The Tin Heart Gold Mine
BY RUTH HARTLEY
Chapter Four – The Poachers
Lara returned to Bill and Maria’s camp filled with enthusiasm and self-confidence. Jason had arrived a week before her and was busy setting up the summer camp inside the National Park.
“Things don’t look good this year.” It was unusual for Bill to look tired at the start of the season but the day was unseasonably hot and the dusty wind irritating. “The rains were very poor. River levels are much too low. The best water holes are drying up. Bush cover is sparse. We are going to have to go further afield before our clients see any game. It is going to be hard work.”
Bill stomped off to see his mechanics service the Cruisers. Lara turned to Maria, who shrugged and sighed.
“There’s a big increase in poaching this year. We found elephant carcases everywhere. Machine gunned indiscriminately. They haven’t only killed the tuskers – they take out whole families and juveniles. Threatened elephants are dangerous. When we did come across a big herd they were aggressive and we had to drive away very fast.”
She smiled at Lara.
“Well I’m glad to see you – that bad boy Jason will be, too.”
Jason, however, didn’t seem as pleased to see Lara as she was to see him. While she was bursting to tell him about her exhibition, Jason was more reticent about his summer. He had learnt a great deal at Hluhluwe with the rhino project but it seemed to have congealed in him rather than opened him up. He said he was pleased that Lara had done well at the exhibition but he didn’t want to talk about her commission at the bank.
“How are you going to manage to paint and do the work we need you to do here?”
His words made Lara’s chest constrict.
Jason’s not my boss – she thought angrily, Bill is okay with how I arrange my time. Besides I am a painter – it’s what I do! It’s what I am.
A dull sense told her that Jason didn’t much care what she was or did. With that realisation a hard ridge of resistance grew inside her just as, outside the camp in the shrinking river, a band of rocks was being exposed.
Lara and Jason still made love or, as it was beginning to feel to Lara, they had sex. It was more businesslike, over sooner and less satisfying. Lara began to understand that without love and consideration the sexual act didn’t amount to much and was quickly forgotten. It was jarring to hear a noisy drunken group of men and women guests at the camp bar laughing and teasing each other about ‘ball-breaking nymphomaniacs’ and men with ‘little dicks’. Lara was quite certain that, as a woman and a lover, she did not fit into any category.
A plump white envelope arrived at the camp for Jason.
“Stuff about Hluhluwe,” he said casually and took it away to read it.
Another one, fat as a small pillow followed.
“Pwah! Something here is a bit scented!” Bill said, handing it over.
The grass had died away on the nearest plains and the mupane trees had suffered heavy depredation by elephants. The antelope had moved on in search of new pastures. Bill called in a pilot who made a reconnaissance flight over the park and located more antelope further to the north-east. After consultation with the camp team, Bill sent Jason and Lara out together to explore new game trips that might make it possible to take clients closer to the ever-diminishing game herds. The weather was unpleasant and cold, the sky concreted over with stiff grey clouds, a spiteful wind flapped about, blowing spirals of dust and grit into their eyes. The wind and the Cruiser with Jason and Lara in it were the only things moving in an empty and deserted landscape. There wasn’t even sufficient fresh animal dung to attract dung beetles. Without insects there were fewer birds. It was a dismal trip. Jason and Lara hardly spoke to each other. Their words would make too much noise in such an empty world. Soon after midday they parked out of the wind in a sheltered gully to brew some tea and eat sandwiches.
“Let’s take a walk – I need to stretch.” Jason said after half-an-hour. “We’ll have a look around from the hilltop.”
Leaving their vehicle they walked up onto the crest of the hill above and raised their binoculars.
“That’s a vicious east wind – nothing is likely to scent us from that direction – or hear us either.” Lara said pulling her jacket shut.
There was a sudden rigid alertness in Jason.
“Quick, Lara!” he hissed, “Get down flat on the ground,” and he too dropped down beside her.
“It’s poachers, Lara! I swear to God there’s a least fifty of them all loaded up with meat and ivory. They are trekking south-east. If they see us we’re dead. We can outrun them in the Cruiser but they’ll have long-range bullets and AK 47s so it will be a risk.”
Supporting themselves on their elbows, they looked out at the distant line of men. Against the dull sky, a long line of misshapen black silhouettes trailed slowly across the high ground to their east, some 50 metres distant. They humped great burdens on their shoulders. Some carried loaded litters between them.
“They’re moving away from us, thank God!” Jason said.
“You’re right – there’s forty-three that I can count.” said Lara, “but some of them are very small – just children – I think. There are about six men with elephant tusks. The guys at the front and back of the line have guns and aren’t carrying anything.”
“Bastards! They go into isolated villages and get the old men and the young children to porter for them. Sometimes the villagers benefit from the poaching – get some meat maybe – but these kids and old men will walk 100s of kilometres and then have to walk home again. I expect there will be lorries waiting for this meat where the road enters the south-east of the National Park.”
The poachers moved very slowly. They were not expecting to be seen and fortunately for Jason and Lara did not bother to look around themselves at all.
“We’re bloody lucky!” Jason said, “They’re not doing any more poaching so they haven’t sent out scouts to check out the bush.”
“I expect they know they’ve driven everything away that they haven’t killed.” Lara said.
Lara admitted to herself that she was afraid and fear was enervating. It was strange how fear felt like boredom. She would remember this time years later when boredom and fear seemed the total of her experience.
The poachers trudged on. It was an hour before they vanished from view and another half-hour before Jason risked driving their vehicle out of the gully and turning it for home. They had to race back to arrive at the Park Gate before sunset. The Cruiser jolted and bumped. Lara and Jason did not speak. They both had to concentrate on the road. Jason, in order to not damage the Cruiser, and Lara, so not to be flung about and be herself damaged.
Bill was stony-faced when he heard their news. The camp guests, nervous and thrilled. The necessary action was taken and the poachers were met by Game Guards when they reached the South-Eastern Park Gate. The haul totalled twenty boys, nine old men, some rotting game-meat, three poachers and the six ivory tusks. A number of the poachers had escaped. Most of those caught would hang around the Gate under police guard for some weeks and then be allowed to drift home when there was no more food.
The whole business took up time and energy. It was several days later than scheduled that Bill and Maria sat down with their camp staff to discuss their plans for the coming month.
“Ah, Jason.” Bill said, putting on his reading glasses and taking his pen from behind his ear. “We’ve received this application for work from um – from Leone Cilliers, your friend from Hluhluwe Game Park. She wants to come here next summer to work.” Bill looked at Jason over the top of his reading glasses. “You know we have a full team complement at the moment, don’t you?”
“That’s okay, Bill,” Lara said and coughed to clear her throat. “I’ll be painting full time next year so I won’t be coming back -” She looked at Maria. “I don’t think so anyway – sorry Maria.”
The Tin Heart Gold Mine is on the surface a story of an artist in Africa trying to find a personal strategy for fulfilment. On her way she encounters Tim, an idealistic foreign correspondent, and Oscar an older man with a mysterious past.
But deeper than that it is a story of betrayal, hard choices, personal and social violence. At the end of the book you are left with doubt — Will Tim come back? Can Oscar really be dead? and who is the father of Lara’s child? A fascinating read! John Corley
The Shaping of Water
BY RUTH HARTLEY
“I don’t think I believed that the lake would actually ever come into existence. That weekend that we all drove down to the valley was such a strange time,” Margaret said.
“When I saw the unfinished dam wall it looked as if it was being broken down, not built up. It was just a row of giant teeth sticking up in a random fashion across the gorge. The water looked so far away and insignificant — no bigger than the earth dam on the farm. I really didn’t believe it would amount to anything much — nothing like this!” Margaret gestured at the lake before them as it lay glimmering under a glittering sky. “All that stuff about there being nothing in the valley except tsetse fly — I don’t think I believed it. Nothing seemed real to me. Least of all that there would one day be a dam. It all seemed impossible and unlikely, and yet — here we are,” Margaret finished.
“I always believed in it,” Charles laughed. “All those workers slaving away under the tremendous heat. What an achievement! All those hundreds of cement lorries churning up the dust on the escarpment road with poor old Steve trying to overtake them in our terrible old pick-up when he couldn’t see one yard ahead.”
“Mmmh — I was scared stiff all the way. The heat was unbearable, I thought I would suffocate from sweat and thick, sandy dust — and then when we got to the Kariba Heights Hotel and you had to rescue me from those Italian workers — I wanted to die!”
“You were so young and innocent — Steve and I didn’t realise you had gone into the bar alone and the Italian men obviously thought you were — uh — a — well. We were pretty green also, Steve and me!”
“Really!” Margaret thought for a moment then smiled. “Of course that’s what happened! What a fool I was — I had no idea then what a prostitute was, never mind that they lived and worked at Kariba. Is that why you decided to make an honest woman of me that weekend, Charles?”
“Something like that — something like that,” Charles said. “I just wanted to keep you safe for ever — and to keep you all for myself too, before Steve decided that he was going to have you. Darling — I have finished my beer — let me get you another gin.” And he bent and kissed her forehead on his way into the kitchen.
Margaret found herself fretting. When Charles returned she studied her drink, glistening temptingly in its tall glass while the ice clinked and the lemon fizzed and spun, then she turned to him again, wanting to be reassured.
“Charles — did we do enough? Did we try hard enough? Could we have done better? Politically I mean — and also as people?
Sometimes I am so ashamed to be Rhodesian. How did we fail so badly?”
“Of course we didn’t do enough! Nobody ever does,” Charles answered, glancing at Margaret and then falling silent for a few moments.
“Could anyone have changed the course of politics in Rhodesia? I don’t know. I don’t think so. You and I were caught between those whites who would not contemplate a future shared with black people and those who insisted on full rights for blacks at once.
“I’m not black — if I was — maybe I would have not compromised either. I don’t feel any sympathy for white people living in Africa who think they can deny black people votes for ever — or even for the immediate future. I have no sympathy for Jacob either — joining an organisation that was ready to use bombs. I do believe that communism is a dangerous threat to the liberty of us all in the west — at least we have freedom of thought and speech.”
“Do we?” said Margaret very quietly. “Do we? They don’t have it in South Africa.”
“True,” Charles acknowledged, “but Margaret — one thing I know — we don’t escape the consequences of our actions — whatever they are — there is still a long way to go before anything is resolved in this part of the world.”
“It’s also been going on for ages,” said Margaret, wanting everything to be better tomorrow just this one time. “Remember the Mau-Mau uprising and in the end in spite of everything, Kenyatta still becomes the president.”
They fell silent, each occupied with their own thoughts.
The fifties, when Margaret was at school, were also the years of the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya. The long and bitter fight for human rights against cruel oppression in colonial Kenya was seen in white Rhodesia as an atavistic murder spree, inflicted only on white people by a savage and primitive minority. The nineteenth century rebellions in Rhodesia against white domination were long over but once Rhodesians heard of the Mau-Mau, a prickling sense of fear and guilt kept everyone looking backwards over their shoulders. At school increasing levels of hysteria and prejudice on all matters to do with race and politics led to arguments and persecutions among the girls. School meals at the boarding house were served up by African waiters who also did the domestic work and gardening. To the white schoolgirls, they were nameless, worthless skivvies who were mostly ignored, but were verbally abused whenever their presence brought them close enough.
“While I am a prefect no one on my table will call a waiter ‘kaffir’.”
The words came out clear and firm. Margaret’s elocution was good. She was well-taught. Still she was surprised that she had managed to speak those words and that she was audible. She also expected an immediate rude response but the girls in her charge were taken aback. So surprised in fact that no one questioned her or challenged her, or insulted a waiter while she was on duty again. Margaret would be called a ‘kaffir-boetjie’ behind her back from now on but she had realised, in that instant when Leonie jeered at Simba, that she had to take charge or give up forever and listen in misery to the daily diet of racism that was dished out to the men who served her food.
Simba, a tall ungainly man with huge feet, was standing at Margaret’s table holding a tray of banana and jam sandwiches when Leonie, a child of fourteen, said to him,
“Hey kaffir — take the dog food away!” Then she had laughed.
Simba wanted to kill Leonie. The blood roared in his ears. He turned and walked back to the kitchen, blind and deaf with rage. Afterwards he was not sure what he had heard Margaret say though another waiter, a young boy called Thomas who was the same age as Margaret, said it was true. Simba did not care anymore. He was filled with hatred. It was devouring him. At night the girls above in the dormitories heard him shouting at the other workers in the servants’ quarters. He raved in ChiShona about raping white girls. They understood the hatred in his voice but not his words, nevertheless it stopped them sleeping. Simba knew he frightened them. He knew if they complained about the noise he made he would lose his job, but he was growing tired of the sickening taste of bitterness. He would leave his job in the government school anyway. He would go to the mines of the Northern Rhodesia Copperbelt. They said the money was good there. They said the white mine-workers were the worst sort of racists — cruel bullies — all ‘boers’ from South Africa but at least they would be men and he would not be ashamed to want to kill them.
The ill-treatment of servants took place at school meals every day. It continued at every table except Margaret’s until she left school two years later. Then of course it began again and increased in viciousness. That was the year the right wing political party of Ian Smith began its campaign with a poster asking:
‘DO YOU WANT YOUR DAUGHTER TO MARRY AN AFRICAN?’
It was printed over a photograph taken at an International Girl Guide Jamboree that showed children of all races running in a race together.
Nothing in Rhodesia was changed by Margaret’s action except herself. She had crossed a line. She did not think that her action was political. She was not political. Politics was for men. Margaret had only done what her father would have expected of her. She had insisted on good manners. It was important to treat people well and with respect, especially if they had less power and less of everything that she did. It appeared to Margaret after that school meal, that the speed of political change in Rhodesia quickened and moved dramatically to the right. It seemed to her to be moving more and more towards a solution like that of South African Apartheid. Since that evening, nothing offered hope.
With a sigh, Margaret returned to the present, to the warm evening and the sound of the lake and Charles by her side. The boys, Michael and Richard, were asleep on the bunk beds, tired after a day spent swimming and fishing and scrambling along the shore in search of legavaans, snakes and scorpions.
It was more than five years since Rhodesia under its Prime Minister, Ian Smith, had made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence. He had decided only six months before to shut the borders between Rhodesia and Zambia because, he said, of the support offered to dissident political groups like Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU by the President of Zambia. Margaret turned to Charles.
“Have you any guesses about what will happen next in Rhodesia?”
Charles very slowly shook his head once, twice, then again.
“Bloodshed,” he said quietly. “There will be bloodshed.”
Below Charles and Margaret the waters of Lake Kariba chewed ceaselessly at the shoreline, gnawing and regurgitating, smoothing and scouring, claiming an empire, reshaping an ancient geology with a million new forms of life as it explored the dam’s creations of mud and crevice and beach and depth. On and on and on went the moving waters, invading, colonising, subjugating, populating and changing forever the largest valley in Africa.
Below the dam wall, in the deep cool shadowed night of the Kariba Gorge, there were a few quiet splashes on the river, a fish perhaps taken by a giant orange fishing owl; a stalking crocodile sliding its snout up onto the bank as a duiker or bush buck made its shy, delicate way to the water’s edge for a drink. The shrilling of the cicadas seemed to make an unending chain of noise but to any experienced listeners in the bush there were momentary missing links in the sounds. There were abrupt silences where suddenly stealthy rustles could be heard as they shifted carefully onwards until the next cicada fell silent and the last one joined its racket to that of its fellow creature all over again.
Simba’s young friend Thomas and his cousin Jonas, were making their way northwards into Zambia. They had come across the Kariba gorge to find the ZAPU encampments and join the liberation struggle. A Tonga fisherman ferried them over the Zambezi in his bwato. The fisherman was wearing a traditional mubeso loincloth over his deformed and rigid hip. His teeth were filed into points. Around his neck was a mpande shell on a beaded string. He said that long ago a hippo cow whose path he crossed had almost broken him in half with one bite. He always laughed when he told this story. He had been young and foolish then but he had lived. He liked to be in his bwato as he found it hard to walk. His name was Mafwafwa: the one who has escaped death.
At the other end of the lake in the rapids of the headwaters of the dam, Simba was crossing back into Rhodesia with a group of guerrillas. They too were helped over the rapids by Tonga fishermen in their bwatos.
Simba had been recruited by ZAPU cadres while he was living in the Copperbelt. He had not wanted to join ZAPU but his rage against whites had never abated and he had not been able to keep any jobs in Zambia. The cadres took him to Tanzania and from there he was taken to China for three months’ training. He was an intelligent, independent and argumentative recruit but he had good reason. The Rhodesian Security Forces were well established in the bush in Hwange district south of the Zambian border. Their kill rate for ZAPU insurgents was very high. Simba said that ordering regular army-style groups of the liberation army unsupported by the local villagers into this area could not win the war and they would all be killed. He and others guerrillas who said the same thing were right, as their leader, Herbert Chitepo, back in Lusaka would eventually have to admit.
Simba was going to his death at the hands of the Rhodesian soldiers. Before he died however, Simba would become a legend for his fearlessness and his rage.
Charles and Margaret and the two boys slept well that night. The weather was not too hot and they were at peace with their lives for the moment. Charles as usual got up at sunrise but half-an-hour earlier, a village Headman was banging on the door of the Siavonga Clinic. Before the bemused doctor from the power station construction company understood why he was wanted, he was being rushed into the bush in the direction of Sinazongwe. A group of local Tonga villagers had accidentally walked into the land mines laid around a ZAPU camp. There were four dead men and one who, apparently uninjured, was in shock and dying and would not survive the trip in the Land Rover back to the clinic.
No one ever did explain to anyone’s satisfaction, who the land mines were set to trap and why.
The Shaping of Water is a very good read. Interconnected lives are affected by a single act; the creation of the Kariba dam. The unintended consequence is an altered ecosystem and the separation of populations and countries. …
Visitors leave their names and comments in the guest book of a cottage on the lake shore. The water level rises and falls and the natural world of plants and birds is woven into the story in brilliant passages of calm in the midst of turmoil.Polly Loxton
On Amazon UK 28 Jan 2014
Great read. What I look for in a novel is to learn something new. For me this story of how Rhodesia emerged into Zimbabwe fulfilled this. The descriptions of the landscapes are impressive as is the narrative of the building of Kariba dam.
I felt that the historical, political unfolding of Apartheid, through the ingenious use of ‘The Cottage’ and its guests, was told with a great depth of understanding. I couldn’t put this book down and did not want it to end.Kazabella
On Amazon UK 29 Jan 2014
The author’s knowledge and love of central Africa, where this novel is set, add depth and life to the story. Through her characters, the upheavals and conflicts of the time are seen from several viewpoints bringing a better understanding of attitudes with which one may not necessarily sympathise.
I found it a thoughtful and honest book, well-written and with a plot which kept my attention to the end.Buzby
On Amazon UK 21 Jan 2016
… an excellent novel that illuminates the unsettled period … just before and after Zambia gained independence. Tensions were high as Rhodesia was still being fought over and the war of liberation spilt into southern Zambia and along the shores of the newly formed Lake Kariba. … grasps attention from the start … compelling characters draw the reader through the complexities of different races coming to terms with post-colonial society. A “must read” for all those who live there now, or were there in those exciting times.
On Amazon UK 27 Jan 2014
The White and Black Blues
BY RUTH HARTLEY
I was inside the wrong outside. The idea struck me while Dad was boozing in the Ruzawi Clubhouse bar and I was lounging in the shade of a lucky-bean tree with Ted.
“Your Dad’s a waste of white skin,” Ted said.
He flicked his cigarette next to my bare toes and watched my expression as he ground the stub into the red dust. No way could I rescue that stompjie to share with Patrick. Ted had been Dad’s farm assistant until he took him on in a shouting match. Bad call. Dad is the absolute best champion shouter. He can outlast a thunderstorm and still shower you with spittle. Ted got the sack and Dad ferried him to the clubhouse so he could cadge a lift back to the city.
Dad wasn’t much good as a farmer but did the colour of his skin matter? Most of his visible bits weren’t white but the sour lemon yellow colour of the first leaves of the tobacco harvest. The edges of him, fingers, teeth and face were the rusty brown of the last tobacco leaves that his black labourers hand-picked. Dad didn’t need much skin. He was a little bloke with a chesty cough and wire coat-hangers for shoulders bent round a shirt pocket rigid with cigarettes.
Patrick’s father, the Reverend Nkole, was the opposite in size, colour, and big-heartedness to Dad. He was a pastor in the Tribal Trust land where Patrick went to the local mission school. At weekends Patrick did odd jobs and skivvied for the Ruzawi club manager. He couldn’t swim, play tennis or come into the clubhouse because he was just an African. I was with my Dad in case he got plastered and I had to drive him home. I was too young to have a driving licence but I did it anyway. I could swim if I wanted but there were usually only little kids and their mums there and that embarrassed me.
It’s obviously better to have a white skin on a Rhodesian farm but I wondered how skin could be wasted on anyone. It pretty much fits unless you are so old that it’s loose and scraggy. My Mum‘s skin is soft and sags. When she’s tired makes me afraid she’ll burst into bits. I personally don’t have spare skin. Like Dad I’m short, bony and sharp-featured. My skin is brown with scabs on my knees and bruises on my arms. I don’t think my skin defines me though – like – did I choose it? I bet if Dad was a snake and shed his skin it would still smell of sweat and beer. If I was a chrysalis I wouldn’t be a butterfly I’d be a bug that had outgrown its case. I’d like to be a flying insect but it doesn’t look as if I’ll get bigger anyway. If I cut my skin it hurts and I bleed. One of our workers ripped the skin off his leg on a ploughshare. He yelled but my Dad swore at him and he went quiet. I stared at the blood running over his foot and between his toes. Underneath his dusty black skin his flesh was exactly the same pinkish-red colour as my grazed knees.
Ted got a lift to town with a farmer who needed to buy equipment. He chucked his bag into the back of the pick-up, clambered in and was gone without even saying tot siens. I wandered into the clubhouse. Dad wouldn’t be leaving any time soon and Patrick was busy scooping leaves from the swimming pool. An old piano, lid open, stood by the platform that served as a stage and band stand. I tapped at the keys softly. One or two only clacked and others sounded wrong. We don’t listen to music at home. Mum has forgotten how to play Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’. Dad has a record of something he calls ‘Swing’ by Harry James which I mustn’t touch. At boarding school in the free hour after prep, students sometimes bash out a mad version of Chopsticks. It sounds great. I would love to play the piano but no way will I admit it to anyone and especially not to Dad.
Dad was in a bad mood because of drink and the fact Ted had gone. He shouted at me for the first half of the drive home. I was a waste of space he said. I was always wasting time he said so natch I told him what Ted had said about him. Of course he slammed on the brakes and told me I could bloody walk the 5 miles home. He clouted me across my ear for “good measure”, something he often said when thrashing me.
I waited for the car’s dust trail to settle before I followed. It was still very hot and I was majorly thirsty but I didn’t dare hang about. It gets dark really fast in the bush and though the farmers say they have shot all the lions you never know for sure and leopards can be extra sneaky animals and appear just where you don’t expect them.
The sky was turning grey and I had goose pimples and a prickly feeling down my back when I heard a car behind me. I wasn’t sure whether to hide or not. It would be humiliating to have to explain why I had been dumped on the road. From the racket the car made I reckoned that it was a crappy old banger and probably belonged to a local African. Africans can sometimes be really kind, especially to kids, so I stood up and looked hopeful. It wouldn’t do to arrive back home too soon but I could wait in the tractor shed till I judged it was about the time it would have taken to walk there. The car stopped, my friend Patrick waved out the window and his father, the Reverend Nkole, climbed out and wrapped me in thick tweed-covered arms. Now I was embarrassed because I sussed that the dust from Dad’s car had got smeared on my face with my tears and boys my age aren’t supposed to cry.
“Dad’s punishing me,” I explained when Reverend Nkole offered me a lift. The Reverend considered.
“I’m visiting the next farm. We’ll drop you home afterwards.”
At the farm compound there was a celebration going on and the Reverend blessed everyone. The women brought orange squash and bread buns for the Reverend and gave some to me as well though not to Patrick. I suppose it was because I was white that I counted the same as the Reverend to them for food, but it felt wrong. Patrick and I are the same under our skin so I shared my bun and drink with him.
I began to feel happy. The workers clapped their hands, swayed their bodies and stamped their feet in rhythm to the drumming. Everyone sang. Everyone knew how to fit their voices together in different ways that matched, even when their voices were higher or lower than each other. I don’t know how to describe what they did or how they did it but I could hear that it was simple, and easy, complicated and right. I began trying to rock my body and shuffle my feet along with everyone there.
“Shame.” Patrick said, “White people can’t sing and dance like us Africans.”
I knew why he thought that. White people don’t sing and dance as they work.
“I’ll show you.” I answered and we laughed and together started to stick our bums out and slap our feet onto the soft dirt in a sound and rhythm pattern.
When I was Bad
BY RUTH HARTLEY
“Love is the Law,
Cruelty is the Climate,
Let the Cultures collide.”
Suniti Namjoshi, “The Ubiquitous Lout” from “Saint Suniti and the Dragon”
VICTORIA STATION 1966
My first recollection of London is of standing on the grubby and weary-looking concourse at Victoria Station holding the handset of a pay-phone.
It was April Fool’s Day 1966.
I was a young white woman, not much more than a girl, just twenty-two and a half years old, dressed in a bright orange two-piece frock made from a remnant of thick curtain fabric which I had designed and stitched together in Cape Town only weeks before. Fortunately for me, loose-fitting A-line dresses were the current fashion. I was 24 weeks pregnant and I had made my outfit with the intention of hiding my belly and keeping myself warm in an English spring. Once I arrived in London I found it served neither of these functions.
In South Africa being naïve and ignorant was ordinary. I was only another young woman except for the fact that I was white, pregnant with a brown baby and I wasn’t married. The brownness of my baby meant that, according to South African law, I had been guilty of miscegenation. I was a criminal with little choice but to run away to London.
I had arrived in England. I should have felt safe. I should have felt relief that I had not been arrested, tried and imprisoned for falling in love. I should have been celebrating that my baby – the son I expected – was not to be born in prison, taken from me and given away for adoption. My white belly need no longer fear a kicking for carrying a brown child but I had no idea how I was to find a bed for that night or a way of caring for us both in the future.
My bones ached with the chill; my iced and brittle fingers could not grip what I touched. London was dim and dank. I did not have a coat. I had never needed one. My suitcase was heavy. I had not had to carry heavy loads. Minutes before I had arrived off the Channel ferry train and, following my friend Bill’s instructions, I had gone to phone his contact, Max. Bill had told Max my date of arrival and warned him to expect my phone call. Max had promised to provide me with a few days’ shelter till I ‘found my feet’ which were presently numb and aching beneath taut, swollen ankles. I dialled Max’s phone number and seconds later the night reclaimed the early morning, my heart flipped over and I experienced an eclipse that left me momentarily blinded.
The woman who answered my phone-call gave me an instant brush-off.
“Max is ill.” Max’s wife said. Her tone efficient, cool. Her accent South African. “He can’t help you.”
She was not surprised by my phone-call or my name. Max must have told her weeks before that I would phone. She must have planned what she would say to me a while ago and that was all she did say.
That was it. Finished and “klaar”. Done. Over. No more discussion.
In South Africa those emphatic words of ending are accompanied with a downward hand gesture, a gesture that clears away hope.
Now I was stuffed as well as pregnant.
My poor brown baby boy!
I needed my baby to be a boy. It was so much a man’s world. It was such a hard, mad and bad place. Only a boy could expect to survive in it, but how could I care for him if I couldn’t find shelter for myself?
I knew Max’s wife was about to put down the handset and once it was down she wouldn’t pick it up again. I had no fall-back plan, no idea what to do next. I had only seconds.
“But -” I said reaching around the vacuity of my strategy-empty mind for something to say that would hold her for a moment, some question to ask her, some clue as to how to proceed, “I don’t know what to do. I have nowhere to go.”
I was losing the power of speech as well. My tongue was wooden, inflexible, too big in my dry mouth. In spite of her determination to be shot of me at once, Max’s wife must have known I was utterly desperate. Perhaps she decided it would be tidier to pass me on rather than hear the phone ring again and think of me in tears while she refused to answer. There was the briefest hesitation.
“Hold on.” she said. “Have you got a pen? I will give you Rica’s number. She’ll help.”
I had a pen and paper. For the life of me I can’t remember where they came from or how I had them. I hadn’t yet grasped the life skill that warns you that for every border crossing, literacy and its tools are mandatory.
I wrote down ‘Defence and Aid’, ‘Rica Hodgson’, and the office phone number. What was Defence and Aid? Who was Rica Hodgson? I would learn later that Defence and Aid was a fund set up to help political refugees and exiles from South Africa and that Rica and her husband, Jack, were both political exiles who had escaped imprisonment for anti-apartheid activities. I must have read about Defence and Aid in the South African press. It was regarded as a dangerous subversive organisation and wouldn’t have been given much space. I wouldn’t have taken much notice of any report about it because I would never have expected to need its help.
Max’s wife hung up without saying goodbye. I guess wishing me good luck would have been pushing it.
I tried to gather my witless self and to sequence my thoughts as I fumbled once again with the strange pay-phone and the unfamiliar coins. Every step of the journey had confounded me, with previously unknown objects and procedures. I hadn’t used pay-phones very often before. I don’t know how I had the right money to hand. Someone must have told me what to expect – Bill again, perhaps. So much of that day was spent in what my stepfather, also called Jack, said was a ‘blue funk’ that my memories of chunks of it have dissolved in acid fear.
I had left a country and a city I had grown to love and to care about and exiled myself to a country and a city which I did not know and in which I had no living relatives and no friends.
Why I hadn’t gone home to my mother and step-father’s farm in Rhodesia?
Rhodesia, my home, was as racist as South Africa. There would have been no place for me and my baby together. During my last year at school, my father had disowned me in a paranoid fury over his divorce from my mother. My mother would have been ostracised because of me and her relationship with my stepfather would have suffered.
How did I get to London?
I went in the ordinary way that humans travel – by plane, train and boat, but that’s the how and not the why of it. The question is why did I end up in such a fix? Equipped with the diminishing telescope of hindsight and the cloudy lenses of memory, I’m trying to unravel my own personal motivations and desires from the realities and the politics of the time. This memoir is not exact about events and actions. It is an account with gaps and spaces, as well as failures of understanding and knowledge, but it is a kind of truth.
Why has this fifty-year old story not been told before? One reason is that I didn’t dare tell it. I was afraid that it might harm people I cared about. Another reason is that I knew that it would shock people “at that time” and I might earn their disapproval. I didn’t want any of my children to suffer or be ostracised because of my past actions. Perhaps the most pressing reason for many years was that my husband did not wish it to be told. I thought he might be, not unreasonably, a little jealous of my past. Nowadays I think that he was not interested enough to care what had happened to me before we met. Whatever the case I have carried the story around inside me like an unborn baby or an unexploded bomb for years. Abruptly, or so it seemed, the world changed in 1994. My story was no longer a danger to anyone but it was still a burden to me. It had burned away inside me as secrets do. It corroded my spirits and gnawed at my heart. I also needed to acknowledge the good, kind people I knew then. I had to let the past go and become the past. The difficult decision was how to do that. I tried therapy and was surprised by how halting and feeble my voice sounded as I told my story. I had forgotten the pain. I had written a fictionalised novel about a part of that time but I was told it wasn’t marketable.
Eventually I wrote this memoir and as a result made some hard discoveries. Memoirs aren’t necessarily welcome. I already knew that one’s memory isn’t always trustworthy but I learnt that remembering changes one’s memories. Neuroscientists say that the sub-conscious reorders memories to help the individual survive. Even at an intimate personal level history is written by the “victor” if victory means simply staying alive.
There may be a single complete truth but none of us can know it all and not all at one time. Everyone sees truth from their limited historical perspective and through the imperfect lenses of their individual view. Nobody has a multi-dimensional 360 degree vision of truth. We only glimpse fragments. If I am vision-impaired with regard to the whole truth I am not alone. I am one of thousands or millions but it may be that my brief story adds a tiny truth to a larger shared truth that may give us a greater understanding and compassion for each other.
We all have stories to tell and most of them are about love.
The Drought Witch
BY RUTH HARTLEY
THE FARM IN THE GREEN VALLEY
Deep in the heart of Africa, in a green fertile valley lived a strong hard-working farmer called Simon and his kind and sensible wife, Dorcas.
Simon and Dorcas had a son called Adam and a daughter called Constance. Adam helped Simon herd his sleek cattle and Constance helped Dorcas weed her maize and vegetable garden. The children were good friends and would go together to fetch water from the river or hunt for firewood in the forest.
One day after the first rain of summer had fallen the whole family went to the fields to prepare the earth for their crops of millet and tobacco. Before Simon could hitch his two best oxen to the plough there was a noise like the rushing and crackling of a bush-fire and a huge, dusty whirlwind swept down the valley towards them. Simon and Dorcas told the children to run for shelter but Adam and Constance hid by the Ilala palm to watch the wind blow grass and leaves high into the sky. They laughed as the whirlwind passed because it snatched a piece of red Chitenge cloth from the Boma fence where it was hung out to dry.
Suddenly they saw an evil witch riding in the centre of the storm among the dust and debris. She was all bones and lizard skins with the glowing eyes of an owl. Constance and Adam were shocked and frightened but before they could do anything the witch blew sand in their faces so that they could not see what she did or where she went.