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Life in Africa

by Gloria Mundell Thursday, Feb. 04, 2010 at 2:25 AM

Through the eyrs of an abused girl

Avenues, holding hands – the warmth of her mother’s palm and her silky

clean hair clipped back. The memory faded. Her world was a black cell.

But things were happening out there. Things that were about to alter her

existence, event that had already set in motion a titter among the townsfolk.

Piet and Marie lived in a small house in the centre of Harrisville. They

attended the local primary school, which Jessie had attended. The school was

the venue for council meetings and various social functions and where

Captain Joseph had on many occasions delivered speeches. He was held in

high regard by the townsfolk for his endeavours at preserving the heritage of

the town. Being a captain in the military had led naturally to his input in

structuring the by-laws of the local municipality. So, when four years

previously his Clare had mysteriously disappeared, the local police chief had

unhesitatingly accepted Captain Joseph’s story that she’d run off with a

stranger taking their daughter Jessie. Sympathies poured in, cards and cakes

arrived daily at Captain’s Joseph’s office for a week following the man’s tragic

experience. Tongues clacked on every street corner relating the story with

ever increasing exaggeration. Captain Joseph, in the eyes of the community,

had been dealt a cruel blow. He was seen as a victim of a terrible injustice,

this upright and hard working citizen. Folks agreed he should never have

married a foreigner. Said they knew all along that they knew all along that bad

would come of it, and now, they patted themselves on the back. It proved true.

Suitors pursued him, but one after the other turned their attentions elsewhere

when politely rebuffed by this man whose sorrow was so deep that it became

clear he’d never remarry. Thus was his character uplifted in the minds of the

simple people

The school bell rang at its regular schedule 2 pm. Piet and Marie met as usual at the school gate to walk home together. Today, Piet was anxious. He'd beaten big Boet Fourie at marbles during the tea break and had won Boet's best glass stealy. The big bully had threatened him to an inch of his life. Crowds had gathered forming 2 distinct sides. Boet's fans egged him on

"Get him Boet. He's a squirt. Give him five"

Tension escalated to such a pitch that had Miss Kotze, the maths teacher appeared and intervened, Piet might well have become part of the gravel on the playground. Now, as he met Marie, he was in a hurry. He saw Boet gathering a few of his buddies and he instinctively knew what the 2 pm bell meant for him.

He grabbed Marie's free hand and began to run down the tree-lined avenue.

“Haai, Skelm squirt. I’ll get you!”

Boet's loud voice from behind caused them to pause and glance back. The

vision of five ogres approaching meant certain death. Piet pulled Marie quickly

around the first corner. They ran up two blocks and reached the barbed wire

fence surrounding a stretch of open veld. He pushed Marie's head down as

she crawled under the wire then he scaled the top in two leaps scratching

his arms and ripping his shirt on the jagged barbs. They continued running

without pause and in silence until they reached the end of this piece of land

before Marie gasped:

"where to now Piet"? Her voice was gruff and urgent.

"Keep going" he yelled, "we'll hide in the veld on Captain Joseph's land."

“What? Are you sure Piet? What if he catches us on his land?

“Don’t worry Marie. We’ll hide. Nobody will find us. Boet and them won’t dare go there.

They'd run a good few kilometres by the time they reached the tall blue gum trees which marked a destination. Marie's cheeks were flushed when she collapsed in the tall grey grass. They sat panting and listening. Piet knelt up on his haunches and peered in the direction from which they'd come.

"They're not coming Marie. We're safe" he beamed at her.

Their attention was abruptly turned to the harsh growl of a man's voice alerting

them like two hares pricking up their ears.

"Get up bitch!" it boomed.

Astonishment and curiosity enticed the two children to crawl through the grass towards the dilapidated old millhouse, instantly forgetting their own peril. There they saw Captain Joseph, whip in hand lashing out at a young girl struggling to pick herself up where she'd stumbled. The children's eyes grew wider as they exchanged a glance before gaping on.

"Who's that with Captain Joseph?" whispered Piet.

"I don't know," replied Marie. "Why's he beating her like that, Piet?"

They watched again in awe as the large man and the frail form of the girl disappeared down into the cement building. They heard the whip and the cries. He reappeared, closed the heavy old door and bolted

it with a pole slipped into the slots on either side. When the two children were certain Captain Joseph was gone they raced back over the veld, down the avenues, and charged into the house where their mother Bets had been anxiously waiting their late return from school. Marie, upon seeing her mother, rushed into her arms burying her face in the warmth of her large comforting chest and began to splutter out a garble of meaningless phrases, interspersed by Piet's expostulations.

"He was whipping her— there—" he pointed,

"she's a child, crying— and he whipped her. She's in there ...."

Bets couldn't understand the crazy ramblings of her two children, and their dishevelled condition. Worried and exacerbated, she phoned her husband at his work.

"Henk, I think you'd better come home quickly. Something's happened to the children. They're in such a terrible state."

She slammed the receiver down and gathered the children into the vanilla scented kitchen, where she poured each a glass of cool milk, and fed them freshly baked shortbread strips.

By the time Henk arrived home, the children were somewhat calmer

although Marie was still tearful. “I raced home as quickly as I could skat. What happened to the children? Henk’s cheeks were flushed from panic and haste.

“Sit Henk!” she ordered. The children are all right. But what they’re saying is very strange. Piet, Marie, come and tell your pa what you saw.

The children related the story from beginning to end. One would have thought that Bets herself had seen the whole incident, with such passion did she encourage all the details, embroidering on the children's description as the story unfolded:

"A beautiful young girl" she stressed, "and in rags and tatters. He was beating her to death," she roared finally. "I'll have to get Gerty over here immediately,"

She scurried off to phone her sister-in-law. Things began to move faster as the story went from house to house and grew worse with each call.

By evening an unplanned meeting was in progress as one after another

the rumour had lured in family and friends. Theories and explanations were

discussed and rejected while the mystery thickened. The air was abuzz with

gossip and chatter that was leading nowhere. "Who was the girl?"

"an illegitimate child"

"lover's child"

"dark horse."

It was old man Tertius who finally came to a bright idea. He would arrange for his nephew Boysie to hide out in the veld where the children had been, and wait and watch fora couple of days and report back on what he saw. Everyone agreed that this was the best way to handle the situation. For the ensuing days, there was a hushed excitement in the town. People stopped to gossip in whispered tones on street corners and in cafes. Everyone had forgotten about their normal daily problems. Women ceased to complain about their husbands, and their ailments. The Rugby match at school lost its place of importance in conversations, replaced by queries of any news regarding the mystery girl and Captain Joseph.

In the meanwhile Boysie had been recruited. He was a strapping big, muscular lad of 17 years old. A tremendous sense of pride and responsibility filled him. The townsfolk had put their trust in him and he would not let them down. He dressed for the occasion choosing grey clothes and a bush cap, filled his knapsack with food and a flask of coffee, binoculars, mosquito repellent, and his small tape recorder into which he planned on recording whatever he saw. He set off around noon, darting up the avenues, his expression one of serious determination. He crawled through the long grass on his belly just as it was done in the movies he'd watched, until he'd reached within 15 metres of the millhouse – the spot Piet And Marie had described, under the blue gums. Cautiously he inched closer, circling the cement building by degrees. Finally, he settled for a position underneath the scrawny branches of a bush. He was dangerously close to the opening of the veld where the long grass abruptly ended and short scrub encompassed the millhouse a few metres in diameter 3 or 4 at most. Boysie was confidant that he was well camouflaged. He spent a while moving in slow motion laying everything out at-his-ready. Already richly tanned a deep golden brown, the piercing summer sun didn't bother him, but in the hours of silence that followed without any sign of life or sound of human voice, he began to doubt that there was any validity in his mission.

The sunset on Boysie and his concrete prey, and still not a movement or a murmur. The stars shone brilliantly in the sky and a waxing moon provided ample light for visibility. He heard a distant sound; his body became suddenly rigid. It was footsteps approaching; the crunching of sand underfoot rapidly growing louder. Boysie glanced at the fluorescent dial of his wristwatch, 9:10. He dared not move to activate his recorder, let alone whisper into the microphone. All his muscles tensed up. Captain Joseph was so close that Boysie could hear his heavy breathing. Boysie watched, his chin barely off the ground. The captain stopped at the heavy door, and stood switching a short whip against his leg, `thwack...thwack...thwack". He

turned, walked away from the door and paused a distance from Boysie's sparsely twigged bush, causing the lad to hold his breath. His lungs were about to burst when suddenly the captain spun around and vigorously marched back to the door, wrenched the pole from its grooves and vanished into the black pit beyond. Boysie saw the small limp figure being hauled over the rough terrain and out of sight. He didn't hesitate; he followed, dodging behind every shadow-casting obstacle. On he loped to the house of Captain Joseph, ducking around the sidewall. All the lights we on but Boysie waited patiently for his cue and it was not too long before he got it. Gruff expletives emanated from the kitchen at the back and Boysie approached on his knees, crouching under the window. He dared to peek in but what met his eyes nearly unbalanced him. The girl was tied by a do leash to the table leg. She was eating out of a bowl on the floor, her face obscured by long matted brown hair dangling to the ground. Captain Joseph was standing over her commanding her to finish the food.

"Hurry up and finish bitch! I haven't got all bloody night to wait for a dog like you."

With the tip of the whip he flicked her dark locks. All the while she ate savagely and didn't utter a sound. Boysie had seen enough. He crawled off and fled back home to tell the family of the horrors he'd witnessed.

Phones buzzed in Harrisville that night like never before. People arrived at old man Tertius' home to be told in graphic detail straight from the horse's mouth. Boysie never of relating the story. It was as though he needed to purge himself of the horror over and over again, the image forever engraved on his mind; the small, filthy child, bruised arms, grovelling, gulping out of the dog dish.

Jessie heard a strange sound. It was a wailing in the distance. A totally foreign sound. It grew louder and louder. It frightened her— shrills piercing her silent world. She heard voices - many voices and footsteps approaching rapidly - heavy steps - many feet. Puzzlement transformed her blank stare and sudden terror drove her back against the far wall where she curled up like a rubber ball - the stance she'd adopted often in her past.

"In there! In there!" she heard a voice shouting.

It way Boysie's voice directing the police who were attempting to reach their target before the mass of concerned and excited townsfolk overtook them and overshadowed their authority. More and more people arrived in carloads and on foot. Jessie listened to the scraping of the pole, "scrape! thud!" clumsy hands pulled at the door. The sharp daylight illuminated the front of the cell forming a geometric pattern on the floor; faces peered in the doorway, eyes straining and necks bobbing to see. The smell of urine and faeces drove them all back, temporarily while a commanding voice boomed out,

"Alright everyone; get back."

Bending so as not to hit his head as he descended the steps the sergeant shone his flashlight to the back wall. The beam flicked over her, then back on her and hovered, capturing her tiny cringing frame.

"Oh my God!" the words resounded. A hush fell on them. They knew instinctively that something gruesome had been found.

"Its alright little girl," the sergeants voice grew tender and gentle. "We've come to help you, you poor child."

He slowly approached Jessie with his arm outstretched to her; she cringed backward, squeezing herself into a tighter ball. She knew deceit well, knew not to trust anything. Her hazel eyes followed his every movement as she expected the blow at any second. Gently he reached over and picked her up and carried her out of the prison. A gasp escaped from every mouth as they emerged into the open. The crowd fell back in horror and awe as Jessie was carried off to the patrol car.

That evening Captain Joseph was arrested. A squad arrived at his front door. Took him by surprise. Being caught had never occurred to him. After all, he was a captain, an upright law-abiding citizen. He'd done nothing wrong, he explained; served his community. This creature that all

the hoo-ha was about was not even a human being. The policemen were

angry. Most of them were fathers. Relentlessly they interrogated Captain

Joseph and he crumbled, and led the police to the grave where he'd buried Jessie's mother. He'd sobbed when he told of his wife's infidelity. Jessie, he said wasn't his child, she was "the child of a half-... but his voice trailed off. The humiliation would be too much to bear. Boysie became the hero of the town, and the school bully forgave Piet for beating him at marbles. Within a month the townsfolk would cease to gossip. The newspaper would have exploited the news, at least until Captain Joseph's trial, which wouldn't be for some time to come. He'd been sent for 30 days observation at a psychological institution. Some believed he was mad, some, that he was evil, while others continued to believe that he was the real victim.

Jessie had been taken to the Harrisville hospital. The ensuing days were a blur. Her mind was a well of emotions, as she looked out at this

white world through heavily sedated, droopy hazel eyes. Strange people came to see her, bringing gifts of clothing, toys and sweets. White coated ladies tended her gently. At first she had been frightened of those around her, cringing when approached by anyone, but no-body hurt her— nobody yelled - everyone spoke in low sweet tones— some even whispered pleasant words:

"You're safe now child— no-one's going to hurt you ever again."

Men in white coats examined her— delicately— for she tensed every muscle. They held her hand - stroked her thumb which was crooked - It had healed itself years before. She had to be deloused and fed by way of a drip for a few days. Drifting in and out of sleep, being stroked and gently spoken to, stirred feelings in her which were at times overwhelming and–she'd sob uncontrollably. She often wondered it this was all a dream, or perhaps that she'd gone to that place called heaven which her mother had so often spoken about such a long time ago. She'd been in that hellhole for almost five years. When she came off the drip and a tray of food was presented to her, she automatically lowered her head into the food and ate like an animal to the amazement of the staff. Arduous hours were spent re-teaching her how to use a knife and fork. Her hair was cut short and brushed every day. Within a very short time, Jessie began to resemble a normal girl of 14 years old. She thrived in hospital oblivious to the decisions being made about her future. After six weeks in this environment she was gradually beginning to feel happy and enjoyed the familiar faces constantly around her. It was not to last.

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