WHIMSICAL MOMENTS (2): THE PEARL NECKLACE

Kate cast her eye down the narrow aisle of the aeroplane. She was wedged behind a tall man in a leather jacket, whose far from small carry-on bag threatened to knock the spectacles from her nose. Behind her an irate woman was pressed against her back, muttering unbecoming comments in a hot breath that crept uncomfortably down Kate’s neck. The holdup appeared to be an elderly woman with a severely coiffured hairstyle, who seemed to be dithering about whether or not she needed her cardigan from her bag before the air hostess stowed it in the overhead locker.

“I hope I don’t end up sitting next to that old bat.” Hot Breath sent more waves of noxious noises down Kate’s neck. She could hear murmurs of agreement from behind and then someone, probably too far back to realise what the problem was, shouted “Can you all get a move on, we haven’t got all day!”

The hostile atmosphere thickened with every grunt and sigh that welled up from the queue. Kate noticed the woman’s eyes turned steadfastly away from the aisle as people passed her by. She wondered if the old lady was aware of the collective irritation her dithering had caused. The passengers inched forward. Kate felt a surge of relief when Hot Breath peeled off, leaving her neck free of curses for a moment. Leather man was the next to bring the flow of passengers to a halt.

She watched as he took his time about moving other luggage in the overhead locker to make space for his own large bag; he removed his leather jacket, folded it and placed it on top of his bag; then he opened a laptop bag and retrieved a notepad, a newspaper and a pen before getting into his seat in front of the old lady. The latter’s eyes bored into the back of his head. Not a murmur had arisen during this delay: was it because he was tall and a man to boot?

As always when she flew, Kate gave a last anxious look at her boarding pass and checked the seat numbers below the lockers. Of all the luck in the world, she was to be in the window seat next to the old lady.

“Excuse me,” she bent down towards the unmoving figure, “I need to get to the seat next to you.”

The old lady gave her a piercing stare and barely moved her knees sideways. Kate turned to Leather Man. “Would you mind putting your seat upright so that I can get into mine?” Leather Man glared at her, sighed audibly and pushed the button on his arm rest.

The old lady barely glanced at Kate for her gaze still seemed to bore into the back of Leather Man’s head. Her only evident movements were in the fingers of her left hand as she played with the beads of her pearl necklace.

After take-off, Kate settled back to watch the play of light on the clouds. At times she leaned forward to get a better view of the network of roads and rivers weaving a pattern through the mountains way below. The old lady remained as rigid as a statue, except for the fingers of her left hand trembling over those pearl beads.

With less than an hour of the short flight left, Kate glanced surreptitiously at her companion. She noted the rigid grey hairstyle, traces of powder in the cracks on the lined face, the bright pink lipstick, and the diamond rings glittering on those trembling fingers. She smiled and leaned towards her. “That is a beautiful necklace you’re wearing.” It was something to say.

The old lady turned her head as if it were on a spring. Her blue eyes focused on Kate for the first time. “Thank you.” Her response sounded automatic, then her look softened. “My husband gave them to me.”

“He has an eye for beautiful things.” Kate didn’t know how else to respond.

“Had. He had a good eye. He’s dead. It’s been a month already.” The old lady’s bottom lip quivered as she looked away.

Having earlier declined a drink, Kate attracted the attention of the air hostess. “I’d like to buy two cups of tea please.”

“Milk? Sugar?”

Kate glanced towards her companion. “Milk please. Perhaps you could bring a sachet of sugar?” She turned down the flaps of their tray tables. Leather Man’s seat was set back as far as it could go, making the tray table awkwardly close for the old lady. At a gesture from the air hostess, he moved it forward ever so slightly when the tea arrived moments later. The old lady gave a tight smile and sipped at her tea. “Thank you. My purse is up there somewhere.” She glanced up at the lockers.

They drank in silence. Kate noticed the trembling left hand never moved from the pearl necklace. Once the tea cups had been removed, she asked carefully, “Is there something wrong with your clasp?”

“Oh my dear, I’m terrified of losing my necklace. I think something caught it when I boarded the plane.”

“Shall I look?” Kate twisted in her seat and felt the iciness of the old lady’s hand as she followed the beads to find and fasten the clasp. “There you are, all done and I’ve closed the safety chain so it won’t fall off.”

An icy, wrinkled hand covered hers and clutched it lightly. The descent had begun. Kate covered the hand with her other one. The old lady’s eyes were tightly closed, her head slightly bowed.

“Are you alright?” Kate tried to sound cheerful. The old lady’s diamond rings were cutting into her hand as the grip tightened.

“I’m frightened. I’ve never flown before. My son insisted I come,” emerged between clenched teeth.

Kate extracted her right hand to pull the old lady closer. “I’ll look after you. We’ll find your son together. I’ll make sure you don’t get lost.”

All that rigidity disappeared. The old lady seemed to melt into Kate as the plane drew to a rapid halt on the runway. Together the two women watched the passengers disembark and waited until the aisle was clear. Kate and the old lady walked together along the wide passages of the airport abuzz with people and their luggage. They waited together at the carousel for the old lady’s black wheelie bag. They faced the sea of people at arrivals, the old lady’s arm firmly tucked into the crook of Kate’s elbow. Kate wasn’t expecting anyone and smiled at the warmth of the hand that had found its way into hers.

“There he is! There’s Oliver!” The old lady waved at the tall figure standing near the front of the crowd. Kate hugged the old lady impulsively.

“Enjoy your time with him. I love your necklace.” With that, she melted into the throng of people hastening towards the parking lot and the pick-up zone. Kate knew that Peter would understand why she had kept him waiting.

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WHIMSICAL MOMENTS (1): A CUP OF CAPPUCCINO

WHIMSICAL MOMENTS (1): A CUP OF CAPPUCCINO

Sally looked up from her dressing table and counted twenty-five Laughing Doves perched on the thick telephone cable than ran more or less above the boundary between her garden cottage and the house next door. It was only half past six and already the sun highlighted the red cotoneaster berries weighing down the branches growing above the clipped hedge on her neighbour’s side. Her landlord didn’t believe in close-cropped hedges or lawn edges. Mr. Greyling didn’t believe in clearing gutters of leaves either – the Olive Thrushes scratched some of the accumulated debris overboard every now and then instead.

The doves disappeared in a flutter only to be replaced by a Black-collared Barbet, a Fork-tailed Drongo and a Village Weaver – all perched equidistant from each other. Sally listened to the deep-throated cooing of the Rock Pigeons on the roof of the main house and the cheeky calls of the Black-eyed Bulbuls feasting on the neighbour’s figs. She wondered briefly if the Sleets ever managed to salvage enough intact figs after the visitations from Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds and Cape White-eyes.

She usually enjoyed the lush wildness of the Greyling’s garden and was particularly fond of watching the birds from the patch of lawn outside her ramshackle cottage. She felt impatient this morning though as she twisted her hair into a pony tail, checked her camera bag and slipped in her notebook and binoculars. Sally checked her watch for the umpteenth time: there was still an hour before Karin would be ready!

“I’ll buy the snacks and drinks for our picnic lunch now to save time.” Sally laughed at herself for talking aloud. “What a twit!” She admonished herself as she locked the door and pressed the remote to open the gate. If only Karin was an early riser too! Then they could have left for the Addo Elephant National Park at six. Still, at least she had agreed to come and Sally knew it would be much more fun to have company there for the day.

She frowned at the construction work which blocked off swathes of parking bays outside the supermarket. This meant she had to park some distance from the entrance. She looked at the almost completed shop on the opposite side. Rumours had abounded for weeks and she wondered which franchise would be moving into the new premises.

Her frown was short-lived as she could not suppress the happiness that welled up from within. Sally had a four-day break ahead of her and intended to enjoy every minute of not having to think about preparing lessons, marking, pupils, parents, or even her colleagues. She would not have her days punctuated by the shrill ring of an electric bell either! Almost skipping across the cobbled car park, Sally smiled at the three workmen, dressed in heavy boots and blue overalls, walking towards the incomplete shop behind her. Two wore yellow hard hats; the third carried a red one in his hand. All had their eyes focused on the building.

“Good morning!” Sally greeted them impulsively. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Be lovely if you could bring us a cup of coffee lass,” Red Hat grinned as they passed each other. The other two ignored her.

Sally stowed her shopping bags in the boot of her car. There were still fifteen minutes before she could pick Karin up. She looked at the shop being built, a smile playing around her lips. “Why not?” She looked down at the House Sparrows pecking at a mess of crumbs near her rear tyre. “I’ll give him a surprise!”

Armed with a take-away cappuccino, Sally boldly entered the construction site. Workmen swarmed all over it: on the roof, and across the floor; some were drilling holes in the walls and several were fitting what looked like ventilation piping at the rear. All wore hard hats in either yellow or white. Where was Red Hat? For the first time Sally’s bubble of happiness halted in mid-stream to a slow ‘gloop, gloop’ that barely ticked over. She clutched the warm cardboard cup tightly and, for a moment, thought of backing away and drinking it herself.

“This is a hard hat area, ‘mam. You will need to get out of here.”

Sally turned at the sound of the voice: a warm voice, a younger voice than that of the stockily built Red Hat. She looked into the curious eyes of a dark-haired young man wearing jeans, a golf-shirt emblazoned with ‘Harrowsmith Designs’ and a blue dust coat. “I’m sorry,” her tongue eventually moved. “I’ve brought coffee for the chap with a red hard hat.”

“A red hard hat? We only wear yellow and white ones here.”

“Corporate colours?” Sally’s face flushed under the scrutiny of that quizzical look. “Well, technically he wasn’t wearing it when I saw him. He was carrying it.”

“A short, stocky man with a greying beard?”

“Sounds like him.” It was half past seven; time to go. “Look, I must go. You have the coffee if you like.” She made to thrust the cup into his hands, acutely aware that her own was now shaking.

“Hold on a minute.” Gorgeous Eyes touched her fingers lightly.” Leon!” He called across to a man opening a large cardboard box. “Ask Trevor to come and collect his coffee please.”

“I really must be off.” Sally smiled awkwardly at the young man next to her. Why could she never meet such a person at work? “This was all a joke really. I don’t know the man from Adam. He isn’t expecting me to bring him coffee, but I had time on my hands and –“

“Blimey girl! You actually brought me a cup of coffee! Now there’s a special one Eric!” Red Hat/Trevor bowed slightly and let out a raucous laugh. “Better get her out of here, son.” He winked at them both.

Gorgeous Eyes touched her lightly on her back as he led the way through conduits and wiring lying on the floor. They walked together towards her car. “I’m Eric Miller,” he said casually. “You’ve made his day – and mine.”

“Who is he?” Sally halted, keys in hand.

“My Dad.”

“And why your lucky day?” She looked at him in anticipation. Those bubbles of happiness were beginning to pick up a new rhythm. He handed her a business card and a pen. “Your number please,” he smiled. “I’d like to see you again. As you can imagine, we don’t get to meet many attractive women in our industry.”

“I never had you down as someone who’d be late! You didn’t even answer your phone!” Karin snapped on her seat belt, her face like thunder. “You said half past seven! You said we’d stop at the shop on our way out and now look at the time!”

“All done and we’re ready to go!” Sally drew away slowly and nosed past two Black Crows pecking at something in the street. “Sorry about the delay, Karin. Blame it on a cup of cappuccino. Let’s enjoy the rest of the day!” She could barely hear herself speak above the roar of frothing happiness in her ears.

“What are you so happy about?” Karin looked at her friend sharply.

“Grab a muffin from the packet behind my seat and open our coffees – they’re on the floor.”

“You darling woman!” Sally knew that would mollify her friend and forestall any further awkward questions. For now they had a day in the national park to look forward to and tonight … dinner for two at The Hatless Hare!

WHO WILL YOU BE IN THE NEXT TWENTY-FOUR HOURS?

Emma stared moodily out of her bedroom window into the darkness beyond. Her squared shoulders expressed the tension tightening every muscle in her body and then some. She focused on the sick sensation emanating from the pit of her stomach and swallowed hard in rapid succession to push back the streams of bitterness rising from within.

How had this happened? Her future had seemed to be so certain. And now? What lay ahead now, she asked her unsmiling reflection in the window. Did she really hold the key to all that?

“Who will you be in the next twenty-four hours?” Jonathan had asked her earlier in the evening. Emma could still hear his strained voice and see the searching look in his dark brown eyes.

Her own eyes now pricked with the tears she had been determined not to shed at the time, especially when Jonathan had reached out to stroke the ends of her glossy dark hair. He often did that when words failed him or when he seemed to wish to reassure himself that she was there; that she was real. Emma lifted her hand and tentatively twisted her hair around her fingers, feeling as Jonathan would have, the soft and springy strands. Jonathan had always admired her hair.

Always? How long is ‘always’?

Emma and Jonathan had moved within the same circle of friends ever since the first week of their arrival at university six years earlier. She had been so cowed by their orientation week activities; so frightened by the way some senior students shouted at them; so fearful of getting lost during the compulsory large gatherings of first years – especially at night. Once Jonathan had befriended her he had continued to look after her without ever making a big deal of it.

Even so, they had only become a readily identifiable couple during the last two years while both were putting in long hours as they worked on their respective Masters theses: she in South African literature, while Jonathan spent weeks at a time wading through rivers assessing the health of riverine ecology.

His field trips took him away a lot and always on his return they had taken pleasure in each other’s company. They had spurred each other on; read pages of notes to each other; had allowed each other the time and space to work undisturbed when words flowed onto their respective computer screens.

Jonathan’s progress had been hampered by a series of unexpected floods within his study area and when he had reluctantly admitted that he would require another year in which to finalise everything, Emma had readily taken up a part-time tutoring post in the English Department. He attended her graduation and took her out to dinner afterwards: just the two of them in a discreet corner of an expensive restaurant. She had been aglow with a sense of well-being and reached across the table to hold Jonathan’s hand. He made her feel so good. In spite of his set-back, life was treating her so well. Although there had been talk of her embarking on her PhD, she felt it could wait for a while.

The euphoria of her success evaporated when Jonathan squeezed her hand in return, leaned forward and asked gently, “What will you do now?” What would she do? The thought had never worried her because they had always made plans together. They had always planned to do things together; to be in the same place.

“Well,” she started slowly. “I am pretty sure I don’t want to do anything taxingly academic for a while.” She moved her wine glass around the damp spot it had made on the white tablecloth. “My Dad thinks I ought to find a teaching job – he’s worried about me earning a decent salary, I suppose.” They had looked at each other then and smiled in the knowledge of their togetherness that had kept all external threats at bay. Then Emma had shifted a little uncomfortably on her seat, refilled her wine glass and looked past Jonathan’s ear as she at last confessed to a long-suppressed desire. “When this tutoring contract is over I might travel a little to clear my head and –“

“With who?” The sharp edge to Jonathan’s voice was not lost on Emma.

“No-one in particular.” She had shrugged her shoulders and played with her wine glass, conscious that Jonathan had withdrawn his hand and was staring at her in an uncomfortable way. “Just travel. To get away a bit, you know.” She had looked at his sulk-infused face with a growing sense of disappointment. “Well, you’ll still be busy and I want to see something of the world before I look for what my Dad calls a ‘real’ job.”

Jonathan’s hug at the end of the evening had remained with her like a wet shawl. His kiss had been business-like and he had disappeared into the inky darkness instead of staying over as she had expected. Afterwards he had holed up in his lab for days at a time. She felt spurned; tossed aside; unappreciated.

“I’m working to a deadline, remember.” He would respond tiredly in answer to a suggestion that they go out for a pizza; that a short walk together would do him good; or to rebuff her suggestion of bringing his favourite take-away coffee to the bench in the tiny garden three floors below the lab where he worked.

And then the telephone had woken her before sunrise. She automatically felt the empty space next to her, registering with a heavy sadness that Jonathan had stayed away yet again. It was as if he was punishing her for having any plans that did not include him.

“Mike!” She pressed her cell phone close to her ear and listened to his cheerful voice barrel through the crackly connection as he enthusiastically described the sunrise in the Okavango Swamps. Emma listened sleepily to his congratulations on her Masters. “How did you know I’d finished?” she asked in awe.

“Africa is a continent criss-crossed with paths and bound together with an efficient bush telegraph.”

That familiar easy laughter and his cheerful voice recalled vivid images of a dear, undemanding friend, hovering comfortably on the fringes of her usual social circle and always willing to take her away or spend an evening with her whenever she felt down. They had regularly jogged together and Mike had introduced her to the joys of bird watching during Jonathan’s frequent long absences.

“With your Masters behind you, what will you do now?” The question carried a serious note.

That familiar lump of uncertainty dropped into Emma’s stomach without warning. “Have you a suggestion?” she asked lightly. When last had she spoken so teasingly to anyone?

“Join me,” Mike said simply. “I’ll be here for another six weeks at least. Bring your camera.”

It was a while later that the full impact of Mike’s words and her own positive response hit her. Emma phoned Jonathan straight away. “Deadlines cannot loom so large and so menacingly that you cannot even make time to share my bed Jonathan!” That is not what she had meant to say.

He was understandably taken aback. Emma was tired of hearing his mumbled, terse excuses about deadlines. “Dinner tonight at The Blue Gander. I’ll expect you at seven.” That is not how she had meant to throw down the gauntlet. She was already testing him without meaning to.

Jonathan had come. He had even dressed up smartly the way he used to whenever they went out on a special date. Emma noted the bruised smudges of weariness under his eyes that had sunken into the pasty pallor of his skin. She felt the tingle of his fingers touching hers and her heart ached. The words she had rehearsed all day remained locked in her brain.

In an effort to dislodge them, she asked playfully, “When you’re done, what do you plan to do?” Whatever it was, they had always planned to be together. Her cheerful smile froze at the sparkle of enthusiasm in his eyes and the unexpected lightness in his voice.

“Dr Telman has already suggested I join his team investigating the beaches – what he calls the ‘secret beaches’ that have remained relatively unspoiled. Of course it’ll mean weeks away at a time, but I have always wanted to explore our coastline.”

“Sounds good.” She gulped her wine, feeling the combined warmth and fuzziness shoot through her lungs, her heart, her brain and down to the numbness in her fingertips. “I imagine you’ll get a PhD out of it.”

“That’s the intention.” Jonathan’s face was aglow with happiness and a hint of excitement.

That was when he had reached for her hair for the first time in weeks. That was when she knew that he assumed that she would wait for him; that she would put her future on hold while he pursued his dreams. That was when she had pulled his fingers away gently and looked at him directly, willing back the tears that pricked at the corners of her eyes and wishing away the hot flush colouring her cheeks. That was the moment that she knew she had made the right decision.

“I’m going to Botswana, Jonathan.”

“When?”

“Next week.” She tried to keep her voice neutral for she couldn’t bring herself to tell him about Mike and her decision, strengthened by his reaction, to stay on for as long as she and Mike enjoyed each other’s company.

He was shocked. Emma could tell that Jonathan had never expected her to leave him. She knew he hadn’t by the tightness of his voice and the searching look in his dark eyes.

“Who will you be in the next twenty four hours?” he had asked. ‘Who’, not ‘where’, not ‘who with’. She had shaken her head sadly, unable to respond.

Soon after, he had opened the car door for her and given her a mock salute as a farewell. No kiss. Had their years together really come to this?

Now Emma stared fiercely at her reflection in the darkened window as her tears flowed freely at last. Her hands had stopped shaking now that she had rerun the events of the evening over and over until there was no doubt in her mind that she was doing the right thing. “Well Jonathan Butler,” she addressed the dark outside. “I shall be a free woman, an adventurer, and one who might just fall in love with someone who really cares for her.”

Deep down, she knew that Mike had always cared for her.

She closed the curtains.

THE STORIES WITHIN US

In his autobiography, The Outsider: my life in intrigue, Frederick Forsyth explains that within the mind of a writer entire worlds are created or erasedPeople come into being, work, love, fight, die and are replaced. Plots are devised, developed, amended and come to fruition or are frustrated … In children, daydreaming is rebuked; in a writer it is indispensable.

Few of us think our lives are particularly interesting or remarkable enough to record. If we did, publishers would be inundated by autobiographies. Yet, eavesdrop at dinners or the meeting of strangers on holiday and you will become attuned to the stories plucked from the lives of ordinary people to inform, build bridges, or merely to entertain. We all have a story to tell.

Some of these anecdotes have been told so often that partners often finish them for each other, or egg each other on towards the highlight. The familiarity of these stories fixes them, making them difficult to change. They nonetheless get retold to show an alternate side of ourselves to people who have come to know us in a different context; to confirm our allegiances to others; or to illustrate the connection between the present and the past. An element of trust is at play when we share our personal stories.

This was particularly evident when I attended a series of workshops a few years ago. The participants were issued with pens and paper and, as we sat in a circle, we were asked to write down various aspects of our lives on cue – describe one of your most frightening moments; an occasion that made you face your innermost fears; a choice you made that was out of character for you. Of course these did not happen all at once, but as we diligently set about writing in response to the first instruction, none of us realised we would be required to share them.

Sometimes we read them ourselves. At other times a randomly chosen partner read them on our behalf; yet on other occasions we were asked to talk about the particular experience during a shared ‘chat session’ with yet another randomly selected partner. As uncomfortable as this was initially, the experience proved to be both interesting and enlightening. We ended up being surprised at the hitherto unknown inner strengths, fears and accomplishments of colleagues who gave no hint of such things on the surface. We unwittingly learned about empathy, respect and to realise that so much more lies behind the faces we work with every day. I recently threw out my notes from those sessions. Before doing so, however, I reread what I had written and surprised myself by what had been laid bare – I would never have imagined that anything in my life was ‘write worthy’, yet some aspects of it had been gently coaxed out of me.

No matter the occasion, when people are together for any length of time, an exchange of stories will begin. This might be in the form of a tentative exploration of where we come from; a delicate process of sussing out what we have in common; an exchange of opinions; or even a confession of sorts about health, personal circumstances, concerns or joys.

Stories are part of the way we understand our history and shared anecdotes go a long way towards understanding the lives of the people within our social and working orbit. In this sense, the stories we tell about ourselves can be powerful – as are those stories we tell ourselves while seeking an understanding of where we are, why we are, and what we are becoming.

Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety is a marvellous depiction of the friendship between two couples through their waxing and waning fortunes, as well as their trials and tribulations spanning forty years or so. Their back stories and shared experiences form the weft of their relationship, weaving their lives together with increasing strength and flexibility.

I have just finished editing the first draft of my late father’s memoirs. On the surface he was as ordinary a person as any of us are: a miner, a farmer, an amateur historian, a husband, a father and grandfather. If only I had known about this endeavour before he died, I would have been able to explore so much more! What a story he has to tell of life as we will never know it again; of courage and perseverance; of love and adventure. It proves the point that the unfolding of our lives are stories with no end. As ordinary as they may be, they help others to make sense of our lives and they deserve to be shared – at least with the next generation.

YOUR MOMENT

YOUR MOMENT

A double rainbow. Surely that would mean double the luck? “I used to chase rainbows all over the farm as a little boy,” Andrew murmured while taking another picture of the intense rainbow standing out in full brilliance against the moody grey sky left by the sudden shower of rain.

“I used to associate rainbows with God’s promise not to flood the earth again.” Sophie turned from the window from which she had been watching the reflection of a windmill in the slate-coloured surface of the dam nearby. “Don’t laugh. Young children can be gullible, you know.”

Andrew’s dimpled smile made her feel silly. He switched on the engine and resumed their journey into the gathering darkness. “I always preferred the crock of gold theory,” he laughed. “What changed your mind?”

“Switch on the television news and there is bound to be coverage of devastating floods in one place or another: people being rescued from rooftops, being dug out of the mud,” Sophie shivered involuntarily. “I often wonder what those people feel about rainbows.”

“They probably hope it is a sign the rain has come to an end. Many floods are the outcome of bad land use practices somewhere along the line: deforestation, ignoring the flood lines when building, ploughing the wrong way …”

“Now you’re turning a rainbow into something really serious.” The teasing tone in Sophie’s voice elicited a chortle from her companion.

“When one works in the wild as much as I do,” he responded defensively, “one realises the urgency of maintaining a balance between so-called development and the overall health of our planet.”

He slowed to turn into the tree-lined driveway leading to Sophie’s family home. She clicked the remote in her bag and they both watched the spiked railing gate glittering in the headlights as it slid open.

“I hope your folks won’t be too worried about us arriving so much later than we thought we would.” The touch of anxiety in Andrew’s voice was new to Sophie. It was her turn to laugh confidently.

“I let Mom know we were watching lions at the waterhole. Dad will understand: he’s always after that ‘perfect shot’, so Mom is used to waiting.”

They walked hand-in-hand along the curved brick path leading to the front door.

“Hello!” Oscar Chambers opened the door before Sophie could even turn her key in the lock. He hugged his daughter then shook Andrew’s hand warmly. “Welcome to our family,” he boomed. “Jane is in the kitchen. Come through.”

Andrew took in the cosy-looking kitchen, the aroma of freshly-baked bread and the simplicity of the table setting as the family sat down to the evening meal. He felt relieved Jane had chosen the kitchen rather than the formal dining room he had glimpsed on his way through the house.

Oscar wanted to know about the animals they had seen during their three-day visit to the nearby game reserve. “I always try to get shots of the Big Five,” he commented. “Not all at once though. Finding them is half the fun.”

“I like the smaller creatures too though,” Sophie ventured. “Andrew’s taken a lovely shot of a rock monitor basking on top of the wooden posts flanking the path leading to the bird hide.”

“Your lion pictures are good too?” It was clear where Oscar’s interest lay.

Much later that evening Andrew and Sophie cradled warm mugs of coffee as they sat on the veranda watching the moon rising. Both felt relieved the first meeting was over.

“My parents think you are a ‘fine lad’ who will go far,” Sophie whispered, snuggling against Andrew.

“Do they know yet that I’m whisking you away for a week in the Baviaanskloof during your next break?” Andrew squeezed her hand. “You’ve been rather coy about that.”

“Well, it’ll be less dangerous than our white water rafting experience after Christmas. Dad didn’t really appreciate that photograph of me falling head-first into a rapid!”

Andrew pulled her closer. “That was your moment,” he said softly. “It was your cheerful reaction to the rough and tumble of that trip – and the way you turned the air blue at the baboons marauding our camp – that made me look at you in a different light.”

A DUBIOUS CHARACTER

Russel was dubious about their decision to hike to Josh Kushner’s farm. Their plans, concocted in whispers long after lights out, had grown more elaborate over the weeks of Stygian gloom and darkness in their wintery dormitory. These included leaving carefully rolled towels in their beds to pass the sweeping check Mr Lewis did sometime between ten o’ clock and midnight, before he went to bed.

“It’s easy man.” Josh had sounded convincing. “Just leave your schoolbag behind the lavender hedge under matron’s window after evening prep.” They’d agreed on taking a toothbrush and toothpaste (“My Mom will feed us to the pigs if we have stinky breath,” Josh had warned), packets of biltong, two water bottles each and apples filched from supper. Not everyone liked apples, so that part would be easy.

So would leaving the dorm. They had discovered that the side door leading to the rear of the building was never locked. It opened onto the covered area matron used for drying clothes during the rainy weather and led to the rows of refuse bins standing guard all the way to the metal gate set into the high wall facing Williams Street.

When the squeaking of that gate proved to be a possible giveaway, Josh filched an oil can from the maintenance area behind the junior cricket pitch. “Hey, boy! Where are you going with that oil?” He hadn’t expected to be discovered by the enormous Mr Garwood, the Estate manager, who now loomed over him.

“Sorry sir, I’m not stealing it sir.” Josh managed to look contrite, then shrugged his narrow shoulders in a helpless gesture. He turned his freckled face towards the menacing looking man. “They always catch the farm boys you know.” He looked down at the workshop floor then expertly mimicked the voice of Geoff Holmes, the House Prefect in charge of his dorm. “Bloody gate plays on my nerves Kushner. Get rid of the squeaking pronto!”

Mr Garwood smiled and ruffled his hair. “He’ll get his come-uppance one day. Put that oil can back where you found when you’re done – and remember to ask next time before you take anything!”

“Yes sir. Thank you sir.”

Upon hearing about this encounter, Russel could feel his feet growing colder than before. “I don’t want to be a wet blanket Josh, but perhaps we should wait until the connection between you and the gate is forgotten.”

“Do you know how long memories take to fade in this place?” Josh hissed his disapproval. “You’re the first of your family to come here so it’s natural you don’t know.” He paused to watch the senior boys moving off the stands to ready themselves for their track running exercises. “It takes hundreds of years!”

“Never!” Russel countered, only to find Josh’s face pressed close to his.

“My grandfather still remembers being given a hiding with a leather strap and having to stand in the corner of the dining room for three days without food!” The two boys walked across the cobbled driveway towards their boarding house.

“Smith! Kushner! Come here on the double!” Both boys shuddered involuntarily at the fierce command from Geoff Holmes. “Take these roses to Leslie Evans at Cunningham House. Tell her to go to the Ball on her own. I’ll see her there after we get back from cricket.”

“Yes, Holmes.” Josh almost shouted as his body stiffened in response to receiving the three pink roses he knew must have been picked from the Headmaster’s garden.

“Thank you for choosing us, Holmes,” Russel responded quietly, giving a mock salute as he did so. “Who does he think he is?” he grumbled under his breath as the two friends changed direction towards the girls’ boarding houses.

“Far too big for his boots, my Dad would say.” Josh walked quickly, leaving Russel a step or two behind him. He hated the cat-calling (“You’ve got a girlfriend then Josh?” from the older boys) and the way some of the older girls crossed his path with “Ooh! Are these for me?” He ran the gauntlet of couples chatting outside the drama studio and looked around for Russel. “Coward!” he said aloud in his head then looked up in surprise as his friend sauntered down the path from the IT Department ahead of him. “Hey! How’d you get there?” he couldn’t avoid the note of admiration in his voice.

“Slipped past the back of the boys all focused on you, climbed through the gap in the hedge over there and walked away from IT as if I’d been there. We’re home and dry.”

Well, as dry as they could for they still had to endure a wait on the steps of Cunningham House until Leslie Evans came to collect her flowers. “No note?” Her voice was sharp even though her eyes brushed over them kindly.

“He said you have to go to the ball on your own because –,“ Russel began, then stopped as Leslie tossed the roses into the garden next to the steps.

“I hate him! I hate that low-life.” She walked away quickly, but not before the boys glimpsed the tears in her eyes.

“There is no cricket on Saturday.” Russel sounded shocked. “At least, Holmes isn’t in the away cricket team.”

“Of course he is! I had to clean his kit last night after prep.”

“No he’s not. I heard him telling Mr Newman that he has to attend an aunt’s funeral in the afternoon.”

“He’s lying.”

“I also heard him tell his mother he has to be back by nine o’clock on Saturday night.”

“So, he’s going home and to the dance.” Josh clenched his fist. “My father says honesty is the best policy always.”

Yet, are we not planning to be dishonest, Russel worried at the thought until the supper bell rang.

“Smith! Kushner! Report to the Housemaster’s Study straight after supper.” Holmes was the duty prefect. His voice barrelled through the supper babble like a missile fired in their direction. Silence followed in its threatening wake.

Mr Lewis didn’t look pleased. As the boys were ushered into his study their eyes fell on the roses they had given to Leslie. “The Headmaster’s wife grows roses to win prizes at flower exhibitions. Did you boys pick these ones?” His voice had an oddly sad edge to it.

“No sir,” the boys replied in unison.

“Have you seen these roses before?”

The boys nodded in unison and shifted uncomfortably on their feet. “Yes sir.”

“Sir, we were asked to deliver them to Cunningham House.” Russel stepped forward, his eyes bright. “We were just given them, sir.”

“Who gave them to you?” There was a note of steel in the otherwise pleasant timbre of his voice. Just then the door opened quietly and Holmes, as the duty prefect, entered the room. “Glad to see you made it Holmes.”

“A senior boy sir,” Russel’s voice wavered. “It happened in a rush while we were on our way to the prep room.” Both boys eyed Holmes, who stood smirking inside the door.

“Enlighten them Holmes.”

The hateful prefect stepped forward with a slight swagger. “I saw these boys come out of the Headmaster’s rose garden. When I confronted them they begged to take the flowers to their girlfriends. It was a dare sir. I know I shouldn’t have let them go, but the roses had been picked and I couldn’t let the honour of the House be compromised.”

Both boys rubbed their aching bottoms as they made their way to the dormitory. They had been excused from having to go to the prep room and could work at the end table in their dormitory. Holmes had offered to oversee them weeding and watering the rose garden during the session between sport and supper every day for the next three weeks: one week for every rose picked.

“I’ve always thought he’s a dubious character,” Russel whispered as he watched Josh stack his books neatly on the table.

“It’s time to go.” Josh patted him on the back. “Let’s be off.”

“Now? What about the beds? Our provisions?”

“No time for that! I’ve had enough of this so-called justice. We’ve been framed and people will remember us as thieves for the rest of our lives!”

“But we aren’t thieves. We’ve done nothing wrong.”

It was easy following the path past the dam and over the golf course to join the main road on the edge of town. The boys encountered very little traffic; most vehicles were travelling in the opposite direction and the boys hugged the shadows as best they could. Then a car travelling towards them stopped. “Where are you going lads?” A friendly voice from a hidden face reached out in the dark.

“We don’t require a lift thank you sir,” Josh called out confidently. “We’re on a night hike for endurance and are due to be picked up shortly.”

As they watched the vehicle being swallowed up by the night, Russel ventured to ask. “How far is your farm Josh? Shouldn’t we accept the next offer of a lift?” He could sense Josh’s angry shake of the head as they trudged on.

“I’m sick and tired of being ordered about, of being the fall guy and of being treated like dirt!”

“What if we get expelled?”

“They won’t expel me,” Josh sounded defiant. “Kushners have been at that school since it was founded in the 1800s.”

“My scholarship might be revoked.” To his chagrin, Russel could feel an uninvited tear roll down his cheek. He wiped it away fiercely. “This thirst is killing me,” he said gruffly.

A 4×4 bakkie roared to a halt next to them. The boys had been too tired to hide from the searching headlights. “Hey! Is that you Joshua? Is this your friend Smith?” The door opened and a broad-shouldered man got out to walk towards them. “Some night walk lads. I think you’ve gone far enough.”

“Uncle Tom!” The relief in Josh’s voice was palpable as he was scooped up in the man’s strong arms. “Please don’t take us back to school! Not now!” Russel hung back feeling shy, yet elated at the crack in Josh’s voice.

“Smith?” The man called out in the dark, one arm still around Josh. “Come on young man, I know of several people who will be as pleased as punch to see you boys. Hop in.”

“How did you know to find us Uncle Tom?”

Uncle Tom laughed and playfully punched Josh on his arm. “Your school tracksuits are a dead give-away. A passing motorist complained about the so-called night exercise. Mr Lewis called your Dad and as I was having supper there, I decided to come.”

Russel had never experienced such a warm homecoming. No shouts, no recriminations, just warm drinks, thick cheese sandwiches and warm, comfortable beds in a bedroom the school would have fitted six into.

It was two mornings later when Josh’s father fingered his coffee mug and looked earnestly at the boys still crunching their toast. “Have you boys heard of Martin Luther King Junior?”

“We learned about him in history.” Josh spread a thick layer of marmalade on his remaining slice of toast.

“What do you know about him Russel?”

“He was a civil rights leader. I think he died sometime in the 1960s – I know it was a long time before I was born.”

“Good.” Mr Kushner’s eyes met those of his wife across the table. “We think it’s time you two scamps return to face the music.”

“But we’ll be marked by doubt forever! You told me people still remember that woodwork teacher who stole the money –“

“That was a long time ago and the man was guilty. Now, Martin Luther King Junior is known for saying one who condones evil is just as guilty as the one who perpetrates it. We think you boys will be speaking for many when you tell the Headmaster exactly what has been happening to you – and his roses.”

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!