RUTH a novel by Pat Mosel
The young African man sauntered out of the office and came to the only pump on the forecourt in order to serve me petrol. Masvingo, which was then called Fort Victoria, was the meeting point for an armed convoy that was to take us to the border post at Beit Bridge and into South Africa. There was a queue of cars for petrol and now it was my turn. I searched in my bag for my precious ration tickets. I had been given holiday rations for this journey, and now I saw them go and silently said goodbye to the rationing system we had lived with since UDI, when oil and other sanctions had been imposed on Rhodesia internationally. The man was in no hurry. I would remember that about Rhodesia. The pace was slow. In some ways, we lived in the nineteenth century, with old-fashioned ideas and a seldom quickening pace, although we were relatively speedy in a busy newsroom. The petrol attendant filled up my tank.
That was one of the things I would have to get used to in Scotland – filling up my own petrol tank. It sounds silly but it took me months to really get the hang of it. The attendant took his time, took the money and went into the office for change. I gave him a tip and started up my old Fiat car. I’d had it serviced so that everything was in working order. It was, the garage told me, in fine fettle. It had to be. There was no room for mechanical breakdown on this journey. I was about to move off when I realized the attendant was cleaning my windscreen of all the dust that had collected on the journey from Bulawayo to Fort Victoria. When he had finished I got out my purse again and gave him another tip. He clapped his hands and smiled. I couldn’t find it in myself to smile back. My stomach was churning. My mouth was dry and my hands were shaking. And the journey hadn’t even begun. I drove away from the pump and onto the tarred road, a road that led into the centre of Fort Victoria, a sleepy town with few people on its pavements. But that wasn’t the way I was going. I turned left at the corner and drove to a vacant plot where the convoy was gathering. There I joined Tanya, who had come from Salisbury and who was the whole reason behind my taking this particular route. I rode over the bumpy ground and parked next to her maroon Renault. I was to have a vision of that car in my mind for years to come because I travelled behind her in the convoy.
“You all right?” she asked, coming over to my window.
“It’s so hot,” I said, struggling with my dry mouth.
“Get out and walk about while you can. It’s hotter in the car.”
“And we’re going to have about three hours of driving,” I said, getting out and looking about. In front of us, parked, were three large army trucks. What looked like about fifteen soldiers were milling about the plot. They were wearing camouflage uniform and were carrying FN automatic rifles.
“Looks like they’re ready for trouble,” I remarked to Tanya with a mixture of fear and doubt.
“I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of them,” she said.
I had known Tanya, on and off, for years. Her mother was French and her father South African. They lived in Johannesburg, while their daughter had owned a clothes shop in Bulawayo, and one in Salisbury where she lived. Her clothes were good for fashion pictures on the woman’s page. I had met up with her when she was in Bulawayo at a party about six months before, and we had confided in each other that we were both planning to leave the country. The friendship grew stronger, partly because we were encountering the stigma associated with ‘taking the chicken run’. We decided to do the run together, to meet up in Fort Victoria. Although this added miles to my journey, I was glad to be making it with someone I knew.
I searched on the back seat for the food and drink I had packed. I had never been so thirsty. The car was brimming with all my belongings, in suitcases and cardboard boxes. They weighed down the small car. I found a bottle of fizzy juice and was greedily drinking this when I looked up and saw Tanya was talking to one of the soldiers. He was standing legs astride, bronzed, in a boastful pose. She was standing with a hand on one hip, stroking her straight blonde hair. She was clearly flirting with him. I drank my juice. Eventually, the soldier walked away and she came over to me again.
“No harm in getting to know them.” She giggled.
“They do this frequently. It’s their job.”
She tossed her head and her sleek hair fell back into place. “I’m starving,” she said. “Did you bring your sandwiches? I’ve got mine in the car.” She went to get them. At that point, the thought of food made me feel sick. I watched her chew through a cucumber sandwich.
“You had better eat now, while you’ve got the chance. I believe we only stop once.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’re sad at leaving everyone behind. I am too. When I locked the shop door for the last time, I cried. I’ve been feeling like crying for weeks. And I’m nervous as hell. Just like you. What if we get ambushed? What if my car breaks down? What if I break down? The thing I have to do is treat this as an adventure and when I’m in Joburg I can put it all behind me.” She chewed a strand of her hair. “If we make it, and we will, I’ve got a new life to go to, a new job and a boyfriend. And you… you’ve got an even bigger adventure ahead in Scotland. How long do you stay with your parents first?”
“Well, you’ve got to keep up your strength. Now, eat.”
I did as she said, but struggled, although I felt marginally better for it. The pit of my stomach was still hurting. More cars had arrived and, in the end, there were thirteen cars in all. It was nearing the start time of two o’clock. Before we formed the convoy we were told to gather in a group beside one of the trucks. We were an apprehensive collection of people, brought together under a relentless sun, some feeling the wrench of leaving for good, some just going on holiday to South Africa. There were couples, one of them very elderly, and singles, predominantly women. They were dressed in an assortment of light summer clothes and unfashionable hats. One girl in slip-slops was told to put on some ’decent driving shoes’.
The man doing the telling seemed to be the person in charge. He spoke to the group in a manner which suggested he was used to giving orders. He called us all together and spoke: “I’m Captain Frank Owen and I am the leader of this convoy. If you have any questions, you address them to me. Provided you play the game, the procedure is very simple. This is how we travel: one truck at the front then seven cars, one truck, six cars. Then a military vehicle keeps up the rear. If there is any trouble at all, you obey the orders from myself and my soldiers. Do I make myself clear?”
He got a grim ’yes’ in answer.
“What you’ve got to understand about a convoy is that we do everything in unison. I don’t want any wise guys, or ladies, and I don’t want anyone trying to speed things up. We travel at eighty kilometres an hour, no more, no less. No slowcoaches either. We stop once on the journey and when we do you stay near your cars. You may like to stretch your legs but don’t stray. The bush is dangerous. And if you do want to go into the bush to pee, one of my men must accompany you. He will be discreet. All right, so far?”
“Now, you probably know the reason why we travel in convoy is because armed insurgents have been known to frequent the area. A few weeks ago some motorcyclists, who chose to ignore the services of our convoy, were ambushed and killed on this road. So, don’t take this too lightly.” He went on. “Pretend you are in the army for the afternoon. What we need is unquestioning discipline. Do that for us and we will get you to Beit Bridge safely. Happy driving, folks.” At last he smiled. “Let’s go.”
The group had come together so recently but there was instant bonding. We went around shaking hands and wishing each other luck until Captain Owen barked an order for us to get into our cars immediately. There was a little confusion as we assembled in the sequence outlined. Tanya tucked herself in behind the second truck and I, as I said, was behind her. I looked in my rear view mirror and waved at the elderly couple behind me. I noticed that the wife was driving. She hooted in response to my wave. “Start your engine,” said one of the soldiers, who were monitoring the whole process. My hands were sweating as I turned the key in the ignition. This was it. We were about to embark on a long, tense journey. But the engine didn’t take. My car would not start. I went into a blind panic, turning the key again and again. Still, it wouldn’t start. “You’ll flood it, lady.” The soldier’s face was right at my open window. His gun was slung over his shoulder. “Give it a breather and then try again.” I was aware of all the other vehicles in front of me and behind me, their engines idling. My car couldn’t let me down now. I knew it was old but it must stand one long, last journey. Some of the soldiers were climbing into the back of the truck ahead, a sure signal that we were about to leave. I imagined having to drop out of the convoy and having to go through the whole horrible departure again. “Try it, now,” said the soldier. My hands were out of control, or so I thought. I managed to grasp the key with my thumb and forefinger. Somehow, it turned and the engine started. The soldier gave me a thumbs up, turned and went off to leap into the truck. I put my shivering foot on the accelerator. We were moving. continue » »
It took a while for us all to get into the rhythm of driving in convoy. To begin with, Tanya kept going too fast and then slamming on her brakes. The old lady behind did the opposite. She would go too slowly and I saw her receding in my rear view mirror. Then she’d come speeding up towards my bumper. It was almost like a dance. We had to keep in step with each other. Once the rhythm was established, the long journey had really begun. For the most part of it we were surrounded by bush; long grass, thorn trees and rocks. At first I kept glancing sideways to see if I could spot any stealthy figures in the long grass but I couldn’t take the intensity of that. I let in my memories of what I was leaving behind.
I’d even gone to say goodbye to Bruce. I’d walked over to his office one afternoon and was shown in by a secretary. Wearing a suit and tie, he looked very different from the Bruce who wore rugby kit. I always thought he seemed slightly unhappy in formal clothing, like a young boy whose mother had made him dress up, his skin gleaming clean from scrubbing.
“I appreciate your coming, Ruth but I must tell you I think you are making a mistake. Going to South Africa is one thing, but overseas… well, you’ll be a foreigner.”
“I can’t live under Apartheid.”
“You’ve always had radical ideas. But, Scotland? Do you know anybody there?”
“I’ve got a few contacts and there is my father’s distant relative, Adeline…”
“It’s a big step. What about the job? You’re leaving behind a good job.”
“Things are changing…” I replied, thinking of what Peter had said.
“They’re not going to open their arms to a young reporter from a rebel country.”
“I’m willing to take the risk.”
“There’s courage and there’s foolhardiness. I’m not sure which category you fall into.”
“My mind is made up. I’m going next week. I just wanted to wish you well.” I hadn’t sat down and now I turned to go.
“What’s the bet we see you back here in a year’s time. Can you close the door when you go?” I detected a little sadness in his voice but when I tried to look at his face I saw it was already focused on the work in front of him. I remembered he had to work extra hard to make up for all the time he had to spend in the bush. His war became so much more real to me now that I was travelling through the bush, with armed guards, towards the border.
We must have been travelling for about three quarters of an hour when it happened. The first thing I noticed in my mirror was the elderly couple receding. Then I realized we were losing part of our convoy. The cars in front were oblivious until somehow the second truck got wind of this and alerted the lead truck. Brakes went on all the way down the row and soldiers sprang out to form a line along the verge of the road. They faced the bush, guns at the ready. Others positioned themselves in the middle of the road. Captain Owen walked to our end of the convoy to see what was up. The elderly couple had a puncture. Swiftly, two soldiers set about changing the tyre. We were told to wait in our cars. Tanya kept waving to me through her window. The atmosphere from the bush was ominous as we sat and waited. By now, the sweat was streaming down my legs and I had a nagging headache. I also wanted to go to the loo but I didn’t fancy an armed escort. Suddenly I saw a dark shadow move in the bush. The soldiers had seen it, too. They trained their guns in its direction. Then something made a dash for it, crashing through the bush and out into the open. A buck bounded across the road. The soldier’s lowered their guns.
When the puncture was mended, we formed our unbroken convoy again and drove towards our official roadside stop, where we were allowed to get out of our cars after the soldiers had done a recce. This time, I really had to go to the loo and I was escorted through the long grass and behind a rock. The soldier averted his eyes. It was pure heaven to stretch our legs and to have a drink of lukewarm water. “I feel so foolish to have held up the whole works,” the old lady confided in me. She looked embarrassed or over-heated because her face was an unhealthy shade of red.
“It’s all right. It could happen to anyone. Where are you going?”
“Natal. We have a house there. We were farmers, you know. Up, until recently.”
“It must be a great wrench.”
“Yes. Gordon’s got a gammy leg. He can’t drive.”
“So, you’ve got to drive all that way.”
“There’s life in me, yet.” She laughed. “If only it weren’t so hot.”
“You’re very brave.”
Our conversation was interrupted by the Captain, who wanted us all to get back into our cars.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” he yelled.
There was a feeling of unity amongst us that allowed a little bit of confidence. We had done more than half of the journey. We would manage the rest. With luck, we would reach our destination.
I wished that Peter could have been there to talk to, but then I thought that Peter could have been on the side of an unseen enemy in the bush. I always wondered why Peter never joined the nationalist fighters. He was such an outspoken critic of Whites yet he worked within the system, albeit waiting for it to crumble. Our friendship was an unlikely one, full of tensions and compromise. Yet that friendship was one of the good things that had happened during my adulthood in Rhodesia. We’d had this farewell do for me in the newsroom. The news editor had supplied some bottles of beer and we’d all gathered around his desk. The editor had spoken: “Ruth came to us as a very young, very green junior reporter. I won’t say that she’s leaving as a hardened cynic but I will say that she has matured in the job and has been an asset to this newspaper.” He went on some more after that but I didn’t remember the content. I was dry-eyed but overwhelmed. I did recall him saying, “We all wish her the very best on her journey. Here’s hoping that bonnie Scotland will learn to appreciate her. Come over here, Ruth. We have something for you.” He presented me with a flame lily brooch.
“This will remind me of what a wonderful bunch of people you are. Thank you. I’ve been very happy here,” I said.
It was afterwards when I was clearing my desk that Peter came up to me.
“So,” he said. “It’s your last few days as a White madam.”
“Even my departure is political.”
“May you find freedom from African politics.” He took a pen and swivelled around my reporter’s notebook to face him. He then drew two crosses and turned the notebook back again. “See if you can work this out,” he said. “There’s one for each cheek.” It was the only legitimate way of kissing me goodbye.
“Goodbye, Peter, I’ll miss you,” I said but he was no longer there.
I took my left hand off the wheel and felt the curved outline of the brooch pinned to my bodice. It was a badge of achievement and a symbol of what I’d left behind, whom I’d left. They clearly thought that I might be coming back. The editor had even said that he’d be holding a job for me for a year. Yet I knew, as I drove those last miles to the South African/Rhodesian borde, that I would never be going back.
You would think that as we drew closer to Beit Bridge I would feel a sense of triumph that we were about to make it, but I went into a different realm. My body tightened and my brain seized. Alone in the car, I watched dispassionately as the needle on my petrol gauge moved into red. I saw the bridge over the Limpopo River. I saw buildings and barriers. I saw Tanya leaping about with excitement. I heard the group cheer. But these things were at one remove from me. There was passport control. In a daze I showed my passport. The customs official looked at it, closed it and said, “Welcome to South Africa, lady.” I backed away from him. I remember taking my overnight bag to the hotel where I was to share a room for the night with Tanya before we travelled in tandem to Johannesburg. I sat down abruptly on the bed and stared at a wall while she changed and applied fresh make-up.
“I’m going to have a drink with the boys.” She meant the soldiers. “It’s the least I can do. Are you coming?”
I shook my head, not wanting, not able to open my mouth because if I did I was afraid I would scream.