Fly Away

IMG_9860On impulse, Gertruida stops at the turnoff to Verlatenheid, the farm halfway between Grootdrink and Rolbos. She has been shopping in Upington and finished earlier than planned. With a bit of time on her hands, she contemplates the unthinkable. Nobody ever visits here…

***

Everybody knows the history of Verlatenheid, the once-prosperous farm where old Oom Meintjies once produced some of the finest wool in the country. Representing the fourth generation of his family on the farm, Oom Meintjies brought in Romney rams to complement his Merino flock, resulting in (at the time) a unique curly-haired wool, used by some of Europe’s most famous fashion houses.

Oom Meintjies and his wife, Hestertjie, had a son, the obvious heir and future owner of Verlatenheid. Hendrik (Hennie to his many friends) turned out to be a handsome, popular and quiet-spoken young man. One of those youths with natural leadership skills, he was the senior prefect in Prieska’s High School before being drafted to the army. At that time every white boy in the country expected this inevitability – there was no way to avoid conscription. Hennie knew this and begged his father’s permission to marry his sweetheart, the pretty Annatjie Blum, before his draft was due. She, however, was daughter of the town’s liberal lawyer.

Oom Meintjies refused. Hennie was too young to know about love, he said. And…the Blums were known for their anti-government stance and labelled as left-winged communists by the population. But, because he was the only lawyer in town, people set their prejudices aside when property was transferred or a contract had to be signed. Also…Mister Blum rendered his services much cheaper than the bigshot legal practitioners in Upington. The importance of politics – then, like today – was  inversely proportional to the size of the wallet…

And so, after a furious argument with his father, Hennie boarded the train to do his basic training in Voortrekkerhoogte. He didn’t write home. Hestertjie, his mother, sent regular letters to his unit. He didn’t reply.

Five months later a chaplain visited Verlatenheid to sympathise with the family. Hennie had been killed when the Cessna carrying him crashed near the Angolan border.

Oom Meintjies was absolutely devastated by the news. His son – his only son, sacrificed for the beliefs he held so strongly? As a staunch Nationalist, he truly believed that the party would work out a practical way of power-sharing in South Africa and that this process was being hampered by communist terrorists. Surely this was a just cause? Why, then, would God take away his only heir? In the days he and Hestertjie waited for his son’s body to be returned to them, he neither ate nor spoke. He withdrew into a dark world of rebellion – against the communists, the government…and God. When Dominee van As came to see him about the service, he refused to talk to the clergyman. Hestertjie’s attempts to comfort him was waved away with an angry hand.

After the funeral he drove over to the Blum’s home, spoke to the lawyer, waited for the papers to be typed, signed them – and drove off in the direction of his farm. Even today, the community is unsure whether the old man had an accident or committed suicide.

And so, as was stipulated in his will, Annatjie Blum became the owner of Verlatenheid. In one of those strange twists of the human condition, Annatjie and Hestertjie – both widely known by their diminutive names – forged a friendship based on their communal loss. It was an invisible and unspoken bond that grew with the years. As the older woman slowly slipped into decrepit senility, Annatjie took care of her to the last. And when she died, Annatjie sold the sheep, paid off the labourers, and stayed on alone on Verlatenheid. She locked the gate and set up the sign.

***

Gertruida knows Annatjie never allows visitors. The sign on the gate leaves no doubt: Keep Out. No visitors. Strictly Private. Yet, today, she contemplates opening that gate while she listens to the engine ticking over. She eyes the sturdy padlock on the chain keeping the gate closed, knowing that it’d be impossible to drive to the homestead – a sprawling old house only faintly visible on the arid horizon. Should she go? Or drive off…?

 What is this thing we call impulse? Is it only a random thought – albeit a convincing one – that forces us to do something we didn’t consider before? Or is there a connectivity between people; a deeper form of communication; we don’t understand? Why does one look up if somebody stares at you from across the room? Or why do we instantly like somebody you’ve just met – or hate them from the moment you lay eyes on them? Gertruida will quote from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, the book that explains this instinct, if you were to ask her.

Be that as it may: Gertruida can’t stop herself. She has to climb through the fence and walk down the overgrown track to the house. The impulse is simply too strong to ignore. She can’t help feeling a bit apprehensive – what will Annatjie’s reaction be? And what is she going to tell her – why is she visiting? The nearer she gets to the house, the more uncertain she becomes.

At the foot on the dusty stairs leading up to the wide veranda, Gertruida stops. Music? Yes…there it is! Faint but clear, she hears the sound of the ’75 hit. Despite the circumstances, she smiles at the memories the song brings back. Yes, those were the days…

“He’s dead, you know?”

The sound of the voice shocks Gertruida back to the present.

“Died, like the rest of them.”

Only now can Gertruida make out the silhouette of somebody standing behind the chintz curtains. It must be Annatjie? She greets with a hesitant ‘Hello’ and apologises for intruding like this.

“All of my days have gone soft and cloudy, all of my dreams have gone dry…”

“Huh?”

“I’m looking for lovers and children playing, I’m looking for signs of the spring. I listen for laughter and sounds of dancing, I listen for any old thing.”

Gertruida goes Aaaah! when she realises that Annatjie is using the words of the song… to communicate, or is she simply singing along?  Gertruida recalls some of the words and uses them as a question.  “And…all of your nights have gone sad and shady…?”

The music stops. Feet shuffles to the door and a loud crunching sound announces the key being turned.

The two woman stare at each other for a long moment. Gertruida manages to keep her expression neutral, but can’t stop an internal shiver. Annatjie is….so old! The long, black dress contrasts with the almost-white and unkempt mop of hair. No makeup. Lines and wrinkles criss-cross the once beautiful face. The full figure has shrunk to mere skin and bones.

“You okay?” Gertruida manages at last.

“There’s nowhere to go and there’s nowhere that I’d rather be.”

***

They sit listening to the song for maybe half-an-hour. Annatjie has started the turntable again, playing the record over and over again. In some places the groove in the vinyl has worn away, causing the needle to jump ahead to the next verse.

“All of my nights have gone sad and shady,” Annatjie sings every time the old record skips the words.

“I’ll have to go,” Gertruida announces. “Still have a bit to drive. To Rolbos. It’s not that far, but…”

“Where are my days?” Annatjie switches off the record player, addressing the question with sudden clarity.

Gertruida gets up to hug the woman. The ribs under the dress feels brittle and cold.

“In there, Annatjie.” She runs a soft hand over the white hair. “With Hennie.”

For a moment it seems as if Annatjie would cry, but then she gets up to walk to the door.

“Will you come again?”

“Yes, Annatjie. I shall. I’ll bring Annie’s Song, if you like?”

***

Gertruida will tell you about war. After all, she had been involved in one, she should know. But, she warns, the list of casualties don’t stop when the peace accord is signed. She’ll tell you that is only the beginning. The real injuries only follow in the years afterwards.

“Fly Away” by John Denver

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