Farewell to South Africa

[I wrote this piece a while ago, an imagining of my mother’s experience on leaving her childhood home. I hope you enjoy it.]

ss-briton

The taxi pulled up on the quayside. From my seat in the back, I looked up at the massive hull of the ship in the berth. Now that the time had come, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave South Africa, the only home I had ever known. I missed the mission school and my friends, and I did not want to trade them for a new life with people and places I didn’t know. Worst of all, I still missed my father, now dead seven years. I was afraid of leaving him behind, of forgetting him and the memories of the short years we had shared.

The driver left the motor running as he helped us alight. He unloaded our hand luggage. We had sent on our trunks and they would already be delivered to our cabin.

My mother paid the driver and added a small tip. Now that the main breadwinner was gone, we weren’t rich, but there was such a thing as pride.

‘It’ll be all right, Annie,’ my mother said, picking up her bag and hugging my shoulders with her free hand. She seemed to understand what I was feeling but somehow it didn’t help. I began to cry and buried my face in the folds of her cape.

It would be my fifth crossing. However, this trip would be different. My mother had made it clear that we would be spending more than just a few weeks in Scotland, the country she had left fifteen years earlier to marry my father in Boksburg. She hadn’t really explained why she wanted to leave Africa or how long she expected us to be away. She had even talked about sending me to school in Britain. That made things worse. I could conceive of no reasons that made sense why we would leave our comfortable, warm lives for faraway Scotland. I had been there and hadn’t liked it much. The weather was cold and dull and the people spoke with a funny accent, all ayes and ocks and long, rumbling rrrs. My grandpa had become quite angry when I said I didn’t understand him. My uncles had smelled of tobacco smoke.

For a few moments, I enjoyed the comfort of my mother’s embrace. Then I withdrew from her bosom, sniffed and wiped my damp face on the sleeve of my new travelling frock.

‘Use a handkerchief, Annie,’ my mother chided. ‘Remember you’re a young lady!’

Two officials of the mail ship company were waiting to inspect our tickets and our papers. My mother handed them over and we waited. The procedure seemed to take forever. I passed the time staring at other passengers who had passed through and were making their way up the gangplank – stiff and sullen strangers I had no intention of befriending.

Our embarkation approved, my mother squeezed my shoulder again and kissed me gently on the forehead.

‘It’ll be all right, Annie. It really will. We have one another and that’s all that matters, isn’t it?’

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I nodded, wondering what the voyage would be like. The last trip had been rather fun but that had been a proper holiday. Apart from the Bay of Biscay crossing when I was sick, I had enjoyed myself, watching the sun come up over the sea and playing all the deck games. I had no expectation of enjoying this adventure. There were only two maiden aunts to look forward to. They would be staying with us, my mother had told me – while we made other plans.

We were now close to the ship and the quay had become quite noisy. Taxis deposited more travellers and honked as they pulled away empty. Trade vans hooted and from time to time the ship gave a trial blast of its horn. I looked up at the gaping hole in the ship’s side, ready to swallow us up, and imprison us and most of what we owned, for three weeks in its bowels.

I turned to catch one last glimpse of Table Mountain, just visible behind the warehouses and cranes. The African sky was blue with scarcely a cloud. I looked up at my mother, rubbed my eyes again and set one foot on the gangplank.

*****

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