December 10, 2009
Baking a Christmas cake in France is not complicated: I buy the ingredients at the supermarket, I mix it all up (swatting small fingers away) and put it in the oven. This year I will not be making one as no-one in my family is very keen on it. It is too easy now.
Baking a christmas cake in Zimbabwe takes all the logistical training and agility of a special forces operation.
The first hurdle to overcome is the unavailability of dried fruit. In the year in question, I neatly side-stepped that by getting a friend to bring some back from a trip to London. My mother prevailed upon some friends in South Africa to bring some when they visited.
Even prior to the days of multiple zeros in our hyper-inflationary economy, foreign currency was hard to come by and cost a fortune in our local Monopoly money.
What the hell! It was Christmas and we needed something traditional! The bright sunshine of our endless African summer was not at all Christmasy, turkeys were unobtainable and our local father Christmas’s skin tone (bless him), contrasted sharply with his white beard. Nothing was authentic! A Christmas cake we would have, thanks to my mother, and I would make a Christmas pudding so rich in brandy it would squirt you in the eye when fork hit fruit.
The price of butter equalled that of the Gold Standard and nuts had to be purchased through discreet transactions with our Greek greengrocer.
Once the requisite ingredients were assembled we were almost foiled once more: by electricity rationing. A Christmas cake is a temperamental thing and should not be subjected to the vagaries of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Commission.
Christmas eve loomed. My mother was driving to Zambia, leaving at dawn on Christmas day. She would be bearing a Christmas cake made by her own fair hand, and a pudding made by mine. A cake would also be coming in our direction.
There was a power cut on the morning of the 24th which lasted until her car was packed and ready to go. But we come from a long line of adventurous folk and we stood strong. The power came back on, the cake went in and the puddings were on the boil. Our respective homes were filled with the wondrous smells of northern climes.
Time was ticking though and the Cake Baker needed some sleep. A plan was hatched. A handover would take place, with the security guard who worked outside her block of townhouses being a pivotal player.
The cakes would come out the oven at around midnight. One of them would be packed into the car and one would be lovingly wrapped in a cloth and put in a cake tin. The tin would be handed to the tall man wearing a balaclava and bearing a truncheon. He would be given precise instructions to hand it to the driver of a white car who would be in the vicinity in the small hours of the morning. He would recognize her because she would hand him a parcel and point at a red car. She would say,
“When the driver of that car comes to the car at 0400 please hand her this”.
At 0200 hours the puddings finished their interminable bubbling and boiling. The driver of the white car (me), handed them to the Protector of all that is Good and Right. In return I was handed a deliciously warm cake tin.
I drove home with a smirk on my face. Mission accomplished!
Then next day I unwrapped the cake. I was astonished to see that my usually perfectionist mother must have prized it out of the tin with a crow bar. The ragged edges looked like a giant rat had been nibbling at them. Not a smooth contour in sight! But that is when the final triumph occurred…imported Marzipan! I covered those (rather large) imperfections like a pro and by the time the icing was on no-one knew any better.
I was just admiring my handiwork when the phone rang. Through the crackling line from Zambia I thought something dreadful must have happened. I heard a hysterical, choking sound and thought it was surely the harbinger of some catastrophe.
It was indeed my mother. She was laughing so much she had to try and catch her breath. Indeed, she had been laughing for much of the 7 hour trip to Lusaka. She had set off on her way, thanking the pair of eyes peering out from his paramilitary headgear and had set off. For some reason she decided to peek at that Prize Pudding. There was something peculiar about it, and being of a curious disposition she investigated further.
It had been carefully hollowed out.
Those Christmas treats gave us more joy and laughter than any piece of cake or calorific, booze-laden bombs.
When questioned about the incident our faithful guard stood to attention and said.
“I am sorry. I failed in my duty.”
December 8, 2009
I’m just back from my walk to get fit when I see someone who doesn’t look fit at all. Maria. She is sitting outside the cafe in a slant of sunlight, her face plumper than last time I saw her, her arm in a sling.
My heart sinks. It looks like she is back with her husband and her arm is his handy work.
She beckons for me to join her so I do. We kiss each other on both cheeks and she smells of good perfume. Her hair is glossy and professionally cut, her walking stick is nowhere in sight.
“You look well,” I say, for despite my initial assessment, it is only her arm that doesn’t look good. The rest of her is better than I have ever seen her.
I don’t know how to start this conversation. The last time I saw Maria I was trying to leave the car park and was stopped by armed Gendarmes. They had surrounded her apartment and there was a lot of negotiating going on. The kind that takes place over a loudspeaker and is one-sided.
“Come out with your hands in the air!”
Then unintelligible drunken rants from within.
“Put down your weapon, Monsieur”.
I am a captive audience. I am not allowed to move, the area is surrounded.
Some paramedics emerge carrying Maria on a stretcher, her arm slung across her face. I turn my eyes away so as not to strip her further.
There is more shouting and a sniper team move in. They emerge with Jose (real name used so as not to protect the guilty).
He is led away in handcuffs and stays away until a month ago. He has served a two year sentence for waving the dangerous end of a shotgun in the face of an upholder of the law. The irony is not lost on me that he goes to prison for two years for inflicting a moment’s fear on a burley, brave policeman and nothing for inflicting a lifetime of it on his wife.
“It is good to see you,” I say.
“But what are you doing here? Are you safe?”
Maria juts her jaw out slightly and says,
“I am quite safe, he cannot come within 50 meters of me, the judge said so.”
I resist craning my neck to see if Jose is sitting in his usual place at a bar not 30 meters away.
“He has beaten me for thirty years,” she says.
“The only person who knew was the doctor.”
“One time he wanted me to press charges. He had kicked me in the stomach and I had a lot of internal bleeding.”
“I said no. If I complain he will beat me even more.”
“After that I didn’t go back to the doctor. I used to run away if I could and I would sleep in the cemetery.”
I think of the small cemetery in the center of the village. I see it every day. I can’t imagine where she would sleep. The cemetery is crammed with the cold stone of the long-dead. The only space is the narrow dirt paths that lead between them and the only shelter is given by aged conifers circled by dog dirt.
I feel bad. I feel guilty. At the time I lived a stone’s throw from the cemetery. What was I doing while a battered woman cowered behind a tombstone, not more than a hop, skip and a jump away? Helping with homework? Cooking dinner? Working on human rights cases coming in from Africa, without opening my eyes to my immediate surroundings?
I am ashamed, and tell her so. She shrugs and says that is all in the past and that she hadn’t wanted anyone to know.
“He’s been in jail before,” she says.
“He broke my friend’s arm – I paid his bail,” she looks at the tops of the plane trees as if they may know why she had been so foolhardy.
“He is thin now,” she says, as if this is the source of great amusement for her.
“He used to say I was only good for punching and cooking!”
She looks at me sideways. Coyly.
“I’ve met someone,” she says, testing the water.
“He is 74 and I am only 50 but he is wonderful!”
“I have just moved to his house. My divorce became final on 19th November and on 22nd I moved in with him.”
She picks up a crumb of croissant and smiles at her coffee cup.
“Of course he tells me he adores me so much it gets on my nerves,” but the sigh she emits tells me the contrary.
Just then a sprightly man with a round face and kind brown eyes approaches the table.
“This is Jean,” she says.
“Enchante” he replies and pulls up a chair.
“Congratulations!” I say.
“I am so pleased for you both and wish you much happiness.”
“He has rabbits and chickens!” says Maria.
“And a garden where I can finally grow vegetables!”
“You should see how she feeds me!” exclaims Jean, patting his decidedly round belly contentedly.
“What happened to your arm?” I ask
“Oh, just repairing the reminders of her husband,” says Jean.
“I had to have an operation to repair the bones in my hand,” says Maria, and I am hoping she was injured by fighting back.
“He used to slam my hand in the car door.”
Jean pats the good hand and Maria smiles at him.
“So where am I taking you for lunch?” he asks her.
“I was thinking La Terrace,” she says, as though she is used to being invited to lunch. As though she is used to basking in the warmth of love.
December 4, 2009
I pick up the latest piece of macerated tree and decide to leaf through it. Usually, its path from forest to fire is only slightly delayed through the transport, mashing and mixing, plying and printing and jaded postal service. I use it to crouch beneath the oak we burn each evening, joined in spirit at least, with its noble cousin.
But today I take a look. Christmas is looming and we live in a village some distance from centres of consumerism. I need to start ordering if I am to look smug while everyone else fights their way towards the last of the Lindt, and runs out of wrapping paper.
I rip open the plastic and not one, but five items tumble out. They all vie for my attention with large red letters and underlining. One is covered with thumbnail photos of things I do not need with -50%! stamped on each one.
Another more official-looking letter states:
“Madame, You have been officially selected!”
YOUR SITUATION: (It shouts)
- Already a Client
- Loyalty Excellent (unlike the copy on this flyer)
- Earnestly chosen by our team (?)
I then see that this is not just a one-page description of my good fortune but it actually unfolds to tell me that thanks to my once having ordered some clothes pegs, I have earned a 7-piece gift set ABSOLUTELY FREE!
An extravagant printing process (which may cost someone his job) urges me to make a decision.
A grey sticker stamped with bold unfriendly font says “Non! I do not want your FREE GIFT”.
Next to it, a cheery yellow sticker says “OUI! I desire to receive my FREE gift!”
I carefully peel off the NON! feeling strangely reticent. As if I am doing something slightly churlish and antisocial. I am greeted by a blank grey square. It has unwritten words on it but I am not at liberty to write them here.
I look at the happy sticker and notice that it is in a box surrounded by dotted lines. Am I supposed to cut this out? I feel unsettled. I am back in an exam room and the instructions are unclear. The square says,
“I the Undersigned, Madame Grier, confirm that I would like to receive
A SEVEN PIECE APPLE GOURMANDISE SET
as a FREE gift.
This takes me back to my days in court.
“I present to you, your Honour, a contract signed by the defendant. You will notice that the defendant did indeed unpeel the required sticker and…”
I read the miniscule instructions to see what I am supposed to do next to receive my apple thingummy. Oh, I see. I have to take the happy sticker and stick it on my order form.
The Gourmande Apple set comprises of 4 cupboard-cluttering plastic plates with pictures of apple tart on them, a plastic knife for cutting said tart, an apple slicer (what is wrong with a knife for Pete’s sake) and a particularly useless looking pie dish with holes in it. I decide I can live without them but they have sown the seed of interest and I open the catalogue.
Perhaps this is the ploy. They show you something utterly useless so that you will be driven to look for at least one thing that you can’t live without.
I flick through the pages with hope in my heart. It is dashed on each page. I look at the young women modeling and imagine their excitement when the long-awaited call comes.
“Maman! I have been chosen! A real photo shoot!”, and then the disappointment when she is asked to don a headscarf, or a fleece blanket with sleeves and a serene expression. Another young woman smiles tentatively with a headband declaring her name to be “Sarah”. I can think of other applications for this item – at last you would be able to say,
“What? Do I have ‘stupid’ written across my forehead?” and indeed, for 4.99 you could.
A coy looking woman dons a v-neck cardigan with a lacy camisole peeking through the “v”.
“Ha!” I have been fooled. Silly me. So she does not have to waste precious time putting on a whole cami, all she has to do is clip the half-moons onto her bra so it looks like she is wearing a top under her cardigan. Sneaky. I only hope she remembers though, if she starts to feel a little warm.
As I continue to flip page after page this seam is well mined. You can buy a collared version, a turtleneck version or a fleece. Pure genius!
You can also buy a book on how to knit a scarf (7 euros), some knitting needles to go with it (4.99) and the requisite wool (2.50 X 2). This rounds it up to a mere 12 euros more than you would pay at the market.
There are more kittens and puppies housed within these pages than a sizable animal shelter. They crouch as door-stops, leer out from printed blankets in nightmarish proportions and brave the rain on umbrellas. In France they don’t even use the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs”.
A dejected owl is my favourite. It sits on the mantelpiece and changes colour according to the weather. Some sort of barometer gizmo. “Blue means fine weather!” Pink means cloudy. Purple – expect thunderstorms. This also comes in the Virgin Mary format but “Attention!” This is a limited edition one. Blushworthy indeed.
The more I read, the more I realise that this is all about artifice. Look thinner! Look younger! Make your dog look like a (ridiculous) miniature human/friend. Crowd your home with useless objects so that one day you may have cause to invite people over to admire your porcelain cheese signs. Buy one of those behind-the radiator cleaners so that you will have a legitimate way to while away some time.
Come on people. Please. Follow your hearts. Do something that makes you glow. Do not throw away your talent and time on printing, reading, imagining or having anything to do with all this monumental WASTE. Spend yourself, not your money. Have one knife that will cut and apple and a piece of pie! Be busy. Invite people over and point at the cheese and tell them what it is and where you bought it. Talk to the person who sold it to you. We don’t need this stuff. We need each other.
December 2, 2009
There were two mysteries about Michael: one, was he called Michael? and two, he came to us through a domestic workers agency which just doesn’t fit with his character.
When we asked him his name he said “Mikow”, which we took to mean “Michael”. Michael , as I am sure you all know means “Who is like God?”.
The thing is this, who decided to put the question mark in?
The liability-shy, culturally-sensitive Editor?
Anyway. I think the question mark should stay in Michael’s case. You see, he was far from perfect and a bit of a puzzle so not very godlike. But then “Who is like God?”
I don’t know how old he was when he came to work for us. He was a hasty replacement for a man who believed himself to be able to rid customers of evil spirits during his lunch break. He would do this by lapsing into an eery wailing sound while the punter looked on in relief. He would sit on the ground rocking to and fro with glassy eyes. At two o’clock his innate sense of timing would kick in, he would pocket his money and come in to wash the lunch dishes.
This seemed to be a profitable sideline for him but proved to be his undoing. On one memorable day when an elderly friends were housesitting, one of the pesky demons decided to stay in situ. Apparently he thought the remedy for this was to go and ask our nervous friends to beat him. Being kindly souls of meek habits they were not up for this. They locked him out and he responded by smashing every window in the house before being carted off for medical attention.
Michael, when he appeared, a quiet old man in carefully pressed clothes seemed just the ticket. He did not know how old he was, he informed us. He had only one date of any importance lodged in his mind and that was 1948. He had walked from Malawi with two friends in 1948. Well folks, I am not sure how familiar you are with African geography so I will tell you how far that is, (Google maps have thrown up their hands on the itinerary front): it is a Very Long Way even as the crow flies. As the crow flies we are talking 615 km give or take an escarpment or dangerous valley or two. There will have been crocodile-infested rivers to cross and hungry animals on the prowl. They would not have had a map and I don’t know what was driving them – Rhodesia in 1948 was hardly a vastly different prospect to Malawi. In fact, from 1953 to 1963 it technically became the same country under the misguided experiment of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a United States of Underdevelopment and Red Tape. A Sysiphian setback, to have walked all that way to find yourself on home turf. Soon enough the federation quietly separated into Malawi, Zambia and Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) and Michael and his fellow ramblers settled in what is now Harare.
Michael was slow and deliberate in his movements and set about his tasks with quiet efficiency. He was economical with words too and it dawned on me that he had never really got to grips with anything but his local Chichewa or Chinyanja. The fact that no-one could agree on a single name for the language perhaps points to the origins of Michael’s shaky linguistic skills.
He said “Yes” a lot and nodded though, and seemed to understand.
Michael was a small man with a square body and spindly legs. He had a round face and the milky eyes of untreated cataracts. His hair was kept in a closely-cropped cut like a salt and pepper scouring pad. He was always very clean and took great pride in his appearance.
During the week Michael wore the standard uniform of domestic workers in Zimbabwe – kaki trousers and a shirt. He also had a very old and very well-polished belt which looked suspiciously like a policeman’s belt. I wondered if his band of merry men had set upon a member of the constabulary en route but quickly discounted it. On a Sunday Michael was transformed into a natty dresser. He would set off in the morning wearing a shiny suite, white threadbare shirt and a battered trilby hat. He wore beaten brogues of great quality and to round off the Blues Brothers effect, a pair of black eighties sunglasses repaired on the bridge of his nose with bright pink elastoplast. Given his already murky eyesight, this fashion statement would frequently lead him to bump into things. At least, I thought it was poor vision that did that.
I offered to fix Michael up with a cataract operation thanks to some American visiting surgeons. I explained that they would take the clouds out of his eyes with a simple operation.
He said “Yes” but shook his head and carried on cleaning the windows. When I persevered he continued to shake his head and look at me apologetically.
I didn’t have much clue as to how to run a home and was a very new mother busy with my tiny baby. I walked Michael through a list. I outlined everyday tasks and threw in a few weekly ones, such as cleaning the windows on a Tuesday. He nodded sagely with each instruction and it was only much later I realized that he had committed this all to memory. Michael could not read.
There were no Chichewa speakers in the neighbourhood and Michael found a solution to this. He had conversations with himself. He would shoot the breeze, chuckle to himself and then pause every now and then utter an emphatic “Right!” after he had completed a task to his satisfaction. He would then reach into his pocket and pull out a small piece of animal horn and unplug the piece of bunched up plastic at its end. He would carefully measure a dose of snuff into his small palm and with an impressive snort it would be up his nose. He would then wipe his nose with the back of his hand and continue with the next thing on his list.
Michael was a creature of habit. He never missed a day of work and seemed to enjoy his routine. Weekdays: cleaning, “right!”, snuff and pleasant conversations with self; Sunday, outings with his two walking buddies. Given that they were all dressed up to the nines every week I thought they were going to church. This fitted with the humble, righteous look he had unwittingly cultivated. In fact, he was just minding his own business and wanting everyone else to mind theirs.
He was not going to church though. The three of them were going to check on, and then consume, their illegal brew. Michael liked a good tipple, preferably one that had the odd fermented rodent in it to give it that “je ne sais quoi” quality, and various accelerants to help with the fermenting process. Who wants to wait? Pool chemicals were thought to have magical powers.
Michael was not quiet and contemplative. Michael was catatonic with liquor. This was not swammee Michael, this was someone destroying his brain every Sunday. I banned him from going near the baby, my premature 2.5kg bundle of tiny boy. I had visions of him dropping him or tripping with him. Easier to just leave him alone. I didn’t think this would pose a problem as aside from him announcing my son’s name in clear reverential tones,
“Jonathan Michael Richard”, he seemed to show no interest in him at all. He became just another thing to steer the vacuum cleaner around. I hasten to add that Jonathan’s middle names are after his grandfathers as opposed to our well-travelled friend.
One day I left Jonathan fast asleep on the kitchen counter, secure in his basinette. Lets face it, he was hardly mobile. Or was he? I came back in to see Michael swishing things about in the sink and Jono the other way round. Not only that, he was wriggling and his small fists were jerking up towards his face. Then the sneezing started. I could not believe how much he sneezed, his wobbly infant head barely having time to recover from one sneeze before the next arrived.
I cradled him and tried to comfort him although he was showing no distress. Then I saw it, a light speckling over his pink baby skin. I bent down to have a closer inspection and sneezed.
I looked sideways at Michael.
“Have you been kissing the baby, Michael?” I asked
“Yes”, he said before speaking warm words to himself in a language that was lost on me.
Security was becoming more of a worry and we decided to instal a “panic button”. The smartly dressed representative of the company told me how it would work. We would hand over a fairly large sum of money each month and they would instal a few strategically placed buttons. If we pressed one of these his impressive task force would swing into action. The first step would involve a phone call. They would call and wait to hear the secret word. If the word was not given, even if we told them not to come, come they would and woe-betide anyone who stood in their way. They would save us in return for protection money. There was one caveat though. This well-oiled machine took vast resources and they did not appreciate time-wasters. Any false alarms would have to be paid for. We shook hands on the deal and the buttons were installed.
I wondered how to explain this to Michael, whether I should tell him the secret word, etc, and then the answer appeared to me, beautiful in its simplicity.
“Michael, you see this button here, the one behind this small cupboard? Yes, that one there, the one that is very difficult to reach?”
He peered behind the bedside table with rheumy eyes, looked puzzled and stood up.
“Yes”, he said.
“Well please don’t touch it,” I said.
“Yes”, he said.
A few days later I was in the garden when I heard the phone ringing. My hands were covered in soil and I knew I would never get there in time, so I left it. The next thing I knew there was a screeching of tires outside our fence and a team of enthusiastic men were swarming into the garden. Before I could say anything, Nyasha, our hapless and disabled gardener was flattened against the wall with a baton shoved into his gullet.
“No! No!” I shouted.
I ran into the house to see what was going on. Nothing. Just Michael talking to himself as he dusted our bedroom.
“Did you touch the button Michael?”
“Yes”, he smiled.
“Why?” I asked, wildly glancing out the window as Nyasha was trying to escape from a burly young man’s grasp.
“Wednesday” he said, holding up a middle finger which on anyone else would have looked downright insulting.
Wednesday. Dusting on Wednesday. He had moved a cupboard to dust the button, because it was Wednesday. He looked at me quizzically as if to say,
“Duh, Wednesday, Hello – your instructions”.
I sighed and apologized to the disappointed task force. They had clearly been hoping to see a bit of action.
Nyasha stood behind me shouting as they disappeared out the gate.
“And careful who you mess with next time,” but not loud enough for anyone to notice.
The following week I came back from work to a very sullen Nyasha. He was wearing a woolly hat, unusual given the stifling heat of October. He was standing next to the car and pulled his hat off revealing a pulsating egg on the top of his head.
“Oh no!”, I said, then
“Where is Michael?”
“He is lying on his bed. He has had a very big shock”.
What day was it? Wednesday.
I too had a very big shock when the bill arrived.
The Chinese State circus was visiting and we bought tickets for our family, Nyasha and Michael to go and see this spectacular show. It was quite an event and we had been lucky to get seats. I told Michael about it and he said “Yes” and shook his head.
We were all ready to go and Michael was nowhere to be seen. I found him up a ladder, cleaning the windows.
“Come on, we’re going to be late!”
Michael looked down on me from on high with infinite wisdom in the soft lines of his face. He shook his head and held up his second finger.
After some cajoling he relented and we had to wait for ages while he went to put on his Sunday gear. His glasses remained on his face throughout the performance and aside from some tinkling Chinese music and eruptions of applause I don’t think he registered a thing.
We decided to recruit our own security guard. We had slunk away from our panic button contract and used a local security firm. This contract came to an end when we came back from holiday to find that they had been running a brothel in the staff quarters and providing distribution channels for the Trio’s brew.
Out of courtesy, we asked Nyasha and Michael if they knew anyone who would like the job. Nyasha did not and we were surprised when the usually reticent Michael said he knew of someone and he would go and fetch him immediately. Well, immediately was a relative term because this constituted an Outing and therefore suiting up and polishing of shoes was required.
The next morning, very early, a man of great age stood before me. His hair was completely white and his craggy face was something straight out of National Geographic. He seemed to be suffering from sciatica or some such thing so I hurried him to a chair and gave him a cup of tea. I had prepared some questions – previous experience, references, etc but these could not leave my lips. I saw Nyasha out of the corner of my eye, doubled over with mirth and filling in the neighbor’s gardener on our recruiting skills.
I was wondering how to put the age issue to him diplomatically when he seemed to read my mind and with a glint in his eye, sprang from his chair and streaked across the lawn. To my even greater astonishment he then headed for a large palm tree and shinned straight up it. He came to rest at the top and waved victoriously.
It turned out that the person Michael had had in mind was this man’s son. The son was not at the house and Michael did not want to lose face by returning empty-handed. We employed the son.
It was this same son, Godfrey, who came to inform us of Michael’s death. He had been coming back with one of his friends on Sunday night, weaving his way along a main road and they had been hit by a truck. He had no family. Godfrey’s father was the last remaining part of the triumverate. Funeral arrangements would need to be made. Food would need to be purchased for the mourners.
And so we entered Michael’s Sunday world. We were welcomed into a Malawian quartier in a ramshackle area outside Harare. We handed over bags of maize meal, vegetables and meat. Women started cooking it immediately and people started to gather. All were immaculately dressed and Godfrey’s father had set up a small bench for us to sit on with him. The coffin was laid at our feet, a smallish pine box picked out by his lifelong friend. A line of well-wishers formed and Michael’s friend stood up. He had a regal bearing and spoke at length in Chinyanja. He then turned to us and said,
“Sorry for losing your Michael”, and shook hands with each of us in turn. My children were very young at the time but were subdued into good behaviour by the solemnity of the occasion. The shook hands one by one with the stream of new faces.
Michael did have a family after all. The last of his friends is surely dead by now but he lives on still in these memories. And now you will know him too. Goodbye Michael. Fumbai Zvakanaka. I will never forget you.