Gertruida says all great characters – in great stories, that is – have to show some sort of weakness somewhere in the storyline. That makes them more authentic, see? You can’t just tell a story about some superhero who smashes evil and then retires. No. she says, you won’t believe such a story. But if you made him suffer and sweat, gave him a retarded dwarf as a helper and allowed him one small victory every now and then – why, then he becomes believable and people want to hear what happens next. A good example of this, she says, is Sherlock Holmes and his good friend, Dr Watson. Or, in South Africa’s case: President Zuma and the Guptas. Such characters have no limits to what they can do, provided the plot allows for the fact that being gullible is actually a form of genius. Sometimes at least. Think of that bumbling detective, Columbo, she says.
When she says this, Kleinpiet usually nods wisely, as if he agrees completely. Maybe he would have, if he understood the statement.
But when Gertruida mentions the rustling in the grass behind Gert Smit, everybody in Boggel’s Place takes a deep breath and wonders why they listened so long to a story which is going to have such a bloody and unexpected ending.
They are wrong, of course…
The rustling stopped.
Gert Smit tried to turn his head far enough to see, but being tied to a rather sturdy tree made that impossible. While his hands were tied – stretched backward with a rope around the trunk – his feet were free. If the worst happened, he reckoned, he’d at least get in a good kick or two.
Then, like a child would peer around a curtain to see where Mom had hidden the cookies, a withered brown face slowly crept into his field of vision. Gert almost wept with relief.
“!xix! mwawuham !it!kura?” The man sat down patiently while he waited for an answer.
Gert explained in his best Afrikaans – not using any swear words or English which could have confused the Bushman – that he’d appreciate any help at that stage. Especially if such help could maybe have something to do with the knots in the rope around the tree.
“!hau,” the man said, filling his clay pipe with what appeared to be grass and leaves and which he proceeded to light with a match from a crumpled little box that hung from his loincloth.
Seeing that the man didn’t grasp the urgency of the situation, Gert now added to his plea a few choice Afrikaans words. The Bushman’s face lit up.
“X!!thkak!’ He got up, rose a hand in a sort-of salute and turned to go.
“No man! Help me. Please?” Gert was practically sobbing. “I can give you something better than matches. It’ll help you a lot. Please, man?”
“You see, we all expect Life to be a very logical thing – like when you add lemonade to beer, you always get a shandy.” Gertruida has to use an analogy they’d all understand. “That’s why people become depressed; because in Real Life, somebody always drops the bottle of lemonade, or the beer might be flat, or the glass slips from your hand before you take the first sip.
“But out there,” she sweeps a hand towards the vast Kalahari, “nothing is logical. That, too, is a component of a great story. So in a nice story, boy meets girl, they fall in love, and live happily ever after. But that’s only in stories. Real Life…Har! Here we all struggle with the unexpected.
“So when !Thwui walked up to that tree that day, he found something he didn’t expect. And Gert Smit got a visitor he didn’t expect. And that, my friends, is what separates a good story from a fairytale. The unexpected. That’s what happened.”
!Thwui knew about soldiers. They were trouble. But this one…? He’s never seen a soldier tied to a tree before. And as usual, this man couldn’t speak properly. He made sounds, yes, but obviously lacked the ability to communicate in a civilised manner.
Now, any Bushman worth his salt will tell you: the object in Life is to preserve and protect your hunting ground. If you don’t do this, you either starve to death, or – much, much worse – have to bid the veld farewell and go and work in a town or a city. Dying of hunger is preferable. At least it’s quicker.
This soldier, he thought, must have done something really bad for his companions to tie him to a tree. What could he have done? Stealing food must be the worst thing anybody can do. Or maybe…maybe this soldier is such a bad hunter, they just didn’t want him in the clan any more. Whatever he did, he seemed harmless enough. And isn’t it so that, once you’ve scolded somebody and he apologised, one has to forget the past and face the future together? No, !Thwui thought, it’ll be wrong to leave this soldier to be eaten by wild animals.
He turned around to the man-tied-to-the-tree and explained that he would release him if he was sorry for whatever he did. The man didn’t seem to understand. !Thwui shook his head: one day, he thinks, these white people will learn to talk. Then he got busy with the knots.
Discipline is the essence of any military system. That’s why you have officers and orders. However, while discipline makes soldiers march bravely into battle, there is another factor which makes life bearable in the army: gossip. Here rumours spread by whispered conversations and innuendo. Did you hear what Captain So-and-so did with the general’s wife? Or: They caught another Cuban near Rundu. He’s talking faster than they can write it down. That sort of thing.
And that sort of thing has a way of spreading at amazing speeds.
So, when Lettie Gericke sits down to dinner in the safe house in Katima Mulilo, she was surprised to find two men already eating at the table next to hers. They are shabbily dressed – obviously not soldiers – and they were talking in hushed tones until they noticed her.
“Hey gorgeous! What’s a nice chick like you doing in a dump like this?” The younger one – well built with startling blue eyes and his hair tied back in a ponytail – winks and flashes a brilliant smile.
Lettie wants to ignore the remark, but looks up when the older man sighs loudly.
“Please ignore my young colleague, Miss. Always on the hunt, he is. I’ve told him a thousand times to behave himself, but he doesn’t listen.”
“Ag okay, you guys. I grew up in a military home, so I know how to handle guys whose Libido/IQ ratio is bigger than 1.”
She’s rewarded by a happy guffaw from the older man, who then suggests that they share a table.
“Listen, we’re out here in the middle of nothing, we might as well be friends. I’ll tell young Harry to zip his glib remarks. How about it?”
The evening turns out to be quite enjoyable. Jacques and Harry introduce themselves as reporters for the Argus who’ve been flown in to do an article on the peaceful life in Katima.
“Some PR wizard in the army thought it’d be nice to tell our readers how well the army is doing up here. You know: despite the bombs going off back home, the army is the iron fist that’ll keep the terrorists out. So we’re here for a week. Harry, here, can’t write a story to save his life, but he’s a damn good photographer.” Jacques toys with his wine glass. “Now you know all about us. What about you?”
Reporters are reporters because they understand the art of digging out the unusual. That’s what sells newspapers. To have a headline like ‘Moon set to be full again this month’ won’t convince the average man to search for his wallet; while ‘ SA Soldier missing in Angola’ immediately grabs the attention of the public.
Lettie – to her credit – doesn’t tell them the story like that, of course. But she did enjoy the Chivas after the meal and the men were extremely clever in posing the right questions at the right time.
The next morning, at breakfast, Lettie swears the men to silence.
“Of course,” Jacques replies. “Our lips are sealed…”