When nature calls

2014-10-08 00:00

“SHE’S gone!” I wailed down the phone to my husband. “She’s been abducted!”

Clutching my head in despair, I paced back and forth across the entrance to the shopping mall while shoppers sidled past, throwing me nervous glances.

Despite my obvious distress my husband snorted with laughter. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he chortled, “you can’t have lost her.”

His amusement was understandable given this wasn’t the first time I’d called him claiming a similar catastrophe. My only comment about that incident is that I refuse to believe I’m the only dithering halfwit to have lost her car in the mall parking lot.

But while losing one’s possessions is frustrating, particularly if it happens to be your ride home, it doesn’t nearly compare to losing a person. I don’t mean losing someone in the sense they’ve passed into the hereafter. I mean lose them as in they quite literally vanish from under your nose.

I know this because I managed to achieve it. Fortunately not on the same day as I misplaced my car.

Taking my neighbour’s elderly aunt grocery shopping was always an enjoyable excursion.

It wasn’t a regular occurrence, but after the event I’m about to relate, it was never to happen again.

Aunty Ula was a feisty old bird in her mid-eighties, who, when armed with a shopping trolley, could out-walk most folk half her age. Our morning always kicked off with coffee and doughnuts.

“Never shop on an empty stomach my girl,” she’d say, wagging a bony finger in my direction. “You’ll buy things you don’t need.” The irony of this advice was lost on her.

Completely blind in one eye and with only partial vision in the other, Aunty Ula’s world was somewhat fuzzy. Not that this presented a problem. She simply glided up and down the aisles tossing things into her trolley that looked vaguely familiar. This resulted in some rather peculiar items ending up among her shopping — packets of hamster pellets, men’s shaving foam, tins of boot polish.

On closer scrutiny, these would be discarded at the till, where she would click her tongue in annoyance and mutter about senile dementia.

The day in question promised to be entertaining right from the outset. Aunty Ula was in fine fettle and in the first five minutes, I’d already scooped parrot seed and a packet of baby wipes from her trolley.

I smiled to myself as she trundled off towards the butchery section, saying she needed bananas.

And that’s when Aunty Ula disappeared.

I’d turned my back for barely two minutes only to find her trolley abandoned at a strange angle in the middle of the aisle and Aunty Ula and her handbag gone.

At first I didn’t panic. I ambled around the delicatessen and then the butchery, feeling sure I’d spot her. But I didn’t.

Next I scanned the floor, thinking she may have fainted. But still no Aunty Ula.

Resisting the urge to start yelling her name, I began a systematic search of the store, practically jogging up and down each aisle looking for the familiar mop of silver-grey hair.

Ten minutes turned to 15 and my composure began to crumble.

Deciding reinforcements were needed, I rushed up to the store’s security guard and tried to explain that I had lost an old lady. The guard screwed up his face and looked at me as if I had lost my mind, much less anything else. I couldn’t blame him, I sounded like a gibbering idiot even to myself.

In desperation, I accosted one of the store supervisors and repeated my tale of woe. I must have made more sense this time because she immediately enlisted the help of other staff members.

By now, 20 minutes had passed and I was convinced Aunty Ula had been snatched by thugs intent on stealing her jewellery and her money. In my mind, I pictured her sprawled on the tarmac robbed of her possessions and the last of my composure deserted me.

How could I tell my neighbour that I’d lost her aunt?

“She’s probably gone to the ladies’ room,” suggested someone, as I snivelled into my hanky.

“She never just wanders off!” I howled, stumbling out to the car park to begin my search of the asphalt. It was then that I spotted her.

Handbag on her arm, Aunty Ula came sauntering along the passage blissfully unaware of the furore she’d caused. Weak with relief, I was torn between hugging her and slugging her with my own bag.

“Where on Earth have you been?” I demanded, as if she was an errant toddler. “I thought you’d been kidnapped!”

“My girl,” said Ula with a contemptuous sniff, “at my age when you get the call of nature, you answer it immediately. Believe me, the alternative is far worse than being kidnapped.”

• In memory of Ula Mitchell (September 20, 1926 — November 11, 2013).

Heidi Steyn: “I was born in Buckinghamshire, England, and emigrated to South Africa with my family in 1975. After I matriculated, I worked in the commercial banking sector for 14 years but have always had a passion for writing and have had several columns published.

“Having lived in Pietemaritz­-burg fo 23 years, the True Stories competition is very close to my heart. This is the fourth time I have reached the finals.”

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