Monday, December 13, 2010

60. George Avenue

A year or so before the wedding, I had left African Associated Mines because a new man was now sharing the office with me and he chain smoked. Although I was used to Tom smoking, being shut in an office for eight hours a day with a heavy smoker was unbearable, so I quit. It was a pity because I liked the man very much, he did his share of the work, unlike his predecessor who spent most of the time on the phone, organising his golfing life. I was now working for Leibigs, an enormous company which owned many thousands of acres of cattle ranches as well two big canning factories - one at West Nicholson, for meat products, and one at Umtali for fruit and jam. The Company owned a very large house in George Avenue, with lovely grounds and the biggest private swimming pool I had ever seen. This house was designated as the residence of the Managing Director, who was usually appointed from London. The previous Managing Director had left to return to England and the newly appointed MD was a local chap who had his own house and did not wish to move into the company mansion. The terrorist war was at its height, and people could only travel between West Nicholson and Bulawayo in an army convoy, so it was not possible for ranch section managers and factory managers to come into town for meetings and return the same day. They were expected to stay at the company house, which employed a maid and gardener, but at night there was no-one on duty and no food in the kitchen, and guests had to fend for themselves so, naturally, they preferred to stay in a hotel, which cost the company a great deal in expenses.
Now I believe that if one has an idea it should be expressed or an opportunity can be lost, and so I suggested to the MD that Tom and I move into the house and that I would look after the visitors, cook meals for any overseas or local guests, and see that they were comfortable. It was suggested that Tom might not be able to negotiate the beautiful round staircase, but he said he would manage it, even if he had to go up on his bottom! In return for this service we would get accommodation free, but taxable, and an allowance for the meals cooked, because I would buy the food. Best of all, we would be away from the dreadful night club. As it turned out, it was not only ranch managers I looked after but people who had been shot by terrorists and had to come to town for medical treatment and convalescence. I also looked after the wives, one who had a back operation stayed with me for weeks.

The West Nicholson factory Director was an Italian named Loris Zucchini, and whenever Loris came in for meetings Rosemary, his young wife, always accompanied him so that she could shop and visit friends. Rosemary originated from Belgium, was much younger than Loris, in fact she was the same age as Jeni, but very wise, sensible and down to earth. We became good friends. Rosemary was in a Salisbury hospital for minor surgery, when Loris and a man from the London Head Office were staying with me while attending meetings with the Managing Director, Ted Wigg. The meetings ended a day earlier than expected and so Loris, Ted and the man from London decided to fly to Kariba to take a look at the Kapenta fisheries and a factory that Leibigs was building there. Kapenta are tiny fish, a bit smaller than sprats, which breed prolifically, can be dried and are an excellent, cheap form of protein. It was an unnecessary, unscheduled journey. On the way back the plane was shot down by Joshua Ncomo’s men. It was the second Viscount to be shot down and, in both instances, everyone on board was killed. We were stunned beyond belief. It was terrible, walking into the bedrooms upstairs and seeing the men’s toiletries laid out on their dressing tables and their suitcases leaning against the walls.

The next day I flew to Salisbury to try and comfort Rosemary, who was now out of hospital and staying with friends, and to escort her back to Bulawayo. The plane on which we were booked came in and should have taken off immediately, but we were told we could not board that plane and must wait for another one. On looking through the window we could see why. The plane that had just landed was splattered with bullet holes, which was distressing for Rosemary and unnerving for me! Planes taking off at that time would fly straight up to get out of rocket range as quickly as possible, and then straighten out.

As soon as Rosemary was strong enough, we joined a convoy and travelled to West Nicholson to pack up the house where she and Loris had lived. It was very traumatic, everything was exactly as Rosemary had left it just three weeks before and as she walked through the door she collapsed and went to her room to rest. That evening and the next day, we sorted out as much as we could ready for the packers. They arrived the following morning and we worked with them until early evening when we would join the convoy to travel back to Bulawayo before dark. The assembly point for the convoy was at a building next door and so we sat in Rosemary’s garden waiting for it to arrive, but it did not arrive, or if it did we did not hear it. We were without an escort but had no choice but to go it alone and I was, to put it mildly, shit scared. I drove as if the devil were behind me, or in front or on either side, through deserted bush land, and hardly spoke a word until we reached Bulawayo more than two hours later.

The memorial service was held two weeks after the plane crashed, and Rosemary was still in shock. The plane had gone down in a remote terrorist area where no search parties could go, and there was no hope of recovering the bodies. This made the loss even harder to accept. Long after the terrorist site was located and accessible, those who were able to attended a service there and I think a memorial was erected, but no remains were ever recovered. Rosemary came to live at the company house, and stayed there for about a year until Loris’s estate was finalised and she bought a house of her own.

Rosemary stayed with me at George Avenue for about a year. Looking round my living room now I see so many gifts that remind me of her and her generosity. Pictures, china plates, ornaments and a set of little coffee tables. Rosemary was a language teacher and spoke fluent French, Italian and impeccable English and was very down to earth. She taught me how to make fresh pasta and we had lasagne making sessions when we made yards and yards of spinach pasta, which was hung out to dry on clothes airers, over chairs and racks. Then we cooked huge pots of minced beef, made gallons of cheese sauce and then assembled the mixture into dozens of containers and put them in the deep freeze. She also made a special celebration Belgium rice pudding dish, made with carefully weighed ingredients, poured on to a serving platter and decorated with pieces of canned fruit. Eventually she bought a house in Bulawayo, married Colin about three years later and somehow we lost touch, which I regret very much. Keeping contact with people in Bulawayo is difficult, the mail is hardly ever delivered, the telephone lines are down more often than they are up, and I get no response from her email.

The world is a small place and the lives of many of us are interwoven somehow. One can talk to a stranger and, before long, a link will appear. One of Leibig’s section managers had been killed by terrorists and it was my unhappy job to arrange the ‘reception’ at George Avenue after the funeral. The young son of the dead man came to talk to me in the kitchen. Although a perfectly normal looking ten year old, he had been slightly brain damaged at birth. We were chatting away and he told me that he wanted to be an air line pilot so that he could support his mother and sister, he was a darling boy and I have often thought about him. Recently I was recounting this story to Jenny, my closest friend and neighbour, and she said, “That was my nephew who was killed. His wife later remarried.” Denis Read, Tom’s close friend since they joined up together, trained in Canada and then served in the Provost Branch as brother officers, was a friend of Jenny’s husband when they were both in Rhodesia.

Yet another coincidence. There was much excitement at George Avenue when the daughter of one of the senior ranch managers was married. Because of all the terrorist activity at the ranches, and the reluctance of people to travel many miles across farmland to visit, the wedding and reception were held in Bulawayo with the wedding party staying and departing from George Avenue. The reception was held at a hotel owned by a couple who are now my near neighbours in Somerset West. It would be interesting to take ten people at random, sit them down and play “Find the link!”

About this time, Jeni gave birth to a boy called Tom, who became the love of her life until Tom’s wife produced a little boy who usurped that position. Tom was still tiny when Tony accepted a good job in Umtali and they moved away. My close contact with Jules and Helen came to an end, and I would never know my grandson, Thomas, as a child.

No comments:

Post a Comment