What Happened to Us by Ian Holding


Published 17 May 2018, Little Island Press is pleased to present the following extract from Holding's novel, What Happened to Us.


I think what happened to us started the day I was out playing on the streets of our neighbourhood and accidently pissed on the President’s face. I was a thirteen year old kid, skinny, lean-boned, full of shit. It was a Tuesday afternoon and I was home early from school on a scorching early November day. There hadn’t been any rainfall yet to ease the tight, dry heat or settle the dust, and I was out and about amongst it, blood-hot, looking for trouble.

This small convenience shop sat at the edge of a circular field. It was more of a bottle store, at the end of a row of three shop buildings, and it was run down, a bit grubby. We never used it unless Mom ran short of milk or sugar so she’d send Petra down to see if they had any in stock, but it was popular with the domestic workers from around the neighbourhood. Dad said it had become a bit of a shabeen and I shouldn’t hang out there, but that only added to its allure. Sometimes at weekends, at dusk on a Sunday, there was twangy gospel music blaring from a blown speaker, and the mob of people on the stoep jigged about in an aura of sweet-smelling smoke. 

During the weekdays it was calm, sedate, low-key. Flat red soil ran along the wide ground in front of it, scattered with small gritty stones, dry tufts of lime-white grass. Upturned fruit slats balanced on bricks had items for sale spread across them,  tomatoes, cabbages, charred mealies on the cob. A row of grim nannies oversaw it, their fat arses sat on small stools, looking generally annoyed with life. They were my victims, my play things for the afternoon as I glided in, owning a straggled line of them in my crazed vision. 

The first thing I did was race the narrow corridor behind them, between their line of stalls and the cracked concrete stoep of the shops, before braking hard, leaning in and turning my handle bars down at an angle I could just control. The effect was great, soil swelling in my wake, rising in a cloud, smoking everyone with a rusty layer of fine dust.

Mufana,’ they said. ‘Hey, hey, you go away, go away.’

I called back, loud and mocking. 

This was taken as a threat. One was up and after me, lumbering through the collapsing sheets of dust, her dark arms flapping, her screen-printed T-shirt barely containing her massive boobs and the rest of her bulk wrapped in a skirt of loud zig-zag print fabric. It was those jagged strokes I saw staggering towards me that made me think I was deep to the neck in the crap this time. 

But I was too fast. Swift and energised. I was up on my haunches, kicking down at my pedals, cruising the cusp of the crescent in no time, yards and walls and gates streaming soundlessly by, and I’d left her shaking her fists at me, yelling at me in Shona to stay away. This was only a challenge for round two, a second assault. I circled back, laughing my head off. 

This usually carried on until I grew tired. There were only so many nannies you could rag and run away from before your legs got stiff, a thirst dried out your throat. Plus on this particular day I needed a short rest and a quick piss. I pedalled round the back of the bottle store, lent the bike against the brickwork and took a slash against the wall, sure this tall flange of dry bush acted as a bit of a screen. 

It was only when I was shaking dry I realised the entire rear wall of the bottle store had been strung up with these glossy banners in yellow, green and black stripes and they had writing on them, quotes and slogans around this centre picture, and in fact I had been busy sloshing a firm jet of pee at a supersized image of a pair of square glasses, behind which were two distinctive dark eyes, opal black, a rim of red round the pupils, both cased in a stark off-white slip. It was the President’s face. Oh shit. Not good at all. I felt this immediate lung-drained panic of having done something very wrong, very bad. I quickly pulled back and hopped on the bike, racing off round the front again. I didn’t think anyone saw me, it didn’t feel as if anyone did, but you never can be sure.

For several seconds I kept expecting an angry swarming mob to come charging after me, but no one did. I decided to play it cool, to hang around for a bit, launch a fresh attack as if nothing had happened. I swooped through the passage again before curving off, breaking and grazing my tyres across the loose red soil. Again the sheets of dust furled. But even the nannies had given up chasing me now, resigned to the heat and their quiet fury at this cheeky white boy. Their shouting and cussing, threatening to march off to call a cop, send the war vet militias after me, all came to nothing and they knew it as well as I did that this was their bitch bad lot of a stinking hot afternoon. In the leafy northern suburbs the white kid was king.

Startling and original, Ian Holding’s fiction is almost Blakean in its vision.
— Michael Ondaatje

In a way I was disappointed my antics hadn’t caused more of a stir. It was a flat anti-climax. I craved the high drama of inciting the locals, longing for their animated histrionics to serve as a counterpoint to my own tame suburban background. It had the promise of being thrillingly entertaining. At the same time an older part of me knew this brand of shit-stirring was bordering on becoming distasteful anyway, a touch pathetic.

I pulled away from the grime and the groans and started to make my way up Alice Smith road, slugging hard at the pedals as I began to climb the hill. Sweat sluiced my baked brow, the nearly hairless hollow of my armpits. I rocked on the bike to build a rhythm but my legs gave in, failing me three-quarters the way up. I stopped, panting. I slid off the saddle and began to wheel the bike next to me. It was hot as hell.

Ian Holding.jpg

Ian Holding’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Unfeeling, was published in 2005, shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2006 and named a Best Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail newspaper. This was followed by Of Beasts and Beings in 2010. He has twice been a Fellow of the Hawthornden Literary Institute and holds a PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand.


What Happened to Us
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In the fiery environment of an election season, with tensions stoked by an unrelenting heatwave, Danny Walker goes about the business of being a carefree boy. But when a horrific act of violence is visited on his family, his sense of innocence is shattered and his grip on reality slowly begins to fracture. In lean, lyrical prose, Zimbabwean writer Ian Holding delivers a mesmerising coming-of-age tale of guilt and responsibility set within the fault-lines of modern Africa.