For days now there have been rumours that a truck will be coming from Mutare. 29 People are talking about flour and cooking oil, but Sister Chaduka at the clinic says it will be tinned kapenta fish. ‘This size.’ She makes a space of about three inches between her thumb and forefinger. ‘Two tins per customer. Maybe. It depends.’ Sister Chaduka often sees a hundred and fifty patients a day so she knows what everyone hopes for, and fears.
It’ll take hours to walk to the supermarket and it might be for nothing. That happens; whole days of walking and waiting for trucks that don’t arrive, going home hungry and tired, afraid there may be no more trucks, that there may be nothing but rumours left.
It was different when there was petrol. I used to drive down past the market and pull off near the big jacaranda tree. A man would come to the window and chat to me quite casually; a bit of this, a bit of that and a lot of nothing in particular. Then he’d disappear into the long yellow grass and come back with a ten-litre drum in a wheelbarrow. Of course ten litres of petrol didn’t last long and I had to be very careful, but I did have the luxury of driving to the supermarket.
That man is gone now. He never came back after the soldiers burned down the market. In the place where people built shacks, sold vegetables, braided hair and repaired shoes there is nothing but bare dirt. Some of those who lost everything are still there, begging or scratching for roots during the day and sheltering at night under pieces of plastic.
I live at the other end of that road: it’s only one room, built of concrete blocks with a cement floor and a tin roof, but I have a tap and a toilet of my own. Martin Foster, who used to own the farm next to ours, said I could live here when he and his family went to Harare. ‘It’s not much, Eileen. I had thought I might open a little shop for the farm workers when things came right but, let’s face it, that won’t be happening any time soon.’
The night the market was burned down a strange trembling in the earth woke me. I have no memory of getting up or of crossing the room. It was as if I was watching myself; a small woman in a man’s worn T-shirt, pressing herself against the wall close to the window so she could look out without being seen. I heard her short breaths and felt the dryness in her mouth as an armoured lorry full of soldiers and a bulldozer crawled past. Then the gunshots and screaming, the roar of the bulldozer, the crack of things splitting apart and falling, the smell of burning plastic and cardboard. Bits of char floated like feathers above the flames. It went on and on: the terrified screams, the long wailing, the not knowing what was happening, whether I should stay in my house or run into the bush. I couldn’t see the houses near mine unless I opened my door. What were those people doing? Were they waiting in darkness, or had they run away? It was nearly dawn when the lorry and bulldozer came back along the road. Afterwards, I sat on my bed, not daring to open my door until daylight. When I did there was still smoke over the market, and there was ash on my doorstep and windowsill.
I put a bottle of water into my cloth bag and start out for the supermarket. A dog barks from the bushveld and ahead of me two women, one with a baby on her back, are walking without speaking. A man on a creaking bicycle, dust spiralling from the wheels, says ‘Mhoro’ as he passes.
‘Hello,’ I answer.
It’s October, ‘suicide month’, and heat wavers over the earth as though rising from a fire. This had always been the time of year for taking it easy, for lounging around the swimming pool with friends or sitting in deep shade drinking Castle lager and iced tea. Later, in the relief and coolness of night, the men would light the fire. I remember how the fat hissed on the embers when the steaks were turned, the flour on my hands when I lifted the dough into the cast-iron pot, flying ants circling the paraffin lamps, the sweet rich smell of bread baking in the coals, the snap of beer cans, the voices of friends. I remember it all so clearly and yet it feels more like pictures I’ve seen than memories of my life.
I’d always said I would fight to keep the land that had been in Clive’s family for three generations, but when the armed soldiers arrived at the door I felt a strange kind of calm, perhaps because the event I had dreaded was actually happening, or perhaps because Clive’s death had changed everything. Two soldiers walked past me into the house. The others sat on the veranda wall smoking and swinging their heels against the bricks. One picked his teeth with a match while he watched the officer speaking to me. I felt myself swallowing to steady my voice, heard myself saying something about two days being very little time.
‘We have waited many lives to take our land back from the white thieves,’ he said. ‘Our kindness gives you two days; be careful or we will tell you to get out while we are waiting.’
I stop for a few minutes at the old acacia tree near the crossroads, wipe the sweat from my face and drink a few mouthfuls of water. There are more people on the road now, some coming from the same direction as I have, others from the right and still more walking down the hill past the cemetery. Everyone is going to the supermarket. I feel suddenly afraid of how frail and thin everyone looks; people who once talked in loud voices, called out to friends and stopped to share news now look like people painted onto a landscape.
The cemetery up there is where I buried Clive six months before I lost the farm. He’d been working flat out to harvest the maize before the rains started and he came down with malaria. I took him straight up to the clinic. Instead of giving him the usual packet of pills, Sister Chaduka said she’d keep him overnight. ‘I’d like us to be on the safe side, Eileen, that’s all.’ The next day his urine was black. By evening he was in a coma. She took me into her little office and sat down beside me. ‘It’s cerebral malaria, Eileen. We only have chloroquine here.’ She put her hand on mine without saying anything more. There was nothing for either of us to say.
Being without Clive is something else I hadn’t expected to happen without warning, but I’ll always be glad he didn’t have to deal with losing everything he’d worked for. At the same time, even though I know it doesn’t make sense, I feel angry with him for leaving me to cope with all this on my own. ‘You must keep going for Clive’s sake. That’s what he would have wanted,’ Martin said when he offered me the room. Of course he meant well but the truth is I don’t keep going for anyone’s sake. I keep going because I am alive.
In some ways Clive was always less of a survivor than me. He thought about things a lot and worried about our future. I’m more a person for dealing with what each day brings, getting on with what has to be done. The main thing now is food; most days I eat a potato or some of the tinned sweetcorn I’ve saved up. Black people know a lot about the bush, about which roots and berries and insects are edible and which are poisonous. I don’t know much beyond marula fruits and cassava, but it doesn’t really matter now that the bush is so dry. My stomach feels hollow and my balance is not as good as it was, but I am not weak or unwell.
I turn at the crossroads and follow the road to the centre of the village. In a wide shop window pieces of yellowed paper, with prices that have been crossed out and increased many times, are propped against a few jars of skin lightening cream and a bedside lamp. The shop assistant leans against the doorframe with his arms folded. He raises his eyebrows when an old man turns from the window and asks if there is anything else to buy. ‘No,’ he says, ‘there is nothing.’
In the streets around the supermarket, a crowd has gathered and more people keep coming from every direction. No one goes in; we all know the tills are closed and the long metal shelves are empty. Many of the older people have already gone round the back to wait near the wooden frame covered with chicken mesh where trucks are unloaded. The younger people stay on the main road, pushing their way into slivers of shade under the corrugated iron awning of the supermarket or sitting on the pavement with their legs straight in front of them. Some of the women have untied their babies and are nursing them in their laps. Other people stand in the road, shifting their feet and talking a little. They all watch the long dry road to Mutare, waiting to run to the mesh cage if they hear a truck.
When she first heard about the cage Sister Chaduka was annoyed. ‘So we are no longer people who go to a shop. Now we must wait like thieves outside a cage at the back?’
I agreed with her, but said I thought it was better all the same. ‘At least people who wait and queue have a chance; the strong ones can’t just grab off the shelves and steal from people at the tills.’
‘Maybe,’ she said, and gave a short laugh, ‘but people should behave like people.’
‘People don’t behave like people when the children are hungry,’ said Mrs Ndlovu. Sister Chaduka pressed her lips together.
The two police jeeps skid a little as they come to a halt in front of the supermarket. Young men in blue uniforms and black boots swing themselves lightly from the backs of the jeeps, shake the creases from their trousers and check the revolvers on their belts. They carry sjamboks, long, hide whips to keep us in line. We all move back a little, waiting to see what will happen next. Some saunter to the side road that leads down to the wire cage, a few stopping to bend over a match and light cigarettes. The one who is in charge strides over to the door and speaks to the manager, who raises his shoulders and arms with his palms facing upwards. The policeman nods and walks away, his boots sharp on the concrete pavement.
I walk to the side street and stand near the back of the crowd. I see two other white people, older people like me. The rest of the people are black; I don’t really have friends among them but I know my neighbours quite well and I like them; we always greet each other and share news of food.
The policemen position themselves all along the road. People shuffle into ragged lines and some speak in low voices.
‘The policemen are here so there will be a truck.’
‘No, sometimes the policemen come and there is no truck.’
‘Then why do they come?’
‘There can be trouble when people wait a long time for nothing.’
‘It is true. I have seen it.’
About an hour later we hear an engine in the distance, changing gears and revving to get up the hill. The policemen move towards the waiting crowd. One lashes his sjambok against the road and when a few of the women near me gasp and clutch at each other, he nods and draws his lips into a thin smile. We all move back, bumping and jostling like cattle, stirring up dust.
The truck turns the corner, bumps and rattles down the dirt road and stops at the wire cage. I can’t see much from where I am but after a while people start talking, passing the news to everyone around them. ‘Bread! Ichingwa!’ I can’t smell anything but I imagine what it will be like. The queue tightens around me but I stay in line, listening to the sounds of metal on metal as the bread is unloaded into the wire cage. Then the back doors of the truck slam shut and the engine revs. The driver reverses slowly past us, changes gear when he reaches the main road and turns back towards Mutare.
The queue starts moving, slowly at first and then faster. By the time I am close enough to see the wire cage there is not much bread left. Two policemen face the queue and point with the handles of their sjamboks to the people who can go next. The manager takes their money and puts it in a cardboard box, then gives each person a loaf of bread. There are still a lot of people in front of me. I take money from my pocket and hold it ready in my hand, as if that might keep a loaf in the cage for me.
All along the road policemen are guarding the lines. A woman with a child by the hand sees how little is left and tries to run up the queue. One of the policemen steps forward and flicks his sjambok so that the end of the thin hide cracks against her legs. She cries out and tries to run back but the queue closes and no one will let her in.
When my turn comes I hand over the money and the manager gives me one of the last loaves. I push it into my bag and hold it so tightly I can feel my fingers sinking into the crust. A small man with bloodshot eyes lunges at me and grabs one of the handles of my bag. I shout at him and wrench it away. The handle rips from the bag and slides through his hand like ribbon. He comes after me and grabs at it again. Luckily for me a policeman has seen; he turns quickly and lashes the man who falls to the ground and covers his head with his arms. The policeman whips the man’s legs and shouts at him. ‘Get out of here! There’s no bread for thieves!’
I push through the edge of the crowd and run in a circle away from the wire cage and down a narrow lane. I keep running until I think it is safe to stop. Holding the bag close to me, I take out the bread. It is a square loaf, brown and creamy on the outside and soft to the touch. Knowing I must not look at it too long, I put it back carefully and fold the top of the bag around it.
It is a long way home and I am tired and very hungry. When I reach the crossroads I sit under the acacia tree, promising myself that I only will only smell it and look at it and touch it. I break off a piece and push it into my mouth, feeling its softness, breathing in its yeastiness. I tear off more and while I am eating, wrap the half loaf that is left. I don’t want all of it to be gone before I get home. I want to arrive home with food. I want to cut the bread into slices and eat each of them carefully and slowly. I want it to be my dinner. I want to feel that I am home and have food.