Count to Ten - Sample Chapter
I haven’t the faintest idea how the knife got into my hand.
It was a present long ago from a Norwegian friend visiting the Copperbelt, and I don’t remember seeing it around for years. It’s one of those huge hunting knives with a short, thick, razor-sharp blade. The handle is bone, roughly carved and far too big really for my small hands.
I look curiously at the knife, and in the moonlight shafting through the open window I see the blade glint. It startles me. I breathe in deeply. The aromas of the African night tantalise my senses with a fragrant cocktail of frangipani, jasmine and gardenia, spiked with wood smoke curling from the myriad fires I see flickering in the bush from Chililabombwe to the Congo border.
Andrew is lying on his bed. It is a warm, sticky October night. He always kicks his bedclothes off. Not only in the hot humid season before the rains break but also in the cool July nights of Zambia’s tropical winters, so it’s not unusual for me to go in and cover him up before I go to bed.
But how odd to see him lying there absolutely naked. There is no sign of his pyjamas and I cannot think what he has done with them.
He is lying quite still. I watch. Waiting for a movement, as I always do. When there is none I feel the first pangs of panic. Then a faint flutter tells me he is breathing after all and I breathe again too.
The night is also still. As still as death. Not a breath stirs the canvas of leaves painted on the vast moonlit sky. Not a sound breaks the rhythm of distant drums, save an eagle-owl do-uuing to the moon, and the muted chorus of frogs in the shadows shrouding the pool.
I look down at Andrew, lying there so still. His body is pale, the curves of the smooth young limbs highlighted by the stark light of the moon.
I move. Stealthily. The moonlight catches the edge of the knife. I stop. How strange! The blade is pointing downwards as though with a will of its own, appearing thicker as it twists once or twice in my hand. And see how it flashes and glints on the white wall beside me.
I look down again at the pale, pristine skin. Like a rose petal newly bloomed, nothing has ever marred it. I love it with all my being. It is mine. Part of me. Nothing must ever spoil it.
Suddenly, at the edge of my vision, I see the glint of the knife blade on the wall. I see the knife blade strike the pristine skin. I see it penetrate the flesh. The flesh is not as soft as it looks. It is firm and resilient. It resists the knife blade. But now the blade lifts upwards and bright red blood spills from the gash in the flesh. I see the blade come down. Again. And again. And again. And all I can see now is blood blood blood on the perfect pale skin.
But no longer is it perfect.
I see the knife in my hand. I open my mouth to scream then hurl the knife deep into the ghostly shadows of the garden. The frogs stop croaking. The moon looks down and beckons me but I turn my back on it and run.
My legs are wooden. I must get away. Away from the ruined body. As far as I can. But the knife has drained my energy and I can barely move.
I squeeze my eyes closed. I force my legs to move. I push through the thick air to the door. I reach the next room but cannot go further. I collapse into the big brown chair where Andrew and I watch television, cuddled up together like a mother cat and her kitten.
You can’t possibly have done it. You love him too much. My voice is strange, strangled and disbelieving.
There is no other sound. Not even a whimper. Only my own feverish breathing as slowly the horror dawns on me that never again will I see that perfection. That beautiful pale skin. Those blue eyes. That golden hair. That smile.
I did not mean to do it. I love him. I can’t have done it. But there is no-one else here so who can it have been but me?
It must be a dream. I wish he would cry. Then I would know it is only a dream. But if it is a dream I would be awake by now. You always wake up when ghastly things happen in dreams and nothing could be more ghastly than this. But I am awake. Grossly, grotesquely, gallingly awake . . .
A noise. A voice. A bit like laughter.
Yes. There it is again. Like the echo of a laugh. Coming from a long way away. A mean, acerbic, caustic, cackling laugh. An accusing laugh. Derisive. Mocking.
Scathing . . .
Now there’s a second voice joining in the laughter. Getting closer. The two voices are getting closer and closer, louder and louder and now there’s a third voice and a fourth and a fifth. The voices are all around me now. Hundreds. Laughing loudly. They must be in the next room. The room where I –
Oh no! At any moment they will come through that door. I cannot face them. I must get away. But how? My legs refuse to move.
I throw my head down on my knees, draw my limbs in like a threatened tortoise, cover my eyes and my ears and my nose to shut out the horror and the laughter and the smell of blood . . .
Now the laughter is deafening. How can they laugh at a time like this? I try to scream, to tell them to go away but nothing comes out but my own silent twisted thoughts . . .
Guilt. Punishment. Guilt . . .
The voices pulse through my body so I know now that they are right here in this room.
Suddenly the laughter stops.
There is an eerie hush. I dare not breathe. What will they do to me? Why don’t they get it over with? What are they waiting for? I can’t bear it any more.
I feel something touch me. Someone is forcing my head up and someone else is putting - someone is putting something down across my knees. Something heavy. Something warm. Something clammy, droopy, wet –
Something absolutely still.
I will not look. Whatever it is I do not want to see it.
Again I hear the voices. Whispers first, growing to soft murmurs. I sense them all around me but I keep my eyes tightly closed.
The voices move away. I force my eyes to open. The moon beams straight in through the window and my eyes are dragged to the heavy warm clammy thing lying limp and unrecognizable across my knees.
I gather it into my arms. This mutilated body. And crush it to my chest. And rock it to and fro as my tears drip on to the once perfect flesh to mingle with the bright red blood. I hold it. This mutilated body. I stroke it and try to coax the life back into it, willing it to be whole again, willing it to breathe, willing it to move, willing it to live and breathe and move and laugh and cry –
But nothing happens, and all I hear is a loud buzzing in my ears.
I close my eyes and press my own wet cheek against that poor blood spattered cheek. Then suddenly, over and above the buzzing, I hear my own voice and I am shouting:
Live! Live! Live!
October – December 1983
It seemed like a pretty ordinary day.
An ordinary happy-go-lucky day in the middle of Africa. There was no big black cloud darkening the sun. No omen of tragedy.
It was October and the parched bush blistered in the heat. The rains had not broken and the temperature was still rising, though up here on the pinnacle of Kamenza Hill it was just tolerable. (Kamenza. Say it slowly and you get a feeling of the meaning of the word: I see a long way.)
Whipped by a hot dry breeze the pool glistened with the jewels of a thousand suns, enticing me into its delicious depths. I lived either in it or next to it, flopped in my woven grass chair in the shade of the towering African Flame tree with my tea tray and my pile of books scattered next to me on the crooked granite table.
I glanced at my watch. It was almost lunch time. Colin would be home soon. He would be bringing the mail and I wondered if there would be a letter from Andrew.
I gazed across the shimmering bush towards the distant Congo hills. Chililabombwe – the place of the croaking frogs in the local language – is the smallest, most northerly mining town on the Zambian Copperbelt, though the richest in copper ore. I was thankful that we lived on top of the only hill for many miles around, for a hot breeze is better than no breeze at all. From down below all you could see was bush. But from up here, if I half closed my eyes, the dusty green of the bush slid silkily into the blue of the sky and I could imagine the shimmering bush was the sea even though the nearest sea was two thousand miles away.
It was Friday and I was thinking about Andrew. He was a good communicator and his letters from school arrived promptly once a week. It would be cold in England now. The trees would be bare and it would be raining. He would be cosily wrapped in a thick grey sweater hidden beneath his black academic gown which was the day-time uniform at Bradfield College.
Colin and I missed our sons but this was the price we paid for living in a developing African country. Most good mining jobs are in far-flung foreign countries so we had little option but to live abroad. The local schooling here wasn’t suited to the children of expatriates. It was geared more to learning how to make a living from the red earth of Africa. And here there would be no guaranteed employment for our sons so although born in Zambia they had to be educated to live in the outside world in the future. In the end though, the colonial type boarding school in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), followed by an English Public School resulted in a good balance for our three sons, especially as they came home three times a year to the Zambia they loved.
“It’s not doing me any harm,” Andrew told me once, even though he hated the English prep school he’d been forced to go to when the war in Rhodesia forced the closure of his beloved Whitestone School in Bulawayo. He was only eleven when he’d been catapulted into a completely different environment where the rest of the boys had been since the age of six or seven. They all knew each other, their friendships were forged and Andrew was an alien.
But that was a long time ago. He was eighteen now. He was happy now. He loved Bradfield College. Life was full and exciting even though the school was tucked away deep in the Berkshire countryside. He was a prefect, played cello in the orchestra, shot small bore rifle in the First Eight, swam in the First Team, and played hockey, squash and golf. But most importantly he was a corporal in the Combined Cadet Force. The Air Force section of course, since his dream from the age of eight was to be a pilot in the RAF. I can still see him – that little blond-haired boy, staring up at his bedroom ceiling at the model planes Colin had made for him, hands on his hips as he announced:
“I’m going to be a pilot when I grow up.”
A dream that had been intensified when he became an air cadet at the age of fourteen, when flights in Chipmunks at nearby RAF Abingdon were a regular source of inspiration.
I heard a car door slam. A few minutes later Colin was standing at the top of the granite steps leading down to the pool, waving the bundle of mail he brought home every day from the copper mine where he worked as a mining engineer. Quickly I picked up my towel and hurried up the steps to greet him.
He tossed the bundle of mail onto the mukwa coffee table that Sikweya Banda polished every day so vigorously that I could see my face in it. I grabbed the familiar airmail letter from the bottom of the pile, reached for the copper letter knife and slit open the flimsy blue sheet.
There were the usual bits of school news, and then . . . what was this?
A game of hockey . . . a kick on the shin . . . pain . . .
Colin looked up from his Times of Zambia as I read from the letter.
“It’s not like Andrew to complain of pain,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I mumbled as I finished reading the letter. He was our third son and we were used to the injuries boys of that age received. Besides, we were five thousand miles away and he would be getting the necessary treatment from the school doctor, so we were sure it would get better soon.
Ours was a happy and successful family and things always got better.
How were we to know that this was the beginning of a nightmare? A nightmare I had always thought could only happen to other people.
I loved the life in Zambia. Carefree and idyllic, pulsing with the vibrancy of a young country striving for its identity, it offered a challenge to anyone with a sense of adventure. Mine employees lived in spacious modern houses with large gardens boasting the most colourful and fragrant flowering trees and shrubs I have ever seen: flaming flamboyants; scarlet, pink and peach hibiscus; pink and white frangipani; cascades of purple, pink and orange bougainvillaea, and tall graceful jacarandas with their clusters of illusory lilac bells that left carpets of petals beneath their delicately scrolled trunks. School holidays were a merry-go-round of swimming, riding and golf; bumping through the bush in a Land Rover to visit unspoilt game parks, and sailing on the local dam in our unsinkable old GP-14. The climate was the most perfect in the world and I had servants to do everything.
Yes. It was paradise for me and the children but not always easy for Colin. Sometimes I thought he was too ambitious. Not for himself but for the whole mining industry. The reserves of copper and cobalt were seemingly inexhaustible but it was not a smooth road. Greed and corruption were rife and often I looked at his tired tense face at the end of another long day and thought how much happier he’d have been in a flying career. Not that he didn’t love mining, but flying had been his first love. At seventeen he’d been offered a place at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, intent upon following in the footsteps of his elder brother Jack, one of the early jet fighter pilots. He’d been poised on the threshold of his promising career when suddenly tragedy had struck.
Jack was killed when his Meteor exploded in mid air.
His grief-stricken father, who had served with the RAF throughout the war, wielded the axe that would splinter Colin’s dreams into tiny little pieces. There would be no Air Force career for Colin. Not over his dead body.
Then, paradoxically, instead of soaring the heights of the heavens he chose to burrow in the bowels of the earth. Many years later he did learn to fly. He worked most of his first love out of his system but the dreams were still there.
And to his youngest son Andrew he imparted those dreams. Dreams that had already begun to come true when at age seventeen he was chosen to have selection tests at Biggin Hill, and then at the end of the last term the wonderful news that he was offered a prestigious RAF Flying Scholarship.
I re-read Andrew’s letter slowly. Savouring every word as I always did. Remembering the big round uneven writing of his first letters which you knew the teacher had made him write once a week but were none-the-less sweet for this discipline. When he’d gone away to prep school in Rhodesia at the age of six, I had been devastated. I had bought my first Poodle then, knowing another child was impossible after the difficult pregnancy I’d had with Andrew.
When we were engaged we’d planned four children. Colin, Peter, Andrew and Susan were to be their names. Colin and Peter arrived in quick succession and for a while the family seemed complete. But I’d known all along they’d have to go away to school and secretly I began to yearn for another child.
Then one day soon after Peter had joined Colin eight hundred miles away at Whitestone School in Bulawayo, the need became a reality. I was having afternoon tea with Beth, a friend from the amateur dramatic society. Beth was very gregarious and one of her party tricks was to read tea cups.
“You’re going to travel a great deal,” she said, gazing into my cup, “and – good heavens! I can see three children here.”
I laughed, because I’d done nothing to prevent conception all these years yet had not become pregnant again, and also because there was no way she could have known that I desperately wanted another child.
“Let’s look at your palm,” Beth said. She grasped my hand. After a few moments she confirmed her first forecast. “There’s no doubt about it,” she announced gleefully. “You will have three children.”
And that was it. At that very moment the desire crystallized and the following day I saw the gynaecologist at the Mine Hospital in Chililabombwe.
I went through Andrew’s letter once more, trying to read between the lines. I was sure he would be fine. He was so well adjusted and always bounced back quickly. I’d been certain in the beginning that at six years old he was far too young to leave home, but from the very first day he thrived on boarding school. He did reasonably well academically. He was much better at the subjects he enjoyed, like English, and lazy when it came to the ones he didn’t like, but always entered enthusiastically into all sporting and social activities.
He would amaze me the way he would go fearlessly towards some new and unknown challenge. At that age he was the most outgoing of our three sons. It was his main asset I think, his special way with people. Even as a little boy he could reach out to people and they would respond to him and want to reach back to him.
I suppose I did tend to spoil him because of the ten year gap between him and his brothers which left him virtually an only child. Otherwise he was absolutely normal. Attractive to the opposite sex too, and lately he always seemed to have a pretty girl at his side.
Thank goodness he had finally got over Juliet. Or so it appeared. He had felt bitter at first but no longer bore her any grudges.
“If it breaks up, it breaks up,” he said to me a few months after she had ditched him. “You can’t make someone love you.”
Brave words but at the time I thought he would never get over her. She was lovely. Like a kitten. Petite, tawny-haired, with velvet brown eyes that melted as she smiled. They had seemed so well-suited. They were only seventeen but were truly in love even though they only saw each other during school holidays. I’d been alarmed by the intensity of the relationship. They had even fixed their wedding date. It would never do at this age to make a commitment, I thought, but remembering my mercurial infatuations with boys at that age I had consoled myself that it could not last.
Then came the bombshell. When Juliet’s father was posted back to Washington the family invited Andrew to go there for his next summer vacation. On his arrival Juliet totally rejected him. She had found someone new. With his tender young dreams of everlasting love in ruins he decided after only one week in Washington to book himself on the next flight to Menorca, where his two brothers were on holiday.
I sighed and folded the blue airmail letter. Probably we’d hear no more about his painful leg.
Then suddenly his letters became irregular. Every few days, instead of once a week. He wrote of the pain in his knee and shin every time he played hockey. How he went regularly to see the school doctor, standing in the queue of boys with similar injuries. There would have been no reason to suspect that his painful knee was any different from hundreds of others, so the usual treatment was given: rest for a week and when it was really bad, pain-killing tablets.
But the pain persisted and eventually he was sent for an X-ray. The radiologist saw nothing unusual so nothing was done. The following week he went back to the school doctor. Again nothing was done except to put him off hockey for yet another week. Colin and I didn’t even know he had gone for an X-ray because nobody had told us.
In December we were busy moving again. Three hundred miles south to Lusaka, to the head office of the giant copper mining company that was the economic heart of Zambia. It was our sixteenth move. Our new abode was a large, rambling one-storeyed house in the elegant suburb of Kabulonga. Unlike the Kamenza Hill house with its magnificent views over the bush to the distant borders of the Congo, this house and garden with its kidney-shaped pool and umbrellas of flaming flamboyants was enclosed by a high brick wall topped with shards of broken glass.
I enjoyed the moves. It was a challenge furnishing a new house, creating a new garden, making new friends, playing a new golf course. It diverted my thoughts away from the gap the children left. And from my longing for them to come home.
It was in early December too that I began to grow alarmed at the tone of Andrew’s letters. He was finding it more and more difficult to concentrate on his studies because of the pain in his knee. The pain-killing tablets he was forced to take made him drowsy so that sometimes he nodded off in class.
The pressure on A-level students was being stepped up, and to add to Andrew’s problems he was being given a bad time by a particularly callous master, who in last term’s school report had cruelly written: ‘Beach boys don’t pass A-levels.’ Andrew’s golden tan and sun-bleached hair was testimony to his holidays spent at home in the tropics or at our house in Menorca.
The swine. I could have wrung that man’s insensitive neck. He gave Andrew no encouragement and at the beginning of December, when due to a delayed train Andrew arrived back half an hour late from a Sunday exeat, this tyrant was waiting to pounce on him. No allowance was made for the painful knee and he was gated for the rest of the term.
Andrew was shattered by the harshness of the punishment, as were all his friends. Not being allowed out also meant he could not even continue with his driving lessons, a restriction which might have proved disastrous later on, had it not been for his dogged determination not to be beaten by this set-back.
As a result of his punishment he was extremely unhappy. Still missing Juliet, he phoned us, a rare occurrence since boys were not allowed to make international calls. He told us he wanted to die. And we said reassuringly from five thousand miles away, “Don’t be silly, Andrew. You’ll get over it.”
After each hockey match the doctor put him off for another week and gave him more pain-killers. This went on until the end of the term, with Andrew sometimes visiting the doctor twice a week.
Meanwhile something happened.
Something which appeared quite ordinary at the time but which would have an extraordinary consequence. A wondrous consequence. A consequence totally unforeseen.
I had an operation on both my feet.
Ever since my ballet-dancing days they’d been giving me trouble. To my horror both wounds went badly septic. I could not move any of my toes. I could hardly walk. Shoes were an impossibility because of the swelling. I was offered no physiotherapy and the non-stop pain contributed to my almost total immobility.
I could have killed that surgeon.
I was relieved but apprehensive when Andrew flew home for the Christmas holidays. Hobbling up the stairs to the look-out point at Lusaka airport, I hid my consternation behind my sun glasses, holding my breath as I watched him step from the British Caledonian jet. He walked with hardly a limp and looked surprisingly well and happy. In the car he chatted non-stop, smiling as we bounced along the pot-holed shortcut through the shanty township of Kalingalinga, excited that we were nearly home.
He had not even mentioned his knee.
The rainy season was in full swing now but oblivious of the tropical downpour he was out that very afternoon on the Lusaka golf course. Each morning he went to work with Colin and for five hours studied in a spare office for his A-levels, but in the afternoons and evenings he was caught up in a hectic social life. He played several games of golf that week. Each time he came off the eighteenth green the limp was worse, but as he never complained I did nothing about it.
Then one morning, as I was sitting reading the Times of Zambia with my bandaged feet propped up, Sarah, who had been Andrew’s devoted nanny since his birth and had followed us to Lusaka, appeared with the tea tray.
“Here’s your tea, Madam,” she said, her thin face lighting up with a smile.
As I looked up I saw Andrew walking towards me.
Suddenly he collapsed. His leg simply gave way and his body buckled towards it in an effort to ease the pain.
Forgetting my own pain I flew to his side and Sarah and I helped him to a chair. The pain was mirrored in his crumpled face. Clearly there was something very wrong.
Clearly it was time for me to take action.