by Beverley Eikli
In 1963, the small mountain kingdom of Basutoland (now Lesotho) was a British protectorate three years from Independence. Diamonds had been discovered in 1957 at Letseng-la-Terai (now the Letseng Diamond Mine), but its inaccessibility at 10,000ft made it unviable as a commercial venture and in 1959 it was declared a government digging. Optimistic and enterprising local Basuto registered small leases, battled up a single mule track and used picks and shovels through baking heat in summer and thick winter snowfalls to discover generally low grade ore. However, some extraordinary finds, such as the 601 carat Lesotho Brown in 1967 and the 478 carat Leseli La Letšeng distinguish the Letseng Diamond Mine for having the highest dollar value per carat of any diamond mine.
If Basutoland’s mineral wealth was not internationally appreciated at the time my novel, Diamond Mountain, is set, its geographical location was. Landlocked by apartheid South Africa, its strategic importance was recognised by world powers such as China, Russia and South Africa, who enticed Basutoland’s fledgling political parties with money and overseas scholarships in the years prior to Britain formally granting Independence on 4 October 1966.
Prior to Independence, Basutoland was divided into ten districts, each administered by a District Commissioner, ultimate authority residing with the Resident Commissioner who was based in the capital, Maseru, which had a population of about 500 Europeans and 5000 Africans.
By contrast, the remote, mountainous region of Mokhotlong, where much of my story is set (and where I was born), consisted of a small African village, a few African public servants, half a dozen European Government employees, a few European traders, and none of Maseru’s amenities such as running water, sewerage and electricity. A ten-bed government hospital employed a doctor and a few nurses.
Mokhotlong’s District Commissioner, Charles Tremain, is a fictional character based on my father only in terms of his position and responsibilities. Each of Lesotho’s ten districts was allocated a DC who, as the resident representative of the British Government, had wide administrative authority that included performing the functions of magistrate. The DC worked with, and respected, the traditional chieftainship system, but intervened if there were criminal issues such as medicine murder and other breaches of a criminal nature, including Illegal Diamond Buying (IDB), a key theme in my novel.
Although my father served as Mokhotlong’s District Commissioner in 1963, it is emphasised that all characters and day-to-day events are from the author’s imagination and should not be confused with fact.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
“Philippa! Telephone call from Maseru.”
Josie’s shout from across the dorm was truncated by Susan’s wail of frustration as she and Philippa halted mid dash across the threshold of the Women’s Residence towards the waiting car.
“Tell Josie to say you’ve left for a party!” Susan, Philippa’s best friend, was a stickler for punctuality. “We’re already late!”
“I can’t!” Philippa waved at Matthew who’d just put his handsome head out of the black sedan at the bottom of the Fuller Hall steps and was beckoning to them like the unattainable Adonis he’d been until recently. “You go on ahead, Susan!” she called over her shoulder, already half inside. “Daddy’s probably waited an hour to get through. I’ll come later with Frank and Josie.”
She hurried up the corridor and picked up the receiver Josie had left hanging by the cord, itching to be gone but conscious of her duty to lift her father’s gloomy spirits.
“Sorry, daddy. It’s chaos here. We’re off to Angela Myers’s twenty-first birthday.” She made her tone light and bright. “How’s things in the mountains?”
“Oh, you know, the same as usual.” Her father’s measured voice came back down the line. “There was another murder last week in the Qthing district. I doubt you’d have read it in the Cape Times.”
Her heart sank. “The second in a month? So much work for you. Do you know who did it?”
“Of course, but that’s not for me to say. The investigation may or may not come up with something conclusive this time. We’ll do our best.” The line crackled and Philippa strained to catch what her father was saying before his voice returned, crisp and businesslike. “Now…I wondered if you’d thought about coming home for half term.”
She was about to say no with as much regret as she could manage but he went on, his voice a little more hopeful, “I know there’ll be room on the Saturday flight from Maseru because Mrs. Vermoed’s mother in Durban is still not well so she’s delaying her return by a week. I also know it’s a long way from Cape Town for you to come but thought I’d put it to you, nonetheless.”
Philippa took a deep breath and thought of all the wonderful things she had planned now that she and Matthew were a serious couple. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t, daddy. Matthew’s introducing me to his parents and…well, there are quite a few things on.”
“Of course, of course. And is this boy worthy of you, my darling? Mrs Lehmann asked if she’d be hearing wedding bells soon.”
Philippa laughed as she nibbled at her lower lip. She wasn’t about to tell him wedding bells were further off than she’d like if the horrible rumours were true that Matthew’s rugby stellar career might just see him fail his final law exams so he could play for Cape Town University for another year. That was a topic she’d tackle with Matthew after she’d made a good impression on his parents. “You might have to be patient, daddy. I can’t wait for you to meet him, though.”
“Well, Philippa, as long as he makes you happy, that’s all that’s important.” Her father was sounding more relaxed, now, which was a relief. Philippa could finish the conversation with a clear conscience that she’d bucked up his spirits. “And, of course, I want to meet him. Bring him home with you next time you come back to Lesotho. I want to be able to reassure your mother when I meet her at the Pearly Gates that I’ve done my due diligence.”
There was a short, awkward silence. Philippa wished he’d not brought up her mother. Her father tried so hard to get the tone just right. At least he could speak of her without his voice breaking up, these days.
“Mummy would have definitely approved of not just Matthew but his mother too,” Philippa said firmly. “Or, at least her dress sense.” She laughed to diffuse the tension. “Mrs Myburgh was in the social column of Saturday’s Argus and this month’s issue of Fair Lady.”
The line crackled as their connection was interrupted, before Philippa heard, “Well, good for her. Now, you’ve got a party to go to so I won’t keep you talking.”
“And you have a good long sleep in, daddy. It’s the weekend.”
“I’m afraid it’s an early start for me. The Resident Commissioner is expecting the preliminary report on the medicine murder investigation by next week. Stuart’s going to drop it off in Maseru which he picks it up en route to Letseng La Terai.”
Philippa’s ears pricked up at the name. “Stuart? I thought he went back to England.”
“Only for his mother’s funeral.” Her father chuckled. “I remember how you used to blush when that young man first joined Drakensburg Air and would fly you to boarding school.”
“Oh, daddy, really!” Philippa turned at the sound of heels clicking down the stairs and looked up to see Josie clinging to the arm of her latest boyfriend, Frank, who played left wing with Matthew. Josie looked cool and elegant in green, her dark elfin looks complemented by the colour of her full-skirted green silk dress. Philippa nodded at them, as she finished off. “Daddy, I have to go now. My lift is waiting. Have a good weekend. Bye!”
“Don’t you two look a sight for sore eyes?” remarked Frank gallantly when Philippa was off the phone. He offered her his free arm and led the girls down the steps to his waiting car, Philippa shivering with anticipation at the evening ahead though there was a sharpness to the cool summer breeze that made her glad she’d brought her silk stole. Matthew would think along the same lines as Franke, she hoped. And surely those horrible rumours she’d heard about Matthew staying on at Cape Town varsity just so he could play rugby would come to nothing if his parents knew what he had in mind?
“Sorry we took so long,” said Josie. “Matthew will be champing at the bit. I know he didn’t want a late night because of tomorrow’s game.”
“He has been known to change his mind after a few beers.”
Philippa laughed with them. Even if things hadn’t raced ahead with the speed she’d have preferred, they were at last ticking along nicely. Susan referred to Matthew and Philippa as Cape Town Varsity’s golden couple, not without a touch of freely admitted envy. Earlier that year, Philippa had been chosen Rag Queen, and had sat in state on her throne atop the lavishly decorated float that wove through Cape Town’s streets for the annual Rag Float Parade. If Philippa had been Queen, Matthew was a demi-god, the university’s star rugby player, handsome, charming and from a good family, groomed to take the reins of the large and successful law firm his grandfather had established.
Matthew fulfilled all the criteria for her future husband and so much more. Even if he enraged her sometimes with his lackadaisical attitude to so many things, he set her pulses racing and with her twenty-first birthday only months away and so many of her friends dropping out of university to become brides, she couldn’t wait to trade the classroom for a place in the society pages alongside elegant Mrs James Myburgh.
Her only threat, she feared, was that wretched rugby Matthew loved so much.
Frankie drove fast, turning into the jacaranda-lined avenue on two wheels before screaming to a halt in front of the cottage where the sounds of the band could be heard from the street. Excited, the girls smoothed the skirts of their dresses and bit colour into their lips as their escort helped them out.
It was impossible to locate Matthew with so many densely packed bodies crowded into the small sitting room but Philippa was happy to be waylaid by a group of admirers in the passageway.
“Hey, Philippa, are you going to top the class again and make Tommy cry?” one asked, handing her a glass of champagne. Philippa liked John, the resident clown who mocked himself as much as everyone. Though he was clever, brains didn’t count for much on their own. John was popular because he made people laugh and Matthew enjoyed top billing because he was an excellent rugby player. The only reason Philippa was popular was because she knew how to wear clothes well and men considered her pretty.
“Tommy, you didn’t really cry, did you? It was only a silly philosophy paper!” she cried in mock concern as Tommy, dressed in a dinner suit like the others, emerged beside John, brandishing a champagne bottle.
“Cried? I nearly drowned in anguish. Everyone consults me on the meaning of life whereas you…you’re just a girl who knows nothing of life! Clearly not, since you’re going out with no-hoper Matthew Myburgh!” He grinned as he carelessly emptied champagne into upturned glasses.
Everyone was in high spirits and Philippa seemed always to have a full glass of bubbles in her hand as time ticked by. Someone asked her a question but she couldn’t reply. Not only was it hard to hear, it was becoming harder to focus.
“I really must find Matthew,” she excused herself. A few couples were jiving on the Chinese rug that occupied a tiny rectangle of space amongst the crowd and furniture that had been pushed against the walls. “Has anyone seen Matthew?” she called into the din. She hadn’t caught a glimpse of him all night and she’d surely been at the party for more than an hour.
“Philippa, you look just like Audrey Hepburn with your hair done like that. And I love your dress!”
Philippa looked up to see Marcia Didcott smiling at her from the arm of comfy chair. “Where did you get it?”
“I made it.” Philippa was proud of her dressmaking skills. The Tremains didn’t have a lot of money but her mother had come from a wealthy family in England where fashion was considered important. The burnt orange, wasp-waisted Ciel creation with its draped bodice and pencil skirt with a full skirted overlay Philippa wore was a favourite. Her mother had directed operations from her sick bed while Philippa and Francina, the housemaid, had cut it out and sewed the pieces together. It always drew admiration and it always reminded Philippa of her mother.
Not that she wanted to be reminded of that now. “You haven’t seen Matthew have you, Marcia?”
Marcia pointed upstairs. “He was up there half an hour ago.”
Thanking her, Philippa pushed through the crowded sitting room then picked her way with difficulty up the stairs which resembled the crowded tiered stadium where she dutifully sat to watch Matthew play rugby. On the second floor, she squeezed past a couple kissing in the corridor which was otherwise empty, then knocked on a bedroom door. Finding it locked when she tried it after hearing no answer, she proceeded to the next room, knocking twice then, after more silence, throwing open the door.
A little shriek and a scrambling from the bed were all she registered before her eyes adjusted to the gloom and, realising she’d interrupted some lovers’ tryst, she was backing out again when she was stopped by a dismayed, “It’s not what you think, Philippa!”
“Susan?” Philippa took a few steps forward, her jaw dropping when she saw Matthew scrambling off the bed, straightening his tie as Susan smoothed back her passion-spoiled chignon and straightened her clothes.
“We weren’t doing anything, really!”
Philippa jerked her arm back as Matthew reached forward, his aftershave enveloping her like a cloud of betrayal before she stepped back from his open-armed approach. “How could you, Matthew?” she cried as tears stung the back of her eyes, though her anger was more for Susan. She swung round. “And you, Susuan! I thought you were my best friend!”
“Please, Philippa. Come back.” It was Matthew now, pleading innocence. “It’s not what you think.”
But there was light enough to see the lipstick on Matthew’s shirt collar and around his mouth, and there was no mistaking the guilt on both of their faces.
Without waiting to hear more, Philippa spun round and ran from the room.
Circling vultures had led the two herd boys to the body at the base of the ravine. Petreous, the bearer of the grisly news, shivered in rags flapping in the icy wind that howled through the diggings, his cheeks growing pinker and his gestures more extravagant as the small crowd of miners gasped at every detail.
Stuart gathered that the victim was an albino, his ears and testicles cut away, familiar hallmarks of medicine murder or diretlo. After four years in Basutoland, he had a smattering of Sesotho but the excited questions from the men jostling to hear meant he had to rely on Moses, the young police trooper he’d just flown from the lowlands into Letseng la Terai, to interpret.
“Where did they find the body? Buthe Buthe? The second in two weeks?” Stuart was not afraid in the same way he knew the Basuto whose families lived in the local area would be.
“Mokhotlong district,” Moses confirmed, rubbing his eyes as a handful of gritty snow swept across the barren landscape. “Tell the DC you heard it from me, Rra,” he added, brandishing a tin of bully beef from the box of provisions he’d brought for his two-week rotation at the diamond diggings. “Ah, but it is a very bad business.”
A second murder was very bad business indeed, for only that morning Stuart had picked up Charles Tremain’s preliminary report on the previous murder.
“I’ll make sure he knows.” Stuart gave him a nod as he turned in search of his passengers for the return journey down the mountain. With dark storm clouds gathering with the speed of vultures alerted to fresh carrion he had only minutes to be airborne if he was to be back in Maseru in time for his dinner date with Lizzie Dunlop. Already he was behind schedule and Charles’s request that Stuart pick up his daughter, Philippa, on an unscheduled stop in Mokhotlong had not improved his mood.
“Muketsi!” He shouted to a grizzle-headed miner cackling with a group of friends around the rocky surrounds of his diamond lease. Petreous had finished talking and the men were dispersing into small groups, some huddled in colourful Basuto blankets. “We’re going now, now!”
He raised his collar against the biting cold and stomped through the thick snow to untie the plane. The wind hadn’t changed direction, he was pleased to note, but with such a short east-west runway, conditions could become unflyable in an instant. Just a few minutes’ delay had the potential to change his life and future prospects and, tonight, Stuart wanted all options on the table.
He was not going to spend his Friday night freezing in a flapping tent, listening to the clang of corrugated iron instead of the clink of wine glasses and a blues pianist at George’s Hotel in the capital Maseru, staring into the eyes of a pretty nurse.
Lizzie had mentioned she was contemplating a nursing position that had come up at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg and while Stuart wasn’t sure Lizzie was the girl he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, he hoped this evening would cement his feelings, one way or the other.
The rocky, treeless ground was a long way beneath them before his two passengers got over their first-time flying nerves. Stuart’s concentration was focused more on the size of the storm cell he had to fly around in order to pick up Philippa Tremain than what the two miners were saying though he registered the Sesotho word for diamond, taemane, frequently.
He adjusted the mixture so the engine ran more smoothly, staring out of the side window at the barren ravines far below and the jagged peaks around him. He’d miss the excitement and beauty of mountain flying if he ever achieved his dream of flying the jet. If the loneliness didn’t eat him up first.
“So how big was this diamond you found, Moeketsi?” he asked over his shoulder. The grizzled miner looked like he’d had a hard life. Stuart supposed he’d spent years in the gold mines around Johannesburg, sending his money back to his family, like so many Basotho.
“Eh, Rra, it was a very big one!”
Stuart raised an eyebrow which was sufficient encouragement for Moeketsi to recount his children’s scepticism when he and his wife Mabel had sold their sheep for some sifting equipment and a pick and shovel. He said it had taken them days to journey on foot up the bridle path to the diggings at the top of the mountain and another six months of toil in bone-chilling conditions before they’d struck it lucky.
“So, what will you do now that you’re a rich man?” Stuart asked.
Moeketsi laughed. “I will buy peacocks instead of goats to make my wife happy and we will live in a fine brick house.”
Stuart was about to respond when Philemon tapped on the window and said, referring to the jet contrail of the BOAC 707 that had passed overhead a short time before, “This is a very little plane, Morena, not like that other one.”
“It can go more places than that big plane,” Stuart countered.
“Big is better,” Moses remarked sagely.
Moeketsi was still caught up in visions of his own success. “Ah, but it is true that big is better,” he agreed. “Peacocks are better than goats, says my wife. Only rich men can afford peacocks and everyone admires a rich man. Do you have peacocks, Captain?”
Stuart shook his head and said over his shoulder, ‘Tell your wife that peacocks are vain and difficult creatures, Moeketsi. If I had money, I’d spend it on wiser investments than pretty things to please my wife.”
“I think that pleasing my wife is a very wise investment.”
The three men laughed and Stuart was prepared to concede. “Perhaps that’s something I’ll learn from experience.”
“Why do you not have a wife, Captain?”
It was a question Stuart found uncomfortable to answer truthfully. He tried to sound jocular. “I’ll have to find myself a diamond as big as the one you found before I can afford a wife.”
“You do not need to find a big diamond, Captain, you just need to fly the big plane. Then you’ll be rich and you can buy your wife peacocks because even if you don’t want them, she will, and I am thinking that then you will have learned how important it is to please your wife.”
“You sound like a very wise man, Moeketsi,” Stuart laughed, though the old miner’s words had hit a raw nerve. Stuart had taken the job with Drakensburg Air so he could build his hours quickly and get some twin time on the Dornier in order to try for a cadetship with South African Airways. On the big plane.
He’d left England because the only connections he had there were likely to scupper rather than advance his prospects of getting on in the world. His father had damned him for jumping ship, as he called it – sour because he’d relied on Stuart’s board contributions from his meagre labouring wage to keep the old man in drink. He’d scoffed at the idea Stuart would ever fly a jet and it looked like he could be right. Four years in Basutoland and Stuart was still flying single engine Cessnas and Tripacers. The Dornier had been out of action for months after Frank Gedge had clipped the only tree above 8000ft and just this morning Stuart been told a paperwork issue was delaying the return of the Dornier to the three-plane fleet.
“The man who flies the biggest plane can afford the fattest wife, eh Morena?” Philemon said. “It is why my sister cannot find a husband. She is too skinny. But when you fly the big plane, you can choose the fattest wife in all of Basutoland, Captain Price.”
A vision flashed through Stuart’s mind of Rubenesque Magda Kloppings, the wife of one of the Afrikaans mining contractors who’d taken Stuart under her wing when Stuart had been a raw 21-year-old during his first year in the country. Magda’s pillowy bosoms and syrupy koeksisters – a sweet South African delicacy – had been a buffer against the loneliness of his first six months. He’d not been prepared for the sexual advances of a woman so much older than himself but she’d been kind and a diligent instructor after she’d overcome Stuart’s shy reluctance. Stuart missed her, sometimes, but he didn’t want a wife like Magda.
Remembering the poster plastered on his bedroom wall throughout most of his teenage years, he said, “The wife of my choice would be tall and graceful with long glossy dark hair, high cheek bones and sparkling eyes. Unfortunately, she lives in another country and I don’t think I’d persuade her to come and live here.”
“Ach, shame, Captain! And who might your first choice have been?” Moeketsi enquired politely.
‘Then she has made a great mistake if she does not wish to live in Basutoland with you, but perhaps that is not a bad thing because a big woman makes the best wife, Captain,’ Moeketsi said, adding with conviction, “After you are flying the big plane I am thinking you will persuade Miss Hepburn to marry you as Wife Number Two and she will see what a great land our Lesotho really is.”