Lost & Found: Namibian letters
Lara Sieberhagen* writes about a summer afternoon among the dunes of Swakopmund, that would come back 44 years later to shape a touching story of love and loss.
As told to Karel van der Vyver.
I was 18 years old. For our December school holidays, we would go away to Swakopmund in Namibia, and stay with a friend of my mother. It is a small town to which most of the German community of Windhoek would escape for the summer holidays. Back then, people would often comment on my dark green eyes and my hair that reached halfway down my back.
The days were long and dry, and the sky was blue during the day and vivid and red at sunset. It was far cooler than Windhoek and there, we had the luxury of the ocean. It seemed like a simple time; my friends and I would go to the beach in the morning and go hang out at Peter’s steakhouse in the afternoon. Peter’s was an old restaurant in the centre of town and was a Swakopmund institution. It had an archway entrance, its name on cursive letters above the door, with a light that would illuminate the name at night, just kitsch enough to make it charming.
It was one such afternoon where I wandered off by myself, along the Swakopmund mole. The mole was a pier of sorts that pierced into the Atlantic waves and was surrounded by sand and rocks. I made myself comfortable on a dune close to the mole. The sun was setting by then, and the ocean was rough and tumultuous.
A young man – I would later learn that he was 19 years old when we met – approached me and we started to talk. What follows is what I remember, with the natural distortions of memory, and what he would later remind me of.
“What are you doing sitting all alone when everyone else is over there on the beach?” he asked.
“I am not alone. I am keeping myself company,” I replied.
We went on to discuss some of the banalities of life. Where I studied – the German School in Windhoek. Where he studied – the name of which now escapes me. We talked about our interests and passions. I told him that I liked Cat Stevens and he told me that he was reading Herman Hesse; he told me how he was hitchhiking from Cape Town to Angola.
It would be dishonest for me to describe this conversation in more detail, because I can only write what I remember. But beyond the conversation, I remember him sitting to the right of me and I remember the ocean; how loud and wild it was.
He eventually wandered back over the dunes, back to work – he was a waiter at Peter’s – and he drifted across the sand. I had never seen him there before. Or perhaps I had, but never expressly noticed him.
In my mind, that was the end of it. It was a wonderful conversation with a stranger amidst the dunes. Romantic? Perhaps. But something that faded as the days and weeks passed. This summer didn’t seem any different from the one before or the one after; the conversation we had was simply part of the tapestry of the entire month.
I was in Swakopmund for a few days longer, but never saw him again. Perhaps I did not return to Peter’s or perhaps we just missed each other every time.
My life wandered onwards, down to Stellenbosch in the Western Cape where I studied, and eventually to Cape Town. It was here where I met my husband and got married and had two children. Forty-four years drifted past before that day on the dunes would come back, packed into a few sentences sent in an email. By then I was no longer married and was working in the city bowl.
I was sitting in the office on a cold, rainy morning, dull in its repetitiveness, when an email popped up on my screen. The subject line seemed inconspicuous: “Swakopmund Memories” it said.
Here are the first two paragraphs.
“I have predicated writing this mail for some months. However, given my circumstances, I have decided to write to you for reasons that should become clear below. So, bear with me and please read this to completion.
“In 2013, I was given the shock diagnosis of motor neuron disease and sent home with the injunction ‘You have two years to live so go home and put your affairs in order.’”
At first I thought it was a scam; it sounded like a fake fundraiser message for a dying person we sometimes receive. But then I kept reading, as the first paragraph instructed me to; reading all the small details of a time long ago in Namibia that no stranger would ever be able to know.
There was also an extract from the author’s diary, describing our meeting on the dunes. In it he wrote what we spoke about, what I looked like and this line,
“The green-eyed girl on the beach made an impression on me. To put it bluntly, I was smitten.”
His diary detailed how he returned to the mole hoping to find me again, but never did. He had also written a song about me, called “The Girl on the Mole”. He attached the lyrics in a Word document; it was about a page and a half long; and then he concluded: “I hope you are not troubled by this mail. There is nothing covert in my intent. My intent is simple: to send the attached song to the young green-eyed girl who inspired it.”
I was shocked. I didn’t tell my colleagues; it felt like the story was too outrageous – too unbelievable – to tell them. I stepped outside the office and immediately started scanning through my memories for any recollection of this man.
The stranger from the dunes.
At first, things were blurry, like trying to fish something from murky waters, my memory a vast dark lake, his name somewhere far down at the bottom. Eventually, I would return to my desk and print the email and song lyrics. That night, I showed it to my daughter and by the end of the email she had tears running down her face.
And then, memories popped up to the surface, one by one. I eventually replied, two days later, and we started conversing. He told me of his life and wife, how he moved to London after living in Cape Town and we spoke of those distant memories of Namibia.
We also realised how closely our lives interlinked. He knew the advocates that worked with my husband, he knew my brother and I knew many of his colleagues through my tennis club. Throughout the years, there would have been many occasions where we would be streets away from each other, perhaps even in the same street.
We started talking about facing death and the trouble and turbulence that goes with that. I told him that my husband had died a few years ago and he seemed to find comfort in that saying, “You and your children lost their dad tragically. And you went through that tragedy and have survived. The comfort I get is that my wife and children will face losing their dad and will go through what you did. I know that, as painful as it is, they will survive and have rich lives.”
He would later share details of his disease. He explained to me how he was suffering from a slow progressing variant of motor neuron disease, and that he was expected to live no more than five years.
In his first email, he told me how he had fantasised that I had become “an author in Germany and became an expert on Herman Hesse and the poet Rilke”. How different our lives turn out than what we imagined at 19.
It was companionship from a distance, finding out details about someone you met, but might never see again. Eventually he sent a poem that he had written about me called, “The Wild Namib Shore”.
Forlorn and sadness, lonely I roam
Images I have of you, won’t leave me alone
My mind keeps running back to the wild Namib shore
Talking with you above the Atlantic roar
I walked to the Swakop Mole, I hoped to find you there
I stood on the yellow sand and you were everywhere
Time passes by but vivid images remain
Longing to be talking with you again
On the Mole there’s a bench, it’s where I sit down
I see you everywhere, your face is all around
Scanning for emerald eyes and flaxen hair
Instead the Mole is barren and bare
I walk along the Mole, the spray stings my face
My eyes filled with salty tears, of you there is no trace
I’ll think of this again from distant shores far way
Talking with you by the cold Atlantic Spray
He had his book of poetry hand-delivered to me. He had written it after he was diagnosed. It was brown, with a Namibian hunter-gatherer illustration on the cover. It was filled with poems of Namibia’s nature. In the front, he wrote, “This copy is for the shy and elusive, Lara Sieberhagen. With much fondness, John.”
By then, he had sent me the recording of that original song he had written, Girl on the Mole. The lyrics read:
“Long lonely the road
And barren the view
Desert and dune
And crystal moon
This road led me to you
Namib girl clouding my view
Salty the air the first time we met
Deep was the talk as we sat on the sand
Words ebb and flow like the Atlantic tide
Emerald eyes and flaxen hair by my side
Late the day and soon the goodbye
With a wave of the hand and a wink of your eye
So lately did meet, no sooner to part
Swakop girl homeward must start
Misty the day that never you came
Pacing the Mole, skin stung by the rain
Scouring the sand for a glimpse of you
Desert girl, of you sadly no trace
Desolate the Mole in lonely despair
Longings and hopes laid painfully bare
Numb my mind, pained my heart
Swakop girl gone before we did start
Turning my back on ocean and dune
Tarmac flashing by out of time
With every mile images receding
Swakop girl, fading with evening
Namib girl, life without you must start.”
And then, our communication ended somewhat abruptly. His obligations to his wife and children remained his priority.
In one of his last emails he writes, “I am so sorry to drag you into my world. My intentions were benign and nostalgic. This illness makes me want to flee reality and the present into an idealised past. I am so sorry. You have given me comfort.”
We never saw each other again in person. It seems, however, that in those last, hardest months, the fantasy of me and that afternoon on the dunes, was able to numb the pain of death ever so slightly.
Two years after our first contact I received a short message from a friend of his, that simply said: “It is with a deep sense of loss that we mourn the passing of Professor John Smuts*. John lived his belief that the training of psychologists can make a major contribution to change for a better South Africa.” DM/ML
* The name of the characters of this story have been changed.
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