Gertruida sits back to enjoy the clouds gliding past the little window next to her seat. In an hour’s time, she’ll be back in the Northern Cape and on her way to Rolbos. It’s been a harrowing few days, and she’s looking forward to her first Cactus in Boggel’s Place.
Ever since she’s taken the trip to Cape Town to see Lettie, she tinks, her days have been filled with Life, Love, Hope and Death. Lettie discovered Love and Hope. Gerrie lost Life and found Death. For a fleeting moment, she wonders which of the two got the better deal; but then she immediately rejects the question as absurd. Surely, she questions, Love and Hope endures even after Life and Death?
“You seem deep in thought?” The voice is gentle, almost apologetic, and she turns to see the soft, liquid-brown eyes of the stranger next to her staring at her. The man is neither handsome nor neatly dressed – in fact, he could be described as ‘rugged’ and ‘untidy’ – just another weary traveller. He isn’t somebody that would stand out in a crowd…and yet there’s something in his demeanour that is decidedly charming. His eyes, for instance, exude a caring warmth and his smile is open, genuine and beguiling. He, Gertruida realises, is a one-to-one person; an individualist rather than a get-on-the-stage-and-sweep-them-up man.
“Oh, I-I was just contemplating life’s big mysteries,” she says, feeling embarrassed and caught off guard, but recovers sufficiently to introduce herself. “I’m Gertruida,”
“You can call me John.” Then, almost as an explanation, he adds, “I travel a lot, you see. Meet lots of interesting people from all walks of life. I suppose you can call me a people-watcher. It’s always fascinating to discover what people are thinking about.”
The man has an uncanny way of making her feel comfortable, and Gertruida relaxes immediately.
“So – which of the Big Mysteries were you thinking about, Gertuida?” He breathes her name in an almost revering way.
This man is….exceptional. Gertruida has to search for the right words to describe him. What is it about him that she finds so fascinating?
“Oh, you know: Life and Love, Hope and Death. I had a lot to do with these lately…” And for some reason, she finds herself compelled to tell the stranger everything – everything – that happened. “…Now Gerrie is dead, Lettie is happy and I’m on my way home.”
John listens without interrupting, completely absorbed in her story. When she finishes, he sinks back in his chair with an ‘Aaaah…’
“And now Chris is repaying a debt, but at the same time he’s getting a better life?”
“I suppose you can put it that way.”
“And this Doctor Snyman – the neurosurgeon – what do you think will become of him? I mean, if you had a say in such matters, how would you like to see his future unfolding?”
It’s a strange question and Gertruida takes another look at the man. He’s a weird cat, she thinks, or maybe he’s just bored and keeps the conversation going to kill time? Still, with nothing else to do but to watch clouds drift by, she gives the question serious thought,
“Oh, I don’t know, really. The future is the future. Us mortal beings just don’t have much say in it, do we?” Her attempt to avoid the question draws a knowing smile from her neighbour.
“Well, just play along. Lets say you had the power to influence the life and times of Dr Snyman. What would you like to see?”
“Mmmm. For one thing, he grew up in a loveless house. His father was a strict disciplinarian who dominated his mother completely. Herman Snyman rebelled against this, of course, and found he could manipulate circumstances with his temper tantrums at a very young age. Today, he still maintains the same attitude: he bullies people into doing things his way. He has, despite his efforts to do the opposite, become his father.
“Unless something drastically happens, he’s on course to being a brilliant surgeon and a lonely, angry, depressed old man. Sooo…if I had a say, I’d like to change that. It’s a waste of a life, if you asked me, to squander away your years in angry solitude. I think he started wrong, that’s true, but I can’t see why he must end wrong.”
She glances over at John, who has closed his eyes and now seems to be asleep.
“Ah,” he says as he opens his eyes. “You’re quite a woman, Gertruida.” Again, he almost whispers her name. “Now, if his life is to change, something has to happen, not so? What – do you think – would cause such a drastic change in life’s direction for our Doctor Snyman?”
“Oh, that’s easy. Love. Love will change it, I’m sure. If he fell in love with somebody strong enough, clever enough, to understand him, his life will never be the same again.” She laughs at the crazy idea. “Take – for instance – that lovely young Grace Stroker. Now there’s a girl with massive potential. The day she starts believing in herself, she’ll unlock the doors that have kept her prisoner so far. She’s clever; she’s witty, she’s charming and she’s pretty – and yet she seems so reluctant to trust her judgement and her instincts. But…a woman like that will twist poor Herman Snyman right around her pinky, if she manages to pop out of her shell. Oh my, wouldn’t that be something?”
The stranger (not so strange any more) smiles contently.
“You know, donating your kidney was an extremely kind thing to do.” The sudden change in the subject of their conversation startles her. “So was helping Lettie. And so was this visit. You really care for people, don’t you?”
Gertruida doesn’t answer – what is there to say, anyway?
“Life. Love. Hope. Death.” John whispers the four words as separate entities.”Woven together in the fabric we call Living.” He pauses again, eyes closed, but obviously not finished talking. “I often wonder why people don’t get it. I mean, it’s so simple, isn’t it? You get born, grow up and grow old, and die. It’s not a complicated concept. And in the time you’re alive, you know that somewhere, sometime, Death is waiting for you.”
He turns to look at her, making sure she’s following his line of thought. Gertruida nods to encourage him to go on.
“And yet – yet – people spend their time chasing money and power – forgetting that Love is the most enduring prize of all. They lose Hope too, because no money or power can buy happiness forever – it always fails in time. Of course, while chasing prestige and position, people become self-centred in their quest for pleasure; and this causes them to reach for more and more – and so they lose the joy of Life. It’s such a pity.”
His eyes soften as he lets his gaze travel over her. Gertruida feels a tingle of excitement coursing down her spine.
“But you are an exception, Gertruida. A rare and precious exception.” His smile makes her feel young again. “Yes, and your wish for Herman Snyman: so much insight. And for Grace Stroker: so much compassion. Very, very endearing. So unselfish. Somebody who cares so much for her fellow man and woman, deserves such wishes to come true.”
The air hostess interrupts their further conversation by the usual announcement that they’re about to land, and fasten your seatbelts and thank you for flying with us.
When they touch down, John gets up and says goodbye.
“It was a pleasure sharing this flight with you, Gertruida. Be well…and if Grace sends you an invitation to the wedding, I’m sure you’ll want to go.”
Before Gertruida can say anything, John is lost in the throng of people queueing for the exit. She struggles to get her case from the overhead compartment, manages to do so, and rushes up to the stewardess.
“I’m so sorry Miss, but I have to know: can you check on your passenger list? Who was the man sitting next to me in 24B?”
The girl fixes a professional smile on her face to hide her irritation. She wants to get off, spruce up, and meet the flight engineer for their usual date at the Kalahari Oasis. She scans the list, running her finger down the column.
“No Madam. You were alone in seat A. I know, because I served your snack after take-off, remember? There wasn’t anybody in seat B. Here, look for yourself if you don’t believe me.”
Gertruida walks over to the terminal building slowly. She knows John isn’t there any more. She finds herself smiling, feeling happier than she did for a long, long time.
Yes, she thinks, Love is the answer.
It’s the only one.
“Thank you, John,” she whispers as she wipes a happy tear from her cheek.