Faster than fairies, faster than witches…how I loved to travel on the railways, and still do. Even now when the magnificence that was the railway of Great Britain has been somewhat reduced to a disconnected, much reviled, but still puffing bravely on service.
I was blessed by being born in Africa. The Federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland to be correct. Ndola, then Salisbury, but not so far to Blantyre – although I have plans and putative connection.
Annual holidays happened by calender, but long leave only every four or so years. The PTC permitted Pa to exit, stage left and take more than 2 weeks (I think) and take his whole family down south. To The Fairest Cape. For months he would weave his magic, drawing heavily on Lawrence G. Greene and his own fertile imagination and have my sister and I agog with the joys of anticipation.
When The Day arrived we would arrive, bathed, but in play clothes at Salisbury Station, it was vast – (or were we small?) and echoed to the roars and snorts of the engines, the staff and the sounds of the night. The smells were the most evocative, coal-dust and engine, and the hurly-burly mixed. I either clung to Pa’s hand or rode his shoulder, depending if my sister was in the pushchair or not. My mother – I presume , followed, a combination of lady-like sheep-dog, nipping the heels of the pack or directing the activities of the portering staff. No nipping here (that was reserved for the husband and children)
She was and still is very much the lady. And the only one of the family to be able to communicate, politely in the lingua-franca of the time. I thought all mummies addressed the indigenous help as if they were doing her the most enormously appreciated (and undeserved) favour. Much as she spoke to the butcher, the minister and the GP.
Once installed within the breathing iron behemoth and almost sick with excitement, Pa was ejected to hang from the window and chat in the corridor. Small sister and I were called to order, blinds pulled brisky Down! and deprived of play-clothes, inserted into pyjamas, teeth-cleaned and between the rough clean sheets before we could protest. Much. Pa was then readmitted to net me into the top bunk. I lay there, rigid with fright, lest I fall the great distance to the floor and Break My Collar Bone. Lovely Pa – aware (how?) of this neurosis made from strong parcel string a fish net, which he somehow attached to the 4 corners of the top bunks’ suspensory/supporting superstructure and allowed me to sleep through that first whirling, 4-4 time night until Bulawayo.
Bulawayo- the fantastical place, where mother had worked as a “young lady” and the small lilac soft back indigenous local history book told tales of Lobengula, Mzilikazi and Shaka – Zulu. This was the only time I really remember setting foot upon its’ blood-soaked soil. Mother took blood and analysed it in the Native Health Service and those terrifying men let blood spill, profligately. Perhaps I confused the two. Dear Mum, despite your lady-like demeanour, you could be very, very scary. Lovely Pa only proposed to you at the end of the needle, when he attended Umtali Hospital Out-Patients Department with a frankly “septic” arm. Miss B. summoned from her laboratory,her sputum-stove and daily routine to venesect this Entirely Irresponsible Young Man Who Really Should Have Known Better, succumbed.