Searching for a Lost Soulby Christopher Clark / 23.09.2013
I remember clearly the first and only time I met Rosemary Theron, though I had seen her around a bit before. It was early December last year. It was a hot and uncharacteristically windless Cape Town night. My girlfriend and I had been coerced into giving Rosemary a lift back towards Fish Hoek after a performing job they had both been working in Claremont. My girlfriend had been fire dancing. When I asked Rosemary what she had been doing she said “angle grinding” and left it at that, as though this was an entirely normal thing to say, as though no further explanation was needed. I was tired and a little heady, perhaps from the nostalgic Claremont scent of youthful sweat, vomit and reverie. Whatever it was, I pressed her no further.
But Rosemary’s real passion was being a clown, she eventually went on to say, puncturing the uneasy silence. She had the right kind of face, I thought to myself as I looked at her in the rear view mirror; youthful but with tired lines across her cheeks and something sad about her eyes. And that slow, high, gentle voice of hers too. And the small, delicate frame. I felt like she had seen a lot in her life, but perhaps been too young to take all of it in. As she spoke, she looked unflinchingly out of the car window at the world beyond. Or maybe she was looking at her own reflection.
We dropped Rosemary off at her Clovelly home, watched her go inside and then drove away. That was all. I didn’t see her again, nor, in all honesty, did I think about her for a long time after that night; I didn’t wonder what she might be up to, where she might be, why I hadn’t seen her around since.
But all that changed in late March, about four months after that seemingly inconsequential evening, when I answered a knock at my door to find a rotund, mustachioed middle-aged man in front of me. “Christopher Clark?” he inquired. “Yes” I answered hesitantly. The man produced a police detective badge and said “Detective Chris Cloete” in a clipped voice. He then pulled a dog-eared black and white portrait out of an envelope. There was a name scrawled across the top in handwriting that looked rushed and careless. “Do you know this person?” he asked. A woman’s face stared back at me from the page. She was prettier than I remembered, and she looked younger too. But there was no doubt. And sure enough, the name written across the top of the picture confirmed it. It was Rosemary. Beneath the name in smaller handwriting was written “Missing 7th March 2013”.
Rosemary had been last seen getting into a car that fitted the description of mine with an unknown male, Detective Cloete went on to tell me. The police had managed to trace her movements as far as Plumstead, where she smssed a friend regarding a performing job in the early afternoon the following day. Then she was gone, the phone she used to send the sms having since changed hands five times, eventually bought from a shop in town by a taxi driver from Khayelitsha. None of Rosemary’s friends, family or employers had heard from her or seen her since.
I asked Detective Cloete exactly where I came into all of this. He told me that about five minutes after Rosemary was last seen leaving her house on the 7th March, I had been caught on CCTV driving in my car away from Clovelly towards Kalk Bay. He pulled another image from the envelope. Though you could not see my face, it was my car, my hands on the steering wheel, an unidentifiable female sitting in the passenger seat next to me. My heart began to race. I was a suspect, and everything suddenly seemed to be against me.
But over the coming days my girlfriend, father and a mutual friend of Rosemary and I’s supported my claims of innocence and the brief spell of heat around me soon subsided, just as summer began its long walk over the horizon and autumn crept slowly across the bay.
However, as time continued to pass I couldn’t get over how unlikely the whole situation seemed. I certainly hadn’t expected this kind of drama when I moved to the sleepy seaside town of Fish Hoek about 6 months previously. Fish Hoek is the place the retired and aged go to die, I was always told. Nothing happens in Fish Hoek apart from bad architecture and the occasional shark attack, broken hip or teenage pregnancy, they say. I was beginning to feel they were wrong. I wanted to know more.
And if there is one thing a lifetime of eczema has taught me, it’s that if you scratch and pick at the surface for a while, sooner or later something ugly will break out. And just like so many other small towns, it turned out that Fish Hoek had a fair few skeletons hidden in the closet. A quick spot of local statistical research showed that alcoholism (ironically for a once ‘dry’ town), drug abuse and domestic violence were right up there at the top of the charts, often, I figured, going hand in hand with single-motherhood. For many local single mothers, it seemed either they got drunk and/or high and got knocked up, or their partner got drunk and/or high and knocked them and/or their children about, or some kind of cocktail of all of the above.
A thirty-nine year old single mother of three children, all from different fathers, Rosemary could well have related to at least some of this. When I meet with her close friend Richard, an older man with long greying hair and piercing silver eyes, he tells me that the father of her youngest child was a tik addict who “beat the shit out of her” on a regular basis, though he adds with a sly smile that ‘Rosie’ certainly wasn’t one to take it lying down, and probably tried to give as good as she got.
Richard goes on to say that though ‘Rosie’ had had many men in her life, they had all turned out bad in one way or another; all left her and her children alone sooner or later. Maybe she was looking in the wrong places, but that was besides the point. Perhaps tellingly, her most recent boyfriend of around six years had ditched her for another woman just a few days before she went missing, something Richard feels could well have been a “catalyst” for her wanting to get away. At the very least, he says that “her state of mind was such that she needed some kind of radical change”.
Perhaps then it had finally all gotten too much for Rosemary and she couldn’t take the responsibility any longer; maybe the ‘mystery stranger’ had offered her a get out opportunity she couldn’t refuse, financial or otherwise. After all, it wasn’t the first time Rosemary had disappeared. In fact, an increasingly pessimistic Detective Cloete would later tell me that she had often abandoned her kids in the past, sometimes ditching them unwillingly on their respective fathers or, according to Richard, merely disappearing for weeks at a time on “benders”, often with unknown men. Cloete would add that even Rosemary’s eldest girl, just turned 18, had recently said to him “I think she’s left us, Chris”.
Such scenarios are certainly not unheard of. According to Missing Children SA, at least 500 adults go missing in South Africa every year, and taking flight from parental responsibilities is a common cause, or some kind of breakdown related to these responsibilities, both for men and women. Last year two young single fathers decided throwing themselves off Chapman’s Peak was the only way to go. Chris Du Toit, head of the local missing persons department, tells me that even in sleepy old Fish Hoek there is at least one adult reported missing every month. Most, however, turn up alive and pretty quickly, Du Toit says proudly. There tends to be a friend or a family member, or an enemy for that matter, who gives them away before too long.
In the case of Rosemary, this is what Richard finds so hard to accept. He is convinced she would have told someone what her plan was, or at least made sure her children were to be well looked after when she was out of the picture. So it is that contrary to the police detectives at Fish Hoek station, Richard maintains that there must have been some kind of “foul play” somewhere along the line. He uses the word again and again, like a chant. “There is no doubt in my mind” he says.
Nonetheless, at the time of writing, Richard concedes that he and the rest of the team of friends and police officers trying to help with the case have been left with little more than “loose ends and dead ends”. Though that is not to say there have been no leads. And this is where the story gets a little more sinister.
In the early days of the search for Rosemary, Richard received a call from a psychic saying that she had had a vision and was sure Rosemary was in Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, a Cape Flats township close to Somerset West. Richard then received another phone call later the same day from a young local of Sir Lowry’s who said that he had seen Rosie’s missing poster on Facebook and then seen her wandering around a gated complex that was known as a haven for drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes.
Increasingly feeling that ‘Rosie’ had either been coerced, or had willingly set out on a “suicidal mission”, into prostitution, a search party of Detective Cloete and some of Rosemary’s closest friends, along with the local resident who had apparently sighted her, proceeded to scour the dangerous and dirty streets Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, as well as two notorious adjoining townships, Strand and Broadlands Village. On their search, they also met an old man who said he had actually spoken to Rosemary and that she had told him she had three children, information that had not been disclosed on the missing person posters or on Facebook.
On the second day of the search, Richard says their first local informant told them he had been in touch with Rosemary’s current keepers, and that they had agreed to return her for a fee. “We thought this was it. We were going to get her back” he says. However, when the search party pressed to confirm it truly was Rosemary they would be putting up money for and asked to hear her on the phone, their informant became cagey, and Richard says that it became increasingly clear that they were being conned.
But meanwhile, it seemed that there undoubtedly was a Rosemary lookalike working as a prostitute in the area, though the party soon discovered that this lookalike’s name was actually Candice, and that unlike Rosemary she had tattoos.
During this time, Candice’s handlers had obviously caught wind that a group of outsiders were snooping around, seemingly asking questions about one of their girls. On the third day of the group’s search in the area, not long after dark, a minivan of renowned local Nigerian gangsters rounded the bend and accelerated at high speed towards Richard’s vehicle, with the apparent intention of ramming the car head on. Frightened for their lives, Richard and crew jumped in and sped off away from the scene, driving through to Cape Town at 160km/h and losing their pursuers somewhere along the way. Richard got home to find that during the course of the evening his house had been broken into. This was not mere coincidence, he feels. “I thought to myself ‘Jesus! This thing is bigger than we are’”.
After this close shave, Richard and the crew decided it wasn’t safe to go back into the townships again. They returned their attention to the mystery driver of the car that had picked Rosemary up that evening in Clovelly. Richard reiterates that with all the work that has been done to spread the word about Rosemary’s disappearance, it is strange that no-one has come forward and said that they were the unknown man driving the car that night. Whoever this man was, and whatever part he might have played in Rosemary’s disappearance, it seems clear then that he was “someone that nobody knows”.
And so the story drags on, without any clear ending in sight. Rosemary’s oldest daughter and her seventeen year old boyfriend are waiting at home caring for and supporting her youngest child, a pretty and intelligent nine year old girl, mainly off the back of donations from the Fish Hoek public. But these will not go on forever. If Rosemary doesn’t show up sooner or later, people will find another cause to latch on to, and leave ‘Rosie’s’ young family to fend for themselves. This is the sad truth of these kinds of ‘human interest’ cases, even though there are reports of missing persons showing up decades after they disappeared. Richard is clinging on to such reports, and says he certainly won’t be giving up anytime soon. “It just all doesn’t add up yet” he says. As I get up to leave him, he stares out of the window, with a rolled cigarette that has long since gone out held aloft in his right hand. I suddenly notice that he looks a little like Rosemary. Without moving his gaze from the window, he sighs and says “everyone knows that you can’t run away from yourself”.