Nice Work

Nice Work

Alison stood in front her stove, waiting for the pastry cases for the vol-au vents to reach golden perfection before she took them out. While she waited, she beat  some double- thick cream into the cheesecake mixture and put it in the fridge for later.
Then she turned her attention to her feet: which shoes to wear with the blue silk outfit she’d bought for The Interview. Horribly expensive, but the trim little box pleats and belted waist said “serious and career minded.” She decided her old navy heels would do, once she’d polished them.
Ever since she’d seen the advert for a receptionist at the Harcourt Hotel, home- from- home for the rich and famous, she was sure this job was meant for her. She’d made it through the first round of applications and was on a short list of three.
Alison could see her glamorous future rolling out in technicolour:  registering important guests, directing them to their suites and confidently  advising them on the best restaurants in town. ‘Client liaison’ it was called and she knew she’d be good at that..
“I suppose I couldn’t persuade you to join me for dinner?” purred Tom Cruise, leaning enticingly over her reservation book, “Even the perfect receptionist has to eat sometime.”
As she gazed coolly into Tom’s green- flecked eyes he added, ”At a  table for two in a private room?”
It could happen.
The oven pinged obligingly and she removed the fragrant pastry shells,  carefully transferring them to the wire tray to cool. The chopped chicken breasts with ginger and lime sauce stood ready to be spooned in, and as soon as she was back from the interview she planned to take the pastries and cheesecake round to Moira for her dinner party that evening. The mushroom and smoked mussel soup was already in the container and she’d made the lamb curry the evening before, to give the flavours time to meld together deliciously.
She was always surprised that so many of her friends found cooking difficult and were so pathetically grateful for her help.
“Why not go into catering, Alison?” Moira had said, “You’re a natural born cook.”
But she preferred the security of a salary cheque at the end of the month. If she got it right this morning, her days would be spent behind the wide marble front desk of the Harcourt Hotel.
Alison badly needed this job. Five weeks without work was more than she’d bargained for when she’d impulsively resigned from the dry-cleaning shop to follow the sun. Two weeks in Greece had left her with a beautiful tan but a savings account that was running dangerously low.
It was pouring with rain as she set off, and with the pavement under water just outside her gate, she was forced to detour onto the street.  Trying not to wet her shoes, she stepped gingerly across the gutter that was streaming with water.
As she did so, a little red car sped around the corner, straight through a deep puddle and sent up a great whoosh of dirty water. In one icy second, Alison was drenched to the skin. And as she jumped back, her heel caught on something and she sat down hard in the gutter.
This can’t be happening, she thought, scrambling slowly and painfully to her feet. Not today.
“I say, I’m terribly sorry. Are you alright?”
It was the driver of the car, concern written all over his face.
“No, I’m NOT alright,” she snapped furiously, “Thanks to you. How could you go through that puddle as such a speed? Look at me! I’m a disaster!”
The suspicion of a grin increased her fury.
“I’m on my way to an interview. Now I’ve probably lost the best job I was ever going to get.”
“I feel terrible about this,” he said sincerely, helping her up.  “The least I can do is take you home to get a change of clothes.”
She scowled.
“I haven’t got a change of clothes. This is my interview outfit you – you idiot. I can’t apply for a job at the Harcourt Hotel in a pair of jeans!”
“The Harcourt? That’s a coincidence; I work in the kitchen there.  What’s the interview for?”
“It was for receptionist” she said pointedly. “But now you’ve totally ruined my chances, you- you dish-washer.”
His mouth twitched.
“Oh, that’s right, I heard they were looking for someone. Look, I know the hotel housekeeper, and she could dry everything and have you looking good as new.”
“How? My dress is filthy and wet, and my hair…”
“Jump in,” he said firmly, opening the passenger door. “Mrs Nichols can work miracles.”
She glared at him.
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Sorry.” He held out his hand, which was surprisingly firm and warm.
”Rick Williams.”
“Alison Andrews.”
She sank squishily into the front seat.
“Look on the bright side,” said Rick, “You’re very lucky I didn’t run you over.”
Alison cheered up and looked critically at her driver. He had  a thin, humorous face and a gold earring gleamed under his dark hair which curled over his collar and  added to his slightly raffish look.. Maybe I was lucky after all, she thought, I’ll definitely get to know him better when I’m working there. On the other hand – front office personnel and the kitchen staff? They might not allow it.
Rick ignored the splendid curving drive up to the pillared entrance of the Harcourt Hotel and parked around the back.
“Staff entrance,” he smiled. “Not quite as grand, is it?”
It certainly wasn’t. The lobby smelled of wet boots and badly need a coat of paint. From a room off to the left came a crashing of pots and impatient, raised voices.
“The kitchen,” he explained, ”Things get a bit hectic here at this time of day, they’re just preparing lunch.”
Lured by the smell of rosemary and something else she couldn’t quite identify, Alison peered around the door.  About ten men with white coats and funny hats, intent on stirring and chopping, didn’t look up from their work.
“Venison for lunch?” she enquired, sniffing appreciatively.
“Right.” Rick stared. “You’ve got a good nose.”
“Venison with rosemary sauce- Nigella Lawson!” she exclaimed.
“Clement Freud, actually.”
“Ah, but she took it from his book on Irish cuisine and changed it a lot.  Put in the juniper berries and used a lot more wine. It’s the sauce that makes that dish, don’t you think?”
She grinned at his puzzled face.
“I like to cook.” she said simply, “Now, where’s that miracle worker of yours?”
He led Alison through a maze of dark, narrow passages to the small housekeeper’s room on the first floor, where a motherly person was counting towels..
“Mrs Nichols, my friend Alison needs some help,” said Rick. “She’s a bit wet.”
“Caught in a shower, were you dear? Might take more than a miracle, but let’s see what we can do,” said Mrs Nichols, heaving herself off the stool. “Off you go, Mr Williams.”
Alison wrapped herself in a bath towel, watching as Mrs Nichols sponged and ironed her skirt and top. She rubbed her hair dry in front of a heater and started to relax. She still had five minutes before her interview.
“Got a special date, have you dear?”
“I’m applying for the job as receptionist here,” said Alison.
“That’s nice. If you can handle those demanding guests.”
“I’ll manage,” she said, thinking of Hugh Grant walking up to her desk, looking lost, needing her help. Hugh Grant, demanding? Never. “Is my skirt dry yet, do you think?”
“It’ll do,” said Mrs Nichols, “I’ve got most of the mud off. And this little tear at the back won’t show at all.”
“You’re a darling, thank you so much. Now, how do I get to the manager’s office?”
“Turn left at the end of the passage, and through the glass door,” said Mrs Nichols. “Good luck.”
Alison fingered her lucky rabbits foot nestling inside her bag.  “I’ll be okay,” she said confidently.
There was no mirror in the housekeeper’s room, but she dressed hurriedly, twisted her hair into a knot on top and hoped for the best.
The Harcourt Hotel she recognised started on the other side of the glass door. A thick blue carpet paved the way across the foyer to the marble-topped reception desk, where a smartly dressed woman was seated.
As Alison approached, she looked up and her bland expression changed to one of distaste.
“Yes? Can I help you?” her icy voice had undercurrents of  however,  I doubt it.
“I have an appointment with Mr Adams, the manager. Um..about the job.”
Get a grip, girl, where’s your confidence, she thought crossly. . Then she caught sight of her reflection in a big gold-framed mirror and clutched the edge of the desk in horror.
Her blue skirt, which had seemed so right that morning, no longer said ‘serious and career minded’. It had shrunk so badly it now screamed ‘cheap and nasty’ and the polka- dot top cheekily bared her beautifully tanned midriff for all to see. The cute little navel ring that had seemed such fun on the beach at Rhodos  twinkled maliciously. Not the Harcourt Hotel style at all.
“I – it’s all right, I’ll phone him later,” mumbled Alison, and she turned and dashed blindly back through the glass doors to the staff quarters
She took her treacherous rabbit’s foot out of her bag and hurled it angrily into the corner, then took a deep breath and re-traced her steps down the passage. She was about to walk past the kitchen when Rick appeared.
“That was quick,” he said,”How’d it go?”
“It didn’t. I’m out of here.” She yanked angrily at her skirt. “How could I possibly see the manager looking like this?”
“That’s a very fetching frill,” he grinned. “Old man Adams would have loved it. But I take your point. Look, at the very least, I owe you a coffee and I’d like a word with you.”
He took her arm and led her into a small sitting room furnished with comfy old arms chairs.
“Staff lounge, “ he said “And quite good coffee.”
She sat down while Rick poured them each a cup.
“Shouldn’t you be toiling in the kitchen?” she snapped.
“Oh, I’m allowed a minute or two off,” he smiled. “Tell me, wouldn’t you rather be cooking than listening to complaints all day long?”
“Yes, of course, but there’s the small matter of the rent.”
“Okay, now don’t think I’m crazy, but what sauce would you use if you were preparing whiting?”
“I’d try a Maltaise,” she answered promptly. “But I’d use fresh Seville orange juice instead of lemon. It’s subtler and works wonderfully with whiting.”
“And what would you do to cheer up roast lamb?”
“A sauce? Not boring old mint. Okay, so let’s say you’ve roasted it with lashings of fresh rosemary and slivers of garlic…hmm, maybe a caper sauce? With that flat-leafed parsley and loads of black pepper. And stir in some thick cream just before you serve it.”
She swallowed hungrily. Breakfast seemed a long time ago. “Why do you ask?”
“You want a job, right? And you obviously know your way around a kitchen. How would you like to start as assistant to the saucier here?”
“The what?”
“He’s the chef who makes the sauces. Monsieur  Reynard. He’s nearly seventy  and desperately needs an assistant. I think you’d be very good. You’re creative.”
Alison stared at Rick. Tom Cruise wasn’t ever going to find his way down that gloomy passage. On the other hand, working with this totally gorgeous man every day could have its attractions. And she did love to cook.
“Great perks, too,” he added. “Good staff lunches. On-the-job training from one of the best sauciers in the country. You can wear jeans to work every day if you want, although with legs like yours, that’d be a crime.”
“Cheeky. So what are you, then? You don’t wash dishes.”
“I never said I did. I’m the Executive Chef. So I do the hiring and I think you’d be just what I’m looking for.”
Exactly what I was thinking about you, she thought, then blushed crimson in case he could read her mind.
“You’d be my boss?”
“Not exactly, you’d be answerable to Monsieur Reynard. I don’t interfere in his department.”
Yessss! She thought, looking into his deep brown eyes with a little shiver of anticipation. Dating the boss is never a good idea.

Close to Nature

Clara-Moon was three years old before she realised that she should have a father somewhere. Her mother Lucilla had never referred to him, and spoke of men in such withering tones that she sensed that any question about him would rebound badly in some way.

“We don’t need any man to help us, do we, Clara-Moon,” her mother would say, as together they hoed and weeded the vegetable garden on their farm just outside the town. “We’re self-sufficient. That means, we grow everything for ourselves. Aren’t you glad we don’t have to go to the shop to buy nasty tinned food like other people?”

Lucilla, committed to being at one with the Earth, passionately renounced anything that smacked of convenience. She milked the cow, she hoed the soil, and scrubbed the clothes with soap she made herself from soda, ash and mutton fat. She didn’t just weave the cloth from which she made their clothes, she sheared the sheep herself, spun the wool and dyed it with tea. Clara’s badly-fitting garments, in dingy shades of brown, satisfied Lucilla, who believed that only natural, organic products should touch her daughter’s skin. Clara- Moon, scratching at the coarse weave, wasn’t so sure.

Her mother had ripped out the electricity when she came to live on the farm and with no radio, music or television, Clara-Moon learned to read at an early age. During the long evenings, while her mother wove lengths of cloth or knitted lumpy sweaters from home spun wool, she would read aloud from a catholic collection of books provided by her mother: legends and fairy stories, botanic texts, Enid Blyton adventures and women’s literature.

Once, impressed by the fun everyone had in The Third Form at Mallory Towers, she asked, “Why can’t I go to school too, Mother?”

“Because they’d fill your head with a lot of rubbish, “ answered Lucilla shortly. “You’re home-schooled and much the better for it.”

Lucilla was a vegetarian and so, of course, was Clara-Moon. They ate eggs, but when the hen died of old age, Lucilla would bury the carcase under the steaming compost heap.

“Good nutrients are returning to the earth,” she’d say, and it never occurred to Clara-Moon that other people might actually cook and eat the fowl. Lucilla did not consider cooking a skill worth mastering and her daughter was accustomed to wildly differing meals, depending on what was in season. Her mother served piles of spinach, platefuls of carrots or boiled onions and Clara-Moon ate these uncritically until she was old enough to enjoy experimenting. Then she discovered herbs that vastly improved plain boiled fare and started growing her own coriander, oregano, and mint for flavouring.

Meal times, such as they were, were spent improving her grasp of Lucilla’s favourite subject: the Rhythm of Life. Every sprouting seed or wandering insect was an opportunity to teach her daughter something meaningful about the wonders of nature. Before she could write her name, Clara-Moon knew all about the usefulness of dung-beetles and the symbiotic relationship between aphids and ants.

Lucilla rejected story-books in which the animals talked or wore clothes, but encouraged her daughter to read from National Geographic, discussing the pictures.

“This is real life, far more meaningful,” she said, “See this thin old lion all by himself? He’s been chased out of the pride by a younger male and he’s probably going to starve to death because he’s almost toothless.”

Clara-Moon shuddered. “I don’t like animals like that, they’re cruel.”

“Nonsense, that’s simply nature,” said Lucilla briskly, picking up the compost bucket and leading the way outside, “It’s called survival of the fittest. If people could also die when they had outlived their usefulness, we’d all be better off.”

“But people might enjoy being old,” muttered Clara-Moon.

“Look at this stalk, sweetie,” said Lucilla, ignoring her. “See the green insects on it? Clever old Nature has disguised them so birds won’t see them and eat them. They’re called Praying Mantis.”

“What’s that Praying Mantis doing?” asked Clara-Moon curiously. “It’s climbing on top of the other one.”

“He’s mating with the female Mantis,” said Lucilla, glad of the opportunity to introduce the facts of life, given the absence of a bull on the farm. “He’s fertilising tiny eggs inside her. Soon she’ll lay those eggs and later a whole lot of baby Praying Mantis will hatch out.”

“Now what’s she doing?” Clara-Moon peered closer. “She’s chewing his head off! Mother! Stop her!”

“He’s served his purpose,” said Lucilla calmly, “She needed a male to fertilise her eggs and now he’s no use to her any more. I expect her body needs the protein.”

“Oh.”

At five years old, Clara-Moon was a thoughtful child. That night, before her mother blew out the lamp, she asked, “Mother, which male did you mate with to get me?”

Lucilla smiled at her fondly.

“He was just a man who seemed right at the time. When we mated- only with people we call it having sex – we lay on the sweet-smelling hay outside the barn with the beautiful light of a full moon shining down on us. That’s why you’re called Clara-Moon. Clara means pure and the moon that night was wonderfully bright.”

“So where is he now? My father? ” Clara-Moon savoured the word. She loved the legends of King Arthur and pictured a smiling man with long golden hair, his silvery-white horse whinnying and stamping its hooves in the moonlight.

“He wasn’t someone I needed to have around, and you wouldn’t have liked him at all – he drove a noisy motor bike and had horrible black hair on his arms. But he was young and very … vigorous.”

Her mother sighed nostalgically at the recollection.

That night Clara-Moon had a nightmare for the first time in her life. In it, her mother reared up from the haystack and bit off a man’s head, ripping at the flesh and snorting in satisfaction as blood streamed from her mouth. Her eyes turned into little black faceted mirrors as she brayed, “ The protein is good for me.”

Clara-Moon woke up screaming.

***

Until she was fourteen, life for Clara-Moon went on according to the rhythms of the seasons: planting, weeding and harvesting. A small, unsmiling girl with pale skin and fine blond hair that belied her strength, she was nervous of strangers and spent her free time reading or making finely observed drawings of insects.

Lucilla, whose hair was streaked with grey, had grown gaunt and stringy with the harsh outdoor work and had started muttering to herself as she worked. For the essentials the farm could not provide, she cycled infrequently down the hill into town, returning with paraffin, matches or sugar and primed with scathing comments about the teenagers she saw there.

“Such terrible music they play, and so loud! And the clothes some of them wear – they’re practically naked. Thank heavens you’re not an ordinary person, my darling.”

Clara-Moon wondered what it would be like to be an ordinary person. She was vaguely aware that her upbringing had been somewhat different to others but she was quite content with her life so far. She knew she would have to leave the farm one day and study something, probably botany, although Lucilla said she already knew as much as was useful.

But one day the Ventersdorp Education Officer, red-faced and officious, arrived unannounced at the farm, his little blue sedan braking to a stop outside the house in a cloud of dust.

He and Lucilla exchanged loud and angry words behind the closed door of the dining room. When he departed, revving his engine triumphantly, Lucilla was flushed with rage and holding an official document in her shaking hand.

“My poor baby, you have to go to school I’m afraid, ” she said tremulously. “Or they’ll send me to jail. But it’s only for two years. You’re allowed to leave when you’re sixteen.”

Clara-Moon’s heart leapt with excitement but she tried to look as miserable as her mother seemed to expect. Mallory Towers still had a strong appeal.

It didn’t take longer than a day at school for Clara-Moon to realise she could just as well have been living on another planet for fourteen years.

She knew nothing at all about the essentials: pop groups, films and fashions and when she spoke she didn’t use the slang of the other confident, noisy teenagers. In the Enid Blyton books she’d read, the girls said things like ripping and I say, what fun! But when she innocently used these phrases they snorted with laughter and chanted “Clara –Loony! Clara-Moony!”

But in any case she was automatically banished to the outer edges of school society because she was the daughter of that crazy woman who cycled around town on an ancient bicycle and shouted at people. With a growing resentment towards her mother’s oddities festering inside her, Clara- Moon resigned herself to two years of hell.

It was while she was sitting silently in the furthest corner of the playground, eating a sliced turnip sandwich and studying a column of red ants, that Flippie approached her, drawn by her fine blonde hair and air of calm. His father was the town drunk and Flippie, three years older than Clara but a fellow-outcast, sported a shaved head and several defiant tattoos to show he didn’t care. He was tall and well built and Clara, who had dropped the Moon after the first day, fell instantly in love with him.

“Whatja doing after school?” he mumbled.

“Nothing.”

“Wanta come with me for a burger ‘n coke?”

Clara knew this was the first step on the road to hell, but it was the only offer of friendship she’d had, and she wasn’t going to refuse.

“That would be ripping.”

“You speak funny, you know that?”

As they approached the Burger Shack the smell that wafted out to Clara made her almost sick with desire. So this was meat.

When the hamburger arrived, adorned with fried onions, it tasted as good as it smelled, and although the coke was unpleasantly fizzy, Clara felt this meal had somehow ordained her into a higher level of the human race. She realised exactly why other people were meat-eaters and felt a sudden rush of pure rage against her mother who had denied her this basic pleasure of life for so long.

“Good stuff, hey?’ mumbled Flippie with his mouth full.

“Yeah, too right.” Clara was happily picking up the slang.

Before the first month was out, Lucilla knew that her worst fears had come true. The dross of the middle classes, with whom she was forced to mix, was polluting Clara-Moon’s mind. Lucilla noticed with alarm that money was missing from her purse. ( Clara couldn’t rely on Flippie to buy her a hamburger every afternoon and she needed money to feed her new addiction). Her conversation had started to include incomprehensible phrases and daily, she became more of a stranger to her mother.

Lucilla consoled herself by adopting a small white-haired dog, the first on the farm. Until now, every animal had been expected to earn its keep by providing wool, milk or eggs, but aware that she had somehow lost Clara-Moon’s uncritical affection, she allowed herself this single fluffy indulgence. Muffy followed her everywhere, jumping onto her lap as soon as she sat down and sleeping on her bed.

Clara disliked this yapping little animal and the feeling was mutual. Muffy, sensing her hostility, snarled under her breath and cowered whenever Clara came near.

“You never let me have a dog, mother,” Clara said coldly, “You said they were no practical use, remember?”

Lucilla looked at her in silent reproach, stroking Muffy’s white curls.

“I need someone to talk to,” she said pointedly, but Clara slammed the door of her room.

One afternoon, Clara invited Flippie back to the farm. Lucilla was in town, and they wandered about hand-in-hand picking late strawberries and blackberries. Flippie was fascinated with the barn and all the rusty farm implements standing unused.

“Check the wheels on this old tractor!” he exclaimed admiringly, entranced by machinery of any kind. He was saving up for a motorbike. “Hey, what’s this?”

He’d spotted a large wooden cover on the floor of the barn and lifted it up.

“Cool, looks like a proper inspection pit for servicing a car.”

They peered down into the darkness. Lying on its side was a red motorbike, the keys still in the lock.

“A Harley Davidson!” breathed Flippie.

Clara felt a sickening jolt in the pit of her stomach. She knew instantly whose motorbike this was and backed away from the pit, feeling slightly faint.

“Give me a hand, let’s see if we can get this out. There’s a block and tackle here.” Flippie was flushed with excitement. “Jeez, what a find! I wonder whose it was? Ours now, I reckon.”

Together, with great difficulty, they lifted it. Clara wasn’t really surprised to see a crushed skull and a scattering of yellowed bones on the floor of the pit.

“Hey, the poor bugger must have fallen off his bike. Long ago though, I reckon this model’s at least twenty years old.”

She made no reply, staring down at the bones as if in a trance.

“I bet this could still go,” muttered Flippie, ignoring the skeleton, insignificant in the face of the bike’s dusty magnificence. “I could fix it up.”

“Okay, take the bike and try to get it going at your house. Just don’t let my mother see you.”

“Then we can go places, baby!” Flippie grinned. “You ever been to Durban?”

“No, but that’d be cool. You fix the bike and we’ll go!”

When he’d left, slowly pushing the heavy machine, Clara shovelled sand over the bones. She felt she owed her father some sort of burial so went outside and picked some lemon blossom, which she scattered into the pit.

That night she glowered across the table without speaking, watching in revulsion as her mother slowly masticated her food, making small wet noises of satisfaction. Lately she’d started to chew very slowly as she’d lost several of her teeth, making her look like an old woman.

A couple of weeks later, Flippie looked for her after school and said, “All fixed up. You still on for Durban?”

“Yes, of course.” Clara thought quickly. “Come out to the farm for supper this evening. There’s a full moon – we can drive through the night.”

“Dead romantic, you are.”

Lucilla was picking beans when Clara got home, her faded homespun dress hanging loosely over her scrawny frame. Lucilla hadn’t been well for some time but refused to think of a doctor, preferring to dose herself with a concoction of herbs.

“I know you killed my father,” said Clara quietly. “I found his motor bike. And his bones. In the garage.”

“Well, that’s ancient history.” Lucilla seemed genuinely puzzled at her concern. “ I told you, we didn’t need him. His was a very unenlightened soul.”

With both hands, Clara reached for her mother’s throat and with surprisingly little effort, snapped her neck. Lucilla’s last coherent thought was how like her father she looked and wished she could remember his name.

“Well, mother, what did you expect?” Clara giggled slightly hysterically at the inert form at her feet, “You’ve served your purpose.”

She dragged the body across the yard to the compost heap, forked it to one side and pushed her mother underneath. Then she shovelled the muck on top, estimating it would take several months for the nutrients to be absorbed.

As she did so, she heard a whimper of distress behind her. There was only one practical way to deal with Muffy and although he tried to escape, Clara was too quick for him.

Flippie arrived as the sun was setting, heralded by the throaty roar of the Harley Davidson. There was a delicious smell coming from the kitchen. .

“All set?” He was dressed in black leather and a nazi-style helmet sat aggressively on his shaven head.

“Let’s just have a quick supper first,” said Clara, ladling the stew onto two plates.

“Is your Ma okay about this trip?”

“She’s cool.”

Well, actually she’s considerably warmer now than she was this morning, thought Clara, smiling to herself. She felt light as air and delightfully free. Flippie grinned happily and picked some small bones from the stew, placing them neatly on the side of his plate.

“Not just a pretty face, you can cook too, hey?”

“Never mind the compliments, finish up and let’s go,” she said.

Make me an offer

“They really knew how to make things in those days, didn’t they? Look at the workmanship.”

The tall slim man in a well- cut suit gave Marianne a warm smile as he ran his hand appreciatively over the satiny finish of the Victorian jewellery box on her market stall.

Brown eyes, blond hair and loads of sex appeal. Devastating, thought Marian.

She’d spotted him immediately he’d paused to look, but she knew how annoying it was to be badgered with offers of help so she’d busied herself polishing a silver cake server until he spoke, or moved on.

“Victorian, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s rosewood. Did you spot the secret compartment at the bottom?” She leant over to show him how to press the little ivory button and laughed at his surprise when the small drawer slid out.

“Just the place for secret love letters,” she said..

“That’s amazing. How can you bear to part with it?” His look was teasing. “No, don’t answer that. I’ll take it.”

He’s right! How can I bear to sell this? Marianne thought with a sudden pang, although her flat was already filled with things she’d bought and couldn’t bring herself to re-sell. After finding the jewellery box at a car boot sale, she’d spent hours polishing the wood to a deep gleaming perfection and cleaning the brass fittings with lemon juice. But a small sensible voice said: Be strong, girl, you’ve got to pay the rent as well as eat. So she just shrugged and smiled at him.

“Everything you see is for sale. Make me an offer”

“My lucky day, then.”

She decided to fish a little as she wrapped the box.

“This is really more a woman’s thing isn’t it? A jewellery box?”

He grinned.

“It’s a surprise gift for my fiancée. She’s going to love it.”

Marianne felt ridiculously disappointed. Of course he was spoken for, no one this fabulous would be walking around unattached.

“ We’re getting married one of these days,” he continued, “So I’m having a great time at auction rooms and car boot sales.”

“Lucky you! Have you found anything good?”

“Sure. So far I’ve bought a beautiful silk Chinese rug, very old, and an Edwardian screen …that was a lucky find. And some wonderful antique silver fish knives and forks.”

Marianne grinned at him. These didn’t sound very practical, but probably his fiancée also loved old and beautiful things. It was too bad that the first man she’d met who shared her passion for antiques belonged to somebody else.

“And your fiancée? Does she like shopping at markets too?”

“Julie? Oh she’s happy with anything I buy. She’s not fussy.”

“I hope she’ll like this box,” she said wistfully.

“She’s going to love it, I know,” he smiled.

He’s so nice, she thought. Julie’s a lucky girl. Well, at least my box is going to a good home.

“By the way,” he went on, “My name’s Mike McLeod.”

“I’m Marianne Allan.”

“Well, Marianne, I’ll come by again next week and see what other treasures you have for me,” he promised.

******

“So, how’s it going?” Her sister Sue appeared at the stall, carrying two steaming cups of coffee. “You look as if you could use one of these.”

“Oh, thanks, just what I need.” Marianne sat down gratefully on an upturned box. “I’m doing well, so far. It’s only half way through the month and I’ve already covered my rent.”

“That’s great. Leaving that job at the hamburger joint and opening your own stall was the best idea you’ve had in a long time. I love your new hat, by the way. Reminds me of a drunken tea cosy with peacock feathers on it.”

Marianne patted her head in satisfaction. “I found this at that school fete last week. It’s genuine 1920- don’t you think it suits me?”

“Yes. Very cute. They would have had a fit if you’d come to work in that three months ago.”

“I can’t believe I wasted so much time doing a job I loathed,” sighed Marianne, “Do you realise my profit on that box I just sold is more than I earned for six days hard slog at that awful place? Mind you, I overcharged him shamelessly.”

“Did you sell that Victorian jewellery box? Oh, Marianne, I am sorry!” Sue knew how hard it had been for her to part with it. “Who bought it?”

“A really dishy fellow, actually, the nicest guy I’ve met for ages. And great taste too – he collects old stuff and he said he’s be back next week.”

“Oho.” Sue raised her eyebrows, “Sounds promising!”

“He is, but he’s promised to another, so don’t get excited. But he could become a good customer.”

Marianne couldn’t get Mike McLeod out of her mind all week, and when she bought an intricately carved fire screen on the White Elephant stall at a church fete she knew he’d like it as much as she did. She was right.

“Hey, this is great. Perfect.” Mike appeared just after lunch the following Friday. “You’ve got a good eye, you know. This is eighteenth century and the carving is beautiful. I’ll take it.”

“You don’t mind about the crack?”

“Of course not. Adds to the character.” He didn’t bat an eye when she told him the price.

“I hope your fiancée will approve,” she said as he counted out the money, “Do you have a nice cosy fireplace?” Marianne could picture him with his long legs stretched towards the warmth, a friendly dog at his feet. And herself on the sofa beside him. Stop it, stupid!

“Not yet, but I hope to have one day.” Mike looked a bit uncomfortable. “Actually, Julie’s been dropping hints about a stainless steel coffee maker. But I’m sure she’d rather have this.”

Marianne didn’t think that someone who wanted a stainless steel coffee maker would prefer a cracked fire screen, no matter how beautifully it was carved.

From then on, every time she bought something she thought Mike would like, she put it aside for him. He came to the market every Friday after the lunchtime rush, bringing sandwiches and coffee which they shared sitting on milk crates behind her stall. Once he’d inspected her latest find, and paid for it, he’d linger on to talk until she started to pack up for the day.

Marianne found herself looking forward to his visits far too much. Remember he’s engaged, she told herself, while they chatted easily about everything under the sun, he’s just filling in time instead of going back to his office.

“Don’t you have any work to go to?” she teased one afternoon. “Are you one of these executives that takes a three hour lunch?”

“I’m sure they get along just fine without me. You know, I envy you, working with something that interests you.”

“Yes, starting this stall was the best thing I’ve ever done. I love it.”

He paused, looking into the distance. “Doing something you love is pretty important, isn’t it.”

“It’s the most important, I think. Why put up with someone else telling you what to do? I’d never go back to working in a shop.”

“You’re right.” He sighed. “Okay, can you give me a bag for this silver toast-rack? I must be off. See you next week.”

But Mike didn’t come to the market the following week, not the week after, and Marianne, who’d put aside an art deco table lamp complete with the original coloured glass shade, regretfully sold it to another collector. Mike was probably saving for Julie’s stainless steel coffee maker.

***

“Miscellaneous old bric- a- brac for sale. Reasonable prices for quick sale. Call 17 Tooronga Crescent.”

Marianne held the advertisement in her hand as she knocked on the door of Number 17, wondering what ‘reasonable prices’ meant. She hoped she’d find something here as she was getting low on stock., but the house looked frighteningly smart and the stuff would probably be too expensive.

A sleek haired blond woman opened the door and looked at her coolly.

“I’ve come about the bric-a-brac,” said Marianne.

“It’s in here.” Her heels clicked across the highly polished floor as she led the way through the smart modern rooms to a small, crowded study.

It was an Aladdin’s cave of collectable treasures and Marianne wanted everything she saw. Antique pistols, flowered china jugs, a beautiful silk rug with a delicate pattern of lotus blossom and dragons, a canteen of silver cutlery lined with worn gold velvet, a gleaming rosewood box, a carved fire screen with a small crack across the top…Marianne gasped in recognition. .

This must be Julie. The fiancée who wasn’t fussy and liked everything Mike bought.

“A lot of junk, isn’t it,’ said Julie. “I can’t stand old tat like this, so make me an offer for the lot.”

Marianne found her voice with difficulty.

“Where does it come from? Is it yours?”

“Don’t make me laugh. No, it was my ex-fiancé’s. He was a compulsive junk collector. Then when I tried to improve his taste he just packed his bags and took off. Walked out on a good job too, without giving notice. Well, I’m certainly better off without him.”

Marianne made a small non- committal noise of sympathy. ‘Ex-fiance’ had a nice ring to it.

“He didn’t fit into Daddy’s company at all. Mummy always said we were like chalk and cheese and she was right. Anyway, I warned him that if he didn’t take the rest of his stuff within a week, I’d get rid of it.”

Julie asked a laughably low amount for everything and Marianne decided instantly. There goes my rent, she thought ruefully.

“I’ll take it all,” she said, “Can I give you a deposit now and collect it tomorrow? I’ll have to borrow a van.”

“Sure.”

The following Friday as Marianne was setting things out on her table, Mike came round the corner, almost running. She hardly recognized him in jeans and an old sweater. Much better, she thought approvingly.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” he asked, “Julie said a girl with a crazy hat took everything. Please say it was you!”

“Of course it was me,” she said calmly. “I couldn’t let someone else buy your lovely things. They’re all at my flat.”

He gave her a hug which lifted her off her feet and spun her round, laughing with relief.

“You’re terrific, you know that? I could kiss you.”

Which he proceeded to do, most satisfyingly.

When she stepped back, Marianne said, “I gather Julie was a bit more fussy than you thought?”

He grimaced.

“I knew she didn’t really appreciate antiques, and like an idiot I kept hoping I could change her mind. But that wasn’t all that was wrong between us- we couldn’t agree on anything. Then she suddenly told me to choose between what she called my old junk, and her.”

“So you chose your old junk?”

“No, I chose a beautiful old silk rug, an Edwardian screen and a Victorian jewellery box, among other things!”

“Very sensible,” she said.

He grinned down at her tenderly. “I love your cheerful hat. A new one, isn’t it?”

She touched her enormous beret with a big pom- pom.

“I got it at the thrift shop. Isn’t it terrific? Couldn’t resist the purple and orange together. I like your jeans and sweater, too. A great improvement.”

“I’m never going to wear a suit to work again. I’ve been taking your advice and arranging things so that I can do what I really want to.”

“And that is?”

“I’ve taken a lease on an empty shop round the corner,” he said. “I want to make it the most interesting place in town, with big comfy chairs where people can sit and read the books I’m going to sell. And I’ll have a little coffee corner and grind my own beans so people won’t be able to resist buying a great big mug of the stuff. “

“That sound fabulous, Mike.” Marianne’s mind leapt ahead. “And you could have authors coming and signing their books, and you could sell paintings as well, and..”

“And I was picturing an antique section in one corner,” he said. “There’s plenty of room for a few trestle tables with some small well chosen things. It would need a person with experience to run that. What do you think?”

Her heart leapt but she looked at him thoughtfully.

“It might be a lot warmer in winter, I suppose. But I’ve always said I’d never work for anyone again. I don’t know, Mike.”

“I was thinking more of a partnership.”

A partnership with Mike. That sounded pretty good.

“Okay,” she said. “That could work. ‘Proprietors McLeod and Evans? Or ‘ Evans and McLeod?’”

“Or McLeod and McLeod. What do you say?”

He was hugging her to him so hard she could hardly breathe but being in his arms felt absolutely right. Her voice was muffled.

“I’ll think about it.”

But Marianne knew she wouldn’t have to think too hard.

Mommy’s Boy

Randal shifted his great bulk from one haunch to the other and took another suck on his beer can. The little campstool was digging uncomfortably into his bulky thighs, adding to the irritation of the whining mosquitoes and the oppressive heat of the bushveld.

“Hot, isn’t it?” Martin took a sip of his iced gin and tonic.

Randal glared across the campfire at his son, immaculate in well-cut khaki shorts and designer tee shirt. Only a poofter like Martin would dress well for the bush.

He gritted his teeth. Two nights in the company of this miserable excuse for a son was about all he could take and Randal felt his blood pressure rising just thinking about the money he’d wasted on this weekend.

By day, Martin had avoided conversation with his father by walking around with headphones clamped to his ears. Listening to classical music, if you please, amongst the thorn trees.

At night, instead of enjoying a few beers and talking about the animals his father had so nearly managed to shoot, Martin had chosen to read his ridiculous esoteric books about the soul and the power of the mind.

Father and son bonding- what a laugh! For the last twenty years they’d had nothing to say to each other and two days spent tramping silently through the bush in search of a non-existent lion wasn’t going to change a thing. Frankly, he’d been surprised when Martin had suggested this weekend of togetherness and had only agreed when his wife begged him to give it a try.

“He’s our only child, dear,” she said, looking at him with those pathetic spaniel eyes of hers. “If anything should happen to you, it would terrible if you were still at odds with each other.”

“By happen, you mean if my heart should happen to give out and I should happen to die,” said Randal curtly. “Leaving you a very rich widow. Don’t worry, I have no intention of giving you or that long drink of water you call your son that satisfaction. Dr Abrahams says I’m good for another twenty years if I remember those pills.”

“Martin’s got so many wonderful qualities,” said his wife quietly. “If only you’d give him a chance. He’s the kindest and most perceptive person I know and everyone thinks he’s clever, and amusing. He’s well read, he goes to concerts and plays, and he has lots of friends. Why can’t you try and like him? He’s your son, even if you don’t agree with everything he does.”

Randal looked at Martin, fiddling with a piece of rope, teasing the ends and plaiting them in a complicated pattern. Bloody hairdresser. He should have sent him to the army to knock some sense into him. Now it was too late – he had a son who earned his living arranging mannequins in a department store and spent his spare time dressing up and prancing about on the stage with some damn fool amateur dramatics. Probably just went along for the make-up and fancy dress.

Randal crushed his beer can in frustration and hurled it into the shadows beyond the fire.

Martin rose gracefully and retrieved it, smiling apologetically at his father.

“Got to keep the camp clean,” he murmured, and put it in the bin.

“I’m turning in,” growled Randal abruptly. “We’re making an early start.”

He washed perfunctorily in the little enamel basin and swallowed his heart tablets, taking care that Martin didn’t see. The fact that this traitorous organ threatened to let him down while he was still in the prime of life was no concern of his son.

But heart or no heart, he was always on top of things, king of the heap. Amalgamating with Thompson’s was a brilliant move and he couldn’t wait to get back to town to conclude the deal.

He settled himself on the canvas stretcher and, ignoring the spectacular panoply of stars in the African night sky, he fell asleep before Martin had finished his drink.

“Dad. Dad.” Martin’s voice in his ear was low and insistent. “Wake up but don’t move. Keep absolutely still.”

“Huh?” Randal tried to sit up but Martin held him down with surprising strength.

“A snake’s just disappeared under your blanket. It must be lying next to you somewhere.”

Randal’s mouth went dry. A snake. He hated snakes.

“What kind of snake?” A treacherous tremor in his voice. Probably a mole snake, nothing to be worried about.

“It’s kind of bright yellow. About three feet long.

A Cape Cobra. Just about the most poisonous snake in Africa.

He turned his head very slowly and looked at Martin, shocked. “Do something.”

“What do you suggest? I can’t just whip off the blanket and hit it with my shoe. It might bite me. Or you. Just lie perfectly still and wait for it to go away.”

Martin sounded unnaturally calm. Stupid fool probably didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation.

Both men stared at the grey blanket covering Randal. .

“Can you feel it?” whispered Martin. “I can’t see the tail any longer. It must have settled against your body.”

Randal flexed his leg muscles and felt something move slightly. Something rough and dry.

“Yes,” he mouthed. “It’s up near my groin. Dear God, one bite and I’m a dead man.”

“Don’t be silly Dad, the thing isn’t a man eater. It will go away in its own good time.”

“You know absolutely nothing, about snakes or anything else. You’re useless. Why didn’t you stop the snake when you saw it?”

Martin stared at him wordlessly, then gently lifting the corner of the blanket at the end of the stretcher, he peered underneath.

“STOP THAT!” hissed Randal, lying rigid. “Do you want the damn thing to bite me?”

The snake seemed to move upwards in protest and stopped with its head resting on Randal’s stomach.

His breath was coming in short gasps and he felt his chest tighten ominously, as it had before his first attack.

Take it easy, he told himself. Deep breaths. Relax. The snake slid ever so slightly forward under his vest.

“I could wake old Moses,” suggested Martin. “He’s got a gun.” The tracker was sleeping under a tree some distance from their camp.

“And have him shoot me in the stomach? Don’t be more of an idiot than you can help.”

Never had a sensible idea in his life, that boy.

Prickly sweat was pouring down Randal’s face and blurring his vision. He desperately wanted to wipe his eyes but dared not move and his tongue had swollen to a lump of dry wadding in his mouth. He whispered with difficulty, “Water.”

Martin rose quickly and filled a cup from the bucket. He supported his father’s head and Randal gulped noisily, the water spilling out the sides of his mouth. As he did so he felt the reptile move again. Must be longer than three feet, he thought, trying to remember what sort of venom a cobra produced.

If only he’d packed a snakebite outfit. Would it be a slow death as his muscles gradually stiffened or would he die within minutes, writhing in agony and foaming at the mouth?

He had a sudden, clear picture of Martin at six years, wetting himself as he cowered in terror waiting for his father’s thick leather belt to descend. He felt a momentary shame at his past behaviour then realised with horror that hot liquid was running down his own leg. I’ve pissed myself, he thought, humiliated.

Randal could hear his heart pounding and his throat started to close, every breath an almighty effort. He wanted to sit up and throw back his chest to let in some air, but he knew if he did that the cobra would sink its fangs into his chest .

Hot, agonising flashes lasered up his neck into his jaw.

“My pills,” he tried to say, but a strangulated groan was all he could manage.

“Keep still, Dad.” Martin took his father’s hand in his own. “Just wait it out. Don’t panic.”

The snake moved again and Randal felt an almighty, paralysing pain explode in his chest, blotting out the pale face above him and sending him spiralling into darkness.

Martin released the lifeless hand and stared at the body of his father. That’s done, he exulted silently, unable to keep from smiling. He felt inordinately light and free, and the frivolous thought struck him that the past hour or so would make a pretty good one – act play for the Spotlight Drama Group. His three years of weekly acting classes had really paid off and perhaps it was time to try his hand at writing a short play. He’d call it The Power of Thought. Or maybe Mind Games.

Before he switched on his mobile to phone his mother with the news of mission accomplished, Martin remembered to pull out the long piece of rope from under the blanket. Useful stuff, rope.

Baboon Minders of Scarborough

Drive an hour south of Cape Town, to the tip of the Peninsula, and you’ll find Scarborough, a random scattering of houses and shacks perched between the wild, thundering waves of the Atlantic and the steep mountains of Slangkop and Red Hill.

Gale force north-westers, icy rain and flooded dirt roads are a feature of winter here and in summer the howling south- easters whip the sand along the beach and carry the bracing smell of rotting kelp.

Nature lovers’ heaven, really.

Miles from the traffic jams and petty crime of suburban Cape Town, there are a number of self- employed writers, musicians and laid- back surfheads who choose to live here, environmentalists to a man. In recent years computer programmers and stockbrokers have moved in, building upmarket houses on the mountain but still espousing the easy-going lifestyle.

This doesn’t mean they’re asleep to the wiles of developers, and forceful action groups have seen off several schemes to bring them progress.

They’ve defended their right to a glorious lack of anything that smacks of convenience, so that the only shop is Mickey’s Mousetrap, a small window which opens for three hours a day to sell bread and milk over the counter before snapping shut again. For anything more, they make the trip along the mountainous coast road to Fish Hoek, supermarkets and civilization.

You get the picture.

But along with this close-to-nature life come the troops of Chacma baboons (Papio Ursinis) which roam the mountains above the houses.

Living in family groups of thirty or more, the alpha male weighs in at 35kg and is armed with impressive canines which are longer and sharper than a lion’s. These intelligent primates have discovered that unlimited food is available inside houses and any open door or window is an invitation to a meal. Once inside, cupboards and refrigerator doors present no problem.

If the house is locked, then the rubbish bins offer easy pickings.

After some years of outrage, several irate residents declared war on these cheeky animals with a taste for sliced bread and biscuits. Forbidden to use guns because the baboons are protected species in the Peninsula, they had to resort to throwing firecrackers and stones to frighten them off, but nothing worked for long.

Soon battle lines were drawn and harsh words were exchanged between the “Shoot- the- buggers” faction and the “We’re- invading- their- space” pacifists.

The pacifists formed a Baboon Management Team to persuade the would-be baboon hunters to be more tolerant and to work out a definite policy of baboon control. Members were drawn from the environmental big guns in the National Parks Board, Cape Nature Conservation and the World Wildlife Fund. The main movers were primatologists Dave Gaynor and Ruth Kansky, whose studies of the baboons played a major role in guiding the team.

They came up with a unique answer to the problem. Official Baboon Monitors.

Eight unemployed men from Masiphumelele, a nearby squatter settlement, were recruited, and their brief was to follow the baboons during the daylight hours and keep them away from the houses.

Within days, head monitor Thembele Jantjies and his men were forcing the baboons to keep to the higher slopes of the mountains with a combination of shouts, whistles and arm waving.

“When we first started, the trick was to find out where they slept each night,” says Thembele, who had previously worked in game parks in the Eastern Cape and knows the ways of baboons.

“We found they have three main sleeping sites, in caves and under the overhanging rocks. Once we knew where they slept, we could find them the next morning and just follow them.”

Thembele collects the team in his pick-up at daybreak each morning and drops them off near the sleeping areas of the different troops. Monitors are equipped with wet-weather gear, uniforms, and identifying badges.

There are three separate troops on these mountains, each with their own well-defined stamping grounds. The Oliphantsbos baboons, the Slangkop troop , and the Da Gama troop have leaders for which the monitors have well chosen names: Jilo ( One Eye) of the Slangbos troop, Twatsa of the da Gama troop who has an injured shoulder but still maintains his position as alpha male, and Eric. There are also the lone trouble makers- Kalky who was brought over from Kalk Bay because he refused to run with the troop there, and Qiri-Qiri (The Foreigner).

This last baboon was causing havoc in the suburbs of Tokai ten miles across the mountains, so he was darted by Nature Conservation officials and brought over to Scarborough to see if he would integrate with them.

“He has the right name because he steals the women and picks fights with the men,” chuckles Thembele, “Wherever he goes he causes trouble. Kalky also doesn’t like other baboons. He walks by himself, he’s a very lonely man.”

Kalky, a healthy male in the prime of life, is one of the better known personalities of Scarborough and has his own personal monitor. Lone baboons tend to get into houses more aggressively than a whole troop and he has made Scarborough his personal fiefdom. Most residents tolerate him- they just make sure they have lockable rubbish bins.

Thembele keeps a record of all births and deaths and the monitors know exactly how many baboons belong to each troop.

“Sometimes a baboon will get run over if he is too near the road when it’s getting dark,” he says. “Also, when they come into a new troop, or they reach maturity, male baboons will attack babies because they want to start their own family line.”

Recently, eight baby baboons were killed outright by a full- grown male intent on muscling his way in as leader of the troop. Nature in the raw.

“But there are so many ways that they are just like us,” says Thembele.

“When one baboon was injured, he was taken to the vet for three weeks. And when he came back, they were all hugging him and stroking him and shouting with excitement. Just like us. And the babies, when they are naughty, their mothers are very patient for a long time. Then suddenly, they will give them a smack and the baby cries. Just like our own families.”

The monitor programme is important in the management of these baboons, but it’s expensive. Baboon Matters is a small company recently formed to handle fundraising and management for this project.

They’re making it their business to inform people and school groups about baboons, to counteract the bad press baboons had in the pre-monitor days.

They’re stressing that baboons are an asset, with an enormous potential for sponsorship from big corporations who want to associate themselves with environmental issues.

The people of Baboon Matters have lots of ideas to make this programme self- sustaining and they also want to expand the skills of the monitors.

“We’re starting with a first- aid course for the whole team,” said Noel Ashton.

“Then we’re investigating a literacy programme for the men and after that we hope to find other roles they can fill like checking on mountain paths, reporting new growth of alien vegetation or spotting mountain fires.”

Soon they hope to train the monitors to act as field guides to conduct small groups of tourists up the mountain paths to watch the baboons.

Thembele and the others are very keen on this idea. They’ve seen how excited visitors get when they spot uniformed monitors playing traffic cop to a troop of thirty baboons crossing the road.

“We hear the click-click of the cameras from the buses, everyone wants a picture of us!” says Thembele.

But rubber-necking motorists can add to the problem. Tourists and locals alike can’t resist throwing fruit or biscuits to the baboons, even with the threat of a R500 fine if they’re spotted.

They just confirm a popular baboon equation: People equal take-aways.

Some of the baboons in the Nature Reserve alongside Scarborough have been so conditioned to expect handouts, they will go after women carrying handbags or packets containing souvenirs, giving the nervous visitor a close and exciting brush with local wild life.

“No matter how threatening they look, baboons will never attack a human being. But they’ll try and snatch whatever they perceive as food,” said Ruth Kansky of the management team.

“You just have to drop what you’re carrying and let the baboons inspect it. They usually lose interest when they see there is nothing to eat.”

Even the monitors are careful not to be seen eating their own lunch, walking well away from the troop and turning their backs while they eat.

Deprived of chocolate biscuits and yoghurt, baboons eat mainly insects, fynbos bulbs, shoots and leaves, living in harmony with the plants by aerating the soil and helping in seed dispersal.

These particular Chacmas are unique amongst baboons as they also roam the beaches, picking up sandhoppers and prising limpets and shellfish off the rocks to supplement their diet.

”But when there are ripe figs or guavas in the gardens, then we have a very hard time,” said Thembele, “No more leaves! Baboons can smell ripe fruit from two kilometers away and they run down the mountain so fast we can hardly keep up with them.”

Trevor Kotze is one resident who receives regular annual visits from these bold thieves, but he’s not bothered.

“It’s part of living here,” he said, looking up at the seven baboons which have given the monitor the slip and are stuffing themselves with fruit in the branches of his big guava tree. “They come here every year. They make a heck of a mess and my kids have to clean up after them.”

The Kotze children are on first- name terms with these baboons and can recognize Eric and George as they come thundering down the road with their females in tow, hotly pursued by their monitor who has been chasing after them from the slopes of Slangkop.

Since the introduction of the Monitor programme, Noel estimates that baboon invasion has been cut by 90%, although lone baboons like Kalky and Eric sometimes give their monitors the slip and go for the gold in someone’s pantry.

“We can’t always stop them going down to the houses,” said Thembele. “And then some people get angry when they see us jumping over their fences and shouting, but we’re only trying to head off the baboons.”

Except perhaps for a few months of babyhood, baboons don’t rate highly in the cute stakes.

They peer at you arrogantly with their small yellow eyes, which are too close together for beauty, and those canines are much too long for comfort. So why do we need to protect and cherish these particular baboons?

The citizens of Cape Town are blessed with the mountains close enough to be enjoyed by everyone. They’re fortunate to number baboons, porcupine and several species of buck amongst the local fauna, many of which can be seen by anyone going for a Sunday stroll. Not many cities can equal this.

“Wild life all over the world is in dire straits,” says Ruth Kansky, “As the human population has increased, we’ve become less and less tolerant, especially of primates who are in competition with humans for food.

“But with our baboon monitoring team, hopefully Cape Town is setting an example to the rest of the world, showing that man can live together with wild life without destroying it for our own convenience.”

Post Natal Depression – Don’t Ignore it

“Some days I had to walk out of the room and leave Sarah to cry, in case I picked her up and threw her across the room.”

Candy was talking about her experience with Post Natal Depression which had lasted for six months after her baby was born.

“I found it difficult to bond with my baby. I felt guilty for not loving her enough and sometimes I’d just stand looking at her asleep in her cot and burst into tears. I thought I was going mad.”

The common myth is that Motherhood should be a magical experience for a woman, the ultimate celebration of life and love.

For some lucky mothers, it is.

Yet a study recently undertaken in Australia estimated that 20% of all new mothers, no matter how much they had looked forward to the birth of their baby, experienced some form of Post Natal Depression within the first year of birth.
How do you recognise PND?

PND shows itself in many ways besides a feeling of unhappiness and depression. You may experience panic attacks, mood swings, sleeplessness, loss of energy, hyperventilation, lack of libido, and in extreme cases, feelings of hatred towards your baby and thoughts of suicide.

These episodes, which can be mild or severe, might last a few days or weeks, or can stretch into months or even years of misery for you, your partner and your baby.

Many mothers accept some of these symptoms as part of the difficulties of motherhood and often it is your partner who realises there is something more seriously wrong.

Don’t confuse PND with the very common ‘baby blues’, a feeling of mild depression which coincides with your milk coming in, about the 3rd or 4th day, and very rarely last longer than a day or two.

At the other end of the scale is Puerperal Psychosis, fortunately a very rare condition suffered by only 2 in 1000 women. The symptoms, which usually start about a fortnight after giving birth, include severe depression which swings suddenly towards manic activity and uncontrolled behaviour: bursts of unreasonable laughter and unstoppable crying jags. This generally requires time in hospital and a long recovery period.
What causes PND?

* Sudden hormonal changes occur in your body after the birth of your baby.

* Emotional stress of adjusting to motherhood: insecurity and lack of confidence

* The reality of being a mother is a lot harder than your fantasy during the previous nine months.

* The birth of a baby signals the loss of freedom and the start of a long- term emotional, financial and physical commitment. This can be frightening.

Many mothers have to cope without the support of close families and feel isolated and helpless.

Ilse, an ambitious and career-orientated mother was sure she’d take motherhood in her stride and was almost ashamed to realise she couldn’t cope.

“At pre-natal classes they warned us about PND, “ said Ilse, “But when Greg was born, I just didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t cope. Yet I had the classic situation for depression – both our parents lived overseas so I had no support. We moved house twice in Greg’s first year, which I found terribly stressful. I was holding down a demanding job, Greg was at a crèche and often sick …we were always broke. And all the signs of PND were there but I didn’t want to see them: although I felt exhausted most of the time, I couldn’t sleep. Any little thing started me crying uncontrollably, even a loud noise. I couldn’t get organised to do simple things like shopping, or the laundry, everything just seemed impossibly difficult. I took extra vitamins but that didn’t help. When I took Greg to the doctor for his twelve month check-up, I burst into tears all over the poor man and he prescribed a three- month course of anti-depressants. Within a week I felt a different person.”
Talk to a professional

Usually that professional would be your family doctor. But if you feel he’s not taking you seriously, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. Never be embarrassed to tell your doctor or clinic sister exactly what you are feeling. It’s important that you get help for PND, no matter how mild your symptoms may seem.
A simple blood test could reveal a deficiency in zinc, one of the major causes of PND.

At your first visit, you might be prescribed mild tranquillisers but if you’re still experiencing symptoms on your second visit, your doctor might then go on to prescribe a course of anti- depressants. Some woman are unwilling to use drugs, thinking that this is an admission of something seriously wrong. PND is serious and you need to carry on getting whatever help is available until you are your old self again.
Natural ways of dealing with mild PND

Ask your partner for a massage, using essential oils with helpful properties: jasmine ( uplifting) rose ( banishes feelings of sadness) and geranium ( eases anxiety )

Or use one of these oils in an oil burner.

Some of the better-known natural remedies which have been used down the ages are lavender ( recommended for it’s calming effect ) valerian ( taken for anxiety) and St Johns Wort ( a mild natural anti-depressant) Kava Kava is also used to treat symptoms of anxiety, and Dr Bach’s Flower Essences contain a range of extracts of Gentian, Gorse, Sweet Chestnut, Elm and Larch, which some people find help emotional states.

Homeopathic help

If you choose the homeopathic route, there are a wide range of remedies available.

“I would choose a combination of remedies to suit the individual needs of the patient,” said Cape Town homeopath Dr Julie Digby. “If, after talking to her I felt the problem was hormonal, not emotional, I’d probably recommend Pulsatilla, especially if she was constantly tearful, or Sepia if she felt unable to cope with life. Lachesis is another remedy I often use, but every women with PND has different needs.”
Tips for dealing with PND

1 Take the opportunity to sleep whenever your baby sleeps, even if this means the dishes don’t get done. Put your needs first: for the first few months, sleep is your No 1 priority. Don’t try to be Superwoman.

2 Avoid depressants like alcohol

3 Reduce feelings of irritability by cutting down on stimulants like coffee, tea and cola drinks.

4 Vitamin C complex strengthens your nervous system and helps fight fatigue.

Flax seed capsules containing essential fatty acids are an excellent supplement.

5 Keep up your blood- sugar level up with frequent snacks, but avoid too much actual sugar as this increases your blood sugar imbalance. Eat protein-rich foods.

Don’t accept that feeling miserable and unable to deal with life is part of having a baby. It’s not. You owe it to yourself and your family to get help.

The Carpet King

The first we saw of the Carpet King was a cloud of dust coming along the road to the farm. My mother was sitting on the stoep, picking stones out of the dried beans in a big enamel bowl on her lap.

“That’s not the Extension Officer,” she said, screwing up her eyes at the shimmering heat haze. “Hansie’s not due until next month. I wonder if it’s the Tax.”

The Tax was a constant dread in our lives, arriving unannounced and demanding a head count of stock and a check on farm equipment. But we’d have known if he was on his way, because he had to pass through Kobus Potgieter’s farm to reach ours, and Mrs Potgieter would have rung my mother on the partyline and warned her.

We watched the cloud of dust stop five times, lurch forward, stop, then carry on as the driver opened and closed the camp gates. My dad sometimes talked of getting stock grids but had never bothered with the expense, as he always had Lang Jan on the back of his truck to jump down and deal with the gates.

Finally a small red pick-up emerged from the swirl of white dust and jerked to a stop in front of us. A dapper, neat little man emerged, smiling with his back teeth showing. Like a jackal, I thought.

“A very good afternoon to you, ladies.”

He bounded uninvited up the steps and took my mother’s hand in his.

‘Charles Andrews, the Carpet King, at your service, ma’am.”

“Margriet le Roux.”

“Mrs le Roux. I’m privileged to meet you. And your delightful little- er- daughter.”

I was already self-conscious about the haircut Ma had given me and that fatal hesitation slammed the door on any future relationship between me and Charles Andrews. Even if he hadn’t been English.

But in the face of his charm, my mother stood up clumsily, handing me the bowl of dried beans.

“Mr le Roux is out in the camps with the fencing. Would Meneer like some coffee while he waits?”

“Ah, Mrs le Roux, that would be too kind, too kind. I thank you. But in truth, it is your good self I have come to visit.”

“Me?” My mother wiped her hands on her apron uncertainly.

I’d never heard anyone speak like he did, using so many words to say so little.

“Indeed yes. It is always the lady of the house who decides on the beautiful things with which to adorn her domain, is that not so? I have come to show you the most wonderful, but also the most practical floor coverings you will see in the whole of Africa. I doubt that when you travel to Europe or the Americas, you will ever lay eyes upon carpets as magnificent as these I have brought here for you.”

I knew for a fact that my mother had no plans to travel further than Cape Town. When my parents had married in Brandvlei they had set off towards the Cape on honeymoon, but my dad’s truck had blown a tyre outside Tontelbos and they never got further than the Commercial Hotel there. She often talked wistfully of a holiday in the Cape one day. When things improved.

“I don’t think we want any carpets just now,” she said.

But the ‘I think’ gave him encouragement.

“If you’ll only allow me five minutes of your precious time, Mrs le Roux, it would be my pleasure to show you a few samples of these magnificent carpets. Each one a hand- knotted masterpiece. I would be happy for you just to feast your eyes. With no obligation on your part of course. Looking will cost you nothing. Not a penny.”

He hurried back to his pick-up and started to lift off the carpets, wrapped in plastic against the dust.

“Get the coffee, Grietjie,” said my mother. “And bring the rusks also. On the blue plate.”

I could see she was impressed by this rooinek from the city, with his three- piece suit and his black shoes so shiny they looked like wet plastic. When I came back through the screen door carrying coffee, two of the carpets were already spread out on the stoep.

I nearly dropped the tray, they were so beautiful.

Brilliant reds, blues, purples, greens and gold woven together in a complicated pattern of birds and flowers and mysterious shapes. They had an exotic smell of spices and far away places.

“These are Persian carpets, Grietjie,” murmured my mother, “They make them in the desert. Up there where the Bible comes from.”

Charles Andrews said nothing. He stood to one side, smiling slightly and allowed his carpets to speak to my mother in their foreign accents, to woo her with their fantastic patterns and tempt her with their shameless, vivid colours.

She was entranced. She walked slowly around them, her eyes never leaving the gorgeous designs.

Then she bit her lip and said quietly, “I will have to ask Mr le Roux.”

I knew what my dad would say. He was the biggest farmer in the district, running 8000 angora goats on the 70,000 morgen of dry, unforgiving land in the Kamiesberg but it had been three years since we’d seen any rain. The last wool cheque had been so small that he’d twice had to go to ask Mr Venter at the bank for a loan.

My dad would say no thank you, we’ve got a carpet already.

And he would watch Charles Andrews roll up his carpets and load them back onto his pick- up and he’d wait until he had opened the fifth and furthest gate, then he’d turn around to us and laugh and say,

“These blerrie rooineks! Think they can sell us all their rubbish!”

And that would be the end of it.

But to my surprise, when my dad came back to the house, he introduced himself and shook hands with the Carpet King, and listened without any expression while the salesman went through his speech once again. I could see my mother looking at him tensely, willing him to fall in love with the carpets as she had. Not both of course, but maybe one.

Charles Andrews started telling him what a good investment they were, how intricately they were knotted by expert fingers in far-off lands and how they would turn our house into a palace, but my dad interrupted him.

“Very pretty. Now I’ve got to check some stock in the bottom camp. So I’ll say goodbye.”

“Oh.. perhaps I could accompany you on your inspection? You have such a magnificent homestead here, such an enormous property. I would deem it a privilege to see something of it.”

“You want to see the goats? Come along then. You come too, Grietjie,” he grunted, and I caught a gleam of some devilment in his eye.

Charles Andrews hurried along trying to keep up with my dad, his shiny shoes getting smeared with dust, I was happy to see. He never stopped talking in that high, excited English voice of his, on an on, about how wonderful the farm was, what a sense of space he had just looking towards the horizon, how lovely the silence was, how picturesque the white goats were.

What excited him most was the fact that my great- grandfather Adriaan le Roux had trekked to this part of the Kamiesberg in 1863 and started farming with his wife and five sons. Our family had been living on Kareebosvlei for three generations- four, if you counted me.

“Ah, what a sense of history. What deep and solid family roots you have struck, a fortunate man indeed. To know ourselves we must know our history, isn’t that so?”

I thought, if he had to live here he’d soon get tired of all this space with nothing on it except goats and stones and he’d certainly hate the silence because it meant there was no one else to talk to for fifty miles in any direction.

My dad just grunted. I could tell he thought this rooinek was a simpleton who’d probably never done a real day’s work in his life..

On the way back to the house, my dad took him into the barn to show him the tractor, its metal seat worn shiny with the backsides of le Rouxs who had planted hopefully every year and waited for the rains to come.

“This was my father’s and it’s still going strong,” he said, smacking its green mudguard affectionately. “You can’t beat those old Massey-Fergusons”

He gave a nostalgic sigh and looked around the dim interior of the barn. I knew he was up to something.

The Carpet King didn’t take much notice of the tractor, but his busy little eyes lit upon an old wooden box in the corner. Lang Jan had used it for storing his family’s clothes until my dad gave him an old cupboard from the house.

“That looks like a good strong box,” he said, a bit too casually. “I could find a use for a box like that. Do you keep it for any special purpose?”

The cheek of the man! I expected my dad to tell him off, but he said mildly, “Not really.”

“If you’re not using it, perhaps you’d like to sell it to me?”

“That box? No man, I couldn’t sell that,” said my dad, shaking his head. “That box trekked on the ox wagons with my great- grandfather over the Hantam Mountains in 1860. That wa-kis has got a lot of history. No, I couldn’t ever part with that box.”

“Really?”

He tried hard to sound unimpressed but I could see crazy Charles Andrews was dying to possess that wooden box. I had to hide my mouth with my hand so he couldn’t see me laughing at him. That dirty old thing had been in Lang Jan’s smoky hut for years and before that, lying behind the feed shed.

“That’s a pity. It would just fit nicely onto my pick-up and be very handy. What would you say to fifty rand?”

I nearly choked. Fifty rand for that piece of junk!

“No, I couldn’t,” said my dad, shaking his head emphatically. “It wouldn’t be right. I have to honour my great- grandfather and keep it in the family. Look, he carved his name on the front. A. le Roux 1860”

“A hundred rand?”

“That’s a very well made box, you know. You won’t find a single nail in the making of it.”

Charles Andrews finally got it for two hundred rands, cash, which he pulled from his pocket and handed over with a pleased little smile.

My dad managed to keep a straight face the whole time but when the carpet salesman walked briskly back to the house to fetch his pick-up, he broke out into a triumphant grin.

“ I got him there,” he said smugly. “More money than sense, these people from Johannesburg.”

“Why do you think he likes it so much?”

“Who knows with these English. They’re all mad. Perhaps he thinks it’s full of treasure.” We sniggered together, happy at my dad’s cleverness.

“So now are you going to buy one of his carpets, Pa?”

“What for? We’ve got a carpet. What would we do with another one?”

The Carpet King loaded the old wa-kis on his pick- up and we drove back together to the house, packed tightly in the front cab. I sat between them, my dad with his familiar smell of goat and tobacco and the Englishman smelling of some sort of perfume. I’d never met a man who used aftershave, and I sat very still, savouring the spicy smell. It didn’t make me like him any better though.

Strangely, he didn’t mention selling his carpets again. My mother was busy inside the house and he simply rolled them up and slipped them into their plastic covers. Then he turned to my dad.

“I wonder if I might prevail upon you for a small favour?”

That was how he talked. He couldn’t just ask us, he had to prevail upon us.

“Now that I’ve put that box on board, there really isn’t room for these two carpets. I wonder if I could ask you good people to store them for me for a week or two until such time as I return to collect them?”

“ Yes, we can do that. LANG JAN!”

Charles Andrews looked startled at this sudden roar but Lang Jan came scuttling from behind the house and waited for instructions.

“Put them up in the roof with the coffins, quick- quick,” ordered my dad.

“Ja my baas.”

Charles Andrews was about to get into his pick-up when he thought of something else.

“I say – I wonder if you could do one more little thing for me?”

“Yes?” The two hundred rand had bought a certain amount of goodwill from my dad, but not too much.

“It’s just that my – er – principals in Johannesburg will want to know what I have done with the carpets. I wonder if you could kindly sign a paper saying you are storing them for me? This would account for their temporary absence and the fact that I haven’t- er-exchanged them for coin of the realm, as it were.”

My father was baffled. “He means money, Pa,” I whispered.

“It’s just paperwork to keep the office fellows happy.”

As he was speaking, he had pulled out a little book and was hastily writing something.

“Here, if you could just sign this. I’ve said here ‘This is to confirm that I am storing carpets for Charles Andrews until the end of the month of January.’ See?”

My dad shrugged and signed his name.

“They’re a careful lot in Johannesburg, eh?”

“Oh yes, well these are extremely valuable Persian carpets, works of art, absolutely irreplaceable.” He handed my dad the carbon copy and he stuffed it in his pocket.

“You’ll be back to fetch them at the end of the month?”

“Yes, the first week in February at the latest.”

He didn’t come back.

February came and went. March came and went.

We forgot about the Carpet King and life on the farm went on.

The cattle came down with miltsiek. The borehole nearest the house dried up for the first time and my dad had to haul water in ninety gallon drums from the windmill dam five miles down the road. Lang Jan chopped off the top of his finger while cutting a swaarthaak for firewood and my mother dipped it in pakbos juice and wrapped it up in an old kitchen cloth. Doctors were only for the emergencies my mother couldn’t deal with.

In April, we went into town. It was a three hour drive to Kamieskroon and my mother took her knitting and I sat in the back of the truck with Lang Jan and listened to his stories. He was a Baster from Namaqualand and had an inexhaustible supply of old folk tales, which he delighted in telling me. This one involved wily Jackal and poor stupid Baboon in a long complicated adventure stealing honey from a beehive, and of course cunning old Jackal outwitted his old enemy once again. Lang Jan cackled with laughter as he acted out the plot, his hooded eyes disappearing into his wrinkled yellow face.

“Why does Jackal always win?” I complained. “Sometimes poor old Baboon should get the better of him.”

I thought of Charles Andrews and his shiny jackal teeth, and remembered with satisfaction how my dad had had got him with that dirty old box.

“Jackal too clever. Jackal sharper than any other animal, he always be the winner.”

Not always, I thought smugly.

I loved going to town. It was always the same: first to the bank to talk to Mr Venter. Then the co-op for bags of feed and my mother’s kitchen list: fifty pound sacks of sugar and flour, packets of coffee and tea, cans of paraffin for the lamps. Then tractor spares from the service station and finally, to the café for an ice cream. On the way home out of Town we collected the mail from our post box.

For the return journey I squashed into the front cab and we shared a ritual packet of chocolate peanuts, my mother’s favourites. She opened the post as dad drove, commenting on each one.

“A letter from Auntie Dolly. She says Hannah’s having another baby, that will be her fourth. Mm, that’s a bit quick. A circular from Mostert Brothers, I see there’s a sale in execution at old Brand’s place next week.”

“Nothing we need from him,” grunted my dad. But he’d been looking black ever since his visit to the bank and I knew there wouldn’t be any money for going to a farm auction, one of the social highlights for the local farming families who brought their lunch and made a day of it. She tore open the next envelope.

“That’s funny, here’s an account. For nine thousand rands!” My mothers voice rose to a squeak of amazement.

“Oh well, it’s been put into the wrong box. This must be for the le Rouxs over at Stilfontein. I’ll phone Gerrie and tell him.”

She put it to one side and I leaned over and picked it up.

It was clearly addressed to Fanie le Roux, Kareebosvlei, PO Kamieskroon and it was from the Majestic Carpet Company in Johannesburg.

All the way home my father railed against this account. How silly the office people in Johannesburg must be to make such a mistake. How careless of Charles Andrews not to return for these valuable carpets. He had half a mind to charge him for storage when he finally came. Man! nine thousand rands. Who would ever pay that for a couple of carpets?

“But they were very beautiful,” said my mother softly.

The following month when we went to Town my dad went armed with a letter my mother had written to the Majestic Carpet Company, explaining their mistake. He dropped it angrily through the letter box and then went to collect our mail. On top of the pile there was an envelope addressed in red ink with DEBTOR: FINAL REMINDER!! printed across the top. He handed it grimly to my mother. My dad never had his reading glasses on him.

It was one thing being in debt to the Bank, that was normal, but he’d never owed anyone else a cent. Cash or nothing was the way we lived and there’d been mostly nothing for a long time.

The letter accompanying the account was printed in the same vicious, bright red with exclamation marks at the end of every sentence. My mother’s voice quavered as she read it aloud.

“I should have known that blerrie rooinek was a fool,” exploded my father. “We must phone these people and tell them to come and collect his carpets. This is too much.”

“Dad, what about that bit of paper he gave you? Have you still got it?”

He rummaged in the depths of his jacket pocket and handed it to my mother, water stained and flecked with shredded tobacco.

“What’s this?”

“He asked me to sign this to say we’d look after his carpets for a few weeks.”

“You mean we’ve had them all this time?”

“Ja, well, I put them up with the coffins in the shed. They’re safe enough.”

My mother read the scrawled words and sat very still.

“Fanie, it says here, ‘I promise to pay nine thousand rand for two Mehrabi carpets 3 metre by 4 metre and agree to make three monthly payments of three thousand rand over the period February- April.’ And you’ve signed it, Fanie.”

She ended in a whisper of disbelieve. “You signed it.”

The trip back to the farm was three hours of total silence. The folly of my dad putting his hand to something without reading it, and the enormity of this debt, seemed to crush all conversation and I knew better than to ask what we’d do.

After supper I went miserably to bed and heard a low angry murmur from their room which lasted until I drifted off uneasily. A nightmare about a shiny coated jackal tearing the angora kids with his teeth woke me and I went through to my parents bedroom, sobbing.

“Don’t worry, skattie, everything’s alright.” My dad snuggled me in between them and I fell asleep again. Of course he would make everything alright.

It took him four years. Half the wool cheque for the next three years, and then a sale of some heifers finally put a stop to those red letters arriving every month. I’ll never know what we went without to make those payments but I had turned fourteen before my mother was able to buy me a dress from the co-op, new, just for myself. When you’re young, you don’t miss what you’ve never had, really, and of course there wasn’t a TV to tell me what I should want. I suppose I thought every mother re-cut her own clothes to fit her daughter.

Whenever I remembered the carpets, I raged silently for the sake of my dad, so soundly tricked by that smooth- talking rooinek with his shiny shoes and gleaming teeth. .

Getting the best of a deal made fair and square was one thing, but cheating my father so shamelessly was unforgivable. It only confirmed what we le Rouxs had known all our lives. You couldn’t trust anyone from Johannesburg and especially not if they spoke English

But the fact remained, those carpets were beautiful and they were up there in our roof. When I asked my mother why we didn’t use them, seeing as how they were ours, or nearly, she snorted and said, “Throw nine thousand rands down on the floor to walk over? I’ve got more brains than that, my girl.”

She spoke as if she hated those carpets and we never mentioned them again.

Years later, I was sitting in the hairdresser in Vredenburg, looking through one of those glossy designer magazines they give you while they bake your head, when I saw my great- grandfather’s old box. It was in some smart sitting room in the Cape, cleaned up, with the mellow wood polished to a gleaming gold. The owner was touching it with her fingertips, smiling down at it.

“Mrs Thornton’s favourite piece is this antique yellowwood wa-kis, which belonged to her great-grandfather, one of the original trekkers. Today this lovely heirloom is valued at R5000”

I could clearly see A. le Roux carved into the front of it. How on earth had this Mrs Thornton got hold of it? And how dare this Englishwoman claim my great- grandfather as her own! My mouth went dry and my hands shook with fury, not wanting to believe the value of the box.

Charles Andrews. He must have sold it to her.

My dad had been so pleased with himself, outwitting the Englishman, but in the end, that smiling jackal had won.

My mother died, and my dad tried to carry on by himself. I visited him as often as I could but he was lonely, and tired of the struggle to keep the farm going.

The endless droughts and goat diseases had brought Kareebosvlei to the end of the road. The bank held the papers on the farm and had long ago refused to advance him any more money. The generator which gave the house sporadic electricity had been broken for over a year so he was back to using candle light and could no longer listen to the farmer’s news at five in the morning.

When Lang Jan died as a result of a scorpion bite that was the final blow. One of the pine coffins which, as a young farm hand, he had helped to make, was brought down from the store room roof and Kobus Potgieter and my dad buried him in the stony ground behind his hut.

My husband and I persuaded the old man to sell up the farm and move to a retirement home in Upington to be near us. I think if I’d had any sons he might have hung on, waiting for one of them to take over and try his luck on the land, even if his name wasn’t le Roux. But I had three girls, and he was slowly going blind.

On the day of the sale, I went back to the farm for the last time. My dad sat on the stoep, drinking coffee, his milky grey eyes looking towards the Hantam Mountains. He was going to find retirement in Upington very hard.

As keepsakes for my own daughters, I put aside my mother’s embroidered pictures, her candlewicked cushion covers and the patchwork bedspread I’d had on my bed twenty years before. Then I organised Lang Jan’s widow and daughter to make tea for the two hundred or so neighbours who would be at the sale, and wandered outside to have a look at the angora kids. The farm implements stood ready outside the barn and the stock had been brought up to pens behind the house.

Liempie Mostert, old Mostert’s son, came running up, red with excitement.

“Grietjie, we have found the most magnificent carpets up in the roof!”

“Oh, those,” I said, “Yes, I remember them.”

“Listen girlie, those carpets are worth a lot. More than all this stuff put together, I wouldn’t wonder. They’re Persian, you know. The real thing, not from Pakistan.”

I thought of the riot of colours and the foreign smell of them. I remembered how much my mother had wanted them, and all the misery they had cost us.

“So, sell them.” I said indifferently.

“They won’t fetch what they should, you know. These weren’t advertised. I didn’t even know they were up there until just now.”

“Sell them anyway.”

Liempie needn’t have worried. Farmers had come up from as far as Citrusdal for the sale, wealthy wine farmers and citrus growers who wanted to cash in on the new fashion for mohair goat wool. Some of them recognized what they were looking at, and the bidding closed at a two hundred and forty thousand rands. For each carpet.

When Liempie told him, my dad smiled broadly and took my hand.

“That’s shown that rooinek, eh, skattie? Thought he was dealing with a pack of baboons, didn’t he?”

“You got the better of him in the end, dad.”

“And that old box of your grandfather’s, got him there too, didn’t I?”

I went inside to make the tea.

By barge and bike in China

It’s just after daybreak on the River Li in Guangxi, Southern China, and we’re pushing our bikes onto a squat river barge that will take Pete and me down this brown, slow-flowing river to the ancient village of Xing Ping.

We hoist the bikes on the roof and take our places on the deck which is only ten centimetres from waterlevel, so we take off our sandals and plunge our feet into the river which is barely cooler than our body temperature.

Our fellow passengers are bound for markets along the way, sitting with baskets of ducks and bundles of dried fish and chatting to each other in melodious Mandarin which we wish we could understand. I try not to notice the five black puppies crammed into a wire cage, also bound for market as a delicacy.

We’ve been told this trip beats going to Beijing or looking at the terra cotta warriors of Xian, so we’d left Hong Kong two days before, chugged up the Pearl River on a chicken ferry and endured twelve hours on the bus ride from hell to reach this point. But looking around us, it’s definitely been worth it.

For a brief time everything on the shore is clear, green and vivid, before the clammy heat of the day slowly blurs everything into a misty blue haze. The banks are overgrown with thick fronds of bamboo and huge trees, and behind them the karsts rear up like thick fingers of stone.

These karsts are limestone oddities, rough bald monoliths which rise up hundreds of feet from the greenery below and are visited by excited geologists from all over the world. This was a favourite part of the country for the old Chinese artists who painted scrolls featuring the rocky karsts, the bamboos and the pagodas, although sadly their delicate artwork has been reproduced and copied so much that these scrolls have been reduced to Chinese kitsch.

Dotted along the banks we see old stone houses, abandoned temples and tall pagodas in various stages of ruin. There is an immensely peaceful feeling of timelessness and if it wasn’t for the slow throb of the motor we could be in the China of a thousand years ago.

Ten minutes after casting off, all the other passengers are dozing, lulled by the crushing heat and oblivious to the fantastic scenery which becomes more beautiful with every bend in the river. We drift past fishermen standing up in their tiny sampans, rhythmically casting in finely woven nets and immediately pulling them out of the water to pick off tiny fish no bigger than a little finger. .

Several of them have fresh-water cormorants perched on the front. These feathered slaves are fitted with a tight ring at the base of their neck and then trained to swim after a shoal of fish and catch several before returning to regurgitate them up on the deck. At the end of the day their owner removes the ring and they’re allowed to dive and swallow their own supper.

At one point harsh loudspeakers rudely break the spell, and we’re overtaken by a brightly painted double- decked barge. We can hear squeals of joy as our own ramshackle barge becomes the focus for a hundred cameras and videos.

This is the official government tourist barge which starts upriver at Guilin, bound for Yangshuo and a “western lunch” before being bussed back to their air conditioned hotels. It sounds as though the trapped passengers are being told in English, Cantonese and Mandarin exactly what they’re looking at along every inch of the way and we wave languidly at these poor suckers, feeling very smug at our superior choice of transport.

We make five- minute stops at odd wooden jetties along the way and our fellow passengers disembark and disappear into the greenery. Some hours later we tie up at Xing Ping.

It’s like stepping back in time. This two- thousand year old village looks as if nothing has been built here since the first stone houses. The only signs of the twenty-first century are the ubiquitous TV aerials, but there are no visible shops, no posters or billboards, no rusting piles of old cars, no crumbling cement – block houses and no old styrofoam containers.

The rest of what we have seen of China, outside of Hong Kong, could be described in a few words: polluted, filthy, jerry-built and charmless. But Xing Ping, untouched by this progress, is gorgeous.

It’s lunch time, with hardly a soul about. We pedal lazily around the narrow unpaved streets admiring the stone houses. Their brown clay tiles match the walls and some have rounded gables on the end walls. Pasted on every door there are brightly- coloured pictures of Door Gods and above them, a small mirror to deflect bad spirits. Most walls also sport bright red paper stuck on the wall with two Chinese characters meaning “Abundant happiness.”

Mao tried to sweep away these signs of Chinese believe and tradition, but they stayed lurking under the carpet until his death and have burst colourfully back.

A man can only take so much culture.

“I’m starving,” says Piet.

This is a problem – so far we haven’t seen a single shop that sells edible food, only a Chinese medicine shop with big glass jars of dried roots and pieces of bark.

Then we get lucky. We peer into an open door and discover several wooden tables and a counter, with the owner slumped on a stool, fast asleep in the midday heat.

She wakes up and obligingly rattles off the menu in Mandarin. We smile helplessly and walk over to a covered wok on a gas plate. This look great, fragrant rice with odd bits and pieces and we indicate approval. She brings us a plate of this, which is delicious whatever it is. We’re dying for a cold Tsing Tao but there doesn’t seem to be a frig anywhere so we settle for lukewarm fermented tea in tiny cups. She brings the thermos full to our table.

While we’re eating, using chopsticks to show we’re old China hands, three men, obviously regulars, walk in and chat her up. The conversation goes backwards and forwards and suddenly she bends over a wire basket in the corner and yanks out a long snake, holding it by its head and waving it about for their approval. Then she takes the hapless reptile to the counter and chops off it’s head , skinning it in one swift motion while it’s still wriggling convulsively.

Ahead of us, we have thirty kilometres of cycling to Yangshuo, and we reluctantly start cycling in the afternoon heat.

“Only mad dogs and crazy cyclists,” I remark, but Piet reckons they’ve eaten all the dogs, we’re alone here.

The narrow rural road sometimes follows the River Li and then wanders off into farmlands. For some kilometres, the only sign of life are water buffalo, listlessly pulling at the grass on the side of the road, or wallowing in deep gullies of muddy water between the rice fields that line the way. Not another soul.

Everyone must be having a siesta, which seems a pretty good idea to me as we pedal slowly on with frequent stops for drinks of tepid water.

We ride through little hamlets of not more than ten houses on either side of the road, shaded by enormous old trees. In one, there is a beautiful stone community hall, over 800 years old, with carved lintels and doorframes and delicately tipped eaves in the old style. It’s been stripped of its doors and is used as a straw barn. In every village we hear the slam of mah-jong tablets from behind shuttered windows, proving that not everyone is asleep. Every now and then we hear a radio, playing Chinese opera in a high, tinny wail, or Canto-pop.

Later in the afternoon the country comes to life and we see women, dressed alike in black pedal pushers, straw hats and plastic thongs, balancing loosely woven bamboo baskets on poles across their shoulders. Most of them are carrying vegetables or fruit but one has her toddler on one side and some pumpkins on the other, in perfect balance.

Finally the heat gets too much and when we see the River Li come into view again, we freewheel down a rutted path through the rice fields and hurl ourselves onto the grassy bank under a walnut tree.

There is absolute silence except for the buzz of insects and we could easily fall asleep. Suddenly a huffing and snorting break the silence, and just in front of us we see six water buffalo up to their necks in water. Their minder, a boy of about ten, smiles shyly at us and walks downriver a bit.

Which is just as well. Piet and I strip off and join the animals in water-buffalo heaven. Their liquid brown eyes observe us placidly and they let us come right up to them and ride on their backs – not quite Jane Goodall with her chimpanzees, but we feel oddly privileged.

At dusk, we cycle wearily into Yangshuo across the long stone bridge. The double story buildings, hotels and little factories come into view and as we get closer we hear the familiar noise of scooters and motorbikes with karaoke music belting out from several shops.

We’re back in civilization.

Hong Kong Haircut

There are three ways of having your hair cut in Hong Kong.

You can make an appointment with Mr Larry in his glass and chrome hair studio on the thirty- fifth floor overlooking Victoria harbour. He comes highly recommended by several of the British wives you’ve met, who just love him.

Here, at the first appointment you can get which will be two or three weeks later, you’re admitted to this sanctum and welcomed by his petite, immaculate assistants who all look as if they moonlight as TV presenters. You’re wrapped in a gown of pure cotton, offered filter coffee, cappuccino or your choice of teas and a warm muffin. Gentle classical music plays through the speakers hidden behind the lush pot plants. Mr Larry himself might be French, American or your genuine Londoner with an accent like Jamie Oliver but he’s dressed in a white cotton Chairman Mao top or a red silk vest from Shanghai Tang, the boutique of the very rich.

When you leave, washed, cut, blow-dried and pleasantly pampered, you’re presented with the bill, folded on a saucer with an imported chocolate on top. The chocolate contains sugar which is good for shock, and you need it when you open the bill. It is for HK$1000 and, if Mr Larry is often featured on the social pages of the South China Morning Post, it could be over HK$1500.

OK, so you won’t find many middle-incomes going to Mr Larry’s salon, but if you are seconded to Hong Kong for longer than three months, you have to go somewhere.

The remaining options are to have your hair cut at one of the local hairdressers up the lanes behind the markets, or sit out on the pavement and give yourself up to the scissors of the Filipina hairdressers. They work as domestics during the week and cut their compatriots’ hair on Sundays, maids day off all over the world.

I discreetly observe this option, which costs HK$40. Having washed your hair at home before joining the cheerful crowd who sit on the edge of the built-up flower beds in Chater Gardens near the Star Ferry terminal, you await your turn.

The hairdresser supplies the sharp scissors and a wooden apple crate for a stool. A large plastic bowl, with the bottom and part of the side cut away is placed around the client’s neck to catch the hair as it falls. As all Filipina girls have gloriously thick, straight black hair, it’s hard not to make a good job of the cut. When they leave, they empty their hair into a plastic bag and take it away with them.

My pride keeps me from joining this queue. The whole madam/maid thing is pretty strong even in post-colonial Hong Kong and if any of my ex-pat friends saw me sitting on a wall with a plastic bowl around my neck..!

So I go for the third option and try local Chinese.

Up a side lane in Wan Chai I walk in and sit down, and it only takes a minute and two snips of my hair for me to know that Miss Woo Long hasn’t a clue She also has very little English, and I can only count to five in Cantonese.

“How long have to you been cutting hair?” I ask nervously.

“Yes very long. I make short, okay baby?”

“Where did you learn to cut hair? College?”

“NO!” Miss Woo Long convulses at the thought, her hand prettily cupped over her mouth. “I learn on the job!”

Half way through, she cannot resist the temptation and pops out into Spring Garden Lane to tell a few friends that she has something really interesting in her salon. A foreigner.

Three market vendors in black pedal pushers and blue plastic slip-slops tiptoe in and sit in the empty chairs, their eyes fixed on me.

This is so unnerving that I start chattering away like an idiot. The conversation is pretty one-sided as Miss Woo Long has exhausted her English and is attacking my hair with short sharp thrusts, her lips gripped tight in concentration. Her friends work their way closer and closer until they are practically breathing down my neck, making amused comments, which mercifully are in Cantonese.

Finally Miss Woo Long is satisfied and removes the towel with a flourish.

“Good, hey? I cut good. You tell friends.”

Yeah, well, maybe I’ll pass on her name to my worst enemies. I part with HK$ 90 and look in the mirror as I leave. I seem to have had an electric shock. Pieces of hair stick out at wild angles and there are chunks missing. Where can I buy a cheap wig?

That evening my husband makes comforting noises but I don’t want to leave the flat for days in case I meet someone I know.

A couple of months later, my hair is once again long enough to be cut and shaped, and I hear about one of Hong Kong’s best bargains: a training school for hair stylists.

Fifteen students from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and Mainland China study the theory of hair design during the morning, and in the afternoon, they get a customer. You are hers, for as long as it takes to give you the perfect hair wash, cut and blow dry, tint or perm.

I am warned: don’t make a date for anything else that afternoon.

Good advice. I am chair bound in that teaching salon for five hours.

I am the only Gweilo in the room (Gweilo means long nosed foreign devil but the Brits turned this into a joke and refer to themselves as Gweilos, taking the sting out of the ancient insult.)

I am assigned to Julia, a miniature beauty from Kuala Lumpur who is staying with her aunt while she learns the trade and goes home to open her own business.

“The others are very jealous,” she beams proudly. “I’ve got you. Gweilo hair. Good experience for me.”

Mmm. I’m not sure I want to be good experience for anyone but it’s too late to back out.

First, the shampoo. This is wonderful. My scalp is massaged with oil for what feels like hours and I almost fall asleep under the hypnotic rhythm of her firm little fingers. Then the shampoo. Masses of rich lather and more massaging. Then the rinse. Then the conditioner. Then another rinse. Then the final rinse and a blast of cold water to finish off. I can see why this process takes so long and by now I’m totally into the swing of it, helped along by gentle Chinese flute music filtering through the room.

Her supervisor, Miss Vivienne, comes along and inspects for any stray soapsuds. Then I am allowed to proceed to the next stage.

Miss Vivienne instructs Julia on her first move.

“Pick up hair. Feel it.” She demands. “Rub with your fingers. See? Very thin. No body. No life. A good test for you today.”

I don’t know who is more nervous, me or Julia and I can feel her trembling slightly as she picks up my thin lifeless hair. I want to tell her: hey, my hair’s not like this at home! But it doesn’t like the heat and humidity and the air pollution here!

“Um, Julia, so how long have you been here?”

“Only two weeks.” She notices my frozen expression and adds, ”Don’t worry, I take very good care.”

Miss Vivienne scoots rapidly between the students, propelling herself along on a wheeled office chair. Every move they make is watched and criticised and their scissors are not left unobserved for longer than a minute. She pays particular attention to Julia because they don’t have many Gweilos coming here and I am a sort of exotic feather in their cap. Julia is so afraid of making a mistake that she only takes off a fraction at a time and checks back with Miss Vivienne to make sure this is right.

Snip, snip, snip. Gentle little pecks that never stop.

On my right, Joe Cool in a Calvin Klein T-shirt, Doc Martens and bright purple astronaut shades has asked for a colour tint to his jet black hair. He keeps his head down the whole time, engrossed in a Spiderwoman comic. When he departs, without a change of expression as befits his chosen image, his raven locks are streaked with vivid orange.

“Punk man! Stripy hair!” Julia shrieks at her own joke.

Vivienne has been dying to ask but up to now has been too polite. Finally on one of her whiz-by inspections she holds up my fringe and asks politely,

”Who cut your hair before now? Foreign person?”

I tell her about my trip to the Wan Chai market salon.

“A Chinese hairstylist? Oh, the pity! The pity!”

None of this ‘Omigod, where did you go for this?’ favoured by hairstylists in hair salons back home. She has genuine concern for my dreadful haircut and seems deeply ashamed that it should be one of her own that did this to me. She asks if she might bring a few students across to show them how not to do it. I am professionally examined by eight pairs of intent black eyes and the students nod and shake their heads as Miss Vivienne emits a stream of critical Cantonese.

“Never mind, all OK now,” she consoles me in English.

Back to the haircut. Julia is nearly finished but can’t bear to stop until she considers it done. I’m getting tired of sitting so tell her it’s really, really nice. Terrific.

Finally she stands back and clasps the palms of her hands together, giving a little bow of pleasure.

But no! Miss Vivienne comes whizzing up and takes a long, slow look from all angles. Julia and I watch her anxiously.

NOT PERFECT. Miss Vivienne imperiously demands the scissors and takes a few considered snips, determined that nothing but a masterpiece should walk out of the door.

It’s done.

Miss Vivienne hesitantly summons the principal of the design school.

He circles my head intently and then gives his nod of approval. Everyone claps. Julia beams modestly and bows repeatedly.

It’s taken five hours, but I am a HK$50 masterpiece.

Another Hong Kong bargain.