A CHANCE MEETING

The two men laughed, shook hands firmly and parted without looking back. George strode purposefully towards his battered Land Rover and flung his well-worn rucksack in the back, still smiling with the unexpected pleasure of meeting Justin at the top of Mike’s Pass in the Drakensberg. How many years was it since they had last met? He tried to remember, but found negotiating the tight curves down the rough, narrow mountain pass required his full concentration.

He reluctantly acknowledged the churlishness of declining Justin’s invitation to crack open a beer and share their enjoyment of the magnificent view of the Drakensberg peaks stretching out majestically for as far as the eye could see. In fact, George had been on the point of accepting when he caught a glimpse of Justin’s family sitting on a nearby bench … Judith Hellerman! Instead, George had covered his confusion with a rueful laugh and the excuse that he was already late for meeting a companion at the hotel.

Companion? Even as he slapped Justin heartily on the back, for he had been genuinely pleased to see him, George felt the heavy ball in the pit of his stomach and the bitter taste rise in his parched throat. How had Justin managed to get Judith? Why her? He pulled over to the side of the road, smiling reassuringly at the occupants of a vehicle coming uphill. The female driver looked nervous and rightly so too, for the drop below was steep and there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre. George winked at her reassuringly as they passed.

If Judith had called out to him; shown some sign of recognition, even curiosity, perhaps he would have taken up Justin’s offer. Instead she had remained on the bench, only briefly turning round at the object of her husband’s jovial interest before continuing to point out something to her fair-haired daughter seated next to her.

George turned towards the reception area to purchase a soft drink, for the offer of a cold beer had seemingly increased his thirst. He had spent three days hiking alone along the High ‘Berg and still had a long way to travel before reaching the place he called home. Reaching into his pocket for change, George found the business card Justin had insisted on giving him.

“Do contact me George,” he had said. “I’ve missed your company for so long.” That was when they had laughed: George had made a joke about not carrying a supply of cards with him in the mountains. In fact, he thought wryly while sipping the cold bubbly liquid, he rarely gave a card to anyone. Those who really mattered generally knew where to find him.

Having watched the Land Rover disappear from view, Justin shook his head happily as he covered the short distance to the bench where his wife and daughter were enjoying the play of light on the vista of mountain peaks. “It’s almost unbelievable, Judith!” he exclaimed with a grin. “I haven’t seen George O’Mara for at least twenty years and now I bump into him on top of a mountain of all places!”

Judith smiled at him from beneath her broad-brimmed sunhat and lifted her hand for the carton of fruit juice he held out for her. “Is he a good friend of yours?” She continued to gaze at the magnificent view and stretched her legs in front of her as if to catch the sun. Her face remained hidden under the shadow of her broad-brimmed hat and she avoided looking at her husband.

“We shared a flat during our post-grad years. He wasn’t there much as his research required a lot of field trips.” He sipped his beer appreciatively and stroked his wife lightly on her suntanned shoulder. “I’ve often wondered what happened to him; he just dropped out of his doctoral programme and disappeared for months at a time – said he’d moved in with a girl who was the most fulfilling companion a man could hope for. I never met her though. It was as if he had moved to another planet. He shoved all his belongings in the broom cupboard under the stairs and came to collect them about two years later.” Justin drained his can thoughtfully. “Come to think of it,” he said slowly, “that was the last time I saw him – stuffing his boxes into the back of a borrowed bakkie. He said then that he was planning to live in the bush.”

“Is he married?” Judith’s question took him by surprise. She smiled at him with her head cocked to one side while she waited for an answer. “Well,” she asked in a teasing tone, “is he?”

“I never thought to ask.” Justin hoisted his daughter onto his shoulders, enjoying her squeals of delight and the delicate touch of her small fingers in his curly brown hair. “I’d love you to meet him sometime Judy,” he said wistfully, “but come on, we promised to join Tessa and Martin for a game of tennis before tea.”

As he drove down the bumpy mountain pass in his shiny new luxury four-wheeled drive vehicle, Justin reflected on his good fortune: he had done well financially in a relatively short time and had a beautiful, if somewhat mysterious wife …

Judith held her daughter’s hand tightly and said nothing. She was remembering two years of sheer bliss that ended abruptly once she had become too demanding – at least that was how George had interpreted her desire for a home and family.

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