Smiling happily, Servaas tips the vegetables from the pan, keeps back the butter, and adds a dash of garlic. The Kudu fillet, carefully matured and marinated with his special mix of wine, Cactus and lemon juice, gets added to the pan. Yes – that’s it! Neatly browned to perfection… He takes out the old flat-bottomed black pot (Siena’s favourite), arranges the vegetables and fillet inside; adds a bit of Mrs Ball’s and more wine; and pops the lot into the oven. Servaas knows one mustn’t hurry venison – that buck had run enough already. The key to success is a slow roast, two or more hours, before coating the meat with a mixture of Balsamic vinegar and honey, and leaving it in the oven for the last few minutes.
He’ll do the rice just before she comes, but now it’s time to lay the table with Ouma Siena’s cutlery – the real silver with ivory handles. Servaas doesn’t use this cutlery often – in fact, when he and Siena celebrated their 40th – or was it the 50th ? – anniversary, they decided not to use it any more. Way back when the set was made, people didn’t think. They killed elephants to make piano keys, snooker balls and cutlery – and never thought it strange to kill an animal just for that. Then again, look at what they are doing to the rhinos today… But, Servaas thinks, it still is the best set of knives and forks in the house. The stainless steel set he bought from that trader in Upington three years ago, has started to rust…
The house is clean. Spotless. Servaas has cleared out every cobweb, every speck of dust and the chewed tennis ball Vrede always hides behind the couch. The grime on top of the pelmet, the gunk beneath the fridge. His house hadn’t been so clean in years … and he even changed the bed linen.
He wonders about that. Surely she won’t inspect his bed, would she? Or is it the subconscious male, out on the prowl? He smiles at himself. Noo..not him! Not Servaas Venter, elder in the church, keeper of morals…or…maybe…?
He prepares the pudding, still worrying about the impulse that made him do the bed. Filling two ramekins with the rich, thick cream from Kleinpiet’s cow, he inserts ginger snaps to fill the little containers – making sure the cookies are well covered with cream. Now, all he has to do is to pop it into the oven after they’ve finished the venison, and voila! Boerepoeding in a flash.
When he opens the door to allow Martha in, something deep inside him stirs. That old feeling…the thumping of his heart; the dryness of mouth; the feeling that his eyes just can’t take in enough to tell the brain exactly what he’s seeing.
Whereas before, Martha seemed excited (he knows now it was artificial, due to the cocaine); this time she looks positively gorgeous. Inviting. Demure and challenging at the same time. Her eyes sparkle with some inner merriment while her tongue – delicate and teasing – sweeps over her lower lip. Servaas had seen photos of Marilyn Monroe (that’s before Siena chucked out the magazine), and she had a similar look: head slightly back, lips ever so adventurously parted.
And the dress! My, my…. Servaas can’t help but stare at the cleavage. During her previous visit, she seemed flat and thin – but now the dress accentuates the curves, screaming to him that she is a woman. Feminine, voluptuous – and available. The dress stops halfway down her thighs, leaving the black nylons to cover the rest.
He has a sudden flashback to the evening he walked Martha over to the Verdana’s. When they realised her hosts had already gone to sleep, they sat down on the bench in front of the church. She said she had a wonderful evening. Servaas could feel her warmth next to him, smell her perfume, hear her breathing. He did manage to fold his arms to hide his trembling hands, but he didn’t dare say anything. How long did they sit there? Two lonely people, each with own thoughts, staring at the night sky; both so much aware of the nearness of somebody special.
It was a shooting star that broke the spell; it arched high overhead in a streak of light and they followed it until it faded away.
“That’s life,” he said.
She nodded. “I have to go.”
He watched until the darkness swallowed her silhouette.
He stands to one side to allow her in, but she bends forwards to peck him on the cheek. He imagines the slightest brush of a breast as she passes.
“You dressed up again,” she says with a playful smile. “I hoped you would. It makes you look so handsome, like a gentleman should.”
“And you did too,” he gets the words out without stumbling over them. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Dressed up, Servaas? What did you want – or do you expect me to visit my beau in the nude? It can be arranged, you know?” The tongue flicks over the smiling red lips again, teasing him.
“No! .. I mean yes… no… “ He tries to swallow, gives it up and blurts on regardless. “You’re being deliberate, Martha… No, I don’t want you to go running around nude. Yes, y-y-you look stunning. I prefer you looking good. No, don’t arrange any such thing.” Servaas has trouble breathing – and speaking – normally. Some words simply get stuck while others tumble out.
Martha like teasing men – they are so easy to manipulate! You want to get your way with a man? Simply tease a bit. A flash of flesh, a sparkling eye, a sideways glance – and suddenly the growling Rottweiler turns into a puppy. When Roberto was angry because the rent was late, she simply made sure he saw enough of her to divert his attention. Initially she always felt cheap and sleazy about this, but over time it became a habit – second nature – something she didn’t even do consciously any more. Of course, being of such slight build and not having ravishing looks play a role as well. To have a man give her a second glance, was a huge victory over mediocrity. Whenever a man paid special attention to her, her femininity celebrated with yet more teasing. She always convinced herself that this wasn’t immoral – every girl dreams about being desirable, don’t they?
The fact that those men in Milan used her as a consumable, use-once-and-throw-away product, escaped her attention. Having to feed the addiction she had, she slipped down the spiral of nonchalance; of not caring any more, of not even thinking where all her actions might lead. And now that she’s left the cocaine, the habits still remain, dormant and sleeping, waiting for the trigger to set them off. Like Pavlov’s dog, she cannot help acting the way she does when a man seems excited with her presence.
Servaas serves the wine, sits down and wonders if his heart will make it through the evening. She’s dangling the bait, he thinks, and I’d look like a fool if I don’t go for it. He’s about to open his mouth, when it happens…
Describing ‘it’ is difficult. After all, it may be something that happened only in his mind – his conscience, or the bit of brain behind the ‘Moral Dept.’ door. It is entirely possible that he imagined ‘it’. But then again, Martha was aware of the event as well, so it can’t all be imaginary, or can it?
At first, unnoticed by the two people in the room, the old grandfather clock slows down (Servaas wound it up an hour ago). The ticks become more and more separated from the tocks, stretching the interval into longer and longer periods of time. Servaas’ racing pulse slows down to a quarter of the rate. His breathing becomes sluggish, as if his body no longer needs the ample amounts of air to stay alive.
The room seems to shrink around the two of them, until that, too, disappears into insignificance,
And that’s when Siena sits down next to Servaas. It seems the most natural thing that she’s here, now, and that she takes his hand in hers. Although surprised, Servaas notices how well she looks: vibrant and healthy with the blushed cheeks he remembers from their first meeting. Even the wrinkles are gone.
“Oubaas,” she always called him that. It was a sign she is in a good mood. “Oubaas, I want to tell you a story.”
He can only nod slowly.
“There once was a sailor,” she says, “who travelled far and wide across the oceans of life. He was respected for his knowledge of the currents and the winds and the treacherous animals that lived where the horizon ends. In fact, he was the only one with such knowledge.
“Then, one day, he abandoned his compass, deciding to test a new route to a new foreign land. Here, he knew, his compass and his map will not be of any help. So, bravely and a bit unsure, he set sail to the new world. He heard people talking about it – other sailors who said they heard it from other sailors … who heard it from other sailors. It was difficult to determine how much of these stories were true, but the excitement of discovery urged him on – he simply had to see for himself.
“Well, you can imagine what happened. On his way to this new world, his ship lost the wind. The sail hung slack. Doldrums – lasting for days, months, longer. And slowly –ever so slowly – the ship drifted towards the horizon where the hungry dragon awaited.
“Back home his family waited and waited; but the sailor never came back. He just couldn’t find his way back home.
“And now, Oubaas, I must go. It was nice talking to you again. Oh, and one ore thing: that dog that chews the tennis ball behind the couch: I don’t like it. Keep him on the porch. You know how I hate to think there may be fleas in the house.”
And suddenly, just like that, the ticks follow the tocks again very smartly, like they are supposed to.
“Did…did…you see anything just now? H-h-hear anything?” Servaas is as white as a sheet.
Martha shakes her head. “But I do feel cold all of a sudden. Very cold. Do you possibly have a coat or something I can put on?”
They manage it through the evening somehow. Oh, the food was absolutely perfect; the wine an excellent: a smooth Pinotage; and the dessert just right. But there was something else, something that changed the atmosphere. Servaas was still the perfect host, they chatted like old friends – but a strange distance developed between them. It started after Martha put the robe on.
After coffee, the silence becomes awkward.
“It must have been difficult in Milan. Very different from life on the farm; or even your student years in Stellenbosch.” Servaas, strangely calm and sure again, glances at her over the rim of his mug. “A girl can get lost there, I think” He’s told her how frightening the crowds were and how glad he was to be back.
She ignores the question, recognising the fact that he was merely making conversation. “Siena was a plain girl when she was young, wasn’t she?”
The question catches Servaas off guard. “Yes. I suppose you can say that. Her beauty wasn’t hidden beneath a layer of cosmetics or displayed by the fashion of the day – and I loved her for that. Of course, as we grew older, some things got worse; but,” he wags a finger in the air, “her beauty improved. Bodies get old, you know. Faces get shrivelled up. Some organs refuse to maintain teenage levels. Lots of things happen along the way. But, if you’re lucky, age brings peace. You don’t have to impress people any more. In fact, you find that you don’t really need a million friends. One, maybe two, is enough. If one of them happens to be your spouse, then…” A sudden tear makes him stop. He’s boring this child-woman with old-man talk. He tries to change direction: “Oh, and it wasn’t as if she was a push-over. No sir! She had an acid tongue and a determined mind. Always knew where she was going. But not at home. She was a lady, when she was at home. Always a lady.”
Martha fishes an old handkerchief from the bathrobes pocket. It’s white, with a lace border. She looks up. Finds his eyes. Sees the sadness there.
“May I keep it, please?” Small-girl voice, pleading. “I think I need her with me for a while. It’s such a long way back.”
“Keep the robe,” Servaas says. “You can still smell her perfume on it.”
He walks her home afterwards. At the church they hesitate, waiting for the shooting star.
It doesn’t come.
Servaas slumps down on the couch, after checking for the tennis ball. Then, with a sad smile, he puts on Siena’s old favourite by The Ink Spots…