Cape Town. 1808.
211 years before my wakening.
It was a breeze that woke Jenny that morning, a cool Cape one that blew then like it had blown for million years, a million come and gone like the evolution that had birthed this phenomenon, this genetic mutation, this gift, this curse – that just like it did for her mother, changed her life. For this here was her wakening. This was its beginning.
Beneath her, soft white sand pushed up against her white frock, softer than the mattress that had cradled her to sleep. It was not a dream. Dreams slip from you, and then return to slip from you again until inevitably you wake – but this was not a dream. This was as real as if her dad had gently picked her up the evening before and, while she slept, smuggled her to the seaside and lay her there gently before she woke. At least that’s how she described it in her memoirs – and I can only imagine her panic when she stood and realised that neither Mom nor Dad were there with her. She was alone on that beach.
In the distance, table flat, with fog creeping around its edges was a very recognisable place. Not that Jenny had ever been to Cape Town before; she knew it only from a painting above her kitchen stove but then, far from that kitchen, inexplicably, Table Mountain sprawled out above her thousands of kilometres from home, from the dry bush of her Rhodesia where she had, as far she could remember, fallen asleep the night before. So why, she thought, why on this day had she awoken there – and why, she wondered, had she awoken in a time long before her own? Was she, as instinct whispered it to her then, a traveller like her mother? And was she, like her mother, preparing for the curse that was the never-ending wake? Indeed. As all travellers can, she could feel it. This was her wakening.
Now, time travel is very complicated so I will keep the next words as brief as possible. For now, they will be all you need to understand because its complexity, if explained all at once, might besiege you. So, put as simply as I can put it, this is what should be understood for now:
As Jenny drifted off to sleep on the evening of 21 November 1950 – the evening she met the ancient woman – her eyes immediately opened on the morning of 21 November 1808. So, while her body slept in 1950, warm in her bed, an identical version of herself spawned on a Cape Town beach 142 years before then. When it did, Jenny’s mind immediately joined that version and, as if any other, she lived out that Cape day as if it was her own. At its end, when her Rhodesia self awoke the next morning on 22 November 1950, her mind rejoined that body warm in her bed and her Cape self disappeared. This process happened every night from that moment onwards and what it meant was this: Jenny was officially in her state of wake. She was alive in two parallel times, 142 years apart.
And what a day it must have been, her first in the colony – the Cape of Good Hope that, under British rule then, was being built into the soils of our Africa.
[Jenny’s memoirs, written 1961]
I was terrified at first, alone like that, and I cried for Mom and Dad to return but they did not. So, instead of moving from there in case they did, I stayed put for what felt like an hour or so until eventually I was hungry enough to force my way down the beach towards the mountain. While walking towards it, I could make out the sails of ships at a harbour and I hoped that the people there could help me. As Mom and Dad were nowhere to be seen, they were the only ones who could.
As it happened, I spotted some people before then – a smartly dressed group that, I found out later, were on a Sunday beach stroll. You would never have guessed it. Dresses covered the women’s ankles and the men wore high boots. It seemed silly to do so on a beach day and perhaps the young boy who accompanied them agreed because he at least had his toes in the sand. There were five of them in all – two women, two men, and the barefoot boy, Henry.
When I approached the group, the first thing I noticed, despite their clothes, was their accents, which is significant because it is the first thing they noticed about me too. Where my English was slightly flatter and shorter, theirs was rounder, longer and more pronounced, and they immediately asked me where I was from. As I told them, I remember being inspected for fleas by one of the men – and remember him being very surprised at how clean I was despite what was clearly a ‘Dutch upbringing’.
In time, I found out that his name was Du Pre Alexander, 2nd Earl of Caledon, and his title in that Africa was the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope. It was quite a significant title for the history of things here but despite his stature he hadn’t heard of Rhodesia; in fact, when I later pointed it out on a map, he called me a liar. No white man lived in that wilderness he confidently proclaimed and I was probably just ‘protecting him’, my ‘Dutch father’ as he went about his ‘illegal business’ somewhere nearby.
The other man was General Henry Grey and he in particular didn’t like me. He referred to me for years as the ‘Dutch Child’, which, as you’ve gathered by now, was not a good thing in their world. He used to say that the Dutch were ‘just like the natives’ and ‘African to the bone’ with no credible ties left in Europe and that that, apparently, was a bad thing. ‘Filthy,’ he called them often, ‘as insubordinate as the Irish’.
The two of them were furious when they learnt my father was a tobacco farmer. As far as they knew, there was no farming of tobacco inland and General Grey was ordered to do a check on it in the months to come. Whether he did, I cannot be sure, but under British administration it was illegal to farm tobacco unless its benefits were sent to England, lest those benefits rip the Cape from England like America ‘those years ago’ – but even so, when did the farming of tobacco even begin here, he shouted, and why the hell had he not been informed?
Now, whether the idea of farming tobacco inland was planted by me then, I cannot say. In fact, I am not sure how my presence might have affected the past at all, if at all in those early years. Because, when I awoke in the future it was always unchanged, just as I left it, so I imagine my presence then was insignificant. For those first few years, no doubt, I was just a part of the larger colonial machine as everyone else was and my life there was essentially no different to the one in my present, which was largely insignificant to the world around it.
Just a short walk from the beach that morning, two large brown horses waited patiently at a carriage and when they were given the encouragement of a whip, they pulled us swiftly along a sand road that lead to a small town beneath the table, which was nestled neatly between a rounded hill that looked as a proud as lion’s head and another that would one day be called Devil’s Peak. What was the high street of an incipient Cape Town was lined with impressive white buildings and the budding skeletons of others to come, and towards the docks, small stalls were filled with people bustling about their afternoon selling fruits and spices and even large cats that were caught in the interior. There were no cars or tarred roads, but newly installed lamps that lined a stony road that lead towards the Castle of Good Hope and from behind its cannons, looking outwards, impressive wooden ships with white sails and colourful flags filled a harbour. Beyond them,an island.
‘Where do you really come from?’ asked the young boy when we were alone that first afternoon. Henry was an inquisitive child, about my age, and like me had blonde hair and blue eyes. I was lucky to have had him as a friend, I suppose. All travellers need a friend to believe them lest they be branded a lunatic. I can only thank Henry for that.
We became good friends over the years despite himself. Where I was African, made so by the product of time and the imperial machine that would chisel my belonging in the century to come, he was always proudly English – and in that, always proudly the guardian of his mission, to bring ‘civilisation’ to this, the most important port between England and the east – the Cape of Good Hope. So, despite his distaste for the place that was my home, a place he could never truly accept as his own as his context would not have it, I still enjoyed Henry in those early years and the friendship we shared. As children, we are just a part of the world that we are born into and as such, when we are young, we can forgive the disgust of adults that shine through us.
So, as it was, Henry accepted my strange travelling explanation when I shared it with him that first afternoon but, truth be told, he wasn’t really that interested by it. He was more intent on teaching me about his own world than learning about mine. About the Cape Mountains in the far distance, he had much to say about them and the Africa beyond them, and even though I did not understand the reality of his mission then, of their mission, it would become the reason that I now write these memoirs years later. His words, after all, is the mission that I will now try undo: The history of what my white ancestors, would achieve. Colonialism.
This is what must be undone. This is my duty as a traveller.