The day came to leave and we, my mother and I, caught the train which would ultimately take us to Capetown, a train where one booked a compartment in which one read, ate, slept and washed for tedious days on end. The hand-basin was on the door and one tipped it up to empty it out onto the track. I have only a vague impression of that part of the journey, of dust, heat, the regular stops and the confinement, but I remember vividly some of the passes we went up to reach the plateaux, where the views were breath-taking and where the train, being so long and the hair-pin bends so tight, the engine actually passed beside the guard’s van
The journey home appears like a series of excerpts from an 8mm colour film rather than one long episode – like a series of snapshots. I say ‘home’ because I never really felt that Africa was my home, it was a way-station. I can almost smell the air as I did then. When the train from Livingstone to the Cape halted for water or fuel, we would find groups of Africans who wanted to sell fruit, food, and their beautiful knick-knacks, standing below us on the track, in the scorching sunlight backed by the harsh browns of the sand and the burnt grasses Their wares ranged from little models of animals the size of the blunt end of a pencil to huge elephants and crocodiles, all made from ivory. There were wooden artefacts and small carved stools with areas coloured in patches by poker-work, trays in natural and black cane, beaded bangles and little purses on a string either beaded or woven where the bottom was attached to the string and the top slid up and down it as it was opened and closed. At one such stop I persuaded my mother to buy me a long bladed wooden knife with a carved handle in a polished wood not unlike mahogany – ebony. It was one of my early ventures into persuasive barter as compensation; she was placating an aggrieved son.
For almost all the time I had lived in Africa I was required to wear an awful pith-helmet that my mother had purchased in the UK before we went out there. It was the usual putty colour and was about half an inch thick, as if made of pizza dough, although we had never heard of pizzas then. I suppose this type of hat was all the rage when she had left Africa some years before, but she was not up with the times. When we arrived I found that my peers were kitted out with very smart and very lightweight helmets made of compressed cork. All the other children made fun of mine. At that age, 6, I hadn’t the wit to sit on the thing, bust it and then get a new one and be like my contemporaries, instead I tended to run about without it, risking severe sunstroke which I suffered on more than one occasion. In the end, of course, it wore out, part of the brim went limp and when it was too far gone it was replaced by the cork type, but this only happened a few weeks before we left to come home. I was like a cat that had eaten the canary, at last I was like everyone else, now I conformed, I had a cork topee.
The day came to leave and we caught the train. By this time I was eight years old. On the train was a family friend who was on his way to Bulawayo and he accompanied us for some time; that was the problem. He was a sort of ‘hail fellow – well met’ person, given to the broad gesture and when we had been travelling for some time he came to our compartment and committed a heinous crime. I can’t recall all the details, even how it came about, but I do remember the nub of the incident vividly. You must understand that ever since I had been told I was going ‘home’ I had been casting myself as the returning traveller, having visions of myself telling all my erstwhile friends about lions and crocs, baboons and witch doctors, while standing about in my smart, new, compressed cork toupee – David Livingstone the second. This blighter, this interloper into our compartment, this vandal, stood up, opened the window and then, with words like “Well, you’ll soon be home, no need for this thing then!” he snatched the helmet off my head. I
had been wearing it ever since I had received it and probably would have done so in bed if the brim had not been so hard. He then skimmed it through the window, beyond reach, beyond recovery. I was dumbfounded as I watched it disappear down the track. Heartbroken I steadily became more and more hideously vindictive after that. If even a couple of my prayers had been answered he would have died a gruesome death at my feet – hence the blackmail and the purchase of the knife.