The chat stops. We rise to our feet, step back over our benches. My foot hunts for its flip-flop.
I am nine years old. It is a mid-week evening. Supper has finished and the school is about to say grace. We must be silent. We must not move. This is normal.
The thick rubber of my flop is jammed beneath the bar of the bench.
‘… for what we have just received …’
My toes stretch outwards, then curl to a grip.
‘… may we be truly thankful.’
The shoe moves … then slips out of reach.
We turn to face the teachers at the top table as they line up to leave the hall. I start to panic. I shall be in big trouble. My shoe should have been on my foot.
Half-swivelled, I jab my foot forward. My big toe hits the leg of the bench and a sharp, fierce pain stabs through it … my cry is swallowed by relief. I have my shoe.
I force my foot into it – nothing said, nothing noticed – and limp out. The crocodile of silent children is complete.
That night my foot throbs and I cannot sleep. I am afraid but I don’t want to tell anyone. It will get better by itself, I think.
But it does not. In the morning, I study my sore toe. There is a black line, the width of a pencil, which runs from a jagged edge just above the white of my nail, right down to the flesh. It is a piece wood from the bench that has got stuck beneath my nail. I do not know how to get it out, and I am too afraid to tell anyone. Why did I take my shoe off?
The days pass, only a few but they feel like forever. I limp between the ‘listen-to-me’ and ‘repeat-after-me’ hours of class. I am okay sitting down.
Term ends soon. I shall tell someone then if my toe does not get better.
There is one problem … Sports Day on the last day of term. I am knock kneed, flat footed, and last in everything – the limp will not change that but my toe is too sore to run.
I lie awake in the dormitory after ‘lights out’. Twenty other beds fidget around me. I have to tell someone that I cannot run tomorrow.
Morning dawns. I put on my white shorts, and my white tshirt, and line up by the basins to brush my teeth. Everyone is excited, except me. I am scared.
I am scared because my foot hurts, because I took off my shoe when I was not supposed to. I am scared because I never told anyone. I did not want to get into trouble … and now it is worse.
I cannot keep my big secret in any longer. It bursts out of me as soon as I see my parents. There are frowns and questions, and then a rush to the doctor.
My toenail is sliced open. It is sore but nobody gets cross. The teachers don’t because my parents are there. My parents don’t because the teachers are so helpful. And I don’t because I know I shouldn’t.
That is how it was in the country where I grew up. We were newly independent and unravelling into a civil war. There was more to worry about than being soft on school children.
Nine years after the toe incident, I finish school. I am soundly educated, deferential to authority, and know how to hold my tongue and survive. I am the product of hard working parents, two boarding schools and a racially divisive civil war.
By the time I leave school, the country, in which I was born and raised, has changed its name four times since my birth. It is now Zimbabwe.
I step out into the world unaware that my life has been fenced apart by censorship and sanctions. I see and hear what those in power wish me to see and hear … and I believe them.
It takes a year of travel to loosen my point of view – to start to feel the joy of my generation.
University in Scotland follows. I am in a small department with a professor who prefers research to examinations. He sends me to Spain and back to Zimbabwe where the silence has lifted. The country is noisy with hope.
I write my dissertations and I graduate. I am 25 years old when I marry a man in the British military.
Another silence descends. This silence lasts a quarter of a century. It is the silence of ‘loyalty’ – of attachment to a member of a nomadic, hierarchical system caught in a time of slippery conflict.
I know silence. It is not a friend. I regress and so does the land of my birth.
When the new millennium arrives I visit my father who is ill in Zimbabwe. The country is trapped beneath the chaos of land redistribution and government ambition. Silence spreads like a bruise. It deadens.
Fourteen years later, in the south of Italy, I meet silence again and its grip is tighter than any I have known.
We are based just outside Naples, surrounded by a powerful mix of history, grace and crime in an ancient, volcanic landscape.
‘The mafia are here to stay,’ a local friend tells me. ‘I know them, I know them all. Sonno tutti mafiosi … but I say nothing. I say buongiorno and I smile. They know I know … but I am afraid for my children.’
I understand this silence that creates accomplices.
In Naples itself there are plaques, memorials to the dead, to the victims of organised crime, but I do not photograph them. I do not write about them for they fill me with dread and questions. Are they to honour the fallen or to warn those that remain?
A young American arrives in Naples. She is full of the certainty of faith and the passion of work to be done. There is joy in every positive step … but it fades.
‘We were promised the building for our work. It must be where the need is greatest. But always there is some reason we cannot start.’
She is earnest and determined, but she is alone. Then one day she is gone. Visa problems we are told.
Above her, the waters close. I bob on the surface, eyes to the sunshine while tides rip beneath.
This is corruption polished to a high finish but the people dance as they always have– gracious, defiant, captivating, faithful to their city and its beliefs. Who am I to judge?
Now, we are back in England. It is 2017, a year of anger and disbelief, a year where influence fights across the new frontier of cyberspace, where power resorts to camouflage, and truth is hard to trust.
Today, I am in a café in rural Dorset. It is the day London’s Big Ben falls silent. The day that the moon blots out the sun across the USA.
A young man paces the floor, mobile to his ear. His voice penetrates the barista’s clatter and steam. He is out of work and job-hunting.
‘I was a CEO. I had a team in Rome … people in Brazil … staff of 70 … ‘
Conversations cease. Newspapers rustle uncomfortably. We listen to the man parade his corporate credentials.
‘What is the goal of the company? Is it to grow the top line or the bottom line?’
We ponder the question, unwitting members of his interview panel. The verdict, unanimous it seems, is that he must try again elsewhere. He does. He makes one call after another – a large piece in the café’s jigsaw of noise.
I am happy to be here, free to speak and to listen in, privileged by freedoms earned by others.
A young family, armed with electronic devices, enters the café – mum, dad, and two children. The youngest is no more than four. They order their hot chocolates then, slouched and silent around their steaming mugs, they disappear into worlds we cannot see. Only their bodies remain on our shore.
I watch and I wonder if the empathy Shakespeare showed us will be smothered or amplified by digital space. Will this family emerge stronger from its new worlds … or weaker?
Behind me, giggles wriggle through the pot plants. A little boy chases his sister around the table.
My mind drifts through the noise. I re-read what I have written. Silence beckons me backwards. Why say anything? Why write anything?
Then all the words I have never said scrabble against the sides of my mind. They spell out the consequences they have witnessed in silence – fear. Shame. Corruption. Contamination. Cruelty. Collapse.
I look away. I look down. Platforms click across my screen.
All I have to do is find my voice.