I grew up in several countries, mostly in South Africa. When I was in high school, the teachers exposed us to a wide variety of authors. Most of them I didn’t like. By far the author whom I disliked most was an Afrikaans author named Van Melle. Handsome chap, yes, but I don’t like his work.
I had the choice of getting a miserable grade in Afrikaans literature, or grinding my teenage soul through the depressing world view of this author. Its somber atmosphere hung over the various short stories that comprised the book that the class was being tasked with working through. I got an “A” in that class but I kinda wonder if it was worth it.
One of the stories is named “Just in Time.” As I recall the story: an aging lawyer has a law firm in a small town. Early every weekday morning, he packs up his lunch, puts on his business suit, and heads out the door. Before doing so, he says “good-bye” to his wife, a nice lady who is also very advanced in years, and whose health is failing. She’s bed-ridden. She brightly wishes him well, and off he goes. In the evening he’s back. He doesn’t go into much detail about his day. She’s not surprised; such events would be covered by attorney-client confidentiality. Even so, he exudes the air of a successful attorney and his wife is happy for him, and proud of him. He’s a caring husband, and they spend pleasant evenings and weekends together. And every weekday morning, off he goes again.
What his wife doesn’t know is that he ran his business out of money quite some time ago,and the two of them are living on his meager and almost-depleted savings. He has no office. He’s let it go long ago, since he couldn’t afford the rent or utilities. Every weekday, he wanders the city streets all day, or sits in the park, for enough hours to come home late enough to maintain the illusion that he’s had a full and busy day as a successful lawyer.
He doesn’t know what he’ll do as a fall-back plan when the money runs out, and it’s almost about to happen. There is no plan B. He’s on auto-pilot, focusing all his energy on getting through every day, maintaining the illusions for the intended benefit of his wife.
As to the illusions, they’re pretty far-reaching. He’s not a successful attorney with his own office, any more. There is no office any more. He’s not successful any more. He’s not even an attorney any more. He’s just someone who puts on the clothes for a role that he feels he should play because that’s the image he’s created and someone else is buying into. If his wife is glad that he’s a successful lawyer, then in fact she shouldn’t be. But, most of all, if his wife thinks he’s happy, then she shouldn’t be, because that’s the biggest illusion of all. He’s stressed out and utterly miserable. The closeness in their marriage is fake. There is no shared vision of the world. There’s only the facade of one.
In a way, the man cares deeply for his wife and knows her health is failing, but he prefers to spend 40-plus hours per week wasting time to foster an illusion — rather than spending that time with his wife, enjoying her companionship, keeping her company or tending to her. Maintaining the illusion is so absolute a premise that he is willing to forego all these alternatives.
The author is skilled at his craft, and so although I don’t like his work, I have to confess that it’s good art. He immerses the reader thoroughly in his depressing mindset (not that I needed any more of that, being a transsexual gay Afrikaans teenager in a government school in South Africa was depressing enough).
Anyway, in the story, the man sits around worrying about what to do when the money runs out. The author explains the man’s mindset as totally unconcerned with his own situation, but greatly concerned about the effect it’ll have on his wife. He can’t even begin to figure out how to break the news to her. So, his mind doesn’t even go there. He’s miserable and it’s a misery steeped in inaction, except for the energy allocated to maintaining the illusion.
He looks at his watch. He’d pawn it but then his wife would notice that and wonder what happened to it. And, he doesn’t want to raise even the hint of a suspicion that might endanger the illusion.
He sees that it’s time to go home. With a heavy heart, he makes his way home. Today isn’t the day when the money runs out. It’s still some distance in the future … but it’s not far away. He knows it.
For whatever reason, the man doesn’t even consider the possibility of doing anything else, however minimal, to earn any additional money in the 40 hours when he’s away from his wife. It’s too much of a departure from the illusion, and so his mind doesn’t even go there.
Home he goes. He walks in the front door. Every weekday, he performs the same ritual when he gets home. He takes off his jacket, puts the kettle on, etc. Then, he goes into his wife’s bedroom to greet her after being away all day. Today, he does so again.
As he enters her bedroom, she’s quiet. She’s not asleep. She passed away at some point during the day. He falls to his knees and weeps, an immense feeling of relief overwhelming him. She died just in time, before his savings had run out — hence the title of the story, “Just in Time.”
* * *
To our credit as a species, we are born with the capacity for reason, and without irrationalism implanted in our minds. It takes two decades of bad parenting and government-run schooling to break down the healthy mindset that children initially have. The literature class was no exception of this process at work. Even in as irrational a culture as an Afrikaans government high school, the teenagers in my class still had enough of a reality-based mindset to react very negatively to this story. There was much rampant opinion to the effect that this man was, to put it bluntly, a dumb-ass.
It took much convincing on the teacher’s part to pitch the author’s point of view, that really this could also be seen as someone who was sweet and caring. The teacher wasn’t all too interested in the analyses that maybe the man could have come up with a better plan had he involved his wife in the brain-storming process, and maybe they could have lived more frugally and pawned some items and made the money last longer and be more. Even though he was not a young man, he had much experience and to presume the job market was totally closed to him in every respect was unreasonable too. But even if it was, then he might have been a much nicer husband had he spent his weekdays with his wife, reading together, chatting, playing cards, swapping massages, having sex, reminiscing, whatever. Most likely the wife would have preferred truth and intimacy, by being told what’s going on, even if it wasn’t a happy financial situation. And his business failing doesn’t detract from the fact that at some point, he had indeed been a successful lawyer with his own office. I could go on and on.
Certainly, if this is the sort of mindset that’s championed as a laudable standard, it goes a long way to explaining the general societal meltdown that has been happening in South Africa, where the governmental focus has for a long time been long on fostering illusions and short on focusing on facts.
Much as I dislike the psychological implications of the man’s actions … how he evaluated himself (not worthy of his wife’s view of the world) and of his wife (not deserving of being trusted to handle the truth), my main problem with it is philosophical: its disdain for facts.
I like an approach that deals with facts as facts. For example, it might be socially more mainstream if I were straight, but the fact of the matter is that I’m not. I’m a girl who likes girls. If my enthusiasm for rainbow emblems bothers someone, to where in person or on social media they wanna unfriend me or disown me or whatever, that doesn’t make me any less gay. And no, nobody stuck a probe into my head and had it light up in rainbow colors. And I didn’t go have a dynamic MRI while looking at pictures of naked girls vs. pictures of naked guys. It’s a fact that gay people exist, and the best evidence is introspective, and I have enough such evidence to tip the scale and to conclude that I’m gay. In fact. .
Similarly, it might be socially more mainstream if I were a genetically integrated girl, but the fact of the matter is that I’m not. I’m a girl who was born with male plumbing. If my too-masculine attributes bother someone, to where they look at me aghast, or they wanna unfriend me or disown me or whatever, that doesn’t make me any less of a transsexual girl. And no, nobody stuck a probe into my head and had it light up as proof. And I didn’t go have a dynamic MRI for this either. It’s a fact that transsexual girls.exist, and the best evidence is introspective, and I have enough such evidence to tip the scale and to conclude that I’m a transsexual girl. In fact. .
Do I hide this? No.
And yet, the foster-the-illusion approach in the story is a close parallel to how many gay people or transsexual girl live. Their daily actions build illusions for those who are unaware that the person is gay or a transsexual girl (or both). Psychologically, the individual is miserable, and is fundamentally not the person whose life they’re pretending to live. But they will maintain that illusion at any and all expense, even if this means they are deeply miserable. As to the people being kept in the dark, they’re presumed to have the same disdain for facts, and they’re presumed to be untrustworthy of being able to handle the facts.
If you now go re-read the story, and look for parallels between it, and the lives of gay or transsexual people hiding their true nature, you’ll find many. It’s not a happy story.