A Pyre for Mrs Fullbright
The Guardian, G2, August 2010
NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Agnes is standing in a corner of the kitchen, her head lowered, her hands clenched in a ball.
‘I’m sorry boss,’ she says quietly.
‘Why did you let them in?’ I demand.
‘They just come,’ she protests, scrunching her shoulders. ‘They say there is big fine if I do not allow them inside.’
I sigh. Something in me plummets, a low despondency takes hold, but it’s nothing that I’m not used to by now. It eases and I look down quite passively at the small piece of paper with ZESA (the Electricity Authority’s) dreaded legend printed across the top in stark black. Beneath that it says, “Notice of Outstanding Payment Due.” I read on. It tells me my electricity account is US$2047.78 in arrears and that unless I pay this sum in full plus a $150 reconnection fee within 48 hours, “service will be terminated.” That last bit is in bold red ink. I’m not really surprised then that they have skipped the 48 hours grace and cut me off on the turn. Attached to the notice is my electricity bill – the first they’ve bothered to send me for sixteen months - and when I inspect my mains board I see they have neatly slipped out the central fuse, slapped on a seal and left the fuse lying on top of the box, a small, neat cylinder. As if that isn’t provocation enough: I could easily jam it back in, flick on the mains switch. Then I read the fine print: “Illegal removal of this seal constitutes a criminal act and carries a $1000 fine and/or five years imprisonment.”
‘They can’t bloody do this,’ I mutter.
Of course they can.
I get on the phone and ring the number at the top of the slip.
‘The number you dial does not exist!’ an automated Chinese accent blurts at me.
I page through my tatty address book for the various contacts I have forged over the years. My relationship with ZESA has been a long and sordid one. We are old bedfellows. Eventually I reach the Area Manager’s office for Avondale.
‘There’s some mistake,’ I shout down the crackly line, ‘for a start, I was supposed to have 48 hours grace to pay my bill and I’ve been cut off already.’
‘There is no mistake,’ I’m told. ‘We are short of petrol so we processed the terminations along with the notifications in order to cut costs.’
This is what people in foreign countries fondly call “BL” - Bushman’s Logic. It’s what we locals call “FBT” - Fucking Bloody Typical.
I sit down at my desk and examine the bill. I look at the figure - $2047.78 – and try to let the sum sink in. It is two full month’s salary. It’s half a second hand car. It’s a plane ticket to London. This can’t be right, I tell myself. I take out my file of utilities. My last official account was from February 2009. It’s for the sum of $376 456 267 981 000 000 000 000.56. In other words absolutely nothing in old Zimbabwean dollars, (but don’t dare forget the 56 cents!) Those were the days. I recall exchanging a precious £20 with my money dealer (we all had one, though they never officially existed) and with the wheelbarrows full of Zim cash I waddled away with I was able to pay my power, water, rates, domestic staff, rent, petrol and groceries for an entire month. Of course there was little power, water, groceries or petrol to be had, but that was somehow besides the point.
‘n Boer maak ‘n plan! An African makes a plan!
Now we have everything we could possibly want. I could walk into a specialist perfume shop in Sam Levy’s Village – chic and glossed up like something out of the pages of Vanity Fair - and buy my lady friend a bottle of Givenchy’s finest but it’ll cost me the earth and half the planets in the solar system.
I notice a newspaper cutting I’ve kept. It’s a press statement from the Hon. Minister of Energy in the coalition government. He informs the “valued customers” of ZESA to “bear with them as they face certain administration challenges” and asks if we would, in the absence of official meter readings and tariffs, “pay a standard $40 per month for low density properties.” A quick calculation tells me I’ve being paying on average double that. Feeling vindicated, and clutching my file of receipts and the Hon. Minister’s words to my chest like the gospels, I charge off for the centre of town and ZESA’s dreaded headquarters at Megawatt House.
Parking is a nightmare and the street kids hassle me and inside the grubby building there are queues as long as lines on maps. Nevertheless it’s not hard to spot the Avondale brigade: they are all there, ahead of me – a Who’s Who of the neighbourhood.
‘Surprise seeing you here!’ Sohil Patel says to me.
He and Zuhayr Wazir are talking cricket. Dr Banda and Magda Wilson are discussing the measles outbreak. Piet van der Ruit advises me about a solar water heating system he has just installed. Then we all get chatting. There’s nothing like a crisis to bring people together in Zimbabwe. We’re busy and don’t often see one another but we’re here now, in the deeps of ZESA purgatory, and I feel as if I should have brought along a cooler bag and the scottle braai. We all agree we’re right: we paid our $40 dollars just as instructed; they can’t do this to us. Together we’re a caucus of vitriol against the system. We’re an indictment against the inept, totally defunct government. We’re a voice, united and steadfast in our civil right to criticise, to hold to account, to demand that those in positions of authority serve our interests ...
Then a loud voice breaks our banter.
‘Ah ladies and gentlemen,’ he calls, clapping his hands for attention.
The hall falls silent. It’s a man in a dark blue suit.
‘I want to announce to you generally that it is pointless arguing with our credit controllers about this business of $40 payments. Let me make this clear now: that instruction was issued by an MDC minister and we do not take our instructions from the MDC. We make our own rules and if you do not pay the tariff in full plus the reconnection fee, service will not be reinstated.’
He turns and disappears into a back room. And that appears to be that.
I am used to the dark. Like many things it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s like when I’m driving and hit yet another pothole in the scarred, churned roads and the vibration rebounds through the chassis and jolts up my spine. It’s not raw anger that comes scorching through me anymore; something I used to be able to taste, to spit through my clenched teeth. That’s long ago been refined, redressed into another taste entirely. It’s lost its sharp edge, its bitterness. My will to fight the machine has been blunted. It’s futile to deny it, even against my better instincts. So I just drive on, limping towards the next donga. It’s just another pothole. Just another crater on the road that this long, tiring journey out of this mire takes us on.
It’s cold in the night. The temperature drops and the sweeping southern winds pick up. The house is quiet and restive and sometime in the early hours my Jack Russell, Jasper, creeps under the bedcovers and curls at my feet like a warm loaf. Such is the happiness that can’t be taken away.
In the morning the overcast clouds have posited themselves low in the winter sky. There is greyness over everything; the still water in the pool looks grey and the dry russet leaves have banked themselves against its heaving rim. Every bluster seems to bring a wave of cold through the walls and deep to the bone. We’re not used to such weather.
Agnes comes to call me.
‘Boss, there is problem at number 12,’ she says anxiously.
‘Problem, what problem?’
Then, before she says a word, the shock shudders through me.
I lurch down the drive, out the gate and run two houses down to number 12. The yard is quiet. The front door is open. Dr Banda is there. Magda Wilson is weeping. So is Devia Patel. Sohil shakes his head as I look at him. I walk through to the bedroom. They have opened the curtains but it is still dark. Dark and cold and old Mrs Fullbright’s small thin body lies still and stiff beneath the blankets.
I am shaking. ‘Why didn’t we think about her?’ I whisper.
Dr Banda says, ‘She was weak. I had
not realised how weak she had become. She was a very private woman.’
‘Weak, yes,’ I mutter. ‘The cold snap – do you think ...’
‘It contributed to her death? It certainly would not have helped. An elderly lady as thin and as weak should not be subjected to the sudden cold. It would not have been advisable.’
There is an electric heater in the corner of her room and she is covered by an electric blanket and on the kitchen table the notice from ZESA lies, demanding payment “or else service will be terminated.” The fuse lies atop the mains box and the seal is in place; tight and prim and authoritarian.
‘An old lady,’ Magda blurts. ‘A poor weak old lady. Couldn’t they have given her a bit of grace, a bit of compassion? What was she supposed to do?’
Outside on the kitchen doorstep Mrs Fullbright’s faithful old maid Lizzie sits against the frosty air. Her chest heaves quietly, tears stream down her face. Devia bundles a blanket round her shoulders and ushers her inside. The kitchen is stark, I notice. In the vegetable tray there are two potatoes, a small butternut. Magda opens the fridge: two eggs, a packet of milk, half a tin of corned beef. There is little in the pantry. We look at one another. We look at Dr Banda.
‘Yes,’ he says, lowering his head, ‘I’m afraid there are signs of under nourishment.’
We have called the undertakers. We have phoned her good friend Erica Erasmus. Sohil has gone to the old age home to pick her up. When she arrives she is stolid, stoical. We sit her down on the couch and Magda has brought a flask of tea she made on her gas stove.
‘Is there anyone we should be calling?’ I ask.
Mrs Erasmus shakes her head. ‘She had no family to speak of. You know her only son died a few years ago from cancer?’
‘Yes, very tragic.’
‘She was so alone these last few years. But she had her faith. She had a strong faith the old girl.’
Then she says, ‘She didn’t have much left. I tried to rally help for her at the home, but she was so proud. I did what I could for her discreetly. You know something? She was living on a pension of $25 dollars a month. She worked for over 50 years. An honest-to-the-bone, hard-working woman and all she had at the end of it was a puny $25 dollars a month. Isn’t that a crime? All her savings, all her investments were in Zimbabwean dollars, you see. And every cent was wiped out by what went on in this country. Every cent she prudently saved for her retirement was reduced to nothing. Zero. What kind of injustice is that? Why is it that someone honest and innocent always suffers for the irresponsibility of an individual?’
Sohil drives Mrs Erasmus home and returns just as the undertakers arrive. They are smart, considerate and professional. But there is a problem, their supervisor takes us aside and tells us.
‘May I ask what your plans are?’ he asks.
‘I must mention that burial will prove difficult. The cemeteries are over-flowing.’
‘Cremation then?’ I offer.
‘You are aware, I take it, that the crematorium in Harare is non-operational?’
‘There hasn’t been the gas to run it for some time. The same applies to Bulawayo. Even the one in Mutare is dicey at the moment. It’s possible, but very expensive to transport the body there and return with the ashes.’
‘Unbelievable,’ I say. But I’m hardly surprised.
Later Sohil and Devia come round.
They have a suggestion, an offer and they want my advice.
‘This may sound out of the ordinary,’ he begins, ‘but it is not unheard of and it is being undertaken on humanitarian grounds more and more often these days.’
‘What is it?’
‘We can apply for Mrs Fullbright to become an honorary Hindu for the day. We can speak to the priest and for a small donation to charity he’ll accommodate us.’
I look at them cautiously. ‘I don’t know,’ I say, ‘isn’t that a bit ... uncustomary?’
‘Normally yes. But given the unusual circumstances in the country, it does provide a pragmatic solution to the problem of cremation.’
‘And after that,’ Devia adds, ‘she can have a conventional Christian memorial.’
And so it is done. The Patel’s make the arrangements. Mrs Fullbright’s body is released to the Hindu priest and he oversees all the necessary preparations in keeping with a Hindu antyeshti samskara. Mrs Fullbright is adorned with sandalwood and flower garlands and placed on a pyre. Sohil says prayers close to her body, scatters ghee and incense while the priest reads from the Bhagavad Gita. We walk around her. Then the kindling is lit. We stand back as Mrs Fullbright’s Christian body goes up in a blaze of Hindu flames. The priest and Sohil and Devia are urging her karmic soul to leave the body, carry on its journey into another world. Under my breath I’m humming a strain from Onward Christian Soldiers and hoping like mad Mrs Fullbright is singing with me, fighting off the incense and the smoke.
Afterwards we have a neat pouch of ashes handed to us. Problem solved. We go back to my place and everyone comes around for a small wake. We have cold snacks and warm drinks.
‘Up yours ZESA,’ Piet van der Ruit cheers.
Another day, another plan.
©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020