I had worked it out to the final detail. PO savings withdrawn, matric certificate, a family photograph – all packed, together with some clothes, biscuits and fruit. And the letter. I had hidden the backpack outside in a lantana-type bush known as Martingoolie the evening before, and then taken a short walk down the road to the small red local postbox attached to the street lamp-post. They would get the letter the following day … then they would know why and how and not worry, I thought.
The next morning I got dressed and ready for the job I had recently started so as to to earn some money before I started varsity. I said goodbye to Mom. We never kissed, and even though I wanted to hug her that morning, I didn’t want to behave suspiciously. I checked to see if anyone was watching whilst I retrieved the backpack and made my way up the hill to the bus-stop. That morning I would go to the train station instead of into Johannesburg city centre. I went through a mental checklist. All items ticked. I would catch a train out of town to where I could see the highway, get off the train and hitch from there. Johannesburg to Cape Town should take two, maybe three days.
I caught the train to Bloemfontein, and a lady, the caring maternal type, who was clearly wondering what I was up to, gave me a lift to the N1 highway – I told her I didn’t have too far to go. I was surprised by the icy breeze when I got out of the warm leathery-smelling car.
At last I was on the open road. My second lift dropped me somewhere between Colesberg and Beaufort West. It was around four in the afternoon and freezing cold. This was July and the Karoo can be brutal. I was not dressed for snow and it had begun to sleet. I was walking, sticking out my thumb, beginning to feel desolate, desperate, despondent. That was the word game I would play: find as many words as I could to describe the situation starting with “de”.
There was a loud vibrating groan behind me that increased in volume and vibration until it stopped, right next me.
A massive pantechnicon truck’s brakes had decompressed and ground to a basso halt. The passenger window opened about two stories above me. A face appeared at the window, he looked down at me for a good while, then the door opened and he said, “Get in”.
I clambered up with my scant luggage
“Where are you going?”
“That’s a helluva long way away … Ag well let’s see how you behave before I say I will give you a lift all the way there.” He looked at me, winked and snorted loudly on inhalation.
“What you gonna do in CT?”
“I’m going to get a job on a ship… I hope,” I said, shivering through partially numb lips.
“Ja well listen here girlie, from now on I’m gonna call you Tiny …OK?”
I was so tired and cold, and grateful to be moving, feeling the warm blast from the gear-box on my feet, he could have called me pretty much anything.
“Tiny! There’s a lunchbox at your feet. Open it and give me a sandwich. You know you aren’t here for fun hey? You can work for your ride.”
I passed him the sandwich, suddenly so hungry I almost stuffed the remaining sandwich into my mouth without asking. I looked at him hoping he might offer, but he looked at me, mouth full and winked again.
“Tiny …why you all alone hitchihiking? Didn’t your daddy tell you it’s fokken dangerous?”
Hunger and cold had taken full occupation of my brain. I so wanted to curl up into a ball and sleep. I looked out of the window feeling slight motion sickness, with the smell of diesel adding to the nausea.
“Hey Tiny! What you thinking or don’t you think?“ he chuckled, leaning across and stabbing his index finger into my ribcage. “Pass me my apple girlie.”
I could hear him, but he seemed miles away. I struggled to keep my eyelids from closing. Sleep, I just needed a short sleep.
“Hey, hey hey … no sleeping here little one! Not while I’m awake. You better stay awake, you can be my eyes too. How do you know you shouldn’t be watching me anyways?”
I realised then that I did indeed need to sharpen up. He was provoking me, pushing me to say or do what he wanted and this could get very tricky. I looked out of the window. It was almost dark, a springhare got caught in the truck’s lights and stopped, frozen for a second, before making a split second decision to run.
“Stupid bloody animal,” he said braking suddenly, then laughing loudly he looked at me. “Hey Tiny! You know what? I can sommer put my foot on the brake like this …” And he decompressed those brakes, opening the exhaust valves to release trapped air, much like a pipe organ, when I felt another jab in the ribs. ”Ja I can brake this baby and lift you out of your seat with one hand at the same time.” He snorted, “Like I won’t even have to stop … just like this.” He hit the brake lever again, shouting over the bassline hiss overlaid with something sounding like rocks being crushed. He was now excited, aroused, face pink and sweaty. ”What you think, Tiny? Wanna try?” Brakes were whining, hissing and grinding. The organ-master leant across again and grabbed my left plait, pulling me towards him and holding me over the gear console. I remembered my uncle telling me how they would catch springhares by their ears, driving past them when hypnotised by headlights.
“You getting the idea, hey Tiny? Lekker hey? Ag, otherwise I could just stop right in the middle of the road.” Brakes hissing, grinding, whining to a halt. “This is the Karoo man, there might not be another car passing by here for days, and if there is it’s gonna be one of my truck brothers – hah! Now that’s when the real fun will start.” He let go of my hair and shoved me back into my seat.
I knew then that ‘tricky’ was a gross understatement. My experience of facing male bravado was that it was like walking a very high tightrope with a very long drop beneath it. Resisting via debate or argument you could fall one way; surrendering and saying or doing nothing, you fell the other.
I had rejected all religions as a method of brainwashing, controlling us poor weak humans. Yet I found myself thinking that somehow, some god was going to intervene. It would happen because I was now actively praying.
“In fact, I could do what I wanted with you, chuck you in a ditch and nobody would find you for days.” He looked at me with a maniacal grin and, oh God no, he winked at me. Think Janet, think. I was barely balancing on the rope. I could not for a moment let him sense my fear. That would be instant pyrotechnics. Well, I reckoned, if God was not going to appear any time soon, I would have to make God appear.
I looked at him squarely. “Do it. Stop the truck now. Do it. Here in the middle of the road. It’s Ok.” I lowered my voice slightly and smiled at him. “You see, I have someone who looks after me wherever I am and He will help me. If I die, it’s because God wants me to, not you.”
And there it was. The magic word. As it left my lips, I swear I saw him instantly wipe his forehead, glance at me and then back at the road. “Ah so what hey, so God is going to help you now?” but the voice had weakened, the testosterone had drained, testicles migrated southwards and this man was now a child who had been caught stealing sweets, swearing innocence with the sweets falling out of his pockets.
He was furious.
He looked at me. He turned off the headlights. He leant across. I moved as far across my seat towards the door as I could, all the time searching around for a sharp object.
“What you scared of Tiny?” he grinned, leaning right in front of me and opening a hidden compartment. He pulled out a blanket and shoved it into my lap. “You can sleep now, because I am going to sleep.” He was wearing thin cotton trousers and a thin jersey. I watched his every move. He felt under his seat. My heart was pounding. What was his plan? He dragged out a rolled up thin foam mattress, opened his door, threw out the mattress and jumped down.
“Don’t do anything naughty now,” he said, faking a trembling female voice, and slammed the door. He slept in sub-zero temperatures on one inch of foam rubber under the belly of the truck until dawn. I didn’t sleep, not for a minute.
Next morning he climbed into the truck. He barely made eye contact. He started the engine and pulled back onto the road. We drove in total silence for some three hours. No more ‘Tinys’, no more rib poking, no more braking. A petrol station appeared on the horizon.
“I am going to buy you a bloody huge breakfast now and then we can drive on to Cape Town. What kind of ship do you think you can work on anyways?”