SYBIL’S  GIFTS


By A M Smith ©

Time for another story. This one is long, but I hope you enjoy reading it. I wrote it in 2016 as a competition entry, and it was awarded first place in the category of Stories over 5 000 and under 10 000 words. If you’re wondering where on earth I came up with the idea, the answer is simple: a TV doccie on the Whitby Horse Fair. Read on, to discover the significance.

  Sybil was attuned to  the weather. No doubt about it. Always was, right from babyhood.  As a baby she was quite content to lie on a blanket in the sunny back garden, gazing upwards for hours, staring at the swaying tree branches, waving at the swiftly racing clouds, clumsily trying to wipe raindrops from her eyes when she was outside in her pram, and a brief shower sprinkled the garden.

  She grew into a wispy, frail child, with pale skin, watery grey eyes, and straggly  mouse brown hair. She missed out on her mother’s dark prettiness and her father’s sandy sturdiness. Her arms and legs were stick-thin, although her mother force fed her malt and cod liver oil, in an attempt to fatten her up. But to no avail. Sybil stubbornly remained stick-insect thin and pale.

  When given crayons and paper, Sybil mostly drew clouds – sometimes big fat black ones, decorated with dramatic yellow lightning zig-zags; sometime she drew fat, puffy white clouds, against a clear blue sky.  “Draw a picture of Buster”, urged Mother, “look at his curly tail, and you’ve got a nice brown crayon for his coat, and black for his eyes – let’s see what you can do. Buster would love a picture, wouldn’t you?” she asked the dog, who obligingly wagged his tail and danced around, claws clicking on the kitchen tiles. Sybil produced a poor picture of a dog with a round body, four stick legs, no tail, and directly above, a fat black cloud, spitting rain onto his hapless head. Mother sighed. It was no use. Sybil only wanted to draw clouds.

  Sybil’s kindergarten teachers had no more success. They instructed, they threatened, they coaxed. But Sybil stubbornly continued to draw clouds in every possible way – clouds at dawn, clouds at sunset, clouds over the sea, clouds over the landscape. In fact, her cloud pictures were amazingly skillful for a child so young.


  Around the age of five, Sybil began to make weather predictions. “It’s going to rain today,” she’d announce, looking out onto the blue, sunlit day. “Don’t be silly”, said Mother, “there’s not a cloud in the sky; now go and brush your teeth – or you’ll be late for the school bus.” Sybil trudged off and brushed her teeth. At lunch time an enormous storm rolled in, and drenched the town for an hour. “Pure co-incidence,” muttered Mother, shaking out her wet brolly and hanging up her raincoat.

  But day after day Sybil’s pronouncements on the weather proved correct. Mother confided in Dada, one evening.   “George, I’m telling you: when it comes to the weather, Sybil’s always right. “

  George raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You’re imagining things.”

  “No, I’m not! You ask her – you watch – you’ll soon see.”

  “Sybil”, said Dada after breakfast on Saturday, “I want you to come with me to the Village Cricket Match today. There’ll be other kids there, the ice-cream van always comes, and besides, you want to see your Dada bowl out Tidebury’s captain, don’t you?”

  Sybil raised her eyes, and said” No thank you, Dada; it’ll rain at teatime and the cricket will stop. But if you really want me to come, I will,” she added dutifully.

  “Yes, I do!” said Dada briskly. “Go find your hat, let’s enjoy this sunny summer day – we don’t get that many of them.”

  Sure enough, at teatime, Dada and Sybil huddled in the Tea Tent, along with forty other players and spectators. The rain swept across the Village Green cricket pitch in grey shifting curtains. “Looks like you made a lucky guess,” said Dada, “who would’ve thought it? Out of a clear blue sky, too.” They trudged home in a fine drizzle, which didn’t let up until late afternoon. A watery sun tentatively poked its head through the low cloud, but the summer’s day was definitely defeated.

  “Just a lucky guess, that’s all,” said Dada to Mother, after supper, when Sybil was in bed.

  Mother said with ominous calm: “Really? You wait and see.”

                                                            ***

  “What a pity it’s such a rotten day,” said Dada gloomily peering out at the racing low clouds, and the thrashing tree branches. “I was looking forwards to our trip to Shelly Cover – didn’t you want to swim and hunt for starfish, like we did last time?”

  “We can still go,” said Sybil, “the sun’s shining there – it’s a lovely day at the beach. Oh please, Dada, let’s go?” and she turned an imploring face up to Dada, for once showing a vestige of enthusiasm.

  ”But … look outside, child!  There’s no point.”

  “Yes there is, please let’s go, Dada,” said Sybil, unusually persistent.

  “Yes, lets,” chimed in Mother, with a deeply significant look at Dada. “I’m sure Sybil will be right – I’ve already made a picnic lunch, let’s give it a try”.

  Sybil was correct, of course, and the family spent a glorious day at the beach.

  “Well?” asked Mother, after supper when Sybil was in bed. “What do you say now, George?”

  George wasn’t convinced. “You know how changeable the weather is in this part of the country. I don’t know. It’s crazy!” he burst out. “How can a six year old know what the weather’s going to do?”

  “Haven’t a clue,” replied Mother, “but you must admit she’s always right”.

  In the end, Dada had to tacitly admit Sybil was always right. He won a few modest bets down at the pub on local sporting events, his casual enquiries to Sybil about the likelihood of rain the next day, or on Saturday, always resulted in a confident reply. And she was always right. Once Dada asked her: “how do you know whether it’s going to rain or blow, Sybil?”

  Sybil was baffled. “I dunno,” she replied, “I just do.”

   Over the years Dada and Mother went through a series of heated arguments on the topic of Sybil’s strange affinity with the weather. Mother was all for leaving well alone “I’m sure she’ll grow out of it, once she gets a bit older – you know – when she gets to that age “ . Mother wasn’t comfortable discussing puberty with George.

  He, on the other hand, wanted to have Sybil tested, to find out how she did it, what it meant. Mother’s reaction was characteristically unhelpful. “And just who are you going to ask? Dr Widdows? The Rector?” She had a point. Dr Widdows, the local GP, was heading for a doddery eightieth birthday; the Rector was as deaf as a post.

  “We could take her to the University,” he suggested.

  “And say what?” asked Mother. “Tell them we have an eight year old daughter who’s a weather prophet?”

  George dropped the idea. But Sybil’s strange talent gnawed away at him. How did she do it? Neither he nor Mother had any scientific training, any university education; or any particular interest in meteorology, for that matter. It was very odd. He did a bit of research on the Internet, at work. During the lunch-break nobody came into the Stores, and he could play on the computer to his heart’s content. His workmates teased him about watching porn, but he shrugged off their innuendo, and continued to research his daughter’s unusual gift.

  “I don’t suppose,” he said cautiously, “that your Granny or any of your old Aunties, could do this weather thing, could they?”

  Mother shook her head, but looked pensive.
  “Well,” prodded George, “out with it”.

  Mother slowly said, “I do remember my Granny Lee telling me about her mother,  I never met her, I think she’d already died by the time I was born – something about my great-Granny  …“ she stopped and fiddled with the teaspoon in her teacup.

  “Yes?” prompted George “Go on. What about her.”

  Reluctantly Mother said in a low voice “Well, I think my Great-Granny – and that part of the family – I think they lived in caravans.” She raised her troubled face to George, who looked mystified.

  “Don’t you understand? They were gypsies!“ snapped Mother. “There. I’ve told you!” she leant back in her chair and glared at George.

  “So?” replied George. “They were gypsies. What of it? That’s all long ago and far away. Now I know where you got your pretty black curls!” and he grinned at his wife.

  His attempt at humour fell flat. “It’s a gypsy curse, I’m telling you,” said Mother ominously, “this is no gift.”

  George looked steadily at his wife. “Now, Betty,” he said in his most reasonable voice, “please: think about what you’re saying. Why should it be a curse? Why can’t it be a  talent, a gift? Maybe her fairy godmother flew over her cradle at the christening, and we didn’t notice”, he continued, trying to lighten her sombre mood.

  “No”, replied Mother, “you didn’t notice, did you? At the christening. Those two old women at the back of the church.”

  George’s face was a picture of incomprehension. “Well, I noticed them, even if you didn’t,” replied Mother in a defiant tone. She’d done her best to blot out the memory  these many years, but it was a relief, in a way, to talk openly about it now. She could remember them, as if it were yesterday. Both old women were skinny, dressed in black, with black lace headscarves over their grey hair, a glint of gold in their wrinkled ears, a touch of gold on their wrists and fingers.  She remembered spotting them when she handed baby Sybil over to the Rector, but the baby’s loud crying over the cold water on her forehead had distracted her, and when the family left the church, the women had disappeared. She’d  dismissed them from her mind, but once Sybil’s strange weather talent  emerged, the memory  crept back.

  There’d been other odd instances over the years; tiny nosegays of wild flowers would appear on the baby’s blanket, out in the garden, or a sun-ripened plum would appear on Sybil’s windowsill. Another time, one autumn, six chestnuts on a leaf appeared on the back step. Little seasonal tokens, little signs of unseen visitors. Betty always swept away the signs, or gifts, or whatever they were, and never spoke of them to either George or Sybil. She didn’t want to think about them.

  Betty and George shelved the topic of gypsy heritage; it was too far-fetched for George to embrace, and too uncomfortable for Betty to deal with.

  And then there was the recent episode with the birds. Mother sighed heavily. On  Sybil’s eleventh birthday, she’d found a raven with a broken leg, on the path outside the kitchen. Without hesitation Sibyl picked it up, carried it to her bedroom, and nursed the bird back to health. The raven hardly made a sound, but croaked quietly whenever Sybil fed it.

  After three weeks it disappeared. Just flew away. Betty wasn’t sorry. She didn’t like the bird. Ravens were a sign of bad luck, death even.  Later, the bird reappeared at intervals, landing neatly on Sybil’s windowsill, despite its crooked mended leg, carrying  gifts in its beak. Thus far it had brought a shiny gilt button, the handle of a broken plastic fork, a tiny, shiny white stone, and a golf tee. 

  Following  the raven episode, Sybil brought home a series of wounded birds and doctored them back to health. She simply ignored her Mother’s complaints and questions, serenely going about her business with the birds, busy in her own little world.

  It came as no surprise to George and Betty that Sybil failed her 11-plus examinations that year.

 “Sybil shows no interest in her schoolwork. She has no friends. We strongly suggest an appointment with the School Psychologist. We can arrange it for you,” said the headmistress.

 Unanimously, Betty and George  chorused “no thank you”, and departed, leaving the headmistress perplexed.

 “Now what?” asked Betty, looking piteously at George. They both knew that Sybil was different, a child of the winds and airs; not exactly handicapped, not exactly fey,   but not exactly your average 11-year old either.

  “Don’t worry, Betty,” said George “I’ve been working on a plan for a while.  Let me explain.” He made Betty a cup of tea, and revealed he’d made a tidy nest egg over the years, quietly using Sybil’s weather forecast powers to make winning bets on sporting fixtures. He’d mastered the skill of on-line betting, succeeding in remaining  anonymous, placing his bets around the country, never going for the jackpot, just a steady stream of winning bets.

   “I think we should  take her out of school – let’s face it, she’s not interested is she? She can read and write, do some figure-work, but I can’t see her going to college or holding a job, can you?” Reluctantly Betty nodded agreement. “Maybe  if we tell people she’s being home-schooled, then we can leave her be. She’s no trouble to anyone, you must admit,” proposed George. “We live in a quiet village, there’s plenty of countryside for her to roam, play with her birds, just be herself. And if I carry on with the betting, we’ll be able to buy her a little cottage of her own when she’s grown, and we’ve .. well, gone.”

                                                            ***

  Sybil gently drifted through the years, preoccupied with her birds, spending hours dreamily surveying the sky.  Her teenage years slipped past without any of the normal tempests experienced by her one-time peers. The village girls blossomed  into extravagant makeup, tight revealing clothes, hormone induced sparring with the local lads, binge drinking whenever they could get away with it.  George saw them in the pub over weekends, young , loud, drunken, and loutish.

   His Sybil was the exact opposite. She preferred her own company, wafting inconspicuously through the house, their garden, the surrounding farms and countryside. Her clothing was always in pale shades of blue or grey, or cloudy, long gathered skirts, or faded dungarees and tee-shirts. Dippy Hippy! Yelled the local boys, catcalling, but always from a good, safe distance.

   They still remembered the time Darren Gooden tried to grab Sybil and mess around with her, behind the Village Hall one placid summer’s evening. Sybil had been in her usual trance, strolling home, when Darren jumped out, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her roughly to him: “How’s about a kiss Hippy Girl?” he leered. Out of nowhere, out of a clear sky, a blizzard of black feathers targeted the boy, a veritable hail of crows and ravens, cawing, croaking, screeching, pecking and clawing at his head, hands, legs. It was a maelstrom of feathers, thrashing arms, pumping legs, yelling – like that old Hitchcock film – The Birds , reported one bemused onlooker who’d run out of the Village Pub, alerted by the yelling.

  Darren pelted off, trying to protect his head with his arms and his anorak, pursued by a cloud of vengeful black birds. Sybil was nowhere to be seen. Darren’s face, arms and legs were a bruised scabby mess for weeks, and after that, the teenage population gave Sybil a very wide berth indeed. They might mutter weirdo under their breath, when they saw her in the Village, but they took care to mutter quietly.

                                                            * * *

  Life flowed smoothly until the day George watched TV coverage of the traditional Appleby Horse Fair.  He was so engrossed in the scenes of horses, colourful crowds, the traditional painted caravans sprinkled amongst the modern motor-homes, that he was unaware of Sybil’s presence, behind his armchair.

  “What’s that, Dadda? Where’s that?”

  George jumped. “Oh – you startled me!  that’s the annual Appleby Horse Fair held in Cumbria –  it’s the oldest horse-fair in Britain, been going since 1685 they say. Horse traders and gypsies come from all over Britain  to …“

  “Oh! Dada! Aren’t they pretty!” breathed Sybil, gazing spellbound at the TV screen.

  George turned round in astonishment to gape at his daughter. Normally Sybil never interrupted him – in fact, she seldom spoke, and then usually in a semi-whisper.

  “What’s that, my lovely?” he asked.

  “Those”, replied Sybil pointing at the traditional wooden caravans.  “I want to live in one of those!”  and with that she abruptly left the room.

  George was nonplussed.  Sybil seldom showed enthusiasm for anything – a new dress, a birthday gift, a surprise outing all received the same polite, but lukewarm response.  He shook his head. Well, that was Sybil. She was different.

  Next morning Betty rushed into their bedroom and shook George violently. “Wake up! Sybil’s gone! She’s not in her room – bed not slept in – George! Wake up!”

  George and Betty searched the house, the garden and the surrounding woods and fields, but without success. No-one had seen Sybil in the village either. Betty checked Sybil’s cupboards and finally decided that a few skirts and tops were missing, along with her green rucksack, her hairbrush, her toothbrush, other basic necessities.

  “She’s definitely gone,” announced Betty. “But where? What do we do now?”

  “Here:  I’ve made tea, have a cuppa, love,” said George, “I think I know where. Listen to this.” He related the TV incident, Sybil’s fascination with the gypsy wagons.

  “Oh no,” wailed Betty when he’d finished, “I told you, there’s a curse!”

  “Nonsense”, said George robustly, “remember she’s eighteen years old, about time she spread her wings a little, don’t you think? I mean it’s not Mars, its only Cumbria, not that far away. Is it?” he added doubtfully. “I think we should wait and see – only until Monday, mind you, and then if she’s not back we’ll report it to the Police.”

  But they didn’t have to wait  for the three days to elapse. Next morning, Betty was in the kitchen clearing away the breakfast table, when there was a loud, persistent rapping on the kitchen window. She turned, and saw the raven on the sill, pecking diligently at the glass.

  “What do you want, you black devil!” shouted Betty, waving her arms at the bird, “Shoo! Go away! Sybil’s not here.”

  The bird didn’t budge. It stayed on the sill, pecking, pecking at the window glass. Clearly, it wasn’t going to stop. What on earth could it want? Betty reluctantly opened the window a crack.  To her astonishment the raven stayed on the sill, and extended a leg towards her. Betty saw something  beige – a slip of paper, maybe – wrapped round the birds leg, tied with a thin piece of string. “What in the world?” whispered Betty, eyeing the bird distrustfully. The raven looked her in the eye and bent its head to worry at the string with  pecks and nudges.

  “Okaaay”, whispered Betty, fearfully extending her hand towards the bird. She didn’t trust that strong, sharp beak, but the raven again thrust its leg towards Betty, who gingerly tugged at the string, but in the end, had to fetch scissors and snip the string to retrieve the slip of paper.  To her astonishment the raven remained docile, co-operative, even. Betty smoothed out the crumpled paper and saw it was half a train ticket – she could just make out the word Whitby. “My God,” she gasped, looking at the raven, which cocked its head to the side, and gave a low croak.

  “For goodness sake,” exclaimed Betty to George that evening, when she’d shared the exciting news, “anyone else would have picked up the phone and called us, but no! not Sybil – she sends a raven! “

  “That’s airmail for you,” laughed George, relieved and proud that his strange daughter had thought to allay her parents’ worries over her abrupt disappearance. “Come to think of it,” continued George thoughtfully, “I  don’t believe I ever saw Sybil on the ‘phone – did you? So raven-airmail makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose. If you’re Sybil,” he added with a rueful laugh.

  Periodically the raven would reappear, always with a message wrapped round its leg. There was a cross-Channel ferry ticket stub; then a shred of a till slip in French.

  “That bird ‘s clocking up plenty air-miles,” said George as they marveled over another till-slip fragment in a language they couldn’t identify. “I had no idea they could fly that far. I hope you’re offering it something, for all its troubles!”

  “As a matter of fact I am,” said Betty “last week I gave it bacon scraps from breakfast, “it loved those; it eats toast crusts too, but it wasn’t keen on the sunflower seeds I bought specially for it. Maybe you can research on the Internet what ravens like to eat ?”

  “Mmmhh”, replied George neutrally, knowing full well that ravens first choice was road-kill. “I’d stick to toast and bacon rinds, if I were you.”

                                                            * * *

  The next raven-mail was puzzling: it was a short length of plaited human hair, secured by an elastic band to the bird’s leg. Betty identified the fine wispy mouse brown strands as Sybil’s hair, but the thick, glossy black hair? Whose was that?

  “Whatever do you think it means? If only that bird could talk! I can see the brown hair is Sybil’s, but the black hair? Whose is that – and it curls!” she added, distrustfully eyeing the strong black curly strands.

    Hesitantly George said “I think it might mean she’s found a fella.”

  After this episode, the raven was absent for months.  The following Spring it arrived at the kitchen window, looking bedraggled, and extending its leg in the customary way.

  “Oh, you’re back”, cried Betty, “what a relief! Where have you been? And look at the state of you! What have you brought us this time? Why – whatever’s that?” Finally she managed to cut a grimy snippet of pink ribbon off the bird’s leg. The raven devoured every scrap she offered, and hung around for a week, demanding food every time Betty went into the kitchen.

  “I suppose this means we’re grand-parents?” said George slowly. “Who knows?”

  “I think you’re right” said Betty, “if only we could see them. I wonder where Sybil is now? Must be somewhere really far, judging from the state of that bird.”

  Finally, the raven departed, looking fatter and glossier after a week’s rest. “Bye bye”, called Betty, “come back soon”. A soft croak floated down to her, as the bird flapped purposefully away.

  It was a chilly November autumn morning when Betty awoke to a hail of pecking on the bedroom window.  She staggered out of bed and drew the curtains, “All right, all right, keep yer feathers on, I’m coming” she muttered, and then gasped. The windowsill was covered in ravens, as were all six trees in their garden. Overhead a cloud of black birds circled restlessly over the roof, swirling back and forth, cawing and croaking.

  “George – wake up! There’s something going on – wake up, do! I’m scared! Come and see the birds!”

  “What? “ said George, “wassamatter?” Betty yanked him out of  bed, and shoved him to the window. They stared out uncomprehendingly, fearful. Suddenly the entire flock of birds veered off around to the back of the house. Wordlessly Betty and George rushed downstairs, into the kitchen, and wrenched open the back door. Utter silence descended, not a bird moved.

  There, on the back step, was a woven wicker basket, filled with clothing and coarse gaily striped blankets, under which something moved feebly. Not a bird stirred. Clutching George for support, Betty cautiously threw off the clothing and the two uppermost blankets, to reveal a tiny baby swaddled up Indian papoose style, trying to wriggle out of its bindings. Springy black curls peeped out from a brightly coloured woven cap, its caramel coloured face was wrinkled with effort, and its dark red lips parted to let out an aggravated bellow. At the sound, every bird instantly took off, and the flock retired safely to the treetops, apart from the airmail raven, which hopped onto the edge of the basket, and extended a claw towards the yelling baby.

  “How the hell did that bird carry a basket?” stuttered George.

  “Don’t be silly George,” snapped Betty “it couldn’t possibly; humans must have brought it. You don’t suppose? “ she said hopefully,  her voice quavering. “Sybil! Sybil! “ she called, setting off the flock again into a cacophony of cawing. But answer came there none.

  That was the airmail raven’s  final delivery. Thereafter it devoted itself to the baby.  Despite Betty’s initial efforts to chase the raven away from the baby’s basket, she finally admitted defeat, and left the bird in peace, perched on the edge of the basket, where it served as an efficient avian baby-monitoring system.

  “What’re we going to called her?” asked George, once they’d tacitly agreed that this was indeed their grand-child, and would remain with them. “How about Raven? It’d suit those black curls and those eyes!”

  “Over my dead body,” snapped Betty “no grandchild of mine’s going to be named after that bird! Rose is a pretty name, don’t you think? Remember the snippet of rose pink ribbon the raven brought us?” So the baby was duly christened Rose Sybil in the village church. Betty surreptitiously kept an eye out for old back crones lurking in the back of the church, but to her relief, they didn’t appear. That night she casually commented on the fact to George, who grinned and said “So no gypsy curse for our little Rose, hey Betty?”

  Betty glared at him, but didn’t rise to the bait. She  needn’t have worried. Rose grew into a sturdy child, chubby arms and legs, round face, framed with bouncy black curls.  Her eyelashes were thick and black, and her dark eyes sparkled with lively curiosity. Around the age of three she entered the Why Phase: Why this? Why that? George exhibited saintly patience with the endless questions, Betty less so. Inevitably one day, when she was nearly five, Rose asked the question: “Grampy , why do I live with you and Nanna?  Where’s my Mummy? “

  Without even thinking George replied “Oh, your Mummy’s out there somewhere, exploring the wide world, drifting along with the clouds … that’s why she sent you to us with the Raven, so we could look after you and love you lots – that’s the why of it.”

  Rose looked thoughtful, and George held his breath. Then her face cleared and she asked “Grampy, will you play French cricket with me after tea? Please, please!”

“Of course, my lovely,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief.

THE END

SYBIL’S GIFTS

Sybil was attuned to  the weather. No doubt about it. Always was, right from babyhood.  As a baby she was quite content to lie on a blanket in the sunny back garden, gazing upwards for hours, staring at the swaying tree branches, waving at the swiftly racing clouds, clumsily trying to wipe raindrops from her eyes when she was outside in her pram, and a brief shower sprinkled the garden.

She grew into a whispy, frail child, with pale skin, watery grey eyes, and straggly  mouse brown hair. She missed out on her mother’s dark prettiness and her father’s sandy sturdiness. Her arms and legs were stick-thin, although her mother force fed her malt and cod liver oil, in an attempt to fatten her up. But to no avail. Sybil stubbornly remained stick-insect thin and pale.

When given crayons and paper, Sybil mostly drew clouds – sometimes big fat black ones, decorated with dramatic yellow lightning zig-zags; sometime she drew fat, puffy white clouds, against a clear blue sky.  “Draw a picture of Buster”, urged Mother, “look at his curly tail, and you’ve got a nice brown crayon for his coat, and black for his eyes – let’s see what you can do. Buster would love a picture, wouldn’t you?” she asked the dog, who obligingly wagged his tail and danced around, claws clicking on the kitchen tiles. Sybil produced a poor picture of a dog with a round body, four stick legs, no tail, and directly above, a fat black cloud, spitting rain onto its hapless head. Mother sighed. It was no use. Sybil only wanted to draw clouds.

Sybil’s kindergarten teachers had no more success. They instructed, they threatened, they coaxed. But Sybil stubbornly continued to draw clouds in every possible way – clouds at dawn, clouds at sunset, clouds over the sea, clouds over the landscape. In fact, her cloud pictures were amazingly skilful for a child so young.
Around the age of five, Sybil began to make weather predictions. “It’s going to rain today,” she’d announce, looking out onto the blue, sunlit day. “Don’t be silly”, said Mother, “there’s not a cloud in the sky; now go and brush your teeth – or you’ll be late for the school bus.” Sybil trudged off and brushed her teeth. At lunch time an enormous storm rolled in, and drenched the town for an hour. “Pure co-incidence,” muttered Mother, shaking out her wet brolly and hanging up her raincoat.

But day after day Sybil’s pronouncements on the weather proved correct. Mother confided in Dada, one evening.   “George, I’m telling you: when it comes to the weather, Sybil’s always right. “

George raised a sceptical eyebrow. “You’re imagining things.”

“No, I’m not! You ask her – you watch – you’ll soon see.”

“Sybil”, said Dada after breakfast on Saturday, “I want you to come with me to the Village Cricket Match today. There’ll be other kids there, the ice-cream van always comes, and besides, you want to see your Dada bowl out Tidebury’s captain, don’t you?”

Sybil raised her eyes, and said” No thank you, Dada; it’ll rain at teatime and the cricket will stop. But if you really want me to come, I will,” she added dutifully.

“Yes, I do!” said Dada briskly. “Go find your hat, let’s enjoy this sunny summer day – we don’t get that many of them.”

Sure enough, at teatime, Dada and Sybil huddled in the Tea Tent, along with forty other players and spectators. The rain swept across the Village Green cricket pitch in grey shifting curtains. “Looks like you made a lucky guess,” said Dada, “who would’ve thought it? Out of a clear blue sky, too.” They trudged home in a fine drizzle, which didn’t let up until late afternoon. A watery sun tentatively poked its head through the low cloud, but the summer’s day was definitely defeated.

“Just a lucky guess, that’s all,” said Dada to Mother, after supper, when Sybil was in bed.

Mother said with ominous calm: “Really? You wait and see.”

                                                            ***

“What a pity it’s such a rotten day,” said Dada gloomily peering out at the racing low clouds, and the thrashing tree branches. “I was looking forwards to our trip to Shelly Cover – didn’t you want to swim and hunt for starfish, like we did last time?”

“We can still go,” said Sybil, “the sun’s shining there – it’s a lovely day at the beach. Oh please, Dada, let’s go?” and she turned an imploring face up to Dada, for once showing a vestige of enthusiasm.

“”But … look outside, child!  There’s no point.”

“Yes there is, please let’s go, Dada,” said Sybil, unusually persistent.

“Yes, lets,” chimed in Mother, with a deeply significant look at Dada. “I’m sure Sybil will be right – I’ve already made a picnic lunch, let’s give it a try”.

Sybil was correct, of course, and the family spent a glorious day at the beach.

“Well?” asked Mother, after supper when Sybil was in bed. “What do you say now, George?”

George wasn’t convinced. “You know how changeable the weather is in this part of the country. I don’t know. It’s crazy!” he burst out. “How can a six year old know what the weather’s going to do?”

“Haven’t a clue,” replied Mother, “but you must admit she’s always right”.

In the end, Dada had to tacitly admit Sybil was always right. He won a few modest bets down at the pub on local sporting events, his casual enquiries to Sybil about the likelihood of rain the next day, or on Saturday, always resulted in a confident reply. And she was always right. Once Dada asked her: “how do you know whether it’s going to rain or blow, Sybil?”

Sybil was baffled. “I dunno,” she replied, “I just do.”

 Over the years Dada and Mother went through a series of heated arguments on the topic of Sybil’s strange affinity with the weather. Mother was all for leaving well alone “I’m sure she’ll grow out of it, once she gets a bit older – you know – when she gets to that age “ . Mother wasn’t comfortable discussing puberty with George.

  He, on the other hand, wanted to have Sybil tested, to find out how she did it, what it meant. Mother’s reaction was characteristically unhelpful. “And just who are you going to ask? Dr Widdows? The Rector?” She had a point. Dr Widdows, the local GP, was heading for a doddery eightieth birthday; the Rector was as deaf as a post.

“We could take her to the University,” he suggested.

“And say what?” asked Mother. “Tell them we have an eight year old daughter who’s a weather prophet?”

George dropped the idea. But Sybil’s strange talent gnawed away at him. How did she do it? Neither he nor Mother had any scientific training, any university education; or any particular interest in meteorology, for that matter. It was very odd. He did a bit of research on the Internet, at work. During the lunch-break nobody came into the Stores, and he could play on the computer to his heart’s content. His workmates teased him about watching porn, but he shrugged off their innuendo, and continued to research his daughter’s unusual gift.

“I don’t suppose,” he said cautiously, “that your Granny or any of your old Aunties, could do this weather thing, could they?”

Mother shook her head, but looked pensive.
Well,” prodded George, “out with it”.

Mother slowly said, “I do remember my Granny Lee telling me about her mother,  I never met her, I think she’d already died by the time I was born – something about my great-Granny  …“ she stopped and fiddled with the teaspoon in her teacup.

“Yes?” prompted George “Go on. What about her.”

Reluctantly Mother said in a low voice “Well, I think my Great-Granny – and that part of the family – I think they lived in caravans.” She raised her troubled face to George, who looked mystified.

“Don’t you understand? They were gypsies!“ snapped Mother. “There. I’ve told you!” she leant back in her chair and glared at George.

“So?” replied George. “They were gypsies. What of it? That’s all long ago and far away. Now I know where you got your pretty black curls!” and he grinned at his wife.

His attempt at humour fell flat. “It’s a gypsy curse, I’m telling you,” said Mother ominously, “this is no gift.”

George looked steadily at his wife. “Now, Betty,” he said in his most reasonable voice, “please: think about what you’re saying. Why should it be a curse? Why can’t it be a a talent, a gift? Maybe her fairy godmother flew over her cradle at the christening, and we didn’t notice”, he continued, trying to lighten her sombre mood.

“No”, replied Mother, “you didn’t notice, did you? At the christening. Those two old women at the back of the church.”

George’s face was a picture of incomprehension. “Well, I noticed them, even if you didn’t,” replied Mother in a defiant tone. She’d done her best to blot out the memory  these many years, but it was a relief, in a way, to talk openly about it now. She could remember them, as if it were yesterday. Both old women were skinny, dressed in black, with black lace headscarves over their grey hair, a glint of gold in their wrinkled ears, a touch of gold on their wrists and fingers.  She remembered spotting them when she handed baby Sybil over to the Rector, but the baby’s loud crying over the cold water on her forehead had distracted her, and when the family left the church, the women had disappeared. She’d  dismissed them from her mind, but once Sybil’s strange weather talent  emerged, the memory  crept back.

There’d been other odd instances over the years; tiny nosegays of wild flowers would appear on the baby’s blanket, out in the garden, or a sun-ripened plum would appear on Sybil’s windowsill. Another time, one autumn, six chestnuts on a leaf appeared on the back step. Little seasonal tokens, little signs of unseen visitors. Betty always swept away the signs, or gifts, or whatever they were, and never spoke of them to either George or Sybil. She didn’t want to think about them.

Betty and George shelved the topic of gypsy heritage; it was too far-fetched for George to embrace, and too uncomfortable for Betty to deal with.

And then there was the recent episode with the birds. Mother signed heavily. On  Sybil’s eleventh birthday, she’d found a raven with a broken leg, on the path outside the kitchen. Without hesitation Sibyll picked it up, carried it to her bedroom, and nursed the bird back to health. The raven hardly made a sound, but croaked quietly whenever Sybil fed it.

After three weeks it disappeared. Just flew away. Betty wasn’t sorry. She didn’t like the bird. Ravens were a sign of bad luck, death even.  Later, the bird reappeared at intervals, landing neatly on Sybil’s windowsill, despite its crooked mended leg,  carrying  gifts in its beak. Thus far it had brought a shiny gilt button, the handle of a broken plastic fork, a tiny shiny white stone, and a golf tee. 

Following  the raven episode, Sybil brought home a series of wounded birds and doctored them back to health. She simply ignored her Mother’s complaints and questions, serenely going about her business with the birds, busy in her own little world.

It came as no surprise to George and Betty that Sybil failed her 11-plus examinations that year. “Sybil shows no interest in her schoolwork. She has no friends. We strongly suggest an appointment with the School Psychologist. We can arrange it for you,” said the headmistress.

Unanimously, Betty and George  chorused “no thank you”, and departed, leaving the headmistress perplexed.

“Now what?” asked Betty, looking piteously at George. They both knew that Sybil was different, a child of the winds and airs; not exactly handicapped, not exactly fey,   but not exactly your average 11-year old either.

“Don’t worry, Betty,” said George “I’ve been working on a plan for a while.  Let me explain.” He made Betty a cup of tea, and revealed he’d made a tidy nest egg over the years, quietly using Sybil’s weather forecast powers to make winning bets on sporting fixtures. He’d mastered the skill of on-line betting, succeeding in remaining  anonymous, placing his bets around the country, never going for the jackpot, just a steady stream of winning bets. “I think we should  take her out of school – let’s face it, she’s not interested is she? She can read and write, do some figure-work, but I can’t see her going to college or holding a job, can you?” Reluctantly Betty nodded agreement. “Maybe  if we tell people she’s being home-schooled, then we can quietly leave her be. She’s no trouble to anyone, you must admit,” proposed George. “We live in a quiet village, there’s plenty of countryside for her to roam, play with her birds, just be herself. And if I carry on with the betting, we’ll be able to buy her a little cottage of her own when she’s grown, and we’ve .. well, gone.”

                                                            ***

Sybil gently drifted through the years, preoccupied with her birds, spending hours dreamily surveying the sky.  Her teenage years slipped past without any of the normal tempests experienced by her one-time peers. The village girls blossomed  into extravagant makeup, tight revealing clothes, hormone induced sparring with the local lads, binge drinking whenever they could get away with it.  George saw them in the pub over weekends, young , loud, drunken, and loutish.

 His Sybil was the exact opposite. She preferred her own company, wafting inconspicuously through the house, their garden, the surrounding farms and countryside. Her clothing was always in pale shades of blue or grey, or cloudy, long gathered skirts, or faded dungarees and tee-shirts. Dippy Hippy! Yelled the local boys, catcalling, but always from a good, safe distance.

 They still remembered the time Darren Gooden tried to grab Sybil and mess around with her, behind the Village Hall one placid summer’s evening. Sybil had been in her usual trance, strolling home, when Darren jumped out, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her roughly to him : “How’s about a kiss Hippy Girl?” he leered. Out of nowhere, out of a clear sky, a blizzard of black feathers targeted the boy, a veritable hail of crows and ravens, cawing, croaking, screeching, pecking and clawing at his head, hands, legs. It was a maelstrom of feathers, thrashing arms, pumping legs, yelling – like that old film – The Birds , reported one bemused onlooker who’d run out of the Village Pub, alerted by the yelling.

Darren pelted off, trying to protect his head with his arms and his anorak, pursued by a cloud of vengeful black birds. Sybil was nowhere to be seen. Darren’s face, arms and legs were a bruised scabby mess for weeks, and after that, the teenage population gave Sybil a very wide berth indeed. They might mutter weirdo under their breath, when they saw her in the Village, but they took care to mutter quietly.

                                                            * * *

Life flowed smoothly until the day George watched TV coverage of the traditional Appleby Horse Fair.  He was so engrossed in the scenes of horses, colourful crowds, the traditional painted caravans sprinkled amongst the modern motor-homes, that he was unaware of Sybil’s presence, behind his armchair.

“What’s that, Dad? Where’s that?”

George jumped. “Oh – you startled me!  that’s the annual Appleby Horse Fair held in Cumbria –  it’s the oldest horse-fair in Britain, been going since 1685 they say. Horse traders and gypsies come from all over Britain  to …“

“Oh! Dada! Aren’t they pretty!” breathed Sybil, gazing spellbound at the TV screen.

George turned round in astonishment to gape at his daughter. Normally Sybil never interrupted him – in fact, she seldom spoke, and then usually in a semi-whisper.

“What’s that, my lovely?” he asked.

“Those”, replied Sybil pointing at the traditional wooden caravans.  “I want to live in one of those!”  and with that she abruptly left the room.

George was nonplussed.  Sybil seldom showed enthusiasm for anything – a new dress, a birthday gift, a surprise outing all received the same polite, but lukewarm response.  He shook his head. Well, that was Sybil. She was different.

Next morning Betty rushed into their bedroom and shook George violently. “Wake up! Sybil’s gone! She’s not in her room – bed not slept in – George! Wake up!”

George and Betty searched the house, the garden and the surrounding woods and fields, but without success. No-one had seen Sybil in the village either. Betty checked Sybil’s cupboards and finally decided that a few skirts and tops were missing, along with her green rucksack, her hairbrush, her toothbrush, other basic necessities.

“She’s definitely gone,” announced Betty. “But where? What do we do now?”

“Here:  I’ve made tea, have a cuppa, love,” said George, “I think I know where. Listen to this.” He related the TV incident, Sybil’s fascination with the gypsy wagons.

“Oh no,” wailed Betty when he’d finished, “I told you, there’s a curse!”

“Nonsense”, said George robustly, “remember she’s eighteen years old, about time she spread her wings a little, don’t you think? I mean it’s not Mars, its only Cumbria, not that far away. Is it?” he added doubtfully. “I think we should wait and see – only until Monday, mind you, and then if she’s not back we’ll report it to the Police.”

But they didn’t have to wait  for the three days to elapse. Next morning, Betty was in the kitchen clearing away the breakfast table, when there was a loud, persistent  rapping on the kitchen window. She turned, and saw the raven on the sill, pecking diligently at the glass.

“What do you want, you black devil!” shouted Betty, waving her arms at the bird, “Shoo! Go away! Sybil’s not here.”

The bird didn’t budge. It stayed on the sill, pecking, pecking at the window glass. Clearly, it wasn’t going to stop. What on earth could it want? Betty reluctantly opened the window a crack.  To her astonishment the raven stayed on the sill, and extended a leg towards her. Betty saw something  beige – a slip of paper, maybe – wrapped round the birds leg, tied with a thin piece of string. “What in the world?” whispered Betty, eyeing the bird distrustfully. The raven looked her in the eye and bent its head to worry at the string with  pecks and nudges.

“Okaaay”, whispered Betty, fearfully extending her hand towards the bird. She didn’t trust that strong, sharp beak, but the raven again thrust its leg towards Betty, who gingerly tugged at the string, but in the end, had to fetch scissors and snip the string to retrieve the slip of paper.  To her astonishment the raven remained docile, co-operative, even. Betty smoothed out the crumpled paper and saw it was half a train ticket – she could just make out the word Whitby. “My God,” she gasped, looking at the raven, which cocked its head to the side, and gave a low croak.

“For goodness sake,” exclaimed Betty to George that evening, when she’d shared the exciting news, “anyone else would have picked up the phone and called us, but no! not Sybil – she sends a raven! “

“That’s airmail for you,” laughed George, relieved and proud that his strange daughter had thought to allay her parents’ worries over her abrupt disappearance. “Come to think of it,” continued George thoughtfully, “I  don’t believe I ever saw Sybil on the ‘phone – did you? So raven-airmail makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose. If you’re Sybil,” he added with a rueful laugh.

Periodically the raven would reappear, always with a message wrapped round its leg. There was a cross-Channel ferry ticket stub; then a shred of a till slip in French.

“That bird ‘s clocking up plenty air-miles,” said George as they marvelled over another till-slip fragment in a language they couldn’t identify. “I had no idea they could fly that far. I hope you’re offering it something, for all its troubles!”

“As a matter of fact I am,” said Betty “last week I gave it bacon scraps from breakfast, “it loved those; it eats toast crusts too, but it wasn’t keen on the sunflower seeds I bought specially for it. Maybe you can research on the Internet what ravens like to eat ?”

“Mmmhh”, replied George neutrally, knowing full well that ravens first choice was road-kill. “I’d stick to toast and bacon rinds, if I were you.”

                                                            * * *

The next raven-mail was puzzling: it was a short length of plaited human hair, secured by an elastic band to the bird’s leg. Betty identified the fine whispy mouse brown strands as Sybil’s hair, but the thick, glossy black hair? Whose was that?

“Whatever do you think it means? If only that bird could talk! I can see the brown hair is Sybil’s, but the black hair? Whose is that – and it curls!” she added, distrustfully eyeing the strong black curly strands.

Hesitantly George said “I think it might mean she’s found a fella.”

After this episode, the raven was absent for months.  The following Spring it arrived at the kitchen window, looking a bedraggled, and extending its leg in the customary way.
“Oh, you’re back”, cried Betty, “what a relief! Where have you been? And look at the state of you! What have you brought us this time? Why – whatever’s that?” Finally she managed to cut a grimy snippet of pink ribbon off the bird’s leg. The raven devoured every scrap she offered, and hung around for a week, demanding food every time Betty went into the kitchen.

“I suppose this means we’re grand-parents?” said George slowly. “Who knows?”

“I think you’re right” said Betty, “if only we could see them. I wonder where Sybil is now? Must be somewhere really far, judging from the state of that bird.”

Finally, the raven departed, looking fatter and glossier after a week’s rest. “Bye bye”, called Betty, “come back soon”. A soft croak floated down to her, as the bird flapped purposefully away.

It was a chilly November autumn morning when Betty awoke to a hail of pecking on the bedroom window.  She staggered out of bed and drew the curtains, “All right, all right, keep yer feathers on, I’m coming” she muttered, and then gasped. The windowsill was covered in ravens, as were all six trees in their garden. Overhead a cloud of black birds circled restlessly over the roof, swirling back and forth, cawing and croaking.

“George – wake up! There’s something going on – wake up,  do! I’m scared! Come and see the birds!”

“What? “ said George, “wassamatter?” Betty yanked him out of  bed, and shoved him to the window. They stared out uncomprehendingly, fearful. Suddenly the entire flock of birds veered off around to the back of the house. Wordlessly Betty and George rushed downstairs, into the kitchen, and wrenched open the back door. Utter silence descended, not a bird moved.

There, on the back step, was a woven wicker basket, filled with clothing and coarse gaily striped blankets, under which something moved feebly. Not a bird stirred. Clutching George for support, Betty cautiously threw off the clothing and the two uppermost blankets, to reveal a tiny baby swaddled up Indian papoose style,  trying to wriggle out of its bindings. Springy black curls peeped out from a brightly coloured woven cap, its caramel coloured face was wrinkled with effort, and its dark red lips parted to let out an aggravated bellow. At the sound, every bird instantly took off, and the flock retired safely to the treetops, apart from the airmail raven, which hopped onto the edge of the basket, and extended a claw towards the yelling baby.

“How the hell did that bird carry a basket?” stuttered George.

“Don’t be silly George,” snapped Betty “it couldn’t possibly; humans must have brought it. You don’t suppose? “ she said hopefully,  her voice quavering. “Sybil! Sybil! “ she called, setting off the flock again into a cacophony of cawing. But answer came there none.

That was the airmail raven’s  final delivery. Thereafter it devoted itself to the baby.  Despite Betty’s initial efforts to chase the raven away from the baby’s basket, she finally admitted defeat, and left the bird in peace, perched on the edge of the basket, where it served as an efficient avian baby-monitoring system.

“What’re we going to called her?” asked George, once they’d tacitly agreed that this was indeed their grand-child, and would remain with them. “How about Raven? It’d suit those black curls and those eyes!”

“Over my dead body,” snapped Betty “no grandchild of mine’s going to be named after that bird! Rose is a pretty name, don’t you think? Remember the snippet of rose pink ribbon the raven brought us?” So the baby was duly christened Rose Sybil in the village church. Betty surreptitiously kept an eye out for old back crones lurking in the back of the church, but to her relief, they didn’t appear. That night she casually commented on the fact to George, who grinned and said “So no gypsy curse for our little Rose, hey Betty?”

Betty glared at him, but didn’t rise to the bait. Betty needn’t have worried. Rose grew into a sturdy child, chubby arms and legs, round face, framed with bouncy black curls.  Her eyelashes were thick and black, and her dark eyes sparkled with lively curiosity. Around the age of three she entered the Why Phase: Why this? Why that? George exhibited saintly patience with the endless questions, Betty less so. Inevitably one day, when she was nearly five, Rose asked the question: “Grampy , why do I live with you and Nanna?  Where’s my Mummy? “

Without even thinking George replied “Oh, your Mummy’s out there somewhere, exploring the wide world, drifting along with the clouds … that’s why she sent you to us with the Raven, so we could look after you and love you lots – that’s the why of it.”

Rose looked thoughtful, and George held his breath. Then her face cleared and she asked “Grampy, will you play French cricket with me after tea? Please, please!”

“Of course, my lovely,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief.

THE END

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CATCH UP POST : KLOOF AND HIGHWAY SPCA


A bird on the roof, one on the wall, and a mousy peahen on the ground

As I said in the preface to my recently posted story, The Writer’s Safari, I haven’t traveled anywhere for a year, and am living quietly at home, so I have no new adventures to share.  But I do have photos taken three years ago, whilst visiting my family in Kwa-Zulu Natal, that never made it on to my Despatches blog.  After my visit I was too busy running round, involved in activity – we all remember those days, don’t we? But now I have the time to sort through my pics, and put together a post or two.

This post  shows one of my favourite places: The Kloof and Highway SPCA. The large property is situated in a wild, hillside area close to the commercial area, but it could be a million miles away, due to the tropical vegetation and the wildlife.

 The chief attraction for me  is their second-hand bookshop – literally thousands of books in a thoroughly awkward space, punctuated by  sudden, unexpected, spine- jolting steps, invisible in the badly lit space. An upmarket shop it ain’t. I know the roof leaks and in the thick, humid tropical climate, that doesn’t do books a lot of good, as you can imagine. Notwithstanding this, I’ve unearthed some real treasures over the years. And the money supports their wonderful non-profit organization. Where would we be without the SPCA?

If you’re THAT beautiful, of course you’re admiring your image on the glass door

But the other major  attraction are the spacious grounds, covered in tough kikuyu grass, shaded by enormous old  tropical trees and wandering around completely at ease, are magnificent peacocks, screaming at the top of their raucous voices . Their  noisy cries are equalled  by the constant chorus of barking from the dog kennels. Help! bark the dogs, Where am I? why am I locked up? where are my humans?  It’s heart breaking. You just want to adopt them all, and of course, you can’t.

But notwithstanding the soundtrack, the peacocks are wonderful to watch as they parade around, pecking up ants in the lawns, or roosting noisily atop the buildings.

Peacock pest control

And added to their displays, are the hordes of monkeys running confidently around the grounds, leaping onto roofs, swinging from tree to tree, constantly on the lookout for  food or other diversions.

Can you spot the monkey on the roof?

 An SPCA volunteer grumbled to me that the monkeys would invade the buildings and raid any unlocked drawers or cupboards, on the hunt for food and apparently addicted to sugar. Woe betide any distracted volunteer who left out the sugar bowl after making coffee, because a crafty monkey would soon materialize and make off with their favourite treat! Those clever black paws had even mastered the simple locking devices  installed on cupboards, so the war between monkeys and humans never ceases.

And should you be relaxing  with a cuppa in the tea-garden, located on the lawns underneath the shady trees, you needed to be super vigilant about your cream scone (and the sugar bowl!) because beady eyes in the surrounding trees are monitoring your every move and just waiting to swoop down and steal a morsel.

Kids loved chasing the monkeys when the monkeys swing down from the branches  into the playground area; along, through, under and over the Jungle Gym and swings – far more agile than the clumsy kids pursuing them. 

I wrote about the Kloof & Highway in a previous post, way back in  May  2011, and here’s the link if you’d enjoy reading more about the place. https://wordpress.com/post/despatchesfromtimbuktu.wordpress.com/138  VISITING THE SPCA

https://www.facebook.com/SPCAKloofandHighway/

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WORLD RADIO DAY 2021


13th  February was World Radio Day  and Cape Talk Radio,  my local radio station,  asked listeners to phone in and share their first memories of radio, and what radio meant in their lives. The listeners flooded the station with calls and WhatsApp messages, not only from senior listeners, but enthusiastic responses across the spectrum .

We heard about kids being allowed to broadcast on Dad’s Ham Radio, in the back shed. We heard about  the exciting arrival of Q Cards – something to do with signal frequencies by location  (hope I’ve got that right!). We heard about  listeners sharing national grief at the death of famous statesmen; their enjoyment of radio dramas, serials and book-readings; and of course the music, and a top favourite in South Africa: sports broadcasts, especially ball by ball commentaries.

My earliest radio memory comes from the mid-1940s when the radio was ceremonially switched on, to listen in hushed silence to the news from the BBC in London. First came the rousing signature tune D’ye ken John Peel?  And then the clipped tones of the newscaster, reading the news, followed by the all important  English Soccer League results.

You had to hold your breath to hear anything at all,  because reception was dreadful, faint and staticky, especially if the all-important car  battery which powered the radio was going flat. We had no electricity, and life on a remote central African tea estate was isolated to say the least. Private  telephones in homes were unknown so you couldn’t phone a friend for a cosy chat. The country had only one newspaper which was published once a week, a few slim pages, which was always a week old  by the time it reached us. Roads were primitive, public transport didn’t exist,  neighbours were far away, so that radio really was a lifeline!

Once the news was over, the radio was switched off. Due to the battery situation,  the power had to be carefully husbanded. And today we blithely leave the radio playing  day and night, if we feel like it. Provided Eskom hasn’t decided on loadshedding and switched off the power … what’s that French saying?  Tout la meme change … the more things change, the more they remain the same.

I’m recycling a much older post that I wrote in 2014, also on the topic of radio. Here it is, below:

THIS IS THE VOICE OF AMERICA  –  July 2014.

My  love affair with the Radio continues.

As I lay in bed, alternately groaning and cursing during a  bout of gastric ‘flu, my feeble hand managed to grasp my Samsung Galaxy tablet, and started fiddling with the icon marked BBC Radio. I have to say, I think that small action improved  my health  more than all the ginger tea, Probiotics, and other remedies combined.

I spent a happy time discovering a weird variety of  stations ; one  poured out Bangladeshi Classical music; another pumped out jolly  accordion/organ sing-a-long tunes from the Nederlands. Radio Venice offering baroque music. A station in Sweden broadcasting in Farsi. I’m still trying to work that one out. And,  no, I don’t speak Farsi. Radio Mediterranean offered a heady mix of Armenian, Arabic, Italian, French, Greek music. There were umpteen Polish stations promoting music from hip-hop, to acid jazz, to urban funk, lounge, and salsa. Fabulous! Almost worth being sick. Almost, but not quite.

Long ago, when I was a misunderstood teenager, I was given a portable radio – battery powered, of course, I’m speaking of the pre-electronic age, a.k.a. The Olden Days. It offered  short, long and medium wave reception. I think it was a Phillips radio, in a smart cream and chocolate plastic casing. I absolutely loved it, and would spend hours twiddling the dial, fighting the dreadful static and the waning battery power, straining my ears for the tiniest snatch of LM Radio’s weekly Hit Parade, or trolling through foreign language stations, listening to streams of exotic sounding languages, and desperately wishing I could understand some of it.

But the one station that was always amazingly clear, was the Voice of America. You knew immediately when you hit it, because out poured a stream of jazz, or  Benny Goodman’s band, playing a swing tune. Just knowing that I was listening to someone or something from half-way across the globe gave me such a thrill. It still does. Over and out!

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A WRITER’S SAFARI by A M Smith©


Because of the Pandemic, I have no travel stories to tell, and an uneventful life at home. So here is one of my long stories, about an amateur writer who goes on a family fishing holiday on the Zambezi River. It describes another lifestyle, another country, another time. Remember: this is fiction! Enjoy

There’s small glossary at the end, should you need it.

Zambezi tigerfish

The two Land Rovers forged noisily northwards, bypassing Harare, through Rusape, past ruined tobacco barns, past  rotted polythene growing tunnels; past deserted mud huts, thatch threadbare and holed, past straggly stunted mealies, past ragged children who waved listlessly at the small convoy, past all signs of cultivation or human habitation until finally there was nothing but bush.  Virgin bush on every side, up to the horizon which was framed by the clear blue sky.  Aileen gave a sigh of contentment.  This was what she had worked for,  saved for, dreamed of and slogged for with iron determination.  Just bush, and a glorious ten days of no office, no telephones, no kids.  Just bush, the river and some fishing and finally, the chance to get down to some serious writing.   Perfect!

Up front Uncle Harry drove, completely on automatic pilot,  intent on a PhD level discussion with Neville  on the new Bok team to play Scotland.  Next to Aileen in the back, Aunt Susie sat knitting, also on automatic pilot.

Clive drove the second Landy, with George as navigator, and Phineas and Enoch as passengers.  Uncle Harry believed in camping in comfort with all mod cons, which included hot and cold running camp staff, hence the presence of Phineas and Enoch.  In his scheme of things the perfect fishing trip did not include fire making, water carrying, dish-washing, fish gutting and cleaning, camp site cleaning or the digging of latrines and erecting of shower shelters.   However, Phineas and Enoch also  benefited  from  fishing trips to the river, as they filleted and smoked the fat Zambezi tiger fish  which they  later sold at an enormous  profit in the Bulawayo townships.  Everybody happy.

That evening the party relaxed by the fire after a long hot day’s drive to the river.  The night was warm and utterly dark, frogs creaked on the river banks, the mosquitoes sang busily but this was all part of the bush experience and Aileen loved every bit of it.  A long day’s travel is best followed by an early night and the party thankfully crept into their two-man tents.  Aileen was too tired to even attempt her usual day’s end diary entry.  Tomorrow, she thought sleepily, tomorrow I’ll ………

Phineas arrived at 5 a.m. with mugs of tea. So  getting up very  early to catch the freshness of the river at sunrise was no hardship.  Aileen and Neville set up-river with George and Clive, the rubber-duck making good headway against the strong current.   Clive piloted them to an old favourite fishing spot and they settled down to  enjoying the  coolness of the early morning, competitively  identifying bird-calls, spotting a pod of hippo further upstream on the far bank, casting out their lines, waiting for the tell-tale bob of the float, the tentative tug on the line. 

Aileen planned to use river scenery details  in the novel  she was working on, and scratched around in her backpack for her Writer’s Notebook, greatly irritating the men who knew that Zambezi fish have ultra-sensitive hearing easily disturbed by  the sounds  generated by females flapping around in small boats.  She glared at them, and continued to dig fruitlessly in her backpack.  Damn!  She must have left her vital  notebook back in their tent.  Oh well.  She began to make mental notes about the sounds, colours, smells, sensations and   string together a few handy phrases, when her reverie was interrupted by Clive who angrily hissed that her line had drifted across his and now look what had happened!  Lines  crossed and inextricably tangled!  Lines and peace were finally restored, but since the fish were not in a co-operative mood, breakfast seemed like a good option.

Enoch and Aunt Susie had produced a mammoth breakfast.  Uncle Harry, a man of fixed view and pronounced paunch, held that a substantial breakfast around 9 a.m.  followed by a light snack lunch of beer around mid-day (too hot to eat, anyway, proclaimed Uncle Harry) and then a decent early braai was the only sensible catering scheme for fishing trips. Fortified by breakfast the party applied sunblock and determination in equal quantities and fished until lunch-time, returning from the river with ten  fat tiger fish  and powerful  thirsts. 

Aileen had discovered that her essential Writer’s Notebook was not in the tent, or anywhere else.  Seemingly she had left it behind in Aunt Susie’s spare bedroom. The only other paper in camp was Aunt Susie’s beloved collection of Agatha Christie novels and removal of the spare flysheets at the back of the books was  unthinkable.  This pillage would have been fatal to their battered constitutions.  What to do?  Oddly enough Phineas came to the rescue with  a modest blue Croxley writing pad.  “Madam can use this,” he offered.  Aileen seized it gratefully and hastily jotted down some of the rapidly vanishing phrases from her  morning sunrise on the river.  Better than nothing, she supposed, writing extra small, so as to save precious paper.

Her main writing task on this trip, now that she had some time and head-space at her disposal, was to  plot the frame-work of her novel, get the story-line into shape, and work out where best to insert the main dramatic events that befell her heroine, a young Scottish lass, newly emigrated to the colonies and faced with life in the raw on an African tobacco farm. Lions , migrating herds of game, yes, all the details of old pristine Africa, the challenges of pioneer-style living, and of course, the romance.  Aileen was undecided as to whether the romantic interest would best be served by a pale young DC with a mystery history ( a remittance man?  Aristocratic black sheep?) saved by the love of a good woman; or maybe a better foil for the Scottish lass would be a sunburned but silent white hunter? While pondering these options the snack lunch and the furnace heat of mid-day took their toll, and Aileen slept.

Phineas toiled around at 4.30 with fresh installments of tea, and fishing resumed against the gaudy backdrop of the African sunset over the Zambezi.  The sun died in a glorious burst of crimson, peach and gold while the pale blue sky  turned  suitably to deep mid-night blue.   Sunburned, relaxed and replete the fishing party gazed sleepily into the roaring camp-fire.  Mmmh, thought Aileen, the smell of woodsmoke, the utterly dark sky, night sounds of the bush – oh, the peace! She savoured it.  Peaceful, and tranquil, no worries, no crime, no high-jackings, just the blessed, blessed bush.  She could have sat in her canvas camp chair all night but Neville prised her out and they wandered off to their tent by the light of their torch.  Disturbed by her departure, the large adult puff-adder under her camp-chair  gathered itself together and  slithered off in search of a frog, leaving a sandy signature in its wake. 

“Hau, Madam was lucky last night,” said Phineas chattily, offering an enamel mug of tea at 5 a.m. “big njoka under Madam’s chair last night!”  he chortled, trundling away with his tea-tray.  “Don’t worry babes,” said Neville comfortingly, “they only bite if you step on them.   No need to catch such a skrik!”

The days settled into an easy pattern of early mornings, days on the river, snack lunches of beer, nights around the fire with  jovial and embroidered accounts of the monsters that got away, together with the eternal minute analyses of the Boks’ performance at rugby and cricket.

 Aunt Susie cooked and knitted.  The tstetse flies feasted on the party, save for Phineas and Enoch whose fish-smoking activities would have proofed them against attach by rabid vultures, never mind hungry tstetse flies.  The mercury climbed effortlessly into the high 30’s, early 40’s.  Enoch had to dig another pit to tidy up the mountain of empty beer cans.

Nothing much else happened.  Aileen loved it.  Daily after lunch she sat down with the blue Croxley pad and wrestled with the plot, which was proving difficult.    Somehow the romantic episodes were proving the most difficult of all.  She loathed the bodice ripper style of encounter, all that thrusting and  heavy breathing and quivering: ugh!  Her novel would be sensitive, tasteful, yet passionate and earthy.

Hmmmmm.   Her own experience in this area was limited, due to an early marriage and a husband who took a workmanlike approach to his love life which might best be described as thorough, but uninspired. Apart from his curious habit, she mused, of muttering rugby players names just prior orgasm.  She had never understood this odd foible and he had made it clear, long ago, that he did not intend to explain.

 The answer was simple of course: by mentally reciting the names of every Springbok player since 1960, Neville was able to delay orgasm very successfully, until he could no longer withstand the urgent tide. And what was even more curious, she ruminated, was that she had distinctly heard George (or was it Clive?) shout out Os du Randt! last night, well after lights out.  Surely to goodness those wretched men didn’t dream about rugby all night as well as talk about it all day ? Aileen doodled distractedly on the blue Croxley pad seeking inspiration. 

Neville’s sportsmanlike approach to sex had proved equally inspiring to George and Clive, after he had revealed his formula for a happy marriage to the pair one hot afternoon when they had the boat to themselves and the fish were off the bite. It must have been the effect of an usually hearty snack lunch  that had encouraged him to reveal these confidences.  George and Clive had been impressed by this useful approach and had earnestly assured him they would remember this sage advice when the next suitable occasion presented itself.

Aileen’s thoughts turned to George and Clive – what marvelous heroic prototypes those two were, deeply tanned from days in the veld on the farm, strongly built, clean shaven, clean cut in fact.  Maybe she could model her fictional hero on them.  She wondered why they’d never married, two attractive men like that.  Just as well perhaps, because when Clive had been kicked off his farm by the war veterans George, on the next-door farm,  had generously taken him in, and Clive had simply stayed on, two years was it now?  No wife would have tolerated that she thought, but still what a pity, such a good looking guy.  She dozed off, stunned by the snack lunch and the sun, to be awoken hours later  by the ever obliging Phineas, offering a tray of tea.

“Madam is writing more letters?” enquired Phineas eyeing the blue Croxley pad. “Umm no, not letters” replied Aileen suddenly shy  about  explaining  her literary aspirations to Phineas, even though he was the generous donor of precious paper. “I, uhh” she began but was interrupted by a stentorian bellow from Uncle Harry demanding assistance with the cleaning of his days’ catch of tiger fish.  That’s a relief she thought as Phineas briskly sped away down to the river bank, his white  Bata takkies twinkling brightly through the short grass.  However could she even begin to  explain the  plot of a romantic novel, set in Pioneer Days, to Phineas?

Phineas in fact, had literary problems of his own. Aileen was not alone in her troubles.  Had she but known it, he could have provided a very sympathetic ear.  His German publisher was snapping at his heels and demanding, via a stream of hysterical  phone calls, sight of the first four chapters of the new novel, and he was two months in arrears with his translation from the Ndebele  into English of the traditional saga about the Nyami-nyami legend of the mythical water creature that lived in the deep pools of the Zambezi below the Vic Falls.  He hacked viciously into the fat belly of a tiger fish and the entrails spilled out in a slimy, bloody knot – curse all publishers, all agents, all accountants, all lawyers, if he could consign the lot of them into the jaws of the nyami-nyami he would!

 With rapid harsh movements he de-scaled the tiger fish. A savage stroke beheaded the next fish from the awaiting pile. The glassy fish-eye on the disembodied head reminded him suddenly of Rolf, his drug dealer in Cologne.  He looked around covertly.  He was alone on the river bank. He stabbed the fisheye repeatedly muttering “you bastard, you bastard” until the terrible craving had subsided.  Phineas sank back on his haunches, exhaled deeply, and let the scaling knife drop onto the sand.  He washed his bloody hands in the river and noted with irritation that he’d got blood on his Bata tackies.  He’d never hear the end of it from Uncle Enoch.

Uncle Enoch was very, very proud of Phineas’ accomplishments and very, very condemnatory of his dissipated European lifestyle.  It was Uncle Enoch who had offered Phineas a refuge, a bolt-hole, while he tried to shake off the drug demons and tried to start writing again.  As a strategy it had worked beautifully.  Who would have dreamed of looking for star writer Phin Makawira, prize-winning novelist Phin, in the cook-boy’s quarters of Uncle Harry’s Bulawayo mansion?  Certainly not Rolf, certainly not those hyenas from the lawyers and accountants and publishers.

 Phineas hurled the fishy debris as far as he could into the river and watched with respect as a knobbly head surfaced briefly and swirled around the sinking mess. Crocodile would be too good an ending for those people he thought grimly, swinging his pail of fish as he headed for the camp kitchen.

All too soon it was time to pack up camp and drive back to Bulawayo, step back into the real world of business, home and kids.  Aileen loved her terrifically relaxing trip and redeemed herself by catching the biggest tigerfish , nearly 9 kgs.  Enoch had tenderly entombed it in the gas fridge, and it would be rushed to the taxidermist  in Bulawayo at the first opportunity.  So much for women messing around in small boats and disturbing the fish thought Aileen smugly.  On the whole she hadn’t done much writing and had returned the now rather tatty blue Croxley pad to Phineas who had  remarked “Madam has the writer’s block too?”  She must have misheard him, what a strange thing to say. 

Nothing hugely  exciting had happened on the trip, except perhaps the night when Clive (or was it George?) had shrieked Francois Pienaar! At the top of his lungs late one night and startled the  eleven hippo who had been grazing quietly on the grass between the tents,  and in their mad rush back to the water,  had careered into the guy ropes of Uncle Harry’s tent, causing it to collapse on the occupants.  The entire campsite was startled into groggy wakefulness and it took some time to calm Aunt Susie and re-erect the tent.  Clive had been very apologetic about startling the hippo  – must have been dreaming and shouted out, he muttered, sorry chaps!

 Phineas and Enoch had rushed in to assist and Aileen couldn’t help but notice that Phineas had the most dreadful scars on his thighs, and, would you believe, Calvin Kline underwear. Probably  Taiwanese rip-offs from the market she thought.  So she wouldn’t really have anything terribly exciting to report to her Writers’ Circle meeting when she got back, other than her embarrassing lack of progress on The Novel.  Nothing like the exciting literary tours that Piet  from her Writers’ Circle kept going on, she thought wistfully, wish I could hobnob with famous writers like he does!  Oh well, she had at least the glory of that magnificent 9kg tigerfish, if nothing else.

GLOSSARY

Bok team = South African Springbok rugby team

Mealies = maize plants

Njoika = snake

Skrik = fright

Bata takkies = ubiquitous brand of sandshoes, known as plimsolls in British English

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UNSUBSCRIBE FROM 2021


On January 1st, 2021, I packed away my Christmas decoration table display, and removed my bead wreath from my front door grille.

 Next task was to changeover the calendars. Down came the 2020 Wildlife calendar, up went the pretty Paws and Petals calendar. Lovely! a colourful, calming picture of cats posed decoratively amongst the flowers. Inspiration above my worktable. Great.

Final chore: to write up the birthday dates into my new 2021 diary, without which no one would receive my enthusiastic rendering on their birthday of Happy Birthday to youuuu ….  sung by Yours Truly, somewhat out of tune, but with feeling.

Oh what a happy glow of accomplishment! Bolstered by the happy knowledge that  I decided not to make any New Year Resolutions this year. Note to all my readers who were nervously anticipating strange homemade gifts this coming Christmas (see previous post). Friends, it was but a passing fancy. Not an iron-clad resolution.

So: all organized, everything under control. I was prepped, ready for 2021.

 But unfolding events on Wednesday 6 January  in Washington, USA  shattered my sangfroid. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight, va BBC TV  News, of rioting Trump supporters storming the Capitol Building, and invading it. I was shocked. I was appalled. I was stunned. To put it mildly.

I live in Africa. I am well accustomed to news/footage of dictators fomenting riot and resolution when elections don’t go their way. But Americans? No! Surely not! Isn’t the USA meant to be the bastion of democracy, the leader of the Free World, the leader of the West? But if a narcissistic, rabble rouser is Top Dog, then look out. All the high flown ideals are tossed onto the rubbish heap, and mob rule is encouraged.

Which brings me to Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of France. I have been watching a fascinating TV documentary on the Corsican soldier, inspired by visions of classical heroes like Julius Caesar, soldier, leader, emperor extraordinaire – Napoleon’s role model.

A brilliant military strategist,  Buonaparte  tamed the post-French Revolution Mob chaos, brought order, rule of law, dignity and imperial status to his country. He unified France, which flourished and became a solid, established, modern society. History has recognized Napoleon’s genius.

How will History judge Donald Trump, I wonder? An aberration of the Social Media Age?

I watch unfolding events in the USA with horrified fascination. My feelings today can be summed up by a meme currently floating  around WhatsApp and it crisply states:

I’d like to cancel my subscription  to 2021. I’ve experienced the free 7 day trial and I am not interested.

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ARTY CRAFTY HOMEMADE GIFTS


 Because I’m hiding away from the dreaded Second Wave, I’m watching a lot of programmes on the Home Channel, and  I’m all fired up. Next year, friends and family will open their gifts and gasp: Did YOU make this? Yourself?  Whether  the gasps will be of horror or admiration remains to be seen.

How hard can it be? Knock up a batch of shortbread? Tick. Knock up a batch of Fir-tree shaped biscuits? Tick.  Bash out a couple of fruit cakes mid-October, buy a bottle of brandy, and tenderly dose the cakes at weekly intervals. Tick. These I can do. Easy peasy.

Ditto making chutney  when apricot and tomatoes  are plentiful. Tick.  Doable. Provided we aren’t plagued with load-shedding in 2021, hello Eskom, are you listening?

But there are other options: apparently all I need is  bunch of willow branches, a stout pair of pliers, iron determination and I will weave a batch of wooden placemats, or maybe  a small laundry hamper. The relentlessly enthusiastic   English TV anchor made it look so simple. Now where am I going to source willow branches? Do willows even grow in this province, I wonder? Maybe Karree  tree branches would work out? This is so exciting!

And then, I nearly forgot: Knitted items , and crochet whatsits. Why, I saw an adorable little crocheted snowflake in a craft magazine, only yesterday. Never mind that the South African Christmas season is blazingly hot, and not a snowflake in sight. Details, details!  Don’t be a wet blanket! Of course, I’ll have to learn how to crochet, but that’s all on YouTube, isn’t it ? No problem.

Or I can raid my trove of wallpaper samples, ( note to self: start collecting wallpaper samples); cut out floral bits and bobs and make individual handsewn greetings cards; or decorate the cover of the handmade book that I’ve conjured up out of thick manilla paper, and magicked up a cover out of an old leather coat that I’ve cut up. Must say I have reservations about cutting up an old leather coat. Even if it is Pleather. Is this a good idea, I wonder? Again, the TV anchor was amazingly nonchalant about attacking an old leather jacket with an enormous pair of shears. Mind you, it was a nasty shade of green, so what the heck.

Really, the choice is dazzling, and I haven’t even got around to the  knitted and sewn items. I mean, socks, scarves, beanies, dinky little purses.  Positively overwhelming.

Oh! the agonies of choice!  A greener, more thoughtful Christmas. Thoughtfully  curated gifts, personally designed and laboriously made; no more raids on the Chinese plastic shop.

The only thing between me and  a homespun Christmas in 2021 are the following: a glue gun, a craft cutting mat, a super-sharp craft knife,  an awl, pliers, a steel ruler, paint,  decorative trinkets, buttons, raffia,  fabric strips, a collection of wallpaper samples, fabrics samples, buttons, sequins, dinky charms, a ton of glass and ceramic beads, oh …. and a lot more besides.

My word, I’m going to be busy in the New Year. Alternatively I could just go online on Black Friday and press the plastic. Takelot.com could see me around the end of November. Watch this space. And if you don’t want a home-made gift,  I suggest you start planning your  home removal right now! You have been warned.

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MYSTERY CHRISTMAS GIFTS by A M Smith ©


Boxing Day arrives in a burst of sunshine, decorated with a cool breeze and its obviously Beach Weather. So I grab my towel and cozzie, crank up the VeeDub, and  drive to Melkbostrand.  Because I’m an early bird, I actually find parking, and also a free patch of sand to deposit my towel, beach bag and book. My spirits lift. Christmas Day is always a bad day for me . Too many painful memories, no prezzies, no big family lunch, no …. Stop it, stop it, I scold myself, no wallowing! My eyes are watering.  I sternly tell myself focus on the seagulls, the gentle incoming waves, the ozoney-suntan oily smell of the beach.

There’s plenty of activity. People are being towed along the beach by ecstatic dogs on leads, some owners semi -running to keep up with their joyful dogs.

But  a huge St Bernard has other ideas, jerks free of the leash, and runs full tilt into an elderly lady sitting nearby, in an old fashioned striped canvas deckchair, complete with canvas canopy. She’s shrouded in towels, scarves, enormous sun hat, huge dark sunglasses,  long green skirt topped with a long-sleeved red and white striped shirt, and seemingly absorbed in her knitting.  So the express train weight of a runaway St Bernard capsizes the old dear, chair and all. Confusion reigns.

I dash over, kick the St Bernard who yelps and looks confused. I glare at the panting, red faced owner who has finally lumbered up, ineffectually waving his arms,  and too out of breath to do anything but make a feeble lunge for his runaway hound, who promptly takes off again, at speed.

I leave him to it, and set about righting the capsized chair and its bewildered occupant.

Once the old dear is set to rights,  reunited with hat, sunglasses, knitting, towels and cushions, I take a good look. She has the whitest skin I’ve ever seen. No wonder she’s shrouded  herself from the sun’s invasive rays. She’s even wearing red and white socks – in this heat.

“Thanks you, my dear,” she says slowly in  heavily accented English. “That was a surprise, for sure! Thank you for rescuing me.  My name is Klara. And your name, my dear?”

“Umm, I’m Susie. Are you here alone? Should I fetch you some water, or a coffee maybe?”  I gesture to the mobile coffee cart further down the beach.

“No, no, I’m alright, thank you. Just a little adventure. Nothing serious. Wait ‘til I tell Klaus. He will laugh a lot, I know,” she says cheerfully. She points to the surf where a sturdy  old man is emerging onto the beach.  He’s wearing striped red and white baggy boardshorts, has a green and white striped bandanna tied around his head. His   bushy, white beard cascades downwards, pushed upwards and outwards by his  splendid, solid tummy .

“Oh, Oh, Klara! I go for a swim and what happens? You are alright? “ Again the heavy  accent. German maybe? Or Scandinavian perhaps?

“Ja, Klaus,  I’m okay, Susie here chased away the dog and helped me up and all is well. Don’t worry,” and she beamed at her husband, who huffed out a big sigh of relief .

Klara hands Klaus a towel, and he starts to towel off.

“We do love the beach, especially after our hard Northern winter,” Klara informs me, “but I have to be careful of the sun. Klaus gets outside more than I do, so he can wear the swimming costume. And you, my dear? You are living here? You are very brown. So your skin is used to the African sun.”

Klaus  has departed with the beach bag towards the change rooms.

“You are here alone? Where is your family?”

“ Ummm – I …. I …. “ I can feel my eyes brimming.

“I’m so sorry my dear,” says Klara, removing her sunglasses, and examining me with a piercing, clear blue gaze. “Life is cruel, ja? It is  especially difficult at Christmas. But I will  remember you at Christmas time. Next year will be easier, I am sure”.

Tears well up again, and  “Sorry, gotta go, “ I mumble, “take care, look after yourselves, have a nice holiday.”

Klara nods, carefully replaces her glasses and resumes her knitting .

I stumble off in the direction of my bag, stop at the mobile cart for a coffee to regain my composure, and find a nearby sand dune where I can settle down to read. I look around for the old couple when I leave the beach, but they’re nowhere to be seen.

That was a year ago, and now its Boxing Day again.

On Christmas Eve I watched the Royal Command Variety show, drank too much whiskey, and went to bed too late. Even though I slept heavily I was vaguely conscious of a thumping and bumping coming from the roof. Burglars? Stray cats? My whiskey induced coma  held me captive in bed.

The strangest thing happened on Christmas morning.

I surfaced  pretty late, and once my blurry gaze cleared, I saw … At the end of my bed? No way!   A lumpy parcel wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper, tied with tinsel and sporting a prickly sprig of real holly  over the knot. What? Real holly? It prickled like hell. I sucked my bleeding finger as I hunted for a gift tag. There was no gift tag.

I blinked. Too much 100 Pipers is one thing, and  a hefty  hangover is an old friend, but a mystery Christmas gift on the end of my bed was another thing entirely. I staggered through the house, checking for open doors, or smashed windows but found nothing untoward.

 After a mega strong cup of tea, I cautiously snipped through the tinsel and jumped back. Nothing happened.  So: not a parcel bomb. I prodded the parcel with my scissors. The paper crackled but nothing happened. Okaaaayyyy – time to unwrap.  I discovered a crisp green and white beach towel, wrapped around a knitted  floppy  red sunhat.  Perfect for the Beach on Boxing Day. And, the perfect  Christmas gift for me. Huh. Strange.

My foggy brain couldn’t deal  with the mystery, so I went to the beach, with my new beach gear. Another perfect sunny day on Melkbos beach. This time no runaway dogs, or elderly Northern tourists.

For  two years running, on Christmas morning  I’d wake up to a mystery, lumpy parcel at the foot of my bed. The next  year I found  a beautiful hand  knitted red and green cotton  bikini; the following  year a light green  cotton beach wrap, plus a pair of hand  knitted  socks  – you guessed it – in red and green.

But on Year Four  – no mystery parcel. Because I woke up next to my new husband Sam, and now I have my own family. We have prezzies galore and mammoth lunches, Family Christmas with bells on. And  I’ve made it a family tradition that we have to go to Melkbos Beach on Boxing Day.  Its non-negotiable.

 When I told Sam my story, and he was  as baffled as I am. You don’t suppose? he wondered ….. well, who knows? Does it matter? Christmas time is a time for family, gifts and the joy of giving.

Happy Christmas to us all.

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HARRY’S HAVEN – A M Smith ©


I am sick and tired of discussing Covid, worrying about Covid, listening to news about Covid, and you probably are too. So I’ve dug up an old story to celebrate the beginning of our South African summer, and briefly take our minds off you-know-what.

“I really don’t understand you,” grumbled Yvonne, “first I can’t get you to wear your new Hawaiian shirt, then I can’t get you to wear anything else, and now – now! Heaven knows why? – you’ve gone and bought another identical shirt!  What’s going on, Harry?  Are you losing your mind – you’ve got one perfectly good orange , white and blue Hawaiian shirt, why buy a second one ? and in the same colours too – if you must have another Hawaiian shirt why not buy a different colour?  I’m beginning to think you must be losing it. Harry? Harry!! Are you listening? I suppose not, you never do, you and that bloody newspaper!”

“Mmm,” murmured  Harry, fractionally lowering the newspaper, and gazing  mildly at his agitated wife. “Wassat? “

“I knew it! You never heard a word, you never pay any attention, I don’t know why I bother!” Yvonne viciously swooped onto the breakfast dishes and marched off to the dishwasher. Harry shrugged, and began smoothing out the newspaper prior to folding it neatly into a rectangle. He always did this. The small, meaningless ritual soothed him amidst the domestic hurricanes.

“I’m off for my morning  walk – see you later,” he said, rising speedily and bolting  out of the kitchen.

“And that’s another thing : why this sudden passion for walking? “ yelled Yvonne. “For years I begged you to join Walk for Life, but would you? No: of course not!  But now you’re retired, you go and walk for hours. I give up!” The only reply was the throaty growl of Harry’s precious diesel  bakkie/truck reversing out of the driveway.  He drove sedately to the nearby Builders’ Warehouse, parked neatly in his favourite spot, and walked purposefully into the store.

“Morning”, said the Security Guard,  echoed by the ladies at the Information Counter, and two  nearby cashiers .

 “Morning all,” beamed Harry, making a beeline for his haven. He arrived in the Outdoor Living section and fondly surveyed his two most favourite objects in the universe: a pair of striped beach loungers placed invitingly under a gaily striped umbrella, in front of the display of braai/barbecue equipment.

 He paused a moment  to decide: which would it be today? The yellow, orange and white stripes? Or should he use the blue, white and yellow striped lounger?  Both had  padded seat and back-rest cushions, and a perfectly angled downward sloping leg and foot rest. Whoever designed the chair deserved a medal. Either way, his shirt toned in with both of them, so it didn’t really matter. He opted for the orange chair. He needed bright cheerful colours after his stormy morning. 

Harry settled himself in the orange lounger, nudged the back rest cushion up  a fraction – aaahh! That was just right. He wriggled his bum into the maximum comfort position, lightly clasped his hands over his boep/bulging tummy, and breathed out a deep sigh of relief. This was more like it. This was how a man’s retirement should be . A bit of relaxation.  Peace and quiet. He didn’t mind the muzak the store played, he quite liked it, he wasn’t a fussy man.  His eyelids drooped.

A little later he drowsily opened them, and focused on Mr Venter, the Floor Manager, who tenderly enquired if he could send the cleaning lady with a cup of coffee for Oom/Uncle, respectful generic title?  “Baie dankie,” said Harry, “that would be nice.” Man, this was the life!

Funny to think how it all clicked into place two weeks ago when he’d come into the store for six rawl plugs. He‘d felt horribly conspicuous in his ridiculous new, bright blue and orange floral Hawaiian shirt.  Khaki was just fine, so far as Harry was concerned. Maybe blue, at a pinch, and a white shirt for Sundays. That was okay. But of course he’d given in under Yvonne’s attack: “You’re retired now Harry, I’ve bought you a new shirt

“Harry, no need to wear your old khaki shirts – put this on. “

Harry slunk into Builders’ Warehouse, and slunk down the aisle, pausing to linger by the Braai Section, like he always did. His eye was drawn to the two brightly striped loungers under their gay umbrella. The orange colour brought a fleeting memory of the bright orange lolly ices his Ouma/Granny would buy him as a Saturday treat.  The chairs looked very comfortable.  What if he? no – he was in here to buy rawl plugs, not to mess around with beach loungers.

 En route to the cash-till he paused again besides the loungers. Oh, what the hell, he decided and quietly sidled under the umbrella. He carefully sat on the orange chair. Very comfortable, he thought. “Oom must swing his legs up too,” instructed a patrolling saleslady ,“then Oom will really feel how comfy our loungers can be. That’s right,” she approved. “Now  lay back and close your eyes. See? Instant holiday, né? You test-drive it for a minute or two, and I guarantee you’ll walk out with two flatpacks under your arm!” and she bustled off.

Harry must have drifted off at this point, because when he opened his eyes, a small circle of onlookers surrounded the display, pointing at the dozing pensioner,  commenting on how his Hawaiian shirt perfectly matched the chairs. Wives were urging husbands to grab a flatpack quickly before they sold out, and the hubbub brought the Floor Manager at a rapid trot.

He opened his mouth to call Security to eject the cheeky old man from his display, but when he saw the rapidly dwindling pile of flatpacks, he changed his mind. “See,” he announced  to the growing circle of spectators, “our chairs are so comfy you just have to relax!  Ask Oom here – he’s proof!” and he gestured towards the bewildered pensioner. “No problem, Meneer/Sir, you’re welcome to relax on our loungers any time, you maar/justcarry on, no rush. Enjoy yourself.”

Harry couldn’t have left the store even if he’d wanted to. He was hemmed in by eager customers and trapped on the lounger. When the last flatpack had  been snatched up, the Floor Manager homed in on Harry, and suggested he return to the store on Monday, once they’d organized a re-supply of the loungers. “Please Meneer,“ he begged “ and be sure to wear your Hawaiian shirt, it’s perfect!”

 And thus Harry found a temporary harbour from the stormy seas of domestic life.

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WHY I AVOID EATING SNOEK


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Nina & I enjoyed a lovely sunny day out at a country market. The Bo Berg Market, Piketberg, to be precise.  The sun shone, the Spring flowers bloomed brightly, the breeze whispered, people milled around the small tables displaying fruit, veg, home bakes, jam, pickles, pot plants. I bought an unusual mini-rosette Malta  geranium to add to the collection on my patio, and an adventurous bunch of Rutabaga. Living dangerously, on top of the mountain. Which we were.

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But the real danger was yet to come. Entirely carried away by the plaas/farm, country  vibe and general festivity, I agreed to Nina’s suggestion to sample the local braaied/barbecued snoek.  Quite forgetting that I don’t like snoek. Why? Take a look at the photo below. More bones than you would ever imagine possible in one small serving of braaied fish.

Snoek is a Cape ‘thing’. I tried it for the first time at Port Nolloth, whilst on a bus tour of the famous Spring flowers,  during the mid 1980s,  and was totally disconcerted at the vast number of bones that had to be negotiated before I even got near a morsel of fish. Since then I have avoided snoek.

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To compound matters, snoek is braaied with a glaze of apricot jam – don’t ask me why, it just is. Like I said: braaied snoek is a Cape ‘thing’. The two  toothless Tannies, who were supervising their husbands braaing  the  snoek, warmly invited us to join them in an upcoming market, a Snoek en Patat Fees /Snoek and Potato Festival, held annually every  June, nearby. They guaranteed they’d be there, braaing more snoek!

We smiled, and said, “Ja Tannie, sekerlik/ Yes, Aunty, of course,” and wandered off with our lunch.

On this occasion I managed to eat about .05 grams of fish, and emerged hungry, covered in apricot jam, and reeking  of braaied snoek. Plus I had a raging thirst due to the salted fish, and my water bottle was long since emptied. Gah!  That’s it: never again!

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Notwithstanding this lunch disaster,  the sun shone, and the local band played on with diligence and volume. A typical Boland band, music for all occasions: a rousing mixture of Boeremusiek/traditional Afrikaans music, with rock songs.  Something for everyone.

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Country markets: you can’t beat ’em. P.S. I’m relieved to report that we never made it to the Snoek en Patat Fees. Not a chance. Now or ever.

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FLASH FICTION


The following short-short is a piece of Flash Fiction I wrote some years ago. I’m re-cycling it. My pandemic boggled brain isn’t very productive at the moment and because my readership has also re-cycled itself over the years, the piece may be new to most of my current readers. Fingers crossed.

I’m currently in love with the short-short format: stories that come in at 500 words, or less.  So, to make a change from my book themed ramblings, I thought I’d introduce a dash of fiction once a month. I hope you enjoy this first short-short story. It comes in at 438 words. I’m keen to know what you think of the idea. I hope you like it, because I’ve got more, tucked away in my hard-drive.

I should add that this story was prompted by my recent viewing of the movie The Bourne Supremacy. Even if you haven’t seen the movie the plot is not that hard to follow.  Enjoy!

JASON BOURNE DRIVES A WHEELIE BIN 

Vroom- vroom- eee – skreeee – ka-dooom – vroom – graunch – skreeee: he’s wrenching the wheel left, the crappy old Lada taxi shudders with the strain, ricochets off a silver Volvo, slides on an icy patch, lumbers into an intersection, misses a garbage truck by a whisker, gathers speed on the downhill gradient – his foot flattens the accelerator pedal – sweat stings his eyes, his hands cramp on the wheel, he’s welded to the wheel. His eyes flick up to the rear-view mirror.  He’s lost the black Jeep, by some miracle he’s lost the Jeep!  Moscow’s snowy streets careen past.  He needs to get off this motorway, hide, lose himself, ditch this bright yellow Lada, fade in amongst the muffled walkers on the pavements, bury his hands in his pocket, tuck his chin down into his scarf, become another Tovarich.  He’s Jason Bourne.  He’s on the run.  He’s in Moscow.  Someone – he doesn’t know who – is chasing him  – could be CIA, could be Russian police, could be Russian Mafia doing the dirty work for his own side, could be … could be … possibilities swirl round his head.  His knees ache from colliding with the dashboard, his leg burns after the badly judged jump onto the garbage scow, a molten  glass needle stabs his right shoulder every time he turns the wheel, but he’s okay, he’s done it – he’s Jason Bourne and ….

“Jason!  Dammit – are you deaf? JASON !!”  roars his mother. “How many times do I have to – oh never mind – Jason! Focus!  its Wednesday night: the wheelie bin – you haven’t taken out the wheelie bin ! It’s the only thing I ask you to do, and every week it’s the same, nag-nag-nag, why do I have to nag you all the time? “

Jason Brown’s eyes slowly focus on the flushed face, take in the angry arms-on-hips-pose, vaguely register the pitched tone, the raspy breathing.

“Okay, okay – I’m doing it” he mutters, sliding off his bed with all the speed and grace of an exhausted  sloth. I bet Jason Bourne never had to push stupid wheelie bins around, I bet he never had a mother who yelled at him all the time, I bet ….

A red-hot pain at the back of his knees registers. He jerks round. His Mother is advancing on him, raised arm drawing back, ready to lash the sjambok against his calves again. There’s a look of cold fury that’s drawn her lips against her bared teeth, whitened her face, made the veins on her neck stand out like cables: Jason Brown runs like hell, runs for his life.

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