International Writers Magazine: Africa
Cake and Cold Coke
A day and night in Harare, Zimbabwe, 1997
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
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
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
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
from World Destinations
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