21 BERTRAM ROAD

It is easy enough to drive past the unassuming gate set into the rough stone wall along Bertram Road. The numbers two and one have been removed so often, be they brass, black metal, aluminium, wood – even laminated paper! The numberless gate blends into the overgrown hedge and the canopy of trees casting deep shade over the uneven stone path leading to my home. It suits me for this is my sanctuary where I slough off the cares of the day – or at least weep in private.

My privacy is well protected. Apart from the physical perimeter of my tiny walled-in garden, the neighbours on either side lead busy lives of their own and pay scant attention to mine – even now.

Once, Richard and Heather saw me coming home from my regular afternoon walk and invited me to supper. “We’ve been neighbours for two years already,” Heather beamed, “and we ought to get to know each other.”

Richard accepted my offering of wine with a grunt of appreciation and disappeared, leaving me to chat to Heather in the kitchen while she stirred pots and tossed the salad. “This is just a casual meal,” she warned. “Rich and I got back much later than intended.” She waved a spatula towards some cardboard boxes piled on the counter behind her. “We’ve been shopping for lights.”

I listened to her need for spotlights here and a ‘bold industrial’ light there and wondered if Richard really shared her enthusiasm.

He reappeared just before the meal was served. I gathered during the course of the evening that, while she is a legal secretary in one of the local law firms, Heather is the home-maker, while Richard’s interest is in studying insects. My lack of interest in beetles and inability to genuinely enthuse over the sky lighting in the lounge meant that we drank a lot of wine and I staggered home to brew the coffee I had not been offered.

Witnessing Richard several weeks later in a romantic embrace with the mother of one of the children I teach probably sealed my fate: I have not been invited next door again and my early neighbourly attempts to reciprocate the invitation have been rebuffed with variations of “We lead such busy lives. Richard has taken up cycling too, you know. Sometimes he comes home very late.” Indeed. We still wave in passing though.

I had more luck with Bruce and Tina, who accepted my invitation to drinks and snacks with enthusiasm. I heard all about the previous occupants of my home – apparently a dreadful couple – and their equally awful cat that used to terrorise the birds in the neighbourhood. Tina complained endlessly about Bruce spending so much time with the Woodwork Guild and how expensive maids and child carers had become. As I do not employ a maid, have children, or work with wood, it was not surprising that we drank a lot of wine before their early exit.

Nonetheless, Bruce appeared unexpectedly at my gate a month or two later with a mirror he had framed with driftwood collected from the beach. “It seems to suit the rustic nature of your home,” he shrugged over the cold beer we drank while sitting on the steps overlooking my small vegetable patch. He admired my butternuts and told me how to encourage some health into my ailing lemon tree. “You won’t tell Tina?” He wiped the foam from his upper lip and sauntered off with a smile.

The message was loud and clear: single women are deemed to be dangerous! Still, my vegetable garden has benefitted from basil seedlings, trays of tomato and spinach seedlings, and once even a brinjal in a pot. I sometimes find these just inside my gate, hidden behind the Plumbago that threatens to take over that section of the garden. We remain on waving terms, while I try not to smile too broadly at the odd wink from Bruce – all in good fun you understand.

Teaching is a full-time and demanding occupation which offers few opportunities for meeting and getting to know interesting people. I wouldn’t look twice at any of the single men I work with – all they talk about is sport and the children they teach. I occasionally enjoy lunching with Anna and Iris sometimes gets me to accompany her to Book Club if I have the evening free – I have become a sort of ‘honorary’ member, for which I am grateful.

21 Bertram Road has an overgrown garden and a drab interior I blame on a lack of both time and money. It is not really the haven I make it out to be. Actually, I feel quite lonely at times.

Joshua and Lara, as well as Tom and Jessie, are friends I feel I have known forever. One or other, both, or all four, make a point of dropping by now and then or inviting me out, so I am not the recluse I might otherwise have been.

One day Tom showed me some wood he was varnishing in his garage. “I picked it up for a song,” he told me proudly. “Look how the grain shines through now.” He knows Bruce from the Woodwork Guild and what a keen gardener he is. In fact, he has sometimes brought me plants from Bruce – mostly what he does not have space for.

“Look at these swatches of material,” Jessie called from the lounge. “If you were recovering my couch, which one would you choose?” We chatted easily over wine and snacks. I stayed to have supper and helped Jessie stuff some pretty cushion covers she had made.

“Help me cut these fiddly shapes,” Lara asked me some weeks later while we were waiting for Joshua to finish braaiing our lunch. As she is a pre-primary teacher, I wasn’t surprised at her request. We must have cut over a hundred shapes from white plastic discs before Joshua speared the meat on our plates and grumbled good-naturedly about the bread rolls not having been buttered.

“How long are you going to be away for?” Joshua and I were stacking the dishwasher together after lunch. Earlier we had commiserated about me having drawn the short straw to accompany the netball teams on a tour of Johannesburg schools at the start of my holiday.

“A week and then I’m flying straight to Cape Town to visit my brother and his family.”

“You still want me to meet you at the airport on the 27th?”

“If you are sure you don’t mind.” Joshua and Lara are good mates. “I can get a shuttle if something untoward crops up.”

I caught a whiff of the most delectable cooking as soon as I got out of Joshua’s car. My home was in complete darkness, the streets were deserted and the ball of loneliness was already threatening to oust the joy of Cape Town and Joshua’s bubbly banter during our trip back from the airport. It was my thirtieth birthday; I felt hungry and couldn’t help the gnawing disappointment that Joshua had clearly forgotten. That meant Lara had too: she usually baked me a cake to mark the occasion. Now, I realised, there would be nothing. Joshua would leave and I would have to make friends with my loneliness once more.

“Someone’s going to be enjoying a delicious supper tonight,” I remarked wistfully, while retrieving my bag from the boot. “I should have thought to ask you to switch a light on; this path can be treacherous in the dark.”

In reply, Joshua took my bag and steadied my arm as we picked our way down the broken steps and along the uneven path to the front door. Richard and Helen must be in food heaven, I thought as my stomach growled. I swear my nostrils had flared to catch more of the delicious cooking aroma!

While I was fumbling for my keys the front door swung open. The lights flashed on and I was greeted with a chorus of “Happy Birthday!” My friends! My dear, dear friends!

“Look!” They called in unison: my drab lounge had been transformed with newly painted walls, my couch recovered in the material I had chosen and piled with the cushions I had helped to stuff. All those fiddly plastic shapes now formed an enormous lamp shade on the ceiling that brightened the room. The light fell on the beautiful coffee table made from the wood Tom had ‘picked up for a song’.

I didn’t know what to say. The kudu horns leaning against the wall caught my eye at the same time as the familiar figure coming towards me bearing platters of food. “The horns are my contribution,” he smiled at me. “You have admired them a few times when you brought your dog around.”

My dog? I don’t own a dog. True, I’ve helped Lara a few times when she’s needed to take Toby to the vet. The vet! Morgan Wood! The most gorgeous man on the planet in my house with my friends on my birthday!

“We heard he was an excellent cook,” Joshua laughed meaningfully as we tucked into the delicious Italian food Morgan had prepared with the assistance of the others.

21 Bertram Road really is my sanctuary now: Morgan and I unwind there after our working days are over. We try to go for long walks as often as possible and I have even spent many a night sleeping on the floor of his veterinary clinic as he has kept vigil over an animal in distress.

Mostly though we garden. Lately, we have been involved in a building operation. In true fashion I have not had to worry about the décor: my friends have been only too happy to help, leaving me to nurture the little one who will occupy the nursery in a few months from now.

Morgan assures me he has helped a lot of cows give birth. Jessie and Lara do not share his enthusiasm. Neither do I!

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