It’s always midday and always Wednesday when Solomon arrives with the tourists and the children almost earn their keep. Moira McPartlin provides a well-observed portrait of a close yet distant encounter of the third world kind
It is Wednesday morning and we have been here, in school, already many hours. Teacher tells us we must come early on Wednesdays to make up for the lost hour. Our mothers complain to him.
‘Does Teacher not know our children have chores to complete before school?’
On a Wednesday we have to skip some chores. We do not know if this is good or if this is bad.
On Wednesdays we do not wear our school uniforms and even the girls are permitted to wear shorts.
The school work is boring. Sums. Most of us hate sums. Teacher thinks there is nothing better in the whole wide world than sums. Today we are doing long division and each time Teacher rises to scratch another problem on his wall we sneak a look at the shadow of the corner post that crawls towards Teacher’s desk. It still has far to go. The screech of our chalk on slate is almost deafening as we listen for the far away sound.
Every now and then one of us lifts our head and Teacher clicks his tongue for us to work.
A quick rustle in the bush robs all our attention and we are shushed quiet as Teacher chases away the wild dog that creeps by our school every other day.
The anticipation in the room hums with the scratching of our chalks and the cranking of our brains as we try to divide one more figure before the shadow of the corner post disappears. And then it is time; Teacher holds his hand up for hush even though we are silent. We stop breathing – just for a second but it is enough. We hear it and with a whispered gasp we breathe again and look to Teacher for our permission. At first his face is stern as if he resents this weekly intrusion, then he smiles and with two benevolent hands he shoos us out from the shade of the school into the scorching midday sun.
‘Come straight back,’ he says, as he does each week while he settles his huge backside into his seat for his hour’s rest.
We do not line up, but bunch and haggle with each other to see who can be first off the mark. We see the dust first. We want to start running to get a head start, but we stand still as statues as we have been told to do until the Land Rover emerges from the bush and we wave a welcome. The pearl-white teeth of the guide, Solomon, glint at us.
The grin on his big face stretches with pride when he sees how well we have turned out. His clients are not so many today – one pasty-faced man with a white beard and three fat women who expose the mottled pink flesh of their arms and legs to the sun and look as though they will be in much pain by dinner time. It is always better when he has women clients, who will want to cuddle us and are more generous.
Like Teacher, Solomon holds up his hand as if to quieten us but this is unnecessary because he knows he has trained us well. As the Land Rover passes we smile and wave then Solomon drops his hand and we are off. We hear his laugh bellow like an oxen on the plough as the truck speeds. Our thirty-one pairs of feet slap the dry track, our hearts pound to almost bursting, our arms pump, we choke on the red dust thrown up by the truck and we run.
In the fields our mothers straighten their bent backs and watch us pass. Some lift their hands in encouragement, but they do not shout as we know they wish to. The shouts come from Solomon and the clients as they cheer us on. One boy forges ahead of the pack and we dig in our toes and are soon one again. We are catching up – has the Land Rover slowed or are we quicker? The crooked boabab tree at the bend in the track is our signal to sprint. It is almost over.
The Land Rover has stopped at the village and the fat ladies drink beer and coke and clap as we skid to a halt. The white beard man snaps his camera as Solomon herds us into a circle and hands us three ice cold bottles of Fanta between ourselves. They are passed from hand to hand and as we have been taught, we only take a gulp before passing it on to our neighbour even though we want the cold sensation to linger on our hands and to press the misted bottle to our damp brows.
‘Look, they aren’t even breathing hard,’ the fattest lady sings as she cuddles one of us and smiles to the camera.
Solomon shouts, ‘Come, ladies, come see the village, come learn how to pound grain for the meal and learn how to be good African women.’
The Land Rover driver throws us a clothes bag from the charity office which we take to the stay-home mothers. We hold our breath again as the head mother rips the bag and the contents unfold like a multicolour magic carpet onto the compound earth. We see a flash of red and jostle for the best view while she sorts – we are sure this time there will be that precious Beckham shirt we all pray for in our beds at night; we know it is precious we just do not know why. The mother holds it up and smiles with tears.
‘It is only a third division team,’ she says, ‘and too small for any of you. One of the babies can have it.’
Then she laughs and throws some socks at us. ‘Take these, maybe they will make you run faster.’ And then she collects them from us and stores them until it is time for the mothers to make something useful with them.
Solomon claps his hands when the village tour is over and lines us up while the fat pink ladies hand each of us a sweet and give pencils and books to the stay-home mothers who will hide them before our fathers can sell them back to the tourists.
Solomon helps the white beard man and the fat ladies into the Land Rover. They hold the back bar and wave goodbye. As they drive away we run after them, we want to shout but we do not. Instead we concentrate hard to run and catch the sweets Solomon throws to us from the back board. His pearl white teeth glint as he announces, as he does every Wednesday. ‘You see, people, we grow fast runners here.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Moira McPartlin was born in the Scottish Borders but grew up in a small Fife mining village. She has led an interesting life as a mother and successful business woman and now lives in Stirlingshire with her husband Colin. She resigned from a global position with Shell Oil in 2005 to concentrate on writing. She is a hill walker/runner and mountaineer and also enjoys gardening, playing guitar and whistle. Moira has had many short stories and poems published and her debut novel The Incomers was shortlisted for the 2012 Saltire First Book Award.