Sailing To Zanzibar [Extract]

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20th January, 1990

I think evening must be the loveliest time here. Yesterday, after we arrived and had rested for while, we walked through the old town to the seashore. There are about twenty of us in the tour group. Beyond the harbour wall the sea rose up to the horizon just like a great peacock's tail, fanning and swaying, turquoise and violet. Along the waterfront the local men were preparing food for the evening meal — the whole town seemed to be gathering there to eat. We watched as they crushed long sugar canes in ancient mangles, squeezing out colourless sweet juice (we tried some, and it was delicious) or fried octopus and squid (we didn’t dare try these!) in shallow wide pans, slicing strange-shaped vegetables and fruits into the oil. The scent of wood-smoke and spices drifted round us.

Boys ran shouting and laughing, diving from the wall into the water, and their heads appeared again like currants, bobbing and dipping at the surface. Then the sun seemed to fall, quite suddenly, rather than to set in a calm and sedate fashion, as it does in England. It burned a path downwards to the sea, and somehow it was like a great tragedy that everyone watched, from the shore, or from their balconies, as if it were happening on a wide stage.

The sky was golden and scarlet beyond the palm trees. Far out to sea, a sail appeared at the horizon and turned in to harbour, its spar slanting, moving quickly on the last wind.

Then the colour disappeared all at once, and it was night.

January, 2008

Gwen stands in her narrow hallway, steadying herself for the difficult climb. In the darkness, the familiar surfaces and spaces of the daytime have become a labyrinth of shadows that move unpredictably as wild creatures.

Since her illness, her balance has become unsteady, her sight and her hearing are weaker. Sensations within her body have become confused with those beyond it, so that she feels she is crumbling into the world around her.

With painful fingers she touches the night-time switches once more, the locks and chains and bolts, all the little devices for her safety. She moves slowly along the hall.

24th January, 1990

I chose this place, Zanzibar, from all the others in the brochure, because it sounded so different, so exotic, so far away! And I have decided to keep a diary during my stay here. I’ve not done this since I was a teenager, since before I became engaged to Bill, all those years ago! — but it’s easy to forget, especially as one gets older, and I should like to remember everything that happens during this holiday. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to escape for a while, at least, after all the sadness and worry of these last few months and years.

Now that Bill is gone — and dearest Bill was never fond of travelling! (‘I don’t want to become discontented, Gwen,’ he would say, and I never found a reply to this) — now that he is gone, I have to get used to being on my own. But the other members of the group seem very pleasant.

Even after several days here, we find the labyrinths of the old Stone Town confusing. The narrow lanes twist and turn behind the palaces of the waterfront and the grand houses where the famous explorers of earlier times — Livingstone and Stanley are the best-known, I suppose — lived and planned their journeys, and where they returned, sick and exhausted, but enduring bravely till journey’s end. The Stone Town is crumbling these days, its stained balconies and fading walls are decaying in the humid climate. The gorgeous wooden doors are often split and broken-down, though they are still most striking. The island is famous for these doors, often beautifully carved with foliage and animals, and it’s almost as if they are ‘magic casements’, inviting us to step through to find a better life. But we found them in the poorer streets too, less fine of course, and sometimes there was nothing behind them at all, just damp and dirt and emptiness.

In one of those tumble-down houses, miserable and wretched, we saw three small children playing, all alone, the oldest would have been about six, maybe. I dropped behind the group for a while, thinking that I’d like to speak to them, to reach out and help them in some way, but they stopped their play and stared at me with their large, grave eyes, until I became uncomfortable, and went on.

Later, a little boy ran up to me, very daring.

‘Where you from, lady?’ he called out. ‘You English lady?’ Then he ran away again, laughing at his daring, without waiting for my answer.

They are such beautiful children, thin, malnourished I suppose, their knees protruding like match-heads above their skinny calves. It occurred to me that in a way they are like Zanzibar itself. Their eyes and teeth, their ragged shreds of clothes are so brilliant and bright, but their streets and homes are dark and poor.

I thought of my little grandson Joe, pale and polite and serious — already he has everything that he could ever want.

Later we visited a museum, built like a mosque, of pure white stone, and dedicated to the history of Zanzibar. Amongst all the things I saw there, I remember Dr Livingstone’s medical bag the most clearly. It was hardly bigger than a handbag, and it held only a few small bottles and rough-looking implements, all that he had with him as he travelled through Africa.

‘It’s less than anything a modern tourist might take, even for a short holiday in Europe!’ I exclaimed to our tour guide, Freddie.

‘You’re quite right, Gwen,’ Freddie remarked, glancing at me as if he had not thought of this before. ‘He was a brave man.’

I should have liked more time there. Stupidly, I hadn’t realised that the island was connected with the slave trade — I am learning so much here already — but another excursion had been arranged for us in the afternoon. We were taken to see a workshop where local people demonstrated and sold their crafts, and we were able to buy gifts and souvenirs. Perhaps there’ll be an opportunity later in the week to visit the museum again.

January, 2008

She struggles up the stairs, as she does each night, setting herself to the task, bent forward, concentrating on each movement. Her old bag is slung around her, shoulder to hip, her stick clicks along the banister-rails. This step creaks, that one has somehow become taller than the others since the previous night; at the curve of the staircase there are new and dangerous loose threads in the carpet. The shadows trick her, and she tries to ignore them — a second’s distraction, and she might fall again. The landing is full of sharp corners too, hard-edged furniture, heavy doors and handles — dangerous ground to cross before she can enter the soft safety of her bed. Gwen knows that this is the proving point of her life, that she should not look back, she should not complain. She must go bravely, like the great explorers she had learnt about so many years ago, journeying to the edges of their world without maps or markers.


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