Twentieth birthday

Warning: This story includes scenes of graphic violence

A songbird’s cheerful melody penetrated the still morning. Light pastel patches of yellow and purple wildflowers brightened the landscape on that spring day, but the soldier barely registered the tranquil scene. It was his twentieth birthday and in normal times it would have been a day of celebration with his family. But these were not normal times. It was probably going to be the last day of his life. As he pictured his parents and his two sisters, tears trickled down his cheeks.

Their orders were unambiguous. There would be no retreat or surrender. The soldier and his comrades were to hold their defensive position at all costs, down to the last man, against an enemy that vastly outnumbered them. Soon, he knew, the stillness of the morning would be destroyed by a cacophony of explosions.

The previous afternoon the last of a torrent of ragged civilian refugees had passed by. Thin and haggard, carrying a few meagre belongings, they looked at the soldiers with hopeless expressions as they shuffled past.

In the far distance he could hear the sounds of the approaching enemy. It was the faint rumbling of tank engines. Soon afterwards he spotted the first signs of movement. Hundreds of enemy soldiers were approaching, followed closely by their tanks and artillery.

With a sinking heart he waited. The sergeant would give the order to fire when the enemy was closer. Then the artillery on both sides would also blast their way into action.

The rumble of tank engines grew ever louder. The soldier became increasingly tense and a fog of despair overwhelmed him. Even though it was an icy winter’s morning he was sweating profusely.

“FIRE!!”

He aimed at one of the approaching figures and pulled the trigger. Behind him the artillery also opened fire. He kept on shooting, seeing one after the other of the enemy soldiers crumpling, only to be replaced by an inexhaustible supply of others. His senses were dulled. He felt as though he were observing the scene from afar.

Soon bullets fired by the enemy began whistling through the trees where the soldier was lying. There was a series of massive explosions and the earth rocked and trembled. He saw one of his comrades being hurled into the air. The soldier’s body started trembling and he could barely hold his rifle steady.

A chip of wood from a tree that had been hit by a shell struck him just above his right eye and blood trickled into the eye, causing the scene to take on a hellish red glow. Nearby one of his comrades started howling in agony and cursing the gods who had abandoned him. He could see the man, blood spurting from a large shrapnel wound in his upper torso.

As the soldier gasped for air the nauseating smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils.

A terrific explosion close to the soldier deafened him. He could no longer see the enemy and he had lost all sense of direction. Clods of earth were hurled into the air by further explosions. All around him rifle fire and the crash of artillery shells continued unabated.

He glanced around. Tangled in a nearby tree branch he saw someone’s arm which had been ripped from the body. Blood dripped from the shoulder where it had been severed. It was still wearing a uniform sleeve onto which a sergeant’s three chevrons were stitched.

The soldier tried to get up, but lost his balance and fell onto his back. Dazed and disoriented he looked up into the sky. So this is what hell feels like, he thought.

Up above him he thought he could discern some movement in the sky. He wiped the blood from his eyes with his sleeve. Squinting, he could now see that it was the gods tumbling slowly from the sky. They were scorched, and wisps of smoke drifted from their bodies as they fell.

 

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Something borrowed …

Warning: This short story contains adult themes that may offend some readers.

Lady Olivia opened the front door to Picton House, took one step into the hallway, then turned around to shake the worst of the raindrops from her umbrella before taking it to the boot room to dry. She was immaculately dressed, as always, and had managed to keep dry despite the grey drizzle on that English autumn day. She caught sight of herself in the hall mirror and sighed slightly as she observed the grey streak where she had parted her hair.

She took off her cashmere coat and hung it on the coat rack. The house was quiet, as it was Gretel’s day off. She was about to ascend the staircase to go to her bedroom and change into something less formal, when she heard the sound of groans and gasping coming from the direction of the snug. Lady Olivia was startled. Oh my God, she thought, Edward must be having a heart attack!

Concerned, she hurried into the snug, her heels clattering on the timber floor. Sir Edward turned around in his armchair, looking slightly bewildered. He had been watching something on the television, from where the sounds were emanating.

“Oh, it’s you Olivia! I thought you were going to have your hair done this morning.”

On the television a writhing couple were engaged in a type of private act that was never mentioned in polite society and which Lady Olivia had certainly never witnessed before.

“I did go to the hairdresser,” she explained, “but Nancy was just about to start washing my hair when her sister rang about some family emergency and she had to rush off urgently.”

There was an awkward silence that lasted a few brief moments. Then Sir Edward cleared his throat.

“I was just watching this film, which one of the chaps at the club had lent to me. Apparently it is something that he described as a ‘retro classic’. The main actor,” continued Sir Edward, “is quite well … er … proportioned.”

Lady Olivia looked intently at the screen. “Oh yes,” she agreed, after a minute or so had elapsed, “I do believe you are right.”

“His name was John Holmes,” Sir Edward elaborated. “Apparently he was quite well known in his time for his acting in this sort of … er … genre. I was told that his nickname was ‘Long John’ Holmes, for reasons that are quite clear when one watches him in this film.” Sir Edward guffawed loudly at his own witticism, as he invariably did when he had come up with some amusing statement.

He turned back in his armchair to watch the remainder of the film. Lady Olivia took a seat on the couch to his right. When the film ended a few minutes later and the credits were rolling up the screen, Sir Edward observed, “Ha! Quite an unusual film, what?”

Lady Olivia concurred that it was indeed a most unusual film.

Then she got up from the couch, pushed a stray hair back from her slightly damp forehead and asked brightly, “Shall I go and make us a nice cup of tea, then?”

Cape Town’s bio cafés

“Bio” is an abbreviation of “bioscope” (the term by which cinemas were referred to in South Africa)

In the late 1950s, when I was in my early teens living in Cape Town, there were a number of so-called bio cafés in the city. Cape Town also had its full-sized cinemas like the Colosseum, the Metro, the Alhambra with its twinkling stars on the firmament of its high, dark blue ceiling, and the Van Riebeeck. By contrast the bio cafés were small, narrow, dank places with the air thick with swirling cigarette smoke. Their popularity stemmed from the fact that they always showed a double feature and one could sit there all day if one wished to, watching the same two films over and over again. As an added bonus, you were served a free, sweet Kool Aid soft drink.

There were three bio cafés that my brother Charel and I frequented. They were called the Pigalle, the Elstree and the Roxy. It was in one of these cinemas that I had sat in my seat frozen with fear as I had watched a black and white horror movie about zombies. I had shut my eyes tightly in terror as the zombies, having risen from the dead, stumbled amongst the trees through a thick fog on their way to visit some unimaginable horror upon an unsuspecting victim.

I had a love-hate relationship with horror films, but that did not stop me from also going to see the 1956 movie “The werewolf” in a bio café. The lead character in the movie had been lost and had ended up in a remote village, where someone had injected him with a serum that contained wolf’s blood. This had caused him to sprout thick fur and to turn into a bloodthirsty werewolf whenever the moon was full. It was a scary film. I was a little surprised at the time that it had not been nominated for an Oscar, as it was a far better film than “Giant” or “The Ten Commandments”.

Another movie that sticks in my mind from the bio café days is “Reach for the sky”, the story of the British World War 2 fighter pilot Douglas Bader, who had kept on flying despite having lost both his legs in an aeroplane accident. And then there were my favourites, those American Western movies featuring Audie Murphy.

Charel, two and a half years my senior, is very tall. Even in his teens he could easily pass for someone much older than his actual age. He could therefore bypass the “No persons under 18 years” restrictions where they applied to films when he was no older than 14.

He told me in detail about “The fly”, a 1958 horror film which he had seen, but from which I had been excluded because at 13 years of age I couldn’t beat the 16 years age restriction. His mere account of the film’s storyline freaked me out so much that I was relieved that my bluff had been called and that I had been refused entry. It was about a scientist whose atoms had mutated with that of a fly during a scientific experiment. Terrifying stuff!

When I visited Charel in South Africa recently, we reminisced about the old bio cafés in Cape Town and how much we had enjoyed going to them. It transpired that he had other fish to fry in his mid-teens besides horror movies, when it came to going to the bio cafés. The object of every teenage boy’s fantasies in those days was Brigitte Bardot, a super-sexy French movie star.

“You know,” Charel told me, “the best show that I ever saw at a bio café was a double feature of two Brigitte Bardot movies. I rocked up as soon as the place opened in the morning and I stayed there the whole day, watching the same two movies over and over again. And you know what? The next day I went back and did the same thing again!”

Helderberg Hostel 1965

During my first year at university in 1965 my brother Charel and I shared a room at the Helderberg Men’s Student Hostel in Stellenbosch, a university town in South Africa. My parents had been very strict with us as we were growing up. It is therefore not surprising that we were disinclined to exert any sort of self-discipline when we were let off the leash and living away from home. 

We were frequent binge drinkers and the row of empty wine bottles on the pelmet above the window in our hostel room attested to our predilection for alcohol. On the rare occasion that our parents rang to tell us that they would be driving over from our home town 14 miles distant to bring us some cake or other treat, we would hurriedly hide the bottles in a cupboard. 

Once in a while there would be a promotion for Lieberstein wine at the hotel near the hostel. Lieberstein, affectionately known as “Liebies”, was a cheap, fruity white wine which was favoured by cash-strapped students such as ourselves. For an hour from 5 pm on the day of the promotion one could drink as much Lieberstein as one wanted, free of charge. The news of a Lieberstein promotion would spread like wildfire and many of the Helderberg Hostel students would rush to the hotel at 5 pm, crowd around the bar and gulp down glasses of the disgusting liquid as fast as they could. I was usually slumped on my knees over the toilet well before the Lieberstein hour had run its course. 

Returning to the hostel after one such Lieberstein promotion, we were informed that the men from our hostel had to join the female students at Minerva, one of the female hostels, for dinner. We arrived there with some of us lurching and slurring our words. During dinner a few of the students were overcome with nausea and had to rush off to the toilet. One fellow did not quite make it to the toilet door in time. I attempted to conduct myself with dignity, doing my best to appear sober, trying to speak clearly and grimly hanging on to the seat of my chair so that I wouldn’t fall off. 

One day Charel set off for his Chemistry practical class immediately after lunchtime, when we had spent the morning drinking cheap wine. Picture a 205 cm bloke in a white lab coat getting on his bicycle and wobbling drunkenly towards the exit of the car park in front of the hostel. He did not get far, toppling off the bicycle and crouching on his hands and knees. He was unable to get back up, so I rushed outside to help him back to our room. 

We were both keen snooker players. To use a snooker table one had to feed the coin machine to turn on the light above the table. Our problem was that we were chronically short of cash. What little money we did have was spent on alcohol and on feeding our nicotine addictions. The hostel had its own snooker table, so Charel opened the windows facing the adjacent tennis court to allow the light in so that we could play snooker without having to pay for the light. 

This practice eventually got us into trouble. One of the other students had walked in on us and had reported us to the hostel’s Student Representative Council (SRC). We had to appear before the SRC, comprising four unsmiling, ultra-conservative senior students. Charel was a master of bullsh*t, so I left all the talking to him. He earnestly protested our innocence, claiming that the light had gone off mere seconds before the informer had entered the snooker room. The SRC let us off with a stern warning. 

A week later we were once again reported to the SRC for the very same misdemeanour, this time by an anonymous informant. Charel told the SRC that we were innocent and that we had always paid for the snooker light. Raising his voice, he exclaimed that he was getting sick and tired of people accusing us falsely when we had done no wrong. It transpired, however, that we had been spotted playing snooker without the light by someone who had been on the tennis court at that time. Charel’s defense crumpled. That evening the president of the SRC announced in the dining hall to all the Helderberg residents that the Bruwer brothers had been banned from the snooker room for the remainder of the year. “That’s the Bruwer Youth Gang!” some wit shouted gleefully. 

Undeterred, Charel checked out the snooker tables at the hotel down the road from the hostel. He had somehow discovered that the coin mechanism for the light had a hidden switch, which one could turn on and off with one of those aluminium combs which were in fashion at that time. He tried it out and, lo and behold, the light came on. From then on we were able to play snooker at will, with Charel switching the light on and off with his comb. 

My brother had his deep philosophical moments, as befitted a second year university scholar. During one binge drinking session in our hostel room he told me earnestly, “If I die you must put a plate full of food and an empty wine bottle on my coffin, so that people could see that a died of thirst and not of hunger.” 

He had always been a rebel at heart who resisted any efforts to discipline him. His Physics 1 professor once ordered him to leave the lecture room because he was not wearing a tie. In those days a tie and jacket were compulsory attire for attending lectures. 

“Don’t bother returning to my class unless you are dressed appropriately,” the professor shouted crossly at Charel as he was leaving the lecture hall. 

The very next day Charel went back to attend his Physics lecture, which would commence once the bell pealed. When the professor entered the lecture room, he spotted my tie-less brother and glared at him with venom. Charel looked at this watch. Just as the bell was about to peal, he whipped a tie out of his pocket with a flourish and put it on, smiling triumphantly at the professor. 

That year I did not pass a single subject and I was refused accommodation by the hostel for the following year. Charel failed Physics 1. He failed it again the following year, before eventually scraping through with a pass mark in his final year at university. 

I suppose we were as unsuited to life on the campus of an ultra-conservative Afrikaner university as nomadic tribesmen would be to city life. The fact that we each acquired a master’s degree in the fullness of time is incontestable proof that miracles do happen.

 

Bogan on board

We had been discussing the issue of hard-line community attitudes towards Muslims over the dinner table. I was quite chuffed when my daughter Laura told me, in the course of this discussion, that I was the most non-judgmental person of anyone that she had ever met. Whilst being enormously pleased with her declaration, I was under no illusion. Almost everyone, including myself, carries the invisible baggage of our prejudices with us through life. Sadly, I had to face up to this reality just a few weeks later.

Laura and I had boarded our flight in Fiji to fly back to Melbourne, when one of the passengers came up the aisle and sat down in a seat across from us. He was a large, unkempt bloke wearing shabby, loose-fitting jeans and a T-shirt with a slogan and picture of a motorbike on the back of it. He had a few days’ stubble on his face.

Bloody petrol-head, I thought to myself. Being of the tree hugging persuasion myself, I have a somewhat negative attitude towards petrol-heads. The fact that some hoon had done wheelies and snakies a fortnight earlier on the sodden lawn of the lovely park that I pass on my daily walk had done nothing to endear me to such people.

Once the flight was on its way a little girl crossed the aisle and sat down on the empty seat next to this fellow. He opened a picture book and quietly read the story to her while she leant against him. I realised that he was part of a family group. His partner and their child had been sitting across the aisle from him.

My attitude towards him softened somewhat. In my opinion anyone who reads books to children picks up quite a few Brownie points.

An hour or so later he got up to go to the toilet. On his way back to his seat I had a clearer view of the writing on the back of his T-shirt. Above a picture of a motorbike traveling at speed it read:

MEET THE CHALLENGE

100% survival Children’s Cancer

Snowy Ride 2015

 By now I was choking on my attitude and on the ease with which I had cast judgment solely on the basis of this man’s appearance.

Not long afterwards it was announced over the intercom that there was a medical emergency on the plane and a request was made that any doctor or nurse on board should make themselves known to the cabin crew as a matter of urgency. The fellow in the T-shirt immediately got up and waved to the stewardess. He opened the hand luggage locker above his seat, delved into his bag and extracted a stethoscope, before following the stewardess down the aisle.

Fifteen minutes later he returned to his seat. “How did you go?” his partner enquired from across the aisle.

“No problems. It’s all been sorted,” he replied nonchalantly as he was putting his stethoscope away in his bag.

I overheard one of the other passengers asking him whether he was a doctor. It transpired that he was a nurse and that he and his partner had just completed a two year stint training health workers in Fiji.

When Laura had described me as non-judgmental at the dinner table I had been really pleased with myself.

Non-judgmental??

I hang my head in shame.

2016 Elections

I was one of a handful of Australians who was elated on hearing the news that the Australian Prime Minister had called an early Federal election, to be held on 2 July 2016. The reason for my elation was that the stars appeared to have been aligned in my favour on this occasion. By sheer fortunate coincidence I had already arranged a trip to Southern Africa for the five weeks leading up to the election. This meant that I would miss out on most of the pork-barrelling, false promises, accusations and counter-accusations, as well as those cringeworthy ‘photo opportunities’ of politicians kissing babies and having friendly conversations with “ordinary Australians”.

In South Africa, where I am now traveling, politics and crime usually dominate the headlines. Here they are also leading up to an election. The municipal elections for all districts, local municipalities and provinces, which are held every five years, have been scheduled for 3 August 2016.

In this country, the political aspirants exhibit less restraint in their verbal jousting than their counterparts in Australia. Julius Malema, the controversial leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters political party, had recently claimed publicly that “if you’re not sleeping with an African National Congress (ANC) person, you can’t get work”. Malema is a former ANC Youth League president who had been booted out of the ANC in 2012 for sowing divisions within the party. The Deputy Speaker of the Gauteng Provincial Legislature struck back at Malema, demanding that Malema declare whether he had slept with women in exchange for tenders during his term as the ANC Youth League president.

Unlike in Australia, there is a distinct undercurrent of violence as the elections are approaching. “The Citizen” reported on 31 May that Michael Zane Phelembe aged 32, the ANC branch deputy chairperson in Ward 23 in Pienaar, Mpumalanga, had been shot dead on the previous Friday night outside his home.

His friend, Jealous Nyalunga, was quoted as saying:

I know Zane was killed within the political realm. He has always indicated to us that some people were after his head. Not so long ago, he had to hide from his home and his car was burnt.

He was a selfless leader who stood for principles and his political enemies clearly did not like that.

And on 23 June the “Cape Times” reported that “there is a battle to the death in many of our towns and cities as we edge closer to the August 3 local government elections”.

Three ANC members were buried in Pietermaritzburg on Sunday in what those close to the issues accept has to do with the process of choosing potential councillors. On the same day an ANC member in Pretoria was shot dead also in relation to who should represent the ANC in local government.

On Monday, ANC chairwoman in eThekwini , Zandile Gumede, was on the front pages of the newspapers saying she fears for her life. Gumede says some of the fears emanate from her own party …

I am due to arrive back in Australia a couple of days before our own Federal election. Mercifully this is likely to be a fairly sedate affair in comparison to the South African election.

On my return all I will have to do is avoid the Australian newspapers, television news and talkback radio programs during the last two days. Afterwards I will have to lie low until the election results have been analysed to death and until the post mortems and recriminations by the various parties have been done and dusted. Then I will hopefully be able to resume my normal life with some semblance of peace.

Stop the boats

This was written in 2013

I can picture the scene quite clearly. The horrified shouts of the refugees as their boat capsizes are in the Tamil language, but the fear in their voices has a timbre that is universal to all tongues. A woman surfaces and shouts desperately for her child, who has disappeared under the water. Sometime afterwards she is also silenced by the waves, her floating body one of the specks in the vast expanse of the ocean that these refugees were trying to cross.

I know a little about the fear and desperation that drives one to leave the country of one’s birth and to seek safety and a new life elsewhere. Even so, I can barely imagine how desperate today’s boat people must be to embark on highly dangerous sea journeys with their children and with young women in tow, subject to the possibility of drowning, or of attack, robbery and rape by ruthless pirates.

I was also a refugee and a boat person of sorts once. During the Apartheid era in South Africa I was a “person of interest” to the Security Police. At that time any perceived enemy of the state, including anyone who espoused views in support of the country’s oppressed non-white population, was deemed a “communist” and could be held in detention without trial for extended periods under the Suppression of Communism Act 44 of 1950.

The injustices of the Apartheid system preyed heavily on my mind and on a couple of occasions I was angry as well as foolish enough to express some of my views to fellow Afrikaners. I was aware that someone had reported me to the Security Police for being a communist because my boss had called me into his office and told me so. It was 1970, I was 23 years old and I was scared.

During the following year I drove to Signal Hill in Cape Town one night to visit and to express my support to Reverend Bernie Wrankmore, an Anglican Priest. He had gone on an extended hunger strike to show his outrage at the death of a Muslim cleric who had been beaten to death by the Security Police whilst in detention. A few days later I read in the newspaper that the Security Police had been keeping watch and had noted the registration numbers of all vehicles that had parked there. I had been found out once again and my anxiety escalated.

When you live as a dissident under an authoritarian regime it is impossible to tell whether the authorities view you as a minor irritation or as a more serious threat who need to be dealt with in some way. Despite the fact that I was not involved in any acts of violence or sabotage or in conspiracies to overthrow the government by force, I lived in trepidation during my last four years in South Africa. The authorities were aware of my opposition to racism and to the government’s Apartheid policies. I knew that some opponents of the Apartheid regime had been blown up by letter bombs, beaten and tortured by the Security Police, shot dead by anonymous gunmen as they were leaving their houses, had “jumped” out of windows of high rise buildings “to escape interrogation by the Security Police”, or had simply disappeared.

My parents were worried that harm of some sort would come my way if I remained in South Africa. I was scared and desperate to get out. Unlike the refugees coming to Australia by boat nowadays, there was no need for me to jump the queue to enter this country. After all, I had the benefit of highly regarded university qualifications from a university that was inaccessible to my non-white countrymen and I had work experience in a senior position that had been reserved for white people only.

When I travelled to Australia In 1974 it was in the relative comfort of a Greek migrant ship, the “Australis”, along with three thousand Ten Pound Poms. As I saw Cape Town’s Table Mountain disappear over the horizon I experienced immense relief and my fears dissipated. I could now stop looking over my shoulder or panicking every time someone knocked on my front door after dark.

I settled comfortably into Australian life in one of Melbourne’s safe, leafy suburbs. One of the first Australians that I met in Melbourne, an electrician named Peter, had a T-Shirt made for me with “Aussie Tim” printed on the front. From the beginning I was made to feel welcome and that I belonged, very unlike the reception given to the boat people of today.

Last year, as I went to pay for my fuel at a local service station, I was served by a black African man in his mid-thirties. No-one else was waiting behind me, so I introduced myself, told him where I had grown up, and asked him where he had come from. He was a Zimbabwean who had been in Australia for three years, having fled with his wife and two small children from the deadly violence meted out to his people by President Mugabe’s supporters.

“Isn’t this a fantastic country to live in?” I enthused. “Most Aussies would not have any idea of what it feels like to live in fear of your life every day.”

“Yes, it’s a wonderful country,” he agreed. “Here people know nothing about living with terror.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “Thank God my family and I are safe now.”

Many Australian voters are worried about our fortress island being swamped by refugee boats. Increasingly a siege mentality is developing, akin to that of my own people, the Afrikaners, whenever they had felt under threat by others from a different culture. During the previous months the politicians have continued to argue about the most effective measures for stopping the refugee boats with their queue jumping occupants from heading to Australia. They talk with grave concern about saving the lives of refugees by deterring them from coming here illegally on small boats. No-one mentions the terror that drives so many of them to risk their lives on shonky boats on the open sea.

It is Christmas time, the season of peace and goodwill to all. Having done some last minute Christmas shopping, I am waiting to pay for my purchases at a local store. There is some problem at the checkout and the line of customers has come to a standstill. The elderly man in front of me has become bored with the delay, so he turns around to engage me in small talk.

“They should sink those bloody refugee boats, you know,” he says to me in a thick European accent. “Just sink them!”

Charel’s less than triumphant entry into Napier

At the towering height of 6 feet 9 inches my brother Charel is a sight to behold at the best of times. You could never miss him in a crowd. These days he sports long, thinning hair and a longish grey beard. To say that he looks a tad eccentric would be somewhat of an under-statement.

When I visited him last year Marlien, my sister-in-law, told me about his less than triumphant entry into the country town of Napier in the Western Cape region of South Africa a few months earlier. She had received a call on her mobile phone from him, asking her to drive to Napier because his motorbike had conked out along the road, a few kilometres before arriving at the town. When she arrived there an hour or so later, he was still stranded.

He rang a service station in the town. The manager told him that he would send someone out to transport Charel’s motorbike to Napier and Marlien could then take him home. They could go back on another day to pick up the motorbike once it had been fixed.

A little while later the driver from the service station arrived. He had brought along a black youth to assist in getting the motorbike on to the trailer. What he had failed to take along were ties to secure the motorbike.

Annoyed at this oversight, Charel ripped off his belt once they had manoeuvred the bike onto the trailer and used it to tie the motorbike to one side of the trailer. As this would not suffice to keep the bike secure all the way to Napier, he hopped on to the seat of the bike, planted his feet firmly on the floor and told the driver to get going. By this time the reader would appreciate that the road rules in South Africa are considered to be rather rubbery when the circumstances require it to be so.

Just before the driver took off, the black youth jumped onto the trailer and climbed on to the seat of the motorbike behind my brother, hanging onto him tightly with his hands around my brother’s chest.

They set off for the town with Marlien following them in her car. When they arrived in the town it was at the hour of day when most people had just returned home from work. Some of the townsfolk were sitting on their verandahs drinking cups of coffee and watching the passing traffic. As the trailer with Charel and his dark companion went by, they stared at this spectacle in amazement. The black youth grinned from ear to ear and waved at the townsfolk as if he were a real life celebrity. Charel, hugely embarrassed at this turn of events, tried his damnedest to look invisible. His sheer size ensured that his attempt was doomed to failure.

On the evening of the day that Marlien had told me this story, I said to my brother, “That was a pretty amazing entry that you’d made into Napier with your motorbike on the trailer.”

He glared at Marlien and growled accusingly, “Why did you tell Tiens about that damn incident?”

Marlien responded with a bare-faced lie. “I wasn’t the one who told him about it. Someone had taken a photo of you that day and they’d put it up in one of the shop windows. We stopped in the town for coffee this morning and Tiens spotted it while we were there. He asked about it and then the whole story came out.”

“Bloody mongrels,” Charel grumbled. But I could tell that he was secretly quite pleased at the thought of having achieved a moment of notoriety on the main street of Napier.

133 Tim, Marlien & Charel

Tim, Marlien and Charel

Nefertiti

I am standing in the Neues Museum in Berlin, looking in wonder at the bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen. She has borne the same enigmatic look for more than 3,300 years.

Nefertiti

It strikes me that this very Nefertiti sculpture in front of me has seen human folly in all its expressions over the aeons: the greed, the aggression, the cruelty and the violence, the self-delusion, superstition and xenophobia, the over-exploitation of the planet and the wanton killing of its non-human inhabitants.

She has witnessed the rise of a great many religions including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, all being claimed by their respective followers to be the one and only true religion. She has seen the believers of different religions and sects kill each other by the millions because of their differences in beliefs.

She has seen the development of increasingly sophisticated weapons which humans used to wage war against each other: guns and cannons, flame throwers and hand grenades, mustard gas, tanks and nuclear devices. She wears the exact same expression today as she did on the two days when atomic bombs were being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

She has observed humans taking their warfare to the skies and to the oceans. She has seen the bombardment along the Western front, maiming and killing millions. She was around when the bombs were being dropped from the sky on London and on Berlin and when Dresden was bombed to a rubble.

Over the millennia she has seen genocide after genocide and the rape and murder of millions of women and children. She has witnessed the extinction of a vast number of animal species because of human greed and indifference. She has seen the temperature rising and the very life on earth being threatened by humankind’s continuing excesses, selfishness and short-sightedness.

I look at the sculpture of Nefertiti. She doesn’t blink an eye. She has seen at it all and nothing will surprise her now.

I think I can guess what she is thinking. She is regretting the fact that the apes have ever come down from the trees. Most likely she will still be around when we clever, self-destructive apes have vanished from the face of the earth.