Tag Archives: loss

Trusting Liar (#8)

Sieve used on Herman's claim to separate gravel and sand.

Sieve used on Herman’s claim to separate gravel and sand.

Liar tells the story with agitated gestures and a worried frown.

“When I walked out of the bank, these three guys waited on the sidewalk. Smart suits, dark glasses, expensive watches. They told me they know all about me and that I’ve been selling diamonds to an overseas buyer. This, they said, was highly illegal and that I should be jailed for my crimes.

“I asked them what they were talking about and showed them my prospector’s licence. The one guy laughed so much he had to wipe tears from his eyes. Said they were from the Revenue Service and they’ve been going through prominent client’s accounts at the bank. Mine, he said, was so incriminating that Pretoria sent the three of them to investigate.”

“Sure sounds funny to me,” Gertruida mumbles.

“Anyway, he said, if I revealed the source of the diamonds and cut a deal with them, they’d make the problem disappear. Either I do it their way, or face years in jail.” Liar shrugs. “What could I do? I told them I’d meet them at their hotel the next morning and bring them here. They said that would be fine. And then I got my bag, hitched a lift with Kalahari Vervoer, and that’s when I rocked up at Boggel’s Place – where you saw me a few days ago. There was no way I’d tell them about this.” He spread his arms wide to encompass the region. “This is mine. Mine!. I’ve paid for it with my life.”

“Klasie, those men were trying to con you.” Gertruida’s tone is firm. “SARS would never act the way they did. And the part of cutting a deal with you if you showed them the source of the diamonds? It smacks of old-fashioned thievery. I’ll tell you what happened: somebody at the bank noticed the payments coming from London. Large amounts. A discreet question here and there, and it would have been easy to tell that the payments were for packets of diamonds. Now – there are no longer any prospectors in the region, as you well know. Only you disappear for months and then the bank gets rather large amounts deposited into your account. Seeing the way you live, that balance must be quite spectacular now…?

“Twenty-five…” Liar stares at his boots.

“Thousand? That’s impossible!”

“No, Gertruida. Million…”

Vetfaan lets out a low whistle while Servaas gasps.

“And that’s only in that bank. I’ve got a few other accounts as well.” Liar adds before saying something about eggs in one basket, but the group doesn’t pay attention. Nobody has that much money! Maybe the president, but he didn’t work for it, did he?

“Okay.” Gertruida sums it up. “A clerk in the bank tells somebody, who tells somebody else. They add up two and two. Then they wait for your next visit and confronts you with a bluff, hoping you’d be gullible enough to fall for their story. Then you disappear and they start looking for you with an aeroplane and a chopper. Mmmm…” Gertruida’s mind works at top speed to piece the puzzle together. “That means these guys have access to money – lots of it – to fund such a search party. And…those guys? They’re just frontmen for somebody else. Someone with a lot of clout is behind all this, I’m sure.”

“A businessman?” Servaas gathers his bushy brows high on his forehead.

“No, Servaas. This smells like somebody in government. A minister possibly. Even a general. Gangsters wouldn’t be so subtle and true businessmen won’t be so crude. But somebody who imagines himself untouchable…well, that’d be my bet.”

“But why keep on looking, Klasie? You won’t be able to spend all that money in your lifetime?”

IMG_2958Liar looks up, a pained expression clouding his face. “And then do what, Servaas? Sit in a retirement home, with sunset the high point of excitement every day? Play Bingo for peanuts? Think out more lies about who I am and what I did with my life? Wait for the police to arrest me for the murder of my stepfather?” He flashes a sad smile before continuing. “No, here I have a purpose. It’s not about the money. It’s about Walter – my real father. He believed in something and gave his life for that purpose. Maybe you look back at history and think about how misguided he was. Or how wrong. That’s history. But I believe in the man…the person. He had a good heart. He wanted to find these diamonds and then marry Mom. This,” he says as he looks out over the dunes, “is his legacy, his memory. It’s all I’ve got of him. This is where I belong.”

A sad silence follows his words as the group tries to get to grips with Liar’s lifetime of searching for lost diamonds – and the father he never knew.

Then the distinct sound of a helicopter approaching makes them all look up.

Fly Away (#5)

images (2)Gertruida says loss is only a perception. You build something up in your mind and when it is taken from you, the mental void is far worse than the physical one. Loss, according to her, stands in greater relationship with disappointment than with grief. Oh, she admits, there are exceptions – like death, for instance. But mostly people experience loss  on a rather selfish level.

Vetfaan disagrees, saying the ram that died last year didn’t leave a mental void. His ewes would agree if they could talk, according to him. Kleinpiet joked about this, saying they would have said their ‘Thank ewes‘ – a remark that earned him a less than playful punch on the shoulder.

Still, when Gertruida drove back to Rolbos, she contemplated the dilemma facing her. How could she reunite father and daughter? Both of them, she realised, had built up walls of denial around their personal lives. While Mister Blum’s history made it easier to understand his attitude, Annatjie tried to keep Hennie alive by not opening his last letter. It was as illogical as it was senseless: if nothing changed, they’d both die unhappy people. What to do?

When she talked to Boggel about it, the bent little barman came up with a plan. Not a good one, mind you, but one with some potential. It was either that – or leaving things the way they were.

***

Annatjie Blum watches from behind the chintz curtains as the little convoy of vehicles makes its way over the disused track to her house. Four…no, five…of them. What on earth…? She shuffles back to her chair, sits down and lets out a protracted sigh. Please, please, no people. I simply can’t face people…

Gertruida’s visits have made her come out of her shell a little bit. She actually started enjoying the company of this understanding woman. But not this! The last time she saw such a convoy, was when the funeral procession drove out of town. Hennie’s funeral. She had watched from behind the curtains in her bedroom because of the Meintjies’s. They had rejected her, rejected her family. Rejected what the Blums stood for. The conservative Afrikaners versus the liberal Jews. Their attitude had been so unyielding that she didn’t even dare to attend the funeral of the young man she loved so much.

These memories fill her mind when Gertruida knocks timidly on her front door. As if seeking reassurance, Annatjie holds the box with Hennie’s letters to her chest.

***

One by one, the Rolbossers file into her lounge, ending up in a semicircle around her. Gertruida (for once) glances over at Boggel, uncertainty written all over her face. Boggel shrugs – they’ve come this far, they might as well…

Annatjie sits quietly in her chair, clutching the letters. Her eyes are clouded over, her expression distant. She’s taken refuge behind her walls; that much is clear to everybody. Gertruida nudges Servaas in the back. Like they agreed, he will be the first to speak.

“Annatjie, many years ago, I met a lovely young lady called Siena...”  He tells the whole story, from their meeting to the day he held her hand and she breathed her last. (1)

Then it’s Precilla’s turn to dig up the past with her account of Charles’s letter. In contrast to Servaas, she ends up crying so much that she can hardly finish the story.

Gertruida struggles to tell Annatjie about Ferdinand, gratefully accepting the handkerchief Kleinpiet offers. Vetfaan, too, finds it difficult to get through the history of the beautiful girl with the strong arms  and can’t help sniffing loudly when he gets to the bit about the landmine. And, like they discussed beforehand, Boggel concludes with the loss he still feels so acutely for the love and companionship of  Mary Mitchell.

They fall silent after that, remembering the pain of the past. Annatjie hasn’t responded much except to look up once or twice. No tears. Not even a nod here or there. Silent, stony-faced abstraction.

“You see, Annatjie, Love and Loss are two inseparable Siamese twins. If you dare to love, you must be brave enough to face to consequences.” She gets a wary look from the shrivelled woman in the chair. “Oh, Hollywood paints such a different picture, of course. They leave the story where the boy and the girl wander off on a pristine beach while the sun sets in a spectacular array of colours. That’s nice, but it isn’t Life. Hollywood wants to tell us that Love represents two individuals thinking with one mind – and that’s impossible. Tomorrow the boy will still think boy thoughts, and the girl won’t give up on her girly mindset. either. And over and above that: couples separate, people die, things change. That sunset-scene only lasts for so long, then reality kicks in.”

Annatjie looks up, still clutching the box with letters. “I saved his letters. They’re all here.”

“And that’s a good thing, Annatjie. Remembering beauty is the colour we add to the dreary canvas we live on. Sometimes it’s the only colour. But imagine a painting done in only one colour? You’d end up with no art at all, won’t you? Simply a red or a yellow background makes no picture. It’s the contrast between the different colours that creates the image. And that’s Life. A bit of blue, a bit of green, a bit of black – they’re all necessary to make you see the whole picture.”

By now, Gertruida is doubtful that they are getting through to the lonely woman with her only precious thing – the box of letters.

“They died, you know? John Denver, Jim Reeves…”

“Oh shush! Of course they did. They’re dead!” Servaas can’t stand this any longer. Pussyfooting around this woman’s grief is all good and well, but surely she can’t isolate herself like this forever? And…Gertruida is using metaphors even he finds difficult to follow – somebody has to be practical here. Say it like it is – that’s always been his motto. “Dead. Ceased to be. Gone. We may remember them, but we can’t escape the fact that everybody dies at some time. Death is as much part of living as breathing is. Can’t you understand that? And love? It doesn’t have to die. It can be eternal. The question you have to answer, young lady, is whether you think Hennie is proud of you?  Would he applaud you becoming a decrepit old woman, or would he cheer you on to live a full and happy life? If he loved you so dearly, would he want you to hide behind your grief – all your life? Or…would it make him happy to see you happy?”

Servaas ignores the stern look he gets from Gertruida. He’s had enough. Damn it! Annatjie has to snap out of it!

“Love?” Annatjie’s eyes are suddenly clear. “His love?”

“Yes, my dear. It’s about his love as well, not only yours. It’s about how you honour his memory. It’s about celebrating the time you had together, not the time apart.”

“Then….then I’v wasted all this time?”

“Yes. And no. We all grieve in different ways. I grieved for Siena – and I still do. But every time I walk into Boggel’s Place, I can see her smile. She’d want me to be happy.  When I’m down, I know she’s there, encouraging me. When life treats me harshly, Siena makes me realise that even sadness and anger are trivial when compared to what we had. And that, Annatjie, is what you have to realise. True Love outlasts Life, every time. And Love isn’t a sad thing. It rejoices in Life. You should, too…”

“Then…”

“Yes, Annatjie. It’s time to open the gates. And we’re here to help you.”

Gertruida shakes her head. Servaas can be such a pain in the neck! And then, sometimes, his bull-headed full frontal approach – flying straight in the face of soft-spoken psychology – is rewarded with seemingly impossible success. She whispers a soft  ‘Well done!’  as she hears Precilla scurrying about in the kitchen to brew up some tea. It’s going to be a long afternoon…

(1) Read it in Rolbos, the book.

Fly Away

IMG_9860On impulse, Gertruida stops at the turnoff to Verlatenheid, the farm halfway between Grootdrink and Rolbos. She has been shopping in Upington and finished earlier than planned. With a bit of time on her hands, she contemplates the unthinkable. Nobody ever visits here…

***

Everybody knows the history of Verlatenheid, the once-prosperous farm where old Oom Meintjies once produced some of the finest wool in the country. Representing the fourth generation of his family on the farm, Oom Meintjies brought in Romney rams to complement his Merino flock, resulting in (at the time) a unique curly-haired wool, used by some of Europe’s most famous fashion houses.

Oom Meintjies and his wife, Hestertjie, had a son, the obvious heir and future owner of Verlatenheid. Hendrik (Hennie to his many friends) turned out to be a handsome, popular and quiet-spoken young man. One of those youths with natural leadership skills, he was the senior prefect in Prieska’s High School before being drafted to the army. At that time every white boy in the country expected this inevitability – there was no way to avoid conscription. Hennie knew this and begged his father’s permission to marry his sweetheart, the pretty Annatjie Blum, before his draft was due. She, however, was daughter of the town’s liberal lawyer.

Oom Meintjies refused. Hennie was too young to know about love, he said. And…the Blums were known for their anti-government stance and labelled as left-winged communists by the population. But, because he was the only lawyer in town, people set their prejudices aside when property was transferred or a contract had to be signed. Also…Mister Blum rendered his services much cheaper than the bigshot legal practitioners in Upington. The importance of politics – then, like today – was  inversely proportional to the size of the wallet…

And so, after a furious argument with his father, Hennie boarded the train to do his basic training in Voortrekkerhoogte. He didn’t write home. Hestertjie, his mother, sent regular letters to his unit. He didn’t reply.

Five months later a chaplain visited Verlatenheid to sympathise with the family. Hennie had been killed when the Cessna carrying him crashed near the Angolan border.

Oom Meintjies was absolutely devastated by the news. His son – his only son, sacrificed for the beliefs he held so strongly? As a staunch Nationalist, he truly believed that the party would work out a practical way of power-sharing in South Africa and that this process was being hampered by communist terrorists. Surely this was a just cause? Why, then, would God take away his only heir? In the days he and Hestertjie waited for his son’s body to be returned to them, he neither ate nor spoke. He withdrew into a dark world of rebellion – against the communists, the government…and God. When Dominee van As came to see him about the service, he refused to talk to the clergyman. Hestertjie’s attempts to comfort him was waved away with an angry hand.

After the funeral he drove over to the Blum’s home, spoke to the lawyer, waited for the papers to be typed, signed them – and drove off in the direction of his farm. Even today, the community is unsure whether the old man had an accident or committed suicide.

And so, as was stipulated in his will, Annatjie Blum became the owner of Verlatenheid. In one of those strange twists of the human condition, Annatjie and Hestertjie – both widely known by their diminutive names – forged a friendship based on their communal loss. It was an invisible and unspoken bond that grew with the years. As the older woman slowly slipped into decrepit senility, Annatjie took care of her to the last. And when she died, Annatjie sold the sheep, paid off the labourers, and stayed on alone on Verlatenheid. She locked the gate and set up the sign.

***

Gertruida knows Annatjie never allows visitors. The sign on the gate leaves no doubt: Keep Out. No visitors. Strictly Private. Yet, today, she contemplates opening that gate while she listens to the engine ticking over. She eyes the sturdy padlock on the chain keeping the gate closed, knowing that it’d be impossible to drive to the homestead – a sprawling old house only faintly visible on the arid horizon. Should she go? Or drive off…?

 What is this thing we call impulse? Is it only a random thought – albeit a convincing one – that forces us to do something we didn’t consider before? Or is there a connectivity between people; a deeper form of communication; we don’t understand? Why does one look up if somebody stares at you from across the room? Or why do we instantly like somebody you’ve just met – or hate them from the moment you lay eyes on them? Gertruida will quote from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, the book that explains this instinct, if you were to ask her.

Be that as it may: Gertruida can’t stop herself. She has to climb through the fence and walk down the overgrown track to the house. The impulse is simply too strong to ignore. She can’t help feeling a bit apprehensive – what will Annatjie’s reaction be? And what is she going to tell her – why is she visiting? The nearer she gets to the house, the more uncertain she becomes.

At the foot on the dusty stairs leading up to the wide veranda, Gertruida stops. Music? Yes…there it is! Faint but clear, she hears the sound of the ’75 hit. Despite the circumstances, she smiles at the memories the song brings back. Yes, those were the days…

“He’s dead, you know?”

The sound of the voice shocks Gertruida back to the present.

“Died, like the rest of them.”

Only now can Gertruida make out the silhouette of somebody standing behind the chintz curtains. It must be Annatjie? She greets with a hesitant ‘Hello’ and apologises for intruding like this.

“All of my days have gone soft and cloudy, all of my dreams have gone dry…”

“Huh?”

“I’m looking for lovers and children playing, I’m looking for signs of the spring. I listen for laughter and sounds of dancing, I listen for any old thing.”

Gertruida goes Aaaah! when she realises that Annatjie is using the words of the song… to communicate, or is she simply singing along?  Gertruida recalls some of the words and uses them as a question.  “And…all of your nights have gone sad and shady…?”

The music stops. Feet shuffles to the door and a loud crunching sound announces the key being turned.

The two woman stare at each other for a long moment. Gertruida manages to keep her expression neutral, but can’t stop an internal shiver. Annatjie is….so old! The long, black dress contrasts with the almost-white and unkempt mop of hair. No makeup. Lines and wrinkles criss-cross the once beautiful face. The full figure has shrunk to mere skin and bones.

“You okay?” Gertruida manages at last.

“There’s nowhere to go and there’s nowhere that I’d rather be.”

***

They sit listening to the song for maybe half-an-hour. Annatjie has started the turntable again, playing the record over and over again. In some places the groove in the vinyl has worn away, causing the needle to jump ahead to the next verse.

“All of my nights have gone sad and shady,” Annatjie sings every time the old record skips the words.

“I’ll have to go,” Gertruida announces. “Still have a bit to drive. To Rolbos. It’s not that far, but…”

“Where are my days?” Annatjie switches off the record player, addressing the question with sudden clarity.

Gertruida gets up to hug the woman. The ribs under the dress feels brittle and cold.

“In there, Annatjie.” She runs a soft hand over the white hair. “With Hennie.”

For a moment it seems as if Annatjie would cry, but then she gets up to walk to the door.

“Will you come again?”

“Yes, Annatjie. I shall. I’ll bring Annie’s Song, if you like?”

***

Gertruida will tell you about war. After all, she had been involved in one, she should know. But, she warns, the list of casualties don’t stop when the peace accord is signed. She’ll tell you that is only the beginning. The real injuries only follow in the years afterwards.

“Fly Away” by John Denver

Weekly Writing Challenge: Characters that Haunt You: Vetfaan.

The Challenge: Pick one of the characters that inhabit your brain…well. there’s nobody more perfect for this challenge than Vetfaan.

Vetfaan’s War

Credit: en.wikipedia,org

Credit: en.wikipedia,org

“It was the war,” Vetfaan sighs as he sips his brandy, “that, and the woman with the strong forearm.”

Boggel just asked why he had started farming in the Kalahari, thinking he’d get the usual answer: to get away from it all.

Kleinpiet stops his drawing on the bar counter when he looks up. He’s never heard this story before, and he has known Vetfaan for ages; ever since they first met in this very same room, way back in ’95. Oh, they’ve talked about rugby and failed relationships; like educated, mature men do when they drink too much, but never about the war.

Kleinpiet was a medical orderly back then. The things he saw, does not make for light conversation. And of course, most of it should not be remembered at all. The broken bodies of young men – not old enough to vote, but old enough to kill – are best filed in the dark cabinet marked ‘Out of Bounds’. All men who have seen action, know that’s how it is. You don’t go there. It is the stuff nightmares are made of, and veterans have enough of those.

“She came to the camp on a Friday evening. We had just returned from a patrol and were two men short. We couldn’t bring them back, see? Too far. To many casualties. We had to bury them under a baobab tree. Later we went back, but we couldn’t find the tree again. Too many of them.” Vetfaan glances over to the almost-empty brandy bottle, and nods at Boggel. “For a long time I thought I could forget it; and I really tried. But sometimes, every so often, I have a dream about that day.”

Vetfaan has been drinking heavily all day. Boggel has seen him do that before, and somehow knows he should not interfere – not when Vetfaan is in this mood. The big man will finish his bottle of brandy and Kleinpiet will take him home. Something, Boggel knows, is festering away inside Vetfaan; a demon of the past, a memory, an experience? Whatever it is, it’ll come out one day, when nature wants to heal the wound.

In cities people see psychologists; but that, of course, doesn’t help either. Ask any barman: he’ll tell you. The only way to kill the demon, is to give the patient enough time to run out of excuses. When the victim finally summons up the courage to face the memory, the healing will start. That’s why brandy helps so much. It gives courage, even if it is false.

It’s better than nothing.

“Those of us who could, had a shower and put on some clean clothes. Do you know what clean clothes feel like after all the blood and vomit and…?”  Vetfaan peers myopically at Boggel, who simply nods. He has his own demons to fight, as well. Then, almost as an afterthought: “In those days they brought in entertainers…”

Kleinpiet remembers the girls who got flown up to the base camps. While the rest of South Africa stumbled on in a Calvinistic haze, the powers-that-be supplied the eighteen-year-olds on the border with cheap alcohol and free entertainment. Evenings were spent in bars in the bush where the young soldiers got drunk while they screened movies about the patriotic and Christian heroes on the borders, fighting heathen terrorists. Occasionally, live entertainment travelled from camp to camp, with singers and dancers carefully chosen for their age and looks.

“That evening some girl sang. Old Afrikaans songs about the Transvaal and Karoo and Kalahari. She was beautiful.” His eyes glaze over as he hums Daar doer in die bosveld. The rest join in until he falls silent. “I remember it clearly: it was my birthday…There was another girl there, a dancer. Beautiful body, even better face. Great hair. A body to die for. Madelein Coetzer. She had a way of moving her body that made me feel more alive than I have been for months. All over.” Kleinpiet snorts, but Vetfaan ignores him. “After the horror of the day, she was too beautiful. It didn’t match, you see? One moment you’re crawling through dust and soiling yourself, and a few hours later you smell like Brut while ogling the breasts of an untouchable woman. It was difficult to distinguish which was the greater agony – the fear of death or the futility of life.”

“When the show ended, this girl stepped up to the microphone and challenged the men to arm-wrestle with her. If somebody could beat her, she’d be his for the night, she said. Best out of three, she said. Now, this is something we sometimes did, and nobody – nobody – ever beat me. I was young and fit back then, and everybody turned to me, knowing I was the birthday boy. Oh, they all wanted a go, of course, but they were afraid I’d beat the hell out of anybody who jumped at the opportunity. This, we all knew, was my chance.

“The army does that, you know? We were a living organism – we needed each other to survive. You need a sniper, you ask Sharpeye Schutte. Your Unimog broke down? Get Spanners Snyman. And when something impossible needs to be carried around, I was the natural choice. It was like that. We got things done for each other – not for some general.”

Vetfaan finishes his brandy, and nods for the last drops from the bottle to be poured in his glass. He tells them that he was shy. This woman can’t be a match for him, can she? And what if he won? H’s never been with a woman before – not like that… And if he lost, he’d be the laughing stock of the camp. Either way, the uncertainties contained in the match made him hesitate.

“You can’t turn your back on such a challenge. The guys cheered me on. I walked to the stage and introduced myself. I could see how she measured me up with those beautiful eyes. I was embarrassed, to say the least. Of course I’d win, and then have to face the prospect of spending the night with her.”

He tells them how they sat down at the table they set up on the small stage. He looked around for one last time, saw the gleaming faces of his comrades and the lust in their eyes. If he won, at least one of them would have a great night. They wanted that satisfaction, even if it were only his pleasure.

“Well, she positioned herself and invited me to extend my arm. I did. I grasped that fine, clean little hand with the manicured nails and told myself it’s a mismatch. The next thing I knew, my hand was slammed back onto the table with a force that jarred my teeth. I said I hadn’t been ready and she laughed.

“The next time, she gave me ample time. She asked if I was ready. When I nodded, she made her arm go limp and allowed me to win. She was putting up a show, to get the guys involved. They cheered and screamed and went on like little boys around a schoolyard fight. But then the third round happened. At one all, the winner of this round would be the overall winner. And I wasn’t sure; her first attempt jarred my confidence, and she let me win the second. The nagging though in the back of my mind was: what if…”

“What happened, Vetfaan?” Boggel opens a new bottle of brandy, and pours a modest single in Vetfaan’s glass.

“She won – well, sort of. Forced my hand back to almost the table top. I looked into those lovely eyes. The men fell silent, totally disappointed in the inevitable outcome. In my mind, I was back on that bloody trail we walked that day. I saw the blood and the gore and the vomit and I felt the dampness all over again. I heard the screams…”

By now, Vetfaan has to wipe away a tear and everybody suddenly finds something to do. Kleinpiet ties his shoe laces, Boggel fetches some ice.

“Well, I think she saw that in my eyes,” Vetfaan continues after a while, “So she allowed my hand push hers back to the middle. And so we sat – frozen between defeat and victory. Whenever I tried to force her hand over, she simply countered. She only went halfway, every time. Once, I thought I had her, but the final push didn’t work.

“After about ten minutes of grunting and sweating, Captain Krizinger suggested we declare a draw. She nodded and I was relieved to sit back. That’s when we started talking.”

And talk they did. Until dawn the next day, they sat at the table on that stage, talking. She told him about her life and the struggle to make money to keep her mother in an old-age home. He told her about the patrol and the war and the baobab tree. She stroked his arm and he thought it must be how an angel’s touch feels. They laughed at each others jokes. They shared silence. In short, it was the best night of his life…

“But, she said, when it was all over, she wanted to be like that woman who had a farm in Africa. Karen von Blixen…I remember the name. She said it was the most beautiful book she had ever read. We were a bit drunk by that time and the camp was starting to stir as the darkness slowly gave way to dawn. And I…I said, when it was over, I’ll be on that farm, waiting for her.”

Vetfaan sways a little as he makes a rolling gesture with his hand. “Last one, Boggel.”

“Did she come?’ Kleinpiet has never heard of a woman on Vetfaan’s farm.

“A landmine took out their bus on their way to the next camp. She died, like the rest of us.”

 ***

If you visit Rolbos, you may find Vetfaan in one of his moods. He’s doesn’t get violent or anything like that. It’s just that he drinks a bit more than usual and becomes a bit teary. Boggel says it’s a good thing, that demon must get out before Vetfaan will be all right again. Kleinpiet reckons it isn’t necessary; Vetfaan will drown the bastard at this rate.

But both of them are wrong.

The war on the border destroyed more dreams than lives. It destroyed more families than individuals. The deaths caused by the senseless fighting were bad enough, and will haunt South Africa for generations to come – but death is a singularity; it happens once and then the living must accept the inevitability of it’s reality.

But love? Love is crueler. The loss of love creates a void nothing else can fill. Not even a farm in the Kalahari will help. When Vetfaan stumbles up his stairs at night, he has to sit down halfway. It isn’t the brandy that makes him dizzy – it is the burden of loss that wears him down.

A Party for the Lonely

images (66)

Credit: Sevenmileswest.com

“Ag, Vetfaan, living alone isn’t such a bad thing. Look at me: I’ve been alone ever since I’ve moved here, and I’m still okay, see?” Sersant Dreyer puts a comforting arm around Vetfaan’s shoulders – a rare display of sympathy from the otherwise stern-faced policeman. “Here, let me buy you a drink.”

“It’s not the loneliness, man, it’s the loss. We had such a good time on the farm, and now that little space in my head is empty. It was only for a few days, I know, but it meant so much. For the first time in my life I felt fulfilled and happy. Complete, you understand? Now there’s…nothing.”

“That’s the way it goes, my friend. Nothing lasts forever.” Dreyer stares out of the window at the dust on the road to Grootdrink. “The lorry’s on its way. With the long weekend ahead, I was just getting worried about Boggel’s beer supplies but I can relax now.

“Yeah, maybe if I get drunk enough, it’ll help. Lots of beer, bottles full of Cactus…bring it on, man! It’s been years since we had a proper old-fashioned booze-up. Geez, Dreyer, you’re a genius!”

“Now, now, Vetfaan. Getting drunk doesn’t solve anything. You must face your emotions, man. Get it off your chest. Speak your mind.”Gertruida has read lots of books on counselling and is acknowledged as the local expert on loss. When one of Shirley-the-Basset’s puppies went missing, she had a highly successful session in Boggel’s Place (she called it Mass-Basset-Therapy).  Afterwards they all said it was natural for puppies to get lost, one should expect that. Then Boggel heard the whimpering behind one of the beer crates, where the little tyke was exploring his new world. Gertruida’s therapy-group went into a downward spiral because they realised they didn’t search well enough, making them a bunch of failures. Again, Gertruida worked her magic. This time her success was even more obvious: her patients all tried to hide puppies where the others won’t find them.

“Gertruida, it’s all okay to get us to feeling better about the puppies. That’s small fry. This thing is a bit more complicated.  And remember: I’m a grown man. We don’t talk about these things. Cowboys don’t cry.”

“No man. When I found out my bottle was empty – just the other night – I cried a little.” Dreyer smiles triumphantly. “I thought it was justified. And you know what? I felt great afterwards…but maybe it’s because I remembered where I stashed my emergency supply.”

“Look, I know what you guys are trying to do. I really appreciate it, I do. But all the talking in the world isn’t going to bring Fanny back. It’s over. That’s the only way to think about it, and I have to get myself into such a state that I can wrap my head around it. Boggel! Bring me another, will you?”

“I have just the song for you, Vetfaan. Let’s listen….”

Of course it doesn’t help.

But then, the Cactus doesn’t last the weekend, either…

And fortunately, the puppies didn’t get lost again.

The Curious Disability of Society

Credit: Independant.co.uk

Credit: Independant.co.uk

“He won gold in the Paralympics in 2004. It wasn’t enough. He was 18 years of age, and determined to make his mark in the Olympics – the real competition, against men with real legs.” Gertruida is in her lecture-mode, her tone of voice grave, knowledgeable and informative. The patrons at the bar know this is not the time to interrupt or ask questions. “One has to remember he’s a born competitor. He only started running at the age of 16, because he tried to rehabilitate a knee he injured while playing rugby. Imagine that? Playing rugby with no legs. It makes you think.”

“Now remember: his legs were amputated at 11 months of age. His parents divorced when he was six. To compete with normal kids was a natural instinct and he showed athletic promise early. He boxed, wrestled and played cricket. One can assume his disability served to encourage him to prove himself.

“Now, psychologists will tell you this is more common than you’d like to think. Many disabled people find a way to the top by sheer grit and determination. Part of the picture is overcoming insecurity. You have to accept who and what you are, and then find ways to compensate for the specific handicap you have. Combine a genetic disorder, an unhappy childhood and obvious physical deformity, and there are a thousand reasons why somebody might just give up and allow life to sweep them along. But not this chap. He used his heartaches to be the fuel in the furnace to build up steam. He was going places – despite what Life dished out to him.

“To do that, he learnt to trust his own judgement. What other people thought or said, didn’t matter. Initially he was viewed as a curiosity on the track, but soon his determination started paying off. The small-town nobody became a part of Olympic history. Reporters loved his story. Disabled people right across the world were encouraged to rise above adversity by his efforts. He became a hero…

“But deep down, the scars of the past remained, like they always do in all of us. The struggle for so-called normality. The broken home. The loss of his parents. Maybe that was the source of a gnawing insecurity – or maybe his achievements compensated for them. In the end we get to the 12th of February. He found the love of his life. Oh, I’m sure he knew his athletic ability won’t last. No athlete goes on forever.  But love…now there’s something to accompany you on the journey through life. This was something he couldn’t bear losing. This was something he’d want to protect with his life.”

Servaas holds up a hand. “No, Gertruida, you can’t be sure of all that. You’re guessing.”

“You’re right, Servaas. I am guessing. But in contrast to public opinion, I’m trying to paint a different picture.”

“You’re still assuming things you have no right to.” Servaas can be extremely obstinate.

“Okay.” Gertruida sighs. “Let’s assume then. Let’s assume we have to do with a fragile personality that’s used to losing the most important people in his life. He has achieved the impossible on the athletic track. Lets assume he’s looking ahead at the future, and will lay down his life to protect the love he’s discovered. And lets assume he picked up the gun, just like he said, to protect the woman in his bed.

“Lets assume he fires off the shots, and turns back to talk to her. Let’s assume the horror of the realisation of what he’d done. And let’s assume it is the one single moment that’ll haunt him for ever more.”

“Too many holes in that argument, Gertruida. Why didn’t he call the police or security people. Why didn’t he wake her up first? Why didn’t he know she’s not in bed?” Servaas shakes his head in disgust. “The pieces in your puzzle doesn’t fit.”

“Sure, Servaas. We have the luxury of thinking and analysing and being terribly clever. People around the world have mulled over this for endless hours.

“But he didn’t have the time. He acted. He got out of the starting blocks so fast, he completely forgot to check the basics. And he made the most disastrous mistake of all. Why? I’ll tell you why. I’m assuming it was a subconscious, automatic action to protect his love. He panicked. His thought processes stalled. He became the caveman, protecting his possessions. He stormed the lion with a club and wrecked his life.

“And once again, he lost what he desperately wanted to preserve. Broken home, dead mother, murdered love. And that’s why you saw the face in the court. He’s devastated – only this time, he was responsible for the loss.”

“You’re a good Christian, Getruida. You look at the bright side, searching for a nice answer to a terrible tragedy. I respect that, but I’ll wait for the court case.” Servaas isn’t convinced, but some of the things Gertruida said, gnaws at his conscience. “You can’t possibly say he wasn’t responsible for her death, though.”

“Sadly, no. He’ll have to face the wrath of the law for that. You can’t kill somebody and then argue innocence. All I’m trying to do, is to understand, that’s all.

“What I don’t understand, is the public outcry. If this was just another horrible mistake or some family tragedy, CNN and BBC  and Sky wouldn’t have bothered. But because of the man he is, and because of the woman she was, it has become world news.

“Society loves drama. They dress it up and dissect it. They love to see a hero fall. Sometimes I’m convinced about a universal disability – we just don’t do compassion any more. Find him guilty, if you want. Send him to jail, if you like. If it was premeditated – let him feel the force of law. But if this is a case of an insecure man who panicked and made a disastrous decision…well, then I feel for him. He is guilty of shooting the girl. No question. But what was in his heart when he pulled the trigger? And that, my friends, is what the judge must rest his sentence on.”

“I don’t know, Gertruida…”

“Look, Servaas, you’ve made up your mind. It’s your right to do so. I’m just saying Oscar isn’t the only disabled person in the accused dock right now. We – all of us – are suffering from a variety disabilities right now. We don’t know enough. We can’t see the suffering of the two families. We don’t want to hear any other explanations. And we avoid feeling the pain of those directly involved in the tragedy.

“They say you must walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes to understand him. Society, Servaas, has never balanced on those blades. That’s their disability. They didn’t hear the roar of the crowd in London when he ran that race. They can’t hear the scream of pain when he stands, head bowed, in front of the cameramen. And society – with nothing better to do – will rather condemn than be compassionate. That’s our disability, Servaas, and there’s no prosthesis for that.”

Silent Night – Despite the Odds (#3 in the series)

When Franzl and Joseph inspected the damaged organ on the day before Christmas in 1818, it became patently clear that the organ would be silent until spring melted the snow to allow the organ mender to get to their village. To have a Christmas Eve Mass without music would be unthinkable; to confront Father Nostler with the news would be ridiculous. There was no way either of them was going to face the wrath of the strict old man. No, they had to come up with some other solution…

Maybe, they thought, they could have the choir sing a cappella, hoping that they would manage without instrumental support. But what to sing? What is simple enough, easy enough, to teach the choir in an afternoon’s time? The two men were desperate to find an answer.

This is when Jospeh Mohr produced the page on which he had written a poem recently.

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!

Alles schläft; einsam wacht.

Nur die traute heilige Paar

Holder Knabe im lockigten Haar

Schlafen in himmlischer Ruh…

If, after all these years, we read these lines, we get to understand them a bit better – especially if we remember the life of Joseph Mohr, illegitimate son of a deserter. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think his childhood must have been horrible. Look at the words carefully: it is actually a lullaby; the perfect picture of a baby being rocked to sleep by two adoring parents. Were the words the result of many a forlorn evening during which a lonely, unwanted child wished he had a normal family?

Of course, the English translation focussed much more on Jesus and the Afrikaans translation even brings in Joseph, the earthly father of Christ. In the original German, the one Joseph Mohr wrote, the accent is on the infant that may rest, because Jesus der Retter ist da (Jesus the Saviour is there – not born as the words got translated). It would be totally wrong (if typical of human nature) to start a debate here on what exactly Joseph Mohr had in mind when he penned the words. The point I’m trying to make is the obvious one: Joseph Mohr maybe wrote these words for a thousand reasons – but certainly not to be sung at the main Christmas Eve Mass as a carol. Next time you hear the words, it won’t be wrong to think of all the lonely children who wished they had somebody to love them.

But let’s return to the two men next to the broken organ. Franzl was impressed by the simple words his friend had written. Maybe…just maybe…

Now that they found a ray of hope, all he had to do was to put a melody to the words. As the more musical of the two, he stuffed the bit of paper in a coat pocket and trudged back home through the snow. He promised Joseph he’d give it his best shot. The instrument he chose to use for the melody? The spinet his father bought him, of course! The same one that came as an apology because Papa Gruber initially refused Franzl’s plea for music lessons. Only when he thought he had the music sort-of-sorted out, did he take his guitar from the wall to play and sing the song for the first time.

That afternoon Mohr, Gruber and twelve children gathered in the priest’s small study. Six of the choir’s best boys and six of the girls had been selected to participate in the gamble to ensure music and song accompanied the evening’s sermon by Father Nostler. Twelve children and two men to substitute for the full choir and the solemn organ – in the hope that the congregation would be pleased and that Nostler would be satisfied. Even if the children could memorise the words and remember the melody, there was one more little issue to consider: Gruber would accompany the choir on his guitar! They were on the verge of testing Father Nostler’s short temper to the utmost.

That evening the congregation gathered in the little cathedral. Of course the news of the organ’s problem had spread through the community and it is fair to assume that curiosity contributed to attendance that evening. Nostler knew about the organ, of course, and assumed that the choir would sing an appropriate song – but no choir was gathered on the balcony. We can only guess at his irritation – what was Mohr up to?

Father Nostler gave his usual, solemn Christmas sermon, citing Luke 2:1-14 and reminding the congregation of the miracle in Bethlehem. After he finished he closed the Bible and looked up at the empty seat in front of the organ. Where was the choir?

This was the signal for Mohr, Gruber and the twelve children to march in from the vestry to arrange themselves before the altar. Gruber’s guitar was decorated with red and green streamers, the girls wore them in their hair and the boys had the same streamers folded into rosettes attached to their stockings. The congregation gasped. Father Nostler held up a hand to put a stop to the proceedings. Nobody was going to ridicule the birth of Jesus with fancy streamers and a guitar, for goodness’ sake!

Joseph Mohr ignored the priest’s attempt to stop the little choir from singing and addressed the audience. He told them about the organ and said that he and Gruber had prepared a special song for the occasion. Without further ado (and without a glance to Nostler) Gruber shifted his guitar into position and plucked the first notes.

Mohr with his fine tenor voice and Gruber with his baritone fell in with Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!. The melody and the words blended perfectly. When they came to the end of the first verse, the children fell in with Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh… The clear young voices held the audience in their spell as they repeated the line as a benediction.

The verses followed each other until the children assured the congregation that Jesus the Saviour is here. Then complete silence descended on the people in the church. The song had a profound effect on the congregation – and on Nostler. He rushed through the communion and immediately retired to his study to write an outraged letter to the Bishop of Salzburg.

Mohr and Gruber stood at the door as the congregation filed out. They wanted to know what the people thought about their song even if they knew that Nostler was hugely upset. The reaction was mixed, to say the least. Some thought the song was acceptable, a few complimented the melody and yet others thought it was a sort-of reasonable substitute for the real Christmas songs they were used to.

When the last worshippers disappeared into the crisp night, the two men stood alone for a while. They had similar thoughts: Nostler was going to have their heads for this. Then again, the congregation seemed mildly pleased with their effort and surely they did the best they could under the circumstances?

Gruber held out his hand to his friend. “Merry Christmas, Joseph.”

As it turned out, Silent Night resurfaced again many years later; but the rendition of the song on Christmas Eve, 1818, may well have been the last.

Let’s leave the later history of Silent Night for the moment and consider the background once more. When faced with seemingly insurmountable problems, we often turn to others to solve them. We stick to convention and work within the rules. What Gruber and Mohr did, was to face the issue and make the most with what they had. Mohr’s harsh childhood may have driven him to a wasted life and he could have blamed his absent father for many things – but he didn’t.

Mohr did what we all do from time to time – he dreamt of love. He wrote a poem about the perfect family. And when the time came, he shared his poem with the world. Although he was destined to be a poor priest all his life, he gave us all one of the most precious gifts – one that is new and fresh every year when we gather to wish each other Merry Christmas.

One more thing: we all have Nostlers in our lives. Whenever we venture into the unknown, Father Nostler is there to remind us that the earth is flat and we’re going to fall off the edge if we test the horison. Today being the end of the Mayan calendar is a perfect example of how the Nostlers of the world affect some of us.   Look carefully at your colleagues, family and friends – Notsler is there to prevent you from achieving the (seemingly) impossible. And yet, if you have the courage to pursue your dreams, you’ll find that Nostler is wrong: the horison is not the end.

So, how did Silent Night survive? In the rest of the story we’ll meet organ fixers, kings and famous composers. Gruber didn’t become famous overnight (not even in his lifetime) and Mohr died penniless – yet it remains the world’s favourite Christmas song. Silent Night isn’t only a song; it has become the symbol of overcoming adversity. It’s there to encourage us when the odds against us are stacked sky-high. It brought hope to soldiers in trenches; it encouraged others over the years in times of hardship. It’ll bring solace to the folks in Connecticut and a thousand other homes where an empty chair reminds them of unimaginable sadness. Like in the past, it will be sung with the same nostalgic longing in far-off mission stations, in snow-bound little Alpine villages, in the mud-and-grass huts on Africa’s plains, and in the great cathedrals of many magnificent cities. Jesus, the saviour, is there…

Mohr’s desire for joy and beauty was not in vain.

But, like I said: never rush a good ending…

Welcome aboard the Helderberg

747“Why does Sammie close his shop on the 5th December every year? He told me once that was the day he arrived in Rolbos, and it’s a day of remembrance. In my book, he should be celebrating – not hiding.”

“Maybe he’s just thankful for the many years his shop endured, Vetfaan.” Even Gertruida isn’t sure. “If he came here in ’87, that’s twenty-five years ago. It means he survived the worst droughts, all the elections and the recession. He’s tough, that man.”

“Ja, I remember ’87. That’s the year that Whitney woman sang … what was it called again?” Vetfaan furrows his brow in concentration.

Didn’t we almost have it all, Vetfaan. That was her hit that year.” In Gertruida’s mind, the little secretary doing the filing is extremely efficient. “It’s the same year Chris deBurgh did Lady in Red.”

“That’s right! And that was the year our Boeing went down near Mauritius, wasn’t it?”

The little secretary scampers off to the file marked ‘Arms Smuggling” and ‘Cover-up’.  “The Helderberg. SA-295. 159 innocent lives lost – followed by one of the biggest cover-ups in history.  Allegations of rocket fuel and other arms on board a civilian flight.  Possibility exists that the CIA sabotaged the plane to prevent the strategically important freight reaching South Africa.” She sighs happily as the little filing clerk delivers the information. “But, like Sammie, the story won’t go away. At least Sammie wasn’t involved with that war.”

“Well, I was. During those years it was considered treason if you didn’t obey your call-up to the army. The politicians were clever: they told us we were the last bastion to stand against Communism. What a joke! Now the government is run by the Communist Party. I don’t know how Sammie managed to stay out of that war, but I no longer think of him as a traitor – I think he is a hero. By refusing to don the uniform, he must have known what the consequences would be if they found him.”

“Sure, Vetfaan. And now all of us – those that fought and those who fooled the system – all of us can ask the same question: was it worth it? We are all passengers on a modern-day Helderberg. We’re ferrying the most dangerous cargo ever: a mixture of arrogant politicians, ambitious worker’s unions and blatantly corrupt officials. And, like with that aeroplane, there are forces working actively to make sure this cargo ignites in mid-flight. Look at Marikana, for instance. Or the Western Cape. Do you think those workers sat down one day to decide what form their protest will be? Of course not! Some ponytail in a glass-walled office presented the idea to a clever politician who saw this as an opportunity to get at the mine bosses and the farmers; while retaining power as well.

“It’s such a simple strategy, people don’t see it at all. Demand higher wages in an economy that’s already staggering under inflation and recession. Sure, the bosses say, but then we have to increase production or lay some people off. Not possible, the unions say.The money has to come from somewhere, right? The strikers who retain their jobs are out of pocket for the duration of the strike. The small companies  close their doors. More people lose jobs. What happens? I’ll tell you. They have mouths to feed. Hence…crime.

“It’s the old war all over again, Vetfaan. Only this time: the troops don’t wear uniforms and the battle isn’t won by guns. Smoke and mirrors, my friend. It’s all an illusion. The war is against a strong economy. By keeping the economy floundering, you keep the poor people poor. Poor people look at the government for support, which it gladly provides in the form of grants. Old age. Infirm. Child grants encouraging the poor girls to make more babies for bigger hand-outs. Aids sufferers who don’t take their medications, for if their tests are too promising, the grant stops. Jobless people getting money for doing nothing.  No government has done more to keep people from working than our current parliament  Result? The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Government stays in power, just like in Zimbabwe.”

By the time Gertruida finishes her lecture, Vetfaan has cupped his face in his huge hands.

“We’re all on the Helderberg?”

“Yes Vetfaan. As long as we’re being piloted by somebody who has little respect for innocent lives, we’re going to go down in a ball of fire.”

“But can’t we do what Sammie did? Can’t we simply opt out? Refuse to go on stage when the bell rings?”

“It’s out of our hands this time. The guys pulling the strings have found a brand-new set of puppets. They don’t ask questions. As passengers on this plane, we don’t even have parachutes. The little blow-up device under the seat is as useless as the Mickey Mouse oxygen mask.”

***

In the cottage behind the shop, Sammie pages through his diary, the one with the family photo on the inside cover. He allows his finger to trace the faces of his mother, his father … and the smiling Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s last letter is pasted to the next page.

Hi Jesse

Army isn’t so bad. Once you get used to little corporals screaming at you, sergeants barking orders and shining the fuzzy-faced captain’s boots, then you simply let these things roll off your back. Roll with the punches. Ignore the stupidity of it all.

Well, I’ve completed basic training, and that is a blessing. They made us run from morning to night. I can assemble my rifle in the dark. My bed has right-angle edges. I can even iron my uniform. I guess that makes me a soldier, right?

We’re being flown out tomorrow. I’m not allowed to say (even if I knew), but apparently we’re going up north somewhere. They’ll probably censor  it out, but the guys think we’re off to xxxxxxxxxxx It sounds xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Please don’t worry about me. Although I have a feeling ,xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx but I guess that’s just because I’m so new to all this.

Today they made us all stand in a long line to fill out pre-printed wills. Can you believe that? There you are, eighteen years old and you have to say what must happen to your stuff if you don’t make it back alive. The chaplain said it’s simply routine, but we couldn’t help feeling this is all so surreal. Anyway,  I stipulated that you can get my stack of comics. Ha ha. I don’t have much else, have I?

So, Jess, that’s all for now. We have to get xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx before tomorrow, so we can be prepared for anything. I hope to be home for xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Look after yourself and hug Mom and Dad too, will you.

Your brother

Jeremiah.

PS: If Nadia enquires, explain decently? Your pretty remarkable agility, yesterday, encourages replay. I may alter Friday’s reply, after intense debate.

The PS says it all. Despite the jaunty trend of the letter, Jeremiah used their old code to conclude the letter. Using the first letters of the words, he said I need your prayers. I’m afraid. The overworked censors never picked it up. Did he know he was going to be part of a major battle? Or suspect he won’t be coming home? Did he think his sacrifice was worth his brother’s freedom?

But they were always like that. Close.

Now Sammie, who used to be Jesse, has a censored letter and a diary. Even the letter is censored, like their lives were, back then. Incomplete. Hidden behind the dark line of deceit and propaganda. There was no way to peep out from behind the black ink. Only the code escaped. A senseless sentence, crying out at the injustice of it all; telling him of a young man’s fear.

Sammie looks up. Outside the street is quiet and the few faces in Boggel’s window seem to be sombre. At least he has them. In Rolbos there are no outsiders, no censors, no black pens. They’re a neat little group, thrown together by chance and fate.

Just like passengers on a plane, he thinks. The world is a plane, and we’re sharing a nice row with window seats overlooking the wings.Yes, he thinks, that’s a great way of looking at it. Some get on. Some get off. Some just never arrive..

Vetfaan’s War

Image“It was the war,” Vetfaan sighs as he sips his beer, “that, and the woman with the strong forearm.”

Boggel just asked why he had started farming in the Kalahari, thinking he’d get the usual answer: to get away from it all.

Kleinpiet stops his drawing on the bar counter when he looks up. He’s never heard this story before, and he has known Vetfaan for ages; ever since they first met in this very same room, way back in ’95. Oh, they’ve talked about rugby and failed relationships; like educated, mature men do when they drink too much, but never about the war.

Kleinpiet was a medical orderly back then. The things he saw, does not make for light conversation. And of course, most of it should not be remembered at all. The broken bodies of young men – not old enough to vote, but old enough to kill – are best filed in the dark cabinet marked ‘Out of Bounds’. All men who have seen action, knows that’s how it is. You don’t go there. It is the stuff nightmares are made of, and veterans have enough of those.

“She came to the camp on a Friday evening. We had just returned from a patrol and were two men short. We couldn’t bring them back, see? Too far. To many casualties. We had to bury them under a baobab tree. Later we went back, but we couldn’t find the tree again. Too many of them.” Vetfaan glances over to the almost-empty brandy bottle, and nods at Boggel. “For a long time I thought I could forget it; and I really tried. But sometimes, every so often, I have a dream about that day.”

Vetfaan has been drinking heavily all day. Boggel has seen him do that before, and somehow knows he should not interfere – not when Vetfaan is in this mood. The big man will finish his bottle of brandy and Kleinpiet will take him home. Something, Boggel knows, is festering away inside Vetfaan; a demon of the past, a memory, an experience? Whatever it is, it’ll come out one day, when nature wants to heal the wound.

In cities people see psychologists; but that, of course, doesn’t help either. Ask any barman: he’ll tell you. The only way to kill the demon, is to give the patient enough time to run out of excuses. When the victim finally summons up the courage to face the memory, the healing will start. That’s why brandy helps so much. It gives courage, even if it is false.

It’s better than nothing.

“Those of us who could, had a shower and put on some clean clothes. Do you know what clean clothes feel like after all the blood and vomit and…?”  Vetfaan peers myopically at Boggel, who simply nods. He has his own demons to fight, as well. Then, almost as an afterthought: “In those days they brought in entertainers…”

Kleinpiet remembers the girls who got flown up to the base camps. While the rest of South Africa stumbled on in a Calvinistic haze, the powers-that-be supplied the eighteen-year-olds on the border with cheap alcohol and free entertainment. Evenings were spent in bars in the bush where the young soldiers got drunk while they screened movies about the patriotic and Christian heroes on the borders, fighting heathen terrorists. Occasionally, live entertainment travelled from camp to camp, with singers and dancers carefully chosen for their age and looks.

“That evening some girl sang. Old Afrikaans songs about the Transvaal and Karoo and Kalahari. She was beautiful.” His eyes glaze over as he hums Daar doer in die bosveld. They rest join in until he falls silent. “There was another girl there, a dancer. Beautiful body, even better face. Great hair. A body to die for. Madelein Coetzer. She had a way of moving her body that made me feel more alive than I have been for months. All over.” Kleinpiet snorts, but Vetfaan ignores him. “After the horror of the day, she was too beautiful. It didn’t match, you see? One moment you’re crawling through dust and soiling yourself, and a few hours later you smell like Brut while ogling the breasts of an untouchable woman. It was difficult to distinguish which was the greater agony – the fear of death or the futility of life.”

“When the show ended, this girl stepped up to the microphone and challenged the men to arm-wrestle with her. If somebody could beat her, she’d be his for the night, she said. Best out of three, she said. Now, this is something we sometimes did, and nobody – nobody – ever beat me. I was young and fit back then, and everybody turned to me, knowing I was their champion. Oh, they all wanted a go, of course, but they were afraid I’d beat the hell out of anybody who jumped at the opportunity. This, we all knew, was my chance.

“The army does that, you know? We were a living organism – we needed each other to survive. You need a sniper, you ask Sharpeye Schutte. Your Unimog broke down? Get Spanners Snyman. And when something impossible needs to be carried around, I was the natural choice. It was like that. We got things done for each other – not for some general.”

Vetfaan finishes his brandy, and nods for the last drops from the bottle to be poured in his glass. He tells them that he was shy. This woman can’t be a match for him, can she? And what if he won? H’s never been with a woman before – not like that… And if he lost, he’d be the laughing stock of the camp. Either way, the uncertainties contained in the match made him hesitate.

“You can’t turn your back on such a challenge. The guys cheered me on. I walked to the stage and introduced myself. I could see how she measured me up with those beautiful eyes. I was embarrassed, to say the least. Of course I’d win, and then have to face the prospect of spending the night with her.”

He tells them how they sat down at the table they set up on the small stage. He looked around for one last time, saw the gleaming faces of his comrades and the lust in their eyes. If he won, at least one of them would have a great night. They wanted that satisfaction, even if it were only his pleasure.

“Well, she positioned herself and invited me to extend my arm. I did. I grasped that fine, clean little hand with the manicured nails and told myself it’s a mismatch. The next thing I knew, my hand was slammed back onto the table with a force that jarred my teeth. I said I hadn’t been ready and she laughed.

“The next time, she gave me ample time. She asked if I was ready. When I nodded, she made her arm go limp and allowed me to win. She was putting up a show, to get the guys involved. They cheered and screamed and went on like little boys around a schoolyard fight. But then the third round happened. At one all, the winner of this round would be the overall winner. And I wasn’t sure; her first attempt jarred my confidence, and she let me win the second. The nagging though in the back of my mind was: what if…”

“What happened, Vetfaan?” Boggel opens a new bottle of brandy, and pours a modest single in Vetfaan’s glass.

“She won – well, sort of. Forced my hand back to almost the table top. I looked into those lovely eyes. The men fell silent, totally disappointed in the inevitable outcome. In my mind, I was back on that bloody trail we walked that day. I saw the blood and the gore and the vomit and I felt the dampness all over again. I heard the screams…”

By now, Vetfaan has to wipe away a tear and everybody suddenly finds something to do. Kleinpiet ties his shoe laces, Boggel fetches some ice.

“Well, I think she saw that in my eyes,” Vetfaan continues after a while, “So she allowed my hand push hers back to the middle. And so we sat – frozen between defeat and victory. Whenever I tried to force her hand over, she simply countered. She only went halfway, every time. Once, I thought I had her, but the final push didn’t work.

“After about ten minutes of grunting and sweating, Captain Krizinger suggested we declare a draw. She nodded and I was relieved to sit back. That’s when we started talking.”

And they did. Until dawn the next day, they sat at the table on that stage, talking. She told him about her life and the struggle to make money to keep her mother in an old-age home. He told her about the patrol and the war and the baobab tree. She stroked his arm and he thought it must be how an angel’s touch feels. They laughed at each others jokes. They shared silence. In short, it was the best night of his life…

“But, she said, when it was all over, she wanted to be like that woman who had a farm in Africa. Koekie somebody. She said it was the most beautiful book she had ever read. We were a bit drunk by that time and the camp was starting to stir as the darkness slowly gave way to dawn. And I…I said, when it was over, I’ll be on that farm, waiting for her.”

Vetfaan sways a little as he makes a rolling gesture with his hand. “Last one, Boggel.”

“Did she come?’ Kleinpiet has never heard of a woman on Vetfaan’s farm.

“A landmine took out their bus on their way to the next camp. She died, like the rest of us.”

 

If you visit Rolbos, you may find Vetfaan in one of his moods. He’s doesn’t get violent or anything like that. It’s just that he drinks a bit more than usual and becomes a bit teary. Boggel says it’s a good thing, that demon must get out before Vetfaan will be all right again. Kleinpiet reckons it isn’t necessary; Vetfaan will drown the bastard at this rate.

But both of them are wrong.

The war on the border destroyed more dreams than lives. It destroyed more families than individuals. The deaths caused by the senseless fighting were bad enough, and will haunt South Africa for generations to come – but death is a singularity; it happens once and then the living must accept the inevitability of it’s reality.

But love – love is crueler. The loss of love creates a void nothing else can fill. Not even a farm in the Kalahari will help. When Vetfaan stumbles up his stairs at night, he has to sit down halfway. It isn’t the brandy that makes him dizzy – it is the burden of loss that wears him down.

Dream of Africa - Buy now....

You too, can dream of Africa. Buy now…

 Kuki Gallmann  too, lived with loss…

.