This happened 40 years ago, but has always stuck in my memory.
I settled into my seat with a sigh of relief. My young son curled up on the seat beside me, peering out of the grimy window. My partner was sitting behind me, asleep already, with my two-year old daughter beside him. At last I could relax from the horrendous 4 day train journey we had just undertaken from Tunis to Casablanca. I was tired of being molested by Algerian men who thought nothing of putting their hands on my thighs or brushing against my breasts despite the fact that I was travelling with my partner and with two very small children. It made no difference to them. I was not a person with feelings, I was an object of desire.
Then from behind came a hand on my shoulder. My own hand formed a fist – I was in no mood for any more physical contact. Before I could turn around I heard someone exclaim my name. As I turned my head, a face I instantly recognised appeared before me – my best friend’s ex-boyfriend, Merv from Bradford, England. I gasped, and stood up to hug him tightly. How could this even be possible? The last I had heard of him, he was in Melbourne, Australia. The last he had heard from me, I was in Johannesburg and married to an Englishman. That was two years ago. A lot had happened since.
As the bus from Casablanca to Tangiers began to shakily move off, we stood looking at each other with huge wide grins on our faces – what a serendipitous moment!
Another late night shift at the restaurant where I worked had come to an end. The books were balanced and I was ready to go home when Mike, a waiter I was friendly with, asked me if I’d like to go to Joseph’s place with a couple of other colleagues for a few drinks. Joseph was a barman and a really kind person, often giving me a lift back to my bedsit after my shift as he hated the idea of me walking home on my own in the early hours. Being a newcomer I was more than happy to accept the invitation just so long as I could get a lift home afterwards. No problem.
An hour later we were in Joseph’s tiny, but cosy, kitchen in the southern suburbs sharing a few cans and a pretty decent Malay curry and laughing and chatting and exchanging stories and jokes. The atmosphere changed abruptly when there was a knock at the door. It was 2 am. Mike looked up at Joseph and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Joseph shrugged his shoulders and made his way to the front door. Whilst he was gone Mike told me to keep quiet and let him do any talking. I asked him what was the problem.
The date, 1974, was the problem. The country we were living in was the problem.The fact that Mike and I were ‘white’ was the problem. The fact that Joseph was a ‘Cape Coloured’ was the problem. The fact that we were in a designated ‘coloured’ part of Cape Town was the problem and visiting a house that by law Mike and I were not allowed to be in was the problem.
What would have happened to me had that knock at the door belonged to the security police I will never know. Thankfully it was a neighbour who had seen the lights on and who wanted to join the party.
It was mid-December 1973. I was finally in Cape Town, South Africa after travelling with a South African/New Zealand friend for three months overland from the UK to India and then by ship to Durban . Unfortunately on arrival in South Africa the rules for entering the country had changed – when I set off all you needed was a sufficient amount of money, £100 – now though I was made to pay for a ticket out of the country and as I had arrived by ship the ticket had to be by ship. The cheapest option was from Durban back to Mombasa – it took practically all my money and I truly hoped that I never had to use it! I had no idea what I would do if I was to find myself alone in Kenya!
Arriving in the Mother City I was invited to stay with my friend’s family in the southern suburbs. Due to my financial crisis I had to get work quickly and I managed to get a temporary job in the city at the lovely pink coloured historic hotel, the Mount Nelson, doing flower arrangements of all things. No-one can say I was not adaptable. As it was almost Christmas we were very busy with table arrangements and huge floral displays for the suites and public areas. It was hard work with an early start and a long day, but quite enjoyable and the best part was walking to and from the railway station along Adderley Street and through the Company Gardens where cheeky squirrels ran around chasing you for peanuts.
Christmas Eve arrived and I was looking forward to spending my first Christmas away from home and in the southern hemisphere. The sight of robins and snow were rather incongruous in the summer heat. My friend’s family came from Norwegian origins so this was the night for their main dinner and celebrations. It would be very different from my own experiences. I had even spent some of my wages on a dress for the event as all I had with me were jeans and tee-shirts.
It was very different alright, but not quite in the way I had imagined. On arriving back at the house in the suburbs after work in the early evening I was met by my friend’s mother with my rucksack in hand. She told me I was not welcome in her house any more as she had friends and family coming to dinner that evening and I was too ‘common’ and didn’t have the ‘right’ clothes to wear.
I was stunned! I knew that she wasn’t very keen on me and was a bit of a class snob, but the rest of the family were lovely and I had spent a couple of free days on the beach and in the mountains with her other children. It wasn’t even as though I was in a relationship with her precious boy, we were good friends, but had no plans in taking it any further. But I could see from the look on her face that it was no good arguing with her. Christmas Eve and homeless was not what I had in mind! My travelling friend, took me to a youth hostel in Muizenberg on the False Bay coastline where fortunately they had a vacancy. He dropped me off then left, looking somewhat shamefaced, as he had to return to his family dinner. Thinking of the hospitality my own family had shown him in England, I felt quite sad and rather home-sick. I turned in early as I still had to go to work the next day.
I returned to the hostel on Christmas Day at around 6 p.m. to find the other hostelers sitting around having Christmas dinner together. They were all talking and laughing, wearing silly paper hats, being happy and having a good time. I tried to sneak past them to the dorm without being noticed as I was still feeling a bit raw, but the manager caught sight of me and insisted that I joined them, even though I hadn’t contributed financially to the meal. Quickly room was made for another seat and food hurriedly dished out onto a plate. Silly hat was found and a glass of red wine poured. For the next couple of hours I was welcomed into the fold and a normal Christmas resumed.
The young woman was crunched up in the corner seat, head leaning towards the grimy window. Her dark, curly hair covered half of her face. A young boy asleep on her lap, his head cradled on her left arm, legs dangling over hers. She was dozing when she suddenly felt something moving up the inside of her thigh. Her free hand flew down to the object, her head turned and her eyes flew open. The man sitting next to her was grinning. She swatted his hand away from her and glared at him angrily. Shifting the young boy around so that he created some sort of barrier between her and the man. He was completely unabashed and went to put his hand on her knee once again. She slapped it again and told him to stop it through gritted teeth. She daren’t shout as everyone else in the dimly lit carriage was asleep. She threw a glance across at her partner who sat opposite, slumped, eyes shut and completely oblivious of what she was going through. Her young daughter was fast asleep snuggled in to the soft and comfy marshmallow lap of an elderly nun who was extremely overweight.
The woman sighed. This whole trip was turning into a nightmare. The journey from Tunis to Casablanca was much more complicated than they had first thought. On seeing a railway route through the three countries it had seemed like a good idea. Now though, crammed into an eight seat carriage with 9 adults (including three very overweight nuns) and two children, with a man sitting next to her who couldn’t keep his hands to himself she was desperately tired. But every time her eyes closed he would try to grope her. What was it with these Arabic men that gave them the right to touch foreign women in this way? It had been the same in Pakistan some years ago and it made her feel very angry. They didn’t treat their own women in this way, but western females were fair game it appeared. Even women who were obviously in a relationship and mothers!
Whilst she was regretting not carrying a penknife and imaging what she would like to do with it, one of the nuns suddenly began to fit. Her whole body started shaking and her arms flailed out hitting those next to her. Her body slid down onto the floor of the carriage. The Algerian man leapt up and pulled the communication cord. The train braked so quickly that everyone was thrown forward by the motion. The screeching of the brakes whilst the train came to a halt was replaced by clanking noises as everything cooled down. Then silence. The people in the carriage looked at each other. The woman on the floor continued to twitch. There was no room to get to her and see how she was. Minutes went by. The western man in the corner opened one eye and looked around, he groaned in pain, closed his eye and went back to sleep. The little girl woken by the noise began to cry and was soothed back to sleep by her mother. Suddenly there was a tapping on the window. The young woman was startled to see a face pressed against it from outside. The Algerian moved to open the top part of the window and had a short and furious conversation with the man outside who turned out to be the guard. Because the train was so full it was impossible for him to walk down the corridor to the carriage. It also appeared that they were in the middle of nowhere and would not be able to remove the nun until they reached a bigger town some miles away. The woman looked out into the opaque blackness from where no help was coming.
Throughout the night the train stopped at unlit stations and people got off the train. Fortunately not many got on and gradually the corridors emptied sufficiently for the nun to be taken off at one of the larger towns. Dead or alive it was difficult to tell. She had received no medical attention and had eventually become still. The young woman held hands firmly with the Algerian man for the rest of the night.
Eventually, somewhere around dawn, the train pulled into the station in Oran where it terminated. The family had to change here for a train to the Moroccan border at Maghnia / Oujda. The woman picked up her rucksack, gathered her children and asked about her partner’s health. The Algerian man shook their hands, still grinning and totally unconcerned by his behaviour on the train and then waved them goodbye.
The family of four found seats in an open carriage around a table. Alone. The exhausted young woman was finally able to close her eyes. For now.
Home thoughts from abroad is a new series on Travel Words featuring a single photograph that reminds me of a country visited and showing something that uniquely identifies it as being ‘abroad’.
It is my birthday today. A significant number though not one of the BIG ones. Seems big enough to me though. So I am going to indulge in a bit of nostalgia today. This photo is from a place I used to live in, a place I used to love and where I spent several years with my then young family, the youngest of which was born just a few miles further along the coast from here – he is older now than I was then.
Muizenberg is my favourite beach in the entire world. I might be slightly biased as it was my home for several years and I lived only a 5 minute walk away from this beautiful white sandy beach with its iconic beach-huts; a favourite beach with surfers with stunning views across False Bay to Cape Point. It was a dream location with the added bonus of seeing whales in the bay during the winter. A sight I shall never forget no matter how old I am.