ago, in a charming dream,
I saw myself -- a king with crown's treasure;
I was in love with you, it seemed,
And heart was beating with a pleasure.
I sang my passion's song by your enchanting knees.
Why, dreams, you didn't prolong my happiness forever?
But gods deprived me not of whole their favor:
I only lost the kingdom of my dreams.

“I think it’s incredibly sad.”

“We can speculate until we’re as crazy as the parliament, guys, but I’m going to find out. There has to be a way. And I’ll call in a few favours for this one – some of my old friends still owe me…” Gertruida has that look. “And whatever it is…we must do something. We can’t let that woman destroy herself like that.”

Boggel recognises the look, the tone. Well, he’ll do his bit. Smiling sweetly, he opens the bottle of Cactus.

Love is a rebellious bird
that nobody can tame,
and you call him quite in vain
if it suits him not to come.” …… (Bizet.)

Mrs Basson’s Whisper (# 1)

sign copy“Never?” Precilla can’t believe it.

“Never. Doesn’t say a single word. Ouma says so, and she should know: that woman has been staying at het guest house for more than twenty years.”

Ouma’s Guest House in Grootdrink has a reputation for good value for money, and is a popular stopover for weary travellers. It’s also widely known that she has a silent guest – a long-term one at that – who stays in the rondawel at the edge of her property.

Now, we all know people like that. The Strange Ones, the Misfits, the Hermits – they live amongst us and somehow we become so used to them that they become invisible. We don’t see them any more…or, more accurately, it suits us not to see them any more. It’s a choice. The beggars, the politicians, the man in tattered clothing at the stop street – we block them out because it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge their presense in our realities.

So, although everybody knows about The Silent Woman staying at Ouma’s, she was relegated (by virtue of a communal and unspoken understanding) to the Invisible World, where it wasn’t necessary to care or worry about her any longer.

Oh, it’s not as if Ouma didn’t try to break through the barrier of silence. Mrs Basson was, after all, a well-travelled and apparently extremely intelligent woman. Ouma used to visit her daily – that was at the beginning – to hear whether she needed anything; but Mrs Basson, The Silent Woman, just sat there with her empty eyes and the vacant smile; staring out of the little window at nothing. Ouma gave up after a while, and now Mrs Basson simply exists in the void she has created around herself.

“Ouma says her bill is paid on the last day of the month. As regular as clockwork, she says. Some lawyer firm in Cape Town. And twice a year she gets a letter from the same people, requesting an update of her guest. What can she tell them, other than Mrs Basson is alive and well and…silent?” Gertruida spreads her arms wide, not expecting an answer.

“But where did she come from? It’s such an unusual place for a woman like…that…to settle down. A rondawel in the middle of nowhere? Who’d want to do that?” Although he loves the isolation of the Kalahari, Kleinpiet cannot imagine being cooped up in a rondawel for such a long time.

“Ouma says she was brought there by a man in a neat suit, way back then. The man said Mrs Basson asked to stay there and that her bills would be paid. No, he didn’t know for how long, but that was Mrs Basson’s choice, he said. If she wanted to move on, Ouma had to phone the lawyers and they’d take care of everything.”

“Well, we all know about Mrs Basson and before tonight nobody really mentioned her. What made you bring up the subject, Gertruida?”

“Ag you know how it is, Vetfaan. I stopped at Ouma’s on my way back fro Upington – just for a cup of tea and a chat. Halfway through the tea, Ouma mentioned the woman, saying she is becoming a problem. Of course I was curious.”

The issue at stake, Ouma explained, was that she wanted to expand the guest house. “The rondawel will have to go, Gertruida, to make room for the new wing of rooms I have in mind. So I told Mrs Basson she’d have to move to the main guest house while the building is going on.” That’s when, Ouma said, Mrs Basson became extremely agitated. “Apparently she shook her head violently before collapsing on the bed, sobbing silently. Ouma didn’t know what to do and left her. When she went back, the door was locked. Mrs Basson doesn’t want to let her in any more.”

***

They all drove over to Ouma’s Guest House the following day after a lengthy discussion in Boggel’s Place. Fanny had reminded them that it’s a month before Christmas, and they couldn’t just ignore the situation. It’s their duty as human beings and as concerned citizens, she said, to do something about this.

“Mrs Basson?” Gertruida uses her friendliest tone after knocking on the rondawel’s door. “We need to talk.”

Servaas thinks this is the worst way to get Mrs Basson to open the door. A mute woman and you want to talk with her? Yet, much to her surprise, the key rattles in the lock and the door swings open.

tumblr_mjij9gKmC11s7idsho1_1280The best way to describe Mrs Basson is to imagine a very old, dented, antique Buick Y. You get the impression of style and elegance, of the fascination of a past generation…and of decay, damage, delusion… Mrs Basson must have been a beauty in her prime; but all that now remains, is the shell of elegance – a faint reminder of something magnificent that no longer enthrals. He blond hair is grey now, the high cheek bones covered by wrinkles, the ears almost too big in comparison with the rest of her features…and the false teeth date back to a time when her face was fuller, kinder…

“Mrs Basson?” Gertruida gets a faint nod. “May we come in?”

***

It is dark inside the dwelling. the single window covered by a curtain that sheds a cloud of dust when Gertruida pulls it open. Except for a bed and a chair, the only other furniture is a wash basin on an ancient stand. Against the wall, a single framed picture hangs at an angle. And there are books…stacks of them, scattered around.

“We wanted to know what you’d like to do for Christmas.” Gertruida sits down on the bed next to Mrs Basson while the rest of the little group stand around uncomfortably. To describe the conditions inside the rondawel as ‘spartan’ is an overstatement.

The woman places a hand on Gertruida’s knee and shakes her head. No. I don’t want your charity.

“You see, we’re from Rolbos and we don’t think it’s fair for you to sit here, year after silent year, with nobody to share Christmas with. What can we do?”

A single tear rolls down the pale cheek. Another shake of the head.

Fanny studies the picture against the wall.

Fiona Basson? Fiona?” Surprise colours her question. “You are Fiona Basson?”

The teary eyes swivel towards Fanny before an almost imperceptible nod follows. Is that…fear…in her eyes now?

choirs“I heard you sing. In the Royal Albert Hall in London. I was barely a teenager then, but I’ll never forget the night. My father forced me to go, you see? I didn’t want to go because my best friend had a sleepover. And…” Fanny falters at the thought, “you saved my life.”

A flicker of interest in the old woman’s eyes now – just for a second, before they stare down at her lap again.

“My friend had arranged quite a party that night. Some time after midnight, they decided to get something to eat. It happened while they walked to a nearby fastfood outlet – a lorry smashed into them. No brakes, drunken driver. They – there were three of them – were all killed.” Fanny lets out a shuddering sigh: even after all these years, the memory still bites deep.

“I didn’t know that while I was listening to you, of course. I sat there, puffed up and angry, while you sang the lead in the Nun’s Chorus. And then I heard you – really heard you. Not your voice, but your passion. I…cried, You were beautiful.

“The next day, when we heard the news, my father didn’t say much. We were shocked. But we knew: if he didn’t force me to tag along with him the previous evening, I’d have been dead,,,”

“Are you the woman who returned to South Africa after  singing the lead in Aida in La Scala? The one they called The Voice of the Century? And then, why then…you simply disappeared?” Gertruida – who knows everything – vaguely recalls the newspaper articles about South Africa’s once-famous diva.

This time, her answer is a stifled sob.

It’s the wrong beach, that’s all…

whites-Only

Siena was quite someone to look at, Servaas says. Young, vivacious, fun-loving. She used to dress to please – and to tease. That is, until Servasie got born, then everything changed. But before that, she was – according to the old man – as hot as Durban’s Burn-in-Hell curry.

“She had this body, see…ab-so-lute-ly fabulous. When I was elected as elder in the church, I packed those photos away in the old trunk and locked it. She was sexy…” Servaas has that faraway look Vrede gets when you take the biltong away. “But I still have them. Yes sir, I do.”

“So you had a nice wedding?” Gertruida wants to keep the conversation going. It’s been rather quiet in Rolbos lately.

“The wedding was traditional. Parents, grandparents, nephews and nieces. But afterwards we went to Durban. It was the first time I saw the sea. That was great, except I almost drowned there…”

***

December, Durban, 1963.

In July the top structure of the ANC had been arrested at Liliesfield, and in November the Rivonia Trial began. Nelson Mandela was still mostly an unknown name and the various boycotts against the Nationalist regime had not bitten into the livelihood of average citizens yet.

Despite the looming decline of the social structure, the economy and the eventual reversal of political balances, South Africa was still steaming ahead, believing in the principle that different cultures should be encouraged to maintain their identities. Of course, Servaas says, that was wrong. It’s far better to throw everybody together and start from scratch: “…but being a Rainbow Nation is hard. There are just too many hues…”

Servaas knew little about the bigger picture. He was on honeymoon with Siena and the Marine Sands Hotel offered luxury beyond his wildest dreams. A double bed, radio and even room service… Wow! Imagine reclining in your bed and ordering toasted sandwiches and milkshakes!

Finally, on day four of their honeymoon, the two of them agreed to visit the beach. The sea had been calling them since their arrival –  and surely they had to have at least one little dip in the ocean before returning to the Kalahari? Siena put on her lace-trimmed bathing suit, had to undress, and put it on again before they made it to the lift.

Of course the lift was a treat. The uniformed man asked where they were going, despite the towels and bathing suits. He pressed ‘G’ and the cables and wheels whirred and clanked to deposit them on ground floor.

“Ground Floor. All out.” the man announced and ushered them into the foyer. Siena was shy, but soon realised that she was slightly overdressed. Bikinis were starting to become fashionable and the younger girls seemed unconcerned to display their various anatomical attributes in public. Siena, in her one-piece and gown, felt a little better after noting this.

SuperStock_42-6366 (Rickshaw)Despite the fact that the beach was right across the road, Servaas decided to be extravagant and hired a rickshaw to take them on a block-long roundabout trip back to where they started. They got off, he paid the exorbitant 75c and walked to the seaside opposite to the hotel.

This was a beach reserved for Whites Only, of course, so they were safe there. The Indian vendor with the rubberised floating mattresses caught Servass’s eye, but it was only later – when they were relaxing under the umbrella – that Servaas started watching the daring antics of the body-surfers.

At the beach, Servaas paid 50c for an umbrella for the day and they spread their towels in the shade. No, Siena wouldn’t like to swim, thank you. There are sharks out there… But…Servaas, young and adventurous, thought differently – although there was no way he could stay above the surface of the water. In the Kalahari, swimming isn’t big. In fact, it isn’t at all.

To cut a long story short: Servaas made it to the water. He managed to get past the waves. And there, where the sea is flat and only the waves-to-be rocked his little floating mattress, Servaas relaxed while he marvelled at the soothing rhythm of the sea.

The shouting lifeguard on the beach made no impression on Servaas – he simply couldn’t hear the man. So, while he drifted deeper and deeper into the ocean, carried along on the gentle current, Servaas tasted the salty water, felt the sun on his face and told himself that Life is, indeed, sweet.

By the time he noticed he was in trouble, he had travelled about a mile from the little umbrella where Siena was reading Die Brandwag. He could barely make out the shore. Their hotel? Where is the hotel?

He started paddling towards the beach. He was young and fit and strong, which helped. It must have taken an hour, but eventually he beached: amongst bathers who sported skins darkened not by the sun, but by the amount of pigment they inherited from their parents. Servaas, White citizen, found himself on a Non-Whites-Only beach…

***

“I didn’t know what to do. A policeman was shouting at me while the other people on the beach thought it was hilarious. Eventually I made it back to Siena, who gave me quite a lot of lip because I stayed away for so long.”

“Were you scared, Servaas?” Precilla wonders what it must have felt like, back then in 1963, to be surrounded by so many Blacks.

“They were laughing at me. I didn’t belong there, I couldn’t swim, I was exhausted…and I was lost. They laughed at the White man who ended up on their beach….No, I wasn’t scared. I felt humiliated.”

“Ja, Servaas. I understand. I think we all understand. In fact, with Black Economic Empowerment, redistribution of land, an inept and corrupt government and the masses that have to resort to crime in order to survive, I think there’s not a single person in the country who doesn’t understand. And, mind you, it isn’t only the political situation: we drifted away from the church, which seems to be arguing about worldly issues so much that we can hardly recognise God any more. Also: family values are dying; today the people in bigger places like Prieska don’t care so much any longer. Individual survival is the motto of the day. People are all desperately trying to reach the beach – any beach – just to feel solid ground under their feet once more.” Gertruida sighs as she signals for another beer. “And now we’ve all ended up on the wrong beach, that’s all…”

1963. 2013. Nothing has changed. Only: the colours are darker.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Unexpected in Africa

Always something new in Africa? You bet…

Offices aren't housed in highrise buildings

Offices aren’t housed in highrise buildings

IMG_2649

Chameleons aren’t always green and some of them never climb trees.

Forcasting and reporting on the weather may be a very simple task

Forecasting and reporting on the weather may be a very simple task

Don't force operator to work fast because you are late - a philosopher on a ferry...

Don’t force operator to operate fast because you are late – a philosopher on a ferry…

A three-legged lion? Sure, just taking a nap...
A three-legged lion? Sure, just taking a nap…

And sometimes the King won't budge. Time for a detour..

And sometimes the King won’t budge. Time for a detour…

Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre. (Africa always brings [us] something new.) – Pliny the elder (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79) said it a long time ago. It remains true to this day.

Perspective: Turning Back

Daily Prompt: Perspective. This is not fiction. First read: The Wrong Turn.

Phoenix-Criminal-Defense-Attorney-2We continue our weekly chats and it becomes increasingly clear that the Road Back isn’t necessarily paved with gold or downhill.

On the contrary.

Drugs, alcohol, friends, society: they all condemn or, at the very least, frown of the individual who has the guts to stand up and accept responsibility for the past. After all: once a criminal, always a criminal…?

My new friend has an easy way out: somewhere, somehow, in jail, they mixed up his ID documents. He now has two ID’s: the real one (lost) and a new one (which isn’t really him – at least not as far as numbers and dates go).

Six years ago he applied for a loan at one of the larger commercial banks, got the cash, and ended up squandering the money. He paid back a number of installments before defaulting. Then, because the loan was granted to an ID he doesn’t own, he simply ignored the  progressively demanding letters. After all, society took away his ID: they owed him…didn’t they?  And wasn’t he entitled to something after all the hardships of the past? In the end he simply tore the letters up without opening him.

We chatted about this.

Today he went back to the bank (alone) and owned up to his actions.

And at the bank – the astute, money-making, no-exceptions, repossessing, cold-hearted bank – he found somebody who listened to him and made him feel like a human being again. Mr Havenga (you know who you are), I salute you. Thank you for being kind. Thank you for meeting my friend and allowing him the opportunity to correct a silly mistake. And thank you for being another rung in the ladder that’ll allow him climb to his full potential.

The lesson I’ve learnt from this?

Don’t label people. Listen. Try to understand. It may be a long and winding road, and the journey may be harsh and trying. But…if society refuses somebody the opportunity to retrace his or her steps back to honesty and integrity, the accusing finger points the other way. Don’t just look at the record – look at the heart. It cuts both ways.

I’m proud of my friend. His past may be troubled and his future may still be threatened with prejudice, but his determination will get him there.

I know. Many readers will say this is an exception and remain convinced that some members of society are beyond saving. And I know how much guts and determination it takes for an individual to make a U-turn in Life to pursue a seemingly impossible dream. But heck – if a man is man enough to try; really, honestly and sincerely try; he’s got my vote.

How does this fit in with the daily prompt of Perspective? Easy. I don’t like crime. But if a lifetime of wrong turns end up being a U-turn back towards self-respect, I call it a miracle of grace.

Well done, Friend. You’re an inspiration.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Characters that Haunt You: Vetfaan.

The Challenge: Pick one of the characters that inhabit your brain…well. there’s nobody more perfect for this challenge than Vetfaan.

Vetfaan’s War

Credit: en.wikipedia,org

Credit: en.wikipedia,org

“It was the war,” Vetfaan sighs as he sips his brandy, “that, and the woman with the strong forearm.”

Boggel just asked why he had started farming in the Kalahari, thinking he’d get the usual answer: to get away from it all.

Kleinpiet stops his drawing on the bar counter when he looks up. He’s never heard this story before, and he has known Vetfaan for ages; ever since they first met in this very same room, way back in ’95. Oh, they’ve talked about rugby and failed relationships; like educated, mature men do when they drink too much, but never about the war.

Kleinpiet was a medical orderly back then. The things he saw, does not make for light conversation. And of course, most of it should not be remembered at all. The broken bodies of young men – not old enough to vote, but old enough to kill – are best filed in the dark cabinet marked ‘Out of Bounds’. All men who have seen action, know that’s how it is. You don’t go there. It is the stuff nightmares are made of, and veterans have enough of those.

“She came to the camp on a Friday evening. We had just returned from a patrol and were two men short. We couldn’t bring them back, see? Too far. To many casualties. We had to bury them under a baobab tree. Later we went back, but we couldn’t find the tree again. Too many of them.” Vetfaan glances over to the almost-empty brandy bottle, and nods at Boggel. “For a long time I thought I could forget it; and I really tried. But sometimes, every so often, I have a dream about that day.”

Vetfaan has been drinking heavily all day. Boggel has seen him do that before, and somehow knows he should not interfere – not when Vetfaan is in this mood. The big man will finish his bottle of brandy and Kleinpiet will take him home. Something, Boggel knows, is festering away inside Vetfaan; a demon of the past, a memory, an experience? Whatever it is, it’ll come out one day, when nature wants to heal the wound.

In cities people see psychologists; but that, of course, doesn’t help either. Ask any barman: he’ll tell you. The only way to kill the demon, is to give the patient enough time to run out of excuses. When the victim finally summons up the courage to face the memory, the healing will start. That’s why brandy helps so much. It gives courage, even if it is false.

It’s better than nothing.

“Those of us who could, had a shower and put on some clean clothes. Do you know what clean clothes feel like after all the blood and vomit and…?”  Vetfaan peers myopically at Boggel, who simply nods. He has his own demons to fight, as well. Then, almost as an afterthought: “In those days they brought in entertainers…”

Kleinpiet remembers the girls who got flown up to the base camps. While the rest of South Africa stumbled on in a Calvinistic haze, the powers-that-be supplied the eighteen-year-olds on the border with cheap alcohol and free entertainment. Evenings were spent in bars in the bush where the young soldiers got drunk while they screened movies about the patriotic and Christian heroes on the borders, fighting heathen terrorists. Occasionally, live entertainment travelled from camp to camp, with singers and dancers carefully chosen for their age and looks.

“That evening some girl sang. Old Afrikaans songs about the Transvaal and Karoo and Kalahari. She was beautiful.” His eyes glaze over as he hums Daar doer in die bosveld. The rest join in until he falls silent. “I remember it clearly: it was my birthday…There was another girl there, a dancer. Beautiful body, even better face. Great hair. A body to die for. Madelein Coetzer. She had a way of moving her body that made me feel more alive than I have been for months. All over.” Kleinpiet snorts, but Vetfaan ignores him. “After the horror of the day, she was too beautiful. It didn’t match, you see? One moment you’re crawling through dust and soiling yourself, and a few hours later you smell like Brut while ogling the breasts of an untouchable woman. It was difficult to distinguish which was the greater agony – the fear of death or the futility of life.”

“When the show ended, this girl stepped up to the microphone and challenged the men to arm-wrestle with her. If somebody could beat her, she’d be his for the night, she said. Best out of three, she said. Now, this is something we sometimes did, and nobody – nobody – ever beat me. I was young and fit back then, and everybody turned to me, knowing I was the birthday boy. Oh, they all wanted a go, of course, but they were afraid I’d beat the hell out of anybody who jumped at the opportunity. This, we all knew, was my chance.

“The army does that, you know? We were a living organism – we needed each other to survive. You need a sniper, you ask Sharpeye Schutte. Your Unimog broke down? Get Spanners Snyman. And when something impossible needs to be carried around, I was the natural choice. It was like that. We got things done for each other – not for some general.”

Vetfaan finishes his brandy, and nods for the last drops from the bottle to be poured in his glass. He tells them that he was shy. This woman can’t be a match for him, can she? And what if he won? H’s never been with a woman before – not like that… And if he lost, he’d be the laughing stock of the camp. Either way, the uncertainties contained in the match made him hesitate.

“You can’t turn your back on such a challenge. The guys cheered me on. I walked to the stage and introduced myself. I could see how she measured me up with those beautiful eyes. I was embarrassed, to say the least. Of course I’d win, and then have to face the prospect of spending the night with her.”

He tells them how they sat down at the table they set up on the small stage. He looked around for one last time, saw the gleaming faces of his comrades and the lust in their eyes. If he won, at least one of them would have a great night. They wanted that satisfaction, even if it were only his pleasure.

“Well, she positioned herself and invited me to extend my arm. I did. I grasped that fine, clean little hand with the manicured nails and told myself it’s a mismatch. The next thing I knew, my hand was slammed back onto the table with a force that jarred my teeth. I said I hadn’t been ready and she laughed.

“The next time, she gave me ample time. She asked if I was ready. When I nodded, she made her arm go limp and allowed me to win. She was putting up a show, to get the guys involved. They cheered and screamed and went on like little boys around a schoolyard fight. But then the third round happened. At one all, the winner of this round would be the overall winner. And I wasn’t sure; her first attempt jarred my confidence, and she let me win the second. The nagging though in the back of my mind was: what if…”

“What happened, Vetfaan?” Boggel opens a new bottle of brandy, and pours a modest single in Vetfaan’s glass.

“She won – well, sort of. Forced my hand back to almost the table top. I looked into those lovely eyes. The men fell silent, totally disappointed in the inevitable outcome. In my mind, I was back on that bloody trail we walked that day. I saw the blood and the gore and the vomit and I felt the dampness all over again. I heard the screams…”

By now, Vetfaan has to wipe away a tear and everybody suddenly finds something to do. Kleinpiet ties his shoe laces, Boggel fetches some ice.

“Well, I think she saw that in my eyes,” Vetfaan continues after a while, “So she allowed my hand push hers back to the middle. And so we sat – frozen between defeat and victory. Whenever I tried to force her hand over, she simply countered. She only went halfway, every time. Once, I thought I had her, but the final push didn’t work.

“After about ten minutes of grunting and sweating, Captain Krizinger suggested we declare a draw. She nodded and I was relieved to sit back. That’s when we started talking.”

And talk they did. Until dawn the next day, they sat at the table on that stage, talking. She told him about her life and the struggle to make money to keep her mother in an old-age home. He told her about the patrol and the war and the baobab tree. She stroked his arm and he thought it must be how an angel’s touch feels. They laughed at each others jokes. They shared silence. In short, it was the best night of his life…

“But, she said, when it was all over, she wanted to be like that woman who had a farm in Africa. Karen von Blixen…I remember the name. She said it was the most beautiful book she had ever read. We were a bit drunk by that time and the camp was starting to stir as the darkness slowly gave way to dawn. And I…I said, when it was over, I’ll be on that farm, waiting for her.”

Vetfaan sways a little as he makes a rolling gesture with his hand. “Last one, Boggel.”

“Did she come?’ Kleinpiet has never heard of a woman on Vetfaan’s farm.

“A landmine took out their bus on their way to the next camp. She died, like the rest of us.”

 ***

If you visit Rolbos, you may find Vetfaan in one of his moods. He’s doesn’t get violent or anything like that. It’s just that he drinks a bit more than usual and becomes a bit teary. Boggel says it’s a good thing, that demon must get out before Vetfaan will be all right again. Kleinpiet reckons it isn’t necessary; Vetfaan will drown the bastard at this rate.

But both of them are wrong.

The war on the border destroyed more dreams than lives. It destroyed more families than individuals. The deaths caused by the senseless fighting were bad enough, and will haunt South Africa for generations to come – but death is a singularity; it happens once and then the living must accept the inevitability of it’s reality.

But love? Love is crueler. The loss of love creates a void nothing else can fill. Not even a farm in the Kalahari will help. When Vetfaan stumbles up his stairs at night, he has to sit down halfway. It isn’t the brandy that makes him dizzy – it is the burden of loss that wears him down.

The Meeting

Robert-RedfordNobody can accuse Servaas of being a coward.

Not him.

Not the man whose solemn face speaks volumes of his faith and the steadfast belief that everything in Life has a purpose. If you looked at him now – sitting at the bar while nursing his beer – you’d say he is a man at peace with the world. His black Sunday suit has been pressed and the old shoes shined to a mirror-like finish. He took particular care of his hair today and even combed the bushy eyebrows. And…he’s surrounded by a cloud of Old Spice…

“What’s with the grooming, Oom Servaas? And the red tie? Wow, you look like  Robert Redford.” Kleinpiet just can’t keep his curiosity in check.

“It’s your fault.” Servaas glances at the younger man, the accusation in his words all too obvious. “You wrote that letter.”

The penny drops.

***

A few weeks ago, Servaas mentioned (in passing, just a side remark) that he was rather lonely at night.

“Look,” he said at the time, “when you get older, your mind tends to wander back into the past. In my case, I remember the laughter and fun…and then I wonder why I didn’t enjoy it more while it lasted.” He sighed as he looked down at his arthritic hands. “Especially at night – when I go to bed – that’s when I feel lonely. You know? Just to have somebody there. Someone to talk with. To pray with. To be with.”

Vetfaan was there that day, and he nudged Kleinpiet. “We’ve got to get him a girlfriend, Kleinpiet. When he starts talking like this, he’ll have us all in tears in no time. Buggers up the atmosphere every time he starts thinking about Siena.”  He kept his voice low, making sure Servaas didn’t hear.

Kleinpiet nodded. “But who?”

When they discussed the issue with Gertruida a while later, she remembered Hetty.

“She’s a niece thrice removed. Used to be a teacher, and now lives in Pretoria. She’s a lively one, I can tell you that. Nice sense of humour, too.” She smiled sweetly at Kleinpiet: “Come on, Cupid, why don’t you write her a letter? Maybe she’ll be interested in meeting Servaas?”

***

“She’s coming today? Today?” Kleinpiet almost chokes on his beer. “I thought…”

“You thought I’d say no, didn’t you? You thought I’d be embarrassed? That once I found out about your…your little plan…I’d chicken out? Well, think again, young man. Servaas is not a man to let a lady down.”

***

Rolbos is just too small for a secret to survive more than 24 hours. After Kleinpiet posted the letter, the group at the bar was discussing the possibilities when Servaas walked in on them. Boggel saw trouble looming on the horizon and started serving Cactus Jack with alarming regularity. After the fourth round, Servaas had the whole story.

“We only did it to help you, Oom.” Kleinpiet spread his arms wide in a gesture of innocence. “Didn’t mean no harm…”

“No?” Servaas knitted his brows together, snorted and slammed down his glass. “You wrote a letter to somebody you don’t know, asking her to come and visit me – because I’m a pathetic old lonely man?” Ha had to take a deep breath before going on in a whisper that everybody could hear. “Now, I’ll tell you what. You give me the name and address, and I’ll fix this. And then, my dear young friend, you keep your nose out of my business. Understand?”

***

At exactly eleven o’ clock, the rented car stops in front of Boggel’s Place. By now the story of the visit has spread and everybody has found an excuse to be in Boggel’s Place.

“A red tie? Red? I’ve never seen him wear anything but white before. And see how he’s dressed? This is so unlike Servaas, it’s scary.” Precilla actually thinks the old man looks rather handsome. She sees the car draw up and gasps. “Shhh…she’s here…”

Hetty is, indeed, somebody to gasp at. Dressed in a neat floral skirt and matching blouse, she hops from the car, closes the door, and then reaches through the open window to pick up a red rose from the back seat.

“Nice legs,” Vetfaan whispers.

“Go on, Servaas. Don’t let her stand there. Go introduce yourself.” Precilla pushes Servaas from the bar stool and aims him at the door. Strangely, the old man seems calm and not reluctant at all.

They all watch as Servaas marches out to meet Hetty. They embrace. He takes the rose with a little bow. Then he leads her into Boggel’s Place.

“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Hetty. Hetty: these are the cretins I have to put up with every day.” Seemingly pleased with his insult, he turns on his heel to guide Hetty back to the street.

The little group in the bar crowd the window to watch the two walk over to the bench in front of the church.

“What just happened here?” Vetfaan shakes his head to clear the racing thoughts. “This isn’t the Servaas I know? Did the aliens clone him during the night or something?”

A lively discussion follows. Precilla suggests that Oudok must have increased the old man’s antidepressants. Kleinpiet blames the Cactus. Fanny – with a Bambi-look in her eyes – tells everybody it must be love at first sight.

***

“Now tell me, Hetty, everything that’s happened in the meantime? I last saw you – oh, how many years ago – at the matric dance in Swartruggens…”

“Yes, isn’t it strange? When I got the first letter, I thought it was a prank. I’ve got…strange friends, you know? Always out to make fun of things. But then – then I got your letter, and I know only one Servaas who can be so indignant. Even after all these years, I still remember you well. That’s why I wrote back – I thought it’d be nice to meet you again. I can see I wasn’t wrong.”

“Ja…” Servaas smiles happily. “To think it’ssuch a coincidence! I was the head boy, you the prefect. And now, after all these years, we meet up like this?”

“Well, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Funny how we simply drifted apart back then. I suppose that’s life, not so? You left to study in Pretoria and I had another two years of school ahead of me. And then my parents moved and we lost touch.” Hetty gives a little giggle. “Shall we tell this lot everything?”

“…And spoil their fun? No, we’ll keep them guessing for a while. They need something to gossip about, anyway. Later – much later – we can tell them we’re family. Until then…”

***

“They’re holding hands!” Kleiniet is dumbstruck. “They’re actually holding hands…”

“Well, I never!” Gertruida fights down a little wave of jealousy. “That old man must be out of his mind. His heart won’t be up to it…”

For once, Gertruida doesn’t know how wrong she is.