Installment One - Installment Two - Installment Three - Installment Four - Installment Five - Installment Six - Installment Seven - Installment Eight - Installment Nine - Installment Ten - Installment Eleven - Installment Twelve - Installment Thirteen - Installment Fourteen - Installment Fifteen - Installment Sixteen - Installment Seventeen - Installment Eighteen - Installment Nineteen - Installment Twenty - Installment 21 - Installment 22 - Installment 23 - Installment 24
THE HUGE ROSES (working title)
copyright 2014 by Betty van den Betsy; not for reprint or publication without permission
As they walked back toward Arne and Elsa’s apartment, Max made sure not to take Tory’s hand again. The dusk of early evening deepened and softened the city’s beauty, and it became easy to understand how one might be carried away, and do something foolish in the twilight. Instead, he made sure they engaged in shop talk. “Tell me, Tory,” he requested, “what sorts of issues do you see most often in your practice in Bristol?” That was a harmless topic, and got them safely through the city in a welter of asthma and heart disease.
There were at the Rasmussens’ home in time for Tory to shower quickly, and change into her skirt and twinset. It felt good to dress up a bit for dinner in this luxurious apartment. She made her way to the kitchen to ask Elsa whether she could help with anything, and got the task of slicing apples for a winter salad. When Max joined them, his cousin-in-law invited him to set the table, and the three of them chatted comfortably as they worked, with Max wandering back and forth between the kitchen and dining room. Tory watched with interest as Elsa beat the custard for her quiche, adding a splash of vinegar to the mix. The pie in the oven, they adjourned to the living room, where Max had a small glass of genever, the traditional Dutch drink, Tory opted for a dry sherry, and Elsa chose fruit juice lightened with soda water. Somehow the conversation had drifted to growing seasons when Arne arrived home.
He poured himself genever as well, and went to stand behind his wife. “No doubt you’ve guessed, Max,” Elsa said, “but have been kind enough to allow us the formal announcement. We expect an addition to the family in May.”
Max raised his glass with a smile and said, “I shouldn’t presume to guess about such a personal matter, my dear cousin. I am delighted for both of you, and for the baby-to-be. You will be wonderful parents.”
“Tory, I hope you don’t mind our discussing this with you here,” Arne added, looking solemnly at her. “I am afraid we treat you as quite one of the family, not a formal guest at all.”
“I’m flattered,” she replied, “and I thank you.” With her own glass held up, she added, “I agree with Max. I couldn’t wish a happier or better home for a baby than this one. Congratulations to all of you.” They drank the toast, and Elsa leapt up with a comical look of display.
“The quiche!” she exclaimed, and sped toward the kitchen. Minutes later, they were gathered around the formal dining table, enjoying a delicious meal – the quiche baked to perfection – with cheerful conversation and a great deal of laughter. Tucked up in a bed a few hours later, Tory e-mailed a brief resume of her day’s activities, along with photos of the museum and cathedral, to her parents and siblings. She knew Jane and the twins would be reassured by the account of how busy she had been.
The following morning, after a simple breakfast of bread, hot chocolate and oranges, she and Max headed to the De Groot apartment again. Tory had to giggle when he confessed that he had solicited information about Minjheer and Mevrouw de Groot’s movements for the day, and was fairly confident that he would be at his tailor’s, and she at her hairdresser’s, when they arrived. Sure enough, Marie the maid ushered them straight back to Mrs. Nepala’s room, which looked, stripped of the few last pictures and knick-knacks, depressingly institutional. They sat down as they had the day before, and the bare space soon warmed up with a lively discussion of the past and the future. After 90 minutes, Max stood to depart, promising to return just after lunch for their trip to the airport. After a flurry of hugs, they were back out on the avenue.
Tory had a plan. “Max,” she began in an unexpectedly firm tone, “I wonder if you’d mind splitting up for an hour or so. I’d like to do a bit of shopping, and I don’t want you to feel you need to hang around while I browse.”
“Of course, Tory,” he immediately acquiesced. Was that his impeccably good manners or a measure of relief, she wondered. “You know your way around, do you not? Shall we meet at Arne and Elsa’s at one o’clock?”
With that settled, they smiled farewells and set out, awkwardly, in the same direction. Tory quickly dodged down one of the many side streets, babbling foolishly about a mythical chocolate shop she recalled from one of her previous visits. Fortunately, her detour soon led her into a small square with myriad shops, including one selling antiques, where she found a surprisingly-affordable cocktail ring set with a large garnet that would make a great Christmas gift for Jane. A few more side streets yielded a delightful chocolatier; she chose a selection of dangerously rich truffles for the Rasmussens. Given the time they would spend in Namibia, she didn’t dare buy more; they could easily melt before she got them back to the States!
Strolling happily along, her nose almost rubbing the storefront windows, Tory congratulated herself on her plan to spend some time without Max. She remembered, with a slight shudder, that the previous day she had almost blurted out something about babies, children, families as they had traversed the Tuileries Gardens. As much as she loved roaming the Paris streets, she thought, she was glad they were leaving soon for the arid savannah. She had seen photos of the Himba people, painted with clay mixture that turned their dark skin copper-red, and the enormous termite mounds that arose everywhere, and the staggeringly grand Sossusvlei dunes of the coast. Certainly all those sights were marvelous, and quite beautiful, but to her mind they seemed more conducive to intellectual conversation than wispy daydreams of family romps and candlelit dinners. Overall, she felt she had done well in Paris, but would be better off in Namibia!
She arrived back at the Rasmussens’ apartment in good time, clutching a paper cone of roasted chestnuts she’d bought from a street vendor. She reflexively offered the improvised dish to the building concierge. At first clearly taken aback, he quickly reached out an elegant hand and plucked one of the nuts, smiling with great charm and offering, “Much zhanks, madam.”
“Je vous en prie,” Tory replied, strolling into the ornate elevator.
On the fifth floor, Elsa was waiting, her door open wide. “Does the concierge call you?” Tory asked. “I didn’t realize.”
“No, no,” Elsa assured her, wide-eyed. “My superlative hostessing abilities include extra-sensory powers.” They laughed together as Tory shed her coat, draping the heavy wool over the hanger Elsa handed her.
“What am I going to do with this thing in Namibia,” she mused, shaking her head.
“Trust Max,” Elsa recommended. “He’s one of the kings of organization. Gets it from his father, I think.”
“Speaking of organization, I suspect I ought to change into my travel things and pack everything up now. We’re leaving right after lunch, I think.”
Elsa confirmed the plan, and Tory sped off to her room. Thanks to the Rasmussens and Arne’s company’s morning maid, her ‘airplane dress’ was freshly laundered. A quick change and a few minutes folding and fitting, and she was wheeling her case back to the foyer. In the interval, Max’s two large suitcases and his hold-all had appeared there. ‘Good,’ she thought, ‘now I know he’ll be in the dining room, and I won’t go all smiley when I see him.’ She composed a pleasant, social smile and joined the others for lunch.
Arne had come home for the meal, in honor of his guests, and they enjoyed an elaborate mélange of fresh pasta, cream sauce and myriad vegetables, with crisp green salad and generous chunks of baguette, purchased that morning three doors away. “Which would you choose,” Tory asked her hosts, “more time in Paris, or a return to Norway?”
“Happy either way,” Elsa assured her. “There’s so much to do here, so much to see; I love it. But Norway is home, and the...” She paused, looked around, and waved a hand as if to encompass the whole apartment, “a simpler life feels more real, more like us.”
“With a child on the way,” Arne added, “I’m inclined to head home. I agree with Elsa about the value of simplicity. These curtains,” he concluded, and Tory suspected she understood just what he meant.
“Fragonard versus Rembrandt,” she suggested.
“Just so,” Elsa exclaimed, pointing a fork entwined with fettucine in her excitement. The gesture was spontaneous, honest and irresistibly funny, and they all broke out in laughter.
Just a few minutes later, the telephone rang, and Arne scooped it up, then announced that their car was at the door and the driver on his way up to collect the luggage. Max rose to his feet, Tory leapt up, and Elsa joined them in the foyer as well. Tory remembered to press the box of chocolates into her hostess’s hands, and in a flurry of enthusiastic hugs, ‘thank yous’ and kind wishes, they parted cheerfully. Tory was pleased to see that Max had had the foresight to book a small van for their journey – pleased, but not surprised. Of course he would have considered the quantity of luggage Mrs. Nepala wanted to take home with her – a much smaller quantity than most people would amass over three decades living in foreign countries, but still enough to require one trunk.
At the De Groot’s building, they found Luisa sitting in her room, ready for them, with her gloved hands folded on her lap. Max skillfully negotiated Minjheer and Mevrouw de Groot’s attempts to slow them down (kindly meant on her part, Tory guessed, and oblivious to the needs of the traveling party on his), and within 20 minutes they were all in the van, luggage neatly stowed. Max elected to sit with the driver, and Tory politely allowed Mrs. Nepala a few minutes with a handkerchief. The parting had been tearful, at least for the two older ladies.
Once they had left the city center behind, Tory essayed a bit of conversation. “What do you think will have changed in Windhoek since your last visit?” she asked, and that was enough to generate an interesting discussion that took them all the way to the airport. Once there, Tory left all the logistics of tipping the driver, managing the luggage and obtaining boarding passes to Max. She stuck with gently steering Mrs. Nepala through the crowds, keeping her engaged with questions and observations, one arm keeping her timid companion securely anchored to her side. Once through security, they were able to relax – in the airline lounge, no less. Max, she discovered, had booked all three of them in first-class seats.
First-class fares and the doctor’s easy air of command doubtless assured them of the very best service, but Tory nonetheless casually mentioned Mrs. Nepala’s special situation to the flight attendants. Naturally, their sentiments were engaged, and the crew offered her particular attention on the long flight to Johannesburg. Max and Tory took turns sitting next to the old lady, napping, chatting, sometimes reading aloud for a bit, and helping with the controls for the in-flight entertainment. Tory told herself she was pleased by the circumstances; after all, it’s easier to resist temptation when temptation is not in the next seat, revealing in conversation the admirable character that went with the blue eyes and broad shoulders.
For his part, Max was congratulating himself on having the courage to request Tory’s help on the trip. She was proving an admirable, and invaluable, travel companion. He chuckled at the thought, remembering how quickly and smoothly he had fibbed to Christina about their departure date. While he certainly didn’t make a habit of dissembling, he was pleased he had been able to do so in this case.
They accomplished a change of planes in Johannesburg fairly easily. Again, Tory took charge of Mrs. Nepala, while Max managed the few carry-ons and navigated their path to the next gate. As much as she could, Tory looked about avidly. Despite traveling fairly widely for her age, she had never been to West Africa. In fact, she had never been south of the equator before. Even in the airport gift shops, there was a lot to see that was new to her. She kept Mrs. Nepala’s attention distracted from the rush and bustle around them with a constant stream of questions and comments, both of them enjoying their roles as guide and learner. Biltong – dried meat, similar to jerky – was everywhere, in many shapes and sizes, and made from myriad sources from beef to gazelle to ostrich. There was even a display of shark-meat biltong! Tory tucked the idea away; Neil might enjoy a bit of dried, heavily spiced ostrich in his Christmas stocking.
The short flight to Windhoek was uneventful. They settled Mrs. Nepala into a window seat, and Max took the aisle seat next to her. He would be a much better partner at spotting landmarks from the air, should she want to play that game. For her part, Tory watched the ground beneath her, marveling at the huge number of deep, but for now entirely dry, rivers and streams carved into the earth. It seemed amazing that this bare land ever had water enough on its surface to create a river’s track.
The airport at Windhoek seemed tiny after her recent treks through two of the world’s largest, and Tory delighted in the relaxed pace. Eighteen hours sitting, despite the luxury of a first-class seat for most of the journey, was starting to get to her. The officials processed her documents efficiently, and she soon re-joined her companions at the baggage carousel. On the other side of customs, Max gave an exclamation of surprise. The reason was soon obvious: a lively red-headed woman, bouncing on her toes next to a blond giant, was waving a sign that read, “Van den Nie.” “Max,” she called as they passed the cordon, and he pushed their loaded trolley toward her, Tory and Mrs. Nepala following close behind.
“Adela, Everard,” Max responded, laughter in his voice. “What a wonderful surprise.” He embraced his friends heartily, then turned and introduced everyone. Everard, as Tory had guessed, was Max’s friend who administered the clinic that had made a handy excuse for his trip. Adela proved to be English, a nurse and Everard’s wife. Tory was pleased to see how quickly she dialed back her boisterous good spirits when she observed Mrs. Nepala’s quiet manner. They were nonetheless a high-spirited group as they made their way out of the terminal.
A distinctly battered Land Rover waited at the curb, a handsome man with a wide-brimmed cloth hat pushed well back on his head at the wheel. He was in animated conversation with a security guard, but leapt smoothly from the vehicle, gesturing to their party, as they approached. Apparently whatever argument had been underway was resolved by their arrival, and the driver even seemed to have convinced the guard to offer a hand with the luggage. Their cases stowed, Everard introduced Tyapa Mhuulu to their group. “Tyapa’s father founded the clinic where I work,” he explained.
“My father is a great man,” Tyapa acknowledged, “but not always alert to practicalities. So I have followed in his medical footsteps, but established a for-profit partnership here in Windhoek, to help support the clinic. And we’re expanding both clinics in Otjiwarongo. Since Everard needs to take a look, and coordinate a few details, we conceived a plan of driving you there, to Mrs. Luisa’s home. Indeed,” he said, turning to Mrs. Nepala, “I know your grandson son Emmanuel there, and his lively family.”
Mrs. Nepala’s elderly face seemed lit from within as it creased into a broad smile. “Emmanuel will come to dinner tonight,” she told them. “We meet at his aunt’s, my daughter Pamela’s home. He has two young children I shall see tonight; the younger I have not met until today.”
“Tyapa, let me drive,” Adela interjected. “You sit with Mrs. Nepala, Everard and Max will go way the back, and Tory will sit in front with me. You’ll be able to catch up Mrs. Nepala on her family, and do some wildlife spotting for Tory and me. He’s amazing,” she added in an aside to Tory. “He can spot an ostrich 300 meters away that I can barely see with binoculars.”
The seating arranged, they fell in with Adela’s plan and everyone got in to the big vehicle. Tory felt her excitement build as she buckled her belt. She had made time to read up on the country a bit, and she knew the long drive ahead would afford opportunity to see all sorts of creatures and, at least to her eyes, exotic landscapes. As Adela put the truck into gear, she turned to smile at Mrs. Nepala over her shoulder, and was thrilled by the older lady’s expression of barely-suppressed joy.
“Another time you should try to spend a day or two in Windhoek,” Adela recommended over the roar of the air conditioning. “It’s quite a busy, up-and-coming city. Given a tight schedule, though, of course the countryside is much more interesting.”
“Is the airport a long way out from the city?” Tory asked. She could see nothing, once they were past the terminal and parking lots, that looked even populated, let alone urban.
The Englishwoman laughed. “About 45 minutes away,” she explained. “It’s as bad as Heathrow, but without the excuse of urban sprawl. I’d forgive it more easily if Everard and I lived east of the city, on the same side as the airport, but we’re to the west. Still, it’s not as if we fly about all that much, and visitors are such a joy that I never mind the drive.”
After that, they gave up trying to talk much given the background noise. Tory could not claim to be looking too avidly about her, as the scenery was very much the same along this stretch of well-paved highway: mostly flat, sandy dirt with occasional scrub trees. As they approached the city, now visible on the horizon, Adela slowed, and talking became easier. She turned slightly in her seat, to include Dr. Mhuulu and Mrs. Nepala in a conversation.
“Has there been much rain?” she inquired, surprised by how dry the country was. “I’ve read that the rainy season begins in November.”
“Very, very little,” Dr. Mhuulu replied. Mrs. Nepala shook her head slowly as he explained further. “We had a very dry year last year as well. It is a worry. When the rivers don’t do well, the grasses don’t do well, and then the animals die or move away, and the people don’t do well. I know you are on holiday, but you must hope for rain for us.”
“Yes, do,” Adela added earnestly. “It’s not like our rain, drizzling down all day long. It’s usually just an hour in the afternoon, or a few hours if we’re lucky, pouring buckets, and then clearing up until the sky is cloudless and the sunset can turn the whole sky to fire. But it really is crucial for the farmers and the hunters and the animals and the tourist industry as well.”
Tory stifled a laugh, and assured her hosts she would wish with all her might for rain. And indeed she did. An animal lover to her marrow, she could not bear the thought of the slow starvation that drought brought.
Soon enough, they were outside the city limits again, and conversation slackened. Tory spotted her first termite mound, and was astounded by its size: at least four feet tall, and at least as broad at the base. She hated to think of the insects that could construct such a thing! A few minutes later, she felt a tap on her shoulder, and Dr. Mhuulu’s hand appeared, pointing through the windshield to the road ahead. “Baboons,” he explained.
Tory, peering hard, saw nothing at first – then a few dark bumps came clearer, and within seconds they became a dozen or more big, dark, furry monkeys, moving faster than she would have thought they could. She grinned hugely and pulled out her phone to snap a few candid shots.
“I’d offer to stop so you can take proper photos,” Adela declared, “but it’s really important we be in Otjiwarongo before dusk. Driving gets quite scary once more animals are on the move.”
“No need, I’ll have plenty of time for pictures on safari. These are just for fun.” She turned toward the rear seats again. “Do you think they were here to welcome you home?” she asked Mrs. Nepala, and felt terrible as the lovely old woman teared up. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, scrabbling for a tissue, and by some miracle finding a packet of clean ones in her purse.
Mrs. Nepala took one, but shook her head at the packet. “Miss Tory, it is just that I am so happy to be in my home again. To be here to stay. I have missed this land. The baboons mostly stay away from humans and our towns, but I have missed them, too.”
For a moment, Tory didn’t trust herself to speak. She hoped her answering smile said what she could not. Dr. Mhuulu’s soft, “Warthogs,” accompanied by another pointing finger, broke the intensity of the moment.
“Now warthogs, I have not missed,” she heard from the back seat, and gurgled with laughter. On first glance, she had to disagree. The small animals ahead of them, trotting jauntily beside the road, looked like a hybrid of pot-bellied pig and oversized pug dogs, and she found their perky stride and tails, held up like flags, adorable.
Four hours later, she had been shown two kinds of gazelles, large kudu and tiny steenbok, as well as a small herd of zebra, domesticated goats, and a variety of magnificent birds. One of the most dramatic sights, though, was a pair of whirlwinds – dust devils, the others called them – that Adela said were two of the largest she’d ever seen. Everyone in the vehicle had tensed and kept close watch on the funnels of dirt spinning across the landscape until they had passed safely.
As much as she was enjoying the change of scene, too many hours in various vehicles had Tory yearning for journey’s end. When finally they bumped up the driveway of Pamela’s small farm, she was having trouble hiding her yawns. Seeing Mrs. Nepala’s joy as a couple of handsome young men downed tools and raced up the drive with them brought her back to life. The athletes were joined at a shady veranda by a middle-aged man and two women with gleaming smiles, as well as a handful of children jumping and racing with excitement.
Adela barely had time to engage the brake before Mrs. Nepala had her door open, and her family clustered around her, several talking at once in their native language. The others emerged from the struggling air-conditioning of the Rover into the baking heat of driveway, and Max made his way around to Tory. “Well, what do you think so far?”
She turned to him, beaming. “This is definitely the best sighting of the day,” she said, and he nodded deeply, obviously in full agreement and understanding. Mrs. Nepala’s daughter Pamela soon began encouraging everyone to come into the shade of the front porch, while a sister disappeared into the house to emerge shortly with a tray bearing a pitcher of iced something and a plate of cookies.
Half an hour later – she had been standing the whole time, luxuriating in the chance to stretch her seat bones – with the luggage disposed, the pitcher drained and the plate emptied, Tory joined the rest of her party reluctantly as they clambered back into their truck. She had been touched by Mrs. Nepala’s heartfelt farewell – or tot ziens, as she had insisted. The Dutch phrase was more like, “see you”: she and Max were invited back for a braai on their last night in Otjiwarongo. Everard translated ‘braai’ for a bewildered Tory, explaining that it was a barbeque party, usually with music, often quite elaborate, and sometimes lasting for days. Her elderly friend had also protested Tory’s continued use of the formal “Mrs. Nepala.”
“Now we are friends, Miss Tory,” she insisted. “You shall call me Luisa.”
“Mrs. Luisa, then,” Tory agreed, and kissed the old woman on her cheek. “I look forward to seeing you, and telling you all about my safari, in a couple of days.” It felt silly to wipe a tear from her eye on parting with someone she had three days, but at least it was a tear of happiness. In her professional life, she too often became deeply attached to people she knew would not live out a year. In this case, she had every reason to believe that Mrs. Luisa had several years of profound happiness ahead of her. As their reduced party turned to drive back to the road, Tory waved and waved at the happy group they left behind them.