THE STORIES WITHIN US

In his autobiography, The Outsider: my life in intrigue, Frederick Forsyth explains that within the mind of a writer entire worlds are created or erasedPeople come into being, work, love, fight, die and are replaced. Plots are devised, developed, amended and come to fruition or are frustrated … In children, daydreaming is rebuked; in a writer it is indispensable.

Few of us think our lives are particularly interesting or remarkable enough to record. If we did, publishers would be inundated by autobiographies. Yet, eavesdrop at dinners or the meeting of strangers on holiday and you will become attuned to the stories plucked from the lives of ordinary people to inform, build bridges, or merely to entertain. We all have a story to tell.

Some of these anecdotes have been told so often that partners often finish them for each other, or egg each other on towards the highlight. The familiarity of these stories fixes them, making them difficult to change. They nonetheless get retold to show an alternate side of ourselves to people who have come to know us in a different context; to confirm our allegiances to others; or to illustrate the connection between the present and the past. An element of trust is at play when we share our personal stories.

This was particularly evident when I attended a series of workshops a few years ago. The participants were issued with pens and paper and, as we sat in a circle, we were asked to write down various aspects of our lives on cue – describe one of your most frightening moments; an occasion that made you face your innermost fears; a choice you made that was out of character for you. Of course these did not happen all at once, but as we diligently set about writing in response to the first instruction, none of us realised we would be required to share them.

Sometimes we read them ourselves. At other times a randomly chosen partner read them on our behalf; yet on other occasions we were asked to talk about the particular experience during a shared ‘chat session’ with yet another randomly selected partner. As uncomfortable as this was initially, the experience proved to be both interesting and enlightening. We ended up being surprised at the hitherto unknown inner strengths, fears and accomplishments of colleagues who gave no hint of such things on the surface. We unwittingly learned about empathy, respect and to realise that so much more lies behind the faces we work with every day. I recently threw out my notes from those sessions. Before doing so, however, I reread what I had written and surprised myself by what had been laid bare – I would never have imagined that anything in my life was ‘write worthy’, yet some aspects of it had been gently coaxed out of me.

No matter the occasion, when people are together for any length of time, an exchange of stories will begin. This might be in the form of a tentative exploration of where we come from; a delicate process of sussing out what we have in common; an exchange of opinions; or even a confession of sorts about health, personal circumstances, concerns or joys.

Stories are part of the way we understand our history and shared anecdotes go a long way towards understanding the lives of the people within our social and working orbit. In this sense, the stories we tell about ourselves can be powerful – as are those stories we tell ourselves while seeking an understanding of where we are, why we are, and what we are becoming.

Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety is a marvellous depiction of the friendship between two couples through their waxing and waning fortunes, as well as their trials and tribulations spanning forty years or so. Their back stories and shared experiences form the weft of their relationship, weaving their lives together with increasing strength and flexibility.

I have just finished editing the first draft of my late father’s memoirs. On the surface he was as ordinary a person as any of us are: a miner, a farmer, an amateur historian, a husband, a father and grandfather. If only I had known about this endeavour before he died, I would have been able to explore so much more! What a story he has to tell of life as we will never know it again; of courage and perseverance; of love and adventure. It proves the point that the unfolding of our lives are stories with no end. As ordinary as they may be, they help others to make sense of our lives and they deserve to be shared – at least with the next generation.

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YOUR MOMENT

YOUR MOMENT

A double rainbow. Surely that would mean double the luck? “I used to chase rainbows all over the farm as a little boy,” Andrew murmured while taking another picture of the intense rainbow standing out in full brilliance against the moody grey sky left by the sudden shower of rain.

“I used to associate rainbows with God’s promise not to flood the earth again.” Sophie turned from the window from which she had been watching the reflection of a windmill in the slate-coloured surface of the dam nearby. “Don’t laugh. Young children can be gullible, you know.”

Andrew’s dimpled smile made her feel silly. He switched on the engine and resumed their journey into the gathering darkness. “I always preferred the crock of gold theory,” he laughed. “What changed your mind?”

“Switch on the television news and there is bound to be coverage of devastating floods in one place or another: people being rescued from rooftops, being dug out of the mud,” Sophie shivered involuntarily. “I often wonder what those people feel about rainbows.”

“They probably hope it is a sign the rain has come to an end. Many floods are the outcome of bad land use practices somewhere along the line: deforestation, ignoring the flood lines when building, ploughing the wrong way …”

“Now you’re turning a rainbow into something really serious.” The teasing tone in Sophie’s voice elicited a chortle from her companion.

“When one works in the wild as much as I do,” he responded defensively, “one realises the urgency of maintaining a balance between so-called development and the overall health of our planet.”

He slowed to turn into the tree-lined driveway leading to Sophie’s family home. She clicked the remote in her bag and they both watched the spiked railing gate glittering in the headlights as it slid open.

“I hope your folks won’t be too worried about us arriving so much later than we thought we would.” The touch of anxiety in Andrew’s voice was new to Sophie. It was her turn to laugh confidently.

“I let Mom know we were watching lions at the waterhole. Dad will understand: he’s always after that ‘perfect shot’, so Mom is used to waiting.”

They walked hand-in-hand along the curved brick path leading to the front door.

“Hello!” Oscar Chambers opened the door before Sophie could even turn her key in the lock. He hugged his daughter then shook Andrew’s hand warmly. “Welcome to our family,” he boomed. “Jane is in the kitchen. Come through.”

Andrew took in the cosy-looking kitchen, the aroma of freshly-baked bread and the simplicity of the table setting as the family sat down to the evening meal. He felt relieved Jane had chosen the kitchen rather than the formal dining room he had glimpsed on his way through the house.

Oscar wanted to know about the animals they had seen during their three-day visit to the nearby game reserve. “I always try to get shots of the Big Five,” he commented. “Not all at once though. Finding them is half the fun.”

“I like the smaller creatures too though,” Sophie ventured. “Andrew’s taken a lovely shot of a rock monitor basking on top of the wooden posts flanking the path leading to the bird hide.”

“Your lion pictures are good too?” It was clear where Oscar’s interest lay.

Much later that evening Andrew and Sophie cradled warm mugs of coffee as they sat on the veranda watching the moon rising. Both felt relieved the first meeting was over.

“My parents think you are a ‘fine lad’ who will go far,” Sophie whispered, snuggling against Andrew.

“Do they know yet that I’m whisking you away for a week in the Baviaanskloof during your next break?” Andrew squeezed her hand. “You’ve been rather coy about that.”

“Well, it’ll be less dangerous than our white water rafting experience after Christmas. Dad didn’t really appreciate that photograph of me falling head-first into a rapid!”

Andrew pulled her closer. “That was your moment,” he said softly. “It was your cheerful reaction to the rough and tumble of that trip – and the way you turned the air blue at the baboons marauding our camp – that made me look at you in a different light.”

A DUBIOUS CHARACTER

Russel was dubious about their decision to hike to Josh Kushner’s farm. Their plans, concocted in whispers long after lights out, had grown more elaborate over the weeks of Stygian gloom and darkness in their wintery dormitory. These included leaving carefully rolled towels in their beds to pass the sweeping check Mr Lewis did sometime between ten o’ clock and midnight, before he went to bed.

“It’s easy man.” Josh had sounded convincing. “Just leave your schoolbag behind the lavender hedge under matron’s window after evening prep.” They’d agreed on taking a toothbrush and toothpaste (“My Mom will feed us to the pigs if we have stinky breath,” Josh had warned), packets of biltong, two water bottles each and apples filched from supper. Not everyone liked apples, so that part would be easy.

So would leaving the dorm. They had discovered that the side door leading to the rear of the building was never locked. It opened onto the covered area matron used for drying clothes during the rainy weather and led to the rows of refuse bins standing guard all the way to the metal gate set into the high wall facing Williams Street.

When the squeaking of that gate proved to be a possible giveaway, Josh filched an oil can from the maintenance area behind the junior cricket pitch. “Hey, boy! Where are you going with that oil?” He hadn’t expected to be discovered by the enormous Mr Garwood, the Estate manager, who now loomed over him.

“Sorry sir, I’m not stealing it sir.” Josh managed to look contrite, then shrugged his narrow shoulders in a helpless gesture. He turned his freckled face towards the menacing looking man. “They always catch the farm boys you know.” He looked down at the workshop floor then expertly mimicked the voice of Geoff Holmes, the House Prefect in charge of his dorm. “Bloody gate plays on my nerves Kushner. Get rid of the squeaking pronto!”

Mr Garwood smiled and ruffled his hair. “He’ll get his come-uppance one day. Put that oil can back where you found when you’re done – and remember to ask next time before you take anything!”

“Yes sir. Thank you sir.”

Upon hearing about this encounter, Russel could feel his feet growing colder than before. “I don’t want to be a wet blanket Josh, but perhaps we should wait until the connection between you and the gate is forgotten.”

“Do you know how long memories take to fade in this place?” Josh hissed his disapproval. “You’re the first of your family to come here so it’s natural you don’t know.” He paused to watch the senior boys moving off the stands to ready themselves for their track running exercises. “It takes hundreds of years!”

“Never!” Russel countered, only to find Josh’s face pressed close to his.

“My grandfather still remembers being given a hiding with a leather strap and having to stand in the corner of the dining room for three days without food!” The two boys walked across the cobbled driveway towards their boarding house.

“Smith! Kushner! Come here on the double!” Both boys shuddered involuntarily at the fierce command from Geoff Holmes. “Take these roses to Leslie Evans at Cunningham House. Tell her to go to the Ball on her own. I’ll see her there after we get back from cricket.”

“Yes, Holmes.” Josh almost shouted as his body stiffened in response to receiving the three pink roses he knew must have been picked from the Headmaster’s garden.

“Thank you for choosing us, Holmes,” Russel responded quietly, giving a mock salute as he did so. “Who does he think he is?” he grumbled under his breath as the two friends changed direction towards the girls’ boarding houses.

“Far too big for his boots, my Dad would say.” Josh walked quickly, leaving Russel a step or two behind him. He hated the cat-calling (“You’ve got a girlfriend then Josh?” from the older boys) and the way some of the older girls crossed his path with “Ooh! Are these for me?” He ran the gauntlet of couples chatting outside the drama studio and looked around for Russel. “Coward!” he said aloud in his head then looked up in surprise as his friend sauntered down the path from the IT Department ahead of him. “Hey! How’d you get there?” he couldn’t avoid the note of admiration in his voice.

“Slipped past the back of the boys all focused on you, climbed through the gap in the hedge over there and walked away from IT as if I’d been there. We’re home and dry.”

Well, as dry as they could for they still had to endure a wait on the steps of Cunningham House until Leslie Evans came to collect her flowers. “No note?” Her voice was sharp even though her eyes brushed over them kindly.

“He said you have to go to the ball on your own because –,“ Russel began, then stopped as Leslie tossed the roses into the garden next to the steps.

“I hate him! I hate that low-life.” She walked away quickly, but not before the boys glimpsed the tears in her eyes.

“There is no cricket on Saturday.” Russel sounded shocked. “At least, Holmes isn’t in the away cricket team.”

“Of course he is! I had to clean his kit last night after prep.”

“No he’s not. I heard him telling Mr Newman that he has to attend an aunt’s funeral in the afternoon.”

“He’s lying.”

“I also heard him tell his mother he has to be back by nine o’clock on Saturday night.”

“So, he’s going home and to the dance.” Josh clenched his fist. “My father says honesty is the best policy always.”

Yet, are we not planning to be dishonest, Russel worried at the thought until the supper bell rang.

“Smith! Kushner! Report to the Housemaster’s Study straight after supper.” Holmes was the duty prefect. His voice barrelled through the supper babble like a missile fired in their direction. Silence followed in its threatening wake.

Mr Lewis didn’t look pleased. As the boys were ushered into his study their eyes fell on the roses they had given to Leslie. “The Headmaster’s wife grows roses to win prizes at flower exhibitions. Did you boys pick these ones?” His voice had an oddly sad edge to it.

“No sir,” the boys replied in unison.

“Have you seen these roses before?”

The boys nodded in unison and shifted uncomfortably on their feet. “Yes sir.”

“Sir, we were asked to deliver them to Cunningham House.” Russel stepped forward, his eyes bright. “We were just given them, sir.”

“Who gave them to you?” There was a note of steel in the otherwise pleasant timbre of his voice. Just then the door opened quietly and Holmes, as the duty prefect, entered the room. “Glad to see you made it Holmes.”

“A senior boy sir,” Russel’s voice wavered. “It happened in a rush while we were on our way to the prep room.” Both boys eyed Holmes, who stood smirking inside the door.

“Enlighten them Holmes.”

The hateful prefect stepped forward with a slight swagger. “I saw these boys come out of the Headmaster’s rose garden. When I confronted them they begged to take the flowers to their girlfriends. It was a dare sir. I know I shouldn’t have let them go, but the roses had been picked and I couldn’t let the honour of the House be compromised.”

Both boys rubbed their aching bottoms as they made their way to the dormitory. They had been excused from having to go to the prep room and could work at the end table in their dormitory. Holmes had offered to oversee them weeding and watering the rose garden during the session between sport and supper every day for the next three weeks: one week for every rose picked.

“I’ve always thought he’s a dubious character,” Russel whispered as he watched Josh stack his books neatly on the table.

“It’s time to go.” Josh patted him on the back. “Let’s be off.”

“Now? What about the beds? Our provisions?”

“No time for that! I’ve had enough of this so-called justice. We’ve been framed and people will remember us as thieves for the rest of our lives!”

“But we aren’t thieves. We’ve done nothing wrong.”

It was easy following the path past the dam and over the golf course to join the main road on the edge of town. The boys encountered very little traffic; most vehicles were travelling in the opposite direction and the boys hugged the shadows as best they could. Then a car travelling towards them stopped. “Where are you going lads?” A friendly voice from a hidden face reached out in the dark.

“We don’t require a lift thank you sir,” Josh called out confidently. “We’re on a night hike for endurance and are due to be picked up shortly.”

As they watched the vehicle being swallowed up by the night, Russel ventured to ask. “How far is your farm Josh? Shouldn’t we accept the next offer of a lift?” He could sense Josh’s angry shake of the head as they trudged on.

“I’m sick and tired of being ordered about, of being the fall guy and of being treated like dirt!”

“What if we get expelled?”

“They won’t expel me,” Josh sounded defiant. “Kushners have been at that school since it was founded in the 1800s.”

“My scholarship might be revoked.” To his chagrin, Russel could feel an uninvited tear roll down his cheek. He wiped it away fiercely. “This thirst is killing me,” he said gruffly.

A 4×4 bakkie roared to a halt next to them. The boys had been too tired to hide from the searching headlights. “Hey! Is that you Joshua? Is this your friend Smith?” The door opened and a broad-shouldered man got out to walk towards them. “Some night walk lads. I think you’ve gone far enough.”

“Uncle Tom!” The relief in Josh’s voice was palpable as he was scooped up in the man’s strong arms. “Please don’t take us back to school! Not now!” Russel hung back feeling shy, yet elated at the crack in Josh’s voice.

“Smith?” The man called out in the dark, one arm still around Josh. “Come on young man, I know of several people who will be as pleased as punch to see you boys. Hop in.”

“How did you know to find us Uncle Tom?”

Uncle Tom laughed and playfully punched Josh on his arm. “Your school tracksuits are a dead give-away. A passing motorist complained about the so-called night exercise. Mr Lewis called your Dad and as I was having supper there, I decided to come.”

Russel had never experienced such a warm homecoming. No shouts, no recriminations, just warm drinks, thick cheese sandwiches and warm, comfortable beds in a bedroom the school would have fitted six into.

It was two mornings later when Josh’s father fingered his coffee mug and looked earnestly at the boys still crunching their toast. “Have you boys heard of Martin Luther King Junior?”

“We learned about him in history.” Josh spread a thick layer of marmalade on his remaining slice of toast.

“What do you know about him Russel?”

“He was a civil rights leader. I think he died sometime in the 1960s – I know it was a long time before I was born.”

“Good.” Mr Kushner’s eyes met those of his wife across the table. “We think it’s time you two scamps return to face the music.”

“But we’ll be marked by doubt forever! You told me people still remember that woodwork teacher who stole the money –“

“That was a long time ago and the man was guilty. Now, Martin Luther King Junior is known for saying one who condones evil is just as guilty as the one who perpetrates it. We think you boys will be speaking for many when you tell the Headmaster exactly what has been happening to you – and his roses.”

MOTHER’S QUEST

I wrote this story seventeen years ago and dug it out today after reading a report entitled How a carrot found my diamonds at https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/world/2017-08-17-how-a-carrot-found-my-diamonds/

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Life on the farm had always been difficult.  Only six months after her wedding Mom lost her engagement ring while helping with the potato harvest in Land 4B.  She never stopped looking for it.  Even when the farm dam dried up and the drought threatened the maize crop, Mom wouldn’t entertain the thought of selling the farm.  “We’re in this together David,” she would say. “The weather must change before long.”  When her mouth set in that firm line we all knew there was no point arguing.

I spent a week at ‘The Cobb’ to celebrate Mom’s sixtieth birthday.  It was a sombre week as Dad was in hospital with pneumonia.  Steven, my brother, came down on his own, having left Norah to manage their small public relations business in Johannesburg.  He had never wanted to farm.  “Too much hard work for low returns”, he had often said to Dad’s great disappointment.  Even when we were very young he hated what we called ‘The Struggle’ which passed for daily living on the farm:  the tractor would break down or a fence would need fixing; a cow would have problems calving or the prize bull get bitten by a snake.  Lack of rain seemed a perennial problem and we always had to be on the lookout for some pest or other which might attack the potatoes.

Mom and I reminisced about a lot of these and other things as we walked along the edge of Land 4B.  Aubrey had taken the children back to school and I tried not to think about how they would all cope without me.  I was using a week of my precious leave to be with Mom.

“It’s always the daughter,” Mom observed while we walked along the familiar path.  The late afternoon sun highlighted the ripples of bright yellow flowers of the sun hemp in bloom.  “You really don’t have to stay with me my dear.  I’m quite capable of driving into the hospital and your own family needs you far more than I do.”  Her blue eyes met mine under the shade of her wide-brimmed straw hat that was somewhat frayed at the edges.

“I want to stay,” I said, pulling a grass stem from its protective sheath and chewing the juicy sweet end of it.  I suddenly realized I did want to stay; I wanted to really get to know Mom again without being concerned about Aubrey and the children or sharing my time equally with Dad.

In between our hospital visits, when we could reassure ourselves that Dad was definitely on the mend, Mom and I did so much together.  We made bottles of tomato jam and planted out the cabbage seedlings she had bought from a vendor near the post office.  I cut her hair and she massaged my back with her strong, gentle and oh so capable fingers.  When I remarked on her hands she stopped manipulating my muscles and sat with them folded in her lap, her fingers caressing her wedding band.  “I’m a silly old woman,” she said quietly, changing our carefree mood to a more sombre one.  “I really do wish that I could find my engagement ring!”

Dad had given her a beautiful diamond-and-sapphire band for their silver wedding anniversary.  I remembered how Mom had smiled sweetly at him, dabbed her eyes and resolutely placed it on her right hand.  Nothing would take the place of the diamond-and-emerald engagement ring which had belonged to his grandmother.  That same afternoon she was back, fine combing land 4B with our unenthusiastic assistance.

Mom’s eyes shone with unshed tears and I remembered a time when I was about fourteen.  We had spent a weekend at a cousin’s farm, ‘Gold Hill’; not named after the gold mines Mpumalanga is well known for, but because a prominent hill on the boundary always catches the afternoon light and is a delight to watch at sunset, when the colours change from bright gold to a warm pink, softening to a deep grey before it is overtaken by the darkness.

Steven and I had climbed Gold Hill with my cousins before lunch on our last day there.  Halfway back to the farmhouse I realized that my daisy bracelet was missing.  I’d only had it for the four months since my birthday.  Everyone was hot and irritable and Dad was particularly angry for the beautiful enamelled bracelet had a ‘cost a fortune’ he said.  Mom reacted quite differently.  She declined tea after lunch and patiently set off down the path I had followed.  I remember the set look of determination on her face and was comforted by her gentle insistence that I show her exactly the route I had taken.  We found my bracelet lying in the grass: it must have hooked on the barbed wire when we took a shortcut across the cattle camp.

I looked at my mother still staring quietly out of the window, wrapped in her own thoughts and bravely keeping her fears about Dad’s health to herself.  I hugged her tightly.  “Thank you, Mom.”

“Whatever for?”  She smiled, startled out of her reverie.

“For finding my daisy bracelet.  I’ve just been remembering how grateful I was but probably didn’t know how to show it.”  We laughed and made tea before driving to the hospital.  I felt a renewed determination to help Mom find her ring.

By 1992 my parents had celebrated their forty fourth wedding anniversary, my mother had turned sixty five and I was wondering whether life really did begin after forty.  Christmas that year was very special, it being the first time for ages that the whole family was together.  What made it even more memorable was that Ursula and Shane had brought their baby, Beryl, to meet her great grandmother for the first time.  My own sons were fascinated by the baby, but weren’t very pleased when Terry brought his fiancée, Valerie, to meet the family on Christmas Day.  Marriage was far from their teenage minds.

Mom loved having us all around her.  So did Dad, yet I could see the noise and bustle had been tiring for them.  We sent them off to rest after dinner, while Norah, Ursula, Valerie and I washed the dishes.  Aubrey, Steven and Terry gathered the children together for what had become the traditional treasure hunt.

The story of a lost treasure was alluring and my sons, Robert and Sean, had always returned with an interesting haul consisting of broken china and pretty stones, including minute quartz crystals (“Are you sure those aren’t diamonds, Gran?”).  Mom always rewarded them with an ice-cream or something from her cookie tin and carefully put away their treasures.  She had usually enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with her grandchildren on these outings, which her own children seldom attended. This year she had decided to stay at home with Dad.

Land 4B was lying fallow that year so Terry and Steven laid a grid of string across a small section of it, while Aubrey placed large numbered pegs in each square.  The countdown began as, armed with garden rakes, tins with holes in the bottom for sieves, bags and anything else we thought might be useful, we all set to work in groups on our squares.

When no-one appeared for tea and Christmas cake Mom came looking for us.  The land was having a thorough ‘going through’.  All of us were sweaty and dirty, but carried on our task with a will as the string squares limited the individual searches and helped to make them more thorough.  Mom sat quietly under the umbrella where Beryl lay sleeping.

Soon after her arrival a blood curdling yell came from a square near the middle of the land.  All work stopped immediately.  A snake?  A scorpion?  A deathly hush followed.  Sean was huddled over something in his square.  I dashed across in time to see the clean rivers of silent tears coursing down his dust-covered cheeks.  He found his voice.  “Gran!” he shouted, his voice cracked with emotion and ending in a high-pitched squeak which would have embarrassed my thirteen year old at any other time.

Mom stumbled over the clods of earth and nearly tripped over the string lines half buried in the overturned soil.  She knelt down next to Sean and gently prised open his tightly clenched fist.  We crowded round in awed silence to watch. “Is this it?” Sean whispered hoarsely, still staring at the dirt-encrusted object in his hand.

Mom picked up the dirt encrusted ring and slipped it on her finger, forty-four years after she had lost it.  She hugged Sean tightly.  There were no words, no shouts of joy from anyone as we left them alone and retrieved the string and the tins, the rakes and everything else we’d brought with us.  Only when Mom and Sean reached the edge of Land 4B did we cluster round, exclaim and wonder.

“Thank you all,” Mom said, wiping the happy tears from her lined face.  “Thank you.  My quest is over.”  We watched her leaning on Sean as they slowly made their way to the farmhouse where we joined them for the best Christmas tea ever!

CAMO-MAN AND HIS DOG

“Dogs are not allowed in the reserve.” Leon spoke sternly to the older man wearing a camouflage-patterned hat and T-shirt, noting the shiny brass and copper bangle adorning his bony right wrist.

“Muffy won’t harm anything,” Camo-man responded. “She goes everywhere with me.” He flashed a grin of even white teeth against a deeply tanned skin, revealing a deep dimple in his right cheek.

“Not here she doesn’t.” Leon stared at Camo-man unflinchingly. “The rules clearly state that no dogs – or pets of any kind – are allowed.”

Camo-man was fondling Muffy on his lap. “Come on, man, she’s just a little dog.” Was the man wheedling or whining? Either way, Leon was in a hurry to check on the roadworks near the waterhole some distance ahead.

“Take that damned dog back to reception or leave,” he said tersely, slightly revving the engine of his 4 x 4 bakkie to emphasise the point. Why did Camo-man look so teasingly familiar? “I’ll radio through for Jonas to keep it in the yard. Are you planning to be here for long?” He was already holding the receiver to his chin.

“No, no, she wouldn’t like that.” Camo-man nuzzled the little dog’s fluffy neck. “You wouldn’t like that, would you Muffy girl?”

“Best you get going then.” Leon eyed him curiously. “I’ll radio them to expect you.”

At that point, Muffy leapt out of the car window and raced into the veld barking furiously. “Muffy! Oh Muffy! Now you’ve frightened her!” Camo-man was visibly upset and opened his door. “Muffy!” he called helplessly. “Muffy!”

Leon glared at him, replaced the receiver, switched off the engine, and opened the door of his truck in one fluid movement. “Stay there!” he ordered Camo-man and set off after the little dog trotting ahead in the long grass.

“Muffy!” Leon felt stupid calling out such a name for that floor-mop of a dog. “Muffy, come here!” The dog stopped briefly, wagged its tail furiously and tore off after a Three-striped Field mouse scampering between tufts of grass. It got away, leaving Muffy looking bewildered. “Muffy.” Leon’s voice was gentler now. “Come here, Muffy.” He sat on his haunches, extending his hand towards the dog.

In the background he could hear Camo-man still calling his floor-mop. “Come here girl.” Leon eased his way forward. “You’ve had enough adventures for one day.” The dog edged closer until Leon could just fondle its ears. “That’s it, Muffy. This is no place for you.” He could stroke the floor-mop’s back now and watched the fluffy tail wagging at full speed. With a quick movement, Leon scooped up the dog and, holding it firmly against his chest, he strode back to the car.

“How can I thank you enough?” Camo-man was standing next to his car as they approached. “Muffy! You were a bad dog. A very bad dog,” he remonstrated as soon as he had taken charge of his floor-mop once more. “You could have been eaten by a lion or a leopard – or even a hyena!”

“See why dogs aren’t allowed in the reserve?” Noting the obvious attachment between Camo-man and the floor-mop, he spoke more kindly. “You’re welcome back at any time – but without the hound!”

As Leon settled back behind the steering wheel he became aware of Camo-man asking softly, “Do you ever come into town?”

Leon stared at him in surprise. “Of course, why?”

Camo-man held out a card. “Man, I owe you a meal. Join me at the Ball and Beetle sometime for supper. I’ll be there for the next ten days.”

Leon nodded, stretched out to take the card and waved to Camo-man who was driving away with his windows rolled up. What an odd-ball Leon thought, slipping the card into his shirt pocket. He drove off to check on the repairs being done to the road ahead, still wondering if he had ever seen Camo-man before.

Much later that afternoon, Leon halted to watch two black rhino emerge from a mud bath in a pool next to a road not yet open to tourists. He marvelled at their steady, myopic gaze in his direction and at the patterns of the mud drying on their hides. He guzzled the last of his water and wiped the back of his hand across his brow: another day without lunch, he thought grimly as he headed for home.

It was four days later that Leon wearily entered his house as the sun sank behind the hills, tossed his sweat-stained hat onto a chair and opened the fridge: not even a beer greeted him – a clear reminder that it had been a while since he had purchased supplies in town. He sniffed at the contents of a closed container on the bottom shelf, wrinkled his nose and tossed it into the bin. Now what?

He idly picked up the card Camo-man had given him and turned it over, then he smiled broadly: Camo-man was actually Philip Redfern, the country and western singer whose music had kept him company on the many long trips he had made between the Eastern Cape reserve and his parents’ farm in the Lowveld. Philip Redfern! That’s why Camo-man had such a familiar look about him. Impulsively Leon dialled the number on the card.

“I’ve missed lunch again,” he said bluntly after introducing himself. “Any chance of that dinner tonight? I could do with some company.”

“Sure thing.” Camo-man – Philip – sounded oddly pleased. “It gets lonely on the road too. Stay for the show, or at least a part of it. I start singing at around eight.”

It takes all sorts to make the world, Leon mused as he changed into a clean khaki shirt and trousers.

MY GRANNY’S ALBUM: 2

Here are three more pages from my Grandmother’s autograph album. These entries date from 1903 to 1905. It is amazing to think this was done by hand – such a labour of love, patience and good penmanship:

These cats have each got such a character. The headline of the lefthand newspaper reads: FRESH RATS Just imported 1/3 per lb. Cheap. Take your chance. The middle newspaper reads: FOR SALE Tinned mice, locusts, rats etc. All arranged in latest style. The righthand newspaper reads: Music allsorts … A Rat Hunt to be held at Ratfield on Cat Monday. Wonderfully intricate detail!

 

This is a fun entry too:

THE WALK

“Do you need some help?”  Jennifer was surprised by the friendly voice behind her.  She turned round carefully, conscious of the weight of the little boy on her shoulders.

“Not really,” she answered brightly.  “He could probably walk a little way on his own now.”  She lifted her hands towards the boy.  The man stepped closer and reached across to lift the boy from her shoulders.

“Your little chap?”  He smiled at her.

She coloured slightly.  “No, No not at all.  I don’t know who his parents are.  His name is Jonathan.”  She bent down to address the boy on his own level.  “You’ve done very well, Jonathan.  Look, the water truck is coming up the hill.  We’ll wait there for your Mom.”

“My legs are a bit wobbly still,” the little boy answered earnestly.  His face and arms were still flushed red with the vain effort to keep up with the older boys, who had soon forgotten him in their race to reach the picnic place first.  A deep scratch ran down one leg, and showed flecks of dried blood here and there.

“Nothing for it then old man, I’ll give you a ride up the last part of the hill.”  The man hoisted the boy onto his shoulders and fell into step with Jennifer.  “I haven’t seen you on these farm walks before,” he observed pleasantly.  “Are you new to these parts?”

“In a way I am I suppose,” she laughed.  “I’ve been teaching in town for nearly two years now.  Our school secretary suggested I come on this one.”

“Would that be Kay Elsworthy by any chance?”

“The same.  Do you know her well?”

The man shrugged, despite the weight on his shoulders.  “I used to court one of her daughters when I was a student.”  They reached the road as the light blue bakkie pulled to a halt under an acacia tree.  Jonathan wriggled free and ran up to the old man emerging from the cab.

“Gramps!  Gramps!  Look at me, I got wounded!  There was blood and everything!”  All his tiredness seemed forgotten.  The old man ruffled the boy’s hair and lifted him onto the back of the truck.

“Well done, lad.  You see to it that everyone has a drink of water.”  He handed Jennifer and her companion each a plastic mug of iced water.  “First come get served clean mugs – not  so, Jonno boy?”  The boy nodded solemnly for he was scowling at some of the older boys who were returning from their hiding place a little further up the hill.

Below them Jennifer observed a string of walkers emerging from the riverine bush and winding up the grassy slope towards the truck.  Most were in pairs or threes, with a few walking in slightly larger groups.  Everyone seemed to be chatting.  As the first group came closer to the truck, Jennifer noticed a pretty young woman detach herself from the group and move with quickened strides towards the water truck.  She accepted a mug of water from Jonathan then turned on the young man engaged in conversation with Jonathan’s grandfather.

“Geoffrey, I thought we’d come on this walk together!”  She sounded angry.

“We were, it’s just that you got talking and I felt like having a leg stretch.”  Jennifer watched him place his arm loosely around the woman and continue his conversation with the older man.  She moved away from the group, momentarily overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness.

“I don’t really belong here,” she whispered to herself.  Yet, it felt so right being out in the open at last.  She breathed in the scent of dry grass and drank in the view of the distant mountains fading to a hazy blue.

Jennifer walked to the picnic site on her own.  The group of small boys raced ahead of her and, as they neared a patch of natural forest, a teenage couple overtook her.  She smiled at the feigned indifference of the girl and the eager, half-chasing movements of the boy.  The rest of the walkers were some distance behind her, slowed down by conversation.

“Hello, Jen!”  Kay Elsworthy called from a trestle table loaded with boerewors rolls and slices of watermelon.  “I’m so glad you could come.  The rolls are R10, 00 each and you pay for your drinks at the makeshift pub over there.”  She waved a plump arm towards the back of a bakkie filled with crates of beer, cider and soft drinks.  “Do make yourself comfortable.” She turned to another customer, “Hello Helen, how is your chicken venture progressing?”

Jennifer settled down in a patch of sunlight and sipped at her cider.  Around her people were settling in groups, joined by several young children who had been playing around the picnic site.  She let the snatches of conversation wash over her … drought … the price of wool … the best insecticide to use … the tennis league … the secretary bird’s nest … who had seen the aardvark … why one tractor seemed to be better than another … gardens … a forthcoming wedding …

The man called Geoffrey was tossing pine cones at some young boys while chatting to a group of people clustered round a camping table.  “I could spend years there,” she heard him say, “but there’s only enough money for the contract period and then I’ll probably go up to Botswana.”

“Enjoying yourself?”  Kay sat on the grass next to her.  “Most of the rolls have been sold, thank goodness.  It’s my turn to rest a while.”  She stretched her legs out and wriggled her toes in her sandals.  “How was the walk?”

“Absolutely wonderful, Kay.  It’s been marvellous being able to walk through the veld and to see views not visible from the road.  I’m very glad I came.”

“Geoffrey, thanks so much for taking charge of Jonathan.”  Jennifer turned to see a dark-haired mother with a baby on her hip standing next to Geoffrey.  “I should have made him ride in the truck with Dad.  His pride would have been dented though and with Jack not being here at the moment … well, it was foolish of me.”

“I’m not the one to thank, Meg.  This young lady gave him a ride from before we reached the dry riverbed.”  They moved closer to Jennifer, who remained seated on the grass looking up at them.  “Geoff Anderson by the way.”  He bent down to shake her hand firmly and turned to his companion.  “Jonathan’s mother, Meg Embleby.”

Driving home from the farm, Jennifer reflected on how quickly the afternoon had passed.  Meg had introduced her to several young mothers and had invited her to a social tennis day at the Farmer’s Club the following Sunday.  What’s more, Geoffrey Anderson had offered to give her a lift!  Looking back on the afternoon she couldn’t recall what had happened to his companion, although she remembered seeing them leave together.

“The tennis went on longer than I thought,” Geoff grumbled good-naturedly as he negotiated the uneven farm road.  “I hope you didn’t feel trapped out there, waiting for me.”

“On the contrary, I enjoyed being with new people.  Everyone was so friendly and … accepting.  I sometimes feel quite restricted by my colleagues.  It really isn’t all that easy meeting people in a town – not as a single woman anyway.”

“I know what you mean.”  A hare scurried into the glare of the headlights and then hopped out of sight.  Geoffrey turned onto the tarred road.  “There are only four of us working on the reserve.  We get very tired of each other’s company at times, I assure you.”

They made a hasty supper of scrambled eggs and toast in the cottage Jennifer rented.  Geoffrey yawned over coffee.  “That was most pleasant, but I must be on my way.”  He looked at his watch.  “I’ve got a group of students to show around at nine o’ clock.”

It had seemed natural to offer him the bed in her study.  He had already left when she woke up at six and mechanically readied herself for another week of school.  After that she became so involved with rehearsals for the pantomime that she didn’t think of him until she saw him at the symphony concert in the town hall several weeks later.  He approached her during the interval, still chewing the hard biscuit he’d bought with his tea.

“Would you like a cup?” he offered.  “I don’t recommend the biscuits though!”  On his return he introduced her to his colleagues from the reserve.  She saw him walking out with a blonde woman after the concert.

One evening two months later Jennifer was disturbed by a knock at her door.  She removed her spectacles and, pen in hand, went to the door.  “This is a dreadful imposition I know,” Geoffrey apologised, “but my ‘plane was late and I just can’t face travelling another sixty kilometres at this time of night.”

“What would you have done if I hadn’t been here?” she asked, a note of teasing creeping into her voice.

“Slept in my truck,” he answered simply.

A bowl of flowers was delivered to her when she returned from school the next afternoon.  There was no note.

Geoffrey had the spare key and kept an eye on her cottage while Jennifer holidayed in the Western Cape for three weeks during her winter break.  She let him keep it on her return and kept clean sheets on the spare bed.

Jennifer found herself becoming irritated by the attention paid to her by the biology teacher, Vincent Pennington.  In order to avoid him, she began inviting friends and colleagues to supper and found, to her surprise, that she enjoyed entertaining.  Geoffrey sometimes joined them if he happened to be in town.  His visits were infrequent and usually unannounced.  They were always enjoyable and he often stayed over.

Vincent cornered Jennifer in the staffroom a week before the staff dance.  “Come with me, Jen.  Your name isn’t on the list so I know you haven’t arranged a date.”  His breath smelled faintly of peanut butter.  Jennifer experienced a sense of near panic.

“I forgot to put my name on the list, that’s all.”

Late that afternoon she telephoned Geoffrey for the first time since they had met.  “It’s pay-back time Geoff,” she began and was delighted by his response.  She put her name on the dance list as soon as she got to school the following morning.

Knowing her Mondays were free, Vincent invited her to make up a foursome for a staff tennis match that afternoon.  He turned to her during their tea break.  “So, who is your date for the dance?” he asked half sneeringly.

“You’ll probably be disappointed Vincent,” she smiled at him.  “He’s just an old friend who owes me a favour.”

“Then I still have a chance to win your affection?”  His tone had become friendlier.  “I’m very fond of you Jenny.  You know that?”

“I like you too, Vincent.”  She rose from her seat as the next set was announced.  “I prefer to remain friends though, please don’t try to make anything more of it.”

Jennifer was conscious of the interest her colleagues showed in her partner at the dance.  Seeing Geoff dressed in more formal attire made her realise how attractive he must look to other women.  She revelled in their closeness and wondered.  They had never discussed their relationships with other people.  In all the time they had known each other there had been an easy acceptance of – of what? Geoffrey pulled her closer as the evening drew to a close.  “You’re miles away Jen.  Have I been such boring company?”

Startled out of her reverie, she laughed more loudly than she’d intended.  “Of course not!  I just got lost thinking about how long I’ve known you and how pleased I am that you’re here.”

It was while lying in bed that night that she allowed snatches of memory to drift over her:  of the bunch of wild flowers stuck into a full tub of yoghurt on her doorstep with a note:  Sunday would be a good time to see them;  the aloes Geoff had planted in the cottage garden;  the bird lists they had added to;  the cake she’d baked for his birthday that he and his colleagues had eaten for breakfast;  the fruit he’d brought when she’d had the ‘flu;  the tennis matches which they occasionally played together;  Geoff taking her to see the newly arrived buffalo in the reserve;  the way he’d kissed her tonight …

Jennifer woke with a start.  It was past eight and she could hear footsteps in the passage!  She wanted to laugh at her rising panic when she saw Geoff appear in the doorway bearing a tray of tea and toast.  Instead she felt alarmed at the seriousness which seemed to lie behind his welcoming smile.

“My contract ends in November, Jen.”  He’d wasted no time getting to the point.  She crunched her toast and realised her heart seemed to have remained in panic mode.  “I’ll be moving to Botswana for the next three years.”  He looked at her with an intensity she’d never experienced before.  “It won’t be a picnic living in tents, but the project is an interesting one.  I’ll need a research assistant.  Will you join me?”

She moved the tea tray onto the floor next to her bed, her mind working quickly.  November, which meant he probably wouldn’t move until January … if she tendered her resignation on Monday the school would have ample time to find a replacement.  She reached out for his hands.  “Of course I’ll come,” she laughed into his bear hug.