AUNT BETTY’S CORNER

My late father was an avid reader of The Farmer’s Weekly and once I could read well I enjoyed reading the articles too, gathering quite a lot of incidental information along the way! A column called The Hitching Post delighted the older me – tickled by the messages posted by people seeking companions. This column is still going strong: advertisements claim that ‘hundreds of couples have found love’ or companionship as a result of submitting their profile to the magazine. There was also a supplement aimed at women that was called The Homestead and in this was a page devoted to the interests of young children. This was called Aunt Betty’s Corner. I must have been around five or six when I became a member.

I was very interested in the Corner and it was there that I found addresses for pen-friends – which fed my abiding joy in writing letters. I also loved entering competitions when the opportunity arose. During my primary school years I won about three writing competitions – the prize was usually a postal order for about two shillings. This ‘success’ spurred me on to write ever since – though I don’t earn a cent from it, although ‘scribbling’ gives me a lot of joy.

FARMERS

A typical morning at a local business where farmers and others can buy a variety of items relating to agriculture and the feeding of animals.

Note the dusty vehicle from driving on dirt roads, the goat on the back, and the casual way in which the bakkie is parked exactly where the sign on the left exhorts customers not to! It was a quiet morning and I imagine the farmer might be one of this group solving the world’s problems a little way off:

Even though it is winter, Eastern Cape farmers typically wear shorts and caps – the only nod to the weather being their jackets and hands-in-pockets. Everyone wears masks these days. The numerous water tanks seen in the background have become items of necessity as the drought continues. Not only farmers purchase them anymore – many suburbanites now have them in their gardens to catch and store any rain than happens to fall.

ANGUS

I must tell you about Angus. I could tell you about the time I stopped my car to listen to him playing his bagpipes, dressed in full kilted regalia, under a grove of trees darkened by the thick mist that held onto the sound. I could tell you about him meeting me in the pub, ruddy-faced, with grass in his hair and stinking of buffalo and sweat. That was the Angus I came to know.

If there was a time before Angus it has disappeared in a haze of growing up, having fun and not caring about the future. That time before Angus wasn’t really without Angus because he was always there. It was merely a time of not-knowing-Angus.

Well, of course everyone ‘knew’ Angus at university. You couldn’t miss him, surrounded as he was by an entourage of expectant, gorgeous-looking girls and young men who hung onto his every word. I wasn’t among them. He once gave me a lift to town in his bakkie that was always either covered with mud or dust, depending on the season.

I once volunteered to be an usher at a series of graduation ceremonies, telling myself it would be good to keep myself busy and be useful during the vacation that was too short for me to go home. At the end of those exhausting ceremonies I had to admit it had been worth the satisfaction of seeing Angus striding confidently across the stage to receive his Master’s degree. Was I in love, you ask. How could I be? I didn’t really ‘know’ Angus then, although I was drawn to his cheery laugh whenever I heard it on campus. We never met.

Perhaps we did. With time one forgets the process of meeting, of becoming familiar, of feeling free to greet in passing without any obligation. I will always remember his laugh: he seemed driven to enjoy himself. He wore his hair in a long, thick ponytail then, which seemed at odds with the clothes he wore and the vehicle he drove.

I noticed once that his ponytail had reached his waist. He had his back to me in the pub, where I was having a drink with two male colleagues. He saw me as he was leaving and waved in my direction. He wasn’t smiling, yet his eyes lit up as they brushed over me. Then he was gone.

Angus sat next to me at a folksong evening. The air was thick with smoke from braai fires on the periphery. A duo were singing on the dimly lit stage below the tiered seating set up on a school sports field. At first I was on my own, envying the couples holding hands, leaning into each other, or chatting quietly, even though my heart ached for no-one in particular. I had come for the music. The empty space next to me yawned and sighed until out of the gathering gloom Angus appeared: short-cropped, clean-shaven and confident about claiming the space.

We swayed in our seats to the rhythm of the music. As the evening wore on he put his arm around me in the casual way that good friends do. During the final song he lifted my hand and touched it to his lips. He lightly brushed my cheek with his fingers – and was swallowed by the darkness.

I must tell you about Angus because he is here, yet he is somewhere else. I once fed him soup with a teaspoon when he was very ill and shrunken-looking in my bed. He changed my tyre once in the road outside the supermarket. I held his hand at his father’s funeral. He comforted me when my mother died.

Angus and I. Me and Angus. We. Us. We met occasionally, loved, made love, dined together, and spent evenings reading together. I went to his game farm for weekends and holidays. He taught me to shoot; we counted game together; we watched sunsets together. We were us. That was the ‘here’ Angus, the tangible Angus, the Angus who loved with passion.

Then Angus would leave. Sometimes he would be away for weeks at a time, attending wildlife and hunting expos in Europe and the United States. His silence was thick and dark. Angus would return without warning, having driven past his farm to sit in my kitchen; to stretch his legs and comb his fingers through my hair.

That wonderfully rich laughter disappeared for a long time after his father’s death. The furrow on his brow deepened: taking full responsibility for the game farm put paid to his PhD. It ended his freedom to choose. It turned him inside himself – except when he was with me.

I must tell you about Angus. He is not who you think he is. You have thought he takes life lightly. You have wondered at his success. You have spoken about silver spoons, but you have never seen the strain that threatened to pull his face apart. You do not know of the weariness that turned his muscles to lead. Only I can tell you about the hidden Angus.

The Angus who lived in a dark world; who went to battle every day as he learned and failed, and tried again. The Angus who entered my flat in the early hours of one morning and kissed me on my cheek. He smelled of days and nights spent in the veld. He smelt of fear and of weariness. He showered and, as he snuggled next to me, said “Marry me Judith. Marry me” and fell asleep before I could reply.

You ask me why, after all these years, do I want to tell you about Angus. About the man who has lived his life to the full; who always cared about the land and all that derives succour from it. About the man who has devoted his life to creating a better future for his family.

I have chosen to tell you about the Angus who was, who might have been, and the Angus who became the man I have loved most in the world; the man who has loved and protected me even more fiercely than you can imagine. I have chosen to tell you about Angus because tomorrow we would have been married for fifty years. Although he has gone, he would have been very proud of you, my son.

 

ALOES – a story

Note: This is a continuation of the story entitled GERANIUMS, which you can find at https://somethingovertea.wordpress.com/2020/02/03/geraniums/. Two bloggers suggested I take the story further …

“I don’t see why we should help them. They didn’t even send a delegate!” Kelsey’s face reddened as she reached across the wooden school desk to gather up the files belonging to the English Department of her school.

“Kelsey, they are six hours away from us; they need guidance and it is up to us to give it.”

“You’re so prissy about these things, Fiona. You take your job as Cluster Co-ordinator far too seriously.”

“It’s the job of all of us to help schools in need.”

“My foot it is. Look,” Kelsey leaned across the narrow desk until her face was only inches away from Fiona’s. “There’s no way I’m going to share my exams and worksheets with a tuppence ha’penny school down the road!”

Fiona scraped her chair back to create a distance. “That’s rich coming from you, Kelsey.”

Kelsey snatched up the files she needed and marched across the room. “I’ve had enough of this. It’s a sheer waste of time. In any case, I must get ready for an important date tonight.” She slammed the wooden door behind her, leaving Fiona white-faced and close to tears.

She turned to Ian, her Head of Department. “How dare she say that? Did you note that several of the entries in her school portfolios are identical to the ones we used last year? All they’ve done is replace our badge and names with theirs!”

“Leave it, Fiona. It really isn’t worth it.” Ian touched her lightly on her shoulder. “I’ll help you put together the critique along with some examples on Monday. Perhaps I can persuade the Head to agree to us visiting the school later in the week.”

“I’d rather not: I’m hosting my garden picnic on Saturday and there’s a lot of tidying up to do outside before then. Are you and Beth still able to come?”

“Of course we are!” He looked at his watch. “Beth’s got yoga after work. Let’s have coffee and cheesecake at Allie’s Cake Shop. It’ll be on me.”

Fiona sighed as she placed her pencil case and note book in her bag. “You’re very kind, but I’m taking a drive out of town with my camera. That’ll clear my head.” She stacked the portfolio files of pupils’ work and headed towards the door, then turned back to him. “Thank you, Ian, but I’d better go while the light’s still good.”

Her altercation with Kelsey rankled, even as Fiona drove out of town in the direction of the farm Oakhaven. Don’s previous two invitations had had to be turned down because of work commitments. “Blast Kelsey! I can’t have her spoiling my afternoon!” Fiona switched on her favourite playlist and sang along loudly until she felt the tension ease within her. She halted at the discreet sign to Oakhaven and smiled as she opened the silver-painted farm gate. The ‘Please close the gate behind you’ sign gave her a warm feeling of anticipation.

Don met her in the driveway. “Down boy! Down!” He admonished Sebastian firmly as Fiona emerged from her car. “Welcome at last,” he smiled and kissed her lightly on her cheek. “Meet Sebastian and then we’ll go in for tea.”

Fiona relaxed in the cushioned cane chair on the deep, shady veranda overlooking the farm stretching into the distance. “What a marvellous sanctuary this is from the heat,” she exclaimed as Don brought out two mugs of tea on a tray along with a few slices of date loaf on a plate. “Goodness, do you bake too?”

“No,” Don laughed heartily. “Tilly Ford, my neighbour, brought it over this morning. I told her last night I was expecting a guest for tea.” He nodded towards her camera. “I’m glad you’ve brought your camera along.” Don looked at her intently, as if weighing something up in his mind. “I think you will enjoy walking up the kopje.”

He pointed out interesting plants and rocks as well as insects and birds as they wound their way slowly up a rough path that took them to the lichen-covered rocks at the top.

“Oh Don, you were so right! This view is absolutely magnificent!”

“I should have brought some sundowners.” Don passed her a bottle of water from the day pack he had carried with him. “Only Adam’s Ale I’m afraid.” He sounded rueful.

“It’s perfect.” Fiona enjoyed the breeze whipping her hair around her face and the way Don’s shoulder touched hers when he pointed out landmarks below them. For a moment she felt transported to a different world – a world filled only with contentment. She drained the water bottle before turning to her companion. “It’s no wonder you enjoy living here.” Just then, her eye was caught by a patch of aloes highlighted by the lowering sun. “Are those visible from your house?”

“They’re too low to see from the veranda unless you stand up. You’re welcome to have a look at them while I fix us a drink when we get back.” He helped her up from the rocks. Sebastian stopped along the path ahead of them and whined almost imperceptibly. He looked up at Don, who scanned the area around them. “What’s wrong boy?”

“Has he seen a snake perhaps?” Fiona hung back.

“No, but something’s up.” Don stiffened as they rounded a corner that afforded a view of the farmhouse and the road beyond it. “Damn! There’s someone coming. Talk about timing!”

They quickened their steps as a vehicle drew up next to Fiona’s car parked under a shady tree. “I’ll go down to the aloes if you don’t mind.” Fiona followed the stony path that wound towards the spiked flowers glowing in the late afternoon light. Entranced by their beauty, she photographed one after the other, then halted at the sound of an all too familiar voice coming from the veranda.

“Don dear, I hope I haven’t arrived too late. Look, I’ve brought us a supper basket. When I saw … last weekend …”

Last weekend? Had Don invited Kelsey out after Fiona had told him she couldn’t come? She fumed inwardly at having had to attend the Grade 8 music concert on the Friday night and accompany the fourth hockey team to their away match on the Saturday. She gripped her camera tightly as her pulse began to race. What now?

Don met her along the path. “Fiona, I wasn’t expecting this. I – ”

“No matter,” she answered tightly. “It’s time I headed for home anyway.” She pushed past him to retrieve her car keys and camera bag from the veranda, which now looked far from peaceful with Kelsey setting out an array of cheeses, biscuits and fruit.

“I was hoping you’d stay for a sundowner.” Don addressed her retreating back.

Fiona closed her car door firmly and rolled down the window. “It wouldn’t be appropriate Don, you know that.” As she started the engine she trusted herself to say only, “It’s a pity I didn’t get to see your ‘delirium of geraniums’” before pulling slowly away.

She stopped just out of sight of the farmhouse to put her cell phone onto flight mode and then drove home as calmly as she could. Of all the women in the world, she thought angrily, why did the intruder have to be Kelsey?

Fiona splashed her face at the garden tap on Sunday morning and wiped it dry with the hem of her T-shirt. Even though it was only eleven o’clock, the day was proving to be unexpectedly hot. “Good for drying the laundry though,” she said aloud to herself. Fiona had been talking to herself all weekend, as if she had to make sure she was alive. A loud banging at her front door stopped her in her tracks. She cautiously moved from the line of recently pegged laundry to investigate, then she burst out laughing.

“Ian! Why are you bashing my door?”

“Fiona!” The relief was clearly evident in his voice. “Thank heavens you seem to be alright.”

“Is something wrong?”

“You tell me! Beth’s been trying to get hold of you since Friday night. You’re not answering your phone and our messages aren’t getting through. Your landline doesn’t work either. ‘The number you have dialled doesn’t exist’”, he mimicked a recorded voice.

“The line is so crackly that I never bother with it. I generally only use my cell phone anyway.”

“Beth’s been trying to invite you to lunch. Come home with me.”

“I look a mess!”

“It’s only us,” Ian encouraged her. “She wants to chat to you about your picnic next Saturday.”

Fiona studied the screen of her cell phone while Ian was driving. A regular ping of messages came through, one after the other. She smiled, three were from Don: ‘Please tell me you’ve arrived home safely’; ‘I have been trying to call you. Please let me know you’re okay’; and ‘Where are you?’

“Popular girl. Why did you switch off your phone?” There was an edge of irritation in Ian’s voice.

“I usually switch to flight mode while I’m driving. I must have forgotten to change the setting. These are mostly missed calls and messages from Beth anyway.” Fiona knew she had not forgotten her phone.

It was after work on Wednesday afternoon that Fiona found three small potted aloes at her front door along with a note from Don: Aloes stay spiky forever. These ones will remain proudly erect even when they grow old and their bottom leaves dry up. Despite their apparent harshness, every year the beauty of their blooms provide nourishment to a variety of insects and birds. Like all aloes, I know you have a softer side. See you on Saturday.

Did she still want Don to join her garden picnic? Fiona was no longer sure. Nonetheless, she was so busy making salads and setting out mismatched crockery, glassware and cutlery on Saturday afternoon that she had no time to think.

“Shall I light these candles in the paper bags now, or do you want to wait until it gets darker?”

“Oh, I think they will look pretty now, thank you Beth.” Fiona collected empty wine and beer bottles from the table to put aside for recycling. Her picnic was a success, she thought while happily surveying the eight guests on the lawn. There had been plenty of food after all.

“Come and join us Fiona!” Ian waved his wine glass at her. “I need someone to back me up in this raging argument about poetry vs science for environmental education.”

She glanced at the table on which she had stacked ten of everything. Only one plate remained untouched and mocked her in passing. ‘Why should he come, Fiona? Does ‘thank you for the aloes’ sound forgiving or welcoming enough?’

‘Does it?’ The empty wine glass echoed shrilly. ‘Does it?’ the single set of cutlery still bound with a floral ribbon shouted at her.

“I’ll join you in a moment,” she called and turned to find a bottle of grape juice in the large metal basin filled with ice and icy water. The thud of a vehicle door shutting attracted her attention away from the cheerful voices on the lawn. They faded to a hum as Fiona concentrated on the familiar squeak of her garden gate and the heavy footsteps behind the Plumbago bush. She stopped breathing as the tall figure with close-cropped dark hair made his way to her front door.

“I promised you eggs and tomatoes from my garden,” he said quietly. “I’ve been working with the vet: a cow had a difficult birth.” He sighed ruefully. “It’s been a long haul.”

Fiona took his offerings and hugged him warmly. “You’ve come to my picnic. After all that, you still came?” She couldn’t help the glisten in the corner of her eyes or the slight quivering of her lips.

He opened the beer she had thrust into his hand. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Fiona. Not for the world.”

She took him lightly by his free hand. “Come and meet my friends,” she said happily.

THE BOLL WEEVIL SONG

There was a time when my father grew dryland cotton on his farm in the De Kaap Valley. He eschewed spraying the cotton in favour of allowing Helmeted Guineafowl to roam freely through the cotton fields to feed on the pests.

I remember anxious times waiting for the rain; checking the flowers on the cotton plants; walking through the rows looking at the swelling cotton bolls; cotton pickers moving through the lands; heaps of cotton piling up in the shed; and large sacks being filled with cotton before being loaded on the back of the truck to be taken to the cotton gin in Barberton. There even used to be an annual Cotton Festival in that town.

This picture shows the start of this process, when the first pickings of cotton were loaded onto an old wagon in the shed prior to being bagged. I am standing in it together with my eldest brother.

Growing cotton had its moments and the boll weevil is a particularly nasty pest to be reckoned with – which is why we couldn’t resist giving my father the 78 rpm record of The Boll Weevil Song by Brook Benton. The introduction seems innocuous:

Let me tell ya a story about a boll weevil
Now, some of you may not know, but a boll weevil is an insect
And he’s found mostly where cotton grows
Now, where he comes from, hmm, nobody really knows
But this is the way the story goes

To the horror of the farmer, the boll weevil sounds delighted to have found a home for his whole darn family. Then comes the desperation: The farmer said to the boll weevil “Say, why do you pick my farm?” This is aggravated by the response of the boll weevil:

And the boll weevil called the farmer, ‘n’ he said
“Ya better sell your old machines
‘Cause when I’m through with your cotton, heh
You can’t even buy gasoline.”
(I’m gonna stake me a home, gotta have a home)

Cotton is no longer grown there. The cotton gin closed down decades ago. There is no longer any reason to hold a Cotton Festival. Life moves on – imports grow …