As February drew to a close, the end of the summer months was heralded by days and nights of extreme heat. My father called it summer's parting gift, while my mother claimed it to be summer's piece de resistance, as though summer knew it would be felt again only in nine another nine months time. As most of my family cowered from the intense heat, I relished its all-encompassing presence, especially after spending the past five years in Europe where sunlight seemed an unknown entity. My tanned skin rendered me less susceptible to sunburn and I often took long walks through the vineyards and up the mountain, at the foot of which our farm lay, and down the meandering river that flowed behind our house, along the mountain to the cluster of houses in which the farm workers and their families lived. In the late afternoons, when the children had gotten back from the nearby farm school, I would often take them books to read and help them with their homework. They also made great subjects for my new love, photography; something that had started during my modelling years. In their innocence and simplicity, they struck me as beautiful and I frequently took my camera along to capture them in all their youthful splendour. This splendour instigated thoughts into my own future. They were thoughts that revolved around kids, and parenthood and ultimately my relationship with Hugo. It could be said that all of my trips around the farm usually boiled down to one thing: Hugo. As much as I wanted to think that it was him trying to hold onto my thoughts for dear life, I realised that it was I who obsessed about him. The more I contemplated what had happened between us, both in the past and present; I knew that I had to let him have his opportunity to vindicate himself of his atrocious act that had haunted me for six years. I imagined the speech he would deliver. I imagined it would be easier for me than for him. I imagined that it would simply be a formality before the beginning of a fresh relationship.
'Happy birthday dad,' I exclaimed as I entered the kitchen at breakfast and planted a large kiss on the top of my father's balding head, 'how does it feel to be sixty years young?'
My father, halfway through his scrambled eggs, cleared his throat dramatically and said, 'To be sixty is to be liberated into a world of universal consciousness and understanding.'
'Really?' I said slightly sarcastic, slightly impressed.
'No,' my father replied dryly, 'to be sixty is to be ever closer to dementia and diapers, my only hope is that my sons will take great care of me when the time comes.'
Stephen and Jake both entered the kitchen and started helping themselves to what was laid out on the table.
'Oh don't be so bleak dad, you still have a couple of years before things really start going downhill,' said Jake nonchalantly while buttering a slice of toast.
'Thanks, you really know how to brighten my day,' remarked my father through a widening smile that formed creases at the sides of his eyes.
Stephen tapped Jake lightly on the back of his head and called him a douche. For a few minutes I was entranced by what played out before me: the gentle smiles, the light-hearted banter between father and sons and the visceral joy that I had missed for so long. My reverie ended though as feminine hand holding a note was thrust in front of my face. I took the note and looked up to see my mother handing out similar notes to my brothers. I read the heading on my list, 'Catering'. Stephen read out 'Dishes and furniture' and Jake read out 'Help mom with...'.
'Where's my note?' my dad asked offended at being left out.
My mother took out her notepad and pen from her apron pocket, scribbled something, and handed it to my father who read out 'Stay out of the way', exclamation mark!
I quickly scanned my list. Something was missing.
'What about the wines, what are people going to drink?' I asked.
'I asked Hugo to take care of that,' answered my mother.
'But, shouldn't dad select the wines? It's his party, and for the guests it's the most important part of the dinner. I'll get a few good ones to sample and dad can...' I continued until my dad interrupted me.
'Hugo has excellent taste in wines and I'm one hundred percent sure that he'll make a superb selection.'
And with that my other hurried us out of the kitchen to get on with our lists. It was Saturday after all, and the grocery shops in the nearby town of Worcester would close at lunchtime.
The grocery shopping was quick and relatively painless and I made sure to call the caterers one last time to ensure that they knew when and where they had to be. I made it back home just after lunch and with the help of the two maids I had taken with me to help with the shopping, began to march the bags into the kitchen. As I entered the kitchen, arms full of groceries, I stopped dead. Two familiar figures sat at the kitchen table talking to my father. I moved quickly towards the kitchen counter before I could let the bags fall out of my arms. The two figures turned to see the commotion behind them and our eyes met. They stood up. The space between us closed slightly as we inched towards each other. I couldn't speak as old memories resurfaced and wrapped themselves tightly around my throat. The girl moved forward before the guy and reached toward me. I took her hands.
'Alex,' she said.
'Clare,' I whispered while closing the gap and embracing her firmly. The guy moved closer and I detached from Clare. He held my shoulders and pulled me into a strong hug. The heat from his body warmed my heart and his relentless hold over my body squeezed tears from my eyes.
'Dane,' I said softly, half crying now, half laughing. It seemed funny now that I had lost contact with my two best friends for half a decade, yet when I took them both by the hand and led them outside to the veranda to sit and chat nothing seemed to have changed. We sat and talked, or rather they sat and listened to what I had to say. I told them about the modelling and the people I had met, the places I had been, the girls from the apartment and Rafael. They asked me about the incident and how I was coping with being back. I told them everything from the night it happened, to the day I saw Hugo in the vineyards to the catering my mother had put me in charge of for the party. I learnt that Clare and Dane were engaged, to be married in two months time, and that he wanted me to be one of his best men. We chatted about everything under the sun for about two and half hours and at 16:30 when a few more guests began arriving I escaped to my room to take a shower.
At around 17:30 most of the guests had already arrived. They ranged from my teenage cousins, my aunts and uncles, my parents' aunts and uncles, my one remaining grandmother, a few family friends and my father's friends from work. My oldest brother Brian, and his wife and two kids, also made the long trip from Pretoria to celebrate my father's birthday. As I watched the crowd slowly swirl from the relative safety of my balcony, I imagined the awkward moments that could possibly result at several points throughout the evening. I suddenly felt terribly relieved at not having to make a speech. After about thirty minutes of watching the ins and outs of the guests standing in just my bathrobe, I rummaged through my dresser and got dressed. I scrutinized myself in the full length mirror. My tapered black pants fitted snugly and the black jersey reminded me of my modelling days. It was an extremely finely knitted sweater with a round, collarbone exposing neckline and long sleeves that tightly sheathed my arms. The thread was so fine it was slightly see through but because of an interlacing silver thread, it gave a reflecting appearance. It was my absolute favourite item of clothing I had acquired during my modelling career. I further slipped on a pair of black socks and shoes and, mentally giving myself a thumbs up, left my room. The meeting and greeting of the guests seemed to never end and I probably only got around to the uppermost branches of our family tree. People filled the lounge and dining room area and spilled out onto the veranda and pool area.
As I made my way to the kitchen somebody caught hold of my arm. I turned to see who it was and my heart shot up into my throat.
The man spoke calmly, 'Hello, you are Alex, right? My name is Daniel Green, Hugo's father.'
'Oh, hi,' I stammered, 'Good to finally meet you. How did you know...'
'Who you were?' he completed my sentence.
'I remember you from the photos Hugo kept in his desk drawer, not to mention the times I happened to be watching your hockey matches at school sports days. I remember you being quite impressive on the field. You seemed to impress my son quite a lot too.'
As soon as the last statement left his mouth, my internal temperature rose dramatically while all around me the air seemed frigid and devoid of oxygen. Speech eluded me and I stood silently staring into his seemingly warm eyes. He placed a hand on my arm, pressed lightly and said, 'It's okay, I understand now.' And with that he turned and disappeared into the crowd. I stood still for a further five minutes pondering his departing words before pushing it to the back of my mind and moving into the kitchen.
The caterers were well on their way with the preparations and my mother, who had recruited my teenage cousins to be waiters, briefed them on what was being served and how to go about doing it. They smiled at me as I entered and I winked at them. The girls blushed. I continued to check on the staff and made sure that everything was going according to plan. After my mother left to lead the guests towards the tables that were arranged in the garden, I appointed Jake as head waiter. At 18:30, as the starters, were being served, I left the kitchen to take my place among the diners.
There were four very long tables that were positioned at right angles to each other to form a square-like setup with a large gap in the middle for ease of movement. I searched for a seat and saw Stephen waving me over to his table. He was sitting next to our father and had saved me a spot between himself and Brian on his other side. Brief speeches were made, by my father and Stephen, before the main course was served. The rest of the evening carried on quite pleasantly. Stephen's girlfriend, Lara, sat opposite me and was easy to talk to while Sean, Brian's two year old toddler, was delighted at my company and attention. It was during desert and between Peak-A-Boos that Jake suddenly appeared at my shoulder and, whispering something into my ear, handed me an envelope. I gave him a 'What is it?' look but he seemed apprehensive and, after nodding at the envelope a few times, left.
I lifted the sadistic looking envelope to the candlelight to see who it was from. It was addressed directly to me and read 'Medicare Pathology and Haematology'. I immediately place the envelope face down on my lap and breathed deeply, trying not to hyperventilate. I could feel people watching me now and, knowing that I couldn't open it, passed it to Stephen.
'I can't do it,' I whispered to him.
'Okay,' he replied.
Stephen cleaned his knife with a serviette and used it to slice open the seal. I closed my eyes as he scanned the letter thoroughly. I could sense him put down the letter and face me. He pulled my head towards his and placed his lips firmly against my temple.
'You're fine, you're going to be okay, perfectly okay,' he said softly and turned to speak to my father. Brian squeezed my left hand and nodded knowingly. I smiled at him and squeezed his hand in return. After ten minutes of sitting in pure stillness I excused myself from the table and walked into the distant darkness of the garden; the darkness that led to the river that formed the northern border of our farm. I needed a cleansing, purification...