Salisbury, January 1955, The Train Station
My feet hurt. My shoes, new and brown and shiny, squeeze and pinch my toes and slice the backs of my ankles with each hurried step. I want to stop and kick them off but Amaiguru Hilda won’t hear of it. ‘Eeh! Don’t be silly, Maudie. You can't wear a new dress and go to a big station full of people without any shoes on.’
I don’t ask again. I think of our cows back home getting milked and having their legs bound together to stop them wandering off. I picture them longing to roam around freely, straining against the tightness of the cords that hold them still, and my chest tightens. I know now how they must feel. Except worse, because I can’t even stand still, not with Amaiguru walking so quickly. How can she go so fast in her shoes, all pointy and high and sounding ko ko ko ko on the ground as she moves? She must be even stronger than the cows, I think. I grip her hand and try not to look scared.
It is night time but it’s even brighter here than in the village when the moon is big and round and shiny and we all go to someone’s house where we make a big circle and clap our hands and sing. Someone plays the drums and we dance under the full moon. Most of the grown-ups sit and watch but sometimes some of them join in.
There are lots of people in the station and the noise is deafening. The people scatter and run this way and that, squawking and flapping and trampling everything in their path as they rush about, the way our chickens do when we go into the coop to try and catch one for our meal. Even the baby ones which wouldn’t even have enough meat on them for one person join in the commotion. We’re like those chickens now. As Amaiguru and I weave our way through the din, I feel suddenly guilty and sad. Sorry chickens, I say, in my head.
Some of the grown-ups around us are holding children’s hands and tugging them along too, the way Amaiguru Hilda is pulling me; some are just standing and talking, some are on the big train beside us, looking out of the window like they forgot something. The station goes on forever. If Amaiguru lets go of my hand I'll get lost and she'll never find me. Then I would never see my mummy again or play with my brother or my friends in the village. I would never see a bird or a cow or a moon in the sky again. There isn’t even a tree in this place. And the roof is so high it might even be touching the sky. Imagine if I could climb right up to the top! My friends in the village would all wish they could be me .
Amaiguru is holding my hand tightly. I am not sure what I’ll do if she takes me on the train. It’s very long, like lots of buses joined together. It might even leave the station while we are still on it and then how will we get back ?
I’m walking with my eyes turned upwards so I don’t notice that Amaiguru has stopped until I bump into the back of her legs. She is talking to a lady dressed in funny clothes. A white lady. Most of the other white ladies in the station are dressed normally like Amaiguru with their hats and their skirts and blouses and their ko ko ko shoes. But this lady is covered up in white from her head to her feet so that you can only see her face and hands and she doesn’t have those high shoes. I think she’s one of those people who takes naughty children to the factory where they turn them into corned beef. All the children in the village are scared to be taken to the white man’s factory because someone even found a finger inside the corned beef tin. A funny feeling wiggles through my stomach. My free hand starts to feel for something behind Amaiguru’s back to hold on to and my heart is pounding inside my chest the way it does when I’m in trouble with Amai and praying I won’t get clapped. I creep behind Amaiguru and hope that the strange white lady can’t see me. I don’t want to be turned into corned beef. Amaiguru is still chatting to the lady. I don’t know what they are saying to each other because I only know how to speak chiZezuru.
They stop talking.
Amaiguru bends down and picks up the case containing my new clothes, which she had put on the ground. She hands it to the white lady. Why is she giving her my things? A lump that feels like a hard stone fills my throat. I try to swallow it, but it won’t go down. My fists curl into tight balls and my face feels hot. Why did Amaiguru Hilda bring me all this way into town to buy me all of those new clothes if she was just planning to give them away to this strange person?
I want to shout Please don’t give away my new clothes, but I know it is rude to talk when grown-ups are talking. I don’t want to get clapped for being cheeky, but I plan to tell Amai about this when we get back to the village. Amai will not be happy that Amaiguru bought me new clothes, only to give them away.
Amaiguru reaches back and begins to pull me from behind her but I hold onto her legs as tightly as I can.
‘Come Maudie, come and see the Seesta,’ she says.
What is Amaiguru talking about? I know that word because Stan taught me. He said that I am his seesta. So whose seesta is she? Surely not Amaiguru’s – my mummy is Amaiguru’s seesta; this is a white lady, a real murungu. A murungu with funny clothes. She is not Amaiguru’s seesta and she is not my seesta either. I don’t know what Amaiguru means.
The murungu lady stretches her arms to me and takes hold of my wrist. I scream. She tugs me by one arm as I try to cling to Amaiguru’s leg with the other. Amaiguru helps her, peeling my arm away from her leg and forcing it into the Seesta’s firm grip. The Seesta picks me up. I howl and stretch out my arms for my Amaiguru to take me back, kicking my skinny legs against the Seesta who is struggling to hold on to me. Amaiguru strokes my face and says something to me but when she gets closer, I fling my arms around her neck and beg her not to leave me: ‘Musandisiye Amaiguru! Musandisiye!’
I’m hysterical. I don’t let go. The seesta is saying something to Amaiguru who takes my hands, kisses my palms and then turns around suddenly and walks away. Panic-stricken, I feel certain that I am about to be taken to the white man’s factory.
I watch my auntie disappear and filled with pure terror, I scream so loudly that I can’t hear any more noise from the station. ‘Amai! Amai!’ I wail, my arms still reaching out for my auntie, but this time crying for my Amai. My head hurts, my chest hurts, my whole body hurts. I go limp when the white lady carries me onto the train and lays me on the seat, all the while stroking my head and talking to me in a sing-song and whispery voice. Someone comes to sit next to me. I can tell that it is not the lady in the funny clothes because the lady’s clothes make a shwe shwe sound when she moves. Maybe Amaiguru has changed her mind and has come to take me home. I lift my head and look up.
It’s a white girl with long, light coloured hair done into two plaits that hang on either side of her neck. She is not as white as the Seesta in the funny clothes. She is about the same height as my sister Abigail, only a lot thinner. She strokes my head and her voice is soft like feathers. She keeps saying ‘shh, shh’ over and over. I curl my body into the smallest ball. Even though it’s quite warm in the train I can’t stop shaking.
Then I remember something and I stop crying. ‘ Ndinoda mombe yangu.’ I say, looking hopefully at the kind girl sitting near me. Before I left the village, my brother Stan had carved a little cow for me from river clay so that I wouldn't forget him while I was in the big city. It’s my special little mombe and I want it. It will make me feel better. ‘Ndinoda mombe yangu,’ I ask again, several times but no one understands me. As I give in to exhaustion and fall asleep, I am certain of two things: I will never see my mummy again, and I am going to die.
I am four years old.
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