Tag Archives: choices

Gertjie and the Inevitability Syndrome

20140916_083622_1st_500“That is one unhappy camper.” Vetfaan saunters over to the window for a better look. “It’s been a long time since I saw such a sad face…. It looks like Gertjie – that chap with the short fuse. We’d better watch out…”

That much, they all agree, is true. Gertjie – medium-sized, mousy hair, 5-day stubble and yesterday’s clothes – kills the rattling engine of the old Volkswagen and gets out. His drooping shoulders, mouth corners and arms tell a story as he turns slowly to face Boggel’s Place. After a moment he seems to come to a decision, straightens up a bit and walks over to the bar. At this, the patrons in Boggel’s rush back to the counter to discuss the weather.

A timid knock.

“Can you believe it?” Kleinpiet strides to the door and yanks it open. “Nobody knocks here, Gertjie. Come on in.”

“I…I really don’t want to.” Hesitant, soft, unsure. “I need a place to rest after…what happened. I was hoping to find a bed. A place to stay. For a while.”

Now, in a place like Rolbos, saying things like that is like telling children there is a circus in town. Gertruida is already lining up questions in her mind while Precilla – with a guilty sidelong glance at Kleinpiet – feels sorry for the man. Gertjie’s short-tempered reputation seems completely inappropriate as he shuffles in.

“No hotel in Rolbos, you should know that. Only cold beer. There is a guest house in Grootdrink, though. You must have passed it on your way here.” Boggel offers a beer, but the man shakes his head.

“N..no, thank you. Need water.” Nevertheless, he sighs heavily as he sits down mumbling: “No hotel. Typical.”

Gertruida (who else?) takes the lead. Telling Boggel to get a glass of cold water (an almost impossible request – nobody drinks water here) she sits down next to the man and introduces herself.

“Oh…sorry. I’m Gertjie Bosman. From Prieska. My dog is gone.”

“That’s a shame. We love dogs here. We’ve got Vrede.” At hearing his name, the town’s dog thumps his tail on the floor below the counter, where he naps on Boggel’s cushion. “I’m sorry.”

“Ja, it was the tractor. The tractor took him.”

“Didn’t they see him?”

“Not like that, it was dark. He was brown. And the flames weren’t as big then.”

“Flames?”

“At that stage it was only the barn.It was before….before the house, you see. The flames were small then.”

“Your barn and your house burnt down? That’s terrible.”

Gertjie sighs again and downs the water. “My wife has left me. On the tractor. It…it was the new one. Bought it only last year. Still have to pay back the loan. The bank will fry me.”

“Sounds like you’re fried already,” Vetfaan gets a nasty look from Gertruida, but Servaas has to concentrate hard to keep a straight face.

You can only test Gertruida’s patience that far before her curiosity takes over. “Maybe you should tell us what happened?”

The story gets told in bits and pieces. Gertjie used to be a successful farmer. Living with his wife on the piece of land he had inherited, he slowly built up the place and managed a sizable flock of sheep. Some chickens supplied eggs to the shop in town and the lucerne growing next to the small dam not only saw them through winter, but he could also sell some to his neighbours.

“We were happy, you know. Tess an me. Things were going our way.” Gertjie falls silent. “But we needed more water. To expand, you see? Water was the problem. The dam was enough for the lucerne and the sheep…but just. I reckoned that we needed another borehole and a cement dam – then we could support another hundred or so sheep.”

“Bigger is better,” Kleinpiet says.

“But it’s the money. Always the money. After the loan on the tractor, I didn’t want to dip deeper into debt.” He falls silent, shaking his head.

“And…?” Gertruida shifts about on her chair. This is exciting!

“I had to go to Upington. For supplies, understand? Had enough money for the stuff I needed to buy, a hamburger and a Coke. Worked it out nicely. The supplies weren’t the problem. It was the hamburger. The price had gone up since last I was in town. And they don’t sell half hamburgers. So I stood there at the counter and counted my money. They offered a toasted cheese, but I wanted a hamburger.”  Suddenly angry, he bangs a fist on the counter, apologising immediately.

“Damn it! After working so hard, a man should have a hamburger! No, they said, no hamburger. I didn’t have enough money. So I stormed out, see. Ashamed and angry. And I drove off. That’s when I saw the Oasis Casino. And the sign said they had a jackpot. A million Rand!” He drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Imagine what I could do with that? A deeper borehole, a new dam, and as many hamburgers as I like! So I turned in there and went in.”

By now, even Vrede is listening.

“I stood in a queue for that machine. Everybody was losing their money – everybody. And I thought that was a good thing, because they were increasing my chances. Eventually, the chap in front of me said something ugly as the machine swallowed his last coins and left. It was my turn. I had nineteen Rand. Pulled that lever eighteen times, I did. Nothing. Then I put in my last coin. Pulled the lever. And four sevens lined themselves up neatly on the line.

“I jumped up and shouted hallelujah! And then the power went off. The whole place was dark. Later they said it was load shedding. When the generator kicked in, all the machines rebooted. No more four sevens.

“I made a hell of a fuss. The floor manager said there was nothing he could do. If it wasn’t on the machine, I had no proof. I shouted at him. Told him he was a nasty man. And they tried to throw me out. Just like that. Disturbing the peace, they said. Unruly behaviour. They called the cops when I refused to go.

“Didn’t have a choice, did I? Had to leave in a hurry, or spend the night in jail. So I raced back to the farm. I don’t know how I got there, I was so angry. And I looked at the electricity pole next to the barn. It was them! The electricity people. Escom! They cheated me out of a fortune. I walked over to that pole and kicked it. Almost broke my foot, but the pole didn’t feel a thing. So I told the pole I’d show him and fetched and axe.”

“And burnt down your farm?”

“No.” The man drooped even more. “When I looked for the axe, I had to hobble over to the shed, where we kept the firewood. That’s when I saw them.”

“Them?” The group at the counter chorussed.

“Ja. Japie Verster, my neighbour. Him and Tess. In the shed. My blood was still up, understand? What were they doing in there? I stormed at him and whacked him a solid blow to the jaw. Tess screamed at me, but I paid her no heed. Whacked him some more until Tess bopped me one with the spade. Right over here.” He parted his hair at the back of the skull, where an impressive lump was visible.

“Tess was still shouting at me, but Japie took off like lightning towards the barn. I followed. There was lucerne – bales and bales of it – stacked in the barn. I knew he was hiding somewhere.” Gertjie swallows hard. “So I started looking, but it was dark in the barn. Lit the lamp and looked some more. Put the lamp on a bale and told him to come out and fight like a man.”

“Was he there?”

“I don’t know. I was dancing around, showing him that I know something about boxing. I was practicing my uppercut when I bumped the lamp from the bale. Tess stormed in, got on the tractor and drove off while I was trying to put out the flames.” A soft sob. “Rover – my dog – went with her.”

***

Gertruida says Life works like that. A simple thing – like the price of a hamburger – could be the start of a series of unforeseen events that is totally out of proportion to the initial issue. She calls it the Inevitability Syndrome.

“It happens everywhere, guys. Something seemingly insignificant crosses your path and you decide: ‘Mmm…maybe it’s not a bad idea‘. And you make a choice, only to find that it leads to another decision and another decision…and another decision. And every time you decide, it leads you deeper into trouble. And then, when you wake up at last, you can’t get out of it any longer. You are stuck with the result of a series of bad decisions and now you’ll have to live with the consequences.

“This happens to all of us – even with friends and with family. Decisions determine the way we see people – it tells us who they are – and sometimes that’s the key that locks a door forever. Not avoidable…inevitable. “

Boggel says that is true. Gertjie burnt his farm down because he wanted a hamburger. And he never bothered to ask Tess why she and Japie were in the shed when he got home. How was he to know that Japie, too, needed and ax after his one snapped its handle that fateful morning?

But, Kleinpiet says, that’s nothing. Gertjie’s insurance will pay out. Tess might want to return with Rover if Gertjie plays his cards right. But…our president? Did he consider carefully what his friendship with Eastern businessmen would lead to? Or that the architect’s suggestion of golden taps in Nkandla would cost him the respect of the country in the end?

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, Gertruida says, and it would have been nice if the Inevitability Syndrome postponed the lasting consequences of bad decisions until after death. It doesn’t. The skeletons of some burnt barns – and bridges – are just too visible to ignore…

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To eternity…and back (#5)

_old_man's_hands_crutchServaas couldn’t bear to look up. He heard Gertruida say good afternoon to somebody and recognised Vetfaan’s subdued voice, but it was as if everything froze and time stood still for a while. Although the room was stuffy and warm – summer in the northern Cape  is never cool – he shivered as a chill ran through his body. Gertruida, what have you done…?

Then, almost in slow motion, he allowed his gaze to travel to the man standing next to Vetfaan – Shorty de Lange, the man he last saw in 1970.

Yes, it was Shorty alright. Tall, still athletic despite the years, the same handsome face although it gathered the wrinkles and lines associated with the passage of years. Servaas noted – with cynical satisfaction – the slight paunch, the mild stoop, the cane and the gnarly hands of arthritis. Nobody escapes the ravages of age, he thought, not even Shorty.

His overwhelming experience at that point was a mixture of fear, revulsion, guilt and an infantile desire to pull the blankets over his head in the hope everything will be alright by the time he reemerged.

“Hi, Servie.”

Servie. His old army nickname. He hadn’t heard it in decades. He managed to croak a reply of sorts. Then, gathering his bushy brows together, he closed his eyes firmly.

“Servaas, I brought Shorty to see you.” Vetfaan’s remark, superfluous as it was, as he tried to break the ice.

“I…I…don’t want to…” The rebellion in Servaas’s mind was obvious. Why did Vetfaan and Gertruida bring this man there, at that point, when he least expected – and needed – to be reminded of those terrible moments when he lost control and almost killed somebody he’d have described as a friend before?

“It’s a choice.” Shorty interrupted in a quiet voice. When Servaas closed his mouth so firmly that his dentures clicked upon themselves, Shorty launched into a monotone that touched them all.

“You may choose to ignore me, Servie, and I’ll understand. But let me tell you about choices, and maybe my being here will make some sense.

“You see, Servie, I made a choice that evening before you beat me up. A bad choice. And let me tell you, that was only one of the many bad choices I made in my life. Had I listened to you, my life would have been…different.

“Sure, you gave me a proper hiding. I deserved that, even if I didn’t think so at the time. I was conceited and self-righteous to the point where I called you a wet rag and secretly poked fun at your narrow-minded approach to life behind your back. But, what goes around, comes around. Choices have consequences. Let me tell you…”

***

When Shorty de Lange was discharged from hospital, he moved in with the beautiful young student he had met on that fateful evening before he and Servaas had the fight. She had visited him frequently in hospital, oozing sympathy and bringing little presents. On the day before his discharge, she told him she was pregnant.

“My world started to implode right there. I mean; one night with her, one careless fling, and suddenly everything changed. Her father turned out to be this conceited and overbearing minister in the church, a man with strong connections with the government. He arranged my transfer to a desk job in Voortrekkerhoogte, made the complaints against me – for the damage we had done to the barracks — disappear, and demanded that all the blame be put on you, Servie. Then he insisted that I marry his daughter. I didn’t know it at the time, but  that’s where my hell started.”

His newly-wed wife, Hester, seemed to blame him for everything – the pregnancy, the fact that she had to drop out of university, the small flat they had to stay in, even the way her once-shapely body adapted to the baby she was carrying.

“Most evenings ended in a shouting match. Then the baby was born…”

Baby Jacobus had a chromosomal defect – . Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease. The condition, Shorty told them in a hesitant, hushed tone, is characterised by spasticity, blindness and retarded mental development.

“Even now, I cannot bring myself to describe the shock to you. It was…overwhelming…

“You’ll never understand what it is like to take care of such a baby. Doctors, physiotherapists, medicines, constant – every second of every day – care and attention.

“Well, the good reverend distanced himself from his grandson, saying the most horrible things about the wages of sin. Hester held out for a year, then the situation became too much for her. Psychologists and psychiatrists didn’t help much. Our little flat had pills and medicines everywhere! For the baby, for her…and for me. When she suggested a divorce, I was only too happy to go along with it. One less thing to worry about, see? It was completely out of the question to allow her custody of the baby – there was no way she could take care of him.

“So, there I was, stuck in a stupid little flat with an abnormal baby. The only good thing the reverend grandfather did, was to obtain my discharge from the army and arrange work for me at a research facility  near Roodeplaat dam. At least they provided a house on the premises and I could afford to employ a nurse to help look after the baby.”

platRoodeplaat Research Laboratories did biological research – of the warfare type. Shorty’s job involved – amongst other duties – caring for a pond filled with frogs. The African Clawed Frog (Xenopus or platanna) is commonly used as  a source for fast-growing, large cells, making them ideal for biological research.

“Those frogs were a nightmare. I was responsible for breeding enough specimens to keep up with the laboratory’s demands and had to identify the females who produced the most eggs. I tried tagging them with bits of plastic, but that didn’t last. That’s when I started working on an idea to implant a small transponder under the skin and to develop an scanner to identify individuals.”

Shorty reminded them that he had an accounting background – another strangely humorously cynical coincidence.

“I had become a bookkeeper of frogs! Because of the ultrasecret nature of the research, my official job description was, indeed, that of an accountant. So there I was, looking after frogs in the daytime and taking care of my baby at night.” Shorty allowed a sad smile at that point. “In both cases, the level of intelligence was about the same…”

Baby Jacobus slowly deteriorated, requiring more and more attention. His spasticity and regular seizures progressed to the point where it was virtually impossible to care for him at home, but at that stage there were virtually no facilities to care for the needs of such children. The few that could, were prohibitively expensive.

The years rolled by and eventually Roodeplaat had to lay off most of its workforce as many of the projects had no bearing on the course of the Nationalists’ war against terrorism any longer. In the late 80’s, Shorty was a jobless father of a severely ill young boy.

“My life, you see, was an  endless struggle to make ends meet, take care of little Jacobus and simply surviving  – there was no time for socialising at all. That day, when I drove out of the gates of Roodeplaat for the last time, I was destitute. I had nowhere to go at all, no idea what to do.”

On the way back to Pretoria,  baby Jacobus had another of his seizures – only this one didn’t pass like previous ones did.. Shorty knew he had to get help, and get it fast. He raced to the HF Verwoerd Hospital, where the frail and dying boy was admitted to the paediatric unit.

“I left him there. Spent my first night alone since our fight in the barracks in the parking lot in front of the Union Buildings, crying, praying…and fighting with God. Why did He punish me so much? What did I do to deserve all this?

“And He gave me an answer. The word that came up in my mind that night, was ‘Choices’. I wasn’t being punished, you see? I was living the consequences of my own choices. My choice to ignore your admonishment that evening after the movie, determined the course of my life. Had I listened to you and went back to the barracks, i could have had a happy life. But I didn’t, did I…?”

***

Servaas listened to Shorty – at first with downcast eyes and wringing hands, later in silent sympathy. Then, when Shorty paused to dab his eyes, he spoke up for the first time.

“And then, Shorty?”

Shorty looked up sharply, blinking.

“I had to make another choice…”

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#4)

caregiverhandsFor a while after Gertruida had left, nurse Botha thought that Servaas suffered a relapse. The old man sat upright in his bed, staring into the distance with a completely vacant look. She approached the old man cautiously to fold her hands around his shrivelled hand, ever so gently. To her surprise, he started crying.

“I…I’m sorry, nursie. I just don’t know what to do.”

She sat there, listening to his account of his conversation with Gertruida, nodding as if she understood. Some people are natural listeners, making it easy to impart even the most painful thoughts. Nurse Botha was just such a person. She was neither old nor young, in between overweight and chubby and had the soft eyes of a Labrador. The words tumbled from her patient in an unstoppable torrent until at last he sank back in his cushion with the most distraught and fatigued look. She never interrupted, never asked a single question, knowing he had to hear himself  tell his story to work through this thing.

“So…you think you had this dream about Shorty de Lange for a reason?”

“Y-yes. I…I suppose so. It was too real to ignore and yet it sounds so stupid to take it seriously.”

“And yet you had this near-death experience, didn’t you? Did you take that seriously?”

Servaas blinked. “I did…I do, I mean. Yes. Siena was there, I’m sure. And something…more.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t hesitate to do the same with the dream? I mean, what harm can there be to find out where this…Shorty is? Maybe he’s dead already, and you’re worrying all in vain.”

The old man’s face brightened. He hadn’t thought about that! “But how do you go about finding somebody you last saw half a century ago? I don’t know where to begin.”

“Well, Oom Servaas, I might just be able to assist you with that.”

***

Wilhelm Röntgen's X-ray of Anna Bertha's - his wife - hand. 1895

Wilhelm Röntgen’s first X-ray. Anna Bertha’s – his wife’s – hand. 1895

Coincidence? Fate? Chance? Serendipity? Divine intervention…or divine planning? History is littered with hard-to-explain coincidental discoveries, ranging from penicillin, Viagra, anaesthesia, LSD, the microwave oven and – of course – X-rays. Even Alfred Nobel’s discovery of dynamite was the result of an accidental observation. Although mankind often benefitted from these ‘lucky’ incidents, we must also remember the iceberg that sunk the Titanic or the Curse of Tutankhamun which apparently killed Lord Carnarvon.

Still, the fact that portly nurse Botha had a brother working in the military archives in Pretoria could be considered a stroke of good luck – or an improbable inevitability in the strange set of events surrounding Servaas’s illness  during his stay in hospital.

Within an hour of her telephone call, Herman Botha reported that Jakob Arnoldus de Lange finished his stint as conscripted soldier in 1972, did the obligatory yearly call-up duties until 1986, and then was discharged from any further service. No, he didn’t know his present whereabouts, but he did supply the next link in the chain: the man’s ID number.

Enter Gertruida, our dear know-it-all with her contacts amongst the small but select group of people involved with the intelligence community. The ID number was  given to a retired colonel in the erstwhile National Intelligence, whose  son happened to be a professor in Computer Sciences (cost: 1 bottle of brandy and the promise of Kalahari biltong). and so the hacked records of the Office of Home Affairs supplied an address.

Much to everybody’s surprise, Shorty de Lange’s home address was a smallholding near Prieska, the town he used to represent as flanker on the rugby field.

***

“You mean you found out all that in the matter of about twelve hours?”

Gertruida stared at her shoes for a moment, slightly embarrassed. “Um…yes. I’m sorry it took so long..”

Servaas laughed at this – his first bit of mirth since his chat with matron Krotz dumped them both under a cloud of depression. Matron, by the way, had not reported for work that day; the first time – ever- she had missed a day on duty. Nurse Botha tried to phone, got no answer, and promised herself to visit her stern and unapproachable boss after her shift was over.

“I’ve thought about it.” Servaas sounded the way he looked: completely defeated. He didn’t want to be reminded of the one time he felt as if the devil had taken over his soul and he beat a friend to pulp. During the sleepless night after Gertruida had left the previous afternoon, he had forced himself to relive that incident. In the early morning hours he decided that his religious conviction had been the result of fear (that he might have such an ‘attack’ again) coupled with guilt (that he acted like a complete and demonic lunatic). Did Christ not heal such men through faith? Yes, he decided, Christ did; but he – Servaas – had used his faith as selfish protection against himself. He shielded behind religion to prove to others how righteous he was. That convoluted argument did absolutely nothing to improve his mood. “And I’ll have to see the man as soon as I’m better. Doctor Welman said my recovery will take several months. Maybe after that…”

“No, Servaas.” Gertruida – who knows everything – used her stern voice. “This thing is going to do more harm if you keep on postponing it. It’s not going to go away.You are obviously upset about meeting Shorty, and I understand that. You’re not, however, going to forget about it while you’re recovering. You’ve managed to bury the incident with Shorty under a layer of time – and had you not had that dream, you might well have lived out your life in denial. I don’t know why you had the dream, Servaas, but I think it’s the best thing to come out of all this.” She swept a hand towards the chart on the wall, showing his vital signs and progress. Seeing Servaas’s distress, she sits down on the bed next to him. “I need you to relax now. Breathe deeply and let go of the feelings of fear and guilt. Promise me that.”

“O-okay.” Hesitant, unsure.

“Okay then. Now I must ask you to prepare yourself. I sent Vetfaan to talk to Shorty. I expect them any moment now.”

Servaas’s eyes opened wide, his breathing shallow. “No! For goodness’ sakes, Gertruida. You can’t do this to me! I’m a sick man! I’m not ready, not ready at all!”

Nurse Botha entered the room with an uncertain smile. Her soft brown eyes took in the scene before she shot Gertruida an accusing look.

“I…um…well, the gentlemen are here. Shall I send them in?”

At that moment the door swung open.

Servaas closed his eyes in desperate prayer. Please, Lord, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me…

(To be continued…)

The Grain of Sand at Midnight

6021415053_58b80f448b“It’s a fallacy,” Gertruida says because she knows everything, “to talk about midnight. Nobody knows when – exactly – that is.”

A statement such as this is usually met with various nods and understanding looks, simply because you don’t argue with Gertruida. It is far better to lift you glass and toast her wisdom, than to start a debate. But Servaas, who still relies on his old Westclox (the one Siena gave him on their first anniversary), feels compelled to say something.

“It’s when the short arm and the long one both point north,” he says. “Everybody knows that.”

“That’s far too crude to be accurate, Servaas. The hands on that clock stay together for too long. Have you timed it? It takes about twelve seconds before you can see the hour-hand move. Even if you watched it closely, you can’t pinpoint the exact moment when the new day starts and the old one ends.”

“But I have a radio, Gertruida! And that Westclox runs on time, I can tell you. When the beeps for the seven o’clock news sound, that alarm clock agrees: it is exactly seven. Siena always checked it, now I do too.” He hesitates for a second, unsure whether he should continue the argument. “Anyway, since you got that new-fangled watch with the electronic numbers, you seem obsessed with time. Obviously you think that thing is more accurate than the old Westclox.”

‘It’s not that, Servaas,” This time, Gertruida is the one who pauses. “It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Well, I got to thinking about change, you see? One moment you feel this way, the next you change your mind…”

“Nt me, Getruida. That’s a woman-thing.”

She ignores the remark. “Everybody does that. It’s sometimes a conscious decision. Shall I buy a bread today? Must I go to church? May I have another beer?…And sometimes you don’t even know you made the decision, like when you slap a mosquito.”

She smiles, her point made. Yes, Servaas nods, one moment you’re faced with a situation, the next you’ve made the choice.

“That’s what I mean about midnight. Between the tick and the tock lies a thousand microseconds. Which one is the right one? And that’s what set me thinking about choices and change. Every day – in our minds – we throw the switch, chuck out the old and start with the new. And it’s not just about time, Servaas. It’s about the how and the why I’ve been thinking,

“You see, a clock has no choice in the act of ticking, provided it’s properly wound up. In our minds, however, the process of decision-making is a deliberate thing. We can decide whether we stay in a certain mode, or change to something new. But even if we decide not to change, that is change in itself? Don’t you see? Nothing remains constant – so if one decides to remain as is, that’s a change – because you stopped the process of progress. You would have ended up in a different situation if you decided otherwise.” She ignores the puzzled looks. ” And that, my friend, happens between the tick and the tock. I’m simply wondering how – and exactly why and when – that happens.”

This is far too deep for the group at the bar. Vetfaan tries to change the subject by expressing his dismay at the way the Malaysian aeroplane was shot down.

“There’s another example!” Gertruida isn’t finished. “An aeroplane crosses the sky. One moment the guy with his finger on the firing button isn’t a murderer, the next he is. He crossed his midnight and now he’ll never be able to return to yesterday.”

“Gertruida!” Kleinpiet throws up his hands in exasperation. “Good grief, woman! This is Boggel’s Place, not the Royal Society of Philosphers, Psychiatrists and Politiians. How on earth do you expect us to follow your reasoning? It’s unfair, to say the least.”

Boggel serves another round. “It’s like a scale, guys. Just before midnight, the scale is in perfect balance. Then a grain of sand – perhaps a very, very small one – is added to the one side. Now it tips to one side, the balance disturbed. That’s what Gertruida is trying to say…I think.”

She flashes him a grateful smile. “Yes, Boggel. I want to know what that grain of sand is and why it gets added to the scale. It’s just a simple thought, really. Didn’t want to start an argument.”

She almost sounds believable.

“Our history is determined by decisions. Between the ticks and the tocks of your old Westclox, Servaas, lies the determination of what we are and where we go. We live in troubled times – but who causes these troubles? I’ll tell you: men and women who cross a threshold, changes from yesterday to today, passes the midnight of indecision…and then comes to a conclusion.

“Take the strikes in our mining industry. Somebody made that decision. Hamas attacks Israel and Israel retaliates – who crossed that midnight-moment? Syria, Congo, Sudan…all the result of decisions some people made. One moment they considered peace, the next they rejected it.  Religious and ethnic conflict? It’s all due to a single moment when the grain of sand causes the scale to tip one way or the other.”

Once again her comments are digested with that faraway look farmers get when they wonder what this year’s wool-cheque is going to look like. But, because they like Gertruida so much, one or two nod to show her they’re listening.

“God created Time, Gertruida, to allow us to think.” Oudoom tries to contribute to the convoluted conversation. “Without Time, we simply cannot think, and therefore we cannot change. So, the way I see it, is that Time and Change are blood-brothers. You can’t have the one without the other. And right in between them – Time and Change – you have the grain of sand called Choice. Sometimes it takes a long while before the scale dips to one side, but it is due to Choice that it does so. In contrast to Servaas’ Westclox, we have a choice about Change. Left or right? Up or down? Yes or no? Love…or hate?” The old clergyman sighs. “The exact moment of midnight, Gertruida, is when we consider a thought that changes our ways. This can be good or bad. Evil or not. And that choice is the weight that tips the scale.”

“So,” Vetfaan says with a sardonic grin, “the answer is to make no choices? Leave everything just as it is?”

“That, my friend is impossible. The very nature of life – and of each one of our lives – is based on choice…and change. We can’t control time, but we can control the grain of sand we place on the scale. We, each of us, pass many midnights between past and future every second of our lives. We hold the bag of sand and we have to place it either on the right – or the left – of the scale as we go along. And that, Vetfaan is the way it works.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “Every decision? Every moment?”

“Yes, Vetfaan, every one of them.”

“Then, my grain of sand says I have to order another beer.”

They laugh at that. Maybe it’s relief that something funny has been said, or simply the fact that the burden of carrying that grain of sand can be a very weighty load to transport around. Perhaps, too, they think back on the midnights they have all had, and the choices to place those grains of sand on the scale.

Precilla wipes away a tear as she remembers her affair with Richard, and the way it all ended so tragically. Yes, she made a choice – the wrong one – and she’ll regret that for the rest of her life. What would have happened if she refused his advances in the beginning?

As if reading her mind, Gertruida pats her shoulder.

“It’s not about yesterday, Precilla. Once you’ve passed midnight, it’s gone…forever. Then you are in charge again, facing that scale with your grain of sand. That’s the point. We live, we learn, we become wiser. And we all make mistakes. Some midnights – or some pivotal moments – are crucial in determining the way the day will play out. And if we place that grain of sand carefully, we can sit back and await the dawn.”

***

Rolbos – or Life – can be such a barrel of laughs at times. Then, sometimes, the little bar in the town falls silent whenever Gertruida  forces the group to be serious for a change. Vetfaan says she’s such a wet rag when she does this, but it’s Oudoom – who’s seen so much – who’ll tell you how important it is to wait between the tick and the tock, to take a deep breath right then, and place the grain of sand just right.

But then, too, the patrons in Boggel’s Place have a lot to be thankful for. Gertruida could have started the discussion with Fernando Pessoa’s quote: “My past is everything I failed to be.” One can only imagine the profound silence that would have greeted that statement.

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 16)

Big-Baobab-bar-South-African-Toursim4-537x358A good story – well told – doesn’t only consist of words arranged in a specific manner. No, Gertruida says, words are just letters spelling out thoughts, with a few commas and full stops added to make it easier to read. A really good story, she says, transports the reader – or the listener – to imaginary places. It creates people, events, emotion. Only then, according to Gertruida, can a story approach greatness. Creating a story, she says, starts with the storyteller and ends with his audience – almost like a Tango, it involves two heads and one heart.

When Gertruida takes her time describing the cave-in-the-tree, she tells of the way Lettie turned it into a home-of-sorts: a one-roomed dwelling with a bed on a mattress of grass, a kitchenette with a Primus stove and their only pot (everything got done in it: stews, coffee, bread) and even their meagre possessions she hung on the ‘walls’.  If Vetfaan had been an attentive listener, he would have been able to look through the ‘door’ of the cave, out over the Kalahari, and maybe he would even have imagined the place where the ‘garden’ should be, some distance off. But of course the burly man isn’t interested in the interior decorating of a hollow Baobab tree – he wants to know whether they found treasure in the Lost City…

***

“So, now you have a pointer, Gert. Remember that passage? He … walked out to the garden. Here He met some of His friends and family, who mistook Him for the gardener. And verily, He walketh towards the sun for an hour and a half, and He came upon the Apostles. That makes it easy, doesn’t it?”

“I hope so.” Gert sat in the mouth of the tree-cave, staring in the direction of the fountain. “Straight that-a-way, get to the garden, walk for an hour and a half to the east – or the west,  and find the ‘Apostles’. Shouldn’t be that difficult. We’ll go tomorrow.”

Baobab fruit with seeds

Baobab fruit with seeds

That night they celebrated. Lettie baked a bread with some of their precious flour, using the cream of tartar on the Baobab seeds as a raising agent. They’ve taken to roasting the pips to make coffee, and the leaves of the tree substituted quite nicely for spinach. Gert told Lettie that he was going to try fermenting the fruit of the tree, which made her laugh, saying that was all they needed, thank you.

“You know, I’d give my left pinkie for a red, juicy, fresh, ripe tomato right now. Ooohhh..how lovely that would be.”

And Gert, who loved Lettie with all his heart, smiled and said that might just be arranged, if she had a little patience.

***

“At bloody last. The tomatoes!” Vetfaan jumps up – a little unsteadily – to raise his glass. “So they lived happily ever after?”

“You know, Vetfaan, sometimes I think you’re such a bafoon?” Shaking her head, Gertruida tells him to sit down. “How does Fanny manage to handle you when you’re in this mood?”

“She will never allow me to heckle her like this,” he smiles shyly, ” I tried it once. Had to sleep in the garage for a week. Wasn’t nice.”

“Well then…” She sighs and waits for Vetfaan to sit down again. “Instead of searching for the apostles the next day, Gert carefully removed the tomato seed his great-great grandfather had stuck to the page next to the passage of the mustard seed.”

Here, Gertruida discovers a new aspect of storytelling. Oh, how she’d love to elaborate on the tomato seed! What started out as a discussion (almost an argument) on the island of St Helena, has now (generations later) finally become proof of the old man’s faith. You see, she’d like to tell Vetfaan, how short-sighted we are? We want reasons for everything, and we want them almost immediately. Now, old man Smit could never have guessed that the little seed he had stolen from the kitchen would eventually play a role in the life of his great-great grandchild. Wouldn’t it be great, she wanted to ask, if we realised that every act of faith will be rewarded – and also had the patience to allow the future to take care of that reward?

But Gertruida knows Vetfaan all too well, so she simply continues the story, a bit saddened that he’d never grasp the deeper meaning of what happened on that hill in the Kalahari.

***

Gert fetched the Bible, and together they opened the of school exercise book with it’s 75 pages. This Bible belongs to Gerhardus Hyronimus Smit, written on the cover. Gert wasn’t to know that the old man preferred his second name because it sounded so important; but that his family and friends stuck to ‘Gert’, simply because it was an Afrikaner name and rolled easily off the tongue. Apparently it was The Great Farini who convinced him that a man’s name was important. Look at me, he could have said, as Mr Hunt I was nobody…but Farini – The Great Farini – now has taken me around the world!

“Here, my love, we have the beginning of our vegetable garden.” Gert found the place where the seed was stuck and carefully pried it loose. “Tomorrow we’ll plant this. I’ll find some thorny branches, and build a shelter for the plant to keep the animals away. I’m not sure if the seed will grow after all these years, but let’s give it a chance? Let’s try?”

The next morning they prepared a small patch of ground next to the little ‘river’, said as little prayer over the seed, and stuck it into the ground. Then Gert cut branches from the stunted trees in the area to build a little protective ‘hut’ over the new garden. It wasn’t much. But then, most dreams start small, don’t they? And like dreams, the seed needed protection to reach maturity.

***

“Then they started the search for the apostles – not knowing exactly what they were looking for. Taking the direction by aligning the tree-cave with the garden, they set off into the desert. It wasn’t easy… The answer lay either to the east or the west, but which?

“This Vetfaan, is an important point: the choices we face in Life are often positioned as opposites. Black or white. Capitalist or communist. Love or hate. Acceptance or rejection. Oh, we try to make compromises and find a middle road, and that’s okay…but in the end we veer off to one or the other side.

“That’s why I like the east-west confusion here. Should they walk towards the start of the day, or to the end? In my mind, it’s a metaphor of living. One choice has a promise of discovery, the other only and endless horizon of search and suffering.

“Gert and Lettie knew – like we all do – that it’s only by exploring the possibilities that we can decide which way is the right way.”

She’s right, of course (as always). A story may have many endings, and it sometimes requires a miracle to be a happy one.