Monthly Archives: June 2014

Loving Killers

Credit: thoroughbredfineart.com

Credit: thoroughbredfineart.com

“He’s dead. I found him this morning.”

The group at the bar turns as Vetfaan shuffles in. His already-dark mood hasn’t improved. In fact,  it obviously got worse. But…this time they understand, for they have been following the unfolding drama over the past few days.

“You sure?” Even Sevaas is upset.

“Ja man! The vultures are busy with him right now. You can go and see for yourself.”

***

The two cubs were born during the winter a few years ago. Although Kalahari lions are relatively rare, Vetfaan stumbled across the twins while looking for some lost sheep in the rocky outcrop on his farm. He had seen tracks there before, but somehow the lions never hunted his sheep. It was as if they understood that such an act would bring out the hunters. It was a question of live and let live, Vetfaan decided. As long as the lions did their thing without bothering him, he’d let them be.

So Vetfaan kept his distance and the little pride lived quietly on a large range of land, hunting their natural prey under the guidance of the old male, who Vetfaan dubbed Nelson – because he was such a wise old creature.

But then old age got Nelson. He became mangy and thin, arthritic and sick. Vetfaan found his skeleton many months later – just a scattered bunch of bones, picked clean and bleached white by the scorching sun. These things happen in nature, but still Vetfaan stopped his pickup, stood next to the pitiful remains and took off his hat to observe a moment of silence.

Later, he thought his action was poignantly funny. Why did he obey the instinct to pay his respects to a dead animal? You do that for humans, not for natural animal killers. But still…

Anyway, the twins had in the meantime grown up. Many times their tracks were all too visible in the loose sand; two brothers working together to hunt and feed the family. Vetfaan had never seen two males leading a family, but the twins seemed to be quite content to share the throne as joint leaders of their kingdom. Twice Vetfaan found the pride under the big acacia tree on the hill where he discovered the family the first time. There they were, the two males side by side, being groomed by the females.

Of course, Vetfaan’s accounts of the lions caused a lot of conversation in Boggel’s place. At least it was more interesting than the politics of the country and it seemed to be the perfect example of harmony in a country where conflict was the order of the day.

“Man,” Vetfaan once remarked, “I wish we could be like those twins. Share and share alike. That would be great.”

But last week things changed.Why did it happen? Who knows? Maybe it was inevitable, come to think about it. Whatever the reason: the outcome spelled tragedy.

It started with the roaring. Now, if you’ve never heard a Kalahari lions roar, it’d be difficult to explain. Over the endless plains of red sand, those roars carry a long, long way. And sometimes it isn’t the sound that’s so terrifying, it’s the trembling of earth you feel and the silence that follows the roar that is deafening. When those lions get angry, nature seems to want to hide and get away from the fury.

So Vetfaan heard the roars. Felt it.

And he knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. He took his .308, got into his pickup and followed the sound. Eventually he found them. The twins were squaring up to each other, roaring and snarling, jaws dripping with saliva. Their magnificent manes framed the two growling faces while they circled each other. Round and round they went, pawing the sand and telling each other to back off.

Vetfaan had never seen two males fight. Oh, there had been the occasional skirmish – the usual fang-showing and maybe even a wild swipe at each other – you know, business as usual? But not like this. The brothers were serious about this one. One had to back off for the other to claim the right to the throne. No more sharing. Only one would be king.

He watched from a safe distance. Saw them roar and circle and growl and snarl. And then…the real fight started.

Afterwards, Vetfaan couldn’t find the words to describe what had happened. The twins tore into each other, bloodstained fangs ripping into the once-loved kin. The huge paws drove talon-like nails into soft hide, tearing and cutting through fur and muscle. The handsome faces became disfigured by injury and hate and blood as their determination to eliminate each other intensified.

When Vetfaan told them of the fiight, tears streaked down his cheeks. “They wouldn’t stop, man! I wanted to get out and shout at them to stop being such utter fools. They had it all, they had peace, they had a family! But no! I roared my engine, pressed the hooter. It didn’t help. Then I fired the gun – and they simply ignored me. It was terrible…”

It had to end.

It did.

By late afternoon the one brother lay dead at the feet of the victor. His blood seeped into the ground as his brother limped off, no longer roaring with such intensity, but growling and…whining as he lay down some distance away.

“He paid a price for killing his brother. Through the binoculars I saw the wounds he had received. I’m not sure whether he’s going to make it.”

***

“And now he’s dead, too?” Gertruida puts down her National Geographic. “That’s terribly sad.”

“Why did they do it, Gertruida? They had such a good life…and now they destroyed themselves…and the family, for that matter. A new male will move in. He’ll kill the young cubs and teach the females to hunt my sheep. I might have to shoot them all in the end.”

Gertruida nods. Yes, that’s the way it works.

It’s Oudoom who tries to put a perspective on the events. “They just did what we’ve been doing for ages, guys. We have a horrible way of destroying harmony. The Nationalists did it in the past. The ANC is doing it right now. And it’s an international phenomenon, let me tell you. Syria, Sudan, Congo, Afghanistan, Croatia, Christians and Muslims…the list goes on and on.” He sighs as he signals for another beer. “In the end, nobody wins.”

“The stars seemed to shimmer
The sweet scents of the garden,
The creaking gate seemed to whisper,
And a footstep skimmed over the sand.
Then she came in, so fragrant,
And fell into my arms!
Oh! sweet kisses, oh, languorous caresses,
While I, trembling, was searching
For her features, concealed by her mantle.
My dream of love faded away, for good!
Everything’s gone now.
I’m dying hopeless, desperate!”

When will we ever learn…?

pieter_pieterse

Master Story-teller: Pieter Pieterse

(Following on the two previous posts)

Not everything was banged-up during the war,” Kleinpiet says in an effort to lift Vetfaan’s mood. “Remember that porcupine?”

Vetfaan nods reluctantly. When he is in the grip of those dark thoughts, he doesn’t smile easily.

Spiesie (Afrikaans for ‘Little Spear’) they called him. He rattled into camp one cold winter morning, apparently oblivious of the fact that there was a war going on and that you needed special permission to get anywhere near the workshops.  Without bothering with the fine military tradition of saluting your superiors, he made straight for the one large shed, where a SAMIL was unloading a new axle for a broken-down Bedford. There, still ignoring the men in their browns, he settled down under the idling engine. He liked it there – it was nice and warm.

“Man, that little prickly pet had a mind of his own. Unlike the other animals in the Caprivi, he had no fear of man…or beast. And he refused to be tamed in any way. But if you had an apple in your tent, Spiesie would find it. The cook had to put the potatoes in a locked cupboard. And don’t think he was deterred by plastic bottles – he simply gnawed his way through them to find out what’s inside.”

Vetfaan straightens his shoulders a bit. “That’s how we lost him, not so?”

“Ja, the poor thing. Spiesie gnawed his way into a 2-litre Windhoek Lager bottle one night. We found his tracks that morning…weaving about in a rather random way. Sometimes straight, then – apparently confused – doubling back.  Once or twice he even rolled about in the sand. But…that was the last. Maybe he simply didn’t like the beer?”

“Nah.” Vetfaan shakes his head. “Wasn’t that. I think he hated that early-morning bugle. And he couldn’t stick to mealtimes. Undisciplined, he was.”

“No, not like that little elephant.”

This remark hits the target. Vetfaan brightens considerably as he signals for another beer.

“Yes, now that was something, hey? Imagine that?”

Elephants aren’t rare in the Caprivi and the Okavango Delta. In fact, one has to be careful driving around there, as one might find one of these giants thinking deep thoughts right in the middle of the road on a daily basis. Usually these encounters occur while negotiating the rutted tracks at speed.

On the day he met Daisy, Vetfaan was driving the SAMIL sedately, nursing an apocalyptic hangover. The previous night had been a hectic affair at Rundu, where the quartermaster took pride in showing off (and sharing) his ‘hidden’ (read: stolen, or more aptly, rerouted) stash of imported whiskies. As a result of the pounding headache, Vetfaan was leaning forward on the steering wheel, staring at the track with half-closed eyes while keeping a gentle (if slightly shaking) foot on the accelerator.

Now, here’s a fact few people are aware of: you want to cure somebody’s hangover? Get rid of the headache and restore 20/20 vision to bleary eyes? It’s simple. Put an elephant in his path. Try it; it works like a charm. In the micro-second it takes to recognise the obstacle, all thoughts of self-pity get replaced by such loud alarm bells that the afflicted forgets – instantly – about such trivia as sore heads and dry mouths. In fact, the tongue becomes even more arid, but that isn’t noticed.

The lorry slewed to a skidding stop only metres away from the giant beast. Vetfaan – now in  total panic-mode – tried to engage reverse, but forgot to use the clutch. The engine died. Vetfaan prepared to do the same.

And waited for the beast to charge.

And waited.

And nothing happened.

That’s when he saw the injury to the pachyderm. In fact the elephant just stood there, swaying from side to side, paying no attention to the vehicle at all. When Vetfaan peeked over the dashboard, he took in the fact that he might just survive this encounter. There was a reason: the elephant’s trunk had been almost amputated by a snare.

The poor animal was in a terrible state. With the wound relatively fresh, Vetfaan saw a drop of blood plopping down in the dust. More relaxed now, he noticed the flies around the raw flesh and the pleading, helpless eyes imploring him to help. What to do? He couldn’t just walk up to the elephant and offer his services, could he? Maybe he should shoot it and get the suffering over with. Vetfaan never shot an elephant before. To be merciful, the coup de grace must be instantaneous and not add to the animal’s woes at all. And, while it may be possible to shoot an elephant with a R1, one had to be pretty sure where to aim at. Where is an elephant’s brain?

Then the miracle happened.

Three older cows emerged from the bush, to gather around their stricken family member. Prodding their patient along gently with soft touches of their trunks and the occasional gentle bump of a head, they herded their injured younger sister along the track.

Vetfaan knew that track well. He realised what they were doing: they were taking the injured one to a river that was about a kilometer away. He waited for a minute or two, and then managed to get the engine going again. Idling along slowly, he followed the four to the place where the river (then only a stream, as it was the dry season) crossed the road.

Daisy’s state was obviously due to two major factors: her trunk was badly injured…and she couldn’t drink with the damaged trunk. Vetfaan watched in complete amazement as the others led her to the water and started offering water to her with their own trunks. One after the other, trunkfull after trunkfull, the other females fed the life-giving water to the greedy mouth of Daisy.

Vetfaan sat there for a long time, watching the spectacle. Daisy certainly perked up and the other cows led her off into the reeds.

In the months following, Vetfaan found many an excuse to return to the river. Sometimes he’d see the four sets of tracks, sometimes not. On three separate occasions he was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the four backs amongst the reeds. Daisy, it seemed, was recovering. Slowly, but surely. And then, one memorable day, the four elephants emerged from the reeds only minutes after he stopped there. Daisy’s trunk was scarred, but certainly functional. Standing proudly amongst her saviours, she raised het trunk halfway as if to tell Vetfaan she’s well enough to help herself again.

And they turned away, ambled off towards the bush…and Vetfaan never saw Daisy again.

“Yes,” Vetfaan says, gulping down the beer, “the animals. They were special. I leant a lot from them. Spiesie wanted food and warmth – just like us. And like us, he got drunk and lost his way. But Daisy and her helpers?  They showed me what Life is all about. Or at least, how it should be.”

Gertruida puts down the book she’s been reading, peering at Vetfaan over her glasses. “That, Vetfaan, is what we’ve been doing for the last few days. That elephant recovered from that dreadful wound due to the others helping her. I just so wish you’d get rid of your snare.”

And Vetfaan, still wounded by the war, smiles gratefully at her, gets up, walks over to the austere woman, and gives her a hug.

“It takes time, Gertruida. A lot of it.”

Sometimes the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place is upbeat and frivolous. Not always. There are times when the ghosts of the past join the group at Boggel’s counter, to remind the customers if the price they had paid for the privilege. The war, the struggle of the oppressed masses, the mad propaganda justifying murder and mayhem, the injustices preached by the media and churches alike…the list goes on and on. Somehow, everybody in the country can look back at history with sadness. Was it really necessary for so many young men to lay down their lives? Why did we allow politics to divide the country so? And yet – despite the knowledge of the past – aren’t we hard at work repeating all the same mistakes?.

That’s when Vetfaan remembers the animals during the Border War, knowing they, at least, survived because they cared. The thought always gives him hope.

1328929_140116135753_Birthday_3237PS: These animal events and encounters are based on fact. Pieter Pieterse witnessed and described them (in a different context and style) in his beautiful book: Winterwerf in die Kavango, published by Tafelberg in 1989. The book is out of print now, but if you can lay hands on one, it’s well-worth reading. I hereby acknowledge his valuable contribution to Afrikaans literature and so wish I could swap stories with him. Sadly, he was brutally murdered in 2002 – yet another victim to the endemic violence so prevalent in our beautiful country..

Dear John and the White Road

images (73)“Remember the White Road? That was something…”

Once the nostalgia of the Border War settles like a cloak on Vetfaan’s shoulders, one has no choice but to let the fire burn itself out. Arguing with him only adds more petrol to that already-fierce flames, while prodding him on is a sure way of blowing more life into the glowing embers. Gertruida (who knows everything) says one must treat these moods like one would manage a rabid dog: don’t ignore it, don’t feed it, watch it carefully. It’ll die on it’s own accord if kept at a distance.

In Vetfaan’s mind the never-ending tracks leading east from Rundu towards the Caprivi remains as sharply etched as if he drove there yesterday. The colour of the deep, loose sand gave the name; unlike the sarcastic Golden Highway to Katima Mulilo, which led to Mpacha and the airport. There was no gold there, at all. Broken vehicles, maybe – but no gold.

But it was on that White Road that the huge Samil and Bedford trucks carried the provisions to the far-flung bases that protected the border with Angola. Rat packs, gearboxes, medical supplies, generators, toilet paper…and post. Letters – so any soldier will tell you – are important. Very important. It is the lifeline to normality, where girlfriends and wives live in houses with electric lights and telephones and shops and…real roads.

Nowadays letters aren’t as important any more. Cellphones killed the magic of letters just like it’ll never be the same driving on the White Road again. It’s been tarred, you see? Everything got faster, everything changed. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have vending machines with real letters in them? Love letters from real people…? But even that is a fantasy and that makes us so much the poorer for it.

Vetfaan hated the White Road. In winter it was dusty and he lost count of the times he had to pull stuck vehicles from the treacherous sand. Then when it rained – which fortunately wasn’t that often – the mud took over where the sand left off. And don’t think it was a straight road! No sir, not at all. It twisted this way and that, avoiding the big baobab trees and the low hills, skirting river beds and hugging little villages. Much like the war, the tracks also had to adapt to fallen trees, landmine pits and the occasional burnt-out vehicle. Vetfaan often said the road reminded him of life: it is never constant.

There was one bit of the run from Rundu to the base camps that gave him immeasurable pleasure, though: peeking into the post bag. He felt a bit guilty when he did this, but it was such a thrill to see who got letters…and from whom. Parents usually wrote in old-style, almost calligraphic letters, addressing the envelopes to the correct rank, number and then adding the address of the soldier. Parent letters, he knew, would be to encourage and support, and without fail would contain good news. (If a parent died, it was the chaplain who carried the message, not a letter.) He only skimmed through those envelopes, simply because they were so predictable.

Dear Son,

What wonderful weather we’ve had lately. You should see the Jacaranda’s in Pretoria! The city’s roads are covered with a carpet of purple flowers. It’s beautiful.

Pa says you should have seen Naas Botha play last weekend. You’d have been so proud! The way he sank Western Province with those kicks of his!

Etc etc etc.

Nonsense letters with nonsense news. Letters from parents get read once, and then tucked into the tog bag.

But then there were the letters from the loved ones – the girlfriends and wives. They were addressed to a name, a man, not a soldier. And they were perfumed.

The whiff of perfume in the heat of northern South West Africa was arguably the best message any letter could convey. In the dusty, sweaty, dirty hands of the recipient, such a letter would be stared at for a long time before opening it carefully. Thoughts would wander back to intimate moments, quiet music and clumsy silences. When you’ve been on the border for some time, the mind shunts thoughts of love-making on to a lonely siding – and when the opportunity arises again, there is conflict between desire and an almost-unnatural shyness. The war makes every homecoming a first time, understand?

And then there are the ‘secret’ messages scrawled across the gummed part of the envelope. SWAK – sealed with a kiss. SWANK – sealed with a nice kiss. And maybe the ultimate: YKAYR – your kitten awaits your return. Or (Oh! The ecstacy!!): WAW! – wet and waiting. These messages were often more precious than the contents of the letter, and got stared at with dewy eyes for a long time while savouring the hint of perfume.

But there were others. Dear John…

Dear Johns ripped the heart out of many a manly chest in those days. The girly writing, with no perfume and no ‘secret’ code on the back of the envelope…well, it could be a sister, of course. Or not.

Vetfaan drove that lorry so many times, he recognised the handwriting, the perfume and the ‘secret’ messages on many of those letters. Even before he reached a base, he’d have a very good idea of what news he’d been carrying there. He always kept the possible Dear Johns back until he delivered al the other letters. A troop getting a Dear John would want to be alone when he reads it. And then he’d need more time alone afterwards. And then he’d get drunk. That was the only way to handle these letters.

When Vetfaan thinks back on the White Road, he remembers those letters. During the endless hours of negotiating the track, he’d imagine what every letter contained. That is, until he saw the letter addressed to Corporal Drikus de Swart – or Coalface, as they called him, referring to his surname and the way he applied camouflage during operations. How many letters had he delivered to Coalface? Tens? Hundreds? All of them bearing the fine writing by an obviously feminine hand, all of them exquisitely perfumed, all of them sealed  with a very nice kiss  – SWAVNK.

But not this one. No perfume. No writing on the back of the envelope. A thin – maybe 0ne page – letter. And Vetfaan guessed correctly – Drikus Coalface was the next soldier to be told the knots of war were stronger than the ties of love.

As usual, he arrived to the sea of anxious faces at the base. Was there post? Yes, there was. Anything for me? For me? For me…? The faces frowned, smiled, hoped and wondered. When Vetfaan finished handing out the letters to the excited hands, he was left with one letter. Drikus wasn’t in the camp. He was out on patrol and only be back later that afternoon.

Vetfaan didn’t want to leave the camp without handing over the letter. To give such a letter to someone else, would be a breach of confidentiality. Young men can be so merciless; once you’ve received a Dear John, you become the ridicule of the camp. Maybe it’s the way soldiers handle this type of tragedy: by poking fun at it. Or maybe it’s due to the other’s relief that they – this time – escaped the scythe of reality. In the end, a Dear John became a strangely funny tragedy.

Add to that the fact that Vetfaan had a soft spot for this brave young man who served his country with such vigour. He was always the first to volunteer for any mission, and due to his actions, many a young man came back to base in one piece. They – that is, Vetfaan and Drikus Coalface – often shared a beer at the canteen to swap information about the White Road. Where was the last ambush? Any sign of infiltrators? Any land mines? And, of course, they’d boast about their loved ones ( real or imagined) and compliment each other on being such men of men…especially after a few more beers.

And now Vetfaan felt it was wrong to leave such an ambush of the soul in somebody else’s hands. No, he owed it to his friend to hand over the letter in person, in private. It was the least he could do.

Later, when Drikus Coalface returned, he read the letter. Tears made little white roads across the camouflage on his cheeks. Take it back, Vetfaan. I don’t want to remember receiving it. It’s not mine, you see? 

Vetfaan stopped there after his next run to Rundu. Drikus wasn’t there any more.

Whatever is left of him, is still out there, somewhere; lost amongst the scattered trees next to the White Road in the wilderness.

Vetfaan unfolds an envelope on the counter. No perfume, no secret code. One page hidden behind the sealed flap of the envelope.

“That White Road doesn’t exist any more,” he says. “They tarred it all the way. It’s black now.”

What did the letter say? To this day, Vetfaan doesn’t know. Like Drikus, he’d prefer not to open the envelope again. It’s a private affair between a young soldier and the one he had loved.

“Love, my friends,” his voice is heavy with either peach brandy, or fatigue, simply because that letter weighs so much, “is like the war. Or that White Road. It has to end sometime. Somebody comes along and chucks tar over the pain. But maybe – just maybe – it stays with you even after you’ve forgotten about it. It’s no joke.”

Gertruida – who sometimes thinks she knows everything – lays a soft hand on his shoulder.

“I understand, Vetfaan.”

Of course she doesn’t. She’s talking about the white road – the political one – the one that brought such tragedy nobody would ever want to joke about. There’s just too much camouflage in the way. Then again, knowing Gertruida, maybe she knows the pain those little tear-streaks cause when the road runs out and camouflage can’t hide the person behind it any more…

Groundhog Kalahari

hcd“I don’t like that man. According to him, the older he gets, the better he was.” Servaas knits his brows together, takes a giant swallow of his beer, and continues. “I remember him coming back from the army as a broken man. Now he claims he’s a veteran. Decorated, nogal. Makes me sick.”

“But he tells that story so well, Servaas. Even you asked him about the mortars and the bombs. Maybe they were there, maybe they weren’t. Still, it’s a good story.”

“Look, Gertruida, I was there. Saw the blood and the gore and the vomit. Saw young men cut in half by machine gun fire. There’s nothing romantic about war, let me tell you.”

“Get off your high horse, Vetfaan. I’m just teasing old Servaas, here.” She pats the old man’s shoulder. “But I do love a well told story. And he’s got the gift.”

They watch as Gunner Grove gets into his pickup. The years have treated him harshly and his limp is more obvious than before. As usual, he’s had a few too many, but he manages to open the bakkie’s door on the third attempt. Then, grinding the gears, he creeps out of town, banging the suspension hard on the pothole in Voortrekker Weg.

***

Gertruida always says ( because she knows everything) that one mustn’t be hard on the men who served on the border – it doesn’t matter whether they attacked or defended. She says it is water under the bridge as far as the politics are concerned, but not for the individuals who had to endure the terrible conditions back then.

But even she, despite her vast knowledge can never guess why Gunner Grove insists on telling his story the way he wants people to hear it. Memory is much like history – it depends on what you want the audience to hear. Sadly, people don’t care much what happened in 1854 any more. However, when it comes to recent history, a certain amount of bias and prejudice is almost unavoidable. Listen to any political speech on Youth Day or Freedom Day and you get the drift: emotion is often more important than fact.

***

A lot happens in the Army that the generals never know about. This was as true for the little base camp on the banks of the Okavango River  as it is for any camp in any given war you’d care to think about. Major Bothma, for instance, arranged for his wife to pay him a secret visit.

‘Secret‘, under these circumstances, is also a relative term. Ladies tend to (unlike some soldiers) insist on wearing clean clothes every day. Now, when…er…certain items…started flapping in the wind on the washing line, it didn’t take an expert on warfare to figure out that something out of the ordinary was happening. The troops did what they did best: they gossiped and wondered and discussed and guessed. And quite naturally (young men being such willing vessels of excessive amounts of testosterone), it was inevitable that some would want to investigate.

Gunner was one of these.

So we find our unlikely hero sneaking through the bush in a roundabout way to get to the major’s tent, which was conveniently pitched a little apart from where the other soldiers camped. Privileges of rank and all that…

Whether by coincidence or fate, he wasn’t the only soldier making his way through the thick bush that night. Sergei Boris Kalanderishvili was there, too. As military advisor to the FNLA, he was ascertaining vital facts before the attack they planned for the next day. Sergei, one must understand, had come to understand how important it is to have accurate information about the enemy before engaging them in a skirmish. After having relied on information gleaned from the local inhabitants on a number of disastrous occasions, Sergei insisted on first-hand info before advancing on any target.

Olivia Bothma was – of course – unaware of such things. A few agonising months before she had married the man of her dreams and now – at last – they could spend some time together. And Olivia – a beautiful young lady with a stunning body – didn’t care that the accommodation didn’t match up to luxurious standards. She was with her husband and that was all that mattered. As such, she made sure that his homecoming (tent-coming?) was a joyous occasion.

Gunner was the first to peek through the foliage that evening.  Like King David of Biblical times, he watched as the major’s wife undressed and waded into the cool water of the Okavango. Sergei must have arrived more or less at the same time, and he, too, must have been pleasantly shocked at what he saw there.

It is a myth that crocodiles are sound sleepers. And they don’t keep office hours. So, when lovely Olivia splashed the water on her shampooed hair, a rather large leviathan-like croc started taking keen interest in the shapely meal that so conveniently presented itself.

Who saw the crocodile first? One cannot know. It wasn’t Olivia, for sure. She was washing her hair and toying with the idea of waiting for her husband, dressed  only his shirt. or, maybe, nothing at all? Occupied with such deliciously wicked thoughts, she certainly paid no attention to the small waves on the surface of the quiet waters, caused by the huge body moving silently towards her.

But Sergei did notice the ripples in the moonlight, as did Gunner. It may be fair to say they saw it simultaneously.

Rules number one and two of any covert operation: don’t get noticed and don’t give your position away. Gunner knew he was trespassing and had a very good idea of what would happen to a voyeuristic soldier ogling a superior officer’s wife. Sergei had an even bigger problem, of course. Shouting would be suicide. Shooting at the creature would bring on the rest of the camp, ending his military career in disgrace.

The horror of what was about to happen, galvanised the two men into action. To save Olivia, she had to be removed from the river…immediately! And so, still unaware of each other, the two men stormed from their hiding places, flapping arms and rushing into the water, where they literally snatched the would-be victim from the jaws of death.

Sergei got hold of Olivia’s shoulders and started dragging her towards safety. Gunner grabbed her legs to lift her clear of the water, and staggered along to carry their surprised load. Olivia, unaware of what and why  this was happening, didn’t cooperate at all, thrashing wildly to get free. A well-aimed kick sent Gunner flying backwards.

And that’s when the croc got hold of his left leg.

***

“I don’t care whether it’s true or not. The way he tells how he infiltrated that FNLA camp, posing as a cook, is priceless. Imagine that? A whitey managing to get himself established in an enemy camp? Of all the lies he tells, that one must be the best!” Vetfaan sits back and winks for another beer.”Then, with some terribly important data, he tries to sneak back to his own unit – only to get shot in the process. And so, after months in the bush, he gets back to his base camp after operating on that wound himself. Imagine that?  He did a sterling job with the injury, despite the circumstances. He could have lost that leg.”

***

As we know, strange things happen during wars. When Sergei got the struggling Olivia back on solid ground, he didn’t spend time inspecting the lovely curves of the beautiful lady. He saw a man being dragged into the river. And he dived in and wrenched the victim from those jaws before getting him to safety, too.

Why did Sergei do what he did? He should have left Gunner to bleed to death, for isn’t the object of war to kill your enemies? But he didn’t. Maybe – even during war-time – soldiers obey the instinct to preserve life. While Olivia scrambled off to find suitable attire, Sergei whipped off his belt and bound the leg to stop the bleeding. He realised his predicament, of course: staying there would be out of the question.

By the time the shocked and now dressed Olivia emerged from the tent, only the bloodstain on the ground remained as evidence of recent events. And when her husband arrived a while later, she told him what had happened.

Oh, they searched for Gunner, you can be sure of that. But darkness in the African bush and the possibility of infiltrators in the vicinity made the progress slow. By the time the sun rose the next morning, it was concluded that the crocodile must have won the battle between man and beast.

***

Back at his house, Gunner Grove sits down with a sigh after pouring a generous shot of his own peach brandy into a mug. By the light of the flickering candle, he relives the time when a Russian military advisor saw to it that he was treated by a Cuban doctor. They did, he realises once more, save his leg…and his life. And somehow – who can explain these things – they became friends. One may be pardoned for assuming that gratitude and the camaraderie of men at war played a role. Be that as it may, Sergei admitted at being proud of what he did and Gunner shared many a glass of Vodka with his saviour. And then, after many months, it was Sergei who drove him through the bush to deposit Gunner near the border.

When Gunner wipes a tear from his stubbled cheek, it’s not only because he remembers the way the Russian treated him, it’s because he stares at the Honorus Crux (gold) framed above the fireplace.

That’s the medal awarded posthumously to Major Bothma; the one his widow had posted to him, so many years ago.

Bertie’s Secret

108_0820a1.jpgMuch to everybody’s surprise, Bertie Bragass rushes in to Boggel’s Place, his flushed cheeks more prominent than ever.

Gertruida was the first to notice him when his old Land Rover huffed to a stop in front of the bar. Initially, she thought it must be somebody else. Vetfaan’s story of Bertie disappearing down a giant meerkat burrow had been entertaining – convincing, even – and they are still discussing the possibility of a rescue operation.

Now, one must understand that rescue operations in the Kalahari are complicated things. You don’t just get into the first vehicle and rush off into the desert. No, you have to be sure the vehicle is capable of handling the sand, and that the petrol tank is full. Then, of course, there is the minor detail of how much beer you have to take along – and who’ll pay for it. And having settled that, the question of how you’re going to fit in the rescue party on the already overloaded vehicle.

It is on this important discussion that Bertie storms in, arms flailing and sand running from his hair.

“Bertie…?”

They all stare at the diminutive man. At four foot eight, he is arguably the smallest adult in the Kalahari. His is – in Gertruida’s words – cosmetically disadvantaged. The ears are to small, the pug-nose too big and the eyes slant ever so slightly downward.  Add to that the almost cmplete absence of a neck – causing his chin to rest on his broad chest – and you have the Hunchback of Notre Dame without the hunch.

“Damn! That meerkat almost had me! Gimme as beer, Boggel!”

“What happened?”

***

Gertruida says Bertie has to exaggerate everything to make up for his size. Take a small man, she says, and ask yourself: how does he make his mark in life? People like Bertie won’t win races, the long jump or hurdles. Bertie can’t handle a rifle (the barrel is too long for his short arms) and his legs don’t reach the stirrups, making him one of the few farmers who hates horses.

So, Gertruida explained one day, Bertie has to tell stories. Whatever he does (or sees) has to be bigger than the usual. Although she concedes that his ground-level view might have an influence on his impression of the size of things, there can be no doubt that Bertie has established himself as a liar of note. But, she says, this is something other people should understand. Bertie simply has to inflate his stories to compensate for his small frame.  Gertruida calls it a physical/psychological balance.

That’s why the group at the bar share a collective, tolerating smile while they listen to his newest effort at impressing them.

***

“That Meerkat dragged me down that hole at an amazing speed, man! Tore my pants and scuffed my elbows. Look!” Bertie shows them how much damage the meerkat did. “But I fought, hey! Shew, I fought like a Trojan! Kicked and hammered with my fists, but that meerkat just kept on dragging me down that dark tunnel. I was convinced my time had come.”

Bertie takes a mouthful of beer, peering at his audience over the rim of the glass. Well, they seem to buy the story so far…

“You won’t believe what I saw down there. Talk about a meerkat manor! There were bedrooms, a large lounge where the others gathered and even a nursery filled with baby meerkats. And they all stared at me and I was almost wetting myself with fright. I knew I had to do something and I had to do it soon.

“Well, you know how meerkats like fighting with snakes, don’t you?” He waits for the collective nod. “So I took off my belt, swung it around a while, and threw it into the farthest corner of the room. Man! You should have seen them! All of a sudden every meerkat down there scrambled to get at that snake…and forgot about me for a second.

“That was enough. I gathered myself after the meerkat dropped me, and ran as fast as I could up that burrow. I ran and I ran and I ran. The meerkats were furious, and they chased after me, howling with rage. I made it to my land Rover just in time, slammed the door as the first meerkat crashed into the vehicle, and raced here.”

Bertie finishes his beer to sit back with a contented smile. “Being small helped me a lot. I’d never have made it up that burrow if I were as big as Vetfaan, for instance. But hey, here I am in one piece, and I’m thankful for that. And, here’s another fact: I won’t be returning to my farm for a while. I’m sure the meerkats will move off some time, and then it’d be safe. I’ll go visit my cousin in Kimberley, I think.” He pauses as a thought apparently strikes him. “Oh, it may be a good idea if you guys stayed away from the farm as well. I noticed a fresh burrow not far from the house, so there may be more than one nest of the critters. Good advice? Stay away. I’ll tell you when it’s safe.”

Then, as abruptly as the little man arrived, he gets up, waves them goodbye, and drives off.

***

People tend to think that the inhabitants of such small, far-flung villages are a bit backward. After all, why stay in such a hovel, when life is so much easier in larger communities? But we know that’s not the way to look at it. The inhabitants of Rolbos stay there because even the small incidents become subjects of lengthy debates.

Take, for instance, the police van that stopped there a few hours after Bertie left. There’s been a burglary, they said. One of the major banks in Upington got robbed. The robbers gained access to the building during the night, using the antiquated sewerage system with it’s narrow pipes.

“We’re looking for a suspect – a small individual – who made off with two bags of money. Have you seen anything suspicious lately?”

Yes, of course, Servaas said. Bertie Bragass. He could fit the description, but unfortunately he had a solid alibi. He had been stuck down a meerkat hole last night, so it couldn’t possibly be him.

And the policemen found that exceedingly funny, said goodbye, and rushed off to Grootdrink to see if they could find anybody who might not have a watertight alibi like that. Somebody small, with scuffed elbows, for instance.

Meerkat Biltong

108_0821a.jpg“I tell you: it was the wind. You have to admit it was quite a storm.”

“I’m not so sure. Too much of a coincidence, if you asked me. And we did taste that biltong – it was quite tasty.” Servaas, maybe the greatest Doubting Thomas since biblical times, still wonders about how – exactly – Bertie Bragass disappeared. The Kalahari is a big place and lots of strange things happen here…but Bertie’s case must be seen as completely unusual.

“You have to admit: his lies were sometimes even more impressive than our president’s. That really takes some doing. Imagine! Telling us about that giant meerkat. Did he think we’re stupid or something?”

“True. And what about the time he dragged that elephant rib in here? Told us it was the tooth of the last lion he shot. Almost had me convinced with his statement that it came from a rare species. Leo Giganticus, he called it. According to him, that thing swallowed his sheep whole,”

The group at the bar nod in unison. Yes, they remember all too well. Bertie phoned the bank manager from this very bar, asking for a loan to buy a canon to kill the beast two weeks prior to that visit. Of course, the manager refused, which caused Bertrie to use some rather spicy language as he swore to get that critter. (It wasn’t clear whether he referred to the manager or the lion). Then, fourteen days later, he dragged that bone in to Boggel’s Place to tell them he managed all by himself in the end, thank you. He maintained he used a bucket of rat poison which he wrapped in a fresh sheep’s skin.

“It sure looked like a tooth.” Precilla always defends the underdog.

“It also looked like a rib. A big one. Must have been an elephant’s.” If you listened carefully, you’d have heard the tinge of doubt in Vetfaan’s voice.

“Don’t forget about his tall giraffe, either.” Kleinpiet’s remark makes them all snigger again. “Remember? The one he trained to predict the weather?”

This is one of the favourite Bertie Bragass stories in the bar. This giraffe, Bertie told them, was born with an abnormally long neck. The poor animal had to hide behind the barn on his farm when the wind was too strong – to protect its head from flopping around in the gusts. Bertie said he found the animal in a terrible condition.

Credit: stylegerms.com

Credit: stylegerms.com

‘You see, its body and legs were only slightly larger and longer than usual, but the neck had grown to such an extent that he couldn’t feed himself. The trees were just too far below him to reach, understand? Even when it bent its knees and made the neck fold double, there was no way he could reach the topmost leaves in the trees. Christian-like person that I am, I started feeding the poor beast, it was the least I could do.’

According to Bertie, he had to hoist bales of grass into the air by standing on top of his longest ladder fixed to the platform on his wind pump. Initially, he said, the giraffe was famished and he had to keep on feeding it constantly for a full month – day and night. After that, the giraffe’s hunger subsided a bit.

‘But I noticed something. Because it was so tall, it could see very far. And you know what? It could see a storm coming two days away. That’s when it’d run to the barn to hide. It didn’t like it much when the wind whipped its head around like that. And if he poked that large head into the barn, I knew there would be lightning, too. That giraffe saved many of my sheep by warning me of impending storms. Grew quite fond of it, I did.”

Vetfaan snorts as he finishes his beer.

“Ja, one could almost swallow that story as well as the lion swallowed his sheep. But I must admit: the way he told of the giraffe finding a mate, was rather creative. He reckoned there must be a herd of long-necked giraffes out there somewhere.” He sweeps his hand owardsthe endless dunes, smiling at the thought. “So up rocks this other stretch-neck and they wander off into the wilderness. Bertie seemed genuinely upset.”

“He had me going with the huge meerkat for a while. Of all his tall stories, that one was just too much.” Boggel pushes fresh beers across the counter. “No meerkat can be as big as a rhinoceros. I almost told him to stop lying like that.”

Servaas shakes his head. “Man, when he told me, I laughed in his face. He wasn’t offended or anything like that. He just said he’d show me. Then, last week, he arrived her with that load of biltong on his pickup.”

‘You guys didn’t believe me? Well, I shot one of the meerkats and made some biltong, just to prove to you I’m not exaggerating. Here, have a taste.’

To everybody’s surprise, the biltong was tender – almost sweet – and they soon found themselves asking him to tell them more about the meerkat.

‘There’s a family of them. You have to be careful –  they seem to be rather aggressive. I once got too near one of the smaller ones and he growled at me, showing his big, yellow teeth. The sound he made sounded like thunder. And he stomped so hard on the ground, I lost my balance. No, they are fiercely ferocious, I can tell you.

‘They only come out at night, so I had to shoot this one,’ he indicated towards the heap of biltong,  ‘when he got isolated from the family. Then, realising that I was in mortal danger, I tied the carcass to the pickup and dragged him back home as fast as I could. Skinning took a whole day, but it was worth it. I’ve got enough biltong to last me the winter.’

The group at the bar stare at the little bowls of biltong on the counter. Bertie had pomised to bring the skin as proof of his conquest two day ago. When he didn’t arrive, Vetfaan drove all the way to Bertie’s farm.

“Tell us again what you found, Vetfaan?” Gertruida, who likes to think there’s an explanation for everything, can’t undertsand what had happened to Bertie.

“Well, like I said: when I got to his farm, the place was deserted. No trace of Bertie or his pickup. So I scouted around and found some tracks leading off into the desert. Following these, I got to a giant depression – you know? Like a hole almost filled with sand. Or maybe an underground burrow that collapsed.” To add graphic to the picture, Vetfaan places a saucer on the counter to show them what the depression looked like. “The sand is very loose over there, see? Something must have dug a tunnel there and it collapsed. Now….the pickup’s tracks led to that depression…but I couldn’t find them leaving it at all.”

“So the meerkat family had their revenge?” Servaas’ sarcasm is tangible.

“Ag, I don’t know, man. One day old Bertie will saunter in here with another of his crazy stories, I’m sure.”

Gertruida, who misses few things (if any at all) still doesn’t understand Vetfaan’s reaction. Every time he tells them about his visit to Bertie’s farm, he gets vague about the speed at which he left the place. No, he didn’t go into the house again. And no, he didn’t wait to see if Bertie returned.

Big, burly Kalahari men will never admit to being scared. Vetfaan will tell them he simply got into his vehicle and drove back to town. Yes, maybe he drove a bit faster than usual, but that was to tell them about the collapsed burrow. He knew, of course, they’d laugh at this and poke fun at him – but he can only report on what he’s seen, not so? At least, he can tell them the bit they can believe – not the rest.

Which is why he can’t – won’t – ever tell them about the ladder he saw strapped to the platform on the wind pump. And, of course, about the clearing behind the barn and the soft sand bearing the impression of two huge bodies that had hidden there during last night’s storm.

Waterloo in the Kalahari

train 3 leaving station close“Those were the days,” Vetfaan says when Kleinpiet reminds him of their time in the army. “The best part was when you got a pass to spend time with your family. Those train rides back home were quite a bit of fun. At every station we had to get off to buy more beer…”

He smiles at the thought: a thin, almost sardonic smile, as he remembers the stop at Mariental, on his way back to South Africa.

***

Two weeks! After a particularly hectic period of fighting, Vetfaan’s platoon were rewarded by some much-needed time off. He naturally didn’t want to spend that time in Rundu or Grootfontein and headed southwards, homewards, to his parent’s farm in the Kalahari. If there was one thing he needed now, it was the silence of the dunes. No pill, no psychologist can restore a broken spirit as fast and as well as the quiet hours amongst those magnificent sandy mountains.

There were quite a few soldiers on that train, all of them heading home, which resulted in a party of note while they progressed through the arid wastelands of South West Africa. Windhoek came and went. So did Rehoboth and Kalkrand. By the time they pulled in to Mariental, they’d discussed cars, booze, ABBA (that decadent new band with those girls) and how strange it’d be to wear something else than browns again. They told jokes, laughing again and again at the one that was told fifty miles before.

And they drank. Alcohol took away the memories of blood and vomit; dimmed the thoughts of broken limbs and gaping wounds. And the more they drank, the more they tried to forget the friends that would never share a drink with them again. And, like it sometimes happens during war times, their party petered out into a drawn-out silence – a wake for those who were less fortunate.

At Mariental it was Vetfaan’s turn to get a fresh supply of beers. He was glad to escape the gloomy atmosphere in the compartment and wandered into town. It was a Saturday, and a kindly old gentleman directed him to the bottle store at the end of the street. Ten minutes later he staggered back to the station, carrying the two crates of beer.

And watched in dismay as the train pulled out of the station, heading towards Keetmanshoop.

***

“I had to do something. My mates were on that train and I had the beer. I was sure they wouldn’t miss me so much, but the beer…now that was a catastrophe! That’s when I decided to hike to Keetmanshoop in the hope of catching the train there again.”

***

agnetha-liveHe had scarcely taken up his position next to the road, when  – much to his surprise – a vehicle screeched to a halt next to him. The surprise wasn’t the willingness of a driver to pick up a young man in uniform – in those days people seemed to consider helping a soldier as an act of patriotism – the surprise was the vehicle and it;s rather attractive driver. The fire-engine-red Mustang was driven by a young lady who looked remarkably much like Agnetha, the sexy singer they’d so recently discussed.

“Going to Keetmanshoop, soldier?” The startling blue eyes were staring at him, knowing his answer.

It turned out to be a memorable trip. She asked him a million questions, most of which he answered with a stuttering mumble. H couldn’t  tell her much, of course. The excursions into Angola were highly sensitive; one of those obvious secrets of the time – and one everybody speculated about.

“Look,” she said eventually, “you’re fighting a losing war. There’s no way you can win. We need…” and here she hesitated only for a second, “…we need guys that can supply us with information. Somebody like you. Somebody with real inside info. And we’ll pay you well…”

***

“There I was, young and innocent and … interested…and this woman with the body of an angel and a face to match, offers me an opportunity to turn into a traitor. You can imagine my thoughts. Although I’d been drinking all the way from Rundu, I was sober enough to realise what she was asking me.”

***

Vetfaan showed his disgust. Shaking his head, he stared at her in dismay and moved to sit as far from her as possible.

She laughed at that, saying she understood.

“You poor, poor boys. You get fed a constant stream of lies, half-truths and propaganda. Of course you believe you’re fighting for a true and just cause. But…there is a bigger picture. There is a world out there, and it’s changing. In the last fifty-odd years, women got to vote. In 1966 – at last – every citizen in the United States got the right to vote. Communism is dying and soon Russia will break up in many smaller states. The Berlin Wall will fall. And…the Nationalists will surrender power to the ANC. That is the future of South Africa, and it’ll be a bright and wonderful one at that, too. The communists aren’t your enemies, your government is. These things, soldier, are facts. I’m sorry, but I have to tell you your war is a futile one.”

Then, more than even when she asked him to spy, Vetfaan was convinced the woman was deranged. He shook his head again, staring at the barren countryside flashing past. He wanted to tell her about the way the Chinese and Cubans were killing young men in their quest to establish communism in Southern Africa. Their aim was not to liberate the black masses because they were such benevolent friends – they wanted to get their hands on the vast mineral resources hidden under the soil of his fatherland. And look at what the Soviets did to churches and the Russian culture? No, this woman had no inkling about what she was talking about.

At the age of barely twenty, Vetfaan trusted the news on the radio, the articles in the newspapers, the sermons in his church and – above all – his superior officers. The opinion of this young woman – as beautiful and as alluring as she might be – would never sway him to betray his country.

“You’re wrong,” he said as they neared the town of Keetmanshoop. It was a simple statement, but said with much bitterness and conviction. When one is young, one tends to have set ideas about the way of the world.

“Why?’ Her question was equally blunt.

“Because we’re protecting the country. The whole country. If we were to lose this war, everything we’ve built up over the centuries will be lost. Roads, hospitals, schools, factories, mines. We simply cannot hand over reigns to individuals who want to strip the country of its resources. Our government, I have to tell you, have the best interests of all South Africans at heart. That’s why we’re up there – for God and country. Whites and Blacks. That’s why.” Vetfaan felt he delivered his speech well – it was text-book stuff right out of the lectures he listened to during his basic training.

They drove into Keetmanshoop and Vetfaan got off, heading towards the station without saying goodbye.

***

“That’s such a sad story, Vetfaan.” Emptying her glass, Gertruida watches the big man with sympathetic eyes. “And you never saw her again, I suppose?”

He nods. “No. Later, I heard other soldiers talking about the girl in the Mustang that gave them a lift. Always on the remote roads in South West Africa. I always listened to those stories, wondering how many young men fell for her ploy.

“And it was clever, I must admit. Pick up a tired, footsore soldier, returning from the war up north, and sit him down in a Mustang and a beauty queen. Some would have fallen for it, I’m sure.”

Kleinpiet suppresses a hiccup. “Well, tonight we’ll listen to the president giving the State of the Nation address. He’ll tell us how they plan to employ millions. He’s going to turn the economy around. He’ll say how serious they are about eradicating corruption. He’ll emphasise education and health care – and how much they’re doing for social upliftment. It’ll be a repeat of previous speeches, just dressed up nicely to sound optimistic.

“He’ll sound just like that blonde in the Mustang. Or like Vetfaan on the train. No matter how you string words together, you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

He gets a nod from Gertruida. “Well, here’s my guess: this is the last State of the Nation address by President Zuma. He’s slowly being sidelined to make way for somebody who hasn’t had his hand so deep in the till lately. Maybe somebody with less wives and even less children. Maybe he’ll hint at his deteriorating health, saying the pressures of government has worn him down. Mark my words – if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the hidden messages.”

Yes, Vetfaan thinks, we’re all in that Mustang, listening and talking and trying to convince each other that we have the answers to the country’s problems. Some will fight a war, others will strike or argue, and yet others will sit quietly, waiting for the storms to pass. We’ll continue to believe in righteous causes and rich rewards. But, in the end, we’ll all hurry along to catch the train at a dusty station, hoping it’ll carry us to freedom and peace.

But like that day in Keetmanshoop, the station might very well be deserted and the train long departed.

***

The station master eventually offered the forlorn soldier housing for the night. They talked, like true patriots do, about how important it was to preserve and protect their way of life.

The next day Vetfaan was hitch-hiking again. This time he wasn’t facing south at all; he returned to his base near Rundu. There was a war to be fought, after all.

***

“History,” Vetfaan says heavily, “will keep on repeating itself. Presidents will come and go. Liberals and conservatives will fight. Traditionalists will warn about radicals. Capitalists will square up to communists. And, in the end, we’ll keep on insisting to fight wars we cannot win.”

“Maybe.” This time, Gertruida s smile is genuine. “But what keeps us hoping, is the future. No matter where we’ve been, we can always hope to reach a brighter tomorrow. That, my friends, is the only way.”

Kleinpiet writes ‘For God and Country’ on the counter top, using the froth from his beer. After staring at it for a long minute, he wipes out ‘Country’ with his sleeve.

“Enough lies,” he says. Then he invites them all to a braai on his farm tonight. “Not for the meat or the beer,” he reminds them, “but because I don’t have a radio or a television.”

Of course they all accepted, The president isn’t going to tell them anything they don’t know already. That train has left the station a long time ago…

Waiting…The State of the Nation

Credit: toothless.co.zz

Credit: toothless.co.zz

“Is he still there?”

Vetfaan sits down with a contented sigh as Boggel pushes his beer over the counter. It’s been a long, hot day in Upington, where he picked up the new gasket for the Massey Ferguson at the station. As usual, the train was late, causing him to spend two endless hours in the dingy café around the corner.

“Yep. Still there, sitting on that old bench on the platform. Nothing has changed.”

“It’s sad, isn’t it. Being blind and deaf since that accident in the mine. I wonder if he’ll ever know he’ll never recover? I mean, it’s been almost thirty years now. Surely the penny must have dropped?”

“Well, if it did,” the cynical smile on Kleinpiet’s face is completely without humour, “he wouldn’t have heard or seen it. Poor bugger.”

They all know the story of Dark Dan, the deaf and blind man. He used to be a foreman in a gold mine, but after the stick of dynamite exploded while he was inserting it into the hole he had just drilled, his life was changed forever. The mine did pay him a modest amount every month – far too little to support his family, according to gossip – and he survived on the meagre bit of money he collected in his upturned hat on the platform.

Although everybody knows about Dark Dan and the tragedy of his life, they all agree that he isn’t somebody to pity. He is far, far too proud to accept sympathy. Dressed in his old shabby suit, he insists on wearing a tie. He’ll sit there, ramrod-straight, staring with his unseeing eyes at the distant horizon; only moving his head when a friendly hand touches his shoulder. That’s the only way to tell him you’ve dropped a coin in his hat, see? And then his lips would curl up momentarily when he nods to show his appreciation. 

“I wonder what he thinks about all day? I mean – he can’t say anything and he can’t communicate at all. Can’t hear, can’t see. And when he tries to talk, his words are warped and warbled at such an unnatural pitch, nobody can understand him.” Vetfaan shakes his head. “It must be hell.”

“True. His vocal chords got blown away as well, I think. He’s just a shell with thoughts he can’t express. No input, no output. And nobody can help him. Such a pity.” 

***

 The way Life treats all of us, can hardly be described as fair. Gertruida often says this, and then usually adds she’s not talking about the inability of the local government or even the rate at which the country is being run into the ground. No, she says, it’s a general remark about the way things turn out. Lovers quarrel. Tractors break down. The rains stay away for too long. That sort of thing – the stuff we have to put up every day.

Just the other day, when yet another dust storm swept over the small town of Rolbos, the only telephone link t the outside world was broken when the lorry of Kalahari Vervoer lost its way and struck one of the poles that kept the wire aloft. Now, one must understand that the inhabitants of the small town aren’t in the habit of calling friends all day long. This may be due to the fact that they have very few friends, but still: the thought that they were suddenly completely cut off, caused a considerable amount of discomfort. What would happen, for instance, if Oudoom had a stroke? Or if the next delivery of beer was delayed? Such calamities could completely disrupt their way of living in the Kalahari.

“Now we’re just like Dark Dan,” Precilla noted as the thick dust clouds made Boggel light some candles on the counter, “nobody can hear us and we can’t see.”

“You shoulnd’t say that, Precilla. It’s not fair. We, at least, know this storm won’t last. Poor Dan’s storm will never pass.”

“He’s a strange cat.” Signalling for another beer, Vetfaan turns to Kleinpiet. “In the time Dan has sat there, the entire country changed. The Nationalists were defeated, Madiba became president and we won the Rugby World Cup. After that, nothing much good has happened. Some members of the ruling party got rich and many more common citizens became poor. Maintenance of roads and hospitals and schools ground to a complete standstill, Mbeki was ousted and now Zuma is being fired in the most gentle way.

“And through this all, Dark Dan just sat there, hoping somebody would drop a coin in his hat. His world has become a bench on a deserted platform.” Reflecting n the thought, Gertruida adds: “Just like us, I suppose.”

“It would be nice if we could do something about his situation.” As always, Precilla is the one with the soft heart. “He does have a family and they see to it that he is dressed and gets to the station every day, but that’s about it. What else do we know?”

Of course, like in so many such cases, Dark Dan’s circumstances were pure speculation. The group in the bar shrugs in unison. No, they don’t know. Don’t know about his family, whether he has a wife, nothing about children. Nothing. His support structure – they all agree he must have people caring for him – is totally unknown.

“That’s not right.” By now, Precilla is upset. “We know he’s there, but nothing more. Over the years people – us – have simply accepted he’s there; a lonely old miner, begging on that platform. We should have done something about it years ago.”

***

It’s Gertruida (who else?) who finds out about Dark Dan when she visits the humble shack in the township.

“You’re the first – the very first – person to come and ask these questions. In all these years nobody bothered about Danny. He was my responsibility and that’s where it ended. Nobody cared.”

Bit by bit, over the flask tea and cookies Gertruida brought along, Dark Dan’s sister Sarah tells the story of how Danny (as she calls him) got married on a sunny Saturday afternoon, so many years ago.

“It was a beautiful ceremony. A real preacher and a real cake – not a fake one so many people use. His wife, Rebecca, looked stunning in the wedding dress her grandmother had worn when she got married. Now, in those days, there was no question of a honeymoon. Where would a black person go?” Sarah pauses and looks up as if she expects an answer, then shrugs at the futility of it all. “He had to be back at the mine on Monday.”

They had one evening and one day to celebrate their wedding. Dan was ecstatic. They spent the time in her shack in the township – Rebecca told a neighbour the next morning how happy they were in those moments.

“But, later on Monday morning, the secret police arrested Rebecca because she had distributed pamphlets in the location a month or so before.

“You know, Missus Gertruida, such news travelled fast in those days. The neighbour told a friend. The friend spoke to some people. Within an hour, everybody knew – including the miners, even those underground. That’s when Danny heard about it. He was setting a charge when one of the men whispered to him what had happened.” Sarah sighs as she stares at the folded hands on her lap. “The rest, Missus Gertruida, you know already.”

“And Rebecca?” Gertruida has to know.

Sarah looks up while a tear streaks down her cheek. Her only answer is a shake of the head. “He’s at the station, Missus. All dressed up, tie and all. He’s still waiting for her.”

***

“Maybe it would have been better if Gertruida stayed at home.” Precilla hesitates before she continues packing the tinned food in the basket. “Now we’re involved. We are, in a manner of speaking, responsible.”

“For the past?” Boggels voice conveys his dismay.

“No, Boggel. For his future. That man is on the station, waiting for somebody who’ll never get off the next train. Or the next. Or the next. It’s so incredibly sad.”

Gertruida puts down the newspaper, hiding the banner headline. She’s been reading about President Zuma’s ‘fatigue’ that forced him out of politics lately.

“Deaf. Dumb. Blind.” She holds up three fingers. “Complete ignorance, complete isolation… Poor man, he’s in the dark all the time, without a clue of reality. Living in a world of his own.  Like us, he’s waiting…waiting for brighter future that’ll always be a day away.” She stops in mid-sentence, suddenly struck with a thought. “Oh my! I’ve just delivered the President’s State of the Nation Address…”

The Lost Art of Telling a Story Properly

Screenie9“Tell us your story, Grootgert. We know so little about you. Where do you come from? What do you do?” Gertruida, who knows (just about) everything, is almost pleading with the big man.

“Things are lost out there,” Grootgert says in his slow way, waving a hand towards the desert, “that you don’t know about. I find them.”

Whenever Grootgert pays one of his rare visits to Boggel’s Place, the whole town turns out to find out more about him. He is, after all, the most secretive man in the Kalahari. Still, Gertruida maintains, the man is at least more entertaining than the news of the government’s successes you hear on the radio every day. After all, he never told them who he is – he simply arrives in Rolbos occasionally, has a drink, and then walks off again. They dubbed him Grootgert simply to ease their conversations about him.

Gertruida summed up what they knew about him a while ago. Yes, he’s a loner. And sure, he lives out there in the desert, all by himself. It is also true that he talks with a heavy accent, suggesting that he must be from somewhere far away, like Williston, or Kimberley even.. But that’s about it – and he never talks about himself, anyway.

Vetfaan once said he thought he had met Grootgert on the border, during the war. That might have happened, for a generation of young boys grew up to be men during those troubled times when the Army gave them guns and pointed them North. They came back – well, some of them did – as adults who chose not to remember everything. So, when Grootgert said he had never met Vetfaan before, it may have been true, or maybe it was something he wiped from his mind.

Vetfaan still isn’t convinced. There was a skirmish, on the wrong side of the line between Namibia and Angola, involving three (or was it four?) platoons and an unknown number of enemies. That’s when the MiG’S swept down – out of the blue, guns blazing – and strafed the whole area. It was one of those horrifying stupid events that happens during wars – attackers and defenders found themselves scurrying for cover. The young men – who seconds before were seriously trying to kill each other – now sprinted in a mad dash for communal safety.

Vetfaan remembers the big tree and the ant heap. While the jets screamed overhead, he found shelter behind the tree. Two yards away, he saw the ant heap – a big one. Once or twice (or was it more?), he saw chunks of earth flying off the big mound as the deadly bullets tore into the hardened earth. But then, during a lull in the shooting, he saw a movement behind the ant heap.

Now, during such times, one doesn’t engage in casual conversation. Oh, hi, I’m Fanie. From the North Cape, you know? I see you’ve got a Russian uniform? How interesting! It gets to be very cold in the winters over there, doesn’t it? No, that isn’t the way wars go. You reload your rifle carefully, take aim, and kill the bastard.

Only, it is rather important to have your rifle with you to do this. Even if you have a full magazine strapped to your webbing, you can’t shoot very well without the rifle. And throwing bullets at your enemy doesn’t work so well, either. So you end up as a shivering and frightened young man, peeking ever so carefully past the coarse bark of the Acacia tree to see what the man behind the ant heap is doing.

Now, even though one tends to forget a lot of things as one gets older, some impressions simply refuse to fade. Even if you tried – really tried – there are pictures that remain as sharp as the day you experienced them for the first time. It happens, for instance, at births, funerals and such events like romantic moments and other accident scenes.

When Vetfaan peered at the ant heap, he saw a face staring back at him. A clearly frightened face, with large eyes and an open mouth, saying what sounded like ‘Nyet’ or something. Then the man pointed at the leg he was sticking out behind the mound: a trickle of blood stained the trousers above the right knee. He’d been wounded. No more shooting, please! And they both withdrew to their shelters and waited for the MiGs to go away. And afterwards – a minute, an hour, more? – neither of them looked for the other as they crept away to the South and the North respectively.

That’s why Vetfaan can never be sure. Although that fleeting glance only recorded the eyes and mouth of his adversary in his mind, and although he can still recall it as clearly as that day when he trembled behind that tree, he can’t be sure. Maybe he chose to forget other bits of detail, or maybe there was too much dust on that face to fill in more features – but the fact remains: he can’t say for certain. Grootgert, that huge enigmatic and nameless man, may or may not have been behind that ant heap that day.

“Out there? Like what?” Kleinpiet prompts. Grootgert, he is sure, must surely tell them something about himself now.

“Things. Many things. I find things. Things I never though should be in the desert.”

“Yes…?”

“Peace.”

“Yes, and…”

“I forget.”

Then, while Gertruida thinks about her next question, the big man gets up and walks out. They watch as he ambles down Voortrekker Weg to reach the end of town, and struts out towards the red dunes on the horizon.

“Strange man.” Kleinpiet says. “Imagine forgetting what you find.”

“Yes, I can. It’s even harder than finding what you forgot.” Vetfaan runs his hand through his thinning hair.

“Ag, come on, Vetfaan, you’re not making any sense.”

A slow smile wrinkles the tanned skin on Vetfaan’s cheeks. He was thinking about the slight limp – something with the right leg? – as the man left town. “That’s the way a man should tell a story, Kleinpiet. A good story must leave you with questions. You must find the forgotten bits the man didn’t tell. And that’s what you’ll remember… “