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!

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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.

WHIMSICAL MOMENTS 4: CHOOSING WINE

Rita closed her boot firmly and walked across the cobbled car park towards the bottle store. She felt achingly tired: shopping for groceries at the end of a long working week always seemed to drain the last dregs of energy from her. It was that and the unwelcome vision of her desk at home piled with Antony and Cleopatra essays to mark, as well as the draft of the Grade 11 language examination paper to complete, that made her shoulders droop. Something had to be done to salvage the weekend!

She noted that so many of the passing pedestrians looked far more cheerful than she felt: students clutching a bottle of wine or a carry-pack of beer; a young man about to get into his bakkie, a smile still brightening his face after he’d waved a cheery hello to someone behind Rita; even the elderly couple supporting each other as they shuffled gingerly along the pavement had a comfortingly cheery look about them. Rita’s mood darkened.

She scanned the rows of wine, walking slowly up and down each of the four aisles. Rita knew what she wanted within her price range, yet enjoyed studying the labels of the more expensive varieties. “Look at Misery Me, finding relaxation in a liquor store!” It was true though: that hiatus between having been rushing all week and the prospect of settling down to more work after a quick supper was a moment to savour the artistic depictions on the wine labels, to idly marvel at how much some people were willing to spend on a bottle of wine …

“Excuse me, you look as though you know something about wine.”

Rita glanced behind her before realising that the white-haired woman with dancing brown eyes was addressing her. She flushed slightly. “Not really, although I enjoy sharing the odd bottle now and then.”

“But you’ve been scanning these bottle with such a discerning eye!”

Rita flushed more deeply, then laughed aloud – how good that felt! “Oh! I was looking at the labels and wondering how people can afford to fork out a fortune for wine that is consumed in a flash. Then I began wondering if it would be worth spending so much money when your guests cannot tell the difference between what they have been offered and plonk in a box.”

The woman’s lined face lit up with a broad smile. “Then you are just the person to help me.”

“How?” Rita not only felt embarrassed, but bewildered too.

“It’s going to be such a beautiful evening my dear that I am going to join my friend and her brother for a picnic under the stars. He’s from Johannesburg you see, and he knows a lot about stars and all the constellations.” The woman adopted a conspiratorial tone, bending her head slightly towards Rita. “My friend’s brother says it is so warm and clear that we will have a wonderful view of the night sky. So, we are going to drive just outside town and enjoy a picnic on those large flat rocks on Elephant Hill while we watch the sun go down. I’ve bought some water biscuits, Camembert cheese, and grapes – and now I need to choose a wine.”

For a moment Rita forgot her own weariness and became absorbed by the thought of three elderly people having a picnic under the stars on a balmy Friday evening. “First of all, are you planning to have white or red wine?”

“Oh red, my dear.” The brown eyes twinkled more than ever. “Laura’s bringing a cold roast chicken and Andrew is bound to pack biltong. He always says a picnic without biltong isn’t worth having.”

The price range Rita was going to choose her wine from was a modest one. She looked at the rows of bottles behind them. How could she judge where the older woman’s taste lay? “I don’t suppose you want anything very expensive for a picnic on a rock?”

“Not at all!” The woman drew two bottles from the shelf and held them out for Rita to see. “I can’t decide between these two. Andrew is a bit of a wine snob, but I can’t afford his taste!”

One of the bottles was the brand Rita had been planning to buy for herself. She smiled, feeling her neck muscles relax slightly as if that coiled spring was finally unwinding. “Then let Andrew spoil you both! I am going to get this one for myself and I suggest you do too.”

The white-haired woman smiled triumphantly as she returned the other bottle to the shelf. “I knew you would be able to help me make up my mind – and it won’t break the bank either! Thank you my dear.”

“Three old people having a picnic under the stars on a beautifully warm night,” Rita recounted aloud to herself while she drove home. The thought wouldn’t leave her while she unpacked her groceries. It still tugged at her when she placed the packet of liquorice all sorts on her desk to help her concentrate on the marking glaring malevolently at her.

“Three old people having a ball looking at the stars,” drummed in her head. The sun was already nearing the horizon when she dialled a familiar number and waited impatiently for the familiar voice to answer.

“William? You’re going to think I’ve gone over the edge, but I am cooking pasta and have bought a bottle of wine. Would you like to watch the stars with me in the garden while we eat?”

WHIMSICAL MOMENTS 3: CROWDED CAR PARK

“I’ll stop in and buy a chicken pie for supper. Don’t panic!” Andrea shoved her cell phone into the handy slot for it under her dashboard and concentrated on the long queue of vehicles waiting to turn into the local supermarket. The five o’clock rush! “Sophia, when will you bring your head out of the clouds?” she muttered as she inched forward, noticing at the same time that her car indicator was out of sync with those of the vehicle in front of her.

‘Click, click, click’ went her indicator. ‘Wink, wink, wink’ responded the one ahead. ‘Beep! Beep!’ sounded the hooter of an irate driver somewhere behind. “Come on!” Andrea spoke to herself, clutching the steering wheel a bit tighter. “What’s the hold up?”

Whatever it was had gone by the time she was able to turn in at the entrance gate. Her heart sank at the sea of vehicles ahead of her. Andrea turned left to drive up the first aisle in the parking lot, right to cruise down the next one; left again to check for an open parking bay; then she looped around the far edge of the mall before making a final left turn that would take her towards the last bays near the exit.

She heaved a sigh of relief as a vehicle pulled out ahead of her and gratefully nosed her car into the bay as soon as it was vacant. 5.20 p.m. Sophia had invited friends to their digs for half past six. Andrea sprinted past the book shop, the gift shop, the health shop, the shoe shop, and the florist, all the while weaving in and out of shoppers bearing bags or pushing overloaded trolleys. The worst were the clusters of people gathered here and there in the middle of the walkway to chat. “Don’t you have homes to go to? Dinners to cook?” Andrea yelled at them in her head.

Inside, the supermarket was crowded. There was no need for a basket, instead Andrea headed straight for the fridges and found the chilled pies. There was only one large chicken pie left on the shelf. She snatched it before anyone else could lay claim to it, then picked up a few salad ingredients on her way back to the till. To her dismay, indeterminate queues had formed at each one, most disappearing down some of the aisles. The ’10 items and under’ queue stretched back a long way too!

Andrea messaged Sophia: Pie and salad sorted. You organise potatoes and pudding. The queue inched forward at an agonisingly slow pace. It was now 5.45 p.m. The cacophony within the supermarket was deafening. Most shoppers wore grim, tired expressions on their faces. Andrea could feel a sense of desperation taking hold of her as the time crept up to 5.55 p.m.

“This is not acceptable! I’ve been in your so-called ‘express’ queue for twenty minutes already!” The loud female voice cut through the general hubbub. “Your sign says ten items and under. Ten! Can you even count to ten?”

A brief lull swept through the queues; all eyes turned towards the high-pitched irritated voice. “I have counted more than ten items in each of the baskets ahead of me. Can’t you people read?”

Someone must have been talking quietly to Irate Woman during the brief moment of silence, which was shattered by another uncontrolled shout. “Cigarettes! What do you mean ‘waiting for cigarettes’? Just look at the queue behind me – and you want us all to wait for someone to collect cigarettes?”

It was now six o’ clock. Andrea messaged Sophia: Stuck in shop. Put oven on at 200°C.

A woman wearing the livery of the supermarket chain began moving shoppers out of the express queue, which grew miraculously shorter. At 6.05 p.m. Andrea smiled at the cashier when she was handed her change and then battled against an ocean of humanity to find her car.

She knew her reverse lights worked – a clear indication of her intention. Andrea reversed cautiously in the face of the rapidly passing traffic, but drivers paid scant attention to her as they whizzed past to reach the exit. It was now 6.15 p.m. and Andrea’s neck ached from scanning the traffic behind her for a gap. Her cell phone began ringing; she ignored it. Headlights flashed, drawing her attention to a 4 x 4 truck that had stopped the passing flow to give her space to move.

Andrea waved gaily at the man behind the steering wheel. Free at last! She moved into the left lane to head towards her digs and doubtless a frantic Sophia. To her surprise, the 4 x 4 drew up next to her at the stop sign. She smiled at the driver, “You’re my hero!” she called as she pressed forward in the queue. A gentle ‘beep’ of acknowledgement sounded behind her, making Andrea feel happier than she had been for the past hour.

DINNER GUESTS 1: MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME

“How lovely to see you, do come in.” Theresa relieved her guests of the proffered bottle of wine and box of chocolates. “This way.” She pointed to the empty lounge and groaned inwardly. Why would the Hendersons be the ones to arrive half an hour early and why would Evan still be out on a run? “Let me get you each a drink; do make yourselves at home.”

Theresa checked the contents of the oven, stirred the soup, and put the salad ingredients into a bowl of iced water before taking a beer and a glass of wine through to the lounge. Steven was scrutinising the bookshelves while Annette was handling the ornaments decorating the shelf near the door. She looked up as Theresa entered and smiled broadly. “Wine! I’ve been looking forward to a glass all day.”

“An interesting collection of books you have here,” Steven observed while sipping his beer. “Very interesting indeed.” He sat down heavily. “Is Evan around?”

“He’ll be here shortly.” Theresa glanced at her wristwatch, willing her husband to hurry up. “The Davidsons and the Yeomans should arrive soon too.” Her voice pooled into an empty silence. Should she sit down or make an excuse to finish off the dinner? Her guests were both eyeing her intently.

“We’re very early I know.” Annette gulped at her wine. “Deliberately so, I might add.” She smiled and waved her arm around the room, her many bangles clamouring for attention. “I love looking inside other people’s houses. It’s always so interesting to see what the interior reveals about the characters within.” She glanced across at her husband comfortably ensconced in Evan’s favourite easy chair.

“I’m sure you have a few more things to do in the kitchen,” she continued. “Don’t mind us. Another glass of wine please and all will be well.”

Theresa heard Evan unlocking the back door. She slipped into the kitchen, the empty wine glass in hand. “Your ‘very important’ Hendersons arrived a while ago,” she hissed. “You’d better be downstairs pronto!”

“Let me take the wine through. I should have warned you Annette’s a bit loopy. Steven’s a good bloke though and he knows a lot about otters.”

“Evan, you’re all sweaty and _ “

“No matter.” He kissed Theresa on her cheek. “Dinner smells so good I can hardly wait.”

Theresa relaxed a little once their other guests had arrived. Annette appeared to be in her element and chatted about anything and everything at once. She had imbibed several glasses of wine before everyone at last gathered around the dinner table, yet showed no sign of fatigue.

Olivia had just been describing a guest house she and her husband had stayed in when Annette cut across her with “You have such a lovely house, Theresa. It is charming and, well, lived in. I feel quite at home here.”

“Thank you.” Theresa rose to gather the dinner plates to take through to the kitchen. Dessert, then cheese and biscuits, coffee, perhaps a liqueur or two and then everyone can go home, she thought wearily.

“Your guest bathroom is very austere though.” Annette’s comment halted Theresa in her tracks.

“Well, it’s a ‘working bathroom’ really.” Theresa was tired of being polite to this larger than life woman. “We use it all the time as it is downstairs.”

“I’m looking forward to dessert,” Fiona broke in. She rose too. “Let me help you with the dishes.”

It was while everyone was chatting over dessert that Annette excused herself from the table. “Just need to powder my nose,” she announced loudly with a conspiratorial wink and swept out of the room.

Olivia helped to bring in the cheese, nuts, biscuits and fruit. There was still no sign of Annette, whose dessert remained untouched. “She’s not in the bathroom, I checked,” Fiona murmured.

The cheese platter did the rounds. Evan was so absorbed in conversation that he didn’t seem to notice the missing guest. Steven too was unperturbed, tucking into more cheese as the platter came and went.

“Perhaps she went outside for a breath of fresh air,” Olivia suggested.

“Does she smoke?” Theresa got up to make coffee. The untouched dessert bowl seemed to glare at her.

“She has had a lot of wine,” Fiona whispered, “I’ll check if she’s fallen asleep outside.” She too gathered plates as an excuse for leaving the table. The men remained oblivious to being left on their own.

Coffee was served. Theresa glanced at her watch; it was already ten o’clock. Annette had been missing for an hour. Olivia emptied the three boxes of chocolates onto a plate and passed them round. By this time even Evan had noticed the untouched dessert bowl and the empty chair. He looked at Theresa enquiringly; she shrugged her shoulders while casting a glance at Steven.

Chocolates! My favourite after-dinner treat!” Annette swept into the room, her cheeks flushed and the ends of her hair slightly damp. “Darlings, you simply must know that this couple have the most divine bathroom upstairs.” She wolfed down her dessert and emptied the dregs of a wine bottle into her glass.

“I’m glad you approve,” Theresa responded stiffly. “Would you care for a cup of coffee?”

“Oh, Prissy Missy!” Annette laughed loudly. “I couldn’t resist a peek at all the unguents in your cupboard. Tried most of them in a most luxurious bath. Such a heavenly mixture of scents. No coffee. More wine though to go with the chocolates.”

“You bathed?” Olivia and Fiona asked in unison. The men stared at them.

“Of course! How else can one appreciate the effect? I noticed quite a few you haven’t opened yet.”

Steven stood up abruptly, followed by everyone else. “Thank you for a wonderful evening Evan, Theresa.” He held his wife in a firm grip. “It’s time for us to go home dear.”

“Oh what a pity,” she responded, still smiling broadly. “I was really beginning to feel so at home here.”

THE EIGHTEENTH BIRTHDAY BASH

“… and there are going to be bouncers –” The boy’s voice sounded apologetic.

Bouncers?” His sister’s voice rose to a screech. “A party for twenty-five people and we’re having bouncers? Get real Gary!”

“Well, Dad said –” He sounded crushed.

Dad said?” The girl grabbed her brother’s arm and swung him round to face her. “It’s your party Gary. Take charge! What will people think?” The couple were pushed aside by the crowd of boys and girls making their way to the school assembly.

Gary pulled himself away from his sister’s grip, straightened the sleeve of his jersey and made to move on. “It’s Dad’s party too,” he mumbled, head bowed. The emphasis on ‘Dad’ was a clear indication that he had given up. As he shuffled his way through the crowd, he wondered yet again if it had been worthwhile acquiescing to his parents’ offer of celebrating his eighteenth birthday at their holiday home at the coast.

The guest list had been a major hurdle. His sixteen-year-old sister, Stephanie, had insisted on including some of her nerdy friends; his mother wanted to fly down the sons and daughters of people she seemed to have befriended since birth; his father thought it appropriate to include the sons of some of his ‘high-up’ colleagues. “Always good for business my son,” he had said heartily, patting the back of Gary’s head. “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” The determined ring in his father’s voice was not hard to miss. “You’ll be invited to theirs and who knows what doors will open.” He winced at the inevitability of his father’s next words, “I never had the opportunities you have, son. Make the most of them.”

‘Make the most of them!’ The words swirled around in his mind as he crossed the uneven path, automatically avoiding the roots of the jacaranda that had pushed through the cobbled paving. His mouth had slackened into an unattractive pout: all the ‘have tos’ left only six places for him and his mates at his own party!

What he really wanted to do was to sneak off to the local pub and order a beer, proudly producing his ID if necessary to prove he had reached the legal age for drinking! His father had often told him that his father had taken him to the pub in the town nearest to their farm to celebrate his coming of age when he could both legally drink and cast a vote in national elections.

Now, Gary thought sadly, there was no family farm to go to. Instead, he and his sister had been bundled off to a private boarding school in order to “make connections my boy. The ‘old school tie’ counts for a lot in business.” His father’s gravelly voice intruded once more on his thoughts, crowding his mind with the oft-repeated reasons why he should be grateful for the experience.

Gary listened to the ripples of applause during assembly and watched the formally clad boys walk across the stage to collect their certificates, medals or trophies. Some simply shook the Headmaster’s hand in recognition of what they had achieved. The list included athletics, swimming, cricket, and colours for hockey, music awards, debating, and even a prize for art. As he idly watched each boy in turn move back to his seat in the hall, Gary’s heart began to lighten and a faint smile started to play around the corners of his mouth. The heaviness of the pout began to dissipate.

He would turn eighteen on Saturday and would be leaving school at the end of the year to study sports science or physiotherapy in Cape Town. His father wanted him to take up engineering, but he had got the school counsellor to put the kibosh on that. ‘Round one to me,’ he thought happily, cracking his knuckles. ‘Let Dad bluster on if it makes him happy. I have my own life to live.’

Gary listened to the taunting of his sister again after their orchestra rehearsal later that afternoon. She was embarrassed at the thought of bouncers standing guard outside their holiday home during the party. How many would there be? Where would they come from? Her demands were relentless. “You shouldn’t just give in to Dad, Gary. We’ll be the laughing stock of the school!”

She easily manipulated her parents – with their mother her strongest ally – to get designer clothes, to spend holidays with friends abroad and having more freedom than he had enjoyed at her age. She was whining now and tears glistened in her eyes as she begged him to get their father to reconsider his decision. For the first time that he could remember, Gary felt nothing. These were the tools of her manipulation. He was not going to give into her. For the first time too, Gary felt it was important to let his father have his way.

An impressive array of luxury vehicles crowded the driveway of Peebles, the name was meant to be a fun allusion to the round pebbles that formed the crunchy driveway that spanned the front of the seaside home “all the better to alert us to intruders” his mother had declared. The fact that it was also the name of a town in Scotland was only drawn to her attention when Gary had mischievously painted pop: 6 705 underneath the name, having copied it from the 1989 version of his school dictionary. His mother had been furious with him, but his father had laughed heartily and allowed the scrawled figures to remain.

Gary surveyed the bar area next to the open dancing floor created by the clearance of the triple garage adjacent to the large family room. A marvellous feast was laid out on the veranda that ran along the length of the house. He moved onto the lawn from where he could see two bouncers at the front gate and the two guarding the softly-lit swimming pool. He was aware of a young couple employed to roam the passage which led to several bedrooms. A young woman was keeping tabs on the bathroom assigned to the girls.

He grinned in the dark at the memory of Stephanie throwing a tantrum earlier in the evening about being in Fort Knox. His father had responded with “I can arrange for a driver to take you and your friends back to school if you don’t like it. This is Gary’s party and I want his friends to celebrate without fear of falling foul of school rules. There will be no hanky-panky here, just good clean fun.” Gary had walked away from the kitchen unobserved. His step was lighter, along with his mood.

‘Good clean fun’. Perhaps not quite what his father had intended, but he had made good buddies at school and the best of them were celebrating with him tonight: Cameron had proved to be a tough adversary at chess; Henry seldom beat him at Scrabble; Ross had drawn him into the school orchestra; and Jarrett was the one who had helped him to put his father’s wealth into perspective. “It’s their dough,” he had often reminded him, “and they want to flash it. They can’t help it, but we must make our own way; decide on our own route to happiness.”

The band left at midnight amidst groans from the teenagers; the bar closed an hour later and most of the guests departed to their assigned sleeping quarters soon after. Drawn by the familiar tobacco smell, Gary stepped into the back garden to seek out his father who was nursing a glass of whisky on the wooden bench next to the herb garden. They listened to the muffled sounds from the house and watched the lights go out. A warm feeling of mutual understanding flowed between them for the first time in years. “A good party, son?” His father spoke softly.

“Not really my style Dad. I think I would have preferred a fish braai on the beach with my mates.”

“Too public,” his father laughed. “I’ve always wanted to give you the best.” He sighed and patted his son’s knee. “You’ll be a good sports scientist, but you aren’t going to get wealthy.”

“Engineering could do that for me?”

“Perhaps. If there is one thing I have learned in life it is that you can’t buy happiness, Gary. And I want you to be happy.”

“I am Dad, very happy.” They hugged each other affectionately. “Thanks Dad, for everything.”

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.