A Nightmare Phone Call

Our three girls finished school and Catherine and Abi moved out of the house to enjoy their first taste of independence. Catherine went off to look for herself in England. Abi moved into a flat walking distance away from our family home, and Nikki was taking a gap year working as a waitress and saving in anticipation of travelling.

One night at quarter to twelve, we got the phone call that every parent dreads. ‘Your daughter has been involved in a car accident.’

Michael and I threw our clothes on and raced to the hospital, straight through red traffic lights, hazards flashing, horn beeping. We screeched into the Casualty at the same time as an ambulance was drawing up. We looked, as they wheeled a bloodied apparition on the trolley.

‘That’s not Nikki,’ I said, relieved. Then I noticed the patient was wearing one of my jumpers.

‘It is Nikki,’ I screamed, racing after the paramedics. They tried to move me out of the way, but I managed to find my daughter’s injured hand. She couldn’t speak, but she was moaning, so we knew she was alive. But that was about all. Her face was full of glass and swelling rapidly. Her teeth had gone through her lip, and one ear was badly severed. There was blood everywhere.

‘We’re here, Nix,’ I tried to comfort her. ‘Try to relax while the doctor examines you. We’ll be waiting.’

We waited a long half hour, me in and out of the toilet, and Michael alternately pacing the floor wringing his hands, or sitting hunched over with his head in his hands.

Finally the doctor came out and said they were taking her to X-ray and from there she would go into the ICU.

Our other concern was her boyfriend, who had been driving the car. Apparently he had been unconscious when the ambulances arrived, and had been taken to a different hospital, because they didn’t know if he had Medical Insurance.

The diagnosis on Nikki was initially two fractured vertebrae, a ruptured kidney, a broken right ankle and a mutilated left knee, plus extensive cuts and bruising. While I remained with her, Michael drove through to the other hospital to find out how her boyfriend was doing. He returned later to say he had regained consciousness and had escaped with just a swollen hand. He was being kept in for observation after suffering from concussion.

For the next three days I stayed at Nikki’s bedside, rushing home late at night to sort out food and clean clothing for the family. I was very concerned that she was complaining of pains that did not seem to relate to any of her injuries. After five days with her back in a brace and both legs in plaster, they discovered she had developed a thrombosis in her thigh.

At that t Catherine was staying with my parents, so when I made the call to England to give them all the news, I was relieved that Catherine had family around to reassure her. Nevertheless, she caught the earliest plane back to be with her sister.

The accident affected Michael badly, and he would wait till we were in bed at night and ask questions like ‘What if she dies?’, questions I could not allow myself to even consider. Maybe it was easier for me, because I thoroughly believed in the power of prayer, and I knew Nikki would get better.

When she was moved into High-care, her friends came to visit her. Some stood in the doorway with utter shock and disbelief on their faces. Others burst into tears.

Just before the accident, Nikki had done a stint of modelling, so I had some current photos to show the plastic surgeon.

‘This is what she looked like last week, and this is what she must look like when you’ve finished with her’, I told the specialist. He managed to do an excellent job and as the scars healed, we saw Nikki’s beautiful face re-emerging.

It was the sudden change from being an active girl to almost complete immobility that had brought on the deep vein thrombosis in Nikki’s leg. But with her back in a brace and both legs in plaster, she came home after a couple of weeks, and I reluctantly returned to work.

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Weekends and Political Change

For a few years from September to March, our weekends were taken up with regattas as Edward had joined the school rowing team. There were very few suitably large dams in Johannesburg, so most of the regattas were held at Roodeplaat Dam, just north of Pretoria. As Michael had a good towing vehicle, we usually pulled the trailer of eights. It really worried me, driving at highway speeds with such expensive boats on the back but fortunately we managed to avoid any mishap.

The rowing fraternity became our social life as we cheered on our lads. Picnics were in traditional South African style, with the aroma of boerewors mingling with wood smoke. Beers were passed round to soothe throats that were hoarse from cheering. All the parents made a point of congratulating the parents of the boys who had done well, and smiled indulgently at the Mums proudly wearing their son’s medals. Our moment of glory came during the SA championships when Edward won his under fifteen individual skulls race.

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The girls didn’t come to every regatta, but when they did, it scored points for Edward among the other boys. He suddenly had many friends among the older rowers as they came to check out the three hot chicks tanning themselves on our blanket.

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On the tenth of May, 1994 everything in South Africa changed. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress was elected the first black President of South Africa. Since his release from prison four years earlier, his policy of reconciliation had won the hearts of the world. That a man treated so badly could speak of peace not revenge, encouragement rather than recriminations, showed what a truly great man he was.

A huge burden of guilt was lifted from white shoulders. Optimism was rife. We celebrated being a rainbow nation. Black and white greeted each other on the street. Mostly. Our part was painless. It was much easier to lose the guilt than to forgive. Suffering cannot just be wiped away with a casual ‘sorry’ and many people still carry their hatred.

Children were bussed in to our local schools from the townships and there was fear that the standard of education would drop. Things did change, though not necessarily for the worse.

Nikki became friendly with Patience, a girl from the ‘black’ township of Soweto. Patience often came to our house, and I worried that she would invite Nikki back to her house. Wonderful though that may have been as a cultural experience, I was too afraid for my child’s safety. I had been fed a diet of media propaganda, and at that stage whites still believed they would risk their lives if they went into a ‘black’ area. Fortunately Patience never did ask Nikki to go home with her.

My hopes were that this generation of children, growing up together, would be able to have empathy with people of different cultures, and would compete equally for academic and sporting achievements. Reward would be on merit, not colour. But sadly, we do not live in an ideal world.

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.