Dawn is the best part of any 24-hour period. The dark night slowly gives way for the promise of light as the day tiptoes towards the first bit of sun above the horizon. It’s been a long night – and for several people in Rolbos, it has been a sleepless one.
In Oudoom’s kitchen, two men have talked right through the night. Henry Hartford II found – much to his surprise – that Oudoom was not only a good conversationalist, but an excellent listener as well. They opened more wine (Mevrou had to pop out to Boggel’s to get another bottle). Mevrou eventually yawned and excused herself. Oudoom asked questions. Hartford started talking…and couldn’t stop. He mentioned his dreams for himself and for the son he had lost. Oudoom spoke of death, faith, eternity and love. Hartford discovered the value of tears in expressing loss.
Now, in the gloom of almost-day, they fall silent as Mevrou shuffles in on her pink slippers. She yawns, smiles at her husband and puts the kettle on.
“So you boys had a good time?”
Hartford gives her a tired smile. “Yes, we did. You have a remarkable husband, madam. Truly remarkable, indeed. You know, I came here expecting to find a backward community filled with ignorant people. I wanted to find out who had been so negligent, so irresponsible, to let my son die like that.” He pauses while he gets his emotions under control. “And I’m afraid I did. It was … me.”
Mevrou takes the clean dishcloth, walks over to the Englishman, and dries the tears rolling down his cheeks.
“It isn’t easy, Mister Hartford, to be honest with oneself. Only a few people will attain that level of frankness is their lifetimes. And you know? That’s where forgiveness starts. Oudoom will tell you – and maybe he did, already – that is the point where healing begins.” She pats the shaking shoulder and waits for the sobs to subside. “Another thing: when a man allows himself to cry, I know he’s somebody I can respect.”
She glances over to Oudoom. He, too, is sniffing loudly. Men! If they’re not pretending to be rocks and islands, they slobber all over you!
“Enough of the small talk, gentlemen. Who wants fresh coffee? And I’ll throw in a few pancakes if both of you stop snivelling right now.” Wagging a supposedly angry finger at the two men, she is rewarded by weak smiles.
The two on Kleinpiet’s stoep didn’t go to bed either. What started out as Stevens’ lecture on jackals, turned into a discussion of natural habitats.
“Do you think, Mister Stevens, that all animals have a natural home, so to speak? I mean, can you take a jackal and make him live in Zambia, for instance?”
“Oh yes, Miss Kenton. It only depends on whether it has enough resources to survive. If the climate isn’t extreme and there is enough food, it will survive anywhere. All living beings need a bit of protection and sufficient nourishment to continue to exist. Sometimes they adapt to the environment, and sometimes the environment adapts to them. It’s as simple as that.”
“And of all living creatures, humans are the most adaptable, Mister Stevens?”
“Indeed. People can live anywhere. Some scientists are even working on plans to have a colony on Mars.”
“Will you be able to adapt to new circumstances, Mister Stevens?”
Her question results in a long silence. This is the second time tonight that she has asked something like this. First she wanted to know if he would even consider a job other than being a butler. Now she asks whether he’d live under different conditions to what he is used to.
“What exactly, Miss Kenton, is on your mind?”
“Oh nothing much, I suppose. Just rambling on, like I usually do. But…I have been thinking of taking up something else. Being a housekeeper for Mister Hartford isn’t really all that challenging, is it? There must be more to life than making beds and cooking dinner.”
“I’m sure you’ll find suitable employment without too much difficulty, Miss Kenton. A woman of your abilities is a rare find, to be sure.”
“Do you really think so, Mister Stevens?”
“Oh yes, indeed. In fact, I think it’d be a huge loss for the manor if you should leave. You’ve become almost irreplaceable as far as I’m concerned.”
Sally Kenton smiles. She finally probed through the iron-clad outer shell of James Stevens. For him to say she is almost irreplaceable, is as good as saying he’s grown quite fond of her. And that, she thinks, may very well be the most endearing thing he’s ever told anybody.
“You’re such a sweet man, Mister… Oh to hell with it! Let me say it once and for all… you’re a sweet man, James.” Calling him by his first name sounds so funny that she giggles softly. “I like that,” she says softly, “I like the sound of your name, Mister Stevens.”
Stevens doesn’t answer. It wasn’t a question, anyway. In his mind the words keep echoing – she likes the sound of my name. How strange, he thinks, that a name can be a barrier. Mister Stevens makes him a butler, somebody with responsibilities and some social standing. James, on the other hand, sounds…vulnerable? He could hide behind Mister Stevens; but being James seems defenceless, as if he can’t control the situation like he wants.
“Oh, I’ll never use it disrespectfully, Mister Stevens. Only if you allow me,” she says, reading his silence correctly.
“Being called by my first name, Miss Kenton, is new to me. It’s not that I mind, understand? It just has a familiar ring to it. And familiarity, you know, breeds contempt. I’m not sure I want to expose myself to that.”
“Oh James…listen to yourself! You are so afraid to let your defences down for a single minute. What are you so afraid of, Mister Stevens?”
Another silence… then: “Myself, Miss Kenton. What I am and what I have, is good enough for me. If I start exploring personal relationships, I’m afraid it’ll upset the fine balance of my existence. I’m in a good habitat, Miss Kenton, I survive well in my environment.”
“Are you so afraid of love, James, that you’d rather remain alone? Forever? And never, never feel wanted for the person inside you? Always the butler, never the man?”
When Stevens opens his mouth to speak, she lays a soft finger on his lips.
“Shhh… We both know the answer, James. It’s okay. I don’t want to hear you say words you think are appropriate at this time – I’ll wait until you’re ready. Now, be a good gentleman and just fold both your arms around me. We’ve done enough talking – lets share silence for a while?”
And so the two spend the night. Sally, comfortable and warm in the awkward embrace of the butler – and James Stevens who marvels at the ease this woman penetrated his armour. Both of them wish the night would never end, and both of them acutely aware of the journey ahead.
On Vetfaan’s farm, they stay awake for a different reason. They’ve heard that Henry’s rather is in town. Tomorrow they’ll drive in to meet the gentleman. Fanny, who’s met Henry Hartford II before, knows what an unreachable, unforgiving man he is.
“You’ll be there, won’t you Fanie. You won’t leave me alone with him?”
“I’ll never leave you,” he says as he draws her near. “I’m ready for that man. There’s quite a lot I want to say to him. He already messed up his own child’s life. I’m not going to allow him to meddle with yours.”
When the sun starts warming up the day, several tired people sip home-brewed coffee in their individual houses. They all – every one of them –have a feeling that this day will change their lives forever. Some are happy about it. Some are sad. And some feel mildly apprehensive.
That’s the wonder of sunrise. There’s always a promise – only, one is never quite certain what it is…
And then there are the nights…
I’ve had many times I can tell you
Times when innocence I’d trade for company
And children saw me crying
I thought I had my share of that
But these miss you nights are the longest