Fictitious names have been given to the individuals in this story to protect the identities of the living and the dead.
One of the things that I love most about my wife is that she calls it as she sees it. I don’t have to try and read between the lines with her. Thus I knew exactly what she was thinking when she responded to my question over dinner one evening.
“Would you describe me as a normal person?” I had asked her, apropos of nothing.
She considered my question briefly, then asked, “Do you want me to give you an honest answer, Tim?”
“No, don’t bother,” I replied.
This exchange may shed some light on why I have, from time to time, gravitated towards people who were a touch off centre in terms of normality.
When I first went to university in the 1960s I became friends with three fellow students who, in hindsight, were clearly a bit mad. I shall call them Lewis, Walter and Otto.
Lewis, a law student from South West Africa, had a dark cynical streak. He was endearingly charming in his interactions with females, but over time it became clear to me that he actually despised women. He treated them with utter contempt and with a complete lack of compassion that, to my surprise and horror, only fuelled their devotion to him. Many a time I had to console his distraught girlfriends and dish out tissues.
His English was poor, so he practised an opening gambit to chat up the women whenever we paid a social visit to the English-language University of Cape Town campus. “My name is Lewis,” he would introduce himself in his thick Afrikaner accent. “I come from an obscure little place in South West Africa called Keetmanshoop.” The women loved him.
Lewis was a tortured soul. He never talked about his inner demons, but they exposed themselves sometimes. One night, for instance, we were walking on a beach when he picked up a piece of driftwood and used it to write on the sand in large block letters: “MY NAME IS CHAOS.” We eventually drifted apart after his politics had taken a sharp turn to the far right.
I had first met Walter during our year of army training, when we were in the same squadron. He was an atheist who had enrolled in a religious science degree course and had planned to become a minister of religion in the Dutch Reformed Church. Perhaps not surprisingly, in view of such contradictions that cohabited in his mind, he eventually did a stint in the Valkenberg Mental Hospital where I visited him. “The psychiatrist told me that I have absolutely no fear of death,” he told me proudly during one such visit.
Later, completely unexpectedly, he converted to an extreme brand of fundamentalist Christianity. He believed that God had created the earth less than four thousand years ago and that the world would end in December of that same year.
“But what about all those ancient fossils that they have dug up?” I challenged Walter.
“They were planted by the devil to mislead people,” he told me earnestly.
He left university to join a group of fellow believers in a remote area in the northern region of South Africa to await the imminent end of the world. I never heard from him again.
My third university friend, Otto, studied literature and was quite manic in his speech. His words would often overtake each other in a jumble because his mouth could not keep pace with his thoughts. In the room that I shared with him and with Lewis for a while, Otto would sometimes get up in the middle of the night and pace around restlessly, muttering in German, “Problemen! Problemen!”
We were at a beach one day when Otto got up from his beach towel and announced matter of factly that he was going for his big swim to China. He was a strong swimmer and, having battled his way through the wild surf, swam off until he was a mere speck in the distance before disappearing from view altogether. The other beachgoers had become agitated and someone must have called the police because a boat eventually picked him up miles out in the open sea. Further big swims to China followed from time to time. Lewis once remarked “You can always tell by the large crowd on the beach that Otto has gone for a swim.”
Otto married a famous poet’s sister, had a child, got divorced and disappeared completely off the radar. Perhaps he had gone for his big swim to China once too often.
Decades later I became friends with someone else who was a tad off centre. I liked my workmate, Mona, because of her touch of eccentricity. We found that we had some common ground in that she was bi-polar, as was someone close to me, and she would offer me moral support and advice on how to best deal with this.
Once I had to take a new staff member to Mona’s office area to introduce her to the staff there. Mona shook hands with her and enquired earnestly, “Tell me, do the people that you usually mix with use bad language?”
“No, they don’t,” replied the perplexed newbie.
Mona put on her friendliest grin. “Well, my role in this organisation is to desensitise people like you,” she said.
I discovered by accident that Mona was a lesbian. I was talking to her about work matters at her desk when I noticed a photo of her standing beside another woman. “Is that your sister?” I asked. “Nope, that’s my missus, Nicole,” she corrected me.
Not long afterwards I was walking along a corridor at work when someone behind me pinched me on the bum. I swung around. “Oh,” I said in surprise, “it’s you, Mona.”
“Yep,” she said, laughing, “and it’s just as well that you’re not a woman otherwise I’d be up for sexual harassment.”
She rode a large motorbike to work. “I know it’s none of my business,” I said, “but you really should stop riding that motorbike. They are far too dangerous.” To which she responded, “C’mon Tim, motorbikes are heaps of fun! We could all be so damned careful that we never have any fun in life at all.”
A week ago I was told that Mona had lost her battle with cancer. She was not yet fifty. With her death I have lost an unusual gem that had sparkled brightly in the grey shale of human normality.