Smartryk Genade may – quite possibly – be one of the last of the Great Gentlemen. He loves life, he loves the twists and turns in the seemingly boring survival from day to day, and he simply adores the fact that he – despite his history – is still involved with aviation. Nearing his middle-fifties, he is an exception to the rule that men wither and wilt as the years roll by. It’s almost as if he matured late and only now, with old-age beckoning, has developed that dashing flair most men wish for in their twenties. Sure, his remaining hair has changed to silver, but his body is as firm and toned as a teenager. Regular exercise and a life of abstinence from excesses have rewarded him richly.
Arguably his most impressive characteristic, is the way he handles his fellowmen and, of course women. Always discreet, ever so interested and flawlessly diplomatic,he creates the impression that he should have studied theology – which he certainly didn’t. The twinkle in his eyes should tell you that.
Now, as one of the extensive teams to investigate aeroplane crashes in the country – there’s been too many of them lately – he hums a tune as he speeds along the rutted road towards Grootdrink. Three days ago a Cessna came down in the vicinity – an incident reported by a Sergeant Dreyer from a remote village called Rolbos. Apparently nobody was hurt, but still the investigation had to be done. Simple things have to be checked: who was the pilot? What was the flight plan? Was there enough fuel? Any sign of neglect…etc. Forms have to be filled in and the report has to be filed.
He almost didn’t see her. A lonely woman next to the road…here? Surely she must be in some sort of trouble? He skids to a halt.
“May I be of assistance?” His voice sounds unnaturally loud in the vast silence of the arid Kalahari.
“Oh…thank you. I need to get to Grootdrink.” Mary Mitchell eyes the dapper man behind the wheel and says thank you again in her mind. Kiewiet Rooi has just dropped her at the intersection and she wasn’t looking forward to spending the night out here, next to the road.
Of course – being the gentleman he is – he opens the door for her and loads up the small suitcase after he introduced himself properly. Mary reciprocated by giving her first name and settling in the uncomfortable chair of the old Golf. Some women might think this strange, but in the Kalahari (like in life) you don’t ask too many questions when a Good Samaritan lends a hand. You either take your chance or remain stranded.
While Smartryk doesn’t do much flying these days, he makes up for it with his driving. Speed – in the air or on ground – is what makes him tick. So, thirty seconds after closing her door, the Golf’s engine whines at maximum revolutions as he negotiates the car across the corrugated surface.
“Where are you heading?” He has to shout to be heard.
“Rolbos, actually.” Mary’s voice is thin as she clutches the end of her seat with worried hands. “Can you go slower?”
“It’ll be quite a challenge,” Smartryk says truthfully, “but I’ll try.” The engine’s sound eases a fraction.
“I…I need to get there alive.” She intended the remark to be funny, but it is lost on Smartryk.
“I investigate crashes, Miss, I don’t cause them.” He glances over at the ashen face of Mary and feels guilty all of a sudden. “Didn’t mean to snap, sorry. I’ll slow down some more.”
It’s an unlikely start to a conversation – but haven’t we all experienced this? Right in the beginning you say something wrong and then you spend the best part of an hour repairing the damage. Sometimes it works – mostly it’s the flogging of a dead horse. But, for whatever reason, this is one of those times when it does work out. Before they’ve covered another ten kilometres, they’re chatting away like old friends.
Funny, isn’t it? One day some clever psychologist will come up with an easy answer – what is it that makes you feel comfortable with a stranger within minutes, while some others might make your hair stand on end even before they’ve said a word? Is it a subconscious analysis we’re not aware of? A hormonal thing? Something to do with pheromones? Whatever it is, it exists between the sad young lady and the driver of the car.
Smartryk tells her of his life as a pilot – the typical story of a bachelor’s life in which long periods of loneliness were interspersed with evenings of short-lived pleasure.
“There was a young girl once.” Smartryk doesn’t avoid Mary’s question about love, but does hesitate before telling her more. “Herbert. Funny name for a girl, eh? I was more of a father to her, but I did love her deeply. She was so…perfect. But I was too old and she was too young and people started saying nasty things. So I left. Still visit her occasionally, though. She’s married now, two kids and a labrador and a picket fence. Somehow she seems to have shrunk – life in suburbia took away her sense of adventure.” He stares at the road ahead, consciously relaxing his shoulders. “Ce’st la vie, I suppose. Such a pity that some women lose their spunk once they start changing diapers and washing dishes is the highlight of the day.”
Mary remains silent as she listens to the older man talk. Oh, how she would have loved a life like that – a simple, easy existence in a town somewhere, where the biggest problem of the day is making sure that her husband (oh, how nice does that sound!) has a hearty meal when he comes home at night.
“It sounds enticingly boring,” she smiles at Smartryk, “perfectly, deliciously, superficial.”
They laugh at that: Smartryk, the eternal adventurer with the love for speed and derring-do, and Mary, the woman who longs for a life where one day simply flows into the other and happiness is the security of knowing she is loved.
“I’ve booked a room at the Augrabies Falls Lodge,” Smartryk seems a little embarrassed at the situation. “Lovely place to overnight and we may well have enough time to have a quick look at the falls, as well. Only one room, though. Sooo…I can drop you at the turn-off, or you can join me for the evening.” He feels a blush developing when he realises how it sounds. “I’ll sleep in the car,” he adds hastily.
Gertruida says there is no such thing as coincidence. Life, she maintains, is all mapped out for every individual. But, she’s fond of saying, we’re rather stupid when it comes to following the breadcrumbs that will lead us to our destiny. According to her, we often stray all over the place before – at last – we stumble across the original route we were supposed to have taken many years ago. If only we stop trying so hard to make our own plans – Gertruida is rather adamant about that – we’d find life so much easier to live.
That’s why, if you should ask her – she’d tell you that Mary may quite possibly be busy with the most important trip of her life, and that the people who so kindly have offered to help her along the way may very well be there for a reason.
“The problem,” she once told Boggel, “is that it is so difficult to distinguish between right and wrong. Some people cross your path to lead you astray, others are there to help you. Which is which? There’s no book with answers, no map to check your course. It’s only in hindsight, when you look back from calamity, that you realise how far off course you’ve drifted and why you got lost.”
And so, when Smartryk and Mary sit down to supper in the dining room of the lodge, they both wondered about their chance meeting and what it might mean.
“I’ll take you to Rolbos tomorrow,” Smartryk glances at Mary over the rim of his glass. “Tomorrow. But we still have tonight…”