One should be careful when asking Servaas about solitude: his answer is too brutally direct and honest if a sensitive soul should dare being so inquisitive. As a confirmed introvert with his own set of rules, he does adapt to living amongst others…but only just. Oh, he can spin a yarn and debate the issues of the day as well as anybody else (provided you accept his narrow-minded conservative approach and offer the obligatory tot of peach brandy), but deep down he is a loner. Has been all his life, will be until they lower him into the ground. And, as a man comfortable with his own way of analysing issues, he does tend to be a bit overbearing – which doesn’t bother him in the least. He doesn’t like pretence: if you don’t like what he says, it really isn’t his problem at all.
Oudoom, naturally. disagrees with his head elder on this matter. People need people, according to the pastor, and that’s why we need many, healthy relationships. No man is an island, he’s fond of saying – but Servaas likes to remind him that as the Lord created continents, so too did He make islands.
It takes all kinds…
But a passer by – a few years ago – did venture to ask the question. She was the sprightly widow Violet Hancock; a kind and sympathetic woman who toured the country, taking photographs of isolated places. She said it was her way of managing her sudden change in social standing – from being the wife of a famous actor, to being…well, nobody at all. Whereas before the maitre d’s and the photographers would do anything to please her, she found herself stranded on that lonely island called Isolation. Photographing the wide expanses of the country, the old ruined farm houses and the dilapidated windpumps, reminded her that all life – like all fame – was but a fleeting moment. These pictures, she said, made her feel better: she wasn’t alone in her lot.
“You see,” she told Servaas on the afternoon she visited Rolbos to take shots of the Kalahari at sunset, “my husband used to be the reason for my importance. Because he was such a huge figure in the public eye, everybody was nice to me. After he died, there were a few bouquets of flowers, a stack of sympathy cards, a ton of calls…and then it stopped. Society had settled their account – they owed me nothing. Being nice with me wasn’t important any longer – and the public eye roved around as it must, and found somebody else to idolise. Here today, gone tomorrow.”
The two of them sat, discussing the fickle nature of mankind in general and fans in particular, and later a comfortable silence settled between them. Servaas could feel her eyeing him and started feeling really uncomfortable. Did she think…? He dismissed the thought immediately.
“And you, Servaas? Don’t you feel lonely at times? How do you handle it?”
It was a trick question – he could feel it. Still, it was only right that he should answer it honestly.
“You know? Only people who aren’t comfortable with themselves feel lonely. They need company to prop up their self esteem. They love having people around, especially if they make a fuss about them. Now, according to my reckoning, that’s more than 90% of the population.
“They play this game, see? You tell me how special I am, and I’ll be nice to you. Now for some – your husband might have been one – it is an easy game because society elevated them to star status. Actors, politicians, some pastors and a few businessmen are like that. For them it is the way to remain on top of the heap – but they seldom ask what the heap is made of.
“I’ll tell you: it’s all pretence. To be popular, you have to understand Pavlov’s dog. You have to know how the psychology works – and then use it to manipulate others into thinking you’re different. And people fall for that all the time.” His bushy eyebrows rose high as he got got excited about the subject. “Why be different? Why increase your bust size, wear outrageous clothes and makeup to try to draw attention to yourself?” He paused and, seeing she remained quiet, answered on her behalf. “Because people can’t accept the way they are. They feel they have to stand out to be noticed. Better to hear them say ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ than to endure the silence of being considered only average.
“So they start pretending. They play to the audience. They build up a fan base. They have lots and lots of people they call ‘friends’, but who – in actual fact – rely on the friendship only for what’s in it for themselves. It could be money, or recognition or simply bragging rights, but in the end those ‘friends’ are social parasites, feeding off the noticed in the hope of becoming memorable.”
“No friends at all – is that what you’re saying?'” Violet seemed exceptionally sad when she asked the question.
“No, my dear.” He softened his tone. “True friends are rare. Anybody who is honest with himself, will realise you only have a handful of real friends – if you’re lucky. These are the people you can phone at two in the morning or simply share silence with. These are effortless relationships because the commitment to respect and kindness is so natural, so spontaneous, that it sustains itself. These are very special people who can tell you what they really think without being afraid that you’d either reject them or play them along. It’s a non-judgemental association between two persons who’ve accepted each other just the way they are.”
“But…” she hesitated, “…that doesn’t exist, Servaas. I’ve never experienced that type of friendship – and believe me, I had a million friends back then.”
“And where,” Servaas asked, “are they now?”
They sat on Boggel’s veranda until the full moon managed to light up the veld from behind some rare clouds. Mrs Hancock sniffed loudly at times, but refused the handkerchief Servaas offered. Then she glanced up at that moon and addressed it with a bit of Sir Philip Sidney’s poem: To the Sad Moon:
“Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call ‘virtue’ there— ungratefulness?”
Servaas, of course, had no idea what she was talking about. He nursed his peach brandy and listened to the cry of a distant jackal. Still, he felt he had to say something.
“Love, like friendship, is a rare joy, Violet, just like the moon you see over there. Search for it when the season is right. Cherish it when you find it. Nurture it when you have it…. And appreciate it when it’s gone.”
“Full moon. Dark moon. And yet, even when I can’t see it, it is still there?”
“Yes Violet. It is still there….and alone. And you know what? It’s okay. It waxes and wanes without complaining, ever spinning around an ungrateful world. That moon,” Servaas pointed, “is the keeper of a secret – although it is a constant companion to the earth, it needs distance to remain what it was created to be.” He sighed softly, patted her shoulder and smiled. “You’ll be alright, Violet, if you remember this.”
Violet Hancock left Servaas there, on the veranda in front of Boggel’s Place. Drove off and eventually settled in a cottage she rented on a deserted farm. Her photographs have won national and international prizes, but she never attends these ceremonies. She maintains – according to the single reporter she allowed an interview – that her solitude is more gratifying than recognition. This remark caused quite a debate in a popular weekly magazine in South Africa, with most readers commenting on such selfish behaviour.
Servaas saw the article, read it twice, and sat down on the bench on the veranda in front of Boggel’s Place. He smiled proudly, blew his nose, and waited for the moon to appear from behind the dark and distant horizon.