Aunt Gabriella’s eyes were troubled as she looked at her niece.
“I’m sorry it couldn’t have been a dog, Joanne.”
Sleepy‑eyed and with thick, tousled hair falling over her face, the girl sat cross‑legged on her bed, paging through a beautifully illustrated book. Expensive. It had probably cost as much as five puppies, she thought with a pang. She looked up at her aunt’s anxious little round face.
“But I love it, Aunty Gabby,” she lied. “Really I do.”
Aunt Gabriella was a gentle person who took care not to hurt anyone. One did not deliberately hurt people like Aunt Gabriella. She made a clucking sound of relief, rather like a good‑natured little hen.
“That’s all right then.”
She bustled around collecting the wrappings and crumpling them into a ball. Joanne wondered again that a childless spinster could be so
comfortable and house‑wifely. Motherly. She should have had six children. Life was unfair. To her too. As long as she could remember she had wanted animals. Rabbits and mice, cats and dogs ‑ especially dogs. Ordinary pets that ordinary children had. Instead, she had had the best of everything else that money could buy; beautiful clothes, unusual toys, fascinating entertainments. She had travelled the world with her father and a succession of tutors, and had learned to speak five languages. Home to her had been strange names in school atlases that other children could not even pronounce. But then ‑ they had dogs and cats.
Aunt Gabriella saw her niece looking solemn, and the anxious look returned.
“There’s the parrot ......”
Joanne smiled. “Oh yes, the parrot. I’ve seen him. He’s beautiful and he’s starting to talk. He sits on your shoulder and nibbles your ear lobe!” “They’ll let me have him with his cage for two- five.” She paused. “But what if you’re allergic to him too, Aunty Gabby?”
“Don’t worry about that, dear. I’ve been thoroughly tested and it’s only rodent, cat and dog hairs I have to avoid.”
It was Joanne’s first year in a real school. At the beginning of the year her father who was a widower and who spent a large part of each year overseas had decided that, at almost eleven years of age, it was time for his daughter to settle down and concentrate without interruption on school‑work. So he had left her in the care of his elder sister. Before he left for Europe on yet another business trip, he had paid two thousand five hundred rand into his daughter’s pocket money account for her to buy herself a parrot for her birthday.
“I’ll see Corrie du Plessis after school tomorrow and tell her we’ve decided to take the parrot when they leave Leeufort at the end of the month. The Afrikaans school comes out at the same time as ours on Tuesdays.”
“That’s fine,” said her aunt. Then she paused “Tuesday ‑ um ‑ today’s Monday. I suppose you’re going to that dirty old sales yard again on your way home from school today?”
She pretended to sound reproving, but the smile that was never long from her face lurked at the back of her eyes.
“Oh yes! Can I have some bread crusts, Aunt?”
“They’re in a plastic bag in the deep freeze. You had better hurry though and get dressed, or you’ll be late for school.”
After school on Mondays Joanne walked to the auction yards at the edge of the little town. Leeufort was a farming centre and the Monday auction was patronized mainly by farmers and small‑holders in the district. It was a sort of agricultural flea‑market, where all sorts of odds and ends were sold. Second‑hand building materials, used clothing, obsolete machinery, unwanted furniture and the odd farm animal that did not justify the expense of transporting to the larger auction yards of Bloemfontein, a hundred odd kilometres away.
Joanne liked to stop by to see the animals, taking bread crusts to feed the sheep and cattle, sometimes the odd pony or donkey, and on one exciting occasion, even two ostriches.
On this particular Monday, which was also her eleventh birthday, she saw that all of the pigs and most of the sheep and cattle had already been sold, and some were still being loaded into livestock trucks. There remained only one row of pens with animals still waiting Her crusts of bread did not last beyond the first pen, which was full of sheep. They were so demanding and there were a few half-grown late lambs among them, which she found irresistible. She was sorry when she reached the next pen, though, and met the reproachful gaze of a large brown cow so broad she looked to be on the verge of calving. “Sorry, Mrs Cow,” she apologized, stretching over the railings to scratch the glossy brown neck. The cow’s skin shivered and the animal moved away warily.
Joanne noticed a crowd beginning to gather near the first pen and knew that the bidding on the animals was about to begin. Then she frowned. She recognized one of the men. It was the lion‑park man again. She would go home, she decided. She never stayed when he was there because she could not bear to watch him buying up all the old, ugly and broken‑down animals that went cheaply. Well, the lions had to live too, but she certainly did not intend to watch their dinner being purchased. Looking resolutely ahead, she drew away from the animals and marched past the row of pens towards the far gate of the yard. Then, in spite of herself, she stopped at the second last pen, staring.
The horse made a velvety, rumbling sound in its nostrils. She looked away. He was so thin that she felt pity growing deep inside her like a pain. He nickered again and she turned back to him. He stuck out his upper lip and waggled it at her in such a funny way that she could not help laughing, but there were tears at the back of her laughter.
“Here, I’ll pick you some grass,” she told him. There were thick clumps against the wall of the auctioneers’ office nearby, and she began to gather great handfuls. The horse watched, nodding his head eagerly up and down, eyes bright. He lifted one knee and banged it against the poles of his pen. “Oh! You’re begging!” the girl laughed.
He neighed loudly and grabbed a mouthful before she could drop her armful into the pen. She collected another armful and then stood watching him while he ate, scratching his neck. He seemed to enjoy the sensation, for every now and again he would lift his head, grass dangling from his mouth, and give her an affectionate little nudge. “Wow, you do eat a lot!” she said watching the rapidly disappearing pile. “I’ll bet you eat plenty in a day.”
The horse munched, unconcerned, his eyes half closed in enjoyment. She ran her hand down his face and he did not seem to mind at all.
So absorbed was she in keeping him supplied with grass, that she did not notice the progress of the sale. Suddenly there were people pressing around her and the auctioneer was beside her, setting up a little box‑like platform. He stepped up on to it, clipboard and pen ready, looking down on the heads around him. He was not a tall man, but so heavy that the girl could not help glancing apprehensively down at his box and wondering if it would hold. He spoke so fast that she was unable to pick out more than the occasional word. She could hardly believe that anyone else could understand the monotonous gabble, but they must have, for every now and again a hand would go up or a head would nod in the crowd.
Beside her a large, broad farmer with a pleasant face raised his hand frequently. The girl hoped he would get the horse. He looked kind. He saw her staring up at him and gave her a friendly grin.
The bidding began to go slower now, and most of the people began to drift over to two pretty Jersey heifers in the last pen. Suddenly the farmer was gone and the bidding had stopped. One last hand was raised.
If anything can go wrong - it will.... Murphy’s Law. Joanne knew even before she saw his face that it would be the manager of the lion park. There would be no story‑book ending for this poor animal. The auctioneer called for more bids, but there were none. The girl knew that the horse would be very humanely put down. He would not even know what was happening. It would be over so quickly.
The auctioneer called a second time.
Sometimes the rangers put very thin horses out to good grazing for several weeks to fatten them up. The horse would enjoy that.
The horse finished his grass and stuck his head over her shoulder, enquiring. He blew heavily against her neck, lipping gently at her hair in a friendly fashion, as though he had made up his mind that this human belonged to him. The auctioneer called the final time.
Her voice sounded strange to her. Unfamiliar. Loud and slightly squeaky. The few people who remained turned to stare at her.
“Er ‑ is that a bid?′
“No! I mean ... yes!”
She was appalled at what she was doing, but the alternative was worse. The auctioneer turned to the lion park man, talking rapidly. All the girl could make out was:
The lion park man stared intently down into the defiant little face before him. Suddenly his lips twitched in amusement, he shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, and strolled away with his hands in his pockets.
The girl was left alone with a clerk who was busily writing in a little book. She barely had time to think “What have I done?” before he was asking her name and address. He tore off a slip of paper and handed it to her, staring at her in some suspicion.
“You’re very young - does your Mom know you are buying this horse?”
He turned as though to call out to the auctioneer, but the man had already begun the bidding at the next pen. He hesitated, then shrugged. It was none of his business anyway. Let the people in the office sort it out.
“Pay at the office,” he said and hurried after the auctioneer. Joanne looked, dazed, down at the paper in her hand. It appeared that she had bought a Ch. G. (whatever that was) for R850-00.
She knew nothing about horses. She had nowhere to keep a horse. She did not even want a horse. Joanne went into the crowded office wondering what on earth to do next. Perhaps she had better just explain that she had not meant to buy the horse, and would they please take him back?
The Indian man behind the counter had a telephone cradled between his ear and one hunched shoulder, and was writing out a receipt for a farmer who had just bought some sheep, and Joanne watched in a detached way as he carried on two conversations at once, one in English and one in Afrikaans. He broke off for a few seconds to call out an instruction to someone outside who was loading scrap metal into a bakkie, and at the same time held out his hand for Joanne’s slip of paper. Everyone in the office turned to stare at the young girl. It suddenly seemed very difficult to explain anything. Joanne had an uneasy feeling that it was a criminal offence to bid for something and then not pay for it. Would they sue her ‑ a minor? Probably not. Luckily her father was out of the country. Would they contact Interpol?
No, more likely sue Aunty Gabby ....... unthinkable! Imagine her smiley little face peering between prison bars.
She became aware of the curious looks of the other customers, and was afraid of being questioned again.
“My....my Dad has just gone to draw the money from the Bank ...” she stuttered in a low voice.
The man at the counter just nodded and turned to point something out to a black man who had bought a couple of old refrigerators. As she walked out through the doorway the man called to Joanne:
“Don’t be long. The horse must be off the premises by four o’clock. We lock the gates.”
It took Joanne more than an hour to get back with the money, as she had to go home first to fetch her bank card. She also wanted to put her schoolbag down and change out of her school uniform.
“That you, Joanne?” called her aunt as Joanne let herself into the flat.
“Yes, Aunt Gabby.”
She would have to tell Aunt Gabby. But how to begin?
I’ve just bought a horse, Aunt Gabby. I hope you don’t mind....?
Surprise, surprise! Just guess what I bought today ...?
“Your lunch is in the ’fridge, dear. I’m just on my way to Mrs. Schoeman’s. We’re discussing the final arrangements for the old age home jumble sale.”
Her aunt appeared, dressed to go out. She kissed the girl.
“I oughtn’t be back too late. About sixish, I suppose. Have a good day?”
A good day! Just about the worst!
Now was the moment. Joanne opened her mouth, but she could not bring herself to tell Aunt Gabriella what she had done. Her aunt would be horrified. Better wait until this evening.
“Yes thank you, Aunty Gabby.”
“Well, ’bye‑bye then.”
“’Bye, Aunt Gabby.”
Joanne withdrew the money she needed from the ATM machine outside the Bank because Mrs. Nicolson inside the office knew her very well and would wonder what she wanted with such a large sum of money. Now that she was set on the path of deception, she told herself grimly, she would prefer not to stir up curiosity in this busy little town of Leeufort, where everyone knew everyone else.
Joanne felt guilty about deceiving someone like Aunt Gabriella. She would have to find a way of telling her. Or perhaps she could sell the horse again later ‑ find it a kind home. Yes, she would have to think about that. She felt a little more cheerful. She looked at her watch. She had better hurry. It was after three already.
When she got back to the auction yard it was almost deserted. The last truck, bakkies and cars were backing out of the parking lot and someone was hosing out the pens where the animals had stood. The horse ‑ her horse ‑ stood by himself in his pen looking very lost and alone and thin. Joanne’s heart went out to him. He really needs me, she thought. I’m glad I did it.
Goodbye parrot, she thought, with a slight pang as she counted out the money to the man in the office, but when she went out to the pen again, the horse seemed to recognize her and gave a low wickering noise of welcome, and she immediately forgot all about the parrot.
“Where’s your halter, Nonnie?”
Joanne turned to find the man who had been hosing out the pens beside her, unlatching the gate.
“My what?” asked Joanne, puzzled.
“Halter. To lead the horse.” He looked at her doubtfully. “Is this your horse?”
“Yes. Is a halter something to put on its head?”
“Of course! How do you lead him otherwise?”
“Oh.” She thought for a moment then said, “What about my belt? Couldn’t we fasten it around his neck?”
She removed her belt and the man hesitated, then took it from her and buckled it high up about the horse’s neck, behind his ears, muttering under his breath in Sesotho and shaking his head.
“Ai, ai, ai,” was all he said, still shaking his head, when the little girl gingerly led the horse out into the road.