Contentment

She sits snuggled on the couch, feet up, legs stretched out, her back curved and resting against the  armrest and a small cushion. The blanket her daughter gave her for Christmas lies in soft, warm,  red-and-white Christmas cheer over her legs and feet. Outside, a grey, cloudy sky testifies to the continuing winter cold, but the heating is on and ticks comfortingly as it switches on and off.

The TV is blaring one of the endless reruns that he prefers to watch (which usually drives her crazy), his gentle snores a background to the sound. She browses the Net on her tablet, engrossed, oblivious to the noise. He snorts, she glances over at him and smiles. And in that moment, she realises that she is content; completely and utterly content.

Tomorrow, she may feel the restless arrows of discontent pierce her breast. She may long to be different, to be elsewhere, to be living another life; but today, she is fully here, awash with the delightful surprise of this contentment. For today, it is enough.

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Waiting for News

Written for the mini-competition on this site.
Pop across and have a look!

Waiting for News

It’s been three weeks. At night, I can’t sleep. Images run through my head: You with the kids, holding them as newborns, playing in the yard when they were older. Their squeals of delight echo in the emptiness of the house and my mind. It feels as if inside and outside my head have traded places and the memories are more real than the heavy, aching silence of each half-lived day. I can’t bear the sullen, tearful faces as the children trudge through their day. Mark is barely functioning, while Lissa, as always, makes a token effort to keep up with her schoolwork. I don’t have the energy to help them and I’m shocked to find myself wishing them gone, wishing them unborn.

The police are coming round less often than they did in the first few weeks. They say they have no leads. No one saw anything, no one knows anything. And I’m still waiting. I’m angry, no, furious. How could you? Why? I remember the week before all of this. We went to the water park with the kids – our first day together as a family in many months. I watched you playing with them, watched you holding Lissa tightly down the water slide, her young, slim body leaning against yours for protection. Watched Mark competing for your attention. And you giving his head a rub before going down the slide again. Was there even such a day, or did all time start from the moment you were gone, all else before wiped out like a picture deleted from my laptop? Oh God,  I’m still waiting! Holding my breath in fear and hope.

There’s a knock at the door and I open it to find a policeman standing there.
“Mrs Jones, “We think we may have found your husband.”
My legs go weak and I clutch the door to keep myself standing. All I can do is croak out the word, “Think?”
“Yes ma’am.” He takes my arm solicitously. “Shall we go into the living room? Then you can sit down and I can explain. Would you like a cup of tea?” He sends his partner to the kitchen to make that eternal panacea. I sit on the edge of the sofa and watch the sergeant’s face. He’s speaking, but the world seems to have receded and his voice is distant and faint. I frown. I can’t understand what he’s saying.
“Mrs Jones!” He shakes my shoulder gently.
“I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
“Could you take a look at this photo, please. Is this your husband?”
I peer at the mugshot he hands me. Blonde hair, blue eyes defiantly looking into the camera. It’s you, but…there is something about the face. I hand back the photo.
“What did he say? Where did you find him”
“Well, that’s the problem. He says he doesn’t know who he is. And he was caught with an underage girl in what can only be called a compromising situation. I’m so sorry ma’am.”
I take the photo and look at it again, steeling my heart against those eyes.
“Yes, that’s  him.” And I breathe again.

They’re gone now, and I think back to the moment this nightmare started. I came home early, excited to be able to spend some extra time with you and the kids. I opened the door and the house was quiet, deathly quiet. Then I heard a moan.
“No daddy!” Low and quiet and terrified, followed by soft sniffing tears. Before I knew it, I was at the bedroom door, blood running cold and a loud singing in my head. I remember your hands, huge and hairy against her pale skin.
And your eyes as you realised I was there, your pupils widening in shock. The bile rises in my stomach every time that image sharpens on the screen in my mind. How could you!? I don’t know how I stayed calm, but I managed to take Lissa to her friend’s house and they didn’t question my request for them to keep her for the night. I sent Mark to Peter’s house and then I came back for you. Why did you stay? Why did you try and justify what you did? You should have run while you had the chance!

The kids need me now more than ever. Just as soon as the court case is over, I’m going to get a divorce, sell up and move far away from that bog at the bottom of the hill. Far away from you, Curtis Jones, and your doppelganger sitting in prison.

Copyright M Brizzolari 2014

Posted from WordPress for Android

Gcobani – Be Joyful

The tall blond-haired man turned to embrace the woman standing by his side. His arm pulled her warm body into his and he briefly rested his face on the top of her head, softly kissing the curling tendrils of hair. Her eyes were wide with fear and tension.

“I must go now, Evie.” He kissed the tear-stained cheeks with a leaden heart. ” I’ll be back as soon as I can. “Kwhezi will watch over the farm and help you.” The old black servant standing further back nodded at the sound of his name. Hans mounted his horse and the little group rode out towards Paarl. She watched them until they were tiny specks on the horizon, then turned and entered the house.

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A Xhosa voice grew louder and more insistent, ringing through the house. Evelyn sighed and hurried to the kitchen.

“What’s the problem, Ernestine?” She addressed her daughter.” Why is he making so much noise?” The servant at the door refused to look her in the eye, tradition forcing him to keep his gaze on the floor.

“Danger, madam!” Fear made his voice crack. “They are coming tonight! You must get away. Go now! ” Ernestine translated the man’s staccato words for her mother, whose grasp of the language was limited to the instructions and reprimands of her daily life. Evelyn felt fear grip her heart, giving her body a physical jolt. Living on De Zoete Inval, the threat of attack from marauding natives was a constant of their lives. Now it was a reality.

“Tell him to wait for us. He’ll have to help us hide.” The man seemed to understand a little as he sank down on his haunches to wait near the door, muttering under his breath. The women ran through the house gathering supplies of food and clothes. Evelyn stopped at her dressing table, snatching up a photograph in a silver frame. A young man and woman smiled at the camera on their wedding day.

“Mama, come on!” Ernestine called. Wearily, Evelyn turned to the door. Ernestine must have sent the servant to saddle the horse, because he was waiting at the back door, the bridle in hand. He knelt to help Evelyn mount and then boosted Ernestine up behind her. Taking the bridle, he ran with the horse. They had travelled for an hour when he slowed and stopped on a ridge in the hills. The sun had almost set, its golden glow radiating across the sky, dropping into night.

“Why are we stopping?” Her body shook from fear and exertion, but she felt as if she had to keep moving or the danger would overwhelm her.

“We wait here tonight. Tomorrow we go to Paarl.” He helped her from the horse and she staggered to a nearby rock, settling herself uncomfortably on it’s hard, jagged surface. Ernestine brought a blanket and tried to make her more comfortable. Looking around, she realised that although they were on a ridge, they were hidden from view in the cleft of two rocks. Moving forward slightly, they could see the farmhouse in the distance. They watched, mesmerised as flames licked the night sky. Piercing ululations rent the air while the women clung to each other silently. The old servant sat a distance away.

The pains came in the early hours of the morning. Evelyn gritted her teeth and moaned softly. Overcome by exhaustion, the two women had briefly slept until Evelyn was jolted awake by the  crescendo of pain in her belly.

“Not now! Oh, please God. Not now!” She whimpered. Four little ones she had lost in the last eight years – two at birth and two before they had seen their third birthday. Her arms ached to hold her babe but fear clawed at her heart. Perhaps God wasn’t listening that day as each contraction reached a crescendo more painful than the last.Evelyn alternately sobbed and railed at fate and God, riding the waves of relentless pain.

When they realised that it would be impossible for Evelyn to travel in her condition, Ernestine made the servant build a good fire. Then she asked him to get water. Young as she was, she had attended her mother’s last two pregnancies with the help of a local midwife. This would be her first solo delivery,and fear gnawed at her gut. Why did it have to be now? According to their calculations, it was two weeks early. The baby could survive if it were strong and born at home. But here? How could it survive being born into this wild, deserted place? She pushed her thoughts aside, comforting and soothing her trembling mother. Lifting up her skirt, she tore the hem of her petticoat, making strips to tie off the umbilical cord.

Three hours later, as the sun rose, a thin wail greeted its arrival, growing louder and more insistent until replaced by faint snuffling noises. Eyes wide from shock and exhaustion, Evelyn nursed her tiny babe, stroking the downy cheek gently. They swaddled the child in the remains of Ernestine’s petticoat and a coat she had grabbed before leaving the house.

The servant crept closer to gaze at the babe in Evelyn’s arms. A smile lit up his lined, black face.

“Gcobani,” he murmured. “He must be called Gcobani because his coming makes us joyful even when we are sad. He will be strong and make his father proud.” Ernestine translated the words her mother didn’t understand, tears filling her eyes. She grasped the servant’s hands.

“Thank you, Khwezi. Thank you for your help. You have saved our precious little one. But now you must go and find the master. Bring him here because we cannot move yet.” The old man nodded, then turned and walked away. Ernestine turned back to her mother, tending her lovingly and watching her carefully. The day passed in slow agony as the women tried to keep the baby as quiet as possible, feeding him at regular intervals to prevent him from crying. Night fell, and they prepared for another night in the cold hills. Evelyn lay close to her mother, wrapping her arms around her and the baby, as if her body could protect them.

They arrived at sunrise. Hans felt his heart lurch as he saw the women curled together on the ground, dread rising like bile in his throat. But as he touched her, Evelyn stirred and he gathered her in his arms, crooning softly. “I’m here, Evie. I’m so sorry! I’m here now. You’re safe.”

The baby stirred and he reached out and cradled him close to his chest. Tears streaked his dusty face. Ernestine recounted how the servant had taken them to safety and told him what he had said at the birth of the little boy. Hans turned to the old servant standing a short distance away.

“We’ll call him Richard Gcobani,” he said. “Thank you Khwezi, for saving my family. Your family will always have a place on my farm.” He turned to Ernestine. “And you, my girl, are a midwife of note. You have found your calling.” Then he kissed her gently on each cheek.

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.

A story a week.

Here is the first of my stories. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to comment or give CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.

Wait for me

Gino sat at the side of the hospital bed, his hand absently stroking her sparse white hair, moving to caress her forehead. He stroked her hand,intensely aware of the harsh clicks and beeps of the machines attached to her frail body. She seemed asleep, but the wheeze and hiss of the respirator was a relentless reminder of reality. He gazed at her lovingly. Was she getting smaller, shrinking with the passing days?How many had passed now? He tried to calculate, but gave up. He was counting in years now, not days. “How many more,” he thought, and his shoulders stooped lower with the pain of the thought.

He remembered the day of the accident as if it were yesterday. She’d been shopping for their lunch. A block away from home, she’d been crossing the road at a pedestrian crossing and that BASTARD had run her down. Hadn’t even stopped, although they’d caught him later. Sentenced him to six years. Six years! And his beautiful Maria had been sentenced to an eternity in limbo – and he with her. Where was the justice? He shook himself physically, as if he could shake off the pain and anger that threatened to engulf him.

“Maria,” he called softly, “wake up my darling. I’m waiting for you. Come back to me. I need you now more than ever.” His arms trembled as he stroked her hair and rubbed her cold hands. Such small hands! Her simple gold wedding band was easily two sizes too big now. Noticing that her nails were long, he rummaged in the bedside drawer for the clippers, then began trimming her nails, muttering angrily to himself, each sentence punctuated by the click of the clippers .

“They never cut your nails! Why don’t they look after you better? Four years and we are still at the same place. My treasure, I long for the day I will hear your voice again, but it hurts so much, I don’t know how much longer I can wait.” Taking the hand cream from her bedside, he gently rubbed the cream into her hands, massaging her fingers. Unshed tears pooled in his rheumy blue eyes.

“Ah, Gino. We can never know for sure what is possible.” He hadn’t heard the young nurse enter the room.  “You must be strong for Maria’s sake.” She patted him softly on the shoulder, her concerned gaze holding his for a moment. She was his favourite among the nurses, and although she hurried through her routine with Maria, Gino knew that her concern for Maria and for him was genuine. She had started nursing soon after Maria’s dreadful accident, and had built up a relationship with the old man who visited his wife every day without fail.

” Ciao Bella!” A fleeting smile passed over his face. ” How can I be strong after so many days, so many years without my Maria by my side? I’m tired, so tired.”

“Come on now, you know what I told you. She can hear you, so be positive. Why don’t you go downstairs for a coffee while I do my job here? Fifteen minutes and your Maria will be beautiful and ready for your visit.”

“Ok, Laura.” He headed for the coffee bar.

After completing Maria’s routine, Laura headed for the nurse’s station to write up her notes. Her short conversation with Gino was still running through her mind, so she spoke to the head nurse.

“Have you seen Gino Conte lately,” she asked.

“Saw him yesterday and this morning, but we didn’t talk. Why?”

“Well, he seems so down. And I think he’s losing weight.”

“It’s understandable,” came the dry reply. “Laura, you can’t take on all the problems of your patients and their families. Your responsibility is your patient and their physical well-being. Contact his family if you’re worried, or social services.”

“He doesn’t have any family. Maria is all he has. And you know that if social services gets involved, he could be put in a home. And he would never forgive me!”

“Then I can’t help you.”

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Laura changed shifts the next day and it was a week before she was on day shift again. She had thought about Gino during the past week, but hadn’t had much time to do anything about her concerns. Now she was anxious to see him again, if only to allay her fears about his health. Striding into the little ward, she fully expected to find him in his usual place, holding Maria’s hand or soothing her brow. But he wasn’t there. “Probably gone to have coffee,” she thought.She looked at Maria and her heart leapt. She was off the respirator! She was breathing on her own! How happy that would make Gino! Greeting the frail body in the bed, she started her caring routine. Fifteen minutes later, Maria was washed and massaged, and Laura was on her way to the next patient. Gino was still nowhere to be seen.

It was late afternoon before Laura had finished her shift. Her feet were aching and she longed to put them up with a good coffee and a snack, but she knew there was still one thing she had to do. She opened Maria’s file and looked for her home address. She was surprised to find that it was on the outskirts of Milan, quite far from the hospital. It meant taking the train and two buses, but she was determined to talk to Gino. He hadn’t been to the hospital that day, and the other nurses weren’t sure if he had been the day before.

Stepping off the bus, Laura looked up and down the street. The gloomy November afternoon light made it difficult for her to see the street numbers. A cold breeze wrapped itself around her and she pulled her collar closer, squinting at the number above the nearest door. Almost there…at 579 she surveyed the names above the door bells. Conte. There it was. She rang the bell. Nothing. She tried again, leaving her finger on the bell a little longer. Still nothing. Looking around, she saw that there was a bakery a few doors down. She went in, wondering what to say.

“Excuse me, have you seen Gino Conte today?”

The man behind the counter eyed her suspiciously. “Why do you want to know?”

“I’m a nurse from the hospital where his wife is. I need to talk to him but he isn’t answering his doorbell. Do you know where he is?”

The man shouted the question into the kitchen, and then asked the customers in the shop.

“Anyone seen Gino today?” Heads began shaking, tongues clicking.

” Is there someone who can let me into his flat? Does he have a friend here? I’m worried about him. Heads nodded and brows wrinkled in concern.

Someone called out, “Alberto is the owner of his block. Ask him.”

“Come with me,” the baker said, and they rushed out of the shop, a curious entourage following them. A quick explanation from the baker and Laura, and they were let into the building, the little group standing guard at the main entrance. They ran up the gloomy staircase to the first floor flat. At the door, Alberto knocked loudly and called Gino’s name a number of times. One couldn’t simply burst into a man’s home without warning, no matter how serious the problem!

Finally relenting, he fumbled with the keys and swung the door wide to let Laura in. She called Gino again as she walked into a small entrance. Still no reply. She glanced into the kitchen as she passed it, but headed straight for the bedroom. The curtains were drawn, darkening the room, but she could make out a shape on the bed.

“Gino!” He was fully dressed in an old suit that must have been smart in its day and a clean, white shirt. His shoes were laid carefully next to the bed. His legs straight out as he lay on his back. Was he sleeping? She grabbed his wrist to feel for a pulse. “Oh, Gino!” Shaking her head, she laid his wrist down and allowed the tears to flow. “Why didn’t you tell me how bad it was?”

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Across the city in a darkening room, Maria’s eyes fluttered open. There was no one to see. No one waited by her bedside, held her hand or stroked her soft hair. For a moment, she lay looking at the ceiling, head cocked as if listening. She smiled wearily, then, closing her eyes, she whispered, “Wait for me, Gino. I’m coming too.”

Copyright M Smith 5 November 2012

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This story was inspired by a newspaper report. I couldn’t bear the thought of the wife waking to a world where her husband no longer existed, so I changed the ending. Hope you enjoyed the story. Please feel free to comment. Thank you.