Tag Archives: border war

Sparks Strydom and his Speeding Gun.

3fc23d2c4a81ab717c9d8f35e9804dba“Sparks Strydom got me stopped again today.” Verfaan sits down heavily, takes off the sweat-stained hat and wipes his brow. “I feel so sorry for him.”

Now, if you’re a regular traveler between Upington and Rolbos, you’ll know all about Sparks. He’s a sinewy man of about fifty, sporting a small moustache and a goatee beard. He’s not altogether unhandsome, but the high cheekbones and the sunken eyes combine to give him a cadaver-like appearance, which  seem to frighten children. The few who know his story, also know that he’s a kindhearted, gentle soul who’s only trying to make ends meet.

“Really? I thought that gun would never work.” Kleinpiet signals for a round of beers. It’s been another scorcher in the Kalahari. He knows all about Sparks. They served on the Border together. “He used to be quite clever, that man. But that was before…”

Yes, they all nod, Sparks could have had such a bright future. He had been the star student in Pofadder High, the only one who passed matric with distinctions. A bursary was offered to study engineering, but the Border War intervened and he was conscripted to the army. 

“I remember that day they brought him back to the hospital in Grootfontein. Man, was he a mess! It was a miracle that he survived.” Vetfaan, who also spent some time recovering in that hospital after an ambush, shrugs as he sips his beer. “The doctors said he’d never be the same again. They were right.”

“Ja, shame, the poor guy. And when the war was over, he tried to study. Lasted two weeks in the university before the professors realised he couldn’t keep up. Such a pity.” Kleinpiet recalls the day he met Sparks in  Upington. He had been shopping for a new transistor radio at Kalahari Electric, when the gaunt man behind the counter offered his help.

***

“Gosh, Sparks? Is it really you?”

The man allowed his eyes to drift upward from the glass-topped counter to travel over Kleinpiet’s paunch, his chest and finally to Kleinpiet’s face. A small frown furrowed his brow. “Ja, it’s me.”

“I’m Kleinpiet, remember? We played rugby against each other. In Prieska…before the war.”

“Oh.” The dull eyes attempted an apologetic smile. “I don’t remember things so well anymore.”

It was an embarrassing moment. Kleinpiet smoothed it over with smalltalk and then said he wanted to buy a radio. Sparks shuffled away to call the other salesman.

***

“He did get better,” Gertruida tries to sound optimistic. “At least, that’s what I heard. Some of his old ways returned – he actually started reading again.”

“Yes, that’s true. He read up on wars. Fascinated by conflict, Sparks was. Maybe he still is, for that matter. But the gun? I think it’s a stroke of genius.”

Gertruida nods. “Yes, when he stumbled upon the work of Barker and Midlock during WW II, he became obsessed with them. Imagine soldering tin cans together to create microwaves? Shew! But that was the start of the radar speed gun, which paved the way for laser speed guns. And our Sparks copied that – only he had at his disposal a whole heap of old, broken radios – an unlimited supply of transistors, and diodes and who-knows-what.”

“Yes, and now he’s the only independent speed analyst in the Northern Cape. He’s hard to miss, dressed up in his old army uniform like that. I could see him a mile away, standing next to the road with his contraption, so I speeded up a little.  Didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“That was kind of you, Kleinpiet. So what was your fine?”

“Well, he stepped onto the tar, held up a hand and I screeched to a halt. As usual, he didn’t say much; just held the contraption so I could see the reading. So I apologised and waited. He held out his hand and I gave him fifty bucks. Then he waved me on.”

“His usual routine, eh?”

“Yup.”

The group at the bar remains silent for a while. Yes, they do feel sorry for Sparks. And yes, they know how the scars of war sometimes never heal. Politicians so often blow on the embers that flare up emotions, cause conflict and result in harm and bloodshed. Gertruida once said it’s the result of an imbalance in the logic/ego ratio. Once the ego increases in a disproportionate ratio to logic, irrational circumstances are sure to follow. They all nodded wisely as she said this, just to show her they weren’t ignorant. Afterwards they tried to figure it out until Servaas told them about the rabies one of his dogs once contracted. It’s a fatal thing, he said, when the brain cannot cope with fear. That, they agreed, was what Gertruida tried to say.

“At least he’s making an honest living,” Boggel say  as he refills their glasses.

They laugh at that, because they know Boggel is just trying to lift the mood. Just like stopping when Sparks holds up a hand when you approach, one should at least smile when Boggel makes a remark like that.

***

Note: If any of the readers ever travel to Rolbos, please be on the lookout for Sparks. He’s the one with the Ricoffy tin next to the road. He’ll stop you and make you read the little ‘screen’ on the back, where ‘150 km/h is clearly scrawled in his shaky handwriting.

Don’t argue.

Give him something. 

That’s what friends are for…

2153916_130206164911_TD278-3When Vetfaan gets drunk, he sometimes becomes teary and exceptionally morose. The rest of the little crowd in Boggel’s Place know the signs: he’ll become silent, stare out of the window and then whisper: “Gunter Winkle…

This doesn’t happen often, mind you – maybe once a year or so – and for a long time they couldn’t get him to tell them who Gunter Winkle is or was. He’d only answer with a stony stare at the bottle of Schlichte on the shelf and then start humming to himself; a strange tune even Gertruida doesn’t recognise..

It all changed one evening. Vetfaan was staring at the Schlichte bottle again, humming the tune, when Gertruida said softly that she did some enquiries about Gunter Winkle. Vetfaan surprised them by stopping humming immediately as he directed his unsteady stare more or less in Gertruida’s direction.

“Wha…whadaya fin’ out?”

She shook her head. “Still listed as missing, if it’s the same person.”

Vetfaan nodded slowly. “Same person.”

“You have to tell us, Vetfaan, get it out of your system.”

And so, in bits and pieces, Vetfaan finally managed to open up. It eased the pain, even if only marginally.

***

Gunter was the only son of a farmer near Gobabis, in what we now call Namibia. At the time, South West Africa was governed by South Africa and many Suidwesters sent their sons and daughters to study in the Republic. Vetfaan met Gunter at Glen Agricultural College where they attended a course in wool classification. They developed a solid friendship during the month they spent there and kept contact (via letters back then) afterwards. Like it so often happens, the letters petered out and were replaced by a yearly Christmas card.

However, when they met again – it must have been a decade later – it seemed like no time had lapsed since their last goodbyes and they celebrated in raucous style. This was severely frowned upon, for then they were in uniform at the base in Ondangwa, fighting the insurgents from Angola. The brigadier called them in, threatened a court martial and gave them a stern warning. Any breach of discipline would be followed by the harshest possible steps. Their weekend passes were cancelled for two months. When the other troops were allowed to blow off steam in Ondangwa, the two of them would clean the officer’s offices.

Something happens to young men when they have to don a uniform and live under the constant threat of danger. When off duty, they tend to become, well, irresponsible, to say the least.  So while the other troops whooped it up in town, Vetfaan and Gunter were pushing mops and brooms in the offices of their superiors. That is, until they discovered the secret horde of Schlichte n the brigadier’s cupboard – on the first evening of their first weekend of office duty.

The result was a catastrophe. When the brigadier went to his desk on that Sunday, a routine neither of the two scolded men knew about, he found them happily singing the German ditty Gunter had taught Vetfaan during the night. They were dumped in the detention barracks without any further ado.

Monday arrived. The brigadier cooled down. A court martial involved not only other officers, but would come to the attention of headquarters in Pretoria. There might be questions about his ability to maintain discipline. He might be sent to an ‘easier’ post, away from the combat zone – which would mean – in effect – a demotion of sorts. No, he’d handle it on his own.

Kunene River. Angola on the other side.

Kunene River. Angola on the other side.

Vetfaan and Gunter (still severely hung-over) listened in subdued silence as the brigadier ranted and raved for a full half hour. Then he told them they’d be sent to a remote area on the border to keep watch on a section of the Kunene River suspected of being a point of infiltration. No weekend passes, no leave. Just the two of them and a radio. Supplies would be dropped by helicopter every two weeks.

Running an army is a huge job. The admin involves mountains of paperwork, orders and directives. And things go wrong…

The brigadier’s worst fears were realised when he was transferred a base near Kimberley – a lateral transfer which meant the end of his hopes of becoming a general. His successor arrived the day after his departure (to save himself the embarrassment of handing over the reins) and promptly started transforming the Ondangwa base into one of the most efficient in the defence force. Despite this, the two men next to the Kunene were forgotten. Maybe some documents were missing or mislaid, or maybe it was just one of those things that happened back then – it could even be that the original brigadier never set the issue down on paper – but the end result was two abandoned friends in the middle of nowhere.

“We had a wonderful time there,” Vetfaan told the group, slurring the words. “The radio was dead – no new batteries. The local Himbas were quite friendly and supplied us with goat’s milk and sometimes meat. We fished and cooked bird’s eggs. Gunter’s singing intrigued the Himbas and they often came to listen to his German songs – bringing more supplies when they did so.

“Of course we guessed what had happened – being forgotten and all that – but we had no means to get back to Ondangwa. Truth be told – we didn’t want to, either. Still, when the three-month period neared it’s end, we realised we’d have to walk back to civilisation. The Himbas provided us with enough information to do this. On the day before we were planning to start the journey, Gunter stepped on a landmine.”

Zuzu

Zuzu

Gunter was lucky. Although he sustained severe injures to his one leg and face, he survived – just. The Himbas carried him to their kraal, where they helped nurse him back to health. This is where Gunter met Zuzu, the beautiful Himba girl he fell in love with. His recovery was slow and painful, but after a month he was able to walk if aided.

That’s when he told Vetfaan to go back.

“I’m a disfigured man, Vetfaan. I can hardly walk and can see very little. Farming is out of the question. No, my future is here with Zuzu. I can help here. Start a school. Teach them things. Be useful… I owe them that, at least.”

***

“So you returned to your unit, told them Gunter was missing…and never breathed a word?” Gertruida’s incredulous tone interrupted Vetfaan’s story.

The interjection stopped Vetfaan’s recounting of what had happened so many years ago. He simply stared at her, sighed, and nodded. “I gave my word.”

“But what about his parents, his family?”

Vetfaan started humming softly to himself. Didn’t want  to tell them the rest. How he paid a clandestine visit to the Winkles on their farm and explained everything. How Gunter’s mother wept with joy and his father embraced him. And how, every six months or so, the Winkles liked to spend time up in the North of Namibia, holidaying next to the Kunene.

Or how he missed singing old German songs with one of the best friends he ever had.

No, he’d rather have another Schlichte. Anyway, he’d told them too much already.

Heute hier, morgen dort, bin kaum da, muß ich fort;
hab’ mich niemals deswegen beklagt.
Hab’ es selbst so gewählt, nie die Jahre gezählt,
nie nach gestern und morgen gefragt.

Manchmal träume ich schwer
und dann denk ich, es wär,
Zeit zu bleiben und nun
was ganz and’res zu tun.
So vergeht Jahr um Jahr
und es ist mir längst klar,
dass nichts bleibt, dass nichts bleibt, wie es war.

Dass man mich kaum vermißt, schon nach Tagen vergißt,
wenn ich längst wieder anderswo bin,
stört und kümmert mich nicht. Vielleicht bleibt mein Gesicht
doch dem einen oder and’ren im Sinn.

Manchmal träume ich schwer
und dann denk ich, es wär,
Zeit zu bleiben und nun
was ganz and’res zu tun.
So vergeht Jahr um Jahr
und es ist mir längst klar,
dass nichts bleibt, dass nichts bleibt, wie es war.

Fragt mich einer, warum ich so bin, bleib ich stumm,
denn die Antwort darauf fällt mir schwer.
denn was neu ist wird alt und was gestern noch galt,
stimmt schon heut’ oder morgen nicht mehr.

Manchmal träume ich schwer
und dann denk ich, es wär,
Zeit zu bleiben und nun
was ganz and’res zu tun.
So vergeht Jahr um Jahr
und es ist mir längst klar,
dass nichts bleibt, dass nichts bleibt, wie es war.

Trusting Liar (#3)

begin 2004 207Everybody knows about Vredethe town-dog that absconded from the police force. Couldn’t take the corruption anymore. After he exposed the commissioner, he had no choice: either he had to  create his own witness protection plan, or they’d dispatch him to doggy heaven.(1)  Vrede isn’t just any old dog or even the town’s mascot – he’s a survivor in the chaos of the New South Africa; a rare example of having enough courage of your conviction to bark loudly at the farce politics have turned out to be.

Gertruida said (only yesterday) that Vrede would have solved the entire FIFA fiasco by sniffing out the bribes everybody is talking about. The group at the bar laughed at that while the radio played ‘Jordan, we are going down…’  Boggel then slipped a piece of biltong to Vrede, who took his time gnawing through a sinewy bit. But that was before Liar arrived to start a brand new adventure that made them forget all about yet another scandal developing in the country.

Now, with the eastern sky tinged in red and orange, Vrede has his nose to the ground while he follows the scent. Yes, Liar had been here, and yes, he stepped here…and there…and there…

***

modThe Kalahari Desert is like no other. Large parts of the region are covered by sparse bushes and grass. The dunes occurring in such regions are stable and remain static for centuries. However, in some areas the arid ground can sustain no plants; so the dunes have nothing to hold them down when the wind starts howling over the mounds of sand. In some parts of the Namib, dunes move more than 2 metres per year. In the Kalahari, however, dune movement varies far too much to try to put a figure to it. Suffice to say that some dunes move more than others.

Fortunately  for Vrede’s quest to find Liar, the night’s wind has been gentle and the rocks still carried the strong scent of the feet of the fleeing man. Vrede adopts his professional attitude: no howling, yelping or barking: he is a silent tracker on the spoor of his quarry. The same cannot be said for the Rolbossers panting heavily behind Vrede. The speed of the dog is quite astounding, leaving the group grunting and sweating in their efforts to keep up.

Vetfaan puts two fingers to his lips to produce a piercing whistle.

“Stop, Vrede! For goodness’ sakes, dog, do you want to kill us all? Slow down! We can’t run like you do.!”

60nara1[1]Vrede skids to a halt and looks back at the struggling followers. That’s what you get from sitting around, drinking beer every day. He lets his tongue hang out in a doggy smile. If he could laugh, he would have. While he waits for them to catch up, he flops down in the shade of one of the bushes scattered between the dunes.

“That’s strange,” Gertruida says as she sits down next to Vrede. “A Nara bush! I thought they only occurred near Sossus Vlei in Namibia. That means there must be some water below the surface.”

“Huh?” Vetfaan gasps as he stands bent forward, his hands on his knees.

“Water, Vetfaan. And the fruits of the bush are very nutritious. This could at least partly explain how Liar survives in this part of the Kalahari.”

Vrede isn’t keen on resting. He gives the humans a minute or so before resuming his task. He does, however, proceed more slowly.

***

It is way past midday when Vrede stops again: this time looking up at the sky. A minute later, they hear the thump-thump-thump of rotor blades. A helicopter? Here?

“They’ve narrowed the search,” Vetfaan says grimly. “That Cessna must have spotted something and now they’re using a helicopter. We must hurry.” He closes his eyes to get rid of the memories of the search-and-rescue operations during the Border War when a patrol landed itself in trouble.

begin 2004 130“I…I think we should hide,” Kleinpiet doesn’t like it either. “Whatever Liar is up to, I don’t fancy being caught in the middle – or in the open. See those dead trees? Let’s go!”

A minute later a helicopter appears momentarily some distance away on their left, heading north. The group remains where they are, each of them leaning against the withered trunk of a stunted tree. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the helicopter returns, flying south – nearer this time.

“They’ve not found him. Maybe they’ve narrowed the search, but that helicopter is flying a search pattern. A grid. On the next leg, he’ll be to our right.”

“Would anybody mind telling me what we’re doing here?” Servaas wipes the crusted sweat from his brow. What seemed like a good idea yesterday, has turned out to be an exhausting trek through thick sand. He is not impressed.

The rest of the group remains silent, some nodding, others suppressing a smile. When Servaas gets kantankerous, laughter can be extremely dangerous.

Then…

Gertruida gasps as she bends down to pick up a pebble. A very shiny pebble, which she holds up for all to see.

“This,” she says, “this is what it’s all about.”

***

(1) Much more of Vrede’s history is told in Rolbos, the book.

South Africa’s FIFA song…

A Moment to Remember

415

“This tree,” Vetfaan says as he slides the photograph over the counter, “is special. It didn’t give up.”

Boggel studies the picture. He has seen it before – several times. When Vetfaan slips into one of his pensive moods, he sometimes produces the photo. It seems to give him strength to overcome his depression – a rare but not unknown occurrence

“It’s the one in Caprivi, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Grows there in the barren soil, amidst the rocks where everything else struggles to survive.”

“That’s where the ambush was.” Boggel doesn’t have to ask, he knows the story.

Vetfaan closes his eyes deliberately, as if he wants to kill the picture in his mind. He doesn’t succeed, of course. Not now.

Some moments in time get burned so deeply into the circuitry of the brain, they remain sharp and fresh for a lifetime. Nothing – not time nor age – will spontaneously fade those moments away to insignificant grey graphics; especially if the horror of those moments are nurtured by clinging to them. That’s the trick, of course: the ability to let go. It is necessary to replace the memory with the reality of the present. Unlike the yellowing photographs in an old album. these pictures retain colour, focus and even sound as long as they are allowed to torment by revisiting them. Even now, the crash of gunfire and exploding grenades reverberate in Vetfaan’s ears.

“Why did you take that picture, Vetfaan? Surely you need to forget those days,”

When Vetfaan opens his eyes, Boggel notices the incredible sadness in them.

“I went back, Boggel, many years later.” Boggel knows this, too, but like the good barman he is, he listens intently. “To see. To remember. To forget.” Vetfaan sighs heavily. “I wanted to see if the blood had washed away in the meantime. And you know? No matter how hard I tried not to see it, there was blood everywhere. Gunfire. Screams.

“So I took the photo. See that tree? The rocks didn’t stop it from growing. It gives me hope.”

Boggel slides another beer towards his friend. “It looks like the tree is lifting the rock up – breaking it in two.”

“It does, doesn’t it? And on the picture, there’s no sound, no blood. That only remains up here.” He taps his head with a calloused finger. “I so wish this picture can be there as well. Maybe if I looked at it long enough…?”

Boggel nods patiently. One day he’ll tell Vetfaan that memories can be like that rock. Slowly, gently, the mind will grow around the agony of the past, lifting it, breaking it. The blood and gore will wash away. And, in contrast to what the mind remembers, the real, true, picture will eventually break the chains anchoring Vetfaan to the yesterdays he so desperately needs to forget.

“It takes time, Vetfaan.”

“Yes, Boggel. I’ll get there. Just like that tree. One moment at a time.”

Fly Away (#7)

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

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.

“Um…Mister Blum?”

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…”

***

images (3)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.

The End

PS

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.

Fly Away (#6)

2134-Despite the remarkable progress of the day –  or maybe because of it – Gertruida can’t relax. Sure, they’ve managed to get Annatjie to peek out from behind her high walls of denial, but three things still had to happen. One: she had to be reunited with her father. Two: the letter…must she read it? And, worst of all, Number Three: what about the report she got back from Colonel Gericke? This last issue weighs heavily on Gertruida’s conscience – should it be made known at all?

Annatjie sips her tea while she asks Servaas to tell her again about Siena. This is the third time the old man has to relate his history and this time she reaches out to lay a hand on the old man’s shoulder when he gets to the part where the two of them had to say their final goodbyes.

“You were lucky,” she says when he falls silent.

“Lucky? Maybe. But it was hard work, too. We never allowed an issue to be unresolved. If something bothered either os uf, we talked our way out of it. Communication…that’s why our love grew over the years.”

“W-What must I do, Oom Servaas?”

Another step forward! Gertruida almost manages to hide a wry smile. Her soft, psychologically correct approach didn’t make the slightest dent in the armour of Annatjie’s depressed mind – while Servaas simply blundered his way through. Shows you, she thinks, books and professors only go so far – sometimes the wrong approach can be the right one.

“You’ll have to do what you can, Annatjie.” Servaas’s tone is surprisingly caring. “You had two major losses in your life: Hennie and your daddy. For a while you stayed with Mevrou Meintjies, thinking it’d fill a void. I’m sure you two women helped each other survive. Then she, too, died and left you here on this godforsaken piece of ground. Hennie is dead. Your father, however, is still alive. When last he visited here, you blamed him for Hennie’s death – that hurt him a lot. Maybe, if you could consider seeing him now, you can repair that damage, don’t you think? After all, he’s the only living relative and the only link you still have with Hennie…?”

The group watches, spellbound, as Annatjie slowly nods.

***

Gertruida can’t help worrying about Gericke’s report. She can almost recall – word for word – what the old man had said.

“This is a tricky one, Gertruida. That young man flew through his basic training. The reports on him paint a glowing picture of a natural leader, which is why he was promoted to lance corporal even before they finished the initial phase at Voortrekkerhoogte. He came from the Kalahari – as you know – and knew a lot about survival skills and tracking. As soon as they’d  finished basic training, he was sent to a base in the Caprivi Strip. 

“It seems as if he lost it up there. Initially he was the perfect soldier, but then they started having contact with the terrorists. Something must have happened, because he avoided the enemy at all costs after a while. I have one report here that describes how he made a massive detour to prevent his patrol from running into the other side. When asked about it afterwards, he said he was saving lives. His commanding officer was in the process of transferring him to Grootfontein when the…incident…happened. 

“Anyway, he left on an unscheduled flight, late in November 1975. Him, two others and a pilot. The plane headed across the border, apparently aiming straight at Luanda. An emergency meeting was held. A Mirage was scrambled to follow them. When it became clear that their destination was indeed to fly to Luanda, the Mirage pilot tried repeatedly to contact them on the radio. No response. He even tried to herd them back, flying close and cutting them off. Still no effect. So, acting on orders from HQ, the Mirage brought him down.”

“You mean….we shot down our own plane? With our own men on board?”

“Yes, Gertruida, that’s exactly what the report states. Officially, the loss of the plane was blamed on the Cubans, but that’s not what happened.”

Gertruida closes her eyes. Oh Lord, give me the wisdom to handle this one correctly…

***

Precilla and Gertruida help Annatjie clean up for the visit to her father. Once Annatjie agreed to the meeting, they jumped into action. There was no time to waste: nobody was sure what she’d be like the next day, so it was an easy decision to get her ready immediately. After a quick trip to Rolbos, Precilla returned with the necessities.

Now, with her hair neatly brushed back in a elegant bun, some makeup and the dress Precilla brought, Annatjie is almost unrecognisable. Gone is the forlorn and sad look. Even the lines on her face seem less. When she emerged from her bedroom, flanked by the two other women, Kleinpiet let  a soft wolf-wistle – earning him a look of mock jealousy from Precilla.

“Shall we go, my dear?” Servaas offers her an inviting elbow.

Annatjie stops dead in her tracks. Staring at the excited faces of the Rolbossers, she suddenly hesitates, uncertainty once again clouding her mind.

“I can’t…” With the skin on her chin wrinkling up with emotion, she shakes her head. “I can’t do this… Not alone. Not without…”

She turns, rushes back to the bedroom. Returns with the box of letters.

“Hennie will help me,” she says softly. “He’d want me to be brave…like he was…”

***

The trip to the retirement village takes an eternity. Annatjie seems to have disappeared behind her walls again, stoically staring out of the window with a withdrawn and distant expression.

Boggel tried to get her to talk about the farm, got no reaction, and gave up. Precilla, on the other hand, is tremendously pleased with the result of their efforts. Annatjie must have been a real beauty when she was younger. It’s amazing what a little care and cosmetics can do. She wonders if – when this is all over – it is possible that Annatjie will be able to escape the attentions of the few widowers in the district. The thought makes her smile.

But it is in Gertruida’s mind that anxiety reaches a boiling point. How will Mister Blum handle the situation? The time spent with Annatjie went by in such a rush, there was no time to contact the old man to warn him of his daughter’s visit. And – oh Lord! – what about the report? And the letter?

Gertruida – the woman who knows everything – closes her eyes in a silent prayer. She simply does not have the answers to all the questions.

(To be continued…)

Fly Away (#4)

The road between Kenhardt and Keimoes

The road between Kenhardt and Keimoes

“Thank you for seeing me, Mister Blum.” His handshake is firm, despite the Parkinsons. Deep into his eighties, the old man still has the clear mind of a lawyer as he gazes at Gertruida with obvious curiosity.

“That’s okay…eh…Gertruida, is it? I have lots of time. Hate bridge and the Bingo is terrible. Can’t play my music too loudly. I’ve got a good mind to take them up on that at the next meeting.” He smiles apologetically. “That’s not why you’re here, is it? Now tell me what I can do for you.”

This retirement village, Gertruida decides, is a surprise.  She didn’t expect to see such a development in Keimoes, about 40 km from Upington. Although she likes the town with it’s mountain and the surrounding Kalahari, she expected the retirement village to be a rather austere place. The little houses and green gardens proved her wrong.

Mister Blum gestures to the fold-up chair next to the bench under the tree and waits for her to sit down first. Gertruida smiles: a real old-school gentleman!!

“It’s about your daughter, Annatjie…”

“Oh. Yes. Well.” Clearly gathering his thoughts, the old man resettles his kippah on the bald spot. “My daughter…”

“She needs help, Mister Blum. I’ve been seeing her for the last few weeks, and she seems so lost…”

“Okay. Let’s get down to brass tacks, Gertruida. My daughter is…disturbed. In the worst way. You see, she fell in love with a young man, many years ago…”

“I know, Mister Blum. We talked a lot: about your past as well. She’s also told me all about Hendrik Meintjies.”

Mister Blum hides his surprise well, but Gertruida sees the momentary widening of his eyes. “Oh. Then you know about his father?”

“Only that he opposed the relationship between the two young people. And he died shortly after his son’s funeral.”

“Yes. That was part of it. Stubborn Afrikaner, he was. Very. Came to see me after they buried Hendrik. I was surprised, to say the least. Asked me to draw up a will, making Annatjie the sole heir to their farm. That knocked me out, I can tell you. Thought he’d change his mind. Anyway, so I had it typed and signed, just like he demanded, while he waited there. Paid with cash and left. The next thing I hear, is that he rolled the car and died.”

A pretty young nurse approached them in the meantime, carrying a tray with a glass of water and some pills. Tight uniform, brilliant smile. Nametag reads ‘Lucy Kruiper’.

“Time for your tablets, Oom Blum.” She smiles fondly at her favourite patient. He sighs theatrically, pats her bottom and takes the medicine.

“Hate the stuff.” Washing the pills down with a mouthful of water, he coughs. “But Lucy is nice, don’t you think? I’ll wait for her to grow up and then ask her for a date. Good idea, no?”

They share polite laughter, but Gertruida sees the way the old man’s eyes follow the shapely figure as she walks away.  The body might wither away, but on the mind’s stage, the dancer will still do pirouettes, she thinks.

“About Annatjie?” She has to smile at the way he snaps back to reality.

“Yes. Annatjie. Well, when the news of Hendrik’s…accident…came, she lost it. Like in completely. Oh, I know they talked about marriage and all that, but they were so young? And she being a Jewess, him being in the NG Kerk; his father the Broederbonder…it all added up to a stack of problems. Me? I didn’t mind. I knew what it was like to be deprived of love and shunted from bow to stern. If she could be happy with this boy – well, I wouldn’t stop it. That’s how I felt. But…I thought the year of army would do them both the world of good. Give them time to think, you know?

“So I promised my blessing on his return. Only…I never even gave the idea that he might die, a second thought. It happened to other kids, you understand. Had I known…” He allows the sentence to hang.

“Then the news came. Hendrik was killed. Annatjie withdrew into herself completely. Wouldn’t eat or drink. I had her hospitalised after five days – she was so weak. They fed her with a tube – under sedation. And when she was strong enough, she told me she couldn’t go on. She cried such a lot…

“Eventually I told her about the farm and that Oom Meintjies is dead. She laughed at that. An ugly, witch’s laugh. Said Oom Meintjies could rot in hell. What about the farm, I asked? She didn’t answer. Not then. And then Mevrou Meintjies visited her in hospital and that was that. She left the next day and stayed on the farm ever since. I visited her in the beginning, but she became more and more aggressive. She blamed God, the Communists, the terrorists, the country. Told me I had old-fashioned ideas about humanity and that I had been wrong to support the struggle against Apartheid. Said I had helped kill Hendrik. She said a lot of things that hurt me a lot. And then she told me to never come back. Never. And I didn’t.”

Mister Blum’s eyes moistened over while he spoke. Gertruida realises how painful the episode must have been and how difficult it must be to talk about it. She tells the old man so.

“Ag, I’m just an old man with a head full of memories and a body that’s slowly dying.  There are regrets. Always the regrets. But, oy vey, what is an old man to do?” He brightens a bit. “I’m writing a book, you know? About my life and times. Doing a lot of research. Love the Internet – it’s such a valuable aid.”

“You’re doing exactly what Annatjie’s doing.” Gertruida keeps her voice kind.

“What? She writing a book, too?’

“No Mister Blum. You’re simply managing your life in denial. She’s hiding on a farm. You’re hiding between pages. Same thing.”

The old lawyer closes his eyes. A trembling hand comes to rest on his chest. “Go away, Gertruida. You’re trying to do good, I understand that. But you can’t possibly understand the magnitude of this thing. First my first parents. Then my second parents. Then the third set of parents. Then Miriam, my wife. Then Anna. My life spanned two wars. It is difficult to say which caused the most damage. Go home, Gertruida. Let me die in peace…”

(To be continued…)

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

To eternity…and back (#3)

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria

Sterland Cinema Complex, Pretoria, 1970

By now, the Rolbossers had drawn up a roster so that Servaas would have at least one visitor every day.  If one believed in coincidences, then it was by pure chance that it was Gertruida’s turn to drive all the way from Roilbos to Upington on the very same day Servaas had told matron Krotz about his dream and Shorty de Lange. Matron had, after her little outburst, locked herself in her office. It simply won’t be fitting for the nurses to see that she’d been crying. Matrons don’t do emotion – it’s unprofessional. And she, Matron Krotz, won’t allow anybody – anybody – to express any form of sympathy simply because she was upset. No sir, not at all…

Gurtruida brought along the obligatory little bag of biltong and the bottle of Coke (which had been cleverly doctored with a medicinal tot of peach brandy beforehand) and greeted nurse Botha with a slab of chocolates.

“How’s old grumpy today, nurse?”

Nurse Botha laughed softly. “He’s about ready to be discharged. Quite remarkable, really. Ever since matron took a ...special…interest in him, he’s made exceptional progress.” Then, in a conspiratorial whisper: “I think they’ve got a thing going, you know what I mean?” She winked and put a theatrical hand to her chin while rolling her eyes. “Just goes to show – the sky lights up with the brightest colours at sunset.”

This remark made Gertruida stare at the young nurse. Such wisdom…

Servaas greeted her with less than his usual enthusiasm, When Gertruida remarked on this, he gave her an abbreviated account of his chat with matron that afternoon.

“Gee, Servaas, you’ve had quite a time in the hospital. First you have this near-death thing where you get reminded of compassion and kindness. Then this austere woman, our beloved matron, suddenly mellows to become your best friend. Strange, that, don’t you think?” Gertruida noted – with some satisfaction – the blush creeping up the old man’s neck. “Anyway, then you dream about Shorty de Lange, somebody you last saw forty or fifty years ago, and it turns out that he’s the bastard who dumped matron for some other woman many years ago.

“Now, the way I see it, is that we have three persons involved here: you, matron Krotz and this Shorty guy. Without Shorty, I would have thought you and matron might hook up, but once you add this guy, you have to wonder why. And remember: he’s the guy sinking in the sand and you’ve been climbing that dune to rescue him. Now that makes you think, doesn’t it?”

It sure did. It made Servaas open a door in his mind – a door he steadfastly had refused to open for four decades…

***

Mana Pools

Mana Pools

It was just after they had returned from Rhodesia (called Zimbabwe these days). where their unit assisted the Rhodesian armed forces to guard the border with Zambia, near Mana Pools.  It had been a harrowing task: in fact, it was difficult to pin down the greatest danger: the wildlife (lion, crocodile, hippo, leopard, snakes etc), the insects (malaria-bearing mosquitoes and tsetse flies) or the insurgent freedom fighters that were called terrorists back then.

Nevertheless, when the two of them stepped from the train in Pretoria, they had one thing in mind: having the best time possible. Not knowing where the hot spots of social life was to be found, they headed for the ultramodern movie theatre called Sterland, where Love Story was showing. After months in the bush, they admitted – rather shyly, to be honest – that a romantic movie would be ‘nice’. The ulterior motive  – in Shorty’s case – was that it seemed logical that the audience would include a number of young ladies, which turned out to be true.

Servaas wasn’t all that interested. He had met Siena already but she was far away in the Northern Cape. Oh, of course he’d like to chat to a few girls after the stint in the bush with only male companions, but that was as far as he’d go. Shorty, however, had no such qualms. Even though he was engaged, he was determined to blow off some steam (amongst other things).

People who have never seen armed conflict often assume that soldiers spend their days cleaning rifles and discussing tactics. This is, of course, not true. Soldiers (especially the male sort) pass the time by discussing women, often in the most graphic terms. It was natural, then, for Servaas to know everything about Shorty’s fiancee, a nurse somewhere in the Cape Province. Shorty often bragged about the buxom young lady, boasting about his conquest. In contrast, Servaas kept mostly to himself while writing long and passionate letters to his dear Siena.

downloadOne can understand that Servaas sat in the darkened theatre, watching Ali MacGraw die, with an intense longing to be home. He dabbed his eyes, sniffed, and had to close his eyes to suppress a few sobs. Shorty didn’t even watch the movie. By sheer coincidence he occupied the seat next to a stunning blonde student, a lovely young thing with a charming smile to match the voluptuous figure,  who had just completed her final exams for the year.

After the movie, Servaas blew his nose and suggested they return to the barracks. Shorty would have none of it. He was going to party with this girl until the sun came up the next day, and he didn’t need a wet rag like Servaas to spoil his fun. They had a heated, albeit whispered, discussion about morals and needs, and parted on less than friendly terms.

Shorty returned to his bunk the next day, flushed with his success. The young lady, he informed everybody within earshot, was the best lay he’d ever had. He proceeded to – in lurid terms – describe every bit of her anatomy and what he had done with it. Maybe he was still a bit drunk, but the extent of his revelations far surpassed what Servaas considered to be in the worst possible taste of all. True to his nature, Servaas endured the pompous monologue for a short while before requesting – politely – Shorty to shut up.

The other thing about a military environment is testosterone. Soldiers have way too much of the stuff. Add alcohol and a touch of adrenaline, and you produce an unpredictable explosive concoction. During combat, this often produces heroes who seem to ignore danger to rescue a fallen comrade…but inside the confines of a bungalow filled with young men trained to fight? Well, that’s what they do, occasionally.: fight. A fist here, a slap there isn’t unusual when the provocation is sufficient. But that’s not what happened when Shorty snorted, lowered his head and stormed down on Servaas, who had been writing yet another letter to Siena.

The fight became the stuff of legends. At first it was Shorty who threw a few punches while Servaas tried to evade the onslaught. Then something happened in Servaas’s mind. A black veil seemed to lower itself over his consciousness. Pent-up exasperated frustration and aggression boiled over and suddenly Servaas wasn’t Servaas any longer.

Why did this happen? Even after all the intervening years, Servaas was unable to explain what happened. Maybe it was the latent but smouldering fear, uncertainty and trauma of the petrols along the border. Or possibly the even-tempered and mild young man simply reached a point where he simply couldn’t control the demons inside his mind – after living in the bush for too long, being shot at too many times, having killed too much. Whatever the explanation, he became a cold-blooded monster, ignoring Shorty’s efforts while he  waded into his former friend, delivering blows with devastating accuracy.

How long did the fight last? It depends on which version of the legend you believe, At the end, however, they had to cart Shorty off to hospital, where his broken jaw was wired. The damage to the barracks was considerable. Servaas got court martialed, and spent a week in the detention barracks. Afterwards, he was transferred to another unit.

He never saw Shorty again.

***

“Wha…what are you saying, Gertruida?”  Servaas suddenly looked so old, so frail, so tired…

“You heard me, Servaas. You’ll have to find Shorty to know what the dream was about…”

(To be continued…)

The Wings of War

Credit: Pinterest

Credit: Pinterest

Precilla received this email. How – in heaven’s name – did Manuel manage to find the address? Precilla, after all, only runs a little pharmacy in Rolbos – an extremely small enterprise which supplies Oudoom’s blood pressure medication and the pills Servaas needs when his gout acts up. This necessitates prolonged and frustrating communications with the medical aid companies, which is why Precilla had to get connected to the Internet.

Be that as it may, the letter remains proof of how small our world has become. It also serves to remind us how important it is to tell our stories with honesty and kindness.

(To understand these letters, please refer to the previous post.)

***

Dear Sir

I no write good English, sorry. I ask my son to help. He in school and has a smartphone. He reads many stories in WordPress – he say it makes his English better. 

I much sepru seprised when he read about Manuel in story. Manuel story is my story. I tell more, yes?

Nossa! When soldiers catch me, I very much afraid. Beeg trouble. But I good soldier, I tell nothing. Many days they ask me cue kwes question, I say nothing. No eat. No drink. Much pain. Then orderly come, he take me away. He hide me. Give naif knife. He say I must go back to farm.

Manuel, he walked back to Angola. Many days he walk. I get much tired a lot. I no know how long. Later, I get to my farm.

You see, I only poor farmer. One day, man with unyphorm uniphorm he come. Say all mans in the distric must go army. I say no, my place need my hands. The man hit me, hit my wife. Then I go. That is how I became soldier. Now, when I get back to farm, I say: no more soldier. 

My wife, she’s very good. Bonito, I say. She go soldier. Say I die in bush and she berry bury me. No mare Manuel, she say. They hit her again. Why? I don’t know.

Many months I hide, help on farm. Then one day the war is finished. No more soldiers. I go home to live with wife. 

Why I write this? Beeg kwes question, no? 

I say obrigado.Thank you. For war, for soldier, for man who made me escai escape. Why? Manuel learn many things in war. He see how war make enemys. Many enemys. Before war, no enemys. During war, many enemys. After war, no enemys. Manuel wonder about this, then decide: enemy only made by war. War made by hombres in Luanda and other places far away. War not made by Manuel’s farm or village. So, Manuel thinks, better to stay on farm. Manuel work hard. Make farm nice. Send son to school. (He write this)

Now, that orderly, he save my life. My enemy, he make me think we are all same. People all same. Have family, maybe a son, like me. Want to love wife and work hard – no? That hombre make beeg risk to help Manuel, but Manuel no forget. Every night Manuel, he pray for man who give Manuel life. And say thank you, Jesus.

So. Manuel say goodbye.

Manuel.

Precilla read the email with tears in her eyes,  How happy Kleinpiet would be when she tells him about the letter! She was about to print it out, when the ping of the computer announced the arrival of more mail.

Hi there.

I’m Manuel’s son, a teacher at our local school. I have sent my father’s letter as he wrote it, simply because I couldn’t have said it better. I think his rough draft conveys his appreciation far better than a formal letter of thanks. 

I have to tell you that he often tells us about the way he escaped. It has become a family and a village legend. I also use the story in class when I want to make my pupils aware of the horror of war – and how a single act of kindness can influence not only an individual, but his family and local community as well. 

Because the story appeared in Rolbos (I use many of these stories in class as well), I assume the author might know the orderly involved in my father’s escape. I’d appreciate you telling him that my father is well and that he speaks highly of him. Maybe he could use my father’s story to tell people how important it is to know that we are all human. Fighting will never solve problems. Uniforms, my father says, change people. That uniform might be a suit or involve tunics and brass – but once a person wears it, he loses his identity. He stops thinking as an individual and becomes a part of a machine with no conscience. This is true for politicians, soldiers and some businessmen. 

My father says we must remain human  – and humane. He taught me to live kindly. That’s why I became a teacher. My school isn’t grand, but we have about 500 pupils. Every year about 50 of my pupils finish school and go into the world to apply what I’ve tried to teach them. They might still find mathematics difficult, but they’ll never forget the story of Manuel and the way a single enemy soldier gave him wings to change our lives.

Kind regards

Manuel Cobado (Jnr)

***

Author’s Note:

If ever you come to Rolbos, ask Kleinpiet about these letters and what they have meant to him. Also ask him to show you these emails. He won’t have it with him, of course, but he’ll gladly go home to fetch it. He keeps it – neatly folded up – in his Bible, next to the sentence he highlighted in Matthew 5:9.