For Ned

Abigail Jones

I

The girl is at that precise moment of adolescence wherein ugliness and prettiness are at the very apex of their battle to claim a lifelong dominance. At some times, the girl looks in the mirror and can’t believe how delicious she is. Most of the time though, she is horrified. To assuage her burning rage at not only having to live in Zimbabwe, but also at having missed out on absolute beauty, she adopts mannerisms and outfits that are sexually provocative and consciously inappropriate for whatever the task at hand is.

The absence of black lipstick in the Harare pharmacies means that the girl uses black water-soluble pencil on her lips when she goes to parties. The absence of good books or people to tell her the names of the good books means that her favourite author is the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene, fabricator of the Nancy Drew chronicles. The absence of the accessories she requires means that the dog-collar of the girl’s actual dog is fashioned into one that is the circumference of, roughly, an adolescent female’s neck. A thick old slab of bitten leather, the object hangs off her clunkingly – jangles and itches.

‘You do know Benjy died in that thing?’ her sister says. ‘And had fleas. And ringworm. That’s actually probably why he died.’

The sister is two years older and the raging battle between grotesqueness and prettiness has now passed, the result falling very much on the side of the latter. As a consequence, the sister becomes the girl’s bait – a sororal trophy-wife.

Harare, Zimbabwe, cliquey and racist, means that the white-girl always sees the same buff, moronic and egregious white-boys at house parties. She tells them, proudly, that she is the direct relative of the sister, who is famous for her beauty, and who all of these boys adore. Having delivered this message, she smiles at them with her encrusted black water-coloured lips, winks, and leans her head back so that they can truly witness the clanking dog-collar and can imagine all that it entails.

The girl and her friends call these boys ‘Rhodies’. Burly, white adolescents of her own generation, these are people who have learnt the thinking of their parents and who exist only in the imagined milieu of colonial Rhodesia. In her eyes, these boys have no time for anything but pools, pussy, pranks and hatred. The girl understands that she must use her own rage against theirs, cajoling them into either despising her or fucking her, those things being equal.

Indeed, at school and at parties, the girl is an irascible tyrant, flunking, bunking and flouncing on a dime. At home she is meek, depressive and sulky, given to spells of bulimia and hours curled up on the trampoline reading Nancy Drew. She prays neurotically to God, who, unbeknownst to Him, she secretly reviles. The girl makes a one-sided pact with Him so that, in exchange for her and her family’s lives and safety, she will pull out five eyelashes a day as an offering. God, she learns quickly, is an exacting task-master and so, when the eyelashes have been depleted, the game moves swiftly to the eyebrows. She plucks and lines these hairs up by the fireplace. God, after all, like Santa, is classically a chimney-person. Furthermore, her family lock the front-doors at night and as her mother says, these are literally impassable.

The household has a man who does the gardening for them and who stays in the servants-quarters at the back, with his wife and their newborn. Colin often waters the garden and one day, whilst the girl reclines immovably devastated on the trampoline he, whistling a nothing-tune, swishes past with the hosepipe. She lifts herself to wave and he smiles.

‘Ah, you are wearing Benjy’s collar!’ he laughs, shaking his head slowly. The hosepipe loops as he whips it, chuckling. She, squinting against the sun and ashamed at her collar and her supine, nasty affectations, watches him lumber into the corner of the property, where he stands for ten minutes, watering a mango tree that never in ten years makes an edible mango, but only produces boomslangs, lime-green, skinny, doe-eyed snakes which Colin informs her will kill her just as soon as eyes are locked.

‘Will they eat me up?’ she asks, one day, as they share an afternoon pot of tea in the garden.

‘No. They will just look at you, and you will die.’

‘By just looking?’

‘Yes, girl.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you are so naughty! You know dogs hate black people and Benjy used to bite me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well boomslangs hate white girls and they don’t even need to bite.’

 

II

By Easter, her 15 ½th year, girl’s parents have started a divorce that seems both inevitable and overdue. The girl’s mother has taken up with a new man – a boisterous, highfalutin Afrikaner who has an important job and who beats the girl’s mother frequently and casually. The boyfriend refers to his black staff as ‘muntus’, and sometimes – if, for instance, the petrol in his bakkie hasn’t been topped-up, or the electric-gate has been left open – ‘kaffirs’.

As a result, the girl’s bulimia worsens and the Nancy Drew reading spikes to such a height that all available issues have now been read at least thrice and are near-memorised. An avalanche of eyelashes and eyebrows are lined-up upon the fireplace.

One day, the girl comes home from school and something else is wrong.

‘What’s this?’ says the mother, at the impassable door.

The mother is holding a report card from the girl’s senior school. The girl had hidden this in a locked school suitcase, alongside a collection of untouched Madison cigarettes, a six-pack of Durex condoms and a pair of rolled-up pantyhose that the girl stole from her mother’s lingerie drawer. The girl imagines that these hidden treasures represent a recipe for future love or, in the likely absence of such, a recklessly boring night with one of the Rhodie meatheads she has used her trophy-sister as bait for.

The report-card is bad, which is why it has been hidden. A ‘D’ for Maths, an ‘E’ for Chemistry and Physics. Worst of all, a ‘C’ for English.

The mother is in tears – not sad tears, but raging tears. The girl, weeping too now, reaches, open-armed for the mother and the mother slaps her with the back of her left hand. There is a brief tussle in the kitchen, wherein the mother shushes out the maid, and where the trophy-sister come in. The trophy-sister looks mournfully disappointed, as is her way. The mother’s boyfriend is cataclysmic and near mauve with rage.

‘We have to think about what to do with you’, says the mother howling, her voice now an octave too high and her fists at her sides, ‘Go away!’

The girl retreats to the trampoline and fingers Benjy’s loose collar around her neck. She puts the issue of Nancy Drew she has been re-rereading over her head. In the distance, she can hear the murmur of a thousand-million Rhodie sprinklers watering lawns that weren’t indigenous to this land, and were never meant to be there.

The mother and the boyfriend call the girl in eventually and say that they have decided that the girl is to go and spend some time with the boyfriend’s second-cousin, in the south of Zimbabwe. Her report card is testament to the fact that things aren’t working and that, right now, she needs to be away from various illicit pleasures.

The second-cousin is a good man, the boyfriend explains – a missionary from Missouri, America, and a farmer, with a wife and two children. She likes children, doesn’t she? If she was as mature as he imagined the boyfriend to be, she would take this by the horns, knuckle-down and really step-up. She could do all her revision there and make sure that she did well in her upcoming exams, these being extremely important to her future.

‘It won’t be fun and games, though’, the boyfriend says, ‘not like Harare.’ When the girl scoffs and verily eye-rollingly guffaws at this comment, the boyfriend slams a fist down onto the kitchen table and then takes the girl’s wrist in his other hand, shaking it like a bag of barley. The mother, sitting beside him, looks wrecked and desperate, her eyes wet and her cheeks pink. When the girl looks to the mother pleadingly, the mother shakes her head and puts her hand on the boyfriend’s elbow.

Now, at least, the girl is truly alone.

 

III

The missionary second-cousin and his family live in on a large farm, in Masvingo province, a four hour ride from Harare. The boyfriend and the mother drive the girl there. The girl is despairing and mute in the backseat and, despite the florid, never ending heat of the lowveld, is wearing a black turtleneck, tights and knee-high boots. Her suitcase contains all of her school revision, a week of clothes, four Nancy Drews and two tampons, just in case her period ever comes.

‘Watch out you don’t melt in the back!’ laughs the boyfriend.

The mother laughs too, turns around and smiles at the girl, with a saddening sort of yearning look that the girl knows to be regret at a passing of sorts. The boyfriend leans his right arm out of the car as he drives, Paul Simon barely audible for the sound of the flapping 60-mph wind.

‘Rhodie car-arm’, they call it, thinks the girl, watching the bushes beating by: the specifically located Zimbabwean sun-damage caused by being a white fuckhead with a bakkie.

 

IV

The second-cousin’s farmstead is far out from Masvingo’s main town. The mother, the boyfriend and the girl drive through a south-eastern countryside which is flat and amber and which is enlaced with overhanging granite and ‘kopjes’, little stone outcrops on hills that rise and fall over a flatness that is the flattest of flatnesses. They bump over dirt tracks and slide around potholes to get there and the Paul Simon CD, which has already played four times in a row, skips and then eventually gives up altogether.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’, says the mother, looking out onto the distance. The girl knows the mother is trying to enlist her into believing. The mother’s window is rolled down and strands of the mother’s hair are slapping against her cheeks. The mother suddenly clutches her hand at the girl’s ankle and the girl feels its reckoning, and clutches it back, doubly. The girl wishes that she could understand the mother, wishes she knew how to love a land that didn’t love her back.

When they reach the boundaries of the second-cousin’s property, there is a closed gate and a barbed-wire fence. A young farmworker of perhaps seventeen opens it with a hearty, curtseying swing and waves them forward. There is a sign on the gate saying, Farm Invaders WILL Be Shot.

‘By who?’ asks the girl.

‘By whom’, says the boyfriend, and winds his window up.

The second-cousin wears clothes that the girl recognises from the men’s department of Coconut Joe’s, a Rhodie fashion outlet in Borrowdale Village. His trousers are too high and his shirt is too tucked in. With an arched nose, firm arms and a strong Dutch chin, he might be as well be handsome, but he is too blank in the eyes to inhabit his own sexuality. Even the girl knows this and, suitcase-in-hand, she is instantly disappointed. The second-cousin’s voice is an odd combination of Afrikaans and deep south drawl – too fast, too high, too distant. It is as if it has been recorded once, and the recording is being played back through the second-cousin’s mouth, but at slightly the wrong speed.

The second-cousin’s wife is small and meek and pretty – almost too meek to be pretty. Her thin strawberry-blonde hair flows in neat rivulets down her front and beneath the waves and the damask blouse, she is droopily braless. Two small children, each pale, freckled and thumb-in-mouth, watch from behind her hips. One is a sullen ginger-haired boy, the other is a crouching ginger-haired girl.

‘So here’s our little helper for the next couple of weeks, hey!’, the second-cousin says, testing a smile, testing an exclamation. He lunges at his pockets and then gives the boyfriend an awkward back-slapping hug and the mother a handshake. The boyfriend gently pushes the girl forward.

‘Well, I can’t promise you she knows much about farming! She’s a city-girl, hey – but she can certainly help with the little ones and do some chores. I hope she behaves herself!’. The boyfriend pinches the girl’s shoulder and cocks a nod.

The girl smiles at the children, who shrink behind the wife. Then the girl smiles at the wife, and the wife does not smile.

The girl, the mother, the boyfriend, the second-cousin, the second-cousin’s wife and the children have tea on the lawn. It has rained that afternoon and so the ground is heaving with flying ants, most of them now wingless and flopping uselessly. The maid Agnes, a plump middle-aged woman wearing an apron and a dookie, lumberingly brings out a heavy tray bearing two pots of rooibos and a plate of dusty scones. When Agnes leaves to go indoors, the second-cousin’s wife remarks upon how upset she is to have a maid. It is against her instincts she says and, coming from America and given their history of slavery, it just doesn’t feel right.

‘Why do you have one then?’ says the girl. ‘If it doesn’t feel right I mean’.

By this time, the girl’s calves are chafed by her boots and the tip of her nose is sunned red. Moist patches have bloomed on the armpits of her turtleneck. She holds her tea-cup as daintily as she might and juts out a mean, proud little lip. The girl’s mouth is painted with a water-colour pencil called ‘Crimson Lake’, which she was given as part of a set for her fourteenth birthday by her father, and which now matches her burnt nose.

The girl looks enquiringly at the cousin’s wife, then at her mother, then at the boyfriend, then at the second-cousin. A droplet of perspiration waits on the girl’s upper-lip and, attending to her rooibos conspicuously plaintively, she licks this off very slowly with her tongue. A sweaty droplet of ‘Crimson Lake’ waits on her philtrum.

The girl has never done this before – never been so precociously cruel, never used coquettish nastiness against the adult-realm so knowingly. She has been practicing it but now that it’s happened, she feels shocked and depleted. The cousin’s wife laughs in polite bafflement but the mother looks at the girl horrified and gives a look of you’re dead.

When the mother and the boyfriend say that it’s going to get dark and you don’t know about the roads nowadays and they should leave, the girl panics. There must be some way to keep the mother here, she thinks. There had been a female boarder at the girl’s school recently who slipped her foot under a reversing vehicle the day before term and broke three bones, thus avoiding being sent back to school for two weeks. The second-cousin’s yard is bereft of moving machinery though and the girl already feels like she’s been enough of a prima donna of late.

The second-cousin, the second-cousin’s wife, the children and the girl wave goodbye as the mother and the boyfriend drive away, a cloud of dissipating red dust on the farm road charting their end.

Watching incredulously as they go, the girl knows for sure that she is going to die here and chooses to accept it, smiles a private sigh that she shares only with the horizon of her mother’s abandonment. After all, in the girl’s inevitable extermination on the Rhodie farmstead, there is also the attractive notion of her passing into the magical space of non-Rhodiedom. A world without Rhodies is the only world the girl can believe in. Who knows how this death will happen. Perhaps there will be an accident on a kopje, or a misunderstanding with a boomslang. Maybe the farm-invaders will come and they won’t care about the sign on the gate and will just kill all the Rhodies at the farmhouse because the Rhodies took their land, smashed their sons and daughters and cussed their heritage for a hundred years. All of these possible outcomes feel of a huge relief.

‘Your room is next to Alvin’s’ says the cousin’s wife, touching the girl’s shoulder and then cupping the little boy’s. ‘We’ll get the gardener to bring up your bag’.

 

V

‘Dinner is at seven and bed at eight-thirty’, the cousin’s wife tells the girl. ‘You have to say prayers after teeth. Then you can read for a while. Then sleep’. Accordingly, after spaghetti and teeth, the girl takes out ‘Nancy Drew: The Case of the Dangerous Solution’ and reads until eight fifty-six. The girl hides the book under her mattress because T.C.O.T.D.S has both a very racy cover and is far beneath her reading level. At nine, the cousin’s wife comes in, says enough, lights a mosquito coil with a match and turns off the light.

The girl can hear the nothing of the empty farmhouse and the humming of one hundred billion locusts. Unable to sleep and devastated, she imagines that Ned Nickerson, lead romantic interest of the Nancy Drew series, six-foot two, sophomore at Emerson College and brunette to fuck is absolutely, terrifyingly, kissing her. Indeed under her sheets Dream-Ned is a nightmare, constantly pawing and demanding that, being the head of the high-school football team etc., he ‘needs more’.

‘No, Ned’, the girl whispers, into her crocheted bedspread, ‘I’m not ready’. She consigns him to sleep head-to-toe with her. ‘It’s only appropriate’, she whispers to him, he not there, but enormously weighty nonetheless. The girl puts a pillow on her feet, imagining it to be Ned’s frustrated, handsome head and then falls asleep, exhausted. Men are exhausting. Her mother has told her this many times in car journeys they’ve shared over the years. Ned is also exhausting.

When the girl wakes the next morning, it is because the cousin’s strawberry-blonde wife is kissing her forehead and telling her that it’s time for breakfast and revision. The wife smells lovely but the girl knows that this is just mosquito repellent and soap. She wants the cousin’s wife and the cousin to fuck, but they never do, unless they do so very quietly and the girl doesn’t know.

At eight, the girl eats porridge and mango opposite the ginger children, Alvin and Olive. The girl washes up the dishes with Agnes the maid, and Olive tugs at her skirt to play ‘Catch-the-Princess-and-Then-Tickle-Her’. Alvin is as Alvin does.

 

VI

From nine until twelve each day, and then from two until five, the girl does revision in the family dining room. The dining room has ten things in it: a photo of the family posing under a Msasa tree, a copper clock moulded into the shape of a rhino, a carpet, a table, and six chairs.

In the dining-room, the girl learns about photosynthesis, neurogenesis, Genesis, the periodic table. Occasionally in the afternoon, the girl goes out onto the lawn to read, and becomes distracted by thoughts of her newfound thing with Ned Nickerson (he still showing no signs of respect for her lingering maidenhead).

Sometimes the girl secretly cries on the lawn, cries for Ned’s adorable masculine neediness, cries for the end of the world, cries because she is not beautiful and cries mostly for her mother, who is beautiful and who the girl loves with a reckless passion but who has forsaken the girl to an abandoned middle-of-nowhere farm in pursuit of a boisterous, highfalutin Afrikaner.

The wife comes out onto the stoep and brings the girl rooibos tea, praises her for being so diligent and says, ‘I hope you’ve worn sunscreen; you’ll roast in this weather with your skin’. The girl says ‘Yes, thank you, I have.’ Olive clings beside the wife and eventually flops her compact, six-year old body onto the lawn expectantly, chin in palms, gazing at the girl.

When the sun goes down, the girl and Olive, avoiding innumerate termite hills, play ‘Catch-the-Princess-and-Then-Tickle-Her’ and the girl hopes that the wife, who occasionally looks out from the farmhouse windows, can see the girl, and is proud of her.

One evening after play, the wife greets the girl at the lawn door with a smile and tells her not to wash dishes with Agnes anymore. ‘Why can’t I?’, says the girl, ‘I thought I should help with chores?’ The mother says not to do Agnes’ chores because it embarrasses Agnes, demeans her. The girl, an excitable Olive in hand, says, instantaneously, ‘Oh, I thought demeaning her was your job?’, and the wife sways and looks as if she will backhand the girl but doesn’t, and says ‘Dinner time’ instead.

After spaghetti, the girl goes up to her room and cries and shortly afterwards the wife, soapy and damp in her lacy nightgown comes in and kisses the girl on the forehead. She says that she understands that the girl is hormonal and that it must be difficult at home and that tensions are currently very high in the country given the farm invasions and various crises – these being namely political, social, racial, agricultural, financial, emotional, physical, sexual, psychological etc. The girl wants the wife to hug her forever but the wife goes away at nine, aka bedtime. Ned doesn’t visit this night.

 

VII

A day before the girl is to return to the mother and the boyfriend in Harare, the wife tells the girl that the second-cousin will be testing the irrigation systems on the farm’s crops and would the girl like to help out and drive up front with him, learn something about agriculture? The girl doesn’t want to do this because she doesn’t care about agriculture and doesn’t understand the second-cousin but she says yes please nonetheless.

The second-cousin is waiting outside, engine humming on his bakkie. He is sweating and nervously lean and he drives them to the maize crop, which is wilting under a thousand suns and which looks irreparably damaged and lost to the land. The girl waits in the front as the second-cousin spends some time talking to the farmworkers, they all shaking their heads. The second-cousin comes back eventually, with a pebble of granite. He gives it to the girl because it is perfectly rounded and she can have it on her windowsill in Harare, as a reminder of her time here in Masvingo.

The girl holds the pebble tightly and wonders if they’ll be home for dinner. The ground under the truck is rough and uneasy and the girl and the second-cousin jolt in silence until they reach the tobacco crop in the farmstead valley. There, the vegetation becomes a prettily floppy yellow mass of flora that blooms with the sound of locusts. It smells of something wonderfully earthy and dank.

The second-cousin strides off into the thicket, boots pumping against the dry soil. He comes back with a leaf, which he tells the girl is sick with thirst for rain. The second-cousin tuts about the crop and the girl remains quiet, thinks him a mystery upon mysteries and extremely handsome. She hopes that he will turn the bakkie around and that they will go home soon

‘You finding the time on the farm okay then, hey?’, he says suddenly, driving the bakkie onwards.

The girl, holding the pebble, pulls down her skirt and her seatbelt. ‘Yes, I like it very much’.

‘You’re a city girl though. I can’t imagine there’s much for you out here?’ The second-cousin’s profile is very hard against the closing sun and he doesn’t look to the girl but turns off the air-con because all it does is bring in warm, red dust.

There is a brief pause as the girl thinks for a second. ‘I love the farm and I think I’ve learnt a lot. I’ve done a lot of revision and I think I’ll pass my ‘O’ Levels.’ She smiles at the dashboard and then to him and the second-cousin smiles back.

‘Hey, we should have our picnic before the sun goes’, he says.

Agnes and the wife have made sandwiches, coconut biscuits and a flask of rooibos for them. The girl and the second-cousin share these in near silence for a while and then talk turns to the beauty of the clouds, now high and tinged with an improbable pink. The second-cousin asks the girl about Harare and then he remarks on the granite hills. The girl munches in the heat and feels sick and the second-cousin tells her that he knows the farm is fucked and the crops are fucked and that his pensions are fucked but what can you do? The girl says she doesn’t know what you can do and the second-cousin laughs. He then, abandoning his sandwich, leaps up and shows her a fluorescent lizard that has been sleeping underneath one of the rocks. She touches it and laughs as it wriggles.

‘Shouldn’t we be home now?’, says the girl, after the wriggling becomes boring.

‘In a second we will’, he says. ‘Wait while I go put the lizard back’.

Whilst he is away the girl practices sleeping on the rock.

The second-cousin comes back after some time in the bushes with the lizard and them flumps down, sighing. Eventually, he takes to stroking the humid curls on the apparently sleeping girl’s forehead. Leaning next to her, he touches the tip of her nose with his fingers. The girl pretends not to notice, stays rigidly comatose on the cooling granite and waits as the second-cousin strokes her calf and thigh and then eventually gives up. The sun is dead and the second-cousin gathers up the picnic and carries the girl back to the bakkie – over the kopje, over the lizards, over the prickly bushes, over one hundred-million boomslangs. The girl remains in a pretended sleep in the passenger seat. She knows that she is, in one way or another, going to be in big trouble or possibly dead.

 

VIII

By the time they get home, the night is bleak and dark as the night of a nowhere.

‘You’re very late’, says the wife, standing at the farmhouse door. Ginger Olive and ginger Alvin are standing behind the wife, thumbs-in-mouth. Olive is drooping and sweating and holds a skanky little doll. ‘How’s the farm? Has she been good?’, asks the wife, nodding to the girl in the bakkie.

The second-cousin puts a hand on the wife’s shoulder and tells her the crops are doing wonderfully and that the girl is tired but that she’s been an angel. He hands the wife a granite pebble that is perfectly rounded. She loves it, it can go on the windowsill.

The girl’s eyes are still closed but overhearing this obscenity, she feels a joyous quickening and shudders, since there is a crocheted Rhodie bedspread waiting upstairs and Ned will be so jealous. Ned is exhausting.

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