What does one take to the old age home? Pardon me: retirement village!
I had no idea. I asked my daughter. She looked around vaguely, shrugged and said, “I don’t know Mother. Not much. It’s furnished.”
My oldest friend and soon to be neighbour was much clearer.
“Memories, Sybil. Memories,” she said. “Your photos, favourite books, small knick-knacks. Anything that triggers a memory; good or bad. As we get older, we need those little reminders.”
I took her at her word; wandered around the house touching objects, testing if they were special. I chose a painting because it reminded me of a holiday in the Karoo, a glass figurine from Venice. All the photograph albums.
“What about the box of photos?” Dorelle asked. “The rejects that never made it into the albums.”
We finally hunted them down in the store room off the pantry, stacked high up on a shelf. We took them up to the lounge and sat together like schoolgirls, picking through them at random, laughing at some frowning at others, straining to remember why I’d taken them.
“Yes, bring them,” Dorelle said hunching over the box. “We will have plenty of time to work out who all the people were, boring neighbours with our stories.” She withdrew one from the box.
“Tell me about this one?” she said.
Frowning, I peered at the photo she held in her hand. It was old and faded, the edges curled; purple and pink, the image very hazy. A woman, walking away from an aeroplane, carrying a huge teddy bear. It wasn’t a posed picture.
“It’s definitely you. That’s your Teddy Bear.”
She was right. It was me, sporting a beehive hairstyle and the high, high shoes that gave me such bunions, toting my giant pink teddy bear. Where on earth was this photograph taken? I could see no buildings in the background to help me identify the airport. No trees, mountains or any other features.
I shut my eyes, trying to remember back when I could wear that sculpted outfit. It pushed my front up and cut off mid thigh. I snatched at a glimmer of a memory. Shopping for shoes. Choosing a conservative heel, only three inches, but I remember conceding, an elegant thin one with a pointy toe. I realised the purple-pink, brown haze wasn’t from the age of the photo. It had really looked like that and sitting in my air-conditioned lounge I experienced a hot blast; felt my skin prickle.
“Botswana. The photograph was taken in Botswana,” I said.
Dorelle glanced at me and settled back in the sofa.
“Holiday?” she asked in that tone she has when she intends to hear every embarrassing detail.
Dorelle was silent for a beat. Then she barked out a laugh.
I shrugged. What a disaster. The worst six weeks of my life. How could I forget?
“I was approaching thirty, Dorelle. I wanted to settle down. I didn’t want what I saw my friends do: get married, remain in the rat race. Work while raising children. I wanted to take my time, loaf around and look after them myself. I spent a weekend on a farm in the Magalies and I decided I would like to marry a farmer. It seemed a slow life, plenty of spare time.” Dorelle’s immaculate eyebrows disappeared into her fringe, but she said nothing.
“So I put an advert into the ‘Hitching Post’ in the Farmer’s Weekly.”
Dorellle pushed her hand against her mouth, biting at her knuckles.
“A guy answered. We corresponded for some time and I flew out to Botswana.” Holding my hands up in surrender I added, “Hey, I had it all sorted. I had a list of things I wanted.”
I counted on my fingers.
“I wanted him to have a house. A car, and live on a farm. And this guy wrote so enthusiastically about the farm, his work. He told me how beautiful it was: the acacia woodland, the miles and miles of open farmland.
“How was I to know that he meant thorn trees and nothing but barren dust, three-sixty? And do you know, Dorelle he really did like that; saw something beautiful in that endless, brown nothingness.
I thought all farms had green fields and white fences with sheep and cattle. I hardly saw cattle, other than when they were collected up. Then they made more dust; workers whistling and waving their arms about, cracking huge whips. I only went once; stayed in the car, swatting the flies.”
“At least he had a car?” Dorelle said and I pulled a face.
I tapped the photograph. “Shortly after he took this, he took me out to the car park. I remember looking around, and the only car was a clapped out thing, rusting along the doors, dust all over it. I think it was once upon a time a cream colour. Can you believe that? This was the car he had raved about,” I heard my voice rising. “The car he said could go anywhere and was the most comfortable one he knew for ‘the conditions.’” I made air speech-marks. “It would go forever, he said. Bloody looked like it had been going forever,” I muttered, still furious after forty years.
Sitting on my stylish sofa, I remember the urge I had to walk back into the air-conditioned airport; away from the dry, shimmering heat, that claptrap land-cruiser and the taciturn man carrying my suitcase.
“There wasn’t enough room in the front for my luggage. He just dumped it in the back; opened the door for me.”
“Well,” said Dorelle, her voice unsteady. “At least he had manners.”
“No. The door didn’t open unless you picked it up and yanked.” I said, and she laughed. “And then when it drove on the sand, because there is nothing in Botswana except sand and dust and thorns, it sort of swam along and the guy had to wrestle it to stay on the road. So we didn’t say much on the way to the farm.”
“What was his name?” Dorelle asked.
I pressed my fingers against my forehead digging deep, but I couldn’t remember. It was something odd; something exotic. Some sort of a beautiful animal. A bird I think… but a beautiful bird. With beautiful plumage. A bird that shows off with elaborate displays to attract a mate. I remember thinking a brown man, wearing khaki and a dirty old hat, shouldn’t have a name like that. He used conservative language, and only made the minimum effort to please. He didn’t posture, or show off. Or dress up.
“His first name was common, like John or Harry. But his surname wasn’t. Something like Parrot, or Swann. Partridge perhaps.” I shook my head, striving for recollection.
“Maybe it will come to you,” Dorelle said dismissively. “The house, Sybil. Tell me about the house.”
“It wasn’t painted white, it didn’t have a cute gable and no white fences anywhere,” I said sourly. “It had a veranda right around it with broken mesh that let in every creepy crawly for miles around when he turned on the lights. And the lights, Dorelle, only paraffin lamps. Or candles.”
“Oh, how romantic!” she gushed and I scowled.
“Yes, I could light the candles, but not those lamps. The only time I tried, I broke a fingernail and nearly set my hair alight. You see, he would sit out on the veranda smoking and watching the sunset and I couldn’t join him because the mosquitoes attacked me. He would sit there, puffing away and not one of the little blighters would chew him.
“I was scared to move about the house in case I stood on a snake. I couldn’t walk around very easily anyway, because I didn’t take any flatties. The shortest heels I had were the three inch ones I bought especially for the trip. And the maid spent ages shining the cement floors until they were so slippery, walking on them was hell. She did all the housecleaning and there was a cook too. I was bored to tears, Dorelle. I had nothing to read except that stupid Farmer’s Weekly, but I didn’t want to lie in my room in the dark.
“You had your own room?”
I nodded. “He had manners, I’ll give him that much. Actually,” I added, “I had to get the action going. If I hadn’t, we would never have got round to doing anything…” I broke off and a flush came up my neck, spreading from my chest. Dorelle jumped at it.
“Even that!” I said angrily. “I cozied up to him one evening, intending to move the relationship to the next level and he asked me if I had the clap!”
Delighted, Dorelle leaned back against the sofa, giggling uncontrollably.
“Yup. He said the last girl he had been with had given him a dose, and he didn’t want it to happen again.”
“Oh, Sybil,” Dorelle moaned, dabbing at her dark mascara. “What a Philistine,” she added and I finally grinned at her. It was funny. Now. Forty years later; three husbands and several lovers ago.
“But don’t worry, for all his protestations, he was a dog after all. Like most men.
“We were invited by our neighbour for a braai. And let me tell you, it was not just down the road or anything. Getting there was sort of like the Dakar Rally. We left early, just after three and arrived after dark. There were a few other people there, and we all stood about talking…and our hostess positively drooled all over him. I can remember being furious. So much for Mr Polite Guy. On the way home, he had some BS story about how he usually didn’t visit them because she had the hots for him and he was principled and blah de blah…I got so cross with him…he told me that I should either shut up or walk. Can you imagine that?”
“So you got out and walked?”
“In your high heels.”
I nodded again and she sniffed into her hankie.
“He just drove off. Thank goodness his man jumped off the back.
“The only part of the entire visit I really enjoyed was listening to the guy crap all over his boss the next day; moaning about how he was not employed to chop leaves for me to walk on.”
Puzzled, Dorelle looked a question.
“He cut bushes and laid them down on the ground to protect my bare feet from the stones.” I explained and she grinned.
“At least someone had manners!”
“I’m not so sure about that,” I said. “When his boss muttered something like, it was either that, or explaining things “the African Way…” his man snorted and then spat, a long, brown disgusting spray and walked away.” I shuddered.
“I flew back to Jo’burg a few days later and not long after, I met Denzil.”
“You see,” said Dorelle. “You need to have something to jog your memory. Don’t forget to pack that box.” She hiccuped again and made another unsuccessful attempt at clearing her make-up.
“What a great story, Sibyl,” she said standing.
Packing the photographs back into the box, I realised the others he had taken during that six weeks must be in there somewhere. I scrabbled about, pulling one out.
Me, standing on the steps leading to the veranda. Another of me under a huge thorn tree near the gate.
Peering closer, I saw a dark blob on one side, high up in the branches. A bird had nested there, I remember; tall brown and scrappy, making its messy nest from thorns. Staring down at the photograph, I finally remembered the man’s name.
Peacock. John Peacock
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