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The Scrivener: The Bumpy Road Home

…I have a mental picture of the passing years as an illustrated road stretching back into the 1930s. People, places, events and signposts are dotted along it. And there are occasional bumps…

Brian Barratt has encountered bumps in various parts of the world in the long road of his life. Now, in prose that is more finely polished than precious metal, with a smile and an occasional tear, he looks back on his experiences.

Do visit Brian's Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

When you’re 10, a year is one-tenth of the length of your life. When you’re 60, it’s only one-sixtieth. I’ve passed the time when it was one-seventieth. I have a mental picture of the passing years as an illustrated road stretching back into the 1930s. People, places, events and signposts are dotted along it. And there are occasional bumps.

The first of the major bumps was moving from England to Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) at the age of 16. I had to learn that it was not a good idea to stay out in the sun for too long. Heat-stroke is not a pleasant experience. My taste-buds had to get used to guava, paw-paw, grenadilla, avocado and mango. I rejected mango — doormats soaked in turpentine.
Going down the yard to the PK (picaninny kia, ‘little house’) wasn’t exactly enhanced by the filthy stink coming from the bucket beneath the wooden seat. I never met a snake in the dunny but there were huge hairy spiders of the type that raise primal fear.

Oddly enough, I saw only two snakes in the wild during 15 years in Africa. I ran over the first one while driving my motorbike. A stupid thing to do, I know, because it could have wrapped itself round my legs. The alternative was to jam on the brakes and fly over the handlebars.

Apart from having amoebic dysentery and bilharzia, the worst part of the first few years was being derided as a ‘limey’ and a ‘pommy’, two words I loathe to this day.

The next bump was negotiated when I was 23 and moved to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The food was the same, and the climate was similar. Just three seasons and no need for weather forecasts. After the dry season, the heat and humidity built up to a point where they became almost unbearable. October was known as Suicide Month. If you were going to do it, that’s when you did it. Rain started by November 5, just in time to spoil Guy Fawkes Night. By Christmas, there was a spectacular tropical storm at the same time every day.

I was now in a country where Africans were treated more like human beings. They weren’t referred to by insulting terms such as ‘kaffir’ and ‘munt’. When I shook off the prejudice that had infected me in the south, I made one of my older African employees laugh by insisting that I had a ‘domestic servant’, not a ‘houseboy’. That was before ‘political correctness’ was invented.

At the age of 32, I arrived in Australia. Another bump. ‘You’ll love Perth,’ they said. I hated it. For a start, the weather around Christmas was hotter than in Kitwe. Then in Winter I had to wear two singlets and two pullovers to keep warm. After eight years of company management in Zambia, the real culture shock was in the way businesses were run. I’d better draw a veil over my reasons for saying that. Let’s just say that I coined the phrase, ‘You scratch my back and I’ll stab yours’.
Perth, Western Australia, was the largest city I’d lived in. In the next bump, I was transferred to Melbourne. Horrors! How on Earth would I cope with the weather, the crowds, anything? Well, I did more than cope — I loved it, and still do. Autumn leaves did the trick. I went to the Royal Botanic Gardens and walked through those leaves, swishing them around with my feet, hearing them crackle and crunch, relishing childhood memories.

It was a few years before I had the other big ‘back to childhood’ experience, and went to Lake Mountain where I could walk through snow and make a snowman. OK, there were no black cockatoos in the trees of childhood England. They were an added bonus, possible only in Australia.

Gypsies speak of the latcho drom, the good road. At stops along the road, a Gypsy’s home is the ground upon which his feet are standing. When people ask if I plan to ‘go home’ for a holiday, my answer is, ‘I am at home’. True, there were bumps along the road. We all have to get over them. But as the years grow shorter, we can have the satisfaction of looking back with a smile, perhaps an occasional tear, at our own personal bumpy road, can’t we?

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2007


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