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.

 

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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!

FIVE MORE MINUTES

“Five more minutes, just give me five more minutes!”

“Come on Wendy, you can’t be sleepy if you can shout that loudly!”

Wendy opened her eyes reluctantly to see the dawn light fingering through the gap in Ben’s bedroom curtains. She could feel a crisp morning breeze playing across her face and snuggled deeper under the duvet. Ben was right; if they didn’t leave soon that crispness would disappear in the face of the scorching heat forecast for today. She threw off the duvet and padded barefoot towards the shower.

Ben was in the kitchen downstairs, a stripy cotton apron wrapped around his waist. “Scrambled or fried?”

“Scrambled on toast please, I’m famished.” Wendy shook the droplets from her wet hair so that they scattered across his face and sizzled in the hot pan.

“Our first stop is to photograph the Sacred Ibises at Second Dam.” Ben crunched his toast. “They should be collecting nesting material by now. Also, I want a really good close-up of a head.”

“Thoth.” Wendy smiled at him over the rim of her coffee mug.

“Who’s Thoth?”

“Thoth, an Egyptian god, is depicted as having a head like a Sacred Ibis. Mummified ibises have even been found in Egyptian tombs. That’s why they’re called Sacred Ibises.”

“You amaze me.” Ben winked at her. “We’ll wash up later. Come, let’s go.”

“Just five more minutes,” Wendy pleaded. “I haven’t brushed my teeth yet.”

Having switched off the engine, Ben picked up his dark, wide-brimmed sunhat and shouldered his camera bag. He and Wendy walked slowly down the steep sand track towards the edge of the dam. While he focused his attention on the ibises, Wendy sat on the grass admiring the deepening pink blush of the sunrise.

Later, they stopped at The Coffee Pot, drawn by the aroma of baking and freshly brewed coffee. Wendy photographed a Pied Crow that sidled up to them looking for a titbit. “Perhaps we could put together an exhibition of black and white pictures – I mean a black and white theme: Sacred Ibis, Pied Crow … that sort of thing.”

“That’s not really my style Wends, you know that. Come on, the light should be perfect for catching reflections of trees at Ken’s farm dam.”

“Five minutes.” Wendy gulped down the last of her coffee.

They drove fast along the smooth gravel road that wound through a patch of natural forest before reaching their friend’s farm. “You go ahead to the dam,” Wendy told the two men. “I’m happy to wander around Ken’s garden. Oh look! There’s a Greater Double-collared Sunbird! I’m definitely staying here!”

She later joined Ben and Ken on a low hill above the farmhouse and surveyed the valley below them. Ken spoke of his deep attachment to the area he had grown up in and outlined his plan to build a rustic eco-lodge in an area between thorn trees that commanded a view of the dam. “One needs other streams of income these days,” he explained softly. “Who knows, just the right lass might come along to use it too!” He winked at Wendy.

Ben stepped in behind her as they walked along a dusty plain, stopping now and then for Ken to point out the tracks of scrub hares and jackals. “Would you run a kind of tracking course?” Wendy could imagine a young woman falling in love with this good looking man as she watched him kneel down to point out where a scrub hare had rested and where a duiker had walked.

“We must be off Ken.” Ben broke the spell as soon as they had returned to the farmhouse. He stowed his camera bag on the back seat of the truck he only used on weekends and holidays. He turned to shake their friend’s hand. “It’s been good to see you after so long. Are you ready Wendy?”

“Five minutes Ben. Just five minutes.” She didn’t see the amusement on his face as he exchanged glances with Ken. Instead, she paused to look down the dirt track that led away from the farmhouse to the blue hills in the distance. The heat haze was already accentuating the isolation of the place Ken called home, yet the quiet mountain beauty spoke to her inner being. “You must feel peaceful here,” she commented quietly.

“It’s a good community.” Ken looked at her intently. “The people around here are a good sort.” He touched her shoulder lightly. “Sorry you can’t stay for lunch.”

Ben was quieter than usual on their journey home. Their lunch at a local farm stall had been a sombre affair. The two of them had sat at a wooden table in the shade of a tree and sipped at their cold drinks. He had wolfed down two pasties in quick succession while Wendy toyed with a half-eaten sausage roll.

“Five minutes, hey?” His attempt at humour failed. He flipped through the photographs on his camera, pretending not to notice the tears glistening in her eyes or the difficulty with which she swallowed the remainder of the sausage roll. “You know what Wendy?” He switched off his camera and willed her to look at him.

When she did, it was with a faraway look in her eyes. “Where to now Ben? Where are we off to now?” Her voice was flat. She pulled her hair back from her face and seemed to look through him.

“I thought.” He faltered under her steady gaze. “Well, I was thinking we should go out for supper tonight. You know, real supper, like burgers and chocolate cake or lemon tart.”

“Doubtless with just the right wines to accompany each course.” She sounded weary.

“Wine is a good idea.” He picked up his camera bag as Wendy tossed the packaging of their takeaway meal in a nearby bin. “Perhaps we can invite Neville and Sarah to join us. We haven’t seen them in a while.”

“Perhaps.” Wendy smiled automatically as she buckled her seatbelt. In her mind’s eye she could see a valley stretching away towards the blue hills in the distance; she could almost hear the Cape Turtle Doves and the Hadedas calling in the background; she saw the soft yellow glow of the afternoon sun highlighting the aloes blooming near rough stone steps; and she could almost see the Olive Thrushes and Cape Robins scuttling about for food in the dying light of the day.

“We could all go to a club afterwards.” Ben pressed play on the dashboard, filling the cab with loud music. “Just to get you in the mood,” he teased, speaking lightly despite the iron band that tightened another notch around his chest.

“Five minutes, Ben. Can’t we have peace for just five minutes?” Wendy ran her fingers through her hair and looked at Ben with such intensity that he turned the sound down until it was barely audible. “Why can you never sit still, Ben? Why don’t you ever spend time actually appreciating the places and things you photograph?” She looked down at her lap briefly. “You always have to be on the move, doing something, going somewhere, or filling space with people. You’re so competitive all the time!”

“I don’t like to waste time, I guess. Weekends are for enjoying otherwise they’re wasted.” He turned the sound up slightly and concentrated on the road for a while. “I thought you would enjoy being busy. I planned the weekend to pack in as much as we could –.” Wendy was shaking her head and looking out of the passenger window as he spoke. He swallowed the lump that had appeared in his throat from nowhere. “Tomorrow we can lunch at the Guineafowl Inn. It’s only an hour from town. You can sleep late; even skip breakfast if you like.”

“I must go home before lunch tomorrow, Ben. I’ve got a pile of marking to do before Monday.” The music almost drowned her words and put an end to the conversation until he drew up outside his townhouse in the middle of an upmarket gated complex.

Wendy sat without moving once the engine and the music had been switched off. She could still hear the sound throbbing in her ears. Ben looked at her thoughtfully as he picked up his camera bag. “You coming?” He spoke tentatively, the iron band had tightened to the point he could barely breathe.

They sat opposite each other in his modern kitchen, cups of tea steaming between them. Ben reached for her limp hands and rubbed her ringless fingers gently between his own. “We can have dinner on our own tonight, Wends.”

“Thank you, Ben.” She squeezed his hands and cast her eyes around at the smartly tiled floor, the sleek finishes of the cupboards and the opulence of the lounge furnishings that showed through the half open sliding door. Ben had it all: smart house; smart equipment; smart job; smart friends; smart salary … he would be a good provider. She was a fortunate woman. “I’ll get tidied up.” She put their cups in the sink – doubtless they would find their way to the dishwasher disguised as a cupboard, just as the breakfast things had done.

“Sorry you couldn’t stay for lunch.” Ken’s words played over and over in her mind. She had seen the cold chicken salad, the bread rolls and the bowl of fruit salad covered with a light cloth in his old-fashioned farm kitchen. Ben wasn’t going to risk staying. He had to be on the move. It was almost as if he was afraid of relaxing when he could be achieving something else. His competitive streak would not be stilled. We should have stayed, Wendy thought while brushing her hair. I should have made us stay.

“Are you ready yet?” Ben sounded impatient. “My stomach is grumbling already!”

“I’ll be down in five minutes Ben!” Wendy switched on her cell phone. There were no messages. She hadn’t expected any. Nonetheless, with her heart thumping uncomfortably and her fingers shaking, she scrolled down to find Ken’s number. She hadn’t used it for two years. I am too she typed and pressed send. He would know what she meant.

“It was five minutes too long, wasn’t it?” Ben stared at her across the table. His fingers traced a pattern in the beads on the outside of his glass of chilled white wine. “I shouldn’t have let you have those five minutes at Ken’s place,” he sounded sad.

“We should have stayed for lunch, Ben. He had it all prepared for us.” Wendy sipped her dark red wine, chosen in defiance of Ben’s ‘superior taste’.

“Five minutes, that’s all you needed, wasn’t it?” He gave a rueful smile. “He’s always loved you, you know. All through ‘varsity and beyond. He’s always loved you.” Ben gulped his wine. “But you chose me. I can offer you everything and anything you want.” He watched her sip her wine and for a moment felt mesmerised by the sadness in her eyes coupled with a glimmer of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“You’re right Ben. I finally realised today that I love him too.”

DINNER GUESTS 4: WINE MAN

It was hot. The daily temperatures had hovered between 34°C and 42°C for the past week, making Angie feel exhausted. It wasn’t only the heat that drained her of energy, it was having run a three-day training course and the prospect of the next two days filled with meetings. She sat on the edge of the swimming pool, cooling her bare feet in the water while sipping a gin and tonic Ian had poured for her.

“Thank goodness the weekend is beckoning,” she said dreamily. “I just want to feel at peace with the world and not have to deal with any people.”

“You haven’t forgotten dinner on Friday night, have you?” Ian peered at her over his reading glasses.

Angie swirled the not-so-cool-anymore water with her feet, noting the ripples fanning out towards the middle of the pool. She listened to the crickets in the garden and noted the high pitch of the yapping dog that lived further up the street. She studied the last of the melting ice cubes in her glass and counted four vehicles passing the house before she turned round, hoping Ian wouldn’t notice the tears she was willing back into their wells.

“You did say Friday would be a good night.” Ian folded the newspaper he could no longer read in the fading light. “Everyone has accepted the invitation: six-thirty for seven is what you suggested.”

“Remind me why we had to invite the Simpsons.”

“Betty recently started working in my department and William heads the biggest NGO in town.”

“And that makes them influential?”

“It’s not about influence Angie.” Ian could sense a storm was brewing inside her. “As the departmental head, I think that newcomers to our town would find it helpful if they met some colleagues on a more informal basis.”

“William writes such trash in the newspapers, Ian. Who on earth will want to talk to such a self-opinionated person?” Angie gulped the last of her drink and dried her feet on the towel lying crumpled on the brick paving.

The first e-mail from Betty arrived on Thursday evening: Please note that we do not eat fish, red meat or potatoes. Noted. Angie revised the menu in her head.

A second e-mail arrived on Friday morning: I understand Andrew and Alison Fincham are coming to dinner. He is such a bore, please don’t seat me next to him. Fine. Angie gathered her notebook for her meeting.

Another e-mail arrived before lunch: We do not drink red wine.

By the time the first guests had arrived, Angie already felt a wreck with a throbbing headache to boot. The Mannings brought red wine and a box of chocolates; the Finchams brought a bottle of white wine (“Thank you ever so much Alison! I never get enough white.”); and the Beckhams brought red wine and a small bouquet of flowers. There was no sign of the Simpsons.

Angie was plating the starters when she heard a commotion at the front door. ‘Let Ian get on with the introductions,’ she thought darkly. William walked into the kitchen and, without acknowledging her presence, opened the fridge. He pulled two bottles of white wine from a large leather bag and shoved them in between the cheese and the milk. “No-one is to drink these,” he spoke curtly, “they’re for me and Betty.” He eyed the gifted wines on the shelf. “Quite a collection you have here,” he commented more cheerfully and left.

Ian was already pouring wine when Angie brought the starters to the table. Betty was turning her glass of red round and round while staring into the depths of the ruby liquid. As Ian was about to pour red wine into William’s glass, Angie stopped him. “He might prefer white darling.” She turned to the assembled company. “I hope Ian offered an alternative; we do have white wine.” Alison returned the knowing wink. William appeared to scowl at her and accepted the red.

Angie placed the beef roast in front of Ian to carve. The roasted potatoes jostled for attention with the other vegetables on the sideboard. “There is rice, if anyone would prefer, and a chicken dish is at the end.” She looked directly at Betty, who shook her head and giggled girlishly.

So, this is a rice and potato household! Ian, I thought you were far too refined for that!” She clinked her wine glass against Andrew’s. “Do you and Ali also serve the two carbs together?”

Angie was fuming. “Do serve yourselves,” she announced brightly then sat down, wishing everyone would leave her to nurse her headache in peace. William had been quick to open another bottle of red wine. Angie noted that he hadn’t been into the kitchen once. She also noted with increasing anger that both Simpsons had piled their plates with beef and roasted potatoes! She defiantly served herself chicken on rice.

When the evening drew to a close at last, Angie walked into the kitchen to get the potted herbs she had promised to give Jenny Manning. She nearly fell over William, who was stuffing ‘his’ two bottles of white wine into the large leather bag and then reached for the bottle Alison had brought.

“Excuse me, but that’s not your bottle of wine.” Angie tried to sound light-hearted.

“It’s not yours either, love.” William added it to his bag and followed Angie to the lounge, where everyone was bidding each other farewell.

Amidst the thanks, the compliments about her cooking, and the farewells, Angie was sure William had returned to the kitchen. ‘Perhaps his conscience has got the better of him’ she thought as Betty gave her a perfunctory hug and then beamed at Ian. William pushed past her. “G’night” he mumbled and moved to shake Ian’s hand vigorously.

Angie walked into the kitchen: the bottle of white wine hadn’t been returned and one of the gifted bottles of red was missing too. She turned on her heel and marched down the passage. “Those two are never darkening our door again,” she hissed at Ian. “The man is a thief and the woman is a liar!”

FREEDOM IN THE BUSH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHIMISICAL MOMENTS 6: THEY DON’T EAT VEGETABLES ANYMORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So many boys and young men here tonight!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Pulley passed a handful of peppermints to her companion.

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

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