1996… While the Royal divorce made the headlines, there was the time Doc thought he had a chance…
That was long ago, when Mandela was president and South Africa was the darling of the world. Look at the miracle, they said. They finally faced the injustices of the past, they said, forgetting their own slums and inequalities and prejudices. Racism has been abolished, they said, knowing full well that it was still a major factor in all societies worldwide. Prejudice and pride – the two biggest diseases of mankind – won’t be eradicated by elections and laws; it is a change of heart the world needed, not fancy terms to make them feel better.
But, in that summer of ’96, with the Truth and Reconciliation hearings under way, Woodcock felt a stirring of hope. The message of forgiveness and moving on was welcomed by all; painful though the process turned out to be. Archbishop Tutu, still (at that stage) an ardent supporter of the ANC, presided over these harrowing meetings, often crying because the truth hurt so much.
Surely, if a man of his stature is involved, the country had a chance? Mandela won’t allow corruption and anarchy to sneak back into the troubled country’s journey of hope, will he? No, despite all the misgivings so many people harboured, there was a lot to be optimistic about…
The euphoria of the elections and the recent Rugby World Cup still held society in it’s hopeful hands and the economy bloomed. It is during these heady and optimistic times that Gene Woodcock contacted Gertruida one evening after returning home. He was tired of the superficial conversation he had to endure after his speech at the medical congress (Prenatal Detection of Foetal Abnormalities) and wanted to hear if Gertruida wouldn’t consider flying down to Cape Town for the weekend.
This was an arrangement they developed in the last two years: the one would invite the other (once or twice a year) for a weekend of philosophical discussion. They’d eat out, drink respectable amounts of wine, and talk about politics, the world economy, any social subject you can think of, renewable energy sources, nature conservation, transfrontier parks and photography. The only single subject they avoided by mutual though silent understanding, was sexuality. For the rest, it was an open forum.
They both enjoyed these meetings for its uncomplicated ease. Their arguments were spiced with wit and humour and rarely ended in complete agreement. What drew them together was the excitement of testing opinions in a challenging but safe environment.
Gertruida was always delighted to hear from him. Of course she’d be glad to see him again.
Woodcock prepares, like he always does, with care. The bed in the spare room gets new sheets and the room is spotless when he walks out. The chocolates on the pillow, the flowers next to the bed, the little welcome note – everything perfect to welcome her to his humble home near the hospital. He’s made sure that he has enough snacks and Roodeberg. And then, with a hopeful smile, he places a red rose on her pillow…
After he fetched her from the airport, they settle in the small lounge, enjoying a moment of silence and the taste of the deep-red wine. Then they discuss world politics for a while, the antics of the American president, and the situation in Afghanistan. Woodcock orders pizza, which signals a pause in the serious conversation.
“People have different ways of addressing problems,” he says as he places the slices on a platter. “Some face them head-on and force a solution. They run the risk of causing a relatively minor jolt to become a massive crash. Others prefer riding the wave out to shore, knowing that – mostly – things automatically get better with time. They think today’s mountain of a problem, might well be an ant-heap of slight irritation tomorrow. What do you think?”
“There’s no question, Doc, Time heals most things. Chiselling way at an issue at an inappropriate time might wreck the statue. I prefer letting things calm down before trying to do something about it. I guess that makes me a wave-rider.”
“No agree.” He starts talking, smiles apologetically and swallows the bite of pizza before going on. “Maybe it’s a doctor thing. Once you detect a problem, it’s best to do something about it immediately. Most things get worse in time…in medicine, at least.”
“Ag come on! Of course not. Wounds heal. Flu goes away. Sprained ankles get better. You can’t generalise like that.”
“Oh, of course! Some things do. Those things, Gerty, aren’t important. I’m not talking about forgetting to buy the newspaper or noticing a spot of paint peeling from an awning. These can be addressed in your own good time. I’m talking about real issues here; important issues; issues that affect lives.”
“Like what?” Gertruida is really curious to follow his line of thought.
“Well…like situations that affect relationships, for instance. Say, for instance, you fall in love with somebody who doesn’t love you. Do you wait, hoping the feeling will wane? Or do you tell, face possible rejection and humiliation, and then deal with your feelings afterwards?”
Gertruida sits back, contemplating the question. Relationships represent the area of the most intense emotions, and should always be managed with tact and respect. “Well, I’d keep my distance, I suppose. Why stir up a storm when it will, eventually, blow over anyway? If somebody doesn’t love you, there’s nothing you can do about it. Telling won’t help. Silence will.”
“Okay, that’s one way of looking at it. What about the following: you love somebody, but he is unaware of the depth of your feelings. When do you address that one? The moment you know? Or later?”
“I’d still ride the wave to shore. If the one I love is unaware of my feelings, it’d be cruel to force your attentions on him. No – if ever time was needed – it is under those circumstances.”
“Right. But now you run the risk of losing the one you love, don’t you? What if that person moves along and finds love elsewhere?”
“That, Doc, is the universal tragedy of Love. If you don’t get it, it wasn’t supposed to be. You can’t make it happen by storming the castle and ordering the prince to open the gates. No, it should happen to both parties at more or less the same time. It’s like nuclear physics: timing is everything.”
“Then…you think an untimely declaration of love, will do more harm than good?’
“Absolutely, Doc. It may very well ruin a good friendship.”
Doc Woodcock remembers that night. He can recall he exact words of the conversation. And he needs no reminder of how he fought to keep the conversation going that night. In fairness, he still thinks Gertruida never realised what they were talking about. She thought it was just one of his frivolous questions, not realising he was fishing about how to approach her. In 1996 he was infatuated with this woman and her magnificent mind, but rather sure she found him…let’s say…merely entertaining; or maybe at a push, interesting.
After that weekend, he immersed himself in rather serious research, which involved travelling to the top universities across the globe. Their weekends simply petered out as each of them orbited off into different planes of life. Oh, he knows he could have done it differently. But then again: life happens while you are making other plans.
Now, when he hears her voice again, he has to sit down and hold the phone with both hands to stop it from trembling too much.
Taking a deep breath, he manages a relatively normal-sounding Hello Gerty…