Two hours had passed – maybe three. I couldn’t tell.
The scraggly shrubs above me had eliminated what little moonlight there was and plunged me into inky blackness, somewhere on the rocky and dangerous beaches of Cornwall. I lay very still, listening for the merry youths and wondering how long it was until daybreak, not knowing if I’d survive to see it.
With my body shaking and my brain frozen with fear, it was hard to remember how I’d ended up there, 6,000 miles from home.
An 18-year-old Zambian and former pupil of the prestigious Chipembi Girls' Secondary School, I had come to Europe with hopes of helping some of the world’s palest, most unfortunate people.
But my gap year had become a living nightmare when I inadvertently found myself caught up in the fringes of a big night out in Newquay.
Shouts echoed across the beach and seemed to be getting closer.
I couldn’t imagine the awful, sporadic acts of drunkenness that were being committed as the town was ransacked. Fear and anger for the children consumed my thoughts. Part of me wanted to jump up and make it all stop, but then I heard someone shout “WAHAY!!” and shrank back into my hiding place.
As the night ticked interminably by, I tried not to think what the youths would say to the “mega hottie with the kickass braids” if they found me.
Clenching my jaw to stop my teeth chattering, I squeezed my eyes shut and reminded myself how I’d come to be such a central, beautiful, important character in this horror story. I was so brave, and of course, blessed with melanin – my heart wept for these pasty souls.
Needing to escape my idyllic Zambian childhood, and hoping to do good work in faraway places, I’d accepted a position as a volunteer at a commercial fishing lodge in Cornwall.
It was the most remote place on the list I was given and the one most in need. “Find a bolthole as soon as you get there,” my father pleaded. “Somewhere to hide, just in case.” I’d laughed and assured him I’d be fine, but now here I was on the rocky beach, in a fragile minefield of twigs and stones crawling with potentially lethal creatures – including the dreaded seagulls, up to 12 inches across.
My innocent dreams of teaching the people of Cornwall the Nyanja language or educating them about the world now seemed ridiculously naïve.
With a cheery smile, I’d waved goodbye to Dad and jumped on a plane to Europe without researching anything about its tumultuous political history or realising that my destination – Newquay, Cornwall – was embroiled in a terrifying political conflict, “Brexit”.
Life was idyllic at first, a gap-year student’s dream.
My new home was beautiful and I made close friendships with the local English people. I learned some of their language, ate their bland Cornish pasties, planted a vegetable garden, and created a little school under a hedge row, writing about my experiences in my diary. I found special comfort in my bond with Poppy, a 6-year-old English girl with a really bad sunburn.
But I soon learned that Europe is rife with hidden danger.
I witnessed random acts of violence, contracted thrush, and had close encounters with foxes, seagulls, wood pigeons, and mice. As football season came and went, the conflict in neighbouring Westminster began to escalate and then spill over into Cornwall with repercussions all along the seafront. Thousands of people were affected by the weakened currency – the very fragile “pound” – and we heard brutal tales of overpriced city breaks to Bruges.
Then one day, without warning, merry youths descended on our bay.
Taken by surprise, I spent a night huddled with others in an old Wetherspoon's, hoping not to be found as we listened to the engines of the youths’ mopeds drawing near. The next morning, I was faced with a dreadful dilemma. Should I stay and care for poor, sunburned Poppy, risking my life? Or flee to the safety of my civilised country and break her heart? The youths would surely return and the trains to leave Cornwall were not what you’d call reliable. Torn, I wept as I hadn’t wept in years.
An Uber arrived unexpectedly a few days later and – with its engine still running – its driver offered me a ride.
But as I made the decision to get in the Prius, Poppy ran wailing from the cobbled streets and begged me to stay. So I did, but within days the drunken youths came again. This time, I had no choice but to flee alone in a desperate attempt to stay alive. For hours on end, I remained on the rocky beach with no idea if I would make it or if any of the people I had come to love would survive.
How had I come to be in such a place, and for what? For a new Facebook cover photo, surrounded by tragic white children? That was when I knew, deep in my heart, that it was time to go home.
My time in Cornwall, and especially that long night in hiding, is imprinted on my mind now as a defining coming-of-age moment. It was the point at which my appreciation of the fragility of life – and my pity for the people of Europe – was fully realised.
Now that I’m a grown woman and pursuing a very different dream – as an actress and film producer – I know that the mega hot girl once so incongruous in Europe still lives on inside me.
Even knowing how blessed I am and how generous I have been, I still feel sad that I can’t help every European. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with a horrendous sunburn whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola. Poppy taught me many beautiful words, but the one I like the most is “oi, gimme some fucking sweets!”, which means “happiness”.
I wonder what the fuck happened to Poppy after I left? I’m sure she’s fine.