It was 1984 and my 7-year old marriage wasn’t going very well. My husband wanted a slim wife and he also wanted to be a father. I didn’t cooperate in either direction, and as I have described elsewhere (Part 5 of Chubby Chops – a Life in Pictures) I was given an ultimatum and ended up in Johannesburg, South Africa, where my parents were living temporarily. I stayed with them for a couple of months where I tried by means of diet and exercise to lose weight. But that’s another story, and I’ve told it before.
At the beginning of my stay my husband was with me, and together with my parents we travelled to various interesting places in South Africa. Cape Town was the most beautiful city I had ever seen, and Cape Point where the roiling Atlantic and Indian oceans meet took my breath away. Stellenbosch… Durban… it was all wonderful and new, and my husband enjoyed it all too. He seemed much happier and I hoped that we might build upon what we had.
One of the last places we visited was Kruger Park. I was looking forward to seeing zoo animals in their natural habitat, even though we had to get up at 4 in the morning when they would be active, drive no faster than 30 miles an hour, not descend from the car under any circumstances and keep the windows closed – on a hot day. We arrived one late afternoon at Olifants Camp, and after dinner were guided down the hill to two charming rondavels (round thatched bungalows)…
We got ready for bed, and in my nightie I padded towards the bathroom to brush my teeth. I never got there, because I suddenly felt a hot searing stab on the side of my right foot. I screamed and looked down, seeing a narrow, 4cm brown creature scurrying away sideways. I sat down on the bed, crying with fright, which steadily escalated to panic as I felt my foot go numb. My husband meanwhile was terrified, and had jumped on his bed and stood there with alarm written all over his face and saying “call your parents, quick”.
In fact they had heard my screaming from their rondavel next door, and my father came running out in his vest. Without even pausing to put a shirt on he ran for his car keys and all four of us jumped in the car. I was crying hysterically with fear because the numbness had by this time spread up my right leg to my groin, and I thought – truly – that I was about to die. Dad raced the car up the hill to the main building and the men ran in to look for a ranger. We knew there were no telephones at Olifants, and that all communication with the outside world was via radio. How would they get me to hospital? And oh God I suddenly realised I was still wearing my nightgown.
Two rangers helped me to a chair and while one examined my foot the other squatted down, took me by the shoulders and spoke to me firmly, which stopped me crying. “Think”, he said, “did you see the scorpion?” I nodded dumbly. “What colour was it?” “Dark brown” and I showed him with my fingers what size it was. “Then I’ve got good news for you” he said gravely “you’re not going to die. The bad ones are orange, and from the sound of it yours was little more than a baby. So you can stop crying.” He turned to my husband “you should have urinated on the place where it stung her. It helps with the pain.” My husband blinked.
He went on to explain that the scorpion had probably dropped from the thatched roof (there was no ceiling). He said the numbness would go, but that the following day I would probably have a high temperature and feel ill, and the foot would be sore for a few weeks. I seem to remember they gave me a pain killer, but nothing else.
It was a terrible night. My temperature started to climb almost immediately and my foot to swell; the throbbing sensation felt as though my limb had a life of its own and was a character in a Walt Disney cartoon, expanding and contracting in time to my heartbeat. My husband was still frightened, and insisted on sleeping with the ceiling light on as he endlessly scanned the inside roof for more of the critters – which would have been perfectly camouflaged by the thatch, of course.
The following day I was too ill to go anywhere, and my parents weren’t going without me, so we stayed in our rondavels as I slept fitfully. My fever started to come down by the evening, and we decided to drive round the park the following day – it was too special and brief a visit to waste without trying to see some animals.
On the second day we were up at daybreak. The swelling had come down a little and my temperature was back to normal, but my leg was very sore as far as my knee. I sat on the back seat with my leg up, looking at animals through the window as we bumped along at 30 miles an hour. The day went by in a bit of a blur, though I remember seeing some interesting animals, including a warthog.
For some time now there had been an uneasy joke between my husband and myself about his mixed doubles tennis partner. Though I did not consider myself to be a jealous person I felt he saw her too often, and in view of her turned-up nose I used to refer to her rather unkindly as ‘the warthog’. I now feebly made some joke about not being able to get away from warthogs even in South Africa, but got little response. Later on at the Olifants souvenir shop I purchased a small wood carved warthog and gave it to him as a joke…
The numbness shrank back to my foot a few days later, but it was a full three weeks before the pins and needles and sensitivity to hot and cold water disappeared altogether. But that was in the future – right now there was another humiliation to contend with.
I used to have the stupid habit of trying to use up the last of what was in a tube of cream, ointment or toothpaste by rolling it up from the bottom – in the days when you could and the tubes weren’t made of plastic. Then when I’d rolled it up tight and there was none left, I’d roll it back a little and bite the exit end between my teeth to extract that final little drop. Desert island tactics, and totally unnecessary. Since that day I have never done this again, for as I bit firmly into it I heard in my head the sound of breaking glass, and splinters of my front crowned tooth came away in my hand. All that was left was the stump.
There was nowhere to go until we had returned to Johannesburg, so for the final few days before my husband flew back to England, instead of meaningful conversations with him, I was limping around and unable to smile without showing an old crone gap in my tooth, to his great amusement. I’m afraid I was too self-conscious to find it funny.
Before he returned home there was an important business meeting he had to attend in Durban. He was gone for only two days, and when we met him at the airport on his return he was extremely subdued. The reason his plane was late, he explained, was because on takeoff, as the aircraft was climbing, something failed and they found themselves in a nosedive over the city. The pilot had managed to recover control after what seemed like a long time, and my husband had felt it was now he who was going to die. They managed to limp back to the airport, and the passengers were put on the next plane.
A few days later I said goodbye to him at the airport once more, and I was never to see him properly as my husband ever again. I believe the incident over Durban made him realise that life was too short for wasting it with the wrong person, and as soon as he was back in England he and his mixed doubles partner – the warthog – reached an understanding which certainly did not include me.
I returned home six weeks later having lost two stone and very brown and fit, but it was too late. He moved out of our home, and as soon as I found a flat a few weeks after that, I packed up all my things to leave, so that he could return to the house. I couldn’t bear to stay there any longer, knowing what had been happening during the six weeks he had been there without me.
As I went in to each room to check I had left nothing behind and to bid a silent farewell, in the bedroom I caught sight of something on the carpet in the corner of the room, and realised it was the little carved wooden warthog. I picked it up, dusted it off and placed it carefully in the middle of the flat top of the double bed’s headboard before leaving the room and shutting the door behind me.
Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives