Queen Victoria and John Brown. Artist: Sir Edwin Landseer.
Boggel takes his position behind the counter. Nobody says anything about his ruffled and red-eyed look. Instead, they’re talking about the drought and the way the dams are drying up. The only one who seems comfortable under these depressing circumstances, is Servaas. He always thrives on misery.
“It’s not going to be a happy Christmas this year,” Precilla whispers in Fanny’s ear. “Boggel just isn’t himself at all. Gertruida’s talk helped, but he needs lots of time to reflect, think and then plan ahead.”
Vetfaan can’t take the gloomy atmosphere any more.
“Gertruida! Last year you told us the story of Silent Night. Remember? About that priest in Austria. Or was it Australia? I remember you saying he was a bastard.”
“Not bastard like that, Vetfaan. But yes…there once was a lonely priest…”
She tells the story with flair, making them laugh and cry and get that Christmassy look we all get when we sing Auld lang Syne. .
“But that’s the story, you guys. It tells us how we must never lose hope, never think things we have done were useless. Sometimes it can take centuries for the reason why something happened, to become clear.”
“Much too philosophical for me.” Vetfaan leans back against the counter. “‘T’s the time to be jolly, but this feels more like a wake than a celebration. Maybe we should get that stripper from Pofadder to liven things up a little.” He ignores the disapproving stare from Oudoom and the stern finger Fanny shakes at him.
“If I may, sir?” Mister Stevens and Miss Kenton have been sitting quietly at the table next to the window. Butlers never join the revelry of their employers and always maintain a respectful distance. Now, however, he finds it necessary to contribute his opinion.
“Of course, Mister Stevens.” Gertruida has grown to respect the aloof man with his outlandish way of dressing. Imagine wearing a coat – and socks! – in the Kalahari! Only mad dogs and Englishmen…
“I’m reminded of our late queen, Victoria. She ruled for 63 years, remember? Passed away – may her soul rest in peace – in 1901. But 40 years before that, Prince Albert died. You see, Prince Albert was the love of her life – the man she adored. Oh, before Albert, there were many suitors who tried to win her heart, but once she fell for Albert, that was it. They were married when she was 21, had nine children and shared the many responsibilities resting on the shoulders of the Queen.
“But, at the age of only 42, Albert passed away. Died of some stomach ailment which was diagnosed as Typhoid at the time, but most probably it was some sort of cancer. And then, for the next four decades, Victoria wore black. Her love had turned to grief; and she never allowed herself to forget what Albert had meant to her. Black, you see, was her way of expressing her loyalty to the memories she treasured so much”
Mister Stevens falls silent, staring at his manicured hands.
“That’s extremely sad, Mister Stevens. Why did you mention this bit of history?” Fanny arches her eyebrows, not sure where the butler is leading them.
“Oh. Well, you see, Madam, I think Victoria was a good queen. She rule Britannia, was instrumental in abolishing slavery and expanded the Empire…”
“She was a very good queen,” Kleinpiet interjects, “when she lost the First Boer War.”
Mister Stevens appears to be unruffled as he continues. “But you see, there is more to life than just doing your job and grieving about lost love.”
He pauses a moment, apparently weighing his words carefully.
“I often wonder about Victoria’s household. I seem to recall the name John Brown, her personal servant.
“Now, there was a butler! And he served his queen with all his heart. For 20 years after Albert’s death, he became a servant, a companion, a friend. When he died, Victoria likened the sadness of his passing with the emotion she felt with Albert’s loss. And, I’ll tell you, when Victoria was buried, it was his ring and a lock of his hair that were placed in her coffin.”
Servaas, who has always been a reluctant admirer of Victoria (such a strong woman, but the Second Boer War…) cannot believe his ears.
“What, old Vicky was served hand and foot and the rest of it, by a man of low standing?”
“We’ll never know, sir. There were rumours of a secret wedding… But, that isn’t the point here, is it?” He turns to the bar to address Boggel. “Mister Boggel, I’m reminded of this bit of history to confirm a single fact: it is okay to love. Love asks not who you are and what your standing is. Love marches in where logic hesitates to knock. Love exists only to contribute to one another, never to destroy.
“Queen Victoria was well aware of the gossip behind her back, but she had the last laugh. Let them talk, but I’ll be buried with mementos of the man who cared for me. Take that, you cynical hounds!.” Mister Stevens punches a fist in the air but immediately whips down his arm – as if embarrassed by his display of emotion. “So, Mister Boggel, love only hurts when it is not acknowledged, that’s all I’m saying.”
“So, how exactly does this help Boggel?” Vetfaan doesn’t understand.
“Mister Stevens just reminded us of one of the great secrets in life, Vetfaan. We grieve in loss. We rejoice in love. It’s up to each one of us to decide which is the more important.” Gertruida gets up and uses her lecture-tone again. “Queen Victoria wore black to indicate her loss, but she celebrated the loves of her life by holding on to the memories of love, And maybe that is what love should be: remembering the important stuff. We may hope for the future, but we don’t live there…but we can remember the past as part of every breath that we take today.”
Precilla nods as she hugs Kleinpiet. “So…even if you’ve loved and lost, it’s better than never having loved at all?”
“Exactly, Precilla. People tend to expect love to keep them happy in the future, but that is an anomaly. How can tomorrow’s unborn moments keep you happy today? But…if you look back and remember the joy, the beauty; then today becomes the mirror of who you’ve become. It’s simple, really: if love – in any form – contributed to your life, it is stupid to be sad about the passion you once felt. It’s there to admire and to cherish.”
Boggel serves another round, a slow smile hesitating on his lips.
“What was that about the stripper again?”
Vetfaan bursts out laughing.
“Boggel is back, you guys! Cheers!!”
But it’s never as easy as that, is it? Mary Mitchell will be part of Boggel’s existence for the rest of his life. At times he’ll smile when he thinks back; at others, he’ll retire to his little room behind Boggel’s Place to reflect and feel lonely. That’s when he’ll curl up with Sandy to tell the little bear about the stern old woman: the untouchable, severe queen of a great empire; who insisted on being buried with the memories of such a special love.
And then, with a sad smile, he finds it comforting that he isn’t the only one who finds Love to be a thorny rose: beautiful to look at, painful to hold on to, fleeting in life, enduring in passion.
At least, he realises, the memory of love may very well be the most precious gift of all; a treasure of the heart and the mind, that doesn’t even die when the coffin containing the lock of hair is lowered into the grave.
And, because Boggel belongs to the select and exclusive group of people who understands this, Sandy will just have to do until he discovers somebody he can tell this to.