by Rory Kilalea.
Rhodesia declared a unilateral declaration of Independence from Britain in 1965 to avoid black rule. A bush war erupted. Black freedom fighters attacked the white Rhodesian forces for control of the country. Men and women were enlisted. This story is about one woman at that time.
Brady Barracks. Bulawayo. Rhodesia. Africa. 1973
“Why don’t they ever clean these shelves, George?”
George shrugged. The thought had never occurred to her. She expected musty smells and silverfish when she sorted through old files.
A comfortable feeling.
“I suppose the dust must be antique now.”
George smiled through the papers.
“Just like this office.” He pointed to the sagging shelves. “Just because we’re Army, not supposed to have taste! I mean . . . Look!”
Government gloss smudged thickly on the walls made the room feel like a hospital passage. The only light to their office was through the open door.
George, giggled, clicked shut the mottled file and the mustiness was gone.
The old black Remington clacked loudly on the table, as Signals banged the keys, bouncing the full wire tray.
“And. Look at these!” piped the man. “They must date back to when the old Queen Mother arrived here!”
George looked at the forms he threw into the tray. There was a British Home Office Crest at the top.
“We were a colony then, George!” observed the ginger man.
George got back to her typing through the chatter, wondering why Admin and Signals had been squashed into the smallest building on the camp.
“That was years ago. You must remember those days, George?”
The other typists smiled at his assumption of her age, but he didn’t notice. Neither did George.
‘Remember George? We ran along waving Union Jacks, and the lights were strung across the road in the shape of a crown?”
Pretend-busy fingers poised over the keys.
“It’s alright, it’s Paddy!”
Hands dipped to the rest bar.
The stark sunlight outside was flat. Like another world. The tar shimmered through the dwarf marigolds at the base of the flag pole.
“He looks busy!”
Paddy swaggered across the road to their office, pausing to salute the supplies truck heading out of the gate boom. He stepped up into the shade, his bulk blocking out the light from the door.
“Hi Paddy!” called the Signals fellow.
Paddy nodded. “There’s an urgent consignment of supplies for the border. Needs to be dealt with at once.”
He spilled the order sheets onto George’s desk.
“Can you do it now? One to HQ, one to Supplies, one to Quartermaster. In triplicate.”
Paddy turned to leave. He was busy, had to send some kitchen staff up to the valley to cook for the men. Soldiers need to be fed to fight the terrorists crossing the border from Zambia. You wouldn’t really notice in the towns, but the battles were fierce and bloody. Paddy often thought of the battle for Irish independence – using the same-guerrilla warfare to weaken the oppressors.
“Getting to be busy now,” piped Signals man.
“Have to get the supplies on transport before opening time at the Mess.” He glanced at his watch.
“Today is the big day, hey Paddy?”
He turned, his massive frame plunging them into darkness again.
“What’s that, Bucko?”
“The wearing of the Green . . .” The signals man tried an Irish accent.
“Jesus!” Paddy shifted uncomfortably, spilling a shaft of light across the friendly freckled face.
“It’s St Patricks Day! How could you forget?”
Paddy shrugged good naturedly.
“Will we see you in the Mess then?” Paddy smiled.
“Drinks on you!” they called after him.
“Sure,” he smiled, “See you at four-thirsty!”
“We should all wear Green!” The Signals man was in his element.
“Your uniform’s green, you ejit,” laughed Paddy as he left.
“I’ll make a shamrock out of cabbage leaves.” Signals disappeared to the canteen.
“He’s so creative,” said one of the typists. The others laughed. They knew what ‘creative’ meant.
The office made a make-shift card from the cover of a green cardboard file. They signed it and returned to work.
“Who is Paddy?” asked George, running forms with carbon paper through the typewriter.
“Oh. Sorry George . . . I should have introduced you.” The signals man wrestled with scissors on a cabbage leaf.
“That’s Paddy, in charge of supplies and butchery. Lots of kids. Funny wife . . .” He snipped at a corner of the cabbage leaf to make it look more like a shamrock. “I forget you’re new here . . . you fit in so well . . .” He stapled the cabbage shamrock onto the carboard cut out and stepped back. “Marvellous!” he said.
The typists’ applause made Signals blush.
George backspaced to correct an error.
She had been a typist with an insurance company before Rhodesia went to war against Mugabe and Nkomo. The Old Mutual insurance company. She was quick, accurate and received a fair salary at the end of each month.
That was her life. Work. Home. Work. Waiting for a pension.
Some tried to change her life.
“You must be a little more outgoing!” They arranged visits to hairdressers, boutiques, or single clubs. She occasionally humoured them, to keep them quiet.
But she had chosen her life. It was only a token nod to society that she bothered to shave her legs.
George’s dimpled face hid a sufficiency not noticed by her workmates.
She had grown accustomed to her life, had come to terms with herself as her body spread, rounding out swimmers’ broad shoulders and narrow hips. She had learnt strong lessons in the days of Cliff Richard, Bobby-Sox, and full skirts.
“I wonder has she ever had a boyfriend?” The secretaries murmured, “Do you think she has any idea what she looks like?”
Her friends would never know.
It was at the Young Ones Club in Bulawayo, on Grey Street. The floor was a glory of swirling bodies, penciled eyebrows, and petticoats. She was watching, excited, clutching a neat black purse. It was her first party, her first time allowed out by her parents. She felt like a butterfly poised for flight. Just like any other girl on the dance floor. Her mother had made a full flounced black taffeta skirt and a Broderie Anglaise blouse. And as a treat had bought her a neat patent leather evening purse. Her hair was freshly curled.
She felt pretty.
The atmosphere wasn’t at all like a swimming gala, but she didn’t feel lost – it was so electric, the noise, the band, the fun!
She followed the gaggle to the Ladies room and pretended to know about boys ‘giving her looks,’ back-combing her hair and putting on more make up than parents or teachers allowed.
Just like the other girls.
“Meeting anyone here tonight, George?”
George tried to smile mysteriously, blushed instead. “Someone told me you had a love letter from a guy at that school in the suburbs.”
The coloured skirts swished past her to the dance floor.
George knew they all knew. She’d left the letter lying about the cookery class, accidentally-on-purpose.
“Well George? Will he be here?”
“Those boys have a reputation you know!”
Arch eyebrows in the mirror. She thought of the heart drawn at the top of the letter from Douglas. It was outlined in red ink and it must have taken him hours. There were flowers and curls with her initials in the centre. “I’ll be the boy smoking in the far corner,” he had written.
It had sounded so grown up, wicked somehow and it was a few minutes before she could make herself walk out to the dance floor. When she did her face was high with colour.
Suddenly the loud music and shrill laughter faded into the background as if the world had suddenly ceased to turn.
He was standing in the corner, smoking a cigarette.
Dangerously close to his lips. George knew it was him.
He was tall and lean, a little bit like a pop star. He had a baby face.
She just wanted to watch him. But tried not to stare.
His lips, his jeans, his baby face.
Something would happen.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the other girls looking at him too, as he tapped out another cigarette from the pack, snapped the match against the wall to light it. He was so grown up.
Some of her friends were coyly letting her know that they were ‘Going Outside’ with a boy.
“I think Deidre is going to have her first French kiss tonight!” Sarah laughed into George’s ear before she was tugged onto the dancefloor for a slow grab and grip number.
The lights dimmed.
George was enchanted. No one could have prepared her for the feelings coursing through her.
She was very happy. A couple of boys sat down beside her, swiftly appraising, glancing away, fidgeting.
His cigarette had a long ash. There were no ashtrays around. Smoking at school dances was forbidden. So, to watch him smoking like an adult was thrilling. She thought she would send him an ashtray as a secret present.
“Nothing happened yet?” One of the boys, lounged himself in the chair next to her, rearranged himself in his jeans.
“Nah . . . maybe it won’t work.”
The other boys began guffawing. Sprawling out thin legs awkwardly, “I dunno how many smokes he can go through before dying!”
Cackles all round.
“Where can she be?”
George shifted in the wooden chair. It was suddenly uncomfortably hot and her back hurt.
And then she saw him move towards her. He had no reason to. She hadn’t told him in her secret letter what she would be wearing.
And still he kept on coming. She felt her cheeks flame. She wanted to escape but couldn’t move.
“Hi,” he said.
She tried to say something. She couldn’t breathe. Her throat was closed. “Still breathing, Douglas?” the others laughed. “Doesn’t look as if she’s pitched.” And they began to guffaw again, attracting a group around them. “What’s the story?”
“We sent this really ugly broad, a love letter, and Pat here was pretending to be Douglas-the-date. So he’s been standing in the corner for half an hour, smoking his head off! Waiting for her!”
“Is she really ugly?”
“A fat hairy grunt!”
“Her mates say she’s the worst thing in the school.”
“Can’t be worse than this one sitting here,” whispered one. They turned to the empty chair and laughed all over again.
George looked at her shocked face in the mirror. She screwed her eyes shut, blocked out the reflection magnified gathers, frills, and flounces.
She felt her heart break in tiny pieces in that bathroom. Her mother would ask, but she would not tell what happened.
The smell of hairspray hung in the air, the rustle of petticoats whispered at her. It was cruel. She wanted to sag down in the corner of the bathroom. Safe against the cool tiles.
Hugging her knees. Denying it all.
But she knew it was too late. Something had gone.
Her smart flat shoes stared back at her. Banana Boats. Everything too large. Even for one dream. Her eyes filled. It was not fair.
She picked up her purse and slipped away. She hoped that one day her mind would accept its body. No one – not even her mum must ever know. She would never dress up again.
That was the last time she met up with large groups of people face-to-face. Instead, she settled for a typewriter, a small flat and baking an occasional cake for a school gala or a charity.
Until the war.
The war for freedom for the blacks. She knew that Nkomo was the local black man who wanted to have black rule. Now he was out of the country or was he in jail? The white government hated him. She never read the newspapers and rarely listened to the news. The radio was full of women with English gardening voices talking about gossiping where their husbands were posted, as ‘Walls have Ears,’ and we should ‘Support our Troops’. But on a Saturday afternoon she made an exception. She listened to Forces Requests on the radio where soldiers’ letters were read or girlfriends sending wishes to their ‘man in the bush’ protecting the country from the terrorists. She loved the friendly voice of the presenter who made her feel as if every message was for her. When a soldier said that he missed his girlfriend stacks and stacks, George knew how that felt. It was romantic.
And maybe that was the reason she made a sudden decision.
Not that she was patriotic. Or political. It was more of a purpose. She felt she would be useful.
So she got up from her desk at the insurance company and joined the army. Just as the men went off for military service, so did George.
It would give her some meaning.
At first it was difficult to relate, to see things through sweat and camouflage. But as she wasn’t considered a potential conquest either in bed or on the field, she found it easier to become part of their inside-out life, where fear never spoke, and orders were orders. Her body was almost tailor made to the uniforms.
Ready for operations
Dressed up like a soldier.
But the training was only a prelude. George learnt her post would be the same as in the insurance company, except the typewriter wasn’t electric. But they trained her how to use a gun (weapon) and how to march.
Every day was positive when she drove under the boom at Brady Barracks and parked by the chapel morgue in the shade.
The men in her office had been a little distant at first.
They were mystified.
They were confused by the sudden influx of women allowed into the forces. The army needed to relieve the men in admin to go to the border to fight. So, women were essential.
The signalman was typical. He had a limp, so they could not send him to battle. Instead, he monitored radio messages and transcribed them for HQ.
He took two months to speak to her. He didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t a ‘lady’ or someone to lift a leg over. She wasn’t a man. She was a soldier and he wouldn’t treat a soldier like a lady, regardless of rank. He decided she must be sexless. Therefore she was safe. He could fart and swear in front her as if she was one of the blokes.
He found she did have one advantage. He could talk to her about ‘sensitive‘ things, like feelings and home furnishings. And why would never marry.
And she wouldn’t laugh.
George scrolled the last piece of paper out of the typewriter and stood up to leave.
“We have to take Paddy up on his drinks,” chirped the little man.
“I have . . . another . . .” George covered the typewriter with a cloth for the dust.
“Come on George! Paddy’s like a big American car – his consumption is terrible! So when he orders, we get drinks too!”
So George found herself in the Sergeants mess.
“The queen mother came here you know,” boasted the Signals man.
George hoped the Mess looked better then.
“Some of the lounge chairs need recovering now,” he said.
George imagined a flowered hat smiling benignly at beer stains.
Paddy was leaning, big-bellied against the bar. He smiled with genuine delight at the vegetable shamrock and the card.
“Bacon and cabbage for me tomorrow!” he smiled.
“There isn’t a cabbage big enough for you and your catholic tribe!” sniped the little man.
“Paddy’s wife wouldn’t find that funny at all,” whispered Signals. “She calls this place the Den of Iniquity.”
“What’ll it be?” Paddy beamed. And they all ordered and settled comfortably on their normal bar stools.
A feeling of awkwardness, ungainliness, began to creep up on her. She wanted to leave.
“What’ll it be lass?”
“A beer,” quickly, the first thing that came into her head.
“Come and sit here me darlin’,” he guided her to a stool.
She felt small beside him as he regaled them with Irish jokes and songs.
The bar filled up and became an enormous party. Paddy consumed vast quantities of beer. For every one he bought, he got one for George too.
She felt lightheaded, unguarded. The conviviality made her feel a different person, foolishly expectant, as if something would happen.
The black barman beamed at them toasting St Patrick’s ancestral shades.
“Let the arm wrestling begin!” yelled a bleary Quartermaster. The general buzz of activity quietened down.
“I’ll try the champ.” A man called Aubrey stumbled over to Paddy.
“Come on, then!”
The bar cleared a space for them as the men faced each other at the corner of the bar to lock arms in combat.
George was fascinated. She had never seen anything like this before. The barman cleared up while the Indian arm wrestling began. He had seen it all before. Many, many times. Paddy would win. He always did.
The telephone rang.
“Sergeant’s mess. Hello?” The barman could hardly hear through the cheering. “You want who?’ yelled the barman at the receiver.
“Boss Paddy!” Paddy looked up.
Within seconds Paddy pushed his Aubrey’s arm to the bar counter.
The bar cheered.
“My wife?” he asked.
The barman nodded.
They had all seen this before.
Paddy pursed his lips. “Tell her I’m at a prayer meeting.” He winked broadly.
More drinks all round and George was suddenly on her fifth beer.
“May all of this be on St Patrick’s head Paddy,” chirped Signals.
“May his head feel like mine in the morning,” said George and the bar loved her for it. The signalman found it so funny he dropped his glass of rum and coke into his lap.
“You’re such a wet!” laughed the Quartermaster.
“Sure, I’ve not been challenged by your section yet,” said Paddy ordering a replacement drink for the signals man.
“I’m wet, so I can’t wrestle,” he piped and volunteered George.
She was taken aback.
“Come on George!” they all yelled.
Still flushed by her own joke, she struggled to understand. They wanted her to arm wrestle Paddy. They wanted her to play in their game.
The room felt too warm, exciting.
But there were echoes. Dangerous echoes.
The bar was silent.
“I don’t want to do this,” George started to say. But the Signals man waggled his eyebrows at her. Then waved the bar towel from his damp crotch like a stripper.
“You don’t want to be the ruining of Paddy’s party.”
“Ok Paddy. Alright then.”
It was a sober decision. That’s what she said later. Signals never agreed. He said he saw it coming. She was drunk.
Paddy chuckled merrily, “That’s me girl”.
The crowd hushed. Signals propped up George’s elbow on bar mats for support.
Now her hand was the same height as Paddy.
As their hands touched, Paddy’s eyes twinkled. “You’ve got a good grip there, lass.”
George felt the width of his hands and fingers.
“Butcher’s hands, lassie, they say we absorb fat from the meat through our nails.”
“This is a good party,” slurred Signals.
And the battle began.
With the first pressure she knew that she had no chance at all. His forearms rippled, knots of muscles twitching with each push downwards. Her arm felt like plasticine. There was no strength in it all. It was all she could do to press against him.
“Come on George!’ shouted the damp signals man. “You’re not even trying!”
Beads of perspiration began to form on her brow, but she felt her challenge weakening.
How had this happened?
Signals was absently wiping his crotch with the bar towel.
She looked at Paddy.
Intent only on the locked fists in front of him, his bottom lip thrust out.
“You’re losing George!” yelped Signals.
The bar cheered. Backing one, then the other. The barman smiled.
“You’re not putting your back into it! That’s why!”
She felt Signals jumping up and down like a cock sparrow.
“Stop bumping the bar!” said the barman.
Signals was beside himself.
“George! Are you bloody deaf! Fight!”
Her arm trembled with fatigue.
“Use your back!” shouted Signals.
Paddy prepared for the last push.
“Take the strain with your back!”
Paddy’s arm smothered hers. She was only inches away from the counter.
“George! you’re not fighting back!”
Her arm began to give way. She had nowhere to go.
“Come on George! Don’t give up!”
Too close. Too hard.
A smell of consumed beer.
Breathing deeply, she shifted her weight, leaning into her arm. Using her back.
Nothing to lose.
Paddy felt the change.
He glanced up at her and smiled.
So slight, no one noticed.
George’s arm slowly lifted, pushing Paddy’s upwards.
The bar went wild.
“Once you’ve got it upright, shove quickly and you’ve won!” screeched Signals.
Paddy’s eyes crinkled at the corners.
The muscles under her breasts started to ache. The noise level at the bar washed over her. The barman began to take bets. This was new. Someone might beat the champion. A woman.
Drops of sweat on his lips.
A cold trickle from her armpits.
“Ready for the push! Breathe deeply!” urged Signals.
Paddy’s arm knotted as he prepared for his final assault. George’s thighs throbbed from the pressure, but her back held firm.
The bar began to count in unison. “One!”
Their arms were levers between them. There was no one else in the room.
“Two! Three!” swelling into thunder.
And suddenly, George knew that she had won.
She felt it deeply.
Waiting for the final thrust.
She returned his stare. Savoured it.
Something flickered at the corner of his mouth.
“Eight!” yelled the mouths beside them.
Was it a smile?
Intimate. Totally alone. Held together.
The barman clutched the bets, eyes darting. This was too close.
They both grunted with exertion as she let her arm be forced to the bar.
Explosions of applause, cheers and drinks all round.
Paddy breathed out at the floor.
Their hands lay loosely entwined.
“Well done, George! We’ll arrange another session after we’ve given you some training,” cooed Signals.
The barman paid out the winners. The losers demanded a rematch.
A telephone jangled.
Paddy looked at her.
“I’d better go,” he said.
She wiped the sweat from her hand.
“Drinks on you tomorrow Georgina?”
She laughed up at him.