Nanny, my great grandmother, died a few weeks after we left. By the end of the year Granddad had joined her. I can’t hear the first few bars of Danny Boy without wanting to cry.
It’s still hard to imagine that such a generous, strong and kind man is no longer with us. He was the kind of person who was known and loved by many, many people. Everyone who knew him has a story about when he helped them out. Complete strangers will tell me about my grandfather and what he meant to them. In one instance some friends of my grandparents were heading home after spending the evening with them. Their car stopped and they rang my grandfather up to let him know and told him they were just waiting for the tow truck. It was 3 am. My grandfather got in his car, drove to where they were and jump started their car. The night before we left for England my mother was inconsolable because she didn’t know what was going to become of the cats and dog who hadn’t been picked up. He held her and told her he’ll make sure they were fine. He wasn’t perfect. He found it difficult to tell his children how proud of them he was and how much he loved them. But he had seen what it was like to grow up poor with a father who didn’t love him. Instead of being angry at the world, he spent his life making it a better place, small act of kindness after another.
He died on Christmas Eve. He had been very ill in November. So ill that my uncle went back to say goodbye. He hadn’t been back over there since he and my aunt had left. As my father had seen Granddad that previous March it was decided that Allan should go and should the worst happen, Dad would follow him. Allan went to go and visit him in the hospital. I don’t know if it was his youngest son’s visit, but once Allan got there Granddad started doing so much better. He was discharged a couple of weeks later and was recovering well. He was in a bit of a depressed state, and my grandmother would pester him to get up and do something, nagging him to help with things to try and get him out of the funk she thought he was in.
As an aside, my family aren’t historically known to be good with anyone who may have a mental illness such as depression. They were, and some still are, very much the “pull your socks up, what are you complaining about” kind of people.
On Christmas Eve he started throwing up. My grandmother called an ambulance as their car was stuck in the mud. As they were so far away from the local hospital, the ambulance took half an hour to get there. It was too late. He had a heart attack and died. Knowing what I know now, there is nothing that my grandmother could have done to help him. Perhaps he could have been defibrillated, but the chances are his heart was weakened from his illness and nothing will have helped. She still blames herself, though. Firstly for nagging him to get up and do things, secondly for not being able to drive him to the hospital herself. She’s this tiny woman, around 5 ft 2 ish and not built to be very strong. There is no way she would have been able to assist Granddad to the car and then drive the car out of the mud.
I can hand on my heart say that that is the worst Christmas I have ever had. My father called Alistair and myself downstairs and told us the news. I wanted to laugh in his face and tell him that it’s a lie, that he shouldn’t joke like that. Looking at his expression, though, I knew. The next day we gathered at my uncle and aunts house for a Christmas meal and ate quietly. Normally with family things we will stay around late into the evening. Someone will turn on music, someone else will ring random family members to wish them and we’ll sing down the phone as a very out of tune group. It’s loud, it’s fun and it lasts all day. That Christmas we’d finished eating by 2pm and were home by 3. I think we all went to bed ridiculously early. My father and uncle were the only ones who could go back to South Africa for the funeral.
You don’t know just how far away 6,000 miles is until you can’t say goodbye to your grandfather. Things had happened before. People had gotten married, others had had babies or bought houses. Little moments that are often shared with family members, and we always felt a pang whenever we couldn’t be there. It was nothing compared to not being able to be at my grandfather’s funeral. I wanted to tell him I was proud of him, too. I wanted to tell him how much I loved him, how clever I thought he was. I wanted to be able to sit down and listen to my father speak about his father. He’d had a speech prepared, but my uncle Angus said most of the stuff he was going to say. So he walked up, ripped up his notes and gave a beautiful speech in tribute. I really wish I’d heard that. Instead I felt like I never really got to grieve properly. I very much wanted to go and stand by his grave and talk to him a little. I tried to do that the last time I was back. However, my South African relatives had sprinkled his ashes over a rosebush they planted by the side of the church that had been a part of my grandparents lives. This would have been fine, except the memorial is very public, there’s nowhere to sit and it’s right by a main road so that cars are constantly driving past. Oh, and my grandfather expressly stated he wished to have his ashes scattered somewhere else.
None of the rosebushes planted there have done very well. Everyone things it’s funny because my grandfather took so much pride in his roses. I think he’s doing it deliberately to express his displeasure at his ashes being spread in the wrong place.
If someone were to ask me what I found to be the most difficult thing to get used to in England I wouldn’t have said the weather. While it’s true that the summers can’t quite compare with the summers in South Africa, and the winters are a lot, lot colder, it doesn’t really take that much to get used to. It’s weather, you can’t control it, after all, so I’ve never really dwelt on it. Actually, the most difficult thing to get use to was school.
I started pre-school when I was 5 years old and ‘big girls’ school when I was 6. A whole year older than children start in the UK. Yet I was a year ahead in most subjects when I started at school in England. The school I went to in South Africa was an all-girls Convent School. My parents couldn’t really afford the fees, but, as my grandparents had done before, they wanted me to get the best education that was possible. It was an interesting experience. For one thing, each year, my mother would get a list of all the things I would need to get for the upcoming school year. That in itself isn’t odd. What’s odd is the list included things like pencils and colouring pencils. Granted the colouring pencils were incredible compared to cheaper kinds. However, when your parents are paying a fortune they don’t have for you to attend the school, demanding a certain type of (rather expensive) pencil adds a fair bit of extra stress on the parents.
The pupils at the school were mostly all from rather privileged backgrounds, although I have to admit I never noticed any snobbery or bullying going on. It was actually a really lovely atmosphere. The only thing I missed out on was bringing friends home from school. Due to my mother’s experiences of being bullied because of being different she was very wary of putting me at any risk of being bullied myself. She didn’t want other children to see that we lived in a rather modest bungalow compared to the very posh places some of my friends lived in. The birthday parties they had were things like ‘biker girl themed’ where the parents of the girl involved asked us all to dress like biker girls. They then hired a quad biking firm that came and taught us all how to quad bike in this girl’s garden. I never really felt like I was different from any of those girls. No one threw their wealth in anyone’s face. I was also able to do most of the things they did. I had tennis lessons, did synchronised swimming and played hockey and netball after school. I took Speech and Drama lessons – basically elocutions lessons as my father didn’t want me to have a strong South African accent. I really wanted to take piano lessons, but they were too expensive. What really marked my school out from all the others that I attended was its size. The pre-school side had a decent sized playground, probably bigger than the playground most primary school children in England get to play in. There was an upper tier and a lower tier. We weren’t allowed on the upper tier, which contained a playground in the shape of a boat, unless the teacher was with us. However the lower tier had everything a playground should have. As the school was on a hill, all the grounds were on different levels to accommodate that. Above the pre-school were fields for sport. There was one field on one tier, with a pathway going around. Above that were the practice tennis courts, above that and to the left another field, which was often used for hockey in the winter and athletics in the summer. There were also four proper tennis courts. There was a much higher field above that that I can’t remember being used for anything other than the yearly fair. To the right of the first level of tennis courts there was some woodland. My school was very, very close to the nursery my mother worked at. In fact I discovered that I could see over the road into the lower half of the nursery playgrounds. Every lunchtime I’d head over to that one spot, gesture to a nearby child and ask them to get Alistair. I can’t remember what we’d talk about, but he’d run over, we’d have a bit of a chat and then we’d both head back to school or nursery.
The part that I’ve just described was only the lower school part. The upper school was at the bottom of the hill, past the pre-school section and across the road that lead to the main school parking lot. In this area there were no sports fields. This part houses the older girls as well as the Convent and a small boarding house for the few girls who boarded at the school. There were expansive and beautifully kept gardens, a chapel and a stream. The swimming pool was right at the end of the grounds. Just before I left they had built a diving pool to go with the swimming pool. I was really looking forward to learning how to dive off the high board, but unfortunately we left for England before I could do so. It was a lovely place to go to school. I don’t know if it would have remained that way forever. At some point someone would have found out that my family didn’t have that much money and things may not have been great from then on. However, most of us had started at the school aged 5 or 6 and we were growing up together. No one seemed to care who had what and who could afford what. In fact, I think in my class there were at least two girls on scholarships, but no one noticed. It definitely helped that we had a strict uniform that we had to wear at all times.