OLD MRS WEBSTER sits in a bath of brisk morning sunlight, soothing her varicose veins in the soft winter light. Slats of warmth slant in from the gaps between the blinds in her lounge window. Dust dances about her legs as she reclines in her maroon armchair, crisply grubby at this time of day, dully presentable later in the dusk dimness. Rolled in a ball at her feet, Jilly the Jack Russell snoozes away her own stolen snatch of sunshine. Things are quiet, peaceful, tranquil in this small retirement village in Harare’s leafy northern suburbs.
Except that Mrs Webster has guilt racking her mind. It’s Wednesday. It’s bridge day. And it’s her turn to host Janice from No. 12, Emily from No. 6 and her dear old friend Pat from next door. She’d shamefully put them off last week. She claimed a twinge of sciatica coming on and telephoned round at lunchtime. I know you’ll understand, she said, but we’ll definitely be on at my place next Wednesday evening. Of course, of course … next Wednesday my dear, next Wednesday.
Now Wednesday is poised over her like a dagger. It would be easier, she thinks, to let it fly and pierce her breast. A quick escape, dramatic, functional, like in ancient times. But if the sciatica garnered the kindly assurance of compassion, another excuse would provoke pure vitriol. No, there’s nothing for it, she reconciles, slapping the armrest with a sharp touch of stoical anger. It’s just one of those things. Must make do. Can’t let standards drop.
She eases herself up from her armchair – damn this blasted rheumatoid – and makes her way slowly to her small kitchenette. She prods open the cupboards, scours the pantry, peers into the depths of the fridge. She has half a loaf of bread, a few packets of instant soup, a bunch of carrots, some potatoes and half a butternut. Her mind ticks over. The bread must last her till Sunday. No matter how drastic things are, she’d never serve instant soup at bridge night (imagine the scandal) and what can one do with a handful of veggies? There’s nothing for it, she sighs, she’ll have to splash out. She’ll have to go shopping.
Mrs Webster hobbles to the telephone. She dials the number for her darling niece, Vicky. Tall, slim cheery-eyed Vicky, that rare breed of relative: one who’s slipped vicariously into the role of provider and protector, now that her own children have fled the nest, sought greener pastures overseas. Yet no matter how obliging and sweet the darling girl is, there’s always a passing moment of feeling spare when she phones her up, as if some dwindling stock of pride is being sold off, as if each time she asks for a favour something fatalistic is taking place, something final.
But it’s Wednesday. It’s bridge night. And this is an emergency.
Within the hour Mrs Webster has donned her going-out outfit, brushed her thick crop of grey hair and smeared a touch of blush on the aged white fineness of her cheeks. She’s dabbed a touch of perfume behind her ears; just a dab, mind, the bottle’s running empty. She dangles her reading glasses round her neck. She’s ready. Promptly at 10:00 Vicky presses the buzzer for her flat – No. 16 – at the entrance gate to the complex and Mrs Webster lets her in.
‘Now Jilly my girl, I’m just off to the shops,’ she says, stroking the dog’s beige coat with her walking cane as she closes the door behind her. She must be waiting outside as Vicky drives up, everything locked and ready. Can’t make the poor girl wait.
The drive to the shopping centre is only five minutes. They pass three traffic lights, none are working.
‘These power cuts, so dangerous for driving,’ she says to Vicky.
Vicky laughs. ‘One learns aunty Carol.’
They pass a snake of cars streaking from a petrol station.
‘Oh my goodness,’ she says, ‘I had no idea petrol was short again, my poor Vicky, I’m so sorry!’
Again Vicky laughs. ‘It’s no problem, I was going to the shops anyway and you’re right on the way.’
Not really, Mrs Webster thinks.
Suddenly she finds her breath deepens, a gleam comes to her eye. Darling Vicky. Such a gem. She reaches over, squeezes her niece’s leg and smiles. In this world there is goodness!
‘Now you’ve heard about the price freezes?’ Vicky asks.
Mrs Webster is a cocoon to the currency of news. She hasn’t heard.
‘You know inflation is the highest in the world? Well the government’s ordered all shops to slash their prices by half.’
Mrs Webster’s mind clicks into overdrive. Prices in half? What does it mean exactly? That she’ll be able to buy more, put on a really good spread for the bridge ladies?
‘Don’t get too excited aunty Carol. Of course it means retailers now have to sell their stocks at a loss.’
‘So I’m just warning you – don’t be too shocked to see precious little on the shelves.’
Mrs Webster is a little unnerved. She can’t understand it all, but she concludes that it’ll probably matter little to her: she’s not going on an all-out trolley-filling shopping spree. She’s sure she’ll find what she needs and be happy for it.
Vicky walks her to the entrance of the supermarket. Can she manage by herself? she asks. Of course she can, Mrs Webster assures her. Then, Vicky says, she’s just going down to pay some bills at the municipality. As Vicky turns, Mrs Webster catches sight of a disarming commotion brimming at the far side of the building. There is a mass of people, the first fifty or so beaded into a tightly packed queue, and then the rest, quickly gathering from seemingly no where, into the traces of an unruly mob. There is pushing, shoving, jostling, jeering, shouting.
‘God isn’t it awful,’ says Vicky, looking on. ‘Just for a loaf of bread.’
She senses Mrs Webster’s stiffness, her panic.
‘Don’t worry aunty Carol – they won’t come into the shop. The rumour’s probably gotten around that there’s going to be a batch of bread coming out soon. They’ll get served from the empty bottles hatch, the lucky fifty or so sods who are fortunate enough.’
Mrs Webster clutches her frayed pink purse tightly in one hand and clasps a plastic shopping basket from a stack outside the wide glass doors with the other. She enters the clinical sheen of the shop.
It’s quiet inside. Disconcertingly quiet. There is no bustling thrum, no quick clicking of tills, no deep lowing of refrigeration, or the dim buzz of long overhead fluorescents. Then she realises: the power must be off. There’s a glowing dullness to the interior of the shop; only natural light flows in from the skylights and shimmers off the white enamel of the shelves, and down to the slick whiteness of the tiled flooring. But there’s something else not quite right - despite the silent throng cast by the power cut - there’s a wafting spread of stagnancy, a pervading stasis, inaction. There’s no sleek roll of trolley wheels over the glass-like tiles, no crunch of hurried heels, no soft tread of shelf-packers and assistants. The shop, Mrs Webster realises, is being run on a skeleton staff. And it seems there are even fewer shoppers.
She tugs on her blouse and steps further into this hushed cathedral. She feels spare, almost as if she should tip-toe, as if it’s all been laid out for her, just for her and now here she is, arrived and ready to sate her self of it all. Except that she’s not, and anyway she couldn’t possibly, even if she had a blank cheque and all the money in the world: she stands looking down the first aisle where her memory expects to find a patchwork of colours, tins and bottles, packets and boxes, brands and logos, but her eyes find nothing. Just the sickening glare of emptiness, the stark scatter of space marooned between shelf and shelf.
A lurch of panic lodges in Mrs Webster’s throat. What in heaven’s name is happening to the world? She hurries to the next aisle. There ought to be cleaning fluids, sanitizers, household appliances. She finds a scattering of products: six bottles of Harpic, four bottles of dishwashing liquid, a few packets of dustbin liners and then bags of budget toilet rolls with Chinese script scribbled in blotchy blue. Some consolation at least, she thinks.
The next aisle – formerly biscuits and confectioneries – is another expanse of emptiness. At least in the fourth aisle there is a sparse smattering of shampoos, soaps, deodorants and toothpastes. But the fifth aisle: nothing. And the sixth: the odd lonely product – cumbersome, non-edible things like blankets, Tupperware, hedge cutters - spaced out along the shelves at one metre intervals. This is alarming. The dairy fridges are empty. The fish freezers. There are no cold meats. No trays of eggs stacked twenty high. No cheese. There are cans of imported olives at two million dollars a can. There are cans of imported asparagus at a million dollars a can. Signs above say “Special Offer: Half Price. Hurry Now.”
Mrs Webster waddles around in a slated daze. In the distance, at the far end of the shop, the vegetable section veers in view as a hazy muddle of half empty trays and an outpouring of tattered lettuce leaves propped up all over the show. Mrs Webster, looking down in disbelief, is not deceived by the fake intention of plenty. There are hands of blackening bananas, shrivelled oranges, puny carrots. Over nothing is there a sheen of freshness, that stiff smell of organic newness. Mrs Webster asks the dull-eyed assistant manning the weighing machine if they’re expecting anything fresh?
‘Ah no madam, we get nothing fresh for whole week,’ he replies, flashing a hapless toothy smile.
She moves on. Mrs Webster doesn’t even venture near the meat section, but comes across the pet food shelf. There is one tin of pet food sitting like a lone beacon, drawing in her widening ecstatic eyes. Salvation, she thinks. At least something! She hurries towards it, groping for her glasses which she raises to her eyes to scrutinise this prized object perched before her. “Dehlia’s Dog Delight” it says, above a picture of an expectant Border Collie, and then below it reads: “Chunky Beef Chunks.” Mrs Webster scans the shelf for the bar code and price tag. Where is it, where is it? “Dehlia Pet, 410g, $98 000.00.” Perfect. She drops her glasses and reaches out for the can, but it’s gone.
I don’t believe it, she says to herself, her heart starting up a strong chest-pounding thud.
She turns and sees a large woman striding away down the aisle. This can’t be tolerated, Mrs Webster decides.
‘Excuse me,’ she says. The woman ignores her. ‘Excuse me,’ she calls out sternly, walking briskly towards her.
The woman stops and turns. She is clutching a shopping basket brimming with tins of olives and asparagus in her fat, ring-bulging fingers. Sitting on top - outrageously - is Mrs Webster’s can of pet food.
‘Excuse me, that’s my can. I was just about it take that, that can.’
‘Well you weren’t holding it,’ the woman says sharply.
‘I was just looking for the price, I was definitely going to take it. I was at the shelf first.’
‘But you hadn’t taken it, so I’m sorry but you lost out.’
She says it matter-of-factly, as if it’s just another can, another object she’s casually laid claim to and yet won’t, because of who she is and what she’s used to – namely getting her own way – give in and yield graciously to an old woman who has nothing and is desperate for it.
‘Look here, I’m afraid you don’t understand. I can’t afford imported olives and asparagus, but I can afford that tin of pet food and I really need it,’ Mrs Webster pleads.
‘Well so do I so I suggest you try another shop,’ the woman says curtly, and walks off.
Mrs Webster’s heart suddenly skips a beat. There is a juddering in her chest. She grips onto the shelf as her head spins and her sight of the woman walking away becomes fractured, swimming in a pool of tears and wavy, speckled dots.
The next thing she knows she’s being gripped strongly under both arms by two shop assistants and is slowly being guided to a chair. As she sits down, things correct themselves. Relax, just your blood-pressure, relax, she tells herself over and over, panting breathlessly. She is sitting outside a partitioned office at the front of the shop which reads “Manager” on the door. She is handed a glass of tepid water.
‘Thank you,’ she words. The assistant nods and walks off.
After a while, she calms down. It’s been a bad day, she reconciles, but it’s not worth the stress. It’s Wednesday. It’s bridge day, but she’ll just have to explain, ludicrous as it seems. Sometimes, no matter how one tries, standards just can’t be maintained. Sad, but there it is.
Sitting there, Mrs Webster becomes aware of a fracas going on in the manager’s office. Not surprising, she thinks, running a shop like this. But the more she listens, the more aware she becomes of something sinister and volatile taking place. The voices are clear, she can hear almost every word.
‘I’m telling you we cannot sell bread at 20 000 a loaf. It costs a very minimum of 40 000 to make,’ one voice insists.
‘You will sell at 20 000, or else face the consequences,’ another voice says indignantly.
‘Oh and what will the consequences be?’ the first voice asks.
‘We will have you arrested and locked up like the other 3000 shop managers we’ve already had arrested and locked up. You people are puppets of the British. You have been ordered by your colonial cohorts to effect illegal regime change here by creating artificial hyper-inflation. We won’t have it.’
‘That is a ridiculous assumption. We have nothing to do with Britain. We are a Zimbabwean business trying to make an honest living in this economic melt-down which your government is responsible for. No one else. Understand? Tell me, Mr Price Control Inspector, what is going to happen when we simply can’t make bread anymore, even at 100 000 dollars a loaf because we have been forced to run at a loss and simply can’t afford the flour? What then? The people will starve, surely?’
‘Do not take that arrogant tone with me. We have warned you. The people will not starve. It is not called starving, it is called fasting. And fasting is good for people. It teaches them discipline. It teaches them to resist the onslaught of
‘And you? Will you “fast”?’
‘People who have important jobs are allowed to eat naturally. That is why we are important. Now I am tired of talking this nonsense. You will sell your daily bread quota now at 20 000 a loaf or else I will have you arrested on the spot. And we will take over your shop. Is that clear?’
There is an audible sigh. It sounds like an exhalation of death, like the last breath breathed from a dying soul tired of life. Mrs Webster sits up, frightened to the core.
‘Very well. I will instruct the bakery now. But please, I beg you, understand that there may well be no bread tomorrow and none hereafter.’
‘That is for tomorrow. This is today.’
There is a dialling of digits and a brief instruction is issued. ‘Bring out the bread. All of it.’
A skinny policeman clutching a baton and a hefty man immaculately dressed in a navy blue suit swiftly exit the office. The manager comes to the door and looks on after them, clearly seething, shaking his head in disbelief. He sees Mrs Webster.
‘Are you alright?’ he inquires.
‘Yes thank you,’ she says, ‘are you?’
Presently there is a massive wave of pandemonium that erupts through the entrance. Scores of people from the streets storm the shop in a tumultuous stampede. There is yelling and shoving and pushing as they scramble towards the bread trolley just wheeled into position at the far end near the bakery. Everything in this path of the starving is flattened. Everything just for a snatch at a loaf of bread. Mrs Webster observes it all impassively. Suddenly nothing shocks her anymore. The empty shelves, the absence of such a luxury as biscuits and meat, milk and cheese, in comparison, seems redundant, trite, selfish.
‘Good God,’ the shop manager says, looking over it all. ‘Has it come to this?’
Mrs Webster doesn’t reply. In the wake of the storm something has caught her eye.
‘Excuse me,’ she says, getting up and gingerly walking towards the rolling glide of tins of olives and asparagus scattered over the floor from the fallen basket of the fat woman who now lies on her back calling out and screaming, knocked down flat by the stampede. She scrutinises the cascade of tins and then swoops down to pick up the one with the Border Collie and the label which reads, appetizingly, “Chunky Beef Chunks.”
Mrs Webster tucks it under her arm and walks gleefully towards the till. At the back of the shop the mob fight over bread. But that’s their problem. She slaps the tin of pet food down on the shiny steel surface of the till and takes out the single folded 100 000 dollar bill from her pink purse. She smiles. It’s Wednesday. It’s bridge night. And she has three friends coming for dinner.
©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020