(Author’s note: this is where the first episode continues.)
José Migeul Pereira glances at the unremarkable salesman for a second before focussing his attention on the Land Rover on the floor. He doesn’t recognise the sniper – why should he? How could he? He’s never seen him before.
But Pieter Malherbe…he feels ice moving down his spine. This is the man! Older, indeed. Greying at the temples. More wrinkles. But that scar on the left side of the face immediately caught his eye. And then, when he looks again, there’s no mistaking who this would-be customer is – or was during the war.
“Is this vehicle in good condition?” José’s English isn’t perfect, but it has improved tremendously since the 70’s.
“Ye-e-es.” Malherbe tries desperately to remain calm. Squaring his shoulders, he starts telling José that the Land Rover has done only 40,000 km and has been well looked after. “It’s not even leaking oil, you can see for yourself.”
“Then, my friend, the sump must be empty.” José laughs at his own joke, eyes glinting with humour.
“What do you need it for, if I may ask?” Some customers buy 4X4’s only for the image. The newish Pajero may be a better bet for this man – and the commission is better.
“I need take my sons to see South West Africa. They’re always asking to go.” Malherbe notes the use of the country’s old name. “I was there a long time ago. Now we plan a trip, see? I need good vehicle.”
Pieter Malherbe goes into the routine of explaining what an exemplary vehicle this is and how fortunate his customer is to stumble on such a find. “You are, of course, welcome to test-drive her, if you so wish?”
José is delighted. “You come along, please. I really need to know this one is in good shape, Can you suggest some bad roads, deep sand? I’m really interested and the price is acceptable.”
In Europe, all roads lead to Rome. In the U.S. of A, people tend to end up in New York. In the Northern Cape…well, there’s no telling where the road leads you to.
José wants to really test the vehicle. Malherbe is desperate to reach his selling target for the month. It is therefore not strange to find the two of them heading out to Grootdrink on the tarred road. And once there, José – quite by chance – spots the sandy and rutted track leading off towards the north.
“Where that road go?” José arches an eyebrow.
“Oh, nowhere. Rolbos. A nothing town. It’s got a nice bar, though.”
And so, by coincidence or fate, the two men stroll into Boggel’s Place in the middle of a hot and dusty day. Boggel is only too happy to see two new faces, serves their beer ice-cold and sends out Servaas to call the others.
The townsfolk trickle into the bar with a variety of excuses. Vetfaan wants Boggel to commiserate on his tractor, which has once again broken down. Kleinpiet ostensibly comes looking for Precilla, who arrives looking for him a minute later. Oudoom asks who owns the beautiful Land Rover – a vehicle he’s always admired.
Gertruida – who knows everything – arrives last. It is she – the one with vast knowledge – that gasps when she walks in.
José Migeul Pereira! FAPLA soldier. Connected to the Ruacana Incident. Stayed with South African troops for a while before being allowed to cross the border back to Angola. And…yes! Sarin-S! He’s the man who single-handedly twarted the threat of nuclear war in Southern Africa. She remembers the photos, the ultra-secret report in the thin file. It had been her job to put that specific file through the shredder in the early 90’s.
“José?” Nobody remembers ever hearing that incredulous tone in her voice. “José Pereira? Is it you?”
José swings around to look at the woman in the door. First it was the salesman who seemed to recognise him – now this woman even knows his name.
“Er…yes. That’s me.” What else can he say?
“You’re the Sarin guy? Back in the late seventies? There was a question of chemical warfare…”
Psychologists are extremely clever people, They can explain why some people enjoy conflict, why some seemingly never want to escape a cycle of abuse, and why introverts enjoy reading as much as extroverts find it essential to become politicians. If you let one of these geniusses loose on Pieter Malherbe, you won’t be surprised with an understanding “Aah, oh yes…” or a nodding “of course.”
This does not – we all know – express understanding at all. It merely confirms a state of recognition. Yes, there are people like these. Yes, some may very well react in a similar fashion.
However many ‘aahs’ and nods one may imagine, it is doubtful that anybody would be able to understand exactly what happens in Pieter Malherbe’s mind when he he hears Gertruida’s remark. It’s as if his hidden secret – the failure to complete an important mission – suddenly gets thrust into his face to be a reminder of why he never quite made the grade in life.
Ever since that moment his finger relaxed on the trigger, Malherbe’s life has been spiralling downward. He got back to South West undetected, reached his base unscathed and gave a full and honest report of what had transpired. That’s when his life as an unremarkable failure began.
In the military world there are many secrets. Two things, however, will dog a man like a shadow for the rest of his life: success…and failure. These things are more visible and known than any medallion on a ceremonial uniform. Success will get you free drinks at the bar and slaps on the back. Failure will see you sitting alone in the corner where the barman studiously ignores you.
For years – decades – Pieter Malherbe lived with his failure. At first he was reprimanded for not killing a man. Later, he was guilty of killing his own future.
He should have pulled that damn trigger!
And, for a while, he managed to suppress those feelings in favour of his desire to make that sale. No matter who José Migeul Pereira might be, he is a potential customer.
But then Gertruida recognised the man and the dam burst…
When José nods, it is Malherbe who can’t suppress it any longer. “I should have killed you, you bastard! Had you in my sights, But you were a coward, shielding yourself with a retarded kid. Dammit man! I should have pulled that trigger.”
For once Gertruida doesn’t understand. What was happening?
“Mister Malherbe! What are you talking about?”
It takes quite some time to calm Malherbe down. Gertruida takes him outside, and under her gentle coaxing, she finally gets to hear the part of the story that never reached the files of Military Intelligence back in the war days.
Then – equally gently – she tells Malherbe what a favour he did for his country and the whole of Southern Africa. Malherbe listens – open mouthed – before bursting into tears.
Gertruida says there is no such thing as an unremarkable being. Inside the most primitive Amoeba, as well as inside the mind of the world’s greatest genius, there exists the one remarkable characteristic that defines us all: the will to survive. Knock a tree down, and it’ll start afresh with a few green shoots from the stump. Hurt a worm and it’ll try to wiggle to safety. Tell Malherbe the true story of his heroism, and he’ll grab onto it as the talisman that’ll lead him into the future.
And that is why, while José listens to Vetfaan’s woes about his Massey Ferguson inside Boggel’s Place, a man sits on the stoep outside, holding hands with a woman he barely knows. She’s just told him he’s a hero.
“Thank you,” he whispers.
Getruida sees him relax. He sits quietly for a full ten minutes, digesting everything he just learnt. Then, noddings towards Gertruida, he gets up, goes inside, and shakes the hand of the man he should have killed.
It is, Gertruida will tell you, quite a remarkable gesture.
Two days later, Pieter Malherbe stands on the sidewalk outside the Upington Hotel. He’s waving at the back of the Land Rover disappearing down the street. He still feels the warmth of José firm handshake, the tenderness of his beautiful wife’s kiss on his cheek. Yes, he thinks, Maria is everything that José said – and more. The two grown sons – Clemente and Pedro – each thanked him for saving their father’s life.
He returns to the unremarkable second-hand dealership, sits down behind the unremarkable desk. Then he closes his eyes in a silent prayer, thanking God for an extraordinary life.