By Susan Roberts
Back in the 80s when I first moved far away from home, my only chance of speaking to my parents was to find a working call box and hope that they were at home when I made the trunk call between my erratic working hours. As time went on and I got my own place, it took several months to get a phone line installed.
A few years later, I moved to a neighbouring country and things became even more complicated. I worked in a noisy casino complex, miles from any city and with limited phone lines. The only call box available was in the resort’s Entertainment Centre which was surrounded by noisy games and pinball machines. Even though I had to work six days out of seven, the call box’s average working week was two days out of seven. On those days, I had to compete against the soundtrack of a Camel Derby and a shooting game called Mad Dog something. I used to despair of Superman ever needing a phone booth for one of his nifty little transformations if he happened to drop by into my so-called paradise.
If only we had had cell-phones, e-mail, and Skype back then, things would have been a whole lot easier. Or would they? We have all these things now, and yet I miss my family even more than I did then. Of course, my family’s profile has changed in those intervening years. Both my parents have taken their final trip to meet their maker and so have all their siblings. My sister and I are now the older generation.
Fourteen years ago I settled back in Durban – an hour’s drive from all members of my family – but in that time everyone else has begun the great exodus from my formerly safe little sphere. I have watched as, one by one, they have all moved away, leaving me behind. My sister’s husband packed her up and moved them both to Australia two and a half years ago, to join the rest of his extended family who had gravitated back there from all corners of the globe during the preceding decade or so.
My sister settled quickly into the family unit in Melbourne. Our impromptu, chatty calls and texts made the transition into lengthier, newsy e-mails. My new ADSL line was installed, and I learnt how to use Skype.
Once a week my sister and I chat across my dining table, and she takes her laptop through her Melbourne house, showing me their latest renovations, and even taking me outside so I can appreciate how the garden is growing. Simple, everyday pleasures are enjoyed, new earrings or scarves commented upon and much laughter exchanged. Sometimes I watch her cook dinner, or we nibble tantalising snacks in front of each other – biscuits or chocolates that are only available in our respective countries. She loves the sound of the raucous Hadidas crying outside my windows, and I ooh and ah over the groundcovers and roses she has spent her day nurturing.
So what am I complaining about? I don’t want to sound picky, but why doesn’t all this technology help to ease the pain of parting? Why is it that every time I have finished speaking to her, I spend the rest of my day in a slump, depressed that she is there and I am here without her?
One of my friends says it’s because you can’t hug on Skype. She’s right, but at least we can see and hear each other, and spend a little time in each other’s environments. But maybe that’s the core of the problem. I want to be where she is; not where I am. I’ve been lucky enough to fly to her country twice, but that fruit, once tasted, is longed for again. Like Alice, I can peer into the looking glass and wonder at the world beyond it but, unlike Alice, I can’t follow anyone through it.
The looking glass world on the other side of my computer screen looks so cosy, so complete, and so much like home has always looked, that I feel like I’m the little match girl standing in the snow; the outsider in an increasingly alien world that I can no longer relate to. My country’s government makes sweeping illogical changes while the crime rate soars unheeded and more people leave the place that they used to call home. My heritage has been steadily eroded, my family has gone, my dreams and plans for old age and retirement have been shattered. The carpet has been ripped from beneath my once steady legs, and I am struggling to keep my balance.
Every time I learn to cope just a little better, to lean on something, that vanishes too, like the fabled Cheshire cat that you think you can see because you’re talking to it, but one moment it’s there and the next, all you are left with is the memory of its fading smile, the blank Skype screen and the uncomfortable feeling that you might just have dreamed it all.