Tag Archives: revenge

Everybody has a You (#12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everybody has a You (#10)

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????In the strange, inexplicable way time slows down during times of catastrophe, a lot may happen in the shortest little period of time. For instance: in that second after Smartryk was shot, a multitude of actions took place simultaneously; yet it remains difficult to describe – let alone explain -how the hapless group of Rolbossers managed to get it all done in such a short time.

***

Boggel, of course, is the only one not to react. Well ensconced in his unconscious state, he remains exactly where he is – hidden under his heap of wetted sand. The same cannot be said for the rest of the group.

Kleinpiet and Vetfaan recognises the sound of the shot immediately. The instinct (rather than discipline), so rudely formed during their days as army conscripts during the Border War, kicks in immediately as they fling themselves to the ground. Oudoom, bewildered and never having  been under fire before, starts running away from the sound as fast as his ample frames allows movement; while Precilla and Gertruida does the sensible thing to cower down behind the bulky frame of Vetfaan. The overburdened Mary, panicked beyond measure, does an even more sensible thing: she falls down in a dead faint. And Sersant Dreyer? He scrambles for cover behind the police van, like a good policeman should.

Servaas stands rooted to the spot for a microsecond – but galvanises into action when he sees Dawid running. Despite his age, he does a sterling job of catching up with the Bushman. Did he – at that stage – know what he was getting himself into? Probably not. But still, his action will raise a few glasses in the days and months to come: the patrons in Boggel’s Place owe him that, at least..

Dawid’s reaction may be understood if you knew the history of the Bushmen. Centuries of persecution and scorn have driven these men and women into the most inhospitable parts of Africa. They chose to hide here rather than fight against overwhelming odds of civilisation and gunpowder. The sand and the dunes formed their fortress against these formidable enemies of their way of life. Now, as one of the last of the remnants of a once-great culture, Dawid lives in this barren and desolate area, the last refuge available to him and his kin. He’s no coward, though. He’ll face a lion – or a leopard – with dignity: not with the aim of killing such a beast, but to reassure the animal that he, Dawid, respects the animal’s right to hunt where and when it pleases. And, he’ll tell the ignorant westerner, it’s due to this reciprocal respect that man and animal may find the way to peaceful coexistence.

But…being shot at does not in any way fit in with his concepts of respect and coexistence. Being shot at implies the possibility that you may be hurt – killed, even – and that is the most profound form of disrespect shown to any man.  Also bear in mind that he found himself on Zosi Plain – a flat and empty space. There simply isn’t anywhere to hide. So Dawid did what he did, because there wasn’t anything else to do.

With the acute hearing Bushmen have, Dawid not only discerned where the shot came from, but also how far away the shooter should be. And then, instinctively or not, he ran, crouching all the way, straight in that direction, not knowing that Servaas was right behind him.

***

Under different circumstances he would have hesitated when he saw the man holding the pistol. After all, you don’t take on a giant of a man if you only weighed about 50 kg and could barely reach his shoulder. But the man had a gun and Bushmen know all they need to know about guns: they kill. What Brutus Malherbe thought at that stage, will never be known. Most probably he registered surprise or even disbelief at the small man storming at him. He did, however, manage a guffaw – but whether that was due to his natural feeling of superiority or simply an incredulous outing of astonished contempt, we’ll never know. When Dawid dived at him, Brutus stepped aside, caught him by the scruff of his neck and hoisted him high. He needed both hands to do this –  dropping the pistol in the process.

Gertruida later said Brutus had the look of a madman at that moment. He, too, was covered in dried blood – some fresh bleeding was still evident from a long gash over his forehead. With his clothes in no better state than Boggel’s and his skin and face similarly affected by heat and thirst, he seemed completely out of control. While one may speculate about his sanity at that moment, there could be no doubt what he was trying to do: his huge hands were wrapped around the thin neck of his dangling and helpless attacker…

***

Servaas doesn’t think. For a while he might have thought that Dawid was leading him to safety (something he’ll emphatically deny afterwards), but when he sees Brutus and the way he looks at the pathetically squirming man in his grasp, Servaas managed to find another gear to power his aging legs. He lowered his head, and – bull-like – bellowed as he rammed his bald cranium into Brutus’s middle. Or, at least, where he thought Brutus’s middle might be. Suffice to say that a bent-down Servaas might just reach the height of Brutus’s hips – or thereabouts…

Take any man – big or small, old or young – and take a swing at the core of the nuclear power station. Remember the axiom of aiming an unstoppable force at an immovable object? Well, If that force should connect the immovable object right on the male main switch, the power goes off and the lights go out. The circuit blows. Elvis leaves the building. The fat lady sings. It’s simple physics.

True, Servaas was stunned a little by the impact, and Dawid dropped like a sack of corn next to him, but the real damage was done to Brutus while the others – cowering as they did – let out a protracted ‘…ooooooo...!’. Even the astute Gertruida winched.

***

“Quick, Mister Vetfaan, tie him up!” Dawid is the first to recover. He scoops up the pistol and hands it to Sersant Dreyer, who has  left his hiding place behind the police van. The three of them – Dreyer, Vetfaan and Dawid – get busy unlacing the boots of their adversary and tying his huge wrists. A belt suffices for the ankles.

“Help! Somebody please help Ryk. He’s bleeding…” Mary’s anguished cry cuts through the mayhem of the moment. Getruida rushes over, takes a look at Smartryk, and takes a deep breath.

Gertruida doesn’t panic. Well, not usually. Now, however, she feels faint at the sight of so much blood. Gingerly, with trembling hands, she undoes the buttons of the soaked shirt. Then, folding back the flaps of the shirt, she inspects the damage.

“Let’s see…” Her voice is as unsteady as her hands, but she presses on regardless.

A long, cut-like wound courses across Smartryk’s chest. Apparently Smartryk was standing side-on to the shooter and the bullet raced across his chest from right to left, cleaving the skin and flesh open to the bone. In the middle of the wound a severed artery spurts a little fountain of red.

breast_artery_2“It’s the Thoracoacromial,” she announces in a much relieved tone. “One of the arteries to the chest wall.” Applying a delicate thumb to the bleeding artery, she presses down gently. The bleeding stops immediately. “The shock of the bullet hitting the ribs must have caused a faint. See – he’s already moving.” Making soothing noises, she tells Smartryk to lie still.

***

Take a moment here. Forget the tied-up Brutus, the unconscious Boggel and the wounded Smartryk. Push aside thoughts of anger and pity, and don’t – for the moment – worry about how the group is going to get back to civilisation. Most of all, don’t contemplate the delicate situation with Brutus’s heart – remember his cardiac condition? No, ignore all these issues for a moment and consider the turmoil in Mary’s mind.

Look at her now – there where she’s standing motionless on trembling legs, with Brutus a few yards away, Boggel under the damp sand and Smartryk being attended to by Gertruida and Precilla. Scattered around her you see the fragments of her past, her present and – what she hoped for – her future. Yet now it doesn’t make sense, not at all, as her anger at men – all men – boils down to a reduction of white-hot rage. Damn Brutus for causing all this! Damn Boggel for not pursuing their friendship back then, when they had so much time and so much innocence! Damn Smartryk for getting hurt and…and…being so bloody nice, for goodness’ sakes!

Gertruida says all people experience at least short periods of insanity from time to time. It’s quite normal to feel control slipping and then to do something totally irrational: like commenting on a speeding ticket you got a minute ago, or laughing at our president, or falling in love. Some things, she says, just aren’t rational and some actions simply cannot be explained in a logical way.

So, go on, just accept that Mary cannot be held responsible for what she felt and did at that moment. The years and years of struggle, of being abused and misused, of being deceived and disappointed, of hoping and then seeing her dreams shattered… Well, all these emotions burst into an all-consuming blaze in her overloaded mind; white-hot and with an anger so intense that it made her vision shrink to fade out everybody…except for Brutus, who started screaming obscenities at that moment.

Mary Mitchell lost control…maybe that’s the way one should look at it. She rushed over to the tied-up brute of a man who now became the focus of her wrath. In her helpless bitterness, she kicked at Brutus. She kicked hard, venting the years of pent-up resentment in the force of that kick. In the moment before her boot struck the broad chest of Brutus Malherbe, she let out a primeval scream, causing the man to turn his head away from her, as if he saw the madness he had caused in the once-pretty girl. Then, with her face screwed up in a paroxysm of hatred, her heavy boot thudded against the ribs.

And Brutus – the strong, invincible, ruthless, abusive, crooked lawyer – felt his heartbeat skip, take, skip…and stop.

The Man, Breathless…

Credit: gettyimages.com

Credit: gettyimages.com

(Follows on the previous posts)

People react to fright (and guilty consciences) in different ways, Gertruida is fond of saying. Mostly, their first thought is about their own safety. That is normal, she says. Once preservation of the self is ensured, attention to others become a reality.

Maybe Reverend Joseph should have thought about that. Or perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t. But when Miriam’s son appears in the doorway, Joseph has no idea of what is about to happen.

“Yes, what about the grudge?”

The three of them (Miriam, Joseph and an even more surprised – if emotional – Diksarel) turn to the door of the church, where a young man hissed the words. Despite not being quite himself, Diksarel recognises the youth as the one who brought him here from the sheneen. An alarm bell goes off in his mind – did Reverend Joseph not say he is dangerous…or something?

“You,” the newcomer points an accusing finger at Diksarel, “have ruined my family. You caused my grandfather and my mother – and me – untold misery…”

“Wait son!” Miriam is now the one pleading. “You cannot hold this white man responsible for what his father had done. Please…”

“No, Mom. Sorry. It is a matter of honour. His father, my grandfather.” He takes a deep breath, obviously trying to calm down. “Listen, White Man, if you don’t have a sense of heritage, or a sense of pride…well, that’s your bloody problem, isn’t it? But let me tell you: the Plaatjies family – all of us – aren’t like that. We are proud of who we are. Of what we are. It’s not about you and me, it’s about being a Plaatjies or being a Labuschagne. It’s our blood, White Man, crying out for justice.”

While Miriam’s son speaks, he walks down the narrow aisle slowly, ending up chest-to chest with Diksarel, who has retreated back to the little platform. He now has nowhere to go but stand and face his adversary.

“Stop it, Jason. This is a church.” Joseph’s remark is ignored.

“So.” The young man – Jason, Miriam’s son – takes off his jacket. “We’ll settle it here. Now. Let the Labuschagnes of the world know: we, the Plaatjies family, aren’t trash.”

The blow to Diksarel’s middle is unexpected, despite the preceding threatening words. He doubles up, gasping for breath.

“NOOO!” Miriam jumps forward to stop her son, but he brushes her off.

“This is somethng I wanted to do for a long time, Mom. For years and years I had to hear how one man wrecked our name. How this man – a white man – made my grandfather leave the church. And how your good name got dragged through the mud. You can’t expect me to take that lying down, for heaven’s sake!”

Diksarel fights to get his breath back. Now – almost back on his knees again – he holds up a hand.

“You….bastard! You think…only about…yourself.” Diksarel gasps for breath while he speaks. A white-hot anger is raging inside him – it is as if the decades’ worth of humiliation and being gossiped about, has burnt through the wall that has kept it at bay for all these years. “You life? Your family?” He coughs, straightening up. “You have no idea – not even vaguely – what I had to live through. And why? I’ll tell you why – your family. Your dear grandfather. Your mother.”

Diksarel feels the fear leaving him. Feels how the humiliation and rejection he had to endure all his life, rise from the ashes of his self-respect, Damn it! If this…this…Jason wanted a showdown, then bring it on! He, Diksarel Labsuchagne, has had enough. If this has to be the last chapter of his life, then let him have the courage to face it honourably. He raises his fists, ready to take on the younger man.

Conflict, Gertruida always says, is a useless exercise. She says it’s okay to have a clash of interests or a difference of opinion, but in the end conflict doesn’t settle anything. That’s how grudges are created and thoughts of revenge surface. The mightiest weapon in any conflict, she maintains, is a sense of humour.

Jason has never met Gertruida, but his reaction would have pleased her. Suddenly his scowl of anger is replaced by a brilliant smile.

“There. My family’s honour is restored. Now it’s your turn. Hit me.”

Reverend Joseph bursts out laughing in relief. Miriam sits down with a thump on the creaking pew. Diksarel stares at Jason in disbelief. What the hell…?

“Come on, White Man! Your family caused disaster in mine. I took revenge. My family wreaked havoc in yours. Now…be a man!”

Slowly, gingerly, Diksarel raises his fist. Jason doesn’t flinch. Then, when his hand is shoulder-high, he opens his fist, and lays the softest of slaps on Jason’s cheek.

“That all?” Jason is still smiling.

“Yeah. I’m not angry at you. Or your mother. Or your grandfather. I’m angry at society…and I can’t hit them all, can I?”

Yet, despite his words, Diksarel experiences a sense of relief. Here he is, at the source of the burden he has had to carry all these years, and yes…he feels a strange sense of relief at facing it. This meeting and this confrontation was necessary to get the whole picture into perspective.

“Then we can all go to Mama Sarah’s again. The beer is on me.” Jason steps aside to allow his mother to lead the way. “When honour is restored, friends should have a drink together.”

Revenge, Gertruida sometimes quotes, is a dish best served cold. Even better, is getting rid of the leftovers of anger and bake a conciliation cake.

Mama Sarah is overjoyed when the four of them sit down in her shebeen. She won’t accept payment for the four Black Labels she puts down in front of them. Apparently she already knows exactly what transpired in the church. There are no secrets in a township…

“Um…,” she says, getting their attention.  When they look up at her, she beams back. “And now there’s the little question of little Miss Kneehigh, isn’t there…?”

It hits Diksarel harder than Jason did.

Oscar – A Sad Modern Fable

giraffeOnce upon a time a baby giraffe was born. He was handsome, chubby and seemed perfectly formed…except for his legs. They were too short, you see? The other animals crowded around, making sympathetic sounds. This little giraffe, they all agreed, would not amount up to much.

Giraffes, like we all know, need good, strong legs. Without them, they can’t reach the succulent leaves at the top of the acacia trees – and they can’t run away from the many predators in the woods. A short-legged giraffe has no chance.

Still, his parents gave him a name –  Oscar – and tried to raise him as normally as possible. Uncle owl suggested stilts, which nephew Baboon made from strong the bamboo stems. At first the little giraffe struggled to remain upright, but then something strange happened: his mother discovered that he was extremely strong-willed. Oscar refused to give up. This, of course, made his family very proud. Maybe, they thought, the little disadvantaged giraffe will be able to fend for himself, after all.

Something else happened inside the young animal’s mind: he was determined to show them – all of them, especially those who had said he wouldn’t make it – that he would be the best. The fastest. The strongest. In fact, the most famous of them all.

As the bamboo stems dried out, little Oscar found they bent when he put his weight on them. Then, when he shifted his balance, the bamboo would spring back to being straight. Initially, this unexpected quality of the stems caught him off-guard, and his family had to help him up time and again. But later, quite a bit later, young Oscar used this spring-like effect to propel him at amazing speeds across the veld.

Now: everybody loves a winner. They started taking bets: could young Oscar run faster than Lion?

He did.

What about rabbit?

Oscar won.

And cheetah…?

Oscar left him eating dust.

By now, the animals all wanted to be friends with the speeding, short-legged giraffe with his bamboo legs. Sympathy turned into adoration. And the strong-willed and almost-no-longer-disadvantaged giraffe soaked up the admiration. He liked the way the other animals deferred to him, allowing him the best grazing spots, the coolest bits of shade and the nicest place at the waterhole. They laughed at all his jokes. And, because he was so fast, even the predators and the carnivores kept their distance.

Sadly, Oscar developed what the other animals whispered about as ‘a bit of an attitude‘. Nothing much, you understand? It’s just that he became a bit arrogant. And…who could blame him? He was the best, wasn’t he? And should not the best, expect the best? So sometimes – not often – he’d growl and grumble (giraffes do this rather quietly) to show his displeasure if things didn’t quite please him.

Then something terrible happened. One night – quite late – the young giraffe took off his bamboo stilts to lay down. He did this every night, you see, to allow his short legs to rest before he strutted out his prowess for all to see in the morning.

And something happened.  During a dark and stormy night the young giraffe did the unthinkable. He lost control.

What happened?

Nobody is sure, but it became abundantly clear that Oscar did something so terrible, so completely horribly detestable, that all the other animals turned away in shock and shame.

And now something even worse occurred: the animals brayed for blood. His blood. The situation became bad enough for other animals from other parts of the forest came to see how the young giraffe was made to pay for his transgression.

And the young giraffe cried.

And he couldn’t fix the horrible thing he had done.

And then he died. He still breathed, of course, but his strong will was broken and his bamboo legs were to slow and too short to carry away from the shame and the grief he had caused.

And for the rest of his miserable life, the only thing he could hear, was the braying for blood and revenge. When he died eventually – really stopping breathing this time – his last request was that his funeral pyre be stoked with the bamboo stems that once made him famous.

***

There’s a moral to the story, of course.

We’re all born with disabilities – some are a bit more obvious than others. Over time, we overcome these defects and we strive to live normal lives. A select few of us will even become famous for what we’ve achieved. Some will thrive on the attention and the fame and the adoration. And then, inevitably, Icarus flies too near the sun and the wax melts and the wings come off.

And we fall…

Then, those of us who are spectators on such a tragedy have a choice: Either we join the carnivore choir for blood and revenge – or we become silent as we contemplate the sad and grim reality of those involved with the Fall have to live with.

Maybe that little giraffe made the worst mistake of his life – willingly or not – and this affected those closely involved in the most negative way. Maybe his life and way of doing things were not solely the result of some birth defect. Maybe the animals who made him believe he could fly with his waxed wings of bamboo legs were responsible as well.

Or maybe the worst thing about the fable is not the horrible deed that was done…but the way the other animals brayed for blood afterwards.

As if they lived blameless lives…

Gertruida’s Journey (# 5)

14Gertruida squares her shoulders. This story must be told and she’s the one to do it. She empties her glass before going on.

“I didn’t know what to do… I played the part of courier for the ANC and Paul, but at the same time National Intelligence was using me as a source of information. They wanted me to tell them everything I knew about Paul Harrison, who his handler was, what he knew – and whether he could be turned into a double agent, as well. They knew about him being gay and wanted to use it against him. In those days, being homosexual was still considered to be a source of shame – especially in South Africa, where churches controlled the way people lived and thought. “

Gertruida accepts the beer Boggel offers: talking about her past is not easy…

The old Capitol Thetre, Pretoria

The old Capitol Theatre, Pretoria

“I was young and unsure. When Paul delivered the next batch of documents, I slipped him a note, asking him to meet me the next day at the Capitol Theatre. I’d be in the back row, I said. By then I was pretty sure my flat was bugged and my telephone tapped.”

Kleinpiet remembers how one of his liberal friends simply disappeared in the 80’s. He had been extremely critical about the way the secret police detained and tortured people, and had been rather vocal about it. Rumour had it that he was detained, but nobody knew anything. Or rather: if anybody knew what happened, he or she was too scared to say anything. Society had been bludgeoned into quiet acceptance: either you agreed with the government , or you faced the often brutal consequences. The country was riddled with spies and informers; you could trust nobody.

“I remember it was one of Stallone’s Rocky movies. Paul sneaked in to sit next to me, and I told him about Ferdinand. What must I do, I asked? Should I leave the country? Follow him to London?

“He said that it  would be stupid to abandon my studies in my final year. No, he said, this was a golden opportunity. He could feed the Nationalist government anything he wanted – especially if it was untrue. Fight disinformation with more disinformation, he said.

“And that’s how I became the middleman in one of the most ridiculous situations one can imagine. The ANC fed lies to the Nationalists, who fed lies back to the ANC.  Everything got inflated: South Africa’s oil reserves, the size of the army, the ease of circumventing all the boycotts and embargoes.  The ANC, in turn, bragged about the massive and unlimited support they received form Russia.

“And then Ferdinand changed tactics. By that time we got…involved…with each other. It was almost a type of Stockholm Syndrome – I felt sorry that somebody with such a keen mind, should be slaving under such brutal masters. Oh, I was young and naïve, a young student caught up in a game even the seasoned politicians and diplomats managed to botch up in the end. Anyway, Ferdinand said the disinformation I fed to Paul, would be even more believable if I worked for National Intelligence. With my degree in Political Science, my job would be a legitimate appointment, with the rest of my activities a complete secret.

“Paul welcomed the move. You see, I never lied to Paul. I had told him everything. He argued that the more the Nationalists were inflating their capabilities, the better. Feed the lies to the government in exile in London, he said, and let them spread it amongst the other international intelligence organisations – who’d inform their governments, of course. That way, the UK, USA and other countries will understand that the ANC needs more support against the overwhelming power of Pretoria. At the same time, it’ll encourage the world to condemn Apartheid and force the South African government to consider a more diplomatic approach.

“Although I gleaned some intelligence through my association with Ferdinand –  and during the course of my work – I mostly  used a lot of creative license to manufacture the information Paul carried back to London. Paul and I actually had a lot of fun thinking up false reports on how good things are going in London and Pretoria. Let’s play them off against each other, Paul said, and make them realise they must stop the war. He said it was like the situation between Russia and America: the more the one believed the other to be untouchable, the less sense it made to fight.

“It was a game of bluff and counter-bluff. P W Botha knew how the war on the border sapped the already weakening economy of the country – and took note of the inflated reports Ferdinand delivered. If Russia and China pledged unlimited support for the ANC, Botha knew he was fighting a losing battle.

“And so, my role as double agent had at least one positive aspect to it: it helped sway the Nationalists to rethink their aggressive attitude.”

***

The Boss flips through the file on his desk. Paul Harrison –  the man who hoodwinked them all. Throughout his career, The Boss had always been careful to verify the information that was channelled to him, and Ferdinand Fourie used to be one of his most trusted agents. Now, with the hindsight only time can bring, The Boss has to admit: Harrison had played him for a fool. When he advised FW de Klerk to negotiate peace with the terrorists of the  ANC, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapsing. Even the ANC was in serious financial trouble.

The opposing sides in the struggle were like two tired boxers in the final round. If one of them could have landed a telling blow – one single, solid punch – the war would have ended right then and there. South Africa had the troops, the fighting power and the ability….

No matter that the Nationalists could not afford to continue the fight – the other side was even worse off! If he knew then what he knows now, he’d have told FW to escalate their efforts – and they would have won the war. But…Paul Harrison! One man managed to derail the whole situation. FW convinced his cabinet that the ANC was stronger than ever, based solely on the lies Harrison made them believe.

If it weren’t for Harrison, South Africa would still the happy place it had been before the Nationalist government had to hand over power to the deceiving and dishonest ANC. The Boss clenches his fist. Well, he can’t change history – but he can take revenge!

oxfamThat’s why The Boss spent twenty years looking for Paul. Twenty years! And Harrison knew he was a hunted man and managed to evade The Boss’ clutches for two decades. Harrison, it seemed, drifted into Oxfam, and has travelled extensively to render help to less fortunate communities. The Boss had to wait patiently; but finally got lucky when Paul returned to South Africa to attend the funeral of an uncle.

The tow ex-agents traced Paul to a flat in Sunnyside, planning to abduct him the following morning. After that they’d deliver the man to his house on the outskirts of Pretoria. Here, he’d humiliate the ANC’s liar, and take his time in starving and torturing the man to death.

Oh, he’d been so excited…the exquisite pleasure of seeing a victim squirm and beg for mercy! How many times didn’t he do that in the old days; prolonging the agony of death in his well-rehearsed repertoire of primitive torture. Yes, he’ll start with the nails – it always the nails – perfect to get the victim in the right frame of mind.

And now the man has escaped!

The Boss flips through the file. Ferdinand Fourie is dead. Paul Harrison is on the run. Now…who was that woman who acted as a go-between? She must be somewhere? She might have a lot to answer for, as well…

***

“This is Rolbos?” Paul Harrison takes in the few buildings and the small church. “You sure?”

The lorry driver laughs, showing the bare guns that once held teeth.

“Yep, sure is. If you’re looking for somebody, you’d better wander over there. See the sign? Boggel’s Place? They’ll all be there, I bet you!”

Paul hesitates before pushing the door open. A woman is speaking inside. Yes…he recognises that voice.

Fanny’s Surprise (# 38)

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

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

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

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

Suddenly a big man is at her side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the infusion running smoothly, she repeats her question.

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

***

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

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

“All the kings horses…”

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

“And all the king’s men…”

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

“Couldn’t put Humty together again…”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He gets no response for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fanny’s Surprise (# 15)

N14_upington_pofadderThe taxi hums along on the tarred road to Grootdrink, while Henry tries to work out a practical approach to get Fanny to lead him to the fortune. He’s relatively sure she wouldn’t be keen on the idea – she did explain that she thought it’s best to leave the area undisturbed. Now, that is something he doesn’t understand: if there’s money in the desert that technically belongs to nobody, why leave it there? It’s plain stupid to ignore the treasure. Finders keepers…

Slapjan Rooi watches his passenger in the rear-view mirror. To pick up a fare all the way to Rolbos, was a stroke of pure luck. Usually his passengers only travel a kilometre or three – to the shops, the airport, back home – and suddenly here’s this terribly aloof character who wants to go to the out-of-the way little town. Of course Slapjan inflated the fare a little – when you’ve been a taxi driver for so many years, you can spot a loaded passenger a mile off. This poor sod; with his suit, silk shirt and tie; must be some executive. He’s white, so he can’t be some government official or local company CEO. His accent suggests a very English background – and the hot-potato-in-the-mouth  is a dead give-away, as is the haughty nose in the air and the little military moustache. No, this Englishman is here on serious business – hence the serious tariff per kilometre. He speeds up a little: the sooner he gets back to Upington, the faster he can get to the shebeen to brag about his good fortune.

***

Vetfaan negotiates the sandy road back to the farm with the experience that comes from years of travelling on the slippery surface. Fanny has recovered a little, but she is still rather pale. They are both worried about !Ka being alone on the farm..

Some people believe in coincidence, others blame fate and yet others don’t even stop to think why things happen. Oudoom regularly reminds his congregation that there is a purpose to everything under heaven when he preaches from Ecclesiastes 3; and it’s true. Chance meetings aren’t by chance. Things heard or seen aren’t by coincidence at all. Don’t discard the events of any moment – they’re there for a reason. 

The plume of dust, announcing the approach of a speeding vehicle, makes Vetfaan slow down. Not only will die thick dust obscure his vision for a few hundred yards after he’s passed the vehicle; there’s always the danger of stones thrown up by the other vehicle’s wheels. He breathes a sigh of relief when he sees the other vehicle slow down too. 

“Hey, that’s Slapjan’s taxi,” he says as they get nearer. “I wonder who…”

“It can’t be…” Fanny’s hand flies to her mouth as the taxi passes them. “Oh no! It is! It’s Henry…” The note of despair in her voice is unmistakable.

Vetfaan brakes to a skidding halt and does a U-turn. If Henry is on his way to Rolbos, they must follow him. He has an uneasy feeling about this; Henry certainly isn’t here on a goodwill visit.

“Seems you were right, Fanny. He’s either here to find those coins, or he wants to stake his claim and get engaged. I can tell you: he’s not here on a romantic excursion.” Vetfaan’s voice, too, has an edge to it.

***

Keeping just behind the clouds of dust kicked up by the taxi, the Vetfaan speeds on towards Rolbos, where the little crowd at the bar is discussing the issue of the jilted lover, the fraudster and the fortune seeker – all of them the same person. Kleinpiet says they haven’t had such a lot of excitement since the that thunder shower in 2005. 

“Well, Vetfaan said they’re going to fetch !Ka and bring him back here. I asked Platnees to share his cottage with !Ka for a while – they are family, after all. The Roois and Geels and the !Ka family goes back a long time. They’ll have a lot to talk about.” Boggel is adding up the moth’s totals for the individual patrons to settle, scratches his head, and decides to give them all a discount. By all accounts, it’s been a good month in the bar. “Do you really think that Henry will come here, Gertruida?”

“I suppose it’s possible. Fanny is here. So is that old wagon she told us about…”

Before she can finish her sentence, the sound of a vehicle outside brings the conversation to a stop. Servaas, nearest to the window, tells them it’s Slapjan and then: “Oh my goodness.What did you say about excitement, Kleinpiet? This is going to be very interesting…”

***

Henry Hartford squares his shoulders as he walks briskly to the bar. He can see there are a lot of people inside, strengthening his hope that Fanny would be there with that silly Afrikaner. He’s formulated his approach carefully. First of all, he must determine exactly what she knows at this stage. Maybe she hasn’t heard the news yet…

And then, of course, he must do what that speech therapist taught him: sweep her off her feet with sweet words. He’ll remember to smile while he talks – it gives the listeners a sense of trust. And yes, he’ll keep on the dark glasses – she’s such a good judge of the feelings in the eyes.

Yes, Fanny my dear, he thinks, today you’re going to change my world…

Pass-over

“Servaas, you are particularly cantankerous these days.”Gertruida sits down next to the old man, rubbing the small of his back with a soft hand. “I think you should talk about it. Something is brewing in that grey head, and I think it must come out. You can’t go on like this.”

Servaas looks up at Gertruida’s face to see the kindness and concern there. Suddenly, tears well up. He sniffs loudly.

“It’s nothing, thank you. Something that happened a long time ago. 30 years ago, to be exact. Long gone, not important any more.”

“You know better than that, Servaas. Sometimes those thoughts are the most dangerous of all. They sit there, festering away below the surface, destroying the little happiness you might still have left in you.” She pauses to do a little mental arithmetic. “Thirty years? That was 1982. The country was at war in Angola…”

“Super.”

“What?”

Operation Super. March 1982.”

Gertruida’s face lights up. “Of course! Servaasie! She lowers her voice as Servaas’ shoulders start shaking, “He was in a support group, wasn’t he? And a landmine got his vehicle?” When Servaas nods, Gertruida tells him she’s so sorry.

“Yeah. He died, and I failed…”

When the telegram arrived to announce the death of his only son, Servaas locked himself in his room. He came out once, to attend the funeral.  For three days and three nights he even ignored Siena’s pleas to come out, saying he was busy struggling with God. That was not true: he was fighting with God, accusing Him of being an unfeeling and unjust deity, unworthy of worship.

“How can you say you failed? You didn’t. You gave the best to Servaasie and the war wasn’t your doing, anyway. You’re being unreasonable, Servaas.”

On the fourth day, he opened the door and told Siena he’d be away for a while. She saw the terrible determination in his eyes and didn’t ask. He took a bag and his old hunting rifle, loaded it into the pickup, and drove off. Now it was Siena’s turn to spend her days on her knees, pleading  God to protect her husband.

He drove up the long, tarred road from Vioolsdrift to Grootfontein, only stopping for petrol and stale meat pies along the way. Three days later he stood on the banks of the Kunene River, gazing at Angola with blood-shot eyes. Camouflaging his vehicle, he stretched out on the back, and slept for a full day. Then, after a meal of bully beef and beans, he took his rifle and started looking for a way to cross the river.

His intention was clear: they took his son. He’d take one of theirs. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. When the evening came, he found a wide, shallow stretch of river where he waded through.

“Servaas? A one-man expedition against a trained army? What were you thinking?”

He lived off the veld, trapping small animals and drinking whenever he found water. The area was rather inhospitable, so he trekked more-or-less up along the river so as not to lose contact with the only reliable source of water.

And then, one night, he heard voices. Clear, singing voices. Voices joined together to sing a hymn – like only the people from Africa can. Multi-tiered singing, combining bass and soprano in alternating verses, praising God.

Servaas never found out who did that singing.

He returned home.

“You did the right thing, Servaas. How can you say you failed?”

“I failed God, for a while. I got angry and turned my back on Him. I was quite prepared to kill anybody I met in Angola: man, woman, child, soldier, civilian. Anybody. Just to feel I took some sort of revenge.”

“Remember the ten plagues, Servaas, and how the first Passover came into being? It was the blood of the lamb that was the sign. Those with the sign, survived. The others didn’t. The same thing happened to you. The hymn was the sign, that’s all. It’s actually a beautiful story.

“You passed them over – whoever they were – just like the plague did the Jews in Egypt all those years ago. And now, with Passover upon us, you should celebrate it, not sit and mope about it.”

“But I never got my revenge, Gertruida!” The old man’s face contorts in a picture of regret. “Now I live with this emptiness inside me. I wanted to fill it, but couldn’t.”

“You know, Servaas, the biggest, worst, most horrible form of revenge is … forgiveness. You cannot fight hate with hate. Hate can only succumb to one force; and that’s the force of love. If we were to be punished for every sinful thought, every sinful action, life on earth would have been impossible. We all may live in hope, because of Passover. It is given to everybody, but it’ll cost you. Not everybody is humble enough to accept it; the proud ones refuse to reach out – and continue hating, continue seeking revenge and justification.”

“Are you telling me I’ve been missing the message of Passover all these years, Gertruida?” A new sorrow has found it’s way to the wrinkled face as the eyebrows shoot up in surprise.

“Passover. Forgiveness. Redemption. And all those rest on Love. They’re all the same, my friend. There’s only one trick: reach out and make it your own.”

Tonight, Servaas will go home with a smile. The empty space inside his mind has been filled. By being passed over, he has been passed up, in a manner of speaking. Up: like in nearer to the wisdom of the Throne, not like in forgotten. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is quite an exhilarating freedom, something quite new to him.

Anyway, like Gertruida says; make sure you’re passed over and passed up before you pass on.

The Unfortunate Pilgrim

Francesco dreams about the mountains in Afghanistan, where the myriad of tracks lead to safe-houses, fortresses and caves. There are eyes everywhere – even the rocks are looking at him – as he works his way up the slope towards Giovanni, who waits at the top. His older brother is dressed in a general’s uniform as he sits at a table laden with fruit and wine.

There seems to be a problem with his backpack – it’s too heavy and it prevents him from progressing up the mountain. Irritated, he reaches for the straps to shift the weight on his shoulders.

“Now, Mister, you just stay where you are.” The voice is harsh, with a guttural accent. “We want to talk to you.”

Francesco wakes up in a flash. This isn’t happening! His eyes struggle to accommodate as the light is suddenly switched on. A huge man is sitting on his shoulders while some hunchback is talking in his face. To one side, two women look on with worried expressions.

Four. There are four of them. Think, Francesco! There is a gun under the pillow and only one able-bodied man. The women won’t try anything and the cripple isn’t much of an opponent. If he can worm his way to the gun, the fat one will get the first shot. The others won’t put up much of a fight.

“What do you want? If it’s money, I can’t help you.” Of course it’s not that. This – two men, two women – can’t be a burglary. Whatever it is, it’s unwelcome and must be sorted out quickly. The contract on Marco can’t be jeopardised by some silly people in his room.

“I checked at reception. You are Fancesco Francoli. From Milan. And you know what old Marco said? He says you’re Giovanni’s brother! Now that’s strange, isn’t it? What would somebody like you be doing in a dump of a motel in the Northern Cape? When old Marco heard it was you, he said we must call the police. He said you aren’t a nice person.” The older woman seems to be very sure of herself. “But, if you don’t believe me, you can ask him yourself.”

Francesco’s fingers touch the butt of the gun. Slowly now, slowly…don’t make any sudden moves. Keep them talking before they get a huge surprise…

“I don’t know what this is about, woman. And get this brute off my back – I can’t breathe properly.”

“No. That man he stay. First you tell me where my daughter is.”

Francesco turns his head fractionally. Only now can he see old Marco, standing next to the door. Perfect! Once he sorts out the rest, he can finish off the old man… they are playing right into his hands! His fingers find the trigger-guard as he palms the gun. It feels cold and familiar; an old friend that has solved so many problems in the past.

Francesco’s  move is sudden and unexpected. With a mighty heave, the surprised Vetfaan is sent sprawling as the Italian leaps to his feet. Vetfaan stumbles across the room to stare at the barrel of the gun.

“All of you! Now! Against that wall. Go on join your fat friend.” Francesco waves the gun at the rest. “And no fancy tricks. We don’t want to disturb the other guests of this illustrious establishment, do we?”  He smiles his satisfaction at the success of his move. Old Marco seems to deflate like a punctured balloon, and shuffles over to the fat one. The woman who spoke a few seconds ago follows suit, as does the stupid hunchback. The four of them form a pitiful huddle below the faded picture on the wall.

It’s funny how one’s mind focuses on things in times of stress. The picture – an old and faded photograph –  is of a running Springbuck. It’s leaping high into the air as it rushes across a barren landscape.  It’s the first time Francesco has ever seen a Springbuck and for a moment even his racing mind has to admire the grace of the antelope.

“You!” He points the gun at the thin woman, who seems rooted to the floor. “You too! Come on, now!” She hasn’t joined the others. There’s no time to waste.

“I can’t” Despite the situation, she seems unruffled.

Francesco can’t be blamed for not understanding. How could he, if he doesn’t know what flashes through her mind at this moment? He surely  has no idea of the years of pent-up frustration, the horror of remembering times when she wished she had been strong enough to tell her father to stop.  That, and the fear.

She has become so used to being afraid over the years! At first there were the footsteps, late at night, coming down the corridor to her room. Later fear threatened to drive her mad, as she relived those moment when she woke up to the alcoholic fumes in her father’s breath. There was fear of being discovered, and fear that nobody will ever know. Fear stalked her throughout her life, making her days miserable and making it impossible to sleep at night.

And now .. now this man is waving a gun at her and telling her what to do. She can see it in his eyes: the same mad and obsessed look she saw when those rough hands switched on the light in the room of a frightened little girl. This time, she knows, this time fear will make them all lose their lives. The eyes tell her. Murder lurks there…

“Can’t? Can’t? You miserable little wretch! You shall do as I say! Go on! NOW!”

Inside Mary Mitchell’s mind Francesco isn’t a handsome Italian any more. His face – his entire being – has transformed into the person she hates. It is her father standing there, calling her names and ordering her around. And her father is dead, isn’t he? Dead people can’t order you to do … those things … can they?

“No.” She lifts her chin in defiance. “I won’t.”

Three words. The three words she knew were somewhere inside her, but could never find when she wanted to use them. Three words that suddenly seem so natural; so surprisingly easy; that it causes her to smile.

Francesco hesitates. This is stupid! He’s got a gun. This waif is not armed. She should be quaking with fear and doing what he’s ordering her to do.

“Get. Over. There.” Each word is deliberate, a final warning.

Mary’s  self-confidence wanes as the big man takes a step towards her.

“I’ve taken the bullets from that gun, you oaf. You’re holding a worthless piece of iron.” The statement from the older woman is so unexpected that Francesco stops in midstride. “Before you woke up, I did it.”

Francesco looks at the gun and presses the release button for the clip. It shoots out to land in the palm of his waiting hand. Eight bullets. All of them neatly arranged in the clip, waiting to be fired. He’s about to slip them back into the gun, when everything happens simultaneously.

First the thin, defiant woman storms at him, mouth agape in a silent scream. He feels her nails dig into the flesh of his wrist, tearing the gun from his grip. Then the big man tackles him from behind, knocking his breath out. The older woman swings a chair at his head. And, the ultimate humiliation, the hunchback lands a perfect uppercut on the tip of his jaw.

Only old Marco doesn’t participate in the fight. He’s sat down on the bed, laughing so much he has to dab the tears from his cheeks.

***

Old Marco does the negotiations on the phone. Yes, Giovanni can have his young brother back. He’s unharmed, by the way, except for the chipped front tooth due to that blow that knocked him out. Sure, they’ll give him enough money to get to Cape Town and no, they won’t call in the police. The rest of the cash Francesco had hidden away in his suitcase will be used to defray costs, okay? Yes, they’ll do it … as soon as Lucinda sits down at the counter in Boggel’s Place. Without Lucinda, they’ll just have to keep Francesco locked up in the shed behind Vetfaan’s house. No, he can’t escape. Those chains are the ones Vetfaan uses to drag his tractor to town if it breaks down. And oh, Kleinpiet and Precilla will enjoy the two weeks in the Game Reserve – they say a big thank you. Most generous, really.

“Listen, we both know we can’t speak about this. If I tell your friends in The Family your young brother made a complete fool out of you, you’re finished. You’ll lose the respect of all the others – and without respect, they won’t support you anymore. So, as a sign of goodwill, I asked Francesco nicely to sign a paper. It’s not a long letter, just a simple note about what happened. And that you lured Lucinda to Italy so you can brag you took revenge on an old enemy. Oh, and that you sent your brother to take me out.  And some details about some of your business..

“Now, that paper I’ll give to somebody. If anything … unforeseen … happens to me or Lucinda or anybody in Rolbos, that paper goes to all your friends and the police. Capisce?”

Gertruida says se saw old Marco in a completely different light when he made that phone call. It was as if the years suddenly rolled back and something of Marco, the young man on his way to the top, surfaced again. Vetfaan still brags about that tackle, and when Boggel is in a good mood, he rubs his knuckles.

But, while the others had a good laugh about it afterwards (except Francesco, of course), it is Mary Mitchell who doesn’t brag about the events in Dusty’s Inn that night. When the others smirk about the crest-fallen Italian who believed Gertruida about his unloaded gun, Mary remains silent. Somehow her altercation with Mother Superior and with Francesco were rather similar; and in a strange way she is grateful for the Italian’s visit. He finally made her discover the three words she searched for all her life.

No. I won’t.

It’ll change her life.

Without them, the she’d never have found the other three.

Yes. I can…

29 February 2008

ImageThe way the old man shuffled into town had everybody watching from the stoep in front of Boggel’s Place. It wasn’t just the fact that it was rare to have a visitor in Rolbos, either; this man was strange in other ways as well. For one: he was dressed in a dusty suit, like you’d find in the old photographs of your grandfather. Back in those days, people dressed up when they attended important events – such as dances or when they went hunting.

And then there was his absolute haggard appearance. It looked as if he had spent his entire life out in the sun; red blotches where the skin had burned and wrinkles everywhere else.

Platnees took one look at the man, turned around, and fled to the safety of Boggel’s shack behind the bar. Gertruida – who knows everything – should have known better; but she walked up to the traveller and invited him to come and sit in the shade of the stoep.

“No, thank you, Madam; but I dare not stop. I’m on the trail of the man who cheated me and I want to see him today. I have to go on.”

Now, everybody knows you can’t say something like that to a woman like Gertruida, and hope to get away with it. It’s like asking the taxman for a refund: the response is predictable. She again offered the stoep, promised something cool to drink and quite literally begged the man to rest a while.

“How long have you been after him, sir?”

“Thirty-two years, Madam. Thirty-two. It’s been a long time. But he is near. Today I’ll get him, I’m sure.”

Gertruida doesn’t get surprised over a lot of things, but when the man said his piece, her mouth fell open. Thirty-two years!  “You have tracked this man for thirty-two years? All this time?” She wanted to add that it was impossible, but stopped the impulse in time.

The man started walking down Voortrekker Weg (as the rusty sign had it. The mistake was never corrected), but Gertruida was adamant.  She wanted a name, at least.

“Gert Griesel, Madam. Now I have to go.’” And with long, purposeful strides, he walked out of town, towards the desert, in the direction of Bitterwater.

They were still talking about the dusty old man, when Sergeant Dreyer came in for his usual after-work destressor. 

“Gert Griesel? I know that name. He was murdered a long time ago.” He left to go check on the records at the police station and returned with some news later. “Griesel was a travelling salesman in the late seventies. Went from farm to farm, selling essentials the farmers needed. He did very well for himself. Then, on the 29th February, 1978, he was murdered. Apparently he camped near Bitterwater in a dry riverbed, where he was attacked and killed. His murderer was never found, although some evidence pointed towards Skelmdaan Struwig, the old miser who still farms there. Apparently some of Gert’s goods were found on his farm, but he claimed he had bought it the day before. Eventually the murder was blamed on persons unknown and the case was closed.”

“Then it makes sense,” Gertruida suddenly said. “Do you know where this Gert Griesel was buried, Sarge?”

“What do you mean – it makes sense?” This woman can be so bloody superior! “ Buried? He had family in Port Elizabeth. I suppose that’s where he was put to rest.”

Gertruida smiled that cleverer-than-thou smile, ordered a beer, and waited for the others to beg her to explain. They hate it when she does that. Makes them feel stupid. But, as always, they asked nicely and she complied.

“There is an old legend that says something about people dying on 29th February. In medieval England they had a song that went something like this:

Leapyear dead gets to your head

And slows down both your feet

Leapyear wrath is oh so slow

But ends up just as sweet

One day a year the spirit lives

In the fourth, that’s all

When February adds a day to it

You’ll hear the spirits call.

You see? That poor bloke only had the 29th of February to travel in – every four years. It adds up, if he walked from Port Elizabeth. It means he had eight days to travel – a single day every four years. And he’s still at it.”

“Oh, come on, Gertruida! That’s a load of bull. Spirits. Ghosts. Strange beings that live one day in four years. I know you know more about anything than all of us combined, but this is just too much.” Kleinpiet won’t admit it, but he inherited a superstitious gene from his great-grandmother (she had an irrational fear of uniforms after a short-lived affair with a British officer). Life was hard enough as it is, he didn’t need to add a whole day to worry about wandering spirits.

At that moment the telephone rang. Boggel picked up, listened, and handed it to the sergeant. “It’s for you,” he said.  “The constable says it’s urgent. There’s trouble at the Struwig place.”