They were ordinary looking notebooks, not formal diaries by any means. There were few, if any, dates for the entries and none were accompanied by a year. Angela might even have thrown them away along with the old savings books, receipts and scraps of paper shoved into a clear plastic bag at the bottom of a cardboard box in the spare room – the other notebooks she had seen contained grocery lists, curtain measurements, calculations of one sort or another, and meaningless scribbled phrases or single words – certainly not worth keeping she thought.

Angela’s first ballet show… these words gripped her attention when Angela bent down to retrieve the book that had fallen open on the floor. There was my beautiful child dressed in her ballet tights, pink leotard and stiff little tutu threaded through with red ribbon, her feet flat on the polished floor and her fingers just touching above her head. I thought my heart would burst. Such an angel she is. The sight of her looking so proud and confident, and her smile lighting up her face, brought tears to my eyes.

Her mother had taken Angela to ballet lessons every week until the end of her Grade 4 year, when she finally admitted that she couldn’t afford them anymore. It was only then that Angela began to understand why her mother worked until so late at her computer on most nights after their homework had been done. Her father had explained at the time that her mother was doing a job called ‘proofreading’. Fixing other people’s mistakes is how he put it. Of course Angela had been angry and bitterly disappointed about giving up her lessons. She could still remember the way she had flounced out of the room, the words I hate you! echoing in her wake.

Angela could feel the warmth rise in her cheeks as she moved to the lounge, where the light was better, to read her mother’s loopy scrawl. Ironically, she now proofread theses and reports in order to help pay for Liam’s music lessons.

Then there had been the fire: that destructive wall of flame that had blown inexorably towards them from the road below their house. All they knew was that the tinder dry veld had erupted when the fierce ‘Berg wind had whipped up the flames that ran along the ground and passed from tree to tree. Their quiet neighbourhood on the edge of the town became engulfed in smoke and fear. Hosepipes were no match for the monstrous flames. Even the fire trucks had seemed like toy approximations of the real thing.

Sally had called to Angela and Peter to take their dogs and to get as far away from the fire as you can! She had joined them on the road a little later; had held their free hands as tightly as she could; and allowed silent tears to course down her cheeks when the burning roof of their house finally collapsed inward, the flames moving to engulf the house next door. They would consume two more before the firemen and hundreds of volunteers managed to subdue them late into the night.

Paging through the notebooks, Angela could find no mention of the loss of their home and most of what they had owned. In an entry simply dated 24/8, her mother had written: In the middle of an area of blackened veld grows a cluster of arum lilies. They were protected from the fire because they were growing in a hollow. They looked beautiful.

Ever since the fire, her mother had refused to have arum lilies indoors. Once, she had remonstrated with the flower sellers who picked the beautiful blooms growing in the wild to sell in bundles on the pavement outside the supermarket. Her acerbic letters to the local press had sparked a debate that had raged for weeks. Even the local Botanical Society had taken up the cause to no avail. Instinctively, Angela had been adamant that there would be no arum lilies at her mother’s funeral. Now, she thought, I know why.

Camping is the only way to truly enjoy the freedom of being out in the open. These words scrawled across the top of another page Angela had opened at random opened a floodgate of memories: her parents pitching their tent while she and Peter sought other children in the camp site they could hang around with; her father always at ease; the wonderful meals her mother provided whenever her father decided not to braai.

They had continued to camp even as her parents’ fortunes had improved. The equipment became smarter and more convenient, but the routine remained the same. Angela recalled with a degree of shame the sad, bewildered look on her parents’ faces when she and Peter had fought their way through a week-long camping trip on the West Coast. According to their teenage perspective, camping had become so boring compared with the holidays their school friends went on. They had never camped together as a family again.

Sitting above the level of the road next to an aloe and almost blending into the arid veld was a young Xhosa boy, his body painted white all over and only partially covered by a light green blanket.  Where had that been?

I have a new perspective on control now. It is not the most competent who are rewarded with status, money, or assistance, but those who fawn, make a song and dance about everything they do, and who are adept at getting others to do their work for them. Only a few more years to go now. I can do this!

Sally had been a hard worker all her life and, after Andrew had died, she had seemed to be driven to keep the demons of loneliness at bay. You two have got your own lives to lead now, she would say to Angela and Peter. Don’t worry about me. Sally had not been one to crow about her successes or complain about her lot in life.

After her retirement she had taken up knitting for charity, spent one morning a week at the Hospice Shop, and continued to help her former colleagues in one way or another until they too moved away or didn’t need her anymore. She drove friends to medical appointments and started a walking group. It was almost as if Sally couldn’t bear to be still until the evenings, when she would set her tea tray on a low stool near the easy chair and read until the early hours of the morning.

The other activity her mother was well known for was bird watching. Angela found two entries tucked among many others:

A Gymnogene alighted in a nearby eucalyptus tree – a good view of it before it flew, almost lazily, away to a tall tree behind the house. What a magnificent bird!

Four Cattle Egrets perched on a farm reservoir. Equally spaced as though standing guard.

Sally had passed her love of birds to Angela’s sons, Liam and Neville, and had encouraged Peter’s daughter, Theresa, to join her at their farm dam. Theresa was now a well on her way to becoming a well-respected bird photographer.

Andrew knows how to braai up a storm. He really impressed the folks tonight. Her father had been a champion at preparing meals over a fire. As he had grown older, so his array of braai equipment had increased and the repertoire of his dishes expanded. Sally used to sit back smiling at the accolades he received, her own contribution of breads and salads generally taken for granted.

Southern Right Whales observed from the reception area. They are recognisable from the shape of their plumes as they blow in the water. Where could that have been? Angela found the lack of dates and place names in the notebooks frustrating. She picked up another notebook and opened it at random.

It’s a toss-up between Kgalagadi and the Kruger National Park. Peace in both – real heaven. Two-thirds of South Africa’s birds in Kruger. Andrew and I must go to the desert soon.

Angela’s parents had migrated to the country’s national parks and nature reserves whenever they could take time off work – and more frequently after Angela and Peter had left home. Until her father had died, they were often accompanied by a grandchild or two. Afterwards, Sally would camp with friends. Typical of her, she worked at them until going to the Kruger Park had become an annual outing. Years later her mother would explain her staying at home as there are too few of us now and we’re all getting old. Why had she and Peter not thought of including their mother in more family holidays instead of only taking her in for alternate Christmases?

Fishing trawler turns 180° in order to leave the harbour.

Angela skipped over several entries like this that meant nothing to her until she happened upon a page with CHILD’S PLAY written in bold capital letters along the top. The fountain pen ink had run in places – obviously something had spilled across the page – yet Angela could just make out …such a pleasure. Funny how some people find the simplest things difficult. Glad I could help Ellen … Vincent was her lifeline … realise I am useful after all!

She felt a dry sob shuddering through her. The open cardboard box upstairs remained forgotten as she probed the hollow within. Her mother had never stopped helping her with recipes, calm advice when the children were sick, explaining how to line a dress, cheering whenever the children did well at school, listening to her rants about work, and always reminding Angela that Simon loved her and was a good father.

The landline rang in the background as Angela flipped to another page: Five o’clock traffic in Cape Town proceeds at a snail’s pace, seldom not more than 5km/hour and often at a standstill. Every lane solid with vehicles. It was Peter. Can you remember Mom ever driving through Cape Town? She could not help the catch in her voice.

What sort of question is that?

I’ve just found her diaries. Angela paused. Notebooks really. I never thought of Mom having private thoughts. You know, opinions, making observations, that sort of thing.

Perhaps we can find a quiet time after Christmas to look at them. Peter’s voice was gruff. He changed the conversation to tell his sister about his new caravan, what his children were up to and how the drought was affecting his crops. Angela listened patiently. Peter never spoke of their mother’s death yet always telephoned her on the anniversary of it. She waited for his acknowledgement. It hadn’t varied in eleven years. Thanks for your message. He would never change.

Through Sally’s notes they would reminisce and get to know their mother as she had never let them in life. After all, thought Angela, she had just been Mom to them.

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