That’s all the sign on the side of the caravan said. Three words, but enough to make slow down, stop, and readjust the kudu ponytail protruding from under his hat.
Why did he stop? Afterwards he’d think of several reasons to explain why he – an elder in Oudoom’s church, pious and not given to superstition – felt the need to study those three words. It was true that he was tired and sore from the journey after his uncomfortable night in the makeshift jail; equally it was a fact that he was hungry and thirsty. He’d also try to convince himself that the caravan stood next to a lonely clump of trees and that he planned to camp there for the night.
But that wasn’t the real reason. It was the name: Esmeralda. Gertruida once told the story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, that famous story by Victor Hugo, in Boggel’s Place. She related how this gypsy girl, a tragic and compassionate figure, tried to save Quasimodo’s life and ended up being put to death herself. Gertruida described the story of the girl’s life in such dramatic detail that everyone was sniffing loudly when she finally fell silent.
In Servaas’s mind, the character of Esmeralda had become similar to dear Siena, his departed wife, a honest and caring person who he had loved and admired so much. Siena, the once-beautiful girl who stole his heart and changed his life. It was Siena who had him say goodbye to the wild life of a young, directionless man, and had turned him into a respected postmaster and elder. And like Quasimodo, Servaas felt the void she left after her death with such intensity that he often took to wearing black suits when the dark dog of depression growled at him.
Of course he had to stop to stare at the sign. It was inevitable.
Esmeralda looked up from the book she had been reading on the steps of the caravan.
“A traveller,” she said softly. “Come, let us talk.”
Servaas took in the dilapidated caravan, the tired-looking pick-up parked to one side and the faded paint of the sign, and got off the old Enfield (slowly, with some difficulty). Esmeralda, he saw, wasn’t in a much better condition. The sandals on her feet were well worn, the dress as faded as the sign and her hair swept back under a bandanna that had seen better days. No make-up to disguise the many lines on her face. In her eyes, however, he imagined he saw a strange combination of fatigue and curiosity, like one would find in a sleepy Basset confronted with food. There was a softness in those eyes, a vulnerability that spoke to Servaas.
Esmeralda wasn’t her real name, of course. Agnes Grove grew up in Waterkloof, that prestigious suburb in Pretoria where the white elite lived. Her father was a respected member of the Broederbond, a secret organisation that promoted white interests. He also had an important job as an advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.They had two servants (Lovemore in the garden, and Innocence inside the sprawling house).
Once a year they’d have a two-week summer holiday in the Margate Hotel, where Mr Grove drank his special KWV and her mother read the latest Heinz Konsalik or Lawrence Green. At the time, Agnes thought life couldn’t get any better. She was right.
Then she met Japie, the son of Pieter and Margeret Coetzee who owned a large farm in Northern Transvaal, on the beach in front of the hotel. It was the day before Christmas, sunny and warm – and she wore the first-ever bikini she had persuaded her parents to allow.
Japie had grown up like most young boys did in those days. He had no clue. Not about those things. Neither did she, for that matter. But Mother Nature supplied them, like she had done for all generations since forever, with a healthy dose of heady hormones and an uncalvinistic curiosity. And, if one wanted to, there were several convenient and secluded spots amongst the rocks on Margate beach where one could discover so many things your parents were loath to discuss with you…
And so, when summer turned to autumn the next year, Mr Grove and Mr Coetzee discussed the situation. Yes, Japie will do the honourable thing. And yes, Mr Grove will help set them up in a small flat in Sunnyside. And no, they wouldn’t tell the neighbours and friends, not with Mr Grove’s reputation at stake and seeing that Mr Coetzee was an elder in the church.
For a short while that was that. Life continued. The little baby was born and Japie worked hard at the job Mr Grove had organised in the National Archives – specially arranged to keep the young man confined to the basement in the Union Buildings. Here, the parents agreed, the shame of the situation would be kept from public scrutiny.
And then 1994 happened. Democracy arrived with many promises, the world applauded…and Mr Grove lost his job. The Coetzee’s didn’t do any better – their farm was one of the first to be ‘redistributed’ to a ‘previously disadvantaged’ group of people, who claimed that their ancestors lived there in 1876. Predictably, Japie also had to leave the archives when the new government applied their quota system of employment.
“Esmeralda,” Servaas said slowly, savouring the sound of the name. “It’s a name with special meaning for me.” He sat down on the steps next to her.
She arched an eyebrow, shrugged and stared at her sandals with those tired eyes. “It’s just a name.”
Servaas shook his head. “No, it suggests strength, hope…and sadness.” He then proceeded (why, he could never explain) to tell her about Quasimodo and the story of Notre Dame.
“So she died? After all she did and having been misled by men? And the poor hunchback perished as well?”
“I suppose. But, she followed her heart, did her best and died a heroine. And, in the end, the love of her life – that disfigured and ugly man – remained loyal even after death. It’s as sad as it is precious.” He sighed. “Life is like that, Esmeralda: not all stories have a happy ending.”
The tired eyes then searched Servaas’s face, an uncertain smile quivering the corners of her lips. “I’m not really a gypsy, you know?. I’m not even clairvoyant. I’m just…me. A silly girl who lost her way. Lost my husband. Lost my child. Lost everything. And now I have this caravan and I live by telling lies to people who want to hear the future will be better than the past.”
Japie Coetzee tried to find new employment. He really did. Day after day he trudged from office to office in the city, talking, pleading, praying. Eventually they had to leave the flat to live in a caravan in Fountains Park. The winter had been harsh that year and when their baby girl caught pneumonia the home remedies didn’t help. She died in Agnes’s arms. The next day, driven by guilt and sadness, Japie committed suicide. They were buried together. Agnes became Esmeralda after the funeral: she didn’t want to be – couldn’t face – the helpless creature she had been forced to become.
Servaas listened to her story quietly, not interrupting or commenting at any stage. Then, when she fell silent, he moved closer to her to put an arm around her shoulders.
“I can’t cry any more.” Despite the statement, she wiped a tear from her cheek. “There’s nothing left.”
“Yes,” Servaas said, thinking of Siena. “We live until the sands run out, then we wait to die. Then we rage, rage against the dying light.”
She looked up suddenly, the smile now more secure. “Do not go gentle into that good night? Dylan Thiomas? Look, I’ve been reading it when you arrived?” She showed him the old book. It was Thomas’s 1952 collection In Country Sleep and other poems.
Isn’t it strange how we meet people – apparently by coincidence or chance – only to discover we are all different and the same? Dylan Thomas summed it up nicely:
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Our frail deeds can, indeed, dance in a green bay, if only we cared to stop to listen to others. We need to stop and stare for a while to see how bright these deeds dance on the surface of Life. That’s why, when old Servaas heaved the sore hips onto the seat of the Enfield the next morning, Agnes cried for the first time in many years. Her tears, at last, were happy tears, thankful tears, for she had become Agnes again. Agnes, who had lost so much and had so much to live for, had come to understand that Dylan’s poem was not just about dying, but about living as well. Esmeralda had read the poem and resigned herself to defeat. Agnes, on the other hand, realised the value of fighting till the end – giving new meaning to her life.
“Will you visit me again?” Agnes dabbed her cheeks with the handkerchief Servaas had given her.
“No, my dear.” The old man’s voice was kind, soft, caring. “You’ve lost too much already.”
And she, understanding too well what he said, stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Then the old engine rattled to life, drowning her last words. It didn’t matter, really. Servaas understood perfectly – the kiss said it all.