IT’S A STRANGE FAMILY, OURS, A REAL MIXTURE. I manage to avoid most of them during the year, but not at Christmas. At Christmas they all pop again for the once-a year family dinner. Not that we’ll all be together this time. For one, Nicholas and Lisa are in New Zealand.

Brynony Rheam
Brynony Rheam

They left in March and live in a place called Wellington. I looked it up in my school atlas; it’s very far away. They said to me they’d try and come back for Christmas, but Mom says they’re really busy and don’t have much money, so she didn’t expect them home. They sent us a postcard when they first arrived and I wrote back, but I haven’t heard from them since, except when they write to Gran.

Gran, now she’s a funny one. Eighty-nine this year and still going strong. That’s what she always says, even after her hip replacement operation. We had to go to Joburg for that. Mom and Dad and I took her in the car and we stayed at Auntie Lesley’s place in Rivonia. We went last school holidays and stayed the whole four weeks. It was fun, except that Mom had an argument with Auntie Lesley because Mom says no one else helps with Gran and we really can’t afford it because we live in Zimbabwe. Dad says our dollar is now worth less than the Zambian Kwacha, and we always used to laugh at the Zambians.

Uncle Peter comes from Zambia. He’s always talking about it. Dad calls him a ‘when we’ and rolls his eyes every time Uncle Peter says ‘when we were in Zambia’. My sister, Linda, says Zimbabweans are like that in England. ‘When we were in Zimbabwe’ they always say.

She lives in London and works in a shop. She does the till. Dad says why leave Zimbabwe to work in a shop, when you can stay here and have a good job? Linda says it’s not that easy because you earn more money working in a shop in London than you do in an office in Zimbabwe. Dad shakes his head and says so why are you living in a house with fifteen other people if you’re earning so much money?

Linda says that’s what Zimbabweans do now; they try and help each other out when they first go over and don’t have much money. Dad says why don’t they help each other out while they’re in Zimbabwe, then they wouldn’t have to go to England and all squeeze into one house? Linda throws her arms up and shouts, ‘Oh, I give up!’

Linda worked in Macdonald’s for a year. That’s how she met her boyfriend, Arnie. He’s from Australia and he’s a bodyguard. Not much up top though, said Mom after last Christmas when he came back with her. Dad said it was like talking to the dog, except at least the dog responded by wagging its tail or pricking up his ears. When you spoke to Arnie, you could see the words taking a while to sink in.

We played Trivial Pursuit after Christmas lunch and he didn’t even know which state Brisbane is in. Dad said afterwards that that’s like not knowing if Bulawayo was in Matabeleland or not. We even gave him two chances. I’m usually the only one who’s allowed two chances, and most of the time Mom holds a book up in front of her face and whispers the answers to me from behind it. I won once, like that. But that’s because I’m only ten. Arnie’s thirty-two.

At first Mom and Dad were worried about the big age gap between Linda and Arnie, but once they met him, Dad said he felt a whole lot better. He was even too thick to cheat. At one point it was his turn to ask questions, and he didn’t even look at the answer first, like Johnnie, that’s my cousin, does when he plays. Johnnie’s a real cheat, but you have to be quick to be a good one and Arnie’s certainly not that. Dad says no wonder the guy’s a bodyguard, because if he’s shot, even in the head, all they have to do is pick him off the floor, give him a bit of a dust over and he’ll be OK again. Probably won’t notice anything different.

‘Typical Aussie,’ Dad says, but Mom says that’s not nice, she’s sure there’s some really clever ones. Dad says name one and Mom thinks and says, ‘Shane Warne’. ‘He’s a cricket player,’ says Dad. ‘What’s so clever about him?’ ‘I don’t know,’ says Mom. ‘Anyway, you must be clever to know where to hit the ball so you make the other players run.’

‘He’s a bowler,’ says Dad. ‘Oh,’ says Mom, ‘well, I don’t know then.’

Dad went to Australia once on a business trip. Beautiful country, he said. Except for the people who live there, it might be as good as Zimbabwe. Mom said there’s a lot of ex-Zimbabweans living there now and Dad got cross and says you’re either a Zimbabwean or you’re not. You can’t be an ex. You can’t divorce your country. ‘Some people have,’ mutters Mom, but he doesn’t hear her.

This Christmas, it’s going to be quite sad without Pops. He was my Granddad and I know Dad will miss him not being here. Pops died in April. He had a farm out at Nyamandlovu, not a big place, but big enough for someone to want as theirs. We helped him move all his things into town, but knowing he would never return was too much for him. It wasn’t just that. Uncle Chook is buried out there, and Pops loved him so much he felt he was leaving him behind.

Uncle Chook’s real name was Charles, but no one ever called him that, except his teachers on his school report. Uncle Chook was only eighteen when he was killed. It was the day after he left Plumtree and came back to work on the farm. He was shot by dissidents, once in the head. We have a picture of him on the dresser. It was taken the week before he died.

Julia and Glen are also not with us this Christmas; they’re in California. Glen’s my cousin Johnnie’s brother, and he’s married to Julia, a girl he met when he was only sixteen. He’s never had another girlfriend. Dad reckons he’s a fool not to have played the field a bit before getting hitched, but Mom says it’s great; that’s what love is, knowing someone is right for you from the start. Dad says every guy should sow his wild oats before he gets married. At first, I thought he meant that every man should be a farmer, but Mom says it’s what you say when you think someone should have gone out with a few women before settling down.

I suppose that’s what her brother, Uncle Tony, is doing. He’s forty-two and he’s never been married. He’s had lots of girlfriends though, and he’s been engaged twice. At the moment, he’s got a colored girlfriend called Delphine. Dad rolled his eyes at first, but now he says she’s OK and keeps Uncle Tony under her thumb. It must be quite hard as Uncle Tony is a big guy.

He used to play prop for Queens, but now he just props up the bar. Mom’s always soft on Tony because he’s her little brother. She always sticks up for him, and makes him his favorite meal, steak, egg and chips, when he gets dumped. She makes it quite often and Dad’s told her to go easy on the steak.

The last girlfriend he had, Madeline Oosthuisen, left him for Parkie Monroe. Parkie Monroe’s the estate manager at my school. Dad said, ‘now there’s one picnic short of a sandwich’ when he met Parkie.

Imagine him and Arnie as a quiz team, he joked to Mom and I.

Parkie’s always getting into fights, and he’s threatened to beat Uncle Tony up before. Uncle Tony came to my school once to watch Old Boys’ cricket and Parkie came up to him near the boerewors tent and ‘Come, come my boet, let’s settle this once and for all.’

Delphine’s bringing her brother to lunch today. We don’t know what Dad’s going to say because Delphine’s brother is a man who likes kissing other men. That’s what Mom told me any way. He’s not French (French men kiss each other, but that’s OK because that’s what they’ve been trained to do since they were children) but he’s gay, which doesn’t mean he’s happy either. Delphine said she’s told him not wear eyeliner or earrings, so maybe Dad won’t guess. Mom says he can’t bring his boyfriend this Christmas. Let’s do this one step at a time.

I’ve decorated the tree and the table and made place names for everybody. Dad inspects the seating arrangements and moves the places of those sitting on either side of him. He doesn’t want to sit anywhere near Uncle Peter or Gran. ‘Are you trying to kill me?’ he asks.

‘The last thing I need to hear about on Christmas Day is Lusaka, 1969, or Bloemfontein to Esigodeni by ox wagon.’

‘That’s my mother you’re talking about,’ shouts Mom from the kitchen. ‘Am I ever allowed to forget it?’ mutters Dad to me. To Mom, he calls, ‘And what a wonderful woman she is!’ Mom comes in and hits him with a tea towel. ‘You behave,’ she says, ‘it’s Christmas.’

Mom’s doing all the cooking and she looks like she needs a break. Dad tells Linda to help, but she’s been out all night at some club and she’s exhausted. She sits drinking glass after glass of water and won’t move when Mom tells her to go and get ready. ‘Why do I have to be smart?’ she whines. ‘It’s just family.’

‘Hey,’ says Dad in a voice that says move your arse or I’ll give you a fat crack. ‘The Poms may have lost their standards, but we still have ours.’ Linda’s found a new man, a guy from Matsheumhlope, who also lives in London now and they’ve agreed to meet on Boxing Day. I guess Arnie won’t be out here again next Christmas.

Gran arrives first. Well, that’s because Dad and I go to fetch her. She lives at Garden Park in a cottage of her own. When we get there, she’s already had a few toots with old man de Souza, who lives next door. He’s saying, in broken English, that he wants to marry Gran and take her to Lorenco Marques.

Dad tells him it’s Maputo now, and he’s not taking Gran anywhere, she’s coming to lunch with us. Gran kisses him good-bye and says ‘adios amigo’. Dad says, ‘Wrong language, but anyway, get in the car and let’s get the hell out of here.’

Then Uncle Peter and Johnnie arrive. They also look like they had a hooley last night. I know that because Uncle Peter says ‘just water for me’ when Dad asks him what he wants to drink and then Dad does that funny thing with his eyebrows that means ‘I give up’. Last year, Johnnie brought his son, Jamie, with him, but this year it’s his ex-wife’s turn to have him. She’s remarried a guy called Pete Parrott.

Johnnie says how’s that for a name and Dad asks if he’s the kind of guy who repeats everything you say. We all laugh. In fact, Mom’s cousin, Raymond, used to have a pet parrot that he carried round all day on his shoulder. ‘If only I’d known what I was marrying into,’ mutters Dad whenever he hears that story.

Uncle Tony arrives with Delphine and Jermaine. Jermaine’s not wearing any make-up, but he is carrying a handbag and Dad raises his eyebrows when he sees that. He raises them even more when he sees the rings on Jermaine’s fingers and Mom coughs and talks loudly before he has time to say anything.

Two hours later, we all sit down for lunch at last. By now the drinks have been flowing and Uncle Tony’s got very loud. He excuses himself from the table, but has to hang on to it while he steadies himself a bit.

Mom looks at Dad as if to say why did you give him so much to drink.

Dad gives her a look as if to say it’s not my fault. He goes to use the toilet next door, although Mom’s told him before to use the one down the passage so we don’t hear him. Uncle Tony always makes a lot of noise when he goes to the loo. Mom tries to talk loudly, but all we can hear is Uncle Tony taking a leak.

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