An exerpt from "The Return"
by Bernard Preston
Keywords: Setting the honeytrap, south african railways, bernard preston, a family affair
Bev has an usual profession; blackmail. She's paid exorbitant amounts of money to entice high flying women into a honeytrap - and capturing the affair on film. Will the judge-to-be fall for it?
Santie, on the other hand, is Dean of the law faculty; she is supervising three PhD's for a black president waiting in the wings whilst a succession of South African presidents who follow the iconic Nelson Mandela first falter and then fall. Mbali Mhlongo's son is tragically killed by an articulated truck; his manifesto is massive government spending to create employment by rebuilding the rail services, and getting the heavies off the road.
But what will happen when Janet, Santie's partner, finds out?
Within a few days Santie found herself dialling Bev’s cell number, knowing the dance studio would just be closing. It was a Friday evening, when Janet was at Toastmasters. ‘Hello Bev, it's Santie. I don’t know if you remember me? I brought Storm to the dance studio a few times and we talked on the phone? I was wondering if you’d like to meet up for coffee sometime?’
‘Of course I remember you! It’s lovely to hear from you. Sure, that would be great to meet for coffee. Do you have anywhere in mind?’
‘Not really. I live in Sandton.’
‘I go quite often to a small bar near there. It’s called Twiggies.’
‘Yes, I know it. What time?’ They made a date for later that same evening. Santie wasn’t sure what to wear, but thought she’d dress up a little. Slipping into a coffee-coloured silk dress, and matching high heels, she checked herself out in the bathroom mirror, and decided she was satisfied. She added a little make up, and ran a brush through her thick hair, trying to ignore the odd streak of grey. Fifteen minutes later she slipped into the little bar. A group of younger women, sleek, some with ridiculous hair, were talking in loud voices, and a couple of men sat chatting quietly in one corner. Several of the women looked up, watching Santie with interest as she made her way to a discreet corner table, where she ordered a glass of white wine and a carafe of water.
It was a full half hour before Bev arrived. ‘Hello Santie. Sorry, it took me longer to get away than I thought. How are you?’ Before Santie could answer, she went on, ‘So glad you called.’
‘I’m fine, Bev. And you, how are you?’
‘I’m fine,’ said Bev. ‘Stupid question, isn’t it? How are you? I’m fine. Actually I am fine! Bev looked about, gesturing for the waitress. A sensuously under-dressed young woman arrived, pen and pad in hand. ‘Hello, Salina,’ said Bev. ‘The usual please.’ The girl nodded.
‘You come here often?’ asked Santie.
Bev nodded. ‘It’s a convenient watering hole. I have a number of friends who enjoy coming here. In fact, I think several of the instructors from the studio will be here shortly. They sat waiting for their drinks and after a while Bev said ‘When we last spoke you were going to tell me about the Railways! My father worked for them for nearly forty years.’
Bev giggled. ‘Just an electrician, though he was promoted to engine driver eventually.’ She gave Salina a smile and a wink, as she thanked her for the cocktail.
‘Where did he get his training?’
‘Damned if I know,’ answered Bev, a slight frown furrowing her forehead. ‘I seem to think he started with the Railways straight out of school. I remember him saying he was the exception that proved the rule. He worked his whole life for one employer.’
‘True, but he did change his job description.’ Santie regretted dressing up. Although most of the other younger women also obviously wanted to look chic, Bev was neatly dressed in blue jeans and a white cotton blouse with a simple Egyptian pattern. Flat, dark blue shoes and a pouch around her waist completed the dress down look. She could have been a waitress in a coffee bar.
‘Is he still alive?’
That caught Bev by surprise. ‘Yes, why?’
‘A major part of my brief is to find out how to restart the training of technicians on the Railways. I would be interested to hear his experiences. Twenty years ago the Railways was the major training institution for artisans and technicians in South Africa. Now there’s a huge vacuum.’
‘Yes, I see. I suppose that could be arranged. He and Mum and have retired to a smallholding in the Magaliesberg. He’s crazy about gliding, and there’s a big club out there. He’s always out at the airfield fixing a winch or something.’
‘He’s been flying gliders since he was a kid. He says the most dangerous part is driving out to the club! How did you get into this stuff? You’re a lecturer, aren’t you?
‘Mm,’ said Santie nodding. ‘Despite myself. I trained as an attorney and really had no intention of returning to academia. Then I bumped into my old prof, and he wanted to know why I was hiding my light under a bushel, as he put it, in an insurance company. So I started a Masters, and then a PhD, and now I find myself a senior lecturer in law.’
‘Where do the Railways fit into all this?’
‘That’s a long story.’
‘I’ve got time, if you have.’
Three women noisily entered the pub, making their way over to Bev’s table. Santie could see their reflection in the darkened window, and saw them abruptly change direction at a small shake of Bev’s head. Nothing was said. Obviously they were from the dance school. Turning her attention back to Bev, she said: ‘My son was at school with a very nice black boy …’
‘You have a son! How old is he?’
Santie smiled. ‘Yes, I have a son. Carlo is seventeen. As I was saying, he was at school in East Griqualand with this nice boy called Lucky. We met the family quite a few times, because the boys were friends. His father is mega-rich. One of the new BEE guys.’
‘Never mind. Just super rich, but still a very nice family. Not one of the flashy nouveau riche types. Well Lucky wasn’t so lucky. On the way home from Astonhouse, he and the chauffeur were killed by a heavy truck.’
‘Oh, how awful! Astonhouse! Oh my! Your son goes there too?’
Santie nodded. ‘Went there. He’s matriculated and is now in Cape Town.’
‘Are you mega-rich too?’ asked Bev with a grin.
‘No, but I did get lucky once, and it earned me quite a lot of money. Anyway, Lucky’s dad was devastated. He told me that if he ever had the opportunity, he was going to get half the heavies off the road.’
‘I don’t get the connection. Law school, railways, rich black men?’
‘That’s my life right now. I’m supervising MBAs for this black politician between lectures to students. He wants to get the railways working again.’
‘My dad says that’s a lost cause, Santie. They’ve closed most of the mechanical workshops and the rolling stock is now in terrible shape.
‘You’re right, it’s very complex, Bev. That’s only part of the story. It’s also because even the old rail network would not have been able to keep up the transport needs of businesses, what with the booming economy since the end of Apartheid.
‘So companies have no option but to rely on road transport.’
‘Exactly. Are you really interested in this?’
‘Okay, well to aggravate the problem, the trucking industry is probably the hardest hit by AIDS, so there is a shrinking pool of experienced drivers.’
‘And of course we all speed a bit, but when you are behind the wheel of fully laden, speeding behemoth it’s a recipe for disaster!’ said Bev.
‘Precisely. That’s how my son’s friend Lucky was killed. That’s why Mr Mhlongo wants to rid the roads of half the heavies.’
‘Is he the presidential candidate everyone is talking about? How on earth would he do that?’
‘Yes, he’s the one. It’s not impossible he’ll be our next president. What with the dearth of leadership at the moment in the ANC, there are a lot of underground voices urging him to make himself available.’
‘Mm, you say this Mhlongo was Lucky’s dad?’
Santie nodded. ‘Actually I met him a long time ago when I wrote the constitution for a small black political party which unfortunately faded very quickly into obscurity. Anyway, after Lucky’s death Mr Mhlongo developed an obsession to rid our roads of the death traps as he calls them. Stupid really, but it’s one of the main reasons he is considering entering politics. Strange man, but I like him.’
‘How does he plan to put a shot in the arm of the Railways?’
Santie thought for a few seconds, wondering where to start. ‘He’s the CEO of our largest oil company, and on at least half a dozen other boards. Breweries, hotels, logistic companies, you name it. When he first considered entering politics, he quickly realized that he was going to need a platform, and a policy. As a businessman he had become very frustrated by the lack of highly skilled technicians in South Africa. His businesses are being impeded by a lack of skills. So he has made that his platform. Somehow or other he got to see my PhD thesis on the constitutional considerations of reintroducing national conscription, and he liked my ideas.’
‘Conscription! You’re not serious surely? Back to the old days of compulsory call up?’
‘Very much so.’
Bev shook her head. ‘South Africa’s enemy is not beyond our border. It’s within. It’s crime, and unemployment, and poverty and crooked politicians. My brother was killed during the invasion of Angola. Let my Dad hear you talking about conscription and he certainly won’t want to talk to you!’
‘Let’s not get into that, Bev. Just to say the thrust of my thesis was that the national call up should be used for training. Not for the army, though some of the conscripts would be used in the police. But also for nurses, teachers and a host of fields where we have such a manpower shortage. My suggestion was that the training would be entirely without the use of weapons of any sort.’
‘Okay. But we keep getting back to the Railways. Why the Railways?’
‘There are three parts to it. Are you really interested?’
‘Yes! Go on!’
‘The first one is the empowerment of our railway network. Mhlongo wants to know if the Railways can do deliveries within twenty-four hours at competitive prices. He does not want to revert to the draconian powers that the Railway Police used in the Apartheid era to keep heavy transport off the roads. He wants to know if it is economically and structurally possible.’
‘I doubt it. The Railways never were efficient, and now it’s far worse according to my dad.’
‘Maybe so. Anyway, one of the MBAs that I am supervising is assessing whether a transport company could fetch a container from a factory on the Reef, get it to the station and onto a train, and delivered to the docks or a retail outlet in Durban, all within twenty-fours hours of the order.’
‘Never!’ said Bev.
‘Given the right kind of support we think it can be done. Mhlongo owns a medium size trucking company so he does know his oats. Preliminary work with a large electronics company has so far been very encouraging. We can get a container of TVs from the Durban harbour to their Johannesburg warehouse much cheaper, and nearly as quickly as a conventional truck.’
‘But on a large scale?’
‘That’s what this MBA is about. It’s going to take a considerable investment in technology and new super-fast loading and unloading terminals at the stations.’
‘You could never get a container to Cape Town in twenty-four hours, though.’
‘It does of course also take trucks longer to the Cape. But the second MBA is being done by a top railways engineer. Mhlongo went on the Euro-star from London’s Waterloo station to Paris for the World Rugby Cup. He now wants to know why trains can’t travel through the Karoo at those speeds.’
Bev burst out laughing. ‘You really are serious, aren’t you! A two hundred kilometre per hour train in South Africa!’
‘My engineer has a whole department looking at whether we could use the European technology to produce high-speed trains. It would of course mean widening the rails, and a huge investment in new engines and railing stock.’
‘And where would we get the money for that?’
‘Mhlongo is no cardboard pushover. He has already had serious contacts with the Swedes to see whether they won’t convert our order for the super-expensive air force jets that the Air force has ordered, into trains. It’s not impossible. Sweden has been a leading supporter of the anti-apartheid movement and their government is, in retrospect, seriously embarrassed by the permit they have signed to supply South Africa with aircraft they know we neither need, nor can afford.
‘You really think it can be done?’
‘The preliminary reports suggest it could. Building the new lines would of course create work for tens of thousands of people. That’s where Mhlongo has the huge advantage as a businessman. He wants to get South Africa working. It’s that fifty percent unemployment that is killing us and he thinks that the promise of job creation is what is going to swing the vote to him.’
‘It would take a huge number of skilled people, though, to produce projects of that magnitude,’ said Bev doubtfully.
‘Oh, we know that, don’t you worry. That’s where the third phase comes in. Shall I go on?’
‘Yes! Let’s have another drink?’
Santie nodded. ‘Just a soda for me. I have a very experienced training consultant doing one of the MBAs. The Railways still has the infrastructure. Mhlongo wants all the railway workshops reopened. We are looking at a preliminary one hundred thousand jobs. We’ll be training boilermakers, electricians, welders, tool and die makers, engineers, electronic experts, you name it. The fourth phase is to get our Technical Colleges back into shape. A retired Teacher Training College professor is doing that MBA. He was forced into retirement at fifty when we closed his college, thinking we wouldn’t be needing as many teachers. Of course, no one guessed how many teachers would die from AIDS, or go into business and politics.’
‘And who is going to do all this training?’
‘That’s where Mhlongo is such a wise man. He really is colour blind. He has no difficulties with getting skilled people back to the work face, whatever their race. He is actively suggesting we get people like your Dad back into training the workforce. Another thing we can do is bring in skilled educators from overseas on short contracts. He has made several trips to Brussels, and the EU has promised to help us find five thousand skilled personnel.
‘Whew, you really mean business,’ said Bev, signalling to Salina for another round of drinks. ‘Okay, enough of Railways and MBAs. Got a picture of this handsome dude of yours? Carlo? Sounds Italian.’
‘My grandmother was Italian, remember.’ Santie reached into her wallet for a picture of Carlo. In fact, it was a picture of Carlo and Trek.
‘Carlo’s the dark one, right?’ asked Bev, looking backward and forwards from Santie to the photograph. ‘And the redhead? Two good-looking lads, if I may say so.’
‘You may! Yes, Carlo is the one on the left. That’s Trek with him, his half-brother.’
Bev’s face twisted mischievously. ‘More and more intriguing! If I were to put two and two together would I be correct to say that Trek and Storm are brother and sister?’
‘Not just a pretty face, I think is the correct response.’ They both laughed. ‘Enough about me. How about you?’
‘Getting too close to the bone, are we?’
‘Yes,’ said Santie shortly.
‘Nothing nearly as arresting. Single girl, never married. Professional dancer until age caught up with my joints about five years ago. I was born with congenital hip dysplasia. So I turned to my hobby for an income. I sell photographic equipment, mainly top end CCTVs by day, and teach dancing one night a week.’
They were silent for a few moments, having run out of conversation. Finally Santie said. ‘It’s getting late, Bev. It’s been a lovely evening. Thank you.’
A brief smile flickered over Bev’s lips. She nodded. ‘It has been enjoyable. How about coming dancing once a week. And in the holidays bring those two gorgeous guys. Like I said, we need boys.’
‘Can I think about it?’
‘Of course.’ Neither of them quite knew how to finish off the evening. Eventually they shook hands awkwardly. Santie left a bill on the table that would cover the drinks, and a small tip.
‘Thank you. It’s on me next week.’ Bev raised her eyebrow.
‘Maybe!’ Santie left without so much as a backward glance.
A Family Affair is a trilogy of intrigue and deception by Bernard Preston.
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