CONFIDENCE IS THE KEY PART II

Several readers encouraged me to explore what happened to Nicholas after he had screamed. Part I ended thus:

“We’re almost there,” Nicholas said encouragingly as he turned back to face them. “If you look carefully, you should be able to spot our shelter between those trees down there. Just be careful as you step over these last rocks.” One man and all these girls … they’d be eating out of his hand before long.

As that thought drifted through his mind, Nicholas walked straight into the web of a golden orb spider stretched across the path. He screamed and dropped his rifle …

The girls shrieked too. Nicholas knew it was now or never. He retrieved his rifle and faced the group, smiling broadly. “Now that wasn’t an inspiring sight was it?”

“Or sound.” Siobhan added sourly.

“Or sound,” Nicholas repeated. “The thing is, you are bound to come across spider webs strung across the path when we walk through the forested area early tomorrow morning. If you all react the way I have just demonstrated, we won’t see or hear anything and might as well go home.”

‘Keep them busy, Nicholas. Show them you’re in charge’ thundered through his head. “Now is a good time for tea, decide where you are going to sleep, and who is going to help me make supper tonight.”

To his relief, everyone got busy and the spider incident seemed to have been forgotten. The girls were hungry and tired, yet perked up when Nicholas produced some packs of cards and set them a challenge playing sevens. “The final winner won’t have to do any night watch duty tonight.”

He joined Siobhan with a mug of coffee during her night watch session between three and four in the morning. They watched the girls sleeping a little distance from the low embers and listened to the night sounds. It was Siobhan’s third such trip, so she was familiar with the routine and didn’t say much until she had drained her mug.

“Did you study drama at some stage?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“That spider performance was so realistic, I could have sworn you were genuinely frightened.” She stirred the embers with a stick and appeared to be focused on the tiny sparks that flew up into the darkness.

Nicholas placed another log on the fire. “It was only a spider,” he replied nonchalantly. “The girls seemed out of sorts; I thought it might cheer them up a little.”

”You’ve been a wonder with them so far, Nick.”

After an early breakfast, Nicholas tasked one group of girls to keep an eye out for birds while the others were to note any insects seen along the way. He was relieved to see Siobhan nodding her approval. He identified some of the trees in the forest area and encouraged the girls to make bark rubbings and to either collect or draw the leaves for their hiking journals he had asked them to compile.

Conversations were animated around the fire that night. Nicholas found a happy medium between joking with the group and choosing moments in which to impart more serious information. He felt they enjoyed showing him their hiking journals and smiled inwardly at the way some seemed to vie with each other to ask him questions.

There was a collective reluctance to move away from the communal fire on their last night together and so it was already late when the solo night watches began. As silence mantled the group, Nicholas snuggled into his sleeping bag, feeling relaxed enough at last to drift off to sleep for a couple of hours.

Later, he heard someone waking Siobhan for her turn of duty. She groaned softly and thanked whoever had brewed her a mug of tea. Nicholas stretched out and allowed a satisfied sigh to escape as he rolled over.

An ear-splitting shriek broke the silence of the early hours, followed immediately by a blood-curdling scream that woke everyone. The shriek came again as Siobhan played her powerful torch beam around the camp. “Nick!” She yelled loudly with a note of rising hysteria. “Nick!”

He wriggled out of his sleeping bag.

“Nick! Bring your rifle!” Siobhan was clearly scared out of her wits. He indicated to the wide-eyed girls to remain in their sleeping bags and held a finger to his lips. Siobhan was sobbing now and cowered when another high-pitched scream rent the air.

Nicholas smiled in the dark as he sat beside her. His rifle lay on the ground in front of them. “Shine your torch into the trees,” he instructed quietly, “and you’ll see the eyes.” Confidence really is the key, he couldn’t help thinking.

“In the trees?” Siobhan shuddered. Nearly everyone had their torches trained upwards by now.

“No need to panic. These are galagos, also known as bush babies. You are very lucky to see them.” He spoke in a conversational tone as he placed another log on the fire and adjusted the metal trivet over the coals. “Anyone for tea?”

Nicholas didn’t try to quieten the girls during their short walk on that last morning. He actually enjoyed their cheerful singing as he drove them back to the reception area and was taken aback to be hugged by each one in turn as they got into their minibus. “Do you feel okay to drive this lot?” He watched as Siobhan ticked off her checklist before shutting the sliding door of the minibus.

“I’ll be fine. We’re overnighting at a farm along the way, so I don’t have too far to go.” She moved forward and hugged him too then slid into the driver’s seat.

Ten days later Nicholas again faced William Barlow, who had called him away from a bird identification course he was running with Simon. “I need to see you about birds of a different kind,” he had said tersely before leading the way to his office.

“I’ve received an e-mailed report on your trip with the girls”, he said gruffly as they sat down. “Miss Davidson is pleased with your performance. This has been her best trip yet.” He passed across the e-mail he had printed. “The Headmaster has recommended you too.” William looked pleased. “He ‘phoned this morning. He tells me that this was a particularly difficult group of girls and you have worked wonders with them.” He smiled at Nicholas. “Apparently it all started with a performance over a spider. Would you like to tell me about it?”

Nicholas could feel the flush on his face. ‘Confidence is the key’, he told himself sternly. “Nothing to tell really. I just put on a bit of a show to spark an interest.”

“Well done lad!” You’re a credit to us.” William perused his list. “A group of eight women collectively celebrating their fiftieth birthdays arrive on Friday. I’m going to ask Gillian to assist you with this one.”

INSIDE WERNER

“I was more mature when I left the army than I was when I began my basic training.” Werner turned his wrinkled, sunburned face towards the young man sitting on a rock slightly below him.

“Does that have anything to do with the way you have lived since then?” Ray squinted up to see his companion.

“Working in the wild you mean?” Werner smilingly gestured towards the bushveld spreading out below them. “I came across a virtually abandoned zoo in Angola. Something snapped inside me then: I knew I couldn’t help those poor animals, but determined even then that I would devote my life to caring for the rest.”

“I have read descriptions of you being a particularly compassionate kind of scientist. That’s why I wanted to work-shadow you. I want to learn more than simply applying the factual knowledge I have gained about the environment: you seem to have developed a deep understanding of where you are.”

Werner picked up a dusty stone and rolled it about in his large hands before answering. “Would you believe that I used to write poetry at school? Nonsense, I know that now, but expressive. We had different issues to deal with in those days.”

Ray lifted his water bottle to his mouth, some drops of cool water trickled down his chin. He twisted the lid closed before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Do you still write poetry?” He felt unsure of the boundaries he was crossing for the older man looked away for a moment before rising.

“We still have a long way to cover. Keep a sharp look out for any unusual signs along the way and we might make a tracker of you yet.” Werner’s voice sounded gruff.

That evening Ray was struck anew by the simplicity of the small home Werner occupied. He had built it himself, nestled within a grove of bushveld trees near an enormous rock dome. Material wealth was clearly not a factor in Werner’s life, he thought as the two men sipped their coffee after a light supper.

Werner settled into his chair and spoke quietly in the darkness of the veranda. “Writing poetry kept me sane in the army. It was raw though – not the kind of verses anyone would care to read now. No-one really wants to know how unglamorous and unheroic human conflict can be. The tension, fear, blood and guts are too real. For some people it is the uniforms and equipment that make them think its all about cowboys and Indians; about rooting for black hat or white hat.”

“What’s that?” Ray ventured into the dark silence.

“You wouldn’t know. My generation grew up on cowboy films. Not to worry. I write poems now about the veld, the animals, and the birds I see – even insects. Years spent in the bush makes one appreciate how nature works best.”

Werner gathered their plates and mugs. Ray washed up and then yawned loudly. They had spent the day on their feet with another long walk awaiting them in the morning. They set off so early that it was only just light enough to see birds rising from the surface of the river. Morning mist covered the low-lying area, so thick in places that Ray kept his eyes on the heels of Werner’s military-style boots ahead of him until they had risen high enough to be bathed in the sunlight.

He noticed the broad gold ring glistening on Werner’s left hand. His own fingers were bare since he had removed the elephant hair ring shortly after Werner had teased him about it during their first day in the veld. “You don’t need such rings, brass or copper bangles, leather straps or gaudy beads to make you a man. You need a good heart, a steady eye and a level head. Learn to trust and to be trustworthy,” he had laughed.

It was after a long silence on their third evening together that Werner confided “Katharine was my soul mate. She was the ‘people-person’ who sang songs and who made us a home out of tents, a caravan or two, and even the smallest of houses. She took the arrival of Desmond in her stride and helped bring him up in the best possible way.”

“Where is he now?” Ray spoke tentatively, feeling unsettled by this unexpected glimpse into Werner’s private world.

“Desmond makes big bucks as a wildlife vet. You may have read about the work he does with large antelope and especially with rhinos left for dead by poachers.” There was an undeniable note of pride in his voice. “Joseph captains merchant ships and Hugh is an established author specialising in ornithology. Katharine taught all our boys to dance – probably to make up for my clumsiness.”

On the last morning of his work-shadow experience, Ray reflected on the possible topics he might explore for his Master’s degree which they had discussed the night before. His father was pressuring him to rather start earning a living. With various ideas swirling about in his head, his eye fell on an anthology of poetry lying on a narrow shelf in the kitchen-cum-dining area. As Werner was cooking bacon and eggs for their breakfast, he opened the book and was immediately entranced by the beautifully detailed drawings and paintings that illustrated each of Werner’s poems. In every picture the name Katharine hid in the grass, or ran up against a tree trunk, or slid down a creeper.

Werner watched him from the stove. “Katharine was the best, Ray. The absolute best.” He set their plates on the bare wooden table. “She’s here, there, and everywhere and comes to me all the time. It’s her spirit that sustains me.”

As Ray reluctantly headed home, Werner’s final words played over in his mind. “Choose a field you are truly interested in Ray. Money isn’t everything, but leading a full life is. And, when you meet a good woman do your best to love and protect her to the end. That way you’ll have her forever.”

BUSY DODIE

There were never enough hours in the day for Dodie. Apart from teaching, she spent time after classes with students who needed extra help; shouldered various departmental administrative duties; played tennis once a week; walked as often as she could for exercise; and, of course, devoted time to her family. If her neighbours happened to be awake, they would regularly have seen her light on near midnight.

Dodie derived a lot of pleasure from attending various public lectures (“they help to broaden my vision”) and looked forward to her monthly Book Club meetings. “It feels so good to spend time with like-minded people,” she would laugh as she joined in the cut and thrust of discussing the books they had all read.

As each of her children left home, Dodie seemed to take on more. “I like being busy,” she defended herself over tea with her friend, Lisa. “Being busy helps to keep any demons at bay.”

Dodie’s demons were mainly the aching pangs of longing for her far away children and grandchildren. Sometimes the demon was loneliness, and then there was the demon of feeling the years ahead were approaching too quickly. “I have so much to do,” she confessed quietly while sipping a glass of wine one evening.

Then Dodie retired. She was like a wound-up spring at first, determined to at last get around to tackling the long list of ‘want to do’ she had compiled before her last official day of work. She tried reading for pleasure, yet felt guilty about sitting down in the middle of the day seemingly ‘doing nothing’. She took out her collection of photograph albums, only to be discouraged as her children were only interested in digital images – so many of the treasured photographs had faded anyway. Dodie was both shocked and disappointed to find she didn’t have enough money to undertake the travelling she had dreamed of.

Feeling thwarted, Dodie got busy again. She helped students prepare for examinations; knitted endless strips and squares for charity blankets; and she often volunteered to man tables for various fund-raising efforts. Dodie walked every day. She watched birds, took up photography, cleaned her home with gusto, baked, and invited friends to tea. All her activities were listed in her ‘to do’ notebook so that she could once again juggle her time.

If you needed assistance, Dodie could be relied on to help with driving, cleaning your pool, or collecting prescription medicine from the pharmacy. With the help of her notebook, Dodie had worked out a meticulous schedule for filling her days. “Of course I try to balance the ‘must dos’ with the ‘want tos’” she told Stephanie over coffee.

Without realising it, Dodie gradually began slowing down. She no longer felt guilty about reading during the day; she stopped walking at speed ‘for exercise’ and began taking her camera with her instead so that she could record some of the many things that now attracted her keen eye for details. Dodie nonetheless continued mending, cooking, cleaning her house and volunteered at the local charity shop. She seemed to be wired to make herself available to help others in need.

To her surprise, Dodie found that keeping herself busy was no longer keeping demons at bay. She was no longer sleeping well and often found herself weeping over messages received from her children and grandchildren. To her horror, Dodie began finding that the social structure of society was shifting so rapidly that she was increasingly disengaging from it.

“I cannot understand why these students are protesting,” she told Wendy over a light lunch. “In our day we paid our way, worked for what we wanted, and took out loans to pay for university fees.”

During the early hours of one morning, Dodie opened her eyes and stared at the stars visible through the bedroom window. She was conscious of a burning sensation in her chest. Her pulse was racing and she swallowed with difficulty as her mouth felt unusually dry. As Dodie lay back in bed, trying to calm herself by breathing slowly in and out as deeply as she could, she found herself mentally revising the ‘to do’ list that she had left lying on her desk the night before. She felt overwhelmed by all the things she had written down that would need to be attended to.

For several weeks Dodie moved about in a mist of pain and anxiety. She would sit in her garden nursing her cup of tea whilst wreathed in guilt at the ‘to do’ list that had been largely neglected. She could only blame herself, Dodie knew that. She watched birds without really seeing them; she lost interest in cooking; hung out the laundry without necessarily remembering that she had done so; and felt frustrated by her inability to fill in even the simple crosswords in the newspaper. Something had to give. She needed a new direction in life.

With time, Dodie politely declined to help students with extra lessons. She stopped knitting for charity. Dodie no longer felt compelled to clear the basket of clothes to be ironed in one session. She even stopped thoroughly cleaning the house every day. Instead, she would read or watch birds.

As the weeks passed, Dodie began to feel lighter. She baked for pleasure when she invited friends to tea – not because somebody needed cheering up. She began knitting for pleasure with no end goal in mind. “It’s such fun,” she explained her latest project to Alison in the supermarket. She bought seedlings and paid more attention to the garden. Dodie watched birds; she read a lot; and began walking whenever she felt like it instead of feeling compelled to do so.

Friends remarked that Dodie was starting to look younger even though she was over seventy. Her family were pleased to see her smiling more often. She laughed more readily and wrote happy e-mails to her far away children and grandchildren.

Busy Dodie had learned to relax at last!

 

THE SCATTERBRAIN

Crystal had long been regarded as a scatterbrain by her friends. There had been the ‘introduction incident’ they still loved teasing her about: Crystal and her husband Rudie visited their friends, Rebecca and Karl, for a braai at their farm one evening. It had been a difficult week and so they had been enjoying a few drinks and snacks while waiting for the coals to be ready. Karl was about to put the meat on the grid to cook when car headlights at the end of the drive alerted them to the arrival of unexpected visitors.

“Don’t tell me these are the Baxters,” Rebecca groaned. “They’re only due tomorrow.” She leapt up to greet the visitors, returning moments later with Letty and George Baxter in tow. “Do join us for a drink while I air your cottage.” Rebecca made the introductions and looked meaningfully at Karl. “We’d love you to join us for our braai supper.”

Crystal set off for the kitchen to collect extra plates and glasses while her friend hared off to the tiny cottage some distance from the house. “Talk to them Crystal,” Rebecca had pleaded. “Just help to make them feel at home.”

Half an hour later another vehicle crunched along the driveway. The two occupants strolled towards the fire. “Hello, we are Norma and Ethan Spence.” Norma, whom they couldn’t see well in the semi-darkness, sounded confident. “I know we’re only booked in from Sunday, but it has been pouring with rain at the coast and so we thought we’d test the alleged hospitality of the farming community.”

Karl stopped spearing cooked meat into the metal warming dish. “Come and join us,” he said jovially whilst pointing to the chairs he and Rebecca had vacated. “My wife will sort you out, meanwhile I am sure Rudie here can rustle up some drinks for you.” He glanced helplessly in Crystal’s direction.

Taking the hint, given the absence of her friend, Crystal greeted them warmly. “Hello, I’m Letty Baxter, this is Karl, Rudie, George and Letty.” She waved her arm around the circle, stopping suddenly at the outburst of laughter.

“I’m the real Letty,” she heard Letty announce laughingly. “I think her name is Crystal.”

Crystal melted into the darkness to fetch more dinnerware and to warn her friend about the new arrivals. She was quick to offer to get the other guest cottage ready.

Then there was the time she had invited friends to dinner. Crystal set the table on their veranda for four, picked flowers for a vase and went in search of the pretty linen serviettes her grandmother had embroidered with intricate cross-stitch designs. Beth had always admired them. They had settled down for drinks on the lawn while watching the sunset when a truck pulled up under the white stinkwood tree near the kitchen. Rebecca and Karl emerged from the gathering gloom and handed Crystal a bottle of wine.

“Wow, this is a lovely surprise!” Crystal beamed at them. “How good of you to stop by.”

Rebecca took in the table set for four. “Crystal, I’m going to need a very large glass of wine!” She cornered her friend in the kitchen. “You did invite us you know; two weeks ago at the cattle auction.”

Crystal put her hand to her mouth. “Oh Becks! I feel such a clot! How could I have forgotten? Fortunately, you know me, I always prepare far too much food, so we won’t starve.”

This time, the consequences were potentially far more serious. Crystal needed to work out the wages and check on the loans made to their farm workers – a task she did every month – only now it overlapped with her commitment to embroider squares for a large bed cover to be raffled to raise funds for the local feeding programme. Her Sewing Circle had set four days aside for the task.

On the first day, Crystal drove into town filled with enthusiasm. Her basket of embroidery threads, needles and sharp scissors seemed to wink at her happily from the foot well of the passenger seat. It had been far too long since she had been able to get stuck into being creative! The morning passed in a flash as the women compared designs, discussed the colours and stitches to be used and then made their choices. It had been heaven sitting around a large table chatting to each other whilst stitching.

During the lunch break, however, Crystal found a shady step to sit on and hauled out the time book so that she could work out the wages. She gave up when her companions opted to join her with their tea and sandwiches.

Crystal got home much later than intended and threw together a scrappy meal. Afterwards, Rudie waited impatiently for her to finish working out the wages. “I need to know if Siya can really afford to borrow R500 for a heater,” he grumbled. “Mawande is already making excuses about not paying off anything this month because there is to be a family christening.” It was already after ten o’clock before Crystal could finally settle down to finish embroidering her square.

They were finishing breakfast the next morning when Rudie’s mother phoned to announce her arrival for a three-day visit. “When’s she coming?” Crystal’s mind was already reaching out to everything that would need to be done.

“She plans to come tomorrow before lunch.” Rudie sounded glum for his mother had never understood that farming is a full-time job.

“Shucks, Rudie. I’m committed to the team embroidery!”

Crystal rushed to town, waited for her square to be scrutinised for quality, collected two more squares and drove home in a cloud of dust. She spent the rest of the day frantically preparing a room for her mother-in-law and tidying the house from top to bottom: nothing missed Gwenda’s eagle eye! She was hastily embroidering her second square when Rudie sat down heavily next to her on the sofa.

“Have you drawn the wages yet?” He sounded fretful.

Crystal gasped. “Oh no! I meant to do that this morning, but cleaning the house for your mother and planning the meals … I’ll do it before embroidery tomorrow.”

As promised, Crystal withdrew the large sum of money from the ATM before joining the others at the Trinity Church Hall. She kept a close eye on her handbag as the group of women settled down to their embroidery. Rudie called her shortly before lunch. “My mother has arrived, but she’s brought a friend with her ‘for company’. What must I do for her?”

Reluctantly, Crystal collected another two squares, apologised to her co-embroiders and raced back to the farm. “How lovely to see you both,” she smiled while allowing her mother-in-law to embrace her stiffly. She scuttled into the kitchen to augment the cold lunch she had already prepared.

“Crystal, you haven’t shown Nellie to her room yet,” Gwenda reprimanded her primly. “I assured her that farm houses and farmer’s wives are always ready to welcome unexpected visitors.”

“And so they are, Gwenda,” Crystal lied. “I thought tea and a light lunch first would refresh you both after your journey.” She turned to Nellie with a disarming smile. “I’ll make up your bed and then you can settle in.” Crystal opened the windows wide, collected fresh towels from the laundry and grabbed a cake of scented soap from her emergency gift selection.

That evening she looked for her handbag to get the wage packets ready. It was nowhere to be found. “Rudie,” she whispered hoarsely. “I’ve left my handbag with all the money in it at the church hall!” As there was no-one she could contact at that late hour, Crystal turned to her embroidery with trembling fingers and tear-filled eyes.

As soon as breakfast was over – why did her mother-in-law insist on lingering over tea – Crystal drove into town, her heart thumping anxiously all the way there. So great was her relief that she burst into tears when she found her handbag with the contents intact where she had left it.

“We’ve done so well that we each have only two more squares to embroider before we can block them all to be sewn together.” Doreen held up the backing to which a white frill had already been attached. “If you would all hand in yesterday’s squares, we’ll be able to see how our project is coming together.”

With a jolt, Crystal realised she had left her squares at the farm. “I’m sorry, Doreen, I’ll have to fetch them and finish my squares when I get back.”

Gwenda expressed her strong disapproval at the lack of attention they had received from Crystal. “I thought farmer’s wives were meant to be devoted to entertaining their guests,” she sniffed.

“They can be, but I have a community crisis on my hands.” Crystal rummaged in the sideboard to retrieve a Scrabble set and two packs of cards. “I’ll play the winner when I get home this afternoon,” she offered gaily then backed away to sort the wage packets in Rudie’s study next to the kitchen.

With only an hour left, the women sat in a wide circle, their heads bent over their work. Crystal slipped in and picked up her embroidery frame. Fortunately she was a quick worker and her final design was a fairly simple one …

She could smell the braai fire as she neared the farm house. Rudie had already dispensed drinks. His eyes lit up when he saw Crystal. “Hello love,” he greeted her with a one-armed hug. “I forgot to take the food you’d prepared out of the freezer,” he admitted sheepishly. “Will boiled potatoes do?”

“Perfectly,” she said with a confidence she didn’t feel. Crystal eyed the meat he had put ready and glanced at the two women staring across the garden. “I’ll make a salad and then join you all,” she announced to no-one in particular.

The air of contentment that had mantled the foursome while they were eating was shattered when Gwenda wiped her mouth with a square of paper towelling – Rudie hadn’t been able to locate the pretty paper serviettes and Crystal was too tired to care – and looked squarely at her son. “I don’t know how you manage to run this farm with such a scatterbrain for a wife, Rudie. It must be such a burden for you.”

Crystal nearly choked on her wine. How could she?

Rudie laughed – that disarmingly confident boyish laugh. “You’ve got it all wrong, mother. I wouldn’t be able to run this farm without her. Crystal is a real brick!”

Note: This story was inspired by a blogpost written by Toortsie.

NO HOLLOW CHRISTMAS

“I’m so sorry we can’t make it this year,” Barbara pressed the cell phone closer to her ear and shut her eyes tightly as Pamela continued, “Eric and I are so excited about our new kitchen. It’s finished at last – taken three months you know, but so worth it. Anyway, we both feel the need to enjoy it in peace now that the last of the workmen have gone. I’m planning to purchase new crockery and cookware – I saw the most gorgeous casserole dish last week …”

As Pamela droned on about the colour of mixers and the benefits of blinds over curtains, Barbara looked ruefully at the material Christmas stockings she had sewn for little William and Iris. In her mind’s eye she saw the festive treats she had baked in readiness for their visit so that she could spend more time with her grandchildren.

“Of course we’ll be visiting my parents for New Year as usual. It’ll be such fun taking the children for walks in the forest now that we no longer have to carry them.”

Of course. While Pamela continued outlining her plans for hosting friends to various lunches and dinners to celebrate their kitchen make-over, Barbara contemplated the small gifts she had purchased for her son and his family. “I’ll have to post your gifts then,” she managed to squeeze into a gap in Pamela’s monologue. A sharp intake of breath followed after not more than a second of silence.

Post? They’ll never get here – you know how slow, corrupt and unreliable the mail is these days. Rather use a courier service. You can use our home address for I’ll be at home from the 15th.”

Another blow to her budget. Barbara slipped in a few festive-looking chocolates and chose white and red striped ribbon to tie the box together.

“I had a lovely chat with your mother today, Eric.” Pamela looked up from the small artificial Christmas tree she was decorating on the floor next to the fireplace in their lounge. “What do you think of these stockings I bought at the mall this afternoon? Aren’t they so cute? Willie and Iris love them already.”

Eric bent down to stroke their cat that rubbed against his ankles, then kissed the top of his wife’s head. “And, how’s my mother?”

“She’s totally cool about us not spending Christmas with her. I told her that we want to celebrate our new kitchen. Now, look at these large red cushions I bought for the lounge. Don’t they look festive?”

Barbara picked some agapanthus blossoms for the tall glass vase in the hall. Her house was really far too large for one; it needed to be filled with young people, dogs and toys. The swing in the back garden swayed uselessly in the breeze; the garden chairs in the shade only hosted fallen leaves these days. The wreath she had made out of cedar branches decorated with baby’s breath seemed to mock her at the front door. We can’t make it this year echoed down the passage.

She sat in her favourite sunny spot in the lounge, a cup of tea at her elbow and the newspaper folded to the crossword on her lap. Barbara sipped the tea absent-mindedly as she perused the clues in front of her. Crosswords usually absorbed her full attention, leaving her feeling mentally refreshed afterwards, even when a few solutions evaded her best efforts. We can’t make it this year … the clues swam before her … we can’t make it this year.

What is the point of all this festivity? Eric had never mentioned this change of plan: they had always spent every third Christmas with her, choosing to spend the ones in between either with her parents or at some other destination. They spent every New Year with her parents. “It’s such a marvellous opportunity for the cousins to play together.” Pamela’s words tumbled through her thoughts, hurting all the more for she had to acknowledge the truth of them. Eric was her only child. “Not through choice!” Barbara addressed the empty lounge. “Not through choice,” she whispered, almost choking on her tea.

Just then, the name ‘George’ caught her eye among the clues on her lap. Barbara leaned back into her comfortable chair and smiled tentatively. Georgina had told them at November’s Book Club how excited she was to be celebrating the New Year with her children. “They’ve insisted on paying for my airfare and have already booked a place on the shuttle to the airport. Imagine, a whole week with my grandchildren! Sarah has insisted they want me to relax.”

At the time Barbara had been anticipating the arrival of her own grandchildren and had added to the happy discussion that had ensued, barely registering Olivia’s regret that her children were living in London and Melbourne respectively. Her “It always feels as if they’re at the ends of the earth, especially at Christmas,” had hardly elicited a sympathetic cluck amidst the burbles of enthusiasm.

Barbara flushed with delayed shame. Had her own anticipated happiness made her oblivious to the anticipation of a hollow Christmas for others? Deirdre too had mournfully stated that her daughter would be with her in-laws for Christmas and that “Iain won’t be able to come home from New York at Christmas time.”

Well, clearly Eric wasn’t either! Barbara scrolled down her list of contacts on her cell phone. She would try Georgina first. Nothing ventured, nothing won she told her thumping heart sternly. “Hello Georgina! With only two weeks until Christmas, I’ve been wondering what you’ve planned for the day …”

By the end of the morning she had a spring in her step once more: this was not going to be a hollow Christmas after all. Her three friends were delighted to join her for a bring-and-share feast on the day. Olivia had promised a batch of mince pies for tea; Georgina had suggested a game of Scrabble; and Deirdre had come up with ideas for decorating the table. As Barbara checked her supply of sherry, nuts, cheeses and wine, a broad smile lit up her lined face. “It’s going to be a day of good cheer after all,” she told her cat, waiting patiently to be fed.