The phone rings at the pineapple farm. It’s for me – but I’m not there. To use the parlance of our times* – this is epic.
To understand why, imagine a world where there’s no email, a world where every phone is fixed in one place and wired to a wall. A world with no answering machines, no voicemail, no ring-back, nothing. Done that? OK.
Tex (the reason I’ve been banished – do keep up) is out in the bush directing diggers. He sneaks away, drives miles to a post office, in a village, in the middle of a sugar plantation, to use the only phone there is. So missing that call is – epic.
I’m badly in need of a morale boost. ‘I’m going out tonight,’ says Fran’s ex (I’ll call him Tom), ‘come along if you like, might cheer you up.’ Tom lives in a traditional Swazi hut, just shouting distance from my caravan. Reassuring, given the dodgy lock and the murdered night watchman.
So, I put on my party frock (well, a frock) and out we step. First stop an agricultural research station where we pick up Tom’s chum Mike. Next, briefly, a rather seedy bar where I feel distinctly out of place. Finally, the ‘Why Not Disco’.
It’s dark inside. Pools of light draw your eyes to films projected on the walls. Car crashes. Flesh. I try not to look. We shuffle onto the dance floor. Well it is a disco. They’re playing Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’. I dance like a robot, grateful when the music stops.
Out troops a bevy of bare breasted beauties, boredom blazoned across their faces. The ‘Swazi Dancers’ form a line across the middle of the dance floor. Supposedly traditional music starts up, they jiggle, waggle – and still look bored.
I down my g & t. My companions raise their eyebrows with that ‘shall we go’ kind of look and we head for the exit. But our path’s blocked by a screaming woman beating a man with her fists. We scuttle past, keeping close to the wall.
‘Sorry ‘bout that,’ says Mike, ‘he hasn’t paid her – she’s mad.’
‘Hasn’t paid her for …’ I know the answer.
So why all this sleaze? Well, it’s the 1980s. This little African kingdom’s surrounded on three sides by apartheid. South Africans can’t gamble. Mixed race relationships are illegal. Sex, gaming (and drugs) have become, you might say, an economic jewel in the right royal crown.
It’s not just sleaze. Political fugitives, ANC members, seek sanctuary here. Fran knows some of them. She feels the sharp end of discrimination on her business trips in South Africa. Oddly pale with frizzy black hair, police harass her, ‘accuse’ her of being mixed race, of not having a pass, of being where only white folks should be.
One day, cross border raids will start and nowhere will be safe for the freedom fighters. The storm clouds of HIV, busy gathering on the horizon, will break over the sex trade.
But right now, it’s still party time.
*Big Lebowski ref
Next time: night-time manoeuvres, Percy Sledge, Mozambique prawns
Yes, that’s the one. I thought the “No problem, been there” in particular rather brash. Thank you, again, Mary. May I send you an article of réminiscences of my teenage years in Fort Johnston, now Mangochi, that I wrote and had published in the Society of Malawi Journal a few years ago? I realise you are very busy and will not be offended if you say No thanks.
Yes, that’s the one. I thought the “No problem, been there” particularly brash, but glad you recognised the reference – not difficult mind you. May I send you an article of réminiscences of my teenage years in Fort Johnston, now Mangochi, in Malawio, that I wrote a few years ago and had published in the Society of Malawi Journal? I realise you must be very busy and will not be offended if you say No thanks.