Zimbabwe, and crying in the rain

I was in Zimbabwe with a girlfriend, visiting her parents, and it wasn’t going well.

I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me, and even though I was nearly thirty then, I was shy and uncomfortable around people, and it was difficult for me to be a guest in their house. I didn’t know what to say, and felt I was in the way, so I spent a lot of time in the room reading. I thought that would be better for them as well as for me, but it made them think I was being stuck-up and superior, and they had long conversations among themselves which I overheard about how you can’t trust people who read all the time, and how books are for people who don’t know how to do anything in the world, which is obviously true but didn’t make me feel good.

One day they decided to go on some sort of family excursion to a lake or somewhere, and the thought of spending the day with them in a car and then beside a lake or somewhere, and then in a car again was too much, so I told them I had promised to visit my aunt and uncle in Banket. Banket is a small town a few hours away from their house, in the opposite direction to where they were going.

They pretended to be disappointed that I wouldn’t be coming with them.

‘Make sure you’re back by sundown,’ said her father. ‘You don’t want to be on the road after dark.’

I narrowed my eyes and clenched my jaw. I know how to drive at night! Exactly how useless do they think I am?!

It wasn’t a great day at my aunt and uncle’s farm – I was shy and sat in a corner and read a book, and even though they were my relatives they also thought I was being stuck-up and superior – and I left at dusk and drove towards a horizon piled high with thunderclouds.

I don’t know if it’s true that taxi drivers in Zimbabwe leave their headlights off after dark because they don’t want the bulbs to burn out – that’s what a number of Zimbabweans told me, but it’s not always wise to believe Zimbabweans, especially about Zimbabwe. Still, whatever the reasoning, that’s what was happening. The oncoming cars rushed lightless from the dark like bad dreams. Then the storm started.

It had been building all day and now here it was: a biblical downpour that made the windscreen a dark silvered mirror. Half the road was paved and half was not, and both halves had ruts and potholes that filled with dark water to look solid. The oncoming drivers must know the road by heart because they kept swerving and weaving into my side of the road to avoid the invisible holes in theirs.

I would have stopped but there was no hard shoulder, and a stationary car would just be easier to hit. I suddenly knew, without doubt, that this was how I die: in a front-on collision in my girlfriend’s car on the long half-paved road between Banket and Marondera in the wet thundering darkness. A better man would have jutted his jaw and risen to the occasion, but I was not a better man. Even though I was nearly thirty, I was a scared little boy and the way I was crying, there was almost more water inside the car than out.

Then I turned on the radio. There was one CD in the player, an REM album I didn’t know, and as I drove, blubbing in fear and self-pity, ‘Imitation of Life’ came on:

Like a frightened fashion-show teenager
freezing in the corner,
Trying to look like he don’t try…

Hey, that’s me.

This lightning storm, this tidal wave,
this avalanche, I’m not afraid.

Oh yes I am.

C’mon, c’mon, no one can see you cry …

I played it over and over, that one song, unclenching my hand from the wheel to hit repeat for the three hours I spent on that hell-road with those oncoming death-cars navigating by echo-location. It was like a mantra, a good-luck charm. To this day I make sure that when I’m far from home and feeling overwhelmed I have it nearby, or remember to sing it in my head.

I finally pulled up to my girlfriend’s house and the family came out on the porch, trying not to look worried. I turned off the radio and the ignition and sat there a moment to let my hands stop shaking. ‘How was the drive?’ said her father.

‘No problem,’ I said.

Getaway, May 2017