“The test of love is whether it endures,” Mevrou pipes up unexpectedly. She’s come to look for Oudoom – he must practice his Sermon with her before she can go to bed. “Couples promise each other the world, but a few years later they’re at each other’s throats. Only true love lasts.”
Oudoom, of course, agrees whole heartedly before he follows her meekly to the door.
Sammie never told anybody about the last time he saw Rebecca; and he most probably won’t ever, either. As painful as his previous memories about their relationship may be, the recollection of that meeting is almost unbearably sad.
He had heard rumours – gossip – that the young couple Hurwitz was having a hard time. Abe appointed a new secretary to handle the increased workload he and his father generated – the previous year’s Miss Kakamas, a young lady with high breasts and low morals. Soon after her appointment, Abe started travelling to Keimoes, Springbok and even Grootdrink on a regular basis, always taking Miss Wiggins (behind her back scandalously known as Wigglebottom) along ‘to take notes’. Not only did they find a thousand excuses to stay overnight during these excursions, but Rebecca also never saw any ‘notes’ returning after these trips.
Rebecca was caught between dry waterholes, as the Bushmen have a way of expressing such a dilemma. If she left Abe, her high-flying lifestyle would cease. If she remained with him, her jealous rage – also fed by the memory of her own father’s conduct – made living together sheer hell. In the end they shared a silent, decidedly hostile house.
Then, one fine and crisp winter’s morning, a team of auditors arrived at the office and started going through the files. There was no warning and nothing anybody could do. By the end of the week Abe was in jail for defrauding his trust fund. His plea that he did it to try and improve his marriage with a proposed long vacation overseas, fell on deaf ears. He was sentenced to fifteen year’s imprisonment, which also finally ended the marriage.
Old Mr Hurwitz took all this rather badly. He blamed Rebecca, who blamed him right back, saying the wedding was his idea, anyway. Shamed and humiliated, Hurwitz retired with only a fraction of his life savings left after all the legal costs to try and clear his only son’s name. Old Mrs van Schalkwyk is known to have said it was poetic justice.
“The mighty has fallen on his own crooked sword. Long live justice.” Mrs van Schalkwyk outlived the lawyer and eventually passed away quietly, leaving her meagre estate to Sammie. She stated in her will that she, at least, wanted him to know she cared.
And so, divorced, alone and unhappy, Rebecca fled the town to try to start over in Springbok. She was the scarlet woman, the subject of gossip which never really died down. Not once, in all those years, did anybody invite her over – her ‘reputation’ (her history having been gossiped and added to until it bore no resemblance to the truth) saw to that. Here she filled the post as temporary librarian for ten years, during which she read every book on psychology she could lay her hands on. Then, one evening after a hot day in the library, she took a shower in her small flat. It was when she was drying herself that she discovered the lump.
A week later she was admitted the new Upington Hospital, a modern facility with brand new equipment. Her specialist, Dr Titzling, was overworked, slightly sympathetic and terribly direct.
“I’m afraid the news isn’t good, Mrs Hurwitz. That tumour must have been there for some time, and it has spread rather widely. We can try removing the ovaries and then follow up with chemotherapy, but there is no guarantee with a cancer of the breast that has such an aggressive nature. However, there are metastases – very small, but definitely linked – in your brain. It does not bode well for your future, I’m sorry.”
Rebecca refused. She knew she didn’t have a lot of time. She got the bank manager in to draw up a final will and testament. Then she sent for the rabbi, who promised to visit her every day. And then she sent message to Sammie.
He arrived a day later, still as unsure and hesitant as he had been that first day he met her next to the river.
“I wrote a letter, Sammie.” Her speech was slow and slurred, but she soldiered on. “While I still could, I tried to say…things. For you. I want you to read it…later. Now…for a while…please sit here with…me…Just…hold…my…hand.”
Titzling had warned Sammie, so he didn’t try to engage her in a conversation. She was fading away fast and any effort of her part would just serve to worsen her agony. The afternoon became evening; the evening turned into night. And then, in the small hours, she slipped quietly away while Sammie held on to her cold, cold hand.
My dearest Sammie
Oh, how I regret everything! My life has been one of vengeance, because I could never forgive my father. And now that I’m dying, I finally realise how much different it could have been if I followed my heart and not my hate.
I have wronged you in the most terrible way. You were kind and saw something in me I never understood. Only now, with the end looming near, can I start to grasp what a life with you could have been.
I’ve read a lot, Sammie, and in the process I learnt a lot as well. Reading was the only way to hide from my failures, or so I thought. But in the final analysis, it brought my failures into such a sharp focus that I have to write to you now, before it is too late.
I came to realise that you can’t keep on blaming other people for your life. What my father did, was for his account, and not mine. Where he did wrong, he must take responsibility – but then, so must I.
My marriage with Abe was, I suppose, a silly effort to punish myself and my father. Abe was a self-centred egoist, a man obsessed with money and status. Why I thought so at the time, I still don’t understand – but I reasoned that in marrying him, I can hurt every man that ever looked at me. I wanted to get back at all males, including my father. All of them. I wanted to hurt Abe, you, the rest of the world by being Mrs Famous-Lawyer. And I wanted the money. Lots of it. All of it. My motive was revenge, my reason was hate.
You know, of course, what happened. I drove him straight into the arms of Miss Wiggens. I was the reason why he defrauded so many innocent men and women in an effort to impress me. He’s in jail for it now, hating me.
So, as I look back on my life, I can see only one little sliver of purity – and that was the evenings around my mother’s table, talking about books and writers. There was no pretence. Neither was there any pretence in your loving me – I know that now.
And I handled it so badly. So, so terribly badly.
What would our lives have been if I had realised the depth of your love, the magnitude of your caring? You would have been a lawyer right now, tending to the matters of those desperate in need – and oh! – I know how well you would have taken care of them. I banished you to be a shop keeper in a one-horse town; a nobody; a man who’d forever dream of a life that could have been.
I stole your life, Sammie. My crime is worse than that of Abe; or even of Mister Hurwitz, when he tried to buy you by offering you that bursary.
Dearest Sammie, my estate is small, but sufficient for you to pursue your studies. Please, in honour of the legacy of a few carefree evenings around a dinner table, would you not consider using it to further your studies? Even at this late stage, you can still make a difference to people’s lives with a degree in law. You dreamed about it so fervently – do it for me?
So this is goodbye, my only love. I leave you with the knowledge that I love you – more than you’ll ever believe – and a wish that you’ll forgive me? And I wish I realised so many things before…this.
PS: When you read Pasternak again, read this: and remember me…
Not long ago, in a charming dream, I saw myself -- a king with crown's treasure; I was in love with you, it seemed, And heart was beating with a pleasure. I sang my passion's song by your enchanting knees. Why, dreams, you didn't prolong my happiness forever? But gods deprived me not of whole their favor: I only lost the kingdom of my dreams.
Sammie will never tell anybody about the visit, or about the letter. When asked about love, he’ll stare out of his window with a sad smile and only shake his head. Maybe his silence says more about love than the all the rest of the town’s opinions together, anyway. But in his heart of hearts, he knows: true love comes but once: it doesn’t ask questions, and doesn’t supply answers. Maybe, he says, the thing about love is that it survives anything.
Anything. Even time. Twenty years – two long decades – later, his heart still skips a beat when he thinks back to those evenings around the dinner table. Then he’ll read the letters again, before whispering those three sacred words.