– adapted from Prayer for a Safe Journey, a novel-in-progress
South Africa, 1980s – the last decade of apartheid. Eli Adler, a newly-orthodox Jew in his early twenties, has volunteered to spend a few days in the Karoo (a remote, semi-desert area) as part of a project to renovate neglected Jewish cemeteries. In this episode he and a friend witness the local cops meting out rough justice to a group of township kids.
We arrived at the cemetery, as usual, at 5pm. A local guy had come earlier to replace the stretch of broken fence and the Grusster and I had driven all the way to Graaff Reinet to find a replacement for the rusty old padlock. The new one was shiny and hefty and it felt good to slip it onto the gate. We would ask Mrs Basson to deliver the key to the town clerk tomorrow. Now we just had to give the paths a good sweep, place a stone on every grave, and say Kaddish for the last time.
This afternoon the usual clutch of township kids, including Frikkie and his baby brother, was outside the cemetery. But for once, they hardly noticed us. They were crowding round Frikkie who was down on his haunches, his attention drawn by something lying in the dust. A tortoise or a dead snake, perhaps? I moved a bit closer to the group.
Lying on the ground in their distinctive blue and gold packaging was a pair of slightly squashed Chocolate Logs. Frikkie held a plastic knife in his hand, and used it to count out the number of kids in the group.
‘It’s just as well that knife’s not real – this is high-stakes stuff,’ the Grusster commented.
Just then the baby reached out and picked up one of the chocolate bars, still sealed inside its wrapper, and put it to his mouth.
‘Haai!’ one of the kids snatched it back. Frikkie put down his knife, hoisted up the baby and planted him in the dust outside the circle. Pretty much at our feet.
‘Hello,’ I said, half to the baby and half to Frikkie.
Frikkie flashed a grin at me and returned to the circle. As he doled out the stubs of marshmallowey chocolate (about two grubby fingers-width each) the kids retreated to private spaces, inspecting their portions to decide which bit of chocolate coating or marshmallow or biscuit to approach first, taking tiny nibbles, licking their fingers. One propped himself against a tree trunk, another crouched with his back to the group, one of the girls leaned against the cemetery fence.
When they had all finished they took turns licking the wrappers: two licks for each kid along its length. Apart from one little kid who seemed to be complaining about the unfair width of another one’s tongue, it all happened quite calmly. Not for the first time, I was impressed at the skill with which Frikkie managed the dusty little group.
We had only a small section of the cemetery paths left to sweep, and I was looking forward to giving Frikkie his surprise – a spin round town in my Toyota – when I heard the sound of another car. The cemetery was in a dead end on the edge of town. No car apart from ours had ever come here. Over there was the small settlement with its talon-shaped mountain and in every other direction, just sweeps and sweeps of undulating karoo scrub. My immediate thought was that it might be someone’s relative. A Sieff or an Ossip or a Levy? Someone whose father had boarded a ship from Lithuania and landed in Cape Town only to find that there was nowhere in this country to make a living except for here, which was nowhere. A man who’d grown up watching his father run the local shop or take his peddler’s wagon from farm to distant farm. A man who, thanks to his father’s efforts, had long since left all the dust and red ants behind him. I’d been half-hoping that someone like that might turn up. What a wonderful surprise this would be for him… these orderly grave beds, the paths so clean, this fence so nice and upright…
The Grusster and I leaned against our brooms and stared at the road. First, a fender appeared over the slight rise that led up to the cemetery, and then we saw the car. A yellow bakkie with a mesh cage over its back. A police van.
‘First time they’ve patrolled this area,’ the Grusster remarked.
‘Well, I wouldn’t mind having a word with them – I wanted to nip down to the station anyway, to ask them to keep an eye on the cemetery…’
‘As if they care,’ the Grusster snorted.
The van came to a halt at the cemetery gates. Two policemen got out.
‘Goeie naand,’ called one. He had a narrow face and a moustache.
I lifted a hand in acknowledgement. ‘Hello.’
His colleague was much younger – a tall, heavy guy with jutting buttocks. He nodded at us. ‘Naand, menere,’ he said politely. He waited for a signal from his senior, then walked over to the group of kids.
‘Staan op,’ he said. The kids scrambled to their feet, Frikkie hoisting the baby on to his hip.
‘Waar was julle vanmiddag? Where were you this afternoon?’ the policeman asked. He had his hands on his hips. Frikkie hesitated, then used a forefinger to point down to the ground. He stayed staring at the ground.
‘Hierso? Here?’ Silence.
‘Wie was daar by die keffie? Who was there by the café?’ Silence.
‘Niemand? Nnh? Was daar nie een van julle daarso, nie? Not one of you?’
I saw Frikkie swallow. His tongue flicking across his lips. One of the kids scuffed his heel against the ground.
The policeman reached towards his belt and unhooked his sjambok.
Frikkie’s hand clenched round the baby’s arm.
The policeman swept the leather tip of the sjambok from side to side in a lazy line across the dust. A length of hard black leather, tapered at the tip. Rigid, like a rinkhals snake poised to strike.
He put a hand behind his ear, in an exaggerated mime. ‘Wat?’
Nobody said anything.
The policeman whisked his sjambok upwards and let it slice twice through the air. Criss-cross. The kids shrank away. And I couldn’t help it – I also stepped back. Even though I was metres away. But the cop must’ve noticed because he paused, then suddenly he spun round, and stabbed at the air in my direction, using his whip like a sword. I forced myself not to move. He was grinning broadly at his little joke. I smiled back. My heart pounding.
‘Kom, man,’ said his senior, impatiently.
The idiot turned his attention back to the group. He lifted his sjambok again. There was a scuffling sound on the edge of the group and now one of the kids was legging it down the road, his head held back, thin brown arms chopping the air. The narrow-faced policeman ran to the van, rammed on his ignition, did a screeching turn in the dust and went after him. The other one grinned, as if to say, ‘Well now, that’ll be the end of him’.
Then he literally used the back of his hand to wipe the grin off his face and stood surveying the rest of the group, his vast buttocks protruding out behind him. Up and down the row…up and down… Most of the kids looked down at the dust, but one or two couldn’t help shooting glances at the sjambok. After a few moments the cop lifted it, pointed it at Frikkie.
‘Jy,’ he said. He hooked his index finger and curled it towards him. Frikkie hoisted his baby brother higher on his hip. He took a step forward. He was now hardly three feet away from the cop. Easily within reach of the sjambok.
‘What’s he gonna do?’ The Grusster looked horrified. ‘Surely he’s not going to beat the shit out of some scruffy li’l kid?’
Perhaps he heard us, because Frikkie shot us a glance.
‘Ek’t niks gedoen, Baas. Rechtig, Baas. Vra vir daai ander twee base. I did nothing, Master, really, Master. Ask those other two masters.’
I nudged the Grusster. ‘Come.’
We walked out of the cemetery, towards the cop.
‘Afternoon,’ I said.
‘Afternoon chentlemen,’ his accent was heavy.
He lowered his sjambok slightly. He had a small round nose and shallow grey eyes. Despite his size, he actually looked incredibly young, as if he’d walked straight out of Standard Eight and into the South African Police Force.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked.
The cop hesitated. I could tell he was trying to decide whether to answer in English or Afrikaans.
‘Er…Er, these kids has been…er… stealing.’ He paused. ‘… the lady… in the keffie, there in Main Straat.’
I turned to the Grusster. ‘He says they’re suspected of stealing from the café in Main Street.’ It was hard to know what else to say.
‘Right,’ the Grusster nodded.
‘Did you maybe see anyfing?’ the cop asked.
The Grusster shrugged. ‘Like what?’
‘Yes, please tell us – what are the goods in question?’ I groped for a bit of authority in the quasi-legalese.
‘Sjokolade.’ He held up two fingers. ‘Two Chocolate Logs.’
‘Right. I see. Anything else?’
‘It might be. We don’t know.’
The cop looked at us questioningly.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘to answer your question, the answer is no: no, we didn’t see anything.’
I had no compunction about lying. Of course the kids shouldn’t have stolen, but who could tell what sort of insane retribution these lawless cops in the middle of nowhere had in mind? The violence that went slipping and sliding around this damn country was even more anarchic out here in the boendoe. ‘These kids have been playing here every evening since we’ve been here. They haven’t given us any trouble.’
‘Dankie, Menere. Thank you, Sir.’ The cop clearly had no interest in my testimonial; but now he seemed unsure how to get rid of us. Perhaps this really was his first week in the force.
‘Baie dankie, Menere,’ He said again.
‘No problem,’ I said
‘Sure,’ said the Grusster. ‘Any time.’
‘By the way,’ I said, ‘I’m glad you’re here. We actually wanted to talk to you.’
The shallow gray eyes stared at me expressionlessly.
‘About the cemetery.’ I pointed behind me.
‘Ja, die begrafplaas,’ the Grusster translated.
Both he and I had just about enough Afrikaans to get by in this situation, but somehow we’d fallen into this translation game, taking turns translating for each other, bumptiously, needlessly, as a way of stalling for time. The Grusster was even translating for the cop.
The kids stood, wide-eyed, watching. Frikkie held his baby brother in one arm and bit at the knuckle of his other hand. ‘You can see,’ I continued, ‘we’ve been working all week to clean it up.’
The cop barely glanced at the cemetery.
‘Pulling out the weeds, laying down new paths, straightening the stones, new fence, new lock. Can you see?’ I was getting into my stride now. This would be the way to handle the situation. Change the subject, and then go on and on about it. If we stalled long enough perhaps this cop might just give up and bugger off.
The Grusster shook his head and smiled at the cop. ‘I tell you man, we’ve been working like dogs over here.’
The cop hooked his sjambok back into his belt. I felt a muscle in my jaw release.
‘You can’t believe the mess there was when we first turned up. What’s “mess” in Afrikaans, Grusstie?’
‘Hang on… I’ll tell you…’ The Grusster screwed up his face. ‘Man, it’s on the tip of my tongue.’ He rapped the side of his head with his knuckles as if trying to loosen the word, to shake the damn thing out.
‘There was a helluva lot of rubbish…’ The cop’s face was so expressionless I couldn’t tell if he understood or not.
‘I’ve almost got it,’ the Grusster called. ‘It’s something starting with an “s”.’
‘Gemors!’ I said.
‘That’s it! Now why did I think it started with an “s”?
‘Dit was ‘n gemors, jy sien?’ I pointed urgently towards the cemetery.
The cop raised a warning finger to the kids and reluctantly turned to have a look.
‘So what we wanted to ask you, please, is –’
There was the rumble of a car engine. The police van was heading back over the rise, speeding towards us. With a screech of brakes it came to a stop outside the cemetery gate. The narrow-faced cop stepped out alone.
‘T’jy hom gevang?’ called our cop.
His colleague gestured to the back of van. Through the black mesh we could just about make out the shadow of a child’s head.
‘Okay, julle.’ Bolstered by the presence of his senior, our cop turned away from us and unhooked his sjambok again.
He lined the kids up with their backs to the van. Five kids plus the baby, still on Frikkie’s hip. The young cop approached the first kid in the line.
‘Stap nader. Step closer.’ The boy was about five years old. He wore a heavily patched white school shirt, several sizes too big for him, and khaki shorts. His feet were bare. The cop lifted his sjambok. A collective gasp. The kid shrank away, his back pressed against the yellow van.
‘Kom terug! Come back!’ The five-year-old took a trembling step forward. Clutching his arms across his chest.
The cop slowly raised his sjambok. He positioned the tip of it below the boy’s crotch, catching the hem of his shirt. Then he flicked the sjambok up, so that the shirt flapped upwards.
‘Lift up!’ The boy scrambled to pull his shirt up above his waist. The cop stepped towards him.
‘Staan stil. Keep still.’
The cop manoeuvred three large fingers into the left-hand pocket of the khaki shorts. When he took them out there was a two-cent piece lying in the flat of his hand. He dropped it on to the dust and reached into the other pocket. He pulled out a dirty scrap of faded blue cloth. It might have been part of a hankie.
‘Sies, man!’ He threw it to the floor in disgust. Wiped his hands on the back of his pants, across his swollen backside.
‘Terug!’ With relief, the kid stepped back to rejoin the line.
Meanwhile the baby had begun crying; in desperate uncontained wails that echoed off the dusty Karoo air. Frikkie bounced him up and down on his hip then pushed the baby’s face into his chest to try and muffle him.
The senior cop stared at him impassively. The kids jiggled about. One or two of them craned to catch a glimpse of the baby. Now there were great, racking, heart-sore wails coming out of him, one after the other. It was agonising to listen to.
I walked over to the senior cop.
‘I’ll hold the baby for a few moments, while he’s busy.’ I pointed to his junior colleague. The cop shrugged. I glanced at Frikkie. He seemed to like the idea, so I went over and took the baby from him.
He was a surprisingly solid little thing, with a musty smell that reminded me of heavy old blankets. I held him to my chest, his little head over my shoulder, and walked over to the far side of the police van, patting his back and murmuring. In the shock of being passed over to me his wailing had stopped. I was pleased to have an excuse to get away from the scene.
Now that I was holding the baby, I could see that his vest was made out of old sewn-together doilies. The brown stain below his little armpit might’ve even been from the days when it was used on a tea tray. I took a clean hankie out of my pocket and wiped it under his nose; he twisted his face away. Two or three swipes later and I’d got the worst of the snot. I put him back over my shoulder, one hand on his grubby green underpants, the other spread across his back. His underpants had a strange crackling quality to them. I rubbed my finger over the spot again.
‘Oh, Jesus.’ I was hardly conscious of saying it aloud.
I had to think straight. One thing was clear: I couldn’t just disappear with the baby. Already we’d been out of sight of the group for a few minutes. Any longer and the cops might grow suspicious. Maybe I should stuff the wrappers into my own pocket? No – they were probably already where the police were least likely to look. The best thing was to go back and brazen it out. Wait for the cops to give up in disgust and leave.
I strolled back to the group, humming a Chasidic melody softly, to comfort myself, as much as anything. The cops had almost finished their search. Scattered on the ground lay the contents of five coloured kids’ pockets:
The two-cent piece and the scrap of blue hanky I’d seen before
five bottle tops, two of which were badly dented
a scrap of grey rubber from an old tyre
the empty orange shaft of a BIC ballpoint pen
some of the small white stones we’d been using to fill the grave beds
a lizard’s tail
a page from a magazine, heavily creased, showing a picture of the Blue Train
a rusty screw with a nut halfway up its shaft
an empty matchbox
some acacia seed pods
the white plastic knife
The only one still to be searched was Frikkie. I heard the Grusster inhale as the cop approached him. They hadn’t found any evidence yet (that knife had long been licked clean of chocolate), so I knew the Grusster would be thinking they were going to find that wrapper on Frikkie… Frikkie’s shorts were so small and his pockets so narrow they looked like they really couldn’t accommodate anything other than his stick-thin hips. The cop could barely get two fingers inside, but he persisted, shoving them around. When he eventually pulled his hand out of Frikkie’s left pocket it held nothing. He moved on to the right pocket. One hand held Frikkie’s arm while the second and third fingers of his other hand probed.
‘Daarsy!’ He grunted, and pulled it out – the teat of a dummy. The teat had lost its plastic base, so all that remained was a bare rubber nipple. The policeman popped it over his little finger and waved it in the air. Grinning, he gave the tip of the teat a suggestive squeeze. He looked round for a laugh.
His senior, at least, wasn’t amused. ‘Very funny,’ he said, irritatedly. ‘Last los man!’
Then he raised a warning finger at the kids and walked over to a clump of bushes. Using the toe of his boot he bent back the bushes, checking from all angles.
He walked back over to the group, shaking his head with frustration. I was holding the baby firmly now, with both my hands on his bottom. The baby grabbed the crew neck of my T-shirt, and with his other hand took hold of a bunch of chest hair.
‘Ouch!’ I smiled sheepishly at the cops. ‘He’s quite strong.’
The junior cop seemed to find it funny. His senior’s disapproval had done little to dampen his spirits.
‘Ouch!’ He mimicked, clutching his chest. Idiot. The Grusster and I laughed along weakly. But now the senior cop was staring at me. He walked over to where we were standing. Said nothing, just held his arms out for the baby.
‘You want the baby?’
He didn’t even bother to answer.
The baby gurgled happily at this extra attention. The senior cop held it at arm’s length and walked over to his colleague. He said something to him and the buffoon patted a gigantic hand over the baby’s chest and then over the front of his nappy. I glanced at Frikkie. His face was ashen. Now the senior cop swiveled the baby around and they repeated the process. A pause. Another check. I watched as the grubby green pants were rolled down.
‘Aha!’ The cop held up a shimmering strip of blue and gold. High in the air.
One tapering blue ribbon of wrapper fluttered free and quivered in the early evening breeze.
Okay, julle,’ The thin-faced cop motioned to the van. ‘Almal in.’
His colleague was already unlocking the black mesh doors of the cage. He’d deposited the baby on the side of the road.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked.
‘We’re taking them in,’ the senior cop said, coldly.
He gave me a glance as if to say “if I had my way, it’d be you too”.
‘I can see that, but what’s going to happen to them?’
‘We’ll have to see,’ the cop shrugged dismissively.
‘But hang on a minute,’ the Grusster chimed in, ‘they’re just kids.’
‘And we’re talking about two chocolate bars. That’s all – I mean, it’s only two chocolate bars. And you don’t even have proof that they stole them.’
‘They’ll deal with everything down at the station.’
‘What about the baby?’
The three of us looked down at the baby. He’d picked up one of the bottle tops off the ground. He held it up and gurgled. I bent over to take it away from him, gave him one of the seed pods instead. The buffoon came over and picked up the baby. He gave us a broad smile. ‘You mustn’t worry – we give the baby to one of the old ousies to look after.’
‘And the rest of them?’
He leaned closer to whisper. ‘Ag, you don’t need to worry. We just pop them in a cell for a couple of hours. Pretend that we’re putting them away forever. Scares the shit out of them. Especially that one little bliksem that tried to run away. Teach them a lesson, you see?’
He wrinkled his nose. ‘Sies, die Baba stink!’
‘What did he say?’ the Grusster asked, as the van rolled out of sight.
‘That last thing he said – I didn’t hear it.’
I kicked at a piece of broken branch. ‘He said the baby stank.’
‘Bugger,’ said the Grusster, his face scrunched up in dismay.
© Brenda Eisenberg, 2010