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The Old Drift

Namwali Serpell

L'Aveugle - fotografia de Thomas Devaux
photography by Thomas Devaux
On the banks of the Zambezi River, a few miles from the majestic Victoria Falls, there was once a colonial settlement called «The Old Drift». Here begins the epic story of a small African nation, told by a mysterious swarm-like chorus that calls itself man’s greatest nemesis. The tale? A playful panorama of history, fairytale, romance and science fiction. The moral? To err is human.  Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2020

Agnes (1962)

Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a princess and she played tennis because that was all she knew and she was very good, she was the best in all of southern England, minor newspapers characterising her style of play with words usually reserved for ornithology or engineering, and she received many gifts – there were trophies and cloth ribbons that rivalled the ornaments and jewellery she grew up with, prizes that paid for more vases and necklaces than she could possibly fill with flowers and throats – when one day, out of the blue, out of the clear blue sky, which she made herself gaze at until she could make out its colour every day up to the very end, she went blind, her vision bleeding away in droplets of sight over seven months until she couldn’t see anything at all and that was the end of the princess’s dreams – she knew she would never win Wimbledon, never celebrate on camera.

And so she spent her days in her castle, dressed in wool trousers and jerseys, eating half a cold dinner in the dining room, walking the corridors, the echoes alone persuading her that the walls still existed, stalking the parapets and slumping up and down stairs, she repeated words from the shiny reviews of old tennis matches, singing a sad song to herself, until finally spring came – the heat in the air, the heady smell of blossoms, birdsong loud enough to wake you.

One day, she put on her tennis shoes, tightened her racket strings, and began to collect them, gathering as many dreams as possible – the old tennis balls from their hidden places around the castle, from under the sofa and behind the fridge, above and between books, all the nooks where they had been abandoned to wither and soften like kiwis. She made her way to the Grand Court, her white stick tapping the starkest soundtrack as she walked along the stone path to the unkempt lawn. She inhaled deeply and she began to dance – she rolled her shoulders, plucked a ball from the bag at her feet, tossed it in the air, and waited for it to rise…remember gravity…and fall into the rushing swing of her racket, because although the princess could not see, she still knew how to lean, reach and spin.

And so she danced by herself, serving until the bag lay empty, all birthed out. Then she picked up the empty sack, walked to the other side of the court, and crawled around, scavenging for the scattered balls and thus she played solo, tracing that space alone for two long months, a dead, knee-scraped time until…One day, the princess felt a tap on the shoulder and, sensing that someone was standing above her, she asked, ‘Who’s there?’ The silent stranger took her arm; she tensed, smiling with the complacent grimace of a trained circus performer, she groped for her racket, and she served. As soon as she heard the ball skimming the net, she curtsied; he applauded; she felt a hand on hers, then a furry little globe – someone had handed her what she was seeking, and that is how the blind princess met the silent stranger.


Little circles of blankness had appeared one by one, first in the left eye, then in the right. Agnes could only tell that her eyes were failing at different rates when she closed one or the other. For each drop of sight that disappeared from her view, a small bump of the same size formed under her skin – on her forearm, her back, her cheek – like an insect bite but without the itch. She didn’t notice this strange and gradual pox; she didn’t connect the dots. Indeed, it took three losses in the autumn season before she casually mentioned to her mother that sometimes, when the tennis ball came speeding towards her, it simply vanished as if into a pocket of air.

Agnes was still in denial when her mother insisted they go to see their old family doctor that winter. Agnes sat on the edge of the examination table, her mother’s hand trembling on her shoulder. Her father was seated in the corner of the room. His figure was blurry but she imagined he was in his usual posture – legs and arms crossed, keeping himself contained behind Xs. She could hear his incessant murmur of hmms, the static of his agreement burring her conversation with Dr Lemming, which was beginning to sound like something that Agnes’s thespian cousin Jane might rave about: a modern existential drama, all questions and answers on a dark stage.

‘Can you see this?’ A faint beacon spun across Agnes’s visual frame.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘And this?’ A peripheral flicker, like a light bulb dying behind her.


Her mother patted her shoulder to reassure or reproach her for her promptness.

‘Has a ball ever hit you in the head or face?’

‘No,’ she scoffed. ‘I’m ranked eighth in Surrey. Eighth.’

‘Mm, of course.’ A waft of onion. Did Dr Lemming keep a tiny onion under his tongue? Agnes had wondered this as a child, too, with more conviction in its likelihood.

‘And can you see this?’

She heard a click but saw nothing. After a pause, she replied: ‘Yes, of course I can.’

Her mother’s hand lost its quicksilver tremble on her shoulder, became leaden. Agnes felt a sudden fury, hot and wet, behind her eyes. If nothing else, this would blind her, her mother’s hand sinking its weight into her shoulder, her father no longer murmuring in the corner, everyone waiting with bated breath but not the way they’d once waited for her flat serve.

‘Are you sure, Agnes?’

Nothing, nothing, a Venn diagram of nothing.

‘Yes! I can see it, I’m sure, I’m fine. I’m fine, yes I can see it…’

‘Alrighty now.’ Her mother gripped her shoulder. ‘He turned it…the torch isn’t…nothing to…’

Dr Lemming grunted and cracked his knuckles. Agnes shivered. She had always been wary of her doctor’s hands. As a teenager, she had noticed with horror why they seemed so misshapen – Dr Lemming had bitten his nails down nearly a half. Did he still bite them? Was he musingly gnawing away at them at this very moment? But no, Dr Lemming was uttering dry words – scotoma, macular, retina, optic – that her mother was wringing for a drop of hope: ‘Money not a…Anything we can…Is there…’ The slightest creep of a cool shadow, another waft of onion, Dr Lemming’s rough palm on her arm.

‘Agnes, can you describe what you see? What does it look like, exactly?’

Agnes had never witnessed the burning of a photograph but she must have seen it in a film or read it in a book because this was what she thought to say. It was as if someone had held all that she could see over a flame until tiny holes appeared, then merged to form larger ones until her whole picture of the world had curled away. The strangest thing – the holes were not black. They were just places she couldn’t see, the colour of nothing.

This wasn’t what she said to Dr Lemming, though. What she said was:

‘Terribly sorry, I don’t know what it looks like. Because according to you, I can’t see.’

Her mother clucked softly. Agnes hung her head, embarrassed by her stagey petulance, then rolled her head in a neck stretch she used to do before matches. This was comforting.

‘Your sense of irony is admirable under the circumstances, Agnes,’ Dr Lemming said flatly. ‘It shows pluck.’ He tapped her knee with a rough finger. ‘But it won’t make you see again.’

Agnes felt a snag in her throat as he stepped away, his shoes chirping on the parquet.


Agnes had always been a shallow, chatty girl. Going blind did not deepen her but it did shut her up somewhat, mostly because she found it hard to tell whether someone was speaking expressly to her. At first she insisted that everyone in the family preface their remarks with her name if they wished her to pay attention to them. But then she grew weary of hearing her name all the time (bloody condescending!), so she decided that they should raise their voices instead. Several rather shouty breakfasts later, it was clear that this would not do, either.

‘Christ, Mum. No need to bellow!’ Agnes shouted. ‘I’m not deaf.’

‘Oh dear,’ Carolyn murmured, ‘we’d better…shall we…the tea should…’ and escorted Agnes from the dining room to her bedroom, the doleful girl banging her shoulder purposely against every doorjamb on the way. Since the visit to Dr Lemming, Agnes had made every little crisis an excuse to throw a tantrum and stay locked up in her bedroom for days. She would pee haphazardly into a bedpan and eat mechanically from a laptray that Carolyn herself restocked. Now, Agnes slumped onto the bed and patted the side table until she found a plate of stale toast congealed with honey. She crunched into it, knowing it would irk her mother.

‘Dear Agnes, must you…always said…chewing…I suppose…but really, it’s…’

‘And you, dear Mother.’ Agnes spewed crumbs. ‘Must you speak so gappily?’

Carolyn had developed this habit of speech when she’d married George in the early 1940s. Even back then, he’d had the aristocratic habit of interrupting people with encouraging noises: Mmm…yes…yes…of course…yes…mmhmm, he would murmur loudly, sometimes closing with an enthusiastic Well! If you responded to his cues by falling silent, you faced his expectant stare. Over the years, Carolyn had learned to accommodate her husband’s intrusions by speaking in waves, which also had the advantage of disguising her less refined accent. She had been educated in England but could not shake her foreign-born roots. Carolyn’s ellipses had grown especially lengthy lately, as she fretted over her daughter’s waist and marital prospects.

‘Sweetheart…food is…duvet cover…crumbs all…’ Carolyn dribbled out minor chastisements as she tidied up the mess around Agnes, who lay like a queen in her litter.

‘Nope. Sorry, Mummy. Can’t see crumbs.’ Agnes wiped honey from the cul-de-sac above her lip with a delicate pinkie. ‘Blind, enn eye?’

Carolyn, helpless, retreated from the close-smelling room. Agnes lay down and took a nap. She dreamt she was playing tennis with two slippery, bristly balls that turned out to be her eyes. They stared up at her from her palms, blue and white and unblinking. But if they’re in my hands, how can I see them?

She woke to a knock at the door. Her mother bustled in with her gardenia perfume.

‘Your father…out and decided…a cane!’

Carolyn placed Agnes’s hands on it. Agnes took it, held it cautiously away from her body, felt along its length.

‘Is it…white?’

‘Mmm?…oh, yes.’

‘I’ve never thought about it really, but – are they always white, do you know?’

Carolyn did not know. Agnes stood with her cane and tested out movements. Swing it in circles? Tap it either side like a metronome? Trace figures of eight? Hold it hovering above the ground like a divining rod?

‘Well, I suppose you…the most important thing…whatever…comfortable?’

Agnes put her hand on her hip and held the cane out like a challenge, then lunged forward and brandished it, duelling the air and surprising them both into laughter.

‘Well…I suppose!’ Carolyn summed up triumphantly.

Agnes lowered the tip of the cane to the floor. ‘Yes,’ she said softly. ‘I suppose.’

This was improvement. Agnes had left her bed. After a few days, she began to leave her room as well. When she moved around indoors, she still preferred to count steps and feel for the furniture with outstretched arms, her hands floating, fingers undulating like seaweed, radiating openness to touch. But when she ventured outside, she used her cane. Its pittering sound, like the tick of a nervous watch, seemed to comfort her.

‘It’s certainly got her out of bed, hasn’t it, hmm,’ George said to Carolyn, smugly drawing his lips to one side.

Carolyn smiled and pushed his lips back to the middle of his face with a gentle finger. She knew, as every woman in the household knew, that it wasn’t the cane but Agnes’s monthlies that had finally prompted her to leave the dismal swamp of her bed.


The first task Agnes learned after her diagnosis, apart from getting food into and out of her body, was how to use a sanitary belt by feel. Mrs Wainscroft, the cook, whose manner was as forthright as her menu, assisted while Carolyn quivered outside the loo, making patchy suggestions:

‘You might…with the…is everything?’

Agnes growled for silence.

‘Such a complinckated garment,’ came Mrs Wainscroft’s high voice. ‘Toss a towel in the girdle and be done with it, I say.’ Then clapping hands and a raucous laugh – ‘Righty-o, go on now. That’ll keep you from staining another skirt all chocolatey!’

Most of Agnes’s clothes were white, a habit from her tennis days, though she rarely wore her gear now – the collared short-sleeved shirts, the pleated skirts with their deep pockets. Some days, she would sit on the floor of her closet, enveloped in sartorial history. She would reach up and run her fingers over the garments and sniff up at the whispering polyester, the wooden hangers clucking with pity. Other days, she would take out her rackets and pull wanly at the strings like a piano tuner. To be so young, on the edge of greatness, only to suffer a fate as ancient and weighty as blindness! No end to the slings and arrows, and they were all aimed at Agnes.

But even misery gets boring after a while. Her parents were soon accustomed to her condition. George, a local MP, was busy being re-elected and Carolyn was busy worrying about it. When spring came, Agnes found herself itching to play again. She longed for the looping relay, that back-and-forth of human relation. The maids were too skittish, and she daren’t ask Mrs Wainscroft: with those biceps and Agnes’s blind eyes, a concussion on one side or the other seemed likely.

So, one day, Agnes clambered out of bed, put on a musty tennis suit, grabbed a racket and a bag of balls, and made her way to the old lawn by herself. She walked its periphery – more of a lozenge than a rectangle – trampling the overgrown grass, then felt along the net in its centre, wincing as she fingered the new holes in it. She took ten steps away and turned to face it. She pulled a ball from the bag and served. It was gratifying to feel the racket make contact until she heard the ball fwip weakly against the low stone wall on the other side. She gritted her teeth and served again. Fwap! Much better.

END of the excerpt

Namwali Serpell on Her New Novel, The Old Drift | Literary Hub



excerpt of
The Old Drift
a novel by Namwali Serpell
Penguin Random House LLC, New York.



Maria José Alegre