‘Whatever Would Aunt Jean Say?’

‘Poor Bradley, they’ve taken his farm you know.

Chris Wilson
Chris Wilson

The family farm.

He’s terribly cut up about it …’

Poor Bradley my foot! What a moron! What a liar! What an arsehole! Words fail me. He is, unfortunately, a cousin of mine. I remember when he came out to the farm once for the school holidays and spent the whole time itching to go back to town. He despised our ramshackle farmhouse and wouldn’t swim in the pool because it wasn’t tiled. The steps into the green water were festooned with frogs’ eggs and the walls were slimy. He did, however, spend the days sunbathing next to it, carefully working up his tan. He showed no interest in farming, or in anything else so far as we could see. ‘What that young man needs is a damn good hiding,’ said my father.

His parents were equally worried about him. Uncle Barry was a well-known lawyer and had made money on the stock exchange. Auntie Jean was a judge at international flower-arranging competitions. They lived in a big house in Orange Grove Road, crammed full with beautiful artefacts – Persian carpets, camphor chests, ostrich feathers, Chinese screens, a grand piano – all mixed up with a load of kitsch, junk like Uncle Barry’s shooting trophies behind the bar, and his key-ring collection.

Bradley didn’t get on with his parents and had his own private cottage in the garden, ith posters of David Bowie and Mick Jagger and a huge record collection: Santana, Roxy Music, The Doors. ‘That’s all he ever does,’ complained his father. ‘Listen to this rubbish all day long.’

All this was years ago, of course. Bradley and I are now middle-aged. I saw him when I was in the UK last month. He is based there but does a lot of work in the Middle East. He pretends to be one of those smooth people who facilitate team building and stress management workshops for the corporate world. ‘Stress needn’t be a negative thing,’ he expounded. ‘It can be a valuable source of energy, so long as you manage it properly.’ He had just come back from a fabulous holiday somewhere, and is now portly and florid. He wears flamboyant waistcoats and rings on his plump fingers.

I, on the other hand, have become almost invisible, hiding behind my paintings.

After school Bradley went to university in Cape Town and studied all sorts of weird subjects like History of Music and Comparative Religions, and it was there that he came out as gay. Overnight he, started calling everyone ‘Darling’ in a condescending voice and using me who, as he intuitively knew, was just as sexually confused but keeping quiet about it, to show off about how brave, outspoken and free he was. ‘Darling! You can’t be a virgin all your life,’ he crowed.

Anyway, after that he went overseas and we didn’t see him for years. I also went to Europe for a bit but came back soon enough. I missed it all too much. It sounds clichéd but really I just couldn’t wait to climb the kopje once more, sit up there on the rocks and feel the breezes blow. The Shona claim their relationship with the land is something spiritual. Well, yes, of course – but isn’t everyone’s?

After my parents had both died my sister Penny and her husband Mark took over the farm. They wanted to move away from tobacco, become more diverse, and organic, but realised that this could not be done overnight. They also realised that as landowners one could no longer take things for granted, and started improving the lot of their workers and encouraging them to become self-sufficient in maize, healthy fruit and vegetables. They made sure every child went to school and had access to health care, etc. ‘Look, it’s in our own interests,’ they were honest enough to admit. ‘And it’s just a start. There’s still a long way to go.’

It was around that time that I gave up trying to survive in the city as an art teacher, and resolved to become a full-time artist. I moved into the old cottage on the farm that I had always known was waiting for me to come and fix it up and live in it. Which I did. And started working hard towards my first exhibition.

In 1996 Uncle Barry had a heart attack. I remember him in hospital with a tube up his nose and a big pile of Scope magazines next to his bed, with pictures of naked women on the covers. ‘Now Barry Boy, you can stop ogling all these nurses,’ said Auntie Jean as she dumped them down.

After he died, she was left alone in the big house and garden. Very well off, or so we thought, even though it turned out that all the money outside the country was left to Bradley. What Auntie Jean got were the assets in Zimbabwe itself – two houses, the one she lived in and another in Borrowdale, which she rented out, plus a large sum of money in the Post Office, where she got 25 per cent interest tax-free – certainly enough to live off comfortably for the rest of her life, or so we thought. Little did we know what was going to happen to the Zim Dollar!

She continued her lavish lifestyle, which revolved around flowers. As an international judge, and member of the World Wide Floral Art Association and Ikebana International, she got invited to adjudicate all over the world. She’d been to New Zealand, Canada, the UK and, of course, Japan. She also used to do ‘demonstrations’ and for these she would fly with the flowers, freshly cut from her own garden, and go straight from the airport to the venue and get to work. ‘You have to have a concept,’

she would explain as she handled long, thorny stems with red finger-nails. ‘Your creation should make a statement.’ Once The Herald published a headline ‘ZIMBABWE STRIKES AGAIN‘ and a photo of a work entitled ‘Global Warming’, for which she had won first prize in Toronto. A big white shell, a scattering of Sabi star and a piece of driftwood on a pile of yellow beach sand shaped like Africa, surrounded by frothy blue hydrangeas. Exasperated by our blank looks she explained, as if to very small children, ‘It’s an island! About to disappear because of the rise in the sea level!’

‘Why can’t you do things like that?’ we used to tease our mother, who was so vague and disorganised by comparison. ‘Whatever would Auntie Jean say!’ Penny would exclaim, not only at her haphazardly beautiful masses of flowers shoved into vases, but at her lop-sided cakes, her burnt biscuits, her home-made dresses.

Bradley, meanwhile, was having a Tsunami of a time.

His share of the loot would have been enough to retire on if managed properly, but he was living in luxury in London, hobnobbing with the rich and the famous, the weird and the wonderful. He had developed his mother’s taste for travel, though on a larger scale and she got postcards from him from everywhere.

He came back to Zim once. He actually came out to the farm and walked round it with a proprietorial air. He stood and gazed towards the mountains. ‘Deep down I’ve always known that this is where I truly belong,’ he said in his new British accent. Penny and Mark couldn’t stand him, and made it obvious, so he spent all the time down at my cottage. For the first time it seemed he envied me. ‘I’d give anything for a simple life,’ he said. ‘You are so lucky. Mine is just so complicated.’

He didn’t need much prompting to elaborate on all his travels and conquests. ‘Darling, the Arab World is the Place to Be,’ he boasted.

‘You should see the Cairo policemen! I simply adore a man in uniform, don’t you?’ Tongue in cheek of course, but not totally. It seemed he’d forgotten that such affectations didn’t impress me; indeed that I had, because of him, a complete aversion to any sort of camp behavior.

I changed the subject. ‘What are you going to do when the money runs out?’

He became defensive. ‘Well, I’ll work of course! I’m not totally without talent! But I need time. I’ve got so much to work out still. With my upbringing and my parents what do you expect? Of course I’m a nutcase! I need to explore, to grow spiritually, to identify my passions, to tap into and release my own creativity. I’m not like you who can just get on with it, you lucky thing! You have no idea how awful it is to be a tortured, frustrated genius.’

Off he went again, this time to India, supposedly to an ashram where he was going to live a pure, chaste existence for a while. I’d given him a painting, just a small watercolour of some musasa trees, which he said he was going to hang on his wall and meditate on. ‘I’ll feel close to home,’ he said. ‘I’ll be able to imagine myself there, amongst them, and smell the bush.’

Soon afterwards a postcard arrived from Bombay. ‘Coming back for good soon, but sampling the delights of Bollywood first.’

‘Of course he knows he’s going to inherit both Auntie Jean’s houses in Harare, and all her money here as well one day, so he can just swan about the world until she pops off,’ said Penny sourly.

Post published in: Arts

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