You saw an opportunity and you took it. You had been watching the great exodus to the UK for two years. Eddie was a good husband. He understood that this was good for the family. He worked for the National Railways and could help you pay for everything required for your registration as a nursing sister. You agreed that the separation would be temporary. You spoke to your friend Agnes who was based in Birmingham. She would send you job adverts and connect you to her guy who helped people with their papers. Soon they would all join you to start a new life. You gave it a year – maximum.
You swallowed hard but the lump in your throat wouldn’t go down. Nyasha was fussing so Eddie took him for a walk around the airport. He had just learnt to count. His memory could only hold monosyllabic numbers so every ten steps he would look up at his daddy as if to say, ‘Did I do good?’ and get a ‘Yeah!’ and a high-five in return. Thando was bobbing her head up and down, listening to whatever was playing in her ear. She had turned 14 three weeks ago and you suddenly realised that she was a different person. She didn’t come for cuddles on the couch anymore and ask you to stroke her head. She wanted to go out for milkshakes and a movie with her friends. Birthday parties were so uncool. The last time she’d shown you physical affection was when she unwrapped her gift to reveal a brand new walkman. She hugged you hard. You smiled at the memory.
You could hear the ‘One, woo, twee-‘ getting closer. It was time. Eddie gathered your luggage that Agnes had said you should keep to a minimum. Necessities only – the rest could be bought there. The lump grew harder and harder and so large that it blocked your throat. You had the feeling that if you took one more breath, the dam walls would burst open and you would drown in your own tears. Thando’s face was stony and her embrace limp. You knew she was trying to be strong for everyone else. She was so much like you. The last time you had seen Eddie cry was at his mother’s funeral and even then he somehow managed to look composed. But on that day, the look on his face was fear. You read the question in his eyes, ‘How am I ever going to do it without you?’ Your kiss answered, ‘Everything will be okay. I love you. All we need is a year – maximum.’
Agnes had graciously offered to host you for your first three months until you found your feet. You reminisced about nursing school, wondered about what ever happened to that girl who was kicked out when she fell pregnant in the middle of your final year and you shared the latest gossip out of Bulawayo. You had expected to be placed in a maternity clinic, but instead found yourself in a home for the elderly. The contract stated that placements were at the agency’s discretion, Mrs. Dunhill said. If you gave it time there might be more attractive opportunities in the coming months.
Time changes everything
Eddie called every day in the beginning, but it wasn’t economical. You would buy an international call card once a week to catch up with him and the kids. As the months went by, your long conversations with him became quick ‘hello-how-are-yous’ before he gave the phone to Thando. Nyasha learned to count to fifty and got a girlfriend a week after starting at pre-school. Thando was choosing her O’ level subjects and wondered when you would be able to send money for textbooks. Also, she wanted you to post some university prospectuses so she could make an informed decision.
You swore as you stepped out of the Western Union on to the pavement. Your shift buddy Lynn came to work in a cardigan and assured you that you would adjust eventually. But the cold in Birmingham was something you could never get used to. It penetrated through layers of nylon and cotton, through your skin and into your bones. You couldn’t fall asleep because it’s impossible to when your feet are freezing. A hot bath always helped. The smell of Jik and water that your whites were soaked in made you nostalgic for sunny days by the poolside…
When you’re working 16 hours per day, four years can almost slip by unnoticed. You’d taken up Agnes’s home nursing job after she moved up to Essex to live with her boyfriend, a West Indian man that she met online. The situation at home had gone from bad to worse. Eddie had taken early retirement in August because National Railways staff hadn’t been paid since February. The last four years had been tough on him, each visa application rejection more painful than the last. He thought it was too expensive to try again and the money would be put to better use elsewhere. You saw the sense in that but couldn’t help but feel hurt by how easy the decision was for him. You never told him that you felt the distance between the two of you and the loneliness you felt, or how all you ever talked about now was the kids, or the bills, or how gogo was sick and needed money for the clinic.
You opened your Facebook homepage to find a friend request from Sheila. You were in the same study group for psychiatry, had worked together at the government hospital in Hwange but had lost touch when she was transferred to Masvingo. Her girls had grown. You went through photo album after photo album of prize-givings, Christmases and birthday parties; just part of a list of things you had missed with your kids.
Exodus, only for some
When the exodus had first begun, Sheila had vowed that she would never leave her daughters with anyone, no matter how green the other side. She was a divorcee and didn’t have anyone to leave her children with. She had heard enough stories about greedy relatives who used money sent for the children to satisfy their own wants. She had girls and would not take the risk of exposing them to an uncle who creeps into their room at night. The potential for abuse was too high.
You messaged her to say thank you for getting in touch. How were the girls? How was work? How was she managing in the current situation? You read her reply a few days later. The girls sent their love. Fudzai had finished her medical degree in Malaysia. She had sold their house in Ilanda to pay for her studies. Rumbi, who was born in the same year as Thando, was in sixth form. Sheila had resigned from her post as sister-in-charge at a government hospital in 2008. By that time, her monthly salary was theoretically what would be needed then to buy 5 kgs of mealie meal. Theoretically because, in 2008, there was no mealie-meal to be seen in the supermarkets.
Groceries were big money so she had gone into the cross-border business, buying in Musina and selling them to housewives in her neighbourhood. She had raised enough to cover rent, basic living costs and yo pay for Thando’s school fees. Things were better now after dollarisation. Daily life was still a struggle, but the most important thing was that she was with her family so at least they were struggling together. You must come back instead of struggling alone in a foreign country alone, she said. There is no place like home, dzoka uyamwe.
You never replied. You never told her how you were still riddled with guilt because Thando had got her period a few months after you left. You never mentioned how your heart ached every day knowing that Nyasha was your son but he didn’t really know you because he was too young to remember you. You felt like you had failed as a mother. You never replied because there weren’t enough words to express the pain of sacrifice, the fear that if you went back, you’d be sleeping next to a husband whose love had cooled. You couldn’t be honest about the regret you felt, the milestones, the moments that you could never buy back no matter how many jobs you worked. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, all you needed was a year – maximum.
You swallowed hard but the lump in your throat wouldn’t go down.
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