ara Courtney had not worn white since her wedding day. Green was her favourite colour, for it best set off her thick chestnut hair.
However, the white dress she wore today made her feel like a bride again, tremulous and a little afraid but with a sense of joy and deep commitment. She had a touch of ivory lace at the cuffs and the high neckline, and had brushed her hair until it crackled with ruby lights in the bright Cape sunshine. Excitement had rouged her cheeks and although she had carried four children, her waist was slim as a virgin's. So the wide sash of funereal black that she wore over one shoulder was all the more incongruous: youth and beauty decked in the trappings of mourning. Despite her emotional turmoil, she stood with her hands clasped in front of her and her head bowed, silent and still.
She was only one of almost fifty women, all dressed in white, all draped with the black sashes, all in the same attitude of mourning, who stood at carefully spaced intervals along the pavement opposite the main entrance of the parliament buildings of the Union of South Africa.
Nearly all of the women were young matrons from Tara's own set, wealthy, privileged and bored by the undemanding tenor of their lives. Many of them had joined the protest for the excitement of defying established authority and outraging their peers. Some were seeking to regain the attentions of their husbands which after the first decade or so of marriage were jaded by familiarity and fixed more on business or golf and other extra-marital activity. There was, however, a hard nucleus to the movement consisting mostly of the older women, but including a few of the younger
ones like Tara and Molly Broadhurst. These were moved only by revulsion at injustice. Tara had tried to express her feelings at the press conference that morning when a woman reporter from the
had demanded of her, âWhy are you doing this, Mrs Courtney?' and she had replied, âBecause I don't like bullies, and I don't like cheats.' For her that attitude was partially vindicated now.
âHere comes the big bad wolf,' the woman who stood five paces on Tara's right said softly. âBrace up, girls!' Molly Broadhurst was one of the founders of the Black Sash, a small determined woman in her early thirties whom Tara greatly admired and strove to emulate.
A black Chevrolet with government licence plates had drawn up at the corner of Parliament Square and four men climbed out onto the pavement. One was a police photographer and he went to work immediately, moving quickly down the line of white-clad, black-draped women with his Hasselblad camera, photographing each of them. He was followed by two of the others brandishing notebooks. Though they were dressed in dark, ill-cut business suits, their clumpy black shoes were regulation police issue and their actions were brusque and businesslike as they passed down the ranks demanding and noting the names and addresses of each of the protesters. Tara, who was fast becoming something of an expert, guessed that they probably ranked as sergeants in the Special Branch, but the fourth man she knew by name and by sight, as did most of the others.
He was dressed in a light grey summer suit with brown brogues, a plain maroon tie and a grey fedora hat. Though of average height and unremarkable features, his mouth was wide and friendly, his smile easy as he lifted his hat to Molly.
âGood morning, Mrs Broadhurst. You are early. The procession won't arrive for another hour yet.'
âAre you going to arrest us all again today, Inspector?' Molly demanded tartly.
âPerish the thought.' The inspector raised an eyebrow. âIt's a free country, you know.'
âYou could have fooled me.'
âNaughty Mrs Broadhurst!' He shook his head. âYou are trying to provoke me.' His English was excellent, with only a faint trace of an Afrikaans accent.
âNo, Inspector. We are protesting the blatant gerrymandering of this perverse government, the erosion of the rule of law, and the abrogation of the basic human rights of the majority of our fellow South Africans merely on the grounds of the colour of their skins.'
âI think, Mrs Broadhurst, you are repeating yourself. You told me all this last time we met.' The inspector chuckled. âNext you'll actually be demanding that I arrest you again. Let's not spoil this grand occasionâ'
âThe opening of this parliament, dedicated as it is to injustice and oppression, is a cause for lament not celebration.'
The inspector tipped the brim of his hat, but beneath his flippant attitude was a real respect and perhaps even a little admiration.
âCarry on, Mrs Broadhurst,' he murmured. âI'm sure we'll meet again soon,' and he sauntered on until he came opposite Tara.
âGood morning to you, Mrs Courtney.' He paused, and this time his admiration was unconcealed. âWhat does your illustrious husband think of your treasonable behaviour?'
âIs it treason to oppose the excesses of the National Party and its legislation based on race and colour, Inspector?'
His gaze dropped for a moment to her bosom, large and yet finely shaped beneath the white lace, and then returned to her face.
âYou are much too pretty for this nonsense,' he said. âLeave it to the grey-headed old prunes. Go home where you belong and look after your babies.'
âYour masculine arrogance is insufferable, Inspector.' She flushed with anger, unaware that it heightened the looks he had just complimented.
âI wish all traitoresses looked the way you do. It would make my job a great deal more congenial. Thank you, Mrs Courtney.' He smiled infuriatingly and moved on.
âDon't let him rattle you, my dear,' Molly called softly. âHe's an expert at it. We are protesting passively. Remember Mahatma Gandhi.'
With an effort Tara controlled her anger, and reassumed the attitude of the penitent. On the pavement behind her the crowds of spectators began to gather. The rank of white-clad women became the object of curiosity and amusement, of some approbation and a great deal of hostility.
âGoddamn Commies,' a middle-aged man growled at Tara. âYou want to hand the country over to a bunch of savages. You should be locked up, the whole lot of you.' He was well dressed, and his speech cultivated. He even wore the small brass tin-hat insignia in his lapel to signify that he had served with the volunteer forces during the war against Fascism. His attitude was a reminder of just how much tacit support the ruling National Party enjoyed even amongst the English-speaking white community.
Tara bit her lip and forced herself to remain silent, head bowed, even when the outburst earned a ragged ironical cheer from some of the coloured people in the growing crowd.
It was getting hot now, the sunshine had a flat Mediterranean brilliance, and though the mattress of cloud was building up above the great flat-topped bastion of Table Mountain, heralding the rise of the south-easter, the wind
had not yet reached the city that crouched below it. By now the crowd was dense and noisy, and Tara was jostled, she suspected deliberately. She kept her composure and concentrated on the building across the road from where she stood.
Designed by Sir Herbert Baker, that paragon of Imperial architects, it was massive and imposing, red brick colonnaded in shimmering white â far from Tara's own modern taste, which inclined to uncluttered space and lines, to glass and light Scandinavian pine furnishing. The building seemed to epitomize all that was inflexible and out-dated from the past, all that Tara wanted to see tom down and discarded.
Her thoughts were broken by the rising hum of expectation from the crowd around her.
âHere they come,' Molly called, and the crowd surged and swayed and broke into cheers. There was the clatter of hoofs on the hard-metalled roadway and the mounted police escort trotted up the avenue, pennants fluttering gaily at the tips of their lances, expert horsemen on matched chargers whose hides gleamed like burnished metal in the sunlight.
The open coaches rumbled along behind them. In the first of these rode the Governor-General and the Prime Minister. There he was, Daniel Malan, champion of the Afrikaners, with his forbidding almost froglike features, a man whose only consideration and declared intent was to keep his
supreme in Africa for a thousand years, and no price was for him too high.
Tara stared at him with palpable hatred, for he embodied all that she found repellent in the government which now held sway over the land and the peoples that she loved so dearly. As the coach swept past where she stood, their eyes met for a fleeting moment and she tried to convey the strength of her feelings, but he glanced at her without a
flicker of acknowledgement, not even a shadow of annoyance, in his brooding gaze. He had looked at her and had not seen her, and now her anger was tinged with despair.
âWhat must be done to make these people even listen?' she wondered, but now the dignitaries had dismounted from the carriages and were standing to attention during the playing of the national anthems. And though Tara did not know it then, it was the last time âThe King' would be played at the opening of a South African Parliament.
The band ended with a fanfare of trumpets and the cabinet ministers followed the Governor-General and the Prime Minister through the massive front entrance doors. They were followed in turn by the Opposition front-benchers. This was the moment Tara had been dreading, for her own close family now formed part of the procession. Next behind the Leader of the Opposition came Tara's own father with her stepmother on his arm. They made the most striking couple in the long procession, her father tall and dignified as a patriarchal lion, while on his arm Centaine de Thiry Courtney-Malcomess was slim and graceful in a yellow silk dress that was perfect for the occasion, a jaunty brimless hat on her small neat head with a veil over one eye; she seemed not a year older than Tara herself, though everybody knew she had been named Centaine because she had been born on the first day of the twentieth century.
Tara thought she had escaped unnoticed, for none of them had known she intended joining the protest, but at the top of the broad staircase the procession was held up for a moment and before she entered the doorway Centaine turned deliberately and looked back. From her vantage point she could see over the heads of the escort and the other dignitaries in the procession, and from across the road she caught Tara's eye and held it for a moment. Although her expression did not alter, the strength of her disapproval was even at that range like a slap in Tara's face.
For Centaine the honour, dignity and good name of the family were of paramount importance. She had warned Tara repeatedly about making a public spectacle of herself and flouting Centaine was a perilous business, for she was not only Tara's stepmother but her mother-in-law as well, and the doyenne of the Courtney family and fortune.
Halfway up the staircase behind her Shasa Courtney saw the direction and force of his mother's gaze, and turning quickly to follow it saw Tara, his wife, in the rank of black-sashed protesters. When she had told him that morning at breakfast that she would not be joining him at the opening ceremony, Shasa had barely looked up from the financial pages of the morning newspaper.
âSuit yourself, my dear. It will be a bit of a bore,' he had murmured. âBut I would like another cup of coffee, when you have a moment.'
Now when he recognized her, he smiled slightly and shook his head in mock despair, as though she were a child discovered in some naughty prank, and then he turned away as the procession moved forward once again.
He was almost impossibly handsome, and the black eyepatch gave him a debonair piratical look that most women found intriguing and challenging. Together they were renowned as the handsomest young couple in Cape Town society. Yet it was strange how the passage of a few short years had caused the flames of their love to sink into a puddle of grey ash.
âSuit yourself, my dear,' he had said, as he did so often these days.
The last back-benchers in the procession disappeared into the House, the mounted escort and empty carriages trotted away and the crowds began to break up. The demonstration was over.
âAre you coming, Tara?' Molly called, but Tara shook her head.
âHave to meet Shasa,' she said. âSee you on Friday
afternoon.' Tara slipped the wide black sash off over her head, folded it and placed it in her handbag as she threaded her way through the dispersing crowd. She crossed the road.
She saw no irony in now presenting her parliamentary pass to the doorman at the visitors' entrance and entering the institution against whose actions she had been so vigorously protesting. She climbed the side staircase and looked into the visitors' gallery. It was packed with wives and important guests, and she looked over their heads down into the panelled chamber below to the rows of sombre-suited members on their green leather-covered benches, all involved in the impressive ritual of parliament. However, she knew that the speeches would be trivial, platitudinous and boring to the point of pain, and she had been standing in the street since early morning. She needed to visit the ladies' room as a matter of extreme urgency.
She smiled at the usher and withdrew surreptitiously, then turned and hurried away down the wide-panelled corridor. When she had finished in the ladies' room, she headed for her father's office, which she used as her own.