Tag Archives: jail

Everybody has a You (#14)

Credit: nationalgeographic.com

Credit: nationalgeographic.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary ignores Sersant Dreyer’s question.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Everybody has a You (#3)

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody has a You

154991632-L

credit: advrider.com

Mary Mitchell, she of the chequered past and the many days she’d rather forget, steps up to the roadside when she sees the big eighteen-wheeler roar down the slope of the hill. It’s been two days now, and the only two other vehicles to pass here didn’t even slow down. (One was a fully laden donkey cart, the other carrIed a surprised and very tired cyclist on his way to the shanty next to the dry river bed.) Smiling in a manner which she hopes to look sexy, desperate and hopeful at the same time, she lifts a thumb as the big truck approaches.

It works…

“Whatcha girl like you doin’ in a place like this?”

How can she dare tell him? She looks up at the rugged face, the tussled hair, the unshaved cheeks and the tattooed shoulders of the shirtless driver. Of all the unsavoury characters…! The half-chewed match dangling from the thick lower lip doesn’t help to improve the picture.

“Oh, I…” No, she’ll not tell him of the farmer who left her here after she refused his unwelcome advances. But, despite her obvious doubt of the driver’s character, she realises that beggars can’t always be choosers. That ploy only works if you’re what the politicians call ‘previously disadvantaged’. “I’m Mary Mitchell,” she finishes lamely, as if that explains everything. Come to think of it, it does – in her mind, anyway. Does her name not encompass every hardship she’s ever had to endure?

Kiewiet Rooi stares down at the young lady. Well, not so young any more, if you cared to look carefully. The lines on her face, the lack of make-up, the coldness in the eyes…yes, this one has been through the mill a couple of times.

Wind-Turbines03-1170x820“I’m on my way to the new wind-farm with a gearbox and some stuff for one of those big things,” he jerks a thumb towards the back. “Took what I thought would be a shortcut – never thought the road would be this bad. Could use some company, though.”

There is a spark of kindness in the voice, despite the rough appearance of the man.

“I…I need to get to Grootdrink and then to split off to Rolbos.” Mary watches as the man continues to chew the match. Doesn’t he look familiar?

Kiewiet suddenly brightens.

“Mary? MARY MITCHELL? Can you believe it? I’m Kiewiet! Remember me? I’m Ai Mieta’s son! Of the orpohanage. You were there …a million years ago, weren’t you?”

And suddenly, as if a curtain goes up to reveal a magnificent stage, Mary’s hopeful, desperate smile turns to laughter. Yes, she remembers the little boy who often helped Mieta in the kitchen. Kiewiet! Yes, it’s him! When the driver gets out to hug her – there next to the road, in the middle of nowhere – she hugs him right back, wetting a tattoo of an anchor with happy tears.

“You’re crying?”

“Just a little.” Loud sniff. “It’s been years since last I saw somebody I could call a friend.”

***

They talk as the truck negotiates its way across the uneven road surface. Kiewiet tells her how he left Grootdrink to look for fame and fortune in Cape Town.

2013_8$thumbimg118_Aug_2013_163357325“I was bad, Mary. Real bad. Joined the Americans…I had to, to survive. Of course the police got me in the end, it was inevitable. Went to jail, got taken up by the 26. I was a number, Mary…and set to continue a life of crime as soon as I got out. Drugs…there’s a lot of money in drugs…” Kiewiet pauses, fishes out a cigarette, stabs it between his lips angrily. “When I was released, I went straight to the shebeen. I wanted my old life back, see? It was the only life I knew. Well, I got there and landed myself in a lot of trouble.”

“What happened, Kiewiet?”

“Apparently the Americans picked up a scrap with the Boys. They were busy shooting each other to pieces when I arrived there. It was horrible. I saw one of my friends stagger from that shebeen, blood streaming from his neck – and then the Boys kept on shooting, shooting…”

Kiewiet falls silent for the next kilometre or so, lost in thought.

“You know, Mary, I often think of that moment. The way that man lived, the way he died. Senseless, totally senseless. Still, when it happened, I ran into the first house I saw. Ran like a scared rabbit. There I was, barely an hour out of jail, and I was in the middle of the war again. No, I couldn’t face it, not then, not now.  Anyway, while the shots kept on and on, I crashed through the door of that house and threw myself on the ground. I actually – would you believe it – found myself praying.” His smile is cynical now as he shakes his head. “Praying! Kiewiet Rooi lay there, praying like Mieta taught me when I was a boy still: If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. 

“After a while the sirens came and the shots stopped. I lifted my head…and saw the most beautiful thing I ever did see. Prudence April. Eighteen years old and so pretty it hurt my eyes.”

Prudence was scared, Kiewiet tells Mary, scared of this crazy man with the tattoos and the tears. But, he says, she kept her cool and ordered him out.

“I told her I couldn’t – not after what I saw. Then I begged her to stay. She looked at me a long time, then she asked if that was the only prayer I knew. I said it was the only one I remembered. And she smiled, Mary, she actually smiled! It was like the first rain of the summer in the Kalahari. I told her so. And then she asked if I knew what I was talking about, and I said yes, I do. She asked where, and I said Grootdrink.” Kiewiet lights the cigarette, puffs deeply.

“Turns out her family was from Noenieput originally – not that far from Grootdrink. And she offered tea and we sat there, talking haltingly at first, until the talk became easy. And that’s where, Mary, I said to myself: Kiewiet, there’s a different life out there. It’s time…”

They watch the barren veld roll by in silence for a while.

“Sooo…did you stay there?”

“No, Mary. I couldn’t. Not with my past and the jail and my tattoos. I was a bad man; she was this angel; this pure, young thing. I told her I’d come back when my life was sorted out. I think she believed me. Over the next few weeks I visited there often, despite her parent’s doubts. They looked at me and saw Kiewiet, the gang member. But as time went on, they softened because they saw I was trying hard. Then her father introduced me to a pastor who ran a program for chaps on parole. It was he who helped me get a driver’s license for big trucks. And then I started working for this company. I had to do short runs at first, always with a co-driver to keep an eye on me. When they saw I was really trying hard to be trustworthy, they took away the other chap. Then the hauls got bigger and longer.”

“And Prudence?”

Kiewiet takes out another match to start chewing again.

“After one of the longer trips, I got back and immediately went to visit. Her father let me in. The house was filled with flowers, I immediately knew something was horribly wrong…” Kiewiets face crumbles at the memory. “She was shot, Mary…shot while she walked down the street. Got herself caught between two gangs, fighting for territory.” He’s crying now, and Mary has to lean over to pat the shaking shoulders. “…I never went back…”

Mary stares at the road through the insect-spattered windscreen. Yes, she thinks, Life is like that. The best laid plans of mice and men… Kiewiet’s story is so similar to her’s.

“We’re all orphans, Kiewiet,” she says softly, “orphans of Life. Once we face the reality of surviving from day to day we have to cope with ourselves, with all the goodness and sadness and dark thoughts contained inside our minds. It’s a struggle to keep faith and an even greater fight to keep on believing that the only thing worthwhile fighting for, is love. No father and no mother can teach us that – despite all their good intentions. Life throws itself at us and we have to discover this truth all by ourselves.

“Ai Mieta was maybe the only real mother I ever knew and I know how much love she gave us small ones. She set such a beautiful example. But then I grew up and made so many mistakes, I stopped counting. I simply lost the way, just like you. So many lost opportunities, so many regrets.”

The truck lumbers on towards a crossing. The two people in the cab are silent – there is so little left to say. Kiewiet reaches over to pat Mary’s leg.

“I turn off here,” he says, “the road to Grootdrink is straight ahead. Unless…?” He doesn’t finish the sentence.

“I have to get to Rolbos, Kiewiet.” Mary almost manages a brave smile. “It is important.”

***

She watches the truck until it disappears over a distant hill. Then she looks up.

“Aren’t we all lost, Lord? Little ants running to and fro, trying to make sense out of it all? “

She sits down on her tattered little suitcase, a traveller through the desert, waiting, waiting for Life to smile down on her. Just for once, it’d be such a wonderful change…