A storied childhood

Bedtime books on tape spool memories of Africa.

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We grab blankets and mugs of milk and head out to the tin-roofed shelter that serves as our garage.

"Shoes on," I remind 9-year-old Sam. Snakes are a threat in Southern Africa at the start of the rains.

Outside lamps attract flying ants that attract frogs that attract snakes, especially in the evenings. Vibrant green tree snakes, puff adders, spitting cobras, and even a black mamba: All these we have seen in our backyard in eastern Zimbabwe.

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But with our feet tucked into my mother-in-law's car, we are safe. I fit my 2-year-old into her car seat and hand her a box of crayons.

I press "play." A motherly voice fills the car: "Carrie's mother wasn't in London anymore. Her father's ship was on convoy duty in the North Sea, and her mother had gone to live in Glasgow so she could see him when he came into port."

This has become our bedtime ritual: cassettes in the car. My mother and my aunt send us books on tape gleaned from secondhand shops or rescued from the back of a drawer: unlistened-to, unloved. No one in England plays cassettes anymore.

Half a world away in a 20-something Toyota, those tapes are still going strong. I like the tinny "click" they make as they reach the end of a side, the snap that jerks you out of a story and back into real life.

Not so long ago, we had a cassette player in the kitchen, a hand-me-down from a Zimbabwean friend. It came in a cardboard box with her handwriting looped across one corner, a memory of a 14th birthday long ago: "I asked for a stereo-player and I got it. Yippee!"

After six years, the cassette player stopped working. Even the intensive ministrations of Trymore – who has a repair shop in downtown Mutare and can repair just about anything – couldn't revive it.

I blame the beetle I saw idling under the "pause" button.

Now at night, pajama-ed and relatively clean-toothed, we pad out toward the garage and the distant shores of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," Rosemary Sutcliff's "The Eagle of the Ninth," or Nina Bawden's "Carrie's War," tonight's story.

"Hepzibah said: 'Oh, it's you, Carrie.' Her voice was pitched low and soft. Her spellbinding voice, Carrie thought, and looked up at her."

The baby demands more paper.

Sam reclines his seat. He's sitting in the front seat. I look at his profile in the dim light. I am listening to the cassette. But I am also thinking.

In a month's time, my boy will be 10. Next year, he will be 11. And so it will go on, until he leaves me and his father and his sister to live out his own stories – as it is only right and proper he should.

Will he think back to the times he sat in the dark in a car in Africa, listening to tales of Wales in World War II or the finest lady detective of Botswana, a country he has visited and tells me he found "very flat"?

Will he think, when he is grown, "Poor mum. She tried to get the ancient tape player that sat on top of the fridge working, but she couldn't, so she made us trail out to the car so we could listen to Grandma's old cassettes"?

Or will he recall how the Peanut Butter Cat – who squirreled his way into the car, too – snoozed on the carpeted back shelf as the cassette whirred away?

And how his sister squawked when the wrapper came off her red crayon and the blue one fell on the floor and had to be fumbled for in the darkness?

Will he remember how, in the pause between one side and the next, we heard the chimes of the crickets and a volley of barks from the dogs up the road, which may or may not have scented a monkey out of bed much later than a monkey should be?

I like to believe that he will recall that glorious moment in "Carrie's War" when strict Welshman Mr. Evans finally gives his evacuee Nick the penknife he coveted. By then, perhaps, my child will have squared up to difficult characters in real life – and sensed beneath their brusqueness a deep desire for affection and understanding.

I hope Sam will think that these evenings we spend shut in the car are a story themselves, his own first chapter.

Because this motionless car, with its nose pointing past the fig tree to the msasa-studded mountains where elephants lurk, is what I want for his childhood: story-filled, accompanied by spellbound passengers, with wonders waiting to be discovered beyond the fingerprint-smeared windows.

In time my boy will ease off the hand brake and roll out into the world.

Until then, I'll keep pressing "play."

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