Look, see over there, how the rain comes in sheets, curtains, drifting across the estuary. After so many years, I still love to sit here on the verandah and watch the changing weather. Knysna is like that. The weather drifts and changes and still manages to amaze and intrigue me. Evaline and I used to sit here through all the years as we raised a family, built a business and became respectable citizens, not just the remittance folk that we were when we arrived.
I have had a good life and now that Evaline is gone, I see no reason to press on. The business is in the capable hands of my son and the daughters are happy if not married. I fear they have left it too long and would become old maids if it were not for their spirit that they got from their mother.
I was a remittance man? Yes, of course I was. Paid by my family to stay away from the levers of power. A black sheep, kept well out of sight. An embarrasment to the faimly.
How did it happen? You really want to listen to the ramblings of an old man?
You do? Well then grab a blanket, pour yourself another tot of that wine and I will tell you my story of shame and disgrace. You smile and shake your head? I was a disgrace, I was sent into exile by my father for, for. Lets start from the beginning and all will be clear.
As we emerge from my carriage Miss Sunny Trudeau, my fiancé , clutches at her completely inappropriate hat that the wind attempts to rip off her head and the only sensible thing she has learnt since arriving in town from Ulundi is that ladies hold onto their hats and forget about their skirts when the South Easter blows. The South Easter or Cape Doctor is the prevailing summer wind in Cape Town and much of the Western Cape. It is an overwhelmingly powerful force that affects everything you do, everything you wear, everywhere you go and to an extent how you get there. It might be known as the Cape Doctor but it isn't going to revive the dead birds that make up the silly confection that passes for a hat that she insisted on wear despite my warnings when I picked her up to come to the National Gallery. The wind seems instead intent on ripping them off her head and giving them one last flight before burying them on the slopes of table mountain.
I hurry her into the august portals of the gallery where we hand the destroyed hat to a flunky, accept a glass of fine sweet Cape wine commonly known as soetes, except when referred to in polite company, thereafter it masquerades as desert wine, noble rot or Constantia's Heritage.
Sunny and I do the polite rounds, greeting the socially great and good and stand in line to greet the Cape governor who is going to open the Independence Retrospective.
He peers at me slightly myopically, smiles vaguely,
"Ah, Mr Visagie from Malmesbury? How are your scientific endeavours going?"
"Very well thank you sir." I respond knowing full well that the flunky behind him has prompted the question and that he cares not one jot about my "scientific endeavours" or would fully understand what I and my assistant Miss Liv Smith are attempting to do. Formulaic to say the least.
"Hello Miss Trudeau." He raises an eyebrow, "Going against fashion? No hat? Ah, wait. Our wind got to you and destroyed your hat. So sorry."
Before Sunny can respond he has turned to the next couple, we greet his wife briefly and then move on into the gallery.
"You must tell me the ENTIRE story shown on the walls Harry. I insist! I really do."
I sigh, she should really already know the story but she doesn't. She is a seriously dedicated air head. Now, I can see you you looking shocked, I didn't stick much with the fashions then, I still don't though nowadays in these backwoods it doesn't matter a jot. So expecting a woman to be intelligent informed may seem a bit shocking to you, but in those days I was a rebel. I still am but exile to the country keeps me from annoying polite society. I even supported the suffragettes you know. Darn stupid to exclude such intelligent minds because of gender. I am getting distracted aren't I? Without Evaline to remind me I tend to ramble. Please nudge me back when I get distracted.
Now, where was I? Oh yes. The Cataclysm Retrospective with Sunny. It all started then you know, my downfall, my disgrace and possibly the best thing that could have happened to me.
So I took Sunny into the the main gallery. I showed her the first painting. An artists version of the disaster that hit the northern hemisphere and changed global politics forever. The artist had really used his imagination. The huge meteor, splitting into three and hitting China first, then Eastern Europe and then North America. He shows all this and the rising dust, the temperatures plummeting. I explain to Sunny that the plummeting temperatures destroys the crops and famine stalks the northern hemisphere. The next picture is that of the warship HMS Gallant returning to Cape Town after attempting to reach Europe, finding a wall of fire and boiling seas across the Atlantic, cutting Europe off from her colonies.
The next picture is of the expeditions setting out, one eastern up to Arabia and the other western, up to Europe. They return empty handed. The Northern Hemisphere is cut off.
A painting of the pandemonium in the Cape Parliament is next. Panic. Who will support us? Who will supply us. We are cut off from our civilisation.
The formation of the United States of Africa with Kwazulu, Cape and Transorania signing the treaty first.
Paintings of trade and commerce between the southern states follow, quickly because Sunny does not have a long attention span.
Then the painting that is the turning point. We had waited for contact with Europe, with our philosophical home but when we break through the wall of fire nearly 100 years later, it is to find a Europe descended into barbarism, the ancient capitals ruins. Rabble armies fight desperate battles across the continents. Nothing is left of the ancient civilisations from whence we arose.
Then the first rescue craft returning with a savage race who once were civilised Europeans but now were only good for slavery and we knew that not only were we on our own, but we were masters not only of our own fate, but that of the world.
We now travel regularly to Europe and the northern American continent to fetch those we deem fit to be slaves, the rest we leave to their miserable fate. The United States of Africa you now know was built out of necessity and good statesmanship and we dominate the world, our ships sail undisturbed and safe. We have an empire on which the sun never sets. I explained this all to Sunny, but I suspect that it all went in one ear and out the other. Frothy, frilly, beautiful by the fashion of the day and selected from one of the truly powerful houses of Africa by my father as my bride to further cement his aspirations in the Empire, she was everything that I detested in a woman. My father had been quite clear on the matter however. Marry her or risk exile. I chose marriage. But. There always is a but isn't there? However I am jumping ahead of myself.
Sunny and I had just completed our circuit when we bumped into the pre-eminent scientist of the day. One an astronomer, the other a mathematician. I was pleased to see them to relieve the boredom of Miss Sunny's company and we fell into discussing the latest hot topic of the time. Careful measurements of the solar system was showing up errors when calculated using Newtons theory of gravity. We had scarce gotten into the topic and speculating on hidden planets when Miss Sunny announced herself "Bored!" and demanded to be take somewhere "more interesting". I took my leave of the two gentlemen scientists and escorted Miss Sunny to a revue at the Town Hall, but not before making an appointment with my two fellow scientist for tea at my home at three on the next afternoon.
I shall skip the tedium of that afternoon and evening which was spent entertaining Miss Sunny and move on directly to the following afternoon and the start of my downfall. The gentlemen scientists arrived and with them came a handsome, not beautiful woman of serious demeanour who Mr Smith the Mathematician described as a student of his who showed uncommon promise. Very high praise in a time when Suffragettes were considered to be completely despicable and a danger to society. A woman's place being as a producer of children and a glorified house keeper.
Totally unexpectedly she held out a hand to shake mine, "Evaline Murdock." I took her hand in mine and the world stopped dead. It was like a lightening strike. Evaline was to admit much later that the same lightning strike had hit her as well. I reluctantly released her hand and we sat, waiting for tea to be served. It was pleasant out of the wind with the early summer sun shining through the new leaves of the oak trees that towered over the house. A slave was cutting the shrubbery just off the verandah, but no one seemed to mind his patient clip, clipping. My visitors immediately resumed the discussion that Miss Sunny had disrupted the day before and we were so deep in discussion we did not notice that the clip, clipping had stopped and the slave, a European with a shock of black hair and very Semitic features was standing looking over our shoulders.
I was annoyed. "What are you doing? Do you want to be flogged? What is your name?"
"Sorry, sir. I didn't mean to intrude, but you see I think I have an explanation for the anomalies you are all discussing."
"Your name?" I snarled at him.
"Sorry, Sir. Albert Sir." He didn't look at all sorry and my fathers comments about my soft hearted approach to my slaves echoed in my head.
I was about to summon some help when Mr Smith laughed out loud. "If you can solve this conundrum, I personally will buy you and free you immediately."
Albert hesitated, "I will need some paper Sir." He managed to look somewhat apologetic. Mr Barker the Astronomer looked furious, but Miss Murdock just laughed and pushed a notebook and a pencil over to an empty part of the table.
"So? Show us."
My mathematics is not bad, but Albert had lost me in the first five minutes. If Barker, Smith and Miss Murdock had not been nodding and seeming to follow the complex evolution of the formula that seemed to roll out of Albert s pencil I would have evicted him. He wrote and he talked for over an hour till eventually Smith shook his head.
"I need to study this. I will take it home and go through it tonight. You, Albert are either a charlatan or a genius and I am not sure which."
The next day without an invitation, all three of them were back and Albert summoned from his gardening chores. The discussion took off from where it had ended the day before and I was to be quite honest lost and completely bored. I excused myself and went to walk in my rose garden. I am a botanist and creating new roses was my passion. I was just checking the health of a new cross when I was surprised and secretly pleased when Miss Murdock appeared at my side.
"Oh, my. What is that?"
"A cross between a climber called Sombreuil and a bush called Madame Isaac Pereire. They are a complete mismatch, but I had this terrible urge to have a huge cabbage like rose climbing up a trellis. A sort of bad joke. Now Sombreuil is not only a climber but a beautifully scented rose and Pereire is a cabbage rose so I set my had to creating a monster."
And then on an impulse that sealed my, actually our fate I added,
"Come and see the untampered parents of my monster."
We walked through the rose garden in the sunlight in almost complete silence, till we got to the the place where my stock roses are grown. Sombreuil was of course perfuming the whole area and its fragile beauty stood in stark contrast to the Pereire. I stared at the roses, one a simple, single rose, the other a multiple petalled rose, the simple rose with a beautiful scent, the heavy rose overblown and over done and a comparison came to mind. Miss Murdock and the single white rose and Sunny and the heavy overblown rose and, in that instant I knew that I could not marry Miss Sunny and that I would not rest till Miss Murdock consented to marry me.
I cut her a Sombreuil rose and handed it to her and our eyes met across that rose and we both knew our fates lay together.
We went back to find that Albert had departed on his errand and Barker and Smith were poring over the notes that had been made. From muttered comments I gathered that Barker had started to get lost early on and Smith was struggling to keep up. They promised to return on the morrow, enjoining me to have Albert available for what they termed a "long session".
They arrived on time the next afternoon and I sent someone to summon Albert, but he was nowhere to be found. Eventually one of the cooks remembered that he had been sent to the shops to fetch supplies. Further enquiry found that he had not returned. My Major Domo went in search of him and returned with the news that he had been hit by a fast moving coach and had died in the mud outside the Drill Hall. We stripped his room looking for notes, diaries, anything. Eventually we found a diary inscribed with his full name, but little of interest to science was found in that book.
Barker paid for a funeral and a headstone inscribed with the slaves full name, Albert Einstein. Barker said that it was his duty as he had promised Albert freedom if he proved to be the real thing. They managed to use the knowledge Albert had transferred to them to correct Newtons theory of gravitation, but the unlimited power that Albert had apparently hinted at was not to be found.
The tragedy was for me doubled in that I had been looking forward to further visits by Miss Murdock and I racked my brains for a way to justify seeing her again, and as regularly as possible.
It was Miss Murdock who solved the problem. She suggested very carefully to her supervisor at the university that possibly the distribution of the Disa Uniflora was a worthwhile doctoral thesis. Her supervisor scratched his head about who could provide the botanical support and Barker, bless his soul, suggested me.
We practiced a lot discretion. We took a woman along as a chaperone, showed her the flowers and walked her up and down the mountain till she was exhausted. When we stopped for lunch she would have her food, a glass of wine and then would promptly fall fast asleep. At first our private time with the chaperone asleep was just gentle conversation, exploring each others souls and I found much that was pleasing, easy to relate to and just downright loveable. I know not what she saw in me, but it must have pleased her. However soon our private time became more intimate and soon we were exchanging fiery kisses, intimate caresses that soon progressed to us taking liberties that would be frowned on by polite society.
I believed we were undetected till one afternoon the chaperone sidled up to me and asked for some money. I looked sternly at her and asked why I should do that and she said, "Because if I tell your father what you and Miss Murdock get up to, you will be disinherited."
I was horrified and paid up, but I did discuss it with Miss Murdock. We were in a real pickle, the woman would not stop her demands and would be a menace for the rest of our lives. Our discussion was inconclusive and we parted miserable.
The next expedition into the field I paid the woman a tidy sum to go for a very long walk and we did what we had been longing to do since practically the day we met. As we lay together on the blanket, I looked at her, knew I loved her more than anything.
"Marry me." I said quietly.
"Took you long enough." she whispered, "Of course. I was beginning to think I would have to ask you. I would not have let you go this far if I didn't think we would be married."
When I told him my father was furious. He hurled a tirade of epic proportions at me. "A disgrace to the family." he thundered.
"A wastrel. No honour." The tirade went on for nearly an hour, then he collapsed in a chair. "What are we to do with you?"
"I have a plan."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"You have holdings in Knysna in the forests there. They should be making a profit, but they are not. Instead of announcing a break up of the engagement with Miss Sunny transfer me there and say that as a good wife she needs to be with me, helping me."
"She will never do that."
"No, she won't and what you do is offer her the chance of marry Harry."
"Harry? Your younger brother?"
"Yes, gentle malleable, fashionable Harry. He will do just fine. He and Sunny will make the perfect couple."
And at that my father started to laugh, walked over to the whisky decanter poured us both a large tot. We chinked glasses.
"Done!" he said. "And though it may be premature, a toast to your engagement and marriage to Miss Murdock. Barker has been telling me what a fine pair you make. That you will make your mark on science and that wasting your time running the estates would be a tragedy. Seems your discrete love affair was not as discrete as you believed it to be."