Hybie Verwey walks to the post office for the umpteenth time. She doesn’t care if it’s Sunday – Servaas will just have to check. Maybe this year? Maybe a telegram?
It’s been five years now. Five long years of wondering whether she shouldn’t have kept quiet that day. She’s replayed the scene over and over in her mind – but it doesn’t help. What was said, was said; the words can’t ever be taken back.
It was a summer’s evening; one of those balmy twilights when a glass of wine and good music in the background should have been sufficient to conclude a day of joy. It was Willemientjie’s birthday, and they spent it on the beach at Kanon – a secluded area where some ship stranded many years ago. A canon was all that was ever salvaged of that ship – hence the name.
They talked about that: a ship full of people died here. The ship and the passengers all perished in the wide blue waters of the ocean; and with it, the dreams they must have cherished for a better future.
“You know, Mamma, it’s sad to think that a single miscalculation could have caused the wreck? If the bosun or the lookout or the captain made an adjustment in time, they would have gone on their merry way. A single mistake. And the only thing that survived was an object of war. There’s great irony in that…”
Yes, she said. They were ignorant or reckless or stupid. They could have been more careful.
“Mamma, I need to talk to you.”
That’s how it started.
It had been Willemientjie’s suggestion they spend the weekend at Kanon. Just the two of them – mother and daughter. They had always been so close, but since Willemientjie went off to join the band, long periods of time followed in which they virtually had no contact. Oh, there were the occasional phone calls, but it wasn’t like it used to be.
“I have to get married, Mamma.”
A single sentence in an ocean of words, and that’s where the ship of Ta Hybie’s dreams hit the rocks and sank.
Hybie is the product of a difficult and troubled past. After her Kasper died, she worked day and night to see their child through school. The singing lessons cost a fortune, but she dreamed of the day when Willemientjie would step up on the stage of Aida to sing alongside the great baritones of the world. With her sweet soprano voice, the world would be her oyster.
“Don’t tell me it’s that guitar guy? That long-haired simpleton who couldn’t finish school? The one in the band? The band you insisted on joining because you didn’t have the guts to go to the auditions I arranged? The band you travel with from small town to small town, trying to make a name for yourselves? No,” she said as she saw her daughter sitting there with down-cast eyes, confirming her suspicions, “no, don’t tell me. I won’t hear it.”
She walked down to the beach where they found the canon, fleeing from the anger that so suddenly overwhelmed their day together. What should have been a time in which they rediscovered the joy of being together, had become a nightmare. Willemientjie pregnant? And that no-good, long-haired, nobody the father?
She went back to the cottage after the rage and disappointment burnt down to the last few smouldering embers of despair. Maybe, she thought, they can patch things up. Maybe an abortion? Or, if she, Hybie, took care of the baby? The thought of raising her daughter’s child – starting all over with nappies and bottles and playschools – was almost too much to bear. Yet…? What else?
But when she pushed open the door to Willemientjie’s room, she only found the note with two words on it.
That’s all. Willemientjie had taken her car and had driven off, leaving her alone in Kanon, where so many souls died, so many years ago. And only the canon remained as a reminder of conflict…
Oh, she tried to find her, of course. She found out that the band had broken up, but nothing more. Willemientjie and the nobody simply disappeared. Even the private investigator couldn’t trace them.
Over the years, only the hurt of that evening remained. The dreams she had for her daughter became nightmares. What happened to her? Did she get married? And the baby…?
Ta’ Hybie fled to Rolbos to escape the reality of her loss. Here, where nobody knew her, she would try to become a normal member of society; a new start, if you will. And, amongst strangers, she hoped to salvage what was left of her life. However, only the canon remained – the souvenir of the war and the wreck and the single miscalculation that caused the ship to crash against those rocks.
Despite herself, she checked at the post office. She had kept her old postal address, and paid the investigator to forward any post to Servaas’ little post office. Every Christmas, every birthday…and every Mother’s Day she prayed for a card that would make everything right again. Her disappointment – and anger with herself – grew with every shake of Servaas’ head.
“No, Hybie, nothing…yet. Maybe tomorrow.” He said the same words every time, with the same sympathetic look in his eyes. It only made the hurt worse.
Now, when she knocks on Servaas’s door, she doesn’t care if he’s asleep, or on his way to church, or nursing a hangover. Her hope – and the hope of every mother that ever lived – overcame the shame of begging him to check, once more, if there isn’t something, anything, waiting for her at the post office.
Servaas walks to the room that serves as a port office. He doesn’t say anything, simply because it won’t help to talk. Even if he doesn’t know all the details, he can guess enough to know silence is sometimes more soothing than a torrent of words. He pretends to look everywhere, although he knows it’s useless.
“No, Hybie, nothing…yet. Maybe tomorrow.”
After Servaas has gone home, Ta’ Hybie sits down on the steps of Boggel’s Place. She tells herself she’s being stupid. Then the tears come.
When she feels the hand on her shoulder, she looks up at Boggel who is standing behind her.
“Nothing?” He asks, knowing the answer.
“No, Boggel. Nothing.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
The dam bursts. She tells him everything. The two of them sit in the morning sun as the words tumble from her broken spirit. She talks about her sadness, how she misses Willemientjie and no, she doesn’t care who she married or what she’s done in the meantime, if only she could fix it.
“But you know, Boggel, sometimes mothers make mistakes, too. You won’t know, I suppose, growing up in an orphanage like you did. Mothers aren’t supposed to be cruel and unkind – but sometimes we are; and it’s because we love our children so much.
“Tell me, Boggel, do you think that’s wrong?”
And Boggel, who never had the privilege of having a mother, smiles and said no, it’s not wrong. After all, having a mother is the one thing every child should cherish. Mothers should be loved…and forgiven.
“I think we have a surprise for you, Hybie,” Boggel says as he gets up. “Come here.”
When he opens the door, she sees the whole of Rolbos gathered inside the bar. Even Oudoom and Servaas are there, having sneaked in the back door. And behind the counter, big as life itself, Willemientjie waiting with an uncertain smile and the little boy.
Boggel will tell her later that Gertruida figured it out. On one of her visits to Servaas, Hybie mentioned post that may have been forwarded from a previous address. Gertruida checked, found the investigator, and traced Willemientjie. It wasn’t as simple as all that of course; but it is a well-known fact that Gertruida – who can unravel even the greatest of mysteries – does not take ‘no’ for an answer. When she starts asking questions, she doesn’t stop until she fits the final piece to the jig-saw puzzle.
The investigator told Gertruida that Willemientjie went overseas. Gertruida phoned a friend who knew somebody who worked with passports. She followed the trail from Johannesburg to London, London to Paris, Paris to Austria. If you want to know about singers in Austria (Gertruida will tell you), you go to Upington. They have an internet café, where you can search for things while they serve you coffee. The brew is terrible, but at least the information is so easy to get and it doesn’t cost a fortune. She eventually looked for, and found, the Vienna State Opera in Wikipedia – and found out they had a whole list of artists contracted to the organisation. There, listed just after Martli Talvella and Maria Jentza , was a certain Mina Verwey, the darling of Austria. A phone call from Gertruida – who can be very convincing – was all that was needed to put the wheels in motion for a memorable reunion.
Mother and daughter faced each other for a speechless minute. Willemientjie saw how old her mother had become in the meantime. Hybie saw the expensive clothes, the diamond pendant, the uncertain smile…and the young boy, all at the same time.
Boggel says people tend to talk too much. Words, he says, are the rocks that wreck relationships. If you talk less and do more, he says, there will be more love floating around in the world..
Gertruida, for once, didn’t disagree with him. She sat at the counter as mother and daughter embraced, tears flowing while they laughed and talked and hugged. When Willemientjie told Hybie how she was spotted on a dingy stage at an agricultural show by a bored talent scout, Gertruida and the rest of Rolbos felt like cheering. The break-up with the guitar player followed, which caused Boggel to hand out tissues and a round of Cactus Jack. Then, as Willemientjie told Hybie about the struggle to get accepted by the Viennese Opera House, more Cactus Jack followed.
When the words run out, Oudoom gets up to hold up a sagely hand. He announces that there would be no church service today. “No sermon of mine can hope to do what we’ve seen here today, anyway. You seen – not heard – forgiveness, repentance, love, sorrow, happiness and the value of hope; and it all happened here in a bar! Sometimes I think the Lord has a weird sense of humour, and today is a prime axample. Maybe He’s telling us we should live love, and not talk about love so much. That much I can still take, but why is He telling it to me in a bar? With a glass of Jack in my hand?”
Little Willempie thinks the people of Rolbos are a bit strange, to say the least; but he does love Vrede, who licked his face. He doesn’t know what a canon on the beach says about love and he’s far too young to understand the delicate nature of adult relationships. However, when Boggel told him the plump woman with the mascara streaks on her cheeks was his ouma, something in his little heart stirred. Nobody had to explain to him what the word meant; he simply put his arms around her neck when she picked him up. He’d later tell Willemientjie he likes having an ouma; she told him he was her little ship when she rocked him on her lap.
Before Boggel serves another round, Gertruida asks Willemientjie to sing something. “We’ve never had an opera in Rolbos, you know? Won’t you…?”
Willemientjie smiled, stood to one side, and sang Un bel di. When Boggel whispers his question, Gertruida tells him it is the famous aria from Madame Butterfly, and it tells the story of longing, a ship arriving in a harbour, a reunion and the joy of love. Boggel thinks it’s stupid to sing about ships in the Kalahari, but Gertruida gives him a stern look.
“It’s about the day, Boggel. Un bel di means a beautiful day, understand? It’s beautiful and incredibly sad…”
Nobody in Rolbos speaks Italian – not even Sammie – but they all understand every word Willemientjie sings. When the applause dies down, Kleinpiet draws a heart on the countertop with the froth of his beer, writing ‘Mom’ in the middle.
Willemientjie glances at the drawing and smiles.
“I couldn’t have said – or sang – it better,” she says.
Listen to Un Bel Di: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Z3-yBlDckY