Tag Archives: insanity

Sparks Strydom and his Speeding Gun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Gosh, Sparks? Is it really you?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His usual routine, eh?”

“Yup.”

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

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

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

***

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

Don’t argue.

Give him something. 

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Everybody has a You (#12)

randall 002aDespite the dry mouth, the almost unquenchable thirst and still feeling dizzy, Boggel manages to stumble through the events leading up to his friends finding him. He has to pause frequently to sip water from the canteen Sersant Dreyer offers from time to time. Even the wounded Smartryk seems a bit better, sitting next to Precilla. If Boggel noticed them holding hands, he doesn’t remark on it.

He was closing the bar that night, he tells them, when the huge bulk of Brutus was framed in the doorway. The man seemed friendly…but he had a problem. Would Boggel please help him? His aeroplane had developed an uncommon splutter – something the man said he had noticed while on his way to Upington. To err of the safe side, he landed not far from town on an even patch of veld. He thought it’s the carburettor, but needed a specific spanner to get to it. A number 15, he said.

“Well, you all had left and there I was, talking to this guy. I didn’t want to wake anybody and I had just such a spanner in my toolbox. So, naturally, I agreed to help. That’s what we do in these parts, isn’t it? But when we got to the aircraft, the lights went out.”

Boggel says he was near the Cessna when he felt a tremendous blow to the back of his head.  “Must have been that spanner, I think. The next thing I knew, I woke up to the roar of the engine. I was strapped in one of the back seats, and I thought I saw somebody outside, waving.”

“That was me,” Sersant Drayer remarks. I thought I recognised you…”

Boggel nods before continuing. “Yes, that makes sense. Anyway, I took a particularly dim view of the situation, and whacked the pilot a proper one on his head with my fist. He let out a yelp of surprise – must have thought I was still out cold – and turned to belt me back. I must say: if I had known we were in the air at the time, I might have reconsidered my attack. Still, that’s what I did, and that’s what he did. To get to me, he had to let go of the controls, of course, which isn’t a nice thing for a pilot to do.

“But this man – Brutus? He has a nasty temper, as I was to find out later. Or maybe I already found that out when he turned to strike me. Once he gets angry, he retaliates immediately. Not clever, not clever at all. Especially not under those circumstances. He immediately realised his dilemma, of course. When the Cessna slewed to one side, he turned back to the controls, but by then it was too late.

“I suppose one must give the devil his due: he is – was – a great pilot. How he managed to belly-land that Cessna is a pure miracle. I gashed my shoulder during the landing and he banged his head on the control panel – but that was all. We could have…should have been killed.”

Despite Brutus’s injury, he remained a formidable, strong, giant of a man. Boggel tried to escape, but Brutus simply felled him with an almighty blow to the head.

“I had no chance, no idea what was going on, and no way to escape. He pinned me to the ground and told me to take him to the nearest vehicle.” Boggel shoots a guilty glance towards Kleinpiet. “I knew Kleinpiet always leaves the keys in the ignition and that we were somewhere near his homestead. With Brutus frogmarching me along, I had no choice but to lead him there.” He pauses, smiling shyly. “I’m sorry, Kleinpiet.”

“I would have done the same, Boggel. Don’t worry.”

Boggel bobs his head. “Thanks. Anyway, the man said we were going to Upington. He asked directions. And I thought: bugger you, laddie. Whatever you’re up to, I’m certainly not going to help you. And, because it was still quite dark, I had him drive towards the desert. It’s a shortcut, I said. He believed me – must have thought I was sufficiently scared to tell the truth all the time.”

With Boggel promising that they’d reach the tarred road any minute now, Brutus drove on through the desert…until the petrol ran out.

“Man, you should have seen him then! He was beside himself! I told him he should have let me know, and I would have filled up the tank properly, but he didn’t think it was funny. But then, my friends, the tables were turned. He knew I was his only hope to get him back to civilisation. He calmed down and then, ever so friendly-like told me to lead the way. I said no way, not until he told me what this was all about.

“We had a heated debate about that, as you can imagine. But I sat down on the sand, refusing to budge. He ranted and raved, but I knew I had him. He tried to lie initially – and later when I found out that he was a lawyer, I understood why. Still, after while, I told him to tell the truth or be prepared to die in the desert. That made him blanche. He told me not to say such things. Death, he said, is the only thing he was afraid of.”

Boggel shrugs,. The man’s sudden change from being the self-assured aggressor to confessing his fear of mortality shook the small barman. Brutus sank down on the sand next to him, suddenly all friendly and coy.

“He’s a psychopath,” Gertruida says. “Anything to manipulate you. No remorse, no conscience. At first he tried to scare you to do his will, then he swung around, trying to gain your confidence through pity. Typical.”

“Sure. That’s what I thought as well. He started telling me about his irregular heartbeat, his visits to the cardiologist and goodness knows what else. I thought he was mad. Didn’t believe a word he said, even after he told me he needed to get to his pills as soon as possible. That, I thought, was a blatant lie. A big guy like that, dependant of cardiac medication? So I said I was sorry to hear about his troubles, but what was the idea behind him abducting me in the way he did?

“And he said – I remember the words – there is a woman he needed to talk to. What woman, I asked? And he said Mary Mitchell.” Boggel closes his eyes. “The bottom fell out of my world, right then, right there. After a while, I managed to ask why? And he said she knew stuff about him, he’d rather keep to himself. I was the key, he said. If Mary knew I was with him, she’d come immediately.

“That’s when I decided to walk him to death. A man who is prepared to use me as bait to get to Mary,” and here he allows his gaze to rest on her, “must be crazy. I will do no such thing. By then I had serious doubts about his sanity…but no doubt at all about his violent tendencies. No, I thought, let me play along for a while, lead his deeper and deeper into the desert, and get us both completely lost. We had one water bottle – courtesy of Kleinpiet’s pickup – how long can we last?

“So we walked. On and on and on. Eventually – the next day or the next – I lost track of time – we rested under a bush like we so often had to. I woke up to find him gone. You know what? I couldn’t care anymore. I thought – so be it. There was no way he’d get much farther and I wasn’t up to much, either. So I closed my eyes. The next thing I know, you guys buried me and here I am…”

Gertruida fixes the bent little barman with a knowing look. She knows he’s left out a lot. The two days walking under the scorching sun, the freezing nights, the arguments along the way… Typical of Boggel, she thinks, to avoid telling them about the hardships along the way.

“It’s all my fault…” Mary’s eyes brim with tears. “Oh, Boggel, I’m the poison, the bane of your life. I’m so terribly sorry.”

Boggel shrugs. “I would have done the same for Gertruida, or Sersant, or…even for Servaas.” He smiles his lopsided smile again, takes a swig from the bottle, and sighs. “Life is never fair, Mary. You and I were dealt a hand of cards when we were born. Some people get winning hands, some don’t. We have no choice, really. Play with what we have is what we must do.”

“But…” Mary wants to protest, but Smartryk holds up a hand.

“Boggel, you’ve been incredibly brave…and unbelievably lucky. There’s a lot we have to talk about…a lot. But, seeing the sun is burning us all to a crisp, I suggest we prepare to get back to Rolbos. Maybe there, after cleaning up and with something cool to drink, the two of us can have a chat. Man to man…if you know what I mean.”

And Boggel, with the look you find on the face of a sad Basset, finds himself nodding. Yes, that’s what they must do. Mano a mano. He also realises that the hardships of the past days may fade in comparison with what lies ahead.

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…

The Wake (# 9)

cropped-boggel-se-plek1The next morning sees Gertruida in an exceptionally good mood.

“I have a plan,” she whispers excitedly to Boggel, before placing a finger in front of her lips. “I’m not sure how to go about it, but if it works…”

The brigadier – despite the previous evening’s excesses – manages to get to Boggel’s Place just as the coffee is ready. “I’ve always been an early riser,” he mutters.

Nothing much happens in Rolbos without the whole town knowing about it. Five minutes later; in varying stages of dress, hair uncombed and eyes still heavy with sleep; the townsfolk all wait for Boggel to brew the second pot of coffee.

“So, Sergeant-major Grove drove up to meet you?” Precilla just can’t stand the suspense any longer. She get’s a surprised look from the soldier.

“I got that far last night?” He really can’t remember.

“Yes, you did. But we don’t know what happened next.”

***

Van Graan was shocked to see the sergeant-major. The stooped, grey-haired man getting out of the car was almost unrecognisable.

“They buggered up the army, Van Graan. I was forced into retirement. The old units are gone. It’s a mess.” He started explaining how bad things were, but the brigadier stopped him.

“Come, have breakfast first. You’ve come a long way.”

This apparently shook the older man.

“Since when have you gone soft, Van Graan? You’re not supposed to care about me.”

“I learnt a lot in the last two years, Sergeant-major. A lot. And I can see you need to stretch your legs and have a bite to eat. Caring? Only the strong can care. The weak will never understand the meaning of the word.”

***

“He had grown old. His world collapsed when the discipline went. Remember: he was forced to retire. Grove never married, you see? He always said the army was his first and only love – and when that was taken from him, his universe imploded.

“After breatfast, he sat me down and explained what he had managed.”

***

“The deal is this, Van Graan. You’re a captain now. The new general was horrified to hear your story – and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to get to meet him. But I did.” Van Graan could only imagine the strings the old man had to pull to manage that. As a lifetime soldier, he knew many secrets. “General Modise is in charge of covert operations now – it’s just a name, they don’t do anything. Nothing! But he has an office and a BMW and a rank – and he’ll like to stay there. Housing, annual bonus, travelling expenses, you name it.

“Anyway, once he grasped the outlines of your case, he was at pains to explain how important it is for this to be kept under wraps. He suggested you remain in the Kalahari, like I told you is possible. For some reason, he was adamant that you stay below the radar. They’ll elevate your rank and your pay to that of a brigadier -retrospective to your date of death, provided you stay out of circulation. He said a quiet life is better than no life at all.”

Gertruida quietly excuses herself, saying she’ll catch up later. Nobody takes notice – they’re too absorbed in the story.

“I refused, of course. Well, the rank I accepted. Maybe it was just to show my goodwill, or maybe it was vanity, but I liked the idea of being a brigadier. As for the money…that posed a problem. It sounded so much like the thirty pieces of silver Judas needed to betray the Lord. I suggested they pay out the money and the monthly salary to Hester, as a type of pension. It transpired later that they loved the idea – it was so much less complicated to pay out pension to a widow, than to justify a dead man still drawing a salary.

01-border-post-mccarthys-rest“And so Grove smuggled me across the borders in the boot of his car. I think a few bribes paved the way, but he never told me why his vehicle wasn’t searched. We entered South Africa at McCarthy’s Rest, and he proceeded to drop me off on the farm.  And there, like you know, I have stayed for almost two decades.”

“Gee, Brigadier, that is so sad. What did you do on the farm – all alone by yourself? It must have been horrible.” Precilla reaches out to pat the man’s shoulder.

“For the first few years, I fixed the house, building on extra rooms and making furniture from the natural trees in the area. It was hard work. I had the dream, you see, of returning to Angola to look for Alycia. But time heals many things. My yearning to be with her diminished the longer I thought about it. Why would she want to live with me? Surely she has moved on, married a man, had a new family?

“I started doing charcoal drawings, using the burnt-out sticks of the fire I use to cook on. They helped a lot. I drew pictures of my youth, my early army days, Angola…and Alycia, of course. There must be a stack of paper this high,” he holds out an arm, “in that house. The more I drew, the more realistic the pictures became,

“Yes, those pictures…”  For a while it was a form of insanity. He’d draw Alycia as he remembered her – bending over him, applying the bandages, making bush-tea, smiling, frowning, talking. He’d draw her hands, her feet, her back, her neck. And yes…he did the rest, too. All of it. It was as if the images of Alycia kept on regenerating themselves, demanded to be recognised, kept on forcing him back to the drawing table over and over again. The only way to get rid of a mind-image, was to make it a paper-image – and then, as if the image expressed its satisfaction on having been recognised, it would be replaced by another – and another – and another.

And then it changed.

The images turned into gentle pictures of femininity: the simple curve of a thigh, the light on a sweat-soaked biceps, the dimples at the base of the spine. Alycia was fragmenting in his mind, slowly decomposing into the bits and pieces that once were the woman he loved.

“And one day, not long ago, I realised I was losing her. My memory banks of Alycia was running dry, I couldn’t remember her as clearly any more. I had a choice: either I let it go…or not.”

Precilla, still gripped by the sadness of the brigadier’s loss, sobs quietly.

“W-why d-d-didn’t you g-go back, y-you bloody o-old f-f-fool?” She straightens her back, blows her nose and tries to compose herself. “If you cared so much, why didn’t you?”

He takes his time in answering.

“I was scared, Precilla. I didn’t have papers, I don’t have money, and I don’t know what has happened in Caramuti.” He smiles sadly. “I don’t have much to be proud of, my dear. My life has been a mess. I killed people – and now they have killed me. Look at me…and you’ll see a wasted life. An empty shell. And…I don’t want to be hurt any more.”

Precilla is on the verge of answering him, when Gertruida comes skipping in. She’s wildly excited, shouting whoopah! as she sits down at the bar.

“Boggel! Bring me a beer.” She leans over to touch the brigadier’s thigh. “You’ll never guess what I did just now.”

As she throws back her head in happy laughter, the brigadier convinces himself that this woman is as mad as he is.

Fanny’s Surprise (# 38)

While Kallie Franz herds the passengers to a spot next to the road, the stewardess tries to open the door to the cockpit. She had spoken to the passenger in seat 26 E, but he stared at her in an absent, blank manner, saying something about …have you any wool?  She left him there, knowing Captain Mokoena is a higher priority right now.

The door gives way unexpectedly and she stumbles into the cockpit. For a moment she doesn’t understand – the area seems to be filled with grass and twigs. Then she sees the arm of Captain Mokoena protruding from the mess, hanging down at an unnatural angle, blood dripping from the fingertips.

Digging frantically, she throws as much of the communal weavers’ nest as she can through the broken windshield to get to the pilot. She doesn’t hear the cheer of the passengers when the first vehicles arrive at the scene of the crash; her attention is focussed on the brave man who saved the lives of his passengers. When at last she cleared most of the stuff, she stands back aghast.

Captain Mokoena is pinned to his seat by the broken-off branch. It seems as if a his chest is being crushed by the heavy piece of wood: his wide open eyes pleading while he’s obviously fighting to breathe. She tries pushing, pulling, shoving in the confined space of the cockpit, but doesn’t manage anything. Mokoena is fading fast as his efforts to breathe diminish and fade. He’s suffocating right there, in front of her, and she can’t do anything about it.

Suddenly a big man is at her side.

“Get out,” he says in a soft, commanding voice.

He, too, tries to lift the branch that is forcing the life out of Captain Mokoena  – but fails. He now moves to the back of the chair. Bulging the muscles of his massive shoulders, he gets a grip on the backrest of the seat. Then, with almost nonchalant ease, he breaks the the back of the chair – snaps it clean off where it joins the seat –  setting Captain Mokoena free.

Later, the investigators will question this. It is impossible, they’ll say, to break a pilot’s chair. Can’t be done – especially not with bare hands. But Vetfaan did…and both the stewardess and captain will testify to this truth.

Vetfaan drags the captain – now breathing but still bleeding from the abrasions on his chest – to the outside. Kallie Franz rushes over to help as the speeding vehicle from Grootdrink slews to a halt.

“Vetfaan!” Gertruida’s shout carries with it a mixture of relief and anxiety. She rushes over to where they are kneeling next to the pilot. The stewardess has found a first-aid kit and they are working on his wounds.

“He’s in shock,” Gertruida says, “he needs a drip.” When Vetfaan looks up with a question in his eyes, she continues. “He needs intravenous fluids. An infusion. He’s lost blood.”

The first-aid kit is comprehensive, with everything needed for an emergency during the flight. The stewardess produces a vaculitre of Saline and the infusion set needed to set up the drip.

“Where’s Doc? He must help us here, dammit!” Gertruida glances around, looking for the familiar face. When she doesn’t find him, she sighs, takes the needle and slips it into the vein. She doesn’t explain – during her time with the intelligence services, the training had been exhaustive and included medical emergencies.

With the infusion running smoothly, she repeats her question.

“If…if he’s not out here, he must be the passenger in seat 26 E. He doesn’t want to get out. He’s just sitting there.” The stewardess spreads her arms wide, eyes filled with sympathy and sorrow. “I tried. I really tried.”

***

Inside the cabin, Getruida approaches the passenger in seat 26 E carefully. Doc sits exactly the way the stewardess described the situation: hugging himself and reciting rhymes. He’s busy with Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…

“Doc?” He doesn’t respond, even when she repeats the greeting quite a bit louder.

“All the kings horses…”

“Snap out of it, will you! Get a grip!”

“And all the king’s men…”

“Oh come on! You can’t do this to me! Come on, Doc, wake up!” She’s pleading now.

“Couldn’t put Humty together again…”

Gertruida tries to shake him, but he resists, starting with Little Jack Horner…

Crying softly, Gertruida leaves the plane once more, to look for the stewardess. Doc should be sedated.

***

The search-and-rescue teams reacted with uncommon efficiency. Following Gertruida’s phone call, the first helicopter arrives a mere ten minutes later. Ambulances from Upington arrive, followed by Jacob Rooi’s taxi – in the hope of picking up a few fares. Pretty soon the scene is awash with people scurrying to and fro, treating cuts and bruises and getting the injured into the ambulances.

Boggel – ever the barman – has set up a table and is dishing out Cactus Jack to everybody in need of some post-traumatic sustenance.

“Do you mean to say the captain saved everybody?” It’s hard to say if the seasoned paramedic is pleased, surprised or disappointed. “A crash like this…”

By now Mokoena is wide awake and manages a weak smile. “It was luck. And God, of course. I don’t know how the plane managed it. Truly.”

“But what went wrong?” Sersant Dreyer – so far the only policeman on site – has walked around the wreck, trying to figure it out.

“The systems cut out – one after the other. I don’t understand it. It’s impossible for so many failures to occur at once. I think the plane was sabotaged.”  With a shake of his head, Mokoena looks up at Dreyer. “Fortunately, we didn’t crash. Not like that. And the plane didn’t burn. The investigators will find something, I’m sure.”

“Does anyone know of any reason why somebody would have wanted to bring this plane down?” Sersant Dreyer addresses the few people still at the gathering point. “Anybody? Or dd anybody see anything suspicious?”

He gets no response for a while.

“Well. there was a lady at the airport.” Gertruida’s uncertainty is abundantly clear. “I…well. I thought she acted strangely. I don’t know. Just had a feeling.”

“What did she look like, Gertruida? What did she do?”

“To tell the truth, she looked like Cruella de Vil, you know, that Disney character? She…”

“That’s my wife!” The shout interrupts Gertruida’s hesitant explanation. “She…she could have done it! She and that damned mechanic….”

Sersant scribbles down the details before radioing the information to his headquarters in Upington. Halfway through, two paramedics pass by with a mumbling man on a stretcher, singing This old man, he played one…

As they load the demented man – he played three, he played nick-nack on his knee – into the ambulance, another vehicle roars up to stop nearby.

“You scoundrel! You bastard! You should have been dead! Dead! You hear me?”

It’s Cruella, brandishing a short-barrelled .38 Special.

Fanny’s Surprise (# 37)

crashCaptain Mokoena sees the ground rushing up to meet the aircraft. Although he has bled off all speed he could without forcing the plane to stall and literally fall out of the sky, his instinct is that they’re still travelling way to fast. He still fights the controls, but there’s no sense in it now; barely feet above the ground, nothing he does now will have any effect.

When the belly of the plane crashes into the ground, the grinding and tearing at the fuselage is deafening. Mokoena had almost landed the plane on the road he had spotted.

Almost.

Not quite.

The plane skids along on the uneven surface next to the track, leaving a trail of destruction and scattering the broken bushes, pieces of iron and aluminium and the contents of the baggage compartment over the veld. A huge cloud of dust follows the speeding craft across the surface of the Kalahari like a frantic angry dog, while the tearing and screeching of the destruction seems to pitch higher and higher with every passing second.

weaverMokoena can see the tree coming. It’s the only tree next to the road between Grootdrink and Rolbos, a large thorn tree which serves as home for several families of communal weavers. The aircraft seems to be drawn to it as if by some giant magical force, and there’s nothing he can do to avoid smashing into that as well. As the tree looms larger and larger in the windscreen, he starts praying softly.

***

Gertruida, in the meantime, has been driving like a woman possessed, and maybe she is. When she reaches the turn-off towards Rolbos, she has to slow down on the gravel road; but even so her skill behind the wheel would have impressed Alonso. Even Hamilton, maybe. And, while fighting the wheel, she has managed to phone Boggel with the news. I think an aircraft is going to crash near Rolbos, Boggel. Please get the people to be on the lookout, will you?

Now Boggel isn’t your every-day barman. He knows his customers too well. When Gertruida has that tone of voice (almost verging on hysteria) you don’t ask questions. Rushing out, he gets the whole town to scan the sky for anything that looks like an aeroplane in trouble. They all gather in Voortrekker Weg, where Vetfaan divides the sky into sections to watch.

“What’s this all about, Boggel?” Precilla watches an eagle soaring high in the sky, her hand held above her eyes to shield the sun.

“She didn’t elaborate. Sounded extremely stressed, if you ask me. Look, we know she went to Upington to fetch Doc Woodcock. By the tone of her voice – and the fact that she’s on her way here – I’d guess it’s Doc’s plane we’re looking for. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.”

Vetfaan has his powerful binoculars aimed towards the South, more-or-less in the direction of Grootdrink, and tells everybody this is a senseless waste of valuable drinking time. “What are the chances of us spotting an aeroplane here? We’re not on any flight path at all.”

“That’s the point, Vetfaan. If that plane is in trouble, it means something is wrong. And wrong planes may stray far from the right path.” Servaas never lets an opportunity pass. “Like us, they tend to crash because of that.”

“Oh, put a sock in it, will you?” Kleinpiet isn’t in a mood for a sermon. “Rather watch your bit of sky and shout if you see anything.”

For the next thirty minutes or so, the townsfolk argue, banter and grumble while they spot eagles, hawks, several crows and a solitary heron (where did it come from?). Then Vetfaan lets out a shout.

“I see it! I see it!!” He points. “There, towards Grootdrink! And it’s coming down fast.”

***

Mokoena instinctively leans over to his right, as if willing the stricken craft to veer off it’s crash course with the tree. It doesn’t help, of course. The almighty bang as the plane hits the old tree is louder than the screeching and grinding of the fuselage over the rocks that is tearing belly of the plane apart. The windscreen shatters as a branch snaps off the trunk. The obstacle  causes the nose to slow down, slewing the tail of the craft in a wide arc across the veld, flattening several giant ant heaps. Somewhere in the middle of the plane, the structure starts folding, bending, as the plane threatens to snap in two.

And suddenly…

Silence.

It is as if nature honours the brave Captain Mokoena with a moment of complete quiet, ashamed that such a beautiful craft had to be twisted and broken in such a vicious way.

The first one to react, is the woman sitting next to Doc Woodcock.

“I didn’t die! I didn’t die!” With blood streaming from a cut in her forehead, she manages to unclasp her safety belt to stand on trembling legs. Slowly, others follow her example – the clicking of the safety belt buckles unnaturally loud in the eerie stillness. Ons stewardess lies slumped in her seat, still help upright by her harness, but apparently lifeless. The other one gets up, walks in a daze to the emergency door and struggles with the mechanism. A burly man joins her and they force the door open.

The bottom of the plane is almost gone, leaving the red Kalahari sand only a foot or two away from the exit. Like sheep on their way to a dip, the passengers queue up to take that small step to freedom. It is not neccessary to hurry them up – they know they have to get out as soon as possible. Men and women, some of them bleeding and limping, help the fellow travellers who are too dazed or shocked to get off the plane on their own accord.

Kallie Franz is last of the able-bodied passengers to leave. The stewardess asks him to take the group as far away from the wreck as possible and to keep them together. She says she’s going too check whether anybody is left behind, and if the pilot is okay.

And then they hear the roar of approaching vehicles. The dust on the road from Grootdrink – as well as from Rolbos – seems to indicate that help is on its way.

In seat 26 E Doc Woodcock refuses to get up. He’s hugging himself while reciting Baa-baa black sheep in a small-boy voice; his brilliant mind regressing to a time when the world was a happy place and love wasn’t just another four-letter word…

Fanny’s Surprise (# 36)

pCaptain Mokoena is about 180 km North-East of Upington, trying to complete one of his fuel-consuming circles, when there is a sudden loss of power. There is no way he can keep the craft level any more as the nose dips slowly towards the ground. Mokoena, an experienced fighter pilot, knows: this is it. Either he finds a suitable spot to try and land the stricken plane, or he’s going to kill them all.

Towards his left and right, the Kalahari stretches away to the horizon. Even from this height, the surface doesn’t seem suitable for an emergency landing. The uneven veld, the little hills, the rocks and the sand dunes… The angle of descent is more acute now and even the closed door of the cockpit can’t keep the muffled screams of the passengers out. If he doesn’t spot a potential landing spot soon…

***

Doc Woodcock opens his mouth to scream, but he produces no sound, no word. The aircraft is clearly going to crash. His worst fear, his most terrible nightmare is happening here, now, as the cold sweat starts rolling down his brow. He wants to open his eyes and discover it is all only a terrifying dream.

But…when he forces his eyes open, he can see the other passengers in various stages of panic as well. Some seem to be praying, others are screaming and a few sit, ashen-faced, staring straight ahead in the paralysis only fear can bring. As the floor angles more and more, Doc feels himself being pushed back in his seat – and his life flashes by in a series of pictures.

Almost irrationally, it seems like a Powerpoint presentation.

His first memories of his mother and the cottage they lived in, is followed by scenes of his school years, his miserable attempts to compete in athletics and the praise of the headmaster at the academic prize presentation. Then the years of study, the solace of burying himself in work. Molly smiles at him briefly, before her image fades and Gertruida appears in his mind. In contrast to the other images, her picture doesn’t fade; it become brighter, more focussed better defined. He can hear her laugh – the soft chuckle she has when she wins an argument, proclaiming yet another victory.

A hand grips his shoulder so hard, it hurts.

“I don’t want to die!” It’s the woman sitting next to him, shouting at the top of her voice.

***

“Ladies and Gentlemen, will all people waiting for the Cape Town flight, please assemble in the cafeteria? Immediately, if you please. We also respectfully request all other customers to leave the area. We have an important announcement to make. We do apologise for any inconvenience caused by this. Thank you.”

The woman next to Gertruida sighs, throws her hands in the air and stomps off towards the cafeteria in a rather dramatic way. Gertruida, however, stands rooted to the spot for a while. She knows… Something inside her shrinks to a painful little ball of sadness and loss as she makes her way blindly towards the gathering point. This, she knows, will be unpleasant.

The cafeteria was never designed for something like this. The crowd gathers in silence, like troops waiting for the first shots in an ambush. There’s a collective feeling of doom, making conversation impossible.

A dishevelled man in a rumpled suit climbs on a chair, holding up an unneccesary hand for silence; in the quiet, you’d hear a pin drop, anyway.

“I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you.” Now a collective murmur sweeps through the small crowd. “We’ve lost all contact with the flight carrying your loved ones.” The murmur becomes a buzz. “Please people. there’s no easy way of doing this.” He waits for the uneasy silence before continuing. “We had a sort-of Mayday about fifteen minutes ago. The undercarriage refused to come down, and the pilot notified the tower. Subsequently, all communication with the aircraft has ceased.” He pauses to let it sink in. “However, we kept track of the plane by radar. The pilot seemed to be doing the right thing, flying in wide circles to burn up as much fuel as possible. However, the last sighting on the radar was almost two hundred kilometres away, to the North-East of Upington.

“We’ve notified the authorities and they are busy – as we speak – scrambling emergency personnel and resources to engage in a search as soon as possible. Aircraft and helicopters will leave from Kimberley as soon as possible.

“Now I suggest that you await further developments in the lounge of the Kalahari Oasis Resort, where a special area is being prepared for you. Alternatively, you can go home – but please leave your contact number so we can notify you as soon as we’ve got anything new.

“I’s sorry, that’s all I can tell you now, because that’s all I know. Please remain calm, and don’t speculate. Please refrain from spreading rumours. I’m sure the media will have a field day on this, and we want to limit the trauma to loved ones.

“Thank you… Oh, there will be counsellors and clergymen available at Oasis. Pleas talk too them.”

With that, the man hurries from the area. This is the biggest emergency he’s ever had to handle; the worried faces of the crowd are almost too much to bear. Who, he wonders, counsels the counsellors and other workers?

Gertruida doesn’t follow the rest to Oasis. It’s no use to sit around with a lot of uncertain, anxious people telling each other how worried they are. She leaves her number and gets into her car to race back to Rolbos. Besides, the last know position of the plane puts it in the vicinity of Rolbos…doesn’t it?

As she reaches the tarred road to Grootdrink she wonders about the woman with the De Vil face – was she smiling when the man spoke to them? Or was it dismayed grimace? She can’t decide.

***

Fighting the controls with all his might, Captain Mokoena feels the nose of the aircraft lift ever so slightly. And then there – THERE! – is what seems to be a gravel road, straight as an arrow, cutting through the desert, Banking slightly to line the plane up with the only potential landing area, he glances again at the dead instrument panel, hoping to get some help from it. Without an indication of speed, height, wind…nothing…he’d need a miracle to get the craft on the ground.  He guesses the altitude to be about eight hundred metres above the ground, tries the landing gear again, crosses himself, and the opens the flaps to lose speed.

In the cabin behind him, an eerie silence settles amongst the passengers. They can see the ground now; the shadow of the aircraft racing across the stunted bushes and trees of the desert. White-knuckled hands grip the arm rests. Somebody starts whispering: ‘Our Father who art in Heaven…

And Doc Woodcock, chased by a thousand nightmares and fears, feels sanity drain from his mind. The human brain is a finely-tuned machine. Like the aircraft, it has numerous safety mechanisms and backup systems to cope with almost any input it receives. The condition we  define as ‘sane’ or ‘normal’ depends of minute amounts of neurotransmitters being released at the right time, to maintain a balance between primitive urges and logical reasoning. Even so, sometimes the brain receives such a surge in input, that logic falters. We call that: ‘panic’. Should the inflow of terrifying information be even more overwhelming, the rational though-process may be damaged permanently. This is called ‘madness‘.

In Doc Woodcock’s troubled brain, the overloaded circuits experience a similar situation to that which happened to the much less complicated controlling systems of the aircraft. One after the other, they short out. He can’t…can’t…be living through this. He’s going to die. Logic and reason has no place in his brain any more. He doesn’t notice the wetness on his seat as he bites down, hard, on his wrist in a desperate effort to believe he can still wake up from this dream.

Then the blood starts flowing the pain becomes unbearable- and he starts screaming.

This time, his shrill voice mingles with the noise of the reverse thrust Captain Mokoena manages to engage as the rutted tract to Rolbos rushes up to meet the belly of the plane.