top of page
Victoria Falls.jpg

Chimurenga

Part Two - No Glory in War

There were no scenes of violence. Television crews and reporters have sent footage and shots of smiling voters in lengthy but jovial queues, under the watchful eyes of our multi-national mentors, all round the world.

So here we are, sitting together as a family on our sunlit patio at the end of a day spent in limbo. Dad is even more morose than he was at the end of last week. He’s scowling at the droplets of condensation trickling down the outside of his beer glass. No-one’s spoken for a good twenty minutes, not even Rosie. She’s reading, rather than trying to talk over me and Mum about her day at school and Alicia’s party next week and Heather’s dreadful new haircut and Rob’s latest, tight fitting polo shirt. I can’t think of anything to say about anything and Mum’s intent on mending the hem of her grey skirt. We all know what’s going to happen – we just don’t know precisely how it will happen.

 

12th August 1977 to 24th September 1977

“I may have set out to be a proud father to my sister's son but I ended up with a boy who told me not to bother because he'd been told once that he’d only turn out like his father and bring disgrace on my family.”

Nathan will be eighteen next January. This means only one thing to a white Rhodesian male these days. Stints in the bush, six weeks at a time, brief RNR at home, then back for another six weeks to the operational areas, the front line, the killing.

 

     Friday 12th August 1977

 

     We amble, like we always do, talking, but my ambling is twitchy. I’m too polite. I need to tell Jess, right, sorry, gotta go, things to do, see you tomorrow ja? Only knowing about Jess’s plans for this weekend, after this weekend, would suit me just fine for once.

     “So how’s Gill? You’ll see her today I guess.”

     You guess right. Need to go. Now.

     “Oh fine. I spoke to her on the phone last night. She sounds exactly the same and she didn’t utter any strange words or phrases. She says she’s had her hair cut and I can’t wait to see it. Dad was adamant that we spent nearly two and a half hours on the line and as I had no idea what time the conversation started I couldn’t argue, but I know for sure I only strengthened his views about women and yakking. But I don’t care. Her letters about her daily life at the yard in Surrey were one thing, but it’s so much better now we can actually talk to each other again.”

     We’re at the top of her road, but she still wants to stand and chat.

     “She survived the winter then?”

     “Only just, I reckon. Not impressed. Dad asked the same thing. And given that he’s constantly slagging off the British government and the weather and the whole way of life over there, I fully expected him to launch into one of his mud island-striking workforce-degenerate society stories. He didn’t, though. Makes a change.”

     In fact he made no response at all and just started telling Mum about some new road project he was working on. Well, never mind. I have to say I’m kind of relieved she couldn’t deal with the winter. At least she’ll stay here now. ‘Bye, Jess…..

     I can do my homework tomorrow, or Sunday. Fifteen minutes is all it takes to gobble a sandwich, refuse the biscuits, change into jodhpurs and re-do my plaits. She comes into the bedroom just as I’m yanking the drawstring of my duffel bag to close it and she has that unimpressed air about her.

     “So you’re off now already? Tell me, what’s Jess up to this weekend?”

     “Um…I don’t…Oh yes, she said she’s going boating on Lake MacIllwaine with some cousins and their friends. I got invited, and it’s a bit of shame it’s the same weekend Gill’s back.”

     It is a shame, especially as we’re back to being Jess-and-Tess again. No Clive. No more blow-by-blow accounts of Space: 1999 or Doctor Who, no more deep space theories, no more marvelling at the engineering of the Starship Enterprise and no more pointless diatribes on the O Level physics syllabus. No more trying to figure out what she saw in him.

     “She spends a lot of time with young people your own age, doesn’t she?”

     Oh here we go. I spend too much time with the Owens. What’s it to her?

     She’s standing squarely in the doorway like she’s trying to block my way. But she hates confrontation and I’m not taking her bait. So I chuck the duffel bag on the bed and waffle on in unnecessary detail about my homework assignments for the weekend and a history test we have next week that I want to swot for and a geography project we’ve been given and how I want to start this tomorrow. It works. The conversation she wanted has gone and she can’t see a way to get it back. She dithers, shifting from one foot to the other and rubbing her hands up her arms and then leans up against the frame to steady herself while she scratches her foot.

     That gap is all I need. Grab the duffel bag, go, “Ooh, look at the time. ‘Scuse me. Thanks Mum! ‘Bye!” and exit.

     “I’m doing a roast chicken for this evening so don’t be late,” she calls after me. “I need you home by five thirty latest, remember?”

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

     An afternoon’s not long enough. There’s just too much to find out and discuss. I’m okay with Tammy Fletcher being here as well, but it's because of her that I’ve not found an opening to update Gill on every single detail of Induna’s training like I wanted to, and for her to watch me ride him. Nathan’s been hanging about on the periphery all the time too, saying little but still competing for her attention along with Tammy. Of course she's had to ride both Bravo and Star Point and she couldn’t get enough of either of them, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow now to show off my darling.

     So now it’s twenty-five to five. I should maybe start trying to take my leave as this conversation between Charles, Gill and Tammy about Tammy’s father’s racehorses doesn't look like it's going to end any time soon. It developed from a discussion on Gill's new short, feathery haircut and I don't think any of us will be able to explain how that happened.

     "I've got to go home," I butt in before Tammy can get any deeper into her description of their Triple Crown hope for next year.

     "Aw. Are you sure you won't stay and partake of Amai’s speciality lamb casserole with us?" Charles asks me again. "There's plenty to go round and Tammy Stick Insect here doesn't eat much."

     "You've no idea how much I'd love to but Mum's expecting me home for dinner."

     He inclines his head in deference to my mother's wishes, diplomatic as always, but I just find her wishes galling.

     “Well okay, but it’ll only take you ten minutes to get home and we've got a little time yet, surely? And I've also got a surprise for you. You’re fourteen now, aren’t you?”

     “Nearly. Next month. Why?”

     Nearly fourteen and still a Mummy’s girl.

     “Well, as good as. Why? Because it’s sundowner time. How about a little lager shandy? Tammy? Gill? G&Ts for you girls?”

     Why the heck not? Mother instructed me to have dinner at home but she never told me not drink any shandies here.

     “Yes? Good girl.”

     He leaves the kitchen.

     "Sorry," I say to Tammy. "I interrupted you. Rude of me."

     She laughs and shrugs. "I can go on a bit about horses! It’s Gill who should be doing all the talking."

     Gill's also stood up and is preparing to follow Charles.

     "You might regret saying that. I'll just go and help Dad get the drinks."

     Charles's voice comes back to us from the hallway or the corridor or somewhere with, “Nathan? Nathan! Do you……?” There’s a pause. Then, “Ja, bring it now thanks,” and he comes back some five minutes later with my shandy in one hand, his other hand behind his back. He sets the glass down in front of me.

     “Gill’ll be back with yours in a sec, Tamms,” he says. “Right, Tess. You were telling me earlier about how your little sister has learned more words to more Troopie Songs than you ever could and still does all her homework and plays sport and comes first in class. But does she have one of these?”

     With a flourish he produces a camouflage forage cap just like Rob’s, waves it under my nose and then places it back-to-front on my head.

     “Charles!” I shriek. I whip it off and spin it round in my hands. “Where did you get it?”

     Tammy snatches it from me and puts it on her own head and goes, “Woo hoo! Lucky girl!”

     I'm up on my feet and flinging my arms round Charles. He tries to shrug out of my grasp, then gives up and hugs me back.

     “I told Nathan how desperate you were to get your hands on one, and he had a word with one of my guys on the Rusape site, unbeknown to me. It showed up in a brown paper bag in my office yesterday.”

     In a southern drawl, he adds, “If you don’ ask no questions, you won’ get told no lies.”

     I don’t know exactly what answer I’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t that one. Nathan?

     I stare reverently at the hat Tammy’s just handed back to me and then try to imagine Nathan at work in Charles’s company. Does he work in an office? I can’t picture him at an office, like Dad’s. Of course there’s no reason why I should know what he does in between the times I see him.

     Tammy, it seems, is thinking the same thing.

     “So Nathan’s working for the family business at last? You must be proud, Charles?”

     “Ja, I’ve got him involved in doing site tasks some afternoons and in the school holidays. He’s doing okay.”

     “You sound surprised.”

     “I’m happy to admit I am, Tammy. He’ll go full time next year – while he’s not in the sticks on duty, that is. Having him working with me was always a hope of mine, of course, but we’ve battled with his notions of not being good enough so often I’ve sometimes thought we’ve lost altogether. It’s been tough, on him and on Moira and me. But then he did so much better than we expected in his O Levels, and although he’d never let on, I’d say he shocked himself.”

     Tammy grins. "Gill did say. Teach him maybe he is good enough, hey?"

     “Well precisely,” Charles sighs. “But, he passed the lot and is doing Geography, Economics and Maths this year. Bloody hell Nathan, I said to him, you get your M Levels in those subjects and I won’t be able to afford to employ you, boy. I’ll probably bring him into a different role from what I’d originally planned.”

     He’s staring at the floor, but it’s as if he can’t actually see it. There's something in his demeanour I've never read before, like a sadness, and it has the same effect on me as any negative emotions in Gill. Those two don’t do sad. Like her, Charles is always funny, sunny, full of life, full of enthusiasm for everything, filling every corner of whatever room he’s in. Even Tammy's gone still, waiting for him to come back to us.

     He looks up at me.

     “I may have set out to be a proud father to my sister's son but I ended up with a boy who told me not to bother because he'd been told once that he’d only turn out like his father and bring disgrace on my family.”

     By one of Gill’s other cousins, she said. But she doesn’t think he will. And Charles is back to normal – lifted face, big smile and a laugh that’s apologetic.

     “But, in spite of that, I am proud. My sweet sister would be too, if only she knew. The government will get him next year of course. In the meantime I want him to learn how the business is run, which is why I’ve started mentoring him part time. Ultimately, I want to train him up first as a site agent and hopefully in the future he can become my right-hand man. Take over when the time comes. I think he’s capable but I might have to fight the fact that he doesn't. I’m going to send him to the Polytech to do a course in building studies.”

     I have absolutely no idea what a site agent is or does. An agent? I get a fleeting glimpse of the guys on The FBI and then Roger Moore. Don’t be ridiculous. I smile and say, “Oh, building studies? That will be good.”

     Even Dad’s going to get called up now. He’ll get eleven days’ training. I mean, seriously? Eleven days? He said he’ll probably only get duties like riding shotgun for convoys and general patrols around the city but now Charles has made me think about that all over again and it’s scarier this time.

     Dad made us laugh when he tried to get us to imagine Graham Peakin from the drawing office on a rifle range, balancing on his beer gut and rocking backwards and forwards like one of those wobbly dolls. And Dudley Foster, in an army camp out in the bundu, with an extra suitcase for his powders and lotions and his silk pyjamas and slippers.

     Now I’m thinking it’s not funny. What if Graham has a heart attack from the unaccustomed exercise? Or Charles? Or Dad? How old is Charles? No, he won’t. Of course he won’t. Don’t be stupid.

     Charles is pointing at my half empty glass, raising his eyebrows. I hadn’t even realised I was drinking it. It tastes nice, but I’ll bet there’s more lemonade than beer in there. I shake my head, say no thanks.

     “I’m going to have to go. Thanks for the drink and sorry I can’t stay for dinner.”

     Gill reappears in the kitchen and spots me pushing my feet into my jodhpur boots by the door.

     “Tess! Don’t go yet. I have a Mars Bar for you! Have you ever had a Mars Bar?”

     “Oooh, no. Are they nice?”

     “Too chewy by half,” mutters Charles. “Get stuck in my bloody teeth.”

     “I’ll fetch it….Wait! I brought several back coz I love them, but I wanted to give you, Tamms and Nathan one each. And I got Nathan this Jimmy Cliff single he wanted.”

     She’s speaking over her shoulder as she exits the room.

     Nathan will be eighteen next January. This means only one thing to a white Rhodesian male these days. Stints in the bush, six weeks at a time, brief RNR at home, then back for another six weeks to the operational areas, the front line, the killing.

 

 

Saturday 24th September 1977

 

     He doesn’t so much wave as lift his right hand out of his shorts pocket and waggle the fingers fractionally then slide the hand back into the pocket.

     His companions are oblivious to the exchange, as is Dad, who’s caressing the elephant skin briefcase while talking Mum and himself into buying it, but Rosie clocks me mouthing hello, follows my line of sight and makes a rapid and expert appraisal of all four of them. It makes her day. She grabs Dad’s hand and tugs on it and points and asks the whole of Greatermans, “Did you see that? Tessa can’t even wait for her fourteenth birthday before she starts eyeing up potential mates!”

     Dad goes, “See what?”

     The old couple a few of steps away from him temporarily lose interest in the briefcases, simper fondly at Rosie and then at me, shaking their heads and tut-tutting, but so nicely, like they think I’m just cute and silly and a bit of an air-head. I’m thinking about how I’ll kill her when we get home and how the deed will be carried out slowly.

     Mum draws a blank as well and says “Mates?” and Dad insists, “See what, Rosie? What are you talking about, girl?”

     “She spots a group of four blokes and starts waving at them. They were not bad looking, I’ll give her that.”

     “I did not wave. Stop lying Rosie!”

     “Well one of them saw you ogling at them and waved at you and you said hello. Okay, you were lip syncing hello while you were making eyes at them. I saw you.”

     Her face is bubbling at me with wicked delight at the idea that she might just have caught me out revealing my true self, but at the same time is so full of affection that my murderous self sighs and creeps back into its shell.

     I’ll have forgotten about her false accusation by the time we get back to the car. What’s freaking me out is the notion that there’s a scenario in an alternative world in which Nathan and his friends pass across the ground floor of this store just ten minutes earlier. At the time we were standing at the display of matching luggage sets Mum was so taken with, all of us facing out towards the aisle that leads to the Stanley Avenue exit. In this alternative world things happen pretty much as they did in this one, up to a point. He notices me and I notice him in precisely the same second, he lifts his hand out of his pocket and waggles his fingers at me, I mouth hello and Rosie observes all of this. But instead of being some fifteen metres away and within seconds of reaching the street outside, they’re right in front of us when she hollers, “Did you see that? Tessa…” etc, etc, etc and remain within earshot while we exchange spats about me waving, not waving and making eyes at four blokes because I’m just about to turn fourteen and am looking for a mate. In whatever chains of events led us all to be in Greatermans today, timing was on my side. He’s gone, and he heard none of it.

     “Rosie, I know him,” I sigh. “The one who waved? I haven’t a clue who the others were.”

      Typically, she’s decided it’s history now and is edging off towards the handbags.

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

     I do a final check of my girth, put my leg back down and cluck my tongue so that Induna moves off after Star Point. He’s eager and tries to trot to catch up but Gill’s told me not to let him do that, so I check him and try to make him extend his walk instead.

     She’s watching over her shoulder.

     “Good walk there, Tess. Well done.”

     “He knows now, I think, what I want him to do. I’m trying to visualise Bravo’s amazing extended walk.”

     Bravo. Bravo looking amazing. Nathan.

     “We saw Nathan in town today. I was in Greatermans with Mum and Dad and Rosie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in the city before you know. Only here or at school or at Turnpike.”

     She doesn’t seem surprised and just replies, “Oh, okay,” then, “He took himself off fairly early this morning. Was he alone?”

     That’s the other unusual thing. He wasn’t.

     “He was with three guys, all a bit older than him possibly? One in camo trousers and a khaki T-shirt and the others in civvies. They were on the ground floor, just leaving through the Stanley Avenue entrance. We didn’t speak. He saw me and waved but then they all left.”

     “Ah, that’ll be Jed and Carl and possibly Roland. Was the camo-clad one bushy bearded? A dark beard?”

     “Ja, that’s right.”

     “Definitely Roland then. He’s in the Selous Scouts. Jed and Carl are two of Dad’s guys on the Rusape site at the moment and Roland is Carl's brother. Nath’s been on site several days a week through the holidays. He’s been hanging out with them a bit lately and they all seem to get on like a house on fire.”

     She gives her gurgling laugh. “I just hope this new socialising thing doesn’t go to his head and lead to him going completely off the rails, getting tanked up and ending up face down in a ditch somewhere!”

     “He doesn’t drink that much though?”

     He wouldn’t though, would he?

     “Nah, not really. He’ll have a beer with Dad in the evenings sometimes but otherwise only at any parties we have. Hey, where do you want to go today? The tracks round the Watsons’ farm?”

     It takes us twenty minutes to get there, through quiet residential roads basking in the hazy early summer sun and then across the scrubby Crown Land – still brown and dry from the winter – at the top of Milton Close, and into one of the back entrances to the Watson place. Our conversation loops this way and that and Gill’s full of her plans for taking in up to three horses at a time for training. Once we start trotting round the white sandy tracks of the farm, with a barrier of tall, tattered gum trees on our left and stalky wheat stubble on our right, she suggests, “Trot twice round the usual three fields, then canter once round all three, trot once more and canter again the final time? That way we build up on what we did the last time.”

     “Sounds like a plan.”

     There’s a lull while we settle the horses into a rhythm. Five minutes pass, during which both of them snort several times. Then they go quiet and it’s just the steady beat of their strides and the faint crunching of Star Point chewing his bit that I can hear. Halfway round the first track, Gill looks over at me.

     “It’s good to know Nath’s arranged something with the boys, even if it’s just a trip to town. You probably don't realise what a big deal that is. Well, no, sorry. I guess you do.”

     It is a big deal for sure. I watch her working on words. Eventually she says, “He just never seems to need anyone. Or to want to need anyone. As I’ve told you, he’s dead reluctant to get close to any other person, even us. Especially us, unfortunately. Since he was seven. The fact is, he really is grateful to my folks for all they’ve given him and for taking him as their son, and I reckon it’s because of that that he backs away. In case he lets them down. He can’t seem to understand why they’d bother with him.”

     We’re nearly back to where we entered the farm and turn left where the track branches off through a gap in the gum trees, take another sharp left and start on our circuit of the next field.

     “Does he remember his parents?”

     “Nathan? Hmmm, I reckon he does, to a limited extent. Mum and Dad were always open with him about the fact that he’s adopted. But trying to get him to talk about what memories he does have, especially of his mother, really is like getting blood out of a stone. None of us have succeeded. Those kids at school who called him a loner? They didn’t know a thing about him. He’s been his own worst enemy in cultivating that untouchable, unsociable image, so everyone’s left him alone and that's how he wants it.”

     She puts her reins in one hand and points across the stubble field with the other. “See the tractor over there on the far side? That’ll be Leo Watson. We’ll have to make sure we don’t stop to talk or we’ll be here until sunset, bless him. I’ll just shout hi, lovely to see you, we’re working on our fitness training or something and we’ll keep going. Whatever you do, don’t ask him how he is.”

     The horses have spotted the slowly moving tractor and are doing passable giraffe impressions, all four ears locked onto it. Star Point’s having some backward thoughts.

     “Get on!” Gill growls, kicking him in the ribs so that he leaps forward, humping his back, a bit of white foam flicking from his mouth.

     Leo trundles his way towards us as we’re trotting towards him, sending a cloud of the white sandy dust skywards behind the tractor. That’ll make us all cough when we get absorbed by it. He observes us with a wry, closed mouth smile that’s lopsided in his long, sun-hardened face, the floppy blue bush hat rammed down low over his eyes so that his round spectacles touch it from below. He has very large ears, which are also up against the short brim of the hat. He draws level with us.

     “Gilly Owen!” he shouts above the roar of the tractor’s engine. We’ve pulled the horses off the track onto the stubble by about five metres and there’s a bit of waving and a shouted exchange of Gill’s scripted greetings.

     “Hi Leo! Lovely day.”

     “Stunning hachi you’ve got there girl.”

     “He’s gorgeous isn’t he? I’m using your land for fitness training again, Leo. Many, many thanks!”

     “You’re welcome, my love. How is…..”

     “He’s very uppity and bucks like a bronc. We’d better get going or he’ll have me on the ground. See you soon!”

     Now that he’s well away from Leo’s tractor, Star Point is picking his way carefully through the stony ground amongst the stubble, focused and relaxed and innocent, as if butter wouldn’t melt.

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

     “Nathan’s not back yet,” Gill observes, standing at the back door with her arms folded. “Looks like he may be out jawling this evening.”

     “And ending up in a ditch?”

     “Hey, he’ll be fine. I do wonder if he's going about with those guys because he knows damned well that when he gets to go into the army he’s going to have to be part of a team whether he likes it or not, and that everyone’s lives will pretty much depend on that bond. The boys will have plenty of war stories to swap and entertain each other with, so he’ll be getting a taste of what army life will be like. Sure, there’ll be drinking and getting rowdy but it’s what soldiers do. We can’t prevent that.”

     The way she’s talking makes it sound like he just can’t wait to go and is gearing up for some excitement. Like Timothy.

     “Is he looking forward to getting drafted? I can’t believe he is.”

     “God, I don’t know. He’s never said. It’s always been so hard to know what he’s thinking. He’s stepped up his jogging regime and he's started dragging me down to the squash courts at the Alex club twice a week, so he’s trying to get himself fitter. What would I feel? Would I be filled with some sort of patriotism, or be dead against it and risk prison as a conchie or just be bloody scared shitless? If I ask him though, I know I'll get nowhere.”

     As I’m mounting the bike, she giggles, “You never know. Maybe he’ll even find himself a girlfriend!”

     

bottom of page