It started as another of those days.
As usual, Servaas woke up, groaned, held his throbbing head for a few minutes, sighed, got up (very slowly, holding on to the strategically placed chair to steady himself), brushed his false teeth and slicked down the obstinate hairs of his bushy brows. Then he dressed, had a mug of coffee (to wash down the aspirin) and went outside, crossed the street and sat down wearily on the old bench on Boggel’s verandah. And as usual, he looked up to the old clock on the church steeple to check the time every now and then. Up to that point, his daily routine was unchanged and pretty much normal.
Then he realised that he’d been sitting there for quite some time, but the hands of the clock still stood at a few minutes after twelve.
Twelve? The clock stopped just after midnight?
It couldn’t be, for goodness sakes! Judging by the sun (he had to squint because of his hangover), it should be about ten or eleven; Boggel should have been there long ago to open up the little bar. Looking up and down the street, he also noticed that Sammie hadn’t opened his shop either. And Vrede, the town’s dog, was nowhere to be seen.
Now, this posed a few rather uncomfortable questions to the old man. Where were everybody? He considered that they might have all overslept, but then a strange and unwelcome thought seeped to the surface of his painful and troubled mind. If they’re not around, waiting for Boggel, they could all be…dead? Suppose the rapture occurred and he, Servaas, didn’t make the grade? Midnight…it had happened at midnight! The thought made him sit up straighter.
Impossible! He had been an elder in Oudoom’s congregation since before Mandela was freed. And he even stopped shouting at the TV whenever the president spoke. (Truth be told: Gertruida warned him that such language would see him being sent downstairs when he meets St Peter). Well, maybe he hadn’t been a paragon of virtue, but still – his intentions were usually at least 60% good, weren’t they? In the old days, that used to be a first class pass. Not a distinction, mind you, but clearly way above the class average…
But why, then, the static hands of the clock? Is it not so that time would cease to exist when the world ends? No clocks in eternity, no sir! Pearly gates and sidewalks of gold, yes – but no clocks or watches or any form of chronometer would be necessary in Heaven. No need. Eternity means you’re never late.
But suppose – just suppose – he was late for the rapture? Or that he was forgotten? Who did one call under such circumstances?
And then again…Oudoom did speak to him last month. About his drinking. Oudoom was most kind about it, reminding him that an occasional tipple was quite alright, but that moderation was the hallmark of drinking discipline. And – Oudoom reminded him – he should remember that he was the senior member of the congregation; people looked up to him for guidance. “You are important to this congregation, Servaas; you are the example that the others follow.”
Well, that might be true, but…
Servaas tried to think about a good reason. Surely the other Rolbossers understood his loneliness? Excused his intake of Cactus Jack because he needed the drink to sleep? To escape from the terrible vacuum of solitude that crept into his life after Siena passed on?
And Siena…oh Lord! If he missed the rapture, Siena would be all alone up there – wherever up there might be – and she’d be profoundly ashamed that he missed the Salvation Bus. What would the other angels say if they knew her husband, a respected elder, had been left behind because of his habits?
Servaas got up and walked purposefully to the church. There’s only one way to protest against the situation. He’d go to the front pew, sink down on his arthritic knees, and beg for a second chance. Maybe the Second Coming is just that – the last chance to join the others.
Servaas never prays impulsively. He arranges his prayers the way they should be: first a salutation and praise; then thanks for being blessed with so much, followed by a request or two (or more, especially after another presidential speech); then more praise and a very respectful ‘Amen’. When he walked into the church, he had the words ready. He’d protest with great diplomacy – admitting that the second bottle of Cactus Jack last night was a mere little oversight, a small glitch in the way he was thinking at the time; and that Siena mustn’t think badly of him, please? Surely she’d understand that he wasn’t drinking to sin on purpose? He just took to taking a snort or two to dull the pain of solitude – and to make the politics of the day seem less important than getting to bed?
Servaas was holding on to the front pew to arrange his aged frame into a kneeling position when a voice spoke to him.
“Servaas? Servaas? Why, I didn’t expect to see you here today. It’s only Friday, you know. Service is only on Sunday, remember?”
Servaas felt a chill run through his body. Lost…he was lost. Protest wouldn’t help, but still he was at the point of saying it was all a terrible mistake and that he’d been left behind by accident, when he looked up…into the questioning eyes of Oudoom.
He gaped. “You too, Oudoom? They left you behind as well?”
Oudom smiled. “Ja, they did. I’m glad, too. That trip is no pleasure. It’s a long way and today is going to be another scorcher.”
Servaas didn’t understand. “Where we’re going, could be hotter still, Oudoom. I’m worried.”
“Nah, we’ll amble over to Boggel’s and have a cold one. He’s left the keys with me.”
Oudoom, Servaas realised, was much to cheerful for a left-behind. “You…you’re going to have a beer? On this day? Now? Despite everything?”
“Of course, Servaas. What else? With everybody gone, I’d like the company. Hate drinking alone, you know? It’s the first sign of slipping down that slippery slope to being a problem drinker.”
“But…what about the others? They drink as much as I do – and they’re not here anymore.”
Oudoom looked down at the worried face f his favourite elder. What was bothering the old man? He seemed so…confused?
“Look Servaas, they’ll be back this afternoon. The battery of the clock on the steeple needed replacing and Boggel had to stock up for the weekend. They all left before dawn and Vrede went along for the ride. I asked whether they’d like to take you along, but Sammie said you needed the sleep. But look, here’s the key. Let’s go, I’m rather thirsty.”
Oudoom often remarks that the ways of the Lord are mysterious.
They are indeed. Servaas stopped drinking that day. For a full hour he sat there, sipping his Sprite, while Oudoom enjoyed his lager. Then they listened to the news and the latest statement by the president.
“Mind if I have the usual, Oudoom? And get you a fresh one, while I’m at it? I’ll write it up on my tab.”
And so, life returned to normal in the little town of Rolbos. Tonight Boggel will peek at the clock on the steeple before announcing the last round. Servaas will be in a reflective mood, and tell everybody that nobody knows when the last round will be. He’ll get a few curious glances for that, but he’ll ignore it and smile at himself.
Ja, Siena will understand.
La Traviata by Giusseppe Verdi