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The Dragon Lady


also by the author The Lodger


The Dragon Lady Louisa Treger


BLOOMSBURY CARAVEL Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK BLOOMSBURY, BLOOMSBURY CARAVEL and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in Great Britain 2019 This edition published 2019 Copyright Š Louisa Treger, 2019 Louisa Treger has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers This is a work of fiction, not a biography. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication data has been applied ISBN: HB: 978-1-4482-1726-7; TPB: 978-1-4482-1745-8; eBook: 978-1-4482-1739-7 2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1 Typeset by Deanta Global Publishing Services, Chennai, India To find out more about our authors and books visit www.bloomsbury.com and sign up for our newsletters


For Imogen, Adam and Alexandra, with all my love


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part one


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1 Catherine, 1990s

I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot. I was thirteen years old and living on a forest reserve near the Mozambique border. My father, a naturalist and forestry consultant, visited her regularly, but it was the first time he had taken me. Her house was long and low and painted white, with a turret on one side. It was like a castle in a storybook, unexpected and incongruous in a remote Rhodesian valley. The interior was all hushed, cool spaces and we had to wait a long time for the Dragon Lady to see us. At one point her husband, Stephen, came to talk to us. He had a stern face, but there was a glint in his eyes while he spoke to Dad about the new trees he had planted. I had a boys’ comic tucked under my arm and he wanted to know why. ‘Cathy doesn’t like girls’ things,’ Dad told him. ‘She plays with tin soldiers and a train set.’ My father’s words caused a pang. I’d grown out of trains and soldiers a long time ago, but he hadn’t noticed. I was about to retort that I was too big for toys, but I saw Stephen was smiling; he found it funny.

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He left, saying that he had a meeting in town, but that his wife wouldn’t be much longer. We sat in silence. It was hard not to fidget, and soon Dad suggested I go outside and have a look around. I walked onto the veranda and down a flight of steps, and found myself in a never-ending garden. It was beautiful and eerie, not like a garden at all to me. My school friends had gardens with mowed lawns and tidy hedges. This was wilderness with paths and deep shade, dense with trees, ferns and flowering creepers. Under the spreading branches of an old cypress tree, I stumbled against a protruding object and nearly fell. Righting myself, I looked down and saw a mossencrusted grave so small it could only have belonged to a young child. There was no headstone or inscription. The only decoration was a posy of white roses made out of porcelain. A cloud slid across the sun, shrouding everything in a gloomy light. The wind came up, making the tree branches writhe back and forth. The dry rustling of their leaves was like a whispered warning and a chill snaked up my spine.Turning away, I hurried back to the house in time to see Dad and the Dragon Lady exiting the back door. I stopped at the edge of the lawn to watch them. Her real name was Lady Virginia Courtauld – Dad called her Ginie. She was gesturing and calling to a gardener to show him something. Tall and thin, she wore a longsleeved blue dress; her face was in shadow under a large hat. Beneath the swish of her dress I could make out the infamous tattoo. It was this that had earned her the nickname Dragon Lady, though the creature on her 4


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ankle was in fact a snake: a savage thing, heavily inked in black, its head rearing up, jaws open, ready to strike. People whispered that it went from her ankle right the way up her thigh and no one but Stephen knew where it ended. I had the vague impression that she was agitated or anxious, fidgeting and walking up and down; her voice was vivacious, fractured. I was used to observing my own mother’s unhappiness and I saw something there that reminded me of her. The monkeys in the treetops started up a tremendous disturbance; shrieking and chattering, flinging down gourds from the oyster nut vines that split open as they smacked the ground, scattering seeds over the grass. ‘What’s bothering them?’ asked the Dragon Lady, shading her eyes with her hand as she looked towards the trees. At that instant, a loud noise splintered the air. I only realised it was a gunshot when I saw the Dragon Lady’s body jolt violently and the garden boy screamed. She seemed to bow down and one hand went out as if she was reaching for something. She toppled over with a choked cry and I saw the wound in her side. Her body tensed and convulsed, her limbs sprawled gracelessly, blood spilled onto the ground. For a few moments, there was an unearthly stillness. Then things moved quickly: my father was bending over her, his ear by her chest. He stripped his shirt off and pressed it to the wound, trying to staunch the bleeding. Blood poured out regardless, soaking through the fabric, a scarlet rosette blossoming grotesquely on khaki. ‘We must get her to the hospital – quickly!’ 5


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A servant came running with blankets and they lifted her, a limp shape wrapped in soiled blue wool, and hurried her away. Moments later, I heard the cough and rattle of our truck start up and speed off. I leaned against the rough bark of a tree and watched a pair of red and green lizards darting through the grass. High above, a company of hawks circled in a flawless blue sky. With my teeth, I took hold of a ragged piece of skin at the edge of my thumbnail and pulled. It came away in a long strip. A drop of bright blood welled up in the cuticle and ran down my thumb, though I felt no pain. I waited for my dad, but he did not come back. The light deepened and spread, staining the trees gold and casting stripes on the grass where it slipped between them. The glow lingered on the treetops, while the shadows of dusk began to creep over their lower branches. A bird called and crickets started up a low, persistent creaking. Two poodles appeared and made their way towards the house, agitated. They paused by the rust-coloured stain the Dragon Lady had left on the grass, sniffed at it and started to lick it. I realised that they were as forgotten as I was.

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2 Ginie, Rhodesia, 1950s

Ginie woke to a room bathed in sunlight, with the feeling that La Rochelle, their brand-new Rhodesian house, already fit her like a second skin. She could hear the houseboy chopping wood on the woodpile; the slow sound of his axe a hypnotic accompaniment to the twittering birds that filled the garden every morning. She checked the mosquito net for spiders, scorpions and snakes, then got out of bed and went to the window. Her roses blazed on the lawn. In the distance, a line of hills rose up into an impossibly blue sky, tendrils of cloud dissolving around their summits. The bathroom glittered with sunlight; she turned on the taps and water gushed forth in sequins of light. After a short bath, Ginie sat on the edge of the tub and towelled her legs, pulling at the skin around her ankle, making the serpent rear up and open its jaws. The tattoo had been a mistake, indelible as sin. Initially she had regretted it, but then decided to play up to it, taking pleasure in inventing stories about why she’d had it done. It was a teenage dare, a coded message for a lover, a membership badge to a secret society. She

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changed the tale according to whoever was listening. No one need know the truth. She put on a cream, sleeveless shift dress that was printed with navy pen and ink drawings of Paris. The smooth cotton against her skin made her feel free and alive. Perhaps in Rhodesia, she would find peace at last. Her husband, Stephen, was already waiting for her in the breakfast room. Light fell in bright spears through the windows where a full English breakfast was laid out on the white tablecloth, alongside pawpaw, fruit salad and jugs of cream. Ginie kissed him on the cheek and sat down, noting his pallor. ‘Bad night, darling?’ she asked. He nodded. ‘I dreamt about Edward and Will again. They were pulling my leg about something. . . such good men.’ The air came alive with the ghosts of old soldiers. Ginie put her hand on his. It was not unusual for Stephen’s sleep to be disturbed by terrible dreams. She knew things shifted at night, tipping him back into places he would rather not revisit. His face had taken on a look she recognised, as if he were being eroded from within. Don’t shut me out, cried her heart. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again. Her pet lemur, Mah-Jongg, appeared and Ginie felt a comforting tug of love. Stephen had bought Jongy at Harrods for her. He was a curious creature; a mixture of monkey, cat and squirrel, with a long black-and-white striped tail. ‘Good morning, sweetheart,’ she said to him. In the light, his eyes were blazing amber. She lifted him onto her lap, where he nestled against her stomach, cheeping and chittering until she stroked him into stillness. She 8


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ate a pawpaw, feeling the bland, creamy flesh fill her belly. Jongy jumped down and lapped at a saucer of milk, making tiny sucking sounds as his pink tongue curled around the rich liquid. Occasionally he paused and gave a sigh like an old man. The Courtaulds’ nearest neighbours were the Thompsons. They farmed pigs and small-scale maize and their land bordered La Rochelle, though their house was three miles away. After breakfast, Ginie sent a boy across with a note in her favourite emerald green ink, asking if they would join her for afternoon tea. Jill Thompson arrived promptly at three thirty. She was a large, fair-haired woman, whose damp, pink face suggested that she found the heat a trial. They had tea in the parlour, a grand room that was built – as Ginie explained – to accommodate the carpet, one of the largest Persians in the world. Jill looked all around. It was crammed with objets d’art: pottery, china, jade, crystal, silver, gold, lapis lazuli, onyx and enamel. There were watercolours and oils, tapestries and sculptures of marble, teak and ivory.There was a huge fireplace and hanging above it, a portrait of the Courtaulds at Eltham Palace, their last English home. They were formal and unsmiling. Stephen was wearing a velvet dinner jacket and perching on the edge of a desk with paperwork in his hands. Ginie was dressed in a low-cut red gown with a fur stole draped over one shoulder. At the centre of the painting was Jongy on the arm of Ginie’s chair, his ringed tail flowing over her lap. The patterning on his tail mirrored the strands of pearls around her neck, but despite this congruence, the lemur cut a startling figure against the rich furnishings. 9


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The many windows of the parlour looked out over the garden and hills. The vast African sky arched over everything but they could hardly look at it, for it was blinding at that time of day. Two of the windows were covered by signatures, engraved using a diamond stylus: it was a glass visitors’ book. ‘We brought the panes with us from Eltham,’ said Ginie. ‘All our visitors wrote on them. Some of the names are a bit difficult to decipher. Look, there’s Moira Shearer and Rab Butler – and in the top corner over there is Stravinsky.’ Jill was admiring and bemused. ‘It seems that everybody who’s anybody has come to call on you. I’ve never seen anything like your beautiful home.’ Tea was served by Dixon, the houseboy. He was handsome, with skin like burnished metal. His hair was parted on the left side, shiny with oil and smoothly combed. His face was impassive above a starched, white linen uniform as he poured tea, handed out Spode china crockery and passed food around. There was a huge spread served on silver platters: crustless cucumber sandwiches, muffins, crumpets, and two kinds of cake. The poodles, Max and Sandra, lay with their noses pointing towards the food, too well-behaved to beg. Ginie drank her tea black and very strong. She had a tiny bottle of brandy on the table, which she splashed into their cups without asking for permission. She sipped her tea, enjoying the burn. ‘The weather makes you thirsty,’ Jill said, thoughtfully. ‘Had you been to Africa before you moved here?’ Ginie nodded. ‘I suppose I was in my late teens when I first came; North Africa, you know, Egypt and so on. I think I must have read about Africa when I was very 10


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young. You can have a special feeling for a place and I always did for this one.’ Jill pursed her lips. ‘I’ve been here since we got married twenty years ago. Eric was lured out by the promise of government farming subsidies, but I’ll just say this, being a farmer in Rhodesia is not a bed of roses. Truthfully, the work is much harder than we ever imagined. . .’ She gave a tiny shrug and mopped her face with a clean, white handkerchief. ‘I raised my sons here, in the middle of nowhere. They’re at boarding school in Salisbury now. I’ve made the best of it, but at times I feel buried alive.’ She frowned, then tried to smile. ‘Tell me why you like it so much.’ Ginie’s eyes were fixed on the line of hills beyond the garden: interminable, boundless, fading into a bluish haze. ‘I love the open spaces, the wildlife and the glorious climate. It’s good.’ She smiled, longing to be striding through the bush, inhaling its smells and feeling the sun on her skin. ‘I got fed up with Europe and all the bad things that were happening. There’s always this drive, you know, and it’s generally about power or money, and the things people do to get it. . . It’s nice to be away from all that.’ ‘I hate to disillusion you, but I’m afraid Rhodesia is not as different as you might think. You’ll find the same preoccupations, albeit under a slightly different guise.’ As Jill talked on, her gaze skittered to the snake tattoo. Clearly, she didn’t want to stare, but couldn’t help herself. Ginie’s lips curved into the ghost of a smile. Jill’s legs were sturdy and swollen, with fishnets 11


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of broken red veins running beneath the suntan. Her knobby, cracked feet were encased in soft brown sandals. ‘It’s just as hard to find good staff here,’ Jill was saying. ‘Are you happy with your boys?’ ‘Why, yes.’ ‘You must keep an eye on them. Mine won’t lift a finger unless they have to. I suggest you watch your larder too. Things have a tendency to wander, if you know what I mean.’ This was said within earshot of Dixon, though he gave no sign of having heard. Ginie felt a flare of indignation. ‘Really?’ she replied, coolly. Jill raised her eyebrows, sensing the lack of complicity. ‘I’m telling you as a friend.You haven’t been here as long as I have.’ Ginie could feel her anger building, but worked to contain it. ‘They just don’t have the same values that we do,’ Jill concluded, rattling a teaspoon around in her cup. Ginie stared at her, wordlessly, until two scarlet spots flamed on Jill’s cheeks. ‘Well,’ Ginie said, her voice shaking slightly with the effort of her restraint. ‘They’re human beings just like us, and heaven knows there are enough untrustworthy white people. But if you feel like that, perhaps you shouldn’t employ them to look after you.’ Their eyes met combatively, until Jill looked away with measured disdain. ‘You can’t choose your neighbours,’ Stephen said to Ginie at dinner that evening. ‘And you can’t afford to dislike one another; there has to be a bit of give and take.’ 12


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‘Really, Stephen. The fact is, she is just an odious woman. You should have seen her sitting there like she owns the whole country, spouting her poisonous views.’ ‘Like it or not, she’s part of our life now. I’m afraid you’re going to have to try to get along.’ Ginie sighed. ‘Oh, Lord. Next time, let’s have her round with other people. Diluted, she might be bearable.’ After the meal, they tried to listen to BBC news. There was a rose beetle that lived in the tuning bar of the radio, which had to be pushed across while Stephen tried to find the station. He couldn’t get reception, just crackles and static, with the odd burst of Afrikaans or a few bars of music. After a while, he gave up and the beetle was left in peace. Ginie was secretly relieved. She wanted the outside world, ravaged by war, hate and political dissensions, kept out of their valley. She gazed at the sky, waiting for the young spotted eagle-owl that came every night and landed on the ledge outside their window.When she saw the beating of wings in the light from the parlour, she pushed a dead mouse onto the sill, through the mosquito netting. She paid the children of her staff a few pennies to collect food for the owl; there was always a bag of mice and rats in the fridge. The owl ate sumptuously for several minutes while Ginie talked to it quietly. It was a marvellous bird, with winged ears, light-and-dark barred feathers and golden, yellowing eyes. When it had finished, it flew back into the dark landscape.

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3 Catherine, Rhodesia, 1950s

Our house was on the top of a hill that had bubbling streams flowing down to the valley below. The slopes were covered with mopane tree forests and thick bush. My father had built the house himself, from locally made bricks. It had a stone path leading up to it, a corrugated iron roof, and concrete floors. He called it a hut. He always called our homes huts. Dad was a lean, sandy-haired man, burnt as brown as toffee, with broad shoulders and a fluid way of moving. His eyes were a clear grey-blue and his expression was generally kind and humorous. He was always up at sunrise, when a dense mist hung over the forest, to make his meticulous plans and preparations for collecting the day’s specimens. One evening, he came home after a twelve hour day in the bush and his eyes were red-raw with fatigue. He sat down for supper beneath our softly hissing oil lamp, which had a cloud of flying insects around it. My mother put a plate of corn bread, vegetables, and extremely burnt meat in front of him. I waited to see what his reaction would be. All he did was reach for his food, smile at Mum and ask me how my day was at school. I don’t remember what I told him about 14


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school but I do remember hearing Mum eventually say, ‘I’m sorry I burnt the meat, Mark.’ As she spoke, an insect fell onto the table, fatally intoxicated by the fiery lamp. ‘Diana, I love my meat well-done,’ came his reply. When it was bedtime, I went to kiss Dad goodnight, and I asked him if he really liked his meat burnt. He folded me in his arms. ‘Your mother had a long, lonely day working to keep everything clean for us and putting food on the table, and she’s tired. Besides. . . a charred piece of meat never hurt anyone, but harsh words do.’

 When I was younger and we had visitors, my mother would make tea for them with the silver service she’d brought from England.These days, the silver teapot and jugs stood on a shelf in the living room, tarnished and full of bits of paper, pencil stubs, and an old magnifying glass. Next to them was a photo of my mother in England, before she got married. She was in front of a large, ornamental flower bed and wearing a soft print dress. The wind was moulding its fabric to her body. Her hair, long and loose, was flowing in the breeze. She was laughing. This attractive, carefree girl was an entirely different person to the mother I knew. Arriving home from school at the end of a hot summer’s afternoon, I found Mum laying out biscuits and cake; Jill Thompson was coming for tea. Pigeons crooned in the garden and the air flowing through the open windows smelled of sun-warmed leaves. Mum glanced in the mirror and I saw her poke at her dry, 15


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unkempt hair and coarsening skin. She gave a short laugh that sounded like a bark. ‘My word, look what I’ve turned into.’ There was a commanding knock on the door. Jill walked in wearing a blue dress with big pink roses all over it, the fabric straining across her ample stomach and hips. ‘My God, this heat’s killing me,’ was the first thing she said. We kissed hello – her face was moist with sweat – and I went to my room to do some homework. When I returned, they were drinking tea out of chipped, mismatched mugs and Jill was saying that she’d just paid a neighbourly visit to Ginie. The word they found for Ginie was ‘clever’. They didn’t mean it as a compliment. ‘She’s done well for herself,’ said my mother. ‘Oh, Diana, you should have seen her. She’s so full of herself.’ Jill shook her head. ‘And poor Stephen. I mean that tattoo – it’s depraved!’ she scoffed, taking a sip of tea. I could tell she was enjoying herself. Tattoos were enough of a rarity to be both mysterious and scandalous. The many rumours about Ginie had given her a strangely exotic reputation. ‘She was an ex-chorus girl,’ they said. ‘She met Stephen while dancing at a Hungarian strip club.’ ‘I wonder why she chose a snake,’ mused my mother. ‘There must be some kind of symbolism behind it?’ ‘Oh, doubtless. But I couldn’t very well ask her, could I?’ Jill gave an exaggerated shudder. ‘It’s positively vicious-looking.’ She took a piece of shortbread and bit into it. I watched her chew and swallow, brushing the crumbs 16


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from her lips. In newly-hushed voices, she and Mum speculated that Ginie might have other hidden tattoos on her breasts or buttocks. And weren’t women with tattoos likely to be drug addicts, or belong to secret societies, or practise black magic? Perhaps it was a form of branding, a way to signify ownership or submission, some kind of erotic enslavement. ‘She was married before, you know,’ said Mum. Jill nearly choked on her tea. ‘I had no idea! How do you know, did Harriett tell you?’ My mother nodded. Harriett was Mum’s cousin; she lived just outside London. She was friendly with a man called Herbert Moore, who had been the Courtaulds’ chauffeur when they lived in England. Moore’s wife, Libby, had a bad heart and this forced her to lead the life of a semi-invalid. She read, she made all her children’s clothes and she was a prolific letter writer. We learnt a lot about Stephen and Ginie through her correspondence. ‘Ginie’s first husband was an Italian count,’ said my mother. ‘I don’t believe you!’ ‘It’s true, it’s true,’ sang Mum. I hadn’t seen her this animated for weeks. ‘His name was Paulo Spinola, and she was still married to him when she met Stephen. Spinola was a staunch Catholic. Ginie, by that stage, had given up on her religion. She and Stephen managed to get that marriage annulled. Libby doesn’t know how much they must have paid the Vatican for it, but it will have been a lot.’ Jill digested this information, looking as pleased as a snake that had just swallowed a nice, plump rat. 17


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Generally, life in the district followed a set pattern. Crops flourished or failed, according to the rains. Native workers came and went; some were good, some weren’t. Sometimes there was theft and the police were called in. A few people drank too much; spouses fought, and occasionally, someone walked out. We had never seen anyone like Ginie Courtauld. I went to school in Umtali, making the long journey there and back each day on a bus that stopped to pick up all the white children in the area. My school was for whites only. It was known as an ‘A’ school and it had the best teachers, equipment and facilities. Black children attended ‘C’ schools, though there were schools for a tiny number of them only. There were ‘B’ schools for the Indians and half-castes, who were classed as coloureds. School was not complicated at all. It was a different world, where time dragged by slowly while I sat through lessons and played with my friends. It had little to do with what was important. I left, relieved to resume my real life, which was at home in the forest. My best friend was called Mufaro – he was a year older than me. He lived in a kraal in the next valley; a collection of circular huts that looked like beehives, with roofs thatched with elephant grass and walls made of mud, which were strengthened by poles cut from the trees. His father owned a small strip of land on which he grew crops. He prepared the land by burning down the trees and planting seeds in the soil that had been fertilized by the wood ash. Mufaro’s mother and his sisters fetched firewood and water and tended the fields when the pumpkins, peanuts, maize and barley 18


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sprouted up. Mufaro and his brothers watched over the cattle and goats while they grazed, but ever since he was small, Mufaro had found ways to slip away from his family and spend time with me. He taught me his dances and we climbed huge ant heaps, pretending they were castles and fortresses. We watched beetles, lizards, birds and the myriad dramas of the forest. Our favourite place to sit was in a cave at the foot of one of the hills, its mouth shaped like a keyhole. Inside, it was large enough for us to stand almost upright and the walls were covered in paintings. Mufaro told me they were made by Bushmen and were very old. It was dark in the cave, but chinks in the walls gave sufficient light to see the painting of an enormous red elephant, with gleaming eyes and tusks. We named him Nhamo. Sheltered from the harsh sun, his colours were still vivid. Around him buck and zebra grazed, while from behind a rock, a leopard eyed them covetously. We spent hours sitting in that cave that smelled of damp and bat droppings.We played Marabaraba, a game using stones cradled in little hollows in the ground. Sometimes, we made up stories about Nhamo the elephant, who managed to outwit all the hunters chasing him for his tusks. The world I shared with Mufaro was my real world. It was far more vivid than school or my parents, who were so mild, so reticent. They only said things like, ‘Finish what’s on your plate’ or ‘Have you had your shower yet?’ while I waited, longing to be freed from the pressure of all that was left unsaid.

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4 Stephen, Rhodesia, 1950s

Stephen watched their guests coming into the courtyard through a wrought-iron door, on which the initials S,V and J were entwined, with three ‘Cs’ or horseshoes. He and Ginie were waiting to welcome them. Ginie had an orchid bloom for each guest, which she placed in their buttonholes or pinned onto dresses, exclaiming, ‘Oh, how nice to see you, please come through!’ The men were awkward in black dinner suits, from which their sunburned faces and hands emerged. Jill Thompson had poured her stout body into fuchsia silk, while Anne Michaels, another farmer’s wife, was dressed in pale blue lace and pearls. Diana Richardson had on a floral crepe dress and a rose quartz necklace that fell to her waist. Ginie was wearing a simple white gown and a marvellous jewelled snake headband, its head rearing up over her forehead. Stephen felt a surge of pride; she had an elegance no other woman came close to. ‘We’ve heard such interesting things about your house. I am so happy to see it for myself!’ said Anne, glancing at Jill for approval. They were gazing around the Italian-style courtyard, whose pillars were weighted with bougainvillea so dense 20


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with blooms, it looked as though the low, evening sunlight was barricaded behind it. Tubs of plants and miniature palm trees were set against the walls, and the fountain in the centre was laid with a mosaic of Ottoman tiles whose greens, blues, golds and pinks were repeated in the swirling geometric shapes that covered an entire wall. The Courtaulds led them through the entrance area to the parlour to look at the paintings, the furnishings and the huge arrangements of orchids. The rooms were all clean lines and clear interiors, set off by luxurious materials: marble, hardwood, iridescent colours, silken fabrics. The expressions on the guests’ faces were admiring and slightly stunned. ‘The paintings alone would serve the needs of a small museum,’ said Mark. Guthrie Hall, a retired government administrator from northern Rhodesia who lived nearby, had already arrived, and they all sat on the veranda, looking  out towards the hills rising beyond the garden. Stephen opened the cocktail cabinet and started mixing sundowners. The men asked for whisky and the women asked for gin. He’d noticed the drinking that went on in this part of the world was heavy and  hard, and the  women consumed no less than the men. Dixon, splendid in white linen and a red fez, came out with a tray of snacks. His face was completely blank as he offered them around; he did not show that he was listening to anything at all. Stephen had always found this amusing. The guests sat in clouds of cigarette smoke, inhaling and exhaling slowly. An awkward silence had fallen, then everyone spoke at 21


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once. As voices hummed and ice clinked in glasses, Stephen began to experience the inner shrinking that often came over him during social occasions. Ginie, on the other hand, was coming alive; there was a vivid glow about her that made her stand out in this company.The men were entranced, the women wary. Sometimes, Stephen wished he could exude charm as Ginie did. They were the antithesis of each other – their guests must have looked at them and wondered at the inexplicable pairing of personalities. He knew people found him dour and difficult to talk to. He did better in small groups. With a crowd, he tended to retreat into a corner. He was assailed by a fierce longing for his cubbyhole at Eltham Palace. After a formal dinner there, he would retreat to the library. There was a concealed door behind one of the bookcases, through which he would disappear into a cramped space that had just enough room for an armchair, a table and a lamp. The butler would leave a bottle of wine, a glass, and the days’ papers on the table and Stephen would settle in happily. Sometimes, he heard guests come into the  library in search of him, asking the servants where he was. The servants never let on, though they all knew he was in the cubbyhole. ‘Tell us about that beautiful thing,’ Diana said to him. She pointed at a large porcelain bowl with a series of scenes painted on it in gentle, luminous tones. ‘It looks like it has a story.’ She had quiet blue eyes and her voice was a little hesitant. ‘It does, you’re quite right,’ said Stephen. He got up eagerly and brought it over, glad of the chance to talk about one of his beloved objects. The 22


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sinking sun was sending a welter of gold, pink and violet into the soft grey sky. ‘The tale goes that Cupid accidentally scratched his mother,Venus, with one of his arrows,’ he began, settling back down in his chair, ‘And she fell madly in love with Adonis.’ He pointed to the figures on the bowl, ‘here’s Cupid watching.’ Diana’s freckled face was rapt. ‘Wonderful, so intricate. And what’s this other one?’ ‘It’s Venus telling Adonis the story of the huntress, Atalanta.’ ‘I don’t think I know anything about her.’ ‘Well, an oracle had told Atalanta that she shouldn’t get married.There was a young man called Hippomenes who wanted to marry her, so she challenged him to a race. If he won, she would marry him. But if he lost, he’d die.Venus gave him some golden apples to distract Atalanta. Here they are with the apples, see?’ Diana nodded. ‘Hippomenes won,’ continued Stephen, ‘but he was so full of his own happiness that he forgot to thank Venus and she turned the pair of them into lions. You can read the whole thing in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I think you would enjoy it.’ ‘Oh, what a sad tale,’ said Diana, wistfully. ‘It makes me want to order the book right away.’ Mark had been listening to the latter part of their conversation. ‘Are you encouraging my bookworm?’ ‘I’m afraid so,’ said Stephen. ‘I’m nearly ruined by the number of books she buys from London,’ Mark said, giving Diana an affectionate look. 23


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He turned back to the others and Stephen said, ‘I have a question. Perhaps you can help me?’ Diana nodded. ‘Happy to try.’ ‘The grave on our land – I’m told it belongs to the daughter of the previous owners, the Zietsmans. We never met them, you know. They left the area before we bought the property.’ ‘Yes.’ She cleared her throat. ‘They found it too difficult to stay here after little Jessica died; it felt like an unlucky place for them. They moved to South Africa to try and make a fresh start.’ Her eyes filled with tears. ‘Jessica was the liveliest, most curious little girl you can imagine. She had these big sparkling green eyes. . . Of course, if you lose a child, you’re never the same again.’ ‘I can imagine. Was she very young?’ ‘She was only six.’ ‘How terribly sad.’ ‘Yes,’ agreed Diana. ‘Oh, it was.’ There was a pause, then he said tentatively,‘The thing is, nobody will tell us how she died.’ When Diana didn’t answer straight away, Stephen leaned towards her. ‘My staff believes that Jessica’s spirit is still here. They think she’s trapped in limbo between this world and the next. I don’t believe it, obviously, but I’d be better equipped to talk about it if I knew what had happened.’ Diana looked at the melting ice cubes in her gin and lime, and gave them a little shake before draining the glass, tilting it high to catch the last drops of liquid. ‘One morning, Jessica was shopping in town with her mother,’ she said, wiping her lips. ‘She managed to slip away and went to watch the men laying the railway line into Umtali. She loved all things to do with trains, you 24


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see. There was a freak accident. . . heavy pieces of track were being loaded and one of them fell on her. Her leg was completely crushed.They managed to lift it off, but major arteries were severed – the leg was hanging on by a few threads. She bled to death right there, crying for her mother. By the time Amy Zietsman reached the scene it was too late, Jessica was dead.’ They fell silent. Stephen was trying not to picture the small, mangled body, the girl’s terror and agony, her fingernails clawing at the hot, dry soil as her blood drained away. What a ghastly way to die. Perhaps the violence of it really had left her spirit unable to rest in peace. Even on hot days, there seemed to be a cool breeze by the grave, the wind murmuring secret messages through the leaves. The dining room was papered with a beautifully crafted wood veneer: Birdseye Maple edged with walnut, and backed onto very fine linen. Thirteen Turner watercolours hung from the walls and the long table was laid with the best silver, crystal and china bearing the Courtauld family crest. Jongy sat on a perch with a collar around his neck, attached to a long chain. The guests eyed him warily. He was already notorious for taking chunks out of people’s ankles. Ginie showed them where to sit and she and Stephen took their places at each end of the table. Jongy jumped off his perch and started scampering around like a naughty child, letting out strange cries and chirruping noises. ‘He’s a lively character,’ Eric Thompson said uneasily, pulling his chair as close to the table as his paunch would allow. He was blond and sturdily built, with a thick 25


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neck and enormous strength in his arms and shoulders. He had shrewd blue eyes, the whites reddened by glare. Wherever his skin was visible, it was beef-red. ‘Does he go everywhere with you?’ asked Guthrie. ‘Oh, yes,’ said Ginie, ‘There were difficulties getting him into Rhodesia, but we managed to work them out. He comes with us on all our travels and house moves, packed in a special suitcase we call the Valise de Surprise.’ The corners of Stephen’s mouth twitched as he remembered the astonished faces of customs officials in ports and airports all over the world as the Valise de Surprise was opened. ‘You’re part of the family, aren’t you sweetheart?’ Ginie bent down to pet Jongy, but he was too excited to stay still and darted away from her hand. ‘Does he run into problems with the indigenous monkeys?’ Mark asked. ‘No, Jongy is frightfully wary of them. He stays close to us and the house.’ Suddenly, Eric yelped and kicked out under the table. ‘The damn thing’s biting me!’ He turned to Stephen, ‘Get it off me! Please!’ There were concerned exclamations from the women, except for Ginie, who shot Stephen an amused but guilty look. Suppressing the urge to smile back, Stephen lured Jongy away with a piece of banana and Ginie called Dixon to take him to the kitchen. ‘I’m sorry about that,’ she said to Eric, who had pulled up his trouser leg and was examining the damage, ‘can we get you iodine and a bandage?’ ‘No need,’ replied Eric, through gritted teeth. ‘You should have iodine,’ said Jill, frowning. ‘That animal might carry a disease.’ 26


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Ginie dismissed this with a wave of her hand. Nevertheless, Stephen rose to his feet and went to fetch cotton wool and a bottle of iodine. ‘Here,’ he said, handing them to Eric. ‘Put some on, just to be on the safe side.’ Eric tended to his ankle, while the others studied the menu, drawn up in perfect French by Ginie earlier in the day. Dixon came in with a magnum of Dom Perignon and began to fill their glasses. Ginie stirred three lumps of sugar into her champagne and waited for the fizzing to stop before raising her glass. ‘I hope our badly behaved boy hasn’t put you off,’ she said gracefully. ‘It’s a real treat for Stephen and I to have you here. Thank you for coming and for giving us the chance to get to know you better.’ ‘Thank you for having us.’ ‘Cheers.’ They lifted their glasses and drank, glad of the distraction and enjoying the fine champagne. Stephen began talking to Mark about the orchids at La Rochelle. He was passionate about orchids, and had built four heated greenhouses for his collection. He kept journals and made an entry every time an orchid was planted, flowered, or died. ‘I had some Ansellia shipped from Mombasa,’ he said. ‘Very fine cuttings – one of them flowered today. They were the most beautiful I’ve seen; yellow with chocolate-brown patches.’ As he talked, he watched Mark’s attention drift to Ginie, who was stealing a moment to write in the gold-cased notebook she kept by her side during meals to tell the cook later what she was and wasn’t happy about. Mark’s eyes lingered on her smooth, bare arms and unease stirred in Stephen’s gut. 27


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Ginie was very much in control of the dinner, ringing the bell so Dixon would come and take away their plates, or making sure everybody’s glass was topped up. Despite her critique, the food really was sublime: risotto with tomatoes from the garden, cotoletta milanese, tiramisu. A reflection of Ginie’s Italian influence. When Stephen and Mark had exhausted orchids, the whole table was quiet. The guests seemed inhibited, though they knew each other well and the party wasn’t taking off, in spite of all the drink. Anne broke the lull by saying that when she was first married, she had a go at making jam with pineapples because they grew everywhere. But despite several tries, she couldn’t get it to set. ‘Yes, I tried too, it doesn’t set,’ said Diana and she described the revolting, jelly-like substance that had oozed from her saucepan and made a mess of the stove. Eric, bored by the topic, then launched into telling everyone about his skill in handling his labour. He thought it amusing to burst into a room and startle  his servants, or pretend ‘for a laugh’ to run down one of his farm workers in his car. It kept them in line, he said. He’d had a lot to drink over the course of the evening and it was starting to show. While Eric spoke, he watched the others for their reactions. He saw Ginie’s discomfort and his lips curled back in an ugly smirk. Stephen felt himself bristle. Many of the farmers were known to be hard task-masters, but Eric was more vicious than most. Eric continued, ‘The other day, I deliberately left money out in a bedroom where the houseboy, Eliot, was about to clean.Then I watched through the keyhole 28


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while he struggled with himself about whether or not to steal the coins.’ ‘Did he take them?’ asked Mark. ‘Of course he did, the miserable bastard. He doesn’t even have the moral fibre of that dog.’ He nodded towards Max, who had come into the room and was being petted by Ginie. Ginie met Eric’s gaze with a clear, level look. ‘We know Eliot, actually. He’s our cook’s brother. What did you do to him?’ ‘I burst into the room and yelled, “Caught you then, you pig!” He jumped three feet in the air; almost soiled himself. I threatened to call the police out. It was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time.’ He gave a narrow-mouthed smile. ‘I think that’s a cruel trick.When faced with temptation, we’re all susceptible,’ Stephen replied. He kept his voice calm, though he could feel rage churning in his stomach. ‘Oh come on, the blacks are born thieves and liars,’ answered Eric. ‘No offence, but you haven’t been here long enough to see what we see.’ ‘Well then, why don’t you describe it to me?’ Their gaze locked through a haze of cigarette smoke. A faint smell of sweat had imprinted itself on the air. ‘It’s like this,’ Eric began, grinding out his cigarette on his plate. ‘They’re a lazy race, so they have no pride in their work.You can’t trust them to get a job done – they need constant supervision if you don’t want them to sit around or steal from you.’ ‘But isn’t it true that if you want to get good work out of any man, you must give him decent conditions?’ queried Stephen. ‘If they are unproductive, I expect it’s 29


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because they feel they aren’t properly looked after or fairly paid.’ ‘Stephen’s right, you know,’ said Guthrie. He smiled, which deepened the laughter lines around his eyes, though his tone was serious. ‘The average worker can barely feed his family on what he earns, and their living arrangements are often dreadfully overcrowded and unsanitary.’ Eric was looking angrily from one to the other. ‘There should be a minimum wage,’ continued Stephen. ‘How can we possibly advance, as a society, while the majority of the population lives in abject poverty?’ He turned his gaze onto the men around the table. From the expressions on Eric and Bob Michael’s faces, he could see that his words held the power of an incendiary speech. ‘The system may be imperfect, but it keeps this country running,’ said Bob, smiling through gritted teeth. ‘And anyway, the natives aren’t like us,’ Jill interjected, archly. ‘It says in the Bible that they’re the hewers of stone and the drawers of water – they’re not as highly developed as we are.They don’t have the same expectations.’ ‘On the contrary,’ said Guthrie, ‘our hopes and fears are exactly the same.’ Eric gave a derisive snort, but Guthrie ignored him and carried on. ‘We all want stability and dignity and good health for ourselves and our children. We’re all equally afraid of losing our livelihoods, being unloved and dying.’ Eric’s jaw clenched; he opened his mouth to speak, but Ginie cut him off.‘Well said, Guthrie.They’re people, just like us. They want the same opportunities to work to provide healthy and prosperous lives for their families.’ 30


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‘Goodness, I didn’t realise you were such a liberal,’ said Anne, giving Ginie a hard look masquerading as surprise. Her cigarette rested on her lower lip while smoke drifted over her face. Ginie pushed her chair back and stood up. ‘Ladies, I think it’s time for us to move to the parlour for coffee.’ The men stayed on in the dining room, drinking port, smoking cigars and carefully avoiding the race issue. They stuck to safe topics: crops, livestock, and weather. When they joined the women, tempers had calmed and Mark presented a slide show of his recent trip to the Bua River in Nyasaland, which he visited in search of the succulent plants he was studying. ‘We camped among the trees with Puku and Waterbuck grazing nearby, taking no notice of us at all. . . The next evening, we were treated to beer and tribal dancing at a nearby village. The party lasted all night, with tremendous drumming, singing, and ululating.’ They looked in awe at the scenery, the wildflowers, the animals, the birds, the rock art and the local people he had encountered. While Mark talked in his quiet and measured voice, Stephen marvelled at the double standards of his guests, who were so eager to saturate themselves in every pleasure the country had to offer, but treated its people so poorly. Just before they left, they were given the diamond stylus and asked to sign the window, adding the date of their visit. They enjoyed this; it was a novelty that salvaged the appearance of the evening. As Mark took the stylus from Ginie and she indicated which pane of glass he should inscribe, Stephen noticed how deliberately he touched her hand and sought eye contact. 31


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They all said their goodbyes in the courtyard. Eric shook Stephen’s hand and Stephen saw Eric’s resentment still seething below the surface. When he said goodbye to Mark, he wondered if his own resentment was as visible. A chill crept over him, despite the warmth of the evening, and he shivered as he watched the guests climb into their cars and pull away. That night, they both waited for Ginie’s owl. They sat up till very late, but it did not arrive. That was it, they realised, the owl’s time was up, and they would never know why.

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Historical fiction about Lady Virginia Courtauld in the last days of colonial Rhodesia, a daring blend of crime, romance and history, deeply evocative of time and place.

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