By Pamela Moeng
Quickly checking the rearview mirror, I simultaneously slowed down and eased my silver Toyota Corolla off the highway. I glanced behind me again, checking on the flow of traffic, and to either side of the car for tsotsis before I gingerly stepped out. About 20 metres behind me I could see the pothole that had burst my tyre and put me in this sticky situation.
“For heaven’s sake!” I shouted across the field to my left, thankful that no-one in the cars, taxis, buses and trucks passing could hear me.
The trip back from the coast had been going so well and now this. Traffic had been heavy what with all the post Festive Season revelers returning from the Cape, but overall the drive had been an opportunity to compose my list of New Year’s resolutions and mentally prepare myself for a return to real life. Real life as opposed to being waited on hand and foot by the friends who had been my hosts for two weeks in the windy city of Port Elizabeth. I thought wistfully of those friends now as I opened the boot of the car to check for the fluorescent triangle, which I put a few metres behind the car.
I thought momentarily of just using my cell phone to call the Automobile Association, but the idea of waiting an hour or more with twilight not far away soon had me pulling the jack and the spare tyre out of the boot. Now what exactly had my father always said about tyre changing? I wasn’t anxious to hunker down and get my white linen trousers dirty but a girl had to do what a girl had to do.
With a great deal of trepidation I did my best to do just exactly what my father and two brothers did when they changed a tyre. Slowly but surely, step by step, I managed to get the burst tyre off the car. Slowly but surely, step by step, I managed to put the spare onto the car and tighten the lug nuts. I made sure they were all tight and then packed the burst tyre and the jack back into the boot.
Lucky I am neurotic about being prepared, I thought, as I wiped my hands clean on the wet wipes I carry in the car. Those wipes and the fresh bottle of water that is always stowed in the car have saved me in many situations. In fact, a good long drink of water was just what I needed now to cool me down after the hot work of tyre changing.
Glancing down the highway towards Gauteng and then wistfully looking back toward Kroonstad and the far distant Cape, I leaned against the passenger door of the car, not caring now about my white linen trousers since they were already grubby. Taking long slow swallows of water, I nearly choked in shock.
Not five metres away from the rear of the car, a young woman, dressed in black, was kneeling in a patch of orange and yellow daisies. I squinted in an effort to see her better. She was so intent on what she was doing that I didn’t think she had noticed me or my car. What was she doing there on the grassy verge, I wondered. I looked across the highway, but couldn’t see another car parked there or any houses, not even off in the distance. Turning to look out across the veld to the left, I saw the ruins of an old mud house, but nothing habitable.
Curiosity got the better of me and I strolled toward her. Not even the crunch of my shoes on the gravel made her look up. Only when I stood less than a metre away from her, did she turn her head. Hers was the saddest face I had ever seen. Almond-shaped brown eyes were framed by an old fashioned S-curl hairdo. The dress she was wearing was something from the 1980s, but it suited her slender figure. Her cheap canvas slip-ons were tossed to one side of her.
“Hello!” I was more insistent this time.
Slowly she turned her head. She nodded toward the flowers. “I tend them for Johannes. He likes African daisies.”
“Yes, they’re lovely,” I agreed. “Where’s Johannes?”
“Oh, he’s coming any time now. I’m just waiting for him.”
“Is Johannes your husband?”
“He’s my sweetheart. We’re going to be married.”
She turned back to the flowers, pulling the longer grass from between the orange and yellow splashes and putting some small rocks in a protective circle around them. Humming under her breath, she worked slowly, now and again touching the flowers with something akin to reverence.
“You love gardening, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am, I surely do, especially tending the daisies for Johannes.”
“Funny place for a flower garden,” I said.
“No, ma’am, it’s the right place for Johannes’ daisies. Right here so he can see them.”
“Oh.” Obviously he was a truck driver hauling goods from Johannesburg to Kroonstad and beyond and he drove past this spot every day. Imagine loving a man so much that you would plant a patch of flowers for his driving pleasure. There was still romance in the world, I thought. “It’s starting to get dark now and I’ve still got more than a hundred kilometers to drive. Are you sure Johannes is coming? Can I give you a lift up the road?”
“No, ma’am, I’m just fine sitting here. I’m waiting. Johannes is coming just now.”
I shivered. The sun was just setting but the air was suddenly chilly. It must be the breeze blowing from across the veld, I thought. I walked a bit faster toward my car. Opening the door, I slid into the seat and jammed the key into the ignition. The doors locked automatically. I glanced back in the rearview mirror but the woman was invisible in the shadow cast by the car. Strange, I thought, but so romantic.
I didn’t think about the woman again for months and then I was asked to speak at a conference in Bloemfontein. On the way back, I pulled into the Kroonstad Ultra City for petrol and a cup of coffee. A thunderstorm was brewing and just as I walked into Steers, the clouds unleashed rain in torrents. Gusts of wind blew in the automatic door as scores of drivers opted to pull off the highway to wait out the storm. We all thought that it would blow over soon, but like some demonic thing it seemed to simply circle the area, waiting for the foolishly courageous or those merely foolish to get back onto the highway and drive.
In the two hours that it took the storm to subside, the friendly waitron who poured one cup of coffee after another for me made conversation.
“You from Bloemfontein? I got cousins living there.”
“No, I live in Johannesburg. ”
“You travel this way often?” she asked.
“Once or twice a year usually, ” I said, suddenly remembering the woman at the side of the road when I returned from my Festive Season trip to Port Elizabeth. “I came through in early January and stopped here for petrol and coffee.”
She pretended to wipe the counter just to the left of me when she saw the manager eyeing her.
“I hit a pothole about 30 kilometres toward Johannesburg and burst a tyre. I had to stop to change it. After I changed the tyre, I spoke to a woman who was tending some flowers along the road.”
“Why? Why shouldn’t I say what?”
“Was she wearing a black dress?”
“Yes. Do you know her?”
“Not exactly…what did you say to her?”
“I asked her if she enjoyed gardening. She told me about her fiancé, Johannes, and how he loves orange and yellow daisies. She said he was coming to get her so I left her there waiting at the side of the road. I didn’t like doing that since it was getting dark, but she was certain Johannes was coming to get her.”
The waitron stood stock still. She looked at me as if I were a ghost.
“She answered you?”
“Well, sure. Why wouldn’t she answer me?”
The girl looked at me in shock.
“Why wouldn’t she have answered me,” I demanded.
“She’s what?” By now I was exasperated. The storm had abated. The rain was falling softly rather than in torrents. I wanted to hit the road again.
“She’s dead.” I repeated her words like a parrot. The meaning didn’t register immediately. Dead. She was dead. That was impossible. You can’t talk to a ghost. Can you?
The girl gestured toward the coffee machine, but I shook my head. I didn’t want more coffee. Maybe I had misheard her words on a caffeine overload.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you correctly. I thought you said that she’s dead.”
“A few people from Kroonstad have seen her there along the side of the road, but I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who has actually talked to her. You must be the first. Oh my God, my friends aren’t going to believe this, I promise you!”
“How did she die?” I asked.
“She and her fiancé were traveling toward Johannesburg in a rattle-trap car. They had a flat tyre and no spare, so her fiancé got a lift back to Kroonstad to try to get the tyre patched. In those days the Ultra City wasn’t here,” she explained. “Anyway, he got a lift and he left her there to wait. It was safer then.”
“And when he got back?”
“It took longer than he thought it would, but he did come back.”
“And he found her lying along the side of the road - hit and run.”
“That’s terrible. What happened to him, the fiancé? She’s waiting for him…”
“He never recovered. Some say he lost his mind. He died in a car accident himself. Car stalled on a railway track. Some say he did it deliberately out of grief and a guilty conscience. They say he shouldn’t have left her there alone…”
Poor woman, that poor woman, I thought. The waitron walked slowly away. I sat slumped in my chair, thinking of that chance encounter along the highway months before, a conversation with a lonely woman waiting for her beloved. I paid the bill and ran out to my car.
Heading toward Johannesburg, I kept checking the odometer. It was roughly 30 kilometres from the Ultra City when I hit that pothole in January. Right about here, I thought. I checked the rearview mirror and eased the car off the road. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door. The rain was falling softly, like tears along a cheek. I walked back toward the patch of orange and yellow.
The circle of rocks still formed a cradle around the flowers. A slight hollow in the ground waited for someone to kneel in the grass. But there was no one there. I looked around. This time I was alone. A chill ran through me - I shivered and turned back to my car.
As I pulled onto the highway again, I looked back in the rearview mirror. Off to the left of the car, in the grassy area just off the verge of the road, the woman knelt, still dressed in black. Transfixed, I watched as she lifted her head and waved to me.