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Jo'Burg Days: Bleak Prospect

Barbara Durlacher tells a tale of a young man on a desperate journey to find his father, who has gone to California. But what are his chances of doing so?

For more of Barbara’s entertaining words please click on Jo’Burg Days in the menu on this page.

Bleak, empty, sweeping curves leading to… what? Above him, the traffic thundered unceasingly, dipped headlights sweeping across the interchange, while the constant roar of powerful diesel motors changing down for the curve and then accelerating to breast the further slope deadened his ears to any other sounds.

He had been standing there for hours it seemed, ever since she had dropped him off with his meagre bundle of possessions and a dinner pail of last night’s stew and a large hunk of her delicious home-baked bread. Tucked into his shoe was his wad of dollars, thick enough to rub a blister on his heel. But he didn’t mind, rather get a blister than lose this money, although it would not be long before he would have to find another hiding place for it, his foot was getting sore and he couldn’t afford a bad foot or leg at this stage of his journey.

And a long and weary journey it had been up to now; months of travelling across country, working when he could find it; picking apples, mucking out stables and painting fences. Sometimes he struck it lucky and had a bed in a bunkhouse for a couple o’ nights, but mostly it was a lonely life, hitching and jumping freight trains across country on his own.

But he was determined; he needed to get to California where his Da was waiting for him. He remembered him as he was when he was a small boy, an’ Da would sit there, puffing on his pipe, tellin’ him about the ole country, yarning away…

Those moments of closeness and bonding had stayed with him all those years of growing up, the smell of Da’s pipe tobacco, and how he knocked it out on the heel of his shoe and then scraped the residue with a small implement he took from his pocket, tamped a new plug into the bowl and the fragrance of the clouds of smoke when he lit up again.

He loved his Da, and wept when he left, and hated his Ma for makin’ his Da so unhappy. Why couldn’t they all live together as one big happy family? Little Meg, Patrick and Harry, such a nice kids, even if we all had to wear hand-me-downs; but we loved one another and slept together in one big bed, tumbled like a heap of young puppies. No matter what happened we looked after one another, din’ we? If one of us hit a boundary and it broke the neighbour’s window, we all stood together while the angry man confronted Da and each one took the blame, ‘til the irate house-owner gave up “for lack of concrete evidence” as one former policeman, the neighbour on the other side, had said, when called in to mediate in some tremendous argument.

And now, here he was, on his way to meet his Da again, after all these years. His Da who had remained a bright and shining figure in his imagination since he was eight – and he nearly twenty-two now, an’ so much living [but not much loving] under his belt. After many years of struggle, Ma had finally lost heart and given up, pore ole dear, she had worked herself to death really, trying to keep food on the table for us, with no money coming in from Da even though he always claimed that he was leaving to find a good job on the California West Coast - maybe Hollywood. He was a good craftsman, he could do carpentry and general handiwork; knew how to wire a house although he’d never got his ticket, and he felt sure that with the rapid growth of the movie industry, there’d be plenty of work.

He’d hitched the freights, same like I’m going to do, jus’ as soon as I get out of this pesky big city and find me a quiet place down by the railway where I can jump aboard, but after a few years the letters and the money stopped coming, and Ma had to work harder than ever. She cleaned offices at night, cooked breakfasts in a works canteen for the early morning shift, then came home and cleaned the house, washed and ironed our school uniforms for a few hours in the afternoon before it was time to leave for the offices again. We din’ see much of our Ma, and gradually, she got thinner and greyer and older, an’ more and more tired, an’ so short tempered that we hardly dared say a word while she was around.

We more or less brought ourselves up, really – Ma was never there and when she was she was jus’ too tired to do much, we all knew that we had to leave her be, and let her have her rest, and we walked on tiptoe and talked in whispers, if we din’ leave the house to get away from it all.

Now she’s dead, this woman who gave me life and who I hardly knew, and I’m off to find my Da…

I’m waiting here to catch a lift, maybe a kindly truck driver will pull over and say “Hop aboard, where’re ya off ta?’” and sooner or later – it could be days or months – I’ll be in California an’ there he’ll be, my Da, waiting for me; his eyes lighting up when he sees me coming, the ole pipe still clutched between his teeth.

But in the meantime, I’m looking at this bleak wall and the empty curves and thinking how much it reminds me of my life. Just a bleakness leading to nothing...

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