My name is Martha Adams and I live alone in my cottage, with only Tilly, my cat, for company. Tilly is very important to me. Shes very intelligent and has a sweet nature and the thought of life without her is very frightening. I have to admit that Im very scared on my own behalf too, as Hans says theyll have no compunction about sending me to jail (or is it prison?) even though Im eighty-five this year. He says Ive committed a crime and will pay for it.
Im really in quite a state about all that has happened as things turned out very differently from what I expected. Looking back, I suppose I acted too impetuously. At my age I should have thought things through more carefully and logically, but there you are, it just goes to show that when one is racked with emotion, wisdom flies out of the window and even an old woman with lots of life experience can be pretty stupid. So here I sit in my bedroom on the first floor of the house, staring out of the window and wondering what to do.
Will they send a police car from the nearest centre to fetch me? Oh, the shame of it! The whole village will know Ive been carted off to jail and will probably think I deserve it. I know they think Im a nosy old woman who minds everyone elses business, but what else is there to do? When youre my age and live in a little town, choices are limited. I can hardly join the local hiking club and my fingers are too arthritic to knit or embroider any more, so I spend most of my days sitting at this window looking out at the goings on in the high street.
My father built this house before I was born, when all this town consisted of was a hotel and general dealer. Both hotel and general dealer were positioned on the main road to Johannesburg and the first houses that were built sprang up around them. Ours was one, and that is why I have a birds-eye view of all the activity in the high street, which now has businesses and shops on either side of its quite considerable length, interspersed by houses still used as family dwellings. A bypass for through traffic now curves past the village, which has since become a quiet and peaceful haven for those of us living here.
The main road swings around nicely so that I can see practically everything that goes on in it. My sight is the only one of my senses still functioning properly. Thats partly why Ive landed in this mess. The national TV programmes are such rubbish I cant bear to watch them and I cant afford a dish, nor the increased fees for a wider programme selection. If I could listen to the radio or use my hands more, Id have had less time to brood and work myself up; but there you are, whats done is done and I just have to face the consequences with as much dignity as I can muster. But oh, the thought of being locked up sends my thoughts haring in all directions, and even worse, is knowing that I will lose Tilly.
It all started two months ago. Instead of continuing to buy my milk from the general dealer, I contacted Billy King, a local dairy farmer, and asked if he would include me in his deliveries of milk to the locals. He brings it right to the door. These days my legs are stiff and having to walk to the store each day has become an awkward business. Now I only have to shop once a week, which has made life much easier.
Billy is very reliable and for the first two weeks, Id find my litre of milk outside my front door on the veranda each morning. Billy delivers early before his farm day begins, when most of his clients are still abed. I certainly am. I sleep very little now, usually in the early hours of the morning, waking again just after 5.30 a.m., by which time my milk has arrived.
Or it used to, but one morning when I went out to fetch it, I found it had been tampered with. Billy delivers in plastic bottles with foil tops. This one had a hole in it, the bottle lay on its side some distance away and milk was splattered everywhere. As my veranda opens right onto the street, at first I thought it was a mishap, some passer-by having accidentally kicked it over, but when the same thing happened again the next day, I realised it was deliberate and malicious.
Who would do such a thing? Young pranksters immediately came to mind, but in the wee hours of the morning? Not likely, as the few children and teenagers in our village have to be coaxed from their beds to get them to school on time. I am able to
see, from my bedroom window, into those houses in the high street that are still occupied by families, and the frustration of harried parents urging their children to get up, to have breakfast and into school transport is clearly apparent. Moreover, even with my impaired hearing I can hear the couple in the house next to mine yelling at their offspring to get a move on each morning. Besides, this isnt one of those modern cities where children run amuck. Our parents are dutiful and dont allow their youngsters out beyond midnight, and then only on special occasions.
During the course of the next fortnight, the same thing continued to happen. Each morning Id open my front door to a mess of upturned bottle and pooled milk. I think its understandable that I became more and more angry. Apart from the inconvenience of having to clean up and buy more milk, I have a limited income and cant afford such waste.
So I got to wondering who could dislike me so much that they would be so mean. While I may not be the most popular oldie in the village, most people seem to forgive the interest I take in their lives and treat me with courtesy. The only person I have ever fallen out with is Hans Steiger, and that happened fairly recently.
Hans is a German and owns a nasty little Jack Russell named Hilton. How Hans can love such a bad-tempered beast I dont know, but he dotes on the dog, who goes everywhere with him. Well, when they passed my house on that day, Hilton saw Tilly, who was on the veranda grooming herself. He went for her and a tussle ensued during which Tilly screeched to beat the band. I came flying out of the house faster than I would have believed possible with my arthritis, and saw Hans trying to wrest his horrible pet off my cat. I grabbed the watering can that I keep for my ferns, which was still half-full, and threw its contents over Hilton. Hans being in the middle of the melee collected it too and it being winter, the two of them went rigid with shock, but it did the trick. Hilton let go and Tilly streaked through the door into the house.
Instead of apologising, Hans gave me a mouthful. He said he was on the point of getting Hilton to release Tilly when I interfered. Damned cheek! At that point I
didnt even know if Tilly had been hurt, (only a bald patch between her ears) but wasn't altogether sorry to see that Hilton had a long scratch down his side. Perhaps that would teach him to leave innocent cats alone! Anyway, Hans and I had a real set-to. He has a temper on him, that man, and a tongue to match. Hes always maintained that his parents immigrated to this country in 1936 when they saw how Hitler was going, but after our barney I wasnt so sure. I could just picture Hans as a nasty little Brown Shirt in Hitlers boy army. He should have named his dog Hitler, come to think of it, not Hilton, because its just as horrible. Well, they eventually took themselves off, shivering, with Hans swearing at Tilly for scratching his dog and saying if the wound went septic or he caught flu, wed pay. I have no idea whether either of them suffered any consequences as hes steered clear of me ever since.
Could my tormentor be Hans? The more I thought about it, the more sure I became that it was. He augments his income through the fish he catches and through the honey he harvests from his bees. Hans sleeps even less than I do and invariably goes fishing at night when he says he has a better chance of catching the big ones. He has a small boat that he takes out on the river, from which he casts nets or does line fishing and I often hear the put-put of its motor when Im readying myself for bed. I never hear him return because its usually in the wee hours when Ive fallen asleep.
He could easily make a short detour past my house on his way back home and wreak havoc with my milk without being seen. Perhaps Hiltons wound had gone septic and this was Hanss way of making me and Tilly pay; do us out of our milk ration and inconvenience me? I became more and more angry as conviction grew. It was Hans, without doubt! Well, two could play at that game.
Over the next week I hatched a plan. Not being as agile as I once was, I had to choose an hour when I could be sure Hans wouldnt be home so that I had plenty of time to execute it. It is well known that every afternoon Hans takes Hilton for a walk through the village and along the dirt road leading to Billy Kings farm. While Hilton runs ahead off his lead, Hans brings up the rear at a more leisurely pace as he, too, is too old to keep up with his frisky dog.
No-one locks their houses in this village as there has never been a need. One of the blessings of living off the beaten track is that crime is practically unheard of. The worst thing that has happened here, was about two years ago when the church deacon ran off with the butchers wife and Eddie threatened to hack him to bits with a meat cleaver if he ever caught up with him. Two days later, stricken with remorse, Alfie brought Carrie back, and despite a lot of blustering, Eddie forgave them. Personally I think it was less a matter of conscience that smote Alfie than finding Carrie less charming in big doses. Whatever, nothing came of it other than a new, knowing gleam in Carries eye that made me look twice at Alfie. He had always seemed such a mouse of a man, but theres no telling, even with a church deacon, is there?
Ive wandered from the subject, another failing of old age! Where was I? Oh, yes, explaining how it was that I could get into Hanss house so easily. He lives a fair distance away from my home so I took it slowly and made sure no-one was watching when I went in through the side gate and into his kitchen. Hans has extended this by adding on a kind of open pantry with shelving and cupboards along one wall and a work counter with a sink built opposite. Its here that he processes his honey, and bottles and labels it. Both Eddie the butcher and the general dealer sell it for him, with a rake-off of course, and Hans has a few private customers too. Im not one of them as I cant afford such luxuries as honey.
I had worked out that five bottles of spilt milk came to the price Hans charged for the smallest bottle of his honey and took one from the shelf, leaving a gap where it had stood, which would surely be seen by Hans on his return. I intended taking a bottle every fifth day until Hans stopped tampering with my milk. However, once I had taken the honey and was back in the street walking home, I really felt bad, not about the tit for tat, but about keeping it. It felt like stealing and I found I couldnt take it home even though Hans owed me, but I couldnt waste it either, so when I passed the nursing home where the really frail live, I put the bottle just inside the gate. The residents would enjoy it, I was sure, as I doubted whether they could afford honey any more than I could.
By the time I got home I was very tired and really glad Id only have to take revenge every five days! All the same I was filled with a kind of excitement Id not felt in years. I knew it wouldnt take long for Hans to work out that it was me levelling the score. Id probably only need to take another bottle or two before he realised I wasnt to be messed with and would leave me and my milk alone.
By the end of the next month Id come to the conclusion that Hans wasnt as bright as Id thought, as despite my leaving a gap on his shelf each time I took a bottle of honey and taking it always on the same day of the week, he hadnt challenged me. Whats more, each morning Id find the same mess of milk on my veranda. Somehow, it just didnt make sense. Surely by now hed worked out that I was getting back at him? I was really tired of walking such a distance each week and decided that next time Id leave him a note, telling him enough was enough, seeing he was so thick!
Which I did, but on emerging from his house, bottle of honey in hand, I found myself grabbed from behind. I nearly had a heart attack and dropped the bottle, which shattered on the concrete path, spraying honey in all directions. I swung round to see Hans glowering angrily down at me. Hilton, fastened by his lead to his kennel, started barking furiously.
Who did you expect? Jack the Ripper? I know I was testy, but my heart was still thumping with fright. My response was met with rising temper.
Thieving at your age. Youre nothing but a cheap crook!
Youre one to talk, I retorted. You started all this!
He looked at me as if Id gone mad, his face suffusing with rage, Youre a vindictive old witch. Ill have the law on you for this. Breaking and entering; stealing; destroying my property. Theyll throw the book at you by the time Ive finished laying charges.
How dare you twist things round, I quavered. What property of yours have I destroyed? Its you thats .
What do you call this? he interrupted furiously, kicking shards of glass from underfoot. Youll rue the day, that I promise. Prepare yourself for a long stint in chookie, because thats where youre going!
Nonsense, Hans, I scoffed with false bravado, Who do you think would put an old woman like me in jail?
I will, he grated through clenched teeth, giving me a shake. Ill see that the law takes its course. Theyll put you away for years, my girl. Youll probably never see the light of day again!
Well, there you have it. I cant remember much of the walk home, I was so upset. Surely when I explain to the police why I was driven to retaliate, theyll understand? The trouble is that I grow incoherent when Im nervous, while Hans is never at a loss for words.
Three days have passed since our confrontation. On the first two I continued to find my milk bottle emptied, but this morning it wasnt there at all! This has convinced me that Hans still bears a grudge. I know how proud he is. I was hoping hed call it quits, but hell never back down. So here I sit waiting for the bomb to drop. I cant even think of anyone who will visit me if Im put away, or who I could ask to take Tilly. I need a tissue. Im not crying, mind. Ive just got something in my eye.
While Im fumbling at my bedside table trying to remove one from the box, theres a loud rapping on the front door. The moment has come. I steel myself and creak down the stairs, straightening my back when I open the door. It wont do to appear weak. I am, of course, expecting a policeman. Instead I find Hans, this time without Hilton, which comes as a surprise as they are practically joined at the hip!
I say nothing, just look at him. He shifts from foot to foot.
I found your note, Martha. Still I say nothing, but he doesnt feel awkward for long.
Why did you leave the honey at the nursing home? Dont you like honey?
The question surprises me. Of course I like honey. I just cant afford it. But you gave it away!
Well, it wasnt mine. Or perhaps it was, in view of the fact that youve been destroying my milk every day, but I couldnt keep it; it didnt feel right.
Hans brought a hand from behind his back and handed me my bottle of milk, intact.
Ive not laid a hand on anything of yours! After reading your note I decided to do a little detective work when I came back from fishing, early mornings. The night before last, I caught the culprit in the act. Guess who it was?
From the look of triumph on his face, I knew the news wasnt good. A sinking feeling began in the pit of my stomach as I realised what he was implying.
Yes, your stupid cat.
I suppose I looked distressed because he said gruffly, What can you expect, tempting it like that? It was only doing what comes naturally.
Oh, Hans! I didnt know how to begin to apologise, but I suppose my expression said it all, as he shrugged with seeming nonchalance.
Its OK. We all make mistakes.
But Ive been harbouring such nasty, false thoughts about you!
It happens all the time, he grinned, people misjudging me. Im a fount of goodness but they just wont see it!
I snorted. Dont push it, Hans Steiger.
Still grinning, he dug around in a cavernous pocket and produced a bottle of honey, which he held out to me. Here, he said. This proves it.
Two months have passed since all the drama. I tried to make it up to Hans by baking him a cake. I havent lost my touch and it turned out well and I could see he was pleased with it. Weve now come to a friendly arrangement. Each week we swap a bottle of honey for a cake. Every Friday afternoon after walking Hilton, Hans arrives with the honey and I give him the cake. Lately hes also been bringing a bit of fish, which is very welcome. Hilton tags along too, of course, and he and Tilly spend their time glaring at one another, but have so far refrained from outright combat. It seems theyve also learned something from their last encounter!
Two weeks ago I suggested I cook the fish for supper and that Hans stay and share it with me. He accepted with alacrity. I dont think hes much of a cook, while Ive always been pretty domesticated.
Weve found we have something in common after all. We both enjoy playing chess and I dug out my old set, dusted it off and we sat down and had a few games, of which I won most, to Hanss chagrin! Hes vowed to take revenge on me next week. I think Id better let him win, just this once. I owe it to him, after all, but after that Ill consider the slate clean. I wouldnt put it past Hans to be working on his moves and doing some studying, so perhaps Id better do the same. At least this is a battle well both enjoy and therell be no dire consequences; not even for the loser!