Cape Town in March is a warm and breezy autumn. Having instantly spotted our friends at airport arrivals after forty-five years apart, we relaxed a little. We were whisked past several miles of 'shacks,' then urban centres that could have been on any continent, to the apartment block where we were staying. Groups of vendors approached the lines of cars at each junction.
Claremont is a leafy suburb, with splendid Table Mountain drawing our eyes towards spectacular sunsets and sparkling moon-rise. However every property had security fencing, gates, prominently featured alarm systems and pictures of fierce dogs. That evening, we were to attend a charity fish-and-chip supper with entertainment in the local church hall. The venue could easily have been anywhere from Redruth to Redcar and our fellows were a mixture of age groups and racial backgrounds, although the elderly predominated. The charity was called The Grey Ladies, nuns perhaps; we were too bemused for it to register as it seemed we had dropped back into a colonial past. Supper arrived wrapped in paper parcels and tea was dished out through kitchen hatches.
As we finished, the concert party arrived; a group of eight senior citizens, including their pianist, a lady who set about testing the piano and sorting through music. The company appeared on stage in a mixture of evening attire or jaunty boaters and 'flannels.' They linked arms and genteelly sang, kicking in unison to the echoing piano. Their faces displayed the rouged smiles and firm eye-contact of serious 'am-drammers.' Singly or in groups, they danced back and forth, charming and sparkling with 'If You Were the Only Girl' and 'Mother Came Too.' Was the audience used to this, we wondered, here in Cape Town, so far from 1950's Bedford or Islington where we grew up?
Perhaps there was an interval, perhaps the evening was not really so bizarre and we were merely 'shell-shocked' by twenty-four hour travel and the anticipation of meeting after so long. Certainly, the crate of beer our friends had thoughtfully provided went down a treat. After a spirited solo of 'The Gnu Song,' from a sprightly lady in brown from slippers to antlers, we gazed in awkward fascination as Marlene Dietrich, revealing bustier and suspenders beneath her trench coat, croaked and slithered over a chair in the fashion of Christine Keeler.
There's no business like show business apparently.
The front door opened and the toddler rushed forward and clung to my legs. A young man followed and I thanked him profusely all the way down the stairs and back into his flat. I put the baby on the floor and went to make lunch for the children. It was freezing because the kitchen window was still open and all the jars on the sill had been pushed aside as he had climbed in. I looked down; the ladder and dented dustbin lid lay on the ground. A door banged, he put some bags into his car and drove off.
That morning, needing shopping, I had carried the sections of pram down the stairs, assembled them and strapped Georgia in. As I came up, the flat door banged shut, but I had the key in my pocket. Reaching the front door there were scuffling noises and Phillip called, 'I can let you in, Mummy!' There was a click just before the key went in the lock. The key would not turn because he had put the catch-lock down inside. Georgia, below the landing, began to cry.
The letterbox in the door was vertical and just at the side of the Yale lock. I have skinny wrists; I could put my hand through, move the catch up and Bingo! Georgia had dozed off but now Phillip was crying inside the flat. I thought about the unfamiliar gas cooker knobs in the kitchen. Pulling up my sleeve, I wriggled my hand through the thin letterbox and twisted it round to feel for the catch; as it was just out of reach, perhaps a final push would do it. My watch strap was jamming my wrist like a washer, so I tried to undo it, but the fastening was caught at the other side of the door. Pulling made no difference; my wrist was held tight. Georgia started to cry.
The situation was farcical; I could have cried in unison with the children but it was laughter [with some hysteria] that came. The flats were empty, as far as I knew; it was March and all tenants had to leave because holiday visitors were booked in. There was no alternative but to shout for help. The first feeble cry echoed off the cold tiles and dwindled into laughter so the next one was the real works. Both children were making a magnificent addition to the noise. A door opened out of sight downstairs and a voice called, 'Is anything the matter?'
The young man came cautiously up the steps to be greeted with the immortal lines:
'I've got my hand stuck in the letterbox!'
Whatever he thought, he did not say, but swiftly rotated the watch strap and freed my wrist. My lame explanations and general embarrassment were dealt with efficiently:
'Where can we get a ladder?'
Having told Phillip to go and play with his lorries, I pushed the pram, and accompanied by the man, we knocked at all the doors in the adjoining housing estate until someone lent us a ladder. It was an old wooden one, and when we positioned it on the wall below the kitchen window, it was about three feet too short.
'Can you hold this steady?' he asked, hauling a dustbin along. We lifted the ladder onto the bin-lid which raised it sufficiently and he climbed up to the window while my whole weight was pushing against the ladder to keep it on the domed dustbin lid. Balanced on the outer tiled sill, he reached into the quarter-light and pulled up the handle on the Crittal window-frame. He was in!
All was restored with many grateful thanks and I shakily made lunch for the children. As I saw his car drive away, I realised I'd never asked his name.
FERRY TALES - from the recorded account by GERALD TRUSCOTT
Gerald Truscott was the Chief Engineer on the Saltash Ferry across the River Tamar until October 23rd 1961 when the Tamar Bridge opened and an era ended. He was a well known and loved member of the waterside community in Saltash and his tales were so entertaining that a video recording was made which forms the basis for this account.
The steam Ferry was an integral part of Saltash life, linking tradesmen and communities with Plymouth and cutting an hour off the road journey via the bridge at Gunnislake. The service had begun with a rowing boat as far back as 1274 and in the modern era, folk could set their clocks by the brass bell announcing its arrival. Making ready for the 7 am sailing took two hours of hard work, brushing the deck, polishing the brightwork, taking on fresh water, barrowing coal and raising steam. There were shifts of three part-timers, some of whom had worked the old paddle steamers; they cared for that boat like a brother, bringing their own Brasso and rags for polishing. No one retired, said Gerald; they just worked until they dropped.
Well [he says] after two hours of preparation all was tidy like and the brass telegraph, clock and all the instruments on the boilers gleamed. I raised steam and brought the Ferry in to the slipway. This particular morning, the milkmen were there in their Lorries as usual in a hurry to get their milk over to St Budeaux for the deliveries. We were about to cast off when down the slipway comes a man leading ... an elephant.
You see, there was this circus at Burton Cross and then we see five more elephants all led down followed by the rest of the wagons. We had to take them, see, because it was part of the job. The milkmen weren't too happy and started creating but there were nothing else for it, so on came the six elephants and close up behind, all the circus vehicles.
It took a good fifteen minutes to load up which didn't please the milkmen much and those elephants didn't like it either because when we sailed I think it upset them and they started to, you know, make a lot of mess, so to speak. You think what six elephants can produce between them; well it was like great footballs all over the deck.
We got over to St Budeaux and the milkmen drove off like rockets, creating and laughing at the same time. The elephants were led off safely and then came all the circus wagons. Well, they rolled over all that dung, didn't they? The wheels ground it down between the planking boards over the steel deck; it shot up the walls, it was in great squashed heaps all over. The crew had plenty to say, I can tell you. There was nothing for it but to take the ferry out into the middle of the river and clean up. We shovelled the dung into the coal barrels and tipped it over the side; we used the donkey pumps to fetch up seawater and swept down the craft from prow to prow. What a start to the day that was!
Living on the spot, Gerald was always on call in emergencies and often would be awakened by stones thrown at his window and dragging oilskins over his pyjamas, would rush out to raise steam in the Ferry's boiler. Emergency vehicles had priority and their crews would act as deck hands.
Being well known to the authorities could be a mixed blessing though, especially when you wanted to collect the perks of the job, so to speak. When there was a delivery of high grade coal for the Ferry I'd sometimes take some home for my fire and one night, I'd just washed my hands after loading up a holdall and was locking up, when on comes the local policeman. Well, he just chatted like and passed the time of day and didn't seem in any hurry to go, so I washed my hands again ..... and still he hung around. I didn't want him to see me lugging that holdall; it was that heavy and quite obvious what was in it.
Well, that policeman kept on chatting and the tide was coming in, so I decided I'd have to go anyway. Well, he leapt off but I had a struggle because that bag was so heavy, so I ended up getting wet feet and still he stuck to me like glue and showed no inclination to go home. He knew perfectly well what I was about you see - oh yes, he knew alright. I took the short cut under Saltash pier and he walked along with me. I called out, 'Be careful of the painters!' because we were stepping over the ropes of all the boats that were tied up. Well, it was me that tripped up after all that and that old holdall didn't do up right so all the coals went rattling away down the beach and there I was caught good and proper. The policeman says nothing - not a word - just gets out his big police torch and shines it for me, so I mutter, 'Thank you,' and scrabble about very embarrassed, for some of the coals. All the time I'm waiting for him to say it, but he never did, just came with me to my own front door and says, 'Goodnight.' He was just letting me know that he knew what I was up to.
The most notorious incident told by Gerald was how he was responsible for leaving the Mayor and all the local dignitaries and their wives stranded on the Plymouth shore in the middle of the night.
The Mayor and his party had booked a special late Ferry - -2 am - to come back after an official 'do' in Plymouth. You see there should have been plenty of time after the last scheduled crossing to load some of that good quality coal into sacks and for me to deliver us all two bags each in my car. By the time we'd loaded, the tide was on the ebb, so I instructed a crew member, it was the Ticket Collector, to keep the Ferry out in deep water and I'd row out to her in the dinghy when I'd made the delivery. I told him to watch out for my car headlights and to raise steam when he saw them so we'd be ready to go across to pick up the Mayor.
Well, I delivered the bags of coal alright and drove down to the slipway feeling pleased with myself. As I got out, I heard the big chain starting to rattle out telling me the Ferry was moving. The rattling got faster and louder and she was moving in at some speed - faster, too fast - she came at the shore just like a torpedo! On and on she ploughed, right up the beach! That Ticket Collector wasn't much of a driver. There wasn't anything we could do; it would be six hours before we could refloat her on the tide.
We could hear the shouts of the Mayor and company coming over the water from the St Budeaux side and see lights flashing and just make out people waving. Well, I was not popular, I can tell you. The Council folk had to order taxis to take them home which is a 30 mile round trip via Tavistock and Callington. They were very late home, cold and furious and the taxis cost a good deal too.
We made up a story and stuck to it, although saying that a fire bar on the boiler had broken did not account for the circumstances at all, nor did it have anything to do with the state of the tide and everyone knew it. By 3 am the Ferry Superintendent was down on the shore shouting and later, I had to go before the Ferry Committee and explain myself. They gave me a good dressing down and a warning, so I had to be a good boy after that. Soon, the story was going around that we had done it on purpose as a joke, but we just kept our mouths shut!
The summer morning was chilly as I arrived at Looe Fish Market in the refrigerated lorry. Any residual warmth and sleepiness had been jolted out of me by the hard seat and bare metal. Mick was picking up boxes of monk, cod, plaice, mackerel and the rest for delivery to the shops and restaurants and I was going to draw and photograph his workmates surreptitiously for a surprise painting.
A row of boats was tied up along the quayside spilling colourful heaps of floats, nets and ropes; Nelson the one-eyed seal bobbed hopefully in the river and lorries were backed up along the open side of the market. In the puddles formed from the melting ice, groups of men stood around talking, making notes, drinking from mugs or talking on their mobiles. The boxes of fish awaiting the auctioneer ranked three edges of a square while a small fork-lift positioned more.
I moved around taking shots of the guys Mick had pointed out and scribbling sketches. Dazzling light came through the sliding doors diffused by showers of water from a hose; Mick was brushing the tide along the concrete, moving crates, shovelling ice into boxes of stiff, glistening fish. This was great - all I had to remember was to go to Looe Post Office when it opened to pay the remainder of the phone bill with the wodge of notes gleaned with difficulty from the previous week.
Among the rows of crates filled with gaping, dull-eyed slippery bodies and tails, two lobsters sat in their box of crushed ice, claws taped up. Their mottled blue and brown carapaces shone like jointed armour and the long antennae lay over their backs. I thought they were dead but the black bead eyes on the large one flicked. It filled the length of the box squashing its companion , back encrusted with barnacle castles and its tail a royal and gold fan. As prospective buyers peered and prodded, it shifted a little and one of the whip-like antennae twitched. Pity surged up; the venerable creature waited, chilled and impotent.
I made myself get on with my work but couldn't forget it. I realised how inconsistent and pathetic I was as thousands of the delicacies are eaten every day and by me too occasionally; but not since that stunning TV film about their lives where they move in a coordinated file over the sea bed. My son with his boat and lobster pots loves thermidore and bisque with a cold Muscadet. My eyes were continually drawn back to that box with the blue curved shell showing above the rim. I'm no veggie - absolutely not, but the auctioneer was progressing around the square getting closer to the lobsters. Pushing through to Mick, I spoke quietly to him and he looked and me for a long moment and nodded. He was a good mate; I felt so much better.
Later on as I carried the bulky polystyrene box up our steep steps and into the kitchen, my sheepish smile was in place. There was great excitement when the lid was lifted and the giant lay exposed on a newspaper bed. Lobster is several notches up on chocolate cake in Matt's book. Forget it! After initial protests they smirked disrespectfully, muttering, 'Stupid woman!' or worse.
Having made several fruitless calls to the local aquarium and the sea research centre both having enough lobsters, Terry and I trudged across the hot sand to Shag Rock carrying the box by turns. We went well past the bobbing coloured beads that marked Bill's lobster pots which caused wry comments; we sweated and our heads baked as we clambered awkwardly up the flat slippery layers of rock about a mile along the beach. Crouching on the damp surface, we looked down through the glassy swell to the bottom where bright green weed clung and swayed and all the grains of sand were magnified.
Carefully lifting the lobster out, we freed the huge claws and lying flat, we lowered it into the cool water and let go. It sank like a stone. Minutes passed, little waves wrinkling the surface; it was dead! Then, one whip-like feeler switched forward, then the second.... and it was off, the clockwork motion gathering speed. We hung over the side watching in delight until it melted for good into the gloom at the base of the rock.
Satisfied, we enjoyed our walk home. At lunchtime, the phone was cut off.
LATIN FOR THE RELUCTANT
Dear Miss Key 25th October 2012
How surprised you will be to hear from me after 51 years; in fact I don't suppose you will have the faintest idea who I am. If you remember any of us at all, it will be the one who showed a little competence at using verbs and constructions, interest in the prose and soaring poetry of Virgil, or dare I say an admiration for the pedestrian explanations of Caesar.
In spite of all, Miss Key, I love that language; its cadences and sonority now have full meaning as I can read the wonderful modern translations. I have occasional students of my own, not for Latin of course, but due to helping someone in all subjects, I came across the Cambridge Latin Course and it was a delight, although I realise that it is only a preliminary to serious study. After so many years your patient explanations dropped into place; thank you for this unexpected pleasure and of course for the help with crossword puzzles and modern european languages.
Dear Miss Key, I wish I could have you back, but I think I would need the Cambridge Latin Course too.