When the Black Dog Gets You

_65927423_cingulumcloseupx1Gertruida, as we all realise, knows everything. She is opinionated, passionate about the truth, and seldom hesitates to respond to the most impossible situations. This, Servaas says, is both a blessing and a curse, and maybe he’s right. After all, when Gertruida started staying at home while they all partied at Boggel’s Place, they all knew something was terribly wrong. And later, after Precilla said that  she had seen Gertruida walking up and down Voortrekker Weg at 3 am (she was closing the window because of the cold), it was Oudoom who remarked about the sleep disturbances you get with depression.

Servaas, of course, blames himself. Before he went on his memorable road trip, is had been he, Servaas, who wore black and was cynical about everything. At that time it didn’t bother him in the least that the townsfolk joked about his morose nature – in fact, he rather relished the attention he received as a result of his dark moods and comments. But now, after enjoying the time on the old Enfield so much – and having met such wonderful people – Servaas simply loves being called The Kalahari Biker. Men of all ages admit (some under duress) to a strange phenomenon: if you manage to astound your peers, you get a weird sensation of superiority. It’s a primitive, childish reaction, yet this is exactly the stupid reason why men climb mountains, participate in drinking competitions or go to parliament.

And who can deny that the Servaas who came back from that trip, is a completely changed man? The bushy eyebrows no longer gather in disapproval, the kudu-ponytail bobs up and down when he laughs, and the dark suit seems to be a thing of the past. Oudoom says the change is a miracle, while Mevrou occasionally pokes fun at the much shorter church council meetings – Servaas seems completely happy with the sermons these days. In short: the cantankerous old man has become the life and soul of the parties in Boggel’s Place.

And this new-found happiness has had a devastating effect on Gertruida. Somehow she seemed to have found solace in his depressed state in the past – as if his dark moods were confirmation that somebody else in town was worse off than she was. With both of them being single, she could always point out that Servaas was more lonely, more obtuse and more depressed. But now, with Servaas regaling them with stories of his adventures, Gertruida has had to face the fact that her life is empty and dull. Sure, she has this vast knowledge and can contribute to any intellectual discussion…but where is the fun, the adventure, the joy? Servaas has broken out of the prison of self-pity and solitude, explored the wide world out there, and came back as a new man – while she, Gertruida, still has to read the National Geographic to kill her many lonely hours.

***

“We have to do something,” Vetfaan says when Oudoom sits down with a contented sigh. It’s Monday and he’s already worked out the next Sunday’s sermon. Servaas actually suggested the theme of ‘Joy’, and supplied several verses which turned out to be most helpful.

“About Gertruida?”

“Yes, Dominee. She doesn’t join us here anymore, rarely leaves her house and refuses to answer the doorbell. Precilla tried to talk to her, but Gertruida slammed the door in her face.”

Oudoom sits back, laces his fingers behind his head and stares at the ceiling.

“I think,” he says after Boggel pushed a beer over the counter, “that she’s depressed because we’re too happy. And, because she knows everything, she realises the problem isn’t the fun we’re having – but the lack thereof in her own life.” Quite accurately, the clergyman sums up that the change in Servaas’s demeanour precipitated the plunge in Gertruida’s mood.

“Well, I like Servaas the way he is now. Wouldn’t change it for anything.” Vetfaan shrugs. “But that doesn’t solve the problem with Gertruida…”

“No, it doesn’t. We’re really stuck, aren’t we? There isn’t any eligible bachelor in the district we can ask to help, either. And she doesn’t come to church anymore, so my sermon on Joy isn’t going to be useful either.”

hjarna3Boggel shakes his head. “We will just have to be inventive, that’s all. The latest National Geographic has an article on Professor van Wedeen, a neuroscientist working in Massachusetts. It’s fascinating. They use a scanner of sorts, a huge thing, that uses enough electricity to power a submarine. They are trying to explain how the brain works, see? Now, if we can get Gertruida to talk to him, it’ll boost her morale, don’t you think?”

They gape at him.

“Sure, it won’t be easy…but it’s worth a try.”

“Are you suggesting that we phone the professor in America and ask him to be interviewed by a woman – not even a journalist – from a place that’s not even on Google Maps? What are the chances…” Vetfaan purses his lips – Boggel can be so naive…

“Well, what about a journalist phoning her for an opinion?” Clearly desperate to find an answer, Boggel shrugs as he spreads his arms wide. “What can we lose?”

It takes three rounds of peach brandies to hatch the plan. Since they know no journalists, they decide to manufacture one. If they can get Sammie to talk with two ping-pong balls stuck inside his cheeks…? Of course! Great idea…! (The logic behind this idea will confound even the esteemed professor van Wedeen, but we all know how convincing peach brandy can be after the second tot.)

***

“Hello (mumble-mumble-click), is that Gertruida?’

“Yes, what do you want? I’m busy.”

“Ghood. (mumble). Ah’m phoning in connection (mumble-click) with that ahrticle about van Wedeen. Ah, mmm, the phrofessoh. We nheed infohmation abaht his wohk (mumble) foh ahn ahrticle (click) foh tha Uhpingthon Phost.”

The group in the bar wait with bated breath. Will she take the bait? A long silence follows.

“Juhst youhr thoughts. (mumble-click-mumble). Youh’re the ohnly pehson who chan hhelp ush.”

For a moment they thought they had her. Then…

“Oh, for Pete’s sake! Sammie? Take your bloody balls out of your mouth and speak properly. Goodbye!”

***

Prof van Wedeen is most probably the world’s best researcher into the working of the human brain. Using the powerful scanner, he has mapped out the pathways thoughts travel and has formulated new theories about brain function. For this he deserves praise.

But in Rolbos – in the humble bar run by a hunchback – they’ve discovered the cure for depression. It’s not anything new, mind you. It’s called laughter.

When Gertruida stormed into Boggel’s Place after the phone call, she was spoiling for a fight. She was met by such sheepish looks and suppressed giggles, that she considered turning around and leaving the silly group to continue the party.

But then she saw Sammie, who couldn’t get the ping-pong balls out of his cheeks; looking for all the world like an overgrown chipmunk who had just robbed a chestnut warehouse.

And she found – much to her own surprise – the corners of her lips moving upward.

“If you can whistle, I’ll forgive you,” she said, forcing a straight face.”Otherwise I’ll have to kill you.”

***

Isn’t it strange that a single event can jeopardise a life-long friendship? Or, on the other hand, how a single giggle can defuse the most depressing situation? Still, Servaas isn’t taking any chances. He’s taken to wearing his black suit again, and tucks the kudu-tail under his hat when Gertruida is near. He’d rather fake a black mood than face Gertruida’s black dog. Still, although he tries to hide his new-found sense of adventure, he can’t disguise the glint in his eye.

Oudoom did give his sermon on Joy that Sunday – a powerful message of faith if ever there was one – and concluded that joy is a most fragile commodity.

“Joy, brothers and sisters, is a state of mind. It is the source of contentment, of acceptance, of the will to go on. Without it, faith – even life or love – cannot survive. But…,” and here he paused dramatically, “it needs to be nourished. And how do we do that? I’ll tell you.

“Joy lies not in what we have experienced in the past – although we might cherish some wonderful memories – but it is in the realisation that the future is what we are destined for. We nourish joy by hope. Without hope, there can be no joy.

“So, when we find that joy has left the building, we must look at what we’ve let in.” He ticked off several points at this stage. “Dispair. Self-image. Taking ourselves too seriously. Losing faith. And what are these things, my brothers and sisters? They are self-made – they are produced up here, in our own minds.” He tapped the side of his head. “If you are not the master of your own thoughts, you will be a slave to your own self-destruction.”

Boggel reckons Oudoom can teach that professor something, but that could be the peach brandy talking. In the meantime, he keeps two ping-pong balls under the counter. He says it’s a better antidepressant than Prozac.

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