When the cars stop at the retirement village, Mister Blum is reading under the shady tree in the park. As a conservative follower of his faith, he has always been intrigued of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the father of the Chassidic movement. Living in the 1700’s, the Rabbi taught his followers to forgo their own needs for the sake of others. Blum runs an arthritic hand over his flowing white beard – yes, that is very noble. But what would business and economy be when nobody works for a profit? On the other hand, it is quite true that he, Abe Blum, used to do a lot of pro bono work. Maybe the Rabbi was right when he said that we should dance to the melody issuing forth from every living thing in creation? He’s still contemplating this wisdom when he becomes aware of Gertruida standing next to him.
He looks up in surprise, his frown changing to a welcoming grin when he recognises the lady who’d visited him recently.
“Oh…Miss Gertruida? How nice of you to come and say hello…”
“Actually, this visit is not about me, Mister Blum. It’s your daughter, Annatjie, who wants to see you.”
The smile disappears. Deep furrows develop between his brows. His lips form a straight, thin line.
“Annatjie? Here? To see me?….Why?”
Gertruida has peeked over his shoulder at the piece he’s been reading. “Don’t be deaf, Mister Blum. You can hear the melody, now it’s time to dance…”
If Mister Blum is apprehensive, it is true to say Annatjie is absolutely petrified. Literally. She stands as a frozen statue while her eyes follow Gertruida to the old man on the bench. Is this…Papa? This old man? The picture in her mind has always been of this strong, invincible man…and now he’s turned into a diminutive, shrivelled octogenarian? Is it possible? Clutching the box of letters to her chest, she feels a wave of…what?…sympathy? empathy?…wash over the beach of of her isolation. As if by magic, the years roll back as memories – so long denied – bubble to the surface once more.
Yes! It is Papa! How could she forget those eyes, the way his kippah always seems so skew on his big head? Time disappears and suddenly she is a young girl again. A young girl, wanting to be comforted by her daddy. Her feet take over. Her arms, too. The next thing the Rolbossers see, is how she forms a small bundle on the surprised old man’s lap. His arms, too, move without waiting for the command from above. They wrap themselves around the shaking shoulders of his little girl…
“He’s dead, Papa,” she sobs. “He died….”
Nurse Lucy Kruiper brings out a tray with a large teapot and homemade cookies.
“Nap time, Mister Blum. But if you promise to be good, you can stay out just a little bit longer.” She bends over to resettle the kippah properly on his head, then whispers: “If I didn’t know it’s your daughter, I’d have been jealous!”
Mister Blum reaches out to pat the pretty nurse’s trim bottom. She responds with mock surprise, (she expected him to do it, like he always does) placing a theatrical hand over the perfect ‘O’ her lips make. Jutting a seemingly indignant nose in the air, she marches off to the buildings to the gentle laughter of the rest.
Father and daughter find it hard to talk at first. The years apart have created a gulf of unfamiliarity between them, making it difficult to pick up the broken lines. Yet, with gentle prodding from Gertruida and the rest, the two manage to fill in some of the gaps of the intervening years. By the time a stern-faced Lucy comes to tell them – for the fourth time – that it really, really is time for Mister Blum to turn in, they say reluctant goodbyes and leave with the promise to return soon.
At the gate, Lucy tells Gertruida that it may be possible for Annatjie to find accommodation there. “We’re adding a new wing to the single’s quarters, Miss Gertruida. Maybe…”
Gertruida says not all stories have happy endings. That’s as true in life as it is in fiction. One of the little cogs that turn the Wheel of Life can get broken – or just lose one it’s tiny teeth or simply wear out a fragile miniture axle. It takes a miracle – she maintains – to go through life with the wheels and gears spinning precisely right to produce an eternal happy smile. It simply doesn’t happen. The wrinkles of older people, according to her, are produced by these very little wheels spinning at the wrong speed – or not at all.
But sometimes – miraculously so – the cog gets nudged on a notch and suddenly the engine of Life starts running smoothly again. This, in a nutshell, happened to Annatjie the moment she threw herself into her Papa’s lap. That, Gertruida will tell you, is the power of Love. Nothing on earth is as powerful a cog-nudger as the affection of a loved one. Like Paul said: it overcomes everything.
Back in Rolbos – Precilla insisted that Annatjie stayed with them until her room is ready at the retirement village – Gertruida watches the trembling hands of Annatjie turning the sealed envelope over and over.
“Are you going to open it?” She has to know…
Annatjie blinks away a tear.
“No, Gertruida. After all these years I don’t need to read what he wrote. He’ll tell me he loves me and that he’s fighting bravely to defend our country. He’ll say something about the heat and the hardships, but not enough to make me worry. And he’ll tell me he can’t wait to come home.” Ever so carefully, she slips the envelope back into the box. “It’s not about the letter, Gertruida. It’s about what I remember. That’s what I want to keep alive.”
She’s still so frail, so vulnerable, Gertruida thinks. Poor woman.
“I have to let go, I suppose. Let bygones be bygones. Move on. Live a little again.” Annatjie almost succeeds to smile. “After all, Hennie gave his life so I may have mine. I owe him that.”
Gertruida swallows away the lump in her throat. If Annatjie wants to move on (as she put it), then she must find closure on who and what Hendrik was. She sighs. She hates lying…
“You know, Annatjie, I made enquiries about Hendrik Meintjies. Oh, such glowing reports! Such praise! He was a true patriot and such a brave soldier. You can really be proud of him…”
And so, while the sun sets in a blaze of orange, purple and red, the group in the bar falls silent. Hendrik Meintjies may have done the wrong thing for the right reason. Gertruida did too, when she lied to Annatjie. But as in war, so in love: there are nor rules. Tonight, when sleep slips into the homes of the tiny settlement of Rolbos, Gertruida will pray about her sin. And then, perhaps in her last wakeful moment or maybe in a dream, she’ll see a vision of a young soldier. Standing to rigid attention and dressed in his step-out uniform, he’ll salute her smartly before marching off.
Why did Hendrik Meintjies defect? Or more precisely: did he?
The question gnawed at Getruida’s mind for a full three months before Colonel Gericke’s letter arrived in Rolbos. A part is reproduced here as he wrote it, but some names have been omitted for obvious reasons.
I have made further enquiries. You know how the intelligence world works! Remember Luis Gattorno? My opposite number in those years? Well, we’ve become sort-of pen palls after 1994 (easier these days with e-mails and such) and have taken to swap experiences. He’s actually writing a book on the Cuban involvement in Angola. He supplied a surprising piece of the jigsaw…
Lance corporal Meintjies – much against his wishes – was assigned to the high-security section where they kept the caught terrorists prisoner. Apparently a captain – his name is known to me – was rather creative in his methods to make these prisoners reveal certain facts. Without going into detail, I can tell you that – according to several classified reports – our troops were forced to participate in these interrogations. Hence, as you can imagine, the level of post-traumatic stress observed in troops from this particular base.
One can only imagine why Meintjies did what he did. In retrospect, he may well have done the honourable thing. According to Gattorno, the Cubans found a manuscript amongst the wreckage. Although they never shared the exact contents with us (naturally!) it apparently contained a detailed plan for an armistice, pleading for a political solution to the conflict.
And then, Gertruida, I got the shock of my life. The passengers in the plane were not members of his patrol or anything like that. Meintjies, it seems, was part of a secret delegation dispatched by moderate ministers in parliament. That’s why the flight was ‘unscheduled’. Well, the infighting between the politicians and the generals – which so characterised the Border War – resulted in them spying on each other. Thee one hand never quite knew what the other was doing.
On board that plane was a senior diplomat and a junior minister. Gattorno thinks Meintjies was selected to go along because he was trustworthy and known for his aversion towards the war. They needed somebody with navigation and survival skills on the trip and he fitted the bill precisely. It is probable that the presence of a soldier in the delegation would have strengthened the case they wanted to present in Luanda, as well. Or maybe he was just the wrong person in the wrong place at the time – you know how the army worked! I guess we’ll never know..
Gattorno confirmed the shooting down of the Cessna by a Mirage. He maintains that it wasn’t done because they ‘defected’, but because the generals wouldn’t allow the politicians to reach Luanda. Or that the commanding officer on the day had no knowledge of the plan. Once again, we can only speculate.
It would take another twelve years before sanity finally prevailed and the ‘rogue’ delegation had talks with the ANC in Dakar. But that story you know well, having been there yourself.
The fact that the ‘accident’ was never made public, the colonel writes, was due to the paranoia of the time. Telling the world that South Africa was seeking peace and that there was dissent in the government, was unthinkable. It was better, they decided, to bury the incident..
They almost managed to do so…
Old Mister Blum would have been encouraged if he knew this history. Hendrik Meintjies, staunch Afrikaner, may very well have been the best example of a chassidic personality he’d ever met.
And Annatjie? Oh, she’s okay, I suppose. She’s the Bingo champion at the retirement village. On her good days, she wanders through the garden without her precious box of letters.