A letter from my father asking if either my brother or I could see our way to coming home to South Africa quashed my plans to go to South America. That it should be my brother was out of the question as he had truly settled and was making his way in his teaching career. The reason, he said, was that mum was battling with depression brought on by menopause and hormone imbalance, and that she felt she had no purpose in life now that we were both so far away. (This condition would later be defined as bi-polar.)
I agreed to go back, although, in retrospect, I don’t think it did any good.
As I had saved enough for a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, visa requirements demanded that I also have either a return ticket or a visa for the neighbouring country to which I wished to travel, and the requirements for the next country were the same. Thus, having funds enough to return to South Africa, I booked passage on the P&O Line’s Arcadia for early in November. In the meanwhile, I continued working as a supervisor for IPS. At the time, and for the remaining several weeks, I had a team of women at Reichs, a small factory which pasteurized eggs for the confectionary industry.
Besides driving the mini-bus to and fro, my job was to pass fifteen dozen eggs in a tray containing a token, through a hatch onto a roller in a sterile work-room. From there it would be taken by one of the girls to her work station where the eggs would be broken into a small dish, inspected for nasty inhabitants, then tossed into a stainless steel channel which gathered egg from all the thirty-odd workers to head for a big beater, then into the heating vats. Eventually the goo would be sealed into one-gallon cans, to be cooled and stored and sold to bakers and confectioners all over London.
I thought it was a myth that a mouse could induce hysterics to such a degree that it could cause somebody to leap onto a chair, screaming. Not so. A large girl, whose job it was to fetch boxes of eggs from the outside cool-rooms, open them and pass them to me in fifteen dozen lots, pulled a wee rodent out with the eggs.
I shall never forget it: the large, shaking, shuddering, screaming woman on the chair, and the little mouse dashing for its life.
I couldn’t help myself. Shame on me; I cracked up laughing.
Maybe that insensitivity was not forgiven by the natural laws of what-goes-around-comes-around. A week or so later, I pranged the mini-van.
Having just dropped off the last of my team, I was heading back to the office along Kennington Road. It had rained, sporadic showers which left small wet patches and large dry ones on the road. Two women deep in conversation stepped onto a zebra crossing from behind a stationary bus that I was passing. I hit the brakes just as the tyres crossed a wet patch, and the van kept going.
I steered for the gap between the women and the bus. Then one jumped forward to safety and one leaped back into the gap. The van slid into her. It was a short-nosed Ford Transit; she was spread-eagled across the bonnet, her blond hair over the windscreen, her screaming face pressed to the glass just in front of me like a hideous sunflower.
She slipped off to the side and disappeared. The van crunched into a tree beside the road and the engine stalled. The sliding door next to me was flung free with the impact; it skidded down the road. I stepped out and went to look for the girl. I was the first one there, then an older woman was with her, trying to cradle her, when an odd-duty nurse told her sternly to move away so she could assess the damage before anyone moved her. A crowd gathered, and a bobby. The older woman was the girl’s mother, and I gathered, from what she was saying to the nurse, that her daughter was four months pregnant.
I wished the ground could swallow me up.
The bobby demanded to know where the driver was. I was about to own up when a woman announced that the driver had run off down the street. She had seen it all from the top deck of the bus. She described him as short and fat. Another argued that she had seen him, too. But he was dark, bearded, wore glasses, and had run the other way.
I was so amazed that I said nothing. At a nearby barbershop, I borrowed the phone to inform my office to explain what had happened. I was told to wait there for them.
An ambulance took the girl and her mum away. The crowd melted, but I kept my eye on the policeman as he waited for a team to arrive with measuring equipment to make a sketch. While he was free of company, I went over to him and introduced myself. Andy Balfour, the branch manager, and Dennis Barrett came to pick me up, giving the company details to the bobby. I was shattered; riddled with guilt and worry about the girl. I wanted to send flowers to the hospital, but was warned not to do so by the company solicitor who said that such an act would be construed as an admission of guilt.
Andy and Dennis took me to The Old Vic pub and got me well and truly smashed, which, besides the hangover, was a wise move. Dennis dealt with my team the next day and gave me the day off. A week later, we heard that the girl’s internal bleeding had stopped and that she would not lose her baby. I was weak with relief.
My court case was scheduled for some time in February the following year. I took the documents to the police to ask for advice, as I was booked to return to South Africa. A sympathetic policeman agreed that, theoretically, I should cancel my return until after the case had been settled. But, seeing as the girl had completely recovered, unofficially, if he was me, he would leave as planned!
The night before I was to leave, my IPS friends gave me a send-off in the Old Vic pub. At closing time they shut the doors on the other patrons; we had three rounds on the house and Mary, the Irish barmaid kissed me goodbye. The team presented me with a pewter beermug with their names engraved on it.
I treasure it, and fill it every day.