The Parking Ticket
The Parking Ticket
By Norma Kitson
I arrived in Zimbabwe in 1988 on a hot December day with my Bickerton bike and a cassette radio. David stayed behind in Oxford, finishing his term tutoring statistics and politics at Ruskin College where he was an Emeritus Fellow. I had to be in Harare to take possession of the empty house we'd bought, there to wait months before our belongings would arrive by sea from the UK via South Africa. Knowing I would have to get around in a city with a poor bus service, I'd brought my fold-up bike and because of the silence I anticipated in the large, empty, hollow house, I brought some tapes and the radio: two items I felt would help keep me sane in a situation of isolated waiting.
But Customs wouldn't have it. They said my bike was child-size and probably thought I wanted to sell it. They were equally worried about my cassette radio, and after hours of wrangling in the stuffy airport, they confiscated both.
When I eventually emerged into the reception area of the Harare Airport, it was to find that our only friend whom we had met the previous year, had left, thinking I was not on the plane. All the other passengers had long since gone and the Airport was empty of people.
I stood on the steps outside with my two suitcases, blinking in the harsh sunlight. I'd left England, mid-winter, with a splitting headache and a case of acute bronchitis. The plane trip, despite the antibiotics I was taking, made me feel worse and now, after the argument with the stony-faced Customs officials, I was aching all over and quite at a loss to know what to do. A kindly porter directed me to the bank: I changed some English money and he put my bags into a taxi.
After an interminable ride in a rickety half-car with doors that didn't close properly, we arrived at the house. At the gate stood two very thin men and two skeletal dogs. All I could think of was to drink a glass of water and get my pounding head down.
For two days I lay half-conscious on the single pallet bed--the only thing we'd bought from the previous owner. I was aware, now and then, of a gentle urging from one of the thin men to have a cup of tea and some mealiemeal. On the third day I began to feel a little better, had a bath, donned some creased clothes and began to look about me.
The two men--Tendai and Chipinge--had been employees of the previous owner of the house--the cook and gardener. They implored me to keep them on, but I said I couldn't do that until I had discussed it with David. We hadn't intended to employ domestics. But I said they could stay in the meantime. After all, the place they called home was the tiny, unceilinged, black-walled, dirty cold-water shack behind the house and I wasn't going to be responsible for throwing them out. We were in the middle of this discussion, and I was aware that all three of us--and the two dogs--were literally starving, when a car drove up.
Our lawyer's wife had come to check whether I had arrived and whether everything was all right at the house. She walked through the empty echoing rooms:
'You'll have to come and stay with us. You can't stay here. There's nothing here! Your shelves are all empty. What are you eating?'
I explained that I'd been ill and anyway was unable to visit the shops as my bike had been taken away and that I had to stay in the house.
'Look,' she said. 'I've got a meeting this morning. I'm going to send a car with a driver. Let him take you and do a big shop. Get some food in. Tomorrow I'll take you to get some things you'll need till your stuff arrives: sheets and spoons and things--and an iron,' she said glancing at my creases. 'You can't possibly live like this!'
The driver duly arrived and, promising Tendai and Chipinge that I would get food supplies for them and some clothing, still feeling rocky, and clutching my list of staples, we left.
The car ran easily down Tunsgate but began to choke and jerk down Pendennis, then it stopped. The driver got out, but when he started poking around in the boot I realised he knew nothing whatsoever about cars.
I sat on the grass verge nearby, my head in my hands, while he eventually discovered the engine and began tinkering about with its insides. The heat was overwhelming and there was no shade in sight. I sat, trying to think what to do, full of horror that perhaps the good woman who owned the car would think I'd been the cause, somehow, of its breaking down.
I sat there, the sun beating down, my head throbbing, the man tinkering.
A car pulled up beside me and a jolly-hockeysticks lady emerged. 'Something wrong? You all right? Car broken down?'
I looked up and nodded. 'It's borrowed,' I said. 'I've just arrived from England and I'm not well and I don't even know where the shops are.' I must have sounded pathetic. Jolly Hockeysticks took over instantly.
'You jump in my car. I'll take you to some decent shops. The ones here are all over-priced anyway. And you,' she pointed to the driver, 'stop that and get that thing to a garage.'
The driver looked at her helplessly.
Seeing some people walking in the road, she called to them: 'Hey, you. Yes, you--Jim and you! You come and help push the Madam's car to the garage. Quick, now!'
She was instantly obeyed and the next moment had a crowd of people pushing the car off in what direction I never knew. I got into her car, gratefully sank into the fine leather seat while she efficiently whipped me from one shop to the next, telling me what brand of tea to buy, what brand of mealiemeal, what breakfast cereal. During the trip from one shop to another, she told me something about herself and her husband. She had been a nurse and had taken care of an elderly patient whose wife had died. He had a hearing problem and was a 'rather crotchety old thing,' as she put it.
'He's rich and needed someone to look after him and run his big house,' she said. 'Sometimes he even forgets we're married and thinks I'm a housekeeper or something! He keeps harping on about his first wife and how wonderful she was and what a good cook she was and how well she dressed. Well, that doesn't worry me much. I just get on with it.' I listened to her through a mist of pain and didn't pay much attention.
The shopping finished, she deposited me back home and said not to worry, she would go to the garage and see that the borrowed car was fixed and it and its driver despatched back to the kind lawyer's wife.
The days passed. Tendai and Chipinge lost the grey look of starvation. The dogs gorged and began to look better and slowly my bronchitis cleared up and I began to feel better. Chipinge made a fire outside each day over which we cooked water and the three of us ate the mealiemeal I bought, with rape and tomatoes which we got from a woman selling at the roadside near the Northwood shops. There even came the day when I could walk to those shops myself and re-stock on tea and vegetables.
When David arrived a few weeks later, Chipinge had planted the vegetable garden and the floors of the empty house shone with the wax polishTendai applied. He produced mounds of fried fritters, the tree in the garden producing large hands of bananas every few days. The two men were now proudly dressed in their new jeans and shirts. The swimming pool, fed with large doses of chlorine, gleamed. The dogs were brushed and the lawn cut with the mower borrowed from next door and David also felt he could not abandon Tendai and Chipinge to a jobless existence.
Of course I told David about my rescue by Jolly Hockeysticks and how efficient she had been, even if her methods were a bit high-handed and reminiscent of the ancien regime in the way she had collared a span of passing black pedestrians to do her bidding. He was nonplussed that this could happen after eight years of black majority rule but remarked that it probably was just as well, otherwise what would have happened to me! We decided to send her some flowers and a thank-you note.
Sitting on the patio one morning in our newly acquired garden chairs, Jolly Hockeysticks drove up and stuck her head out of the car window. We walked over and I introduced her to David.
'Want you both to lunch on Tuesday,' she said handing us a card with her address. 'Can't stop. See you Tuesday. All right? About 12.30.'
David and I discussed it.
'Look,' he said. 'From what you've said about her, I don't think we ought to tell them about us. She's been kind. We'll just go and have lunch and talk platitudes, OK?'
'What d'you mean?'
'Well, you know what it's like. We're new in town, so lots of people have invited us and as soon as we get there they all want to know why we've come to live here and where we've been and everything.'
'So I don't think we should mention anything about us to Jolly Hockeysticks or her husband. It sounds as if they're Rhodies. Normally I wouldn't mind taking them on. But this lady was very kind to you so I think we should just chat away and keep them happy.'
'OK,' I said.
On Tuesday we dressed in our best and arrived at the Jolly Hockeysticks' house. We were shown through an enormous lounge with three fireplaces and a sunken section swathed in dralon couches, out through french doors to a huge gleaming, glitterstone patio. There a number of tables and chairs were laid out, each with a large umbrella and, sitting sipping cocktails, about twenty people. We were introduced and I noticed that they wore a selection of identifiably English clothes: Jaeger shirts, Reldan and Escada blouses, and fine wool skirts. But their raddled sun-burned skins showed them to be indisputably southern Africans.
In the far corner of the patio, under his own umbrella, sat old Mr Hockeysticks alone, sipping a scotch. He nodded when we were introduced and then turned to his wife and said sharply: 'Where's the ice? Eh?'
She scuttled off dutifully and we sat down, David over at a vacant chair near a group of men, and me between two middle-aged women in a semi-circle of about eight which included one thin, orange-haired man with a protruding stomach.
A long conversation ensued among the women--during which I kept bravely silent and sipped my soda--on how the country had 'gone to pots since the Blacks took over', as one of them put it.
'You can't even buy salt anymore,' one of them said.
'Yes, and all our good schools are full of them now,' said another. We had to send Peter to Johburg.'
'And you can't even get olives or sardines,' said the first. 'And they've become so cheeky.'
'And damned inefficient,' said the weedy male. There was a general clicking and nodding of agreement among the ladies. There followed a number of examples of the horror that Zimbabwe had become since Independence in 1980.
I examined my fingernails, sipped my soda and looked longingly at David.
Old man Hockeysticks shouted out to the company at large that his wife made the best cheese scones of anyone in the world. 'Then you'd have had a lunch to remember! On time too!' There were a few embarrassed murmurs as most of the guests realised he was referring to his dead first wife. Mrs Hockeysticks didn't turn a hair.
Then the topic at our end of the patio turned briefly to the virtues of England and London in particular--'home' as they called it, although I began to doubt any of them had ever been to overcrowded, polluted, racist England, where the sewers are breaking up in the major cities and we'd just left mad-cow's disease, poisonous water in the taps, salmonella chickens and eggs, fires and electrical failures in the underground stations, not to mention a season of vapid soap-theatre, deafening drug-infested disco terminals for the youth, a higher than ever unemployment rate and prisons over-crowded with rioting inmates. Mrs Thatcher had totally undermined the economy and had sold off British industry in her Milton Friedman monetarist mania. Beggars were sleeping in every doorway of the West End and under the famous London bridges, inflation was raging and the crime, drugs, murder and suicide rates were soaring.
From their conversation it seemed they had 19th century concepts of what it was like in England and imposed their middle-class morality on the conversation.
'I always felt English flowers were so much prettier,' one said glancing at the bright beds of flowers. 'And one could sort of rely on the local vicar.'
'Yes,' said another, 'and what about all the wonderful theatre--Shakespeare an' all that.'
'And Mrs Thatcher's so well-dressed and such a lovely woman,' said a third. 'She reminds me of the Queen.'
'And what about that lovely Princess, Diana,' said another. 'I think she's beautiful . She's a bit tall, I do admit, but she is lovely. And such a good match for our Prince Charles. He's such a nice man!'
They nodded in agreement and the lone man leaned towards me and said: 'She's a bit of all right as far as I'm concerned,' and took a long sluk of his beer.
'And Vera Lynn,' said another. 'Home was so wonderful during the War.'
There was a short silence while everyone swallowed that one. I took another sip of my soda. Then a little woman with purple lipstick sitting next to me asked: 'Where you from?'
'Actually, we've been living in England,' I said. 'Isn't this a wonderful garden--so full of flowers.
'How long?' she asked.
'Oh! I was there for 22 years. This sunny weather is magnificent, isn't it?' I tried desperately to turn the conversation away from dangerous ground. 'It's very cold in England right now.'
The woman flicked her hand at my arm. 'Where were you before that? Your accent isn't English.'
'We come from South Africa originally. Just look at that rose bush! Isn't it beautiful!'
My interrogator stuck to her point. 'Was your husband with you in England?'
'Er, yes, mostly,' I said, now floundering.
She must know something, I thought. I paused, looked at her and said: 'I'm sure I'd never be so successful at rose-growing. It's an art, don't you think?' (I've never been all that keen on roses but I was fishing around.) I looked desperately at David, but he was in deep conversation with the men.
One of the women said: 'Ooh! don't tell me you've come out here to live after England. Is your husband on contract here?'
'No,' I said. 'We've just come to live.'
Suddenly a crab-like claw with long red nails bit into my arm. Purple Lips turned on me, her mouth inches from my face and said in a loud voice: 'I said, was your husband with you in England?'
'Some of the time.'
'Well, where was he then?' she was almost shouting. I unhooked her nails from my arm and looked around me. By now, a number of the guests were following our conversation and I saw old Mr Hockeysticks perk up.
'Where's the lunch, eh?' he shouted, looking heavenward.
Suddenly all eyes turned on me. I glanced across at David but his face was closed. Oh, what-the-hell, I thought, I've tried. I've done all I can. I just don't know how to cope with this.
'Actually,' I said. 'My husband was in prison in Pretoria for 20 years, from 1964 to 1984. Anything less than 10 years they call a "parking ticket", but he served the whole sentence. He was a member of the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe. That's the military wing of the African National Congress, you know.'
There was a horrified silence. Everyone stopped talking and turned their faces to look first at me and then at David, Purple Lips with her mouth open. Mr Hockeysticks sat up and craned his neck to hear better. The silence continued. Not a sound was heard. I took a sip at my empty glass and felt sweat running down my back. Eventually Purple Lips sat back gasping. Then one of the women made a rescue attempt:
'What an extraordinary coincidence,' she said. 'Do you know, I once knew someone in the ANC!'
There was a sudden buzz while everyone began remarking about how Black people weren't so bad. They were all natural dancers and so good at sport and very good at running and boxing and some of them were really quite educated these days, and it wasn't their fault, you know.
This started everyone off asking David what it was like in jail and how had he managed, and were they cruel and oh how awful, and what did you do for twenty whole years, and what was the worst part of it.
David obliged, as always, telling anecdotes that would amuse and put their minds at rest, easing their tensions.
Efficient as always, Mrs Hockeysticks soon broke up the conversation. 'Come now, everyone! Lunch is served in the dining room.'
As everyone rose and started trooping away, old Mr Hockeysticks stood up unsteadily, his face a mask of incredulity: 'Twenty years,' he said, 'and for a parking offence!'
(Norma Kitson is the author of the acclaimed autobiography Where Sixpence Lives, Chatto & Windus, 1987, and of numerous articles, reviews, and short stories. Her newest book, Creative Writing--A Handbook is scheduled for publication in July, 1997