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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.


It's 1970 when Tessa first meets Gill Owen - the girl who will become her friend and mentor - and in a series of unavoidable circumstances, she finds herself encountering the boy she originally assumed was Gill’s brother. She figures that she has no hope of ever understanding him, and yet it's through him that she receives her first invite to the Owens' home.

4th July 1970 to 24th June 1972







Saturday 4th July 1970


     “Okay, that’s a good one. Well done. Now do another. I’ll pass you a band when you’ve done it.”

     I divide off another section of mane and Gill remarks, “That’s probably a bit big. You want to aim to get all the plaits the same size if you can.”


     I start again and halfway through my plaiting process, Fancy grabs a bit of hay that won’t come out of the net. She gives it an extra big tug and jerks her head away from me, pulling the hairs through my fingers. I wobble on the stool and Gill’s hand shoots out to take my elbow.

     “Ha, ha! Whoa!” she giggles, then goes still and fixes onto something over the top of the pony’s back.

     “That’s Nathan and High Time! They must be on their way home. God, he’s been out a long time. He went out just before I left to come here.”

     Beyond the boundary rail fence, a pretty bright bay pony with four white socks is trotting along the broad, browned grass verge adjacent to the road. Riding it is that boy from school. He looks very different out of his uniform and I probably would never have recognised him if Gill hadn’t been here with me. Now all the connections click into place like Lego bricks. Gill Owen telling me she lives at Makuti Park, a remark by Timothy not so long ago linking Nathan Owen with Makuti Park (“You’d think, coming from that posh place, that he’d be, like, brighter. My Dad says the guy who owns the place has a new car, yet again.”) and Gill’s occasional mention of ‘Nathan’s pony’.

     I take the abandoned half-plait in my hand again and say, “Oh yeah. Your brother,” thinking that perhaps I’d better leave it there because of what they all say about him at school.

     Nathan and the pony have passed the gates and are now out of sight behind the dark green Cypress hedge. Miss Ashton and Gill would never let me ride without a hard hat, but then I guess he can do whatever he likes on his own pony.

     She laughs her gurgling laugh. “No, silly. He’s my cousin.”

     Ah, maybe that’s why she’s never mentioned him and said what’s wrong with him. Odd that he lives with her, but then Makuti Park is a huge plaas with a massive house. She’s never told me about any brothers or sisters of hers so I reckon she’s an only child.

     “Here you go,” she says, holding out a tiny black rubber band. I roll the plaited section of mane and fix it in a ball with the band. It looks cute.

     “How many of your cousins live with you?” I ask her. “I’ve got five, but they were born in England and they all live there. I’ve never met any of them, although we get letters and photos from them and my aunts and uncles.”

     “Oh, only him. My others live in England too. His parents died, you see, so my parents adopted him. It’s very sad. Haven’t you seen him here before? We both have a lesson together on Sundays. Sometimes jumping, sometimes flatwork, depends really. Right, do one more plait then we’d better let Fancy go out in the field. She’s been very patient. Is that okay? You’ve got the gist of it now.”

     Fancy’s given up munching hay and appears to have gone to sleep.

     “Does Nathan go to the same shows as you? And win lots of prizes too?”


     I turn to face her, a bit shocked. She’s a sweet and gentle and merry girl and that’s a very odd tone.

     She’s not looking at me. She has one arm over Fancy’s back and is staring at the gates.

     “High Time – that’s his pony – could jump the moon, Tessa. But no, he doesn’t ever compete. And believe me, he’s a damned good rider. Much better than me. Much more intuitive than me. A waste. Still, look, let’s finish up shall we?”

     I don’t believe that. No-one can be a better rider than Gill.

Monday 6th July 1970


     He’s walking right towards me, and Mrs Anderson.

     This is crazy. I only ever spot him occasionally in Assembly. He’s never out there at breaktime, he doesn’t play in any of the teams, I’ve never come across him in the bike sheds, or anywhere else at school. And now I’ve encountered him twice in three days. Saturday, when he rode past Turnpike Stables and now again here today, literally on a collision course.

     I’m a hundred percent certain Mrs Anderson doesn’t know I’m following her. Stupid thing is, I wouldn’t even be here if I wasn’t feeling cold, and I wouldn’t be cold if I’d taken my blazer out to the playground like Jess did. This is what Daddy would call a fluke.

     Nathan is just passing the lucky bean tree and is getting closer. So does he hang out behind the classrooms at breaktimes? No matter. If I’m going to say something to him, I’d better start thinking exactly what.

     Hello is a good start. Then I could move on to My name’s Tessa. Gill leads me at the riding school. First is true of course, but the second isn’t. Not anymore. I ride by myself and Gill just tells me lots of things about horses. Next, I could say I saw you riding your pony on Saturday, or You don’t look like Gill. Or is that rude?

     It’s true though. Gill has a face shaped like a heart and it’s always bright and laughing. She has gold hair and blue eyes, and she’s thin and willowy, like an enchanted princess from a story or maybe a flaxen haired Barbie doll. Nathan is thin, and I’ve never been close enough to see the colour of his eyes, but he has dark hair and that floppy forelock that falls over his face, like one of the ponies in Mr Thelwell’s books. His face is quite squarish and sort of nice but it doesn’t do much smiling. It doesn’t really do anything.

     He’s walking along the path like he owns it, his hands in the pockets of his shorts, but he’ll have to step off in a second as it’s too narrow for both him and Mrs Anderson. She must be wondering if he’s even seen her, surely? He’s looking straight past her to me and this is causing me a problem. I was right in the act of winding myself up for conversation and now my brain is backtracking. Don’t say anything, it’s telling me. In fact, don’t even be here at all. Turn around and scarper. My legs ignore the recommendation and just keep on walking.

     He hops off the path. He doesn’t take off his hat, like the boys are supposed to, and say, “Good morning, Mrs Anderson,” and he doesn’t even take his hands out of his pockets. He just, like, ambles past her as if she doesn’t exist, still with his eyes on me.

     So when she stops dead, I have to grind to a halt behind her with nowhere to go. My legs really should’ve listened to my brain and run away.

     I can’t see her face but everything else about her is giving me a warning of what’s coming. She grows a little taller. She turns to stone, her fists clenched at her sides. Her voice, when it comes out, is like one of Miss Ashton’s lunge whips cracking in the air.

     “Owen! Where are your manners?”

     He pauses in mid stride and there’s a second or two in which nothing happens. It’s like I’ve got glue on the soles of my shoes, because nothing will move, not even time. At least he’s dropped his eyes from me now.

     Very slowly, he says, “I don’t know, Ma’am. I may have left them at home.”

     I have three simultaneous reactions to this. One is apparently totally oblivious of the circumstances and tells me, Hey, Monty Papadopoulos was wrong. He can speak. Isn’t it curious how he has a boy-version of Gill’s kind of refined Rhodesian accent? Another one is stunned because everyone knows you simply don’t say things like that to teachers. The third one is so impressed it completely overturns the second, and Miss Goody-Two-Shoes-Tessa, who should be shocked into silence, goes, loudly and clearly, “Wow!”

     After the word’s come out my jaw stays hanging open like I’m some gormless idiot. If she’s heard me, she’s ignoring me for now. She’s dithering about like she’s on hot bricks, which makes me give out this ridiculous snort. Nathan’s mouth is doing something strange, almost like it’s going to laugh, but it never quite gets there.

     Then he does take his hat off and tilt his head towards her, but he says nothing and starts walking again, back on the path. He dodges in the same direction as me and we both have to sidestep again, and again.

     Don’t look at him. Clamp your lips together and make an effort to concentrate on those little baby weeds between the paving slabs at your feet. Your left shoelace is coming undone. Don’t look at him.

     Above all, don’t wait to find out what Mrs Anderson is going to do next.

     I take off across the lawn and skid into my class locker room. Signs saying Don’t walk on the grass are all very well but I need the shortest escape route possible and I’m still cold. Or I thought I was. As soon as I get my blazer on I realise I’m roasting hot.

     After nearly five minutes of lurking behind the door, feeling stupid, I creep back to the playing field by the gravel path along the back of the building.

     Jess has given up on me and is with Heather and the Barnes twins.

     “Well here she is!” she says, “Did you go home to fetch your blazer?”

     I should tell her what kept me so long, but is there any point? On the face of it, it’s a simple story, but it has complications behind it somehow. A string of connections that won’t make much sense to her.

     So Timothy says he’s a loner, with no friends, and no-one who wants to be friends with him. Richard says there must have been something wrong with his brain at birth and he must have had to repeat either Standard One or Standard Two because he’s ten already and most of the others in his year are only nine. And Michael Palmer, who’s in Standard Three with Nathan, reckons he won’t ever be any good at anything and should be in a special school. Well, he doesn’t come across weird, or special. He looks perfectly normal to me. Did he laugh just now or not?

      “Don’t be silly,” I tell Jess. “Of course I didn’t go home.”

Thursday 26th November 1970


     “Mr Westfield’s putting the whole school in detention for two hours? What? All of you? Every single one?”

     This is not the reaction I expected from him upon being informed his daughter’s lined up for serious punishment at school. In only her second year of school too. Astonishment, yes, disappointment, yes, but what looks suspiciously like delight, no. It’s not funny.

     At least Mummy reacted to the news suitably, and predictably. Shocked eyebrows, frowns, pursed lips, words like no, awful, serious, distressing, innocent ones, not to blame, don’t worry. I worried what Daddy would say and she told me not to, that she would explain it to him in her own time, and then she said to me and Rosie, “Don’t tell him the minute he walks in the door. Let him relax a bit after work. It will all be all right.”

     Well of course Miss Big Mouth was never going to be able to contain herself, was she? Daddy was on the top step, still actually outside the back door, when she yelled her usual, “Daddy’s home!” and then, “Tee’s going to get detention and so’s everybody at school! If I was there I’d have it too!”

     His face was blank, so she added, “That means everybody gets made to stay after school for two hours!”

     When he still looked like he didn’t understand, she had the nerve to turn to me for reassurance. “That’s right, isn’t it Tee? For punishment for what happened at the gala?”

     What was I supposed to say? She’s just plain unbelievable sometimes.

     So now it’s all been explained to him, and he still hasn’t got any further than the kitchen. He’s clearly not taking the situation seriously at all. Mummy has her hands clasped in front of her and is wearing her Bothered Face as if she’s in trouble as well.

     “Tessa says he told them he’s never done it on this scale before. He gave them all a lecture in Assembly on Monday, didn’t he, love? And he said he wanted the guilty party, or parties, because he thinks there’s more than one child involved, to own up by Wednesday. But no-one did, did they, Tessa?”

     I shake my head.

     “He told them that any confessions could be made in confidence, but today he called a special Assembly. It was early this morning, wasn’t it, Tessa, so you all missed your first lesson?”

     Nod the head this time.

     “He’s really upset no-one’s admitted to it. So this is what he’s decided to do. They all have to go back to the school tomorrow from two till four.”

     And keep quiet and write lines, he said. He made us sit on the floor and he moved his lectern so that it was right at the edge of the stage, and then he brought out that wooden box thing the really little kids like me stand on when we do a reading. When he stood on it and beat his cane on the lectern in time to his words he wasn’t tubby, friendly Mr Westfield any more – he was giant, severe and distinctly unfriendly Mr Westfield. You will all write lines, his deepest voice and the tapping cane told us, that will impress upon you the importance of honesty and the dangers of silly pranks.

     “It’s not a good sign,” Mum’s saying, “that he feels the need to carry out collective punishment. I do wish those naughty kids who were responsible would do the right thing. It’s so unfair on these little ones who’ve done nothing wrong.”

     My mother is doing what mothers do and defending her young, but my father is chortling, grinning, picking up his briefcase from the floor and then squeezing my shoulder as he passes. “Well, I’m going to get changed and have a beer on the verandah. You have to admit the incident was a class act and that that gala will be one that goes into the annals of history. Don’t worry love. Those who know who it was will put pressure on the culprits, or split on them, then you won’t get the detention after all. It’s a tactic.”

     Maybe. I hope so, because Mr Westfield won’t find out anything from me for sure.

     Mum has turned her head to immediate, pressing matters and is identifying suitable potatoes in the vegetable rack and Dad’s whistling one of his non-tunes down in their bedroom and Rosie’s bolted off and is practising cartwheels on the lawn and they’re all confident I know nothing more than they do while the whole thing plays over and over in my mind.

Saturday 21st November 1970


     I can’t believe I was stupid enough to get roped into participating in this gala in the first place. It’s okay for Jess. Jess lives for swimming, gets herself into every race it’s possible for her to be in, wins every one and loves it, but me, I’ve got zero interest at the best of times and sub-zero interest when I’ve had to go and miss my riding lesson just to be in a bloody breaststroke relay to make up the numbers. And pretend like I’ve been supporting Msasa House all afternoon.

     Give us an M…


     Give us an S…


     Give us an A…


     Give us an S…


     Give us an A…


     What have you got?


     Who are the best at work and play?

     Who are the best in every way?

     We are the best and we all say MSASA!

     And we’re WINNING!

     Yeah. Do I look like I care? Sorry if that’s the wrong answer.

     Now I’ve been dragged into this heaving marquee packed wall-wall with every single mum, dad, aunt, uncle, sister, brother and associated hanger-on. Dad’s complaining he can’t hear himself think and Mum keeps changing her mind about which is the best side to get the teas while we traipse around behind her like her ducklings. We’re like a bunch of zombies with our aimless, slightly demented wandering and our greenish ghoul-like faces. Only zombies don’t breathe, and this mob is using up all the available air and generating more heat than the sun is outside. And those ginormous enamel vats of tea and coffee are probably helping stack up the temperature too, if Mrs Parker’s bright red face is anything to go by. She’s usually pretty laid back but I’d say now she’s losing the race to keep up with the demand for little beige cups. Not much tea in one of those – hardly seems worth the hassle.

     “Do you want lemon or orange squash?” Mum shouts in my ear, handing one of the cups to Dad, who lifts it high above his shoulder level to prevent it being jolted. A large woman in a strappy orange sundress, with frizzy blonde hair and pinkish shoulder flesh bulging either side of the straps, knocks me forwards towards the trestle table with her hip and says “Oh sorry dear.”

     I’d rather just get out of this over-crowded sauna. I’ll go find Jess, if I can worm my way out. My feet in my open sandals are looking very small amongst all these male veldskoens and female heels.

     “Nothing thanks. I’m going to….”

     “Going? Oh, tell you what…. can you get my sunglasses out of my tartan bag and bring them to me? You know my tartan hold-all? It’s up where we were sitting – last stand on the right hand side, top row? I can’t find them in my handbag so think I left them there.”

     She presents a clear plastic container of lemon squash to Rosie, who grabs it and promptly spills most of it on her own sandals because she’s not watching what she’s doing with her hands as usual.

     “I’m not going to the stand,” I assure her, backing away. “Jess might be still in the House lines so I’m heading back over there. I haven’t talked with her all day because she’s in a different House to me.”

      She’s not buying it. “Well you can see her after you bring me the sunglasses. Quickly now.”

     My sister is wailing that her feet are wet and I no longer exist.

     The red and white striped plates of sticky cakes and sweet biscuits have been decimated by the hordes and the equally stripy plastic table cover is encrusted with bright crystals of sugar and an assortment of crumbs. I snatch up the last custard cream off the nearest plate seconds ahead of a plump toddler’s sticky paw and wriggle away under the orange-dress woman’s arm.

     I was right. Everyone who was in the spectator stands is now in the marquee. The stands are deserted, strewn with heaps of possessions – raincoats, hats, bags, umbrellas, binocular cases, even a few shoes – and the strings of red, yellow, green and blue bunting that are like the tendrils of some bizarre climbing plant are draped across the back of them and down both sides. Some of this has even crept up over the green canvas judges’ tent in its strategic position at the deep end. I’m surprised the tent is so small, considering it’s the nerve centre of the gala. Like the stands, it’s deserted. The table at the back of the green-glowing, dim interior is laden with the trophies – silver cups and shields, copper shields, small badges to be sewn onto blazers and a thick ream of cream coloured certificates – and the one at the front is strewn with entry lists and other assorted papers, paper-weights, whistles, stopwatches, various coloured biros and some lever arch files. Mr Westfield’s beige Peugeot station-wagon is reversed up to the side wall furthest from the stand Mum and Dad were on; against the inside of this wall is the First Aid cabinet surrounded by some coiled cables that must be part of the PA system.

     Someone is behind the tent. I swear I can hear movement, a brushing, like a person walking through the longer grass. I stop, cock my head, hover immobile in the middle of a walking stride but nothing reaches my ears.

     Probably hearing things. Never mind. Sunglasses, quick.

     Take off again, scramble up the rows of seats to where Mum, Dad and Rosie were sitting earlier, grope around in the depths of Mum’s gaudy tartan hold-all, pull out the pink pouch and hold it aloft, congratulating myself like Jack Horner did with his plum. Straighten up, ready to jump back down again, and a sudden breeze puffs strands of my wet hair across my face. While I’m paused, peeling them away from my nose, Nathan Owen appears from behind the judges’ tent down to my right. He’s wearing a light grey T-shirt and school swimming trunks and is barefoot.

     I freeze for the second time in just about as many minutes and blink a couple of times like I need to make sure this is real. He hasn’t seen me; his eyes are down, surreptitious, glancing right, then left, then right again as if he’s about to cross a road. Then he shakes his head fractionally like he’s having a conversation with himself and doesn’t know the answer to a question he’s asked. Then he walks away. Casual.

     So now the brushing through grass sounds make sense. And the shock of seeing him appear there is nothing compared with the jolt from my first split second stab at guessing why he was there. It’s obvious. He’s stolen something from the tent.

     Why else would he be lurking around when everyone’s gone to tea? Why else would he be checking no-one had seen him? Gill’s cousin is a thief. All the rumours are fact. He’s not only strange – he’s also criminal.

     Halfway down the long side of the pool, after he’s passed in front of me, he hesitates and twists his head to the right towards the tent, then all the way back to his left and to the stand on which I’ve been turned to stone. Please don’t, please don’t, please don’t, I beg someone, but he does, and here I am in full view.

     All my blood has drained down to my legs so my head goes light and wafty, but him – he gives no sign of alarm or even recognition. I’m left with his retreating form, forcing myself to breathe again, blinking against the glare of the sparkling, clear pool water. The summer sun is reflected across it and broken up into thousands of golden splinters by the wavelets and ripples and the little white circular polystyrene floats are bobbing on their cords like beads on a necklace. As soon as he’s disappeared from view in the crowds round the tea tent, I bolt, leaping down each level like a mountain goat.

     When I hand the sunglasses over, Mum squints down at me with doubt in her face.

     “Yes? What were you going to say?”

     Yes, I’d opened my mouth and taken a breath. Yes, I was about to tell her what I just saw. But…...

     I get a cup of lemon squash thrust into my hand after all, Rosie’s insisting loudly that she wants to go to the toilet and Dad’s groaning, “Oh for God’s sake, Rosie, why couldn’t you say so earlier? We’ve only got five minutes or so now and we need to get back to our seats again. Tessa, go with her.”

     Tessa, the Errand Girl. I wish I’d stuck with my plan and refused to get Mum’s stupid sunglasses. She’ll be back on the stand in a few minutes and surely she could’ve done without the glasses until then? I should’ve told her that.


     It might look like a thick, smooth, green carpet, but kikuyu’s pretty prickly stuff, especially when you’ve been sitting on it for as long as this. The undersides of my thighs and ankles are dented with little red marks and I’m getting the wriggles. How much longer? The only thing that seems to be happening over in the judges’ tent is a whole lot of conversation.

     No, wait, here we go – Mr Westfield’s on his feet, straightening the edge of his safari suit jacket, fiddling with the microphone.

     He makes a few odd strangled noises that fill the air over our heads. He should’ve cleared his throat before he took up the mic, but it’s sure had the effect of seizing everyone’s attention and causing the swell of human sound to wane into a complete hush. Knowing him, that’s probably what he wanted to achieve.

     Now he has all eyes fixed on him, he booms at us across the pool. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Ahem, ahem, excuse me, sorry, I seem to have a frog in my throat.”

     He waits for the tittering and a thin burst of clapping to subside, then goes on, blah, blah, we’ve come to the end of the 1970 swimming gala, thank you all for coming, blah, blah, well done all you competitors for making our afternoon so enjoyable, blah, blah, this brings us to the prize giving ceremony, the climax of this event, hasn’t everyone done very well, blah, blah. He nods with satisfaction at the applause and cheering and I think get on with it.

     Oh he does. This year, he’s very proud to unveil a new trophy, to be given to the captain of the House that’s displayed the most exuberant House spirit during this afternoon’s proceedings. So where is it, we’re wondering? No. it’s not on display here, so sorry to disappoint you all. He’ll fetch it from his office so that it’s unveiling can be the more dramatic. It’s been named after blah, blah. How much longer?

     This time the noisy applause is sustained for a couple of minutes and behind me Katie Turpin whispers, “Awful. Do you remember?”


     “Mike Bester? Got killed in a hit and run? Surely you do? D’you reckon we won the House spirit? Did he say he’s got a frog in his throat?”

     Mr Westfield’s voice sounds as gravelly as mine feels after all that bellowing I did earlier. Oh, the trophy. I can’t say I knew Mike Bester – he was in Standard Five – but Gill did and his sister Leah rides at Turnpike, so I’m happy he’ll be remembered in this way, but I’m not eaten up with curiosity about who’s won the thing. I just want to go home. Poor Jess won’t be best pleased with Baobab being last. She’s been a star performer, but all her team-mates, unfortunately, have been rubbish. The way she won the girls’ crawl relay for them was phenomenal, but it wasn’t enough.

     And the boys’ free style relay? That should’ve gone completely unnoticed by me like ninety percent of races today. He must’ve been press-ganged into this participation thing as well. He was last to go for Munondo, so Mr Carr must’ve known he was good. I did wonder if he even knew he was supposed to get in the pool and swim when he was standing like a statue at the back of the Munondo line while all the other boys went crazy, cheering, yelling, jumping up and down. He’s got strong arms. When he finished his two lengths he lifted himself up out of the water so high he could put his foot on the edge tiles, and that was from the deep end so he didn’t even have the bottom of the pool to push off. I can only get my knee onto the edge and then I have to climb the rest of me out like some sort of clumsy beetle.

     They tried to gather round him after he won the race but he blanked them, and they melted apart so he could walk away. He’s strange all right.

     Is he a thief though? I don’t see how. He was only wearing a T-shirt and swimming trunks when I saw him by the tent – it’s not like he was dressed in a striped shirt and a mask and carrying a bag marked ‘Swag’ like all the best burglars in cartoons. And none of the staff in the judges’ tent are tearing the place apart hunting for lost trophies and no-one’s called the Police. I raise myself on my hands a little and stretch my neck as much as it will go, scanning the ranks of children to my left, but the Standard Threes are too far across, and there are too many bodies in between for me to be able to view all of them. I can’t find him amongst the ones I can see.

     To Katie, I say, “Yes, I remember it. Don’t know if we won. Wait and find out. No, of course he doesn’t have a real frog in his throat.”

     Mr Hartman-Davies now has the mic and Mr Westfield is climbing into his car, I guess to go and fetch this House Spirit cup. There’s an expectant kind of buzz but I’ll bet nothing’s going to happen for a while yet. More waiting. Katie behind me is twisted round in conversation with Karen and there’s no point trying to talk to Mary-Anne in front ’cause she only ever gives one word answers with a face like a frightened rabbit, so I unfold my legs and stretch them out to one side of her to get grass dents on some other parts of them while I examine and massage the dents I already have.

Mr Westfield’s engine fires up and there’s a distant clunk as he puts the car into gear, then the attention I’m giving to the wiry grass and my legs is cut short.

     A sharp rise in the pitch of the buzz, not around me, but from the direction of the pool, reaches a crescendo that’s a cross between a collective gasp and a wail, punctuated with words like “Woah!”, “Oooh!”, “Loooook!” and “Stop! Stop!”

     Around me, kids are scrabbling to their feet, and if I’m to have any chance of finding out what’s going on I’ve got to join in – just in time to see the front table in the judges’ tent jerk to the right once, twice and then begin to move towards the side flap, like it’s following Mr Westfield’s car.

     Pandemonium. Spectators jumping, hollering, pointing, Mrs Anderson screaming and stumbling backwards, upsetting some of the prizes on the rear table, all the forms and files scattering and sliding off the front trestle and Mr Hartman-Davies shouting “Bloody Hell!” across all of our heads.

     In spite of all this, Mr Westfield starts to accelerate, at which point the trestle table erupts through the canvas flap with a crash. One of the guy ropes is wrenched from the ground by the impact and that side of the tent sags. Then his face, open mouthed, turns towards us and he stands on the brake pedal. There’s a twanging vibration and the mystery of the escaping table is revealed. A thin, light cord, identical to those dividing the pool into lanes, has been wound around both trestle legs nearest to the side of the tent and then tied to the rear bumper of the vehicle.

     It’s like watching a cartoon. Mr Westfield leaps out of his stalled car and capers around on the spot while Mr Hartman-Davies, with commendable presence of mind, tries to prevent the whole tent from collapsing by holding up the roof pole. There’s applause, cheering, whistling, hooting. The whole school is on its feet, straining on tiptoe so as not to miss out on any of the action and I’m gasping for breath and wiping tears from my eyes. Then the sight of Mrs Anderson emerging from the remains of the tent that triggers off the memory and cuts my hysterics like switch extinguishes a light.

     So where is he? Joining in this hilarity, or hiding somewhere? I’m drawn to try again, searching across all the bodies and faces as I did before. There’s a shift and a surge of the bodies forwards, a gap opens and he finds me. He pulls my eyes across to meet with his like he’s a magnet and I’m a paper clip. He’s standing with his left arm folded across his chest, the forelock of dark hair concealing his eyes, and he’s tapping the fingers of his right hand absently against his cheek just like Gill does. With all attention focussed on the drama at the tent, I’m alone in a bubble. With him. His face is utterly devoid of any expression.

     I swallow, lick my lips, but he won’t release me. He shakes his head twice, with exaggerated slowness, mouths some words at me. Lip reading them isn’t hard. He’s saying, “Not me.”

     Then his eyes are gone and I’m free to turn back to the scene of the crime.

     Not me. Not him. He didn’t do it.

     Some semblance of order is restored. Mr Westfield fetches his precious trophy and the prize-giving ceremony is a complete flop. Applause is thin, barely rising above the chatter and laughter and hubbub and some prize-winners have to be called several times. The House Spirit trophy, awarded to Baobab House, does receive a few whistles if only in recognition of the fact that it’s the root of all the fun.

     I have a kind of premonition that this spells trouble for us on Monday.


Saturday 12th December 1970


     Mandy, prattling in over-excited Gobbledegook. Me, catching some of it and thinking, sure, a treasure hunt will be fun. Mandy, squeaking, “Look at this, Tessie! I can’t believe it! So exciting, hey Tessie?” Me, sighing outwardly and saying inwardly, God I wish she wouldn’t call me Tessie. Someone else riding into the ménage. Me, not taking much notice because I’m studying the typed list Miss Ashton has just handed me. Mandy, still wittering. Me, deciding to look up and see who’s late for the lesson. Him, closing the gate while mounted, turning his pony and nudging her towards the centre of the school and us.

     My brain machine clunks all these facts over rapidly, scraps all except the last, and comes up with a single word.


     “What?” says Mandy. “Hey, now, I know where we can find most of these things. We can be partners, can’t we? We can gallop round so fast the others won’t keep up. That silly fat boy, Simon, will probably fall off anyway. Your pony is really fast, isn’t he?”

     “She,” I whisper.

     He’s halted. Sitting like a statue, staring at nothing, while Miss Ashton rushes around checking everyone else’s stirrups and girths. When High Time shifts her backside to rest a hind hoof, he moves with her like it was his idea. He doesn’t appear to have clocked me but my heart is galloping so fast it’s going to pop out of my chest and I’m prickling all over my arms and the back of my neck.

     “It looks like rain, doesn’t it, but I haven’t heard any thunder. Have you? A pink wildflower? A fruit? Hmm, don’t know. What do you think? Shall we try Fifty Acre Meadow for that? Four horse cubes. Well we can get those from the feed room. An insect, dead or alive…….. God, whoever typed this was useless. They’ve put small letters where there should be capitals and capitals where there should be small letters. We’ll go together shall we Tessie? Come, we can walk on round the track now, can’t we?”

     He has private lessons with Gill on Sundays so why is he here? Now? He doesn’t belong in our class.

     Be invisible. Hat brim down, eyes low. But I’m making Peaches walk so close to Mandy’s pony that Miss Ashton yells, “Tessa! You’ll get that poor pony kicked! Leave a gap!” and everyone looks at me.

     What was it Daddy once called her? A sergeant major. A regular sergeant major. And he said she’d get us all square-bashing. I haven’t a clue what he meant and I never asked.

     “Right kids! Pairs. Mandy and….. Debs. Elizabeth, you go with James. Simon, go with Richard. Helen and Belinda.”

     My heart may have been galloping a few minutes ago, but now it’s stopped altogether.

      I am the only one left. She won’t make me go on out my own. I simply cannot believe this is going to happen to me.

     And sure enough, pointing at me, she says, “Okay Tessa, you go with Nathan. I know you two know each other because you’re always hanging about with Gillian.”

     Now I don’t just want rain, I want an almighty thunderstorm and a hurricane and maybe a tornado for good measure. Desperately. Call this whole lark off. Peaches’s creamy coloured mane has a few blackjack seeds in it, so I pick at them like I’m trying to pretend I haven’t heard her. I will not cry. I’ve done nothing wrong.

     I never split on you, Nathan. No-one knows what I know. I love Gill, but you scare me. You’re invisible ninety percent of the time, but then, when you do turn up, you’re good at things. You ride like you’re an extension of your horse and you swim faster than any of the other boys. And that time I nearly told Gill how I’d seen you win the race? I chickened out because I knew I couldn’t deal with it if she’d gone, Oh yeah! And what about the judges’ tent and Mr Westfield’s car? Did you see that?

     “Tessa! Take the cotton wool out of your ears, girl!”

     I want to ignore you and pretend you don’t exist but you won’t let me. You were there too that afternoon, kept in school and made to write out We must all learn to be honest and admit to our mistakes five hundred times and then We must consider the implications of our actions and how they might endanger others five hundred times and then do homework in silence for the rest of the time, like everyone else. You were there, only two rows in front of me and one desk across to the right, so I was able to keep spying on you sitting there with your dark head down while you wrote your lines – or I assume that’s what you were writing – and then reading a book, laid flat on the desk so I never got to see the title. And I watched you file out with the rest of your class, still with your back to me, and by the time I got out of the Hall you’d vanished.

     “Come along now! Tessa! Nathan! Off you go!”

     She has these really stubby hands and she’s rubbing them over the bumpy bulges at the top of her thighs. Her jodhpurs are way too tight.

     No heartbeat, and now no breathing. High Time’s hoofs are brushing through the grass and my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. What did I expect you to do that day? Refuse to do the punishment or create a scene? Give me some justification to tell Mr Westfield I’d seen you skulking about by the tent during the tea break last Saturday? You know I saw you, of course. You probably imagine that, in spite of your protestation of innocence, I believe you were the one who tied the car to the tent and that I’m just too scared to say anything. But I am damned certain you weren’t the culprit. And I don’t want to be anywhere near you ever again.

     I’ve never actually addressed him. So what am I going to say? Why are you here?

     So I do. Or not quite like that. My voice, all by itself, accuses him, “You’re not in our class.”

     Stupid thing to say. He shrugs.

     “We’re off on holiday tomorrow. I wanted to have a go over the cross country practice jumps this weekend, so I came over today instead. But you guys are having a treasure hunt, so Junie here wouldn’t let me go galloping around upsetting your ponies. She said she had an odd number of you in the class, which meant you’d have to have one group of three and then she hinted that if I joined in to make up the numbers I could use the jumps afterwards. So here I am. You here every Saturday?”

     Junie? I’ll never be able to look at her the same way again. Junie, with the thigh bulges. Oh God, Tessa, don’t snort or giggle, please.

     Yes, I’d forgotten. Of course. Gill did say she was going to Durban, but I didn’t know it was tomorrow.

     “How shall we go about this, then?”

     His voice is so normal, polite and quiet. He hesitates, like he’s waiting for an answer, then swings High Time around and I have to choice but to follow him to the gate.

     It’s so hot that everything is hazy. I’m sweating and so’s the world, like the sun is heavy somehow. I can see the stone domes of Domboshawa in the distance but instead of being grey they are shiny and shimmery. There are warm smells like saddle soap and ponies and I have to wave my riding crop around my face to get rid of some very dozy flies.

     We do lots of trotting, stopping and turning to find the items – the pink flower from a crop of candy-coloured cosmos, the wild berry from a dark leafed bush, the smooth stone and the three different pieces of bark. I just take them from him and put them in my carrier bag and keep schtum. He speaks to me, but very little. He says things like “Here”, “Over there”, “Come this way” and he does all the dismounting and remounting. He talks to High Time though, constantly, very quietly, and his moves are smooth, and calm. He touches her often, on the crest of her mane or on the muzzle when he’s on the ground, and he scratches her back behind the saddle. I’ve never seen anyone do that and I copy him, sneakily, so he doesn’t see me doing it. I don’t know what Peaches makes of it, but it doesn’t stop her from trying to grab illicit mouthfuls of grass. I keep the reins short and never once get jerked out of the saddle and am very pleased with myself about this. I hope he’s noticed.

     Occasionally we spot the other groups, hear child-laughter, someone shouting at a pony. I tag along behind him, and I know I shouldn’t just let him do everything, but I do. He finds all the items on the list, even the live insect, and it’s only because of this that I end up talking to him. He goes still, staring at the branch of a Msasa tree, then his hand shoots out, he plucks something off it and he offers the hand to me. Between forefinger and thumb is a beetle. It’s so pretty – shiny yellow and green, like it’s made out of metal. It’s very frightened, waving its legs and its antennae pathetically, and without even a thought I lean over, take it from him and exclaim, “Oh, don’t hurt it!” because in my experience ten year old boys often do nasty things to insects.

     Then I’m much too close to his face. I snap back upright and retract my hand with a jerk, nearly dropping the beetle. He has brown eyes, again unlike Gill. I can feel my face burning and he gets that very, very small twitch in his mouth, like the one I saw when he was cheeky to Mrs Anderson. He drops his reins and holds up both hands.

     “I won’t, okay? Well there you are, then. You take it. It’s a change to meet a girl who doesn’t scream when she sees a creepy-crawly.”

     He takes up a contact again, nudges High Time and starts to move off, saying, “Gill doesn’t either.”

     We get back to the yard just after Mandy and Debs but they’re disqualified because their insect is a spider. Mandy argues, but Miss Ashton isn’t having any of it. She tells Mandy to count its legs.

     “Eight legs, girl. If it’s got eight legs, it doesn’t count. And no pulling two of them off!”

     She examines the objects in my carrier bag. When I look round, there’s no sign of Nathan and High Time. I didn’t even see them go.

     And he didn’t say a single word about the Gala.

     I hook one of the two red rosettes she hands me onto Peaches’s bridle and lead her around to show off a bit. I’ll have to give Gill the other rosette when she gets back from holiday and tell her to pass it on to Nathan. Then I let the beetle go in a bush near the gate before I take Peaches back to her stable. I might be Mrs Adams in Born Free, releasing animals into the wild. A beetle’s not very much like a lion, but that’s where day-dreams win. You can make anything into anything.

Saturday 24th June 1972


     Mummy tells me I day-dream too much. And maybe I do. I love it. I dream that I ride beautiful horses like Gill’s. I dream I’m in show-jumping competitions with her, I walk the course with her and I win lots of prizes like her. This all occurs in my version of Heaven. And now, maybe, my Heaven has appeared as a dot on the horizon.

     We’ve driven past the place loads of times; me, Mum, Dad and Rosie. Sometimes in my day-dreams me and Gill come back here in a big lorry with our horses after a show, but that’s where the dream’s had to end because the gate is where my knowledge ends. Today I’m going to find out what’s inside. I’m going to find out what it might be like to live in a house like this, with stables and paddocks and all those horses. Heaven indeed.

     And it was The Nowhere Boy, who came out of his Nowhere, wherever that is, to give me this invitation to Heaven.

     I know full well he’s in Standard Five, so why did I never even think to wonder if he was in the class that did the Mushandike National Park week this year? But he is, and he was there at the exhibition in the Hall, and I nearly fell through the floor when he beckoned me to come over to him. He must’ve seen me long before I was aware of him. Seen me discovering his cool photos of the hippo and reading his tidy, very small handwriting claiming “Pics by Nathan Owen” and “Never, EVER get between a hippo and the water!” and then touching one of the photos with my finger, like I could make it 3D and sweep it round to see where the water was. And seen me standing there gawking at him like a complete numptie.

     In the end he had to come over to me. He looked at me with that expressionless face and I’ve no idea exactly what he said to start. Was it something about the photos? I should’ve said he was good at taking pictures but I didn’t. I did wonder if I should say, Do you know how much we all hate this annual event? Even me who likes natural history and conservation and stuff, because all we get to look at is a bunch of leaf and flower arrangements, numerous drawings of poo, fuzzy photographs and boring essays and that crummy old papier-mâché model of the dam?

     I very nearly asked, Did you see the baboon spider in Miss Foster’s bedroom and was it as massive as all the rumours claim? And I’d no sooner had this thought when he went, “I learned a lot about wild animals. Particularly spiders. I like spiders. Especially big, hairy ones.”

     “Spiders?” I said, then “You didn’t……?” and he said, “Of course I didn’t. You know I don’t do pranks. Poor Miss Foster. The warden’s wife did that thing where they feed the traumatised victim gallons of hot, sweet tea. Do you reckon that works? I don’t. Mr Westfield says we’re not to talk about it anymore and he’s banned the whole story. Like he banned Puff the Magic Dragon.”

     Mr Westfield. The Gala. And I know he doesn’t do pranks?

     Then he shrugged, like he was dismissing all these subjects: Mushandike, the gala, Puff, pranks and me.

     “Look, I needed to speak to you because I’ve got a message for you from Gill. Do you want to come to our place sometime and try out some different ponies?”

     I thought I’d misunderstood. I made idiotic noises.

     “Gill? What? Come? She wants me to…. Huh?”

     He watched me do this, then as I was about to ask, “When?” he said, “Probably at a weekend. She’ll be at Turnpike tomorrow. Ask her then.”

     Like the beginning of that conversation, I don’t remember the end. I do remember yelling at Jess and Jane and Rosie that I was going to ride at Makuti Park and them just staring at me like I’d gone mad. Jess stared past me to where I’d come from and remarked, “I don’t think I’ve seen that guy talking to anyone before. Why was he talking to you?”

     Well, the result is that I’m here, about to go beyond these tall white gateposts. Into Heaven.

     They each have a black wrought iron lantern on top and a short, white, curved wing wall that tapers from about a metre in height at the column down to nearly nothing as it extends towards the road. Either side of these are the hedges – dark green hibiscus, with bright red flowers in summer – and grass verges for ever. Driving past, Daddy sometimes says he wants to have our verges mown so perfectly, but he only ever gets Elijah to slash them. These are like a smooth green carpet. A bowling green. Green. It’s winter. It hasn’t rained for a good while and everyone else’s grass has gone brown or blonde.

     The lanterns light up at night even though they’re like miles from the house.

     The driveway is black, like the road, with little gleaming stones embedded in it. I dismount and walk slowly, pushing my bike. On my left is another hibiscus hedge and behind it, about a hundred metres further on, the black and grey tiled roof of a house. On my right is a creosoted timber four-railed fence and a paddock. Three mares and three foals. Heaven.

     Coming from behind the hedge are short, sharp clipping sounds and, standing on tiptoe, I can see a garden at least twice as big as ours. A gardener in blue overalls and a blue woollen hat is kneeling beside a flagstone path trimming the lawn edge with a pair of shears. The lawn is as smooth and green and beautiful as the verge outside.

     The driveway curves to the left, out of sight, into infinity in my imagination. I mount my bike again to pedal round the bend, but almost immediately here’s a gate – matching the fence except that it’s got five rails – and the stable yard, right in front of me. The drive turns left again, very sharply, and ends at another gate, beyond which are two double garages and a parking area and the house.

     Now I’m torn, don’t know which way to go, put my toes down on the ground. There’s a plopping and stamping sound; someone walking in rubber boots. A groom, in the yard, with a metal bucket in one hand and a headcollar in the other. The handle of the bucket squeaks a bit as he swings it around. He stops short when he sees me and says, “Hello?”

     I jump off my bike and run it to the gate. “Oh, hello. I’m….  I’m looking for Gill. Gill Owen?”

     He comes towards me and unlatches the gate. He’s quite an old man, with a very small amount of beard, like salt, around his chin, and kind eyes. He’s smiling at me.

     “She says you come, yes. Miss Gill is riding in the school. Go, round there.” He points to the end of one of the stable blocks. “Round the corner. She there. Come in.”

     The buildings are white and the stable doors are dark blue and the concrete yard is pale grey and spotless apart from a few stalks of hay. Ten stables in all, five in each block, at right angles to each other. I push my bike down a paved path that’s marked all over with white scrapes from horseshoes, and on my left is a hedge, behind which are the garages I saw earlier.

     There she is, in the white railed ménage. And although I’ve never seen First Foxtrot, Gill has described her to me so many times that I know it’s her. Deep, rich chestnut and two socks behind. So…… heavenly. Heaven.

     She hasn’t seen me yet; they’re down the far end. I lean my bike against the back wall of the stables, unstrap my velvet hat from the carrier and, looking down, am really pleased I polished my boots today. They’re going to get dusty now though. I suppose Gill will want me to stand in the middle and watch her ride.

     She’s jumped off while I wasn’t watching and is leading First Foxtrot towards a gate to my right.

     “Come on, then!” she calls, and she offers me the reins. “Let’s see how you ride a real horse.”

     I’ve been riding for two and a half years and the sum of my experience comes to two ponies; my darling Fancy, who was so patient with Beginner-Me, and palomino Peaches, who is a bit livelier for Better-Me. Fancy really was quite small but I’ve got so much better at mounting that I can get on Peaches by myself from the ground. Now I’m staring up at Foxie’s saddle wondering how the hell I’m going to get up there. Did Gill say she was a pony or a horse? The seat is just about level with the top of my head so this isn’t going to work.

     “Here.” She takes my hands and places them front and back of the saddle, goes, “Bend your left leg and I’ll boost you up. Ready? On three. One, two……three!” and I’m there, on top. I gather up the reins as she adjusts the stirrup leathers for me.

     “Take her round the school.”

     I nudge Foxie with my calves, uncertain as to how the horse will react. She sets off briskly, and instead of poking her nose out in front, putting a weight into my hands, like Peaches is apt to do, she drops it and the reins go slack. I shorten up again and her mouth’s like a feather on the end of them. She prances a couple of steps, and I feel like her spine is pushing up at me from under the saddle and it’s a sensation I could never have anticipated or even explained.

     “Into the corners!” Gill calls. “Inside leg!” She’s laughing.

     Everyone knows Goody Two Shoes Tessa’s dotty about horses. Now she knows she wants horses for life.


     “Come and meet Mum and Dad,” she says.

     We leave Foxie in a field behind the stables with two more of my new acquaintances, Silver Valley and Luna, and I follow Gill back across the yard towards the garden, but not before I’ve tripped over a root belonging to a jacaranda tree near the gate because I had my head over my shoulder watching the three mares wander off together, reminding myself of what this heaven is like. Now I’ve got dirty jodhpurs. I’m going to have to meet Gill’s parents in dirty jodhpurs. What an idiot.

     The garden’s a bit lower than the stable yard so we have to go down five stone steps onto a path that’s covered in black macadam like the driveway. To the right, the lawn slopes down so the level difference is even greater and the bank that’s been formed between the ménage and the garden is steep and covered with rocks of all different sizes, all jumbled together but yet fitting perfectly with neighbours. There must be some good gaps between them though because those spiky-leaved plants can’t be clinging to nothing.

     “Are those aloes?” I ask, and Gill says “Yes, they are. Well, you know a lot about plants.”

     Not really. I wouldn’t’ve known that last week, before I went to the Botanical Gardens with Jess and her folks, would I? I don’t tell Gill this.

     I scuttle after her to catch up. Out of the corner of my right eye that big rock right on top looks just like a lion, crouching between two of the tallest aloes, with the two flatter rocks in front as its paws. Kind of like the Sphinx.

     The lawn here is a little drier than in the front but it still has some green bits. On the left is a black-topped square, with a rotary washing line in the middle and then we’re at the house. Two steps up to a kitchen door that’s exactly like a stable door, the top half open and hooked back to the white-washed wall, and we’re in.

     Well, Mummy was super-excited when we got our kitchen fitted out last year and still goes on about it to her friends (“So much nicer than having all those free standing units”, “More cupboard space than I know what to do with”, “The wall units are such an advantage”, “So modern”) but believe me, she’d do somersaults if she saw this. It’s probably the size of our lounge, which is pretty big, and there are cupboards everywhere, both under the worktop and above it, on three walls out of four. Our kitchen cupboard doors are plain, smooth and pale green, but these are made wholly from decorative panels of dark wood with sculpted brass handles. I doubt even the wooden-looking strips round the edges of ours are real.

     There’s no cooker. There must be a cooker, surely? I’m looking at the only wall with no cupboards, and there’s a breakfast bar, with four stools and a basket overflowing with apples, bananas and grapes, a glass fronted timber cabinet containing more wine bottles than I’ve ever seen in one place, then an open door into a hallway, then a fridge that’s big enough to hold all the ice in the Antarctic, then another door that’s closed.

     I’ve been left behind, with all my gawping. I hop forward onto the golden tiled floor behind Gill, take in the double sink by the window, and that’s when I spot the glass fronted ovens, a small one underneath a big one, in a panel between two wall cupboards, and nearby, in the middle of the worktop and under a tiled chimney like structure, the electric rings that Mummy calls the stovetop. Wow.

     “Iwe! Mirai!” It’s a woman’s voice, with a tone like a knife edge, and Gill twitches, falters, and I walk straight into her back. A black woman has silently opened the closed door and is standing before us clasping a red and white striped flour tin against her bosom. In her maid’s uniform of pink, green and blue floral fabric, she’s a large, walking flower garden.

     “Why do you not wipe your feet? You making my floor dirty!”

     Gill leaps backwards onto the thick reed mat, dragging me with her.

     “Oh no. Didn’t. Of course. Sorry, Amai.”

     I eye the woman while cowering behind Gill. She can’t be as angry as she sounds because she’s grinning from ear to ear. Gill’s rolling her eyes and shuffling her dusty boots back and forth on the mat so I do the same. The shuffling, that is.

     “This kitchen is Amai’s domain. Heaven help those who don’t abide by the rules.”

     As amai is Shona for ‘mother’ I take it they’re on pretty good terms, so I try a smile, hoping Amai will respond favourably. She does. She’s still grinning and chuckling. She takes one hand away from the tin and points at me. “Who is this mwana? She looks very scared. Come in, child.”

     “This is Tessa, Amai,” Gill announces with a vague gesture in my direction. “She’s come to ride for me.”

     It makes me sound like some sort of professional, and therefore a fraud, but Amai gives no indication of being impressed. She says, “Masikati, mwana. Ma swera se?” and I am suddenly aware that my knowledge of Shona is woeful.

     Daddy says that Elijah needs to keep practising his English so there’s no need for me or Rosie to learn Shona. And Daddy would never, in a month of Sundays, take orders from Elijah to mind where he put his feet in the domain of the garden. Or think it was any other than his domain anyway.

     “Hello, um, masikati.” I whisper the word because I’m not altogether sure I’ve got it right, and scuttle after Gill.

     The vast house is silent. The hush is soaked into the thick pile wall to wall carpets and the luxurious drapes and soars up into the golden pine ceilings and into every corner. A square inner hallway, large enough to be a room in itself, offers me such tantalising views in several different directions – a dining room on the left with quite the biggest table I’ve ever seen, a living room directly ahead, and on the right an endless corridor. I start trying to count the rectangles of light that cross the carpeted passage from unseen rooms but Gill is talking to me.

     “Aah…. This way. Come. I bet they’re in the garden.”

     This hallway is a picture gallery. The framed photographs lining the walls are, at a quick glance, mostly of horses and ponies. Makes sense. Gill is jumping them, racing them in gymkhanas, sitting on them and shaking hands while receiving a trophy, standing next to them wearing a winner’s sash. She’s in both black and white and in colour and at a variety of ages. My eyes are bouncing around like rubber balls trying to take them all in as rapidly as possible but I’m going to get left behind. Among the ponies I get snatches of German Shepherds and terriers and of adults, posed with the dogs and with Gill and…..Nathan, I think. He’s always the only one not grinning at the photographer. He’s looking down at his feet, or off to one side, and in a few of them he’s actually turned to face away. Where a dog’s involved, he’s the one bending down or crouched, cuddling it, his face in its coat.

     Gill’s already flitted through a wide spanning arch, down two steps into the sunken lounge and has vanished. Quick, one more glance around. Just one. This time I register that, here and there, the rider of the ponies – and occasionally of a horse that seems too big for him – is a boy. They’re mostly action shots of the pair flying over obstacles in the ménage out the back and in similar arenas I don’t recognise, although one looks like it could be Turnpike Equestrian Centre. That’s it – go.

     The lounge wall opposite is not painted cream like all the others. It’s faced with rough bricks in varying hues from terracotta to pale pink to almost blue and has a central dark grey stone fireplace and chimney breast. The pine shelves on either side are filled with books. No, crammed with books. I have a sizeable bookcase in my bedroom, but this is a library.

     Don’t, Tessa. Do not just head over there and start studying the titles. It’s rude.

     Among the books are scattered several silver trophies and there’s a television set twice the size of ours in the corner.

     Gill’s been waiting for me, there by the open French doors on the left. She gives me a quizzical grin, beckons and skips through the doors, flicking aside the fine white sun-filter curtain. Outside I can see a roofed patio, braaivleis area, the glinting water of a swimming pool and the emerald glow of the garden. A very slight breeze stirs the curtains and slides deliciously into the lounge. Gill turns to her left, smiles her enchanting smile and waves to someone who is out of sight. Then with feet together and chest thrust out, she holds the open palm of her left hand to me and declares, “This, Daddy, is my friend Tessa. I’ve told you about her. She’s just ridden Foxie in the school.”

     “You’ve missed your vocation my love. You look a bit Shakespearian there, Gilly.”

     The voice is deep, and rich. The sort of male voice you just want to keep listening to. I creep through the door and come face to face with Gill’s father.

     He elbows himself into a sitting position on his lounger and lays his newspaper on his lap. His face is lined and golden brown and in deep contrast to his thatch of dark blonde hair. He’s stretched out at knee height, but he feels immensely tall because he’s wearing denim shorts and is barefoot and his browned legs are lean. There is something very familiar about his eyes when he creases them up to smile. It’s a few moments before it strikes me that he has Gill’s eyes. Or rather, she has his eyes.

     “Well Tessa, what did you think of the little mare?” he asks and he sounds so genuinely pleased to see me that all my shyness evaporates. He wants to know my opinion, as if I’m an experienced rider. I am that professional Gill announced to Amai. I feel taller myself.

     “Oh wonderful, thank you. She did everything I asked instantly and Gill even let me canter her.”

     “My Gill's told me you're turning into a capable rider and she's a good judge. I’m sure next time you come she’ll let you do even more. She could teach you a lot, that little horse.”

     He looks at Gill.

     “She could ride some of the others, too.”

     Next time? Others?

     A giant hand has squeezed me about the chest, leaving me short of breath. He’s just endowed my future with glorious prospects. Trouble is, I can’t come up with a single word. I just grin stupidly at him and all the words I can’t say come out as a crimson flush that makes my cheeks burn.

     “Have a drink with us,” he suggests, casting aside the paper and swinging his elongated legs to the ground. “I don’t suppose your father would be too impressed if I gave you a Castle but you’re welcome to have a shandy or just lemonade or Coke. Or tonic water. Or cream soda. What would you like? I’m Charles, by the way.”

     Upright, he towers over me. I squint up at him against the brightness of the afternoon sun and I want to be able to have a proper drink, like a beer shandy, but I’ve never had one before and can’t bring myself to say so. I ask for lemonade instead.

     “Make that two, please Dad. Where’s Mum?”

     Gill leaps down onto the lower braaivleis area and trots away across the grass towards the end of the long house. I’m left standing alone to absorb my surroundings, for her father has vanished indoors and I can hear glassware tinkling somewhere. The swimming pool is kidney shaped and is lined with pale cream glitterstone paving rather than the usual tiles. At the deep end the surround is raised into a small dais, lined with stone, and at the shallow end are some broad steps into the water and a rockery. A channel, carved into a flat stone at the top of the rockery, sends an arc of silvery water, glittering in the sun, splashing into the pool with a tinkling sound.

     Gill reappears, accompanied by a willowy woman who walks like a ballerina, like she’s about to sweep into a curtsey and start to perform Swan Lake. She’s wearing a calf length denim skirt that has some light green stains and some dark brown smears. Up close, she’s not quite as tall as she looks, but her fingers, brushing wisps of nut brown hair from her face, are really long and slender.

     “Please excuse me,” she says, holding out her right hand. “I’m in gardening mode today and I can look better than this. And please, my name’s Moira. You don’t have to call me Mrs Owen, hey?”

     She speaks with a hint of an Afrikaans accent. That’s right – Gill told me how her great-grand-father came up to Rhodesia with Cecil Rhodes. He was the one who shot a lion in self-defence, hunted elephant and fought the Matabele impi. I can’t remember anything I might have been told about my great grand-fathers. I take the hand I’ve been offered.

     Moira and Charles.

     Mummy and Daddy’s friends are Aunty This or Uncle That, or Mr and Mrs Something-or-other, and I don’t think I’ve ever called an adult by a Christian name. It like the Owens want to be friends with me, Tessa, and not just be ‘Gill’s parents’ or Mr and Mrs Owen. I grow another inch.

     Mrs Owen – Moira – excuses herself and goes back to her gardening. Gill and I perch on the edge of the patio with our lemonade while Charles sinks back onto the lounger and coerces me into talking about my family, riding lessons and school. He doesn’t ask me what I want to be when I grow up, like most adults do. Instead, he tells me he’s a civil engineering contractor. Well that’s a co-incidence. Dad’s a civil engineer.

     “We won the Firle contract, by the way,” he says to Gill, who claps her hands and goes, “Woo-hoo!”

     He turns back to me and swills his lager around in its glass to leave a shiny swathe of foam.

     “So, you can tell your parents when you get home that you’ve met a man who builds sewage treatment works.”

     I hide my smile in the cool, fizzy lemonade, feeling the bubbles tickling my nose as I take a gulp. Then some subconscious part of my brain pulls the words ‘parents’ and ‘get home’ out of his sentence and sounds an alarm.

     Christ, what’s the time? What time did I say I’d be home? Four-thirty?

     Wristwatch. Four twenty-five. Okay, panic.

     There’s no way I’m going to jeopardise future visits to Makuti Park by getting home late. I drain my glass and scramble to my feet.

     “I’ve got to go! My mother will kill me if I’m late.”

     It sounds so rude.

     I wave my wrist in Gill’s direction and point at the watch, not wanting to be ungracious but desperate to get away, not wanting to invite myself to come again but hoping someone else will.

     “How about next weekend then?” she asks, and I could kiss her. She’s just kicked off her jodhpur boots and pulled her damp socks from her feet and is holding them as if she wants to get as far away from them as possible. She stands up.

     “Give me your phone number. Here, come inside.”

     A lifetime later, I’m mounting my bike on the run along the driveway and my feet have wings.

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