Saturday, 29 December 2012

Future Dreams (Submission to the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize 2012)

“Love does not understand the concept of time.” said Simon as he took the drink I offered to him.

The sun was gliding behind the mountains to the west while we looked northwards over the golf course. I had purchased a piece of land on a golf estate some thirty kilometres south of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. After many years of saving I had just finished building the house of my dreams. This was the first time I had the time to have a drink and appreciate the sacrifices I had made in my life to get here. Tomorrow, my wife and daughter would move in, today was for me.

Simon was an old friend of mine, and he often spent time telling me stories about the lives of the people around us. He is one of those people who often spends his time alone, but as he insists, he is never lonely.  Perhaps, because he was often alone, his conversation normally started with a startling thought or quotation before telling his story.

“Do you know the one bullet theory?” he enquired from me. Then continued without giving me time to respond, “The theory holds that you can fall in love and make love many times but there is only one bullet with your name on it. And if you are lucky enough to be shot with that bullet then the wound never heals.”

We sat quietly thinking on these weighty words. I am sure Simon, like me, was remembering something from the past to fit into this theory.

“I recently bumped into Martin where he was having a coffee with Catherine. I was quite surprised to see them together as I did not know they were still friends after all these years. You remember their story don’t you?”

I have learnt long ago to let Simon tell his story in his own time which often meant listening rather than participating. So I just inclined my head lightly and frowned.  This seemed to satisfy him that I was listening.

“Martin was born in Windhoek but spent most of his time growing up with his grandparents in Johannesburg after his mother passed away. He would often come to visit his father in Windhoek, and one could see he was taking part in the local games of the children, but he was always separate. Catherine was born in Cape Town and she had moved to Windhoek and she was staying with her Aunt after her father passed away. It is peculiar how they both lost parents at a young age and maybe that’s why their souls found an echo in each. Anyway, the first time I saw them they must have been about six or seven and it was a wedding. In those days you invited everyone in your neighbourhood to the reception. Those were the days,” he sighed

He fumbled with relighting his pipe and I could see he was reliving the days of his youth. Everything always seemed to have been better in ‘those days’.

Once his pipe was lit to his satisfaction he continued, “She was the little bridesmaid. Beautifully dressed in white and looking adorable. You know she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and even back then she stood out from all the other children even though she was always surrounded by friends. Martin was there too, but he was the exact opposite. He looked uncomfortable in his suit and had drifted off to the bottom of the garden where he was staring out into space.”

“I had just started smoking and had sneaked off to the bottom of the garden myself and could see him, but was sure he could not see me. As I was lighting my cigarette, I saw Catherine approaching down the steps to where he was sitting.”

“What are you doing here alone?” she asked him.

“I was wishing a special wish,” he replied

“And what was that?”

“I was wishing the beautiful girl dressed in white would be my friend.” Obviously growing up in Johannesburg had rubbed off on him already and he was too sure of himself.

“I watched them talking and could see the interest they had in each other but they were far too young and innocent to recognise Cupids arrow.  Then someone called for us all to come together for a photograph and Catherine ran quickly back to where the bride and her entourage were waiting. I also made haste to re-join the group, but something made me look back to Martin. I saw him standing there looking towards the sunset and distinctly heard him say ‘One Day I will marry her’. I thought it rather cute at the time but never had occasion to think of it again till some years later.”

As a natural story-teller, you could easily pick up the non-verbal cues from Simon’s story. Not only the soft way he finished that last sentence, but also the rather significant look he gave our empty glasses was enough for me to go for a refill.

As he took the glass from my hand he continued, “I had quite forgotten about Martin until I saw him some ten years later. I was teaching at the high school when he returned to Windhoek. It was quite a scandal as he had come in the middle of the school year and all the students were soon aware that he had been in jail as a juvenile. Something about a bank card robbery if I remember it right.”

“There was nothing wrong with his intellect and as a teacher I had my work cut out for me. If Martin felt something was not clear to him, he would not think twice to stand up in class and ask me to repeat until he understood. Back then we still had caning as a punishment and he had his fair share. It was funny though, he often had a caning for being disruptive, but never for bad marks or breaking school rules.”

By this time the sun had set and the coals were just right for the springbok chops I had been marinating since yesterday. In the meantime, Simon started with the potjiekos in a black cast iron pot which allowed us to simmer the bosvark rugstring (the spine of a bushpig). It was turning into a typical summer evening in Africa. The heat was gone, the whiskey was good, the meat was plentiful and the story was mellow.

I refilled our glasses and we settled down around the fire.

“It was heart-wrenching to watch Martin that year. He was shunned by almost all his classmates and most parents warned their children not to make friends with him. I used to see him walk around the neighbourhood all alone, but he always had a smile on his face as if he understood some joke we all had missed. The only time I saw him serious was when he was watching the other students and Catherine was amongst them. The first time I saw him standing on the edge of the rugby field I wondered about the look on his face till I saw he only had eyes for Catherine. That’s when I remembered the wedding of years gone by and his conviction on his face when he had said those words, ‘One Day I will marry he’”. It was that same look he had on his face on the playground.”

“The One Bullet,” I interrupted him. “That’s what you meant by the One Bullet Theory.”

“Exactly,” Simon replied and went on with his story. “It was hard to watch him pine away on the edge of the crowd knowing he did not stand a chance. She was the most beautiful girl at the school, her foster parents were on the school board and he was a jailbird. It reminded me a bit of Romeo and Juliet and all those other doomed love stories.”

Knowing Simon so well I knew the next part of the story would involve him as part of the outcome. Or perhaps it was just the whiskey that emboldened me.

“So what did you do Simon?” I asked.

“Well, you seem to know me too well by now. I had also had a doomed relationship in my younger days and thought it would be balancing the scales if I took a hand to assist him. It’s funny now that I think back about it – I was not the only teacher that seemed to wish to make the match happen. You see Martin and Catherine were in different classes but the same grade. It was their last year of school and it seemed whenever a teacher sent a student from either of their classes to give a message to the teacher who was given class to the other, the two of them were always chosen as the messenger. At first it was hardly noticeable, but after a while it became obvious to me as the rest of the students in the class had come to notice it and tease the both of them about the other.”

Simon took another long pull of his whiskey before continuing.

“It’s funny. I have seen many students teased by their classmates but Martin’s reaction was very different. The more they teased him, the more he seemed to take it as a challenge. Rather than becoming embarrassed like most other teenagers, he seemed to take it as a badge of honour. Or maybe it was just the fact the other students were treating him as one of them.”

He eyed the lamb chops that were almost done.

“To cut a long story short, within one year of Martin being enrolled at the school he asked Catherine to be his girlfriend. You must imagine the surprise of the teachers and the students when she agreed. Till they became a couple, no girl was interested in Martin at all.  He went from zero to hero and he deserved it, no, I should rather say they deserved each other. Together they started a school newspaper, brought together a drama group and won all the national competitions that year. At their Matric farewell I had a feeling déjà vu – I had seen them looking the same at that wedding of many years before – she in a white dress and him in a blue suit.”

“Like all love stories it was doomed from the start. I had no small blame for the break-up,” he said and finished his drink. “Let us eat before those lamb chops become too dry.”

This was the cue to sit down for dinner. We took our plates and piled it high with lamb chops, bush pig stew and “Baster poeding” – our local version of potato salad. After grace we ate our food in companionable silence. One thing you can say for us Namibians, we enjoy our food and do not waste time talking when there is something important to do.

After dinner, I made us a cup of coffee and made myself ready to hear the rest of the story. Simon, like most Namibians believed a story must take time to its conclusion and would never finish it before dinner. After all, a good story is made much better after one has a full stomach.

“Martin came to see me early the next year after the examinations results had been posted. He was greatly troubled as he had passed with flying colours and the Catherine had not made the grade. He wished to study further and had received a bursary while she would have to get a job as her foster parents had disowned her and she was on her own. He had come to me for advice and that was probably the wrong thing to do.”

Simon got quiet for a while and then started filling his pipe. I knew the silence was him pretending to relive the moment again while the pipe filling was part of his excuse to get me involved in his story.

“So what was troubling him?” I obliged.

“He wished to become part of the student uprising that was agitating for Independence and he knew what the sacrifice might demand from him. For him it was straight forward, either he would stay involved with Catherine or participate in the struggle. He could not have both and nothing I said could change his mind.”

At this point I had to interrupt. “What year was this? I vaguely remember the students boycotting classes and making things difficult for the South African apartheid regime. Was Martin not one of the leaders that were arrested?”

“That’s right. It was 1988 and the internal struggle for Independence was reaching its zenith. The students were becoming more political aware and Martin and his friends were organising the students into specific actions to make the occupying regime take notice. They were boycotting classes and toi toiying (dancing in the streets as a sign of rebellion). But we are getting ahead of the story.”

I sat back and allowed Simon to continue.

“Where was I? Yes, Martin made his decision. He did not want to get old and blame Catherine for not being able to do what he though was his duty. His love for his country and the people was more important than his love for her. I don’t know how he broke up with her but it was hard on both of them.”

He suddenly changed the topic, “Why don’t you bring that bottle of whiskey closer? I think I can do with a stronger coffee.”

I fetched the bottle and put it down between us. Simon poured himself a shot of whiskey in his coffee and offered me the bottle. I politely declined and waited for him to continue.

“I had encouraged him in his studies of Marx and African liberationists and understood his need to participate. I should have tried harder to convince him to think of himself. The sad part was that within two years the situation had changed so drastically and the South African regime left Namibia to get Independence in 1990. Martin had done what he thought was necessary and was rewarded by being the student chosen to raise the new flag the morning of Independence, but at what personal cost?”

“The choices we make can only be understood in hindsight. That’s how life is,” I answered even though I knew it was rhetorical question.

It seemed Simon had not heard me as he continued, “I followed his career and read he got married a few years later and became the Namibian trade representative to Paris, France. Unfortunately he got divorced later and I had not seen or heard from him in over ten years. Apparently he had given up the capitalist life and became a recluse writer and general beach bum. Catherine meanwhile had fallen pregnant shortly after they break up and married the father. Her marriage was short lived, but her career really took off. She studied nights and became a lawyer.”

I could hear the note of melancholy creeping into his voice. I wondered how many times he had thought of this story and wished he could have done things differently. Simon finished his coffee and slowly stood up to get a refill. He slowly sat down and as quiet for a long time.

I did not like to see Simon like this and tried to get him out of his musing.

 “So you saw Catherine and Martin having coffee together?”

“Yes,” he replied. “They had bumped into each other and decided to catch up on each other’s lives. I could see they were still uncomfortable being with each and left very quickly. Perhaps I also felt a little guilty at the decision Martin had made.”

He chuckled rather cynically and shook his head as if to clear his head.
I remembered his opening remarks and inquired, “What did you mean when you said ‘Love does not understand the concept of time’ when you started the story?”

Simon slowly topped his cup of coffee with a shot of whiskey before wistfully answering me, "I looked back at them as left and I could see they were talking in the present about their past, but their souls were already sharing their future dreams."

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