The service and days preceding it had exhausted the Dominee. He felt emotionally wrecked, yet duty still called.
He’d received a message from Kentucky in the USA, from the Pastor with whom Neels was lodging, and it sounded ominous. The lad needed to talk, to talk in his own language to his own people.
Neels had wanted to see the Dominee, so Dr. Louw the Principal had arranged for Johannes van Doorn to bring his son Frans into school at 7pm and set up a video conference call on the new SKA donated computers and high-speed line.
Gert still marveled at the prospect of seeing the person he was about to talk to half a world away, not quite believing it possible. He’d never imagined he’d live to see the day.
“Ja Neels, en hoe gaan dit, seun?” He was startled to see how gaunt and tired the normally robust boy looked, but he tried to keep the shock out of his greeting.
“Alles goet, Dominee.”
It was always like this between men in this culture; though they might ask for help, when it came, they’d declare from outset that all was fine and there was nothing amiss; a strategy to cause the other party to draw it steadily out of them, step by step—leaving them feeling vindicated and light—as if they’d never needed any assistance.
“Is it a good place there? Are the people being good to you?”
“They are good people here Dominee, very good. Very Faithful.”
“Good, my boy.”
There was a long awkward silence.
On both ends of the line observers were milling and both men used body language to ask without the other seeing for the watchers to give them room.
Neels in the home office nook of his hosts half turned but did not look at the listeners in his room and they got the message and melted away. He could have kept talking as they spoke in Afrikaans, but he could not relax his mood with spectators.
A few moments of silence, Neels’ head bowed to the camera, then his shoulders convulsed once.
Gert used his hand in the universal ‘leave us’ gesture; Dr. Louw steered Johannes and Frans out.
“Oom… Oom Andre…” was all that the big lad said in a whisper and another tremor racked through his shoulders; a moment later they shuddered a third time, and then the spasm grabbed him and he began to collapse onto his own lap.
Gert just watched, a tear of his own ran and leapt from his cheek; he wiped the warm tickling trace away—it was hard to watch a man cry, harder to watch a hard man sob.
“He has gone to a better place,” he eventually assured Neels tenderly.
“I know, Dominee…” the voice was muffled. “… but why...? Why?!...”
Gert knew there was no answer to the pleading question; it was not the question of why Andre had done it, that much was obvious—they had driven him to it. No. He was asking why God had allowed it.
“We can only accept that his work was done here my son.”
“But taking your own life is a sin, Dominee… it is a deadly sin. You yourself have said it many times before. You have preached it. Why would the Oom sin? He was not a sinner. He was a man of integrity.”
Neels was in anguish far beyond mere sorrow, he was in the anguish of doubt, and this the Dominee knew to be the most dangerous of turf. It meant the Devil was about.
“The Lord will make His reasons known in good time,” he told the boy carefully. “It is not our place to ask that question. It is only that we know and remember the man that Oom Andre was, and that the Lord allowed this to happen.”
Neels kept sobbing, becoming incoherent.
Gert’s concern grew, yet he dared not let his fears show.
“Have you prayed?” He asked tenderly.
“I have, Dominee… I’ve done little else.”
“Have the people there prayed with you?”
“They have, they have been beyond hospitable. The whole community has come to my aid. They are good people, Dominee. They are like us in so many ways but still… they… they’re not our people. I did not know how far away my heart would feel. I did not know how lonely I could be in a crowd.”
“I am sorry my boy, I am sorry that this distance is necessary. I am sorry that it is so necessary at this difficult time.”
“I want to come home.”
“You can’t, not now.”
“Why? Surely…? Under the circumstances… this tragedy…?”
It was an immature view, the Dominee knew that; as if it was all a game, a game in which the legal jeopardy that Neels faced was not real.
Like a child with a game or prank not going his way, Neels was appealing for his version of fair play to govern; as if this dire hurt to the community’s core were a scapegoat that could be traded to mitigate those lesser injuries that he had perpetrated.
“This tragedy only means something to us, to our people; outsiders don’t care, Neels. They are pursuing this, making more and more trouble… in spite of the tragedy.”
Gert was aware, sickeningly aware, that awkward and ugly questions were being asked about Neels around town; a witch hunt afoot to ferret out anyone who had ever had friction with the boy, an urging to bring them into one single legal appeal to bring him to book.
“You must remain there until we can clear these matters up for you.”
“Matters, Dominee?” Neels’ question was almost childlike, discounting the private admissions he’d made to the Dominee in confidence before he’d been bundled off.
“It is not wise that we talk about the details now Neels, not openly like this. I don’t know these machines and I don’t know who is listening or recording.”
“Yes, Oom.” Neels understood.
“It is more difficult now, Neels… now with Oom Andre gone. Now we cannot get justice from our own police anymore. They are against us so we must be careful. Careful and vigilant and clever.”
“Now—Let’s put this aside. Are you exercising? Your mind will be strong if you keep your body fit.” Gert angled to get the boy onto less introspective and questioning topics, onto areas he was certain to dominate.
“Yes Dominee!” It lightened his mood. “I went to a practice of their football game, but all those helmets and pads get in the way; I don’t know why they wear them. These ouens—these Americans… they’re soft. They’re big, but they’re soft,” and he laughed, “… I hurt them if I just run past. They’re so scared of me now so I have no trouble. They won’t tackle me and don’t want me to tackle them.”
“That’s my boy,” the Dominee was buoyed with pride and relief that he’d so quickly stemmed the slide of Neels’ uncomfortable emotional drift.
“You stay away from the girls,” he warned Neels. “They’re different to us. I know they’re pretty but we don’t know them… we don’t know their accents we can’t read the foreigners and that means you don’t know the… uhmm… the breeding of the girl or how she is.”
By ‘how’, the Dominee meant promiscuity and Neels fully understood it within context.
“Yes Dominee … they are pretty though.”
“Pretty can be dangerous… the Devil can appear pretty, Neels. Their culture is different. If you make a mistake there I can’t help you. I can only instruct you to behave and know that God is watching.”
Approaching footsteps and voices got suddenly louder in the corridor and a moment later the police Captain strode through the door of the computer room, followed closely by one of his aides and Dr. Louw in a furious mood. A few moments later the van Doorn father and son followed close behind.
“I must go now Neels,” Gert told the boy. “We have something going on here.”
He didn’t want the boy to see or hear whatever it was that might be afoot—not at such a distance and in so brittle a condition.
Neels quickly said his shocked goodbyes.
Unaccustomed with computers the Dominee pressed the On/Off LED button illuminated on the monitor in the expectation that it would finish the call. The screen cut off but sounds from the other side kept emitting from the speaker as someone with an American accent asked how it had gone.
The American sounds meshed in an orgy of confusion in the room as Principal Louw admonished the Captain for trespassing into a private conversation.
“Is this not a public institution, sir?” the Captain asked.
He got no confirmation, but no contradiction either.
“Good. Then I would very much like to review the CCTV footage. I believe from this boy that it’s housed in here?”
The confrontation had begun in Principal Louw’s office, where the van Doorns and Dr. Louw had been waiting so that Frans could close down the call after the Dominee was done.
The sun had long since set. The lights illuminating the Principal’s office and other rooms in the building, along with the few cars parked outside, had attracted the Captain’s attention.
The Captain had personally come out to the school to see if CCTV cameras covered the parking lot where an earlier incident reported to him had occurred. He’d been surprised to see cars parked in the grounds at such a late hour. He’d parked and entered Dr. Louw’s office uninvited.
A short and sharp confrontation had ensued during which the Captain, who knew through the town grapevine that Frans was the local whizz on electronics, had asked Frans directly if he knew where the CCTV monitoring was located, and Frans had answer nervously.
“Yes, sir. It’s in the computer room.”
“Do you know how to access it?”
“Come with me then, we need to see the parking lot from earlier today—can you pull that up?” The Captain had asked as he walked briskly, Frans in tow.
“I’m sure sir.”
As they approached, Gert and Neels’ voice had echoed hollowly through the empty corridors.
Both Johannes, Frans’ father, and Deon Louw in particular had been outraged; how dare this black policeman address the boy in their charge directly? The proper protocol would be to ask through his elders. Worse yet the boy had been so servile, calling the man ‘sir’ at every turn; it was demeaning… unbefitting.
“Onbeskof…” the Principal kept repeating to Johannes, loud enough so the Captain could not fail to hear.
“It’s only rude, Doctor, if there is something to hide,” the Captain tersely observed.
“Are you suggesting something?” Louw challenged him.
“I won’t suggest anything until I have the facts, Doctor.”
“Well… what is it you’re looking for?”
“I’m quite sure you can hazard a guess, Doctor.”
Dr. Louw hated it when the Captain called him ‘doctor’—he said it with condescension, it reeked of insult.
Suddenly the American voices over the speakers from the computer went dead; the other side had cut the call.
“Can I turn that off properly?” Frans asked the policeman, further infuriating the boy’s seniors who each silently determined to put the boy’s priorities in order as soon as he could be taken aside from this unpleasant man and situation.
They could all see that the Captain was enjoying this and it made them hate him all the more.
When Frans was done he pointed the Captain to the large monitor dedicated to the CCTV.
“Let’s look at the parking lot on the southern side first, that’s where the three cars were parked. Start at one-thirty PM, that’s when they discovered the problem… then jump back in thirty-minute increments until we see the vehicles are unharmed. Then we can fast forward till we see precisely who slashed their tires.”
As the Captain spoke, Frans busily clicked with the mouse on the several dozen camera angles on screen, identifying the camera he was instructed to review. “It’s Camera seventeen that will give the best angle sir.”
The boy opened a menu and clicked through it.
“I can’t, sir…”
“Can’t seem to access the recording.”
Frans clicked back out and said “Ahhhh.”
“You’ve found the problem?”
“It hasn’t been recording.”
“What? Why not?!”
“It looks like Seventeen, Nineteen, Twenty, Twenty Three… actually, all the cameras out on the front of the building on the parking lot aren’t recording.”
“And the others?”
“Hang on—no the others are fine, sir.”
“The others are all recording… hmmm. Can you tell when last it recorded in the front?”
“Uhhhmm,” he clicked at the menu, and a table popped up. “Well, Seventeen was recording this morning at eight… at nine… ten… not at eleven… There, it’s last recording waaaaas…. ten-thirty-seven.”
“Interesting…” The Captain was looking at the Principal when he asked, “And how do you turn recording on and off?”
“Oh it’s easy, very simple,” the boy answered in kneejerk fashion, “I showed Dr. Louw earlier… you just click this button here,” he clicked an ‘on/off’ toggle on the screen, “and when the red light ‘R’ comes on it’s recording. Click it again and it’s stopped.”
“That’s interesting, Doctor. You said earlier you didn’t know anything about how these things work and now we didn’t record who the vandals are. It doesn’t make the school look good when the sponsors have their private property damaged and the system they paid for to safeguard it has been tampered with.”