The orphanage in Grootdrink was much like Boggel remembers it. The buildings were a little more dilapidated, the fence a little more worn down and the cracked chimney had lost another few bricks – but the basic structure and layout had not changed since the days he spent his youth in the place. The new government didn’t have much funds for such social projects anymore; their attention was then on the voters, who relied heavily on social grants to eke out a living in the shantytowns the president insisted on calling informal settlements. It was two years after Nelson Mandela coined the phrase of The Rainbow Nation, and people still believed in a better future. Like the orphanage, the term would erode away in the years to come.
When they stopped at the gate, Vetfaan saw the curtains of the lounge part for a second, to reveal the excited faces of the children who had been waiting for Santa Clause – or Kalahari Santa, as they called him. This was a yearly pilgrimage by the Rolbossers (Boggel’s initiative) to bring joy to the rather dreary lives of the orphans. Vetfaan dressed up as Father Christmas because he didn’t need stuffing under the bulky red coat. The rest of the townsfolk came as themselves, each bearing a few presents. Even Servaas managed a smile when they knocked on the door – to give to these kids was a reward unto itself. When you have so little, the excitement of receiving surpasses the value of the gift. The children got something they could actually call their own, in contrast to the toys, books and clothes they were forced to share amongst themselves.
“Ho, ho ho!” Vetfaan had practiced a lot to manage an authentic Father Christmas laugh. It was Gertruida who suggested the double tot of peach brandy which perfected the sound. “Can I come in?”
“Yay! Ye-e-e-es!!” The exuberant welcome left no doubt about the children’s anticipation.
Oudoom quitened the children down, read the famous passage from Luke 2, and reminded them that Jesus too – in a manner of speaking – had been an orphan. The man who guided him into adulthood, wasn’t his father.
“We’re all orphans – did you know that? Yes, some of us have earthly mothers and fathers, but our true Father is in heaven.” Oudoom faltered for a second as he shot a nervous glance to Gertruida. They’ve had numerous arguments about heaven, where it is and what it is. Please, his look said, not now. We’ll just confuse the kids. He sighed in relief when she winked back. “And us grown-ups? Our parents may have long since departed, making us true orphans, as well. So…what I’m telling you, is this: being an orphan doesn’t mean you are unwanted or unloved. Nothing – nothing – compares to the love of your Heavenly Father….”
“…or Father Christmas!” A scruffy little boy with a mischievous grin interrupted Oudoom’s sentence, much to the delight of the rest.
“Ah yes. Father Christmas. The man with the red coat and the black boots. Okay, he might be an important figure at Christmas time, but where is he the rest of the year? Anybody seen him in June?” Seemingly unflustered by the interjection, Oudoom picked up on the remark, anyway. He waited while the children shook their heads. No, the rest of the year, Father Christmas was strangely absent, indeed. “So I want you to change your thinking about Father Christmas a little bit. See him as the one who comes bearing gifts once a year – that’s quite all right. But remember the other father, the Real Father, who loves you every day of the year.”
Satisfied that he’d said enough, he sat down. Now it was Vetfaan’s turn to be the center of attention. With solemn dignity, he picked up the presents the townsfolk had given one by one and proceeded to distribute these amongst the orphans.
“Johnny? Who is Johnny?” He read the little card on the box while Johnny rushed towards his present. “This is from Oom Servaas. Be careful, now.”
Johnny ripped the wrapping off the box and gasped as he stared down at the Swiss Army knife. “Wow!! Just what I wanted!” Vetfaan smiled at the matron – she had been the one who made the list of what the kids really wanted.
One by one, the kids got called to the front to receive exactly what they had wished for. Boggel’s gift was a set of children’s books for the clever girl who simply loves reading, Kleinpiet’s present of a toy train set went to the serious little boy with the dream of becoming an engineer. Precilla’s talking doll brought a yell of delight from a pig-tailed young lass…and so it went on until the last present – a beautiful leather-bound Bible for the solemn-looking young Paul, who wanted to become a social worker one day – was safely in the children’s hands.
“Gertruida!” Vetfaan’s whisper made Gertruida glance over at him. “Have you forgotten your present?” Having checked, he was sure he didn’t notice her name on any of the presents.
“No, Vetfaan. I have brought something completely different this year. Johnny, come here?”
And so Gertruida proceeded to do something odd.
“Johnny, my gift to you this year, is friendliness. With this gift, you will make lots of friends, do well at school, and become a very popular little boy. Use your friendliness well, and you’ll reap a rich reward.”
The girls received grace and kindness, respectively, while her gift to Paul was wisdom. Every time she gave the blessing-gift, she said a few appropriate words, until she at last called the final child: David – the scruffy lad with the impish face.
“For you, dear child, I have two gifts. The first is called Freedom. Freedom to be yourself and to be happy. But, remember, freedom isn’t free. It never was and it’ll never be. With Freedom you have to accept the second gift – it’s called Responsibility. In other words: you can do anything, be just what you want to be, say anything…but you have to accept the responsibility for those things as well. If your freedom leads you to kindness, you’ll never be sorry. But…if your freedom makes you do bad things, you cannot escape the consequences of your deeds or words. There. Take your Freedom, enjoy it…but never think you aren’t responsible for it.”
Matron saw the same thing every year. By the middle of January, the talking doll couldn’t say a word any more. The Swiss Army knife broke a blade when it was used to open a can of paint. The train set became an object of dispute after one of the tracks disappeared mysteriously. Even the set of children’s books ended up on the shelf after being read.
But somehow, Gertruida had struck a chord with the children . At the next year-end function, Johnny got the prize for the best behaved boy in the orphanage. Paul spent his last year in the orphanage before enrolling in a seminary.
However, it took David almost two decades to begin to understand his gift. By that time, he was a tall and emaciated man of twenty-eight. After leaving the orphanage, he joined a group of Rastafarians. Later – bored by the laid-back lifestyle – he started peddling drugs in Hillbrow. By the age of twenty-two, he owned a BMW and had a string of girlfriends. Three years after that, he became famous for the endless party in his Sandton mansion.
Then, one day, he noticed the skin lesions and the swollen glands in his neck. He started losing weight. And then the cough started. Like the country, his freedom cost him dearly. His rainbow dream had become a colourless nightmare…
If his health permits, he’s planning to travel to Rolbos this Christmas, where he wants to have a chat with Gertruida. He’ll want her to explain – again – the implication of his two gifts. And then he wants to tell her what a terrible present she had given him, all those years ago.