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John Eppel

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE


Last year, announced a new short story competition to promote Zimbabwean writers.  There was to be a $1 000 prize for the winner.  Five writers were shortlisted.  I was one of them.  Months later I heard, indirectl,y that I had won.   Nothing happened, however.  In the immortal words of Roy Orbison, ‘It’s over’.  At least I got my story back, so I can share it with you (singular?).






The heat was intense.  It came hurtling down from the sun.  It bounced off the barren sub-soil.  It turned the air into breath.   He paused to rinse his parched mouth.  The water from his bottle was above blood temperature.  In the distance he could make out the rocky hill where he would set up an observation post.  Patrolling was unpopular with most of the troopers; it was arduous, walking for days on end, lugging up to 50 kilograms of equipment.  There was seldom any action, not like Fireforce.  The day before, his stick had accounted for two Charlie Tangos, somewhere in the Mtoko area.  Now he was close to Mozambican territory, alone, with a radio, an FN rifle, 100 rounds, and three grenades. Their safety levers had been taped down.  He carried water and rations for three days.


This was Cornwallis’ first solo mission, and he relished it.  No mocking jibes from the other ouens every time he took an interest in an insect or a bird or a wild flower.  He fingered the cob of marijuana deep in the pocket of his camo-jacket, which he had looted from the body of one of the gooks they had slotted the day before.  He was looking forward to the brew up and the smoke he would indulge in after making camp.


His OP overlooked a village and a known crossing point for ZANLA operatives.  His first task, once he’d reached the hill, would be to search it for caves or overhangs, which might be harbouring the enemy.   How did his mother, with her incessant quotes, put it – cave-keeping evils that obscurely sleep.  Something like that. He recalled stories of how dangerous caves had been to the imperial forces and the settler volunteers during the 1896 rebellions.  The Shona chiefs built their kraals on or close to rocky hills where caves, some of them extremely deep, provided places to hide, places to store goods, places for rituals, and places to ambush the enemy, as was the case with Lieutenant William E. Barnes during a raid on Gatsi’s kraal.  He poked his nose into the opening of a cave and was shot, point-blank, in the chest.  The weapon was a so-called “family gun”, a relic of the Napoleonic wars, which could be loaded with anything from bottle tops to telegraph wires.


A stink of formic acid rose up from the parched earth as predatory Matabele ants ran in all directions looking for beetles and chongololos to terminate with extreme prejudice.  From a distance came the anxious call of a Jacobin cuckoo in search of a bulbul’s nest.  It was well into November but no sign of rain.  Cornwallis returned his water bottle to its place on his belt, adjusted his Bergen, looked cautiously around for any sign of human life, and proceeded on his way.


As he approached the hill he slipped his rifle off his shoulder, released the safety catch, and brought it into firing position. He was startled by a family of dassies scurrying down from a cabbage tree, newly in leaf.  The late afternoon sun was beginning to dip behind the highest point of the hill, a split granite boulder, which resembled a still-life of a loaf of bread.  With a practised eye, the eighteen year old trooper searched for a cave, or a crevice wide enough to accommodate an emaciated floppy and his AK 47.  He made his way around the entire perimeter of the hill, looking also for an easy ascent.  His heart began to thump when he discovered a disguised pathway.  He was no tracker but he soon discerned barefoot prints, and he followed these, higher and higher up the hill until, just below the precipice, he found a cave.  Clusters of sumach beans, now covered in tiny yellowish flowers and the woody threads of last year’s pods, would have concealed the entrance from below.


A dilemma presented itself to Cornwallis.  The safest way to clear a cave would be to toss in a grenade, but that would alert the village to his presence.  If he looked into the opening, he might end up like poor Lieutenant Barnes, with a hole through his chest.  He decided to move as close to the side of the cave as possible, then wait and listen.  He picked his way through the curious vegetation of granite: lichens in four colours, silver clubmoss, ferns, vellozia, and the dead-alive resurrection plant.  At the lip of the cave, he squatted, listening for the slightest indication of life in that dark recess.  He had about two more hours of daylight at his disposal.


When a flock of redwing starlings started making noisy preparations for bed, Cornwallis decided to investigate the cave.  He removed his camo-jacket and hung it on the barrel-end of his rifle.   He was going to test the waters, so to speak.  He pushed it, at shoulder height, round the edge of the cave.  Nothing happened.  He jiggled it.  Nothing.  He shook it off the barrel, took a deep breath, and swung into the cave.  It reeked of dassie urine.  When his eyes got used to the gloom, Cornwallis noticed an alien object halfway in to the recess.  It was pink and tiny – a knitted baby’s booty.  His mind went back to the footprints on the pathway – small, bare feet.  A young mother, perhaps, or a sibling tasked with playing mommy for the day.  The cave was about six metres deep, with a roof that sloped down from bending height at the entrance to crawling height at the gloomy back, where the trooper noticed a large clay pot.  He needed to investigate this, but what if it was a booby trap?  What if the cave extended beyond the limit of his vision, a sudden left turn, say, where death might be huddling?


He checked his safety catch, pointed his rifle at the pot, and advanced.  It was full of fresh water.  There were no booby traps, no extensions to the cave, but the water pot was very suspicious.   Cornwallis decided then and there to set up his OP, not overlooking the village and the ZANLA crossing point, but the pathway which led to the cave.  He returned to the entrance, looked carefully around, picked up the croaking call of a purple-crested lourie, and the more distant clonk of a goat bell, and then broke off some twigs of resurrection plant in order to sweep away boot prints in the soft sift of the cave floor.  “Soft sift” – didn’t his mother have something to say about that?


By the time he had located a suitable OP – between slices of the granite loaf, the sun had set, but there was enough light to make camp.  From his Bergen he dug out a little gas stove, a cigarette lighter, an aluminium pot and a rat pack.  With the remaining water in his bottle, he started the sacred process of a brew up.  While he waited for the water to boil he set about rolling himself a joint.  This was the life.  His site was reasonably flat, and there was enough organic matter lying around to make a not too uncomfortable bed upon the rock.


While he dined on a tin of Vienna sausages in baked beans, the moon rose bathing all the world in a lemon yellow light.  Why did his mother persist in calling it a ghostly galleon?  He wondered what his family were doing at that moment.  Without a doubt his sister, Ladybird, would be swotting for her O-levels; indeed, she was in the middle of writing her finals.  His mother would be talking to her kitchen utensils while preparing an impossible pie or a pudding delicious.  And his father?  Probably setting up claymores around isolated farm houses.  Wearing his dark blue police reserve uniform.  He had been proud of Cornwallis for joining the RLI – “they have the faces of boys but they fight like lions” – instead of the Territorial forces like most of the other school leavers.  He kept urging his son to join the Selous Scouts or the SAS, but Cornwallis knew his limitations.  The RLI had taken him on only because, in 1978, they were becoming so short of manpower.  Still he hadn’t let them down, and his Commander had hinted at promotion to lance corporal if he continued to prove himself during Fireforce operations.  With his radio and his rifle close at hand, Cornwallis slid fully clothed into his light sleeping bag, turned onto his side, and quickly fell into a profound sleep.


He was awoken by a dawn chorus of warblers and chats and babblers.  He used a handful of precious water to rinse his eyes, dug out his binoculars, and began his observation.  The sun hadn’t yet risen but the early light aided him sufficiently.  The direct approach to the cave was thick with bush, so “visitors” would probably skirt the hill.  In that case he wouldn’t be able to see them till they had begun their ascent.  He didn’t expect any activity until much later in the day.  Time for breakfast.  He made himself a pot of tea and opened a can of pilchards in chilli sauce.  He scooped out the mess with hard biscuits, and crunched happily away.  A rustling sound momentarily startled him.  It was an indignant leguaan whose territory he had invaded.  There was a gathering of clouds on the reddening horizon, a faint promise of rain later in the day.


After draining his tea, he got up to relieve himself as far away from his camp as possible.  This happened to be the place where he should have set up his OP.  He was in mid spray when his keen eyes picked out three antlike figures moving slowly out of the village towards the hill.  He finished his business and went to fetch his binoculars.  He made himself as inconspicuous as possible, prone, raised slightly on his elbows, like a leguaan, and focussed his lenses.  The ants metamorphosed into ravens, then baboons, then… his heart began to thump… terrorists.  They were walking in single file, slowly, because the one at the back seemed to be wounded.  He was dragging a leg.  The other two were heavily armed.  The leader had a rocket launcher over his left shoulder and a rifle in his right hand.  Number two was lugging a machine gun, an RPG-2, and – Cornwallis made out – even at such a distance, two or three Chinese manufactured stick grenades dangling from his waist.


What he should have done was radio his commander and request backup, but Cornwallis saw an opportunity to become a hero, earn the Bronze Cross, perhaps.  How proud Blossom would be!  He leopard-crawled to his camp site, and prepared himself for battle.  He put on his webbing, checked his magazines, removed the tape from the safety levers on his grenades, and pulled some two-by-four through the barrel of his FN.  He returned to his binoculars and trained them on the approaching trio.  The wounded man was now lagging quite far behind.  Were they headed for the cave?


The sun was quite high and burning the back of the trooper’s neck when the two armed men moved beyond the angle of his vision.  The wounded man was close enough for Cornwallis to see that he was completely unarmed.  His face was twisted in agony and he was using both  hands to drag the useless limb.  It looked like a thigh wound – the entire trouser leg was soaked in dark blood.  Cornwallis hurried to the other side of the hill top but there was no sight, not yet, of the other two.  He felt a slight panic in his bowels.  He scanned every inch of ground within his vision.  Nothing.  He decided to return to the village side to see if he could follow the progress of the wounded man, but he was nowhere to be seen.  He ordered himself not to panic, and was about to return to the cave side when he noticed an antlike figure emerging from one of the village huts.  He re-focussed his binoculars: the ant metamorphosed into a raven, then a monkey, then… a girl, a young woman, bearing two loads, one on her head and one on her back.


He scuttled over to the cave side.  If they were heading there he should be able to see them without the aid of binoculars.  Soon he should be able to hear them.  Eyes peeled, ears intent, rifle poised… he waited.  Nothing.  Perhaps the two armed men were already in the cave, waiting for their wounded comrade.  Why didn’t they help him?  The bastards.  Better check on the nanny….  She was on the same track as the terrorists, heading towards the hill.  The load on her head was an aluminium pot; the load on her back was a baby.  The bitch was going to feed them!  In the cave.


He returned to his OP and was just in time to see the wounded man crawling towards the cave.  So, the other two were already inside.  His mild panic was restored to mounting excitement.  He would wait until the arrival of the girl, give them a bit of time to tuck into their sadza and relish – that would relax their vigilance – and then obliterate them.  An image of the coveted Bronze Cross swam into his ken; then one of his father, holding him in a tight embrace… son, you did me proud!  He slipped the high explosive grenade into the right pocket of his camo-jacket, and the white phosphorus into the left pocket.  Then he waited for the girl to enter his angle of vision.


She was wearing a dress so ragged, it wouldn’t survive another wash.  Around her neck dangled a string of lucky beans – a flash of red to enhance the mosaic of lichens under her feet.  She was lugging the pot up the gentle incline, while her baby slept against her back.  She looked very young.  Cornwallis felt an incongruous surge of desire.  She entered the cave.  He waited for about five minutes and then, ever so stealthily, making no more noise than a monitor lizard, proceeded to move.


Near the lip of the cave, grenade at the ready, he sat on his haunches and listened.  The baby was gurgling, and the girl was humming an ancient tune.  The men were silent.  Cornwallis regretted that an innocent victim would have to be sacrificed but this was war.  How did his mother put it… when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger.  Something like that.  Using his teeth, he removed the pin of the high explosive grenade, counted the required seconds, lobbed it into the cave, and dived for cover.


The explosion was deafening.  Even more deafening was the silence that followed.  Trooper Swinburne waited for the smoke to clear, then, FN at the ready, swung into the cave.  The water pot was smashed.  Lumps of stiff porridge were strewn all over the place.  The wounded soldier was mangled.  The girl was barely alive.  Along with its pink booty, the baby had now lost the top of its head to shrapnel.  Of the two heavily armed soldiers there was no sign.  They would be well on their way to the Mozambican border.


She was staring at him, eyes like saucers.  Gay maroon patterns, spreading, put some life into the fadedness of her dress.  While she feebly groped for her baby, Cornwallis dropped his trousers and, after some difficulty, found what he wanted to find, well lubricated with seeping blood, and as he moved in and out of her gradually cooling body, he blubbered, “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… so sorry… so sorry….”




The madam was having her friends to tea.  She had just rung the bell for more hot water, talking, talking, nineteen to the dozen.  Nobuhle could hear every word from the kitchen.

“I can picture them now, those little tykes, arguing about whose turn it was for Blossom’s leftovers.  They used to wait by the gate… goodness, I’m a poet and yet I didn’t know it… not the main gate… isn’t that an example of assonance? But the little ‘wicked wicket’ gate… who can guess where I’m quoting from? Olga?  You’re the literary type.  Come on, it’s easy… no? Edwin Muir… or was it Blunden?  Anyway… this shortbread is delicious, Mabel, thank you for bringing it… anyway, it was the one near the servant’s quarters, and Blossom always came home through that gate… you see it was a short cut to his work… mind you the ticks on that path… remind me to ask you for the recipe… you use butter, don’t you?  But butter… ‘but butter’… I like that… it’s so expensive…when you can get it… anyway, those kids of mine… thank you, Nobby, please fuga lapa lo ma pot… basop… haikona enza lo ma spilling… I can just picture them… but fancy fighting over Blossom’s leftovers… half a cup of tepid tea… alliteration… still in his thermos flask, and maybe a stale egg sandwich… I mean… you could have knocked me down with a feather.”


Nobuhle returned to the kitchen and hovered.  That bell always put her into a nervous state.  She had never got used to it.  It reminded her of the bell in the Shu-Shine bus that took her to Kezi, the one the passengers rang when they needed to relieve themselves, or  be dropped off.  And that reminded her of the day she was brutally raped and left for dead, dangling from that marula tree.  The smell of the fruit still made her nauseous, and the madam insisted on making her collect it by the basketful, in order to make her prize-winning jelly.


Maye, but that was a terrible time, right from the first road block just outside Bulawayo.  Every few kilometres they had been stopped and searched, not by police but by soldiers.  Anyone carrying food was accused of supporting dissidents.  Their food was confiscated and they were clapped – even elderly women – by the soldiers.  Luckily for Nobuhle and one or two others, their bags of mealie meal had been stashed on the roof of the bus underneath some corrugated iron sheets, and they went unnoticed. By the time they got to Kezi there was not a single young man left on the bus.

At her family home in Donkwe Donkwe village there was mayhem.  All the men including her father and her fifteen year old son had been shot dead, accused of concealing firearms.   The remaining women and children were on the point of starvation, so Nobuhle’s bag of mealie meal was most welcome.  But it did not do Nobuhle any good.


On her second day home, while she was cooking a communal meal in a large, battered enamel pot, some drunken soldiers wearing red berets arrived and accused her of feeding dissidents.  They ordered her to strip naked, tied her wrists with electric cable, and hoisted her so that she dangled from a tree branch, her big toes just touching the rotting fruit on the ground below.  The soldiers had great fun spinning her like a top and then raping her – sometimes from the front, sometimes from the back – over and over again.  There must have been about ten or twelve of them.  The other women and children had fled into the bush, and this angered the soldiers so much that they set fire to all the huts.  They lost interest in Nobuhle when she lost consciousness, and left her hanging there.


When the villagers returned, they brought her down from the tree, washed her and helped her get dressed.  When the life returned to her fingers and she was strong enough to walk, she made her way to St Joseph’s Mission in Matobo South, and there she was cared for, and there she remained until she felt strong enough to return, on foot, through the bush, to Bulawayo.  The madam took her back without much complaining.


The bell rang.  “Nobby, buya tata lo ma things but yega lo ma shortbread ka lo Missis Mabel, iswili?”


“Yes, Madam.”  Nobuhle came in with a tray and cleared the table of everything but the plate of shortbread.  She was dressed in a floral patterned maid’s uniform with matching apron and doek.  She returned to the kitchen and hovered.


“I simply don’t know where I… where Blossom and I went wrong with those children – one’s an alcoholic, the other’s a lesbian.  I mean, can you credit it… ‘credit it’… I like that.”  The others had heard it all before.  They were patient with Mimi.  Fortunately she started a choking fit, from a crumb of shortbread, which had gone down the wrong way, and this gave them the opportunity to get down to the real business of the gathering, which was to read Ethel’s play – a doggerel adaptation of one of Kipling’s “Just So Stories”.


“Kipling’s out of favour, you know,” remarked Olga.


Mimi had recovered from her fit: “Which white male writer isn’t?  Ask my daughter, if she’ll bother to talk to you.  Even Shakespeare… bardicide… well I’m a bardolater and proud of it… I don’t know… I really have no idea where we went wrong.  We were always there for our children… the cakes I made for their birthdays!  One year it was a steam engine for Cornwallis and a sunflower for Ladybird; another year it was a motor car for Cornwallis and a Heidi doll for Ladybird….”  Mimi lowered her head and examined the bunion on her left thumb.  Her friends gave sympathetic murmurs – they all had stories to tell.  “You could have knocked me down with a feather when she told me she never wanted to speak to me again.  Once a year she comes home and stays with the girl in the servant’s quarters… brings her all sorts of gifts from Sweden… she still doesn’t realise how much Nobby hates those sweets that taste like Scrubbs Ammonia… and those pickled herrings, which I would give my back teeth… well, dentures…. As for that no-good son of mine… how old is he? – 48 and still living at home. All those wasted years at university.  He does nothing… sits in his room all day and smokes and drinks and listens to opera…”


“But Mimi, he got badly damaged in the war.”


“It was his decision to join the R.L.I.”


“He would have been called up, anyway.”


“What about his garden?  Doesn’t he love gardening?”


“Yes… there is that… but-”


Listen, let’s change the subject, shall we?  Ethel, let’s read.”


“Yes, no… I was thinking of Cornwallis’s little garden.  He does make an effort in that regard… he has these beautiful little plants… such a fresh shade of green… that remind me of miniature cabbage trees… did you know that dassies browse on their leaves… you should see the jars upon jars of rolled mops, which she forces down that poor girl’s throat… did you ever try Sapphics, Olga?  Maybe we should-”


“Mimi!  Please!”


“Oh, I’m sorry, so sorry….”




Dr L.T. “Bug” Swinburne, was lying on her Gogo’s creaky iron bed, its four legs propped on concrete breeze bricks (a tried and tested defence against tokoloshes), its uneven mattress prickly with coir.  She was reading through her paper, due be published in the journal of African Cultural Studies, and entitled “Troping the Trope: Vaginis-music in Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins”.  She was still simmering with anger at her brother’s cynical dismissal of her analysis of the beautifully horrific scene where Sibaso, the Ndebele dissident, after beheading Tenjiwe and then dancing with her body, turns to her sister, Nonceba, and spends an entire chapter raping and mutilating her in a choreography that would have made Nijinski’s knees buckle.


“You know what Primo Levi would have called that,” he had said.




“‘Aesthetic affectation’.”


“He would.  He is a man.”


“Was.  He committed suicide.”


“Why don’t you take his cue, Cornwallis?”


“I’m already dead.”


“You reek of self-pity.”


“And you reek of sanctimony.”


“Fuck you!”


“Jesus, why vaginas?  Why not something less in-your-face like cracks or slits or seams…”


“They’ve all been taken.”


“By your fellow academics?”


“Look, it’s not just vaginas; it’s a combination of ‘vaginismus’, which is a painful spasmodic contraction, and ‘music’, which is one of Vera’s privileged tropes.”


“Oh gawd!”


This recall of the altercation kept imposing itself between her cutting-edge persona and the 3 000 word paper.


Once a year she returned to the country of her birth, Zimbabwe, to visit the woman who had reared her and her pathetic older brother.  Gogo’s real name was Nobuhle Xaba and she had worked for the Swinburne family since 1960, the year Cornwallis was born.  She came from the Donkwe Donkwe area near Kezi.  She used to go home fairly regularly, until the troubles began in the 80s.  In April, 1984, she responded to a distress call from a family member (Miss Ladybird had just returned to her university in South Africa) and quickly boarded a bus for Kezi.  A month later she had not returned, and the Swinburnes thought she had abandoned them.  Another month passed, and another; then, one day, she turned up at their gate looking ill and miserable enough for Mimi not to berate her.  Gogo wouldn’t go into details but, clearly, she’d been seriously traumatized.  She was put on light chores and fed huge helpings of Mimi’s famous puddings, until she became strong enough to resume her normal duties.  She never went back to Donkwe Donkwe.


It was at the University of Natal, studying for a BA in English and History, that Bug (she hated her given names, Ladybird Titania) became politicised.  The shock of realising that she had grown up in a sub-culture that regarded black people as inferior to white people, and treated them as such, turned her overnight against her own people, her family in particular.  She began a series of love affairs designed to cut her parents to the quick – with black men, with known communists, with what her father called dykes; and she became promiscuous.  She cut off all her hair and she pierced her nostrils with a sliver of bone.  She ceased to keep herself clean and began to stink, according to her brother, like rotting butternut.  She read Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Marylin French… and it dawned on her that women were probably just as oppressed as black men, though not in the same league as black women, who suffered the double bind of racial as well as gender oppression – hence her obsessive interest, two decades later, in writers like Yvonne Vera.  Her sick-in-the-head brother insisted on calling the great novelist a Canadian.


“She wasn’t a Canadian, you fuckwit, she was Zimbabwean.”


“She had Canadian citizenship.”




“So, Zimbabweans aren’t allowed dual citizenship.  It’s a jailable offence.”


They saw each other only for a few days a year; and they spent it quarrelling.  But at least Bug talked to her brother.  She completely ignored poor Mimi, and spent most of her time with Gogo in the servant’s quarters.  Friends of the family were convinced that it was Bug’s behaviour which sent her father, Blossom, to an early grave.


Bug was simultaneously re-reading her analysis of the rape scene and smarting at her brother’s comments.  While she saw it as balletic, Terpsichorean, he called it hokey-cokey: “You put your left knee in, you take your left knee out, you put your left knee in and you wiggle it about…”


“The trouble with you bigoted white men is that you can conceive of history only in linear time.  From head to toe you are hierarchical, and you place yourselves firmly on the top.  Well, my friend, your days are numbered….  Can’t you see that Yvonne Vera subverts those notions?”


Can’t you see that Yvonne Vera’s so-called novels are typological?  She herself was an academic steeped in the same theories as the incestuous band of PhDs she wrote for. She knew exactly what postmodernist feminists thrive on: aporias, tropes, subalternity, liminality…fucksake!”


Nobuhle arrived, tired out after a day’s housekeeping, and Bug slid off her bed.  “Gogo, come and lie down for a while.  I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.”


Nobuhle knew not to argue with the Picanin Missis.  She gave her a smile, climbed onto the bed – she knew what was coming next – and made her tackies available for Bug to untie and gently remove.  “Shall I give your feet a rub?”


“Thank you, Bugi.  The Madam is cross today.”


“What now?”


“She says the other Madams tease her.  She…” Nobuhle broke off to stifle a giggle… “she says they say her face is like other madams’ bums.”


“What?”  Bug beamed as she pressed her thumbs into the soles of her Gogo’s worn out feet.  “Because she talks shit.”


Nobuhle winced as Bug’s thumbs suddenly behaved as if they were at her mother’s throat.  “Sorry, Gogo.  Let me put some camphor cream on your heels.”


“I only have Vaseline.  There, by the window ledge.”


“That should work.”  She fetched the jar of Vaseline, opened it, scooped some grease with her left index finger, closed the jar, returned it to the window ledge, and returned to her Gogo’s feet.  “My people,” she sighed; “and the governing episteme is almost as bad.  Why?  Because African nationalism is patriarchal.”


“I do not understand.”


“Men, Gogo, amadoda!”


“Oh!  By the way!” She laughed.


“It’s not funny, you know.”  Then she thought, I must work on this Manichaean tendency of mine, learn like Yvonne Vera to insinuate the alterity of the voiceless into hegemonic space.  Gogo’s pads were as hard and as rough as Brazil nut shells.  “Men, obsessed with virginity and rape.  Contradictory bastards.  Now, let’s have some tea and some of that nice pickled herring I brought you from-”


“Tsss, Bugi, it is hurting!”


“Oh, I’m sorry, Gogo, so sorry….”









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