That picture! Gertruida stares at it for a long time. The memories! The shock!
She knew it had to be here, somewhere – and now she’s found it, wishing she didn’t, between the pages of The Beautiful and the Damned, the Fitzgerald novel she had been reading at the time. Oh! She remembers the sad and poignant tale of Anthony Patch, the lazy, egocentric youth who believed the world owed him a life of luxury. And, of course, there was his wife…the beautiful and equally shallow Gloria. Gertruida smiles wanly when she remembers the almost-bitter but brilliant ending of the book which so aptly underscored the futility of both beauty and wealth. Yes, she thinks, that book was such a fitting read for the time she spent with Gerald Grimes, the man with the most endearing smile.
How old was she at the time? Eighteen? Nineteen? And then she met Gerald, charming, handsome Gerald, on Durban’s Golden Mile, during one of the rare breakaway-weekends she allowed herself while studying. In those days you could walk along the beach for hours – there were no loiterers, no muggings, no danger. She had walked, read, dreamed, tanned and was about to return to the little flat she had rented, when he walked right up to her and asked whether she’d like to have dinner with him. Just like that! She didn’t know who he was, what his intentions were or even anything at all about this tall, athletic man…but said yes, she would, just because she couldn’t think of anything else to say. The age of innocence…
He accompanied her to the flat after introducing himself and apologising for his impertinence. “I’ve found it such a waste of time to go through the long preamble of playing stupid games. It’s so boring. And…I travel such a lot that I rarely have to privilege of going through social rituals.” He smiled the most disarming smile. “I liked the way you concentrated on your reading and thought: This girl has depth. I’d like to meet her. So there. Now we can have dinner together and we’ll chat. No strings. Not at all.”
They had dinner in the Royal Hotel, a scrumptious affair with oysters and crayfish and the most delicately prepared choice of desserts. Afterwards they ambled up West Street, where they found this late-night cafe serving coffee.
“I read a lot,” he said, “especially the old authors – Fitzgerald, Poe, Haggard, Dafoe. They had such a wonderful way with words – even if they used a type of style and language we don’t even recognise today.”
“Like trammels, feckless,sanguinary, impecunious and erudition?” Gertruida warmed to the subject.
“Yes,” he said, “and we often can learn so much from them.”
“Ah yes,” Gertruida smiled. “There is a book on the Boer War, On the heels of De Wet by Lionel James. He had a rather severe opinion of what political change would do to South Africa. Remember, he wrote his book in 1902 and quite a visionary he turned out to be. He said…” She closed her eyes to remember the exact words. “But they have been pampered by us enough to make them imagine vain things, and vain imaginings may result at no distant period in a repetition of that rapine, pillage, and massacre of white settlements, which has ever furnished the saddest stones in the cairn of our great Empire.”
Gerald marvelled at her phenomenal ability to quote so accurately and said so. Then they started chatting about the way the old authors managed the extremely long sentences – almost unreadable, yet so lucid in their description of events and people.
This man, Gertruida realised, was the most widely-read person she’d ever met, and they sat there, chatting about books and authors, until the poor cafe-owner stared at them with tired eyes and they took pity on him. At that point the only other customer was a suited man who simply sat there, not drinking anything, apparently lost in deep thought.
They were getting up to leave when the silent customer got up, apologised to Gertruida, and asked Gerald to accompany him.
“Why…” Gertruida wanted to protest, but the man held up a hand.
“Please, Miss, this is official business. We’ve been looking for him all over. I didn’t want to cause a scene, but he’s not going to get away – again – this time.”
Suddenly, they were surrounded by a number of other men, all in suits, who escorted Gerald to a waiting vehicle – a Mercedes with tinted windows and no number plate. And then, barely a few seconds later, Gertruida sat down at the counter, all alone and completely confused. What had just happened? Neither she, nor the cafe owner, had any idea,
A few months later, she received a letter.
My dear Gerty
I must apologise for the way our lovely evening ended. I sincerely regret having to have left you like that, but you’ll remember that I had little choice in the matter.
You see, I work for a government your people don’t approve of. I was – still am, I suppose – a persona non grata in South Africa. My work involves the gathering of information, something your authorities frown at. Enough said…
Well, I spent some time as a guest of your government in Pretoria’s Central Prison, where I wiled away the time by sketching. Most of my drawings were confiscated, unfortunately, but this one survived.
I’m in London now, after being exchanged. The deal had been a complicated one, but it involved the release of an Israeli scientist who had been in custody in Moscow. I believe he’s working for your government now and is involved with a secret project involving missiles.
There. True to my nature, I didn’t waste too much of your time, did i? But now you have the bare basics – a skeleton you can build the bigger picture on. I don’t suppose we’ll meet again, which saddens me much. However, suffice to say that I enjoyed the evening with you and have the fondest memories of a few hours spent with you.
Gertruida puts the letter back between the pages of the book. A sentence seems to jump off the page at her:
Halcyon days like boats drifting along slow-moving rivers, spring evenings full of plaintive melancholy that made the past beautiful and bitter, bidding them look back and see that the loves of other summers long gone were dead with the forgotten waltzes of their years.
Taking great care, she closes the book before slipping it back onto the shelf. Then she sits down in her favourite chair to stare at the picture. Perhaps, she thinks, it is the lost loves that makes life so bearable. Or maybe these chance meetings serve to remind us that everybody has a story and that everyone shares the bond of loneliness. It doesn’t matter who you are and what your convictions may be – in the end we are all strangers shuffling through Life’s night.
For some reason, the thought causes an immense feeling of sadness to envelop her. When she looks down at the picture again, she’s not surprised to see the smudge caused by her tears. Like the memory of that evening, it is only fair that the picture should fade, as well…