“I was six at the time.” Chris stirs a spoonful of sugar into his coffee, his forehead a roadmap of wrinkles while he thinks back. “We were walking back to our hotel when the bomb went off.”
Lettie can’t help being fascinated by the man. Gertruida had told her about him: a loner, a brilliant mind, a poet…but she never said anything about him being almost blind. Now, in the combined lounge/kitchen area of his little cottage, Gertruida asked him to tell his story. Chris seemed a bit embarrassed to do so, but here he is, telling it how the family holiday turned into a nightmare – matter-of-factly, without emotion.
“I think it happened before you were born, so you’ll probably not know much about how the ANC blew up McGoo’s Bar in 1986. It’s not important, really. Killed a few people, injured a lot. I was running ahead of my family and must have been near the bomb when it went off; I really have no recollection of the blast. Anyway, that’s how my retinas got damaged.” He spreads his arms wide. “And that’s my story – except for one little detail…”
He takes a deep breath before going on in a rather emotional voice. “As a result of he blast, I had other injuries as well. My muscles were bruised and crushed and I went into shock. They revived me as best they could, but I developed kidney failure soon afterwards. At first the doctors thought my kidneys would recover, but apparently the shock and muscle damage combined to cause a permanent condition.
“Well, in those days dialysis wasn’t freely available, and only patients with a good prognosis were accepted on such a program. It was agreed that they’ll dialyse me for three months, and if my kidneys didn’t start working in that time, I’d have to have a transplant.
“The rules were simple: no transplant – no hope. My parents started looking for donors, contacting every family member they could think of. One after the other, the tests showed a poor match. Then a nephew remembered Gertruida. Although not considered direct family, she turned out to be a niece of an uncle who passed away a few years previously. My parents were desperate, and contacted her. She proved to be the perfect match…”
Lettie stares at Gertruida. “And you…?”
“Ag, it was nothing. Everything went smoothly, and here we are, so many years later – and see how healthy he is.” Gertruida gets up to hug Chris. “He made me see life in a completely new way. In fact, he taught me how precious every moment is; how important it is to appreciate every little thing that happens to you – even accidents.”
“Ja,” he smiles, “we’ve been corresponding ever since. And I knew that – one day – there’ll be a time when I can do something for her. So, now you’re here, Lettie, and you wouldn’t have been if the ANC didn’t bomb a bar almost thirty years ago. It makes you think, doesn’t it?”
Lettie can only shake her head; this is almost unbelievable. A little boy, running on a sidewalk three decades ago, a desperate search for a donor, a successful transplant…and a friendship that lasted all these years…and now she’s another brush stroke on a canvas to complete a small detail in the Picture of Life. How extraordinary…
As if reading her thoughts, Chris holds up a hand. “Gertruida never talks about her sacrifice, Lettie. I think you are one of the very few who knows about it, and I didn’t want to be the one who told you. But, under the circumstances, it is important for you to know that I trust Gertruida completely – as she does me. The bond between us is much more than a mere friendship.
“And…that means you are safe here. Gertruida said you’d be staying for a while. We’ll talk. You’ll go for walks. I’ll be here, day in and night out – and I’ll take care of you. When you’re ready, I’ll let Gertruida know and she’ll come and fetch you.
“Sooo – any questions?”
“Gertruida!” Boggel jumps down from his beercrate behind the counter to do a little jig. “Welcome home! Shees, woman, Rolbos just about died without you around. Come, sit down, have a beer.”
She has to smile as the bent little barman curtsies and leads her to her usual chair at the bar. Then, in almost-comical haste, he shuffles around the counter to produce a cold beer.
“First things first, Gertruida,” Boggel eyes her critically. “Are you okay?”
This time, her smile lights up her eyes. Yes she is. Yes it’s great to be back home. Yes, she missed Rolbos more than she can say.
“And that girl? Lettie Whatshername?”
“Work in progress, Boggel. She needs time, fresh air and good company.”
“So you’re bringing her here?”
“Nope. I left her in good hands. Rolbos is too big for her, she needs to start small.”
Now Boggel, you must understand, knows his customers. Gertruida, for instance, will sometimes tell you just so much – and nothing more. He can see the steely glint in her eye, warning him to stop asking questions.
“We’re not going to talk about it,” Boggel wipes the counter to remove the glass rings, “are we?”
“Not now, Boggel. One day, not now…”
And so we’ll leave the story at that. To tell the rest, would be spoiling it, wouldn’t it? After all, saying something about ‘Discovering the Beauty Inside’, the international bestseller by a novice writer, somebody no-one has ever heard of, Lettie Gericke, just wouldn’t sound authentic. Or telling the story of how Gerrie Smit, upon hearing about her fame, came crawling back – who would want to read such drivel? Or relating the tale of how the people of Loxton combined forces to create the most spectacular array of snacks for the reception after the wedding of their favourite blind inhabitant – surely it isn’t worth recounting?
Stories – in the real world – don’t end like that. To be successful, a story must have blood and gore and deceit and, on occasion, vampires. Real-world stories have died out, become extinct, because they’ve lost their credibility. We need to be shocked and horrified these days, otherwise the reader loses interest. We want to read about, know about, the damnation of Everyday Life as we know it.
And that’s the weird thing about Life: we can never say we know somebody. Oh, we can shake hands, share laughter…or even spend a lifetime with a significant other – and yet there will be little bits of canvas waiting patiently for the brush to complete the picture.
Only…the picture is never finished; it’s a story without an ending.
Gertruida’s sacrifice; Lettie’s pain; Gerrie’s confusion; Boggel’s loneliness; Chris’s gratitude – how can anyone say they know it? We can know about it, yes, but do we feel it?
We have, to put it bluntly, lost Compassion. We just don’t feel any more.
Oh, we all got our share of compassion when we were born; it’s just that we seem to carve away at that gift until at last, somewhere along the way, we’ve whittled it away completely. Then, sadly, it’s us against the world, and not us for the world.
The only hope we have, is Love. And here again, we label the emotion according to our own selfish needs. Love has become an self-centred, erotic security blanket – a safe place to seek pleasure and feel comfortable. That’s so terribly sad…
We should elevate Love back to it’s intended position once more. The world would change if we do just that, and bring back Compassion and Kindness. Then, when people start caring for each other for unselfish reasons, we shall rediscover the wonder of Love.
It’s called Hope.
We all have a piece of Lettie hiding inside us – a broken, hopeless, disfigured creature, hiding from the world. And like Lettie, we need other broken, hopeless, disfigured people to help us free ourselves from the scars of Life.
Love, like Lettie writes in her soon-to-be famous book, isn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling or whispered words at dawn. It’s bloody hard work, she says. It grows on hard labour and suffering. It’s about overcoming the hardships and pain to reach a point where we can begin to Hope again.
It’s something we should all work at.
The alternative is to stay as we are: and how sad would that be?
And so we leave the story in Boggel’s Place, secure in the knowledge that to end it, would render it unbelievable. But Boggel, the bent little barman, knows. He’ll sometimes pour a Cactus late at night, catch Gertruida’s eye, and lift his glass in a silent toast to a remarkable woman. And she’ll smile back, because they share something they keep to themselves: they know exactly how it ended…
If I could read your mind love
What a tale your thoughts could tell
Just like a paperback novel
The kind that drugstores sell
But stories always end
And if you read between the lines
You’ll know that I’m just tryin’ to understand
The feelin’s that you lack