Images of Africa – darting, zig-zag, gaudy –still flicker across her dreams, sixty years on.
She wakes in an instant with the same sense of lurking danger and imminent catastrophe that have marked every single year since they left Rhodesia. There is a glass of water on the night stand but she is reluctant to reach out into the dark for it. Besides, it has been there for goodness knows how long so anything might be floating in it.
She lies in the darkness bolstered by the headboard and concentrates on slowing her heartbeat. If each beat is numbered, then she should be sparing of them.
Sometimes she wakes with the taste of the red earth in her mouth.
It is 1947 and she is young again. What liberty they had, her and her brother Cedric. They must have borrowed the bicycles or maybe Father had brought them in the car, she can’t remember. Everybody cycled then, especially the natives. As dusk drew in, you could hear the clink clink of chains jumping over gears, the screech of hot tyres, shouts to get out of the way, the quiet susurration of the black workers hurrying past the windows to leave Salisbury before curfew.
Memories become dreams become memories. On one occasion, they weren’t in the city, they were out in the bush, visiting the family they had met on the boat, the Simpkins. Father somehow missed his target of becoming a farmer and settled instead for becoming a civil servant, but Mr Simpkins had acquired a loan from the Land Bank and set about planting maize and tobacco and getting rich.
“Well, this is delightful”, Mother exclaimed after they stepped down from the Overlander and into the mud and thatch house.
“It’s only temporary”, declared Mrs Simpkins, already reddened and coarsened by eleven months in the bush. “Boy!”, she called, before shoo-ing the children away.
The children followed the young man who indicated that they should ride after him as he ran ahead over the dusty, rutted track, scores of large birds hanging in the air, bony cattle eyeing them as they passed. They sat on the flattened stones of the kopje for a few moments. As she looked back, she was sure she could see the tail of a leopard disappearing into a hollow.
“Cedric. Cedric! A leopard! Look!”
“Shut up, Poppy.”
As she lies now in the cold dawn, rain pattering against the window, she sees herself as that thirteen year old, pedalling down the track, looking over her shoulder at the receding boulders, looking, looking, looking. She wanted more than anything to catch a glimpse of a leopard, one thing denied her in this country of shimmering heat and startling spectacle. This could be a metaphor for her entire life, she muses wryly. Always speeding away from the object of desire, speed and trajectory dictated by others, not herself.
Did they even have leopards in Africa?
The family had made the journey to Rhodesia like camp followers. Father’s was a world of Destiny and Purpose, the Empire an arena for self-advancement and the attendant elevation of the native from moral and economic squalor. Yet, surely, Wellington or Rhodes never had to accommodate a young family within a sweltering concrete apartment in a less than salubrious part of the city. Nor were weighty ledgers with their interminable columns of figures tied to Gordon or Livingstone, drowning their ambitions like they drowned Father’s.
She imagines Father leaving Rhodesia House on the Strand, clutching his travel permit, his papers of introduction, his ship’s passage, and the exquisite excitement that charged his breast at that point. There have been occasional points in her own life when she too might have come close to that feeling. Her first exhibition. Learning to drive. Points when she could make a mark on an otherwise uncaring world. When she was the prime mover. Not the moved.
Although she can’t remember the preparations to leave for Southampton, then Beira on the Mozambique coast and then on to Salisbury, knowing Father, it is likely that they would have departed within the week, within the month certainly, of the decision made.
It is nearly seven o’clock and she must get out of bed. She knows she is like her father in that respect, regrets being the sole wages of the idler.
The house clicks contentedly in the artificial warmth from the central heating, a small luxury. While she waits for the kettle to boil, she rolls an orange between her wrists. Its dense skin refuses to release any of its zest, its citrus zing. For that she must plunge a knife into it. She places the fruit back in the bowl. It won’t be long now before the swallows and swifts return. They too live in the geographical extremities.
Today will be a studio day.
Mother painted, but in a heavy-handed, prosaic way. Images of Tonbridge and the Jurassic coastline, a Florentine bell tower, the Matterhorn. Paint squashed on paint as if the sheer relief of being home again could be encapsulated within the layers of colour. Loaded palettes pressed onto the canvas all the sureties of home, pillar boxes, honey for tea, good manners.
She takes her mug of Peppermint tea and reclimbs the stairs to the attic space. Low grey cloud muffles the skylights, a sharp draught from under the eaves chills her bare ankles. She’d had the floor boarded over after Patrick died. Her husband had not encouraged her to paint. Did he see any talent, or was he saving her from failure, from disappointment? “Very nice, dear”, was about as effusive as he got.
A trestle table occupies the length of one wall, its surface a kaleidoscope of spilled and squeezed colours. She pulls the shroud off her current work.
The cook-boy lived in a sort of shed at the back of the living quarters, staying behind when the houseboys left at the end of the working day. This shed butted up against other sheds, their rudimentary and haphazard nature softened by glorious hibiscus and bougainvillea; these annexes housed servants to other apartments. When a surly night-time roar issued from one balcony or another, someone would scurry faster than a rat could roll a stolen egg to attend. Everyone sounded more and more like Father – bad-tempered, inebriated, impatient, Scottish – as each deathly evening wore on.
“Jacob! Jacob! Come here, damn you!”
There was no reply.
She could hear her father shouting out into the night air before turning to Mother. “No. You will not. There’s no point having servants if you have to do everything for yourself round here.”
Orange light flickered between the boards of the shed, dark shapes moving here and there, throwing elongated shadows out into the thick night air. Sounds of laughter and gossip rose and fell, quickly igniting and dying down again, wave after wave.
This illicit merriment drove Father into a fury. “You know what’s going on, don’t you? If you don’t, you’re a fool. He’s robbing us blind. We’re feeding him and half his bloody village.” He went along the kitchen cupboards, slamming each door in turn.
The next morning, only Mother was about, sitting at the kitchen table, cigarette ash peppering the oilcloth. “Where’s Dad?”
“To the police station.” Her hands shook.
There was a knock. Mother stood quickly and handed over an envelope to the stranger at the back door. The stranger’s cheek had a purple bloom, his knuckles were split. Mother went upstairs.
They came home on an old troopship.
Father was never really the same after their two years in Africa. His courage had gone, replaced by a squeaky kind of self-justification, his pugilism by random violence, his adventuring by empty bravado.
Cedric left home on his sixteenth birthday.
Many, many years later, after the children were born, she took up painting. A hand coloured poster advertised free lessons in the community hall. She went along for the first lesson with what felt like a heavy stone beneath her sternum. What’s the point, she asked herself? So she could hang an oil of a bowl of fruit and a charcoal sketch of an indeterminate nude in the downstairs lav?
She was concerned that her output, like her Mother’s, would waver between the fey and the deeply unmeaningful. When the teacher walked into the dusty, mote-laden hall, she was sure she was headed for the latter option. Abstract, expressionistic nonsense.
Looks a bit ropey, she thought to herself, as she took in his dishevelled beard, bandanna, scuffed motorbike jacket.
“Really not for me”, she told Patrick over the evening meal. “Said his name was Dylan, he was just back from six months on an ashram and invited us to breathe deeply through alternate nostrils before respectfully approaching our inner nexus.”
“Doesn’t sound like your sort of thing at all, darling”, agreed Patrick.
Yet, she told herself the following Wednesday, it was an afternoon out in an otherwise bleak diary.
“I am here to help you unlock your creativity”, Dylan told the diminished group before removing his blackened bare feet from his boots and sitting cross-legged in the centre.
“Oh lordy”, she sighed to herself. “This is truly, truly awful.”
Over the weeks, though, she brought home her ‘interpretations’ of a deconstructed chair, a dream in colour, a hermaphrodite nude and, rather incongruously given that they didn’t have one, a family pet, letting the thick cartridge paper pile up on the hall stand.
“’Family’ is this week’s theme”, announced Dylan.
“Oh shoot”, whispered Poppy’s neighbour. “That’s going to be tough.”
She nodded assent and went into quiet meltdown. When somebody mentioned the word ‘family’, who should she think of first? Her parents? Or her children? Invariably it was her father’s face, or presence, that came to mind, blocking out all else. Should she feel guilty for not thinking of her children first?
“Remember. Don’t paint figuratively. Just paint what you ‘feel’. There is no censorship here.”
She stood stock still in front of the easel for the next thirty minutes. No-one looked at her, least of all Dylan. Rescue me somebody, rescue me. Some time later, the group trooped out of the room for a tea break. Dylan put his hand on her shoulder.
“I … just … can’t …”
“I know”, he said reassuringly.
“No you don’t”, she snapped at him.
“No.” He stood by her, head bowed.
Minutes passed. She could hear the others returning down the corridor.
“Do this at home. Call me.”
She took the folded piece of paper he offered and hurried out of the room, coat slung over her shoulder.
She never finished the task. She never phoned him. She never painted her father. For to do so, she would have to paint the blood seeping into the floor of Jacob’s shed, the look of fear and disdain that scored into her Mother’s face for the next twenty years. She’d have to paint the packet of money passing from white hands to black, the broken man. She’d have to paint her own fragility passed off as strength. She’d have to paint the look of bewilderment and rejection on the faces of her own three children. She’d have to paint the clenched fist of Andrew, their youngest, who, knows nothing yet snarls and struts and yells just like his grandfather.
Instead, she paints leopards.