Gertruida switches the laptop on and stares at the keyboard. Maybe, she thinks, she can try to make sense of her life if she writes down her story? Surely there must be more to life than stagnating in Rolbos? And with Doc’s prognosis still uncertain, she really feels terribly alone and lost.
It’s worth a try. At least the writing will keep her mind busy and stop her from feeling so depressed.
Look at Vetfaan, she thinks. Who would have guessed that he, the burly and sometimes introverted farmer, would get hitched with such a vivacious beauty? And what about Kleinpiet and Precilla? They’re not only deliriously happy, they’ve even got a live-in butler and a housekkeper as well. Servaas is in a good mood these days and Boggel…well, he’s just Boggel: always the good listener and phenomenal friend.
And yet here she is, dejected, alone and unhappy. Surely her life should amount to more than just saying goodbye to every man that ever loved her?
She taps dejectedly at a letter on the keyboard. Where must she begin? Her first memories are those of their house in Calvinia; a small cottage on the outskirts of the town. Her mother was an avid reader, and little Gerty would spend enless hours playing with her dolls at her mom’s feet. Her mother always said that books were the key to happiness. Books teach the reader to experience the unusual in the common events of every day. And, she said, reading is the most noble sport of all, for it exercises the most important part of human anatomy.
When Gerty was four, she could read almost anything in the house. Enid Blyton no longer fascinated her – she had discovered Alestair Maclean and later progressed to Wilbur Smith by the time she went to school.
Her prodigious intelligence caused problems at school, of course. Her teachers often had to silence her when she started taking over the lessons of the day. If you know so much, I’m wasting your time, missy. Go sit in the library and shut up for a while! And don’t you dare come back until I called you! Understand? No punishment was ever so sweet! Little Gerty would skip happily down the corridor, pull a book from a shelf in the library, and lose herself between the pages of a book. Teachers were boring, but the library provided almost unlimited challenges – and pleasures.
At the age of eleven, she accompanied her father to a political meeting. Gerhardus van Rensburg, a staunch Nationalist, had challenged John Harrison of the Progressive Party to a debate on the eve of an election. Calvinia being what it was, everybody agreed that Harrison was wasting his time – there was no way anybody would vote for him.
Truth be told: Harrison didn’t do too badly in the debate. He even managed to silence van Rensburg on several issues concerning human rights, reminding the Nationalist that everybody was equal before God. When the chairman saw the debate swinging the wrong way, he invited questions from the floor – in the hope of finding something to counter Harrison’s arguments.
Nobody dared pose a question. Harrison – a local lawyer – was known for his sharp wit, and nobody wanted to look foolish in front of the other farmers attending the meeting. So, when little Gerty put up her hand, the chairman pointed at her and told her to ask Mister Harrison anything she liked.
“No, sir. My question is to Mister van Rensburg. I’d like to know how he and his party are going to improve the living conditions of their servants. And my second question: why do they deny other people from voting? Surely they can only expect revolt? It happened in Russia, Kenya, the Congo – why do they think it won’t happen here?”
Van Rensburg was furious. Not only did Harrison get the better of him, but now this …this child wanted to rub salt into the wounds as well.
“Your questions,” he said with a heavy sarcastic edge, “are an embarrassment to the country. I refuse to answer them.”
“Then, I have to answer you they way Helen Suzman said in praliament: it is not my questions that embarrass the country, sir. It is your answer.”
Of curse the Nationalists won the election. That’s the way things were in those days. There was one positive that came from that meeting, though: John Harrison made an appointment to see her parents.
“This young lady has a bright future ahead of her. She needs to go to a top school and later attend a university. I know you struggle to make ends meet, but I can arrange a bursary. I’d like to see a mind like hers develop and grow.”
Her parents objected, of course. Afrikaners are not beggars and they certainly don’t accept hand-outs; especially not from an Englishman and a member of the Progressive Party. Harrison knew the game, and said he was sorry, he didn’t want to embarrass them. Gerty’s mother held up a hand.
“Mister Harrison, we thank you for your kind and generous offer. Let me discuss this with my husband, and we’ll tell you tomorrow what we’ve decided. More tea?”
Now, we know Gertruida as a clever woman, and it is only natural to accept that she got those genes from her mother. That night Gerty’s mother took her father to the bedroom, closed the door, and indulged in one of the old man’s fantasies by dressing up as a nurse. (He had the dream of becoming a doctor in his younger days.)
The next day Harrison made a few calls and a week later Gerty left on the train to Pretoria, where she was enrolled in Girl’s High, one of the most prestigious schools in the country,
Gertruida stares at the keyboard. No, she can’t write that, can she? It’s so insignificant! Surely it has no bearing on her current situation?
And then, as fate decrees sometimes, the unexpected happens. The phone rings, waking Gertruida from her reverie..
“Gerty? It’s me. Paul… remember me? Paul Harrison. We were friends a long time ago. I was your friend in Boy’s High.”
Gertruida sits down quite suddenly, as if her legs didn’t want to carry her weight any longer.
“I’ve got a problem, Gerty. And I was wondering…”