An Intruder in the Night - this story precedes A Terrifying Night
When I was 12 years old a man broke into our flat and into the bedroom I shared with my sister.
We were living in Northern Rhodesia and had recently returned from England where we had been living for about a year. My parents evacuated our family to the land of their birth during the Congo Uprising, during which thousands of people were being slaughtered weekly in a ferocious political war.
At ten years of age, along with hundreds of other volunteers, many of my age, I served soup from a 44 gallon drum wearing my Brownie uniform at the border post. The evacuees were bewildered, bloodied and battered, had lost their families, their homes and their possessions and I overheard stories and saw things no one, lease of all a child, should ever see. We lived in a mining town called Bancroft, in the remote Copperbelt region of Northern Rhodesia, on the Congolese border. My father, and everyone else’s too, served in the Army Reserve, in a security patrol which swept through the bush on regular occasions in an attempt to keep the population safe. The women were at home alone with their children, their cars loaded with emergency provisions, the boot filled with blankets, tinned food, petrol and water in large cans. There were days we did not go to school, which was 15 miles journey away in Chingola, through the bush, and often we could hear gunfire in the distance. I remember a whistle my mother wore around her neck, and the always to be obeyed instruction that if she blew it, we were to come running and climb into the car for a dash to safety. I never considered that my Mother's driving skills at that point were nominal, and her knowledge of the African bush scant - I grew up despite this, enjoying the freedom and the bush and the animals that life in that physically beautiful place provided us with.
So when my Dad decided the family was leaving for England for our own safety - none of us were happy. It was a diaster of another kind for our family. I remember a long train voyage through three countries to Cape Town, a long sea voyage to Southampton and arriving at my grandparents tiny flat - the second floor of a dreary council house in grey, damp, Cricklewood in grey, damp, cold London. The bottom floor was owned by and lived in by a man and his ‘odd’ son. I loathed it instantly. I was sent to a posh convent in Mill Hill, which stifled every bit of fun and joy and creativity out of everyone who passed through its doors. The nuns were sadistic and I was beaten for writing the way our liberal American nuns in Africa had taught me, with a strong backward slope, and was told I had 'the devil in me'. My accent was a source of much amusement, my skin colour was so dark I was called names, and I was lonely and miserable for Africa. I was also cold and so bundled up in hats and socks and scarves with my hair scraped back into a long plait that I was frequently mistaken for a boy which made me cry. And that was just my personal hell. My mother was in tears every day as she and her mother argued constantly, she felt the cold dreadfully, and we were living with my grandparents in their one bedroom flat. My parents, brother and I slept in the tiny room which housed the TV, called ‘the lounge’. Nobody ever lounged on anything, my grandmother was a neat control freak, and spent her days with her lips pursed, seething with resentment at this intrusion in her orderly life. My sister stayed with a relative around the corner, Aunty Grace Woodcock, who was warm and funny, and I was jealous. Susan was 17, and working in an office during the day and at night, selling tickets in the local cinema. She had left behind a boyfriend in Northern Rhodesia, to whom she wrote letters every day, and she also cried a lot. My father got work as a mechanic very quickly, but in a much less senior position to what he was used to on the copper mines, which caused him a great deal of unhappiness. My brother probably fitted in best of all - at four years old he was smart with a cheeky grin, and frequently naughty - but he seemed to adapt to his school, his new living arrangement and he made friends.
The plan was to buy a house, and they found one in Mill Hill close to the straight laced, joyless convent, St. Mary’s of Mill Hill, which I tearfully attended. The house they intended to purchase was attractive and double storeied, (unheard of in Northern Rhodesia), but when we went to see it, I remember being determined to hate it. I wanted to go home. My parents went to greath lengths to make the visit exciting, explaining which were our bedrooms, and showing us the garden and the school bus stop and shops and other things supposed to entice us. I don't think anybody was enrolled in this house, as a few weeks later, sitting at my grandparents kitchen table, with a man I now know to be the real estate agent, my parents had a short conversation, and tore up the paperwork they were about to sign to finalise the purchase. "I want to go home" my mother gravely announced, and my grandmother exploded "This IS your home!" My mother ignored her and parents hugged us all and we all danced about. And that was it - to a child, it seems so simple, but I cannot imagine the ramifications of that decision. But - we were going home!
I cannot tell you the delight and happiness that filled my heart and body to imagine us once again in Africa, in the sunshine and the heat with our friends and our schools and all that was familiar. I cannot even remember how long afterwards we left that gloomy world, the details are hazy now.
And we went home to Africa.
Soon after, a man broke into our house, and into the bedroom I shared with my sister.