Vernon S

The swimming pool is calm and the water is freezing cold, I know this without even putting a finger in there. Such a beautiful setting really. The swimming pool complex smack in the middle of pristine fynbos, rolling up the hills a carpet of green indigenous vegetation, including some red data species all preserved on the farm, a private nature reserve. From the pool, especially from the infinity side of it, the view is simply magnificent. Down below there is the Biesbosch lake, a massive water expanse usually brimming with speed boats and water sport fanatics but not right now, it’s quieted down nicely in the late afternoon. The majestic Langeberg mountains to the back of the lake, rolling away all the way to Jamestown in the distant East and framing the coastline of Jana Bay. In the valley below the pool leading to the Chainoqua river. I remember our outing with a few tourists once. We took them on a ride through the reserve in the Land Rover to plant some trees there. It was quite the little adventure traversing up and through the bossies and protea fields, all huddled inside with our spades and excitement to give back to nature. Bart has done some amazing work in clearing the valley of alien vegetation, and in doing so, helped the water flow freely again from the kloof into the river. Still a long way to go but fantastic progress nonetheless.

As a local boy, I never really understood what all the fuss with the alien trees was all about. Now I know better thanks to Bart. Alien trees and vegetation were brought here, largely thanks to the old Dutch colonial masters, to build their settlement because our part of the world didn’t have many trees, at least none good enough to build their European civilisation in Africa. The trouble with these aliens though, they suck up far too much of the water, leaving the indigenous species far behind and adding to the burden of an already drought-prone country. So, they have to be removed at all cost to preserve our natural landscape, he said. I actually thought it funny or rather ironic that it took an expat Dutchman to teach me about my own land and correcting what the Dutch did to it all those hundreds of years ago.

In the distance to the west of the pool lies the beach, where the river deltas into the Atlantic ocean and where many a bottlenose dolphin can be found. This is the glorious vantage point from the pool and the setting of my world. In more ways than one, like the setting of the sun, so my old life and outlook was about to change for ever.

It’s nearing the end of my shift. Bart has just instructed me to leave my desk and to go to the pool.  Guus is waiting there for me. He has been bugging me for the last few days and insisting on teaching me how to swim. He found it so strange that a local, born and bred in a coastal town, didn’t know how to swim. Coming from Amsterdam, surrounded by water where every child is required to pass a formal swimming exam, it was rather strange to him that I couldn’t swim. He made it his personal mission before going back to Holland to teach me and impart his wisdom upon me. And now he also managed to enlist the help of my boss.

I was scared, unsure and insecure. I mean, I barely knew the man! Sure, we’ve been getting along swimmingly while they were my guests in the guesthouse, but this is taking it to the next level. He was such a nice man though. I think we had a liking of each other. Jasper also, but not as much as his partner, Guus, the tall slender Dutchman. Did I mention how tall he was? Prior to this encounter, I’ve never actually met a man taller than two metres. This, apparently, is quite normal back in Holland where, on average, the tallest people in the world reside. Guus had a very distinct deep frown right between his eyes which gave him a rather angry sort of look, even though he is one of the gentlest of people you’ll meet. Strong and highly intelligent this lawyer friend Guus of mine was. Without his horn-rimmed glasses on, his eyes were quite squinty, almost Chinese-looking. He had this way of speaking, almost like someone with a speech impediment and a very heavy Dutch accent. In my ear it sounded like he was swallowing his words and it was rather difficult to follow his conversation or mumbling at times, at least in the beginning this was the case. I later learned that it was considered posh Dutch the way he spoke, like the queen of England but then in English of course.

Bart too had a posh Dutch accent and he later explained to me what they say to people who spoke like that back in Holland. They are called “kakkers” in Dutch, which in my native Afrikaans means something quite opposite to what I imagined posh would be! But there he was, waiting by the freezing swimming pool with his big smile, kitted out in speedos and goggles, shouting in Dutch: “Kom we gaan zwemmen!”, come let’s go swimming!

Growing up in this small town where everyone knows your name and business, where everyone goes to church and believes in the same bible and conservative teachings, I had a rather conventional small town Afrikaans Calvinist upbringing. I have always been the smartest kid in town and school, that’s how I was recognised by everyone. The clever boy with the nice accent. So, it didn’t come as too big a surprise that I got accepted to study at Stellenbosch University. However, after just more than two and a half years of study, it became evident that I was not doing so well. My grades kept going down and I was underperforming so badly that the University eventually decided not to allow me to complete my studies. I got kicked out basically.

So, there I was, proud young man with the weight of the family and an entire community on my shoulders, and I failed. I’ve let everyone down. All that hard-earned money that dad spent on me, that the bursary provided me, that the State poured into me, all for nothing. So much for being clever, for being the smartest kid in town, for getting straight As from sub A and continuing into high school. Although not quite as many As in high school, to be fair. High school was a different monster all on its own. There again I experienced being a first. The first person of colour from my community to enter an historically White Model C school. This was just after the end of apartheid. I remember entering the school in those early days and being able to count the number of non-White pupils on my one hand out of a sea of White children. Even so, I still managed to thrive academically, and while there were quite a number of kids smarter than me, I ended in the top 10 of my matric class.

Overcoming the odds and making the transition successfully, I was ready for Stellenbosch and getting the first ever degree in my family. There was also a deep sense of duty as well, being one of the first recipients of a free South Africa. My sister, 10 years prior, was in the streets marching and fighting for the end of unjust laws. It was their generation’s duty to fight the old system and it was my generation’s duty to build the new system. The weight of the country and of Nelson Mandela also firmly on my shoulders. I failed.

Regression followed. The short but eventful little steps into a new world of opportunity in Stellenbosch and the big city, dashed by my own actions. I have not only failed my family, my town and my country, I have also failed me. The chance to grow, to develop, to change, to escape the confines of conservative small-minded, small-town politics and people. I had to go back. How cruel that self-inflicted fate was. For the next two years I spent life as a recluse, unemployed, supported by parents with no friends or intellectual peers. All I had was my own thoughts and they weren’t very forgiving of my situation and of what I’ve lost through my own fault. The mind is a powerful thing and the negative self-talk soon became a full-blown onslaught on my sanity.

When I got the job as day manager on the farm, it felt like light at the end of the tunnel, though the negative thoughts persisted. I would sit many a day by the swimming pool, alone and weeping.  Crying for my fate, for being stuck in the town and mindset. I was desperately yearning for more but not seeing how the more could come. It’s an interesting thing how you can put on a fake smile and appear to be so happy yet feel empty inside.

Compounding this were the personal feelings of attraction to other boys and not feeling free to explore or express that because of my upbringing and conservative Christian beliefs. It was a mess of epic proportions in my mind, slowing eating away inside of me.

And there he was standing by the pool, my tall Dutch saviour. He really did save me. Jumping into the ice-cold swimming pool with him was like washing myself off from all that negativity holding me back. Fighting, kicking and screaming, I jumped in not knowing I was on the cusp of great adventures. Little did I know how things were unfolding for me. Guus was the exact person that I needed to meet and the great facilitator that I required to get me back on track.

I held on to him for dear life as he tried to take me to the deep end. The water was freezing and I was as scared as a little child battling with him and with my fear. It felt strange being so close to another man, an older man, a half-naked older man. And here I was half-naked too and having to cling on to him. Feeling and being so exposed, fear, panic, angst, all these emotions bare. In these sorts of settings, when you have to confront all those negative feelings and then expose them and yourself to another, I think that is what bonds people together. In that moment of completely giving up and putting my life in his hands, that was probably the moment when we sealed our fate together.

Two nights later we went out for dinner in town and then they asked me. In that moment, I knew that my life would never be the same again. There was no hesitation or thinking required on my part, all that was needed was to say yes. I’ve reached a critical stage in my life at that point with the realisation that all the personal hardships and emotional abuse was about to come to an end. My yearning and desire to get away had finally materialised with their invitation to join them in Amsterdam to manage their small bed and breakfast business. And just like that, within six months of their departure back to Amsterdam, I was on a plane leaving behind an old life and jetting towards my new adventures in Holland.