Christmas 1958. It was Merran’s, my new wife’s, first venture out. She was just recovering from a fierce bout of malaria, even though she had long claimed she was immune. She had, after all, survived two years in Northern Rhodesia, earlier, without malaria when – in those days – most whites caught it. But here, in Liberia, the anopheles mosquitoes took bitter revenge. She ran very high temperatures – her teeth chattered so loudly – it sounded like a machine-gun. She lost a lot of weight. But as she was perking up our mentor, Oscar Norman – deputy minister of the interior – suggested we accompany him and his wife, to pay Christmas visits to a number of his “big shot” friends. Most owned rubber estates in the vicinity of Monrovia.
We did not know what such a tour involved.
Our first host presented an unopened bottle of whisky to Oscar.
He opened it but before pouring us drinks he performed a curious ritual.
“Merran,” he said, “I think you’ve told me your father was dead, didn’t you? What was his name?”
He poured a large tot onto the ground. The earth soaked it up
rapidly. “This is for William McCulloch.”
Merran whispered to me: “Probably the first whisky he’s ever
had. He was a teetotaler… lifelong.”
Next Oscar poured drinks into glasses – for us, the living.
At the next estate, again, an unopened bottle was handed to him.
And so it went on – estate after estate. I lost count of the number of
rubber farms we visited.
“It’s our custom,” Oscar explained. “I’m a senior official. They’re
showing they’re not trying to succeed to my job…
“By poisoning you?”
I expressed surprise at such a lack of trust. He reminded me that the European custom of shaking hands had similar origins:
Once it had been to demonstrate we were not carrying a dagger.
I was driving and Oscar and his wife had joined us in my car.
His own official car with a uniformed driver followed us, carrying other friends. The driver had explained he never drank alcohol when on duty. Merran, my wife, having been so ill, joined him for a Coca-Cola.
I struggled on valiantly. After only five weeks of marriage, I felt I still had to prove myself a man. But I soon saw that a responsible husband would not land his new wife in a ditch.
“Merran,” I ventured diffidently after the umpteenth estate “do you think … do you think you can still drive?”
“I’ve been wondering how long it would take you to see sense!”