Authors: Norman Filler
2013 by Publisher
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This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, places, events, locations is purely coincidental.
– The Arrival
Chapter 2 – Catching Up
Chapter 3 – Settling In
Chapter 4 – The Tour
Chapter 5 – A Look Back
Chapter 6 – A Look Forward
Chapter 7 – A Failure
Chapter 8 – A Difficult Visit
Chapter 9 – Healing Begins
Chapter 10 – The Funeral
Chapter 11 – A New Beginning
– The Arrival
When Andy drove up to Matambala, he wondered why he was going home. It certainly wasn’t to relive the last unhappy months he had lived there. Once had been enough. Was it to recapture the happiness of his youth there? Andy had lived through too much to believe that it was ever possible to go back and recapture the past. For one thing, he was different; both his heart and his body had been whole, and his dreams intact. And Matambala had changed too. So much of the beauty had gone. Land distribution had torn great holes in it and replaced meadows with dusty fields of maize stalks. The forest on Thyolo Mountain had shrunken, he’d heard, to half its size. Mike was gone, the rest of his family scattered; only Megan, his sister-in-law was there. Andy had fond memories of Megan, but who was Megan now? Was there any of the old Megan left after the tragedy of her marriage? Not for the first time, he told himself he should have steered far away from the place. Coming back could only bring back memories best forgotten. But something had drawn him, almost against his will, and here he was.
When he drew up in front of the verandah of their old house, the first thing he noticed was that the potted plants were gone. His mother had had them everywhere; they were her pride and joy. Without them the wide verandah seemed bare and empty, though all the old furniture was there. It seemed appropriate somehow. There was less life and more death around than there had been – in him, on the estate, in his family.
His mother was dead, his brother might as well be, and Siobhan was living an empty life in a bedsit in Brixton. And Megan? He didn’t know. Maybe what he’d come back for was to find out.
As if in answer to
his thought, the door opened and Megan appeared in it and paused, unsure who was in the car. She was heavier, he thought, not only in weight, but in the way she held herself. Her beautiful auburn hair had streaks of grey and her face showed that life had not been kind. He thought back to the first time he had seen her on this very spot when she arrived at Matambala from Leicestershire: young and lithe, healthy and hopeful. Even then there had been sadness in her eyes and vulnerability. He’d fallen in love with her more or less at first sight, though too young and too bashful to do anything about it but be her advocate.
When she had watched Mike throw him off th
e estate – or to be fair, sack him, for he could have stayed as a dependant – he had been bitter. She hadn’t lifted a finger – gross ingratitude, he figured, after all he’d done to make Mike see her for the prize she was. And a denial of the affection he had thought she had for him. But the bitterness had mostly faded as he had mulled over the difficulties of her situation, and now he felt a rush of his old affection.
Seeing that she didn’t know who he was, he got opened
the car door, and as he struggled to get out, called, “Hello Megan!”
“Andy?” she asked.
Her face lit up. “What an absolutely wonderful surprise! Why didn’t you let me know?”
“I was going to, but then I wasn’t sure I had the nerve to actually drive in or if you’d want to see me if I did.”
“Of course, I want to see you! I’ve wanted to get in touch and call you home for months, but I didn’t have any way. Of all the beautiful things that happened to me at Matambala, it seemed like you were the only one that … still existed.” She rushed out to help him get out of the car, but sensed that that was the last thing he wanted. As he laboriously maneuvered his legs out onto the ground, she looked at him and wanted to weep. The lively enthusiastic, ever-smiling youth she remembered was gone. It wasn’t just the hand that was missing; it was the sparkling light in his eyes and the air of privilege he had exuded.
Unutterably moved, she held out her arms and hugged him long and hard. “Welcome home,” she said, “It’s been too long.”
Andy couldn’t answer for a moment, his face buried in her shoulder, as he struggled to keep control, but finally managed rather shakily, “It has indeed.”
“Come in, come in. We’ll have tea and talk.
We’ve lots of talking to do.” Then turning to the house she shouted, “Joshua, Andy’s come home. Come help us with his bags. “
n elderly Malawian bustled out of the house, a huge smile on his face, “Master Andy,” he said, “Welcome home!” He reached out to shake Andy’s hand and was momentarily disconcerted to discover that it wasn’t there to shake, but recovered almost immediately and reached for Andy’s left hand with both of his instead.” “It’s been too long,”
He was followed by Buddy, an
elderly and obese cocker spaniel, who clearly recognized Andy and excitedly leapt about with joy – his form of welcome. “Yes, Andy replied, “Far too long.” And, he thought to himself that it had been much too long. He’d been obsessed with all that was gone, instead of holding to what wasn’t.”
2 – Catching UP
After they sat down on the verandah and Joshua had poured tea, there was an awkward silence. There was so much to say that it was hard to know where to begin. Finally, Megan asked, “So tell me what’s going on with you.”
“After Mike threw me out, I was so shattered I drifted without any idea what to do. Nothing seemed worth doing. I had lost my life and couldn’t find another.
I visited a lot of interesting places I wasn’t interested in and took a long and incredibly boring cruise. Finally, I went to England to start a new life, but couldn’t find one to start. I visited some old Thyolo friends and found them as paralyzed as I was. The only one who had found solid ground had joined The Salvation Army. He invited me to join, but can you imagine me doing that?”
Of course, I started to drink too much, and then drug too much. I really think I was trying to kill myself
. And I nearly did when I drove through a red light. Unfortunately I failed to kill myself and killed a couple of other people instead. All I had to pay for that was a hand and a DUI fine. It was grotesque. I hated myself for being alive, ran out of money, and it wasn’t long before I was sleeping under bridges and eating garbage.”
Then by some miracle, I wandered by a soup kitchen run by the Anglican Church, stopped for a bowl of soup, and was recognized by Fr. Bennett. He was before your time in Thyolo, but he was very good to us as our rector and recognized me, though how I’m not sure. He took me in, listened, held me as I wept, told me I was being an arsehole when I needed to be told that, and eventually put me on my feet and found me a job – not much, counter person in a cleaning establishment, but I succeeded in doing a good job of it and kept at it until mother’s death made it unnecessary to work. Since then, I’ve been clean but aimless, and eventually decided to revisit Malawi. So here I am. Now it’s your turn.”
“Well, you were here at the beginning. Maybe
you can tell me why Mike changed the way he did. After we were married, his mother left more and more of the running of the place to him. Maybe that was too much for him. He’d always been more dependent on his mum that he wanted to admit. When things began to go wrong, he began to blame everybody else. You came under fire first and he ran you out. He didn’t realize how dependent he was on you until it was too late. For weeks afterwards, he was hardly ever sober.
hen the government insisted that we give up land for resettlement, he became vituperously anti-government and made enemies there. In their eyes, Matambala couldn’t do anything right after that. Your mother, seeing things going wrong, tried to step in, but he became even more obsessed with never doing anything she told him to and began to be vile to her. It broke her heart. When she had her stroke, and couldn’t live at Matambala any longer, he threw her into Newlands Home and never visited. I visited, but she didn’t particularly want to see me. It was Mike she wanted to see. She didn’t last long after that.
She sat silent for some m
oments, then went on under her breath, “Then I was the only target left. “
“What happened to Siobhan?”
“She escaped from home by marrying a bastard of an aid worker who had his eyes on the wealth of Matambala. When Mike made him unwelcome here, they went to England, where he abandoned her. I hear from her at Christmas, and I know that she’s surviving, but that’s all. I think her memories of the end are so bitter that she won’t ever come back.”
“So you were alone with him.”
“I was. And you know what Thyolo people are like: one of the most enclosed and ingrown communities in the world. They had never fully accepted me and naturally sided with Mike, when he complained about me. So I was really alone with him. When he started to hit me, there was no one I could tell and expect to be believed.”
“Why did you stick it?”
“It was partly that until your mother died, I didn’t have any money of my own; then I kept hoping I could cure him with love. But at heart, it was because I had come love this place and couldn’t abandon it. Even with everything falling apart, I thought maybe I could salvage some of it. And in a way, I have. Most of the forest has gone. Mike alienated the local people instead of getting their support, and short of an army of guards 24 hours a day, there was no stopping the poaching and tree-cutting. But some is still there, and it isn’t getting any smaller, maybe even regenerating at the edges. I talked hard and fast to the chief and persuaded him that preservation was in their interest. He had already seen things happening to their water supply and watched the erosion without knowing that removing the forest was causing it. “
“Mike was never much interested in the welfare of our workers but after the land debacle, he became actively antagonistic – with the inevitable loss of production and increase in sabotage.
The resentment was palpable. When we drove around the estate, people would scowl at us as we went by. Things went steadily downhill and at one point it looked like we’d have to close down or sell up. You can imagine how Mike felt about that.”
Things are better now. Even while Mike was in charge, I persuaded him to take a few steps to improve relations, and now we’re doing all sorts of village development: schools, clinics, craft classes, and the sabotage and deliberate idling have all but stopped. I think we probably have the most contented staff in the area. Even the tea pickers, though appallingly paid, feel lucky to be employed on Matambala.”
“That’s wonderful. I’d like to see the place.”
“We’ll take a tour tomorrow, but don’t expect it to be the same, because it isn’t.”
They were talked out for the moment, the tea was cold and the cake and sandwiches had disappeared, with a little help from Buddy. So Megan went to see about dinner and Andy went to unpack and sluice off the travel dust. “Do you still dress for dinner
?” he called to Megan before she was out of sight.”
“If you mean, “Do I eat in my
pajamas?” the answer is no. I generally do put on a dress, but nothing special’s required. ”
He had to go looking for his suitcases, but found that Joshua had taken them to his old room and made the bed up for him there. It still felt like his room, though the clutter of animal specimens and half-concluded experiments that had filled half of it when he was young was gone. He remembered hastily cleaning it up best he could the day Megan had arrived, not wanting her to be repelled by the mess.
He smiled wryly, remembering that she had never been inside as he imagined – or hoped- she would. From the first it had been Mike’s room she was interested in. He shook his head. He had been very young. He lay on the bed, intending to rest for a moment, but was startled awake when the dinner gong sounded. After a disoriented moment, he sighed. Much had changed, but the gong was the same.