Tag Archives: Friendship

OFF CENTRE

Fictitious names have been given to the individuals in this story to protect the identities of the living and the dead.

One of the things that I love most about my wife is that she calls it as she sees it. I don’t have to try and read between the lines with her. Thus I knew exactly what she was thinking when she responded to my question over dinner one evening.

“Would you describe me as a normal person?” I had asked her, apropos of nothing.

She considered my question briefly, then asked, “Do you want me to give you an honest answer, Tim?”

“No, don’t bother,” I replied.

This exchange may shed some light on why I have, from time to time, gravitated towards people who were a touch off centre in terms of normality.

When I first went to university in the 1960s I became friends with three fellow students who, in hindsight, were clearly a bit mad. I shall call them Lewis, Walter and Otto.

Lewis, a law student from South West Africa, had a dark cynical streak. He was endearingly charming in his interactions with females, but over time it became clear to me that he actually despised women. He treated them with utter contempt and with a complete lack of compassion that, to my surprise and horror, only fuelled their devotion to him.  Many a time I had to console his distraught girlfriends and dish out tissues.

His English was poor, so he practised an opening gambit to chat up the women whenever we paid a social visit to the English-language University of Cape Town campus. “My name is Lewis,” he would introduce himself in his thick Afrikaner accent. “I come from an obscure little place in South West Africa called Keetmanshoop.” The women loved him.

Lewis was a tortured soul. He never talked about his inner demons, but they exposed themselves sometimes. One night, for instance, we were walking on a beach when he picked up a piece of driftwood and used it to write on the sand in large block letters: “MY NAME IS CHAOS.” We eventually drifted apart after his politics had taken a sharp turn to the far right.

I had first met Walter during our year of army training, when we were in the same squadron. He was an atheist who had enrolled in a religious science degree course and had planned to become a minister of religion in the Dutch Reformed Church. Perhaps not surprisingly, in view of such contradictions that cohabited in his mind, he eventually did a stint in the Valkenberg Mental Hospital where I visited him. “The psychiatrist told me that I have absolutely no fear of death,” he told me proudly during one such visit.

Later, completely unexpectedly, he converted to an extreme brand of fundamentalist Christianity. He believed that God had created the earth less than four thousand years ago and that the world would end in December of that same year.

“But what about all those ancient fossils that they have dug up?” I challenged Walter.

“They were planted by the devil to mislead people,” he told me earnestly.

He left university to join a group of fellow believers in a remote area in the northern region of South Africa to await the imminent end of the world. I never heard from him again.

My third university friend, Otto, studied literature and was quite manic in his speech. His words would often overtake each other in a jumble because his mouth could not keep pace with his thoughts. In the room that I shared with him and with Lewis for a while, Otto would sometimes get up in the middle of the night and pace around restlessly, muttering in German, “Problemen! Problemen!”

We were at a beach one day when Otto got up from his beach towel and announced matter of factly that he was going for his big swim to China. He was a strong swimmer and, having battled his way through the wild surf, swam off until he was a mere speck in the distance before disappearing from view altogether. The other beachgoers had become agitated and someone must have called the police because a boat eventually picked him up miles out in the open sea. Further big swims to China followed from time to time. Lewis once remarked “You can always tell by the large crowd on the beach that Otto has gone for a swim.”

Otto married a famous poet’s sister, had a child, got divorced and disappeared completely off the radar. Perhaps he had gone for his big swim to China once too often.

Decades later I became friends with someone else who was a tad off centre. I liked my workmate, Mona, because of her touch of eccentricity. We found that we had some common ground in that she was bi-polar, as was someone close to me, and she would offer me moral support and advice on how to best deal with this.

Once I had to take a new staff member to Mona’s office area to introduce her to the staff there. Mona shook hands with her and enquired earnestly, “Tell me, do the people that you usually mix with use bad language?”

“No, they don’t,” replied the perplexed newbie.

Mona put on her friendliest grin. “Well, my role in this organisation is to desensitise people like you,” she said.

I discovered by accident that Mona was a lesbian. I was talking to her about work matters at her desk when I noticed a photo of her standing beside another woman. “Is that your sister?” I asked. “Nope, that’s my missus, Nicole,” she corrected me.

Not long afterwards I was walking along a corridor at work when someone behind me pinched me on the bum. I swung around. “Oh,” I said in surprise, “it’s you, Mona.”

“Yep,” she said, laughing, “and it’s just as well that you’re not a woman otherwise I’d be up for sexual harassment.”

She rode a large motorbike to work. “I know it’s none of my business,” I said, “but you really should stop riding that motorbike. They are far too dangerous.” To which she responded, “C’mon Tim, motorbikes are heaps of fun! We could all be so damned careful that we never have any fun in life at all.”

A week ago I was told that Mona had lost her battle with cancer. She was not yet fifty. With her death I have lost an unusual gem that had sparkled brightly in the grey shale of human normality.

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

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)