Vetfaan drives to Rolbos with deliberate slowness, negotiating the ruts and potholes with care. Today, He’s decided, is going to be a turning point. He’ll sort out Henry Hartford II, tell him how unfair his upbringing of his son was, and afterwards declare his love for Fanny. He’ll do it in public, in Boggel’s Place, so there can be no doubt about what his intentions are any longer.
At his side, Fanny Featherbosom is also lost in thought. Sure, Mister Hartford is a reserved, aloof, unapproachable character – but he has lost his son. And she and Henry Junior had a sort-of serious relationship. The fragility of grief may draw them closer to each other. It might also be a cause for anger and accusations. Had Henry not followed her, he would have been alive still.
There’s also the issue of the massive fraud. Henry said he had done it to make money – to impress her. He wanted to be good enough for her. Did he lie? Was it part of his manipulative personality that said it, to create sympathy for his actions?
Like the road Vetfaan is negotiating with so much care, their thoughts are rutted and and worn by the realities of recent events.
They reach the beginning of Voortrekker Weg in silence.
Inside Boggel’s Place, Kleinpiet and Precilla is chatting quietly with Gertruida, while Mister Stevens and Miss Kenton sit outside, enjoying the Kalahari sun.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea, Precilla.” Gertruida beams with delight. “It’s a marvellous opportunity for the entire district. Do you think they’ll do it?”
“We haven’t asked them yet; we first wanted to bounce the idea off you.”
“Well, get to it, then. Don’t waste time.”
Mevrou is washing the breakfast dishes when she sees Vetfaan’s pickup lumber into town. She knows Oudoom is dead tired – as is Mister Hartford – but if Vetfaan is in town, they should know about it. The sooner all the parties in the tragedy is brought together, the sooner the situation will be normal again. She sighs as she dries her hands on the dishcloth – why must life be so complicated? Rolbos is such a small place; shouldn’t life be simple here.
The thought brings a wry smile to her lips. She can actually hear Oudoom at dinner a week ago: Where two or more people are together, you’ll always find varying degrees of conflict. No two persons are the same, that’s why we argue and fight and love…and grieve. Emotion is the result of interaction, it’s as simple as that. Small congregations like Rolbos pose a unique set of challenges: because these people are forced by circumstances to live in each other’s proverbial pocket, the intensity of their co-existence will generate friction. That’s why we are here. We’re the oil that keeps the gears from grating each other down. And that, my wife, is the message of Christ.
Then, just as the two tired men are preparing to take a morning nap, she tells them their day has only started.
“I do say, Miss Kenton, their suggestion does have a ring to it. It fits in with your little discussion last night.”
“Oh, James! Are you serious? Really? You’ll consider it?”
“On myself, I would never have thought about it, Miss Kenton. But one has to be practical about such things. You have been thinking about leaving the manor, and that would mean I have to look for a new housekeeper. I don’t think I’m quite up to it, to be honest.”
He sits up suddenly as Mister Hartford and Oudoom cross the road.
“Oh my, Miss Kenton. The master…he’s on his way. And I haven’t put on a tie! He’ll be absolutely furious…” He stops to stare at Sally Kenton in her jeans and blouse, admiring the way the clothes show off the trim figure – what will Master say about that? “Quick, we can hide inside.”
“No James. It is time for you to be a real person again – not a make-believe slave-puppet. You don’t need others to prescribe to you – or make decisions on your behalf. You look real fine to me as you are, anyway. Honestly? I like the less formal appearance.”
His eyes reflect his uncertainty. “Are you sure, Miss Kenton?”
“Indeed, James. No need to panic. Everything will be alright.” She hesitates a second, not sure whether she should go on. Then, in a small voice, se says: “One more thing, before the master is here?”
“Ye-e-s Mis Kenton?”
She leans close to whisper in his ear. “I love you just the way you are, James.”
Oudoom holds up a hand for silence. Everybody is gathered in Boggel’s Place, but unlike the usual babble of voices, only a few hushed whispers disturb the quiet inside the bar. At his side, Henry Hartford II seems drained; his eyes puffy from lack of sleep and the emotion of the night’s talks. Precilla and Kleinpiet stand together at the window, seemingly the only happy people in the room. Next to the door, James Stevens feels how Sally’s hand searches for his – and settles on gripping the cuff of his shirt.
A little while before, Fanny approached Hartford, who seemed his usual distant self when she offered her condolences. Neither could meet the other’s eyes and the mumbles words could have been a greeting or an expression of sympathy. Vetfaan, with jaw muscles working furiously, kept his distance.
“We are gathered here, er, what shall I say? Ladies and gentlemen? Brothers and sisters? People?” He shakes his head, flashing a rare smile. “It doesn’t matter, does it?
“We’re gathered her for several reasons today, and I think some of you may want to say something later. But first, let us observe a minute of silence, to remember the young man that came to our town – and to sympathise with his father.”
Something strange happens in that minute. A soft desert breeze sweeps through the room, ruffling hair here, tugging at clothing there. It carries with it the warmth of the sand and the coolness of the room. And in the soft, weeping sound it makes, one may imagine an old woman’s wheezy voice. Everybody feels it – no-one is unaware of the touch of that breeze. The moment is so incredibly poignant – so unbearably sad – that Fanny starts crying.
After the breeze – maybe for the remaining fifteen seconds before the minute was over – the group is aware of something else. Gertruida will describe it later as a feeling of being fulfilled, as if something has been completed. Maybe that’s exactly what it was.
Oudoom says Amen to mark the end of the minute and is about to say something when Henry Hartford gets up.
“I beg you pardon, Oudoom, but I have to say this – and say it now.” He waits for Oudoom’s nod before going on. “I am a stranger in your midst.” Although his voice is strong, the undertone of emotion is unmistakable. “I came here to blame somebody – anybody – for my son’s death. I wanted revenge.” He looks up to glance at Fanny. “I even blamed you for leading him here.” He pauses, gathering his thoughts. “But after spending time with your pastor, I realise it is futile. What happened, happened. I was wrong. My son was wrong. We both paid a price for it…a terrible, terrible price. I also realise the massive contribution I made to my son’s choices. I will have to live with that thought until my dying day…
“But Oudoom taught me something else last night. He taught me the value of joy. This is something I know so little about – and it certainly isn’t something I am used to. I thought joy was money and power. Now I know it is defined by that difficult word: beauty. Oudoom says – and he’s right – that beauty is the peace only love can bring. Beauty is when you help your fellow men and women reach their goals in life…and then realise you’re the one that benefits the most.
“And it struck me how often I have trampled on others in my efforts to achieve what I perceived to be beauty and joy. My son. Mister Stevens. Miss Kenton. Hundreds – thousands of people – had been the rungs in my ladder, and I trampled on them in a futile search for fulfilment. To all those – present and not – I owe an apology.
“I have to change my way of looking at life. After my talk with Oudoom, I have decided to sell whatever assets I still hold in my personal capacity. I shall join a speaking circuit – and I’m known on several of these – to hold motivational talks all over the world. What happened to me, shouldn’t be repeated. What I believed in, was false. And the way I lived, was selfish and wrong. If I can get that message across, the death of my son would have some meaning. Maybe then, he’d forgive me…”
Unable to continue, he sits down in the silence after his last words. Then, Vetfaan is the first to start clapping. The applause that follows, is deafening.
“Does that mean Master won’t require our services any longer?” Mister Stevens waited for the applause to die down before speaking.
“No, James. The manor will be sold. Maybe the next owner…”
“Oh no, sir. That won’t be necessary. You see, Mister Kleinpiet and Missus Precilla made me – us – an offer. They want to start a school on the farm, sir. Nothing big. Just for the children on the farms around them. And they’ve got this delightful little son, he’s called Nelson, and he needs tuition. So do several others nearby. So, with the necessary respect, Mister Hartford, we’d like to resign… But only if we have your blessing, sir. Only then. One wants to do these things properly, doesn’t one?”
When Henry Harford walks over to his faithful servant to shake his hand, the applause is even more sincere than before.
Vetfaan steps to the bar, jaws still working, a deep frown on his forehead.
“Okay. If he can do it, I can. Mister Hartford, I was very angry at you. I came here today to tell you things. Bad things. I wanted to humiliate you. I didn’t think of you as a father – or even as a human being.
“But…how can I do that after you’ve said what you said? It takes a man to stand up and admit his mistakes. And you know what I thought while you were speaking? I’ll tell you.
“I thought about the many mistakes I made in my life. Some small, some big. And I never, never had the guts to stand up and tell a room full of strangers about it.
“You, sir, are more of a man than I am. I need to apologise for my thoughts. They were wrong. Please forgive me.”
Vetfaan – so overcome by the intensity of the moment – completely forgets what he wanted to tell Fanny.
This morning will be remembered as the Morning of Three Applauses. Boggel has to make several trips to the store room for more beers, and Gertruida brings over her CD player. There is a lot to say and a lot of time to say it in. Servaas walked over to tell Oudoom it was the best sermon he ever gave; a remark so appreciated that the clergyman blushed with joy.
It is Precilla who points out the dancing couple on the veranda. With Leonard Cohen on the CD player, Sally Kenton and Mister Stevens are slowly – very slowly – shuffling to the rhythm of the music. She, with an almost-voluptuous flair; he, stiffly erect, stilted, slightly awkward – unused to the feel of a woman in his arms. Despite this, they all agree, he has the most brilliant smile they’ve ever seen. Eyes closed, James Stevens has finally discovered the meaning of one of the most misunderstood words in the English language: Beauty.
Way out in the desert, a little whirlwind raises a plume of dust. It dances over the dry veld, tossing the dry leaves and twigs high into the air – almost as if it is celebrating something.
Then again – maybe it is.
Weekend Reads on Kobo…Click the cover