Funerals are final things. You say good bye. It’s a full stop. The end of the page. Finished. One does not expect them to be the start of anything great – especially if you’re the one at the graveside and not the poor sod in the coffin. Oudoom always talks about the wonder of the afterlife, and Servaas believes that bit. But Oudoom also says one must not grieve the departed, because they are in a better place. Nice words, Servaas thinks, but how does he know? Does anyone?
That’s why he doesn’t begrudge to tears that flow over the cheeks of the mousy girl during the service. Nellie Pretorius’ daughter. Martha. A plain Jane, if ever he saw one. Flat as a board and as thin as a reed. Pointed nose. Thin lips. A typical spinster, he realises. No man would look at her twice. In fact, now that he thinks about it – much like Siena was, way back when he met her the first time. Only, Siena was younger. This woman must be….what?…40 or older? Tannie Nellie often spoke about her laatlammetjie – the one she had when she gave up all hope. In contrast to the two boys that died in that aircraft disaster, Nellie’s eyes would sparkle when she told Servaas how her daughter made it as an international star.
“She sings opera,” she said, “in some place in Italy. They are always surprised that such a voice can come from such a small woman – but it does. And she’s doesn’t have to shout. I used to listen to her as she sang in the shed. Could hear every word here in the kitchen. She just has a voice that carries…”
No, with the coffin descending below the surface, she starts singing for her mother for the last time.
Somehow, the sweetness of the song and the purity of her voice overcomes the little gathering at the grave, and even Oudoom has to fish a handkerchief from his pocket.
Later, when they gather for the traditional sandwiches and tea at the church, Servaas tells them about his visits to Tannie Nellie, and how much she enjoyed chatting about her daughter.
“You were her dreams, Miss,” Servaas says, “her inspiration. You made it possible for her to escape the dreary circumstances of the farm, and allowed her to dream about you on the stage. I listened as she read your letters over and over again
“I must say: they were most interesting letters too! You have a way with words – somehow you made her … us …see the stage, experience the music and enjoy the applause.”
She smiles at that. “You really think Mama enjoyed those letters? I feel so guilty that I neglected her so much in the past few years.”
“Oh no, not at all Miss. If you were here, you’d have killed her dreams. Squashed them flat. She lived for your success and was so proud of what you’re doing. No, you did more by your letters of optimism and hope, than you would have done by hanging around on a dead farm.”
Martha walks over to Servaas to hug the old man. “Thank you for saying that, Oom Servaas. I needed to hear it from you.” She pecks him on the cheek, like Italians do.
Personal space is a sacred area to some people. Servaas is like that. You don’t invade his space – ever! Shaking hands is bad enough, but hugs and kisses? Forget it. Despite this, Servaas feels his heart miss a beat. Their eyes meet for a second. Just…just like Siena’s eyes…
“I know you have to leave tomorrow, Miss, and that you’re staying with the Verdana’s tonight; but I was wondering if you would like to come over for dinner. We can talk about your mother…” His voice trails off. What are you doing, Servaas? He tries to convince himself he is only doing it to help the woman get closure, but he already knows he’s lying to himself.
He hides his surprise as relief washes over Martha’s face. “Oh, thank you! I’d love that.”
Servaas looks at the mirror in the bedroom, trying to see if his grey suit isn’t too tight around his middle. It’s been years since last he wore it, and he managed to get all the buttons done – if he pulls in his stomach muscles, it doesn’t look too bad. The bowtie is a relic from his youth as well, when it was fashionable to have the Einstein look. Finding the cufflinks was a bit of a problem, though. He eventually discovered them in Siena’s drawer, on her side of the old bed.
The chicken is in the oven, the table is laid and he’s got the old 78 record ready to play on the gramophone. Yes, and the flowers! He rushes out to pick a few flowers from the Springbokopslag plant at the back. The flowers are small and reddish, and will display particularly well in candle light.
Standing back, he feels the wave of uncertainty wash over him. Come on, man, this isn’t a date! You’re going to console a grieving daughter out of respect for the friendship you had with her mother. Don’t be silly, now…
The timid knock on his door puts a stop to his reverie. When he opens it, he feels his knees grow weak.
This morning she wore no make-up and a hat. Now dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, she has let down her hair and used some a dab of blusher and a little lipstick. The sad eyes of the funeral are still there, but there is something else… The red lips smile a thank you as he stands back to allow her in. Servaas is still speechless at the door when she flops down on his sofa, scattering the cat and asking – demurely – if he has any wine in the house. “White, dry and cold, if you have it, Servaas.”
He notices the absence of Meneer Venter, or Oom Servaas.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got a Late Harvest, which is maybe a bit sweet, and a Pinotage. I don’t usually drink…”
“The red is perfect thank you. And, I may add, you have a lovely house.”
Servaas fumbles the bottle open and sighs with relief when she compliments the wine. He remembers the gramophone, finally gets it going, and turns down the volume a bit.
Rolbos is no stranger to the twists in the fabric of life. The townsfolk have learnt – by trail and many errors – that you can’t predict where your little road in life leads you to. Sometimes Life even surprises you by allowing you to stick to your plans. Still, the evening in Servaas’ house will remain with both of them for a long time. The wine was excellent and broke down the silences that threatened to overwhelm the start of the evening. He suggested they eat and she hastily agreed. Servaas had the wing of the chicken – she ate the rest. When he remarked on that, she said she appreciates good cooking more than he’ll ever guess. And then, maybe because of her remark, Servaas started relaxing.
He found it easy to talk with her. She – no beauty and thankful to be in an Afrikaner home again; lonely and still fragile after her mother’s death – found the old man’s obvious discomfort with her presence rather flattering. Sure, he was ancient and way out of her playing field, but she loved the way he stuttered when she asked if he would dance with her. Moon River was on the gramophone and she told him it was her favourite.
It was, it must be said, a rather stilted performance initially, by the old man as her held her – ballroom style – with only his fingers caressing her back and the other arm elevated to shoulder height. But he was close, near to a woman for the first time in years. She allowed him to lead the dance haphazardly through the room, around the coffee table and past the glaring photograph of Siena in the hallway. He apologised and turned the picture to face the wall, and they both laughed at the stupidity of it all. Somehow that made the dance a little more fluent and even slightly sensuous.
He brewed some coffee afterwards. They talked about loneliness, life and … love.
“You’re young and have a life ahead of you. You can still hope for happiness and maybe even a family. Me? No chance. It’s me and that cat now.”
“It’s the only connection I have with my mother, the only one left. The farm and even Phineas are gone. You’ll look after the cat, won’t you?”
“No, it’s the other way around – he’ll look after me.”
When he walked her to the Verdana’s, their house was dark.
“They’re asleep,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Servaas tried to say he’s sorry, but couldn’t find the words.
Servaas rarely talks about Martha and never mentions that night. Vetfaan joked about it once, but the old man simply walked out. There are things he can never share with even his best friends, and especially not in a small town like Rolbos. He expects a letter from her soon – one of those wonderful letters she used to write to her mother. The hopeful ones, full of joy.
Then again, like Servaas, Martha doesn’t talk about that night either. The guilt and the shame lock the words inside her. Maybe she’ll tell him, one day, in one of her letters; but she didn’t – couldn’t – tell him everything that night. Not about the life as a stand-in member of the choir of the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, where she works in the bookshop to pay the rent for her small flat. Nor could she tell him about how she wished those letters to her mother were true.
Servaas managed the evening like an old gentleman should. He had to. The cat had taken to sleeping on his bed lately, but Servaas doesn’t care. He’s got a Huckleberry friend and that’s worth living – or dying – for.
PS: Huckleberry: a small unit of measure. A good friend. Official state fruit of Idaho. Small berry. More here: