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A special friend

JOYCE was one of my special friends when I was growing up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. There was a kind of exaltation about her that erupted in song and dance and laughter. She was a young woman of about 20, I suppose, of what is referred to (depending on where you are) as of Colored or mixed race.

In my seven-year-old eyes she was beautiful. She was tall and slender, and the bright, low-necked dresses she wore showed off her graceful shoulders. Her skin was the color of an impala doe and when she laughed, which she did a lot, her teeth flashed white and even.

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She'd laugh gaily when we whirled together in exuberant dance; we would make up the steps, and most of the time we gyrated and pranced for the sheer joy of living. She'd smile in gentle sympathy when I grazed my knees or caught my finger in a door.

On other occasions, her laughter had another quality, like the times she took me to school on her bicycle. I'd sit on the carrier with my arms around her and watch her long, powerful legs turning the pedals.

The days were still fresh at that hour, the sun just starting to find its strength. Along the verge of the road, dew sparkled on cobwebs spread over pink-tufted grasses and myriads of insects rasped in chorus. From my lofty perch, I'd look for the wildflowers we had studied on our walks and big, hard-backed ''tictoc'' beetles.

Sometimes the grass-cutters were out, working their way along the roadsides, swinging their scythes to the rhythm of their singing. Joyce would stand up on the pedals, her legs longer than ever as she turned the wheels with increasing speed. As she came level with the grass-cutters, she'd sit down and we'd freewheel slowly past them. The men would interrupt their work. There would be jovial exchanges, then Joyce would toss her head high and her laugh rang out. Rising from the saddle again, she would pedal furiously to a chorus of fading merriment.

Then again, I would hear her soft murmuring laughter, or great guffaws, when she sat with her friends in the afternoon heat.

When Joyce wasn't laughing, she was singing. Her voice was a rich contralto and it vibrated with warmth and joy. She filled the house with her songs. There was no limit to her range or repertoire. When she needed to replenish it, we would wind up the old gramophone and place a 78 r.p.m. on the turntable. Among our favorites were a couple of records from the ''Carmen'' album.

Joyce had a natural ear for melodies and picked them up easily, developing harmonies to the main tune. She would hum softly when we went for walks in the bush beyond the town.

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There was a place where sugar cane grew, and she would cut off tops for us to chew so that the sweet juice flowed down our throats. We'd stop to tickle the sandy tunnel holes of minute insects with stalks of grass in the hope that they'd come to the surface. We made necklaces and bracelets from the scarlet and black seeds in the long pods of the kaffir boom tree.

Joyce taught me to sew. We'd sit side by side on the divan in the work-cum-play room and I would watch her. Then I'd try to duplicate her nimble fingerwork; my efforts were slow and laborious, and she'd tease me, the words tempered by her lilting tone. She created animals for me or for the numerous fetes that were held for one cause or another, cutting fawns and puppies and lion cubs from odd pieces of material and stuffing them with scraps of cloth or paper.

A favorite fawn went with me to boarding school, and Joyce went on to pastures new. Our paths took us in different directions, to other countries.

It's been years since we last saw each other. But I never hear ''Carmen'' that I don't think of Joyce. I never see a lively dance, coupled with laughter, but that I am, in spirit, with Joyce.

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