“It was a hot and dusty day,” Servaas says (as if there are other types of days in the Kalahari), remembering how he and Siena met. This is one story even Gertruida is hazy about. “And I was on my way to Abraham’s shop in Kimberley. In those days I was a clerk in the post office in Kimberley, a long time before we moved to Rolbos.”
“But you always wanted to become dominee, Servaas. Why did you end up in the post office?” Precilla recalls the last chats she had with Siena, and how the old woman thought her husband would have been a rather impressive preacher.
“Ag, you know how it was in the 40’s and the 50’s. Droughts. War. Depression. There just wasn’t any money, and I had to support my mother as well. My dad, you might know, fell at El Alamein.”
“Why didn’t he get up again?” Vetfaan has a mischievous glint in his eye.
“Oh, shush, Vetfaan. You shouldn’t joke about things like that. Few people know that the South African First Infantry Division played a major role in stopping Rommel before he got to the Suez canal. That was the First Battle of El Alamein in July 942, and laid the foundation for the defeat Rommel suffered there later that year, in November. Had the Desert Fox succeeded, Hitler would have controlled the Middle East oil and the canal. And that,” Gertruida says gravely, “would have handed Hitler the war on a silver platter. Servaas’ father helped win the war.”
“Anyway,” Servaas seems oblivious of the interruption, “there I was in Abraham’s shop, bickering about the price of sugar or something, when in waltzed this young lady.” His eyes grow dim as he remembers the day. “Yes, she was something, that’s for sure. Dressed in a long skirt and a frilly yellow blouse, she was. Her hair was long back then, hanging free down her back. But what struck me immediately, was her eyes. Sparkling, lively, full of life. And she stood there, wringing her hands as she waited to be served.”
“Well, I simply paid old Abraham and stepped aside so he could help her. Old Abraham asked what he could do for her, but she shook her head. Just stood there. And that’s when I knew.”
“What? That you loved her without knowing her name? Love at first sight?” Vetfaan seems a bit more serious.
“No man! I thought I knew she maybe wanted to see old Abraham on a … personal matter, you know? She didn’t seem to want him to serve her while I was standing there.” Servaas sees the puzzled looks and hastens to explain: “I used to be…more sensitive…in the past, see?”
“Oh, Servaas, you’ve always been responsive to feelings.” Vetfaan nods for another beer as he watches the old man blush before adding: “Especially your own.”
Servaas disregards the remark. “Well, I went outside and made as if I’m on my way, but I stopped just outside the door and eavesdropped.”
“Some things never change.” Vetfaan lifts his glass in a mock salute.
“Siena – I didn’t know her name then – was begging old Abraham for credit. Some more credit, for it seemed that her family had already borrowed as much as the old shopkeeper wanted to allow.
“Asseblief, Meneer, she said, I’d do anything you want. I’ll work here for free. I’ll do your washing and cooking. I’ll even clean your stables.” Servaas frowns at the memory. “In those days everybody had horses – for riding and pulling wagons and carts.
“I heard old Abraham laugh softly. No, he said, that’s not good enough, young lady. Not good enough at all. You’ll have to do more than that.”
“Oh, I love the juicy bits of a saucy story. Come on, Servaas, tell us what the old man wanted.” Perched on the edge of his chair, Vetfaan’s drink is forgotten.
“I’ll never know. I stormed in there and demanded to know what she wanted to buy. She blushed and stammered. Old Abraham flustered and blustered. And then she showed me a list of groceries. Sugar. Flour. Coffee. And a length of Crimplene.
“So I told that miserly old bastard to give her the stuff, I’ll pay. I had to go to the bank to withdraw two pounds, which was about everything I had, and slapped the money down on his counter.”
It is at this point that Servaas falters. How can he tell the rest? About how the old man burst out laughing until the tears ran down his cheeks – and how Siena then hugged him. About how good it felt when she put her arms around him and how he became aware of a faint suggestion of perfume and the scent of her hair. And how he thought that was the most wonderful moment of his entire life.
“That’s when she invited me over to supper. She had to explain where she lived, and when she did, I didn’t think much about it. I should have. In fact, I wasn’t thinking…”
“Of course not – your brain had no blood supply at that point. Diverted the flow elsewhere, didn’t you?” Vetfaan wasn’t letting up, but Servaas is far too innocent to catch on.
“That evening, I put on my best almost-white shirt, my post office tie and my old school blazer. I borrowed a pair of flannels from the other clerk and used about all the sheep fat I had on my shoes. You should have seen me – I still had hair back then, which I slicked down with a bit of Brylcreme.
“Anyway, there I was, striding towards her address … and then I realised I was on my way to one of the grander suburbs in Kimberley. Working at the post office meant you had a very good idea of the layout of the town, and I wasn’t on my way to the slums – if you know what I mean.”
When he arrived at the house, his jaw dropped. The extensive garden and large trees almost made it impossible to see the dwelling from the street. In front of the huge porch, a stately Rolls Royce stood waiting silently. Servaas can still close his eyes and recall the large windows and the swept-back curtains , which allowed him to glimpse the luxurious interior.
“Man, I wanted to turn around right there. I just felt so out of place. Then, as I stood considering leaving quietly, the front door opened, and there she was.”
Oh, the memory! Siena floated down the red, polished steps of the porch in the most beautiful dress he’d ever seen! Her hair was tied back and she wore just enough make-up to make him believe she wasn’t wearing any at all.
Oh, you came! I was so worried! Come on in!. Her excited voice reached him before she did. And then…then her father emerged and stood there, a slight frown on his sun-burnt face.
“He said he was glad to meet me. His daughter, he said, had told him about me. And, he added, she was a rather mischievous young lady.”
It turned out that she had dated a few young men ever since she came back from finishing school six months previously – and that these meetings usually ended in disappointment.
“She told me all about it later. You see, her father was stinking rich – grandson of one of the original Rand Lords – the guys who made vast fortunes out of the original diamond and gold discoveries. So she’d date a guy only to realise the chap’s enthusiasm was all about the money – and she was the key to unlock the door to instant riches.
“So she and old Abraham played this game, you see? Abraham, I later found out, was an old family friend and had a soft spot for the poor little rich girl. She’d wait until a single man bought something and she’d step in to play the poor girl who begs for credit. If a chap offered to help, he’d get an invitation to supper. It was her strategy to look for somebody who didn’t care about money, but about her. I was, as it happened, the first to fall for the ploy.”
“So where’s the money now, Servaas? Why…?” Vetfaan hesitates, not wanting to add ‘why are you here, and not on some Greek Island?’, because it sounds rude – even to him.
“Well, quite surprisingly, our relationship developed nicely. When the time came to ask for her hand, I asked her father to leave his fortune to her older brother, Vetfaan.”
This time, Servaas smiles at Vetfaan’s confusion. It’d be impossible to explain how he and Siena decided on a life of hardship and true commitment – rather than the artificiality of luxury and fake pledges. Despite his lack of formal education, Servaas realised a great wisdom: love will only survive life’s bumps if it is faced with constant challenges. Trust – not money – is needed to make love grow despite the circumstances. It was in overcoming these obstacles that he and Siena formed a bond that lasted to this day – even after her death.
“It was a wise choice, Vetfaan; something a cynic like you’d never understand.”
And old Servaas smiles the way old man smile when they recall the beauty of that relationship that made everything worthwhile. When Vetfaan opens his mouth to say something clever, it is Gertruida – who knows everything – who sniffs loudly as she fishes out a Kleenex.
Like wars demand such a lot from the men who take up arms, Love may require the ultimate sacrifice. The difference is that men succumb in battle…just like Servaas’ father did. Love, however, will require young (and not so young) men and women to lay down their weapons, to be defenceless, and reinvent the true meaning of Life. Falling in love and falling in battle have many similarities but differ in one single major aspect: in both cases the wounds may be fatal. But only Love may – for a few fortunate individuals – resurrect the fallen to a heady condition called Beauty.
That’s why Vetfaan closes his mouth with an audible snap. Then, trying to look casual about it, he reaches for Gertruida’s box of tissues.