by Erna Buber de Villiers
Eyes fixed on the green robot at the far side, Charlie Binns shuffles across the street with his cane, new library book in hand. Today he has chosen a good one, he thinks; his favourite kind, a Regency Romance. This one is called A Love for All Seasons. Appropriate, for today it is spring; the air has a left-over tang from winter.
There are four more long blocks to negotiate past all the little shops, then around the bend and up the hill. Some of the shops have been there for years, like the laundry that does his shirt. A well-laundered shirt is a luxury he enjoys. He wears it when he goes once a week to exchange his novel, and to say hello to nice Miss van Tonder, the librarian. He always presses his grey flannel pants on a Monday morning. They sag a bit at the back, but their crease is sharp as a knife. And he wears his grey-green fair-isle cardigan, a Christmas gift from Margaret, all the way from Australia.
Charlie walks along with short little steps, minding the cracks in the uneven pavement. 'Hullo, Mr Binns!' the elderly barber calls out from inside his shop. 'Morning, Bert,' Charlie replies, 'I'll be around first thing tomorrow!' Charlie keeps his hair cropped. He visits Bert on a Tuesday. He likes things the same every day.
At every corner he stops, looks left, and right, and left again before stepping down into the road. As he nears his building, he anticipates a cup of tea, with just one of the rusks from the supermarket a few doors up from Bert's. He is looking forward to his book.
He will set it down on the yellow plastic cloth on the kitchen table under the window. The curtains are a bit limp now; Martha kept them fresh and starched. The sun will stream in, spilling onto the table. He'll put the kettle on and set out the tea things. Then he'll read his book and feed his heart: the hero himself, the heroine Martha.
She was loving, soft-spoken, soft to touch, small, quiet, comfortable. She always wore a little lipstick and lavender cologne for him. She liked to touch him as she moved about, getting dinner ready. Her hand would linger for a moment on his shoulder as he read the newspaper, or she would bend over and touch her cheek to his. They were complete. Margaret, born late, was always just outside their community of two.
Margaret wanted him to move in when Martha died. He did, but felt so out of place. No-one had time for conversation. They expected him to use all the gadgets, like the dishwasher he was to load with whatever crockery or cutlery he'd used, immediately. Margaret frowned if she caught him rinsing out a teacup. He had to learn how to set the microwave to warm the frozen dinners they left him. They tried to teach him how to choose a TV program beamed down from outer space, even wanted him to use the computer. They said he'd enjoy surfing, once he'd mastered it.
So, long before they left for Australia, Charlie went home to the flat he'd shared with Martha. Now he reads romance novels, and his wife is always there with him, inside the story.
Charlie turns in at his building. It was very stylish once, garden in front and wrought-iron balconies. The place is run down now, overgrown. Black municipal bags are stacked next to the elegant entrance. Charlie frowns in distaste. The garbage truck is late again. A bag has come open. He puts his cane and his book under an arm, and bends down to re-tie it. 'Before it falls, and spills all over!' he thinks.
There is another plastic bag inside the black one, moving, making faint crinkly sounds. He shudders. Against his will, he reaches in, grasps it. It writhes in his hand. He is poised between alternatives - drop it back? or open it?
Charlie puts his cane down on the ground with his book, and unties the bag with arthritic fingers, impatient now. There's an ugly, scraggly kitten inside, eyes shut tight. It is faintly striped in grey and black. He reaches in. It fits into his hand, alive and warm. He touches his cheek to its furry body. He hurries into the building, across the marble entrance hall, up the stairs with the brass banisters. He barely nods to his neighbour, Mrs Makibile, who is coming down in her matron's uniform. Usually, they'd have had a pleasant little exchange. She stares after him, nonplussed.
He fumbles with his key, carries the kitten into the kitchen, looks around. What to wrap it in? A tea towel: soft, washed out. Martha embroidered the set long ago, Monday to Sunday, a clean one to use each day. Charlie warms milk in a pan, dilutes it with a bit of water. How will he feed the kitten? He rushes to the bathroom, kitten hugged to his heart. He rummages around in the cabinet, finds an eyedropper bottle, its contents long dried up. He rinses out the eyedropper and gently drips milk onto the little mouth. The kitten responds. A pink tongue flicks out, licks and licks drop after drop. It mews, a tiny sad sound. Charlie's heart squeezes in his chest. The kitten goes to sleep, cupped in his hand. Charlie sits at the kitchen table in the sun and watches, watches it. 'I will wait until she wakes up,' he thinks, 'and then I will make my tea. My book and my cane will be alright. I'll fetch them later.'
© Erna Buber de Villiers