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Chimurenga

Part One - Land of Hope

I need to treasure those memories, because Mushandike’s a thing of the past now. We met a hippo and some eland, a family of warthogs and some jackals and we learned how to track animals and about ecosystems. We climbed a rockface near the dam wall and we ate our dinner and sang songs around a campfire in the middle of nowhere. We watched a sheep being dissected and measured the length of its small intestine, and Elizabeth threw up. We imagined ourselves to be a band of Mashona escaping the marauding Matabele by using that natural rock tunnel hidden in a hillside, crouching and scuttling along it in the dark. We just had such a good time. And then, yesterday, it was over. The birdsong woke us early and the dawn was all pink and misty and we ate bacon and eggs around the revived campfire while the sun gradually rose up over the tops of the trees and its light crept down towards the ground. Then we had to go. None of us wanted to leave, just like, I’ll bet, so many other school children over the years, but we had to go home. We left a bush school and soon it will be just an army barracks. Maybe Barry will stay there, in the dormitory where Jess and I were. Maybe Nathan will get to go back.

I guess hope is a thing of the past too. This is real, isn’t it? There really is a proper war and it’s just arrived on my doorstep.

 

8th December 1972 to 6th March 1973

At the age of nine, Tessa Harmand is subjected to a humiliating experience that will alter her naïve perception of the society in which she lives.  The first whisperings of the guerrilla war that will gradually invade Tessa’s life are remote events, of which the adults in her world are oddly dismissive. A strange conversation with twelve year old Nathan Owen at the time serves to heighten the new and unwelcome awareness of political uncertainty. It's two and a half years since Tessa first met Nathan but he still remains an enigma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday 8th December 1972

     “It’s what you get after years of, well, exploitation, frankly.”

     That’s what Nathan said. I remember it exactly. He never says very much so I guess that’s why I can remember every single word. Even exploitation. The dictionary in my lap says this means “- the act of using for selfish purposes…” I’ve re-read it several times. Enough times. I look up, out into the garden through the French doors in front of me.

     Elijah’s weeding and tidying the edges of the beds. I allow my mind to be absorbed for a while by his steady and methodical progress – take a weed in forefinger and thumb of the left hand, insert the trowel tip into the soil with the right, wiggle it, free the roots, shake off the crumbs of earth, deposit the tiny plant into the bucket, move on to the next one. A peaceful, tranquil activity, and watching him releases a small plug somewhere in me so that some of that gnawing humiliation starts to drain away. And also the anger. Yes, anger. The wanting to scream and throw something across the room and then cry type of anger. But if I throw the dictionary across the room I’ll end up breaking something, or damaging the book and how will I explain it? There’s nothing I can do but sit and keep it inside and concentrate instead on admiring those straight and squared off edges, the weed-free paving slabs. Elijah’s so tidy and thorough, like Daddy tells us a good garden boy should be.

     Oh hell, no. Not again.

     Those words – those very words I’ve just said to myself – have dumped me back in time to the roadside by the school. Simple words, they were, but they’ve brought my peaceful, tranquil thoughts to a grinding halt.

     Yesterday, if anyone had asked me, I would’ve said the words formed a perfectly reasonable compliment. And they did, or at least that’s how I meant them to come out. But not now, today. After all that happened earlier, the voice that says those words sounds as if it comes from someone just like the person the policeman took me for. Am I really like that? I never, ever thought what he said I did. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was just….. well, I guess I did ignore him. But not deliberately, like I was mocking him. Why did he get so angry?

     I stop watching Elijah, try to clear these thoughts of him from my brain, and stare at the tops of the msasa trees behind him instead.

     What a horrible day. Can’t I go back to seven o’clock this morning, get up again and start over? Fridays are meant to be good days, whether you’re nine or as old as Daddy. He’s always more cheery on Fridays, even before he goes to work. If only Jess hadn’t been off ill today. If Jess’d been at school with me none of this would have happened.

     Okay, so even if Jess is still sick in my new day, if I could start it over again I wouldn’t do what I did.

     I wasn’t being deliberately naughty. Me and Jess made plans back on Monday for this afternoon. We were going to read my new Beezer, and the Barbies were going to go on a holiday to New York, which is why I packed Patsy’s clothes in her pink suitcase last night and left it out ready to take over to Jess’s house. When I crossed the road all this was in my head, plus the new plan I’d just hatched, literally seconds earlier. If my brain hadn’t been off in some other universe it would’ve all been normal and he would never have even noticed me.

     So he’s been there, at the zebra crossing, every day since I started school and for all I know he might’ve been there every day for the last ten years. I know nothing about him, not even his name. He’s just the policeman who waves us across the road. When he lets us go over, he commands the traffic to halt with his arms raised outwards, a bit like Mrs Morris said Moses did with the Red Sea. Timothy Dunn says he must be a Matabele.

     “My Dad said – ” (Timothy starts nearly every sentence with “My Dad said – ”) “My Dad said we need to get tribalism to work for us so we have Matabele police in Mashonaland and Mashona police in Matabeleland.”

     Do we do that? Why? Why did I never ask him why?

     I’m seeing the traffic policeman in my head. He’s tall, and he’s very serious, unlike Elijah. He has what Daddy would call knife edge creases in his shorts, and crisp, dazzling white armbands that cover the whole of his forearms and make him look so smart. He never says very much, just like Nathan. He only ever speaks when he’s telling one of the boys to dismount and walk over the crossing. For that he always gets the two fingers – behind his back of course.

     They’re always trying that, the boys, riding their bikes over the crossing. I never even thought about doing it. Until today. Well I didn’t ride it, did I? I scooted on one pedal, that’s all. That idea sprang on me and I reacted. I needed to go the other way and call by Jess’s house to see if she was feeling better, so our plans could be back on after all. Jess and Tess together again.

     So suddenly I was in this big hurry, because I knew Mummy would do the Tessa-you’re-more-than-FIVE-MINUTES-late bit if I took too long.

I just made it worse of course, ending up more than half an hour late and having to tell a lie. If she finds out there never was a traffic accident I don’t know how I’m going to get out of that one.

     She’ll try and talk about it to one of her friends, won’t she? I bet she’ll say something like, “Tessa told me about the accident near the school on Friday. Was anyone hurt? What happened? They were held up a long time.” And for sure the friend will be one of the mothers who pick up their kids, like Mrs Harrison or Mrs Pretorius, and she’ll say, “Accident? No. No, I was there and it was all fine. Where did Tessa say it was?” And then….

     If I can’t throw the book then I’ll slam it shut and shove it onto the floor in front of me. I haven’t had a churning stomach and buzzing head like this, ever. What if I get reported and have to go to Mr Westfield’s office? The policeman doesn’t know my name but there were enough kids there who do. Good old Tessa Harmand, never disobedient, never swears, always does her homework, and now in trouble with the police. Mummy and Daddy will be disappointed and Rosie will be ashamed of me and I might even get expelled. I might never be able to ride Gill’s horses again. And I wasn’t even trying to be rebellious, or disobedient, or whatever the guy thought I was up to.

     Go on, torture yourself. Relive the scene again, why don’t you? There I am, dodging round Robert Thacker, who’s fiddling about with the straps of his satchel right in the middle of the cycle track, and I get this strange sensation that something’s happened behind me. I’d ignored the first burst of shouting and laughing that rose above the general hubbub of voices and traffic, vaguely curious, yes, but in too much of a hurry to care. Then this weird, kind of sixth sense sensation comes to me just a fraction of a second before I hear my name.

     “It’s Tessa!”

     “Wey-hey, Tessa!”

     “Tessa Harmand!”

     So I brake, stop, look back. Always stop first, before looking round – I know this from experience. There’s the traffic policeman, punching the air with one fist and pointing the other forefinger directly at me, and I’m standing like a lemon with my head twisted round, staring at him, wondering what the heck is going on. He’s shouting but I can’t hear what because my heart is thumping so hard. For a few thumps I’m not even sure he’s speaking English. Then I can hear him. And so can everyone else in the world, and they’re gawking, whispering, all focussed on me.

     “Iwe! You! You must wait! I will speak with you.”

     Elijah’s picked up his bucket of dug-up weeds, put his tools in with them and is walking across to the corner of the house, towards the shed, presumably. He disappears from view. There’s some clattering from the kitchen that makes me twitch like you see people on TV do when they’ve been shot. If Mummy comes through and finds me sitting here on the floor in the study she’s bound to ask why. I grab the dictionary again, fumble with a few pages, settle on one. If she does, I’ll find a word and say I’m looking it up for my English comprehension question sheet. Then all goes quiet, except for the muffled sound of the patio door opening and closing. Me and the dictionary are back alone with my miserable secret.

     So when the officer yelled at me, still pointing at me, I had some crazy thoughts, like why, why me, he can’t mean me, jump back on the bike and ride home flat out, just pretend this isn’t happening, he’s not talking to me.

     The problems were, a) I couldn’t make any of my muscles move, and b) he clearly was talking to me. So many interested, excited, delighted voices told me so.

     “Ooh, Tessa!”

     “What a naughty girl! You rode your bike across the road!”

     “It’s Tessa who’s done it! Wow!”

     “He’s going to arrest you!”

     And I was thinking, all I did was scoot on my pedal and since when was that a crime?

     Well, of course I know it’s not a crime. I know now why he singled me out like that, but I didn’t then.

I felt sick and hot and sweaty, waiting for him by that big jacaranda tree where he leaves his bike. The air’s always sticky and sort of heavy in November and December, even long before there’s any smell of rain. It still is now. My legs, folded like this, are all slick on the insides. The weather forecaster last night was still harping on about the ITCZ bringing storms, but it hasn’t arrived in Rhodesia yet that’s for sure.

     I didn’t have to wait long of course. School empties out in no time at all on a Friday. I’d already decided exactly what I was going to do. Be cheerful and say sorry. He would be happy and I could go home. But it didn’t work.

     I smiled at him so brightly, but he just scowled back. Scowled back so hard he made me feel like something that had crawled out from under a stone. Even when I said, “I’m sorry. I was in too much of a hurry. I promise I won’t do it again,” he carried on glaring at me, so then I said “I’d make a horrible mess on the front of someone’s car wouldn’t I?”

     I still think that’s quite funny. He didn’t.

     “Why did you not get off your bicycle? I shouted to you to get off. You ignored me.”

     I absolutely did not ignore him. I didn’t. I never heard him shout. Maybe he didn’t shout. Maybe he spoke too quietly. I don’t know. I told him this. I told him I never heard him. I said sorry again and I still thought he’d believe me, let me go. I never expected him to say what he said next.

     He put his hands on his hips. He leaned forward so close to my face that I had to take a step back. He said a lot of things that are still imprinted in me.

     “You think that just because I am a black man you can take no notice of what I say. I call to you. I tell you to get off your bicycle and you think, ‘He is black. He is just my servant.’ Huh? That is what you think? I am a policeman and I have to tell you to walk across the road but you can say ‘No’. You can ignore me. I always have this. White children think I am their servant. I’m just a kaffir.”

     I didn’t know what to do, or say, or think. I just started crying. It was like I was ashamed of myself, but I hadn’t done anything wrong. He was making out that I’d insulted him, but I didn’t…..did I? He accused me of calling him a kaffir. Well, not calling him that, but thinking it, but I didn’t. Lots of people do and now he thinks I’m one of them. I’m not. I don’t. I’ve never called anyone a kaffir.

     Of course when I said nothing in my defence, he started nodding, like he knew he was right. Then he gave up. Walked away, to his bicycle. I got my voice back too late and shouted, “I. Did. Not. Hear. You!”

     Before getting on his bike, he scowled at me again, over his shoulder.

     “If I was a white policeman you would have heard me.”

     I don’t want to go back to school on Monday. I can’t face him again, or any of them, after that. Everyone else who watched him leave me there found the whole thing hysterically funny. I’ve never, never been so mortified – is that the word? – in my life.

     I can’t be bothered to try and find it. I’m done with the dictionary. I get up, put it back in the bookcase, hover near the door and listen, and then scuttle to my room across the corridor. I shut the door, but then just stand in the middle staring out of the window again – this time at the driveway and the gate and the view across the valley.

     To make things worse – if that’s possible – after I thought I’d got away from the scene there was Nathan, popping up out of nowhere on the corner just down from the school. Well, it seemed to me like he came out of nowhere, as he does, but it turns out he’d been standing there all the time, in front of the hibiscus hedge. Last time I remember seeing him was, what, a week ago? At Makuti Park. Jumping High Time over some ginormous fences.

     Why did he have to see it all? I hate that he saw me humiliated like that. And what if he tells Gill what happened? She’ll be disappointed in me too.

     He was looking scruffy as usual. No tie, socks round his ankles, hat on top of his satchel, on the grass. He might be in Standard Five but he hasn’t been made a prefect and, to be honest, if any of the prefects had been about he’d have been in for detention for sure. Abuse of the school uniform. But does he care?

     He had a hand across his forehead to block out the sun and I was thinking maybe he should’ve worn his hat. He didn’t even say hello. He just started with, “Are you okay? I saw you talking to the traffic cop. He seemed a bit pissed off. I was going to say something to him but he upped and went. What was he on about?”

     I really do remember all his words. But then, the last time he said anything to me was the day of the Mushandike exhibition. That was probably even the last time I heard him speak to anyone.

     God, how humiliating. He has to watch me get lambasted by that guy, then has to listen to me break down and gabble at him like a baby, explaining myself, justifying what a good girl I am, how I don’t ignore people just because they’re black, and all because I was so desperate that he should believe me, even if that damned policeman didn’t. I wish I’d never…. well, I wish a lot of things had never happened today.

     It was after we’d stared at each other for a bit, like neither of us knew what to do next, that he said, “I believe you. But he probably doesn’t. It’s what you get after years of, well, exploitation frankly.”

     Elijah’s back. He’s carrying the shears and he’s full of purpose, the hedge next to the road in his sights.

     Admit it, Tessa. You never normally even notice what he’s doing in the garden. He’s just there, but you’ve never seen it as a concern of yours to think any further than your eyes. Have I ever been guilty of thinking he’s just a black man, a servant, so he doesn’t count? He’s never got angry with me, or even with Mummy, and she’s pretty mean to him sometimes. Like last week when she said to him, “The compost heap is getting rather big now. If some of it doesn’t get dug into the beds you’ll end up having to dump those grass cuttings you’ve got there by the garage.” So what did he do? He dumped the grass cuttings in a pile – a neat pile – by the garage. She got all miffed and said he’d deliberately misunderstood her, but if she talks in backward, obscure sentences like that,  what does she expect?

     He was nice to me afterwards when I made him up some Mazoe orange squash in his blue enamel mug. He’s our garden boy. He has been for ages now. Me and Rosie like him. I am not like that. I’m not.

 

Saturday 27th January 1973

 

     The day we chose Cleo was almost exactly like this. Then too, we had a thunderstorm that crackled and grumbled its way across the city early in the morning and then vanished leaving wall to wall sunshine and steaming vegetation. That day too, Daddy wore his dark glasses and whinged about being dazzled by the fierce glare from the shiny, wet roads and me and Rosie had an argument in the back of the car, but I don’t remember what it was about. It was two years ago, but it might as well be the same day. Even this place looks the same. Over there – under the stately, arching branches of those two flamboyants – that’s the run of cat pens where we found her. Cleo, who was this tiniest scrap of black fur amongst so many cats and so many dogs, and so many Eyes. That’s what I do remember most vividly. All the Eyes, watching me, all the way round, pleading with me to rescue them.

     Dad maintains control of the inspection – up this row of pens, down the next, repeat – to ensure it’s methodical. When we’re nearly back to where we started, I tug on his sleeve.

     “I’m so excited because we’re going to get our dog, but sad too. Whichever one we choose, all the others will have to stay here.”

     He goes, “Yes?” like he means, have you just realised that?

     Rosie’s bouncing around impatiently, going, “Come, there’s more!” and Dad says, “We’re not taking them all, Tessa, so don’t even think about it.”

     Mummy’s in a hurry to push us past the next pen. She calls, “Listen! Puppies!” and I only get to glimpse a lone Rottweiler standing at the back in the shadows. I’m sure Daddy had Rottweilers on his original list of suitable dogs. He lingers slightly, but she’s going, “Here we are – look! Aren’t they sweet, girls? We’re looking for a puppy, aren’t we Bob?”

     The plastic notice fixed to the wire mesh door with black cable ties reads ‘LULU. Rescued in Hatfield. Long haired Alsatian bitch approximately five years old. Good with children. Puppies can be adopted with her or separately’. The puppies making the noise are a yipping, snarling huddle of three, involved in some kind of catch-me-if-you-dare game of black and tan fur, tiny teeth and hairy paws. There’s their mother in the corner and lying next to her is one other puppy. He has his front paws outstretched and his back ones tucked under, just like the Sphinx, and he’s watching us. He tilts his head and his little puppy tail starts waving about like he wants to be friends but isn’t too sure. He – or is it a she? – is lighter in colour than the others, a sort of a reddish-tan with just a little bit of black. When me and Rosie crouch down to get on the same level, the other puppies ignore us and carry on squirming about in a heap, but the Sphinx one leaps up, waddles to us and rolls over, so close to the fence that its furry coat pushes through the mesh. He’s definitely a he.

     I stick my forefinger through a hole to tickle his tummy and croon, “Ooh, you are a skellum!”

     Rosie’s giggling and scratching the top of his head as best she can without actually trying to force her hand through the fence.

     “Yes?” she whispers in my ear. All I need to do is nod.

     She’s on her feet, throwing her arms around Daddy.

     “We’ll have this one, and his name is Skellum.”

     That’s Rosie for you. She’s only seven but she considers herself a maker of family decisions.

     Daddy says, “Are you asking me or telling me, my girl?” and Mummy says, “What about that chocolate Labrador puppy you said you would call Coco….” but me and Rosie are giving each other that Look. It’s not questionable. Skellum is the one.

     He doesn’t look like much of a guard dog to me. Maybe Daddy will get him a spiked collar when he’s big enough and send him for attack training like they do with the police dogs. Thing is, it’ll be my fault if he does. I was the one who suggested getting a dog after we had the bars put on the windows, but only because me and Rosie’ve always wanted one and I figured it was clever of me to put the idea in his head right at that time. The Yellands down the road bought that Dobermann just after they got burgled, didn’t they? I don’t like that dog. I won’t go in their garden without Mum or Dad now

     Dad disappears and comes back with a ginger-haired girl in a blue coat. She’s thin and pale and she has a key attached to a purple plastic tag. We now have the avid interest of all the puppies and it takes some crazy minutes for the girl to separate Skellum and gather him up in her arms while we keep the others at bay. I’m the one left in the pen when the gate’s slammed shut in front of three eager snouts. Now Lulu’s ambled over to me and she shoves her cold nose into my left hand.

     “Here, let me….” Dad, bending over to see under Skellum’s furry body, eases the key off one of the girl’s fingers. Rosie and Mummy are off, trotting in pursuit of her, and he’s watching me expectantly. But I can’t just walk away from Lulu, having taken her son.

     I crouch beside her and wrap my arms around her with my face in her coat because it’s the only way I can avoid those soft, deep brown Eyes.

     “Don’t make me cry. I’ll take care of him, I promise.”

     Daddy’s hovering and I can feel his impatience. We’ll have to leave it here. I stand up and walk away from the dog.

     “I wonder if she understands what I’m saying? Look at her. Does she trust us? There must be some way we can communicate without words.”

     He’s doing just that now. His thumb and his head are all telling me “out”. Then he says, “Don’t be silly, sweetheart. It’s just a dog.”

     Sometimes there’s just no point.

*****************************************************************

 

     The air in the office is sharp and tangy with disinfectant. Daddy signs the form that says we can adopt Skellum and the receptionist lady with the lilac hair says, “Vet in six months’ time for the booster vaccinations and he has to be neutered as soon as possible and you can make your donation here.”

     She taps the plastic dog sitting on the desk with the end of her pen. It has sad eyes that are boring directly into mine. The Eyes again, even if they’re not real ones.

     Daddy stuffs a ten dollar note into a slot in the box that the dog is wearing round its neck, but that’s not the end of it. We can’t take Skellum home just yet because all of them – Mum and Dad, the receptionist lady and the fat man in the white coat – get to talking on and on, the way adults do.

     I wanted to ask if neutered means the same as spaying, but the moment has gone. Fifteen minutes go by, then twenty, twenty five. Rosie’s sitting on the red, shiny bench seat under the window, paging through an old copy of National Geographic she found on the counter with one hand while the other one is down deep in the cardboard pet box, scratching Skellum’s ears. I read all the notices about lost dogs, pedigree cats for sale, guinea pigs free to good homes, pet-sitting services, dog grooming services and puppy training classes and am just sighing internally while thinking the very white walls look like they were only painted yesterday, when I notice Daddy performing those moves the grown ups do when they don’t want us kids to hear something. He checks us out over his shoulder, shuffles round to present his back to us and lowers his voice.

     I haven’t registered a word they’ve said so far, but of course now I prick up my ears and start to listen, sliding down slowly to perch on the end of the bench seat closest to them. Skellum’s fallen asleep and Rosie’s making cooing noises and managing to talk to me at the same time about where we’re going to take him for walks, which toys we’re going to give him first, what games we’re going to play. It’s hard to blot out her nattering and catch snippets of what Daddy’s saying:

     “Pursued…….unexpected……Centenary…….other gangs…….isolated attack……I mean, it’s not the first time….skirmishes….”

     If I move a little to the left, I can see past him to the old man in the white coat. He’s leaning against the frame of the door that leads to the surgery, with his arms folded like he’s getting comfortable and his round glasses halfway down his nose. He has very red cheeks and a big toothy smile, but he’s one of those people who can smile and look a bit nasty at the same time. His voice is louder than Daddy’s.

     “Well, these munts are so poorly organised, hey. They just don’t stand a chance against the security forces. Good thing. It’s just one of those half hearted attempts at being rebellious.”

     Rosie’s gone quiet so I get all of Daddy’s reply. He shakes his head. He says, no, he’s heard this was different. Apparently planned. And, he’s heard there are gangs still active in the area.

     He’s right, because Timothy said his Dad said they’re still causing.

     The vet’s laughing. He scratches at a mosquito bite on his arm. “Well I reckon we should leave them alone and let them fight each other up there, all these different factions, hey? Incompetent bastards.”

     By ‘them’, I assume he means the gooks. Timothy told us it was the gooks that carried out the attacks, but he never mentioned any factions. What are those? And why are we calling them gooks?

     Rosie chooses this moment to reach out and prod me and go, “Oi. Did you hear me?”

     I hiss at her, “Shhh!”, and all four of them jerk their heads round. The vet says, “Oh, sorry. Pardon my French.”

     They all say that when they swear. It’s so stupid. Bastard isn’t a French word anyway – even I know that and I’ve never learned any.

     And I’ll bet even if they knew I was listening to their conversation they’d never guess that I know exactly what they were on about.

*****************************************************************

     Rosie’s being her usual annoying self, pacing around, everywhere at once, twitching nearly as much as Skellum’s nose.

     “Look at him, Tee,” she says, and I go, “Aw, Skellie,” because he’s there, fast asleep in his new bed with his little nose resting on his little paws, eyelids and whiskers busy.

     Cleo’s a bit freaked out; she’s still in the spare bedroom, where she’s been since we came home.

     I jump to my feet. “I’ll go see if Cleo’s eaten her food. She’ll need to go out too. I can let her out the patio doors.”

     Daddy’s in the doorway. “Good girl, Tessa. And it’s bedtime, Miss Rosie.”

     He’s leaning against the frame, with his arms folded, smiling, just like the red faced vet was earlier. I’m not quite sure why I say it; it just comes out.

     “We heard about those farm attacks at school you know. Timothy told us on the first day of term.”

     I can’t tell the story like Timothy did. He rambled a bit. He said, “So these gooks attacked a farmhouse, right. Did you guys hear about it? Up at Centenary, hey? They came over from Zambia. They ran away, but then came back again to shoot up the next door farm as well. The family from the first farm had gone to hide there so they got revved twice. Revved twice, hey! Revved big time. And this little girl got hurt. Not bad. She’s still alive. She didn’t, like, get her head blown off or anything. No, so those gooks ran away, man. My Dad says the army okes chased them off with the RPGs, blam, blam, blam!”

     When Jess asked, “What’s an RPG?”, Timothy sighed several times and rolled his eyes and said, “I don’t believe….. you don’t…….really?”

     David said, “Rocket propelled grenade,” to Jess, then, to Timothy, “I doubt that Tim. It’s an anti-tank weapon.”

     I tell Dad this now. “Timothy said they used RPGs. But they’re anti-tank weapons.”

     I’d be willing to bet he doesn’t know how to use one. Timothy does. He showed us – well not literally of course, but by waving his hands around a lot. Predictably all the boys immediately conjured up some imaginary RPGs and charged off to kill gooks, making explosive noises as they did so.

     Dad’s looking at me as if I’ve just told him I’ve seen an alien spaceship in the back garden.

     “Timothy told you this?”

     “You never said anything about it. It happened back in December.”

     “Can’t I sleep in the kitchen?” asks Rosie.

     Mum stops scraping the lamb chop bones off the plates into the bin and looks utterly incredulous.

     “Of course not! Teeth, please. Now.”

     Dad pushes away from the door frame and heads off in the direction of the lounge. “Don’t worry Tessa. It all happened way out in the sticks where there’s a few problems sometimes with in-fighting. The army has some guys out there. They’ll sort it out. It’s a one-off, like the vet said.”

     Pursuing him, I can’t believe he knows so little about it.

     “Oh, but no, it wasn’t. The people whose farm it was moved to another farm and then they got attacked. And then, some soldiers were killed by landmines in the area. And you know you said last week that our border with Zambia has been closed? Well I know why. Timothy’s Dad says it’s because of the insurgents, come over from Zambia to fight against our government. So Mr Smith closed the border to make a point.”

     I did have to consult the dictionary to find out exactly what insurgents are, but I don’t tell him that.

     “Insurgents?” He whips round and paces back towards me, shouts loudly with laughter, then clamps a hand over his mouth when Rosie pokes her head round the kitchen door and hisses, “Skellum’s asleep, Daddy!”

     “Rosie…. Teeth!”

     He beams at me. “Where did you learn that? Timothy’s Dad? Look, they’re not a problem, my girlie, just a bit of a nuisance. Mr Smith has had an argument with Mr Gorilla, so that’s why he closed the border.”

     I sidle past him. I’m beginning to wish I’d kept quiet.

     “I’ll go to Cleo now.”

     He thinks I’ve got a problem with it but I haven’t. I’m not the least bit worried. I’ve got no idea why those farms were attacked in the first place. I just remember being mightily relieved that something so exciting had happened during the Christmas holidays because it meant no-one was talking about me. There may well have been lots of gossip about Tessa-And-The-Policeman in the last week of school of course, but with me getting Jess’s chest infection I don’t know and I’m hoping I never find out.

     Now the angry face is floating in my mind again. If I’ve got any problem, it’s because that Friday last year and gooks up in Centenary and closed borders and parents who tell me not to worry about something they’re clearly keeping quiet all seem to be connected up somehow.

     Mr Gorilla. He reckons Kenneth Kaunda looks like a gorilla. Thanks Daddy. Now I really do have the feeling that my traffic policeman is watching this from somewhere and thinking to himself, See how the father talks? That’s why the girl ignores me when I speak to her.

Tuesday 6th March 1973

 

     “How come you got invited to a braai at Makuti Park? How do you know the Owens?”

     Lauren says it like she suspects I’ve spread this rumour in order to improve my status in the world. Like I’ve finally realised I’ll never attain Somebody status by simply getting good marks in class, because the concept that I wouldn’t aspire to be a Somebody doesn’t exist in her universe.

     This is seriously bugging her. Miss Nobody Tessa, who’s taken to pushing her bike across the road in the middle of large groups and keeping her hat pulled down over her eyes in the hope that she’ll be all the more invisible, has shaken the social grapevine and got Lauren Collingwood keeping pace with her along the gravel track to the playground, trying to start a conversation with her. Lauren doesn’t bother herself with Nobodies as a rule.

     “Gill teaches me riding. And I help her exercise her horses.”

     This last statement isn’t strictly true, but I like to think that by having lessons on First Foxtrot I’m helping to exercise her.

     Lauren starts sniggering so she can encourage me to feel appropriately silly.

     “I expect you’ll get to eat caviar there.”

     She says ‘caviar’ as if she has an extremely hot potato in her mouth, then she comes over all sly and goes, “She teaches you riding? I thought you knew how to ride, Tessa.”

     Now I know full well I’m being mocked, and that I shouldn’t take the bait and shouldn’t feel this need to explain myself to someone who, frankly, doesn’t care, but I do anyway.

     “Oh yes, I can ride a horse in all paces, but there’s so much more technique to it…..”

     “Oh Tessa! All this time saying you know how to ride. You won’t admit that you can’t!”

     She gives Jess an elbow in the ribs and Jess gives her one of those looks that fires daggers, but daggers bounce off Lauren. Her cocksure, spiteful face is radiating her delight with the situation.

     All right, Miss Collingwood. Get this.

     “I had champagne at the Christmas party there. And caviar. Did you know that caviar is fish eggs?”

     Now all I have to do is keep a straight face while Jess is making a face that’s both amazed and offended, and rightly so.

     “You never told me you’d had…..”

     I haven’t. I grab her by the hand and pull her away, leaving Lauren with her mouth all twisted round the words, “Fish eggs? Yuk!” and wondering how come she never knew I hobnobbed with the Owens at Christmas too. Well, Gill’s my friend and I’ve known her for three years now, so why not? And Nathan too. Well, not really. You could say I’ve known of Nathan for nearly three years.

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