HILDA PAUSED AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE HOTEL and set down her panniers. Her leg throbbed, not as much as last week, but she had not rested it since early this morning. The steps to the front door were gentle, but the pannier banging on her wound worried her.
This was a major international chain, aimed at European and American travellers, so the doorman and the bell captain did not immediately recognize her as a guest or react to her limp. The trekking shirt and shorts were not exactly native dress, but did she need to wear high fashion to be noticed?
After her surprise, she felt annoyed. She started to call to the doorman in Shona, then stopped herself.
“I say, could I have some help here?” The man whipped his head to the sound of an Army officer calling out in clear British English. Hilda pointed to the dramatic bandage wrapping her leg, then to the panniers. Her eyes flared. The man’s eyes went wide, and he jumped, calling to the bell captain in Shona.
It was the first time she had ever “pulled rank” to get attention, but then, she had never, ever been ignored in her life. Standing two metres tall, with brilliant lapis-lazuli eyes and anthracite skin, people always noticed her immediately, even before they took in her Viking features and long, fine hair.
Almost immediately, she felt ashamed. The doorman seemed as old as her grandfather, and he would have memories of Rhodesia before Zimbabwe and the terrible years since independence. She had behaved like a colonial.
She realized (once again) that in Zimbabwe she did not stand out. Enjoy it, Paisley, it won’t last, she said to herself.
“Waita hako,” thank you, she said to the man, with a smile. She put a tip in his hand and followed the bellboy into the lobby.
Alone in her room, she put her leg up for about twenty minutes. She took a shower, then changed her bandage. The jagged gash that the dying leopard had left on her leg was healing nicely. The claw had ripped the skin but not cut any arteries or damaged muscles. She would have a dramatic scar, but she probably would lose the limp by next week when she no longer needed to favour the leg to avoid opening the wound.
She considered a nap, but she knew that walking was good for her recovery. She made herself don a skirt and blouse and go down to the lobby and arrange for a seat on the airport shuttle the next day. At a travel store across the street from the hotel, she bought a large rolling suitcase, into which she packed the contents of her panniers and the folded bags themselves.
After a light supper in the hotel restaurant, she called home to her parents in Kaiserslautern and to her grandparents in London. She fell asleep that night relishing the pleasure of meeting Maita on the Paisley ranch and living the life her grandfather had known before he emigrated to London before the Second World War. She did not dream.
“Murapi!” Garai (Greg to his European friends) and Mudiwa (Diva) Paisley towered over the crowd at international arrivals. Their hair had finally turned silver, but there was no stoop in their proud frames. Murapi, healer, was Hilda’s Shona name.
Hilda pulled her suitcase to where her grandparents waited outside the crush of passengers. She paused to admire her grandmother. This is what Maita will look like some day. She moved to hug them.
“You are wounded!” Diva Paisley said. “What happened?”
“Leopard. It’s healing well.” She let her grandfather take the suitcase. “I have so much to tell you.”
In the parking lot, the three tall people squeezed into the Morris, with Hilda putting her leg along the back seat as best she could and her grandmother pulling her knees up to her chin.
“Sekuru, are you planning on leaving the Church for the circus? This is a clown car.”
The vicar laughed. “It is small, but I rarely use it. Anything bigger could not get around the parish. As it is, I usually walk. A nurse on the church council uses it to transport parishioners to surgeries, and to call on patients in outlying retirement homes.”
“Enough chatter about us,” said Mudiwa. “You called from Bulawayo, and that flight was from Harare. Whatever on earth were you doing in Zimbabwe?”
“Oh, ambuya, I am so sorry I could not tell you before I left, but when I got orders to Landstuhl I had two months leave piled up. I got the idea to see where you and sekuru grew up. I found a flight that day, but I would have had to wait a week if I missed it. I wrote letters to you and baba on the plane and posted them between planes in Cairo.”
“Tongai thought you might be supporting some foray into the hills.”
“Enough of those before I left. I still have another week before I report to the hospital.”
“Good,” he said. “We’ll hold the debriefing in the vicarage. Maybe your letter will come before you leave.”
Hilda shivered a little as she watched the rain slide sideways around the little car. Garai was a careful driver, but in no time they were coming off the motorway from Heathrow and crossing the villages and towns north of London. She expected grey skies and rain, but her soul was not ready for it. Already she missed the desert…
“Father Greg” served a neighbourhood of immigrants from Africa and South Asia, who had reworked the grey stone rowhouses and grey storefronts with colours, sounds and smells not found in a typical English town. Saris, djellabas, and European clothes mingled on the sidewalks. Hilda even saw a woman comfortably carrying a basket of shopping on her head as she navigated the crowd.
The neighbourhood may have been poor by modern standards, but the buildings had been there for centuries, and the vicarage was a large house, with the servants’ quarters and passageways converted into rooms for meetings, classes, and guests. Hilda had a room to herself with a sink, and the washroom and bath just next door.
Mudiwa insisted that Hilda take her time settling in and not to stand in the kitchen to help. Whilst dinner cooked slowly on the hob and in the oven, they gathered in the parlour, where Garai poured aperitifs for them, chinotto, a citrus drink he had learned to appreciate in Italy when he had fought north on the Adriatic side with the British Eighth Army.
“So, you have met the wildlife in the Sikumbi,” he said, “but clearly this ingwe did not recognise the Mai Vembada.” Hilda smiled, remembering the stories he had told her of her many-times-great-grandmothers, renowned for raising leopard cubs.[i] They were known as Mother of Leopards when they became queens. “How did he meet his well-deserved end?”
“A stupid adolescent who could not read the No Trespassing signs. He swallowed the barrel of an M-16 as I triggered a triple burst. That got him off the gun, but he clawed me on the way down.”
For the next hour and over dinner, Hilda recounted her bicycle ride north from Bulawayo to the ranch where Garai had been born and raised. Meeting Matai, who reminded her of a young version of Mudiwa. Matai and Gamba losing one of their cows to the leopard. Working on the farm. Seeing the house that young Garai had called home and the one next door, where Maita’s grandfather had been raised. The widowed Scottish missionary who had hired and educated the two families had died childless and willed the farm to Maita’s father. She finished with the story of replacing the cow and riding back to Bulawayo in Gamba’s brother’s stake truck to pick it up.
As she passed the potatoes around, Mudiwa asked, “did you tell me Maita and Gamba’s surname? I missed that.”
“No, I didn’t. It’s Sibanda.”
“Their farm is about three miles east of the Paisley ranch?”
“I thought so. Maita is more than a new friend. She’s your cousin.”
“Gamba’s grandfather was also Gamba. And he was my brother.”
“Oh my God. That’s amazing.”
“Not so much, mudiki. Everyone in the Buffer Area was related. The Europeans to one another, except for Sean Paisley, and we Bantu to the Mai Vembada’s clan.”
“I never knew that you were a Sibanda.”
“It never came up, did it?”
“Have you kept up with your family?”
Mudiwa paused and stared at the middle of the table for a while. “After Tongai and I left Rhodesia, I learned that Gamba and our parents were killed. I never found out just what happened, but Gamba’s son was helping at the Paisley farm at the time, so he survived.”
“That would be right. I only remember that he and Ariko Paisley were good friends. They were quite young when we left.”
“I can’t wait to write to Maita. This is very exciting.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Mudiwa looked across the table at the Bantu farmer-warrior-priest who had taken her so far. Hilda watched in admiration as they conducted a silent conversation of shrugs, head tilts, and facial movements. Her own parents often did the same thing.
“Some day, I want to learn that language, sekuru.”
“You have to be married for a while first, though having children accelerates the learning curve.” He smiled and squeezed her hand. “When you write to Maita, give her our regards and ask if we might write, too.”
The next morning, Hilda exercised her leg, and walked to the edge of the neighbourhood. Her limp had disappeared, and she only felt the slightest tug when she had to climb steep stairs.
When she returned, Garai was about to leave to make his rounds among the shut-ins and to check on families that occasionally ran afoul of the social services agencies, usually because of language difficulties.
“May I come with you, sekuru?”
“Having a nurse along would not hurt.” He tilted his head to a black bag on the side table in the hall. “Take Mrs. Pendleton’s bag. It should have anything you might need.”
Hilda did a quick inventory and determined that, indeed, the good nurse had a complete kit. Either she was a combat nurse, or this is a worse neighbourhood than my sekuru admits, she thought. The bag had a shoulder strap, which allowed Hilda to carry it without banging her wounded leg. They each took an umbrella from the stand near the door and stepped out. The rain was holding off, and the sky was a bright grey, which was enough to raise spirits across metropolitan London.
“Have you added any languages to your kit since your last visit?” he asked, as he smiled and returned waves from passers-by. Often appropriate bows replaced the waves, but he seemed to remember all their names and greet them in their native tongue.
“My Pashto, Urdu, and Arabic are much stronger now. The others are the same.” Growing up with an Army linguist and a Swedish opera star in Kaiserslautern, she had learned English, German, French, Swedish and Shona from her parents, Italian and Spanish in school.
“Good. Those are my weakest, but we have many Pakistani families. Here is the first one.”
They climbed to a small home in a council estate. The plaster outside needed paint, but the building was clean and kept in repair by the tenants. Vegetable gardens grew from every square inch of unpaved surface, so that the small white buildings on the row seemed to explode from a cloud of vegetation.
Inside, a woman in the traditional tunic and trousers met them. Hilda grinned at the two pre-schoolers clinging to their mother’s legs. The woman dropped her gaze when Garai greeted her in Urdu, then looked at Hilda.
“My granddaughter,” said Garai in English. “She is a nurse. Murapi, this is Mirha.”
“Come in, please.” Mirha backed up to allow them to enter the hall.
“Is your grandmother here?” Garai asked. Hilda gathered that the elderly lady was the reason for the visit, and that she would be nowhere else.
“Yes. Please, sit a moment.”
They sat in the multipurpose parlour-playroom-guest-bedroom. Hilda took in the framed photos of family, many of which included soldiers. She heard the gas hob light, and the rattle of tea boxes, cups, and saucers.
As Mirha served them tea, she answered the vicar’s questions about her grandmother and her new position as a part-time typist at a Pakistani solicitor’s office nearby. The children were twins, and she would start full-time after they began school next year.
With the courtesies complete, Mirha led them to the back bedroom, where a very small, wizened woman sat in a mountain of pillows. The face brightened and her smile was genuine when she saw Garai.
“Oh, Allah be praised. His archangel comes!” she exclaimed in Urdu. Garai looked at his granddaughter. Hilda recovered her surprise and gave the English to her father. He laughed.
“Stop it, grandmother, I am the least of His servants, and you know it.” Hilda fell into the interpreter role easily.
“Don’t contradict your elders, young man.” The gleam in the old woman’s eyes had Hilda hoping that she had half her spunk at that age.
After fifteen minutes of repartee, Garai asked if Hilda could check her. The nurse was surprised by the woman’s condition. Her vital signs were strong, and her skin and bones seemed in good shape. “You are taking good care of yourself, grandmother. Congratulations.”
“God wills it,” she replied, the traditional Arabic phrase used throughout the Moslem world.
“How do you keep strong?”
“I can’t walk, but I make myself get out of bed with those.” She pointed to a pair of crutches and a wheelchair. “It’s the stairs outside that keep me in the house, but sometimes we have young men come who carry me to the street, so I can go to the park and work out.”
Hilda interpreted the answer for her father. “Who are the young men, sekuru?”
“Ah, yes. Local Scout troop. Their Scoutmaster is a parishioner, and they have taken her on as a special project. Of course, they’re in school now.”
“I am happy for you, grandmother,” Hilda said. “They are a blessing.”
Garai kissed her hand and promised to return later in the week.
“Thank you for bringing Murapi. It has been a pleasure to talk so easily.”
Hilda bowed. They excused themselves, and Garai reminded Mirha on the way out to call him if they needed anything.
They visited another six shut-ins that morning before having lunch at a pub near the church. Garai was a regular and their meal came out as they sat down. Hilda sipped her beer with great pleasure.
“Good beer is something I miss whenever I leave England or Germany, sekuru.”
“Could I have settled anywhere else, then?”
After lunch, they stopped by the church to leave their umbrellas in his office. Then they called on four more families. Two were shut-ins: one old woman and a middle-aged labourer who was recovering from an accident at work. The other two families had just arrived in the last few months: one from Sudan and the other from Kenya. No one spoke English in either house, although the children were learning fast. Garai and Hilda looked at their papers with them and determined which office they needed to see next. They also helped the immigrants complete the forms that had stumped them. Garai took some notes and promised to send around a friend to escort them to the social services office next time. He also complimented the children on their English, noting that the two eldest were now routinely accompanying their mothers to the market.
It was dark by the time they left the last house, and the crowds on the streets had vanished to make supper or change for their night shifts.
As they walked back to the vicarage, she asked, “How did this ministry get started? It seems sort of unofficial.”
“About twenty years ago, I walked past a house that was dark. I could see people moving inside. I knocked on the door. The family was starving in the house they had been assigned. No one knew where to turn on the mains or the gas for the hob. They did not know how to find the market or how to shop. That I why I now make these rounds, and ever since that family, the church keeps a roster of parishioners with languages and skills on whom we can call for specific help.
“Things are much better now.”
“Are any of them parishioners?”
“One or two, but most are not even Christian. Not the point, is it?”
“No, sekuru, it’s not. I’m proud of you. They seem to love you, too.”
He shrugged. “We get along – most of us.” His gaze went to a group of young men halfway up the block. Hilda thought they looked like the men around Bar Kunar, near the Pakistan border. They wore jeans and jackets and seemed to be in their late teens.
“Here comes the infidel missionary,” said one in Pashto, “and he has a pretty assistant this time.”
“An old man and a woman,” said another. “Almost too easy. Why did Bacha send four of us?”
“Probably to get you out from under his feet.” The other two snickered, while the one who asked slapped them.
Hilda whispered to her father in Shona, “Did you follow that?”
“Enough. Who’s the old man?” He chuckled. “Two each, front-on?”
“Hongu, sekuru.” Yes, grandfather.
The four boys lined up and blocked the sidewalk. They were about the same height, maybe six inches less than the two Paisleys, but each weighed about the same, with no fat.
“Hey, priest, I hear you been seeing our people,” said the one who had first spoke, in accented English.
“It is true, that. Many are friends.”
“You are trying to corrupt the believers.”
“Who fed you that nonsense? Allah calls me to care for the people here, no less than He calls anyone else.”
“How dare you invoke that Name?”
“And how dare you interfere with His works?” said Hilda in Pashto.
They four men whipped their attention to her. The leader recovered first.
“Shut up, whore.”
“Do not go further, fool.”
The leader moved first. The others followed in the order Hilda expected. She pulled the leader through, snapped up his arm so that the next one crashed into him. Wrapping the arm painfully around the neck of the second man, she whipped them like a rolled carpet onto the pavement. When the shock faded, they tried to get up, only to find Hilda’s foot over the genitals of the second thug, who was lying on top of the dazed leader. “Don’t move,” she hissed.
Glancing quickly to the left, she saw both thugs lying at Garai’s feet. “Do you know them?” she asked him in Shona. “I recognize their accent.”
“I know their families. From Timergara. These four only came recently. ”
She pushed a little with her foot to get the attention of the two below her. Her Pashto carried the accent of the valley next to theirs. “Do you see my eyes?” She flared them briefly. They nodded. “Do I remind you of anyone your imam may have told you about?”
Their eyes went wide. The leader murmured, “djinn.”
“Top marks. I suggest you read the whole Quran, especially the parts they did not show you in the madrassa. Understand?”
They nodded vigorously. “Good. Now you two help your fellows home, and if you feel like telling Bacha that an old man and a woman beat you, tell him to come visit Father Greg himself.”
Hilda and Garai assumed an alert but relaxed-looking stance while they watched the foursome stagger down the sidewalk and out of sight.
Garai was silent as they walked home. Hilda worried about that until he closed the door behind them. Then he doubled over, laughing so hard the tears flowed. Murdiwa came out and stood them with an alarmed expression.
“Oh. My. God. Murapi, djinn?” He started hiccupping from the laughter.
“Something from my time in Bar Kunar. – Stand up and hold your breath. Now focus on your diaphragm and make it relax. – The children used to run from me, and the grown-ups were never quite sure. They relaxed after a while, but the rumour persisted. They loved to pick on newcomers by pointing out the djinn of their village.”
Garai recovered and put his arm over Hilda’s shoulder as they went to the parlour. “Your Pashto is really quite good. You matched their accent perfectly.”
“I was only in the next valley over. I think I can guess which madrassa near the border they attended.”
“I wish I could have seen that,” said Mudiwa, after they told her about the four young men. “How is your leg?”
“Fine. I think it’s completely healed.”
“I’m glad. Dinner’s ready. Let’s feed our two heroes, shall we? You can tell me how the families are doing.”
© 2022, JT Hine