THE SUPERMARKET

“Won’t it be fantastic to have a decent shopping centre at last?” Elise delicately wiped the muffin crumbs from her mouth with a paper serviette, her eyes sparkling with excitement. Louise sounded more cynical.

“I’ll believe that when I see it.  Local businesses won’t stand for that sort of development on the edge of the central business district.”

“Rents in town will still be much cheaper,” Ursula agreed, “but there is no reason why any of those businesses should move.”

Elise was not to be put off.  “Just think, no more parking problems!” She gulped her coffee so enthusiastically that some dribbled down her chin.  She hastily dabbed at it and continued, “I wonder if they’ll carry a wider selection of goods?  I get so frustrated with the ‘this or that’ choice we have at the moment.”

“I’m more interested in what other shops will be attracted to the shopping centre.”  Ursula looked at the fading roses on the coffee house table and sighed meaningfully. “This whole town really needs a shake-up,” she commented while digging in her purse for her share of the bill.

Rumours about a new shopping complex had spread like wildfire, for it had been the most exciting event to occur in that small country town for years.  The residents eagerly scanned their weekly newspaper for confirmation. Even though they were used to the slowness of time in their area, their hopes ran high.  All looked forward to a much needed injection into their flagging economy. Genuine confirmation came a few months later when the artist impressions were finally published for all to see.  “You see, they are going to build!”  This time Elise sounded triumphant.  “Don’t you think the shopping centre is going to look beautiful?”

“I’ll hand it to them,” Louise answered somewhat grudgingly. “No brick and steel structure this time; the whole complex is in keeping with the local architecture.”

“Perhaps Woolworths will come?” Elise wondered dreamily.  She faced her two friends and smiled happily. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have our own Woolies?”

“Another supermarket chain would be good too,” Ursula commented drily. “It’s about time there was some competition around here.”  She picked up the newspaper to peruse the drawings again and had to agree that this was going to be a swish place indeed.  Their town was going places at last!

Advertisements filled the local paper, feeding excitement at the prospect of more jobs and especially fuelling the hope that there would be a greater variety of shops to choose from.  The whole square was filled with earth moving equipment and large building cranes.  Everyone was impatient to see what would emerge from the rubble of the building site. It seemed many months later before any physical progress showed behind the corrugated iron barricades and once these were removed Elise and Ursula drove into the new parking lot to look at the white and green painted building which looked as though it had arrived from their closest city.

“Oh, it’s so beautiful!”  Elise couldn’t hide her excitement.  “Those poky old houses and the tatty old post office were such an eyesore.”

“I’m glad they kept the palms though,” mused Ursula.  “They must have seen a lot of changes in their time!”

“Palms or not, I can’t wait for all the shops to open!  It’s a shame there’ll be no Woolies though.”  Elise began counting the list of potential new tenants on her fingers. “There’s going to be a jeweller, a new furniture shop, a discount store, another take-away – we could do with one of those.  Pity it’s not Kentucky.  We must be about the only town without one.”

Excitement in the sleepy little town reached fever pitch as the day of the official opening drew nearer.  The leading chain store had moved from its cramped quarters in the centre of town and promised to offer a wider selection of goods and better service.  Customers thronged to the supermarket, jostling each other impatiently for bargains: the chickens were on a fantastic special, they commented, and when last was washing powder so cheap?

Some months after the opening the three friends again met for coffee, their conversation still centred on the new shopping centre.  Elise, who had long felt their town needed a facelift, smiled brightly as she commented appreciatively on the beauty and spaciousness of the new building as well as the improved selection of goods in the supermarket.  Even Ursula was unusually enthusiastic saying, “I hardly ever buy groceries in town now.  It’s so much easier going there where I don’t have to worry about ruddy parking meters!”

“It’s a shame so many of the shops are still empty though,” Louise observed disappointedly.  “That jewellery shop lasted only a month and I hardly ever see customers in the pharmacy.”

“That’s because the rent is sky high.  They are charging city prices which small town people can’t afford.”  Ursula was passing on the opinions that one heard so often these days.  It was a widely known fact that their little agricultural town was not a wealthy one.

“Still, it’s a pity that such an attractive building should be so empty.  It is almost as if the complex wasn’t needed after all!”  Louise sounded sad.

“Who cares,” Elise countered cheerfully, “as long as we can buy our groceries in comfort!”

“I can hardly remember what the site looked like before,” Louise continued soberly, “I mean, it looks as if this massive building and car park have been there forever.”

“Don’t you remember those funny dark old houses with red polished steps and tins of geraniums or ferns on the walls of the dark stoeps?  Then there was that huge open space where the taxis gathered.  Now that was a real eyesore with all that rubbish lying around – not to mention the chaos of vehicles and long queues of people.  At least this looks clean and our town is the better for it!”  The others laughed at the passion Elise was displaying.

“Nevertheless, it’s funny to think people lived there once; that they had children, gardens, pets, hopes, dreams and made plans.”

“We’re better off without them, Louise.  Once the economy picks up this place will hum with business.”  Ursula was again recycling the desperate hope that pervaded every nook and cranny of that small town.  They paid their bill and cheerfully bid each other farewell on the pavement.

In one of the remaining funny dark houses with potted geraniums and a mass of ferns crowded on the dark red-polished stoep, bent old Mrs. Tipp put a protective arm around her ancient cat, Fluid, who was so old he could barely muster a meow.  Her mottled arm shook involuntarily as did her lined lips while she gazed out across the rubble in the open space in front of her house to the enormous white and green monstrosity which had been the death knell of the community she had lived in for fifty years.

The lace curtains in her crowded sitting room flapped idly in the warm breeze.  They had become so impregnated with months of dust from the building operations that she could no longer get them white.  The leather sausage dog with a gilt chain around its neck and a yellow bead for an eye bore testimony to the clouds of dust that had blown in under the door and infiltrated the small dark house which had become increasingly difficult for her to keep clean.  Even the collection of bric-a-brac in the wooden show case with a mirrored back had been covered with a film of dust.

Mrs. Tipp released her hold on the cat and stiffly opened the front door.  “Time to get your milkies my boy,” she croaked cheerfully.  Having checked the buttons on her orange and white crimpelene dress with the large pockets, she slowly counted the money she required and pulled on a pair of towelling slippers with rubber soles.  She carefully locked the wooden door, barely noticing the faded and blistered paint, and slipped the key into its familiar hiding place at the base of the third sword fern from the right.

She still felt ‘undressed’ without the comfortable feel of her handbag under her arm, but that kind policeman had warned them about muggers when he’d visited the Senior Citizen’s Centre.  It had been shocking the way in which Mrs. Scott had been attacked and robbed of her handbag in Magellan Street, however, and this had convinced Mrs. Tipp that the policeman was right.  Poor Mrs. Scott had broken her hip in the fall and those dreadful thugs had made off with all the money she’d drawn from her savings to pay her bills and buy her groceries!

Mrs. Tipp patted her deep pocket and picked her bent way through the remaining builders’ rubble towards the new shopping centre.  She hardly noticed the wind whipping the hair from the plastic slides and casting it about her face.  Instead, as she stumbled over the rough ground she remembered … Mrs. Stander who used to bake those melt-in-the-mouth milk tarts, Mr. Raso who sat on his front steps each morning to greet passersby, Mr. and Mrs. Topell who kept racing pigeons in their back yard and, above all, her dear friend Sarah Stickley, who had died soon after moving into the old age home, so stricken was she at the loss of the only home she had known since her marriage.

She fiercely wiped away the tears which always welled up when she ‘trespassed’ through the gardens of the past.  She missed the little Corner Shop where she had bought her groceries for years and passed the time of day with old Mr. Gumbie.  No-one took much notice of her at this fancy supermarket where the assistants sighed audibly while she painstakingly counted her coins which she kept in a plastic bank bag.  These new coins were difficult to identify and she couldn’t stop her stiff fingers from shaking as she tried to prise them out of the narrow opening.  There always seemed to be crowds of people waiting impatiently in the queue and she seldom found the tea she wanted.  Mr. Gumbie had always kept a box of Earl Grey under the counter for her as well as a tin of those hard travelling sweets.  The managers of this new supermarket seemed to change so often that there was no point asking them to do the same.  Everyone was so impatient in that noisy place that it was quite frightening to go inside!

As she picked up her plastic carrier bag and carefully shuffled past the jostling shoppers near the cigarette counter, Mrs. Tipp reflected sadly that, worst of all, there was no-one left who cared to ask her about Fluid.

THOMAS AND HIS CHICKEN

Thomas wiped the sweat off his forehead with an already damp handkerchief and stuffed it into the pocket of his frayed shorts. “Is Friday the best you can do?” The despair was evident in his voice.

“’Fraid so. Thursday’s a public holiday, you see. No-one delivers on public holidays.” The owner of the panel beaters kicked the tyre of the trailer the two men were looking at.

“Pity I can’t tell the cows not to provide milk on a public holiday,” Thomas muttered. “Look, is there not a temporary fix you can make? I’ve still got a load of cabbages to deliver this afternoon and the milk cans must go to the dairy tomorrow morning.”

The panel beater took in the suntanned face of the young farm manager, his work-stained clothes, the stockings rumpling around his ankles and the sturdy boots stained with mud and oil. He smiled kindly.

“We can remove the tailgate – we need to match it anyway – and I’ll see if we’ve got some piping we can do a hatchet job with. It’ll be nothing fancy mind.”

Thomas tried to cover the growling of his stomach with a cough. “I just need something to keep the cabbages in. How long might it take?”

“About two hours I reckon,” the man replied. “Leave the trailer here until three. We should have rigged up something by then.”

Three! Thomas had been up before dawn to supervise the cutting and bagging of the cabbages for market. There had been no time for breakfast as he had needed to get to the next town before the market opened at half past seven. The coffee he had downed there had long since evaporated in the heat. His stomach growled again. Man, he was hungry! If only he hadn’t stopped at the road stall in the hope of a bite to eat, then that stupid driver wouldn’t have reversed his truck into the back of the trailer! He’d missed out on the food anyway – fortunately the quad bike he’d brought back for Mr. Keneally had been unscathed.

“Sure,” he said gratefully. “I’m going to grab a bite to eat and deliver the cabbages in the bakkie to the supermarkets. Would you give me a call if it’s ready any earlier?”

“Will do.”

The two men unhitched the large heavy-duty trailer and parked it next to the workshop. Thomas slid into his seat and started the engine of his 4×4 truck then set off for town with a wave. He was really hungry now.

A fast-food place would be the quickest. Thomas settled into a seat at a table next to the window, from where he could keep an eye on his truck filled with cabbages while he ate. The glass of water the waitress had brought barely touched sides as it went down. Thomas leaned back, savouring the smell of cooking, almost salivating in anticipation of the plate of chicken fillets and chips he’d ordered. He inhaled deeply. There would be time to savour a cup of coffee afterwards, then he would deliver the cabbages to the three supermarkets in town. His cell phone rang.

“Theresa.” He couldn’t help sounding disappointed. His neighbour wanted him to pick up a load of fencing materials from the farmers’ co-op on his way back from town as her husband’s truck was still being serviced. “Sure thing. I might be later than planned though. Something’s cropped up.”

“Your chicken, sir.” The waitress placed his plate of steaming food in front of him and moved the circular tray of condiments towards him with practised ease.

Thomas checked that no-one was interfering with his truck while he extracted the knife and fork from the tightly wrapped paper serviette. He popped a hot chip into his mouth with his fingers and bent over his food. Man oh man, he was hungry!

The first forkful of chicken almost melted in his mouth. Thomas resisted the impulse to wolf the meal down. After all, there was plenty of time. The cabbages could wait. Theresa and her husband Harold could wait. He chewed slowly, keeping an eye on his truck parked on the other side of the street. There were so many beggars in town these days, one couldn’t be too careful. Ernest du Toit’s truck had been broken into only last week, a side window smashed … Thomas leaned forward to take his next bite.

“What the blazes? Hey! What are you doing?” he shouted as a hand plucked the two chicken fillets from his plate. A figure disappeared through the open glass door. “Someone has stolen my chicken,” he bellowed, almost upsetting the flimsy table in his haste to rise.

“We’re onto him sir.” The young manager and someone from the kitchen raced out of the door and sprinted down the pavement already crowded with afternoon shoppers. Thomas followed in hot pursuit and then lost them as they dodged between pedestrians and vehicles, crossing the road to the next block. Damn! He’d left his cell phone on the table! He hastened back and arrived out of breath, relieved to find the waitress had it in her apron pocket.

She brought him a glass of water and smiled sympathetically. “I’m sure they’ll catch him this time, sir. Alan nearly caught him last week but tripped over a root that lifted the pavement outside the undertakers.”

Thomas stared at the now cold chips on his plate while he tried to control both his breathing and his rage. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the two men frogmarching the thief back to the eatery.

“We got him, sir.” The kitchen assistant – he must be Alan – smiled broadly. “I tell you, last week I nearly caught him only I _”

“Tripped over a root on the pavement outside the undertakers,” Thomas finished for him.

Alan’s eyes widened and his face took on an excited glow. “Jissie, you heard about that already? I tell you, this time I said to Mr. Gough, I’m gonna catch this thief. And I did!”

Thomas looked at the man dressed in filthy rags, his hair matted with dirt, his bony knees shaking through the holes in his flimsy trousers held up with a length of plastic rope. “This is him?” He felt the need to fill the awkward silence as his stomach growled an angry response.

“We are pretty sure he is the right man.” The manager turned to the thief. “Where is the chicken?”

The thief gingerly reached into a filthy plastic shopping bag still clutched in his grimy hand and pulled out the chicken fillets. Slowly, one by one, he returned them to the plate in front of Thomas. Silence reigned. The three men and the waitress looked at each other. No-one moved. Even the other diners had fallen silent. Thomas felt snagged in time. His stomach growled again.

“What now?” the manager asked. “Do you want to press charges? It is your chicken after all.”

My chicken?”

“Well, you’ve already paid for it, so it is technically your chicken.”

“Perhaps we should just give it to him.” The waitress nodded towards the thief.

“Never!” Alan tightened his grip on the hapless man. “You know how fast I had to run to catch him, hey. I tell you, this time I just flew through the crowds. No thief is going to get away from Alan Harmse if I can help it!”

“What do you want us to do?” The manager asked quietly.

Thomas looked at his watch. His stomach growled just as his cell phone began vibrating in his pocket. He picked up his sweat-stained cap and stood up. “I just want to go home.”

THE WOMAN IN GREEN

She is there every morning at around seven, walking her dog along Finch Street. Her plump figure echoes that of her small dog, which never strains at its lead. She is very protective of it, halting at the side of the road even if an oncoming car is some distance from her and is obviously going to turn down the side road before reaching her. She looks the same every day: her short, dark curly hair never alters its shape or style; her square face and brown eyes show no emotion or even a flicker of acknowledgement of any passing traffic. Instead, her eyes appear to bore into mine while she hugs the leash closer to her chest and sets her mouth in a grim unsmiling look until I have driven past. She dresses in a loose green tracksuit – plain green pants offset by a green patterned top. I have noticed that she always walks in the same direction and I see her in much the same spot every day. This implies a routine on her part, a willingness to leave home before sunrise and a desire to maintain a level of fitness for both herself and her dog.

Where do they come from?

How far do they walk?

What does she do for the rest of the day?

Crystal Pike loved reaching the relatively level surface of Finch Street that wound round the base of Stacke Hill. From there the street rose gently past the enormous fig trees and eucalyptus, the few remaining Scots pines, and the spreading Erythrinas that must have been planted by the earliest inhabitants of what had been a new suburb at the time. She had overheard someone mention once that the first houses in the area were built at the end of the Second World War. That would make them over seventy years old!

By the time she reached her home in Nerina Street, just short of the top of the hill, Crystal became acutely aware of the smaller plots, boxier houses and the uniformity of the well-pruned Pride of India trees that lined the slightly narrower streets. Each tree grew in a brick-lined circle breaking up the closely mowed grass verge. How different this was from the large, mature trees, creepers and bushy hedges lower down – and much less private! Privacy was something she had forgotten the existence of over the past year.

Both Crystal and Pippin felt pooped by the time they reached the creaking metal gate set within the sagging fence weighed down by a creeper she had never learned the name of. She poured fresh water into the shiny aluminium bowl and set it down outside the blistered blue kitchen door, unclipped Pippin’s leash and panted quietly while he lapped the water noisily. She waited until her breathing had evened out before entering the drab kitchen. At half past seven on the dot her mother would have her back to the door, impatiently watching and waiting for the kettle to boil.

“Did you have a lovely walk, dear?” The question never varied; her mother’s back never turned until the teapot had been filled and the knitted cosy pulled over it. The small white kitchen table would already have been set with three plastic placemats, the glass butter dish, jam jar, side plates, spoons and spreading knives. The porridge would be kept warm in an enamel double-boiler until her father came into the room, freshly showered and impeccably dressed for work.

They never touched food or drink until he arrived.

“Same, same,” Crystal replied as she always did. Her mother wouldn’t expect any different. Would she care to know that the gazanias brightened the edge of the street below them, or that the Cape Chestnuts were blooming late this year? Would it make any difference to her mother’s life if she was told about the Yellow-billed Kite being chased away by a flock of Red-winged Starlings? Would she show any interest in the repainting of the double-storey house at the end of Willow Street, the one that had looked so shabby for years? “Is Dad going to be long?”

“He’s just shaving.” Her mother removed the bowls from the sideboard more noisily than was necessary: a sign that she too was tired of waiting. “Put the sugar bowl on the table. There’s a dear. Did I fill it this morning?”

“You did.” Crystal willed her mother to look at her. “I won’t join you with oats today.” She hesitated at the pursed lips. “It’s just that I’d rather have boiled eggs on toast. Don’t worry, I’ll do them.” This was said against the background of her father’s footsteps thumping on the wooden floor of the passage leading into the kitchen.

“Morning Daphne.” He kissed his wife drily on her proffered cheek before sitting down. “And how’s my Fatso today?”

Crystal watched the two eggs bouncing in the boiling water and breathed in the steam from a distance while glaring at her father. “Are you two ever going to let up? It’s not as though either of you is skinny anyway.” She could feel the heat rushing to her cheeks. “At least Pippin and I walk every day!”

Her father scraped back his chair while dabbing the corner of his moustache with a large green linen napkin. “How dare you, Crystal? How dare you insult us like that?” His voice quivered. He moved to the side of the table and continued, “We, who have taken you in when your husband threw you out because you are too fat for his liking.”

“That is such a lie Father and you know it!” Crystal willed herself to stay near the relative safety of the stove and rested her hand on the toaster already filled with slices of bread. “Calling me ‘Fatso’ is not an insult then?”

“Roger, your porridge is getting cold.” The calm undertone to her mother’s voice was oddly comforting – almost as if she cared. Her father sat down again, grumbling about the need for the family to sit together at the table as a family and to eat in a civilised manner. Crystal took her time about getting her eggs and toast ready before she joined them.

This routine hardly varied from one day to the next except that Crystal woke earlier every week so that she could walk further before the cast-in-stone breakfast time. She wasn’t sure this was good for Pippin and worried about his welfare. Her bathroom scale seemed to indicate that walking at his pace, no matter how far, was not going to make a difference to her. That is why she had decided to experiment with breakfast. Her daily food diary indicated that she cheated a lot – especially with those bags of creamy toffee squares she kept hidden in her cupboard.

Pippin loved her unconditionally. If anything untoward happened to him she would be lost. Her mother was cold, biting even, and her father made her feel like something under his shoe – unless they happened to be entertaining visitors. Then they were told that she was taking some ‘time out’, was ‘such a help in the house’, and that ‘they would be sorry when she leaves.’

It was her parents who had wanted her to leave home and get married before she had felt ready. They were the ones who jumped at the first boyfriend she had brought home. It was them who had pressured her and Clive to get married only a week after they had come to terms with the fact that she had not come home until the early hours of the morning after the Rotary Valentine’s Dance. Crystal felt trapped. Clive had used her savings to purchase the bakkie he said they needed for their honeymoon. He had not minded her plumpness then. She recalled him often saying “I like to have something to hold.”

That was until he met the willowy blonde, Sarah McDuff, who manned the reception desk at the fitment centre. Clive had spent four hours in her company while the canopy was being fitted – another ‘must have’ according to him. Even though they had been married only six months, Clive had chosen to take Sarah out for supper (“Only because she went out of her way to get things done quickly”) and hadn’t come home to Crystal until lunchtime the following day.

He had brushed her off with ‘there were complications’ and complained that because of the dust coming in he would have to ‘take it back’ on the Friday. She didn’t see him again until the Monday. In the weeks that followed his absences were explained by working out of town and ‘having to go to head office.’

What could she do but believe him? Despite her misgivings, the truth only dawned on her when she noticed Peter and Christine exchanging glances at the pub after she had excused Clive’s presence with one of the many reasons he had fed her at the time. Peter had spluttered into his beer saying, “Since when do seed salesmen have to go to head office as often as he does?” Crystal had finished her drink quickly and walked home.

She resigned from her job at the local municipal offices the following day and had moved to her parents’ home a month later. Clive had not opposed the divorce. Her father had drummed into her how stupid she had been. He regularly warned her she would never get her money back and reminded her that she was a drain on their resources. “You are meant to look after us in our old age,” he was apt to sneer at her. Crystal was only twenty-one.

‘Get a job! Get a job!’ This was the mantra that echoed her footsteps around the streets every morning and thumped in tandem with her heartbeat throughout the day. Sometimes it was drowned out by the screeching ‘Get thin! Get thin!’ This was especially loud after she’d popped another toffee into her mouth. Crystal had been plump since the age of fifteen! How could she get a job when her mother had got rid of the maid as ‘an economy measure’ and loaded her with all the housework? She had no transport; no real time to herself – what chance did she have to get a job? Pippin was the only one who didn’t mind what she looked like or cared whether she had a paying job or not.

Crystal drooled over recipe books and often hauled out her secret stash of food-related magazines. She yearned for a beautiful kitchen; dreamed of people talking in hushed tones about her food; she squirmed with pleasure at the imagined accolades she would receive from grateful clients. No chance of trying a single recipe at home though – her parents were sticklers for the menu they had decided on before she had been born: nothing more, nothing less. She had done some private catering while living with Clive. It hadn’t come to anything though as he firmly believed she should be waiting for him at home when he finished work. Life could be so unfair!

The woman in green was missing yesterday, but was on the road again this morning, halting more or less in the same place as I drove past her. She almost leaned into the pavement even though there was plenty of space. I could see that her face was flawlessly covered with foundation, her dark eyes still boring into mine, and her mouth a closed slit. Today she was wearing cream pants with a plain green top. The clouds on the horizon glowed red from the rising sun, as embers do when the flames of a fire have died away. The early morning air smelled fresh and crisp, carrying with it the sweet damp scent of dry leaves and the ground that had been blanketed by the thick mist filling the valley after midnight. There was no sign in her gait or the way she looked to show that the day was different from any other. What made her miss yesterday’s encounter? Or, what had made her too late for me to pass her at the usual spot?

Hugo, she only found out his name eight weeks after first seeing him, ran past her every day as she turned to walk up the last steep road leading to the top of Stacke Hill. Increasingly, he had passed her twice along the route and then one day he stopped, sweating profusely, in front of her. “We really must stop meeting like this,” he said lamely and bent down to stroke Pippin. He introduced himself as they walked up the rest of the hill together. Over the course of the next few weeks Crystal got to know that Hugo also enjoyed solving crossword puzzles, that he worked in the local bank, and that he was interested in wild flowers.

“Will you come to Attrus Dam with me on Sunday?” Hugo had passed her twice that morning before puffing to a halt near their usual meeting place. “There are a lot of flowers blooming at this time of the year and it’s very peaceful out there.”

Crystal hesitated only a fraction before responding, “I would love to! Shall I pack a picnic?”

She missed her Tuesday morning walk to plan the picnic and get a head start on the housework so that her mother wouldn’t object to taking her to the shops later in the week.

“He’s a banker, mother, not a seed seller. You and Dad virtually foisted me on the seed seller!” Crystal felt the warmth glowing in her cheeks. ”It’s only one day out. Why make an issue of it?”

“What about Sunday dinner?” Her mother sounded grumpy. “You always cook Sunday dinner!”

“You cooked it quite adequately before I came home. Do it again – it won’t hurt you.” Crystal wondered at the source of her steely reserve; she had felt so down-trodden and worthless for so long.

I missed the woman in green again today. In fact, I checked my watch as I turned down the side road and looked up to see her still at the far end of the street. Why was she late?

Her packing was complete – not much left of her lifetime, she reflected sadly. She had got rid of anything that reminded her of Clive. Her mother had cleared away everything related to her childhood within days of Crystal leaving home. No sentimentality there. Crystal was sure she would be different if she had children of her own. She glanced at her watch. She was late and would miss Hugo at their usual spot! No matter, she said to Pippin, he was coming to collect her after work anyway. A new life awaited her. Her face was wreathed in smiles as she turned the corner that hid her parents’ home from view.

What has happened to the Woman in Green?

It has been well over two months now and the clockwork, check-your-watch-by-her Woman in Green has disappeared.

Advertisement in the local newspaper:

Crystal Clear Catering

For all your catering requirements, large or small, phone Crystal Pike at …

That’s odd. Come to think of it, the young woman who catered for Fiona’s fortieth birthday bash looked remarkably like the Woman in Green. That short, dark, curly hair is a give-away. Her brown eyes were dancing though, she was smiling throughout and her face looked a lot softer – rather pretty in fact. I wonder …?

 

THE RENT-A-CROWD TWENTY-FIRST BIRTHDAY

“It’s purely a rent-a-crowd situation, but we feel obliged to go,” Mary explained softly, her face revealing more clearly than her voice the dilemma she was in. She turned in her chair to face the rest of us having tea in the teacher’s lounge. “Theresa’s aunt ‘phoned during the holidays to invite me to her twenty-first birthday on the farm. I was taken aback, but I had been her tutor so how could I refuse?” For a moment her eyes clouded, then she shrugged her shoulders and looked up. “You know how some people like to invite those who were significant in one way or another – not that I think I was ever that important in Theresa’s life. It was such a relief to discover they had also invited Helena and Erin, and so we decided to go together –“

“Except,” Erin broke in, “she then wanted us to bring our families: husbands, children – even their children if they had any!”

“At that point I lied and said Stefan would be away and none of my children live at home anymore.” The defiance in Helena’s whole stance, even though she was enveloped in an easy chair, was evident. We could tell from her body language that she was steaming. “That horrible spider of a mother keeps her poisonous tabs on everything – her web must reach from the farm to every corner of the district and this town. She almost hissed her knowledge that Theuns has been around for a few weeks. ‘Bring Theunsie’ she said. ‘Theunsie!’” Helena’s face was puffed and blotchy with indignation. “She’s never known him well enough to call him anything, never mind ‘Theunsie’! Even I have never called him that!” She settled back into the chair as if it was the source of comfort and power. I imagined her battery charging.

“They kept on ‘phoning with extra information, changing our plans completely.” Erin fingered the card she had been writing in. “We planned to drive out there at six and be ready to leave by eight.”

Then,” thundered Helena, her energy restored to a higher level. “Then the old spider tells me sweetly to come at four. Lekker, I thought. It will be a deftige tea party. ‘Sure’, I told her and warned that I would have to leave by six to get home before dark.”

“That’s when she offered us beds, said to bring a suitcase because there’s to be a spitbraai and they’ve even arranged a DJ to provide music.” Mary shook her head sadly while the rest of us guffawed.

“A DJ?” Delia asked loudly. “Are they going to be playing tunes from 1910 or something? I would never have guessed that Theresa’s mother – or aunt – even knew what a DJ is. I mean, the way they live their lives it is surprising they don’t still travel around by ox wagon!”

“That’s mean, Delia.” Mary still looked worried. “Surely a DJ means there will be a lot of young people there. What difference would it make if three teachers weren’t there?”

“It’s not three teachers they want, Mary, it’s another three families with all their hangers-on.” Helena was in good form.

The nature of the rising argument had become clear. Theresa van der Walt had always been an oddly placed child while at school, who was seldom allowed to participate in extra-mural activities for her mother would wait at the school gates after lessons and whisk her back to the farm in her large grey car.

“She has no friends,” Helena was insisting. “Now her mother wants to make a show for the farming community – the more food, the more people, the more successful the party will appear to be in her eyes. It is numbers she wants. I hear she has even invited Professor Emslie. He’s the one who helped Theresa get through her final year Geography and Afrikaans-Nederlands examinations by letting her board with his family for two weeks at the end of her final year.”

“She is making the effort a bit late in the day,” Mary ventured. “We’ll have to go – and we cannot really leave just as they are about to serve the food.”

Helena almost leapt out of the chair. “But to be there at four o’clock! Are we supposed to watch the spit go round?”

“A spitbraai can take four or five hours.” Erin signed the card and slid it along the table towards Mary. “No ladies, we must stick to our plan. Mary has a point. It would be rude to leave – “

“I am not spending my entire Saturday out on a farm in the middle of nowhere with people I don’t know from Adam watching a beast being braaied on a spit and listening to people wondering what to say until they have had enough to drink not to say anything anyway!” The air seemed to leave her for Helena sank back into the chair like a limp balloon. “I really want to spend the evening with Ollie and Retha,” she whispered, no longer her usual formidable self. “They’re driving down from Johannesburg and I haven’t seen them for months.”

“Then we’ll stick to the four o’clock idea.” Erin and Mary spoke in unison.

“Mary, are we not down to be on chaperone duty at the school dance on Saturday evening?” Erin cast her eyes towards the duty list on a board too far away to read from where she was sitting.

“There’s no school dance,” Mary looked puzzled.

“Yes, there is,” the rest of us chorused.

“As of now there is,” I said. “Helena’s spider won’t know about what goes on at school anymore.”

“In fact,” Harriet chimed in, “I see Helena is meant to be chaperoning a group of girls to a debate at the university on Saturday night!”

“Tea it will be then,” Helena smiled broadly.

“Tea it is,” Mary and Erin echoed.

A rent-a-crowd twenty-first birthday celebration for a mild-mannered, isolated child who had been denied the opportunity to be young. She had been old-fashioned from the beginning, so much so that it seemed to someone who had seen her recently that she would never change: her short curly blond hair wisped about her pale face, her blue eyes slightly bulging and her pretty pouting lips still suggesting a softness and tenderness to be unlocked. We were all silent for a moment, caught up in the same thought that Theresa would have a new world to discover once she gained the courage to move away from the farm. We all hoped her party might be the catalyst for just that.

THE REMOTE

My day ended later than usual. I felt extraordinarily tired after having moved into a new office. You know me, as soon as it was available, I couldn’t bear to wait for anyone official to assist. In my eagerness to ensconce myself in a place I could call my own and shut the door on the noise and bustle, I hefted heavy files across: one pile at a time. My books followed next. Then my photographs and the pot plants I had purchased earlier in the day. A few pictures on the wall and a couple of flowers filched from the garden to decorate my desk made me feel comfortable at last and ready to go.

It wasn’t the self-moving that made me late, although my weariness could partly be attributed to that. After all, I am more used to shuffling papers and dealing with people than lugging heavy things around. That is what Joshua does.

What made me late was the management meeting that dragged on long past its usual run. It would happen that on a day when weariness had settled on my shoulder, was caressing my neck and waging war with my eyelids, the agenda – already long – was lengthened by so many additional items I felt ready to scream in frustration. Why can’t people think of things to discuss beforehand, I fumed inwardly while trying to prevent my eyelids from drooping.

Listening to the same people spooling the same arguments led me into a reverie about the weekend when Nellie and David would be visiting. That meant getting in extra food, making up the beds, and airing the spare room that remained shut for months at a time. Our daughter seemed to live on the edge of disappearing from our lives we saw her so seldom.

I was already half way home in the next village when it dawned on me that I had forgotten to draw money. So intent was I on that mission – I needed something to focus on anyway – that I drove straight to the ATM near our village shop.

The sun had already set when I arrived. I grabbed my purse and car keys and walked briskly towards the ATM. I could feel my pulse pick up a beat as I sifted through my mind for ideas of something quick and easy to make for supper. While I waited for the two people ahead of me in the queue, I mentally ticked off what was left in the fridge and freezer: not much at this time of the month!

My fingers shook involuntarily as I pressed the buttons. Having drawn more money than I had intended made me feel on edge. I stuffed the notes into my purse without counting them and strode towards the car. Out of habit, I pressed the remote to unlock the car well before I reached it. No orange lights flashed. Not a peep of the sound of unlocking doors. How odd.

I looked around cautiously, aware of only a sandy-haired young man standing next to his bakkie, deep in a conversation on his cell phone. I walked up to the car, pressed the remote again and tried the door. It wouldn’t budge. I stared at the keys in my hand as if they would give me an answer. Even though they stared back at me without giving anything away, I could feel their metallic laughter for they knew the alarm would shriek if I tried to unlock the door. Monsters!

A cool breeze lifted the dust at my feet. I shivered from more than the cooling air: my cell phone lay in full view on the passenger seat along with my handbag! The sandy-haired man was about to enter his bakkie. “Excuse me!” I almost sprinted towards him in spite of my high heels and narrow skirt.

He must have caught the note of panic in my voice for he happily handed over his cell phone and watched me quizzically while I punched in Joshua’s number. There was no reply. I kept my face as neutral as I could when I turned towards the man. “Thank you,” I said calmly and waved as he drove off. The slight shake of his head and barely hidden smile set me off. ‘He thinks I am just a stupid woman!’

Oh dear! So focused had I been on being the epitome of calm that I had forgotten to leave Joshua a message. Stupid woman indeed! The horizon was already glowing with streaks of peachy golden clouds when it dawned on me that Joshua may be concerned by the missed call from a strange number at a time I would normally have been at home.

The parking lot was deserted as the shops had long since closed. What if Joshua had tried to phone me? I couldn’t tell if he had for my phone was lying face down on the seat. It was conceivable that he might drive along my usual route home to look for me. He would never dream of passing the ATM on his way. Why do we always think the worst? I had visions of him scanning the sides of the road in the fading light, imagining me trapped helplessly in the twisted wreck of my car.

That spurred me on. I set off briskly, high heels and all, along the roughly tarred road that wound up the hill towards our home three blocks away. By the time I reached the gate my carefully pinned hair had come loose, I could feel the perspiration on my forehead, and my feet ached. Joshua must be so worried about me. His bakkie was missing from the driveway so he must surely be out looking for me.

I let myself in through the kitchen door. The house was gloomy so I switched on the lounge light as I passed through. I immediately noticed the sliding door to the patio was still open: Joshua must have left in a hurry. My legs felt like jelly.

“Hello love.” Joshua! There he was, sipping a beer next to the pool, his binoculars and bird book on a stool next to him. “You’re home late. Long meeting?” He gestured towards the chair next to him. “Sit down and I’ll pour you some wine.”

Joshua, sitting there without a care in the world. How could he? “I ‘phoned,” I said primly while trying to control my breathing.

“Thanks love, but my ‘phone is charging in the bedroom. I didn’t hear it. You’re here now though so all is well.”

“Everything is not all well!” My voice was sharper than I meant it to be. I couldn’t rid myself of the image of him sinking a beer while I thought he was out looking for me. I slowly told him about my predicament, using measured tones to suggest I was fully in control. “Let’s drive to the ATM with the spare keys,” I concluded.

“Not possible my love. The bakkie’s still at the garage having the windscreen repaired.”

My mind clicked over rapidly. It was late and I was feeling tired, sore and dirty. I certainly didn’t feel like cooking supper after all of this. “Then we will walk to the car and drive straight on to the restaurant.”

Why had I worn my new high heels to work? Had it really been that important to impress Gillian Flynn, the fashion queen on our staff? She had been impressed, but now I regretted the move: my toes felt squashed and I doubted if my hamstrings would ever feel the same. A blister was surely forming on my heels and, worst of all, Joshua was humming under his breath as I stumbled next to him along the rough road! For some reason I was still clutching my purse with a sweaty hand. Why hadn’t I left it at home?

I couldn’t hide my panting by the time we reached the car park, deserted except for my truculent vehicle. Joshua was smirking when he pressed the button on my remote as we neared the car. Nothing happened. My ball of anxiety disappeared in a flash as I looked at his puzzled face and felt myself smiling for the first time in hours. A sense of relief and satisfaction flooded through me: all that anxiety had not been for nothing. “You see? It doesn’t work.” Would he detect the triumphant crow in my voice?

Joshua tried the remote on the spare keys: no reaction. I wanted to giggle at the frown that knitted his eyebrows together as he pursed his lips. He glanced at the emptiness around us. “We’ll just have to use the key then.”

I braced myself for the shock of the alarm renting the quiet air. Instead, the door opened without a murmur. As we settled into the car I could feel my spine losing its rigidity. Joshua’s large hand squeezed mine. “Food!” He laughed, nosing the car in the direction of our favourite eatery.

“Wine!”

At last, with a plate of food and a glass of wine in front of me, I could relax and enjoy the company of my husband. He looked up from his feast of mushroom ravioli with parmesan cream sauce and winked at me. “I prefer the dishevelled you,” he said simply.

“It’s been a hell of a day,” I admitted after my second glass of wine. It felt for a moment like an early date: everything about Joshua in the soft candle light seemed fresh and exciting. We held hands as we returned to the car.

Both remotes worked this time! “Perhaps someone blocked the system but couldn’t unlock the car,” he muttered reassuringly. I no longer cared: life was back to normal and that is all that matters.

SALLY’S DIARIES

They were ordinary looking notebooks, not formal diaries by any means. There were few, if any, dates for the entries and none were accompanied by a year. Angela might even have thrown them away along with the old savings books, receipts and scraps of paper shoved into a clear plastic bag at the bottom of a cardboard box in the spare room – the other notebooks she had seen contained grocery lists, curtain measurements, calculations of one sort or another, and meaningless scribbled phrases or single words – certainly not worth keeping she thought.

Angela’s first ballet show… these words gripped her attention when Angela bent down to retrieve the book that had fallen open on the floor. There was my beautiful child dressed in her ballet tights, pink leotard and stiff little tutu threaded through with red ribbon, her feet flat on the polished floor and her fingers just touching above her head. I thought my heart would burst. Such an angel she is. The sight of her looking so proud and confident, and her smile lighting up her face, brought tears to my eyes.

Her mother had taken Angela to ballet lessons every week until the end of her Grade 4 year, when she finally admitted that she couldn’t afford them anymore. It was only then that Angela began to understand why her mother worked until so late at her computer on most nights after their homework had been done. Her father had explained at the time that her mother was doing a job called ‘proofreading’. Fixing other people’s mistakes is how he put it. Of course Angela had been angry and bitterly disappointed about giving up her lessons. She could still remember the way she had flounced out of the room, the words I hate you! echoing in her wake.

Angela could feel the warmth rise in her cheeks as she moved to the lounge, where the light was better, to read her mother’s loopy scrawl. Ironically, she now proofread theses and reports in order to help pay for Liam’s music lessons.

Then there had been the fire: that destructive wall of flame that had blown inexorably towards them from the road below their house. All they knew was that the tinder dry veld had erupted when the fierce ‘Berg wind had whipped up the flames that ran along the ground and passed from tree to tree. Their quiet neighbourhood on the edge of the town became engulfed in smoke and fear. Hosepipes were no match for the monstrous flames. Even the fire trucks had seemed like toy approximations of the real thing.

Sally had called to Angela and Peter to take their dogs and to get as far away from the fire as you can! She had joined them on the road a little later; had held their free hands as tightly as she could; and allowed silent tears to course down her cheeks when the burning roof of their house finally collapsed inward, the flames moving to engulf the house next door. They would consume two more before the firemen and hundreds of volunteers managed to subdue them late into the night.

Paging through the notebooks, Angela could find no mention of the loss of their home and most of what they had owned. In an entry simply dated 24/8, her mother had written: In the middle of an area of blackened veld grows a cluster of arum lilies. They were protected from the fire because they were growing in a hollow. They looked beautiful.

Ever since the fire, her mother had refused to have arum lilies indoors. Once, she had remonstrated with the flower sellers who picked the beautiful blooms growing in the wild to sell in bundles on the pavement outside the supermarket. Her acerbic letters to the local press had sparked a debate that had raged for weeks. Even the local Botanical Society had taken up the cause to no avail. Instinctively, Angela had been adamant that there would be no arum lilies at her mother’s funeral. Now, she thought, I know why.

Camping is the only way to truly enjoy the freedom of being out in the open. These words scrawled across the top of another page Angela had opened at random opened a floodgate of memories: her parents pitching their tent while she and Peter sought other children in the camp site they could hang around with; her father always at ease; the wonderful meals her mother provided whenever her father decided not to braai.

They had continued to camp even as her parents’ fortunes had improved. The equipment became smarter and more convenient, but the routine remained the same. Angela recalled with a degree of shame the sad, bewildered look on her parents’ faces when she and Peter had fought their way through a week-long camping trip on the West Coast. According to their teenage perspective, camping had become so boring compared with the holidays their school friends went on. They had never camped together as a family again.

Sitting above the level of the road next to an aloe and almost blending into the arid veld was a young Xhosa boy, his body painted white all over and only partially covered by a light green blanket.  Where had that been?

I have a new perspective on control now. It is not the most competent who are rewarded with status, money, or assistance, but those who fawn, make a song and dance about everything they do, and who are adept at getting others to do their work for them. Only a few more years to go now. I can do this!

Sally had been a hard worker all her life and, after Andrew had died, she had seemed to be driven to keep the demons of loneliness at bay. You two have got your own lives to lead now, she would say to Angela and Peter. Don’t worry about me. Sally had not been one to crow about her successes or complain about her lot in life.

After her retirement she had taken up knitting for charity, spent one morning a week at the Hospice Shop, and continued to help her former colleagues in one way or another until they too moved away or didn’t need her anymore. She drove friends to medical appointments and started a walking group. It was almost as if Sally couldn’t bear to be still until the evenings, when she would set her tea tray on a low stool near the easy chair and read until the early hours of the morning.

The other activity her mother was well known for was bird watching. Angela found two entries tucked among many others:

A Gymnogene alighted in a nearby eucalyptus tree – a good view of it before it flew, almost lazily, away to a tall tree behind the house. What a magnificent bird!

Four Cattle Egrets perched on a farm reservoir. Equally spaced as though standing guard.

Sally had passed her love of birds to Angela’s sons, Liam and Neville, and had encouraged Peter’s daughter, Theresa, to join her at their farm dam. Theresa was now a well on her way to becoming a well-respected bird photographer.

Andrew knows how to braai up a storm. He really impressed the folks tonight. Her father had been a champion at preparing meals over a fire. As he had grown older, so his array of braai equipment had increased and the repertoire of his dishes expanded. Sally used to sit back smiling at the accolades he received, her own contribution of breads and salads generally taken for granted.

Southern Right Whales observed from the reception area. They are recognisable from the shape of their plumes as they blow in the water. Where could that have been? Angela found the lack of dates and place names in the notebooks frustrating. She picked up another notebook and opened it at random.

It’s a toss-up between Kgalagadi and the Kruger National Park. Peace in both – real heaven. Two-thirds of South Africa’s birds in Kruger. Andrew and I must go to the desert soon.

Angela’s parents had migrated to the country’s national parks and nature reserves whenever they could take time off work – and more frequently after Angela and Peter had left home. Until her father had died, they were often accompanied by a grandchild or two. Afterwards, Sally would camp with friends. Typical of her, she worked at them until going to the Kruger Park had become an annual outing. Years later her mother would explain her staying at home as there are too few of us now and we’re all getting old. Why had she and Peter not thought of including their mother in more family holidays instead of only taking her in for alternate Christmases?

Fishing trawler turns 180° in order to leave the harbour.

Angela skipped over several entries like this that meant nothing to her until she happened upon a page with CHILD’S PLAY written in bold capital letters along the top. The fountain pen ink had run in places – obviously something had spilled across the page – yet Angela could just make out …such a pleasure. Funny how some people find the simplest things difficult. Glad I could help Ellen … Vincent was her lifeline … realise I am useful after all!

She felt a dry sob shuddering through her. The open cardboard box upstairs remained forgotten as she probed the hollow within. Her mother had never stopped helping her with recipes, calm advice when the children were sick, explaining how to line a dress, cheering whenever the children did well at school, listening to her rants about work, and always reminding Angela that Simon loved her and was a good father.

The landline rang in the background as Angela flipped to another page: Five o’clock traffic in Cape Town proceeds at a snail’s pace, seldom not more than 5km/hour and often at a standstill. Every lane solid with vehicles. It was Peter. Can you remember Mom ever driving through Cape Town? She could not help the catch in her voice.

What sort of question is that?

I’ve just found her diaries. Angela paused. Notebooks really. I never thought of Mom having private thoughts. You know, opinions, making observations, that sort of thing.

Perhaps we can find a quiet time after Christmas to look at them. Peter’s voice was gruff. He changed the conversation to tell his sister about his new caravan, what his children were up to and how the drought was affecting his crops. Angela listened patiently. Peter never spoke of their mother’s death yet always telephoned her on the anniversary of it. She waited for his acknowledgement. It hadn’t varied in eleven years. Thanks for your message. He would never change.

Through Sally’s notes they would reminisce and get to know their mother as she had never let them in life. After all, thought Angela, she had just been Mom to them.

YOU’RE SMILING

Alex wiped Jenny’s mouth with a clean dishcloth, exaggeratedly sniffed the minty smell of toothpaste, and rubbed at the brown spot of Bovril on the cream collar of Jenny’s school uniform. It spread. “Hold on, Angel.” Alex moistened the sink sponge and vigorously rubbed the spot, breathing a sigh of relief as it faded satisfactorily.

“Now my collar’s wet, Mom!” Jenny twisted herself out of her mother’s firm grasp. Blinking back tears she held out her water bottle to be filled. Alex wiped the bottle and grinned down at her daughter. That was the first sentence Jenny had strung together since being woken an hour earlier.

“Have you got everything, love?” She cast her eyes about the untidy kitchen, mentally ticking off the need to wash the dishes, clean the surfaces and to load the washing machine as soon as she got back.

“Ask me a checklist.” A tentative smile played across Jenny’s hitherto serious face.

“Hair done?” An enthusiastic nod.

“Snack box packed?” Another nod.

“Juice not leaking?” Another nod, this time accompanied by the faintest glimmer of a smile. As she went through the unnecessarily detailed list, Alex wondered why, and how, this double-checking had become a ritual. “Did you remember to plug your brain in?”

“Silly Mommy. You know my brain is fixed inside me!” Jenny’s laughter eased a band of tension within Alex. Conscious that her own teeth were still unbrushed, she bent down to kiss her six-year old daughter.

“I am a silly goose, aren’t I? Come along now. I’ll carry your sports bag. Off to school we go!” She tried to sound jolly as they walked to the car she had taken out of the garage earlier.

“My back is sore,” Jenny complained quietly as she buckled her seat belt. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to last the morning sitting at my desk.”

Alex caught her eye in the rear-view mirror as she reversed into the road. “No more monkeys jumping on the bed! You shouldn’t have been doing tumble-turns on the bed last night.” The previous week Jenny had complained of a sore stomach. The week before she had held her ears as if they were going to fall off in pain. One more week … Alex was not going to cave in. “I’ll walk you to your classroom, Jen. Would you like that?”

Jenny gripped her mother’s hand firmly as they made their way painfully slowly down the path leading to the classroom block. “When’s Daddy coming home?”

“One week from today. On this day next week I will collect you early from school so that we can meet Daddy at the airport.” Alex knew there was a catch in her voice and could feel the tears prick behind her eyelids. If she was missing Charles this much then how much more was Jenny: Charles was her hero; her world. She reached for a tissue in her jeans pocket and blew her nose vigorously. “Oh dear,” she smiled. “I hope I’m not in for a cold!”

As she strode towards her car, Alex went through her own mental checklist: purchase groceries, clean the kitchen, do the laundry, clean the pool, finish writing that article about lemons, prune the creepers threatening to engulf the aloes, find time to have her hair cut, get the ironing done, bake cupcakes for Jenny’s cookie day …

Her cell phone chimed as Alex pulled up outside the supermarket. The message was from Charles: New Zealand cold and wet. Missing my favourite girls hugely. Alex smiled at the phone. No news about either his conference paper or the series of lectures he had travelled so far to give. Only that he missed them!

Grocery list in hand, Alex pushed a trolley through the supermarket feeling absurdly grateful that Jenny would be busy at school until four o’ clock. She needed time. Alex stopped in the baking aisle to peruse the cake decorations on offer. An elderly man eased past her, looked at her intently and moved closer.

“What now?” Alex racked her tired brain for an image that fitted. No, her brain told her within a second, she didn’t know this man from Adam.

“You’re smiling,” the stranger said matter-of-factly. “So few people smile these days – and never while shopping for groceries!”

Alex looked at the smile lighting up his face and felt her own broadening in response. She had been thinking about Charles. “Thank you.”

“You’ve made my day,” the man said softly as he turned to leave. “I hope yours will be a good one too.”

Alex watched him disappear at the end of the aisle. She felt suffused with happiness. Yes, one more week; one smile at a time.