Excerpt from A Whistling Girl
…At five o’clock, the afternoon changes gear and cools down. It goes from hot to warm, the light turns golden, stains the grass and thorn bush of the surrounding veld, and sets the western windows of the neighbourhood houses afire. The scent of lemons wafts out of the gardens to mingle with the last of the heat that hangs over the town, and from roadside thicket, Heuglin’s robins sing out their dusky chidings, ‘don’t-you-do-it, don’t-you-do-it, tirrootirree-tirrootirree.’
The workers’ compound behind Platt’s Steam Laundry becomes noisy with the chatter of women lighting fires for the evening meal. The men wait close by; they chaff and gossip, smoking Tom Tom cigarettes. Imagine this scene unfolding across the bush in every part of Africa: inside the thorny enclosures of the kraals and villages, the smallest children whine and tug at the skirts of the women. Their older siblings hurry the goats and cows home, prodding them with sticks, pelting them with stones.
Throughout the sprawling, dusty continent the children’s voices float into the ether like a disembodied eerie tinkling; they sing goodbyes to each other with promises to meet next day: ‘Lala kuhle, kuhlewile – sleep well, it is dark. Just now, now, now, I’ll see you, just now.’ – which means ‘I’ll see you in the very next moment’ – as though tomorrow were already present and the darkness between dusk and dawn were safe, bore them no grudge and held no uncertainty, no unexpected danger.
I tried never to miss a flogging, but this one would be my last. And it wasn’t because I was just a stupid, bloody girl. I wasn't stupid.
I had seen floggings before. You had to, to join our gang. The first time I saw a constable whip a young coloured man. I remember how the man didn’t cry––just a sharp aghhand a gulp of air – the pale brown flesh on his back sprouted red criss-crosses and the blood spread stripe to stripe. After the beating, when he lurched about, his khakis had a big wet patch across the front.
Today was Saturday. I lay sprawled across my bed on the veranda, half dozing. The book I had been reading, Allan Quartermain, had slipped from my hand when I heard the whacking, mixed in with the shrieks of battle: Umslopogaas, the strongest warrior in all Zululand, whirled his bloody long-handled axe above his noble head and struck down several of his enemies before he began to dissolve into mist.
Whack––it drifted along the edges of the vanishing Umslopogaas, drawn-out, fading…
I opened my eyes. Sunlight flickered through the green gauze of the veranda.
Again. Hell’s bells!
Fuzz! I jumped up, snatched the pillow off my brother’s sleeping head and jolted his skinny frame into life.
Move. They’re beating someone. I bounced him again, started to count.
What? Who? I don’t want to.
The whiner. Get your shorts on. I hauled him out of his bed with him still bleary-eyed.
Fuzz, move! Hopped him across the red cement floor of the veranda to the back of our house.
But Nick, where? Stop pushing!
Shhh. I squeezed his shoulders to gag him as we sneaked by the kitchen where Amos yawned and clunked the breakfast pots on the grumbling AGA. We sidled through the screen door into the backyard, shot left past the garage and driveway, turned right alongside the khaya, left again, out of the side gate and into the sanitary lane that separated our house from the British South African Police Station. The lane joined Marimba Road to Baden-Powell Drive. It was just a dirt track, two hundred yards long and wide enough for delivery vans and the garbage truck.
A five-foot-high rubber hedge marked our side of the lane. On the station side loomed a sixteen-foot wall, lost behind thick and twisted wisteria, wild hibiscus, and honeysuckle. The station had its own borehole, and the police watered the hedge even in the dry season when we civilians weren’t allowed to.
Now we heard the victim.
Fuzz craned his neck, gazing up the stalk. I dunno, Nick. He was the only one in the gang who hadn’t climbed the wall. The creeper twined off into the sky like Jack’s beanstalk.
It’s a cinch I said. Just put your feet and your hands exactly where I put mine, and don’t look down. I was the oldest kid in our family. No big deal. As the older sister, all manner of guard duties got heaped on me, like taking charge of my brothers, Dougie, who was Fuzz, and Peewee Pete, who was still a baby.
Quick! Like this. One foot here…hand here.
Fuzz followed, tracking my moves. I could see his scalp through his prickle of hair, which is why I called him Fuzz. Fuzz called me Nick, short for Nicole, not because he thought of it – I told him to. I hated Nicole. Only Ma and Gran called me that.
I kept climbing, steady as I could for Fuzz’s sake, took small steps, picked choice handholds for him to grab, whispering Hey, that’s good, Fuzz, jolly good, keep going. Isn't it a cinch? I babied him all the way, getting impatient when I heard–
Fuzz come on. I had to haul him up the last few inches, make him work his toes deep into the creeper’s tangle so he could peek over the top of the wall and not be scared of falling.
In the courtyard below, they had an old black man bent over the wooden rail in front of the stables – it used to be a hitching post with a trough to water horses, but the trough was gone now. The man’s arms hung down, wrists handcuffed together, his fingers scrabbling at the hard clay. He was a half-starved fellow, clad only in a pair of torn pants, his spine and back ribs looked ready to split out of his skin.
At each lash, he shifted his dusty grey feet from side to side, uttering a long moan followed by two or three sobs that caught in his throat like hiccups. As always, a black constable administered the punishment: like a cartoon cop, only his legs moving below the starched khaki shorts, stiff as a tent around his puttees – one two three four five steps––he turned, did a smart hop-skip-run-two-three-four and – whack – lashed the old man with his leather sjambok.
Nearby, another black man stooped over a bicycle, the owner, I guessed. He lifted the back wheel off the ground by the saddle, turned one of the pedals and checked the wheel spin. Then he looked up and spat out a jawful of Ndebele swearing:
A! Your mother mated with a snake. He interrupted himself to further examine his battered Raleigh – Your ancestors are monkey arses – the tyres, the wheels, the pedals – A! Umfana uhambisa okwadada! Your daughter walks like a duck. A! At each blow, he paused to clap his hands and roar approval: A! Yebo-ke! Shaye futhi. Yes! Hit him again!
I nudged Fuzz. Stolen bike, I bet.
Fuzz said nothing.
The British South African Police, or B-Saps, had stations in every suburb, often in old houses same as this one on Marimba Road, which once had been a farm with stables. B-Saps seldom used horses; the constables rode pushbikes and the white officers rode motorbikes, or motorbikes with sidecars, Second World War style. They used the stables to garage their bikes, the Black Maria, and a jeep they kept for bush patrol. The rear end of the stable-garage housed the jail block. You could tell by the tiny barred windows and four rugged walls crowned with broken glass. The main farmhouse, a squat bungalow facing Marimba Road, served as the police chief headquarters and duty office.
Can you see blood? I had caught a gleam of something wet but it might just have been sweat.
How could he? His eyes were squeezed shut. I didn’t badger him. Fuzz was not keen on gore.
Today, a white officer observed the beating. Known as Captain Rat to all the kids in the neighbourhood, Captain Rupert A. Twoomey stood a few yards away on the stoep of the office, smoking a cig. He would slip his tongue out of his mouth every so often and lick his little toothbrush moustache. Like most of the cops in Southern Rhodesia, he was a rooinek, a pommie from England, with a fleshy face and neck burned red by the sun.
Captain Rat and the bicycle owner enjoyed the spectacle. Me too.
When I first read The Pit and the Pendulum, I lay awake at night for hours. I was too nervous to fall asleep––lest the odour of sharp steel enter my nostrils in the darkness and the frightful crescent descend and slice through my breastbone a millimetre at a time, deeper, deeper, until the halves of me rolled away from each other on the cold veranda floor. But it didn’t stop me reading the story again and again.
Halt! Captain Rat flicked his cig into the courtyard.
At this, the constable attached the sjambok to a hook on his belt and stood at attention. Captain Rat approached the prisoner from behind; he picked out a thin red wound, spread it with two fingers as if to check how deep it was; then he wiped his fingers on the man’s trousers and walked back to his office.
The constable unlocked the handcuffs and the skinny thief collapsed on the pile of rags that was his old jersey. He remained on his knees as he put it on, slow as can be, easing it over his trembling, hurt shoulders.
Then – he raised his head and looked at me – right through the cover of green leaves and orange trumpets – as if he knew I was there, as if he recognized me!
Staring back at him, I grew dizzy. He was old, face all cheekbone and socket, white speckles in his frizzy hair, his chest sunken. My ears filled with noise like the sound of the sea; I became so dizzy that I had to grip the creeper tight to stop myself falling. I took a deep breath, and before I closed my eyes, I saw the old man snatch up Captain Rat’s dog-end and take a puff. It all happened in slow motion, and a peculiar sensation overcame me – I felt I was growing smaller and smaller until I was a minuscule berry high on a bush, yet I was inside this berry, too – and so was the entire universe, with galaxies, stars and suns whirling about. How could something as small as a berry hold all that? My head was bursting.
Let’s go, Nick, let’s go. Fuzz tugged at my shirt, and I opened my eyes. The courtyard was empty. The old man had vanished, so had the constable, the bicycle and its owner. The sun glinted in the ugly spikes of glass on the prison walls––and a fright came over me, as if something truly, truly bad was going to happen.
Mis’ Nicky, Mas’ Douglas, buya lapha! You must come now to breakfast. Beauty was calling us from the lane below.
I gulped down a couple more breaths. You know, Fuzz, I said, as we lowered ourselves to the ground. That wasn’t a real sjambok. The real ones have little bits of stone and glass in them to really hurt a person. I wanted Fuzz to think it wasn’t such a bad thing we had just seen – that it could have been worse – but the feeling that something evil was coming made me feel like one big liar. Fuzz didn’t hear me. He was gabbing on about why do you have to beat someone for just taking a bicycle and what if the old man had just borrowed it?
It’s not fair, Nick. I don’t think it’s fair. He started to blub. By this time, old Beauty had fallen upon us, her ample, nanny shape almost busting out of the blue-and-white pinafore dress. She weighed two hundred pounds, easy. Taking a wrist in each of her big warm hands, she dragged us to the back gate.
Beauty, we just saw an old man get beaten!
A, Mas’ Dougie, the baas must be too angry now.
Then, like always, Beauty laughed as she kicked the side gate open with one bare foot. She always laughed her head off, even at bad things. She didn’t know it, but a worse-than-bad thing had just happened.
An omen had invaded me.