Tag Archives: love

There is no excuse. None at all…

Leslie-and-May-Lemke1

Leslie and May Lemke

“Sometimes,” Gertruida says after switching off the radio, “we are just too keen on wallowing about in self pity.” She’s been harping about this lately, especially whenever Servaas gets going about politics. “Look, we’re still living in a wonderful country. Yes, we can moan and groan about students burning art and defacing statues, but what about the real people of South Africa? Granted, we have our fair share of scoundrels, crooks and other governmental officials, but we also have good, peace loving and kind compatriots who are only trying to make things work – for all of us.”

“Blah blah blah, Gertruida.” In his usual bad mood, Servaas isn’t taking this lying down. “We’re stumbling about in the dark, hoping against hope that things will improve.”

The remark seems to stem Gertruida’s flow of thoughts.

“Stumbling about in the dark? Hope? Mmmm.”

Now everybody knows how kantankerous Gertruida gets when you disagree with her. It’s an invitation to a verbal brawl where there can be only one winner.

“Ever heard about Leslie Lemke, Servaas? Tell me, have you?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Of course not. Your world stops at the end of Voortrekker Weg. You live – quite happily, I might add – in your own little bubble where you only think about yourself and all the trouble surrounding you. Now, let me tell you….”

***

Leslie Lemke was born prematurely in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1952.The doctors and nurses – even his own parents – soon gave up hope for the tiny infant. As a result of his complicated birth, he was spastic and had severe retinal problems. Glaucoma developed. He was also obviously mentally challenged. And then, as was done in those days, the already blind child’s eyes were removed within the first month of his life to ease his discomfort.

His parents just couldn’t take care of him.What to do? They gave him up for adoption…

Enter May Lemke, the petite nurse in the district. After being approached, she immediately took the baby under her care. A deeply religious woman and the epitome of love and hope, she took care of the helpless boy, despite the massive obstacles in their way. While everybody expected the child to die, May fed him and stroked his neck to make him swallow. She spent hours and hours trying to get his unwilling legs to move properly, hoping he’d be able to walk one day. She sang to him, played music for him…and prayed.

Eventually it became clear that the boy could talk – but he simply repeated the sounds of the words and May wasn’t sure that he actually understood what he was saying. Feeding remained a problem, movement was arduous and hesitant, and his quality of life far below zero.

But May refused to give in. At the age of seven, she bought a piano; hoping that the sound of music would have some influence on his slow development. For seven years she plinked and plonked the notes while the blind child listened and sometimes tried to find the right note with the right sound, to follow his foster mother’s example.

Leslie turned fourteen. The years ahead stretched out with insurmountable challenges. Leslie, blind and retarded, had no future.

They watched TV at night – or rather – May did and Leslie sat there, impassively, listening. He did like music though, and one night they listened to a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no 1 , the background to a programme.

That night May woke up to music. The Piano Concerto was playing again! At first she thought the TV must have been left on, but when she walked into the living room, she stopped dead in her tracks. There, in front of the piano, in the dark, the blind, mentally and intellectually challenged boy was giving a perfect rendition of the concerto…perfect! With every note, every nuance, of the music played exactly like they had heard before bedtime.

Amazingly, incredibly, the hands that could almost not handle eating utensils now flew over the piano’s keys in fluent movements.

That was the start of the career of one of the most amazing musicians of our time. He could play back any tune after listening to it only once. And then he started singing with the tunes – also pitch-perfect and not at all with the struggle he had while trying to speak normally.

rain-man-poster-007 (1)May was overjoyed. Local concerts led to TV appearances. Dustin Hoffman saw him play once and found inspiration for his movie, ‘Rain Man’. More concerts followed as well as tours to the rest of the USA, Scandinavia and Japan.

A favourite challenge during these concerts was to ask anybody in the audience to ‘Stump Leslie’ by naming a song he couldn’t play. The only times that happened, was when he’d never heard the tune before – then he’d make one up then and there, on the spot, lyrics and everything.

Leslie’s concerts are free. The miracle of music, he maintains, was given to him to share with others. What he had received was grace and making money out of his gift would be wrong.

***

“You see, Servaas, sometimes we are put in a situation that seems hopeless. Maybe, according to all known information, we are stupid to go on trying and the urge to surrender and walk away is overwhelming. But May Lemke showed us a different way – not by fighting in anger, but by persisting in love.

“Sure, at times we feel blind and helpless. No way forward, no way back. That’s when you have to look up, not down. Faith and love breeds hope, Servaas. Hate and anger will see us doomed. No matter what Life throws at us, we cannot ever forget that.”

When Gertruida shows him the short video on her new smartphone, he gets up to go outside. He’ll have to think about Leslie Lemke for a while.

And feel just a tad ashamed about his constant moaning…

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The Stupidity of Ernest.

Citrus_swallowtail_Christmas_butterfly_(Princeps_papilio_demodocus)_04Ernest Swiegelaar rarely visits Rolbos, mainly because he is such a busy man. Still, whenever he phones to tell them he’s on his way, the men in Boggel’s Place perk up, get to bed early and have their weekly bath. You never know your luck, after all, if you haven’t tried your best.

Gertruida says it’s Mandy’s fault. If she had been more kind, Ernest could have been a professor by now. Still, according to the men in Boggel’s Place, Ernest should be admired for the way he survived, despite the success of his research.

Ernest studied the habitat of a very specific butterfly, with a very specific goal in mind. According to Gertruida, the little creature is called  Papilio demodocus, but the group at the bar prefers the more common (and easier to remember), Citrus Swallowtail.  When asked why a young man like Ernest would want to waste his time chasing some butterflies, Gertruida defended his actions.

“Look, we all know what happened th Ernest. It’s the old-old story on boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-his-heart and girl-dumps-boy. It is, after all, not unique in the history of male-female relationships. But, in Ernest’s case, it turned out to be a life-changing experience. At the time, Ernest was doing a Ph.D in lepidopterology, the study of butterflies, and was doing great work on pheromones.” Of course, Gertruida had to stop right there to explain what it all meant before she could continue. “So, when Mandy preferred a star rugby player and left him, his world came crashing down. He actually abandoned his studies, telling his professors that there was no point in pursuing the matter. What good, after all, could come from analyzing minute amounts of chemicals some insects secrete? He left university and hitch-hiked his way to nowhere. Just travelled and lived like a nomad.”

This much is true. However, Ernest eventually ran out of money (and space) near Union’s End, where the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia meet. He finally had to face reality, so he offered his services as a entomologist to the manager of Grootkolk Camp in the Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park. It is difficult to find game in this vast, arid region – which often resulted in tourists grumbling about the amount of money it cost to stay there in relationship to the number of animals they saw. Enter Ernest, with his vast knowledge of insects – and butterflies – who could entertain bored tourists for hours with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of exoskeletal creatures, moths, beetles, and…butterflies. Somehow a circle in his life was completed – the lepidopterist awoke once more.

It is here that he noticed the Citrus Swallowtail, an old favourite of his, and it is here that he started spending hours and hours studying the pretty butterflies. It is also here that his interest in the Kalahari Citrus Butterfly took a surprising turn.

The Citrus Swallowtail is rather common in Sub-Sahara Africa, but it prefers more moderate climates. In the Kgalakgadi, with the endless red sand dunes, Ernest observed two strange phenomena. First: the subtype occurring  there, didn’t lay their eggs on citrus leaves (there aren’t any). They had adapted to a small cactus-like plant, which Ernest correctly assumed contained citrus-like oils and Vitamin C. But, more importantly, he noticed that the male Citrus Swallowtail was much more successful in its mating habits than the butterflies he had studied before. He didn’t need a long time to figure it out: these Desert Citrus Swallowtails had to produce much more of the female-attraction pheromones than the ones he had studied before.

Well, it is said that you can take a born researcher out of the laboratory, but you can’t take his curiosity away. And slowly, month after month, Ernest compiled notes, observations and a number of theories. He surmised, for instance, that the reason why these male butterflies were so successful, was the harsh environment. Nature thus provided them with the super-ability to produce offspring, a simple evolutionary occurrence to ensure the survival of the species.

It was during this time that Ernest first visited Rolbos. The road to Upington had been washed away by a freak storm, leaving Rolbos (and Sammie’s Shop) as the only alternative place to replenish supplies. Like all visitors to Rolbos, it was only natural that he popped in at Boggel’s Place, where he met the group at the bar. Despite his natural reluctance to interact with strangers, Ernest found (much to his surprise) it exceedingly easy to chat with Gertruida – and it was through this conversation (and many afterwards) that Ernest finally agreed to become a scientist once more.

Ernest started contacting his old professors, much to their joy. Yes, of course, they’d love to assist him to complete his studies. Let the past be past, all is forgiven. And so, after another year, Ernest was back in the laboratory with his small colony of Citrus Swallowtails in a sizable, climate controlled environment stocked with Kalahari succulents.

***

“Ernest phoned to say he’ll be around for a week or two.” Gertruida’s announcement had a note of smugness about it. “He said the butterflies in this region proved to be superior to other areas – his previous visit showed that. Now he wants to make Rolbos his basecamp again.”

“Oh, no!” Vetfaan droped his head in his hands, making sure he didn’t spill his beer. “Last time he did that, it was chaos. Remember Oudoom’s sermons afterwards? It was really difficult to catch a bit of shut-eye when he started shouting like that.”

“Oh shush, Vetfaan. As I remember, the sermons were very necessary. Especially after the way you and Kleinpiet – and don’t forget Servaas – carried on during his last visit.”

An uncommon flush spread up Vetfaan’s neck while he tried to think of an appropriate answer. Kleinpiet came to his rescue.

“Ag, Gertruida, give us a break. Ernest succeeded in a massive scientific breakthrough. He might even be on the brink of establishing world peace….”

“Or a world war…” Servaas interrupted.

“…and he might even get the Nobel Prize.” Kleinpiet soldiers on. “Imagine that some molecule – which you can’t see and smell or taste – can have such a profound effect on men and women…men, especially.”

“It’s not the molecule that fascinates me,” Servaas said dryly.

“No, you closet Cassanova, you.” Gertruida’s scorn dripped from the words. “It’s the bevy of assistants you drool over. All of them – the beauties, the trim bodies, the pretty faces….”

“And the legs, the short skirts, the brilliant smiles…” Boggel added with a laugh.

“Ja,” Vetfaan eventually agreed with a sigh. “Such a pity they only have eyes for Ernest. It’s like being at a buffet but you aren’t able to get anything on your plate.”

“But maybe that’s a good thing, Vetfaan.” Servaas smiled. “Have you seen what he looked like, last time? Just a bag of bones. I gave him six months, but apparently he’s still at it. Quite amazing, really.”

The conversation dwindled out after that. Boggel had to lock up earlier than usual that night. The men wanted to get a bath and a good night’s sleep before Ernest and his entourage arrived the next morning. And maybe, hopefully, Ernest wouldn’t be so stuck-up to lock that precious little bottle away again like he did last time…

Gertruida’s (almost) nude sketch

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gertruida (as we all know) is not an emotional woman. She takes life’s blows as they come and never allows circumstances to weigh her down.

Well, almost never.

Tomorrow, when Vetfaan and Boggel will discuss the incident over a couple of beers and they’ll stick to the facts…but they won’t mention the tear that found it’s way over her pale cheek this morning. That’ll be an admission of the unmentionable, a breach of confidence, a disrespectful comment of a lady they hold in such high esteem.

Still, the tear was there, even if everybody chose to ignore it. People do that, sometimes. Some call it the-elephant-in-the-room-syndrome, and others say it’s  unkind to emphasise another’s grief; but it is entirely true that we all – at times – choose not to remark about something that is patently obvious to all. Even Gertruida acted the same way: she didn’t bother to wipe away the tear, nor did she try to hide her continuous sniffing when she read the letter.

Afterwards, she left the letter on the counter. Just the letter, mind – not the sketch; that she took home. It is, after all, her very personal property now. Maybe that was her way of explaining, of making them understand. Boggel thought it was a very clever way of going about things: much better than telling them all about Mathys Willemse and that summer of ’72. After all, they were all young once and they all did things they will remember with a smile although they’ll never talk about it. When you’re young, life is a kaleidoscope of missed chances. When you’re old, you cry about the beauty of those moments.

My dear Gertruida,

I asked the nurse to write this note as my condition does not allow me to do so myself. I trust Nurse Groenewald – she promised to keep this confidential. In a certain way, she reminds me of you, all those years ago.

Don’t be surprised to receive a letter from me. We may have met – and parted – many years ago, but I’ve kept the memory of those weeks sacred – and fresh – in my mind. Even now, despite the white sheets and the beeping machines – I can recall the sound of your voice, the touch of your hand. It is a great comfort in these days. If this is a cause of embarrassment to you, I apologise. But to me, it is the most wonderful memory.

By the time you receive this – so the doctors tell me – I will know more about Life’s greatest mystery. I’m looking forward to that. But, before I go, I have to finalise a few things while I can. My will is a simple one; you know how much I loved Nature. My remaining paintings (oh, how you encouraged the young artist!) will be auctioned and the proceeds used in the fight against poaching. It seems a fitting farewell for somebody who enjoyed the wide landscapes and the animals of our lovely country.

But – and you’ll understand this – I cannot sell your sketch. That would be wrong.

Remember that evening on the beach? I’m sure you do. The sun was just setting and the gulls were settling down for the night. They were our only company. And I took out my pad and you asked me why I was looking at you in such a strange way. I couldn’t answer then. I’ll try to answer now.

You see, at that moment I saw my Gerty, the real Gerty. I stripped you of your academic achievements (of which there were many!), and the faux air of superiority you spent so much effort in maintaining. I saw a young woman, a beautiful lady, a lonely girl – in all simplicity.

When I didn’t answer, you gave a little laugh and walked on, to sit down on the rocks amongst the gulls. Funny, they didn’t seem to mind. Maybe they recognised a kindred spirit: a restless soul, constantly moving on even if they stayed in the same place. It’s a paradox of life, isn’t it Gerty? We move and move…and seldom change who we are. No matter how wide we spread our wings, we cannot deny our inner identity.

So I sketched you as I saw you. Called the work ‘Restless’, with you as an off-centre central figure and the rocks and the sleeping birds around you. Over the years it hung in my gallery and I’ve had so many offers to buy it – but of course I couldn’t sell it at all. This was my sketch, my rock, where I could be calm and at peace. Even now, it hangs on the wall next to me.

I do believe I never told you I loved you. Silly me. I should have. But I knew – even back then – that an artist’s art is a fragile thing. It’s a jealous gift that demands all. If I have to explain (it is difficult!), I’ll say that art cannot be diluted by love. Art requires torment; it is the fuel that keeps the fire burning. And, Gerty, an artist without fire is an artist without grace. It is the anguish of Life that forces the painter to depict the beauty of existence.

And, of course, you had to move on, as well. You were on the brink of a brilliant career (yes, I followed it. Dakar was one of your finest moments!), a journey that would take you to explore a world that didn’t include me. We were both adult enough to know that. I understood that you were part on my anguish, part of my future in the most painful way possible. And I embraced the feeling, because I knew you were part of my journey to artistic excellence.

So now, with the curtain coming down on my stage, I return the sketch to you, where it belongs. It is – even though I say so myself – my best work. This is the way I remember you. Despite the years, you remain the lovely girl I drew back then. You didn’t age. Nobody hurt you along the way. The sun, my dearest, never set in that picture. The gulls didn’t fly away, nor did they die. They remain there, around you, quietly preparing for the night.

I do apologise for another thing. You’ll notice that I drew you as  saw you. Don’t be shy about the absence of clothing – you’ll notice that I respected your mage in the picture. But, dear Gerty, that was (is?) you. A pretty, wonderful, restless creature with a brilliant mind, and the kindest heart. That’s why, I think, you said goodbye afterwards. 

You understood…

And now I must say farewell. My journey is at its end and it’s time for me to explore the great unknown. I just wanted to put the finishing touches on the canvas of our picture – the one you have in your heart.

With all my love,

Mathys.

When Gertruida walks in to Boggel’s Place tomorrow, she’ll smile and greet them the usual way.

And then they’ll talk about the weather.

The problem with Servaas’s English.

To continue with the story:

048After 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.

1935-chevrolet-standard-and-master-deluxe-2Servaas’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!

Mrs Volschenk and the parasol

Credit: dbvictoria.blogspot.com

Credit: dbvictoria.blogspot.com

Gertruida is on full cry this morning, telling the group at the bar about the longest river in South Africa. Originating in the high mountains of Lesotho, the Orange River (Gariep) cascades down the Drakensberg, fills up dams and provides irrigation along its 2200 km course.

Servaas isn’t listening. He remembers another story about the river – something that changed his life forever.

***

005The last stretch of the Orange forms the border between South Africa and Namibia. To the north, the Namib stretches away to the horizon. To the south, the inhospitable Richtersveld. Sand on the one side, heaped mountains of rocks on the other. This is not a place to get lost in –  but Servaas did.

It is not unusual for young men to do stupid things. Some believe they can change the world, others rebel against the age-old rules of society. The more amorous (and decidedly less intelligent) believe they were placed on Earth to woo the hearts of maidens, usually ending these episodes as pathetic remnants of their old glamorous selves. After all – as all men learn eventually – being victorious in the heart-winning quest does not automatically mean a happy-ever-after. Love does not require a single moment of passion; it demands far more than that. And Servaas, dreaming about holding Mathilda’s hand while whispering the three words he hoped she’d like to hear, didn’t know that. He was seventeen – how could he?

 The problem was that Servaas grew up on a farm with too many males. Not only humans, mind you, but somehow the cattle and the sheep (even the goats) went through a few seasons of producing only rams and bulls. In that world of male dominance, it was only natural that Servaas picked up on the atmosphere surrounding the old homestead: males either fought each other, or they tried to get the odd cow or frightened ewe to share a bit of time with them.

Servaas was the flanker in Prieska’s scrum. He was fast, had a short temper and intimidated his opponents to such a degree that his team ended up in the finals of the regional rugby championship. In those days it was common knowledge that Servaas only tackled you once – after that the local doctor had to apply a splint or put in a few stitches. In the days before Superman, Servaas was Prieska’s invincible superhero.

And so the entire Prieska took to the road to witness the final against Vioolsdrift on their homeground. There was no doubt about the outcome: the framed Springbok-horns would be on the mantelpiece in Prieska’s hotel the next day.

Enter Mathilda Jacobs, the only girl in Vioolsdrift to have gone to the finishing school in Paarl, Mrs Hermiena Volschenk’s Academy for Discerning Young Ladies. Enrolling in Mrs Volschenk’s famous institution guaranteed the students everything they needed to become the most sought after young ladies in their districts. After completing the two years under the watchful eye of their headmistress, girls could darn socks, knit jerseys and recite Psalm 23. By that time, the brighter girls also had to be able to supervise servants, play bridge and be able to recognise a successful gentleman (those wearing shoes and socks).

Needless to say, Mathilda had a hard time after returning to Vioolsdrift. Using the skills Mrs Volschenk had taught her, she insisted that the would-be admirers made an appointment to spend time with her on the veranda in front of her parents’ house overlooking the Orange River. Outlandish as the idea was, the young men of the district had no choice but to accept that Mathilda – a graduate  in the finer arts of life – was then elevated to the status of royalty. No longer could they arrive in numbers to vie for her attention – if you were interested, you had to be able to converse comfortably about difficult subjects involving bookkeeping or flower arrangement. Mathilda also had the servants serve tea in real cups and saucers – a clever ploy to keep both her visitor’s hand occupied.  As such, she not only dictated the terms of courting, but wreaked havoc in many a young man’s heart. The sudden increase in pedestrian traffic past the veranda prompted her father buy Kaiser, a ferocious Doberman Pinscher.

On the day of the finals, Servaas and the other fourteen rugby players from Prieska were having their pre-match pep talk on the dusty rugby field when Mathilda and Kaiser arrived to sit down on the chair a servant placed next to the field. Dressed in a high-collared white blouse and a rather revealing skirt, she only had to snap her fingers once before the servant opened a parasol to protect her perfect complexion.

Well, in all honesty, it wasn’t a real parasol, of course. Such things didn’t exist in the Northern Cape. But Mathilda had seen the one that Mrs Volschenk had, and attached a length of lace to the rim and ribs of her father’s black umbrella he used when attending funerals. As the town’s undertaker, Mr Jacobs was much feared and respected – nobody dared to antagonise the man who’d be responsible for your last resting place. There was only one shady spot left in the cemetery at the time. No surprise then, that not a single person walked past Mathilda that day without saying how beautiful the umbrella was.

Towards the end of the second half, Viooldrift’s team had been reduced to ten men, thanks to Servaas’s efforts. Still, the defence was surprisingly resilient and the scoreline only favoured Prieska by one try. This didn’t bother the Prieska team too much – a win is a win and why sweat away at piling up points when the other team surely had no chance to score? No, scrumming was much more fun – especially while Servaas was in such a destructive mood.

And then…

mg21729075.400-1_300You get these whirl winds in the Northern Cape. They appear from nowhere on a seemingly windstill day, dance around haphazardly for a while, and then usually fizzle out.  Just as the teams readied themselves for yet another scrum (and the doctor wondered whether he had brought enough bandages along), a dust devil developed in the road next to the field. It picked up momentum  – and size – and swept across the players towards the spectators.

Mathilda’s parasol was lifted high into the sky, swirling and twirling towards heaven. And Servaas, knowing who the umbrella belonged to after ogling her all afternoon, left the scrum to chase after it. If he could return the umbrella to its rightful owner, he’d surely impress her enough to guarantee an invitation to spend time with her. The rest of the Prieska team realised what their flanker was up to, and ran after Servaas as well.

The Vioolsdrifters weren’t so stupid. They knew Mathilda. No matter what you did, she’d only tilt her nose in the air and tell you it is unacceptable to decant your tea into the saucer. And there was the undefended tryline to consider…

One by one the Prieska players gave up the chase until only Servaas sped across the barren landscape towards the Richtersveld.

***

This incident had several results:

  • Servaas was found three days later by a Bushman tracker. He still hadn’t found the ‘parasol’.
  • Vioolsdrift won the championship by a record margin.
  • Mr Jacobs took to wearing wide-brimmed hats (tied down under his chin with a bootlace)
  • Mathilda realised Mrs Volschenk was wrong and that Hennie Viljee, who scored the six tries in the last five minutes of the game, didn’t have to wear socks to impress her.

The Bushman tracker managed to get Servaas to the river, where the muddy water of the Orange River saved his life. When, years later, Servaas met Siena, he stopped playing rugby – saying he’d rather chase after his Siena than die of thirst.

Anyway, he said, rugby is only a game. Love, on the other hand, is real. When Siena jokingly explained the meaning of a ‘whirlwind romance’, Servaas was not only amused, but he knew then the some events in life may have a prophetic nature. Being swept away by love is far better than chasing something you’ll never catch.

Mrs Volschenk would have applauded.

The Sad Moon of Solitude…

Sir Philip Sidney, 1554 - 1586

Sir Philip Sidney, 1554 – 1586

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…

breekyster 2010 153But 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?”

***

IMG_0140They 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.

The Goldilocks Zone of Kindness.

extra-Paint-CansBoggel, the bent little barman behind the counter, often tells his customers that kindness and rain have a lot in common. Too little makes things die. Too much, on the other hand, washes away the honesty of caring. Like the theme in the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears suggests, the trick is to get it ‘just right‘. Too little – or too much – will spoil the original intent of empathy and care.

While his patrons might debate this issue, Boggel can’t forget an incident – so many years ago – just after he had left school to seek his fame and fortune in the big, wide world out there.

***

Having managed to pass matric, Boggel had to leave the orphanage. This was a sad day, indeed, when he hugged the others before closing the garden gate behind him for the last time. His worldly possessions included the clean change of clothes in his little suitcase, a small Bible in his pocket, and fifteen Rands and seventy-five cents carefully knotted in the washed handkerchief in his hand. With no specific plan how to conquer the world, Boggel felt like the loneliest young man in the world.

He timed his leaving well, and had just reached the bus stop when Kallie Mann stopped the lumbering bus next to the bench under the huge old Acacia.

“Going places?”

“Ja, Oom. Upington, I think.”

Kallie wouldn’t accept a bus fare from the young lad, knowing all too well what his background was. In a place like Grootdrink, even the orphans were celebrities (of sorts). Anything or anybody out of the usual, mundane normality, was a source of debate, discussion or plain gossip in the little town. Boggel, as a hunchbacked orphan, was a well-known and much talked about young man.

 Kallie, too, had a bit of history. He had married his childhood sweetheart, Sally Kleyngeld, set up home, and was soon able to announce the imminent arrival of their first child. It was not to be. A complicated birth, two graves (a big one, a small one) and an empty house termitted away at the life of this once-popular man. He resigned his work at the bank and became a bus driver. That way he rarely had to spend an evening amongst the ghosts and shattered dreams of his of his past. He said he needed the openness of the veld around him – the small office in the bank had too many walls.

A few miles out of Grootdrink, Kallie asked his only passenger what his plans were. Boggel shook his head.

“Why don’t you move in with me for a while? Until you find something else, I mean. The place is huge, I’m alone and you need a bed. Seems the logical thing to do.”

And that’s what they did. Boggel moved in. Kallie’s house, however, was in a state of total disarray. Kallie apologised, saying he’s never at home and…anyway…cleaning the place would be like throwing Sally out. Her towel. Her nighties. Her slippers. These all remained where she had put them before the catastrophe. Even the baby room, so carefully prepared, waited in vain for the whimper of a hungry infant.

Boggel started knocking on doors the next day. The butcher said his back would never be strong enough. The postmaster shook his head. The restaurant advertised a job for a waiter, but the manager said he was afraid the hunchback would scare his customers away. Door after door closed behind him. The message was clear: conquering the world was reserved for ‘normal’ people, not for cripples like him.

013001056A week or two later, Kallie had to take a busload of tourists to the Augrabies Falls; after which followed a week-long sojourn in Springbok to view the magnificent splendour of the annual flower season. Kallie said goodbye to a depressed and dejected Boggel, who vowed to have a job by the time his benefactor came back.

Boggel redoubled his efforts to find employment. The hospital didn’t need porters, the undertaker had no vacancies for grave diggers and the municipality said they’re sorry, their budget won’t allow another road worker. He had knocked on all the doors. Upington would not be the launching pad of his brilliant career.

Boggel didn’t know what to do. Being idle had never been part of his character, and there he was: unemployed, bored, and disappointed.

Well, he could fix up Kallie’s house, couldn’t he? The idea galvanised him into action. He swept. He dusted. He washed. He tidied room after room, cleaning windows and washing curtains as he went along. Then he took his money to the hardware store and asked the owner for as much paint as his money could buy. The owner took pity on the young lad, and produced a variety of half-empty paint containers – left over from the contract to renovate the town hall. No, he said, no money. He had seen how the hunchbacked youth tried to find employment and took pity on him. Do a good job – and maybe it’d be the start of a career, the man remarked.

Boggel was overjoyed. He painted from dawn to dusk. His back was a problem, of course. To get to the higher parts of the walls was impossible with his hunchback, so he painted as far as he could reach while standing on a chair. Room after room he did in this fashion. Kallie, he was sure, wouldn’t mind doing the upper bits of the walls.

The lounge was blue. There was enough green for the kitchen. The dining room looked magnificent in beige, while the large container of yellow sorted out the rest of the house. Boggel realised he was a very, very good painter. Not a drop was spilled on the carpets or furniture. The dried walls were a smooth as plastic, with no streaks and sloppy lines. This, he told himself, was a huge success.

Kallie nearly died when he returned. When he pushed open the front door, he stood riveted to the floor for a very long time. Then he started – softly at first, but growing in volume – repeating a single word.

“No….no….no.…”

He calmed down after a while. Sat staring at the blue walls around the fireplace, talking to himself. Or rather, talking to Sally, who wasn’t there. He asked her to please, please, come back.

Boggel left that same afternoon. Got on the train after buying a ticket to Cape Town, where he eventually learnt his trade in a tavern near the harbour. (Nobody wanted to work there – it was considered too dangerous.). Here, Boggel’s disability and the way he handled it, generated not sympathy but respect from the rough men who had come ashore from the ships. He built up a reputation as a fair barman, especially after sorting out the wrestling champion with a cricket bat. It’s quite a story, but he rarely talks about that time. He is an outspoken pacifist and hates to be reminded of his more, er, angry days. Even so, his little altercation with the burly athlete saved them both a lot of trouble. The wrestler apologised to the pretty barmaid and became a huge fan of the tavern. laughing at the way Boggel placed the bat on the counter every time he walked in…

***

The_three_bears_pg_11Boggel says that’s the way to dispense kindness. A lick of paint – or a cricket bat – at the right time, can work wonders. But the key is to time it right.

And…not too little.

Not too much.

Just right.

Just like in the story of Three Bears.

 

On Waiting

550“Why,” Gertruida asks, because for once she doesn’t know the answer, “do people spend their lives waiting?”

Questions like these crop up from time to time in Boggel’s Place – and the result is always the same: frowns, shrugs and another round of peach brandy. Once Gertruida gets into one of her rhetorical moods, the others occupy their minds with more practical things – like the drought or the pothole in Voortrekker Weg.

“No, seriously, guys.” A tinge of frustration adds an edge to her words. “People wait for rain. For a better political dispensation. For the ultimate love affair. For the petrol price to come down. For Escom the get its act together. For…”

“Blissful moments of silence.” Servaas interrupts her flow of examples. “Look, Gertruida, you can’t generalise like that. Take us for an example: we’re just sitting here. We’re not waiting.”

“Yes, you are. You’re constantly hoping Vetfaan will pay the next round…that’s waiting, too.” She rolls her eyes and sighs. “Life is wasted if you keep on waiting for something to happen. What about the now and the here? This is where Life happens, not somewhere in the future. You can’t live tomorrow today. You live in the moment, the now, the present second.”

“That may be true, Gertruida. But there is a difference between waiting and hoping. In fact, waiting is an important component of hope. Waiting with hope is called faith, and without that, the present moment becomes meaningless.” The way Oudoom says this, makes everybody nod. Of course! They wouldn’t dare argue with him. Encouraged, the clergyman continues. “And what do you get when you add faith, hope and waiting together?” He waits, but only Gertruida seems to ponder this seriously – the rest stare at the empty glasses in front of them. “Love! Beauty! That’s what you get.”

Realising his audience isn’t with him any more, Oudoom sinks back in his chair, mumbling something about  ‘waiting is sooo important‘.

“Ag, dominee, it’s okay.” Vetfaan pats the older man on the shoulder. “A successful waiter has learnt the fine art of patience.” He suddenly realises that he’s said something rather meaningful, smiles happily and snaps his fingers. “Now there’s a thought for you, Gertruida! We are all waiters at the Table of Life, hovering discreetly in the background before serving the next course.” Almost dizzy with this erudite line of thought – and thoroughly surprised by it – he pauses to compose his thoughts. “Er…yes, that’s it! We’re not sitting at the table, waiting to be served, no sir! We’re the waiters, there to obey orders and fulfill requests. Hey, we’re not even in charge of the menu, either!”

“Sometimes, Vetfaan, you do show signs of latent intelligence.” This must rate amongst the biggest compliments Gertruida is capable of. “An African proverb has it that at the bottom of patience, heaven is found. Marcus Aurelius likened the passage of time with the flowing of a river. He said all events, all issues, eventually disappear down the stream of Time. Patience then, represents two things: waiting for the current of Time to carry off those things we need to forget…or…running along the riverbank until the things we need, are swept to dry land.”

“And that, Gertruida, kills your rhetoric. You’ve just discovered that waiting is as much part of Life as rejoicing in the present. Patiently waiting on Life is what happiness is all about.” Boggel sees the look on Oudoom’s face and quickly adds: “And faith, as well. Faith is patience, too.”

***

An outsider walking into one of these conversations in the little bar in Rolbos might consider the patrons a bit odd, to say the least. The Rolbossers aren’t worried about that at all. The people in the bigger cities like Upington and Prieska don’t talk about the things that matter any more. They spend their days killing conversations by talking about stuff they can do absolutely nothing about. It’s no use lamenting the performance of the national cricket team, the failure of Escom or the amount of children the president has fathered. Sadly, these are the subjects of ‘discussion’ for bored people waiting for Life to serve them a better dish.

In Rolbos, the waiters hover quietly in the background, knowing Life owes them nothing, but that they’re there to serve, and not be served. Their waiting is a constructive act of faith, an affirmation of hope and an expression of love.

This realisation causes Gertruida to fall silent as the conversation drifts to the drought and the pothole in Voortrekker Weg. Waiting, she realises, when done in faith, is the essence of Life.

“Then impatience is the ultimate expression of stupidity,” she says finally. She gets a few nods while the patrons in the bar wait patiently for her to fall silent.

The Extinct Instinct of Trust

1280px-Oryx_gazella_male_8054The Kalahari is big.

Huge.

Massive.

And – mostly – empty.

Here you can listen to the wind rustling the dry grass in the wee small hours after midnight, or hear the forlorn, far-off cry of a jackal before dawn. You can drive around for days without seeing a single other human being. And you can hold your cellphone up as high as you like – there simply isn’t any way you’d pick up a signal.

One may be excused for thinking this is a place forgotten by man and God alike, a place shunned by civilisation and society where life – as most people practice it – is impossible.

But that’s not true. Stunted plants have worked out ways to suck water from deep underground and even from the air. Animals can go days without water. And frogs hibernate for impossible lengths of time, waiting for some rain to form a puddle nearby. Somehow. Mother Nature has found ways to celebrate life in one of the most inhospitable places on the globe.

Although isolated and – to the inexperienced eye – lifeless, the Kalahari remains one of the very rare places where one can escape the madness we call civilisation. Here you head for the shade of a camelthorn tree, pick up the broken twigs and branches (carefully avoiding the vicious thorns) and build a small fire. Be careful where you pitch the tent – the ecosystem under the tree supports snakes, scorpions and rodents. Respect them, and they’ll leave you alone.

images (9)And it is here, under the spreading branches of a lonely Acacia erioloba that Vetfaan sits down to contemplate Life, Love and The Future. He had to escape the hubbub in Boggel’s Place for a while – the talk about the recent insanity in parliament, the attacks by ISIS and the shootings in Paris and Copenhagen was just too depressing to endure any longer. The pictures in The Upington Post of the hardships in Eastern Europe and the dismal performance of Escom didn’t help to lighten his mood, either.

It is not unusual for Vetfaan to escape like this. Ever since the time he served as a soldier during the Border War in the Caprivi, he has experienced – from time to time – the need to be alone. It’s as if a fog slowly builds up around him, fed by the ever-prevailing diet of bad news and political mayhem, until it becomes imperative to isolate himself from it all. And then, it is only the silence of the great Kalahari that can peel away the layers of accumulated psychological harm – layer by layer – until his mind frees itself from the shackles of despair.

On the second morning next to his fire, a movement on the horizon draws his attention. He has to squint in the harsh glare of sunlight to make out a lone Gemsbok slowly making his way towards him. It is a magnificent animal with long horns. white-socked legs and a flowing, black tail whisked this way and that by the soft breeze.

Credit: wikipedia

Credit: wikipedia

Vetfaan knows this animal should be called an Oryx, and not a Gemsbok at all. The old German term of Gemse referred to the chamois, a much smaller antelope of Europe occurring in mountainous areas. Labeling the regal Gemsbok with the name of a mere mountain goat – probably due to the facial pattern and the straightish horns – was as appropriate as the naming of the tree Vetfaan is sitting under. Camel thorn doesn’t refer to camels at all. The discarded Latin name – Acacia giraffe – was much more accurate; but to the original Dutch explorers a giraffe was a ‘camel horse’ (kameelperd) – hence the common name.

When the antelope draws nearer, Vetfaan notices the deep wounds on his flanks. Lion! This Gemsbok must have beaten off a predator with his sabre-like horns; however, he didn’t escape unscathed. Now he can see it is limping as well – a signal to the carnivores of the desert that are always on the lookout for an easy meal.

Vetfaan gets up slowly to fill a basin with water from the container on the back of his pickup and places it in an area of dense shade, as far away as possible from his chair. The Gemsbok will smell the water, but also the fire – will it be brave enough to drink? Not wanting to scare away the injured animal, Vetfaan settles down to stare at his boots. Eye contact could imply a challenge, and that might spell out death if the antelope chooses to shy away from help.

IMG_9085 camel thorn acaciaHow long did he sit there? Time has no meaning out here except for the contrast between day and night. It could have been hours – or maybe just minutes – before soft crunching makes him look up. The Gemsbok is there, barely three metres away, eating some of the camel thorn pods. This is a good sign – those pods represent one of the most nutritious sources of food in the desert.

“There’s water,” Vetfaan whispers.

The Gemsbok’s head comes up sharply to stare at him. The wounds on his flank are still fresh and obviously cause a lot of pain. The eyes are tired, exhausted, sad.

“It’s okay.” Keeping his voice low and reassuring, Vetfaan doesn’t move. “Go on.”

And so a strange bond is formed. The wild Gemsbok and the disturbed man share the shady area beneath the canopy of the tree in silence that is only broken by the crunching of pods and the slurping of water. Perhaps the Gemsbok is just too tired to care any more, or maybe it understands – instinctively – that Vetfaan has seen enough suffering and death to abhor the very thought of it. Or, possibly, the animal knows that this fire, this man, represent the lesser of the evils that threaten him right now.

During the day, Vetfaan moves around quietly, deliberately avoiding scaring the Gemsbok off. Later, when the sun starts approaching the horizon, the Gemsbok lies down behind the trunk of the tree, resting its magnificent head on the ground. Vetfaan has never seen a Gemsbok sleep before and wishes he had a camera in his kit.

The next morning, the big antelope is up before Vetfaan peeks out of his tent. The wounds seem better and are no longer oozing blood.

“You better today?”

The Gemsbok snorts, pawing the ground softly with his hoof.

Then, after locking eyes with Vetfaan for a long moment, it turns and trots off across the sand.

***

When Vetfaan returns to Rolbos, he doesn’t tell the patrons in the bar about his experience. He does, however, tell them that life is precious, love is rare, and that the madness we call civilisation is a fallacy.

“There are predators all around us, guys. Carnivores waiting to pounce. And you know what? If we don’t take a chance here and there by trusting others, we might as well lay down and die. What do we learn from the media? Hell, man, they keep on telling us what a terrible state this world is in. Look at the papers: murder, rape, war, corruption. Even our parliament is a fine example of bloody conflict.

“The media, my friends, make a living by broadcasting distrust. The news tells us that we are threatened from all sides and implies that nobody can be trusted – everybody is out to disrupt peace. Drive with your doors locked. Don’t talk to strangers. Put up burglar bars. Get a safety door. Don’t walk alone after dark. Check your bank statement. Get a new president.

“What’s the message? And what are we telling our subconscious mind on a 24/7 basis? And then we insist on being surprised that the world is in such a disarray?”

He leaves the bar deep in thought. Space. That may be the secret of the Kalahari. Out there, there are no newspapers, no television channels, no overcrowding and no crime. In the Kalahari you have to depend on your instincts and trust your judgement. That, he decides, is only possible when you cut out the noise and the clutter and allow silence to show you the way.

That’s why, he realises, that Gemsbok had more insight than most humans do. He was brave enough to trust.

Fly Away (#5)

images (2)Gertruida says loss is only a perception. You build something up in your mind and when it is taken from you, the mental void is far worse than the physical one. Loss, according to her, stands in greater relationship with disappointment than with grief. Oh, she admits, there are exceptions – like death, for instance. But mostly people experience loss  on a rather selfish level.

Vetfaan disagrees, saying the ram that died last year didn’t leave a mental void. His ewes would agree if they could talk, according to him. Kleinpiet joked about this, saying they would have said their ‘Thank ewes‘ – a remark that earned him a less than playful punch on the shoulder.

Still, when Gertruida drove back to Rolbos, she contemplated the dilemma facing her. How could she reunite father and daughter? Both of them, she realised, had built up walls of denial around their personal lives. While Mister Blum’s history made it easier to understand his attitude, Annatjie tried to keep Hennie alive by not opening his last letter. It was as illogical as it was senseless: if nothing changed, they’d both die unhappy people. What to do?

When she talked to Boggel about it, the bent little barman came up with a plan. Not a good one, mind you, but one with some potential. It was either that – or leaving things the way they were.

***

Annatjie Blum watches from behind the chintz curtains as the little convoy of vehicles makes its way over the disused track to her house. Four…no, five…of them. What on earth…? She shuffles back to her chair, sits down and lets out a protracted sigh. Please, please, no people. I simply can’t face people…

Gertruida’s visits have made her come out of her shell a little bit. She actually started enjoying the company of this understanding woman. But not this! The last time she saw such a convoy, was when the funeral procession drove out of town. Hennie’s funeral. She had watched from behind the curtains in her bedroom because of the Meintjies’s. They had rejected her, rejected her family. Rejected what the Blums stood for. The conservative Afrikaners versus the liberal Jews. Their attitude had been so unyielding that she didn’t even dare to attend the funeral of the young man she loved so much.

These memories fill her mind when Gertruida knocks timidly on her front door. As if seeking reassurance, Annatjie holds the box with Hennie’s letters to her chest.

***

One by one, the Rolbossers file into her lounge, ending up in a semicircle around her. Gertruida (for once) glances over at Boggel, uncertainty written all over her face. Boggel shrugs – they’ve come this far, they might as well…

Annatjie sits quietly in her chair, clutching the letters. Her eyes are clouded over, her expression distant. She’s taken refuge behind her walls; that much is clear to everybody. Gertruida nudges Servaas in the back. Like they agreed, he will be the first to speak.

“Annatjie, many years ago, I met a lovely young lady called Siena...”  He tells the whole story, from their meeting to the day he held her hand and she breathed her last. (1)

Then it’s Precilla’s turn to dig up the past with her account of Charles’s letter. In contrast to Servaas, she ends up crying so much that she can hardly finish the story.

Gertruida struggles to tell Annatjie about Ferdinand, gratefully accepting the handkerchief Kleinpiet offers. Vetfaan, too, finds it difficult to get through the history of the beautiful girl with the strong arms  and can’t help sniffing loudly when he gets to the bit about the landmine. And, like they discussed beforehand, Boggel concludes with the loss he still feels so acutely for the love and companionship of  Mary Mitchell.

They fall silent after that, remembering the pain of the past. Annatjie hasn’t responded much except to look up once or twice. No tears. Not even a nod here or there. Silent, stony-faced abstraction.

“You see, Annatjie, Love and Loss are two inseparable Siamese twins. If you dare to love, you must be brave enough to face to consequences.” She gets a wary look from the shrivelled woman in the chair. “Oh, Hollywood paints such a different picture, of course. They leave the story where the boy and the girl wander off on a pristine beach while the sun sets in a spectacular array of colours. That’s nice, but it isn’t Life. Hollywood wants to tell us that Love represents two individuals thinking with one mind – and that’s impossible. Tomorrow the boy will still think boy thoughts, and the girl won’t give up on her girly mindset. either. And over and above that: couples separate, people die, things change. That sunset-scene only lasts for so long, then reality kicks in.”

Annatjie looks up, still clutching the box with letters. “I saved his letters. They’re all here.”

“And that’s a good thing, Annatjie. Remembering beauty is the colour we add to the dreary canvas we live on. Sometimes it’s the only colour. But imagine a painting done in only one colour? You’d end up with no art at all, won’t you? Simply a red or a yellow background makes no picture. It’s the contrast between the different colours that creates the image. And that’s Life. A bit of blue, a bit of green, a bit of black – they’re all necessary to make you see the whole picture.”

By now, Gertruida is doubtful that they are getting through to the lonely woman with her only precious thing – the box of letters.

“They died, you know? John Denver, Jim Reeves…”

“Oh shush! Of course they did. They’re dead!” Servaas can’t stand this any longer. Pussyfooting around this woman’s grief is all good and well, but surely she can’t isolate herself like this forever? And…Gertruida is using metaphors even he finds difficult to follow – somebody has to be practical here. Say it like it is – that’s always been his motto. “Dead. Ceased to be. Gone. We may remember them, but we can’t escape the fact that everybody dies at some time. Death is as much part of living as breathing is. Can’t you understand that? And love? It doesn’t have to die. It can be eternal. The question you have to answer, young lady, is whether you think Hennie is proud of you?  Would he applaud you becoming a decrepit old woman, or would he cheer you on to live a full and happy life? If he loved you so dearly, would he want you to hide behind your grief – all your life? Or…would it make him happy to see you happy?”

Servaas ignores the stern look he gets from Gertruida. He’s had enough. Damn it! Annatjie has to snap out of it!

“Love?” Annatjie’s eyes are suddenly clear. “His love?”

“Yes, my dear. It’s about his love as well, not only yours. It’s about how you honour his memory. It’s about celebrating the time you had together, not the time apart.”

“Then….then I’v wasted all this time?”

“Yes. And no. We all grieve in different ways. I grieved for Siena – and I still do. But every time I walk into Boggel’s Place, I can see her smile. She’d want me to be happy.  When I’m down, I know she’s there, encouraging me. When life treats me harshly, Siena makes me realise that even sadness and anger are trivial when compared to what we had. And that, Annatjie, is what you have to realise. True Love outlasts Life, every time. And Love isn’t a sad thing. It rejoices in Life. You should, too…”

“Then…”

“Yes, Annatjie. It’s time to open the gates. And we’re here to help you.”

Gertruida shakes her head. Servaas can be such a pain in the neck! And then, sometimes, his bull-headed full frontal approach – flying straight in the face of soft-spoken psychology – is rewarded with seemingly impossible success. She whispers a soft  ‘Well done!’  as she hears Precilla scurrying about in the kitchen to brew up some tea. It’s going to be a long afternoon…

(1) Read it in Rolbos, the book.