Indecent Exposure And The Rest I was in receipt of or witnessed discipline in the severest sense. The business of the witch doctor being arraigned for ritual killing could have been a case in point, but the first instance and the most frightful was to do with ‘indecent exposure’ and, if I had known of the trauma to follow, I would never have opened my mouth. It was mid afternoon and I was standing among the fruit trees on our patch, talking to one of the African servants, when suddenly he opened his trousers exposed himself for me to admire. Whether he had other proposals I don’t know, I was too taken aback to think and even if I had I was too inexperienced to know what they might have been. I had never seen anything quite like it before and its size and colour were a culture shock of the first order. I told my mother who told my father who was a strap man, that is, someone who takes off his belt to administer discipline. I remember hearing the young black man screaming and later crying, or more like howling, long into the night. I had not realised the enormity of what had happened and so the punishment seemed, to me unbelievably barbarous.
Some time later, I was to receive the same treatment for what I would have considered a breach of etiquette – I had been rude as a seven year old will, from time to time, but little more. For this, with the help of the goading of Johnny Walker, I was stripped, held down on a bed with a hand across the back of my throat and whaled with the self-same belt. I’m sure I howled too. What harm did it do to me? Not much I think. I was never to receive worse, but I was destined to receive much more but rarely for even less.
When children living in Livingstone reached a certain age they were generally sent to Bulawayo or Capetown to boarding school, and then later they were sent to the UK to finish their education, so most were in boarding school from an early age. We, who were too young, were left behind and only saw the older boys at irregular and long intervals so we were a prey rather than playmates, objects to be teased and worse, harried, and bullying was our permanent lot.
The family-life which existed then, now seems pointless. At eight years or thereabouts, the children would be sent off and, to all intents and purposes, never be seen again except for very short periods. It reminds me of a tea-room in Newcastle, County Down, circa 1950+. Ted, my brother-in-law and I had been spending a few days walking in the Mourne Mountains and had descended into Newcastle, tired but happy. We found a tearoom to pass the time until we would board the train home. Seated opposite me was a familiar cameo in which the father, a stranger to the boy in the uniform of the local boarding school, was vainly trying to break the ice. Both would leave with a mixture of frustration, disappointment and the knowledge that they knew nothing of one another.
SMOKING & WHISKEY I took up smoking on an experimental basis somewhere between the ages of six and seven. Smoking was the norm and the non-smoker was not so much a rarity as someone with a deficiency. My smoking started with reeds. All the Africans’ huts were roofed and often walled with bundles of reeds taken from the river. They stood about six or seven feet high, were about half an inch in diameter and were hollow. If, while hiding behind the huts in the kraal at the bottom of the garden, one lighted the end of a short length, the reed would glow and give off an acrid smoke which we would draw into our mouths if not our lungs,. It was only a small step then to steal the odd few cigarettes which were kept in silver boxes for visitors. There was not much check kept on them as they were very inexpensive, unlike the whiskey which had a habit of disappearing. We would take turns in supplying the cigarettes until the whole thing became a bore and then it was dropped. Tangerine scrumping was much more fun and mildly more dangerous, because the best tangerines were not ours, they were grown by an irascible old codger who liked tangerines a lot more than he liked little boys.
I mentioned the whisky which disappeared from the locked Tantalus and bottles at an alarming rate. I found my mother holding a bottle of drink upside down and marking the label. It must have seemed odd to me because she explained that whiskey had been disappearing and she blamed our African servants. She added that if the bottle was marked upside down, the level of the liquid when the bottle was righted, would bear no relationship to the mark on the label – crafty! At the time I believed her, but with the experience of time I suspect the thief was a good deal closer to home.