“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.