I want to tell you about my father’s murder.
I want to tell you who killed him, and why. This is the story of my life. And the story of your life and your world too, as you will see.
I have waited for a long time to write of this: I believe one needs wisdom, and insight for such a task. I think one has to first get the anger – in fact, all the emotions – under control.
I am forty-seven years old today. The age my father was when he died, in the Year of the Lion. Perhaps that offers enough distance from the events of the time, though I don’t know if I will ever develop the necessary wisdom and insight, but I worry that I will begin to forget many of the crucial events, experiences, people. I can’t postpone this any longer.
So, here it is. My memoir, my murder story. And my exposé, so everyone will know the truth.
The moments we remember most clearly are those of fear, loss and humiliation.
It was the twentieth of March in the Year of the Dog. I was thirteen years old.
The day passed just as the previous day had done, and the one before that, to the dull drone of the big Volvo FH12 diesel engine, and the muffled rumbling of sixteen wheels on the long, enclosed trailer behind it. Outside a predictable, forgettable landscape slid by. I recall the artificial coolness of the air conditioner in the cab of the ‘horse’. The truck still had that fresh, new smell. A school textbook lay open on my lap, but my thoughts were wandering.
My father slowed the truck. I looked up, and out. I read the white lettering against the black background of the road sign: WELCOME TO KOFFIEFONTEIN!
“Koffiefontein,” I repeated out loud, charmed by the name, and the image it evoked in my childlike imagination – a warm, aromatic fountain of simmering, dark coffee.
We drove slowly into town. In the near-dusk of the late afternoon it seemed ghostly, bereft of life, like all the others. Weeds on the pavements, lawns thickly overgrown behind their fences. On the horizon, far behind the squat buildings of the wide main street, lightning criss-crossed in spectacular displays on a backdrop of fantastical cloud formations. The entire western rim was blooded a strange, disturbing crimson.
My father pointed. “Cu-mu-lo-nim-bus,” he said, each syllable measured. “That’s what you call those clouds. It comes from the Latin. Cumulus means ‘pile. And ‘nimbus’ is ‘rain’. That’s what gives us thunderstorms.”
“Cu-mu-lo-nim-bus,” I had a go at the word.
He nodded, deftly turned the big truck in at the filling station, and parked. He flipped the switch he had installed himself, to turn on the lights down the side of the long, enclosed trailer. Instantly the fuel pumps cast long shadows, like human figures. The engine off, we climbed down.
We were so used to our surroundings being safe.
The late summer heat beat up from the tarred forecourt, insect shrilling filled the air. And another sound, a deeper carpet of noise.
“What’s that noise, Papa?”
“Frogs. The Riet River is just over there.”
We walked back along the side of the trailer. It was white, with three big green letters that looked as though they had been blown askew in a gale: RFA. They were spelled out on the back of the trailer – Road Freight Africa. We’d found it at a truck stop just outside Potchefstroom, with the Volvo horse attached, nearly brand new, full tank and all. Now we walked, father and son, side by side. His hair was long, blond and unkempt; mine was just as wild, but brown. I was thirteen, in that no-man’s-land between boy and teenager, and comfortable there.
A bat swooped low over my head, through the pool of light.
“How does a bat catch its prey?” my father asked.
“What kind of animal is a bat?”
“A mammal, not a bird.”
He ruffled my hair affectionately. “Good.”
I liked his approval.
We began to go through the familiar ritual we had performed at least once a day, for weeks on end now: My father carried the small Honda generator and electric pump to the fuel station’s refilling manhole covers in their colour-coded rows. Then he fetched the big adjustable spanner to lift up the black manhole cover. My job was to roll out the long garden hose. It was connected to the electric pump, and I had to push the other end into the mouth of the Volvo’s diesel tank, and hold it there.
Refuelling in a world without pump attendants or electricity.
I played my part, and stood there feeling bored, reading the letters on the white wall of the fuel station. Myburgh Electric. Myburgh Tyres. I thought I must ask my father about that, because I knew that ‘burg’ meant a fort – he’d explained that to me when we drove through places like Trompsburg and Reddersburg – but this was an unusual spelling, and not the name of this town.
Suddenly the hum of insects ceased.
Something drew my attention, behind my father, down the street. I called to him, in surprise at the unexpected sign of life, and a bit frightened by the furtive nature of the movement. My father hunkered down, pushing the pump pipe into the hole. He looked up at me, following the direction of my gaze, and saw the spectres in the deepening dusk.
“Get inside,” he shouted. He stood up, holding the heavy wrench, and ran towards the cab.
I was frozen. The shame of it would eat at me for months, that inexplicable stupidity. I stood motionless, my eyes fixed on the shifting shadows as they coalesced into solid shapes.
Dogs. Supple, quick.
“Nico,” my father shouted, with a terrible urgency. He stopped in his tracks, to try to fend the determined dogs away from his child.
The desperation in my father’s voice sent a shockwave through my body, releasing my fear. And shooting the first dart of self-recrimination. I sobbed, and ran along the length of the trailer. Through the mist of tears I saw the first dog float into the pool of light, leap at my father’s throat, jaws agape, long sharp fangs bared. The big spanner swung, a fleeting shadow of that motion. I heard the dull thud as it hit the creature’s head, its curtailed yelp. At the step of the truck, I grabbed the silver railing, panic propelling me up into the cab. A dog lunged at me, I dragged the door shut. The beast leapt up, high, almost to the open window, claws scrabbling on the metal door, yellow fangs gleaming in the light of the lorry. I screamed. The dog fell back. My father was down there. Five, six curs, creeping, crouching, circling him. And more darting into the pool of light, lean, relentless.
After that, everything happened so fast, yet it was also as if time stood still. I remember the finest detail. The despair on my father’s face when the dogs cut him off from the truck, just three metres away. The whirring sound as he swung and swung the massive adjustable wrench. The electrically-charged air, the smell of ozone, the stink of the dogs. They dodged backwards to evade the momentum of the deadly spanner, always too agile, just out of reach. But they stayed between him and the truck door, snarling, snapping.
“Get the pistol, Nico. Shoot.” Not an order. A terrified plea, as if in that moment, my father saw his death, and its consequences: His son, lone survivor, stranded, doomed.