“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.