“Five more minutes, just give me five more minutes!”
“Come on Wendy, you can’t be sleepy if you can shout that loudly!”
Wendy opened her eyes reluctantly to see the dawn light fingering through the gap in Ben’s bedroom curtains. She could feel a crisp morning breeze playing across her face and snuggled deeper under the duvet. Ben was right; if they didn’t leave soon that crispness would disappear in the face of the scorching heat forecast for today. She threw off the duvet and padded barefoot towards the shower.
Ben was in the kitchen downstairs, a stripy cotton apron wrapped around his waist. “Scrambled or fried?”
“Scrambled on toast please, I’m famished.” Wendy shook the droplets from her wet hair so that they scattered across his face and sizzled in the hot pan.
“Our first stop is to photograph the Sacred Ibises at Second Dam.” Ben crunched his toast. “They should be collecting nesting material by now. Also, I want a really good close-up of a head.”
“Thoth.” Wendy smiled at him over the rim of her coffee mug.
“Thoth, an Egyptian god, is depicted as having a head like a Sacred Ibis. Mummified ibises have even been found in Egyptian tombs. That’s why they’re called Sacred Ibises.”
“You amaze me.” Ben winked at her. “We’ll wash up later. Come, let’s go.”
“Just five more minutes,” Wendy pleaded. “I haven’t brushed my teeth yet.”
Having switched off the engine, Ben picked up his dark, wide-brimmed sunhat and shouldered his camera bag. He and Wendy walked slowly down the steep sand track towards the edge of the dam. While he focused his attention on the ibises, Wendy sat on the grass admiring the deepening pink blush of the sunrise.
Later, they stopped at The Coffee Pot, drawn by the aroma of baking and freshly brewed coffee. Wendy photographed a Pied Crow that sidled up to them looking for a titbit. “Perhaps we could put together an exhibition of black and white pictures – I mean a black and white theme: Sacred Ibis, Pied Crow … that sort of thing.”
“That’s not really my style Wends, you know that. Come on, the light should be perfect for catching reflections of trees at Ken’s farm dam.”
“Five minutes.” Wendy gulped down the last of her coffee.
They drove fast along the smooth gravel road that wound through a patch of natural forest before reaching their friend’s farm. “You go ahead to the dam,” Wendy told the two men. “I’m happy to wander around Ken’s garden. Oh look! There’s a Greater Double-collared Sunbird! I’m definitely staying here!”
She later joined Ben and Ken on a low hill above the farmhouse and surveyed the valley below them. Ken spoke of his deep attachment to the area he had grown up in and outlined his plan to build a rustic eco-lodge in an area between thorn trees that commanded a view of the dam. “One needs other streams of income these days,” he explained softly. “Who knows, just the right lass might come along to use it too!” He winked at Wendy.
Ben stepped in behind her as they walked along a dusty plain, stopping now and then for Ken to point out the tracks of scrub hares and jackals. “Would you run a kind of tracking course?” Wendy could imagine a young woman falling in love with this good looking man as she watched him kneel down to point out where a scrub hare had rested and where a duiker had walked.
“We must be off Ken.” Ben broke the spell as soon as they had returned to the farmhouse. He stowed his camera bag on the back seat of the truck he only used on weekends and holidays. He turned to shake their friend’s hand. “It’s been good to see you after so long. Are you ready Wendy?”
“Five minutes Ben. Just five minutes.” She didn’t see the amusement on his face as he exchanged glances with Ken. Instead, she paused to look down the dirt track that led away from the farmhouse to the blue hills in the distance. The heat haze was already accentuating the isolation of the place Ken called home, yet the quiet mountain beauty spoke to her inner being. “You must feel peaceful here,” she commented quietly.
“It’s a good community.” Ken looked at her intently. “The people around here are a good sort.” He touched her shoulder lightly. “Sorry you can’t stay for lunch.”
Ben was quieter than usual on their journey home. Their lunch at a local farm stall had been a sombre affair. The two of them had sat at a wooden table in the shade of a tree and sipped at their cold drinks. He had wolfed down two pasties in quick succession while Wendy toyed with a half-eaten sausage roll.
“Five minutes, hey?” His attempt at humour failed. He flipped through the photographs on his camera, pretending not to notice the tears glistening in her eyes or the difficulty with which she swallowed the remainder of the sausage roll. “You know what Wendy?” He switched off his camera and willed her to look at him.
When she did, it was with a faraway look in her eyes. “Where to now Ben? Where are we off to now?” Her voice was flat. She pulled her hair back from her face and seemed to look through him.
“I thought.” He faltered under her steady gaze. “Well, I was thinking we should go out for supper tonight. You know, real supper, like burgers and chocolate cake or lemon tart.”
“Doubtless with just the right wines to accompany each course.” She sounded weary.
“Wine is a good idea.” He picked up his camera bag as Wendy tossed the packaging of their takeaway meal in a nearby bin. “Perhaps we can invite Neville and Sarah to join us. We haven’t seen them in a while.”
“Perhaps.” Wendy smiled automatically as she buckled her seatbelt. In her mind’s eye she could see a valley stretching away towards the blue hills in the distance; she could almost hear the Cape Turtle Doves and the Hadedas calling in the background; she saw the soft yellow glow of the afternoon sun highlighting the aloes blooming near rough stone steps; and she could almost see the Olive Thrushes and Cape Robins scuttling about for food in the dying light of the day.
“We could all go to a club afterwards.” Ben pressed play on the dashboard, filling the cab with loud music. “Just to get you in the mood,” he teased, speaking lightly despite the iron band that tightened another notch around his chest.
“Five minutes, Ben. Can’t we have peace for just five minutes?” Wendy ran her fingers through her hair and looked at Ben with such intensity that he turned the sound down until it was barely audible. “Why can you never sit still, Ben? Why don’t you ever spend time actually appreciating the places and things you photograph?” She looked down at her lap briefly. “You always have to be on the move, doing something, going somewhere, or filling space with people. You’re so competitive all the time!”
“I don’t like to waste time, I guess. Weekends are for enjoying otherwise they’re wasted.” He turned the sound up slightly and concentrated on the road for a while. “I thought you would enjoy being busy. I planned the weekend to pack in as much as we could –.” Wendy was shaking her head and looking out of the passenger window as he spoke. He swallowed the lump that had appeared in his throat from nowhere. “Tomorrow we can lunch at the Guineafowl Inn. It’s only an hour from town. You can sleep late; even skip breakfast if you like.”
“I must go home before lunch tomorrow, Ben. I’ve got a pile of marking to do before Monday.” The music almost drowned her words and put an end to the conversation until he drew up outside his townhouse in the middle of an upmarket gated complex.
Wendy sat without moving once the engine and the music had been switched off. She could still hear the sound throbbing in her ears. Ben looked at her thoughtfully as he picked up his camera bag. “You coming?” He spoke tentatively, the iron band had tightened to the point he could barely breathe.
They sat opposite each other in his modern kitchen, cups of tea steaming between them. Ben reached for her limp hands and rubbed her ringless fingers gently between his own. “We can have dinner on our own tonight, Wends.”
“Thank you, Ben.” She squeezed his hands and cast her eyes around at the smartly tiled floor, the sleek finishes of the cupboards and the opulence of the lounge furnishings that showed through the half open sliding door. Ben had it all: smart house; smart equipment; smart job; smart friends; smart salary … he would be a good provider. She was a fortunate woman. “I’ll get tidied up.” She put their cups in the sink – doubtless they would find their way to the dishwasher disguised as a cupboard, just as the breakfast things had done.
“Sorry you couldn’t stay for lunch.” Ken’s words played over and over in her mind. She had seen the cold chicken salad, the bread rolls and the bowl of fruit salad covered with a light cloth in his old-fashioned farm kitchen. Ben wasn’t going to risk staying. He had to be on the move. It was almost as if he was afraid of relaxing when he could be achieving something else. His competitive streak would not be stilled. We should have stayed, Wendy thought while brushing her hair. I should have made us stay.
“Are you ready yet?” Ben sounded impatient. “My stomach is grumbling already!”
“I’ll be down in five minutes Ben!” Wendy switched on her cell phone. There were no messages. She hadn’t expected any. Nonetheless, with her heart thumping uncomfortably and her fingers shaking, she scrolled down to find Ken’s number. She hadn’t used it for two years. I am too she typed and pressed send. He would know what she meant.
“It was five minutes too long, wasn’t it?” Ben stared at her across the table. His fingers traced a pattern in the beads on the outside of his glass of chilled white wine. “I shouldn’t have let you have those five minutes at Ken’s place,” he sounded sad.
“We should have stayed for lunch, Ben. He had it all prepared for us.” Wendy sipped her dark red wine, chosen in defiance of Ben’s ‘superior taste’.
“Five minutes, that’s all you needed, wasn’t it?” He gave a rueful smile. “He’s always loved you, you know. All through ‘varsity and beyond. He’s always loved you.” Ben gulped his wine. “But you chose me. I can offer you everything and anything you want.” He watched her sip her wine and for a moment felt mesmerised by the sadness in her eyes coupled with a glimmer of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
“You’re right Ben. I finally realised today that I love him too.”