Albertus Griesel is a loner. Has been one since forever and will most probably never change – or so he thought. As the oldest male in Shady Pines, it may be assumed that a man of his stature has the right to his opinion; which is why the other residents accepted the quiet man in the corner who sought (and found) solace in the Bible he read.
His romance with the written Word was an constant affair with self-imposed isolation. Even Matron – the longest serving member of the meagre staff – found him here on her first day. She remembers walking up to the wrinkled old man in the corner to introduce herself. He simply looked up, nodded, and went on reading. She would understand (like they all did) that The Book supplied all that Albertus needed; except of course the skimpy meals and the well-worn mattresses on the rickety beds that Shady Pines advertised as ‘luxury board and lodging for the golden years’.
The women in the Home gave up a long time ago. Oh, they tried, really tried, in the beginning, as all the newcomers do. The sequence was highly predictable: the new lady would be introduced all around; there would be welcoming smiles and then the conversation would begin. Where do you come from? Who’s your family? What did you do? How many children? Blah-blah-fish-paste. Everywhere, when older people meet, the recounting of the past is the most prominent thing on the agenda.
But not in the jaded chair in the corner. Albertus had his Book, and that was enough. He wasn’t interested in the idle, endless, senseless gossip the other old people found so fascinating. What did it matter if someone stayed in Upington, had two children and lived near Pik Botha when they were younger? It was, as far as Albertus was concerned, a utterly stupid exercise to dig around in the ruins of past lives. Such conversations didn’t change anything – it simply was a waste of time.
Of course, there was gossip about his constant involvement with the Bible. ‘He’s a holier-than-thou person,’ they’d say, winking at each other. It was alright to go to church on Sundays, but this constant reading of the Bible isn’t normal.
Then Cecilia Crause arrived. She changed everything.
Cecilia managed to look and dress the way the other ladies wished they could. She smiled with her own teeth, never permed her hair and wore dresses that drew disapproving glances from Matron. She didn’t walk: she floated. She didn’t talk: she breathed life into words to create animated conversation. Within a week of her arrival, she had the Home at her feet. She organised music evenings, started a bridge club, and arranged an outing to the casino in the city. The cook started making her favourite snacks for teatime. Matron asked her advice about the neglected garden.
Cecilia ruled Shady Pines with her charm and a fair share of dignity and everybody agreed that she was, indeed, the best thing that ever happened there.
Except Albertus. The music evening did not budge him from his chair; bridge was a way to combat boredom’ (and he was never bored, anyway) and only fools go gambling with pension money. The quiet comfort and peace of the man in the corner irritated the busy mind of Cecilia. All her life she had been used to people doing things she wanted them to do. It was a gift; her mother said, a talent to lead and others will follow. Once she had set her mind on something, others would queue up to do it for her. And, through the years, that was how her life had been. Now, in her old age, there was this man who didn’t even bother to look up when she entered the room.
Whatever else you can say about Cecilia – and there’s a lot that you can’t – one cannot deny her perseverance. She tried everything. Albertus ignored the chess set she put down next to his chair. The new Lee Child got only a sideway glance and a ‘harrumph’. The carefully-worded Christmas card (with nuances only a careful reader would pick up) wasn’t even answered with a smile. In the end, she adopted the direct approach.
“Look here, old man,” she said as she ripped the book from his grasp, “you cannot go on ignoring me. That is downright rude manners. I am vivacious, full of life and the soul of any party. I can boogy, tango and pole-dance. I know all the card games, play a mean hand of poker and can hit the bull’s eye on a dartboard four times out of six. I know who won the Currie Cup last year and can tell you why we lost to Australia. I am, to sum up, a fun-loving, sporty and even sexy woman and I want to talk to you.”
Albertus blinked behind his thick glasses as if he wanted to see her better – or because he couldn’t believe his eyes (or ears). Cecilia had waited until the afternoon siesta when all the others do what old people do after lunch. She also wore a skirt that allowed her knees to peek out at him.
“You want to talk about Genesis? Or Exodus? Or poetry in the Psalms” He didn’t even glance at the knees. “Give me my Bible.”
She sat down on his lap and threw her arms around his neck. The book was now behind him, out of reach.
“I looked at your file, Albertus.” She said his name with a slight accent on the last bit. “And I know why you read so much.” This time she got a frightened glance, which encouraged her to go on. “I almost missed it, you know? Those files are actually just there for when we die: who to call, who’s the undertaker, which church to inform. Very clinical and extremely depressing. When it said that you had no family, I wondered about it. Under your next of kin, it simply stated Miraa, deceased.”
“Miraa. Maria spelled out wrongly.”
By then Albertus had turned deathly white. “It’s all history,” he said, “in the past…”
“No. It’s all about the present.” The rebuke was gentle. “My middle son has dyslexia, just like you do. How far are you with the Bible?”
He hesitated. “Daniel. I’m almost through with him.”
She noticed he ignored the bit about dyslexia. “If you want, I can do the reading for you?”
Funny things have happen in Shady Pines. Some old people come there to die; others have their own reasons. Most are lonely and wish they had could turn the clock back to start over. Cecilia came there to continue developing her gift of making people do what she wants. Albertus was there to read the Bible, despite his dyslexia; or maybe because of it. It was something he wanted to do before he died.
Matron was there when Cecilia read the last book, Revelations. Ever since John and Jude it was a race between Albertus’ failing heart and the final chapter in the Bible. He’s been inactive too long, the others said, sitting there reading his Bible all the time. What they didn’t know was that Albertus never read the Bible. He heard snippets here and there during the infrequent visits to the church. He detested those meetings. How could they expect him to sing along if he couldn’t read the words in the hymnbook? And what about those silly little papers they gave out at the door where you had to tick off what you’d give or where you’d help?
Maria’s sudden death had been the wake-up call. If you didn’t know what God was all about, how could you go out there and meet Him? He promised himself that he’d work through the Bible, laboriously, word-for-word, before he went.
When Cecilia read the last verse, he looked up at her and smiled. Matron said it was a relieved smile. Then he got up and walked to the kitchen to ask them (very nicely) to make some of Cecilia’s snacks.
“But Albertus! Your heart…”
“I’m sure it’ll hold up for a while. I promised myself to get through that book before I did anything else. Now it’s finished. Thank you.” He hesitated for a second before going on. “Now, about tonight’s musical programme? Maybe you could include a polka? I can dance, you know?’
That evening he taught her to polka. Cecilia told Matron the next day that revelations aren’t restricted to the Bible only. “I had quite a big one last night.”
Like the lady she is, she never told them everything. She wanted old Albertus to last until the next dance, at least. She says dyslexia is when you read the right thing, wrongly.