I remember on my 9th birthday going down to the beach and chasing the waves away from the shore. I felt powerful and grown up. I knew that we were moving away by that point, and it was all still so very exciting.
My 10th birthday I spent going back to school after the Christmas holidays. My parents bought me a chocolate gateaux. It was a grey, drizzly day, cold and miserable. The four of us sat around the table, they sang happy birthday to me and my father went back in to the pub to tend the bar, leaving Alistair, my mother and I sitting in the dark dining room. The contrast to the beautiful, warm sunny day the year previously, where I didn’t have to think about school for a few more weeks, where the world felt full of possibilities, was pretty stark. I knew that they had gone to the effort of trying to make the day special for me, but all I wanted to do was go up to my room and cry.
The difference between being able to see your family once a week to only being able to speak to them once a month is enormous. Hearing someone’s voice is wonderful, but being able to see and hug them is so much better. Speaking to someone on the phone often makes you realise just how far away from you they are. At that time calls abroad were pretty expensive, so we had to limit our time to probably around a minute or two each. You can’t say much in a minute or two. You also can’t speak to many people. We used to talk to my grandparents the most, and on Christmas we’d call them up when we knew everyone was there in order to say a quick hello to them.
Just before Christmas in 1995 we went back to South Africa for my uncle’s wedding. It was just Dad, Alistair and I who were able to go over, as Mom was a little too pregnant to travel. She knew it was important for Dad to be there on his youngest brother’s wedding day, and so she was happy for us to go. In hindsight it was a mistake, both because of how ill Mom got, but also because the homesickness was so much worse when we came back. However, we went over, thinking it would be all right when we came back. We didn’t tell anyone in South Africa what our plans were. My uncle believed that we couldn’t afford to get over there, and he had resigned himself to it. The day that we landed we had a lot of fun just turning up at people’s houses and saying hello and surprising people. Very quickly plans were made for Alistair and I to be a part of the wedding. I was to sing, alongside my two cousins, and Alistair was to be page boy. The holiday got off to a wonderful start.
When I was born I had a full set of grandparents, as well as one great grandfather and three great grandmothers. It made naming all of them confusing (there’s only so many different ways you can say grandmother), but I managed it, with only one unusual name. On my mother’s side I had Gran and Grandpa and Grandpa’s mother, Nan. On my father’s side there was Great Grandpa, Nanny, Granny, Granddad and Mum. Yes, I call my grandmother Mum. South African English is a mix between British English and US English. We call our mothers Mom. When I heard my uncle call my grandmother Mum, the name stuck. Great Grandpa died when I was around three. Gran, Grandpa and Nan all died within three months of one another. By the time we left South Africa Granny was in a nursing home. Mom would take us to visit her once every few weeks. Even though she didn’t recognise us most of the time, she always appreciated the visit. She was my father’s favourite grandmother and he hated to see her like that, so he rarely visited. He was her favourite, too. She would call Alistair Malcolm all the time and spend most of the visits talking to him.
When we went over that first time my father discovered that no one had seen Granny for a while, and so we went to go and visit her. We found her in a comatose state. She didn’t wake up when we arrived and the nurse told us she’d been like that for two days by then. My father asked if a doctor had seen her and was told no. Taking Alistair and myself by the hand and leaving us outside in the corridor, he went to speak to the person in charge.
My father is an incredibly easy going man. He gets grumpy, he gets snappish, but I’ve only ever seen him lose his temper once. That was on that day. I’ve never, ever heard him shout at a person the way he did then, telling her he can’t believe that nothing has been done, that no one had thought to check out what was wrong with her, or get her to the hospital. He demanded that she go at once, and the nurse agreed. We left after saying our goodbyes. When she heard his voice, she smiled, but that was the only reaction we got. Later that afternoon she was taken by ambulance to hospital. She died on the way
We’d come over for a wedding, but ended up going to a funeral first. It was my first ever, as I’d been thought of too young to go to my grandparents and other great grandparents funeral. My mother had wanted us to go, but she’d been told by other relatives that it wasn’t the place. Personally, knowing how my imagination ran wild with speculation about what happened at a funeral, I think it’s far better to let children go to funerals. Alistair and I sat with my uncle Allan and soon to be aunt Lisa, my father went and sat with my grandparents. I think he spoke at her funeral, which was why he was sitting a little way from us. Or perhaps he just needed time to say goodbye to a woman he loved very much, without having to worry about his two children. We were once again amongst people who could look after us for as long as he needed it, so he could take that time when he needed to.
Funerals are rather odd situations. Everyone is sad and sombre, for obvious reasons, but at the same time it’s a gathering together of people who haven’t met in a while. They become this sad and sombre catch up session, where there’s not too much laughter, and what little there is it’s muted and soft. This funeral was the same. It was then that I discovered I have a somewhat inappropriate reaction to certain scenario’s sometimes. Allan accidentally scratched me and I burst out into a fit of muted giggles. I was desperately sad that my great grandmother had died, more because it upset my father so much, but right that moment I found it hard to keep it together.
After the funeral the family were able to get back to concentrating on the wedding. Not that long after she had died, my uncle was getting married. That was a wonderful night. I was wearing my First Holy Communion outfit, as I didn’t have anything else that was suitable, and my parents didn’t have time to shop. Alistair was in full on suit, with cummerbund and matching bowtie. He got to walk the flower girl up the isle while I got to stand on the wall, cling onto the railing’s and sing. Both of us felt as if we’d won the lottery that day. The evening reception was in a lovely part of Cape Town, overlooking the mountainside and city. We danced and ran around and generally had a really good time. I remember crying as Allan and Lisa left that evening. When Allan asked me why, I told him it’s because I’d never see him again. He told me not to be silly, of course he will, and off he went. I truly felt as if this were it, as if this was going to be our last ever trip to South Africa from England. I don’t know why I felt like this.
It was a lovely holiday, but coming back to England was very, very difficult for us all. We were lucky to have such a close knit community over there, a close knit community we were a part of by virtue of being born into it. We had a shared history with all those people, a shared culture. Although there are shared things between English and South African culture, there are big differences. I grew up speaking English, obviously, but English varies so much from place to place. For years I’d call traffic lights robots, much to the confusion of anyone I was giving directions to. We no longer had people we could just drop in and say hi to. It takes time to build a community up again, and during that time it’s incredibly lonely and isolating to know how far away your community is from you.
My aunt and uncle emigrated pretty soon after we did. They moved near us, and this made things easier for a while. My parents had people they could go and visit and talk to, and we got to see our cousins once again. My aunt and uncle adapted much easier than my parents. My aunt Linda was very, very homesick and I think would have gone back if she could, but at the same time she was very quick to make friends. My mother and father weren’t very good at that. My father is a charismatic, easy going person, my mother is more introverted. Neither of them are very good at making close friends and neither of them find it easy to adapt to other people’s beliefs or different ways of doing things. I think it’s a South African thing, as I’ve met plenty of South African’s who are the opposite, but it’s definitely an issue with my family that if it’s not done the way they would have done it, or if that person is living their life in a way they see as different, then it’s the wrong way of doing things. It’s frustrating in many ways, and I think did make it difficult for them to adapt to a different cultural environment.
One other thing that made the homesickness worse was the fact that we couldn’t get back as regularly as we liked. The three of us had managed to go for a visit, Mom and Jamie went back when he was about 6 months old, but it was another 3 years before Alistair and I could go back. The only reason we did was because my Godmother paid for me to come over and his Godmother paid for him. We went over for a month over the Christmas holidays. It was back in the day when schools were able to be a bit more lenient with regards to taking holiday over term time. We’d gone around to all of our teachers and asked them for homework for the two weeks we were away, and we made damned sure we did it. Those same teachers never admonished us for doing what we were doing, in fact they all hoped we had a wonderful holiday. It was a wonderful month. My aunt and uncle took us over, and we went from family to family, sometimes meeting up with them, at other times going to a completely different part of the country. We were back amongst our family and that community that we were so close to before. But the differences were showing. You can’t live in another country for three years without picking up mannerisms or different ways of doing things. I’d never had a very strong South African accent, and by the time we went over for this holiday my accent was pretty much what it is now: pretty posh. There is also this odd thing that people do for a little while when they see you again after a long time apart. They treat you the way they did before, like the 9 year old you were when you left. It’s because they don’t know exactly who you are anymore, and they have to get to know you again. It’s also because they’ve not seen how you’ve grown and who you’re becoming. It made things a little awkward sometimes, and downright frustrating other times. I’d always been an independent child, and England allowed that to flourish, with the ability to go places on my own. We just couldn’t do that in the same way in South Africa. Even when we were on the farm that my aunt lived on we didn’t have as much freedom, because everything was just so far away. Some things had also started to change. My grandmother had retired, they had sold their house and bought a pub of their own to run. It was a lovely little pub, and instead of having Christmas where we always had Christmas, we had it there instead.