For as long as I could remember my Father had talked about life ‘on the other side’. I will never forget how his face would flush with excitement when he told us tales of how our life could be. This longing for life on the other side governed his days.
We lived in a dusty little village, nestled high on the edge of a deep valley. A rope bridge linked our side of the valley to the other. The bridge was guarded night and day – to cross it without permission would be unthinkable.
Early each morning my father would queue for one of the much coveted, near mythical, bridge passes. His days were spent filling in forms, offering bribes and occasionally being hit with a stick. He would come home late at night in a variety of moods. Sometimes downcast and sullen, sometimes agitated by drunken hope but never defeated.
During the hot Fatherless days Mother would sweep. She swept the floors, which involved us having to move everything out of the hut. She would then sweep all of the furniture before moving it all back in again. To keep an eye on me Mother would strap me to one of the goats. Once a week Mother would scramble up on the roof of the hut and sweep that too.
Mother said very little but the warm wind could find rare smiles to brighten her face. At these times she would tell me stories of what Father would, one day, bring back from the other side. Clothes of all colours, musical instruments, cubes covered in strange numbers, plastic items to keep other items in. My head would swim and I would drift into a sleepy, happy world full of magic and happiness.
On the back of the goat I could, now and again, goat permitting, look over the valley and try to see activity on the other side. Due to a high, rocky ridge the full extent of the supposed utopia was kept from view – which only added fuel to the myths of what lay beyond. Sometimes, if the wind decided, we could hear jolly, vibrant music which wafted our way. I once saw a bright orange ball fly high in the air before falling back down.
Most days my friend Ladje would pass me carrying his Dad, who was legless potato fisherman. Ladje would place his Dad in his boat and leave him for the day. Near sun down Ladje would pick him up and carry him home, the weight much increased by the string bag of salty potatoes on Ladje’s father’s back. They didn’t say much, they were both mute.
On Wednesday afternoons blind old men would sit outside our house and sing ancient farmer’s songs. Mother went out on Wednesday afternoons. On her return she would sweep the men away, unstrap me and rub my ears with dust. I liked the old men and their songs, Mother did not.
One afternoon Father surprised us by coming home early. His top lip had been cut off and sewn back on upside down. Mother cried as she strapped me to Father’s back and strapped him to her. We remained, strapped together for the rest of the day. Father slept, Mother cried and I licked salty sweat from the back of Father’s massive head. Ladje watched us silently from the bottom of our garden.
One day I was startled by the goat snorting and stamping with fear. A great cry had erupted from the direction of the bridge. Tears streaked down Mother’s face, I licked them away as she clambered on to the roof, with me held closely to her leathery breast. The sun fell on us like waves of syrup.
‘Look my son’, she croaked. ‘Look, your father, he has made it.’ She held me high so that I could see the momentous scene. My father was scurrying across the bridge waving a piece of paper. When he was nearly over he stopped and turned and looked in our direction. He victoriously pumped his fists in the air and Mother’s breathing quickened and a gasp of joy fell out of her mouth. He turned away and ran a run which was interspersed with jumps and heel clicks until he disappeared from view.
The rest of the day was spent in busy preparation for Father’s return. Mother painted all our goats different colours. Ladje’s father made us potato necklaces. Mother wore a green dress which shone in a thousand directions. Mother scrubbed me in the lake. The ladies made a huge salty soup out of salt, water and dust. The blind old men sang from a safe distance. But Father did not return so we went to bed, disappointed and hungry.
The waiting continued for several days. I do not want to talk about the waiting.
One morning a commotion erupted from all our hearts as we saw the unmistakable shape of father crossing the bridge. We gathered in a bristling frenzy as father approached us. His head was down. He was naked. He swept us aside with his sadness as he cried a path amongst us. He crept into the hut a broken man as we all watched in silence, the wind blowing a mournful salty symphony as our tears grew and escaped.
Father stopped living that night. His body became dust. Mother never swept him away.