Gert jumped up, started to salute, remembered he wore no cap or hat, smiled sheepishly and sat down again. Lettie’s hand found his under the table. They were in this together, she was saying. It helped.
The major sat down heavily, staring at the journalists, the soldier, and finally at his daughter. His only child. The one he barely knew. His little girl who grew up to be a young lady while he was fighting wars.
“You care to explain why you are lounging around in a lodge while you should be on duty, Smit? Only if you can find the time in your busy schedule, of course.” The sarcasm dripped from every word as Gericke took off his beret and placed it neatly in front of him, square, centered with his chest, as it should be.
“Well, sir..” Gert recounted his story, leaving nothing out. Jacques smiled as he checked the notes he had made previously. Yes, he thought, Gert was being brutally honest with his commanding officer.
It was way past lunch time before Gert finally said: “I can’t go back, sir. I was sent on a suicide mission, not told everything I should have known, and was expected to obey the order to murder an ally. Shooting an enemy in a fair fight…I suppose I can do that. But not Savimbi? Surely you can understand that?”
Gericke went harrumph and sat quietly, contemplating the beret.
“And Dad…” Lettie was pleading, “tell me you didn’t know? Please?”
“I follow orders. I’m a soldier. I don’t have the privilege to ask questions.” Even to his own ears, it sounded lame. “At that stage, I knew as much about your mission as you did, Smit. That your target was Savimbi was as big a surprise to me as it was for you.” He hesitated. “I have an extensive network of … informers. I checked. And what you just told me, is true. I understand that. But now you’re a deserter, per definition: a criminal. Treason comes to mind. That is a serious offence…”
“Dad,” Lettie didn’t wait for her father to finish, “you always told me to be honest. Honest with other people, honest with myself.” Her gaze was unwavering. “Tell me: what would you have done…?”
“Soldiers, like good authors, are sometimes faced with a moral dilemma. What is the right thing to do? And if you do the right thing, will others understand? Or have we travelled so far down the path of moral decay that we just don’t care anymore?” Gertruida, now at the window while staring out at the desert, shakes her head. “No, society demands the sensational, the deviant and the thrill of abnormality – whatever we understand that to be. People aren’t satisfied with purity and beauty any longer. The more bizarre, the better. And the more good old-fashioned values are corrupted, the happier society seems to be.
“Think about drugs, raves, the sagging pants and the endless search for the next ‘rush’.” She sighs. “It’s funny how we aren’t satisfied with enough these days. We have to have more. And more. Until we forget the ultimate ‘rush’ is the oldest one discovered: the freedom of honesty; the joy of simplicity.”
But, she tells Vetfaan, all isn’t lost. When we look deep inside, searching for happiness, we all know what makes us really happy. In doing so, we rediscover Truth.
Vetfaan, of course, orders another beer. She’s lost him with this one.
“I can’t disobey orders, Lettie.” A note of desperation crept into the major’s voice. “It’d be the end of my career.”
“Then, Daddy, you’re saying orders are more important than morals? That – in being a soldier – you’ve lost the most basic characteristic of being human? That you always accept that your superiors know best and that your own opinion doesn’t count anything?”
Gert Smit held up a hand. “Please, this is unfair. I understand what your father is saying, Lettie. I am a deserter. I did disobey direct orders. I must face that music.” He turned to Gericke. “Sir, I love your daughter. Somehow, maybe, I have to earn your respect again; otherwise you’ll always see me as an impostor, a failure. If I run away from this situation, I’ll create an even greater rift between us – and that’s not the way family should be.”
Gert searched the older man’s face, looking for a positive signal. Nothing. Not even a twitch of the lips – up or down. Impassive.
“So be it then.” Gert Smit held up a hand in surrender. “Sir, I want to ask you two things. First of all: take me back to Fort Doppies for the court martial. I’ll face what’s coming to me. Get some general and let me tell my story. And then find me guilty. Then, after everything is over, I want your consent to marry Lettie.”
“Hoo, boy!” Jacques actually smiled happily, despite his hangover. “And I’ll want to have publishing rights on this story. Imagine the plot, the pathos, the sensation. It’ll be an international best-seller. Maybe even a movie…”
“I can see it!” Harry jumps up with excitement. “Sean Connery as the major, Liv Ullmann as Lettie. Yes, and Richard Gere as the intrepid photographer. Gert here, can play himself. Great!… Box office hit! Millions, here we come! Yeehah!”
“You shall do no such thing.” Gericke’s quiet, commanding statement brought them all back to reality. “This is a matter of national security. You cannot write this – this information is protected. Scribble one word, and you’ll end up in jail for the rest of your life.”
“Oh…so you’re ashamed of what’s happened? You’re prepared to throw away a young man’s life and ruin your daughter’s happiness, simply because some general thought out a devilish plan to kill Savimbi?” Jacques toyed with his pencil, twirling it between his fingers. “This, Major Gericke, is a story that needs to be told, Even if I wrote it as fiction, I have to do this.”
Major Gericke got up, walked around the table, and rested his hand on Lettie’s shoulder.
“I’m a soldier. A strategist. I knew the combination of my daughter, Smit and some journalists would pose more problems than I had solutions. So now,” and then he took off his tunic, folded it neatly, and put it on the table, “I’m not talking to you as a soldier. I’m going to try to be the father I never was.”
“Daddy…?” Lettie had never seen her father so vulnerable.
“Shhh, Lettie. I’ve come up with a plan.” Just then, the unmistakable sound of a Volkswagen drifted across the patio. “Ah, it’s arrived. Just in time.” He squeezed Letties shoulder. “I asked the mechanics to give that jalopy of yours a proper once-over. The clutch plate was almost gone, so I had to fly in one from Pretoria. Put in a spare tank, proper tyres. And the brake linings…” He smiled sadly. “But it’s all fixed now. You’ll need to have a reliable vehicle to get where you’re going now.”
“Go pack your things, Lettie… And Smit, you’ll need some clothes.” He fished out a wallet, fingered out a wad of notes. “There’s a shop just around the corner. And get some supplies, while you’re at it. And remember: Lettie hates bully beef – get some sugar and coffee and enough rations to live on for a few days.”
Major Gericke was in charge again, issuing orders with ease.
“Now, you two,” he turned to the journalists, “we have to have a little chat.”
“What about the tomatoes?” Vetfaan is thoroughly bored by this time. How can Gertruida suggest this is an adventure story? Where are the guns? What about some serious troubles? No, this story just doesn’t cut the cheese.
“The tomatoes, Vetfaan, are what the story is all about. That, and that people change. And life goes on. And love, in the end, conquers all. More than that, the story is about honesty. Kindness. And hope.”
“I just don’t get it,” Vetfaan seems genuinely sad. “Why should people change to be happy?”
“To become who they were, Vetfaan. To reclaim innocence. To rediscover the wonder of Life and Love.
“That’s why, when the two lovers drove out of Kasane that day, they left behind three men who witnessed something incredible that day. The major saw bravery. The journalist discovered the beauty of honesty. And the photographer – with a keen eye for the perfect picture – realised his camera would never do justice to love.”
“Ja, well, no, fine. Soo…?
“Be patient, Vetfaan, I’m almost finished. It’s almost time to tell you about the tomatoes…”