YOU KNOW WHAT?

“It’s only for a day, Andy.” Lucy smiled reassuringly over the rim of her coffee cup. “I’ll have written out the day’s plan for you and will get everything ready beforehand. You just need to follow the plan and go with the flow.”

“Lu, you know I have always acknowledged that teaching Grade 1 is such a specialised job that I would never presume – “

“Think of it as care-taking.” Lucy leaned forward. “I’ve already told my Head about you and he’s happy. You’re a teacher after all!”

Was a teacher and a senior school teacher at that!” Andrea recalled in a flash the cut and thrust of the senior school; the joy of arguing over poems with matrics; reading to the Grade 11s to encourage an interest in their prescribed literature; and the satisfaction of knowing that the Grade 8s finally understood how sentences were constructed to make a particular impact. All that had ended after Frank was born three years earlier. “I’m not sure I can deal with such young children, not even for a day.”

“Rubbish! You’ve done a marvellous job with Frankie and his friends. Besides,” Lucy reached to touch her friend’s hand across the wooden table, “the Grade 1s can walk, talk, draw, write and go to the toilet on their own!”

She made it sound so simple. Andrea spent half a morning watching her friend teach, met the headmaster, and returned home feeling the deed would be do-able. That had been a month ago.

Now Andrea sat on the floor encircled by what felt like a horde of children – only fifteen – eagerly watching silkworms spinning their golden threads. She observed their eager faces and felt her heart softening and swelling with a sense of love: they all wanted to share their experiences and have someone who would listen to them and regard what they said as being important.

“You should have seen how big the worms were in the cow dung in the cattle kraal! Donavon (“Mind how you spell his name,” Lucy had warned) gestured the thickness of sausages.

The Hadedas were pulling up worms as long as my arm the last time it rained,” Colleen chimed in.

“I like sticking worms on my hook when I go fishing with my Dad.” Tony had almost tucked his head under Andrea’s arm. “They go all squishy.”

“Yuck!” Jackie shook her brown curls. “That’s so cruel!”

It was time to move onto the next activity. The silkworms were carefully replaced on the shelf near the window and workbooks handed out. “Now that you have had another look at the silkworms, you can finish writing your stories about the life of a caterpillar.” Andrea knew she sounded more confident than she felt. She was actually exhausted and her heart quailed ahead of the music session looming shortly after break.

“When can we have our snack?” Helen looked up from her workbook. “I’m too hungry to write.” She had written only three words and was chewing the end of her pencil.

“My mother’s given me a sausage today,” Geoff volunteered. “Do you want to see it, Simon?” He bent down to scrabble around in his school bag lying at his feet.

Shucks, Andrea realised, she’d forgotten to remind them all to place their bags in the lockers under the window shelf. Alice was already unwrapping a cheese wedge! “Put your food away and if you will all be good little caterpillars for ten minutes you’ll be able to eat your snacks at break time.” She pointed to the wall clock. “When this hand reaches the number twelve here, you will be able to go outside and eat.”

“How are you managing?” Jenni, the Grade 2 teacher asked Andrea as they collected their tea in the staffroom. “Oh yummy! We’re getting toasted sandwiches today! Leslie, be a love and pass us each a sarmie.”

The two women sat on a comfortable couch with the sunlight streaming in behind them. “I’m managing. The music session ahead fills me with dread though.”

Jenni laughed heartily. “Not a problem. Lucy tells me you’re great at reading stories. Let’s swop: I’ll do your music and you read to my class. They could do with a change of voice.” Andrea almost cried with relief. “Have you heard from Lucy about her brother’s wedding?”

“Only that it was ‘awesome’ and that she’s on track to get home this evening.”

The hours seemed to fly by. Glancing at the wall clock, Andrea realised all would be over within half an hour. She would collect Frank from his playschool across town and they could catch up while she boiled the kettle and made a sandwich for her own lunch … mashed avocado would be good. Perhaps she should fry some bacon too. Frankie would like some …

“You know what?” Christina had moved so close to her that Andrea jumped. The children were finishing off the pictures they had started on Friday; some were working on the floor while others sat at their tables. She smiled at Christina.

“What’s the problem, Christina?” The little girl had already cupped her hand as she reached for Andrea’s ear. She bent down obligingly.

“I know something about Mommy and Daddy that you don’t know,” Christina whispered confidingly. Andrea moved away slightly, looking directly at the serious face in front of her.

“Perhaps,” she spoke carefully, “your Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t like me to know that something about them.” She eyed the clock. Ten minutes to go.

Undeterred, Christina sat on a low stool and placed a sticky hand on Andrea’s knee. “I know what my Mommy and Daddy do at night when they think my brother and I are sleeping!” Christina’s eyes were shining with delight. “They don’t do it nearly every night, but sometimes I can hear Mommy tiptoeing past our rooms when the lights are off. Sometimes she whispers to my Dad that we are sleeping and then they go –“

“Christina, it’s almost time for everyone to pack up. In fact, it is time. Children, it’s time to pack your crayons away and to put your pictures in a pile on the table at the back.” Christina didn’t move except to tug at the hem of Andrea’s blouse.

“When my Mommy and Daddy think we are asleep,” she persisted, no longer whispering, “they open the front door and go to play cards with our neighbours,” she finished triumphantly.

ANGUS

I must tell you about Angus. I could tell you about the time I stopped my car to listen to him playing his bagpipes, dressed in full kilted regalia, under a grove of trees darkened by the thick mist that held onto the sound. I could tell you about him meeting me in the pub, ruddy-faced, with grass in his hair and stinking of buffalo and sweat. That was the Angus I came to know.

If there was a time before Angus it has disappeared in a haze of growing up, having fun and not caring about the future. That time before Angus wasn’t really without Angus because he was always there. It was merely a time of not-knowing-Angus.

Well, of course everyone ‘knew’ Angus at university. You couldn’t miss him, surrounded as he was by an entourage of expectant, gorgeous-looking girls and young men who hung onto his every word. I wasn’t among them. He once gave me a lift to town in his bakkie that was always either covered with mud or dust, depending on the season.

I once volunteered to be an usher at a series of graduation ceremonies, telling myself it would be good to keep myself busy and be useful during the vacation that was too short for me to go home. At the end of those exhausting ceremonies I had to admit it had been worth the satisfaction of seeing Angus striding confidently across the stage to receive his Master’s degree. Was I in love, you ask. How could I be? I didn’t really ‘know’ Angus then, although I was drawn to his cheery laugh whenever I heard it on campus. We never met.

Perhaps we did. With time one forgets the process of meeting, of becoming familiar, of feeling free to greet in passing without any obligation. I will always remember his laugh: he seemed driven to enjoy himself. He wore his hair in a long, thick ponytail then, which seemed at odds with the clothes he wore and the vehicle he drove.

I noticed once that his ponytail had reached his waist. He had his back to me in the pub, where I was having a drink with two male colleagues. He saw me as he was leaving and waved in my direction. He wasn’t smiling, yet his eyes lit up as they brushed over me. Then he was gone.

Angus sat next to me at a folksong evening. The air was thick with smoke from braai fires on the periphery. A duo were singing on the dimly lit stage below the tiered seating set up on a school sports field. At first I was on my own, envying the couples holding hands, leaning into each other, or chatting quietly, even though my heart ached for no-one in particular. I had come for the music. The empty space next to me yawned and sighed until out of the gathering gloom Angus appeared: short-cropped, clean-shaven and confident about claiming the space.

We swayed in our seats to the rhythm of the music. As the evening wore on he put his arm around me in the casual way that good friends do. During the final song he lifted my hand and touched it to his lips. He lightly brushed my cheek with his fingers – and was swallowed by the darkness.

I must tell you about Angus because he is here, yet he is somewhere else. I once fed him soup with a teaspoon when he was very ill and shrunken-looking in my bed. He changed my tyre once in the road outside the supermarket. I held his hand at his father’s funeral. He comforted me when my mother died.

Angus and I. Me and Angus. We. Us. We met occasionally, loved, made love, dined together, and spent evenings reading together. I went to his game farm for weekends and holidays. He taught me to shoot; we counted game together; we watched sunsets together. We were us. That was the ‘here’ Angus, the tangible Angus, the Angus who loved with passion.

Then Angus would leave. Sometimes he would be away for weeks at a time, attending wildlife and hunting expos in Europe and the United States. His silence was thick and dark. Angus would return without warning, having driven past his farm to sit in my kitchen; to stretch his legs and comb his fingers through my hair.

That wonderfully rich laughter disappeared for a long time after his father’s death. The furrow on his brow deepened: taking full responsibility for the game farm put paid to his PhD. It ended his freedom to choose. It turned him inside himself – except when he was with me.

I must tell you about Angus. He is not who you think he is. You have thought he takes life lightly. You have wondered at his success. You have spoken about silver spoons, but you have never seen the strain that threatened to pull his face apart. You do not know of the weariness that turned his muscles to lead. Only I can tell you about the hidden Angus.

The Angus who lived in a dark world; who went to battle every day as he learned and failed, and tried again. The Angus who entered my flat in the early hours of one morning and kissed me on my cheek. He smelled of days and nights spent in the veld. He smelt of fear and of weariness. He showered and, as he snuggled next to me, said “Marry me Judith. Marry me” and fell asleep before I could reply.

You ask me why, after all these years, do I want to tell you about Angus. About the man who has lived his life to the full; who always cared about the land and all that derives succour from it. About the man who has devoted his life to creating a better future for his family.

I have chosen to tell you about the Angus who was, who might have been, and the Angus who became the man I have loved most in the world; the man who has loved and protected me even more fiercely than you can imagine. I have chosen to tell you about Angus because tomorrow we would have been married for fifty years. Although he has gone, he would have been very proud of you, my son.

 

DINNER TALES: BY CANDLELIGHT

“We haven’t entertained at home for so long Rick that it’s not surprising we’re seldom invited out anymore.” Wendy was still holding a damp dishcloth in her hands as she approached her husband ensconced in a deep armchair in the lounge with a book on his lap. He sighed and looked at her over his spectacles.

“I have to submit my paper for the conference within two weeks, Wendy. I can’t afford to miss the deadline.” He looked away from her as he reached for a pencil and a writing pad on the side table. “This is a busy time for me.”

“It’s always a ‘busy time’ for you, Rick. Anyone would think I have nothing to do. Admit it though: we owe so many people an invitation that we’ve got to start somewhere.” Wendy’s voice carried a determined ring. “You even said in January that we ought to have someone round once a month. January is over and we can already see March in the wings -.”

“Invite the lot then, just let me get through this reading.”

“Alright Mr. Grump, I’ll see who can make it on Saturday evening.” Wendy straightened two pictures on the passage walls on her way to the kitchen. The frames need dusting, she noted, but then everything can do with a once-over.

Wendy tidied the lounge on Saturday afternoon, plumping the cushions and sorting through their selection of music before turning her attention to the dining room. She picked flowers for the table and filled a large vase to place in the entrance hall. Once the table was set to her satisfaction, she focused on getting the dishes ready for the oven.

Rick came in while Wendy was putting the finishing touches to the salads. “It’s still so hot,” he smiled, “that I think I should get ice to put in a cooler box outside.”

“I’d love to be outdoors! I’m quietly dying in the heat of the kitchen.” Wendy covered the salads and hugged her husband briefly. “I’ll get chairs ready and put out some snacks while you buy the ice.”

“This is why we don’t entertain often: you get so wound up.” Rick kissed her forehead. “Just relax – everyone will have a great time.”

Easy for him to say, Wendy grumbled to herself as she carried a tray of savouries outdoors. He was right though, a cooling breeze had sprung up and the garden was filled with the heady scent of blossoms. This is definitely the right place to start, she thought happily as she went indoors to collect the drinking glasses.

Everyone enjoyed sitting on the patio and admired the different hues of green created by the setting sun. “Your garden is looking beautiful!” Mandy drew in an exaggerated breath, “and it’s filled with amazing scents too.”

“Oh look! There are some bats.” Chris nudged his wife, Donna. A momentary silence fell as all turned to watch the two small insectivorous bats looping above the lawn only to seemingly disappear when they swooped low against the trees.

“Bats frighten me.” Ella automatically covered her head with her free hand. During the laughter and teasing that followed, Wendy slipped into the kitchen to switch on the oven. She was surprised to find most of their guests had moved indoors on her return.

Rick was drawing the curtains in the lounge. “Are the bats a problem?” Wendy asked quietly.

“No, the wind’s becoming unpleasant.”

Thomas and Louisa came in bearing plates and dishes from outdoors. “Shall we dump these in the kitchen Wends?”

“”Thank you Louisa. Let me get the rest.”

“Everything’s indoors – except the drinks.” Ceridwen and Benny laughed as the French doors slammed behind them.

“I think we’re in for a storm,” Rick announced. “Anyone for more wine?”

Wendy sighed with relief. Even Rick was enjoying himself and the stormy gusts of wind seemed to provide extra energy. They needed rain so badly. “These are such beautiful flowers,” Mandy remarked on her way back from the bathroom. “I always mean to have more flowers -.” She stopped mid-sentence as the power went out. “Is it load-shedding? I thought we were meant to be free of it this weekend.”

“It can’t be load-shedding. I’ll go and find some candles.” Wendy used the torch on her cell phone to scrabble around in the pantry for a motley collection of candles. Books and glasses were moved aside to make room for them.

“What a lovely ambience!” Louisa exclaimed as the rain began spattering against the window panes.

Lovely ambience indeed, but the food won’t cook without power, Wendy thought grimly. There was no reply from the municipal electricity department. She scanned the neighbourhood from her bedroom window and realised the whole suburb was cloaked in darkness. She dialled the emergency service.

“It’s not a problem ma’am,” was the response to her apology. “Most of town is out,” the man continued cheerfully. “It’s due to an explosion at one of the sub-stations. You know how Eskom keeps switching the electricity on and off.”

“Yes, but is someone working on the problem? I mean, can we expect the power to come on again before long?” Wendy tried to control the tremor in her voice while wondering what to do about the dinner. She wasn’t prepared for the laughter.

“Ma’am it’s going to be an all-nighter this one. What, with this weather and all, we’ll be lucky to have power by the morning.”

A combination of wind and thunder rattled at the windows as the rain poured down. The conversations in the lounge were increasing in volume to compensate for the roaring outside. Wendy compressed her lips and took some deep breaths. “Could you bring some of those candles to the kitchen?” Her voice was louder than she had intended.

She felt about in the freezer for a combination of frankfurters and Russian sausages left over from a camping trip they had enjoyed with their grandchildren. Rick lit two camping gas stoves balanced on kitchen stools. Donna and Ella found mustard, chutney and tomato sauce in the fridge. “Ooh gherkins! I love gherkins with hot dogs!” Thomas removed the bottle from the door of the fridge.

As there were no rolls, Benny took on the task of slicing the loaves of fancy bread Ceridwen had collected from the dining room table along with the salads. Wendy warmed to the sight of her guests making their own hot dogs and eating them while standing up. Her kitchen was crowded and the company so jolly that the rain and thunder faded into the background. That the pudding hadn’t set didn’t worry anyone. They helped themselves to ice-cream out of the tub and ladled spoonfuls of the pudding over as if it was a sauce. People bumped into each other; they elbowed each other out of the way; above all, they were laughing.

She filled their camping kettle to boil for coffee. Donna handed round the chocolates she and Chris had brought, while Mandy and Louisa put out enough mugs for everyone. Chris spied the hot chocolate in the cupboard next to the coffee and Thomas asked for Milo. To Wendy’s surprise the men took over, creating ‘coffee / hot chocolate / Milo’ stations next to each other, spooning in the powders as requested. Tea had not even been mentioned.

Holding their mugs carefully in one hand and candles in the other, everyone made their way back to the lounge. It was getting on for midnight when the wind died down at last and the rain had abated enough to make leaving easier.

Rick collected his powerful torch to light the way down the garden path. Everyone bunched together at the front door. Wendy, still thinking about her uncooked masterpieces languishing in the cold oven, felt cheered by the happy farewells and cries of ‘the best night ever’ as the guests dashed down the path to the gate.  She leaned against the open door, breathing in the damp air and listening to the muted closing of vehicle doors and happy ‘good nights’. Just then, the power came on, lighting up the house like a ship in the night. She laughed at the cheers and tooting of hooters as their guests drove away: it certainly had been the best dinner ever!

THE FLOWER LADY

Andrea was already in her mid-fifties when she and Peter moved to Stony Brae, the farm that had been in his family for generations. She had always known that Peter wanted to farm even though she had happily moved with him to wherever his engineering jobs had taken them. When they had finally settled in Somerset West so that their sons could complete their schooling in one place, she felt they had come to the end of a long journey at last.

Stony Brae had been their regular holiday destination. This is where Mark and Michael had learned to drive their grandfather’s tractor; where they had joined the groups bird hunting with dogs when the season was right; and both boys still loved riding horses and hiking in the hills. Stony Brae had always been the perfect place where the family could unwind.

It had been easy to unwind in such a beautiful place, she reflected, where there were so many things to do and where one could hive off somewhere for a period of peace, to watch birds, or to read in the shade of one of the many trees in the large garden stretching away from the homestead.

That garden. Peter’s mother had been an avid gardener whose passion for plants, both exotic and indigenous, had kept her occupied in between canning fruit, making jam, baking, and overseeing the magnificent vegetable and herb garden outside the kitchen. Andrea loved that garden that was so different from their small one consisting of a lawn, a few trees, a narrow flower bed along the perimeter walls, and herbs growing in pots. She never gave a thought to the upkeep of the garden at Stony Brae – it was always there and always looked beautiful, whatever the season.

Peter’s father remained on the farm for five years after his wife had died unexpectedly from a snake bite. Andrea and Peter visited the farm more regularly during that time. While Peter discussed farm matters, Andrea and her sons walked along paths in the hills and Andrea began taking an interest in photography.

It was Eleanor, from the farm next door, who pointed out the weavers constructing their nests in the Cape Chestnut trees between the house and the garages for the tractors. They had been sitting on the shady lawn when Eleanor had leaned back in her deck chair with her arms outstretched. “I’ll be glad when the ploughing season is over. All that dust in the air coats everything in the house.” She cast her eyes around the garden, her next words chilling Andrea to the core. “It’s a shame to see how neglected this garden has become since Julie passed on.”

The Garden. From that moment Andrea always thought of it in capital letters: The Garden. Peter made repeated noises about taking over the running of the farm, yet she had placed his enthusiastic, “You can learn to bake bread and perhaps turn out your delicious cheddar and bacon pies for the monthly market” on the back burner. He had been talking about farming since before they had got married.

It was true that Andrea enjoyed baking. Both of them liked entertaining and the farm would be ideal for that. But gardening? Eleanor had made her look at The Garden more closely and her heart quailed at the responsibility looming ahead.

Five years later, Andrea could laugh at her fears. She still preferred The Garden at night when solar lights in the flower beds turned it into a fairy land. Still, after years of pruning, weeding and having to deal with drought, Andrea had planted banks of aloes and succulents that more or less looked after themselves. Encouraged by her neighbours, Philip and Mary, she had devoted a particularly fertile section of The Garden nearest the house to cut flowers. Even though Mary had practically bullied her into selling flowers at the monthly market (along with her baked cookies and pies), Andrea found that she had such an abundance of flowers that even her neighbours had run out of space for displaying them.

Andrea began making up bunches of flowers the afternoon before going to town for the weekly shop. She would leave them in buckets of water overnight and wrap them in newspaper before placing them carefully in the boot of her car. She never failed to experience a thrill of joy whenever she presented unsuspecting people in the supermarket car park, or even in the street, with a bunch of beautiful blooms. “To make you happy,” she would say, or “I have far too many.” She always refused payment, saying “I would like you to have them.”

It wasn’t long before Andrea became known as The Flower Lady. She was happier than she had been for years – until a florist opened next to the supermarket. Susan Finch was quite blunt: “You cannot give away flowers, Andrea. I need people to purchase flowers from me.”

“I have been giving away flowers once a week for years. Why should I stop?”

“Because selling flowers is how I make a living!”

For weeks Andrea miserably dead-headed the flowers in The Garden. Susan had offered to buy flowers, but they weren’t for sale. Where would be the joy of giving – and what if The Garden decided to sulk and not produce? Andrea didn’t want to feel obliged to grow flowers ‘on contract’.

Sister Louisa phoned early on a Wednesday morning, urging Peter to visit his father in the retirement home. “He’s not well, Peter. He’s very confused this morning and is determined to get out because he has to take sheep to an auction.”

Peter’s father hadn’t farmed sheep for twenty years. Instinctively, Andrea cut a bunch of flowers to take with her. There was no point in giving them to the old man and so, while Peter led his father out to a lunch on the veranda, Andrea went in search of a vase.

“Are these really for us?” Andrea’s heart soared at the delight on the faces of the care-givers. She was even more touched when the matron placed the flowers in the rather drab communal lounge “so that more people can enjoy them.”

From then on Andrea the Flower Lady urged The Garden to do its best to deliver blossoms in abundance. Her first stop in town every week is the retirement home with enough flowers for everyone. She wickedly holds back three bunches, which she defiantly hands over to the first three elderly people she sees emerging from the supermarket.

The Flower Lady has tamed The Garden and remains undaunted.

ALOES – a story

Note: This is a continuation of the story entitled GERANIUMS, which you can find at https://somethingovertea.wordpress.com/2020/02/03/geraniums/. Two bloggers suggested I take the story further …

“I don’t see why we should help them. They didn’t even send a delegate!” Kelsey’s face reddened as she reached across the wooden school desk to gather up the files belonging to the English Department of her school.

“Kelsey, they are six hours away from us; they need guidance and it is up to us to give it.”

“You’re so prissy about these things, Fiona. You take your job as Cluster Co-ordinator far too seriously.”

“It’s the job of all of us to help schools in need.”

“My foot it is. Look,” Kelsey leaned across the narrow desk until her face was only inches away from Fiona’s. “There’s no way I’m going to share my exams and worksheets with a tuppence ha’penny school down the road!”

Fiona scraped her chair back to create a distance. “That’s rich coming from you, Kelsey.”

Kelsey snatched up the files she needed and marched across the room. “I’ve had enough of this. It’s a sheer waste of time. In any case, I must get ready for an important date tonight.” She slammed the wooden door behind her, leaving Fiona white-faced and close to tears.

She turned to Ian, her Head of Department. “How dare she say that? Did you note that several of the entries in her school portfolios are identical to the ones we used last year? All they’ve done is replace our badge and names with theirs!”

“Leave it, Fiona. It really isn’t worth it.” Ian touched her lightly on her shoulder. “I’ll help you put together the critique along with some examples on Monday. Perhaps I can persuade the Head to agree to us visiting the school later in the week.”

“I’d rather not: I’m hosting my garden picnic on Saturday and there’s a lot of tidying up to do outside before then. Are you and Beth still able to come?”

“Of course we are!” He looked at his watch. “Beth’s got yoga after work. Let’s have coffee and cheesecake at Allie’s Cake Shop. It’ll be on me.”

Fiona sighed as she placed her pencil case and note book in her bag. “You’re very kind, but I’m taking a drive out of town with my camera. That’ll clear my head.” She stacked the portfolio files of pupils’ work and headed towards the door, then turned back to him. “Thank you, Ian, but I’d better go while the light’s still good.”

Her altercation with Kelsey rankled, even as Fiona drove out of town in the direction of the farm Oakhaven. Don’s previous two invitations had had to be turned down because of work commitments. “Blast Kelsey! I can’t have her spoiling my afternoon!” Fiona switched on her favourite playlist and sang along loudly until she felt the tension ease within her. She halted at the discreet sign to Oakhaven and smiled as she opened the silver-painted farm gate. The ‘Please close the gate behind you’ sign gave her a warm feeling of anticipation.

Don met her in the driveway. “Down boy! Down!” He admonished Sebastian firmly as Fiona emerged from her car. “Welcome at last,” he smiled and kissed her lightly on her cheek. “Meet Sebastian and then we’ll go in for tea.”

Fiona relaxed in the cushioned cane chair on the deep, shady veranda overlooking the farm stretching into the distance. “What a marvellous sanctuary this is from the heat,” she exclaimed as Don brought out two mugs of tea on a tray along with a few slices of date loaf on a plate. “Goodness, do you bake too?”

“No,” Don laughed heartily. “Tilly Ford, my neighbour, brought it over this morning. I told her last night I was expecting a guest for tea.” He nodded towards her camera. “I’m glad you’ve brought your camera along.” Don looked at her intently, as if weighing something up in his mind. “I think you will enjoy walking up the kopje.”

He pointed out interesting plants and rocks as well as insects and birds as they wound their way slowly up a rough path that took them to the lichen-covered rocks at the top.

“Oh Don, you were so right! This view is absolutely magnificent!”

“I should have brought some sundowners.” Don passed her a bottle of water from the day pack he had carried with him. “Only Adam’s Ale I’m afraid.” He sounded rueful.

“It’s perfect.” Fiona enjoyed the breeze whipping her hair around her face and the way Don’s shoulder touched hers when he pointed out landmarks below them. For a moment she felt transported to a different world – a world filled only with contentment. She drained the water bottle before turning to her companion. “It’s no wonder you enjoy living here.” Just then, her eye was caught by a patch of aloes highlighted by the lowering sun. “Are those visible from your house?”

“They’re too low to see from the veranda unless you stand up. You’re welcome to have a look at them while I fix us a drink when we get back.” He helped her up from the rocks. Sebastian stopped along the path ahead of them and whined almost imperceptibly. He looked up at Don, who scanned the area around them. “What’s wrong boy?”

“Has he seen a snake perhaps?” Fiona hung back.

“No, but something’s up.” Don stiffened as they rounded a corner that afforded a view of the farmhouse and the road beyond it. “Damn! There’s someone coming. Talk about timing!”

They quickened their steps as a vehicle drew up next to Fiona’s car parked under a shady tree. “I’ll go down to the aloes if you don’t mind.” Fiona followed the stony path that wound towards the spiked flowers glowing in the late afternoon light. Entranced by their beauty, she photographed one after the other, then halted at the sound of an all too familiar voice coming from the veranda.

“Don dear, I hope I haven’t arrived too late. Look, I’ve brought us a supper basket. When I saw … last weekend …”

Last weekend? Had Don invited Kelsey out after Fiona had told him she couldn’t come? She fumed inwardly at having had to attend the Grade 8 music concert on the Friday night and accompany the fourth hockey team to their away match on the Saturday. She gripped her camera tightly as her pulse began to race. What now?

Don met her along the path. “Fiona, I wasn’t expecting this. I – ”

“No matter,” she answered tightly. “It’s time I headed for home anyway.” She pushed past him to retrieve her car keys and camera bag from the veranda, which now looked far from peaceful with Kelsey setting out an array of cheeses, biscuits and fruit.

“I was hoping you’d stay for a sundowner.” Don addressed her retreating back.

Fiona closed her car door firmly and rolled down the window. “It wouldn’t be appropriate Don, you know that.” As she started the engine she trusted herself to say only, “It’s a pity I didn’t get to see your ‘delirium of geraniums’” before pulling slowly away.

She stopped just out of sight of the farmhouse to put her cell phone onto flight mode and then drove home as calmly as she could. Of all the women in the world, she thought angrily, why did the intruder have to be Kelsey?

Fiona splashed her face at the garden tap on Sunday morning and wiped it dry with the hem of her T-shirt. Even though it was only eleven o’clock, the day was proving to be unexpectedly hot. “Good for drying the laundry though,” she said aloud to herself. Fiona had been talking to herself all weekend, as if she had to make sure she was alive. A loud banging at her front door stopped her in her tracks. She cautiously moved from the line of recently pegged laundry to investigate, then she burst out laughing.

“Ian! Why are you bashing my door?”

“Fiona!” The relief was clearly evident in his voice. “Thank heavens you seem to be alright.”

“Is something wrong?”

“You tell me! Beth’s been trying to get hold of you since Friday night. You’re not answering your phone and our messages aren’t getting through. Your landline doesn’t work either. ‘The number you have dialled doesn’t exist’”, he mimicked a recorded voice.

“The line is so crackly that I never bother with it. I generally only use my cell phone anyway.”

“Beth’s been trying to invite you to lunch. Come home with me.”

“I look a mess!”

“It’s only us,” Ian encouraged her. “She wants to chat to you about your picnic next Saturday.”

Fiona studied the screen of her cell phone while Ian was driving. A regular ping of messages came through, one after the other. She smiled, three were from Don: ‘Please tell me you’ve arrived home safely’; ‘I have been trying to call you. Please let me know you’re okay’; and ‘Where are you?’

“Popular girl. Why did you switch off your phone?” There was an edge of irritation in Ian’s voice.

“I usually switch to flight mode while I’m driving. I must have forgotten to change the setting. These are mostly missed calls and messages from Beth anyway.” Fiona knew she had not forgotten her phone.

It was after work on Wednesday afternoon that Fiona found three small potted aloes at her front door along with a note from Don: Aloes stay spiky forever. These ones will remain proudly erect even when they grow old and their bottom leaves dry up. Despite their apparent harshness, every year the beauty of their blooms provide nourishment to a variety of insects and birds. Like all aloes, I know you have a softer side. See you on Saturday.

Did she still want Don to join her garden picnic? Fiona was no longer sure. Nonetheless, she was so busy making salads and setting out mismatched crockery, glassware and cutlery on Saturday afternoon that she had no time to think.

“Shall I light these candles in the paper bags now, or do you want to wait until it gets darker?”

“Oh, I think they will look pretty now, thank you Beth.” Fiona collected empty wine and beer bottles from the table to put aside for recycling. Her picnic was a success, she thought while happily surveying the eight guests on the lawn. There had been plenty of food after all.

“Come and join us Fiona!” Ian waved his wine glass at her. “I need someone to back me up in this raging argument about poetry vs science for environmental education.”

She glanced at the table on which she had stacked ten of everything. Only one plate remained untouched and mocked her in passing. ‘Why should he come, Fiona? Does ‘thank you for the aloes’ sound forgiving or welcoming enough?’

‘Does it?’ The empty wine glass echoed shrilly. ‘Does it?’ the single set of cutlery still bound with a floral ribbon shouted at her.

“I’ll join you in a moment,” she called and turned to find a bottle of grape juice in the large metal basin filled with ice and icy water. The thud of a vehicle door shutting attracted her attention away from the cheerful voices on the lawn. They faded to a hum as Fiona concentrated on the familiar squeak of her garden gate and the heavy footsteps behind the Plumbago bush. She stopped breathing as the tall figure with close-cropped dark hair made his way to her front door.

“I promised you eggs and tomatoes from my garden,” he said quietly. “I’ve been working with the vet: a cow had a difficult birth.” He sighed ruefully. “It’s been a long haul.”

Fiona took his offerings and hugged him warmly. “You’ve come to my picnic. After all that, you still came?” She couldn’t help the glisten in the corner of her eyes or the slight quivering of her lips.

He opened the beer she had thrust into his hand. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Fiona. Not for the world.”

She took him lightly by his free hand. “Come and meet my friends,” she said happily.