DP weekly challenge. A picture is worth a thousand words

Standing at the door of the house, his hand raised to knock , James looked at Terri, eyes grave and eyebrows questioning.

“Ready? Are you sure you want to be here?”

“Yes, yes of course!” Terri swallowed nervously, clutching the paper bag closer to her chest and hitching the strap of her handbag higher up her shoulder. He knocked softly at first, then two more loud raps that echoed through the house. He was surprised that the house had no high fences and security gates. It stood out along the road as the only unprotected house in a street of houses better protected than Fort Knox. Unusual in this day and age to see a house in a Johannesburg suburb without protection.

He hated Johannesburg, its overprotected houses, its streets where no-one looked you in the eye and everyone seemed to be on the take. He longed to be back on the farm in the Karoo, with its wide open spaces and people who understood how to eke out a living from its harsh climate. He’d agreed to come for Terri’s sake. Since Ma had died, she’d been on a mission. He didn’t think he felt the same, but he loved his sister and felt fiercely protective towards her. She’d already had so many disappointments , each one seeming to crush her spirit a little further into the ground. He was genuinely worried that she wouldn’t recover from another disappointment, and he’d lose his precious little sister for good. His brow furrowed as these thoughts rapidly went through his head while he waited for someone to open the door.

“No one home,” he rubbed Terri’s shoulders as they sagged. “Don’t worry sis, we can come back later, or tomorrow morning.” They turned to leave, Terri touching the red brick pillars as she stepped off the verandah. James, a little ahead of her, turned to look at her. A strange feeling flashed through him. Recognition? Impossible! He’d only been five at the time. The place would have changed. It must have been about thirty years ago. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and took Terri’s hand.

“Can I help you?” a voice floated across their thoughts. Turning, they saw an elderly woman with auburn hair streaked with grey and a wide smile. Blue eyes twinkled questioningly at them.

“I’m afraid it took me a while to answer the door as I was in the middle of baking.” As if in confirmation, the delicious fragrance of buttermilk rusks wafted across their path. “If you’re collecting for the Children’s home, I can only give you a few rands.”

Terri was the first to recover. “Actually, Mrs Durham, we need to ask for your help and it’s quite a long story. Can we come in? I’m Terri and this is my brother James.” She held out her hand.

Mrs Durham shook it while examining the face in front of her. Blue eyes mirrored hers, both anxious and hopeful. She noticed James’ protective arm around Terri’s shoulder and smiled. She liked his tanned, open face and warm, grey eyes.

“Well, you’d better come in and I’d better save those rusks,” she said. “Follow me into the kitchen. Oh, and please call me Emma.”

The rusks saved and a pot of tea made, the trio gathered in the lounge.  “Now, what’s this all about?” Emma Durham frowned at the pair in front of her, huddled like two naughty schoolchildren on her little sofa. For a moment she wanted to laugh, but the look in their eyes held her back.

James cleared his throat nervously. “We have to start by telling you something about us. It’ll help you to understand our question. We grew up on a farm in the Karoo. I’m three years older than Terri. Dad died when I was 15 and I took over running the farm as soon as I finished high school. That was twenty years ago. two years ago, Ma got cancer. Terri came home to help nurse her and she died a year ago.”

Terri took up the tale. ” Before she died, Ma told me to go up into the attic and fetch a box. I brought the box to her bed and we went through it together. She was sobbing, begging my forgiveness, and repeating that she didn’t know – hadn’t known until Pa died. In the box was a marriage certificate and these.” She opened the paper bag and drew out an old-fashioned suit for a little boy, a pink bonnet and a pink dress for a little girl from the same period.

Both Terri and James were watching Emma closely as her face blanched and her hands flew up to her mouth. A sharp intake of breath punctuated the silence. James flew to her side, taking her hand in his and rubbing it gently. “Emma! Are you ok?”  Her mouth worked silently and tears began to roll down her face. She nodded her head.

“Wait..” waving his hands away and rising to her feet. “Must show you…” She left the room. Terri and James looked at each other. Fear, hope, guilt written on their faces.

“Do you think..?” Terri sighed.

“I’m not sure, but we should have made sure she wasn’t alone,” he whispered to her.

“Not after the last one!” she retorted. “I don’t enjoy being chased out of someone’s house for making a legitimate enquiry.”

Emma came back into the room. She was a little more composed and held an old photograph in her hands.

“Perhaps I can finish your story,” she squeezed herself onto the little sofa between her guests.

“This is the last photo I took of my family.” Holding the photo close to her chest, she continued. “Ed was a travelling salesman. I suppose you meet all sorts of people when you travel all the time. He hated his job, but he said stuck to it for our sake. He always said he wanted to farm. On the day I took the photo, I’d persuaded him to take the children to the zoo. It was his first day home after a two-week trip and I wanted to spend some time out with my friends. I thought he was scowling because he didn’t want to look after the children. We weren’t very close anymore, and most of his time at home was filled with arguments and recriminations.”

She sighed. “Perhaps if I’d listened more and shouted less, he wouldn’t have done it.”

“What did he do?” Terri looked at the sad, lined face, her blue eyes sparkling with unshed tears.

“He never came back,” Emma sobbed quietly. “I waited and waited. I went to the police, but it was as if they had simply vanished. I refused to sell the house, or change it or remarry because I wanted to be here if they…you came back.” She held out the photo for them to see their father standing in front of the little house, holding their hands and scowling at the camera. They were wearing the clothes Terri held in her hands.

“Yes,” she said softly, “I think I AM your mother.”

Suddenly, tears were flowing freely and they were hugging and talking at the same time. Emma looked at the two of them through her tear-filled eyes and thought her heart would burst with joy. Into her mind popped a long-forgotten quotation: Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes with the morning. She knew her morning had finally come.

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