“It’s about time for her to come to town again,” Gertruida remarks – because she knows everything and because nobody has said anything for some time now.
“Who?” Kleinpiet sips his beer quietly – he’s not really interested. He’s been contemplating the possibility of the president stepping down. Maybe, he thinks, he’ll jump; or maybe he’ll be pushed. Even more disturbing is the question: when did he stop caring? When did his presidency die? What was the date of his political demise…?
Still, Gertruida’s statement is an obvious attempt to break the silence and he’s gentleman enough to prod her on.
“Annetjie Maritz, the widow. You know, the one who stays on that farm on the other side of Bitterbrak.”
Of course they all know her. The crazy one. Lives on that farm alone with the few chickens and an old dog. Visits town every two months or so, to buy flour and sugar and coffee. Reed-thin with icy blue eyes and an unruly shock of grey hair. Used to be lovely once – a long time ago – but now age has withered away the beauty and replaced it with wrinkles and varicose veins.
“She’s not normal.” Vetfaan nods. “A strange cat, she is.”
“It’s the war, Vetfaan. Wars do that. It changes everything.”
That, they know, is true. Boys become men – and not all of them return home with happy smiles and fond memories. Families rejoice and grieve – and are left looking back at the time of conflict with puzzled frown. Why was the war necessary? Who won? Was the loss of life and sanity worth it? And, worst of all, the boy who took aim at a nameless opponent and pulled the trigger, wakes up in the small hours of the night, wondering how the family of his enemy are managing their loss.
“She’s still waiting for him, isn’t she?”
Nobody knows, really. Annetjie is a widow…or, at least: she’s an official widow. Bertus Maritz, according to the army, went MIA in 1986. Missing in action. Presumed KIA. No trace of him was found after the MiG bombed the camp and his tent took a direct hit.
“She told Oudoom a few years back the army couldn’t say what happened to Bertus. Was he in the tent when the bomb struck? Maybe he went out for a cup of coffee? Or answered a call of nature? And maybe, she hopes, he’s alive out there, somewhere, with no memory of who he was.”
Servaas, who knows all about the loss of a loved one during the war, shakes his head. “She’s clinging to a memory and she doesn’t want to let go. As long as she waits for him, she’s keeping him alive. That’s why she refuses to wear black. And one must never refer to her as The Widow Maritz. She hates that. Ignores you completely. You call her Annatjie or Mrs Maritz.” He sighs and stares out of the window. “It’s sad. She lives in her own world. Oudoom says she’s kept everything in the house exactly the way he left it. His pipe next to the bed. The book he’d read half-way through. And she lays a place for him at the table every night.”
They fall silent again, remembering the last time she came to town. Dressed in white blouse and a long blue skirt – with the straw hat perched on top of the mass of grey hair – she looked like any other older woman in the district. It’s only when you’re near that you realise she’s constantly chattering about how nice the town looks, and how Sammie has had to increase the prices in his shop.
“The way she talks to herself…” Kleinpiet gets interrupted before he can finish his sentence.
“…not to herself, Kleinpiet.” Gertruida holds up a restraining hand. “She’s talking to Bertus. Oh, she knows he isn’t here, but she keeps telling him what she sees. It’s like an imaginary husband, you see.”
“But that’s not normal?”
“What is normal, Kleinpiet? Wars aren’t normal. Sending boys with guns to shoot other boys with guns isn’t normal. Hearing your son or husband died during a clash, isn’t normal. Politicians arguing with other politicians to the point where they say: ‘Now my side is going to show you. We’ll kill you all and then you can’t argue with me any more’ – we call that normal?
“No, for you she may not be normal in the usual sense of the word, but she keeps him alive – in her head – and that is ‘normal’ for her. It keeps her hope alive. And, Kleinpiet, without hope it is impossible to love…or to face the future.
“So she’s doing the best she can. Keeping him alive, keeps her alive. Letting go of him will mean she has no reason to live – or hope – for.”
Boggel looks up as the old Ford Cortina stops in front of Sammie’s Shop.
“Speaking of which,” he starts, but then lets out a long, low whistle.
The woman getting out of the car, can scarcely move. Every movement is slow and hesitantly deliberate. No hat. Long, black dress. They watch as she struggles up the stairs to the shop.
“Do you think she…”
“I’ll go and have a look.”Servaas gets up. She knows about Servasie. of course. The old man’s loss has always been a bonding factor between the two of them.
Later, when the old Cortina wheezes out of town, Servaas returns with bent shoulders and a stooped back.
“What did she say, Servaas?”
“Nothing much. Not too me, not to Sammie and not to Bertus. Only ordered a tomb stone. Said it is time.”
“Time for what, Servaas?”
The old man shrugs.
“The inscription made me wonder, as well.”
Here lies Anna and Bertus Maritz.
Twenty-seven letters to be carved out in granite. No dates. To add a date, you have to know when an individual ceased to love and hope and…live.
And that, Gertruida will tell you, isn’t always possible. She’ll ask you to consider the career of our president and leave you with an enigmatic smile.