When she walks in to Boggel’s Place, all conversation stops. Zip! Just like that.
Not only didn’t anybody expect a visitor, but also it’s her looks…
Ash-grey hair, the colour of frost on dry grass in the winter. Eyes like the water of the Orange River on a cold morning – deep, murky and cold. Long, long legs supporting a rather shapely body. And full lips that curve upward in a sly smile, almost like a horizontal half-moon with dimples. Age, it may be said, had been good to the lady.
“Look at them melons,” Kleinpiet whispers in awe – a remark that is rewarded with Precilla’s poke in his ribs.
“I’m looking for my lost …friend,” she annouces is a smoky voice. “The man of my dreams. My other half. My passion. My…hero.” She laughs as she waves a dismissive wave. “No, seriously, I’m looking for somebody. I hope you can help?”
The remark is so loaded with tension that even Boggel ends up searching the archives – was it somebody from the past?
“Who…?” Gertruida can’t stand a mystery and is first to respond.
“Servaas, madam. I’m looking for Servaas. A long time ago we had a thing going. Then he met that Siena, life moved on, and everything crashed. I heard she passed on…”
“And you’re here to pick up where you left off?” The puzzled frown cuts deep into Gertruida’s forehead.
“Well…” The woman wavers for the first time. “Not exactly. Maybe. Ag…I don’t know.” She coughs, lights a cigarette and looks lost. “Mind if I sit down?”
“We’re not big on smoking in here,” Boggel starts, but she cuts him off, saying she is.
Shrugging, Boggel serves her a beer, and waits like a good barman should. The rest simply stare at the newcomer.
“So..where is he?”
“This Sunday,” Oudoom holds a finger in the air to emphasise his point, “I want to deliver a sermon on the past. Things that happened a long time ago. Things that still haunt the minds of the congregation. Baggage they drag along. Things like that. Any suggestions?”
Servaas sighs. Oudoom gets these ideas and then expects his only elder to work out the sermon. “Well, at least you can leave Noah out. It’s been some time since we’ve had a flood. And there aren’t many Philistines around. I just can’t see how you can bring the Bible and Rolbos together on Sunday, Dominee. As for baggage – there’s only Vetfaan’s tractor – it seems to worry him a lot. And Sammie complains about the taxes he still owes. Not much else, I’m afraid…”
“Brother, sometimes I wonder…” Oudoom doesn’t specify. He doesn’t need to – not in his own mind. Sometimes – not all that rarely – he wonders how it must feel to have a full bench of elders and deacons and a lot of wise men to help him in his duties. But here in Rolbos, he only has to rely on the black-suited Servaas while the rest of the town carries on in Boggel’s Place. Oh, what would he give for a hefty tot of Old Brown Sherry right now…
An urgent knock on the study’s door prevents Oudoom from sliding down the slope of self-pity. He grunts, and Mevrou pokes a hesitant face past the partially opened door.
“There’s somebody for Servaas at Boggel’s. Apparently it’s urgent…”
Servaas stops dead in his tracks when he opens the swing doors. For a moment a puzzled frown brings the bushy brows together, then his eyes open wide in surprise.
“Elize…Elsie…Parker?” No, it can’t be! Is it? That face, those eyes..
“Hello Servaas. Remember me?”
And then, in a flash, he’s fifteen years old, looking into those murky eyes, feeling completely unsettled – all over again.
Elsie is one of those girls. Vivacious. Lovely. Curvy. Soft voice, alluring eyes. In short: much more than the boys in the farm-school can handle. Coming from a well-off family, Elsie has the airs of a slightly spoilt but well-mannered young lady. Servaas, on contrast, wears patched (but clean) clothes, doesn’t read much, and is always covered in the bruises and bandages from the last rugby game. (no grass on the field).
And yet, here he is, sitting next to this unreachable beautiful creature, holding her tight and making soothing sounds because he doesn’t know what to say. He feels her hands gripping his muscular back as he pats her shoulder.
“Shhhh… Elsie.” He closes his eyes in a silent prayer to God. Please make me say something clever? Just this once, keep my feet out of my mouth? “I’m sure they’ll find your dad. I mean, they won’t abandon him, I’m sure.”
It has no effect on Elsie.
“Look, maybe it’ll help if you told me more? I only know he got lost on the Skeleton Coast, wherever that might be. My Mom says talking about stuff makes things better.” That isn’t true, of course. Servaas’ mother is a stern, tight-lipped woman of Teutonic bearing. Her actual words were: If you don’t tell me who stole the biltong, I’ll whip the skin from your unholy bum. He told her, and still got the hiding. Afterwards, while chewing thoughtfully, he wondered if the pain was worth it.
He doesn’t elaborate, of course.
Elsie’s sobs subside a little. Then, haltingly, she starts talking about her father.
On the 3rd of April, 1943, The City of Baroda was steaming down the coast of South West Africa in a convoy, when the captain of U 509 spotted her. Werner Witte was an experienced U-boat commander, and he knew Germany was in trouble. Every British ship carrying cargo contributed to their war effort, and Witte’s job was to make sure that he sank as many of these as possible,
Three torpedoes were fired. One struck the passenger ship – a proud product of Glascow – causing her to flounder. Of the 333 souls on board, 325 made it to the shore and were picked up by HMS Cape Warwick some time later.
The ship also carried cargo: cigarettes, wads of Chinese money, and ninety barrage balloons. And inside the captain’s safe was a shoe-box sized container he had to deliver to a certain man when they berthed in Cape Town harbour. This box, tightly sealed, was handed to the captain in Walvis Bay, when they stopped there to replenish the huge water tanks on board.
In 1973, the South African minister of Finances, Dr Nico Diederichs, knew his country would run into financial trouble if the war against terrorism didn’t end soon. Although he made sure that his Swiss accounts grew significantly – to be used to procure arms in the future – he also realised that even these substantial funds would only be a drop in the ocean. He needed money, and he needed a lot of it.
Having studied in Leyden, he became an admirer of the Third Reich, and had maintained close ties with several of his old student friends. Sadly, many of them died in the War. One of them, the young Werner Witte, kept up regular correspondence up to the time of his death in July 1943. These letters, filled with patriotism and the undying belief in nationalism, helped form Dr Diederich’s ideas surrounding the future of South Africa.
Now, in his hours of fretting about his country’s future, he often would take down the ledger with these letters, and read them for inspiration and comfort. Like the Third Reich, South Africa was embroiled in a struggle to survive impossible odds.
That evening, with a glass of Oudemeester in his hand, he reads again the last letter Werner had written after he was appointed Korvettenkapitän on July 1st, 1943, Fifteen days later, Werner would be dead, torpedoed off the coast of Madeira.
One passage stood out:
I’m glad so few lives were lost with the City of Baroda. I have no quarrel with civilians. This is not their war. The war is against imperialism, and I shall continue with all my strength as long as possible. This was, however, the first time I aimed my torpedoes against a passenger ship.
I had to. The box in the captain’s safe had to be prevented from reaching Cape Town. So, in reality, I wasn’t sinking a ship, I was sinking her cargo. And taking everything into consideration, it is my honest opinion that the value of that cargo far exceeded the qualms I may have had about the passengers on board…
Dr Diederichs filled his pipe, thinking hard.
“You see, Servaas,” her eyes fills with tears as she feels the reassuring arms of the teenager around her, “that’s where my father went. He was sent to look for that wreck. And now he hasn’t come back and nobody seems to be interested.”
It is then that Servaas promises her that – if ever he could – he’d help her. It is one of those stupid things adolescents say, without considering the consequences. And sometimes – even years later – the echoes of such remarks come back to haunt us…
Servaas shakes his head, causing the sparse grey hairs to flop this way and that.
“Goodness, Elsie…after all these years. Who’d have guessed I’d meet you here, in Boggel’s Place again?”
Sighing, he orders a double brandy, straight up. He has a bad feeling about this…