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Smoke and Thunder
Sophie’s Diary: Thursday 26th April ~ near Livingstone, Zambia
Amazing! We walked across the actual lip of the Falls from the Zambian side almost as far as Livingstone Island. This place is different every time I come here. I remember seeing the Falls just after the rains last time all those years back, when I’d never really regarded water as an element that defined Africa, except in a negative way. Tom was with me and it had such a profound effect on us both (not just the emotional-sexual side although that made it so memorable of course) that I could never again forget the power and beauty of water and how much it sums up every part of Africa and its people and their economies. Perhaps that was because my earliest travels took me mainly to land-locked farming communities where water was far more precious than gold during droughts and the children listened to my stories of rain that fell gently and steadily for days on end with longing in their eyes, and of snow with open-mouthed disbelief. In those areas a lack of water was at least well understood but a surfeit – flash floods and suchlike were almost more dreaded than drought and much less predictable of course. Too much water or nothing like enough – an eternal dilemma for African farmers. I had never thought deeply on how much abundance of water could be such a boon if it could be controlled even a little until I visited Victoria Falls, but at the time all I could think of was how truly beautiful and spectacular the Zambezi was.
How would I describe the Falls? I suppose it would depend on what time of year you went to them. In dry seasons they are still impressive and, to some people, more beautiful as the constricted river flows in ethereal, lacy ribbons down the various gorges. People from North America scoff that ‘Niagra beats the pants off this’, conveniently forgetting that their connubial resort’s attraction is firmly under control and almost completely tamed by dams and hydraulic engineering. But if they try to say that just after the rains you won’t be able to see or hear them for the heavy mists and the rumbling, tumbling roar of the Zambezi as over half a million cubic metres of water career hundreds of feet downwards, across a span over a mile across and seemingly through a thousand channels and chasms. Dr. Livingstone was right you inevitably conclude if you experience the Falls at this time when the Zambezi is swollen to its limit – Angels would indeed pause in their flight.
The Smoke that Thunders…
… ‘My first time here?’ Sophie gave a small twisted smile as they all sat about the ‘campfire’ in the lodge later that evening. ‘With my parents when I was fourteen I suppose. But it was the dry season then and I don’t really count that as my first time - the Zambezi is a little pussycat then. No. My first sight of it in almost full spate was about four years later and I was with…’ She gazed into the fire for a few moments before speaking again. ‘Sorry. I was with a good friend. The river was really high and fast and some of the extreme sports firms wouldn’t run their rafts in certain parts of the rapids because it was too dangerous – more than a ‘five’ anyway – too much of an insurance risk.’ She grinned at the two cameramen. ‘We were staying on the Zimbabwe side – before it started going badly over there and their petrol prices were really cheap so the Zambians were swarming across the bridge to trade for things they just couldn’t get hold of at home. We had a couple of days break from work so we decided to stay in town and do the whole tourist thing. We went to the Vic Falls National Park, which is a really nice little reserve – you can get right out over some of the chasms if you’re careful. But when the river is full like it was today – and the time we were there - you almost become a part of the Falls. The air is thick with misty droplets, so fine and light that sometimes you’re breathing them in…. and the sound is stupendous. The ground shakes and you can feel the impact of the cascades in your throat and the percussion rising up through your legs. It’s visceral… primeval even. It was so beautiful and wonderful that we both cried…’ Sophie fell silent again and others began to talk about their own experience of the great waterfall. The general consensus was that it was awesome in the true sense of the word.
They had all gone to bed now except for her and the driver, Adam, who had come back to talk to Reception about some forward booking that had gone awry. Sophie had turned at the sound of his quiet low voice and smilingly waved him over to join her when he was done. They began to talk about small things, how Livingstone had changed since the last time she had been there. Anything so she didn’t have to go back to her room just yet. She didn’t want to be alone and certainly didn’t want to go to sleep yet, or rather go to bed and lie there restless in the dusky blue light of the full moon, rippling through thin curtains, thinking about Tom. How blissful they had felt not two miles away across the great gorge in one of the basic but very spick and span lodges. That truly wonderful, magic night they had made their future plans and been so, so happy and so much in love…
… She sat bolt upright in her bed, shaking violently, still half in the nightmare, her face wet with soft tears. Sophie leant her hot forehead against her knees and tried to breathe slowly and deeply as the memory of the bad dream faded into her past again. After a few minutes, feeling calmer, she got up and went onto the patio and sat down on one of the smartly cushioned garden chairs, smiling at the banality of the little area with the neatly trimmed shrubs – she could be back in Surrey, or the Med perhaps. Until you looked up at the night sky. The moon had set and the heavens were strung with unrivalled starlight against deep blue-black velvet such as you never saw in Britain. Here in the tropics the Milky Way blazed opalescent as morning mist on the moors and the sky was huge with the light of suns, billions of light years away. They were tiny sky-diamonds that glittered like celestial frost, mocking the sultry warmth of the rainforest at night. It always moved her. She and Tom had loved to stay up late and gaze and gaze at them, wrapped up in each other’s arms. She squeezed her eyes tight shut and willed the tears back. She had known visiting the Falls would be a trial, but she hadn’t had the dream for so long now she had thought she would be spared on that count at least.
It always began so beautifully, with her and Tom making love that night – well it was barely the evening actually - when they had run all the way back from the Falls to their little lodge about a mile upriver out of Vic Falls. They had both felt so humbled, yet excited by the mighty roaring and reverberation that filled every sense just as she had described earlier that evening to the others. And they had both cried a little - well Tom had shed a few manly tears pretending there was grit in his eye - she had wept buckets and he had held her tightly, comfortingly in his arms. Then, with the closer contact they found they could feel the Falls in each other and began to get so aroused by the sensations. The vibration from the rock underfoot and the warm damp mists from the cascade falling like a caress on bare shoulders, arms and legs, that it completely set their libidos alight as they stood at the edge of the southern cataract wall of the gorge, with a dozen or so others. Before they really knew it she and Tom were kissing and touching passionately. Someone had coughed meaningfully and then someone else had started giggling and they had abruptly recalled where they were and run off, cackling like hyenas. They had kept on jogging, hand in hand, until they tumbled back into their little room at the Lodge and then fell onto the bed, barely bothering to pull off what clothing they had on and the sex hadn’t stopped for hours and hours – they had missed dinner at any rate and could only get cold room service when they had finally stopped to get their breath back.
But it was after that hurried meal that the dream replayed, when they were so soft and gentle and loving. They had lain together whispering quietly to each other, tenderly kissing, stroking warm skin and tasting each other everywhere, hardly able to bear a second when they weren’t touching each other somewhere. It was when they both knew they would never want to be apart again ever. It was the night he had asked her to marry him. And it was the night that she had conceived, although of course she hadn’t known that at the time. They had gone on whispering and stroking and kissing until they had fallen asleep in each other’s arms, spent and blissfully tired, still listening to the dim thudding of the Falls in the distance, with the starlight falling on their beautiful nakedness.
It was not the time that she had been bitten and caught the disease. That had been several weeks before and it was still incubating then. She had started being sick occasionally, feeling vaguely ill, but hadn’t realised what was happening to her. It was enough to stop her contraception working anyway. But by the time she had found out she was pregnant and had contracted malaria it was far too late because by then Tom was dead and her life was over or so she thought. The life of their baby was over before it had even started – she had miscarried after only six weeks, devastated by grief, feverish and exhausted by the insidious disease, so like a bad bout of gastric ‘flu, but poisoning her blood and invading her womb, befouling the placenta. It had killed the darling baby that was all she had to hold onto after the news had come through that Tom and Sister Teresa had been murdered by terrified ‘soldiers’ in a tiny refugee camp on the Tanzanian border with Zyanda. She couldn’t remember much about that time because she had fallen into a minor coma the day after the dreadful news came through, and, when she came around a few days later, she had lost the child as well. Her co-workers had already sent for Claire and begun to make the arrangements to send her home to England where she could recover properly and then heal her grief. And of course she did recover eventually, but she doubted she would ever heal fully.
But the dream mercifully left out that bit, although in a way she would have preferred to linger over those awful days to what it did move onto. Always the same. That perfect end to the night and then she dreamt she woke up and everything was white. She was always alone at first. Tom wasn’t there and she was just sitting on the ground and gradually the white light turned golden and someone touched her lightly on the shoulder. It was Terry. She hugged Sophie and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Which was very strange because they had never really been friends at all. But it felt right in the dream up until the kiss, because that was when Sophie realised that Terry wasn’t wearing her nun’s habit, but a tribal dress and that she had great wounds in her chest and on the left side of her face. Terry smiled as much as she still could and whispered ‘I’m so sorry Sophie. It was my fault, but I could not stand there and do nothing.’ and then she was gone, and that was always where she began to cry because someone else was coming.
It was Tom of course, but she couldn’t see him properly at first as the golden light was so intense. It worried her that he didn’t seem to have any lower arms, until she realised he was holding something… someone. Someone very small. He held them tenderly and seemed to be humming softly at them. Then she could see him properly and his head and torso was covered in blood and so was the baby. Their dead unborn baby, but it seemed to be alive and smiling at her. He came and knelt down in front of her and leaned over to kiss her softly on the mouth. She could always taste the blood, his blood from the wound on his forehead that had trickled all down his face. She never looked at the baby – she couldn’t, but she knew it was there because it brushed her breast with its little hand. Tom spoke to her too. Just a few words ‘It’s OK Soph – I’m looking after her. Don’t worry babe.’ And then he was gone too, with the baby, and then she would really wake up, sweating and crying frantically, her lip or her tongue bitten and bleeding.
‘Don’t worry babe.’ Those were his last words to her when he left, with Terry looking so sanctimonious and noble up in the lorry cab, driving drugs and medical supplies to the agency’s distribution depot in Tanzania. She rubbed her lower lip thoughtfully. At least she hadn’t bitten it too hard this time. She let the tears come finally – they were a release now and maybe she would be able to get a few hours sleep at least. How glad she was that they had to come to the Livingstone side. It would have been too awful to stay in Vic Falls. Well she wouldn’t have come on this trip at all of course if they were staying on the Zimbabwe side. She had never been back there since those wondrous few days that had meant so much to them both.
So far as her poor heart was concerned she did not wish her memory of that time to be disturbed and tarnished. Some wounds never healed. But she didn’t have a monopoly on grief – that had been her mantra for a while back in England - she wasn’t the only person who had lost the dearest, truest thing in their life. The one person she wanted still after all these years. And it was good to see the Falls again and remember something so beautiful and honest and fine. But not from the same place, because she couldn’t go back there. It was lost to her and she had already let it go a long time ago. Some things are worth remembering though, even if it gives pain. Some pains are supposed to hurt and should never be forgotten.
Sophie woke with a start and grabbed the telephone which was buzzing annoyingly. Adam’s voice crackled down the line. Was she joining them for breakfast and then a short excursion over the bridge and lunch at the Victoria Falls Hotel? She told him no for both breakfast and trip and said she’d meet them all in the lobby later in the afternoon, when they departed for Lusaka and the next leg of the safari. Before flopping back down on the pillows she reached over and turned the fans up a little and watched the wicker struts making flickering shadows on the ceiling. She smiled at another memory. The yanks would love the Vic Falls Hotel that still pulled in rich punters and their much-needed currency even now in the bad times – it was so beautiful and so incongruous. Maybe they still had a steel band playing in the lovely, lush tropical gardens every lunch-time? You could sit out there and eat very thinly cut cucumber sandwiched between immaculate slices of fresh-baked white bread on fine china, sipping hot Indian single estate tea that arrived in steaming silver teapots. Then carry on relaxing out on the verandah, or under the enormous thatched umbrellas and listen to ‘Yellow Bird’ or imagine you were sitting on the ‘Dock of the Bay’ with cape doves and the ‘wireless’ birds providing a weird backing track to the ridiculously kitsch metallic warbling of the steel drums; trying to decide whether to have a dessert now or wait until it was time for afternoon tea and scones with thick cream and fruity jam, or even lemon curd, or ginger preserve! Her mouth watered slightly at the thought of the English-inspired delicacies that seemed so right still in such a different climate and culture. In a different century now as well. Anyway, she would hear all about it when they got back later on. She didn’t need to go there herself, her memories were enough.
No. She would stay here and sleep on a little and then read her paperback, or write in her diary, out on the little patio. She had inspected the room service menu very thoroughly the day before and she could order Assam tea with cucumber sandwiches and plain scones with ginger preserves and cream for her self-indulgent solitary luncheon. It would be good to be quiet and keep her own company in peace for a few hours out there, where, if she cared to look, she could just see the rise of the great smoky white towers of water-mist over the top of the rainforest and listen to the thunderous voice of the Zambezi rolling on forever. And remember how truly good it had been for them both.