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Sagging front gate

2015-04-07

Love in the face of adversity

An extraordinary relationship grows between an elderly couple stuck in a suburban house in Zim and their servant of 50 years

Authors are always looking for the next book to write. But sometimes a subject comes at you when you’re least prepared to embrace it and the normally exciting process of beginning a new book becomes unexpectedly tormenting.
While in Zimbabwe a few months ago and still working indirectly on my book about Mugabe because its publicity had gone on much longer than usual, I visited a rundown suburban house for reasons unconnected to journalism or writing.
From the sagging front gate, improbably fastened to its post by a piece of string, the house appeared deserted. On closer inspection from the road, while scanning its surrounds for dogs that might spring out if a stranger entered unannounced, it was not only derelict but square and featureless, although a cage-like anti-burglar enclosure on its small verandah contradicted the futile gate.
Suddenly, out of the scrubbery came a miniature, ornamental chicken that looked frantically left, right and left again, one foot poised mid-air, before scurrying down the driveway. The parched garden was notable, like so many Zimbabwe properties, for several spectacular msasa trees, their fresh leaves forming a shimmering lime-green and orange frame over the neglected homestead.
My friend shouted a greeting. Unexpectedly, a dark figure popped up behind the iron bars. We signaled that we wished to enter, and he nodded. As we approached, he stepped into the open, wearing baggy khaki shorts and matching V-necked top, a uniform I recognized from my childhood as the kit in which male servants performed housework. He was a small, wiry man, very black and very old, who held a floor brush in one hand and had evidently been polishing the stoep.
Behind him from the living room came an older white man with a gaudy, hand-knitted tea-cosy on his head. Any wintery nip that such a hat might have been expected to combat had long left the August air. I stifled a laugh. My friend told him why we’d come. Replying in the poshest of English accents that his wife had fallen and broken her hip the week before, he apologized for not inviting us in. While I tried to explain, to his obvious confusion, where he could contact us once his wife was better, the servant laid a hand gently on his employer’s arm and said reassuring words to the effect, “I know where she’s directing you, don’t worry.”
It was the briefest of encounters but it left me with a tantalising sense of a master-servant role reversal that could never have happened in my youth, although both men and presumably the bedridden wife were much older than me.
I thought about the gentle black hand on a withered white arm for months. Needing to know more and mindful of the trio’s advancing years, I returned to Harare, having arranged an appointment with the couple by phone from Johannesburg. She, approaching from the passage on crutches when I walked in, was surprisingly agile for an injured woman in her Eighties. She wore a threadbare pink polka-dotted apron with frills at the shoulder over a faded floral summer dress. Her skin was pale and translucent; her eyes unexpectedly amused. He had just suffered a minor stroke and seemed more subdued than I remembered. He sat quickly back in his chair while she pointed with her crutch to the seat I should sit in which, unlike the others, was free of clutter.
The room was a mess. Piles of papers, letters, embroidery silks and pill boxes lay alongside baskets of mending and dried flowers, old magazines, empty jam jars, folded seed packets, family photographs, tools and toiletries. A glance into the adjoining rooms revealed more squalor. When she swept piles of junk off her own chair before sitting in it, I couldn’t help commenting. She waved her crutch around the room and said, “I’m a creative person so I never throw away things that might come in handy.”
“It’s called poverty,” he growled, though his eyes gleamed with good humour. When she handed me a dusty framed photograph of the elegant Edwardian country house in which she had grown up and I asked how the memory made her feel in their current circumstances, he replied, “Nostalgic”, but with no trace of bitterness in his derisory snort.
It turned out, as we chatted over cracked teacups and an infirm three-legged terrier stretched across a tatty rug, that they were British aristocrats descended from two august lines of lords and ladies dating way back into the colonial era. Their kind servant had been working for the couple for almost 50 years, signing on as a labourer employed from Malawi to toil on the lonely tract of “crown land” they had farmed unsuccessfully for most of their adult lives. Elijah, as he was called, later became their domestic worker and gardener and, more recently, their cook and extraordinarily devoted carer.
When I interviewed Elijah, a man of few words, privately the following day, he admitted reluctantly that the couple “can no longer pay but they need me. So I will stay.” (Several normally fair-minded colleagues to whom I related his story speculated that he was helping the couple only in order to seize their home when they died.)
The mistress of the house described in a series of short interviews – between which she had to lie down to catch her breath – their first home in the bush, a tent; then they lived in a pole-and-mud rondavel which leaked so much in the rainy season that her husband had to construct a separate corrugated iron roof over their bed. She had been trained as a professional singer in England and showed me pictures of herself sitting at a grand piano, smiling prettily in velvet and lace. Several of her relatives served with distinction in various colonial administrations, one of them becoming known as the Socrates of India. Two of his forebears were lord mayors of London.
Life on the farm in Zimbabwe was unbearably hard. She became depressed without knowing it. After perking up to play the lead in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical staged at the clubhouse where their farming neighbours gathered to play tennis and down too many lagers, she felt so overwhelmed by the combination of four small children and endless bank overdrafts that she was unable to get out of bed one morning. He carried her to the land rover in her night dress for a long journey to the ‘the barmy ward”, while Elijah looked after the kids.
Theirs is a story that turns many of Zimbabwe’s stereotypes upside-down. As they talked of a way of life that drew to an abrupt close for most white farmers in 2000, I realised it had never existed as the privileged dream of popular mythology in their case. What they had endured was relentless failure. I sensed the complexities of their marriage when she mentioned how shocked she’d been to hear in a letter from a relative in England that one of her cousins had got divorced. “I just didn’t realize that was a possiblity,” she said, shaking her grey curls.
It was clear that they seldom left the house nowadays, partly because neither she nor he is well enough to drive. My peek behind their curtains suggested a home that served as a shelter from the outside world but had also become a kind of prison. At one moment I thought I might write it like a William Faulkner novel, blurring time distinctions so that the past continually impinged on the present, keeping the reader off-balance. Sometimes, I saw it just as an end of Empire epic amusingly told by two self-deprecating off-beats.
Yet the edgy strangeness of the couple’s exaggerated vowels and instinctively superior attitudes despite their sagging flesh, painful recollections and obvious penury continued to pose endless editorial choices. There was something so humanly victorious in humble but magnificently supportive Elijah clearing away trails of cat food while eagerly asking to see photographs of their English grandchildren, just delivered by the postman, that the story could never be simply about three isolated people living in desperation anywhere, anytime. The fact that none of them asked for nor desired pity was at once ennobling and pathetic, offering the possibility of a tragic-comic eulogy for a passing way of life.
What struck me most in the story, however, was a fleeting aspect of African memoir that may well warrant closer attention: the possibility that there is more love between ordinary, albeit bizarre, people across the ravages of history and rigid social stratification than one would expect to find. That this trio had both succeeded and failed as members of the complex human network known as the Zimbabwe nation implicates us all.

 

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