“Walter is the most attractive man I have ever met!” Frances unpinned her long, glossy brown hair, pulled a brush through it and reapplied her lipstick. She stood back to check her appearance in the mirror. “What do you think, Emily? Do you think he will notice me in the crowd?”
“Given that he is meant to be keeping an eye on the smooth running of the sports schedule, he might not actually have the time to notice anyone other than the next hockey team.”
Frances sprayed her neck and wrists with her favourite perfume. “Is he a primary school teacher? I’m not sure I could spend the rest of my life around sticky-fingered, sock-smelling little boys.”
“Actually, he’s a farmer standing in for Ben Lovemore who has ostensibly flown to Jo’burg for his parents’ wedding anniversary.”
“Are they good mates then?”
“They were at school and university together. Ben has something else up his sleeve I think. Whatever that might be is certainly important enough for Walter to step so far out of his comfort zone to help out.”
The two young women left the senior school ablution block together. “I must say hello to the Rogers family. See you later, Fran.” Emily left her colleague to hover near Walter while she made the Rogers family feel welcome at their first school derby day.
“I like the way you’ve redecorated your apartment, Em. I should have brought you a succulent or two from the farm.” Walter stretched his long legs out in front of him.
“You don’t mind fish for dinner?” Emily held up a box of frozen fish for him to see.
“I’m famished. Any hot food will go down well. By the way, your friend Frances made a show of being interested in farming this afternoon.”
“Oh? She got near enough to chat to you then?” Emily placed the tray of fish in the oven.
“Nearly drowned me in her perfume too! She told me over tea that it must be wonderful to work in an area ‘in which pollen turns into edible seeds’”.
“Walter, your sin is the way you give pretty girls a bear hug. They go all weak at the knees. You didn’t tell her you farm cattle?”
Emily poured them wine and perched on the high stool at the counter where she had placed their food. “You’d better chew carefully; whatever is written on the box, someone always ends up with a bone!”
They ate in silence for a while until Walter stood up to fetch the wine bottle from the shelf next to the stove. “How did your presentation on study methods go down? Did your audience buy into your ideas about homework?” He refilled their glasses.
“You remembered!” Emily flushed slightly and ran a finger around the rim of her wine glass. “They were polite enough. One oldish chap said he’d worn out several rubber soles over the years trying to deal with individuals in the classroom and he therefor knows that homework is an easier way of tracking a child’s academic progress.”
“So, he reckons he is a top dog in the profession?”
“His influence was dangerous enough to upset me.”
“See it as a bump along the way.” Walter placed his hand briefly over hers. “As you know only too well from my experience, we can’t always be successful from round one.” He smiled knowingly.
“Walter has invited me to the carol service at the little church on Chisholme Farm on Sunday,” Frances announced happily as the two colleagues opened their boxes of take-away food bought at the end of a long staff meeting.
“That’s good, I’ll see you there as I’m going with Jack. He’s going to play the organ and I have been invited to do the First Reading.”
“Do you go often?”
“Most years. The service is held early – before the farmers depart to other climes for their holiday period.” Emily tucked her paper serviette into the take-away box. “Is he fetching you?”
“Sadly not, but he’s arranged a lift with Joe and Chiara Kannegiesser. Joe apparently grew up in the area but works as an accountant in town because his older brother inherited the family farm.”
Emily could almost feel the current of interest swirl around the tiny wattle-and-daub church when she arrived with Jack. Along with the stiffening breeze came furtive looks and whispers from turning heads as Walter joined Frances after the Kannegiessers had ushered her in and introduced her to the priest standing at the door. Jack rose to play the portable electric organ set up in the chancel.
As the first notes drifted across the congregation, two young boys reached up to pull the bell rope. The church bell clanged loudly once, followed by howls of laughter as one of the two barefoot lads leapt up to catch the rope while the other was doubled up on the floor waving the broken end of it at the priest. Guffaws of laughter rippled through the little church.
Then the organ sputtered and failed to respond to Jack’s gentle touch. “Load shedding,” the congregation groaned collectively. Walter and Len rose from their respective pews and returned moments later carrying a car battery and extension cords. With the unexpected entertainment over, the priest began the service with as straight a face as he could muster. Jack’s music encouraged even the most unmusical among the congregation to sing the well-known carols with gusto. When Emily caught Walter’s eye as she stood up to read the First Lesson, he winked at her.
Some of the women left the church before the end of the last carol to set up folding tables in the church garden. These were soon groaning with a variety of home-made eats ranging from savoury to sweet. While water was being boiled on gas stoves to fill the large tea pots, some of the men collected cooler boxes of drinks from their trucks parked nearby.
Frances watched some of them twist tops off their beer bottles, while others poured brandy and ginger ale into glasses for, she presumed, their wives. She glanced round at the queue of people waiting for tea and edged closer to Walter. “Alcohol was the last thing I expected to see being offered after a carol service,” she commented quietly.
“This carol service is an integral part of our calendar,” he explained. “It’s for the kids as much as the adults. This brings us all together and provides an opportunity for people around here to catch up with each other before we go our separate ways. Farming can be a lonely life for some.”
She tucked her arm into his. “Do you think there might be some whisky on offer?”
“If there is, it would be shared privately.” Walter’s attention turned towards two cows that had wandered into the church yard. He smiled at a group of small boys chasing them off.
“Domestic animals turn up without passports!” Emily laughed as she handed them each a cup of tea. “It’s going to be a slow process filling these tea pots unless someone brings another pot and a gas stove.”
The truest translation must be in the eyes, Frances realised with a jolt: not a word, yet they are genuinely pleased to see each other. She briefly felt like the outsider she was until Walter nudged her elbow. “Let me show you the outside of this church, which is over a hundred years old already. The corrugated iron roof is still the original.” He led her past the tables to pick up a few of the snacks so temptingly laid out.
Emily was chatting to a group of women near the gas stoves. Everyone looks so content, Frances observed as she heard the adults indulgently listening to the small boys telling their tale of ‘capturing the cattle’. Two men near her were discussing the pros and cons of the latest batch of cattle licks available at the farmer’s co-op. She noticed another knot of people engaged in a conversation amidst a lot of laughter.
Walter began telling her about the history of the church and the local farming community. “Some of our families have been here for generations,” he was saying when an older man approached them. He used his walking stick to point towards some trees that had seeded themselves very close to the western wall of the church.
“I reckon a couple of you lads can sort these out with your chain saws,” he commented as if he were in the middle of a conversation. “We have to keep the wilderness at bay,” he explained to Frances before moving on.
“So, Frances. How do you feel about this farming community?” She thought she detected a note of teasing in Walter’s voice.
“It can be challenging, I imagine.” She bit her lower lip at the sight of Emily helping to clear the tables. Jack was nowhere to be seen. In her mind’s eye she saw endless carol services that doubtless meant a clarion call to bakers and cooks. No intimate dinners in restaurants; no regular musical evenings; no popping into the shops on a whim. She looked at young women hoisting babies to their hips and men clapping each other on the shoulder.
“Well?” Walter was smiling down at her, his eyes twinkling with amusement. Was it amusement?
“Do the Kannegiesser’s know they’re meant to be taking me home?”
“I saw Joe putting his cooler box away a moment ago. Come, let’s find them,” he said pleasantly.
Emily wiped her hands on her jeans and smiled at Walter as he approached. “All go well?” she asked brightly.
Walter put his arms around her and kissed both her cheeks. “That ship’s left the harbour,” he grinned against the background of applause from the few people still packing up.
“You had us all fooled for a moment,” Len called from his bakkie.
“Never!” Walter responded, drawing Emily closer. “Let’s go home, Em. There’s time enough to light a braai fire before the sun sets.”
They both knew what the hearty clapping meant. Walter pressed his hooter cheerfully in farewell as they left to drive down the narrow dirt road that would lead to his farm.