Whenever he climbs up the stairs to the little lectern, Oudoom pauses right at the top to bend his head. The congregation thinks he says a short prayer in that moment; a request for guidance and strength. It is, however, a confession. And an apology.
On the September night in 1962, when the students attended the formal ball in the hall on the campus, Albertus Viljee dressed in his finest. The school blazer, university tie, pressed flannels and church shoes, blended in a statement of serious intent: he wanted to make an impression. A man doesn’t go hunting without a gun, after all. The target of his meticulous planning was a certain Miss Cromwell (Connie, to her friends), who could bring the campus to a standstill by merely walking from the library to the cafeteria.
Now, Albertus new his prospects for success were limited – and that even assuming he had a chance, was optimistic. Young men will play this game till the end of time: they aim for the impossible. Defeat means they move one rung down the ladder to attempt a more attainable goal. They work their way from the top to eventually reach the girls that tell them how wonderful they are. Maybe Darwin was right: that’s why the rich and the beautiful rule the world. That’s why we learn to follow, with the others at the bottom of the ladder.
But Albertus was too young, too inexperienced, to know that. The world was his oyster and his pearl was waiting…
He did get to dance with her that night. Afrikaner boy met English girl. The Nationalist government chatted with the United Party. Calvinist and Catholic sat down to coffee, looking into each other’s eyes – and wondering why the heck society drew boundaries between people. For some reason, (and who can explain the intricacies of Love?) they developed a fascination with each other. The lively Arts student fell for the dour Theologian.
He was, of course, the envy of the men on campus. The student men, that is. His professor, the honourable Horatio Holiface, didn’t share in this admiration. Miss Cromwell was too well known. Flowers in her hair; short skirts and her love for the new way of dancing separated her from the other young ladies. She was a wild one. She was English. She had the audacity (or stupidity) to criticise the government. She even drank beer…from the bottle.
Holiface called Albertus in. This affair with the liberal, English, Catholic girl has to stop. The church does not tolerate such things. What will it lead to? People would say the Church had lost its way and that the faculty now condoned progressive and liberal thought. And where would that lead to? I’ll tell you, Mister Viljee: it’ll destroy the credibility of the faculty and what we’ve built up over the years. It’ll make a mockery of the church. You will not – not – see her again. Is that clear?
The choice was simple: either he continued in his studies, or he continued seeing Connie.
He knew there was no way out. His entire family suffered to get him this far. Sheep farmers in the Northern Cape weren’t all rich people. His father had to borrow extensively to realise the dream of a Dominee amongst the Viljees. Dominees were important people; men that commanded respect. To have such a man in the family would be the crowning achievement on years of toil and hardship.
Whenever he pauses on that top step, before opening his Bible on the lectern, he’d look down at the small flock he leads. He’d see Gertruida with her Dake’s Annotated Bible; Servaas with his hangover; Precilla, who always has a sad look on Sundays; Vetfaan with his collar undone (no tie, for goodness’ sakes!); and Kleinpiet, fighting to keep his eyes open. Always late, Boggel will shuffle in just now, to sit in the chair next to the door – last in, first to escape. He has a bar to open as soon as the service is over.
And Mevrou. The Afrikaner girl from Keimoes. Right politics, right church, right family. Always there, right in front, right in the middle. Now well past her prime, she still retains the haughty look that Professor Holiface found so appealing. A capable help meet, a bedolach in Hebrew, as Genesis calls it. He looked it up one day. The word means something in pieces, or a fragrance – something which wholeness is never complete.
Gertruida says there are two types of people. Those that run towards pleasure…and those that run from pain. Pleasure is something you forget easily and makes you want more; but pain makes you remember and makes you want less.
That’s why Oudoom confesses every time he reaches that step. He has been running all his life, but all he’s found, was pain. And then he apologizes to the one true love in his life. The love he had to kill to please his family and society.
After that moment, he always decides to end the farce and tell everybody to stop running – even if it is just for a second. And every time he knows he won’t do it. He’ll sigh, open the Bible, and deliver a sermon on Love or Hope or Faith – the things he had to leave behind, way back in 1962.