My marriage breakup in 1978 was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to deal with. It wasn’t in quite the same league as that night, years later, when I sat in a hospital with the parents of a small child who had been critically injured by our son in a trail bike accident. Nor was it quite as painful as seeing our child succumbing to drug addiction and his subsequent battles with the demons in his head, but the marriage breakup was nevertheless right up there amongst the worst episodes in my life.
It was Radha and Henning who nursed me through the trauma of the breakup. An unlikely couple, Radha was a dark-skinned Singaporean of Tamil extraction, whilst Henning was a very pale Dane. They had both been through marriage breakup themselves and understood what I was dealing with.
I had first met Radha two years earlier when I enrolled in a newly established course at Monash University, where she was one of my lecturers. When I was first introduced to her I was acutely aware of my strong Afrikaans accent, which at that time was synonymous with the oppression of black people. My accent did not elicit the slightest negative reaction in Radha. From the outset she accepted me on face value and we soon became friends.
Radha never took offence at anything, always seeing the funny side to any situation instead. She had befriended her elderly Australian neighbour, a widow, and visited her almost daily to make sure that she was well. A year later the neighbour confessed how apprehensive she had been when Radha had first moved in next door. There were quite a few other Tamils, relations of Radha’s, who had helped to transport her furniture and other possessions. “When I saw all of them I thought ‘Oh, dear, it is true what they say about those blacks. All twenty of them are now going to move into that house.’” Radha was consumed with mirth as she told me this.
Despite finding much in life to laugh about, Radha had difficulty in understanding everyday jokes. She tended to interpret anything that was said in a purely literal sense. “I don’t understand. What is the joke?” she would ask Henning, who would explain it to her. When she eventually understood the joke she would find it very funny. Henning and I devised a code to signal to Radha when someone was jesting. Our agreed code was the number ‘28’. We told Radha that, when we were in company and someone was jesting or telling a joke, Henning or I would say ‘28’ and then she should just laugh. We would explain later what was supposed to be funny about it.
When my first marriage broke up, Radha and Henning suggested that I live with them for a while. I was bitterly unhappy and just wanted to wallow in solitude in my own misery, but they insisted. I arrived at their house on a windy, drizzling evening with my few worldly possessions in a battered and rusty station wagon and moved into their spare bedroom, my home for the next three months. Sometimes they would notice the light in my room in the middle of the night and one of them would come in and talk to me about their own experiences of marriage breakup, helping me through my darkest hours.
What I remember most clearly about this period, despite my breakup woes, are the many laughs that we shared. One morning, as the three of us sat in their garden having a cup of coffee, Radha related something that had happened to her in 1964. “That was a bad year for me,” I said. “I spent that whole year behind barbed wire doing military service.”
“Nineteen sixty-four,” Henning pondered, his brow furrowed as he tried to recall what he had done that year. Then his eyes lit up. “I know, that’s the year that I f***ed my way through Europe!” Henning, being Scandinavian, had no inhibitions about such matters. Radha and I stared at him in stunned silence, and then burst out laughing. Henning misunderstood our laughter for disbelief. “I tell you, it is true,” he insisted. “That is really what I did in 1964.” The more he insisted, the more uncontrollably Radha had laughed.
When I first moved into their house I did not know how to cook a meal. One Saturday morning Radha said to me: “Hey, Timmy, today I’m going to teach you how to cook.”
“That’s great,” I enthused.
“I don’t know how to cook any Western meals, though,” Radha added, “so I’ll teach you how to cook a curry.” Today I can still cook a mean curry, if I say so myself.
Radha had worked and studied in England for some years and had a great fondness for all things English, so she was very pleased when I told her that I was marrying Gill, with her soft southern English accent. Radha was quite concerned about our forthcoming wedding in England, however, fearing that I would show myself up with my casual colonial manners, because I had never been to England. She gave me detailed instructions on how to conduct myself in English society.
“Now don’t just go and call Gill’s mother ‘Audrey’ when you first meet her. You must call her ‘Mrs Mountjoy’, unless she specifically invites you to call her by her first name. And for God’s sake, no joking about the Queen and the royalty, like that silly joke of yours about how Prince Charles should marry an African princess to give the royal gene pool a bit of a boost. The English would not find that amusing. They would be terribly offended.”
Gill soon developed a strong bond with Radha and Henning, who became the godparents of our children when they were born. Over time they became the equivalent of our very own, close family members. The years passed by.
Sometimes catastrophe slithers up unobtrusively, like a deadly snake through the long grass. One day, at our house, I noticed a slight tremor in Radha’s hand as she held her cup of coffee. Not long afterwards I observed that she was just a little unsteady on her feet at times. These relatively minor symptoms quickly escalated. She was diagnosed with an extremely rare and incurable type of palsy that affects the nervous system. Her deterioration was speedy and utterly destructive. Towards the end, this once vibrant woman could barely move her eyes or lips. She died a mere eighteen months after I had first noticed her shaking hand.
Henning, who had been a rock steady, supportive, caring husband throughout her illness, then also died, though not in the physical sense. He fell into a deep depression and progressively distanced himself from everyone that he had known, including from Radha’s sister and other relatives who lived in Australia. He often refused to see us as well, claiming when we rang him that he was too unwell to receive visitors. For a couple of years he stumbled along aimlessly in the no man’s land between existence and non-existence, neither physically dead nor really alive. Eventually he went back to Denmark, where he moved in to a flat near his sister’s. No-one in Australia heard from him again.
If people live on after death, it is surely in the memories of their family and friends. Now, eight years on, I can still picture Radha in my mind as I sit here, as clearly as if she were really present. I see her coming into the kitchen as I am cooking lunch. She affects an exaggerated Indian accent. “Ah, Timmy, still so very slow in the kitchen after all these years,” she says and wags her head Indian style in mock disappointment, before breaking into merry laughter.
Radha and Henning on the day that she received her Doctorate