Klein Jan Jansen and his moms meet blind Ouma quite by coincidence.
Later that same week, on the other side of Johannesburg, two young women were planning their weekend. One of the quiet highlights of their week was a Saturday shop at the mall.
‘Ciggies is having a sale. Can we get there a bit early this morning, Santie? I need some new clothes for KJ,’ Janet Twycross asked as they were finishing breakfast. She is a particularly attractive woman, mid twenties and honeyblonde to the roots. Even in the mum at the breakfast table role most men would have difficulty not staring.
‘No problem, just let me brush my teeth and I’ll put the pram in the boot,’ replied her friend Santie Veenstra.
Janet went about getting Klein Jan ready for the trip to town. She rather enjoys the Saturday morning outings with her toddler, and hums a few Peter Rabbit lines quietly to him as she changes his diaper. The sale turned out to be a disappointment, though, and they were pretty weary and disgruntled by the time the grocery shopping was finished. Ciggies had obviously imported some cheap and nasty baby clothes for the sale and the young women left without buying a thing.
‘When will we learn?’ sighed Janet. ‘There are very few real sales these days.’
Santie nodded. ‘Time is more important to us than trying to save a few measly rands. Next Saturday let’s go to a proper baby shop.’
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Klein Jan Jansen is Janet's son.
Wandering back into the mall, Janet pointed, ‘Look, there’s a nice little café. Let’s have a cup of coffee and piece of tart.’ ‘Mm, good idea, I think we need it. What lovely smells!’ Santie exclaimed. ‘An Earl Grey for me, though, this morning. Can you see an empty table? It looks awfully full to me.’ They maneuvered into the little café, squeezing between chairs and having to leave the pram near the entrance. In a sunny corner below a skylight they found an empty table next to two elderly women. Santie placed their order while Janet bounced KJ on her knee and they passed him back and forth, playing ride a cockhorse till the small boy gurgled with delight.
‘What a happy child. You are so lucky, my dear.’
Janet turns in her chair to look at the speaker, finding only a pair of sightless, grey eyes and a white cane. The heavy set woman is quite elderly but not at all frail, probably in her seventies. An endearing smile stretches out the creases in her old face. ‘Yes, we are lucky. He is such a happy chappy.’ Janet always includes her friend, Santie.
Their refreshments came, and Santie asked for a dab of whipped cream to go on the Cape Gooseberry tart. They have kept up their Sunday morning routine since KJ was born, cycling for a shorter time, but riding much faster. Whatever the changes that the baby brought, it did not take them long to realise that their old life style needed only a few adaptations. Friends would still see them flying passed on their bikes, and enjoying whipped cream on their tart. They chatted back and forth with the old lady, her friend not saying much. The blind lady is a veritable store of interesting reminiscences, and it was not long before they knew that she lost her sight at twenty-five. They exclaimed later with wonder how the old woman could have lived such a full life, coping apparently so adequately with her disability. They watch her expertly fork a piece of melktart into her mouth, shaking their heads.
‘I have a son,’ she told them, ‘but mostly he is too busy to spend time with his old mother, so Muriel and I come here instead.’ She hesitated. ‘Do you think I could hold your child? It’s such a long time since I’ve held a little boy.’ Janet was dubious, but finally passed her son over to the old lady, KJ settling quickly into the wide expanse of her lap. They wonder how he would take to the stranger, but he sat quietly in her arms looking up into her sightless eyes.
She rubbed her hand gently over his face feeling the shape of the forehead and tracing the shape of his jawbone and his eye sockets. After a time she passed him back, but Santie takes him, playing gently with the child.
‘It’s time we left, my dear,’ the friendly old woman’s companion said eventually. They said their goodbyes, thinking they would probably not pass again, or only like ships in the night, not even knowing each other’s names.
‘What a nice woman,’ said Santie. ‘It’s time we left, too.’ They packed up their goods and all the baby paraphernalia and were soon wending their way home.
It came as quite a surprise when they found themselves sitting next to the two old women again the following Saturday. The cafe was full to overflowing, but there were luckily two places at their table. This time they did their introductions. ‘Just call me Ouma. This is my friend Muriel,’ she said.
The old woman was again eager to have KJ sitting on her lap, tracing her fingers gently over the child’s face, her eyebrows knotted in concentration. ‘What’s his name?’
‘That’s a nice name.’
‘How many grandchildren do you have, Ouma?’ asked Santie. She speaks in Afrikaans for the first time. Looking up, the old woman answered with a chuckle; ‘None. Somebody first called me that about ten years ago at church and the name seems to have stuck.
I even introduce myself as Ouma Jansen now,’ she laughed, her Afrikaans accent thick and unusual.
‘Do you come here every Saturday?’ asked Janet.
‘Mostly. We old ducks also enjoy a bit of the Mall now and then.’ Janet loves Ouma’s gay personality. She exudes none of the bitterness of so many of her elderly acquaintances. Janet wonders if it is because of her disability. They notice that the ladies are smartly dressed, even over dressed for a Saturday morning at the mall.
‘It’s a nice routine, and routine is very important as you know for the very young, but also the very old.’ She gave another chuckle.
‘We’re both widows, so life can be lonely at times,’ Muriel chirped in.
The waiter came to take their order. ‘Are you with Ouma and Muriel?’ he asked.
‘Not really,’ answered Santie, surprised that he knew their names.
‘Yes, they are with us, Aldo, but that mustn’t make any difference. Please!’ Ouma said it a little hotly, but Janet and Santie did not grasp the little confrontation.
‘Friends of Ouma and Muriel are always very welcome here, and there will be no charge. What will you have?’
‘You shouldn’t do this, Aldo!’ Ouma was irritated with him.
The waiter ignored her, a tiny suggestion of a smile tugging at the corners of his eyes, waiting patiently for Janet and Santie to place their order. They don’t realize it, but Aldo is the owner. He always serves Ouma and Muriel’s table himself.
‘Do you bake all your own goodies?’ asked Janet. ‘They smell delicious.’
‘Yes, of course. That is why I have such a successful little café.’ He winks at Muriel, but they think nothing of it. After taking their order, he left quickly.
A long queue was forming as clients waited, some impatiently champing at the bit. Santie watched with interest, noticing him apologize to the waiting families and offering them a free cup of coffee while they waited. A good businessman at work, she concluded. The little café was obviously booming. Over the last few months Santie had found herself increasingly interested in what makes good businesses tick, but she found it hard to put her finger on Aldo’s obvious success. Two adjacent restaurants are obviously only half full. After a few minutes Aldo brought their refreshments, moving quickly on, leaving no chit.
‘Is he family?’ asked Janet, watching Aldo as he vanishes back into the bowels of the café.
‘No, it’s a long story. I don’t think you would be interested.’
‘It’s worth hearing,’ beamed Muriel.
Janet turned to her friend and raised an eyebrow. Santie gave a little nod. KJ was sitting happily on Janet’s lap, eyeing a cat waiting for morsels under the table. He reached down to catch its tail, but the furry creature was far too wily for him.‘Tell us, Ouma. We’ll make the time.’
The old lady paused, then said, ‘All right, but first tell me what colour is KJ’s hair?’
‘Blonde,’ they chorused.
‘I thought so. I can feel how fine it is. Well, we started coming here about nine months ago. There were never many clients, which made it easier for us old ducks. After about two months it was obvious the place was in trouble. All the waitresses had been laid off, and Aldo served all the customers himself.’
Muriel picked up the tale. ‘Ouma has such an easy way with people. She could hear the sadness in Aldo’s voice, so she asked him outright what the matter was. He went on to tell us that he had decided not to renew the lease. They would be closing at the end of the month. It was obvious why.’
Just then the man himself appeared. ‘Is everything all right, ladies?’ He had fresh pots of tea and coffee, and topped up their cups.
‘We were telling our friends how nearly you closed down the business, Aldo.’
‘This is a very special lady,’ he said to the younger women, nodding at Ouma. ‘She saved my bacon, as you English say.’
‘How?’ asked Santie, intrigued.
‘Just ask her,’ he said with a knowing smile, moving on to serve other customers.
‘Well, come on Ouma. The whole truth now.’
They watched as Ouma took stock, choosing her words carefully. ‘We always liked it here. Aldo is the perfect host, the coffee is nice and hot, and his milktart is as good as any Afrikaans woman can bake. But there was something missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then Muriel did a very odd thing. She asked the ladies at our Bible study to pray for his café. We were really very sad that he was going to close.’
‘Ah, so that’s why you’re always so nicely dressed. You’ve just come from church.’
Muriel nodded, taking up the story eagerly. ‘I have never had a prayer answered so quickly’.
Janet felt distinctly uncomfortable with their enthusiasm. She recognized what her mother called oh be joyfuls. But she too was mystified as to how two old ladies could have possibly saved an ailing business. ‘Go on, Ouma,’ she said turning back to the old lady.
‘We had no sooner sat down the next Saturday when Aldo arrived, telling us in a very mournful tone, that this would be the second last week.
Out of the blue it dawned on me. “Aldo,” I said. “Your café has no smell. That’s what’s the matter with it. You need a mouth watering smell to bring in the the passersby.”
‘He started getting all defensive,’ Muriel chipped in. ‘“What about the coffee?” he asked. “I use only the very best coffee, and my Fiorenzato Fenice is the best Expresso machine on the market. The smell is wonderful.”
“Not enough, I said,” said Ouma. “All the restaurants and cafés smell of coffee. You need something distinctive.” “Like what?” he asked. “You go on Ouma.”’
Peals of delight from Ouma rang out, neighbours turning and staring. ‘I told Aldo that I would be here at six the next Saturday, and all I wanted was a free cup of coffee. He just shook his head, thinking we were two crazy old women. So I went out and bought enough flour and yeast to make twenty loaves of bread.’
‘You can bake bread with …’ Santie never finished her sentence.‘I’ve been baking bread since I was a child, Santie. It was my chore every weekend.’
‘But we decided rather to bake bread rolls instead,’ said Muriel.
‘I brought all my baking trays and bowls. By half past six I was kneading the first batch of dough. Muriel helped me roll the dough and by ten o’clock the smell coming out of the kitchen was totally irresistible.’
‘You should have seen the crowds coming in. Just from the smell of baking rolls!’ Muriel clapped her hands in glee. Leaning forward in a conspiratorial tone she added. ‘His turnover for the day more than trebled. It was unbelievable.’
‘You’re having us on, Muriel. Three times!’ exclaimed Santie.‘You asked for the whole truth, Santie. Three times it was, but there was better to come. Of course we only came for half a dozen Saturdays, and by then we were teaching his staff how to make the rolls.’
‘So what was the better to come?’ Janet chipped in.
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‘It was Muriel’s idea. She suggested he do some advertising in church leaflets, offering after-church breakfasts on Sunday morning.’
‘The part that was the most fun, though, was the children. That we are still doing every Monday,’ said Muriel.
Ouma took up the tale again. ‘Aldo’s business was already saved. Actually he started to do very well, but he was complaining one day that Monday’s were quiet. So I suggested we bring in some children for bread-making lessons after school. Muriel is a retired teacher, so it didn’t take too much effort to get our first few groups. We only take ten at a time.’
‘We had twenty in our first group, but there were too many. Some got bored, and we wanted them all to get their hands tacky,’ Muriel piped in.
‘The children pay a few Rands each, just to cover their costs because at the end they sit down and have a few drinks, and eat their own rolls. They love it!’
‘Best of all, the children started bringing their parents to the café over the weekend.’
Aldo had arrived with more tea and coffee adding in a whisper: ‘My turnover has increased over seven times in nine months. Now you know why these two ladies and their friends are served here for free. I should take them on a holiday to the Seychelles or something!’
‘That would be nice, Aldo. Can we have that in writing? I’ve always wanted to go on a cruise.’ They all laughed.
Santie had to go to work the following Saturday to see a client, and Janet and Klein-Jan wended their own way to do the weekly grocery shop. Janet found herself glancing at her watch, eager to meet Ouma again. She liked the old woman, but KJ was tired and crotchety, so she carried him on her arm. The small boy was teething, making him tearful but he was still wide-eyed and taking everything around him in. Janet pushed the pram quickly towards the café, her son on her hip, stopping suddenly and giving KJ a jolt that made him cry out. Janet put her hand to her mouth, and walked quickly past the coffee shop. KJ recognises Ouma, calling out to her, but Janet moves on, looking straight ahead and pretending not to recognize her.
Ouma was sitting in her usual place, with a middle aged man.
‘Who is that passing by?’ Ouma asks.
The man turns, following her gaze. ‘Just a young woman with a child, Ouma,’ he said too quickly. ‘No one you know.’
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A Family Affair is a trilogy of intrigue and deception by Bernard Preston.
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‘Funny, I thought I recognized the boy’s cry. Is he about a year old, with blonde hair?’ The man was about to lie, but thought the better of it: ‘Yes, he is actually.’ They speak in a strange tongue that no one recognises. The Fifth proudly watches his son vanishing down the long corridor, feeling something deep stirring for his child. He is my flesh and blood. With a start he realises: This is his grandmother. They said no more but Ouma was disturbed: she knew it was KJ calling out, and not some strange child. Eventually they leave, their second cups of cappuccino unfinished, each with their unspoken thoughts.
‘Who was that sitting with you last week, Ouma?’ Janet asked the following Saturday. Klein-Jan cries out eagerly when he sees the old woman and Santie places him into Ouma’s outstretched arms.
‘Ah, so you did pass by. I was sure I heard KJ’s voice. Why didn’t you stop?’
‘I didn’t want to interrupt your coffee with that man. Who is he?’ Janet repeats.
‘That was my son. He doesn’t take me out too often, but I do enjoy it when he makes the time.’
Janet didn’t answer. KJ was sitting happily gurgling on Ouma’s lap when Janet suddenly made the connection.
Ouma hears the little cry: ‘What is it my dear? Did I say something wrong?’ Janet just shakes her head, not trusting herself to say anything. Ouma can’t see her anguish.
Santie came to Janet’s rescue: ‘Why do you keep tracing your hands along KJ’s face Ouma? Is it just a habit or are you feeling for something?’
‘Something’s bothering me, and I just can’t make it out!’ she exclaimed. ‘Our hands and ears become very finely attuned you know, much more so than in sighted people. They are trying to tell me something.’ Tiny rivulets of tears course down Janet’s face. She stands up hurriedly, leaving the table for the WC where great sighs of anguish, mixed with other emotions that she didn’t recognize, came bursting forth. She sobs for long moments, until Santie came to comfort her, holding her tightly in her arms.
‘Thank you,’ Janet said giving Santie a wan smile. Eventually the emotion passes. Janet wipes her eyes, and they return to their table where KJ is yowling on his grandmother’s lap. He has managed to catch hold of the cat’s tail whilst it was distracted over a morsel and it hadn’t taken kindly to his attention.
‘Is something the matter, my dears? Did I say something wrong? Where did you vanish to?’ After a moment she adds: ‘I think the cat must have scratched KJ. I heard it spitting at him.’
‘Everything is fine, Ouma. We must leave now. Will you be here next week?’ Santie asks, again sparing Janet. Janet gives the old woman a hug for the first time, taking the still mewling boy, and leaves without another word. The old woman looks up wistfully, knowing something is in the air but Janet has already torn off down the corridor with her son in her arms. Ouma called out to Santie who was wheeling out the pushchair: ‘What does KJ stand for?’
‘Klein-Jan, Ouma. Goodbye.’ She stoops briefly, giving the old lady a hug.
The young women said nothing for a few days. Finally, Janet blurted out: ‘How are we going to tell her, Santie? Should we tell her?’
‘I don’t know Janet, I just don’t know. Actually, I think she already knows. She may be old but she’s no fool and it seems to me that she can see better than a lot of people with two eyes!’