In parts of the Orange Free State, the roads are so straight that, if you went for a Sunday drive and your steering wheel jammed, you wouldn’t know about it until it was time to turn around and go back home again. Driving back to the farm after an evening out in Bloemfontein should have been simple, except that the pick-up bakkie had this urge to veer left all the time, so I had to cling onto the steering wheel to prevent the vehicle from taking any detours through the mealie fields. My constant fight against the unbalanced wheels was made even more difficult by only having one hand free for the wheel, as I had Katy’s head leaning against my left shoulder, where she had fallen asleep after our argument.
I knew it wasn’t fair on her. I never took her home with me! But, I had to be careful. If Tjaart found out that his sister was seeing a woman, he would run straight to Ouma with the news and I could kiss my share of the farm goodbye.
Trying to ignore the cramp in my right arm, I thought back to the Sunday lunch when Ouma announced that, to be fair, she was going to divide the farm in two so that both my brother and I would be able to stay at home. We had been seated around the big table in the dining room, plates overflowing with Aunt Elizabeth’s roast beef dinner and all the trimmings.
Even though we were an Afrikaans family, we had been converted to English cooking when
Aunt Elizabeth had come to stay. She had moved in to help nurse Oupa, and when he died, she had just stayed on. For ten years, our home had been brightened by her sweet smile and patient humour. Even though she had also since passed away, her memory stayed alive in the form of her much-loved full-scale Sunday lunch roast.
At lunch, Ouma had tapped on her wine glass, stood up and had her say. “Equal shares,” she had announced, “Tjaart can have the new house we are building at the far end of the farm and Susannah can stay in the old farmhouse.”
Tjaart had always teased me when we were growing up that he would get the whole farm because he was the boy. Now it was settled! Ouma’s word was law and even he daren’t challenge her decision. I would be able to continue my dream of country living, provided I didn’t do anything to make Ouma mad and make her change her mind.
I tried to explain to Katy how I felt about the farm but she was adamant she wanted to spend just one night with me. She was tired of hotels in Bloemfontein, and of her own single bed at her mother’s house where we got tangled up in legs and arms and sheets and woke up the following morning with sore joints. In the end I couldn’t stand to see her so miserable anymore, so this was the night I was going to take a chance, and the knot in my stomach kept on telling me I was making a mistake.
The bakkie headlights picked out the whitewashed entrance up ahead and I slowed down to turn into the driveway. The acrid smell of the gum-trees, lining the road up to the farmhouse, greeted me with its familiar scent as I made my way between their straight rows. An owl hooted somewhere over in the direction of the graveyard and sent shivers down my back. I parked the car away from the house and retrieved my arm from under Katy’s head, gently waking her up from her sleep. We sneaked quietly into the house and made our way to the bedroom, being careful not to wake Ouma.
The following morning, I lay in my bed with Katy beside me, her arm draped over me and her hair tickling my chin, and listened to the doves waking up outside the bedroom window. Ouma was already up. I had heard her about an hour ago, opening and closing drawers and cupboards in the room next to mine. Later I could hear her talking to her roses outside. She would be going to church soon and then it would be safe to smuggle Katy out of the house and back to her Mother’s home in town.
It was quiet in the room as I lay back and listened to the happy noises outside. The room was comfortable with my familiar clutter surrounding me. Half-read books huddled on the nightstand, abandoned clothes lay where they had been thrown across the overstuffed chair in the corner and farm accounts were strewn over the desk. Aunt Elizabeth would not have approved! When she had used this room, it had always looked so neat and tidy that it was hard to imagine anyone ever living in it. I giggled at the thought of the expression on her face if she should walk in then, finding me still lying in bed after Six in the morning, with a naked woman in my arms!
The handle on the bedroom door turned and, for a moment, I thought that my imagination was playing tricks on me. Grappling with the sheets to cover our undressed bodies, I looked up at the doorway to see, not the ghost of Aunt Elizabeth as I had expected, but Tjaart.
“What the Hell?” he gasped, leaving his mouth wide open in surprise.
“I’m only having a friend stay over for the night,” I tried to explain, pulling the covers up higher over Katy’s neck.
“So I see!”, he said, in a tone of voice that made it obvious that he didn’t for a minute believe that the sleeping arrangements were as innocent as I tried to make them out to be. Not waiting to give me time for further explanations, he hurried out of the room and made his way out to the rose garden.
We dressed hurriedly and sat on the bed to wait. I knew that Tjaart had told Ouma the news and now it was just a matter of time before she came back inside to find out what was happening. My heart stuck in my throat as I heard her footsteps coming up the wooden-floored passageway, the ornaments in the display cabinets shaking to the beat of her walk, and come to a halt outside my door.
“Susannah,” she called out as she tapped lightly on my door, “Don’t forget lunch at One o’clock sharp. I have an important announcement to make.”
After taking Katy back to town, I dressed for Sunday lunch and, although the air was filled with the smell of roast beef, I didn’t feel hungry. Ouma was late coming back from church and that didn’t help my nerves. Tjaart’s two boys were playing skop die blik outside, and Tjaart and Hendrina were sitting back in the lounge with glasses of sherry in their hands and smirks on their faces, obviously thrilled with the idea of having the whole farm to themselves. I could have killed them right there and then!
With fifteen minutes to spare, Ouma’s car sputtered up the driveway. She walked into the house, pulling off her gloves as she came into the lounge.
“I think I’ll join you with a sherry, Tjaart,” she said, “Susannah, what about you?”
“No thanks, Ouma.” I spluttered, knowing that the knots in my stomach would not welcome the sweet drink.
She sat down on the couch next to the fireplace and sipped her sherry silently. I could see by the look on her face that she was mentally preparing her lunch time speech. Tjaart shuffled impatiently in his chair and Hendrina kept on looking out the window to see what the boys were up to.
Her sherry glass at last emptied, Ouma stood up and shouted out to the boys to wash their hands and come in to lunch, and we all made our way silently into the dining room. The food was already laid out on the table and steam rose from the vegetable dishes, filling the room with their aroma. The first thing I noticed, however, was the bowl of roses in the centre of the table. Ouma’s roses were only cut for very special occasions and their presence on the table made my stomach knot even tighter.
She waited for the chair-scraping and rearranging of cutlery to die down, before she stood up with her wine glass in her hand.
“Tjaart tells me that Susannah brought a friend home to sleep last night!” she announced, looking at me questioningly.
“That’s right, Ouma,” I replied, wishing that I had tried the sherry. This might have been easier if my mouth wasn’t so dry.
“I only have this to say,” Ouma continued, “I don’t care if Susannah is not perfect. Even if she had been born with a split lip, she would still be my Granddaughter and I would still love her. Subject closed!”
She raised her glass in my direction and sat down to dish up her food.
The children looked at each other in bafflement, not understanding a word of what Ouma had just said. They kept looking at my mouth throughout the meal and giggling behind their mouthfuls of food. Tjaart, Hendrina and Ouma ate with their heads down and not a word was spoken again at the table.
After lunch I went to sit for a while under the gum-trees to think about what Ouma’s speech had meant and while sitting on the old rusty ploughshare I spotted a flash of colour in the direction of the graveyard. “Roses on the dining room table and now roses on Oupa’s grave?” I thought, “Must be a really special occasion for Ouma!”
I stood up and made my way to the small fenced-off piece of sacred ground and leant over the wrought iron railing to get a closer look. A dozen red roses had been lovingly placed, in one of Ouma’s best cut glass vases, on Aunt Elizabeth’s grave.
© CYNTHIA J PRICE 1998
© Copyright 2016 Cynthia J Price. All rights reserved.
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