Jan – A Story

He stank. Rank sweat, scruffy shirt, pants that shone with aged dirt and a pair of shoes that held together more by road dirt and sweat than by stitching. Unshaven with hair that looked like it once had dreadlocks but which had subsequently lost a battle with a lawn mower. The policeman sits him in the chair opposite me more gently than I would have expected. We stare at each other for a few moments. I stick out a hand, “Roelof Smidt”.

He looks slightly surprised, takes my hand. “Jan Abrahams.”

“Ok Mr Abrahams. I am your court appointed lawyer.” I hesitate for a moment. “You took a bit of a beating? Who was it.”

“The guys in the alley and then the Boere when they arrested me.”

The policeman remains completely unmoved. I am impressed.

I look at the policeman. “Can you leave us please?”

He looks doubtful.

“He is not in any condition to take me on. I will be fine.”

He nods and leaves us alone.

“I have read your statement, but I want to hear you tell the story.”

“All of it? Again? What for. Waste of time.”

He has that easy, musical Cape Town accent that is so difficult for non Cape Town residents to follow with its eclectic mix of English, Afrikaans and slang words whose meanings seem to change from area to area.

I nod. “All of it.”

He scratches idly at his side, lifting the shirt and scratching absent mindedly.

“I found a nice little niche up an alley near that larny Bed n Breakfast. Dark corner but with a security guard on the end of the road. He didn’t see me sneak through. Distracted by chatting up Rosy, one of the street women.”

I nod. “And?”

“I had a nice trench coat from a lady up in Tamboerskloof. Nice and warm. Padded too. Get a good nights sleep in it. Gone now I guess. I was not wearing it when I got arrested.”

He scratches at his hair, catches something and crushes it.

“This guy and a woman come into the alley. He is a bit drunk and is kinda dragging her. She keeps saying “No, No” but he ignores her. Gets her up against the wall. Starts grabbing her under her skirt. She tries to fight him off. He bangs her against the wall.”

He pauses. Thinking.

“She reminded me of my kid Danny last time I saw her. Beautiful, skinny, broad hips.” he sighs. “I haven’t seen Danny for 3 years now. Not since her Ma threw me out. Drunk I was. Booze is my failing.”

“What happened then?” I prompt finding myself warming to this strange man.

“I hit him with my stick.”

“You got up off your coat. Did you tell him to stop?”

“Yeah. Shouted at him to leave her alone. He told me to fuck off. So I hit him with my stick. You mustn’t swear in front of a woman. It just isn’t right”

I nod. Wait patiently.

“He lets her go and tries to hit me, but I dodge. I shout at the woman “Run Missy!” and I shoulder charge him and he goes down hard. Unbalanced I guess.”

That stops me dead in my tracks. Shoulder charge. He doesn’t look like a rugby player.

Seeing me looking quizzically at him he says: “Played first team for my school. Tight head.”

I nod. “And then?”

“She runs away out of the alley and he starts hitting me and shouting about muggers. His two buddies arrive and that’s all she wrote. Cops arrived and arrested me. Laid charges.”

“You know that the man, Ian Jessop, says there was no woman and you tried to mug him. Hit him with a stick and he was rescued by his friends.”

“Well, he would wouldn’t he?” This is no longer funny. A street beggar, quoting Christine Keeler mimicking a rather posh English accent.

“No one saw this?”

“Dunno. I was too busy trying to stay alive.”

“Rosy and the Security Man? Gone.”

“I guess so. So no one to back you up?”

He shakes his head. “Lets just plead guilty and get the farce over. Government hotel for me for a year.”

“Prosecutor is calling for 5. Not a short stretch.”

That stops him in his tracks

“Five years? Fuck that is not ok.”

“Ok, do you have anyone who can do a nice character witness thing for you?”

His head is hanging forward, devastated, he just shakes his head.

“They all hate me.”

He stands up and shouts “Guard!” and is gone before I can say another word.

I walk through my the rest of my day in a kind of stupor. I like Jan Abrahams, I understand him better than he realises, I was just lucky, he wasn’t. I try to forget, but I can’t.

9 pm finds me on Kloof St outside the alley the fight took place. The security man on the night club is a foreigner and probably working illegally in the country. He is huge, friendly and completely unable to remember a fight in the alley. He does remembers it being very busy that evening. I show him the picture.

“Ag, that’s old Jan. Hasn’t been around for some time. Story goes he is in jail. Was it him in the fight?”

I nod and he shakes his head.

“Strange. I never made him for a fighter. Always polite. He used to sneak up the alley to sleep. I didn’t bust him for it. Trusted him I did.”

We are about to part when I ask him if any strange things have happened since then.

He cocks his head, thinks for a while then shakes his head.

As I am walking away, he calls me back.

“A woman, red hair 1.7 m arrived a few nights ago. Recognised her as being with one of our regular customers sometime recently. She looking for a man “in a trench coat” who sounded like Jan. I told her I knew nothing.”

I hesitate.

“Where would a frightened woman go if she ran out of that alley?” I ask.

He looks at me carefully. Looks up and down a relatively quiet Kloof St.

“Not in here. Too slow. Would have to get into a queue.” He pauses. “Da Vinci’s next door? Big place, easy access. Toilets to hide in.”

We shake hands and I get the feeling I have passed a test and been given information that he did not really want to reveal.

Da Vinci’s is bright, noisy and buzzing. A cheerful woman with long dreads and a huge smile greets me as I enter.

“Table for one?” she says looking around.

“No, I have a question to ask someone who was on duty here last Friday night.”

She pauses. Suddenly there is large man standing at my elbow. Not threatening, but I get the feeling things could get ugly if I didn’t behave. I take a deep breath.

“I am a lawyer.” The looks on their faces does not bode well for the rest of the conversation.

Quickly “I am representing one of the street people, Jan Abrahams.” The guy at my shoulder nods to the back.

“Come this way.”

We end up in a store room.

“Is he in jail?”

“Yes.”

“For?” I hesitate.

“Jan is a good man. Don’t mess me around.”

“Common assault.”

“Jan? Common assault? BS! Jan is not capable of that. What is the story.”

I tell him both sides of the story and I wait. The silence stretches.

“Bastards. Wait here. No, come with me.”

We end up back at the reception desk and a rapid conversation takes place in Xhosa. The woman retrieves a piece of paper and hands it to me.

“A woman with red hair came running in here. Asked us to hide her until she could summon a taxi. We put her in the store room. And Lucky here took a break and leant against the door until the taxi came. Escorted her out to the taxi. Monday, she came back, early evening. Asked if we knew where we could find Jan; “the man in the trench coat” is how she described him.”

“She gave us that number. Told us she wanted to say thank you to Jan. He had saved her. Told us to call when we found him. Any time.”

Lucky and I go outside and I haul my cell phone out and call the number on the piece of paper. I put it on speaker so Lucky can hear

“Suzie. Hello.”

Soft lilting almost Irish sounding voice.

“I am standing with Lucky outside Da Vinci’s”

There is a soft whisper “Jan?”

I tell my story again.

She listens without interruption. I finish talking. There is silence for nearly a minute.

“Please stay there. I am on my way.”

They find me a table right at the back of the restaurant and I wait. A glass of beer appears and Lucky is gone again. Then Suzie arrives. Tall willowy red head. Makes my eyes water. I stand up trying not to knock over the table or the beer. She shakes my hand and sits down.

“Tell me the whole story again please. I have some questions.”

She listens to me closely. Listening to every word. Questioning any inconsistencies.

“I am the woman he saved and Peter Butler the man who caused all this trouble.”

I ask her to tell her story from the beginning.

“Peter and I had only just met and he invited me to the fancy night club place. When we got there Peter was already quite drunk and started trying to touch me up in the lounge. I rejected him and tried to phone for a taxi. He kept breaking the call. I got up to leave and he followed me. Grabbed me by the arm and dragged me down that terrible alley. Held me against the wall and started to touch me all over. I told him no, I tried to push him away but he was too strong. Then Jan intervened. He told Peter to stop. Pushed him over on his back, hit him with a stick. Told me to run. And I did. I hid in the Da Vinci store room till my taxi came. Peter has not called me since that night. Afraid I might start asking awkward questions. Rock his neat little boat. Bastard.”

We go to the police station. She makes a sworn statement for me supporting Jan’s store and then insists we lay charges of perjury against Peter and his accomplices.

Wind in the Grass – Poem

Years ago, at my Mothers funeral, I saw my father reach for my Mothers hand to tell her something and saw the terrible distress, the recognition that she was gone. This poem is dedicated to him and that moment of loss.

Wind swirled grass flows in patterns
Like the thoughtless patterns traced
By the hands of an impassioned lover
Understood only by the restless wind

Mesmerized, distracted, not thinking
I stand staring, wondering, enjoying
I turn, reach out for your soft hand
Find emptiness, nothingness, a ghost

I turn to find that missing softness
The empty space, the achingly hollow
Place where you should be and aren’t
Ice cold reality returns and I sigh

Wind swirls the grass randomly still
Heads of seed, nod knowingly patient
Harvest comes to us all, the whisper
Of the scythe the only small warning

A Visit to Castiglione dei Pepoli

We (Amanda and I) have a story to tell you about a part of our Europe trip, that started out as a bit of an add-on and ended up as being one of, if not the most important part of our trip. The whole idea of going to Europe was to see a Rembrandt Retrospective. By the time we had booked, we realised the exhibition would be over, so we adapted. This was to be the grand European Art Tour, Rome, Florence, Paris and Amsterdam. Nothing more.

Caravaggio in the Uffizi

Almost as an afterthought Amanda suggested that we go to Castiglione to visit the grave of Sgt. Thomas Brain, her uncle who had died in Italy during World War II.

I thought that was great idea as my mother had been in an Entertainment Unit called the Modernaires during WWII.

She had written a poem about holding a dying man’s hand in a place called Castiglione.

Amanda rolled up her sleeves and with typical efficiency had us booked. It was during this booking period that I discovered there was not just one Castiglione, but three, and that the chances of it being in the town my Mother had written about was pretty slim, and then actually proving it even slimmer.

Mom Performing

Castiglione dei Pepoli was the one we were going to and it is a tiny town. It seemed a very unlikely place for an entertainment unit to be performing so it was basically Amanda’s show, with me happily joining her on a complex trip that required fairly tightly scheduled series of changes between buses and trains.

It was an interesting trip because it was not on the tourist routes. Being a small town, the buses ran only 4 times a day. Miss the last one and we would be stuck in another tiny town on the railway line. Getting out of there and to Lausanne after the visit was, if anything, even more fraught with complexity. A seasoned traveler looked at those two days travel and remarked it would be “quite hectic”.

So the day duly dawned in Florence and we set out at 7 am. Train to Prato, another to San Benedetto and then a bus to Castiglione.

Prato Centrale – If you have time, and are interested in architecture, Prato Centrale is really something to see. Apologies for the really awful picture. The outside is so much more spectacular
San Benedetto Station with our destination shown

Buying a bus ticket in San Benedetto to Castiglione and no ticket office. What to do? Easy! You go to the local station bar, this at about 8:30 in the morning, and a cheerful bartender sells you espresso, croissants and tickets. A committee of Italian gentlemen make sure you get on the right bus and disembark at the right bus stop.

San Benedetto Bar

At about midday we are in Castiglione, we book into the hotel and we wander down to the immaculately kept War Cemetery where 401 South Africans, 99 British (seconded to 6TH S.A. Armoured Division) and 2 Indians (British origin) are buried and their graves carefully tended by the super efficient Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is by using their data that we find Sgt. Thomas Brain’s grave quickly. Amanda spends time at his grave, we have a subdued lunch there looking out over the valley.

Castiglione War Graves
Uncle Thomas’ Grave

As we leave we read the visitors book and find that a steady stream of South Africans visit the cemetery. Amanda also finds the name, email address and phone number of the curator of the tiny War Museum which is unfortunately closed today. He is interested in the stories that visitors have to tell. Amanda emails him and he responds almost immediately. If we are interested, he is willing to drive for an hour from Bologna and meet us in Castiglione at 8 after supper. For the rest of the day we do the tourist thing.

We agree and just as we are finishing supper, Mauro appears. A greyed haired, gentle eyed man who sits down with us and produces documentation from the SA Defence Force Archives with details of Amanda’s uncle’s death. He has visited South Africa 9 times doing research.

We ask him what drives his curiosity. He says that his mother told of seeing Scots Guards (a British unit seconded to 6TH S.A. Armoured Division) soldiers returning from the front “in tears”.

South-east of Bologna in the communities of Castiglione dei Pepoli, Grizzana Morandi and the surrounding area local people gather annually to celebrate their towns’ emancipation from Nazi forces in the autumn of 1944 by the 6th Armoured Division from South Africa. During this ceremony, they raise the South African flag to acknowledge the efforts of the liberation forces.

This area was the site of the biggest, yet least-known, massacre of innocent civilians in Italy during WWII: the Marzabotto Massacre and it is here that the Allies eventually broke through the following Spring, spelling the end of the war in Italy.

Mauro produces a document for Amanda showing her uncle’s name, details of his death and confirming his date of death, 30 October, 1944.

He then turns to me, produces two documents. A nominal roll of Modernaires Entertainment Unit performers dated 21 October 1944.
“Is your mother there?” he asks and sure enough there she is, Sgt. D A Morton.

“And I have a report of the show they put on” he says, and produces another document. He has by now reduced the pair of us to tears.

“Come see the museum.” We walk through the dark streets to the Centro di Cultura (Cultural Centre) past the building where my mother may have performed.

We go upstairs and up on the wall is a copy of a photo I have in my mother’s picture albums, of her and her fellow performers in full costume. They are walking past a bunch of soldiers down what up until now was an unnamed town – Castiglione dei Pepoli.

Picture top right in the museum
My picture – my Mom on the extreme left hand side

The only thing we don’t know with any certainty is if Amanda’s uncle saw my mother perform just days before his death. I certainly hope he did.

If you are in Italy and want to see the Museum, or are just curious their website is here.

Sacred Ibises Collecting Nest Material at Rondevlei

It is nearly spring and all the birds at Rondevlei are building nests. It has always amazed me the amount of building material
an ibis will carry in its beak to the nesting site. These pictures give you a typical but brief day
in the life of a nest building ibis.

First off, they seem to do quite a bit of hanging about with the mob on any warm sandbar

But then some or other time the impulse to build gets going.

Here is an ibis coming in to land. Not very gainly, but they seem to survive which is all that really matters.

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This is a dense reed patch and they pull it apart to get building material.

Hey! Don’t stand on me. The terrapin at the feet of this ibis never moved an inch in the time I was there,
so I guess he wasn’t really concerned about being stood on.

This guy got himself all tied up in knots.

And, off they go, carrying the bits and pieces to a reed bed in the middle of the vlei.

Hiking in the Gammkaberg

Near Calitzdorp is the Gammka Reserve and the reserve has a number of trails. The Tierkloof trail is a two day hike, up to some very basic huts and back the next day. The trail is interesting because it starts out in the Succulent Karoo biome and as your get higher you find the Fynbos starting to predominate until you are in pure Fynbos and the Succulent Karoo plants are pretty much gone.

As wthl all Cape Nature reserves the base camp is well appointed and fully equipped. Soft beds for weary limbs and a pool to cool off afterwards.

The chalets at the top are very basic and you have to carry pretty much everything with you.

If you like dark skies with a million stars, the top camp is well away from any major light pollution with George in the very distance being the only real ligh pollution

If you want to do the hike, go to the Cape Nature site and book. If you are an ardent hiker this one is for you.