Time and again at LondonFuse, we receive emails from around the world wondering who we are and what it is we do. This past month, we were fortunate enough to get a message from John William Orriolla – a Zimbabwean author working on a book of tales from his childhood.
This is the first of what we hope are many such tales, set in John’s childhood home of Harare, Zimbabwe.
This one is simply titled, ‘The Business’. Enjoy!
Father owned a thriving shop in Harare that sold an assortment of goods ranging from toys, radios and television sets to bicycles and key rings.
It was a shop that was bright and bustling, with constant activity, and where money changed hands so often you could smell it in the air.
I would go to my father’s shop as often as I could. His secretary’s name was Jane and there was also Hitman, the bouncer who was named after Brett ‘Hitman’ Hart, a famous wrestler at the time. I do not know what his real name was but our Hitman was one of several shop guards and he was one of my father’s friends.
There was also Bernard, another guard, along with Farai, James and Emanuel who were the repair team. Emanuel was a computer expert who worked together with a technician called Tawanda and between them, these guys could fix anything that was not working properly. Father also owned a small repair shop behind the main shop, which was occupied by James, Emanuel, Tawanda and Farai and this was where a lot of the dirty work was done.
Some of the imported electrical products would arrive damaged, but the guys in the back would put them back together again and make them look brand new so they could be sold at the full price.
James ended up by being fired because a client came to the repair shop one day with a radio that needed to be repaired. James had removed some of the parts then told the client it could not be fixed.
Unfortunately the client knew a thing or two about electronics and when he arrived home he opened up the radio to find that half of the parts were missing. He came back the next day with the police and though father convinced the client to drop the charges against him James was fired.
There was also a team of carpenters who repaired any damaged items in the furniture section. At times they would completely resurrect the dusty pieces of old broken furniture into attractive looking pieces, which father and his salesmen would convince clients were antiques and were often paid sizeable amounts for them.
I do not remember the names or faces of the entire workforce, but to a child the shop was a very vibrant place where exciting things happened.
Because it was a busy place – and a tempting prospect for thieves due to the large sums of cash it generated – the shop was robbed more than once.
I still clearly remember Hitman’s vivid narration of one of the robberies: It was around half past five in the evening and father had closed the shop to count the money before heading for the bank. Just after the money had been packed into a bag, about ten masked men forced their way into the shop and demanded the cash.
Father was renowned for his quick temper so naturally he became enraged and began screaming at the intruders. The leader of the robbers calmly walked up to father, slapped him across the face then stepped back.
To everyone’s dismay this slap was enough to quell Father midway through his ranting and on seeing their boss being manhandled and silenced with a single slap, the cowardly bouncers and so called heads of security Hitman and Bernard ran for the hills.
According to their fellow employees they ran so hard they bumped the robbers out of the way and were out of the door in a flash. The robbers gave chase and Hitman and Bernard ended up running into a college situated nearby where they hid behind the desk in the principal’s office even as she sat there.
(They later claimed that the robbers had chased them into the college and that they hid behind the principal’s door and watched through the gap between the door and the frame as the robbers passed by the office. But this story is doubtful because it is unlikely that the robbers would have run through the streets and into a college wearing masks.)
The principal’s version was different.
She said that Hitman and Bernard arrived breathless, sobbing and near to tears, begging her to call the police and saying that men were after them even though there were no men in sight. They were so terrified that they were still hiding behind the principal at her desk when the police arrived.
More likely the robbers ran into an alley, took off their masks and disbanded when they failed to catch up with Hitman and Bernard as they fled.
Hitman was well known for having a large mouth as he was very talkative.
He was once beaten by a gang of street kids (who in Harare are notorious for their drug consumption, their thuggish menace, their violence and the fact that they are completely filthy).
They are normally shoeless and have kinky hair.
Hitman was apparently outside smoking during his lunch break when he spotted a street kid aged around eight to ten years. He told this street kid to stop staring at him and go away and naturally the street child replied with some powerful language and then proceeded to insult Hitman’s mother.
This enraged the temperamental Hitman who went inside and grabbed a sjambok which is a long rubbery weapon somewhere between a whip and a baton. On seeing Hitman returning the street kid ran and Hitman chased him into an alley where he was immediately surrounded by the street kid’s older sidekicks who laid into him.
Though he begged them for mercy and offered them money to let him go, Hitman received a thorough beating from the gang who took all his clothes save for his underwear. Hitman returned to the shop in a daze wearing only his bright orange underpants and displaying a large bruise. He had fallen into the oldest street kid trap whereby they insult you to make you chase them so they can outnumber you and rob you.
Hitman had many misfortunes in his time. I was told later that he had died in the early years of the new millennium.
Apparently Tyson got his nickname because he would physically pick up rowdy customers and deposit them on the pavement outside if they dared try to argue with father. Father always had a way of fighting with people, particularly difficult customers.
Because he actually believed he was better than they were, he would frequently insult people and so the shop saw a wide variety of altercations, although few of them resulted in flying fists.
I don’t remember, but I am told that when I was still very young and my father was arguing with someone I would rush up and bite that person’s leg – an experience guaranteed to shock the recipient.
At one time, a well dressed man came in and bought a video camera but my father accidentally gave him the wrong recording tape, which the man didn’t realize until he had gone home.
When he returned the next day and explained what had happened, father (being father), lost his temper and called the man a liar and then a thief. The man tried to show father his receipt but father would not hear of it and said the man was insulting him by saying he had given him the wrong product.
Father genuinely believed he never made mistakes, but this time he went a step too far. First he insulted the man’s father and then, not being known for his restraint, he went on to call the man’s mother a whore. At that point the man calmly excused himself and walked out.
Several hours later he returned with at least eight large and intimidating looking friends. This time he was wearing a vest and jeans, bare-armed and wearing gym gloves with a red bandana knotted around his head. His chest muscles were rippling inside his vest and he looked a terrifying sight as he challenged father to fight.
In my fear for my father’s life I immediately wet my shorts. Hitman, as usual, tried to act tough and stop the man but he received a swift cracking uppercut to the jaw that took him straight to Dreamland for 10 minutes.
Father now looked terrified as he tried to speak calmly but the man wouldn’t listen and he even gave father a slap to try to enrage him enough to fight. Because father knew he would lose the fight, he wouldn’t come out from behind the counter. But while all this was happening, his secretary Jane had gone into the office and called the police.
By then I was bawling and screaming in a corner in my wet shorts. It turned out the man’s mother (whom my father had described as a whore) had recently died and that the customer had bought the video camera to record her funeral.
Luckily the police responded quickly for a change and came to father’s aid.
On seeing the policemen father, who earlier on had been stammering, slurring and looking gaunt, immediately became his old self and began roaring profanities. He challenged the man and knowing that the police were present he even dared to slap him across the face.
There was a brief commotion which the police swiftly broke up and the officer in charge began to lecture both men, telling them to act like grown-ups especially in front of innocent young children like me. He obviously didn’t know about the leg-biting, but this stern lecture seemed to work and left both men looking chastened.
They shook hands and even hugged each other.
Father had been saved by the police and he ended up giving the man the correct tape, which was all he had wanted to begin with.
Enjoyed this story? Stay tuned for John’s next tale of life growing up in Zimbabwe – this one all about being visited by the Bongiwes.