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Jo'Burg Days: Life Is Good

Yes, life can be good, but an accident and a family of hungry mice can darken the outlook, as Barbara Durlacher’s surprising tale reveals.

‘Well, it couldn’t get much better than this, could it Liz?’ Fiona remarked, gently lifting the ten-day old baby out of his pram and unbuttoning her blouse. As the infant greedily latched onto her milk-swollen breast, she gave a sigh of contentment, stretching her feet and legs towards the late afternoon sun shining through the pine trees. Above her the snow-capped Alpine peaks soared into the blue sky while the foreground was a scene of busy harvesters cutting the sweet meadow grass with hand-held scythes.

Shifting the baby onto the other breast after burping him, the two young women continued chatting, Fiona regaling Liz with the story of the baby’s unexpected early birth, while Liz, whose two sons were already in their teens and busy with their own concerns, listened with interest as her friend’s story brought back old memories. Later, idly chatting, the two girls were thinking of turning back to the cluster of village houses when they heard a sudden crash and clatter, and on the side of the hill they saw a vehicle falling, head over tail, totally out of control.

Crying “Take him”, Fiona, a trained paramedic, pushed the baby into Liz’s arms and sprinted off across the meadow. Her first thought was to get to the occupant of the car to apply first aid, although her commonsense told her what to expect. Moments earlier, they had both watched in appalled silence as a small rag-doll figure had fallen out of the vehicle, arms and legs akimbo as it toppled in slow motion through the quiet evening air.

Reaching the prone figure, Fiona felt for a pulse and turned his head while attempting to open the airways, but after some minutes she realised that her efforts were futile and that it was in vain.

A helmeted cyclist arrived and soon panting onlookers from the surrounding farmhouses joined the group assembling around the body. Somebody phoned for an ambulance, and suddenly exhausted and on the verge of hysterics, Fiona slumped to the ground, fighting back tears and fumbling for her phone to contact her husband.

‘What happened?’ was the question on everyone’s lips and the only explanation was misadventure. The man, a young farmer, had been up in the high meadows cutting the grass. Coming back at the end of the day, driving into the setting sun, he must have misjudged the last hairpin bend, a tricky turn made more difficult by a slew of loose gravel washed down by recent rains.

Anxiously pacing the quiet road, Liz had been trying to calm the baby whose yells had unsettled her at first, nearly making her panic – it had been so many years since she had had to look after such a young baby! – but he was quiet now, settling into sleep after his feed. Realising that there was nothing more to be done, Liz pushed the pram towards the little group and together the girls moved off, not talking, but attempting to realise the enormity of what had just happened.

A few days later, at the village funeral a young son bravely followed the coffin to the front of the church and then, bending to the photograph of his father, gently kissed his lips before returning to his place in the pew next to his mother.

A few days later the bombshell burst. Not only were the parents not married, but there was a big law-suit pending against the father which was due to go to Court that week. The boy’s inheritance depended upon it, along with his future prospects in the world and if the verdict went against the family, then he would receive nothing. From what little was known in the village it seemed that a neighbouring farmer was challenging the father’s ownership to a large parcel of land. He had farmed there for some years although the records showed no evidence of any payments being made. He gave every sign of being the lawful owner of the land, and had enjoyed the benefits of the crops planted there year after year, but had it been paid for and if so, where were the papers relating to the sale?

A frantic search ensued, old papers were perused, dusty trunks long stored in the attic were opened releasing clouds of moths and the smell of musty clothes, but nothing was found.

“Trouble with this place,” grumbled Kathi, Franzi’s long-term partner and the mother of his son, “is that so many of these land transactions were never recorded. Land was never surveyed, simply referred to as ‘a parcel of land from such and such a landmark’, and the transaction went through on a handshake. It was quite common up to about 30 years ago. Lots of land in this mountain area was not surveyed and pegged or registered. It was always considered that the first settlers to these upland valleys had the right to establish their ownership simply by grazing their flocks and herds up here. There was plenty of land to go round and everyone respected their neighbour’s rights to the piece he had chosen.”

“That’s just what’s going to make this case so complicated”, rejoined her sister. “If we can’t find any proper documentation to prove Franzi’s ownership, then it’ll be their word against ours, and that’s always difficult. It’ll depend on how sympathetic the judge is to our case, how the verdict falls.”

“Poor young Siegfried. If he loses this case then he’ll get nothing. The house will be taken away from us and of course the farming lands will go too, although even if we keep the farm I would have to rent out the pasturage until he is old enough to farm himself. It’ll be at least 10 years before he’ll be able to take over.”

“It’s impossible to know what will happen, so it’s probably better not to speculate”, gently suggested her sister, taking her arm and guiding her downstairs. “There’s nothing we can do to change things; what will happen, will happen, and we’ll all just have to accept the judges’ decision. Let’s sleep on it, shall we?” she sensibly advised, as she shut the door into the attic.

While dust motes settled and the minutes turned into hours, spiders resumed their busy spinning and mice crept out of their holes. Between the wall and another trunk hidden under a pile of old furniture they industriously wove their cosy nests, constructing them from the brittle parchment of a Deed of Sale. Properly witnessed, sealed and stamped it proved ownership of the farm bought 37 years ago from compensation paid after Franzi’s father’s death at the lumber mill.

The village notary, well-known for his predilection for a bottle or two of good wine, had failed to register the sale all those years ago and these few mouldering pages of the Deed of Sale were the only evidence.

Industriously the mice worked on, and soon nothing remained.

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