Saturday, 26 April 2014



The child kept her mouth shut and did not smile in photos. When she daydreamed and her mouth fell open, her father tapped her under her chin.

“Careful or you'll look like a half-wit.” he said.

He meant it kindly. He kept his chin up and his top lip stiff. He was never rude or unkind to those he considered half-wits though he would get very angry with employees who behaved like half-wits.

When she wasn't daydreaming she made sure her mouth was shut because though she was nine years old she only had one front tooth. The other children in her class at school had sung to each other, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth!” Soon they all had two front teeth.

She would whisper, “All I want for Christmas is my other front tooth.” but it did not appear.

Her baby teeth had all become loose one after another. They had wobbled in an interesting fashion when she pushed them with her tongue but they hung on by tiny red threads of flesh. Her mother had suggested using string.

“Tie one end to your tooth, tie the other end to the handle of an open door. Slam the door shut quickly. It won't hurt.” She had smiled. It was her joke.

In the end all the little teeth had come out one by one, as easily as pearly orange pips. Only a couple had little black spots of decay. Each had to be treasured in her sticky palm, then it went into a spare matchbox for safe-keeping till bedtime. It would be carefully tucked under her pillow. Her father always forgot to give the tooth fairy the silver coin she needed to pay for the tooth and he had to hand it to the child at breakfast. Perhaps it was this casual neglect of the tooth fairy that prevented one of her front teeth from growing. All she knew was that if she smiled a grown-up would ask.

“Ooh! What has happened to your front tooth?”

So she didn't smile and they simply said, “What a solemn child!”

Then she was ignored because solemn unresponsive children are dull.

At last her watchful mother took her to a dentist whose surgery was on the third floor of a dark building. To reach the surgery her mother shut them into an iron cage with doors that expanded, then clanged. It groaned all way up and squeaked faster all the way down. The dentist's room seemed to be all made of dark brown sagging leather with shiny lumps and bumps. Behind the white-coated dentist, there was a machine like a giant dissected spider's leg. In front of him was a metal tray with detached silver spider’s fangs arranged on it. The dentist and her mother talked together for a time and then they both looked at her for a while. They put cheerful smiles on their faces. She even had a hard machine pushed into her mouth to take an x-ray. The dentist explained that she had an extra little tooth in her mouth and it had stopped her adult tooth from developing as it should.

“I will have to cut the extra one out,” he said. “I will give you an injection so you won't feel anything.”

After the appointment with the dentist, the child's mother took her hand and they crossed over the road to the office of the Christian Science Practitioner. The Christian Science Practitioner was a nice lady with tight curly hair, teacups and sugar cakes, spectacles, tight clip-on earrings and tight stockings.

“It’s mind over matter.” she said, “If you have the right thoughts in your mind, you will feel no pain. I will pray for you.”

The child however, was very frightened and her mind did not win over the matter of the pain. The injection hurt and its numbing effect did not seem to last very long but she sat very still while the tears ran down her cheeks and the blood ran down her chin. Her mother and the practitioner didn't look cheerful at all.

The ordeal ended of course, her mouth healed, and the child put the matter out of her mind. One day when she and her father were in the town, a man in a bow-tie and tweed jacket came up and greeted them.

“Hello, how are you?” he said to her. He had a kind smile. The child had no idea who he was but she did not smile at him because she still had no front tooth. Her father looked at her surprised.

“Don't you recognise your dentist?” he asked.

“No.” she said, also surprised.

Two years later she was no longer a child, but a girl in her first year at boarding school. She still had no front tooth. She still kept her mouth closed. She even looked serious when she was daydreaming. Daydreaming meant that she was often last in the line for going to classes or even for going into meals. One day she was so late that all the other girls were seated at their supper tables when she stepped through the door. The teacher on duty was a plain, shapeless, almost young, woman who could not remember what it was to be a child or to be happy.

“Stand up!” she ordered the girl. “How did you get to be so useless and toothless!”

The girl kept her mouth closed as her father and her life had taught her. She knew that no grown-up worth their salt would ever be rude or unkind to someone without a tooth. Besides she knew that her tooth had begun to grow. She could feel its razor-sharp edge against her tongue and she knew that one day the spicy bite of revenge would be hers to savour.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014


An excerpt from my novel in which the current crisis is foreseen by Nick one of the fictional characters in the book.

Now on her return journey, Harare was behind her, with all its stylish, glossy smartness; its supermarkets, galleries, cinemas, gardens, tourists, aid workers, hospitals and its bitter, scarred memories of the Bush War. Manda would not go to Chirundu this time to cross the border. She would leave the Great North Road at Makuti and take the scenic road to Kariba through the valleys full of trees, rivers and wild animals. Every mile would take her closer to the lake and the cottage that felt like her real home in Zambia. She would go past Kariba Airport, along the lakeside drive and climb up to the Zimbabwe border on the south of the dam wall where a colony of hyrax or dassies had their home among the boulders. Once she had cleared customs and immigration, Manda would make that extraordinary transit over the arching concrete wall. On one side, she would see a 300 foot drop through air, empty except for flying swifts and swallows, to the bottom of the gorge where the Zambezi once again continued its muscled flow to the sea. On the other side, she would see and feel the pressure of almost 200 billion cubic metres of Lake Kariba water. Then she would be back at the cottage in Margaret's beautiful, green garden where Milimo would have magically arranged the household and her children and Nick would be waiting for her with smiles of greeting.

That hot evening, Nick and Manda sat together on the dark veranda mesmerised by the extraordinary stroboscopic light show exploding over the Matusadona Hills. Phosphorescent sheet lightning made the towering blue thunderheads continuously visible. Jagged gold streaks flashed and crackled across the sky and hurled themselves at the endangered earth. The constant noise of thunder rolled back and forth, above the savage din and crash of lightning strikes. The wet and fecund smell of rain reached their nostrils. The threatening storms made lush promises.

“Isn't this wonderful!” said Manda in awe, “Aren't you happy to see the lake filling up again Nick?”

Nick nodded.

Yes” he said quietly. “It will be good to go out sailing again without the danger of clattering into those iron-hard dead trees and holing the boat.”

“It's amazing that they haven't rotted away,” Manda said, “I rather like their dramatic appearance and the cormorants like them too.”

“Aquatic life generally likes them,” Nick continued. “No one really knew what would happen to the mupane trees when the lake filled. Everyone calls them ‘petrified’ but of course they haven't turned to stone – they are just hard. The drought exposed many more of them even though vast areas were cleared of trees for the fishing industry.

“Do you know that the water from the floodgates has scoured out a plunge pool below the wall that is almost eighty metres deep? That was not expected and it is quite close to the dam wall foundation.”

Let's face it – in many ways the lake was a giant experiment. Just like our life is.”

Nick turned with a smile to Manda.

Manda smiled back. She looked at her husband, wondering momentarily if his words signalled an awareness of his need to change. There was no sign of any self-knowledge. It was with a curious sense of relief that she turned again to watch the storms and see them reflected in the lake.

She said after a while, “I feel sad though, for the Zambezi River, lost and dispersed in the lake.”

“No – it isn't!” Nick responded, “The Zambezi continues to flow through the lake as an identifiable current and so does the Sanyati River. The smaller rivers that dry up in the rainy season don't continue but the Zambezi is always there.”

Manda looked up at her husband's face in the uncertain light under the storm lanterns. She wondered about the strong, dark and secret currents of his personality.

So,” she said softly, watching again the gentle ripples on the surface of the lake, “the drowned river is still there, flowing onwards through its valley.”

Monday, 7 April 2014



On Saturday I felt well for the first time in 2 weeks and summer happened.

We gardened.

I collected a bucketful of snails from around the compost heap and John and I wondered about eating them.

At the kitchen sink later, I saw two heads ducking below the window along our back wall. Gerard, our neighbour, had warned us earlier about local thieves so I jerked the window open and asked what was going on.

Two men smiled up at me - they were collecting snails.

“Oh good!” said I. “Tell me how to keep them, feed them, prepare them, and purge them.”

In the end they took away the snails I had collected and offered to bring me snail soup made with vinegar and vegetables. Claudine tells me that this is a Basque/Spanish recipe. The soup will be at least 3 weeks away if the process of raising snails is followed. I must find out about their nutritional value.

I don't use pesticides or slug pellets and giant red Spanish slugs destroy much that I plant even though I make extensive use of beer traps.

Gardening was impossible while it rained so hard and so continuously because of the jelly-like state of the clay on which we live. Impossible to mow the plot so we just enjoy the dandelions - we can eat them too. I haven't yet.

This week John has started on the repair of the raised beds in the potager. It will be a two year project we think. I have dug in my green manure and planted potatoes, onions and beans and a few store-bought salad plants. I also am planting my courgettes inside bottomless plastic buckets that once held fat balls for birds.

Hope this protects against slugs too.

My strawberries are into a third anti-slug plan and being grown on window boxes on an escalier this year. I hope it works! I reckoned the cost of the escalier was the less than the cost of building one ourselves.

Oh and what a delight! This year we have tadpoles both frog and toad. Do goldfish eat them?

Our moles appear to have all drowned this year or moved miles away to higher ground. As they did not seem to have much impact on the slug population I will enjoy not having molehills everywhere for a while but I expect they will return.