During our evening walk on the farm, Claire kept looking around nervously instead of engaging in conversation. At one point the dogs ran ahead, probably thinking that they were after the scent of a rabbit. Seconds later, they tore back past us, leaving a trail of dust, and heading after them came a bull elephant moving at quite a pace, trunk up, ears flapping. Claire took off after the dogs and I followed, briskly but grumpily. I had been irritated by Claire’s anxiety in the bush, excited by the story of an incident that had happened a few days before, when an elephant had charged and completely flattened a man on the plains nearby. It was probably the same elephant and, I grudgingly had to admit, she was right.
The next day we were going along a track and Claire said: ‘I bet there are buffalo in that thicket.’ ‘Nonsense,’ I said. At that instant the bush exploded and out of it came a huge buffalo with horns like the front of a train. It rumbled away from us, and the realisation that I had been wrong again was my main thought instead of relief that it had not charged us. The truth is that I can sense that at the age of 52 I am not right as often as I used to be. My one solace is that my hearing has been impaired in the left ear — the result of a gunshot going off too close to my head recently — which produces an incessant sound like a whistling kettle. For the first time in my life I can cup my hand over my ear and say, ‘Sorry, darling, I didn’t hear you. I must be going deaf.’
I am getting used to being wrong. For months now at the farmhouse the bookshelves have been empty and the walls are blank expanses without our children’s pictures. Claire visits the farm only rarely and the kids have not been back home since Christmas because of the violence that has swirled around us. In my mind I have not ceased planning fresh projects to develop the farm but I have put a halt on spending money that might be wasted if we get attacked again. Like our neighbours, we have had to lay off staff and promise to give them their jobs back if things improve.
Last night volleys of gunfire came whistling over as bandits raided my neighbour’s farmstead again. At the first crackling sound I put away the novel I was reading, got out of bed and checked the bag that I have now got packed at all times with the range of toys one needs to deal with a raid. It has become routine, like a fire drill. Then I switched off all the lights, got on the radio and padded about in the pitch-black dark, checking that we were all ready.
Later, we heard the shooting die down and we managed to get through to a member of the next-door farm’s staff still hiding in the undergrowth. The rustlers had got away with 65 cattle and double that number of sheep. At dawn this morning the police came to help track the stolen animals and since it was a moonless night I reckon they will have retrieved at least some of the cattle.
All the people around here have been living in this way now for the best part of a year, a depleted, beleaguered existence that has become a routine way of life. It has not been entirely bad. Adversity has made friendships between neighbours that might never have become so strong in normal times. We each know what the other has been going through. It would be hard to understand if one had not lived through it day after day.
I might be wrong yet again, but I am an optimist. Our national elections are being held in just over a month from now and I think it will all turn out right. There will be an end to the violence. It will rain again. The cattle will recover from the drought and become as fat as butter. It will be time to get back to work on those new plans we have in our heads — of new ventures, of fresh dams and waving fields of wheat on the high plains.