I live in Nazareth House, a Children’s Home in Salisbury Rhodesia. I am with my brother who is four and I am two. Mum and Dad are divorced and we are here until Mum can get on her feet. Our older siblings go to school so they live with her in two rooms in a residential hostel. They visit us every weekend.
Years later I don’t remember living in Nazareth House, but Mum tells me I was there from eighteen months of age and stayed for two years. Mum, as a devout Catholic, did not talk of divorce and I’m only given that information when I reached adulthood.
My one memory of that time is a particular weekend. It’s a holiday, Easter or Rhodes and Founders, and we are going home. I am thrilled and fidget with excitement. When we arrive, I gaze in wonder at the grandest place I have ever seen. We walk from the reception and through the dining room to access the residential area.
In the dining room a real log fire gives a festive air to a room adorned with white linen covered tables. It’s the first I have seen. On tables set for dinner gleaming glasses reflect licking orange tongues. The afternoon sun shards through barred windows lighting dancing dust. Silver cutlery glints in marshalled rows of butter knives, soupspoons, fish knives, steak knives, dessertspoons, matched with their forks. Bathing it all is the smell of cauliflower soup.
I linger gazing at the white linen napery. ‘Can we have dinner here?’ I ask.
‘No,’ Mum says hurrying me along, ‘children aren’t allowed in the dining room at meal times.’
Disappointment doesn’t last long enough to dampen my happiness. The whole place is magical and I am determined to soak up every bit.
As we arrive at our room a woman pokes her head from a doorway. When she sees us, she steps out into the centre of the corridor. She is a frail woman much shorter than my mother and a few years younger. Her hair is a dark cloud haloing powdered skin, rosy cheeks and pillar-box lips.
She says how handsome my brother is. Looking at me she adds, it’s lucky her daughter is well today because I will have a playmate. The girl stands watching me from the doorway. She is smaller than I am but I learn later that she is a year older. Her name is Annabelle. It’s the name of a fairy and she is as fragile as a fairy.
Annabelle later tells me she is small because she is delicate. I don’t understand and I make no judgement. She has clothes that float in clouds of chiffon gathered at her thin waist, and wears dainty patent leather shoes with white ankle socks. I covert her shiny black shoes.
The next morning Annabelle and I go out into the grounds of the hostel to play. In the garden I spy my Everest, a rock the shape and size of an elephant. On one side it slopes in a perfect slide, worn and shiny from countless children’s bottoms rubbing it smooth.
I scramble up the side of the rock and jettison myself down the steep incline, ripping my knickers. A moment of panic clouds my excitement as I imagine the scolding I will get but I soon forget.
‘It’s fun,’ I say to a doubtful looking Annabelle. ‘Come on it’s your turn.’
She shakes her head. She doesn’t want a turn. Instead she smooths her skirt and bends to wipe a dust smudge clouding the mirror of her black patents. Then she walks around the rock calling out to her mother.
I shrug, thinking she has gone inside but I don’t care. The rock is so cool I want to slide down it again. I sit at the top ready to launch myself over the edge. I slide. Too late I see her. She is sitting, her back against the base of rock, right in the unstoppable downward trajectory of my hurtling body.
I yell. She turns her head and her face pales with shock as she realised the inevitable. Instead of throwing herself out of the way she freezes. My feet slam into her back. The force catapults me up and over in a swallow dive. I collect her head as I go. I am flying and dragging her behind me. Airborne for a second and then we crash, bowling into the dirt.
I lie winded, filthy and torn, listening to Annabelle’s wailing screams. My Mum and her mother run from the hostel. Her mother is furious and lands several slaps before my Mum intervenes but I know I am in serious trouble.
Years later I tell my mother that memory. She is sick, dying of breast cancer that has spread beyond redemption. I am home from the Sudan. Mum lives in Harare, Zimbabwe. She listens and her eyes fill with tears.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
‘What for?’ I ask puzzled. I think the story is amusing.
‘I’m sorry I put you and your brother in Nazareth House.’
‘Hey Mum, you had no choice. Don’t worry about it—I don’t.’
‘I should have found another way.’
‘What? Make Dad take some responsibility. Good luck with that.’
I want the conversation to end. The emotional intensity and Mum’s guilt is more than I can handle. Parents aren’t supposed to be vulnerable. Not my Mum, the super Mum who protected and defended me even when I did wrong. She can’t fall apart now, even if she is dying.
Mum gets up and goes to the bathroom. She is so frail I fear looking in case I can see through her. She blows her nose and returns smiling. I can see the effort. Her face and hair are orange from drinking gallons of carrot juice she thinks may cure her. She said she tried eating apricot kernels previously but discovered the trace amounts of arsenic were poisoning her. She ate a sackful before she came to that conclusion.
‘Let me say this,’ she says sitting down on the bed and lifting my hand in hers.
I can’t bare it but I have no choice. I wait, anxiety fluttering in my throat. She looks down at my hand, placid in hers.
‘I think leaving you in the Home affected your life.’
I am relieved and say, ‘no, it didn’t. I can’t remember anything about it. Not a thing except the incident I just told you.’
‘The fact that you can’t remember is the problem,’ she says. ‘I should never have done it. I need you to forgive me.’
‘There’s nothing to forgive.’ I’m squirming now and want to wrench my hand from hers. I want to be anywhere else but where I am.
‘Gilly, I need your forgiveness.’
‘Okay but honestly…’ I don’t finish because I’m crying and I don’t want her to see. I look away and she releases my hand.
‘You can’t remember because you have blanked out the memory.’ She climbs back into her bed and straightens the covers, her face blanched with exhaustion. ‘I need to sleep dear. Come back later.’
I leave, shattered.