OBSTACLES

The image of the red car spewing waves of water from its wheels as it raced up the wet tar road and the crunch of his wicker basket burned in Fred’s memory. Even weeks later, he shook his heavy brown curls and mourned the loss of his basket filled with the wild mushrooms he had selected with great care in the forest remnant tucked into the crease of the hills on the edge of town.

It was Hazel who had urged him to go, despite the heavy grey sky that leaked continuously long after the main shower of rain had ended. “We’ve a helluva lot of cooking to do, Fred, and having those mushrooms will give us an edge over Linda and Mario.”

Hazel had never been one to allow obstacles such as rain to get in the way of success – especially her culinary success. She had always vied to provide a better meal than their friend, Linda could and kept up to date with the latest food trends. He had donned his well-worn wellingtons and willingly braved the elements: it wasn’t the food that he cared for so much, rather it was seeing Hazel happy that made him feel content. He grudgingly admitted that Linda’s most recent offering of grape bread with a cheese platter at the end of their meal had been outstandingly good.

She had not been impressed by his hang-dog expression, muddy clothes or the remnants of his wicker basket on his return. Hazel didn’t even want to listen to his description of the precious mushrooms being churned into the tar by that passing car that had knocked him off balance when it had unexpectedly passed so close to him. Instead she had thumped her glass of white wine down on the counter with such force that some slopped over the rim to form droplets on the black granite surface.

There was no ‘are you okay?’, no ‘I’m so glad you’re not hurt’, no ‘I’m so sorry this happened after all your trouble and I really appreciate you going in the first place’. No, nothing like that. Rather, Hazel had swept her long dark hair into a business-like ponytail and glared at him, her cheeks flushed with a deep wash of crimson and her lips compressed into a tight line. Instead, she had whipped off the apron he had given her for Christmas to reveal her slim figure hugged by an olive green jersey – she is so damned attractive, he couldn’t help thinking, even then – and yelled at him.

“Nick will get me the mushrooms I need. He also has a nose for such things and certainly won’t let a stupid car racing past put him off his stroke!” With that, she had stormed out of their cottage kitchen and slammed the door of her car, already in reverse at full throttle. He watched the mud churning up in the driveway and spatter against the painted pots filled with herbs. She hadn’t even bothered to close the gate – something she had always done before.

Now Fred idly skimmed the ‘Properties for Sale’ pages in the newspaper. Once he and Hazel had snuggled into each other on their comfortable couch as they went through the listings and tried to guess from the tiny photographs where some of the houses were situated in their town.

Then the main obstacle had been money. Having scanned what was on offer, they would reluctantly narrow down the options to what he could afford. What he could afford. Naturally Hazel hadn’t been keen on a joint investment as they weren’t even engaged. She nonetheless always had a lot to say about what kind of kitchen she wanted in their shared abode.

Neat cottage – distinctive character, Fred smiled at the sales-speak they had often unpicked and reinterpreted together. Suitable for young couples who would prefer dining by candlelight … What, so they can’t see the cracks in the walls, the rising damp and the tell-tale woodborer holes in the original pine floors?

Dinner that evening had been strained even though both Linda and Mario had enthused over the mushrooms and expressed suitable awe that they had been handpicked from the local forest. Nick had basked in the heroic role of the evening – “Of course I have invited him” Hazel had announced in a snappy voice – while Hazel turned Fred’s disastrous venture into a joke they had all found hilarious at his expense.

Fred had moved out the next morning: as quietly as he had moved in two years earlier. He chose the moment while Hazel was returning Nick’s basket. That this had already taken over an hour convinced Fred he was doing the right thing. He left his share of the rent for the next two months in an envelope on her chopping board along with the lunch voucher for two he had purchased for her birthday. Then he went for a long walk through the forest while thinking about the exhilaration of his successful foraging expedition that had gone so horribly wrong.

Months later Martin invited him to supper at the pub and, uncharacteristically, ordered a bottle of white wine to accompany it. Sadly for Fred, it was the same wine Hazel had been drinking that night … that bruised feeling just wouldn’t leave him. “I’ll have beer instead,” he countered, resolutely determined not to allow that hurt to show.

“Are you going to allow Hazel to be an obstacle to your enjoyment of good wine?” Martin smiled good-naturedly. “This one comes highly recommended by my sister.”

“I was planning to marry her, you know.” Fred didn’t mean to sound so defensive.

“Then you are a lucky man,” Martin stubbornly waved away the waitress and poured them each a glass. “Imagine spending the rest of your life with someone who flies off her handle like that! Let’s drink to your fortunate escape.”

That weekend the two friends watched the sheep trials on a farm 32 km out of town. Fred watched in awe as the dogs and their handlers went through their paces. No obstacle seemed complicated enough to get the better of them and he wondered how the judges decided who was the best. He didn’t see who won. Instead, he and Martin had shared their picnic with a slim blonde woman with two young children in tow. She kept them in fits of laughter with inside stories gleaned from her husband, who was one of the judges that day.

It was while they were driving home afterwards that Fred realised that Hazel had actually been an obstacle to true happiness. He had felt driven to keep her happy but … “We never really laughed like that,” he commented. “I thought we were happy, but that woman and her kids really know how to laugh.”

“They’re happy,” Martin grunted. He broke the silence later by asking in a much lighter tone, “Tell me, are you still planning to watch birds in the game reserve next weekend?”

He often used to do that with Hazel. No more, never more, Fred mused. She and Nick had already moved in together. “I could do with some quiet contemplation,” he replied. “Have you planned anything?”

“My cousin and I have promised to help my folks at their garden centre. Clearing up, throwing out, and generally moving things around a little.” He glanced sideways at his friend. “I thought you’d benefit from some exercise in a good cause.”

The exercise had been good for him. So had the cheerful company of Martin and his cousin, Allison. Martin’s parents had warmly welcomed his extra pair of hands. “How wonderful of you to give up your time like this,” Mrs. Falconer had exclaimed on their first night. “Creeping old age is more of an obstacle than we had ever imagined.”

Allison had kept them busy with her no-nonsense approach to rearranging the potted plants and the shelves of seedlings. Fred found himself laughing at her suggestions and the way she would suddenly break off to comment on a passing bird or butterfly – or to bring them plates of scones in the middle of the morning along with large mugs of hot tea. She suggested they should all support the charity walk on Leopard Peaks Farm the following month. “The money raised is going towards upgrading the pre-school they’ve established for the children in the area,” she urged them enthusiastically.

Martin had later opted out of the venture, leaving Fred to honour their agreement on his own. It had been a wonderful day walking through a variety of habitats such as the open grassland and darkly damp forested areas. As he wound down the last section of the steep path leading towards the river, Fred spotted Allison on the sandy bank on the other side.

He crossed the shallow river at speed to catch up with her, as she was already putting on her hiking boots. Fred picked up the small notebook that had fallen from her daypack onto the sand. “I didn’t know you were a serious birder,” he puffed more than he had intended to.

“In this twitcher’s paradise anyone can claim to be a birder,” she smiled. “Some people claim to have nearly a hundred birds on their list already – of course they are the competitive ones!”

“How many have you got?” he eyed her notebook as she deftly tucked it back into a side pocket.

“None. I don’t keep lists, Fred. I just enjoy being on a walk I’d never do on my own on a farm not usually open to the general public, and being in the company of people who make no demands on me.” Her laughter was disarming.

So, being alone was not an obstacle to her enjoying life. Fred felt something shifting within.

“Could I persuade you to sup with me at the pub tonight when we get back?” He felt a warmth of pleasure flood his body at her positive response.

Together they watched the barman pull their pints in the yellowish glow of the pub before settling at their table. Allison tucked into her supper as soon as it arrived. “I’m starving,” she announced happily.

Fred breathed in the spectacle of her untidy blonde hair offset by the scarlet top Allison was wearing over her dark jeans. He smiled at her over the rim of his beer glass. Another shift happened within.

Two months later, they both peered through the mist rising from the waterhole in a nearby game reserve. Both were eager to see what lay behind it. The tops of the clouds on the horizon were edged with a rosy hue, even as the clearing water reflected the trees surrounding it. A kingfisher perched on a dead branch just visible through the reeds caught their attention, as did a pair of Egyptian Geese strutting about on their little island a few metres away from the hide Fred and Allison were sitting in.

Allison adjusted her green floppy hat and gingerly moved closer to Fred on the rickety wooden bench. It was a chilly winter’s morning that cried out for the hot chocolate in the metal flask she had tucked into her backpack much earlier. For a moment she was content to watch their breath turn into steam and then she shifted perceptively closer to the warm beige fleece of the man sitting next to her.

Fred was scanning the water’s edge for any sign of life larger than a bird. He too paused to watch their breaths visibly curling in the cold air, merging into one and disappearing. The shift was complete; the last obstacle gone. He carefully poured their hot chocolate into their mugs and deliberately touched Allison’s fingers as he passed a drink to her.

Her cheerful smile and sparkling eyes were reassurance enough for him.

HOSPITAL TEA ROOM

Mrs Lewis met Mrs Roberts at the tea room nestled in a corner of the hospital foyer.

“Hello Gillian my dear,” Mrs Lewis leaned forward to air kiss her companion before settling into the spindly metal chair that grated harshly on the tiled floor as she pulled herself closer to the tiny table. “A happier New Year to you.” She rummaged in her capacious leather bag to find her reading glasses. Once they were settled on her nose, she peered below the level of the table at the moon boot on her companion’s left foot. “Is your foot almost better now?”

“Not really.” Mrs Roberts halted ostentatiously at the arrival of the waitress. Both women placed their order and then she launched into a long description of her recent foot operation. “They say it could be another six to eight weeks before I can try walking without this monstrosity.” She pointed to the grey moon boot protruding from her long floral skirt.

“You know,” Mrs Lewis replaced her tea cup on the saucer and dug into her bag again to retrieve her cell phone. “Oh!” She smiled and turned the phone towards her companion. “See the blue light flashing in the corner? That means I have a message.”

Mrs Roberts waited with an expectant look on her face and then resumed breaking sections off the over-large muffin and spearing them with her fork. She dipped each piece into the pot of strawberry jam first and then tried to scoop up as much cream as she could. It was a messy business which she repeated several times before saying a little crossly, “What am I supposed to know Beth?”

Mrs Lewis looked up from her phone vaguely at first and then her lined face broke into a smile. She dipped into her bag again. This time it was to retrieve a tube of lipstick which she reapplied while looking at the tiny mirror tucked into the flap of her bag.

“How am I supposed to know what you should know?” She sounded puzzled.

“Before you became absorbed in that phone of yours, you said to me ‘you know’, clearly implying that you were about to impart some important knowledge –.”

“Oh don’t get cross my dear.” Mrs Lewis sipped her tea and wiped the fresh lipstick mark off her cup with her thumb. “I was just going to say that I no longer worry about what people think of me.” She nodded towards the offending moon boot then sipped at her tea again. “At our age I reckon people must put up with the way we look – as long as we are comfortable.”

“I agree.” Mrs Roberts dabbed at her mouth with the tiny paper serviette she’d tucked under her saucer. “It won’t be too long now. I know I ought to be more patient –“. She allowed her voice to trail away, having realised that her companion’s attention was again focused on her cell phone.

Mrs Lewis caught her eye. “I’m just sending an SMS. It’s nearly finished. One more ‘r’ and then it’s done.”

“SMS? My granddaughter says no-one really uses those anymore. She’s got me onto WhatsApp. Really Beth, you should download it. The wonderful thing about it is sharing pictures. You would be able to get pictures of your Australian grandchildren in the wink of an eye.”

Just then their attention was drawn to the arrival of a young woman who settled at the table next to them, a cell phone already glued to her ear. “Hello Uncle Neil, this is Rina speaking. How are you keeping?” She cast her eye over the proffered menu while she listened to the response and pointed to what she wanted. As the waitress left, the young woman held her phone a little distance from her ear, biting her lip as she did so. The two elderly women stared at her unashamedly as she pulled an iPad from her small cloth shoulder-bag.

“I’m so glad everything is fine.” She smiled at the table. “Tell me Uncle Neil, you wouldn’t by any chance know of anyone who has a grader for hire?” She began tapping at the keyboard of her iPad as she listened.

“No Uncle Neil, a front-end loader won’t do. It’s a grader I want.” She continued tapping on her keyboard, but held the phone closer to her ear.

“In Cradock? Gosh Uncle Neil, that’s quite far!” She nodded to the waitress and poured her tea.

“No, Kevin wants to grade the roads on his farm.” The young woman sipped at her tea as she listened, then she drew the iPad closer, her fingers poised above the surface.

“Thanks Uncle Neil! Can you give me his number?”

Mrs Lewis raised her eyebrows at her companion over the rim of her tea cup. “The youngsters of today, Gillian. Just look at that, completely immersed in technology. Not a pencil or paper in sight!”

Mrs Roberts seemed to choke on the last of her tea. She blew her nose loudly and apologised. “It’s been good to see you Beth. I appreciate you coming to the hospital to meet me.” She glanced at the man’s wristwatch hanging loosely from her wrinkled arm. “The bus from the Old Age Home only comes when the last patient is finished. That’ll be Mrs Armstrong today. She’s gone in for a bone density scan and a mammogram! You’d think such things don’t matter at our age anymore, but Sister Becker insists on it. She keeps all our records up to date and –“.

“I’m such a hoarder you know Gillian,” Mrs. Lewis twisted the rings on her fingers. “I’ve always kept my receipts and have been even more careful since Jay passed on.” She delicately dabbed at the corner of her eye – that had been seven years ago, after all. “The other day this lass came in to check my investments and told me I was R10 000 short!”

“Oh Beth, how awful!”

“I said all the paperwork is there. If she finds it she can have it.”

“Beth! How can you say such a thing?”

“I get so bored sitting in my flat. I just need to get out so it was good for me to come and see you.”

“At least you are surrounded by your own things. At the Home all I have really is a photograph of John and a few precious ornaments. I’m reduced to living in a bedroom these days.” Mrs Roberts scanned the faces of people emerging from the hospital and walking towards the automated glass doors that led outside. “Mrs Armstrong will be here soon. Perhaps we should get the bill?”

Mrs Lewis continued as if she hadn’t heard. “I’ve polished all the silver and brass – that’s such boring and mundane work. This is such a big flat for me. That’s the problem about growing old. I’m strong, not as lonely as you might think, but I get restless.”

“There’s Mrs Armstrong! Dear Beth, that means the bus will be on its way. She was going to phone the driver. Oh, where is our waitress? I can’t remember how much I must pay.” Mrs. Roberts started taking coins from her worn purse.

“I’ve just got to get out sometimes.” Mrs Lewis looked into her friend’s eyes and stretched her hand across the table. “Put that money away my dear. The treat’s on me today.” Her lined face broke into a cheerful smile. “Really, it will make me feel very happy.”

REUNION TEA

REUNION TEA. The subject line intrigued Olivia at first glance. It made a change from the usual call to meetings, demands for the moderation of examination papers, changes to class lists, and other e-mails of that ilk. She shuddered, briefly wondering if she would have to be involved in some way – not catering, she hoped fervently!

Two months earlier she had been put in charge of catering for the annual Grade 8 braai. Olivia had worked on the assumption that all the Grade 8 boys and girls would attend – the braai was a fixture in the school calendar after all. How was she to guess that a swathe of boys would be playing cricket against a school three hours’ drive away, or that nine of the girls would be swimming at a gala in Johannesburg? No-one told her and neither event was on the calendar – she had checked.

“Sports fixtures are often confirmed after the calendar has been printed,” Neil Pike, the Director of Sport, had smiled after the Headmaster had dressed her down for over-catering.

“Look at what you have done Mrs Roberts. We are left with mountains of sausages and bread rolls. Apart from the cost, what are we meant to do with all that food?” Without actually putting it into words, he clearly insinuated that the money would be docked from her salary.

“Give me 24 hours and I will make you happy.”

A few phone calls later and, with the generous assistance of the coach and boys from the First Cricket XI and a few girls from the A swimming squad, Olivia had arranged a surprise braai supper for children in the Aids orphan shelter.

She had made sure to take a lot of photographs and wrote down quotes from the delighted recipients about the change in their usual fare. The cricketers tossed a few tennis balls (thank you Coach Johnson) for the children to hit with planks they used as bats, while the girl swimmers sang songs with the younger children, played other ball games, and distributed plastic bags containing a new facecloth, a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush (thank you Theresa Parfitt, whose husband owned the local supermarket).

The Headmaster had been thrilled with the positive publicity garnered by the school after Olivia’s article had appeared in the weekly community newspaper. He was so pleased in fact that, having filed numerous e-mails and letters published in the paper a week later, he called Olivia aside to give her a voucher for a local restaurant: a meal for a family of three – not that Joshua really counted; he was only a year old after all.

Catering? Never again if she could help it. Just then the bell rang and a group of Grade 9 boys trooped in. She smelled their musty feet and over-deodorised armpits; watched them with a fixed smile as they pushed and shoved each other, knocking over a chair or two in the process. The next bell rang to signal the start of the last lesson before lunch on Friday: the fortnightly lesson she set aside for the silent reading of novels of their own choice.

There was a reluctant settling down while Olivia consulted the register on her computer. “I see Eric is in the San, where are Andrew and Sandy?” She eyed the boys expectantly. They stared back at her. “Were they present in your previous class?”

“They’re with Mr Hutchins Ma’am.” Grant spoke quietly. “Andrew broke a ruler over Sandy’s head.” A ripple of suppressed guffawing flowed through the stuffy classroom. Twenty-three pairs of eyes gleamed at her.

“You should have seen Mr Hutchins, Ma’am. Whew! I’ve never seen him so angry before.” William was settling in for a chat.

“His face was like a thundercloud. I thought he was going to knock their heads together,” Matthew added with a broad grin.

It was time to nip this discussion in the bud. “Right, so I assume they’ll be along shortly so I won’t mark them absent, only as late.”   Olivia tapped the keyboard then turned to Thomas. “Please collect the comprehension exercises for me Thomas, and then you must all settle down to read.”

The two missing boys entered the classroom looking very contrite ten minutes later. Sandy handed over a scrap of paper on which Sean Hutchins had scrawled: These two boys were involved in a physical altercation. I had to give them a dressing down.

Having checked on the books being read, Olivia announced quietly, “Remember that your Book Log task has to be handed in on the 20th.” She usually read with the boys in order to set a good example, but had left her novel next to Joshua’s cot. When she returned to her desk, Olivia opened the e-mail headed REUNION TEA.

It wasn’t an internal e-mail after all. How had she missed that? Tamara Martin had also addressed it to Kate and Andrea, all of whom had completed their teaching diploma five years earlier. Tamara lived in Cape Town; Kate had spent a year teaching in Korea before marrying and moving to a game lodge run by her husband out of town; and Andrea had given up teaching after her third year to take up professional photography. Only Olivia had remained in the university town. James lectured in Botany and had no intention of moving – he travelled widely anyway. The school terms, and now Joshua, meant Olivia was seldom able to accompany him and so was frequently left holding the fort on her own.

Guess what! Dan and I are going to be in town for a whole week at the beginning of March! He is finalising the book on butterflies he’s co-authored with his old professor. I’m pregnant! NO wine for me! Let’s meet for tea somewhere really, REALLY outlandishly smart: we must have the WHOLE works! Andy – photographs please! I know you’re doing a wedding shoot down the road – hooray for Facebook! What about the 8th?

“I’m going to be so ‘out’, James. Perhaps I shouldn’t go. They probably won’t miss me anyway.” Olivia stared at her husband’s reflection in the mirror. “They’re all wealthy and lead such fancy lives … Tamara works in the magazine industry and seems to spend a lot of time reviewing restaurants and fancy places to stay all over the country. Kate entertains on a lavish scale with film stars and other famous people as guests at the lodge.” She sighed and rolled onto her back. James bent down to kiss her cheek.

“And what is so off-putting about Andrea?” The playfulness in his voice never failed to make Olivia smile.

“She’s a bit of a dark horse, but I know she is in demand both for wedding shoots and photographing food. Odd combinations that, come to think of it. They all travel a lot …”

“There you go again. You forgot to add ‘I’m only a teacher and I never go anywhere’.” He winked at her. “Josh is awake. Take your time, it’s my turn to read him a story.”

There was no time to think of the Reunion Tea on the morning of the 8th. Joshua had kept them awake for much of the night; the nanny messaged at six that her daughter had to see a doctor; and Olivia’s Grade 12 class had to write a test during the first period of the school day. Thank goodness James was able to work from home, she thought as she parked her car outside the school.

Her cell phone rang during the lunch break. Olivia put down her mug of tea and dug into her handbag to answer it. What was that white envelope doing there?

“Enjoy your tea this afternoon and don’t worry.” James never seemed to be flustered by a thing. “Nanny has agreed to stay until I can get home at half past three and then I’ll take Josh for a walk in the Bot. Gardens. Some of my students will be working there, so he’ll be well looked after.”

“Oh James! What would I do without you?”

“You’d have to borrow money from your swanky friends to pay for your tea!”

“Borrow money? Oh shucks!” Olivia scrabbled in her handbag while she was talking. “James, I must have left my purse at home!”

“You’ll survive,” James laughed. “Stop the panic mode. Someone’s knocking on my door.”

Panic mode! If she hadn’t been in one before, she was definitely in one now! Olivia went to the privacy of her classroom to turn her handbag upside down. Old tissues, pens, cash slips, her notebook, dark glasses, and a comb fell out. No purse. The white envelope caught her attention as it skittered across her desk. She ripped it open and gasped at the money inside. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she scanned the scrawled note from James:

Drew this on my way home. You are My Woman. You are the Mother of our Child. You are the Best and you can hold your head up with the best of them!

 

BUY BOTH OF THEM

George could smell a blend of coffees as he made his way down the crowded aisle in the supermarket. ‘Nonsense,’ he told himself sternly without actually uttering a word. ‘All of these packets, boxes, tins and bottles are tightly sealed – no aroma can escape those confines.’ He spoke to himself more often these days – he used to talk to Shep. In his mind’s eye, George saw rows of glass jugs half-filled with bubbling and steaming coffee; he could ‘see’ the vapour trails of aroma swirling about the crowds of shoppers who passed by without so much as a sniff; he could ‘taste’ the rich, slightly bitter flavour of his favourite brew – exactly as he enjoyed it first thing in the morning.

Every morning George would put the coffee on to brew before going outdoors to feed the chickens and check for eggs. For years Shep had been at his side, wagging her tail while she sniffed at the ground to catch up on the latest news. Once George had gathered the eggs and picked a handful of parsley growing outside the kitchen door, he would refill her water bowl, toss out any dry crumbles she may have missed and then top up her food bowl. She seldom ate more than a bite or two until he had poured over the bacon fat once he’d cooked his breakfast.

A presence; a knee-high presence drew George’s attention from the rows of coffee on display. Shep? He looked down at the little girl holding onto a miniature shopping trolley. She’d been shoved aside by other shoppers with overloaded trolleys and was barely leaning against his leg, as if for protection. Her slight warmth was how Shep would make her presence felt when he had been absorbed by his farming books for too long.

Shep would wait until he’d finished his coffee in the patch of sunlight outside the kitchen. She would be up and ready to accompany him as soon as he’d drained his mug. He’d nearly fallen over her more than once when her exuberance got between him and the sink – which is why he’d taken to washing his dishes in the evenings only. Well, he used to.

“You really should get yourself a dishwasher, George.” His mother chided him about this every time she came to visit him. How she had changed since she’d moved into town after his father had died. Her world now consisted of a sewing club, book club, supper club, and bridge club – even a travel club. She frequently declared that life was too short for washing dishes by hand anymore.

Conscious of his sink at home overflowing with crockery, George shook his mop of curly hair – he really should get it cut one of these days – and bent down towards the wide-eyed girl at his knee. “They’re a lot of bully drivers you know,” he pointed at the mass of trolleys passing them in the aisle. The girl nodded her head solemnly, while looking down at the floor. “Where is your mother?”

She looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. “I don’t know.”

“What does she look like? Tell me what she is wearing today.” He spoke gently, just as he spoke to his cows when they were birthing – and always to Shep.

The girl shook her head. Both of her hands were clutching the handle of her little trolley as if it were about to take on a life of its own. “She’s got brown boots on.”

George looked around then lowered his tall frame to her height. “Can you tell me what her hair looks like?”

She looked into his eyes with a sparkle in her own. “It’s funny. Her hair is a floor mop, just like yours.” A smile lit up her face. I really must get a haircut, he thought.

Just then a shrill voice called out, “Greta! I’ve been looking all over for you! Come here at once!” The woman with the ‘floor mop’ of brown curly hair tugged at her daughter’s arm and glared fiercely at George. “How many times have I told you not to talk to strangers – especially not to men?” She half dragged the child away, leaving George feeling strangely shocked and bereft.

As he straightened up he caught the eye of a blond woman about his own age. She shook her head slightly, shrugged her shoulders in a way that sympathised with his plight then she moved on. He would have liked to talk to her, just as he would have discussed the situation with Shep on their way back to the farm.

George looked into the shopping basket at his feet: bacon, eggs, milk, tomatoes, bread, sausages … he’d lost his appetite since Shep had died. He hadn’t bothered much about what he ate or cared to clean the sink. He sighed, for he hadn’t had coffee for over a week – only that dreadful herbal tea his mother had left after her last visit. He needed coffee, really good coffee.

Oblivious to passing shoppers, George turned his attention back to the coffee-laden shelves. He placed a packet of his usual brand into his basket then reached for a yellow box of a coffee that was new to him. There was a red box too. He held them up to compare them; he shook them; then held them close together to read their labels more carefully. He was trying to imagine what these coffees would smell like brewing in his kitchen. A new aroma, a new routine – even a haircut – should help him tuck his memories of Shep into a smaller corner of his mind.

As he held the yellow packet to his nose, the shrugging-shoulders blond suggested, “Why don’t you just buy them both?” Her smile was broad and her eyes sparkled with a sense of fun. “It’s just that this is my third trip down this aisle on my way to nowhere,” the sweep of her arm (he noticed her ringless fingers) indicated the jostling crowd of month-end shoppers, “and you’ve remained engrossed with these two boxes. I can recommend the red one by the way.” A gap appeared and she steered her trolley past him.

“Thank you,” he smiled for the first time in weeks. “I will.” He placed the boxes in his basket and moved towards a till where he would be well positioned to waylay Shrugging-shoulders near the exit. Perhaps, he thought, she would agree to have coffee with him at the coffee place next door.

DINNER GUESTS 5: THE MADE-UP FRIEND

“The guest ‘powder room’ as you call it is on the right of the stairs.” Georgina pointed Lucy towards the plain wooden door on which hung a large photograph of a Cape Weaver, then turned towards the other guests gathered in the lounge. She and James hadn’t entertained at home for months and so it felt good to hear the room filled with happy conversations.

“Would you like me to help you bring in the food?” Lucy glanced around the kitchen and opened her hands tentatively. “The plates at least, Georgie. You must be run off your feet.”

“Thanks Lucy. Put them on the sideboard please. I think people can help themselves today.” A strong smell of hand cream lingered in the kitchen. ‘She must have made lavish use of it,’ Georgina mused as she carried the dishes through. “Dinner is ready,” she announced cheerfully. “Help yourselves before you sit down. It’ll be easier that way.”

James set about replenishing the wine and pecked Georgina on her cheek in passing. “It all smells delicious, I can hardly wait to tuck in.” He always said that, so she smiled while keeping an anxious eye on the servings. ‘Please let there be enough of everything,’ she muttered in her head.

The others were already seated when James picked up a plate to serve himself. He turned to Georgina in surprise. “Who is this extra plate for?”

“Oh, it must be mine. Sorry, I got caught up with things.” Lucy brushed past him to serve herself the salmon mousse. “Clever you, Georgie! Where on earth did you find Melba toast?”

“I made it.” Georgina was puzzled. Lucy looked different and why was James wrinkling his nose? “Something wrong with the fish, James?”

“Not at all, I was just alarmed Lucy wouldn’t leave me any,” he joked. “Never mind Lucy. I happen to know there’s an excellent chicken dish to follow.”

Georgina caught Catherine’s eye as she bent over her food. That raised eyebrow meant her gut feeling wasn’t wrong after all. She looked up again, watching Lucy flirt with Andrew in a friendly way. She waved her fork about while she talked and looked at him demurely over the top of her wine glass before breaking into fits of giggles.

“Have you bought shares in a perfume shop, my girl?” Tom, Lucy’s husband, spoke to her pointedly. “You’re letting the fumes get to your head,” he grumbled good-naturedly.

Catherine and Georgina rose together to clear the plates. “That’s your perfume she’s wearing.” Catherine picked up the casserole dish. “She didn’t smell of anything obvious earlier, George. We arrived together. Tom’s right – she reeks of it!”

Lucy rose dramatically from the table while the others were still eating the main course. “I loathe monkeys and baboons are even worse, so I’m going to retreat until your conversation about them is over!” She stifled a giggle and playfully wagged her finger at the men. “I’ll be back for dessert. I saw it in the fridge and wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

A wooden door banged shut. “I wonder if she has a stomach problem,” Georgina whispered to Catherine. “This will be her third trip to the bathroom since you all arrived.”

“She hasn’t eaten much either. She usually drinks a lot more wine at dinners: only two glasses so far. I wonder what’s up.” They both glanced towards her husband. “Tom seems to be fine.”

The conversation turned to wild dogs. “Their survival ultimately relies on the human factor.” Tom placed more salad on his plate and addressed the company at large. “The African Wild Dog often comes into conflict with humans. The only viable population is in the Kruger National Park.”

“We encountered several packs in Botswana,” James cut in.

“Talk about encounters, Andrew you must tell them about the Giant Bullfrog in your brother’s garden.” Catherine leaned forward. “They are fearsome frogs that apparently emerge from underground at the start of the rainy season.”

Georgina listened to the conversations start and finish, cross over and run parallel to each other. James rose to refill wine glasses against the background of encounters with Barn Owls and the African Grass Owl. He paused at Lucy’s empty glass and looked enquiringly at his wife.

“I need the loo.” Catherine scraped back her chair. “I’ll check.” She smiled impishly at Georgina.

“Great. I’ll bring in the dessert.”

Just then a blood curdling scream came from upstairs followed by the sound of high heels clip-clopping rapidly down the wooden staircase. “A snake! A snake! James, there’s a snake in your bathroom!” Lucy burst into the dining room, fear contorting her beautifully made-up face. She rushed into Tom’s arms, her own shaking uncontrollably.

Noticing the newly applied nail varnish and the freshly applied lipstick, Georgina couldn’t resist saying “I told you the guest bathroom is downstairs.”

“What were you doing upstairs, my love?” Tom eased her into her chair next to him while James poured her a glass of wine, his shoulders shaking with mirth.

“That snake lives there,” he smiled.

Lucy put her wine glass down with such a thump that wine slopped onto the table cloth. “James Taylor, how can you allow a snake to live in your bathroom?”

“It’s only a rubber one Lu. I put it there to deter thieves.”

The assembled company roared with laughter at Lucy’s expense, except for Georgina, who realised what her friend had been up to. “I’ll bring in the dessert,” she said to no-one in particular and turned on her heel.

 

DINNER TALES 1: ANNIVERSARY DINNER

Heather looked up from her knitting. Ian had finally had his fill of watching the television news. She glanced at her wristwatch: an hour and three quarters. Her eyes followed him returning the remote to the pile of travel and wildlife magazines on the table next to him. He leaned back into his armchair, flexed his shoulders and was about to allow his chin to droop towards his chest when she pounced – she had to catch him before he settled into the snooze he usually denied having after the news.

“You realise we will have been married for forty-five years on Thursday, Ian.”

“Forty-five hey?” His chin was only just above his chest and his eyelids looked heavy. “Well done, I’d say.”

“You said you had planned a wonderful celebration for our fortieth – it never happened.”

“I ran out of time. We had a good day anyway.”

“Did we?” Her voice ended on a note close to a shriek. “Nothing happened Ian and you know it. You forgot. You nearly always forget our wedding anniversary!”

“I bring you flowers.” Ian shifted uncomfortably in his usually very comfortable chair. “I’ve brought you flowers every year for so long that I have lost count.”

“Only after I’ve reminded you about our anniversary.” Heather put her knitting aside. She could feel the heat of years of disappointment building up from within. Years of it: her friends were given thoughtful gifts, taken out to dinner – Dave Howard had even booked a trip to the Victoria Falls when he and Gwynneth celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. She only got flowers purchased in haste from the local supermarket.

“Nonsense Heather. It’s only because you expect me to produce something as soon as you wake up.”

Heather fondled the ball of yarn. Doug had taken Susan to Port Alfred for a brunch in February. She had regaled them with the finest details at Book Club. Aaron and Yvonne had spent three days in a chalet at the nearby national park to celebrate their forty-eighth wedding anniversary. Sally and Brian had hosted fifty friends to a dinner for their fiftieth. “I’d really been looking forward to our fortieth. You made it sound so special and on the day not even our children came.”

Ian coughed to cover the involuntary sigh. She was like a scratched record. He loved her. He always had. He always would. “It’s no big deal Heather. Just because that particular day is important to us, there is no need to flaunt it in front of others. People get married all the time.”

Heather sniffed and picked up her knitting needles. This was all wrong. She had meant to simply invite him to dinner. Why did she dig up old bones?

Ian rose stiffly. “I’m going to make tea. Would you care for a cup?”

“Thank you.” Heather smiled as she resumed knitting. This was so typical of Ian: whenever he could, he tried to avoid conflict by behaving as though all was well.

“You’ve jumped the gun as usual.” Ian spoke softly on his return. “I’ve really been thinking about taking you to that tiny restaurant in the next village. That one that seats only ten, only I haven’t been able to remember its name.”

“You mean the Needle and Pin?” A happy buzz rushed through Heather as mounting excitement coursed around her body. This was such a trendy venue – very expensive too – some of the Book Club members had sung its praises many times.

“I believe it has an excellent reputation.”

“Oh Ian, that would be such a treat!” Heather’s eyes had become too misty to see the stitches, so she picked up her cup of tea instead.

“The only thing is,” Ian sat down heavily, “would you make the booking? Seven o’clock should be fine. What do you think?”

Heather received the confirmation e-mail on Wednesday afternoon as soon as she had returned from the hairdresser. She tried on the skirt she had bought and looked through her collection of blouses to find one that would best complement the colour. That evening she poured wine for them both before supper. “I’m greatly looking forward to our dinner tomorrow, Ian.”

He reached across the gap between them to squeeze her hand. “I’m glad you are. Quite honestly though, I’d rather we simply ate at home.”

Thursday afternoon seemed to sparkle. Ian gave her the usual bouquet of supermarket flowers at lunch time, which she thanked him for as she always did. Only this time, instead of tears pricking behind her eyelids, she felt tremors of excitement.

The darkness of the evening was drawing near as they entered the village. “Now we should find Sidbury Street somewhere along here,” Ian murmured. “Ah, there it is.” They pulled into the small car-park at exactly seven o’clock.

“It’s very quiet.” Heather whispered as they looked about.

“We’re probably the first dinner guests to arrive. Come on old girl. I could do with a beer on the veranda before dinner.”

They walked up the brick steps and stared aghast at the dark veranda and equally dark interior of the tiny restaurant. The white enamel sign that would have read Needle and Pin had there been light swung eerily on chains above the door. “Are you sure you booked for today and not next week?” Ian was not impressed.

“I received the confirmation e-mail yesterday afternoon. The woman said she was looking forward to meeting us.” Heather tried to peer through a tiny gap in the curtains, but there was nothing to see. Behind her a collection of wind chimes tinkled merrily in the stiffening breeze.

“This is nonsense!” Ian banged loudly on the door and rapped authoritatively on the windows. “We drive all this way to find the place closed!” He rattled the security door and in frustration gave the wooden door behind it a hefty kick that shook the windows. A loud siren began to wail within.

“Oh Ian! What have you done?”

They turned towards the screeching of tyres and listened numbly to the thumping of two pairs of boots up the brick steps. Two bright torches blinded them. Heather felt a frisson of fear clutching her stomach, while Ian became angry. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” He demanded of the lights.

“Put your hands in the air!” One of the lights shouted in a guttural tone.

“Your handbag on the ground,” barked the other light. Heather dropped her clutch bag from numbed fingers. She could barely breathe.

One of the lights spoke unintelligibly into what she presumed was a two-way radio. The other light played over them. Both snapped off at once, leaving a moment of silence to be swallowed by the inky darkness. A car drove past, its headlights briefly picking out the reflective stripes on the jackets of the security guards standing awkwardly on the veranda. One torch came on. “You can lower your hands, sir.” There was an apologetic tinge to the guttural voice.

The other torch highlighted Heather’s clutch bag which lay some distance from her feet. An anonymous figure bent down to retrieve it.

“Sorry we gave you a fright, sir. One cannot be too careful these days.” The voice of Light One had softened.

“What are you two doing here, madam?” Light Two’s voice was gentle.

Heather couldn’t trust herself to speak. Instead she rummaged in her bag to find the e-mail confirmation of their dinner booking and handed it mutely to Light Two. He scrutinised it closely and showed it to Light One, who guffawed loudly. “That’s Yvonne for you!” The two men laughed. Ian put his arm around Heather’s trembling shoulders. “Trust Yvonne. I’ll phone her for you ma’am.”

All four of them listened to the ringing on the speaker phone. Heather counted seven rings that sliced into that quiet, dark veranda.

“Yvonne speaking.”

“Ja Yvonne. This is Eddie from Sharp Edge Security.”

“Eddie! Are you at my place?” The alarm was evident in the woman’s voice. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes and no. Your dinner guests set the alarm off.”

“Dinner guests? I’m not open Eddie.”

“I can see that Yvonne, but your e-mail reads Confirmation dinner 7p.m. Thursday. Looking forward to meeting you. Your guests arrived Yvonne.”

Silence. The kind of silence that echoes. Then a sharp intake of breath followed by a long sigh. “Shucks Eddie. I had so few bookings for today I decided it wasn’t worth opening tonight.”

It was nine o’clock that evening when Heather and Ian sat barefoot on the side of their pool at home, swirling their feet in the water. Between them was a bowl of crisps, a jar of olives, and a plate of cheese blocks – all they could rustle up from the kitchen.

“Happy anniversary Heather dear.” Ian clinked his mug of beer against her glass of red wine. “This has been quite an adventure.”

“You bet!” Heather leaned against the only man she had ever loved. “It certainly has!”

KRUGER MILLIONS

There is a persistent rumour circulating this country that President Paul Kruger had the gold belonging to the Transvaal Republic buried somewhere to avoid it falling into the hands of the British during the Anglo-Boer War. The hoard is said to be worth about eight to ten million Rand in today’s terms – small wonder people long to find it! No-one has. Areas of the Lowveld have been dug up in the hope of finding this wondrous ‘pot of gold’, but to no avail. According to the legend the gold was buried in the Blyde River area in what is now known as Mpumalanga. In fact, there is no substantial proof that this treasure ever really existed.

When the British occupied Pretoria on 5th June 1900, Lord Alfred Milner established that a large amount of gold had been removed from the Mint and the National Bank a month earlier. What happened to it? There is a detailed account of the story of the Kruger Millions at https://sabie.co.za/blog/?p=1612 which is worth reading.

In 1967 the first Kruger Rand was minted in Pretoria, a series of coins designed to promote the sale of gold. These Kruger Rands were worth 1 troy ounce of fine gold, although other weights were subsequently minted too. The obverse depicts Paul Kruger, who was the President of the old South African Republic.

South Africa’s national animal, the Springbuck, graces the reverse of the coin.

These coins are designed as collector’s items – a means for individuals to own gold.

The legend of the ‘lost’ Kruger millions is likely to persist for many years to come and the possibility of owning a Kruger Rand depends on how much spare money you happen to have, for they are not cheap. So, the Kruger Rand depicted above is clearly not a real one in my possession – it proved to be a ‘missing treasure’ of some kind though for it was discovered by my granddaughters in their father’s workshop: a gold coin chocolate!

Such a treasure! Alas, once we had prised open the gold foil covering, the chocolate inside looked far from edible – we will have to keep on looking!