Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Friday, 2 November 2012

Untidy Lives

Mary was always the leader; Mani followed. Mary-Mani club was the bane of my life when I was in Luanshya, that lovely mining town with its nine-hole golf course and beautiful mining houses set well back in manicured lawns.

  In 1973,  Balan, my ex husband had a graceful, old, rambling, house there and I visited now and then. Mary and Mani were then nine and seven, both ready for the next adventure. Today they are in their late forties. With children, mortgage, in Mary's case, husband - all the appurtenances of growing up.

   Mary is the daughter of Thankamma, my friend who died in 1996. In Zambia Thankamma and I had a mutual help society. We looked after each other's children and without the assistance of husbands, managed a decent life. She was a widow of long standing and I had just left my husband and started living alone in a flat in Ndola. Luanshya was half an hour by car away.

   In the way that children make clean splits impossible I had too much residual business in Luanshya. There was our dog, Lassie there, my former steward was now working for Balan and mutual friends had still not decided who to take sides with.

   Thankamma and I often travelled to Lusaka together, children tumbling around at the back of the car and us gossiping over that cacophony. In Lusaka we stayed at the education department guest house and enjoyed ourselves shopping at ZCBC and ZOK. In those days you could get St Michaels good there and we bought trouser suits and children's clothes. Trouser suits had arrived in Zambia just about the time it became pass'e in the West. How were we to know? 

The Luanshya house came with my ex-husband Balan's job. It had three outhouses and a sprawling, untended garden. The steward, Fison, lived in one of the outhouses with his family of four children. The other two were vacant one - room sheds.There the girls decided to make their club. Glasses, cups, plates, spoons... things just disappeared in there and came back a few days later dusty and mangled.

One day they decided to take a broom to the room. They did a bit of sweeping and abandoned the place. As soon as the dust hit the noses, that is.

But they still had the Blue Moon Hotel (Mary was creative with names.) as well. This was inside the house on the top shelf of the linen cupboard, which was where you kept pillows and blankets.. They had to climb up to get there, sheets and other paraphernalia of house-keeping trailing from short arms. The pillows and blankets got dumped on the floor in passing. If you looked up on your way to the bathroom you saw two little heads - one a curly mop-head, the other largely occupied by two saucer eyes.

Mani got into trouble with me now and then, with Mary in the lead. Once I caught Mani sliding down the concrete banisters outside my second floor flat in Ndola. If she fell, she would have broken her head. She, of course, blamed Mary. I couldn't slap Mary, so I slapped Mani. Mani says that is the only time she remembers me slapping her. Should have done it oftener,  think, now. She insists the worst part of it was I pulled her trousers down, with her knickers, so that the slap met backside.

Looking back, those two girls grew up wild, except when confronted by their mothers. Balan's compound had a huge Poinsettia tree and they spent a lot of time under it. I worried that the pap would be poisonous. When I went for a walk in the evening  I had an entourage of two girls and a dog. Our Lassie. Lassie always left half-way to run back home when the feeding time came.

I did a part-time teaching job at the local technical college when I was living in Luanshya over a long Christmas vacation. Lassie would walk me into the classroom. I would pretend I didn't know her.

Once friends of the children came visiting because it was a birthday. Whose? I don't remember. I made a cake, and Tarun, a guest, then about 12 years old, decided to decorate it. Balan ran a bachelor home usually, so Tarun had difficulty finding the things he needed. The message on the cake was done in purple when the pink colouring ran out and there was no room to write anything after 'happy birthd.' The rest came in very small letters below. Lassie ate that cake up long before it got to the table. Just as well.

Balan pulled his hair and muttered at the vandalism in his store. But the girls were a force of nature. In those days Zambia had a shortage in many necessary things - like toilet paper. So Balan's frustration was more than justified.

The whole set-up was untidy the way separations can be, nothing quite de-linked, no certainties anywhere for anyone. And I didn't care to bring any order into that existence, dysfunctional as I was at that time.

I returned to Zambia twenty years later, in 1994, as a Maths adviser in a DFID education project. The British Council project transport was a long- wheel -base Landrover. I had a workshop in Luanshya and decided to take a look at that old house of Balan's. I was sure that the Landrover would be my credential to get into that compound.

A six-foot brick wall and tall metal gates now hid the house from view. I honked many times, but the guard who finally opened the door wouldn't let me in. Zambia had become a very scary and dangerous place and no one opened gates to unknown vehicles. Gone were the days when I could sit on the veranda ledge and read the morning away, watching the cars come and go in the house opposite.

I finally got out of the car and went up to the guard and begged to be allowed inside. I explained my connection with that house. He let me in reluctantly. The house looked diminished and dull. There were a great many children about - clearly the extended family of the Zambian owner were now living in the outhouses. The Poinsettia tree, which had caused me such grief had grown and spread. The rear wall of the house on which I had practised tennis still bore the scars of years of misuse by people like me.

I felt sad, lost. Balan had died in 1986 and those old battles with him now seemed a waste of living time. In between I had forgotten all the reasons why we quarrelled. I was well into middle age. The only thing I was certain of was that I liked my life better as a single. I was not good wife material. 

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