GAME OVER

“There’s so much more to cricket than being able to connect bat to ball. All sorts of factors need to be taken into account.”

“Such as?”

“Well, environmental factors for one: the outside temperature, the ground conditions, wind, humidity …”

“What about the health of the individual players?”

“That too. Time spent in the gym, muscle-to-fat ratio, and the ability to control nerves and breathing, eye-sight …”

Frank halted to listen to his slightly overweight colleague talking to two parents sitting on the worn wooden bench at the edge of the cricket pitch. Staff members had always been encouraged to ‘mingle with the parents’ at this expensive private school. The glassy-eyed responses made him wonder, however, for how long the conversation had been going.

“Pierre, you’re getting a bit heavy on the chest now my man.” Frank patted him on the shoulder. “It’s time we visited the refreshment station and let these people enjoy watching their lads play.” He nodded at the obviously relieved parents and led his colleague away. “A cold drink will do the trick, besides, have you seen Aletta yet?”

“Aletta? Is she here?” Pierre’s dark eyes lit up under his bushy eyebrows.

“I saw her having tea with the Sloan parents at the pavilion about half an hour ago. Are you two still mad at each other?”

Pierre shrugged and kicked a stone out of his path. “She still won’t tell me who that dark-haired man was that she hugged with such enthusiasm at her graduation last month. He followed her around, I tell you, but we were never introduced.”

“’Just a friend’, right?” Frank greeted the parents and boys they passed along the way. He loathed being ‘The Duty Officer’ as everyone called the teacher who ended up being in charge of the smooth-running of major events such as this one.

“Women! They are a different species!” Pierre selected a soft drink from the table and turned towards the Thursday morning crowd gathered to watch their sons playing their final cricket match before the half-term break. “There she is with Evelyn and Marjorie. What are my chances?”

“Forget about the ‘friend’ and be one for a change!” Frank laughed, thumped Pierre on the shoulder and moved towards the father of a boy in his Life Science class. “Hello Gert, enjoying the cricket?”

“Good to see you Frank!” The two men shook hands. “Joe hasn’t batted yet, still two to go before he does. The game is going well though.”

“Were you able to identify those spotted insects I e-mailed you?”

“Spotted insects?”

“The ones Richard de Villiers photographed in Nelspruit during the holidays.”

“Ah, yes. Didn’t Joe tell you? Sorry, I should have e-mailed you. You were quite right about them being moths – Zeller’s burnet.”

“Sir, would you photograph me with my mother?” Frank turned aside at the sound of young Gilmore’s voice. The lad’s mother had flown in from Hong Kong on a rare visit to the school. He held up the proffered cell phone camera and clicked several times.

“Will you be going anywhere exciting over the half-term break, Mrs. Gilmore?”

“I’m taking William to Port St. Johns.” She smiled down at her son. “I grew up in the area, you know, and would love him to see the Magwa Falls near the tea plantation at Mbotyi. I believe they’re looking impressive at the moment.”

Frank took his leave and crossed the narrow tarred road to the play area next to the swimming pool. Several young children were playing around the see-saws and two boys were jumping on the ground-level trampoline. He nodded at the three senior boys on duty. “All going well, lads?”

“Yes sir,” they chorused. “It’s thirsty work though, sir,” ventured one. “Kyle and his gang only take over in half an hour!”

“That’s okay.” Frank eyed the safety fence around the pool. Swimming was prohibited without the presence of parents, the temporary sign warned in addition to the hefty-looking padlock threaded through the gate. “One of you go and get cold drinks for all of us.”

“Mr. Johnson said we must stay in threes.”

“I know.” Frank smiled. “I’ll wait if you bring me one too.” He scanned the play area and noticed a group of boys and girls playing cricket in the corner near the swings; Katie was walking her mother’s dog across the park on the other side of the fence. Frank fondly remembered them lunching near the tidal pool at Mossel bay and walking the dog in a nearby park when they’d brought it up from Cape Town in January. Would she notice him?

Two cyclists approached her from behind, fanned out to miss her and continued along the path. Frank waved in her direction, but she had already moved out of sight behind a row of low bushes.

“You took your time, Fisher!” Frank accepted the canned soft drink offered by the boy.

“Sorry sir. James Jooste was telling me about the sable antelope his dad has bought for their farm in Namibia. That must be so cool. They’ve got leopards too!”

“I’m going deep-sea fishing tomorrow,” Alan offered.

“Well, I’m going to eat and eat, sir.” Deon lifted his can in a mock salute. “My mother makes the best pizza ever and her mealie bread is to die for.”

Turning away, Frank considered the portable freezer already packed in his 4×4. Hogsback was calling. A glance at his watch against the background of cheering and clapping caused him to quicken his pace towards the boarding house. The game was finally over and he would need to be present when the boys signed out for the half-term.

A flash of pink caught his eye as he wearily closed the signing-out register at last. Frank looked up to see Katie standing to one side near the door. “Katie!” A smile broke through the concerned creases on his face. His duty was over.

“I’ve booked a table for two at the Clay Pig, dropped the hound off at the kennels, and my bag is packed, ready and waiting.”

He slipped an arm around her shoulder. “Time to go,” he laughed happily, already feeling the burden of responsibility for the welfare of the boys lifting from his own shoulders. “Hogsback, here we come!”

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DINNER GUESTS 2: SLEEP WELL

“Hello Jeremy. Hello Alice.” Mary squatted to the level of her neighbour’s children, aged seven and five. Both eyed her shyly from behind the activity bags they were clutching tightly to their respective chins.

“Go on Jem and Al. Say hello to Aunty Mary.” Nancy shook her head in disbelief. “You wouldn’t guess that they play here almost every other day.” She turned to her children. “Has the cat got your tongues?”

“Aunty Mary’s cat died,” Alice explained solemnly.

“Don’t worry Nan. They usually see me dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, sans make-up. Come on you two, William and Henry are in the playroom. I’ll bring you all supper once Rhona arrives.”

“Is the train set out?” Jeremy cautiously lowered his activity bag.

“It is.”

“Yay! Thank you Aunty Mary.” The two children ran down the familiar passage, calling to the boys long before they reached them.

“No wonder they’re dumbfounded Mary, you’re looking absolutely gorgeous tonight.” Nancy handed her friend a square parcel wrapped in white paper and bound with a dainty silver ribbon. “Oscar will be over soon with the sleeping bags. You know him, he’s still glued to his computer – says he’s checking through some last minute assignments that have come in.”

“Eric has been working through various thesis proposals too. I think the Academic Higher Degrees Committee meets later this week.”

Nancy hugged Mary. “At least you understand. Happy wedding anniversary by the way!” The two women headed for the kitchen, where Eric was opening a bottle of wine. “Happy anniversary, Eric.” Nancy kissed him lightly on the mouth. “Goodness, the place smells heavenly!”

“All thanks to my dear wife.” Eric looked past her. “Is Oscar here?”

“Still looking at assignments.” Nancy rolled her eyes. “I don’t know how you’ve lasted for fourteen years. I sometimes want to move a bed into Oscar’s study and lock him in there!” She laughingly accepted a glass of wine from Eric. “Bread and water only!” They clinked glasses. “He’s been up since four this morning.”

“Darling, I think I hear the Leonards arriving. Won’t you see them in while I plate the starters?” Mary reached up for a stack of small plates. “Oh gosh! That macaroni cheese needs to cool for the children!”

“I’ll sort their supper out, Mary. What’s it to be?”

“Macaroni cheese and then I’ve made a red jelly with purple custard – that was Henry’s request.” Mary moved to the front door. “Hello Rhona!” She took the little girl’s hand and led her down the passage. “Alice will be glad to see you.”

The kitchen was filled with visitors on her return. Peter thrust an enormous bouquet of flowers at her. “Happy anniversary Chicken,” he whispered in her ear. They had known each other since she had baulked at going down a slide at his eighth birthday party in the local park.

“Happy anniversary!” Sarah slopped wine onto the floor as she leaned forward to kiss Mary over the flowers. “Well done! Though why the women get gifts and not the husbands is beyond me,” she announced to the kitchen at large.

Mary lifted down a large vase for the flowers and turned to see Eric stealing a roast potato from the warming drawer of the oven. “Out with the lot of you,” she said firmly. “Eric’s already guzzling and I must plate the starters.”

Sarah pointed to some snacks and dips on the counter. “Are these to come through?”

“Please,” Mary smiled. “Eric should have placed them in the lounge earlier. She saw Nancy disappear with food for the children and turned her attention to unmoulding a miniature salmon mousse onto each plate she’d set out in a row.

“Need some help with those?” Mary turned sharply at the sound of Oscar’s voice.

“Can you put a wedge of lemon on each of these?” She leaned into his hug. “When did you arrive?”

“I’ve just brought the sleeping bags over.”

“A drink then?” Mary gestured toward the fridge. “The others are in the lounge.”

At last everyone was seated around the beautifully set dining room table. Eric kept the wine flowing and either Nancy or Sarah helped clear dishes and bring in other courses. Mary could feel herself relaxing. Everyone had laughed at Eric’s brief speech and were sharing anecdotes about when they had met each other. Good friends, good food, good wine, a lovely husband and two adorable sons. She was so fortunate, Mary mused while casting her eyes around the table. She halted at Oscar’s empty chair and looked at Nancy.

“Checking on the children,” she mouthed.

The dessert plates were empty; the banter was continuing; Peter had helped himself to a third serving, winking at Mary as he did so. “Sarah doesn’t give me pudding anymore, says it feeds my gut.” He patted his thickening waistline. “Nothing a good run won’t work off though.”

Oscar’s chair remained empty. Nancy simply smiled at Mary’s querying glances and continued chatting. She later reached across for his dessert and ate it absentmindedly whilst laughing at the flowing conversation. Mary served coffee in the lounge.

Eric was pouring liqueurs when Oscar appeared, accepted a glass and sat down next to Nancy. “The children are all fine.” He patted her knee reassuringly, quite oblivious to the tell-tale grid pattern of the playroom carpet and a pencil imprinted on his cheek.

Sarah almost choked on her coffee. “I see you are too!”

Oscar smiled at her over his coffee cup. “Very refreshed, thank you.”

Good food, good wine, and such good friends. Mary smiled at Eric as Nancy handed Oscar a dish of red jelly smothered with purple custard.

“Purple custard? What a magnificent end to a wonderful evening!” Oscar raised his spoon at the assembled company before tucking in.

WE GREW CHILDREN

During the five years since she had left the gracious house allocated to the Headmistress, Miss Berry had settled into retirement in a small cottage within easy walking distance of the school. The Sunburst Academy for Girls had consumed her since her first year of teaching over fifty years earlier. It had absorbed her after Jack’s death in a climbing accident only three weeks before their intended wedding; it had become her life. She had given herself willingly to that school, first as a teacher, then as a head of department, as a deputy to the Headmistress and, during the last ten years of her working life, as the Headmistress.

It still rankled that her successor, the youthful Mrs. Edwards, had never invited her to anything other than the annual prize-giving ceremony. Even there, she was simply one of the crowd of parents and other so-called VIPs.

“VIP my eye!” Miss Berry would sometimes scoff at the coloured invitation that doubled as a parking ticket for the VIP section – not that she ever needed to park. Last year it had been scarlet, blue the year before that, and yellow before that. In her day a VIP meant just that: a Very Important Person. She had kept such invitations to a minimum so that they had become sought after by people other than the members of her School Council. Their inclusion was both obligatory and automatic.

She had treated these ‘important’ people to a modest lunch in the spacious dining room of her campus home after the ceremony. This had been her opportunity to thank individuals for the contributions they had made to the well-being of the school, where the budget had always been constrained.

Miss Berry still chuckled at how pleased Mr. Andrews, the local plumber, had been to rub shoulders with what he obviously deemed to be august company. That was the year he had installed eight rainwater tanks at strategic points around the campus and had fixed the drinking fountains outside the classroom blocks – all for a modest fee. “Just to keep the auditors happy,” he had winked at her when he presented his invoice.

The school lawyer, Mr. Dell, had been disapproving of her choice of visitor mixing so freely with the bankers and businessmen and women who made up a large part of the School Council. “My dear Mr. Dell,” she had patted his arm and smiled sweetly. “At least he puts his money where his mouth is. Just think where we would have been without all those tanks during this dreadful drought.”

Money had always been tight. Ever since she had started teaching at the Sunburst Academy for Girls, teachers had been encouraged to make the most of their meagre resources. The girls had been the focus for all of them and innovative ways were constantly explored to keep them happy and interested in learning. Some of the teachers had even repainted their own classrooms or provided new curtains. Miss Berry had become adept at securing donations for educational materials and graciously accepted offers from parents or local businesses to tidy up the grounds or to tend the flower beds.

Miss Berry walked past the school every morning on her way to the supermarket. Over five years she had honed her ritual to a point where it had simply become part of life: breakfast in her tiny garden; plan her lunch; walk to the supermarket and sit down at the ‘Graceful Place’ for coffee and a slice of cheesecake; read the newspaper they provided; purchase her ingredients and walk home.

She shook her head at the smart green palisade fencing that now surrounded the campus; at the lush lawns and bountiful flower beds; the sprouting of elegant garden benches; at the large glass front that dominated the reception area … it seemed to Miss Berry that there was something new to be seen every month or two. Had Mrs. Edwards found an untapped source of money Miss Berry hadn’t known about?

This morning had felt too hot and the gusty wind too strong for Miss Berry to walk to the shop. Instead she ate a stale roll for lunch and thought about stopping at the ‘Graceful Place’ for afternoon tea instead. The daily journey was becoming longer as she felt herself slowing down. Her knees ached and she paused more often to catch her breath.

She walked home more slowly than usual in the afternoon. The ‘Graceful Place’ had been crowded with young people and she hadn’t been able to find a newspaper. The supermarket had been noisy and she found it difficult to think properly, so the two slices of ham and the small tin of asparagus spears in her bag seemed less appealing for supper the closer she got to home.

Miss Berry paused at her usual place next to the school boundary. From here she had a good view of the tennis courts and the hockey fields. Watching the girls playing sport filled her with contentment. These fields were usually empty in the mornings. “Perhaps I should come here in the afternoons more often,” she said loudly to herself.

“My, my, if it isn’t Miss Berry!” A familiar voice approached her, the speaker still hidden by the vestiges of the honeysuckle hedge that had once surrounded the school. At last dear Mr. Venter came into view. He was now nearing his own retirement, she was sure. “How are you keeping, Miss Berry?”

“Well. Very well in fact.” Her breathlessness disappeared as a flood of pleasurable warmth filled her body. “Are you still teaching history?”

“I am doing the best I can, Miss Berry. These days the children all have iPads or laptops. Our lessons are stored on a cloud for them to access whenever they want them.” Mr Venter shook his head and laughed ruefully. “I’m counting the days until I can leave all of this window dressing behind and go fishing.”

“The campus is looking so beautiful these days,” Miss Berry ventured in an attempt to ground the conversation in something she was familiar with. “It is so much smarter than it was in my day. Then we seemed to count every penny twice.”

Mr. Venter bent down to retrieve an errant hockey ball that had banged against the metal fence. He threw it towards the hockey field. “All true, Miss Berry,” he said quietly. “All that is true.” He moved closer to her. “Those were the good days, Miss Berry. Those were the days when we knew what we were doing was right.” He straightened up and looked her in the eye. “We grew children in those days, Miss Berry. We grew children then, not grass or flowers, smartboards or laptops: we grew children then and they thrived.”

Miss Berry walked home with a lighter heart and wondered if there would be enough ingredients left in her fridge to make a robust salad. She hadn’t failed. She knew that now: she had helped to grow children.

THE MESSAGE WITH A BANG

Not everyone was pleased to discover the conference was to be held on the premises of what had once been a thriving community of nuns. “With a name like Longview, I fully expected a wine farm at the very least!” Jamie complained loudly as the hired bus creaked its way under the arched entrance and crawled along the tarred driveway that curled around some beautiful ivy-covered buildings before drawing to a halt outside a utilitarian looking white-painted brick building sporting multiple identical single windows. “Aren’t we close to ‘wine country’?” Jamie had already established herself as the one who would find the most fault with everything we experienced over the next few days.

“Too far away to walk,” Sally muttered from behind. “It’s an alcohol-free zone too. I read that in the conference notes.”

We trooped down the long passage to collect our keys. I put my suitcase on the only chair in the narrow room and struggled to open the small window to let in some air. It was with a degree of relief that I noticed a tiny hand basin as I had been taken aback to discover there were only two unisex toilets and bathrooms on our floor.

There was no time to think about the consequences of that as we had to hasten up to the ‘Garden Room’ for the introductory session of the conference. I had conjured up a pleasant image of lush lawns and a confusion of roses, white wicker chairs and glass-topped tables, of a cool veranda and a tinkling fountain. Perhaps I was confusing wedding plans with my longing for a retreat from my over-burdened self. I was brought up short by the patchy display of pale blue agapanthus, the airless room filled with plastic chairs, and the heavy metal tables on an uninviting veranda that offered no respite from the heat.

A bus would drop us in town that evening so that we could explore various options for supper. Departure time was at a quarter past five and the bus would return at nine in the evening. Trust Jamie to have discovered the lack of bath towels in our rooms! It was largely thanks to her that an ancient nun positioned herself at the foot of the stairs to hand out the small, thin, white towels as we rushed to tidy up before going out. There were not enough towels to go around.

“We’ve a long night ahead of us,” declared Penny, a woman slightly older than me, who had become my companion by default: everyone else seemed to know each other and had quickly dispersed once the bus had dropped us in Steyn Street. I was delighted to have company for my own was too mired in misery to spend an evening alone with!

At Penny’s suggestion we did some window shopping. Neither of us was in the mood to purchase anything, nor were we keen to spend a fortune on food. We had no idea where our companions had disappeared to, so settled for a familiar pizza franchise. There Penny kept my dark thoughts at bay as we shared shards of flatbread dipped into a deliciously spicy sauce. We each ordered a glass of wine when the pizzas arrived and I gave myself up to Penny’s tales of travelling through Africa with a group of students. “That’s when I met my husband,” she smiled, her eyes misting over as people’s eyes do when looking inwards at a store of interesting memories.

“Was he a fellow student?” I had to drive the thought of husbands from my overcrowded mind.

“Oh no!” Penny laughed loudly. “He was a tour guide at the time and happened to be on hand to help us dig ourselves out of the mud after a downpour. His clients weren’t too pleased to have six filthy students camping on the periphery of their larney set-up. Vincent soon persuaded them to let us share their fire – and food. We got chatting and discovered we both hailed from the same town. He’s ten years older than me, so we never knew each other then. But,” she sipped her wine and smiled at me, “the rest is history.”

Ten years. There was an eight year gap between Felicity and Andrew. I chewed my pizza with care. Six years separated me from Stephen. It had to work.

Linda was leaning against the wall of a building at our rendezvous point. She was clutching a Woolworth’s packet. “Don’t tell me you were on your own Linda!” A rush of warmth flushed my face and neck – thankfully not visible in the dark.

“I didn’t really mind.” Linda held up her packet. “I bought a towel at least.” She had been one of the unfortunate ones not to have been issued with one.

“Where did you eat? You did have something to eat?” I was speaking too loudly; perhaps I was showing too much concern because of my overwhelming relief at having found company without asking for it.

Asking. Begging. Pleading. Praying. I had been doing that for weeks, no – for months!

As I said, not everyone was pleased to be sharing premises with nuns. Many made fun of the please be silent notices lining the stairwell and passages. I didn’t mind though. Perhaps I too will find peace at last, I told myself as I settled into the narrowest of beds.

The honking of Egyptian Geese before dawn drew me out of my disturbed sleep. I breathed in the cool air coming through the slit of a window and saw that it was already six o’clock. A nun crossed the courtyard below me and disappeared from view. My heart began its familiar quick-paced throbbing and tears pricked at my eyelids. The tiny room felt suffocating: I had to get out.

I made my way towards the small ivy-covered chapel not far from the entrance to our accommodation. Someone had told me it was never locked. I entered very quietly so as not to disturb the old nun kneeling at the front pew. I sat on the wooden pew at the back and waited in silence, awed by the woman’s devotional stance. Where did her source of inspiration come from?

The nun smiled briefly as our eyes met on her way out. What had she been praying for? Did I have any right to pray? A cool breeze wafted in through the open door. I was alone. It was a relief to lean back, to close my eyes, and to allow my thoughts to drift this way and that.

Felicity and Andrew would be married within the month. Andrew was a good man. He was a sensible man. Felicity loved him – there was no doubt about that. The hype about seating, table decorations, and her wedding dress – I could feel my body shudder involuntarily as the familiar list thrummed through my mind along well-used pathways – is a mask for how we are all feeling.

A mask? Yes, a mask. How long has it been since Felicity and I had talked about anything other than wedding arrangements? Had we ever sat quietly together and shared our feelings about her and Andrew settling in Australia only two weeks after the wedding? We have both shied away from what I have started calling ‘The Conversation’ in my head. We have been too wrapped up in what has to be done for the wedding – do we have to be?

A sob escaped me. I had been crying without realising it! I wiped my tears with the back of my hands, aware that my thumping heart had settled into a more peaceful rhythm. I knew what to do when I got home. Felicity and I would have ‘The Conversation’. We would laugh and cry. I knew that now and would be able to approach it without fear. I also knew how important it was for her to know the depth of my love, no matter how far away she was going to be.

The image of serenity of the kneeling nun propelled me towards the altar. I noticed for the first time a thin wire stretched across the bottom step. A sign declared boldly DO NOT APPROACH THE ALTAR. How odd, I thought until the head part of my brain explained it was to prevent the theft of the altar-ware. That makes sense if the chapel is always open. The heart part of my brain saw a shallow wooden bowl at the base of the steps. It was partly filled with tiny scraps of paper.

Intentions! I remembered the bowl of pebbles in our school chapel that represented the prayers of my fellow boarders who, like me, were at least a plane ride away from home. I remembered my friend Andrea who constantly worried about the welfare of her family in Kenya, and how Julie would make me sit with her while she held a pebble in her hand and prayed for her mother to beat the cancer that had made her bed-ridden. Intentions.

I tore a page from my notebook filled with notes of things to check on when I got home: caterers, the florist, the dressmaker … I fumbled in my bag for a pen and sat down on the front pew.

Dear Lord, I wrote in tiny letters, I know Felicity and Andrew are right for each other. Bless their union, Lord, and grant me the courage to give them the space to start their married life in a new country. Help me to bridge that gap with grace. Please give us the means to find peace and to show our love for each other before they leave.

I folded the page into a tiny square and stood up to drop it into the bowl. At that point a breeze wafted down the aisle, caught my paper and carried it over the thin wire, dropping it on the second step leading to the altar. At that moment the enveloping peace of the chapel was rent asunder by the clanging of sirens and alarms. I shrank back, sure that a fleet of police vehicles had arrived! Three nuns rushed in, quite out of breath, followed by a burly security guard wielding a baton. All glared at me. I held up my hands, palms open, towards them.

“I haven’t stolen anything!” My voice sounded as if it had been dredged from the deep. I turned towards my tightly folded prayer lying on the stone step. “I just wanted to leave a prayer.” I bit my lip and felt as if I was gulping air until at last the sirens stopped, leaving a ringing sound in my ears. “It was the breeze. The breeze caught my paper.” My tears, those tears that had welled up and been absorbed for weeks, now came flooding down my cheeks.

An elderly nun placed her arm around my heaving shoulders. Another produced a tissue from within the folds of her habit. The third nun appeared with a glass of water. She knelt in front of me so that I could see her lined face and twinkling blue eyes. “Your message has been received loud and clear, my dear,” she smiled broadly. “We don’t often get messages that go off with such a bang!”

WHIMSICAL MOMENTS 5: A SIMPLE REQUEST

Maggie knew Michael Pritchard. She’d known him for years as an arrogant upstart who seemed to climb the ladder of success through his boyish charm and family connections. Not having any ‘old family’ lineage that apparently counted for so much in the private school she had been teaching at, Maggie was acutely aware of how Michael’s connections to the bank manager (his father) and one of the local judges (his grandfather) had smoothed his way to later securing the coveted position of Senior Housemaster, despite his relative youth and inexperience.

It had probably helped that his wife, Joanne Smith, was the granddaughter of the much-revered retired Headmaster, Kevin Smith, whose larger-than-life portrait still glared down at teachers using the stairwell in the administration block: one couldn’t avoid that glare, either ascending or descending the stairs!

Yes, Michael and Joanne led a charmed life: they had twin sons – looked after by two nannies; lived in the most comfortable house on campus, barring that of the Headmaster; and no-one turned a hair when Joanne opted out of teaching and refused to perform any ‘motherly’ functions within Hodder House, the hostel reserved for the most senior boys. She had other fish to fry.

At first she joined the Marketing Department as a photographer. Then she began going away on school marketing tours to Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Within only a year or two she was leading the tours to Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, and once even to Hong Kong! There was no denying that Joanna was very attractive, very efficient – and very seductive in company when she chose to be.

Colleagues envied this glamorous couple who seemed to succeed at everything they touched. Maggie was not among them. She and Michael had attended university together, where they had played in the same tennis team for years. Maggie had been his go-to companion for university dinners and dances whenever he was between girlfriends. They had known each other that well.

Current colleagues had no inkling of this. Michael had ignored her completely when she joined the school staff three years after he did. Maggie could recall him approaching her only twice in the ten years they had been colleagues – he had been inebriated on both occasions. The first was after she had presented a spirited defence of what she called “allowing the natural mixing of boys and girls” on the campus. This was a stance he had vigorously opposed on the grounds that boys needed time to ‘be among men’ without girls around. He had lost, yet her triumph had been marred by her concern for her daughter, still in high care after having been involved in a horse riding accident the week before.

Michael wove his way towards her at the staff function after the debate. “How is Sally getting on?” Despite the slurring, his concern sounded genuine. Maggie was taken aback, even tearful at the thought of the old Michael showing through the stuffed-shirt pomposity he usually displayed towards her. “Is Evan coping?” She wasn’t even aware that he knew her husband’s name.

The second approach came some years later, by which time Michael had been promoted to the position of Deputy Principal: Academic Affairs. Joanne had moved on to work as an estate agent in town. Maggie had heard rumours of affairs with clients, but dismissed them impatiently. Neither she nor Evan would have either the time or the inclination to indulge in affairs with anyone else. More believable were the rumours that Michael regularly spent long evenings in the local pub.

On this occasion the staff had gathered for a function to mark the end of the academic year. Michael had made a rambling speech thanking everyone for the effort they had made which contributed to the overall success of the school. He had clearly imbibed more wine than was good for him. This time he literally bumped into Maggie as he stumbled down the stairs, spilling his red wine over her face and dress as a result.

“Watch where you’re going you twit!” She yelled at him in the semi-darkness. “Look what you’ve done!” He had clumsily tried to mop her face and dress with his handkerchief, but she slipped away from him in the darkness, hearing the raucous laughter at his expense in her wake. They had not spoken to each other again.

His charmed marriage failed. Maggie heard that he had married a much younger woman a year later. Michael had blocked her application to head up the History Department: the position went to Sarel Joubert, who had successfully coached the first rugby team for three years in a row. He later dismissed her application to lead the newly formed Curriculum Committee, appointing Ruth Brown, who happened to be the wife of the Deputy Principal: Disciplinary Matters.

Feeling stifled, Maggie left teaching to join the town’s Publicity Association team. She lost touch with campus matters and became steeped in promoting events and tours to draw attention to the town’s historical and natural attractions.

Yes. Maggie knew Michael Pritchard. He ignored her should they pass at the pub, the supermarket, shows, or at public lectures at the university. Since that humiliating night, when everyone had laughed at him, Maggie had ceased to exist for him.

Until last Thursday afternoon. Maggie was doing some last minute grocery shopping at the end of a day during which she had been too busy to even think about the dinner she and Evan were hosting to celebrate a friend’s promotion. She was making up the menu while she hurriedly scanned the shelves.

“Maggie?” She recognised the voice, but did a double-take at the body. Michael was balding, had filled out generously and seemed to have developed an in-built crease on his forehead. She looked at his woebegone expression in surprise and said nothing. “Maggie, do you know how to clear drains? Our sink is blocked and Karin is as mad as a snake …”

Karin? That must be wife number three!

“Have you tried using a drain cleaner?”

Michael’s face brightened a fraction then slumped as he scanned the bottled condiments on the shelf behind Maggie then he shuffled his feet and looked at her pleadingly. “Do you know where to find drain cleaner?”

Maggie touched his arm lightly. “Come with me and I will show you.”

21 BERTRAM ROAD

It is easy enough to drive past the unassuming gate set into the rough stone wall along Bertram Road. The numbers two and one have been removed so often, be they brass, black metal, aluminium, wood – even laminated paper! The numberless gate blends into the overgrown hedge and the canopy of trees casting deep shade over the uneven stone path leading to my home. It suits me for this is my sanctuary where I slough off the cares of the day – or at least weep in private.

My privacy is well protected. Apart from the physical perimeter of my tiny walled-in garden, the neighbours on either side lead busy lives of their own and pay scant attention to mine – even now.

Once, Richard and Heather saw me coming home from my regular afternoon walk and invited me to supper. “We’ve been neighbours for two years already,” Heather beamed, “and we ought to get to know each other.”

Richard accepted my offering of wine with a grunt of appreciation and disappeared, leaving me to chat to Heather in the kitchen while she stirred pots and tossed the salad. “This is just a casual meal,” she warned. “Rich and I got back much later than intended.” She waved a spatula towards some cardboard boxes piled on the counter behind her. “We’ve been shopping for lights.”

I listened to her need for spotlights here and a ‘bold industrial’ light there and wondered if Richard really shared her enthusiasm.

He reappeared just before the meal was served. I gathered during the course of the evening that, while she is a legal secretary in one of the local law firms, Heather is the home-maker, while Richard’s interest is in studying insects. My lack of interest in beetles and inability to genuinely enthuse over the sky lighting in the lounge meant that we drank a lot of wine and I staggered home to brew the coffee I had not been offered.

Witnessing Richard several weeks later in a romantic embrace with the mother of one of the children I teach probably sealed my fate: I have not been invited next door again and my early neighbourly attempts to reciprocate the invitation have been rebuffed with variations of “We lead such busy lives. Richard has taken up cycling too, you know. Sometimes he comes home very late.” Indeed. We still wave in passing though.

I had more luck with Bruce and Tina, who accepted my invitation to drinks and snacks with enthusiasm. I heard all about the previous occupants of my home – apparently a dreadful couple – and their equally awful cat that used to terrorise the birds in the neighbourhood. Tina complained endlessly about Bruce spending so much time with the Woodwork Guild and how expensive maids and child carers had become. As I do not employ a maid, have children, or work with wood, it was not surprising that we drank a lot of wine before their early exit.

Nonetheless, Bruce appeared unexpectedly at my gate a month or two later with a mirror he had framed with driftwood collected from the beach. “It seems to suit the rustic nature of your home,” he shrugged over the cold beer we drank while sitting on the steps overlooking my small vegetable patch. He admired my butternuts and told me how to encourage some health into my ailing lemon tree. “You won’t tell Tina?” He wiped the foam from his upper lip and sauntered off with a smile.

The message was loud and clear: single women are deemed to be dangerous! Still, my vegetable garden has benefitted from basil seedlings, trays of tomato and spinach seedlings, and once even a brinjal in a pot. I sometimes find these just inside my gate, hidden behind the Plumbago that threatens to take over that section of the garden. We remain on waving terms, while I try not to smile too broadly at the odd wink from Bruce – all in good fun you understand.

Teaching is a full-time and demanding occupation which offers few opportunities for meeting and getting to know interesting people. I wouldn’t look twice at any of the single men I work with – all they talk about is sport and the children they teach. I occasionally enjoy lunching with Anna and Iris sometimes gets me to accompany her to Book Club if I have the evening free – I have become a sort of ‘honorary’ member, for which I am grateful.

21 Bertram Road has an overgrown garden and a drab interior I blame on a lack of both time and money. It is not really the haven I make it out to be. Actually, I feel quite lonely at times.

Joshua and Lara, as well as Tom and Jessie, are friends I feel I have known forever. One or other, both, or all four, make a point of dropping by now and then or inviting me out, so I am not the recluse I might otherwise have been.

One day Tom showed me some wood he was varnishing in his garage. “I picked it up for a song,” he told me proudly. “Look how the grain shines through now.” He knows Bruce from the Woodwork Guild and what a keen gardener he is. In fact, he has sometimes brought me plants from Bruce – mostly what he does not have space for.

“Look at these swatches of material,” Jessie called from the lounge. “If you were recovering my couch, which one would you choose?” We chatted easily over wine and snacks. I stayed to have supper and helped Jessie stuff some pretty cushion covers she had made.

“Help me cut these fiddly shapes,” Lara asked me some weeks later while we were waiting for Joshua to finish braaiing our lunch. As she is a pre-primary teacher, I wasn’t surprised at her request. We must have cut over a hundred shapes from white plastic discs before Joshua speared the meat on our plates and grumbled good-naturedly about the bread rolls not having been buttered.

“How long are you going to be away for?” Joshua and I were stacking the dishwasher together after lunch. Earlier we had commiserated about me having drawn the short straw to accompany the netball teams on a tour of Johannesburg schools at the start of my holiday.

“A week and then I’m flying straight to Cape Town to visit my brother and his family.”

“You still want me to meet you at the airport on the 27th?”

“If you are sure you don’t mind.” Joshua and Lara are good mates. “I can get a shuttle if something untoward crops up.”

I caught a whiff of the most delectable cooking as soon as I got out of Joshua’s car. My home was in complete darkness, the streets were deserted and the ball of loneliness was already threatening to oust the joy of Cape Town and Joshua’s bubbly banter during our trip back from the airport. It was my thirtieth birthday; I felt hungry and couldn’t help the gnawing disappointment that Joshua had clearly forgotten. That meant Lara had too: she usually baked me a cake to mark the occasion. Now, I realised, there would be nothing. Joshua would leave and I would have to make friends with my loneliness once more.

“Someone’s going to be enjoying a delicious supper tonight,” I remarked wistfully, while retrieving my bag from the boot. “I should have thought to ask you to switch a light on; this path can be treacherous in the dark.”

In reply, Joshua took my bag and steadied my arm as we picked our way down the broken steps and along the uneven path to the front door. Richard and Helen must be in food heaven, I thought as my stomach growled. I swear my nostrils had flared to catch more of the delicious cooking aroma!

While I was fumbling for my keys the front door swung open. The lights flashed on and I was greeted with a chorus of “Happy Birthday!” My friends! My dear, dear friends!

“Look!” They called in unison: my drab lounge had been transformed with newly painted walls, my couch recovered in the material I had chosen and piled with the cushions I had helped to stuff. All those fiddly plastic shapes now formed an enormous lamp shade on the ceiling that brightened the room. The light fell on the beautiful coffee table made from the wood Tom had ‘picked up for a song’.

I didn’t know what to say. The kudu horns leaning against the wall caught my eye at the same time as the familiar figure coming towards me bearing platters of food. “The horns are my contribution,” he smiled at me. “You have admired them a few times when you brought your dog around.”

My dog? I don’t own a dog. True, I’ve helped Lara a few times when she’s needed to take Toby to the vet. The vet! Morgan Wood! The most gorgeous man on the planet in my house with my friends on my birthday!

“We heard he was an excellent cook,” Joshua laughed meaningfully as we tucked into the delicious Italian food Morgan had prepared with the assistance of the others.

21 Bertram Road really is my sanctuary now: Morgan and I unwind there after our working days are over. We try to go for long walks as often as possible and I have even spent many a night sleeping on the floor of his veterinary clinic as he has kept vigil over an animal in distress.

Mostly though we garden. Lately, we have been involved in a building operation. In true fashion I have not had to worry about the décor: my friends have been only too happy to help, leaving me to nurture the little one who will occupy the nursery in a few months from now.

Morgan assures me he has helped a lot of cows give birth. Jessie and Lara do not share his enthusiasm. Neither do I!

POOR UNCLE KEVIN COULDN’T GO TO THE PARTY

The warm aroma of baking had filled the house for two days. Uncle Kevin’s nose twitched in anticipation each time the oven door opened to reveal cakes, cupcakes, pastry cases and sausage rolls. It was the savoury smell of warm sausage meat encrusted with buttery flaky pastry that made his mouth drool. He longed for the taste of just one.

Uncle Kevin watched with interest as the sausage rolls were covered with clean towels while they were cooled on racks. He saw the different colours of icing being mixed and piped onto cakes. Not a single taste was offered to him and when he at last managed to filch a morsel of pastry that detached itself from a sausage roll being packed into airtight containers; he was unceremoniously chased from the kitchen.

“Get out, Kevin! We’re very busy here and you are in the way!”

A party was definitely in the offing. One would have to be blind not to notice the boxes of party favours piling ever higher on the sideboard and deaf not to detect the edge of excitement in the voices of everyone in the house.

Everyone but him, of course. Uncle Kevin shifted mournfully on his bed and thought back on the conversations he had overheard … there had definitely been no invitation for him. He rolled his eyes and stared unseeingly at the wall. If he had received an invitation he would have remembered; he would have known on which day to expect the party too.

Balloons! They were blowing up balloons in the lounge. Uncle Kevin moved quietly and watched them from an inconspicuous corner. His heart lifted as the balloons were tied with long ribbons and then bunched together in purples, pinks, yellows, blues and oranges. He was intrigued by the way the limp, flat shapes grew to an enormous size and floated or bounced lightly when dropped on the floor. Balloons signalled fun – lots of it! He allowed thoughts of balloons to float freely through his mind: chasing them, romping over the grass, catching them and – here his body shook involuntarily – popping them. That was the best part!

The whirring of the lawnmower drew him out of his reverie. Uncle Kevin hated lawnmowers. He growled in disgust and sought solace upstairs, where he hid his head under a pillow to drown out the noise.

“Hello! Happy Birthday!” The chorus of cheerful greetings drew Uncle Kevin downstairs in a rush. “Happy Birthday! I’ve got a present for you!” He raced towards the front door, paused, and backtracked to the kitchen, drawn by the overwhelming aroma of the sausage rolls being reheated. Uncle Kevin sniffed with the air of a connoisseur: he could smell cheese and bacon too!

His drooling mouth confirmed his olfactory memory of tiny pastry cases that could be wolfed down in a flash. There was no-one around, so he edged towards the large table already groaning under the weight of typical party food. Perhaps some had already left the oven? He could test if they were alright. No-one would miss just one …

“Get out of the kitchen! Go on, this isn’t the place for you. Out!”

Uncle Kevin did not enjoy having the kitchen door shut unceremoniously behind him! He sulked briefly next to the lemon tree, carefully nurturing a hurt look should anyone be watching through the window.

Apparently no-one was: everyone seemed to be too caught up in rushing around the garden, jumping on the trampoline, or dancing to the music blaring in the garage. It was a bit loud for his liking, but as he loved being where the action was, he would join in the fun.

After all, party action meant food sooner or later. Uncle Kevin had already downed a cupcake, licked a lollipop and eaten a chocolate bar carelessly left on a nearby table when the music stopped suddenly. More party-goers had arrived along with more loud greetings, hugs and as shouts of “Happy Birthday!” filled the air with such exuberant joy that Uncle Kevin felt compelled to show his excitement too.

“Go away! Get out of the way! Go on, you weren’t invited!”

The gate clicked firmly shut behind him. Poor Uncle Kevin couldn’t go to the party after all. His tail thumped sadly on the ground, his brown eyes grew misty, his long pink tongue licked his lips in disbelief and then he sat back on his haunches, lifted his head and howled.