EYES CAN DECEIVE

Mandy looked down at the milky residue crusted on Ursula’s chin. She should have wiped her mouth properly after breakfast, instead she had given into the unaccustomed lightness – that rare feeling of freedom experienced as she watched her sleeping daughter curled on her bed for a morning nap. Mandy tiptoed into the kitchen to brew a mug of mint tea, pinching a leaf from the pot of mint growing on the windowsill and crushing it between her fingers.

Looking after Linda’s young children should have been a foreshadowing of what it would be like as a mother of her own child. “The difference is that it wasn’t all day – and I could hand them back!” Mandy had taken to talking to herself whenever she was alone: it was a way of checking that she still knew ‘grown-up’ words and how to articulate her thoughts coherently.

Robert was photographing a golf tournament in Brazil. Mandy settled into a comfortable chair and sipped her tea thoughtfully: he was testing her range of endurance to the limit. “He’d better applaud me, or at least acknowledge how difficult it has been to cope on my own for two weeks!”

She enjoyed a fleeting vision of being able to lie back and enjoy an uninterrupted soak in a hot bath. “How my pleasures have been reduced to basics,” she told the blank television in passing. She hadn’t even switched it on since Robert’s departure. What was the use of trying to watch anything when she was so tired at night and Ursula seemed more restless than usual?

“Perhaps she’s teething,” her mother had suggested during their daily phone calls snatched between housework and Ursula. Her mother lived too far away to be of any physical help and couldn’t really keep track of the different stages or ages of her four grandchildren.

“Do we ever stop looking after people?” Mandy asked her reflection in the mirror several days later. She straightened her tartan skirt and caressed the golden head of an Egyptian goddess (which one?) Robert had brought home after covering a soccer tournament in Egypt. “At least you’re not a pyramid. I wish your eyes weren’t so blank though!”

Ursula fell asleep in the car seat almost as soon as Mandy had pulled out of their driveway to head for the airport in the next town. The day was cool and heavily overcast. By the time she had driven into the valley some distance away, she found herself having to slow down to a crawl in the thick mist. Passing cars looming out of nowhere reminded her of the shiny flashes of small shoals of fish in an aquarium.

It was a relief at last to see the tall palms that lined the avenue leading to the airport. The joy flooding through her was quickly replaced by panic: what if Robert’s plane had been held up by the weather?

Once parked, Mandy bent down to lift Ursula out of the car seat. Her face was covered by her long hair and a blob of crusted food stuck to the pretty dress Mandy had chosen for her. She wiped Ursula’s face and hands with a wet-wipe. “Come Angel, we’re going to find your Daddy.”

There was limited space in the arrivals hall. Mandy wondered if a protest was in progress and hoped it wouldn’t turn violent: the crowd was shouting, singing, waving placards and some were even dancing. The noise in that confined space was deafening. Keeping her arm firmly round Ursula on her hip, Mandy edged around the fringe of the crowd and caught the eye of a tall man standing near the door leading to the luggage collection area. He stretched out his arm, inviting her to join him.

“I can see you were worried about being crushed by this mob,” the stranger told her kindly. “I’m waiting for my girlfriend who’s been working in Scotland for the past three months. And you?” His brown eyes twinkled.

“My husband has been in Brazil for just over two weeks.” Mandy hitched Ursula to a more comfortable position on her hip. “At least the sky is clearing. Do you know if their arrival time has changed?” She had to shout against the background sound of the ululating crowd.

“They’ll land on time. It won’t have been a great flight though: they are sharing the plane with the local soccer team returning from Morocco.”

“So that’s what this crowd is about!”

The mob of fans surged forward when the soccer team crowded around the carousel to collect their luggage. Mandy was grateful for the protective arm around her and even more so when her companion hoisted Ursula onto his shoulders as they were pushed about by the crowd. Ursula held firmly onto his thumb calling out “Daddy! Daddy!” every time someone emerged from the luggage area.

The crowd thinned out at last as the rest of the passengers came into view. “There’s my lass!” The man lifted Ursula down. “Look, she’s the one with the long blond hair. She’s limping in that moon boot – broke her ankle a while back.”

Mandy felt her companion’s stance stiffen at the sight of his girlfriend giving a tall dark man who had appeared behind her a hug. The two figures waited at the carousel until the man picked up a large rucksack to add to the heavy bag he had already slung over his shoulder. The blond woman touched his arm and smiled broadly. He shook his head and placed his arm around her in a protective way until her suitcase into view and then he lifted it off the moving belt for her.

“She seems to have got hooked up with another fellow on the plane.” The stranger sounded glum as they watched his girlfriend hook her arm into that of her companion and leaned into him as they walked towards the open door.

“You’re crying,” the stranger observed, looking down at Mandy. “Right now I wish I could.”

“Don’t! The man with your girlfriend is my husband.”

“Daddy! Daddy!” Ursula beamed as her father lifted her from Mandy’s hip and twirled her above his head before hugging Mandy with his free arm.

“My girls!” He kissed Mandy’s cheek. “Meet Iris, she’s from Scotland – “

“I know.” Mandy smiled through her tears. “This is –“

“I’m Evan Langford.” Her companion shook Robert’s hand. “Thank you for looking after Iris.” His voice was gruff.

“Thank you for looking after us too.” Mandy gave him a brief hug.

What bliss it was to be driven home by her animated husband, who regaled her with tales of his adventures.

“There’s no place like home,” he remarked as he drove up the last of the hills before reaching their town. “I’ve negotiated a year’s contract covering international events on our own turf.” Robert squeezed her hand. “You need a life too, my love, and I need to see more of our Ursula.”

Mandy hoped that her airport companion was feeling as happy as she was.

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A LATE DISCOVERY

Sentimentality has a place at this time of the year and so it is an appropriate time to tell you that it was several years after the event that I made this discovery. It was only when I thoroughly cleaned and painted the little room off our bedroom that is now my study that I found this pencil sketch on the inside of the French doors – a relic from when this room had been an open balcony before the previous owners closed it in.

Will rub out when discovered my son had written on 1st March 1997. This nook had once been his bedroom. When our bedroom was redecorated many years after this, the painters were very surprised when I asked them to leave this sketch intact!

RANDOM GLIMPSES OF THIS WEEK

The week leading up to Christmas always seems to be such a busy one – there is no end of tasks that need to be completed. My cell phone camera has kept track of some of the interesting sights and events of the week. Today was 38’C so I naturally sought the shade while having tea and watching birds – only to be attacked by mosquitoes!

I have noticed for some time that several Cape Honeysuckle leaves appear to be covered by a series of intricate white dots.

A closer look – thank you cell phone – reveals tiny insects probably sucking at the sap in the veins. I imagine these are a type of aphid. Eliza (see comments) has identified them as cotton mealybug (Phenacoccus solenopsis).

Imagine my surprise and delight at this unexpected courier delivery bringing Christmas cheer from afar!

The poppies in the back garden succumbed to the heat a long time ago, leaving the hardened seed cases behind – I rather enjoy their structural details.

I leave you with a ‘new’ Urban cow sporting an interesting pattern on her hide. Her calf is next to her – they are part of another large herd that have moved in to munch on the long grass growing near the vacated school playing fields.

CREDIT BALANCE

Afrida Madinda initially scanned her salary slip with dismay then her face cleared with the realisation that this would be the last time R200 would be deducted from her salary. The R800 she had borrowed hadn’t gone very far, but it had at least helped to tide them over a rough patch.

“It’s pay day today! Why are you looking so glum Afri?” Thembisa Tanyana stretched her arms above her head, shaking her body in a mock dancing movement. “I just love pay days. On Saturday morning I’m going to buy that lovely white dress with the black collar. You know, it’s the one I told you about last week. When Jake sees me wearing that … our weekend will be made!” She twirled around in a whirlwind of happiness and pretended to cuff her colleague on the shoulder.

“I feel I’m working for nothing, Thembisa.” Afrida sighed heavily, spreading out a sheaf of e-mails she had printed out as she did at the end of every month. “All I ever seem to do on a Saturday after pay day is walk around town paying bills.”

“It’s that husband of yours, sister. You should make him pay for some of those things.”

“He can’t help it, Tembi. He’s a man after all and so he needs some pocket money to use for cigarettes and to buy drinks for his friends. He says he would be the laughing stock of everyone he knows if he couldn’t do that.”

“When last did you get something for yourself, my friend? Some nail varnish or a new bracelet? I don’t think I’ll ever get married if my husband won’t even allow me to buy a new pair of earrings just because he chooses to bet on the horses or something!”

“Wilfred would never do something like that.” Afrida was still scanning the printed sheets when her eyes widened with indignation and she let out a small shriek. “Oh no!”

“What is wrong?” Thembisa dropped her modelling pose.

“These aren’t just the usual accounts. This one is also a letter of demand!” Afrida was barely whispering. “I can’t bear these threats anymore. I’ll have to see Mrs Odell about another advance on my salary.” She folded the printed sheets and shoved them into her bag, trying hard to hold back her tears.

“Look on the bright side,” Thembisa was trying to sound cheerful. “At least this way you’re not paying heavy interest like you did when you borrowed from the moneylender in ‘B’ Street.” She hugged her friend. “I must go now; I don’t want to wait too long for a taxi tonight!” She went out humming a happy tune.

When Afrida knocked on Mrs Odell’s door, the manageress of the transport depot was talking on the telephone and hardly seemed to notice Afrida, even though she motioned for her to be seated. This was disconcerting as Afrida had dressed with considerable care in a pink blouse which complemented her darker mauve skirt set off with a wide leather belt which boasted a fancy brass buckle. The cream calf-length coat was her most recent acquisition and exactly matched her soft leather shoes. She had wanted to look her best.

“I’m very sorry, Afrida.” Mrs Odell’s voice sounded much kinder than she looked. “Your records show that you have only just finished paying off your previous personal loan. If we advance you money now, you’ll simply be in debt again.” Her eyes were kind.

“Please Mrs Odell. I couldn’t bear the humiliation of being served a summons in front of our neighbours. We recently bought a house in Sagar Extension Three and I do so want everything to be perfect. If you can arrange for me to have an advance this time it will prevent that from happening. I will sort the accounts out regularly from now on, you’ll see.”

“You and your husband should sit down and work out a budget together,” Mrs Odell continued firmly. “You cannot go on like this. Your computer skills are improving and once you have learned to handle the reception while Mrs Philips is away, I’ll see what we can do about an increase for you. In the meantime, you simply have to curb your spending!”

‘Pay Saturdays’ were an agonising round of paying accounts. Usually Afrida tried to avoid letting anyone who knew her to see her at the accounts desks because one could never tell whether or not the clerk would say something embarrassing about the amount still owing. This time, however, Wilfred was with her and he was in a good mood.

“We need to buy a decent dining room table and chairs,” he told her gaily. “That ‘kitchen set’ just doesn’t look good with the new lounge furniture we have. Our friends will think we’re trying to live on the cheap!” He guided her into the furniture store, where she felt engulfed by the array of tables – and quaked inwardly at the prices. The shop wouldn’t extend credit, the salesman told them curtly, as they were already behind with their payments. He lost interest in them and turned his attention to other potential customers. Wilfred looked angry.

“Wilfred, perhaps we should wait a month or two,” Afrida suggested tentatively. She hated his sudden mood changes.

“Nonsense, Afri! I’ve already invited the Ralas and the Mdanas round for a meal on Sunday.” He sounded sulky.

“Oh Wilfred, how could you? What are we going to give them to eat?” She tried to suppress the panic welling up inside her.

“If you feel that way, I’ll simply take the menfolk to the shebeen.” He still sounded angry and was clearly disappointed.

“No, wait. Let us open a new account at that furniture shop in Kerry Street. We’ll manage the repayments somehow.” Afrida desperately wanted to encourage their relationship with the Mdanas as they were a well thought of couple who served on several community-based committees. Mrs Mdana, she hadn’t dared yet to call her Noluthando, had shown some interest in her after church. To be openly connected with her socially would be akin to stepping into a higher level of society …

Afrida felt pleased with the furniture once it was installed in their home and she basked in the admiration from friends. “How do you and Wilfred manage to do it?” they all gasped. She consciously suppressed the nagging concerns about making the repayments; the salesman had made it all sound so easy and the admiration of their friends made it all seem so worthwhile anyway. Wasn’t it?

“You’ve remembered that my parents are coming to stay with us this weekend?” Wilfred sounded anxious, having borrowed his taxi fare from Art Lencau, a moneylender who charged a high interest for even small amounts. “We must have the place looking good for them. Have you got a new duvet cover for their bed?” He laughed happily at the prospect of his parents’ admiration.

Afrida smiled at her husband as he left the taxi at the stop before she got off. Their little house looked perfect. She had seen a picture of a large bowl of fruit on a dining room table and planned to use the closely woven basket her mother-in-law had given her two years before. A variety of fruit could be bought on Friday afternoon. Still thinking about the forthcoming visit, Afrida smiled at Thembisa as she sat down in front of her computer.

It wasn’t easy to type very fast and accurately when the language was unfamiliar and she particularly disliked being given the Afrikaans letters to do because they slowed her down even more. At least the spreadsheets were increasingly easier to manage. Thembisa was happy enough checking the parcels and other cargo against the lists on her clipboard as they were loaded or unloaded. She also enjoyed flirting with the drivers, but one couldn’t do that forever. Afrida had ambitions to go further.

She noted with distaste that Thembisa was wearing more or less the same outfit for the third day in a row. Her own style of dressing meant more laundry to be done over the weekends, but at least she looked different every day. Why, only last week, someone on the taxi had asked if she was a secretary at the legal firm nearby. Glowing at the thought, Afrida halted her typing in mid-sentence: clothes. They would need new clothes for the visit!

She rushed out during her lunch break to look for a suitable outfit at the nearby clothing shop. Wilfred had an account at a men’s clothing shop and could get something later. She placed her carefully chosen items on the counter and withdrew her card from the leather card holder – a gift she had received for opening an account. The sales assistant rang up the purchases, took the card and pressed a key on the computer. She scanned through the seemingly bewildering columns of figures on the screen and returned the card with a slight smirk.

“I’m sorry, you are too far behind with payments for us to allow further credit on your account. If you would like to pay a cash deposit on these …” Afrida didn’t wait to hear the rest. She replaced her card in the holder and walked out of the shop with as much dignity as she could muster, leaving the clothes she had selected in an untidy heap on the counter. Deposit? She only had enough cash for bread, milk and the taxi fare in her purse – and what about the fruit she needed to buy?

Suppressing the horror of receiving yet more letters of demand, Afrida calmly opened a new account at a slightly cheaper clothing store and added the shiny new plastic card embossed with gold numbers to the others in the leather holder. It was a relief to know that she would be well turned out for the visit after all. She walked home with her purchases despite the heat, saving the taxi fare for later. Mamma Keletso might be persuaded to part with some of her fruit with a promise to pay later …

“Wilfred, you’ve got to do something about this!” Afrida had begun to cry. “What will the neighbours think of us when they see our furniture being collected at the end of the month? They will laugh at us and we will lose all the social connections we have made.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Your birthday bonus could help to clear some of our debts. Perhaps if you stopped drinking with your friends at the weekend and if you took a loan against your salary we could – “

“Nonsense Afrida.” Her husband’s voice was sulky. “I’ve already promised our friends a braai with my bonus. What a fool I would look now if I said my nagging wife wishes me to spend it on accounts instead. Nobody spends their bonus on settling debts, Afrida – nobody! I’m not about to be the first. I’ve worked hard for that money and deserve to have a little for myself.” He closed his wardrobe door with a slam and shrugged into a casual jacket. “I’m going out!”

“What about our beautiful furniture? I would never be able to hold my head up if they took it away.” Weeping, Afrida thrust the demand note at him. “We only have three weeks, Wilfred, please!”

Afrida emerged from the furniture store feeling close to tears and yet triumphant at the temporary stay of execution. Wilfred had grudgingly handed over a portion of his bonus and that, together with the advance she had begged for had ‘bought’ another month. During her discussion with Mrs Odell to secure the advance, she had become overwhelmed with what their lifestyle was costing them. It had been embarrassing to reveal her debts, but Mrs Odell had insisted this was the only way she could guide her through her predicament.

To her surprise Mrs Odell had offered to pay her to sew new curtains for the office reception area. Afrida rented Mrs Molefe’s sewing machine for ten percent of whatever she earned from it. Wilfred, still angry about having to cut down on the food and drink for his ‘bonus braai’, had stopped accompanying her to church and spent most of his weekends drinking and playing cards with friends in the local shebeen. Feeling hurt at being left alone to cope with the housework, Afrida negotiated an extended loan of the sewing machine. As they seldom entertained anymore, she decided to do something to get them out of the quagmire they were in – even if Wilfred tried to pretend that they had no financial difficulties.

Two months later, Afrida had sewn two dresses for her mother, two outfits for herself and four dresses for Mrs Cetu’s granddaughters. Having been praised for these and been paid in cash gave Afrida the confidence to wear her own creations to work. “You look wonderful Afri!” Thembisa greeted her warmly. “With so many debts to pay, how do you manage to dress so beautifully still?” Thembisa sounded wistful.

“I sewed this skirt and blouse myself.” Afrida proudly turned about to show her outfit off to best advantage. “I dyed those beige shoes of mine to match and see,” she placed her foot onto a chair to invite closer inspection, “you can barely see the scuff marks, so it looks like a new pair of shoes!”

“But how do you pay for the material?” Thembisa eyed her curiously.

“I started with the curtain money Mrs Odell paid me and keep some back from what I charge others to sew for them. I have vowed not to buy any more clothes on account until I have cleared them at both clothing stores.”

“And Wilfred?”

“He must look after himself.” Afrida turned away quickly before Thembisa could see the tears pricking at her eyes. “I must get to work now.”

“Wait, Afrida. Would you sew me two outfits like that before I go on leave next month? I’d pay you cash for them.” Afrida felt as though she was typing on air. Nomfundo Hlati had ordered two long skirts and Princess Liwani had brought her a pattern and material to sew an evening dress: she could begin to increase her charges!

“That’s the last of your debt paid off, Afrida.” Mrs Odell smiled as she handed over the payment slip. “I hope that this time your advance really helped you get yourself sorted out.”

“Oh yes, Mrs Odell. That, together with the money I’ve made from sewing has cleared my clothing accounts. I’ve also started doing alterations and I am hoping to offer to buy Mrs Molefe’s sewing machine for cash at the end of February.”

“What about your husband?”

Afrida laughed out loud. “He got a real fright when he was thrown out of the shebeen. That was when his ‘friends’ abandoned him. He comes to church with me sometimes and has promised not to buy anything more until we can afford it. In fact, he’s actually enjoying making money on the side from the vegetables he’s started growing in our back yard!”

“Power to you, sister!” Thembisa laughed as they walked to the taxi rank together. “I say, is that a new perfume you’re wearing?”

 

SURELY ODDS AND ENDS HAVE TO GO SOMEWHERE

Some houses are as neat as a pin: nothing is out of place. They are so tidy that one is almost afraid to leave a dent in a cushion when rising from a seat. Interestingly enough many such houses are sans books. I have always felt more at home with the ‘lived in’ look: enter a home and there is a book with a bookmark; someone’s jersey drapes over the arm of a chair; cushions carry the indent of the last person who leaned into them.

Halt right there! I understand there is a fine line between looking ‘lived in’ and being downright untidy. I have indeed visited homes in which one has to move magazines, bags or even clothes off a chair before being able to sit down.

My home looks ‘lived in’ – sometimes too lived in, despite my daily efforts to keep it clean and reasonably tidy. I marvel at people who manage to maintain the ‘neat as a pin’ looks. It is not the furnishings and drapery that make the difference, however, it is the inhabitants. My husband has a tendency to colonise every empty surface in our home: books, papers and magazines vie for space on a table along with a clip board, pencils, TV remotes, coasters, rubber bands and journals. Even the small table where I like to display a vase of flowers ends up being covered with keys, spectacles, pipe fittings …

I kid you not.

Every household must have a collection of odds and ends that have to be kept somewhere. Where do all those ‘neat as a pin’ people keep their pens, screwdrivers, glass jars, string, recipe books, library books, tins, and anything else that ‘might come in handy’? Do they toss everything away on a regular basis and turn their backs on DIY? Perhaps they call in professionals to clean, to mend, to do the ironing, and to generally keep their homes looking ship-shape.

Psst … they do not hoard!

This must be part of the solution to sustainable tidiness. A friend once told me that “If I cannot find a home for something then it must go.” Ruthless. Just like that! Where are we to keep the books and treasures of our children? Where should we store the extra bedding that has accumulated over the years? How does one get rid of books that have been read, enjoyed, and which remain loved or are still useful references?

Sort. Be ruthless. Focus. Stop being emotional. Just do it.

… I am finding it a very slow and difficult task indeed.