Servaas couldn’t bear to look up. He heard Gertruida say good afternoon to somebody and recognised Vetfaan’s subdued voice, but it was as if everything froze and time stood still for a while. Although the room was stuffy and warm – summer in the northern Cape is never cool – he shivered as a chill ran through his body. Gertruida, what have you done…?
Then, almost in slow motion, he allowed his gaze to travel to the man standing next to Vetfaan – Shorty de Lange, the man he last saw in 1970.
Yes, it was Shorty alright. Tall, still athletic despite the years, the same handsome face although it gathered the wrinkles and lines associated with the passage of years. Servaas noted – with cynical satisfaction – the slight paunch, the mild stoop, the cane and the gnarly hands of arthritis. Nobody escapes the ravages of age, he thought, not even Shorty.
His overwhelming experience at that point was a mixture of fear, revulsion, guilt and an infantile desire to pull the blankets over his head in the hope everything will be alright by the time he reemerged.
Servie. His old army nickname. He hadn’t heard it in decades. He managed to croak a reply of sorts. Then, gathering his bushy brows together, he closed his eyes firmly.
“Servaas, I brought Shorty to see you.” Vetfaan’s remark, superfluous as it was, as he tried to break the ice.
“I…I…don’t want to…” The rebellion in Servaas’s mind was obvious. Why did Vetfaan and Gertruida bring this man there, at that point, when he least expected – and needed – to be reminded of those terrible moments when he lost control and almost killed somebody he’d have described as a friend before?
“It’s a choice.” Shorty interrupted in a quiet voice. When Servaas closed his mouth so firmly that his dentures clicked upon themselves, Shorty launched into a monotone that touched them all.
“You may choose to ignore me, Servie, and I’ll understand. But let me tell you about choices, and maybe my being here will make some sense.
“You see, Servie, I made a choice that evening before you beat me up. A bad choice. And let me tell you, that was only one of the many bad choices I made in my life. Had I listened to you, my life would have been…different.
“Sure, you gave me a proper hiding. I deserved that, even if I didn’t think so at the time. I was conceited and self-righteous to the point where I called you a wet rag and secretly poked fun at your narrow-minded approach to life behind your back. But, what goes around, comes around. Choices have consequences. Let me tell you…”
When Shorty de Lange was discharged from hospital, he moved in with the beautiful young student he had met on that fateful evening before he and Servaas had the fight. She had visited him frequently in hospital, oozing sympathy and bringing little presents. On the day before his discharge, she told him she was pregnant.
“My world started to implode right there. I mean; one night with her, one careless fling, and suddenly everything changed. Her father turned out to be this conceited and overbearing minister in the church, a man with strong connections with the government. He arranged my transfer to a desk job in Voortrekkerhoogte, made the complaints against me – for the damage we had done to the barracks — disappear, and demanded that all the blame be put on you, Servie. Then he insisted that I marry his daughter. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s where my hell started.”
His newly-wed wife, Hester, seemed to blame him for everything – the pregnancy, the fact that she had to drop out of university, the small flat they had to stay in, even the way her once-shapely body adapted to the baby she was carrying.
“Most evenings ended in a shouting match. Then the baby was born…”
Baby Jacobus had a chromosomal defect – . Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease. The condition, Shorty told them in a hesitant, hushed tone, is characterised by spasticity, blindness and retarded mental development.
“Even now, I cannot bring myself to describe the shock to you. It was…overwhelming…
“You’ll never understand what it is like to take care of such a baby. Doctors, physiotherapists, medicines, constant – every second of every day – care and attention.
“Well, the good reverend distanced himself from his grandson, saying the most horrible things about the wages of sin. Hester held out for a year, then the situation became too much for her. Psychologists and psychiatrists didn’t help much. Our little flat had pills and medicines everywhere! For the baby, for her…and for me. When she suggested a divorce, I was only too happy to go along with it. One less thing to worry about, see? It was completely out of the question to allow her custody of the baby – there was no way she could take care of him.
“So, there I was, stuck in a stupid little flat with an abnormal baby. The only good thing the reverend grandfather did, was to obtain my discharge from the army and arrange work for me at a research facility near Roodeplaat dam. At least they provided a house on the premises and I could afford to employ a nurse to help look after the baby.”
Roodeplaat Research Laboratories did biological research – of the warfare type. Shorty’s job involved – amongst other duties – caring for a pond filled with frogs. The African Clawed Frog (Xenopus or platanna) is commonly used as a source for fast-growing, large cells, making them ideal for biological research.
“Those frogs were a nightmare. I was responsible for breeding enough specimens to keep up with the laboratory’s demands and had to identify the females who produced the most eggs. I tried tagging them with bits of plastic, but that didn’t last. That’s when I started working on an idea to implant a small transponder under the skin and to develop an scanner to identify individuals.”
Shorty reminded them that he had an accounting background – another strangely humorously cynical coincidence.
“I had become a bookkeeper of frogs! Because of the ultrasecret nature of the research, my official job description was, indeed, that of an accountant. So there I was, looking after frogs in the daytime and taking care of my baby at night.” Shorty allowed a sad smile at that point. “In both cases, the level of intelligence was about the same…”
Baby Jacobus slowly deteriorated, requiring more and more attention. His spasticity and regular seizures progressed to the point where it was virtually impossible to care for him at home, but at that stage there were virtually no facilities to care for the needs of such children. The few that could, were prohibitively expensive.
The years rolled by and eventually Roodeplaat had to lay off most of its workforce as many of the projects had no bearing on the course of the Nationalists’ war against terrorism any longer. In the late 80’s, Shorty was a jobless father of a severely ill young boy.
“My life, you see, was an endless struggle to make ends meet, take care of little Jacobus and simply surviving – there was no time for socialising at all. That day, when I drove out of the gates of Roodeplaat for the last time, I was destitute. I had nowhere to go at all, no idea what to do.”
On the way back to Pretoria, baby Jacobus had another of his seizures – only this one didn’t pass like previous ones did.. Shorty knew he had to get help, and get it fast. He raced to the HF Verwoerd Hospital, where the frail and dying boy was admitted to the paediatric unit.
“I left him there. Spent my first night alone since our fight in the barracks in the parking lot in front of the Union Buildings, crying, praying…and fighting with God. Why did He punish me so much? What did I do to deserve all this?
“And He gave me an answer. The word that came up in my mind that night, was ‘Choices’. I wasn’t being punished, you see? I was living the consequences of my own choices. My choice to ignore your admonishment that evening after the movie, determined the course of my life. Had I listened to you and went back to the barracks, i could have had a happy life. But I didn’t, did I…?”
Servaas listened to Shorty – at first with downcast eyes and wringing hands, later in silent sympathy. Then, when Shorty paused to dab his eyes, he spoke up for the first time.
“And then, Shorty?”
Shorty looked up sharply, blinking.
“I had to make another choice…”
(To be continued…)