Tara Courtney had not worn white since her wedding day. Green was her favourite colour, for it best set off her thick chestnut hair. However, the white dress she wore today made her feel like a bride again, tremulous and a little afraid but with a sense of joy and deep commitment. She had a touch of ivory lace at the cuffs and the high neckline, and had brushed her hair until it crackled with ruby lights in the bright Cape sunshine. Excitement had rouged her cheeks and although she had carried four children, her waist was slim as a virgin’s. So the wide sash of funereal black that she wore over one shoulder was all the more incongruous: youth and beauty decked in the trappings of mourning. Despite her emotional turmoil, she stood with her hands clasped in front of her and her head bowed, silent and still.
She was only one of almost fifty women, all dressed in white, all draped with the black sashes, all in the same attitude of mourning, who stood at carefully spaced intervals along the pavement opposite the main entrance of the parliament buildings of the Union of South Africa.
Nearly all of the women were young matrons from Tara’s own set, wealthy, privileged and bored by the undemanding tenor of their lives. Many of them had joined the protest for the excitement of defying established authority and outraging their peers. Some were seeking to regain the attentions of their husbands which after the first decade or so of marriage were jaded by familiarity and fixed more on business or golf and other extra-marital activity. There was, however, a hard nucleus to the movement consisting mostly of the older women, but including a few of the younger ones like Tara and Molly Broadhurst. These were moved only by revulsion at injustice. Tara had tried to express her feelings at the press conference that morning when a woman reporter from the Cape Argus had demanded of her, ‘Why are you doing this, Mrs Courtney?’ and she had replied, ‘Because I don’t like bullies, and I don’t like cheats.’ For her that attitude was partially vindicated now.
‘Here comes the big bad wolf,’ the woman who stood five paces on Tara’s right said softly. ‘Brace up, girls!’ Molly Broadhurst was one of the founders of the Black Sash, a small determined woman in her early thirties whom Tara greatly admired and strove to emulate.
A black Chevrolet with government licence plates had drawn up at the corner of Parliament Square and four men climbed out onto the pavement. One was a police photographer and he went to work immediately, moving quickly down the line of white-clad, black-draped women with his Hasselblad camera, photographing each of them. He was followed by two of the others brandishing notebooks. Though they were dressed in dark, ill-cut business suits, their clumpy black shoes were regulation police issue and their actions were brusque and businesslike as they passed down the ranks demanding and noting the names and addresses of each of the protesters. Tara, who was fast becoming something of an expert, guessed that they probably ranked as sergeants in the Special Branch, but the fourth man she knew by name and by sight, as did most of the others.
He was dressed in a light grey summer suit with brown brogues, a plain maroon tie and a grey fedora hat. Though of average height and unremarkable features, his mouth was wide and friendly, his smile easy as he lifted his hat to Molly.
‘Good morning, Mrs Broadhurst. You are early. The procession won’t arrive for another hour yet.’
‘Are you going to arrest us all again today, Inspector?’ Molly demanded tartly.
‘Perish the thought.’ The inspector raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s a free country, you know.’
‘You could have fooled me.’
‘Naughty Mrs Broadhurst!’ He shook his head. ‘You are trying to provoke me.’ His English was excellent, with only a faint trace of an Afrikaans accent.
‘No, Inspector. We are protesting the blatant gerrymandering of this perverse government, the erosion of the rule of law, and the abrogation of the basic human rights of the majority of our fellow South Africans merely on the grounds of the colour of their skins.’
‘I think, Mrs Broadhurst, you are repeating yourself. You told me all this last time we met.’ The inspector chuckled. ‘Next you’ll actually be demanding that I arrest you again. Let’s not spoil this grand occasion–’
‘The opening of this parliament, dedicated as it is to injustice and oppression, is a cause for lament not celebration.’
The inspector tipped the brim of his hat, but beneath his flippant attitude was a real respect and perhaps even a little admiration.
‘Carry on, Mrs Broadhurst,’ he murmured. ‘I’m sure we’ll meet again soon,’ and he sauntered on until he came opposite Tara.
‘Good morning to you, Mrs Courtney.’ He paused, and this time his admiration was unconcealed. ‘What does your illustrious husband think of your treasonable behaviour?’
‘Is it treason to oppose the excesses of the National Party and its legislation based on race and colour, Inspector?’
His gaze dropped for a moment to her bosom, large and yet finely shaped beneath the white lace, and then returned to her face.
‘You are much too pretty for this nonsense,’ he said. ‘Leave it to the grey-headed old prunes. Go home where you belong and look after your babies.’
‘Your masculine arrogance is insufferable, Inspector.’ She flushed with anger, unaware that it heightened the looks he had just complimented.
‘I wish all traitoresses looked the way you do. It would make my job a great deal more congenial. Thank you, Mrs Courtney.’ He smiled infuriatingly and moved on.
‘Don’t let him rattle you, my dear,’ Molly called softly. ‘He’s an expert at it. We are protesting passively. Remember Mahatma Gandhi.’
With an effort Tara controlled her anger, and reassumed the attitude of the penitent. On the pavement behind her the crowds of spectators began to gather. The rank of white-clad women became the object of curiosity and amusement, of some approbation and a great deal of hostility.
‘Goddamn Commies,’ a middle-aged man growled at Tara. ‘You want to hand the country over to a bunch of savages. You should be locked up, the whole lot of you.’ He was well dressed, and his speech cultivated. He even wore the small brass tin-hat insignia in his lapel to signify that he had served with the volunteer forces during the war against Fascism. His attitude was a reminder of just how much tacit support the ruling National Party enjoyed even amongst the English-speaking white community.
Tara bit her lip and forced herself to remain silent, head bowed, even when the outburst earned a ragged ironical cheer from some of the coloured people in the growing crowd.
It was getting hot now, the sunshine had a flat Mediterranean brilliance, and though the mattress of cloud was building up above the great flat-topped bastion of Table Mountain, heralding the rise of the south-easter, the wind had not yet reached the city that crouched below it. By now the crowd was dense and noisy, and Tara was jostled, she suspected deliberately. She kept her composure and concentrated on the building across the road from where she stood.
Designed by Sir Herbert Baker, that paragon of Imperial architects, it was massive and imposing, red brick colonnaded in shimmering white – far from Tara’s own modern taste, which inclined to uncluttered space and lines, to glass and light Scandinavian pine furnishing. The building seemed to epitomize all that was inflexible and out-dated from the past, all that Tara wanted to see torn down and discarded.
Her thoughts were broken by the rising hum of expectation from the crowd around her.
‘Here they come,’ Molly called, and the crowd surged and swayed and broke into cheers. There was the clatter of hoofs on the hard-metalled roadway and the mounted police escort trotted up the avenue, pennants fluttering gaily at the tips of their lances, expert horsemen on matched chargers whose hides gleamed like burnished metal in the sunlight.
The open coaches rumbled along behind them. In the first of these rode the Governor-General and the Prime Minister. There he was, Daniel Malan, champion of the Afrikaners, with his forbidding almost froglike features, a man whose only consideration and declared intent was to keep his Volk supreme in Africa for a thousand years, and no price was for him too high.
Tara stared at him with palpable hatred, for he embodied all that she found repellent in the government which now held sway over the land and the peoples that she loved so dearly. As the coach swept past where she stood, their eyes met for a fleeting moment and she tried to convey the strength of her feelings, but he glanced at her without a flicker of acknowledgement, not even a shadow of annoyance, in his brooding gaze. He had looked at her and had not seen her, and now her anger was tinged with despair.
‘What must be done to make these people even listen?’ she wondered, but now the dignitaries had dismounted from the carriages and were standing to attention during the playing of the national anthems. And though Tara did not know it then, it was the last time ‘The King’ would be played at the opening of a South African Parliament.
The band ended with a fanfare of trumpets and the cabinet ministers followed the Governor-General and the Prime Minister through the massive front entrance doors. They were followed in turn by the Opposition frontbenchers. This was the moment Tara had been dreading, for her own close family now formed part of the procession. Next behind the Leader of the Opposition came Tara’s own father with her stepmother on his arm. They made the most striking couple in the long procession, her father tall and dignified as a patriarchal lion, while on his arm Centaine de Thiry Courtney-Malcomess was slim and graceful in a yellow silk dress that was perfect for the occasion, a jaunty brimless hat on her small neat head with a veil over one eye; she seemed not a year older than Tara herself, though everybody knew she had been named Centaine because she had been born on the first day of the twentieth century.
Tara thought she had escaped unnoticed, for none of them had known she intended joining the protest, but at the top of the broad staircase the procession was held up for a moment and before she entered the doorway Centaine turned deliberately and looked back. From her vantage point she could see over the heads of the escort and the other dignitaries in the procession, and from across the road she caught Tara’s eye and held it for a moment. Although her expression did not alter, the strength of her disapproval was even at that range like a slap in Tara’s face.
For Centaine the honour, dignity and good name of the family were of paramount importance. She had warned Tara repeatedly about making a public spectacle of herself and flouting Centaine was a perilous business, for she was not only Tara’s stepmother but her mother-in-law as well, and the doyenne of the Courtney family and fortune.
Halfway up the staircase behind her Shasa Courtney saw the direction and force of his mother’s gaze, and turning quickly to follow it saw Tara, his wife, in the rank of black-sashed protesters. When she had told him that morning at breakfast that she would not be joining him at the opening ceremony, Shasa had barely looked up from the financial pages of the morning newspaper.
‘Suit yourself, my dear. It will be a bit of a bore,’ he had murmured. ‘But I would like another cup of coffee, when you have a moment.’
Now when he recognized her, he smiled slightly and shook his head in mock despair, as though she were a child discovered in some naughty prank, and then he turned away as the procession moved forward once again.
He was almost impossibly handsome, and the black eyepatch gave him a debonair piratical look that most women found intriguing and challenging. Together they were renowned as the handsomest young couple in Cape Town society. Yet it was strange how the passage of a few short years had caused the flames of their love to sink into a puddle of grey ash.
‘Suit yourself, my dear,’ he had said, as he did so often these days.
The last back-benchers in the procession disappeared into the House, the mounted escort and empty carriages trotted away and the crowds began to break up. The demonstration was over.
‘Are you coming, Tara?’ Molly called, but Tara shook her head.
‘Have to meet Shasa,’ she said. ‘See you on Friday afternoon.’ Tara slipped the wide black sash off over her head, folded it and placed it in her handbag as she threaded her way through the dispersing crowd. She crossed the road.
She saw no irony in now presenting her parliamentary pass to the doorman at the visitors’ entrance and entering the institution against whose actions she had been so vigourously protesting. She climbed the side staircase and looked into the visitors’ gallery. It was packed with wives and important guests, and she looked over their heads down into the panelled chamber below to the rows of sombre-suited members on their green leather-covered benches, all involved in the impressive ritual of parliament. However, she knew that the speeches would be trivial, platitudinous and boring to the point of pain, and she had been standing in the street since early morning. She needed to visit the ladies’ room as a matter of extreme urgency.
She smiled at the usher and withdrew surreptitiously, then turned and hurried away down the wide-panelled corridor. When she had finished in the ladies’ room, she headed for her father’s office, which she used as her own.
As she turned the corner she almost collided with a man coming in the opposite direction. She checked only just in time, and saw that he was a tall black man dressed in the uniform of a parliamentary servant. She would have passed on with a nod and a smile, when it occurred to her that a servant should not have been in this section of the building during the time when the House was in session, for the offices of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were at the end of the corridor. Then again, although the servant carried a mop and pail, there was something about him that was neither menial nor servile and she looked sharply at his face.
She felt an electric tingle of recognition. It had been many years, but she could never forget that face – the features of an Egyptian pharaoh, noble and fierce, the dark eyes alive with intelligence. He was still one of the finest-looking men she had ever seen, and she remembered his voice, deep and thrilling so that the memory of it made her shiver slightly. She even remembered his words: ‘There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords . . . to devour the poor from the earth.’
It was this man who had given her the first glimmer of understanding as to what it was like to be born black in South Africa. Her true commitment dated from that distant meeting. This man had changed her life with a few words.
She stopped, blocking his path, and tried to find some way to convey her feelings to him, but her throat had closed and she found she was trembling from the shock. The instant he knew he had been recognized, he changed, like a leopard coming on guard as it becomes aware of the hunters. Tara sensed she was in danger, for a sense of African cruelty invested him, but she was unafraid.
‘I am a friend,’ she said softly, and stood aside to let him pass. ‘Our cause is the same.’
He did not move for a moment, but stared at her. She knew that he would never forget her again, his scrutiny seemed to set her skin on fire, and then he nodded.
‘I know you,’ he acknowledged, and once again his voice made her shiver, deep and melodious, filled with the rhythm and cadence of Africa. ‘We will meet again.’
Then he passed on and without a backward glance disappeared around the corner of the panelled corridor. She stood staring after him, and her heart was pounding, her breath burned the back of her throat.
‘Moses Gama,’ she whispered his name aloud. ‘Messiah and warrior of Africa–‘ then she paused and shook her head. ‘What are you doing here, in this of all places?’
The possibilities intrigued and stirred her, for now she knew with a deep instinct that the crusade was afoot, and she longed to be part of it. She wanted to do more than merely stand on a street corner with a black sash draped over her shoulder. She knew Moses Gama had only to crook his finger and she would follow him, she and ten million others.
‘We will meet again,’ he had promised, and she believed him.
Light with joy she went on down the passageway. She had her own key to her father’s office and as she fitted it to the lock, her eyes were on a level with the brass plate:
COLONEL BLAINE MALCOMESS –
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
With surprise she found that the lock was already opened, and she pushed the door wide and went in.
Centaine Courtney-Malcomess turned from the window beyond the desk to confront her. ‘I have been waiting for you, young lady.’ Centaine’s French accent was an affectation that annoyed Tara. She has been back to France just once in thirty-five years, she thought, and lifted her chin defiantly.
‘Don’t toss your head at me, Tara chérie,’ Centaine went on. ‘When you act like a child, you must expect to be treated as a child.’
‘No, Mater, you are wrong. I do not expect you to treat me as a child, not now or ever. I am a married woman of thirty-three years of age, the mother of four children and the mistress of my own establishment.’
Centaine sighed. ‘All right,’ she nodded. ‘My concern made me ill-mannered, and I apologise. Let’s not make this discussion any more difficult for each other than it already is.’
‘I was not aware that we needed to discuss anything.’
‘Sit down, Tara,’ Centaine ordered, and Tara obeyed instinctively and then was annoyed with herself for doing so. Centaine took her father’s chair behind the desk, and Tara resented that also – it was Daddy’s chair and this woman had no right to it.
‘You have just told me that you are a wife with four children,’ Centaine spoke quietly. ‘Would you not agree that you have a duty–’
‘My children are well cared for,’ Tara flared at her. ‘You cannot accuse me of that.’
‘And what about your husband and your marriage?’
‘What about Shasa?’ Tara was immediately defensive.
‘You tell me,’ Centaine invited.
‘It’s none of your business.’
‘Oh, but it is,’ Centaine contradicted her. ‘I have devoted my entire life to Shasa. I plan for him to be one of the leaders of this nation.’ She paused and a dreamy glaze covered her eyes for a moment, and she seemed to squint slightly. Tara had noticed that expression before, whenever Centaine was in deep thought, and now she wanted to break in upon it as brutally as she could.
‘That’s impossible and you know it.’
Centaine’s eyes snapped back into focus and she glared at Tara. ‘Nothing is impossible – not for me, not for us.’