AGAMEMNON

Alan and Wendy sat in the shade watching the sheepdogs going through their paces in the field below them. “One of them might be Oscar’s collie. We really shouldn’t be sitting so far away Al.” Alan merely stared ahead, munching one of the sandwiches Wendy had made. She waved her hat to fan her face. “It’s very hot here.”

“Which is why we’re sitting in the shade, Wends.”

“I don’t understand you. It was such an arduous walk up here, with the picnic basket and all. We really would have been more comfortable down there where the benches are. Pass me some water please.”

Alan, who had helped himself to another sandwich, didn’t move. Wendy sighed and stretched across him to pull a bottle of water from the basket. She unscrewed the cap and had just taken a sip when Alan grabbed the bottle from her hand. “That’s not your bottle,” he growled and promptly downed the contents.

Wendy stared at him wide-eyed. “Alan, that wasn’t plain water – more like plain gin! How can you do that?”

“I need something to get me through this torturous day. Come,” he pulled on her hand. “Let’s get up to some meaningful mischief while we’re here. No-one can really see us. Besides, they’re all looking at those boring dogs.”

She squirmed out of his grip and stood up, breathing hard. “Alan Mansfield, this is not what I came here for. We’re meant to be supporting Oscar and his dog!”

“Agamemnon,” Alan burped. “We can tell him how wonderful his dog is later.” Both their cell phones beeped. Wendy was the first to read the message. “Oscar’s dog is about to commence.” She looked down at Alan’s sulky face staring up at her. “Come on, Alan. We can’t let him down.”

“I don’t see why we have to be right there. We can see the dogs from here.”

“The foundation of our friendship has always been caring for each other. Come and be sociable for a change!”

“You and your ‘standards’ and ‘maxims’,” he grunted while reaching for another sandwich.

“Stop that Alan or there won’t be anything left for our picnic later!” Wendy snapped the lid back onto the sandwich container and picked up the basket.

“What’s between you and Oscar anyway?” Alan had risen and was reluctantly accompanying Wendy down the grassy slope.

“It’s not what you think. We’ve had an epic journey together since primary school and so our personal history is inextricably entwined.”

“Personal history entwined? When did you start sleeping together?” Wendy did not miss the rough edge to his voice.

“Your thought process is so outmoded, Alan!” She retorted heatedly. “Forget about this and let’s head for the tea.”

Oscar met them at the tea table and hugged Wendy tightly. “Agamemnon is tired of being so constrained. I’m glad you’ve come down in time to see him going through his final paces.” He held her tea cup and led her by the hand to a bench under a tree. “You’ll see best from here.” He kissed her lightly on her cheek. “Wish us both luck,” he whispered and disappeared.

Wendy tried to cover her discomfort at what had occurred on the slope by sipping her tea, but realised her hand was visibly shaking. “Our elegant white swan has a dark tinge, I see.” Alan slumped down next to her. “Get me some tea, Wends.”

“Don’t be so indolent Alan. Has all that gin gone to your head already?” Her voice was quiet yet firm.

“Are you and Oscar sleeping together?”

“Let’s lay this to rest, Alan. Oscar has been a faithful friend –.”

“Since primary school, I know.” Alan moved quickly to grab another water bottle from the basket and downed it greedily.

Wendy moved away from him when she stood up to watch the dogs and focused on Oscar’s face flushed with both concentration and excitement. She listened to the whistles, the clicking of metal gates, and caught a glimpse of a small boy playing with a toy spear by repeatedly stabbing it into the ground. The applause from the small crowd muffled the sound of Alan moving in behind her. He held the nape of her neck in a firm grip and slid his other hand round to unbutton her blouse. She gave an ear-splitting shriek. “Stop that!”

Pandemonium broke loose. Silence blanketed the crowd for only a moment before Oscar came running forward – as did the little boy with his tiny spear held aloft, a menacing expression on his face. Wendy hardly had time to register any of this when a furry missile threw both her and Alan to the ground.

She rolled away to free herself and immediately felt Oscar’s firm embrace. Agamemnon was pinning Alan to the ground with two paws placed firmly on his chest. The crowd gathered round as Oscar led Wendy away towards his truck. “I’ll get you some tea,” he said gently as he pulled his jacket from behind the seat. “Put this on Wendy. When the shock sets in you’re going to feel cold.”

The remainder of the afternoon passed in a blur in between bouts of sobbing and dozing. Why had Alan deliberately got drunk? What had she done to make him like that? Some of these questions swam around in her head. Others, she realised, she had blurted out to an older woman who had opened the door of the truck and held her hand while she howled.

She had stroked Wendy’s hair and given her tissues. “Don’t blame yourself, lass,” she had repeated several times. “That bloke with you had it coming. We could all see he was as drunk as a coot. It’s the old triangle of love, I tell you. Oscar’s face just lit up when you arrived. I sensed then that trouble lay ahead.”

While sitting on the sofa in Oscar’s cottage that evening, Wendy fondled Agamemnon’s ears. “You’re the best boy I know. The very best.”

“Excuse me!” Oscar brought in bowls of hot pumpkin soup and sliced garlic bread. “What about me?”

“You’re different, Oscar. You’ve always been the best. You know that.” She bit into her garlic bread. “How will you ever forgive me for disrupting the finals of the trials? I am so, so sorry. I had no idea that Alan was going to -.”

“No worries. We’d actually finished anyway, which is why I could send Agamemnon off to you so quickly.” He reached behind him and dangled a gold medal above her head. “It’s like a gift from the Magi,” he grinned. “The pinnacle of our success: Agamemnon and I have reached our goals.”

Wendy shrieked, this time in delight. “I missed that! Oh Oscar, you’ve kept it to yourself all this time!” Impulsively, she reached nearer to kiss him. “What are you plans now?”

Oscar winked at her. “Agamemnon’s retiring from competition to work on old man Nolan’s farm. He’ll be happy there – it’s where he was born anyway.”

“And you?”

“Well,” he looked at her seriously. “I’ve clearly got a lot of catching up to do. It seems I’ve taken our friendship for granted for far too long. Now I need to find a way of convincing you that I would like to be your extra-very-special friend – forever!”

Wendy snuggled next to him on the sofa. “I think you always have been, only it took today’s events for me to understand that.”

THE CONCOCTION

“Take your fingers out of the dish, Simon!”

“I just want a taste.”

“Get out of the kitchen! Out! Right now and take Ryan with you!” Shirley bellowed above the inevitable crying of the two boys as she shooed them out of the kitchen.

“But Mommy, I never even got a taste!” Ryan wailed loudly.

“Go away!”

Andy rose from his easy chair in the lounge wondering whether to see to their sons crying in Simon’s bedroom or to check up on his wife. He cautiously peeped into the kitchen where Shirley was vigorously stirring a sweet-smelling pot with a wooden spoon while tears were coursing down her cheeks. He cocked an ear towards the bedroom; the crying there had ceased.

“Anything I can help you with?” He moved tentatively towards the stove. Shirley glared at him. “What’s that?” He pointed to the pale contents of the pot. “Whatever it is, it smells good.”

“It is meant to be caramel sauce,” she began evenly, “only it won’t turn to caramel and if it doesn’t soon I am going to throw the pot right across the garden!” Her voice rose hysterically and ended in a shriek when the liquid plopped a hot splash on her wrist. Shirley shouted at the pot, “Thicken up, turn golden and don’t burn me!”

“PMT?” Andy raised his eyebrows in a query and turned to leave for the relative safety of his easy chair.

“No. It’s the so-and-so Discussion Group this afternoon,” she thundered. “You’re meant to be looking after the boys.” One look at his blank face made her explode. “Andy, you promised you would be with them!” Fresh tears ran down her blazing cheeks.

He dared to reach for her shoulder – fingertips only. “Of course I am. In fact”,  he thought quickly, “we are going to sail paper boats in the pond at the park.”

“Do you even remember how to fold a paper boat?” Her voice softened as she lifted and dropped the now thickened caramel sauce from the wooden spoon and moved the pot from the heat.

“You only have to show us once or twice and before long we’ll have a whole flotilla of them.”

Shirley wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and mumbled, “I hate going to the Discussion Group. I hate it, hate it, hate it!”

“Why do you bother then?”

“Elsie is going to tell us about the role played by the Women’s Institute during the Second World War. I know she’s been researching the topic for months so I can’t let her down.”

“What’s the problem then?”

“It’s the eats. All these women turn out beautiful tarts and cakes made from recipes handed down from one generation to the next. They all vie with each other to produce the most tempting of eats imaginable and, even though I know Vera actually pays Elizabeth Claggart to produce anything under the sun, I’m simply not in their class. I mean, it’s meant to be food for our brains – not an ‘I can bake better than you can’ group!”

Andy watched Shirley spread the caramel layer over the biscuit base she had prepared earlier. He admired the curve of her arm as she reached up to open the cupboard above the workspace. “Hey! What’s happened to the dark cooking chocolate that was in the cupboard only last night?” Her voice ended on a dangerously high note.

He put on a hang-dog look for her benefit. “Sorry, I shared it with Jim while we had coffee this morning. I couldn’t find the rusks.” Andy turned away from the wooden spoon being waved in his direction.

‘Mea culpa’ he mouthed as he made for the door. “Shall I buy one slab or two?”

Shirley looked at her watch. “There’s no time. I’ll just use bananas and hang my head in shame.” She squirted lemon juice in a bowl and dipped the banana slices in it before placing them on top of the rapidly cooling caramel layer. Simon and Ryan crept forward quietly as she decorated her offering with a few rosettes of whipped cream and stood back to assess the effect. “That will simply have to do,” she said to herself.

“Mommy, can we lick the pot?” Ryan looked up at her with puppy eyes while Simon smiled broadly at her.

Paper ships of all sizes and colours covered the dining room table a while later. Shirley ruffled their hair and smiled at Andy as their two sons decorated their creations with wax crayons. Then Shirley glanced at her watch in horror, “I’ve got to go!”

She leapt up, covered the dish with foil, and carried it waiter-style above her head while heading for the door, stopping only to pick up her car keys and to slip her handbag over her shoulder. “Bye everyone,” she called.

“Mommy! Mommy!” Both boys came rushing after her. “Mommy don’t go!” They tugged at her skirt, pleading for her to sail boats with them. Their yelling attracted the attention of Wellington, their large black Labrador who had been sunning himself in the garden.

He came bounding inside to see what the fuss was about. As his body met Shirley’s with a thump, she felt the dish slip from her grasp. The whole family watched aghast as it drifted towards the floor. It was as if they were watching a leaf falling in slow motion – until it landed upside down with a ‘thunk’ sound.

During the pandemonium that followed, Shirley quailed at the idea of raising the ire of the hostess either by arriving late or by failing to contribute to the eats. A feeling of dead calm overcame her. While Andy and the boys kept their hound at bay, she picked up a large pizza spatula. She bent down to scoop up the confectionery and plopped it back onto the harder biscuit base. Her family watched in silence as she deftly smoothed it down and sliced more bananas over the top – without the lemon juice treatment.

Wellington eagerly ran his sloppy tongue over the floor while Shirley tried valiantly, then lost the battle, to pick out the endless number of black dog hairs. Time was marching on relentlessly. Her breathing had almost returned to normal. Shirley reached for the canister of whipped cream and smothered the dish with it then grated some lemon rind to sprinkle over the top.

“Good luck.” Andy kissed her cheek and opened the car door for her.

Shirley made it to the meeting place as the last of the members was settling into a comfortable seat. She placed her contribution on the tea table and acknowledged the appreciative nod from the hostess of the month as she sat down on the remaining chair. Shirley became so absorbed by the speaker that she had calmed down completely by the time the presentation closed to a rapturous applause.

The hostess brought the tea through and invited members to gather around. Shirley watched with a sense of morbid fascination as her offering was consumed along with slices of milk tart, chocolate cake and other delicious sweet things. She eyed each member who dabbed at her mouth with one of the dainty paper serviettes provided at each place. She watched, hawk-eyed, for the slightest sign of a grimace or puzzlement. Everyone continued eating while chatting about the ongoing role of Women’s Institutes and other similar societies or regaling each other with anecdotes of their own.

Simon and Ryan regaled her with tales of ships sinking in the pond or being carried along “so fast” by the breeze. She ignored the trails of tomato sauce dripping down their chins and was grateful when Andy smothered her hot dog with a thick layer of mustard. It was only once the boys were safely in bed that he felt it was safe enough to ask, “How did your food go down?”

Shirley gave him an impish smile. “They ate every last cream-smothered crumb of it!”

MISSING

“Tristan, I can’t play with you now.” Natalie bent down to look her three-year-old son in the eye. “I’ll bring your blocks and cars into the kitchen and you can play here while I’m busy.”

‘Busy’ meant baking three dozen cupcakes, icing the elephant-shaped cake, and then making two batches of cheese straws. She glanced at the crates of packets already filled with party favours on the counter. Why had she ever allowed Ken to talk her into this party-catering lark?

“You enjoy baking. Everyone oohs and aahs over your cakes. Besides, you’re very good at what you do.”

“For fun, Ken. I do enjoy putting things together for special people because I know them. But as a business…”

It began after she had catered for Irene’s fortieth birthday celebration up at the stables. Natalie had been anxious about everything because Irene was Ken’s manager. She had received glowing praise from the guests and Irene had thanked her in her short speech at the end of the evening – which is what had led Ken to persuade her to ‘go public’.

“Just think, you’ll be able to stay at home with Tristan and number two child until they are old enough for pre-school.”

Tristan built tall towers with the wooden blocks and then knocked them down until the blocks and cars were scattered all over the kitchen floor. Natalie tripped over them, spilling the powdered food colouring she had just mixed to the right shade of grey. “Pick these up!” She hadn’t meant to shout and immediately felt contrite at his pushed out lower lip, reddening cheeks and tear-filled eyes. Her own eyes were smarting too: time was running out.

“Let me help you,” she offered after wiping the grey mess from the floor. “Then I’ll put a plate of snacks together, pour you some juice and we’ll have a little picnic outside before I finish this elephant.”

The oven pinged loudly. Natalie put the cupcakes on a rack to cool, reached for the icing sugar and a bowl. She bent down to retrieve the box of icing nozzles from the bottom drawer, all the while revising her icing plans in her head. Sam, their dog, barked outside and set off the Hadeda Ibises perched in the tall Erythrina in their front garden. As Natalie mixed the different colours of icing, she became aware of the humming of the fridge and the distant barking of other dogs in the neighbourhood. Doves flew up in a flurry past her kitchen window. Everything was peaceful. Peaceful?

She looked up at the kitchen clock. Ten o’clock! When had she promised Tristan his snack? “Tristan!” She expected him to come bounding into the kitchen. He didn’t. “Tristan!” No sound in response. “Tristan!” Her voice had reached a shrill. I really don’t have time for this, she muttered under her breath. “Where are you Tristan? I’m coming to get you!” Natalie cocked her ears. Usually there would be muffled giggles by now that she would ignore while she ‘searched’ high and low in the most unlikely places, making loud comments such as, “Are you hiding under the cushion, Tristan?”

There was still no response. Even the fridge was silent. “Tristan?” Natalie’s heart began thumping. There was a ringing in her ears. She covered the bowls of icing with cling wrap and went out into the garden to call as loudly as she could, “Tristan!” Her voice seemed to be absorbed by the unmown grass and muffled by the trees. The sandpit was empty. The swing was obstinately still. “Tristan! Where are you?” Natalie’s legs felt like lead as she raced around the garden and then tore indoors to run through the house.

There was no sign of Tristan.

There was no sign of Sam.

Apart from her heavy breathing, there was no sound at all.

“Tristan, where are you?” Her whispering wasn’t going to find him. She reached for her cell phone and scrolled to the number of their neighbourhood security group.

Three-year-old Tristan Watkins is missing from 3 Monk Road. Please help me find him. It had taken her trembling fingers three tries to complete the message. Then she phoned her neighbour two doors down.

“Julie, Tristan’s gone. I think – I hope – Sam is with him.” She began to sob.

“I’ll be right over.”

Natalie and Julie walked quickly around the garden together and then more slowly along the pavement. They were joined by Mr. Reardon, the maid who worked for the Kidd family up the road, the Forsythe’s gardener, two students who happened to be passing, as well as Mrs. Roberts, who had been walking her dog. A chorus of “Tristan!” echoed through the neighbourhood. Curious people driving past stopped their cars and joined in the search.

Half an hour passed with no sign of either the little boy or the dog. Having read the message on their respective cell phones, other residents of the neighbourhood dropped what they were doing and swelled the ranks of the searchers. Natalie’s voice was so hoarse she could barely speak. She handed her phone to Julie when Ken called.

“There must be about thirty people out here, Ken. We’ll find them, don’t worry.” Julie handed back the phone, gave her a friend a reassuring hug and carried on shouting. “He can’t have gone far, Nats. Perhaps we should move up a street and then loop back.”

Time had lost its meaning as Natalie tramped doggedly on, her eyes scanning every hedge and bush; her heart telling her not to expect the worst.

“I don’t actually think my Mommy loves me anymore.”

“Why not?”

“She said she would give me a snack. But … she didn’t.”

“Would you like me to come home with you and we can ask her for a snack?”

“I’m too tired. She might shout at me like she shouted about the blocks.”

“Would you like me to give you a ride on my shoulders?” The security officer tossed the truck keys towards his companion. “Then you will be high up and can show me where your house is.” He stretched his hand towards the mud-covered boy who had been building little dams next to the narrow stream that ran below the level of the road. The boy looked at him briefly and shook his head.

“I don’t know where I live.” He sounded miserable. “I asked Sam, but he doesn’t know where to go.”

“Come.” The security officer hoisted the little boy onto his broad shoulders and began walking up the steep hill towards Monk Road. His companion whistled for the dog splashing in the water some distance away.

Ken made his way through the crowd to hug Natalie. “I’m here Angel. We’ll find him.” Natalie could barely breathe. Her eyes were swollen from crying and her throat raw from shouting. Now that Ken was here, she could feel herself go weak at the knees.

“Perhaps we should call the hospital,” she whispered with a shudder as her worst fear at last found a voice.

“Perhaps.” Ken fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone. A roar of applause made him look up.

“He’s here Natalie! Look! He’s here!” Julie tugged at her friend.

“Tristan!” Natalie shrieked. “Tristan!” She ran down the street, her arms held wide. “Tristan! Oh Tristan, we’ve all been looking for you.” She looked up at her son’s smiling mud-stained face as the security officer came near.

“Mommy! Mommy! Look – Alan gave me a ride. All the way like a horsey-ride!”

She reached up to take Tristan from the man’s shoulders and hugged him tightly. “How can I thank you?” Her voice cracked and her tears ran freely.

“It’s all in a day’s work, ma’am.” The man smiled at her and ruffled Tristan’s mud-caked hair. “I know that your Mommy loves you very much, Tristan,” he said quietly and saluted them both.

Natalie held Tristan close and breathed in his little boy smell. She felt Ken’s arms wrap around them both.

When she looked up, the crowd had melted away, except for Julie who was holding Sam by his collar.

THE GUEST FROM LONDON

“What on earth is this?” Timothy stared at the glossy picture of a sheep wearing a garland of yellow roses and scarlet hibiscus flowers. It looked as though the sheep was about to lick the camera lens, it was so close. He considered the marble-like yellow eye for a moment before opening the card that had borne a South African stamp. Inside was Liam’s familiar scrawl:

I’ve sold out mate. Lisa and I are for keeps. Would love you to join us. Details printed alongside.

He scanned the printed details. Rusten Lodge. Timothy opened a new tab on his computer screen. Rusten Lodge was tucked into some familiar mountains in the Eastern Cape. He rubbed his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully and felt a lump in his throat as a rush of memories flooded in: playing marbles with Liam at primary school; falling out of a tree behind the farmhouse and skinning his back – Liam’s mother had rubbed some yellow ointment on it, ruffled his hair and said “You’ll live”; riding horses to the furthest fences on the ridge that formed the boundary between his parents’ farm and Liam’s.

Then there was Rozanne: the girl with long brown hair that never remained tied up for long. She used to bring her horse from a neighbouring farm and the three of them would race across the veld before tethering their horses in the shade of the trees that clustered near the edge of the mountain stream. As they grew older, Rozanne always brought something delicious for a picnic: sandwiches, vetkoek stuffed with cheese, muffins … she once brought along squares of a quiche she had filched from the spread her mother had set out for her Book Club meeting. Timothy remembered the way his mouth used to water in anticipation of what would come out of Rozanne’s saddlebags.

Then Rozanne went to study at the University of Cape Town.

He and Liam attended Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Then the Bedfords sold their farm and only a year later so did his parents. He remembered Liam’s intense disappointment for he had always intended to farm. His focus had been on farming ever since Timothy had known him. He had studied botany and zoology at university, then took on the management of a large mixed farming enterprise while Timothy focused on his B.Com. He had always dreamed of going to work in London.

Work in London.

When had he last seen Liam? They had hiked along the Otter Trail two years earlier when Timothy had visited his parents. Rozanne had joined them with a group of friends from Cape Town. All the talk of political and social turmoil that formed the focus of their fireside chats during that trip had convinced Timothy he had made the right decision to make London his home.

Home?

“I’ll be there!” Timothy sent his friend a WhatsApp message and turned back to his work.

Who is Lisa, he wondered later as he walked up the narrow steps leading to his bachelor apartment. Liam wasn’t a great communicator, but then neither was he.

Rusten Lodge turned out to be further than he had thought from looking at the map. Timothy parked his rental car under a grove of trees and strode along a paved pathway towards the small white chapel surrounded by trees, shrubs and a variety of flowers. Other latecomers slipped in ahead of him. Liam was talking to someone in the front pew, so didn’t see him come in. Timothy found a seat in the back pew as the bridal party arrived and the congregation rose to sing the opening hymn. Liam looked so happy! Timothy knew he hadn’t felt truly happy for years.

He scanned the congregation in front him, but found it difficult to recognise anyone from the back of their heads. He didn’t know either the bride or her two attendants. Surely he hadn’t been away for that long?

He felt embraced by the air of casual friendliness that characterised the congregation; something he hadn’t experienced in London. There his strong Eastern Cape accent alone set him apart and made him an object of curiosity. At least, that is how he felt, for he seldom managed to get past the ‘where do you come from’ when meeting in a crowd and had soon realised there was little point in explaining the rugged beauty of the land of his youth; or how easily he had felt at home in the wildness of the mountains and the attraction of the open veld.

At home.

Looking around, Timothy realised that none of the men he could see were wearing suits – his own dark one was definitely out of place – and most of the women sported open sandals. Except for the pair of bright red shoes peeping between the pews mid-way down the aisle. They were certainly out of place, Timothy smiled.

As the service progressed, he began to feel a connection with the unknown wearer of the red shoes: she clearly didn’t mind being different. Since moving to London, he had done his best to ‘blend in’. Now that suited camouflage was out of place – he should have known better! Despite the cool breeze wafting in through the open sides of the chapel, Timothy began to feel uncomfortably hot.

“Take your jacket off young man,” the elderly woman sitting next to him murmured. She patted his knee lightly. “Nobody will mind.” Her companion wore khaki trousers and an open-necked shirt. It was a great relief to fold his jacket and place it on the pew on the other side of him.

Another hymn. As the congregation rose, Timothy felt drawn to the red shoes and the tanned arm brushed by unruly long brown hair. Could it be? If only the woman would turn her face!

Liam greeted him warmly as he and Lisa stood to one side to greet the throng of guests emerging from the chapel. “It’s so good of you to come. Lisa and I will catch up with you later.”

Timothy had just accepted a glass of chilled fruit cocktail from a passing waitress when he heard a loud authoritative voice call his name. “Timothy Gray! Why didn’t you tell me you would be here?” Those red shoes carried a young woman charging towards him at speed, her long brown hair already blowing free of any clips. She enveloped him in a bear hug that sent his glass flying. “How I have missed you!” Rozanne kissed his neck, his cheeks and gave him a theatrical peck on his lips.

He managed to hold her at arm’s length for a moment to look at her sparkling eyes, sunburnt face and broad smile. What has it always been about Rozanne? Timothy hugged her warmly. “It’s good to see you Roz.”

She drew back and, with one arm tucked firmly around his waist, half turned to the small group of guests gathered round. “Hear this: ‘it’s good to see you Roz’,” she mimicked him perfectly – just as she had learned to mimic the calls of some of the birds they had regularly seen in the veld. “This from a man who simply left!”

“Roz! Rozanne, don’t do this to me,” he pleaded softly. He pulled her closer and kissed her gently on her mouth, now oblivious to the cheers and claps from the onlookers.

“Timothy,” she had never called him Tim, “I declare you will be my partner this evening and that you will never leave me again.” Her warm breath tickled his ear.

It was well after the wedding speeches were over when Timothy drew Rozanne outside to enjoy the warm rose-scented evening. He held her hand tightly. “What did you mean by ‘never leave me again’?”

Rozanne pulled on his arm so that he sat down on a low brick wall next to her. “What’s happened to you Timothy? You used to be so free; you used to laugh a lot; you were such a daredevil – then you left to become a stuffed shirt. I got the impression you didn’t want to be on the Otter Trail with us – you were so serious for much of the time.”

“I did. I loved it, only you were surrounded by your Cape Town friends and so I never really had the chance to talk to you. I mean ‘really’ talk to you.” He kissed her lightly on her forehead before moving away from her slightly. “So yes, I suppose I realised then that I had lost you and so I let you go.” He held her fingers in his. “How’s Cape Town by the way?”

Rozanne laughed loudly and punched him lightly on his shoulder. “I don’t live there anymore. Hasn’t Liam told you that I run a herd of Nguni cattle on my parents’ farm?” She leaned into him. “City life just isn’t for me.”

Timothy kissed her again. It felt so right to be here among the kind of people he had grown up with. He felt a freedom that had been missing for a long time as he looked at Rozanne in the semi-darkness. It felt so good to be with the woman he was sure he had loved forever without knowing it. Timothy took both her hands in his. “After all this time, I realise that city life doesn’t suit me either.”

CONFIDENCE IS THE KEY

“Remember chaps, confidence is the key to conducting a successful trail.” Cameron Bristow smiled at the group of fresh-faced young men who had just completed their guiding course at the Environmental Academy. “You’re all good lads who now know more than most of the people you will be leading through the bush. Good luck.”

Nicholas Boshoff recalled these final words from their instructor as he readied himself for his first walking trail assignment. He had already spent a month familiarising himself with the reserve and following the set trails in the presence of experienced guides and so he felt ready to tackle his first solo trail.

“Do you think you can handle a bunch of school girls, Nick?” William Barlow had looked at him over the rim of his spectacles. “Ten girls and one female teacher,” he confirmed, looking down at the list on his desk.

Nicholas breathed a sigh of relief. Matt had been assigned a group of post-graduate zoology students and Simon had been asked to lead a group of middle-aged bird-watchers. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to handle either of those yet. School girls would be a pushover. “Sure,” he replied confidently and set off to do some advance preparation.

Surprisingly, Nicholas felt a little self-conscious when the mini-bus carrying the school girls and their teacher drew up outside the reception area. His uniform was too new; his haircut too recent; and the elephant hair bracelet he had slipped on the previous day had begun to look incredibly stupid on his bony wrist.

He watched them enter the door to reception, where they would register for their trail. Nicholas knew he should have stepped forward to greet them. “Confidence is the key,” he could hear Cameron saying, yet he remained rooted to the spot. Even the memory of Simon stepping forward to introduce himself to the birders, a broad welcoming smile on his face, couldn’t budge him.

The girls and their teacher seemed to pour out of the door. “All of you, off to the loos first,” their teacher told the girls and followed briskly in their wake. Nicholas took up a position in front of the open safari vehicle, where they couldn’t miss him. He donned a pair of sunglasses and checked his appearance in the side mirror of his vehicle. ‘Not too bad’, he thought. Just then he became acutely aware of the group approaching him from the ablution area and hoped they hadn’t seen him.

“Hello, I’m Siobhan Davidson. Would you be our driver by any chance?”

Nicholas whipped off his sunglasses and slipped them into a top pocket. He grinned and held out a welcoming hand. “Yes ma’am. I’m Nick.” He had balanced ‘Nicholas’ and ‘Nick’ in his head and aloud many times over the past month: ‘Nick’ seemed to project a stronger, more confident image, he thought. He helped the girls stow their luggage, made sure the doors were closed properly and slowly set off for the dropping off point from where they would embark on their wilderness adventure: three days of experiencing the bush and wildlife on foot.

He felt at ease as they rumbled over the rough dirt track and wound through the trees, rocks and termite mounds. Not a single animal made its appearance. Nonetheless, his well-rehearsed introduction effortlessly came to the fore as he pointed out the area they would be walking in and faltered a little as he tried to interest them in the few birds he was able to identify in passing. Instead, the girls chatted excitedly to each other and Siobhan merely looked thoughtful.

‘I’m driving too fast’, Nicholas chided himself and slowed down a little. ‘How am I going to keep these girls quiet? We won’t see anything if they carry on like this!’ Briefly, the thought of leading post-graduate zoology students seemed to be appealing. “Confidence is the key”. Those words hammered in his brain with every bump in the road. He was aware that he had been holding onto the steering wheel so tightly that his hands had begun to perspire. ‘Strong and silent might be the best approach’, he mused as the drop off point became visible.

Nicholas parked the vehicle in the shade of a grove of trees and waited for the girls and their teacher to don their rucksacks. In the ensuing silence, they all looked around enquiringly until Siobhan ventured brightly, “Are you to be our guide?”

Realising that his youthful appearance had probably bemused her, he smiled in what he hoped was a confident manner. “Gather round,” he summoned the group in a commanding voice. “If you want to really experience the true wonder of the bush over the next three days, you will need to drop your voices to a whisper.”

“Confidence is the key” played a tune in the back of his mind as Nicholas explained the procedures they would follow. “It is important to instil confidence from the beginning,” Cameron had told them. Well, he had some catching up to do but at least they were all listening to him intently.

“All set then?” He shouldered his rifle and set off at a determined pace, stopping now and then to point out animal droppings and once even to show them a kudu bull browsing in a thicket some distance from them. He could feel the power of leadership course through him and thrilled at the sound of the girls’ excited whispers.

The barely discernible path wound through the hot, dry veld as the group headed towards a clump of trees where their first overnight camp was nestled. Nicholas led them down the stony path that would take them into the welcoming shade. He could hear low murmurs of rebellion behind him: the girls were hot and tired. Not even the sight of a white rhino had lifted their spirits much.

“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 let out a loud yell and dropped his rifle …