My father was a clean shaven man, who arranged his ginger-grey hair across his bald spot, in wispy strands. He smelled of Imperial Leather soap and was particular about hygiene and grooming.
He became a father late in life, and struggled with the fundamentals of parenting. His privileged, but neglected childhood, left him ill-equipped to manage a family. My practical mother, did all she could to keep us together, but in the end she gave up and divorced him. I was two years old.
When I was about five, we went to visit Dad in Kariba. That time stands out in my memory because it was my first flight in an aeroplane; a heart-stopping adventure gazing at African veldt far below through the blades of a spinning propeller, but this story is not about that. It is about me, and my desperate desire to have my father’s love and attention. After a long absence, I wanted to be reassured that I was still his princess.
On Saturday night we dressed-up to go to the pictures in town; an unusual treat. The movie theatre was a concrete and grass amphitheatre open to the stars. On one side, a screen dominated, on the other, patrons sat on semi-circular steps.
I tagged behind my siblings, in awe at the size of the place, as they found seats in an empty row. People looked up as we passed, and I felt very grown up and important to be up so late. I pushed my way between my older siblings to sit close to my father.
The air was cool; the concrete beneath me hard and cold. The scent of earlier rain lingered on the damp lawn, and stars pierced the obsidian sky in unparalleled display. As we waited for the movie to start, I watched late-comers find their seats.
They brought cushions and spread blankets over their knees. I shivered in my thread-thin cardigan and envied their comforts, as I huddled against my Dad, my hands seeking warmth under his arm. The fragrance of soap from his recent shower, along with the aromas of damp lawn, the African bush, and smoke from distant cooking fires, was comforting and familiar as I waited in anticipation, for the film to begin.
He looked down at me. ‘Are you cold?’
He pulled his cashmere jumper over his head and wrapped it shawl-like around my shoulders. I clutched it close, and glanced at my siblings, feeling singled out for attention. My chest filled with air and I sat up straight. I could have been at the head of a marching band and not felt more proud or more filled with happiness. Then the cartoons began.
The movie was ten minutes in, but my eyes wouldn’t stay open. I yawned and lay down, head resting on my forearms, but I couldn’t get comfortable. My bare legs were freezing, so I sat up again to see how the others fared, but they were immersed in the plot.
I took my Dad’s jumper from around my shoulders, and poked my legs through the arms. Then I hauled the torso up over my body until it stretched to my neck. The grassy path behind the step was more comfortable so I lay down and drifted off to sleep, snug and warm.
The movie ended, and my sister shook me. I didn’t want to wake up and rolled away. She shook me again, and then I heard my Dad roar.
‘Look what you’ve done to my jumper. It’s stretched out of shape. You’ve ruined it. Get up and take it off immediately.’
I jumped up, and pushed the jumper down my body and off my legs. It caught on my shoe buckle, so I sat and unhooked it, fingers fumbling under his impatient gaze. I wished I could be invisible. If only I had stayed awake and been more grown up like the others. If only I had watched the movie and kept the jumper around my shoulders. If only I hadn’t fallen asleep.
With eyes cast down, I handed his jumper back, mud streaked, damp and still warm with my body heat. Tears burn behind my eyes. I was a naughty, selfish girl who ruined my Dad’s best jumper.
As we walked to the Land Rover, I dragged my feet, disgraced. I was cold and lonely and miserable as I hunched in the back, brooding on my failure. I wanted to run away and never face him again. How could I have believed I was special?