Chapter 23 (GERTA)
Rita stood quietly, staring at a snow-owl making its descent into a tree a little clumsily before clutching onto a branch. He looked around a little uneasy, wondering who’d notice. Maybe he was just back from another - nearly fruitless - night of hunting, for what small creatures would dare to go out on a harsh, cold night like these January-nights?
She ventured out early this morning, before the weak rays of the sun tried to set a kind of pathetic dominance on the icy earth, in the hope of seeing something to indicate that spring was on its way. As per usual, she was far too optimistic. It was only the third week of January. The sky was blue as cobalt and the sun was trying its very best, but still, it was very cold. And the snow, although only ankle-deep on the garden path, showed no sign of relenting. She didn’t walk two-hundred meters before her toes went numb and the feeling of walking on stumps got the better of her wanderlust. Rita turned back reluctantly. She actually love the snow. No, more to the point, she love the romance, the beauty, and the excitement of snow. Especially in the early season around Christmas, but in January she missed sunny South Africa. Those high-summer days filled with amazing smells of braais, or the soft rain after a thunderstorm, the intense colours of the rainbow against the clouds. She missed the sound of the rumbling thunder and blinding bolts as the storm builds over the Highveld and then, when it hit the earth with a thick, veiny thud, making everyone jumps. If not too close, you await and anticipate the sound which inevitable followed the blitz. If close by it would whip down immediately and made the windows rattle. If still a few kilometres out there is an ominous silence before the rumbling sounds crescendo in your ears like an awakening dragon.
‘Mom! Mom!’ Gerta’s voice came to her ears, ‘come inside, what on earth you’re trying to do? Want to catch pneumonia? What’s with the salt-pillar act?’
Rita smiled. Her daughter was more like a mom to her than the other way around.
‘I’m coming,’ she yelled back and made her way to the back door. Gerta was standing over the kettle watching it boil.
‘You know what they say, nè, a watched kettle never boils.’ Rita made light conversation and shook her feet to get some feeling back.
Since Gerta came back from the funeral she looked so serious. So unlike her! Every time Rita inquired about it she steered the conversation in another direction. She would just mentioned that it was so sad and that she felt so bad for Aunt Brenda; that was that. Rita was, however, surprised about the will. Brenda Blignaut left quite a substantial amount of money and a few expensive art-works to Gerta, even though they never really met or knew each other that well. When Gerta found out about the sad circumstances between her father and Minke Blignaut all those years ago. The plight of her father, spending ten years in jail before his name was cleared, she wanted to know more. Rita made her promise she wouldn’t burden her father with any of it. That she, Rita, would fill her in on the whole story when the time was right.
It took nearly two years since then before Rita got the courage to tell her the story – or some of it, at least.
It came about when Gerta was first year law student. She wanted to know, after yet another rescue of an animal in dire straits by Burger, why he didn’t became a vet or a doctor. He absent-mindedly mentioned that he always wanted to become a doctor and that he was a medical student many years ago. He suddenly realized that everything would take a lot of explaining and just added, ‘I realized you can help just as many people through the law than medicine.’
Gerta was seventeen at the time, but she could see on her daughter’s face that that answer didn’t satisfy her at all. She pestered him for around a year on and off before Rita decided something had to be done and said.
‘Mom,’ Gerta broke her reverie, ‘I want to go back there for the things she left me in her will, maybe to place a few flowers or even a picture at the wall and then, well, maybe a little holiday.’
Although she knew exactly where there was she said, ‘Where would that be, sweetheart?’
Gerta poured two cups of instant coffee and reached for the milk. Then turned to her mother, ’You know exactly where there is. I really would like to see more of the place you and Dad grew up in. Besides, I have business to attend to over there,’ her hand slid over the dark, Pixie haircut before she took a sip of coffee, ‘you know, the things in her will she left me.’
‘But your Dad can take care of all that from here.’ Rita said with an uneasy feeling in her tummy.
‘I’ve got three weeks left in any case before I have to start again, why waste it? My passport and all that is still in order at the moment. I might never get the change again to see South Africa again. Now is as good a time as any.’
Rita knew that she would not talk any sense into that stubborn head. She just said, ‘Talk to your father first.’
Before she’d even said that she knew, when looking into those beautiful eyes of her daughter, it was a waste of time and words. What happened over there? She wondered. Did someone say something to her that shouldn’t have been said?
‘I should’ve stayed on after the funeral, but at the time I didn’t know about the will and that I have to make arrangements for the stuff it to be sent over here. I can’t let it all in Mila’s hands. And it might be interesting to go and see things, not just the inside of someone else’s house, but some of South Africa.’
Rita got up and sighed deeply. She put her hand on Gerta’s shoulder and said, ‘One should let the past be. Let Aunt Brenda rest now - she deserves it.’
‘This will be the last tribute to her, mom.’ She said softly.
’What does that mean? You went to the funeral to pay your respects and you don’t know her that well. What last tribute?’
‘I want to see to her belongings, Mila and I. She left a lot of her things to a near stranger –me. A lot to Mila - which I can understand - because she was there for her, not so? But to me? Mila and I discussed it over Skype and decided we will sort it out together. She has no-one left, mom, except us! Well, it’s just, I want to do this for her. I can’t explain it, it just something I want to do, something I have to do. I think she felt a sort of quilt towards Dad.’
Rita sighed deeply and said with resignation, ‘I think I know what you mean.’
Gerta tried to get some sleep on the plane but her mind kept going over the letter. Her mom told her some of the story, but now she knew the whole story. Or should that be the whole truth. Her father and her mother loved and cared for each other, however, sometimes she could see the sadness in her dad’s eyes. A sort of loneliness. Sometimes even fear and darkness in unguarded moments. She was, after all, a daddy’s girl and she was a lot like him. She knew of her father’s prison sentence and his consequent acquittal and release. The main reason, she later found out, he gave up his dream of being a doctor. The reason he became a lawyer.
Dad’s sister, Aunt Monica, was already a Canadian citizen at the time of the tragedy, as she got married to a Canadian quite some years before all that happened. Mom told her that’s the reason they emigrated from South Africa to Canada. To be close to family. But now, she also knew what her father’s real surname was and why he had changed it to Mom’s maiden name. All the suffering and the hurt that he thinks she doesn’t know off.
For a long time she didn’t really understood it properly. But now? Now it made her sad and quietly very angry for his sake.
Dad couldn’t even be who he really was. He couldn’t do what he always dreamed of: To be a Doctor.
She spent precious little time with Aunt Brenda, but what she heard from her, and the letter she was left, etched the reality deep into her brain.
She was asked to do something about it and she was up for the task!
The change in seasons caught Gerta unaware as they left the airport and she couldn’t get rid of her warm top fast enough. Mila picked her up and they were now headed to the flat that will be her home for, at least, two weeks - if all goes well.
‘Couldn’t believe my luck when she called and said she’d found this place,’ Mila was in a talkative mood when she picked Gerta up from the airport, ‘perfectly placed and picturesque on top of it. Sort of old-worldly.’
‘Well, I’m not exactly here for the views or the weather although, it’s a far cry from the cold back home. It will do, as long as it serves its purpose.’ Gerta said tiredly.
Mila started to apologize again, ‘I would’ve liked you to stay with me, but with those two policemen sniffing around-’
‘Yeah, sorry again, I’ve got you in so deep. I had to think on my feet that day. Didn’t think she would say anything to him, or that she would die with him around.’ Gerta said apologetically.
‘Never mind, this little flat is in the ideal spot. It has a great little separate garage and gate, so your comings and goings will be your business. She even rented a car for you as well. It’s already over there, ready to go.’ She handed Gerta some keys.
‘That’s great,’ Gerta said as she made herself comfortable in the car, ‘don’t need a nosy landlord with a beady eye on me all the time.’
‘The house is enormous, I would’ve liked some company but we just can’t risk it, not with you using my name-’
‘Well, I had to think fast-’ Gerta defended herself one more time.
‘No, no, it’s quite alright. It’s just, I don’t know if those guys will be coming around again or even if I’d been convincing enough. Well, what they don’t know won’t hurt them, right? And after all, we’ve got a lot of work to get done.’
‘That’s right,’ Gerta said again in a weary mood, ‘and I’m here for one reason, and one reason only. It’s best we’re not seen together. Now get me there so I can get rid of this jet-leg.’
After another minute of silence Mila said, ‘Like your hair, cherry-red doesn’t really suit you.’
Gerta gave a tired smile and swiped a hand over the dark, pixie hairstyle, ‘Don’t you worry, I can turn red or blonde anytime it suits me.’ She gave a dry laugh.
They again drove a while before the silence again got to Mila, ‘They’ve must’ve gotten the letters and stuff by now so they’ll be looking at all sorts of possibilities already. We must be very careful.’
‘Well,’ Gerta said solemnly, ‘it’s now up to them to catch the bastard. We’re just going to lend a helping hand.’
‘Yes, let’s hope they don’t fuck up this time as well.’
‘Yeah, let’s hope.’