Thomas wiped the sweat off his forehead with an already damp handkerchief and stuffed it into the pocket of his frayed shorts. “Is Friday the best you can do?” The despair was evident in his voice.
“’Fraid so. Thursday’s a public holiday, you see. No-one delivers on public holidays.” The owner of the panel beaters kicked the tyre of the trailer the two men were looking at.
“Pity I can’t tell the cows not to provide milk on a public holiday,” Thomas muttered. “Look, is there not a temporary fix you can make? I’ve still got a load of cabbages to deliver this afternoon and the milk cans must go to the dairy tomorrow morning.”
The panel beater took in the suntanned face of the young farm manager, his work-stained clothes, the stockings rumpling around his ankles and the sturdy boots stained with mud and oil. He smiled kindly.
“We can remove the tailgate – we need to match it anyway – and I’ll see if we’ve got some piping we can do a hatchet job with. It’ll be nothing fancy mind.”
Thomas tried to cover the growling of his stomach with a cough. “I just need something to keep the cabbages in. How long might it take?”
“About two hours I reckon,” the man replied. “Leave the trailer here until three. We should have rigged up something by then.”
Three! Thomas had been up before dawn to supervise the cutting and bagging of the cabbages for market. There had been no time for breakfast as he had needed to get to the next town before the market opened at half past seven. The coffee he had downed there had long since evaporated in the heat. His stomach growled again. Man, he was hungry! If only he hadn’t stopped at the road stall in the hope of a bite to eat, then that stupid driver wouldn’t have reversed his truck into the back of the trailer! He’d missed out on the food anyway – fortunately the quad bike he’d brought back for Mr. Keneally had been unscathed.
“Sure,” he said gratefully. “I’m going to grab a bite to eat and deliver the cabbages in the bakkie to the supermarkets. Would you give me a call if it’s ready any earlier?”
The two men unhitched the large heavy-duty trailer and parked it next to the workshop. Thomas slid into his seat and started the engine of his 4×4 truck then set off for town with a wave. He was really hungry now.
A fast-food place would be the quickest. Thomas settled into a seat at a table next to the window, from where he could keep an eye on his truck filled with cabbages while he ate. The glass of water the waitress had brought barely touched sides as it went down. Thomas leaned back, savouring the smell of cooking, almost salivating in anticipation of the plate of chicken fillets and chips he’d ordered. He inhaled deeply. There would be time to savour a cup of coffee afterwards, then he would deliver the cabbages to the three supermarkets in town. His cell phone rang.
“Theresa.” He couldn’t help sounding disappointed. His neighbour wanted him to pick up a load of fencing materials from the farmers’ co-op on his way back from town as her husband’s truck was still being serviced. “Sure thing. I might be later than planned though. Something’s cropped up.”
“Your chicken, sir.” The waitress placed his plate of steaming food in front of him and moved the circular tray of condiments towards him with practised ease.
Thomas checked that no-one was interfering with his truck while he extracted the knife and fork from the tightly wrapped paper serviette. He popped a hot chip into his mouth with his fingers and bent over his food. Man oh man, he was hungry!
The first forkful of chicken almost melted in his mouth. Thomas resisted the impulse to wolf the meal down. After all, there was plenty of time. The cabbages could wait. Theresa and her husband Harold could wait. He chewed slowly, keeping an eye on his truck parked on the other side of the street. There were so many beggars in town these days, one couldn’t be too careful. Ernest du Toit’s truck had been broken into only last week, a side window smashed … Thomas leaned forward to take his next bite.
“What the blazes? Hey! What are you doing?” he shouted as a hand plucked the two chicken fillets from his plate. A figure disappeared through the open glass door. “Someone has stolen my chicken,” he bellowed, almost upsetting the flimsy table in his haste to rise.
“We’re onto him sir.” The young manager and someone from the kitchen raced out of the door and sprinted down the pavement already crowded with afternoon shoppers. Thomas followed in hot pursuit and then lost them as they dodged between pedestrians and vehicles, crossing the road to the next block. Damn! He’d left his cell phone on the table! He hastened back and arrived out of breath, relieved to find the waitress had it in her apron pocket.
She brought him a glass of water and smiled sympathetically. “I’m sure they’ll catch him this time, sir. Alan nearly caught him last week but tripped over a root that lifted the pavement outside the undertakers.”
Thomas stared at the now cold chips on his plate while he tried to control both his breathing and his rage. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the two men frogmarching the thief back to the eatery.
“We got him, sir.” The kitchen assistant – he must be Alan – smiled broadly. “I tell you, last week I nearly caught him only I _”
“Tripped over a root on the pavement outside the undertakers,” Thomas finished for him.
Alan’s eyes widened and his face took on an excited glow. “Jissie, you heard about that already? I tell you, this time I said to Mr. Gough, I’m gonna catch this thief. And I did!”
Thomas looked at the man dressed in filthy rags, his hair matted with dirt, his bony knees shaking through the holes in his flimsy trousers held up with a length of plastic rope. “This is him?” He felt the need to fill the awkward silence as his stomach growled an angry response.
“We are pretty sure he is the right man.” The manager turned to the thief. “Where is the chicken?”
The thief gingerly reached into a filthy plastic shopping bag still clutched in his grimy hand and pulled out the chicken fillets. Slowly, one by one, he returned them to the plate in front of Thomas. Silence reigned. The three men and the waitress looked at each other. No-one moved. Even the other diners had fallen silent. Thomas felt snagged in time. His stomach growled again.
“What now?” the manager asked. “Do you want to press charges? It is your chicken after all.”
“Well, you’ve already paid for it, so it is technically your chicken.”
“Perhaps we should just give it to him.” The waitress nodded towards the thief.
“Never!” Alan tightened his grip on the hapless man. “You know how fast I had to run to catch him, hey. I tell you, this time I just flew through the crowds. No thief is going to get away from Alan Harmse if I can help it!”
“What do you want us to do?” The manager asked quietly.
Thomas looked at his watch. His stomach growled just as his cell phone began vibrating in his pocket. He picked up his sweat-stained cap and stood up. “I just want to go home.”