A Tree and a Seed
NUVOYO R. TSHUMA
I am in grade three – eight years old – and I am standing in front of my class. It is May 1996. My teacher, Mrs Mlilo, is sitting by her desk with my English book spread open, to the page where I wrote about my April holidays. I wrote that I visited my father in Italy. The story is complete with a drawing of a Snowman wearing a party hat and a scarf billowing in a blizzard. My father and I are standing next to the Snowman. A tall, stick figure with huge, square glasses (my father) and a short, plump figure with dark hair (me). The hair is unnaturally long in the drawing, too long and too straight – not enough kink. We are smiling, my father and I. He is holding my hand.
‘Novuyo had very nice holidays this past April,’ Mrs Mlilo begins. ‘She rode a plane and visited her father in Italy.’
The class ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. I beam. The envy glistens on their faces.
‘So! Novuyo will tell us about her holiday in Italy.’
I clasp my hands behind my back. My fingers stretch and twist.
‘Eh…I had a really nice holiday. I went to I-ta-ly.’
‘To see my daddy. There is snow in Italy.’
I look at Mrs. Mlilo and shrug. That’s it. I am done. Mrs. Mlilo smiles encouragingly.
‘Em, tell us about the plane ride.’
I scrunch up my face and stare at the ceiling. ‘It was nice.’
Silence. The class stares at me. I stare back.
‘It was really nice….We were in the clouds.’
I look at Mrs. Mlilo and shrug. That’s it. I’m done. She smiles.
‘You are not usually this shy, Novuyo. All right, tell us about the food in the plane. What did you eat?’
‘Yes, and chicken. And potato salad.’
‘And cabbage salad.’
‘And lots of sweets. And jelly. And custard.’
‘ And –’
‘Em, Novuyo, how long was the plane ride?’
I crease my face and stare at the ceiling.
‘Yes, and –’
Mrs. Mlilo sighs. ‘All right, thank you, Novuyo. You may go and sit down.’
‘It was really really nice.’
‘We were in the clouds.’
‘All right, Novuyo, you may sit down now.’
‘Thank you, teacher.’
‘Thank you, Novuyo.’
I turn to the class. ‘I had a really, really nice time. The nicest-est time.’
They are clapping as I walk to my seat. I am beaming. Mrs. Mlilo is gazing at me with a knowing smile. Only I don’t know that it is a knowing smile, because I am eight years old and I don’t know knowing smiles. So I smile back.
‘Next time, I will take you with me, Mrs. Mlilo.’
‘All right, Novuyo.’
‘It is cold in Italy.’
‘My daddy and I, we made a snowman.’
‘My daddy said he will take me to go and live with him for-ever. I will take you all with me.’
‘I really love Italy.’
‘Sit down, Novuyo.’
I sit down. I am beaming. My classmates are beaming. I see the envy glistening behind the Vaseline smeared on their faces, making their cheeks balloon with awe, blowing their eyes into huge circles of wonder.
I have never been to Italy. I have never been on an aeroplane. But. My father is in Italy. He works there. And lives there. And one day, my mother and I shall go and live with him. That is all I know. I don’t know how I know this, or where I got it from, as my parents are not ‘together’. This I know, that they are not ‘together’. But somehow, my mother and I shall go and live with him. In my eight year old world of Secret Seven and Famous Five fantasies, it makes perfect sense.
When my daddy visits Zimbabwe at the end of that year, and leafs through my school books, he comes across my drawing of him and I, hand-in-hand next to the drunk Snowman. I had originally made him a lopsided Snowman, but later it made sense that he had to be drunk to be lopsided and so I added a bottle of Castle Lager in his stick hands. And now, in the drawing, my father and I are not smiling but laughing. Every time I look at that drawing I can hear him laughing, my daddy, a ‘hahaha’ that would beat Father Christmas’s ‘hohoho’ any day and makes me all mushy inside.
‘When did this happen?’ my daddy asks, pointing at the drawing.
I blush and turn away.
But the next year – December of 1997 – it happens. Well, almost. I don’t go to Italy to visit my father. Instead we – my father and I – go to Nairobi, Kenya, to spend the holidays with his friend, JM, and his family. JM lives in a grand house with his five daughters and a beautiful wife named Beatrice. They eat sadza with spoons. They have a driver. Their house looks like the palace in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Beatrice must be Snow White and JM the Prince; this grand house is their Castle. Everyone can be a character in the storybooks I love to read. I know that JM, like my father, is a smart man. He has written books. Books that have been banned in Zimbabwe, because they don’t say pretty things about the President. I know that my father is writing a book. I know that my father is a very smart man, and everybody in the family looks up to him. Everybody says I that I look like my father, that I take after him. This makes him proud. I am proud that he is proud that I have him in me. Everything about him fascinates me.
My father is a lawyer.
‘When you grow up what do you want to be, Novuyo?’
My father works in Italy.
‘When I grow up I shall live in Italy.’
My father wears square glasses that pinch his nose.
‘Mummy I think I need glasses. Square ones that pinch my nose. I can’t see properly.’ Squint.
We have this little routine, my father and I. We write to each other. We have been writing to each other ever since I could read and write. He types his letters, and signs them ‘Your Loving Daddy’. Scrawls his signature in pen. I write to him in my big handwriting, in carefully molded syllables and short sentences. I am always giddy with excitement as I await his letters. I run to the post box on the days when the postman is due, and squat in the grass. I pluck the black jacks as I wait. Sometimes I gather ants in a glass jar for my experiments. I like to put the ants in a bowl of water and watch them swim. The poor things usually just give up. They need more training.
You can see the postman coming from a distance, cycling up the path to our post box, ringing his bicycle bell to signal his arrival. The sun bounces of his bicycle and makes the metal shimmer like gold. Sometimes he is late. When he comes late, I sprint down the path to meet him. We are good friends, him and I. I don’t know his name.
‘Miss Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. Very special little girl you are, to be receiving mail all the way from Italy?’
‘It is my daddy.’
‘Your daddy must love you very much, eh?’
‘Yes – very soon, we are going to go and live with him.’
‘Is that so? That is very nice. Won’t you take me with you?’
‘Ok. I am also taking my teacher with me, and my class…My daddy is going to hire a plane for us, and we shall all fly there. I’ll tell you when we are going.’
The postman chuckles. ‘You are a little dreamer aren’t you? Awuphuphi nje. All right, tell me when you are going. Here is your letter, missy.’
‘Thank you. I write to my daddy too, all the time. You have seen my letters to him?’
‘No, I haven’t, missy.’
‘But I write to him all the time. I can write. I can really write. I can read too. I read my own letters.’
‘All right, missy, I will look out for your letters.’
And off he cycles, ringing his bicycle bell as he goes. On the days when he has nothing for me, he shakes his head from a distance. I see the sad face he is wearing and I turn away so he cannot see mine. I do not wait for him to reach the post box, do not wait to collect any other mail he may have for my mother. I wave and begin to make my way home.
‘Missy! Wait, I have some letters for your house!’
I shrug and purse my lips. I remain outside for a long time afterwards, drawing circles in the dust.
No letter yet. Sigh.
The following December – 1998 – my father decides to grant my wish to visit him in Italy. It shall be a long journey; two connecting flights, first from Johannesburg, and then from London’s Heathrow Airport. I shall be travelling alone. I am ten years old. My mother clings to me at the Bulawayo airport, looks me in the eye and tells me to be careful, to always stay next to the air hostess and not to wander about and get lost. She has tears in her eyes. I, on the other hand, am terribly excited. I wriggle out of her grasp.
There is something giddy about takeoff, and the plane ride; exhilaration as it hurtles down the runway. Butterflies are playing fluttering games in your stomach; you have been prepped for the ride and the possibility of air sickness. Your eye is on the air sick bag, and your hand quivers towards it. Will I be sick will I be not? Will I be sick will I be not? Will I be sick will I be NOT? The feeling of strangeness passes; you are in the air and the houses below are like buildings out of a toy catalogue. You feel like the baby in Honey I Blew Up the Kid, staring down below at a fascinating Toy City.
I almost miss my connecting flight in Johannesburg; I wander off and the hostess in whose charge I am in is furious when she finally finds me. I stare at her with big eyes and give her my winning smile. She cajoles me all the way to the plane.
Heathrow Airport is like Wonderland, and I am Alice; it’s just big. So many lights. So many planes. So many people. Fear overpowers my curiosity, and I stick close to the air hostess. They leave me in a room full of chocolates and sweets and chips and biscuits and…I am in Wonderland. I stuff myself until I am plumper than my teddy bear, the brown one with button eyes that glow bright as ghost eyes in the dark; they made my uncle to howl one night when he was visiting that there were ‘things’ in my room. My tummy has become round and hard, harder than my fluffy teddy bear. I slip some of the goodies into my satchel. Sit and wait. My tummy is sore. My fingers are sticky with chocolate. I don’t think I shall be able to eat for days.
There is a fog as we take off at Heathrow Airport, and the pilot warns us about tur-bu-lence. I think I have had tur-bu-lence throughout the journey. This tur-bu-lence makes my heart dance in my chest so that I do not know whether I am feeling sick or excited.
When we arrive at the airport in Rome, my daddy is not there. They make me sit on a bench and make a phone call. Now, I am feeling really sick. I have never been around so many white people before – not a black face in sight – and I can feel my face becoming wet. My father finds me in tears. I have pursed my lips and refuse to speak to anybody. I cling to him and refuse to let go as we join the throngs headed for the train that is to jet us out of the airport.
My father – he is so tall. My little hand feels moist in his palm; his grip is strong and his hand so big.
‘How was your flight?’
‘You didn’t get lost?’
‘Your mother has been calling and calling. She has been so worried. She thought they would forget you in London.’
‘Are you hungry?’
‘I heard you took second place this year in school.’
I angle my head so I may look up at him. I have never taken second place before. I have always taken first place, so much so that I have become accustomed to the spot. The boys in my class have never been happy about that. Now, when I took second place, they cheered.
They just don’t like it because it makes me the teacher’s pet.
I look up at my father. I don’t know what to say, so I turn away. There is hot air blowing in my face and I don’t know where it is coming from; it makes me feel hot inside. My father squeezes my hand, like he knows what I am feeling.
‘Don’t worry too much about it. I’m glad you are here.’
‘You are very quiet. New place?’
‘I thought you said you weren’t tired.’
‘I wasn’t. But maybe I am. I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
He smiles. I smile back shyly. He pats me on the back.
Rome is not like anything I imagined. I am not even sure what it is I imagined. It is cold, but there is no snow. The streets are cobbled and narrow, their jigsaw surfaces uneven. They wind up and down like the rails of a train snaking through mountains peaks. When we alight from the train, we board a tram that rolls through the city like a tour car traversing a scenic route. Everybody in the tram is quiet. Unlike the Zupco buses back home, there is no chatter here. I cling to my father’s hand; it is moist. He keeps squeezing my hand. I look up to find him looking down at me, smiling. I too smile.
We alight into a quiet, narrow street. My father’s legs are long and he takes big steps as he walks. I trip down the cobbled street, panting after him. The air is icy even though a pale sun hovers in the sky.
‘You are not dressed warmly enough. We need to get you a jacket.’
‘I am not feeling cold.’
‘You will soon.’
‘I would like a mountain bike, instead.’
He gives me a knowing smile. We have been arguing about this for weeks now. My father seems to believe that mountain bikes are meant to be ridden in the mountains; that is what the fancy gears are for, and hence the name. I just want a mountain bike. He insists on getting me a BMX bicycle instead – a BMX is an ordinary bicycle, and not in the latest fashion. At first I thought he was joking and would eventually come around, but it seems he intends to stick to his guns. So do I. That is one of the many things we have in common. Stubbornness. We are holding each other down and it is a stale mate.
We pass by a store, where he buys me a jacket, trousers, gloves, scarves and boots. He converses with the sales lady in Italian. I watch the movement of his lips and I am awed; I did not know that a tongue could be so flexible as to whip out such difficult sounding syllables with ease. I must learn the language before I leave.
As we leave the store, he bends down and says, ‘That lady said you have such pretty, long hair. She wanted to know what you use to make it grow so long. She has an African friend who has been trying to grow her hair for years.’
It is something I will hear a lot, during my stay – this fascination with my braided hair, which the people here mistake for my own. I have braided extensions into my hair; it is not my own. It is a fascination I shall also harbor about white people’s hair, until I learn one day that they too, sometimes put weaves in their hair, to give it ‘volume’. Just like how I shall think African American women’s hair to be wonderful, before I learn that they, too, like us in Africa, put weaves in their hair.
My father’s flat is littered with books. There is a small JVC television, a couch – and stacks of books. I pick up the books and struggle to mouth the titles on the covers. Some of them are leather bound; special books of the expensive kind. The books have big words and serious looking covers. Some of the pages have that delicious, papery scent of newness. They are crisp to the touch, rub expensive off the thumb and forefinger. Most of them have his name – ‘Lawrence Tshuma’ – squiggled across in blue or black pen. Others are gifts from friends: ‘To Larry –’.
I mouth his shortened name. ‘Larry.’ Sounds Larryfic. I grin.
‘You are Larryfic.’
‘Larryfic. You are Larryfic.’
‘And you are Novuyo-terrific.’
I giggle. ‘You didn’t get it right.’
‘Well, Novuyorific doesn’t sound quite right.’
My father telephones my mother. I can hear the tremor in her voice; we have never been separated by this great distance before. She shall telephone every day, during my stay, until my father, in exasperation, complains that she is intruding on our space. She needs to relax. Novuyo is with her father. Everything is fine.
‘Love you mummy. Miss you too…Yes, yes I am fine. Yes, dad and I are having fun. He is showing me the history places…yes, yes…you too…’
I pick up an English-Italian Book. It reads ‘Teach Yourself Italian’. It is exactly the kind of book I shall need to learn the language. I set to work that evening. I copy, word for word, the book onto an A4 pad, in my clumsy writing. It is my intention to have completed the copying by the time I leave. It is this way that my father finds me, in the bedroom he has set up for me, face scrunched up, hard at work. He looks amused.
‘You can have the book!’ he exclaims with a laugh. ‘You can have any book that you like – only the ones you can read. Here, take this Italian dictionary.’
‘Really?’ My face is alight. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could have the book, that I could ask for it.
My father introduces me to his friend, K. My eyes are angled towards the floor as I clasp her hand. She has the bluest eyes I have ever seen.
‘Your father has told me all about you. He is so proud of you.’
I beam. I am so proud of my father. I am not sure why but that is how it works. He is proud of me, I am proud of him. I mirror him step for step.
I see them kissing one evening, K. and my father, and I cannot help but giggle. I know what type of friend K. is – just like Mum and her friend Mr X. I like K. She is very nice to me. Besides, if my father likes her, I decide, then so do I.
My father takes me all over the city. He shows me the history places; his delight is insatiable. Click click, goes his camera as I poise in the history places, bum sticking out into the Fontana di Trevi, a hand stretched out to feel the water arching out of a crowned head at The Pantheon, eyes angled towards the roof of The Coliseum. I am not sure how to pose for pictures; I am fidgety. I try to imitate the people I have seen at Centenary Park in Bulawayo: arm resting on waist, hip thrust to the side, head held in a tilt. But their poises always seem unnatural, just like I am feeling now. My father taps a stranger on the shoulder and asks him to take a quick snapshot of us. He poises with his big hand resting on my head. His cologne smells like poppi sweets. I rest my head against him; I am almost his elbow height.
Eager to show off my ten year old’s culinary skills, I cajole my dad into allowing me to fry him an egg. He relents; I can sense that he expects disaster, by the way he hovers over the frying pan, checking the heat; how he makes a face as I tap-tap the shell with a folk, once, twice, gently, a little harder, until it cracks and the contents splutter into the pan. The yolk merges with the white and the egg is a little burnt. My father curls it over a folk and slides it into his mouth, chewing carefully as he does so. He sees that I am watching him, that I am holding my breath. He frowns. I frown. Then his face breaks into a smile, and he gives me a thumbs up. I giggle; the giggle cannot contain the glow that warms my heart, that polishes my cheeks to a mahogany shine and tingles all the way to my toes.
I work more of my charm on my father.
After more cajoling, I convince him to allow me to watch The Titanic. The Titanic has just come out and everybody is raving about it. But my father is adamant that it is ‘not for my age’. He is more comfortable with me watching Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast.
‘Please daddy please please puleeeeeease….’
I bat my eyelashes like Darla in Little Rascals.
So, I first watch The Titanic side-by-side my father. We are at K.’s place, slouched on the sofa, but K. is not there. During the adultish scenes, like when Jack and Rose are perched on the deck and Rose is perusing through Jack’s sketches of nude women, my father turns to me with an ‘I told you so’ look. I offer a shy smile.
The days tumble into one another, rushing rushing, speeding to god-knows-where, so that before I know it the two weeks are up and we, my daddy and I, are on a plane to Zimbabwe. This time the connecting flight is at Gatwick and not Heathrow Airport. My father says Heathrow is the bigger of the two, but I cannot tell the difference. Wonderland is Wonderland to me.
He spends two weeks in Zimbabwe. I don’t get to see as much of him; there are family and friends, each of whom must get a designated piece of his time.
The men rumble into our yard on a hot August day in 1999, just as the light is greying. I don’t pay them any attention; I am consumed by excitement. I spoke to my father earlier during the day. I was panting as I spoke to him, twirling round and round in the sitting room, mimicking the Bananas in Pajamas on television. I got myself entangled in the phone cord. He had just arrived in the capital city Harare, from London, where he now lives, and was going to drive the four hundred and thirty two kilometres from Harare to Bulawayo.
‘Ok daddy, see you later! Mwah.’
The men arrive in a car – is it red? – and whisper something to my mother which makes her face undo itself and redo itself into a picture that falls apart all over again. Like a fresh painting still dripping wet, shaken sideways so that the paints run into one another and dry into a disintegrating mess. I see this because I am standing by the door. It is dusk and the day is greying. My mother is standing by the car. A frown creases my little forehead.
‘Mummy?’ I call out.
‘Go back into the house,’ she orders.
‘Mummy, what’s wrong?’
‘Go back into the house.’
I am taken next door to the Khumalos, to watch television. I don’t mind because the Khumalos live in a big beautiful house, and their lounge is a fascinating, warm space of hushed colours. I don’t mind because I shall get to spend time with the Khumalos’ daughters, Zanele and Sikhonzile, with whom I used to play Stuck-in-the-Mud as a child. We would play this game especially during the rainy season, slipping and slopping through the muddy clumps runny with the rainwater.
‘Where is mummy?’ I keep asking.
‘She had to go somewhere,’ comes the reply.
Somewhere. That adult answer that adults give when they don’t want children to know adult matters.
I spend the night at the Khumalos’, fitful because I don’t have my story books with me.
The next morning, my khulu– my mother’s father – arrives to pick me up. Khulu lives in Queenspark East. The houses in Queenspark are what my teacher calls ‘colonial style’, with generous rooms and equally generous gardens. I usually spend many weekends at khulu’s. He is a District Administrator of Education in the Lupane area, having been a teacher and a headmaster for many years. He is big on education. Whenever I visit, he sits me down, with my books, and helps me with my Math and English.
I like to read to my gogo, my mother’s mother, who is not ‘together’ with my grandfather – it has always been so for as long as I can remember – and who works for amakhiwa in the suburbs. My gogo does not know how to read and write, and jokingly calls herself a boom-try. She loves to watch Wrestling on tv, and gets so mad whenever Hulk Hogan does not win. My gogo’s name is Janet. What delight I used to take in reading to her, ‘Look, Janet, Look!…Watch Janet run…’ in my grade one story books, putting emphasis on Janet.
‘I will hit you, naughty child! Calling me by my name…’
‘But look, gogo, you are in my book! You are famous.’
‘Don’t be silly!’
She is funny, my gogo.
I am holding khulu’s hand as I alight from the khombi in Queenspark East and stumble down the wide street.
Pata Pata, go my Bata sandals as we rush down the street. Pata Pata Pata Pata Pa.
The Jacarandas have curled their leaves into purple fists. I am chattering faster than a chatterbox, like the puppets in Barney and Friends. I don’t know what I am going on about. I am just talking and talking because that is what I do when I am nervous, and the worry lines on khulu’s forehead, the set line of his lips, make me nervous. My breath reaches my ears in sharp rasps.
There is a piece of black cloth pinned to khulu’s jacket; it is a scotch jacket, one of his numerous District Administrator’s jackets.
‘What is that cloth on your jacket?’ I ask, pointing.
After a while he says, ‘It is a sign.’
‘A sign? A sign of what?’
‘A sign we wear when somebody close to us dies.’
‘Who died, Khulu?’
He does not reply.
‘Khulu, who died?’
When he does not answer a second time, I shrug. He is holding my hand as we walk. I stumble to keep in step with him.
When we finally arrive at his house – it is a big, green house with asbestos roofing of a darker shade – he takes me straight to his room. There we sit – he on a chair, and I on the edge of the bed. He does not look me in the eye.
‘UsekaNovuyo kasekho. Kube le accident…’
Novuyo’s father has passed away. There has been a car accident.
It is as though he is not speaking to me even though he is speaking to me. He says I should not cry; how it is not good to cry and cry and if I cry, I will end up crying myself sick.
I drag myself to the room next door, where I can be alone. It is mid-morning, and yet this very moment is dusk. I go to sleep, even though I do not go to sleep. I simply lay my cheek against a pillow. It is soft, the pillow, my cheek; my cheek sinks into the pillow; the pillow sinks against my cheek.
My daddy. Is dead.
So that means. I shall never see him again.
But I spoke to him. Yesterday. Did I not speak to him?
The words stumble across the pages of my mind, clear scribbling, no mistakes. Yet, in my eleven year old mind, they are just another tale in a story book, a horrid tale in a horrid story book I must tear and throw in the dust bin.
My father is the world. He cannot die. The world cannot die.
December 1998. Our very last hug, just before he boards the plane back to Rome, smells of BullDogs’ steak and vanilla ice cream and poppi sweets. I cling to him, breathe the scent of his cologne, and try not cry.
‘Next time I come, I’ll spend three weeks!’ I declare.
He smiles. ‘Who says there is going to be a next time?’
I wave as he walks away, a bag slung over his shoulder. He is a tall man. He walks with a slight bounce to his step. Like he is an old man trying to be cool. The thought is funny, and my body shivers in a billion little laughs, all battling to be let out.
‘Daddy!’ I shout.
He slows his step, turns. I blow him a kiss. He catches it, presses it to his heart. The billion little laughs escape from my body, and with them a delicious warmth the taste of vanilla custard and chocolate biscuits.
As I turn, with my mother and uncles and aunts, and amble out of the airport, I smile my stubborn smile and say to myself,
‘There will be a next time, daddy. You’ll see.’
The sun floods my face as we step out of the airport building; I shut my eyes and suck in a breath of stale, afternoon air.
The world is all right; all around me is the scent of poppi sweets. SLQ