Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter


Of course, he was right to leave. What was there for him in the Seychelles at mid-century? It was a tiny cluster of islands in the uttermost parts of the sea. He went to Mozambique, picked up whatever kind of work he could get in Lourenço Marques. But his language was English. He made his way first to South Africa, then somehow got to America. The Korean War was raging. He enlisted in the army and got in early enough to qualify for the GI Bill. He went to college and became a talented engineer.
He married my grandmother; they had a son, my father. After they’d been married about ten years, tension crept into the marriage. Gramps would see a certain type of young woman on a street, in a restaurant, in a store, and he could not stop watching her. It drove Gramma crazy. This peculiarity continued until I was old enough to notice – and be embarrassed by – it. I assumed Gramps had been distracted by these women throughout my grandparents’ marriage, but for that first decade had hidden the fact. He always insisted that there was no harm in looking. As far as I know he never did more than that. When pressed, he would explain that the person he was watching reminded him of a girl he’d known in the Seychelles when he was still in his teens.
Gramma once told me – when I was in my first serious romance – that there were spells in her marriage when there was almost no physical contact between her and Gramps. Then he’d see this young woman again, couldn’t take his eyes off her, and the contact would resume, sometimes passionately for a while.
My grandfather and I had a special relationship. It was said that we resembled one another, that my face recalled what he’d looked like as a young man, even that I walked like him (which struck me as unlikely). Gramma told me that and she should know, having fallen for him all those years ago. We even had similar names, not surprising since I was named for him. Originally from a French Seychellois family, the Sainte Croix, his people had become English-speakers long before he came along. He was Robert; I was Roberta, generally known as Bobbie. In America the Croix had become Croy. I generally signed my name Ste Croix, often wishing I’d been a Smith or a Jones, something people could deal with.
Gramps and I had special times together. Once when we’d gone to a park – there’d been another “incident” and he and Gramma weren’t speaking – I asked what his peculiarity was all about. He was perfectly happy to explain. “I was in love with a girl in the islands. Your Grandmother knows that. You never get over your first love,” he said, “especially if you happen to discover the whole package together.”
“Describe her to me,” I suggested. “Can you remember her that well?”
A gleam jumped into his eyes, a smile burst onto his face. “Let’s see. Can I remember her? Wonderful body. Lovely breasts.” He was remembering them with his eyes and his hands. “Firm hips. Sweet derriere.”
“Did she have a face, Gramps?”
“Indeed! Splendid eyes. Blonde hair cut short. Pert nose. Good teeth. A blush in her cheeks.”
Of course, he could remember all that. His eyes had been following women who looked like that for years.
“And a name?”
“Esmé. She trusted me absolutely,” he said.
“So she wasn’t too bright.”
We laughed.
“A girl oughtn’t to trust a boy of nineteen. He doesn’t trust himself, doesn’t even know himself. Your Gramma has never trusted me absolutely. One of the reasons we’ve stayed together. Not being too sure what I was going to do kept her interested.”
“So that’s what was going on?”
“You’re nineteen, she’s eighteen. You’ve been exploring each others’ bodies. You’ve made love. If the boy swears he’ll never leave her, he may mean it at the time. But you can’t hold him accountable for that.”
“What happened to her?” I asked.
“No idea. She’d have escaped the islands. Married someone. Maybe two or three someones. Had kids.” He stared off across the park to where children were playing on swings. He was thinking of her; I was sure of it. He had loved her with the purity and agony of first love.
“There was no future for any of us in the islands,” he mused. “Four of us ran off together. I went to tell Esmé goodbye. Saw her in her bedroom. Couldn’t tell her. We made love. While she was sleeping, my pals came for me. We ran off together. Terrible way to behave. It shook me; I’m sure it jolted Ezz. But if she’d started to cry when I told her I was going, I could not have left. I did what I had to. To make sure it was over, I never even wrote her a letter.”
“That’s pretty shitty.” He did not deny it. I wondered if he left her pregnant, but did not press the matter. “The funny thing is,” I said, “it’s never been over. You see someone who reminds you of her – I’ve seen it happen – and you can’t stop—“
“I plead guilty. I think maybe it’s genetic. There’s still a connection between us.”

Gramps gave me $10,000 when I finished grad school. Getting the masters had been such a slog – endless reading, nose to the grindstone the whole time – that I wanted nothing so much as to escape the occupations of the mind, to flee iPhones and iPads and the iMac computer I loved, but was too big to carry. I vowed not to read a serious book for an entire year. I had three months before I was to start a high-pressure job in New York; I wanted to spend those months in a place where time moved differently, maybe on a beach. KC, a grad school buddy who wanted me to live with him in Brooklyn, also had time to idle away as well as the resources to finance it. I said, “Let’s go to the Seychelles!”
How better to spend that time and my Seychellois grandfather’s largess than to visit the diffusion point of our clan? KC was agreeable so long as we did a safari in Kenya first. Nairobi was unexpectedly full of malls, skyscrapers and techie stores selling computers and software. We fled it and, having seen our share of animals, flew into Victoria. We picked up a Toyota and KC drove us to the south end of Mahé and then north as far as Baie Lazare. The Ste Croix family maintained a home there with plantations in the backcountry. We checked into a resort hotel overlooking the bay. I threw all reading material into a drawer and made KC promise that he would not open the cabinet that housed the TV set.
Walking from our cabin to the dining room that first evening, I saw a young woman, probably no more than twenty, sitting on the verandah, looking out at the beach. I had to smile. “This must be the right place,” I said to KC. I nodded toward the young woman and whispered, “She’s exactly what Gramps would have stared at.”
KC craned his neck and checked her out. “Okay, Gramps,” I said. “You’re with me.” We went in to have dinner.
This same young woman was still on the terrace when we came out from dinner. KC nudged me. “Looks a little sad,” he said. “She a tourist, you think? Or local?”
Going cold turkey to get off the stimulants of American life – movies, TV, texting – proved a little disorienting. I decided I would make a shell collection. The next morning KC and I slept late. While he checked in with the world, I strolled along the beach, collecting shells. On the other side of the resort office fishing boats were unloading their catch. I watched them for a while, then went farther along the beach. Up ahead of me I saw the young woman I’d noticed the night before. When at last I caught up with her, I said, “Hi! I’m looking for shells. Seen any good ones?”
“Just little ones on this beach.” When she looked at me, she stared as if we knew each other. I wondered if what KC had termed “a little sad” was really that she was not all that bright.
“Are you a visitor like me?” I asked. “Where’re you from?”
“I live here.”
“Really? What’s that like?” Listening to the words, I thought maybe I was not that bright myself. What a stupid way to attempt a conversation! But I persevered. “I guess the world doesn’t intrude on you much here. That’s a blessing.”
The young woman smiled. She said, “Yes.” I started to judge her again. Then it struck me how much I was still in that world where I was used to making quick assessments of people.
“I guess island time is different from what I’m used to.”
“The tides come in and out.”
“Is that your time?”
“You walk like someone,” she said.
“I do?”
“I saw you and your husband leave the dining room last night. Your walk looked familiar.”
How could my walk possibly look familiar? KC and I had only arrived the day before. “You mean from television or something?”
“Maybe. I saw you up the beach earlier and thought, yes, I recognize that walk. Only I don’t know from where.” She laughed.
“They say it’s a small world.” When in doubt take refuge in clichés.
She pointed to a path through the vegetation at the top of the beach. “I live up through here.” She began to move off. “Maybe I’ll see you later.”
“Sure. G’bye.”
We parted ways, then she stopped and called back. “I have a feeling I’ve met you somewhere.”
I waved. “Maybe we can check that out later.”
It was impossible that we had met. But I also felt some recognition. Maybe it was that she had met another young American woman who was having trouble adjusting to the islands tempo. Or maybe it was genetic, my grandfather’s genes activated by this place and calling out from my blood. This recognition was wonderfully improbable from the super-rational place I’d just come from.
On my way back to the cabin I stopped at the resort office to ask if there were a Ste Croix house that I might take a look at. A woman called Brenda said, “Oh, you mean the old Santa Crwa place.” I had never heard our family name pronounced that way. “Nobody’s lived there for years, but it’s still there.”
“My grandfather grew up around here.”
“That would be Robert,” Brenda said. “I saw that you were Roberta.” I explained that I was his granddaughter and said I was surprised that anyone would remember him. “We don’t remember them all,” she said, “but we remember him.”
“Are there still people here who knew him?”
“You might say that.”
We chatted about how the Seychelles had changed since my grandfather’s era. At the time he left the only economy was plantation agriculture: cinnamon, vanilla, and copra. Robert was the second son; his older brother Gerald was expected to inherit the plantation. My grandfather knew growing up that his only option was to leave. There could not have been much to do in the islands. At nineteen he must have wanted to flee Mahé as much as I wanted to flee the grad school world of too much going on. In his day falling in love, having romantic adventures, must have been about the only form of island amusement. Years later Gerald was killed in a knife fight in a bar, over a woman. Gramps sometimes said, “That would have been me if I’d stayed.”
The puzzle with Gramps was that his first experience of love had so impressed him that he kept seeing young women who literally turned his head they reminded him so strongly of Esmé. I thought he was lucky to get away. Probably it was a great deal harder for a young woman. Gramps had a sister named Suzanne. She and Esmé couldn’t just run off to Mozambique or South Africa. What would become of them there? I knew that Suzanne was sent to live with relatives in England, understanding that her job was to find some man to take care of her. I wondered what happened to Esmé. Had she made a life for herself in England or France, every now and then seeing a young man who reminded her of Rob?
“Tourism saved us all,” Brenda said. It had simply exploded. It had fallen off during the two American wars in Iraq, but had now come back. People from all over the world came to spend time on unpolluted beaches. The air in the Seychelles was some of the cleanest in the world. It was the inhabitants’ obligation to make sure it stayed that way. And the islands, too. Brenda noted that tourists were a wastrel lot. “Present company excluded, I’m sure,” she said. “But, of course, you have ties to the island.”
Brenda told me where the nearby Ste Croix house was, not much of anything these days, and pointed on a map to where the plantations were. The family spent as much of the year as they could down by the coast, but someone had to be upcountry most of the time.
In mid-afternoon KC and I swam in the bay and lay out in the sun. Then we borrowed bicycles at the resort office and rode to see the house where Gramps had spent his early years. I expected something on the verge of falling apart, the sort of thing encountered in movies about derelict plantations in the decadent South. But someone was keeping it up.
We walked to the front door and knocked. There was no answer. It was not clear that anyone lived in the house so we tried the door. It opened. We looked around the bare rooms. As we started up the stairs, KC got a telephone call from the States. When I heard the sound of his privatized ring, I almost screamed. “Did you bring that thing!” He raised his hands submissively and hurried out of the house.
I went upstairs. I poked my head into several rooms, then came upon one that was furnished. Someone was living there. Then the person appeared. It was the woman KC and I had seen on the hotel verandah, the woman I’d talked to on the beach.
She seemed not surprised to see me. “I thought you’d come,” she said. I was too astonished to speak. “This is where he and I spent nights together.”
She came to me. She reached out both hands. She covered my ears with them and examined my face. “Are you his sister? Suzanne? I haven’t seen you for so long.”
We stared at each other. I had this extraordinary feeling. The words just jumped out of my mouth. “You’re Esmé!”
“Yes.” As if she were saying, “Of course. Who else could I be?”
A long moment. I felt that I might swoon. Then I said, “I’m Bobbie.” Those words came automatically because what I understood bewildered me. How could she be Esmé? She looked younger than me. And yet I knew it was she.
“Where is he?” she asked. “Is he all right? When will he come for me?”
I had to get out of that room. I really was going to swoon. “I’m just going down the beach,” I said. At the door I turned back. “Will I see you later?”
“Yes. À bientôt!”
I ran out of the house to keep from swooning. I paid no attention to where KC was. I grabbed my bike, got on it and started pedaling. When I reached the beach, I threw off my hat and ran into the surf. I felt it would jar me awake, out of this clearly impossible conviction – for by now it was a conviction! – that I had met Esmé. I swam until KC came along on his bike. He walked into the water in his flip-flops and yelled, “What are you doing swimming in your clothes?”
“Are you finished with your fucking phone call?” I shouted back. “We’re in the Seychelles. On vacation. Why are you getting phone calls?”
He put his hands on his hips. “Why are you, for God sake, swimming in your clothes?”
“Because I just met Esmé!” I yelled. I walked out of the water. Finally I was able calmly to say, “I met the woman my grandfather loved before he left the islands.”
KC frowned, disoriented. “Oh, yeah? Where’d you meet her?”
“In the house. She’s the woman we saw on the terrace last night.”
He looked at me as if I were insane. “That’s not possible, Bobbie. That girl is hardly twenty.”
“That woman is almost eighty, KC. She’s lived for the last sixty-plus years outside of time.”
“Not possible.”
“Oh, yes! I’ve read of strange cases like this. It’s insanity, but it’s possible.”
“No. Get on your bike and let’s go back to the cabin.”
“She’s lived in a place in her head where there’s been no time. She’s been waiting for Robert Ste Croix to come back to her. Time won’t start again until he does.”
“You’re nutso, sweetie. Too much sun.”
We biked back to the resort without speaking. The warm air of the late afternoon more or less dried my clothes. When we returned to the cabin, I showered. KC paced back and forth, certain that I had gone mad. Finally he changed into his bathing suit and went swimming.
While he swam, I walked to the resort office to see Brenda. The moment she saw me enter, she understood that I had discovered Esmé. “I wondered if you would find out,” she said. “But it’s been no secret. People around here know her story. They know she’s been having meals here, barely functioning, living the same day over and over all these years.”
She invited me into the office, instructed someone else to man the reception desk, and closed the door. She was Esmé’s niece, she said. Esmé had been unable to understand that Rob, as she called him, had run off. He promised that they would always be together and he’d never lied to her. She was afraid he’d died. If not, she was certain he would come back. She had been waiting for him as the world changed over sixty years, as the entire economy of the islands altered. Brenda’s mother, Esmé’s younger sister, now dead, had spent much of her life watching out for Esmé, making certain that she was never put into a situation that would jar her back into time. Once she was jarred back, Brenda suggested, who knew what would happen to her?
She opened a drawer at the bottom of the desk at which she sat. She withdrew a scrapbook of photos and opened it. She showed me Brownie camera snapshots that had gone sepia with age. They pictured Esmé with Rob, my grandfather, when he was nineteen. There were snapshots of Rob, Suzanne and Gerald and my great-grandparents. And others of Esmé with her sister and baby Brenda.
At last we stood. We embraced. I was so moved−−with astonishment and a recognition of the truth of what she’d revealed−−that I had to embrace her.
The next day I did not see Esmé. The day after that I encountered her after breakfast. She was sitting on the verandah, looking out at the ocean. Now I knew what she was hoping to see. I said hello and sat down beside her. She did not speak to me. She seemed very tired. She was still a very attractive woman, but she no longer looked eighteen.
The next day I saw her at the same place after dinner. She looked well into middle age. I sat beside her and took her hand. Once again she said nothing. She did not look at me. I went into the office and found Brenda. “What’s happening to Esmé?” I asked.
When Brenda looked at me, there were tears in her eyes. “All those years she was living outside time. Time has found her again.”
“Should she see a doctor?”
“For what reason? She’s in good health for a woman her age. She’s depressed, but should we give her Prozac?”
“Did my visit bring this on?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know.” She had too much grace to hold me accountable for what I could not help doing.
“She knows I’m Rob’s granddaughter?”
Brenda nodded, but said nothing.
I became depressed myself, feeling that the fact of me had somehow deeply injured Esmé. KC did not want to be around me. In fact, he left the Seychelles early. I did not expect to hear from him when I moved to New York. It seemed possible that I would never see him again.
I wondered if I should write my grandfather. I knew he would be interested to learn what had happened to Esmé. But I could not tell him that when he’d left her, breaking promises to her, she’d lost all sense of time and all connection to the life around her. He did not want to know that.
When I saw Esmé again, she had taken on that appearance of age that has no specific time designation. Her hair had gone white. Her face was wrinkled. The muscle tone in her arms and legs had slackened. The breasts that my grandfather had so admired had lost their shape. She was having trouble hearing. When I sat beside her, I felt that she did not know who I was and did not want the companionship. I could not help blaming myself for bringing this about.
I did not see her for several days. I inquired after her from Brenda. She said she had taken Esmé into her home where she would receive care from her family. A doctor had visited her, but because the case was so unusual, he did not know what to recommend. I did not have the heart to ask if Esmé was nearing death, but that seemed the unavoidable end of her decline.
Several days before I left Baie Lazare, I was walking on the beach collecting the last of the shells I probably would not take with me when I departed. I found myself ready to read serious books again, to stay abreast of the news, to tweet and text, regard my time as precious again and spend it with iPads and iPhones and my beloved iMac. After KC left, I felt progressively lonely, not necessarily for his companionship, but for talk with some pal. I felt, too, that I had somehow been involved in the circumstances that had destroyed Esmé’s being. I kept thinking that I had caused an automobile accident that might cost Esmé her life.
Up ahead I saw a woman walking toward me, wading at the edge of the water. She wore large sunglasses, a wide-brimmed, floppy hat, a light, rather baggy sweater and shorts with wide leg openings from which her legs protruded like toothpicks. She carried a cane in a curiously robust fashion, not using it to steady herself, but to swing. At first I thought she might be Brenda for she walked the way Brenda did. But she was too old for Brenda. Then I realized, of course, she was Esmé. Somehow she had formed a new step in the minuet she was dancing with time.
“Hello, Esmé!” I called loudly as I drew near.
Although she was wearing sunglasses, she shaded her eyes and called back liltingly, “Hello, child.” She smiled at me, radiating wellbeing as she tried to recognize me and then made a guess. “Aren’t you the dear girl who came to sit beside me?”
“Yes, I’m Bobbie. I’m so glad to see you out on the beach.”
She halted, planted the cane firmly in the sand and let her other arm wave gently across the horizon. She smiled at me. Despite the dark lenses, I could see that she did, indeed, have splendid eyes. When I had seen her before, her eyes were lusterless. “Isn’t it glorious out!” she enthused. “Warm day, the cleanest air in the world, cool water to wade in. Don’t you agree?”
“How lovely to see you out walking!” I repeated.
The strangest thing had happened to her, she said. She had been ill for “ever so long,” then suddenly she woke up in a room that was somehow familiar, but that she did not really recognize. She was being nursed by a dear woman who claimed to be her niece. She’d had a good dinner – she couldn’t recall eating anything for “ever so long” – then she’d had a refreshing sleep and now she was walking along a beach she’d known as a girl. “You look so very much like my friend Suzie Ste Croix.” Santa Crwa, as Brenda had pronounced it.
“Shall we walk together?” I suggested. I did not want to talk about time with her. “I thought I might swim, but I haven’t yet.”
We began to walk along together.
“Suzie and I used to frolic on this beach. At night we’d swim naked. How free that was! Suzie’s brothers came, too, sometimes. Gerry and Rob. I wonder what’s become of them.” She laughed and skipped a step or true. “I’m afraid my head was very turned by Rob. That delicious scamp!” She laughed.
She’d been catapulted outside time at eighteen by “the delicious scamp” abandoning her. In no more than a few days now, time had grabbed her back into its embrace. She was like an orbiting space vehicle wandering outside time that had suddenly been recaptured. Apparently she needed only a welcome dinner and a good night’s sleep to recuperate and become a well-adjusted old lady.
I had been recuperating, too, and had my iPhone in my beach shirt. I suggested we take a selfie of our walk together.
“Is that a Brownie?” she asked.
“In a moment I’ll show you!” I threw my left arm about her shoulders and thrust my right arm out, holding the iPhone in my hand. “Smile now!”
I took the selfie and after a moment showed it to her. I gave her the iPhone to hold. I revealed to her some of its tricks.
“Are there little men inside it?” she asked, teasing.
“These are apps,” I said. “I don’t know how they work, but they do. Things are changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up.”
She smiled and nodded and returned the gadget to me.
“It’s like with a car,” I said. “You don’t have to know what’s under the hood in order to make it go.”
“Do you drive?” Esmé asked. “Suzie and I wanted to drive so much. We were told it was too complicated for women.”
“You’ve never driven?”
“Rob was teaching me.” She frowned and seemed to be searching her memory. “Goodness! Was that when I got sick?”
“I rented a car in Victoria before I—“
“Victoria town? A woman can rent a car there?”
I laughed. “Why don’t I teach you to drive? There are a few days before I go back.”
She grinned. “Me drive?” She planted the cane again into the sand and danced a little jig about it. “Yes! Teach me how to drive!”
I spent my remaining days in the Seychelles, driving Esmé around Mahé, showing her Victoria, “motoring,” as she called it, up above the town into the Morne Seychelles Park.
I found deserted stretches of beach road where we went very slowly and I convinced Esmé to take the driver’s seat. As I leaned over the back of her seat to be sure she didn’t put us into the water, she mastered steering. Then braking. Then turning on the motor, engaging the mechanism, and slowly moving forward. For a woman who’d existed outside time all those years, she made excellent progress. My last day there she drove solo to a place she and Rob used to walk.
As I was about to leave, Esmé asked, “Will you say hello to Rob for me? Does he remember me?”
“Oh, Esmé! He’ll see a young woman who reminds him of you—“
“Oh, yes. And he watches her. And sometimes gets a little dreamy. It quite annoys my grandmother.”
“Well, there was a time our heads were quite turned.” She laughed, then gazed at me seriously. “I don’t know what my illness was all about. Does that make sense?”
I nodded that, of course, it made sense.
“I think I was afraid Rob had died. And I never knew. Not knowing, I couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go back.” She laughed again, back in time once more with sparkles in her eyes. “Now that I know he’s had a good life, my body’s back in time and my spirit feels free.”
I kissed her goodbye and gave Brenda a hug. As I drove back to Victoria to return the car and take the plane, I wondered what I should tell Gramps about Esmé. I would show him the photo of us, I decided, and tell him how vital Esmé still was. But I would certainly never flatter his vanity by revealing that for over sixty years he had caused her to jump outside time.

1 Comment

  1. Nice story! I remember a twilight zone with a similar theme where the person turns to dust at the end – this is a nicer ending!

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