Some higher class houses were placed on the hillocks at the headland. I’d noticed a few places along this coastline where villas either existed or were in various stages of construction. But when I thought of the glory of the views and the beaches, I compared it with the Caribbean of course. If this were Barbados or St Thomas the whole beach front would have been built up with large white houses, and many of the hillsides around – anything which had a sea view. In some ways I hope that the Freetown peninsula stays like this with so much open and public space, but I do hope in other ways it is allowed to develop and becomes a little less of a secret. Unfortunately I had seen up at the city end of the peninsula how developments were starting to use up the empty spaces beyond Lumley. I was not over impressed by the quality of some of the residences; they seemed to be built on South East Asian concepts of the need for space and not African (or for that matter Caribbean). Tightly packed apartment blocks and villas with tiny gardens seemed to be the order of the day. For me I would love a small house with a large garden so not only would I be undisturbed by neighbours but also I would not inflict my own noises and antisocial behaviour on them.
We clambered back up to the centre of Kent where we were met by an old man with grizzly salt and pepper beard. He introduced himself as a guide. He had once been a teacher in Kent and both his English and history was good. He explained how the large red building in front of us played an important part in Sierra Leone’s history. At face value it was just an ordinary, if quite well built, brick structure. It was raised up above the ground like many buildings to cool the interior and keep off snakes. Inside was one large room which was now used as the school, but at one end there were a set of steps that led down under the floor. We were told that people from the interior were brought down to Kent and stored away under the floor here before they were shipped over to the nearby Banana Islands from where they would be picked up by slave ships and exported to the Americas. The little harbour where those fishing boats were moored up was the last piece of African mainland that they ever stopped on.
I’ve always wondered at these gateways to the ships that exist around Africa, the most famous being the Goree in Senegal or the forts on the Gold Coast. This was the first one I had seen in the flesh, and it made me look at the rocks again and wonder at the hundreds of feet of people who must have traversed them , possibly in chains, and bewildered, been put afloat on an ocean (which many may also never had seen before), never to set foot in their homeland again.
The space under this building was barely 3 feet high. It was no bigger than a one car garage. How many people would have been packed away in here?
The last view of Africa?
Slaves were “stored” under this
Imagine the smell, sight and noise under here
The old man told us many tales in an erudite fashion but one detail caused me some surprise. He said that Isaac Newton’s family was involved in the slave trade in Kent. I found this curious as my limited knowledge of Isaac Newton was that he came from fairly humble origins in Lincolnshire and was unlikely to have connections with a global trade in people and commodities. I did a bit of Googling later and came across a reference to a character called “Isaac Walton” who had taught in the school at Kent for some years.
This minor detail does not detract from the story of this little peaceful corner of Sierra Leone being a cog in the machinery of the horrendous slave trade.
Between hospital visits I was able to set myself up on the dining table (now in the living room) and work on mapping the lagoons around the Morne in Mauritius. I also took a couple of drives and walks around childhood haunts in Liverpool. Mum improved considerably over those few days, she had taken to eating again, for a few days she had been solely on a drip. Her colour had come back into the cheeks. We all knew she would not get better, but we thought she could be discharged from hospital and receive palliative care from home for at least a few more weeks. I only had three more weeks of work to do in Mauritius before the end of my contract, and, as had happened several times when I had a large chunk of work for months on end, no immediate contracts to get going on immediately afterwards. I could come back from Mauritius and move up to Liverpool for a few weeks to help look after mum at home. With everything looking relatively positive, I confirmed my return flight to Mauritius and rebooked the Air Mauritius flight straight on to Rodrigues a few hours after I landed.
St George’s Hall
That last evening I was in Liverpool, Christopher had something else he needed to do, so I went to the hospital alone. To avoid the high charges of the car park, I parked over in the terrace streets of the Kensington district, and walked down to the main entrance, up in the lift and found mum snoozing in her bed. In that hour she slept more than she was awake, and when conscious, we dealt with just routine things like giving her some mouthwash to clear her palate. I held her hand throughout. We briefly talked about my plan to go back to work then come up to Liverpool to look after her in November. As I left the hospital, I tried to be cheerful to the staff in the ward, but could not hold back the tears as I walked back to the car. For some reason I didn’t go straight home, but drove round the city centre; past the St George’s Hall, then down Leeds Street to the waterfront and passed the Pier Head and Albert Dock, then, with the floodlit Anglican Cathedral looming down, turned south back to the old family home.
Liverpool’s waterfront – impressive day and night
Twice a day I would go in to the hospital to visit mum. Occasionally she was her old lucid self, but she slept such a lot or was too much in discomfort to be able to concentrate on conversation. I’d bought her a coffee table book of Mauritius but she was too weak to hold it in her own hands. I held it for her as she tried to take in the pictures.
The routine of the hospital was ceaseless and how she was meant to get rest I had no idea – so many tests, cleaners, disturbance from other parts of the ward. Fortunately it was a fairly small room with only three or four other patients at any one time. And she was high in the building; the huge picture window next to her bed looked out over the city’s university quarter, the Roman Catholic Cathedral with its wigwam style reaching the central crown, and further away, the massive Anglican Cathedral, a huge sandstone block with enormous tower. To the right of this you looked down on the city centre itself, glimpses of the Mersey, the Wirral and the Clwydian Hills in the distance. The early cold snap had left snow across the tallest hills. At night the city was lit up, the floodlights on the cathedrals complimented by a green laser light between the two towers as part of the City of Culture events that year.
Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral from the river – the Hospital is a mile to the north of the cathedral
Although she had difficulty propping up to see it, it made for a comforting view – my mum’s life had been played out so much in this area. Although she was originally from the north of the city, this view to the south was where so much of her last 40 years had been conducted, where we lived, where she taught in several schools, where we shopped , got entertainment or walked dogs and friends. Excursions across the river, trips out. And all in all it was an expansive view and a lot of Mum’s later life had been taken up with seeing new views and travelling to lots of new places, often starting her journeys alone but coming back with a bookful of new contacts.
Despite the speed of long haul aircraft, those 12 hours heading back to the UK seemed to drag and drag. I think we just do not realise still how much of the earth is a huge empty space, particularly the oceans. It takes nearly four hours before you hit Africa proper near Mombasa. Then you have the interminable stretch over the Sahara before crossing into the Mediterranean at Benghazi. And then even parts of Europe – heading up the Italian peninsula and crossing rural France, seems to take longer that it should. When you have a reason to get home as fast as possible, those distances are plain cruel.
Crossing the Nile on the way back from Mauritius – on a happier trip home
It was early evening when my landlady and good friend Vicky picked me up from Heathrow’s Terminal 5, a cold, dark, October evening so contrasting from the hot balmy weather in Mauritius. She’d cooked a meal for me and I went to bed early. Next morning the same suitcase I had brought with me was bunged in the back of my car and I drove up to Liverpool. My brother Robert had been there a couple of days already; we both went in later that afternoon to the Royal Hospital above the centre of the city. Although Mum had told David to ask me to come, she had not been told I was on my way, so there was a mixture of surprise, joy and a realisation in her face when she saw me there. Even in the first couple of hours of my first visit, several of her closest friends turned up and tried to act normally. But the woman in the bed was hardly my mother. Robert had warned me but it was still a deep shock to see how much weight she had lost, the lines on her face deep, her hair a ghostly white.
There were a series of practicalities do deal with during the week which helped to deal with the tiredness from travel and the emotions of the situation. The forecast was that this was just a bad incident – mum had swollen up once more with excess fluid on the abdomen causing all sorts of complications with her digestive system, but now this was drained the plan was to send her home again in a week or so. To make her comfortable, we had to convert the dining room to a bedroom for her; she was not going to be able to tackle the stairs. This meant ordering a hospital bed that could be easily adjusted into different positions (currently mum was most comfortable perched up to about 45 degrees). A commode was also needed. Robert had to go back to his work in Norwich for at least a few days, and my brother Christopher who lived with mum in Liverpool also had his work to go to. So I was in the best position those few days to help sort out these issues; we moved the dining room table into the Living room, which meant a rearrangement there too, an NHS van turned up one day and a man assembled the bed and ensured it would work. I went out and bought a freestanding lamp – due to the curious arrangement of our house, the only light switch for the dining room was in the adjoining kitchen. We tried to turn the dining room in to as comfortable a bedroom as we could – at least she would be able to see out the window into the garden she had perfected over the years and watch the myriad species of birds play on the various feeders.
When I had been back in the UK in the summer, my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. It seemed to take an age for the doctors to decide how to tackle it, but she remained relatively healthy for a month or two. Sometimes she had suffered bilious attacks and a painful swelling in the abdomen that could only really be relieved by draining the fluid out. The clinic decided to give her a course of chemotherapy but the drugs made her very weak and ill. However, we decided together that I should return to Mauritius for my work, and that if anything went seriously wrong, I could be on the next plane home. I’d had conversations with my brothers at various intervals and they gave me updates; I don’t think I ever saw the full horrors of how mum deteriorated so quickly in the autumn. She had been into hospital a couple of times, but had been discharged soon after. The doctors had decided to halt the chemotherapy for the time being, to allow mum to recover from it. But the cancer continued to vigorously attack her and she was very much weakened. One of my brothers, David, rang that night and told me that Mum had been taken into hospital and had specifically had asked to see me.
The decision was instantaneous. Mum was one who was never liked to be seen to be fussing; she wanted everyone to carry on as normal. For her to ask to see me meant it was truly critical.
I’d warned Mike in the summer that mum had cancer and that I might have to change my plans at any moment. This made things easy on his side and I am so grateful to the support I got from him and Jeremy, and from the consulting firm back in the UK. Mike and I drove into Grand Baie and I found a travel agent. They booked me on the next BA flight the following day. Mike dropped me off at the airport, saying that he and Jeremy would head off to Rodrigues at the end of the week, and that I could rearrange my ticket when I wanted to catch them up after I had seen mum. Nobody had mentioned the word “if”.
Grand Baie – to find a travel agent