by Richard Albertse
George, Southern Cape, RSA
One sunny autumn afternoon in March, 1976, a friend and I peddled hard up an incline towards his house. The sun shimmered brightly off Tom’s black, thick-framed bicycle. You would never see his bike with so much as a grain of dirt on it. I had a state-of-the-art ten-speed racing bike. I shifted gears, and as I bent over, I got a glimpse of Tom’s shining school shoes. My quiet friend was always neat and tidy, but his clothes were old and worn. Not for the first time, I wondered if he owned anything else.
We turned into a street lined with small dilapidated railway houses. Tom opened a gate, and through we went. I got off my bike and leaned it against the garage wall. It was a small, whitewashed house. The tiny patch of lawn was neatly mowed. Tom’s mother was hanging up washing a few steps from a beautiful flower bed. The three shrubs I could see were perfectly trimmed.
We went in by the back door. The kitchen had a sink cupboard with white and pink striped lace curtains; a small kitchen table with three chairs stood between a thin corner cupboard and an ancient stove. Everything was spotlessly clean.
All in all, I counted only five rooms. Tom had a bed, a one-door closet, a table, and the fourth kitchen chair in his room. A couple of books leaned against the wall in one corner of the table, and on the other corner stood a model steam engine – Tom’s pride. The wheels were slightly elevated from the table-top. Tom opened a small bottle and poured the whole contents – a few teaspoons of special fuel – into the model steam engine. He pressed a button and stood back, sighing. His face was a mask of anticipation. We held our breaths. A minute or two passed. Then a wisp of thin smoke escaped the funnel. Tom leaned down and gently shifted a small lever. The machine started huffing and puffing. The wheels turned – first slowly, and then faster and faster. The smoke now bellowed out in small blue-grey misty clouds. Three minutes ticked by. All too soon, the engine stuttered and died. I looked up into Tom’s face. His face was cracked open wide with a great big smile. He was so happy!
I grew up in a home where wealth was constantly gradually increasing. My wardrobe grew from only two sets of hand-me-down Safari suits and school clothes to a substantial number of expensive, new, fashionable clothes. I took it all for granted. We weren’t rich, but we were definitely not poor. But I was still a kid. I did not appreciate what I had … until I visited Tom’s house.
There I was, in this plain and simple house. These people had almost nothing, yet they were happy and content. The contrast between my wealth and my friend Tom’s poor existence were so great. I got perspective. I will never forget how happy and content they were, with so little.
It is better to have less to live with, and more to live for. Thank you, Tom, for unknowingly teaching me the value of being content with what I’ve got.