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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.


21st February 1978

First thought: What the hell? Next thought: Alarm. Fire drill. Then: The gong is not the fire alarm. It’s the bomb alarm. Bomb drill.

“Look at her,” Jess whispers, nodding towards Mrs Walsh, who’s dithering near the door. “This is for real. She’d have been told if there was going to be a practice.”


     Tuesday 21st February 1978


     The tiered seating creaks a bit, someone behind me flips the question sheet over and back again, a Parker biro clicks out and back in. Mrs Walsh opens a file full of papers with a soft thud and picks up her pen. Her green pen. Why she sees the need to mark our work in sickly green when all the other teachers use red is a mystery.

     The tall swivel windows beyond the lab benches only reveal a dull, drizzly gloom, the Cypress trees along the boundary fence barely visible. The thunder and lightning have chased each other away and the gutter downpipes have stopped their gurgling.

     Right. Let’s get on with it. Names and functions of the components of animal and plant cells. I know this stuff. It’s my sort of thing.

     Question One done. Move on to Two. But I’ve barely put my pen onto the paper when the air around me is shattered into splinters by a clashing, crashing, nerve-jangling hammering of metal on metal that fills every cubic millimetre in the room. Thoughts come lagging in slow motion behind the action as we, like a single organism, scramble to our feet.

     First thought: What the hell?

     Next thought: Alarm. Fire drill.

     Then: The gong is not the fire alarm. It’s the bomb alarm. Bomb drill.

     Finally: In the middle of our test. Mrs Walsh won’t be impressed.

     Mrs Walsh’s face is just total confusion.

     “Elizabeth! Heather! You open the windows please. The rest of you, come along, quick. Get your cases up onto the tops of the benches, names uppermost, leave them and follow me. Elizabeth and Heather to do the same after the windows. Now! Go!”

     The misty veil that’s the remains of the torrential rain storm swirls its damp greyness into the lab.

     “Oh hell,” I say to no-one in particular. “Look at it out there. Why now?”

     Jess hefts her suitcase from under the bench, pushes mine towards me with her foot and grabs both of our dripping raincoats.

     “Look at her,” she whispers, nodding towards Mrs Walsh, who’s dithering near the door. “This is for real. She’d have been told if there was going to be a practice.”

     I have a little curl of fear in my abdomen. We join the line, filter through the double doors. When we had that practice fire drill in the second week of term, it’s true that Miss Marston, in that case, was calm and relaxed enough to bring her nail file with her, and she gave out instructions in a conversational tone. When the electric fire alarm bell goes off, girls, you close the windows, leave your suitcases where they are and head out to the playing fields in single file and line up in class order at the Pavilion. Remember though that it will be different for bomb drills, so be prepared. Crispin, the chemistry lab assistant, will beat the simbi with an iron bar and in that case you will leave the windows open, leave your suitcases on top of your desk with your name in large white letters in full view and head out to the playing fields in single file and line up in class order at the Pavilion. Any cases or bags without a name that are found by the bomb squad will be destroyed.

     The corridors are wet, and slippery with dirty footprints. I hold my plastic raincoat over my head when we get out to the hockey pitch. After shouting us into order, the staff get into a huddle around Mrs Peterson, leaving the Form Captains to carry out roll call. Crispin and the other lab technician are there too. The poor guy’s probably a bit shell shocked after his gong-bashing session in the quad. He’ll be relieved when we finally get the air raid siren thingy. Eventually Mrs Peterson marches over to stand in front of the lines and opens her mouth to bellow for quiet, but all talking has already ceased. She looks a bit amazed.

     “Right, listen! The school has received an anonymous telephone call to say that an explosive device might have been placed somewhere in the buildings. The police will be arriving in a few minutes. Now I want to you to all about-turn in your lines quickly and walk across the pitch to the far side in a quiet, orderly manner. There is absolutely no danger if you do as I say. Stop when you reach the goal net and keep your lines. Right? Go!”

     Uproar erupts. We turn raggedly and the lines begin to stream across the sodden hockey field.

     “QUIET!” Mr Parker roars from behind us and a guilty hush envelopes us like a damp blanket.

     “Why did she tell us to move?” Jess whispers to me over her shoulder. “I don’t want to stand in the rain anywhere. This is going to be a bad-hair day, I can tell.”

     “Don’t know,” I reply, but then, in that instant, I do. “Yes! Of course. A bomb somewhere in the buildings. She’s sent us away from our usual assembly point in front of the Pavilion. I guess it might be known we always gather there.”

     “That dilapidated old shed?” Jess squeaks. “Someone ought to blow it up! We need a new one. Anyway, she only said a – what? – an explosive device might have been planted.”

     “She doesn’t want to cause panic?” I speculate and Heather hisses “Shhh!” in her Form Captain voice from further down the line. “Jessica Marsh!”

     Jess stares straight ahead and pokes out her tongue. She carries on whispering so I have to practically put my chin on her shoulder to hear her.

     “I wonder if those two coppers who turned up last term to give us that weapons recognition talk will be here? They were both…. mmmm, well, you know. Remember?”

     “Yes Jess, we all know you wanted them to arrest you,” I hiss back. “Better go do something naughty.”

     “Tessa! You too!” Heather’s getting frantic. Jess snorts and I give her a mild nudge between the shoulder blades.

     The police arrive in force and we wait. Thankfully, the drizzle dies out altogether. The sun even starts glimmering somewhere in the grey clouds behind us. For nearly two hours they swarm over the school like a nestful of khaki-clad ants, while members of the Police Reserve take up station at all the entrances to the grounds, FN rifle butts resting on the ground and eyes watchful from under their navy blue floppy hats. Their presence makes me think of Dad. If he wasn’t down at Gatooma on farm guard duty he might’ve been here.

     When we’re finally allowed to return to our classrooms it’s one o’clock – home time. No bomb, or any other weapon, has been found, or so we’re told, so there’s a mild collective sense of anti-climax. Someone’s idea of a joke, I guess – a pretty sick one after those shoppers were killed in Woolworths last year. Then the terrs blew up that church, although there was no-one in it at the time. Dad said it’s like having our very own IRA, and that we have to learn to live with stopped up litter bins and post boxes and criss-cross tape on all the shop windows. And put up with being searched every time we go into one of the shops. Who was it who said that the people will get used to anything? That we all have a tendency to become complacent, even if we don’t consciously think, “It will never happen to me.”? Like the residents of Umtali, who’ve got used to being mortared and wear T-shirts with a beer bottle printed on and the words “Come to Umtali and Get Bombed”.

     We live in a country at war with itself.

     I’m so wrapped up in thinking all this dismal stuff that I don’t hear what Mrs Walsh says before, “And don’t think you’ve got away with it.”

     I ram my biology file into my case, stuff my pencil box in a corner and fasten the clasps. The spring’s gone in one of them so I’ll have to see if Mum can get me a new one. I think we’ve still got some white paint left in the garage.

     In the cycle sheds, a group of us wastes an inordinate amount of time inventing imaginative plots to leave homework and text books in unmarked cases for the attention of the police. Maybe we are getting complacent.


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