Extract from ‘Susanna’ (African Road)

Susanna lives in idyllic isolation in the lush Swazi highlands. Then her parents fight bitterly about taking her across the border for her grandmother’s wake…

I was born outside Mbabane. I grew up in the tight peppercorn hills where oranges are as big as soccer balls and pineapples stand half a metre high. My mother was born in Ireland. My father was born in Beijing. He was old before I was born. Africa is full of strange little tableaux like ours. I never felt odd until I was sent across the border.

But by the time I went to school, I knew that Dad was different, that my eyes and my skin were not regulation issue, and Tommy and Gregory, with their flat oriental faces, were an embarrassment. I was a weekly boarder. My brothers came to fetch me every Friday. Coming in the Bentley made it no better for me. Not only weren’t my brothers white, but they didn’t drive a German car. In this part of the world, if you had to be showy about wealth, you drove a Mercedes, not some fat and funny English car.

Tommy and Greg were actually half-brothers. Their mother, Cynthia, was born in Swaziland of Chinese immigrants. She was the reason my father stayed on; that and the fact that her father owned one of the first sawmills in the country. And had only one child. Tommy and Greg were grown-up by the time I was born. Elaine – that’s my mother – thirty years younger than Dad, is only eight years older than Gregory. He brought her home. It can’t be the first time, I suppose, that the girl chosen by the son has fallen for the father.

Gregory found Elaine on a trip to Lesotho, in the casino in Maseru. Elaine was visiting her brother, who farmed in Ficksburg. There was a fight because she was speaking to a Chinaman. Her brother – my uncle, Sean Kesey – was well-adapted to the rural Afrikaans community in all aspects, including racial viewpoint. My mother was fresh out of a London art school, and, before that, County Kerry. Her newfound worldliness fused with an impulsive nature, and havoc was a natural result. So, when Gregory jokingly said she could always come home with him, she accepted.

My mother really wasn’t that kind of girl. She was reckless, and quick to fly off the handle, and stubborn. But inside she was still just a country girl. She was lucky Greg was such a good sort. He was really shy and gentle back then. He only got boisterous when he was drunk, back then. Well, that night, he was drunk and angry, humiliated and pushed into an impossible situation. He hit Sean, so he had to leave, and Elaine was right there, hanging on to his arm, saying, ‘I’m going with you!’ in her thick accent, when all he wanted to do was get in his car and hit the border post by dawn. But Gregory is a gentleman. My dad loved to tell how he phoned from his hotel, only nineteen, and it was his first trip for Dad, and he was so eager to do well, and his mom had just died and he so badly didn’t want to upset Daddy. But he did things right, he phoned Dad anyway, in the middle of the night, and came out and admitted he’d been gambling, and he’d got drunk and had a fight, and now this strange Irish woman wouldn’t leave him – and after all, he’d offered – and her only relative in this foreign country had gone off and left her, cursing in Gaelic and Afrikaans, which must have been quite something to hear. It was true, I met my uncle once and he did speak Afrikaans with an Irish accent. I only met him once because he disowned my mother when she married a Chinaman, even though Daddy had been a Catholic since he married Cynthia.

I met my uncle at my gran’s funeral, way before they sent me to high school, the first time I went across the border and discovered I was odd. I never met my gran. She’d lived with Uncle Sean, which was one of the reasons Elaine had come to Africa in the first place. My dad didn’t want my mom to go to the funeral. Of course, she insisted, she was distraught, and she was hysterical, and in the end my dad always let Elaine do what she liked, anyway.

But when she said she was taking me – well, I was only ten, but I remember clearly – Daddy was the crossest I’d ever seen him before or since. He wasn’t traditional at all, not at all, and there’s Cynthia to thank for that; she grew up wild, riding, shooting, playing with the little Swazi kids. And since she was her father’s only child, he taught her things – business things – that it was unheard of to teach girls in those days. So Daddy couldn’t order Cynthia around, and Daddy didn’t order my mom around; anyway, with her temper, I can’t imagine him even trying. But this time he was so angry his face grew dark, like a cloud rolling over, his skin got yellower, his mouth went tight, and his eyes changed. No more gold that I always saw in his eyes, just black.

‘I forbid it!’ he said, ‘Elaine, I forbid you to take that child with you!’ How strangely he was acting! How stern and thunderous he looked that day. Daddy was tall. People always think Chinese are short-arses – well, my dad was six-foot, or just about, and so were his sons. It was little Irish Elaine who stood her ground at five-foot-no-inches high. I overtook her height by the time I was thirteen. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever overtake that day she stood her ground.

My mother took me with her. Gregory helped her, and got into a lot of trouble for it. But, you see, Greggy always stayed in love with her; he’d do anything for my mother, and it made me furious, oh boy, it made me raging mad.

He drove us through the forests and across the border to Piet Retief. There we caught a train. I can’t tell you which places we had to go through, to get to Bethlehem, but I can tell you how terrible that journey was, how the people stared at me, at my almond-shaped eyes and my hair that hung like a wig in a straight Chinese bob. My mother is one of those dark Irish – that is, skin like ivory and eyes of turquoise, but hair as black as Chinese daddy’s, only it’s, well, it’s still white-man’s hair, thick and wavy, billowy, voluminous. Not at all like my slippery straight black head.

I often hated my mother. For a million reasons. It seemed so unfair – she had everyone. My dad loved her so much, his eyes followed her as she moved. Often, often, I’d come into our living room, which was a long, low rectangle deeply shaded by the veranda, but walled completely on that side by glass. I loved the way the shadows slipped through from the patio, stretched and grew small and never quite reached the deepest southern corners of that room, the slow love-dance between the light and those stone walls – but I was talking about Dad, how I’d come in from the garden to find Daddy just sitting in his chair, in his very still way, a very Chinese way, so you weren’t sure he was even breathing or alive. But his eyes, they were moving, watching greedily, as my mother floated around the room, stretching her little arms up to dust a painting, to move a vase, knowing how my dad was watching her.

As he got older, I used to get scared, when he was so still, and I’d go and throw my arms around him, throw myself into his lap, push my ear against his chest, just to check, to make sure his heart was still going. He’d hug me, looking down in a distracted way, and smiling, but then he’d hug me so hard I had to lie still, and soon his eyes were back gazing at my mother, following her around the room. That’s when I really thought I hated her the most.

One day my dad looked down at me. He traced his finger over my cheekbones. ‘You’re so beautiful,’ he said. ‘Susie Li, you have your mother’s cheekbones.’ Then I hated her even more. As much as I hated her at my grandmother’s funeral.