In my first blog on this theme I mentioned that when looking back at my life, I was grateful for the support and love from family and friends, but that those who taught me a valuable lesson or who inspired me were often ordinary people, just doing their jobs.
Apart from Mrs Miller who taught me to read and write, (which are skills that I am still perfecting today!) there are some other people that I remember from my childhood who made an impression on me.
One such person was an old prickly pear farmer in Malta who tended his fields in the confines of my home there.
My father was office in charge of RNWT Rinella which was close to the Royal Naval Hospital of Bighi on the Island, close to the entrance to Valleta Harbour. We arrived here in 1959 and lived in naval quarters on a hill above the station. I remember that there were lots of steps down to the station and the surroundings which included a tennis court (where the summer ball was held) a stream that ran through the area and various fields where crops were grown in the dry and stony earth. These fields were bordered with a weed – prickly pear – a sharp hedge that would deter any animal from straying into the crops.
I was 6 years old going on 7 when we arrived and I went from the small Garrison school in Portsmouth, with barely 100 pupils to the massive Royal Naval School Verdala, with around 1000 pupils. I remember feeling totally lost and even the school bus ride was quite terrifying.
Anyway, I am afraid that apart from ballet lessons with a French Madame and learning to do the splits (still a viable feat but requires assistance to get back up) I rather forget most of the two years that I attended the school.
I do however; remember the days I played truant. It started very innocently on a Saturday morning when my parents, busy with my much younger brother would let me off the leash to explore the safe confines of the station. There was always someone on duty and I soon got to know some of the service men and women that I met on my jaunts. Provided I kept away from the working areas I was mainly unnoticed.
We had not been there long when I noticed that every Saturday morning a farmer and his cart would arrive at the fields in the general vicinity. It was actually the donkey that attracted me in the first place as I was mad about horses. Poor little thing barely looked strong enough to carry a bale of hay, but would valiantly pull the small cart and its driver over the rough ground around the field and then stand patiently all day with a rusty bucket of water and a nose bag of feed. I would sit on a pile of rocks and just watch the slow, painstaking activities of the old man as he cleared rocks and other debris from the dry, dusty earth.
This went on for a few weeks with the farmer apparently showing no awareness of this silent watcher for a couple of hours every Saturday. Until one week, he turned his weather – beaten face towards me and across the small field beckoned me to come over.
These were the days when children were not as restricted in their exchanges with adults as they are today. Of course we were told not to accept sweets from strangers and not to get into a car that we did not know the driver of, but nobody had mentioned donkey carts. I am afraid I was a bit of a devil as my mother used to say, and had at the age of 7 decided that if this farmer was allowed into the area then he must be classified as acceptable.
I went over and stood hesitantly by the side of the cart. By this time it was getting on for mid-morning and the sun was hot. The old man bent down and came back up with a battered tin cup in his hand. He held it out to me and after inspecting the contents I took a little sip. It was the sweetest water I had ever tasted. Even the slight metallic taste from the tin cup did not detract from that cool first sip. I handed the cup back and he smiled – showing just a couple of brown stained teeth in his upper gums.
He held out one of his hands and I noticed that they were almost black with earth and heavily veined. He gestured and I put my small hand in his. He led me over to the donkey, standing patiently with one back hoof tipped as he rested. As we approached the flies buzzed around the animal’s eyes and nostrils and he shook his head and turned to us.
The farmer gently took my hand and poured some of the water from the cup into it and held it under the donkey’s nose – the warm, rough lips clamped onto my little hand and sucked the moisture right out of it. It was the most amazing sensation I had ever felt.
The old man took my hand away and then helped me hold up a bucket of water under the donkey’s nose and let him drink his fill. I had seen the tin cup dipping into the same bucket and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to share this precious resource between ourselves.
I remember running home as it was getting towards lunchtime – I did not tell anyone about my adventure as far as I remember. However, it did lead to a relationship that lasted a long time in the relatively short life of a child.
Every Saturday morning I would catch a ride on the back of the cart as soon as it arrived in my territory and I would spend the morning helping! I would actually spend most of the morning, patting the dusty coat of the donkey and half-heartedly picking up small stones that littered the field. We barely spoke as he was not happy talking English and we communicated with hand signals. We spent silent hours, happily together, sharing coarse white, homemade bread and cheese for lunch, washed down with sweet water and with a dessert of prickly pear. Opening these feral fruits is an art and whilst I admired his strategy with a machete shaped knife I was not allowed to practice myself! He did however show me how to gently peel back the skin to reveal the luscious, pip filled centre.
I did not get on at school – it was too big and I felt overwhelmed. Therefore occasionally I would take a sickie! I would arrive down by the guard post where I was supposed to catch the bus, leave my bag behind the building and when the farmer arrived hop on the cart and spend the whole morning until 2.00ish when the bus would reappear in the road at the normal drop off time. I would then race back and pick up my bag, dust myself off and return home as normal.
Unfortunately, this all came to a rather abrupt halt. One tea-time my mother casually told me that she and my father had been to a parent teacher meeting and that concerns had been raised about the state of my continued ill health. Busted!
I was escorted to and from the bus from that day forth. I did however manage to visit on a Saturday morning and learned that if I took an apple or a carrot, or even a piece of cake surreptitiously removed from the pantry, all three of us enjoyed our lunch even more!
In retrospect, the life lessons passed on by the old man were profound. I learned that conversation is not necessary to communicate. That dirty hands can be gentle and represent a lifetime of hard and honest work. That donkeys have very soft mouths, that water can be sweet and the complex art of opening and eating the very prickly pears. And how to spit out the pips as far as possible.
Funny that my time at the Royal Naval School, Verdala has not stayed in my memory – teachers, pupils, lessons, but I do remember as if yesterday an old man, a donkey and prickly pears.
Next time – Linda Mooi – a friend in Cape Town.