(This story is based on an event that took place a few decades ago. Names and places were changed to protect the identity of the hapless traveller, but – for once – this story isn’t a figment of imagination.)
“You found him, Gertruida? That’s excellent news.” Vetfaan lifts his glass in a silent salute. “He did overdo it a bit on last night, though. Told him not to drive but you know Dreyer. Once he gets to that stage, the only thing he’ll allow is for you to empty the magazine of his .38. Other than that, he won’t listen to any advice.”
Kleinpiet nods. Sersant Dreyer is arguably the most sober, upstanding member of the community. Quiet, keeping to himself and rarely part of the party-crowd, Dreyer lives some distance outside Rolbos in a cottage next to a dry riverbed.
Mind you, calling it a riverbed might create the wrong impression…one shouldn’t think green willow trees and a sprawling lawn. Not at all. The Kalahari has many of these dry courses where – once in a few decades or so – water will cascade down to the Orange River in a flash flood. For the rest of the time these ‘rivers’ are mere sandy tracts through the barren desert. They do, however, make excellent roads. In contrast to the hard-baked uneven surfaces around them, they provide a soft if sandy drive into the desert. Like many other inhabitants of the Kalahari, Dreyer makes use of this unnamed ‘river’ to get to his cottage.
Sersant Dreyer is, by all accounts, a bit of a hermit. By day he mans the small office on Voortrekker Weg which serves as the Rolbos police station. A relic of the time when sillimanite was mined near Bokkop (many, many years ago), this police outpost most probably remains in town because the clerks in Headquarters don’t ask questions and the generals just couldn’t be bothered. And Dreyer isn’t going to rock the boat. With a sad history of his own, he likes it here just fine, thank you.
But…once in a while Sersant Dreyer shuffles into Boggel’s Place with that look. Picture a still-handsome and almost in shape middle-aged man with slumped shoulders and a Basset face. The patrons in the bar all know that look. It means Dreyer’s past has caught up with him again.
Gertruida says our histories are like shadows. Memories fade when Life’s sun is directly above us; but just after dawn and before sunset, memories cast long shadows we simply can’t ignore. Vetfaan doesn’t agree – he says memories hide in the last half-inch of the peach brandy bottle. Sometimes, they are both correct and that’s when the clouds of melancholy roll in on the What if? winds…
“He was in a particularly somber mood last night. Getting him to smile was impossible.”
“Ja, Kleinpiet. People talk about depression during the festive season, and I suppose it’s true. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are sentimental days and one tends to think back on the past year. But then….January arrives and forces you to look ahead. Poor Dreyer always gets the January Blues – every year. I think he contemplates the year ahead, realises it’l be no different to the last, and then wonders why he prefers to remain stuck in his one-man police station. It’s the answer to that question that gets to him every January.”
“But why? He’s not stupid. He’s not ugly. Workwise he could have made Brigadier – if he had a deeper tan, that is. And surely there must be some more fish in the sea?”
Gertruida shakes her head. “No Kleinpiet. You forget the minor detail called Human Nature. The brain is a magnificent piece of engineering. Everything you hear and see – all experiences – are stored up there. Everything. Oh, you can blank out bits and pieces here and there, but don’t be fooled! Those shadows lurk in there, waiting for the right moment to surface. That’s why, sometimes, you end up feeling bad and you can’t put your finger on it. That’s when the subconscious mind mull over unpleasant past incidents without allowing those thoughts to surface. It’s complex. I feel sorry for Dreyer..”
“Ja, well, no, fine. In the brain is such a wonderful machine, why can’t it decide to leave the past in the past – and move on?” Servaas is his old, cynical self. “If I go through a bad patch, my mind sets up camp right there and I can’t seem to be able to pull up those tent pegs for days…weeks, even.”
“Human nature, Servaas, human nature. You can’t format that hard disk between your ears. You may be able to add programs and even remove the odd virus, but the circuits are there. Dormant, maybe…but present. Waiting for the right, unguarded moment. Like a file stored on an external drive, you may not use it every day – but hit the right button…” She allows the sentence to drift off.
Of course the others hate it when Gertruida goes into computer-talk. It simply doesn’t make sense to them, so they stare at their beers. Time to change the subject.
“So, where did you find Dreyer? I was worried, man! He mumbled something about fetching some peach brandy and then he simply didn’t come back.”
“Oh, he intended to do just that, Kleinpiet. You saw him – he was at the point where the brakes failed in his mind. He wanted to drink more. Remember how he said something about drowning the demons inside? That’s what he wanted to do.
“Well, we all called it a night after a while and you guys went home. But I was worried about Dreyer.” She tries not to sound too accusing, softening the impact with an anxious smile. “After all, he promised to come back and you know how Dreyer is about promises. He’ll go to the ends of the earth to keep his word….”
“And he almost did?”
Gertruida ignores the interruption.
“…so I drove out to his cottage. Found him about a hundred yards from the turn-off, in the sandy patch where the river forms a pool after heavy rains. Low range, 4X4, first gear. His Landy got stuck and he engaged everything he could. Not a grain of sand touched those wheels when I arrived there – the vehicle rested squarely on its chassis while the wheels spun round and round.
“Well…what does one do under such circumstances? I didn’t want to wake him up – was afraid he’d not only have the fright of his life, but that he would still want to fetch that peach brandy he hoped would erase some memories.
“So I walked up to the vehicle, reached in, and removed his foot from the accelerator. Ever so gently, see, so as not to wake him. The revs fell, but the humming of the engine continued so his mind told him he was still on his way to his home.”
Vetfaan lets out a low whistle. “He was that far gone?”
“Way over the edge, my friend. I left him there and fetched the jerry can he keeps in his garage for people who run out of petrol in the desert. Went back, lit a fire some distance from where he sat sleeping, and waited…”
The rest, she tells them, was easy. Just before dawn, the engine sputtered, hiccuped, wheezed…and stopped. The fuel tank was empty.
“Dreyer woke up with a start! Looked around. Saw me sitting next to the fire. He had absolutely no idea what had happened. Then, in a husky, hoarse voice, he asked me – quite politely – whether I was Gertruida or Gabriel. His relief when he realised it was me, shocked him into sobriety again! It was so funny…”
The Saving of Sersant Dreyer, as the incident will be remembered in Boggel’s Place, will be the source of many a jibe in the months to come. Dreyer will smile sheepishly every time and endure the jokes in his mild, abstract way. Yet, somehow, something fell into place in his mind that morning when he woke up in the vehicle that was bogged down in the sand. Gertruida explained it so nicely.
“Look, Dreyer, you were on your way home. You weren’t thinking straight. Despite knowing this road so well, you got stuck in the sandy patch you so often negotiated in the past. Too little speed, to little momentum, wrong gear…and bingo! you couldn’t move on. Getting stuck is okay – we all do that from time to time. But…last night you discovered something: you should have made a bypass past that sandy patch a long time ago.
“And Dreyer…? It’s the same with memories. Sometimes it serves a good purpose to remember exactly what had transpired in the past. But sometimes…you have to make a bypass. The memories are still there, but you create an escape route of something better to build your future on.”
Dreyer helped Gertruida to refuel the Landy, went home, and cried for the first time in many years.
It was the start of the breeze that’s blowing his dark cloud away, allowing the sun to shorten the shadow…