Gertruida hates Christmas time. Well, strictly speaking, that’s not quite true – she doesn’t hate all of it. She loves the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place in the days running up to Christmas and attends Oudoom’s service on the day itself. There, with everybody saying nice words and shaking friendly hands, she always manages to shake off the black cloud hovering over her past.
There is that black cloud. It’s that voice inside her head, reminding her of what could have been. She’s read somewhere that it isn’t unusual for people to become reflective towards the end of the year – before the blank calender promises new opportunities and the proverbial clean slate. She understands that Life requires one to take stock from time to time; that this analysis has to be brutally honest and that the report card of this examination isn’t always flattering. This, she is quite happy to accept. But those four letters, the backbone of the black dog sniffing at her heels, are different. They represent the poignant, sad moments of opportunities missed.
And every year, in the days before Christmas, she finds herself standing on tiptoe to reach the box she hides behind the old linen in the cupboard in her bedroom. How often has she wished she had burned them, torn them up, destroyed them! But no. She can’t. Even if she could, she won’t be able to forget the words. They have become part of Christmas. And, although she detests reading them again, she knows she has to. She believes – despite the pain it causes – that it’s a form of repentant healing. Limit the reading to once a year, she tells herself whenever she thinks of it, that way you don’t ignore them, but at least they don’t rule your life.
Sighing,she spreads them on the table.
My darling daughter
You’ve made it through school! Well done! What excellent results! I’m so very proud of you.
Well, this Christmas will probably be the last you spend at home. University beckons and you have a new life waiting. You’ll spread those clever young wings and discover new friends and new places. My Christmas wish for you is that you’ll find success and happiness in the years to come.
And remember – even if you’re far away, I’ll always be near.
Gertruida puts the letter back in the envelope. Her mother died that February – a car accident – making this is the last letter she ever received from her. She should have reciprocated by writing something back: a letter telling her mother how precious she had been, how much she had meant and how much she loved her. She never did…
Wow! It’s Christmas again! Can you believe the way time flies? When we started studying, university seemed so daunting – and here we are, graduated and ready to make a difference in our beautiful country.
I’ll be reporting to Voortrekkerhoogte on the 3rd of January to start my compulsory year in the army. It’s a drag, but we all have to do it, I suppose. I almost can’t imagine what it must be to march around in browns on a dusty parade ground, bearing a rifle – you know how I hate guns! I’ll just have to grin and bear it.
How about you and I sneaking off to some remote spot over New Year’s? We can pitch the tent at that waterfall in Eastern Transvaal, just like we did over Easter. We’ll have wine, lots of debate and make love under the stars? Come on, Gerty, say yes!
Looking forward to your reply,
The date stamp on the envelope is for the 4th of January. By the time she received the letter, Josh was in the army. And…he never returned.
Hello again, you sexy thing!
Gosh, you challenge me in so many ways! Well, this is Christmas and you have to give me a break. Let’s – you and I, alone – disappear for a while. There’s this delightful little hotel in Arniston – a great view over the sea, a fantastic menu and a wine cellar you won’t believe! We can read and have fun – which will be a change from travelling all over the world, trying to tell heads of state that we’re not such a bad lot. (An impossible task, but that’s the diplomatic corps for you!)
So, what do you say? Let me know so I can arrange the bookings.
Lots of luv,
Gertruida smiles, despite the anger building up again. Yes, they did go to that romantic hotel. That’s where that bastard Bertie met that hussy. On the third day of their stay, this young…vixen...started talking to Bertie while they were on the beach. Despite the intervening years, Gertruida can still close her eyes to view the scene: Bertie the seasoned diplomat, so often on the front page of the newspapers. And Angie, the ‘American girl on vacation‘, dressed in the skimpiest tiny bikini, rolling her eyes and fluffing up her hair. Bertie had no chance.
Two months later Bertie knocked on her door at midnight. He was so sorry, he said. Made a huge mistake, Please forgive him? He had fallen for the oldest trick in the spy book and now the Russians had certain…er…compromising…photos of him, courtesy of Angelina Suvorov, Moscow’s GRU agent.
Bertie told her he had no choice in the matter. He was defecting to Russia. His career in South Africa was over, maybe he can start over in Moscow. He did, he reminded her, have a lot of information the Russians would kill to have.
She told him to go away, not realising how prophetic his words were.
It’s Christmas again and I must tell you how much I miss you.
Let me start properly, otherwise I’d confuse you. I don’t want to do that. Remember me? Bennie Botha? We dated a few times – three, to be exact – way back in our second year in varsity. Two movies and the church picnic.
Well, we were young and a bit stupid, I suppose. I was, anyway. I don’t think you’ve ever been stupid in your life. Still, as quietly as we drifted towards each other in those silly days of sunshine and laughter, so silently we drifted apart again. Students can be so…shortsighted!
And here we are, thirty years later, and I can still remember the yellow ribbon you wore in your hair. And the brooch, the one you said you inherited from your mother. And the way you laughed at my meagre jokes. And the tree. It is still there, on the lawn where we used to chat between lectures.
I’m writing to wish you a merry Christmas. In fact, many merry Christmases. You see, this will be my last Christmas – that’s what the doctors say. And, as such, I’m trying to make up for the many Christmases I didn’t wish you well. It’s not that I didn’t think of you. Never! I did…all the time.
You know – of course – that I eventually married Vanessa Greyling, who started studying law while we were in our final year. She loves me and I tried to be a good husband for her. That’s why I never contacted you – didn’t want to upset dear Vannie. But now, with the end nearing, I told her about you. You know what? She said she knew all along! And she encouraged me to write, saying she’d like to meet you someday.
So. This is a confession and a goodbye. I needed to tell you that I thought about you often, that I cherish the memory of the time we spent together, and that you served as a guiding light – even in absentia – over the years.
And, Gertruida? Enjoy Life. It’s the greatest gift.
Gertruida stares at the letters. One from Mom. Another from a school friend. One, a reminder of such a sad affair. And one from dying man. All of them in the past, all of them reminders that life is fleeting and that nothing lasts forever.
And yet – this is the sad part, the reason for the hovering black loud – the letters also convey something else. Love, Gertruida realises, does not conform to the limitations of time. Reading the words every year, she gets the feeling that they are as real and actual now as when they were written. Before she returns the letters to their hiding-box, she hugs each one in turn – wishing that time wasn’t such a cruel thing. Would things have turned out differently if she had spent more time with the writers of the letters? Could she have said more? Or less? Or done things differently?
Once the letters have been read, Gertruida will return to Boggel’s Place. The patrons know her well by this time. They’ll let her sit quietly at the window while they joke and carry on at the counter. But then, later, they’ll draw her into some impossible argument and force her to debate a silly point. And then she’d thaw, laugh with them, and shove the black cloud aside.
Four letters. Life. Love. Hope. Time.
This Christmas, she decides, she’ll make time stand still. Cherish the moments. Live and love and hope with those around her. She will not repeat the mistakes of her past.