Chapter 20 (Christmas Eve 2013 – BURGER STEENKAMP)
Burger looked out over the snow-covered sidewalk where, despite of the snow coming down in buckets, shoppers are scrambling and gliding and balancing along to do some last minute shopping for Christmas. He was supposed to have a nice lunch in front of him by now, but he still hadn’t ordered because Rita was a no-show up to now. They loved this snug little trattoria called “Verdi’s” with its traditional red and white overlays over the green table-cloths and lantern-like candles on the tables. He ordered a glass of red wine just to calm the anxious little waitress down. She’d came round for the umpteen time to hear if “Everything’s okay?” ’She kept looking nervously at the open chair across the table, hoping his dinner-date would magically appear. Granted, they were very busy and there were people waiting for tables to empty up, but she must be a newbie to get so nervous. Anyway, he himself was getting quite hungry by now and a little jittery for her sake. He nodded at her for the umpteenth time, assuring her that everything was indeed fine. She trotted off, ponytail bobbing, to assure the waiting guests that they will soon get seated.
He took a sip of his wine as he looked the people over sitting in close vicinity to the table. Most were caught up in the hype of the festive-season wearing ridiculous Christmassy hats and scarfs. Jumpers, who most wouldn’t be caught dead in at any other time of the year, came out of the mothballs to adorn every other chest. “Rudolph’s” and “Ho-Ho-Ho” and little tiny bells that really rung with every movement. There were also the more sober ones, like him, that wore a regular black coat with a no-nonsense green, or whatever single-colour, scarf. Some even ventured with tartan!
Burger felt the familiar buzz of his phone and his heart melted to his knees for he knew it would be his wife with yet another “shopping-horror”-story to tell and to assure him that she’ll be there soon. He will have to annoy the little waitress for yet another twenty minutes or so! She already looked at him with murder in her eyes.
Even after twenty odd years, and despite been a lawyer for nearly eighteen, he still gets a haunting feeling in his stomach at the sudden appearance of a police uniform.
And sirens - any sirens - make him want to run any which way!
There are still some dark nights he woke up in a feverish sweat and only the soothing voice of Rita gets him to calm down.
He took another big gulp of his wine as his face turned soberly serious.
He thought a lot about that sunny day when he first set foot outside the prison as a free man. He can still recall Pretoria with its purple haze of Jacaranda flowers and Rita in the backseat of the car. He was angry and he didn’t want her there. He recalled his parents jabbering about nonsense just to ease the atmosphere and his dad’s – bless his soul – disgusted tale about the brick of a phone the neighbour was carrying around.
He looked at his mobile and said softly, ‘No stopping technology, Dad.’
Both his parents were gone now. They both died at a relative young age, or so it felt (Dad seventy and mom seventy-three). He was sure his own ordeal had something to do with their early demise. May not have been the case but, he still feels guilty about it! Shit, he feels guilty about all kinds of things!
A hand fell softly on his shoulder and he smiled.
‘Good God, honey, did you leave anything at all for the other present-driven mad souls?’ he gasped as she dropped a ton of bags to the floor.
She kissed his cheek and he pulled her chair out.
He put his hand up to call the little waitress over and whispered to Rita, ‘The poor girl’s in such a state about me sitting here ordering nothing but wine, and it’s your fault entirely.’
The little waitress, in her eagerness to get them something to eat and out of there, nearly killed herself over all the packages and presents that Rita had dumped next to her chair. Her flailing hands landed loudly on the table as she plonked the menus down, but she kept her pose and asked tight-lipped and red-faced, ‘Can I get you something to drink, ma’am, and you sir, another red wine?’ Embarrassed, but so thankful that they would at last order something, and get the hell out of there, pronto!
Rita had come by every day after his release from prison. Talking to his parents most of the time, as he still refused to have any kind of conversation with her except for a stern “Morning” – or whatever time of day it was - revelling in his own misery. He did not really want to share anything with people, especially not with her. She persevered against all odds and one morning – his parents went to some or other flea-market – as he was sitting in the sun on the back stoop with a glass of orange-juice, she appeared round a corner.
Well, at least Buster was happy to see her.
She said a quiet “Good morning” and sat down on the other chair.
He said nothing.
‘There’s one thing that bothers me since that night of the murder-’
’I don’t want to talk about it, and if I did, it would certainly not be with you!’ he interrupted flatly.
She ignore him and went on, ’I’m not a heavy drinker – never was – but, I can’t remember squat from the time I said to both you and Minke “Watch out for the wildlife” till the next morning around nine or so. No, no, I had a vague idea that I’ve reached the chalet, but after that – zero, zip! And then I woke with a hangover!’ She looked at him, ’I never in my entire life had a hangover and never again had one after that. I can remember the hangover, for my brain nearly exploded, but nothing, not one other memory or detail could I recall since…well, I don’t know…late Saturday night or the early hours of Sunday morning! NOTHING! And believe me I’ve wrecked every corner of my brain.’
‘So?’ he said rudely.
‘It’s bothering me now for ten years and – three months – is it?’ She turned his way, ‘I’ve asked nearly everyone that was there that night, those I could locate in anyhow, and they all said the same thing. They cannot remember much; they all assumed, like me, one way or another, they had way too much to drink. Nearly all could vouched to a hangover on Sunday. Some even admitted that they’re stoned out of their heads. Took a little extra for, like a few had put it so amusingly, “self-confidence.”’ She inverted with her fingers.
He looked at her for the first time.
‘Burger, for the life of me I can’t think of anything I had more to drink than two – make that three white wines - and the Tequila we toasted Minke with just before some of the guys went home.’
He still stared at her with a blank expression but, he was curious none the less.
’Could someone, the barman, or…I don’t know… had drugged all of us? Is that possible?’ she turned red and looked away, ‘Oh, this sounds silly, but maybe…the murderer…maybe?’
‘I thought you all said I was the murderer, not so?’ He said coldly, ’Maybe it’s you’re guilty conscience. I mean now that the murderer is not the murderer!’ He let her have it. He had to vent his anger on someone or something.
She looked at him and there were tears in her eyes, ‘I’m sorry Burger, I know I was the harshest of them all…but…I cannot say anything else but, I’m sorry.’
He looked at the panoramic view before him. He could see the top of the Voortrekker Monument but didn’t really register it all.
He was deep in thought.
He remembered that they all, as far as he can remember, toasted Minke – for a third time with a complimentary drink – Tequila! He remembered the laughter and fun as each licked the salt, threw down the Tequila and the scrunched-up faces, mostly the women, as they sucked on the lemon. Could there be any truth in all of this? Was she just trying to make amends for been part of putting his innocent ass in jail for ten years?
‘I have to say,’ she went on after a while, ‘I thought you a little arrogant back then. As was I, I guess – just in a different way. Of one thing I’m sure off though, I’m sure Minke would have given you all that you would’ve asked for, and more.’ She took his hand, ‘She loved you, you know.’
He was quiet for a long time before he said softly and sadly, ‘And I loved her.’
It was silent for a few minutes and then…