It was a simple story that Gerrit van Biljon told me, and he took a long time over it, and when he had finished with the telling, it was like no story at all. And that was one of the reasons why I liked his story.
‘I am planting bluegum trees,’ Gerrit van Biljon said, ‘in those holes that I am digging. For shade.’
I was speechless.
‘But trees, Neef Gerrit’ I said, ‘trees! Surely the whole Marico is full of trees. I mean, there’s nothing here but trees. We can’t even grow mealies. Why, you had to chop down hundreds of trees to clear a space for your homestead and the cattle-kraal. And they’re all shady trees, too.’
Gerrit van Biljon shook his head. And he told me the story of how he met his wife Sarie on her father’s farm in Schweizer-Reneke, in front of the farmhouse, under a tall bluegum. It was a simple story of a boy and a girl who fell in love. Of initials carved on a white tree-trunk. Of a smile in the dusk. And hands touching, and a quick kiss. And tears. Oh, it was a very simple story that Gerrit van Biljon told me. And as he spoke I could see that it was a story that would go on for ever. Two lovers in the evening, and a pale wind in a tall tree. And Sarie’s red lips. And two hearts haunted for ever by the fragrance of the bluegum trees. No, there was nothing at all in that story. It was the sort of thing that happens every day. It was just something foolish about the human heart.
‘And if it had been any other than a bluegum tree,’ Gerrit van Biljon said, ‘it wouldn’t have been the same thing.’
I knew better, of course, but I did not tell him so.
Then Gerrit explained that he was going to plant a row of bluegums in front of his house.
‘I’ve ordered the plants from the Government Test Station in Potchefstroom,’ he went on. ‘I’m getting only the best plants. It takes a bluegum only twelve years to grow to its full height. For the first couple of years the trees will hardly grow at all, because of the stones. But after a few years, when the roots have found their way into the deeper parts of the soil, the trunks will shoot up very quickly. And in the late afternoons I shall sit under the tallest bluegum, with my wife beside me, and our children playing about. The wind stirring through a bluegum makes a different sound from when it blows through any other tree. And a bluegum’s shadow on the ground has a feeling altogether different from any other kind of shadow. At least, that’s how it is for me.’
Gerrit van Biljon said that he didn’t even care if a pig occasionally wandered away from the trough at the back of the house, at feeding time, and scratched himself on the trunk of one of the trees. That was how tolerant the thought of the bluegums made him feel.
‘Only,’ he added, rather quickly, ‘I only hope the pig doesn’t overdo it. I don’t want him to make a habit of it, of course.’
‘Perhaps I will even read a book under one of the trees, some day,’ Gerrit said, finally. ‘You see, outside of the Bible I have never read a book. Just bits of newspaper and things. Yes, perhaps I will even read a book. But mostly – well, mostly I will just rest.’
So that was Gerrit van Biljon’s story.
As he had prophesied, the bluegums, after not seeming to want to grow at all, at first, suddenly started to shoot up, and they grew almost to their full height in something over eight years.
And I often saw Sarie sitting under the tallest tree, with her youngest child playing on the grass beside her, and I was sure that Gerrit van Biljon rested as peacefully under the withaak by the foot of the koppie at the far end of the farm as he would have done in the bluegum’s shade.