CHAPTER 16 (November 1990 – FREE)
Burger Steenkamp closed his eyes for a moment. Not because the South African sun was too bright, but the space! The space made his head spin. He walked with slow measures steps towards freedom wishing he had a wall to put his outstretched hand against.
It was a long time for anyone to spend behind bars. Even longer for an innocent man. He even bares a few scares to his ordeal. Scares that will always reminds him of her murder and the murder of his soul. He tried mostly to keep to himself in there, but sometimes, to no fault of his own, he was right in the middle of some or other crap. There were times he’s been beaten up just because he’s a “rich scum bastard” or a “rapist” (never for been a murderer – most were). Other times his face just pissed someone off on and he received a fair good beatings for that. Which side you’re on also could get you in big trouble.
The only good thing that came of all this was the law degree he’d earned while wasting away in there. Not sure if a convicted, pardoned murderer can practise law - even one who’d cum every single subject - but you sure as hell can earn a degree courtesy of UNISA. Law was a popular one amongst prisoners for some weird reason.
His first love, of course, was, and always will be, medicine. He would’ve loved to be a doctor. He would’ve been a great doctor. That dream he was forced to give up ten years ago. He knew he didn’t raped and murdered Minke Muller. He was the only one who knew to that fact. To most all others he was a no-good murderer and liar who should rot in hell or jail - whichever comes first - and he was well on his way. He was told, quite a few times by his lawyer, that he was really lucky to escape with his life.
Just a handful of people believed his innocence. Maybe, just pretended to believe his innocence. His mom and dad, of course, always stood by him. If they’d really believed him, that was another matter. Maybe that’s what parents are supposed to do. Even if deep down a dark devil was making them doubting and questioning. He was the younger of two siblings by more than twelve years and the baby. Truth be told, he had been a spoiled brat, but his parents (like maybe all parents) just didn’t want to believe that they’ve spawned and loved and grown a murderer or rapist.
Then there was his friend Martin. For ten years he came to visit him once a month come hell or high water. Maybe, in retrospect, his ONLY real believer and friend. Some he never saw after the trial, but not Martin, who was by now, a respected doctor.
Along with his lawyer and parents, Martin never believer he was guilty and never gave up on him.
His older sister, Monica - whom he didn’t much off - is married to a Canadian and lived in Canada for close to fifteen years. She was with here, ten years ago, he guessed, mostly his parents’ sake, she did however, along with Martin van der Westhuizen, kept his spirit as high as was possible at the time. The only time he saw her broke down and cry was when the Judge sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Rod and Ned kept it up for a few months but, they had a future to think off and vanished quietly as soon as possible.
Everyone else went outside and looked up if he said it was raining!
Then there was his lawyer. A short, little overweigh, feisty blonde. She may or may not have believed him, however, she was paid to believe in him. No matter what her personal feelings were, she had to believe in him. Burger had the funny feeling that she must’ve been at the receiving end of quite a few snide remarks in her time, thus, her defence was genuine and well handled. She just didn’t won her case. At the time – 1980 - it was odd to be represented by a woman, young and inexperienced. However, maybe because he was a blemish on her track-record, or maybe because he was her first murder-case, could even been that she even felt she was defending the down-trodden, whatever her reasons, she kept up with his case and he had two appeals in the last four years. Nothing came of the appeals until DNA, and she (still married to her work) was absolutely persistent and in the end it paid off.
If it wasn’t for Doctor Alec Jeffrey and the DNA coding he would’ve rot in Potgieterstraat. Thank God for a stranger somewhere in England who’d proved his innocence via persistence, research and a breakthrough theory, even if they didn’t know each other from Adam! Thank God for his lawyer’ attitude and his parents and Martin’s persistence.
Well, it could’ve been worse, he could’ve gotten the death penalty ten years ago and DNA would’ve been far too late to save his hide or prove his innocence. He supposed he was… lucky?
Really? Is that what they mean by every cloud has a silver lining? Well, his cloud was quite dark and stormy the last ten years!
He tried to smile at his parents as he approached them, but he was sure it looked more like a painful grimace.
They’d gotten old, mom and dad. Her watery blue eyes filled with tears as she hugged him tightly and for a long time. His dad shook his hand none stop before he leaned in and hugged him as well, which was a first for his dad. He wasn’t the hugging type.
‘Come on, we’ve got a surprise for you.’ His mom said as if he was a kid you can bribe and comfort with a trip to the Wimpy for a milkshake and a toy hidden in a kiddie’s dinner, ‘It’s a friend.’
They walked him to the car each hanging onto a hand. Everything felt surreal. He felt surreal, as if in a painting.
Dad opened the door to the backseat. He got in expecting to see Martin. He is, after all, the only friend he had left!
‘Hi Burger, you look good.’
Her green eyes were sincere. The dark-brown hair was tied back in a ponytail with a blue ribbon. She wore the same colour blue top and slags. Her make-up was carefully done in browns. Although she was now as thin as a rake he recognised her immediately.
Rita Le Roux!
Minke best friend.
What the hell was she doing here? Surely no friend of his! Her witness-account was the harshest of all and the last and deepest nail in his coffin.
He hesitated for a few seconds before nodding coldly.
She leaned over and took his hand. He pulled back and she shrivelled back in her corner, her gaze down.
‘I’m glad you’re okay.’ She said softly.
His voice came out thin and gravely, ‘Okay for a criminal or okay for an innocent guy who spend ten years in jail?’
She looked out the window on her side. When she looked back her eyes were filled with tears.
’You look good for you!’
His mom and dad got in. They started to chipper like birds in a tree about the garden, his room, family and the newest gadget their “keep-up-or-die” neighbour, George Basson, bought.
‘A cell-phone-,’ his father said with a smirk.
His mother took it further, ‘…as big as a brick, but he insists on carrying the bloody thing with him, even if he just comes over for a drink-’
‘Can’t wait for the damn thing to ring, just to show off,’ his father jumped in again, ‘got it on some overseas trip. Bloody thing is going to give him a hernia.’
‘Just goes to show what fun one misses when one’s in jail.’ He said laconic and immediately regretted it. His parents were the two people that believed in him against all odds. They visited him without shame and defended him to all. His mom still calls him “Baby” for he was her youngest.
Well, they must surely be more proud of their eldest. Monica’s a doctor. Like Dad. Like he would’ve been. If it wasn’t for a little misunderstanding called rape and murder. He would’ve followed in their footsteps had it not been for the small matter of a life imprisonment sentence.
He didn’t apologise and the rest of the trip was done in silence. He looked out of the window.
Pretoria was all grown up, so was he.
Everyone stared out of a window.
In the silence that followed Burger thought, as he often did, about that fatal night.
How stunning Minke looked. How his, up to then, unscathed, frivolous heart (and other organs) went in overdrive just thinking of her. He had quite a few girlfriends in his short but busy love-life. He usually had the pick of the litter. “Love ’em and leave ’em” was so to speak his motto till he met Minke Blignaut. She knocked him out of the ballpark. His golden tongue and touch, when it came to girls, helped a lot in his conquests and his good looks didn’t hinder much. A lot of people called him egotistical, a narcissist, and of course, looking back, he most probably was. He admitted freely that up to the minute he laid eyes on Minke Blignaut he enjoyed the “Playboy” image a lot. But those blue eyes of hers put a spell on him. Her smile captivated his heart, her sunny, friendly, warm-hearted outlook on life overran his brain. The lovely face, the neat body and inviting butt was all but a bonus. He was swept off his feet.
A sad, sour smile adorned his face.
’Boy, did you pay for your life of fornication.’ He thought grimly.
He remembered it as if yesterday.
Been in love, really in love, scared the hell out of him! It was as if he wasn’t in control anymore. He, for the first time in his privileged life, wasn’t sure how to act around a girl or how she would react to him. When he got the invite to her 21st, he played the carefree playboy once again, accepting only at the last minute courtesy of Martin van der Westhuizen. He had urged him to go and get rid of the itch, as he so elegantly called put it. Otherwise, to pursue it! If he and she weren’t on the same page about their feelings he, Burger, could still pretend it didn’t really matter. But he knew all along he met his match. Everything went well. It went better than well. She seemed just as taken with him as he was with her. He remembered holding her hand as they went for “a bit of fresh air”. He remembered Rita - the same Rita sitting next to him in the backseat at this moment - calling after them: “Beware of the wild life”.
He remembered sitting down next to Minke under a big, willowy tree, feeling a bit light-headed. The stars were as bright as white dots on black paper. Then they all slowly started to swirl around and around, faster and faster! Suddenly something, somewhere switched them off and the blackness was all around. Try as he might, and he had done so numerous times in the last ten years, he still couldn’t recall anything after swirling, Van Gogh stars and the darkness. There were a lot of maybes and perhaps, but absolute conclusion evaded him totally. He just couldn’t recall any of his actions. Although the authorities and the witnesses back then came to an immediate conclusion as far as his guilt was concerned he couldn’t remember. The more he tried to explain that, the guiltier he sounded and looked. Maybe the fresh air and the drinks didn’t go that well together. Everything was, and still is, a total mystery to him. The bit he remembered vividly, however, was the police waking him up, one hand still close to the red marks around Minke’s neck. Two of them pulling him roughly to his feet, and then the reading of his rights. He heard the shouting and pointing and he remembered her two dainty bare feet just dipping under a bush with big, red flowers. And the panty! The black lace panty dangling from one ankle! The faces of people standing in a circle – as if in a circus – staring at him in total silence! Even nature kept its breath for all but a few seconds.
Funny the shit you can recall!
Looking at those big, red flowers was the moment his life, as he knew it, ended dramatically. He was still Burger Steenkamp. But now he was Burger Steenkamp the rapist. Burger Steenkamp the murderer. Burger Steenkamp the headliner. Burger Steenkamp the convict. But worse of all, Minke Blignaut, the love of his life, lied dead next to him. He had done it, he was told by police as hands pushed him down into a chair, in a stuffy, dirty interview room. He killed her and selective memory wasn’t a very good defence!
‘Must be someone’s idea of a bad joke!’ he thought and said before the realization closed in.
Although his heart was still beating, air was still filling his lungs, in a way he died with her. Burger Steenkamp, the carefree heart-throb was no more and never will be again.
Listening to the opening statements of the lawyers in court, the terrible truth according to those in the know unfurling during the trial, he knew in his heart of heart he could never, ever have done anything remotely as vulgar and evil to anyone, never mind the girl he loved. Even if all the evidence were stacked against him. He wanted to be a doctor for God sake!
However, he was the only one there who was of that thought. Most everybody else believed he killed her! Even his best friends (except Martin) who came to his defence had stumbled over their answers as they threw argument after argument against him.
He even remembered the apologetic, sad look his lawyer gave him as he was excused from the witness stand. For ten years he replayed scene after scene, again and again, in his head and then…
The car had stopped.
They were home.
It somehow looks smaller than he thought it was.
‘Well,’ his father’s pretend light-hearted voice brought him back from the nightmare he was reliving, ‘looks like Buster kept the fort safe.’
A tired looking Golden Retriever came waddling round the corner of the house. He look surprised to see a car in the driveway which prompted him to give a grave, gravelled bark – just to keep up the pretence of alertness. Then he went round dad’s way for a deserving pat on the head - which he got. That put his tail in overdrive for a few seconds. He welcomed mom the same way and sniffed at the new-comers before returning to his sunny corner on the veranda for some shut-eye. Happy with the day’s work.
‘Yes,’ his dad gave a forced laugh, ’more “watch-me-sleep” dog than “watch-dog” these days.’
Buster was but a puppy the last time Burger had seen him.
‘Come on,’ his mother’s turn to try to uplift the mood, ‘let’s have a nice cup of tea, I made some chocolate cake. You remember honey, the one you like so much.’
A sudden sadness for his parents rose in his soul. He put his arm around his mother’s shoulder and squeezed. Then he gave his best upbeat performance ever.
‘That sounds great, mom. That was one of the things that I’ve missed the most’ he said softly.
His mother suddenly grabbed hold of him and started to sob uncontrollably. Burger let her be and caught his father’s moist eyes over her head. Rita turned her face away. He could see that she was crying herself.
What the hell did she suffer?
He still hadn’t had a clue what in the world she was doing here. But he couldn’t give a shit at the moment. He was in any case to weary to ask. He just wanted to sit down and enjoy friendly surroundings and, quietness. He wasn’t really hungry, but for his mother’s sake he will choke down the damn chocolate cake and tea.