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The Scrivener: Never Forget Your Sense Of Humour

...She must have detected that I did have a sense of fun. Perhaps, in an earlier conversation, I had attempted to make her smile, but her tight, longsuffering face never relaxed to the luxury of such an expression. In the context of our conversation, and to counteract my feeling of general misery, she gave me her Message For Life...

Brian Barratt brings a gorgeously detailed word portrait of his first landlady in a small town in Zimbabwe, formerly known as Southern Rhodesia.

Mrs McKendrew was my first landlady in 1953, and she made an indelible impression on my young mind. I was obliged to move out of home and into digs before my seventeenth birthday. In the small town in Zimbabwe, then known as Southern Rhodesia, there were a number of elderly ladies who let rooms to young working men and women. I moved into Mrs McKendrew's place.

There was no Mr McKendrew. He was never mentioned. The only living relative seemed to be her sister, whom she visited regularly for Sunday lunch. Nor did Mrs McK have a private life that was discussed. She had spent years building up walls to protect herself from other people to the extent that all she ever did was to complain about them. The only personal thing she ever referred to was When I Was In Hospital. If ever I made any hint, in our brief conversations, of being slightly off colour, or under stress, she would remind me that things could never be as bad as When I Was In Hospital. Why she was In Hospital, or for how long, I was never privileged to find out.

An ominous sort of atmosphere hung about the little house. It was not so much that everything was very simple and fastidiously tidy, but that it seemed to be a place of closed curtains. The window of my own small room looked out onto a closed-in verandah, so I did not have a direct view of the garden or even of daylight. The small parlour, into which I used to creep on Sundays, when she was out, had the curtains permanently closed. I used to browse through her few books in semi-darkness, and read the inspirational works of Ella Wheeler Wilcox for the good of my soul.

The other lodger, Bill, lived in a room even smaller than mine, which seemed to have no window at all. When he was at home ó he was a post office linesmen and spent weeks in the bush ó he was usually in bed, semi-coherent, and surrounded by beer bottles, empty and full.

The bathroom was totally dark. I suppose there was a window somewhere but I don't recall finding it. One had to perform one's ablutions by the dim light of a 40 watt globe, as anything brighter would have cost Mrs McK too much of her frugal income. Her two lodgers provided a little extra to help make ends meet, but not enough to have a bright light by which to shave on dark mornings. The major problem with the bathroom was that hot water did not arrive until mid-morning, after the kitchen stove had been filled with logs by the African servant, and heated up. If I was on early shift, and needed to wash at five o'clock in the morning, I had to gingerly sponge myself down with a flannel of ice-cold water.

Apart from the time when She Was In Hospital, Mrs McK had another conversational item that seemed to crop up every time we spoke, which wasn't often. She hated Africans. This was not uncommon among certain whites in Africa in those days, the days before Britain gave up its colonies and granted independence. What they would have done without the African servants, who hewed their wood and drew their water, I have no idea. They would have been helpless. But I clearly recall Mrs McK storming into the house one day, in her stiff, wooden way, with thunder-clouds about her wizened, grey face, declaring to the world, 'If I had all the machine guns in the world, I'd shoot the bloody lot of 'em!'

Such a declaration made me shiver but I was in no position to argue with her ó I valued my small room, at five pounds a month, and could not risk being thrown out if I spoke in defence of the African servant. I would have been labelled, in her terms, 'a Kaffir lover'.

Mrs McK did not provide meals. I had to walk a mile down the road to another, larger boarding house, and have my breakfast and evening meal at Mrs Beverley's. That cost about fifteen pounds a month. Not a great deal was left out of my monthly income of twenty-nine pounds. On one occasion, however, I did have a meal with Mrs McK. I think I must have been ill, and unable to walk the mile down the dusty road for dinner. Mrs McK found some humanity in her cold heart, and invited me to share her simple repast.

All I can remember of the meal is the watery soup and the conversation. I suppose we did have a main course, too, but it was obviously not memorable. She must have been attempting to cheer me up, as I had been ill for a while with the first of a series of gastric upsets that plagued me for years in Africa.

She must have detected that I did have a sense of fun. Perhaps, in an earlier conversation, I had attempted to make her smile, but her tight, longsuffering face never relaxed to the luxury of such an expression. In the context of our conversation, and to counteract my feeling of general misery, she gave me her Message For Life.

We had already done the bit about When I Was In Hospital when she fixed me with her frozen, unsmiling stare, and uncomfortably waved her generally inflexible arm. It was the nearest thing to a gesticulation I ever saw her make.
'Brian,' she told me, or, rather, announced to the room, 'Never Forget Your Sense Of Humour'.

It was said without a glimmer of change in her own facial expression. The pain of the years glinted in those eyes, and the tense mouth closed immediately afterwards, before a smile could threaten to emerge.

I must not be unkind in my memories of Mrs McK. No doubt she had suffered, and was struggling to live in the manner to which she had once been accustomed. Anyone who has a copy of the poems of Ella Wheeler Wilcox cannot be entirely devoid of feeling.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2013.

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Brian's words always bring delight. For more of his columns click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his engaging Web site
www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

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