THE GUEST FROM LONDON

“What on earth is this?” Timothy stared at the glossy picture of a sheep wearing a garland of yellow roses and scarlet hibiscus flowers. It looked as though the sheep was about to lick the camera lens, it was so close. He considered the marble-like yellow eye for a moment before opening the card that had borne a South African stamp. Inside was Liam’s familiar scrawl:

I’ve sold out mate. Lisa and I are for keeps. Would love you to join us. Details printed alongside.

He scanned the printed details. Rusten Lodge. Timothy opened a new tab on his computer screen. Rusten Lodge was tucked into some familiar mountains in the Eastern Cape. He rubbed his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully and felt a lump in his throat as a rush of memories flooded in: playing marbles with Liam at primary school; falling out of a tree behind the farmhouse and skinning his back – Liam’s mother had rubbed some yellow ointment on it, ruffled his hair and said “You’ll live”; riding horses to the furthest fences on the ridge that formed the boundary between his parents’ farm and Liam’s.

Then there was Rozanne: the girl with long brown hair that never remained tied up for long. She used to bring her horse from a neighbouring farm and the three of them would race across the veld before tethering their horses in the shade of the trees that clustered near the edge of the mountain stream. As they grew older, Rozanne always brought something delicious for a picnic: sandwiches, vetkoek stuffed with cheese, muffins … she once brought along squares of a quiche she had filched from the spread her mother had set out for her Book Club meeting. Timothy remembered the way his mouth used to water in anticipation of what would come out of Rozanne’s saddlebags.

Then Rozanne went to study at the University of Cape Town.

He and Liam attended Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Then the Bedfords sold their farm and only a year later so did his parents. He remembered Liam’s intense disappointment for he had always intended to farm. His focus had been on farming ever since Timothy had known him. He had studied botany and zoology at university, then took on the management of a large mixed farming enterprise while Timothy focused on his B.Com. He had always dreamed of going to work in London.

Work in London.

When had he last seen Liam? They had hiked along the Otter Trail two years earlier when Timothy had visited his parents. Rozanne had joined them with a group of friends from Cape Town. All the talk of political and social turmoil that formed the focus of their fireside chats during that trip had convinced Timothy he had made the right decision to make London his home.

Home?

“I’ll be there!” Timothy sent his friend a WhatsApp message and turned back to his work.

Who is Lisa, he wondered later as he walked up the narrow steps leading to his bachelor apartment. Liam wasn’t a great communicator, but then neither was he.

Rusten Lodge turned out to be further than he had thought from looking at the map. Timothy parked his rental car under a grove of trees and strode along a paved pathway towards the small white chapel surrounded by trees, shrubs and a variety of flowers. Other latecomers slipped in ahead of him. Liam was talking to someone in the front pew, so didn’t see him come in. Timothy found a seat in the back pew as the bridal party arrived and the congregation rose to sing the opening hymn. Liam looked so happy! Timothy knew he hadn’t felt truly happy for years.

He scanned the congregation in front him, but found it difficult to recognise anyone from the back of their heads. He didn’t know either the bride or her two attendants. Surely he hadn’t been away for that long?

He felt embraced by the air of casual friendliness that characterised the congregation; something he hadn’t experienced in London. There his strong Eastern Cape accent alone set him apart and made him an object of curiosity. At least, that is how he felt, for he seldom managed to get past the ‘where do you come from’ when meeting in a crowd and had soon realised there was little point in explaining the rugged beauty of the land of his youth; or how easily he had felt at home in the wildness of the mountains and the attraction of the open veld.

At home.

Looking around, Timothy realised that none of the men he could see were wearing suits – his own dark one was definitely out of place – and most of the women sported open sandals. Except for the pair of bright red shoes peeping between the pews mid-way down the aisle. They were certainly out of place, Timothy smiled.

As the service progressed, he began to feel a connection with the unknown wearer of the red shoes: she clearly didn’t mind being different. Since moving to London, he had done his best to ‘blend in’. Now that suited camouflage was out of place – he should have known better! Despite the cool breeze wafting in through the open sides of the chapel, Timothy began to feel uncomfortably hot.

“Take your jacket off young man,” the elderly woman sitting next to him murmured. She patted his knee lightly. “Nobody will mind.” Her companion wore khaki trousers and an open-necked shirt. It was a great relief to fold his jacket and place it on the pew on the other side of him.

Another hymn. As the congregation rose, Timothy felt drawn to the red shoes and the tanned arm brushed by unruly long brown hair. Could it be? If only the woman would turn her face!

Liam greeted him warmly as he and Lisa stood to one side to greet the throng of guests emerging from the chapel. “It’s so good of you to come. Lisa and I will catch up with you later.”

Timothy had just accepted a glass of chilled fruit cocktail from a passing waitress when he heard a loud authoritative voice call his name. “Timothy Gray! Why didn’t you tell me you would be here?” Those red shoes carried a young woman charging towards him at speed, her long brown hair already blowing free of any clips. She enveloped him in a bear hug that sent his glass flying. “How I have missed you!” Rozanne kissed his neck, his cheeks and gave him a theatrical peck on his lips.

He managed to hold her at arm’s length for a moment to look at her sparkling eyes, sunburnt face and broad smile. What has it always been about Rozanne? Timothy hugged her warmly. “It’s good to see you Roz.”

She drew back and, with one arm tucked firmly around his waist, half turned to the small group of guests gathered round. “Hear this: ‘it’s good to see you Roz’,” she mimicked him perfectly – just as she had learned to mimic the calls of some of the birds they had regularly seen in the veld. “This from a man who simply left!”

“Roz! Rozanne, don’t do this to me,” he pleaded softly. He pulled her closer and kissed her gently on her mouth, now oblivious to the cheers and claps from the onlookers.

“Timothy,” she had never called him Tim, “I declare you will be my partner this evening and that you will never leave me again.” Her warm breath tickled his ear.

It was well after the wedding speeches were over when Timothy drew Rozanne outside to enjoy the warm rose-scented evening. He held her hand tightly. “What did you mean by ‘never leave me again’?”

Rozanne pulled on his arm so that he sat down on a low brick wall next to her. “What’s happened to you Timothy? You used to be so free; you used to laugh a lot; you were such a daredevil – then you left to become a stuffed shirt. I got the impression you didn’t want to be on the Otter Trail with us – you were so serious for much of the time.”

“I did. I loved it, only you were surrounded by your Cape Town friends and so I never really had the chance to talk to you. I mean ‘really’ talk to you.” He kissed her lightly on her forehead before moving away from her slightly. “So yes, I suppose I realised then that I had lost you and so I let you go.” He held her fingers in his. “How’s Cape Town by the way?”

Rozanne laughed loudly and punched him lightly on his shoulder. “I don’t live there anymore. Hasn’t Liam told you that I run a herd of Nguni cattle on my parents’ farm?” She leaned into him. “City life just isn’t for me.”

Timothy kissed her again. It felt so right to be here among the kind of people he had grown up with. He felt a freedom that had been missing for a long time as he looked at Rozanne in the semi-darkness. It felt so good to be with the woman he was sure he had loved forever without knowing it. Timothy took both her hands in his. “After all this time, I realise that city life doesn’t suit me either.”

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.