Sunlight sparkles on the sprinkling of water droplets still adhering to a rose. If you look closer, you can see the world inverted in each and every drop. A little distorted version of the real world. I close my eyes for a while and listen to the wind soughing through the pine trees just over the road.
An image comes to mind of a woman. American. Needing something. Not knowing how to ask for it. Not knowing what she needs. She gazes off into the distance and then back at me. I hear her voice saying words she never said. Or possibly that I never heard her say. She may have said them to my phantom in the dark hours when uncertainty rises in her mind and she faces her mortality in stark and uncompromising hues of black and white.
"Why? Why did you not take me. I offered myself quite clearly. Quite unambiguously. I took you to my house, to my bed room. Showed you around. You smiled. Were polite and then left me. Alone. I needed. I needed human touch. Human warmth. Something to chase away the darkness. Something to hold onto when the darkness rolled back menacing me and my sanity."
All this is just imaginary. I may be misinterpreting her motives. Inflating my importance, my desirability. Her neediness. Still, I am here. Staring again at the white roses, sprinkled with holy water by the priest. I suppose the same droplets are also on the coffin, but somehow I cannot bring myself to look at them, I blank out that section of reality and concentrate on the inverted universe in a droplet suspended from a white rose. She apparently liked white roses.
A gust of wind comes out of the dry Karoo, shakes the roses and moves on heedless of the funeral party standing around the open grave with the priest murmuring words of comfort for the living. The wind has shaken the most of the droplets off the rose and the sun is drying the rest rapidly. The Karoo in mid summer is a dry place, thirsty, arid, greedy. Water is sucked away into the dry dry atmosphere and whisked away to lands that do not need it, are water rich and wont notice the tiny sacrifice from a thousand kilometres away. The roses are wilting rapidly in the harsh sun as we lower the coffin into the ground and toss handfuls of hot, dry crumbly soil into the hole and onto the coffin. The dust rises up out of the hole in the ground like her phantom and hangs in the still, stifling air. The mourners, a rag tag bunch of New Agers, DRC and the curious turn and drift away slowly, going off to drink tea, eat melktert and mutter platitudes at one another.
Somehow I am stuck. I cannot move, I cannot turn my back, I must bear witness to the closing of the hole, of her final internment, her silent retreat from life. A young spritely man, with a jaunty air and a peaked NYC cap arrives with a spade and is soon shovelling the rest of the soil into the hole. He is strong, efficient and doesn't seem to notice the heat and the dryness. After the last shovel load is dumped on the mound, he removes his peaked cap, wipes the sweat from his forehead and looks at me quizzically.
"Show is over my lanie. Time to go home. Time to drink tea, eat koeksusters and remember him as he was in life. Not as a lump in the graveyard."
I don't correct him and we stare at each other for a while, then I haul out a fifty and pass it over to him.
"Here, you go drink tea and eat koeksusters for me." I grin as I say that knowing well that he will go and buy a huge box of cheap wine and party late tonight.
A conspirational smile flares across his face "Respect, my lanie." He backs off and is long gone before I turn and walk toward my car standing in the blazing heat.
It is the heat of the vehicle that brings home to me the fact that I did not wear a hat and I am now well and truly sunburnt. I feel the tightness of my skin, the heat in my body. The air con is pumping pure, unadulterated heat and probably will be for a long while. I need to stop the burn and do it soon. The longer it goes on before I hit it with cold water and ice the worse my burn will be. I have been burnt too often to enjoy the experience or bear it with any equanimity.
I stop at the tiny information office and walk inside. A pudgy, bored and disinterested woman is behind the counter.
I don't wait for her to wake up, look interested or respond to my presence.
"I need a place to book into now. I need that place to have a bath and access to lots of ice. What can you suggest?"
She looks blank.
"Guest house? Hotel? B&B? Anything."
Silence. She is still doing goldfish impressions when a voice breaks the silence.
"I have a room open. It has a bath and I am sure I can get sufficient ice for your needs. Unless you are intending to store a body, then possibly we may be stretched."
The short and pudgy woman closes her mouth. Considers opening it again, decides against it and collapses in her chair, quite faint from exhaustion.
I turn to respond to the soft plummy voice with all the syrupy ooziness of the colonies and a healthy dose of class consciousness to back it up. All I can see is a rather square gentlemen of african origin and twinkling eyes. I emulate the pudgy information woman behind me by opening and closing my mouth a number of times.
"I just love doing that to people." He states with a satisfied chuckle. He looks me up and down with the eye of a thoroughbred trainer.
"And I see why you need a bath and lots of ice. The joys of being black you know. We don't burn so easily in the sun. Come. We must get your head into cold water fast." And he turns and heads out of the door faster than I would have thought he was capable of walking.
Twenty minutes later I have an icy cloth over my blazing forehead and a gentle, shy woman tending to my ice needs. I haven't even signed the register or really introduced myself. "We can do all the boring stuff later." he said before summoning help, giving explicit instructions and then disappearing. "See you at sundowner time. You will be up to drinks on the veranda I hope?" and is gone before I can sensibly respond.
I wander out onto the patio and am greeted by mine host sitting in splendid isolation, glass of whisky in hand and a vista of Karoo flatlands that reassures me that I am a tiny and insignificant speck in an ancient and enormous land whose extremes of heat and dryness will kill me without thought, without malice, just as a side effect of its extremes.
"Whisky?" mine host gestures to a bottle of single malt on the table next to him. There is no water or ice, so I pour myself a liberal tot and sit down next to him and we sit in silence for a while. Eventually he looks at me, sticks out a hand,
Silence for a while, then I cannot resist.
"Anderson-Dlamini? An interesting mix. Are you of Zulu origin?"
He smiles quietly.
"Yes but I was adopted by an English aristocrat. This was long before it became so fashionable to adopt black orphans. Madonna et al. My step father felt he was responsible for my orphaning and took steps to right what he saw as a wrong. I grew up in the UK. All the best schools, universities. A job with a top notch London stock brokering firm that my step father had an interest in. Turns out I have a bent for stockbroking and I made my fortune in the City allowing me to semi retire and after a while, I decided I had to find my roots which meant, in my case Ulundi in KZN."
He stops for a sip of whisky.
"Like Michael Jackson, I was horrified. It was hot, humid, conservative and completely not what I expected. I fled to Johannesburg, which was even worse for different reasons. Cape Town was next. Too much like Europe. Too little like Africa. Somehow I found the Karoo. Turns out I am a big sky country person and I also found that I was African. I found I had ancestors and that I had a place in this mad, ancient continent. Come. Got something to show you."
He gets up and we amble slowly, elegantly down to a hot house in one corner of the garden.
The hot house is more of an environmentally controlled glass container. Stepping into it is like stepping into the KZN Midlands, heat and humidity unlike the Karoo heat and dryness. I start sweating almost immediately. The glass container has one tree growing in it. It looks about four or five years old I turn to look at him and find him staring fixedly at the tree.
"Your ancestral tree? You brought one here? To the Karoo?"
He nods slowly.
"I am African. That I cannot deny or escape and when I die, I will be buried here in the Karoo and someone will cut a branch, hire a car and carefully take my spirit back to KZN talking to me all the way. Reassuring me that all will be well and that I will be one with my ancestors again."
We walk back to the veranda and he tops up my glass.
"I heard about you and the American woman. That you had no reason to care about her or her disposal. That you had arranged her funeral, that you had come specifically from Cape Town to attend the funeral. The gossip mongers in the community say that you took advantage of her. That you used her and then dumped her, that her death was your fault. Others in the community say that you did nothing dishonorable. You did not use or abuse her. That she was damaged goods that brushed against you. That you are a good man of great gentleness and compassion and that you need not have done any of the things you have done. After talking to you, these are the ones I believe. I also had someone do a check on you and they came up with the same story from Cape Town. A bit of a cheek, I know, but with wealth comes a sort of indifference to such niceties.
We settle on the patio and the conversation turns to other topics, the hot house in the garden below us forgotten. We part when dinner is ready, he to places undefined, me to an empty dining room unfrequented by anyone except a waiter. No wonder he knew he had a room spare.
I retire early, still nursing my sunburn. When I go through to breakfast an invoice for my stay is served with coffee. I note with some amusement, that I paid for my whiskey last night. It wasn't "on the house". A note is attached. "I am sure we will meet again, thank you for a pleasant early evening chat." Unsigned.
It is six months later, the wind coming off the mountains now snow covered seems to be able to penetrate the warm layers I am wearing. I am back at the cemetery, checking up on the American woman. The mound is there, but not much else. It seems sad that she should be so forgotten. That evening I chat to a friend in town and he agrees to ensure that a sensible granite slab is laid, at my expense of course, engraved with a name and birth and death dates. A few months later an email with a photograph arrives along with an invoice. It is not expensive and so I pay up and resolve to make sure that the grave is decently tended when I visit the town next.
Three months later I am back in town, the sun is hammering down and the Karoo is winding itself up to a huge heat wave. I visit the grave, ensure that all is well, drop some roses and leave. I repeat this each time I visit the town and it slowly becomes part of a ritual, unchanged as the years pass. The death date on the grave stone is now four years in the past, I ruminate on how quickly time has passed. I dropped some roses and am turning to leave, to escape the huge waves of heat rising up from the black granite gravestone.
"You killed her."
An American voice, much like hers snarls next to me.
I turn, there is a man, young enough to be a son standing there staring ferociously at me.
"Me? What makes you say that?"
"You show all the signs of guilt."
"Yeah. Why did you arrange her funeral? Why the gravestone? Why the roses. Every 3 to six months they tell me. Suspicious I would say."
I look at the fair headed man and see the tell tail signs of imminent sun burn on his balding head.
I shake my head.
"Lets get out of the heat and we can discuss this issue without becoming biltong."
He looks confused.
"Jerky. Meat dried in the sun. You are burning. The Karroo is not kind to someone as white as you. Come."
I head off to the car, he looks indecisive then follows me. We go to Charles Dlamini's bar which now has an air con and has become my home from home when I am in town. I seldom see mine host, and we don't often seek each other out, but it is an arrangement that suits me and I respect, him.
I settle down in a deep armchair with a beer in hand.
He arrives a little after me, buys a cold drink and sits down opposite me.
"Just to be strictly formal, Roger Hogan. But you know that don't you?"
He nods. "Paul Smith."
He nods again.
"Ok, aside from the ugly stories that people in small towns manage to tell about one another and my completely incomprehensible care of your mothers grave, have you any proof of my culpability in your mothers death?"
He stares at his drink for a while. Sighs. Shakes his head. "No."
"You seemed pretty sure out there under the sun."
He is silent for a while.
"Gotta story to tell you. You got some time to spare?"
"Ok, here's the thing. My mother as you probably know, came to SA to find peace, find enlightenment. Her guru in California recommended a "silent retreat"."
He stops to breathe heavily.
"Silent retreat, the woman could not stop talking if her life depended on it and she goes to the middle of Hicksville and lives in a caravan, ignored by everyone in a hundred miles. Not unexpectedly, she crumbles and ends up here where the less mad New Agers gather. Finds a gentle, kind guru who starts to restore her faith in the world. Then she meets you and you reject her."
I open my mouth to defend myself. He holds up his hand.
"No. Please wait. That is what she said to me. You rejected her. I have talked to a lot of people in the town and they all agree that you may have turned down her friendship and you may be as silent as she is, sorry was noisy but you did nothing that anyone could fault. Not even the most nasty could find solid proof of anything untoward. Your supporters say you were immensely polite to her, you listened to her, urged her to return to home and family. Whatever, within three weeks of your interaction, she kills herself. Her suicide note is horrible, maudlin, rambling. It mentions you as the final turning point. She said she wanted to be buried her and left here. No repatriation. I honoured her last wishes as painful as they were. I left everything like it was for four years.
He pauses. The time stretches out and I wait for a while, then I prompt.
"Until my youngest daughter started having nightmares. A woman with blonde hair and a long flowing lace dress visits her, almost every night. She says she wants to come home. She is lonely, but mostly she cries pitifully. I showed my daughter pictures of her grandmother. She freaks out. Says it is her."
He stares at me for a long while. "I won't blame you if you don't believe me, but this is the full and honest truth. We took her to child psychologists, doctors, dream merchants, everyone and everything I could find. Nothing worked. Not until we met an African woman. We were at one of those holistic fair. Card reading, mind reading, the whole lot. The African woman followed us outside. Stopped us, said there was no charge but she was constrained to intervene. She said she was a sangoma. She said that the childs ancestor was restless and we would know no peace, no rest till she had been guided home. Then she walked away without another word. We ignored her for another six months. My daughter started to have fits, have emotional problems, failing at school. All the time she spoke of her grandma demanding to be brought home. We even tried a Catholic exorcism. It did not work. In desperation I went back, found the sangoma, paid her money and she said that bringing the body back was not a solution, it was her spirit that needed soothing. She said that there was one who would know how to soothe her spirit, but that he was where my mother died. He was closely linked to her death. That man knew how to bring her home. She described you. Accurately."
He paused. "We started to ask questions and your name came up immediately as being involved in her death. I, I must admit I believed that you had killed her and that she wanted vengeance, despite what the sangoma said. Now, having met you, talked to people about you, I know that was wrong. Mr Hogan. I am a busy man. A relativly rich man. I am prepared to do anything that is required to resolve this issue. Please advise me."
I stared at the man in complete confusion. I was completely speechless. We sit opposite each other for a long while.
Eventually I looked around the sun was starting to set. I attracted the barmans eye.
"Mr Dlamini? Is he here at present."
"Do you think you could ask him if we can join him for drinks on the patio on a very important matter?"
The barman looks a bit worried for a few moments, then turns and walks out of the lounge. He is back a few minutes later.
"Mr Dlamini would be pleased if you could join him on the patio. Please follow me."
We get up and follow him out onto the patio.
"Mr Dlamini? Please meet Mr Paul Smith."
Charles rises to his feet, shakes the American's hand briefly and looks at me.
"Mr Smith and I have spoken. Mainly about you. How can I help?"
"I gather I have been the talk of the town." I say wryly. Charles just grins.
"Mr. Smith? Paul. Please tell Mr Dlamini the story you have just told me."
I sit back and stare over the wide Karoo flat lands as Paul retells the story. Charles says nothing. Does not interrupt, only occasionally nodding his understanding. When Paul has told his story, Charles sighs gently, looks out across the flats then looks at me.
"You have a solution?"
"Yes, but I need you to back it up."
He looks at me quizzically.
"The hothouse down there? Please will you take him there, show him and tell him why it is there?"
Charles looks at me for a few seconds then laughs, "I know why I like you Roger. I do believe at times that you are more African than I am. Mr Smith? Please come with me."
They walk down to the hot house and are gone for long enough for me to have finished my beer and start looking for another.
Charles sits with a sigh. "I understand part of your plan, but I am not sure that a branch from an African tree will do the trick."
"No, but she loved white roses. She stayed in the house where there is that huge bed of Iceberg roses. The present tenant has allowed them to grow wild. Some of those roses have huge root stocks. What I propose is that Mr Smith buys one of those roses with the huge root stock completely. Roots and all. He has the root stock worked into a small box. Some soil from the grave is put into that box and it rests on the grave for a week. Each morning and each evening Mr Smith and I talk to her. We tell her it is her transport home. At the end of a week, Mr Smith loads himself and the box into his car and drives to Cape Town still reassuring her that she is going home. He books two seats on the plane home and they go home together. He is still reassuring her. He buries the box under a white rose bush in his garden."
Charles stares into the distance for a while, then he nods. "That might well work."
Paul Smith does as I suggested down to the letter. A separate plane seat and reassuarances all the way. He buries the box in the garden. The child has one more dream. The woman in lace is smiling. She says thank you and disappears, never to be seen again.
Sunlight sparkles on the sprinkling of water droplets still adhering to an African tree branch. If you look closer, you can see the world inverted in each and every drop. A little distorted version of the real world. I close my eyes for a while and listen to the wind soughing through the pine trees just over the road. I am surprised to see Paul Smith at the funeral.
Charles died some 18 months after Paul Smith's visit. Seems he had been terminally ill when we last spoke on the patio. The funeral is attended by a lot of local towns people, some family from KZN and the usual rag tag. The funeral comes to an end and I am getting ready to go and drink one last single malt to the memory of Charles. As I turn to walk away from the grave a very English voice interrupts my thoughts.
I look to see a tall, elegantly dressed man with bizarrely a brief case in hand.
"Yes. You are?"
"Freddie Anderson. Charles's step brother."
"Ah, my condolences."
"Can we talk please? Out of this icy wind. I don't believe I have ever been so cold in my entire life."
"Thats the trouble with us Africans. We ignore the weather."
We end up at his brothers home, a glass of single malt in hand. I note with some interest that Paul Smith has worked his way in too. I nod and he smiles briefly.
"Come through to the study please."
I follow, whiskey in hand.
"Please be seated. My brother was a sensible and sane man. We were all proud of him. However he has a codicil in his will that we do not understand and I am not sure that I am going to allow to go unchallenged. It involves you."
"Oh? I am sure that Mr Dlamini would not have included me in his will. We were passing acquaintances. I owed him more than he owed me."
"My brother says that you are to be instructed to cut a branch off a tree. Hire a car, drive to Ulundi in KZN and observe some rites. For this you are to be re-imbursed to the tune of fifty thousand pounds. Now that is an awful lot of money for a single trip to Ulundi."
I take a long sip of whisky and stand up.
"Come with me. I have something to show you."
On the way we collect Paul and we walk down to the hot house and enter into KZN winter conditions. The tree stands tall, almost filling the hot house now and I gesture to the tree.
"The branch that must go to KZN must come off this tree. Your brother has kept this environmentally controlled space going for nearly a decade now. Paul. Please will you explain to Freddie what happens if a person dies and cannot return to their home lands. Freddie? I won't contest your cancellation of the codicil. I will however make one request."
Freddie looks at me in surprise.
"You allow me to cut one branch off that tree before I leave this evening."
"You can have the whole damned thing if you want."
I nod to him and Paul in the hot house and walk up to the patio and sit where Charles and I had sat that first night. I drink a toast to him.
"I will take you home. Rest easy Baba."
A few minutes later Freddie walks past me, doesn't stay to brave the cold. I look around and see him circulating inside warm, lighted house. Listening to people, nodding sagely. Occasionally he looks out of the window to where I am still sitting. I see him and Paul Smith talking with Paul doing most of the talking.
It is now getting dark and I am now seriously cold so I get to my feet, feel in my pocket for my trusty Swiss Army knife and head for the hot house. I am standing in the hot house looking a the tree and wondering if Charles had a branch he fancied when the door opens and Freddie steps inside.
"Just collecting my branch." I hasten to reassure him.
He stands and stares at me for a while, not moving, not speaking, then:
"You are a strange man. An honourable man. I now know why my brother added that codicil and made you the executor of that codicil. Please do not cut the tree. The gardener knows which branch is to be cut and he will help you in the morning. The full funds as stipulated in the codicil will be transferred into your account as soon as it can be arranged. Thank you."