To see…

Lucinda puts down her paint brush with a tired smile.

“There, Gertruida, it’s all finished. I hope you’ll like it.”

For the last two weeks, Gertruida sat patiently while Lucinda worked of the painting. Using the finest of brushes, the pretty Italian has just added the last details to make the painting look not only life-like, but it also emphasises the beauty of her finely-sculpted face. Of course, reversing some of the ravages of age allows the artist to depict the subject in the most agreeable fashion – and that is what Lucinda did. Omitting a few wrinkles and minimising the double chin has taken years off the image.

“It’s … pretty. Do I look like this?” Gertruida asks in a slightly embarrassed fashion. The painting was Judge’s idea: he said he would love to have a picture of Gertruida on his wall. And, no thank you, not a photograph. Something more permanent. Something of value. And yes, indeed, an oil painting would do very well, thank you.

“Oh yes, Gertruida. Look, I finally got the look in your eyes right. You stare out of the picture with a slight smile – enigmatic – almost like the Mona Lisa. Only, I think you are more beautiful.”

“Pull the other one, Lucinda! I’m way beyond my pretty years. I have wrinkles. Everything is submitting to the pull of gravity. My neck looks like a crumpled newspaper. And there are liver spots all the way from Pretoria to Diepsloot. No, I think you captured an image of me when I was much younger. It is most flattering, to be sure, but I don’t look like this any more. And, I may tell you, I don’t feel like this any more.”

“Well, Judge said he wanted me to paint you the way he sees you. He was very specific about that. He said: Gertruida is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. You must paint her like that. So, I did. Now, because he pays for this, he must tell us what he thinks. I think he’ll like it.”

Gertruida opens her mouth to protest. Surely he can’t see her like that? He is a judge, for goodness’ sakes! Judges are trained to review facts and deliver sound advice and opinions. They live in the sober world of facts where the truth is the only criterium when coming to a decision. Before she can say anything, Lucinda puts a paint-smeared finger on her lips.

“Don’t protest, Gertruida. Let’s hear what Judge says before you decide.”

***

If there is one thing Oudoom worries about, it is that Mevrou will discover his cache of peach brandy up in the belfry. Now – one must understand that Oudoom isn’t a secret drinker. Not like that, anyway. Sometimes, when the circumstances surrounding his flock weigh heavily on his mind, he’ll escape here to think about life for a while.

The peach brandy was delivered to the vestry by Ben Bitterbrak a year or two ago. Ben, the master stoker in the district, wanted to apologise for his behaviour when Oudoom drove out there for a visit. Look, he said, I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just the war, man. It changed people. It changed me. I don’t want to hear fairytale stories about love and stuff. Most of those stories want us to live in peaceful harmony – and do you see that happening? No, on my farm I have some people staying with me. We live in peace. They help me, I help them. Anybody coming in there with the idea of ‘fixing’ things up, doesn’t understand the bond of friendship and trust we developed over the years. Maybe we don’t attend church much, but on that farm we live with love. So, Dominee, here is some peach brandy. It is to say I’m sorry, but please stay away from us in the future.

Oudoom had difficulty in following the logic of Ben’s argument; but the plea was delivered with such earnest conviction, that he felt it would be wrong to reject the symbol of atonement. He knew he dare not take the brandy home; Mevrou would never allow it in her house. The only option was to rely of Mevrou’s acrophobia to keep her from climbing the narrow ladder up the bell tower.

Today, however, Oudoom unscrews the one bottle to tip a small quantity into the top. Holding his breath, he swigs it down with a grimace. The fiery liquid scorches down his throat to settle uncomfortably below his midriff. To his surprise, the pleasant peachy aftertaste lingers on his tongue. This is great, he thinks, maybe I should have another.

The reason why Oudoom escaped to his lofty hide-away today, is the brewing feeling that not all is well with his flock. Oh, they tithe when they can and the attendance is relatively good, but he gets the impression that his church and Boggel’s Place have too much in common: it is a meeting place, another social gathering where people get together to talk and gossip. He wonders how much difference his sermons make and whether they actually listen to his message every Sunday. He watched them carefully during the last sermon – and although he tried his best to package his message craftily, most of the people in church had that uninterested, far-away look when he reached the climax of the sermon.

Two swigs later, he’s made up his mind – this Sunday he’ll give them something to think about!

***

Inside Boggel’s Place, Pete is telling them about the strikes in the country. “Those guys want everything, man! Imagine a workforce of that magnitude, demanding pay hikes of up to in excess of 300%! At this stake many workers are poor, that’s true. Only here, in South Africa, they look at the salary for our President, the houses for his many wives, and the school fees of his almost two dozen of his children. It’s logical that some of the workers feel they are paying taxes to a government who doesn’t supply basic services, bungled up Education and is riddled with corruption. They also want a piece of the action, that’s for sure. If the rich go around eating sushi off naked women, they feel it is their right to tag along, too.

“What they don’t realise, is that excessive wage demands will kill the goose that is feeding them. Jobs will be lost. The jobless will become more. Crime will escalate. It’s a mess.”

“Ja, maybe you’re right. But Zuma did speak in the UN the other day and we are known as the most vibrant economy in Africa. We have Ouma rusks, Mrs Ball’s chutney and produce petrol out of coal. Our constitution is one of the most modern and we have The Beast to scrum the other guys into the ground. All isn’t doom and gloom. And … we have boerewors.” Judge has become a regular in these debates in Boggel’s Place, adding his logic to the emotional chats about the country. “Everything has two sides, guys. A good side and a bad side. A right and a wrong. But no individual side is as clear-cut as we’d like to believe. Look at any country, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about: nothing is ever perfect.”

“That may be true, Judge,” Kleinpiet says as he draws a stick-man with a crutch on the counter top. “But is human nature to be critical. That’s why the wheel was invented and why we were able to abolish apartheid. Remember – it wasn’t the government that threw out the old laws; it was the people –white and black – who voted. That brought about change.”

“It’s all white-wash, Kleinpiet,” Vetfaan gets up to leave. “Nothing has changed. The poor got poorer, the rich got richer and the Kalahari is still a desert.  Apartheid is alive and well in this country, only this time the whiteys are at the short end of the stick.  We have to accept that we live in an imperfect world where nothing is the way it seems. Smoke and mirrors won’t change that.”

***

On Sunday, Oudoom climbs the steps to the small pulpit without the usual Bible in his hand. He waits until the rustling of dresses and the creaking of the benches fall silent after the hymn, before addressing the congregation.

“I’ve come to an important decision, Brothers and Sisters. I’m going to stop preaching.  From now on, we’re going to have to talk to each other during the service. In civilized countries they call this process a conversation.  The only prerequisite is that everything we say must be kind, it must be true, and it must contribute to the lives of our fellow men and women. As the judge would say,” he nods his acknowledgement to the man of law, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. As long as you remain kind, such a conversation will help develop a healthy community, dedicated to each other.

“So, from now on, you will stop hearing what Christ said – and start doing what he told us. Action, Brothers and Sisters, not sermons. Talking; not listening to an old preacher still trying – after all these years – to convince you to love your fellow man. You all say that action speaks louder than words, and it’s true.

“Now, who wants to tell us anything?”

The silence is only interrupted by the cooing of a lone dove on the roof.

***

Judge admires the painting on his wall as Gertruida walks in with the tea tray. She is still a bit embarrassed by the hauntingly beautiful canvas Lucinda produced.

“It is so beautiful,” he breathes as he stirs a spoonful of sugar into the brew.

“I’m not so sure, you know. I may have looked like that a decade or two ago, but now I’ve added a few lines to my face, a few inches to my waist and a pound or two to my weight.”

“It’s not that,” the judge parries, “it’s the smile. The light in your eyes. The way you hold your head. I’m not worried about the way Lucinda saw you as you sat there, I’m impressed with the way she captured your spirit. It’s quite astounding.”

For the first time in many years, Gertruida doesn’t have a ready answer.

***

Up in the belfry, Oudoom eyes the bottle critically before unscrewing the top. The silence in the service was deafening. In all the years he tried to amuse, entertain and fascinate his flock, he got used to the neutral way people listened to his sermons. Today, when he reversed the roles, he said nothing. He could feel their eyes boring into him, urging him to please, please say something. The atmosphere inside the church was tense as the silence enveloped the uncomfortable congregation. People glanced nervously at their neighbours, hoping somebody would say something. Even Servaas, who excels in delivering serious reprimands, had nothing to say.

It was Judge who finally stood up.

“This is an excellent idea, Dominee. People live in conflict with one another,  mostly because they don’t listen when they speak. Sometimes a government won’t hear what the people say. Sometimes employers don’t listen to their workers. And sometimes, when the government or employer says something, common people like us can’t hear them because we don’t understand them.

“The trick I suppose is to not only listen, but to see. Now, the original Latin word for ‘to see’ was vid or vis. Today we have, for instance, video, vision, vista and revise as words with that root. When people don’t see each other, they can never see eye to eye, can they? And seeing, in this argument, is not about whether you need glasses to create an impression on your retina, it’s about looking at somebody and comprehending exactly what is happening inside that person. You can call it the perception of that person’s spirit, if you like. That’s what Christ wanted us to do, and that’s what you’ve been preaching about for so many ways.

“Now, Dominee, you know these Rolbossers. If you put them on a spot, expecting them to tell each other something, you’ll get the silence you’ve just heard. My suggestion is that people don’t say anything. With your permission, I’d like them to turn to one another and look. Just look. No talking. Let us all try to see the other people we share this life with. I think that’s what religion should be all about: spiritual vision.”

***

Oudoom allows the peachy taste to linger a while before swallowing. He’s not in the belfry to worry about some difficult situation today.

He’s celebrating.

One thought on “To see…

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