After his rescue from the barren mountains of the Richtersveld (still without the parasol), Servaas had to be carried back to Vioolsdrift. Mr Jacobs – as the town’s undertaker – was the only man around with a smidgin of knowledge about sickness and death, so it was only logical that the search party carried the severely disorientated rugby player to his residence.
Dehydration and sunstroke aren’t simple maladies. People die from less severe insults to their health, like snake bites or gunshots. To say that Servaas was not quite his old, perky self, is a slight understatement. Semiconscious, incoherent and burnt to an unflattering red hue, he drifted in and out of a state of delirium for a full day. To quote Charles Dickens: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Worst, because he almost died. Best, because he had the most amazing visions of Mathilda for a full 24 hours. To go into graphic detail would be socially unacceptable (although all young men experience similar daydreams on occasion, Servaas might be considered the father of the 3-D dream and was able to focus on – er – um – rather intimate aspects of Mathilda’s attributes for a considerable period of time).
Be that as it may, Mathilda looked after him well. Mrs Volschenk’s finishing school wisely included various difficult subjects like Chicken-keeping, Tending your Garden, Pet Care, and Ailing Men. It is true, she intoned in her faux-British accent, that men suffer more during sickness than women. This, she said, was because of the inferior construction of the male constitution. Mathilda didn’t argue, despite the fact that she actually thought the ‘male constitution’ was rather well constructed and had quite surprising abilities.
So, when at last Servaas woke up to find the subject of his dreams sitting next to him, wiping his brow and looking at him in the most peculiar way, he really believed he was dreaming. Or dead. He threw out the second possibility soon, however; right after Mathilda whispered (in a really husky voice) that she thought he had the most amazing constitution.
The norm (back in those days) was that you didn’t overdress for a rugby game. Boots were an unheard-of luxury, jerseys usually didn’t last the first half and shorts – although mandatory – were merely the oldest short pants in the drawer. Commonly, these were last year’s schoolwear; and hence a size or two too small. Understandably Servaas realised all too soon he wasn’t dressed to fit the occasion of his first real meeting with the most beautiful girl in the entire Northern Cape. His constitution disagreed, having the fun of its life…
Servaas pulled the blanket up to his chin and tried not to show his embarrassment.
“Mrs Volschenk prepared us for such occasions,” Mathilda said importantly. “Men simply can’t help certain, er, things. It means nothing to us women who have been educated properly, Would you like some cold water?”
Maybe Servaas was still too confused to understand. Cold water? To do what with? Of course! His present condition! He nodded, feeling terribly shamed and reprimanded.
Without the need to go into detail, it is enough to say that Mathilda laughed uncontrollably when her mother asked her why she was hanging the blanket on the washing line. Calming down, she confided that Servaas was still so weak, the glass slipped from his hand.
Servaas’s parents, who stayed with friends during their son’s recovery, were surprised that their son was so anxious to go home. Did he not almost die trying to bring back that wonderful girl’s umbrella? And – true to their previous experience of Servaas’s exploits – would he not want to linger as long as possible in the Jacobs’s home? But no, Servaas insisted. The blankets on the wire had not even dried out in the scorching sun when Servaas stuttered his thanks, stumbled out of the bed and shuffled down the garden path towards his parents, waiting in their old Chev in the driveway..
Years later, when Servaas paged through one of Gertruida’s dictionaries (to look up the meaning of ‘consubstantiation’) he finally realised that having a strong constitution wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. In fact, it saved his life.
By then – as was common knowledge at the time – Mathilda had turned into a cantankerous old spinster, having rejected all male advances over the years. Gossip had it that Mrs Volschenk’s students graduated with such a superior impression of themselves that only a few of them ever married. Servaas is still convinced that the finishing school finishes the chances of normal young girls having a normal life. Why, he asked once, must somebody teach girls how to place three forks and four knives (not forgetting the two spoons) at every place at the dining table? With a tablecloth and everything? A single pocket knife, one spoon and ten able fingers had been quite enough for any meal his mother had ever prepared – and served on the bare kitchen table.
Gertruida says English is a confusing and difficult language, often leading to misunderstandings. She once bloviated that it is hardly discombobulating that Servaas tried to canoodle with a callipygian girl after her bumbershoot blew away. However, she said, Servaas was only a hobbledehoy at the time, and it would have been godwottery to pursue the oocephalus he admired so much. Although Mathilda might have been described as an ingenue back then, everybody knows she was always a real panjandrum at heart.
Gertruida can be such a pettifogger!