WHO ARE WE TO JUDGE?

A bitingly chilly wind made me draw my jacket closer even though I was sitting in the shelter of my truck. I had resigned myself to a long wait in the car park of a busy shopping centre and amused myself as always by watching the coming and going of people, vehicles and even birds. The smell of cigarette smoke bothered me, especially as I couldn’t find the source of it. The vehicle parked next to me reversed, affording me the view a man sitting on the pavement on the other side of the close-linked fence.

He was bundled up against the cold, his head covered. He sat unmoving, seemingly watching the passing traffic. Occasionally he would wave at the occupants of a vehicle or shift to straighten his back against the fence. I could still smell the cigarette smoke but it wasn’t coming from him. The temperature warmed up. I removed my jacket and he replaced his beanie with a cap.

I took in his sun-burnt features and couldn’t help wondering where he was from; what had led to him sitting on this pavement on the corner of two busy streets in the city; what he was hoping for … three women stood near him, laughing while they ate some take-away food; a man called out to him from a passing car, they waved to each other – does this mean he was a regular? A well-dressed man tossed him a coin in passing … the cigarette smoke was still bothering me, as was the heat for the shade I had parked in had moved with the sun. He had no shade. Then he rose.

More questions immediately rose to the fore. How? Why? He limped a short way and spoke to someone out of sight then crossed the street and returned with a can of coldrink. The vehicle on my right departed, allowing me to see both who he had been talking to and where the source of the cigarette smoke was coming from: a well bundled up woman (his wife?) had selected a spot with scant shade from the tree I was parked close to. Is this where they both spent their days, hoping for enough donations to feed them (and purchase cigarettes)? Where do they shelter at night?

It was time at last for me to move on. Weeks have since passed and the questions remain swirling in my mind.

We do not know their story and can neither judge nor condemn them.

MISSING

“Tristan, I can’t play with you now.” Natalie bent down to look her three-year-old son in the eye. “I’ll bring your blocks and cars into the kitchen and you can play here while I’m busy.”

‘Busy’ meant baking three dozen cupcakes, icing the elephant-shaped cake, and then making two batches of cheese straws. She glanced at the crates of packets already filled with party favours on the counter. Why had she ever allowed Ken to talk her into this party-catering lark?

“You enjoy baking. Everyone oohs and aahs over your cakes. Besides, you’re very good at what you do.”

“For fun, Ken. I do enjoy putting things together for special people because I know them. But as a business…”

It began after she had catered for Irene’s fortieth birthday celebration up at the stables. Natalie had been anxious about everything because Irene was Ken’s manager. She had received glowing praise from the guests and Irene had thanked her in her short speech at the end of the evening – which is what had led Ken to persuade her to ‘go public’.

“Just think, you’ll be able to stay at home with Tristan and number two child until they are old enough for pre-school.”

Tristan built tall towers with the wooden blocks and then knocked them down until the blocks and cars were scattered all over the kitchen floor. Natalie tripped over them, spilling the powdered food colouring she had just mixed to the right shade of grey. “Pick these up!” She hadn’t meant to shout and immediately felt contrite at his pushed out lower lip, reddening cheeks and tear-filled eyes. Her own eyes were smarting too: time was running out.

“Let me help you,” she offered after wiping the grey mess from the floor. “Then I’ll put a plate of snacks together, pour you some juice and we’ll have a little picnic outside before I finish this elephant.”

The oven pinged loudly. Natalie put the cupcakes on a rack to cool, reached for the icing sugar and a bowl. She bent down to retrieve the box of icing nozzles from the bottom drawer, all the while revising her icing plans in her head. Sam, their dog, barked outside and set off the Hadeda Ibises perched in the tall Erythrina in their front garden. As Natalie mixed the different colours of icing, she became aware of the humming of the fridge and the distant barking of other dogs in the neighbourhood. Doves flew up in a flurry past her kitchen window. Everything was peaceful. Peaceful?

She looked up at the kitchen clock. Ten o’clock! When had she promised Tristan his snack? “Tristan!” She expected him to come bounding into the kitchen. He didn’t. “Tristan!” No sound in response. “Tristan!” Her voice had reached a shrill. I really don’t have time for this, she muttered under her breath. “Where are you Tristan? I’m coming to get you!” Natalie cocked her ears. Usually there would be muffled giggles by now that she would ignore while she ‘searched’ high and low in the most unlikely places, making loud comments such as, “Are you hiding under the cushion, Tristan?”

There was still no response. Even the fridge was silent. “Tristan?” Natalie’s heart began thumping. There was a ringing in her ears. She covered the bowls of icing with cling wrap and went out into the garden to call as loudly as she could, “Tristan!” Her voice seemed to be absorbed by the unmown grass and muffled by the trees. The sandpit was empty. The swing was obstinately still. “Tristan! Where are you?” Natalie’s legs felt like lead as she raced around the garden and then tore indoors to run through the house.

There was no sign of Tristan.

There was no sign of Sam.

Apart from her heavy breathing, there was no sound at all.

“Tristan, where are you?” Her whispering wasn’t going to find him. She reached for her cell phone and scrolled to the number of their neighbourhood security group.

Three-year-old Tristan Watkins is missing from 3 Monk Road. Please help me find him. It had taken her trembling fingers three tries to complete the message. Then she phoned her neighbour two doors down.

“Julie, Tristan’s gone. I think – I hope – Sam is with him.” She began to sob.

“I’ll be right over.”

Natalie and Julie walked quickly around the garden together and then more slowly along the pavement. They were joined by Mr. Reardon, the maid who worked for the Kidd family up the road, the Forsythe’s gardener, two students who happened to be passing, as well as Mrs. Roberts, who had been walking her dog. A chorus of “Tristan!” echoed through the neighbourhood. Curious people driving past stopped their cars and joined in the search.

Half an hour passed with no sign of either the little boy or the dog. Having read the message on their respective cell phones, other residents of the neighbourhood dropped what they were doing and swelled the ranks of the searchers. Natalie’s voice was so hoarse she could barely speak. She handed her phone to Julie when Ken called.

“There must be about thirty people out here, Ken. We’ll find them, don’t worry.” Julie handed back the phone, gave her a friend a reassuring hug and carried on shouting. “He can’t have gone far, Nats. Perhaps we should move up a street and then loop back.”

Time had lost its meaning as Natalie tramped doggedly on, her eyes scanning every hedge and bush; her heart telling her not to expect the worst.

“I don’t actually think my Mommy loves me anymore.”

“Why not?”

“She said she would give me a snack. But … she didn’t.”

“Would you like me to come home with you and we can ask her for a snack?”

“I’m too tired. She might shout at me like she shouted about the blocks.”

“Would you like me to give you a ride on my shoulders?” The security officer tossed the truck keys towards his companion. “Then you will be high up and can show me where your house is.” He stretched his hand towards the mud-covered boy who had been building little dams next to the narrow stream that ran below the level of the road. The boy looked at him briefly and shook his head.

“I don’t know where I live.” He sounded miserable. “I asked Sam, but he doesn’t know where to go.”

“Come.” The security officer hoisted the little boy onto his broad shoulders and began walking up the steep hill towards Monk Road. His companion whistled for the dog splashing in the water some distance away.

Ken made his way through the crowd to hug Natalie. “I’m here Angel. We’ll find him.” Natalie could barely breathe. Her eyes were swollen from crying and her throat raw from shouting. Now that Ken was here, she could feel herself go weak at the knees.

“Perhaps we should call the hospital,” she whispered with a shudder as her worst fear at last found a voice.

“Perhaps.” Ken fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone. A roar of applause made him look up.

“He’s here Natalie! Look! He’s here!” Julie tugged at her friend.

“Tristan!” Natalie shrieked. “Tristan!” She ran down the street, her arms held wide. “Tristan! Oh Tristan, we’ve all been looking for you.” She looked up at her son’s smiling mud-stained face as the security officer came near.

“Mommy! Mommy! Look – Alan gave me a ride. All the way like a horsey-ride!”

She reached up to take Tristan from the man’s shoulders and hugged him tightly. “How can I thank you?” Her voice cracked and her tears ran freely.

“It’s all in a day’s work, ma’am.” The man smiled at her and ruffled Tristan’s mud-caked hair. “I know that your Mommy loves you very much, Tristan,” he said quietly and saluted them both.

Natalie held Tristan close and breathed in his little boy smell. She felt Ken’s arms wrap around them both.

When she looked up, the crowd had melted away, except for Julie who was holding Sam by his collar.

VENTURING OUT A LITTLE

South Africa is to remain under the Lock-down Level Three restrictions for the foreseeable future. This is a situation we have become used to and which fortunately allows us some freedom of movement. Many, including me, still err on the side of caution and so I have – for many months now – mostly had birds for company when I have tea at home. This is Meneer sampling the scones I had just brought to the outside table – clearly they are not all meant for me!

My socialising has begun by taking little steps, such as visiting a friend – whom I know has been as careful as I have been – for tea. As we have both been vaccinated we are feeling a little bolder. What a pleasure it was to sit in her home with a different view from my own that I have got to know so well since the start of the pandemic!

Later, when we both were feeling even bolder, we lunched together at a local restaurant to celebrate my birthday – months late. Our respective children warned us to be careful … we were the only diners there! Good for us, yet sad for the establishment.

What does one do when ‘stuck at home’ for so long? I finally got round to sorting through books and other items in my study. Boxes that had been filled remained stubbornly in the way, thus spoiling the positive aspect of my occasional bursts of energy. It was time to do something about them … my friend and I felt so virtuous after dropping off our respective boxes at a local charity shop that we decided to have coffee in the garden of a café on our way home – it is incidental that a carrot cake muffin accompanied each of our drinks.

All this socialising has gradually taken place over the past few months. By now we are both feeling much braver – though are still very careful – and so recently took the plunge to visit a mutual friend, who has also been vaccinated. What a glorious afternoon it was too, catching up with each other and setting the world right.

I will not be painting the town red anytime soon, but each of these tentative steps has brought with it a semblance of normality to the strange circumstances we find ourselves in.

CHARACTERFUL COWS

Over the years the number of cattle making up what I call the Urban Herd has increased; they have split into several herds; sometimes wander off on their own or in smaller groups … one always has to be on the lookout for them. Looking further afield, one place where one wouldn’t usually expect to see a cow is on the beach – like this one in the Transkei:

A more usual place would be on a cattle farm, where this Bonsmara is eating grass whilst staring at me through the fence:

Closer to home, on the industrial road that bypasses the town, are these two calves apparently waiting for attention outside the Stock Theft Unit:

Next to the road leading into town from the industrial road and from the interior is the Bell Cow accompanied by Cattle Egrets. This is the only local cow we have seen here with a bell around its neck – hence its name – and we could often hear her at night. She has not been observed since 2019:

This cow appears to be engaged in conversation with a Cattle Egret whilst lying down in Currie Park – one of several parks in town that are no longer mowed by the municipality, presumably so that there will be grazing for whoever owns the cattle. Perhaps this is what the dispute is about:

Lastly, while driving up George Street, which will take one out of town on the other side, are two cows wandering down – perhaps to make a closer acquaintance with the diverse pleasures of urban hedges and unmown grass verges:

The Urban Herd is alive and well – and expanding rapidly!