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The Third Pillar

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If you grew up in a small town in 1980’s, you will most likely be all too familiar with the two pillars that underpin these tiny communities. These pillars are the local school and church. They serve as a common meeting ground for folks to escape the isolation and loneliness that is part of the fabric of rural life. This story revolves around the invisible Third Pillar. Some argue that this pillar serves a higher purpose than the first two, and although most would silently agree, very few would acknowledge this is public. It is a place that asks little of its loyal congregants, but takes more than they would ever know. It has many names, but in my home town, the third pillar was known as The Tiger. It is here, on a winter evening in 1986, that our story unfolds.

 

The noise inside The Tiger had been increasing steadily as the evening turned from dusk to full dark. The winter had been the coldest on record and even a some farmers had braved the slippery dirt roads to be there that night. Frozen crops and a throttling drought sits easier if you lubricate reality a bit. In solidarity, or perhaps fear of missing out, the townies stood shoulder to shoulder, toe to counter, with these brave dirt-smiths. The first shots in the battle against sobriety had been fired hours before and now the war was in full swing.

Not to be outdone by the men, several of the ladies were known to be as fierce as the men when it came to this type of warfare. Some woman, unshackled of the burden of being mother or wife for a few hours, were laying down Chardonnay-fuelled cover fire with a terrifying intensity, hitting both enemy and friendlies alike. Chardonnay was very popular among the town’s woman that year, particularly among the single ladies. Dressed as provocatively as allowed in 1986, they were seated towards the back of the L-shaped room, quietly discussing the few single men who prowled around the bar. Desperate to escape the over twenty-one and single group, these women would go to great lengths to make their appearance as welcoming as possible to any possible suiters. Chardonnay lends an air of sophistication to the drinker. You even look cultured when you hold a wine glass by the stem. Soon it would become obvious that there were no potential husbands amongst the boisterous drunkards milling around the room and the ladies will dispense with their act for the night and order double Richelieu and coke. With their masks finally discarded, and their guns loaded with bitterness and brandy, they would enter the fray. The lucky ones might end up having a drunk farmer grope them in the parking lot a bit later, but for now it was every man and woman for themselves as the battle to survive Friday night at The Tiger raged on.

 

At this point you may wonder where your storyteller was during all of this. I was after all only 7 years old at that time and a child had no place in war. I was in the eye of the storm, the belly of the beast, the heart of the vortex, and under a beer drenched table in the corner. It was common in those days for some of the adults to hire a baby sitter to look after the children for the evening. One by one, we would be deposited into a well-lit room at the Central Hotel, across the road from the Tiger. Here all the kids could play with a mountain of Lego, or watch Looney Tunes on the little tv set. All under the watchful eye of a somewhat responsible seventeen-year-old. Parents could easily stumble across the road to check up on their little ones before returning to the front lines. It was an unorthodox arrangement but it seemed to work. Every so often, one of us would manage to slip away and steal across the road. A place of great mystery, we were fascinated by the Tiger. On this night, I took advantage of the sitter’s desperate attempt to break up a melee over some Lego blocks, and I quietly slipped out into the cold night. My timing was perfect and as I neared the door of the Tiger it crashed open and two men came spilling onto the sidewalk. Tugging and pulling at each other’s collars, they crashed to the ground. I used the distraction to silently slip into the noisy bar. From there I followed the usual rules of combat - Stay low and move fast. Slipping on spilled beer and melting ice blocks I reached the safety of the far corner and took refuge under some tables near the far wall. From this vantage point I could take in the carnage and hopefully survive long enough to provide the other children with a detailed report on the happenings at the Tiger. This was after all deep into enemy territory and any intel I could gather would be of great value to my reputation.

From my hiding place, I witnessed the spectacle unfold. All around me the world was a maelstrom of yelling, laughing, music and the ear shattering sound of glass smashing on tiles. I was both voyeur and victim, chocking on cigarette smoke but utterly fascinated.

It was during a particularly loud karaoke version of Two Jacks and a Jill that the Van Rooyen twins made their entrance. With the subtleness of a SWAT team breaching a drug dealers front door, the brothers exploded into the smoky room with an icy gust of winter air. Their entrance was so violent that the entire room went quiet. Even the blaring music seemed to take notice and with a screech the vinyl went silent. The sight of Ian and Piet entering the Tiger was hardly new, but their appearance that night shocked even the loudest drunk into silence.

Ian had his arm around Piet’s neck, the latter dragging his brother across the threshold in a serious of jerks. Both were covered in mud, their hair sticking out in all directions. Ian had clearly broken his nose and the lower part of his face looked as if he was wearing a red bandana like a train robber in the Lone Ranger. The Tiger was now so quiet that I could hear ice clinking in a glass somewhere. Reaching the bar, Piet helped his brother slump onto a stool and turned to the barman.

“Four double brandy.” he said before turning to his brother.

“You want the same?”

Ian nodded, reaching for the stack of napkins next to the straws. The barman, Gary, was frozen in place and just stared. Finally, he broke the silence.

“What in the hell happened to you boys?” The hush continued. Ian became aware of the staring eyes and looking around slowly, wiping at his bloody face with a napkin.

“Gold happened to us Gary. And then English soldiers and a train.” With this the bar broke out into a cacophony that made the previous few hours sound like Wednesday afternoon at the library. I will save you from the pandemonium that followed and relay the story that followed in as much detail as possible.

Anyone who took South African history in school would be familiar with the story of the missing Kruger Gold. Legend has it that during the war a Boer commando were heading to Pretoria with a large cache of gold Kruger Rands.  Per the stories (this varies depending on where in the Karoo you lived) the English spotted the commando and their gold somewhere south of my home town, but when they ambushed the group just north of the town, not a single gold coin was to be found. Conclusion? The Boers must have hidden the gold somewhere in the hills around town. Many attempts have been made to find it but to no avail. The Van Rooyen twins had a secret though. They had been reliably informed by their ailing grandmother that you could see the gold shimmering in the moonlight if you stood in exactly the right place on a full moon. She also thought that their twenty-three-year-old neighbour was a communist spy and that his wife was a man. But she seemed certain about the gold, so they followed her directions and went searching that Friday night, which as luck would have it, was full moon.

The directions led them straight to the spot where the Noupoort Railway bridge crossed the R414.

“Pure genius.’ Piet had said. “They must have chosen this spot where the railway and road made and X.” The fact that the railway, and road, were only built a few hundred years later was lost on him.

“So we climbed onto the railway bridge and walked all the way to the middle where the X was.” he paused here to knock back his second brandy. Everyone had their eyes on him as he continued.

“We forgot to ask Grandma which direction to look so we decided to stand back to back and cover as much ground as possible. It was very dark and for a while nothing happened but then Ian grabbed my shoulder.”

“That’s right”, his brother continued, “about a kilometre ahead of us, in the direction of town, we saw it.”

“Saw what?” someone asked before being shushed immediately. The twins looked at each other. Ian nodded and Piet picked up the story.

“Directly ahead of us was a bright glow in the hills. We thought we had finally found it, but then the glow moved. We stood very still until we realised that it was headed right for us. The glow became brighter and when it reached the other side of the bridge, we finally saw what it was.”

Silence held the room. Somewhere I heard a rat’s scuttle across the ceiling of the bar. Piet pressed on.

“An entire platoon of English soldiers appeared behind the gloom. Colonial soldiers with feathers in their hats and bayonets and everything. The thing was, you could see the glow right through them as they stepped onto the bridge.”

“At this point we both thought it would be a good idea to leave, so we turned around and that’s when we saw the train coming from the other direction. I don’t know why we didn’t hear it sooner but by the time we did, we knew we couldn’t get of the bridge on time. We had to choose between running away from the train, or away from the ghosts. Ian came up with a third alternative and so we held on the edge of the bridge and swung our legs down.”

“Geez, that must be a four storey drop.” Gary the barman said.

The brothers exchanged a miserable look.

“Yes, it is.” Piet said with a sigh.

In the end, the brothers had to let go. Dropping to the tarmac below they dragged themselves to their feet, and although Ian broke his ankle, they managed to run to their battered old Ford. Everyone in the bar was quiet, replaying the scene in their heads.

“You boys sure have a lot of heart. I don’t think I would go out there on a night like this.” Gary said.

The twins nodded solemnly.

Evan Dixon, the town’s librarian, stepped forward.

“Bullshit!” he roared, “You guys probably got drunk at home and fell of the stoep!”.

The bar exploded with noise as everyone started shouting at the same time. At some point the vinyl player found its voice and Willie Nelson pined for all the girls he had loved before. Nobody paid any further attention to the Van Rooyen twins. Perhaps in their hearts everyone felt uncomfortable with their exploits. Perhaps they sensed that in 1986, the Third Pillar was far too weak to carry the weight of men with adventure in their hearts.

 

End

 

Hienrich van der Walt is a short fiction writer who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. The winner of several short story writing competitions, he is currently working on a short story anthology in which he hopes to capture the eerie nostalgia that shrouds most small towns.

 

 

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