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’

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