top of page
Victoria Falls.jpg

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.

 

24th March 1973 to 28th September 1973

By 1973, the escalating war’s beginning to invade personal life as call-up commitments are intensified. The Harmands holiday at Kariba Dam with Bob’s colleague Dudley Foster and his wife and children, and although the town is peaceful, there are Security Forces vehicles and camouflage-clad troops present everywhere. Tessa’s parents rarely discuss the political and military situation in front of her and Rosie and she wonders if they’re trying to shield their daughters or if they won’t admit to themselves that they’re concerned. Dudley’s daughter, Julie, seems to be far more knowledgeable and certain that there are major changes ahead.

 

Saturday 24th March 1973

 

     The driver brakes so hard that the car sinks into its front suspension with a light squeal. He then has the nerve to gesticulate at me through the windscreen as if it was my fault. Looking for cars, he was, not bikes.

     “Look where you’re going!” I yell, glaring at him. “Voetsek!

     But I’m in too good a mood to dwell on the idiocy of motorists. I’m going to Gill’s party.

     Pedal on up the hill, past the shopping centre and its Saturday morning mayhem. Waves of warm air from the hedges and bushes at the roadside wind themselves round me as I ride past, like steam from last night’s rain. The rush of cooler air on my skin as I turn to freewheel downhill again is delicious.

     The left hand side of the driveway at Makuti Park is already lined with cars, and the area behind the garages is full of them. Voices – many voices – swell from the garden behind the hedge, intermingled with music, and my excitement is gone, just like that, dissolved into shyness.

     I stop, hop off my bike. If I had someone to escort me in…. but I’m all alone out here, gazing over the closed gate, out of place and not sure what I have to do to get into place. There are plenty of people beyond that hedge, on the patio, in the pool, but they’re all strangers. There’s a splash, a shout, a clinking of glasses, laughter. The music goes silent, then starts up again – Mother and Child Reunion. It sounds so good but I’m rooted to the spot. Then, behind me, Gill’s voice.

     “Hey! Tess! In here!”

     She appears at the yard gate, to my right, a bridle in her hands, her fingers buckling a cheek piece to the head piece. She pulls a snaffle bit out of her jeans pocket and attaches it to the bridle within seconds. And behind her is Nathan, wearing jodhpurs. I haven’t seen him since he started senior school in January, even though I’m here every weekend and sometimes during the week. He looks different. I think his legs have got longer and maybe his shoulders a bit wider. He says “Hi,” but before I have a chance to open my mouth he turns and walks away towards one of the paddocks, flicking a headcollar over his shoulder.

     “Leave your bike in the tack room for now. Come, we’ve got a new horse.”

     She unlatches the gate for me, holds it wide.

     I’ve just wriggled out of the cord of my duffel bag and started trying to pull her birthday gift out of it. No matter. It can wait. She slams the gate behind me and I trail after her across to the east-facing stable block.

     “He’s only just four years old,” she’s saying as she walks, “Mum and I are going to back him. He’s gorgeous.”

     The stables are empty, as usual at this time of day, except one. Moira’s in it, with the horse, and he is just that. Gorgeous.

     “Tessa, meet Induna. A Zulu warrior. Like his namesake, he is handsome and full of presence. But actually quite sensible for his age.”

     Induna is a bay of about fourteen hands, with a rich mahogany coat, a narrow white blaze and no white socks. Led out into the yard, he stands like a statue, ears straining forward and soft nostrils flared, intensely interested in something beyond the far hedge in the paddock into which Nathan disappeared. Gill keeps her right hand on his neck just below the fringe of black, glossy mane and scratches him with her fingertips. After a few moments he relaxes and his ears loll.

     “What do you think?” Moira is leaning on the lower half of the stable door. “Would you like to help us with him?”

     Gill throws her head back, laughs out loud and gives me the thumbs-up. “Don’t say a word! I take it that’s a yes?”

     I never said a word. Well, I’ve been looking forward to this day for weeks and it’s just got a whole lot better.

     The gift is a posh box of imported chocolates that Mummy found in Barbour’s department store, but they’ve been in my bag all morning.

     “I’m afraid they may have gone soft. Better put them in the fridge straight away,” I tell Gill, who’s already torn the wrapping paper off and is turning the box over in her hands while making cooing noises.

     “Ooh thanks! You’re such an angel!” She hugs me and gives me a kiss on the nose then starts picking at the cellophane wrapper. “Oh no. I’m sorry, but there’s only one option open to us. The fridge is too full. We’ll just have to eat them before they melt completely.”

     A third of the chocolates are gone by the time we’ve made our way through the gate, down the steps, past the rocky slope with the lion on top and through the house. Taking my sticky hand, she leads me into a garden heaving with guests. For several minutes I get introduced to a variety of aunts, uncles, cousins and horsey friends and lose track of all their names immediately. Charles is over there, in charge of the braai, and holding court with several of the male guests. Mum would be impressed, if she were here, given that she gets all moany about the way the smoke deliberately follows her so that she can’t stand anywhere near a braai fire. This one has a monster stone chimney that’s drawing all the smoke up into the wide, empty sky.

     “Miss Tessa! You must have some of my delicious relish with your sadza.”

     Amai, bearing a tray loaded with platefuls of Porterhouse steaks and lamb chops, sweeps past and beams at me.

     Now as far as I’m concerned, sadza is just bland, white, lumpy stuff, but I have experienced Amai’s tomato, onion and herb relish. My mouth goes juicy, and when I catch a whiff of the meat already on the fire, my insides start to rumble.

     “Charles, my man!” a voice hollers from the other side of the pool. “Where do you hide your stash of Castle? And where’s the birthday girl?”

     Charles spins and shouts “Barry! You’re late as usual. We’ve drunk all the Castle, shamwari.”

     Okay, I’m relieved Mum isn’t here now. I knew I shouldn’t’ve shown her Gill’s invitation the second her eyes started to rove over it and her face started transforming into the Bothered Look. When she said, “I’m not sure it’s a suitable party for you to go to Tessa. Gill is sixteen. It’s too adult for you,” I had to keep up my happy face and do some rapid thinking. Say, “It’s not really a party Mum. It’s a braai, that’s all. Like, lunch. It’s really just lunch with Gill’s family on her birthday.”

     The pictures were telling her otherwise, unfortunately. Entirely my fault for producing a piece of paper with the word ‘Party’ on the same page as merrily drawn images of champagne and beer bottles and of a record spinning on a lop-sided turntable, whirling out musical notes. I should’ve just said I’d been asked to stay for lunch after riding.

     I got, you can’t stay late, blah blah, Daddy and I don’t know these people, blah blah, they might be drinkers, blah blah, if you don’t like what’s going on, you call us and we’ll come and get you, blah blah, I hope they don’t disturb the neighbours with any loud music, Tessa, blah blah, Tessa are you listening?

     God, she makes a fuss. She hopes the neighbours aren’t disturbed? The Owens’ neighbours’ houses are at least half a kilometre away on all sides and anyway, I’m sure I just met a bunch of them five minutes ago. And what would she expect me to do about loud music? Tell Charles to turn it down because my mother wouldn’t like it?

     And after I’d got her over the invitation itself, there was the argument about the jeans.

     “Jeans? No Tessa. If you’re invited to lunch you need to wear something nice and neat. We’ll buy you a new dress that will go with your pink sandals.”

     I won that round too, but I had to wear the pink sandals instead of my tackies. Still, I’m noticing several women in high heels so I guess they don’t look too out of place.

     So who’s this Barry? He’s small and red faced and muscly and on closer inspection he isn’t bald at all. It’s just that his gingery hair is very, very short. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a young man with so little hair.

     “Barry!” Gill squeals. She shoves her glass of Cinzano and lemonade into my hand and says out of the side of her mouth, “Yet another cousin from one of Mum’s many siblings.”

     She skids round the edge of the pool and into Barry’s arms. He’s shorter than her by half a head but he lifts her off her feet and swings her around.

     She takes his hand and leads him onto the patio and over towards Charles.

     There’s Nathan, standing behind the braai like a statue. First time I’ve seen him since we were in the yard earlier. He’s changed his jodhpurs for shorts and is barefoot and it’s as if he’s watching everyone from behind a screen. Here, but not here. Well, me too. I don’t know all these people milling about and I’ve never met Barry, so it’s weird, like we’re both on the outside, looking in. The difference is, I want to be on the inside with everyone else whereas he just watches from out there. I used to see him do it at school, then just melt away, so that no-one ever even knew he'd melted away.

     I’m still holding Gill’s glass. The drink smells sweet and pleasant, and tempting. It is sweet, but it has a sharper sting that catches in my throat and next thing I’m spluttering, my eyes are watering, I’m spilling it on the paving stones and frantically searching around to see who’s watching me. From his hiding place, behind the braai, Nathan is.

     He does nothing except raise his own glass of Coke a fraction in my direction, then he moves forward, takes a long-handled fork from a clay pot of braai cutlery and starts to poke at the fire Charles has abandoned.

     Even with his eyes no longer on me, I really don’t know where to put myself. I take a step back, a step forward, I wave both my glass and Gill’s aimlessly around as I search in vain for somewhere to put them down before I spill the lot, and then I’m saved by Gill, who returns to claim hers. Barry and Charles are close behind.

     “Don’t worry Barry, man, I was joking. I’ll get you a beer. God, your hair looks awful. Those army barbers are little better than butchers.”

     “Ja, well, got to be done. Can’t get my flowing locks caught in my rifle, can I? In any case, they do like you to know they own you.”

     The two men vanish into the house.

     “Ah, darling Barry,” Gill says with something like a sigh. “He’s Uncle Graham’s son. They used to live in Salisbury when we were kids and he was always round here, but then Unc got a job in Bulawayo and they moved. He’s back up here because he’s just left school and has to start his National Service. Monday, I believe. They’ve made it a full year now.”

     She goes silent, biting her bottom lip. The sun and sparkle has left her and that, together with the idea that Nathan’s eyes might still be boring into my back, makes it feel like the temperature’s dropped a few degrees.

     “What’s up?”

     She shakes her head. “Nothing. Look, come. Let’s help Amai get the rest of the food out. I think we’re nearly ready to eat.”

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

     Tammy’s nice. She's shorter than Gill, although they're both sixteen, and she has long, curly fair hair in a high pony tail. Her face is round and all parts of it are moving, like she's on constant high alert, and she talks fast like Rosie. Her pony tail and her fringe are straight right now though, and dripping pool water, and she's hanging onto the tractor tyre tube from the outside, pulling it down under her arms so that me and Gill have to wriggle round a bit and lean away from her to balance it. We bob about on the tube and talk dogs. Gill says she’ll visit Tammy’s house on Tuesday after school to meet the new puppy and then Tammy asks me about Skellum and Gill admits she never wanted another dog after Captain died. Tammy closes her eyes and sighs, "Oh! Yes. Captain. Darling Captain."

     I think these two have known each other for a long time.

     Tammy gives the tube a spin to the right by kicking with her legs and the sun is reflecting off the water into my face, the laughter and the music in the air is all around me and the world is good.

     Then the water under us erupts, Tammy gets rolled aside and all three of us are dumped, with the tube on top of us. When I surface, Gill is trying to wrestle it from those two tediously annoying boys who were flicking their towels at us earlier. She’s laughing, but if I were Gavin or Josh I’d take note of the warning in her eyes that she’s far from happy.

     Then, from nowhere, Nathan’s in the pool with us.

     “The girls got it first, guys.”

     He leaps up over the tube so he’s lying across it and his nose is about two centimetres from Gavin’s. Gavin slides back underwater and is gone. Josh thinks about it a bit longer but after Nathan’s placed a hand flat on top of his head and pushed him down he gives up too and backs off, spluttering.

     “Oooh, long lips, boys!” shouts Gill, and gives Nathan a soft punch on the shoulder.

     But we’ve had enough of swimming anyway. Josh and Gavin are back on the tractor tube before my feet have cleared the water, Gill and Tammy ahead of me. Who are these kids anyway?

     “Neighbours,” says Gill, “Two properties down. Their folks are ever so nice but those boys are a pair of little shits. I didn’t want them to come. Shame they didn’t have something else to do today hey?”

     Is Nathan still swimming? No. No sign of him. The Ghost of Nowhere again.

     We eat far too much ice-cream and several slices of birthday cake and then go to help the grooms bring the horses in for the night. Nathan is there in the background again, filling water buckets. Tammy’s different around the horses – calm and smooth as silk. I get instructions, but Tammy just knows exactly what Gill needs her to do. She must be a pretty good rider, her father being a racehorse trainer and all. Drifting back to the house, arms linked with Gill and Tammy, I’m on top of the world again.

     But, like midnight for Cinderella, six o’clock is the end of my ball. Daddy’s appeared in the doorway, seeking me, nodding at people, smiling, but with that slightly blank look you give complete strangers. It’s Charles who collects him, guides him over towards me where I’ve been trying to pretend I haven’t seen him. They don’t quite make it though. It’s a good thing I told Charles what Dad does for a living. As long as they keep swapping stories about roads and dams and piling and stuff I get to enjoy myself a bit longer.

     The shadows have stretched all the way across the lawn; the patio is the last place still in the sun. Gill’s Aunty Cath, who’s very wrinkly but has been whirling about so much she’s managed to occupy most of the dance area, puts on Clair, turns the volume up, abandons her G&T and grabs her husband’s hand. I guess me and Gill and Tammy will have to sit this one out.

     Dad’s sidling towards me. I can see he wants to keep on talking with Charles but duty is calling and Mum will have given him a time limit for sure. Gill says, “Dad, I can’t deal with Aunty Cath and Uncle Rupert smooching on the dance floor for the rest of the night. Please put something more upbeat on after this and keep her away from the turntable.”

     Dad shakes her hand very formally and asks, kind of pointlessly, “So you’re Gill?” and wishes her happy birthday and tells me we’re ready to go.

     “I wish I could stay.”

     She gives me a hug and whispers in my ear, “There’ll be lots of other parties, Tess. And one day you’ll be able to make your own decisions about what time to go home.”

     Aloud, as I’m led away, she promises, “Now I’ll see you on Tuesday afternoon, yeah? We’ll start on Induna.”

     Just as Dad’s reversing out into the main driveway, Barry emerges from under the open garage door, a cardboard box full of clinking bottles in his arms. I’ve forgotten where Gill said he was going on Monday. He looks a bit drunk, but Daddy’s not paying him any attention.

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

     “How was your grown up party then?”

     She’s having a tug-of-war with Skellum in the kitchen and I can barely hear her voice above his deliriously happy growls. That puppy lives only to have his chin scratched by an idle hand; I reckon time will prove that Daddy has failed monumentally in his mission to own a ferocious guard dog. Skellie loves everyone and he’s perfectly prepared to welcome all of them to our property. He does yap enthusiastically when someone passes by, and more so if they stop at the gate, and Dad points this out to Elijah at every opportunity with comments like, “Always call one of us if any of your friends come to visit. We can control the dog before they come in.”

     He thinks his new Chenjera Imbwa sign is the business and is convinced it guarantees that all strangers, especially black ones, will be very wary of our savage imbwa. But I’ve seen Skellie loving being petted by Elijah’s family and friends when Dad’s not about. I think his bark just says, “I live here! This is me and I see you!” Needless to say, I keep this to myself.

     “I wanted to stay,” I yell at Rosie. “You should’ve seen the size of the steaks they were cooking. And the cake! You’d’ve loved the cake. And there was dancing.”

     At the dinner table I say nothing about the party, Charles and his stash of lager, or the music and tell my family instead about Induna and Gill’s programme of work for him. I describe the stages of breaking a horse to saddle. Mum and Dad make out like they’re interested but Rosie’s staring into space while she chews. I’m in the middle of emphasising the importance of teaching a horse to strike off on the correct foreleg in canter, when she bangs her fork down on the table.

     “What are you on about? Can’t you ever stop talking about horses? And don’t pout like that. It’s true.”

     “All right, I’ll shut up, so there. I don’t care.”

     “It’s very interesting, my love,” says Mum, and Dad goes, “Yes, I see your point,” but I ignore them.

     “You’re always going on about the rules of hockey, and long jumping techniques! I’ve even heard you trying to tell Elijah the best way to bat in rounders. I’m sure he was fascinated. Sport is your interest. Mine is horses.”

     “Enough! You can carry on arguing later. Eat now. Eat, and listen. I’ve been hatching a plan. How about a weeks’ holiday at Kariba at the end of August, when school breaks up?

     Daddy’s looking immensely pleased with himself and I can’t think why. Kariba?

     “Kariba?” Rosie says slowly. “Why? Oh I get it. So you can do fishing. Mmmmm.”

     She rolls her eyes. “All my life…..”

     That’s Uncle Dudley’s fault. He’s not like Daddy. In fact, he’s not the sort of guy Daddy should be hanging out with at all. He’s very short – not that that’s the problem – but he’s clearly utterly annoying. Dad says things like,

     “I don’t know how he does it. Even in October he never undoes his tie or rolls up his sleeves and he never has any bloody sweat patches.” and

     “The last of the tender drawings was printed off at 4pm and Mike was having kittens. Mayhem. Augustus was hopping around waiting to take the stuff to the post office. Even secretaries got roped into folding drawings and that bloke Dudley went off and made himself a cup of mint tea.” and

     “His handwriting is so perfectly legible. I can’t even read my own calculations. He must be a bloody android or something.”

     Dad watches rugby and football and wrestling and his office is a mess. He’s got no right to tell us to keep our rooms tidy. In summer he’d go to work in shorts and a vest if he thought he could get away with it. That first time he announced he was going fishing with this guy Dudley at Prince Edward Dam none of us believed him. Well, Prince Edward Dam yesterday, Lake Kariba tomorrow.

     “I suggested we stay at Caribbea Bay Hotel. Dudley, Andrew and I can do a spot of bream and tiger fishing while you girls do your own thing.”

     “’You girls?” Mummy is looking a bit too keen. “Still, it does sound okay. I could do with a holiday. I’ll ring Pauline.”

     So I’ve met the rest of the Foster family only once but I know they’re superhuman beings. They manage to fit sessions of every sport known to man into a week of work and school, Uncle Dudley is very active on the kids’ school PTA and Aunty Pauline is on committees for all manner of obscure societies and charities. She squeezes all the meetings into her week between ferrying the kids to their various activities. I can’t imagine what a week with such whizz kids, all sporty and keen and good at everything they do, will be like and I’m not sure I want to know.

There are so many places in the world……… I want to say, but Rosie beats me to it.

     “So you get a promotion, Dad, and all that talk of luxury safaris in the Kruger and taking the Blue Train to Cape Town has come down to a fishing trip at Kariba? I don’t believe it! Why can’t we go to – I don’t know – London? Visit Aunty Julia?”

     It's true. He’s an Associate, which means he’s more important than before, and he bought Mum a brand new Datsun 1200 and got fully fitted carpets throughout the whole house. He’s talked at length about amazing holidays around South Africa but so far he’s deflected all our pleas for a trip to England.

     “You don’t want to go to rainy old England when there’s a wonderful country like South Africa next door. England’s a dismal place, girlie. It amazes me that Northern Ireland has actually voted to remain part of it. No, you don’t want to go there.”

     “Besides,” he adds, setting aside his plate and standing up, “I can pay for all of you to fly halfway round the world but if we can’t get enough foreign currency to have a decent holiday wherever we go, there’s not much point, is there?”

 

 

Wednesday 29th August 1973

 

     “No, no, no, don’t buy it for that,” Aunty Pauline instructs Mum. “You can get it for a lot less than that, my dear.”

     Mum mumbles something I don’t hear and carries on fingering the intricately crocheted table cloth the wrinkly black woman is holding out to her. The younger woman flourishes her own set of crocheted place mats across the gap between the two of them, grinning and emphasising how pretty they are, how brightly red.

     Aunty Pauline’s clearly up for a bit of bargaining. Straight out of the pages of one of Rosie’s fashion magazines she is, with her blow-dried, smooth golden curls, her crisp, beige shorts and cream shirt and her heeled sandals (which are spotlessly white despite the bare, dusty earth underfoot) and the set of gold bracelets tinkling on her arm in time with her gestures. Once again I’m wishing Mum had dressed up a little. I reckon she’s had those ghastly floral trousers since the sixties. She insists on wearing them with her various floral blouses, but the trouble is, none of the floral patterns actually go together. Aunty Pauline’s even wearing make-up. She has such style.

     I blame Rosie for putting these thoughts in my head. It would probably have gone right by me if she hadn’t been in such a sarcastic mood when they were loading all the fishing tackle and equipment into that gleaming Land Rover of Uncle Dudley’s on Monday morning, and if she hadn’t hissed at me, “Aunty Pauline’s wearing heels and make-up at five thirty in the morning! And those kids look like they’re going to a party instead of on a four hour drive. And look at Mum. Jesus. And I hope that lot don’t see inside our car. Thank God Daddy got Elijah to clean and wax it yesterday. I can’t believe them. They’re just so – I don’t know – well ironed and colour co-ordinated.”

     Rosie knows about things like being colour co-ordinated. But although Aunty Pauline looks like a model, I like her smile and her interest in whatever any of us have to say.

     “Let’s sit on that stone wall,” Julie suggests, pointing. “Leave the mothers to buy the wares. It’s boring.”

     Kariba Town, in the Zambezi Valley as it is, is stinking hot in the summer months from October through to about March. Otherwise, it’s just hot. The Heights is a good name for this place. There are several boats on the deep azure waters of the lake far below and the slightly cooler breeze up here is delicious. My Coke bottle is streaming with condensation. Aunty Pauline’s voice comes drifting across the dusty paved area from behind.

     “Ten dollars? Oh no, I don’t think so. I’ll give you seven dollars, that’s all.”

     “Yes Madam,” I hear the old woman agree, and then she cackles hoarsely. “Seven dollars, seven dollars. But then you can also buy this pink one for only seven dollars too, eh?”

     Julie sighs. “I say if you like it, just pay for it. They’re hardly expensive are they?”

     I take a long swig, savouring the view. It’s good how this holiday’s turning out so much better than I’d expected. Julie’s okay. She’s very much like her mother, being blonde – not like the dark haired twins – enthusiastic, and yet practical. She’s only a year older than me but although I’ve seen her acting the goat with Rosie, like when they were bomb-jumping into the pool yesterday, she talks and acts far more like a grown-up than either of us know how.

     “Our mother calls it being thrifty,” I say. “Never mind them. Isn’t the view from here so vast? It’s like being at the top of the world.”

     I’ve never thought to question Mum’s financial theory and I’m not going there right now. So, I wonder how Induna’s getting on with the jumping lessons Gill promised to give him this week?

     Catherine’s eyes are closed and Rosie’s engrossed in tossing small pebbles down the slope to see how accurately she can land them on that ledge about twenty metres below. From somewhere in the distance comes the hauntingly melodious call of a fish eagle. Squinting up into the sky’s a bit pointless. It’s just an empty glare of light.

     “Isn’t that just the most beautiful and sort of lonely sound? It’s a weird thing to say, but it almost makes me want to cry.”

     Julie twirls her empty Coke bottle and traces a finger down its wet surface.

     “Me too. Cry, the beloved country eh? Like the book. Have you read it?”

     I’m sure I’ve heard of it. It’s quite an old book.

     “What’s it about?”

     “Read it. Mum told us we should because we’re living an illusion if we think whites can hold onto this country. Africa will change. It has to.”

     She shuts her eyes and tips her head back, stretching her legs in front of her. “It’s idyllic up here, I agree. Let’s enjoy our illusion. It won’t last. Dad was just saying last night it’s noticeable how many Security Forces vehicles there are around here, in every car park and on every stretch of road. And the place is crawling with troops, don’t you think?”

     What do I think? I think other kids’ parents have superior observational powers compared to those of mine. Or is it just that mine do see these things but don’t communicate any of it to us, or in front of us? That utter contentment with the world I felt less than a minute ago? Well, it’s just been tipped over the edge of this very cliff. I want to ask Julie, “What won’t last?” but I don’t want to sound ignorant, or admit that although I’ve noticed the camouflage-clad troops I never thought to ask why they’re here or even to wonder why to myself, to be honest. And that book? I could ask Mum what it’s about but she’ll give me the brush off. I’d hazard a guess it’s about racial politics and she’d tell me it’s unsuitable for me to read at my age. But the Fosters have shared it with their kids because they think it’s important to do so.

     There’s not a cloud in sight but it suddenly doesn’t feel so sunny.

     Aunty Pauline and Mum have their new table cloths and want to head back to the hotel.

     “We’d do better to save our visit to the dam wall and the crocodile ranch for Saturday, the last day,” Mum tells us. “It’s too hot. We need a swim.”

     “We must pace our adventures, ladies,” agrees Aunty Pauline.

     She’s pretty good at manoeuvring the Land Rover and she gets it out of its parking bay and turns it in the tight car park with dainty gear-shift movements that set her bangles jangling. “We’ll have much more fun than those boys out fishing.”

     Mum says it’s a long time since Dad was a boy but she’s sure Andrew can show him how to do it. I doubt it. Andrew, black haired like his father and Catherine, is literally a miniature version of Dudley, all tidily turned out each day in his khaki shorts, a smoothly ironed, tucked in T-shirt, long school socks and clean veldskoens. He pays attention during the adults’ conversations about business and engineering and world affairs and contributes with facts I’ve never even heard reference to. As Rosie said yesterday, the only time we’ve seen him come close to having fun is when he’s swimming and even then he and Catherine compete, diving in together like one entity with barely a splash, keeping pace with each other for several lengths and then eventually racing and comparing notes when they rest. Not my kind of fun for sure. And neither him nor Uncle Dudley come back to the hotel each evening even half as sweaty and water-stained as Daddy.

     “How many bream d’you reckon they’ll bring back today?” Julie wonders. “Maybe yesterday’s two will remain the record. Of course they return most of their catch to the depths, as they’ll be so keen to tell us even when questioned separately.”

     “I don’t care,” Rosie sighs. “They taste muddy.”

 

 

Saturday 1st September 1973

 

     “It’s impressive, I’ll give you that, but I can’t get Dad’s pash. It’s a concrete wall at the end of the day.”

     She’s hoisted herself up to lie across the parapet and is leaning over so far I’m compelled to make a grab for her right ankle.

     “Woah, Rosie! Don’t do that, for God’s sake. Look, Dad’s a civil engineer. He thinks we should know how the dam was built.”

     I’ve already forgotten most of the detail he rabbited on about last night, although I’m sure Andrew hasn’t. All I remember are his stories of the River God, Nyaminyami, and how the engineers and dam builders really annoyed him, so he got back at them. Basically, when the people who lived in the valley said that Nyaminyami was bleak about the intention to flood all their kraals, and about the way the people were expected to just pack up their stuff and move out, the dam builders ignored them. The last straw for Nyaminyami was when he got separated from his wife when they started to build the wall. So he got his own back, big time. He sent more rain than anyone had seen in a hundred years (or maybe it was a thousand years?) and he did this twice, so their new dam got washed away twice. I say the engineers really should’ve taken notice of the warnings.

     Rosie wriggles back down from the parapet, fishes Mum’s camera from the depths of her rucksack, takes a photo of Nyaminyami’s statue and then reaches out to touch it with her fingertips. It’s made of stone. He’s a short, fat snake with big teeth and fierce eyes.

     “I wonder if there really is a River God?”

     “Who knows. I heard Aunty Pauline say that there are often earth tremors around here. Maybe he’s still here and he’s plotting something else.”

     I lean out over the parapet – not as far as Rosie did – to gaze down at the concrete dam, so solid and so permanent and so twentieth-century. One of the flood gates is open and the lake waters are pouring through in an arc of creamy foam.

     Mum yells from behind, “We’re moving on now!” but before I turn away, I get this really weird shiver that runs from my hair down into my shorts. Nyaminyami is watching me. In my head I hear Julie say, “Africa will change. It has to.”

     I’m not sure I’m keen on this. What, exactly, will change? The wall is still separating people, because we’re not allowed to go over the centre line now, into Zambia. The Rhodesian troops and the Zambian troops are standing around, watching each other.

     Rosie’s off, shouting something about the Crocodile Ranch and Big Daddy, who’s four metres long. I can’t help it – I touch the statue as well. I whisper,        “Sorry.”

     Silly.

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

     Mum’s trying way too hard to be organised. This family doesn’t do organised.

     “You should perhaps start packing some of your things you definitely don’t need tonight or tomorrow morning. That way there’s less to do in the morning, isn’t there?”

     “True,” says Rosie, but only loud enough for me to hear. “But I don’t want to. I didn’t want to come here but now I don’t want to go home. Caribbea Bay’s so pretty, don’t you think?”

     Like a Mediterranean hotel, Dad said. It’s all white, rough plastered walls with no straight lines – even the pool is more oval than rectangular – red tiled floors and red, round roof tiles. It has lots of walled courtyard areas to explore and steps everywhere, up to our suite, down to the pool surrounds and the view over the lake. It’s haphazard, a jumble of windows and walls and roofs and arched doorways. At night the walls kind of glow pink, as if they’ve been lit from the inside somehow.

     “Yeah,” I whisper back. “I’d love to stay longer too.”

     For another even number of days, obviously. So we both get to have the top bunk equally. She’d be impossible if I had one more night up there than her.

     She starts to say something about how she wishes we could’ve been here for my birthday when there’s a resounding rapping on the door in the room behind us. We grab the black iron balcony railing in unison. Rat-tat-a-tat-tat, TAT TAT. Uncle Dudley’s signature knock.

     “We’re going!” yells Dad.

     “Okay! God, we’re only on the balcony, not the other side of the lake,” Rosie hollers back.

     Mum winces.

     Down at the jetty there’s a tall, very skinny, very tanned man wearing a white shirt with blue and gold epaulettes, white shorts, blue deck shoes and a white and blue peaked Captain’s cap. He accosts us and takes the tickets Dad hands over.

     “Welcome, welcome. Please step aboard.”

     It’s not in a proper boat, like you might think. It’s a couple of platforms, double decker style, floating on forty-four gallon drums. From the back end – well, I think it’s the back end because both ends look pretty much the same – comes the sound of an engine put-put-puttering away.

     We get ourselves a prime position near the rails on the top platform and Daddy and Uncle Dudley waste no time in getting some beers, wine for Mum and Aunty Pauline and Cokes for the rest of us. We get under way in broad daylight but the sun’s well on its way down already. The boat, for want of a better word, is full of tourists and their chatter, their clinking bottles and glasses. It’s not called the Booze Cruise for nothing, is it?

     “Look at that sky,” Dad says, not much later. “What an array of colours spreading and intermingling. This has got to be the life, eh? Big skies, big water. Lazy days bobbing on a turquoise lake, that heat, snapping bream, the fish eagle calling through the bare limbs of the Drowned Forest. It was good, Duds.”

     That’s an awful lot of description for Dad to use all at once. He really has enjoyed himself and he really does love fishing. It can’t be bad. I want this for him. I don’t want anything to change.

     They start discussing where to stop for fuel on the way home. Rosie and Julie are talking tennis techniques and I’m not sure where Andrew and Catherine have gone. I turn my attention back to the hippos – three of them, blowing gusts of spray and snorting in the water just fifty metres away to the left.

     Dad’s sunset colours are deepening. The sky in the east is a dark indigo, while in the west it’s the most amazing assortment of colours, running through from that deep indigo and lightening gradually into a series of blues, then cream, pale yellow, gold, orange and finally blood red where the sun is just about to disappear behind the black hills.

     I’ve got horse riding and Dad’s got fishing and now Rosie’s got tennis. I can’t be bothered to try and understand the finer points, but Julie’s taught her something every day. I guess Aunty Pauline may’ve told Mum she’s a national junior champion, but I didn’t know until that man who got beaten by her on Thursday told me.

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

     It’s probably nearly an hour since the sun finally gave up for today. We’re heading back to shore through blackness; the water gurgling and glugging around the vessel is gleaming like oil as we get closer to the lights at the jetty. They say night falls and it does. Just like that, in minutes. Boom. I’m day-dreaming about seeing Induna again when I see that there are five camouflage-painted Land Rovers in a row near the jetty.

 

 

Friday 28th September 1973

 

     My Ladybird alarm clock will go off at six-forty-five but I’m not giving it the chance. I’ve been awake since around five, squirming about ever since, and I can’t stand it any longer. I jam my hand down on the button at six-forty, crawl out of bed and fumble in the cupboard for a clean school uniform. Rosie’s already seated at the breakfast table when I arrive there, which is a bit surprising, but I’m desperate so I don’t think too much about it. If they wanted to create suspense, they’ve succeeded, but it will end now. They’ll have to give me this mystery gift they’ve been on about because the day has arrived.

     I have this tiny, nasty, niggling doubt that it’s all a trick and I’m not going to get anything, but Rosie has a small, shiny gold parcel on her plate and the tension oozing from her is encouraging. She leaps up and holds out the parcel, and an envelope. The toaster pops in the kitchen and Mum calls, “Oh, is she here?”

     “Birthday! Birthday!” Rosie squeaks.

     “Hello dear.” Dad doesn’t bother to look round his paper.

     “Oh? Oh yes. Oh thank you,” I say, cool, like I’ve forgotten the date.

     Inside the envelope is a homemade card illustrated with ribbons and balloons in loud felt tip pen colours. In it, she has simply scrawled, “Happy Birthday Tee” in her excitable handwriting, using a bright pink pen.

     I rip at the wrapping paper and pull out a small white box, tipping it as I do so. The lid falls off and a tiny wad of cotton wool drops out onto the checked tablecloth. Hidden in the cotton wool is a pair of dainty gold rose-shaped earrings.

     “Oh! Special earrings!” I drop the card and attempt to give my sister a bear hug. She wriggles and tries to get away, but her face is one huge grin, her eyes wicked.

     “Let me go! See, now you don’t have to wear those boring studs you’ve had since your ears were done.”

     As she frees herself, she waves towards the kitchen and declares, “Wait. Wait and see. The big one’s coming!”

     Mum appears with a rack of fresh toast in one hand and an envelope in the other. The envelope is passed to me and no-one says a word. I glance around at my family and they all stare back, Dad finally putting aside the Rhodesia Herald.

     This is the big surprise? In an envelope?

     Shaken cautiously, it makes no sound. Then, in a flash, I know. Money. I’m considered old enough to receive cash and to choose how to spend it. Not much of a big surprise though. The surprise will actually be theirs because they don’t know what I’ll do with it.

     I start to think what I could spend some money on as I open the envelope. Books probably. It’s unlikely to be enough to get a new riding hat. Mine’s getting a bit tight. Maybe Daddy can make up the difference.

     There’s a card inside, but I flick it open without looking to see what’s on the front and lay it flat, open on the table. There are no banknotes. Only a square piece of photographic paper, upside down.

     I give my parents a cracked smile and still they stare back. I pick up the photo between forefinger and thumb and turn it over.

     “That’s Induna,” I tell them, studying the familiar form. He really does have much more muscle now than he did when I first met him.

     Rosie flaps her hands in front of my face and lets out a yell.

     “Tessie! Come on! Wakey, wakey! You’ve got a horse!”

     They’re all applauding, but my brain is struggling. I close my mouth, because it’s open, and then burst into tears.

     Crying and laughing at the same time doesn’t leave much room for breathing. I gasp and get the hiccups.

     “Well we couldn’t wrap him up and smuggle him into your bedroom,” Dad’s saying, “So we thought a photo was the next best thing. For God’s sake bring her some water before she chokes to death and I’ve spent good money for nothing.”

     Mum cocks her head at Rosie. “I’m surprised this one didn’t let the cat out of the bag – or should I say the horse out of the stable. We thought we were going to have to tie her up in the garden shed last night.”

      So they’ve all been conspiring together. Mum, Dad, Rosie. Gill, who’s been vague with me to the point of vexation about Induna’s future. Moira and Charles, who must’ve done the deal with Dad. And even Nathan. Nathan, who says nothing to me except hello and howzit. Then out of the blue, a couple of weeks ago, he said, “Good luck with Indie.” He was in his senior school uniform, looking just as scruffy in it as he did in his junior school one. They’ve all been conspiring. All of them.

     We have a group hug and I’m not sure who to hug hardest – Mum and Dad because they’ve just given me the one thing in the world I wanted more than anything, or Rosie because I don’t want her to feel upstaged. I love her earrings – really. Then I sit and stare at my empty plate through my tears, trying to decide what to do.

     If I leave right now, this instant, I could go to Makuti Park and see Indie before school…...

     “Come on.” Dad folds the paper and stands up. “You look like you’re sitting on hot bricks. I’ll take you to school today and we’ll stop at the stables on the way. No breakfast for me this morning. And have no doubt about it, you will go to school afterwards.”

     I’m struggling to believe this isn’t a dream and that I won’t wake up to my alarm and find none of it’s happened. Since when have my parents and Charles and Moira ever been in contact? I know I talked about Induna a lot. I know they know I’ve wanted a pony forever, but they’re not interested in horses or riding. Neither is Rosie.

     Rosie. Ah, yes. Rosie and her new tennis coach. She got all new gear and a year’s course at Julie Foster’s club didn’t she? The parents conspired a bit behind her back too. That evening they were sitting on the patio and I was doing my homework on the lounge floor, I heard them talking about how Uncle Dudley’d said that Julie thought Rosie would make a brilliant tennis player. Natural co-ordination and ability to read an opponent’s mind, she’d said. I’d thought that was pretty funny, Rosie reading people’s minds. Then I caught Dad saying he was prepared to arrange it – I didn’t know what ‘it’ was – as long as Rosie was going to take it seriously. “You know what she’s like. She tries a bit of this then tries a bit of that. What if it’s just a passing phase, like the cricket?”

     Next thing, Rosie’s presented with this little folder of information about Julie’s instructor and his courses. Top-seeded. Yup, sporting terms are utterly nonsensical, although the cricket ones do take the cake.

     It is true that my sister tries to get involved in everything that’s going but she does do it with genuine interest and only gives up on some activities because it’s physically impossible to fit it all in. I can see why Aunty Pauline took to her.

     So Rosie’s staring at my gymkhana rosettes while she listens to Dad’s lecture about taking the tennis thing seriously, then she goes, “Well, I love it, a bit like Tee loves riding. Yeah, I’d like to have tennis lessons. Okay. Thanks.”

     She got a tennis racquet for her birthday from Cleo and Skellum.

     I’m bursting to see Gill’s face, but when we get to the yard there are only a couple of grooms wandering about.

     “Oh no!” I wail. “It’s the Umtali show this weekend. I forgot.”

     This is the thing when you’re a champion – you get to miss a day at school to go competing. Well, maybe one day……

     I tumble out of the car before it’s stopped, ignoring Dad’s “Hey! Whoa!” and race into the yard. There, I literally run straight into George, who’s leading Induna and Cactus Dan to their paddock.

     “Georgie!” I seize him by his elbows and try to spin him around. “Induna’s mine! My Dad’s bought him!”

     “I know, Miss Tessa.” He’s battling to keep the two lead ropes from tangling and dangling. I throw my arms round Induna’s neck and bury my face in his sweet smelling mane, oblivious then to all else.

     “He’s mine, he’s mine, he’s all mine!”

     “Do you still want old George to look after him for you?”

     “Of course I do Georgie. You’re the best.”

     So even George has been in on the conspiracy. When the hell did Dad get to meet with Charles? It doesn’t matter. I want to ride my horse right here and now. All day.

     But I have to go to school.

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

     This is me – really me – schooling my own horse. I’ve never tried shoulder-in without Gill being present, but I give it a go. Induna takes advantage of my tentative efforts by merely twisting his neck in towards the centre of the school and humping his back as if to say, “See? I can still buck with my head bent to the right. Aren’t I clever? Sorry, what was it you wanted me to do?”

     I do actually need Gill but I’m not going to admit that to myself today at all.

bottom of page