I find that I recount some of our irreverent conversations. I miss those the most. Nothing urgent or lifechanging about the words or the topic. The familiarity. Being able to speak in shorthand. We took a road trip every December. Even after we had a son, we would strap him into his car seat and head for home. We chose to live in Johannesburg because that was to be the staging point of our assault on the world of commerce. It made sense. Home will always be the Eastern Cape. She was born in Mthatha and I was born in Qonce. We visited our birthplaces on route to the idyllic powdery white beaches of Port Alfred and its Royal Marina. Another typically South African contradiction in our annual pilgrimage.
Our ritual was to audit the ‘year that was’ on the drive down and then set goals and make plans for the year ahead on the way back. We took turns asking each other for the best and worst of any experience that took place in the year in question. “Best meal?” I asked. “That tappas bar we found in Toronto”. I remember it like it was yesterday, we drank Chilean red wine and danced in the street outside the bar with such enthusiasm that the neighboring tables felt compelled to join us. We tangoed, salsa’d and I even attempted il paso doble. The proprietor mistook us for Latinos and began to sing the words to a song that we should have known, our awkwardness saved only by a midnight squall that hastened us inside where we drank and laughed until dawn.
“Worst meal?” she asks when we have sufficiently reminisced that evening in Toronto. “The bread-and-butter pudding we had at Easter” I say. She howls with laughter. Her stepfather was a hoot. He had never bothered to grow up and lived in the pool house of one of the properties that he owned in East London, with several feral beasts that I suspected were cats. Not that I would be presumptuous, or pet one, given that he had the propensity to drag anything that could walk home with him. Menagerie was too grand a word for what was going on in the backyard in Cambridge. She loved him without condition. The two perched on the rusting remains of a ride-on lawnmower that had been abandoned in the garden, discussing the lack of greenkeeping prowess demonstrated by the greenskeeper at the local lawn bowling club. He had prepared the meal in a rusty kettle braai that a factory in Shengdong had convinced him was a Weber. The weathered sticker on the lid promised that it was: “Best for Africa. Beware no hot coals”. After the meal we were offered bread-and-butter pudding. The key, we were told, was to use stale bread. I suspect that it would have been gastronomically safer to have chewed bits off the kettle braai.
“Best drink?” I ask. “That Mojito at the yacht club in Cancun” she says without a moment’s hesitation. We suspected that they had used a healthy measure of white rum together with sipping tequila. Tequila was her drink. I’d never seen anyone able to ingest as much of it and keep going. That day we had visited a Mayan chocolate factory and the taste of raw cacao was still fresh in our mouths when we spotted the club. It was worth the entry fee as we were ushered to linen clad deckchairs and offered cocktails. The comfortable haze of an afternoon spent gazing at the Caribbean.
“Worst drink” she says. “The wine at that wedding in Perth, all guava” I say. We loved, and both believed, that life was too short to drink bad red wine. So, we had developed a code to save one another. If the wine was unpalatable, we would sniff authoritatively at the bouquet and note the definite presence of guava. It was code for: this stuff is worse than mouthwash. That afternoon we had been introduced to the concept of a morning wedding service followed by a break and then an evening reception. The polite way to satiate the curiosity of the society ladies without having to pick up the tab for dinner. The wine at the reception was so bad that we almost cancelled our trip to Margaret River.
“Worst phone call?” she asks. “When you phoned to say that it was back.” I say after a brief pause. This disease. It has no sense of decorum. It arrives on Christmas morning like a demonic version of the Grinch. There are no townsfolk from Whoville to join hands and sing to save the day. There would be no roast beast. The call had been required given the severity of the prognosis. I was thousands of kilometers away, attending a conference in Sweden. The sense of utter helplessness goes with the territory. I flew back that evening. There was nothing I could do. Fortunately, I had realised early on that being present was enough.
“Best phone call?” I say, to lift the mood. “The call with the offer obviously” she says. After toiling in the trenches of consultancy for years she had been offered a directorship with a French multinational private equity firm. “What do they do?” I had asked. “They sell diggers”. I had spent a large portion of my career running businesses that sold yellow metal of various descriptions so I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the description of the piece of earthmoving equipment that had been christened a “digger”. “What does it dig, this digger?” She turned to me from the driver’s seat momentarily took her eyes off the road. Those fierce hazel eyes locked into mine and I saw the ambitious warrior queen that they had hired, for among other things her ability to have tough conversations. “Gold. They are gold diggers.”
Gold. I have ingots. I have bullion. I have coin. I fretted, until recently, that some of it would be thieved away by the elapse of time and fading memory. It has not and I don’t think that it will. The way to preserve these riches is to share them.