THE NOTE (PART 3)
– PART 3 The spaniel had followed him into the kitchen, a bit stiff from the previous day’s hunting and clearly hungry.
KOBUS DE KOCK
It was well past ten in the evening before he had everything packed and with another hour’s drive before home he did not expect to get there before midnight. No use phoning her to stay up, he will make it a surprise. It took longer than he thought as he first wanted to finish cooking the cassoulet; perhaps they could have it for lunch the following day.
He loved the drive along the sandy track to where it left the farm. The spaniel sat next to him in the cab. At first she peered attentively through the front window, watching how the bakkie’s lights cut through the dark, anxiously following the nightjars as they flushed away from the bakkie to disappear into the night. But she soon tired of the game and lay down with her head on his leg. It was a gesture that always re- laxed him. Stroking her head and working his fingers through the feathered hair of her ears and throat was just about as good as it gets, an intimate moment that few would comprehend. A camaraderie forged by many years of shooting together, of caring for each other, of being alone on a lonely road in the black of night. Now relaxed, the tension eased from his mind, he felt no more worries about what may lay ahead.
They had great fun with the nightjars when the kids were still with them on the farm. They would go out on a moonless night and catch the birds with a spotlight. Blinded by the strong light the nightjars would sit tight so somebody could sneak around and grab it from behind. The bird in hand was a great biology lesson, the stiff bristles extending the already enormous gape, the transparent palate, the identifying white marking on their primaries. Mostly they caught the common fiery-necked nightjars, but once they got a bronze-winged courser, which was really a great prize as they very seldom saw them even in the daytime. After a night like that the calls of “Good Lord deliver us” had new meaning to the kids. City folks were even more impressed. How different were their lives!
A rabbit jumped out from the verge of the track and ran out in front of the bakkie. It refused to leave the track and stayed in the light, running at full tilt, madly jinking right and left and he had to slow down completely to avoid hitting it. He has shot a few rabbits in his lifetime but somehow never really took to it. He did it once to check if his dog would pick up and carry it. Sometimes dogs don’t like fur. It’s part of all better spaniel tri- als. The last time he shot a rabbit was for a labourer that accompanied him on a shoot. The little spaniel had no problems retrieving and carrying game. The one retrieve was quite memorable. He dropped the rabbit dead in its tracks on the opposite side of a spruitjie. Coming back with the rabbit she had some difficulty to barge her way through a stiff stand of spiky restios. After that there was nothing else to prove. To him the challenge was always in the air.
The gate on the main road was old and dilapidated. He hated gates when he was alone, stop, get out, open the gate, get back in, drive through, stop, get out, close the gate and get back in again. But tonight he took his time, the cool night air was very pleasant after the heat of the day. Besides, the stars were on full display. They seemed to cover every inch of the black expanse extending over him; the Milky Way was almost solid white. He could stare at it forever. To the west a shooting star dipped away behind the horizon, instinctively he made a
wish. As kids they were told that making a wish when you saw a shooting star would make your dreams come true. It became a game. It was fun to lie on the lawn and pick out the shooting stars and sputniks and make wishes even though you knew that the chances were slim of getting a pellet gun for Christmas. Tonight he wished she would still be awake when he got home. But he felt no rush; the day was just too good. Hardly conscious of driving he allowed the bakkie to pick its own speed, his mind still in the bush between the red bush willows, wag-’n-bietjie and marula trees with their mottled bark naked in the winter sun.
The house was dark when he drove up the drive way. She was obviously in bed. He wouldn’t wake her now, just let himself quietly in the back door, and put his gun in the safe and the birds in the freezer. Nothing will happen to the cassoulet till the morning; in fact it’s always better after a day or two. Looking down the passage he could see their bedroom door was closed. He would shower and sleep in the guest room and surprise her with coffee in the morning. He thought he could hear her breathing when he tiptoed past the door, or was it just the wind through the beefwood trees outside the house?
He was tired when he eventually crawled into bed. The little spaniel had curled up on the carpet next to his bed. She seldom let him out of her sight. But sleep was slow to come. Birds kept milling through his head... Swainson’s and guinea-fowl and ducks. They kept staying out of reach, always one step ahead, just too far to reach with the number fives. All his plans came to naught. Careful ambushes collapsing at the very end with never enough cover to lure him into shooting range. They kept laughing at him; every spotted bird seemed to be walking with a smirk on its face. And the spaniel got all cut up in the thorns, the cockle burrs made a mess of her fur. He tossed and turned in bed, falling asleep just to wake up a few moments later. Where was he? The unfamiliar room had him completely at a loss; he looked up, expecting to see the stars through the overhead branches of the umbrella thorn. But there was nothing and then he heard the deep breathing of his dog, and it all came back to him.
He came back to be with his wife and was sleeping in the guest bedroom. The room was all different and he was facing the wrong way. He looked on his watch and realised it was too early to get up and make coffee. She would not like to be woken at four in the morning. On a Sunday morning she stayed in bed for as long as possible. But he was wide awake now and he knew it was futile to try to go back to sleep. So he switched on the bedside lamp and took out the Old Man again.
It must have been the third or fourth time he was reading the book. But he still enjoyed every bit of it, the enthusiasm of youth, and the wisdom of old age all parcelled in a format that he could understand. It was field sports writing at its best, simple and logic and brilliant. Before he realised he was punting along in a flat-bottomed skiff, a thermos clamped between his feet and listening to the Old Man teaching the boy the basics of shooting over decoys. He was harping on about duck shooting and ballistics and how far to lead a duck. “A lead is as far as you can swing a gun ahead of the bird. You’ll never be able to lead one far enough, because you can’t pull the gun that far ahead of him in the time you’ve got to do it...”
When he woke up he realised he had overslept, and badly so. It was so totally unlike him. The sun was already warming the room through the curtains; a soft yellow glow covered the furniture. He looked at his watch and saw that it was well past eight. Where was his wife? The house was still deadly quiet; she must be sleeping late, not expecting anybody, enjoying her Sunday morning sleeping in.
He quickly went to the kitchen and started the coffee. Strong Italian roast with just a touch of brown sugar and powdered milk. She liked the cups to be warmed up before; filter coffee was never that hot and cooled down far too quickly. Not enough time to enjoy it before it got too cold. The spaniel had followed him into the kitchen, a bit stiff from the previous day’s hunting and clearly hungry. He splashed a bit of the cassoulet gravy over her pellets, perhaps not what the vet ordered but nothing wrong in letting her share in the spoils. When the coffee was done he took the tray down the passage and softly knocked on their bedroom door. There was no answer and he cautiously opened the door, taking care not to spill coffee in the saucers.
The room was empty and the bed neatly made. On his pillow he noticed a small envelope. Something felt wrong as he put the tray on the bed, sat down and opened the envelope. From somewhere he could smell apple blossom drifting in the room. At his feet the little spaniel rolled her eyes at him.
His head felt heavy and his shoulders drooped as he slowly read the note.