This is an extract from Nina Bhadreshwar’s first crime fiction novel, The Day of the Roaring.
THURSDAY 7th OCTOBER, 2010
MaMa hands Diana a steaming stoneware cup. She inhales the dark rich aroma, admiring the crema with a wide grin.
MaMa smiles, sitting down opposite Diana at the small square table. Rehema had dropped off MaMa this morning as she had ‘appointments’ and then needed to get some fabric from Cole Brothers for MaMa’s room. Diana had been asleep so MaMa had pottered about the house, inspecting the dandelioned garden, arranging pots in the greenhouse, writing letters. On waking, Diana spent half an hour trying to find some notepaper. Now she chews her pen, writing down ten dates, five bullet points. One name. Chews it again. Three sentences. Signs it. Dates it. Rummages in every drawer looking for a pack of six envelopes she knows she has. Somewhere.
At last, she sits, drinking the coffee MaMa made using the beans from Nairobi.
‘Sorry, MaMa, I’m a rubbish host! I didn’t know Ma was…’
MaMa screws up her face. ‘Tchh! It is wonderful to get to see your home without noise and chatter, get some space.’
‘She does like people around, yes.’
Diana seals her letter in her own envelope, her hand hovering over the front. She puts her pen down, places the long envelope behind the clock. She watches MaMa lick the pale blue airmail envelopes. Her handwriting is neat, scrolled carefully on the red pre-printed lines.
‘Who you writing to?’
MaMa sways her head from side to side. ‘Nyambura and Wambui. Just news about the Commission and you.’ She rubs her eyes. ‘My eyes hurt now…I need those glasses. Rehema took me for test in Sheffield.’
Diana nods but she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand why MaMa has stayed in a country without family. Or why she is more bothered about reading glasses than going back. But she knows MaMa’s community is important to her.
‘We’ll go to the Post Office. Then head back.’
There are only three people in the Post Office. Miss Rawlins, the Post Mistress, is a fifty something plain schoolmistress type, greying dark hair scraped back into a combed bun, black-rimmed glasses, plain white blouse, navy cardi. No wedding ring – she’s married to the Post Office, trying to resist the seductive deluge of corporate red, yellow and grey marketing and keeping her corkboard busy with Parish notices, the Brownies, the Bakewell festival, the Dahlia Society, Sunday league football. Diana notes the clientele: the flat-capped pensioner at the glass-fronted till was pure ‘heritage’, as was Mrs Richardson with her basket of joints, cauliflower and worming tablets, handing over packages to be sent to Daughter Number Two at Durham University. Miss Rawlins is always courteous to Diana, efficient but not chatty. Maybe if Diana hung around for another decade. She notes Miss Rawlins’ cursory glance at MaMa: the straight-backed, coffee-skinned woman with a trim body belying her fourscore plus, belted in a worn gaberdine mac. A woman who walks everywhere, is on no medication – even though she probably needs some. MaMa keeps her body’s secrets to herself.
But right now, MaMa is acting very strange indeed. She’s staring like Miss Rawlins is some long lost relative. ‘Good morning – I mean afternoon.’
‘Good afternoon. How can I help?’ Miss Rawlins replies, briefly smiling.
MaMa slides the three blue envelopes under the glass.
‘To Nairobi, Kenya please.’
Miss Rawlins pushes her stringed glasses halfway down her nose, lifts a blue envelope closer.
‘Kenya? Not sent anything to Africa for a while. Let’s see…yes, they’ll go air mail letter. Be there in two weeks. Mr Smith sent a parcel last month to his cousin in Johannesburg. He said it took ten days.’
‘Thank you. How much?’
‘One pound eighty-six please.’
Diana looks at her watch. Gorman’s only on duty while three. Or was it three thirty? She needs to catch him before he clocks off. Miss Rawlins is still chatting to MaMa.
‘You on holiday here?’
‘Just visiting my granddaughter.’
Waiting for justice.
Miss Rawlins looks at Diana like she’s just appeared.
‘What a long way to come. I hope you both enjoy the Peak District.’
Diana should tell her she’s a Council Tax-paying local, she’s come in here at least once a week for the past two years. But she doesn’t.
MaMa smiles her radiant smile.
‘Thank you so much. Yes. It reminds me of Kenya.’
‘Really?’ Mrs Rawlins blushes as if it’s a personal compliment. ‘I thought it was very hot there. Not many giraffes in our woods.’
‘Nor in ours these days.’
Miss Rawlins counts out her change backwards: ‘Two pounds, nine, eight, seven. Cheerio now.’
‘Thank you. Goodbye.’ MaMa puts her four pennies into her small, zipped cloth purse. Diana’s at the door, holding it open, desperate to get out before there’s a queue. She hates herself for being embarrassed but she is.
Outside, the autumn breeze kicks up brittle leaves which scutter across the pavement like copper shrapnel. MaMa is thoughtful, moving slowly behind Diana. Diana waits and links arms with her.
‘Dewbow’s not like Africa, MaMa.’ Diana looks around at the pub, the bus stop, the Exclusive Butchers, estate agents selling only houses with six digits.
‘You don’t even know Kenya, mwana.’
‘Yes, I do. I’ve been to Nairobi five times and…’
‘No!’ MaMa’s fierce reply bolts out. ‘Not my Kenya. Not the highlands, Kijabe, Lake Nakuru.’
By now they’re at Diana’s car. She unlocks the passenger door, holds it open for MaMa. But MaMa stays on the pavement, looking up towards Curbar Edge, still frowning.
‘I wish you had. Then you would know.’
‘I wish I’d seen it too, MaMa. Maybe I will one day.’
MaMa gets in the car slowly. Diana shuts the door and walks round to the driver’s side. Maya’s Audi zoomed past blasting Fluorescent Adolescent. Maya is the village eccentric. Diana flattens herself against the door and makes a mental note of her going at least forty in a twenty mile per hour zone. She glares after the rapidly disappearing car and gets in. MaMa’s still staring ahead, lost in thought as she clicks in her seatbelt.
‘No, the highlands are not…it’s not the same anymore. That lady…’
Diana starts the car, looks at the clock. She can just make it before three if Rehema’s in. It takes twenty-three minutes in the afternoon to get in. Diana’s already totting up the list of calls to make, questions to ask Gorman before he leaves.
They’re stuck at the red light at The Stag and Gun pub before hitting the A621.
‘Miss Hulda. That’s who the Post Office lady reminded me of.’
Diana sighs. ‘OK. MaMa, who is Miss Hulda when she’s at home?’
MaMa looks to her left, her voice sad.
‘Miss Hulda is not at home. Hulda Stumpf raised me.’
Diana changes gears, her gut clenching. Is this senility? Or family truth? MaMa seems to be absorbed in the sky, the moors, her mind elsewhere. Diana puts on Radio Hallam, needing white noise to work out the pattern of this murder…The radio plays the rest of the Arctic Monkeys. She remembers five years ago, policing after that crazy gig at Plug when Keith Phillips asked her out…
Leroy Young. Where is he? Who doesn’t turn up to a new job? Funny how no one reports Daniels and Young missing.
‘Hulda Stumpf? Isn’t that German?’
‘Has your Ma told you nothing?’
Rehema’s story’s always been she was shipped over from Kenya with a missionary couple when one year old, reunited with MaMa at seventeen. Diana moves down gear as they hit the hill. ‘She told me great granddad died in the famine.’
‘Your great grandfather didn’t.’
‘Oh.’ She needs a last-seen moment for Leroy Young.
‘Your great grandfather disappeared. There was a row about our land. Under Kikuyu law, you cannot sell outright your land. You can rent or lease out for a period while it lies fallow but it is always yours as the ancestors are buried there…I would have been buried there…’
And why’s no one talking?
‘But we were so poor, he rent it out, so he thought, to some British coffee farmers for five years but when he come back to work the land, they chase him off with threats, say he sold it them. He not the only one. We were cheated out of our land.’
‘We used to own a part of Kenya? That’s incredible.’
‘The woodland edges and a bit of the slopes…’
Diana gives a slow nod. ‘Ahhh! That’s why you think Dewbow’s like Kenya!’ She smiles. ‘I’d rather a chunk of Kenya any day.’
‘Not now. It’s gone. That soil’s not fit for purpose. The woodland, it’s…’
If she drops MaMa off at Rehema’s, she can catch Gorman before he leaves. She needs more detail on the blade used.
‘My father – he tried – but – I don’t know where he went. He said he’d return for me so I wait. The elders took me to Kijabe Girls’ Home. And Miss Hulda raised me.’
‘You think he joined the Mau Maus?’
MaMa shakes her head. ‘No, no. He had disputes with them too…I think he was killed by either the settlers or the Masai. I remember when I was very young, he took me out on the ridge.’
‘How old were you?’
‘I don’t know my day of birth. Just the year.’
‘I thought it was 1st January?’
‘No, Miss Hulda gave me that as she said it was a new day. My dad told her in moons.’
‘Well, I think we should celebrate all the ones you’ve missed, MaMa!’
Diana doesn’t know what else to say. They are winding through the moors, purple skies ahead, hawks hovering, the shadows of clouds skittering across the mauve brown of the moors. Diana looks at the clock: 2.40pm. Rehema must surely be back from Coles by now. Some dull DJ going on about Sheffield Wednesday. She lowers the volume.
‘So – this Miss Hulda. You do well to remember her, MaMa.’
‘I will never forget her.’ MaMa looks out at the moors.
Ravens post up on the stone wall lay-by. They stare directly at the car.
‘I can’t tell Rehema these things. She’s so labile, like all her generation. They lost their birthplace.’
Labile? Diana sighs. She’s not going to get much thinking space today. Maybe she should just let MaMa talk. She’s happy she’s talking. She hasn’t said much since arriving.
‘Miss Hulda – she part of the African Inland Mission. Good woman. She saved my kisimi! Very strict. Very smart. American lady but not like the others. Does not think like European. Even Kikuyu think she’s crazy – but respect her. She keeps boundaries. Looks after the orphans.’
‘I didn’t think any Kikuyu respect white people.’
Diana rummages in her memories for what Rehema had told her and her siblings. MaMa’s voice takes on a serrated, tough edge.
‘See!’ she hisses. ‘That’s your mother. Plenty good relationship. Kikuyu the best workers, East African Women’s League – they love their Kikuyu. They trust Kikuyu until British Government say not to. That caused problem.’
‘That makes no sense. They were the workforce, right?’
‘Land, mwana. Land. British Government say Kenya poor quality land, not as good as Uganda, keep telling lies until Kikuyu believe them. And Kikuyu had rights. We are gentle people not fierce like Masai, not stubborn, we don’t burn the cattle. Kikuyu negotiate, co-operate.’
MaMa struggles to roll down the window. Diana watches her, presses the electric button.
‘Not too much…that’s fine.’
‘What’s kisimi, MaMa?’
MaMa laughs. ‘Kisimi! Uke. What make a woman feel sex is good!’
Is MaMa losing her marbles?
MaMa closes her eyes, breathes in, looking out on the cresting ridge.
‘I walk on the crest of the foothills as a child. Even when the famine started. The air so pure.’
‘Yeah, it’s still crisp. It’ll get wilder and colder soon though. I bet Africa never gets like that.’
Is a kisimi a clitoris?
MaMa kisses her teeth. ‘Mwana, African mornings, nights are cold. You don’t know cold. The uplands, mwana – near the mountains and Lake Nakuru.’
Diana descends into Totley Brook. The only ridge she’s thinking of is the border of established deciduous trees around Legley Road High School.
‘This Miss Rawlins – sorry, Miss Hulda. How long you live with her?’
MaMa glares through the back of the articulated lorry in front.
‘Many Kikuyu become Christian after famine come but some half-half. Half Ngai and ancestral believers, half a bit Christian called Kikuyu Christian and then a few bonafide full Christian. Kikuyu elders not like them.’
‘Which were you?’
MaMa shoots her a sharp side glance. Even with her eyes on the snaking road, Diana feels it.
‘I Kikuyu and I Christian, full real bonafide both. I not going to let them mutilate me.’
‘Pardon?’ Diana presses on the brakes on the hairpin a bit too sharply. Down a gear. Two forty-five.
‘They are not taking my kisimi. Majina ya labia. Miss Hulda help me stop them. Most Kikuyu tribes think no circumcision for women makes you unclean. They say take away the privates is only way to guarantee woman marriageable, of good quality. Get the payment. My father gone so I have no protection. Kikuyu women are a prize but not made for their own personal pleasure. African Inland Mission not like female circumcision. Unbiblical. Many Kikuyu leave, start own church – Christian but with circumcision so they can keep their ties with tribes and they land. But I and we irigu. We trust God not tribes. Not irua so not allowed to be with irua or other Kikuyu women.’
Keep your eyes on the traffic, girl.
‘Miss Hulda, she call irua ‘sexual mutilation’. That when you cut the woman, you cut yourself from the land. No one like her for that. Kikuyu didn’t like but they let be as they have own church now. But white settlers they furious with Miss Hulda.’
Diana can’t focus. She grasps at the threads of her case but is absorbed into the first traffic lights in Totley, school traffic already beginning. Radio squawking: ‘Traffic jam on the A621 between Beauchief and Totley Brook due to roadworks.’
She groans as the taillights in front start blinking, pulling up the handbrake.
‘Miss Hulda a white missionary then?’
‘See?’ MaMa shakes her head. ‘Your mother again. White and black. She not seeing, not hearing. That’s why I never tell her.’
Diana’s never heard MaMa angry before.
‘Miss Hulda, she different. She fierce. Raising twelve tough Kikuyu girls, fighting for us to get the calico dresses and nice things foreign church sent instead of the mission ladies taking it, saying they kids should get it first. She feed us, raise us, teach us. Respect your kisimi. Respect your body. Temple of God. Very smart lady. Made me learn reading and writing, arithmetic, sewing, let me grow vegetables in the garden. And she wouldn’t let the Kikuyu elders take us for the ceremony. When they say “Irigu forbidden to marry Kikuyu man, always be poor”, she say “Irigu will marry if and whoever she please and never poor.”’
FGM. Female Genital Mutilation.
The penny drops. It was in the training Diana had for the Muslim communities in 2005. But MaMa’s not Muslim. Here she is stuck in a traffic jam with her grandma talking about the clit. This is all the Post Office’s fault. Bet Miss Rawlins doesn’t even know she’s got one.
‘I was her top girl. My dorm next door to Miss Hulda’s study and the white ministers and settlers they come many time to tell Miss Hulda stop irritating the Kikuyu and all this sexual mutilation propaganda. Let them do what they want. They say it none of her business and now they start they own church, they learn they don’t need white governing or religion. “Good!” Miss Hulda say, “Good. Good.”’
MaMa hits the dashboard with her flat palm, fingers splayed. Diana jumps.
‘”Good!” she say. “Not good!” they say. “Now all Kikuyu and Masai think they can govern themselves. Not good. This is our workforce.” One minister come. He say she is destabilising country with her silly Sunday School and kisimi nonsense and to shut up or they make her go back to America. Miss Hulda say “I’m not leaving. I am charged to care for these orphan girls. I’m not leaving.”’
Horns parp behind her. Diana snaps to, takes off the handbrake, inches forward.
‘OK, mate. We’re not going while traffic’s jammed. Sorry, MaMa.’
She’s now absorbed in MaMa’s tale, ignoring the glares and hand gestures in her rear view and wing mirror.
‘Miss Hulda sounds like a hero. She must have been so proud of you. Did she come to your wedding then?’
MaMa looks out at the upper middle class Edwardian terraces set far back from the road. Her hands are trembling, still on the dashboard, gripping tightly to it like she’s about to fall out of the car.
‘One night I hear yells, screams, mad banging. A man’s voice. British. I hear him before. Minister or missionary or both. I was scared. I try to get in. Knock on door but then silence. I try and try. Fall asleep. In the morning, I go to raise our man servant, Thabiti and tell him Miss Hulda not answering our knocks. He angry at me but he go in, come out and vomit, shaking. Won’t let us in but when he go for police, I go in.’
So this is where she got it from. Her MaMa. Diana wants more traffic lights. They’re all green.
Come on, be red. I need to hear this.
‘Miss Hulda, she so tidy. Like your Post Office lady. Everything in order. Always. Her room, her office, smashed to pieces, her bedroom, she lay bad-ways on bed, pillow on face. Curtains drawn close. Blood on thigh. Leg like so.’
MaMa moves her fingers on the dashboard so they splayed into a V.
‘She was raped?’
MaMa shakes her head. ‘No rape. Killed. They did something to her privates. Not like Kikuyu do. This a chop-up job by someone who does not know a woman’s sex from a cucumber. This done by some barbaric fool. I saw. I saw. They didn’t know I saw the doctor when he come because I hid under bed and police tell doctor say nothing. They say: “No one sees this.” Then they arrest Thabiti. Say he smothered her. They bury Miss Hulda slapdash like a rotten dog less than two day later, no question, no service. The Mission sent me to Nairobi to work there.’
Green light. MaMa nudges her. She shoots off, straight up Sharrow Vale. Has her gran just reported an uninvestigated murder from seventy years ago? Or is she going batty? It’s Kenya. It’s history. It’s not her problem. It’s…
The radio beeps for hourly news. It’s three o’clock and she’s still not even at Millhouses.
‘Police are still searching for the killer of Legley Road High School’s headmaster, John Daniels, whose body was found butchered on the old Legley Road High School site earlier this month. They are appealing for witnesses for anyone who saw anything suspicious around the site from Bank Holiday weekend in August.’
Diana exhales. Lawson is doing this all wrong. She needs to get at this case sideways. All she needs is a break. Someone to have a Post Office lady experience. As she pulls into her mum’s road, the thought arrives on time:
Maybe she’s just had one.