MOTHER’S QUEST

I wrote this story seventeen years ago and dug it out today after reading a report entitled How a carrot found my diamonds at https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/world/2017-08-17-how-a-carrot-found-my-diamonds/

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Life on the farm had always been difficult.  Only six months after her wedding Mom lost her engagement ring while helping with the potato harvest in Land 4B.  She never stopped looking for it.  Even when the farm dam dried up and the drought threatened the maize crop, Mom wouldn’t entertain the thought of selling the farm.  “We’re in this together David,” she would say. “The weather must change before long.”  When her mouth set in that firm line we all knew there was no point arguing.

I spent a week at ‘The Cobb’ to celebrate Mom’s sixtieth birthday.  It was a sombre week as Dad was in hospital with pneumonia.  Steven, my brother, came down on his own, having left Norah to manage their small public relations business in Johannesburg.  He had never wanted to farm.  “Too much hard work for low returns”, he had often said to Dad’s great disappointment.  Even when we were very young he hated what we called ‘The Struggle’ which passed for daily living on the farm:  the tractor would break down or a fence would need fixing; a cow would have problems calving or the prize bull get bitten by a snake.  Lack of rain seemed a perennial problem and we always had to be on the lookout for some pest or other which might attack the potatoes.

Mom and I reminisced about a lot of these and other things as we walked along the edge of Land 4B.  Aubrey had taken the children back to school and I tried not to think about how they would all cope without me.  I was using a week of my precious leave to be with Mom.

“It’s always the daughter,” Mom observed while we walked along the familiar path.  The late afternoon sun highlighted the ripples of bright yellow flowers of the sun hemp in bloom.  “You really don’t have to stay with me my dear.  I’m quite capable of driving into the hospital and your own family needs you far more than I do.”  Her blue eyes met mine under the shade of her wide-brimmed straw hat that was somewhat frayed at the edges.

“I want to stay,” I said, pulling a grass stem from its protective sheath and chewing the juicy sweet end of it.  I suddenly realized I did want to stay; I wanted to really get to know Mom again without being concerned about Aubrey and the children or sharing my time equally with Dad.

In between our hospital visits, when we could reassure ourselves that Dad was definitely on the mend, Mom and I did so much together.  We made bottles of tomato jam and planted out the cabbage seedlings she had bought from a vendor near the post office.  I cut her hair and she massaged my back with her strong, gentle and oh so capable fingers.  When I remarked on her hands she stopped manipulating my muscles and sat with them folded in her lap, her fingers caressing her wedding band.  “I’m a silly old woman,” she said quietly, changing our carefree mood to a more sombre one.  “I really do wish that I could find my engagement ring!”

Dad had given her a beautiful diamond-and-sapphire band for their silver wedding anniversary.  I remembered how Mom had smiled sweetly at him, dabbed her eyes and resolutely placed it on her right hand.  Nothing would take the place of the diamond-and-emerald engagement ring which had belonged to his grandmother.  That same afternoon she was back, fine combing land 4B with our unenthusiastic assistance.

Mom’s eyes shone with unshed tears and I remembered a time when I was about fourteen.  We had spent a weekend at a cousin’s farm, ‘Gold Hill’; not named after the gold mines Mpumalanga is well known for, but because a prominent hill on the boundary always catches the afternoon light and is a delight to watch at sunset, when the colours change from bright gold to a warm pink, softening to a deep grey before it is overtaken by the darkness.

Steven and I had climbed Gold Hill with my cousins before lunch on our last day there.  Halfway back to the farmhouse I realized that my daisy bracelet was missing.  I’d only had it for the four months since my birthday.  Everyone was hot and irritable and Dad was particularly angry for the beautiful enamelled bracelet had a ‘cost a fortune’ he said.  Mom reacted quite differently.  She declined tea after lunch and patiently set off down the path I had followed.  I remember the set look of determination on her face and was comforted by her gentle insistence that I show her exactly the route I had taken.  We found my bracelet lying in the grass: it must have hooked on the barbed wire when we took a shortcut across the cattle camp.

I looked at my mother still staring quietly out of the window, wrapped in her own thoughts and bravely keeping her fears about Dad’s health to herself.  I hugged her tightly.  “Thank you, Mom.”

“Whatever for?”  She smiled, startled out of her reverie.

“For finding my daisy bracelet.  I’ve just been remembering how grateful I was but probably didn’t know how to show it.”  We laughed and made tea before driving to the hospital.  I felt a renewed determination to help Mom find her ring.

By 1992 my parents had celebrated their forty fourth wedding anniversary, my mother had turned sixty five and I was wondering whether life really did begin after forty.  Christmas that year was very special, it being the first time for ages that the whole family was together.  What made it even more memorable was that Ursula and Shane had brought their baby, Beryl, to meet her great grandmother for the first time.  My own sons were fascinated by the baby, but weren’t very pleased when Terry brought his fiancée, Valerie, to meet the family on Christmas Day.  Marriage was far from their teenage minds.

Mom loved having us all around her.  So did Dad, yet I could see the noise and bustle had been tiring for them.  We sent them off to rest after dinner, while Norah, Ursula, Valerie and I washed the dishes.  Aubrey, Steven and Terry gathered the children together for what had become the traditional treasure hunt.

The story of a lost treasure was alluring and my sons, Robert and Sean, had always returned with an interesting haul consisting of broken china and pretty stones, including minute quartz crystals (“Are you sure those aren’t diamonds, Gran?”).  Mom always rewarded them with an ice-cream or something from her cookie tin and carefully put away their treasures.  She had usually enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with her grandchildren on these outings, which her own children seldom attended. This year she had decided to stay at home with Dad.

Land 4B was lying fallow that year so Terry and Steven laid a grid of string across a small section of it, while Aubrey placed large numbered pegs in each square.  The countdown began as, armed with garden rakes, tins with holes in the bottom for sieves, bags and anything else we thought might be useful, we all set to work in groups on our squares.

When no-one appeared for tea and Christmas cake Mom came looking for us.  The land was having a thorough ‘going through’.  All of us were sweaty and dirty, but carried on our task with a will as the string squares limited the individual searches and helped to make them more thorough.  Mom sat quietly under the umbrella where Beryl lay sleeping.

Soon after her arrival a blood curdling yell came from a square near the middle of the land.  All work stopped immediately.  A snake?  A scorpion?  A deathly hush followed.  Sean was huddled over something in his square.  I dashed across in time to see the clean rivers of silent tears coursing down his dust-covered cheeks.  He found his voice.  “Gran!” he shouted, his voice cracked with emotion and ending in a high-pitched squeak which would have embarrassed my thirteen year old at any other time.

Mom stumbled over the clods of earth and nearly tripped over the string lines half buried in the overturned soil.  She knelt down next to Sean and gently prised open his tightly clenched fist.  We crowded round in awed silence to watch. “Is this it?” Sean whispered hoarsely, still staring at the dirt-encrusted object in his hand.

Mom picked up the dirt encrusted ring and slipped it on her finger, forty-four years after she had lost it.  She hugged Sean tightly.  There were no words, no shouts of joy from anyone as we left them alone and retrieved the string and the tins, the rakes and everything else we’d brought with us.  Only when Mom and Sean reached the edge of Land 4B did we cluster round, exclaim and wonder.

“Thank you all,” Mom said, wiping the happy tears from her lined face.  “Thank you.  My quest is over.”  We watched her leaning on Sean as they slowly made their way to the farmhouse where we joined them for the best Christmas tea ever!

CAMO-MAN AND HIS DOG

“Dogs are not allowed in the reserve.” Leon spoke sternly to the older man wearing a camouflage-patterned hat and T-shirt, noting the shiny brass and copper bangle adorning his bony right wrist.

“Muffy won’t harm anything,” Camo-man responded. “She goes everywhere with me.” He flashed a grin of even white teeth against a deeply tanned skin, revealing a deep dimple in his right cheek.

“Not here she doesn’t.” Leon stared at Camo-man unflinchingly. “The rules clearly state that no dogs – or pets of any kind – are allowed.”

Camo-man was fondling Muffy on his lap. “Come on, man, she’s just a little dog.” Was the man wheedling or whining? Either way, Leon was in a hurry to check on the roadworks near the waterhole some distance ahead.

“Take that damned dog back to reception or leave,” he said tersely, slightly revving the engine of his 4 x 4 bakkie to emphasise the point. Why did Camo-man look so teasingly familiar? “I’ll radio through for Jonas to keep it in the yard. Are you planning to be here for long?” He was already holding the receiver to his chin.

“No, no, she wouldn’t like that.” Camo-man nuzzled the little dog’s fluffy neck. “You wouldn’t like that, would you Muffy girl?”

“Best you get going then.” Leon eyed him curiously. “I’ll radio them to expect you.”

At that point, Muffy leapt out of the car window and raced into the veld barking furiously. “Muffy! Oh Muffy! Now you’ve frightened her!” Camo-man was visibly upset and opened his door. “Muffy!” he called helplessly. “Muffy!”

Leon glared at him, replaced the receiver, switched off the engine, and opened the door of his truck in one fluid movement. “Stay there!” he ordered Camo-man and set off after the little dog trotting ahead in the long grass.

“Muffy!” Leon felt stupid calling out such a name for that floor-mop of a dog. “Muffy, come here!” The dog stopped briefly, wagged its tail furiously and tore off after a Three-striped Field mouse scampering between tufts of grass. It got away, leaving Muffy looking bewildered. “Muffy.” Leon’s voice was gentler now. “Come here, Muffy.” He sat on his haunches, extending his hand towards the dog.

In the background he could hear Camo-man still calling his floor-mop. “Come here girl.” Leon eased his way forward. “You’ve had enough adventures for one day.” The dog edged closer until Leon could just fondle its ears. “That’s it, Muffy. This is no place for you.” He could stroke the floor-mop’s back now and watched the fluffy tail wagging at full speed. With a quick movement, Leon scooped up the dog and, holding it firmly against his chest, he strode back to the car.

“How can I thank you enough?” Camo-man was standing next to his car as they approached. “Muffy! You were a bad dog. A very bad dog,” he remonstrated as soon as he had taken charge of his floor-mop once more. “You could have been eaten by a lion or a leopard – or even a hyena!”

“See why dogs aren’t allowed in the reserve?” Noting the obvious attachment between Camo-man and the floor-mop, he spoke more kindly. “You’re welcome back at any time – but without the hound!”

As Leon settled back behind the steering wheel he became aware of Camo-man asking softly, “Do you ever come into town?”

Leon stared at him in surprise. “Of course, why?”

Camo-man held out a card. “Man, I owe you a meal. Join me at the Ball and Beetle sometime for supper. I’ll be there for the next ten days.”

Leon nodded, stretched out to take the card and waved to Camo-man who was driving away with his windows rolled up. What an odd-ball Leon thought, slipping the card into his shirt pocket. He drove off to check on the repairs being done to the road ahead, still wondering if he had ever seen Camo-man before.

Much later that afternoon, Leon halted to watch two black rhino emerge from a mud bath in a pool next to a road not yet open to tourists. He marvelled at their steady, myopic gaze in his direction and at the patterns of the mud drying on their hides. He guzzled the last of his water and wiped the back of his hand across his brow: another day without lunch, he thought grimly as he headed for home.

It was four days later that Leon wearily entered his house as the sun sank behind the hills, tossed his sweat-stained hat onto a chair and opened the fridge: not even a beer greeted him – a clear reminder that it had been a while since he had purchased supplies in town. He sniffed at the contents of a closed container on the bottom shelf, wrinkled his nose and tossed it into the bin. Now what?

He idly picked up the card Camo-man had given him and turned it over, then he smiled broadly: Camo-man was actually Philip Redfern, the country and western singer whose music had kept him company on the many long trips he had made between the Eastern Cape reserve and his parents’ farm in the Lowveld. Philip Redfern! That’s why Camo-man had such a familiar look about him. Impulsively Leon dialled the number on the card.

“I’ve missed lunch again,” he said bluntly after introducing himself. “Any chance of that dinner tonight? I could do with some company.”

“Sure thing.” Camo-man – Philip – sounded oddly pleased. “It gets lonely on the road too. Stay for the show, or at least a part of it. I start singing at around eight.”

It takes all sorts to make the world, Leon mused as he changed into a clean khaki shirt and trousers.

MY GRANNY’S ALBUM: 2

Here are three more pages from my Grandmother’s autograph album. These entries date from 1903 to 1905. It is amazing to think this was done by hand – such a labour of love, patience and good penmanship:

These cats have each got such a character. The headline of the lefthand newspaper reads: FRESH RATS Just imported 1/3 per lb. Cheap. Take your chance. The middle newspaper reads: FOR SALE Tinned mice, locusts, rats etc. All arranged in latest style. The righthand newspaper reads: Music allsorts … A Rat Hunt to be held at Ratfield on Cat Monday. Wonderfully intricate detail!

 

This is a fun entry too:

THE WALK

“Do you need some help?”  Jennifer was surprised by the friendly voice behind her.  She turned round carefully, conscious of the weight of the little boy on her shoulders.

“Not really,” she answered brightly.  “He could probably walk a little way on his own now.”  She lifted her hands towards the boy.  The man stepped closer and reached across to lift the boy from her shoulders.

“Your little chap?”  He smiled at her.

She coloured slightly.  “No, No not at all.  I don’t know who his parents are.  His name is Jonathan.”  She bent down to address the boy on his own level.  “You’ve done very well, Jonathan.  Look, the water truck is coming up the hill.  We’ll wait there for your Mom.”

“My legs are a bit wobbly still,” the little boy answered earnestly.  His face and arms were still flushed red with the vain effort to keep up with the older boys, who had soon forgotten him in their race to reach the picnic place first.  A deep scratch ran down one leg, and showed flecks of dried blood here and there.

“Nothing for it then old man, I’ll give you a ride up the last part of the hill.”  The man hoisted the boy onto his shoulders and fell into step with Jennifer.  “I haven’t seen you on these farm walks before,” he observed pleasantly.  “Are you new to these parts?”

“In a way I am I suppose,” she laughed.  “I’ve been teaching in town for nearly two years now.  Our school secretary suggested I come on this one.”

“Would that be Kay Elsworthy by any chance?”

“The same.  Do you know her well?”

The man shrugged, despite the weight on his shoulders.  “I used to court one of her daughters when I was a student.”  They reached the road as the light blue bakkie pulled to a halt under an acacia tree.  Jonathan wriggled free and ran up to the old man emerging from the cab.

“Gramps!  Gramps!  Look at me, I got wounded!  There was blood and everything!”  All his tiredness seemed forgotten.  The old man ruffled the boy’s hair and lifted him onto the back of the truck.

“Well done, lad.  You see to it that everyone has a drink of water.”  He handed Jennifer and her companion each a plastic mug of iced water.  “First come get served clean mugs – not  so, Jonno boy?”  The boy nodded solemnly for he was scowling at some of the older boys who were returning from their hiding place a little further up the hill.

Below them Jennifer observed a string of walkers emerging from the riverine bush and winding up the grassy slope towards the truck.  Most were in pairs or threes, with a few walking in slightly larger groups.  Everyone seemed to be chatting.  As the first group came closer to the truck, Jennifer noticed a pretty young woman detach herself from the group and move with quickened strides towards the water truck.  She accepted a mug of water from Jonathan then turned on the young man engaged in conversation with Jonathan’s grandfather.

“Geoffrey, I thought we’d come on this walk together!”  She sounded angry.

“We were, it’s just that you got talking and I felt like having a leg stretch.”  Jennifer watched him place his arm loosely around the woman and continue his conversation with the older man.  She moved away from the group, momentarily overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness.

“I don’t really belong here,” she whispered to herself.  Yet, it felt so right being out in the open at last.  She breathed in the scent of dry grass and drank in the view of the distant mountains fading to a hazy blue.

Jennifer walked to the picnic site on her own.  The group of small boys raced ahead of her and, as they neared a patch of natural forest, a teenage couple overtook her.  She smiled at the feigned indifference of the girl and the eager, half-chasing movements of the boy.  The rest of the walkers were some distance behind her, slowed down by conversation.

“Hello, Jen!”  Kay Elsworthy called from a trestle table loaded with boerewors rolls and slices of watermelon.  “I’m so glad you could come.  The rolls are R10, 00 each and you pay for your drinks at the makeshift pub over there.”  She waved a plump arm towards the back of a bakkie filled with crates of beer, cider and soft drinks.  “Do make yourself comfortable.” She turned to another customer, “Hello Helen, how is your chicken venture progressing?”

Jennifer settled down in a patch of sunlight and sipped at her cider.  Around her people were settling in groups, joined by several young children who had been playing around the picnic site.  She let the snatches of conversation wash over her … drought … the price of wool … the best insecticide to use … the tennis league … the secretary bird’s nest … who had seen the aardvark … why one tractor seemed to be better than another … gardens … a forthcoming wedding …

The man called Geoffrey was tossing pine cones at some young boys while chatting to a group of people clustered round a camping table.  “I could spend years there,” she heard him say, “but there’s only enough money for the contract period and then I’ll probably go up to Botswana.”

“Enjoying yourself?”  Kay sat on the grass next to her.  “Most of the rolls have been sold, thank goodness.  It’s my turn to rest a while.”  She stretched her legs out and wriggled her toes in her sandals.  “How was the walk?”

“Absolutely wonderful, Kay.  It’s been marvellous being able to walk through the veld and to see views not visible from the road.  I’m very glad I came.”

“Geoffrey, thanks so much for taking charge of Jonathan.”  Jennifer turned to see a dark-haired mother with a baby on her hip standing next to Geoffrey.  “I should have made him ride in the truck with Dad.  His pride would have been dented though and with Jack not being here at the moment … well, it was foolish of me.”

“I’m not the one to thank, Meg.  This young lady gave him a ride from before we reached the dry riverbed.”  They moved closer to Jennifer, who remained seated on the grass looking up at them.  “Geoff Anderson by the way.”  He bent down to shake her hand firmly and turned to his companion.  “Jonathan’s mother, Meg Embleby.”

Driving home from the farm, Jennifer reflected on how quickly the afternoon had passed.  Meg had introduced her to several young mothers and had invited her to a social tennis day at the Farmer’s Club the following Sunday.  What’s more, Geoffrey Anderson had offered to give her a lift!  Looking back on the afternoon she couldn’t recall what had happened to his companion, although she remembered seeing them leave together.

“The tennis went on longer than I thought,” Geoff grumbled good-naturedly as he negotiated the uneven farm road.  “I hope you didn’t feel trapped out there, waiting for me.”

“On the contrary, I enjoyed being with new people.  Everyone was so friendly and … accepting.  I sometimes feel quite restricted by my colleagues.  It really isn’t all that easy meeting people in a town – not as a single woman anyway.”

“I know what you mean.”  A hare scurried into the glare of the headlights and then hopped out of sight.  Geoffrey turned onto the tarred road.  “There are only four of us working on the reserve.  We get very tired of each other’s company at times, I assure you.”

They made a hasty supper of scrambled eggs and toast in the cottage Jennifer rented.  Geoffrey yawned over coffee.  “That was most pleasant, but I must be on my way.”  He looked at his watch.  “I’ve got a group of students to show around at nine o’ clock.”

It had seemed natural to offer him the bed in her study.  He had already left when she woke up at six and mechanically readied herself for another week of school.  After that she became so involved with rehearsals for the pantomime that she didn’t think of him until she saw him at the symphony concert in the town hall several weeks later.  He approached her during the interval, still chewing the hard biscuit he’d bought with his tea.

“Would you like a cup?” he offered.  “I don’t recommend the biscuits though!”  On his return he introduced her to his colleagues from the reserve.  She saw him walking out with a blonde woman after the concert.

One evening two months later Jennifer was disturbed by a knock at her door.  She removed her spectacles and, pen in hand, went to the door.  “This is a dreadful imposition I know,” Geoffrey apologised, “but my ‘plane was late and I just can’t face travelling another sixty kilometres at this time of night.”

“What would you have done if I hadn’t been here?” she asked, a note of teasing creeping into her voice.

“Slept in my truck,” he answered simply.

A bowl of flowers was delivered to her when she returned from school the next afternoon.  There was no note.

Geoffrey had the spare key and kept an eye on her cottage while Jennifer holidayed in the Western Cape for three weeks during her winter break.  She let him keep it on her return and kept clean sheets on the spare bed.

Jennifer found herself becoming irritated by the attention paid to her by the biology teacher, Vincent Pennington.  In order to avoid him, she began inviting friends and colleagues to supper and found, to her surprise, that she enjoyed entertaining.  Geoffrey sometimes joined them if he happened to be in town.  His visits were infrequent and usually unannounced.  They were always enjoyable and he often stayed over.

Vincent cornered Jennifer in the staffroom a week before the staff dance.  “Come with me, Jen.  Your name isn’t on the list so I know you haven’t arranged a date.”  His breath smelled faintly of peanut butter.  Jennifer experienced a sense of near panic.

“I forgot to put my name on the list, that’s all.”

Late that afternoon she telephoned Geoffrey for the first time since they had met.  “It’s pay-back time Geoff,” she began and was delighted by his response.  She put her name on the dance list as soon as she got to school the following morning.

Knowing her Mondays were free, Vincent invited her to make up a foursome for a staff tennis match that afternoon.  He turned to her during their tea break.  “So, who is your date for the dance?” he asked half sneeringly.

“You’ll probably be disappointed Vincent,” she smiled at him.  “He’s just an old friend who owes me a favour.”

“Then I still have a chance to win your affection?”  His tone had become friendlier.  “I’m very fond of you Jenny.  You know that?”

“I like you too, Vincent.”  She rose from her seat as the next set was announced.  “I prefer to remain friends though, please don’t try to make anything more of it.”

Jennifer was conscious of the interest her colleagues showed in her partner at the dance.  Seeing Geoff dressed in more formal attire made her realise how attractive he must look to other women.  She revelled in their closeness and wondered.  They had never discussed their relationships with other people.  In all the time they had known each other there had been an easy acceptance of – of what? Geoffrey pulled her closer as the evening drew to a close.  “You’re miles away Jen.  Have I been such boring company?”

Startled out of her reverie, she laughed more loudly than she’d intended.  “Of course not!  I just got lost thinking about how long I’ve known you and how pleased I am that you’re here.”

It was while lying in bed that night that she allowed snatches of memory to drift over her:  of the bunch of wild flowers stuck into a full tub of yoghurt on her doorstep with a note:  Sunday would be a good time to see them;  the aloes Geoff had planted in the cottage garden;  the bird lists they had added to;  the cake she’d baked for his birthday that he and his colleagues had eaten for breakfast;  the fruit he’d brought when she’d had the ‘flu;  the tennis matches which they occasionally played together;  Geoff taking her to see the newly arrived buffalo in the reserve;  the way he’d kissed her tonight …

Jennifer woke with a start.  It was past eight and she could hear footsteps in the passage!  She wanted to laugh at her rising panic when she saw Geoff appear in the doorway bearing a tray of tea and toast.  Instead she felt alarmed at the seriousness which seemed to lie behind his welcoming smile.

“My contract ends in November, Jen.”  He’d wasted no time getting to the point.  She crunched her toast and realised her heart seemed to have remained in panic mode.  “I’ll be moving to Botswana for the next three years.”  He looked at her with an intensity she’d never experienced before.  “It won’t be a picnic living in tents, but the project is an interesting one.  I’ll need a research assistant.  Will you join me?”

She moved the tea tray onto the floor next to her bed, her mind working quickly.  November, which meant he probably wouldn’t move until January … if she tendered her resignation on Monday the school would have ample time to find a replacement.  She reached out for his hands.  “Of course I’ll come,” she laughed into his bear hug.

THE SUPERMARKET

“Won’t it be fantastic to have a decent shopping centre at last?” Elise delicately wiped the muffin crumbs from her mouth with a paper serviette, her eyes sparkling with excitement. Louise sounded more cynical.

“I’ll believe that when I see it.  Local businesses won’t stand for that sort of development on the edge of the central business district.”

“Rents in town will still be much cheaper,” Ursula agreed, “but there is no reason why any of those businesses should move.”

Elise was not to be put off.  “Just think, no more parking problems!” She gulped her coffee so enthusiastically that some dribbled down her chin.  She hastily dabbed at it and continued, “I wonder if they’ll carry a wider selection of goods?  I get so frustrated with the ‘this or that’ choice we have at the moment.”

“I’m more interested in what other shops will be attracted to the shopping centre.”  Ursula looked at the fading roses on the coffee house table and sighed meaningfully. “This whole town really needs a shake-up,” she commented while digging in her purse for her share of the bill.

Rumours about a new shopping complex had spread like wildfire, for it had been the most exciting event to occur in that small country town for years.  The residents eagerly scanned their weekly newspaper for confirmation. Even though they were used to the slowness of time in their area, their hopes ran high.  All looked forward to a much needed injection into their flagging economy. Genuine confirmation came a few months later when the artist impressions were finally published for all to see.  “You see, they are going to build!”  This time Elise sounded triumphant.  “Don’t you think the shopping centre is going to look beautiful?”

“I’ll hand it to them,” Louise answered somewhat grudgingly. “No brick and steel structure this time; the whole complex is in keeping with the local architecture.”

“Perhaps Woolworths will come?” Elise wondered dreamily.  She faced her two friends and smiled happily. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have our own Woolies?”

“Another supermarket chain would be good too,” Ursula commented drily. “It’s about time there was some competition around here.”  She picked up the newspaper to peruse the drawings again and had to agree that this was going to be a swish place indeed.  Their town was going places at last!

Advertisements filled the local paper, feeding excitement at the prospect of more jobs and especially fuelling the hope that there would be a greater variety of shops to choose from.  The whole square was filled with earth moving equipment and large building cranes.  Everyone was impatient to see what would emerge from the rubble of the building site. It seemed many months later before any physical progress showed behind the corrugated iron barricades and once these were removed Elise and Ursula drove into the new parking lot to look at the white and green painted building which looked as though it had arrived from their closest city.

“Oh, it’s so beautiful!”  Elise couldn’t hide her excitement.  “Those poky old houses and the tatty old post office were such an eyesore.”

“I’m glad they kept the palms though,” mused Ursula.  “They must have seen a lot of changes in their time!”

“Palms or not, I can’t wait for all the shops to open!  It’s a shame there’ll be no Woolies though.”  Elise began counting the list of potential new tenants on her fingers. “There’s going to be a jeweller, a new furniture shop, a discount store, another take-away – we could do with one of those.  Pity it’s not Kentucky.  We must be about the only town without one.”

Excitement in the sleepy little town reached fever pitch as the day of the official opening drew nearer.  The leading chain store had moved from its cramped quarters in the centre of town and promised to offer a wider selection of goods and better service.  Customers thronged to the supermarket, jostling each other impatiently for bargains: the chickens were on a fantastic special, they commented, and when last was washing powder so cheap?

Some months after the opening the three friends again met for coffee, their conversation still centred on the new shopping centre.  Elise, who had long felt their town needed a facelift, smiled brightly as she commented appreciatively on the beauty and spaciousness of the new building as well as the improved selection of goods in the supermarket.  Even Ursula was unusually enthusiastic saying, “I hardly ever buy groceries in town now.  It’s so much easier going there where I don’t have to worry about ruddy parking meters!”

“It’s a shame so many of the shops are still empty though,” Louise observed disappointedly.  “That jewellery shop lasted only a month and I hardly ever see customers in the pharmacy.”

“That’s because the rent is sky high.  They are charging city prices which small town people can’t afford.”  Ursula was passing on the opinions that one heard so often these days.  It was a widely known fact that their little agricultural town was not a wealthy one.

“Still, it’s a pity that such an attractive building should be so empty.  It is almost as if the complex wasn’t needed after all!”  Louise sounded sad.

“Who cares,” Elise countered cheerfully, “as long as we can buy our groceries in comfort!”

“I can hardly remember what the site looked like before,” Louise continued soberly, “I mean, it looks as if this massive building and car park have been there forever.”

“Don’t you remember those funny dark old houses with red polished steps and tins of geraniums or ferns on the walls of the dark stoeps?  Then there was that huge open space where the taxis gathered.  Now that was a real eyesore with all that rubbish lying around – not to mention the chaos of vehicles and long queues of people.  At least this looks clean and our town is the better for it!”  The others laughed at the passion Elise was displaying.

“Nevertheless, it’s funny to think people lived there once; that they had children, gardens, pets, hopes, dreams and made plans.”

“We’re better off without them, Louise.  Once the economy picks up this place will hum with business.”  Ursula was again recycling the desperate hope that pervaded every nook and cranny of that small town.  They paid their bill and cheerfully bid each other farewell on the pavement.

In one of the remaining funny dark houses with potted geraniums and a mass of ferns crowded on the dark red-polished stoep, bent old Mrs. Tipp put a protective arm around her ancient cat, Fluid, who was so old he could barely muster a meow.  Her mottled arm shook involuntarily as did her lined lips while she gazed out across the rubble in the open space in front of her house to the enormous white and green monstrosity which had been the death knell of the community she had lived in for fifty years.

The lace curtains in her crowded sitting room flapped idly in the warm breeze.  They had become so impregnated with months of dust from the building operations that she could no longer get them white.  The leather sausage dog with a gilt chain around its neck and a yellow bead for an eye bore testimony to the clouds of dust that had blown in under the door and infiltrated the small dark house which had become increasingly difficult for her to keep clean.  Even the collection of bric-a-brac in the wooden show case with a mirrored back had been covered with a film of dust.

Mrs. Tipp released her hold on the cat and stiffly opened the front door.  “Time to get your milkies my boy,” she croaked cheerfully.  Having checked the buttons on her orange and white crimpelene dress with the large pockets, she slowly counted the money she required and pulled on a pair of towelling slippers with rubber soles.  She carefully locked the wooden door, barely noticing the faded and blistered paint, and slipped the key into its familiar hiding place at the base of the third sword fern from the right.

She still felt ‘undressed’ without the comfortable feel of her handbag under her arm, but that kind policeman had warned them about muggers when he’d visited the Senior Citizen’s Centre.  It had been shocking the way in which Mrs. Scott had been attacked and robbed of her handbag in Magellan Street, however, and this had convinced Mrs. Tipp that the policeman was right.  Poor Mrs. Scott had broken her hip in the fall and those dreadful thugs had made off with all the money she’d drawn from her savings to pay her bills and buy her groceries!

Mrs. Tipp patted her deep pocket and picked her bent way through the remaining builders’ rubble towards the new shopping centre.  She hardly noticed the wind whipping the hair from the plastic slides and casting it about her face.  Instead, as she stumbled over the rough ground she remembered … Mrs. Stander who used to bake those melt-in-the-mouth milk tarts, Mr. Raso who sat on his front steps each morning to greet passersby, Mr. and Mrs. Topell who kept racing pigeons in their back yard and, above all, her dear friend Sarah Stickley, who had died soon after moving into the old age home, so stricken was she at the loss of the only home she had known since her marriage.

She fiercely wiped away the tears which always welled up when she ‘trespassed’ through the gardens of the past.  She missed the little Corner Shop where she had bought her groceries for years and passed the time of day with old Mr. Gumbie.  No-one took much notice of her at this fancy supermarket where the assistants sighed audibly while she painstakingly counted her coins which she kept in a plastic bank bag.  These new coins were difficult to identify and she couldn’t stop her stiff fingers from shaking as she tried to prise them out of the narrow opening.  There always seemed to be crowds of people waiting impatiently in the queue and she seldom found the tea she wanted.  Mr. Gumbie had always kept a box of Earl Grey under the counter for her as well as a tin of those hard travelling sweets.  The managers of this new supermarket seemed to change so often that there was no point asking them to do the same.  Everyone was so impatient in that noisy place that it was quite frightening to go inside!

As she picked up her plastic carrier bag and carefully shuffled past the jostling shoppers near the cigarette counter, Mrs. Tipp reflected sadly that, worst of all, there was no-one left who cared to ask her about Fluid.

THOMAS AND HIS CHICKEN

Thomas wiped the sweat off his forehead with an already damp handkerchief and stuffed it into the pocket of his frayed shorts. “Is Friday the best you can do?” The despair was evident in his voice.

“’Fraid so. Thursday’s a public holiday, you see. No-one delivers on public holidays.” The owner of the panel beaters kicked the tyre of the trailer the two men were looking at.

“Pity I can’t tell the cows not to provide milk on a public holiday,” Thomas muttered. “Look, is there not a temporary fix you can make? I’ve still got a load of cabbages to deliver this afternoon and the milk cans must go to the dairy tomorrow morning.”

The panel beater took in the suntanned face of the young farm manager, his work-stained clothes, the stockings rumpling around his ankles and the sturdy boots stained with mud and oil. He smiled kindly.

“We can remove the tailgate – we need to match it anyway – and I’ll see if we’ve got some piping we can do a hatchet job with. It’ll be nothing fancy mind.”

Thomas tried to cover the growling of his stomach with a cough. “I just need something to keep the cabbages in. How long might it take?”

“About two hours I reckon,” the man replied. “Leave the trailer here until three. We should have rigged up something by then.”

Three! Thomas had been up before dawn to supervise the cutting and bagging of the cabbages for market. There had been no time for breakfast as he had needed to get to the next town before the market opened at half past seven. The coffee he had downed there had long since evaporated in the heat. His stomach growled again. Man, he was hungry! If only he hadn’t stopped at the road stall in the hope of a bite to eat, then that stupid driver wouldn’t have reversed his truck into the back of the trailer! He’d missed out on the food anyway – fortunately the quad bike he’d brought back for Mr. Keneally had been unscathed.

“Sure,” he said gratefully. “I’m going to grab a bite to eat and deliver the cabbages in the bakkie to the supermarkets. Would you give me a call if it’s ready any earlier?”

“Will do.”

The two men unhitched the large heavy-duty trailer and parked it next to the workshop. Thomas slid into his seat and started the engine of his 4×4 truck then set off for town with a wave. He was really hungry now.

A fast-food place would be the quickest. Thomas settled into a seat at a table next to the window, from where he could keep an eye on his truck filled with cabbages while he ate. The glass of water the waitress had brought barely touched sides as it went down. Thomas leaned back, savouring the smell of cooking, almost salivating in anticipation of the plate of chicken fillets and chips he’d ordered. He inhaled deeply. There would be time to savour a cup of coffee afterwards, then he would deliver the cabbages to the three supermarkets in town. His cell phone rang.

“Theresa.” He couldn’t help sounding disappointed. His neighbour wanted him to pick up a load of fencing materials from the farmers’ co-op on his way back from town as her husband’s truck was still being serviced. “Sure thing. I might be later than planned though. Something’s cropped up.”

“Your chicken, sir.” The waitress placed his plate of steaming food in front of him and moved the circular tray of condiments towards him with practised ease.

Thomas checked that no-one was interfering with his truck while he extracted the knife and fork from the tightly wrapped paper serviette. He popped a hot chip into his mouth with his fingers and bent over his food. Man oh man, he was hungry!

The first forkful of chicken almost melted in his mouth. Thomas resisted the impulse to wolf the meal down. After all, there was plenty of time. The cabbages could wait. Theresa and her husband Harold could wait. He chewed slowly, keeping an eye on his truck parked on the other side of the street. There were so many beggars in town these days, one couldn’t be too careful. Ernest du Toit’s truck had been broken into only last week, a side window smashed … Thomas leaned forward to take his next bite.

“What the blazes? Hey! What are you doing?” he shouted as a hand plucked the two chicken fillets from his plate. A figure disappeared through the open glass door. “Someone has stolen my chicken,” he bellowed, almost upsetting the flimsy table in his haste to rise.

“We’re onto him sir.” The young manager and someone from the kitchen raced out of the door and sprinted down the pavement already crowded with afternoon shoppers. Thomas followed in hot pursuit and then lost them as they dodged between pedestrians and vehicles, crossing the road to the next block. Damn! He’d left his cell phone on the table! He hastened back and arrived out of breath, relieved to find the waitress had it in her apron pocket.

She brought him a glass of water and smiled sympathetically. “I’m sure they’ll catch him this time, sir. Alan nearly caught him last week but tripped over a root that lifted the pavement outside the undertakers.”

Thomas stared at the now cold chips on his plate while he tried to control both his breathing and his rage. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the two men frogmarching the thief back to the eatery.

“We got him, sir.” The kitchen assistant – he must be Alan – smiled broadly. “I tell you, last week I nearly caught him only I _”

“Tripped over a root on the pavement outside the undertakers,” Thomas finished for him.

Alan’s eyes widened and his face took on an excited glow. “Jissie, you heard about that already? I tell you, this time I said to Mr. Gough, I’m gonna catch this thief. And I did!”

Thomas looked at the man dressed in filthy rags, his hair matted with dirt, his bony knees shaking through the holes in his flimsy trousers held up with a length of plastic rope. “This is him?” He felt the need to fill the awkward silence as his stomach growled an angry response.

“We are pretty sure he is the right man.” The manager turned to the thief. “Where is the chicken?”

The thief gingerly reached into a filthy plastic shopping bag still clutched in his grimy hand and pulled out the chicken fillets. Slowly, one by one, he returned them to the plate in front of Thomas. Silence reigned. The three men and the waitress looked at each other. No-one moved. Even the other diners had fallen silent. Thomas felt snagged in time. His stomach growled again.

“What now?” the manager asked. “Do you want to press charges? It is your chicken after all.”

My chicken?”

“Well, you’ve already paid for it, so it is technically your chicken.”

“Perhaps we should just give it to him.” The waitress nodded towards the thief.

“Never!” Alan tightened his grip on the hapless man. “You know how fast I had to run to catch him, hey. I tell you, this time I just flew through the crowds. No thief is going to get away from Alan Harmse if I can help it!”

“What do you want us to do?” The manager asked quietly.

Thomas looked at his watch. His stomach growled just as his cell phone began vibrating in his pocket. He picked up his sweat-stained cap and stood up. “I just want to go home.”

THE WOMAN IN GREEN

She is there every morning at around seven, walking her dog along Finch Street. Her plump figure echoes that of her small dog, which never strains at its lead. She is very protective of it, halting at the side of the road even if an oncoming car is some distance from her and is obviously going to turn down the side road before reaching her. She looks the same every day: her short, dark curly hair never alters its shape or style; her square face and brown eyes show no emotion or even a flicker of acknowledgement of any passing traffic. Instead, her eyes appear to bore into mine while she hugs the leash closer to her chest and sets her mouth in a grim unsmiling look until I have driven past. She dresses in a loose green tracksuit – plain green pants offset by a green patterned top. I have noticed that she always walks in the same direction and I see her in much the same spot every day. This implies a routine on her part, a willingness to leave home before sunrise and a desire to maintain a level of fitness for both herself and her dog.

Where do they come from?

How far do they walk?

What does she do for the rest of the day?

Crystal Pike loved reaching the relatively level surface of Finch Street that wound round the base of Stacke Hill. From there the street rose gently past the enormous fig trees and eucalyptus, the few remaining Scots pines, and the spreading Erythrinas that must have been planted by the earliest inhabitants of what had been a new suburb at the time. She had overheard someone mention once that the first houses in the area were built at the end of the Second World War. That would make them over seventy years old!

By the time she reached her home in Nerina Street, just short of the top of the hill, Crystal became acutely aware of the smaller plots, boxier houses and the uniformity of the well-pruned Pride of India trees that lined the slightly narrower streets. Each tree grew in a brick-lined circle breaking up the closely mowed grass verge. How different this was from the large, mature trees, creepers and bushy hedges lower down – and much less private! Privacy was something she had forgotten the existence of over the past year.

Both Crystal and Pippin felt pooped by the time they reached the creaking metal gate set within the sagging fence weighed down by a creeper she had never learned the name of. She poured fresh water into the shiny aluminium bowl and set it down outside the blistered blue kitchen door, unclipped Pippin’s leash and panted quietly while he lapped the water noisily. She waited until her breathing had evened out before entering the drab kitchen. At half past seven on the dot her mother would have her back to the door, impatiently watching and waiting for the kettle to boil.

“Did you have a lovely walk, dear?” The question never varied; her mother’s back never turned until the teapot had been filled and the knitted cosy pulled over it. The small white kitchen table would already have been set with three plastic placemats, the glass butter dish, jam jar, side plates, spoons and spreading knives. The porridge would be kept warm in an enamel double-boiler until her father came into the room, freshly showered and impeccably dressed for work.

They never touched food or drink until he arrived.

“Same, same,” Crystal replied as she always did. Her mother wouldn’t expect any different. Would she care to know that the gazanias brightened the edge of the street below them, or that the Cape Chestnuts were blooming late this year? Would it make any difference to her mother’s life if she was told about the Yellow-billed Kite being chased away by a flock of Red-winged Starlings? Would she show any interest in the repainting of the double-storey house at the end of Willow Street, the one that had looked so shabby for years? “Is Dad going to be long?”

“He’s just shaving.” Her mother removed the bowls from the sideboard more noisily than was necessary: a sign that she too was tired of waiting. “Put the sugar bowl on the table. There’s a dear. Did I fill it this morning?”

“You did.” Crystal willed her mother to look at her. “I won’t join you with oats today.” She hesitated at the pursed lips. “It’s just that I’d rather have boiled eggs on toast. Don’t worry, I’ll do them.” This was said against the background of her father’s footsteps thumping on the wooden floor of the passage leading into the kitchen.

“Morning Daphne.” He kissed his wife drily on her proffered cheek before sitting down. “And how’s my Fatso today?”

Crystal watched the two eggs bouncing in the boiling water and breathed in the steam from a distance while glaring at her father. “Are you two ever going to let up? It’s not as though either of you is skinny anyway.” She could feel the heat rushing to her cheeks. “At least Pippin and I walk every day!”

Her father scraped back his chair while dabbing the corner of his moustache with a large green linen napkin. “How dare you, Crystal? How dare you insult us like that?” His voice quivered. He moved to the side of the table and continued, “We, who have taken you in when your husband threw you out because you are too fat for his liking.”

“That is such a lie Father and you know it!” Crystal willed herself to stay near the relative safety of the stove and rested her hand on the toaster already filled with slices of bread. “Calling me ‘Fatso’ is not an insult then?”

“Roger, your porridge is getting cold.” The calm undertone to her mother’s voice was oddly comforting – almost as if she cared. Her father sat down again, grumbling about the need for the family to sit together at the table as a family and to eat in a civilised manner. Crystal took her time about getting her eggs and toast ready before she joined them.

This routine hardly varied from one day to the next except that Crystal woke earlier every week so that she could walk further before the cast-in-stone breakfast time. She wasn’t sure this was good for Pippin and worried about his welfare. Her bathroom scale seemed to indicate that walking at his pace, no matter how far, was not going to make a difference to her. That is why she had decided to experiment with breakfast. Her daily food diary indicated that she cheated a lot – especially with those bags of creamy toffee squares she kept hidden in her cupboard.

Pippin loved her unconditionally. If anything untoward happened to him she would be lost. Her mother was cold, biting even, and her father made her feel like something under his shoe – unless they happened to be entertaining visitors. Then they were told that she was taking some ‘time out’, was ‘such a help in the house’, and that ‘they would be sorry when she leaves.’

It was her parents who had wanted her to leave home and get married before she had felt ready. They were the ones who jumped at the first boyfriend she had brought home. It was them who had pressured her and Clive to get married only a week after they had come to terms with the fact that she had not come home until the early hours of the morning after the Rotary Valentine’s Dance. Crystal felt trapped. Clive had used her savings to purchase the bakkie he said they needed for their honeymoon. He had not minded her plumpness then. She recalled him often saying “I like to have something to hold.”

That was until he met the willowy blonde, Sarah McDuff, who manned the reception desk at the fitment centre. Clive had spent four hours in her company while the canopy was being fitted – another ‘must have’ according to him. Even though they had been married only six months, Clive had chosen to take Sarah out for supper (“Only because she went out of her way to get things done quickly”) and hadn’t come home to Crystal until lunchtime the following day.

He had brushed her off with ‘there were complications’ and complained that because of the dust coming in he would have to ‘take it back’ on the Friday. She didn’t see him again until the Monday. In the weeks that followed his absences were explained by working out of town and ‘having to go to head office.’

What could she do but believe him? Despite her misgivings, the truth only dawned on her when she noticed Peter and Christine exchanging glances at the pub after she had excused Clive’s presence with one of the many reasons he had fed her at the time. Peter had spluttered into his beer saying, “Since when do seed salesmen have to go to head office as often as he does?” Crystal had finished her drink quickly and walked home.

She resigned from her job at the local municipal offices the following day and had moved to her parents’ home a month later. Clive had not opposed the divorce. Her father had drummed into her how stupid she had been. He regularly warned her she would never get her money back and reminded her that she was a drain on their resources. “You are meant to look after us in our old age,” he was apt to sneer at her. Crystal was only twenty-one.

‘Get a job! Get a job!’ This was the mantra that echoed her footsteps around the streets every morning and thumped in tandem with her heartbeat throughout the day. Sometimes it was drowned out by the screeching ‘Get thin! Get thin!’ This was especially loud after she’d popped another toffee into her mouth. Crystal had been plump since the age of fifteen! How could she get a job when her mother had got rid of the maid as ‘an economy measure’ and loaded her with all the housework? She had no transport; no real time to herself – what chance did she have to get a job? Pippin was the only one who didn’t mind what she looked like or cared whether she had a paying job or not.

Crystal drooled over recipe books and often hauled out her secret stash of food-related magazines. She yearned for a beautiful kitchen; dreamed of people talking in hushed tones about her food; she squirmed with pleasure at the imagined accolades she would receive from grateful clients. No chance of trying a single recipe at home though – her parents were sticklers for the menu they had decided on before she had been born: nothing more, nothing less. She had done some private catering while living with Clive. It hadn’t come to anything though as he firmly believed she should be waiting for him at home when he finished work. Life could be so unfair!

The woman in green was missing yesterday, but was on the road again this morning, halting more or less in the same place as I drove past her. She almost leaned into the pavement even though there was plenty of space. I could see that her face was flawlessly covered with foundation, her dark eyes still boring into mine, and her mouth a closed slit. Today she was wearing cream pants with a plain green top. The clouds on the horizon glowed red from the rising sun, as embers do when the flames of a fire have died away. The early morning air smelled fresh and crisp, carrying with it the sweet damp scent of dry leaves and the ground that had been blanketed by the thick mist filling the valley after midnight. There was no sign in her gait or the way she looked to show that the day was different from any other. What made her miss yesterday’s encounter? Or, what had made her too late for me to pass her at the usual spot?

Hugo, she only found out his name eight weeks after first seeing him, ran past her every day as she turned to walk up the last steep road leading to the top of Stacke Hill. Increasingly, he had passed her twice along the route and then one day he stopped, sweating profusely, in front of her. “We really must stop meeting like this,” he said lamely and bent down to stroke Pippin. He introduced himself as they walked up the rest of the hill together. Over the course of the next few weeks Crystal got to know that Hugo also enjoyed solving crossword puzzles, that he worked in the local bank, and that he was interested in wild flowers.

“Will you come to Attrus Dam with me on Sunday?” Hugo had passed her twice that morning before puffing to a halt near their usual meeting place. “There are a lot of flowers blooming at this time of the year and it’s very peaceful out there.”

Crystal hesitated only a fraction before responding, “I would love to! Shall I pack a picnic?”

She missed her Tuesday morning walk to plan the picnic and get a head start on the housework so that her mother wouldn’t object to taking her to the shops later in the week.

“He’s a banker, mother, not a seed seller. You and Dad virtually foisted me on the seed seller!” Crystal felt the warmth glowing in her cheeks. ”It’s only one day out. Why make an issue of it?”

“What about Sunday dinner?” Her mother sounded grumpy. “You always cook Sunday dinner!”

“You cooked it quite adequately before I came home. Do it again – it won’t hurt you.” Crystal wondered at the source of her steely reserve; she had felt so down-trodden and worthless for so long.

I missed the woman in green again today. In fact, I checked my watch as I turned down the side road and looked up to see her still at the far end of the street. Why was she late?

Her packing was complete – not much left of her lifetime, she reflected sadly. She had got rid of anything that reminded her of Clive. Her mother had cleared away everything related to her childhood within days of Crystal leaving home. No sentimentality there. Crystal was sure she would be different if she had children of her own. She glanced at her watch. She was late and would miss Hugo at their usual spot! No matter, she said to Pippin, he was coming to collect her after work anyway. A new life awaited her. Her face was wreathed in smiles as she turned the corner that hid her parents’ home from view.

What has happened to the Woman in Green?

It has been well over two months now and the clockwork, check-your-watch-by-her Woman in Green has disappeared.

Advertisement in the local newspaper:

Crystal Clear Catering

For all your catering requirements, large or small, phone Crystal Pike at …

That’s odd. Come to think of it, the young woman who catered for Fiona’s fortieth birthday bash looked remarkably like the Woman in Green. That short, dark, curly hair is a give-away. Her brown eyes were dancing though, she was smiling throughout and her face looked a lot softer – rather pretty in fact. I wonder …?