Tag Archives: drugs

Gertruida’s Unwedding. (#5 )

image074Bertus Cronje, former intelligence officer and now advisor to the commissioner of police, is a man who has seen it all. Blood, gore and mutilated bodies have long ceased to upset him. He simply refuses to allow emotion in his work, simply because it makes it so much easier. But here, now, faced with the sad-and-dismayed expressions on the group’s faces, he finds himself amazed to share some of their feelings.

“Yes, well…” he swallows hard, “I know how upsetting all this might be. Hardus Kromhout is a psychopath with absolutely no sympathy for his fellow man.” The sentence strikes him as odd. Has he not become something like that?  Has his lifelong fight with crime and his involvement with subterfuge scraped through the thin veneer of the pretence all people use to create an acceptable society? Is the factor missing in the world of today, not exactly that: a responsibility to feel other’s discomfort? He shakes his head. No, these thoughts must be explored later…if at all. “Anyway, what I’m trying to say, is that you cannot imagine the way such people live. They care for nothing. Their only object is to control others, and all too often that implies money and power. Kromhout had power over these children. He got money for them – lots of it. Result: one happy psychopath…if he were able to experience happiness, that is…”

“But you have him in custody, don’t you?” Gertruida has to know.

“Unfortunately – or not – the answer is no. Let me explain…”

Bertus tells them that he put out an alert for anybody travelling with Gertruida’s or Herman’s passport. By sheer luck he struck gold almost immediately, when a woman with Gertruida’s details passed through customs at O.R. Tambo Airport near Johannesburg.

“It happens like that sometimes. You can work a case for years and years and get nowhere. And then – very rarely – a case simply bursts wide open without any effort at all. The luck of the draw, I suppose. I gave instructions to detain her and I immediately went there. She was travelling under your name, Gertruida, and so I alerted the airport to be on the lookout for the man using  Herman’s details – but he apparently passed through customs ahead of her and  was nowhere to be found.

“Well, I sat down with Myrtle and had a...little chat...with her.” Gertruida has to smile at the choice of words. She knows exactly how Bertus would have approached the woman. Subtle tactics can be so much more effective than torture. A short lecture on the lack of security in the country’s prisons, the threat of having to share a cell filled with criminals, the prevalence of AIDS…one doesn’t have to spell out  anything – imagination is the most powerful tool in any experienced interrogator’s hands.”Eventually she agreed to cooperate, in return for which I promised her a lighter sentence and a single cell. I calmed her down and had her phone Kromhout, saying that there’s been a problem. She couldn’t meet him at the long-term parking lot where they were supposed to reunite, as the airport had received a bomb threat. She told him she was in the toilets when the police sealed off the area, but that they weren’t too worried. It was most probably a hoax, she told him. Be that as it may, she’s just waiting for the police to give the all clear, then she’d be out of there. Maybe, she suggested, Kromhout should rather clear out. The place was crawling with police – very subtle, most in plain clothes, very careful not to cause panic – and she didn’t want to draw attention to either of them. Go on, she said, I’ll catch up in Kimberley.”

“So they stayed here all the time? In Kimberley, where they started all of this?”

“Yes, Servaas, and with good reason, too. You see, they were in cahoots with the gentleman Kromhout originally approached when the idea of child trafficking was hatched. Not only is he a prominent businessman in town, but he is part of an international cartel involved in the smuggling of children. The market is huge, especially in the East. These children are sorted over there: either they are sold to childless couples, or they are brought up to be addicted sex slaves. On average, the Kromhouts netted $100,000 per child they delivered, of which 25% went to our local kingpin.

“So, Kimberley was their head office, with the two of them appointed as ‘managers’ on the extensive ranch this kingpin has in the district. All above board, nothing illegal.”

“Phew! So you got them both?”

“Not yet. We’re tailing Kromhout as we speak. He’s in town all right, but we want to nab the both of them when they meet. A few minutes ago I had Myrtle phone him again. She told him she has a little girl with her – picked up in Johannesburg – and they must plan the next trip. So we expect Kromhout to go out to the ranch, meet up with his contact and wait for Myrtle. Then, my friends, we would have them all.”

An uncomfortable silence settles in the room. Then:

“Bertus, I appreciate all that you’ve done. But why bring us here? You could have smoothed the situation over, talked about it on the phone, whatever. Why are we here?”

“Gertruida, you know how this works. I have to swear you to silence. You see, the kingpin we know of, is not the head of the snake. That person is in parliament – a very, very influential figure. The political fall-out of such a revalation is unthinkable and the government simply cannot afford yet another scandal. You may not – under any circumstances – ever breathe a word about this”. He pauses, weighing up his next statement carefully. ” In a few day’s time the country will mourn the loss – in a tragic accident – of a stalwart of our democracy. We have to keep this under wraps, people. Not a word. Accidents are easy to arrange.”

The group facing Bertus listens to the message hidden on those words. Yes, they understand. No, they don’t want to be involved in any ‘accidents’. They Herman holds up a hand.

“B-b-but…”

“Yes, I know, Herman. You’re still ‘married’ to Gertruida. I have the most extraordinary proposal for the two of you…”

The glint in his eyes should have warned them. Nothing Bertus does is ever straightforward…or completely above board…

(To be continued…)

“I bet there’s rich folks eatin’,
In a fancy dining car,
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee,
And smokin’ big cigars,
But I know I had it comin’,
I know I can’t be free,”

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Everybody has a You (#14)

Credit: nationalgeographic.com

Credit: nationalgeographic.com

Mary Mitchell swallows hard before being able to continue her story. To bare her soul before the group in the bar is the hardest thing she’s ever done…and yet it seems the most natural thing to do. Here, in Rolbos, honesty lives at a lower level of society – in fact, it is the foundation these people build on. Unlike life in the cities where she has lived – where you create an image, a mirage, of the you, you want people to see – the Rolbossers care about the real you, the you hiding behind the facade. And somehow it’s so right, so proper to grant them the honesty they deserve – even if it meant their scorn and disapproval in the end. That, at least, would be real, too.

“One pill! One, lousy, stupid pill…and I was hooked. When I woke up that Sunday morning, I had no idea what happened. Brutus laughed at that, told me I simply dozed off – but I knew that wasn’t true. I had bruises and aches…my body told me something horrible had happened. We had a fight then, Brutus and I, and I dressed and stormed out. I finally found my little flat and slept for the rest of the day. The next morning – Monday – I tried to do my job at Dr Hartslief’s, but I was jittery. Couldn’t concentrate. Made mistakes with the bookings.

“I asked for the week off and went home. And there I….I knew I had to return to Brutus. I had to get something to make me feel better. I had to talk to him.  Oh! I told myself a thousand reasons why I should go back to that horrible man, but the real reason was this craving…the desperate need…for release. Something inside me wanted another of those pills. Just one – because the one thing I remembered about that Saturday night, was that I felt good about myself. Whatever happened after I had passed out didn’t matter so much. I wanted that feeling again..

“Brutus was waiting for me. Can you believe the nerve? And he was sooo friendly and nice again, asking me how I felt and whether I was all right and so on. And I…I hated myself, despised myself…but I begged him for another pill.

“I won’t bore you with details. Those pills gave me the strength to go on. After the third one, I didn’t pass out anymore. I felt good and strong and righteous. I could return to work and get things done. At night Brutus would entertain me in his penthouse, we’d have some pills – I knew then that it was Ecstasy – and later he had…friends…come over. Just to liven things up, Brutus said. The things we did…”

Of all the people in the bar, only Gertruida has a very good idea of what Mary was telling them. Reading between the lines is one of her gifts, and she feels an icy hand squeezing at her heart as the story unfolds. The poor, poor woman….

“He – that’s Brutus – had this irregular heartbeat. I only learnt later that Dr Hartslief was his cardiologist and that was  where he first saw me. I was one of the receptionists, see? Brutus told me one night that, when he saw me there for the first time, he knew we’d be ‘doing business together’, as he put it. The following day I peeked in his file, and saw that Dr Hartslief diagnosed an irregular rhythm due to cocaine use. That’s when I realised how deep in trouble I was…

“Things went seriously wrong after that. I had to have more and more of the Ecstasy. Brutus said it wasn’t a free ride, I had to help him. I…I was beyond caring. Sure, I said, anything. That’s when the real parties started.”

Brutus explained that he had some very influential friends he had to entertain: government ministers, senior police officers, politicians.

“At that stage I couldn’t care anymore. I didn’t even resign my job – I just stopped going to work. At night I was the plaything for these important men and for my…services…I was paid handsomely…and got pills. My mind went into a shut-down mode – I simply stopped thinking. And, as I started needing more and more pills, Brutus demanded more and more of me. I…” Mary lifts her chin, defying the group to say anything. “I slept with them all. I can name them, those important men, all of them. You think your ministers are upright citizens? Bah! If I told you what happened in that penthouse, you’d be nauseated…”

“Come, dear, sit down.” Gertruida leads the distraught woman to a chair. “Servaas, bring a glass of water. Oudoom, stop looking so pious and holy. Go fetch a blanket. Can’t you see she’s shivering? And you, Vetfaan? You can light the fire in the hearth. It’s getting chilly outside.”

Outside, night has indeed settled over the barren wastes of the Kalahari, followed – as usual – by the chill the darkness always brings. Still, the cold inside the bar isn’t just due to the temperature dropping outside – it was more – much more – than that. Everybody in the bar experienced the fear, the loathing, the horror of the story Mary has been telling them. And they knew: there wasn’t a fire big enough to fight off the chill that reality brought to the humble village of Rolbos that night.

“And that’s what you knew and what Brutus tried to silence?”

Mary ignores Sersant Dreyer’s question.

“So I went to those places quite willingly, knowing exactly what the score was. I also knew that Brutus would kill me if I didn’t cooperate or if I breathed a word about his activities. When they apprehended me in Rio, I was almost relieved.

251005_det“Prison? It was hell. It was also a blessing. They don’t dish out drugs in prison. Not at all. I had to go cold turkey – suddenly and terribly so. I went through it all – the sweats, the nausea, the cramps – everything. It was the purest form of hell imaginable. But somehow I made it. The other inmates were convinced that I was mad – and maybe I was, for a time. Over the weeks and months the cravings became less and less, and I started feeling human again. I changed from a jabbering idiot into a model prisoner, teaching the other women things I know, like crocheting and knitting and such. I even started a choir and taught them some Afrikaans songs!” For the first time this evening, Mary manages a real smile. “I think my conduct contributed to my early release. The mad witch became Pollyanna.”

It is quite possible that only Gertruida connected the dots to understand that Mary refers to Eleanor Potter’s story, but the group is so involved in Mary’s tale that she doesn’t interrupt.

“And that’s why Brutus came here. During my ‘introduction stage’, when I was plied with Ecstasy, Brutus wanted to know everything about me. At the time I thought he was genuinely interested in me, but of course he was doing a background check. When he learnt that I had no family, no close friends and no attachments, he must have been overjoyed. But the one name that cropped up all too often, was your’s, Boggel.” A soft sob ends the sentence.

***

Gertruida escorts the crying Mary back to Precilla’s bungalow behind the little pharmacy. After Mary’s telling of her life with Brutus and the drugs, Mary is exhausted, empty, drained of all emotion except for the incredible sadness that now has settled in her mind. What she now needs, Gertruida knows, is silence – and time to accept that finally her secrets are shared and the burden of guilt has shifted somewhat. She says a silent prayer that Mary will now accept her past, forgive herself and move on.

What Gertruida doesn’t understand, is the way Boggel – and even Smartryk – kept their distance during the time Mary was telling them everything she had lived through. She did, however, notice the two men exchanging glances and worried looks. And that Sersant Dreyer! Towards the end of Mary’s confession, he had the gall to get up and leave the bar! So, so unkind! Shaking her head at the men’s lack of insight, she puts on the kettle. A  cup of tea before putting Mary to bed is a good idea.

She looks up, startled, when there is a knock at the door.

“Mary? I have to talk to you.” It’s a man’s voice, muffled by the closed door. Not sure who it might be, Gertruida reaches for the door handle…

Everybody has a You (#13)

Ecstacy pills

Ecstacy pills

Neither Smartryk nor Boggel remebers much about the trip back to Rolbos. Smartryk, after the dose of painkillers and a herbal tea from Dawid Loper – and Boggel due to sheer fatigue – dozed, slept and rested during the long ride home. Sersant Dreyer took them on a detour to pick op Kleinpiet’s bakkie, which they refuelled. Then, with Dawid acting as guide, they drove through the night. When at last they stopped in front of Boggel’s Place, it was difficult to distinguish between the injured and the rest – they were all completely exhausted.

Gertruida got hold of Oudok, who examined the two men. Boggel – he said – only needed rest and liquids. Smartryk surprised the old doctor: when the bandages were removed, the wound was well on it’s way to complete healing. Dawid Loper nodded happily: it was exactly what he expected.

Now, after a good nights rest, the townsfolk gather in the shade of Boggel’s verandah, with Servaas doing duty as barman. They wait until noon before they send Kleinpiet to see how the patients are doing…

***

However, Bioggel and Smartryk have been awake since dawn. They shared Gertruida’s spare room, where she accommodated them in style – or whatever would pass as such in Rolbos. Two mattresses on the floor, clean linen and a huge jug of orange juice far surpassed their needs for the night. When dawn streaked the eastern sky with orange and red, Gertruida started serving strong, sweet tea, a huge platter with scrambled eggs and bacon and followed that with a Thermos filled with the strongest coffee possible.

What more could a man ask?

“Boggel?” Smartryk burped softly after finishing his breakfast. “We have to talk…”

“About Mary?”

“Yes…”

And talked they did. About Mary, about life…and about love. Smartryk described the strange emotion he discovered after meeting and spending time with Mary. He talked about serendipity, coincidence, chance and divine intervention. “Boggel, for all my life I knew there had to be more. And now…well, now I think I’ve found it.”

But, Smartryk said, he also understood that Mary came to Rolbos to see Boggel. He had been the compass that directed her journey back to her roots and to the Kalahari. And he, Smartryk, understood now why Mary had such a deep-rooted respect for the hunchbacked barman. “You saved her life…again, Boggel. You were prepared to perish in the wilderness to save Mary. I know of no other man that would have led Brutus into the desert like you did, knowing that his death would allow Mary to live. And that, Boggel, tells me her trust in you is not only justified, it runs far deeper than even she would admit.”

Boggel waited and listened patiently. Although he had a very good idea where all this was leading up to, he allowed Smartryk the opportunity to transform his deepest feeling from thoughts to words. This is, of course, something that is often required from barmen all over the world, and Boggel has plenty experience of this. Smartryk rambled, lost track, stumbled, gathered his wits time and again and eventually fell silent.

“Okay.” Boggel finished the last of the coffee with a sigh. “You think you love Mary. And you want my blessing.” He waited for Smartryk to nod before going on. “Well, it’s not up to me, Smartryk. It’s up to Mary. She’s the one to choose which which horse she wants to saddle up. I’d suggest you talk to her, not to me.”

***

One of the most important lessons in Barman 101 concerns the requirement to listen to problems and then to offer simple advice. For this, you don’t need an IQ of more than 160 at all. No sir. Most problems dispensers of drinks are faced with, involve the intricate and complicated relationships between men and women – and lately even the gender-tag has faded away, so that one may safely condense that statement to simply refer to ‘relationships’.

Boggel’s remark – about Mary having the last say – must therefore not be seen as abundantly chivalrous or altruistic, not at all. After all, does the nearness of Mary not cause his heart to skip a beat, and does something not melt inside his heart whenever he looks at her? But, like he sometimes has to tell a teary customer: you cannot force Love. If Love is meant to be, it’ll find a way. There is no force known to man that will stamp out the glowing embers of affection once that fire starts blazing, bringing light to the darkness we call loneliness.

Some may think that Boggel’s handling of Smartryk’s declaration of intent was short-sighted and stupid. Others – more wise and bearing the scars to prove it – will understand the depth of his wisdom when he encouraged Smartryk to follow his heart. It’s the old story about setting Love free to fly…and then waiting patiently to see if it returns to the safety of its origin.

***

It’s late afternoon when the two patients sit down in Boggel’s Place. The rest of Rolbos is there to welcome them with a hearty dose of peach brandy – which, for once, doesn’t have to be smallowed with one grimacing gulp. The talk – of course – is about the last few day’s adventure. Smartryk reminds them that he still has to complete his report on the Cessna’s crash.

“That’s easy, Smartryk. You attribute the accident to pilot error. Then Sersant Dreyer adds his statement that the unknown pilot seems to have disappeared. Yes, his tracks led to Kleinpiet’s farm and yes, he apparently stole a vehicle. The said vehicle was found in the desert after an exhaustive search, but the exact whereabouts of the pilot is still uncertain at this point in time…”

“Ja, he could be in heaven…or in hell. Who knows?” Vetfaan is on his fourth drink and seems to think he’s just made an extremely funny remark. The rest of the patrons ignore him.

“I have something to say.” Mary’s voice – soft and uncertain – makes them all turn to her. “I…I must confess, I suppose.”

“About what, Mary?” Smartryk puts his hand on her shoulder, concern written over his face.

“I… Oh hell! How do I do this?” Mary shakes off the hand, gets up, and walks to the door. There, framed by the doorway, she turns to address them.

“I’ve only told you half the story…I’m sorry. You see, this is all my fault. Yes, I wanted to see Boggel, and yes, I wanted to hide here and hope to start a new life. But, you see…” She stifles a sob, squares her shoulders. “I wasn’t the naive courier I made out to be. That trip was my third, not my first. Once I went to Hong Kong, and once to Bangkok. Every time the same – documents and cash.

“Did I love Brutus? The answer is an emphatic ‘No!’. But….when I met him, my life was in shambles. I did work at Dr Hartslief, the cardiologist, that’s true. But that was during the daytime. At night…I went to clubs. It was my way of escaping from the small flat I rented. I so desperately wanted company, but in a big city you can live between hordes of people, and still be lonely. It’s not like here…

“Anyway, one night some guy got fresh with me. I had a few drinks too many, and didn’t see it coming. Then, suddenly, the man started steering me to the door, saying we must go to his place. I didn’t want to go. The man insisted. And then Brutus stepped in and told the guy to bugger off. That’s how we met.” She shakes her head. “Swallowed by my own stupidity… It had all been a setup! Brutus was always on the lookout for lonely girls like me – and he had this way of picking them up, see? He gets one of his men to harass the girl, then he steps in as the hero. Anyway, how was I to know? So one thing led to the other and we ended up drinking far too much. He was good, I’ll give him that. At the end of the evening I thought he was the nicest man I’ve ever met.

b98f4057-a575-4ef5-99a2-6ebbd7bf1790“We started seeing each other. That Saturday evening we had dinner and then he took me to his penthouse in the Waterfront. His place blew me away! I’ve never seen so much opulence in my life! The carpets! The furniture! It was like a dream come true…” She sighs, remembering her wide-eyed wonder. “He offered me a pill after we had a few drinks. I remember it was white, with a dove imprinted on it. Said it was something innocent to prevent a hangover. Said he took it all the time, himself. And I…I didn’t want to look as if I didn’t trust him. I really wanted to believe…

“So I took the pill. And I woke up the next morning and my nightmare started…”

(To be continued…)

Everybody has a You (#3)

17483“Why now, Mary? After all these years you suddenly decide to visit an old friend in Rolbos…what made you do it?”

Smartryk has ordered a second bottle of wine, which they now enjoy on the veranda of the lodge. With the heat of the day broken, it is extremely pleasant and comfortable to lounge in the gloom of evening, enjoying the atmosphere. Travellers in Africa know this feeling of bonhomie – it’s almost as if the universe shrinks into the circle of the lamp’s light, making the worries and cares of everyday life seem insignificant and irrelevant.

Add, too, the fact that they have just enjoyed a magnificent supper of kudu steaks, finishing with a perfect crème brûlée, and that they’ve discovered a common interest in conservation. Their conversation drifted this way and that until Smartryk asked the question that had been bothering him all afternoon. Mary must obviously be down in her luck – hence the hitch hiking – and surely her reasons for getting to Rolbos must be to find accommodation, help, or work…or something? So…why? Why now? Why is she so desperate to get to Rolbos – even if it involved all the risks for a woman hitch hiking all alone in one of the most remote areas of the country?

Mary sighs. Should she tell this nice man everything? Will he understand? She decides to take the risk and straightens her shoulders.

***

Love affairs – we all know – are fragile relationships. Friendships may endure a lot of abuse and disappointment, but love is more demanding. It requires a deeper respect, more loyalty and uncompromising commitment. The fabric of such a liaison is delicate and it sometimes takes an almost insignificant incident to rip the fibres of the canvas that once contained the promise of joy. And then, with the power of hindsight, it may become painfully obvious that that promise was only a dream, a desperate mirage, and that the relationship had no other foundation than loneliness.

“I had many of those,” Mary tells Smartryk, “until I met Brutus Malherbe, the lawyer. Oh, he was handsome and caring and…” she blushes, “…rich.” It pains her to admit it, but his obvious wealth had been, indeed, a factor. “I was working as a receptionist in Dr Hartslief’s practice – you know, the famous thoracic surgeon? Anyway, one day Brutus walks in there for an annual checkup. Apparently he had had some chest pains before and Hartslief was treating him for a slightly irregular heartbeat.

“When he walked into that consulting room, we looked at each other…and we knew. At least I thought both of us did. It was just one of those moments when the world stops turning and your entire being focusses on somebody very, very special. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but in that second, I knew this man would play a significant role in my life.

“Well, he did. Only not in the way I thought…”

He asked for – and got – her telephone number. A week went by and then, one evening, he called. They chatted. He asked if she would like to have dinner with him. She said yes, of course.

“For three months he wooed me like I’ve never been wooed before. Flowers, chocolates, everything.”  Then, one evening, Brutus told her he had a problem. Some very important documents had to be delivered to a man in Rio de Janeiro. No copies, no faxes, no e-mail – the originals had to be hand delivered. Only – Brutus looked so worried when he said this – he had an important court case coming and he couldn’t afford to do the trip himself. It’s only a matter of a few days, but…

Mary then looked at the man who had been so good to her, saw his anguish, and offered to take the documents herself.  He was overjoyed. The documents, he said, would be sealed in an attache case. Just take it to the airport, a man would be there to receive it. No problem, just go and come back. Then, when his court case is over, they’d have a little holiday in Maldives – if she’d like to go?

“Well, when I landed in Rio, the cops were waiting for me. They demanded the attache case. and I…well, I handed it to them. They seemed to know exactly what they were looking for. They broke open the case – and it did contain some documents….as well as a million dollars .” Mary shakes her head. Even now, after such a long time, the sting of that horrible moment still causes tears to flow.

“Brutus, you see, was busy importing cocaine.My wonderful lawyer, my lover, was a drug smuggler! The police had been on his trail for some time and suspected that he used couriers to ferry money out of South Africa. Couriers! Stupid, everyday girls like me! And I was the lucky one to be on the spot when the police were ready to pounce!”

A nightmare followed. First it was a police cell in Rio. Then a prison – Bangu Penitentiary Complex – and later Presidente Prudente Supermax institution. Mary doesn’t elaborate on the months she spent there – despite the intervening years she still finds those memories too painful to contemplate. The court case was a disaster. Brutus, it seemed, had disappeared. The authorities had her, had the Brazilian drug lord Fernandinho Beira-Mar, and had the documents and money. Oh, she had the privilege of an attorney, but he had no interest in defending a foreign woman caught in a drug deal. The case lasted two days. The sentence was delivered immediately. Five years for her, life for Fernandinho.

“Somehow, Fernandinho managed to get messages to me – telling me he admired the way I conducted myself during the trial. He wrote letters, Smartryk, long ones, which the warders slipped under my pillow. His influence was obvious, even in prison. Over and over he said that he’d like to get to know me better.” She blushes at the thought. “You know how those Latin-American men are, Smartryk – they make you feel like a woman all over again. I wrote back, leaving the letters under my pillow as well, and he obviously got these. I poured out my heart in those letters – I think that was the only thing that kept me sane during my time in that prison…

“Being associated with Fernandinho turned out to be a very well disguised blessing during my time in the women’s section, called Talavera Bruce. Here his name offered me some protection against the other inmates, see? At least, it kept them at a distance. But the authorities! The filth! The conditions! The food….” She pauses, unable to continue…

“Brutus was eventually found in the East somewhere. They escorted him back to South Africa, where he stood trial He denied everything, of course, even that me sent me to Rio, but the state had a watertight case against him and he got twenty years. However, he served only two months before he managed to get parole on medical grounds. He got some cardiologist to swear he’d die in prison, using poor Dr Hartslief’s records to lend  weight to the parole application… Money, Smartryk, can buy you anything…even freedom.”

Mary swallows the rest of the wine in her glass, wipes off her lips with the back of her hand, and manages a wobbly smile.

“Anyway, I got out last week. Only arrived in Cape Town a couple of days ago. And now…now I need to return to my roots and the only man I ever really trusted. He’s a barman in Rolbos.”

“That’s strange…” Smartryk draws a deep breath. “The accident I told you about? The passenger was a barman, too. Apparently a guy with some sort of spinal deformity.”

This is the moment we all dread in life: when suddenly the trapdoor opens up beneath us and there is only one way to go: straight down. Mary stares at Smartryk for several seconds, blinking her eyes mechanically while her mouth tries to form words. Then, mercifully, the curtain drops and she slides to the ground in a dead faint.

The Rape of Miss Katie Malone (# 4)

Katie Malone grabs the blanket that was thrown at her, killing the automatic impulse to say thank you. Even before the door slams shut again, she’s gathered the blanket around her shivering body, tucking in a bit below her to fashion a crude cushion.

The drugs have started wearing off but the headache is the worst she’s ever had. The one word loops around in her mind all the time: Why?

By now she’s calmed down somewhat and started piecing the puzzle together. She’s a lone traveller in a foreign country. Did the man in the Customs booth have anything to do with this? No matter, she was stupid to follow that guy with the Passenger Services nametag. And…quite obviously…she’s been abducted for some horrible reason.

Her first fear had been that they – whoever they are –  wanted to molest her. Apparently not – or they’re not in a hurry to do so. Anyway, they seem to have taken care that she came to no great harm, which is why she had that caretaker in the beginning. And then that…that terrifying photo-session.

There can only be two reasons: kidnapping for ransom – or abduction for an even more ominous reason. The ransom-idea doesn’t make sense at all; her family aren’t that important, are they? But abduction…and she’s read about human trafficking, of course…and that only happens to other people, for goodness sakes!

Think, Katie, think!

The door opens again, this time admitting the ‘caretaker’ woman who kept her company in the beginning.

“Time for your medicine, sweetie. Come on now, be a good girl?”

To argue would be senseless – another beating will follow.. Katie holds out her hand to receive the four pills. Popping them into her mouth, she accepts the glass of water and drinks deeply.

“Now that was really good. Sleep well, my lovely.”

When the door clicks shut, Katie fishes the pills out from below her tongue. For a second – just a second – she allows a cold anger to wash through her mind. Then, in a helpless gesture of defiance, she throws the pills as hard as she can against the far wall.

***

“This is it,” Gertruida whispers as she points to the name below the doorbell. “Manie Schoeman.

They travelled from the airport in Gertjie’s minibus, making record time as the Obelix-like figure of the driver sped through the backstreets, avoiding the traffic. They have no real plan: anything this Schoeman can tell them, might point them in some sort of direction.

It’s only after the third – rather long – ring that the door opens. Manie Schoeman, dishevelled and dressed in only his boxers, peers at them with sleepy eyes.

“What the hell do you want? I’ve just come from nightshift, dammit! I swear, if you guys are from the Jehovah’s again, I’ll call the bloody police.”

“Mister Schoeman, we’re not trying to convince you to go to heaven. We’re trying to save a girl from going to hell. May we come in for a minute?” Gertruida’s tone is friendly but firm, allowing Manie no excuse to close his door.

IMG_2604The interior of the flat (it’s more like a penthouse) creates the impression of understated luxury. The state-of-the-art Marantz music centre catches Fanny’s eye immediately, while Vetfaan notices the neat and well-stocked bar. The one wall is almost completely hidden behind the shelves of DVD’s.

“What is this about?” Manie sits down wearily on one of the plush easy chairs, rubs his eyes and yawns.

“My, my…” Gertruida walks over to a painting. “Is that a Tretchikoff?”

“What. Do. You. Want?”

“”Okay, I’ll get right to the point. You are, as far as we know, the last person to have seen a certain Miss Katie Malone, passenger on the BOAC flight from London yesterday. You stamped her passport. We’d like to know if you can tell us anything about her?”

“I stamp passports, Lady, I’m not paid to remember faces and names.”

Gertruida is taken aback by the man’s attitude. He doesn’t ask why they want to know, whether they’re investigating a murder or something, or even what Katie looked like. She glances over at Gertjie, who returns an imperceptible nod.

“Listen,” the fat man wheezes, “we’re not here to cause trouble. We’re just a bunch of friends looking for somebody.” He spreads his arms wide in a gesture of innocence. “Come on, buddy, help us out here. You want to go back to sleep and we want to be out of here. Now think…can you remember this woman?” He holds out the photograph Fanny gave him.

The old Gertjie magic…Gertruida hides a smile. Gertjie can make a brick talk by being sweet.

Manie studies the photograph for a second. Vetfaan, standing to one side, sees the pulse quicken in the man’s neck.

“Yeah…yeah. I suppose I stamped her passport. But that’s all. We don’t go in for lengthy conversations with travellers. So that’s all I know.”

***

People often assume the inhabitants of Rolbos are a bit backward – even stupid. City-folk like to judge people by the way the dress, the way the talk and the way they act. Then, also, the impression of the way the hair is done, or the nails are painted, play a major role in deciding whether an individual is worthy of your respect.

One can understand why Mister Manie Jakobus Schoeman dismissed the four people in his sumptuous lounge as being…let’s say…artless or clueless or dense or even dumb. After all, he is used to the upper echelons of society who travel the world in their wild chase for money, power or pleasure. Now, confronted by Vetfaan (ancient boots, khaki pants, old shirt), Gertruida (wild hair, glasses, unpainted nails), Fanny (plain PEP-store jeans, plastic sandals and a white T-shirt) and Gertjie (basically a blob of fat covered with liver spots), Manie is ready to show them the door.

But…one must never ignore the value of critical observation. This is a natural instinct that develops in people who live in the Kalahari – they learn to observe man and animal with equal care. When one lives a lonely and isolated life, interacting with other living beings becomes an expression of respect – and survival. The smooth forehead of yesterday may have a little frown today. The happy smile may be a bit forced. An unexpected sigh tells a story. When one lives in harmony with your surroundings, these signs often determine the conversation to follow.

People living in wide open spaces also learn to be acutely aware of their surroundings. The veld, the sky, the weather, the way animals react to your and each other’s presence – these are but a few signals that get analysed constantly. It is no wonder then, that the visitors to Manie’s penthouse looked at the man, looked at his surroundings, and decided something didn’t quite fit in with the lifestyle of the immigration and customs officer.

Curiosity

Curiosity

After all, when tracking an animal, the best way of surprising it, is to out-think your prey. Veld people are sometimes better at analysing, computing and assessing circumstances and conditions than even NASA’s team of scientists controlling Curiosity on Mars. Well, maybe not all veld-people. Maybe it’s unique to Rolbos – it doesn’t matter – but they all reach the same conclusion at the same time, and it shows…

***

Fanny immediately noticed the narrowing of the eyes when the photograph was shown. Vetfaan picked up the quickening of the pulse – and Gertruida was near enough to Manie to notice the subtle flaring of the nostrils.

Vetfaan is the first to react.

“You’re lying, aren’t you?”

Manie looks up at the burly man towering over him, swallows hard and shakes his head.

“Look, we’re desperate for any information. Desperate! You understand that? I think you know something and you don’t want to tell us. Why?

Manie’s only answer is another shake of the head, his tongue suddenly dry and thick.

Vetfaan’s next move surprises everybody else in the room. He walks up to the expensive music center, lifts it with ease, and drops it on the floor. Plastic and various components shatter the silence as Manie jumps up instinctively to rush towards Vetfaan.

Had he asked Gertruida, she would have told him that was a stupid move. Vetfaan grabs Manie by his throat, lifts him clear off the ground, and in a move that’ll impress the world’s best wrestlers, smashes him down on the broken machine.

“Now, let me rephrase the question…”

The Rape of Miss Katie Malone (# 3)

sunbeamsillhouettewebIt’s cold. Dark.

The floor beneath her naked body is hard – concrete-like. When the harsh light is switched on, she tries to sit up, but her muscles don’t respond like they usually do.

“I…I’m thirsty.” She struggles to form the words; her tongue feels like sandpaper and the headache pounds away in her skull so loudly that she can barely hear herself.

“Get up!” There’s no sympathy in the sharp command.

“I…I can’t.”

Then a thousand stars explode in her mind as the hand strikes her cheek.

***

“Listen, we have to do something. The police have issued a request that the public must be on the lookout for her and her photograph was featured in the TV news. However, if she had been abducted, her kidnappers aren’t going to parade her about on the Waterfront. They’ll keep her where nobody will see her. So, splashing her picture all over the media is just going to make things worse: the perpetrators will be extra careful now.”

“I agree, Gertruida. I think we must go to Cape Town to see what we can find out.” Vetfaan has a determined look as he pushes back his empty glass. “I think we must leave now.”

“But Fanie, where will we look? Cape Town is such a huge place.” Fanny likes it when Vetfaan takes charge of things, but this time…

There are a few reasons why Boggel’s Place is sometimes more successful at solving problems than Oudoom’s church. Of course Boggel serves Cactus Jack and a variety of other social lubricants; but the most important reason is that discussions here are open and frank – and everybody has the right to chip in. Oudoom acknowledges this, which is why he is a regular customer. He says that the message of Love and Faith should not be restricted to Sunday sermons alone.

“Listen,” Oudoom holds up a hand to silence the chaotic discussions taking place. “You know what St James wrote, don’t you? He said faith isn’t enough. He stated that faith should be visible in your actions. It’s what you do that counts, not just you saying the right words. So Vetfaan’s remark is valid. We have to do something…”

As far as sermons go, this is maybe one of Oudoom’s shortest – but it tips the scale of debate there and then.

***

“Turn to me!”

Miss Katie Malone stands, doubled-up, against the wall. Even with her eyes closed, she can’t shut out the sharp light the man directs at her. She can hear a camera clicking away.

“Why are you doing this? What have I done to you?” She has to overcome her nausea and fear  as she struggles to stand upright. The taste of blood inside her mouth reminds her of the power of the man and adds a tinge of hysteria to her voice..

She gets a guffaw as an answer. “It’s not what you did to me, young lady. It’s what you’re going to do for me. Har! Now stand straight, and take your hands away. I want these photographs to be perfect. Come on! Or do you want me to convince you again?”

***

Under normal circumstances, our thoughts and actions are governed by a logic we base on past experiences. We say things and do things because we judge them to be appropriate under the current situation.

Katie Malone, like all other victims under these circumstances, has no point of reference. The fear and panic inside her are overwhelming and she has to fight her instincts to remain rational. She knows, however, that she must somehow find it in herself to be calm – it is her only chance to survive this ordeal.

Now, alone, cold, hungry and parched, she somehow finds her thoughts straying back to the novel she wrote. Mary, the daughter of King Henry VIII, had been a strong-willed and obstinate young lady. When the throne seemed lost to her, she rallied the men of East Anglia to dethrone Lady Jane Grey who ruled England for only nine days. Although her life was characterised with a certain ruthlessness, earning her the name of Bloody Mary, she fought for her beliefs and her faith.

The thought is strangely comforting. Katie Malone is not going to give up…

***

The three of them catch the early-morning flight from Upington to Cape Town. Fanny, Vetfaan and Gertruida were voted the best candidates for the job and now they have to find a way to discover what had happened to Katie Malone.

“This place gives me the creeps.” Vetfaan shivers involuntary while he watches the masses of people milling around in the airport. “I’d hate to stay in Cape Town. I even miss Vrede…”

“You can become sentimental later, Vetfaan. We can’t waste time now.” Gertruida scans the faces of the people around them. Where is Gertjie Viljoen? He promised to be here…

***

Gertruida – who knows everything – has a network of old friends and colleagues second to none. During her time in National Intelligenceshe and Gertjie had to create a list of potential enemies of the state (as they were called then). What it meant was: they had to investigate the backgrounds of individuals, assess their political convictions, and report suspicious actions. Gertruida’s end of the bargain was to type the voluminous reports Gertjie had drawn up. His ability to ferret out details was quite astounding. People quite naturally told him anything he wanted to know – he seemed such a harmless creature. His approach was open and friendly…and he was a good listener. It usually only took an evening in the local pub to get the background he needed for the files. He used to call their section  the Gertjie-and-Gerty Squad, GG’S for short.

Gertjie is a retired professor of political science now, living quietly in an old-age home in Wellington, where he spends his time photographing butterflies. He was overjoyed to hear from Gertruida and spent a good thirty minutes with her on the phone.

Gertruida almost doesn’t recognise him. The dapper, middle-aged man with the steely-blue eyes and the athletic body has changed into a rotund blob; bald and covered with liver spots.

“Gerty!” He wheezes his greeting and almost trips as he carries his massive weight across the floor at an amazing speed.

“Gertjie?” She recovers in time to receive the bear hug. “My, you look good…”

“Trust an old spy to lie, eh?” He rubs a hand over the impressive paunch. “It’s good to see you.”

They exchange a few pleasantries before Gertruida steers him towards the purpose of their visit.

“Yes, i dug around a little bit like you asked me. Know the woman in charge of the duty rosters here at the airport. A daughter of an old flame.” Gertjie smiles wryly as he wheezes his short sentences. “There were nine Customs officers on duty when Miss Malone’s plane landed. The computer that registered her passport was manned by one M J Schoeman, an employee of the government for thirteen years. Impeccable record. Lives in Seaview Flats, number 3. That’s in Groenpunt. Unmarried, rumoured to have an affair with the wife of Colonel McBride, a senior policeman. Drives a new Polo, silver-grey. So far, that’s what I’ve got.”

When Gertruida praises his efforts, Gertjie’s smile threatens to dislodge his ears.

“Well, that’s the last person who had any contact with her – at least: the last one we know of. I suggest we pay the man a visit.”

***

Isolated in her dark, cold, room, Miss Katie Malone prays quietly. Please – please! – let this be a dream? Only one thing remains now – maybe two: faith and her desire to survive… Love, hope and faith…except there is no love here…

Fight the fear, Katie… FIGHT!

***

In his office, the big man tries to sound casual while he’s talking to the sheik. Oh yes, the photographs were taken today… No, she’s not harmed, not at all… Twelve million Rands? For her? Yes, he’ll think about it. He’ll call back tomorrow.

I can get more in Japan, the big man lies, knowing the sheik isn’t fooled.

He replaces the receiver thoughtfully. Just goes to show: there’s no accounting for taste…imagine the sheik taking a fancy in her…? Whistling happily, he fetches a blanket from the cupboard in the corridor. He’s just got twelve million reasons to keep her warm and healthy…

Bianca (# 5)

Credit: picship.com

Credit: picship.com

Servaas looks up at the stars. It’s a crystal-clear night with a halfmoon slowly making it’s way to the horizon. Next to him, Vrede snores softly, dreaming doggy-dreams about chasing rabbits. He still finds it difficult to digest everything Gertruida has told them. Bianca…involved in all that?

***

“There has always been an insatiable demand for ivory and rhino horn in the East.” Gertruida, using her lecture-voice, addressed the patrons in Boggel’s Place that afternoon after Bianca left so suddenly. “Back in the Eighties, these commodities were untraceable once they reached the buyer. Where did it come from? How?  It didn’t matter.”

She’s just read up on the actions of the poaching done by the previous government, and telling their story isn’t so easy. She falters, but goes on…

“The fact of the matter is: South Africa needed money and arms to continue the fight against communism. Due to Apartheid, the international community had clamped down on trade, sport and culture, isolating us in an effort to force the government to accept majority rule. The generals had to find the means to raise the capital to keep the soldiers in the field – or give up and allow the divided society of South Africa to destroy itself.

“That’s when they created the South West African Import and Export Company, based in, amongst other places, Walvis Bay. This was a company set up by the army, but run by civilians unconnected to any state department – much like the CIA uses private companies as a front worldwide.

“The plan was diabolically simple. In the south of Angola, Jonas Savimbi ordered his troops to start killing every elephant, every rhino they could find. Later, the operation was extended to Zambia and Mozambique. The contraband was delivered to the front company, who then transported it by various means to the East. To do this without being caught out, the drivers of lorries were issued with official documentation that stated the load as ‘secret’ and prevented the searching of the cargo at roadblocks. The ivory and horn was then taken on board the fishing vessels of various Eastern countries, while Pretoria  got paid in cash and arms.

“Large-scale poaching decimated the elephant and rhino population in Angola, Mozambique and Zambia, where South Africa supported resistance groups in order to destabilise the enemies of the National government. They did the poaching, Pretoria – through the front company – exported the products of the bloody harvest, and huge amounts of money exchanged hands. In turn, these resistance groups – like RENAMO and UNITA – received arms, training and other equipment via the South African Defence Force.”

The import and export company in Walvis Bay played a pivotal role. But, Gertruida said, that wasn’t all they did.

“The men running the organisation, were above the law. They could transport anything, sell anything, with impunity. Soon, they were harvesting pristine forests. Diamonds and Mandrax formed part of their trade. Operations expanded to Botswana and Zimbabwe. The whole of Southern Africa became part of a massive Mafia-type operation, carefully run and manipulated from Pretoria. The directors of the South West Africa Import and Export Company , being less than honest to the core, became fabulously rich by adding their own contraband to these cargoes.”

Gertruida paused here to allow her words to sink in. The scale of the crime is almost too large to imagine.

“Now…this is important: today we get upset about the rhino situation. We complain about poachers and point fingers at the Eastern countries. The country is riddled with illegal drugs….but who, do I ask you, is to blame for these markets? Who created the wealthy empires that control this trade? Who opened up the channels to the underworld?

“We, my friends, are looking at a situation that was created by a corrupt government. We may well tell the world that the current ANC government is run by a bunch of crooks – but sadly, they only took over the reins left by the previous regime.”

And this, Gertruida said, is why she was so worried about Bianca being there. “This woman must have been deeply involved with this company. And let me tell you: she’s on the run. If you’re running away from something so large and so evil, you can be sure they’ll hunt you down. That’s why she chose Rolbos; hoping we are so far away from everything that they won’t find her here…but they will.” She signalled for another beer and rested her chin on her upturned palm. “Who’s going to get caught in the cross-fire? Us. We’re going to pay a price for her being here.”

***

Bianca sobs quietly, pushing her face into the new pillow on the bed. She’s read the note over and over again – not that it’s necessary, it’s just one single sentence – and now she knows she’s reached the end of the line.

You can run, but you can’t hide… One simple statement on the piece of paper she found on the floor this morning. They had been there during the night, traced her to this quiet little hovel where she thought she’d be safe for a while.

Tiny’s words when they first met. You can run, but you can’t hide.Tiny, who at that stage worked for a boss. Who…who was the boss then? Is he still alive?

They can’t afford to let her get away, that’s true. She knows too much. If she told her story, and if the world believed her, many heads would roll. Two big ifs... But the organisation wouldn’t take such a risk – they’d rather get rid of her. Eliminate…the word they like so much.

***

Servaas looks down at Vrede when the dog suddenly lifts his head, ears cocked, to stare at the dark end of Voortrekker Weg. Getting up slowly, the old man moves back into the shadows of the veranda. If Bianca is in danger, it’s up to him to protect her.

According to Gertruida, Bianca is involved with some heinous crimes. Or, to be more accurate, might be  involved. Well, he doesn’t care. She’s a beautiful woman, young (in comparison!) and he feels he’s got a connection with her.Why? He’s not sure – but something sparked between the two of them when he first laid eyes on her. And…she makes him feel like a man again.

Vrede lets out a soft growl. The hair on his neck bristles when he detects that scent again – the same deodorant he picked up last night. But there’s something more – en new smell. Old sweat. Oily. No…oil – like men use on guns. That’s it! Now…wait…yes, there are two of them. Two men. And a gun.

Vrede nudges Servaas with his nose. Stay here, Servaas, I’m going to have a look.

Then, padding softly and moving with surprising speed, Vrede is gone. Servaas tightens his grip on the gun, suddenly forgetting his age. He’s young again, a soldier, fighting for justice and peace.

And love…

The Bullet (# 7)

psalm23Old Oom Sakkie Liebenberg closes his Bible with a sigh and puts down the magnifying glass. He’s just read his favourite Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… Reading is getting more and more difficult these days. He’ll have to see somebody about it. Today he’s not praying about his eyes, however.

“Lord, I’m trying. Really. For seven years I’ve hung onto these words, and for seven years I have tried to believe them.

“But you know, Lord, it’s been seven years since Benjamin locked himself in that bungalow outside. At first it was the alcohol, then the drugs. You saw how depressed he had become, Lord, and still You allowed him to sink deeper and deeper into that dark hole of hopelessness.

“And somehow, I blame You, Lord. The landmine that killed his family. The war. The nightmares afterwards. Benjamin isn’t a bad man, Dear Father; he loved life…he loved You. But after that time in the sanatorium, he came back with a bag full of pills and locked himself up. You saw that. You heard him say his life is worthless. You heard him turn the key that day.

“And now, today, it’s seven years of silence. Of darkness. Of…nothing.

“Where is my child, Lord? Why won’t You give him back to me?” He lets his face sink into his hands in shame. “I didn’t mean to shout, Lord. I didn’t. I’m sorry…

Not knowing what else to say, he adds a hasty ‘Amen’.

He walks over to the old Dover stove, fills two mugs with coffee, and goes outside. He’ll just put the one mug on the windowsill of the bungalow as usual, before sitting down in the rickety chair outside the door. Then he’ll do what he does every day: talk to his son inside – and listen to the silence.

The war. That’s what did it. Not immediately, though…later. It was as if the loss of his wife and family grew bigger after the fighting stopped. Maybe, Oom Sakkie thinks, the war provided an outlet for the pent-up emotions in Benjamin’s mind. Pulling a trigger must have provided some relief to his pain. That, and that Himba boy. Fighting released his anger; the boy rekindled love and caring. Then the war ended and the damage began.

“You know, Benjamin,” Oom Sakkie tells the closed door, “I can’t do this much longer. The farm is going to the dogs, I’m getting older and my eyes… And since your mother died, it’s just the two of us. I’m thinking of selling the farm.”

There’s no answer – only the scrape of the tin mug taken from the sill.

***

Inside the darkened bungalow, Sergeant Ben sips the coffee. He feels no pity for his father, sitting outside in the sun. What’s the point of pity? Of feeling? It only hurts. that’s all. It doesn’t fix anything.

Anyway, his life is over. Worthless. Useless. Empty. Dark. If only he was brave enough to end it all.

Putting down the mug, he presses the palms of his hands against his eyes – hard, so that little spots of light flash in the darkness. What is left? He’s lost everything, everything, due to the war – and politics. For a while after 1994, he was hopeful that the sacrifices added up to something. But then, over the years, it became all to evident that so many young lives were ruined on the altar of politics. At first there was Apartheid – and now there is Apartheid again; only the other way around. Farmers get killed, women get raped, the police are progressively getting to be as corrupt as the politicians…there is no light. No light at all.

He told the doctors so, of course. They gave pills. It didn’t help. They gave him electric shocks. It made him feel worse. More pills.

Alcohol helped. It made him forget and allowed sleep. But then they took it away. His father – his own father – made sure there was no alcohol around to allow him to escape his thoughts. Dark thoughts. Thoughts filled with broken young bodies and blood and screams. His own father denied him the oblivion that took the thoughts away.

Fine. If that’s the way it has to be, then he’ll have no further part in the Life Outside. The Life Outside is a madhouse of power-hungry egomaniacs. What’s the use of playing their game? Look at what has happened after the war: has things improved? Of course not… It is far better to sit out life in darkness than to live a pretend-life out there, where values are false. Politicians are false. Even the people are false. There’s nothing to live for, nothing to dream about. It’s all so useless…

If his father cared, he would have helped him. A real father would have, wouldn’t he? He, Benjamin Jakobus Liebenberg, will beg no more. He doesn’t care any more. Life, he knows, is a four-letter word, nothing more…

Benjamin  Liebenberg, unkempt, unclean, depressed and lonely, doesn’t cry any more. His tears have left him after the electric shocks; but the limitless melancholy of his pointless existence bears down on him so heavily, that he lies down on the floor, holding the pillow to his face so that his father won’t hear his sobs.

***

Oom Sakkie is about to return to the kitchen, when he sees the line of cars approaching. People? Coming here? Why…?

There’s been a lot of talk about farm attacks lately. Just the other day, an entire family was killed near Keimoes – for two cellphones and a few Rand. Four people dead, and the police have yet to open the docket. That’s what the newspaper said, anyway.

The old man shuffles over to the cupboard next to his bed to get the loaded shotgun. If those vermin want to rob him, he’ll be ready for them. Oh yes, they’ll get it! The damn country has taken his son and his daughter-in-law and his grandson. There are talks about land reform and nationalisation. His savings are worth half of what it was before the politicians started buggering up everything.

Taking position behind the threadbare curtain, he raises the gun.

Do they want to attack a defenceless old man who still has to look after the remains of what his son once was? No way! He’ll teach them!

He squints to make out the handsome black man gets out of the first car to stop. The man seems to be unsure, then, glancing around, he approaches the house.

Oom Sakkie Liebenberg doesn’t see the other people alighting. He focusses on the black man who wants to steal his meagre possessions. He takes a deep breath, exhales, and aims.

Then, like a good shot should, he slowly curls his index finger to apply pressure to the trigger. The Lord may be the shepherd, but this farm belongs to the Liebenbergs. He’s not going to let anybody take it away…

Eulogy

Photo Credit: Flickr

Photo Credit: Flickr

Oudoom sits in his study, staring at the blank page in front of him. Figuring out what to say as a eulogy at a funeral of a virtual stranger is not an easy thing to do. After all, how can he justify telling the congregation about somebody’s wonderful life; when his only involvement was with Kwaaikarel, the farmer whose nephew had the misfortune of underestimating the amount of cocaine in that last, final snort?

Kwaaikarel is an infrequent visitor to Rolbos. Living far out in the periphery of the district, he is a somewhat strange hermit who avoids human contact as much as possible. When Oudoom asked him about it once, Kwaaikarel simply said people have a way of disappointing him, and he prefers the company of his sheep. Look at the prophets, he said, they sought isolation when they needed to be near God. And that, in Kwaaikarel’s mind, was enough explanation – and he left it at that.

Now, after months of absence, he knocked on Oudoom’s door this afternoon; hat in hand and sorrow written over his face.

“I’m sorry. It’s my nephew. He died. We must bury him. Christianlike, you understand? It’s the least I can do. I have to.” Always stingy with words, Kwaaikarel obviously had great difficulty to string his request together. Long sentences, like people, seem to make him uncomfortable.

It took a good half-an-hour and three cups of coffee before Oudoom got the story. The nephew – one Gert Steyn – was his only relative. He died in Upington, where he worked as a clerk in the post office. A few years ago, Kwaaikarel went to unusual lengths to trace his nephew, because he felt the need to draw up a will.

“I never married, Dominee. My sister married this psychopath, and they had a kid. The man died in a crash. The police were chasing him. Then my sister got cancer. Gert was just out of school. Me and my sister, we didn’t get along. I had told her she married wrong, before the wedding. She told me what I could do with my opinion. Very angry. I didn’t go to the wedding. Or that crook’s funeral. I didn’t even hear about her cancer until months after her death.” Kwaaikarel needed another cup of coffee before he could continue.

“I’m not getting younger. The farm isn’t worth much. I don’t want the State to take my farm if I die. So I got a lawyer in Upington to draw up a will. He said maybe I should talk to Gert. I didn’t want to. But I went back to the farm and thought about it. So I went to see him.”

The meeting didn’t go well. The young man didn’t fit in with Kwaaikarel’s idea of what his nephew should be like.

“Long hair. Tattoos. Fancy clothes. Pointed boots. Big silver belt buckle. He had a motorbike and an attitude. Said I never cared for his mother. I didn’t get a chance to tell him why I was there. So I told him he looked like the devil and left.”

Somehow the morgue got hold of Kwaaikarel’s address (there are no phones in that stretch of the Kalahari) and they sent a man all the way out there to inform him of his nephew’s death.

“I didn’t like Gert. He was arrogant. Used drugs. All those devils tattooed all over. And he was right. I should have cared for my sister. Shouldn’t have stayed away after her husbands funeral. Shouldn’t have felt I told her so. Shouldn’t have been angry at her.” The deeply tanned hand wiped away a troublesome tear. “Now he’s dead. You must bury him. You and me, we’ll do it. The body will be here tomorrow.”

Kwaaikarel apparently settled the bill with the funeral parlour, arranged for the body to be transported to his farm, and had dug the grave himself. Once the coffin was delivered, he planned to ask the driver and his labourer to help him get the coffin in the grave.

“Then you can say a few words. Maybe we can sing a hymn. At least it’ll be Christianlike.”

Oudoom couldn’t refuse. Here was a man, already living at the outer edges of society, asking a favour. If he refused, it’ll just ostracise the hermit to an even greater degree. Yes, he said, he’d do it. He’ll be there around lunch time the next day.  Oudoom offered to do a prayer with Kwaaikarel, but he refused, saying thank you and Mevrou makes good coffee.

Now, the only thoughts in Oudoom’s mind are those concerned with grief. Grief and sorrow about wasted opportunities. Chances to fix things that were never taken. Soft words that could have avoided so many year’s worth of bitterness.  Simple little kind gestures that could have prevented the rift in this broken family from becoming an abyss of hate and misunderstanding.  And now he has to go and say nice things to make Kwaaikarel feel better about his past…

***

The sun beats down mercilessly as Oudoom negotiates  the rutted track to Kwaaikarel’s  mud-and-brick homestead next to the creaking wind pump. A surprisingly thin goat (most probably the milk supply of the farm) pokes at a shrub with a dusty foot as if admonishing it for its lack of foliage.  The disinterested grrr-arf! tells Oudoom where the grey old dog is sleeping on the porch. The place has the run-down look of a slowly dying animal.

The grave is just beyond the house, dug into the soft sand of a slow rise in the ground. Kwaaikarel has dragged out a chair and is sitting there, hat in hand, staring at the coffin in the hole. He doesn’t look up as Oudoom’s shoes crunch their way across the gravel.

“I should have done more.” The whisper floats away on the slight breeze. “Could have done more…”

Oudoom clears his throat.

“I tried to think of something nice to say…” His eyes rest on the coffin, varnished and shining in the grave. “But that would be stupid. Things happened. Life went on. Choices were made. Nothing I can say now, will change it.” Oudoom looks down at the tears on Kwaaikarel’s cheeks, wishing it was easier to lie. Eu-logy … Good Words. What good are words, afterwards? “We have to live with our pasts, Karel. We can’t change that. But we can learn from it…”

The drone of an approaching vehicle makes him hesitate. Both men turn to see the streak of dust on the track leading to the house. Kwaaikarel opens his mouth to protest, thinks about it, and clams up. No need to start a fight next to a grave. He glances up to Oudoom, and is surprised to see the pastor smiling.

The old Land Rover strains to a stop next to the house. They’re all there: Vetfaan, Kleinpiet, Gertruida, Boggel, Precilla – dressed in their Sunday best. Without a word, they take up position next to the grave.

“Good words…” Oudoom’s voice is suddenly filled with new enthusiasm. “Good words are for the living, Karel, not for the dead. Good words are there to direct your future, not to glorify the past. Good words serve to encourage and support. Good words are the friends that will journey with you even when the route is uncharted and uncertain.

“And today, we want to be good words for you. All of us. If you allow us, we’ll be here to help.”

He pauses a moment in thought, decides he’s said enough, and says: “Amen.”

***

Gertruida says it shows you: nothing in life is permanent. Kwaaikarel is an excellent example, she says; look at the way he’s changed. Despite his name and his past, it took a funeral to make him visit Boggel’s Place every two weeks or so. She says they will see: one of these days he’ll attend one of Oudoom’s services again. Not for good words, but for The Word. An eulogy, according to Gertruida, should tell us where to go and not where we’ve been…

Lance Armstrong – Unjust Fairness?

“So Lance finally admitted.” Vetfaan sits back to survey the group at the counter. “That must have been very hard.”

Gertruida isn’t impressed at all. “The world thinks that’s big. Huge. But they are concentrating on sportsmen.     That’s wrong.”

“Such are the wages of sin…” Servaas says with his holier-than-thou face. “He connived and crooked his way to the top. He tried to fool everybody. No, I’m not sorry for him. They should take away every medal he ever won – even as a child.”

“That’s harsh, Servaas.” Gertruida sits back to study the old man. He’s dressed in his black suit again, a sure sign that he is disgusted about something. Now the cause of his indignation is clear, she finds his argument one-sided and short-sighted. “Sure he did wrong. Every sports administrator and anybody-who’s-somebody in sport are up in arms, standing there with innocent faces and declaring what a terrible thing he did. I can understand that; and it’s right that people should demand drug-free competition. But…”

“Oh  please, there are no buts, Gertruida!  Wrong is wrong!” Even the bushy eyebrows tremble in righteous anger.

“That’s my point, Servaas.” Her tone is gentle, like when you explain something simple to a child. “If everybody gets on their high horses about this one, they should do it across the board with everybody who uses devious ways to attain a certain position in life. Now let’s see…”

What about politicians who use drugs? Huh, Servaas? Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barak Obama, New York Mayor – Michael Bloomberg? If they admitted to using drugs, must we strip them of their fame? Erase them from political history?

And what about the entertainers everybody loves so much? Michael Jackson and Elvis paid for their drug abuse with their lives, and still their records sell. Should we not stand back and tell ourselves that was wrong and stop listening to them?

Let’s consider testosterone, Servaas. Robbie Williams admitted to using it. So did Jane Fonda on her book. Why didn’t anybody – anybody – say anything to that?

And what about other means of fooling the masses? Broken campaign promises and corruption are much worse than somebody pedalling across the Alps faster than anybody else. Turning a blind eye to rhino poaching surely deserves a public outcry and the demand for whoever is responsible to be publicly shamed? I’m not talking about the guy who pulls the trigger – I’m talking about the officials who allow and encourage it.

Talking about fooling the masses – what about churches? Men of the frock with their little fetishes. Paedophile priests. Why don’t we see the same reaction across the globe when church leaders overstep the mark?

And finally, what about Robert Mugabe? Zuma? You think they lead spotless lives? They expelled Julius Malema, who said there were 700 charges of fraud and crime against Zuma. Do you think people care about that? It’s not just an African problem either – Italy, France, the World Bank…the list is endless.

“So, Servaas, I think you must be fair. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, my friend. Either we condemn drugs and crime in all cases, or we must crawl into a burrow somewhere and try to convince ourselves the world is a just and a fair place.”

By this time Servaas has cupped his head in his hands. It is just too much. His whisper is almost inaudible.

Poor Lance…”