60. Christmas Tour

By Peter Fraenkel

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?”

“William….William McCulloch.”

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!”