Friday, December 17, 2010

65. Unexpected visitors

Alice and George McGrath had moved from Bulawayo to South Africa and we had not heard from them for some time, so we were surprised when they telephoned to say that they were in England and would like to visit us for a few days. You may remember that George had used his car to drive Jenny to her wedding. I enjoyed having guests because life was pretty dull, so I happy to see them.

George was a dapper little man, who had piloted Sunderlands during the war. After being demobbed in 1946, and much to his embarrassment, he was spotted by a talent scout and offered work with a modeling agency. Because he had nothing else to do, he decided to go along for the laughs but it became a very lucrative career. He traveled around the world modeling for Norman Hartnell and other famous designers, and also featured in many advertisements for whiskey or any product that required a good looking man wearing a bowler hat, carrying a walking stick and resembling David Niven. Only recently I came across a knitting pattern on which George was modeling the pullover. He also acted in the movies, once with Sammy Davis Jnr. and featured as Elgar in a BBC documentary. George was one of the men who had surprised me with his unsolicited “advances” and who, years later after both Tom and Alice had died, confessed his dream that if we were both widowed would “get together”. Sorry George, no chance!

Alice was quite the opposite of George, very large, very loud, very outspoken, and very unattractive. A mismatched couple, brought together at the age of sixteen by an overly energetic fumble behind the school bicycle shed. They had three more fumbles making two sons and two daughters, but it was not a marriage made in heaven. Alice was a business woman at heart and resented George paying agents fees for his work, so she started her own, very successful, theatrical agency in London. Not only did she collect her agent’s percentage from George’s fees, she was also able to keep tabs on him because he was very attractive and had an eye for the girls.

Now, there they were on the doorstep. As soon as Alice stepped through the front door she said “What on earth are you doing in a cold damp, place like this? It will be the death of Tom!” Well, the house was cold and damp because there was no central heating and no open fireplace, but we were very glad to have it thank you very much! “Why on earth don’t you come back to Africa?” I explained as politely as possible that: -
1. I had a very sick husband who needed constant medical attention.
2. We had no money to buy a house in Africa.
3. We did not have resident’s permits and were unlikely to get them.
4. We would have no medical cover in Africa.
5. We would lose all the allowances we were at present receiving plus the care received at Halton, where Tom was having a course of gold injections which seemed to be helping his arthritis.
Also, there was mother to consider.

The idea of returning to Africa, albeit it to South Africa and not Rhodesia was tempting. We would be nearer Jeni, although Tom could not live in Johannesburg because of the altitude, but the whole idea was impractical and could not be done. Oh, again, those fatal words. We enjoyed their stay, then they said “Goodbye!” and they returned to sunny Somerset West in the Western Cape.

On their return George sent us cuttings from the local newspaper, advertisements from Estate Agents, which suggested we could buy a decent house for the Rand equivalent of fourteen thousand pounds, or less. One morning I stood looking through the window at the Union Flag hanging limply in the mist, and thought about Mary in her bed sitter in Southend. I made a cup of tea, sat down, reached for pen and paper and wrote to South Africa House. I stated our position honestly and asked if, under these circumstances, we might possibly be considered as residents. I did not mention that we had a daughter living in Johannesburg, not wishing her to be responsible for us in any way. Within a week an envelope full of application forms arrived, but the more I thought about moving again, the more ridiculous the whole idea became. Tom was confined to bed and most days I was feeding, shaving and bathing him. He could barely walk and only went out in a wheelchair. On the other hand, an endowment policy had paid out and, with three years savings added, we had about twenty thousand pounds in the bank. Tom’s RAF pension was reasonable, the exchange rate would be in our favor, the cost of living in South Africa was lower and our old age pensions would be due in a couple of years. If a door opens, at least just peek behind it.

Tom had a small desk in his bedroom and I left the application forms on it without comment. Although not a word had been said, a week later I noticed that the forms had been completed! On Tom’s next “good” day we had our chests X-rayed and the result, plus completed forms plus photocopies of just about every document I could find, were sent to South Africa House. Six weeks later our permits arrived with instructions that we must take up residence within three months. I wrote that we had planned on visiting South Africa first, to look at property etc., and would probably not be ready to move for six months. They replied to the effect that once issued, a permit could not be issued again, and suggested that if we take up residence while we were on holiday, we could then come and go as we pleased. A month later we flew to Johannesburg to stay with Jeni and Tony before going down to Somerset West to stay with George and Alice. We almost took off without Tom because I had left him in the care of a ground hostess as an assisted passenger. All the other passengers had boarded, the engines were turning over and still no Tom. Then I heard someone knocking on the window of the emergency exit and there he was, sitting on top of a platform waiting to come in and all we could see was his face. It was the funniest sight. The hostess opened the emergency door and let him in, to the cheers of the passengers!

Because Tom’s breathing had not been affected too much by the high altitude on our previous visits to Johannesburg, we had no reason to think he would have a problem now. But the emphysema had progressed and the lack of oxygen not only affected his breathing, it also seemed to affect his brain; he was terribly ill and I was terribly frightened. The doctor told me to get Tom down to sea level as quickly as possible which we did, with great difficulty. Meanwhile, Tony had taken our passports to be endorsed with the resident’s stamp, so when Tom recovered I told him that he was now a South African resident. We were met at Cape Town airport by George and Alice and as we neared Somerset West, and I saw the mountains to my left and the sea to my right, I said “That is where I want to live.” I was reminded of Ireland and Cyprus, two places where I had been very happy.

The McGrath’s house was big and old with high ceilings and wood floors. George said to me “You can stay as long as you please. A couple of weeks if you like”. A couple of weeks, in which to find a house and organize a new life? These were the people who had persuaded us to travel all this way and we had rather counted on a slightly longer stay. I did not realize it at the time, but Alice had the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which accounted for her strange behavior. Actually, a week was too long for Tom. Alice had a breathing problem and, quite understandably, would not allow smoking in the house, so Tom was living in a disused servant’s en-suit bedroom in the garden. The advantages were that he could smoke in there and I could keep him supplied with whiskey. The disadvantage was that the place had just been liberally fumigated and the residual fumes were causing him great discomfort.

Within days I had found the house I wanted. It looked like an old English cottage, with three bedrooms, large dining room, huge lounge, two bathrooms, small kitchen and a couple of rooms at the end, with an exit to the garden, which would suit mother very well. I was sure she would want to join us, and the price, a snip at the equivalent of fourteen thousand pounds. In England we could hardly have built a garage for that! Tom definitely felt better in the warm sunshine. He said, “If that is what you want, buy it.” As I said before, he always trusted my judgment on the big issues, so we began the complicated negotiations.

At this time mother was visiting my sisters in Bulawayo. Yes, she said, she would love to come and live with us in the Cape. We discussed the details and it was agreed that, as I would be packing up immediately upon our return home in a week’s time, there was no point in her returning to England. I would pack her belongings and ship her stuff over with ours. As for her residents permit, well I would sort that out too, all I had to do was go down to her house in Thundersley and try to find all the necessary documents. Jeni would be her sponsor and guarantor. “You will never get it all sorted out in time,” they said. Just watch me.

I worked out the logistics: -
1. Tom and I would return to the UK while mother stayed on in Bulawayo.
2. I would go down to Thundersley, break the news to my aunts that mother would not be returning (that was very hard) and pack all her stuff.
3. Find her papers and apply for her Residents permit.
4. Book the movers to pick up Mother’s furniture and boxes from Thundersley before arriving at Leavesden to do likewise for us.
5. Take Tom to stay with Beryl and Mac.
6. Ask Tony to buy me a car (he could get me one cheaper through the trade).
7. Arrange mother’s flight from Bulawayo to Johannesburg.
8. Sell our car.
9. Fly Heath Row to Johannesburg.
10. Drive down to Cape Town from Johannesburg with mother, a two day trip.
12. Mother and I to stay with George and Alice until the furniture arrived.
13. Take over the house and sort out the legality of it all.
14. Take delivery of furniture and settle in.
15. Meet Tom at Cape Town Airport.
All quite simple, really!

The most difficult part of the project was getting the money transferred for the purchase of the house and finding father’s Death Certificate for mother’s resident’s permit application. I had written to the DHSS asking if I could buy the wheelchair, as Tom was leaving the country. They replied that I could keep the chair without charge, but I must understand that they would no longer be responsible for its maintenance. I thought that was so sweet. I had intended asking them to send me, on a regular basis, a can of air for the tyres, but no matter!

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