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How did this memoir come about?
Having reluctantly arrived in South Africa mid 1981, there wasn’t an inkling of how my time in Warmbaths would come to such an abrupt and violent end.
And while retrospectively the question can be raised as to whether I would or would not have come if I had known the outcome, this can best be answered as I will never know, and perhaps that’s how life is best left to be.
July – September 1981
If you’d asked me where my life was heading in July 1981, I would have said who the hell knows, but it had better be good. I was four months shy of my eighteenth birthday and completely clueless of anything other than my life in Leighton Buzzard, a growing town within the home counties of the UK.
Ask me again on 11th Sept 1981, and the answer would have been very different. I was in the back of beyond, of what was then known as, Warmbaths, Northern Transvaal, South Africa.
My change in circumstances began in late August 1981 after my mother, who had lived in South Africa for years, had returned to the UK for a holiday. Prior to her leaving, she had placed a non-refundable ticket, length of stay . . . one year, in my hand. Did I understand how this would impact on my life? No I did not. How long would it take me to do so? Probably around twenty-five years.
My life in July 1981 was, I suppose, along the lines of most teenagers of a similar age in Leighton Buzzard. School was completed and life was there for the taking. However, with unemployment around 2.5 million, and thousands joining the dole queue daily, work was not easily to be found.
With that in mind I was lucky enough to be offered a job at a Woburn hotel, where I foolishly felt I could train as a chef. Bad move. A love of stainless steel appliances and monitoring soufflé’s does not seem to run through my veins. And suffice to say the long hours and knowledge I would probably never move further than the potato peeling station . . . we parted ways.
Once again luck was to be on my side, and I quickly found myself employed in the press room of a factory supplying coats and jackets for Marks and Spencer’s. This job didn’t exactly have career screaming at me, but it was this or join the dole queue. And let’s be honest, I’d rather be surrounded with fabric and steam than sitting at home watching the grass grow. And let’s not forget that little thing called rent.
There were three positives with this job though. The women I worked with were enormous fun. The pork sausages in fresh soft rolls once a week at tea time came close to near nigh perfection on a plate. And the money was good. Anybody who has, or does, find themselves being paid on a piece-work basis will well know the hefty weekly pay-packet you inevitably carry home. Yes, it was a feast or famine at times, but in general we all did very well thank you very much.
Over all it could be argued there was luck to my life, employment was good, friends were good and romance was too. Yet I was not happy, had not been for years as I struggled emotionally, longing for something good, something special to happen.
And as my day-to-day reality was not exactly flying then, it could well be argued a chance to go beyond the A5 would be appealing. It was not. The eventual realisation of removing myself from the comfort zone of the UK for unknown SA hit home hard, leaving me best described as overwhelmed as I found myself going through the motions of packing, sorting and readying for off.
During my short life, the shores of the tiny island I called home had released me probably no more than three of four times. And even then not more than perhaps France as a schoolgirl and Jersey as a toddler.
Admittedly there had been a plane trip. Once. To Germany. A few weeks prior to my long haul trip. Yet none of these holidays could have prepared me for the distance I was to travel, nor the length of time it would take me to reach there.
Of course the distance wasn’t the sole problem of my misery. I had a return ticket in my hand after all, and there should have been comfort in knowing I was coming back and not facing the prospect of being held against my will for the rest of my life.
Most people I surmise would argue a year away in Africa should be considered an adventure, something along the lines of a gap year where time is spent finding oneself . . . or not. In 1981 I don’t even think we’d heard of a gap year, let alone considered taking time out between ending education and starting work. For most of the young adults I’d left school with, it was very much a case of find a job as quick as you can.
And yet, even though I knew, even though I had that return ticket in my grip, my despair and anxiety was that I would never, ever return home again. I could not see the opportunity I was being given as anything other than being ripped from what I knew, regardless of whether it be good, bad or indifferent. Honestly, I might as well have been heading to the moon to sit all day, staring at the earth, my hand reaching towards it, but never finding or gaining the ability to return there once more.
My body ached as I sobbed at the boarding gate, while my Dad and Step-Mum remained stoic as they sent me on my way. It was only years later I learnt my Dad had cried that night. I can’t describe how that made me feel other than gut-wrenching in knowing the man I still consider to be Superman was so distressed.
Boarding was routine, and as a naïve flyer the option to request a seat had not crossed my mind, and so it was I found myself sitting in the middle of the middle row, a worse seat you could never imagine. With nowhere to go I settled down to a very long flight.
On reflection, the thought crosses my mind that should the pilot have announced the plane had lost a wheel and the need to disembark was required, there is no doubt I would have been the first one down the aisle, cheering, my passport above my head. There may well have been blood if anybody had been in my way.
He did not, and therefore I was on my way.