PAPERBACK BOOKS
MATTERS OF CHOICE


 

John Grant, a well-known and respected artist, is withdrawn and a loner at thirty years of age. He has learned to live with the burden of his past and life is bearable, even peaceful, and he has been successful for many years. Persuaded by his counsellor to get himself a life, he ventures out on a three-month trip around Europe on his motorcycle.

Touring through Switzerland he encounters a couple he’d met before in Australia, Henk Huisman and his wife Gizike: the woman whose portrait had won him Queensland’s prestigious Ruvarna Award.

The Huismans tempt him to accompany them on an unforgettable experience with Gizike’s gypsy family in Hungary, and then invite him to visit them at their farm in the Netherlands.

Cutting short his visit after an extraordinary incident, John attends the International Dressage Championships for the Disabled, and meets a young Australian equestrienne whose very existence – so full of life, so extraordinarily attractive and unforgettable – makes his life once more spin out of control.

Contemporary women’s fiction from a male’s point of view, this story is about one man’s desperate, but ultimately triumphant, search for love and redemption. 

By bringing together two favourite but unresolved characters from her books The Fourteenth Day and And Then Came the Rain, Joyce Berendes has written a novel of love and suspense, so deeply emotional and profound it will have you, yet again, asking for more. 

In Store Price: $AU25.95 
Online Price:   $AU24.95

ISBN:   978-1-921574-01-6 
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 231
Genre: Fiction
/Contemporary Women's.
Cover: Clive Dalkins

By the same author:
The Fourteenth Day
And Then Came the Rain

 

Author: Joyce Berendes
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2009
Language: English


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Author’s Profile 

Joyce Berendes 

One time winner of Brisbane’s Twelfth Night’s Theatre best actress award, for her performance as a concentration camp survivor in the Australian play A Game of Numbers, former Actress, Dancer and Playwright Joyce Berendes, came to Australia as a skilled and seasoned performer. In Australia, after studying a further two years Speech and Drama she performed as the main character in a number of popular plays, such as Jean Brody in The Prime of Miss Jean Brody or Lola Montez in the Musical Lola Montez.

She has written several one act plays for children, and started a Children’s Operetta Group, based on the one she worked for in Holland, for which she wrote the book and lyrics of two children’s musical plays that were later performed by school and amateur theatres.

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that she turned her back on theatre to start writing novels.

Her first novel a psychological thriller called The Fourteenth Day was nominated for the Sisters in Crime, Davitt Crime Writers’ award.

The publishers’ first print of her second novel And Then Came the Rain – another thriller/love story set in Karumba at the Gulf of Carpentaria – sold out within four weeks of the book’s launch in August 2008.

Joyce and her husband travelled throughout Australia for four years with Landcruiser, caravan and motorcycle experiencing many adventures, some of which she has incorporated into her writing.

She now lives with her husband, big dog and peacock, on a beautiful 20-hectare property in tropical North Queensland.

Matters of Choice is her third novel published by Zeus Publications.

Read more about Joyce Berendes: www.bookcreatorscircle.com.au

Prologue

It stood in the misty light of the moon, like a beautiful unblemished ghost. Its brick structure was concealed within the characteristic wide verandah of the early 20th century. The sloping lawns were fringed by a well-tended garden, with a variety of native and tall exotic trees trying to protect the place from the curious glances of passers-by. The delicate scent of frangipani and other flowering bushes wafted through the late evening air, drifting slowly up the illuminated white stone steps that led to an ornate timber porch, adding to the enchanted ambience of that breezeless night.

The house was a monument to the elegant, spacious and peaceful days of rich Queensland landowners. The fragrant perfume of the blossoms should have brought sweet dreams to the sleeping family within. But within the illusory harmony of this graceful residence all was not as it seemed.

Drinking deeply of the thickly scented air, the girl stepped onto the verandah, her angelic face smiling up to the light of the full silver moon.

She could feel the tension twist and spiral up into her chest, and her lips parted as she struggled to control her breathing. Silently she moved across the wooden floor towards the other side of the house, the serrated knife hanging loosely from her fingers.

She stopped as she passed by the front porch. The bright light of the moon shining through the intricate lace of the doors had filled the small hallway with a complex pattern of glimmering twirls. Undecided she delayed for only a fraction of a second longer then stepped quickly into its gleaming centre and looking down her body saw a patchwork of light and shade covering her from head to toes.

Elation infused her. She was bewitched; Satan was within. She started to dance ... slowly ... the drums reverberating in her head, hands and knife held high, swaying and turning, swaying and turning perfectly, soundlessly, faster and faster. Then she halted, arms stretched towards the doors. They opened as if of their own accord, as she stepped through to stand at the top of the steps. The mane of light blonde hair so loved by her parents formed a halo around her head. The finely chiselled features of her face and large deep blue eyes lifted, enthralled, towards the sky.

She was an intensely beautiful girl.

Once more she started to dance, arms wide, floating down the sloping lawns, very much aware of who was waiting for her. She knew that tonight would be different. Tonight would be divine. Tonight she would make him reach a climax. The drums no longer there, she was dancing to a heavenly tune, sliding, gliding up and down the cool green carpet.

She was of course, quite mad. 

He had locked the doors opening out onto the side verandah. He knew it was a useless gesture for she had the key to the door leading from the hall into his room. His parents thought it had been lost two years ago. They had never bothered to get another. Why should they? No one ever locked the doors inside their house.

Except her, when she came into the room ... she would lock the door behind her.

She would come tonight he knew; he had recognised the signs. He would be hers … to do with what she liked, and turn his terrible fear into an aching need.

He had wanted to scream at his parents when it started. ‘Look at her! Take a good look at your golden Princess, your daughter …’ His sister ... Would they have believed him? Never! Young as he was, he had to fight his own battles.

He was unable to stop the trembling of his body as he lay waiting, and didn’t hear her come in. It was the soft click of the key being turned in the lock that gave her away. How could she move so silently? Why was he so scared? He knew why; he still had a small scar behind his left ear to remind him.

The knife …

His parents had laughed when he told them about the knife. Laughed, and told him to stop fantasising – their sweet gentle daughter? He must have acquired that wound some other way, something to which he didn’t want to own up. Little boys shouldn’t tell lies. He had been made to apologise.

So those terrible nightmares wouldn’t stop. Nightmares from which there was no escape …  

 

Now the point of the knife pricked into the scar behind his ear – pressing ever so little, enough to give a sharp pain, but not enough to draw blood.

‘Wake up, my little virgin,’ he heard her whisper, as she slid swiftly under the sheet to straddle him, removing his briefs.

In spite of the sweet clean scent of her naked skin and the heat of her smooth flesh against his skin he tried desperately to control himself, but his body gave in to his want.

She gave a soft gloating chuckle, sure of her power over him.

His long silken lashes wet with tears, he felt the knife slide lightly down his neck, her other hand caressing his cheeks. She gave a short, sharp gasp of delight; he had never cried before … She bent over, bringing her mouth to his. The knife slid a little further still towards his throat, as she licked his lips.

‘Don’t be frightened, my little virgin,’ she murmured, bringing a hand to the flesh between his legs, fondling expertly to feel it erect, never allowing it to find satisfaction. ‘Tonight I will make you happy...’

He wouldn’t speak. Usually by now he would be threatening her. He would be begging her to stop. Reminding her she was his sister. But numb with fear, knowing she needed him to react to find her own gratification, he fought hard to hold back.

She pressed the knife a little deeper, drawing a little blood.

‘Tonight,’ she continued her lips slowly, slithering, nibbling down his thigh, reaching for …

As the horror of it exploded in his brain, it happened so quickly. His head pounded with such intensity he was barely able to keep it up. A great noise, like a roaring fire filled his brain. He grabbed for the hand that held the knife and threw her onto her back, thrusting into her, thrusting and thrusting. His sister’s horrified screams climaxed simultaneously with his groans of triumphant release. The knife somehow slid down her skin of its own accord, cutting deep into her neck …

As life spurted out of her, she died instantly.

He was only eleven years old.

 

Chapter One

 

John pulled up so suddenly that the bike screeched as he came to a halt at the side of the road, and its rear wheel, losing its grip, almost skidded from under him.

Did he actually see what he thought he saw back there?

By now in tune with the motorcycle’s softly growling engine and mesmerised by the constant and steady vibrations of the bike, his mind had been running on automatic. The sign that had him brake so suddenly had been in front of what looked like a forest of tall slim spars. It had been a smallish sign, rather elegant if he remembered rightly. What did it say, ‘Something-or-Other Inn’ – inn? Wishful thinking …? So why not investigate? So why waste the time? By his estimation another twenty or thirty minutes would get him to the city of St Gallen. Yet …?

The BMW, practically of its own accord, did a 180-degree turn and headed back to the Fairyland Inn.  

Darkness was gaining fast. The dusky, pewter-grey sky, carrying the eerie light of the oncoming night, did the name of the place justice. It gave the property an unearthly feeling and made it look rather spooky. The white and green inn – a narrow, three-storey-high building with wooden shutters at the windows and four small turrets on the roof – was discreetly hidden in the many folds of the tall, darker green forest of spars in front. It had a countrified, Swiss alpine air about it that looked genuine, and could well pass for a Fairyland Inn, John thought; however, by the looks of it, maybe not quite his sort of place. Perhaps it would still be a better idea to carry on to St Gallen.

On the other hand, in spite of its goofy name and it being right next to the motorway, the inn did manage to look cosy and private. It certainly looked a lot different from the hostels he’d mainly used thus far; or the glass-and-brick soulless motels one found all over Europe, if not around the world.

Yes why not, John decided, why not give the place a go? Nevertheless as he slowly followed the signs to the car park at the back of the building, he once again hesitated, reluctant to continue. What?

Had anyone asked, he couldn’t have told them what made him waver again. Something inside him just did not want to go on. However, that was nothing new. He waited a second or two, then, as he had done so often before to fight the tension these habitual feelings always provoked, took a few measured breaths. It was all based on his own sense of inadequacy as a human being, he knew, always hovering on the brink of things. His unease was probably caused by the cosiness of the place. People would want to talk to him, want him to join in and be friendly. He didn’t feel up to that sort of thing, not tonight. All he wanted was to sort out his sketches in peace for a change. Allow himself some time to have a look at the stockmarket trading. Nonsense of course … Have a life, John. Try and meet people halfway. Open up a little!

He continued on to the car park, where the very first things he saw when he arrived, were the Aprillia and Motor Cussi motorcycles – reluctance explained. Talk about premonition! ‘Now why am I not surprised to see these bikes?’ John exclaimed loudly, somewhat annoyed.

The two motorcycles were neatly parked side by side, with, as if especially reserved for John’s bike, a fair-sized space next to the Aprillia. One foot on the ground, the other still on his bike, he considered his options. Should he drive on after all? It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision to turn back and investigate Fairyland Inn. He noted the Dutch number plates, noticed that every part of the Aprillia was scrupulously clean and sparkling and every bit of chrome on the bike was shining as if new.

He knew those two motorbikes almost as well as his own. He had been there when Henk made that small scratch on the faring of the Aprillia. It was only a minute scratch, but Henk had carried on as if it had been a major disaster. His baby damaged! What could possibly be worse?

John’s eyes travelled around the barely lit car park to see if anyone had noticed his bark of annoyance. However, the place was deserted. Bikes, cars, and one enormous haulage truck stood like hollow-eyed sentinels, patiently guarding the place. With a faint smile around his lips he let his BMW idle. How did they do it? Henk and Gizike Huisman, unbelievable! It would almost make you believe in magic. It had to be pure coincidence, hadn’t it? Not three weeks ago he’d met them by chance in France …

John had just spent six intense days touring around the Shwagalp area: Swiss alpine country at its most glorious – the mountains appearing to rise more spectacularly with every kilometre he spent on the road. Overawed by the indescribable beauty of the place, he’d settled in Shwagalp village where he had resolved to take it easy for a while, a resolve impossible to keep. In Shwagalp there had been the cable car, which swept you up the 1000-odd metres to get you as close as possible to the summit of the Santis – the almost 3000-metre-high monarch of the range. He did that trip twice.

It had been a sight he would never forget. And of course, there had been walks again, some of them through still-pure, virgin-white snow. With the bleak peak of the rough, grey stone summit towering ominously above, and the sun beating down hot and glaringly bright reflecting from the snow, they had been hard strenuous work.

Especially, John would readily admit, for someone like him, who wasn’t used to vigorous exercise. Consequently he had thought he deserved a break, find a decent motel or, he thought smiling, a Fairyland Inn ... However, there would be no peaceful sorting of his sketches tonight. Nor for that matter, would he get his nose into his laptop.

About half an hour later, after he’d had a wash and a change of clothes – jeans and T-shirt, instead of his usual leathers – John found the Dutch couple in the inn’s restaurant. An attractively cosy and intimate room, it held only ten or so tables accompanied by large comfortable round-backed chairs; its only nod to the fairyland theme, some exquisite etchings on the walls of elves and nymphs gallivanting happily through a fantasy woodland or forest. To his delight, John immediately spotted the small, gently glowing open fire in the centre of the room, which gave the place some warmth. It might be twenty degrees and Switzerland’s summer, but to John, who had lived all his life in the tropics, that temperature felt more like the middle of winter.

Henk of course saw him first.

Wel God allemachtig! John Grant! Would you believe it? Man, come and sit down!’

Henk Huisman’s strong barrel-chested laugh had every face in the place turning to see what was going on; it reverberated around the elegant restaurant like the first rumbling sound of a tropical storm. He jumped up from his seat when he saw John and stood waiting, wiping his mouth with the linen napkin with one hand, while stretching out the other to crush John’s hand in a powerful grip. His light blue eyes glistened with pleasure. There was the wide toothy smile within the familiar ‘van Dyke’ beard. ‘John, Gooser, it is goed to see you again. Ja? Isn’t it, Gizike?’

‘You know it is. Sit down, you big lump, you have everyone gaping at us.’

Nee toch?’ But he did as he was told.

Gizike watched John settle down. She was as pleased to see him as her husband, but had a better understanding of the Australian’s rather reserved character and was sensitive to his unease caused by Henk’s effusive welcome.

‘He’ll never change, John, so you may as well get used to him if you keep meeting us like this. It is lovely to see you again though.’

‘As it is to see you again, Gizike, although when I saw your bikes parked in the car park I will admit to wondering if I wanted to meet this big brute again,’ John said, with a grin at Henk. Now actually facing the Dutch couple he could physically feel the whole of his body relax. Why did he always have to have these doubts?

Nee toch, you don’t mean that?’ Henk laughed at John’s insult calling him a brute. ‘So what did you do after we left?’ he asked, still happily smiling at John, while a waitress quickly provided another chair for his guest.

‘Well, I did the trip through the Shwagalp area, as you suggested I should.’

‘Did it come up to your expectations?’ Gizike asked, knowing what the answer would be.

‘More than – it’s magnificent country. I spent some time in Zurich first, and from Zurich rode along the Zurich Lake to Rapperswill, then from Rapperswill on to Wattwill; from there, on to Neu St Johan and Toggenburg Valley where I stayed for three solid days. With most of those spent walking.’

‘I’m surprised,’ Henk grinned.

‘So was I,’ John grinned back. ‘I was exhausted. So I thought I’d take it easy for a couple of days in Shwagalp but instead did the trip on the cable car twice. I was unbelievably lucky with the weather; we had two exceptionally clear days. In fact on the second trip we were able to view the entire alpine range, from the Jungfrau on to Germany Italy and France. I tell you, Henk, it was mind-boggling stuff ...’

John had met the Huismans about eighteen months ago, in Katoomba, a village in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. The couple had been on a six-week motorcycle trip through Australia, while John was on a long-deserved break away from his work, having just returned from Europe where he had been invited to set up exchange exhibitions of landscape paintings.

At first he’d seen Henk’s enthusiasm and eagerness to get to the fundamentals of everything as an intrusion on his fiercely guarded privacy and would have made a run for it, but for their interest in motorcycles and, he would freely admit, Gizike’s gentle nature and her extraordinary face. Not beautiful – beauty didn’t come into it. The face was arresting, the kind that turns heads. It was utterly striking with the wide full-lipped mouth, the prominent Slavic cheekbones she’d probably inherited from her gypsy forbears, the perfect milky-white European skin and the deep-set charcoal eyes and mane of springy black hair.

He had decided immediately that he would paint that face come what may. And, in that, he had been successful. He had been able to persuade the two of them to come to his hometown Brisbane and have Gizike sit for him for a couple of days, after which he had shown them a bit of Australia’s north and had finished the painting when the couple had returned to Holland. The painting had turned out to be one of his best. In fact he had won Queensland’s prestigious Ruvarna Award with that particular portrait.

‘It could not be more boggling the mind than the prachtige photos this brute has got to show you, man,’ Henk now grinned. ‘Niet dan, Gizike?’

‘Really?’ John’s interest was instantly aroused. ‘What, from the …?

Ja! Ja! I got some of them developed for you. Beautiful, hey, Gizike?’

‘Yes they are.’ As a complete contrast to her husband’s abundant fervour, Gizike’s smile was warm and tranquil. She and Henk complemented each other. What the one unintentionally spoiled, the other would automatically set to rights with her gentle persuasion. ‘They’ve turned out really really well; you’ll be so pleased with them, John. In fact I’m glad we’ve caught up with you, it’ll save us having to send them to you, seeing that you probably won’t come to us to pick them up!’

While in Australia, the couple had made John promise that he would visit them on their farm in Holland some time; a promise which, thus far, he hadn’t kept.

‘Who knows, I might surprise you yet this time.’

‘Yeah …? Why not pull the other one as well.’

‘You’ll see.’

‘I’d love you to, though wonders would never cease.’ Having lived in England for a couple of years in her youth, Gizike’s English was so much easier to understand than Henk’s thick guttural accent. ‘The photos are in our room, we’ll show them to you later …’ Gizike held back as the waitress arrived to take John’s order.

‘You try this, Johnny,’ Henk urged. ‘I can recommend it. Lemon-cream veal it’s heerlyk, man! Here, have some of our wine, we can always order another bottle. We’ll have to celebrate meeting Johnny again, haven’t we, Gizike?’

‘Even if it is only three weeks since we last saw each other,’ John agreed laughing. He held out his glass for a toast.

Prosit, man! What has time got to do with it?’ Henk grinned back. ‘It is goed to see you again, jonge, the sooner the better for us!’

John had a look at Henk’s half-eaten meal. The veal did look rather appetising. He checked the menu: veal marinated in lemon juice, vermouth, oil, salt and pepper, dipped in beaten egg, coated with a combination of breadcrumbs, lemon rind, parsley, chives and almonds, served with a cream sauce, whole new potatoes and a medley of freshly cooked vegetables. The meal sounded delicious, if perhaps a bit rich, but then who cared, he was hungry, and he liked Swiss food. He suddenly felt amazingly happy and relaxed. He was in good company in a seemingly old, but very elegant and cosy, little restaurant in Switzerland, thousands of kilometres away from home, and looking forward to seeing Henk’s photos of that astonishing scene in France, a scene which he intended to paint as soon as he got back to Australia. Henk’s choice would also, John thought wryly, save him from having to sort out the other dishes on the Swiss menu. He ordered the veal, and then lifted his glass of wine for a toast.

‘I don’t know who is following whom, but it is certainly great to have your company again, Mr and Mrs Huisman, cheers!’ The tinkling sound of three crystal glasses as they touched had the three of them grinning like fools.

Gizike sat back and let the men get on with it, quietly enjoying just being a spectator. Henk of course was doing most of the talking, although John appeared to be quite enthusiastic this time, which wasn’t surprising. Once she and Henk got to the top of that mountain track, three weeks ago, the sight had been extraordinary, and would make an outstanding painting.

The two of them had been travelling through the province of Savoie-Mont Blanc. Someone had told Henk to turn off onto a not-too-well-known track that would take them up to a view from the top, supposedly unsurpassed in this world. And Henk being Henk had, of course, insisted that the two of them should give it a go. Never mind that the weather was drizzly and cold. Never mind that the unfinished and hazardous dirt track was practically impassable. Never mind that, in her opinion, they should have had a couple of trail bikes instead of their road bikes. Up they went – Gizike, frustrated and exhausted, and more than a little annoyed with her husband. When they finally arrived at the top, it had after all been worth it, and not only for the view, which was indeed breathtaking. Who of all people should be there but John Grant: sitting in the hot, bright sunlight, beside a BMW motorcycle, madly sketching the panorama beneath him – a thick patch of dark ominous clouds shedding its unexpected heavy load on the countryside below.

It had been an event out of a dream: the sudden appearance of John and his motorcycle, after they hadn’t heard a word from him for at least a year and a half; and the murky spectacular vista in front of them while standing in the blazing sun. While five metres below them, was a sheer rock face from which a deep green undulating valley fell away towards a rain-soaked horizon. A storybook village hid at the foot of the mountain, its miniature church and houses closed up against the sudden summer storm. All of this with the three of them basking in the warm rays of the sun, gazing like gods down onto the sodden populous below.

John had not even taken the time to see who had arrived to disturb his frantic effort to get it all down on paper. When he finally finished and turned towards them and saw who it was, he had jumped up with amazement, the look on his face speaking volumes.

If there were ever two different people, it had to be those two, she now thought, relishing her meal while she watched her husband and John laughing as they relived that particular moment. Henk, blond big and brassy, was the very image of a Friesian dairy farmer and John the artist, with the sultry look of a Spaniard, or perhaps an Italian, so reserved and unable to easily give of himself.

Henk thought that John was just a very shy person. Gizike suspected that it ran much deeper than that. However, it was, in the end, always Henk who managed to get John to open up a little and enjoy himself. She would love to know what lay behind this sad disposition of so handsome a young man, something well buried and hidden. No, sad was not the right word, she corrected her thinking. Withdrawn or distant would be more accurate; you couldn’t get in. It was the occasional expression in those extraordinary eyes of his that made her think of sadness.

They actually knew very little about John. He lived in Brisbane, Queensland, and was ten years younger than Henk and herself, which made him around thirty years old. He was an outstanding artist; very well known in his own country. They had gathered all of that at the time he had painted her portrait. The portrait – that was another thing. John had absolutely refused to sell it to Henk, then in the end made a gift of it for Henk’s birthday. A piece of work worth at least three thousand dollars! One could have been embarrassed about the gesture, but for the warm, amicable note that arrived with it …

‘Gizike?’

‘Sorry, what? I was miles away.’

‘Yes, that was obvious!’ Henk muttered. ‘John asked you a question.’

‘I’m sorry, what was it? I didn’t hear.’

‘I can’t remember now, it couldn’t have been important,’ John smiled.

‘Actually I was thinking about you,’ Gizike smiled back at him. ‘You’re a bit of an enigma to me …’ She could have bitten her tongue seeing the instant heat rising from his neck. How could she have been so insensitive?

‘Me? I shouldn’t be,’ John said, flustered for a moment. ‘I’m just a bit of a loner, nothing special … How about another bottle of wine?’

Ja, why not,’ Henk agreed, unaware of the momentary tension and Gizike’s embarrassment.

‘No,’ Gizike quickly interrupted her husband, ‘why don’t we finish our meal and go and look at the photos. We’ll get them to send a pot of fresh coffee to our room and some of those delicious pastries they bake here.’   

‘That’ll be our coffee,’ Gizike said lifting her eyes towards Henk.

‘I’ll get it,’ Henk said, obediently heading for the door.

John couldn’t hide a smile; they’d obviously been together for a long time these two; they reminded him of his parents.

‘Twenty years,’ Henk said, catching the smile and reading it correctly while carrying the tray of coffee and petit fours to the little coffee table. ‘He’s well trained, this fellow Henk, John, believe me … Niet dan?’ he grinned with his usual good humour at Gizike who had once again lifted her eyes to him, a frown on her face.

‘Just for that you can pour the coffee as well,’ she chuckled. ‘Don’t believe a word he says, John. I’m the slave in this partnership.’

John just grinned. He much enjoyed the banter between them, but was staying out of that one. He couldn’t remember ever having been with people who were so relaxed and at one with each other. It somehow rubbed off on him. He could feel himself unwind when he was with them. It felt good just to be himself, and soak up the genuine friendliness of these two.

Have yourself a life, John. Open up, give a little. Maybe one day you might have someone to love like that.

He could almost believe he had found some friends. Shove that thought aside, he reminded himself; experience had taught him differently. Just take pleasure from the moment. As if his body wanted to embrace the thought in his mind, a rather strange, yet pleasant glow expanded John’s chest for a moment. He had to catch his breath, as he returned Gizike’s smile, before turning back to examine the photos. ‘You know what, Henk,’ he said, the smile hanging on. ‘These are really something. In fact, they’re brilliant. The lighting is just superb. I think we should get these enlarged, rather than me trying to recreate this on canvas.’

The three of them were looking through the twenty or so photos that Henk had taken of that unforgettable view, all of them perfect, showing the scene exactly as it had been that day. John’s back as he sat in the bright sunlight in front of his bike, sketching pad just visible in his hands; in the distance the murky horizon, with here and there patches of light, where the sun’s rays had managed to break through. Another photo showed an enormous slate-grey cloud clinging to the glistening sheer face of the mountainside only metres down. You could almost feel the sheets of icy wet raindrops as they crashed onto the country below. Yet another, a close up of John’s face when he finally looked up to see who he was talking to; Gizike sunbaking on top of the boulders at the back; another of the tiny cars on the road, and the church tower barely visible in the gloom.

‘You really think so?’

‘I do. Absolutely! They are just great!’ John maintained.

‘They’re yours,’ Henk chuckled as he handed out the coffee. ‘I’ll get you a copy of the disk if you really intend to visit us in Holland!’

‘What, you’re using blackmail now to get me there, are you?’ John turned to Gizike. ‘Did you put him up to this?’

‘Of course. I’d do anything to show off the famous artist who painted my portrait. What did you expect?’

‘You didn’t think I was that good a photographer though, did you?’ Henk winked at his wife.

‘Well, to be honest …’

Ja, ja, I know. There’s more to me than just being a boer you know.’

‘Oh, I realised that,’ John baited. ‘There had to be, being married to Gizike. So what are your plans for the rest of your holidays?’

‘We’ve got another week, maybe ten days left.’ Gizike who had been sitting on top of the bed, slipped off the bed to offer Henk another pastry; she then put the dish with the last two petit fours in front of John. ‘We’re heading for Austria tomorrow,’ she mumbled, biting into another one of the small flaky pastries filled with an intensely rich custard. ‘Why don’t you have these last ones, John?’

‘Are you sure?’ Without hesitation, John reached out to seize a tiny almond cake, topped with the smoothest of icing, from the plate.

‘Too bad if I wasn’t,’ Gizike laughed, watching the obvious enjoyment on John’s face as he bit into the cake. He’d already eaten two long buttery shortbread fingers and a marzipan square. ‘I didn’t know you had such a sweet tooth.’

‘Ah …’ John hesitated. Danger zone… Stay well clear… He’d almost said, There are lots of things you don’t know about me.

‘Actually we’re aiming to be in Hungary in a day or two,’ Gizike continued. She’d noticed the pause, seen the momentary panic or quandary in John’s eyes. What was it that he didn’t want them to know?

‘That’s where my darling schatje was born,’ Henk chipped in, once again oblivious of any deeper meaning to their jesting. ‘She’s a real gypsy girl, Johnny, you be aware …’

‘Oh, shut up, Henk! It is my birthplace though, as well as my mother’s and Grandma’s. It is Grandma who is the real gypsy. My mother and I lived in Holland for a long while after my father, who was English, died. Then Mum moved back to Hungary to look after Grandma. Oma is getting on so we’d thought we’d visit them while we had the chance.’

‘How fascinating,’ John said, relieved that Gizike apparently hadn’t noticed his reluctance to talk about himself. He was not surprised to hear there was gypsy blood in Gizike, there had to have been with a face like that.

‘Why not come with us?’ Henk leaned forward in his chair, to slap John not too gently on the knee. ‘It’s only a small place, but it is erg mooi – very nice. Prachtige scenery, you will love it, won’t he, Gizike? Beautiful girls as well, you only have to look at my vrouwtje, yes?’ He gave his wife another teasing wink, knowing she would hate him to carry on like that. ‘What do you say, Gisekie?’ he inquired grinning, purposely using the Dutch pronunciation of her name.

‘I don’t know about the beautiful girls, but I do think you would enjoy the place, John. It is a very beautiful area and my mother would love to meet someone from Australia, she contemplated going there to live at one stage.’

‘Still, I don’t think that would be such a good idea, if your Grandma isn’t up to …’

‘Oh, no, that wouldn’t worry my grandmother at all, just the opposite.’ All of a sudden there was nothing in the world that Gizike wanted more than to hold on to John. To have this reticent, but so interesting young man come with them. She couldn’t quite fathom why she suddenly felt this so deeply. The seed of an idea had implanted itself in her mind. John was a godsend. Preordained; fate had thrown her a chance. What was she thinking of? Yet all at once, while she gazed into those heart-stopping, questioning eyes, the whole of her being was flushed with excited anticipation. She noted both men waiting for her to continue. What had they been talking about? Gizike wondered, her mind confused and out of sync for a moment. Oh yes …

‘Grandma is almost eighty-seven years old and very much housebound now,’ she smiled, still holding on to John’s eyes. ‘She adores meeting new people. And you will like meeting her, I promise you. Most people do. I love my grandmother. To me she is one of the most courageous people I know.’

‘Really?’ John asked, interested in spite of himself. ‘Why is that?’

‘You’ll understand when you see her. She was twenty-five and had already had eight kids and was pregnant with her ninth, when she had a disastrous fall that severely injured her spine. Because it was wartime it was never properly treated and left her a cripple. But believe me, John, you would never know she had such a tragic history.’

‘Did she lose the baby?’

‘No,’ Gizike grinned. ‘I wouldn’t be sitting here telling you this if she had. The baby was my mum, who’d arrived two months prematurely but managed to survive. That’s why you two are stuck with me. Oh do come, John. I would love you to meet her. She is such a special person and she does so love meeting new people.’

For just a fraction of time, John noticed that warm gleam of tenderness in her eyes as she held his. In that second there was doubt again. Was all this getting too dangerously personal?

‘Especially attractive men,’ Gizike smirked, eyes turning to her husband.

Or was it him? Always imagining something that wasn’t there?

‘Ask Henk. Grandma is the true gypsy and fortune teller. That’s how she made the money to bring up nine children, after she lost her husband. She is forever telling Henk his future, isn’t she, love? You come along, John, and you’ll know what the future has in store for you, I’ll guarantee it!’

As if he didn’t know what the future held in store for him, John thought, once again hesitant. He’d be a lonely embittered old man, if he let himself live that long.

Oh for God’s sake! Open up, John. Live your life, remember?

‘Okay, why not!’ he abruptly agreed. ‘Who wouldn’t want to know what the future had in store for him – especially coming from a genuine gypsy fortune teller!’

 

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