During the Bush War in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, men (mainly white) were called to military service to defend the colonial government. The Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation produced a show called Forces Requests so that family and friends could send messages to the troops. This story is fiction, but is dedicated to a multi-talented broadcaster, Sally Donaldson, who presented Forces Requests in Rhodesia at this time. Non-judgmental, she believed in the essential goodness of people, regardless of race.
Her bottom seemed to have a life all of its own. Tapering down from a slim waist, it bulged out into the perfect shape of a pear. As she walked, each side gained momentum, so that with each step there was an extra surge of movement. Like syncopation.
“Music’s ready, Mary.”
She sits down on the studio chair, wriggling to get comfortable.
“How many years have I been asking for a new chair Harry?”
He shrugs through the soundproof glass. She looks tired, he thinks.
Her bottom undulates on the dirty sponge cushion. First one-half lifting, lowering, then the other. Like a stamp mill.
“Ready?” comes the voice on the talk-back.
Mary nods and clears her voice for the microphone.
“The time is now three o’clock.”
Music under voice. “Time for Forces Requests.” Friendly and welcoming. She lifts her arm to the operator and the theme music swells into life. “Put some commercials in, until I sort out this first lot of mail, would you? Haven’t had a moment. Too busy with-
Harry interrupts, “Sure thing, Mary”. He’d be on his toes today, and again he thinks that she looks tired. Harry pushes the cartridge in for a cigarette commercial.
Mary sighs as she riffles through the enormous pile of mail, making sure that she keeps each pile separate. Satisfied, she glances up at the tail end of a constipation commercial. Grimacing, she puts the smile back in her voice and waits for the signal. “Coming out now!”
“Hello, Mary Baker, welcoming you yet again, to Forces Requests, where you can hear your messages to your loved one being read live on the air. And what a mountain of mail I have in front of me today! Thank you for all your letters . . . the lads on our borders need your support, so much.”
Deep breath. Sincere tone. “And now, without much further ado, let’s begin. We’ve had so many requests for more music on our programme, that maybe we should start with something bright and breezy.” Latent chuckle in the voice over music. “And this request is for Peter Johnson, of Darwin. The theme from Bridge on the River Kwai. Your girlfriend says it’s your favourite tune . . . for very private reasons!” Laugh out loud a little. Just to let the listeners think she really knows what their private reason is.
The seven single plays as she flicks the talk back.
“Harry?” Her voice is tense.
“Would you mind sending out for a newspaper? I haven’t been home yet!”
Harry nods and telephones through for a paper to be brought from the newsroom.
Mary takes a deep breath and looks over the first batch of requests, written from all over the country, ranging from serious to sad, to happy and illegible.
“And it’s Hello to Andre Pretorius, somewhere in the Operational area.” Mary doesn’t say where breach of security. “Mum and Dad are missing you so much and waiting for you to return . . . and to a rather active group of guys, it would appear! To the Tigers also somewhere in the bush – the girls from the canteen ask me to tell you guys that they’re missing you already!”
Make the voice a little naughty, add a bit of spice, signal for another disc while chatting through the ‘love you’s’ and ‘miss you’s’.
Harry brings up the fader. Red light.
“And this one is for Johnathan Anderson, somewhere in the valley . . . and it’s right from the top of the hit parade . . . which you are too, I see, from the amount of letters we’ve received for you just this week!”
Another disc drones into tents out in the bush and into after-lunch Saturday moods in homes across the country. Providing a link, a contact between normal and gun-guided lives.
Mary has become a household name; a public channel of love, wishes, regrets, hopes for a nation locked in war. She appeals to a fountain of sentiment locked away in peoples’ minds. Of ideals and self-sacrifice, a reason for sending your people to be killed. So, Mary becomes the voice of their most secret thoughts, their intimate messages on a post card. She’s warm, female, and caring without being too close. She isn’t a beauty nor a threat, so girlfriends allow her to carry their love to the men.
And yet she is considered pretty. She is called the “Forces Sweetheart” quite openly, setting fashion trends, make-up, and hairstyles, even down to her style of walking. They call it a sexy swiggle. Nothing too overt – her bottom has to hint at the maternal as well.
Mary knows she has to represent all things to all people, and she accepts, even enjoys the role. She’s a goddess of communication, a vacuum personality which doesn’t have real problems, needing to pay electricity bills, or have bad breath. A wish fulfilment. An illusion.
The army commanders approve of her performance. She projects determination. She’s good for morale. They award her a medal for it, which she receives with humility.
She turns down the volume on her headphones.
“God . . . this tune is boring.”
She seems tense, Harry thinks, and cross mixes to a jolly song. She smiles. Harry nods. He’s worked with her so long that he knows her tempo; what discs to surprise her with; what song to cheer her up.
The duty announcer wanders in with the newspaper during Mary’s next batch of messages. He waves to her through the soundproof glass. She grins over her script.
“You’re in early,” remarks Harry.
“Yup! Got bored just listening to Mary. Came to watch her instead!” He leers for Harry’s benefit, and Mary gives him a good-humoured finger. Harry brushes dust of a stylus.
“How many programmes have you done with her now, Harry?”
“Hundreds, I suppose.”
“Don’t you ever get bored with the same gumph? With her?”
Harry shakes his head, his eyes on Mary for a studio signal.
“She takes her job seriously.”
Mary raises her arm for a commercial and Harry slots in an up to the minute report on the Victims Relief Fund.
He cues up the next disc, “Would you take the newspaper through to her for me?”
“And to the south of the country . . . in Matabeleland . . .”
As she reads the messages, the duty announcer drops the newspaper onto her desk.
Mary frowns, then continues. “We’re saying hello to an old friend of ours, Philip Munyaradzi. And Philip, the message is short and sweet! Watch the mosquitoes and don’t drink too many brown bottles!”
The duty announcer grimaces at Harry. “Silly bloody message. Watch the mosquitoes doing what? Biting you? And why shouldn’t the poor bugger drink as much beer as he wants?”
Harry laughs behind the glass and open talk-back.
“How many times have we heard little brown bottles?” Mary lifts her eyebrows in mock horror. “I’m glad in a way. If all the messages were really different, really sincere, I’d probably burst into tears.”
There’s a break in her voice. Harry quickly presses in a commercial.
“Constipation advert again!” He mimes badly through the glass.
Mary smiles at his stupidity.
“Back again – and here’s a super idea for the future. It’s from the Women’s Voluntary service. If any of you troopies are finishing your call-ups, and you have any woollen socks, balaclavas, or gloves, please donate them to the next lads who are going into your area. Or, better still, drop them into the WVS Canteen nearest you. I know they’ll pass them onto our lads in the bush. These ladies have done an amazing job looking after our boys, so if we can help them . . .”
“Harry, signal me if I’m gabbling. I’m going to try to get all the messages in today.” She shifts her weight in the chair to peer more closely at the newspaper, flipping to the Births and Death column. “Death column is getting longer,” she says through to Harry.
He nods, tight lipped, avoiding her eyes.
“Any losses on the army communiqué?”
Harry shakes his head. “Not so far. The newsroom will let us know.”
“And a reminder about our address. It’s Forces Requests, P.O. Box 466,
Highlands. I’ll repeat that . . .”
Mary goes into her remote phase. Repeat the address, vary the modulation, emphasize different words so the listeners will remember it. She raises her hand for more music. The strains of Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy blasts through her earphones. She lifts her head, surprised. “Who on earth requested that?”
“One of my favourites!” she says.
Harry laughs. “My mistake, Mary.”
Her face is rapt. “Let it play to the end . . . I love it.”
“You can pretend it’s from a gay cook in love with his privates!” Harry nearly falls off the chair at his own joke.
Mary giggles. “And that lovely piece, was for our sound technician, Harry, who will soon be in hospital!!”
Harry glowers comically though the glass.
“Bugger!” she mouths at him, laughing.
Worst operational area next. Lightest, brightest music.
Lean on the desk, boobs on elbows to get the voice deeper, more understanding. Many messages. Keep the death column of the newspaper nearby. A message might be for a poor guy who is dead.
As the minutes roll by, Mary checks names against the list, placing the deceased’s messages onto a separate pile.
“And now to all of you – a great bunch of guys, fighting the war. God Bless!”
Harry’s eyes glance at the VU meter, checking her voice level. She lifts out of the chair, excited. “And all I want to say is, that you keep your spirits up and . . . look ahead to the future.” Mary waves her hand upwards to cue in the theme music, her bottom sinking into the cushion. “So, until next week, from Forces Requests, and me, Mary Baker. Take care out there!”
Hand up, theme music swelling to time. Harry gives her a thumbs up signal. “Great Mary!”
She smiles gently and leaves the desk as neatly as when she had arrived.
“Thank you, Harry.”
Harry hasn’t looked at her. He’d cued a disc for the next show, ‘At the End of the Pier.’ The jolly fairground music covers his absent-minded wave at her. The duty announcer pushes the door into the studio.
Mary rises from the chair, the sponge cushion breathing in, forcing up the indentations. She flexes her legs, as she always does after a show; collects her bag and starts to leave. “Oh, Harry?”
He looks around.
“Tell them to get a new chair, would you?”
Harry tries to smile, raises his hands in a futile sign.
The duty announcer watches Mary leave. “What an ass,” he mutters as she pushes the heavy studio door open.
“Yes,” mutters Harry, clearing his throat. “One of the most professional I’ve known.”
“Her sexy swiggle.” The duty announcer watches her pause at the exit, turn around and wave at them.
“Fabulous woman, that’s what she is . . .” Harry’s voice is gentle.
The duty announcer all of a sudden yells, “Hey! She’s left her newspaper!” He runs towards the desk to retrieve it.
>“Don’t!” shouts Harry.
The duty announcer is shocked. “Why?”
“Please,” Harry feels foolish for shouting. “She won’t need it now. She always leaves it behind.” He tries to invent some business for his hands. “Part of her normal pattern. You know? I clear up . . .” He lifts his arms desperately.
The duty announcer leafs through the paper. “Hey! Did you see this?” There is a photograph of Mary, looking glamorous, blonde hair licking against her dark eyes. “She’s not doing any more Forces Requests?” he asks.
Harry nods, “That was her last one”.
The duty announcer places the newspaper back on the table, almost reverently.
“Her husband was killed by a landmine, yesterday.” Harry pales.
“Sad. But she’ll get over it,” the announcer says.
“The army don’t think so. She’s not clean anymore.”
“She’s been fired?”
“You can’t have a widow reading requests. Dangerous for morale.”
Harry checks that the tapes are running correctly for the jolly music show.
“Nine years is a long time . . .” He walks across to the desk to clear away the newspaper. Beside it is a discarded request with her husband’s name scribbled across the front with, ”Love Mary”.
“I don’t know . . . what I’m supposed to do with . . .” Harry gathers them up and wanders towards the newsroom.
The old sponge cushion has resumed its normal shape. There is no sign that anyone had ever been sitting there.
Rory Kilalea is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and theatre director, who has worked in education, feature film, theatre, television and radio most of his life. He has been long listed for his novel Hukama (Bridport Prize, 2023), won the Suzie Smith Oxfam Award and has been shortlisted twice for the Caine Prize for African writing.
With credits in acting, producing in feature films with Denzel Washington, Reese Witherspoon and award-winning commercials, Rory now devotes most of his energy to education and writing. He has taught at senior schools and as a Senior Lecturer at the Met Film School, London, and Middlesex University (SAE).
He worked on most of the anti-apartheid films produced in Africa.
Mentoring workshops all over the world, he is qualified in writing for film and stage, acting for film and theatre, and Improvisation. He is currently working on a humorous book (Out Takes of Africa: A film memoir) on his experiences servicing international feature films visiting Africa.