Eating the dust of the Colonial and Imperial masters

Suicide and suicidal desperation was uppermost in my mind to the extent that I was continually thinking about taking an overdose of tablets. Fortunately my mother’s early return from work removed these negative thoughts from my mind.

I was taken to the humble offices of the Port Elizabeth Mental Health Society in Brassell Street in North End where the social workers in particular Jann Hollingshead spent almost three hours of therapy with me so I could realise that suicide was not the only way out in a crisis situation. The next day I had an appointment with the psychiatrist in the outpatient department of the Livingstone hospital. He diagnosed me with manic depression also known as bipolar mood disorder. 

The seriousness of my condition necessitated five sessions of electroconvulsive therapy. A white patch had to be applied to both sides of my head which got me the nickname of the Western actor Jack Palance. I felt very sore and hurt when I heard these remarks made by people who I thought were my friends. I was also very young. I had never heard of electroconvulsive therapy before. Since I was not aware of what it was I was very apprehensive at every occasion when I had to receive the treatment. However the white doctor who was in his fifties explained to me that the seriousness of my major depressive episode necessitated this treatment. He also gave me the assurance that the treatment wasn’t a guarantee that I was to recover. I didn’t know what was going on the day I left the hospital. 

I was twenty years old. I don’t know when I fell in love with Jann. She was vivacious. But I knew that nothing would ever come of it. She died of throat cancer. August died of stomach cancer. Jean died of breast cancer. Cancer riddled bodies. Cancer riddled cells. I imagined the white blood cells putting up a fight, while the cancer cells still got through floating by them like free radicals to attack the golden cells of organs and tissue. People die every day. Every Saturday churches are packed. Parking lots filled with cars. People coming to pay their respects. And sometimes I was one of them. Shaking people’s hands firmly. Looking them in the eye and saying, ‘My condolences to you and your family. I am really sorry for your loss.’ And I really meant it. I really did. Present day. Keep up or you’ll get lost. Jann’s loss. I never quite got over that. She was still so young. She could have had that sunny road. I could have met her on that sunny road. Perhaps we could have had those kids, a family, raised them in England. Perhaps she asked for me when she was in the hospital. If I had gone it would have meant a sense of closure on both parts. I don’t think I have ever loved a woman, known a woman like Jann Hollingshead so intimately just from our conversations. Love has a delicate smell. Hospitals smelled of furniture polish, nail polish remover, something antiseptic, and sanitary. 

I know standing next to her bed watching while she slept, or drift in and out of consciousness, I would have perhaps lost all sense of self-control, my belief in God, or perhaps we both would have found closure. But I wanted to remember her smile, handing over the ‘contraband’, my favourite brand of cigarettes (how did she remember), and us tucking into the purest pub lunch you could find in England, and meeting Jann’s sister and computer programmer husband in their lovely home. The feeling of being invited, this grand gesture, how excited I was to explore the city of London. I felt like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. From the beginning of childhood I always felt cast out of society. But in London town I was a new man (Jann’s man? No. I had decided. I had made up my mind that Gerda was the only woman for me. 

And if it wasn’t for her, for Abigail, for shortstop, for Ambrose, I wouldn’t be the man that I am today if it wasn’t for my angels). But sometimes I think to myself of Columbia University. I would have been a unique ‘Christopher Columbus’-type don’t you think striding not sprinting? Sometimes I think of that sunny road. Sometimes I think a lot about Jann. How I let her go without even saying goodbye. That wasn’t very gentlemanly of me because I had thought very highly of her, and she of me. 

In 1974 I won a scholarship by the British Council to complete a study of the mentally and physically handicapped in England and Wales and implement it in the position in South Africa. It was a very valuable scholarship since it covered a return plane ticket, tuition fees, books, warm clothing and even a maintenance grant. I was very happy, excited and content to undertake the scholarship and complete the relevant study. All went well up to the Christmas recess when the English students went home for the holidays. I, with my friend, Jones Mceke and other African students, were left behind to make provision for ourselves. I took the opportunity to organise a trip via Cosmos travel agency to visit five or six of the European countries. This was a dream come true for me since I visited Brussels in Belgium, Cologne and Frankfurt in Germany, Florence, the Vatican, Rome, Paris and then back via Dover. 

One of the most remarkable incidents happened to me at the customs at Dover. I was placed in a room with my luggage where I was asked to open my cases so that the customs officials could search my clothing. They also asked me a number of questions concerning my place of origin, why I had come to London and when I was going to return to South Africa again. After about two hours I was allowed to go. 

Abigail George
Abigail George
Abigail George is a researcher and historian. Follow her on Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram @abigailgeorgepoet.