Friday, 25 November 2011
Author's Note: Changing countries. Perceptions of security. Difficult times.
Is the grass really greener on the other side? 'Promised Land' is about the search for a better life.
‘Promised Land… The Promised Land…everyone’s … looking for… The Promised Land…’
‘What? What was that you said, Peter?’ Sandra asked, staring at him with a puzzled expression.
‘Oh nothing, darling. Nothing at all, really,’ he replied sleepily.
‘Yes you did. You should be careful what you say in your sleep, Peter. All those secret things in your murky past. It could get you into lots of trouble.’ Sandra was feigning anger. ‘Now tell me what you said, Peter! It was something about a promise. I want to know what you were talking about in your sleep.’
Peter knew where this kind of conversation invariably lead to, so he tried to change the subject. ‘Well, I think I’m probably in all kinds of trouble already. Doing what we’re doing here today. If any one finds out what we’re up to we’ll both be in deep doo doos. And if Janet ever finds out, the Terrorism Act will seem like… well, like a kid reciting nursery rhymes.’
‘I’ve asked you before, darling, please don’t talk about your wife when I’m with you. Or I’ll get really annoyed.’
Peter groaned inwardly, regretting his mistake. As he’d anticipated, Sandra went on with mounting irritation.
‘And I’m getting cross right now, Peter. So please tell me what you said. I mean it. Tell me what you were dreaming about!’
‘Calm down darling. It was nothing really. Just a poem’.
‘A poem? What do you mean a poem? I’ve never heard you talk about poetry before, Peter. Are you kidding me? Is this some creative part of you I’ve never discovered? A secret literary dimension?’
‘No darling, it’s not that at all. It’s just something that pops into my head every now and again. And when it’s there, it keeps going round and round for a while. Sometimes for days, and I can’t get rid of it.’
‘Recite it for me, please Peter. You know I like poetry.’
‘I’m not sure I can, darling. I can’t really remember it.’
‘Can’t or won’t? Why don’t you try, anyway? Come on, I won’t laugh. Promise.’
‘Look, it’s only a few lines from a poem I once knew. A long time ago. My grandfather used to recite it often. He taught it to me when I was a kid. But I’ve forgotten most of it. Except bits and pieces that pop into my head now and then. It’s something about a band of people looking for paradise. Paradise on earth, that is. Like we all are, I suppose. You know, peace and security and a good life. And happiness.’
‘Well, I’d like to hear it. You’d better recite it for me. If we’re going to stay friends, that is.’
Eventually Peter relented. ‘Well, it goes something like this. I think it does anyway. “Onward goes the pilgrim band… marching…” Well, marching somewhere. “To the Promised Land!”, I suppose.
‘You see my grandfather thought this country was the Promised Land. Given to them by God. They’d just claimed it as theirs. Because their forefathers had settled on it. And fought for it, I suppose. You know, just came along and took it. From the real owners, I mean. Someone else’s land. And they said it was theirs. Their Promised Land.’
‘What?’ He heard the irritation in her voice. He’d fallen into this trap before. ‘What do you mean, “someone else’s land “? You make it sound like it was stolen from somebody. And you know no one was living here then. What a crazy idea, anyway. A promised land? In this place? This god-forsaken country? Peter, you must be mad.’
‘You’re wrong there, Sandra. You know I don’t agree with you. Things are much better now. For us as well as for them. I really do believe that. Otherwise I’d have left long ago. I’d have gone overseas too. Probably when Tony Stein left. You didn’t really know Tony, but like everyone else, he was frightened when the trouble started. So they left. He and his wife and their young daughter, Rachel, who was a real darling. Yes, they just packed up and took off. Within a few weeks they were gone. In fact I seriously thought about going with him at the time. You see I was very close to Tony. And his family. In fact, his wife Ruth and their daughter stayed with me when Tony was picked up by the Special Branch.’
‘What?’ Sandra looked alarmed. ‘You never told me you associated with people like that. Your friend Tony was arrested?’
‘Yes, but he was released after a few days. He said they slapped him around a bit, but nothing serious. It was then that Ruth and Rachel both came to stay in my flat. When he was inside.’
‘How long did they keep him?’
‘I don’t remember really. It was a long time ago. A few days, I suppose.
But when he came out, it wasn’t long before all three of them just up and left. Some people said it was because of the riots. Others said he was scared of the security police.’
Peter was not sure that he was making any headway, but he went on. ‘That’s when I thought about leaving too. Because they left quite a gap in my life. But when I thought it through, I felt things would get better here. And I think they have.’
He paused for a moment dredging up old memories.
‘And I’ve heard that Tony has his regrets. I’ve all but lost contact with him, but he’s apparently done well and they’ve settled in now. But there were all kinds of problems to start off with. Anyway they’ve made it now, and that’s what counts.
Peter looked at Sandra sitting on the edge of the double bed. Then he added, ‘But, when he went, there was a real chance that I would have left as well.’
‘Now you’re romancing Peter,’ Sandra said with an edge of malice. ‘In fact, I think you’re deceiving yourself. Even lying perhaps. We both know why you didn’t leave. And there are thousands of people like you. Because you couldn’t that’s why. Because there’s nowhere to go. Because no country would have you. And because there were all kinds of emotional factors to keep you here.
‘So, I for one am not so sure that you could have just packed up and left. Not a chance. It’s not like catching a bus you know.
‘Like the rest of us, you just had to stay. And face the music. There wasn’t any alternative. And you know it.’
Peter interrupted. ‘I don’t know why you work yourself up like this, Sandra.’
‘Because I don’t like self-deception, that’s why. So, just to be sure about it, the two reasons you stayed were, one: because you had nowhere to go, and two: because there were too many factors, either real or imagined, to keep you here.’
Peter decided it was time to go. In any case the conversation was going nowhere. ‘This is getting out of hand darling, and I don’t think we should pursue it. Because we always end up having the same argument.
‘And anyway, we have to get up now. Let’s get dressed and get going.
‘If we check out any later, they’ll want to charge us for a full day instead of just for the afternoon.’
Mavis padded into the dining room as silently as a ghost.
‘Thank you Mavis, just put the potatoes down there next to the meat.’
‘Yes, madam. And can I go now madam?’
Janet couldn’t help showing her annoyance. ‘Yes, Mavis. Go if you must. I suppose I can do the washing up.’
Mavis was hardly out of the room when Betty asked, ‘Why does she have to go NOW, before we’ve even finished lunch? Why do you give her so much time off, Janet?’
‘Well, you know what they’re like. She says she’s going to a funeral. A cousin or a brother or something. I don’t know really. But what can you do? They’re all the same.’
Peter put down the Sunday paper. ‘Let’s not start this again you two. Let’s just try to have our lunch without an argument. Both of you know full well how long she’s worked for us. And you know what I think. So let’s not get into it again. I couldn’t stand it.’
Betty didn’t like being reprimanded, especially by her son. ‘OK darling. But it’s Janet who bears the brunt of it. She’s the one who has to clear up and do all the work.’ She paused, but then added, ‘Well, I’ll be here to help her of course, depending on when you’re going to give me a lift home. If you can call it home that is.’
There was a long silence. Peter was folding the paper, and Janet started serving the lunch. Betty fiddled with her serviette.
‘Well, who is going to say grace?’ she asked when Janet passed her a plate. ‘I hope we can have grace today.’
Peter sighed softly. ‘All right Ma, I’ll say it. Here goes. “One word is as good as ten. Amen”. That OK? Can we start eating now?’
‘Oh Peter! You know I don’t like that kind of joke. Why can’t you say a proper…?’
Janet cut in, hoping to change the subject. ‘You still haven’t settled in at Sunny Ridge then Betty? What’s the problem? I’ve been told that most people take a few weeks to settle down, but then they love it. There’s always company. Always lots to do. Plenty of entertainment. Good rooms. Medical staff at your elbow if needed. Nice food, or so I’ve heard. Apparently their chef used to be at the Mount Drake. And the food there was very swish.’
‘Yes, I know all that, Janet. But I really can’t get used to the communal living thing. There’s no privacy. And just when I want to watch the telly, the maids are at the door wanting to clean up. And they never do it quietly. Jabbering away to each other. I’m always terrified they’re going to break something. They just don’t seem to care.’
‘Well, Ma, I’m sorry it’s taking time to get used to the place. But we did take you to see quite a few. And it was you that said you’d like to try ‘Sunny Ridge’. You thought it the best of those we saw. Within your budget of course.
‘And why don’t you ask if the maids if they can come at another time. You could even put some of your ornaments away. Then there would be no risk of breakage.’
Betty shrugged in exasperation. ‘You just don’t understand dear. Whatever time they came would be a disruption. And I like my things on display. They remind me of the good old days. When we were all together. And when we were all happy. Before all this nonsense started.’
‘Look, Ma, I don’t know what to say. If you can think of somewhere else, we’ll take you there to give it the once over. And if you want to come and stay here,’ he glanced at Janet, ‘you only have to say the word.’
‘No Peter, thank you very much. But I don’t think a mother in law’s intrusion is a very good idea.’
‘We could always give it a try, Betty,’ Janet replied, but without much conviction.
‘Well, yes, perhaps we could give it a try as you say. Then I could help out around the place. And then maybe you could let Mavis go. She doesn’t seem to do much around here anymore anyway.’
‘Ma, please don’t start on that again,’ Peter said, no longer hiding his exasperation. ‘Why do you have to bring Mavis up again anyway?’
‘Well Peter, it’s just that I think I’ve got a better work ethic than Mavis. I’d get things done. Properly and on time.’
Peter no longer bothered to hide his irritation. ‘Ma, I know you were born here and you think you know the country well, but it’s people with ideas like you that are part of our problem. Times have changed. Even the twentieth century’s behind us now. You have to try to catch up with reality.’
But Betty refused to be cowed. ‘Well, in seventy-five years I’ve learned a lot about these people. I’ve had to handle many servants in my lifetime you know Peter. Quite often they need to be treated like children. But firmly just the same. Otherwise they start taking advantage of you.’
‘What you’ve just said is exactly what I mean Ma. That’s the trouble. You think you know them as you put it, because all you’ve ever done is give them instructions. But if truth be told, we don’t understand very much about them at all.’
Janet couldn’t help coming to her mother in law’s defence. ‘Peter, now you’re just being rude…’
‘No Janet, let him say his piece.’
‘Yes I think I should. But not in a way you’d expect. I’d like to give you an illustration of what I mean.
‘Let me tell you about a time when I was a kid and I went shooting with dad and his gang of mates. To old man Kruger’s farm. I used to love going with him.’
‘Yes, Peter, the Krugers were quite good friends of ours. I hope you keep that in mind, because I don’t think Janet ever met them. Now you won’t start saying unkind things about Frikkie Kruger, I hope.’
Peter ignored his mother. He went on. ‘You see Janet, on a hunting trip, we would camp in a clearing several miles from the farmhouse. One morning when I woke up, everyone was already out hunting. They’d gone off and left me asleep in the tent. But then I heard a few shots in the distance, and I set off to join them. On the way I passed three young boys herding a few cattle through the bush. Two would have been about my age I suppose, thirteen or fourteen. But it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly. Let’s just say two were teenagers and the third was younger. I said hello to them and they replied politely. And that was all. Or I thought it was all. But later on when we got back to the camp, Dad and his friends noticed that someone had been into the campsite. There was cattle spoor everywhere, and, at first they thought that some cows had simply wandered in amongst the tents. Then all hell broke loose. Some of their ammunition was missing.
I felt obliged to tell them about meeting the herd boys that morning, and we immediately jumped into the cars and drove off to the farmhouse to tell Kruger.’
‘You’ll get to the point soon, Peter, I hope. You’re always so long winded,’ said Betty.
‘I remember that Kruger went grey with anger. He was so embarrassed that something like this could happen on his farm. Because this was Kruger’s Promised Land. His ancestors thought they’d discovered the source of the Nile. The river that Moses had been put into when he was a baby. And they claimed the whole district as theirs. As far as the eye could see. Right here in someone else’s country.’
Peter hoped he was not being too melodramatic. And kids do not steal ammunition in the Promised Land. So Kruger donned the mantle of an Old Testament patriarch and set about putting things right. There were children to be punished for their waywardness.’
‘This is all very well, Peter,’ said his mother. ‘And very colourfully told. But what are you getting at?’
‘You’ll see, Ma. Just wait. Or I hope you’ll see.
‘Anyway, Kruger got out his truck, and we followed him in a convoy of cars to several shacks where his labourers lived. He asked the adults for the names of the kids who were herding the cattle that morning. An old man gave up their names quite readily, even though he must have known there was trouble brewing. It was easy to find the boys. They were all at a nearby hovel and Kruger told them to get into the back of his pickup.
A knot started to develop in my stomach, because although I did not know what was going to happen, I felt implicated and somehow responsible for events.’
‘Still, Peter, if they were the only ones around…’ Janet started to say.
‘Hang on darling. Don’t jump the gun. I’m getting to that.
‘So, when we got back to the homestead, Frikkie took the three kids to an open shed. He bound the two older boys’ wrists together with some wire flex, and tied them to a tractor. But he did nothing to the younger boy, the kid of about eight or nine, who just stood there passively watching.
‘Then Kruger spoke to the boys in their own language. I could understand most of what he said. He told them that my father was a good friend of his. He’d been coming to the farm to hunt for many years. He said the boys’ fathers and grandfathers would remember him well, and what they had done was a terrible insult. He asked them where they’d hidden the missing boxes of shotgun cartridges.
‘But they swore that they had not taken them.’
‘Little buggers.’ Betty couldn’t help interjecting, but Peter ignored her.
‘Then Kruger produced a long sjambok. A rawhide whip. When I saw this I asked my father to intervene. I said although I had passed the boys near to our camp, I had not actually seen them do anything.
But he told me to be quiet. “Frikkie understands these people,” he said.
‘Well it must have been obvious that the boys had taken the bullets, wasn’t it?’ asked Betty.
‘I don’t understand how you can say that Ma. It could have been anyone. There were lots of other labourers on the farm. But, anyway, let me go on.
‘Kruger went over to the boys and gave them each a gentle flick with the whip.
‘The youngest boy began to cry, but he made no attempt to run away.
‘Suddenly Kruger went into a frenzy of whipping. The sound of the sjambok cutting through the air was terrifying. But he did nothing to the kids. He was flaying into a bag of maize. Sweat poured from his head as the sack was torn to shreds. A choking cloud of dust rose up and kernels of corn went everywhere.
‘Then Kruger threw down the sjambok and motioned us to follow him. He told the kids he’d be back soon, because it was the their turn next.
‘We all followed him back to the farmhouse for coffee and biscuits. I remember that my father and his friends were kidding him about having a heart attack.’
‘Yes Jack was like that,’ smiled Betty. He loved to tease people.
‘But what happened next?’ asked Janet. ‘Get to the point. If here is one. What was the outcome?’
‘Well, nothing really,’ Peter was beginning to think he was handling this story badly, but he went on explaining. ‘After an hour or so, we all traipsed back to the shed. The youngest kid was sitting on his haunches. One of the boys had wet himself, but they immediately told us they had taken the ammunition, and then they showed us where they’d buried the bullets in the middle of a field.’
‘And nothing else happened?’ asked Janet. ‘He didn’t do anything to the boys?’
‘No, nothing at all.’ Peter realised that the anticlimax had left the wrong impression. Except for a few cuffs behind the ears when he let them go.’
‘Well, there you are then,’ said Betty. ‘All’s well that ends well you see. And Frikkie knew how to handle the situation. He understood these people. He knew them well. Very well I’d say. Just like I do. It’s all a matter of experience and understanding. And judgement, if you like.’
Peter shook his head. ‘But can’t you see how wrong you are Ma? This is typical and everyday example of the worst kind of intimidation.’
‘But it worked, Peter, the boys were guilty, and the farmer knew it,’ said Janet. ‘He knew it instinctively, if you like.’
The eerie glow of the screen reflected on Peter’s face as he picked out the letters with one finger. ‘Jesus! That was quick. Well, well, well. So, he also wrote “Onward Christian Soldiers” according to this. That certainly positions him, I suppose. Completed it in only forty-five minutes, apparently. A fast worker then.
‘And here it is, Grandpa’s poem. Yes, this is it:
“Through the night of doubt and sorrow
Onward goes the pilgrim band,
Singing songs of expectation,
Marching to the Promised Land.”
‘No wonder he liked it.’
Peter paused, deep in thought.
‘Because he thought this country was the Promised Land. And he’d obviously convinced himself that he’d arrived in Paradise.’
While Peter was copying out the verse, the telephone started ringing. It had an irritating tone and Peter waited for Janet to answer it.
‘It’ll be her bloody mother again, for sure.’
But no one answered the phone. Janet played this game from time to time, knowing that Peter would eventually cave in and pick it up.
‘Hello. Peter Lawson…’
A vaguely familiar voice cut in. ‘Peter, it’s Tony.’
There was a pause.
‘Good God, Tony! Tony Stein! How great to hear from you! We were talking about you only couple of days ago. How are things my friend? How is it going over there? And Ruth and Rachel, how are they? The two females in your life as well as mine? On top of the world I hope. Tell me how you all are.’
‘ Well, not so good really, Peter. That’s why I’m calling…’
‘What do you mean, “not so good”? Come on Tony, why such pessimism? You’re living the high life from what I hear. And in the Promised Land, literally, from what you yourself have told me before. On the few occasions we’ve spoken, admittedly. But it’s easy to lose contact isn’t it? And it certainly was before the Internet and SMS messages and so on. Do you understand all this modern keep-in-touch stuff the kids use these days, Tony? Because I don’t. But I suppose Rachel’s still young enough to know what’s going on with technology. And she probably helps you out when you’re stuck, I suppose.
‘But it really is fantastic to hear from you Tony.’
‘Yes, well,’ the voice faltered and then went on, ‘I should have phoned you before…’
Peter cut in. ‘Hey, Tony, the good news is that we’re hoping to pay you a visit sometime. Just Janet and me. Perhaps in a year or two. So you’d better start preparing for it now. Saving up. It’ll be just like the old days. When we were all young, slim, healthy and good looking. I’m dying to see you lot again.
‘How’s Rachel liking university?
‘Hello Tony? I’ll bet she’s having a great time… Hello! Hello?’
There was silence on the other end of the line.
‘Tony? Tony, are you there? What’s wrong Tony? Tell me what’s up?
‘Has something happened? Tell me what it is Tony!’
He held the handset away from his ear and shouted. ‘Janet, come quickly. It’s Tony Stein calling from overseas. But something’s wrong. I think something must have happened.’
And then back into the mouthpiece Peter said, ‘What’s going on Tony? For fuck sake get to the point.’
‘Well, yes, Peter, unfortunately something really bad has happened.
It must have been on your news. Surely you saw it?’
‘Janet for fuck sake hurry up.
‘What are you trying to say to me Tony? Hold on a moment, Janet’s here now. I’ll just pop you onto speaker so that we can both hear you. Speak up please. OK, OK, you’re coming through loud and clear.’
Tony’s distinctive accent filled the room. ‘I’m afraid it’s the worst kind of news. I should have phoned before, Peter. But I couldn’t bring myself to do anything when it happened. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. And Ruth was in a mess. She still is. And so am I.
‘You see, Rachel was in a supermarket one evening a few weeks ago. She just popped in to pick up a few things on her way to see us.’
There was a long pause. Then Tony added, ‘Well she was badly wounded when a suicide bomber blew herself up in one of the aisles.
Peter started shouting. ‘Stop it Tony! Fuck off man. Don’t tell me this! What are you saying?’
‘Rachel suffered appalling wounds, Peter.’
Janet started making soft whimpering sounds. ‘For fuck sake shut up! No not you Tony, Janet. She’s started making stupid fucking noises and I can hardly hear you. Hello Tony are you still there?’
‘Yes Peter, I am. And I could cut my tongue out for admitting it out loud, but fortunately Rachel died a few days ago.’
Peter started crying. ‘Tony! Stop it. Don’t say things like this!’
‘Ruth’s distraught, as you can imagine. We’re both gutted. Our lives will never be the same again. It’s been much more difficult than we expected over here. Although we never admitted it. And now this.
‘Anyway, after Rachel died, Ruth and I have talked a lot about what to do about the future. In the time we’ve got left, that is. Because everything comes to an end, doesn’t it Peter?’
Peter started shouting into the phone. ‘Jesus Christ Tony, what can I say? You’ve been out of Africa for … what is it…Ten? Twelve…? Yes, it must be twelve years now.’
‘That’s right Peter. It’s been twelve years. But perhaps we should never have left. Then perhaps this wouldn’t have happened.
‘We thought we’d found paradise. Like our forefathers, when they came out of Egypt. We thought of this country as the Promised Land. The land of Canaan we’d been promised in the Old Testament. We thought it would be heaven on earth. We thought it would be safe, and we thought that we’d be happy here. But it didn’t work out like that.’
There was another short lapse in conversation. Peter didn’t know what to say, or how to react.
Then Tony went on. ‘Well the problem over here is that other people think of it as theirs just as much as we do. It’s their Promised Land as well. And we don’t want to acknowledge that you see.
‘Giving us a country in someone else’s country was an act of gross political stupidity. And there’s always a price to pay, isn’t there, Peter? So the bill has been presented. And now we’ve paid our share. With Rachel’s life.’
Peter had stopped crying, but he was still shouting. ‘What are you saying Tony? What the fuck are you telling me?’
‘Well, Peter, what I’m telling you is this. There’s another reason for my phone call. In fact it’s the main reason. You see, I’ve finally realised that we’ve been out of Africa for far too long.’
And then, rather hesitantly, Tony added, ‘So now we’re coming home.’
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