An Excerpt from Chapter One
Above the bush, the pink and orange streaked sky had faded to grey.
Inside, it was almost dark and Grandpa, in his chair beneath the room’s
only window, caught the last of the light. He sat completely still,
smiling at our confusion.
We waited for an explanation and he gave none. His gaze alternated between us and the ceiling, his body remained still. One hand clutched a small glass, full with an equal mixture of red wine and grape juice; the other lay on the armrest, long fingers digging into the worn velvet covers.
Then a flicker near the ceiling and a shadowy creature plunged out of the gloom.
Just above his head, close enough to brush wisps of thin white hair, it stopped – a giant brown moth, suspended with an unsteady flutter. The moth, joined moments later by a second, began a jolting orbit of his head.
Grandpa gave a satisfied grunt. He lifted his glass and took a small sip. The moths, ignoring him, continued to circle. Just as carefully, he lowered the glass again. He sat motionless; his lips taut and flattened. He hadn’t swallowed and as his eyes followed the moths, a drop of liquid grew at each corner of his mouth, pausing just before it was full enough to slide down his jaw.
Suddenly, a dark butterfly shadow eclipsed his cheek: one of the moths; wings flat against his face, long proboscis reaching for the drops. The second moth descended on the opposite cheek. The first flapped away. It was magical and ridiculous: the ghostly, clumsy creatures taking off and settling again; Grandpa, until then so fiercely intimidating, looking like a gentle, badly painted clown.
He smiled at those dowdy moths as if they were beloved pets; and only when they left, when the last traces of daylight vanished and a paraffin lamp spluttered to life in the corner of the room, did he return his attention to his audience.
“Nice trick, Ivor,” said Dad, as the moths joined clouds of insects that appeared out of nowhere to dive-bomb the lamp. “But what these kids really want to see are snakes.”
“Whad-da-ya say?” Grandpa leaned forward and cupped his hand behind his ear. His voice was high pitched and sounded strange coming from such a tall, imposing man. Squeezed between Mum and the cat on the sofa, Damien and I stifled a laugh. Lulu didn’t manage, giggled and buried her head in Mum’s lap.
Dad repeated himself.
“Hard to please, eh?” Grandpa fixed his gaze on each of us; half amused, half accusing. He turned back to Dad.
“Keith,” said Grandpa, pointing to a frayed brown sofa chair in the corner of the room. “Show the kids what’s under that chair.”
Dad raised an eyebrow and smiled, but didn’t enquire further. He stood up and walked slowly towards the chair. “Come on, chaps,” he said, grabbing the armrest, “not suddenly scared are you?”
We all shook our heads. None of us moved. I didn’t trust myself to speak. Desperate as I was to see snakes, after all Dad’s stories about Grandpa Ivor’s wild, laugh-in-the-face-of-danger life, the prospect of whatever lay beneath that chair in this strange house was suddenly terrifying.
I turned to Granny Betty who sat quietly at the end of the long sofa, stroking the cat with a bony hand. An amused smile flickered across her face, but she remained silent.
“Go on,” said Mum, smiling encouragingly, “Dad and Grandpa Ivor know what they’re doing. This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
Grandpa glared at us. “Stand behind your father if you’re scared,” he bellowed.
At least as scared of Grandpa’s disapproval, Lulu, Damien and I reluctantly slid off the sofa and squatted behind Dad. With his legs as far back as possible, Dad leant forward and began to pivot the chair slowly sideward.
Holding our breath, poised to flee, we peered under the rising base of the chair.
A black creature, a little smaller than my hand, crouched statue-like on the concrete floor. At one end were pincers, evil-looking but tiny compared with the fat, hairy tail, sharply pointed at the tip, which curled up and backwards over the wide body. Perfect, regular seams joined shiny black segments of the tail, body and pincers, making it seem more like an exquisitely made machine than a real animal.
Dad whistled. “Black hairy thick-tailed scorpion,” he said, emphasising each word. “If you can’t see a snake on your first day, this is as good as it gets.”
“Could easily kill one of you chaps,” added Grandpa.
But the scorpion didn’t seem to be in the mood for killing anyone. It took off with ungraceful speed, scuttling towards the wall where it disappeared under a bookcase. Dad offered to try and catch it, but Grandpa said there were so many in the house already that Dad should just “leave the little bugger where he is”.
* * * *
Botswana is more than two-thirds desert. Selebi – Grandpa’s home and our destination on that first, bewildering day just before Christmas in 1987 – is in the other third, which gets just enough rain to miss out on the glamorous distinction of desert, and much too little to settle the ubiquitous red dust or support any but the hardiest of plants. Except for a few months of the year, that is, when the occasional storm cloud bursts and fat raindrops puff dust into the air and pummel sheets of water that flood the baked ground. In a good rainy season, the dry riverbeds that thread their way east to the Limpopo River might flow. Often they don’t. For nine months of the year, it is hot; for the rest, it is dry.
There is no time of year when it is not hot and not dry.
A few hundred kilometres from Selebi, the borders of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet at the country’s most eastern tip. Here the Limpopo peels away from Botswana and heads towards the Indian Ocean. Botswana is securely landlocked. At any point in the country you are at least five hundred kilometres from the sea. But making up for the absence of sea and lakes, spilling hundreds of kilometres across the dry sands in the north, lies the world’s largest inland delta.
The bush surrounding the exquisite Okavango Swamps, the “jewel of the Kalahari”, teems with all of African’s biggest and most impressive wildlife.
The bush around Selebi teems with cows, goats and donkeys. There are few fences and the animals wander mostly unimpeded across the flat land. They are frequently killed on the roads, hit by local cars or huge trucks passing through on their long journeys between Southern and Central Africa. The land is overgrazed and any lions, elephants and rhinos that weren’t hunted left long ago in search of places with more food and fewer people. Only the small dangerous animals, like snakes and scorpions, which don’t mind living alongside humans, are left. For by Botswana standards – a country the size of France with fewer than two million people – the region is populous. Cattleposts of five to twenty huts are sprinkled across the bush and there are several bigger villages, the largest of which have electricity and running water.
Selebi, which appears on maps as Selebi-Phikwe, consists of just two old houses and three concrete slabs that were once houses. A relic from the early years of the nearby copper and nickel mine, Selebi is the ghost part of town. By the late 1980s, when my parents abruptly decided to return home to Botswana – ending a peripatetic decade that had spanned South Africa, England and New Zealand, and produced three children – Grandpa Ivor and Granny Betty had long been Selebi’s sole residents.
Phikwe, which lies ten kilometres away, is the real town; home, when we arrived, to almost 40,000 people, most who directly or indirectly derived their living from the mine. Among them were Grandpa Terry and Granny Joan, Mum’s parents, who like most Phikwe residents visited the old town only in passing; travelling to or from the little bush airport – which together with the nearby mineshaft and Grandpa Ivor’s house comprised the only still used parts of Selebi.
The airport had a tall glass control tower, two faded orange windsocks and a small customs and immigration building. It was here that my brother, sister and I first set foot in Botswana, unloaded onto the baking tarmac with the eight frozen turkeys that Grandpa Ivor had packed under the seats when he collected us in Johannesburg.
I was nearly seven, Damien was five and Lulu was three.
The air on the runway smacked us like a hot wave.
Snakes, lions and every other fantasy vanished. Heat overwhelmed me as I stood, stunned, in the fierce, dry, completely still air. It was unfairly, unbelievably hot, heat like nothing I had every felt before. Normal thought, in this temperature and blinding light, was suddenly impossible. Mesmerised, I watched shimming waves float above the dark tar. Beyond the runway fence posts, the flat green scrub seemed frozen behind the wobbling veil of heat. The almost white sky was empty, nothing stirred in the bushes, a few black cows stood motionless, sleeping beside the fence.
Heat was the only thing moving.
Mum and Dad seemed unperturbed, smiling and chatting, as they hauled bags out the plane. Lulu Damien and I stood, bewildered, sheltering in the shadow of the wing, quietly waiting for instructions. Eventually, with all our suitcases retrieved, we left Grandpa Ivor fiddling with the controls in the cockpit, and Mum and Dad herded us towards the small building beside the control tower.
Inside, it was breathlessly stuffy and not much cooler. A small fan whirred ineffectively from a stand on the concrete floor in the corner of the room. After an unexplained wait – there was no one else in the queue – a uniformed customs officer instructed Mum and Dad to open all our suitcases on a scratched wooden desk. With a suspicious scowl, he began slowly rummaging through layer after layer of clothes, books and toys. He looked disappointed each time he reached the bottom of a bag.
“Why’s he taking so long?” I whinged. “What’s he looking for?”
“Nothing.” Mum squeezed my shoulder.
“I’m so hot.”
“Shhh, Robbie,” hissed Dad.
“Why are you smiling like that?” As soon as the officer had approached us, Mum and Dad’s excited-to-be-back smiles had been replaced by fixed, unconvincing grins.
Both ignored me and continued to grin wildly at the slow, grumpy officer.
Then suddenly the officer was grinning too. “Dumela, Mr Scott,” he said, as Grandpa Ivor, carrying a bulging sack, strode towards the desk. As they exchanged greetings in quick, singsong Setswana, a puddle spread across the floor beneath the sack of defrosting turkeys.
The officer didn’t seem to notice. Still smiling, he turned to Dad. “Ah! The Madala’s son,” he said warmly. “Welcome to Botswana.”
Ignoring the dripping sack and the unchecked suitcases, he stamped our forms and waved us on. Minutes later, we were outside, uncomfortably installed in the tiny, battered pick-up truck that Grandpa called his bakkie. Mum and Lulu sat in the front; Dad, Damien and I on the back, wedged among the bags and seven turkeys. Grandpa kept the last one out. “Christmas spirit,” he said, striding back towards the building, the dripping bird clutched under his arm. He disappeared inside, emerging, empty-handed, almost immediately.
And one turkey less, we set off to our new home.