THE GUEST FROM LONDON

“What on earth is this?” Timothy stared at the glossy picture of a sheep wearing a garland of yellow roses and scarlet hibiscus flowers. It looked as though the sheep was about to lick the camera lens, it was so close. He considered the marble-like yellow eye for a moment before opening the card that had borne a South African stamp. Inside was Liam’s familiar scrawl:

I’ve sold out mate. Lisa and I are for keeps. Would love you to join us. Details printed alongside.

He scanned the printed details. Rusten Lodge. Timothy opened a new tab on his computer screen. Rusten Lodge was tucked into some familiar mountains in the Eastern Cape. He rubbed his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully and felt a lump in his throat as a rush of memories flooded in: playing marbles with Liam at primary school; falling out of a tree behind the farmhouse and skinning his back – Liam’s mother had rubbed some yellow ointment on it, ruffled his hair and said “You’ll live”; riding horses to the furthest fences on the ridge that formed the boundary between his parents’ farm and Liam’s.

Then there was Rozanne: the girl with long brown hair that never remained tied up for long. She used to bring her horse from a neighbouring farm and the three of them would race across the veld before tethering their horses in the shade of the trees that clustered near the edge of the mountain stream. As they grew older, Rozanne always brought something delicious for a picnic: sandwiches, vetkoek stuffed with cheese, muffins … she once brought along squares of a quiche she had filched from the spread her mother had set out for her Book Club meeting. Timothy remembered the way his mouth used to water in anticipation of what would come out of Rozanne’s saddlebags.

Then Rozanne went to study at the University of Cape Town.

He and Liam attended Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Then the Bedfords sold their farm and only a year later so did his parents. He remembered Liam’s intense disappointment for he had always intended to farm. His focus had been on farming ever since Timothy had known him. He had studied botany and zoology at university, then took on the management of a large mixed farming enterprise while Timothy focused on his B.Com. He had always dreamed of going to work in London.

Work in London.

When had he last seen Liam? They had hiked along the Otter Trail two years earlier when Timothy had visited his parents. Rozanne had joined them with a group of friends from Cape Town. All the talk of political and social turmoil that formed the focus of their fireside chats during that trip had convinced Timothy he had made the right decision to make London his home.

Home?

“I’ll be there!” Timothy sent his friend a WhatsApp message and turned back to his work.

Who is Lisa, he wondered later as he walked up the narrow steps leading to his bachelor apartment. Liam wasn’t a great communicator, but then neither was he.

Rusten Lodge turned out to be further than he had thought from looking at the map. Timothy parked his rental car under a grove of trees and strode along a paved pathway towards the small white chapel surrounded by trees, shrubs and a variety of flowers. Other latecomers slipped in ahead of him. Liam was talking to someone in the front pew, so didn’t see him come in. Timothy found a seat in the back pew as the bridal party arrived and the congregation rose to sing the opening hymn. Liam looked so happy! Timothy knew he hadn’t felt truly happy for years.

He scanned the congregation in front him, but found it difficult to recognise anyone from the back of their heads. He didn’t know either the bride or her two attendants. Surely he hadn’t been away for that long?

He felt embraced by the air of casual friendliness that characterised the congregation; something he hadn’t experienced in London. There his strong Eastern Cape accent alone set him apart and made him an object of curiosity. At least, that is how he felt, for he seldom managed to get past the ‘where do you come from’ when meeting in a crowd and had soon realised there was little point in explaining the rugged beauty of the land of his youth; or how easily he had felt at home in the wildness of the mountains and the attraction of the open veld.

At home.

Looking around, Timothy realised that none of the men he could see were wearing suits – his own dark one was definitely out of place – and most of the women sported open sandals. Except for the pair of bright red shoes peeping between the pews mid-way down the aisle. They were certainly out of place, Timothy smiled.

As the service progressed, he began to feel a connection with the unknown wearer of the red shoes: she clearly didn’t mind being different. Since moving to London, he had done his best to ‘blend in’. Now that suited camouflage was out of place – he should have known better! Despite the cool breeze wafting in through the open sides of the chapel, Timothy began to feel uncomfortably hot.

“Take your jacket off young man,” the elderly woman sitting next to him murmured. She patted his knee lightly. “Nobody will mind.” Her companion wore khaki trousers and an open-necked shirt. It was a great relief to fold his jacket and place it on the pew on the other side of him.

Another hymn. As the congregation rose, Timothy felt drawn to the red shoes and the tanned arm brushed by unruly long brown hair. Could it be? If only the woman would turn her face!

Liam greeted him warmly as he and Lisa stood to one side to greet the throng of guests emerging from the chapel. “It’s so good of you to come. Lisa and I will catch up with you later.”

Timothy had just accepted a glass of chilled fruit cocktail from a passing waitress when he heard a loud authoritative voice call his name. “Timothy Gray! Why didn’t you tell me you would be here?” Those red shoes carried a young woman charging towards him at speed, her long brown hair already blowing free of any clips. She enveloped him in a bear hug that sent his glass flying. “How I have missed you!” Rozanne kissed his neck, his cheeks and gave him a theatrical peck on his lips.

He managed to hold her at arm’s length for a moment to look at her sparkling eyes, sunburnt face and broad smile. What has it always been about Rozanne? Timothy hugged her warmly. “It’s good to see you Roz.”

She drew back and, with one arm tucked firmly around his waist, half turned to the small group of guests gathered round. “Hear this: ‘it’s good to see you Roz’,” she mimicked him perfectly – just as she had learned to mimic the calls of some of the birds they had regularly seen in the veld. “This from a man who simply left!”

“Roz! Rozanne, don’t do this to me,” he pleaded softly. He pulled her closer and kissed her gently on her mouth, now oblivious to the cheers and claps from the onlookers.

“Timothy,” she had never called him Tim, “I declare you will be my partner this evening and that you will never leave me again.” Her warm breath tickled his ear.

It was well after the wedding speeches were over when Timothy drew Rozanne outside to enjoy the warm rose-scented evening. He held her hand tightly. “What did you mean by ‘never leave me again’?”

Rozanne pulled on his arm so that he sat down on a low brick wall next to her. “What’s happened to you Timothy? You used to be so free; you used to laugh a lot; you were such a daredevil – then you left to become a stuffed shirt. I got the impression you didn’t want to be on the Otter Trail with us – you were so serious for much of the time.”

“I did. I loved it, only you were surrounded by your Cape Town friends and so I never really had the chance to talk to you. I mean ‘really’ talk to you.” He kissed her lightly on her forehead before moving away from her slightly. “So yes, I suppose I realised then that I had lost you and so I let you go.” He held her fingers in his. “How’s Cape Town by the way?”

Rozanne laughed loudly and punched him lightly on his shoulder. “I don’t live there anymore. Hasn’t Liam told you that I run a herd of Nguni cattle on my parents’ farm?” She leaned into him. “City life just isn’t for me.”

Timothy kissed her again. It felt so right to be here among the kind of people he had grown up with. He felt a freedom that had been missing for a long time as he looked at Rozanne in the semi-darkness. It felt so good to be with the woman he was sure he had loved forever without knowing it. Timothy took both her hands in his. “After all this time, I realise that city life doesn’t suit me either.”

15 thoughts on “THE GUEST FROM LONDON

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