Thus the hunt was always on to provide me with a proxy sibling. From an early age this role was admirably filled by Fiona Dewar.
The Dewars lived just down the road from us in Mason Close and our mothers were of a similar "advanced" age (in those days) to be having children. Fiona and I spent our preschool years in each other's pockets, often visiting "Queenie", a dear old lady that lived next door. She used to refer to Fiona and I as her "twinies" and despite ailing health when we were toddlers she would welcome us over for playtime. One day she passed away peacefully as I played at her feet. In that same driveway Fiona and I had our first day of school photos taken together generally Aunty June Dewar would pick me up from school and look after me at her house until Mum returned.
The Dewars had a massive avocado tree in the back yard that we'd often climb between playing "doctors and nurses" with some of the other kids from further down our street, Cypress Drive.
However the influence of school soon saw me develop the boyhood affliction of a terrible fear of "girl germs" (and no doubt vice versa). Perhaps the onset was accentuated by the belief we developed that our mothers had us betrothed from an early age, a scenario we started to studiously discourage.
Our friendship was not helped one day in Kindergarten Two when we were waiting to be picked up from the shelter in the special Kindergarten car park at Henry Low. Aunty June slid up in their Volvo just as Fiona and I were bickering over something. Fiona (who was often seemingly absent-minded) accidentally picked up my school suitcase and started marching towards the car. Meanwhile I had what is these days termed a "brain-snap", picked up her suitcase and ran up behind her and hoofed her up the backside. A steaming Mrs Dewar drove me home and dropped me at the bottom of the terraced garden, ordered me out the car with a curt "next time you kick like a donkey you can walk home like a donkey." Mum overheard this and extracted out from me what had happened and administered a solid whopping.
Dad probably did the same when he returned home that night and the next morning I was told that Mr Dewar had rung the previous night to demand what kind of a son was being raised in the Grant household. The Dewar/Grant relationship went through a period of cool after this – perhaps even the car pool was suspended for a while.
It must have been around this time that the net widened to find some male company for me to enjoy. I started spending some afternoons at Robert Goldie's house – my recollection being he had a gigantic chicken pen that sometimes doubled as a cubby house. Gradually I started to gravitate towards another boy in my class, Rodney Minter-Brown and soon we were inseparable. Thus it was that Rodney became my regular companion, joining the family whenever we had an outing and me spending many long afternoons at his house which seemed much more fun than mine.
The memories that include Rodney are myriad, though I doubt I could recount them in chronological order. His house was highlighted by a large backyard swimming pool that we practically lived in through summer. Rodney had older brothers and the pool had inflatable water polo goals and sometimes a volleyball net strung through the middle.
The Minter-Browns were also very talented at tennis, a sport that did not feature prominently in the Grant household. We'd often hit up in the backyard or play totem tennis – Rodney generally giving me a fearful hiding. One day the action moved indoors. I suspect this would have been when we were quite a bit older (well, 10). My recollection is that we were at home alone so we decided to trawl through the phone book and make prank calls to various business houses. With nervous, squeaky voices I highly doubt that we managed to genuinely "trick" anyone and the "wit" of our jokes could hardly be rated as first class. But it passed by a dull afternoon and no doubt presented the Minter-Browns with a larger than usual phone bill. One weekend I had a sleepover at their house and I was asked if I minded going to church with the Minter-Browns. To my way of thinking this was no big deal. Having grown up safely within the evangelical Protestant fold of Rhodes Street Baptist I assumed all churches would be the same and accompanied the family to the large Catholic church on Matopos Drive. Thus I was totally unprepared for the rituals and customs of a smells and bells Catholic Church. Sometimes as we'd driven past the Catholic Church on our way home to Newton Estate Dad would make dark mutterings about "heresies" and some of this came flooding back to me as we maneuvered our way through the crowded car park. The building was adorned with strange statues but on entering it I was confronted by the same uncomfortable pews that were the bane of my existence during the long services at Rhodes Street. I sat down and looked around to see the Minter-Browns kneeling in the aisle and genuflecting – something I'd ever seen before. It was then that it dawned on me I was probably just a little out of my depth here. I sat transfixed during the service, dumbfounded by the rituals and liturgy, mumbling along as best I could with well over a hundred people who knew every prayer and reading by heart. Directly behind us was a curtained box that people were entering on a regular basis with a very serious demeanor. Just audible from beyond the curtain were two whispered voices – confessional. It was then time for Holy Communion and the people went forward one by one to receive their bread and wine. In the Baptist Church it was a great taboo for the children to partake of the elements, so serious an undertaking being the domain of understanding adults. So when Rodney and his brothers went forward for their communion I was aghast that children could be allowed to participate in so holy a ritual. Luckily I remained glued to my seat or the poor priest would have been confronted with the delicate situation of what to do about denying communion to an upstart Protestant in front of a large crowd of onlookers. Rodney had an experience of the Rhodes Street Baptist way of doing things when he joined us for the Baptist Camp at Willow Park. Willow Park was one of the few "safe" campsites we could go to during the war years, being relatively close to Bulawayo on the Essexvale Road. However, no precautions were taken and each night a group of church members kitted up in their army gear, donned their guns, climbed the nearby kopjes and sat watch over the campsite through the night. Sanctions were also biting hard and on our way out to the campsite we'd stopped at one of the iconic African trading stores that dotted the highways to try and find some coffee. The only coffee there was a large tin of International Roast at an exorbitant price. At best International Roast tasted like the floor sweepings but there was a very strong suspicion that this tin had received some supplementation from the dusty paddock at the back of the store. Rodney slept with us in one of the camping cabins, graciously giving me the top bunk which came back to bite me when I fell out of bed in my sleep. Apparently I hit the ground with a shuddering jolt that woke everyone in the cabin but me. Quite possibly I knocked myself unconscious because I had no recollection of the incident the next morning when three worried faces appeared next to my mattress to see if I'd made it through the night.
There was a wealth of entertainment to be had at Willow Park. In the morning all the children were taken off to a tent for Bible Stories preceded by far too many renditions of the incredibly tedious "Father Abraham" song.
We were left to roam free in the afternoons. There was a games room at the top of a hill where we could play table tennis and all manner of wide games and kiss-chasey with the other kids. Willow Park also had a bizarre putt-putt course that consisted of one central hole in the ground encircled by a radius of eighteen obstacle courses to guide the ball through. Nearby was a large swathe of lawn used for rugby that led to a large lake. Rodney and I had our fishing gear (I suspect it was Rodney's because I can't remember owning any) and we set up camp and fished for hours, completely happy with our company. We were not what you would call spectacularly fortunate fishermen. Another boy cast in his line 25 metres away from us, started reeling it in and took a bite from a Bream that he dragged in with much excitement. He also had a fishing knife that was the envy of all of us encased in a block of cheap pine that was used to measure the catch. The "enormous" fish stretched the entire 10cm length of the fishing knife. Rodney and I had no such luck. We persisted for hours and days and eventually ran out of worms (that could be purchased from the canteen in a tin for 10c) so we started using bacon rind leftover from breakfast in the hope it would look like a worm. We were distractedly playing rugby when we looked around to see one of our rods was madly bobbing up and down signifying a catch.
We excitedly raced over to the rod and started to reel it in entertaining visions of our own bream that would stretch the length of two knives – it certainly seemed heavy enough. To our disappointment we hauled a turtle out of the water that had been attracted by the salty bacon. The turtle was thrown back into the lake and we returned home catchless.
After independence there was a brief respite from rural violence until Mugabe decided it was a good idea to genocide the Matabele tribe. It meant that we were able to cautiously return to the magical expanses of the Matopos National Park, a wonderland of granite outcrops, balancing rocks, big game, swooping black eagles and verdant bushland just south of Bulawayo. We took Rodney with us on our first weekend away in the Matopos when we stayed overnight at a guest lodge at Maleme Dam. The Lodge had a wealth of plaster cast animals to pay homage to the big game that roamed close to Dam and regularly came down for a drink. We came well stocked and Rodney and I have the obligatory photograph sitting on a rock that must have surely graced every child that grew up in Bulawayo at some time. We sat eating chips and drinking coke under a great big blue African sky surrounded by breathtaking beauty and the world's most amazing fauna. Not long after came a second trip to the Matopos, this time with Rodney's family. Rodney's brothers had gone camping in a game reserve that was accessed by a bumpy dirt track that turned right as you headed south along the Kezi Road. This was land that had been completely deserted during the war years and there was still the risk of land mines on any dirt track around the country. Silozwe and Silozwane, the largest of the granite monoliths that guarded the Matopos reared up in the distance. And we bumped and jogged our way slowly on the dirt track to a rendezvous and braai with Rod's brothers. We found them camped near a brackish pan of water that was acting as a magnet to large herds of impala and kudu. After boerwors on the braai the brothers all clambered into the car for the return home and as we were doing so a beer bottle was passed around. Alcohol was a taboo in the Grant household and beer was a mysterious "evil" that seemed particularly glamorous in the television adverts that promoted it. So mysterious and glamorous that it was inevitable that I was going to take a swig when it was my turn to see what all the fuss was about. I do recall a slight disappointment that it was a bottle of Castle Lager as the Lion Lager looked far cooler in the adverts and was emblazoned all over the advertising hoardings at Hartsfield Rugby Ground.
So my first taste of beer came from a lukewarm bottle of Castle lager bounding around on a bush track with the Minter-Browns. The logic of my expectations of such a taboo drink was that if we were constantly being told that "Coke was bad for us" then for beer to be so taboo it must be several grades sweeter. Thus I was unprepared for the bitter taste of my first slug and I genuinely wondered what all the fuss was about. Rodney had several sleep overs at my house too. By this stage my brother had already completed his Bachelor of Science and was well on the way towards his Honours and eventual PhD. To similarly enthuse his little brother in the joys of science Kevin put together a large chemistry set that was set up on a bench in a little corner in my room. Much of the kit was relatively harmless. A Bunsen burner, test tubes of many shapes and sizes, beakers and watered down acids. One of the drawers had a variety of ground metals in stopper bottles. My favourite was the little blob of mercury that I used to take out and push all over the floor of my room, amazed at its ability to evade capture as well as its general texture. Perhaps I can blame my adult madness on this early brush with heavy metal?
Given the purpose of the chemistry set was experimentation it was only a matter of time before I worked out some more entertaining activities than are found in the text book. My favourite past time was to place a large quantity of drain cleaning crystals into a beaker and then pour in some higher strength hydrochloric acid that I'd managed to source.
The resultant reaction saw the drain cleaner heat up and it started to bubble and froth volcano-like to the top of the beaker and then start cascading all over the plate placed underneath. Hissing, spitting and eventually large tendrils of "steam" rising up to permeate the whole room with the putrid smell one associates with metal being cut by metal. I was in the early stages of setting this up for Rodney's benefit when this photo was taken. The stronger bottle of hydrochloric acid would not have appeared until all adults were well clear.
One sleepover Rodney had at our house stands out profoundly in memory as it was an incredibly sad day for both families. We again went out to the Matopos, this time in a bus with all the teenagers from the Youth For Christ group in Bulawayo. The bus was not enough for all of us so several cars accompanied us. It had been raining heavily and some of the granite outcrops pooled water and released it slowly down a series of grooves running down their rock face. These were ideal as natural water slides. The day was spent madly running up the granite hills, jumping into the rock channels and careening down their steep slopes before crashing into large pools at the bottom. Some of the channels had large drops in them and the rock was abrasive so we finished the day with bruised bottoms covered by torn and threadbare denim.
We headed home just on twilight and just as we approached a bend close to the old Matopos Hotel we were flagged down and brought to a stop by one of the leaders of the YFC group. One car load of teenage boys had driven out of the driveway to the Hotel, and didn't see the car coming on the road. It clipped them and sent them careering off the road and then the car started to roll, flipping three times before it came to rest. One of the boys had died at the scene, cradled in the arms of the driver. Another two were taken to hospital in a critical condition. Just hours before they had been vital and alive, whooping as they flung themselves down granite kopjes with us. And here we were this busload of their friends arriving at a scene of abject devastation not very long after the accident. Prior to this I'd had a run of bad run witnessing some bad accidents. At a very young age we'd driven past a fatal accident at traffic lights close to home and had seen people strewn over the road.
When we lived in Johannesburg for a year our flat looked over a very busy intersection of Twist Street near Hillbrow that regularly saw head-on collisions and T-bones (picture right). Another time we were driving to Bulawayo airport when we drove past a dead cyclist lying in a blanket by the roadside. Most traumatic was an accident that happened adjacent to our car on Matopos Road. Another car had entered Matopos Road from Famona Street at high speed using a slip lane. A truck had broken down in the slip lane and the car had no chance of stopping. I still have the mental imagery of hearing the screech of brakes and flicking my head to the left just in time to see the car with a single occupant smash into the tailgate of the truck and keep going underneath it – the roof of the car shearing off.
Mum and Dad were both St Johns trained and Dad pulled over to give assistance. I became hysterical and pleaded with him not to stop. Several other cars had pulled over to give what assistance they could so Dad reluctantly drove away.
Then a friend of ours hit and killed a pedestrian on Cecil Avenue that was our shortcut home from church. I became immensely fearful of this road in case the same happened to us, but it was not a fear I confessed. For several years after that I drove them to distraction every time we drove home from church because I would plead with them to go down a longer alternate route via Mafeking Road because I "wanted to look at the yellow street lights" which must have seemed ridiculous to them.
This ruse lost its effectiveness about the time the Churchill Arms Hotel reopened for trade. The Hotel was further down Matopos Road than the turn-off to Cecil Avenue so I developed a keen interest in its trading prospects and would get Dad to drive that way so I could count their lit windows and gauge their clientèle. All that to say that the horror of driving past this accident after our big day out at the Matopos was not a pleasant experience. We had been flagged down so we could be partially diverted in the hopes the people wouldn't see the car and realise it was one of our party. We inched past the accident scene where two ambulances were pulled up and paramedics were still working on one of the bloodied victims. A full body-bag was clearly evident. It took a few minutes before it became apparent that the accident involved our own and there was a slow rippling up and down the bus as people started sobbing in grief. We all drove back to YFC's Resurrection Centre in Grey street and spent the next few hours praying and singing. All of the songs sung that night are etched in memory and whenever I hear them I am transported back to that night, a young boy in a room full of grief stricken people singing songs and praying for the dead and dying.
Another of the boys, Gavin Masterton, had been with YFC for many years and our albums were littered with photos of him at the various YFC camps through the years. He lay in a coma in Bulawayo General while a roster of his young friends sat by his bedside and prayed for him. After a week they turned off the life-support and he became the second fatality. In this photo a young Gavin Masterton is in a blue shirt, far left in the front row. A terrible end to a wonderful day, an accident claiming the lives of two more young men from a Youth Group that had already given up several fine men in the fire-fights of the Rhodesian war.
Rodney stayed on for the sleepover that night at our house. We returned home late after the grief-stricken session at the Resurrection Centre. I don't think either of us managed much sleep that night. I lay on the bed facing the window, spooked by the shadows cast by the Flamboyant Tree outside that in my imagination became the ghost of the dead boy doing push-ups on the window-sill. For years afterwards I was haunted by dreams of driving past car accidents before stopping at butcher stores further down the road that were offering the body parts for sale. This tragedy also touched the Minter-Brown family in a profound way as the boys involved were close friends of Rodney's elder brothers. It was Rodney who had to break the news of the accidents and the death the next day when we dropped him home. I doubt I am alone in sharing a great sadness with the Zimbabwe Diaspora that these days are scattered all over the globe. Most of those I spent my early school years with have been scattered to the four corners of the globe. Perhaps this is most keenly felt by those of us that left Zimbabwe in our tween and early teen years.
You don't realise when you're eleven, twelve or thirteen that the people you share your formative years with share a part of life that is irreplaceable. Living in Australia I can only envy the people around me who have not known a brutal dislocation from the land and people of their birth. To have legitimate lifelong friendships and to still interact daily with those you have literally grown up with must be a truly wondrous joy. They don't know what they have.
After a twenty-six year period of silence Rodney Minter-Brown and found each other and reconnected thanks to the modern genius of Facebook. Thanks goodness Rodney had a unique surname!