Over the years, I’ve met and made friends with several South Africans and Rhodesians, black, white and all shades in between, even including a Miss Rhodesia (though now the Rhodesias are Zimbabwe or Zambia). But although my thoughts have wandered off in that direction many times, I’ve never re-established contact with the very first person I knew from that part of Africa.
Around nineteen forty-nine or fifty, when I was eight or nine, an ex-RAF pal of my father’s came to tea with his new family. I vaguely remember he was called Reg, but wouldn’t swear to it. He had just married a widow with a daughter a little older than me. I think she was blonde and blue-eyed, but that may be my memory playing tricks because blonde hair and blue eyes would fit expectations. She was rather different from my other friends, and some of my school pals thought I was making her up out of my very fertile imagination.
My new playmate was South African, and called Mina, short for Wilhelmina, after the Queen of the Netherlands. Her father had been South African, killed in the War, and her mother was, I understood, Dutch – though whether she was European Dutch or South African Dutch I never knew. I think they were probably Boers and I didn’t really know enough about the Netherlands and its colonies to be interested in finding out such details. “Dutch” was exotic enough for me at that age.
In my eyes, Mina’s mother was a very beautiful lady, chic and well-groomed, far superior to most of the English housewives I knew. I don’t know how she met my father’s friend but it can’t have been on his home territory, because she was obviously shocked when she found herself living with her in-laws in an Edwardian terrace house in this dirty, grey industrial town, with its bombed-out ruins.
I went to visit and play with Mina, and so I know that the house she lived in was one of those tall, forbidding buildings, very dark inside, with a high bay window looking onto a small paved forecourt, with no garden and nowhere to play except in the street. I remember we played hopscotch and marbles, drawing our hopscotch squares with chalk on the hard blue Staffordshire bricks of the pavement.
Did Mina speak English, or did we communicate as children do without a common language? I don’t remember. I know that she had never seen snow before, and that she and her mother hated the cold. Probably that winter was what made Mina’s mother give her new husband an ultimatum. They didn’t stay long.
They left to live in Lusaka. I know they tried to persuade my mother and father to go with them, painting a picture of an easy life in the beautiful colony of British Northern Rhodesia, surrounded by servants and opulence. It must have been discussed at home, or I wouldn’t have known about it, and the temptation was probably great. It was one of those life-changing decisions. We didn’t go with them, and I don’t think they even stayed in touch with my parents. Mina didn’t know where she was going so left me no forwarding address.
I certainly have no idea of what became of them when Northern and Southern Rhodesia became Zambia and Zimbabwe. What happened to Mina van der Straaten? She would be an elderly lady now, like me, if she is still alive. What kind of life did she have? Did she go back to South Africa? Her path crossed mine for a fleeting few months, or maybe it was only weeks, during our childhood. She became my friend. And then she vanished to the other side of the world. Ships that pass in the night.