Joe doesn’t have much money or very many friends – but what he does have is an unshakeable belief in fate
JOE pulled open the fridge door. The blast of cold air chilled him for a second, but the warmth of the summer’s day soon embraced him again.
On the shelf stood a bottle of water, an opened roll of sandwich meat that he hadn’t sealed properly, a half-full bottle of orange juice and nothing else. He’d forgotten to go shopping again.
Joe’s thoughts turned to his classroom with its colourful posters and maps of Africa and Europe. The desks of his learners and the dusty floor. The metal cupboard with its surplus textbooks. The blackboard and yellow chalk that always left dust under his meticulously kept short fingernails.
“I can’t believe it; it’s almost finally over,” he mused.
He’d accepted the teaching position out of desperation. The school needed a substitute for a female teacher who had to go on maternity leave. He seriously needed the money, and so had agreed to leave his hometown of Port Elizabeth and come to this small Northern Cape town, south of Kimberley, to take up the position.
He grabbed the orange juice and started drinking. The tart liquid flowed down his throat and hit his stomach, staving off the first faint stirrings of hunger.
The children were the worst. The grade sevens were a large group, rowdy and sometimes uncontrollable. The only thing that seemed to calm them down was when he promised to show them movies on his old laptop if they’d just behave until he’d completed the last of the year’s lessons.
The grade fours weren’t much better. A few bright ones caught on quickly, but the rest engaged in their own bizarre activities. Several of them would pick fights seemingly for no reason, while others drilled conical pieces of paper into each other’s ears; whether it was to clean them or just for the sensation, he didn’t really want to know. The rest just stared at him blankly.
Without realising it, he’d drained the bottle. He shut the fridge door, walked slowly to his bed and then sat down. Unbelievably, he’d lasted three whole months. He’d been surviving on his savings thus far. “Please, education department, please sort out my paperwork,” he thought. He’d been warned that temporary teachers inevitably faced delays in receiving payment.
The hunger pangs had returned. The sandwich meat just wasn’t going to cut it. He could get something from the little supermarket, but he just couldn’t face the inquisitive owner and her endless questions. He needed to get away, even if it was just for the afternoon. He thought of the restaurant in the next town, the one with the pretty waitress. It sounded like a plan.
He dressed quickly, grabbed his keys and locked up. The restaurant was about an hour’s drive away, but he felt up to it. He was a solitary person by nature and normally enjoyed being by himself, but there’d been times during the past three months when he’d felt particularly lonely.
Starting up his old but reliable Nissan, he soon left the town behind him, seemingly the only traveller on the road that afternoon. He absently noticed the grey and only slightly green grass and the bushes that seemed to stretch on and on forever.
After driving for half an hour, he eventually reached the national road. The traffic picked up considerably, with cars and trucks busily overtaking one another. He joined the flow and quickly made up the remaining distance to Colesberg. Soon, he pulled up to the restaurant.
THE doors opened automatically as he neared them, and he stepped inside. He approached the little railing that marked the restaurant reception, and was spotted by the waitress. “Hi! Table for one?” she said, smiling shyly.
“Yes,” he said, as she motioned for him to follow her.
He’d been to the restaurant several times before, and had often noticed the pretty dark-haired woman, but had never really spoken to her. He was determined this time would be different.
She showed him to a table by a window, and gave him a menu once he was seated.
“Um, actually, I already know what I want to order. I’d like the mixed grill and a large Coke, please?”
She quickly scribbled his order on the little notepad she produced from her pocket.
“That’ll be about 20 minutes,” she said,
again with the little smile, and left him.
He gazed out the window, glad he’d made the long drive to get there.
After a short while, the waitress was back.
“One mixed grill, all portions well done, and a large Coke,” she said, taking the items off her tray and placing them before him.
“How did you know I wanted them well done? I’d forgotten to tell you.”
“Well, actually I remembered from the last time that you were here,” she said.
“Ah, okay. Well, that’s great. Didn’t think you’d remember me . . .” he said, feeling both surprised and pleased.
“Well, I don’t remember everyone, but you kind of stood out for me. Enjoy!” she said, and then held his gaze for a few seconds longer, before finally turning and going back to the kitchen.
As he cut into a sausage, he couldn’t stop himself smiling.
“Finally making progress,” he thought to himself.
He continued eating and drinking, noticing the waitress as she seated and served other customers. He liked her attentive manner with them. She came towards him again. “Food okay?” she asked. “Just great, thanks. Um, hope you don’t mind me asking, what’s your name?” “It’s Merle. And yours?” “Joseph, but people call me Joe” “Joe. I like that. So, you live around here?”
“In Philipstown. I’m working as a temporary teacher at the school there,” said Joe.
“Teacher, huh?” said Merle with widened eyes, “Brave. I could see myself maybe coping with the very little ones, like Grade R or something like that. But the bigger ones? No ways!”
Joe laughed, saying, “Yeah, the kids give me a hard time sometimes; I can’t deny that!”
Merle glanced at her watch, then looked up, as if coming to a decision.
“Look, Joe, my shift is just about over, and my lift has been delayed. So, I’m just going to change out of my uniform, then maybe we could sit for a bit? I don’t know if –”
“Yes, yes, that’ll be great!” Joe responded immediately.
“Okay. I’ll just be a second,” Merle said with a wink before disappearing behind the door marked “Employees Only”.
He finished up the meal. The perfectly cooked meat had been delicious.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Merle approaching. She’d changed into a T-shirt, a pair of jeans and a jacket, dark hair hanging loose over her shoulders.
“I hope you enjoyed it!” she said, placing the bill before him.
“Totally!” said Joe.
THEY sat and talked while they waited for Merle’s lift to arrive. Joe learnt that she’d lived in Colesberg for most of her life, but wanted very much to experience life outside of the town. He was surprised to learn they shared an affinity for ’80s music, her interest having been sparked by her late father’s old collection of records and tapes.
Joe felt himself relaxing and laughing easily, something he hadn’t done in a while. He found himself opening up more and more to the sweet-natured woman with the expressive face, and couldn’t remember when last he’d felt so completely comfortable with someone.
The loud hooting of a car made them both look towards the door. It was Merle’s lift.
“That’s for me, Joe. It’s my neighbour, Anna,” said Merle, reluctantly getting to her feet. She’d really enjoyed the time with him.
“I’d really like to see you again sometime, Merle. Maybe for coffee, or a meal, or anything. I mean, if you’re up for it . . .”
Merle smiled as Joe placed some notes into the folder containing the bill.
“I’d really like that. Call me here at the restaurant, sometime. I usually get off at four, and we can arrange something.” “Okay, I’ll do that,” he said. “Well, I guess I’ll see you then,” Merle said, grinning. She squeezed his shoulder as she passed him, giving him a pleasant jolt.
Joe got up from the table and gave the bill folder to the cashier, who handed him his change. He watched as Merle and her neighbour drove off.
He stepped out of the restaurant, feeling good. He got into his car and started the long drive back.
As he drove, he could feel the heat of the day starting to penetrate the car. Traffic was a bit lighter. He felt some sluggishness caused by the heavy meal but he forced himself to be more alert. Soon, he reached the turnoff for the quieter road that would take him back to the little town.
He started daydreaming about Merle, and he started thinking that maybe he was meant to be here. Maybe he was meant to take up the job at the school with its horrible kids, and was meant to have a relationship with her. Maybe everything was meant to be!
Slowly, and without even realising it, he started getting drowsy. His eyelids lowering, as if they were being gently dragged down by invisible weights.
He jerked awake, but the sleep-inducing effects of the heat, food as well as the unremarkable landscape were too great.
The car struck the embankment hard, with only the seatbelt preventing him from crashing through the windscreen. His head was thrown viciously against the steering wheel and he mercifully lost consciousness.
HE WOKE up, but didn’t recognise the bed in which he lay, he also didn’t recognise the room or the people in the room with him. Worst of all was that he couldn’t remember how he’d got there. It was then that he felt the deep throbbing in his right thigh, and even though it was not in a cast, he could tell it had been broken.
It dawned on him the he was in a hospital.
Just then, a tall doctor in a white coat swept into the room.
“Glad to see you’re finally awake! How do you feel?” he said.
“I-I don’t know. What happened to me?”
“You’ve been in a car accident,” said the doctor, looking at Joe with concern, “The medical facilities in Philipstown weren’t adequate, so they brought you here to Kimberley.”
“Philipstown? Do I live there?” he asked.
“You don’t remember? Do you even know your name? They couldn’t find a driver’s licence or ID, either on you or in the wreckage.”
“N-No, doctor, I can’t seem to remember anything, not a thing.” S
‘Well, I don’t remember everyone, but you kind of stood out for me’