Jimmy’s dad was being a prick. It was not only unfair, but humiliating as well. A huge party was expected at their place this weekend, but now he was stuck in the car with his parents and the holier-than-thou Vanessa for a family getaway.
He loathed these weekends. The holiday house was in Bettys Bay, a small coastal town only 90 minutes from their home in Cape Town. The neighborhood in Bettys was mostly elderly and retired people, as well as families with young children. Their sleepy getaway spot is more than 50 kilometers from their friends' holiday homes in Hermanus. The sixteen-year-old wasn't allowed to go to them before he got his own car two years later. He was too old for monopoly and walks in the mountains with his family. He had better things to do during the Easter weekend of 2013.
Vanessa didn't seem to mind. A year older, she was Little Miss Perfect. Excellent grades, impeccable manners, perfect boyfriend. The more she loved this "precious time with the folks", the more irritated he became. She would go to her room to play her violin and write in her journal. He loathed her.
All of the arrangements were in place. Mom and dad, along with Vanessa, wanted to go to the holiday home for the weekend, but he pretended to have a golf game with the school team on Saturday. His best friend, Tommy, had helped him set up the cover story. He would stay with Tommy and Tommy’s folks for the weekend.
They were busted. Once his mom learned that Tommy's family were out of town themselves (without him), they had no choice but to cancel the gig. The girls from Herschel, where Vanessa went to school, were coming to the party, so he suspected it was probably her who snitched on them.
Their big entry would have been something to behold. Senior kids from Bishops Diocesan College have said they'll attend the party (and bring alcohol). Even Marlene Steyn, the cute blonde that he liked, said that she would attend. The party would have been the highlight of the year. As part of his punishment, they took his phone for the weekend. He couldn't even send a WhatsApp to anyone telling them the party was off.[YB1]
He brooded in the passenger seat as they drove through Gordons Bay on the coastal road. As a child, he was always scared of this road. There was a sheer drop of over 100 meters to the ocean at its highest point, but they had driven it many times. His mom used to play games like "I spy" to distract them.
However, she hasn't done it as much in the last few years. She mostly kept quiet; it wasn’t that she didn’t engage with them—she did that well enough—but it was like a lot of the laughter had gone out of her.
He involuntarily looked over to Vanessa and at her left hand. That’s when it all changed: after Vanessa’s hand.
A phone rang. His dad hadn't yet inserted the phone into the new handsfree set—which was ironic, since that was the reason why he bought the new Mercedes, instead of holding on to the 2010 model.
The 2013 had the same safety features, but with more advanced communications. Jimmy's dad grew up poor, so as a financially secure adult, he loved to buy the newest luxury car every two years. Jimmy was excited about getting his own car when he turned eighteen. He could hardly wait until then.
Jimmy's father pulled out the phone and pressed it to his ear. Although Jimmy could not see his mom’s face, he knew she was annoyed.
As if on cue, she said, "George, please don't do that now. Can’t it wait?”
“It won’t take long, hon.” He had done it a thousand times before—she always objected, and he did what he wanted. Jimmy sometimes thought that was why his mom went off to Europe on a retreat every year: to get away from all of them for a while. Jimmy was about to reply, just to piss off his dad, the man who humiliated him. Yet his sister, who knew him too well, touched his hand condescendingly, and shook her head.
He wanted to show her where she could park her condescending smile, but she shushed him by pressing her good index finger to her lips. A bully father and a walk-over mom—he wanted to tell them all off.
Neither of them noticed the truck approaching the pass until it was too late.
Jimmy’s new home was a dump.
That was a little harsh. It was a nicely maintained, large three-bedroom house in the center of Oudtshoorn. The housekeeper came in three days a week, and the gardener came in on weekends.
Uncle Joe drove Jimmy up from Cape Town in silence. Jimmy's scars had almost all healed; the worst damage had been done to his shoulder, which dislocated during the accident. However, even that was no longer sore. They had popped it back in while he was unconscious. Though he had very little discomfort, his thoughts were still all over the place. The quack psychiatrist said he was suffering from PTSD. What an insight. Imagine the heartbreak you would be feeling if you woke up one day to find your entire family dead, and your life had been ruined?
Uncle Joe had been great to him. He was the one who brought Jimmy home from the hospital. He spoke with the lawyers, accountants, and everyone else. He was also the one who delivered the bad news.
He was Jimmy's godfather, but he never showed much interest in Jimmy's life up to that point. Both sets of grandparents were deceased, so Uncle Joe was the only living relative. Additionally, he had no children of his own—he was always off somewhere in some exotic location, cooking for the rich and famous. Among his favorite places to visit are the Seychelles this year, Las Vegas next year, and a few memorable years in Singapore, where he traveled many times because of the direct flights. But things always seemed a bit… strained… between Uncle Joe and Jimmy’s dad .
As far as Jimmy was concerned, there was no one else around. Suppose Uncle Joe didn't want to take him—what was left for him to do? Since he wouldn't go to a foster home, they were stuck together.
Uncle Joe led him to his room. It was bigger than his old room, which was not surprising. The biggest economic activity in the region is the local military base, the annual arts festival, and the ostrich farm industry.
He threw down his things and took a shower. It was already extremely hot outside, and the air conditioner was not working. No pool either—What a bummer. Although his shoulder ached a little, the cool water provided some relief.
Afterwards, he went through to the kitchen. The famous chef made him—wait for it—a peanut butter sandwich. He realized he was really hungry and gulped it down. Even the milk didn't faze him—what was he, eight? Tasted good.
Uncle Joe was in the kitchen cutting vegetables. Giving Jimmy his space.
Jimmy was not yet ready to discuss what happened to his family. He found the silence stretched, and he wanted to fill it. If he didn't, he would go bonkers.
“So, when will it all be finished? How long until we find out how much is left?”
Suddenly, Uncle Joe stopped slicing onions and looked around. He did not need to say anything.
"Is there anything left?" Jimmy had to ask. He suspected he knew the answer.
That gray eyed uncle stared at him—eyes that knew, eyes that remembered, eyes that didn't seem to judge. They were not sympathetic eyes—they were simply sad. He shrugged and turned back to the onions.
Math was pretty easy for Jimmy. Accounts, too. He was probably smart because he read so many books when he was a kid. Before he discovered sports, beer, and girls in high school. Mostly beer.
Even with minimal effort, he had received straight A’s during his first few years of high school. After his grades dropped the last two years, his parents were not happy—but at least he could comprehend basic math.
They had lived above their means. The car, the house, even the furniture; everything belonged to the bank. His dad’s company, which always seemed to do so well, was also highly leveraged. The idiot had signed over his life insurance policy to raise extra capital.
Jimmy knew that he was being too hard on his old man.
Back in the early 2000s, his dad had gotten carried away in the property market—that was a good time… They had a place at the fancy golf resort of Fancourt, the holiday house in Bettys, and even shared a lodge up in the Kruger game park.
Then 2007/2008 happened—he was ten years old at the time. It was the annus horribilis.
Vanessa’s hand was crushed in a freak accident while his parents were getting drunk at Apres ski in the Austrian Alps. His dad traveled while his mom stayed at home and supported his sister through all the surgeries.
All property prices plunged along with the stock market crash. There was a lot more fighting, and no more overseas vacations, or Fancourt golf. No more Kruger.
His dad had lost a lot of money, but none of them knew how much. He was really angry when he wasn't allowed to go on the Bishops overseas trip at 13 years old, but it made sense now. He was still in the best private school in the country, they still lived in an awesome house, and they still had amazing cars.
But now he knew it was all a lie. His father had spent all their savings and incurred more debt to keep up appearances. Now all that was gone, and he was stuck with his underachieving uncle in Oudtshoorn.
Uncle Joe was cleaning up.
“Listen, Jimmy... I have to pop over to the restaurant. Do you want to stay here, or do you want to tag along?”
After sating his hunger, the last thing he wanted was to hang out in a restaurant. What did he want? He pondered the question for a moment. He wanted to run. Run his anger and sadness and frustration and emptiness into the ground.
He shook his head. Uncle Joe nodded and cleared the plates. “I'll bring you some dinner from the restaurant—my shift is covered, and all I need to do is check the stock take for the rest of the week. I shouldn't be gone for long."
Jimmy took out his favorite Nike Air cross-trainers. While they were great for working out in the gym, there was no Virgin Active health club in Oudtshoorn. In addition to serving as trainers, the shoes also doubled as running shoes. Like everything else he did, Jimmy was a gifted athlete. Although he had talent, he had to work hard to be at the top in the increasingly competitive environment at Bishops. In order to impress the girls, he had been pumping iron in the gym since he injured his shoulder. Running was different—though he was never going to compete in it, he liked it for the sheer pleasure of it.
His iPod had been destroyed in the crash. He assumed there was no money for a new one. After hurling a silent curse at the universe; he took to the streets of Oudtshoorn in the late afternoon light.
As he jogged, he crossed through a little ditch (there had once been a river here, now dried up in the middle of summer) and ended up on a road leading out of town. The sign to the famous Cango Caves (20 kilometers) caught his eye, and he decided this was the best possible route. After running for five kilometers, he checked his speed on his Garmin watch (top of the range), then turned around. By the time he trotted back into town, it was well after 6 pm. He felt hungry again after working up a decent sweat. Wasn't Joe's restaurant on this same road?
Instead of returning to his new home via the same road, he took a little detour—and sure enough, he saw a cluster of four restaurants on both sides of the road. The last building on the right-hand side was the Italian restaurant. Hard to miss with a painted sign in the colors of the Italian flag.
He pushed through the open door and was bombarded with noise. Pots were clanging, people were shouting, voices were raised in conversation. It was not a large place, maybe eight tables at most, but it was packed. The predominant aroma was the familiar smell of pizza, and suddenly his mouth watered.
An assortment of pictures and paraphernalia lined the walls, and it was dimly lit, cozy, and filled with people. A glance around revealed a mixed crowd: a family with young children here, two young lovers there, and a table full of elderly German tourists.
A small bar was situated in the back, overlooking the kitchen. He could see Uncle Joe back there, scurrying around. As he crossed the bar to the kitchen, someone burst through the adjacent door, almost colliding with him. The woman skillfully shifted the two large pizzas she was clutching, and their eyes locked.
For a moment, everything seemed to slow down. Her emerald eyes locked with his. Then she winked at him, and brushed past.
Uncle Joe spotted him.
“Jimmy! Hey, sorry bud. A German tour bus rolled in and the gang needed me here. Have a seat at the bar, and I'll get you a pizza takeaway. I'll just be here for another few hours or so."
He did as instructed—and a large beer appeared before him. He looked to his left and saw the blonde with the green eyes again. "Welcome to Oudtshoorn, Joe's nephew. Here's your welcome drink.”
He couldn’t help himself. He defaulted to dumb-assery.
“You know the cops could close you down for this. I’m not 18 yet.”
She smiled, and leaned over. “I won’t tell if you won’t…”
And then she was gone.
She was the only waitress at Joe’s, but two cooks doubled as runners.
Jimmy had to admit, the pizza (delivered to him within fifteen minutes, warm and delicious with some avocado on the side), the service, and the general ambiance were as good as anywhere he had ever been in Cape Town. And for a Sunday night, super busy. A few people had joined him at the bar waiting for tables. It looked like Uncle Joe would be here for a while.
Despite his best efforts, he couldn't help but trail the blonde with his gaze. She wore tight blue jeans and a t-shirt that featured the restaurant's logo. Her figure was athletic yet curvy. She was tall – almost as tall as he was. It was her job to work the room, smiling, clearing plates, flirting with the Germans, and, he would presume, collecting huge tips.
Whenever he wasn't watching the blonde, he watched Uncle Joe and the two other guys performing their dizzying food-prep dance in the kitchen. Pastas, pizzas, salads—the man was unstoppable. Uncle Joe’s kitchen hands were equally skilled and friendly. One guy was around Jimmy’s age, and the other one in his forties.
He never heard much about Uncle Joe from his parents. Jimmy knew that Uncle Joe lived abroad for most of his life and moved back to South Africa just a couple of years ago. Even then, there had been only one visit with his father—and that had been a stilted, strained affair. There was a story there… He was suddenly quite tired and got up to leave.
He grabbed the blonde’s wrist as she rushed past him; “Hey, how does it work? Do I pay you… uh… what’s your name?”
Clumsy. He had better moves than this.
Again, her eyes danced, and she gave a slight chuckle.
“My name is Lauren, James. And we’ll be seeing a lot of each other. And no, this one’s on the house. Even the beer…” Another wink, then she disappeared through the door into the kitchen.
He waved at Uncle Joe and walked out into the cool night air. It had been a long time since he had been called James... The only one who ever called him by his full name was his mom. And she had reserved it for when she was angry with him, in later years. Which had seemed to be fairly often. Funny, though: he didn’t mind Lauren using it.
His new home was a short walk away. After another shower, he lay down on his bed. Maybe this place wouldn’t suck as much as he thought.
He couldn't be more wrong...
Lauren and Sally had been best friends ever since preschool. Lauren was always the tall, slightly reserved blonde to Sally's short but sassy brunette vibe. Their shared interests—the outdoors and good books—contributed to their friendship. The main difference was that while Sally was intelligent, she never really cared about academics. She was more interested in fun—and boys, eventually.
Sport was something Lauren thoroughly enjoyed, and she ended up being the captain of her age group's netball team for years. She found that she had to work harder and put in more hours than Sally to get only slightly better grades in her classes. The two of them ranked above the average for most of their high school years.
Sally's family owned an ostrich farm and several properties in town. While growing up, Sally often went on exotic overseas holidays with her wealthy parents. Though Lauren had everything she needed, there was never an excess of money. It was a frequent source of arguments in her family, and somewhere near the end of primary school, Lauren realized that her father and mother had a bad marriage.
Her mom became more disengaged over the years, and Lauren grew more resentful of her mostly absent father. The more she learned about their financial difficulties and his gambling problems, the more conflicted she felt. There were also the affairs...
Her mother did not generally confide in her, but she was not stupid. It was a time of tears and fighting, and her solution was to spend less time at home and more at Sally's.
It's good to have best friends like that. She worked her way through high school, and snide remarks from girls were few and far between. Small towns had a way of covering up sores, especially if they were discreet—and her parents were.
The result was that she had difficulty trusting boys. Although Sally sought out sexual gratification and had lost her virginity by the age of 15, Lauren stuck to chaste kissing with the captain of the rugby team. There was also a beautiful surfer on holiday, and a few other less memorable encounters. It kept her relatively safe...
But the captain of the rugby team still had feelings for her.
In many ways, Sam had been a dream come true. His family moved to Oudtshoorn the year he started high school.
Sam did not come from money either. In addition to being charming and smart, she appreciated how hard he worked. He earned the respect of others with his work ethic and for always putting the team first. He was cute, too.
But their casual relationship during high school didn't lead anywhere serious. Not for her. Perhaps she kept up her walls, perhaps their souls didn't seem to connect on that level... Perhaps they were just too young. It didn't matter how she ended things; he was devastated. As captain of the first team, he had his pick of girls, and she hoped he would get over it. However, even though he had other girlfriends, she always knew—in the way that girls do—that he wanted her back.
There he was... mostly harmless, but also a barrier to anyone else in the school who might be interested. Even though it annoyed her a bit, it made her life easier as well.
That way, she could concentrate on her sport, her friends, and her studies. As her mom never had a career, and was entirely dependent on her father, she would never be able to find the courage to leave him. Lauren was determined that would never happen to her. She would have her own career and never be dependent on a man.
She felt confident heading into her senior year of high school. Steering clear of drama at home, she locked herself in her room or was out doing sports.
She told herself she was content.
Then Jimmy Barnes walked into her life.
There was a lot of talk in town about the tragedy, and about how Joe gave up his bachelor lifestyle for the sake of his nephew. In many ways, Joe was a role model to her about how to not let life get ahead of you. Even though she had never told him about the problems at home, she always had the sense that he was well aware. His understanding on those odd occasions when she had to rush home early, or were a few minutes late, meant so much to her.
She decided to cyber-stalk the nephew. On Facebook, the profile of a popular pretty boy revealed that he lived a high-class lifestyle and was completely self-absorbed. By just perusing the profile, she decided she would like him for Joe's sake—though she knew it wouldn't be easy.
But as soon as they collided in the restaurant, she knew she was in trouble. Yes, he had arrogant energy, but in his eyes, you could also sense a kindred spirit. She easily presented him with the customer-focused Lauren every restaurant patron knew and loved. But she might have flirted just a little bit more than usual…
That night, she walked home with a slight smile on her lips. He had been watching her all night... His gaze felt like a slight electric charge on her skin the whole time. It had been delicious.
She frowned. According to his Facebook profile, he was quite the rugby player as well. This might all get frightfully complicated with Sam…
As she arrived at her front door, she brushed aside the thought and prepared to enter. The porch light was on, and she let herself in quietly.
A Meg Ryan film was playing on the TV. Her mom was asleep on the couch. A half bottle of gin was half empty on the lounge coffee table.
Her dad was away on one of his ‘business trips’, so she couldn’t blame her mom for losing herself in the booze. It happened more and more frequently these days, and Lauren was tired of being the adult in the house.
Lauren woke her mom up and walked her to her bedroom. She helped her to bed still fully clothed, and turned off the light.
In an attempt to push the anger and disappointment to the back of her mind, she ran a cold shower. She enjoyed the cold sting of water on her skin. Once again, she was reminded of Jimmy Barnes' gaze...
[YB1]Why? No phone?
Why were they strained? Reveal later? Uncle Joe’s choices?
show don't tell – LIZETTE I THINK WE’LL LEAVE THIS?