It was cold in the valley that winter. Helgardt De Lange and I stayed in a fucked up old cabin close to the river on the farm where his parents lived many years ago. In the evenings we would light a fire under the eucalyptus trees and jam on the guitar along with the wind’s blow. For kicks, we would take turns with his shotgun on some occasions to shoot at the old African mahogany that stood beyond the trees in the tall yellow grass. We drank, smoked various varieties and made noises into the southern night with the flames against our faces. These nights would end with us passing out on the log chairs around the orange glow. These were some of the most memorable times in my short life.
On one of these nights I tossed a question Helgardt’s way, one that only a high and tired bum would ask, with a rasp in my voice from all the singing and screaming. I don’t know where it came from or how I grouped the guts together to get it out. I asked what he would do if society gave him the middle finger and left him in the dark corners with only his own voice for company. I wanted to know if he would ever want to go back and fall into their idiotic stream of breath. His face dropped while staring into the flames. He put the guitar down against the broken white garden chair, took out his cigarettes, lit one, took a deep breath of smoke and blew it out slowly while he stared apathetically into the fire. In that instance I saw in his eyes the perfect bastard of fear and sadness. With his hands hanging over his knees like a lazy monkey, he answered while shrugging his shoulders: “Fuck them all in any case.” Years later, we would have similar conversations, but never one that resembled that southern night with the world’s hate on our shoulders and the lust of the universe in our brains.
Years passed. I drove forward into my passions and dreams and Helgardt grew grey. We both moved on and into the city. I went on to become a journalist for a local publication and Helgardt married a couple of times while taking jobs here and there. We would still get together every once in a while. We would often meet at bars in and around Pretoria. He always introduced me to new people and his friends as “Carl, the Afrikaans Hunter S. Thompson” This was obviously very farfetched, but I was flattered. Writers like Thompson influenced me extensively, especially in my formative years and being compared to someone like him was impossible in my eyes. On one of these nights we sat among tables full of empty bottles, ashtrays and smoke and talked about the cabin, the shooting and the playing around in the bush. We solved many problems of the world and created some of our own. It was a night to remember, but also to be forgotten. After Hegardt killed his cigarette butt and I threw the last sip of beer down my throat, we stumbled out into the parking lot. Right underneath the sharp neon death ray we came to a standstill. Hanging on to each other by either the shirt or the shoulder. We contemplated what we wanted to do next and if the night was over and done with. “Let’s drive away for a while! Go to the bush!” said Helgardt. “Sounds cool, when?” I asked. “Right now,” he replied with almost a sinister whisper.
So with the few cents in our pockets, half packs of cigarettes and half a tank of petrol in the car, we got on the highway and headed north. After an hour’s drive, Helgardt had me pull over for him to pee. I had a cigarette lit. When he climbed into the car, he turned to me and asked “Where are we going so by the way? Have you decided?” I looked at him with much self assurance in my eyes and voice, “Waterberge, we are going to meet oom Eugene there?” He smiled and nodded. I started the car and got back on the highway. When we got through Nylstroom, it was four o’clock on a Monday morning. We got to the other side of town and turned into a small and hidden farm road. “Remember; always take the darkest and most distant one. We will know when we see it.” I remember Helgardt selecting the perfect place. The car rocked sideways as we drove through the long grass and through the holes up the small mountain road with the dark earth and sparkling sky stretched out in front of the bonnet. As we turned the final turn through and underneath the trees and thorn ridden thickets, I saw a small road on the left that led up to a small hill that divided the bushveld sky with its great bright stars and an open plain. Far beneath us, I could see a small group of lights shining which must have been the house of the farmer on whose farm we were trespassing. Finally we reached the top of the hill where I stopped the car between the very tall grasses and switched of the engine.
We both got out and I was hit by the extreme cold and noticed the steam I was blowing into the dark night air. Helgardt climbed onto the roof of the car and went to sit flat with his legs crossed. I joined him and went to lie on my back on the bonnet with my back to the windscreen. We didn’t say a word and for a second or two everything in the whole universe went silent. Even the bushveld and the highway we could hear in the distance. Absolute living death. Staring into that southern sky again brought about feelings that seemed familiar and nostalgic, but also saddening for some inexplicable reason. It was as if everything would pass me by if I just sat there for too long. I became uncomfortable after a while. I couldn’t lie still for very long, but didn’t say a word. I got up and fetched the spare bottle of whiskey and the cup out of my boot that I always kept there for situations like these. I couldn’t quite make out Hegardt’s face in the darkness, but I could see and feel something about him. It was as if he didn’t mind what I was doing at all, or what the world was up to. It was if he was at utter peace with himself for the first time in ages. I poured him a drink into the cup and placed it on the roof of the car next to where he was sitting. I took a few sips out of the bottle. I stood there with the cold bottleneck in my hands listening to the sweep of the icy night’s breeze through the bush. I closed my eyes to allow to it rush over me, but something did not feel the same for me anymore. Neither of us said a word and some time passed.
After a while he looked down and took the cup. He drank it all with one gulp and got down from the roof and handed the cup to me. I put it back in the boot and we got back in the car. Helgardt lit us both a smoke while I rolled down the windows. “Do you think we are sane or are they the lucky fuckers?” He asked while he handed me the red burning cigarette. “Let’s hope it’s not us.” I replied before I put it in my mouth and started the car to get the heater running. He smiled softly and then chuckled through his beard before taking a long pull of his cigarette. We continued reminiscing about our times together, but also our plans for the future. We talked about this for the very first time ever since I knew Helgardt. This had never happened before. It was always about the moment and the second that had just gone by. Soon the discussion turned very emotional and Helgardt told me that he thought about going to Tibet for the rest of the year. He told me that he was drained of energy from living in the city and that his current marriage was going to end very soon. He tried his best to seem very neutral about it, but I could sense the distress in his voice and the way he smoked cigarette after cigarette lighting the new one with the finished other. We finished our discussions shortly before six, and then finally we saw the sun throwing its first beams of light over this side of the earth. At seven o’clock we decided to head back to Pretoria and Helgardt offered to drive. It was cold in the car and we did not talk much further. There was an unusual comfortable silence in the car. I curled up against the door to catch some sort of sleep. Before I closed my eyes, I saw Helgardt staring into the abyss before putting the car into reverse. The look in his eyes was one of sudden satisfaction, but also of dread and infinite misery.
Helgardt was much older than me, but somehow by some unnatural occurrence in the unpredictable beautiful universe we were equals on many different levels. He was a friend and an intellectual compatriot, but over those last couple of years he grew away from everything in his own life in some or other way. He was removed from his friends, his family, his many jobs and his various promising or lucrative projects. All of it just thrown behind him like a reptile leaving behind an old skin. If I look back at Helgardt’s whole life and lifestyle, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me. His many marriages, all of his failed attempts at things he, at that point in time, seemed so passionate, driven and enthusiastic about. I will always ask myself if it was his natural way of being or was he making a conscious choice to let everything, which suddenly didn’t matter to him anymore, wither and fade away. Can it simply be a curse that makes us get absolutely bored and disinterested with something so very quickly for no apparent reason and allows us to move on to something else? Is it that some people just grow away from their way and leave their once very close companions behind? So much so, that the impact of that drives them to this unconscious behaviour and peculiar feelings? I sometimes feel guilty when I ask myself these questions. I think I might have left Helgardt behind unintentionally. I regret not being able to aid him in his moments of panic. Many people knew Helgardt or claimed to know him and always seemed to want to be around him, but I suspect nobody truly understood what he was or what he wanted. I think nobody really cared. All they wanted was his stories, his legend and his presence. He was the bruised prophet amongst us. A mythological figure you didn’t know everything about, but neither wanted to. We did not want the legend and adventures to end.
I woke up in the car just as we drove through the Magaliesberg mountains in Pretoria. We were in the city and the morning was growing old. Helgardt stopped at my house and he said that he wanted to walk back to the bar where we left his car, as it was not that far. I offered to drive him back, but he refused. I stood outside my house with the keys in my hand greeting him. As he was walking away he turned to me and spoke the last words he ever said to me: “I hope oom Eugene had a jacket last night.” I laughed. He smiled, turned back and kept on walking down the street. When he turned the corner, I walked to my front door and went inside.
Two weeks later, Helgardt loaded that same shotgun for the very last time.
Karel Kopbeen is a poet, writer and musician. He was born and lives in Pretoria, South Africa. He is currently studying Language and Literature (Creative Writing) at the University of South Africa. He has written several entertainment articles and reviews for publications such as Mahala.co.za, Perdeby student newspaper and SAMusic. His short stories and poetry has been featured in New Contrast – the South African Literary Journal, Ons Klyntji, Jip culture newspaper, Alt.SA online magazine, in Prufrock magazine and on LitNet. His independent debut poetry collection, Bloeddig, was published in 2012. He is also the organiser and co-owner of Die Dowe Digters, a monthly poetry and music session event hosted in Pretoria. He tweets @KarelKopbeen