The image of the red car spewing waves of water from its wheels as it raced up the wet tar road and the crunch of his wicker basket burned in Fred’s memory. Even weeks later, he shook his heavy brown curls and mourned the loss of his basket filled with the wild mushrooms he had selected with great care in the forest remnant tucked into the crease of the hills on the edge of town.
It was Hazel who had urged him to go, despite the heavy grey sky that leaked continuously long after the main shower of rain had ended. “We’ve a helluva lot of cooking to do, Fred, and having those mushrooms will give us an edge over Linda and Mario.”
Hazel had never been one to allow obstacles such as rain to get in the way of success – especially her culinary success. She had always vied to provide a better meal than their friend, Linda could and kept up to date with the latest food trends. He had donned his well-worn wellingtons and willingly braved the elements: it wasn’t the food that he cared for so much, rather it was seeing Hazel happy that made him feel content. He grudgingly admitted that Linda’s most recent offering of grape bread with a cheese platter at the end of their meal had been outstandingly good.
She had not been impressed by his hang-dog expression, muddy clothes or the remnants of his wicker basket on his return. Hazel didn’t even want to listen to his description of the precious mushrooms being churned into the tar by that passing car that had knocked him off balance when it had unexpectedly passed so close to him. Instead she had thumped her glass of white wine down on the counter with such force that some slopped over the rim to form droplets on the black granite surface.
There was no ‘are you okay?’, no ‘I’m so glad you’re not hurt’, no ‘I’m so sorry this happened after all your trouble and I really appreciate you going in the first place’. No, nothing like that. Rather, Hazel had swept her long dark hair into a business-like ponytail and glared at him, her cheeks flushed with a deep wash of crimson and her lips compressed into a tight line. Instead, she had whipped off the apron he had given her for Christmas to reveal her slim figure hugged by an olive green jersey – she is so damned attractive, he couldn’t help thinking, even then – and yelled at him.
“Nick will get me the mushrooms I need. He also has a nose for such things and certainly won’t let a stupid car racing past put him off his stroke!” With that, she had stormed out of their cottage kitchen and slammed the door of her car, already in reverse at full throttle. He watched the mud churning up in the driveway and spatter against the painted pots filled with herbs. She hadn’t even bothered to close the gate – something she had always done before.
Now Fred idly skimmed the ‘Properties for Sale’ pages in the newspaper. Once he and Hazel had snuggled into each other on their comfortable couch as they went through the listings and tried to guess from the tiny photographs where some of the houses were situated in their town.
Then the main obstacle had been money. Having scanned what was on offer, they would reluctantly narrow down the options to what he could afford. What he could afford. Naturally Hazel hadn’t been keen on a joint investment as they weren’t even engaged. She nonetheless always had a lot to say about what kind of kitchen she wanted in their shared abode.
Neat cottage – distinctive character, Fred smiled at the sales-speak they had often unpicked and reinterpreted together. Suitable for young couples who would prefer dining by candlelight … What, so they can’t see the cracks in the walls, the rising damp and the tell-tale woodborer holes in the original pine floors?
Dinner that evening had been strained even though both Linda and Mario had enthused over the mushrooms and expressed suitable awe that they had been handpicked from the local forest. Nick had basked in the heroic role of the evening – “Of course I have invited him” Hazel had announced in a snappy voice – while Hazel turned Fred’s disastrous venture into a joke they had all found hilarious at his expense.
Fred had moved out the next morning: as quietly as he had moved in two years earlier. He chose the moment while Hazel was returning Nick’s basket. That this had already taken over an hour convinced Fred he was doing the right thing. He left his share of the rent for the next two months in an envelope on her chopping board along with the lunch voucher for two he had purchased for her birthday. Then he went for a long walk through the forest while thinking about the exhilaration of his successful foraging expedition that had gone so horribly wrong.
Months later Martin invited him to supper at the pub and, uncharacteristically, ordered a bottle of white wine to accompany it. Sadly for Fred, it was the same wine Hazel had been drinking that night … that bruised feeling just wouldn’t leave him. “I’ll have beer instead,” he countered, resolutely determined not to allow that hurt to show.
“Are you going to allow Hazel to be an obstacle to your enjoyment of good wine?” Martin smiled good-naturedly. “This one comes highly recommended by my sister.”
“I was planning to marry her, you know.” Fred didn’t mean to sound so defensive.
“Then you are a lucky man,” Martin stubbornly waved away the waitress and poured them each a glass. “Imagine spending the rest of your life with someone who flies off her handle like that! Let’s drink to your fortunate escape.”
That weekend the two friends watched the sheep trials on a farm 32 km out of town. Fred watched in awe as the dogs and their handlers went through their paces. No obstacle seemed complicated enough to get the better of them and he wondered how the judges decided who was the best. He didn’t see who won. Instead, he and Martin had shared their picnic with a slim blonde woman with two young children in tow. She kept them in fits of laughter with inside stories gleaned from her husband, who was one of the judges that day.
It was while they were driving home afterwards that Fred realised that Hazel had actually been an obstacle to true happiness. He had felt driven to keep her happy but … “We never really laughed like that,” he commented. “I thought we were happy, but that woman and her kids really know how to laugh.”
“They’re happy,” Martin grunted. He broke the silence later by asking in a much lighter tone, “Tell me, are you still planning to watch birds in the game reserve next weekend?”
He often used to do that with Hazel. No more, never more, Fred mused. She and Nick had already moved in together. “I could do with some quiet contemplation,” he replied. “Have you planned anything?”
“My cousin and I have promised to help my folks at their garden centre. Clearing up, throwing out, and generally moving things around a little.” He glanced sideways at his friend. “I thought you’d benefit from some exercise in a good cause.”
The exercise had been good for him. So had the cheerful company of Martin and his cousin, Allison. Martin’s parents had warmly welcomed his extra pair of hands. “How wonderful of you to give up your time like this,” Mrs. Falconer had exclaimed on their first night. “Creeping old age is more of an obstacle than we had ever imagined.”
Allison had kept them busy with her no-nonsense approach to rearranging the potted plants and the shelves of seedlings. Fred found himself laughing at her suggestions and the way she would suddenly break off to comment on a passing bird or butterfly – or to bring them plates of scones in the middle of the morning along with large mugs of hot tea. She suggested they should all support the charity walk on Leopard Peaks Farm the following month. “The money raised is going towards upgrading the pre-school they’ve established for the children in the area,” she urged them enthusiastically.
Martin had later opted out of the venture, leaving Fred to honour their agreement on his own. It had been a wonderful day walking through a variety of habitats such as the open grassland and darkly damp forested areas. As he wound down the last section of the steep path leading towards the river, Fred spotted Allison on the sandy bank on the other side.
He crossed the shallow river at speed to catch up with her, as she was already putting on her hiking boots. Fred picked up the small notebook that had fallen from her daypack onto the sand. “I didn’t know you were a serious birder,” he puffed more than he had intended to.
“In this twitcher’s paradise anyone can claim to be a birder,” she smiled. “Some people claim to have nearly a hundred birds on their list already – of course they are the competitive ones!”
“How many have you got?” he eyed her notebook as she deftly tucked it back into a side pocket.
“None. I don’t keep lists, Fred. I just enjoy being on a walk I’d never do on my own on a farm not usually open to the general public, and being in the company of people who make no demands on me.” Her laughter was disarming.
So, being alone was not an obstacle to her enjoying life. Fred felt something shifting within.
“Could I persuade you to sup with me at the pub tonight when we get back?” He felt a warmth of pleasure flood his body at her positive response.
Together they watched the barman pull their pints in the yellowish glow of the pub before settling at their table. Allison tucked into her supper as soon as it arrived. “I’m starving,” she announced happily.
Fred breathed in the spectacle of her untidy blonde hair offset by the scarlet top Allison was wearing over her dark jeans. He smiled at her over the rim of his beer glass. Another shift happened within.
Two months later, they both peered through the mist rising from the waterhole in a nearby game reserve. Both were eager to see what lay behind it. The tops of the clouds on the horizon were edged with a rosy hue, even as the clearing water reflected the trees surrounding it. A kingfisher perched on a dead branch just visible through the reeds caught their attention, as did a pair of Egyptian Geese strutting about on their little island a few metres away from the hide Fred and Allison were sitting in.
Allison adjusted her green floppy hat and gingerly moved closer to Fred on the rickety wooden bench. It was a chilly winter’s morning that cried out for the hot chocolate in the metal flask she had tucked into her backpack much earlier. For a moment she was content to watch their breath turn into steam and then she shifted perceptively closer to the warm beige fleece of the man sitting next to her.
Fred was scanning the water’s edge for any sign of life larger than a bird. He too paused to watch their breaths visibly curling in the cold air, merging into one and disappearing. The shift was complete; the last obstacle gone. He carefully poured their hot chocolate into their mugs and deliberately touched Allison’s fingers as he passed a drink to her.
Her cheerful smile and sparkling eyes were reassurance enough for him.