Tag Archives: war

Happy Wind #12

Travel | Chopstix & the City‘Of course you can guess what had happened.’ Gertruida smiles broadly. ‘First of all: the Bothma couple realised that they were being used as puppets. The government had welcomed them back as if CJ had won El-Alamein all by himself  – which was very obviously devoid any truth. And Francina’s release from prison, the new dress and the hordes of newspapermen were all just window-dressing, a sham, a vulgar piece of propaganda to make the government look good. At the same time, the major thrust behind the reception CJ got, was to make it very difficult for the injured soldier to critisise the government in future. It was to keep him away from the opposition, see? You can’t bask in the government’s sun of glory the one day and then join the resistance movement the next.

‘So, once that was established, the two were trying to figure out what to do when the door to their suite opened quietly…’

***

Geel, the man with the soft eyes and the gentle demeanor, held a finger to his lips. Francina was overjoyed to see him, as she knew how Geel and Oupa’s family had been looking after their son. It was CJ’s reaction to Geel’s appearance in the doorway, that would be a warning of things to come.

CJ pulled up the sheets to cover most of his face. His fear-filled eyes darted this way and that, while his left hand gripped Francina’s arm. A low moan escaped from his lips, sounding ever so much as a long, drwan-out ‘Noooooo!’ 

Francina reached over to hold her man to her chest. ‘It’s OK, CJ, it’s Geel, remember? He’s a friend.’

***

‘The war, his injuries and the long, slow recovery ad taken its toll on the once-strong CJ. Imagine the horror of losing a leg and the function of an arm. And remember the letter from the ship’s captain, mentioning the frightful nightmares? CJ was most probably suffering from a condition which was poorly understood back then – Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Today we know it can present in many ways and that it may burden a patient for the rest of his life – but back then doctors simply accepted it as a form of psychological incompetence or madness. Amongst soldiers, it was seen as a weakness. Real men stepped up to the line, got a grip on things and soldiered on – such a stupid approach.

‘Francina’s presence calmed CJ down soon enough and then Geel explained his presence.’

***

It was the staff of CJ’s courier business – the boys on the bicycles and the men driving the vehicles – who had an ear on the ground. The manager CJ had appointed, a certain Mister Gibson, had been very successful in expanding the business in CJ’s absence. They now had daily deliveries in Johannesburg and Pretoria, with weekly visits to Kimberley, Cape Town and Durban. Gibson had regular interviews with the staff, collecting news and gossip. It helped him anticipate the need for the business to adapt to circumstances, but it also supplied him with information most people were unaware of.

Simon Kruiper was the courier who delivered the dress to the prison after it was altered to fit Francina. He chatted to a warder, who told him about her imminent release and CJ’s return. Kruiper reported it to Gibson. Gibson told Geel, who informed Oupa.

An that was the reason for Geel’s late-night visit to the Mount Nelson.

***

‘Come, come quickly. I have a van parked outside. We have a bed for Mister CJ and some food and water. If we leave now, nobody will know.’

Geel helped to get CJ in the wheelchair. The stench emanating from the bandaged stump of the amputated leg was almost overwhelming.

‘They said the doctors will see him tomorrow,’ Francina said. ‘Maybe we must wait. That leg obviously need attention. They even mentioned another operation.’

Geel shook his head. ‘Mister CJ just came from England. They couldn’t fix it, so how can our doctors do anything? No, we’ll take care of it, Miss Francina. There are ways…’

Francina still wasn’t sure. Then she looked down at her husband. She saw the fear in his eyes. His major injury, she grasped, was not the physical damage caused by the landmine. It was much worse. CJ needed rest. He needed a friendly atmosphere. He didn’t need interviews and more of the games the government was p[laying with him.

He needed the Kalahari.

Francina looked up into Geel’s trusting eyes. ‘Lets go,’ she said.

They wheeled CJ out through the almost-deserted reception area. Platvoet Kruiper, taking care of the desk in the small hours of the night, winked at Geel as the little group made for the door.

Once a Kalahari-man, always a Kalahari-man. Platvoet’s borther, Simon, would report the ‘unexplained disappearance of the Bothma couple’ the next day to a delighted Mister Gibson.

The Many-headed Hyena.

hyena“It’s no use,” Gertruida says as she switches off the radio. “They’ll never stop this thing by taking out a few activists here and there. Oh, it’s good for morale and all that, but in the end, it’s pretty much symbolic.”

“Oh, come on, Gertruida…you’re in one of your black moods again. Russia and France are bombing those terrorists, and the police all over Europe are doing a magnificent job in unravelling the network of activists. How can you say it’s ‘symbolic‘?”

“All I’m saying, Servaas, is: too little, too late. Let me tell you one of !Kung’s stories…”

***

Once upon a time, many, many winters ago, the quiet life of the people living in a remote village was disrupted by a hyena. It was a huge beast, with fierce fangs and huge jaws.This hyena had developed a taste for the villager’s children, which naturally upset the parents tremendously. They held many meetings and spoke of the beast in hushed tones, calling it a coward and a thief – but still they didn’t do anything. Eventually, after yet another attack, they called on all the men in the village to hunt this animal down.

tour-dundee-04This they did, and after many bloody skirmishes, the men returned triumphantly, proclaiming their victory and boasting about their bravery. The villagers relaxed, painted many pictures of the battle on many rocks, and made up new songs for their warriors.

But, in the hills, something happened they didn’t know about. The Hyena had had a pup: a small and furry little animal that cried at night after the loss of it’s father. Some people from a neighbouring village heard the pitiful sobs, looked for and found the cute baby animal.

“What is this poor baby doing all alone? See how hungry it is! It is our duty to feed it and help it grow.”

And this is what they did. The shaman in the village took care of the pup, feeding it and making it strong again.

One day, the little hyena spoke to the shaman, telling him how bad men had hunted his father and killed him for no reason. The shaman felt exceedingly sad upon hearing this and promised the young animal that no such thing would ever happen to him.

“Look, I have cared for you,” the shaman said, “and now you’re big enough to go back into the wilds. But you’ll be hunted, like your father was. This cannot be. Here, drink this potion, it’ll protect you. No hunter will be strong enough to kill you now.”

And the young hyena took what the shaman offered, drank the potion and felt how it made him stronger. Then it left to seek out his own in the wilderness.

Some time later, some hunters found his tracks and followed it. When they saw the fully-grown hyena, they ran back to the village.

“Ayee! Ayee!” They shouted for the people to hear. “There is a hyena in the veld again. We must kill it at once!”

And so the men took their bows and arrows, their spears and knives, to go and find the hyena. This they did, and a fierce battle ensued. Eventually one of the marksmen managed to kill it with a well-aimed arrow.

“Let us cut off his head,” they said amongst themselves. “The women would be most impressed.” And this, too, was done.

While the villagers celebrated their brave warriors, a strange thing happened out there in the veld. On the corpse of the hyena, a new head grew. The shaman’s magic was working.

And the hyena continued to feed on the villager’s children, no matter how many times they hunted it down…

***

“Kung told this story about how some people never stopped doing bad things – he called them many-headed hyenas.” Gertruida nods at Boggel to order a round of drinks. “But it has a wider meaning than that. Evil – once it is nurtured and fed – will keep up it’s destructive ways once it has progressed beyond a certain point.”

“But the Muslims…”

“No, Servaas, this has nothing to do with religion. The evil isn’t confined to a certain way of believing, a certain culture or a specific race.  The evil was fed by politicians to attain political goals. But now the hyena is out there and he doesn’t need the shaman’s protection any longer. We can cut off its head many times…only to prove it’ll grow back every time.”

“So what can we do, Gertruida? Surely there must be some way…”

“It’s the most difficult problem, Servaas. The shaman created it…it must now stop feeding it. And I’m not sure that’ll happen.”

“You mean the politicians?”

“Ja, that, and the media, the religious leaders, the financiers, the suppliers, the fanatics and the fundamentalists. And I can’t see that happening. The pup has grown up. Now its got too many heads…”

The Silence of the Emerging Porcupine

Credit: listal.com

Credit: listal.com

“The world,” Gertruida says as she folds the newspaper, “is a mess. You have Al Qaeda running around with bombs, ISIS holding Syria at ransom, North Korea making ominous noises, and Croatia in chaos. What about this barbaric practice of beheading people – or using children as suicide bombers? And we’re not immune, either. With a woman being raped every four minutes, rhino poaching – almost three a day – and farm murders, we’re at war with crime and gangsters in every level of society. And now we have rioting around Johannesburg, with shops being burnt down and looters being shot.” She sighs, throws the newspaper on the counter and signals for a beer, “People killing people…when will it end?”

“Ja, Gertruida.” Kleinpiet draws a gallows on the counter top with a stick-man dangling from the rope. “You once told us about that beautiful animal that got angry. Remember?”

***

Once upon a time – long ago – a beautiful animal roamed the veld. Like other creatures, it had a head, a body and four legs. If anybody cared to look, such a person would have said: yes, indeed, this is an animal, just like the others around here. But then that person would have looked again, and remarked on its beauty.

You see, this animal had a face that made you smile. It seemed to be happy all the time while it was sniffing the ground and digging for a nice, fat root below the surface. Everybody agreed that the Creator must have been in an exceptionally good mood when He brought this animal forth to live on Earth.

It had the softest fur, the cutest little legs and a tail all the other animals envied. But, most striking of all, was the upward curve of the lips. Neither drought nor flood could erase that smile. In short: it was a harmless, joyful little creature that went about its business quietly.

But some of the other animals didn’t like the happy creature. They looked at it with jealous eyes and told each other that there must have been a reason why it was so happy.

“It’s got a secret stash of food somewhere,” the hyena said, “hoarding it all for himself. Look at him: he’s always got that silly smile on his fat face. We all live off the veld, so we are entitled to make him share his food with us.”

“And I can’t see why he should be happy at all.” The vulture’s scowl made him look even more acrimonious than usual. “I hate happy animals. They’re just too…” He searched for the right word, finally settling on, “…alive.”

“I believe,” the snake said,”that we have a responsibility. It is fundamentally wrong to allow that creature to continue the way it does. We must correct its ways.”

So the three of them; the hyena, the vulture and the snake; set about tormenting that beautiful, happy animal. They stole it’s food. The hyena chased it about. The vulture swooped from the sky to scare the animal they now labelled as ‘the enemy’. And one day – a most unfortunate one, indeed – the snake coiled itself around one of the animal’s young, suffocating it before inflicting a poisonous bite.

This happened over a period of time, you understand, but when the baby animal died, the beautiful, happy animal finally lost it’s smile. It shed it’s tail in anguish…and changed the soft, beautiful coat for a set of dangerous quills. No longer would it allow the others to torment it – enough was enough!

And so the animal world lost the innocent beauty of a little creature that meant no harm to them. It changed into a walking fort, an armoured fighting machine that even lions and leopards avoided. It became solitary, moving about at night with the frightful rustling of its quills warning off any imminent attack.

download (3)Hyena was its first victim. When the scavenger tried to harass it again, he got stung by so many quills, it took months to heal. Even today, you can see the spots where the scars were.

And when vulture swooped down from the sky again, he lost all his neck feathers when he crashed into those quills.

Cape-VultureEven the snake tried to kill this new animal, but try as he might, he couldn’t get his teeth  into his victim. He suffered tremendous injuries as a result of the quills, causing his face and body to be covered by scales to this day.

And so, the greed and envy of the other animals caused the disappearance of the most beautiful of all animals. They had created a formidable fighter, who relied on his impenetrable armour to ward off any threat. The other animals ignore these defences at their peril.

***

“Why do you think about that story now, Kleinpiet?” The usually small furrow between Gertruida’s brows deepen as she glances over at him.

“That fable, Gertruida, is happening all over again. Religious fanatics, political fundamentalists, despots, corrupt officials, terrorists, criminals of every description – they all are busy destroying the beauty that once existed amongst mankind. And one day – like the Parisians did recently – there’ll be a cry of enough is enough! Already we have the kangaroo courts in the townships: people simply don’t trust the drawn-out judicial system where dossiers get lost and clever lawyers allow criminals to roam free. What’s the conviction rate for burglary in South Africa? 10%? Less? And what percentage of murders get solved?” He frowns, thinks hard, and shakes his head before answering his own question. “Maybe 20%? I dunno. But it is true to say that crime pays. And that common people – you and me – are getting fed up with this lunacy. Some say there had been 80,000 farm attacks since 1994. We can’t go on like this.”

Kleinpiet’s little speech causes an uncommon silence in Boggel’s Place.

It’s a contemplative quiet, something that is happening all over the world. It’s the stillness after a lightning flash, before the rumble of thunder reaches the ears. It’s the echo of the mute rebellion – in London, Paris, Washington…and many more small communities all over the world – in which the soft fur of beauty is slowly changing into dangerously unforgiving quills.

The Many Names of Stephanus du Toit

stumpingNobody calls him Stephanus any more. The story of his life is just too tragic to think about him as Stephanus. Over the years, various incidents contributed to the fact that the way people think about him, changed from time to time – and with it, the list of nicknames grew. At least cricket supplied something respectable.

As a baby, his parents had to hear the neighbours refer to their son as ‘that child, you know, Yellow du Toit?’, after a particularly severe attack of jaundice. Later as a toddler, when he got lost after wandering off, aimlessly, into the Kalahari, they made remarks about ‘that naughty child, Tracks du Toit’. And so it went on. Casts – after managing to break both arms by falling from the donkey-cart. Stitches, due to an altercation with a neighbour’s dog. Even later, Slow; because of his inability to progress past Standard Three. Now, in quick succession, add Crazy, Sleepy, Dopey, Smiley, Happy – all of them in a good-natured way because he was a rather loveable boy. 

Surprisingly, Stephanus had a particular talent for cricket. No, not as bowler or batsman, but as wicket keeper. He’d crouch down behind the wickets and watch every ball with exaggerated concentration. Then, should the batsman venture an inch beyond his crease, the bales would go flying through the air, accompanied by the triumphant shout of ‘Howzit!!!’. He made the town’s team as Howzit du Toit.. 

It was during that time, just when it seemed possible that he’d make a provincial team, that he was drafted to do his stint in the defence force.

The army, as we all know, was the Great Leveller. Here it didn’t matter whether you obtained a distinction in Maths or flunked matric. The sons of doctors and lawyers were treated exactly the same as ragtag boys of shunters and mechanics. The idea was (and probably still is in armies all over the world) to create a fighting animal made up of units of men. That was the key. The men had to be the muscles and sinews that made the creature move, relentlessly, towards the enemy. Arms and legs of a killing machine, indeed. Yet, despite the forced military mould, Stephanus stood out here as the best mine-sweeper. He became Mines du Toit because he had a particular slowness about him; a deliberate way of moving one step at a time with an endless patience; something quite rare in the adrenalin-filled atmosphere in the bush of the Caprivi border.

***

“I can’t believe it’s his birthday again.” Vetfaan slaps the dust off his jeans as he gets out of his bakkie. “It seems like yesterday we congratulated him on his fiftieth.”

Kleinpiet nods. Yes, time flies. How many birthdays have they celebrated here with this man? Ten? Maybe. And every year they drive out to the forlorn little house on the slope of the isolated hill to sing Happy Birthday to the man who can’t really see them, can hardly hear them. But they know: he knows they’re there. What’s left of his lips curl upward and he’ll rock from side to side in tune with the song. That’s when Vetfaan will lift a beer to the gash that once was the mouth and shout Cheers!. He’d swallow a slow gulp. Kleinpiet will dry the froth – and the tear – and then they have to leave.

“You won’t stay long, will you, Mister Vetfaan?” 

That’s the usual greeting from Aunty Beauty, his caretaker-nurse. She’s been there since forever – Kleinpiet once heard she helped with his birth. But you don’t ask questions to Aunty Beauty. She, like her patient, doesn’t say much. Only the most necessary words and then the blank face that tells you she isn’t there to make small talk.

“No, just sing and give him a sip. The usual. Is he…okay today?’

“Same.”

Vetfaan once said he doesn’t want to live like that. To be like that all day, saying nothing, staring into the veld…and that picture? No, he can’t do that. It’s better, he said, to be dead. They should have left him. Left him to die…

Vetfaan had been first on the scene, after that explosion. When the helicopter touched down to take Mines away, he told the medic it was all over. Nobody could survive such injuries. And afterwards, when he saw him again in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria, he was glad that Mines couldn’t see his tears or hear his sobs. 

Same. He’s always that. Same. 

They go in, stand around the chair with the broken man staring at the veld.  They sing. The gash opens, the corners lifting in what may be a smile. Vetfaan offers the beer. A laborious slurp follows, then a soft burp.

“Go now.” Aubty Beauty’s voice is soft but the finality in it is unmistakable.

***

“They gone,” she says as she watches the bakkie bump it’s way over the uncared-for track leading to the house. “You relax now.”

She sees the muscles unwind and the shoulders slump to their usual position. Then, almost effortlessly, she lifts the body to carry the man to his bed. She did this when he was small – she’ll do it to the end. Only, back then there was more of him, even when he was a baby. 

Stephanus du Toit has made it through another year. Aunty Beauty smiles down at the man as she arranges the cushions so he faces the veld outside. That, and the team photo on the windowsill. The one where he stands in the middle, with the big gloves on. She knows he likes it there. Every day she tells him it’s there, reading the names of the team mates out loud. And she’d sing, like only African mothers can sing: melodious verses with simple words, over and over, telling the story of a young man who plays cricket for his country. 

...he catches the ball behind the sticks,

and Lordy, does he know the tricks

to get the others out

and he’d shout h-o-o-w-z-i-i-t! 

as he laughs and he jumps about…

“You rest now, Mister Stumps. For a whole year, you can rest.”

Then she wipes a bit of froth from the chin and she’s rewarded by a slight movement of the gash. At least, she thinks, he’s didn’t lose that

‘Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…’

(William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality)

The Lost Art of Telling a Story Properly

Screenie9“Tell us your story, Grootgert. We know so little about you. Where do you come from? What do you do?” Gertruida, who knows (just about) everything, is almost pleading with the big man.

“Things are lost out there,” Grootgert says in his slow way, waving a hand towards the desert, “that you don’t know about. I find them.”

Whenever Grootgert pays one of his rare visits to Boggel’s Place, the whole town turns out to find out more about him. He is, after all, the most secretive man in the Kalahari. Still, Gertruida maintains, the man is at least more entertaining than the news of the government’s successes you hear on the radio every day. After all, he never told them who he is – he simply arrives in Rolbos occasionally, has a drink, and then walks off again. They dubbed him Grootgert simply to ease their conversations about him.

Gertruida summed up what they knew about him a while ago. Yes, he’s a loner. And sure, he lives out there in the desert, all by himself. It is also true that he talks with a heavy accent, suggesting that he must be from somewhere far away, like Williston, or Kimberley even.. But that’s about it – and he never talks about himself, anyway.

Vetfaan once said he thought he had met Grootgert on the border, during the war. That might have happened, for a generation of young boys grew up to be men during those troubled times when the Army gave them guns and pointed them North. They came back – well, some of them did – as adults who chose not to remember everything. So, when Grootgert said he had never met Vetfaan before, it may have been true, or maybe it was something he wiped from his mind.

Vetfaan still isn’t convinced. There was a skirmish, on the wrong side of the line between Namibia and Angola, involving three (or was it four?) platoons and an unknown number of enemies. That’s when the MiG’S swept down – out of the blue, guns blazing – and strafed the whole area. It was one of those horrifying stupid events that happens during wars – attackers and defenders found themselves scurrying for cover. The young men – who seconds before were seriously trying to kill each other – now sprinted in a mad dash for communal safety.

Vetfaan remembers the big tree and the ant heap. While the jets screamed overhead, he found shelter behind the tree. Two yards away, he saw the ant heap – a big one. Once or twice (or was it more?), he saw chunks of earth flying off the big mound as the deadly bullets tore into the hardened earth. But then, during a lull in the shooting, he saw a movement behind the ant heap.

Now, during such times, one doesn’t engage in casual conversation. Oh, hi, I’m Fanie. From the North Cape, you know? I see you’ve got a Russian uniform? How interesting! It gets to be very cold in the winters over there, doesn’t it? No, that isn’t the way wars go. You reload your rifle carefully, take aim, and kill the bastard.

Only, it is rather important to have your rifle with you to do this. Even if you have a full magazine strapped to your webbing, you can’t shoot very well without the rifle. And throwing bullets at your enemy doesn’t work so well, either. So you end up as a shivering and frightened young man, peeking ever so carefully past the coarse bark of the Acacia tree to see what the man behind the ant heap is doing.

Now, even though one tends to forget a lot of things as one gets older, some impressions simply refuse to fade. Even if you tried – really tried – there are pictures that remain as sharp as the day you experienced them for the first time. It happens, for instance, at births, funerals and such events like romantic moments and other accident scenes.

When Vetfaan peered at the ant heap, he saw a face staring back at him. A clearly frightened face, with large eyes and an open mouth, saying what sounded like ‘Nyet’ or something. Then the man pointed at the leg he was sticking out behind the mound: a trickle of blood stained the trousers above the right knee. He’d been wounded. No more shooting, please! And they both withdrew to their shelters and waited for the MiGs to go away. And afterwards – a minute, an hour, more? – neither of them looked for the other as they crept away to the South and the North respectively.

That’s why Vetfaan can never be sure. Although that fleeting glance only recorded the eyes and mouth of his adversary in his mind, and although he can still recall it as clearly as that day when he trembled behind that tree, he can’t be sure. Maybe he chose to forget other bits of detail, or maybe there was too much dust on that face to fill in more features – but the fact remains: he can’t say for certain. Grootgert, that huge enigmatic and nameless man, may or may not have been behind that ant heap that day.

“Out there? Like what?” Kleinpiet prompts. Grootgert, he is sure, must surely tell them something about himself now.

“Things. Many things. I find things. Things I never though should be in the desert.”

“Yes…?”

“Peace.”

“Yes, and…”

“I forget.”

Then, while Gertruida thinks about her next question, the big man gets up and walks out. They watch as he ambles down Voortrekker Weg to reach the end of town, and struts out towards the red dunes on the horizon.

“Strange man.” Kleinpiet says. “Imagine forgetting what you find.”

“Yes, I can. It’s even harder than finding what you forgot.” Vetfaan runs his hand through his thinning hair.

“Ag, come on, Vetfaan, you’re not making any sense.”

A slow smile wrinkles the tanned skin on Vetfaan’s cheeks. He was thinking about the slight limp – something with the right leg? – as the man left town. “That’s the way a man should tell a story, Kleinpiet. A good story must leave you with questions. You must find the forgotten bits the man didn’t tell. And that’s what you’ll remember… “

Widow Maritz’s Date

tombstone-3394lar“It’s about time for her to come to town again,” Gertruida remarks – because she knows everything and because nobody has said anything for some time now.

“Who?” Kleinpiet sips his beer quietly – he’s not really interested. He’s been contemplating the possibility of the president stepping down. Maybe, he thinks, he’ll jump; or maybe he’ll be pushed. Even more disturbing is the question: when did he stop caring? When did his presidency die? What was the date of his political demise…?

Still, Gertruida’s statement is an obvious attempt to break the silence and he’s gentleman enough to prod her on.

“Annetjie Maritz, the widow. You know, the one who stays on that farm on the other side of Bitterbrak.”

Of course they all know her. The crazy one. Lives on that farm alone with the few chickens and an old dog. Visits town every two months or so, to buy flour and sugar and coffee. Reed-thin with icy blue eyes and an unruly shock of grey hair. Used to be lovely once – a long time ago – but now age has withered away the beauty and replaced it with wrinkles and varicose veins.

“She’s not normal.” Vetfaan nods. “A strange cat, she is.”

“It’s the war, Vetfaan. Wars do that. It changes everything.”

That, they know, is true. Boys become men – and not all of them return home with happy smiles and fond memories. Families rejoice and grieve – and are left looking back at the time of conflict with puzzled frown. Why was the war necessary? Who won? Was the loss of life and sanity worth it? And, worst of all, the boy who took aim at a nameless opponent and pulled the trigger, wakes up in the small hours of the night, wondering how the family of his enemy are managing their loss.

“She’s still waiting for him, isn’t she?”

Nobody knows, really. Annetjie is a widow…or, at least: she’s an official widow. Bertus Maritz, according to the army, went MIA in 1986. Missing in action. Presumed KIA. No trace of him was found after the MiG bombed the camp and his tent took a direct hit.

“She told Oudoom a few years back the army couldn’t say what happened to Bertus. Was he in the tent when the bomb struck? Maybe he went out for a cup of coffee? Or answered a call of nature? And maybe, she hopes, he’s alive out there, somewhere, with no memory of who he was.”

Servaas, who knows all about the loss of a loved one during the war, shakes his head. “She’s clinging to a memory and she doesn’t want to let go. As long as she waits for him, she’s keeping him alive. That’s why she refuses to wear black. And one must never refer to her as The Widow Maritz. She hates that. Ignores you completely. You call her Annatjie or Mrs Maritz.” He sighs and stares out of the window. “It’s sad. She lives in her own world. Oudoom says she’s kept everything in the house exactly the way he left it. His pipe next to the bed. The book he’d read half-way through. And she lays a place for him at the table every night.”

They fall silent again, remembering the last time she came to town. Dressed in white blouse and a long blue skirt – with the straw hat perched on top of the mass of grey hair – she looked like any other older woman in the district. It’s only when you’re near that you realise she’s constantly chattering about how nice the town looks, and how Sammie has had to increase the prices in his shop.

“The way she talks to herself…” Kleinpiet gets interrupted before he can finish his sentence.

“…not to herself, Kleinpiet.” Gertruida holds up a restraining hand. “She’s talking to Bertus. Oh, she knows he isn’t here, but she keeps telling him what she sees.  It’s like an imaginary husband, you see.”

“But that’s not normal?”

“What is normal, Kleinpiet? Wars aren’t normal. Sending boys with guns to shoot other boys with guns isn’t normal. Hearing your son or husband died during a clash, isn’t normal. Politicians arguing with other politicians to the point where they say: ‘Now my side is going to show you. We’ll kill you all and then you can’t argue with me any more’ – we call that normal?

“No, for you she may not be normal in the usual sense of the word, but she keeps him alive – in her head – and that is ‘normal’ for her. It keeps her hope alive. And, Kleinpiet, without hope it is impossible to love…or to face the future.

“So she’s doing the best she can. Keeping him alive, keeps her alive. Letting go of him will mean she has no reason to live – or hope – for.”

Boggel looks up as the old Ford Cortina stops in front of Sammie’s Shop.

“Speaking of which,” he starts, but then lets out a long, low whistle.

The woman getting out of the car, can scarcely move. Every movement is slow and hesitantly deliberate. No hat. Long, black dress. They watch as she struggles up the stairs to the shop.

“Do you think she…”

“I’ll go and have a look.”Servaas gets up. She knows about Servasie. of course. The old man’s loss has always been a bonding factor between the two of them.

***

Later, when the old Cortina wheezes out of town, Servaas returns with bent shoulders and a stooped back.

“What did she say, Servaas?”

“Nothing much. Not too me, not to Sammie and not to Bertus. Only ordered a tomb stone. Said it is time.”

“Time for what, Servaas?”

The old man shrugs.

“The inscription made me wonder, as well.”

Here lies Anna and Bertus Maritz.

Twenty-seven letters to be carved out in granite. No dates. To add a date, you have to know when an individual ceased to love and hope and…live.

And that, Gertruida will tell you, isn’t always possible. She’ll ask you to consider the career of our president and leave you with an enigmatic smile.

Going for the Kill (# 4)

Ruacana Falls, Kunene River

Ruacana Falls, Kunene River

José has attended so many briefings over the years, he knows the maps by heart. How many times – with nothing else to do – did he sit at the back, listening to Comrade Vasily going over the details of the next attack? Ruacana, Rundu, Oshakati, even the failed one to Grootfontein. The names are familiar now, as are the Kunene and the roads of Kaokoland. He knows all about the peaceful Himbas and the fierce Ovambos.

No – getting there won’t pose a problem. If he could avoid the landmines and the roving South African patrols, that is.

It is on the third day of the mission – just two kilometers from the Kunene – that his luck runs out. The day starts like any other with the scorching sun rising above the canopy of trees, Men grumble, cough and scratch their way to the assembly point, munching dry rations and sharing cigarettes.

“Today we cross the Kunene at Ruacana.” The young corporal tries to sound important. José has to suppress a smile – he knows how nervous they all are. “This, men, is where the party really begins. Up till now, we’ve been in what is considered friendly surroundings; but from now on the rules change. No smoking. No talking. No fires. Absolute radio silence.

“Like you know, we’re aiming at the electrical substation outside Rundu. We have to get there and back without being detected. Our orders are clear: José will take point up to the river. He will set up a temporary base there and await our return. Any casualties we have or anybody who gets separated from the group , will return to this base. José will have a radio for emergencies. Are there any questions?”

***

With the river almost in sight, the sandy track makes progress relatively easy. It is a well-used track, obviously used by game – especially elephants, whose droppings seem fresh. Good, José thinks, if an elephant used the track last night, the possibility of landmines must have been eliminated. He relaxes as he inches forward to check out the section ahead. The track has curved away from the river, possibly due to a rock or a large tree, and he now has to peer around the corner to be sure it is safe.

The men are stretched out in single file behind him. They know they are near the official border and that danger may lurk anywhere. The silence is absolute as they move forward.

While José peers around the bend in the track, the man behind him slows down. Then, coming to a halt a yard behind José, he allows himself to relax. That’s when he moves his left foot to ease the pressure on the blister that has formed on his heel. He lifts the foot, massages the leather covering his ankle, puts his foot down again.

Click…

The sound is unmistakable and seems unnaturally loud in the silence. José whirls around  in shock. Landmine!

They’ve been briefed extensively on landmines. They know how most of them work. José remembers clearly the one lecture Comrade Vasily gave.

‘If you become aware of a landmine beneath your foot, you are lucky. Usually, you won’t. Put foot down, boom! Instantaneous! You won’t be frightened, won’t feel pain, and might be surprised to face St Peter when you thought you were still walking around in the bush. So, that one is easy. Don’t worry about it, because you can’t do anything that’d change the outcome.’ 

Comrade Vasily said this often, and always thought it to be very funny – but José saw the bodies carried back to the base. There is no humour in a mangled corpse.

‘But sometimes, you put a foot down and you hear a click. That’s when you’ve activated a mine. Lift your foot, and then you get the boom and the opportunity to meet St Peter. The only difference between these two scenarios, is that in the second one you get a chance to pray…’ This too, caused Comrade Vasily to laugh.

“Stand still! Don’t move!” José’s shout is unnecessary. The man – Pedro Goncalves – stands frozen, his mouth open in a silent scream as his eyes seem to bulge in fright. “If you lift your foot…” José doesn’t have to complete the sentence.

The rest of the men have scattered, hiding some distance away behind trees and anything that offers protection against flying shrapnel.

José knows he should go. Get away. Leave the killing zone. Once Pedro lifts his foot, the inevitable will happen.

But no! He can’t! He sees the fear in Pedro’s eyes, the hopeless look of knowing exactly what’ll happen next. José knows that feeling. How many times had he prayed, pleaded with God, when Manuel did those horrible things to him in the children’s home? And what happened? Nothing! If there’s one thing the home taught him, it is that nobody will help you if you don’t help yourself. That’s why the home burned down. That’s why he felt immensely relieved, proud, strong when Manuel stopped moving and he threw the knife into the flames.

Master your own ship, that’s what he learnt.

And now, if he didn’t do something, Pedro will die.  His death would be as unfair and as horrible as the events in that home, so many years ago. And what did Mister Clemente say? Tap the fingers against the head – the answer is always in there…

Josê’s reaction now is unthinking, automatic. He lies down on the ground, and starts sweeping the sand around Pedro’s foot away. Gently, now. Gently…

300px-US_M18a1_claymore_mineThere!

“Pedro,” his voice is a harsh whisper, “you’re standing on the toggle switch for a Claymore-type mine. Comrade Vasily says this is something FNLA does. The mine can be anywhere.”

These M18 mines, José knows, are command controlled. Usually they are used in an ambush, but the various fighting factions in Angola have adapted its use to become automated anti-personnel weapons. The trigger is buried where a foot can press the toggle down, causing the small generator inside to release an electric current. Sometimes, depressing the toggle isn’t enough to generate sufficient current, but releasing the toggle to move upward again, will do the trick. This, in turn, will detonate the hidden mine, releasing it’s deadly load of 700 steel balls at a velocity of 1200 metres per second. It is, José knows, a very effective weapon. Deadly. Horrible…

“Wait, here’s the wire.”

“I can’t stand like this much longer.” Sweat pours from Pedros ashen face. His upper body is trembling uncontrollably while he breathes in short, shallow gasps.

“If you move a muscle, you’re a gonner, Pedro. You have to remain still. Have to! I’ll follow the wire and see where the mine is. Maybe I can get the detonator out. Please, please remain still.”

Taking great care, Josê sweeps the soft sand away from the wire, following it to a clump of bushes nearby. He is about five yards away when Pedro moves.

The explosion is immediate…

The darkness that claims José isn’t complete. He feels no pain. Music, He hears music. Beautiful music. And he feels himself floating, floating on the beauty of the melody; soaring higher and higher above the searing veld and the fear of survival. His last conscious thought before the darkness comes rolling in, is a question.

Is this…heaven?

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.

Bianca (# 9)

“We have to get everyone in here.” Sergeant Dreyer scans the worried faces in Boggel’s Place. “Everyone. That Lapua gun worries me – if we have a sniper out there, anybody who moves around may risk being shot.”

“I wish I knew what is going on.” Oudoom holds out his glass for a refill. For once, Mevrou doesn’t object. ”

“Well, let’s take stock.” Gertruida ticks off her outstretched fingers as she summarises the recent events. “Two days ago we lived in a sleepy little town. Then Bianca arrives, acting like a recently divorced harlot. She tells us a bit about her life, but leaves out a gap of twenty years.” She pauses, reflecting on the point. “Look, a woman who gets divorced, can’t wait to tell everybody and anybody what a scumbag she was married to. But not Bianca. She leaves the man out of the story completely. Strange, that.

“Anyway. She did mention the import and export company. I checked up and realised that company was involved in massive poaching operations in Southern Africa. Diamonds and drugs were involved, too.

“It seems logical that she knows  something important – something so dangerous that somebody wants her dead. We didn’t know it at the time, but we guessed there might be trouble brewing – so we were vigilant.

“The next thing we know, is that two men stalked about in the middle of the night, apparently intent on abducting or killing Bianca. Servaas gets shot. The other man is out there with a sniper rifle.

“We have one trump card – the prisoner. Sergeant Dreyer says the man clammed up completely and wants to see his lawyer. We can’t take the law into our own hands, so we can’t force him to talk.

“The way I see it, we’ll just have to wait for Dreyer’s backup to arrive.”

“That’s the problem.” Dreyer sighs and motions with his empty glass towards Boggel. “Usually – with cattle theft and such – I’ve had no problems getting help from Upington. This time, however, I get a thousand excuses. Lack of resources. Not enough manpower. No vehicles available. It’s almost as if they just don’t want to help us…”

Gertruida gets that look. “Somebody high up is pulling strings. Yes, that’s it! We’re being black-balled behind a veil of bureaucracy – because somebody is worried that Bianca might tell the world what she knows…”

“Isn’t that a bit far-fetched, Gertruida? It sounds like a conspiracy theory to me.” Mevrou still believes that most people are inherently good, honest, God-fearing folk. Living in rural isolation like she does, one cannot really blame her…

“Okay, then. We’ll wait it out. We have food and plenty to drink. We’ll get everybody in here, baricade ourselves in, and wait. That man, whoever he is, did not plan on an extended stay in the desert. With luck, thirst will force him to abandon his mission.

“Once Servaas and the women get back here, we’ll decide on the way ahead.”

“Yes, if Servaas comes back. I hope the old bugger is allrght.” Boggel can’t imagine what the town would be like without the cantankerous old man.

***

Dr Welman pats Servaas’s good shoulder. “You’ve been very lucky, Servaas. Flesh wound, low velocity, in and out. Severed the Deltoid Artery, most probably, but it stopped, like arterial bleeding often does, when pressure is applied. Miss Smuts – Bianca – saved your life.

“I don’t have to do much. Antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory and a sling. Give it a week or two, and you’re as good as new. You’ve lost a lot of blood, but it’s nothing a few steaks and a heap of biltong won’t cure.”

“So, can we take him back, Doctor?”

“Sure thing. But…there’s one question, though: where did you learn to put up an infusion? And that saline-and-sugar infusion? I find that most unusual?”

“It’s a long story, Doc. Long. Maybe I’ll tell you one day.”

Dr Welman watches as the women help Servaas back into the Land Rover. What a woman, he thinks, what a gorgeous, wonderful, sexy woman…

***

 With Servaas asleep on the back seat, Precilla glances over at Bianca. In the rush of the morning’s evens, neither woman has had time for cosmetics or worrying about colour-coding their clothes. Bianca, dressed in a grey track suit, is one of those rare women who doesn’t need much to amplify her natural beauty.

“You’re not really the person you want other people to see, are you?” With typical female curiosity, Precilla approaches the subject with care. “You are much more.”

Bianca seems to be taken aback and gives her new friend a puzzled look.

“Well aren’t we all? Look at your town…I thought it was a sleepy, out-of-the-way little place. And yet…you have Gertruida and Boggel and Servaas and…”

“We’re just ordinary people looking out for each other, Bianca.” Precilla’s tone is soft, kind. “But you…you…” She falters.

“I come from a different background. I come with a history. I have baggage. Secrets.” For the first time, Bianca’s voice is edged with emotion. “I’ve seen too much, lived through too much. I want to be somebody else…”

***

Bianca didn’t seek refuge in South Africa. Namibia was an independent state, with its own police force. Back home, she reckoned, the risk of being arrested would be greater. No, she’d settle in Windhoek for a while, sort out her life, and wait. Maybe, in a year or so, it’d be safer to return.

She had to stay somewhere, so she sat down in the Wimpy with a copy of the Windhoek Observer, to page through the classifieds and to scan the Employment and Accommodation columns. Please God, show me the way? It was the first prayer she’d prayed in years.

Windhoek Hospital. Application for this years’ nursing course: contact Matron Delport. Basic salary. Accommodation in the nurse’s hostel available. 

She read and reread that advertisement a hundred times. Ordered more coffee. Thought about it.

Maybe this is it? Maybe God heard her prayer? Maybe this is the way to get rid of her past? The more she thought about it, the more sense it made. That afternoon, she had an interview with the matron.

***

“I used to be a nurse.”

Bianca’s sudden statement makes Precilla gasp a silent ‘Really?’

“Yes. I did my training in Wndhoek, Finished the basic course and then went on to do Intensive Care.”

“So that’s where you learnt…?

“Oh no!” Bianca manages a wry smile. “That was Afghanistan. And Uganda. And Darfur.” She pauses a while, deep in thought. “You see, I’m not proud of some of the things I’ve done in the past. Bad history. I met a woman in Windhoek when I was much younger – Matron Delport. She was very good to me; she was the mother I never had…

“Anyway, she told me something important: life is only meaningful if you devote it to others. This shook me, because in the past my life was about myself. It was about my ego and my survival. – and when I looked back, I saw only disappointment and grief. I realised Matron was right: the only way I’d find fulfilment, is by caring for others. That way, I hoped to wipe the slate clean.

“Well, I studied nursing as far as Windhoek could take me, and then I started applying for jobs in the places they needed nursing most. I didn’t want to be a sister in a crisp, white uniform, working in ideal circumstances. I wanted to be where I can make a real difference.

“And I did…” She sighs, recalling the harrowing images of her nursing career.

“I’ve seen the worst man can do. I held dying babies and bleeding men in my arms. I suffered alongside refugees and ducked every time I heard a mortar drop in it’s tube. And when I finally came home, I hoped to return to some sort of normality.

“It didn’t work out that way, did it?’

Precilla sits in stunned silence. They’re quite near Rolbos now and she instinctively knows the conversation  will stop there. “But…but why the façade? What about the divorce? And who – or what – are you running from?”

Bianca glances over to the younger woman next to her. Oh, to live a simple life; to have a husband; to wake up in the morning to a welcoming smile….

The window on the passenger side shatters into a million pieces when the bullet strikes the glass.

Way out in the veld, holding the smoking, silenced Lapua, the assassin smiles his satisfaction as he watches the speeding Land Rover spin around in a cloud of dust…

Bianca (# 8)

is“Ow…” Servaas groans meekly as he peers from underneath the bushy eyebrows. Is Bianca paying attention?

They’re speeding towards Upington in Kleinpiet’s  Land Rover, with Precilla driving. Fanny remained in Rolbos to look after the twins, while Gertruida set up a type of headquarters at the bar with Boggel. On the back seat, Servaas seems much better than an hour ago.. The bleeding, at least, has stopped.

“Men!” Precilla’s whisper is drowned by the rattling of the vehicle over the rutted track. She gets a knowing smile from Bianca.

Bianca allows her mind to wander back to another time, when the sun also rose while she was desperately racing to escape a life she hated. Yes, it’s been quite a journey: she’s seen so many sides of Life…

***

She was appointed as a girl Friday at her new job, but this mostly meant she had to do the filing. Charles da Silva, her new boss, had a thing about papers. There were quotations, invoices, clearing certificates, orders, correspondence and a seemingly endless stream of documents to sort out, retrieve and filed. She soon got the hang of it, though, and Charles remarked on more than one occasion that he didn’t know how they managed before she came.

The documents never mentioned anything about rhino horn. The merchandise, The consignment, Indigenous Products, Research Material, Geological Specimens…but never anything that would link the company to poaching. She reported this to the general, who said she had to redouble her efforts.

“Get nearer to this Charles. Get his confidence. Be seductive… Remember: this isn’t personal. You’re doing it for your country…”

Slowly, over a period of months, the plan worked. Charles – rest his soul – fell in love with her. He became more and more comfortable to confide in her. Bit by bit she pieced the organisation’s different ‘departments’ together.  Jonas Savimbi, General Bok, General Dempsey, Colonel Botha, Minister du Plooy …the list grew as the months went by. However, the overseas connection remained a mystery. Aliases  were changed so often that it was impossible to put a name and a face to any individual. To make it even more difficult: no two deliveries were done to the same address. It seemed a if the Eastern connections had an endless array of front companies and offices.

“If he proposes, you accept. We have to get to the bottom of the trade.” The general was adamant. “Once we nab them, the marriage will be wiped from the records. It’s just a sham, Miss, just a sham.”

They got married in January 1990. On the 21st of March that year, Namibia became an independent state. SWAPO gained control, which spelled the end of South Africa’s rule over the country. And suddenly, almost overnight, the South West African Import and Export Company became the target of the Namibian police, the CIA and Greenpeace.

Things were changing in South Africa, too. FW de Klerk surprised the nation by unbanning the ANC on the 2nd of February 1990. Transformation had begun, and with it, the White dominance in the army and police came to an abrupt end. Whites were retrenched and a whole new set of Black generals appointed.

Bianca was stranded. Her general got the boot, and without him, she had no protection. Charles, too, no longer had the clandestine support of the South African connection. In the space of three months, the carefully constructed web of crime in which Charles and his company made millions, collapsed. Bianca was in as much trouble as he was…

“This is getting too dangerous, my love.” Yes, Charles really loved her. “We have to split up and live below the radar for a year or so. I’m going to Mauritius, where I have several contacts. I think you should go back to South Africa and wait for the dust to settle. They’re not after you – you know that. I’m the one they want to nail down. This is the only way.”

IMG_3474Bianca still remembers that morning. She drove through the Namib to get to Windhoek. Somewhat to her own surprise, she cried all the way… Her quest to fight crime; her effort to clear her name; her desire to become a respected citizen once more, the patriotic undertones of her little spy game…all disappeared into the heat waves dancing across the desert that morning. Even the sham marriage – a totally dishonest move to get information and not based on love at all – remained to accuse her of wasting her time and her life… That morning, when the dawn revealed the endless gravel road in front of her, the metaphor of that moment was just too much to ignore: the road to nowhere indeed.

***

“Ow…” Servaas tries again, and this time Bianca turns around to lay a hand on the old man’s thigh.

“You’re going to be fine, ‘Vaasie. We’re almost there…”

“Shan’t we give him something for pain? Or to relax him? I’ve brought some painkillers and Valium along.” Precilla motions to her bulky hand bag.

“No, rather not. Let the doctor have a look first. Those pills might mask some of the symptoms… And anyway, if he’s quiet, he gets no attention.” She tweaks the old man’s cheek. “Right, sweetie?”

She gets a happy groan for an answer.

***

The tracks left in the dew are easy to follow and Vrede runs ahead to show the way.

“What the hell happened to our little town? Servaas shot, a man in custody and now we’re hunting a potential murderer?” Vetfaan clutches the ancient .303 as he strides along. “That Bianca has a lot to explain.”

“I have a feeling about this. Gertruida may well be right. Bianca is running away from something and inadvertently involved us in some sort of Mafia setup. I think she’s innocent.” Kleinpiet shrugs. “The wrong girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. Something like that.”

“There’s a vehicle!” Sergeant Dreyer points. “There, hidden behind the tree. See, it’s even camouflaged with grass and branches.” He pauses to use his binoculars. “The back door is open, but I can see nobody moving about. I think he abandoned the car.”

By now Vrede can’t stop himself. He rushes towards the vehicle, yelping with excitement. It is  soon obvious that the shooter didn’t hang around. After approaching the vehicle cautiously, the men check out the interior.

Lapua_bullets“A gun-case?” Kleinpiet peers through the rear window. “Open the door, let’s look.”

“And look, he’s dropped something.” Dreyer picks up the box and lets out a low whistle.

Lapua...oh, my word…” Dreyer turns the box around and around in his hands. “.338 Magnum. The deadliest sniper gun around, with a range of up to two kilometres in an expert’s hands. Two kilometres…! We have to call in backup – this guy is serious trouble. There’s no way we can continue following him – he’ll pick us off one by one.”

“He left the vehicle here…” Vetfaan calls Vrede back. “That means he might want to use it again. No, I’ll tell you what an operative like this would do. He’ll get the gun, make sure he’s safe, and then he’ll return to free his colleague. He was in a hurry, that’s why he dropped the bullets – but mark my words: he isn’t going to run away. If he wanted to escape, he would have been long gone.”

“We have to get back to town! Immediately. Oudoom and Boggel are no match for this man. Come on, guys, hurry!”

A song I know so well 
The music of goodbye again 

Note: Some names have been changed in this story to avoid stepping on political toes.