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John Eppel

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Stone Painter

The Stone Painter

His name is Farlow, and he paints the stones, dressed and raw, and the bricks, full and half, in the grounds of the police headquarters at the Drill Hall.  His uniform is a khaki shirt, khaki shorts, car tyre sandals, and a red, tasselled fez.  Farlow is a Muslim of Malawian extract.  He began work at the Drill Hall some time in the 1950s.  He was, by turns, tea boy, errand boy, and garden boy.  It was part of the last mentioned job to whitewash the bricks and the stones, some random, some encircling trees, some delineating roads and pathways and herbaceous borders, some marking out jealously guarded parking space for the more senior police officers.

His first employers were the British South Africa Police who kept law and order for a Chartered Company called Rhodesia.  His present employers are the Zimbabwe Republic Police who keep law and order for a Limited Company called ZANU PF.  His first employers gave him a black 28 inch bicycle.  For greater comfort, he inserted a tennis ball under the saddle.  The bicycle was commandeered by his present employers during Operation Murambatsvina when they were desperately short of transport to pursue prostitutes and street vendors.  Now he walks everywhere.

During the Chartered Company years he kept his eyes lowered in the course of duty and pretended not to notice the way constables barely out of their teens would insult suspected law breakers old enough to be their mothers and fathers.  He pretended not to hear the cries, the groans, the pleas for mercy.  How did that song go?  Those boys from the Support Unit used to sing it over their mugs of Tanganda tea, disregarding him on the floor among their boots, polishing, brush in one hand, cloth in the other, Cobra wax, in ever diminishing circles.  That smell; and that tune fixing itself in his memory like an ear-worm.  Those offensive words:

I came to a river

and couldn’t get across,

so I climbed on a nigger

‘cos I thought he was a hoss -



In those days everything at the Drill Hall worked, from the petrol lawn mower to the electric kettle.  There were no smashed light fittings, no leaking taps, no cracked toilet bowls.  The ceilings hadn’t fallen through, the window panes weren’t plugged with newspaper, the fixed benches hadn’t been ripped out of the walls.  Above all, the Olivetti typewriters clacked away, with newly inked ribbons, and an endless supply of foolscap.  There were paper clips everywhere, and drawing pins, and rubber bands, and manila envelopes.  There were steel filing cabinets, brass hooks on the doors for the policemen to hang their caps, government-issue hand towels.  Farlow kept the rooms spotless, and he had unlimited access to soaps, polishes, and detergents to keep them that way.   And in the yard he dared the weeds to grow, manicured the lawn, pruned the shrubs, dead-headed the flowers, and painted the stones.

Now, in the Limited Company years, he no longer keeps his eyes down, and he no longer pretends not to listen to the cries, the groans, the pleas for mercy.  It passes the time, since there is nothing much to do.  Once the daily Chronicle has been read, re-read, and pored over by the entire unit (who have stopped typing reports on the one remaining typewriter, which is without ink for its ribbon and without paper for its battered keys), he uses it to plug holes.  In the rainy season he catches rainwater leaks with the three last remaining utensils: an Olivine oil tin, a two litre plastic Lions Dairy Maid ice cream container, and a Chibuku scud.  Mostly, however, and whitewash still seems to be available, he paints the stones; and while he paints, that tune comes back to him, and you can hear the cracked old voice going: “Kooma-rai-ai-ai-yai-yai…kooma-rai-kooma-rookie-kooma-kai,”
















Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    June 30th, 2014 @15:42 #

    What a time-lapse snapshot, John.


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