FREEDOM IN THE BUSH

No ‘luxury’ experience comes free – not this kind anyway. I had to save for a long time before I could afford the five-day hike through the bush led by our guides, James and Cameron. Apart from them, there were six of us in the group: four women and two men. Isn’t it funny how even total strangers slot into a pattern based on some unconscious decision? Amy, in her designer jeans covered with sequinned daisies, pushed herself to the front as soon as we set off along the narrow path on our first day. Geoffrey, the keen photographer among us, slotted in behind her. Apart from his height, his bright orange T-shirt stood out like a beacon – in sharp contrast to his battered khaki hat. Geoffrey photographed anything from beetles to baboons – and especially Amy, who happily posed for him in between doing her best to attract the attention of our guides whenever we stopped for a rest or to look at something interesting.

Having been friends since primary school, Karen and Angela had come on this trip to celebrate their respective engagements. I enjoyed listening to their banter, their shared memories that elicited much laughter, and quietly empathised with their joint regret at having to leave this beautiful country after their respective weddings. “It’s where the work is,” they both explained almost apologetically. They were making the most of this experience – almost as if they could absorb and store the sights and smells to comfort them later in their new abodes. Keith walked behind me. He wore shabby jeans and carried a scruffy notebook and a pair of binoculars slung around his neck. He spoke little, although he occasionally shared his passion about birds in a rather terse manner with James.

I watched Geoffrey set up his tripod when we reached our stop at the end of the first day. “I am in awe of beautiful landscapes,” he told Amy, who gave the majestic peak highlighted by the late afternoon sun a cursory look before asking James when we would be having sundowners. Geoffrey ignored her, appearing to be completely absorbed in what he was doing, photographing the peak several times before turning his attention to the light playing on the nearby trees. I felt in tune with nature too and admired the reflections of the peak in the waterhole while experiencing a heightened consciousness of an array of bird calls as the edge of darkness crept closer.

“Look at that Saddle-billed Stork.” Cameron spoke softly behind me. He handed me a mug of tea then chatted easily about the call of the African Fish Eagles we could hear in the distance. “They sometimes perch in the top branches of that dead tree over there.” He pointed away from the setting sun before moving off to help James prepare the evening meal.

“I saw a Martial Eagle from the top of the ridge.” Keith sat next to me on a rustic wooden bench while looking down at his well-thumbed notebook. “James agrees that they sometimes prey on Monitor Lizards. “I thought I may have seen one doing so the last time I visited the Kruger National Park. The light wasn’t good enough though, so I can’t be sure.” We looked towards the darkening water until he closed his book with apparent reluctance and said, “I’d love to see something like that on this walk.”

We were breakfasting early the following morning when Karen and Angela drew our attention to a pair of bushbuck grazing nearby. “Oh cute!” Amy called loudly over her mug of coffee.

“Be quiet!” Geoffrey growled from behind his camera.

“Excuse me!” Amy plonked her metal mug on the table with a loud bang that startled the antelope and set off a pair of Hadeda Ibises that had been walking along the edge of the waterhole. “It’s a free world you know!” Sensing the tension in the air, I moved across to the sink and helped Cameron wash the dishes. We were soon joined by Keith, who dried them.

“That woman needs her head read,” he said to no-one in particular. Cameron winked at me and made his way towards the now sulking Amy. I looked up a few minutes later to see her and the other two women laughing at something he had said. Keith was watching a bird through his binoculars.

We stopped at our next destination a little earlier in the afternoon. Keith disappeared almost immediately, binoculars at the ready. Karen and Angela settled in the shade to read, while everyone else helped themselves to drinks.

I found myself walking in the rear the following morning. Cameron was in front, as usual, Amy was close behind James with Geoffrey behind her, but Keith had moved in behind him. We cautiously approached a waterhole and watched in awe as two buffalo lumbered off, a family of warthogs moved in … and then an elephant appeared as if from nowhere!

We watched spellbound as the elephant blew bubbles, drank thirstily, and then sprayed a thick coating of dark mud all over its body. Amy was holding James by the arm; Geoffrey and Keith were photographing the scene; Karen and Angela had their cell phones at the ready. I wished then that I owned a camera – my cell phone was in my car. My attention was drawn to the whitened skull of an antelope protruding from the mud near the far edge of the waterhole.

“A kudu got stuck in the mud here about six months ago.” When had Cameron moved next to me? “It had been chased by lions,” he answered my question before I had even formulated the words. “This is all that’s left of the magnificent creature.” His tone was matter-of-fact, yet I felt moved by his acceptance of how nature works.

Cameron motioned for us to leave, stopping later to show us the spoor of a hyena. “It always has nail marks in the front,” he explained once we had gathered around it. We halted again to admire a giant Jackal-berry tree. That evening Geoffrey showed me the artistic photograph he had taken of the distinctive seeds of the Kierieklapper or Russet Bush-willow tree we had passed during the afternoon. He had obviously noted my interest in trees.

A small herd of buffalo were cooling down in the waterhole near our third night stop when I found myself looking over Cameron’s shoulder, noting his curly brown hair and the curve of his cheek. The moment passed in a flash for Amy demanded the first use of the bucket shower and was determined that James would stand guard outside “With your rifle at the ready in case one of those beasts wants to come barging in!”

Our group chatted amiably around the bright fire after supper. In spite of his relaxed demeanour, it was Cameron’s turn to be the watchful one, which is why he sat a little apart from the others with his rifle nearby. I found myself enjoying watching him from the other side of the flames: to be seen and yet unseen, I thought.

We crossed a shallow river, walked through tall grass, and kicked up puffs of dust while wending our way across the dry veld. By then the group had settled into a steady rhythm, stopping at the first sign from our guides, and whispering to one another about the interesting animals, insects or plants we saw along the way. It began to feel as if we had all – even Amy – sloughed off our city skins. Given the number of birds Keith and Geoffrey caused us to halt for, it is not surprising that we all developed an eye for the avian beauties that enriched our bush hiking experience!

“Built to conquer,” Karen murmured when we halted to watch a group of five white rhino grazing in the near distance.

“A miracle,” Angela responded, echoing what we all felt.

The river had widened from where we had crossed it on the first day, yet we were easily able to negotiate our way around the shallow pools. It was with a degree of sadness that I watched the sun already silhouetting the tall reeds as it neared the horizon. This was our last night camping out under the enormous trees seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I felt a lump within: I had enjoyed the freedom of hiking in the bush in more ways than I could count – tomorrow would mark the end of that.

It was some time after supper that I moved away from the group to marvel at the star-studded sky and the way the two tall trees were lit up by the camp fire: these would be memories to treasure.

“The stars seem so much closer to earth out here, don’t they?” Cameron’s soft voice reached me from behind.

“They’re so bright,” I answered quietly, acutely aware that he was standing close to me, “that they actually seem to light up the night.”

“So do you,” he added, taking my hand in his.

No-one seemed surprised the next morning when we set off for the last leg of the hike, each in their allotted place – except that Cameron brought up the rear behind me.

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WHIMISICAL MOMENTS 6: THEY DON’T EAT VEGETABLES ANYMORE

There was an excited buzz of young people as groups of pupils from several high schools filed into the lecture theatre, their teachers futilely trying to keep their charges together. Mrs Pulley watched the children fan out to take up seats as far from the front as they dared. She sucked at her mint contentedly and smiled broadly at the red, white and black signs on the wall announcing a ban on the use of cell phones, and the consumption of either water or food. She patted the bulge of mints in her coat pocket: to avoid the crinkling sound of the packet, she had transferred them to a cloth bag that her son used to keep his sunglasses in. Her smile lit up her wrinkled face as she waved enthusiastically at Mr and Mrs Grant threading their way through a throng of students who had just entered through a side door.

Mrs Pulley loved attending the public lectures at the university. The excited chatter that rose as the lecture theatre filled washed over her in warm waves of company. Company is what she had craved most since Damien had died. Real company. Not the light-hearted chatter of Book Club, although she was always grateful for that and the camaraderie that went with it; not the pleasantries that passed between the elderly at the University of the Third Age; not the forced cheerfulness of her hairdresser; and certainly not the hail-fellow-well-met attitude of the nursing staff at the clinic! It was the company of young people she craved. That and the desire to engage in meaningful conversation. She and Damien used to discuss everything from birds to politics. Chit-chat about someone’s lost cat or the quality of cake provided at the retirement home tearoom was not for her.

She watched the Grants wend their way in her direction. How pleasant it would be if they sat next to her. They might even invite her to join them for coffee afterwards. It had been a long time since she had visited their cosy home in Roberts Street.

The buzz of chatter subsided around her along with the prospect of talking to the Grants about the work their eldest son was involved in, leading bird tours through various African countries. She would love to tell them about Andrew’s success in compiling a photographic guide to the aloes … oh dear! They had got waylaid and had sat next to Dr Cate, the retired professor of philosophy.

Mrs Pulley slipped another peppermint into her mouth and pulled a small notebook from her other pocket: she simply must remember to invite the Grants to tea. She could purchase eats from the Home Industry shop when she bought her groceries on Monday. She tapped her pencil thoughtfully. Tuesday would do; she would invite them after the lecture.

“Martha!” Mrs Pulley turned towards her name and shuddered involuntarily as Mrs van Wyk shifted past the four people at the end of the row to take up the vacant seat next to her. Unacknowledged deafness was the problem with Mrs van Wyk. “Martha dear, why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” Mrs van Wyk clearly did not realise how loudly she was speaking. “We could have driven together! With the price of petrol these days, it would have made much more sense!”

“I had some errands to run first,” Mrs Pulley felt herself blush at her lie. “How lovely to see you anyway.” She patted her companion’s arm and hoped that would distract her from the throbbing of her temples at her second lie in a row.

“Just look at all these young people!” Mrs van Wyk seemed to bellow.

“Hush, Judith, the lecture is about to start.” She pointed towards the door. “See, that is our speaker for the evening.”

“So many boys and young men here tonight!”

Mrs Pulley was acutely aware of the audience settling down, of people looking in their direction, and of a lull in the conversations around her – but not next to her.

“Our lifestyles have changed,” Mrs. Van Wyk continued as loudly as before. “These days you can’t see past their potbellies!”

The speaker had moved to the front of the lecture theatre. Lights were dimmed and there was an air of expectation as the title slide appeared on the large screen behind him. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” he began, his voice raised slightly.

“It’s all because they don’t eat properly anymore,” Mrs van Wyk continued.

“I am gratified to see so many young people in the audience this evening,” the speaker continued a little louder.

“They don’t eat their vegetables anymore, you see!”

Mrs Pulley passed a handful of peppermints to her companion.

“Oh! How lovely my dear!” Mrs van Wyk popped two of them into her mouth at once.

Mrs Pulley was certain the speaker winked at her. She settled back to listen to him.

DINNER GUESTS 3: GOODBYE GOOD WINE

The Hadeda Ibises were raucously bidding each other farewell when Julie untied her apron and hung it on the peg behind the kitchen door. She loved the sense of peace that bridged the end of cooking and the arrival of their first guests. Richard was moving about on the patio, where he had set up a drinks table.

“How much ice do we have Jules?” He wandered barefoot into the kitchen. “It’s still so warm out there that the ice bucket won’t be able to compete.”

“There’s a bag of loose blocks in the freezer and two more ice trays.” Julie leaned into his hug then drew back to look at him. “Why no shoes?”

“It’s bloody hot. It’s my house. And actually my sandals are ready to slip on the moment I hear the scrunch of gravel and the tell-tale squeak of the front gate.” His blue eyes twinkled as he kissed her on the cheek. “More to the point, which wine shall I put out?”

They both eyed the expensive bottle of red wine a client had given Richard six months earlier. Julie shook her head slowly. “We said we would keep it for a special occasion.”

“And isn’t this a special occasion? It’s late on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the temperature is cooling down at last, there’s no wind, I am cooking the meat, your role in the kitchen is over, and – most importantly – we need the ‘good’ stuff every now and then!”

“The Bakers will be here soon,” she demurred as he reached up for the bottle. “They are always the first to come.”

“No time like the present, my love.” Richard turned the bottle over in his hands while scrutinising the label. “We’ve both been working hard.” He pulled the cork and decanted a little in each of the glasses Julie had placed on the work surface.

They swirled and sniffed, laughingly commented on its legs and savoured their first sip. “Mmm!” They looked at each other and laughed aloud. “This is far too good to share,” Julie declared.

“At over R200 a bottle I couldn’t agree more.” Richard poured them each half a glass. “Even if I didn’t pay for the wine. I tell you what,” he leaned towards her with a conspiratorial wink. “I’ll recharge our glasses from here, while the others can enjoy our usual fare.”

They clinked glasses then Richard took the tray of meat out to the gas braai set up next to the patio. Julie followed with the bowls of savoury snacks for their guests to nibble on.

There was no warning scrunch on the driveway and neither Julie nor Richard heard the tell-tale squeak of the gate because they were both watching a pair of Knysna Turacos splashing in the bird bath near the hedge in the front garden.

Julie stepped into the kitchen to switch on the oven to warm the garlic bread just as Phyllis and Tony entered through the outside kitchen door. “Surprise! We decided to walk here instead of driving.” Phyllis gave Julie a quick hug then turned to Tom. “Look! They have started on the wine already!” Nothing was ever missed by her beady eyes, Julie thought grimly.

Tom went out to join Richard, who was heating the braai. Julie retrieved the garlic loaves from the fridge, looking up in time to see Phyllis downing the glass of wine she had poured. “Wow that was good!” She watched in horror as Phyllis filled two large glasses to the brim from the ‘special’ bottle and turned to take them outdoors. “Anything I can help you with before I flirt with your gorgeous husband?”

“No,” Julie replied weakly. She eyed the bottle on the counter. It was empty. “Goodbye good wine” she said quietly as she tossed it into the recycling bin.

THE MYSTERIOUS SHOE

This story was inspired by a post written by Don Reid, about an abandoned house he came across whilst out birding. You can read about it here: https://mostlybirding.com/2018/12/30/a-house-abandoned-a-mysterious-shoe/

The story is about the shoe he found there:

“Well Saartjie.” Oom Koos sighed so heavily it seemed all his air was escaping into the heat that sat upon them like a heavy blanket. “We might be brandarm, but we can enjoy a view money cannot buy.” Oom Koos waved his gnarled hand slowly from side to side, encompassing the spectacular view stretching from their stony garden across the dry valley towards a series of hills fading to blue in the distance until you couldn’t tell where they ended and the sky began.

It hadn’t always been like this. There had been a time when Saartjie had grown bushels of vegetables at the back of their tiny house. In some years the pumpkin vines threatened to enter the kitchen. That was when little Krisjan used to peep into the large yellow flowers, convinced he would find a kaboutertjie or a fairy sleeping inside. Saartjie made a delicious stew from the pumpkin leaves in those days. She sometimes even stuffed pumpkin flowers with lamb mince flavoured with chopped up leaves of the wild mint that grew next to the small mountain pool that had served them so well until the Big Drought.

Oom Koos swirled the last of the mint-flavoured hot water around his mouth before setting his enamel mug carefully on the stone step next to him. Saartjie tried hard, she really did. He could still remember those days when she and Krisjan went to collect mint leaves. On her own the trip would take no more than half an hour. With Krisjan in tow it could take well over an hour. Not only did he stumble over the loose rocks, but his attention would be drawn to butterflies, to beetles, and to the tiniest of flowers that blossomed in that harsh climate. Saartjie was so patient. In time he had had to learn to be patient too. Krisjan … they had nurtured such hopes for him. Oom Koos spat out some of the dried mint leaves still lodged in his mouth; he much preferred it when Saartjie used fresh leaves.

He turned stiffly to look at her lined face staring resolutely across the valley. The hot, dry wind had tugged wisps of her steel-grey hair from the plastic combs, making it fly about her face. It hadn’t always been like that.

Saartjie’s long jet-black hair used to be held in check by means of a firm plait that kept to the middle of her back. He loved watching her washing and rinsing her hair in the large metal basin balanced on a flat rock outside their kitchen. When they were first married, she would sometimes let him comb out the knots. Oom Koos looked fondly at his wife, seeing her long black tresses set free in the candle light before she joined him in their wooden bed softened only by a lumpy coir mattress. Somehow they had never got round to replacing it.

After Krisjan was born with one leg shorter than the other, there never seemed to be spare money for anything. Saartjie’s vegetables were often exchanged for meat or fruit. Krisjan needed the best if he was to grow strong. Oom Koos’s sheep grew fat on the flimsiest of grass cover and the small, tough leaves of the stunted shrubs on their pocket handkerchief parcel of land.

A fresh-faced young man arrived on horse-back one day and introduced himself as the new “Agricultural Extension Officer.” They had coffee then – what wouldn’t he give for an aromatic mug of coffee now – which Saartjie had served in large mugs and sweetened with condensed milk. The young man had spoken to him about grazing, and the ‘carrying capacity of the land’, and how much water each sheep drank per day. He warned Oom Koos about changing weather patterns and about something called ‘El Niño’. At last the young man had stood up and said, “Oom Koos, I’m sorry to tell you, but you need to reduce your flock by at least ten sheep.”

Such shocking news that was hard to bear: ten sheep! He mentally calculated what the butcher in town might pay him per pound – he still thought in pounds – and answered carefully. “Three more months, Meneer. They’ll be fatter in three months from now.”

Then the young man had complimented Saartjie on her healthy looking hens and, seeing how quietly Krisjan had been stroking his horse, offered to give him a short ride.

“I don’t think Krisjan was ever happier than that day he rode on the horse with that young man. What do you think, Saartjie?” Although they spoke about him every day, Oom Koos was used to her silences.

“Those clouds on the horizon, see they are hiding the tops of the mountains …” Saartjie gripped her empty mug tightly. She still rubbed her bare left finger: they had sold her wedding ring to help pay for Krisjan’s last orthopaedic shoe built into a steel leg brace with a soft leather strap around the top. Twenty years ago now that was. Twenty years, and she still rubbed her finger.

“They’re not rain clouds, my love,” he answered softly. “There is no rain in them.”

There was a time when they would sit just inside their front door watching lightning sparking across that broad expanse of sky; had listened to the echoes of rolling thunder; and had laughed at how quickly their empty containers had filled with fresh water that would save them many trips to and from the mountain pool.

Oom Koos had rebuilt the chimney outside their simple house, using red mud bricks salvaged from an abandoned shed on the next farm. He included an oven with a metal door that had once belonged to a coal stove that he had found in the scrap yard.

“Remember the bread you used to bake my Saartjie?” He touched the nape of her neck, wishing she still wore her hair long. He had been shocked to come home to find Saartjie sporting what looked like a boy’s haircut.

“My Saartjie, what happened?” He couldn’t bring himself to touch her even though she was crying while she kneaded the dough.

“I had my hair cut.” She looked at him defiantly through her tears and continued beating the dough with her fists.

“But my Liefie, why?” He could see Krisjan moving about listlessly on a blanket in the shade outside. His heart felt torn.

“I thought we were cursed when Krisjan was born.” Slap, slap, slap of the dough. “I thought the Lord had abandoned us when he got so sick.” She lifted the dough, beat it down, and then shaped it into a loaf. “I thought all that until I saw a little girl in the hospital today. A beautiful little girl, except that she had no hair.” Saartjie began shaping the next loaf. “Krisjan, as sick as he is, stroked her bald head and then her mother shouted at him to leave her daughter alone. I could hear the shame, the embarrassment and especially the fear in her voice. Sister told me later the little girl has cancer – something that eats you up from inside. She told me it is nobody’s fault. Some people are born that develop the disease – just like Krisjan.”

“Krisjan has cancer?”

“Of course not! But he was born the way he is. And he gets sick. It is not our fault. The Lord is not punishing us after all.” A third loaf was being nestled into the tin. The oven could bake three loaves at a time. “Anyway, I heard wigs can be made from human hair. Ansie cut it off for me for no charge and will send it away. I have donated my hair –“

“So that someone you’ll never know will look as pretty as you.” She never grew her hair again, but hacked it off with scissors whenever it got in her way. Even now, he thought sadly.

The young man was right. This El Niño thing must have had something against them for it stopped raining. After three years the mountain pool dried up; Saartjie gave up her vegetable garden; the chickens died; his sheep died; and Krisjan developed a fever. A fire raged through the veld while he and Saartjie were searching for edible bulbs and berries. They had left Krisjan asleep in the kitchen. Too late they realised the strong wind was fanning the flames and whipping them towards the house! Oom Koos and Saartjie raced across the rough ground, arriving in time to see the burning roof cave in.

“Krisjan! Krisjan!” Saartjie wrenched herself out of Oom Koos’s exhausted grip. “KRISJAN!” She screamed and tried to pull away the burning rafters with her bare hands. The ambulance men who took his little body away left the blackened shoe behind. “He won’t need it anymore,” one of the men had told them gently.

Everything they owned was gone. Their will was gone too – gone with Krisjan. Then Saartjie got so sick … Oom Koos rested his head against the back of the chair. “We’ll talk again tomorrow Saartjie. Perhaps it will rain tomorrow.”

“Poor Oom Koos,” the nurse pulled the blanket over his knees. “In all these years he still thinks his wife is with him.” She released the brake and began pushing his wheelchair towards the communal diningroom.

“Perhaps it is because he’s blind,” her companion said.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO HOME

Jenna sat on the rickety wooden bench in the garden, enjoying a cup of Earl Grey tea while she viewed with satisfaction the fruits of three days of gardening: the smooth lawn, trimmed shrubs and the freshly raked soil where she had scattered some flower seeds earlier that morning.  She breathed in the clear air, enjoying the silence broken only by the soughing of the wind and the quiet chirrups of the white-eyes as they scoured the Cape Chestnut for food.  Jenna’s eyes moved across her garden while she made a mental note of what still needed doing: the lawn edges trimmed, the lowest branches to be sawn off the two acacia trees, the area around the old plum tree to be cleared…

Overhead the drone of a high flying aircraft caused her to look up and watch the silver shape move across the azure sky well ahead of the sound.  Travellers … her peaceful reverie came to an end as thoughts of her soon to be crowded home came to the fore once more.  She had had a foretaste of it already!

Alan had stayed for three weeks after his final exam and the closure of the university residences.  Not only had he relied on her friendship with his mother, but had made such heavy weather of the need to earn foreign currency before he went home to Malawi, that she had made up a bed in the spare room and promised herself not to regard his presence as an intrusion. She had smiled when Alan had announced his intention to move into a student digs in the new academic year.

“Will you employ a maid?” she had asked, feeling a mischievous tickle at the base of her throat, “or are you all a tidy lot?”

“Oh no,” he assured her, “we’ll clean the place ourselves.  We all belong to the Environmental Society so we’re unlikely to mess.”

Jenna had almost choked on her wine for his habit of leaving his coffee mug in the lounge, crumbs and a dirty knife on the bread board and unwashed plates on the draining board of the sink had begun to irk her.  “And what sort of cooking arrangements have you made?” She avoided looking at her children, Sam and Ceridwen, for they had made Alan cook a meal one night while she was away and claimed he had been “a disaster”.  He had clearly not been expected to muck in and help at home as they had done.  Only one more week, she kept telling herself and then I won’t have to worry about him anymore.

Then Sam invited Oscar to stay while he attended Summer School.  During that time Oscar baked a cake and one evening had cooked a delicious supper.  He was such a contrast to Alan that Jenna couldn’t help warming to him and found she didn’t mind at all when his stay extended to two weeks.  Near the end of that time William was invited to lunch to bid Oscar farewell.  He brought with him a bottle of pickled onions, two tomatoes and a tub of cream cheese to add to the simple fare Jenna had already laid out on the table.  He was a cheerful guest and had since appeared a few more times to run with Sam or to watch videos.  Last night she had invited him to supper.

Tomorrow her home would begin filling up again with the arrival of Alistair and Ceridwen, who had been holidaying in the Drakensberg with friends.  She was looking forward to seeing her eldest, who had spent most of the year working in America.  The spare room needed to be cleaned, shelves tidied, the bed made, space cleared for his computer…

Her brother Malcolm and his family would arrive the following day on their way to the warm springs at the Aliwal North resort.  That meant cooking another huge meal, finding the spare mattresses and pillows … they would return on Christmas Eve and stay until after New Year … more presents to buy, extra food, drinks, laundry, entertainment…

Penny, Jenna’s cousin from Muizenberg, would be driving up shortly after New Year to visit a friend in Queenstown.  She had ‘phoned to say she would arrive for a late tea and asked to stay for an early lunch to give her baby a rest from travelling in the car … another meal and she should really have something baked for tea.

Sam met her at the foot of the stairs as she came indoors with the tea tray.  “I hope you don’t ‘mind Mom, but I’ve invited Michael to spend Christmas Day with us.  He can’t go to his girlfriend anymore and it’s too late to get a flight home.”

She smiled, “He’s most welcome.  I’d hate to think of him spending the time alone.”  One more wouldn’t matter at all for there was always food left over after dinner.

The telephone rang while she was running water into the sink.  It was Kieran, her sister-in-law.  Jenna tensed automatically at the shrill voice and held the receiver a distance from her ear.  “It really is inconvenient for us to have mother for Christmas this year, Jenna, I’ve cancelled her flight and told her she must come to you.”

“Why?”  Jenna was incredulous for she had entertained her mother-in-law to every Christmas for the past ten years.  Eric had promised this one would be different and had booked his mother’s flight as early as October.

“Well, for a start, we know you are always at home but mainly it’s because Richard and I have decided to go to the Seychelles.  We really need the break you know and we certainly wouldn’t have one if we took mother along.  Think of the cost too!”

“Self-righteous prig!” Jenna scowled at the receiver.  Well, Eric’s mother would simply have to put up with all the other guests and realise that for once she could not be the focus of attention.  The telephone was ringing again.  Jenna wiped her hands on the tea towel, her head already spinning with mental notes of things to be done in the lead up to Christmas.  She could feel the tension prick at her neck muscles.  It was Ceridwen.  “Hi Ma, we’re packing up to leave early in the morning.  We’ve had such a fun time and have just been to a festive wine fair in Durban.  I’m feeling so full now after tasting so many cheeses, olives, pesto galore – and wine of course.  Some of the rather expensive white wines I thought tasted like paraffin or turpentine!”

“You’d do well in wine tasting circles.  I hope you’ve picked up some good ideas for snacks.”  It was a wonderful tonic to hear her daughter’s voice wash over her.

“I think we should spend next Christmas in a game reserve,” Eric muttered that evening as they sipped their wine in the fading light of the day.

“A lovely idea, but you know we couldn’t.  Why would you want to anyway?”  She knew he was still seething about his sister.

“Because having Christmas at home is such a hassle, you get tense and have to work far too hard.  Why are you smiling?”

“Because I’ve decided that people are more important than food.  It’s just another meal after all and the company will make it festive whatever gets put before them.  Besides, Ceridwen and Alistair will help me bake the cake and mince pies, Sam wants to be barman, Malcolm has offered to cook the meat, and think of all those extra hands to wash up afterwards!”

“No wonder all roads lead to home, my love.”  Eric got up stiffly to lead the way indoors.

 

GAME OVER

“There’s so much more to cricket than being able to connect bat to ball. All sorts of factors need to be taken into account.”

“Such as?”

“Well, environmental factors for one: the outside temperature, the ground conditions, wind, humidity …”

“What about the health of the individual players?”

“That too. Time spent in the gym, muscle-to-fat ratio, and the ability to control nerves and breathing, eye-sight …”

Frank halted to listen to his slightly overweight colleague talking to two parents sitting on the worn wooden bench at the edge of the cricket pitch. Staff members had always been encouraged to ‘mingle with the parents’ at this expensive private school. The glassy-eyed responses made him wonder, however, for how long the conversation had been going.

“Pierre, you’re getting a bit heavy on the chest now my man.” Frank patted him on the shoulder. “It’s time we visited the refreshment station and let these people enjoy watching their lads play.” He nodded at the obviously relieved parents and led his colleague away. “A cold drink will do the trick, besides, have you seen Aletta yet?”

“Aletta? Is she here?” Pierre’s dark eyes lit up under his bushy eyebrows.

“I saw her having tea with the Sloan parents at the pavilion about half an hour ago. Are you two still mad at each other?”

Pierre shrugged and kicked a stone out of his path. “She still won’t tell me who that dark-haired man was that she hugged with such enthusiasm at her graduation last month. He followed her around, I tell you, but we were never introduced.”

“’Just a friend’, right?” Frank greeted the parents and boys they passed along the way. He loathed being ‘The Duty Officer’ as everyone called the teacher who ended up being in charge of the smooth-running of major events such as this one.

“Women! They are a different species!” Pierre selected a soft drink from the table and turned towards the Thursday morning crowd gathered to watch their sons playing their final cricket match before the half-term break. “There she is with Evelyn and Marjorie. What are my chances?”

“Forget about the ‘friend’ and be one for a change!” Frank laughed, thumped Pierre on the shoulder and moved towards the father of a boy in his Life Science class. “Hello Gert, enjoying the cricket?”

“Good to see you Frank!” The two men shook hands. “Joe hasn’t batted yet, still two to go before he does. The game is going well though.”

“Were you able to identify those spotted insects I e-mailed you?”

“Spotted insects?”

“The ones Richard de Villiers photographed in Nelspruit during the holidays.”

“Ah, yes. Didn’t Joe tell you? Sorry, I should have e-mailed you. You were quite right about them being moths – Zeller’s burnet.”

“Sir, would you photograph me with my mother?” Frank turned aside at the sound of young Gilmore’s voice. The lad’s mother had flown in from Hong Kong on a rare visit to the school. He held up the proffered cell phone camera and clicked several times.

“Will you be going anywhere exciting over the half-term break, Mrs. Gilmore?”

“I’m taking William to Port St. Johns.” She smiled down at her son. “I grew up in the area, you know, and would love him to see the Magwa Falls near the tea plantation at Mbotyi. I believe they’re looking impressive at the moment.”

Frank took his leave and crossed the narrow tarred road to the play area next to the swimming pool. Several young children were playing around the see-saws and two boys were jumping on the ground-level trampoline. He nodded at the three senior boys on duty. “All going well, lads?”

“Yes sir,” they chorused. “It’s thirsty work though, sir,” ventured one. “Kyle and his gang only take over in half an hour!”

“That’s okay.” Frank eyed the safety fence around the pool. Swimming was prohibited without the presence of parents, the temporary sign warned in addition to the hefty-looking padlock threaded through the gate. “One of you go and get cold drinks for all of us.”

“Mr. Johnson said we must stay in threes.”

“I know.” Frank smiled. “I’ll wait if you bring me one too.” He scanned the play area and noticed a group of boys and girls playing cricket in the corner near the swings; Katie was walking her mother’s dog across the park on the other side of the fence. Frank fondly remembered them lunching near the tidal pool at Mossel bay and walking the dog in a nearby park when they’d brought it up from Cape Town in January. Would she notice him?

Two cyclists approached her from behind, fanned out to miss her and continued along the path. Frank waved in her direction, but she had already moved out of sight behind a row of low bushes.

“You took your time, Fisher!” Frank accepted the canned soft drink offered by the boy.

“Sorry sir. James Jooste was telling me about the sable antelope his dad has bought for their farm in Namibia. That must be so cool. They’ve got leopards too!”

“I’m going deep-sea fishing tomorrow,” Alan offered.

“Well, I’m going to eat and eat, sir.” Deon lifted his can in a mock salute. “My mother makes the best pizza ever and her mealie bread is to die for.”

Turning away, Frank considered the portable freezer already packed in his 4×4. Hogsback was calling. A glance at his watch against the background of cheering and clapping caused him to quicken his pace towards the boarding house. The game was finally over and he would need to be present when the boys signed out for the half-term.

A flash of pink caught his eye as he wearily closed the signing-out register at last. Frank looked up to see Katie standing to one side near the door. “Katie!” A smile broke through the concerned creases on his face. His duty was over.

“I’ve booked a table for two at the Clay Pig, dropped the hound off at the kennels, and my bag is packed, ready and waiting.”

He slipped an arm around her shoulder. “Time to go,” he laughed happily, already feeling the burden of responsibility for the welfare of the boys lifting from his own shoulders. “Hogsback, here we come!”

DINNER GUESTS 2: SLEEP WELL

“Hello Jeremy. Hello Alice.” Mary squatted to the level of her neighbour’s children, aged seven and five. Both eyed her shyly from behind the activity bags they were clutching tightly to their respective chins.

“Go on Jem and Al. Say hello to Aunty Mary.” Nancy shook her head in disbelief. “You wouldn’t guess that they play here almost every other day.” She turned to her children. “Has the cat got your tongues?”

“Aunty Mary’s cat died,” Alice explained solemnly.

“Don’t worry Nan. They usually see me dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, sans make-up. Come on you two, William and Henry are in the playroom. I’ll bring you all supper once Rhona arrives.”

“Is the train set out?” Jeremy cautiously lowered his activity bag.

“It is.”

“Yay! Thank you Aunty Mary.” The two children ran down the familiar passage, calling to the boys long before they reached them.

“No wonder they’re dumbfounded Mary, you’re looking absolutely gorgeous tonight.” Nancy handed her friend a square parcel wrapped in white paper and bound with a dainty silver ribbon. “Oscar will be over soon with the sleeping bags. You know him, he’s still glued to his computer – says he’s checking through some last minute assignments that have come in.”

“Eric has been working through various thesis proposals too. I think the Academic Higher Degrees Committee meets later this week.”

Nancy hugged Mary. “At least you understand. Happy wedding anniversary by the way!” The two women headed for the kitchen, where Eric was opening a bottle of wine. “Happy anniversary, Eric.” Nancy kissed him lightly on the mouth. “Goodness, the place smells heavenly!”

“All thanks to my dear wife.” Eric looked past her. “Is Oscar here?”

“Still looking at assignments.” Nancy rolled her eyes. “I don’t know how you’ve lasted for fourteen years. I sometimes want to move a bed into Oscar’s study and lock him in there!” She laughingly accepted a glass of wine from Eric. “Bread and water only!” They clinked glasses. “He’s been up since four this morning.”

“Darling, I think I hear the Leonards arriving. Won’t you see them in while I plate the starters?” Mary reached up for a stack of small plates. “Oh gosh! That macaroni cheese needs to cool for the children!”

“I’ll sort their supper out, Mary. What’s it to be?”

“Macaroni cheese and then I’ve made a red jelly with purple custard – that was Henry’s request.” Mary moved to the front door. “Hello Rhona!” She took the little girl’s hand and led her down the passage. “Alice will be glad to see you.”

The kitchen was filled with visitors on her return. Peter thrust an enormous bouquet of flowers at her. “Happy anniversary Chicken,” he whispered in her ear. They had known each other since she had baulked at going down a slide at his eighth birthday party in the local park.

“Happy anniversary!” Sarah slopped wine onto the floor as she leaned forward to kiss Mary over the flowers. “Well done! Though why the women get gifts and not the husbands is beyond me,” she announced to the kitchen at large.

Mary lifted down a large vase for the flowers and turned to see Eric stealing a roast potato from the warming drawer of the oven. “Out with the lot of you,” she said firmly. “Eric’s already guzzling and I must plate the starters.”

Sarah pointed to some snacks and dips on the counter. “Are these to come through?”

“Please,” Mary smiled. “Eric should have placed them in the lounge earlier. She saw Nancy disappear with food for the children and turned her attention to unmoulding a miniature salmon mousse onto each plate she’d set out in a row.

“Need some help with those?” Mary turned sharply at the sound of Oscar’s voice.

“Can you put a wedge of lemon on each of these?” She leaned into his hug. “When did you arrive?”

“I’ve just brought the sleeping bags over.”

“A drink then?” Mary gestured toward the fridge. “The others are in the lounge.”

At last everyone was seated around the beautifully set dining room table. Eric kept the wine flowing and either Nancy or Sarah helped clear dishes and bring in other courses. Mary could feel herself relaxing. Everyone had laughed at Eric’s brief speech and were sharing anecdotes about when they had met each other. Good friends, good food, good wine, a lovely husband and two adorable sons. She was so fortunate, Mary mused while casting her eyes around the table. She halted at Oscar’s empty chair and looked at Nancy.

“Checking on the children,” she mouthed.

The dessert plates were empty; the banter was continuing; Peter had helped himself to a third serving, winking at Mary as he did so. “Sarah doesn’t give me pudding anymore, says it feeds my gut.” He patted his thickening waistline. “Nothing a good run won’t work off though.”

Oscar’s chair remained empty. Nancy simply smiled at Mary’s querying glances and continued chatting. She later reached across for his dessert and ate it absentmindedly whilst laughing at the flowing conversation. Mary served coffee in the lounge.

Eric was pouring liqueurs when Oscar appeared, accepted a glass and sat down next to Nancy. “The children are all fine.” He patted her knee reassuringly, quite oblivious to the tell-tale grid pattern of the playroom carpet and a pencil imprinted on his cheek.

Sarah almost choked on her coffee. “I see you are too!”

Oscar smiled at her over his coffee cup. “Very refreshed, thank you.”

Good food, good wine, and such good friends. Mary smiled at Eric as Nancy handed Oscar a dish of red jelly smothered with purple custard.

“Purple custard? What a magnificent end to a wonderful evening!” Oscar raised his spoon at the assembled company before tucking in.