“When telling a story – especially if such a story involves multiple characters in multiple locations – you must be careful not to hop around too much. If you lose your listener by trying to be too clever, then you’ve failed as a storyteller.” Gertruida says this as she becomes aware of Vetfaan’s waning interest. He wants blood and gore, and he’s not getting it. “But it’s okay to weave in a few subplots, it may serve to enrich the story.”
“Ja Gertruida, that’s all good and well. What happened to Gert and the Bushman?” Vetfaan drains his glass and winks at Boggel. If the story bores him, he always drinks a little faster.
!Thwui stood back when he had undone the last knot. This soldier seemed harmless, but you never know…
“Thank you. Thank you very much.” Gert Smit rubbed his wrists where the ropes had dug into his skin. Seeing the weary way the Bushman was standing to one side, he holds up his hands as a sign of peace. “Wait, I promised you…”
He walked over to his rucksack and dug out the Magnesium firestarter. “Look…”
He demonstrated. !Thwui gasped. To think that such a primitive man could do such magic! Gert held out the rod and the scraper towards his new best friend, who then smiled and inched forward. He made a rolling action with both hands: show me again? Gert did, and held out the objects once more. This time, !Thwui took it in a very tentative fashion, but nevertheless tried to produce a spark. It worked!
“!!gwangshi artiks!. Xawe onasan ni //nou guna mu.” This deep expression of gratitude, he thought, should be clear enough for the soldier to understand.
“I wish I knew your language,” Gert said, “but if that was Thank you, I understand.”
!Thwui then explained that he had far to go, and that he wished to show his family this firemaking thing. Clapping his hands together as an added sign of thanks, he turned and strode off into the bush.
“Now, don’t you think such incidents didn’t happen during the bush war.” Gertruida now also holds out a glass for Boggel to refill. “Take any of the nations living on what was then our northern borders. The Ovambos, the Himbas, Hereros and the Venda people – there were many pockets in those far-flung areas where there had been very little contact between Whites and the indigenous peoples. Whenever army patrols happened to stumble across such individuals, the meetings were mostly cordial, although they couldn’t understand each other. Quite a number of soldiers came back home with some hilarious stories about such encounters.
“Gert was lucky, that’s all. Had that man only arrived the next morning, it might have been too late.”
Gert took his almost-empty rucksack and the Bible and set off as soon as !Thwui had gone. He was convinced that the Pathfinders would report his exact whereabouts and that he could expect visitors soon. Taking care to leave no tracks, he set off towards the east. He had to get as far away from Fort Doppies as possible…
Major Gericke didn’t like reporters. They were always on the hunt for some sensation. How many battles were you involved in? Have you lost any friends in skirmishes? What about casualties – how many were there in the last month? Reporters wanted stories of heroism and sacrifice and blood – but Gericke knew: wars are fought on fear and adrenalin. Reporters who’ve never heard the whip of a bullet passing too close by, wanted to romanticize guts and glory.
However, he allowed his aide to usher in the reporter and the photographer and he greeted them with a slightly forced smile. Gericke knew the army needed all the positive propaganda it could get, so he would just have to grin and bear the intrusion.The reporter seemed an old hand, but the hippie-like man with the camera immediately got Gericke’s blood pressure soaring. This man needs a haircut and a lecture on basic manners, he thought as the young man flopped down on a chair without any greeting.
Five minutes later, Gericke exploded.
“What? Where did you get this information? You can’t give me that we-can’t-reveal-our-sources crap! One of our soldiers lost in Angola? You have to be kidding me! How dare you come in here and ask questions like that? We have no – let me repeat that – we have no soldiers in Angola!! Now get out. Out!“
Lettie, bless her soul, didn’t know about the encounter her new friends had had with her father. She was waiting patiently at the safe house in Katima while the journalists were being thrown out of Fort Doppies.
That evening, when they arrived late and invited her for a nightcap, Jacques told her they met her father.
“Such a nice fellow! We had a wonderful chat. Harry even got a few good shots of the barracks and stuff they didn’t think posed a security risk. On the way back, he photographed the biggest elephant I’ve ever seen.”
Now Lettie, acutely aware that she spoke too much after the Chivas the other evening, nodded and said her father was a fantastic man.
“But we did gather something else.” Jacques paused, glanced over at Harry, who refilled her glass. “One of the men asked me for some cigarettes. Of course I gave him a few packets. It always helps if you take extras to an army camp. He told me about a rumour – a strange story of a Pathfinder patrol and a man who claimed to have been on a mission to shoot Savimbi…”
“And…?” Lettie couldn’t help herself.
“He apparently got away. They followed his spoor for a while, but then he turned south towards the Botswana border and the dogs lost the scent in a marshy area.”
“That’s all, sadly. Unsubstantiated, unproven. Nice story, but unprintable under the circumstances. Pity…”
“But what about the man – the soldier – where would he go?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Lettie. Across the border is the Chobe conservation area. Lions and leopards and such. Now, If I was in that man’s shoes, I’d aim at Kasane, the only civilised town for hundreds of miles away. He can get there by river, if he can get a boat. And if he does, he could be there in a few day’s time. From there he could hitch a ride on a truck if he wanted to get back to South Africa.”
“But why would he want to do that?” Harry, still with the Chivas bottle in hand, shook his head.
“Because he’s a South African, dummy. Where would he go? The Congo? Of course not. For some reason this man has decided to abscond. He doesn’t want to be in the army any more. He wants to go home,” Jacques tapped his nose and lifted his glass in a mock salute. “Now there, my friends, is a story. I know it. I feel it. And that’s why, my dear Harry, we are leaving for Kasane tomorrow. Miss Gericke? If you’d like to join us…?”
Some distance away, Gert Smit sat down on the banks of the great river. He had made it! Crossing the river here was out of the question – too many crocodiles and hippos. No, he’ll start walking towards the Zambezi at first light tomorrow. But now…now he had no fire, nothing to eat. And his mind wandered to Lettie as it always did. Where was she? He couldn’t write to her lately…what would she think? That he was no longer interested? Or would she be worried about him?
There is no lonelier feeling than the uncertainty all soldiers experience when they are cut off from their loved ones by distance, circumstances and the fear only the night can produce. While Gert Smit wiped an unexpected tear from his grubby cheek, he had no idea that he’s not alone. In his reverie, he wasn’t aware of the two men – not twenty feet away – who were watching him intently.