- Published: 4 January 2010
- ISBN: 9780143202790
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 608
- RRP: $24.95
The Rain Queen
1974 Dodoma, Tanzania, East Africa
In the churchyard of the Anglican cathedral two coffins lay ready for burial. One of them was almost a foot longer than the other, but apart from that they were the same – simple boxes made from fresh-cut splintery wood, left bare. Bishop Wade stood beside them, a bulky figure draped in purple robes embroidered with gold thread. His pale skin was flushed with pink and sweat ran down his temples.
He looked out over a huge crowd. People lined the pathways and filled the spaces between the burial plots; they sat on the bonnets and roofs of Landrovers parked along the boundaries, and even hung from the limbs of the old mango trees that cast their shade over the cemetery.
The missionaries were grouped at the front, along with a scattering of other Europeans, and half a dozen journalists juggling cameras and notebooks. Behind them stood the Africans from the town and the Mission, neatly dressed in Western clothes, and an enclave of Indians wearing turbans and saris. Village people made up the outer ranks – a sea of black skin dotted with bright cloths and blankets.
The Bishop raised his hand and waited for the crowd to grow still. Then he began to read from a book held out by one of his African clergymen. His strong voice carried clearly over a blur of smaller noises: people coughing and shuffling, babies crying, and the distant sound of a truck being ground roughly through its gears.
‘For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out . . .’
He read on – a few more lines – but then faltered, sensing that something was happening in the crowd: a subtle, silent shifting of focus. As he looked up, his gaze was drawn to a far corner of the churchyard. His eyes widened. A group of warriors had arrived there – long-limbed men with mud-daubed hair and necklaces of coloured beads. They were pushing forward, invading the ranks of the mission people, the tips of long hunting spears rising above their heads and glinting in the sun.
Sheltered in their midst was a white woman. She was revealed in small glimpses, in between the men’s bare shoulders – an impression of pale skin, steady eyes and striking red hair hanging loose. As she moved through the crowd, a low murmur grew, spreading out from where she was like ripples in water.
Not far from the Bishop, the warriors stopped. The white woman stood with them, silently facing the coffins, seemingly oblivious to the disturbance her arrival had created.
She was a strange figure. Tall and lean, she was dressed in khaki bush clothes stained with sweat and dust. Unlike any other woman in the crowd, she wore trousers. They were held in at the waist by a wide ammunition belt made of leather. She stood very still, her features immobile, eyes gazing blankly ahead.
The Bishop pushed on with his reading. When it was finished, he announced that the choir would sing a hymn. He turned deliberately to face the singers, hoping to draw the attention of the crowd with him. But at the edges of his vision he was acutely aware of the silent woman, still standing there . . .
‘Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land.’
The words rang out; strong clear lines drawing numerous harmonies into a single, complex voice.
‘Bread of heaven. Bread of heaven. Feed me till I want no more . . .’
During the last verse of the hymn, the Bishop gestured to one of his assistants. Then a girl emerged from the crowd, guided from behind by one of the missionary wives. She wore a blue dress, crisply pressed. The full skirt brushed her knees as she walked. She kept her head bent, dark hair falling forward to hide her face. Cradled in her arms were two bunches of flowers. They were ragged collections of wild orchids, sunflowers, garden leaves and weeds – clearly her own creations.
As the slight figure edged towards the coffins, an African woman, some way back in the crowd, began to wail loudly. Others joined her and soon their cries drowned out the singing. It was as if, until now, the funeral had belonged to the Bishop and clergymen. But the sight of a child approaching her parents’ coffins brought up a feeling of common pain that could not be owned, or contained, or organised into a liturgy. Grief rolled out over the crowd, deep and raw.
Kate stood between the two wooden boxes. She placed her first bunch of flowers down onto her father’s coffin, positioning it carefully on the middle of the lid. Then she turned to the other coffin – the one that held the body of her mother. She looked down at the timber planks trying to see beyond them. Were the eyes open? she wondered. Or shut, as if sleeping . . .
She hadn’t been allowed to see the bodies. They’d said she was only a child, after all. No-one had added that the bodies had been hacked by machetes, but Kate knew that this was the case.
Even the faces? she’d wanted to ask.
But no-one had seemed to expect her to speak. They’d wanted her to cry, to sleep, to eat, to swallow tablets. Anything, but ask questions.
‘It’s just a blessing that you weren’t there,’ was all they’d say. ‘Thank God you were here, at boarding school. It doesn’t bear thinking about . . .’
A journalist darted out from the crowd and squatted with his camera to catch the moment when the child laid down her second bunch of flowers. Kate stared at him, stony-faced, as he leaned closer for a better shot. Words circled in her head like a spell, keeping thoughts at bay.
Tighten your heart. It is the will of God.
Tighten your heart.
The phrases came to her in Swahili – with the voice of the African housemother who had led her away from the School Office, after she had been told. Told. Just like that. A man’s mouth moving, words coming out.
‘Something terrible has happened . . .’
Tighten your heart.
Looking up, over the crowd, Kate found herself meeting the steady gaze of the tall woman with red hair. She looked vaguely familiar, but the connection was not strong enough to penetrate the haze that dulled the girl’s mind. After a brief moment, Kate turned her eyes away, looking beyond the churchyard. All the trees were in full growth. Harvest time was nearly here. She imagined the maize growing in the shambas. It would be over her head. The ears of yellow corn fattening inside their silken-lined shells. Only a few weeks now, and the time of hunger would be forgotten for another season . . .
Kate returned to her place beside the doctor’s wife, and stood there quietly, her gaze looking down at her shoes – the shiny black leather dusted with fine red sand.
‘Let’s go home now, shall we?’ Mrs Layton’s voice buzzed close to her ear. Kate stared at her, confused. ‘Back to my place, I mean,’ the woman added. ‘You don’t need to stay any longer.’ She tried to smile at the child, but her lips were trembling.
Taking Kate’s elbow, Mrs Layton drew her back through the crowd. A young man holding a notebook and camera hurried after them.
‘Excuse me,’ he said as he reached Kate’s side. He had a kind-looking face, but before he could say any more Mrs Layton waved him aside.
‘Talk to the Bishop,’ she said. Then she led Kate quickly away.
When the burial was over, and the final hymn sung, the congregation began to disperse. Reporters hurried to secure interviews, while the missionaries lingered in small groups as if unwilling to acknowledge that the service was finished.
The young journalist approached the Bishop. The man was still standing near the two graves, staring down at the mounds of crumbly earth.
‘Bishop Wade, I’ve got a few questions . . .’ the journalist began.
‘The Mission has released a statement,’ the Bishop cut him off.
The young man nodded. He’d read the document two days ago. It had simply confirmed the murder of two missionaries, Dr Michael Carrington and his wife, Sarah, at an outlying station to the west, near the border of Rwanda. It had said that there was no known motive for the killings. It had then added that a third European, visiting the station at the time of the incident, had not been harmed. That was all. No mention had been made of other ‘information’ that had nevertheless spread quickly around Dodoma. Apparently the female victim had been stripped naked before her death. More bizarrely, the rumour was that an egg had been stuffed into her mouth.
‘There are a couple of points I’d like to get some details on,’ the journalist said.
The Bishop glanced up, signalling agreement. Now that he had completed the task of conducting the funeral, he looked tired and distressed. The journalist guessed that he would not get the chance to cover too many questions.
‘Can you confirm that there was an egg,’ he began. The Bishop looked pained, but the young man pushed on. ‘In the . . . in Mrs Carrington’s . . . mouth.’
The Bishop nodded. ‘As the attack took place during Easter, it seems reasonable to assume that it was meant as a reference to the eggs Christians give one another at this time.’ He spoke in a flat voice as if reciting an answer that had been prepared in advance. ‘The world over, wherever Christ’s message of love is preached, there are those who respond with hatred.’ He took a breath. The journalist checked his notebook and launched another question.
‘How old is the girl?’
‘What will happen to her?’
‘She will return to Australia. There are no close relatives. The Mission Secretary will become her guardian. She will be well looked after. She will go to the very best school.’
The journalist scribbled notes. ‘How is she coping?’ he asked.
‘She is strong,’ the Bishop answered bleakly. ‘We can only pray that her faith will sustain her.’
Another journalist appeared beside them – an older man with sparse grey hair and a flushed face. As he opened his mouth to speak, the Bishop shook his head.
‘Enough. Please . . .’ He turned away.
Undeterred, the newcomer fired off his question. ‘And the other person there. It was a woman, wasn’t it – a Miss Annah Mason?’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ the Bishop answered, walking off.
Both journalists dogged his heels.
‘She was a witness to the murder? She was right there?’ the older journalist continued. Without waiting for a reply from the Bishop, he pressed on. ‘So, how come they didn’t even touch her? I mean, when you think what happened to the other two . . .’
The younger journalist looked shocked by this line of questioning. But he hurried along just the same.
‘And this . . . Miss Mason . . . is it true that she used to be one of your missionaries? That she was forced to resign? Can you tell me why?’
The man’s barrage of questions was cut off abruptly as the Bishop turned suddenly around. He was a big man, and his face was rigid with anger. Both journalists took a step back.
The Bishop strode off, leaving the two men standing alone.
‘She was here, you know,’ commented the grey-haired man. ‘Miss Mason.’ He licked his lips as if anticipating a move to find a drink.
The other journalist looked around him urgently. ‘Did you talk to her?’
‘Thought about it.’ The man scratched his nose. ‘Till one of her henchmen showed me the end of a very sharp-looking spear.’ He shook his head. ‘Pity.’ Pushing the chewed stub of a pencil into his pocket, he shrugged and walked away.
Kate found herself in a sunny sitting room, with strangers offering her food. It entered her mouth, a cold leaden mass. When she had managed to chew and swallow a few times, she pushed her plate aside.
Next she was taken into a storeroom where several tea chests stood in a row. Mrs Layton explained to her that someone at Langali Station had packed up the family possessions and sent them here. The boxes would be shipped to Australia in due course. She handed Kate a few things that had been kept aside for her – things Mrs Layton thought the girl might like to have with her now. There was her father’s Bible, and her mother’s meagre collection of jewellery.
‘Thank you,’ Kate said. She barely glanced at the objects before putting them down on the floor. Crossing to one of the tea chests, she began looking at the things that had been packed away. She picked up one of her dolls – the one they wrapped in strips of white cloth each Christmas and used as Jesus in the manger.
‘Keep her, too,’ suggested Mrs Layton. Kate could see that she liked the idea of a comforting doll.
Dropping the toy back into the crate, Kate turned to look at a cardboard box full of old clothes.
‘They’re things I didn’t think were worth keeping,’ said Mrs Lay-ton. ‘Clothes mainly. They’ll be given away to the Africans.’ A frown crossed her face as Kate bent and picked up an old pair of shoes. They were Sarah’s. Her everyday shoes – the ones she used to wear as she hurried about in the kitchen, the hospital, the compound. They were shiny clean, but soft and creased with wear. Kate leaned her face close to them, breathing the musky smell of long-dried sweat as she hugged them to her chest.
After a few moments, Mrs Layton came and laid a hand on her shoulder. ‘Have a cry, dear. It’s better to let it out.’
Kate kept her head down. She couldn’t cry. The tears seemed to be locked away inside her, trapped in a hard lump of pain that felt as if it were stuck in her throat, half-swallowed.
Alone in a bare guestroom, Kate knelt by her bed to pray. Her lips moved but she could find no words. She couldn’t think, couldn’t feel. She felt lost and empty – as if she, too, were no longer alive. She wondered if it was because of the tablet Dr Layton had given her. After a few minutes, she got up. She found Sarah’s shoes and put them on. They were much too big; if she’d tried to walk, they’d have fallen off. Instead, she sat still on the side of the bed, drawing comfort from the worn shapes, feeling the contours made by her mother’s feet lying beneath her own. She could almost imagine that Sarah had just taken them off. That they were still warm . . . It calmed her, until the tranquilliser began to work, numbing the pain.
On the edge of sleep, Kate climbed into the bed, easing her way between tightly tucked sheets. Then she heard the door opening. Quickly she closed her eyes. Her limbs stiffened, awaiting another embrace – the touch of another stranger. Someone else’s mother.
But the presence that moved to stand beside her wafted the smell of cold ash and butter. Kate peered between her lashes.
‘Ordena?’ Kate whispered her old ayah’s name. No, she told herself, it was impossible. Who would bring her here? All the way from Langali . . .
‘Was it not I who held you as a little child? ’the woman answered.
‘You have come,’ Kate breathed, scarcely believing it.
‘Truly, I have come.’ Ordena bent and gathered Kate into her arms. Slowly, gently, she rocked her as if she were a baby again. Back and forth, the old nurse moved, to the steady rhythm of an African lullaby. Gradually the stiffness went out of Kate’s body. She softened into the familiar embrace. At last the tears flowed out.
1964 Melbourne, Australia Anna switched off her electric typewriter and slipped her diary into the top drawer of her desk.
At ten o’clock of a rainswept morning in London’s West End, a young woman in a baggy anorak
Inside Laura's head, Deidre spoke. The trouble with you, Laura, she said, is that you make bad choices.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.