The idiosyncrasy of Patrick van der Byl

2011-01-20 00:00

IT was another sultry Friday. The wind blew softly through Patrick van der Byl’s hair, gently caressing his handsome face as he rode merrily on his bicycle, over the hills and through the undulating valleys. He whistled a catchy love tune with a satisfyingly huge smile on his face — life was great! What more could any young man wish for? The world was at his feet. Before nightfall he would reach his destination. He pedalled hard, his strong legs pounding as he rode on. He could not wait to see her again. Her beauty was etched in his mind’s eye. Over the hills, the love of his life waited for her beau. They were in love, engaged to be married. She lived with her parents and family in the little village of Ncalu, which was not very different from the little village of Richmond, where Pat lived with his parents.

Who knew what Pat’s thoughts were as he cycled along this lonely road, week after week, through sunshine or rain. It mattered not that he was exhausted after toiling all week, that his back ached after laying hundreds of bricks daily, erecting walls and buildings for Scott & Mills. Often he would be caught in a storm and be drenched when he arrived at the welcoming farmstead. All that mattered was seeing his sweetheart again and the look in her eyes when he arrived. It was enough to abandon any doubtful, negative thoughts. What mattered was that she loved him and he loved her. These pleasures have the power to heal and lift the spirits.

There would be much to talk about, planning the wedding. How many guests would they have? Who would they choose as bridesmaids and groomsmen? Would they build their dream home in Richmond or move on to the city? Would they start a family soon or later? And, by the end of the weekend, their parting was not pleasant, but there was some consolation that soon this long journey over the hills would come to an end, and they would be together, at last.

However, something totally unexpected happened. Pat’s journey on his bicycle came to an end but not the way he planned it. The familiar feeling of joy and excitement he experienced every Friday before he mounted his bicycle, was snatched away from him. The love of his life had made a choice. She made a choice not to marry Pat but to marry someone else instead. The old adage that that there are no guarantees in life rang true but nothing had prepared Pat for this. This was not what he had imagined his life, his world, to be.

The future held such promise and then it was no more. Most people turn out the way you’d expect, but not all. This betrayal marked the beginning of Pat’s end. His life had been changed forever.

A totally different chapter in the book of Patrick’s life unfolded. So began the next journey in Pat’s life, a journey of introversion that he chose, and his choice needed no explanation or justification to anyone. Like so many other things in life “freedom of choice” means different things to different people. Philosophers might argue that what matters is what decision you make about your life — the decision that will write the story of your destiny.

The person who epitomised life, slowly changed into a recluse. Once, a smart young man in a suit with a hat to match who turned heads when he walked to church on a Sunday morning, Pat became a quiet soul who wore only khaki clothes and velskoene all year, whatever the weather. The khaki clothing was of a specific type, and the shirts had to have two pockets with a flap over each. His nephew Andrew had given Pat a thick, warm khaki shirt for the cold Richmond winters. This shirt was found in his house some 20 years later, neatly folded and had never been worn, possibly because it had stripes. Many of the gifts of clothing that he was given by family were never worn because they did not conform.

Pat withdrew and shunned friends; and went about his business, unassumingly. He went to work daily, wanting to be left alone.

He was a man of many talents. Besides being a hard worker, he loved to paint and carve wood into beautiful pieces. His works of art did not go unnoticed. There was a convent in the village, founded by the Sisters of the Order of the Precious Blood. They had a passion for fine art and noticed this trait in Pat. They encouraged Pat to paint and sketch for them, but he resisted. He was self-conscious because he was left-handed and some of the sisters insisted on him using his right hand, for reasons unknown. Pat eventually relented after he taught himself to be ambidextrous and painted for them. Uncertain of the outcome of his work, he painted on condition that nobody watched him.

Like any art form, painting and sculpting has a satisfying strength. Pat too found happiness in his world, and would sometimes share that with his nephew Owie and friend, Patel. They sat with Uncle Pat, watching in awe, as he painted. He produced beautiful works of art, which were sent to Holland to the families of the sisters.

In 1850, when the first settlers arrived in Richmond, they settled in the picturesque Byrne valley. They had travelled to South Africa on a ship called the Minerva which, sadly, was shipwrecked. This devastation was captured in many pictures that appeared in the newspapers and at the local museum in Richmond. Pat painted the shipwreck from these pictures, after much persuasion from the sisters. It was quite a historical moment for the family.

There was an old jacaranda tree in the front yard where Pat would get the wood to carve. Being the gentle soul that he was, Pat would not cut or break any part or branch from the tree but waited for it to fall off before using it. He believed that we should never harm any of God’s creation. There was some significance to Pat’s eccentricities. When his niece and nephew, Jennifer and Andrew, built their home, there was a bank that needed to be levelled behind the house, which had to be flattened to build a wall. Pat pondered on this and tried to think of an alternative, because he felt that this meant that this area would never have sunshine again. He didn’t want to be responsible for this travesty to natural things.

He appreciated nature and also loved animals. He kept many cats. If any of the children shot a bird with a sling, this would upset him so much that he would withdraw further and not go to work the next day. Pat was very fond of his sibling’s children. The children knew that he kept sweets (Sparkles) in his shirt pocket, and would be delighted to get sweets from Uncle Pat. There is something to be said about spending time with a child or an old person. Children do not discriminate and they have an innocence that gives you that warm feeling of security.

Nothing was ever thrown away or discarded. Pat kept every newspaper that he ever read, folded neatly and packed away. When he ate anything out of a can, he would wash the can and pack it away. He believed that inanimate objects had a “life” of their own.

There were only a select few whom Pat let into his space. A nephew, Bruce, enjoyed visiting Pat because he was allowed liberties, one of which was the endless glasses of Coke that they would drink, sitting around the coal stove. This came to end when Bruce had to be taken to the hospital with terrible abdominal pains, which were the result of too much Coke. Pat was blessed with good health and the simplicity with which he lived his life contributed to his longevity. He took good care of himself, and had a daily dose of Bidomak tonic. He did not seek medical attention nor was he hospitalised. If he experienced symptoms of a cold or flu, he would dose himself with a boiled mixture of fresh lemon juice, lemon leaves and sugar, which he called “monkey soup”.

Pat was a heavy smoker. He smoked five packets of 20 Van Rijn cigarettes a day. One day there was a price increase and on hearing this he quit immediately and did not smoke again. That was in true Patrick style.

After retirement, Pat spent his days sitting by the window, gazing out at the people going by. Everything had its time and order, and nothing needed to be rushed. When the light of day faded that Easter Sunday, Pat found his final peace the way he lived, quietly. As his journey ended, did he again feel the cool wind against his weathered and lonely face, and see her smiling face welcoming him?

About the writer

“Having been an introvert as a child, I identified with Pat,” writes Donna Dalais. “Life’s journey has taught me to appreciate everything and everyone in our lives, and to create lasting memories.”

Dalais works in sales which she enjoys “very much”. She has two sons, a daughter-in law and a precious grandson.

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