SY KERK IS UIT
M B BLISSETT
My hands reflected my actions better than my face did. My dad had been a cook, and his hands bore the scars and burns from decades of cooking. Slips of the knife and damp towels used to grab pots and pans had kissed his skin. My experiences had kissed mine but he could look at his and not see the ghosts and horror they gave birth to. A faded white line where a man had slashed the back of my hand in Kandahar. Calluses on my knuckles and the webbing between my thumb and finger from a thousand hours training and fighting. These hands had touched others in love, in friendship but they had harmed more than healed, and there were days when they looked stained and ancient.
They were still supple, strong and didn’t bother me too much, outside my head.
His white-blonde hair was shaved to the scalp and he had scraped away the neat goatee which defined his strong jaw and high cheekbones. Time and circumstances had made him look ancient and infantile at the same time. His shirt hung around his neck and the cuffs swung on his thin wrists as he ran his tongue over his lips, moistening them before he spoke.
‘You’re too easy to find.’ he said.
His voice was strong. A cultured blend of elocution and exposure to different accents, but the nasalised vowels and diphthongs stayed in place.
‘No sense in hiding but it’s quiet here. A good place to think.’
Ricus nodded and walked into the kitchen. We embraced and he recognised my surprise. .
‘I have a job, Lee.’ he said.
When he drew back, there was a quiet, indomitable light in his eyes.
My expression made his smile falter.
‘You can’t tell me this is what you want to do with your life.’ he said.
Just one more middle aged man with little in the way of possessions but too much in terms of regrets and memories. No friends to speak of, no women to soothe and no children to fear for.
Only their ghosts and their screams.
‘Who is the client?’ I said.
He reached inside his jacket and retrieved a thick, white envelope and slid it across the table. It was heavy and without opening it, knew there was a sizeable wad of cash inside. Our eyes met and he raised an eyebrow.
Ricus was born and raised in Gauteng, to Boer men and women who had farmed the land for generations, but instead left at sixteen and joined the army. From there, his talent promoted him to the Recces, and after a few years, he went into the private sector. We met in Bogota, Colombia providing security for a businessman which meant more attack than defence. I ended up as his spotter when he would sit up providing over watch. It was a few years before I told him the reason I joined him was because the teenage daughter of the businessman was flirting with me, and I wasn’t into it. He chuckled and said he knew, but I was a good spotter and didn’t talk too much.
I asked if he would take out one of his wives, but his smile faltered as he picked up his coffee.
‘No, we’re going home.’ he said.
It was like a thousand places suffused with an atmosphere as oppressive as another planet, seizing you in its grasp as you step off the plane. Ricus and I travelled in economy, nothing but hand luggage as we stepped off the plane.
He had arranged someone to meet us. Gun licensing was always a tricky issue, even if you were a citizen like Ricus and since the change in government, things were more complicated now.. Sure, there were questions but we had gone in with less and sometimes with more. Donald Rumsfeld said you went to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Same with equipment too, but Ricus moved with a smooth grace which lent everything the mundane air of it being just another job.
We drove into town in the back of a flatbed truck with a teeth-rattling suspension and the faint smell of cowshit to keep us company. Ricus sat with his forearms resting on his knees, working a toothpick in the corner of his mouth as he stared out into the distance. His eyes were serene and stern, looking at nothing and everything with a detachment which I used to envy.
Now, struggling to adjust to a heat so thick it compelled exhaustion just to endure it, I wondered if it was a gift or a curse. Ricus had a burden which no amount of conflict could wear away, and I had come along to see if I could help.
The township was alive with a teeming vitality. Smoke hung in the air, and the rich chorus of voices enveloped us, powered by the pumping music coming from a bar somewhere. Ricus craned his head, scanning the crowd for someone.
A black man, around his age, raised his hand as a smile pulled at the white worm of scar tissue which bisected his cheek. Ricus smiled back and nodded towards him. I followed him through the crowd. When the two men met, they moved in for a tight, firm hug before parting.
‘Good to see you, Gacoki.’ Ricus said.
He leaned away and gestured with his right hand and gave him my name. I was his business partner. Gacoki gave me a measured look as he stepped forwards and offered his hand. I shook it, and weighed up the hard, firm grip he gave. There had been harder ones, but few. Hiding the causal flex which it prompted made him smile as he stepped back.
‘Let’s get a drink.’ he said.
Ricus took him up on the offer of a beer but I stuck to cola. It was thicker and more chemical than I was used to, but the bubbles settled my stomach. They fell into a mix of Afrikaans and English, some of which I followed, but otherwise it was a pleasant way to while away a few hours. Later, they spoke about what we needed. Gacoki shrunk into his chair.
‘It’ll be tough. Things are different now.’ he said.
Ricus swallowed and sat back in his chair, finished the last of the beer before he set the bottle on the table.
‘Money still talks, though?’ Ricus said.
Gacoki nodded and retrieved a cigarette from the soft pack on the table and lit it, gave him time to think. He smiled and winked at us.
‘Always.’ he said.
After that, it was about logistics. Most of it could have been found at a mall but Ricus had grown up here, and he knew things were scarce. He took the list from Ricus, got up, leaned over for a brief hug and left, acknowledging me with a short nod. The residue of the coke clung to my teeth as I licked my lips and got to my feet. Ricus took the pack from the table where Gacoki had left them and slipped them out.
‘You up for a drive?’ he said.
A hot burst of irritation gathered in the back of my throat.
‘Only if you tell me what’s going on.’ I said.
He smiled before he lit the cigarette.
‘That’s what I‘m going to show you.’
The car was a clean, worn Range Rover. My seatbelt didn’t work, so I sat with one hand on the passenger door, bracing myself against the inevitable dips and turns in the roads. My distaste faded with the passage of time. The muscle memories allowed me to adjust, relaxing the muscles still tense from hours of travel as we drove out into the deepening darkness.
There were small fires dotted along the road, and as we drove North, the air grew cold, but Ricus did not register it as he focused on the drive.
I spotted the outline of the buildings, the tops visible above a dark brick wall dominated by a large metal gate.
‘I’ll be on point.’ Ricus swallowed, a flash of nerves apparent on his face before he controlled himself and looked at me.
‘Who are we meeting, Ricus?’ I said.
He stopped the car and got out, went to the intercom and pressed the button. A squall of static split the air before a woman’s voice came through the speaker. They spoke in Afrikaans, but the long pause and the single word after Ricus spoke indicated a caution and surprise which raised the skin on my forearms into gooseflesh.
‘Broer?’ she said.
The motor on the gate was old and worn from frequent use as it gave a choked wheeze in protest before the gate opened and Ricus came back to the car. We drove up to the central building. These were rough, sturdy buildings gathered in a horseshoe as well as several outbuildings. A working farm or the memory of one. We got out as the front door opened and a woman emerged, in a white t-shirt and jeans before she walked towards us.
Ricus glanced at me before he walked towards her. Her features gained coherence as she came forwards, and the familial resemblance between her and Ricus became apparent. She was younger, and her blue eyes held the light with a clarity which made her attractive. There were fine lines around her mouth and eyes, but she was a striking, beautiful woman without make up and her hair scraped back into a ponytail.
Her expression was somewhere between a pleasant surprise and a pebble in her shoe. A short wince followed by a jangling burst of delight as her eyes shone with tears. They stopped before one another, and I stayed by the car, uncomfortable with breaking up a reunion.
We had learned of one another’s pasts in sips and swallows. He referred to it over burdening me with names or stories. Most of the time, the talk was soft and small. We learned more about one another with silence being a better teacher than speech. I guessed she was his sister, judging by her age and their mutual resemblance.
She reached for him first but he matched the strength of her embrace but not her tears as she pressed herself against him. When they parted, he gestured for me to come over.
Her hand was small but strong. It fitted inside mine and the heat from her palm surprised me before she smiled and asked my name.
She asked if we were hungry. Ricus nodded and we went inside. He fell behind her and walked alongside me.
‘This isn’t a gig, Ricus.’ I said.
My voice was low and even, but Elna glanced back at us for a second before she reached the door.
Ricus put his hand on my forearm.
‘It is, but I need to explain.’
He should have done it on the plane. It was my decision to follow him, and whatever attachments Mexico presented, they were easy to let go of. For all the times my memories of work were stained with blood and regret, here I was, far from home yet comfortable and aware of the situation, if not the details.
I nodded and followed Ricus and his sister inside.
The table was set for dinner. Two children were sat there before brimming bowls of a thick, brown stew and two other places were set but only one of them had a bowl sat there. Elna walked into the kitchen and smiled at the children.
‘Dian. Leeto. This is your uncle Ricus and his -‘ she turned and looked to Ricus for an answer.
‘My business partner. Lee..’ he said.
Elna turned back to the children.
The youngest of the them, a boy around ten, gave Ricus a careful look.
‘Why didn’t he come to dad’s funeral?’ he said.
Elna’s hands pressed together and I saw her shoulders tighten with tension before she walked around the table.
‘Leeto. Your uncle was working away. I did explain.’ he said.
Her voice was soft and tired, but there was steel there which made the boy look away. A mother’s kindness was a strength. She had explained, I’m sure, but it was an excuse not a reason.
I stayed by the door, watched the small spasms of unresolved grief on their faces as it passed between them.
The stew was good. Rich and thick comfort food which I struggled to finish. I ran on less than I used to but Ricus polished off two bowls with a quiet gusto. Leeto and Annika went through to their rooms. There were whispers between Elna and her children, but Ricus and I sat in the kitchen, waiting for her to return.
‘What happened to their father?’
Ricus sighed and lit a cigarette.
‘You know how things are different here?’
I shook my head, concerned with how personal this had become.
‘Men came, raided the farm. They shot Bern in the head. Elna and the children went into the panic room. He stayed out to protect them.’ he said.
I leaned forward, studied his face as he spoke.
”What’s the mission, Ricus. Tell me or I am on the next plane home. Friend or not, you need to tell me everything.’
They will come again. I want to convince them it is a bad idea.’ he said.
His voice had thickened, the pain crept in at the edges and it was the closest he had ever sounded to vulnerable. It didn’t ease my concerns, but it reminded me of his conviction. We did bad things for money, but we had a code.
‘Gacoki’s getting you a long gun, isn’t he?’
He smiled and winked at me.
‘Going out and looking for them is pointless. There’s too many people settling old scores out here to find out who came.’
I asked him for a cigarette. He passed one to me and I lit it.
‘What does your sister want?’
‘We‘re going to find out.’
Elna stood in the doorway with her arms folded. Her eyes were still and haunted as she glanced at our faces.
‘Find out what?’ she said.
She sagged forwards in her chair when he told her. Elna shook her head and pressed her palms together, negotiating.
‘There’s been enough death.’ she said.
Ricus blinked slow as he sat up in his chair.
‘ They‘re not going to give up, Elna It will be either them or the government.’ he said.
Elna said some other farmers had been offered settlements for their land. Nowhere near what the land was worth, or what had been invested in it but it was better than nothing.
‘It might as well be nothing. So, if you’ve got to stay, then I need to protect you.’ he said.
Elna’s eyes were damp as she rubbed her hands over one another.
‘I’ll accept what they offer me. It’s not charity, but it will get me somewhere.’ she said.
She was negotiating with the future. It offered ugly terms but if it meant her children were safe, Elna was prepared to endure a little fear until things improved. Ricus sighed and shook his head.
‘Give me a week. I can review your defenses, there’ are plenty of things we can put up to improve your security.’ he said.
Ricus sounded reasonable. It was something he could do without me but I had been asked to come for a reason.
Elna looked between us and sat back in her chair.
‘My children’s safety comes before everything, Ricus. You don’t get to endanger that. Ever.’ she said.
It was a show of steel which reminded me of her brother. He nodded and got up, came around to her and put his hand on her shoulder.
‘It is why I’m here. I know it’s too late, but things are different now.’ he said.
He didn’t say how. Elna wept and leaned into his stomach as she stifled her cries with her hand. It had been something she’d developed, so the children didn’t hear her.
Ricus and I took the couch and chair in the living room. We decided on the floor and laid there, looking at the ceiling. Ricus fell into a light doze without speaking. He knew my decision and how I would go along with it.
Elna had nowhere to go. It was a scenario of diminishing returns, but if it kept people from the farm who had no business being there, then a few nights over watch wouldn’t hurt. A job had a clear outcome and this had been murky from the start. Still, my decision to follow had been my agreement. Going home might have meant survival, but it was a juvenile wish. Sleep didn’t come but I settled into a rest which felt close enough for it not to matter.
Ricus was awake at dawn. He worked for, if not alongside Elna as she went through the morning routines. There were more than a few which had been her husband’s domain and Ricus carried them out, his strength was an apogee for Bern’s death. When I came through to the kitchen, Dian and Leeto were at the table, drawing on rolls of wallpaper They used thick layers of crayon, raised against the paper like scabs and ending in jagged outlines. Spikey shadows wielded sticks which dripped with blood. One of the groups had a man in the centre, and Dian was hunched over, scraping the wax away with a crayon. My curiosity jangled with interest, but when I walked over, they both stopped what they were doing and looked at me.
‘What are you drawing?’ I said.
Dian grimaced and put the coin down. One edge of it was dark with black crayon and her fingertips were smeared as she looked at her brother.
‘Nothing. We just like to draw.’ he said.
Each step closer made them draw in to one another. I raised my hands and nodded.
‘It’s ok. I should mind my own business.’
He stared at me.
‘Do you have kids?’ he said.
Leeto’s voice was rough and high, the broken tones of someone on the verge of puberty but his question was a boy’s in nature. I nodded and offered they were both adults. Their estrangement was something left unsaid.
‘Would you have gone out to defend them?’ Dian said.
‘I would have done the same thing your father did.’
Dian swallowed, her eyes brimmed wet before she looked out through the window.
‘We saw them as they left. Some of them used to work here, during the harvest.’ she said.
Leeto turned to her, keen to correct her.
‘No, not all of them. There was -‘ he said.
Dian glanced at the drawing they had been working on and pulled back, unable to avoid looking at it. They both looked at me. I walked around to where they were sat and saw the face at the centre of the group. The livid scar gouged into the crayon face and how it ran down his cheek. I ran outside to find Ricus.
He was at the truck when he saw me run up. It didn’t take long to tell him.
The shifting realisation and nature of betrayal crossed his face. His mouth fell open as the blood drained from his face before he regained his control. His jaw tightened and he looked over his shoulder.
‘I guess I won’t be getting the rifle then, eh?’ he said.
We walked back towards the house. Ricus asked Elna what weapons she had in the house.
It was late in the afternoon when we looked at everything laid out on the table. A revolver, with two speedloaders. One shotgun, with a box of buckshot shells. There were tools around the farm, but if we had to use those, we were already dead.
Elna came down from the attic with a long case in her arms. She handed it to Ricus.
‘Bern never wanted to use it. Said it was meant for you, but you never came back to get it.’ she said.
He took it from her and laid it on the table. Ricus opened it with a slow reverence and when the waning light hit the dull wood. I understood what he was reacting to. What was passed down did so because of utility, and Ricus picked the rifle up, saw in the scars and utilitarian ugliness what history it possessed.
‘Pa said he sold it to pay for the damage Gacoki and I did to the school house.’
Ricus grimaced to say his friend’s name aloud. He put the rifle back in the case and looked around him. Elna gestured to the table.
‘Why would he come back? There’s nothing here.’ she said.
The land. Gacoki had contacts in the government and military. He was the canary in the coalmine, responsive to changes in situations with a view to making money from it. If it meant he turned on a neighbour or a friend, then he was the vanguard of a new age for all of them. Ricus sighed and looked at his sister.
‘I’ve got an idea. It wasn’t what I hoped, but I’ve something in mind.’
He turned to me and asked me to prepare the front bedroom. It did not take long to strip the beds, move the mattress off the frames and clear two parallel spots away from the windows. I was preparing a shooting gallery for anyone who made it over the wall. Ricus took the rifle and wandered over to the tallest barn.
It was a comfort to retreat into logistics. Elna, Leeto and Dian were assets and reducing them to such meant we could speak without sentiment about our chances of success. Repulsing a small home invasion would be easy, but Gacoki wouldn’t go small if he knew Ricus was involved.
With Elna and the children, I led them through the exit path, over and over until they were confident of moving in the dark. I covered their truck with tarp, checked the oil and brakes, saw there was a full tank of gas and threw in the go bags Elna had made on Ricus’ instructions. He was shocked when she told him about not having passports, but otherwise, she was compliant and followed his instructions.
As did I.
Elna insisted on cooking for everyone. It was an ostentatious feast, farmer‘s sausage and pot food followed by milk pudding and a fresh pot of coffee alongside plates of fried doughnuts. Ricus ate well, but refused the doughnuts and took a flask of coffee.
He got up, gathered his rifle and walked out to the barn. We tested communications and his voice came over, strong and clear.
Elna put the children to bed and we sat in the kitchen.
‘Why is he so sure they’ll come back? Because he’s here?’ she said.
She looked at me for an answer.
I shrugged and got up from the table.
‘It’s been going on for a while, hasn’t it? Farmers, I mean.’
She sighed as I turned and walked to the kitchen sink.
‘It’s getting worse, but what choice do we have?’
I turned and looked at her.
‘They’ll keep coming until you’re dead or you leave, Elna. Ricus knows it, and so do you.’
My voice was harsher than I intended. She flinched and leaned forward.
‘Then why are you here?’
He asked me to come. He had earned the right to ask. Yet we had wandered into the latest spasms of something old and ugly, and there were always casualties in the rush of history to assert itself. I had been on the winning side of it for money, but we were a means to settle old scores. Power. Territory. Wrongs handed down until they wiped out generations. The names and colours didn’t matter.
There was the faint roar of cars travelling fast down the road. My radio squawked into life.
‘Two cars. 500 meters. Making the shot.’ he said.
The crash was loud in the night sky. A blush of flames and the faint shouts as the survivors emerged.
I was moving. Elna got up and ran to her children.
‘Three hostiles down. Three moving towards you now. Secure the principals and move to second position.’
‘You’ve got them on overwatch?’
‘Yes, but they’re closer to the gate than I’d like. Go to second position, Lee.’ he said.
Elna and the children were in the bedroom, fully dressed as I looked through the doorway.
‘Second position, now.’
They moved through the doorway, heads lowered as I turned and covered their exit. I walked with my back to them, stopped in at the front bedroom and grabbed the shotgun, slung it over my back and went outside after Elna and the children.
A shadow, climbing the wall. He had a garden fork in his left hand, and a dull, disconnected frown as he came towards us. I aimed down the front sight at his chest and fired. He fell backwards, toppling out of sight without a sound. Elna was climbing into the driver’s seat as the children scrambled into the back.
A cry of alarm made me turn to my right and fire into the pair of men who charged towards me. Not men, I thought, boys with machetes, and flushed with a horrible excitement. Elna called my name, and it sounded faint to me as my ears rung from the gunshots.
I got into the passenger seat and shouldered the shotgun.
‘Leeto, check there are three go-bags.’ I said.
Leeto looked up in confusion.
‘There are four here.’ he said.
I asked him to lift the bags up as Elna pulled away from the farm. The bag at the top was full, and rattled against Leto’s attempts to lift it.
Elna took the truck out at full speed.
‘What about Ricus?’ she said.
I pressed the radio, and was met with a burst of static. Saying his name brought no response.
The explosion behind us made a final, terrible statement.
I kept glancing back at the bag. An improvised explosive device would have gone off by now, and it was too clean for the types of attacks which were going on. I took the bag from the back, surprised at the weight as I put it on my lap and opened it.
The gleam of gold hurt my eyes and my heart. I passed the envelope to Elna, who retrieved three new passports, making them citizens of St Kitts, a Caribbean island. The gold was to get us out the country.
‘He’s not coming, is he?’ Elna said.
I glanced at Leto and Dian, then her.
‘No, I don’t think he ever was.’ I said.
The weight of recognition fell on us, squashing us into a mutual silence as we drove towards the agreed location. A plane was waiting, and we fled South Africa.
We settled in Canberra.
After a year, the children were sleeping through the night and Elna found a farming concern she felt able to handle. She asked me to stay and help out. It seemed churlish to refuse her, and after a few weeks, she invited me into her bed and we came together, trembling and wondering if Ricus would have approved.
His answer came via the ordering of his legal affairs. His career had been lucrative and despite the use of his own resources in securing the equipment and weapons we used during our time at the farm, there was more than enough to provoke shock, surprise and tears when the terms of his will were read out.
Elna and her children were set for a comfortable, abundant life. Ricus had also left me a sizeable sum and a letter, which was handed to me upon my signature. When we left the lawyer’s office, Elna had taken herself to the coffee shop, keen for something normal to do in order to offset the bizarre, bittersweet gift of her brother’s wealth, so soon after his death.
No, his sacrifice.
He had handwritten the letter, and judging by the date, it had been written before he came to see me. My eyes blurred as I read, but I finished it, despite the ache in my chest.
There was not time to explain. I knew you would understand, and if not, then I am sorry.
Consider this a late payment for your services. If your pride won’t let you accept, then it is yours to do with as you wish.
My hope is you were with me at the end. Dying in a bed, surrounded by well meaning strangers horrified me. When Elna told me about Bern, it had a simplicity which appealed to me. There is no place for guilt or pride about my past but there is a small hope I find some meaning in what is left of my future.
One bullet could end it all. But why deny someone the honour of facing someone like me who has nothing left but his family to defend? I am not sure I deserve such an end, but it is not for me to decide the most important factor in my strategy.
If you came with me.