A TROJAN AFFAIR - The S.K.A. at Carnarvon

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Chapter 19

It was a little before midnight and JJ was back home from the hospital and dinner with Sonja.

The night was eerily still; the stiff breeze that had earlier in the evening forced the men to meet indoors around the kitchen table had abated.

In order to capture the action through the built-in camera and microphone, JJ had set his laptop where it would have the best view over proceedings. That best position; where the computer was neither conspicuous nor at risk of being cleared away; had been atop the fridge. This meant there was no power supply available and the recording had necessarily run on battery.

JJ retrieved the machine and hit a random key to reactivate the sleeping blank; the screen stayed black, the battery was dead. He put the computer on charge in his old bedroom and went for a shower.

The wind had died and the night was still, so he fished in the laptop bag for an earpiece, plugged it in, and opened the recording he’d set up at the tail-end of his earlier discussion with his father.

It was the better part of an hour of wasted recording before the last of the men had arrived and begun to settle. The sound quality was sub-par and JJ had to strain to hear details. He hoped it would improve once all were taking turns to talk and the microphone auto-balanced to the lower ambient volume.

There was a surprise too—a young stranger sporting a beard and, even at a glimpse, a fanatical glint to his eye had arrived with Dominee Gert.

He was introduced as being up from Cape Town. He was evidently the founding member of a new group but the noise of the men settling in and their women coming through from the lounge to fuss and ensure that there were sufficient beverages on hand, had obscured both the man’s name, his organization and his business there.

It was another twenty minutes before they settled and began to discuss anything of consequence. By now JJ had heard the newcomer’s name was Andy.

The Dominee had produced a news cutting, “The rubbish that they print, only saying what they want people to hear,” he read the headline, “‘Religious Communities Embrace Science’.

He shook his head and read on, “Poor and generally conservative communities are extremely accepting of cutting edge science projects even though they starkly contradict their beliefs, the Science Minister has said. Major projects like the SALT—Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland and SKA at Carnarvon in the Northern Cape province are actively now looking for the origins of the universe and earth’s place in it.”

“Because they won’t accept the truth, they invent bullshit and lies,” Andre grumbled his monotonous mantra as soon as the Dominee took a breath.

“The irony is, these installations are being developed amid deeply conservative communities,” Gert read on, rubbing the insults in, “…Yet, despite the fact that the science starkly contradicts their faith, the communities are embracing the investments with open arms.”

“Embracing?” Andre spoke for them all as his frustration boiled over, “They lie and lie, then lie again,” emphasizing each ‘lie’ with the hammer of his fist on the table. Are city people so stupid… so gullible to believe this report? Do they think we’re all idiots out here in the countryside? That we have a Faith that is so unimportant to us, yet we can be bought to not believe it and stand up for it, to not defend it? My own son…” He didn’t finish his sentence, just looked to the other men in askance and tragedy.

Watching the monitor, JJ felt a lump in his throat. He wanted peace with his father and all these men that he’d known a lifetime but he was unable to get over this hurdle with them.

“Ja, Andre,” Jan de Villiers the former army Kommandant agreed, “All the youngsters are going the same way.”

“Not all,” Gert the Dominee reminded them, not wanting this negativity with a stranger present, “There is a resurgence in belief. This is what I’m waiting for… hoping for. Andy will tell you… People are starting to wake up.”

“But they are buying our youth, Gert,” Andre lamented; under the stress of it, uncharacteristically using the Dominee’s name in public. “Buying them with free computers and Internet connections so the children can be fed more lies. Everywhere you hear about the ‘economic benefits’, and these mamparras, these coloured and black fools, they think that they’re all suddenly now going to inherit houses and cars from nothing.”

“But our Lord Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert too, my friends,” the Dominee pointed out, needing to calm Andre. “It is the temptation that makes our faith stronger. We have a strong youth group now. Even with Neels now going away, I have made Gerhard Stander the youth leader and he is very charismatic.”

“Neels is leaving?” Jan asked with some surprise.

“He’s off on a scholarship program to Kentucky in the USA for 3 months,” the Dominee disclosed.

JJ stopped the replay and backed the recording up to ensure he hadn’t mis-heard it; “Neels is leaving”?

He listened to it twice.

“Quite sudden?” Jan observed.

“The opportunity just came from new friends of our church, an Evangelist group in America—Genesis Is The Answer, they’re called,” Gert confirmed.

“I’ve heard of this group,” Dr. Louw, the school Principal spoke for the first time, “The Genesis Answers group has that Genesis Museum?”

Genesis Museum?” Jan asked.

“Yes… very well funded. Led by an Australian, Kenneth Bacon. They raised nearly thirty million dollars to build a Genesis Museum. It displays all the science in a Biblical context… the right science.” Gert added, emphasizing ‘right’.

“An actual museum? A building?”

“Ja... more than a building, Jan. Massive… it’s over acres. Millions of visitors already.” Dominee explained, evidently quite taken with it. And JJ wondered about that.

Dominee Gert was not usually an enthusiastic man about anything that lay outside the firm tramlines of his own childhood faith.

“I’ve been communicating with Bacon and his group for a while and also with their benefactor,” he went on. “His people contacted me through Andy, but I wanted to first know what they were about, so I dealt with them privately till now, to see if they were properly of the Faith. They’re Evangelists, not our own denomination but as Andy will tell you, in these times when we’re under siege, we must not let our differences divide us.”

“Led by an Australian, you say? With some of this telescope in Australia, perhaps he will want to collaborate?”

“That’s how I’m thinking too. They’re going to help with funds for our fight. A delegation’s coming to see us soon.”

There was a general hubbub of approval and excitement among the men.

JJ paused the recording again to let it sink in. As Gert spoke it was all falling into place, the connections immediately obvious. He caught himself pondering it aloud, “South Africa’s Bible Belt cozying up to their American counterparts… all the crazies egging one another along? Shit!”

This was not good news, it would push the whole issue into a new direction and league; it set JJ’s mind to racing. These strange bedfellows falling into league was a natural progression, he realized. He knew all too well how, for decades in the US, extreme sects of Evangelist Christians had been agitating in politics, medicine and education to oppose progress, to drive biblical agendas and enshrine biblical governance in all-important matters of regulation.

As a boy JJ had seen the tail end of quasi-theocracy driving South African politics and its biblically inspired Apartheid; he looked on it with extreme distaste.

Historically these groups had waged war against Evolutionary Biology for the challenge that its discoveries posed to biblical creationism. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the SKA and its objective; to uncover the origins and evolution of the universe; trampled the same biblical sentiments.

His mind needed a break, to consider what he had reviewed so he got up to make tea.

The kettle was just beginning an escalating hiss when his father appeared in the doorway. “Hello Pa, did I wake you?”

“No, I couldn’t sleep.”

“Tea?”

“It’ll make it worse.”

“Ma?”

“She never has problems sleeping. Women… you know, nothing important on their minds.”

JJ hated it when his father spoke glibly like that about females, but it was cultural. The older men-folk cherished their women but generally thought of them as children unburdened by ‘big’ issues; white women were senior children, several rungs above the other races who the old culture thought of and treated as young children. Fortunately, he thought, things were changing rapidly in the new generation.

It wasn’t worth challenging though, as he sometimes did, not at this late hour.

“How was your evening?” His father asked.

“Had a lekker braai” JJ responded casually.

“Good—Sonja home?”

“Safely in bed, yes.”

A braai was the traditional way to spend a Saturday evening grilling meat over coals—and JJ had gone on from dinner to the tail end of a braai on one of the farms of old friends.

He’d faced too much red meat from his mother’s kitchen for the entire week already and needed something less substantial for a change, so he’d delayed his arrival at the braai to ensure the eating would be over.

The womenfolk at the braai would have insisted on dishing for him and would never allow a man to choose only salad.

Andre had been phoned during the evening by three different parties living in the town who reported his son’s car outside the clinic, “…and now at De Meerkat Pizzeria”; casual reports of JJ’s movements streaming in, woven into other mundane village chatter.

The Ferrari had been at the Pizzeria for an hour and then departed; but JJ had only arrived at the braai at ten-thirty—a ninety-minute gap remained in Andre’s mind unaccounted for; nobody in the town volunteering JJ’s whereabouts during that period, and it plagued his police brain that his son was not volunteering the details, even after some prompting.

“I’m sorry we have tensions, Pa,” as all JJ would say.

He knew his father’s every expression so intricately that he’d guessed already what information his father had about his movements.

His was the only car of its type the village had ever seen, and he knew full well that his minor celebrity status in the village meant his movements would hardly go unnoticed or unreported. But he was sick of the pettiness of logging and defending his every movement. The time had come to let the tensions exist if they must exist.

“I just want to visit and relax and bring everyone presents, Pa,” was all he’d offer. “I have enough stress in the city. I could easily rent the best room in town but the best room in town is here with you and Ma and Sonja. This is where my heart is—it’s better than any plush hotel or mansion.”

Andre still looked peeved.

“I don’t want you and I to have trouble,” JJ offered to neutralize the suspicion still written on his pa’s face.

“Ja… we like you here too, my boy,” there was a momentary gentleness to the big craggy man; he so rarely let gentleness or emotion breach through his tough façade.

Then almost as if catching himself Andre hedged against showing any more weakness; “…These are stressful times… not stress we’re making, stress pushed on us from outside by the rooineks and their Communist government. We don’t want this stress.”

“It’s too late to get into it again, Pa. I just wanted to say I’m sorry for earlier. I want you to know that I’m not the enemy… I understand everything you feel, I just want to give you a perspective… I know is not easy.”

JJ could feel his father’s mood switching into a battle mode, the big battered shield rising before him, covering the slipup of momentary emotions that had exposed his soft underbelly.

The more vulnerable Andre felt, the more he over-compensated with an offensive;

“There’s another troublemaker in town…” Andre prodded, “…that little black fucker’s father.”

“How to react and play this?” JJ’s mind was suddenly bolting in every direction, as if a bucket of ice water had been thrown over sleeping cats.

He knew his father was studying him for his reaction, so he didn’t react. He knew it was a test; his father would know through the rumour machine that Al had been at the clinic this evening, and that his own presence at the clinic had most likely boomeranged straight back to his Pa the instant he’d cut the engine outside it. It was a trap that JJ couldn’t help walking into, “He’s a really nice man, Pa. Educated and very polite.”

Andre snorted and shook his head denying the possibility, a seep of distrust for JJ and his secrets now unmasked in his eyes.

“Pa… at this hour…? Really… I don’t want to go there. I met with the man because I admire his work, and because it’s an honor, and…”

“And you take your sister there again, to those type of people after I asked you not to? Expose her to such rubbish?” The old man was quickly becoming volatile, his elephantine memory delivering them right back where they’d laid off earlier in the evening.

“Pa…”

“And you don’t bother to mention it? You don’t volunteer it? I get from you ‘The braai was lekker’? But where you actually ate dinner and went before the braai… that…” he left it there, frustrated with himself for not holding back as he’d promised himself he would.

“You’re going to wake Ma and Sonja. Please let’s just go to bed.”

“Wake Ma… wake Ma…? It’s better to tell your father to shut up than to be honest and straightforward like you were taught before the city.”

JJ felt anger beginning to grip within. The frustrations of small-town living crystallizing—everyone knowing everyone’s every move.

“I’m not going to argue with you Pa, not at this hour. If you prefer I’ll go home tomorrow, but I’m going to bed now.”

Andre glared after his son but did not follow down the corridor. JJ did not look back.

JJ sat on the edge of his bed, his hands shaking and vision jumping with each pounding heartbeat.

He began to breathe, deliberately, drawing breath in through his nose, his hands raising an imaginary weighty load up to his chest, his fingers held rigid… hold… and released the breath with a sigh, the imaginary weight gone, his hands falling away in a controlled push back to the floor. Then another breath and another.

A recent adherent to yoga, he took a firm grip on his galloping emotions and began the mantra that he had practiced; “Bhaja Man Mere Hari Ka Nam, Hari Ka Nam Sat Nam.”

As he repeated it, the hypnotic nasal rhythm of it took him to the palm dappled shade of his oceanfront bungalow’s wooden deck. Now he could hear the gull calls and the rush and wash of the waves, the burble of laughter meshed with the clap of tennis balls meeting wooden bats; the wafting subtle whiff of sun cream and salty air drifting up from the throng of towels and sun umbrellas arranged close below his wall; “Bhaja Man Mere Hari Ka Nam, Hari Ka Nam Sat Nam”, he repeated, ““Bhaja Man Mere Hari Ka Nam…”

The irony dawned on him and he began to smile, the adrenaline gone, calm restored: “Oh my mind, meditate on God's Name, God's Name is Sat Nam—Truth,” the English translation of the mantra that he parroted in the Gurumukhi language of Punjab.

Punjab was, he realized, ironically a relic of Al’s and Dara’s own bloodline; the ‘black devils’ whose arrival into the little world of this community had caused such heated friction. That he should have spontaneously retreated to this foreign technique under his father’s roof, after his father’s outburst… “Serendipity!” JJ said it aloud to himself, a chance occurrence, indeed.

“God's name is truth,” he said it to his father as if his father were in the room with him.

It conjured a God that JJ no longer took to be literally true and certainly not the God, the Jehovah, the Yahweh of his father and his own youth. The mantra, he understood, was nothing but a tool to trigger the psychological Pavlovian conditioning to whisk his mind to a healthier place for the moment.

His father would be outraged, JJ contemplated; that his son was violating the second commandment; “no strange Gods before me,” under his very roof.

It was too late now to review the recording of his father’s cabal meeting any longer, so he closed the lid on his laptop, swung his feet onto the bed, and snapped off the light.

In the dark he lay and contemplated it, “…‘no strange Gods before me’… What a strange echo,” he thought. “From a time truly not long ago when this was my childhood bedroom and that sanction seemed so deadly serious and important.”

Twenty years ago, JJ was the youth leader in the church under Dominee Gert. This environment was his home.

“I think, Pa, it’s time I go to my real home,” he told himself out aloud.

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