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Brown bread

February 24, 2021

Here’s a funny story. Okay, “funny” really isn’t the word for it. It’s a story – a true story – which came back to me after writing yesterday’s post.

Back in the 1980s, at one of the magazines where I worked, I struck up a friendship with a woman named Fiona. When she was eight or nine her family had emigrated to South Africa where they’d led a far more affluent life than the one they’d left behind in England. It didn’t take young Fiona long to figure out why the life of her white family was so comfortable. Fiona wasn’t a rock-the-boat kind of kid, but, while their newfound prosperity pleased the rest of the family, said prosperity began to bother her more and more. In her teens, knowing she didn’t have the temperament – or nerve – to challenge her parents by making some sort of commitment to campaigning to end apartheid, she reached a point where she just couldn’t take it anymore. At sixteen she somehow persuaded her parents to let her return to England to live with an aunt and finish her schooling there. The idea was that, after her A-levels – or possibly university – she would return to South Africa. Well, that was her parents’ idea. It was never Fiona’s idea. Once she’d boarded that plane, she never wanted to set foot in South Africa again.

Flash forward ten years. She’s living and working in London. Her younger brother comes for a visit.

One Monday morning she comes up to me and asks a favour. Her brother is supposed to be coming to the office to meet her for lunch, but something’s come up and she will be out of the office until at least half an hour after he’s supposed to arrive. (No mobile phones back in those days, so no way to let him know.) She asks if I would mind taking him to the pub for half an hour until she gets back. Of course, I say. No problem. She goes off wherever it was she had to go, stopping at reception on the way out to tell them to ring me when her brother turns up asking for her. They do. I go down to the lobby, introduce myself, explain the delay and take him to the pub.

After I get a couple of pints in, I attempt to make small talk with this young, complete stranger. It isn’t easy. I know this is the first time he’s been back to the UK since the family emigrated when he was four years old, but I have no idea if he has any memories of his birthplace. I ask him how he’s finding being back. His answer surprises me. “I can’t believe how expensive everything is here,” he says. Okay. I ask him for examples, so he tells me the price difference between a pint of milk, a pound of butter and a loaf of white bread. Odd, I think, that’s he’s specified the price of a particular type of bread. Are the prices different, I wonder. So I ask, “What about a loaf of brown bread?” Fiona had never picked up a South African accent when she lived there, or, if she had, she’d long since lost it before I met her. Her brother’s South African accent is quite strong. He looks at me incredulously after I ask my question, then says, “Brown bread? That’s for the blacks.” Did my mouth drop open? I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure. I know my gob was well and truly smacked. White South Africans would only eat white bread? Oh, my god.

I have no idea how I managed to keep the conversation going. Fortunately Fiona turned up not long afterwards. When she did, I shot up, declined her offer to get me a pint and made tracks back to the office.

Back then most journalists worked half days. I don’t mean we were only in the office for half a day. No, we were there for a full day, but long boozy lunches meant we weren’t up to much work in the afternoons. I mention this because my decision to head back to my desk after only half an hour in the pub was remarkable. And remark Fiona did when she returned an hour later. It wasn’t actually a remark. It was a question. She walked straight up to my desk and asked, “What did he say?” After a moment’s hesitation I told her. She sighed, shook her head, apologised, said she should never have asked me – or, at a minimum, she should have warned me. Three days into his visit she wasn’t sure how the hell she was going to make it through the rest of the fortnight. His incessant comments about what a shithole country the UK was compared to wonderful South Africa was already driving her around the bend. There was absolutely nothing left of the sweet baby brother she’d left behind. She just wanted to punch him in the face.

By the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the dismantling of apartheid had begun, I was living in Canada and had lost touch with Fiona completely, so I wasn’t able to ask her what she thought. As to what her poisonous brother thought, I’d honestly could not possibly have cared less.    

From → Blog

One Comment
  1. Donna permalink

    Wow. That is quite a story!

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