Thursday, November 18, 2010

53. Moving On

Within a year I was a grandmother and Patrick and Jeni, with their baby Juliea, moved down to Johannesburg, which worried me because Jeni was now in a strange country without family or friends and I knew how lonely that could be. Now here comes another big mistake – gosh my story is full of them. Following Ian Smith’s declaration of UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) all legal proceedings carried out in Rhodesia were considered to be invalid. This meant that Jeni and Patrick’s marriage was not recognised, making Juliea illegitimate. I made the mistake of writing a letter to the Sunday Express, in high dudgeon, under the heading “Just Who Are The Bastards” Snappy heading, eh? Since service personnel are not supposed to have any contact with the press, Tom was very upset when I told him what I had done. A very smart gentleman from the Sunday Express came to the house to interview me, and we discussed quite a few problems that UDI was causing us, i.e. the Rhodesian postage stamp was not recognised, so every time I received a letter from Bulawayo I had to pay double postage. At the end of our interview Tom extracted an assurance from the reporter that my letter would not be published. And he kept his word. They did not publish my letter; they made the interview the front page story! I heard Tom groan as he picked up the newspaper from the front door mat. Of course he was in front of the Provost Marshal on Monday morning getting a right old roasting which, surprise to say, he did not pass on to me. At a Provost dinner party a few months later the Provost Marshal greeted me with “Given any more interesting interviews to the press lately?”

And that is a dinner party I will not forget in a hurry. It was being held in the RAF Officers’ Club in London and was, I assumed, a formal affair. We travelled up by car and I wore a long dress, long gloves and diamante jewellery, only to find that the other wives were wearing crimplene dresses, tweed skirts and twin sets! There I stood, outshining the crystal chandeliers and the silver candlesticks, and the compliments paid me by the gentlemen did little to lessen my embarrassment. After that I made a dress with an extension tacked onto the skirt that I could quickly transform it into a short dress in the ladies room if necessary. Tom also had to promise, in future, to always confirm the dress code.

I must confess that I was homesick for Rhodesia, the sunshine and the family, and if anything came on television showing pictures of the Victoria Falls or Rhodesia in general I would burst into tears. I was so unhappy that Tom suggested I go to Rhodesia and stay there until he retired and could join me, which was unthinkable because retirement was years away. What made things worse was the fact that the black dog, which had been following me for years, was getting closer. Sometimes he would lag behind a bit, sometimes he would get right up close, he was a mean, unfriendly animal, and he would follow me for another twenty years before he was finally named and tamed. His name was Depression.

Juliea was less than a year old when Tom was posted to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf; the British Forces were moving out of that area and he was to oversee the closing down of the Provost units. This posting was a nine months unaccompanied tour of duty and we had to vacate the married quarter we were occupying when he left so I would have to find somewhere else to live. But where? Even if I kept on working our combined incomes would not be enough to rent a flat for me, and pay Tom’s mess bills. I had no family or close friends in England with whom I could stay. Then Tom suggested that I go to Rhodesia for a working holiday, travelling via Johannesburg where I could see Jeni and the baby. I would have to work because the sanctions that followed Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence meant that no money could be transferred to Rhodesia, not even to dependants. I would return to England when he was allocated a married quarter after he finished in Bahrain. It seemed to be the perfect solution.

In Germany I had acted in “The Heiress” with Joyce Heslop, she had played the heiress and I had been her aunt, which was strange because she was older than I. Tom and Joyce’s husband worked together and it transpired that Joyce was about to visit her family in Salisbury, Rhodesia, and wouldn’t it be nice if we travelled together? She was already booked on the Windsor (or the Edinburgh) Castle. I had intended flying, but Tom thought the sea trip and the company might be more fun, and I would be able to take extra luggage. Sounded like a good plan

Our husbands saw us safely on board and then left, Tom turning away very quickly because he did not want me to see him becoming emotional, and I because I did not want him to see me tearful. Little did we know that our separation was not to be for nine months but nearer three years and looking back it seems even longer.

The cabin I shared with Joyce was very cramped, two bunks and a wash-hand basin. We were at the end of a hallway and children would run races down the corridor crashing into the thin wooden partition at the end which constituted our cabin wall. There was also a flight of stairs outside our cabin door on which people would sit late at night, singing and talking loudly. The waitress in the dining room was a real love! We were the first sitting and she would bustle round saying, “Come on you lot, I’ve the second sitting to get through yet”. Heaven help us if we were late! The one amusing thing was that on the passenger list our cabin was shown as being occupied by Mrs. Winter and Mr. Heslop.

First Class passengers, it seemed, were allowed into the tourist section, but not the other way round. An American male joined us on deck every day, which I found slightly irritating, and he must have been well off to be travelling “first”, but there was something about him that wasn’t quite right. He said he was dying of cancer, but I suspected that was a cry for attention. He wanted to invite us to dinner in “first” but had been told that this was not permitted. I started to tease Joyce about her admirer until one day, when he and I were alone, he turned to me and asked “May I kiss you?” Well, I am a friendly, obliging sort of person who does not like to hurt people’s feelings, so I said “Yes, if you want to”, expecting a peck on the cheek. It was a shock to realise that it was not Joyce he fancied, but me! Well, I was quite good looking at forty five, a bit overweight, but OK. He wanted to know if I would stay with him for a few days when the ship docked in Cape Town. No way! Well, if that was not convenient, could he come up to Rhodesia and see me there? All this took me completely by surprise and Joyce and I spent the rest of the voyage dodging round pillars hiding from him. It was very annoying but funny at the same time.

Several times men, sometimes close family friends, to whom I have not given the least bit of encouragement, have taken me quite by surprise with their unwelcome advances. I always told Tom about these incidents so that he could make sure I was never left alone with the unwanted admirer. On a couple of occasions he wanted to say something, but I said I could handle the situation and he should be flattered that other men fancied me! Ending those friendships would have hurt the wives, but some of the encounters really surprised and annoyed me. Honestly, the cheek of some people!

Joyce and I were booked to travel on the famous Blue Train from Cape Town, me to Johannesburg and Joyce through to Salisbury, and it was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. We left our cases in the luggage van and boarded with our overnight bags. It was comfortable enough, but nothing like we had been led to expect, in fact the only thing blue about the blue train was us! The air conditioning was set so low that we froze and when the conductor said that the setting could not be turned down, (or was it up?) we asked him to bring the bedding so that we could wrap up in the blankets. He said that this would be difficult because it was only morning and they were not allowed to issue bedding until the evening so I said, through chattering teeth, that if he did not give me a blanket I would pull the communication chord. I think we spent two nights on the train, and I was quite happy to leave it at Johannesburg.

My first reaction on seeing Jeni was one of shock. She looked like a bunch of white sticks, and it was a tearful reunion. We took a taxi to her cold, sparsely furnished flat in Hillbrow, and there I first set eyes on my beautiful, precious granddaughter. No thumb sucking and hiding her face in mummy’s shoulder, but a big smile and arms outstretched to her grandma – well, her Biddy. She was so full of life and it was love at first sight, and I could see that Jeni was immensely proud of her.

Because Jeni had to work, Juliea (always Jules to me) was left in the care of a morose black girl who never played with the child. I think it best we pass over the whole Johannesburg visit bit, and let me just tell you about the temp job I took there.

When I had applied at the bank for travellers’ cheques I foolishly said I was going to Rhodesia and I was refused because of sanctions. Had I said I was staying in South Africa I would have been given an allowance, albeit it small in those days, as it was I had only a small amount of sterling. My stay was to last about a month and I would need money. One of Jeni’s neighbours recommended me for a temporary job as receptionist to a specialist surgeon. Having previously done medical reports etc., for my nasty registrar, I thought it would be easy, until I found that almost all the patients spoke only Afrikaans! The names, the addresses and general information were all in Afrikaans and I could understand none of it, but in spite of that the doctor seemed to like me. Maybe it was because I cleaned his consulting rooms, and tidied up the X-ray storeroom. I wonder if he knew that those thousands of x-rays could have been recycled and the silver extracted. The glass on his X-Ray viewing screen was so dirty I wondered he had not diagnosed malignant growths in all his patients. But I did make a big mistake when I removed the ceiling to floor curtains and took them home to wash. All well and good, the dark brown curtains turned out to be a lovely, bright orange BUT they were made of some form of fibre glass or nylon and should not have been spun! But spin them I did, and then spent the whole night with iron and steam trying to iron out the bends. Once rehung they did not look too bad and perhaps he did not notice the bends, because when my time to leave came he asked me if I could not possibly stay longer? Then he paid me more than I was due and would not accept payment for calls I had made to Bulawayo. He said to the friend who had recommended me, “Since she has been there, my rooms seem to welcome me in the morning”. I think it must have been the orange curtains.

A qualified nurse had been engaged to take over from me and when she arrived she asked me if I was in pain. I said, yes I was, because I had slipped and fallen on the tiles in Jeni’s flat. She said that if I would wait until the doctor had left the surgery, she would fix it for me. When we were alone, she asked me to stand up straight. Then she had placed her hands on my back and on my stomach and I felt the heat from them penetrating my body. After a few minutes she removed her hands and the pain went with them! Imagination? I don’t think so, because I could now bend and turn with ease. This nurse told me that, when on night duty at the hospital, she would sometimes sit with an anxious patient during the night and lay her hands on him/her. The patient was sworn to secrecy or she would have been in big trouble but, sometimes, in the morning they would be pain free and discharged themselves without having surgery.  Well, strange things do happen, and my back did not trouble me again for a very long time.

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