Valda had gone from feeling self-congratulatory to feeling panicked and she was so distracted that she cut herself twice whilst slicing the onion a few minutes later. Why had she not thought of this before? This was a major hitch.
Suddenly, out of the blue, an idea popped into her head and she raced for the phone, without even bothering to wash her hands. She flipped through the address book and dialled.
‘Hello, I’m not in right now, but if you leave a message, I’ll ring you back!’ was the recorded message she heard on the other end of the line.
‘Hi, Frances, it’s Valda. I’m back in town. Ring me tonight!’ Valda knew that Frances would be in touch, she was excellent at returning messages.
Feeling calmer, Valda headed back to the kitchen, not caring that the phone would smell of onion and garlic for weeks now.
It was eight thirty when Frances rang. Conversation with Frances was always easy: if the other person didn’t feel very verbal, she would be delighted to do all the talking and yet when someone did want to share, she was always ready to listen. What’s more, she was adept at looking at the funny side of life. They chatted for an hour about nothing in particular and then agreed to meet the next day at Frances’ place.
Valda hated mornings and preferred to lie in as late as possible; however, Frances liked to start motivating herself early, so Valda had to force herself out of bed the next day. After some strong tea and a shower, she headed off to Frances’, who lived only about five minutes away.
If Valda’s life was parked on the corner of Shit and Crap Street, then Frances permanently resided there. Her life was a yo-yo event between the frying pan and the fire, with little in-between. Frances was 39 and had never been married, although it was not for want of trying: over the past few years, she had become addicted to “Net dating” and had travelled as far afield as Townsville, Queensland and Zagreb in an attempt to meet Mr Right, Mr Nearly Right or even Mr Half Right. All she had managed to do though, was to collect a bunch of forgettable memories, a stalker and some off-the-wall pen pals. Luckily for Frances, her sense of humour was healthy and she was always able to turn every experience into a joke. Valda and Frances had often discussed writing all those stories down and creating a book – the Internet was fertile ground for literature, if nothing else. Frances ran her own business, The Pampered Pooch, which sold an extensive range of pet products, food and accessories, and she had recently introduced her own aromatherapy range for pets. This was the main reason behind Valda’s visit.
Valda rang the doorbell and was immediately greeted by excited barks and frenzied scraping at the door. She could hear Frances shouting inside. Valda giggled at the way Frances scolded the dogs like a bunch of rowdy toddlers. After a few minutes more hysteria at the door, Frances appeared to have succeeded in herding the dogs into the garden and was able to let Valda in.
‘Hi!’ Frances looked exasperated. ‘Now you can come in; Beccy is being such a cow today!’ It was the first time Valda had heard a pet dog referred to as a cow and she laughed out loud. ‘Excuse the mess; I had seven members of my aikido class here last night for dinner!’
‘Last night?’ said Valda with surprise. ‘You should have told me, I wouldn’t have kept you on the phone for so long!’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that, they are all Japanese, only the instructor speaks English anyway.’
‘Must have been a night of scintillating conversation then?’ Valda smiled.
Frances went on to rattle off a list of the gastronomic delights she had prepared for her guests. The amount of dishes and pans in the kitchen bore testament to the extent of her efforts. Somehow, she managed to find some clean mugs and it wasn’t long before a cup of coffee was sitting in front of Valda.
‘You know what?’ Frances began. ‘You never even told me you were going to Dubai! Ted had to tell me when we met in the supermarket. That was naughty, you know!’
‘I told as few people as possible – you know what it’s like, you tell everyone you are going to do something and then it all goes west and you have to return with your tail between your legs ...’ Valda tailed off, realising that she had been slightly tactless – she had just described exactly what Frances did at the outset of every doomed relationship.
‘Tell me about it!’ sighed Frances and without waiting for a reply, she launched into, ‘But first I’ll have to tell you my next bit of news touching wood and crossing fingers then. I’m not putting the mockers on this time!’ Frances looked at Valda with wide eyes and a huge smile. ‘I’m engaged.’
Valda was shocked. ‘OK, don’t just leave it there, details!’
‘We met five weeks ago, he’s 6 foot 2 (height was Frances’ number one criteria in a man) and he’s the funniest guy. Name’s Ben and we met at the bank – he’s the bank manager.’
‘Not the one who wrote you all those nasty letters, surely?’ Valda was becoming more and more aghast.
‘Yes, him. We met when I had to see him about my mortgage arrears. Isn’t life strange? He’s divorced and he is going to move in with me next month.’
Valda offered her hearty congratulations and then sipped some coffee, while Frances left the room to dispose of another hairy gatecrasher; this time, it was her ginger cat. Valda wondered what was destined for her as far as love went: do the best things pitch up when and where one least expects? In Frances’ case, searching for relationships all over the globe and being proactive had failed dismally; in the end, the right guy had been waiting down at her local bank the whole time. Maybe things come when you just give up, or maybe wanting something too much drives it away from you. Maybe it’s different for everyone, anyway ...
‘Hell-llow!’ shouted Frances, and Valda’s philosophising was cut short. ‘You were miles away there; did I give you decaf by mistake?’
‘No, I just have a lot to do before I fly back,’ lied Valda.
Valda allowed herself to engage in some neighbourhood gossip, before getting to the crux of her visit. According to Frances, the residents of No. 17 had decided to undertake some garden landscaping and the results had been so outrageous that the rest of the street were up in arms and had formed a committee to present objections to the local council. It was obvious to Valda that some people did not have enough worries in their lives. The conversation about trivial neighbourhood disputes gave Valda an ideal leader though.
‘Talking about neighbours, maybe you can help me out on this one ... I have a small patch of garden in Dubai and my neighbour’s dogs keep crapping there. It’s turning into a four-legged ablution block. What can I do to discourage them?’ Valda had no garden and was not sure if there was such a thing in Dubai; it was not the kind of thing she would usually notice.
‘I have some red and yellow “No Fouling” signs,’ said Frances with energy.
‘I’m not sure if Dubai dogs can read English, Fran!’
Frances laughed, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Very funny! I was being serious, they tend to embarrass the owner and they usually get the hint. I do have other methods though. What kind of dogs are they?’
‘Small brown ones,’ said Valda seriously.
‘Right! I was thinking about the breed, maybe.’ Frances sounded despairing.
‘Does it matter?’ asked Valda with concern and then quickly added, ‘Could be a Labrador, Alsatian, terriers, there are quite a few, you know.’ It was a horrible, muddled description and it was just as well Frances was in a love bubble, or she may have demanded more explanations.
‘It doesn’t really matter, I was just curious. Anyway, I do have something that will help. It’s an aromatherapy dog repellent: totally green and harmless. I developed it myself,’ said Frances with pride.
‘Really, what do I do with it?’ Valda said with excitement for the first time that evening.
‘You just sprinkle it every few days around the area you want to deter the dogs from. It’s highly concentrated, so it only takes a few drops. I put it around the washing line to keep mine away from my clean washing – works a treat.’
‘Yeah, but does it actually repel them, or does it just mask their old smells?’ asked Valda.
‘Oh no, it actually repels dogs, even if there are other smells around that may attract them.’
‘Sounds tremendous stuff, can humans smell it?’
‘No, that’s the beauty of it. It’s excellent, but I am having trouble marketing it; seems customers still prefer that useless pepper stuff!’ sighed Frances.
‘So it really will repel dogs, even if there is something else in the area whose smell may attract them?’ asked Valda again, just to be sure.
‘Yes, absolutely. To a dog’s sense of smell, it is so pungent that it will drown out almost anything. Kind of like heavy-metal music,’ laughed Frances, not having any clue of the importance her unique potion held for Valda.
Frances disappeared to find a little green bottle of her yet-to-be-named aromatherapy dog repellent. While Valda waited, she looked out of the kitchen window and observed that Frances’ dogs were, indeed, giving the washing line a wide berth. Perfect, all bases covered.
Saturday morning and Valda was packing her suitcase. She had carefully placed her pretty “parcel” and birthday card in one corner of the case, having delicately sprinkled several drops of Frances’ potion onto the tissue paper. The potion was, indeed, odourless and also colourless. Just to be safe, Valda sprinkled some of it on her duffel bag as well. She was feeling more and more confident now, which was essential if she was to pull this off. Being nervous and jittery was a sure way to get spotted and pulled aside by a customs official – it seemed they were more likely to pull aside a respectable yet uptight person than someone with the profile of a drug trafficker. Ted worked with a woman called Helen, who was the most upstanding of citizens: attended church regularly; always was immaculately dressed and had never even had a traffic violation, yet since she was terrified of flying, she always looked tense at airports and was inevitably searched every time, much to her humiliation.
Valda was also diligent in ensuring that all her documentation was in perfect order: she had recently heard of a case where a young British mother, travelling home to England after a holiday in Dubai with her family, had failed to fill in one of the relevant forms properly. As a result, she was taken aside and made to do a urine test; codeine (an illegal substance in the Emirates) was found as a result of the fact that she was on medication that had been prescribed in the UK. She had been promptly thrown in a Dubai prison and after six weeks of intense diplomacy had still not been released. It was a sobering thought and Valda knew that if she was caught, she would never see the light of day again. Dubai had a very strict anti-drugs policy, with the death sentence for traffickers; however, she had a good feeling that it would be OK.
She had a few minutes to go before leaving for the airport, so she quickly sent Brett a text, letting him know that she was heading back to Dubai, but that she hoped to see him sometime soon anyway. It was a bland, open-ended text that gave nothing away. She hoped that there would be a chapter two with Mr Morgan; he had seemed a fascinating guy.
After an emotional goodbye to Ted, Valda headed away to the airport. It had briefly occurred to Valda that she may never see Ted again, but she had quickly dismissed the thought; she could not afford any negative thoughts and so she focused on an event-free trip back.
She returned her hired car and checked her baggage in. She refrained from eating anything, as the flight to Johannesburg was often turbulent and her stomach felt wobbly as it was. Two o’clock came round quickly and she boarded the plane, taking no notice of the other passengers. The flight was uneventful and the two hours seemed to take forever. Valda tried to eat some of the plasticky food on offer in an effort to keep her mind off anything serious or negative and she listened in to the light-hearted banter of the university students around her, thinking back, with some pleasure, to her own varsity days. She watched the orange sands of the Karoo give way to the farmlands of the Free State – she was nearly there.
She was relieved when they touched down in Johannesburg and wasted no time in getting off the plane and retrieving her duffel bag. By the time she had reached the international departure lounge, it was 4:45 p.m. and boarding for the Emirates EK764 flight to Dubai had already begun. Valda checked in her baggage and went though passport control, looking very much like the seasoned traveller. She was wearing jeans, a white linen blouse and a khaki cord jacket, all chosen for desired effect. Valda casually browsed the duty-free shops, briefly toying with the idea of taking some presents back for her friends at Flanagan’s. The idea was soon cast aside; such thoughtful acts were rarely appreciated and she was sure any gifts would quickly find their way to the back of a cupboard or into the dustbin. Valda was determined to buy something though – a friend had once remarked that woman with an assortment of duty-free shopping bags looked innocent and was rarely checked by airport officials. After some deliberation, she purchased some twisted-brass African bangles, a turquoise and silver beaded necklace and an elephant carving made of soapstone from different stores, ensuring that the elephant had its trunk up for good luck. Although she was not a superstitious person by nature, Valda often wondered whether superstitions had evolved from some universal truths – in times of danger, she was not going to arrogantly rule anything out.
She had successfully whiled away the time and at seven thirty, she could hear the first boarding call for her flight to Dubai. Valda wondered who her flying companion would be in cattle class that night. An advert at the CNA caught her eye and she decided that there was just enough time to buy a book for the flight. It was years since she had read a book and she had no idea what to choose, so she grabbed something from the best-seller shelf, paid and made her way to Gate 22.
Sitting next to Valda were two children, who were off on holiday to Dubai with their parents. Jonty and Kim, 6 and 8. Before take-off, they had already given Valda a synopsis of the latest movies on offer and a full initiation into the joys of Harry Potter. Their parents were blissfully relieved that their energetic offspring had found an in-flight playmate and within thirty minutes of the flight, Jonty and Kim had mastered the entire in-flight entertainment system and had attempted most of the games on offer as well. Their attention then shifted to Valda’s parcels and she was amazed to discover that her soapstone elephant and bangles amused them more than anything else – can’t beat the simple things, she thought.
Dinner during that flight was a perfect example of what happens when you try and please all of the people all of the time: by the time the vegans, vegetarians, kosher-eaters, halal-eaters, diabetics and whatever other category there was had been identified and served their special meals, all the remainder were staving and very irritable. Air hostesses were racing up and down with specialised meals, trying to find out who they were for – in desperation, passengers were just taking whatever came their way in the end. By the time Valda was brought her standard, no-nonsense meal, it was cold and in desperate need of generous helping of salt and ketchup.
Valda had some pink pills in her bag and was ready to take as many as she needed just to get some sleep. The last thing she wanted was to lie awake all night and be tense and frayed for her arrival. Jonty and Kim would just have to climb over her if they needed the loo.
Somewhere over Tanzania, she fell asleep.
‘Hey there. Wake up, you! We’re nearly there.’ Jonty was excitedly tugging at Valda’s sleeve.
She stirred and murmured something, just wanting to be left alone. But it was not to be, for the air hostess was anxious to deliver their breakfasts and wanted all passengers awake, so that she could complete her jobs before they landed.
‘I think you should take these off and have some coffee, ma’am.’ The air hostess spoke with authority as she pulled back Valda’s eye mask and gave her a shake.
Valda reluctantly sat up and pushed her blanket aside; she’d had better mornings after the night before. Her head was muzzy and she felt nauseous – air travel never agreed with her. After rubbing her face and taking some deep breaths, she accepted her breakfast, which the air hostess was eager to thrust in front of her. The meal just looked like a yellow and brown blur and Valda replaced the foil lid before the sight and smell of it made her hurl. The coffee was passable, especially after adding the extra sugars, which Jonty and Kim had donated to her. Valda felt too off-colour to entertain any concerns about what lay ahead and so she sat back quietly while the caffeine and anti-queasiness pills got to work. Fortunately, the plane was cleared to land promptly and the landing and taxiing out to their slot was free from the usual delays.
The more impatient travellers were out of their seats the moment the plane stopped moving, aggressively flinging open the overhead compartments and yanking out their hand luggage and general paraphernalia. Valda was always surprised that serious injuries didn’t arise, what with all the Samsonite baggage flying around overhead. Passengers were jostling for positions near the door, despite the captain’s pleas for people to remain seated.
Valda remained in her chair, waiting for the majority of the cattle to fight their way through. She was in no mood for push and shove – her head was too fragile at that hour of the morning. Once things had eased off, she reached for her overnight bag and made her way calmly to the doors. The walk to passport control was not a long one and she soon found herself in the large hall filled with passengers waiting in rows of queues to have their passports checked. For some reason, 4:0 a.m. seemed to be a particularly busy time for arrivals and the queues were long and sluggish. On a balcony above the arrival hall, Valda could see two serious-looking security guards scrutinising the sea of passengers. She wondered what they were looking out for.
She chose a queue and began to wait semi-patiently, occasionally glancing at her watch with irritation and sighing, while she shifted her weight from foot to foot. Dozens of spontaneous conversations had struck up around her – it appeared that men travelling alone were eager to find someone to chat to, particularly women; perhaps they surmised that it would give them an innocent appearance for the sake of anyone who may be watching. Valda wondered what proportione of people in that arrival hall had something to hide; probably fifty fifty, she thought, smiling!
After a forty-five minute wait, she passed through passport control without further ado and started making her way to collect her duffel bag. As it turned out, she was one of the last passengers from flight EK764 to collect her bag. She retrieved it, flung it on a trolley and made her way to the “Nothing to Declare” exit. Valda had the feeling of almost being high and dry, as she was eager to get home for a serious bit of shut-eye, and she was perhaps going just a tad too fast through “Nothing to Declare”, when a uniformed officer held up a hand to catch her attention and waved her over. Although Valda’s heart skipped a beat, her face demonstrated only minor irritation.
‘You have your passport, please?’ said the officer in a monotone. Valda obliged promptly; under usual circumstances, she would have been tempted to ask him how he thought she’d got that far without one, but this was not the day for insolence.
‘Enjoy your flight?’ asked the officer as he flicked through the passport, briefly perusing her work permit.
‘Not too bad, thanks,’ said Valda with a polite smile.
‘Please place the keys for your case on the desk,’ he instructed Valda.
Things were not going quite as Valda had hoped, yet she was doing a remarkable job of looking unfazed. She reached into her pocket and handed him a set of keys. The officer lifted the case onto the large, nondescript table and fidgeted around, until he found the correct key; he was then able to open the lock in the most in-adept of fashions she had ever seen.
He looked at the neatly packed contents of Valda’s case, not appearing to know quite what to do next. Valda felt momentarily relaxed, guessing that this drone was not the brightest in the hive. He sifted around the edges aimlessly, examined a pair of her trainers and then came across Valda’s pretty pink parcel. He paused for a moment and then lifted it out very carefully. Valda’s heart was banging against her chest so loudly, she was certain that he would hear it. She prayed that the colour would not drain from her face and give away her inner panic. Her armpits felt moist and it was getting harder and harder for her to conceal her tension.
He peered at the parcel with amusement rather than suspicion and then he read the card with interest and placed the parcel on the counter. Reaching once again for Valda’s passport, he looked at her birth date and said, ‘A very happy birthday for Thursday!’
‘Oh, thank you very much,’ said Valda with genuine cheerfulness. She was not arrogant enough to feel out of the woods yet, but was hugely relieved nonetheless.
With that, the officer replaced the trainers and present carefully back in her case, locked it and handed back her keys.
‘Thank you for your patience, enjoy your stay!’
Valda nodded, smiled and thanked him. She walked away towards the arrivals lounge and onto the taxi rank, where she hailed one of the many cream taxis. Relief had given way to a wave of excitement and self congratulations. Valda felt such a rush, a surge of euphoria, as if she had just achieved something of note. She felt elated to have pulled it off.
Within a matter of fifteen minutes, she was in a taxi speeding away towards her flat. Unlike that very first early morning in Dubai when she had travelled to her hotel, this time, she felt confident and optimistic. The dreadful feelings of self-doubt, despair and pessimism had given way to a buoyancy and enthusiasm and she was amazed at how, in the last six weeks, her old self had made a return – with a vengeance.
Sleep was her only priority on reaching her flat; the dog-repelling duffel bag was abandoned somewhere in the middle of the lounge and that was where it stayed for at least the next six hours.
Valda woke up feeling cold and dazed; the powerful air-conditioning had left the air crisp and clear and being the middle of the afternoon, things were deathly quiet outside in the contrasting heat. Sleepiness and hunger battled for control over her and eventually, the hunger won and she wandered into the kitchen to search in vain for some food, which she knew would not be there. A couple of out-of-date yogurts and some stale rice cakes were the extent of the selection on offer, other than the soggy remains of a pear right at the back of the fridge. She decided that a shawarma from the Lebanese takeaway downstairs would do nicely and within ten minutes, she was halfway through one and feeling half-human again.
The Sheikh’s package was on her mind once more; she was eager to deliver it, yet there was one final hurdle to overcome. After rummaging through the cupboards, she produced a fine sieve and placed it in a large, glass bowl. It remained to be seen how ingenious her idea of mixing the white powder and sea salts had been. She ripped off the pink tissue paper and the lid and began to pour the concoction into the sieve. Valda was delighted to find that most of the fine powder fell through the sieve with ease. She carefully stirred the remainder to make sure that the balance of the powder fell through as well. No doubt some of the sea salts had become mixed in with the powder, contaminating it somewhat, and whilst she was unsure what effect that would have on the final consumer, she could not have cared less. In her mind, she had done what was expected of her.
She weighed the powder – 289g. Close enough. Valda rewrapped it in plastic and then once again in the remaining pink tissue.
Being back at Flanagan’s that night felt like being home. She was excited at the chance to get back on stage and had a slight feeling of anticipation at seeing the Sheikh once more. The pink package stayed in her sight at all times and she was impatient for the opportunity to offload it.
At around ten o’clock, Valda spotted Ahmed lurking in the shadows – that could only mean that the Sheikh had now arrived. Valda wasted no time in making her way up to his lounge.
He was sitting smoking a cigar as usual and although he was obviously aware of her presence, he did not look around to greet her.
‘Hello, I’m back. I brought you a present,’ Valda’s greeting was awkward and sounded shallow and forced.
The Sheikh acknowledged her with a nod and a grunt as she set the parcel down on the table in front of him. If Valda had expected some display of appreciation or congratulation, it was certainly not forthcoming. Quite the opposite; indeed, the Sheikh’s response was one of indifference. He stared ahead, caught up in his own world. He treated her like an employee, who had been sufficiently remunerated and to whom no further gratitude was owed. She stared at him for a few moments, angry and deflated, before adopting an arrogant body language as she offered the Sheikh a curt goodbye.
The performance which followed was lacklustre. Something in the Sheikh’s manner – his cold, dismissive attitude to her today – reminded her of Richard. Perhaps it was partly the jet lag or emotional exhaustion, but for the first time in many weeks, she felt very alone and in need of reassurance.