“Irony,” Gertruida says – because she knows so much – “is just a series of disasters held together by a string of good intentions. It happens all the time, especially when you consider ESCOM, the e-Toll fiasco and the value of the Rand. Then, of course, there is the striking example of Blackie Swart, the white accountant working for the African Parliamentarian Association for Regional Tactics, the body to promote local, ethnic-based, entrepreneurs’ participation in various tender processes. But that leans more towards satire than irony, come to think of it.”
“Irony?” Vetfaan shrugs. “That’s part and parcel of everyday life in our country. Twenty years down the line we should all be rolling with laughter. What happened to the dreams we had when we voted for democracy in 1994? Man, everybody smiled when they drew that cross; but now that very same cross has caused more trouble that goodwill. We have become a living irony, a veritable parody of hope and despair.”
“Just like Herman Grobler.” Boggel makes them all sit up. They know the story all too well, and – out of respect – they observe a moment of silence.
They all knew Herman, the fastest wing on the rugby field in the Northern Cape. Or at least, they knew about him. Only a select handful of girls could claim to really have had anything to do with the handsome boy – the rest tried to make their friends jealous by pretending they had gone out with him. We all had such ‘friends’ in school: the dashing, clever, athletic chaps that can do no wrong. They’re popular. They can pick and choose. And, almost invariably, they lose their way in later life to become one of the nothing-people nobody wants to talk to. While that devolution may be a source of immense – if secret – joy to the hardworking, average boy with pimples and holed soles, the tragedy is obvious and exceedingly sad.
This is exactly what happened to Herman…
A rugby scout spotted him in Standard 10, after which he was earmarked to play for the largest Afrikaans university south of the Orange River. He tried out, was selected, and in his very first year of studies scored the winning try in the finals. With his reputation firmly established, he went on to be the star student in his class (Applied Mathematics) and had a huge problem to select the most beautiful girl as a date every weekend.
This was no mean feat, mind you. Girls, young women and even some older ones wrote long and romantic letters, some including revealing photographs or (for the more shy) sketches or poems. On more than one occasion he’d return to his hostel to find a voluptuous surprise waiting to welcome him to her arms.
Of course his male fellow students were jealous. Of course they wanted to share his good fortune. And of course some tried to be his friend. But, between his sport and his studies, he spent the little time he had free with some beauty – which only served to distance him from his male counterparts.
Two very important things occured in his final year while studying for his Master’s degree. He met Shirley Allgood, the American exchange student…and was introduced to her father. Shirley was one of those easy-going young ladies one would expect to adorn the middle pages of a glossy magazine while covering up the barest necessities. Her father, however, was something quite different.
Harold Allgood was a engineer at American Aerospace, the first to start planning commercial flights into space. The venture was a huge success: for half-a-million Dollars you could spend 24 hours circling the globe in absolute luxury. As a prominent shareholder in the company, Harold was what us common people would call ‘stinking rich’.
Due to Harold’s influence, Herman accepted a bursary from MIT, where he proceeded to finish his PhD in record time. Time Magazine ran a leading article on the new rocket propulsion system he had invented and it was rumoured that the Nobel committee was considering his contribution to science and mathematics for their next awards.
Just after he finished his studies – and before taking up a lucrative job at American Aerospace – Herman married the lovely (if empty-headed) Shirley in the Taglyan Complex – one of the most expensive and luxurious venues in Southern California. Everybody who was anybody was there – the president, a few astronauts, top golfers and tennis players…and Gertruida, who was the only South African who kept on corresponding with Herman after he emigrated. She, in contrast to so many others, didn’t condemn his search for excellence, knowing full well that his talents would have been overlooked in a country where skin colour had become more important than ability.
And it is in the magnificent hall – after the wedding – that Herman drew Gertruida aside to tell her about his unhappiness.
“I studied myself out of the country, Tannie Gerty.” He always called her that. “I’ve become academically disabled – there’s no way I’ll find a job back home. My qualifications won’t help me there – even the university rejected my application, saying I know too much about too little to be of use to them. I am, they said, overqualified.”
To her surprise, the handsome groom fished out a white handkerchief to dab his eyes.
“How I wish I could have married in Upington and celebrated with a braai afterwards. Now I’m stuck with this.” He swept a hand towards the hall. “There’s no escape…”
“Ja, I suppose he did the right thing, poor chap. Quite dumb for such a clever man.” Servaas lifts his glass in a silent salute. “Blessed are they that are satisfied with enough.”
Vetfaan stares at the dry veld outside the window, where a dust devil is making it’s way slowly across the loose sand. This is my home, he thinks, the place I belong.
Gertruida says Herman is an example of the most horrible irony of all: when an individual gets all that he dreams of. There’s nothing so unbearable as that, she says. No, according to her, the trick in life is to distinguish between your reach and your grasp…and then settle for the latter. Kleinpiet figured it out immediately, but Herman – with his many degrees and all that – is still working out what it means.