A big man, larger than life was John Forester. As Provincial Education Officer in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia, he was my boss. As a new education officer I was a complete novice and quite prepared to learn from him, but he made it clear from the start that that would not be a good idea. ‘I’ve made more blacks in my career than you’ve had hot dinners. Take my advice – get on with the job, and keep your head down.’
When we first went on tour together he woiuld throw a fishing rod and a double-barrelled shotgun in the back of the landrover and drive off at great speed into the bush. Every now and then, we would screech to a stop ; out would leap John, letting off both barrels at some unsuspecting guinea fowl. ‘Bugger, missed!’ I would remain in the landrover, following his advice to keep my head down. In he would jump and off we would go again in search of an African primary school to inspect. Usually one by a river, since he had more success with the fishing rod.
Of one thing John was really proud. Back in England he had been a member of the landed gentry, somewhere in the Wrekin in Shropshire. Lydia, his wife, was still there, raising their six daughters to become young ladies before rejoining him. She had the use of the family car, an antiquated Rolls Royce. ‘It’s a damn nuisance, you know, when you stop at hotels. When they see your Roller in the car park they want twice as much for a cup of coffee!’
Whenever he sent confidential reports to Head Office in Lusaka he used his signet ring on the hot sealing wax. ‘No point having a family crest if you don’t use it on occasions’, he would explain airily, leaving me to contemplate wistfully my plebeian fingers bereft of any trace of nobility. His forebears had come over with William of Normandy. Judging by his success with the shotgun, I doubted privately whether any of them could have claimed responsibility for piercing Harold’s eye with an arrow. It was easier to imagine one of them exclaiming ‘Merde alors!’ instead.
John enjoyed telling the story of a tour on foot of African schools he once undertook as a junior education officer. After a long slog through difficult country he called at a Mission secondary school for girls where he was invited to stay for a couple of days. The Mission belonged to one of those strict religious sects hailing from America. Its members were forbidden to take alcohol in any form and even the consumption of coffee was banned as it was regarded as a stimulant. The Princpal was a very demure lady, proud of the Mission’s work with teenage African girls. Naturally, she invited John to visit the school and see the girls at their lessons, where particular emphasis was placed on practical subjects such as cooking and sewing.
At supper on the second evening of his visit the Principal asked John if he had everything he needed.
John looked coy. ‘Well, since you ask, there is just one thing. But I don’t really like to mention it.’
‘Please, Mr Forester, we pride ourselves on our hospitality. If there’s anything we can do for you, just say so. Her colleagues beamed their agreement.
John looked uncomfortable. ‘Er, well, I think I told you my wife is still at home in England ?’
‘Yes. You must miss her.’
‘I do, I do. I miss her terribly. In fact, that’s what I wanted to ask you about.’
‘Oh ?’ The Prncipal was puzzled. ‘How can we help you there ?’
John looked down and fiddled with the cutlery. ‘I saw your girls in school today. I, er, couldn’t help noticing that some of them looked very, er, mature. Yes, that’s the word. Mature. And I just wondered….’
‘Wondered what ??’ Puzzlement was giving way to alarm.
‘Well, as I was saying, it’s been a long time since I was with…I mean, since my wife was with me. It’s been six months, you know. That’s a long time to be apart. Especially for a man. By now John was twitching with embarrassment.
The Principal was staring at him, tight-lipped. ‘What exactly are you asking, Mr Forester ?’
‘I just wondered if a couple of your girls could…’
‘Could what ?’
The sweat was pouring off him by now. ‘Could, you know…darn a few of my socks ?’
We met Lydia at a Reunion lunch in Salisbury some years later. She was alone. I had been particularly looking forward to meeting John again, but although his name was on the list of guests, he was too ill to attend.
‘Alzheimer’s’, she told me.
I thought : ‘Bugger, missed.’