ROSIE’S WAIT

It was the end of yet another long day without Jim. Rosie glanced down at the scratches she had made on the cement slab outside the kitchen door every sunset since Jim had taken their wagon to buy supplies in their nearest town. There were ten. She bent down stiffly to make the eleventh, pausing as always to scan the horizon one last time before she did so.

She scattered a handful of grain on the ground and stood in the fading sunlight while their remaining hen and her six chickens picked daintily at the seeds among the dirt. Rosie wiped her hands on her apron that was no longer white before picking up her needles to continue knitting a sock for Jim. The ball of crinkly wool – which came from an old jersey of his – fell out of the crook of her arm and rolled towards the edge of the slab.

Rosie ignored it and leaned against the warm wall as the four short straight needles winked in the sunlight. She smiled in anticipation of Jim’s pleasure when he tried on his new socks. As she clicked her needles, barely looking at what she was doing, Rosie tried to imagine where Jim could be. This time he had travelled to the town on his own; Bert, their neighbour, had felt too ill to travel.

‘I ought to check up on him and Teresa,’ she thought idly. She really should, but what if she was away when Jim got home? It took nearly half a day to reach the Reardon’s farm on foot. Teresa would be starved for company and keep her there too long, so she would have to sleep over. She dismissed the thought tiredly even though she too felt very alone.

Rosie shuddered involuntarily as the shadows deepened and darkened the small shed that housed spare wagon wheels, tools, their single furrow plough, twine, wire, and wooden grain boxes. She glanced up at the thatched roof of their little cottage and sighed. Jim would surely return after she had spent yet another long dark night alone in the tiny bedroom with the small window that she kept firmly closed while he was away. She lit a candle indoors and placed it on the rough wooden table. Rosie would have tea with the last hunk of bread for supper. Then she opened her well-worn notebook and reached for the stub of a pencil stored in its spine.

The scuffed leather cover of Rosie’s journal held her innermost thoughts faithfully recorded over the twenty years since she and Jim had moved into the cottage to scratch a living from the farm he had purchased when old man Penny had died from a heart attack. He had no children and a nephew who had inherited his farm divided it into four. Jim had purchased the cheapest portion. She and Jim had not been blessed with children either – only hard work with few returns and their abiding love for each other.

The sun had only just peeped over the horizon when Rosie placed a bowl containing her bread dough on the broad windowsill outside the kitchen. She picked up the rough besom and swept the inside of their cottage and then hoed their small vegetable garden to clear the weeds. Rosie tugged at the weeds growing in cracks around the walls of the cottage and then drew water from the hand pump some distance away. Once the bed linen was soaking, she turned her attention to the sock she was knitting. She had needed to turn the heel during the light of day.

It was mid-afternoon when Rosie made up the bed with sun-kissed sheets. She had darned the crocheted bedcover and polished the brass bedstead until it glowed. The cottage smelled of baking. She had scrubbed the wooden table which now sported a small linen cloth and a tiny vase of wild flowers Rosie had found growing near the wash line.

As there was no meat, Rosie set about making a large vegetable curry by adding fresh vegetables to the dried beans she had cooked earlier. She went outdoors to pick a bunch of parsley growing in a pot near the hand pump. Only doves called in the hazy heat of the afternoon. Rosie wondered about the goods Jim had taken to sell in town: two bales of wool from their small flock of sheep; bundles of firewood; pumpkins and butternut squashes; a few jars of apricot jam … she hoped the townsfolk would be generous.

Rosie donned her clean apron, ran a comb through her freshly washed greying hair and rubbed some of her precious store of cream over her face, her work-roughened hands scratching her skin as she did so. As the sun neared the top of the Eucalyptus tree towering above the corner of their yard, Rosie took up her usual station at the kitchen door.

Her hands were still. The pair of socks were displayed on the freshly made bed. Rosie listened to the wind soughing through the trees, breathed in the aroma of bruised Eucalyptus leaves, and smiled at the hen and chickens pecking among the dirt. She had just scattered a handful of grain for them when she thought she heard a shout.

Rosie scanned the track that wound around the side of the hill before dipping into some hidden curves before reappearing a short distance from their humble home. There was nothing – just as there had been nothing to see for the past eleven days. Nonetheless, Rosie added more wood to the stove and went out to fill the large enamel kettle at the hand pump. There was a lightness in her step and hope in her heart.

“Rosie! Rosie my love, where are you?”

Jim’s voice! Rosie rushed out to see the wagon slowly creaking along the rough track towards the cottage. She waved and called out. After eleven days of silence, her voice had forgotten how to work. Instead, Rosie gathered up her voluminous skirt and ran down the slope to meet her husband.

They watered the two oxen and let them into the paddock. Rosie exclaimed over Jim’s purchases: seed, shears, a box of nails – all things they needed for the farm. Jim handed her a small crate of eggs safely nestled in straw, a bag each of sugar and flour, as well as a tin of tea leaves.

“I got most of the things on your list, my love.” He winked at her. “I’ll come in after I’ve washed at the pump.”

Rosie took down the large china tea pot they had received as a wedding gift thirty years before. Her hand trembled slightly as she spooned in the tea leaves.

“You’re a blessing to me Rosie.” Jim breathed in the aroma of the freshly baked bread mingling with the vegetable curry simmering in the cast iron pot on the stove. He saw the rice soaking in water and admired the flowers on the table. “This is like coming home to heaven.” He hugged Rosie closely and handed her the wicker basket he had kept hidden from her. “These are for you,” he said simply.

Tears coursed down her cheeks as Rosie unpacked two lengths of printed material, a bar of scented soap and a jar of cold cream. There were two books – a gift from a friend – as well as a box of pencils. “Jim, this is wonderful!”

“Ah, the best is yet to come.” Jim held out his enamel mug for a refill. “Sam Nicholls bought some cattle and will drop off our cow when they pass by tomorrow.”

“A cow!”

“Our very own cow. It’s been two years since poor Dotty died.”

“We’ll be able to have fresh milk and make our own butter again!”

Rosie’s wait was over.

THE SILENT MAN

Paula saw the man she had dubbed The Silent Man nearly every afternoon when she walked her dog, Phelyn, along the rough mountain track. She noticed that The Silent Man would stride past her and other walkers at a steady pace and with balled fists. He appeared to stare ahead unseeingly for he neither acknowledged her presence nor that of her dog. ‘He’s filled with tension’, she thought, and must rely on walking it off.

As the weeks passed, Paula began looking out for The Silent Man. He was easy to spot among the other walkers for he always wore blue denim shorts, a pale long-sleeved shirt and a broad-brimmed hat. She had only once seen him swinging his hands freely. On that occasion he sounded out of breath and had actually laughed when Phelyn tugged himself free from her grip to chase a large black butterfly with prominent yellow dots on its wings.

“You’ve a beautiful, free-spirited dog,” he told her in passing.

“Thank you very much,” she called out to his retreating back. He gave a half wave and strode on in the quick measured strides Paula had come to expect of him.

Thereafter The Silent Man unknowingly became her raison d’être for changing into her shorts and walking shoes at the end of her working day, even when she felt the least up to exercising – whatever the weather. Phelyn yelped and jumped with excitement whenever she reached up to unhook his lead from the coat rack near her front door.

The Silent Man had taken to smiling at her in passing. Sometimes he even nodded his head in her direction or waved a hand in a silent greeting without breaking his stride.

Summer gave way to autumn, which turned into winter all too soon. Paula’s shorts were exchanged for tracksuit pants – sometimes she wore jeans if she was late and her walk would be shorter than usual. The Silent man’s attire never changed, except that he had worn an anorak on the few occasions they had encountered rain.

“It’s really chilly today.” Paula ventured the obvious on a particularly biting winter afternoon. The Silent man halted, flexed his fingers and looked around as if seeing his surroundings properly for the first time.

“I’m glad to see the weather doesn’t put you off walking.” He touched his hat and continued walking in the direction she had come from. Paula watched him. Was he perhaps walking a little more slowly than usual? Phelyn tugged at the leash, urging her on. Paula didn’t see The Silent Man pause at the top of a rise to watch her. He had disappeared from sight by the time Paula looked back briefly, anxious to reach her car before the sun set.

“You’re foolish to walk on your own along the mountain ridge when the sun sets so early.” Richard swung his squash racquet in the air.

“I’m drawn to the mountain,” she laughed. ‘Somehow my day wouldn’t be right if I didn’t see The Silent Man,’ she thought. “Besides, Phelyn needs the exercise.”

It was well into winter when Philip and Victoria offered her and Phelyn a lift to the mountain along with their two dogs. “We’re meeting the Farringtons up there.”

“That’s great. Phelyn and I can walk home. I don’t mind walking in town with him after dark.” She bid her friends farewell and set off happily along the well-worn route she had been following for months. The air seemed especially cold when Paula checked her watch and looked at the sun already dipping towards the horizon. It had been a mistake to wear her shorts that she had donned in a hurry and now she had spent longer on the mountain than she had intended.

Paula shivered as she turned reluctantly at the mark she had set herself. There had been no sign of The Silent Man and she was beginning to feel anxious about walking down the mountain path that led into town. Her timing had been wrong – or he had decided not to walk. Either way, she had to walk faster. Phelyn broke into her thoughts by tugging and straining at his leash. He gave short, excited yaps and wagged his tail furiously. “What have you seen my boy?” Paula shaded her eyes against the setting sun. The slight loosening of her grip was all Phelyn needed to get away.

He tugged at the lead, freeing it from her grip and raced through the thick yellow grass shimmering in the last orange rays of the sun. Her heart sank as Paula raced after him, tripping over loose stones and skinning her knees and the palm of her right hand as she fell. She picked herself up in time to see her dog in hot pursuit of a duiker. “No! No! Phelyn come back! Come back Phelyn!”

A primeval instinct took over from years of obedience training as Phelyn raced through the grass, his lead trailing after him. “Come back, Phelyn!” Paula shouted until she was hoarse. She left the road and ran through the grass, oblivious of the gathering gloom. “Phelyn!” Paula was both sobbing and gasping for breath as she tried to keep her dog in sight. She tripped over hidden rocks, fell into subsided termite heaps and once hit her forehead hard against a low branch she had not noticed, so focused had she been on Phelyn.

“Hello boy. Where’s your friend?” The Silent Man knelt down next to the familiar looking dog lying panting next to the rough dirt road. He stroked the sweat-streaked fur and unscrewed the cap of his water bottle to dribble into the dog’s mouth. “Where’s your friend, boy?” The Silent Man’s voice was gentle and his touch was soothing to the exhausted dog. “Show me where your friend is.” The Silent man picked up the lead trailing in the dust. Phelyn stood up on wobbly legs and whined. The Silent man peered into the fading light, willing a human form to appear. There was only silence and the biting waves of the icy wind that always rose shortly after sunset.

Phelyn started off into the long grass and came back almost immediately. He whined again, shook his tail and went back into the grass only to turn and face The Silent Man with a quizzical look in his eyes, his ears cocked as if listening intently to something.

The Silent Man began picking up large rocks to build a low cairn at the side of the road. It was already too dark for any passers-by to interfere with it. “Stay here boy,” The Silent Man told the dog gently as he tied the lead to the branch of a nearby bush. He tickled the whimpering dog between his ears. “I’m coming back. Stay here. Stay!” He held up his hand to reinforce his command and then set off down the darkening road at a steady trot.

He returned in his truck ten minutes later. By then Phelyn had almost pulled himself free and was barking loudly with short, sharp yaps. The Silent man switched on his powerful torch that cut through the darkness as he unclipped the lead from Phelyn’s collar. “Find her, boy. Find her!”

Phelyn raced off and disappeared in a flash. The Silent Man stumbled in his wake, stopping now and then to sweep the light across the veld moaning in the wind. Where had the dog gone? He looked down at the lead and, for the first time, noticed the name Phelyn written in bold black capital letters with a marker pen on the woven fabric.

“Phelyn!” His voice sounded unnaturally loud and carried a note of urgency. “Phelyn! Where are you, boy?” The sound of an animal crashing through the dry sticks and grass to his left made The Silent Man swerve round to renew his torchlight search in that direction. The dog bounded out of the dark towards him. He stopped short, whined a little and set off into the now inky darkness. Half an hour later, The Silent Man picked up the wagging tail and a bloodied arm looped around Phelyn’s neck. He quickened his pace: the woman’s dark hair hid her face, but not her wracking sobs.

The Silent Man called out before he reached her. “I’ve come to take you home, my Brown-haired Lass.”  He knelt down to pat the dog and hoped his face didn’t show the shock he felt at the scratched face and bloodied elbows and knees of the sobbing woman still holding tightly onto her dog.

“I’ve twisted or broken my ankle. Phelyn went after a duiker. I tried so hard to –. “ Her voice caught and she sobbed afresh.

The Silent Man took in her swollen ankle, her tear-stained face, her shivering body and the panting dog. “I’ll get you home. My truck is closer than you think.”

Every afternoon for the next six weeks Matthew collected Paula and Phelyn in his truck and drove them to the rough dirt road that ran along the mountain ridge. He placed a cushion and a blanket on a flat rock overlooking the length of the road before it rose and dipped out of sight. Every day he would ask her “Will you be okay here?” She always nodded before he set off for a brisk walk with Phelyn in tow. “He needs his daily exercise,” Matthew had told her on the first afternoon.

Paula watched them through her binoculars until the point where Matthew unclipped the lead and allowed Phelyn to run free. Then she would settle down to read, watch birds or jot down ideas in the small notebook she always carried with her. The Silent Man – Matthew – no longer balled his fists when he walked. He was no longer silent either.

He always brought a bowl and a large container of water for Phelyn. At first they also drank water. Later, he would join her on the rock and they would sip beer with Phelyn panting at their feet. Even later, Paula began bringing savoury snacks to go with the beer. Matthew would bring a treat for Phelyn.

A broad smile softened Matthew’s features as he watched Phelyn racing towards his Brown-haired Lass – Paula – venturing ever further along the rough road on her crutches. He laughed when the dog unbalanced her and he could hear her cheerfully admonishing him. He flexed his fingers and strode towards them, thinking of their shared joy in the small things they had admired together: beetles, tiny flowers peeping through the grass, the low sun catching seed heads …

“My Brown-haired Lass,” he murmured as he kissed her cheek.

“My no-longer-The Silent Man,” she smiled at him in return.

They clinked their beer bottles together: “What a journey!”

THE TRUEST TRANSLATION MUST BE IN THE EYES

“Walter is the most attractive man I have ever met!” Frances unpinned her long, glossy brown hair, pulled a brush through it and reapplied her lipstick. She stood back to check her appearance in the mirror. “What do you think, Emily? Do you think he will notice me in the crowd?”

“Given that he is meant to be keeping an eye on the smooth running of the sports schedule, he might not actually have the time to notice anyone other than the next hockey team.”

Frances sprayed her neck and wrists with her favourite perfume. “Is he a primary school teacher? I’m not sure I could spend the rest of my life around sticky-fingered, sock-smelling little boys.”

“Actually, he’s a farmer standing in for Ben Lovemore who has ostensibly flown to Jo’burg for his parents’ wedding anniversary.”

“Are they good mates then?”

“They were at school and university together. Ben has something else up his sleeve I think. Whatever that might be is certainly important enough for Walter to step so far out of his comfort zone to help out.”

The two young women left the senior school ablution block together. “I must say hello to the Rogers family. See you later, Fran.” Emily left her colleague to hover near Walter while she made the Rogers family feel welcome at their first school derby day.

“I like the way you’ve redecorated your apartment, Em. I should have brought you a succulent or two from the farm.” Walter stretched his long legs out in front of him.

“You don’t mind fish for dinner?” Emily held up a box of frozen fish for him to see.

“I’m famished. Any hot food will go down well. By the way, your friend Frances made a show of being interested in farming this afternoon.”

“Oh? She got near enough to chat to you then?” Emily placed the tray of fish in the oven.

“Nearly drowned me in her perfume too! She told me over tea that it must be wonderful to work in an area ‘in which pollen turns into edible seeds’”.

“Walter, your sin is the way you give pretty girls a bear hug. They go all weak at the knees. You didn’t tell her you farm cattle?”

Emily poured them wine and perched on the high stool at the counter where she had placed their food. “You’d better chew carefully; whatever is written on the box, someone always ends up with a bone!”

They ate in silence for a while until Walter stood up to fetch the wine bottle from the shelf next to the stove. “How did your presentation on study methods go down? Did your audience buy into your ideas about homework?” He refilled their glasses.

“You remembered!” Emily flushed slightly and ran a finger around the rim of her wine glass. “They were polite enough. One oldish chap said he’d worn out several rubber soles over the years trying to deal with individuals in the classroom and he therefor knows that homework is an easier way of tracking a child’s academic progress.”

“So, he reckons he is a top dog in the profession?”

“His influence was dangerous enough to upset me.”

“See it as a bump along the way.” Walter placed his hand briefly over hers. “As you know only too well from my experience, we can’t always be successful from round one.” He smiled knowingly.

“Walter has invited me to the carol service at the little church on Chisholme Farm on Sunday,” Frances announced happily as the two colleagues opened their boxes of take-away food bought at the end of a long staff meeting.

“That’s good, I’ll see you there as I’m going with Jack. He’s going to play the organ and I have been invited to do the First Reading.”

“Do you go often?”

“Most years. The service is held early – before the farmers depart to other climes for their holiday period.” Emily tucked her paper serviette into the take-away box. “Is he fetching you?”

“Sadly not, but he’s arranged a lift with Joe and Chiara Kannegiesser. Joe apparently grew up in the area but works as an accountant in town because his older brother inherited the family farm.”

Emily could almost feel the current of interest swirl around the tiny wattle-and-daub church when she arrived with Jack. Along with the stiffening breeze came furtive looks and whispers from turning heads as Walter joined Frances after the Kannegiessers had ushered her in and introduced her to the priest standing at the door. Jack rose to play the portable electric organ set up in the chancel.

As the first notes drifted across the congregation, two young boys reached up to pull the bell rope. The church bell clanged loudly once, followed by howls of laughter as one of the two barefoot lads leapt up to catch the rope while the other was doubled up on the floor waving the broken end of it at the priest. Guffaws of laughter rippled through the little church.

Then the organ sputtered and failed to respond to Jack’s gentle touch. “Load shedding,” the congregation groaned collectively. Walter and Len rose from their respective pews and returned moments later carrying a car battery and extension cords. With the unexpected entertainment over, the priest began the service with as straight a face as he could muster. Jack’s music encouraged even the most unmusical among the congregation to sing the well-known carols with gusto. When Emily caught Walter’s eye as she stood up to read the First Lesson, he winked at her.

Some of the women left the church before the end of the last carol to set up folding tables in the church garden. These were soon groaning with a variety of home-made eats ranging from savoury to sweet. While water was being boiled on gas stoves to fill the large tea pots, some of the men collected cooler boxes of drinks from their trucks parked nearby.

Frances watched some of them twist tops off their beer bottles, while others poured brandy and ginger ale into glasses for, she presumed, their wives. She glanced round at the queue of people waiting for tea and edged closer to Walter. “Alcohol was the last thing I expected to see being offered after a carol service,” she commented quietly.

“This carol service is an integral part of our calendar,” he explained. “It’s for the kids as much as the adults. This brings us all together and provides an opportunity for people around here to catch up with each other before we go our separate ways. Farming can be a lonely life for some.”

She tucked her arm into his. “Do you think there might be some whisky on offer?”

“If there is, it would be shared privately.” Walter’s attention turned towards two cows that had wandered into the church yard. He smiled at a group of small boys chasing them off.

“Domestic animals turn up without passports!” Emily laughed as she handed them each a cup of tea. “It’s going to be a slow process filling these tea pots unless someone brings another pot and a gas stove.”

The truest translation must be in the eyes, Frances realised with a jolt: not a word, yet they are genuinely pleased to see each other. She briefly felt like the outsider she was until Walter nudged her elbow. “Let me show you the outside of this church, which is over a hundred years old already. The corrugated iron roof is still the original.” He led her past the tables to pick up a few of the snacks so temptingly laid out.

Emily was chatting to a group of women near the gas stoves. Everyone looks so content, Frances observed as she heard the adults indulgently listening to the small boys telling their tale of ‘capturing the cattle’. Two men near her were discussing the pros and cons of the latest batch of cattle licks available at the farmer’s co-op. She noticed another knot of people engaged in a conversation amidst a lot of laughter.

Walter began telling her about the history of the church and the local farming community. “Some of our families have been here for generations,” he was saying when an older man approached them. He used his walking stick to point towards some trees that had seeded themselves very close to the western wall of the church.

“I reckon a couple of you lads can sort these out with your chain saws,” he commented as if he were in the middle of a conversation. “We have to keep the wilderness at bay,” he explained to Frances before moving on.

“So, Frances. How do you feel about this farming community?” She thought she detected a note of teasing in Walter’s voice.

“It can be challenging, I imagine.” She bit her lower lip at the sight of Emily helping to clear the tables. Jack was nowhere to be seen. In her mind’s eye she saw endless carol services that doubtless meant a clarion call to bakers and cooks. No intimate dinners in restaurants; no regular musical evenings; no popping into the shops on a whim. She looked at young women hoisting babies to their hips and men clapping each other on the shoulder.

“Well?” Walter was smiling down at her, his eyes twinkling with amusement. Was it amusement?

“Do the Kannegiesser’s know they’re meant to be taking me home?”

“I saw Joe putting his cooler box away a moment ago. Come, let’s find them,” he said pleasantly.

Emily wiped her hands on her jeans and smiled at Walter as he approached. “All go well?” she asked brightly.

Walter put his arms around her and kissed both her cheeks. “That ship’s left the harbour,” he grinned against the background of applause from the few people still packing up.

“You had us all fooled for a moment,” Len called from his bakkie.

“Never!” Walter responded, drawing Emily closer. “Let’s go home, Em. There’s time enough to light a braai fire before the sun sets.”

They both knew what the hearty clapping meant. Walter pressed his hooter cheerfully in farewell as they left to drive down the narrow dirt road that would lead to his farm.

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.”