Story of a Non-Marrying Man
From the archive, ‘Story of a Non-Marrying Man’ by British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing was published in the August/September 1972 issue of The London Magazine, edited by Alan Ross. The recipient of the 2007 Nobel Prize of Literature, Lessing was described by the Swedish Academy as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. She is known for her novels The Grass is Singing (1950) and The Golden Notebook (1962).
I met Johnny Blakeworthy at the end of his life. I was at the beginning of mine, about 10 or 12 years old. This was in the early ‘thirties, when the Slump had spread from America even to us, in the middle of Africa. The very first sign of the Slump was the increase in the number of people who lived by their wits, or as vagrants.
Our house was on a hill, the highest point of our farm. Through the farm went the only road, a dirt track, from the railway station seven miles away, our shopping and mail centre, to the farms further on. Our nearest neighbours were three, four, and seven miles away. We could see their roofs flash in the sunlight, or gleam in the moon-light across all those trees, ridges, and valleys.
From the hill we could see the clouds of dust that marked the passage of cars or wagons along the track. We would say: ‘That must be so-and-so going in to fetch his mail.’ Or: ‘Cyril said he had to get a spare part for the plough, his broke down, that must be him now.’
If the cloud of dust turned off the main road and moved up through the trees towards us, we had time to build up the fire and put on the kettle. At busy times for the farmers, this happened seldom. Even at slack times, there might be no more than three or four cars a week, and as many wagons. It was mostly a white man’s road, for the Africans moving on foot used their own quicker, short-cutting paths. White men coming to the house on foot were rare, though less rare as the Slump set in. More and more often, coming through the trees up the hill, we saw walking towards us a man with a bundle of blankets over his shoulder, a rifle swinging in his hand. In the blanket roll was always a frying pan and a can of water, sometimes a couple of tins of bully beef, or a Bible, matches, a twist of dried meat. Sometimes this man had an African servant walking with him. These men always called themselves Prospectors, for that was a respectable occupation. Many did prospect, and nearly always for gold.
One evening, as the sun was going down, up the track to our house came a tall stooped man in shabby khaki with a rifle and a bundle over one shoulder. We knew we had company for the night. The rules of hospitality were that no one coming to our homes in the bush could be refused; every man was fed, and asked to stay as long as he wanted.
Johnny Blakeworthy was burned by the suns of Africa to a dark brown, and his eyes in a dried wrinkled face were grey, the whites much inflamed by the glare. He kept screwing up his eyes, as if in sunlight, and then, in a remembered effort of will, letting loose his muscles, so that his face kept clenching and unclenching like a fist. He was thin: he spoke of having had malaria recently. He was old: it was not only the sun that had so deeply lined his face. In his blanket-roll he had, as well as the inevitable frying pan, an enamel one-pint saucepan, a pound of tea, some dried milk, and a change of clothing. He wore long, heavy khaki trousers for protection against lashing grasses and grass-seeds, and a khaki bush-shirt. He also owned a washed-out grey sweater for frosty nights. Among these items was a corner of a sack full of maize-meal. The presence of the maize-flour was a statement, and probably unambiguous, for the Africans ate maize-meal porridge as their staple food. It was cheap, easily obtain-able, quickly cooked, nourishing, but white men did not eat it, at least, not as the basis of their diet, because they did not wish to be put on the same level as Africans. The fact that this man carried it was why my father, discussing him later with my mother, said: ‘He’s probably gone native.’
This was not a criticism. Or rather, while with one part of the collective ethos the white men might say, He’s gone native! and in anger; with a different part of their minds, or at different times, it could be said in bitter envy. But that is another story…
Johnny Blakeworthy was of course asked to stay for supper and for the night. At the lamplit table, which was covered with every sort of food, he kept saying how good it was to see so much real food again, but it was in a vaguely polite way, as if he was having to remind himself that this was how he should feel. His plate was loaded with food, and he ate, but kept forgetting to eat, so that my mother had to remind him, putting a little bit more of nice undercut, a splash of gravy, helpings of carrots and spinach from the garden. But by the end he had eaten very little, and hadn’t spoken much either, though the meal gave an impression of much conversation and interest and eating, like a feast, so great was our hunger for company, so many were our questions. Particularly the two children questioned and demanded, for the life of such a man, walking quietly by himself through the bush, sometimes twenty miles or more a day, sleeping by himself under the stars, or the moon, or whatever weather the seasons sent him, prospecting when he wished, stopping to rest when he needed–such a life, it goes without saying, set us restlessly dreaming of lives different from those we were set towards by school and by parents.
We did learn that he had been on the road for ‘some time, yes, some time now, yes’. That he was 60. That he had been born in England, in the South, near Canterbury. That he had been adventuring up and down and around Southern Africa all his life — but adventure was not the word he used, it was the word we children repeated until we saw that it made him uncomfortable. He had mined: had indeed owned his own mine. Had farmed, but had not done well. Had done all kinds of work, but ‘I like to be my own master’. He had owned a store, but ‘I get restless, and I must be on the move.’
Now there was nothing in this we hadn’t heard before- every time, indeed, that such a wanderer came to our door. There was nothing out of the ordinary in his extraordinariness. Except, perhaps, as we remembered later, sucking all the stimulation we could out of the visit, discussing it for days, he did not have a prospector’s pan, nor had he asked my father for permission to prospect on this farm. We could not remember a prospector who had failed to become excited by the farm, for it was full of chipped rocks and reefs, trenches and shafts, which some people said went back to the Phoenicians. You couldn’t walk a hundred yards without seeing signs ancient and modern of the search for gold. The district was called ‘Banket’ because it had running through it reefs of the same formation as reefs called Banket on the Rand. The name alone was like a signpost.
But Johnny said he liked to be on his way by the time the sun was up. I saw him leave, down the track that was sunflushed, the trees all rosy on one side. He shambled away out of sight, a tall, much too thin, rather stooping man in washed out khaki and soft hide shoes.
Some months later, another man, out of work and occupying himself with prospecting, was asked if he had ever met up with John Blakeworthy, and he said yes, he had indeed! He went on with indignation to say that he had gone native’ in the Valley. The indignation was false, and we assumed that this man too might have ‘gone native’, or that he wished he had, or could. But Johnny’s hack of a prospecting pan, his maize meal, his look at the supper table of being out of place and unfamiliar-all was explained. “Going native’ implied that a man would have a ‘bush wife’, but it seemed Johnny did not.
‘He said he’s had enough of the womenfolk, he’s gone to get out of their way,’ said the visitor.
I did not describe, in its place, the thing about Johnny’s visit that struck us most, because at the time it did not seem to us more than agreeably quaint. It was only much later that the letter he wrote us matched up with others, and made a pattern.
Three days after Johnny’s visit to us, a letter arrived from him. I remember my father expected to find that it would ask, after all, for permission to prospect. But any sort of letter was odd. Letter-writing equipment did not form part of a tramp’s gear. The letter was on blue Croxley writing paper, and in a blue Croxley envelope, and the writing was as neat as a child’s. It was a ‘bread and butter letter’. He said that he had very much enjoyed our kind hospitality, and the fine cooking of the lady of the house. He was grateful for the opportunity of making our acquaintance. With my best wishes, yours very truly Johnny Blakeworthy.’ Once he had been a well-brought-up little boy from a small English country town. ‘You must always write and say thank you after enjoying hospitality, Johnny.’
We talked about the letter for a long time. He must have dropped in at the nearest store after leaving our farm. It was twenty miles away. He probably bought a single sheet of paper and a lone envelope. This meant that he had got them from the African part of the store, where such small retailing went on–at vast profit, of course, to the storekeeper. He must have bought one stamp, and walked across to the post office to hand the letter over the counter. Then, due having been paid to his upbringing, he moved back to the African tribe where he lived beyond post offices, letter writing, and the other impedimenta that went with being a white man. The next glimpse I had of the man, I still have no idea where to fit into the pattern I was at last able to make.
It was years later. I was a young woman at a morning tea party. This one, like all others of its kind, was an excuse for gossip, and most of that was – of course, since we were young married women – about men and marriage. A girl, married not more than a year, much in love, and unwilling to sacrifice her husband to the collective, talked instead about her aunt from the Orange Free State. ‘She was married for years to a real bad one, and then up he got and walked out. All she heard from him was a nice letter, you know, like a letter after a party or something. It said Thank you very much for the nice time. Can you beat that? And later still she found she had never been married to him because all the time he was married to someone else.’
‘Was she happy?’ one of us asked, and the girl said, ‘She was nuts all right, she said it was the best time of her life.’
‘Then what was she complaining about?’
‘What got her was, having to say Spinster, when she was as good as married all those years. And that letter got her goat, I feel I must write and thank you for…something like that.’
‘What was his name?’ I asked, suddenly understanding what was itching at the back of my mind.
‘I don’t remember. Johnny something or other.’
That was all that came out of that most topical of South African scenes, the morning tea party on the deep shady verandah, the trays covered with every kind of cake and biscuit, the gossiping young women, watching their offspring at play under the trees, filling in a morning of their lazy lives before going back to their respective homes where they would find their meals cooked for them, the tables laid, and their husbands waiting. That tea party was thirty years ago, and still that town has not grown so wide that the men can’t drive home to take their midday meals with their families. I am talking of white families, of course.
The next bit of the puzzle came in the shape of a story which I read in a local paper, of the kind that gets itself printed in the spare hours of presses responsible for much more reknowned newspapers. This one was called the Valley Advertiser, and its circulation might have been 10,000. The story was headed: Our Prize-winning story, The Fragrant Black Aloe. By our new Discovery, Alan McGinnery.
When I have nothing better to do, I like to stroll down the Main Street, to see the day’s news being created, to catch fragments of talk, and to make up stories about what I hear. Most people enjoy coincidences, it gives them something to talk about. But when there are too many, it makes an unpleasant feeling that the long arm of coincidence is pointing to a region where a rational person is likely to feel uncomfortable. This morning was like that. It began in a flower shop. There a woman with a shopping list was saying to the salesman: ‘Do you sell black aloes?’ It sounded like something to eat.
‘Never heard of them,’ said he. ‘But I have a fine range of succulents. I can sell you a miniature rock garden on a tray.’
‘No, no, no. I don’t want the ordinary aloes. I’ve got all those. I want the scented black aloe.’
Ten minutes later, waiting to buy a toothbrush at the cosmetic counter at our chemist, Harry’s Farmacy, I heard a woman ask for a bottle of Black Aloe.
Hello, I thought, black aloes have suddenly come into my life!
‘We don’t stock anything like that,’ said the salesgirl, offering rose, honeysuckle, lilac, white violets and jasmine, while obviously re-flecting that black aloes must make a bitter kind of perfume.
Half an hour later I was in a seedshop, and when I heard a petulant female voice ask: ‘Do you stock succulents?’ then I knew what was coming. This had happened to me before, but I couldn’t remember where or when. Never before had I heard of the Scented Black Aloe, and here it was, three times in an hour.
When she had gone I asked the salesman, “Tell me, is there such a thing as the Scented Black Aloe?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ he said. ‘But people always want what’s difficult to find.’
And at that moment I remembered where I had heard that querulous, sad, insistent hungry note in a voice before (voices, as it turned out!), the note that means that the Scented Black Aloe represents, for that time, all the heart’s desire.
It was before the war. I was in the Cape and I had to get to Nairobi. I had driven the route before, and I wanted to get it over. Every couple of hours or so you pass through some little dorp, and they are all the same. They are hot, and dusty. In the tearoom there is a crowd of youngsters eating ice-cream and talking about motor cycles and film stars. In the bars men stand drinking beer. The restaurant, if there is one, is bad, or pretentious, The waitress longs only for the day when she can get to the big city, and she says the name of the city as if it was Paris, or London, but when you reach it, 200 or 500 miles on, it is a slightly larger dorp, with the same dusty trees, the same tearoom, the same bar, and 5,000 people instead of 100.
On the evening of the third day I was in the Northern Transvaal, and when I wanted to stop for the night, the sun was bloodred through a haze of dust, and the main street was full of cattle and people. There was the yearly Farmers’ Show in progress, and the hotel was full. The proprietor said there was a woman who took in people in emergencies.
The house was by itself at the end of a straggling dust street, under a large jacaranda tree. It was small, with chocolate-coloured trellis-work along the verandah, and the roof was sagging under scarlet bougainvillea. The woman who came to the door was a plump, dark-haired creature in a pink apron, her hands floury with cooking.
She said the room was not ready. I said that I had come all the way from Bloemfontein that morning, and she said, ‘Come in, my second husband was from there when he came here in the beginning.’
Outside the house was all dust, and the glare was bad, but inside it was cosy, with flowers and ribbons and cushions and china behind glass. In every conceivable place were pictures of the same man. You couldn’t get away from them. He smiled down from the bathroom wall, and if you opened a cupboard door, there he was, stuck up among the dishes.
She spent two hours cooking a meal, said over and over again how a woman has to spend all her day cooking a meal that is eaten in five minutes, inquired after my tastes in food, offered second helpings. In between, she talked about her husband. It seemed that four years ago a man had arrived in the week of the Show, asking for a bed. She never liked taking in single men, for she was a widow living alone but she did like the look of him, and a week later they were married. For eleven months they lived in a dream of happiness. Then he walked out and she hadn’t heard of him since, except for one letter, thanking her for all her kindness. That letter was like a slap in the face, she said. You don’t thank a wife for being kind, like a hostess, do you? Nor do you send her Christmas cards. But he had sent her one the Christmas after he left, and there it was, on the mantelpiece, With Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas. But he was so good to me, she said. He gave me every penny he ever earned, and I didn’t need it, because my first hubby left me provided for. He got a job as a ganger on the railways. She could never look at another man after him. No woman who knew anything about life would. He had his faults of course, like everyone. He was restless and moody, but he loved her honestly, she could see that, and underneath it all, he was a family man.
That went on until the cocks began to crow and my faced ached with yawning.
Next morning I continued my drive north, and that night, in Southern Rhodesia, I drove into a small town full of dust and people standing about in their best clothes among milling cattle. The hotel was full. It was Show time.
When I saw the house, I thought time had turned back twenty-four hours, for there were the creepers weighing down the roof, and the trellised verandah, and the red dust heaped all around it. The attractive woman who came to the door was fair-haired. Behind her, through the door, I saw a picture on the wall of the same handsome blonde young man with his hard grey eyes that had sun-marks raying out from around them into the sunburn. On the floor was playing a small child, obviously his.
I said where I had come from that morning, and she said wistfully that her hubby had come from there three years before. It was all just the same. Even the inside of the house was like the other, comfortable and frilly and full. But it needed a man’s attention. All kinds of things needed attention. We had supper and she talked about her ‘husband’ – he had lasted until the birth of the baby and a few weeks beyond it – in the same impatient, yearning, bitter urgent voice of her sister of the evening before. As I sat there listening, I had the ridiculous feeling that in hearing her out so sympathetically I was being disloyal to the other deserted ‘wife’ 400 miles south. Of course he had his faults, she said. He drank too much sometimes, but men couldn’t help being men. And sometimes he went into a daydream for weeks at a stretch and didn’t hear what you said. But he was a good husband, for all that. He had got a job in the Sales Department of the Agricultural Machinery Store, and he had worked hard. When the little boy was born he was so pleased…and then he left. Yes, he did write once, he wrote a long letter saying he would never forget her ‘affectionate kindness’. That letter really had upset her. It was a funny thing to say, wasn’t it? Long after midnight I went to sleep under such a large tinted picture of the man that it made me uncomfortable. It was like having someone watching you sleep.
Next evening, when I was about to drive out of Southern Rhodesia into Northern Rhodesia, I was half looking for a little town full of clouds of reddish dust and crowding cattle, the small house, the waiting woman. There seemed no reason why this shouldn’t go on all the way to Nairobi.
But it was not until the day after that, on the Copper Belt in Northern Rhodesia, that I came to a town full of cars and people. There was going to be a dance that evening. The big hotels were full. The lady whose house I was directed to was plump, red-haired, voluble. She said she loved putting people up for the night, though there was no need for her to do it since, while her husband might have his faults (she said this with what seemed like hatred), he made good money at the garage where he was a mechanic. Before she was married, she had earned her living by letting rooms to travellers, which was how she had met her husband. She talked about him while we waited for him to come into supper. ‘He does this every night, every night of my life! You’d think it wasn’t much to ask, to come in for meals at the right time, instead of letting everything spoil, but once he gets into the bar with the men, there is no getting him out.’
There wasn’t a hint in her voice of what I had heard in the voice of the other two women. And I have often wondered since if in her case too absence would make the heart grow fonder. She sighed often and deeply, and said that when you were single you wanted to be married, and when you were married, you wanted to be single, but what got her was, she had been married before, and she ought to have known better. Not that this one wasn’t a big improvement on the last, whom she had divorced.
He didn’t come in until the bar closed, after ten. He was not as good-looking as in his photographs, but that was because his overalls were stiff with grease, and there was oil on his face. She scolded him for being late, and for not having washed, but all he said was: ‘Don’t try to house-train me.’ At the end of the meal she wondered aloud why she spent her life cooking and slaving for a man who didn’t notice what he ate, and he said she shouldn’t bother, because it was true, he didn’t care what he ate. He nodded at me, and went out again. It was after midnight when he came back, with a star-dazed look. bringing a cold draught of night air into the hot lamplit room.
‘So you’ve decided to come in?’ she complained.
‘I walked out into the veld a bit. The moon is strong enough to read by. There’s rain on the wind.’ He put his arm around her waist and smiled at her. She smiled back, her bitterness forgotten. The wanderer had come home.
I wrote to Alan McGinnery and asked him if there had been a model for his story. I told him why I wanted to know, told him of the old man who had walked up to our house through the bush, fifteen years before. There was no reason to think it was the same man, except for that one detail, the letters he wrote, like ‘bread and butter’ letters after a party or a visit.
I got this reply: ‘I am indeed indebted to you for your interesting and informative letter. You are right in thinking my little story had its start in real life. But in most ways it is far from fact. I took liberties with the time of the story, moving it forward by years, no, decades, and placing it in a more modern setting. For the time when Johnny Blakeworthy was loving and leaving so many young women – I’m afraid he was a very bad lot! – are now out of the memory of all but the elderly among us. Everything is so soft and easy now. “Civilization” so-called has overtaken us. But I was afraid if I put my “hero” into his real setting, it would seem so exotic to present-day readers that they would read my little tale for the sake of the background, finding that more interesting than my “hero”.
‘It was just after the Boer War. I had volunteered for it, as a young man does, for the excitement, not knowing what sort of a war it really was. Afterwards I decided not to return to England. I thought I would try the mines, so I went to Johannesburg, and there I met my wife, Lena. She was the cook and housekeeper in a men’s boarding-house, a rough job, in rough days. She had had a child by Johnny, and believed herself to be married to him. So did I. When I made inquiries, I found she had never been married, the papers he had produced at the office were all false. This made things easy for us in the practical sense, but made them worse in some ways. For she was bitter, and I am afraid never really got over the wrong done to her. But we married, and I became the child’s father. She was the original of the second woman in my story. I describe her as home-loving, and dainty in her ways. Even when she was cooking for all those miners, and keeping herself and the boy on bad wages, living in a room not much larger than a dog’s kennel, it was all so neat and pretty. That was what took my fancy first. I daresay it was what took Johnny’s too, to being with, at any rate.
‘Much later – very much later, the child was almost grown, so it was after the Great War, I happened to hear someone speak of Johnny Blakeworthy. It was a woman who had been “married” to him. It never crossed our minds to think–Lena and me–that he had betrayed more than one woman. After careful thought, I decided never to tell her. But I had to know. By then I had done some careful field work. The trail began, or at least, began for me, in Cape Province, with a woman I had heard spoken of, and had then tracked down. She was the first woman in my story, a little plump pretty thing. At the time Johnny married her, she was the daughter of a Boer farmer, a rich one. I don’t have to tell you that this marriage was unpopular. It took place just before the Boer War, that nasty time was to come, but she was a brave girl to marry an Englishman, a roinek. Her parents were angry, but later they were kind and took her back when he left her. He did really marry her, in Church, everything correct and legal. I believe that she was his first love. Later she divorced him. It was a terrible thing, a divorce for those simple people. Now things have changed so much, people wouldn’t believe how narrow and church-bound they were then. That divorce hurt her whole life. She did not marry again. It was not because she did not want to! She had fought with her parents, saying she must get a divorce, because she wanted to be married. But no one married her. In that old-fashioned rural community, in those days, she was a Scarlet Woman. A sad thing, for she was a really nice woman. What struck me was that she spoke of Johnny with no bitterness at all. Even twenty years later, she loved him.
From her, I followed up other clues. With my own wife, I found four women in all. I made it three in my little story: life is always much more lavish with coincidence and drama than any fiction writer dares to be. The red-headed woman I described was a barmaid in a hotel. She hated Johnny. But there was little doubt in my mind what would happen if he walked in through that door.
‘I told my wife that I had been big-game hunting. I did not want to stir up old unhappiness. After she died I wrote the story of the journey from one woman to another, all now of middle age, all of whom had been “married” to Johnny. But I had to alter the settings of the story. How fast everything has changed! I would have had to describe the Boer family on their farm, such simple and old-fashioned, good and bigoted people. And their oldest daughter – the ‘bad’ one. There are no girls like that now, not even in convents. Where in the world now would you find girls brought up as strictly and as narrowly as those on those Boer farms, fifty years ago? And still she had the courage to marry her Englishman, that is the marvellous thing. Then I would have had to describe the mining camps of Johannesburg. Then the life of a woman married to a storekeeper in the bush. Her nearest neighbour was fifty miles away and they didn’t have cars in those days. Finally, the early days of Bulawayo, when it was more like a shanty town than a city. No, it was Johnny who interested me, so I decided to make the story modern, and in that way the reader would not be distracted by what is past and gone.
It was from an African friend who had known the village in which Johnny died that I heard of his last years. Johnny walked into the village, asked to see the Chief, and when the Chief assembled with his elders, asked formally for permission to live in the village, as an African, not as a white man. All this was quite correct, and polite, but the elders did not like it. This village was a long way from the centres of white power, up towards the Zambesi. The traditional life was still comparatively unchanged, unlike the tribes near the white cities, whose structure had been smashed forever. The people of this tribe cherished their distance from the white man, and feared his influence. At least, the older ones did. While they had nothing against this white man as a man on the contrary, he seemed more human than most – they did not want a white man in their life. But what could they do? Their traditions of hospitality were strong: strangers, visitors, travelers, must be sheltered and fed. And they were democratic: a man was as good as his behaviour, it was against their beliefs to throw a person out for a collective fault. And perhaps they were, too, a little curious. The white men these people had seen were the tax-collectors, the policemen, the Native Commissioners, all coldly official or arbitrary. This white man behaved like a suppliant, sitting quietly on the outskirts of the village, beyond the huts, under a tree, waiting for the council to make up its mind.
Finally they let him stay, on condition that he shared the life of the village in every way. This proviso they probably thought would soon get rid of him. But he lived there until he died, six years, with short trips away to remind himself, perhaps, of the strident life he had left. It was on such a trip that he had walked up to our house and stayed the night.
The Africans called him Angry Face. This name implied that was only the face which was angry. It was because of his habit or screwing up and then letting loose his facial muscles. They also called him The Man Without a Home, and The Man Who Has No Woman.
The women found him intriguing, in spite of his 6o years. They hung about his hut, gossiped about him, brought him presents Several made offers, even young girls.
The Chief and his Elders conferred again, under the great tree in the centre of the village, and then called him to hear their verdict.
‘You need a woman’, they said, and in spite of all his protests, made it a condition of his staying with them, for the sake of the tribe’s harmony.
They chose for him a woman of middle age whose husband had died of the blackwater fever, and who had had no children. They said that a man of his age could not be expected to give the patience and attention that small children need. According to my friend, who as a small boy had heard much talk of this white man who had preferred their way of life to his own, Johnny and his new woman lived together in kindness’.
When I was at school in Salisbury there was a girl called Alicia Blakeworthy. She was 15, a ‘big girl’ to me. She lived with her mother on the fringe of the town. Her stepfather had let them. He had walked out.
Her mother had a small house, in a large garden, and she took in paying guests. One of these guests had been Johnny. He had been working as a game warden up owards the Zambesi River,and had had malaria badly. She nursed him. He married her and took a job as a counter hand in the local grocery store. He was a bad husband to Mom, said Alicia. Yes, he brought in money, it wasn’t that. But he was a cold, hard-hearted man. He was no company for them. He would just sit and read, or listen to the radio, or walk around by himself all night. And he never appreciated what was done for him.
Oh how we schoolgirls all hated this monster! What a heartless beast he was.
But the way he saw it, he had stayed for four long years in a suffocating town house surrounded by a domesticated garden. He had worked from eight to four selling groceries to lazy women. When he came home, this money, the gold he had earned by his slavery, was spent on chocolates, magazines, dresses, hair-ribbons for his townified stepdaughter. He was invited, three times a day, to sit down at a table crammed with roast beef and chickens and puddings and cakes and biscuits.
He used to try and share his philosophy of living.
‘I used to feed myself for ten shillings a week!’
‘But why? What for? What’s the point?’
‘Because I was free, that’s the point! If you don’t spend a lot of money then you don’t have to earn it and you are free. Why do you have to spend money on all this rubbish? You can buy a piece of rolled brisket for three shillings, and you boil it with an onion and you can live off it for four days! You can live off mealiemeal well enough. I often did, in the bush.’
‘Mealiemeal! I’m not going to eat native food!’
‘Why not? What’s wrong with it?’
‘If you can’t see why not, then I’m afraid I can’t help you.’ Perhaps it was here, with Alicia’s mother, that the idea of ‘going native’ had first come into his head.
‘For crying out aloud, why cake all the time, why all these new dresses, why do you have to have new curtains, why do we have to have curtains at all, what’s wrong with the sunlight? What’s wrong with the starlight? Why do you want to shut them out? Why?’
That ‘marriage’ lasted four years, a fight all the way.
Then he drifted his way north, out of the white man’s towns, and up into those parts that had not been ‘opened up to white settlement’, and where the Africans were still living, though not for long, in their traditional ways. And there at last he found a life that suited him, and a woman with whom he lived in kindness.
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