“You want to start over?” Servaas stares at Ben Bitterbrak in disbelief. “Surely you’re not serious?”
Ben kicks at a loose stone in the road, shrugs and spreads his arms wide. They’re on their way to Boggel’s Place for a quick drink before Ben starts the journey back to his shack on the other side of Bitterwater. What’s there to say, anyway? He’s lived in isolation for so long, who cares what he does?
“I shouldn’t have told you guys about Lori. It must have been the Cactus Jack. I mean, I never talk about her…”
“Yes, but that doesn’t stop you thinking about her, Ben.” Gertruida’s voice is kind and soothing – she can see he’s upset. “And I have this thing about unfinished business. If you want to make contact again, we would all like to support you. No man is an island, Ben, not even here in the desert.”
They move the chairs on the veranda to the shade as Boggel shuffles over with a tray full of beers. He knows they will be thirsty after last night’s partying. He listened attentively to the story of Ben’s lost love – that’s what barmen do when it gets late and the regrets bubble to the surface of the one-too-many glass of beer. Boggel always says the combination of barley, hops and water is the oldest truth-serum known to man. Gertruida usually adds her own theory: regrets and manners have an inverse relationship when men drink too much.
“The other day I saw a striped mongoose,” Boggel tells them as he puts down the glasses, “a medium-sized one. He was with his family”
Gertruida allows a quizzical frown to develop on her forehead. She knows Boggel is famous for his animal stories and that he manages to twist them to fit in with the conversation – but this remark seems completely out of place.
“I was on my way back from Grootdrink, when I spotted a family of them in the veld, not far from the road. Now, you know we have lots of meerkat around; but the striped mongoose is a rarer animal in these parts. Well, of course I stopped.” Boggel sits down with them, apparently finished with the story.
“Ag, come on, Boggel! Where are you going with this story?”
“Well, as I sat there looking at the little family, a martial eagle swooped down and caught one of the teenagers. It was quite dramatic. The poor animal had no idea what was going on, and his family looked on – perplexed – as the eagle soared high before landing in a tree nearby. I thought that was it. Exit one mongoose. I felt rather sad, you know?” Boggel pauses, with a small smile hovering at the corners of his lips. “Then the damnest thing happened. One of the males in the family – he must have been their leader – scooted off across the sand towards the tree. The eagle had been poised to start feeding when it noticed this, and sat up straight to keep an eye on the approaching mongoose. Maybe he thought he’d have a double helping or something, I don’t know. The teenager in his claw stopped wriggling around, apparently resigned to its fate.”
A good barman can stretch a story over several beers. It’s a talent they have. Boggel waits for the next prompt before going on.
“That mongoose hurried up the trunk of the tree and attacked the eagle. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It ran straight down that branch towards the predator, obviously intent on rescuing the hapless teenager in his grasp. The eagle backed off a bit, started flapping his wings … and dropped his prey. Then it flew off, clearly disgusted at the display of aggression.
“Within seconds the whole family gathered around the little figure on the ground; but soon it got up and they all scampered off across the veld. It was quite something…”
Servaas takes a long sip, sighs and watches Boggel through his bushy eyebrows.
“And why are you telling us this? Or are you just making polite conversation?”
“The point, you guys, is that it takes a certain amount of bravery to help somebody you love. You have to go against your instincts. You need to climb over the barrier of your comfort zone to storm that eagle in the tree. And it all depends on what and who the eagle is…”
“Oh, I get it!” Gertruida snaps her fingers. “Ben is caught up in regret, and you want us to untangle him from that? Set him free, as it were?”
“Yes – but you have to decide about the eagle: is it the past – or the future?”
“Geez, Boggel. Did you sleep with the light on, or what? You’re losing me completely here.”
It’ll take a few beers before they all understand. Sometimes the Past Eagle keeps on tugging us back to happier times. The eagle of regret swoops down and carries us off the feed on the thought: what if… It traps its prey in the claws of possibilities and opportunities that never realised – and never will.
Then there’s the Future Eagle that calls us along the road, wanting to hurry towards the end where everlasting joy awaits. This, too, is a what-if eagle, and equally dangerous. As Gertruida says: there is no happy ending. Never. Either people change or they die. Somehow, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow remains a myth.
“That’s why you have to wriggle out of those claws, Ben. You first have to make peace with yourself. Life happened. You made choices. She went her way and you, yours. That’s why you have to start with the present – accepting the past and knowing you can’t change it.
“Equally, you can’t go on imagining the future owes you something and that you’ll be able to start over where you left off. Too much water under the bridge, my friend. You’ve changed. She’s changed. Maybe you will find common ground, and that’s good. But first the both of you will have to accept who you are at this stage of your lives.
“Starting over is a misnomer, Ben. Nobody starts over on a clean slate. You are the sum of the experiences of your life – and you should use that to resume, not restart.”
Vetfaan shakes his head. When Boggel gets into this mood, nobody gets fresh beer.
“Okay Boggel. You put Socrates to shame. Now let’s start over and imagine you are here to serve beer. How about it.”
Boggel smiles shyly.
“Service will resume shortly, Vetfaan.”He turns to look Ben in the eye. “Let the past go, Ben. Be yourself. If you want to write Lori a letter, do so. But start with Now, and not with Then. Then may have been great, but Now is the mongoose running up the tree to release you from Then.”
Gertruida says Boggel should have studied something after school. He’s quite intelligent, according to her. The rest of the group on the stoep will agree if she says this; nodding enthusiastically as they wait for the next round. However, Boggel lost them in his convoluted argument about past, present and future.
“Starting over. Resume…” Kleinpiet whispers as he shakes his head. “Imagine making it so complicated.” He looks up as Boggel serves the next round. “The mongoose got away, didn’t he?”
That’s the problem with stories, Boggel thinks. People want happy endings. Starting over implies that something went wrong with the first try. It takes a lot of guts to stop harping about that, and taking a good hard look at where you are right now. Then, with hope and faith, resuming becomes a reality.
Starting over? It’s a myth…