FROM THE BACKSEAT

by Greg Latter


We are in the Zephyr, a Ford motorcar with four cylinders. It is turquoise on the outside and cream inside. Cream is a bad colour for kids although these kids don't mess much.

I am in the back, looking out the back window, holding onto the back- rest. The road is bumpy. My sister, two years my senior, is sitting alongside my mother. Their hair has been curled with curlers from the night before. We all ate very well. Father sat at the head of the table where he always sat. He ate slowly, deep in thought. Mother ate quickly. She still had some last minute packing to do. He reminded her to take some mango chutney. He had a special recipe with chilies and spices and the mangos came from the trees in the back garden so it was cheap.

The road is bumpy so I hold on tight. Mother is talking to the girl alongside her, her daughter. She tells her about Durban, the biggest sea port in the Republic of South Africa, of the vast sea, the tall buildings, the crowds of people - you'll love it, it's just right for you, for all of us. Father rides behind us on his motorbike, a Matchless 500cc, made in Britain. His white helmet, his goggles, his mouth, bob up and down. The roads are bad so he'll only ride as far as the border and we'll say goodbye there. He'll make sure we get through all right.

Today is the day that Zambia comes alive. Yesterday it was Northern Rhodesia but the Queen of England gave it away. She had to. Mother told Father that she was leaving - she was taking the kids out. She told Father after Aunty Violet was attacked. Poor Aunty Violet - she thought she had been hit on the back while shopping in town but when she got home and took off her dress there was blood all over it. She stretched her arm and felt her back. There were small holes where the pen-knife has pierced her flesh. She fainted on the spot. The doctor said she was lucky to be alive. We all thought so too. Especially Mother who cried a lot and then shouted at Father for bringing us to live in this place in the first place. He didn't know what to say so he shouted back but he was never good with words. He said he brought us to live in Northern Rhodesia for the money, that he did it for us. The rest I can't remember. But they shouted a lot.

Father had had to use his gun. He made his own bullets from a machine. He shot a wild cat and he shot a man. The police said that it was a good thing. They came to the door and stood there in their baggy khaki shorts and shirts with badges and took off their hats. They used to sweat into their hats and you could see the brown stains with the white from where the salt stained it. Father invited them in for beers. They all shook father's hand and asked him about his horses. He told them that Flaming Harvest was going to run in Lusaka and that they must put their money on him for a place bet. Flaming Harvest won. I think they phoned him to say thanks. That was last year.

Father is collecting dust. It hasn't rained for months and he is really getting dusty. He stops and I tell Mother but she just carries on driving. A little later Father catches us up again. This time he has a handkerchief tied over his nose. I think he stays behind the car in the dust because he likes it.

I'm getting car-sick. I want to vomit. Mother stops and I get out and do it behind a bush, worried that a snake might be there but there isn't one. Father waits on the motorbike. Mother gets me brandy from the trunk and makes me drink three tablespoons. Then I get back into the car. Sister looks very worried but then we all drive off again.

When I sit properly in the seat I can't see out the front window. I can only see the back of the front seat in front of me. I am even more car-sick but this time my head is spinning and it doesn't seem to matter that much.

The road is straight and bumpy. There are small hills off to the south and we are heading straight for them. Twice we have to stop and pull off the side of the road for big trucks. They are going up to the Copper Belt. That was where we lived. In Kantanta Street and before that Geddis Street in a town called Kitwe. Father worked in the Cobalt Plant on the mine. After work he went to the stables. He liked to go there more than anywhere else. He had four horses and they all raced in Lusaka, in Salisbury and also in Bulawayo. Sometimes, when they won, we went out to the hotel for lunch. There was a set menu with three deserts. I used to put all the deserts onto one plate. Father didn't like it but Mother thought it was fine. She said that as long as ate all our vegetables we could have desert. I used to take a long time over mine so that Sister got jealous when hers was finished. Once I got a hiding because of that.

This car is using a lot of petrol. Mother tells me this but I don't know what to do. I feel a little better because my tummy is warm and my head is still spinning slightly although not so bad. I turn around and look back. Father is further away now. He has taken the handkerchief off his nose. He waves and then grabs the handlebars quickly because the bike wobbles. He hunches over the petrol tank.

When I got my bicycle he took me for lessons on the road riding next to me on his motorbike. I pretended we were both on motorbikes and we had big packs tied onto the back and we were going to London across the Sahara desert. A few years before Father tried to ride to London with his friend called Hans who worked with him at the Cobalt Plant. We were going to fly to meet Father in London but he came back suddenly after about a week because Hans had fallen over and his motorbike with all the heavy packs on the back had crushed him. We knew something terrible was wrong and sister heard the news through the bathroom door when Father told Mother in secret. She told me that Father said he was holding Hans in his arms when Hans died. But the worst thing was that father had asked Hans to come with him on the trip so he said Han's death was all his fault. We flew to London anyway but it wasn't nice because father got boils all over his body and they wouldn't go away for a long time. Mother told him lots of times to stop blaming himself for Hans but it didn't seem to stop the boils. When we were in London they sent Sister and me to stay with Aunty Anne in Sussex while they went to Germany to see Han's parents. Afterwards we flew back to Northern Rhodesia and I got a Junior Jet Club badge with a B.O.A.C. sign on it and I was also allowed into the cockpit of the plane where I met the pilot.

Every time I turned a corner on my bicycle I had to stick my arm out to show which way I was going. Father also taught me to hold up my hand when I stopped. He taught Sister also but then she had to stop riding her bike because some black men put a stick in her spokes when she was riding back from ballet and she fell a hard one. Father said he could kill them and Mother agreed.

Mother is driving fast now. Her shoulders are bunched up, her eyes wide. My sister sings songs that she learned at tap-dancing which she took up after ballet because the class was closer to our house in Kantanta Street and she only had to walk to it. She had been in a show at the Scout Hall and everyone said she was great. Mother said she followed after Grandmother's footsteps because Granny had sung in the Opera. Father took a photo of her in her tap-shoes and big bonnet. He put her next to the mango trees and then took the photo. I was Wee-Willy-Winky at the school fancy dress and I had to carry a stupid candle even though it was day-time. Father took a photo of me as well but my eyes were closed and it didn't turn out so good.

I lie down in the back seat.

At night, early at night, we were sent to bed. After a while Sister and I would sneak back to the lounge door. They left it open to hear us if we cried. I sat on the floor and looked through the gap between the wall and the door. Sister stood up behind me and also looked. When we got tired we swapped over, quietly. We saw the adult films, we saw the love scenes, we saw fights, we saw babies being born and doctors holding them up for their first smack. We saw the late, late news - it was the B.B.C. and it was always true. Once we saw Father and Mother on the sofa together holding each other. They cried out and we got scared and went back to bed on tip-toe. I used to check under the bed to see that no one was under it. No one was ever under it.

We stop and the four of us stand by the car. The sun is high and it's hot. This is the halfway point between home and the border. There are people and cars and buildings. Father and I go to the toilet. He washes his face and then helps me wash mine. Outside we all talk quietly. Father goes and then he comes back and we all go and eat at the hotel next to the garage. Then we sit in the lounge and Father discusses the journey with Mother and they talk about furniture. We are sent out to play on the swings.

The swings are behind the hotel. They is a black boy on one of the swings. Sister gets onto the other swing and I push her. The black boy goes quicker and higher so I push harder. I am pushing so much that the swing gets slack at the top of its swing and then Sister yells and Father comes out with Mother behind him and he yells for me to stop it. Sister gets off. She cries to show Mother and I tell Father it wasn't me. We get back into the car and drive off again.

Father stays behind on the bike and Mother tells us that the border is not far away. I look out the back window all the time. There is a fly on the inside of the window and it can't get out. I squash it with my thumb on the glass and then try to put it between Father and me. If I put my eye close up to the fly and close my other eye, I can blot Father out, but only until we hit a bump or take a corner. The fly gets hot and dries up and falls off. There is still a mark there, but.

After a while we get to the border. Some of the way I sleep but Sister wakes me up when we get there because she promised me. We stay in the car and they go with the passports to the office. There are quite a few other cars with families in them also. And there are soldiers with rifles. They talk to each other loudly and one of them laughs at Sister. I lock the car doors and we laugh back at them. One of them wags his finger at me but I just wave back. We are here a long time and then Father comes out and gives us a glass of water. He goes back in and we wait again. I am fighting with Sister when they come out. Mother is crying and Father has her by the arm. They walk past the car to the motorbike. Father talks to Mother all the time. I have never seen him talk so much. She puts her arms around him and they kiss, in the open. Then they come back to the car and Father says goodbye to us. After kisses I get out and go back to the motorbike with him. It is very dusty and he lets me write my name with my finger on the petrol tank. We hold hands and then he tells me to go back to the car but I just wait with him by the bike. Mother comes over to us, her eyes wet from crying, and she takes my hand and walks me back to the car and Sister. I don't look up because of the soldiers. The red and white pole across the road is lifted and we drive over the bridge to the other side. I sit holding onto the back seat, looking out the back window at Father getting smaller and smaller as we drive away. There is a hill behind him that also gets smaller.

We stop at Kariba lake. Kariba is part of the Zambezi, the biggest river in Africa. It is not as long as the Nile but it is bigger. We stay at the Motel and watch Rhodesian Television. Because there is no more Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia just calls itself Rhodesia and Mother says it's safe here because now we are out of Zambia. Sister can't understand all the names so I explain and Mother says I am correct. Anyway, their television is almost the same. Mother cries again but not in front of us. She is quiet all through supper and all through her drink afterwards. When I look at her she smiles and calls me her Little Man. Sister and I go to sleep early but I can't sleep because I slept in the car.

I lie thinking about things. I think of the wild cat that Father shot and then I can remember him getting smaller and smaller until there is nothing left. Mother comes in. She thinks we are asleep so she is extra quiet. She closes the bathroom door and lets the water run. Then she comes out and gets undressed. She looks at herself in the long mirror for a long time. She says, softly, like it's a secret:

"I'm still young enough."

Then it is morning.


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From the Backseat, 4 April 1997