Mary Mitchell, she of the chequered past and the many days she’d rather forget, steps up to the roadside when she sees the big eighteen-wheeler roar down the slope of the hill. It’s been two days now, and the only two other vehicles to pass here didn’t even slow down. (One was a fully laden donkey cart, the other carrIed a surprised and very tired cyclist on his way to the shanty next to the dry river bed.) Smiling in a manner which she hopes to look sexy, desperate and hopeful at the same time, she lifts a thumb as the big truck approaches.
“Whatcha girl like you doin’ in a place like this?”
How can she dare tell him? She looks up at the rugged face, the tussled hair, the unshaved cheeks and the tattooed shoulders of the shirtless driver. Of all the unsavoury characters…! The half-chewed match dangling from the thick lower lip doesn’t help to improve the picture.
“Oh, I…” No, she’ll not tell him of the farmer who left her here after she refused his unwelcome advances. But, despite her obvious doubt of the driver’s character, she realises that beggars can’t always be choosers. That ploy only works if you’re what the politicians call ‘previously disadvantaged’. “I’m Mary Mitchell,” she finishes lamely, as if that explains everything. Come to think of it, it does – in her mind, anyway. Does her name not encompass every hardship she’s ever had to endure?
Kiewiet Rooi stares down at the young lady. Well, not so young any more, if you cared to look carefully. The lines on her face, the lack of make-up, the coldness in the eyes…yes, this one has been through the mill a couple of times.
“I’m on my way to the new wind-farm with a gearbox and some stuff for one of those big things,” he jerks a thumb towards the back. “Took what I thought would be a shortcut – never thought the road would be this bad. Could use some company, though.”
There is a spark of kindness in the voice, despite the rough appearance of the man.
“I…I need to get to Grootdrink and then to split off to Rolbos.” Mary watches as the man continues to chew the match. Doesn’t he look familiar?
Kiewiet suddenly brightens.
“Mary? MARY MITCHELL? Can you believe it? I’m Kiewiet! Remember me? I’m Ai Mieta’s son! Of the orpohanage. You were there …a million years ago, weren’t you?”
And suddenly, as if a curtain goes up to reveal a magnificent stage, Mary’s hopeful, desperate smile turns to laughter. Yes, she remembers the little boy who often helped Mieta in the kitchen. Kiewiet! Yes, it’s him! When the driver gets out to hug her – there next to the road, in the middle of nowhere – she hugs him right back, wetting a tattoo of an anchor with happy tears.
“Just a little.” Loud sniff. “It’s been years since last I saw somebody I could call a friend.”
They talk as the truck negotiates its way across the uneven road surface. Kiewiet tells her how he left Grootdrink to look for fame and fortune in Cape Town.
“I was bad, Mary. Real bad. Joined the Americans…I had to, to survive. Of course the police got me in the end, it was inevitable. Went to jail, got taken up by the 26. I was a number, Mary…and set to continue a life of crime as soon as I got out. Drugs…there’s a lot of money in drugs…” Kiewiet pauses, fishes out a cigarette, stabs it between his lips angrily. “When I was released, I went straight to the shebeen. I wanted my old life back, see? It was the only life I knew. Well, I got there and landed myself in a lot of trouble.”
“What happened, Kiewiet?”
“Apparently the Americans picked up a scrap with the Boys. They were busy shooting each other to pieces when I arrived there. It was horrible. I saw one of my friends stagger from that shebeen, blood streaming from his neck – and then the Boys kept on shooting, shooting…”
Kiewiet falls silent for the next kilometre or so, lost in thought.
“You know, Mary, I often think of that moment. The way that man lived, the way he died. Senseless, totally senseless. Still, when it happened, I ran into the first house I saw. Ran like a scared rabbit. There I was, barely an hour out of jail, and I was in the middle of the war again. No, I couldn’t face it, not then, not now. Anyway, while the shots kept on and on, I crashed through the door of that house and threw myself on the ground. I actually – would you believe it – found myself praying.” His smile is cynical now as he shakes his head. “Praying! Kiewiet Rooi lay there, praying like Mieta taught me when I was a boy still: If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
“After a while the sirens came and the shots stopped. I lifted my head…and saw the most beautiful thing I ever did see. Prudence April. Eighteen years old and so pretty it hurt my eyes.”
Prudence was scared, Kiewiet tells Mary, scared of this crazy man with the tattoos and the tears. But, he says, she kept her cool and ordered him out.
“I told her I couldn’t – not after what I saw. Then I begged her to stay. She looked at me a long time, then she asked if that was the only prayer I knew. I said it was the only one I remembered. And she smiled, Mary, she actually smiled! It was like the first rain of the summer in the Kalahari. I told her so. And then she asked if I knew what I was talking about, and I said yes, I do. She asked where, and I said Grootdrink.” Kiewiet lights the cigarette, puffs deeply.
“Turns out her family was from Noenieput originally – not that far from Grootdrink. And she offered tea and we sat there, talking haltingly at first, until the talk became easy. And that’s where, Mary, I said to myself: Kiewiet, there’s a different life out there. It’s time…”
They watch the barren veld roll by in silence for a while.
“Sooo…did you stay there?”
“No, Mary. I couldn’t. Not with my past and the jail and my tattoos. I was a bad man; she was this angel; this pure, young thing. I told her I’d come back when my life was sorted out. I think she believed me. Over the next few weeks I visited there often, despite her parent’s doubts. They looked at me and saw Kiewiet, the gang member. But as time went on, they softened because they saw I was trying hard. Then her father introduced me to a pastor who ran a program for chaps on parole. It was he who helped me get a driver’s license for big trucks. And then I started working for this company. I had to do short runs at first, always with a co-driver to keep an eye on me. When they saw I was really trying hard to be trustworthy, they took away the other chap. Then the hauls got bigger and longer.”
Kiewiet takes out another match to start chewing again.
“After one of the longer trips, I got back and immediately went to visit. Her father let me in. The house was filled with flowers, I immediately knew something was horribly wrong…” Kiewiets face crumbles at the memory. “She was shot, Mary…shot while she walked down the street. Got herself caught between two gangs, fighting for territory.” He’s crying now, and Mary has to lean over to pat the shaking shoulders. “…I never went back…”
Mary stares at the road through the insect-spattered windscreen. Yes, she thinks, Life is like that. The best laid plans of mice and men… Kiewiet’s story is so similar to her’s.
“We’re all orphans, Kiewiet,” she says softly, “orphans of Life. Once we face the reality of surviving from day to day we have to cope with ourselves, with all the goodness and sadness and dark thoughts contained inside our minds. It’s a struggle to keep faith and an even greater fight to keep on believing that the only thing worthwhile fighting for, is love. No father and no mother can teach us that – despite all their good intentions. Life throws itself at us and we have to discover this truth all by ourselves.
“Ai Mieta was maybe the only real mother I ever knew and I know how much love she gave us small ones. She set such a beautiful example. But then I grew up and made so many mistakes, I stopped counting. I simply lost the way, just like you. So many lost opportunities, so many regrets.”
The truck lumbers on towards a crossing. The two people in the cab are silent – there is so little left to say. Kiewiet reaches over to pat Mary’s leg.
“I turn off here,” he says, “the road to Grootdrink is straight ahead. Unless…?” He doesn’t finish the sentence.
“I have to get to Rolbos, Kiewiet.” Mary almost manages a brave smile. “It is important.”
She watches the truck until it disappears over a distant hill. Then she looks up.
“Aren’t we all lost, Lord? Little ants running to and fro, trying to make sense out of it all? “
She sits down on her tattered little suitcase, a traveller through the desert, waiting, waiting for Life to smile down on her. Just for once, it’d be such a wonderful change…