BY ANDRE LEMMER
The children, tongues untied, were partly in shock, partly delirious with the excitement of their discovery: askeleton with no head, bottles lying nearby, a blanket tied over the bushes.
“Slow down, Thandi. Tell me slowly.”
“Yoh, chienie Tixo, we was scared. We ran all the way, baas.”
“Don’t call me baas, you know that. This skeleton – whereabouts is it?”
“In the bush, baas. There where it is so thick, on the hill behind the tennis court”
“Sipho, you take me there. I better check before I call the police. Thandi, go tell your mother, she’s in the kitchen. Your brother is coming with me.”
The skeleton, part-clothed in torn flannel and a tweed jacket, was part-sunk into the earth. The arms stretched forward like a diver’sin mid-air, the legs spread, rank grass sprouting between them. Under a nearby bristle bush was the skull, grinning and chap-fallen, empty eye sockets gazing heavenwards. A crumpled old felt hat lay amongst a litter of medicine bottles under a blanket that had been spread tarpaulin-wise between the branches of two wind-stunted rooikrantzes. Empty sherry bottles lay deep in the shadow of the shelter, and amongst them, a rusty asthma inhaler. The blanket flapped in the fresh south-westerly wind. Sipho hovered a distance away, bare legs shivering in the September breeze.
There could be little doubt: It was Jeffrey. I had never known his surname. Jeffrey who? Village gardener, seldom sober. Local gillie. Partner to a foul-mouthed, nameless harridan. A mystery man, but with secrets that interested no one in the village. Now, a missing person that no one missed. I told the police about his supposed disappearance from the village in February, that I had helped him get his sick partner to the Walmer Clinic, that he had disappeared soon after, and that we all assumed he had left the village to be near his woman. There was a brief stir in the village for a day or two.
“Hadn’t seen Jeffrey for months. Or heard him! Thank goodness.”
“Poor old Jeffrey. He wasn’t old: about fifty, I think.”
“Stopped coming to work in my garden round about January.”
“Used to give him a lift in the back of my bakkie into town on his babbelaas days. He would never sit in front, you know.”
“Thought he’d gone to join his old foul-mouthed crone – what was her name?”
“Dunno. We called her Olive Oyl. Looked just like Popeye’s girl. Always in her cups, she was. Ship sherry. She was sent inland somewhere, her chest, you know. Asthma.”
“Yes, Jeffrey got me to take her to the clinic. Looked a gonner.”
“You could never tell whether she was plain drunk or sick. Both probably.”
“He missed her, did old Jeffrey. Told me so.”
“Ag, dronkverdriet. In his cups as usual.”
A case was opened. Then a long, official silence. No news of any investigation, or funeral, or inquest. My daughter tried to phone, to ask about funeral arrangements. She was prepared to organise it, saying her Methodist church would assist. But no one knew anything about the case or where the body was or when it would be released for burial. So she gave up.
We turned back to our affairs. Jeffrey had always been insubstantial, at the margins, a kind of blot on the village. At a social club supper, Larry Harper, a trade union official, professed guilt. No one cared or listened. Larry was new– he had only been in the village for a few years. He owned a fancy new house on Abalone Lane. We were the land-grabbers, he said.
“Jeffrey’s forebears were the Khoi,” Larry proclaimed. “Men of men, decimated by our smallpox, our bullets, our forefathers’ greed.”
Their land had been stolen. Now we sat pretty – while Jeffrey died in the reserve taken from his people.
At least, someone said, Jeffrey had his chance to circumvent his victimhood. He had been in the voter’s queue on the cliff-top in 1994, a new voter, making a cross on the ballot. Voting for what, I wondered? Who would redeem the ravaged collective past of the Jeffries of this world?
I still remember him well. A nuisance always, staggering, foul-mouthed along Marine Drive, lambasting Olive Oyl. Or on the rocks, with a hand-line, pulling in a fat Jan Bruin bream, and grinning slyly at the very spot where we would stand fishless all day. A casual gardening job heralded another drunken binge. Then the obeisances. Cupped hands and humble bows, himself dissolved in liquor along with his inhibitions. The village would be filled by his shouts, calling down imprecations on our heads.
Then I remembered the skull. Now that drunken, lashing tongue, eaten by ants and wild cats, was silenced for good.
And so, a few rand for a day’s trimming, cutting, weeding, mowing, scraping and raking. Then the booze-up and they would disappear into the bush for days. Boesman and his sick Lena.
That was when she left, and Jeffrey disappeared for eight months before he came back, briefly, as a skeleton in torn flannels and an old, tweed jacket.
One day in November I heard the dogs barking and a coloured couple was at my door. Outside stood a black Mercedes.
“Basie Meyer? Your son, you say? No, sorry, Dr Meyer, I know no Basie Meyer.”
“Oh, the body that I helped find in the bush. Jeffrey he was called. Yes, we tried to organise a funeral for poor Jeffrey – but no go.”
Astonishingly, they wanted me to help them fight for their son, Basie. Confront the authorities and shame the police – in short show the world that people cared. But first, the mortuary release had to be signed by the Commissioner. There was to be a memorial service for their son and they asked if I would deliver the eulogy. They had not seen their son for so many years. They had lost touch after the Group Areas Act removals. Their son would not go with them to the cold of Belfast. They had heard later of dagga and liquor and Korsten gangs and a spell in gaol and then, nothing.
Dr Meyer from whose loins Jeffrey had begun his long dissipated travail sat quietly on my couch, a tear or two falling from his wrinkled face. A grief incongruous with a mix of Irish brogue and flattened Korsten vowels. His wife screwed up a handkerchief in her hands. She said it was their fault. That they should have stayed with their child, not abandoned him to so many evil influences.
The police had tracked down Basie’s wife, Betty, in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Patensie. They had been to see her and she had mentioned me. So Olive Oyl was really a wife, I thought.
I said I was sure there had been no murder – at least not of the usual sort – that Jeffrey, sorry Basie, had died of grief. That he had been inconsolable when his wife had to leave. That we all thought he had left to be with her. That I was sorry and that yes, I would help with the funeral. My daughter’s church would organise it. That it would not help to dwell on past mistakes.