“Why now, Mary? After all these years you suddenly decide to visit an old friend in Rolbos…what made you do it?”
Smartryk has ordered a second bottle of wine, which they now enjoy on the veranda of the lodge. With the heat of the day broken, it is extremely pleasant and comfortable to lounge in the gloom of evening, enjoying the atmosphere. Travellers in Africa know this feeling of bonhomie – it’s almost as if the universe shrinks into the circle of the lamp’s light, making the worries and cares of everyday life seem insignificant and irrelevant.
Add, too, the fact that they have just enjoyed a magnificent supper of kudu steaks, finishing with a perfect crème brûlée, and that they’ve discovered a common interest in conservation. Their conversation drifted this way and that until Smartryk asked the question that had been bothering him all afternoon. Mary must obviously be down in her luck – hence the hitch hiking – and surely her reasons for getting to Rolbos must be to find accommodation, help, or work…or something? So…why? Why now? Why is she so desperate to get to Rolbos – even if it involved all the risks for a woman hitch hiking all alone in one of the most remote areas of the country?
Mary sighs. Should she tell this nice man everything? Will he understand? She decides to take the risk and straightens her shoulders.
Love affairs – we all know – are fragile relationships. Friendships may endure a lot of abuse and disappointment, but love is more demanding. It requires a deeper respect, more loyalty and uncompromising commitment. The fabric of such a liaison is delicate and it sometimes takes an almost insignificant incident to rip the fibres of the canvas that once contained the promise of joy. And then, with the power of hindsight, it may become painfully obvious that that promise was only a dream, a desperate mirage, and that the relationship had no other foundation than loneliness.
“I had many of those,” Mary tells Smartryk, “until I met Brutus Malherbe, the lawyer. Oh, he was handsome and caring and…” she blushes, “…rich.” It pains her to admit it, but his obvious wealth had been, indeed, a factor. “I was working as a receptionist in Dr Hartslief’s practice – you know, the famous thoracic surgeon? Anyway, one day Brutus walks in there for an annual checkup. Apparently he had had some chest pains before and Hartslief was treating him for a slightly irregular heartbeat.
“When he walked into that consulting room, we looked at each other…and we knew. At least I thought both of us did. It was just one of those moments when the world stops turning and your entire being focusses on somebody very, very special. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but in that second, I knew this man would play a significant role in my life.
“Well, he did. Only not in the way I thought…”
He asked for – and got – her telephone number. A week went by and then, one evening, he called. They chatted. He asked if she would like to have dinner with him. She said yes, of course.
“For three months he wooed me like I’ve never been wooed before. Flowers, chocolates, everything.” Then, one evening, Brutus told her he had a problem. Some very important documents had to be delivered to a man in Rio de Janeiro. No copies, no faxes, no e-mail – the originals had to be hand delivered. Only – Brutus looked so worried when he said this – he had an important court case coming and he couldn’t afford to do the trip himself. It’s only a matter of a few days, but…
Mary then looked at the man who had been so good to her, saw his anguish, and offered to take the documents herself. He was overjoyed. The documents, he said, would be sealed in an attache case. Just take it to the airport, a man would be there to receive it. No problem, just go and come back. Then, when his court case is over, they’d have a little holiday in Maldives – if she’d like to go?
“Well, when I landed in Rio, the cops were waiting for me. They demanded the attache case. and I…well, I handed it to them. They seemed to know exactly what they were looking for. They broke open the case – and it did contain some documents….as well as a million dollars .” Mary shakes her head. Even now, after such a long time, the sting of that horrible moment still causes tears to flow.
“Brutus, you see, was busy importing cocaine.My wonderful lawyer, my lover, was a drug smuggler! The police had been on his trail for some time and suspected that he used couriers to ferry money out of South Africa. Couriers! Stupid, everyday girls like me! And I was the lucky one to be on the spot when the police were ready to pounce!”
A nightmare followed. First it was a police cell in Rio. Then a prison – Bangu Penitentiary Complex – and later Presidente Prudente Supermax institution. Mary doesn’t elaborate on the months she spent there – despite the intervening years she still finds those memories too painful to contemplate. The court case was a disaster. Brutus, it seemed, had disappeared. The authorities had her, had the Brazilian drug lord Fernandinho Beira-Mar, and had the documents and money. Oh, she had the privilege of an attorney, but he had no interest in defending a foreign woman caught in a drug deal. The case lasted two days. The sentence was delivered immediately. Five years for her, life for Fernandinho.
“Somehow, Fernandinho managed to get messages to me – telling me he admired the way I conducted myself during the trial. He wrote letters, Smartryk, long ones, which the warders slipped under my pillow. His influence was obvious, even in prison. Over and over he said that he’d like to get to know me better.” She blushes at the thought. “You know how those Latin-American men are, Smartryk – they make you feel like a woman all over again. I wrote back, leaving the letters under my pillow as well, and he obviously got these. I poured out my heart in those letters – I think that was the only thing that kept me sane during my time in that prison…
“Being associated with Fernandinho turned out to be a very well disguised blessing during my time in the women’s section, called Talavera Bruce. Here his name offered me some protection against the other inmates, see? At least, it kept them at a distance. But the authorities! The filth! The conditions! The food….” She pauses, unable to continue…
“Brutus was eventually found in the East somewhere. They escorted him back to South Africa, where he stood trial He denied everything, of course, even that me sent me to Rio, but the state had a watertight case against him and he got twenty years. However, he served only two months before he managed to get parole on medical grounds. He got some cardiologist to swear he’d die in prison, using poor Dr Hartslief’s records to lend weight to the parole application… Money, Smartryk, can buy you anything…even freedom.”
Mary swallows the rest of the wine in her glass, wipes off her lips with the back of her hand, and manages a wobbly smile.
“Anyway, I got out last week. Only arrived in Cape Town a couple of days ago. And now…now I need to return to my roots and the only man I ever really trusted. He’s a barman in Rolbos.”
“That’s strange…” Smartryk draws a deep breath. “The accident I told you about? The passenger was a barman, too. Apparently a guy with some sort of spinal deformity.”
This is the moment we all dread in life: when suddenly the trapdoor opens up beneath us and there is only one way to go: straight down. Mary stares at Smartryk for several seconds, blinking her eyes mechanically while her mouth tries to form words. Then, mercifully, the curtain drops and she slides to the ground in a dead faint.