I brush my hands of the grit that transferred from the yellowing card. The weft and warp of its textured paper is smudged with chalky red earth. They are minute particles of Africa that have survived more than one hundred years behind those old cupboard doors, but moreover, they have survived since the beginning of time. They are small pieces of an ancient land that witnessed a bitter war between the British and the Boers.
As I disperse those grains of earth into the air, I am aware I am disposing of layers of history, part of the story of the military man’s life. More importantly, the card in my hand is the key to another life; that of a man named Gerhardus Atodin who came from Rietfontein. It is an identity card, written both in English and Africaan. I wonder what memories are embedded in its fibres along with the grains of red earth? If it could speak a thousand words, I am sure a flood of death and woe would rush forth like speeding bullets. So, who was Gerhardus Atodin? Was he a friend or foe?
Of course, only William Lyons would know the answer to that question. He was sent to a foreign land to fight for Mother England, like so many others who answered her call of distress. If only I could see through his eyes; if only I could hear with his ears; and most importantly, I wish I could read his thoughts. Sadly, I am left guessing with the little evidence I have.
My imagination takes me back to the desolate wastelands of South Africa. The year is 1900; it marks the birth of a new century. Normally such milestones are reasons to rejoice, but contrary to a new year’s promise of good tidings for all, this new year for the ordinary settlers of South Africa brought with it the menacing drums of war.
In Gerardus Atodin, I can see a face like tanned leather, weathered by the harsh African sun. His bushy blond hair and beard are unruly, like the desolate grassy plains from which he hailed. But his eyes, the mirrors to his soul, are deep and hollow bottomless pits. His soul was stolen by an enemy he can never forgive. They have stripped him of everything, the sum of his life. His parents, his wife and kids are gone. His life is now like the wide open plains – it is a void and lifeless space.
His family may have fallen prey to the British Scorched Earth Policy. Like many others who inhabited the land, the Atodin family farm along with its house and sheds may have been burnt to the ground. Their animals, their livelihood might all be dead. And, whilst Gerhardus is off fighting a war, his family, his life support, are left homeless, struggling to find food and shelter; they are herded into a concentration camp where they succumb to disease.
Wandering through the years, another century has passed and Gerhardus’ soul finds itself lost in a strange world. He is a misplaced person, comforted only by his precious memories of happy times and of dreams of what he wished his life to be. He remembers his wedding day, arriving at the church in a horse-drawn dray, seeing the beautiful smile on his new wife’s face. He recalls the happiness that both he and his wife felt when each of his children came into their lives. His thoughts are constantly reminded of the home they built together; the beginning of a bright new future. He, like William Lyons, was just an ordinary man, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Yes, it is true, that Mr Atodin, represented the enemy as he was a Boer. However, how is one classed an enemy? The Boers, after all, were not an invading force. They were farmers and settlers who wanted to peacefully live out their lives on their chosen land. It is feasible that he and William Lyons, if it had not been for the war, could have been friends. Afterall, their lives were similar; they both grew up on the land. But, when the battlelines are drawn, what choice does one have? William had no choice. He had no say in the Motherland’s methods of war. Any feelings of guilt or shock he would have had to suppress, and in later years wish his memory would disappear.
I wish I could revisit the past; to a time before he passed away. I would ask of him, “Great Grandfather, who was the man who belonged to this card? Why have you kept his identity hidden behind cupboard doors all these years?”
“Girly,” he’d reply, “he was just someone I met long ago…” His voice fades away as he appears deep in thought, wrestling with buried memories he thought had been permanently laid to rest. His hesitance tells me not to push for more. Respecting his silent wishes, I place the card back in its rightful home, alongside my Great Grandfather’s other suppressed memories behind the old cupboard doors.