Monthly Archives: May 2014

I got by with a little help from my friends

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 & Henning

  Radha and Henning on the day that she received her Doctorate

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Karoo uncles

If you drive for about 25 miles along the unsealed road from Kakamas towards Kenhardt in South Africa’s north-western Karoo, you come to a farm track on the right which leads to the ruins of a farmhouse and an old eucalypt tree by the dry, sandy bed of the Hartebees River. This arid outback area of South Africa had previously been inhabited by the San people until they had been driven into the Kalahari Desert by expanding white settlement. My dad, John, grew up here as a member of a sheep farming family.

As the eldest son, John should have inherited his dad’s huge sheep farm in accordance with Boer tradition. What brought him unstuck was that he was a softie. Physically he was as tough as any of his younger brothers, but unlike them he found it almost impossible to slit the throats of newborn lambs with a knife, which was required for their Karakul sheep farming practice in those days. The newborn Karakul lambs had a tight, curly pattern of short wool and the pelts were exported overseas, where it was used in the top end fashion industry. They had to be killed before the wool started growing. The little pelts were stretched on frames to dry and their carcasses were boiled in vats and fed to the pigs. It was a murderous business and John wanted no part of it.

He therefore asked his father to send him to university in Cape Town. The other brothers left school early to help on the farm. When their father died as John was finalising his studies, his three brothers formed a pact amongst themselves that the farm would be divided into three sizable parcels, one for each of them. John was told that they would pay him for some of the land, but what he received was a mere fraction of what it was worth. They also made it clear to him that he would get into the way of a stray bullet if he attempted to claim any of the farmland for himself.

John was a devout Christian and did not want to be a farmer, so he accepted the meagre settlement without holding a grudge against his brothers. John never mentioned any of this to me, but many years later his sister, an unmarried teacher, told me of the whole sordid business. She was quite bitter about my dad’s treatment by his three younger brothers.

Every year without fail we went to visit his brothers for three weeks during the June school holidays. The youngest, Celliers, was a quiet man and a World War 2 veteran. His brother Charlie was large and loud. I could hardly ever understand a word that he spoke. Although he never caused me any harm, I was quite nervous of him because he was such a rough character. Take the pig-shooting incident, for instance. He had dispatched his son, my cousin Hendrik, to shoot a particular pig. Hendrik was an agricultural school student at the time. He aimed the rifle at the pig and said: “They’ve taught us at school how to shoot a pig. I think it is about an inch above its left nostril, but I’m not certain. It could be the right nostril.” While he prevaricated, Uncle Charlie had suddenly appeared from nowhere and, grabbing the rifle from Hendrik, killed the pig with a single shot. “That’s how you shoot a pig,” he growled.

The third brother, Christiaan, was my favourite Karoo uncle. He was a laconic man, tough as nails, but with a kindly streak underneath. Despite never showing open affection I knew that he liked me. He had his own way of getting his point across. When I was quite small, for instance, I was bawling about something when Uncle Christiaan said to my dad, within my hearing: “You know, John, I think you made a mistake with this one. You took him out of his nappies too soon. Look how unhappy he is. I think you should put him back in nappies until he is a bit older.” I am pretty sure that was the last time that I had cried in front of my uncle.

When I was a bit older I had a splinter in my hand. I showed it to him and told him that it was hurting me a lot. “Come here, I’ll cut it out for you,” he said, taking his penknife from his pocket. I quickly made my getaway and got his daughter, my cousin Erina, to dig it out with a sewing needle instead, without as much as a whimper that might attract Uncle Christiaan’s attention.

My uncle involved me in various farm tasks, despite the fact that I was a scrawny, physically weak city kid. He took me along to the sheep auctions in town and taught me about buying sheep at auction, fattening them up and breeding them in order to make a profit. He also taught me to shoot and to recognise the various animals, birds and plants on the farm. Now, many decades later, I realise that, spending his life on an isolated farm with only the daily female company of his wife and two daughters, he probably enjoyed some male company, even in the form of a child.

On one occasion the pipes of a windpump had to be pulled up from the borehole and undone, one by one, to replace one near the bottom that had rusted through. A pulley was used for this task. As the connected pipes were pulled up, my uncle would clamp the lower ones and undo the top one. Then we had to pull again. It was an arduous task, for the borehole was 90 metres deep.

Uncle Christiaan asked me to help the two farm workers. I pulled as hard as I could on the pulley with my thin arms, groaning with the effort. After a while he said to me, drily: “I’ll tell you what. How about I’ll do the grunting and the groaning and you can just do the pulling.”

My uncle was driving his bakkie (ute) along a two-track dirt road on the farm one night, when I was still quite young, with Erina and me sitting in the back. We had to take turns to open the gates in the fences between the large paddocks and close them after the bakkie had passed through. Erina said to me: “You have to be careful when you open the gate. Look where you walk, because I’ve heard that the scorpions are attracted by the lights of the bakkie at night.”

I was so terrified of the poisonous scorpions that were common in rocky areas on the farm that I didn’t get down to open the next gate when it was my turn. “Hurry up,” Uncle Christiaan said to me through the driver’s window, “open the gate.”

“I don’t want to get down, Uncle. I’m worried that a scorpion will kill me.”

Uncle Christiaan was quiet for a few seconds. Then he said, matter-of-factly, in his slow country drawl: “No need to worry about a scorpion. I’ve been stung by two scorpions. They’re both dead, but I’m still here. Now get a move on and open the gate. It’s getting late.”

I jumped down from the back of the bakkie and hurriedly opened the gate.

Looking back at where my dad had grown up, I am grateful that he had left the farm to pursue an education in the city. I doubt that I would have been much good as a Karoo farmer as I do not have the heart to kill a spider, far less a farm animal. However, if my dad had not left the farm and I had ended up being a Karoo farmer myself, I would like to think that I would have been the kind of farmer that my uncle Christiaan was: a man of the land, tough enough to be able to farm in that isolated, barren Karoo landscape, but with a kind centre.

John and his farmer brothers P

My dad John (left, in his university blazer) with his tough farmer brothers Charlie, Celliers and Christiaan

A Karoo story of another kind, by Robert Jaentsch

Dedicated to Tim Bruwer who awakened an almost forgotten but cherished memory of the Karoo …

There are two main routes for travelling by road from Johannesburg to Cape Town in South Africa. You can take the N1 highway via Bloemfontein or the N12 via Kimberley. On this occasion we travelled via Kimberley.

A mighty interesting town is Kimberley. Nearly everyone knows about the Big Hole, also known as Kimberley Mine. It has an area of 38 acres at the surface, is 790 feet deep and nowadays is about half full of water. Between 1871 and 1914, 25 million tons of earth was excavated from it yielding fourteen and a half million carats, or roughly three tons, of diamonds.

Not everyone knows it was on a farm owned by the De Beer brothers and in 1871 they sold it for £6,000, after diamonds had been found. By 1892 Kimberley had a tent encampment of 50,000 diggers and it was plain to some that consolidation had to come. Enter a young man from London’s east end, named Barney Barnato, and a vicar’s son from Bishops Stortford, in England, named Cecil Rhodes. They each began buying up small claims. Eventually Rhodes bought out Barnato and the remaining small claims to form De Beers Mining Company, which to this day controls the distribution of most of the world’s diamonds.

Perhaps even less known is that when the Boer War started in October 1899, the Boers, in a series of daring raids, besieged the British garrison at Kimberley and also those at Ladysmith and Mafeking. It took the British over 200 days to liberate those garrisons and it was at Mafeking, during the siege, that Robert Baden-Powell formed the Boy Scout movement. In the early stages of that war the Brits, with their scarlet tunics and conventional war tactics, were no match for the Boers, in their Khaki drabs using guerrilla warfare tactics. That war was the most costly of all wars fought by Britain up to that time. They sent 500,000 men from most countries of the Commonwealth and it took two and a half years and a parched earth policy to subdue 35,000 Boers.

Kimberley sits at the eastern edge of the Karoo, a semi arid desert region that extends through much of central South Africa. The drive from Kimberley to Beaufort West is the South African equivalent of crossing the Nullarbor. It’s by no means so far but is similar because there is so little evidence of civilisation along the way. By one o’clock we were beginning to feel hungry and thirsty for the Karoo is a hot place to travel through, especially in summer. Though I stopped at every small congregation of buildings in the hope of finding sustenance there was nothing at all that would satisfy a vegetarian. Did I mention that Mrs J is a vegetarian?

At a place called Matjiesfontein we turned off the main road to fill the car with petrol. As far as we could see it comprised a railway station, post office, two petrol bowsers, a couple of fine two story houses, a scattering of cottages and the splendid Lord Milner Hotel which seemed so completely out of place here at the southern edge of the Great Karoo. After refuelling we walked along the only street to the hotel and stepped inside to see if it was possible to get something to eat and drink. The entrance foyer had a tessellated tile floor that was a work of art, an ornate ceiling of several different kinds of timber and a grand mahogany staircase that took you to the upper floor. Stepping inside you knew immediately this was pure luxury, but what was it doing out here in the desert?

At three o’clock in the afternoon we were the only patrons in the dining room and serving lunch had finished. It was cool and elegant with an unmistakably Victorian ambiance, furnished with antiques of the period and with the faintest fragrance of lemon balm in the air. A waitress in a servant’s dress of black with white cuffs and collar and a pale blue bonnet on her head courteously showed us to a table. We asked if they had anything that was cool and refreshing and suitable for a vegetarian. We were so hungry we’d have been grateful for Marmite on toast but when the waitress returned with bowls of chilled carrot and orange soup we could hardly believe our eyes. It was like being in some sort of time warp. Half an hour ago we were driving through a hot, desolate landscape, now we sat in the cool comfort of a sumptuous Victorian dining room being served chilled carrot and orange soup. How had it happened? The soup tasted so good and was so refreshing we each had a second bowl. As we drove out of Matjiesfontein towards Cape Town we promised ourselves we would stop here again on our return journey.

When the Cape Railway from Cape Town to Kimberley was being built, a Scotsman, one James Logan, was given the concession to supply food at the stations along the route. He suffered from a bronchial condition and found this benefitted from the warm, dry climate at the edge of the Karoo and was astute enough to recognise that many well heeled folk in Europe who suffered from similar complaints could benefit in the same way. He purchased Matjiesfontein farm, built a water pumping station there and turned it into a lush, green oasis with sculptured gardens, fountains, duck ponds, tennis courts and a swimming pool with luxurious villas to accommodate his wealthy guests. In 1899 he built a luxury hotel opposite the railway station and named it the Lord Milner after the Governor of the Cape Colony. His timing was a bit off for by the time it was finished the Boer War was under way and it became a military hospital and headquarters of the Cape Western Command with 10,000 British soldiers living in tents on the farm.

When the Boer War ended the Lord Milner became a fashionable and favoured holiday retreat and spa for those with the money to enjoy it, because of its salubrious climate, its luxurious appointments and the excellence of its food, wine and service. Randolph Churchill, Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling were frequent visitors and, Edgar Wallace, war correspondent, then crime writer and author of the original King Kong, sent his Boer War dispatches from there.

When James Logan died in 1920 Matjiesfontein began a slow decline that continued until the 1960s when South African entrepreneur David Rawdon bought the entire village and restored it to its former Victorian elegance.

On our return journey we stayed overnight at the Lord Milner so we could step back in time and enjoy the very best that the Victorian era could offer. After an enjoyable lunch we spent a relaxing afternoon just exploring all that was on offer that we had missed on our first visit and lazing about to take it all in. And it took some taking in, all this man made beauty and luxury in this desolate desert setting.

Dinner was formal and for me that meant a jacket and bow tie. Mrs J wore a loose fitting floral print dress that covered her from neck to ankles, the closest approximation to Victoriana from her holiday wardrobe. Of course no self respecting gentleman and woman would be seen in public without a hat in Victorian times and the hotel provided us with these. The three course dinner was excellent, with crisp white tablecloths, monogrammed fine china crockery, and real silver cutlery. I had the Karoo lamb, which South Africans will tell you is the best there is. Dessert was served from a trolley so that the senses of sight and smell could influence your choice, so much more satisfying than a description on a menu card. After dinner we walked again in the gardens and they were devastatingly romantic in the cool, clear, crisp, night air of the Karoo and a sky in which the stars twinkled with a clarity never matched in a city.

Next morning, after breakfast and before we departed, we walked through the veldt on the other side of the railway station. Amidst the delicate colours and sweet scent of the wild flowers which bloom from the merest sprinkle of summer rains, I tried to imagine the scene when it was inhabited by 10,000 British troops. A reflection of the sun caught my eye and I kicked at it, then bent and picked up a spent brass cartridge case from a Lee Enfield .303 rifle. For years it stood as a reminder of an enchanted visit back in time to the Victorian era in that most unlikely place at the edge of the Karoo.

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A chance encounter with the Primrose Rugby Club

Primrose Rugby Club 2

On a blustery day in September 2012 my wife and I were relaxing in our seats in the rear of a plane on the tarmac at Cape Town’s international airport on our way back to Australia, when a babble of excited voices filled the aircraft and a group of young boys, accompanied by some adults, made their way to where we were sitting. We quietly braced ourselves for a long and noisy flight.

The boys were all dark-skinned and clearly belonged to some sort of sporting club.

Whilst growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era, I had never once played sport against, nor even sat next to anyone who was not white. Under the laws of the time everything relating to racial matters was separate or ‘apart’ – sport, public transport, park benches, churches, schools, toilets and even public parks.

Having been active in the Anti-Apartheid movement for many years, it was a novel and heart-warming experience for me to share the plane with these excited, dark-skinned youngsters.

Their coach’s seat was not far from mine, on the other side of the aisle. I could tell that he had an excellent rapport with the kids. One of the boys came past and ruffled his hair. When they became too excited and noisy, he called them to order and they quietened down immediately.`

“What is the name of your club?” I asked the coach.

“The Primrose Rugby Club. Our boys are going to compete in a rugby competition for Under 13s in New Zealand.”

I had never heard of the Primrose Rugby Club, so I asked him how long the club had been in existence. “It started in 1896,” he said. “It’s a community club. I used to play for them myself when I was young. We have at least one boy here who is going to play for South Africa one day,” he added confidently.

The separation or ‘apartheid’ between races when I grew up was so comprehensive that this rugby club, which had existed not far from where I had lived as a schoolboy, was unfamiliar to me.

“Do your teams sometimes fly to other parts of South Africa to compete?” I asked him.

“Oh no, very few of our players would ever have been in an aeroplane before.”

The excitement amongst the boys was palpable. One of them had taken more than a hundred photos on his digital camera in the plane even before take-off. Another exclaimed: “Look! They even have little televisions in here.” He turned to me. “Could you please show me how to switch this on?”

The plane started moving towards the runway. I asked the young fellow across the aisle from me if he had ever travelled in a plane before. “No, never,” he replied. “I’m very scared!”

As the plane gathered speed on the runway the boys’ voices grew louder and some of them cried out aloud in fright when it lifted off the ground. Suddenly, one of them started singing the post-Apartheid South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikilel iAfrika” (“Lord Bless Africa”, in the Xhosa language) and all the others immediately joined in to sing their fear of flying away. It was an enthusiastic and beautiful impromptu performance.

Later, back in Melbourne, I googled the Primrose Rugby Club and found an amateur video of the boys on a New Zealand rugby field, standing in line and facing a long line of their young New Zealand opponents, who were performing the haka. I could imagine just how immensely the boys of the Primrose Rugby Club would have enjoyed that moment, and I was grateful that something like this had become possible in my lifetime.

Some months later I googled the Primrose Rugby Club again, curious to know how their tour of New Zealand had gone. One website informed me that they had made history as the first ever international team to have been invited to compete in the prestigious Annual New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival. Then I found a photo on another website that caused me to be overwhelmed with great emotion, as well as with a strange feeling of immense pride. There was the trophy for the Under 13 Champions of the New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival, perched on the shore of Table Bay, with Cape Town in the background.

Primrose Rugby Club trophy

Mrs Mac

Mrs Mac was not a woman to be trifled with. Even Ava Gardner, the American film star, discovered that the hard way. Ava had boarded a flight from London to Pakistan to star in the film “Bhowani Junction” in 1956 and Mrs Mac, who was a senior air hostess at the time, was in charge of the cabin crew. According to Mrs Mac, Ava was quite inebriated when she boarded the plane and had become abusive to the airline staff. When Mrs Mac told her to mind her manners Ava became even more abusive, so Mrs Mac ordered the security people to physically remove Ava from the plane before take-off.

‘You should have heard the excremental language,’ Mrs Mac told me gleefully, sipping on her glass of white wine and puffing on her unfiltered Camel cigarette.

When I first met Mrs Mac she was already in her sixties. This is a wild guess, because no-one was ever privy to her actual age. Her days as an air hostess were long gone by then. She had abandoned that career summarily after an aeroplane that she was on had crashed into an airport building somewhere in Nigeria. She was so terrified of flying afterwards that she never boarded another aeroplane in her life.

Mrs Mac worked for a bookseller in Melbourne and her role was to supply books to libraries. She was paid a pittance by her employers, but as long as they funded her daily business lunches with her customers, including the wine, she was not one to complain.

She worked for a now long defunct bookshop in Prahran when I first met her. When we had returned from our wedding in England there was a severe recession and Gill was unemployed for the better part of six months. A friend told Gill that there was a job vacancy coming up in the bookshop. We were both very grateful to Mrs Mac for giving her the job.

Thus it came about that I got to know her quite well. She could come across as quite fierce, but she had a soft spot for the underdog. When one of her staff members was questioned by the police for loitering at a public toilet, she behaved towards him as if nothing untoward had ever happened and the incident was never mentioned. This behaviour was somewhat unusual, considering her general attitude towards gay and lesbian people.

At one of her ‘business lunches’ to which I had been invited, Mrs Mac had as usual imbibed freely and was tipsy when her other guest, a publisher, recounted something that had happened to him in Wales.

Mrs Mac peered at him, gripping her chair to prevent her from being dislodged. ‘I used to spend a bit of time in Wales,’ she told us with a slight slur. ‘I nearly lost my virginity on the banks of the River Wye once when I was young.’

There was a stunned silence until the publisher, also under the weather, leant over to me and said in a loud whisper, ‘Good Lord, the mind boggles!’

I realised over time that Mrs Mac was fairly racist as well as homophobic. Despite my abhorrence of such prejudices, I somehow found it easy to ignore these qualities in her. At one stage she frequented a Malaysian restaurant in Toorak Road. She could be terribly patronising to the staff there, in that typically British Raj manner. To my surprise none of them ever took the slightest offence, always greeting her with great warmth by name and enquiring about her health and wellbeing, before going off to retrieve a couple of bottles of wine from her stock that they had allowed her to store in their fridge.

Mrs Mac told me that she had been married twice. One of her husbands had been a Scotsman who had lived in a manor.

‘Why did you break up with him?’ I asked her. ‘You could have had a life of luxury if you had hung in there.’

‘Oh no, I couldn’t bear him. He was one of those people who always had a little black cloud hanging over his head.’

Mrs Mac confided to me one day over lunch that she had had a longstanding relationship with her ‘boyfriend’, whom she had been seeing since before her first marriage.

‘Did you keep in touch with him while you were married?’ I wanted to know.

She winked mischievously. ‘Oh, he’s always been around, even during my marriages. Everyone needs a good friend and a constant in one’s life.’

I was a little shocked. ‘So why didn’t you marry this boyfriend?’

Mrs Mac was horrified at the suggestion and dismissed it out of hand. ‘Oh, no, he would be no good as a husband.’

Mrs Mac’s neighbour in the block of flats where she lived was a fairly well-known television actor in his late twenties. She asked me to lunch one day so that I could meet him. He was an attractive, well-mannered young man. Afterwards I remarked to Mrs Mac that it was quite rare to see young people who were so quietly self-assured, charming and calm.

‘He’s an actor, Tim,’ she reminded me laughingly. ‘It’s all an act. Just last Sunday he threw a terrible wobbly. You should have seen it. He chased his girlfriend out of their flat and hurled a roast chicken at her!’

When Mrs Mac was in her eighties or thereabouts she contracted terminal lung cancer. No-one was particularly surprised, as she had been chain-smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes for many decades.

On hearing the news, Gill and I went to visit her in a flat in Fitzroy where a couple of her friends were looking after her. She was thin and fragile and she looked her age, whatever that might have been, but her spirit was undented. Sitting down in a comfortable lounge chair she poured herself a glass of wine and lit an unfiltered Camel. ‘Might as well enjoy a smoke and a drink,’ she told us cheerfully. ‘It won’t make any difference now.’

Mrs Mac & Tim (Dec 1998)

Mrs Mac and Tim at one of her business lunches (December 1998)

Failed attempt at a cheerful poem

I look out at our garden
magpies warbling
the plum tree in white blossom
like a bridal dress
at Marianna Hardwick’s,
the ironbark trees
with their galah grey leaves
bordering the scene
My soul is at peace

Then my thoughts begin to wander
They skim across the ocean
to Guguletu, to Maputo

I see a woman
picking through rubbish
that has long been picked clean
by other scavengers
beast and human

I see a cemetery
acres of fresh graves
red soil bulging everywhere
cheap crosses
marking the lives
cut short by AIDS
a generation lost

I see the orphans
six, seven years old
in rags
crawling from under the shrubs,
their home for the night
hungry, shivering

I look out at our garden

Now it has
the unnatural tinge
of a delusion

 aa004 AIDS victims' graves - Empangeni1

  

                                      AIDS victims’ graves, Empangeni