The night that would set Captain Mandel on the path to arresting the engineer was one of heavy downpours. The rain, our mayor acknowledged in court, had moved over the crenulations of the Swartberg, tapping gently on our iron roofs. But only he was alarmed. No one else gave it so much as a second thought. After all, rain falls in Albertsburg’s valley with such regularity as to make this entirely commonplace. And it is because of these regular downpours that everybody, adults and children alike, carry with them our dark plain umbrellas. Umbrellas that they give the streets, during the rain, the look of a painting by Lowry.
Of course, the idea of Lowry becomes absurd after the clouds disappear over the cleft peak of Towerkop. For after taking down their umbrellas the town is one of men and children in khaki shorts and white and navy-blue t-shirts and of women in Dutch waxprint floral dresses. But it is the umbrella, which is carried by everybody, that is the defining feature of the region. I often look at them – and I am nowadays accustomed to carrying one myself – and think of the story of the man who came up the mountain pass on foot some twenty-five years ago. He came carrying with him in a canvass rucksack brightly coloured compact umbrellas. And they did, by all accounts, sell out within an hour and significantly changed the appearance of the town.
However, when the winter winds came they began to break and they were thrown away and ended up littering the streets and escarpment. They stood out like small broken windmills in the brown sandy dongas and in the green fields of growing mealies. So, after these failed to last a season, the people of Albertsburg went back to buying their sombre black umbrellas from Jacobson & Daughters, the discount builder’s merchant.
The story of the colourful umbrellas and its salesman did not end there however. For some months later when Kaptein Joll, who was then the chief of police in the district, and his men were sitting in the Jackal and Vel they noticed a trail of dust coming up the pass.
‘Mandel, you’ve got the youngest eyes amongst us. What is that?’ Joll said, pointing towards the pass.
‘It’s a vehicle.’
‘Yes, I know it is a vehicle. I am asking of what variety?’
Mandel turned his pale blue eyes onto the Kaptein, his lips moved, his tongue slipped between them lubricating their dryness but no words came from them immediately.
‘Should I go check?’ he asked slowly.
‘Yes. And take some men with you god damn it. No person is scheduled to be coming in today. Make sure they’ve got their papers.’
Mandel looked at three of the men who sat across the table from him and they knew without words that they had been selected. They picked their batons up off the table, got into their bakkie and drove out towards the moving cloud of dust.
‘It was you! You sold us this shit last year,’ a policeman said pushing into his face one of the small umbrellas he had taken from the salesman’s car. The policemen had pulled the man from his vehicle and had him kneeling on the gravel of the road, his hands cable-tied behind his back, his passbook lying in torn pieces on the road in front of him.
‘No baas. This is the first time. I never been to this place before.’
‘Liar, fucking liar.’
It is unlikely that the umbrella salesman knew what happened to him next. What some members of the dorp were brave enough to testify to in the enquiry was that they saw the man being dragged unconscious down the main street towards the police station, tied to the trailer hook of the bakkie. But it was Kaptien Jol’s evidence that were representative of most of the examinations that took place in the court:
Vultures were said to have circled overhead but being uncertain of the saleman’s vital signs they had kept their distance. It was in this state, after several people complained that he was ‘loitering’, that he was rearrested. He was later confirmed dead in the police cells by the doctor some days later. The cause of death was stated in the enquiry to be ‘acute abrasions of the skin and degeneration of the intestinal wall (bad diet)’. He was later buried in a grave marked by a gravestone that states: ‘In commemoration of Thales (Dates Unknown) Here lies the body of an umbrella salesman. A man who should be remembered amongst those who died in the name of freedom of trade and movement.’
I became familiar with the details of this story because when I first arrived in Albertsburg I had very little to do. The dorp (for I prefer to call it this, despite the fact that locals still refer to it as a city) had long since emptied of the migrant labour that was once drawn here by the blue asbestos mine. Albertsburg is no longer the administrative capital it had once been under the previous regime. And having little judicial work to perform, I took to looking through the court files that sit in my chambers and came across the name Thales. I took an interest in the case because I thought that it was perhaps a misspelling of the surname Tlali. And although I never took the name Tlali – having kept my maiden name – I am, as most people know, married to a Tlali.
And once I began to look into the enquiry, the story of Thales continued to interest me partly because of the feeling that I was in some way connected to this umbrella salesman. And so, on one hot spring day, about four months after I arrived here, I climbed alone up the slopes of Towerkop to the graveyard at Deacon’s Dune where he is buried. The dune itself is worth the walk. It has spectacular views and its strange beach sand, brought 400km by the winds, is a well-known wonder of the Swartberg. According to local tradition it is believed to be the gateway to the Afterworld and it has been used as Albertsburg’s burial ground for over two centuries. It was here that I wished to pay my respects to a man who could be one of the few martyrs of this area and whose blood, which my son and husband may well share, was spilled on the roads of my current jurisdiction.
It was a long walk up the white sandy paths to the graveyard. I did not regret taking my umbrella, which at times I used as a walking stick, at others to shade myself from the sun or to shelter myself from the downpours. On reaching the cemetery I noticed that, although there were many ordinary plain wooden crosses, Thales’s gravestone was made of Rustenburg granite and that its lettering was done in gold leaf.
As I noticed this I sank down to my knees and on crossing myself I invoked both God and my ancestors. Then, still kneeling, I raised my head skywards and prayed for the salvation of my son – which was partly my reason for coming to pay homage to this man. Then I sat down to rest on his grave – something which is not unusual in our tradition. I sat there for some time and I found myself mindlessly pushing my fingers through the silk-like sand. Its hot, almost burnished, top layer cracked as my fingers entered it. I continued sitting there, playing with it as I had done when Zané, my son, as a little boy had sat beside me on the island’s beach. It had been one of the few family visits the old regime had afforded me during my incarceration there.
I am not sure how long I sat there that day, playing with the sand and thinking of my son, my back leaning against Thales’s headstone. At some point I opened my umbrella so that it shaded all but my feet from the sun. Below me, through the wooden crosses, I could see Albertsburg, the town I had been redeployed to. This emptiness, with its 600 inhabitants, was where I was being forced to live out the rest of my professional life by the current president. My eyes followed its now almost deserted development down towards the abandoned mining hostels to the south east. Its rolling mountain range to the south with its twelve peaks known as ‘the Apostles’ seemed to me somehow to be secret sharers of the uneasiness of the valley.
I looked for a while at the dark grey scar running down the slope of the peak of St Thomas, made by the old asbestos miners whose burial place lay at its foot. While I stared out at this island town, in its sea of mountains, I was caught by a despair or what my therapist in the capital calls anxiety. My chest tightened and I wished then that the avenging Apostles would come rolling in like waves, covering me and all of Albertsburg in a graveyard of rubble. Perhaps I was simply depressed at the time, but it felt then like no one would care what became of me and my adopted jurisdiction. And I knew that this was precisely the reason why I found myself here. I had been sent into exile under another name.
At some point I opened the lunch that I had packed for myself early that morning. I ate the hot chicken sandwiches, leaving one at the foot of the gravestone for Thales. Then I drank the last few mouthfuls of water from the bottle that hung at my side. And, sitting there after lunch, staring as I had stared before I noticed something different. That is, that the valley is beautiful. And I noticed the care that some town planner had taken with the town. How the brutalist courthouse, the simple neo-classical town hall and the small neogothic cathedral stood out. And it was with some pleasure that I realised that the police station could in fact only be made out because of the tall ragged palm tree that grew on is pavement. Its rough spinney leaves were sculptured by the winds into the shape of a sangoma’s switch. I spent some time looking at that palm. It was, after all, the place where the man buried beneath me had spent his last moments of life. And with this, thoughts of both my son and husband came back to me and I spent the rest of my time up there wondering what I could have done differently in my life.
It was only when I leant on my umbrella to raise myself, the sand being unstable to stand on, that I stumbled backwards to a position behind Thales’s headstone. There I noticed that, on the back, was carved an alternative message, in smaller lettering. I sank back down to read it. ‘Although we did not know the man who is interred beneath, we recognise him as a fellow member of the guild of free traders. Thales, may you rest in peace under the shelter of this stone. This gravestone was donated by: Jacobson and Daughters’
It interested me that Jacobson and Daughters should have taken an interest in Thales’s death. It was certainly a remarkable thing to have done for a someone who, if it were not for this stone and a corrupted court record, would have been one of thousands of forgotten ‘vanished souls’ that were the victims of the previous regime. Of course, Jacobson and Daughters could well have erected this after the fall of the last administration. Touching the stone and inspecting the lettering I realised that they certainly could have done this after the regime fell. But even then, why would they do that? I asked. It would hardly be necessary in a reactionary town like Albertsburg – a place whose population still had distinct sympathies for the processes of the past.
These thoughts occupied me as I made my way down the steep mountain path, using the steel point of my umbrella to stop myself from tumbling off the side of the sheer cliffs. There were certainly times during this descent when I began to feel slightly suspicious of Jacobson and Daughters. Could they have been involved in the crime? Could they have set the police on Thales? This could not be discounted. Their sponsorship of the stone certainly could have been part of a cover-up of the kind so often utilised by those who had once supported the previous government.