“He died, you know? Crashed in an aeroplane.”
It’s Gertruida’s third weekly visit to Annatjie; visits spent listening to John Denver, very little conversation, and drinking the iced tea Gertruida brings along. By now, their relationship has progressed to the point where Annatjie had given Gertruida the key to the padlock on the gate.
“Who did? Hennie?”
The ancient eyes of Annatjie cloud over for a second, as if she wants to blank out the words.
“No, Henry John Deutschendorf. He loved flying.”
Gertruida nods. Yes, John Denver’s tragic accident in October 1997 shook the world.
“A lot of them went in plane disasters. Ricky Nelson, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, Jim Croce, Jim Reeves. Funny, that. Up in the air one second, dead the next. Fame to ashes.”
By now, Gertruida is used to the rambling way Annatjie stumbles through her thoughts. Sometimes she just sits there, listening to her old records (mostly John Denver); but then she’d suddenly say something which at first seems completely random. However, the thread of death and dying runs through most of these apparently non-related sentences. The best way to field them, Gertruida decided, was to nod in agreement. Maybe, with enough encouragement, she can get Annatjie to talk…?
Gertruida told Boggel that she wasn’t sure where these visits were leading them, but that she felt strangely compelled to keep on visiting the lonely woman. Boggel agreed, saying that getting Annatjie to tell her story, might be the only way to unlock her mental prison.
“And there are Dag Hammarskjöld, rugby teams, soccer teams, even Hansie Cronje. People die in aeroplanes all the time.” A complacent smile as Annatjie makes an obvious attempt to rationalise Hennie’s death.
“Only recently, there’s been another Indonesian crash,” Gertruida says, hoping to egg her on.
Annatjie looks up in surprise. “Oh… Really? Didn’t know…”
This doesn’t surprise Gertruida, of course. Annatjie hasn’t got a radio or a TV in the house.
“You’ve been living a rather isolated life.” It is a question and a statement rolled into one.
Annatjie stares out of the window, seemingly lost in her own world. Then: “Yes, I have. Me and the letters. And the records, of course. I play them all the time. Love Denver…”
“Letters?” It’s the first time Annatjie has offered something of her personal life, and Gertruida is keen to follow it up.
“Of course. Hennie wrote such beautiful letters. I kept them…”
“Oh?” Taking a chance, Gertruida hesitates before asking: “You have them still? That’s wonderful. I’d really like to have a look at them.” She gets a startled look from the other woman, and rushes to add: “Only if it’s okay with you. I don’t want to intrude, but…”
“Well, a burden shared is a burden lessened, you know…?”
And so, by bits and pieces, Gertruida sets about breaking down the walls Annatjie has built up over the years. Why did Annatjie allow her to read her personal mail? Gertruida would wonder about that in the years to come, but most probably the years of solitude and grief had become too much for the frail old lady. Although only in her fifties, Annatjie had the demeanor and the mindset of a much older, exhausted and beaten woman – a woman simply unable to bear her isolation any longer.
My dearest Annie,
I hope you got the record I left at your father’s office? It’s Denver’s new one with such beautiful songs.
I’m writing this on the train to Pretoria – we’ve just passed through De Aar. My word! Soldiers everywhere! I’m quickly learning about ranks and things. Being in the army is such a drag. You’ve got to know who to salute and who not. It’s confusing. If you get it wrong, you get shouted at in the most foul language!
Anyway, I’ll post this at the first opportunity to do so. But I wanted to apologise for my dad’s behaviour. He can be such an ass! I mean, he knows we love each other. Why he insists on politicizing our relationship is beyond he. If your father’s ideas are different to his – why. that is no reason to punish us, is that?
I told him so in no uncertain terms. That didn’t go down well, I’m afraid. Now we’ll have to wait until my time in the Army is over. If he still persists in being a dumb fool, we’ll simply go it alone – you and I. We’ll get married in Upington. I spoke to your father and he said he’d arrange it with a judge or something.
So, here I go. Off to war. When it’s over, we’ll start our new life together. This, my dear, will keep me going, no matter what they throw at me.
“That’s so sweet.” Gertruida dabs an eye. “Soo…oh, we all were there at some or other stage, weren’t we? That flame of love can burn so high when you’re young…”
“Remember Helderberg? 1987. 157 people died in that crash.” Annatjie has slipped into her own world again – a world where dying in an aircraft disaster seems to be the norm. Gertruida nods and hands back the letter.
“Here’s the last one.” The withered hands hold up a sealed letter.
“You haven’t opened it yet?” Is it possible? Gertruida shakes her head. Surely not? Has she sealed it again?
“No.” Her voice is uncommonly stern as she replaces the letter in the box with the others.
“And the others?”
“Oh, I read them all. Every one. Know them by heart. But not that one…”
“Because he’s still alive in there. If I tear open the envelope, he’ll escape. Can’t do that.” Eyes suddenly clear, she glances at Gertruida. “Don’t you see? Those were his last words to me. Once I’ve read them, he’s gone. Forever. But now…now he still hasn’t told me what he said way back then. That keeps him alive, doesn’t it?”
Gertruida nods , grasping the convoluted logic behind her new friend’s sentiment. Keeping that envelope sealed is Annatjie’s way of keeping Hennie alive in her mind. He still has something to say – he can’t be dead then, can he?
“The rest of those letters must tell you a lot about his time in the army?”
Annatjie starts rocking to and fro on her chair, eyes closed. “The SAA Comet that crashed in 1958 killed 21. And there was the Boeing crash near WIndhoek in 1968, where 123 people died…” She’s gone to her safe place again. Here, she’s not alone in her loss…
Gertruida gets up. It’s time to go. She hugs the fragile woman, turns up the volume of the record player, and closes the door softly as she leaves. Next time…next time she’ll learn more..