“When I turned sixteen, I received my call-up instructions for the army.” Vetfaan sips his beer, smiling at the memory. “Man, was I proud! I had barely started shaving and my country needed me already! I still had to finish school, though. Couldn’t wait to go.”
“Ja, I remember those days.The war had just started and the newspapers bombarded us with bad news. Terrorism this and unrest that. They really did a good job of deceiving an entire nation, especially later when the media painted such a rosy future in the 90’s. First they told us how bad majority rule would be, then they switched around completely and convinced everybody that our troubles were over.”
“Just goes to show, Gertruida, that public opinion is a fickle thing. Today’s heroes are tomorrow’s villains.” Shrugging as if to get rid of an unwanted weight off his shoulders, Servaas continues: “Whatever happened to common sense? Look at us today: some still believe everything will be fine.”
“But that’s the magic of being sixteen, Servaas. You’re old enough to start thinking for yourself, but far too young to understand. It’s a sort-of inbetween age when it’s still possible to believe in miracles. Kids have more hopes than fears while they can still dream reality away.” Gertruida closes her eyes to imagine that time of her life. “Oh, I dreamed big, didn’t I? The perfect picture: a handsome husband, a pair of kids, the Labrador and the white picket fence…the picture of utopia. I imagined what it would be like to be a pretty student with a wardrobe of sexy dresses – and how I’d pick and choose amongst a troupe of would-be suitors to go on exciting dates in the big city. Yes, and busses! Remember those old red doubledeckers? That was my fantasy. We had nothing like that in the small town I grew up in…”
“We all had dreams.” Servaas knits his brows together. “That’s what you do at sixteen. You dream, because you have no idea of reality. Up till then you were a child, cared for by parents.” He stops suddenly, remembering Boggel’s early years in the orphanage.”Except you, Boggel, of course. You had it much harder.”
“Oh, I dreamed a lot, as well. Remember Mary Mitchell? Oh, I adored that girl! She made me dream of much more than a Labrador.” He flashes a shy, wobbly smile at the group at the counter; knowing they had such thoughts too, when they were that age. Boggel remembers Mary’s sad eyes, the way she smiled…and the shapely legs peeking from under the school uniform (which was always a size too small). “But, despite everything that happened during the intervening years, I still remember those days as the happiest in my life.”
They fall silent at that. Yes, sixteen is a sweet, sweet age. How they all cherish the memory of the uncomplicated time when nothing was ever serious enough to keep you awake at night. Nothing, of course, except the first fluttering awareness of love? In the real world, adults struggled with politics, the economy and war – but at sixteen this didn’t concern them in the least. Those issues were just too abstract to worry about. But that strange attraction, the allure, of finding somebody to love? Now that was a goal worth pursuing! And then…oh, the bliss!…of being loved! To belong… Ah yes, at sixteen they all dreamed; they all believed that love would find its way and that they’d live happily ever after.
“But it didn’t happen, did it?” Servaas breaks the reverie, voicing the unsaid thoughts of the group in the bar. “I mean, Life happened, didn’t it? The dreams of sixteen turned into the nightmare of reality. We all loved…and lost. The war came to an end and it only changed things for the worse. And we still don’t understand politics…or the economy.”
“Ja, if I were to meet a genie, I’d ask that life stays the way we saw it at sixteen.” Vetfaan’s wry smile underlines the irony in his voice. He starts humming To Dream the Impossible Dream.
“No, thank you.” Gertruida shakes her head. “That would be stupid. At sixteen we didn’t have the tools to understand love or life. My gosh, even at twenty – no, thirty – people like to think they’re grown-ups! And we all know that’s not true.” She raises an inquiring eyebrow. “When do we make the most disastrous mistakes in life? Hey? Come on, think about it. It’s in the time we want it all – the dog, the picket fence and the perfect life.” She pauses to allow the idea to sink in. “Life is a funny old thing: when you think you have all the answers, you end up with broken dreams. No, my friends, Life demands more than dreams – that’s why we make less and less mistakes as we get older. It’s called experience. And you know what that is? Experience is the mistakes you made in the past. And that, unfortunately, means you have to let go of sixteen and reach for fifty.”
“And in the meantime? Between sixteen and fifty? What do you do with those years?”
“You grow up, Servaas. You make mistakes. You believe what the media tells you. You go about trusting people. You desperately cling to the concept of an ideal family. You try to convince yourself that your children won’t make the same mistakes you did. You invest money and effort in silly stuff that never works out. You try to keep the dream alive…and then, finally, you let go. You reach the point – at last – where you have enough experience of failure to start understanding what success means.”
“And what, dear Gertruida, is your definition of success?” The sarcasm drips from Servaas’ wrds.
“Oh, that’s simple, really. Success is acceptance. You are who you are. Life is unfair. Love is rare. Trust is mostly an illusion.And, above all, success is the ability to use your mistakes as hard-earned fertiliser to grow a meagre crop of happiness – not too much, but enough to be content.”
“Still, I’d like to be sixteen again.” Precilla sighs at the thought. “But only if I knew what I know now.”
“That,” Vetfaan says is a moment of clarity, “would take away the magic. No, you have to experience the naivety of sixteen to understand what life is not about…”
Sometimes Vetfaan surprises Gertruida with remarks like these. Even she, the wisest of them all, has no return on his statement. She ends the conversation with a decisive nod, gets up and walks to her home. The lines on her face is more pronounced as she sits down on her porch, enjoying the solitude of the midday silence. Yes, sixteen was good. It is a milestone on a long, long path to understanding that the candles on the cake must be blown out before one can embrace the darkness of reality.
Such a pity.
But, then again, that’s life