Drama on Town Hill is a chilling short story from Bernard Preston. This one has nothing to do with chiropractic, not directly anyway, except that motor vehicle accidents and whiplash are obviously every-day issues for all doctors, including who practise manipulation of the spine.
This is a disturbing short story
about a heavy articulated truck on the notorious Town Hill in South
Africa... and the Forrester family on their way to a Drakensberg resort
for the long week. Do they meet by accident?
It was the third consecutive day that the gusting ‘berg wind hurled itself down Town Hill upon the suffering inhabitants who lived at the bottom of the escarpment. Hot, dry and unpleasant, the South African equivalent of the Föhn wind of Central Europe, the rapidly descending hot air, getting ever hotter, made tempers fray and nerves jangle in the city at the bottom of the pass; the citizens of Maritzburg chaffed, waiting impatiently for the wind to turn. The optimistic said it would presage the first of the spring rains; they were late. The majority reckoned it to be the start of a devastating fire season, and a summer of discontent. It would be full moon that night; would it herald the change in the seasons? Could that mover of the tides, of so much water, also influence the clouds? Or would it be the start of seven lean years?
An exception was the two men in a heavy articulated truck inching its way in first gear down the notorious steep incline known simply as Town Hill. Easter lilies grew in great clumps along the sides of the pass marking the white crosses where hundreds had died when behemoths slipped a gear. Barricaded from the effect of the wind in their air-conditioned cab, Thomas and Tsepo were both anxious and excited; anxious because the truck had been spirited from the depot in Johannesburg, without permission, whilst the boss took a Friday off for the monthly mug. The promise of an old envelope stuffed with dirty notes ensured that the workshop manager looked the other way as Thomas drove the heavy truck from the depot. Excited because it was big bonus time again. When they dropped the two heavy containers at an innocuous warehouse in Durban harbour, their share of the booty would make a handsome dent in their overdrafts.
In the city at the bottom of Town Hill, Janice and Dobs were hot and bored. It had been a quiet Friday afternoon for a change, and the paramedics had had only one call out. A minor fender bender when an overloaded taxi had a blowout, but the Combi was fortunately travelling slowly, and no other vehicles were involved. A few scrapes, and one broken arm. They had just finished their second game of chess and, bored, neither of them relished a third.
‘I wonder what tonight will bring,’ yawned Janice. A hardened veteran of the ambulance service, she was an attractive middle-aged woman, but the worry-lines that creased her face made her look older than she really was. Death and disfigurement were their business, and both had left their mark.
‘Something for sure,’ said Dobs. ‘The weather forecast is for a cold and wet long weekend.’ The number-two haircut made him look older than he was too, but in fact Dobs was a rookie, only a few months out of the paramedic school in Durban. He had a keen look about him, with eyes rather too close together and a prominent nose set in a narrow face. The appearance made him look like a crook, which he wasn’t.
In Durban, Tamsin Forrester and her mother Fran were irritable too. Not because of the weather, for the hot, dry wind that was battering the midlands of KwaZulu Natal was mingled at the coast with the cool, moist Indian Ocean air. They had other reasons. Actually not dissimilar reasons, though Tam was not to know that. She had just met a new boy, and she was having to forego a date that weekend. No one in the family had the slightest inkling of Fran’s very private tête-à-tête every Friday afternoon, and certainly not her daughter. That shall remain a closed book.
John Forrester had come home two days earlier, and announced it was time they had a family break, and he’d booked a cottage at Giant’s Castle for the weekend. Neither Tamsin nor her mother were enthusiastic, but both acquiesced. But it was three o’clock on that black Friday afternoon, and John had arrived home only to find the ladies hadn’t even started packing. It was a self-catering cottage and they had to take all their food and drink, hiking equipment, binoculars and Robert’s Birds book. It was a good three-and-a-half hour drive to the mountains, and the gates were firmly bolted at 7pm sharp.
The only enthusiastic member of the family was twelve-year old Timmy; he was packed and ready to go. Whether it was a sighting of a rare Lammergeyer vulture, or simply dropping his fly into the trout stream that gurgled passed the cottages, or even a long hike in the mountains, Timmy was eagerly looking forward to the outing.
Only three-year old Brad had no inkling of why his father was shouting and his mother had retreated to his bedroom in tears. But finally, half an hour late, their low slung, sleek sedan roared down the driveway in the direction of the N3 and the promise of a relaxing long weekend.
Andre Steyn in theory had the long weekend off, but there were several important parliamentary matters that needed his attention. Next year would be an election year and there were several bills that needed to be enacted before parliament went into recess in November. Andre had been given the responsibility of ensuring the Land Reforms act was amended by the end of the session to ensure a change of land ownership. The masses were getting impatient and, with an election on the horizon... A lawyer by profession he was the man for the job, despite being white in an overwhelmingly black party. Twenty years after the demise of Apartheid, South Africans were certainly not the much vaunted colour-blind rainbow nation.
Andre was gathering historical material just before lunch on how his European forebears had claimed Zulu land for their own in the nineteenth century, when the Internet went on the blink. Damn! Andre restarted the modem without effect. Dialling his service provider from his cell phone he drew another blank; there were no disruptions in his area. A man with a short fuse at the best of times, the frustration of the loss of the Internet combined with the howling hot, dry wind made Andre very grumpy. It wasn’t long before he established that the cause was a dead telephone connection. Looking out the window, Andre presumed that a tree had been blown over by the howling gale and knocked out the telephone cable. Frustrated, he decided on an early lunch.
At noon, the heavy articulated truck arrived at Shed D in Durban harbour. Honking the horn loudly, impatiently, Thomas waited for the heavy door to open. A guard walked out lazily, glaring at them in a surly fashion.
‘Yes?’ he asked.
‘Don’t yes me,’ retorted Thomas. ‘You know why we’re here.’
‘And why’s that?’
Thomas glared at him. ‘Hold your insolent tongue, Zulu. Where’s the boss?’ he growled.
‘Out to lunch.’
‘Get him on the mobile,’ said Thomas in a threatening manner. ‘Now! We don’t have time to waste. We have to be back in Johannesburg no later than five tomorrow morning.’
Grinning the guard dialled his boss, happy to have got a rise out of the mlungu, listened intently and then let them into the huge warehouse. Thomas and Tsepo stretched their legs whilst a heavy crane unloaded their cargo. By the time they had backed the heavy truck and trailer out of the warehouse, the bent harbour official had arrived. He and Thomas exchanged high fives in greeting. ‘The usual?’ asked le Roux.
Just then the guard came out of the warehouse with a printout. Le Roux whistled. ‘Fifty-eight tons!’ he exclaimed. ‘Just let me check,’ he said, stalking off to the warehouse, with Thomas a step or two behind. Checking first the weighbridge and then opening the first container, le Roux smiled when he saw the contents. ‘The other just the same?’ he ventured.
Thomas shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’m just the courier,’ he said. ‘I never get to see what’s in the containers.’
‘Come, come, Thomas. Ignorance is bliss, eh? You’ve no idea what’s in there?’ asked Le Roux scornfully, gesturing towards the open container.
‘Not a clue,’ said Thomas loftily. ‘Nor do I want to know. Just give me my money and we’re out of here.’
‘We’re all in this together, Thomas. Don’t pretend to have such lily white hands.’
‘Tell me, what’s this lot worth?’ asked Thomas evasively.
‘A good five mill,’ replied le Roux.
‘And you pay us a measly twenty thou,’ hissed Thomas. ‘We’re the ones who take all the risks.’
‘Bull-shit,’ retorted the harbour official. ‘You think I have no risks? You think the men who pinch the wire take no risks?’
‘Ag, minimal,’ said Thomas.
‘You’re delusional, Thomas. We’re all in this up to our eyebrows. At least a fifty thousand goes to the petty thieves on the ground, then there are the harbour police who have to be paid off, and there are five very high officials we have to pay half a mill each.’
‘Half a mill!’ whistled the driver. ‘The real bosses?’
Dan le Roux nodded. ‘Not a word, eh, but this little lark all started when a mystery guy from telecoms ministry invited me to lunch. Just call me Motsepe, he said.’
‘Not the Motsepe?’ breathed Thomas.
‘Naw, I know what he looks like. Just some gopher in the ministry, I suspect. That leaves less than two million for us, once we’ve paid you and a few others, and the shipping to China.’
‘Well, I bring a container once a month, and I know there are others. Two mill, ten times a month?’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s a tidy profit, Dan. After I’ve hired the truck, paid Tsepo out there, there’s not much left for me. If you want me to bring another load, it will be thirty thousands. Get it?’
‘No, I don’t get it, Thomas. Greed will get you nowhere. There are plenty of others…’ le Roux cocked his head. ‘Comprehendo?’
‘I’ve done ten runs now, Dan. All without drama. Each one you just told me drops two million into your pocket. The bond on my house is now paid off, so it’s no sweat off my brow if I’m out. If you want me again, it’s thirty thou. Got it?’ he repeated.
Le Roux looked at him quizzically. ‘Twenty-five.’
Thomas thought about that. ‘Okay, five more at twenty-five, after that, thirty thousand per load.’ He stretched out his hand.
Reluctantly, le Roux shook his hand and then went to a desk and pulled out a bulging envelope of notes. ‘Count it please. Now. I don’t want any gripes like last time that you were five hundred short-changed.’
Gloria Steyn arrived home mid afternoon from a long day in the classroom. Her nerves too were jangled and it was with relief that she drove up Town Hill to their village perched at the top of the escarpment. The thermometer in the car confirmed that it was eight degrees cooler than in the city. After a brief stop at the supermarket, Gloria arrived home only to find her husband tearing his hair out. ‘I can’t get on the Internet,’ he growled. The wind must have brought a tree down and I can’t reach a sane person at Telkom who can give me a rational answer.’
‘Relax, darling,’ she said, embracing her frustrated husband. ‘They are already working on the problem. There’s a crew just up the road repairing the telephone lines. I’m sure it’ll be restored in an hour or two.’
Pulling in at a Burger King, Thomas handed Tsepo two one-hundred rand notes. ‘Beef and cheese, a side dish of coleslaw, and two cokes, please, Tsepo. Get whatever you like for yourself. Oh, and a half jack of Klippies at that bottle store across the road.’
Returning to the truck, takeaways in hand, Tsepo frowned. The engine was still running, and he’d seen his boss turn on the headlights when they left the warehouse, but there were no tail-lights on at the back of the rear trailer. Calling to Thomas from the back of the truck, he asked him to test the indicators and hazard lights. Nix. ‘Brake,’ he called. Nothing there either.
‘Ag, forget it, Tsepo,’ he said. ‘We never get stopped. Hardly ever, anyway. We don’t have time anyway to do a repair. If we’re not back in Jo’burg before dawn we’ve both lost our jobs.’
Drama on Town Hill reminds us that South Africa has the very worst road accident rate in the whole world with the USA not too far behind.
On the N3, just inland near Cato Ridge, two police cars were parked conveniently off the highway, where they could view the passing traffic without having to get out their cars. Manny Govender was standing at the open window of the second car, chatting to his compatriot, Sihle Dhlamini. A panchy middle-aged cop, not many people noticed that he had only one real eye, courtesy of an expertly fitted glass orthotic; Manny had been savagely attacked in the line of duty. Sihle was a bright-eyed young man, fit and strong, who took his job seriously.
The traffic was starting to build, in both directions for the anticipated long weekend. City dwellers were escaping from the stress of the metropoles, either to the beach or the mountains.
Putting his finger up, Manny said, ‘Wind’s changed. There’s a cold front coming.’
Already, small, low flecks of grey cloud were flicking overhead. Sihle gave a shiver, reaching for a cardigan. ‘That means work for us.’
Manny continued to stand at the open window, neither of them saying much. Within half an hour the sky darkened with the promise of mist and rain. Most of the vehicles already had their headlights on.
With a start, Sihle noticed that a heavy articulated truck and trailer had no taillights blazing in the gathering gloom. Starting the fast police car, he was getting ready to pull out into the traffic when Manny tugged his sleeve. ‘What on Earth are you doing, Sihle? You’ll get your head blown off one of these days. Just let them go.’
Sihle hesitated. ‘Shouldn’t really, Manny. Those are the guys who cause the accidents.’
‘Ag, don’t worry. In ten minutes they’ll be ahead of this front, and they’ve got all the correct reflectors. Just relax. Coffee?’
The articulated truck, with no load, sped on into the rapidly darkening twilight.
‘Let’s take the dogs for a walk, Andre,’ said Gloria Steyn. Her husband was in a filthy mood, frustrated by the loss of the Internet. The horrid wind had dropped and a cool southerly breeze had sprung up. Grudgingly, still complaining moodily, Andre found the leashes and it wasn’t long before they were walking up the road. ‘See,’ said Gloria, ‘you’re the one who’s been on a leash all morning. Turn off your cell phone, too.’
‘You, too, at the saltmines. Rather the dogs on the leash, eh!’ said Andre grumpily.
Just around the corner they came upon a group of their neighbours staring animatedly into what the Steyns thought was the sky. But no, they were looking at the telephone poles. ‘Ah, Andre, just the man,’ called his neighbour. ‘Some bastards stole the copper wire this morning, and now we’re without telephones.’
‘As our local MP you should know who to call.’
‘We can’t get a reply from Telkom,’ said another woman angrily.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Gloria. ‘I saw the crew repairing the cables when I came home.’
‘That wasn’t the Telkom crew, Gloria,’ said their neighbour. ‘That was the thieves at work!’
It was less than half an hour later that the Forrester family raced past the two traffic cops parked at Cato Ridge. Stopping for twenty minutes for groceries, they were well behind schedule. There was silence in the car, each engrossed with their own thoughts. Tamsin was lamenting her missed opportunity, angry that the boy had invited one of her friends instead to the party. Fran was wistfully dreaming about what she would normally be doing late on most Friday afternoons. Timmy was fantasizing what it would be like to have a three-pound trout on the line. John’s stomach was churning. What if they didn’t get to the mountains by seven, and were greeted by locked gates? He stepped on the gas. And little Brad? Well, he was fast asleep, snuggly fastened in his child-seat.
Janice glanced up from her book, noticing the thick clouds gathering over Town Hill. ‘You’re right, Dobs. There’s work coming. I’ll get hold of the traffic inspectorate,’ she said.
Picking up the microphone she made contact with the radio headquarters. ‘Pansy, there’s thick mist setting in on Town Hill. Please put out a general alert for unroadworthy vehicles.’
‘I already have, Janice. We’ve got two squad cars checking all the traffic approaching Town Hill for defective lights.’
‘Well, I hope they’re doing something more than “creating a presence” for a change,’ snarled Janice, thinking of a horrific accident on Field’s Hill. An articulated truck hadn’t halted at the compulsory stop to engage low gear. Twenty-six people had died. The cop covering the stop was found fast asleep on duty.
‘I hope we’ll back before dawn, Thomas,’ said Tsepo. ‘It’s going to be a slow trip in this weather.’
‘I’m not risking our jobs, Tsepo. Not to worry,’ he said gunning the heavy truck, changing to a lower gear as they approached the notorious Town Hill. Visibility was still clear, and he swung into the middle lane, crossing a barrier line in the process to pass a full laden truck in the crawler lane.
‘I heard that le Roux saying that he paid you twenty-thousand rand for this trip. Why do I get a measly two-thousand only?’ Tsepo grumbled.
‘Cause it’s my neck that’s on the line, Tsepo. If we’re late getting back, you just jump out and the boss is none the wiser. But I would be fired. Plus, I’m the one who arranged this nice little bonus for you. Two thousand rand for a twenty-four hour shift is good money. No taxes, no union fees. Hard cash. Got it?’
His co-driver, Tsepo, digested that. ‘Yes, okay, but still two thousand is hardly worth the risk. I want four thousand.’
‘Go to hell, Tsepo; you agreed to two thousand, that’s the deal.’ Angry, Thomas reached for the half jack, twisting off the lid, and taking a first swig. The fiery liquid seemed to clear his mind.
‘And if a little bird was to whisper in the boss’s ear that one of his trucks mysteriously has an extra couple thousand kilometres on the clock in his absence?’
Thomas had to take evasive action when a car cut in front of them; distracted for the moment but, safely back in the crawler lane, he patted his jacket feeling the familiar, reassuring outline of the Colt special. ‘Did I get that right, Tsepo? Either I pay you the extra, or you split on us?’ His voice was mild.
‘Yes, you got it right.’
Half way up the notorious pass, Thomas could see a bank of thick mist not a hundred metres ahead of them. Cursing, he put on the hazard lights, remembering they had no warning taillights.
‘There’s nothing back there, remember,’ said Tsepo. ‘I told you we should have checked the fuses. That’s probably all it is.’
Thomas grunted, concentrating on the road ahead. Unloaded they were flying up the pass, but continually obstructed by the slow-moving traffic. Checking his mirrors he swung over into the middle lane, finding himself stuck behind another heavy truck inching its way up the pass. Forced to slow down to a crawl, Thomas cursed, wondering if he dared swing over into the fast lane, strictly reserved for high-speed traffic.
‘Dobs, did we replace that cylinder of oxygen? The one that’s nearly empty?’
‘I didn’t,’ replied the rookie paramedic. ‘Did you ask me?’
‘No, I didn’t, but you could have used your own initiative.’ They were parked half way up the notorious pass. All leave was cancelled for the long weekend and every ambulance was on standby. Half the fleet was strategically placed at the known hot spots. They were parked a little below the heavy mist belt, seen just ahead of them. Janice had a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach, some inner sense preparing her for action. She could feel the pulse beating in her temple, the adrenalin flowing.
‘I guess,’ replied Dobs. ‘They’re going too fast aren’t they? Can’t see a damn thing in that mist. All it takes is one dumb idiot..,’ he left the sentence hanging.
It was a dry mist, with just a few spots of moisture on the road surface, so long dry as a bone during the long winter months. Unseen, deep in the tarmac was imbedded a deadly mixture of diesel and old engine oil. As they watched they could see the mist rolling ever lower towards where they were parked. Suddenly, even though it was only a little after five, it was as though someone had switched off the light. They were plunged into darkness, only the growl of the traffic and the headlights piercing the gloom reminding them they were witnessing the world going on holiday for a long weekend of rest and relaxation.
‘John, please slow down,’ pleaded Fran. ‘I can see only two cats’ eyes ahead. We’re going much too fast.’
‘We’ll be spending the night camped at the gate if we don’t get to Giant’s Castle by seven,’ replied John, wiping his brow and peering into the gloom. Despite the cold he was sweating and that made the windscreen fog up even worse. They were in the fast lane, just able to see the car in front, all travelling far too fast for the conditions. One dumb idiot…
‘Dad, slow down, won’t you. Something bad’s going to happen. I can feel it,’ said Tammy.
Her father only grunted. Just then Brad, seated next to his sister, started to cry. Consoling him, Tammy loosened his straps, pulling her small brother onto her lap where he lay mewling.
‘Calling all traffic officers on duty on the N2. This is Pansy here. There’s a rumour doing the rounds that this weekend the bosses are doing spot checks. There’s a dummy truck without taillights on the highway. If it gets past you, and you don’t stop it, you’ll be docked a month’s pay. Just a little warning.’
Winding down his window, Sihle said to Manny: ‘Now she tells us. Manny, I hope you haven’t just cost us both a month’s wages.’
‘Relax, Sihle; it’s just an idle threat. There’s no way they would do that on a busy long weekend in this weather. It might cause a real accident.’
‘Well, I hope you’re right. Still, I don’t feel good about it. What was it the chief inspector said? If there’s an accident and we never stopped the offending driver, the blood of any dead people would be upon our heads.’
‘Daaa, you Zulus are far too superstitious, Sihle. Your ancestors have better things to do than come back and haunt you because you let a truck without lights through.’ Manny, anxiously hit the button, closing the window, keeping the cold blast out. Shit, maybe they would.
Thomas looked anxiously at his watch. They were doing fifteen kilometres per hour, stuck in the middle lane, well behind schedule. Chafing, he first lit a cigarette and when that didn’t calm his jangling nerves, reached for the half jack. Tsepo got to it first. ‘Not until you’re out of this mist, Thomas.’
‘Shit, Tsepo, I’m the boss here, gimme the bottle.’ He was beginning to slur his words. A wrestling match ensued for a moment before Thomas acquiesced, realising the sense of Tsepo’s words. Glancing into the mirror for a long second, the dumb idiot could see no headlights, put on his indicators and gunned the engine taking them out into the fast lane. Within thirty seconds they were doing forty kilometres per hour but, in the thick mist it made not the slightest difference. At that very moment, John Forrester glanced down to turn the aircon on to clear the foggy windscreen. Fran let out a scream, there was a momentary screeching of tyres but all Thomas felt was a heavy jolt as the Forrester family slammed at high speed into the back of his truck. Three more cars slammed into the back of them, forcing them right under the trailer.
I’m writing to tell you, Mom, that I’ve quit my job. I’m sorry you had to pay for that long training, but nothing prepared me for the horror of being a paramedic. This weekend something snapped, and I’ve given notice with immediate effect.
First on Friday night we had to extricate a car from under an articulated truck. Both the driver and passenger in the front seats where decapitated, and a couple teenagers in the back were also killed on impact. It was only three hours later after using the Jaws of Life that we realised there was a toddler under the seat still alive. There were two more accidents on Town Hill that night, another three on Saturday, and a seventh on Tuesday as the lemmings returned home. It’s too much, Mom, I just couldn’t handle that week in and week out for the rest of my life.
Andre and Gloria Steyn stayed up to watch the semi-finals of the US Open in Flushing Meadows late on Friday night. The Town Hill highway was only a short distance below their home; first they’d noticed that the dull roar of traffic had suddenly stopped. Then had followed the sirens… but now it was just after midnight and they were engrossed in the match between Rafa Nadal and a relatively unknown Frenchman. Gasquet was ahead of their darling in the second set. Abruptly, the lights went out and the television blank. All power was lost.
‘Turn on the generator, Andre,’ cried Gloria. ‘We must see the last set!’
Andre dashed out to the garage where the backup generator stood. Cranking it just twice, it coughed and started up, the lights immediately coming on. Andre breathed a sigh of relief. The power was always going off in Hilton, and they too had eventually bought a generator. But by the time he got back to the tennis, the lights had dimmed and gone off. Worse, the drone of the generator from the garage had stopped. Retracing his steps by torchlight, he examined the engine. Fuel! It had run out, and he’d forgotten to get the jerry can filled. Blast, he thought. Gloria will never let me hear the end of this. ‘I’m sorry, Glo, we’ve run out of petrol. We’ll have to go up to Hilton Hotel to watch the rest of the match.
The Saturday morning headlines screamed:
Comparison of the statistics given out by many countries throws up a fact perhaps little known: Americans and South Africans rank amongst the worst offenders in the world when it comes to traffic fatalities.
it relates to poor public transport, long distances on the roads;
alcohol and drugs play a large part. Speed, unlicensed drivers, the low
age of getting a driver's license in the United States... it's complex.
Whatever, criminals behind the wheel of motor vehicles cause much mayhem on our roads. The price in human suffering is too ghastly to contemplate and law enforcement authorities in both countries are either clueless, or have no real desire to change matters.
Orthopaedists, neurosurgeons and chiropractors are kept busy. Whiplash Chiropractic ... but still those that survive an MVA usually will have a life characterised by headache, neck pain, pill-popping and disability. We read much into: seven dead. But we give little thought to: fifteen seriously injured.
A Family Affair is a trilogy of intrigue and deception by Bernard Preston.
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