“But we can’t hold a concert here,” Servaas says earnestly, “who’d come?”
“Not that kind of concert, Servaas. If we asked Oudoom to use the church, then Ben can play there. And we don’t ask money – if somebody wants to donate something, that’s fine. We give whatever comes in to the orphanage in Grootdrink. We kill three flies with one stroke: Ben gets to play, the orphanage will get something and the church will be full, for a change.” Gertruida glances over to Vetfaan. “You’ll see to it, won’t you?”
When Gertruida uses that tone of voice, people pay more attention to what she’s saying. It’s a mixture of playful octaves, with a high ‘you’ll’ and a low ‘won’t’. It’s said in a joking manner, but the eyes are steely-grey and direct – there’s no mistaking that some parts of your anatomy may go missing if you ignored the remark. Sure, he’ll tell Oudoom…
Vetfaan can only smile sheepishly and flex his considerable biceps. Sure…he’d rather argue with a deranged Kalahari lion than cross swords with this woman.
Servaas is brave enough to ask if Ben knew about Gertruida’s plan. She gives him a withering look.
“Ben has been practicing for three months now. The driver of Kalahari Vervoer’s lorry told me so himself. Every time he drives past Bitterbrak, the sound of that violin makes him stop and listen. He says it’s improved a lot. And remember: that driver is a member of the Grootdrink Skoffelorkes – he knows his music.”
Ben, quite naturally, gets taken by surprise by Gertruida’s visit the next day. No, there’s no way. Definitely not. Impossible.
Gertruida ignores the man and walks through to the make-shift kitchen area. The old tin mug and a faded and chipped dinner plate glares back at her from the basin of soapy water. The shelf above the Primus is empty, except for three packets on instant soup (tomato) and a single tin of beans. Without a word, she chucks out the water, loads the mug, plate and food into the basin, and walks out to her car. Ben is so shocked, he can only stare.
Gertruida returns to the cottage, staggering with a big box. She starts unpacking the crockery: four new plates, mugs, a salt-and-pepper set (full), and a set of knives and forks. Next are the groceries: coffee, sugar, bully beef, tinned meat, long-life milk, sugar. By the time she’s finished, the shelf can barely hold everything.
“W-w-what’s this all about, Gertruida? I can’t pay…”
“Oh shush, you silly man. You haven’t been to town lately, so it was logical you had just about no food left here. We held a collection in Boggel’s Place.”
“But I don’t nderstand?”
“It’s not a gift, Ben. It’s your pay for the concert. One piece. You only have to play one piece. That’s all.”
The people of the Kalahari are a proud lot. They’re honest, too. (Most of the time.) Generally, they don’t accept charity. You grace a homestead on an isolated farm with a visit, and you’ll leave with a bag of biltong. Or maybe a leg of lamb. Or some eggs. People in these parts are so independent, that they never want to feel they owe you something. They pay their debts. Always. Gertruida knows this, and that’s why she has no doubt that Ben will reciprocate with a little performance in the church the next Saturday.
With a smile and a mock curtsey, she leaves Ben gaping as she drives off.
When the sun sets in its red throne of glory, the patrons in Boggel’s Place empty their glasses and amble over to the church. There’s a box at the door (marked: Orphanage), which fills up with home-made toys and teddybears. Gertruida has lit a row of candles down the small aisle and placed two lanterns on the lectern. The atmosphere is soft, inviting, as the little congregation sits down in the silence only churches have. It’s different to the quiet outside, where one feels more in touch with the dust and the vast landscape around. Here, especially in the flickering glow of the candles, they become aware of a Bigger Presence – something holy and sacred.
Nobody wants to say anything – the mood is too fragile.
Oudoom and Gertruida exchange worried glances. She had told Ben the concert would be at sundown, and then left; certain he would have no choice. But…what if…
The drone of the old Land Rover lights up the faces with brilliant smiles. Ben is coming! Everybody tries hard to believe they never doubted that he would come; nevertheless, the relief is tangible. The old wooden benches creak and groan as they twist around to see Ben enter the church.
Ben obviously went to a lot of trouble to do this right. The long khaki pants were pressed to smooth the material under a mattress, while the white shirt really seems white in the golden candle-glow. His shoes – shined with sheep’s fat – are even made more impressive by the fact that he is wearing socks for a change.
Ben stops at the door, uncertainty overwhelming him. The fine sheen of sweat on his forehead is clear even in the twilight. Oudoom sees this, and extends both arms to him.
Without a word, Ben walks to the front of the congregation. As he unpacks the violin with tender hands, Gertruida notices he has brought no sheet music along. Then he closes his eyes; takes a deep, shuddering breath; and starts to play.
The music moves like a gentle wave through the audience. In the sad and forlorn melody, everyone is carried back to an age of innocence when it was so easy to believe everything would work out. It drenches the regrets of lost loves and shattered hopes. The notes eddy back and forth amongst the successes and failures that exist in everybody who has ever grabbed at life’s trapeze – missed – fell – and got hurt. It’s a melody of healing, one that touches everybody in that church; even Ben, who plays on with his eyes shut and the picture of a beaming Lori in his mind. She’s there, he is certain, smiling her approval as she dabs away a tear.
There is a hushed silence at the end of the piece as the shabby man packs away his cherished violin. There’s no applause. It isn’t necessary. The shining eyes and arms reaching out to comfort each other say it all..
Gertruida will join the others at the bar later on, after she has spent a few quiet minutes with Ben in the church. Starting over is so difficult – so painful. Its foundation is previous failure; its future is so uncertain. Along Life’s way there are loved ones who find new, greener pastures; some find new partners; and some depart on the final journey. Whatever we aim for doesn’t always reward us with the expected bounty. And in the late-night hours, every soul on this planet will – on occasion – wrestle with the age-old question…what if…?
This is when Ben’s music will be the rising tide to float the floundering ship. It’s the wings that lift us above the storm. It’s there, in the happy smile of a child, receiving an unexpected gift. It is, in the end, the flickering glow of a candle in a small church, reminding us that starting over is the only way ahead…