Through the glass doors of the lobby of his hotel, he can see the yellow arches of a McDonald’s. The shrill hooting of tuk-tuks as they weave in and out of the traffic fills the air. Street-sellers hawk potatoes, garage doors, chairs. Between the new glass towers, the ramshackle colonial buildings and the palm trees, he glimpses the turquoise sea. The chill of air conditioning that follows him as he leaves the hotel is soon defeated by the tropic heat. The scent of overripe mangoes fills the air.
“This way, please, down Paradise Road,” entices him from a billboard, spoken by a young woman whose gleaming smile is as natural and spontaneous as that of the people around him. Another advertisement announces: “Sri Lanka – where dreams come true.” This time, it is the ever-present image of President Rajapaksa. He wears a necklace of flowers.
The young women serving in McDonald’s chatter in English and Sinhalese. The woman who takes his order sparkles. She has a red dot on her forehead. Catching his eye, she offers a smile that lights up her face. Confidently, she presents her beauty for him and everyone else to share. He shifts his backpack from shoulder to shoulder in an effort to dry the sweat. He takes the paper bag with the hamburger and fries; the tea is in a polystyrene cup. He adds an extra packet of sugar. This will be his first warm food in days. “A souvenir of Sri Lanka,” she says, handing him a pack of dried mangoes with another smile that follows him to the door.
He looks at the arches. “‘M’ is for ‘mum’; she puts food in my tum.” His mother’s gentle voice as she taught him the English alphabet comes back to him, as it has so often in the last few days. “One day, Hansie Slim,” she told him, “you are going to have to speak English as well if you want to conquer the world.”
“Ceylon is with a ‘C’; that’s where we get our tea.” His mother told him the story of his great-great-grandfather, who may have walked these same streets as a prisoner of Britain during the Second Anglo-Boer War.
He arrived in Colombo two weeks ago. Immediately, he tried to find a way to travel to the north-east of the island. In his hotel room, he reached a deal with a driver, and three days ago he journeyed on the back of an open truck, hidden under canvas, towards the Nanthi Kadal lagoon. Unconfirmed reports rumoured that a few days earlier, it was here that the 25-year-long civil war had come to an end.
The government had banned journalists from going to the war zone, and the other correspondents had remained in the capital. He had chosen otherwise, acting upon his mother’s advice early on during his schooldays that had become a family motto: “Put up your hand so that you’ll be noticed.” It had been his mother who had urged him to go despite her illness. He somehow felt he was doing it for her, to show her that he would make good before she died; that her faith in him was well grounded.
He was given the information about his contacts in Sri Lanka at the headquarters of World News Television in London. This would be the first time he would be acting alone as correspondent. Conrad Abrahams is his chief at WNT. He is an expatriate who reported from South Africa during the apartheid years and was detained several times. He left after the Zuma government in South Africa also tried to control the press. Once, after a couple of drinks, he said, “The old story – the revolution consumes its children.” And, shrugging his shoulders, “That’s life; it’s kak, but it’s alright.” He always spoke the mild swear word with special relish: “kak” – shit.
Soon after he started to work at World News, both almost got fired. They were dispatched to cover a motor show in Geneva for the station, and had been drinking and laughing in the departure lounge. It was his first assignment. They carried on drinking once they were on the plane. Conrad was in the aisle seat. When the plane landed, he tried to get up, but was pulled back by his seatbelt, which he had forgotten to unfasten. Conrad slumped back into his seat, looked up in feigned bewilderment, and snorted, “I nearly dragged the whole plane behind me down the corridor.” Even the air hostess burst out laughing. On their way to check in at their hotel before attending the opening, they walked past a pub, “Mr. Pickwick”, in the Rue de Lausanne, and reported for duty at the show only the next day.
Conrad took him aside when he heard about his trip to Sri Lanka. “War reporting is different from the civil unrest and police brutality documentaries you have made so far, bro, no matter how good they were. Not a good idea, if you ask me, to go to Sri Lanka. But, you are not asking me. So, let me just say, if you have to do it, move in, get what you need to tell the story, and get out. Make what you see the world’s problem. Trust me, if you make it your problem, it will fuck you up like you won’t believe. Big time, big time! I have seen the messenger shooting himself. I would have taken that Pakistan assignment first if I were a laaitie like you. I know the government in Colombo says there are zero civilian casualties, but anytime anyone says ‘zero anything’, it is a sure sign they are bullshitting. Do me a favour. At least do the safety training the station offers to war correspondents before leaving.”
At the second roadblock on the A9 motorway to the north, the police shine their torches on the underside of the truck. After that, the driver stops at the side of the road and states: “Too dangerous.” A payment of another $500, and the risk is again worth taking. Around midnight, they stop outside Kilinochchi to pee. The driver takes out his cigarettes, gives him one and shares a light. He feels the driver’s hand shaking. After agreeing when they would meet to return to Colombo, he sets off on his own through the jungle, using his GPS to find the so-called “no fire zone” at Vavuniya. The whole area is under military control and patrolled. According to reports, intruders are shot on sight. He smears his face with “Black is Beautiful” as camouflage in the darkness.
When the sun rises the next day, he is in the heart of the “no fire zone”, to which the civilians have been lured with the promise of safety. He is lying in a tent hidden in a clump of mango trees, looking out over the beach. It has been reported that thousands of men, women and children who acted on the promise by the government of a “no fire zone” were cornered here a week earlier and massacred. The rumour in Colombo is that after they surrendered, the leadership of the Tigers was also executed on the orders of the president or of his brother, the Minister of Defence. But, no one knows the truth for sure.
Through the lens of his video camera, he sees the truth of what has happened on the seven-kilometre stretch of beach. In the early morning light and to his left on the beach, lie hundreds of bodies of naked women, their clothes missing or torn. This must have happened during the night. Many have gaping head wounds, on their legs and bellies what can only be semen glistens. Others have signs of white powder smeared around their mouths, probably from the cyanide pill the Tamil Tigers and their collaborators carried in case they were captured.
To his right, most of the figures are men, perhaps a thousand of them, some still moving. Some are blindfolded or hold scraps of white cloth. A moaning hum fills the air, a low murmur like the sound of bluebottle flies. Between the two groups, he sees deep ditches dug in the beach and scattered human remains. Here a part of an arm, there a leg or a head.
Rowdy bands of soldiers pace the beach, shooting randomly into the pile of bodies and high-fiving each other.
Soldiers lead five blindfolded and naked men to a spot just in front of his hideout. Their hands have been tied behind their backs. Shoved forward, they lean back desperately against their escorts, as their legs splay out from under them. The zoom lens on his camera focuses on the toes of one man, curling like fingers into the darkness in front of him, as though frightened of stepping on a landmine. They are forced down onto their knees in a row. One of them, with a wild bush of black hair, is snarled at and kicked; he sits up straighter.
The soldiers are yelling; some have cell phones at the ready. Standing behind the row of prisoners, a soldier raises his AK-47, aiming at the first one’s head. He holds it there, ready to fire, but eventually the barrel drops. The others laugh and mock him. One, who seems to be in charge, approaches, hits the soldier with his open hand on the back of his head and pushes him to one side. He beckons another soldier, who has a beard and wears a helmet. He pulls a face at the cameras, turns around and comes closer. Casually, he shoots the first prisoner in the back of the head. The body is not flung forward as he expected; it sags, then stiffens and collapses back to balance precariously on the bound arms. In his hideout in the tent, he feels his body convulsing; his tongue is swollen.
When his turn comes, the man who earlier was kicked sinks slowly backwards, his blindfold shot off, his head a half-empty shell. What a second before was a human face and wild hair is now a bloody V-shaped track in the white sand. The prisoner next to him loses control of his bowels just before he is shot. The soldier with the beard stands with his boot on the chest of the last man to have died, his gun at his side, posing for the cameras and gesturing that all five of his trophies be included in the shot. The soldiers laugh and shout, taking turns to be photographed.
Around midday, the realisation dawns that he should send the video via encrypted email on a satellite phone. SMS messaging is blocked. The station agreed his material would not be broadcast until he had left Sri Lanka, or they knew he would not be coming back. He cannot remember the code that he memorised so carefully, and finally reads it from a note he made. He adds a message: “Show the world what is happening here as soon as possible, don’t wait for me to make it out.” Every part of him wishes he were not here on this beach, in this country, at this time. He cannot breathe.
Tractors pulling trailers and trucks carry away the bodies. The tide is coming in and drags some bodies out to sea. Right in front of him, the arm of what must be a child sticks out of the sand. The small hand is wide open, the fingers pulled back as though warding off a threat. The waves swirl around the arm, and slowly the fingers sink beneath the rising water. The sun beats down through the thin veil of clouds. In his tent, the heat is stifling; the smell of the sea, of rotting mangoes and of death is overwhelming.
To the right, a river runs into the sea. Its mouth is dammed up by washed-down branches and leaves. When he sees no one is looking in his direction, he darts out from the tent, glances to the right and left and fills his water bottle. Back in the tent, he washes down the energy bars with the water. His body reacts to the water and spits it out.
Two bodies, a man and a woman, float face down to the sea. Her sari is coloured bright blue and green. They are trapped against the branches, are turned towards each other, their arms poking out as if in limp embrace. Their eyes and lips are fly-blown. For a moment, it seems as if the branches holding back the water will break, but they hold up. The wind shifts in his direction.
As the tide turns, the child’s hand, now closed in a fist, rises out of the water. Hundreds of bodies litter the beach at the high-water mark. Bulldozers are busy hiding the evidence of what has taken place, pushing the bodies into piles so that they can be loaded with a forklift onto the beds of trucks where they will be covered with canvas. The waves are stained red.
He recognises the truck that brought him here. Vaguely, he considers, if he were to be caught and questioned, how long it would take before he identified the driver. The zoom lens allows him to see that it is his truck driver leaving the beach with a full load and a cigarette in his mouth.
In the late afternoon, a rainbow appears in the sky and sunlight glints on the water. The reason he has a feeling that he has been here before dawns on him. The long white beach with the river on the right and rocks to the left looks like the main beach at Stilbaai. A rock even resembles the “Pulpit”, a landmark rock formation on Stilbaai’s Lappiesbaai beach. Further out to sea, beyond the last long line of waves, there is a reef on which the highest waves break, like the reef where they always surf-ski. Where the swimmers ay out their towels, is where the bodies are lying on this beach. The sun is slowly sinking below the horizon.
The GPS brings him back to the road late that night. The truck is waiting where 24 hours earlier he set off. The driver tells him to climb up and hide under the canvas. It is wet. Although the bed of the truck is clean, the smell of its load from earlier that afternoon is unmistakable. As they start up, a man appears out of the jungle in the headlights and blocks the road. The man carries in his arms a small child wrapped in a white cloth. The driver climbs down from the cabin. The man says something about a “hospital”. The driver angrily shakes his head, climbs back in and puts the truck into gear. The man stays where he is lit by the headlights of the truck. At last, the driver climbs down again; he shouts at the man. In the end he despairingly gestures for the man to get into the back. “If they catch me, they will kill me,” the driver cries, slamming the cab door and engaging the gears with a jerk. Under the canvas, the man does not offer a greeting. He clasps his daughter, speaks softly to her, coos and kisses her on her neck. Through the night, the truck rumbles on towards their destination.
He wakes; the child is gripping his thumb firmly. Her face is directly in front of his. In the dim light under the canvas, he sees she is looking straight at him with big, brown eyes. She makes no sound. Her eyes show a sense of urgency. It is as though he is her only connection to the world, to life itself. He places his free hand over her small fist which is wrapped around his thumb. Feeling her warm breath on his face, he drifts back to sleep.
A change in the sound of the engine wakes him; the truck is slowing down. The child looks past him, staring into the distance. She must have been sucking his thumb. Spittle trails from her mouth onto his thumb, which is red and glistening. In the light from the cabin, he sees a thin line of blood in the middle of the trail of spittle. Then the link is broken. Her grip is effortlessly released as the man crawls out from under the canvas, taking her with him. Her arm remains stiffly outstretched, her fingers still closed as if holding his thumb. The man disappears into the night, carrying his child wrapped in the white and red cloth in his arms. He wipes his thumb on his shirt. It smells of the baby’s spit.
He hears the driver on his cell phone. “Yes, dear, the people had a lot of furniture to move. I think, around six o’ clock. No, they didn’t pay in rupees – dollars, in cash. Foreigners. Now, we can get out.”
The engine of the plane is throttled back. “Cabin crew, 10 minutes to landing” is the address on the loudspeakers. There is a last-minute flurry of activity as the trolleys are stowed, and then the quiet. The lights in the cabin are dimmed for the landing. Silently and weightlessly, they glide. In the glow of the morning light, the wings of the plane stretch seemingly endlessly into the distance. Banking to the right, the plane hangs over the great city with its rows of houses. The lights of cars are reflecting off the wet roads. People are going to work. The ground does not seem to come closer. He wishes he could remain forever suspended in the anonymity of the plane’s cabin. Here, he need not tell anyone where he has been or what has happened. Here, he is stateless, free of all expectations.
The plane judders as the landing gear descends. Lights flash past as the plane touches down, hops and pulls from side to side. Metal groans, and an overhead cabin flies open. The engines scream in reverse. The forward thrust pushes him against the seat belt, his feet against the floor in front of him. He is reminded of the blindfolded man on the beach who tried to use his legs as a brake to escape his fate. Now, the plane is under control and the lights come back on. “Welcome to London, where the local time is 6:20 in the morning.”
When he turns on his cell-phone as the plane taxis to the terminal building, the messages start streaming in. He first reads the most recent ones. There is a message from his brother, a pastor in South Africa, about his mother, sent only a few minutes earlier: “M gone this morning at 6:02.” Before that, two days earlier, his brother again: “M nearing the end.” He scrolls back. A week before that, the last one from his mother: “Love you till the end of time – M.”
He shoves the boarding pass for his flight to South Africa into his camera case, turns and joins the queue at immigration. It would not be possible to go home now. This is one death too many to absorb. He catches the blue tube train into London and, getting off the escalator at Piccadilly, he takes a room at the Pavilion Hotel.
The hot shower does not cleanse him. He brushes his teeth. He sits on the toilet to rid his body of all traces of where he has been, but nothing happens. He brushes his teeth again. He rubs the courtesy cream on his hands, and then on his whole body. He showers again. The hot water scalds him, and when he turns it off, the cold leaves him breathless. He sniffs his thumb; the smell of baby spit lingers. When he looks in the mirror, he sees his mother’s features.
The duvet is soft and white. Still wet from the shower, he lies on the bed. The news is on the television. It is showing his filming. “Our reporter on the scene captured the dramatic story of what really happened in Sri Lanka during the last days of the civil war. It transpires that this could be the worst carnage of a civilian population in the world in the last 30 years.” As he expects, the final image is of the child’s open hand disappearing under the water.
President Rajapaksa appears on the screen. “We fought a brave battle, and we won in dignity. In a time when terrorists hold the world to ransom, Sri Lanka has proven that terrorism can be beaten. The friends of the terrorists are now trying to fabricate propaganda to claim victory from the grave. These videos are fake, the work of supporters of the terrorists.”
He can’t find the remote to switch on the air conditioning. Sweat runs off him. He falls into a dreamless sleep, and wakes only when it is evening. He puts all the bottles of gin, whiskey and wine from the refrigerator on the table. He looks at them for a long time, thinking some comfort is within reach. He then puts them back, unopened. “It won’t be so easy this time,” he tells himself.
Sri Lanka is the main news item on CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera. The station head of World News is asked how they got the footage. He simply says “Our journalist are professionals.”.
All night, incomprehensible images flicker before his eyes. He is swimming upstream in a green river. He realises he must get away from the beach, where soldiers are searching for survivors with flashlights to finish them off. He does not make headway against the stream as he tries to push away the bodies that bump up against him. He feels something brush against him. It comes to rest on his chest. He grabs it and lifts it out of the water. It is the child’s fist. He screams and tosses it away, but it drifts back again. Then, he feels the warm breath on his cheek.
He is very young; he lies on his back in his mother’s arms and looks up into her face. She blows air against his neck and pulls faces. He laughs from his stomach. There are small patches of brown and green and gold in the irises of her eyes; he would later tell her that her eyes looked like they were made up of autumn leaves. She picks him up, holds him against her chest and pats him softly on the back. She kisses him on the forehead. While she is still smiling at him, her head appears to rise. Like a balloon. He tries to grab the string, but she floats away - higher and higher. Now, her head is a planet; then it slowly begins to fade. He calls after her disappearing features, and wakes to the echo of his voice in the empty hotel room.
In the dark, he stands on the balcony and wonders whether falling four floors would be enough not just to land in hospital.
At last, the morning light shines through the windows. He sends his brother an SMS: “Won’t make it; go on without me, please. Sorry.” Almost immediately, his brother replies, “That’s really a pity; people are coming from far.” He dresses in the same clothes he wore the day before.
The channel calls him in for a “debriefing” and “welcome back” function. Conrad is on an assignment in Pakistan. The station chief of WTN gives a little speech and says how pleased they are to have “shown the world what really happened” and that “the camera is mightier than the sword.” He hands him his pay and a bonus in a plain envelope, and urges him to keep in touch. “So much is happening; we need someone like you who gets the story and comes back, no fuss.” He asks them to hold the money and excuses himself. He wanders the London streets and stops at the sight of the “M” of McDonald’s on Piccadilly Circus.
He orders a hamburger and chips, and takes it to eat outside sitting on the pavement. When he takes the first bite, the food comes back up. He is hanging on to the railings of a park. Pieces of swollen mango cling to his shoes. As the cramps come to an end, the sweet rotten smell of mango hits, and he starts up again. A passer-by pats him on the back, hands him a half-full bottle of water and hurries past.
When, at last, he is strong enough to move on, he can’t find his way. He passes a travel agent and sees the face of the woman in Colombo whose smile invited him to come to paradise.
He buys a pack of cigarettes and asks a construction worker on the site of the coming London Olympics for a light. The man’s hands are sturdy and rough from cement when he cups them to keep the flame alight in the wind.
At the end of the street is a church of a denomination he doesn’t know. He is vaguely grateful that a church, and not a shop or office block, occupies the space, saving it for a god who, one day, may again put in an appearance. He sits against a pillar beneath an open window and hears the sound of singing. “Must I go, and empty-handed?” “Moet ek gaan met leë hande?” He still smells the child on his thumb. It is his fault; he took what he needed and got out safely.
He thinks it was Stalin who said a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic. But what if you were there when it happened? As his mother’s death is to him, so each one of those ignoble deaths he witnessed holds an unbearable burden – a thousand times over, for the little girl’s father, for the families of the five men on the beach, the women covered in semen. In each case, the loss adds up to the same thing, no matter how many people were involved – infinity.
The doors of the church open, and the congregation flood out to disperse into the streets of the city.
He passes the entrance to Paddington Station. The couple in front of him sound as if they are speaking in Afrikaans. He touches the man’s shoulder and asks whether they are from South Africa. The man turns around, shaking off his hand, and curses him in what now seems to be Russian. The woman uses a hand gesture to indicate she thinks he is mad, and then shoos him away like a stray dog. Bewildered, he retraces his steps, swept along by the crowds of people. He finds himself in a park, but can’t discover the way out. He first sits on a bench, and then collapses on it. As the afternoon is drawing to a close, a park attendant points out the route back to his hotel.
At the sight of the empty hotel room, the white, newly made-up bed, the TV, he spins around, picks up his camera case and shuts the door behind him.
Further down the street, he enters a YMCA. Having registered, he walks out in the direction of the Thames, taking the camera with him. He stands on the bridge and watches the boats passing below him, some of them with their lights switched on. He turns on the camera, checks the files in the memory and presses delete. He thinks of how it may still be retrieved from the trash folder. He hangs the camera case over the side and drops it. In the fading light he sees it disappear into the dark water, then pop up and start to float to the sea.
The YMCA has bunk beds arranged along the walls of the dormitory. Most of the sleepers on the thin mattresses are still wearing their clothes, some even shoes. The room echoes with their snoring. He finds a place on a lower bunk. The man in the bunk above has spit coming out of his mouth and mutters in his sleep. During the night, he is woken by something dripping on him from above. He does not move and falls asleep again. The next night, he is early and takes an upper bunk. The snoring is a river of sound that carries him along into a restless sleep that offers temporary relief. Waking the next morning, he feels as if he has risen from the dead but still belongs there. His beard itches; he can smell himself.
Taking a mug of coffee from the YMCA kitchen, he goes outside to sit in the sun. A passer-by uncertainly approaches, ready to put money in the cup, sees the coffee and turns away in confusion.
Two weeks later he is in South Africa. He hires a car at Cape Town airport, and leaving the city he drives over Sir Lowry’s Pass and the Hottentot-Holland’s Mountains towards the Overberg. He crosses the Breede River at Swellendam.
At Riversdale he decides to take the gravel road that follows the Goukou River to Stilbaai. He turns off to Vermaaklikheid. On his right hand side there is an avenue of cypress trees and behind them, next to the houses of farm workers, a neglected cemetery. On one of the graves he sees a bunch of fresh white daisies. The other graves look as if abandoned to the elements. Beyond the cemetery rolling green hills rise up to the horizon, big round bales of grass are scattered across the fields. The summer’s richness rolled up to provide feed for animals in winter. The tarmac comes to an end.
The sky is grey and it looks as if it might rain, but it stays that way.
The road ahead rises and falls. At the top of a rise he stops the car but remains seated. His vantage point gives him sight of the river below fed by many streams flowing through the brush. From this point onwards the river is navigable all the way to the sea.
His cell phone rings - +44 is the code; the United Kingdom. It is Conrad. No pleasantries. “Howzit, congratulations. The station is nominating you for the ‘investigative journalism of the year’ prize. ‘Advancing the cause of human rights,’ is their line – ‘exposing the killers.’ Lank bucks. Not bad for a SA boykie – an Afrikaner, nogal.’”
After Conrad stops speaking there is a long silence. “Are you there?” he hears before he finds his voice. “Tell them I don’t want their prize, Conrad. I was an idiot to stumble into that hellhole. I should be punished, not praised. I saved no one.” His voice rises. “What happened there should not be remembered by anyone.” He starts to shout. “Anyone! It should just rot and be washed away by a Tsunami! Do you hear me?” He falls silent, but as his fury sweeps over him he begins to stutter and over Conrad’s voice he shouts: “Conrad, listen to me. Tell the station to wipe all the footage I sent them. Everything! It’s my footage; I can tell them to do it.” He stops and starts again. “Tell them to wipe it out! Everything!”
He drops the phone in the car and tries to catch his breath. He gets out and slams the door. He walks to the railing, from where the ground falls away into the valley. He clenches his muscles, squatting down, holding onto the railing with one hand, suppressing the volcano welling up in him. He can’t let go now; he will be left eviscerated. After some time, he returns to the car, opens the door and searches for the phone. He finds it under the passenger seat.
“You still there?”
“Sure, bro. I’m still here.”
Silence, then Conrad says, “Listen, it’s okay. I guessed you may feel that way. I will tell them that you don’t want to be nominated this time. They will understand. We’ll take care of everything. It’s okay, pal. I’m with you in this.”
He nods in agreement and switches off the phone. Turning the key to start the engine, he drives on, following the river as it winds it way down to the sea. At the side of the road he passes the dam where he and his father always swam after riding there on their bikes. He stops, washes his face, takes off his clothes and floats weightlessly in the water. He climbs out and sits on a rock, allowing the sun to dry him, as they always did. Water drips onto the hot surface of the rock and he watches as it vanishes into the air without a trace.
Along the banks of the river there are olive orchards. He knows the sharp turns in the road, the smell of dust and the way the tyres bounce against stones and bump over potholes. The campsite across the river shows no sign of life. It is low tide as he can see the sandbanks sticking out above the surface. During the holidays children from the caravan park will be playing on the sandbanks. He thinks of the millions of litres of water that have flowed down to the sea to meet the incoming tide twice a day, every day, since last he was here. This age-old ritual of the river meeting the sea continues no matter what happens in the world.
Now, he is driving on the new brick road and into the village.
He drives up Waterkant Street; the harbour is in front of him and the mouth of the river is to the left. The squat lighthouse at the end of the breakwater has rusted. He turns into the driveway of the family’s holiday home in which his parents have lived permanently for a number of years. A modest home, much the same as the other houses around it, but for him it is his magnetic south.
When he stops the car, he finds his father is on his way to the harbour. “You unpack. Bok phoned to say they caught a mosselkraker. I’m going to fetch it; we’ll braai it tonight.”
Alone in the quiet home of his parents he feels dirty, an intruder. He sits down but immediately stands again. He seeks proof that he belongs there, that there was a time when he was part of this innocent world.
His mother’s paintings hang everywhere. In the kitchen are photos from family holidays in the past. Here is one of him as a youngster, and his mother; each holds a paintbrush. His painting is a miniature copy of hers. He sees a black and white photo of his mother as a student when she was studying medicine at Stellenbosch, she looks like a gypsy. The photos chronicle the transformation from a pretty young girl into a dignified older woman. There is a photo of him with his father and his brother at Skulpiesbaai where they went fishing; each carries a kolstert to match his own size, all three in a row with their eyes squinting against the bright sunlight under their soft-brimmed hats.
Another photo of him and his brother; this time they are on an excursion on their bikes with their father at Palinggat, halfway between the bridge and the river mouth. The eels are in a deep pool connected by an underground channel to the river. The eerie fish have clear blue eyes; he remembers he thought they worked on batteries.
The woman who acted as a guide told the story that at the end of their lives the eels swim down the Goukou River to the sea and up the coast until they arrive at a special place off Mozambique, where they lay their eggs and then die. Very few of their hatchlings find their way back to Stilbaai, to the river and finally to the freshwater pool at Palinggat. The ones who make it back live here until it is their turn to make the journey to Mozambique. His father dryly questioned why the eels weren’t satisfied to be like everyone else and retire in Stilbaai. “Officially declared the safest village in South Africa – the only place that had to reduce the number of its policemen.”
Next to the oven are arranged her bottles of herbs in the order of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. “Who am I to quarrel with Simon and Garfunkel?” she laughingly asked.
Above the fireplace is a quotation from Psalm 23, which promises still waters and a rod and a staff to protect you from evil. His great-great-grandfather carved it in wood while a prisoner of war in Ceylon. Next to it is the blackboard on which, every holiday, each member of the family is given a turn to write “seasonal words of wisdom”. On it, in her neat handwriting, his mother wrote last Christmas: “Even if there isn’t a Father Christmas, there are always presents.” These words seem to sum up all that he learned from her about religion. What he believes does not match his brother’s faith, but it counts for something.
He remembers telling his mother that he thought the words in the Bible were only stories. She said, “Of course they’re stories, but they’re not only stories. Stories are what give life meaning. And you have to admit the stories in the Bible have serious staying power.”
The painting on the easel in the sitting room is new. Its subject is Stilbaai’s main beach; Lappiesbaai. It shows two faint figures on the beach. The ‘Pulpit’ is painted as it was when the great storm broke off the top of the rock; the pieces are still lying there. He frequently sat talking with his mother on the dunes, and he said he wanted her to paint that scene, from that angle. In the corner of the painting, in her strong, upright hand is her signature and the date – the day he flew to Colombo.
His father is back. The mosselkraker is wrapped in old newspaper. He takes out the intestines and washes off the last of the blood and slime from the fish in the sink in the scullery. His father seems to him to look older than he did when he last saw him a month ago, but his eyes are clearer. “Yes, the ceremony was quite something. Your brother really went to town.” His father laughs at his own description. “If it had been up to him, everyone there was on the high road to heaven, the sooner the better. He had enough to say to bury me, too – two for the price of one. You can skip the sermon when it comes to my turn.” Previously he would have felt his father’s light-hearted manner as a dig at his brother’s excessive piety, but now it seemed less judgmental and more an attempt to ease the mood between them, a mood in which crying and laughing were not far apart.
Pointing to the painting, his father says, “I hope that hired car of yours will be able to fit in the painting. They make them so tiny these days.”
They need to put the grandfather clock onto a trailer so that it can go to his brother in Stellenbosch. The clock had pride of place in each house they lived in and measured out each quarter hour of their lives as if it were a special occasion each time. Now, it has stopped because his father hasn’t rewound it after his mother’s death. They pay some passers-by R20 each to help carry it. In step, they carry the clock on its back with the glass front on top out of the house. The clockwork has been taken out and lies to one side, wrapped in paper like the fish bought at the harbour, the pendulum weights hanging out like intestines. One of the men carrying the clock says: “Seems we are on our way to the cemetery with this coffin?”
He sees his reflection in the glass panel and imagines her looking at him through the glass.
Somewhat clumsily, his father piles tea things onto a tray. “Come, we’ll sit on the stoep.” He adds two spoonsful of sugar to each cup and passes one to him. He is reminded of the sugar water he was given to drink the holiday he learned to ride a bike. It was on the streets of Wesstrand that were still untarred. He lost control of the bike on a slope when the wheel hit a stone. When he asked why they did not remove all the stones in the street, his father laughed: “My boy, that’s why you need to learn to cycle – so that you can dodge the stones.”
In the cool air, he warms his hands on the cup. The sea lies stretched out in front of them, coloured a deep blue at the horizon, turquoise closer in the bay and brown at the river mouth. “Riversdale had lots of rain,” his father points out. “You can see from the colour of the sea how the river flooded. And I hear that last night it snowed on Elfuurkop at Swellendam.”
They walk to the river; the wave swells stop at the mouth because of the fast-flowing river. They hear the crash of waves against the rocks at Morris Point on the other side of the harbour.
As is their practice they take off their shirts and hold them above their heads as they cross the river. The water is cold and flowing fast. Next to him, his father seems smaller; just his hand and head are above the water and appear unconnected to a body. His hair lies flat and the bald spot seems bigger. Could this be all that there is of that once powerful man who guarded the door between him and the world? The wind is now blowing cold through that weathered, empty doorway.
Tree branches float past them, and he can see that trunks of trees litter the beach. They reach the opposite bank before the current pushes them out to sea. They climb out of the water and use their hands to rub themselves warm. They cross the sand; the beach is empty, except for a young couple who embrace in a world of their own. The pair has been swimming and they have brightly-coloured towels tied around their waists. There are seedpods on the beach, small and hard, from a tropical tree in Mozambique, which at this time of the year the current washes down the coast of Africa to land up on this beach and the one further downstream and nowhere else. A thin veil of clouds covers the blue sky, and an autumnal sun is palely reflected in the water as the waves pull back from the beach. This is a Blue Flag beach, guaranteed for the purity of the water and the cleanliness of the sand.
Startled, he sees a tiny hand among the seedpods and the foam of the high-water mark, its fingers clenched in a fist. The sea has turned red, the waves showing pink foam on their edges. His father asks: “What is the matter?” Wordlessly, he gestures at the crumpled hand. His father pokes it out of the sand with a stick. It is a piece of driftwood. He would like to tell his father what has happened, but doesn’t know how to begin, his tongue swollen in his mouth.
They walk on. Two white-breasted plovers scurry away in front of them. The tiny tracks of the birds are washed away by the sea, but he and his father leave behind them shapeless prints half filled with water.
His father speaks of the final weeks of his mother’s life after he said goodbye on his way to Sri Lanka. Shortly after he left, she stopped taking her medicine, and until the last day worked on the painting she was determined to finish, the one of the beach. One more time, they walked on the beach, but she was too weak. That last morning, he sat beside her bed, holding her hand. Her breath grew shallower; she drew in a deep breath, held it and slowly let it out. She no longer had any need of air.
He finds concentration difficult, and when his father finishes telling him, he asks him to retell the story. His father, generally so impatient by nature, peacefully begins again as they cross the darkening beach. He repeats everything. His father’s voice is softer than ever, comforting him.
They turn around at what is left of the ‘Pulpit’, a natural terminus to their walk. On the way back, his father tells him of their life together before the children were born. He has heard parts of the story before, but he pays full attention. His parents met and fell in love in Amsterdam, where, because of the political situation in South Africa, they decided to stay. His father explains what made them, nevertheless, decide a couple of years later to return to South Africa. On a Sunday, they read together the “Tram ode”, a poem by Uys Krige. His father recites the words: “Daar’s ’n hawe in die vaal mis, Amsterdam. Die herfsson gooi ‘n goudvlek teen die tram. God, dit moet nou lente wees in Swellendam.” That Monday, they bought their tickets to return to South Africa.
They were medical doctors and worked for the rest of their lives for the Red Cross in disaster areas across the continent. Cape Town was their base, Stilbaai their refuge.
His father speaks of the funeral, as well. “It was windless when we scattered her ashes at the bridge. At first, the ashes lay on the surface of the river over a big area, a white-greyish cloud on the motionless surface of the water. Then, in an instant, it was all gone. It was as if a school of tropical fish, at a signal, had all turned towards their planned destination and darted away.”
He thinks about what it means that hardly two weeks ago, her ashes floated down the river mouth that they had just waded through. What happens to such ashes in the sea? When he was a child, Kool-Aid was all the rage – flavoured powder in a packet with the instruction: “Just add water for the coolest cold drink.” His mother served it to the children of the neighborhood, as she said, “on high days and holidays”. He wonders whether, in some way, his mother was resurrected when her ashes mixed with the sea water, her body re-patterned by the current. Would her outline be visible from space? Would the world be torn apart by floods and war when her ashes were driven apart across the ocean? Would the autumn leaves of her irises shine when the tides brought her ashes back together again, if only for a fleeting moment, in the currents? And would someone, somewhere, then write a poem or a song without knowing the reason why?
They are back at the river. He looks at his father, looks away and then back again. “Do you think mother was pleased with me?” His father seems to have expected the question but, before answering, he takes off his shirt and stands looking out to sea.
“I know you often felt that she expected too much of you. It is true, she believed that you have a unique talent to do something about the suffering of the world. She said even the way you paint shows that you see things that other people do not see. But her boundless joy that you were her son rose above everything else. Even in your wildest years she had what I can only describe as a sort of deep respect for you. She did not need to see your achievements to believe in you. And her conviction did not wash away with her ashes that day. Her commitment to you is simply part of who she was.”
Both of them are conscious that an unspoken second part to his question still hangs in the air. His father puts his hands on his shoulders and looks directly at him. “I have the same belief in you. That simply is how the world is. And it will stay that way, wherever life takes you, and even when my ashes join hers in this ocean.”
His body begins to shake and what has been bottled up floods out. He feels the warmth of the old man’s arm around his shoulders. “I know. You have always been a dreamer. But you can’t load all of what you saw in Sri Lanka onto your shoulders. You will have to let some of your dreams go, to save the core ones, and to keep going. It is incredibly hard, but you have our belief in you to hold on to.”
The cold water washes over his face as they cross the river to return to the Wesstrand. “Let’s go home and braai the fish; you’ll have to leave early tomorrow to catch your plane.” He knows his father is deliberately not looking at him, and he also looks away.
Over the Indian Ocean in the direction of Sri Lanka the sky has a pinkish glow. In silence, they walk up the hill to the house.
- See also "Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields": http://srilanka.channel4.com/#programmeAnc.
- Read this story in Afrikaans: