And last night was lovely despite a sudden chilly wind that came up as we sat out in the small garden festooned with Mexican blood trumpets and mounds of ribbon bush and crisp white agapanthus. A big bad syringa that throws down heady lilac each spring, a wavy green and black pittosporum with glossy leaves, pools of shadow deep and soft. I sat in a deep old chair of ornate and singularly uncomfortable wrought iron with a bush of ripe blueberries next to me from which I nibbled throughout the evening. My artist friend Sheila has an old and cumbersome wheelchair whch hampers her getting around, but she loves her garden. There was a new metallic blue-grey crane sculpture perched on one leg alongside the raphiolepsis, a graceful bird feathered in beaten bronze.
Sheila is losing her sight and has to paint with a magnifying glass, working on botanical art now rather than portraits. She looks up at everyone with a blue opaque glance that seems utterly trusting. No self-pity. She listens to Glenn Gould and Maria Callas ( hopefully not together!) instead of watching television. And her students still come along and listen to her teach while she peers at their artistic efforts through the magnifying glass. Her little Jack Russell, Pippa, helps her find the bathroom when there is no electricity in the evenings.
And as we ate salmon mousse and sipped elderflower cordial, we talked about her designs for a new pottery kiln and her exquisite lettered ‘calligraphy plates’, hand-drawn in black ink with a porcupine quill.
Sheila’s partner W, a gifted wood carver and carpenter, has been dead for more than a year now. He was alcoholic for many years, falling asleep or passing out on the floor and burning holes in drapes and pillows with his cigarettes. Then he got leukaemia and sobered up, was just beginning to enjoy life when he died. Sheila remains resolutely grateful that they had a belated four-month honeymoon period together after decades of heartache and conflict.
‘Some people never get that little breathing space together at all,’ she says.
And when we arrived home the puppies were wild with abandonment feelings and naughtiness, had torn up part of the skirting board in the kitchen with their sharp little teeth. We calmed them down and then I went off to bed after taking out chickens and the gammon to defrost.
Today there are carpets to beat and fresh flowers to be arranged and jugs of homemade lemonade to be set out. The skies are clear and blue right now but that may change, so the living room is full of borrowed armchairs. D is bringing along his Hogmanay music CDs for dancing and Jackie has arrive with towering trifles concocted of cherries, rich custard and blackcurrant jellies that fill most of my old fridge.
What is the difference between a gammon and a ham? I ask myself as I dust and polish and check on simmering sauces on the gas hob. Should I hint to the amorous lesbians that they can retire to my study for frolics? Will the retired Presbterian minister fight with the herb witch? Who is going to sit with Terry’s golfing friend, the 19th-hole bore? Will anyone tread on my small puppies or feed them brandy snaps and ruin their digestion?
What will the diabetics and lactovegetarians eat? Is there enough loo paper and how I can prevent the sulky reborn Christian plumber from locking himself in the bathroom with his cellphone? Does it matter if Una uses four-letter words in front of Marie’s small children?
Will there be enough food for country appetites?
And it will be fine on the night, tonight at the witching hour. The local chef is coming to help me with the glaze of apricot jam for the gammon. Pyramids of cos lettuce, radishes, cherry tomatoes, ripe avocados and spring onions are pristine and ready for saladmaking. Freinds come in laden with artisan cheeses and bottles of grape juice and fragrant Tarte tatin and almond biscotti.
The puppies are lying outside in a clump of erigeron and wild strawberries, eating the ripe red fruit. The kitchen floor is scrubbed and Una is pulverising pecan nuts with her father’s old brass nutcracker. The Christmas tree has fallen over again. My neighbour H has called to say that seven extra guests are arriving from Port Elizabeth, but bringing a goose with them. A large uncooked goose.
Life, friends! And not exactly on our terms, but irresistible and worth the plunge into uncharted waters.
I wish all of you a joyous and riotous, or peaceful and reflective sober New Year’s Eve and all the best for 2009. Take care, you are precious to me.