The two deep wrinkles that originated at the corner of the old man’s eyes drifted down above, and then behind his high cheeck bones. From there they angled lower, where upon they seemed to attach to and hold the lobes of his large ears to his head, like the stay lines and sails of an ancient square-rigger.
Almost as if to seek the source of their support, my eyes were drawn to the other two parallel wrinkles which angled down with unusual severity over the inner hollowness of his cheeks, until they brushed the corners of his purse-lipped mouth. At this point the straightness of the furrows were warped in a gentle curl round the edge of a slight smile, which seemed to play hide and seek with a hint of a faint inner mirth. This, in turn, appeared always to be momentarily sequestered just below the surface of his face. It was like the visage of a beautiful bride hidden behind the mesh of her veil.
But it was not only the smile which seem to constantly wake from its slumber under the seductive shroud of that imaginary mesh. There was more. There was a hint of a inner joy. It intrigued me. It tugged and held my attention, in a non-destructive way, like the flame of a candle holds the circles of a moth.
It could only have been this inner joy which had provided this old man the fortitude to have served a cause out here for almost 5 decades. How else can anyone, not endemic to this place remain here without relief for so long.
As he leaned forward to pour the tea into the tin mugs on the simple table between us, Father Xavier lifted and squinted the clear turquoise tint of his eyes at me.
“It has been a while!”
Even after forty years, the lilt of drawn out vowels in his thick accent clearly indicated his Portuguese origin.
“Yes father it has been a long time. I will have to take off my shoes to count on my toes, I do not have enough fingers to help me count all the years.”
I grinned back at the twitch at the corner of his mouth which, as he acknowledged my joke, gave an accent to the smile formed on the pale paper hue of his lips.
“At school, I was never good at maths, I always needed help with numbers, so watch out, if you want an accurate count, I may ask you to take off your shoes as well”.
I joined his chuckle.
Father Xavier stretched out a long bony hand and gave me one of the tin mugs. In the other he profited a small bowl of lumpy sugar. He was accustomed to most everyone out here preferring their beverages to be sweet.
Ignoring the teaspoon in the bowl and using his fingers, he picked up a sugar lump and dropped it into the tea in his mug.
“What has happened to you, since you were last here?
“Well father, I have done so much”. I hesitated for a second. I realized that my answer did not quite mesh with his question. After all there’s a difference between what happens and what one does. I continued, “and I have done so little.”
I leaned forward to reach over and picked up the small jug of milk. I added a splash to my tea. Then I used the same spoon in the sugar bowl to stir my beverage.
“Time has gone so fast, it seems like just yesterday all that turmoil happened and when it was over, we came here first, on our way to the rest of our lives.”
I paused and savored another sip of the tea. I was silent for a while, and I let my thoughts drift back to those tumultuous days.
Then I broke the stillness.
“The last time I was here I did not have a home to return to, and I still don’t. So from that aspect not much has changed for me.”
“We left the bush, and after a while I went back to the bush.”
I took another sip of tea. “For both of us it has always been the bush.”
“Father, I assume you know who I am talking about, when I say both of us?”
“Yes!” Father Xavier replied softly over the top of his mug as he held it up in his two hands close to his mouth.
I continued, “I have not had a real home since my family left our farm in the old Rhodesia….and that was before I was even a teenager. I loved that place. I loved the magic of the bush and the life I led. I was in the bush with my band of young black firends at every opportunity. I was one of them. There was not a hut in the village that I could not enter whenever I wished. I played with them, danced with them, made catties and wire cars with them, hunted with them, swam in the river with them, got bilharzia with them… I argued with them and laughed with them.
Later, in my teenage years growing up between the undulating sugar cane fields and mountain kloofs of coastal South Africa I felt like an exile.
For years I dreamed of returning to that place, the bush, which in my mind only really starts to the north of the Limpopo River.
My dreams were magical. I would realize in my sleep that it was a dream. I would rush around to see as much of it as I could before they ended. It was the bush, it never left me.
In some way or other the bush has been my emotional and physical home forever.
I think that the bush was one of the main reasons I stayed with ‘Os Terriveis – The Terrible Ones’ for so long.”
As I spoke, I momentarily had a flash back to an impression I had formed, decades before, of an aspect of this serene old Jesuit priest’s character. It was of his quiet, tranquil almost entrancing way of listening. Where others would only be waiting for the break in a speaker’s flow to interject, with him there was a quality and depth to his listening.
It was almost hypnotic. It drew one on, it effortlessly loosened the halter grip on the self-consciousness. It made one feel the relief from the anxiety of long sequestered shyness, with a catharsis of telling. The silence and focus of his listening let one know that it is not necessary to hold onto the rocks in the river of life, its suggestion was to let go and allow the words to flow with the current, because by doing so, with him alongside, one could be washed along to better places.
It is strange how I have noticed this trait in many of the greatest men that I have met in my eclectic life. Jan Breytenbach, who founded “Os terrives” out of the leaderless militia rabble he found in the chaos of Angola when the Portuguese rule collapsed. He crafted them into, in my opinion, one of the finest fighting units the world has ever seen, and of course there is Moses. Moses had been with the “Os Terriveis”, Buffalo Battalion, long before I had, and had participated in most of their almost constant “contacts” and full on conventional engagements. Both of these men had Father Xavier’s genius of being able to listen, and in their listening make you search your soul for the truth, and to tell it to them.
As a fresh, wide-eyed 2nd Lieutenant, full of blustery theory and inexperience, I had inherited Moses as my platoon sergeant. I would never have been able to become a good officer, let alone survive, if he had not been there to guide and teach me, with the quietness of his listening.
It was why I was sitting here, in the austerity of this drab and dusty mission station with its priest, at the Western extremities of the country, not far from the Angola border.
I once again needed the quiet steady dependability and guidance of my platoon sergeant
Catties – catapults (sling-shot)
An Officer and a Platoon Sergeant
32 (Buffalo) Bn – The Terrible Ones
(not the author, who served in 5th South African Infantry Bn)
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