In 1991 my life took a rather dramatic turn.
My Dad’s job moved us from the quiet suburban life of Stratford Upon Avon, to a small island in the middle of
nowhere the South Atlantic, the island of St Helena.
For those who don’t know this is the Island that Napolean was finally exiled to and he died there, though his body was later repatriated to France.
I was twelve years old when we set sail for the island and during the voyage I made great friends with another young expat girl called Lucy. We were pretty much the only children on the boat and we remained great friends during our stay on the island. She was from London. The posh bit. One of my lasting memories is the day we played in my garden, turned over a rock and found an ENORMOUS gecko staring back at us.
We screamed our heads off. But we loved it. Everything was new, and exciting, and perhaps dangerous. This thing looked like a mini dragon!
However, this post is not really about a gecko, but goodness, generosity and guile.
You see Napolean could never escape this island. But someone did. And we met him weekly.
Willem Merk was the Dutch Captain of a passing ship that was stopped by the St Helenian authorities and raided for drugs, which they found. A huge amount of cannabis. Interestingly this plant can also be found growing at the roadside in many areas of St Helena. He was imprisoned on the island, tried and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment during our stay there.
Willem Merk was also a catholic.
He attended our church on Sunday, all the while hand-cuffed to his guard. But after church we would all go next door into the priest’s living quarters, have tea and the priest would plead on his behalf to allow him to have his coffee and a cigarette un-cuffed. Some guards would relent, others wouldn’t. But he seemed a nice, amiable man.
Then, after the sentencing, he stopped attending mass. He was on hunger strike. The priest did his best but he could not get him to eat. So eventually he sent in the master-persuader, my Mum.
She used to visit him in the prison regularly, talk to him, listen to him, and eventually he began to eat again.
He also resumed other activities. Swimming in the local pool on a Wednesday was a regular activity for some of the prisoners.
Now it is rumoured that he was previously unable to swim and learnt how to there, on a Wednesday, watched by his guards, but goodness knows if it is true.
What is true is that one day, and I have no idea how, and HONESTLY nor does my Mum as we were long gone from the island by then, he escaped. And he swam. To a waiting yacht, landed in Brazil, appealed to the Dutch embassy and was repatriated to Holland as a free man.
We read about this later in the Daily Mail. Rightly or wrongly, this story always makes me smile.