The advert had read: “2 bed-roomed flat in well maintained complex. Sea view. Within walking distance of shops and other amenities. Immediate occupation.” Just what she was looking for, provided the rental was within her budget.
As it turned out, the price had been right and here she was, two weeks later, surrounded by boxes and feeling on the verge of hysteria. Gill had been thrilled when she’d viewed the place, but that had been in the evening when the lighting had been dim and cosy. Now, in full mid-morning sunlight she had the feeling that she might just have made a very big mistake. How could she have signed a 12 month lease for a dump like this! She felt the tears springing to her eyes, and struggled to pull herself together. A cup of coffee might help to improve her mood, but in her current frame of mind, maybe something a lot stronger might be more to the point!
Standing on the balcony, sipping the steaming mug of coffee (wine would have to wait until much later!) she tried to relax. Yes, she could see the sea way over there in the distance, and the flat was within walking distance of the shops and a large medical centre and was on a bus route. The problem was the flat itself. The paintwork was filthy, the carpets a grubby nondescript colour and, judging by the state of the bathroom, the building was at least 50 years old. The landlord had told her that she was free to decorate if she felt inclined, as he himself had no intention of ever moving into the flat as he now lived in another city.
Having finished her coffee, Gill braced herself before re-entering the living room. The furniture had been plonked down by the removal men and, apart from the heavy items such as the fridge, needed to be re-arranged. Where to start, that was the question. Why had she refused everyone’s offer of help? Sometimes her insistence on being self-sufficient was to her own detriment. She had been determined to show everyone that she could cope very well on her own, and now she was already regretting being so hard headed. Her best friend, Margie, had often told her that she shouldn’t be so stubborn, and that people deserved the opportunity to help their friends. Gill knew she was right, but at 29 she felt it necessary to be as independent as possible.
Next birthday would herald in the 30’s and that was a very sobering thought. Some of Gill’s friends were already married for the second time, and yet she was still alone and rapidly heading for a place on the proverbial shelf. She had never been short of male company and on several occasions she had honestly believed that she had met Mr. Right. Luckily for her, she had discovered on each occasion, before any plans were made for that trip down the aisle, that Mr. Right was in fact Mr. very Wrong indeed.
The decision to move from her sister and brother-in-law’s garden cottage had been made for many reasons. Firstly, moving into town meant far less time spent travelling to and from the office. Then there was the chaos which prevailed at her sister’s home. With 4 children all under the age of 8, 5 dogs, numerous cats as well as an African Grey parrot which all day long alternated between barking like a dog, imitating the car alarms and occasionally letting rip with some very choice profanities, life was far from relaxing. The cottage was attached to the main house so there was very little privacy at all. Yes, it was most definitely time to move out before she got taken away kicking and screaming by men in white coats!
Janet, Gill’s sister, was made for domesticity and the noise which prevailed constantly in her home seemed to go totally unnoticed. How Peter, her husband, could also remain so calm and collected surrounded by such total mayhem had always puzzled Gill. Different strokes for different folks!
Finally, Janet was always making rather snide remarks regarding Gill’s single life-style. It could have been a case of sour grapes due to Gill having only herself to consider and being able to afford trips abroad every couple of years. Sibling rivalry had always played its role when the girls were younger, with Gill being the prettier of the two and far more academically inclined than her sister. It seemed sad that this should have continued into adulthood but it was what it was. Gill had always been a very willing aunt to the children and was ready to look after the entire menagerie for days at a time to allow Janet and Peter to have the odd break. Although it was appreciated, Gill still got the feeling that there was a great deal of envy where her single life was concerned. On her part, she would have been very happy to tie the knot if the right person had come along. If it happened then so be it, but at this moment in time, moving into her own flat was the most important thing.
Dragging her thoughts back to the present, Gill armed herself with a bucket of hot, soapy water and a scrubbing brush. There was no way on earth that she could consider unpacking anything without first cleaning the grimy paintwork on the doors and walls. Somewhere around lunchtime she was startled by the ringing of her doorbell. She wasn’t expecting anyone to call in today so she peered through the spy hole to see who was outside. Standing there was a dark-haired man carrying a florist’s bouquet. She opened the door in surprise – it wasn’t her birthday and her friends didn’t even know the number of her new flat. So, who could be sending her flowers? The man smiled at her and thrust the beautiful colourful arrangement into her arms. “Enjoy your day ma’am” he said before turning and hurrying back the way he had come.
“Excuse me, but….”, too late! He had already disappeared around the corner leaving a bewildered Gill holding the flowers and feeling totally confused. She went back inside, closing the front door behind her before opening the greeting card attached to the flowers. Funny, but didn’t one usually have to sign for receiving flowers? The message on the card didn’t make any sense to Gill either. “Couldn’t believe my eyes. Welcome to Hilton Heights. D”. She would have thought the flowers were meant for someone else, except for the fact that she had just moved into Hilton Heights that very day. Who on earth was “D”?
She watered the arrangement and placed it on the dining room table in amongst boxes of books and crockery. How on earth would she ever find out who had sent her the flowers? Oh, well, better get back to work. She switched on her small (rather out of date, but still very functional) portable radio for company, and carried on with the cleaning and sorting out. This continued for the rest of the day and by the time the furniture in the flat was relatively liveable Gill was absolutely exhausted. She would leave hanging the curtains until tomorrow as no-one could see into her apartment and she was way too tired to carry on any longer.
The thought of going out to eat supper was out of the question and she was about to hunt for a tin of something in her box of groceries which she could heat up in the microwave, when the doorbell rang once again. This time it was a teenager from a local pizza takeaway branch. When she said she hadn’t ordered anything he told her that it had already been paid for and no, it wasn’t a mistake. The address which he had been given was definitely flat No. 21. He wasn’t able to tell her who had placed the order, just that there was nothing to pay. Gill composed herself enough to give the youngster a generous tip before collapsing onto the couch to enjoy the unexpected and very welcome meal. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before and she could be forgiven for starting to think that she was hallucinating from overwork and low blood sugar level. She made a mental note to phone some of her friends when she had a spare moment to see whether anyone had any idea as to what was going on. Could the landlord be feeling guilty about the state of his flat and be trying to clear his conscience by sending her some moving-in gifts?
The rest of the weekend passed uneventfully, and it was with a sense of relief that Gill arrived at the office on Monday morning. She was tired of cleaning and unpacking but the flat was slowly beginning to feel like home. She felt more optimistic about its potential now that her furniture was in place and her new curtains had been hung up. Altogether, it really looked very attractive and even the carpets weren’t as bad as at first sight. Once her trendy scatter rugs were in place you really didn’t notice their condition at all. She was determined to spend the next few weekends armed with a paintbrush and adding some subtle colour to the walls and doorframes.
No-one admitted responsibility for the flowers or the pizza, and her friends and colleagues teased her about her secret admirer. She wasn’t convinced though and suspected that her friend, Margie in accounts, had something to do with it all. Nothing unexpected happened all day, but her boss was ever more exasperating than normal. He was due to fly to Singapore the following week, so had mountains of correspondence for Gill to handle. He was a man who tended to become excitable and impatient every time he needed to go overseas on business. Gill suspected that he would be happier pottering around his garden at home rather than sitting around a boardroom table. He had once divulged the fact that he had been forced by circumstances to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and become a third generation accountant, but would have loved to have studied horticulture.
Margie popped her head around the door of Gill’s office to remind her about the dinner party she had planned for Friday evening. She said that it wasn’t necessary for Gill to bring a partner with her as there was a friend she wanted to introduce her to. This happened on a regular basis and Gill found this whole “let’s find you a husband” routine to be getting rather tedious. However, the offer to help with any future painting and the promise of a phone number of a reliable and affordable carpet cleaning company was very well received. Gill was aching all over from the weekend’s labours and this time was only too willing to accept the offer of help. The sooner the flat was completely the way she wanted it, the sooner she could start inviting her friends to come over for drinks.
The week flew by. She’d almost worn her fingers to stumps with all the extra typing and it was a miracle that Mr. Hyslop hadn’t been strangled and thrown out of the 9th storey window. It was late on Friday afternoon that she gave any thought to the unknown person who her friend wanted her to meet. Margie was living with her long-time fiancé, Jacques, and the wedding was being planned for December. She couldn’t bear the thought that Gill was still unattached and was always on the look-out for prospective partners for her. So far none of them had been Gill’s type at all. They belonged to two clubs – Nerds Anonymous and Divorce Survivors. She was tired of listening to discussions of The Latest developments in IT, Healthy Living, Maintenance Payments and Life Without the kids.
When Gill arrived home, she found a note pinned to her front door telling he that there was an item of mail for her at the caretaker’s flat. She had only met the caretaker and his wife on two occasions before and they could have stepped right out of the pages of a Roald Dahl book. She wouldn’t like to cross swords with either of them. Not a particularly pleasant middle-aged couple at all. They had made it quite clear that they disapproved of loud music, noisy children, and late-night partying. As she knocked on their door she made a silent resolution to throw the biggest, noisiest, mind-blowing party the night before she moved out of this building one day in the distant future. Mr. Smit opened the door and nodded when he saw Gill on the doorstep. Studying the ground in front of her, he muttered something about a parcel having been delivered for her whilst she was at work, and that he had signed for it on her behalf. He shoved it into her hand and, before she could thank him, he had already closed the door. “I’d better make sure I never lock myself out of my flat”, thought Gill, “Waking him up late at night could be a fate worse than death”. The parcel in her hand was wrapped in brown paper and was addressed in black capital letters. There was no postmark that she could see, so she had absolutely no idea from where it had come.
Once inside her flat she tore off the wrapping and found herself looking at the glossy hard cover of a book entitled, “Do it Yourself Home Decorating”. The pages seemed to be full of quick, up to the minute ideas on turning even the most depressing room into an eye-catching work of art. Just the kind of book Gill loved. She searched for some clue as to the identity of the sender. On the inside cover were the words, “Happy decorating. Best wishes, D”. Who on earth was “D”? Was it the same person who had sent her flowers, and most probably the pizza, and now this book? She’d known several Daves, a Danny and even a Dimitri over the years, but her most recent boyfriend had been Michael and the only D in his life was his regular Detoxification programme!
Glancing at the clock she realised that she’d have to hurry up if she were to arrive at Margie’s by 7.30p.m. She had just enough time to shower and wash and dry her hair. Fortunately, her current hairstyle was a chin-length bob which was quick and easy to style. By 7p.m. she was looking good in a black mini dress and high heels which showed off her long, tanned legs to perfection. A quick spray of her favourite French perfume and she was ready to go. She could change her name to Speedy Gonzales at this rate!
As she arrived at the home of Margie and Jacques, she noticed a brand new red BMW parked in the driveway. Must belong to the mysterious new man, she thought. Well, at least this one had excellent taste in cars. One of Margie’s hopefuls had driven a bright yellow beach buggy covered in graffiti.
The dogs started to bark before Gill reached the front door, and Margie opened it and welcomed her with a hug. “You look fantastic, Gill, and you smell deliciously expensive!” As she shepherded Gill into the lounge, Jacques came across the room to kiss her on both cheeks. Trust Margie to find a charming Frenchman after all those years of French lessons and Cordon Bleu cookery classes.
The owner of the BMW had got to his feet as Gill entered the room. He was of medium height with slightly receding dark hair. “Gill, this is Chris Stewart. Chris, Gill McKenzie”. The stranger smiled at her as he shook her hand, and Gill wasn’t disappointed by his looks at all. Although he couldn’t be described as handsome as his nose was too big and his smile rather lop-sided, he was definitely attractive in a rugged way. Somehow he looked out of place in his suit and tie and Gill got the feeling that he would be happier in jeans and a sweater. It turned out that he worked with Jacques and had recently moved to Durban from Johannesburg.
It was just the four of them for dinner that evening and it turned out to be comfortable and relaxing. This in itself was a relief for Gill and she was able to unwind and be her usual witty self. She soon discovered that Chris had travelled a great deal like herself, and photography was his passion. He dreamt of starting his own photographic business one day and leaving behind the constant stress which his current job within a large pharmaceutical company created all the time.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at nine, Gill”, promised Margie as Gill prepared to leave. She popped her head through the open driver’s window to whisper in her friend’s ear, “Isn’t he gorgeous, Gill? I’m sure he’s attracted to you”. Gill ignored the comment and thanked Margie again for a wonderful evening. She waved to Jacques and Chris who were standing in the doorway, and reversed her little hatch-back down the driveway. Driving home she let her mind wander over the evening. She wondered if she would hear from Chris again. If Margie had anything to do with it, she probably would. It was odd, but she felt as though she knew him although they had never met before. He had fitted in so well with her friends that it was hard to believe that this was the first evening they had all spent together.
True to her word, Margie arrived promptly at 9a.m. the following morning. She was carrying a large plastic bag containing a pair of blue overalls which Jacques used for working on his car. After a cup of coffee the girls got to work. It was actually good fun painting together and amazing just how quickly the time went by. Before they knew it, it was mid-afternoon and they decided they had better break for a bite to eat. They took time to admire their handiwork. The bathroom was totally transformed. Amazing what a fresh coat of paint could do to the walls, pelmet and door. No more dreary grey-white walls and chipped door frames. Instead it was now lemon walls and a turquoise door and pelmet. With some new towels and a bath mat it would be perfect.
They took two fold-up stools out on to the balcony and sat munching on thick sandwiches which they had hastily prepared together in the kitchen. These were washed down with glasses of chilled white wine. Remarkable just how quickly one’s stamina could be revived with the correct kind of sustenance!
“I think you made the right decision taking this flat, Gill”, mused Margie. “It’s so nice and close to town and that sea view is very relaxing. Once the decorating’s finished you won’t want to move out”.
“After all this hard work, I’m here to stay”, replied Gill. The thought of moving again was anything but appealing. “Do you think I’ll ever hear from Chris again, Margie?”, asked Gill rather hesitantly.
“Well, he couldn’t stop talking about you after you’d left last night”, Margie said. “He said something strange though, which has been worrying me since he left. He mentioned the fact that you lived in Hilton Heights, and neither Jacques nor I had told him. Did you mention it to him?”
“I spoke about my move, but I didn’t mention the name of the flats, as far as I can remember. Maybe he’s a bit of a mind reader!”
The question continued to puzzle the friends, but they soon forgot about it once they were again immersed in their decorating. They decided to call it a day at 6.30pm as Jacques would have returned from playing golf, and Margie thought it was time she went home. She’d had more than her fair share of brush-wielding aerobics for one day. A hot bath was needed before she expired totally!
Once Gill was alone again, she felt like having a relaxing evening watching some television and having a nice hot cup of coffee but suddenly realised that she had run out of milk. She decided to pop down to the café on the corner and spoil herself with a bar of well-earned chocolate as well, before showering and settling down for the night. She glanced at herself in the mirror in the bathroom before grabbing her purse. Yellow and blue speckles of paint were sprinkled in her hair as well as on her arms and face and tee shirt. She wasn’t too bothered as there was little chance of her bumping into anyone she might know, as she hadn’t met very many people in the last couple of days since moving in. She slammed the flat door shut behind her, only to realize that she’d left her keys inside. Horrors, how on earth could she get back inside? Other than spending the night curled up on the doormat, she really didn’t have much of a choice. She might as well go to the café for the milk before bracing herself to ask the indomitable caretakers to help her with their master key.
She ran down the stairs to the ground floor instead of taking the lift and as she raced out of the entrance she almost collided with someone on his way into the building. He dropped the packages he was carrying and almost over balanced. Gill, mortified, started to apologize profusely, when she looked up and realized that the person she’d almost knocked over was, in fact, Chris. She couldn’t believe it. The funny thing was that he didn’t seem at all surprised to see her. He laughed as she started to say how sorry she was for her recklessness, and helped him to pick up his packages. She told him how she’s foolishly locked herself out of her flat. He said that breaking and entering was just one of his many talents and he was pretty sure that they wouldn’t need to call on the assistance of the intimidating Smits.
The milk forgotten, Gill allowed Chris to accompany her back to her locked front door. Putting his parcels down, he looked around and spotted a small open window to the right of the front door. By reaching down and across he was able to grab hold of the keys which were still hanging in the keyhole. Carefully, he lifted them out and with an exuberant “Voila!, he gave them to her with a flourish.
Leading the way inside, Gill explained. “Please excuse the way I look, but I’ve been painting all day. Would you like a drink, Chris? Beer, wine, tea, coffee – oh heck, I forgot that I was on my way to buy some milk when I locked myself out. That’s where I was running to when I collided with you.
“A glass of wine would be great, thanks”. He smiled at Gill, “I think I’d better explain a few things Gill. Firstly last night was amazing and I was going to give you a ring early next week to try to arrange to see you again”.
“But what are you doing in this building, Chris?”, asked a very puzzled Gill.
“My brother, Mike, lives upstairs from you, and I brought him a few groceries as he’s got a bad dose of Man flu and is wife’s away on business until Wednesday.
Gill handed him a glass of wine and they sat down in the lounge. Chris suddenly blurted out, “I’ve got a confession to make Gill”, he admitted looking rather embarrassed. “Jacques showed me their engagement photos a while ago and there was one of you which interested me. He told me a bit about you and that you were unattached. He said he’d get Margie to arrange something and then, a few days later, while I was standing at Mike’s window looking down into the courtyard, I saw you coming out from speaking to the caretaker. It had to be you or an identical twin sister.
I asked Mike to find out from the caretaker whether or not you were moving in, and what your name was. He seems to get on all right with the old misery and got all the info I needed. There was no way I could just knock on your door and introduce myself – Margie had already planned the dinner anyway – so I got my brother to drop off the flowers. As for the pizza – I’d ordered one for Mike and I thought you might enjoy one after all the unpacking.”
“This is so crazy”, laughed Gill. “And I suppose Margie also told you that I’m dying to do a course in interior decorating as well, didn’t she?”
“She did let it slip”, grinned Chris, “And when I found that book on sale last week I thought you might like to have it”.
“But what does the “D” stand for, if your name really is Chris?”, mused Gill. “Determined, daft or demented – whichever you think best describes me! Actually, my first name is Damian, but I have preferred to use my middle name since leaving school”, he said with a grin.
“I’d better take these groceries up to Mike so that he can have some dinner. Poor guy is really feeling sorry for himself and never copes well when his wife has to go away. Being sick doesn’t help matters either! How about you and I going out for a quick bite to eat when I get back down from seeing him?”
Hurriedly showering, the only thought in Gill’s mind was the saying “In life expect the unexpected”!