Encounters with wise old men aren’t always what they are cranked up to be discovers Jackson Biko at a recent garden party.
I was at a party where a man was celebrating the circumcision of his son. Or maybe the son was celebrating his circumcision. I know not. But there was music and food and drinks and singing and relatives from the village.
I didn’t know the man, but I was in the same uni with his cousin who thought it a great plan. We were scattered all over his garden eating and drinking and laughing and acting like gracious guests. His wife fussed around; opening beers, fetching glasses, cracking jokes from behind her big sunglasses. I never saw her eyes. His mother wore one of those hats old women wear when giving their daughters away in marriage. She would stop where we were seated and say, “There is so much food in the house, since when did men eat so little? You, my son, go get some meat.” I don’t even eat meat, but I would stand up and serve meat out of politeness.
I saw the host’s father with his white hair and beard and his silent mien. He looked like a jazz player from a 70’s blues scrapbook. He sat alone in the corner of the verandah, reading a newspaper. He looked like a wise man who was loved by doves. Men who are loved by doves are complicated men. Complicated men are rarely boring. Being a writer I’m attracted to such men, I want to sit at their feet and sip from their stories. Everything must be so strange to them post-internet, post-postage stamp, post-AM radio.
I was seated with a group of chaps, mobbing a bottle of single malt. Stirred by the whisky, I got on my feet and walked over to the old man and said hello. He looked up and squinted like I had come with the sun. “Are you one of Timothy’s workmates?” he asked. I said I was a friend of Alex’s. “Ooh.” Then he went back to his newspaper leaving me to stand there like a schoolboy. Maybe he didn’t think much of Alex. “I was wondering if you have a moment.” I said. He was about 80-years. Without looking up he said, “First go check up on Jared.” I asked who Jared was and he looked up and said impatiently, “Jared is the reason why we are all gathered here.” I would have felt like an idiot if I wasn’t on my third double.
I found Jared playing video-games in his room. His windows were open and his room was filthy. Typical teenager. He hardly looked up when I walked in, he was in a shuka because he was healing. I watched him shoot some animals with big heads. He was a pretty decent shot. That’s how they are initiated into adulthood now, they fight ogres with green blood.
Before I could open my mouth the old man with white hair arrived at the doorway and barked, “Ask this young man what advice he can give you about life.” The boy stopped the game and looked at me. He had the face of the old man, only with less grimace. The old man asked me, “How old are you?” I told him 40. He grunted like he had kidney stones. The room fell silent. I cleared my throat and said, “well, uhm…life is pretty simple if you want. Always remember that there is no escape here,” I raised my glass of whisky. “Neither is there peace, or happiness that you can’t find anywhere else. In here lives more sorrow than happiness.” The old man shifted his weight on one leg and thrust his hands deeper in his pocket. This encouraged me to plough on. “ Don’t drink to be a better person, to be funnier, to be sexier, or too be more intelligent, to be braver because you might be all these things at that point but the next morning you will still be the same you and your demons. Also, never fill your glass with expensive whisky. Ever. It’s tacky. And lastly, always pour a lady her drink. Even if she isn’t yours. The drink that is.”
The boy chuckled, the old man didn’t. The boy clearly didn’t inherit the grouchiness in the room. We all turned to look at the old man, he was staring at a spot on the floor as if digesting what I had said. I didn’t care if he disagreed with me but I was hoping I had impressed him, a little.
“Open those windows,” he growled at the boy, “this place smells of dead skin.” Then he turned and walked away. The boy, obviously used to him, picked his video-game pad and started playing again, ignoring the window and me. A charming family. I left for a refill, my advice having fallen on the wrong ears.