WHAT ARE YOU RUNNING AWAY FROM?

“What are you running away from?” Jock’s brown eyes bore into mine. The hot engine smell of his 4 x 4 wafted over me along with diesel fumes and the scent of a man who spends most of his days working outdoors. His face looked grim.

“Nothing. I’m not ‘running away’ from anything.” I knew I sounded defiant even though I was gasping for breath. My hair was blowing about my face and my sun-reddened cheeks and dusty boots did not create an image of a calm, dedicated hiker. Besides, I carried no rucksack; no bag of any kind. It was just me in the middle of nowhere with the daylight fading quickly.

He nodded towards the passenger door. “Hop in.” Jock had already started the throaty engine. He glanced sideways at me but said nothing as we rocked our way over the twisting corrugated dirt road that wound down the other side of the hill I had staggered up earlier.

Jock remained silent and didn’t even look at me when I automatically got out to open and close the three farm gates we had to pass through to reach his home nestled among the grove of trees his great-grandfather had planted. If he even noticed me limping, he gave no sign of it. I could have worked those gate fastenings with my eyes shut, having regularly opened and closed them since I was a child.

I sat immobile when the engine fell silent. I was exhausted and was afraid I might burst into tears. Not in front of Jock, I told myself sternly while trying to force my breathing into a more regular rhythm. He left me sitting there without a word. I saw him greeting his dogs before walking across the yard to speak to his foreman, who had obviously just parked the tractor. Jimmy glanced briefly in my direction, clapped Jock on his shoulder and moved away. These were busy men at the end of what had obviously been a busy day. I leaned into the hard backrest of the truck seat, stretched my painful legs and closed my eyes. Even then I couldn’t soften the rigidity of my body. Every muscle felt painful.

“You need a shower. Even the dogs won’t come near you with that pong.” Jock opened the passenger door. His voice sounded harsh, yet I could see the kindness in his eyes. Jock has always been kind to me. Kind and impatient. He was impatient now.

“I haven’t got all day, Julie. The dogs need to be fed and I’ve got work to do.” He touched my arm gently and I gingerly eased myself out. I felt stiff and sore all over. Deep down I wished he would put his arm around me; hug me; or at least ask if I was okay. He didn’t.

“I’ve put a clean T-shirt and tracksuit pants on the spare bed. Don’t use all of the hot water!” I could detect a hint of teasing in his voice.

Of course the tracksuit pants were too long for me and they felt unwieldy after I’d rolled the bottoms up several times. My wet underwear was laid out on the windowsill where it would hopefully dry overnight. I left my jeans and soiled T-shirt heaped on the wooden chair next to the bed and practised breathing steadily. In and out, in and out I told myself as I padded barefoot down the long wooden passage lined with framed ancestors and other items depicting the long history of Eagle Ridge. Jock was the last Stevenson male in the family.

He was setting the bare wooden table when I entered the kitchen. “Wine?” He raised his eyebrows in expectation along with a bottle of red. I nodded, not yet trusting my voice.

“Cheers then.” Jock smiled tightly as we settled down to deep earthenware bowls filled with pasta and sauce. When had I last eaten? What had I eaten? I detected aubergines, tomatoes, garlic, bacon and a hint of ginger. Jock had always liked ginger.

I reached for my glass and gripped it tightly. “Cheers – and thank you.” I looked at him properly for the first time since he had met me on the hill. I’d been walking for several hours by then and never heard him driving up behind me. My ears still carried the shouts of abuse, my own screams and the rasping of my laboured breath. I tucked in hungrily, acutely aware of the sauce dribbling over my swollen lip and down my chin. I wiped it away with the back of my hand. Jock tilted his chair to reach a roll of paper towelling on the shelf behind him. He tore off a square and slid it along the table towards me.

“Do you want to talk about it?” His voice had softened.

“No.” I got up to refill my bowl from the cast iron pot on the stove. “Would you like some more?”

“I’ve had enough thanks.” Now his voice carried a grim undertone. I had become adept at recognising what lay underneath words.

I ate slowly, aware of him watching me intently. Did he see what I had seen in the bathroom mirror? I took a small sip of wine and willed away the well of tears. “Jock, I’m sorry. I should have struck out in a different direction. Perhaps I should have accepted the lifts I was offered while I was still on the road.”

“You’re far too proud to have done that.” His chuckle was genuine. “The story of you leaving school when you were six is legendary.”

I blushed. My family used to farm next door to his. I revelled in that environment which had been my world. When my parents explained that I would be going to boarding school in the nearest town I wouldn’t hear of it. I howled when the bright blue metal trunk was loaded into the back of the truck. I screamed when my mother unpacked my clothes into the narrow metal locker next to the narrow metal bed in a long, narrow dormitory filled with other snivelling girls looking on.

“I hate you!” I shouted at my mother when she bent down to give me a last hug and refused to go with her to say goodbye to my father waiting outside. “I hate him too!” I remember yelling at her before burying my head in the too-hard pillow.

I endured school for three days then disappeared. That lunchtime I followed a knot of daygirls out of the school gate and walked along the road leading away from the school. “Where is your mother?” A strange woman looked down at me from the window of her shiny car.

“I’m meeting her at the hairdresser. She’s expecting me.”

My father found me walking along the road on the outskirts of town, still clutching my little brown suitcase. My parents kept me at home for two days until the Sunday afternoon. Although I’d known him before, this was the first time I really ‘met’ Jock. We had shared a meal with the family at Eagle Ridge as my parents had offered to take Jock, who had been ill, back to the school hostel with me. He was three years ahead of me and was quite used to boarding school.

“It’s not all bad,” he told me quietly as we sat together in the back seat. “You mustn’t cry though or I cannot be your friend.”

I hadn’t cried and Jock has been my friend ever since.

My parents divorced while I was in my final year of school. I hated the fact that my mother had moved in with Leonard Fenn, the accountant who had overseen the farm finances, and refused to visit her until Jock, already in his final undergraduate year, invited me to their farm for the short holiday before my exams. During that time he persuaded me to invite my mother to the matric farewell dinner – without Leonard – as well as my father, who had not remarried. “You can do it Julie. I know you can.” I have always been determined to meet Jock’s challenges.

I had learned to ignore the girlfriends he brought home from university: they couldn’t drive a tractor, or shoot, or change a tyre, or fight a veld fire. I watched from a distance as they flirted and giggled, while they sipped wine and sat in the shade on the lawn in front of the farm house. Even when I happened upon Jock kissing a dark-haired girl called Olivia, I didn’t flinch. They could do whatever they liked because I knew that Jock would be my friend forever.

“Whatever happened to Olivia?” I was cradling a mug of hot tea while stretched out on the comfortable sofa in the old fashioned lounge. Jock had made very few changes since he had taken over running the farm.

“Who is Olivia?” He looked up from stroking his dog.

“The dark-haired girl I once saw you kissing in the shed. You both had straws of hay in your hair.” I smiled as much as my swollen, sunburnt lips would allow.

“She’s probably married with three children by now,” he answered indifferently. Then he put down his mug and sat next to me, lifting my feet onto his lap. I felt the warmth of his jeans and responded to him gently rubbing my aching foot with a groan of unexpected pleasure.

Jock deftly thumbed his way around my left foot, obligingly pressing the arch in the right places and then squeezed and pulled my toes until they hurt. I felt a tingling in my spine and lifted my right foot for its share of attention. His hands were large and strong. I closed my eyes, sipped the last of my tea and almost purred with pleasure. Then he stopped. Abruptly.

“Who made that bruise under your chin?”

I stiffened. The triangle of muscles between my shoulders and the base of my spine tightened in a painful contraction. “I probably bumped it. I stumbled a few times.”

“Funny how stumbling makes marks on your arms too,” he observed, still looking at me intently.

I stared at him over the rim of my mug, willing my dam of tears to dry before they spilled over. “You mustn’t cry though or I cannot be your friend.” Jock’s young voice and the earnest look he had given me that day was etched on my mind. He reached across and gently lifted the over-sized T-shirt that had ridden up from my waist. I became so rigid I thought my spine might snap and stared at him. Wide-eyed.

“I must take old Major out for a pee. Captain will probably jump all over you when he comes in.”

Now what? I tentatively felt the welts that had risen in bands, criss-crossing my back and my stomach. Jock was talking to his dogs on the veranda.

“Don’t hurt her Captain, she’s been hurt enough already. Gently now,” he was saying softly while he brought in the large cushions his dogs liked to sleep on. I heard the grandfather clock in the passage chiming ten. The sounds of Big Ben were both comfortingly familiar and alarming: I was keeping Jock up late. He’d probably been on the go since before sunrise.

I knew I wasn’t being fair. Jock had welcomed me home with a simple hug after my two-year self-exile abroad. My brother, several years older than me, had sold our farm that he had inherited, saying it was too much of a hassle and he preferred living in the city anyway. “I’m sorry we couldn’t afford to buy it,” Jock had whispered into my ear at the airport. “I’m glad you’ve come back.” I spent a month with him and his elderly parents until my teaching job in town began. Jock had already taken over running the farm by then.

“This is going to be a long night.” Jock passed me a wine glass filled with Amarula and ice. “You can’t keep running away Julie. Let’s face this thing together.” He sat down heavily in the chair opposite me. His face was drawn with weariness, but his eyes remained kind. His eyes were always kind when he looked at me.

I sipped at the thick, sweet liquid. Jock and I had explored every inch of their farm during our school holidays. We watched birds, tried to catch frogs, and once, he put a Brown House Snake down my back. It is the only time I witnessed his father hitting him.

Hit. Beat. Whip. Lash. I shuddered. “You once told me you couldn’t be my friend if I cried.”

“Did I? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry. Not even when your Dad died.”

“You were holding my hand so tightly then that I didn’t dare cry.” I choked on my drink and put the glass down on the small side-table next to the couch. There was a tennis ball in my throat.

“You okay?”

I nodded, again fearful of that dam overflowing. The icy droplets on the outside of the glass were a balm to my flaming cheeks. “What happened to Nolene? I thought at one stage that you had married her while I was away. That’s why I moved in with Dennis.”

“I couldn’t. She’s a lovely person but was always better suited to Preston. He’s a lawyer in Knysna now.”

I bit my lip and shuddered as a dry sob escaped. My pretend cough couldn’t hide it so I took a large swig of Amarula. Jock moved next to me again. “How did you know where to find me?” My voice was barely audible for it stuck around the furry tennis ball. He resumed gently stroking the top of my feet.

“Ever since I have known you, you’ve escaped to the furthest point from whatever has hurt you. That’s why you left the country when Basil put the farm on the market.” He pulled each of my big toes in turn.

“Why did you look for me?” The dam was filling faster than I could blink away the tears so I looked down at the drink I was cradling in my lap. My blurred vision conjured up the creamy layer that floated on the water when waves crashed on the rocks. I could hear the rush of waves in my ears. If I concentrated hard enough, the pounding waves drowned the shouts and the whistling sound of the belt as it caught me again and again. I held the stem of the glass so tightly I wondered if it might snap.

Jock gently prised my fingers away from it. His arm slipped around my shoulders, bringing me upright next to him. “Your mother phoned me. Dennis told her you had walked out on him during the night. When she called round this morning she saw your clothes and books lying in the garden.”

I could still feel the pain at the back of my head where my collected works of Shakespeare had connected. I didn’t know about the clothes.

“He must hate me,” I whispered, still not trusting my voice. I had been living with Dennis for eight months.

“He’s hurt you.” Jock slowly lifted his T-shirt over my head. I didn’t move as his eyes examined the welts and bruises. He touched a particularly large bruise on my side. That is where Dennis had kicked me. “Why?” Jock replaced the shirt and moved to sit slightly apart from me.

“He is manipulative. So kind and loving in public, but a bully behind closed doors. He told me you had married Nolene. He invited me to share his house when my flat lease wasn’t renewed. He pretended to love me but all he really wants is the money he assumes I got from the farm. He’s been pressuring me to marry him. It’s all because of this non-existent money. I told him yesterday that I was leaving and he got angry.” My bottom lip trembled dangerously. “You mustn’t cry though or I cannot be your friend,” I whispered, knocking back the drink. “I’ve always wanted you to be my friend.”

“Julie, I was only nine then!” Jock pulled me closer. I could smell his sweat-stained shirt along with dog hair and traces of soap on his hands. I felt his fingers gently caressing my arm. His lips touched my hair and I could feel his warm breath on my sunburnt scalp. “I was nine Julie. Is that why you try so hard not to cry?” He drew me closer until I rested my head on his chest and sobbed. Deep sobs that bubbled up from the pit of my stomach. Wracking sobs that tore at my throat. Sniffling sobs that wet his shirt and dribbled down my cheeks.

Jock passed me a handkerchief. He is the only man I know who still uses handkerchiefs. I dabbed my eyes but the floodgates had opened; nothing could stem the flow. I blew my nose noisily and sobbed some more. All this time, Jock held me close and stroked my arm, slowly and rhythmically, up and down, up and down. He lifted my chin at last and looked at my tear-ravaged face. “You look awful,” he smiled. “Splash your face while I boil the kettle.”

“She’s fine, Sarah. There’s no need to come.” I heard Jock talking to my mother. “It’s only fair that she knows,” he explained on my return.

He led me to the spare room, moving my crumpled clothes from the chair to the floor. He propped two pillows behind me then left to fetch the mugs of hot chocolate. I was shivering in spite of the creeping warmth of the duvet. My teeth chattered and my hands shook involuntarily. I held the mug with both hands as he brought the chair next to my bed.

“Why did you head this way?” His voice was gentle.

“I’m tired of pretending that all is well. I was frightened and I knew Dennis wouldn’t think to look for me in the veld. I didn’t really think. I just wanted to come home.”

Jock took my hand and kissed it. “It’s taken you a long time.” I felt warm. The muscles between my shoulders began to ease as he leaned forward to kiss my cheek. “Welcome home, Julie.”

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