Tag Archives: fear

Coulrophobia is alive and well..

12060d75ff7931e6cad9fc882e79b3ce.jpg“I think it started with The Joker in the Batman movies. That guy was as evil as they come, and boy, was I scared of him! Although…,” Servaas smiles wickedly, “I sort of admired his stupidity. Imagine taking on Batman? It’s a one-horse race, but still he didn’t give up. Evil would never trump Good, yet it didn’t prevent The Joker from trying.”

Gertruida nods. “Yep. A real bad guy. Wikipedia describes him as: ‘ a criminal mastermind. Introduced as a psychopath with a warped, sadistic sense of humor…‘ Interestingly, he associated himself with various criminal elements, like the Injustice Gang and Injustice League. In short, a very realistic figure who resonates quite remarkably with us  – almost 80 years after he was first created. Interestingly, The Joker was created on April 25, 1940, just about two years before our prez was born.”

“Amazing coincidence, Gertruida. To create such characters in the middle of WW II might represent some form of logic. I mean, while everybody is shooting at everybody else, it is only natural that that period of time gave birth to some rather strange characters. I mean, Bob Hewitt was also born in 1940.”

“Ooooh…you just can’t generalise like that, Servaas! Some good people also started life in that year. Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Kitch Christie, Eddie Barlow, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert – to name only a few.” Despite her stern tone, Gertruida pats her old friend’s shoulder. “It’s not the year, Servaas. It’s not the war. We simply have to stop blaming the past for everything – as if it absolves us from all blame and gives us the right to condemn modern society.

“The choice to become a criminal is a purposeful movement away from what is just and fair – by the individual. It is he or she who decides to swindle others in the community and steal or murder or act unlawfully. To blame it on circumstances is the original cop-out. To blame it on racism or apartheid or whatever other wrong, has become the norm – but think about it. Is it justifiable to engage in criminal activity because Jan van Riebeeck started something in the Cape, establishing a world-renowned and terribly strategic port? So successful was his endeavour that we may not breathe a word about ‘colonialism’ today.”

“That’s  Greek word, isn’t it?”

“It is. The Greek word kolon, means ‘limb’, and because of stilts, was also associated with clowns. Of course, if you say ‘kolon’ today, people hear ‘colon’ and think about the temporary store for stuff the body wants to dispose of.”

“Huh?”

“Ag Servaas! The word coulrophobia has it’s origins in the way the old Greeks amused themselves. Some men would walk about on stilts and thus try to be funny. They elongated their kolons to appear comical. They were the original clowns, see? So, in an obscure way, the word Kolon is the parent word for colony (a limb of the sovereign nation) as well as for clown.”

“So, if a colony is run by a kolon, we get coulrophobia?”

“The pathological fear of clowns? Just so, my ancient friend, just so.”

Mrs Basson’s Whisper (# 5)

vredeFiona Basson sits slumped in the passenger seat as Fanny negotiates the track leading to Rolbos, her face buried in her hands.  Before 1994 the road had been maintained in a relatively good condition, but now the ruts and potholes combine to force vehicles to slow down  an impatient crawl.

“So much has changed,” Fanny tries to keep the conversation going. “much like this road.” She wants to add: and your life, but doesn’t. “The country has slipped into a spiral of crime and corruption and the government is losing the plot. But, I suppose, life goes on, doesn’t it?”

Mrs Basson doesn’t respond.

***

Vrede is one of those dogs.

He doesn’t bark.

He doesn’t snarl.

He sniffs….

It’s been his life, you see? Before he ended up in Rolbos, he was an important link in the fight against drugs and crime. That’s before he realised how crooked the system was. Now, although he retains the skills, he abhors the system. Sure, he loves the life in Rolbos – it’s so simple, straightforward, uncomplicated. But an old dog doesn’t unlearn old habits…nor the lessons learnt in the past.

When Fanny gets out of the vehicle to jog around to open the passenger door, Vrede looks up, ears vertical, nose sniffing the scent of fear and uncertainty. This is the most common human scent. In fact, it is the first thing his nose recognised when he was still a puppy. Humans, he eventually understood, were habitually under stress. Rejection, mostly. Humans feared rejection.

Vrede doesn’t understand this. Whenever he meets other dogs, they sniff, prance and parade about a bit – just to get to know each other a little better. If you don’t like the new face, you raise a few neck hairs, strutt with stiff legs and lift an upper lip. The alternative is to start biting away, which is bound to be painful and rather unnecessary. Most dogs, Vrede will tell you, prefer to avoid painful confrontations – is so stupid.

But when Fiona Basson alights from the vehicle, Vrede knows. The heavy sense of despair wafts around the woman like a dense cloud, carrying the message of hopeless depression. She is, Vrede realises, lost in a dark, lonely world where joy and beauty died a long time ago.

He wags his tail to tell her not to worry, he’s just the town-dog; the friendly protector of the weak. He likes to think of himself as the people’s keeper; the faithful one; the wet nose with the caring eyes.

Arf,” he says softly in what he assumes is a friendly manner.

Fiona Basson – already a picture of hesitant uncertainty – freezes next to Fanny’s car, staring at the dog.

Arf, arf,” he tries again before lowering his body to the ground. Then, in a move his trainers  would have been proud of, he leopard-crawls towards her. He wants her to know he’s her best friend – in her whole, wide, empty world. Look, he’s saying, I’m not judging you. Im not here to criticize or reject you. I’m just me, Vrede, and I’ve been given a really apt name by the kind folks of the town. Oh, by the way, you didn’t happen to bring along a bit of biltong, did you? 

The townsfolk watch in amazement as Fiona bends down to pat the panting head. Is that a smile hovering on her lips? A smile?

Gertruida – because she knows everything – motions the group back to the bar with a commanding whisper.

“Leave her with Vrede for a while. Lets go inside and wait. Oh, and Kleinpiet? Go get her a chair – she’ll be much more comfortable, then. Precilla: where’s that nice straw hat with the broad brim? Won’t you fetch it for her?”

***

Wait…there’s something else – something subtle, hidden below the fear and the loneliness. Sniff. Sniff-sniff. Yes, it’s there, all too clear to ignore. Guilt. Tons and tons of guilt in her scent. I wonder why?

Fiona accepts the hat and the chair without acknowledging them. Gertruida wonders whether she even noticed it.

Arf? What is it with this woman? I’m not used to this smell any more. Way back then…yes, it was common. But here in Rolbos I’ve almost forgotten what guilt smells like. Except on Sundays, of course. When Oudoom puts on the strange black coat and starts talking from the platform in front of the church, I always detect a bit of guilt…even self-pity. It isn’t overwhelming, though: mostly I smell hangovers and boredom.

Hey, please don’t tell Oudoom this, will you? Whenever he feels unwanted, he smells of frustration. I don’t like that.

Fiona reaches out to scratch a spot behind Vrede’s left ear. The dog smiles up at her and thumps his tail on the ground, raising a small cloud of dust.

There. No, a little more towards the back. Yup, right there. Arf. Thank you, Sad Lady. That feels good. I wonder if you’d mind if I licked your hand? Just to show I like this? Some people don’t like licks. Mevrou scolds me when I try, but she’s just being herself, I suppose. She thinks I’m dirty or something. Gertruida once told her it’s my way of kissing, but Mevrou had such a creepy shudder and said she’d never allow even Oudoom to do something like that.

Lick.

Hey, she likes it. Lick-lick. Lick-lick-lick… 

“Oh no! He’s licking her hand. Argh! Slobbering all over her. Ugh! And now he’s going for her cheek!” Mevrou digs out a handkerchief from beneath her blouse to wipe her face. “Somebody! Go help that woman. Vrede’s going to give her some disease!”

Gertruida puts a reassuring hand on Mevrou’s shoulder.

“Not to worry, Mevrou. Fanny did a very clever thing to bring Fiona here. Look at her with Vrede: the two of them are getting along quite nicely, don’t you think? Vrede’s doing what people couldn’t – he’s making her reach out to something on the other side of her isolation. She’s just unlocked a closed door – and maybe it isn’t wide open yet, but it’s a start.”

“Well, you guys can’t just sit here and spy on the poor woman. Let’s have something to drink, then we’ll figure out how to help Fiona break down a few walls.” Boggel places the small glasses on the counter. Then, after pouring generous helpings in each, her shuffles back to the store room. There’s a nice piece of biltong back there – one with a thick layer of fat on the side. He knows he shouldn’t spoil Vrede like this, but today that dog certainly deserves a treat.

From: Tosca, by Puccini.

I lived for my art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Always with true faith
my prayer
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?

The Bullet (# 1)

10Of course the conversation ceased when the man walked down Voortrekker Weg. Not only is it unusual for Rolbos to be the final destination of any traveller, there was something else: it felt as if the man brought with him an atmosphere of ‘assured silence’ – as Gertruida tried to explain it later. Barefoot, dressed in his sheepskin coat and carrying his stick, he reminded Oudoom of an Old Testament prophet…or at least somebody with a story to tell.

For once, Oudoom was right…

Boggel got on his crate to stare at the man: tall, handsome in a rugged way; with finely chiselled African features. The liquid-chocolate eyes blinked once when he entered Boggel’s Place before he smiled uncertainly in greeting.

Gertruida noticed the gap between the upper teeth – and the missing four lower incisors – and whispered to Precilla sitting next to her. “A Himba?” Although she said it as a question, she was fairly sure she’s right.

She was, as usual.

Tjike…” The man lowered his eyes when he noticed the people in the bar. Realising that it was his way of saying hello, Gertruida twisted her tongue around the word in return.

“I speak English,” the man said kindly, “and I need to find Sergeant Ben. That’s why I am here.”

“Um…” Vetfaan faltered, unsure how too continue, ” we only have Sergeant Dreyer here. He’s the policeman.”

The man frowned, held up a hand; uncertainty – even fear – in his eyes. “Police?”

“Don’t worry. He’s not like that – he’s one of us.” Gertruida motioned for the man to come in. “Come sit here. You walked to Rolbos? You must be thirsty.”

“Ja, and we’ve been discussing the drought for days now.” Vetfaan smiled his encouragement. “We’d like to have something else to talk about. You’ve come far…so tell us about this Sergeant Ben?”

The man sat down with a relieved sigh. “I have to give Sergeant Ben something. It’s a matter of honour…”

***

It was a day like any other. The sun beat down on the little kraal where the women sat in front of the huts, watching the smaller children play in the dust. The men and older boys were out in the veld, keeping watch over the flock of goats and cattle. The drought caused them to roam wider into their ancestral territory, looking for patches of withered grass in the mountainous region. And water, of course. Always water. Late at night, around their fires, they told each other that something very bad must have happened; why else would the drought be so severe? The earth was unhappy: they knew the clouds would not release the rain when new growth would only serve to feed evil.

They knew about the war, of course. Only the previous week they heard the crump of distant explosions. They didn’t know the sound, didn’t recognise the crackle of automatic weapons – but they did understand that people were killing each other.

They had speculated about that. Why would men find it necessary to kill each other? Was Life not something to protect and preserve? All life – even that of the goats – had a purpose. Killing an animal to feed the hungry mouths in the kraal had a purpose. Killing a man…? And they had a long conversation around the fire, eventually agreeing that whatever reason the men had for such killing, must be wrong.

That’s why, the old men said, the rain stayed away.

23On that day the women sat in the sun, grinding ochre and hoping their husbands and sons would find a protected valley with grass and fresh water. Without their cattle and goats, they’d never survive. In the meantime, the best thing to do was to see to it that there were enough ochre and fat – when the men returned, they wanted to look their best.

It was one of the little boys who saw the three men running towards the kraal.

“Look! Look! Men are coming – and they’re not Himba.”

IMG_2163The First Wife, Miriam, glanced over to see what the boy was shouting about. When her husband was away, all authority and responsibility rested on her shoulders. At first she hoped the men would go past the kraal, leaving them in peace – but soon realised that was not to be. The men carried guns and that meant they have to be soldiers. They rushed through the kraal’s entrance without asking permission, brushing aside the two little boys who gaped at them.

“Hide! We must hide!” The biggest of the three grabbed one of the boys, holding him up like a puppy. “And you lot will shut up. When the others come, you say nothing! Nothing!”

***

By now the entire population of Rolbos has gathered in the bar, listening to the Himba telling his tale. He sips his bottled water as he watches their faces – allowing the pause to create images in the minds of his audience. Telling a story – especially one as important as this – is an art. Rushing to the end won’t do. On the other hand, if the tempo is too slow, the listener loses interest. As a veteran of many a camp fire, the Himba understands the fine balance needed between telling, pausing, and feeding his audience just enough to keep them hungry for more. He knows every listener needs to become an observer of the unfolding scenes, making them see the story rather than simply listening to it. In this way, the observer becomes a participant – for is it not so that every story has the power to change people?

That’s why he sits back, allowing the image of the kraal, the desperate soldiers, the horrified First Wife and the frightened boy to become a reality in the little bar in Rolbos. And, like he knew it would, he watches faces change from mild interest to reflect the emotion he felt when that soldier grabbed him and dragged him into the sacred interior of the First House…

“And then…?” Vetfaan asks, his beer forgotten on the counter in front of him.

“Ah, yes. That’s when the horses came. The horses with the men and their guns. Many of them…”

Fanny’s Surprise (# 12)

When they walk into Boggel’s Place, all conversation ceases. Fanny looks…gorgeous. As for Vetfaan, one can only look at his smile to guess what has happened. The two of them are, however, mildly surprised at the gloomy atmosphere.

“Welcome back,” Boggel says unenthusiastically as he slides over two cold beers.

“Ja, we’re glad to see you guys again,” Precilla adds in a quiet voice.

Vetfaan stops, lets go of Fanny’s hand and scrutinises the small crowd. He exchanges a worried glance with Fanny before asking the obvious question.

“Oh…nothing. Not much really.” Gertruida seems uncommonly uncomfortable. “We’re okay, I guess.”

“Come on, guys. Don’t do this to us. Something terrible happened, didn’t it?” By now Vetfaan doesn’t have to speculate – he knows: whatever it is, it affects them all.

“Well,” even Gertruida seems at loss for words, “It’s complicated…”

Fanny’s father phoned, soon after she and Vetfaan had set off into the veld. Nobody understood what was going on and when the man asked where his daughter was, they could honestly say they didn’t know.

“And then, Fanny, he told us why he phoned. It’s about Henry…”

The yearly audit was scheduled for the beginning of May. Three days ago, the chauffeur dropped Henry at work, as usual. Everybody has to check in at Security before entering the massive building, but Henry didn’t. Somewhere between the curb and the check-point, Henry disappeared. Just like that. Into thin air. Not only is his family frantic about his safety, but as the Chief Financial Officer of his family’s conglomerate of companies, his presence is crucial for the audit.

“So, Fanny, Henry is missing. I’m sorry I have to break this news to you, but there’s no other way. They don’t know where he is. You have to phone your father immediately, my dear. He’s hoping you might give them a clue about his plans, whereabouts, you know?”

Fanny blanches, sways and collapses against Vetfaan’s chest. For a moment he is confused, upset, for why is she reacting this way? Surely their talk last night settled a lot of issues? She said Henry is a good, boring, friend – and that saying goodbye to him would be the easiest thing in the world. Now, however, she seems unsettled at the thought he might be in danger. Nevertheless, he escorts her to a chair, sits her down, and nods at Boggel. He knows what to do. In times like these, he serves double Cactuses, (Gertruida calls it Cacti)  – the nodder will settle the bill later.

“The phone is here, behind the counter, Fanny.” Boggel puts his crate down next to it. “You can use it to call your dad.”

Everybody suddenly remembers they had something to do. Servaas wants to see Oudoom in connection with Sunday’s service. Gertruida wants to fetch her knitting, it’s such a nice day on the veranda.  Kleinpiet and Precilla has to check on something. (?) And Boggel says he has to get some dog food for Vrede at Sammie’s, he’s all out.

Of course they do nothing of the sort. They all gather on the veranda and take turns to peek through the window. They won’t hear a word, but will know when Fanny is finished with the call.

Fanny’s father is overjoyed to hear his daughter’s voice.

Yes, Henry went missing. Not the faintest idea where he went, but apparently his passport is gone, as well. Oh, they’ve alerted all the airports, but so far, nothing has turned up.

And yes, everybody’s worried. The provisional data – prepared for the audit – reveals a shocking state of affairs. There are major discrepancies in the figures.

Henry, who controlled the financial aspects of his family’s companies, had apparently withdrawn huge amounts of cash since the last audit. With their suspicions aroused, the team of accountants employed to work under Henry now started following the trail of these funds.

I’m sorry to tell you, Fanny, but Henry has been gambling with Futures and Forex on a massive scale. Hugely so. In the beginning he apparently had some success, but then the market turned and he lost almost all of the initial investments. Then he fell into the oldest gambler’s trap: using more and more money just to get back to square one.

Banks have floundered because of such things. Somewhere along the line, the situation becomes completely unrecoverable. Their empire won’t survive this knock, Fanny, they’re practically bankrupt.

Fanny replaces the receiver with trembling hands. Henry? A crook? A fraudster? Quiet, boring Henry – a gambler?

Boggel shuffles in to refill her glass. Vetfaan is at her side, laying a soft hand on her shaking shoulder.  Her eyes search the face of the burly man as if she wants to draw strength from his presense. Struggling with the words, she tells them the news.

“I trusted him, Fanie. I thought he was a good man.”

“Harrumph!” Gertruida lets out one of her rare snorts. “Good men? I’d like to see one.” Her attempt at humour fails miserably. “Listen Fanny, there’s something wrong with the thought that people are inherently good. Somewhere inside each of us is an invisible line we should never cross. But we do. Whether we gossip or steal or murder – it’s all the same. Once that line is crossed people change: maybe it’s something small or maybe it’s planting a bomb in Boston – the potential is always there that some person will do the unthinkable.

“Now, whatever Henry did, we’ll only know when the facts emerge. The question that must be answered, is why? Why would a young man with a bright future take such risks? He did – and there must have been a reason.”

“Well, he certainly made a cock-up with this.” Servaas knits his furry eyebrows together indignantly. “His poor family. All those companies. That vast wealth…”

Fanny nods. “Dad says their assets aren’t enough now. Apparently they borrowed heavily when they expanded the hotel chain, and now their liabilities are just too much.”

“I have a feeling…” This time it’s Gertruida’s nod that sets up the next round. “Just a feeling… It is quite possible that Henry might rock up here sometime.”

This time, the fear in Fanny’s eyes is unmistakable. 

The Fear of Love

http://www.google.co.za/imgres?hl=en&tbo=d&biw=1280&bih=677&tbm=isch&tbnid=mIwO0k_GSiqSsM:&imgrefurl=http://footage.shutterstock.com/clip-2317613-stock-footage-young-man-jumps-on-trampoline-with-net-around-closeup-view-from-above.html&docid=U5qw-47281GfxM&imgurl=http://ak2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/2209672/preview/stock-footage-young-woman-jumping-in-the-desert-slow-motion.jpg&w=400&h=224&ei=omMPUcfnHIzL0AWokIGIBw&zoom=1&ved=1t:3588,r:75,s:0,i:311&iact=rc&dur=7659&sig=116956095411488671931&page=5&tbnh=164&tbnw=300&start=75&ndsp=20&tx=138&ty=137There was a moment, out there next to his bakkie, when Vetfaan found himself staring at Anna Bruski. She stood at the side of the road, taking in the emptiness of the Kalahari, while they waited for the police to arrive. By that time, Vetfaan had hidden the briefcase behind the seat of his vehicle.

They didn’t talk much. There was nothing to say. Ahmed and his giant bodyguard were trussed up, the danger had passed and the police were taking their time. Anna seemed withdrawn, as if the magnitude of everything she had done over the past few years suddenly weighed her down.

She looked quite attractive, standing there with her back towards him. Sexy, even. The cascade of hair softened the square shoulders but there was an unmistakable femininity about the curve of her hips and the way the white skirt flapped lazily in the breeze, affording the occasional glimpse of a tanned thigh. Feet slightly apart, arms almost at rest at her sides. A faceless figure, lost in the timeless beauty of the Kalahari.

Something stirred in Vetfaan’s mind. A memory, A thought. An image of a girl he once knew – or maybe a collective collage of images of all the women he had known in his life. Each unique, yet all the same.

Women, Vetfaan had decided a long time ago, have a strange tendency to leave him feel unfulfilled and empty. Oh, there’s always  the rush of excitement and the overwhelming fascination in the beginning. It’s a caveman instinct, Gertruida once said. The big, hairy man with the club, out on a hunt to drag home his newest conquest. Tonight he’ll see the stars in her eyes, the moonlight in her hair. Tomorrow he’ll wonder what on earth made him think she’d be different to the rest.

“Women, Vetfaan, are all different and all the same. They want to be possessed and they want to be free. It’s a heady mix of ownership and being owned. You get the mix right, and they’ll tell you they love you. Get it wrong, and your life is hell.”

Gertruida was, as always, right. In his stumbling efforts to be somebody special to somebody special, it was this relationship between having and letting go that confused him completely. In Vetfaan’s mind, love means exclusivity. That, he realised a long time ago, restricts freedom. He has to let go of his own freedom to grant his woman the right to be herself. In effect, it turns him into a fraud – how else? To be free in the captivity of his love, he has to renounce who he really is. It meant that he had to let go of his own desire to be happy in order to make someone else happy – and hope that she in turn, would make him happy again.

He  told Gertruida so. He said he was happy already, thank you. Why go through the schlep of changing? If he was already happy in life, why complicate things by letting it go – in order to have someone else make you feel better about having had to change? Happiness, he said, is happiness. Full stop. If you have it, cherish it. Don’t kill it in the hope that it’ll rise again, Phoenix-like, from the ruins of your sacrifice.

Gertruida laughed at him, saying he was being ridiculous. She said you can’t be happy alone. Happiness, she said, comes from the realisation you were created to be part of a community. For that to happen, you slot into society at large – as well as with special people who you want to share time with. And, she said, you want to spend time with these people, because they make you happy. Amongst this selected few, there’ll be the one…

It was one of those endless discussions that went round and round in circles, with no solution and no result. It ended when Vetfaan told Gertruida she was being too theoretical. If she really believed in what she was saying, she would have been married to some professor. Gertruida got a far-away look as she thought of Ferdinand. She wanted to say – but didn’t, of course – that love makes you happy. And even if the loved one is long departed, he or she can still bring a smile to your lips on cold and lonely evenings.  True love, something Vetfaan doesn’t understand, carries the fulfilment of the promise of joy – and that isn’t dependent on being together all the time. Gertruida knew better than to draw Vetfaan into that argument.

These thoughts surfaced in his mind as Vetfaan watched the trim figure of Anna Bruski. She’s a beautiful, intelligent girl who’s had the terrible misfortune of falling into a different type of captivity. Her freedom had been taken away from her to leave her a broken and bewildered woman. Men have abused her. Society had simply turned away, preferring not to notice the women and children who get sold as sex slaves. And she, Anna, got so caught up in the intricate web of lies and money, that she now felt lost and helpless. Her sick and convoluted way of trying to make sense out of her life depended on a certain set of circumstances. With Ahmed facing a lifetime in jail, the fragile card-house of Anna’s universe collapsed in an untidy heap.

Vetfaan realised it was in his power to free her from her past. He could take her back to his farm, feed her up and rest her out. They could have normal conversations about normal things. She could fit into a new society and start rebuilding her life. And then, slow moment after slow moment, they’d find themselves more and more involved, more and more attracted to each other. One dark night hands would reach out, lips would meet. She’d tell him he was the best thing that ever happened to her.They’d call it love and marvel at the wonder of it all. He’d buy a ring. She’d be ecstatic.

And then, one morning, he’d notice the way she looked at him when she woke up. A faint scowl, mouth corners surrendering to gravity. And he’d start noticing other things. Her silences. Forced smiles. Or the pictures on the wall would be changed around. Or she’d finish all the warm water while showering. She’d be too neat, or untidy. Maybe she’d use his razor. Complain that he spent too much time at Boggel’s. Small things. Insignificant things.

And he’d be unhappy because he wanted her to be happy; his efforts too weak to be rewarded by his own happiness.

“You’ll have to go back to Poland,” he said to her back.

“Yes,” she whispered.

Two people out in the desert. Two souls longing to share, to be part of something bigger. Two lonely hearts, doomed to remain in captivity because the fear of loving was bigger than the fear of being honest.

“It’s better that way,” he said.

She nodded. Lies had been part of her life for so long; one more didn’t matter.

Fear and Terror

“I remember when I was the most afraid in my life. It was during the war. I was horrible.” Vetfaan can now smile about the experience; it fits in nicely with the conversation tonight. Gertruida started it when they all sat there, quietly drinking during a lull in their talk. She has an uncanny knack of getting things going again. “It was a sandy track up in the northern Caprivi. We were approaching a suspicious-looking group – very softly, very slowly – when I felt my foot go down on something harder than what the sand should have felt like. Then there was a soft ‘click’. Just like that.” He taps his glass against one of his teeth to demonstrate. “That’s when I realised it was a landmine.”

Like any good story teller should, Vetfaan sits back, gives a guffaw and signals for a new beer. He seems oblivious of the anxious faces around him as he starts sipping. The silence stretches on.

“Oh, come on, Vetfaan! What happened?” Servaas is in no mood for suspense.

“What?”

“The landmine?”

“Oh…”

Boggel can see this is going nowhere. He has a sudden flashback to the dark little room behind the pantry in the orphanage. It was once used as a store room for extra supplies, but the dwindling support of the orphanage eventually ensured that it remained empty. Once it had been a place of plenty – later it was useful as a mini-torture chamber.

Oh, there weren’t all kinds of racks and electric wires and red-hot irons – it was much worse than that. The darkness and the silence saw to that. Old Mister Kotze saw to that. He was an expert.

It started when Mister Kotze slipped on the crumbling step up to the kitchen. He’d sneak up there after the children had been (forcefully) put to bed and the lights were off. That’s when the old man unpacked the donations that came from Women’s Organisations, congregations and other well-meaning individuals. And that’s when he gorged himself with all the chocolates and sweets that should have gladdened the orphan’s hearts. So, when he fell, the children said a collective prayer of thanks, renewed in their faith that God, indeed, was on their side.

For a day they marvelled at this justice. Mister Kotze broke his right arm, the one he caned them with for any and all insignificant reasons.  Their reprieve was short-lived. Kotze started using the dark little room to mete out his perception of justice. First, he’d give a long and angry speech to his victim, calling down the wrath of all that’s holy on the hapless child. Then he’d describe – in graphic and lurid detail – how the demons and the devil will visit that dark room to torment the prisoner because of his or her unspeakable sins.  The reasons for confinement were many: ranging from an untidy pillow on the bed, to a speck of dirt on the old yellowwood floor. Mister Kotze was famous for his reasons – he thought them out as he went along from bed to bed on the morning inspections.

Boggel – like the rest of the children – spent many hours in that room, fighting the monsters that lurked in the dark. Some children couldn’t stand it, and would shout and scream hysterically for hours at end while Kotze smirked and told everybody such are the wages of sin. Grietjie Maritz made drawings of the demons that tormented her. The other children looked and said yes, that’s exactly what they saw, too. That was one of the few times the orphans actually saw Mister Kotze laughing. He really enjoyed those pictures. Later, he confiscated them and used it as visual aids during his pre-confinement lectures. It proved to be very effective.

Grietjie didn’t draw any pictures after that.

Life is full of coincidences. When Boggel had to leave the orphanage at the age of eighteen, two other boys – Bangbroek le Roux and Snotneus Pretorius – also celebrated their last day as official orphans. They were adults now, on their way to Upington to find their way in the big, wide world out there. A world without little dark rooms, where demons eagerly awaited your stay; to torture you about your many sins and inadequacies.  No Mister Kotze to inspect the way you arranged your socks on your diminutive shelf. No long, drawn-out lectures of what an excuse for a human being you are. Where you can buy a chocolate bar and enjoy it openly without the fear of the horrible old man snatching it from your grasp.

And it was the three of them – almost-grown men with a too-old grudge – who took Mister Kotze and locked him up in that room.  They thought it was funny. Maybe they thought it was revenge. Maybe it was the most natural thing to do. Whatever they thought, did not include the old man going stark, raving man in the darkness of that room. He lost it completely. When the kitchen staff reported for duty the following day, only his pitiful mewing alerted them to the prisoner in the little room behind the pantry.

Boggel visited him once; there, in the padded cell in the asylum in Kimberley. He hitch-hiked all the way to say he’s sorry, he didn’t mean it like that. He came back two days later with a sheaf of drawings. Horrible pictures. Little-dark-room demons with fangs and talons and teeth; all of them holding forks in their too-small hands. Hands like children’s hands, fitted to devils with fire in their eyes.

Boggel burnt those pictures. All of them.

“Ag, Vetfaan, man! Tell us what happened?”

Vetfaan pretends to wake up from his reverie, shakes his head and says oh! again.

“No, it wasn’t a landmine, after all. I ran off and nothing happened. Then I went back and found it was an old sardine tin. It was rusted, and when I put my foot on it, the tin collapsed, making the sound.“ He gives an embarrassed laugh. “While I was standing there, wetting myself from fear, it was only a sardine tin. I was afraid of something that didn’t exist… My imaginary landmine didn’t exist…” He repeats himself, shaking his head in wonder. To be afraid of a sardine tin..!

Boggel gets off his crate to fetch fresh beers from the store room at the back. Making sure the light is switched on, he collects the bottles and carries them back to the bar.

If only we knew where the sardine cans are hidden in life, he thinks, and where the real landmines await the unwary foot. But, he decides, most demons need a Mister Kotze to give them life. Fear is a natural phenomenon; but terror is a learnt skill.  You have to study it to become an expert in it. Boggel knows this for a fact.

At least, that’s what Mister Kotze said in the only lucid moment he had in that padded cell, before he started drawing devils again. The poor man never discovered the difference between landmines and sardine cans. Some people never do…

Mary’s Fear

Mary Mitchell pulls at the simple frock she’s wearing. It’s the same faded one she had on when she joined the convent, but the intervening years has been harsh; she’s lost quite a bit of weight. In the convent hairstyles didn’t matter so much, so the mousy mop tumbles in an untidy cascade towards her neck.

“I must look a bit like a scarecrow,” she tells the bank manager when she sits down at the polished desk. “I’ve been out of circulation for a while.”

“Not to worry, Miss Mitchell. In this bank we don’t care what you look like; if we can be of service, that’s the thing that counts.. I must say, it’s a bit of a surprise to see you. We have been looking all over for you for – let me see – close on two years.” The manager (the little plaque says he’s Mister John Brown) composes his fingers in a perfect steeple. This young lady phoned him a day ago, asking for an appointment. She said she had away for a while, and now needed to take control of her affairs once more.

Mary doesn’t offer any explanation. She basically wants to know if there is any money in her account, and if she can apply for a personal loan to tide her over until she’s back on her feet.

“I-I was wondering about a loan. I know I left a small balance on my account when I left, but I’m afraid that would have been exhausted by bank costs and admin fees by now. I was thinking of borrowing money to buy some clothes and cover personal expenses until I get my first salary cheque.”

Mr Brown rocks back in his chair slowly, allowing his eyes to rove over the thin woman with the sad face.

“Borrow? Borrow, Miss Mitchell? I don’t understand, I’m sorry.”

“W-w-well yes.” She’s extremely nervous now. Without money, she’s stranded. “Not much, though. Just to get me going, you see…?”

“My dear young lady,” Mr Brown seems astounded at the question. “I’m afraid that will be extremely stupid, if you’ll excuse my language. But it will. Why would the bank lend money to a woman like you? It’s absurd.”

“I have to get clothes … buy things…” she doesn’t trust her voice to continue any further.

“That’s the point, Miss Mitchell.” Mister Brown knits his heavy eyebrows together. “With the balance in your account, you can certainly draw some to cover all that?”

“But I’ll need jeans and blouses, some shoes, maybe a hand bag. You know how expensive thise things are, Mister Brown. We’re talking about two- or three thousand Rands worth of clothing. And then I have to find a place to stay. And what about groceries?”

“My point exactly. Your balance – and I checked it this morning – stands at two million, three-hundred thousand and forty-eight Rand and three cents. Exactly. That’s why I don’t understand…?”

For a moment Mary feels faint and dizzy. She grips the arm rests, squeezes her eyes shut, and takes a deep breath. After a second or two, the feeling passes.

“W-w-what? Where did the money come from?”

“Your father left it. In his will, when he died. It was a pay-out of life insurance.”

This time, everything does go black for a few seconds. Fighting for control, she forces herself to concentrate. Mr Brown notices her discomfort, gets up and pours a glass of water which he hands to her.

“My father is d-d-d-dead?” The idea is preposterous! That monster can’t be dead…

“Yes, my dear, didn’t you know? I’m so sorry.”

Breathing deeply, Mary takes the glass with a trembling hand, sips the water and tries to calm down.

“Are you sure? That he’s dead, I mean? Really?”

Mister Brown explains it was all over the newspapers for an entire week. “They cornered him in Natal, Miss Mitchell. Apparently he was involved in some syndicate….” Suddenly unsure, Mr Brown falters. Whatever that damn paedophile did, this is his daughter for goodness’ sakes! And if she really didn’t know? “Where, exactly, Miss Mitchell, were you for the last few years?”

It’s only after the second cup of tea (milk and three sugars, please) the two of them finally come to understand the situation. Brown is profusely apologetic while Mary tries to hide her embarrassment. Not only didn’t she know (no papers, TV or magazines in Mother Superior’s convent);  that is bad enough; but her main discomfort isn’t the fact that she didn’t know about the shoot-out. It is far worse: flood after flood of relief washes through her as she gets to grip with the thought that she won’t ever have to be afraid of him  – ever again…

It’s ironic, she realises, that the man who wrecked her youth now emerges as the saviour of her future. In life he destroyed her; in death he rescues her.

“Life is strange, Mister Brown.”

“Indeed it is, Miss Mitchell. Now, once you’ve settled, may I suggest we have a chat about investments? That money should work for you, not so?”

***

Upington offers several shops with a great choice in clothing – especially if you’ve got a bit of money to spend. Fashion Focus, on Scott Street, supplied most of her needs and a quick stop at Edgars sorted out cosmetics and personal items. The hair stylist threw up his hands in horror before settling down to work. It took another two hours…

Then, for the first time in her life, she books in to the Oasis Casino Hotel, asks for their presidential suite – and orders room service, a massage and a bottle of champagne, to be delivered in that order. After a long, hot bath, she dresses in the transparent French nightgown she purchased, pours the champagne and picks up the phone.

Yes, she wants a vehicle only tomorrow, thank you. Say … at about nine? No, she’s not sure for how long, but she has this new credit card; would that be alright?

Yet, despite the luxurious feel of silk against her skin and the bubbling glass in her hand, she experiences a new fear. She can’t really put her finger on it: it’s a dull, vague sense that everything isn’t right. For so long her fear centred on her father, and the many childhood memories of what he is – was – capable of. Now that he’s finally gone, it is as if he left a void that must be filled by some other dread; something equal to the horrors she had been used to.

Boggel. Tomorrow she’ll see him again. Last time she visited Rolbos, it was abundantly clear he was smitten by that Italian vixen. Oh, they had a good chat on the way to Rolbos that day. Lucinda told Mary about her life and the many places she had been to. That, and the men. Men seemed to find her attractive, and quite unable to keep their hands off her. Lucinda bragged about that, but then said she wanted to escape from the endless superficial affairs to settle down with a loving man. For some strange reason, women find this type of personal conversation quite natural; and that day Lucinda told Mary more than she would have liked to hear.

Boggel’s reaction towards Lucinda was the final straw. Had he had the courage to mention his feelings towards the pretty Italian, it would have been easier. But the way he looked at her was enough. Mary had hoped – secretly – that Boggel would plead her not to go to the convent. Yet, when she told him about her plans, he seemed almost relieved.

Despite her luxurious surroundings and the crisp bubbles of the champagne, Mary shivers as the old fear fights to get its talons into her mind again.

But … Boggel did write to tell her he’d like to talk to her, didn’t he? Just that…Talk. Did he rethink his fascination with the Italian? Or did they want to get married and he wanted to tell her personally? Well, tomorrow she will surprise him. With no prior warning, she’ll be able to see for herself what has transpired in Rolbos.  If Boggel is lost to her, she’d have to make peace with it. She’s young enough to start over again … or is she?

But without Boggel … ?

***

The Presidential Suite usually gets used for honeymoon couples and dignitaries.  The bed is wide and soft and has many plush cushions.  Usually it is a happy place of celebration and laughter.

But not tonight. Mary selects the most appropriate cushion to cry on. Sad tears. Fearful tears. Anxious tears, because tomorrow will determine the rest of her life.

Tonight, in the Presidential Suite of the Oasis Casino and Hotel, there will be no laughter. Fear, clutching at the heart of the sad woman on the bed, will make sure of that. When at last slumber can no longer be denied, she falls asleep – remembering the song they sang in the dormitory at night. It was, she realises, almost prophetic…

Holy Mary, Day by day

Watch beside us, guard and guide us

Lest we stray on life’s highway

On our knees to thee Humbly we pray

Hear my plea! Pity me

Blessed Mary send and save me

Holy Maid, Lend your aid

Ere the convent vows enslave me.

Fairest Flow’rs I’ll bring you,

Sweetest songs I’ll sing you,

Pray’r and Praise shall not cease

If you grant release.