A trip to Hospital

One weekend I happened to be browsing through a magazine, enjoying a moment of unaccustomed idleness when I came across an article on cervical cancer and the need to have regular pap smears. It occurred to me that I’d managed to avoid those issues, any urges I might have felt to book an appointment with a gynaecologist being firmly squashed.

After Nikki was born, my doctor had cauterised some errant cells on the cervix and advised me not to have any more babies. It was not the sort of experience you wish to hold in your memory as it contained an associated smell of burnt flesh. So I filed it away, far away. After Edward was born I don’t think I had time to go back to the doctor for a postnatal check, so when I read the magazine article, I thought it was probably about time I made the appointment.

After having a baby it takes a long while to regain a measure of dignity and feel that your body belongs to you once again. One trip to the gynaecologist takes it all away in a matter of seconds. Anyway, I did it, and I thought that would be it for at least two years.

However, a day or so later I was shocked to have a phone call from the doctor himself. Not even his nurse. Him. He guardedly told me there were some ‘unusual’ cells in the smear, and he would like me to come in for a biopsy straight away.

I had an unpleasant feeling that the biopsy might not be fun and I was right. Say the word stirrups to any woman out of the context of horse riding, and she will immediately cringe and cross her legs.

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The second time he phoned I recognised his voice and the tone of someone trying to deliver bad news gently. He booked me in for a hysterectomy that same week, so there was little time to panic. In fact, I was mourning the loss of my uterus more than worrying about anything more sinister. Illogical really, because immediately after Edward was born my fallopian tubes had been tied by a doctor who believed my contribution to the human race had been excessive. But I always harboured a little hope that they might accidentally come untied, and every month I felt a small wave of disappointment that I wasn’t pregnant. The thought of losing that part of my anatomy did seem awfully final.

However, I was so busy making arrangements for the family while I would be in hospital that I didn’t think too much about myself. I was pretty healthy, so a few days in bed being waited on, might be quite pleasant.

I have a bad reaction to anaesthetics, so after the surgery I felt pretty sick. The day before I was due to go home, the doctor came into the ward beaming and said they’d got it all. I looked blankly at him.

‘There was no further malignancy,’ he explained. But I had already made that assumption, so I went home and moved all those articles of feminine hygiene into the girls’ bathroom, because I would never need them again. What joy!

 

Career Moves

For a couple of years my job was really pleasant, with very little hard selling. I was able to finish most days in time to watch the children’s sports, do the orthodontist appointments and bake for ‘cake and candy’.

But nothing lasts for ever, and the business was struggling. They decided to drop the retail range and concentrate on commercial and industrial, so after an intensive crash-course from the director, I was re-directed into the heating and air-conditioning department. At first it was a challenge, but as time wore on and business became more and more competitive, I dreaded getting up in the morning. I avoided difficult calls and visited the customers that had time for a coffee and a chat. Then I felt guilty because I wasn’t bringing enough new business into the company.

Guilt, I believe, is a girl-burden. Like a shadow, it is always with us. I felt constantly guilty that I had taken the children so far away from their grandparents. When I was working, I felt guilty that I wasn’t at home checking the homework and monitoring afternoon TV.  When I wasn’t working, I felt guilty that I couldn’t contribute to the family budget. I felt guilty when I bought myself a new outfit, and ended up buying more for the children so they wouldn’t feel left out. Then I felt guilty because I had spent so much money. I felt guilty when I drank too much, guilty when I ate that extra slice of chocolate cake, guilty when I was too tired or lazy to write to my parents, and guilty when I didn’t go to gym.

So I didn’t need work guilt and it was with great relief that I was able to accept a job offer with one of our air-conditioning suppliers. For the first week I did nothing except sit in the office and read chiller manuals. I was no engineer, and the information was so far over my head, I was bored to tears, and thought I had made a terrible mistake. But eventually they allowed me out on the road to meet the customers, and life wasn’t so bad.

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I was organised, methodical and persistent, and soon got results. Our sales were improving, and I was earning a good salary. But once again, business didn’t stand still. The company was bought out and we were sold like slaves to the Americans. Our new general manager would glide through the offices like a shark navigating the depths, looking for prey.

It was good to be out of the office because when I was there I got The Look, which said ‘You should be out on the road selling our product’. However, when I was out on the road, there was always the feeling of suspicion that I was wasting time, meeting friends for coffee. In the days before mobile phones there had to be a lot more trust. And we like sheep, all wanted a cell phone when they became available, but all it did was to increase stress levels. The first questions from the office were always ‘Where are you? What are you doing?’

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A New Career

Shortly after Botswana, I embarked on my second career. My brief spell of teaching had shown me that I had little talent in that direction. So I went into sales. For a while I tried real estate, looking round other people’s houses, formulating ideas for my own home, especially what not to do. But the hours were not good for a family girl, and the competition was cut-throat because such large amounts of money were involved. I discovered I was not the tough sales person I thought I might be.

After many nail-biting phone calls and unprofessionally compiled applications, I was offered a rep’s job with a small company selling a diverse assortment of equipment, from air-conditioning to power tools, industrial heaters to brass door-knockers. My role was to travel round all the hardware shops within a hundred-kilometre radius and sell brass and plastic numbers. I loved the smell of the hardware shops because it reminded me of my childhood, of the slightly metallic smell of my father when he came home from work.

Our offices and factory were situated close to a station in an industrial area of Johannesburg. The black people all came by train or taxi and the white people drove cars. The road ran next to some large hostels where black migrant workers stayed, and occasionally there were minor riots or protests.

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I had a rude awakening about the huge gap in lifestyles one Monday morning when a five-year old black girl arrived at our office alone. She was the daughter of one of our factory employees who had not gone home all weekend, and was not at work that morning. The child’s mother had put her on a train in Soweto and sent her, all by herself, to her father’s office to collect his wages.

What absolute initiative and independence! I felt my children were still babies at five years old. I didn’t even let any of them go to the local corner shop on their own at that age. But this little soul had managed this big journey, presumably with assistance only from other passengers on the train.

She was given something to eat and some money for the family before being taken home. Her father eventually arrived for work, rather the worse from cheap beer, but I expect the hangover was mild compared to the tongue-lashing he received when he finally went home, penniless, to his anxious wife.

Safari Finale

For our penultimate day we planned to visit Victoria Falls, as it was only a couple of hours drive away. We crossed into Zimbabwe at Kazangula which took ages, because we had to list the serial numbers of each camera, each detachable lens, the binoculars, car radio, and so on.

A man came to ask if we would be returning that afternoon. When we said yes, he asked us to buy him some fresh bread and meat. He gave us money, saying they could get nothing at the border.

On the journey through the Zambezi National Park, a large female elephant stepped out on to the road in front of us. She crossed straight to the other side without looking at us. As we drove slowly past, we saw her calf following behind her. Fortunately she did not choose to turn her head during the few brief moment we were between mother and baby.

The Falls were as breathtaking as we remembered. It was not hard to imagine the awe Livingstone must have felt. We walked through the forests, where the bushbuck shyly ran from our gaze, and the monkeys brazenly posed for their photos. We stood as close to the edge as we were allowed, letting our dust-dry skin soak up the moisture from the spray. Rainbows appeared and disappeared in the swirling vapour, every one ending in a pool of liquid blue gold.

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Reluctantly we returned to the town of Victoria Falls where the shops were depressingly empty, even then. We bought provisions for the customs official who waved us through the barrier without any delays.

When we got back to camp, Fiona told us there was a puff adder in our washing basket.

We spent our last day lounging in the sun, leisurely watching the animals and listening to the fish eagles’ cries as they hovered, then swooped down to pluck a tiger fish out of the lazy river. Our children played happily with home-made fishing nets between the crocs and the hippo.

That evening, as we started to pack up, the sun set behind the horizon, casting its blood red spell across the Chobe, and I felt enveloped in the magic of Botswana.

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Savuti to Kasane

The road to Savuti was hard driving and we were frequently in four-wheel-drive. Although the terrain was dry, animals were plentiful. We saw the rare sight of a mother and baby rhino. Competition to see who would be first to spot a lion kept the children from falling asleep. The Savuti plains were sparse yet exciting with a smell I can only describe as ‘Africa’.

We reached camp as dusk turned the silver sand into a grey army blanket. There were elephant in the lower camp, so we pitched our tents higher up away from the dry channel. This was the place where all the men had, on previous trips, been visited by lion and hyena in the night. I was full of electric anticipation and intended to sit up and see everything there was to see.

After supper the numbers around the campfire dwindled rapidly as exhausted drivers and children flopped into their sleeping bags. Terry was in no hurry to get into his bed, so we sat gazing into the fire, philosophising about life. The magnitude of the star-studded sky and the primitive atmosphere of the bush seemed to put my life in perspective, and I felt at peace. For the first time I didn’t feel at odds with this alien Africa. Maybe I needed to feel its dust in my pores, its soil under my fingernails.

A lion called in the distance. Another answered from the opposite direction. Terry put more logs on the fire. I didn’t feel frightened.

Suddenly there was a rustling in the bushes. A honey badger emerged from the darkness, striking in his black and white coat. He sniffed all round the fire looking for scraps left from our meal, walking fearlessly right by our feet. Finding nothing to interest him, he snuffled back into the night.

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We heard more rustlings, and Terry said it was a hyena. I could see nothing because I had been staring at the bright fire. We sat very still but nothing appeared.

The next morning, Terry admitted that the lions had been a lot closer than he’d led me to believe.

We packed up, once more stopping at the waterhole. We hoped to see lions, but all the other animals were too calm, so we guessed there wasn’t any danger. We drove over the sand ridge towards Chobe, and Michael’s exhaust fell off.

Eventually we reached Kasane, luckily before the shop closed. Camping leisurely beside the river, we watched as the twilight exploded into a glorious sunset. As we lay in bed we could hear hippos grunting and snorting, and the shrill ultra-sonic pinging of the fruit bats.

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The next morning the men fixed their exhausts before taking us on a leisurely drive to view game. We saw a tawny eagle demolish a small baboon. Areas of nothing but grey sand spiked with white dead tree stumps, looking like the aftermath of atomic war, showed the devastation caused by the elephants. It added a bleak and haunting edge to the hypnotic fascination of Chobe.

The following day Terry had to drive back to Orapa, and we were booked on the afternoon booze cruise. It was a wonderfully relaxing way to look at game and tan our legs. The boat weaved in and out of the hippos stopping at an island, where the more adventurous of us could leap over the black mud, on to terra firma, and walk closer to the grazing buck. The children all managed to clear the mud, but Rod did not. When he got back into the boat, there was a mass movement to the other side of the boat, where the air smelt sweeter.

A Visit from an Elephant

The following evening, Michael and Rod took the children off to look for crocodiles. Terry started cooking our meal and I made tea whilst Fiona had a quick wash under our screened-off makeshift shower. As I was getting ready for my turn under the shower, Fiona pointed to some trees about a hundred metres away where an elephant, a large bull, was plodding slowly in our direction.

‘He’ll turn off long before he reaches us,’ Terry reassured. So we continued to watch and sip our tea as he steadily walked towards us, getting ever nearer, eating placidly as he approached. He flapped his ears to shoo away the flies and I kept thinking ‘Any second now he’ll branch off.’ But he didn’t. Closer and closer he came. Before we had time to flee, he was in our camp.

‘Just stand perfectly still,’ instructed Terry, a picture of calmness. Fiona and I exchanged panic-stricken glances, whilst trying to edge in behind Terry.

The elephant nonchalantly ate his way through our bathroom, and I was grateful I wasn’t in it. Then he headed for the washing line and wrapped his trunk round two pairs of jeans. They went into his mouth and came straight back out. Obviously distasteful enough to irritate him, as with one twist of his trunk he broke down the tree that was supporting the washing line.  We were standing less than two metres away, and the sound of splintering wood was enough to make a girl wet her pants.

The elephant ate a couple of leaves from the tree he had just killed. Then he stood and looked at us. He stood. We stood.

‘Terry,’ whispered Fiona. ‘What warning will he give that he’s going to charge?’

‘Absolutely none,’ said Terry encouragingly.

We stood. The elephant stood. Interminably. At last he turned and moved towards the tents.

‘The bugger’s coming right through,’ Terry commented.

The elephant lumbered up to the tents, looked and changed his mind. He walked back through the bathroom and washing line and Terry casually leaned over to stir the stew, while Fiona and I raced to the closest truck. From there we watched as the elephant slowly moved away and settled himself by a tasty tree about a hundred metres up the track.

A few minutes later the guys and children returned, full of excitement, to tell us there was an elephant just up the road.

That night, the children and I slept in the vans, despite reassurances that the elephant would not come back. Just after midnight I was woken by flashing torches and car doors banging. The elephant had returned. He walked into Rod’s tent, but Rod managed to get out and get Fiona and their children into the vans. Michael was up but Terry refused to budge, even with the elephant touching his tent. The elephant turned, and Terry popped his head out, just in time to see Rod’s tent being knocked flat with one swing of the trunk.

I decided a cup of tea would be a good idea as everybody was wide awake with plenty of adrenalin in their blood. I giggled silently with suppressed hysteria as I set out the cups. I never could have dreamt I would be in the middle of the Okavango swamps, making tea at one thirty in the morning, with an elephant three metres away from me. But he ambled off, not wishing to spoil our midnight tea party, and we sat around the campfire re-living the whole experience.

The next morning we didn’t need the prunes the baboons had eaten.

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Maun and the Okavango Swamps

Back in the mid ‘80s the town of Maun boasted one kilometre of tar road, but either side of this, everything was the same brown; the houses, the ground, even the dogs. I think it epitomised my vision of Africa at that time.

But we arrived on a Sunday when the earth tones were spiced up with the bright orange and red colours of the ladies’ dresses as they waked to church.

At Maun we were able to shower, make tea with water that wasn’t salty and use real flushing toilets. Not that I was fully able to appreciate this latter luxury, as the habitual holiday condition of constipation had set in.

We camped beside the Nhabe river and watched the African children poling themselves along in their dugout canoes called Mekoro. They took our children for a ride, while Fiona and I stood anxiously on the banks scanning the water for crocodiles.

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A pretty bird hopped close by, brownish back, pinkish underneath, blueish wing tips. Then he opened his wings to fly away and displayed the striking turquoise beauty of the lilac-breasted roller.

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A grey lourie told us to go away. Michael and Rodney fixed their vehicles and Terry, the Orapa resident, went to visit friends.

On the Tuesday we drove to Moremi. It seemed a very long way, but the journey was livened with impala around every corner. After about three or four hours driving, we saw that Terry had stopped and was standing at the back of his truck, a picture of dejection. It could possibly have been the biggest disaster of the trip. The fridge had broken down. No more cold beers.

Fiona and I tried to think how we could cook up all the meat before it went off. The men discussed keep nets to store their beer in the river. But practicality and ingenuity prevailed once more, and the men managed to fix the fridge.

We made camp at Third Bridge, where the water was crystal clear and icy cold. There were no fences or ablution blocks, just one lone long drop toilet, buzzing with flies. The children went down to the water to wash, but some conservationists told them that soap and shampoo would pollute the delta, so they wiped their dust on to the towels we had just washed at Maun.

During the night, Abi needed the toilet, and instead of using the bucket, she unzipped the tent and sprinted up to the long drop loo without waking any of the adults. The next morning we found both lion and leopard spore right beside our camp, and I vowed to tie all of the children’s legs to mine the next night in case any of them fancied a midnight adventure.

So after breakfast we set off in the trucks to follow the footprints. We couldn’t find the cats, but we saw giraffe, impala, buffalo, impala, kudu, impala, waterbuck, impala, elephant, impala, crocodile and – impala, all in sleek condition.

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When we came back to camp we found we had had visitors. Baboons had ripped a tent apart, even though we dropped the poles and put chairs on top. They had prised open an aluminium trunk and taken all our biscuits, cheese and dried fruit. Shredded toilet paper littered the ground like confetti after a wedding. They had even pulled the fridge over, and defecated on everything.

We cleared up and mended the tent with pink wool I had brought to knit a jumper in case I got bored, using a needle I’d put in the first aid box in case of splinters. The needle was well used, but the knitting was never even started.