Tannie Maria baked her way into the hearts and minds of readers last year in her debut crime caper Recipes for Love and Murder. Writing the Love Advice and Recipe Column for the Klein Karoo Gazette she offers comfort and recipes to heal the broken heart. This month she returns—in love herself, but with some excess baggage she needs to work through and a new crime to solve. The Satanic Mechanic is a perfectly delightful read to cosy up with this winter. Read an extract here.
Have you ever wanted something really badly? You can’t just wait till it lands in your lap, but if you chase it too hard you might chase it away from you. Or catch something you didn’t expect. I was maybe too hungry for love and ended up with murder on my plate.
It was a warm Saturday afternoon in March, and I was getting ready for dinner with Detective Lieutenant Henk Kannemeyer. A bokmakierie shrike sang out in my garden, and a bird replied from a thorn tree in the veld.
I put a bowl of salad onto the porch table. ‘Ag, you look beautiful,’ I told the salad.
I had made three salads and two puddings, for just two people. I guess that shows I was trying too hard.
Henk was bringing the potjie food for the fire. The potato salad and coleslaw were in the fridge; the rocket salad with Brie, red figs and pomegranate pips was on the stoep table. There had been some gentle rain the day before that made the air so clean that I could see the red rocks on the Rooiberg mountain and the purple folds of the Langeberge. But now was not the time to enjoy the view. There were still the butter dumplings to make, as well as the icing for the peanut-butter coffee chocolate cake.
Tonight was a special date because Henk was going to spend the night. We had discussed where Kosie, his lamb, was going to sleep. The lamb was a gift from Henk’s uncle Koos, the sheep farmer, and was not meant to be a pet. But although Henk loved roast lamb, he didn’t have the heart to do that to Kosie. In his own house, the lammetjie slept in the kitchen, but Henk agreed it was time the lamb learnt to be an outside animal, and it would sleep in the little hok behind the house with my chickens. It got on well with my chickens.
The idea of Henk spending the night made me nervous. I ate some of the potato salad with its cream-and-mint dressing. The bokmakierie was still singing in my garden. Most birds have just one hit single, but that shrike could make a double album with all its tunes. My favourite song is the one where it throws its head back, opens its beak and pumps its little yellow breast. It was singing that very song as I iced the cake with melted chocolate and coffee. Another bird that sings with such feeling is the fiery-necked nightjar. When there’s a full moon, it sometimes sings all night. It makes a beautiful bubbling sound that is filled with such pleasure it can make you blush.
I cleaned the icing bowl with my fingers. Now I would need to scrub my hands before putting on my lacy white underwear. White, like it was going to be my first time.
It would be the first time since my late husband, Fanie.
Henk arrived in his Toyota Hilux bakkie just before sunset. He came with a bag of wood for the fire, a three-legged potjie pot, a lamb and the lamb’s blue blanket. Kosie wandered over to join my chickens at the compost buffet. Henk put the cast-iron pot by the braai spot in the garden. I stood on the stoep, watching him as he brushed his hands together and then wiped them on his jeans and looked up at me. He smiled that big smile of his, and the sun caught the tips of his chestnut moustache. He wore a white cotton shirt with some buttons undone, and his chest hairs glowed silver and copper. What had I done to deserve someone like him?
‘Hello, Henk,’ I said, smiling. I stood with my hands on my hips, in my cream dress with the blue flowers.
He did not answer but walked up the stairs onto the stoep. He cupped my chin in his hand and tilted it up to him. He bent down (he is big and tall, and I am round and short) and kissed me. He smelt like fresh bread and cinnamon, and honey from the beeswax on his moustache.
He held his large hand in the small of my back and pressed me to him. I wanted to lead him inside there and then, and if I’d followed the wild blood of my father (who was English and a journalist), I would have done just that. But my mother was a respectable Afrikaans housewife, and she had fed me her morals along with all her good meals.
‘I should light the fire,’ said Henk, his voice warm in my ear.
‘Yes,’ I said.
The best potjie needs a few hours simmering on a low heat.
The frogs and toads were making music like an underwater marimba band. There’s a spring near the Swartberge, the Black Mountains behind my house, and a stream with little pools, where the frogs sing love songs to their mates.
The potjie was delicious. The meat and onions at the bottom were sticky and brown, and the layers of vegetables had that fire flavour.
‘Leave some room for pudding,’ I said. ‘I have a special chocolate cake, and botterkluitjies with brandy sauce.’
‘Jinne, I haven’t eaten those butter dumplings since I was a boy. My brother gave me a black eye once, fighting over the last kluitjie.’
We sat side by side on the stoep, listening to the frogs, holding hands and looking out across the veld. His hand was warm, and wrapped all the way around mine. The moon was not yet up, so the burning stars filled the sky.
‘The sky gets so big at night,’ I said.
‘It’s big in the day too.’
‘Ja,’ I agreed. ‘But I don’t notice it so much. Now it’s so full and busy. All those stars. And planets.’
‘Look there, on the hilltop. That’s Venus rising.’
‘So that one’s Venus. When I can’t sleep, I sit and watch it setting, early in the morning.’
Henk’s lamb butted at his thigh with its little horns, and he fed it a piece of rocket. He wasn’t bottle-feeding Kosie any more.
‘You still having nightmares, Maria?’
‘I’ll go make the coffee.’
‘What that man did to you . . .’
‘Ja,’ I said, thinking of Fanie. But Henk was talking about the murderer who’d tried to kill me. Henk and I had first met when we were investigating a murder, a few months ago. He didn’t know the whole story about Fanie.
‘You can get help, you know,’ Henk said. ‘Counselling or something.’
The problems I had were bigger than Henk Kannemeyer knew about. The kind of problems no one else could help me with.
‘I’m fine,’ I said.
‘But sometimes—’ His phone rang. ‘Sorry,’ he said, answering it.
I went to the kitchen, to prepare the dumplings and brandy sauce. I could hear him talking on the stoep.
‘Sjoe . . . They got her? . . . She didn’t run? . . . Ja, they’ll keep her in Swellendam now. Maybe send her off for psychological assessment . . .’
When I came back with the kluitjies, he was looking out into the darkness.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
Henk shook his head again. He didn’t like to discuss work with me.
‘Was it that woman?’ I asked. ‘Who stabbed her boyfriend in the heart?’
Jessie’d written about it in our Klein Karoo Gazette. I did the ‘Love Advice and Recipe Column’, and she wrote the big stories. The woman was from our town, Ladismith, but the murder had happened in Barrydale. The man had been eating supper in the Barrydale Hotel with a friend, and his girlfriend had walked up to him and stabbed him in the heart. While they were trying to save the man’s life, the woman had just walked out.
‘They’ve caught her?’ I said.
‘Ja. She went back to the Barrydale Hotel, had supper at the same table . . .’ He shook his head.
‘You think she wanted to get caught?’
‘She must be mad,’ he said. ‘Stabbing him like that, in front of all those people . . .’
‘I wonder—’ I said.
‘And then going back . . .’
‘I wonder what he did to her,’ I said to the pudding, as I dished it onto our plates.
‘I’m sure her lawyers will have a story,’ he said. ‘But it’s over now. The Swellendam police cover Barrydale. Let’s not talk about it on a night like this.’ He swept his hand out, to show the flowers on my dress and the stars scattered across the soft dark sky.
The botterkluitjies put an end to the conversation anyway, because all that you can say when eating those cinnamon brandy dumplings is ‘mm mmm’. Then there was the cake. I didn’t think my buttermilk chocolate cake could be improved, but then I invented another version with a cup of coffee in the dough, a layer of peanut butter and apricot jam in the middle, and an icing of melted coffee-chocolate. It was so amazing you would think it had come from another planet.
‘Jirre,’ said Henk, after a long time of speechlessness. ‘What kind of cake is this?’
‘A Venus Cake,’ I said, wiping a little icing from his lip with my finger. Henk licked my fingertip.
‘Kosie,’ Henk said. The lamb was now lying under the table, resting its head on his foot. ‘It’s time for you to go to bed.’
Kosie was lying on his blanket in the chicken hok, and I sat on the edge of my bed, my feet on the floor. Henk knelt in front of me, ran his hand through my untidy brown curls and kissed me softly on the lips. Then he kissed harder. He looked into my eyes and smiled as he undid the top button of my dress. That smile that turns my heart upside down. Those eyes that are blue and grey like the sea on a rainy day. They made me forget about the dead man, and the woman locked up in prison. They even made me forget about my own problems, locked inside of me.
‘Wait,’ I said, and got up to switch off the bedroom light.
There was pale starlight coming in through the sash window.
‘I want to see you,’ he said, standing up to turn on a bedside light. ‘There, that’s not so bright.’
He unbuttoned his shirt and took it off, then put his big arms around me and held me against his warm furry chest. He smelt like spice cake and nutmeg. His waist pressed against my belly, and I could tell he was ready. I felt ready too, but not ready to be seen. Parts of me needed to stay in the shadows.
‘I’m a bit shy,’ I said. ‘The light . . .’
‘I just want to see your face,’ he said.
‘That’s okay,’ I said, ‘it’s the rest of me that’s shy.’
‘Hmm,’ he said, leaning down to kiss my ear. ‘How about . . .’ His hands travelled down the back of my dress and onto my round bottom. It was a bit too round, but his hands didn’t seem to think so. ‘How about we keep your dress on?’
His hands moved down a little further, and he edged the skirt up a little. Then a little more. His fingers followed the edge of my white lace panties.
I made some noises that I didn’t really mean to make; they just came out.
‘I’ll take that as a yes,’ he said, his finger hooking into my panties, pulling them down.
We heard Kosie bleating, a lonely sound. Henk undid the leather belt on his jeans. It was a big belt, with stuff attached to it, including a gun holster. Everything about Henk was big; I tried not to stare as he took off his jeans.
Kosie bleated again. And again. Baaa. Baaaa. Baaaaaaa!
‘Sorry,’ said Henk. ‘He sometimes does that, even in the kitchen. Just a second. Or else he will get worse.’
I sat down on the bed, and he walked to the sash window and shouted, ‘Kosie! Go to sleep, little lammetjie. Lamtietie damtietie. Doe-doe doe-doe.’
Kosie went quiet. Henk came back to me, and I got a front-row view of him putting on a condom. Then he stood me up again, kissed the top of my head and bent down to nuzzle my neck, while his hands moved my dress up over my hips. He held me firmly by the waist and lifted me up and kissed me on my throat then on my lips. I am short, but I am not a little lady, not at all, but he made me feel small and light.
Then Kosie made a real racket, bleating like crazy. We heard another sound: a rough sawing call. Then the noise of chickens kicking up a big fuss.
‘Leopard,’ said Henk, lowering me onto the floor.
I felt let down. But I loved my hens, and that hok might keep out a rooikat, a lynx, but it was no match for a leopard. Henk pulled on his jeans and headed for the door.
‘Take a weapon,’ I said, looking around for something, finding only my hairbrush.
‘Leopards are very shy.’
‘Not if you get between a leopard and her lamb.’
‘I have my gun,’ he said, patting the holster on his belt, but he took the hairbrush from me anyway.
‘Be careful, Henk,’ I said as he left, suddenly realising he meant more to me than my hens. Much more. Although I really loved those chickens.
The lamb and the hens were still shouting for help. I leant out of my window into the darkness and shouted, ‘Go away, Leopard! Voetsek!’
A beam of light lit up the wild camphor tree outside my window, and Henk ran past with his torch, gun and hairbrush.
Soon Henk came back to the bedroom with a shivering lamb in his arms.
‘It’s okay, Kosie,’ he said, ‘it’s okay, lammetjie. The leopard’s gone.’
‘Did you see it? Are my hens okay?’
‘Ja. Its tracks were by the hok, but it didn’t get in. There was rustling in the bushes; I threw your hairbrush, then heard something disappear into the veld.’
He laid Kosie’s blanket on the floor and tried to settle the lamb on it, but Kosie bleated hysterically when separated from Henk, so he picked him up again and held the shivering lammetjie in his arms. It nuzzled its head under his armpit. Henk sighed and sat down on the bed. I sat down next to him and leant my head on his shoulder.
But Henk is not a man who gives up easily. He managed to slip Kosie off his lap and me onto it. Then I was lying on the bed, and Henk was slowly lowering himself onto me.
He looked into my eyes and said, ‘My hartlam.’ My heart lamb.
Then, suddenly, I saw Fanie on top of me and remembered things I didn’t want to remember. A wave of black nausea washed over me, and although the rest of my body disagreed, my arms pushed Henk away, and my mouth cried out.
‘What did you say?’ Henk asked. ‘Did I hurt you?’
‘I feel sick,’ I said, wriggling out from under him. I was shaking. ‘I am so sorry.’
I rushed to the bathroom. The pictures I didn’t want to see, the secrets I didn’t want to tell, were bashing about in my head. I knelt down and threw up into the toilet. Until I felt completely empty.
Henk was at the bathroom door, knocking.
‘Maria . . .’
‘Just leave me,’ I said. ‘I’ll be fine.’
The words I’d said, when I’d pushed him off me, were: ‘I’ll kill you.’
When I was finished in the bathroom, Henk offered me a tot of brandy, and I shook my head. We lay down, and he held me tight against his chest. I was still shaking, and he pulled the blanket over me. After a while, he started snoring. The frogs were singing, but quieter now, like the party was over. I carefully climbed out from under his arm and made my way to the kitchen. I knew what I needed. It wasn’t brandy; it was Venus Cake.
I took the lid off the tin and saw the cake glistening inside.
‘Jislaaik, you look good,’ I said.
I ate until the bad taste was gone from my mouth. I ate until the shivering stopped. I ate until every corner of the emptiness was filled with peanut-butter coffee chocolate cake.
But even though it was the most satisfying cake I had ever made, and I’d eaten almost half of it, I did not feel complete. I wanted something else. And then, there he was, standing in the kitchen – the man I wanted to love and make love with.
‘Maria . . .’ he said.
He looked at me and at the cake. The tears started leaking from my eyes. I looked away; I didn’t want him to see me covered with icing and tears. But he touched my chin and turned my face towards him.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I’ll try . . .’
But I didn’t know what I could try.