By Diana Polisensky
The Fifty-First Prospect
Dr. Sunny Rubenstein swung neatly up into the last railway carriage, with his small bag in hand. He stood at a corridor window and shouted back to stocky, wild haired, Dr. Michael Gelfand. But their parting words were lost amongst the noise and chatter of last minute boarding’s from the brightly lit platform of Salisbury Railway Station. They waved. The Garratt steam engine was panting hard and on cue from the stationmaster’s shrill whistle the train pulled out.
Sunny leaned on the windowsill and looked out eagerly to take in Southern Rhodesia’s capital city lights. But almost as soon as the train left the station it was swallowed up by the black void of Africa. He pulled the window up and turned to rap on the compartment door ajar behind him before he slid it open and entered.
He slung his suitcase onto the luggage rack above, then caught a glimpse of himself in the small beveled mirror inserted into the leg of the hinged table fastened up to the post between the windows. Steel-grey eyes behind round glasses looked back from a big egghead. He removed his military cap and tossed it on the bunk. With both hands he smoothed back his mop of fine black hair. Even with the lateness of the hour he scarcely needed a shave. His youthful looks had plagued him all his life: he hardly looked his thirty-one years.
“I caught the train just in time,” he said as he sat down opposite a very blonde man already settled into the compartment holding the newspaper close to his nose.
Bending the paper down to peer over it, with big blue eyes magnified in the thick lenses of his spectacles, the man said, “I’m a bit hard of hearing and eyesight’s not so good either. I see you’re still in uniform.”
“I’m a doctor,” said Sunny leaning forward, raising his voice, “and I’ve been kept on in Pretoria to vet the disability claims of South African troops returning from Burma. It’ll soon be done and I’ll be demobbed myself.”
“I noticed Dr. Gelfand saw you off.”
“I only just met him—by chance.”
“Then you’ve stumbled on the very best professional association you could’ve in Southern Rhodesia.”
“I’m desperate for a posting. He gave me a lead—even gave me a lift to the station. I’m on my way back home from Kenya where I had to turn a partnership offer down from my wartime CO—such a disappointment. The war has set me back five and a half years in private practice.”
“I was too young for the Great War and almost too old for the Second. Initially the Rhodesian army turned me down because I’m practically deaf and blind, but I certainly wasn’t going to be shut out of the war. I paid my own passage to England and hoodwinked my way into the army there. I’ve come back to my farm in ruin, starting again at forty what I began in my early twenties.”
Sunny shook his head. In the silence that followed he peered out of the window. Besides the moving rectangles of vegetation vaguely lit by the carriage windows and obscured by the reflection of the cabin interior, he caught only the occasional view of the coach windows fore and aft and the red embers of the Garratt’s furnace in the small engine cabin lit a cheery yellow, as the train curved up ahead.
The man folded his newspaper and said, “Whitehead’s the name. Edgar.”
“Rubenstein. Everyone calls me Sunny.”
They shook hands.
Reaching for his pipe, Whitehead said, “I’m going all the way to Bulawayo.”
“I’m due in at Umzimtuti at 2.01—such an uncivilized hour to disturb you. My apologies.”
“I could have motored down but I enjoy the train and the people I meet along the way. There’s a tremendous need for medicine here,” reassured Whitehead.
Sunny pulled a box of cigarettes out of his breast pocket. A match flared and he lit up. Whitehead dipped the bowl of his pipe into his pouch, gave it a tamp or two and drew on it before he lit up, too.
“I’ve found my amateur doctoring on my farm is the best way to get to know my Native workers, build their confidence, get them back on the job and incidentally call into question their superstitions without offending them,” said Whitehead.
“When I treat Natives it’s almost always under pressure of time and numbers. Very often they don’t come in until their disease state is far advanced. I work through an interpreter. They usually present multiple maladies but beyond that I hardly have time to consider them personally.”
“Pity,” said Whitehead, “but I fully understand: it’s the same all over Africa—the demand’s overwhelming. But here, we’ll get a grip on it. What we need are more people like you to settle.”
“I don’t see much.”
“One rainy season I was holed up at my farm for six months and never once went into town. I was studying a tremendous amount about economics in the evenings—such a welcome change after the daily farm work. Since not one of my farmboys spoke a word of English, I started reading aloud just to hear the spoken language.”
Sunny said, “I don’t speak a word of any Native language and don’t intend to.” He looked out and thought it doesn’t look as though there’s a single soul out there of any sort to talk to. He drew on his cigarette. What could there be in any prospect here for his family?
“As soon as I arrived in this country, since there was no written language, I started to create my own dictionary so I could begin to meet them on their own level.”
“You speak their language to get the job done but in the long run what helps them most is to insist they learn English so they can get ahead. You see the sad thing is ninety percent of their diseases are preventable. Education’s key.”
“No, the economy has to come first: exploit our natural resources and industrialize. Then we’ll have the funds to bring them along.”
Whitehead sucked his dormant pipe, before he tapped out the ash and began to load it again.
Topping 40 mph, perhaps, the Garratt lumbered its way across the vast land. The coach swayed clumsily, clunked and squeaked. But the timbre soon changed as the train was reined in and slowed to a crawl.
“There’s precious little to see,” said Sunny. It was obvious Whitehead enjoyed debate.
“That’s exactly it—it’s all wide open for possibilities,” Whitehead puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “We deliberately caused unemployment on the outbreak of war so that men could join up and now the war is over we are reversing the process. Back then we reduced internal purchasing power deliberately to avoid inflation by restricting imports and we increased tax enough to pay for the war without resorting to borrowing. So now, there’s not much debt. We concentrated on producing goods for the war effort or to replace essential imports. So, we’re ready to forge ahead.”
“What are the possibilities then in Umzimtuti?” said Sunny, as he reached inside his breast pocket for a cigarette and they both lit up again.
“I know it quite well. I was apprenticed to a chicken farmer about forty miles away in my early days. I paid him five pounds a month for tuition, board and lodging. Took what I learned after two years working there to strike out on my own farm, Witchwood, in the Vumba—the Eastern Highlands.”
“So you didn’t settle in Umzimtuti. What can I expect?”
“Well, not much right now besides a rich gold mine, the Cheetah.”
“That’s it. They’re looking for a doctor to fill in on the mine. The current one wants out.”
“That’s not where the future lies.”
The bedding steward rapped on the compartment door. They stepped out into the corridor. Sunny leaned his elbows on the windowsill, still searching the night for life—at least a recognizable landscape or better yet the rectangular outline of a farmhouse or a tall stand of blue gums signaling a mining community, but saw nothing, while the bedding was rolled out and crisp white sheets neatly turned down by the steward.
Turning back into the compartment, Sunny glanced at the beds. They looked inviting but he doubted he would sleep that night. He reached down and unlaced his shoes, switched on the bed light, propped up the pillows and leaned back with his arms behind his head. “So,” he said, “where does the future lie if not in gold?”
“The Cheetah Mine has been exploiting the gold there for fifty years but,” said Whitehead, drawing on his pipe, “there’s a lime works nearby and a high grade iron deposit. It’s pretty unusual to find the two together: perfect for a steel complex. That’s where you’ll want to get a contract. It’ll be the industrial hub of the country with a model residential community.” He puffed on his pipe, which never really lit up properly. “I drew up a financial plan for Southern Rhodesia before the war broke out and Prime Minister Huggins had me refine it while I was holed up incognito at a hotel in Twyford between assignments during the war. The government’s purchased the Lime and Iron Works. If Huggins can win another term it’ll be big—I’ll see to it plenty of money is made available. Get in on the ground floor.”
He reached down into his briefcase and pulled out a block of Hershey’s K ration chocolate. “Terry’s All Gold, my favorite, was taken over as a shadow factory in the war—one of our great sacrifices. We’ll have to make do with the Yankee version I picked up at Fort Leavenworth.” He broke off two generous hunks.
Sunny thanked him and they chewed on it thoughtfully.
Whitehead said, passing the newspaper to him, “Here, I’ve read the important part—the sports page—cricket in particular. I managed to take in the three Victory Tests at Lords before I returned. But I like equally to follow and promote the local chaps.”
“I had a reputation at one time for googlies,” said Sunny.
“Ah, a man of surprises. A good man to have on your side.”
Sunny opened out the Rhodesia Herald. “How do you feel about the Prime Minister holding office so long?”
“Almost thirteen years. Huggins is a fine man. I had to resign my parliamentary seat as a backbencher when I signed up for the war but I’m hoping to get re-elected next year. Huggins wants to give me the cabinet position of Finance Minister but there’s been a shift to the right and strangely enough there isn’t much regard for returning ex-serviceman.”
“Churchill lost the election even before the war ended. I believe Smuts might well lose the next election in South Africa too. The Afrikaner Nationalists may well take over. I’d like to move. If this job looks halfway promising I’ll take it, but to be honest Southern Rhodesia’s not too impressive in the dark.”
“It looks brighter in the sunshine.”
Sunny pulled down the window and stuck his head out. He listened to the wheel beats slowing over the track joints as the bluster of the wind declined. Ahead, the headlight beam lit up a sheet of corrugated iron painted white with black lettering in capital letters, announced Lochinvar. With a jangle and a hiss the train came to a halt.
There was no platform. A couple of sacks of mealies and a few milk cans waited in the dim light of the train for pick up. The sound of voices carried over the night air as Natives got on and off. Sunny was impatient with the clatter and scrape of baggage as it was loaded. There seemed an interminable delay before the fire was stoked, grey smoke belched into the night, pistons pushed and pulled and they were on their way again.
“Family?” asked Sunny.
“I’m going to welcome the first batch of children to Kingsley Fairbridge’s Child Migrant Program to the now vacant RAF training base at Induna, outside Bulawayo. They’ll provide me with as rich a family as I could ever want. My sister Frances and I have worked hard to bring them here. I couldn’t do justice to both family and politics full-time.”
“Free and entirely independent then?”
“Yes, farming affords me that privilege, though it’s tough: weather, plagues, labor problems. But I’m always my own man. I’m puritanical about politics, so I’ll never work for or own shares in any company.”
How Sunny wanted to be ‘his own man,’ test himself in civvy street, after all the years of answering to his old man, buckling down to his choice for a career instead of following his true love of physics at university. Then, taking orders in the army for five and a half years. He said, “The new trend, now that the war is over, is to specialize but I’m feeling guilty about my wife, Mavourneen, and little son, Douglas. He’s been very ill. They’ve been holed up in a succession of pokey flats in Pretoria all through the war. Stability is what they need—desperately. Still, I don’t want to land up with one of those boring G.P. jobs referring out all the time. I want to see my patients through their difficulties and have a free rein in surgery—I’ve had plenty of war casualty experience. So to be honest—I’ve turned down a few offers. This is my last chance on this trip before I go home empty-handed.”
“The need for medicine is tremendous here. There is no shortage of opportunities.”
They forged on, pausing at the sidings of Marimba, Hunyani and then Norton. Here at least there was a shed, a bench and two lamps to light a platform. The men he’d just met, Gelfand and Whitehead, were very impressive but the emptiness of the night contradicted them. Could this backward place offer him the independent and interesting life he was searching for? He looked at his watch as they approached Lydiate, where a post bag and a crate of fowls were loaded and a group of women with babies on their backs, bundles on their heads and small children at their sides clambered onto the third and fourth class coaches.
There was no denying the slowness of this rural society that he’d seen all the way up Africa; time was measured in two seasons: the rain and waiting for the rain, not the passing of the hour and the urgency of the moment. The ponderous train and the meager luggage of the Natives epitomized the clash of cultures in an ancient but young land. They swooshed and rocked through a railway cutting.
Sunny unbuttoned the table, lowered it down and folded out its leaves. He pulled out a map from his breast pocket, smoothed it out and looked at his watch. There was so much further to go: Kutama, Makwiro, Selous, Madzongwe, Gadzema, Hartley, Chigwell, Martin, Gatooma, Rimuka, Leighfield, Umsweswe, Battlefields, Umniati, Sherwood and Shamwari: all these stops in the middle of nowhere before he reached his destination. He looked up and caught Whitehead’s eye and said, “There’s such a mixture of English and Native place names, do you think this country will evolve into a common society?”
“That’s the hope: time is on our side.”
“Where’re you from—originally?”
“Coming out from England my first time, I celebrated my twenty-first birthday on the train in the Karoo. ’26 it was and I’ve never hankered for England since. This country’s mostly free of class-consciousness—but I owe a lot to England. I was educated at great expense at Oxford and I intend to put that education to good use.”
An Oxford man! His open necked collar was frayed, his trousers rumpled and his shoes dusty. Sunny recognized that he had received a very whole impression of Whitehead—and a valuable evaluation of the country—and its promise—in their conversation.
Whitehead lifted his battered briefcase onto the table to extract a file and sucked on his dormant pipe.
They settled into a comfortable silence. Sunny closed his eyes and dosed fitfully on top of the bedding.
Finally, Whitehead said, “Your stops coming up.”
Rain was coming down in sheets. A pair of lamps dimly lit a small Dutch gabled station building. “All the best in your election and plans for national expansion. I’ll follow your career with interest in The Herald,” said Sunny, having tied his shoelaces and straightened up.
Whitehead shook hands firmly and said, “The future’s especially bright right here. Stake your claim.”
Sunny picked up his suitcase and adjusted his cap. The only white passenger to disembark, he moved quickly towards the shelter of the station.
A hulk of a man in a glistening mackintosh stepped out of the baggage claim and extended his black umbrella to him. “Dr. Rubenstein?”
“Yes,” said Sunny. “You must be Dr. Gidney Palmer. I’m sorry to have got you out at such an ungodly hour. My humble apologies,” he bowed ever so slightly.
“The late arrival’s routine. Your belongings?”
“This is it,” he said, raising his overnight bag. “I’m traveling light.”
Palmer turned and led the way hurriedly to his car.
This terse welcome contrasted with his earlier experiences that day. Could he put it down to the rain?
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