Time is longer than rope, Jerry.
Thirty years lost in the diaspora. That was you, Jerry Machingauta. Your father was on his deathbed when you returned from England, a frail old man dying from an unknown illness, which was slowly eating him away from the inside. He had sores in his mouth and the power of sight had long left his eyes.
That first day you visited him in hospital he felt the skin of your face with the tips of quivering fingers and then asked you to sit on the edge of the bed next to him so he could feel the warmth of your body, the smell of your sweat. You and he were so clearly of the same blood, the same flesh. Your lives had been tethered to a collective fate, your destinies conjoined.
In your early years it was your father who encouraged you to pursue your studies, assured you that one day perseverance would reap its own reward. You were the only one of his three children who showed any promise, the one who seemed destined for greater things. You dreamt of pursuing a career in medicine or engineering and your father’s unwavering support enabled you to envisage a future clearly. And then, when you finally left for England, your father warned you of the dangers of unknown cities, the bright lights of Babylon camouflaging a deep internal rot.
In the early London days you heeded his warning. You were constantly on your guard because in the war-torn townships that you’d left behind, you had seen too many lives succumb to temptation to take any chances. The roll-call of tragedy was inexhaustible, the departure of a relative or a dear friend always an incalculable loss. You went to the all night funeral wakes, the late-afternoon burials. You would dutifully stand, sometimes in the pouring rain, staring at the mounds of fresh earth marking the new graves and listening to the eulogies.
‘Man that is born of woman has but a few days to live.’
Your mother died when you were young and the people closest to you on her side of the family were her three sisters – Esther Mushonga, Veronica Sendera and Sarah Mushita – maternal surrogates who gave you more love than you could ever need in a single lifetime. At your mother’s funeral it was these same people who wept the loudest, prompting your grandmother to sigh and shake her grey head: ‘If such furious lamentations cannot wake poor Hilda from the sleep of God then nothing else will.’
Your father was the one who was always there to guide you through those difficult early years; the person who encouraged you to get through those dreaded exams at the end of each term. ‘Do whatever you want to do well or don’t do it at all,’ he would tell you. ‘Because an eel caught by the tail is only half-caught.’
The desks lined up in rooms, which seemed vast, smelling of the collective fear of an ill-prepared army aware of its fatal limitations, the soft rustle of crisp paper, the affected coughs of the candidates that betrayed something more than just nervousness.
‘You may begin.’
Question papers fearfully torn out of their polythene covers, the contents briefly scrutinised amidst silent howls of derision and relief. The ominous ticking of the clock on the wall, its two hands always split into a configuration resembling a mocking grin, the intrusive pandemonium of peripheral activities – of pencils and pens being readied for the challenge, of desks and chairs being pointlessly repositioned, of handbags and coats clattering to the floor, and finally the invigilator’s voice booming like that of a drill sergeant: ‘You have exactly five minutes.’
There was nobody waiting for you at the airport when you arrived because nobody knew you were coming. There was none of the incandescent jubilation that accompanied your departure; none of the wild ululating and cheering that followed your over-confident swagger towards the plane that balmy day in October 1974.
After completing the formalities, you sat alone in the back of a battered taxi, your route to the city centre taking you past the absurdly fortified houses of the southern suburbs and the hard labour prisoners working on the verges of the road, pale and hunched in the morning mist like winter ghosts.
The telegram sent by one of your paternal aunts the previous week contained two terse lines that conveyed a grim message: ‘Your father is very sick. You have to be here.’
How so different it had been that day in October 1974 when you left, a starry-eyed nineteen-year-old with a grand vision of a bright future. It was the first time you had ever been on a plane, and it both excited and frightened you a little, when you looked outside and felt that the plane was floating on a mound of static fluffiness.
All around you clouds were suspended in mid-air like body parts floating in jars of preservative. And when the clouds were parted by the plane’s heaving fuselage they hung in the sky like fat bubbles. Theground below seemed to spread forever in all directions, a disfigured and patchy mosaic, its roads and streams spread out like arteries.
‘Tell me about England, my son. Tell me about the land of the white man. The land of the BBC, the Queen, cricket and snow.’
And so you sat on the edge of the bed and told your dying father about those things, details he wanted to hear, an affirmation of lifetime myths that had adhered for so long they could no longer be discarded. To delete the old man’s perception of ‘Overseas’ would have been an unnecessary cruelty. You told him about the red double-decker buses as huge as suburban houses and the underground trains that moved with the stealth of serpents in the dark belly of the earth.
You told him about the tall glass buildings of the West End and the historic steel and concrete bridges of the River Thames, which united opposite shores without touching the water, structures that ingeniously spanned space without ever seeming to belong to it.
You told him about the shopping malls of Wood Green and Croydon that were so vast and complex it took hours to explore all the shops, and about the same amount of time to locate one’s car in the carpark afterwards.
You told him about shoppers scurrying up and down Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in numbers so great it was like watching the wildebeest and antelope migrations of the Mapfukunde valley.
‘And your life in England? How was your life in England, my son?’
But certain thing are better left unsaid, Jerry. Some revelations serve no useful purpose. Talk is cheap, word gets round. You couldn’t tell your father about your secret life in the land of the BBC, The Queen, cricket and snow.
You couldn’t tell him about the numerous white girls you had gone out with, a secret sin that hung around your neck like a monumental yoke of shame now that you were back amongst your own people. You couldn’t tell him about Zoey, Virna, Mitzi, Macy, Vaneshree and others.
First there was Zoey Bellingham, a bespectacled, loose-limbed teenager whom you met in a pub in 1977 and lived with for a whole year without her parents’ consent. Her face wore a permanent expression of mild surprise – like someone who had recently been revived by artificial respiration. She was always bumping into things, Zoey, as if her blinkered eyes were firmly glued to the sides of her head and she viewed the world around her through a monochromatic wide-angled aperture of confusion.
You couldn’t tell your father that after Zoey there was Virna Fioravanti from Sicily, she of hair the colour of burnt sienna and the beguiling Mona Lisa smile. What you liked about Virna was that she didn’t have any of Zoey’s assorted psychotic manias. You liked her amoebic and phantom-like unobtrusiveness, her uncanny ability to become inconspicuous by imperceptibly diluting her presence.
Whenever some of your friends came over to discuss the worsening political situation in your country Virna would be there but not really there – like a chameleon that can adopt the colours of its background at will and disintegrate into a blur of anonymity.
On the other hand, she was into Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Howlin’Wolf, the raucous good-time music of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, and the walls of her bedroom were generously adorned with shiny portraits of her idols in tight suits and pointed shoes. Every night she dragged you to a rowdy pub on the high street where an old Negro blues guitarist sang slow painful songs about slavery and emancipation and other associated ills of the black man’s burden.
About the Author
Daniel Mandishona is an architect. He was born in Harare in 1959 and brought up by his maternal grandparents in Mbare township (then known as Harari township). In 1976 he was expelled from Goromonzi Secondary School and lived in London from 1977-1992. He first studied Graphic Design then Architecture at the Bartlett School, University College London. He now has his own practice in Harare.
His first short story, ‘A Wasted Land’ was published in Contemporary African Short Stories (Heineman, 1992) and he has subsequently been published in Writing Still (Weaver Press, 2005), Laughing Now (Weaver Press, 2005) and Writing Free (Weaver Press, 2011). White Gods Black Demons (Weaver Press, 2009) is his first full collection of short stories.
Writing Now is available at Weaver Press and at www.africanbookscollective.comPost published in: Entertainment