That year, her grades dropped. It wasn’t a gentle decline. She went from always being one of the three top performers across all her subjects to hedging with failure. Because she didn’t loose her unbending cheer, or fall off her sports teams, the teachers misread her. Report cards would go home with the words “bad set of friends” scrawled all over them, or “teenage tantrums” in the case of teachers who thought they should have had a prestigious career in the world of Psychology, rather than rub chalk off their fingers with damp cloths at the end of a 45 minute class period.
Not wanting to worsen her situation or call attention to the real reasons for her disruption, she kept quiet. Her mother would badger her about the;
“49 % in mathematics”
“50% in physics”
“48% in biology”,
finger running over the rows and columns filled with teacher’s script. Later, when she learnt how to use a computer, she wondered at why there was no font called “Teacher”. Some geek had made a big mistake there: Cartoon, Times New Roman, but no Teacher…. Strange for sure.
“I am doing my very best Ma”, was her thoughtful, respectful reply. “O’ Levels are so much tougher than the junior certificate”. She didn’t want to further fray any already torn nerves. Her mother had that distracted way about her today. A storm was already gathering in the corners of her eyes. If pressed, there would be an unbearable gush of salty blobs of sadness and rage.
Her parents were fighting. Not the verbal assaults she heard Sue-Ellen and J.R. hurl at each over the radio versions of Dallas and Dynasty. Their television set had long been sold off to pay debts that had been raised by a truant uncle. Ever the faithful head of the family, they had been underwritten with the surety of her father’s name. Her mother was fury itself. She had bought their first colour TV with her own pay cheque. Money saved in the cup of her bra, with the elastic on the left strap drawn tight to ensure the special loot didn’t slither. How could that lout of a mean ass brother-in-law do this to her and the kids? But the laws of the land did not allow women to own property so it had been purchased in her father’s name. And now the Collector of Debts had stood in the family home as if presiding over an auction. Clipboard in hand and hip thrust out in a posture of false efficiency, he had taken her TV set.
It was an outright brawl. Blows and blood. Her school friends talked openly about their parents’ fights. They spoke of well-educated fathers having affairs with old flames that had returned home from England in the aftermath of independence deft on reclaiming their rightful place as his original love, his true soul mate. Men who had been sent to school by wives who took any job, every job that would pay, and in the process sacrificed their own career dreams. She never said a word.
That was what freedom meant. Smokey voices coming over the telephone line at home asking “is your father in?” “ In you maybe”, was the answer she wanted to give. But she had been raised polite, so she said with diplomacy. “I am very sorry, no. May I take your name and number and ask him to ring you back please?”. “Umm-haa,” the voice exhaled, suppressing a mist of tobacco soot. The telephone would click dead but she’d stay on the line, reached for the message pad and pen nodding into nothingness. “ You are welcome”, she said to the dumb drone in her ear. Anything less would have flared her watchful mother to respond. It was pointless really, to add fuel to an already blazing fire.
Her world had become a private war zone, punctuated by the gruff staccato of a dress ripping as roughness grabbed the sleeve in combat. From the battlefield, she would retrieve and stitch back together amputated clothes. No matter how hard she scrubbed, she could never quite get the spotting out of the chipped butter cup yellow tiles in the kitchen walls. When they had bought the family home in the suburbs newly opened to blacks at independence in the multiracial neighbourhoods the granite topped counters were a major selling point for the agent. “Quick sale this, owners are packed and want to leave the country. It has gone to the dogs, hey. They are off to Australia,” the sales agent rattled on in a raspy English that reminded her of the sound of a knife slicing lemons for the gin and tonics.
Over the years, the granite had cracked. The smack of the butt of the axe had left a birthmark. She had ducked its wood cutting blow but the bottle of cooking oil she held in her hand, between left thumb and forefinger, had shattered her sure footedness. Her head hit the razor sharp corner of the counter, and twisted her into a fall. The coroner, a spindly specimen of a man, who wore tortoise shelled glasses that were flanked by thick, grey eyebrows, said, in a dry, unemotional tone, “it wasn’t the head injury that killed her, or the glass that had pierced clean through her lung, to the top tip of her heart. The most important muscle in her body had somehow calcified into a mass of stone”. Only then did his brows move, perplexed by this impossible puzzle of biology. He was itching to write a case-study. But the family needed the body for the funeral.
Looking at the weather beaten tombstone over her mother’s grave. She wanted, today, as she did everyday, to edit the ridiculous poetry of the epitaph etched in curly, even letters.
R.I.P, Beloved Sister,
Wife, Mother, friend,
To “you should have left him and lived”.
(c) Isabella Matambanadzo 2010