63rd Post: 5th ZIMBABWE – Last Night in Bulawayo

The Kame ruins, near BulawayoThe Africa Diaries

BULAWAYO

 1995 August: Thursday

‘11am: Skirting back through Bulawayo, we drove out towards the west; this road eventually led on to Botswana and the Kalahari Desert. After about ten kilometres, Carol turned off the main road and continued along a bush track to halt in a clearing beside a hill.

This turned out to be the Khami ancestral site. Although known to have been a Stone Age settlement, it was a major centre by 1500AD, second only to Great Zimbabwe, and possibly the place that gave rise to the legend of King Solomon’s Mines. It was abandoned in 1830 after its destruction by the incoming Matabele.

Apart from some American tourists who were leaving as we arrived, it seemed that we were the only visitors on the site. We climbed up a series of narrow steps between rock outcrops for about 200ft until we reached the top of the hill. Small stone enclosures were scattered around the summit while the peak itself was occupied by the ruins of the King’s kraal. One of the huts had been reconstructed to replicate its 500-year-old origins and had a thatched conical roof. On the far side of the hill, there was a deep gorge – we could see a river in its valley bottom, although due to the drought, the river had dwindled to a stagnant lake.

The Kame ruins – the river

We sat in the shade of the kraal and gazed around the horizon of the plateau below us. To the west there was a range of small bare rock hills shimmering under the sun. They seemed almost to be asleep in a trance of antiquity – as old as the hills indeed. They gave a huge emphasis to our own transience, and their indifference to our existence or non-existence.

I whispered: “We could be the only people on earth up here.”

Carol nodded: “Yes, I sometimes feel like that as well.”

We sat in silence. The only sound was the hot dry wind in the thatch.

There was no doubt that Khami weaved its spell on me – maybe I wasn’t as immune to the spiritual as I thought.

The Kame ruins

Returning down to the car, we stopped off at a small shack with an old man squatting outside – he announced that this was the Khami museum. The contents of the museum were sparse indeed, but there were a couple of display cases with some Shona artifacts, and on the wall a diagram of what Khami must have looked like in its glory days. Also there were some reproductions of Stone Age cave paintings.

A fantasy crossed my mind. What if, in the Stone Age, their artists had been equally as accomplished as Rembrandt or Velasquez but their pictures, having been painted on parchment or animal skins, had vanished with time. All we were seeing in these cave paintings were the caveman’s equivalent of the primary school class?

“Look, Ug, if that’s the best you can do, you’ll just have to go and practise on the cave wall!”

 ‘3pm: Back in Burnside, I lay on the bed resting before tonight’s show. A lizard basked in the sun on the windowsill, quiet birdsong, black maids gossiping in the yard – Africa.

Maids at the Bulawayo lodgings – Felly on right

‘6 30pm: Walked through the theatre bar on the now familiar route to back stage. A lot more greetings this time – it seemed that I was now established as ‘The Actor’.

My team of Roy, Priscilla, and Jeremy were all in place, with Sheila up in the lighting bay. I paced around the stage running through a few speeches. My voice was a bit croaky – too many Ethiopian Rothmans fags. Felt very conscious that tonight was my last show here.

‘7 30: Exited the dressing room, walked across the darkened stage and waited. There was a roar of noisy chatter beyond the curtain – every seat in the auditorium had been filled. The show was a sell-out.

“Stand by, Neil” Roy’s voice came from the wings.

The music of the ‘Cav. Rust.’ Intermezzo sounded out like an old friend. As I walked out on stage there was a round of applause (outside of the USA, this had never happened before.)

Launched into the show and there was a big laugh on the first joke about the Paris gendarmes; usually this never got much reaction. Wow, I knew this audience was going to be good.

I slowed the pace down as a reaction to this level of response and the jokes clicked every time. It was like a really long rally at tennis – serving up the joke and getting the immediate return of laughter – again and again. And laughter feeds laughter.

By the time I reached the section about America, the atmosphere was incredible – I could see people literally doubled up over the crack about ‘California’. I’d never known anything like this before. I wondered how they would respond when I moved them from comedy to tragedy with the section about Wilde in prison.

When I did it just got better – utter silence across those hundreds of heads. Sheila said later that it was so quiet that she had leaned out of the lighting bay to see if anything was wrong. As I reached the culmination of the tragedy about Oscar losing contact with his children, I could feel the tide of sympathy flowing towards me. It was like leading a tribal gathering – even a single word could sway the mood. I was shocked by the sheer power of what was happening.

As I reached the end, it was not just the audience who were affected – I was tingling with exhilaration. This must be what athletes experience when they go way past the pain barrier and their rivals and only the white tape is ahead. Felt a great surge of energy and a sense of ‘to hell with everything’ except this moment. I gave the final lines everything:

“When the Last, Last Trumpet sounds, let us pretend we do not hear it.”

Blew out the candle – the stage was dark. Absolute stillness. For five long seconds.

Sheila flipped up the lights and I bowed. The applause hit me almost like a physical blow. A storm of whistles, ‘Bravo’s, and cheers. Took three curtain calls, then Roy came out to hold the curtain back for me.

“You’ll have to go out again!”

Took a fourth curtain call for the first time ever.

Walked back in a daze to the dressing room. I could honestly say that tonight was the best show I’d ever given or was likely to give. An outstanding and unforgettable experience.

The Fountain in Centenary Park, Bulawayo

Lit a fag and toasted myself in the mirror.

‘Well, Titley, you’ve been through many a hassle and there’s probably a lot more to come. But for this one moment you can absolutely revel in it. Right here in the depths of Africa you’ve pulled off something terrific.’

It was, of course, the audience who did it for me. I think it really was a cathartic moment – with all the insecurities of life here and a probably precarious future, this show about an insouciant figure who laughed his way through hell and who seemed so utterly English (despite being Irish) filled a deep need. It was a triumph for Wilde in the end.

Cleaned up, packed my costume and props, shouldered my bag, and walked back to the stage. Roy was still standing in the wings. I looked out over the now empty theatre, reluctant to leave this magic spot.

“Oh, well, bye, bye Bulawayo.”

Roy nodded understandingly: “Yes, I know.” And I think he did.

Bulawayo – the view from the Art Gallery

‘8 50pm: Predictably the bar was jam-packed with the audience and my entrance galvanised them. Handshakes, congratulations, and offers of drinks rained down. I held a beer in one hand while trying to sign autographs with the other.

For some reason nobody ever asks for an autograph for themselves. It’s always for a wife, a niece, even in one case the family cook. But no matter, this was all too wonderful. God, I loved this job – in what other possible vocation could you do an hour’s work and at the end receive this shower of approval, almost deification – and get paid for it?

At one point I came face to face with a gloriously pretty, doe-eyed brunette who gazed at me and whispered:

“I love your voice. I just wish you could come and read me bedtime stories.”

Before I could catch my breath, my arm was seized and Jim emerged from the throng with the news that we were late for the restaurant.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here. You must be exhausted by all these people.”

“Well, no, no, not really.”

With mounting reluctance, I was manoeuvred towards the door. Behind me, the brunette gave a rueful wave. Damn it!

‘9 30pm: Sat with Jim, Anne, and Margaret in the La Giaconda restaurant. It was a dimly-lit place with a dance floor at one end and a mostly black clientele. They enthused about the show. Margaret remarked:

“It must be extraordinary to have all this love and admiration descending on you.”

I replied: “Yes, it is. But I just wish it could be rationed out a bit more.”

Drank beer, then switched to vodka and coke. Well, no show tomorrow.

In the bush

1995 August: Friday

‘7 30am: Woke with a bit of a hangover. Listened to the ‘go away’ bird outside the window. Although sleep had dissipated something of the mind-blowing high of last night, I was still in the zone. It was an experience I didn’t think I’d ever forget.

‘Noon: A farewell to Anne in Burnside, then Margaret drove me into Bulawayo centre. We stopped off to pick up my theatre takings from a very smart office block on Fife St. I shambled inside in my customary dishevelled state with backpack dangling. The crisp secretary on the front desk eyed me with disfavour and rasped coldly: “Can I help you?”

“Well, I’ve come to pick up the money from the theatre. My name’s Neil Titley.”

The effect was amazing. The secretary’s attitude completely somersaulted. She rose to her feet, coughed nervously, and adjusted a beaming smile.

“Yes, sir. Straightaway, sir.”

She handed me an envelope with something verging on a curtsy. So this was what stardom felt like.

Bulawayo market

Outside I sat on a bench with Margaret in Centenary Park and counted the loot – about 10,000 Zim dollars. Another side of ‘stardom’. Hmm, I could get to like this.

Strolled around the park in the dry heat of midday: the ducks dozed on the pond and the fountain still spouted despite the drought. Also realised at one point that we were walking along the track of the children’s railway and hastily shifted off it. I had visions of the Star being hit in the arse by a four foot high toy steam engine.

We looked around the Natural History Museum. It was a modern building with an impressive selection of exhibits – a genuine 1880s stagecoach, and dozens of wildlife displays, including ‘the second largest stuffed elephant in the world’. There was also the gun carriage used to carry Cecil Rhodes’ coffin. A strange thing about Bulawayo – Mugabe might have been in charge but Rhodes’ ghost was everywhere.

Just to the rear of the building, we came across Rhodes’ statue on a plinth. Until 1980 it had stood right in the centre of town. Then it was literally pulled down and beaten by the crowds: the dents could still be seen. However, it had not been destroyed.

I wonder whether this showed a hitherto unsuspected streak of humorous irony in Robert Mugabe? He had removed Rhodes from the centre of Bulawayo but re-erected him behind the Natural History Museum.

NJT beneath t the statue of Cecil Rhodes – Bulawayo

‘3 30pm: Margaret dropped me off at the main coach station – she had been a real brick. We bade a fond farewell.

Stowed the Oscar bag in the compartment beneath the coach and climbed aboard. The passengers were nearly all African, except for a couple of backpackers. Belgians, maybe? I was loudly reprimanded by the black stewardess for not checking in at the office first. All vestige of stardom dwindled away as I humbly apologised.

The coach left at 4pm – it was a modern vehicle and just as good as anything one would find in Europe. Also the road was tarred and in excellent condition. This had been a requirement during the war in order to aid troop movement.

We cleared the outskirts of Bulawayo and swept out into the bush – as far as the eye could see.

 

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