Read Claire's Prayer Online

Authors: Yvonne Cloete

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Claire's Prayer

BOOK: Claire's Prayer
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CLAIRE’S PRAYER
A NOVEL
BY
YVONNE CLOETE

 

Published in March 2014 by Orchard Wall Publishing

Cover Design: Design For Writers

 

© YVONNE CLOETE 2014

Kindle Edition
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be re-sold or given away to other people. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

For my husband Michael

Chapter One

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

(Psalm 23:4)

Dublin, Ireland – March, 1982

A lone figure stood forlornly at the graveside. Oblivious to the typically damp Irish weather, silent sobs racked the body of the slender girl as she bade a final farewell to her beloved parents. Claire O’Sullivan still could not believe they were gone. She remembered her father, so vital and alive, always laughing. She could barely believe she’d never feel his strong arms around her again, or hear his deep voice. In her mind’s eye she saw her mother, as she had been that last evening: all dressed up and looking forward to an evening out, just the two of them. A more romantic couple Claire had never seen – she’d spent that evening hoping she could one day emulate their happiness. And now, after a momentary screech of brakes and a flash of light, they were gone.
Together in life and death
, Claire thought with a desperate attempt at optimism.

Wiping away her tears from under her halo of curly, golden-blonde hair, Claire whispered a soft prayer, thanking God for letting her know them for the past twenty-one years. In her grief, Claire had found herself relying more and more on her faith, until now almost just a background context to her life. Even through the pain, Claire knew she must try finally to let her parents go, until she could one day see them again, in a space without loss… a space of eternal peace. Turning away from the graves, Claire lowered her long-lashed eyelids over her startlingly green eyes and walked slowly towards her aunt and closest friend Kacey, who were waiting patiently for her.

Claire felt so tired – tired enough to sleep for a week. Yet there was still so much to do and, she felt, no-one else to do it. She went willingly into her aunt’s arms, but quickly straightened up with new strength. She couldn’t rest yet. Claire forced herself to feel ready to face all the people who would gather to share a cup of tea and give their condolences. So many friends had come, some she had not seen since she was a small child. Each would be thanked and comforted, and
then
she would worry about her future.

Much later, the last guest gone, Claire huddled up on the sofa and watched her aunt pour the tea. She felt drained and so alone. But Aunt Ellen’s voice came to her softly, with a trace of a smile, through the mists of her grief.

“Claire, dear, I can’t wait any longer to give this to you.”

Claire took the long envelope being held out to her and opened it. An air ticket fell out with some brochures. Aunt Ellen was looking determinedly at her.

“You need to get away for a while, Claire,” her aunt said, her characteristically soothing voice sounding unexpectedly urgent. “Impunzi is the place to go. My good friends Donald and Helen have just returned from Zimbabwe and they say it’s a paradise. The change will do you good – give you time to heal. I can take care of things here. Please say you’ll go?”

Claire stared at her aunt as the sudden rush of words stopped. She was momentarily speechless.

“But I can’t possibly just… just
up and go
,” Claire said haltingly, her soft Gaelic lilt trembling as language came back to her. “What about my books, my publisher? How can I leave you here to sort out all Mam and Dad’s affairs? I really can’t go.” Claire flushed. “I’m not even sure where Zimbabwe is.”

They talked late into the night, but Claire was finally convinced by the kind, wise persuasion of her aunt that a holiday (albeit a working one, Claire insisted to herself) was just what she needed. Aunt Ellen had thought of everything – and no-one knew better than she how much Claire’s work meant to her. Almost as many of her sketches, paintings and illustrations hung in Aunt Ellen’s house as in her parents’: while they had always claimed the title of ‘her biggest fans’, Claire remembered with a smile, Aunt Ellen had indulged her artistic nature by keeping her in paint and art pads from an early age. Like her father had, Claire knew that Aunt Ellen saw her paternal grandmother’s talent in everything Claire drew. Now, the tack her aunt had used to clinch the argument was that even Claire’s work would benefit from the experience and perspective she would gain by going away. Claire decided that, if her publisher agreed, she would go and see this country called Zimbabwe.

Impunzi, Zimbabwe. Just the name brought all the wildness of Africa to her mind. A game viewing and fishing resort – a place to ‘get away from it all’, according to the colourful brochures. ‘Self-contained lodges set in with the natural bush’, Claire read. It sounded like a quiet haven half a world away, where her broken heart could put itself back together again and her shattered life could be mended. She would go to Impunzi and learn to start all over again.

Claire whispered a quick prayer, to herself as much as anything, as she knocked on the office door of her publisher, Donovan & Donovan, the next day. In a flash, she remembered the first time she’d arrived there, nervous and excited, two years ago. After leaving art school, Claire had been inspired by her summer job volunteering in a children’s hospice, where she’d written and illustrated a set of stories. She had never expected anything to come of her hobby. Claire smiled as she recalled Kacey’s forwardness in mailing the envelope she had been too scared to post herself.

Kacey had always been Claire’s rock. When they had spoken last night, she’d echoed Aunt Ellen’s advice: that Claire should fly away, and come back a new woman. Claire trusted Kacey’s advice implicitly, now; she’d certainly proved to be right about Rory – who, until recently, had been Claire’s boyfriend of sorts. They’d worried their friendship would become strained after Claire’d decided to focus on her artistic talent while Kacey trained to teach English and, for a while, it’d felt strange for them not to speak every day. Claire and Kacey had been friends since they were four years old, and were closer than sisters – they’d not spent longer than a week without seeing each other all the way through school. But their bond had simply gained a different footing: they saw each other at weekends and at church youth functions – and, Claire smiled, Kacey had always been at the end of the phone to keep her sane. When she’d turned up excited about how much the kids at the hospice had liked her stories, Kacey’d just asked to borrow the manuscript to read it… and the next thing Claire knew she was reading an acceptance letter from Patrick Donovan. Ever since, the characters she created kept children enthralled, and kept Claire financially solvent.

Now, as they sat in his office, Patrick listened to Claire without interrupting while she made her plans known. His heart was touched by this girl, now suddenly alone in the world. It pained him to see that grief had made her unsure and newly nervous about life – so different from the confident, determined young woman he had come to know.

Claire came to a halting stop. Her gaze dropped to her hands – which, she now realised, were tightly clenched in her lap.

Clearing his throat, Patrick answered her. “Listen, Claire; you go to Zimbabwe for as long as you need to. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get a reliable express mail service to send your manuscripts by.” The older man paused, thinking, and looked up at Claire. “You know, this could be just what you need – some distance. And some new inspiration for your characters,” he added, smiling. “When are you off?”

TAP Airliner, Flight LIS-7964 – April, 1982

Claire peeked into the new Filofax she’d bought at the airport. She could barely believe it but, she realised numbly, they had buried her parents only six weeks ago. Now she was on a flight from Dublin to Lisbon, and from there would travel on to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Aunt Ellen and Kacey had bullied and cajoled her to get everything ready for her trip. Claire seemed to be in a state of limbo. She had submitted to the forced shopping sprees, trying hard to care about the new stonewash jeans and soft, off-the-shoulder tops that had got Kacey and the shop assistant so excited. Claire knew now she had hardly noticed as Aunt Ellen, in her habitually efficient way, had taken care of all the details. As she sank back into her seat, Claire recalled her last visit to the small church she attended, so full of loving friends. They had all wished her a safe trip, with God’s blessing… all except one.

Claire recalled with distaste her last conversation with Rory. How had she ever thought he might be ‘the one’? He had tried to take over her life, to make all her decisions for her. He had even insisted she not go to Zimbabwe.

Rory Keegan had been a second-year art student when Claire had enrolled: he was already a very popular and talented artist. To her surprise, he had pursued Claire relentlessly, eventually even attending her church and taking part in its youth functions. At the time, she’d seen this as a mark of his affection rather than his need for control – but Kacey had disliked Rory from their first meeting. Theirs had been a volatile partnering; Rory had repeatedly pushed for more intimacy, and Claire had stubbornly held back, sensing that some elusive factor was missing between them. Besides, she valued her independence too highly. Claire sighed in relief, glad their relationship, such as it had been, was over. She only wished now that she’d trusted her best friend’s instincts sooner. Her heart filled with gratitude knowing that Kacey would be popping in to visit Aunt Ellen while she was away.

At last, the TAP Airliners door was sealed, and a voice floated over the intercom telling passengers to fasten their seatbelts and, with equal sternness, to have a comfortable flight. Claire resigned herself to obey the voice. The takeoff was smooth, and she felt a peace and calm steal over her, as the burdens of recent weeks were left behind. This was her first excursion out of Ireland, and she made up her mind that the next eight weeks would be an adventure – for better or for worse. Silently and hopefully, Claire committed her immediate future to the Lord and settled down for the first good sleep she’d had in weeks. Little did Claire know that, by the time she returned to Ireland, her world would have been rocked to its foundations again.

Chapter Two

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

(2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

Impunzi, Zimbabwe

Shading his eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun, Seth Henderson looked off into the trees. He could just make out the outlines of the dozen lodges they had built over the last two years, nestled into the landscape around Impunzi. Turning to look in the other direction, he could see the shimmer of the neighbouring dam, the water glistening invitingly. He and Naomi, his sister, had worked hard to reach this moment; they had been involved in every stage of the development. He was proud of all they had achieved, and wished his father could see the ranch now. Their first season had gone off with barely a hitch: Impunzi, Big Game Viewing and Fishing Resort, was up and running.

After months spent populating the reserve, and decorating and equipping the lodges, what had started off as a daunting project had turned out to be fulfilling and exciting. Seth thought back on the resort’s first few months, their biggest challenge: the test run. He had known even then that his home’s future was riding on their success, but advertising had gone well; they had been fully booked from December to the middle of April. The first group of holidaymakers Seth had welcomed had included two German nature-lovers, a group of Americans who seemed to care only about taking photographs, and Donald and Helen Connelly, from Ireland. Don and Helen were by far the most pleasant couple they had hosted. They had been holidaying in Africa for years. Zimbabwe was one of their favourite destinations: the beauty and relaxed way of life, they had said, renewed and revived them. This year, they had decided to see what Impunzi had to offer. Seth and Naomi had spent the next months entertaining their guests. A few were restless and hard to please but, generally, it was not too difficult to satisfy them. The visitors, Don and Helen particularly, revelled in every aspect of their stay, and became good friends with both Seth and Naomi.

Happily, Seth had spent several of his days taking the guests fishing; it had been fun to watch them catch their first bream or bass. The early morning and evening game drives had also been a big success. Naomi had made sure the lodges were always in tip-top condition, and the menu tasteful and interesting. Naomi had organised day and weekend trips into the Hwange National Park and, of course, the Victoria Falls was always a favourite destination. With an affectionate inward grin, Seth acknowledged that she had generally pandered to the guests’ every need.

All in all, though exhausting, Seth had found it was very satisfying when they dropped off at the airport a group full of enthusiasm and promises to tell their friends about Impunzi. Don and Helen had obviously kept their word.

Now it was nearly May, and the heat was starting to lessen at the resort. Seth had decided to close the ranch to the public for May and June. The staff would be able to have time off and maintenance could be done on the vehicles and pumps. Also, Seth gratefully recalled, he had known they would probably need the rest and relaxation. The one guest for whom he’d made an exception, at Don and Helen’s request, couldn’t possibly be too much trouble. Shifting his gaze again, Seth watched an Impala scratching itself against one of the gnarled old trees near the dam. Some had thought he was crazy to go in for game viewing and not hunting, but Seth felt that there had been enough killing. The sound of gunfire was one he did not want to hear again.

Caught off-guard in his contentment, Seth’s usually so well-disciplined mind slipped back to recall less pleasant memories. Returning to the ranch had been a dream for him throughout his years at boarding school, and then during his two-year compulsory army service. A wry smile curled Seth’s lips as he remembered the day his parents had taken him to start his training. How tense and scared he’d been. How brave he had tried to be for his mother’s sake. Then his parents had left, and he was alone with a group of young men just as apprehensive as he was. The six weeks’ training was strenuous and demanding, but he had thrived on the arduous physical regime and not been too challenged by the stark style of living; school had prepared him well for it. Some young men had not coped so easily. And then
the real thing
happened. Naïvely, he had been excited.

Some of the things he had seen… Seth shut off his memory. For a long time after his National Service was over, he would wake at night in a cold sweat. He might remember, but would never share those ghastly things done in the name of war. In the dead of night everything became so real. And yet he knew he had been one of the lucky ones: two years of active army service and no wounds to show for it. Not the kind that anybody could see.

Seth tried to force his mind out of the darkness and back into the blazing sunshine around him. He knew many thought they had fought for nothing, but the Bush Wars that had surrounded his home had started before he could remember, and ended officially only two years ago. He remembered his homecoming from service: after what had already been over a decade of violence, he had just hoped that the changes still rippling through the country would allow everyone to live in peace. Enough lives had been lost on both sides, and for too long terror had been a part of every day. That was no way to live or build a future.

For six happy months, then, the whole family had been together on the ranch. Seth’s mom had been in her element, fussing over everyone around her. Seth’s dad had taken him around the ranch, rifle in hand from habit. There had been pride in his voice as he showed off the cattle herd and spoke of his plans for the future, once Seth had completed his degree and returned to the ranch for good. Seth couldn’t wait. His years of university, interrupted as they had been, were almost over; he had only his final exams left. He shared his father’s love of the ranch, and the country of his birth.

As the nation’s upheaval drew to a close, the Hendersons had all but forgotten the sandbags piled high outside each window, blocking out most of the daylight. These had always been feeble protection should their home come under attack, but had lent a fragile illusion of safety – as had the twelve-foot security fence and the floodlights that shone brighter than the sun throughout the night. During the worst years, they had all learned to sleep lightly, ready to come to full wakefulness in an instant. One ear had always been tuned to the radio that linked them with the other ranchers in the area. The farming community of the country had become more and more closely knit as the war had intensified. Almost weekly, a homestead had been attacked. Seth had lost track of all the funerals he had been to. It had seemed a senseless loss of life. Nevertheless, families had learned to cope – to put on a brave face, and to pray that their ranch would not be the next one attacked and that their sons, husbands and brothers would come home alive from active duty. Together, his family had survived it all. Or so they had thought.

For it to happen just as they’d thought things were recovering was, Seth screamed inside his head, the cruelest blow. Try as he might, he could never blot out the day the phone call had come.

On a cloudless afternoon in June 1979, Seth had been called to see his Head of Department, Professor Smits. He had worried, innocently, if there was a problem with his coursework. But, fifteen minutes later, Seth was staring in sick disbelief at the professor, his eyes begging her to negate what he was hearing. His sister Naomi’s tear-filled voice was throbbing over the telephone line, speaking words that would not penetrate.

“Seth, come home. Dad and Mom were ambushed on the ranch. Seth… Seth, they’re both dead. I need you. Please…” Naomi’s sobs echoed down the line. “Seth, come home.”

The shock of her words hit Seth like a ton of bricks to the chest. Gasping for air, almost collapsing, he allowed his professor to guide him to a chair. Slumping forward, he buried his face in his hands, his tears burning hot.

Professor Smits hesitated, feeling helpless, as Seth’s choked sobs filled the silence. She had watched this powerful young man over the years and admired his character. He had proved himself to be both an excellent student and a natural leader, even before his National Service had trained him. Others looked up to him, not only because he stood a head and shoulders above most, but also because he had maturity beyond his twenty-four years. Even so, nothing could have prepared him for the responsibility suddenly laid on him as the head of his family. A deep compassion filled Professor Smit’s heart. Seth felt the hand of comfort on his shoulder – but was completely, unutterably alone in his grief. Minutes ticked by as Seth tried to come to terms with the life-shattering news that his parents were gone. Both of them. Dead.

Unstoppable accusations screamed through Seth’s brain.
Why?
The word pounded in his mind.
Why them? Why now? We survived the worst years – why, God? Why?
At that moment, something in Seth’s already-tormented mind tore away. He could see no justice, no reason – no plan to suggest that the beneficent being their drafty local chapel had introduced to him was present anywhere in the world.

Slowly, Seth’s sobs subsided and a steely numbness curled around his heart. Lifting his wet face he looked at Professor Smits and said steadily, in a deep, husky voice, “I need to call my sister back. I must go home. Naomi needs me, now.”

The next few hours had passed in a pain-filled blur. Seth recalled speaking to Naomi; booking a flight from Cape Town to Bulawayo; packing. All the while, he had been hoping that maybe it was all a terrible mistake – but, in his heart, knowing it was true. Seth had stifled his sobs on the aeroplane back towards Impunzi. Now, three years on, he could still feel them caught somewhere deep inside him.

The impala Seth had been watching cantered away. Seth blinked and, again, forced his restless mind into calm. Concentrating on his breathing, he wished he could block out the memories that sometimes stalked insistently back through his mind. He wanted Impunzi to be a place where he, as well as tourists and locals, could relax – and catch a glimpse of what was still magic in Zimbabwe. The bush, he knew, was a place where frayed nerves could mend and wounded souls could heal.

A rumble of tyres interrupted Seth’s reverie. In annoyance, he saw a cloud of dust being raised by a Jeep he knew belonged to Carol. The Jeep came to a stop in the clearing behind him, and Seth groaned inwardly. Carol had been a mistake: he regretted starting an affair with her. She wanted more, more of him and of his time. Carol was the daughter of Impunzi’s closest neighbour, and therefore of one of Seth’s parents’ closest friends, Simon. She had returned from four years studying Politics at UCLA, in America, just when Seth had felt at his loneliest. Naomi had been staying away from home, and the party where he had met Carol again had been one of very few bright spots of his calendar. Seth had been about to leave, aware that all the laughter and music could not fill the ache inside him, when he saw her. Carol had become a beautiful young woman, perfectly matured by her years away. He had noticed the way she kept looking at him and felt a flicker of interest. They had gone home together that night.

Six months later, Carol had gone back to America for an internship. Seth knew that he should have ended things before she’d left. She wanted commitment, but her clingy ways had distanced him and her broad hints had fallen on deaf ears. He had felt nothing but relief at her absence, but knew that when she returned they would have to have a serious talk. As far as he was concerned, their relationship was over. Unfortunately, Seth thought dispassionately, he got on better with Carol’s father than with Carol. He hoped their going separate ways would not affect the friendship that had grown stronger since his parents’ passing. Seth nodded curtly to the eager-looking Carol, then turned and walked deliberately away from her, in appearance to talk to the ranch manager, and Naomi’s boyfriend, Tony. He lurked out of sight until she, feeling bored, angry, and ignored, jumped back into her Jeep and sped off. Seth had not said two words to her.

Seth sighed and wondered if there was a woman on the earth who could make him want to settle down. He doubted it.

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