The cathedral at Pella
To say Servaas was enjoying his stint as The Kalahari Biker (as the people started calling him), would be a bit of an understatement. After all, no man at the age of 73, would object to such a flattering moniker, not so? While most of his peers were playing endless games of bridge while discussing the pro’s and cons of various undertakers, Servaas was as free as the breeze as he sputtered along on the ancient Enfield. And, after escaping certain death and a rockery-monument, Servaas was feeling particularly happy to be alive as he watched the sunset from behind the visor.
However, no matter at which age one should chance upon such happiness, nighttime brings on the inevitable question of where to sleep. At Servaas’ age, one must understand that most of his anatomy was protesting against this new form of transport – especially the fat-free posterior, which had been taking the brunt of the shocks and jars the Northern Cape roads dished out so freely. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to visualise the skinny derriere bumping up and down on that hard seat, and then understand that Servaas had to stand up on his bike to keep going.
It was during this phase of upright riding – near Pella, as he tells it – that the girl in the little red CitiGolf stared at him when she overtook the ancient Enfield. This, in itself, was a dangerous move: not only are the roads particularly bad in this area, but young girls should not stare at old men with such obvious admiration. It is downright irresponsible.
The young lady in question – Jenny Grove, a final-year student in architecture – was on her way to Pella to photograph the little cathedral in the remote town as part of a thesis she was writing about the original churches in South Africa. Amongst her many talents and attributes, she had also made it to the finals of Miss South Africa. And…it was a typical Kalahari day: hot and extremely dry…
Servaas glanced over to the passing motorist, taking in the pretty face and the skimpy dress and felt his heart skip a beat. She was staring at him, a beautiful smile conveying her surprise at finding a man like him on a bike like that. And she waved…and blew a playful kiss.
And Servaas, overwhelmed by such generosity, didn’t see the pothole.
The bike stopped before Servaas did. He flew a few yards, tumbled several more, and was eventually brought to a standstill against a rather well placed anthill (fortunately abandoned, otherwise the termites might have considered his bruised backside for supper). When the dust cleared, Servaas remained in a rather awkward position, his back bent over the mound, face up, with his thin legs – protruding from the khaki shorts – pointing more or less north.
“Are you all right?”
Servaas will always remember these words as the ones that wrenched him out of a rather dark tunnel with a bright light at the end of it. For a while, he felt weightless, comfortable and completely relaxed as he progressed towards the light; but the voice – conveying so much care and concern and delivered in such a sweet tone – turned the current and he opened his eyes.
The sight greeting him, made him forget the pain of his halted progress. Jenny – curvaceous, pretty, smelling of some exotic perfume – was kneeling at his side and holding a damp cloth to his forehead. The flimsy blouse revealed more than just the little pendant she wore around her neck while the worried eyes searched his face.
Now: it is a well-known fact that sick and injured men should be nursed by less-than-beautiful nurses. They recover much faster when some witch looks after them. Put a pretty nurse next to an ailing man, and he’d instinctively want to prolong his stay. It’s a matter of simple male logic, see?
That’s why, without thinking about it consciously, Servaas groaned and gave one of his more impressive wheezy coughs while shaking his head. He touched various parts of his body, exploring for wounds and fractures, and groaned a bit more. Deep inside, he knew the only way to extend his time with this absolute angel, would be to remain as properly injured as he possibly could. This is not deception at all; one must understand that, too; but the basic default program in any male when confronted with such beauty. In contrast to the rest of the aging male, this is the single one characteristic that is enhanced by the passage of years. Older men are simply better at playing dead than younger ones. Of course, they will eventually succeed in putting on a more permanent show, but before that, they love to practice.
Jenny was not completely fooled. As the top student in her class – and having had to endure the attentions of many a man who tried his luck with her – she was only mildly worried about Servaas, who sported no obvious injuries. The thing that bothered her most was that she may have caused the accident. All young people – all over the world – watch programs like CSI and Judge Judy and I Sued The Pants Off That Moron. If this old man were to allege that she distracted him and that’s why he landed up in hospital, the resultant payout for injury and treatment could ruin her studies.
Her best option, she decided wisely, was to at least appear concerned, dust the old man off and bid him a flirtatious goodbye. But, although she knew very little about engineering and things mechanical, she knew that strategy would only be partially successful. The bike, she realised, would need a new front wheel. Fond farewells at this point would be impossible.
Klein Pella Guest Farm
And so started one of Servaas’ most memorable evenings of his solo trip – which turned out to be not so solo that night. Jenny found a few beers in her cooler, managed to revive the apparently near-dead Servaas in a record time, and convinced him to leave the bike where it was. She’d get somebody in Pella to bring it to town, she said. She was going to stay at Klein Pella Guest Farm, and happened to know she would be the only patron. Would Servaas mind if she took him there?
Of course he didn’t. His day on the bike had been long (and painful!) and he desperately needed a place to rest. A bath, a bed…and good company? Yes, he’d like to join her, please…?
On their way to the farm, Jenny told Servaas about her interest in Pella. “Fathers Wolf and Simon built that cathedral with their own hands,” she told him, “although they did have help from the Order of St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers.” She elaborated on how the two priests used a picture in the Encylopedie des Arts as a guide to construct the church. “The building was almost ruined by a flood in 1984,” she said, “something that is hard to believe in this arid part of the world. And they started the date industry here. At Klein Pella, there are 17,000 date trees, rendering fruit with the unique taste that makes them so sought after.”
As she chatted – and on his third beer – Servaas found himself staring at the sun-tanned legs, the short miniskirt, the flimsy blouse and the slender neck. Later on, he’d be able to describe these in great detail; but when asked about her face, he’d simply label it as ‘pretty’. She, of course, was aware of his scrutiny, but a girl has to do what a girl has to do. Being ogled at was far superior to being sued.
After checking in at the guest farm, Servaas had a long shower, dressed in his other set of clothes (the garments from the crash were hardly fitting for the occasion) and joined Jenny for drinks on the veranda. She informed him that she’d arranged to have his bike picked up and repaired. “The owner, Mister Karsten, was most helpful. He has had a look at that wheel and is having it fixed in his workshop. I’m so relieved…and glad you’re okay.”
They had supper together. Servaas told her about his old-age crisis, and she laughed till the tears ran down her rosy cheeks. Then he entertained her with stories of Rolbos and Gertruida, which made her smile. Jenny was a good listener and even better at refilling Servaas’ glass with wine from the Orange River vineyards. She had heard that older people get tired and sleepy before they get drunk, but even so she was mildly surprised at Servaas’ capacity to ingest two bottles of Sauvignon Banc before he teetered off to his room. Although she found the old man mildly entertaining, she made him believe she was enjoying the evening tremendously. This pretence, she told herself, was necessary to make Servaas feel so good, he’d never consider taking legal action against her.
Legal action? Servaas would never have done that. He crashed the bike and that was that. But there he was, chatting with a girl that could have been the daughter-he-never-had. And somehow, he found her presence even more exhilarating than the ride on the Enfield.
The next morning Servaas fumbled two aspirin’s past his gums before brushing his tongue and combing his sparse hair carefully. He even slicked down the bushy eyebrows before making – in his opinion – a grand entrance in the dining room.
“Noo, Meneer, the young missy left early – to get the light right for the photographs. She said to thank you for the lovely dinner.” The servant tried to hide a smile. As an older man himself, he understood Servaas’ disappointment only too well. “But the Meneer can be happy. She fixed up the account and paid for the repairs to the Meneer’s motorbike. Meneer must be quite something to make such a girl settle his bills.”
When Servaas is asked about the incident, he’ll brag about how charming he was. “I mean, there was this almost-Miss South Africa, and I spent an evening with her. She even settled the bill. Now, I ask you: doesn’t that tell you she fell mildly in love with me? I was a father figure to her, and she lapped it up. Why else be such a wonderful companion? No, I’ll tell you: I’m finally maturing into a world-class gentleman. Maybe I’m a late bloomer, but at least I’m getting there.”
And Jenny? She took her photographs, finished her thesis, and joined a huge firm of architects in Cape Town. She entered one of her photos in a competition and won a week’s trip to Mauritius – much to her delight. The judges commented of the style and composition, mentioning the fine balance between the upturned bike and the thin legs of the victim pointing skyward. It’s one of those unusual moments, they wrote, making this photo – with the title ‘Antique Folly’ – both humorous and sad. It tells the story of Man’s desire to be young forever; but it also depicts the inevitability of his failure. A picture is worth a thousand words, and this one: much more.”
Servaas never found out about the photo – or about Jenny’s later life. That, one may say, is a good thing. Jenny married a dashing young architect, who stole most of her brilliant ideas and left her destitute. The promise of a wonderful career vanished in a haze of antidepressants and drugs, and she now sells sketches next to the highway near Elgin (near Cape Town).
What would have happened if she had not been so scared that Servaas would sue her? If she acted and listened normally to his stories of a simple life in a simple town with some simple people? Would she have seen the kind heart in the old man, the desire to be a guide, a protector, rather than a legal risk?
Ah, yes, one could wonder about that. But that is what the patron saint of writers, Francis de Sales would have loved – for it is in the very nature of writers to conjure up stories that makes Life liveable and joyful.
Sadly, we mere mortals know: happy endings are rare.
That’s why we cherish them so…