Trick or treat? You decide...
The weekly meeting was introduced by me but I do not run it; that duty I have passed to my captain. It is not a compulsory arrangement; we do not take a roll call and ask for explanations of absence, but most of the players and some of the administrative staff attend most weeks. Anybody may speak to Rob and ask to have a matter raised and it is here that the general administrative decisions, the ones which the players may make among themselves rather than having them imposed from above, are agreed.
“O.K., next up is Mr Hamilton’s kids from the Holroyd Street club. He’s looking for CRB checked volunteers for the autumn outings. They’re splitting by age – basically anybody old enough to be at Upper School is going to the Bonfire Night fireworks at Blessingdale Hall, and the funfair afterwards. There’s a coach leaving from the club at 6:45 and coming back when the fair shuts down. What happened last year was they closed everything off at ten because it’s a week night, but it was another hour to gather them in and get clear of the car park, so that’ll be late. The babies are having a Hallowe’en do the week before, the Saturday night, in here rather than at Holroyd Street. And I believe it’s literally babies this year: the club kids are having a Spooky Disco in the Rowley Suite, and there’s a party beforehand for baby brothers and sisters in the Wilcox Room.”
Rob stopped to take a breath and rearrange his notes.
“Obviously the parents are running the show but Mr Hamilton has asked if we can put together some help. Four or five for Bonfire Night? And maybe eight for the Hallowe’en thing, so that we can cover both groups? And if any of you were up to fancy dress of some sort for the little ones, that would be good. Any offers? T-Bone?”
“I am not going anywhere with those girls,” objected Thibault hastily, and to much laughter. It was no secret that some of the older girls found his dark good looks attractive and claimed to think his accent romantic; on a previous occasion he had eventually refused to move without one of his team mates to chaperon.
“I’ll put you down for the juniors then,” said Rob placidly; he too has learned to manipulate and it would only be later that Thibault would consider that he had not intended to volunteer at all. As it was, he nodded in resignation and Rob turned to Phil.
“Filthy, can we have you for the small fry?”
“Let me guess. Six dozen spider cupcakes and a box of strawberry eyeballs? You do know I’d rather go to the fair?”
“I know, mate, but the ones at the fair can buy burgers. The ones coming here, the mums are bringing food for them, but I’d sort of got you pencilled in to look after the kitchen, find them plates and cups, keep the adults provided with coffee, look after the squash jugs and so on. Spider buns and eyeballs would be brilliant, and if you could do, I don’t know, sandwiches or something, cake maybe? Just to keep people going? The infants are in 5 until 7 and then the disco is 7:30 to 9:30 so if you would come in early and stay till the break, somebody else will cover the second half. We had that DJ before, he brings a lad with him and there’s an entertainer for the tinies as well, and the parents and so on. It’s as much to make the grown ups feel welcome here as it is to feed them, you know how it goes.”
Phil nodded, for he did indeed know, and I caught Rob’s eye and intimated that I too would help with the little ones. There was a certain amount of low level grumbling, but he had his volunteers before he moved on.
“O.K., that’s settled then. Point 5, the Blood Donation people are setting up the mobile unit in the car park on Tuesday; they’ll be here from 10 until 6 so if as many of you as possible could park off-site that day. . .”
To be honest, I didn’t mind, as long as I got the kitchen to look after and not the tinies. I don’t really ‘get’ children, specially not the little ones. Several batches of plain buns went in the freezer, and I sketched out patterns for spider webs and monster faces to add over the top of white water icing; I worked out the sandwich fillings which would be quickest to do, and then made and froze a vast quantity of leek and potato soup. Hansie heard that I’d been volunteered – apparently Tim was making tomato and lentil soup and chicken rolls for the second shift – and offered to pay for the ingredients out of the club petty cash but I said no; it wasn’t a lot of money in the grand scheme of things and also I had an uneasy feeling that if I did it other than as my donation to a private party, I might have to have a food hygiene certificate and all sorts of qualifications.
Piet came home when I was working on the clothes with the scissors. He stopped in the doorway and watched me for a moment, with an expression of mild surprise. I didn’t wait for him to ask.
“Fancy dress? For the kids’ party?”
“And it will be what?”
“Zombie, I thought.” I ripped the front of the T shirt from collar bone to navel and Piet winced. I smirked at him. “It’s O.K., this isn’t one of my good shirts.” He has strong opinions on the cost and lack of relative value of my designer T shirts; I like them, and I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice one that way. “I’ve been round the charity shops looking for anything big enough for me to wear; I got a couple of shirts – see? – which I can rip and layer, and these trousers too. And I got a basic face paint set at ToyMania so I can have icky green skin. I – um,” and I looked at him sideways, “I got something for you in the charity shop, too.”
He looked a little surprised. “I was not intending to dress up, koekie.”
I reached for the bag. “They had a rack of Hallowe’en stuff, you know, those nylon outfits from the supermarket? It was just chance that I spotted this: it’s not a costume, it’s the real thing, I think.” I shook it out: a long black opera cloak with a satin lining. Piet took it from me gently, turning it to read the faded label.
“I think you are right, koekie; somebody has cleared their father or grandfather’s wardrobe. This is wool.”
“Good quality wool, too. Put it on? Oh yes, very Bela Lugosi. You wouldn’t need to dress up otherwise, just something black, or black and white, and we could make you pale, there’s a white face paint. Although you really ought to have very red lips.”
“I will not wear lipstick, koekie. That is not negotiable.”
I stepped close enough to get his face between my hands, and ran my tongue along his lower lip. “Perhaps a more – immediate – effect?” and I caught his lip between my teeth, nipping just hard enough to tint the skin, and pulling away to look. “That might do. Although you’d have to come down to the kitchen a couple of times for me to renew the colour.”
“You would need to be careful, my Phil.”
I backed up as he stalked me round the bed. “That shirt reveals your skin every time you move; you will need to be most careful if you intend to rip your trousers the same way, because the effect is rather. . . interesting. And if you turn me into a vampire, then you will face the danger that I may. . .”
There were more children than I had anticipated and the room filled quickly with the attendant parents; the older ones could be left unattended but the infants could not. A small boy gazed at me seriously and put his hand on my thigh to gain my attention.
“Do you sleep in a coffin?”
I leaned over slowly, fixing him with a glare; he was disturbingly unimpressed. “I do not. However,” and I crouched to face him on his own level, raising my elbows to make the cloak flare about me (Phil and I had spent half an evening learning how to do that), “I do hang upside down from the curtain rail at night.” He considered this carefully for a moment and then nodded in apparent satisfaction; I straightened and found myself looking across his head into the horrified face of Thibault de Saint-Cyr.
“Monsieur de Vries.”
“Saint-Cyr,” I acknowledged, and turned away. I am not altogether sure what prompted me to make the cloak swing and billow as I went.
The evening went off relatively well, I think; the entertainer was more than competent and we will use her again – I should rather say that Hansie will, or James, for these events with children are their concern. She started by dividing the children into four teams, each with several adults, and arranging silly and largely physical games. Tommy, who has a toddler at home, and Connor McAliskey, who says he is the eldest of a large family, threw themselves into this easily; Thibault de Saint-Cyr is an only child, and is yet of the age at which his dignity is important to him. However, he did as he was bid, without argument if without enthusiasm. I think he did not care to be turned into a pony on all fours for a small boy to ride in a race; in particular he did not like that the child kicked him repeatedly in the ribs until admonished by a grinning papa. I came off no better, I fear; my jockey was a little girl in a green dress who had excruciatingly bony knees.
I had to admit defeat in the competition in which one retrieves apples floating in a basin of water without the use of one’s hands; a nose the size of mine is not an advantage. Saint-Cyr seemed less than enamoured with the effect of the water on his carefully styled hair, but he did eventually give in to amusement with the next game, in which the four of us, as the largest people present, were turned into Egyptian mummies by our respective teams wrapping us from head to toe in toilet paper. I am not precisely certain how a winner was assessed in that game – it appeared to be wholly arbitrary – but all the children were laughing, as were their parents.
It was as we drew breath from the game that a woman came towards the door with a fretful baby, and my small friend in the green frock beside her.
“I don’t want to come with you,” whined the child, in what was plainly the continuation of an earlier argument.
“Megan, I’m sorry, but Ben wants his supper. I hoped he would last until the end, but he won’t, he’s hungry and he’s cross. We’ll find somewhere out of the way and I’ll give him his jar and his bottle, and we’ll come straight back, I promise.” The woman caught my eye and smiled at me distractedly. “Excuse me? Is there somewhere I could feed the baby? I’d rather not do it here, there’s too much going on, he’ll not settle.”
I opened the door and stepped out after her into the corridor. “If you go around that corner, the next door on the right is the canteen. The children will all be coming down there shortly for their supper, but there will be a young man in the kitchen who can look after you now.” I hesitated. “There are enough adults here, and we are watching the door; none of the children may leave unaccompanied. If your daughter wishes to stay, she will be quite safe, and I will bring her to supper myself if you have not returned by then. I am Pieter de Vries, I am Director of Rugby here.”
“Oh, that’s you, is it?” she responded cryptically, and glanced down at her daughter. “Will that do, Megan? You can stay on your own, then, and come down for something to eat when the others do? And Ben and I will wait for you until then?”
The child nodded, smiled brightly, and skipped back to her friends; her mother sighed and hitched the baby higher on her shoulder. “Thank you. If she’s any trouble. . .”
“I will bring her down to you, fersure. But we will not be more than ten minutes, fifteen at the outside.”
When I turned back, the entertainer was setting up something new: a plastic skeleton on a hook, and a selection of skull lamps, and she was encouraging the children to sit on the floor around her. She gave a signal, and somebody turned off the main lights, and she began to tell the children a story. Well, of course, it was a ghost story.
I will not hear her blamed for it; it was not an unsuitable story either for the occasion, or for the ages of the children present. She involved them, having them provide the sound effects, and asking them often what they thought happened next, and they responded to her enthusiastically.
All except Miss Megan. It was only a minute or two into the tale when I became aware that she did not like it. She was sitting with the others, but she began firstly to fidget, and then to look uneasily over her shoulder. We, the adults, had taken the opportunity to sit down on the chairs arranged around the outside of the room, but I slid from mine to the floor, and eased forward until I could catch the child’s eye, and make an inviting space inside my arm.
She was there in an instant, curled beside me and leaning her weight against my side. She did not so much as look at me; all her attention was on the story-teller, but presently I felt her fingers twist in my sleeve and I closed my arm far enough that she could feel the width of my chest against her back. She made no sound, and when I leaned down and said very softly in her ear “Shall we go and find your mama and baby Ben?” she shook her head vehemently.
I confess I was not very sure what to do, but I sat still, my arm firmly around the child, who had begun to quiver, until the entertainer completed her story and someone restored the lights. Supper was announced and the parents began to gather and organise the children; I stood up slowly and held out my hand to my companion, who gripped it tightly. When I looked down, her lower lip protruded fiercely and when I stepped forward, she flinched.
“It is quite safe,” I said authoritatively. “I will not allow anything to harm you.”
The entertainer caught my words.
“Didn’t like it?” she enquired in an undertone. I shook my head.
“What didn’t you like, pet?” the girl asked in a sensible voice; we both saw the hasty glance at the unconvincing skeleton.
“Billy Bones? Billy won’t do you any harm. He likes children. Look,” and she touched some lever, “he wants to shake hands.” The arm jerked upwards and Megan gave a squeak of fear and dodged behind my legs. I gathered her to my other side and freed my right arm in order to shake hands, solemnly, with a plastic skeleton. I looked down at Megan.
“He has not hurt me, and nor will he hurt you.”
She emerged, distrustful.
“Will you shake his hand too?”
The eyes were wide; she looked doubtfully from me to the skeleton and back. From the corner of my eye, I saw the entertainer slide something into the back of the skull. The child stepped forward hesitantly, and let go of my hand – although she continued to lean against my leg. Her own hand went up to the bony fingers and she touched them for the shortest moment imaginable. The entertainer smiled encouragingly.
“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Can you be really brave? Billy might have something for you if you were brave.”
It might have been a nod.
“Can you touch his face and open his mouth?”
She could not reach; I picked her up. One arm went tightly around my neck, and she hid her face in my shoulder. I waited until she peeped out again. “Will you touch his head?”
She turned and gazed suspiciously at the skull, but she reached towards it, although I was in danger of throttling from her grip. The jaw dropped under her probing fingers - and inside the mouth was a small bracelet of blue and yellow beads. I thought them deeply unpleasant, though I could not have said why – indeed I surprised myself in the thought that I would not willingly have put my hand into the skull mouth to touch them – but she looked at them as if they were a great treasure.
“There, that’s a present just for you from Billy.”
The eyes were wide, as she took the little gift; then she pushed against me to be put down. Still, I may have no children, but I know what is expected.
“Have you something to say to Billy, Megan?”
The ‘thank you’ was barely audible, but it was there, and I set her back on the floor; she backed away, and I looked at the young lady.
“And thank you to you too.”
She nodded. “There’s always one who doesn’t like it. It’s not always the smallest one, either, but you have to do a scary something for these parties. Will she be O.K. now?”
“I will mention it to her mother. I must go and assist with the children’s supper. But yes, I think she will be fine.”
She smiled at me. “I notice you didn’t tell her it wasn’t real.”
“Would it have helped? When one of my nieces was small, she was convinced that there was a monster under her bed, and after my sister spent many a night unsuccessfully telling her that it was not so, my brother in law restored their peaceful nights by going under the bed himself with a broom handle and their dog, to make a fuss and chase the monster away.”
She laughed. “Whatever works, I suppose.
In the dining room, the parents were organising the children along the tables; Megan looked round, waved at her mother across the room and pushed forward to the piles of pizza and sausages. I left her to it, collected myself a cup of coffee and crossed to sit opposite the woman in the corner.
“I must tell you something, in case it causes a problem later.”
She looked up sharply, although her slow rock of the sleepy baby in her arms did not falter.
“It is nothing serious, I think, but just in case. . . The entertainer –” and I told her what had happened. She listened, frowning a little, and when I stopped she pulled a face and sighed.
“Damn. I knew this was a mistake, I knew it.”
It was my turn to frown. “You think so? I had it only as unfortunate – but I thought I must tell you in case she had a nightmare later and you did not know how to answer her. The young woman passed it off very well, I thought: your daughter has faced her fear and been rewarded for it, but, well, I am not experienced with very young children.”
She shook her head. “Megan doesn’t really like Hallowe’en stuff, she doesn’t like scary stories or monsters or whatever. I wasn’t keen to bring her tonight at all, but. . .
And it came out: not at all an unusual story. A single parent and the daughter who had been accustomed to having her mother wholly to herself, and then a new relationship and the necessity of sharing with a new step-father and an older step-brother, and then suddenly a new baby half-brother as well.
“She’s managing it well enough but it’s a lot of change. Aaron – that’s my step-son – he moves between us and his mother, and Robert, that’s my partner, he’s keen that we keep everything as consistent between our house and Sharon’s as we can.”
I nodded. “That is good sense.”
“Yes, but it’s not always easy to manage it so that it works for both Aaron and Megan. Anyway Aaron talked about the trips and next thing Megan was creating about being allowed to come to the party because Aaron’s going to the fair. Trouble is, I didn’t want her to feel that he got the treats and she didn’t, but I honestly didn’t think she would enjoy it.”
“Ach, I see, yes. You make the best decision you may and you hope for the best. Aaron. . . I think I know him: he is a stocky boy with very short brown hair? Yes, he shows promise. Well, your daughter has enjoyed the rest of the party, and if even I, who have no children, know not to send the little ones home overexcited or frightened, I think we may assume that the entertainer will know it too. We may be seeing problems where none will arise.”
“I hope so,” she said wearily, but she smiled at me. “It’s not anybody’s fault anyway. It’s a pity I wasn’t there, but I suppose if she’d still been upset, she’d have come here to me rather than. . .” and she leaned over to look, “rather than, from the look of her, putting away sausages on sticks as if she’d never seen a square meal before.”
“And what about you?” I asked. “Did you get some refreshment?”
“A piece of very nice cake,” she confirmed. “The –um– zombie in the kitchen was very helpful. Warmed up Ben’s jar for me, brought me a cup of tea.”
“I am glad to hear it,” I said, draining the last of my coffee. “Now, I must go back with the others. I will take Miss Megan; stay until you have finished your tea and the baby is well asleep.”
She came after us no more than ten minutes later by which time we were all engaged in eating doughnuts which dangled from a clothes-rail. The entertainer did indeed know her business, for she played silly games with the children, but there was nothing to send them home disturbed in any way, and the last few games were calmer than those which preceded them. Megan leaned around her mother’s legs and waved goodbye to me with a beaming smile, and I waved seriously back before tidying the remaining chairs and picking up the small amount of rubbish which had been left on the floor; then I made my way back to the dining room.
Phil was behind the kitchen counter, serving out soup in mugs and directing the helpers towards sandwiches and cake. I could see behind him Tim and Hansie, unpacking more food onto platters and Thibault de Saint-Cyr turned as I approached, and gazed at me over the top of his plate.
“Ah, M de Vries, um. . . you have chocolate on your nose,” he blurted out. I scrubbed my face.
“Is it gone?”
He nodded, uncertainly. I inspected him up and down. “I think you have powdered sugar in your hair. It is probably from the doughnuts.”
I left him fingering his hair and gathered myself a plateful of food. When next I looked up, he was deep in conversation with Tim; behind him Phil’s gaze was fixed on me, although I was not certain why. There was a seriousness in his expression which I did not understand, although when he met my eyes, he gave me a small smile. I might have asked him later, except that just at that moment I realised that both Tim and the Saint-Cyr boy were also looking at me; Tim smiled and winked and Saint-Cyr blushed and looked away.
I wondered what they were saying that would produce that reaction.
It was a long enough evening, by the time we had seen the last of them gone, and to judge by the reactions of parents and children both, a successful one. It was only when we were making the final sweep to ensure that everything was tidily packed away that I heard it. Or thought I did.
“Are - are you sure all the children are accounted for?”
“Yes, of course. Why?”
“I thought - I thought I heard a child crying. It was a cat, perhaps.”
“I’ll take another look outside.”
“N-no. No need, I think. They were all with parents, and we could hardly have lost one without the hue and cry being raised.”
Still, I could not keep myself from looking carefully into the shadows as we stepped into the carpark. A cat, doubtless. Nothing more.
He was, well, odd, when we got home that evening. I couldn’t help noticing it. And he’d been fine, earlier, with the kids. He’s so damned good with them. Like I said, I don’t really get kids, but Piet - you’d think he’d scare the hell out of them. He certainly can scare grown men. But kids - they just seem to take to him. Funny, really. I think T-Bone was really taken aback, he’s never seen that side of Piet.
But once we got home, he was, not exactly distant, but distracted, as if there was something on his mind, and he was listening for something else, and not paying attention to me.
I took that as a bit of a personal challenge, I must admit, but by the time I’d finished I think I can say that he was paying attention to me. Oh yes, he was paying attention all right, and every tingling inch of me knew it.
It is the smell, always the smell by which I know it. The smell of heat, of dust, of Africa – these things, yes. But under that, like a bruise under the skin, the smell of human excrement, of waste fermenting in the hot sun, and something sweeter and sicker, the smell of death.
They call them terrorists and rebels, but in truth these men we are hunting are little more than bandits, a criminal gang who have taken the mantle of politics upon them to hide the dirty business that is their real interest. I know that we are no angels either, and I have seen some bad business done since I first picked up this rifle in boot camp, and too, I am not sure that we have a right to be here, over the border, chasing these men, but I know that it would not be wrong to stop them, fersure. Not when you see what they do to the helpless villagers – their own people! – that they plunder and brutalise.
It was one of the villagers who tipped us off to the place we are coming to now, anger and grief outweighing any question about the colour of our skin, or what we represent. But someone else has tipped the gang off it seems, for this place seems several days deserted. Still, we must be cautious. There may be booby traps. There may be a man with a gun waiting in ambush.
“Yes, Sergeant?” For a moment I feel puzzled. There is something important concerning Sergeant Viljoen that I feel I should remember.
“Take half the men and check out those buildings on the left. I’ll take the rest and go through the huts on this side.”
“Yes, sir! Gracht, you and van der Post take point. Williams, de Koek, with me.”
The first building is a store of some kind, the door hanging wide, clothing and grains of rice strewn on the ground. Rice, and a few dropped packets of brownish powder. Drugs, almost certainly. They will have taken those, those and any money and ammunition, to supply them in their next such camp, damn them. A quick glance shows no danger, nothing left of value. But the next, the larger building with the tin roof. . .
“Sir!” Jacobs, one of the token rooineks in the squad, the one who takes the heaviest teasing for being different, for being a damned Englishman, though in truth he is actually 3 generations a South African. His eyes are wide, rimmed with white. “There’s someone in there! I can hear. . .”
“Shhh!” I too can hear it now. I cannot quite make it out. A low, rhythmic sound, that might, perhaps, be faint laughter? Or – sobbing?
I motion two of the men to cover, then kick in the door, and go in low in the way that we are trained, the men behind waving their guns in all directions, against any possible threat.
There is none here. At least, none that is immediate. Most of these poor wretches will never threaten anyone again.
Have you ever seen someone who has died from being bayoneted in the stomach? Then be grateful. Be grateful, and pray to whatever God you recognise that you never will.
They had been women – no, girls, most of them. The youngest ones can have been no more than 12, and dear God, it was clear enough what they had been here for. The pictures on the wall, torn from some stash of pornographic magazines, the row of beds with their tawdry nylon bedspreads, would have given it away, if the way they had been forced to dress had not. This had been their – no, I will not dignify them with the name ‘soldiers’ – their gang members’ place of recreation. A brothel, staffed with stolen girl children, probably drugged half senseless with the gang’s heroin. And when they knew we were coming, either out of fear of their testimony or sheer spite they had killed the girls so that we might not rescue them. Killed them brutally, and not quickly.
I hear Gracht, the big, hard veldt farmboy, being sick in one corner, and the others look green enough that they might join him at any moment. I doubt I look one whit better myself. But there is that noise.
“There, Corporal de Vries. That one’s still alive!” It is Williams, but he seems reluctant to approach the bed any closer. She is very small, dear God she is little more than a baby, curled in a tight ball on the bed, naked except for a bracelet of coloured beads and making that dry, hushed sob.
“Little one, don’t be afraid. Are you hurt?” I try it in English, and halting isiXhosa, and even ungrammatical seSotho. No response. Perhaps none of them is her language. I come a little nearer, reach out a hand, very gentle and cautious, to touch her.
And she uncoils swift and deadly as a mamba, her dead, her long dead face smiling evilly into mine, her withered hands grasping my wrists like handcuffs, and the long white things that move in the sockets of the skull reach out hungrily for my flesh, my eyes. . .
“Piet, Piet, it’s all right, it’s all right, you’re here, everything’s safe.”
He shuddered where he sat, bold upright in our bed, as the nightmare reluctantly let go of him, and dropped his face abruptly into his hands.
“Piet, what was it? You – my God, I’ve never heard a scream like it in my life. You sounded like a man terrified for his soul, never mind his life.”
“I – koekie, I think – I think ek war. . . Ach. . .” and he descended for a moment into a jumble of Afrikaans, losing his English in a way I’d only seen before in the throes of sex. But this wasn’t lust, it was more like terror. I expect my own face looked pretty scared too, because he glanced at me and visibly took hold of himself, forced himself to some semblance of his usual calm. White as a corpse still, the sweat beading on his forehead, but rigidly controlled.
“No, no, I am sorry, I am sorry my hart. It must have been nearly as alarming for you as for me. It was – oh, a most terrible dream. I have not dreamed anything like it for many years. And I have broken your sleep, and that not pleasantly.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
He opened his mouth, shut it again, then shook his head. “No, koekie. Let us keep such things for the morning.”
“If you’re sure. I tell you what, I’ll warm some milk for you.”
“There is really no need. I think, perhaps, I shall just go and sit for a bit before I go back to bed. And koekie, you go back to sleep. I may go and sleep next door, afterwards, not to disturb you.”
“I won’t be able to sleep without you,” I said simply. “And if you think I’m going to let you sit and brood in the dark on your own after screaming your lungs out like that, you can think again. We’ll both go down, and I’ll make us some rooibos tea. Or would you rather cocoa?”
“Phil. . .”
“And you can sit on the floor, and I’ll rub your neck for you.”
“Phil, don’t fuss!” Quite sharply.
“Piet. I’m sorry. But there is No Fucking Way I’m going to let you sit alone in the dark and brood about whatever it was.” I used the swearword deliberately, and with emphasis. I don’t swear at him. I just don’t. I mean, my language is as colourful as any other young man my age, I guess, and the banter in the dressing room can be pretty choice. But apart from when it’s a literal request I don’t generally use that word at home, between us, so I figured he’d get the message.
“I am not going to win on this one, am I, hart?”
He reached over and hugged me. “I am a grouchy old man, and you are an angel.”
“And your next statement of the blindingly obvious would be. . .?”
His eyes narrowed. “That somebody not very far from here is trying to distract me by getting himself spanked, and will perhaps succeed if he is not careful.” And he reached around and landed a slap half on my backside and half on the side of my thigh.
“Ow!” I grumbled half heartedly. “Maybe tea would be a better choice.”
“Maybe it would,” he said. Abruptly his head swung towards the window as if he had heard something outside, but after a moment he shook it, as if saying no to some unspoken question. “Come then, tea.”
It was cocoa after all, as it turned out, rich and thick, with rather more sugar than either of us would normally take, and dusted with some spice, sweet and aromatic, I do not know its name. And also, when I took a sip, with a very healthy slug of brandy. I raised my eyebrows, and he met my gaze with the sort of look that I see in him more often than not on the rugby field. Cool, appraising, completely determined. The look of a man who knows he is going to win.
I said nothing, took another sip. There are times when it is wise to accept defeat with grace. He curled up against me on the sofa, his body warm and firm. An instinctive, animal comfort. I was glad of it, truth to tell. The dream had been – filthy. And I am a rational man, but still, I was not anxious to brave darkness and sleep again, not just yet. Not tonight.
He eventually dropped off to sleep, his head heavy on my arm. I sat curled up with him in the dark and wondered. About the things he had seen in his life. About what we have, and don’t have. About the things that haunt a man.
Somewhere in the small hours he stirred. I’d dozed myself, but his movement woke me too.
“I am sorry, I did not mean to wake you, koekie.”
“It’s all right, what’s the time? Do you want to go back up to bed?”
“No. No, I woke - I thought I. . . no, it is nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Except it isn’t, is it?” I spoke more calmly than I felt.
He looked away from me for a moment. “I thought I heard a cry,” he said at last. “As if someone - as if a child were whimpering.”
“A child that was in your nightmare?” That was a guess.
“Yes.” Grudgingly. In brief, carefully neutral words, he outlined the horrors that had woken him from sleep.
“In reality, of course, it was not quite so. Viljoen was already dead by that point - that was the thing I was trying to remember in the dream – it was I who led the squad. And the child was quite – quite human.” There was an odd catch to the way he said it.
“No, not dead. But dying, where they had struck her across the face with the rifle butt and left her for dead. And the wounds were – maggot infested. It happens very quickly in that climate. The eyes. . .”
“Oh God, Piet!”
He swallowed. “It was a very evil thing,” he said, low and quick. “She – even dying as she was, she tried to – press herself to me, to be what they had taught her to be. Here God!” His voice broke and I held him tightly, knowing no other way to express what I felt. After a moment he went on. “I shall never be free of it, the sight of her, the feel of her, so knowing, so broken. . . it was all I could do not to, to, cast her across the room in horror and disgust. How, how, could men use a child so. . .?” He shook his head, and shuddered. “Ach! Ach. But that was then, and it is done. Done. I will not carry it around my neck like an albatross.”
“And the crying? You thought you heard it at the club, too, didn’t you?”
“Undoubtedly that was a cat. The mind plays tricks. I do not believe in ghosts, koekie.”
Almost as he said it he sprang up, his eyes wild, and made a half step towards the window. But this time:
“I heard it too, Piet!”
He flashed me a look that was hard to read.
“Then I shall go and investigate.”
“I’m coming with you.” To be honest, I was scared shitless. I didn’t know what was out there. The grown-up part of me didn’t really believe it was the corpse of an African girl with maggots for eyes, but part of me, the part that used to hide under the blankets when I was 7 and we went to stay at my Nan’s because the face in the wood of the wardrobe was leering at me, that part of me wasn’t entirely convinced. I know it’s stupid, I know that if my mates ever knew I’d never live it down, but still - you go out looking for something that weeps in the dark on a Halloween night in the middle of the country where there are no lights, and then tell me it’s ridiculous. But scared or not, I was going with Piet. I’d feel a lot better with him than without him.
Which is why two rather large men, in dressing gowns and slippers, and with one rather dim penlight that was all we could quickly lay our hands on, pushed the patio doors open and stepped rather cautiously out into the small hours of a late October night. I shivered.
“Go back in,” he suggested.
“Not till we’ve found it.”
“There may be nothing to. . .”
The scream made us both jump - yes, even Piet, I felt his hand tighten convulsively on my shoulder.
“Shit. Those bloody foxes!” With the relief came a flare of anger, the body’s fight or flight reflexes kicking in.
“Indeed. But. . .”
“That wasn’t what we heard before, was it?” Now that I thought about it, it wasn’t, of course. The other had been a dry, sobbing sort of sound like. . . like THAT. All the hair on the back of my neck bristled with sheer terror.
I heard Piet swallow, once, then he strode forward into the dark, leaving me and the penlight behind.
“Piet!” I hissed frantically, losing a slipper and then nearly twisting my ankle as I hopped after him.
The dry, creaking sob came again from the darkness that had swallowed him. And then I heard something else.
Laughter. The sound of Piet laughing. A little – well, not hysterically, I’m sure Piet has never been hysterical in his life. But wildly? Let’s settle on wildly, shall we?
“Come, koekie. Come and meet our spook.”
I stumbled forward, and but for Piet’s warning hand I’d have stumbled into it. Which would have hurt, because this particular ghost was all too solid. We’re having a bit of work done remodelling the garden at the back, and the builders had erected a small wooden shed to one side - temporarily, they assured both us and a rather put-out Jasmine - in order to store their tools. For security, not that they were in much danger of a theft out here, but apparently they had had problems before, and once bitten. . . And someone had left the door unlocked - so much for security - and the October wind had caught it and opened it.
It creaked as it moved gently in that cold breeze. A soft crick-crick-crick that could easily sound, did easily sound, even now, a bit like someone crying quietly alone in the dark.
“Well,” I said.
He put his arm round me. “So much for monsters,” he added.
“Well, I suppose it could qualify as a monstrosity. Jazz seems to think so.”
“It will be gone, soon enough. Time is one cure for monsters. Reason is another. I have realised what must have triggered the dream. It was the bracelet, the one the storyteller gave the little girl at the club. It was very like the one the dead child wore that time, that time. . .” He grimaced and fell silent.
“When you went after it, in the dark though - Piet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so brave.”
“It was not bravery, hart. It was - a need. A need to know. To be done with it. I said, I do not believe in ghosts. But monsters - I have met those. And their leavings. Many men meet monsters one time or another in their life, for we carry them in our own hearts. But I will not have them here. I will not let them come here. Not to us, what we have. Not to you.”
I felt my eyes well up, and I threw my arms around him, and got a rib-cracking embrace in return. God, I love him so much. After a long moment he dropped a hand to my bum and patted it.
“Now, in with you. In with both of us. After all these years, this damp English cold still bites at my bones, hart, and we are scarcely dressed for it.”
We returned gratefully to the house, light with relief, and back to bed. When we got there, I made a point of checking under the bed for monsters. Unfortunately the only monster around attacked me from behind while I was doing it. And ate me all up. Oh yes. Oh yes indeed.
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