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Sport 38: Winter 2010

An African Argument

page 231

An African Argument

Are you wondering where we are? You're wondering where the paperback thorns and baobabs are. I know it's confusing, everything looks so 'English'. It's been designed to; from the sign on the gate that reads 'Hilton', to the oak trees that line the driveway, the lawns sloping down to tennis courts, stables, and a pond with two white chairs tucked neatly under a silk tree.

In the middle of it all, my grandmother and her gardener face each other across the empty flower bed. In a few minutes, neither of them will be here, but for now they both plant their feet in the red soil turned over between them. She stands with her hands on her square hips. His hands hang by his sides. Noise pours out of her open mouth, battering against the wall of his black face.

Look at just him for a moment; look at how he holds his head down, eyes to the ground, while he listens to my grandmother, standing tall and erect, harangue him. What is he thinking as he lets my grandmother's words bounce off his façade and tumble into the overturned earth between them?

Five hundred metres past the oak trees and down the road, and we would be looking at something very different. There, away from the benefits brought about by a British irrigation system and an American lawnmower, the earth is raw and covered with chickens, children and the prints of tyre-soled sandals. There, squatting in the shade of a rondarvel hut, the gardener would be the one being listened to.

It's hard to hear what they are saying, so if you're wondering what the argument is about, I can't help you. Watch them both carefully though, and certain things become clear. Even their clothing seems to make it clear. She wears a white shirt and khaki slacks, precise creases forming unbroken central lines down both her legs. His green overalls are work stained and where his collar folds over, the fabric is frayed through to the lining.

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From our vantage point, safely on the other side of the world, I can see what is coming. Despite being twenty years too late, I want to call out, to warn them both, because how can I tell which one is the victim this afternoon?

My grandmother continues to speak. There are wisps of brown hair escaping from her bun. It was tightly wound this morning, held in place with nothing but pins, but the heat and her gesticulating arms have conspired against her. She's angry, you can see it in the tense way she holds her shoulders, the tight tapping of one foot on the ground. There are lines around her eyes as she squints in the sun.

Maybe she is unhappy at the emptiness of what lies between the gardener and herself. Maybe my grandfather has been drinking again. Maybe she is just being difficult.

The gardener's face is very black and broad. It's expressionless. It hovers above his overalls, with no apparent connection to the effort that shows in the sweat patches under his arms and the stains at his knees. He listens, or looks as though he listens. There is a bucket at his feet full of trowels and hand held picks and forks. He has a screwdriver and a tape measure tucked in his back pocket. You might want to know his name, but it's not one I can tell you. Nor is it one I am likely to find out, and my chances of pronouncing it are slim.

In the house, Mbali wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. She feels too old for the heat today despite being only forty, but at least she, like us, has something to distract her from her discomfort. She is watching my grandmother also. As the lopsided argument progresses, clearly visible through the kitchen window, she puts the finishing touches to the roast lamb she is preparing. She has stabbed small holes along the outside ridges of the joint and stuffed each with pieces of garlic and sprigs of rosemary. Her uniform is a pastel pink, and in defiance of her age, it makes her look girlish. When she takes it off tonight, it will not be as she walks out the door to feed her own family. She'll take it off to go to bed in the concrete block servants' quarters behind the stables. She'll lie in her single bed and dream of mealie meal and children's open mouths. The gardener will lie in the room next door and they will be able to hear the creak of each other's bedsprings when they turn over in their separate beds.

But I'm basing this on what might have happened on any other page 233 day. Who can tell if this is what she did or thought? Not me, and not you. Today is different. Today will not end well, and no one will be going to bed in quite the same way as usual.

Least of all my grandfather. I imagine he can hear the voices but they don't intrude far enough into his thoughts for him to do anything about it, so it's reasonable to say he doesn't hear them. As it is, like he would any other day, he raises his glass to his mouth and lets the gin and tonic swirl around his teeth. He savours the dark room, the outlines of furniture in the gloom, the smoke drifting off the cigarette in his fingers, the cool of a room protected by a deep veranda. He stabs his cigarette into the ashtray beside him, grinding out its glowing tip, and rises for a refill.

In the sunshine, the two combatants still stand. The parting in my grandmother's hair has flushed red, her voice is getting louder and louder. She takes a step forward, into the empty bed, and stabs her finger into his chest. Her painted fingernail looks like a spot of blood against the raw edges of his breast pocket as it presses in.

But look, she's gone too far. His nostrils flare and he raises his head. He begins to talk back. This isn't something she was expecting. Why should she? He's breaking all the rules. The official ones, and the unofficial ones. If you look closely, you can see the shock on her face, her mouth pulled into a tight little 'o', her eyes widening despite the bright light. Are you shocked? By him, or by her? This isn't something we can understand easily, you and I. We'd have snapped much earlier, speaking our minds and walking away. But neither of them have done that.

What are they saying now? They've moved into Zulu, round and rolling even in anger, both of them speaking in the language my grandmother uses for the servants. It's probable the argument isn't even about the garden any more, if it ever was to begin with. It could be about anything now. Both of them are angry, and whatever they are saying, they both know there's no going back. The gardener has done something unthinkable. Despite this, the earth keeps turning, my grandfather lights another cigarette, the cook peels another potato and my grandmother's horses shift their weight from one back leg to the other in the shade under the overhanging edges of the stable roof, their tails swinging to keep away the flies.

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Somehow, my grandmother gets close enough to catch the gardener's cheek with the nail at the end of the finger that emphasises her point. He lifts an arm and strikes her, a slap across the face. Her head swings back, and the long hair that she caught up that morning sprays loose. She steps back, her lipstick smeared out of the bounds of her lips. She opens her mouth and takes a breath. I think she might be about to say something, but she never gets that far. Out of his back pocket, the gardener takes the screwdriver.

Maybe he doesn't realise what he is doing. Maybe he knows but he doesn't care. Maybe he thinks he has gone so far already, it can't get any worse. Take your pick.

It's probably the horses that react first. The screaming unsettles them and they plunge forward into the paddock, trotting away from the fence line with their tails held high in the air.

Mbali is next. Above the spitting of the roasting tray in the oven, she hears it. It's not a sound she is unfamiliar with, but it takes her a moment to realise she shouldn't be hearing it here.

My grandfather is dozing in his chair, a cigarette burnt down to an ashy taper in his fingers. When he jerks awake to the noise, the ash tumbles down his leg, and he spends a moment brushing at the long grey streak.

My grandmother lies in the flower bed. The bucket of gardening equipment has been tipped over in the skirmish and has left a halo of trowels and seed packets around her head. Through the puncture wounds in her chest, blood slips out to stain her shirt the same colour as her nails.

The gardener has taken off down the driveway. You should watch him closely because this is the last time you'll see him. He is just streaks of green overall and black skin against the paler tree trunks. As he runs, the tape measure tumbles out of his back pocket. The screwdriver he is still holding falls from his hand and lands in the ruts of the drive. It rolls back and forth in the tracks left by passing cars, before coming to rest, its tip pointing after the gardener.

And there, he's gone. Out past the white painted gates, the sign that reads 'Hilton' and down the road. We're about to lose him in that other world.

Back at my grandmother's house, chaos has broken lose, but we page 235 are half a world away and there is nothing we can do. Anyway, by now on this side of the twenty years that separates us from them, it is not only my grandmother who is dead, but the horses, the cook and my grandfather also, and all we have left to do is watch.