Gertruida replaces the handset carefully, as if it was the most fragile thing in the world. The call from Paul Harrison was most certainly not something she expected – nor could she foresee the effect it would have on her. She closes her eyes to allow her the luxury of remembering the time – so long ago – when the first stirrings of the beginning of love caused so many sleepless nights.
She’s sixteen years old, brilliant…and lonely. The move from Calvinia to Pretoria opened up a new future and she is extremely pleased with her new school (the library is extensive)…but she can’t get used to the big-city atmosphere. There are too many cars, buses, people – she longs for the peaceful silence of the Hantam Karoo and the open veld where she could walk and think (sometimes out loud) to organise her thoughts.
Here, she can only walk around on the campus – which is rather large – but there are always other girls around, making her quest for solitude impossible. Today she’s discovered something, however: solitude and loneliness are two completely different things. Being alone is a healthy, an essential part of her personality. She likes being alone.
But loneliness – that’s quite something else. In contrast to her desire to be alone, loneliness is a feeling of forced isolation, of not belonging where you are.
She’s still mulling over the idea of loneliness amongst so many other girls, when Dumpling waddles over. Like all the other junior students, Cathy Simpson had been given a nickname, and it stuck. Given the generous proportions of her figure, it is not surprising that she simply surrendered to the new name in an effort to seem friendly to the other girls.
Cathy – or Dumpling – lacks Gerty’s intelligence, but shares her desire for solitude. In contrast to the other girls with less fortunate figures, Dumpling doesn’t try to be friends with everybody. She has made peace with the fact that she’ll never win any beauty contests and will often sit alone, playing her guitar while looking for words for her new melodies.
“There’s a letter for you at the office. Miss Hornsby said a boy delivered it. Said it is urgent.”
The letter is from a boy who signs his name as Paul Harrison, written in a child-like scrawl, asking her if she would consider accompanying him to the movies on Saturday. He’ll pop in again tomorrow to see if she answered his letter. Very formal, to say the least.
Her initial reaction is to ignore the request. She doesn’t know him, doesn’t have an idea what he looks like, and doesn’t know why he wrote to her, particularly. Why on earth would she consider…
But then again…
Blossoming into adulthood is arguably the worst thing that can happen to a girl. The innocence of youth simply disappears as so many things change…for the worse. Suddenly, one fine day, the acute awareness of body, mind, soul acquires a new dimension: femininity. Gestures and words get new meaning, often confusing, to have undertones of sexuality. And with equal swiftness, the shy little girl of yesterday becomes the alluring young woman, so very much aware of completely new horizons that demand to be explored. Even Gertruida is aware of this instinctive compulsion to exchange childhood simplicity for the complicated minefield of adult relationships. Deep inside, she knows: it is time to test the fledgeling wings of womanhood.
She answers the letter, agreeing to meet this Paul-person at the gate on Saturday and watch a movie – provided it’s not one of the horror-films that are so popular these days.
Gertruida smiles when she thinks back on those days. Paul turned out to be a pleasant surprise. He was tall, blond and handsome. Despite the fact that he played flank for Boy’s High, he was rather effeminate in his manner. He was also very honest and direct.
Look, he said, I’m gay. I want you to know that. And I asked you out to prove to the other boys that I’m not. So here’s the deal: I know you’re not much into dating – Dumpling told me. She’s also one of…us. Understand? So if it’s okay with you, I’d like to take you to the movies sometimes. Maybe we can go to the State Theatre occasionally for an opera, or ballet. I’ll treat you like a lady and see to it that you have a good time. The benefit for you is that you get out of the campus every so often and that you know you are completely safe with me. There. I said it all. Now you may get up and leave…or stay.
The speech was so unexpected, so weird, that Gertruida simply didn’t know what to do. She remembers gaping at the young man next to her and repeating the word gay with several question marks behind it. Oh, she knew such men and women existed – in the all-girl school it crushes were not uncommon after all – but she’s never had contact with a gay male before.
In the end, it was his honesty that did the trick. She knew he must have been very brave to approach her like that and that he took the risk of being rejected in doing so. But it did say a lot about him, and that she liked. He wanted their friendship to be an open, honest and trusting relationship; and that’s why he placed all his cards on the table then, right at the start. He was also protecting her in a way, by telling her about himself and not allowing gossip to interfere with their future relationship.
They never got to the movies that day. Instead, they sat down in the shade of one of the big trees on the campus and talked till sundown. Paul turned out the be extremely intelligent and could hold his own of any subject she raised. Like his father (the lawyer in Calvinia – she should have made that connection earlier – he had liberal views in politics. Unlike his father, he thought Communism was the answer. Although they had an exhausting debate about Marxism and Socialism and eventually agreeing to disagree, she enjoyed the afternoon tremendously and looked forward to their next date the following Saturday.
Gertruida sighs as she puts on the kettle for some tea. Yes, she admits to herself, she secretly was in love with him; maybe because it was such a safe relationship, They enjoyed each other’s company and during her last two years at school, their friendship grew.
Then, like all young men of eighteen, he was called up to do service in the South African Army. Paul Harrison now had to make himself available to fight the very ideology he believed in. Everybody knew the terrorists on our borders were Communists – and this Red Danger threatened to eliminate White South Africa. The only answer to Communism was a well-aimed bullet; the state-owned broadcaster made sure every citizen understood this simple fact.
Paul did what many other young men did. He fled the country to head to London, where he hoped to make contact with the government-in-exile, as the ANC liked to see themselves back then.
And now the past came rushing up to meet the present. Gertruida sips the tea, shakes her head, and wonders how it is possible that we never manage to escape the past completely. Even here, in Rolbos where she took to hiding from society, she seems unable to distance herself from the terror of those days. She did what she did, believing that she was helping Paul in putting an end to the senseless killing on the borders of South Africa.
Yes, she’ll provide refuge for Paul. With Judge being away on an extended visit to study fracking in the USA, the spare room (actually, her library) is available.
She hopes it’ll be enough, but can’t help feeling a shiver running down her spine.
What if they find him here? Rolbos is such a small and insignificant place…but Paul managed to track her down, didn’t he? And if he’s on the run, there is a very real chance that Rolbos will become the target of some extremely unsavoury characters…
She gets up to walk the short distance to Boggel’s Place. If ever she needed help, it is now.
Don’t forget: Old Servaas and the young nurse. Was it really as innocent as it turned out to be? Check it out on your favourite e-book site or click the cover for Amazon: