The cold that settled in the hollow of the little desert town was bitter. It spread out its frosty bedroll and tucked everyone in for a chilly night. The main street that sliced up through the town’s centre had miles and miles of highway behind it, like a snake, making its way through a strange wasteland. It wasn’t a desert of rolling dunes and date-filled oases, nor was it a desert of cacti and canyons. These were badlands, carpeted with dirt and furnished with scrub; the mountain ranges were close enough to exhale their snowy drafts down onto the flats.
The town huddled under the watchful eye of an imposing church that stopped the highway in its slither and split it in two. Whether you turned right or left, you couldn’t pass through without a spiritual thought.
Lexi sighed. The idea of passing through town without thought was tempting. She walked quickly along the sidewalk.
‘Here we go,’ she muttered to nobody as she shoved her gloved hands deeper into her pockets. ‘Living the dream.’
She escaped the cold by stepping into the one and only hotel on Main Street, her footsteps immediately muffled by the plush carpet that lined the foyer. She waved at the receptionist as she made her way to the bar.
The doors had portholes, but Lexi put her head down and went in without a peek. She knew now what was in there. Lexi was engulfed by the wave of heat from the fireplace and the tourists who were bustling around with drinks.
‘Lexi,’ someone yelled over all the beer bottles clanking and the hum of voices.
Was she late? It would not matter. Paul always covered for her. ‘Hello, Paul,’ she said as she approached their space opposite the bar.
She gave him a smile and a hug. Paul was an old schoolmate, a boy who grew up to be a tousled, suntanned bear of a man, with a full tank of kindness and heart.
The mics, stools, and guitars were all in place, ready for their eight o’clock set. Paul grinned. He had a more tedious life than she did, but he was still a cheerful guy. She should learn from him.
‘Quick sound check,’ he reminded her. She watched as his fingers slid up and down the frets. His hands were red, scrubbed, and chapped, with grease still embedded in the fine lines and around his fingernails.
She fetched them each a bottle of water from the bar, had a shot of whiskey for courage, and perched on one of the stools. He glanced at her and counted them in. They always started with the Eagles.
Paul worked at the Super Garage during the day, fixing engines, changing tires, and helping passers-through pass through.
People came and went; they had their engines fixed and their tires replaced en route to somewhere else. This part of the Karoo could not hold a tourist very long. It wasn’t the Cape Peninsula – it was Graaff-Reinet – and the sightseeing was done in a day or two. Paul scrubbed his hands each evening at around five-thirty and then settled at the hotel bar to entertain the Germans, a few Americans, and maybe a couple of Britons. He enjoyed the monopoly of a captive audience, and the hotel paid well. Until a few months ago, he had been the only nightlife in town. That’s when Lexi had returned to her old hometown, rolling in under a cloud of misery. She’d moved in with her mother and laid her clothes back in her childhood closet – a closet still haunted by her teenage self.
She clearly remembered: after unpacking her bags and her dignity, a drink at the hotel was essential. She bumped into Paul at the bar. He was playing old folk-rock songs in the corner while she nursed a glass of wine. She didn’t recognise him at first.
But when he came over and said, ‘Lexi Taylor?’ – she did.
They had sung together in a high school play. The hours of practice in the music room came swirling back in a nostalgic blur. The once sullen guitarist, bruised from rugby and poor grades, seemed so grubby to her then. Now he had a ready smile, smelled of aftershave, and wore clean shirts.
‘Graaff-Reinet is a great place to be,’ he told her over a drink later that first night.
‘Really?’ She found that hard to believe. The same one-horse town you were born and raised in?
She cried into her drink when Paul asked why she was back. She blushed now at the thought. Was it really only three glasses? The alcohol must have ricocheted off her empty stomach and lodged in her brain.
‘James is gone,’ she wailed.
‘My husband,’ she sobbed through ugly tears. Didn’t he hear about her wedding? It featured in Brides. ‘He left me for a life in the tropics.’ Micronesia to be precise. Where Interpol doesn’t operate. She didn’t have the energy to explain that part.
Paul patted her back. The rough skin of his grease-stained hand caught on the fibres of her sweater. He soothed her and offered a napkin for her nose. He bought her another drink before he left her for his next set, and later, he walked her home.
‘That’s why I came back,’ she slurred. ‘Because small towns have nice people like you.’
The next morning, when Lexi woke up in her narrow bed, her head was pounding. Or was it her mother knocking on the bedroom door?
‘It’s him.’ Her mom peeked in, a hand over the telephone receiver. The ancient curly cord was stretched to its limit.
Lexi pulled the covers over her head. Her teenage self took over. ‘Lexi,’ her mother said as she tugged at the blankets.
Her mom’s eyebrows were almost at her hairline. Her desperation to erase the husband problem was obviously keener than Lexi’s.
‘Paul,’ her mom stage-whispered, releasing her grip on the receiver.
Lexi cleared her throat and waved her mother out of the room.
‘Paul?’ Lexi’s voice echoed in the large plastic circle of a mouthpiece. Next up in this nightmare called moving-back-home was surely dial-up Internet.
‘I was thinking, after last night …’ he paused.
Oh no, thought Lexi. What did I do? With him. Last night. She was nauseous and it wasn’t from that third glass of wine. Her brain was fuzzy.
‘Last night?’ Did they kiss? She hoped not. He wasn’t her type. She licked her lips. They didn’t taste like a stranger.
‘You’re going through hard times and I need a partner.’
A partner? What kind of a partner? She wasn’t ready for a new man in her life.
‘The hotel will pay more for the gig if there’s a pretty girl at my side. The tips will be great. We’ll have fun.’
‘Oh that,’ she said.
He laughed. ‘We talked. That’s all. You told me you need a job.’
She needed more than a job. She needed to win the lottery. She heard her cellphone ping on the side table and glanced at the screen: Your account is in arrears. Please make a payment this weekend.
So, there she sat at ten a.m. on a Saturday morning without a reason to brush her teeth or her hair when a man she hardly remembered, who she may or may not have kissed, threw her a lifeline.
‘When do I start?’ She needed the money and she needed a friend. Someone kind and forgiving. Lexi didn’t think she could go wrong with Paul.
The farmhouse was wrestled out of the desert, its margins swept clean of crumbling stones and Karoo bossies. Marika took Rebecca’s outstretched arm and they made their way over the uneven ground down to the graveyard. The gardener pulled the thorns and plant debris away from the gravestones, cracked by the extremes of the climate.
A crow squawked overhead. Marika left flowers for Christiaan. Dust clouded the round toes of her shoes. She glanced at the grave alongside him, but she didn’t put flowers there. Christiaan’s first wife’s and their daughter’s names were inscribed on the gravestone. Of course, only Christiaan’s wife laid there, her gravestone a little weather-beaten, as she had been in life. Their daughter lay somewhere out on the koppies. Only the wind knew where.
Marika decided that when her time came she would have a space of her own. She picked one outside the graveyard, a little further into the bush, where a lone apricot tree grew. She had the gardener put up a wire fence around the tree in the meantime. You never knew, at her age.
‘Come, Rebecca,’ she prompted the housekeeper. They made slow progress toward the apricot tree, opened the gate, and stood in the fresh clearing.
This was the perfect spot for a grave if such a thing existed. Marika knew she was old enough to plan her eternal resting place, but not too old to ignore a good idea. She had time and space on this remote corner of the farm. Ideas danced in her head a great deal, but a particular one of starting a B&B lingered. It had had for a very long time. It would be her atonement.
Marika looked back toward the house, the dam, and the surrounding scrub. Beyond a game fence were the koppies – the sparse mounds that pretended to be hills. There, the sheep ran, some free to forage in the wild, some herded, and some supplemented for breeding.
Her eyes returned to the farmhouse with its wide stoeps and cultivated lawn. She imagined deck chairs overlooking the dam, tea tables, and sofas under the overhangs, maybe even a game of croquet. Marika did not want a dull descent to that apricot tree.
She took Rebecca’s arm and they walked back to the homestead. A crow screeched again, and Marika heard the chug of diesel and the spatter of gravel. The man responsible for building the game fence approached. When Christiaan died, Marika inherited the homestead, but his son, Andrew, inherited the farm. Before the earth had settled on the grave, Andrew erected a fence on the exact border between the two properties. It was a fence of such fierce construction, she was sure it would keep out an elephant. It was like the Berlin Wall of the Karoo. Marika suspected that Andrew was more intent on keeping her off his land than on her own. Now she caught a glimpse of his angry face as he sped past in his truck.
Rebecca tutted her disgust with his behaviour.
Andrew treated his stepmother, Marika, like she was a hard reality to bear, even from his distant throne – a modern Tuscan double-story farmhouse on the furthest boundary of the farm.
‘Never mind,’ Marika soothed Rebecca. Christiaan had loved Marika well. She had been the darling of his twilight years. It didn’t matter to her that she wasn’t his son’s favourite person.
Marika climbed the steps and rested in a wicker chair while Rebecca fetched her tea. The mourners had gathered on this same stoep after Christiaan was buried, resigned in their dark clothes, like leaves on the ground after a storm. Andrew’s loss of both his father and this original homestead was sweetened only by the gain of the rest of the farm and its income.
Marika sat and toyed with the idea of opening a B&B. It would work now, she thought, because that Lexi Taylor girl was back in town. She had seen Lexi with Paul.
Marika picked up the phone and dialled Lexi’s number.
Lexi shrugged off her coat. She heard the rustle of beads as her mother, Sandra, came through the hippie curtain from the kitchen at the end of the long hallway. Like the town was bisected by a highway, so was their house by the passage.
‘I thought you would be asleep by now.’ Lexi feigned surprise.
‘I waited up. You’re my responsibility now.’ Her mother was in a kaftan, her hair long and loose. She looked like she’d escaped from the Mamas and the Papas.
‘Yay.’ The joys of being dumped and fleeced by her husband never ceased.
‘And I have news,’ her mother said.
‘Yay,’ Lexi said again.
Lexi went to her bedroom followed by her mother and flicked on the dusty strands of fairy lights that were still hanging over the bed.
‘Marika called to offer you a job,’ Sandra said, sitting cross-legged on the bed while Lexi hung up her coat.
‘I have a job. With Paul.’
‘It’s not enough. This is a real job. On Marika’s farm.’
Lexi imagined working the farmyard. She had only ever worked in five-star hotels. Hospitality was her thing, not hens and chickens. She may be broke, but she drew the line at the kraal.
‘Good night, Mom.’
Sandra picked up the black cat that had crept into the room. ‘Marika wants to turn the old farm into a guest house. She needs your help.’
Lexi turned around. ‘You’re kidding, right?’
Her mother slid off the bed and pressed a sticky note into Lexi’s hand. ‘Call her tomorrow.’
Lexi stared at the number. She looked at her mother, whose smile was soft and kind in the fairy light. Lexi wanted to weep with relief. A real job. With real money.
‘See darling, everything is going to be all right.’ Sandra kissed her cheek. ‘She doesn’t want you to quit your job with Paul though. So, you get to keep playing your gigs at the hotel.’
‘I need the money, Mom.’ Every cent. Bonus if her two sources of income were synced.
‘I know,’ her mom said. ‘Plus, that Paul is one cool cat.’ She winked at Lexi. Mom turned and shut the door to the hallway.
Lexi splashed her face and brushed her teeth. Her mind leaped between her job prospects and taking things further with Paul. She crawled into bed and stared out her window at the desert stars.
‘Lord, no,’ she said, but it wasn’t really a prayer. It was a plea. A job out at a guest house on Apricot Farm would be amazing, but matchmaking with Paul? Not so much.
‘What will it be, Marika?’ Lexi asked as she wheeled the drinks trolley onto the stoep. Winter receded and the spring blossoms had come and gone on the jasmine creeper. The evening was a warm reminder that summer was upon them.
‘Gin and tonic, dear.’
Lexi mixed two drinks on a silver tray, popping in the ice cubes, and a slice of lemon. She carried them over to the wicker sofa on the far side of the stoep. All of it was quite satisfactory. They sat and admired the sun setting over the farm dam, grinning at each other like criminal accomplices between sips.
‘We’ve done it,’ Marika said, clinking her glass against Lexi’s.
They had. The farmhouse was remodelled. The final touch-ups were being done on the paintwork, but the major renovations were complete. The six converted rooms, each with its own bathroom, were waiting for guests. The barn was turned into a beautiful multipurpose space. Lexi thought about holding weddings, conferences, or even yoga retreats in there. Her old confidence was back. She was proud of her work here, and she was ready to grow the business with Marika.
They preserved the character of the old farmhouse – the wide eaves, sash windows, and scarred wooden floors, but they added the modern conveniences of heating, air conditioning, showers, and luxury linen.
In the distant twilight, a car approached on the farm road, its headlights masking the make and model. Soon they heard the ominous chug of diesel. Andrew.
He parked with a hard slam on the brakes and made his way across the yard to the stoep. Lexi watched his buttons, taut in their constant grapple with his belly.
‘Good evening, ladies.’
Was that a smile? A storm must be brewing somewhere.
Lexi took a slug of her drink and then offered Andrew one. He nodded and settled on a brandy.
They sat in an odd little row, staring out toward the dam, only the clink of glasses on coasters cut the quiet of the evening. Although the atmosphere fizzled down to an awkward silence, Lexi was suspicious of Andrew’s good cheer.
‘You’ve thrown a lot of money at this place,’ Andrew said to Marika.
‘Thank you,’ Marika said as if it were a compliment.
A smug look Lexi recognised appeared on Andrew’s face. It was something between a smile and a grimace, with a hint of pride. The look always preceded an insult, criticism, or unsolicited advice.
‘You know anything about fracking, Lexi?’
She shrugged. She didn’t know much other than no one wanted fracking in the Karoo.
‘A little. Why?’
‘We never see you at the town meetings.’ Ah. There it was. The criticism.
Lexi remembered the last town meeting she’d attended. Her mother had pushed to the front of the room, guitar in hand, waving a stick of burning incense, and had almost set the anti-fracking leaflets alight. Lexi had fled, apparently in time to miss hearing her mother sing Peter, Paul, and Mary. Or was it Bob Dylan? Lexi didn’t see how she could be expected to attend another meeting until her mom’s supply of incense and flower power were exhausted.
She met Andrew’s glare.
‘Marika is old,’ he said, ‘but you have no excuse.’ A chill settled over the early summer evening.
Marika smiled, but her eyes were unreadable in the gloaming. ‘Andrew, dear,’ Marika’s voice soothed, ‘We know about fracking. It’s a terrible business.’
It is terrible for the farmers and the hippies, Lexi thought. It might not be so terrible for the desperate and the unemployed. But she couldn’t say that. Andrew’s smile lost its last glimmer of sincerity.
‘The Americans are arriving in the next few days.’
‘Americans?’ Marika said.