by Arja Salafranca



It was ten to six, and the sun was still hot. It would be another hour before it would go down. Around us, in the outdoor coffee shop, children played, people walked, cars reversed in the parking lot.

It was time to leave. We'd been talking barely an hour and it was time to leave.

I got out my notebook and asked Athina to write down her address and telephone numbers so we wouldn't lose touch again. I wrote my details down too, even though my email address hadn't changed in ten years, and she could have got hold of me anyway.

I looked down. Of course, it was no longer Athina Karras, but Popadopolou, her married name. Athina pushed hair out of her face, dark glossy Greek hair. Did she really dye it as she had claimed all those years ago when we were twenty, twenty-one?

"It's a mousy brown," she had said, "so I dye it. It just looks better."

It didn't look dyed however. And all those photos of her as a child beside her glamorous mother, in them she had black hair, just like now. A momentary thought, a fleeting thought. I barely acknowledged it.

I got up to go. We kissed, cheek to cheek, the Mediterranean way. I walked away. "It's just like old times," said her mother as we parted. "It could be ten years ago."

"See you in another ten years!" I said, jokingly, not so jokingly? I waved goodbye again to Athina, sitting there in the shade, a pensive look on her face, as she watched me, her mother, her young son playing with the tin car on the pavement.


In the weeks after that accidental meeting in a shopping mall I think of her often. Christmas comes and I think of Athina with her family at Sun City Casino where her mother booked them for the holidays. I think of her on new year and wonder what she's doing.

I think of her during the early days of the new year; she had said they were flying out on the second of January. On a sweltering Johannesburg day, when the sky is thick with wanting to rain, and the air sluggish with heat, I think of her and her young son and husband, back in icy cold London. She's on my mind, much as she had been on my mind for months now, flitting across it repeatedly. Once I even looked her up on Facebook but the Athina Popadopolou listed there had not responded. I must have sensed that we were going to bump each other after all those years. I had always been intuitive abouts her.

I remember that time, we were both twenty-five then. Athina had finally finished her degree, after wasted years and false starts. She had graduated and was flying off to Greece for a holiday. We sat at yet another coffee shop and discussed the future. Athina was going on holiday and then coming back: "I'll work here a year, get some experience and then I'll go to London," she said. London, that golden beacon, beckoning us both with our European passports.

"No, you won't," I said suddenly, "you're going to go straight to London from Greece. I'm not going to see you for a few years."

She was adamant she was coming back to Johannesburg, saying no no no I was wrong.

So I wasn't surprised when I got a letter a few weeks later: she had decided to go straight to London, and was bunking down in a tiny flat. "You were right, my friend!" she wrote.

I read the letter grimly. I had known all along. She'd done it before me. Reached fabled London.

A few weeks later I got another excited letter from her, she had found a boyfriend! There were exclamation marks all over the letter. And again, I wasn't surprised.

We had first met because of one of her boyfriends.


On that hot summer afternoon in December all these years later I bump into her in a busy shopping mall. Weeks before Christmas and the mall is festooned with strings of lights. It's the holiday season again and no-one is interested in working. I had left work early to go shopping, popping in to see my mother at the boutique where she sold clothes. Boutiques are empty, but restaurants are packed. There is a sense of holiday and fun in the air, the country shutting down for the silly season. "I saw Athina," my mother says, "I told her you'd be in later and she said maybe she'd pop in."

"Did you get her number?" I ask, but she hadn't, merely telling me she hadn't recognised her.


It's Athina, flanked by her tall husband, face clear of make-up, hair scraped back. She is plumper now, blending into the background in a way that she hadn't when we had first met fifteen years ago. I did recognise her, of course. Through our periodic meetings over the years I had watched her change, registering the changes in women friends as you do. The unlined or lined faces, the colour of the hair, the thick glasses worn instead of contact lenses, the worry that creeps in, settling around the crevices of mouths.

"Join us for coffee?"

When I approach the table I see Athina and her husband holding hands, a small gesture of their love still alive after the decade they had know each other, for this was the boyfriend Athina had written to tell me she had met within months of arriving in London. "If it hadn't been for George..." her voice had trailed off, "he kept me alive and together those first few years."

I sit; order an iced cappuccino on this hot day. We smile at each other, where do you begin to capture what's happened? The last time I had seen her was years and lifetimes ago. "Where's your son?" I ask. I remember her pregnant the winter I was in London, wearing those uncharacteristic thick glasses instead of the contacts. The next time I had seen her, back in Johannesburg, her son was 15 months, crawling, named, a presence in her life instead of a bump in front of her. Declan. "He was a very wanted baby," Athina had told me.

"He's with my mom," she says, "They were seeing a kiddies movie while George and I went to see an adult one, for a change! We've just seen The Lives of Others, have you seen it?"

I shake my head, "No, but I want to, about the East Germans and the Stasi police, right?"

Athina does not acknowledge my comment as my drink arrives, a straw is inserted.

"But my mom will be here soon," says Athina, "I am dying for you to see Declan now."

We try to talk, but Athina is worried that her mother may not see us, "She's going to be looking for two people, not three," Athina explains worriedly. She moves seats so that she can keep an eye out.

I want to know what they have been doing, is she still working, what is she doing?

"George," says Athina, "do you want to tell Marie what we have been doing?"

I remember her in London, my mind keeps going back to that scene: meeting her at her office. Pregnant, hair again scraped back then, with thick glasses that I had never seen her wear, which made her look dowdy. Where was the glamorous friend I had known? Of all my friends Athina had been the most glamorous: dying and having her hair done regularly, plucking her eyebrows, waxing her legs, going for regular facials, and of course, the clothes. The sexy expensive clothes, the tight miniskirts, the off-the-shoulder tops. I had barely recognised her myself that day in a dull office in the East End. She was going to stand reference for me, help me open up a bank account in England, an undertaking that seemed about as difficult as finding a job.

"What do you do here," I had asked as I followed her as she got a coat.

"I'm a PA," she smiled. "I know all that work getting my degree and I'm a PA!" She didn't seem unhappy, not even resigned, just simple accepting of the fact.

"I lost my job and George was made redundant," says Athina to me now.

George takes up the thread: instead of looking for jobs, they decided to be their own bosses and opened up their own business. They import crafts from South Africa and sell them to shops and galleries in London.

I stare at them astonished: I never knew Athina was interested in running a business. She had studied journalism, communication, PR.

"It was hard," she says. "We didn't have much money, but we did it. And we're finally beginning to break even."

"More and more people our age are opening up their own businesses," I say. "We don't like working for other people, we like the freedom of being our own bosses. As you know it's something I also want to do, always talking about it."

It's time to ask me what I am doing. We've established that I am not married, asked of my mother before I even met them today. It bristles: the fact that this matters in their eyes. But I have a good job, a respected job, I tell them I manage a large department of food scientists. We consult with a large supermarket group, helping to create new foods and products. I tell them about a new range we are developing, a new low fat, low GI range of foods that is going to take the guesswork out of those who want to follow healthier diets.

And then I stop, because they're not really listening, or if they are, they're not really taking it in. Or if they do, it doesn't matter, not really. I should be married, I should be having children, I should be on another treadmill.

"Are you seeing anyone?" Athina asks and I airily wave my hand, saying, "Bits and bobs, you know, bits of men."

We laugh, it's the first time this afternoon, but the tension soon returns.


We met, as I said, because of one of Athina's boyfriends.

She was engaged at the time to a man from France. She was barely twenty-one. She had met him somewhere out of her usual social circle, a doctor from Chile, and wanted to learn Spanish so that when she flew to meet his family the next year she could try and communicate with them. I was also about to turn twenty-one – recently back from a trip to Spain where I had met long lost relatives – and I too wanted to communicate with them in their own language.

We connected through those lessons. She gave me lifts home, I still didn't drive then, and we became friends outside of the classes. She invited me to lunch, we went to a movie. We saw more and more of each other even as we stopped attending lessons, neither of us very good trying to learn the language. Of course, the fact that she broke up with her fiancé halfway through the course also contributed to the lack of interest.

We forgot about our lessons, moved on, but became fast friends. When exams ended we hit the town, going out night after night: movies, theatre, restaurants, coffee shops. We made a pact one night that even after we got boyfriends Friday nights would be our nights, "man-free nights!" we shouted as we drove through the silent dark streets of Johannesburg suburbia. The air was hot and soupy in the car after days of sweltering heat, another December. But Athina wouldn't let me open the windows too far; even then we were afraid of the crime that was creeping through the country like a foul wind.

She left for Athens to holiday there with her mother and father just before Christmas. I missed her, filled in the gaps with others, but her absence was there now, an absence that had not existed before. When she returned she was as exuberant as before and we resumed our friendship as she started studying at university and I started my last year.

Months later she met another man, Greek this time. I saw less and less of her, and Friday nights were not sacrosanct as I had so naively thought. Did I once say something? I might have, I was naïve then, hurt as she threw all her energies into loving this man and our times together were relegated to lunch dates, occasional movies and then, sometimes dinners at her where I met the new boyfriend and instantly disliked him. But she adored him, and even spoke of stopping studying after they had been together a year.

"He'll look after me," she said, "I don't need to study and struggle to get my degree when he's got more than enough to provide for me."

I looked at her aghast, all I managed was an anguished, "Will you change your name?"

But she needn't have answered me. Years after they broke up she told me he was the real thing. "I would have married him and it will always hurt, although I will get used to it and it will get better. I loved him; I loved him as I have never loved another man. It was real. You know, Marie, you simply know."

A few years later I did know, and she was there to commiserate as I had done. "You'll find someone better; I never thought he was strong enough for you. But it gets better."

We drank milkshakes that time at a Milky Lane, in yet another mall. Light hard and brightly white fluorescent as we sipped the sweet icy drinks and watched couples make out in corners. We were still so young then, twenty-four, but so much graver than people our ages. We wore make up in a time when make up was something older people wore, we discussed with serious intent whether we were going to leave South Africa, we watched art movies and though we would land up with older men.

I look at Athina's face properly now, she's changed and yet her face is as smooth and unlined as it ever was. Except for a deepening somehow in her expression, she could still be in her twenties, the face smooth, the eyes fresh, unlined. But there's an anxiety there that makes me uncomfortable, disturbs the air, makes me tense.

"Ah there's my mother!" says Athina, waving as her mother winds her way through the table. The release, the relief this disruption brings, mixed in with disappointment. I want to talk, find out who Athina is now, but that's unlikely to happen with yet another person around. And yet, we need something to tear through the tension.

"Mom, you remember Marie," says Athina.

"Of course."

Of course. How could she not.

Years flash by in an instant, memories compress, a dinner where her mother cooked a fish so drenched in garlic I was sick all night, another night, a dancing party with her mother zipped into a tight leather dress, other days, nights, events. I saw Athina often enough to become a presence in her home, of course her mother remembers me.

She's older now, of course, and there are threads of grey along her forehead, lined, and yet, there's something alive and something exuberant, something lacking in her worried daughter. She smiles, her face lit up by the laugh, the eyes crinkling mischievously. She fumbles for a cigarette as she orders a Coke lite.

And there's Declan. Athina picks him up, a tall boy of five, with dark hair and long eyelashes. I tell her he is beautiful and he is going to break women's hearts one day. Athina is silent but I know but she's savouring the praise. George looks indulgently at his son, face soft and misty.

"How are you Marie?" her mother cuts in, inserting a straw into the glass, inhaling her cigarette. I tell her I'm fine and the next question is predictable.

"Are you married?" she asks, not expecting me to be to be, and I don't disappoint.

"No," I say. But why do I want to say yes? Why don't I make up a boyfriend, a significant other, an impending engagement? Why is it so important to say yes? Why doesn't she ask what I do for a living and whether I am happy? The fact that I don't have a ring on my finger, a man to care for and to care for me, this matters so much. And I buy into it. I should have a man by now, not bits and bobs, a man to share the mortgage, to travel with, and I feel that hollow as keenly as they expect me too.

At thirty-six you should have your own place; it should be at least half paid off. You should have been married for at least four to six years, and you should be settled. You shouldn't be thinking of emigrating, you shouldn't have just sold a house and still have debts to pay off, you should not be sharing a flat with a friend till you can decide what to do, squatting in a spare room. You shouldn't be wondering what country you're going to spend the rest of your life in...

And we discuss the state of the nation instead now, emigration.

"My mom's stopped asking me to move back," says Athina as her mom looks at her. "Are you happy here now Marie, are you glad you came back?"

It's a long, complicated story. "Yes and no," I say. "I couldn't have stayed in London, not then, and not with David. He was wrong for me – I realised that as soon as woke up after a couple of days there. My thirtieth birthday and I realised he was the wrong man for me. And I couldn't go on the Underground, we had to catch buses everywhere... you can't emigrate like that. I had to come back, sort myself out."

"And you have." It's more of a statement that a question from Athina. "Mom! Watch Declan," she yells suddenly.

"I am!" her mother says, half turned in her chair to watch Declan and still hear us. Now she turns around entirely, eyes focused on Declan playing with a small tin car, racing between people on this late afternoon.

"I get so scared," says Athina, "is it safe to let him play like this? I worry that someone will snatch him up in a second. I'm not used to the crime in this country – you have to watch your back all the time, anything could happen."

"Hmm," I say, "you do have to be careful, but I think it's pretty safe here." We're in an open air shopping centre here, surrounded by shops, restaurants, a parking lot. It's as safe as anywhere now. "As long as your mom watches him, it's fine."

Athina does not look convinced, looking at Declan running, her brow frowning. George has gone off to get rolls at a bakery around the corner and it's just Athina and me, sitting there. Except it's not. Her attention is on her son, even though her mother is watching him, and yet still Athina can't relax, and still I can't relate.

I may now want to be married to have a man at my side to call my husband, but I have never wanted children. I've never felt that overwhelming desire to be pregnant, to be a mother. In fact, the opposite. I have nightmares in which I discover that I am pregnant, I wake up violently, violently relieved that it's all a dream, and that I am not pregnant, not expecting, not bringing a new life into the world.

Instead I ask the obvious. "Are you going to have another?"

"We've tried Marie, for years now and nothing's happened. There's nothing wrong with me or George and yet nothing's happened. Declan keeps asking for a brother or a sister. I asked him what he wanted for Christmas and he said a brother or a sister, and yet nothing's happened." Athina looks resigned.

Why do I feel a twinge of pleasure here? Why can't I feel sorry for her, wanting so much to have another child and unable to? What sort of a person am I that instead of feeling for her I am pleased, that something's wrong in her life, that it's not as perfect as I thought it would be all those years ago?


"You'll have two children," I once told her. We were out with another friend of ours, Jan, all only children. I could sense things sometimes, not enough to make a living at it, but enough that pictures sometimes came into my head and I could translate them into vague ideas of the future.

"I see you with two children, both boys," I said. "You're at a window, it's night time, the lights of the city are glittering ahead of you."

We laughed. She did not ask me about a husband, and I did not say that I did not see him, that in this slice of the future she was alone, a single mother, with two children, and a career.

And I wouldn't have – even if she had asked. "I don't want to be one of those single desperate women you see," Athina had said once, "They're predatory. In their thirties and forties, unmarried, desperately searching for a man."

The picture was a bleak one, revealing as much about her as about any possible future. Is that how Athina saw me now? A predator in her thirties looking for a man?


I think of this premonition as we sit there, on the cusp of the holiday season, late Friday afternoon, start of the weekend, start of the holiday season. What can I say to her remark? "Have you thought of adopting?"

"Oh no, Marie! I could never do that, not after I have already had my own child! I could never do that. "

"Oh." It's yet something else that I don't understand. If you can't have another and you want your child to have a sibling what could be simpler? We had discussed growing up as only children, Athina, Jan and me. We all agreed that we wouldn't want that, wouldn't have chosen it. I hadn't wanted children, but if I had planned on having any, I would have had at least two, Jan and Athina had agreed with me. None of us would have planned on the only lonely life of a lonely child.

And somehow, of course, it's not right to remind her of this. Who am I to tell her that she should adopt if she can't have another. I barely know this Athina, this worried, dowdy-looking woman at the table, clearly so in love still with her husband, enamoured of her son. She doesn't seem with all this, yet, what can I say?

Instead, I ask, "Do you ever hear from Jan?"

Old friends, memories, the topics keep circulating toward the past. "No," says Athina. She knows slightly more than I do. Jan emigrated to New Zealand with her new husband eight or so years ago.

"She was really sick though," says Athina. She doesn't know what was wrong. Except that Jan couldn't work for a while. We let that tail off. We discuss other mutual friends, news is old, dead. We have both lost touch with others. Some are, inevitably, overseas.

"When I visit South Africa now I don't contact my old friends," says Athina. "It became too tiring seeing everybody. We only really have two weeks here, and I'd find myself rushing here there and everywhere seeing everybody and being exhausted by it all."

I nod, it's a complaint I have heard often from friends who now live overseas and return to visit. Days become an endless round of coffees and lunch and then more coffee with a different friend, catching up on the years missed. Some friends have decided on a big lunch at which all the friends come and you must catch up as you will. Others, like Athina, have let old friendships slide. Still others send emails from around the world asking when you're going to visit them in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England. You talk about the sliding rand, hardly needing to make an excuse, but still, it still feels like cheating.

"Let's exchange details before I go," I say, as we wind up.

She looks relieved, or am I being sensitive? No, she's just sitting there, not making a move to say, Stay, have supper with us (would I, could I?), not saying, let's keep in contact, let's see each other again before I go back to London.

"Well, enjoy the rest of your time here," I say, "have a good Christmas and New Year. And if I'm in London, I'll let you know. Maybe we can have coffee."

Athina nods, and we know that I'm not coming to London anytime soon, and that her holiday will pass peacefully, uneventfully, surrounded by her family and that's the way she wants it.

"Bye bye my friend, look after yourself," she says. We kiss, European-style, on both cheeks. George is back from his bakery errand, he shakes my hand, wishes me well. I say goodbye to her mother, to Declan, and stride away, aware of their eyes on my back as I go.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I get into my car in the parkade, ease into the early evening traffic, now thinned by holidays, and people away at the coast.

I glance quickly at the piece of paper with her address on, and her telephone number in London. Why didn't she give me her email address? I'm not going to phone her, not unless I visit London, and I have no immediate plans to do that. I'm not going to write a letter either – that too is so much easier to ignore than an email, somehow. I gave her my email address, but doubt I will hear from her.

I can't explain to myself why I wanted to see her again, however briefly and however many years have gone past. She made the decision not to stay in contact.

Yet it's not always about keeping in touch with them, it's more like trying to touch a bit of the past. Trying to somehow find something you didn't know you were looking for.

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