I’ve never managed interviews very well and should write a self-help booklet on “Ten Excellent Ways to Wreck an Interview”. Once, years ago, when applying to a big publisher for an editing position, I was asked “What computer programmes do you know?’ and answered ‘Windows.’
When I got home and confessed that I’d messed up, my already very computer-literate children reminded me: ‘But we keep telling you! Windows is not a programme!’
In my last year of school, long ago, in Rhodesia, I applied to be a Rotary Exchange Student and got as far as the interview where I knew the exact point at which I blew my chance. I’d been asked, in the wood-panelled, Venetian-blind-darkened room in Charter House at the top of Jameson Avenue, by one of the interviewers, an icily professional, stiletto-heeled lady, what I thought about the Prime Minister, Ian Smith. My mother had warned me that there might be politically charged questions and cautioned me not to be controversial but to steer clear. So I answered that I had not yet formulated an opinion about him, correctly realising, as the words came out my mouth, that I’d made a critical error. The interview abruptly tapered off into irrelevant terrain. I was congratulated from across the very shiny boardroom table for having come this far in my application, and bid ‘good-bye and good-luck with your future endeavours’.
On that day, before the interview, I had gone to the Europa Café. A friend’s father was in there and, over coffee, I confided with a measure of shame that my father had left home and that he had gone without first telling me. ‘I don’t know where he is,’ I told the man, asking about his daughter, M., whom I had not seen since leaving the convent and moving to a government school. He told me that she had died in a car accident some months before.
After my failed interview, I reflected on how he had wished me luck with it; on how I had sensed him wanting to embrace me because I was alive and aspirant and because I had known his daughter who should still be alive. I had got as far as being interviewed because of the essay I had had to submit with my application. In it, I’d taken a chance and tackled some of the thorny questions that already troubled me – death and war, the problem of pain and the whole meaning of life. Perhaps, if I had given an opinion on Ian Smith, and therefore been seen to have an opinion, I might have got to be an exchange student, seen America and been driven along Bob Dylan’s Route 66. But, I was secretly comfortable at my failure because my mother would not have afforded the clothes required and I did not earn enough at my casual job in a book shop to provision myself to look like an elegant Rotarian ambassador. I knew too that I might panic and become home-sick. Even so, I was alive and M. was not. Her father, a tall big man wearing a grey suit and elegant grey leather shoes, had towered over me to wish me luck as I set off for the interview, assuring me that our family had fallen apart in an altogether easier way – divorce rather than death. He set me to forever ponder ‘departures’ and the leaving of one person by another, in whatever manner and for whatever reason.
Out in the real world, I wanted to work as a journalist with the Rhodesia Herald, but did not manage to secure an interview. My next choice was to be an air traffic controller at Salisbury airport, but this work was reserved for men. Instead I was accepted by the Department of Customs and Excise where I was issued with a winter and summer uniform, a cloche hat bearing the Rhodesian coat of arms and a set of epaulets. That interview took place in a sunless office, furnished with the ubiquitous government teak desk, metal filing cabinet and stressed pot plant. I was not asked for a single opinion, only whether I was strong in applied-arithmetic and whether I might object to working at a border post. It would be as a customs officer that I learnt to observe people, their clothes, body-language and mannerisms, not knowing how useful this skill would be in years to come, when I had to create credible, fictitious characters to inhabit my novels. It was at border posts that I observed the comings and goings of travellers, readng deeper meaning into their departures than I should have.
Sometimes I have wondered
Sometimes I have wondered
how you went on your way
on what kind of summer
or was it midwinter’s
day you made your few things
ready maybe sat back
one last time on the three
red stone steps to assess
everything you held
your calm patient hands to
the careful green progress
of your immaculate
garden that halted here
on this cool dark threshold
and continued within
in rooms trimmed with white lace
and pale sunlight and lost
too deep in shadows now
too solemn for the child
I was for me to draw
any detail now from
their silence or recall
the wooden echoes as
you walked this last time through
the dark house to where I
imagine you sitting
not knowing for once what
lies ahead of you and
standing at last and not
looking back turning your back on all that you have made.
Ian Tromp is an internationally published poet, essayist and reviewer.
Sometimes I have wondered was first published in New Coin Volume 29 December 1993 Number 2 and is included in Africa! My Africa! an anthology of poems selected by Patricia Schonstein, sold to raise funds for Seed Readers.
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Extract ‘The interview’ from a work-in-progress On Writing – An annotated African Memoir by Patricia Schonstein