How strange are the ways of memory: decades after a happening it can spring vividly to mind. Whenever I see a pawpaw I am instantly transported to another time, another country, another pawpaw.
Travelling in Sudan on long-service leave from nursing, I had spent some time at the Red Sea Hotel, learning a little Arabic. I was about to leave when the hotel manager said I should visit the deserted city of Suakin, further along the coast.
It was necessary for me to hire a truck and a driver to take me to my destination. This proved a wearisome business but I persisted and eventually set off with a somewhat reluctant driver in his rackety old truck. I intended returning to Port Sudan the same day.
It was a bone-shattering journey, careering through the hot dry desert, but when the old white buildings of the island city shimmered into sight and we crossed the causeway, I thought it worth the discomfort.
Suakin was obviously deserted. Shutters flapped from windows, doors hung askew, walls crumbled. Only the Government Rest House was kept in repair. High-walled and battlemented, it drew me in through enormous wooden gates. I stood in the courtyard by two ancient cannons and felt a strange compulsion to stay overnight.
The farrash came out to greet me, winding a white imma around his head, his teeth a flash of white against brown skin. When I asked if he could accommodate a guest, he showed me an ancient visitors’ book that boasted recent signatures and said he would be honoured to prepare an angareeb and food for me. He told me his name was Mohammed.
I asked the truck driver if he could stay overnight, but he shook his head and burst into a string of explanation I didn’t understand. Having agreed to return for me next day, he drove off with a crash of gears.
Stepping into the Rest House was like stepping into another period of history. I climbed the curving stairway and touched one of the ancient Dervish weapons which hung cobwebbed on the walls: a cloud of dust mites floated in the still, hot air.
The lofty upstairs room was dark. I opened creaking verandah doors that led onto a wide balcony; below, a shoal of sardines sheltered in the afternoon shade. I felt calm and content, as if I had found my rightful place.
Mohammed set a knife and fork and a bottle of Three Horses beer at one end of an enormous blackwood table, returning seconds later with Nile perch and bread on a garishly coloured tin plate. The fish was crisp and hot, the beer cold; the bread fresh. I was happy to pay the high price he asked for the meal.
When I had eaten he cleared the table and lit a paraffin lamp. Then he gave me a pile of red blankets and bade me Ma Salaama.
I hadn’t realised that he left the Rest House at night. He told me I would be alone on the island, but I would be safe: no Sudanese would stay after nightfall.
Placing a heavy key in the door-lock, he said I should turn it after he left, then he strode away across the causeway to the mainland, his white galabiah swishing round his bare feet.
Night falls quickly in Sudan. With darkness came a cool breeze and a crispness in the air. The only sounds were the gentle hiss of the lamp, the lapping of water against the Rest House walls and the distant yowl of cats roaming deserted streets.
A pile of books left by former guests sat on a dust-covered wooden shelf. I looked through them but their Victorian tales of adventure seemed unreal. I wrapped a blanket around myself, ready for sleep.
The rope-slung angareeb was surprisingly comfortable. My eyes had just closed—or so it seemed—when I heard voices speaking what I took to be Italian. There was a pathetic quality to what sounded like a woman’s voice; it sounded as if a man were comforting her. I crept to the edge of the balcony and looked down.
The man and woman standing below wore bush jackets and sun helmets. The man looked up and asked, first in Italian and then in rather formal English, if they could stay the night—his wife was ill. I hurried down, opened the huge gates, and let them in.
The woman was smooth-skinned and beautiful, with a long plait of black hair that fell to her waist when I helped her onto the angareeb. She would have a malarial attack soon, her husband explained; she was having attacks at ten o’clock every morning and every night.
There wasn’t much I could do. My medical supplies were back at the Red Sea Hotel; I had only aspirin in my handbag. There was no ice for her to suck so I soaked my handkerchief in cool water from under the balcony, wrapped it round a smooth pebble and held it between her teeth to prevent her from biting her tongue.
When the fever had passed and she slept, I sat in one of the heavy high-backed chairs and talked to her husband. He told me—in a mixture of Italian, Arabic and English—that his name was Pavarelli; he was an engineer brought from Italy by the Sudan government to build a dam. He had been on his way to Port Sudan with his wife and had expected to be there before dark, but after going out of their way to a marketplace to buy pawpaw he decided it would be wise to rest in Suakin. He smiled and said his wife was very fond of pawpaw.
I asked him where they had left their vehicle. It was rather difficult to understand his answer: it sounded as if he said they had come on camels.
I laughed. He laughed too, relieved now that his wife was breathing easily and in a deep sleep. He said how grateful he was to have found me at the Rest House, able to help.
I must have fallen asleep in the chair. When I woke, morning sun was slanting in through the shutters; Mohammed was swishing round the floor with a long stick which had rags tied to the end. The angareeb was empty, the blankets neatly folded.
When I asked Mohammed where the Italians were he pressed his hands together and said something I couldn’t understand. I was rather worried about the woman and went down the stairway to look for her.
The courtyard was empty. There was a flicker of sails on the horizon as fishing boats went out along the channel; everything else was still.
When I saw movement by the city gate I walked over the causeway to investigate. It was an old man—a water-seller—his donkey sleepy in the early morning light. Mohammed came and filled two kerosene cans with water from the goat skins, talking in undertones to the old man. The old man asked if I were a doctor. Mohammed asked the same question. I explained that I was a nurse. He nodded and said something that seemed to satisfy the old man.
As we walked back over the causeway Mohammed told me that the spirits of the Italians always came when a doctor visited the Rest House.
I told him not to be silly—the Italians I had seen were flesh and blood, not ghosts.
He brought out the old visitors’ book again and showed me two faded signatures written before I was born. The signatures looked very like Pavarelli.
Breakfast was delicious: jebena coffee, fresh sardines and sweet smooth pawpaw. I felt refreshed after the food, complimented Mohammed,
and said I had never tasted such good pawpaw, there had been none at the Red Sea Hotel.
He looked at me rather pityingly and said there were no pawpaws at this time of the year.