Book extract: The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, By Lauren Liebenberg

Liebenberg's novel offers a child's-eye view of 1970s Rhodesia
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The forest is a shadowy otherworld of whispering and secrets. Actually, Cia and I possess the uncommon power to live in two worlds at once – the world you can see, and the other, the one you can feel. It's always there, all around us, beating its feathery wings just below. Cia can sense it, but I am the clairvoyant, and while she sees through my second sight, always it is the forest that opens my eyes.

Sometimes we catch other glimpses – at night fairies can easily be mistaken for glow-worms glowing faintly under bushes, and once, while burying my favourite food in the back garden by the light of the full moon – a fail-safe remedy for warts – I saw an explosion of fairies in the night sky (Oupa said they'd set off SOS flares at the next-door farm). Cia saw the Wombles climbing up our drainpipe one night, but the sighting had a nightmarish quality: apparently they were Wombles-Gone-Bad, who were coming to get her.

Other glimpses come to us from other eyes. When Dad was a boy, he woke once in the middle of the night to find all his toys had come alive, and though I've wished on everything I can think of and prayed to Jesus with all my might, I still haven't caught mine alive yet. Cia may be jinxing it, though: she lives in terror of the same thing – her beloved toys bewitched – and squeezes her eyes shut at the slightest stir in our bedroom at night.

But though we live in a world laced with threads of magic, triflings like tooth mice and firefly fairies pale next to the powerful magic that dwells in the forest. When Cia and I enter its unending twilight, the earthly gives way to the unearthly, to the ethereal. As the canopy of trees closes over us we can hear the heavy boughs whispering ancient secrets to one another, just as they do in the tales of the Faraway Tree, and we can feel hidden eyes on us with every footfall. Shrouded in the forest, we are lifted above the grubbiness of chicken slaughters, of peanut butter and jam, and are allowed to enter another world – one where things flit on gossamer wings and anything is a mere wish away.

We have a hideout, just like the Secret Seven, except ours is better. On one of the old terraces above the farmhouse a curtain of ivy trailing down from a stinkwood opens on to an alcove ringed with stones from the ruins of the old terrace buttress. It is on the edge of the forest and where we will go tonight for the flight to Fairyland.

For months Cia has been begging me to take her with me. At first I said no and told her it was because she was too fat for the delicate wings that I sprout each night at midnight, and that that great gut of hers would probably sink us both, but Cia went right on begging, and after a while her begging wore me down. And now darkness has fallen on the night that I have promised to take her.

We wait for a long time after the light has gone off under Mom's door, waiting for her to get drowsy, for sleep to come. We nearly fall asleep ourselves – I keep jerking awake on the floor against the door to our room. At last I judge it safe and we open our door, the latch creaking disloyally, and creep out into the passage. It is cloaked in velvety darkness, but we know it's long, wide expanse and the doorways opening off it. Mom and Dad's is at the far end, the empty room next to it, the bathroom is opposite and our room last. We make it safely to the landing, not having to pass Mom's door, and slink down the spiral staircase, but as we reach the bottom and head out into the entrance hall past the voorkamer and towards the great front doors, we suddenly hear Oupa call out from the back bedroom: "Who's there?"

I freeze. Cia's nails dig deep into the delicate skin of my wrist and I try to stifle my breathing.

"Jislaaik! We'll be in trouble if we get caught," Cia warned, before nightfall. What with the Terrs and hyena, we are never allowed to wander beyond the Terr fence after dark.

We clutch each other in the hallway, waiting for the strip of light to appear under Oupa's door, but it does not. He must have thought the night and sleep had deceived him. After an age I nudge Cia forward. We make it to the front door, and I wish again that there were another way out, such as climbing through our window and down a tree, like the Hardy Boys, but our window is barred and there's no escape. I unlatch the sash window that flanks the door and slowly crank it up. We slither out through the chink, first me, then Cia, tiptoe round to the back of the stoep, flee across the lawn like two nightgowned wraiths and climb through a secret hole in the Terr fence.

As we enter the forest, fear caresses me. Everything seems somehow transformed: shapes have shifted, there are strange sounds, and I feel an invisible presence that has never been here before. This is not how I imagined it would be. It is far more frightening out here alone in the darkness, and I have to summon every ounce of courage I possess to plunge into the depths of the forest. Only Cia's scared face, which looks up trustingly into mine, makes me muster the strength and, her hand clasped in mine, we go on.

On reaching the hideout, we warily lift the veil of ivy (lest we disturb some unknown nocturnal intruder) and crawl in. Cosseted inside our den, my fear begins to fade. The evil shadows ebb to hover just outside the threshold, while the night and the forest begin to cast a different spell. The hour is nigh and my excitement mounts. I compose myself, pull the chopstick wand from the elastic of my broekies and instruct Cia to prepare for the incantation to invoke the spirits.

We've learned it from spying on the Afs' ancestral ceremonies, and while we are vague on the details, many hours of rehearsal means we can do a passable imitation of such a ceremony. I assume the role of chief n'anga chanting an invocation that is part African shaman, part recital from our book by the Brothers Grimm, while Cia plays the supporting cast, ululating, swaying and beating on an imaginary drum.

"Bayede Nkosi!"

"Boom ba-ba boom ba-ba boom!"

Cia closes her eyes.

"Abracadabra!" I wave my wand and pray to the spirit of Angélique for divine intervention. Angélique is our dead grandmother, Oupa's wife, God rest her soul, and I'm named after her, or at least second-named after her, so I figure she's our best ancestor to pray to. Besides, I'm afraid to call upon Great-grandfather, toiling and toiling with his soulless eyes. Angélique is very mysterious too. Her secrets are locked away in the attic.

"Amen," I say in ending. "Peace be with you."

Cia makes the sign of the cross.

"Idlozi Iiyabekwela," I add, which means "an ancestral spirit is watched for".

Then I lie down solemnly on my stomach on a large granite block, Cia clambers on to my back, wraps her arms tightly round my middle, and we wait expectantly for my wings to grow.

Suddenly it is utterly still, with not even the ear-piercing shriek of a fruit bat to break the silence. We wait.

"Nyree?"

"Ssssh!"

The silence yawns.

"Nyree, why's nothing happening?" she whispers breathily into my ear.

"I don't know," I hiss back irritably. "It's probably because you're too heavy."

"Oh."

It is a single note of sheer disappointment.

I feel bad – for not taking Cia to Fairyland and, worse, for blaming her for my failure to do so. She clambers off my back and we sit glumly on the rock.

"I knew it. I just knew I'd never get there in the end," she declares eventually, hanging her head.

© Lauren Liebenberg 2008.

'The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam' is published by Virago, £12.99

About the author

Lauren Liebenberg was born in 1972, during the civil war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). As a child she moved with her gold miner father to South Africa, where she still lives. '...Peanut Butter and Jam' is her first novel.

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