To eternity…and back (#3)

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria, 1970

By now, the Rolbossers had drawn up a roster so that Servaas would have at least one visitor every day.  If one believed in coincidences, then it was by pure chance that it was Gertruida’s turn to drive all the way from Roilbos to Upington on the very same day Servaas had told matron Krotz about his dream and Shorty de Lange. Matron had, after her little outburst, locked herself in her office. It simply won’t be fitting for the nurses to see that she’d been crying. Matrons don’t do emotion – it’s unprofessional. And she, Matron Krotz, won’t allow anybody – anybody – to express any form of sympathy simply because she was upset. No sir, not at all…

Gurtruida brought along the obligatory little bag of biltong and the bottle of Coke (which had been cleverly doctored with a medicinal tot of peach brandy beforehand) and greeted nurse Botha with a slab of chocolates.

“How’s old grumpy today, nurse?”

Nurse Botha laughed softly. “He’s about ready to be discharged. Quite remarkable, really. Ever since matron took a ...special…interest in him, he’s made exceptional progress.” Then, in a conspiratorial whisper: “I think they’ve got a thing going, you know what I mean?” She winked and put a theatrical hand to her chin while rolling her eyes. “Just goes to show – the sky lights up with the brightest colours at sunset.”

This remark made Gertruida stare at the young nurse. Such wisdom…

Servaas greeted her with less than his usual enthusiasm, When Gertruida remarked on this, he gave her an abbreviated account of his chat with matron that afternoon.

“Gee, Servaas, you’ve had quite a time in the hospital. First you have this near-death thing where you get reminded of compassion and kindness. Then this austere woman, our beloved matron, suddenly mellows to become your best friend. Strange, that, don’t you think?” Gertruida noted – with some satisfaction – the blush creeping up the old man’s neck. “Anyway, then you dream about Shorty de Lange, somebody you last saw forty or fifty years ago, and it turns out that he’s the bastard who dumped matron for some other woman many years ago.

“Now, the way I see it, is that we have three persons involved here: you, matron Krotz and this Shorty guy. Without Shorty, I would have thought you and matron might hook up, but once you add this guy, you have to wonder why. And remember: he’s the guy sinking in the sand and you’ve been climbing that dune to rescue him. Now that makes you think, doesn’t it?”

It sure did. It made Servaas open a door in his mind – a door he steadfastly had refused to open for four decades…

***

Mana Pools

Mana Pools

It was just after they had returned from Rhodesia (called Zimbabwe these days). where their unit assisted the Rhodesian armed forces to guard the border with Zambia, near Mana Pools.  It had been a harrowing task: in fact, it was difficult to pin down the greatest danger: the wildlife (lion, crocodile, hippo, leopard, snakes etc), the insects (malaria-bearing mosquitoes and tsetse flies) or the insurgent freedom fighters that were called terrorists back then.

Nevertheless, when the two of them stepped from the train in Pretoria, they had one thing in mind: having the best time possible. Not knowing where the hot spots of social life was to be found, they headed for the ultramodern movie theatre called Sterland, where Love Story was showing. After months in the bush, they admitted – rather shyly, to be honest – that a romantic movie would be ‘nice’. The ulterior motive  – in Shorty’s case – was that it seemed logical that the audience would include a number of young ladies, which turned out to be true.

Servaas wasn’t all that interested. He had met Siena already but she was far away in the Northern Cape. Oh, of course he’d like to chat to a few girls after the stint in the bush with only male companions, but that was as far as he’d go. Shorty, however, had no such qualms. Even though he was engaged, he was determined to blow off some steam (amongst other things).

People who have never seen armed conflict often assume that soldiers spend their days cleaning rifles and discussing tactics. This is, of course, not true. Soldiers (especially the male sort) pass the time by discussing women, often in the most graphic terms. It was natural, then, for Servaas to know everything about Shorty’s fiancee, a nurse somewhere in the Cape Province. Shorty often bragged about the buxom young lady, boasting about his conquest. In contrast, Servaas kept mostly to himself while writing long and passionate letters to his dear Siena.

downloadOne can understand that Servaas sat in the darkened theatre, watching Ali MacGraw die, with an intense longing to be home. He dabbed his eyes, sniffed, and had to close his eyes to suppress a few sobs. Shorty didn’t even watch the movie. By sheer coincidence he occupied the seat next to a stunning blonde student, a lovely young thing with a charming smile to match the voluptuous figure,  who had just completed her final exams for the year.

After the movie, Servaas blew his nose and suggested they return to the barracks. Shorty would have none of it. He was going to party with this girl until the sun came up the next day, and he didn’t need a wet rag like Servaas to spoil his fun. They had a heated, albeit whispered, discussion about morals and needs, and parted on less than friendly terms.

Shorty returned to his bunk the next day, flushed with his success. The young lady, he informed everybody within earshot, was the best lay he’d ever had. He proceeded to – in lurid terms – describe every bit of her anatomy and what he had done with it. Maybe he was still a bit drunk, but the extent of his revelations far surpassed what Servaas considered to be in the worst possible taste of all. True to his nature, Servaas endured the pompous monologue for a short while before requesting – politely – Shorty to shut up.

The other thing about a military environment is testosterone. Soldiers have way too much of the stuff. Add alcohol and a touch of adrenaline, and you produce an unpredictable explosive concoction. During combat, this often produces heroes who seem to ignore danger to rescue a fallen comrade…but inside the confines of a bungalow filled with young men trained to fight? Well, that’s what they do, occasionally.: fight. A fist here, a slap there isn’t unusual when the provocation is sufficient. But that’s not what happened when Shorty snorted, lowered his head and stormed down on Servaas, who had been writing yet another letter to Siena.

The fight became the stuff of legends. At first it was Shorty who threw a few punches while Servaas tried to evade the onslaught. Then something happened in Servaas’s mind. A black veil seemed to lower itself over his consciousness. Pent-up exasperated frustration and aggression boiled over and suddenly Servaas wasn’t Servaas any longer.

Why did this happen? Even after all the intervening years, Servaas was unable to explain what happened. Maybe it was the latent but smouldering fear, uncertainty and trauma of the petrols along the border. Or possibly the even-tempered and mild young man simply reached a point where he simply couldn’t control the demons inside his mind – after living in the bush for too long, being shot at too many times, having killed too much. Whatever the explanation, he became a cold-blooded monster, ignoring Shorty’s efforts while he  waded into his former friend, delivering blows with devastating accuracy.

How long did the fight last? It depends on which version of the legend you believe, At the end, however, they had to cart Shorty off to hospital, where his broken jaw was wired. The damage to the barracks was considerable. Servaas got court martialed, and spent a week in the detention barracks. Afterwards, he was transferred to another unit.

He never saw Shorty again.

***

“Wha…what are you saying, Gertruida?”  Servaas suddenly looked so old, so frail, so tired…

“You heard me, Servaas. You’ll have to find Shorty to know what the dream was about…”

(To be continued…)

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