Valentine: An African love story revisited …



Back in the late 1970s I found myself in Africa, in what was then Rhodesia, in the middle of a bush war waged to overthrow the ruling white minority of Premier Ian Smith who had unilaterally broken away from British rule a decade or so earlier.

I was young, perhaps naïve, but desperate and determined to make a living by sending stories back to the Irish Press and Radio Eireann on the war being fronted by Robert Mugabe, until recently long-time president of the now Zimbabwe.

When young you think yourself invincible, shielded against destructibility by virtue of your youth. The world was my oyster back then and I, like many in the theatre of this low-waged war, was living on the edge, abetted by the adrenalin rush of a bloody conflict against the backdrop of a continent where every mountain seemed reachable if I just kept climbing. A terrible beauty of sorts.

The first time I saw her, at a party thrown by one of the foreign press, I got caught in the light in her eyes, lost to the sweet smile that gave way to generous lips. She was a Lancashire girl, and as sexy as hell; I the mad Irish man abroad, but we fell in love, in what for me was my first grown-up affair.

I don’t know exactly now – for time meddles with the mind – how long we shared a rented property on the edge of Salisbury, as Mugabe’s guerrillas daily grew nearer the capital, now Harare.

She was everything I thought possible in a woman – beautiful, kind, generous, intelligent, fun. We shared the same birth sign. At night we would lie in each other’s arms and plan a future when “all this was over”. We talked of a little homestead in a rural setting where she could indulge her love of horses – she excelled in competitive show-jumping – and of children – “lots” – of little red wellies outside the back door, and all the other pillow-talk, future planning, one associates with young love.

She fed me and nurtured me, and taught me to drive in her beat-up, old Austin Mini. I talked to her of music and poetry and how one day I would write the great novel.

I asked her to marry me, and there was talk of going overland to Australia. She hesitated, we rowed, then made up and were still in love and eventually, Mugabe’s tanks marching down First Avenue, we left that small corner of the dark continent, she for Liverpool’s Wirral, I for Dublin, albeit, we agreed, temporarily.

Time, as mentioned, meddles with the mind and my memory is fractured. But we never did meet again. I met and married the mother of my three children, settled back in Ireland, and life moved on, the years passing, time growing shorter. Never met again until now.

A while back I found her on Facebook. I messaged her, she messaged back. And then we began a series of emails back and forth, filling in the last 40 years. She married, there are no children, and she and her husband have a small homestead with horses in the Vale of Clwyd, North Wales. I visited her a number of times before Covid-19.

My last week there had been a joyous visit, but bitter-sweet, full of what-ifs and roads not taken. While her husband, who has made me most welcome, was at work, we went for coffee, for lunch, for walks with her dogs. We reminisced, looked at old photos of us in Africa she still had in an old tea-box, the photos somewhat faded with time; we laughed, and, yes, I guess we cried a little, two middle-age hapless, as in ill-fated, humans trying to recapture something lost in the annals of time.

I knew she was scared. She was short and snappy with me, as we drove the other morning to the clinic along the coast. There had been a lump on her breast, then a biopsy, and that day she had been called in for the result.

Give me a hug, I said. The news was good
I’m glad you were her for me today, she said, that sweet smile giving way to those generous lips.

Time passes but, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never erase. A piece of our hearts never disquieted.

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