Journey: 1

The following is translated from “Een Voet Voor Die Ander” by Erica Neser (Protea Books, 2008). The English version has not been published.


“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.  These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” ~ Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross


20 March 2004

It is already dusk by the time we arrive at Palmiet. Paul and I unpack the car while the children open the blinds to see if the little bat is asleep in its usual spot above the bed. It is quite late, but we decide to make supper in the small gas oven. It seems as if it takes hours before it is ready. Roald, aged eleven, is reading while nine year old Aniek and 20 month old Mila both fall asleep. Paul asks, “Shall we wake Aniek for supper?”

“Leave her, she’s sleeping so peacefully,” I replied.

Paul bends forward to adjust the gas bottle next to the stove. Suddenly there is a flame, right upon him. It is a meter high and wide and long. Bigger. I hear a noise like a huge wind, or an aeroplane overhead. Paul swats at the flame with a dishcloth, but it is in vain. Within seconds we realise it cannot be extinguished – it is gas spurting out that has been ignited by a candle.

I start screaming, “Get the children! Get the children! Get the children!” Like an animal. Not my voice. Over and over.

The fire is between us and the children. We run out the kitchen door, around the cabin to the sliding door on the side, but it is locked from inside. Up the stairs to the patio– there are windows. Paul kicks against the window pane. The first kick is not hard enough, the glass doesn’t break. I move to help, but realise that I am barefoot. Paul kicks again and this time, the glass shatters. I pull at the blind in front of the window. The fabric burns my hands. Then I see a movement and something bumps against my foot. It’s Mila. She is lying on her tummy. I pick her up. Roald is next to me. I don’t know how either of them got there. Roald must have picked her up and handed her out the window.

Paul dives through the window and disappears in the orange glow. I run with Roald and Mila. I am still screaming, can’t stop. We run to the outside toilet. The heat is so intense that we just have to get away. I look back at the burning cabin and hear the terrifying roar of the fire. I don’t know if Paul and Aniek are inside or outside. I scream, possessed. Roald, Mila and I hide behind the rocks from the heat of the fire.

Then I see something moving in the bushes: it is Paul. He has Aniek in his arms. I hand Mila to Roald. She gives a small sob, wide-eyed, but she doesn’t cry. I scramble down the rocks where we were hiding. Paul’s clothes are all gone at the back. His face is grey and bloody. Aniek is red. And grey. I see shreds of skin everywhere.

“It’s OK, my girl, it’s just bits of material from your blanket,” I try to persuade myself as well, but I know it is skin.

“Bring her here to the tap, here’s water,” I call in Paul’s direction. But then something prevents me from wetting her.

We stumble up to the sandy path, barefoot.

“We’re all alive. We’re all alive. We’re all alive,” I say over and over.

Already a miracle.

Don’t look around. Like Lot’s wife.

We reach the chain gate and I lift it up for Paul – still carrying Aniek in his arms. He can’t bend down far enough to get through.

“Is that the light of a car coming this way?” Paul asks.

“It’s the light of the fire,” I reply. “We have to walk to the main road. We have to.”

He can’t walk anymore. He stumbles forward, falls. Aniek is on the ground. I pick her up as if she is a tiny baby and I start walking.

“Stay here!” I shout over my shoulder. “I’m going to get help.”

We walk. Aniek is wet – I think it’s blood. She is awake and is very cold. She doesn’t cry: she just sobs and catches her breath now and then. I keep talking. Her head rests against my shoulder. I walk fast. I don’t feel her weight. It’s pitch dark, but to me it seems like broad daylight. I don’t stumble; don’t stub my toes, even though I am barefoot. I don’t get out of breath. My arms are supported on both sides

“There is an angel walking on either side of us, Aniek.”

We see the lights of cars on the main road in the distance. There are many of them – almost one every second minute.

“Someone will stop, Aniek. Do you remember Alison[1], how the first car didn’t stop for her? Do you remember how brave she was?” Keep talking. Keep talking.

“Aniek, are you awake? Don’t fall asleep.”

“Mummy, can you put your top over me, I am cold, I’m so cold.”

“I would, my love, but then I’d have to stop and put you down, and I can’t do that.”

Pray, pray, pray.

We reach the main road. I stand on the side of the road, as close to the lane as I dare. I don’t have a free hand to wave, I’m too scared of dropping Aniek. A car approaches. It doesn’t even slow down. A white sedan. The red of its tail lights seem extra bright, as if smudging in the dark, as it passes us.

We cry, she and I. Then I see another car approaching from Kleinmond’s direction. It will stop. I’m not asking, I’m saying so.

It stops. Thank you thank you thank you. It’s a police vehicle.

“Our cabin burnt down, my child is injured, please take us…” I don’t have to continue: a few men bundle from the one side and bundle Aniek and myself in the other side. We race away, siren screaming, warning lights on, and the driver hooting all the way.

Aniek begs, “Isn’t there a blanket for me? I’m so cold.”

“Sorry girl, we have nothing here,” replies the policeman. “Sit closer to this side, that door sometimes opens by itself.”

I cling to Aniek and the seat. She is crying.

[1] Alison was raped and severely assaulted in December 1994 and left for dead in the bush. Her exceptional story of survival is told in the book I have life:Alison’s journey, as told to Marianne Thamm (1998). In the week before our accident, Aniek had to do an oral on “My heroine”. She chose Alison.

Erica Neser © 2011


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Yoga with Nicci
    Nov 26, 2011 @ 13:12:15

    Oh Erica. I started reading and then my eyes were just skimming over the words, almost as if to actually, consciously, slowly, mindfully read your words would be too painful, too horrific, too traumatic. I already knew your story but just the bare bones of it, and to actually start to comprehend the horror of what you went through as a family, as a mum, as a human being…words fail me. Once I finished reading, I just sat. And then the tears started to stream down my face. I think it was your comment about there being an angel on each side as you walked. I wish none of you ever had to go through this, and I am so thankful that you all lived to tell the tale. I saw Aniek walking past Helderberg Res a few days ago. My first thought was what a beautiful, willowy blonde teenager she is, with a confident step, laughing happily with her friends on a magical sunny day. My second thought was what an amazing mother she has. I’m proud to know you.


  2. ericanexpress
    Nov 26, 2011 @ 21:34:09

    Nicci, this means so much to me. I don’t know what to say – except thank you. I know it’s not an easy read, but stay with it, because you know how it ends. xx


  3. AutumnVine
    Nov 30, 2011 @ 22:15:08

    When I first heard about this, very early Sunday morning, I went to a family picture on the wall. I touched Paul’s face and the only words I could say was: you’re a hero, you’re my hero.

    And later learned that all parents will do whatever to save their children. And would have loved to have done what you both have done.

    It plunged you into hell, but you survived, scarred all, but alive.

    It’s still as difficult to read as the first time, as hearing it, as living it.

    I agree with Nikki, an amazing mother and daughter, dad, son and little daughter.


    • ericanexpress
      Nov 30, 2011 @ 23:17:11

      Nou wil ek ook sommer huil – maar nie vir A of P of enigeen van ons nie, maar van dankbaarheid vir ‘n wonderlike familie (skoon en gewoon) – vir almal van julle wat ons gedra het toe ons nie self kon loop nie. Baie liefde xxx


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