“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…”