The Man with the Grudge

Credit: johnnyafrica.com

Credit: johnnyafrica.com

(follows on the previous posts)

Right then, just when Reverend Joseph stops talking, a woman appears in the doorway. Diksarel follows Joseph’s eyes to stare at her. Straight-backed, she stops to take a long, hard look at the two men at the front of the little church.

Gertruida says one shouldn’t feed a grudge. It keeps on growing, she says, until it devours the person filling the feeding trough. No matter how honourable or righteous the cause, the grudge will end up in a bigger catastrophe than the original wrong.

Diksarel experiences something like this when he recognises the face of the woman. She’s older – much older – of course. The lines on the face have multiplied and her hair is now speckled with grey – but her eyes remained the same. Sharp, penetrating eyes, unwavering in their stare, unashamed of who they belong to.

“You….?” Diksarel doesn’t know how to continue – the many words he wants to say seem to rush through his mind at the same time. This is, he realises, Miriam; the woman who led his father astray. Oh, everybody knew about her back then. Younger, more shapely, white teeth and the full lips. The one who didn’t dare come to town…afterwards…

“Careful what you say, White Man. You might regret it…” Joseph’s quiet words are lost on Diksarel.

The dam bursts. “Regret? Regret? You bring Miriam here, this…damn woman who crushed my life as if it were nothing? Who took away my mother and killed my father? Who…sucked the very life out of my youth to make me an outcast? What the hell will I regret?”

Reverend Joseph holds up a hand. “Slow down, will you?” When Diksarel opens his mouth to say more, Joseph tells him to shut up. “Stop it! How dare you condemn this woman? I’ve known her for years, and the only thing she talks about, is that…incident…back in Upington. Now the good Lord has delivered you here in this godforsaken township – and He’s done it with a purpose. And, oh yes! I know her story by heart by now. Word for word I can repeat it. But you? You know nothing. You think you now, but you don’t. Now shut up and listen.”

The rebuke leaves Diksarel speechless for a while, allowing Miriam to approach him.

“You dear boy.” Three words. Diksarel gapes at her. Dear boy…? “I need to speak to you…”

***

They all knew about Meneer Labuschagne, the white man who visited Pastor Plaatjies so often. At first it was assumed that this was one of those rare friendships between men of different colour (back then it didn’t happen so often), but soon the idea took hold: this man was a spy for one of the Apartheid organisations.  Plaatjies wasn’t a man to shy away from issues: his fiery sermons attest to that fact. So he confronted Meneer Labuschagne and everything came out.

“You see, ” her face crinkles in a smile, “your father wasn’t stupid. He knew the Nationalists were wrong. He understood the plight of my people. But he worked for an organisation which dictated his way of thinking – and although he didn’t like it, he couldn’t afford to disappoint his employers. Back then, you fitted in or were labelled as a traitor. And believe me: once you’ve gone against the government, your life was over.” She hesitates for a second. “Just like today, I suppose.”

“Well, he and Plaatjies talked and talked. About the past. About the present. About the future. About how Meneer Labuschagne couldn’t see a future in the policies of the day. About the bloodshed that was sure to follow. About so many things – and most of them were stone walls that stood n the way of a peaceful solution to the country’s tomorrows.”

By now, Miriam is seated next to Diksarel, who has fallen quiet.

“In the end, it was your father who supplied information to Pastor Plaatjies. He said he felt he had no choice. If he wanted to help the country, he couldn’t keep on destroying the little chance for success that still existed.”

“But the Natinalists had people everywhere. Even in the locations. And they learnt about your father’s actions and they made a plan.”

If ever there were people who ‘could make a plan’, then the agents of BOSS would be in the top ten of all times. From being instrumental in building South Africa’s atom bombs, to eliminating ‘undesired elements’, they had ways and means to manage a variety of problems.

Meneer Labuschagne was an embarrassment. That was the bottom line. When they recruited him, he seemed like an agent with a bright future. But, over time, he supplied less and less information – some of it obviously false. Add to that the secretly recorded telephone conversation in which Meneer Labuschagne warned Pastor Plaatjies about a police raid on the township, and the case against the white traitor was sealed. He had to go. They had several choices: get rid of him permanently…or simply destroy his career and his future.

“Killing him would have been merciful – and that is one thing those men didn’t do. Mercy wasn’t big in their thinking back then. So, what did they do? They conjured up an affair with Pastor Plaatjies’ daughter – me. Clever, hey? Meneer Labuschagne and a black political activist destroyed by one bit of misinformation. Bang! Just like that. All that was necessary, was to spread the gossip around a bit. A word here in a bar, there in a shebeen. And the next thing you know – everybody talks about it.”

Diksarel’s father didn’t deny it. In fact, he said nothing. To protest would have been useless, anyway. And, since he couldn’t admit to his double role – something that was even worse than having an affair – he remained silent. Plaatjies, too, couldn’t say much. Who’d listen to him, come to think about it? Knowing his telephone was tapped and the location crawled with informants, he tried – for a while – to continue being a pastor in his church.

“But it couldn’t work. As much as the news of the affair broke up your family, so it did for us. My father had to move to Soekmekaar, where he was employed as a social worker. His career in the church was over. He was powerless against the might of BOSS, you see? One more wrong move…and who knows what would have happened?” Miriam Plaatjies sighs. “They might as well have killed us too. Maybe they did…”

“So, my father…and you…? Didn’t do it? Have an affair?”

The laugh-crinkles around her eyes deepen. “No, White Man, we didn’t. Your father was check-mated into silence, forced to endure the gossip, even to the point of wrecking his marriage and your life. Pretty much the same happened to me. I could have denied it, of course. I even tried to, once or twice. But in those days the scent of the scandal was just too strong, too juicy, and the white community lapped it up. The power of BOSS…” She lets the unfinished sentence hang in the air.

“But my father told my mother about you…”

“Your mother. Hermiena Labuschagne. Née Botha. Daugther of the minister. Staunch supporter of the government of the day. Left Upington to stay in Cape Town. Met a man there, a government man, and settled in Mowbray. She said he had admitted it. I won’t ever know if that wasn’t just another lie. You won’t either, now both of them are dead.”

“How…how do you know all these things?”

Again the smile – more sympathetic now. “I did some research. You see, after 1994 I started writing a book. It wasn’t very good, but one of my father’s friends read it. He’s in government now, that friend. Economics and things like that. He said it was a story that needed to be told, but I had to tell both sides. I knew he had a point, of course, but I never wanted to see Upington again. Never! So I settled here and tried to help the community wherever I can. I met Reverend Joseph, here.” She leans over to give the clergyman a hug. “And now you’re here…”

Diksarel finds it difficult to swallow. After all these years… Suddenly, after all these years of feeding that animal inside him, he feels…free.

“About that grudge…?”

Diksarel acknowledges Joseph’s prompt with a nod. Then he shakes his head. Not now. He can’t speak now…

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