John Summers


The Rag Parade

An extract from Part Two - Kevin Miller has just arrived in South Africa...

The African couple, beggars blown here on the dry hot veldt wind that was blowing from the Kalahari Desert, appeared silently round the comer and they stood in silent patience outside the window of the little Greek restaurant on the main street of Bloemfontein...

Bloemfontein’s sidewalk was all hot red pantiles under the ironwork balconies at the corner of the main street where the Africans had appeared dragging their feet in the veldt dust that was diamond bright in South Africa’s winter sunlight.

An African family and everything that was theirs they were carrying on their backs; the father carrying the canvas gunnysack tied with a twist of string, with a few odds and ends in it; his face was broken by the gaptooth smile under the torn brim of his old trilby hat. Clinging to the father’s coat, a child, a boy with curly tight Bantu hair on his head, a boy of about ten-or-so, and his eyes squeezed shut against whitish eyeballs that were blinded, burnt out by trachoma ... the boy was coming barefoot and following in the footsteps of his father and holding tight on to the torn edges of the father’s coat.

As they appeared outside the window of the little corner Greek restaurant the children, there were three more children tracking behind the woman remained in the dust outside, waiting with the mother who stood patient as the Hill of Weeping that rose high on red ironstone rocks and suurgras behind her head. The sunshot radiators of the Mercedes Benzes and the American Chevrolets and Pontiacs belonging to Afrikaner farmers were parked by the Bloemfontein sidewalk.

The Bantu father lifted up an empty fireblackened two-pound peachtin he had in his fingers, holding it by the piece of fencing wire that was strung through the two holes punched each side of it. Lifting it apologetically and smiling in the beggar’s gesture. The Greek behind the cash register by the door of the Bloemfontein restaurant singled out a few blackly rotting oranges from the netstring sack and dropped them in the outstretched can. The father’s old raincoat was lifted by the dry veldt breeze. The Greek as an afterthought scooped a few dropped pieces of presliced-bread off the floor behind his counter and dropped them in the can as well.

The dry veldt breeze lifted the edges of the father’s old raincoat as the African family moved on. Down the one big hot main street and past the white luxury of the Sonop building and the quartz-shining frontages of the big South African English banks with head offices in London, and the park benches under me orange trees that said NIE BLANKES. The Africans’ eyes were hidden under the chewed brims of their hats and the hot wind from the Kalahari blew them drifting on the long-drawnout wail of the trains in the Bloemfontein marshalling yards…

Walking in the hot dust off the sidewalk, the father was filching the bread-slices from out of his peach tin and stuffing them in the torn pockets of the overcoat... The breadwinner, Kevin Miller thought. He was watching the scene from the windows of the restaurant on the corner of Bloemfontein’s one long main street where he was eating a banana-curry as he nicked through the flight-schedules for the South African Airways plane he would have to catch on down to Capetown - only yesterday he’d arrived here in South Africa on the BOAC London-Johannesburg Comet flight via Rome, Khartoum and Nairobi. And only this morning the SAA Dakota had come dropping through the strong-sunned African air over the high veldt and below it had spread the anthill-yellow piles of friable waste from the goldmines of Johannesburg, stretching out to the blue horizon of Africa’s red earth.

The plane lifting on the upward billows of air coming warmingly off the plains of the high veldt plateau that made the skin of the aircraft too hot to touch... ‘We will be landing at Bloemfontein in one hour. In one hour!’ the SAA airhostess had wiggled plump healthy buttocks under the sheeny blue of her uniform, skirt as she served breakfast on the plane. Scrambled eggs, butter in silver-wrapping, and the plastic cup and saucer that was set in a plastic tray with a plastic spoon in it.

On the plane, and seeing the African landscape open out under him, Kevin Miller had thought with a grave affection of all about Britain that he would miss.

Like that last night in London when he’d heard the Third Programme announcement of a ‘modern-music’ concert of something called Parodia No. 3, by MacAuley Entwhistle. An affair of sudden leaps on frantic piano keyboards and the distant foghorning of bassoons. And, as the severe strained tones of the BBC announcer had explained the frightful din: ‘the construction of this work is like the cross section of an onion.’ Yes, the taste of tea in a Lyons corner house, and Woodbine cigarettes, and getting the New Statesman on a Friday, and the dear old BBC. He was going to miss all those…

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