The International Writers Magazine: Africa

Candy Cake and Cold Coke
A day and night in Harare, Zimbabwe, 1997
Jane Shepherd

t is a Wednesday night and the Europa Café in central Harare is half empty and doused in a yellow light from the fluorescent strips. The walls are painted in gloss and cast sickly shadows on the Formica topped tables. We are sipping espressos from tiny thick china cups, passing the only spoon in the cafe back and forth between tables and chasing the coffee with thimble glasses of grappa.

The Europaıs grappa is renowned for its potency; it burns the throat and then implodes releasing rippling shockwaves; eyes pop, mouths gasp, lips whistle, knuckles crack. It is the only reason so many of us drink here. Peter the waiter shuffles about in his broken shoes flicking empty tables with a cloth, re-arranging the ashtrays. Outside on Julius Nyerere Avenue the city rushes home from work; an endless stream of suits and ties, tidy dresses and hand-knitted jerseys.

It is decided we will drive to Hatfield, to my house. It is also decided we will buy cheap vodka. I have just returned from Johannesburg, my head full of big city ideas, and want Bloody Marys but guess no-one will drive to the northern suburbs for imported cartons of tomato juice. They want to drink the vodka with ice and coke, or ice if thereıs no money for coke or coke if thereıs no money for ice, or neither if no-one can shut-the fuck-up and decide. In the squabbling my request gets lost in the base of my throat. We have been moving around together for weeks now but by next week it could all be different, some will be discarded like empty cigarette packets, others will take their place. We are a fridge magnet poem of limited vocabulary constantly re-arranging, adding and subtracting to the meaning but with the overall result being the same old nonsense. Having a place to party, a vehicle to move in or being foreign and just passing through are important pre-requisites. Money helps too. I have learnt to tick only one box.

I offer up my house and the surrounding four acres, but have put some kind of fuzzy boundaries in place to prevent over-exploitation and soul erosion. Periodically my defenses are toppled and I retreat for weeks to sob into the fur of my dog. Tonight the fridge poem is made up of Mouth, Tricks and Lonely with Marco and his battered Peugeot, me and my dilapidated house and two German tourist girls. It is a squeeze and I am sitting on someoneıs lap, feeling an intimacy with the boys and, unusually, a slight superiority in the pecking order. The other girls are foreigners while I live here. They will have moved on by next week but I am here to stay. This somehow supports my misplaced notion that I am one of the crowd, that I have a more solid and permanent relationship with this lot. I also arrived with only a rucksack but would rather believe that I appeared out of the bush a fully formed member of the wild bunch, that there was no awkward period of adjustment and culture shock.

We pull in at the Slow-but-Sure bottle store and then into Luck Street for twists of grass, stopping at the Rush-by garage for cigarettes. At each stop Marco leans his crossed arms on the steering wheel, a cigarette hanging from his lips, his pale thin face lit by the streetlights. He is translucent, beautiful but he is also wearing a button-up cardigan and outdated Bata lace-ups. He is a local white boy, too local and too white and what I do not know but will find out, is that he drives when too drunk to even stand up, he drives with his eyes shut, he drives whilst swigging from a brandy bottle, he drives and turns to talk to those in the back seat. Luckily the road to Hatfield is straight.

We park at my house under the ancient bougainvillea, a wild travesty of colonial intention ­ as tall as a block of flats; you can almost see it grow, lashing out over power lines and into neighbouring trees. The boys carry in the booty and I throw open the doors to the cold evening air, the moon is just a slither in the trees, the last of the sun purple on the horizon. The party has started. Tricks talks nonsense as the alcohol and weed seep into his brain, Lonely stares into the night, his baby sweet face cupped in his hands holding a cigarette close to his lips. A German girl with nut-brown skin laughs a lot and tosses her long shiny hair. She has one hand on Mouthıs thigh, joined to him in fear. He is the only reason she is here so far from the city centre and the backpackers lodge. Together they walk into the dark, down the sandy drive. His voice carrys on the wind, "Here in Africa, we are a carnival people, we like music, drink, dance... we like to share."

I tire quickly of drunken conversations and leave to lie in the hammock watching the pools of light on the lawn. Lonely drifts over and rocks the hammock, his heavy face hangs, his eyes half closed and red rimmed, his child lips parted. I watch him silently, rocking me back and forth. We are careful with each other, unsteady in each otherıs presence but reluctant to initiate another round of love-me, love-me-not, especially since neither of us are no longer, or ever were, remotely in love. The thought of each other was always far more enticing than the reality. These days we do not talk or touch but occasionally I hold his gaze for that second too long which is why he is rustling at my side like bamboo in the wind.

"Donıt drive fast, please, please, itıs not safe." I caution, plead, a note of panic in my voice.
Marco left in the night with the Peugeot and now it is morning and the boys want to leave, not by public transport, but in my old blue Renault 5. It sits in the car porch with its drunken, lopsided stance, the front mudguard at a disturbing angle held on with wire. An old accident in the drizzling rain as the car hit the gatepost. The front tires are different sizes from the back and there is no longer a spare. I cannot drive which means I have to go where ever it does. I donıt even want it driven but I know I will be fighting a losing battle and I partly want to please, be accepted, be useful. I shift my boundaries while I am looking the other way, just an imperceptible gap but big enough for them to all squeeze in scattering my good intentions over the lawn. We get as far as the local shops and fall out of the car, resting our elbows on the hot metal of the carıs roof. Four pairs of tired eyes stare vacuously out of sunglasses. I lean my cheek on the roof and pick at a bubble of rust. Mouth faces me on the other side of the car but stares purposefully past, his face raised self-consciously as if smelling the wind for signs of danger. The sky is cornflower blue.

Across the road women sit patiently by neat stacks of tomatoes, lemons, avocados and onions. I swivel my head and Sarahıs butchery and bottle store comes into focus, as does the tailor under the veranda with his old treadle Singer, piles of broken clothes by his feet. He is also staring into the same empty suburb. This is not the time for shopping, no one needs bread and milk, these chores are done. Maids are at home polishing stoeps and floors; kids are in school, workers in the city. A small white boy walks out of the black hole of the trading store and stands in the velvety red shadows thrown up by ancient stoep paint. He raises his hand and swigs heavily from a cold coke. His teeth sink into a bun, one of those big hard yellow buns with pink crusty icing, dripping like snow off a roof, beaded like sweat on a brow ­ candy cakes. They hold a promise they never deliver being tastless and dry. The boy cups the bun in his dirty hands, crumbs fall at his feet as he tears into it. His bare feet are black with road grease, clumpy grey cheese-dirt clings to his skin. his face the colour of bamboo, his hair like winter grass slashed and dust speckled. Across the car park, where the tarmac meets the one-pump petrol station, the boys mother shuffles in her crimpoline cast-offs and worn flip-flops. She is stick thin with greasy pigeon hair falling across her face and shoulders, barely covering her skull. Her hunched shoulders are held in place with the cement of history. She has skull eyes and inbred features as if life had given her a cruel punch from across the room and like a rubber Popeye doll sent her mouth into the back of her neck. She doesnıt call to the boy and he doesnıt acknowledge her. Silently they mind their own business.

Tricks strides out of the store, sunglasses on his head buried in thick black curls. He blinks in the light and bounds down the steps with a four pack of Hunters beer ­ imported from South Africa in tins, not the brown bottles you get here with labels skating on the glass. I press the tin to my forehead, the cold metal burning, setting up a dull ice-pack pain in my temples. Lonely wants us to drink our tins in one gulp. "I saw Marko do it once, downed four beers in a row. You shake it, then pierce a hole at the bottom."
"You do it then", says Tricks.
"Me, Iım not throwing my dop all over the car park." So he does. With studied determination he shakes the tin and stabs it with the car keys. A fountain of beer sprays into the air ­ an oil well struck lucky, a punctured artery as a thief slips and sinks the blade deep into an outstretched neck. I watch him wide-eyed as he aims the oil strike down his throat, the muscles working like pistons to swallow the beer. He crushes the can in his hand and tosses it into the bushes. We sip ours. As usual I am the last to finish. The alcohol pulling a gauzy blind over the too bright morning. As we pull out of the car park the boy and his mother trek across the road, continuing blank-eyed on their nomadic journey. The boyıs eyes are fixed at a point beyond the trees and red tiled roofs into another world that lasts as long as a candy cake and cold coke.

© Jane Shepherd September 2006

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