Short Story: The Visitors’ Book

“Just SO special to be back in your ‘wonderful’ new home. The warmth and friendship, and the incredible generosity exudes from you into the very fabric of the house, its setting and the total harmony with nature – all makes it such a beautiful place to be. Thank you both so much for everything – and always being their (sic) for us. With our fondest love from Belinda x and your old pal Charles xox”

‘So kind of them’ said Val, who had just removed the book from its place in the hall table drawer. ‘It’s not Charles’s writing and it sounds more like Belinda than Charles, from the little we’ve seen of her, just a bit over the top. Fondest love has grown rather quickly, given that we’ve only been with her for two days. Talking for Charles, I suppose. Still, nothing wrong with a bit of fulsome praise. Rather sweet, don’t you think, Steve?’

‘I detect a hint of sarcasm. Not the best time for it. They’ll be here any moment. Put on the kettle and comb your hair, maybe in reverse order.’

They had so greatly enjoyed their first stay they had asked if they could come again. Good country air would do wonders for Charles, said Belinda’s email, especially in the dry atmosphere of the farm. His lungs had collapsed after he had rushed too fast up Kilimanjaro. He was brought down, by helicopter, even faster. He had been on a ventilator for weeks and even now, a year later, his voice sounded grazed. Steve and Val did not hesitate.

‘Of course you must come’ Steve wrote. ‘It´ll be such a pleasure for us. This time, we’ll be here during your visit. Val and I are so looking forward to spending time with you. And, of course, to getting to know you better Belinda.’

‘Poor fellow’ Steve was sympathetic. ‘Always been a physical chap. Could have happened to anyone but I wouldn’t have thought he’d be the one. He’s so fit’. The men had known each other for decades, shared a flat in Johannesburg before he and Val had married, forty-five years before.

‘He should have thought of altitude sickness, with all the tramping up mountains he’s done’ said Val. ‘Think of what it cost to rescue him.  The helicopter was just the start of it. You boys should realise you’re past it now. Leaping up mountains is for kids.’

The dogs were the first to herald the visitors’ arrival. O’Malley, the Irish wolfhound, launched his bass bark before their car had rounded the bend by the dam and entered the drive leading to the house. He ambled out to the courtyard, followed by Cinnamon, Justice and Fluffit the Yorkshire terrier whose small legs whirled her along in the big dogs’ slipstream. Steve and Val followed, reaching the scarlet Mercedes, its roof open, as Belinda was saying ‘Cover your nose with your handkerchief, Darling. The last thing your poor lungs need is an allergic reaction to dogs. Good doggies. Shoo’ she said ‘shoo’.

‘Welcome back to Africa’ said Val.

Steve walked round the front of the car to open the driver’s door for Belinda, who was leaning out over the edge of the lowered window, flapping a pink, silk scarf at O’Malley. ‘How wonderful to see you again.’ He bent to kiss her but she fended him off with a raised palm.

‘I’ve got a terrible cold’ she said. ‘It’s the air conditioning on the ‘plane.  Shares all the germs around.’

‘Nothing that good fresh air won’t fix’ said Steve. ‘You seem in good shape, Charles. You’re pretty much recovered now, by the looks of things.’

‘Far from it’ said Belinda. ‘We have to look after him, don’t we Darling?’ She leaned over, puckering her lips for a kiss but Charles was already clambering out over the window on his side, thrusting his hand out to shake Val’s as she opened her arms wide to hug him. Neither hand nor embrace connected. Charles sprang back from her, stumbling over Fluffit and bounded towards Steve, his legs entangled in the barking dogs, his hand still outstretched. Val rounded the car to where their guest stood, still flapping her scarf at O’Malley. ‘Good doggie,’ Belinda said again.

They were to stay on the farm for three weeks. Charles and Belinda, newly married, his second attempt, her first, had so much enjoyed their honeymoon visit; a week on the Wilderness farm while their hosts were attending the Cape Town baptism of their latest grandson. They had relished having the house to themselves. Their parting gift had been thoughtful. As a heartfelt, albeit small, token of their gratitude, they wrote, they hoped Steve and Val would enjoy using this gold-embossed, black leather visitor’s book. They looked forward to the opportunity of writing in it again!!!!!!! Steve and Val did not know what they were supposed to make of the exclamation marks.

‘Go on you dogs. Inside. I know you want to say hello but they’ve had a long journey.’ Val took hold of O’Malley’s collar and pointed him towards the house.

‘Yes, shoo. There’s a good doggie. I can see who rules the roost in this household’ said Belinda. ‘And talking of roost, is that a chicken I see, going into the house? Really Val. That’s taking eco friendly a little far, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Could be a chicken. Probably is’ Val said. ‘They think they have the run of the place. Where are your bags? Heavens. You don’t believe in travelling light. It’ll need a few trips to fetch it all in.’

‘What shall we unload first?’ Steve’s voice sounded louder than usual. He shot a warning look at Val. ‘We’ll come back for the rest after we’ve had tea. I should think you’re ready for a cup after your journey. The cup that restores but does not inebriate, isn’t that it?’

‘Rooibos for both of us, please Steve’ said Belinda. ‘Caffeine is not good for Charles, is it Darling? Dries the vocal chords. They need lubricant. I just hope this dry air doesn’t make them worse.’

‘We know how to lubricate vocal chords’ Steve said. ‘We have a cellar full of just the right medicine, never fear.’

‘We’ve brought wine’ said Charles. It’s in the boot. Belinda has converted me to organic. So handy, being married to a nutritionist, aren’t I lucky? She knows just what’s what. Organic wine is not unpleasant though, Steve, don’t you find? Most of the South African stuff is so full of sulphur. No, don’t you take it. We can bring it in later.’

‘Now, please, Charles’ Belinda said. ‘Bring it all in now, please. We don’t want it boiling in this heat. It’ll be ruined.’ She walked towards the house, carrying a handbag shaped like a pair of bright red lips and a pink carry-on suitcase.

‘There are some ostrich fillets in the cool bag’ said Charles. ‘We’d better offload those. We eat ostrich now, instead of red meat. Belinda says it’s all we should have, at our age. We’re on cholesterol watch.  We stopped off en route to get some wonderful fillet for us all.’

The men carried the cool bag and the wine carton. Val walked behind them, a suitcase clasped in each hand. They dropped the luggage in the hall and joined Belinda on the stoep. She was gazing over the reservoir to Sleeping Beauty mountain beyond. ‘Perfection’ she breathed. ‘Quite magical. Look at those birds, chasing each other over the water. Moorhens are so agile.’

‘Nothing even as exotic as moorhens, They’re ducks’ said Steve. Plain old common or garden ducks I’m afraid.’

’Are you quite sure?’ said Belinda. ‘They look like moorhens to me’.

‘Ducks’ said Val. ‘Now, tea first or would you like to settle yourselves in while we get it ready?’

‘We’re easy to please’ Belinda laughed. ‘Give us a wonderful view, a comfortable bed and some good food and we need nothing more. Do we Darling? I am feeling a bit sticky, though. A wash wouldn’t go amiss, I suppose. Same room as last time?’ Belinda turned towards the master bedroom.

‘You’re in the guest room this time´ Steve said. He noticed Belinda’s raised eyebrows and the surprised glance she shot at Charles. ‘You remember how the plumbing works, don’t you? The instructions are in the bathroom.’

‘Who could forget?’ asked Belinda. ‘We had such fun with it last time. I’ve never seen such a contraption. It may be the last word in green installations but I’m afraid we were not green with envy.’

………………………………………….

‘What’s the long face about?’ Steve asked when they were out of earshot.

’Need I explain? I fear this could be slightly heavy going.’

‘They’ve only just got here. It’s been a long trip. Give her a chance.’

‘Tea’s on the stoep, when you’re ready’ Steve called.

Charles tiptoed out of the bedroom, closing the door silently behind him. ‘Belinda’s taking a nap,’ he whispered. ‘I’m afraid she’s whacked out after the journey. I’ll wake her in time for dinner.’

‘Poor girl’ Steve said. ‘Would you like to take her a cup of tea to the bedroom? No? Alright. It gives us a chance to catch up a bit. Remind me. I’m sure you’ve told us already but how did you two meet?’

Charles waved his hand vaguely in the air. ‘We met in the mists of time. Can’t remember when. She’s always been in the background. She and Lee were great friends. They’d known each other for forty years. In fact they were already friends before I met Lee. Belinda’s never married. I can’t imagine why. She’s quite a looker, as you may have noticed.’ He chuckled. ‘I’m a lucky chap. There was some fellow hanging about, for about fifteen years, as it happens. Just wouldn’t commit. You know how some men are. Lucky for me, though. When Lee died, she was a wonderful help. She knew just what to do. Came over to France with me to clear Lee’s stuff out of the barn. I couldn’t have managed without her. Had it sorted in a trice. I’m afraid I’m not very good on my own.’

‘Good for you, then, that you didn’t hang about before you got married. Six months must have felt quite long enough’ said Steve.

‘Amen to that’ said Charles. ‘She takes such good care of me. We rub along very well together; none of that awkward getting-to-know-you stuff. I can’t quite believe my luck.’

‘A match made in heaven’ said Val.

‘What is?’ asked Belinda, walking around the side of the stoep.

‘Us, Darling, us.’ Said Charles. ‘You’re up already. That was quick. I thought you’d sleep until dinner time.’

‘I couldn’t sleep. Out of the question, I’m afraid.’ said Belinda. ‘Val, could I have a quick word?’

‘As many as you like’ Val said.

‘We have a problem’ said Belinda. ‘Mould.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘There is a strong odour of mould on the duvet. Terribly bad for Charles’s lungs. It could send him straight back to Emergency. Would you mind if I washed it?’

Val glanced over towards Steve but she could hear that he and Charles were planning a game of golf and she couldn’t catch his eye. ‘That’s odd’ said Val. ‘It’s such a dry climate here and we haven’t had rain for ages. Are you sure it’s mould?’

‘Quite sure’ Belinda said. ‘I don’t make comments on things about which I am unsure. The duvet smells of mould and mould is bad for Charles’s lungs. So with your permission, I’ll wash the duvet cover.’

‘Bring it and we’ll put it straight into the machine. It should be dry by bedtime’ Val said. ‘I can’t imagine …..’ But Belinda had marched away to the guest room and the sentence hung between them, unfinished.

‘You didn’t need to bring your own wash powder’ said Val, as Belinda reappeared, holding the offending bed linen as far in front of her as her arms would stretch. She had crumpled it into a ball and its purple embroidered irises merged together, reproachful bruises. ‘We have washing powder here in Africa, you know’.

‘Non-allergenic’ said Belinda.

‘Ah yes, of course. Silly me. Charles’s lungs. I forgot. Put it in and I’ll start the machine. It is clean. We do wash the linen between guests. A short cycle should do then we’ll have time to hang it out in the sun.’

‘The hottest cycle, please’ said Belinda. ‘A cool wash won’t kill the spores although it might get rid of the smell.’

‘You seem to be quite the expert’ said Val. ‘How did you come by so much useful information? I’ve never heard of mould spores being bad for lungs.’

‘I take it you haven’t had a husband with collapsed lungs’ Belinda replied. ‘If you had you would have done your homework, as I have. Besides, I am a nutritionist.’

‘That must be interesting’ said Val, sounding relieved to have tiptoed over the mould onto more neutral ground. ‘How long did you have to train for that?’

‘On and off’ Belinda said. ‘Many years. On and off’.

‘What do you get at the end of it? Val asked. ‘Is it a degree course or a diploma or what?’

‘Are you questioning my expertise?’ Belinda asked.

‘Of course not’ Val said. ‘I had heard you were an actress, that’s all.’

‘The two are not mutually exclusive’ Belinda tossed a sheet of straight, black hair back over her shoulders and strode out of the kitchen to rejoin the men on the stoep.

‘There you are’ said Steve. ‘All sorted? We were just making a tentative plan for the next few days. Charles and I thought we might have a round of golf tomorrow and leave you girls relaxing on the farm. I’m sure Val will want to show you around. We have changed a few things, done a lot to the garden since you were last here.’

‘I’d prefer to caddy for Charles’ said Belinda. ‘We like to spend our time together don’t we Darling?’

‘We certainly do’ said Charles. ‘But I think Val might have a few things to do and she’d probably welcome your company.’

‘I’m sure she would’ Belinda said. ‘But I would prefer to come with you, if you don’t mind.’

‘Next time, Darling. We’ll have a quick round and be back in time for lunch. You stay and help Val. I’m sure she could do with a bit of help with the lunch.’

Belinda’s footfall as she strode to the guest room proclaimed that she was not pleased. She emerged shortly afterwards, holding another crumpled ball of bedding.

‘It’s all the same’ she said when she reached the kitchen, where Val was stretching up to remove a copper saucepan which was hanging from a hook on a low beam. She looked over to Belinda, her mouth a round O of surprise.
Everything smells of mould. Absolutely everything.  It’s the room. Yours didn’t  reek like this one. There must be a leak somewhere. This will have to be washed as well. It’s so bad I doubt one cycle will do it. We’ll have to see when the first load is finished. We simply can’t risk it. If it has to go in again, so be it.’

‘We have a water shortage here’ said Val. ‘I am sure one wash will be more than enough to avert the danger to Charles’s lungs.’

‘We shall see’ said Belinda. ‘If we have to, we’ll buy some linen in town. What time do the shops close?’

‘Closed already’ Val said.

‘’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’

‘Wonderful fillet’ said Steve. ‘So kind of you to bring it.’ They were seated at a table, placed so that their guests could enjoy the view over the moonlit lake to the purple night time silhouette of Sleeping Beauty. ‘It’s a great treat for us, I must say. We have excellent lamb here but we’re rather light on ostrich in this area. I’m surprised you managed to find any.’

‘Ah, lamb, I remember it well’ said Charles. He tipped his nose skywards and made as if to sniff the aroma.

‘We’ll make sure it’s not just a distant memory while you’re here’ said Steve. ‘The butcher in town is the best around. I don’t know which farm rears it but his lamb is top quality. You’re in for a treat.’

The men continued eating in silence. They looked up, startled, when Belinda clattered her knife and fork sharply onto her plate.

‘I know you don’t like me’ she glared at Steve. ‘It’s quite obvious. But you might at least attempt not to insult me.’

Steve’s open mouthed expression clearly showed that he had no idea what she meant. He said as much.

‘It’s been plain from the way you’ve contradicted everything I’ve said that you dislike me. I think you could try a more subtle concealment of the fact. I think we made it quite clear that red meat is off our menu.’ She threw her napkin onto her plate, pushed her chair back and walked swiftly to the house. They could hear the slam of the bedroom door.

‘What was all that about?’ Steve’s tone was bewildered. He spread his hands open wide and shook his head at Charles. ‘I can’t imagine what I could have done to upset her.’

‘She’s over tired. But she is, after all, a nutrition expert, Steve. It’s quite rude on your part to challenge her. As a scientist, she knows what she is talking about.’ He stood up. ‘I’m sure a simple apology in the morning will sort it out. I’ll see if I can calm her down. We don’t want her getting one of her headaches so early on in the visit.’

‘How was I supposed to know she was a scientist?’ Steve and Val were still seated at the table, Belinda’s unfinished plate a congealing reproach. ‘But does that mean we can’t say anything in the realm of science in case it conflicts with her views?’ he asked.

‘She has a diploma, if that, in nutrition.’ Val’s tone was neutral. ‘Nothing wrong with that, but it hardly qualifies you as an expert in all things scientific. Probably not even in all things nutritional.’

‘I like her’ said Steve. ‘Really I do. I like her because Charles likes her. She seems to have turned him around since Lee’s death. What did I say to upset her?’

‘Search me’ said Val. ‘I have my own problems. Better see whether the linen is dry and fragrant. Well, it’s dry’ she said when she returned from the clothes line, carrying the linen, roughly folded, ‘but whether its fragrance passes Belinda’s sniff test remains to be seen. And I can’t iron it again. It’s too late, especially if she’s already prone on the bed. They’ll just have to sleep on crumpled sheets.’

She handed the pile to Charles through the half closed door of the guest room. ‘Sshh’ he put his finger to his lips to warn her. Then tilting his head on one side, put his hands under it to indicate sleep. ‘Very tired. All better in the morning after a good night’s sleep.’ He crept inside the room again, silently shutting the door.

‘Does it still smell as vile?’ Val heard Belinda say, and it did not sound as if her words were emerging from the depths of sleep. ‘Oh God, we’ll have to use it now I suppose but tomorrow we’ll have to buy a new set. Poor Charles. This is all you need.’

The guests did not reappear that night. Steve was worried. Val was not. ‘I still don’t know what I’ve done to offend her’ he said. ‘I only said ten words to her in all.’

‘Clearly the wrong ten words’ said Val. ‘Don’t worry about it. There’s only another 20 days until they leave.’

‘It’s fine for you to laugh. It’s not you she was talking about. Honestly, Val, I like her. And she looks after Charles. She’s really picked up the pieces and so quickly too, after Lee died. If it hadn’t been for her, he’d probably have died too, when he was so sick.’

‘Competition, Steve, competition.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’.

’No? You’ve been friends longer than she’s known him. Remind me, by the way, not to die before you do. You won’t know what to do with all the casserole bearers lined up outside the kitchen door.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’

‘Widowed men. They have to fight off the casserole bearers.’

‘I wish you weren’t so cynical.’

‘Realistic. It’s the way of the world. Wait and see. Though personally, I hope you don’t ever have to find out.’

………………………………

The night’s rest had done Belinda good. She and Charles appeared, in time for breakfast. He was dressed for golf in green tweed plus fours which looked incongruous in the midst of the veldt. She was wrapped tightly in a pink and grey chiffon sarong. They seemed cheerful enough.

‘I hope you slept well’ said Steve. ‘A good night’s sleep always blows away the cobwebs I find.’ He rubbed his hands together as if clearing them of the offending cobwebs. If that was intended as an apology it fell short of being thorough but since he seemed unclear about the nature of his offence, it was probably the best he could muster. Belinda accepted it with a half smile and a gracious inclination of the head. She even managed to wave Steve and Charles a smiling goodbye as they left for their game of golf.

‘How about a walk around the farm and I’ll show you what we’ve done since last time you were here?’ said Val. She linked her arm in Belinda’s and led her out through the courtyard, the dogs scampering after them, joined by two goats as they rounded the corner of the house into the garden. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘shoes.’ She pointed at Belinda’s feet. ‘I didn’t notice yours. Will you be alright in them? They look a bit flimsy. Maybe wellies would be more comfortable.’

‘Quite alright’ said Belinda. ‘Let’s get on with it. Charles will need his lunch as soon as he gets back from golf. He has low blood sugar if he waits too long between meals. He needs routine, poor love. Lee had her good points but routine wasn’t one of them. I had a lot to organise when I took on Charles, I can tell you. If you could have seen what I had to throw out when I moved into the house. I don’t know how he managed to put up with it. And I say that as her best friend.’

‘So lucky you were on hand to comfort him. Did they ever find out what happened? Was he driving on the wrong side of the road? Or did he fall asleep? I suppose it can happen all too easily after one of those long French lunches.’

‘We prefer to put that behind us’ Belinda’s tone was crisp. ‘I don’t let Charles dwell on it. What’s past is past. Very unhealthy for him to dredge it all up. Live in the present, is my motto. We have our lives ahead of us. Poor Lee. I’m not sure they got on all that well, from the small hints Charles has let drop. I was very fond of her, of course. And the boys. It’s a scandal how they’ve been brought up to speak to their father. I’ve had to have a few very sharp words with them.’

‘How old are the boys? I thought the youngest was 24. Still, I’m sure Charles counts himself lucky that you were on hand to take up the slack. And Lee must be smiling down upon you right now. ’ said Val. Belinda gave a sharp look in her direction but Val had moved ahead of her on the narrow path skirting the dam and if her face wore anything other than a bland expression, it was hidden from Belinda’s view.

……………………………..

‘Two days down, only nineteen to go´ said Val. ‘How was your game? Did Charles manage to get round without Belinda’s encouragement?’

‘I don’t know what’s got into you’ said Steve. He shook his head, straightened up from the cupboard where he was stowing his clubs, glared at her and shook his head again. ‘This is just not like you. What’s up?’

‘Not a lot’ she said. ‘We’re doing what we can to welcome them. I can’t see what more we can do.’

‘Tread more carefully, I suppose. She’s obviously sensitive.’

Val snorted but said nothing.

Steve knocked on the guest room door. ‘Come and join us for a drink before lunch. We’ll have a chat about what you’d like to do during your stay. There’s plenty to see around here. We’ll be on the stoep again. Must make the most of this glorious weather.´

His tone was heartier than usual but only Val would have noticed.

‘Plans, plans, plans’ he said when the guests had joined him. ‘We must make the most of your stay. Tomorrow, Sunday, Val and I go to church in the morning. We’d love you to join us if you’d like to. We leave by about nine, if that’s not too early for you. Then we can drive a bit towards Knysna and stop off for lunch somewhere en route. How does that sound?’

Steve seemed not to have noticed the glazed look that passed across Belinda’s face. ‘Val’s giving the sermon’ he said. ‘It’ll be a good chance for you to hear how great she is.’ He smiled.

‘Val? Is she a vicar or something?’ Belinda sounded amused. ‘Where’s your dog collar, Val? Lent it to the dogs?’

‘Nice idea. I’d love to hear her. What do you say, Darling?’ Charles said.

‘Whatever you say, Darling, where you lead, no pun intended, I’ll follow, even if it’s into a church in darkest Africa.’

‘That’s settled, then’ said Charles. We’ll be on parade at nine. Suited and booted.’

When they reached the car at nine the next morning, Belinda was standing by it, not booted and suited but in a brief, black and red, two piece swimsuit. Charles was nowhere in sight.

Steve and Val said nothing, there was no need for words; their faces asked the question. ‘We need a little time to ourselves’ Belinda answered. ‘We thought we’d just sit in the garden. What time did you say you’d be back?’

‘We have tea in the hall when Val’s preached. Very disappointing you won’t be joining us. Are you sure you don’t want to change your minds?’ Steve asked. Belinda shook her head. ‘Well do cover up a bit in the sun, Belinda’ he said. ‘It’s very fierce even at this time, you know.’

‘There you go again, Steve. Be so good as to stop patronising me. I would like to remind you that I’m a scientist. Sun is good for me. Vitamin D, as even you must know.’

‘Have it your own way, Belinda. I do, as it happens, know what an overdose of African sun can do. Val’s father died of a melanoma. But far be it from me to stand between you and your tan. We’ll see you later.’ He nodded curtly, rammed the car into gear and shot through the gates at the end of the drive.

‘They’ve gone’ Belinda shouted to Charles. ‘If we hurry, we’ll just have time before they get back.’

‘I’ll just scribble a note apologising for leaving so soon. Not quite sure what excuse I can give’ said Charles.

‘No time for that. Just pack our things and let’s go. Come on, quick sharp. Have you taken your clothes out of the drawers yet? Don’t stand about looking helpless, darling. No, put the food and wine back. We’ll leave it for them. Not a bad return for one night in their mouldy sheets.’ Belinda was throwing her clothes into her suitcase. ‘Get a move on, Charles. The sooner we can get out of this place the better.’ She sidled up to Charles and rubbed herself against him. ‘My own darling man’ she murmured. ‘Do hurry. I can’t wait to have you all to myself again.’

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