Stone faces frozen in time. Speaking without words. Telling old stories, inventing new fables.
All you have to do is to look.
And listen, of course.
Stone faces frozen in time. Speaking without words. Telling old stories, inventing new fables.
All you have to do is to look.
And listen, of course.
Gertruida likes to say that people are the most fickle of all God’s creatures. Some, she says, are so much worse than the rest, they belong to a subspecies – Homo Cantankerus. According to her, they are everywhere. You’ll find them gossiping in front of the church; lying under oath; denying responsibility by blaming the past; or simply turning their backs in your time of need. In short: these persons were born without the gene to code Kindness. They are, she says, the sociopaths who cling to strange ideologies and vote for radical politicians. They’ve become so common in society because they manipulate unsuspecting individuals with ease, ensuring the multiplication of their sort.
Now, in the shade of the huge rock arch, she knows they’ve been conned by one of these subhumans.
“Damn it! I should have seen this coming. That general was just too keen to take this trip with us.”
“No use fretting over broken eggs, Gertruida.” Boggel sits down next to her, patting her back. “But…what do you make of the tracks in the sand over there.” He points.
Break the silence, break the curse… //Xuiram hears it as clearly as if somebody right next to him is saying the words. It is time, Xuiram.
“Go out there, my son. Greet those people.” Despite the spirit-message, the old man doesn’t raise his voice louder than a whisper. “We have food. Let us share that with them. It shall be my last meal.”
A good story, like we all know, shouldn’t tell everything. Enough…but not everything. An excellent story, however, is one which grows spontaneously in the listener’s mind. Gertruida says the story must plant the seeds, and then the listener becomes the incubator to allow it to germinate, sprout new twigs, and provide shade for the audience to rest under…and to dream. It is in the imagination of the hearer that the original story bears its own, sweet fruit
To describe the meal of rabbit meat and gull eggs wouldn’t be right. Nor would it be kind towards the story to say something about how they laughed while trying to communicate with hand gestures. Neither would words be adequate to conjure up the sadness and joy of //Xuiram’s passing – or even tell of simple funeral in that cave, with an old metallic box wedged firmly between the feet of the much-loved deceased.
No…it is better to simply mention these things, because no storyteller would do justice to scenes like these. Gertruida says moviemakers sometimes use a technique where they slow the frames down, cut the sound, and take the viewer on a sentimental journey to a place deep inside the mind in complete silence. That’s why, she says, one mustn’t talk about the time they spent in the cave.
She’ll also refuse to say much about how //Xuiram’s family helped them across the Sperrgebiet back to Luderitz. She will maybe mention the wisdom of the Bushmen to find tubers and roots, or maybe how important it is to lick dew from the plants in the mornings. Servaas will feature in these moments, because he brought a rucksack with bottled water and biscuits – a real boon to the group of people as they trudged across the wasteland.
Then she’ll smile and say the rest of the story is best told over a beer in Boggel’s Place.
Boggel’s Place, Rolbos
“That old //Xuiram was a wonderful man.” Vetfaan thinks back on the episode in the cave as he signals for another beer. “The way he gathered his family to say goodbye was extremely touching. And then they all went to sleep -and the next morning they weren’t at all surprised to find him dead.”
“And the way the son took us back to Luderitz!” Kleinpiet shakes his head. “I have no idea how they navigate their way through that desert. And when we saw the town in the distance, they greeted us and went their own way. I’ll never forget that.”
“Ja, I agree. Bur you remember what //Xuiram indicated that last night? He made movements with his hands, like something falling from the sky. Something big… He smiled as if was a good thing, but couldn’t explain…” Boggel serves another round, remembering that remarkable old man.
“I don’t think we connected the dots at the time. I wonder…” Gertruida stares out of the window, vacantly staring at the horizon. “I wonder if they’ve found the helicopter already…”
“I can tell you one thing for certain: that helicopter? You’ll find no official record about it. It didn’t exist. Like the Nazi gold, it won’t be found.”
“Yes Boggel, you made sure of that, didn’t you? You sat with //Xuiram next to the little fire when he placed the map on the coals…”
Only two loose strands in this story needs to be tied down.
You’ll find the first one on the bench outside Oudoom’s church – the only private place in Rolbos. Servaas and Elsie left the bar quietly to sit here, hold hands, and talk about the future.
The second strand is more complicated. You’ll have to travel to Otjikoto Lake, a deep sinkhole filled with water, about 20 km from Tsumeb. It is here that the German troops dumped their cannons and guns in 1915 to prevent them falling in their enemy’s hands. A side shaft of that sinkhole disappears into the bowels of the earth and it is impossible to guess how deep it is.
The Bushmen of the area, known for their uncanny eyesight, swear that – if the sun strikes the water at the right angle – they can see spirits down there. The have yellow, winking eyes, the size of small bricks.
“This is a hare-brained scheme,” Gertruida whispers while they’re waiting for the helicopter. “Matotsi thinks we’ll be able to spot the wreck from the helicopter! Imagine that! And he insisted we come along, so he can be assured of our silence. What’s he going to do – even if he spots the wreck?” The worried frown cuts deep into her brow. “This is just too easy – I’m sure he’s up to something…”
“He told me that here’s been no aerial searches of the off-shore area for ages. None that he can trace, anyway.” Servaas hitches his small bag to hang more comfortably from his shoulder. “Anyway, we’re getting a free trip – and that counts for something.”
“I don’t know… I simply don’t trust the man. Look at the way his goons treated me? No, I say we must watch him very carefully.” Elsie looks up as she sees the little general approaching. “Shhh, you guys, here he comes.” She moves a little closer to Servaas, her hand searching for his.
“The helicopter will be here soon,” Matotsi smiles confidently. “Then we’re off…”
//Xuiram floats – flies – in the Land of Dreams. His mother and father smile at him: they want him to join them in the Land of Plenty. Come, son, we’ve built a special hut for you. You must prepare, it is almost time…
How many times has he dreamt of this Land? A long time ago, when the family was larger and the elders still held the yearly meetings in the desert, they talked about the Land. There were, they told little //Xuiram, green valleys, fat Eland, easy hunting. Lots of water. In fact, once you reach this Land, you have need for nothing more. The most remarkable thing he remembers from those tales, is that all people – even The Others – live in harmony with each other there.
And now it is almost time for him to journey to that land. A happy smile creeps into the wrinkles of his face.
The box, //Xuiram…first find the box…
It takes a while to leave the dream-world. Then, getting up slowly, he approaches the back wall of the cave.
The helicopter banks sharply as they fly over Pomona, the deserted mining town in the middle of the barren wastes of the Sperrgebiet. Heading west, the aircraft lifts its tail as it speeds up.
“This is one of the most inhospitable wastelands on the African continent.” The pilot’s voice in their earphones confirm what they’re looking at. “You get lost here, and you die. Short and sweet. Survival here is out of the question.”
Underneath them, the desert is almost featureless. Stunted little bushes survive by absorbing the cold morning mist that rolls in from the cold Atlantic. Other than that, there is no sign of life at all.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Gertruida says, not quite realising her helmet microphone communicates with everybody on board.
Matotsi glances over at her. What is it in his eyes? Gertruida feels a shiver running down her spine.
“You can be glad you’re flying. The old track running to the Bogenfels has not been maintained for many years. It is almost impossible to get there, except through the air.
“Oh, and there you are!” The pilot points. “Bogenfels…”
//Xuiram finds the rock at the exact point he saw it in his dream. Straining and sweating, he shoves it to one side.
The elements have done their work. The box is rusted and the once-shining surface is now dull and covered with flaking bits of metal. When //Xuiram lifts the lock to inspect it, the clasp crumbles in his hand.
Inside, he finds two slabs of shining metal, the likes of which he’s never seen. There is also a piece of yellowed paper, parched and fragile with age, on which somebody drew some lines. In the middle of the page, the black X draws his attention.
The pilot puts down the helicopter within sight of the Bogenfels.
“This is as far as you go,.” Matotsi’s voice is harsh, commanding. “Come on, get out.” The snub-nosed pistol in his hand leaves no doubt about his intentions. “Out. Out!!”
“What are you doing, General? Why…” For once, Gertruida has no answers.
Servaas, Kleinpiet, Vetfaan, Gertruida and Elsie do as they’re told. Boggel is the last to alight, struggling to get his short legs from the hull to the landing gear.
“Just tell us why…?”
“It’s easy. You lot,” the general waves the pistol towards the bedraggled group, He has to shout to be heard above the slow whunp-whump of the still-revolving rotors, “know too much. Now you’re simply an irresponsible group of tourists who wandered off into the desert. When they find you in a few months time – or a few year’s time – nobody will connect you to DEAD. A nice, clean way to get rid of civilians who snooped where they shouldn’t have. I’ll file a report stating that you said last night you wanted to explore the desert towards the north of Luderitz – and that you left early on foot. Me and the pilot here, we’ve spent the whole day looking for you. They’ll send out search parties, of course, but unfortunately they’ll be looking for you in the wrong area.”
The pitch of the engine increases suddenly and – as if plucked upwards by a huge invisible hand – the helicopter lifts and speeds away.
The small Bushman family hears the helicopter and now //Xuiram’s oldest son breaks tradition by shouting for them to get cover. “Hide, hide my family! I know that sound, It means trouble. We may not be seen. Run…run!”
//Xuiram, too, heard the sound.
Men will come here, //Xuiram, and they’ll die. The words of his ancestor seems to emphasise the noise the helicopter makes, Closing the box carefully, he drags it over to the smouldering ashes of his holy fire. He’ll ask the spirit-world. They’ll know what to do…
Vetfaan surprises everybody with the range of expletives they never use in Boggel’s Place.
“The bastard. The absolute bastard…”
“I thought…,” Gertruida begins, but Servaas stops her.
“Ja Gertruida, you thought. That doesn’t help us now. Not one bit. How we got here is not important. How we get back to Luderitz, is.”
“That arched rock isn’t that far away, guys.” Boggel tries to sound confident. “Let’s go there and look for shelter. And then let’s sit down and talk. Maybe…”
“Let’s go.” Vetfaan strides on ahead.
“People, my father. There are people coming.”
//Xuiram puts his hand over his mouth to remind his son they’re not supposed to talk. Then he nods. Yes, he saw them. Two women, four men. White people. They’re scared.
And then, suddenly, he knows why his family had to make this last pilgrimage…
“One thousand kilograms of gold? In little bars, stamped with the Reich’s insignia? Wow!” Kleinpiet lets out a long, low whistle. “That must be worth something, hey?”
Gertruida nods. “Work it out: at $50,000 a kilo? And, if you added the novelty value…collectors would fork out considerably more. The Rand being such a joke these days, you can add two more zeroes to the sum.”
Matotsi manages a wobbly smile. “Ya-a-as. A lot of loot. Out there, somewhere. Many Nkandlas…”
//Xuiram is happy. The spirits have blessed them with a downpour of rain, filling the hollows in the rocks around them and causing little streams to run down the rock face. A pool of water collected at the back of the cave they’re sheltering in, as well.
Still observing the ritual silence, he leads his family in a slow, foot-stomping dance for a while. Later, he’ll get out the fire-sticks and wait for the embers of the twigs they collected to glow before he’ll sprinkle the holy herbs over the ashes.
Yes, he thinks, my season has gone. It’s been a good one. He glances over at his oldest son, feeling glad that he’ll be able to leave his family in capable hands.
General Matotsi is much more focussed now. Boggel’s special wake-up coffee contains a Kenyan mix of freshly roasted coffee beans, a dash of hot chocolate, a sprinkling of cinnamon and a tot of Amarula.
“So…what do we do now?” Elsie sips a Green Ambulance while eyeing the general critically. She has to smile at the situation: here she was, trying to get closure on her father’s death – and suddenly it exploded into a mystery of Nazi gold, international intrigue, and the government’s greed for money. Who would have guessed…?
“I’ll tell you what I’ve pieced together. Your father was sent to Bogenfels, to look for the wreck of the City of Baroda. It was a long shot, but Captain Wilmott swore under oath that the box was left in the captain’s safe when the ship sunk. Van den Bergh an Diederichs had information that the box contained a sample of the gold and details of where it was hidden…”
“But I don’t understand what the Smit murders had to do with all this?” Gertruida holds up an apologetic hand for interrupting the small general.
“Aah…that. Yes. I’m not sure. But…assuming Smit stumbled across some irregular overseas accounts? Accounts that were used to finance a plethora of underhand activities. Accounts only known to Diederichs, Vorster and maybe van den Bergh. Vast accounts. Accounts fed by a number of less-than-legal ways. And suppose, out of these accounts, a number of secret operations were funded. Operations, including buying rocket fuel from Pakistan; buying nuclear intel from Israel, obtaining weapons from Belgium and the US of A. Should such information be made public, a number of political faces in South Africa – and elsewhere – would have had a lot of egg all over them.” Matotsi sighs. “I think your father’s operation was financed through these funds. Anybody digging deep enough – at that time – could have unravelled the puzzle. So Smit – brilliant though he was – made a fatal mistake. A few days before his murder, he made an announcement that he would make a public statement that would shock the nation.”
“But all that was forgotten and buried in history. Nobody was interested any more. However, some time ago we were discussing the shortage of funds, one of our old agents jokingly mentioned the case of the missing millions again. The treasure, he said, was still hidden in Namibia somewhere. Now – that made a few people sit up straight. Here was an answer to some of the government’s financial woes – there for picking up and bringing home. Free.” Matotsi pauses, signals for another coffee. “The only problem being that Namibia is independent now, and we’re on friendly terms with them. And we sure as nuts don’t want to share it with them…or anybody.”
“So you had to scare me off…?”
“Yes, madam, exactly. You were getting too near something we wanted to keep secret. We couldn’t afford that.”
“The answer, then, is at Bogenfels. Find the wreck, dive the site, get the safe, get the instructions and possibly a map, get the fortune?” Gertruida, being practical as usual. “Why don’t you just locate the wreck and get it over with?”
Mototsi sighs and gives her the what-do-you-know look. “We can’t start a search without drawing attention to ourselves. A sea or air recon will definitely lead to questions being asked. The Namibians aren’t stupid. They spot a South African aircraft or boat nosing around in their waters, and we’ll have to explain exactly what we’re doing there, and why. No, this must be done quietly, without them realising what we’re doing.”
“I realise that.” Gertruida rolls her eyes. The man thinks I’m dof... “That’s why I’ve got a plan. Why don’t we become common, garden-variety tourists? One happy group of people cruising through a neighbouring country, anxious to see what’s happening next door. See sights. Drink beer. Take photographs. Have a ball….and visit Bogenfels?”
//Xuiram sits down next to the embers, inhaling the aroma of the sacred herbs.
Send your family out. There’s a gull’s nest next to the foot of the Holy Rock. They’ll find eggs there. And your son will see the burrow of a rabbit. He’ll know what to do.
The Bushman smiles contently. Yes! More blessings on their being there. He looks up, glances at his son: what a fine young man he’s become! Their eyes meet. Then, without a word, the young man motions for the rest of the family to follow him.
Inhaling deeply, //Xuiram closes his eyes again. It isn’t dark when he does this: in fact, with his eyes shut, he can see quite clearly how his son leads the family down to the foot of the huge arch. Sees them find the eggs, hears the whoops of joy.
Then he sees a white man, a man with a peaked cap and a sodden, white uniform, walking towards the very cave he is sitting in. The man carries a box, a heavy box, causing him the breathe deeply. It is hot outside. Sweat drips from the man’s brow. He can see individual drops of sweat coursing down the stubbled cheeks. The man glances over his shoulder at a big ship just beyond the breaking waves, There is a smaller boat in the water, taking people to the ship.
With a last glance backwards, the man stumbles into the cave. He looks around. Fixes on a hollow in the rocks at the back of the cave. The box gets shoved into the hollow. The man drags another rock in front of the hollow. Then the man walks out to wait for the boat to pick him up.
“It’s not exactly a bustling city,” Matotsi says. “Looks a bit forlorn to me.”
“Don’t be deceived, General.” Gertruida is in her element. “This used to be an important harbour. And right now, you’re next to the richest diamond fields ever discovered. Anyway, we’re not here to pubcrawl. Tomorrow we’re off to the Sperrgebiet and the Bogenfels. Who knows what waits for us there…”
“Yes, okay. At six we’ll get the helicopter at the small airfield. Low tide is at seven. The pilot is an old member of the recces – he’ll take us to the last known coordinates of the City of Baroda. According to the naval charts, the sea is about thirty metres deep there. With a bit of luck…”
General Matotsi comes from a long line of shepherds: he’s used to being obeyed. Running DEAD is a simple affair for him: you issue orders and await results. This time, however, reality didn’t fit into the scenario he had hoped for. Surely warning off an old lady cannot be this complicated?
He gets off the helicopter. trying to look grim. Unfortunately, his features pucker themselves up in a cartoon-like resemblance of Nemo, which is why Gertruida has to concentrate to keep her face straight. The little general stomps in to Boggel’s Place, comes to a halt, and studies the bemused faces studying him.
“What is this all about?” Attack being the best form of defense, he doesn’t bother introducing himself.
“Ah yes. You must be the general?” Syrup dripping from Gertruida’s words. “Come in, dear man. Sit down. It’s so hot outside, you must be thirsty? What can Boggel get you, sir?”
Matotsi cannot decide whether the woman is stupid or being sarcastic. Nevertheless, he sits down at the counter, refusing the beer Boggel is waving at him, growling “Not while I’m on duty.”
Boggel nods with his understanding barman face, suggests a cooldrink, and excuses himself to fetch it from the storeroom.
“We still have the other chap.” Vetfaan seems to be talking to his glass. “A veritable fountain of information he’s been. I actually like him. Pity he isn’t here. Not feeling well, he said.”
“Wha…?” Matotsi swings around to face Vetfaan. “Where is he?”
“Listen, General, let’s get something straight. This is Boggel’s Place. Maybe you’ve never heard about it, which explains your confusion. The first rule upon entering here, is that you stomp the dust off your boots, take off your hat and say hello. Then, if you don’t know the people, you introduce yourself. Thirdly, we only drink cooldrink when the cactus runs out. Otherwise we’d think you’re a bit of a whimp, see?’
Matotsi can only stare at the big man.
“So, let’s start over, shall we? I’m Vetfaan and you’re…?”
The general gives his surname, but Vetfaan shakes his head. “First name?”
“Alpheus.” By now the general is completely unsettles. Who are these people?
“Okay, Alphie, this is how it’s going to play out. We’re a peaceful bunch over here. We don’t pick fights – especially the ones we cannot win. But we do believe in peace and harmony and we subscribe to equal opportunities. See? We have women in the bar and a disabled barman. We also practice religious freedom, which explains why Oudoom’s church isn’t always full on Sundays.
“But we don’t assault old men, and we don’t threaten mature ladies. That’s what your men have been doing. We don’t take kindly to that. Gertruida – she’s the one over there – knows all about DEAD and she’s written a most entertaining letter about it and it’s recent activities regarding the lady over there, Elsie. Now she’s waiting to see if she must post it to The Mail and Guardian.
“I suggest we all sit down, relax, and share a brandy. Then, as becomes civilised men, let’s have a friendly chat.”
This is the longest speech anybody has ever heard Vetfaan make, and it is so eloquent that he receives muted applause from the Rolbossers.
“Ja. And tell your three men – the bodyguards outside – to take a scenic tour of the town and its surroundings. They make me nervous.” Kleinpiet feels he has to say something, anything, to show everybody he’s brave, too. He puts on his Basset face when he gets no response from the little crowd…
Gertruida says you mustn’t think shepherds are stupid. They live in the veld, get to know the weather very well, and understand risks. Matotsi weighs up the odds as he accepts his cooldrink from Boggel. If he tastes the generous tot of Vodka in the orange juice, he shows no sign of it.
Gertruida is fond of saying alcohol is the greatest social lubricant ever invented. She also says smaller quantities are the source of great wisdom – before the next glass brings out the imbecile in you.
So it’s no surprise to find the bar a rather rowdy place two hours later. Vetfaan discovered that he and Matotsi must have had each other in their sights during the bush war. Strangely, it forms a bond between the two men.
“You were at Cuito Cuanaval? Hey man, that time I was really scared! Eish…I think we all were.”
Vetfaan nods, orders another round, and tells Matotsi he still wakes up at night, hearing the mortars explode.
“I do, too,” Alpheus Matotsi admits, clinking his glass with Vetfaan’s.
“Now tell me, Alphie. What’s this with you being involved with scaring old ladies? You guys fought bravely in Angola…what’s with you now?”
Matotsi remains silent for a long time.
“I’ll tell you,” he says after obviously coming to a decision. “But what I say now, remains here. I have the power – and the influence – to make your lives…very difficult. Understand?”
Oudoom assures the general that they won’t whisper a single word of the conversation. He doesn’t lie – he didn’t say anything about talking or writing.
The general’s account tends to drift off the subject every now and then, but Gertruida manages to piece it together.
The Nationalist government realised it was in trouble in the 70’s. The world was turning against them, their funds were drying up, and civil unrest took it’s toll. They were still firmly in the saddle, though – but they needed a lot of money to keep them there.
It was general van den Bergh who remembered the story of the City of Baroda. It was one of the bits of gossip making the rounds in the internment camp where the pro-British government of the 40’s held the members of the Ossewabrandwag (who sympathised with Germany).
According to the talk in the camp where van den Bergh and John Vorster were locked up, the Third Reich was crumbling under the combined assault of the Allies. However, the die-hard members of the Hitler regime refused to believe the end of the war would be the end of the Nazi dream. No, they planned a Fourth Reich.
“The Germans smuggled out something to South West Africa.” By now Matotsi had to concentrate really hard to keep the narrative together. “Had a lot of sympathy there amongst the people – most of whom still spoke German as a first language. And then they wanted to let their sympathisers in South Africa know about it. So a letter and a box containing evidence of what they’ve done, was sent to a member of the South African parliament – somebody they trusted. But…” he waves a wobbly finger in the air, “the box was on a ship. Ironically, the ship was sunk by a German U-boat.”
Matotsi’s eyes, set high and wide on his pointed face, starts drooping. Boggel immediately serves a mug of strong, black coffee.
“Van den Bergh guessed this had to do with a massive fortune. Gold. He knew the Nazi’s already established a bank in Monaco in 1943 where they tried to hide their treasures. Later, in an investigation by the Americans into the way Germany tried to secrete away money for later use, they confirmed that a shipment of gold was smuggled to South West Africa.”
“Operation Safehaven,” Gertruida whispers. “The West stealing the assets the Germans stole…”
General Matotsi almost loses his balance as he spins around to face Gertruida.
“You know about this?”
Boggel laughs. “She knows everything, Alphie. Everything. Get used to it.”
“Oh.” Matotsi sipped the scalding coffee. “Well, that was what Boss was looking for back in the 70’s. The Minister of Finances sent an expedition. They died in the desert. That was the end of it, until this woman started poking around.” His one eye focussed on Elsie. “And we couldn’t have that. No sir. Not at all.”
“Because we’re looking for it, too…”
Vetfaan is halfway through his third rendition of the Radetsky March (quick tempo) when he has to stop. The lyrics for the last few minutes have been constant.
Thump! – General – Thump! – Matotsi – Thump – General – Thump – Matotsi….
Vetfaan is getting bored and thirsty – he can’t do Radetsky, the thumping…and drink beer.
“Enough, Fanie, I think we’ve got all the information we need.” Fanny lays a soothing hand on the big man’s shoulder. “Gertruida, how about phoning that general or something?”
The name the man gave – over and over again between Vetfaan’s nose-tapping – is General Matotsi. Nothing more.
“Who is this general? Never heard of him.” Vetfaan downs the beer, sighs and turns to his victim. Fortunately for him, Gertruida clears her throat.
“I know about him,” she says, which isn’t surprising as she knows everything, “He runs one of the less known government agencies. The Department of Education and Deployment – DEAD.
“Well, it is aptly named, one must admit. Although they are officially supposed to re-educate dissenting ANC members and then deploy them somewhere useful, that isn’t the whole story. Their education – or rather: re-education – is aimed at much more sinister causes. They will invoke township violence…for instance.”
Seeing the puzzled looks, she takes a sip before explaining. “Look. Say you’re the government and in charge of the whole country…except the Western Cape. And the Western Cape is an embarrassment because it runs so smoothly. No Marikanas there. No corruption. Much less crime. No e-Toll. The schools get their books on time and outperform all the other provinces where the ANC tries to tell the people what a good job they’re doing. The Western Cape, you may say, is a thorn in the governments side.
“So, they make a plan. Get a few farm labourers and promise them money and immunity. Get them to burn a few tractors and protest about their wages – the very same wages the ANC imposed on the farmers in the first place. Get the people to complain about the free houses they received. Establish gangs in the Cape Flats and help them procure drugs to destabilise the community.
“DEAD’s main job is to discredit anybody who opposes the ANC. Any means, any method…provided it is done in such a fashion that nobody connects it to the government.” She sighs. “Just like BOSS did. History, my friends, repeating itself.
“But…they also do other stuff. Secret things for the government. Like…if you want information that is so sensitive you don’t want the usual organs of state handle it. For instance: sniffing out the traitors of the 80’s, or digging up Apartheid injustices – anonymously, at arms length.
“So, Vetfaan, I think you must take up your musical career and ask your nice guest why they are interested in Elsie? What danger does a widowed white woman pose to the mighty ANC?”
“Noooooo!!!!” The man lets out a strangled cry. “Please. I don’t know!”
“Did you know,” Gertruida asks when Vetfaan starts up the nose-drumming again, “That Johann Strauss was commissioned to write the march to commemorate Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz‘s famous victory at Custoza in 1848? He was an excellent military leader and had been retired a few years before the battle. The war against Milan was a great burden on the Austrians and it even seemed as if they were going to be defeated. Then, – voila! – they recalled on the 82-year old general and he turned the tide. When the victorious soldiers returned to Vienna, they sang “Alter Tanz aus Wien“ – a catchy tune that caught Strauss’ attention. This inspired the composer to pen down one of the happiest marches in history.” Gertruida exhibits her uncanny powers of concentration by delivering her little speech, completely ignoring the background noise of the hapless agent.
“Please! –thump! – Please – thump – Make – thump! – The man –thump! – Stop!”
“Okeydokey.” Vetfaan lifts the agent’s face from the counter. “Want to say something? Don’t let me interrupt you…”
Sniffing loudly, the man tells them that he knows very little. The department is worried that some information might leak out. Elsie is – as far as he knows – busy investigating something that causes the main brass in the ruling party to become extremely worried. They want her to stop. His general, he says, told them to scare her off. It’s got something to do with ANC finances. And that, he swears on his mother’s eyes, is all he knows.
“I’ll tell you what.” Vetfaan grins at the red nose. “Why don’t we cut the cable ties on your little friend here? We’ll ask him nicely if he doesn’t want to fetch the illustrious general, and bring him to Rolbos. You’ll remain as our guest, of course. Then we have a nice little chat with the general, and you all go home. Hmmm? What do you think?
“Or else we can take nice photos of the two of you and ask a newspaper if they’d like to go for the Front Page of the Year award? Don’t worry, we’ll comb your hair and wipe your nose for the photo – just to make you guys presentable, see? I’m sure General Matotsi would simply love that. Publicity never hurt a politician – and even bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. I’m sure he’ll want to reward you afterwards. Maybe even give you free lodging for the rest of your life – if you know what I mean?”
//Xuiram stares at the giant, arched rock. Yes, it is exactly the way he remembers it. The sandy little beach, the giant waves, the rugged coastline…
They don’t talk. They don’t have to. Here, at the arched rock, words aren’t necessary. After the arduous trek across the sand and the arid terrain, they are only too grateful to arrive at last. Grateful…and thirsty. They only have one ostrich shell full of water left.
//Xuiram sits down on the beach, gathering his family around him. They sit motionless, still, waiting for the spirit-world to welcome them.
A sudden gush of wind stirs the sand around them. Overhead the clouds gather to obscure the sun. Is this a good sign? Are they being rejected?
Then the drops start falling. At first //Xuiram thinks he is mistaken, but then the first sheet of heavy rain sweeps the beach. The torrent increases, causing rivulets to stream across the beach. //Xuiram gets up. They have been blessed, far more than they deserved. Clapping his hands together in thanks, he leads his family to the only shelter he can see: a shallow cave in the rocks on the shore line.
General Matotsi arrives the next day. Not by car, as Vetfaan would have thought, but by helicopter.
“Is he really a general?” Boggel glances through the window. The short man with the pot belly and pointed face doesn’t look like a general to him. The eyes are set too high and wide on the sloping forehead, the ears too tiny, the mouth too small for the prominent lips. “He looks like he belongs in a fishbowl.”
“Concentrate on his rank, Boggel, not his looks.” Gertruida hides an impish smile. “This is going to be interesting…”
“Money.” Gertruida has that look again. She ticks off the points as she continues: “It must be about money. Whatever they went to look for, has to tie up with finances somehow. Nico Diederichs was known as Mister Gold. Dr Robert Smit was a financial genius. He was murdered because he found something wrong with overseas funding. The Radical Action United Taskforce silenced him because he found out. Captain Parker was sent on a mission to find something, and this ultra-secret mission – somehow – has something to do with all of these.”
“It doesn’t make sense.” Boggel downs his beer and reaches for a new one. “The only things worth money in the Sperrgebiet, are diamonds. Now, if the government needed diamonds, they could have taken them – South West Africa used to belong to us in the 70’s. And, remember, we have Oranjemund, Cullinan and Kimberley – why send a secret mission to a godforsaken place when they had all the diamonds they needed right here?”
“That’s the point, Boggel. It can’t be about diamonds.” Gertruida frowns, obviously lost in thought. “That means…if it wasn’t about diamonds…that they were looking for something else. Something valuable.”
“I agree,” Elsie lights another cigarette despite Boggel’s disapproving look. “It doesn’t make sense. Except for a few shipwrecks, the Sperrgebiet has nothing except those diamonds…”
“Whoa!” Gertruida’s hand shoots up to stop the chatter. “Shipwrecks…? What shipwrecks?”
Gertruida reads up. She phones a few friends, pulls a few strings, calls in one or two favours. The only shipwreck she traces, is that of a 500 year old galleon discovered in 2008 – containing brass canons, Iberian coins, copper and some ivory. Surely, she realises, this isn’t the answer she’s looking for.
Then one of her old friends, an retired admiral, mentioned toe City of Baroda. A passenger ship? Sunk in WW ll? Soooo…?
After a good night’s sleep, the Robossers are back in Boggel’s Place, sipping Boggel’s special wake-up coffee and discussing possibilities. Elsie is in mid-sentence, busy saying that the whole story is a big puzzle, when a new Range Rover Sport with tinted windows stops outside.
“It’s them!” Elsie’s fear is tangible. “Dammit, I’ve got to hide!”
Gertruida pushes her back on to her chair. “If it’s them, Elsie, you can’t. I know. If they found you here, they’ll find you anywhere. Let’s see what we get out of them.” She can be rather imposing when she wants to. “Okay, everybody, relax. Just be yourselves.”
Elsie is right. The two men walk briskly to the counter, scanning the faces and then sitting down next to Elsie. She recognises them, of course. The Ducktails. How can she forget the them?
‘Told you to lay off, didn’t we?” The taller one sneers. “Whatcha doin’ here, lady?” Obviously he’s a fan of gangster movies.
“Now wait a second, gentlemen. Elsie is a guest in our town. There’s no law against it. What I’d like to know, is what the hell you think you’re doing?” Gertruida never uses foul language. Never.
“Stay out of this, woman. It may become…ugly, if you follow my drift.” The slightly smaller one bunches his shoulders while flexing his muscular arms.
This man, Boggel realises, is the dangerous guy. Barmen know these things. Cold eyes, thin, unsmiling lips, an almost distracted way of looking at people, The kind of guy who likes hurting puppies.
“You come in here, threatening us? Why?” Servaas brings his bushy brow together to show his disgust.
Servaas doesn’t see the hand flashing out. He staggers back, wiping the blood from his lips before sitting down heavily. Only then does he realise he’s been slapped – hard.
“Cos it’s none of ya business, ole man.”
Vetfaan lives a simple life with simple rules. The Kalahari taught him that. When it’s cold, you make a fire. If it’s hot, you look for shade. You don’t shoot anything unless you want to eat it. Sundays belong to Oudoom and the church. And somewhere on that list, it says something about assaulting older people.
He gets up slowly, walks over to the two newcomers. He gait is casual, non-threatening. He asks if he can buy them a beer. They relax, thinking they have scared everybody into submission. The taller one nods.
It’s the last thing he remembers.
Vetfaan simply reaches out, as if wanting to place his big hands on the counter. Boggel reaches for the beers. And then…
The crack! of the two agent’s heads smashing together is – one has to admit – rather sickening. Even Gertruida doesn’t realise what is happening until the two men collapse on the floor.
“Vetfaan…?” Fanny looks at her husband, her eyes wide in shock and wonder.
“Sorry, Fanny.” He seems genuinely embarrassed. “But this is Boggel’s Place.” As if it explains everything. Then again, maybe it does, come to think of it.
“I’ve got some cable ties in my bakkie,” Kleinpiet says innocently.
Namib Desert, 2014
//Xuiram is proud of his name. Legend has it that the first //Xuiram was a wise and powerful leader, the founder of the clan. He was the one who gave them the mind-maps to find water, to know where the hidden fountains are and where to hunt in the different seasons. Now, with the wisdom accumulated in his long life (at 55 summers he is by far the oldest of the tribe) he knows it is time to return to the Holy Place, the spiritual stronghold he last saw when he was a boy.
“We shall leave here when the moon is full,” he tells his family. “It is time.” He allows his eyes to travel over his small family. They are the last ones – him, his wife, the three boys and the girl. “I have to show you the way before it is my time to leave.”
Mentioning his death does not upset the family. For some time now, the old man has been complaining about his eyesight. And, as they all know, the biggest curse on a hunter, is blindness. Is it not so, they spoke amongst themselves a while ago, that the spirit-world knows no illness, no fatigue, no hunger? When old //Xuiram departs this world, they will rejoice, for he’ll be a hunter with strong legs and eyes to see. Yes, when the time comes, they’ll be glad for him..
“It shall be so, my father” the oldest son says.
Vetfaan can be extremely convincing. He once told the speedcop outside Upington how wrong it is for a traffic policeman to hide behind a bush and then issue a fine for speeding. How can you fine me when you are ashamed of your work? Huh? You’re dishonest, man! Hiding like that is the mark of a law-breaker, a skelm! And then you jump out and you put on your holy-holy face to tell me I’m a crook? You need your head read, man! No offence, officer, but two wrongs don’t make a right. The cop shared a beer with Vetfaan and let him go.
Now, however, Vetfaan picks up the smaller guy by the scruff of his neck, sits him down on a bar stool, and – still holding on to the back of the man’s neck – proceeds to tap out a rhythm on the counter with the man’s nose. Vetfaan isn’t cruel – he just taps hard enough to bring tears to the man’s eyes.
“Gee, you remind me of the Radetsky March. Did you know I’m musical? Well, let me show you. I just love that melody – can listen to it over and over again. Should have heard the army band playing it in Pretoria… Maybe….” he stops the tapping, turning the man’s bruised nose towards him, “maybe you want to tell me stuff? Nothing much, you understand? Just who you work for.”
Then, keeping time with his humming, he starts drumming again with what he later describes as his friend’s nasal metronome.
“The Radical Action United Taskforce…” Gertruida has a puzzled frown. “Now why does that ring a bell?”
“I though you’d know, Gertruida?” Boggel holds a glass up to the light after shining it. “It sounds so much like the old government.”
“I’ll have to think back, Boggel. It’s been a long time.”
“And that’s all that I found in the archives.” Elsie pushes back her glass, nodding for a refill. “The Minister of Finances set up an expedition to go to Bogenfels to get something – what? Why? It was done in secret – why? My father was killed – why? And then I added the Nationalists mad scramble for money, got snippets on the Smit murders and the nebulous Radical Action United Taskforce.
“What was it with Bogenfels? It’s in one of the most inhospitable places in Southern Africa. While reading up on it, I found that a Spanish galleon sank there hundreds of years ago. The City of Baroda was torpedoed near it. I couldn’t see why it was so important?” Elsie took a small sip of her drink, waiting to see if a penny dropped amongst the listeners.
“But it is in the middle of the Sperrgebiet. Diamonds…?” Gertruida, of course.
“Yes!” Elsie smiles as she watches the reaction of her audience. “At first I thought so, too. Bogenfels is in the middle of one of the richest diamond deposits on this earth, so naturally…” She pauses dramatically. “Then, neatly filed under ‘Sperrgebiet, Miscellaneous, , 1975-1980’, I found an item they labelled ‘Book, Sperrgebiet, 1978’. I wouldn’t have picked it up if the word Sperrgebiet and the date didn’t feature.”
I suppose this will be the last entry. We have no water left. Food finished three days ago. Captain Parker left us this evening. Wandered off. Only two of us left now. Mission failed.
If found, please tell Margie I loved her. Bitterly cold. No fire. I wanted to go home…
“The sad thing is: the front page and a lot of the rest had been destroyed by wind and sun and weather. They didn’t know who wrote these words, nor who ‘Margie’ was. In fact, when I asked about the ‘diary’, the archivist looked at me blankly and said he didn’t have a clue. Then he looked it up in his computer – and told me it came to the archives from the office of General van den Bergh.”
Gertruida gasps. “ The boss of BOSS? The Bureau of State Security?”
“Exactly. In the post-Apartheid era, many of the former government’s offices had to be cleared out to make room for the new dispensation. Apparently the archives received masses of papers, documents, books and letters they had to sort and archive somehow. This book came from the BOSS offices, was neatly placed in its plastic envelope, labelled as best as they could…and left to rot on the shelf. And, because it only contained one or two pages of legible writing, it was left to be forgotten.”
“But it tells us a lot, Elsie.” Gertruida just loves a mystery. “On that page you have confirmation of an expedition, men dying of hunger and thirst, and it was found in the Sperrgebiet. Above all, it mentions your father. Obviously it is connected with BOSS. And don’t forget: it says mission failed. That means they didn’t succeed in doing – or finding – what they set out to do.”
“Exactly.” Elsie fishes out a cigarette, lights it and inhales deeply. “I was still puzzling about it, when two nights later I had some visitors…”
They were typical of the men BOSS employed back in its heyday. Suited, hats, 70’s long hairstyles. On the streets of Pretoria in 1978, they would have been labelled as “well-dressed ducktails’. Ferret faced; black pointed shoes. Overconfident. Sadly, not as handsome as some movie stars.
She was, they said, to stop prying. Go on a holiday. Forget the past. “We mean you no harm, understand? It would be a pity if something happened to you.”
That’s all. They left before she could ask a question.
“That’s when I knew I was onto something big. These men came to warn me off – but I had no idea why…or what.”
“I’m sure you pieced it together, Elsie.” Gertruida doesn’t like the way this woman is playing it out. Obviously she knew more than she was letting on. By acting the broken wing role, she was hoping for sympathy and help – and that’s okay…as long as she remains honest. “What were your thoughts, Elsie? Why did you come here?”
Elsie fixes Gertruida with a knowing stare. She’ll have to be careful with this one…
“I think something of great value is hidden at Bogenfels. Something so big, so secret, that the Nationalists kept it away from their own people. And I think the old secret service structures are still aware of it and wouldn’t like amateurs prodding at something they’ve buried. And…no matter what that might be…I’d like to know what happened to my father. I need to get closure on that, see?
“So, where do I turn to? Who do I ask to help? I can’t tackle the Sperrgebiet on my own, can I? I needed somebody who understands the way of the desert. I needed somebody I can trust. I needed that somebody to be a nobody – a person so far below the intelligence services’ radar, they’d never think he’d assist me. And I needed to disappear, as well.
“Those men scared the hell out of me, I can tell you. They were so casual and off-hand..but their eyes were cold and hard. I understood them perfectly – if I didn’t lay off, I’d come to grief.
“So, what could I do? I disappeared. Came here – to a place few people know of. And linked up with Servaas, the only man I really can trust. So there. Satisfied?”
A single tear coursed its way down her cheek, causing Boggel to offer a box of tissues.
Somehow, they all turn to Servaas, who has been listening quietly. He shrugs, spreads his arms wide…and says nothing.
“Well,” Gertruida sums up the situation, “either we do something, or we don’t. Easy as that. Doing nothing is maybe the wisest choice. I know,” she emphasises her statement by lowering her voice, “that the old and the new intelligence services are not much different. They even have a number of the old agents still active in the field.
“Taking into consideration the visit Elsie had, I think it would be short-sighted to make enquiries – however discreet. She’s right: we can’t trust anybody. If Bogenfels is the place where something of value is hidden, and if Captain Parker was sent to retrieve it…well, I don’t know? Basically: either we go find it or we remain right here downing Green Ambulances.”
Gertruida drums the counter with restless fingers. “That unit? The Radical Action United Taskforce? I remember something about them. They took out opponents of the State. Palme, Lubowski, even John Vorsters’ ‘stroke’. And of course, Dulcie September…people like that. They did it in such a way, nobody knew who did it, why, how, and so on. But they slipped up once. Only once. Two men, only known by their code names – Erlank and MacDougle – left a calling card at the Smit murder scene.”
Boggel grasps it immediately. “The RAU TEM spray-painted on the wall of the Smit home after the murders?”
“Yes, Boggel. They left an explicit warning to anybody opposing the government – or exposing any of their underhand dealings. Those guys played for keeps. I suspect they still do…”
An uneasy silence descends on Boggel’s Place.. The mysterious visitor to Rolbos may well be threatening to end their peaceful existence…
!Xuiram returns to the collapsed Holy Cave whenever the rain allows. He knows that’s when the fountain will seep water to the surface and he’ll be safe.
On these rare occasions, he’ll watch the gulls, the waves, the clouds…and contemplate the deeper mysteries of Life. It is after one of these trips that he returns to the desert with a message:
“This place will remain ours forever. Nobody will take it away from us. Men will come, but won’t understand it’s meaning until it’s too late.”
And when the people ask him about it, and he shakes his head, saying even he doesn’t understand it completely.
The Arch Rock, Bogenfels, is indeed a place of mystery and wonder. It is also a place of fear and death. The laminated layers of sedimentary rock should no be able to form such a formidable structure. But it did, and is there for all to see.
Over the aeons of time, the generations following !Xuiram made occasional pilgrimages to the rock arch – when the rains and the veld allowed. Initially these treks happened once a year, but with time the droughts became worse and the rains stayed away. The visits became epic, once-in-a-lifetime journeys, characterised by hardship and determined perseverance.
One thing remained the same, however: once at the rock, the pilgrims would not speak. Not a word. They’d spend the time (determined by how much water was around) in deep meditation. Some might call it prayer, others will scoff. But there, at Bogenfels, the little clan of Bushmen opened up their minds to communicate.
It’s hard to say. The Universe? God? Ancestors? Or are these entities all the same thing: the composite of many small things where sand and grass and water and fish and man combine to form a unity? What is striking – in contrast to the singular God-person relationship of modern churches – is that these primitive individuals included everything in their meditation. They did this effortlessly, as if there is no other way of thinking about life and death and the existence of what we shall become afterwards. It is, they’d tell you, all the same thing – and then stare at you in an unbelieving way because you struggle to put it all together.
In later years, missionaries tried to stop these pilgrimages, calling them unbiblical and pagan. The Bushmen, they said, used Bogenfels as a place to practice the occult and their magical spells.
The missionaries never succeeded.
1943 – Bogenfels
When at last a steamship arrives to pick up the survivors, Captain Wilmott is the last to leave. There is a very good reason for this – he needs to hide the box.
His orders on leaving Walvis Bay with the sealed box were crystal clear: on arrival in Cape Town, he’d be met by South Africa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Wilmott knows exactly what he looks like, just like most South Africans do. The smiling eyes, the small moustache, the disarming manner. Yes, there’d be no problem knowing who to give the box to.
And he would have done exactly that, except for the small matter of curiosity. Why, he wondered the previous evening, all the secrecy? There are diplomatic couriers, an efficient postal service and maybe hundreds of trusted men and women who could have gotten the parcel to Cape Town in half the time and much less risk? Whatever it is, he reckoned in the darkness, it must be unusual, extremely secret and so ,,, different … that the usual channels weren’t even considered. Or, if the were, they were discarded as problematic.
Another thought nagged at his mind. He is, after all, a naval officer. As such, he is expected to follow orders. That is good and well…but why then didn’t they entrust the package to a South African ship, under South African command? Or an army convoy? Did they not trust their own men? Or does the box hold something the South African government wants to be so secret, that even their own men must never know about it?
No, he argued, they’re doing it this way to leave no trace of what they’ve done – whoever they might be. And there, in the shade of Bogenfels, the captain contemplated these things…and opened the box.
That’s why he decided to hide the container. There are hundreds of small caves scattered through the rising ridges above the water, and it is here that he secreted the find away. He’ll come back later. Some day. He’ll come back… In the meantime, he’ll simply state that the box was lost with the ship. Nobody will blame him, or suspect anything…
Only, he didn’t. The Curse of Bogenfels wouldn’t let him. On his next trip to Singapore, he contracted Malaria and died before his new ship reached the nearest civilised harbour.
Boggel’s Place, 2014
“Ja, the old Nationalist government did everything to get their hands on money. Developing a home-made atom bomb proved to be far more expensive than they thought. Buying arms and ammunition had to be done through middlemen, who became fabulously rich during the process. The Stander Gang was set up, and provided some ready cash. Rhino horn and ivory were traded with the Eastern Block. Newspapers were bought, the Citizen was funded, and the advertising income flowed into government coffers.”
Gertruida nods. “And that is where the Smit family fits in, isn’t it?” It really is a question rather than a statement.
“Yes…” Elsie seems hesitant, not sure if she should divulge everything. Well, she’s come this fare, might as well… “It all tied up with getting funds to safe havens. Switzerland, with its unique and neutral banking system, was a perfect choice. Here the government had several – some think hundreds – of secret accounts. They paid secret money from secret accounts into other secret accounts. Once again, clever middlemen handled these transactions and it became almost impossible to trace who paid who for what. You had to be very, very clever to unravel that conundrum…”
Gertruida nods. “Enter Robert Smit…”
“Exactly. Here was a financial guru, somebody who understood international finances. He had been, you’ll remember, our country’s ambassador to the International Monetary Fund, and was tipped to be the next Minister of Finance. He also operated a front company – Santam International – which moved vast sums of money overseas. So he knew about such things. He understood these matters. And he also stumbled across some extremely irregular transactions.
“Upon investigating these accounts, Smit discovered a massive fund linked to something called the Radical Action United Taskforce – something he’d never heard about. Who – what – was this? And why did they have an account not reflected in any official system? Black funds weren’t strange in those days and were mostly controlled by the generals with the president often only vaguely aware of its existence. But this fund – unaccounted for anywhere else – was so large that it made Smit stay up nights to trace the money trail from start to end.”
“Ja well, no fine.” Vetfaan is being old impatient self. “What has this to do with the ship that sank near Bogenfels? And how does it tie up with your father’s disappearance? Surely the president, the Smit murders and the border war had nothing to do with this?”
Elsie smiles the patient way patient mothers smile when a toddler asks the sixth ‘why?’.
“It has everything to do with it. Everything. That’s why I’m here…”
Approx 4000 years ago, The Holy Cave
//Xi stands trembling while he waits for the old man’s response. When !Xuiram works in his trance-like state, one does not interrupt his drawing. However, the news he has to impart is too terrible, too overwhelming, to keep to himself.
“Yes, my son?” !Xuiram puts down his brush with a smile. The impatience of youth! It makes them forget their manners.
“The Holy Cave! The Holy Cave has fallen, my Father.”
Old !Xuiram closes his eyes. He knew it was going to happen. In his dream the giant cave collapsed in a jumble of rock, robbing them of their most potent place of magic. Only a skeleton of the cave will remain, an arched rock, as a reminder of their way of life. The magic will die..
This, he understands, is the signal for them to leave the lush fountain and seek refuge in the desert. It may take many, many seasons, but their days of peaceful existence is over.
“The hunters, dear //Xi, have become the hunted. From now on, this place is cursed. It has been foretold for many generations… The fountain will dry up. Men will come, many men, and they will die here. I saw that in my dream.”
But, !Xuiram tells the youth, this is their spiritual home. They will never, ever, leave it. Even after death…
And //Xi sits down next to the old man, and they weep together.
Captain Wilmott gathers the men and women on the beach, telling them that the radio operator did, indeed, get a message out.
“We shall be saved in a few days. We have some food and hopefully enough water in the lifeboats. The ship, alas, is lost – but fortunately we got near enough to the shore before she sank. It is a miracle so many have survived the cold waters of the Atlantic.” He takes off cap and bows his head. “Let us say a prayer for the ones who didn’t make it…and also offer our thanks for those who did.”
Way out in the ocean, the prow of the City of Baroda hesitates a while above the water – as if in a mock salute – before it slips quietly below the surface.
Boggel’s Place, 2014
Elsie and Servaas has a lot of catching up to do. Boggel serves the drinks while the rest of the townsfolk stop pretending that they’re not eavesdropping. Even Oudoom is there, Old Brown in hand, listening to Elsie telling her old school friend about the search for her father.
“You know, Servaas, when my Dad got lost in the Sperrgebiet, our world collapsed. My Mom moved us to Pretoria to be with her family. This was just before you met Siena – I suppose – and you stopped writing. Oh, you were such a gentleman, telling me about your new-found love and how you felt it is better if we stopped corresponding. Back then I was furious, but later I understood your loyalty and even came to respect it.
“The authorities handled us like dirt, unfortunately. Nobody seemed to know anything about my father or where he was sent. Some Colonel arrived at the house one evening and told my mother there was nothing they could do. My Dad, he said, had been sent on a secret mission, mentioning the Sperrgebiet but saying it was something he wasn’t at liberty to discuss. He did, however, mention that the project was authorised by the Minister of Finances. However, he regretted to inform us that the entire expedition had been killed. He wouldn’t say anything more, except that my Mom would receive a generous state pension and that we children would be able to study at any university at no cost.
“What could we do? It was 1974 then, and strange things were happening all over the country. People died in bomb blasts. People disappeared. It was a terrible time – for Black and White. Well, Mom received the pension and I went on to study architecture. While at university, I met Barend, got married, had two children of my own. Life went on, you see, and with time I just sort of accepted the way things turned out to be.”
Elsie sighs as she stares at her neatly manicured nails. Servaas, in turn, stares at her. Yes…Elsie. Elsie Parker. He tries to remember if he had ever been bold enough to hold her hand. Yes, he hugged her that day when she cried…but that’s not the same, is it? He shakes his head…it’s just too long ago.
“But…Elsie?” Her name makes his cheeks tingle. Even after all these years, the very sound of her name has a profound influence on him. “What brings you to Rolbos? I mean, I’m glad to see you and all that, but…?”
Elsie lights another cigarette, exhaling a thin line of smoke to the ceiling. “Because you’re the only one I can trust, Servaas. That’s why.”
She proceeds to tell him about her architectural firm, which did very nicely, thank you. Barend, a sweet, portly man who indulged in all her whims, died two years ago.
“…and suddenly my life was empty. My kids are all grown up and have families of their own. The architectural firm is run by young men with ponytails and earrings. They wear Raybans indoors and smell like the cologne counter at Woolworths. I am independent and don’t really have to work any longer – and in fact, my ideas are….well, let’s say…old-fashioned? That’s why I looked in the mirror one day – and saw a dinosaur. I just didn’t belong any more.”
She had to do something, she says, to keep going. And then, one night, she dreamt of her father. He seemed happy enough, all decked out in some sort of white outfit, and he told her it is time.
“Time for what, I asked? And he smiled and said I should know…and then he was gone. You know Servaas, I had never had a dream like that one before. It was so lucid, so clear, that I could smell the old pipe he used to smoke.
“Anyway I woke up and made a cup of coffee. The dream bothered me. My Dad wanted me to do something – but what? And then I remembered 1973 and the way he disappeared and I knew…just knew…that I must find out what happened.
“So I did. Went to the archives in Pretoria and started digging. At first I found nothing – but later on I stumbled across the Smit murders in 1977. You know? Robert and Jeanne-Cora Smit? The financial guru for the Nationalist government? At first I thought it was too far-fetched to be a connection, but then I started looking at Dr Nico Diederichs, the man who – ostensibly – authorised my father’s secret mission. And then…then I started thinking maybe…just maybe…”
By this time, Gertruida sits with her hand over her mouth. Yes she knows about the gossip and rumours surrounding the Smit murders – but has this woman dug up something concrete?
Gertruida isn’t superstitious – she knows far too much to dabble with such things. But here, she realises, is the foundation for something extraordinary.
“Boggel! A round of Green Ambulances, please. I think we’ll need it!”