Moth to the Flame

The candle in the window of the cottage on Hartseerdal flickers as a lone moth engages in the dance of death. Like most people find out,  fascination may be the source of horror, too. Gertruida says we are all wired this way: if we follow a dream too long, we find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And who, she asks, has ever bought happiness? The achievement of reaching a goal – of reaching the dream – is a terrible thing, she says. Once there, you either start chasing a new flame, or boredom gets you. And the gold, she says, is never worth it, anyway.

Either way, we get burnt.

Benjamin van der Bank – Bennie Bank to his acquaintances (he has no friends) – is a prime example. Gertruida says it’s his father’s fault. Growing up on a barren Karoo farm where drought and jackals competed to destroy their small flock of sheep, the old man took to distilling a vile – but very potent – brew from prickly pear leaves. This resulted in the fire that finally put an end to the farm.

Oh, he tried to support his family afterwards, but the steady downwards spiral towards his final demise was already established. His only escape – cheap wine sold in plastic bags – made him dream of untold riches. With money in the bank, he’d dress up like a lord, he used to say, and drive around in a Bentley. And yes, he’d buy a house – a real one, with brick walls and a ceiling in every room – and there would be enough food for dinner each day. And Bennie would loathe his useless, stupid, drunk father and he promised himself a different life one day.

When at last his liver refused to work through the load of alcohol it had to handle every day, Bennie’s father passed out one day. Permanently. His release from his nightmare wasn’t pretty; but then again: burnt moths do tend to look rather ugly.

Bennie’s burning ambition to escape from poverty drove him to take risks. Scarcely in his teens, he started selling second-hand gardening tools on the sidewalk, next to the bus stop in Upington. His logic was simple: the men returning from the mines in Johannesburg, had money. They wanted to feed their families: planting vegetables on the rich soil next to the Orange River made a lot of sense. Much to his surprise, he soon found it difficult to supply in the demand.

The rich people in the huge houses with brick walls and real ceilings rarely noticed the absence of the odd spade or garden fork. Working his way selectively through the suburbs, he kept his overheads low and maximised his profits. By the time he was sixteen, he graduated to second-hand cars. Of course people were more prone to notice a missing Volkswagen than the odd hosepipe, so he had to be more careful in his acquisitions. He had to find at least one vehicle a month to keep up his reputation as a reliable source, which led to excursions to Prieska, Kakamas, Kenhardt and even distant towns like Vosburg and Hopetown.  By the age of twenty, the suitcase below his bed became too small, and he had to invest in a bigger container to store the neatly bundled notes.

Realising  that his luck must run out one day – and that he would have to do some serious time behind bars when it did – Bennie became an honest man (in a manner of speaking). He now started lending out money. At a rather lucrative interest rate, Bennie became the banker to the local population. If somebody needed some cash, Bennie provided a one-stop opportunity. No paperwork, no in-depth discussions of repayments and no questions about income: you simply stated the amount you needed, and Bennie supplied the money.

There was a catch, of course. Bennie never, ever, forgot what he lent to whom. His mind had a little compartment for each of his clients and he could recall, at a moment’s notice, the exact details of any transaction. Even more importantly, Bennie’s frame had filled out in the years since his father’s death. He now was a huge man. If payments weren’t made on time, he’d simply convince the culprit to do so.

At the age of thirty, he had his house and his Bentley. He had made it.

That’s when the flame got too near.

“I want to buy this bar,” he announced to the stunned customers in Boggels Place. “I’ve got everything I need, but I don’t have friends. I want to be where people laugh – it’s been ages since last I heard spontaneous laughter.”

“It’s not for sale,” Boggel said, not making a distinction between the bar, the laughter or friendship. “This is what we have, Bennie. For as long as you have been collecting money; we’ve been here, swapping stories and drinking Cactus Jack. You’re welcome to have a drink here, though.”

“But I have money…” He looked desperate. “I’ll give you your price. Come on, name it…”

“Look, Bennie, we know you’ve had a hard time in the past. We also know you made a lot of money; which may- or not – have been through various underhand ways.” Gertruida chose her words carefully. “It’s almost like the government, you see? Now they are in parliament, they have to forget about the dream and live with reality. Oh, they have a lot of money floating around, but can they buy loyalty and friendship? Artists make our leaders look like Lennon – because they like what they see? Comedians make us laugh by imitating high-ranking officials. Cartoonists depict the president with a shower on his head. The Youth League is falling apart and the two old allies – COSATU and the ANC – are fighting about potholes and toll gates. They were so intent on reaching the top, they sacrificed friendships along the way.

“You see, Bennie, once you reach your dream, you find it is very lonely there. You know why? Because you have to step on people to get there. You burn bridges. And if you want to stay there, you’d better make peace with your solitude. The only way down, is to start all over again – from scratch.

“Boggel is right. If you want to come and have a drink with us, we’ll welcome you. We’ll teach you how to have fun. If we’re lucky, we can make you laugh again. But…laughter and friendship? You can’t buy that. You have to earn it – and only then the real
hard work starts: you have to look after it carefully.”

Bennie went back to Upington, sold his house and his Bentley, and bought Hartseerdal – the farm he had grown up on. The big trunk with the neatly bundled notes, serves as his chair. He’ll sit there as he watches the clear liquid drip from his still, where the prickly pear leaves hold the promise of escape from the nightmare of solitude.

Like the moth circling the candle on his windowsill, Bennie has no choice. If he wants to escape reality, he’ll need to dream once more. And like his father, he’s found there is a big difference between sleep-dreams and the rest. At least sometimes, a sleep-dream may have a happy ending.

He looks up as the moth falls into the molten wax.

“Should have known better,” he slurs, as the flame flares up momentarily. With only the drip-drip from the still as company, he wonders how long it will take…

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