The firewood had been uncharacteristically green and moist so that the whole affair had got off to a slow start; the result, an impressive hillock of discarded alcohol cans and bottles had begun to mount.
There was a mix of music the whole evening and Sonja had danced her way through most of the boys, laughing from the belly at slapstick pranks and teenage jokes round the fire where the spit-trussed lamb was dripping hisses into the coals, its aroma tempting the predatory passions of the inebriated to swell.
Wherever she went, Sonja towed behind her a small pack of darting eyed admirers. Like hyenas near a lion kill, none were bold enough to stake a claim, instead they were satisfied to snatch a morsel where they could; a dance or flirtatious word when Neels, the pack alpha, was distracted by the celebration rituals that his 18th birthday demanded.
For Neels, it had been a spectacular day. It had started with the new truck from his father. She was a beauty; fat tires, 5 seats, turbocharged diesel grunt and spotlights for night hunting on a bar above the cab. His right to earn a full license and legally drive was now a reality, and he could retire the lesser farm diesel he’d sometimes used.
Well before sunset the Vermaak farm, one of the wealthiest in the region, had become a hive of activity—every kid from the district had come to pay homage. A vast marquee housed a bar, dinner seating and a dance floor—with the cooking fires outside.
Neels was already well oiled long before the sun approached the horizon, his vision swimming and his voice roaring, almost hoarse.
His dad watched his lad with pride—it took some constitution to have swallowed what Neels had managed and still be accelerating well after dark.
Neels, so preoccupied all day with the stuff of men had hardly given Sonja a second thought; suddenly, though, something in the fog of his most primitive self tugged him in a new direction and off he went in search of her, the truth that she’d split with him weeks before anaesthetized by the grog.
She saw him coming and tried to give him the slip, ducking surreptitiously into the thick of the crowd’s throng. Her gaggle of admirers also saw him beginning to prowl and they too abandoned their hopeful attempts and evaporated out of contention.
She checked her watch and saw with relief that it was almost 10pm, the time her father was scheduled to collect her.
Tonight, Andre was on duty and so would be in the van and in uniform.
She ran her eye over the pockets of adults at the periphery of the revelers, but no sign of him yet. Andre’s booming voice dishing out greetings would precede him in the event she’d missed his arriving car.
“Why so early?” Andre had asked when she’d requested the pickup time.
“Entrance exams, Pa. I have to be up early tomorrow to study.”
It was of course nonsense, she could easily stay till midnight without harm to her university ambitions but she’d anticipated something like this from Neels. Indeed, she’d preferred not to have come at all, but that would have made it worse with him and triggered a scandal across the community. Over the past weeks the more she’d withdrawn from Neels the more insistent his advances had become.
Cat and mouse; Sonja had played with Neels for long minutes under the marquee, flitting from group to group, keeping anything or anyone tall enough to obscure her from his searching eyes, breaking off conversation when she estimated his next drift might bring him in her direction.
Neels knew Sonja was here, somewhere in this crowd.
Earlier when she’d arrived he’d embraced her roughly to the jubilant cheers of his minions.
After that he’d seen her several times, out on the dance floor… each time he’d scrutinized the level of threat posed, but judged that her intimacy with that partner did not require him to intervene and end it.
And, no matter where he looked she seemed to have evaporated.
There was no doubt in Neels’ mind that she would have left the party early. If she’d dared to do such a thing without a goodbye, news of it would have quickly found him through his network of eyes.
Lately, he admitted to himself as he puzzled her invisibility, she’d been immensely frustrating; ever since that incident with that Prrrrretty boy at school, he pondered for the thousandth time, she’d been disdainful and disobedient to his calls for more of her time—breaking off dates he’d made with her.
The correlation between the Dara incident and her unacceptable behavior as ‘his girl’ was unavoidable, and it infuriated him, raising the stakes now.
Even on this momentous evening of his coming of age, he contemplated, that he’d managed only the briefest of words with her before she’d somehow each time spirited herself away rather than hang close at hand as she normally would and properly should.
The longer his intensive search went on, the more exaggerated his craze became. It was his birthday, he reminded himself, and about time that the queen of this town submitted to its king. His passions were charging, alcohol fueled as they now were, he could feel them becoming volatile.
Knowing him as she did, Sonja could see he was hunting her, his urgency in the search beginning to escalate; she needed an escape. Her moment came as he was distracted by a small throng who insisted he drop yet another measure of the powerful local farm-made liquor down his gullet. She slipped out through the back of the enclosure, unnoticed.
The tension of escape had taxed her and she needed the relief of a few minutes away from people, so she drifted into the dark and surveyed the parked cars for the police van as her eyes adjusted to the dark.
The sounds emitting from the tent retreated, becoming a mélange of voices garnished with an occasional whoop or pepper of laughter, the music an underscore.
Neel’s farm fortunately had not yet seen its mobile phone coverage severed, and earlier she’d sent text messages to her Pa, urging him to hurry, and now, away from the noise, she called him—the phone began ringing.
“En hier loop my bokkie,” Neels crooned from the darkness, close behind her—unashamedly calling her a plaything… “Making a call to someone?” he asked with sarcasm ringing in his voice.
Reports that she’d slipped out back had found his ears and in the dark the light of her phone homed him in on her position like a missile.
Sonja froze, ice surging through her veins; it was the worst possible place for him to find her. At that instant her father’s phone went to voice mail and she let it record, hoping if he got it, it would raise his urgency:
“Aggghh, Neels,” she tried to make light of it, “I’m just not feeling well. My father will be here in a moment.”
The urgency of that unexpected news, news of her imminent departure, raised the stakes for Neels, so he closed in.
“Put the phone off. Let’s dance,” he instructed.
His right-handed snatch was so fast that she didn’t feel her phone go, it was in his hands and he cut the call in one deft movement. His left arm was around her, his hand at the small of her back, controlling her center of gravity, pulling her pelvis urgently towards him.
As her crotch impacted with his, she felt it; unpleasant and unyielding as it was at this ugly moment—the thing urging him on, the madness that made no sense. She tried to retract but he was too strong, oblivious to her poorly concealed and rapidly growing revulsion.
“Please Neels, I really don’t feel well.”
“I can make you feel better,” he assured; his breathing ragged, the acrid smell of alcohol on it.
He’d pocketed her phone, allowing his now-free right hand to move swiftly over her body, sizing her breasts and then quickly round her back, at her waist searching for a gap between the layers of shirt and skirt.
“No Neels…. My father is reeeally coming now, I don’t want him to see us….”
“He won’t see us,” his voice was urgent the pitch rising sharply with his lust. “Let’s go to the hedge.”
His fingers had found the breach and in one smooth movement his rough calloused hand surged down inside the skirt, under the elastic of her G-string and over the mound of coccyx in between the melons of her buttocks.
She wriggled as strongly as she could but his left hand held her expertly so that no matter which way she squirmed, he kept control over her.
“Don’t mess my clothes—Pa is a policeman, he sees everything.”
“I know your Pa is a policeman,” Neels reminded her, ignoring her implied threat, “…I leave no evidence.”
“Please Neels… I’m really not well.”
He just laughed at her. The cushions of her buttocks either side of his searching fingers were turgid, solid with taught muscle, soft with luxurious skin, padded by femininity in the flush of youth.
Like a diviner finding the well, he sensed the humid blush of womanhood before he touched it. It drove him forward, madly and insistently.
She knew she dared not cry out for help, there was too much risk of social fallout if she did. All she dared do was make muted protestations, her voice thin and strained by efforts to squirm away, to defend herself as best she could in a brutal grip.
But Neels heard none of it. In his mind her moans were passionate, passion that he confirmed by the slip and slide he found in her.
In the months of their relationship, they’d had many liaisons. At various functions on different farms she’d been accommodating to his advances; she’d let his hands explore her womanhood.
He’d come to expect the indulgence.
She always felt hairless and smooth under his fingers and this excited him to a mild insanity; he’d never seen her in the light, but her fine silky body hair offered no suggestion of shaven stubble. This curiosity obsessed him. The other girls he’d been with always presented a gritty abrasion of hairs rolling under his fingers as he explored their curious folds to eliminate the false entrances. But Sonja presented an enigma he could not get enough of.
In the past encounters Sonja always seemed encouraging, opening up willingly; or that’s how he remembered it; but now she forced him to proceed with increasing effort that felt like a game.
Then, slowly, through the fog of booze and lust, the reality dawned on him that she was clenched as tightly as she could, that what he presumed to be her uncontrolled breathing and staccato pants were the clutches for air that come with fear and tears.
She was crying.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” He retracted his hand and shoved her away.
“I told you, I’m not well.”
“Rubbish,” he said. “You’re talking shit. It’s something else ‘ne? It’s that black bastard... that Prrrrretty boy! You’ve be been pulling away since I gave him a little klap.”
His voice rang with outrage and Sonja feared for an instant that he’d open-handedly hit her, she cringed and he glared. He’d done it before, slapped; not her but other girls.
She was sniveling and hating herself for it. She wanted to agree with Neels—say it out aloud, “Yes… It’s Dara and what you did to him. He is intelligent, decent… cultured. You are disgusting! You are a coward to hit from behind and then throw me aside; bruise my arms that I had to hide from my family.”
She wanted to tell Neels the truth of who and what he was; a pig and a bigot—not even a man, just a cowardly brute.
But too much rode on her blurting that; there was just too much community intricacy.
Instead, to keep the things of her heart secret, she forced herself to protest as best she could—weakly. And the feeling of doing so soiled and degraded her within.
She knew all too well that Neels had an irrational grudge against the newcomer, a vendetta that was backed by the Dominee and others—that any defense of Dara, even admitting that she knew and remembered his strange name, would turn even her father against her and too many others with him.
That Neels was hunting Dara, stalking him like prey, was common knowledge by most of the town. They thought it quite entertaining to watch the hunt unfold.
That this foreign boy had touched her affections was not known by anyone.
That Neels had latched onto the truth, accusing her directly in this rage, was deeply unsettling.
These facts were a baying crowd of madness, crowding Sonja as she tried to back gingerly away from the brute.
To protect the newcomer from the outrage that would explode if she admitted any hint of it, she denied and denied, and she denied again the accusations that came streaming at her from Neels with a tempo and ferocity that made her legs buckle. As he drove himself into a rage over it, he walked steadily toward her, she backed away; his hostility increasingly laced with a barrage of curses.
“You want to fuck that little black bastard, ‘ne?” Neels’ voice was high in pitch and rising in volume.
“No Neels. Stop, please stop—look, there are people coming this way.”
The ruckus he’d caused had been heard from far and a small group of fathers were coming to investigate.
“Wat gaan nou aan?” Neels’ father called.
“Niks nie Pa, niks… niks,” he assured his father with a bluff.
He embraced Sonja for the approaching men to see, and called an explanation to them; “Sonjatjie’s jaloers oor die meisies, ek gee net versekering.”
His blatant lie, claiming her jealousy of the other girls made Sonja want to retch. She wanted to shout her protest that she needed no reassurances or anything from this vile pig, but ancient cultural sanctions welded her mouth tight.
Neels’ father laughed, they were so close she heard one of the men scoff—“Women!”
With that the group of recently concerned fathers chortled their disdain for the silliness of this little girl, “Toe maar, Sonjatjie—niks te bekommer oor Neels nie, hy’s 'n gentleman”
A ‘gentleman’ they called him—‘nothing to worry about with him’—she wanted to shriek with hysteria, with laughter and tears at the insult, but she swallowed; “Ja, Oom, ek weet… Ek is sommer net belaglik,” Sonja agreed, twisting internally with disgust and frustration at hearing her own voice, the echo of it assuring the men that she was being ridiculous.
Neels let her go and walked away a few steps in the tracks of the retreating men then turned and said, “Vang!” as he threw her phone to her.
She fumbled the catch in the dark and the handset clattered to the stony ground. Just then the police van’s headlights peaked over the rise approaching the farm.
She picked the phone up and it illuminated in her hands. The device had cost her months of chores and it represented a thread of sanity, a pivot for ambitions that lay in the wide world beyond the village—the lit screen was cracked and she started to cry softly out of humiliation and frustration.
Taking a few moments to gather herself, Sonja straightened her skirt in the dark, wiped her eyes and walked slowly after the retreating silhouettes, heading in the direction of the parking lot where her father would shortly arrive.
She didn’t want her father to know about this—Neels was too cunning; even in his inebriated condition she dared not challenge him among men. He’d swing it on her, the fathers and his friends would back him and she’d be exposed for the legitimate liaisons she’d had with him in the past. Her father would be disgusted and blame her for tonight; he’d accuse her of leading Neels on.
Besides, she felt ashamed and just wanted to leave this place without further delay; to shower and be in her own safe space.
More than that, her brother would be here soon. With one word of this from her to him, he had the physical capacity, the financial insulation, and the legal means to wade in and put Neels in his place or somewhere worse—but it would rip everything she knew and loved apart—her family and her community.
She had to simply absorb the insult of it all and contrive to avoid Neels for another few weeks—then she’d leave Carnarvon to study in Cape Town and never have to face this unpleasantness again.
Within a few minutes Andre was out of the parked van and his voice barked its greetings to the group of friends who were approaching him out of the dark. They all shook hands and slapped backs. The cavernous drone and throaty rumble of her father’s voice so unmistakable.
Neels had caught up with the men and Andre greeted him warmly and extended hearty congratulations on his birthday and new wheels. They’d laughed together, like a father and son might.
Then Andre saw Sonja approaching slowly, reluctantly; her shoulders rounded. Andre immediately broke and went urgently to her. He embraced her quickly and, for the first time ever, she felt instant revulsion; the feeling of those powerful arms around her so soon after her encounter with Neels making her want to retch.
Andre instantly felt her reaction; Neels saw it too.
“What’s wrong my darling girl?” Andre asked urgently.
Neels cut in on her behalf, “She’s been feeling sick Oom … and also a bit upset, you know… so many girls here.”
“Ag my baby-girl. You’re so silly,” Andre kissed her forehead and she recoiled within.