Settling a new relationship in an old house can be quite a challenge. Where once Kleinpiet ruled his own roost with the faded photographs against the walls and the threadbare curtains in front of the dusty windows, he now discovers the value (and the torture) af a new broom sweeping out the old junk.
“I’ve asked Sammie to order material for curtains, Kleinpiet. You’ll like it. It’s got flowers and clouds on – just the right thing to liven up the bedroom.” He suppressed a groan – there was nothing wrong with the brownish chintz his grandmother had hung there. “And I’m getting new cutlery. That stuff in the drawer is ancient. I’d be ashamed to use the rusted teaspoons if we get visitors.” Those too, were his grandmother’s, and they worked perfectly to stir sugar in your coffee. Kleinpiet bit his tongue and forced a smile. “The new carpet…” It seemed as if nothing was good enough anymore: Kleinpiet considered suggesting building a new house, but because he knew she’d jump at the idea, he didn’t.
Jock, the old sheep dog, is well aware of the renewal taking place. He got a new bowl and real dog food for meals; something he despises. After a lifetime of eating the leftovers from the stews Nkosasana made every day, he finds the nutritious pellets rather tasteless, dry and hard to swallow. He finds Kleinpiet sitting on the back porch and presents his left ear to be scratched.
“Ja, Jock. It used to be the two of us, hey? Now a new wind is blowing and we’ll just have to ajust.”
Jock grunts his satisfaction as the lazy fingers work on the spot behind his ear. Then he sets off to relieve himself against the old orange tree.
“You have to make a doggy toilet, Kleinpiet.” Precilla pauses as she weeps the dust from below the stove. “We can’t have dog pee all over our garden.”
Kleinpiet sighs. “Yes dear. But that old tree never blossoms, so I suppose we’ll be okay. And Jock never does that over the tomatoes or the spinach. But I’ll talk to him; he’s a very sensible dog – I’m sure he’ll understand.”
“Th tree never blossoms? What good is it then? Shouldn’t you plant something that bears fruit every year? Having a barren orange tree is like having a tractor that doesn’t run – it’s not of much use, is it?”
“That tree was planted by my grandfather. He said he got a twig from old Mister Collins – the guy that ‘discovered’ the Kakamas Peach on the banks of the Orange River in the early 30’s. It gave a good harvest of peaches every year, but when my mother died, it stopped. My father said it was the shock of her death that caused it. With nobody to stew and can the peaches, the tree didn’t want to yield fruit any more. You know how old people are – they have an explanation for everything.”
“So you’re going to dig it up and replace it with a new one? Please, Kleinpiet? It’ll be nice to have fruit on the farm.”
Kleinpiet sighs. “Yes dear.”
In human terms, the tree is extremely old. The bark is gnarled and warped into rough patterns while the more superficial roots coarse (half-submerged in the ground) across the yard in the search for moisture. From the humble, original shoot, it has grown into a shady tree with long branches. Next to the trunk, a rusted chair has provided rest for several generations of men who needed to escape the hardship of domestic life. Now, Kleinpiet sags down on the seat as he looks up at the wide-spreading branches.
“You’ll have to go,” he tells the tree, “just like the photos in the hall and the old chairs on the stoep. I’m sorry.”
The wind rustles the green leafs, causing the smaller branches to sway sadly. I’ve been here much longer than you have. I’ve celebrated births and grieved with funerals. Young people courted under me – old men and women reflected on their lives beneath my branches. And now, after a lifetime of providing shelter and comfort, you want to kill me?
“I don’t suppose you’ll understand. It’s Precilla, you see? She’s even talking about revamping the bathroom. I mean – what’s wrong with the bathroom, for goodness’ sakes! It’s got a jug, a basin and the old galvanised bath – and it’s not rusted half as bad as she says. As for the outhouse – it’s perfectly functional, if you ask me. But no. Suddenly everything must go. And who must do it? I’ll tell you: me! Kleinpiet do this. Kleinpiet do that. It’s like being in the army again.”
Listen. The tree has heard enough. This is the life you chose. You asked her to marry. You wanted her to come here. You should have known things would have to change. I’ve seen it all – when a man brings a woman to this place, things change. But me – I didn’t choose this place. I was brought here, made to grow here. Nobody asked me whether I liked it here. And when last did you prune or water me, anyway? You simply accepted me as part of the farm and left me to my own devices. Your grandfather…now that man was different. He cut away all the dead and unnecessary branches every year. He was also the last one to fertilise the ground around me…and he watered my roots regularly, Did you do it? No! You never cared as long as you had shade. You … neglected me.
“Life is funny, isn’t it?” Kleinpiet’s thoughts stray in all kinds of directions as he sits in the shade, completely oblivious of the tree. “You get used to stuff. I mean, I’ve lived in this house all my life, and never even noticed the carpets or the blankets or the curtains or whatever. They were there, and that was good enough. Now suddenly, everything looks old and worn. When did that happen? How does it happen?”
One day at a time, that’s how. You become conditioned to accept things the way they are. Over time, you lose perspective. I’ve seen it happen to children, to cars, to relationships. Humans don’t pay much attention to detail once they’ve become used to things. Now we trees, well, we shed our leaves once a year, then we start all over again. Every season is a new season, and we have to adapt to those. Humans don’t do it. They get born and then they die. Two big seasons: life and death. And in between, you simply ignore changes. It’s sad. Then, when somebody dies, the rest of you wake up for a while, promising yourselves that you’d pay more attention to life. Of course, it never lasts.
“Now look at this tree.” Kleinpiet looks up at the branches. “Once upon a time it bore fruit. Then it stopped. Maybe love is like that as well. Young love blossoms and seems so pretty. After a while, the wonder stops. The branches are bare. Where there was once an abundance of fruit, nothing is left.”
Just like me. Nobody cared any more. My blossoms dried up. My fruit is gone.
“Kleinpiet! What are you doing out there, all by yourself?” Precilla crinkles her brow in mock anger. “Come in here, I’ve made you some coffee.”
He gets up obediently to shuffle his way to the kitchen.
There you go. Chastened into a new life of senselessness. You’ll stop feeling, get used to the new order, and accept that as the new definition of happiness. Then you’ll stop bearing fruit and then they chop you off. Happily ever after? Not if you go gently down the slope towards oblivion.
Kleinpiet stops to stare at the tree. Why does he suddenly think of a forgotten poem – learnt in school – so many years ago? Dylan Thomas it was: Do not go gentle into the night… and Rage, rage against the dying of the light….
“Precilla, I’m not going to cut down that tree,” he says with sudden clarity. “I’ll plant others. We’ll have an orchard. But that tree stays.”
“No. Some things are worth keeping. I love you. But … that tree is part of who I am. I grew up under that tree. I played there. My mother rocked me to sleep under it. I cannot just axe it down. I’ll put a new bench under it and plant a few flowers – you’ll see: it’ll be lovely once more.”
They fix up the house within a week. The new curtains, carpets, furniture – it all makes the house look rather new and attractive. Kleinpiet has to admit that his wife brought in a breath of fresh air into the old home as they sip a well-deserved Cactus at the end of the day.
“You’ll never become used to me, will you, Kleinpiet? I mean, lose the fascination? It’ll be so sad if you do.” Precilla rests her head against his shoulder. Being married is great, but what if…? She remembers the heartbreaks of her youth, the break-ups, the loneliness. This time, she has decided, she’ll have to be much more aware, much more careful, in the relationship. She’s seen the way Kleinpiet sulks lately and she’s worried about it. “I do so much want to make you happy…”
Kleinpiet hugs her with a smile. “Love is enjoying the shade without expecting the fruit,” he says.”And … I found a few blossoms on the old peach tree today. I think it is trying to tell us something.”