Bella and Valda greeted each other with the bizarre nicknames they had been using ever since they had first met at tennis club twenty-three years earlier. Their enthusiastic greeting drew some attention – mainly negative – from the other patrons of Harper’s restaurant in Cape Town’s massive Century City Shopping Centre.
‘My God, you look great! We were all so worried about you. You’re a survivor!’ Bella looked genuinely pleased.
‘We’re all survivors – I don’t think we have a choice!’ laughed Valda, adding, ‘So, how’s married life?’
‘Complicated!’ moaned Bella. ‘I’ve got him in training though, and he’s catching on slowly.’
‘Should I be planning any baby showers?’
‘Absolutely not! I had enough sleep deprivation when I was morning news anchor; I’m not going in for that again any time soon.’
It was ten thirty in the morning – the perfect time to sample waffles with maple syrup and ice cream. After they had ordered, Valda slipped a little wooden chest-shaped box out of her jacket and handed it to Bella.
Bella’s eyes widened, ‘What’s this?’ Always impatient, she wasted no time opening the box and finding the gold Gemini pendant and chain. ‘This is beautiful!’ She was obviously surprised and delighted. ‘What did I do to deserve this?’
Valda grinned and laughingly replied, ‘Oh, nothing much, just rescuing me from my old life! And, rescuing me from the clutches of my psychologist. If I hadn’t left the country when I did, I’d have been sitting in his chair every Monday afternoon till one of us dropped dead!’
Their raucous laughter once again drew attention and irritated stares. Their conversation focused on Dubai and its attractions, as well the skinny on the bloke in Valda’s brief romantic encounter in the departure lounge.
The delicious-looking golden waffles swimming in maple syrup and fast-melting vanilla ice cream arrived, putting a temporary end to their conversation. Between mouthfuls, Bella summoned up the courage and said, ‘I saw Richard last week ... he came up to me at the supermarket ... wanted to know how you were.’
The first thing Valda was inclined to blurt out was, “So what did you tell the SOAB?”, but she decided not to show her irritation at hearing “Richard- news” and shoved in another mouthful, to avoid having to comment. She was sure Bella would go on to elaborate.
She did. ‘He seemed really concerned.’ Bella paused to see Valda’s reaction, which was simply to roll her eyes and take a long sip of milkshake. Then she continued, ‘I told him you were doing great and very happy, working hard, having lots of fun ... that kind of thing! He looked very tired, stressed out like.’
‘Doesn’t sound like him, he’s usually on top of everything!’ smirked Valda.
‘He asked me to tell you that he is really pleased for you,’ Bella said with some trepidation, as if it may provoke an outburst of some kind from her friend; she remembered the volatile Valda very well.
Valda just shrugged and said nothing and Bella appeared to relax now that she had got the “news” off her chest: she had felt obliged to tell Valda she had seen the SOAB, but she had feared her reaction. Valda had decided to make no further comment on the subject; she was well into the recovery phase and did not want any setbacks.
‘So what do they think of the volcanic Valda temper in Dubai?’ teased Bella.
‘They haven’t heard it yet! I’ve been far more placid – hard to imagine, I know. I found out that losing my temper was upsetting me more than it was upsetting everyone else!’
‘That bad?’ Bella raised an eyebrow and then giggled. ‘So, what are you doing this afternoon?’
‘Errands to run, nothing wildly exciting. You?’
‘Packing. I leave for Vancouver on Friday ...’ Bella rambled on.
Valda was not listening though, she was thinking of her trip to Joanna’s and it gave her an uncomfortable feeling; what was she letting herself in for?
There was little traffic on the N1 at one o’clock and Valda travelled with speed in her green Citi Golf towards the Milnerton turn off. It was a cooler day, the sun was shining, music was playing on the scratchy car radio and the glorious sight of Table Mountain was in the rear view mirror. It should have been idyllic, yet that dark, foreboding feeling was creeping over her. This time, the feelings were nothing to do with any memories conjured up by Cape Town, either.
Valda groaned to herself as she wondered whether The Avenue would be as hard to find second time around. This time, however, she arrived outside Joanna’s within minutes, almost too soon, for there was not enough time to psyche herself up. Finding a parking space was more of a challenge though; being lunch hour, patrons of the steakhouse had bagged most of the places nearby. After some illegal traffic manoeuvres, she found a spot and squeezed in. ‘Bless these hired cars,’ mumbled Valda. ‘No need to get concerned about parking next to some idiot who’ll scratch your car!’
Valda had some cash in pocket, sunglasses and nothing else. She had dressed plainly, so as not to attract any attention to herself. Some burger-eating kids were congregated on the pavement outside Joanna’s, but they took no notice of her. Valda wanted to be sure that no one else took any notice of her, either. She pushed open the glass door and stepped into the health shop. It was warm and rather musty inside. The walls were cluttered with shelves accommodating a multitude of herbal potions and remedies and there were also wooden gondolas of organic goods, vitamins and supplements. Valda made her way towards the Evening Primrose Oil as advertised in the window and pretended to take great note of the various brands and differing IUs. There were two other customers; one was paying for something that looked like herbal tea and another was hanging around waiting for assistance. The only member of staff was a short, stocky woman, with a bright green floral dress, black hair and very weather-beaten skin. It was impossible to tell her age. Joanna? wondered Valda. There was an acrid smell in the shop, which caused Valda to look around, half expecting to see a budgie cage – it sickened her and she could not wait to get the hell out.
“Ask for the sciatica relief,” the note had said. Valda had no intention of doing that right away; she was only there to suss things out. The South African police were no fools and if they suspected that there was something untoward about Joanna, they would be watching both her and her patrons. She remained focused on the vitamins; she could now hear the woman giving the other customer some advice on soya products. She picked up some EPO and went over to wait at the counter. The customer appeared to be uninspired with the soya “stuff” on offer, or maybe it was the price that was not to her taste, but she soon vanished.
‘Canna help you?’ asked “Joanna” in a Cape Flats’ accent.
‘I’d like to take these and some Devil’s Claw, if you have any?’ Valda knew Devil’s claw would cost at least 150 rand.
‘Devil’s claw we got, but it cos’ you hunnerd and fifty rand. Plus the Primrose Oil is over two hunnerd rand!’ Joanna said with emphasis.
Valda pretended to look pained at the price. She took out a batch of twenty-rand notes, flipped through them, put on a dismayed look and then said, ‘I’ll just take the EPO for now and I’ll come back for the Devil’s Claw tomorrow.’
She paid and headed out with her green bag, none the wiser really. Before returning to her car, Valda ambled along, looking with apparent interest at the other shops and even the steakhouse menu: a catalogue of “what not to eat” would better describe it. Valda wanted to look to anyone watching like the average Milnerton shopper, without going as far as actually sampling the local food on offer – a pudding of Pepto Bismol would be required for sure. After ten minutes of aimless window shopping, she headed calmly back to the car.
Valda drove back to join the N1, half regretting not having just asked for the “parcel” and been done with it. She knew that being impatient never paid off though, and besides, there was no hurry.
This time, there were no texts from Mr Morgan to distract Valda from her tormented thoughts. It was still not too late to turn back, throw the 200,000 dirhams in the Sheikh’s face and say “hello” to her carefree life again. Every traffic light was red and Valda could feel her irritability and frustration levels rising. Those familiar old volcanic lavas were beginning to simmer and hiss again. Valda had done everything she had wanted to do in Cape Town – besides the obvious – and she was anxious to return to Dubai. Cape Town held no nostalgia for her; in fact, she almost felt like a stranger there. Although the weather was mild, Table Mountain looked cold and the whole city felt quiet and lonely.
In an attempt to while away the long afternoon, Valda headed towards one of Cape Town’s many shopping centres. She found herself an outdoor table at a restaurant, ordered a cheese burger and Coke and was just enjoying her first drag, when she saw a familiar figure approaching St Elmo’s. It was Charles, one of Richard’s work colleagues – as she had feared, there was not a square inch of Cape Town that was free from torturous encounters of her past. The unfortunate thing for Valda was that the ever-observant Charles had spotted her and was on his way over. Goodbye peaceful lunch. Valda’s hostile look did not deter Charles from attempting to make conversation with her.
‘Hi, Valda, thought you had debunked Cape Town?’ said the tall, willowy and strawberry-haired Charles.
‘I am only back to tie things up.’ Valda’s voice was icy and left no doubt that she was in no mood for small talk.
‘By the way, smoking is not allowed here!’
Now Charles had really touched a nerve. ‘For Christ’s sake, I’m sitting outside. What? Are they legislating for the great outdoors as well now?’
Valda was wide-eyed and ferocious, yet Charles was unsurprised and continued, ‘It’s still on shopping centre property ... I’m just telling you, because I have heard they are slapping hefty fines on anyone who lights up here, even in the damned car park. I agree with you, it’s like the Gestapo!’
‘Well, I’ve got no ID on me, only 100 rand and a one-way ticket outta here, so I challenge them to try and slap a fine on me.’ Valda was arrogant and defiant as she spoke.
Charles pulled up a chair, sat down and then asked belatedly, ‘Mind if I join you?’ To which Valda shrugged, sighed and then tossed a menu in his direction. The only thing that made Charles sufferable was the fact that he had never liked Richard. ‘It’s nice to see you again anyway!’ said Charles smiling. ‘I hear life in Dubai is good!’ Valda was not sure if he was referring to her life or to Dubai life in general, but she nodded, adding nothing. ‘I don’t know if you heard, but Debra and I broke off our engagement.’
Valda was not sure if she had heard or not and was hardly fussed either way, all relationships were potential disaster areas as far as she was concerned, but she offered a sympathetic, ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Charles.’ Then, changing the subject, she added, ‘I’ve ordered a burger, are you going to join me?’
Charles jumped at the apparent invite and waved over a waitress, so he could place his order. Valda could not remember if Charles smoked, but she offered him a JPS anyway.
‘No thanks, I’ve given up. You should, too; it’s bad for you!’
‘It’s only bad for you if you want to live forever!’ replied Valda, while lighting her second.
Charles was diplomatic enough to avoid sensitive subjects. Instead, he stuck to stories about his parents’ vineyard; including an amusing one about the time they had taken their staff, who had never even seen the sea before, for a day-trip to the beach. All sorts of alcohol and excitement-induced shenanigans had ensued and he painted the picture so well, that Valda burst out laughing on more than one occasion.
‘... so that’s the last time my parents will be attempting that! Although they have been hearing rumblings amongst the staff that they are quite keen on another excursion,’ Charles concluded.
‘No, no. I think they had better leave that out!’ laughed Valda. ‘Isn’t it always the way though, you try to do something nice and it blows up in your face.’
‘Yes, I agree! I have this dentist friend, who says: whenever you do a good deed, start checking for the knife in your back. Sad, but true, huh?’
The delicious burgers dripping with melted Cheddar arrived and Valda and Charles tucked in. Valda had been surprised that she had enjoyed Charles’ company. There had been a relaxed, easy-going atmosphere between them and the laugh had eased the tension she had felt over “Joanna’s” heath store. Between mouthfuls, Valda offered some of her Dubai news: culture, food, etc. which, since Charles had never been to the Middle East, was all new to him.
Charles was looking at his Longines watch, obviously worried about returning to the office in time. ‘I’m gonna have to dash off in ten minutes, Valda, but what would you say about drinks tonight? Sevenish? At the Waterfront.’
Valda was clearly surprised at the proposal and pleased that she could momentarily delay answering as she swallowed her mouthful. ‘OK, why not? Leave me your card though, in case I’m held up and have to take a rain check!’ Always helpful to build in an escape clause, she thought to herself.
Charles reached into his jacket for his business card and six twenty-rand notes and then dashed off, leaving Valda to devour the last of her chips.
A few minutes after Charles had left, Valda heard that familiar jingle. She reached into her jeans pocket for her mobile phone. The envelope icon was flashing: one message. Valda knew immediately who it was. Brett!
“B in CT 4 surfing on Sunday. MayB C U then! Brett.”
Valda was due to fly out on Saturday night, so there would be no rendezvous with Brett this time at least! Valda had to smile to herself – it was the old bus analogy again! You wait ages for one to come along …
After lunch, Valda returned home to Ted’s. She was tired and there was just too much going on in her head. She decided that the best course of action was to hit the bed and go to sleep. In Valda’s book, there was a lot to be said for an ostrich mentality: when the going gets tough, bury your head in the sand, or in her case, in the pillow and fall asleep.
Ted had kept her room just the same as when she had lived there. It was filled with all the clothes and memorabilia that Valda had not been able to take to Dubai with her. She felt secure and warm inside surrounded by all her things and in the knowledge that she was safe, she fell asleep almost instantly.
It was almost six o’clock when she woke up. Just an hour to get ready and meet Charles – if, indeed, she still wanted to keep the date. She wondered if there was any reason behind his asking her for a drink; she could not help but be a little puzzled if not suspicious. She had never imagined that Charles had ever seen her in a romantic light and until that afternoon, she had always seen him as a bit of a pain.
Meeting him seemed preferable to a long night on the couch watching some reality TV drivel or worse and Ted was working late as per usual. After a shower, Valda rummaged through her wardrobe to find something appropriate that did not need ironing. She settled for a dress in her favourite halter-neck-style – it was long, in a burgundy paisley pattern, with gypsy-style asymmetric frills at the bottom and was very sleek-fitting around the waist. After touching up her make-up and grabbing some cash, she was ready to go.
Charles had suggested a trendy wine bar at the Waterfront. He was not typical of the kind of guy Valda would usually go for, but she had decided that she should give people more of a chance – her old criteria had led her up too many dead-end streets for her not to consider changing tactics. Charles was already there, as Valda was fifteen minutes late after trying to find a parking space. He was dressed in some stone-coloured chinos and a casual white linen shirt.
‘I’m so sorry I’m late. It’s not like me!’ Valda began, with a genuine smile.
Charles waved his hand dismissively and said, ‘I’ve only just arrived myself. You look gorgeous! Can I get you a drink?’
‘Yes, Coke for the moment. Thanks.’
Charles and Valda found a table in a quiet area and began perusing the menus. Being brought up on a vineyard, Charles was a wine connoisseur and so Valda left the choice of wine to him. They were both ravenous, despite their heavy lunch, and Valda chose lemon veal, while Charles went for the King Clip. Once the orders were taken care of, conversation became sticky, unlike that afternoon, when it had flowed so well. Perhaps it was because there was more tension and expectation this time. Valda was reluctant to enquire about Charles’ work – there may be unwanted references to Richard – so she decided that South Africa’s Test match in the West Indies was a safe bet. Sport was clearly not a subject that wildly inspired Charles though, and so it was lucky that the meals arrived fairly quickly.
Alcohol has very different effects on different people and while it made Valda volatile, it made others sleepy, some philosophical and some melancholy. Charles fell into the latter category. He began talking about Debra and it was soon clear that he was still hung up on her, despite his repeated insistence that he was “so glad it was over”. Valda did not relish the idea of spending the whole evening lamenting on past relationships, so she tried her best to steer the conversation onto something more positive. Charles briefly dropped his droning on about Debra and began talking about a mate, who was opening a restaurant in Sea Point: apparently the local Orang-utan population was out of control and many hairy invaders were plaguing Sea Point residents. Horrified home owners had walked into their kitchens to find unwelcome Orang-utans helping themselves to bananas and shiny ornaments. They laughed and Valda was relieved that Charles once again appeared to be back on form.
It did not last for long though, and although Charles had not quite finished his wine, Valda felt inclined to order him an espresso.
‘I have to admit, I was too hasty in calling off the relationship,’ continued Charles, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I guess you and Richard know all about that!’
The hairs on the back of her neck rose at the mention of Richard. ‘I have no regrets, Charles, it was Richard’s decision and I’ve moved on,’ said Valda sincerely.
‘I was talking about Richard,’ said Charles. ‘He hasn’t been the same ... he was never in love with Sonja anyway ... and now that that’s on the rocks ... I can sympathise with him ...’
Charles was speaking in an incoherent and disjointed way that was typical of someone after a few glasses of wine, yet what he was saying sent shock waves through Valda. On the one hand, she had secretly dreamt of the day when Richard would ditch Sonja, yet at this point, just when she was moving on, it was not what she wanted to hear. Anyway, could she trust what Charles was saying? Perhaps it was a minor relationship hitch and nothing more. Either way, there was no point in analysing it; she was not the same “hung up on Richard” person she had been, she had a new life and there was no way she was going down that road again.
Valda decided to make her excuses, the evening was really dragging and Charles’ company was becoming more unappealing by the minute. Richard was on her mind all the way back to Camps Bay: was it really over between him and Sonja? Divine justice, thought Valda. If it was over though, then what were they doing in Joburg together? They are probably back on track. Valda chastised herself for even entertaining such thoughts, it was pointless and negative – whatever Richard did with his life was no longer any concern of hers and she longed to be back in Dubai, where such issues could not reach her.
Once at Ted’s, Valda wasted no time getting to bed. Her body was craving sleep after weeks of overdrive.