It’s the 1980s and Crispin St. Peters croons, you were on my mind. I love the song even though it’s decades out of date.
We are in Harare, Zimbabwe, what used to be Salisbury, Rhodesia. I still can’t get to grip with the new names. Harare used to be a suburb of Salisbury – now it has eaten the whole city.
We sit on high bar stools in the Round Bar and watch the barman pour our drinks, a gin and tonic for me and a beer for my husband, who plagues the poor man with an inquisition on how he feels about Mugabe’s reign, after the atrocity of Gukurahundi.
In here the lights are bright, unlike the shadowy room next door, silent now. This is the iconic bar of my youth and I gaze around remembering the magic of Le Coq d’Or. The live bands, the noise, the crowds, the haze of cigarette smoke laced with marijuana, the smell of spilt beer, drinking sickly cane and coke, and hoping one of the hesitant men will have the courage to ask a breathless young thing to dance.
Tonight, the tables ringing the room are full. Four new arrivals enter, look around and join us at the bar. I suck in my breath. It can’t be. It is. I wonder if I have the courage to ask. I say nothing and stare into my drink remembering.
Cranbourne Boys High first fifteen rugby team, and the boy of my dreams who never knew I existed, never knew his name was scratched into my ruler, never knew the trouble I was in when the Nun’s discovered it and complained to my mother. Who is this person they demanded. Mute I shook my head. How could I say he was the love of my young life? I had never spoken to him.
It was at my first grown-up party, my friend’s brother’s birthday. The sitting room was crowded with revellers, but I don’t remember any of them, don’t remember anything except bright coloured lights, the thumping beat of rock, the smell of devils on horseback, and his noisy entry with his band of brothers.
They swaggered in demanding attention by their loud and confident presence. An electric bolt galvanised the room. Suddenly life was more glamorous, more exciting, and party goers clamoured for their attention, surrounding them like rock stars.
I watched mesmerised until his gaze fell on me. Without hesitation, he handed his beer to his friend and pushed through the crowd towards me. Without a word, he confronted me, his presence large and mine trembling. I was the doe in his spotlight. He took my hand and pulled me into his arms. I went passively, captured and then he kissed me.
Minutes passed as the crowd whooped and hollered, egging him on, the girls green and secretly sulking. Who does this newcomer think she is? And still the kiss went on, his mouth coercing mine open, my stomach dissolving into quicksilver. I had never been kissed like it before. I sagged against him and he lowered me to the sofa, his lips never leaving mine. The crowd were restless, bored now, but the kiss went on. I was lost in ecstasy, ready for eternity.
Abruptly he stopped. Confused I opened my eyes to look into his, serious and intense.
He said, ‘I have to go,’ his look regretful.
I nodded and he got up, once more the rugger hero, the darling of the crowds as he joined his mates. Minutes later they were gone in a roar of lights and revving engines. I didn’t know his name.
I sat dazed on the sofa, my lips bruised, and a rash on my chin where his skin had sandpapered mine. No one spoke to me, but if they had I wouldn’t have heard. I was in love.
My husband’s voice brings me back into the bar. He’s talking to the man. The four of them join us, and I look at my fingers, embarrassed by the intimacy of my mind, lashes lowered covering the tell-tale secrets in my eyes.
Later he asks me to dance. Away from his wife and my husband I ask if he remembers. Of course he doesn’t, but I admit my years of yearning, smiling as if amused by the folly of youth.
‘I wish you had told me,’ he says.