“People think old age represents a slow glide into oblivion. The fight has been fought, the dragon slayed, and the knight rides off into the dusty sunset. The movie fades gradually, the screen goes blank and then the credits roll. Who acted, who directed, who were the gaffers and the dolly grips.” Judge used the last of the home-made bread to wipe the bits of venison from his plate. “By the way: I never knew what those terms mean. Not until you told me, anyway. But to get back to the point: it is a gross misconception that we fade gently into the lonely night as we get older. Life actually gets better as you mature.”
Gertruida smiles as she clears the dishes. Judge is a healthy eater and is opinionated enough to draw her into long-winded arguments – something they both enjoy. It is an art to debate issues on a factual basis. He once said it’s an acquired gift – you don’t get born that way. Of course, sitting on the bench makes you an observer of arguments and the people who present them. It certainly made me realise how few people rely on logical thought when they have to convince others. And even when their clients were guilty, they’d harp on about some childhood trauma as an excuse. Now I ask you: because your father hit you with a stick when you were four, it gives you an excuse to rape a woman when you’re forty? Or because you grew up poor, you hate all rich people? Surely an adult must be capable of rational thought? They had a healthy argument about that before declaring the contest even.
Tonight they have been talking about the disadvantages of age. The old Ford creaks and the doors don’t close so well any more. The suspension doesn’t like potholes. The radiator leaks. The shiny new model of a few years ago is rusting away gradually. Ah, you see, that’s why people think of old people as over the hill. We’re not machines that run down while the little cogs and wheels get worn out. The body, maybe, but not the mind. We are the sum total of a million little incidents. That’s the difference.
“But look at the two of us, Judge,” she calls from the kitchen where she’s dishing up the souskluitjies, just the way her grandmother made it. “Had we met thirty years ago, we could have had much more fun…”
“Doing what?” He interrupts without apologising. “Playing on the beach in skimpy costumes? Going skiing in the Alps? Visiting Disneyland? Yes, maybe that would have been fun and maybe we’d be sitting in some retirement village behind a barbed-wire fence, playing bingo with some forgetful friends. That means we would have used up our quota of joy; and now that slow slide awaits.
‘No, I worked hard at my career. You established yourself in Rolbos, busying yourself with facts and knowledge – because of your latent distrust in society. Playing with a beach ball in a bikini doesn’t cure that, my dear. I had to burn off my ambition and you had to find yourself. These things take time. And until you’ve settled these minor issues in life – only then – you may be lucky enough to pick the fruit of your experience. It’s a question of priorities.” He sits back with a sigh. “The council for the defence rests.”
The dumplings are of just the right consistency. Judge asks for another helping. Gertruida giggles happily when she puts down the refilled plate.
“Well, according to your learned opinion, m’lord, each of us only has an allocated amount of joy. A limited supply of smiles and laughter, and when it runs out, you mope until you die. I suggest my learned friend is basing his plea on circumstantial evidence and that he is generalising an extremely complex situation. If it pleases the court, I’d like to present exhibit ‘A’, hereafter referred to as Boggel. Have you ever seen that man sad? Without a smile and a word of encouragement? Do you have any evidence to suggest his life represents a joyless past? Why, he grew up under appalling circumstances, and according to your argument, the sum of his experiences should have made him a morose and unhappy person. Let the record show this is not so in his case.”
She gets a rumble of mirth from her companion. “You’re twisting the argument, Gertruida. But point taken. Our happiness is a local, own, industry. It is up to each of us to manufacture our own joy. You can be as unhappy as the President in Nkandla, or as joyful as a barman in Rolbos. Let’s compromise on this: at any stage of life, under all circumstances, we remain responsible for our thoughts. It is in the mind where we find the happy centre, the little clump of neurons that tells you to laugh. If we don’t exercise that ability, we sink into the black abyss of a joyless life.”
“Okay then. You’re telling me it’s fine to skip around on the beach when you can still squeeze all you assets into a bikini – and that you can enjoy bingo when the time comes? That age is no barrier to laughter, but neither is hard work or previous disappointments?”
Judge leans forward to put his hand on hers. This woman is such a challenge! She’s just taken his argument, swung it around, twisted it onto itself, and warped it in such a fashion that he has no idea what his initial thoughts were.
“May I chuck out the bones for Vrede? He’s been sniffing at the kitchen door ever since you put that meat in the oven. I suppose he’ll be happy to see his anticipation satisfied.”
Yes, Gertruida thinks, the anticipation… Sometimes it’s better than the real thing. She’s wise enough to remain quiet.
Later, when they relax on the couch to the music of their youth, he shifts his body ever so slightly so he can stare into her eyes. Eyes tell you a lot. They can widen in fear, or narrow in laughter. They can glance, stare, look, observe, blink, wink; and every one of these will tell you something. It’s communication in the purest, most honest way. And then there’s another way of looking – when the pupils dilate a fraction and the field of view narrows down until only the eyes see the eyes. That’s the look that fades out the immediate surroundings to focus entirely on the eyes in focus. It’s brain contacting brain. It’s not a strange phenomenon – the eyes are, after all, the only visible bits of your brain – but it is rare.
Now, with her eyes only inches away, he hears her breath catch, hold, linger inside her as if she’s afraid the moment will pass. They remain like that for an eternity, before he sits back.
“Some things don’t age,” he says with a happy smile. “No siree, not at all.”
Gertruida puts an uncertain hand to her tussled hair. What has just happened? Blushing suddenly, she realises what Judge just said .. but would he? And … can she…? It’s been decades since she spent time with Ferdinand and ever since then she’s led a … conservative … life. Sexless is such an ugly word. She’s never denied her femininity, and likes it when old Servaas stares at her after his second Cactus Jack – but she’s never gone down that road after Ferdinand…and he never came back – maybe that’s why?
“Oh?” What else can she say?
“Yes indeed. Not everything rots away and falls off when you get older. Some things remain the same. They improve, even.” Judge has a funny look on his face. Lust?
“Oh, I..I don’t know. L..l..look at me.” Stammering, she lets her hand travel from her neck down to her knees. “I’m not the y..young g..girl I used to be, you know?”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Some things improve with age.” He seems to gather his thoughts before he continues. “Take fascination, for instance. Young men go crazy about boobs and butts. Later in life they chase money and fast cars. Passing phases, that’s what it is. It doesn’t last. But us oldies can appreciate the mind of a companion. It’s fascination in the purest form.
“I suppose that holds true for wonder as well. To be in awe with somebody, doesn’t mean you want to own them. Wonder is more specific than fascination. Wonder is also more permanent. It’s like the Mona Lisa – you can stare at it for years and it still fills you with wonder.
“And then … there’s love. Don’t tell me nineteen-year-olds know what the word means. Don’t tell me people fall in love, which implies a fast plunge and a sudden stop. Even when couples marry, they don’t understand the term. Love is something that matures with you – as it ages, it grows. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t love in the first instance. People get divorced – and I’ve seen it many times – because they think they’ve fallen out of love. That’s not true. They mislabelled lust and ego and a million other things with a term they didn’t understand. You can’t blame them, though. If everybody didn’t feel the desperate urge to love and be loved, we wouldn’t go about digging for love where none is to be found.”
“Oh,” Gertruida tries not to sound relieved. “I thought you meant…” By now she can’t stop the girly giggle any more and hides behind her hand.
“That’s the other thing, Gertruida. When we get older, we realise we don’t have to put on the rusty armour to storm the castle any more. We can take our time, saddle the old steed, and trot up to the gates at a leisurely pace. If the princess in the castle so wishes, the gates will open all by themselves. If not, the brave knight can stable his horse safely, see to it that it is comfortable for the night, and hope to take it for a gallop on another day.”
“And is the knight’s horse still saddled, milord?”
“It carries its burden with a brave face, my lady.”
The cyclical scratching of the needle on the record surface eventually brings them back to reality.
“Make sure the steed is sleeping soundly while I make coffee.” Uncertainty now gone, Gertruida skips to the kitchen with school-girl agility.
“You should oil those hinges,” he calls after her, “it’ll frighten the horse to death if the gates creak when they open.”
“Old horses do tend to be nervous, you’re right. It’ll be such a pity if it collapses at the gate. Most unfortunate. The knight will be disappointed, I guess.” Gertruida peeks from the kitchen to see Judge shaking with silent laughter. “I’ll get someone to do it. Tomorrow, maybe. It may take time.”
“We’ve got plenty of that,” the knight says as he closes the stable, ignoring the pleading whinny of the brave stallion. There, there, he tells it, you need your rest these days. Don’t go prancing around like some racehorse. And for goodness’ sakes, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Life is about the knight, not his horse, remember that. Relax now. One day soon the bugle will sound; then I want you at your very best. We’ll canter through the soft turf, gallop through the fields, and jump the fences. Okay?
“What are you laughing at?” Gertruida asks as she puts down the tray.
“Snorting horses and future campaigns, Princess. And listening to the applause as we clear the hurdles on the course.”
“Is the steed still … up to it, m’lord?”
“The steed, m’lady, may well turn out to be a surprise to some.” Reaching for his mug, he finds himself staring at Gertruida once more. “But we horsemen know the horse is as good as the attention it gets. With proper preparation and grooming, nothing is impossible.”
And suddenly, sixteen years old again, they collapse in helpless laughter. So much have changed over the years. Things sagged. Teeth had to be replaced. Hormones dwindled away. But despite this, the rules of engagement remained the same: boy-meets-girl never loses it’s shopfront-gloss.