“It’s the big move on Saturday,” said my friend, Helen. “I can’t wait for it to be over.”
“Can I help at all?”
I knew I had to ask, although I prayed her answer would be no. Helen is a good friend just surfacing from the morass of her divorce from Charlie. Hence, the move from her elegant home, now occupied by his mistress, the soon-to-be Mrs Bryant, Mark 2.
“A red face brick bungalow with a tin roof,” Helen had told her without enthusiasm when she first bought the bungalow. It was all she could afford with the money she had been granted in the divorce settlement.
“Would you really help me?” asked Helen hopefully. “It would be a godsend if you could be at the house to receive the furniture until I get from one place to the other. I’d be quick. You’d only need to be there for an hour – or two at the most.”
“Give me the address and I’ll be there. No problem,” I said, dispensing with my slothful Saturday plans.
Helen was already fishing around in her copious handbag.
“Twenty-one,” she said, handing a set of keys to me. “Twenty-one Juniper Street.”
It was a hot day, but a shiver passed through my body.
“Are you sure?” I asked faintly.
“Yes. Look, the address is on this label attached to the keys in case you forget it. Are you all right, Meg? You’ve gone quite pale. You should forget all that dieting nonsense. It doesn’t do you any good at all.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, taking the keys from her with a trembling hand. “I’ll see you on Saturday at Juniper Street.”
I drove off abruptly, wondering why I hadn’t blurted out the reason for my discomfiture. Forty years ago, I had been nineteen, still living at home with my elderly parents. 21 Juniper Street was our address.
I arrived at the bungalow an hour before the removal van was due. I had passed the house now and again on trips to the shopping centre on the other side of the hill. The thick bougainvillea creeper with heliotrope blossoms still enclosed the stoep where we had sat on hot evenings. As I climbed the familiar steps to the stoep, I felt as though I was a young teenager again, arriving home from school to receive a rapturous welcome from Shandy, our little brown and white dog of indeterminate breed.
I was surprised to see that the wallpaper my parents had plastered on the walls was still in the hallway. I could almost smell the goo that had pervaded the house while we were having the place redecorated. I remembered my mother discussing the wallpaper with my singing teacher and the difficulty they were having in finding something suitable.
“If you manage to do that job yourself you’ll be a better man than I am Gungadin!” he had laughed.
I had been curious enough to check the origin of the dated expression and traced it back to Rudyard Kipling.
The telephone, where I had sat for hours, chatting to my best friend, Sally, in the days when it cost a tickey to make a call to talk for as long as you liked, was in the same place in the passage, although it had been replaced by a more up to date model than our sombre black set of all those years ago.
Sally and I studied singing with Marina Baxter and Derek Bailey, the famous English singers who had moved to South Africa from the UK in the mid-fifties. We had both been successful in our auditions to join the SABC choir and had sought each other out at rehearsals at Marina and Derek’s suggestion. Sally, like me, was originally from Glasgow. We both loved singing, hoped to make careers in music, and we both thought the world of Marina and Derek. Sally, a soprano, was short and plump with piercing blue eyes and honey-coloured hair. She was the youngest of three sisters and was more outgoing than me. I, a contralto, was tall and dark, the only child of elderly parents, reserved and reticent until I got to know people.
The house was completely empty but suddenly the phone rang: not the computerised sound of today’s telephones, which, in my advancing years, I sometimes cannot hear clearly. This ring was loud and jangling. No difficulty in hearing it, but did I have the right to answer? Perhaps it was Helen calling about the movers. I picked up the receiver.
“Hello,” I said tentatively.
“Is that you, Meg? You sound strange this morning. Did you have a late night?”
It wasn’t Helen after all, but the voice was certainly very familiar. It was the voice of a young girl. Usually girls of that age call me Mrs Johnson and ask to speak to one or other of my teenage children.
“Yes, this is Meg. Who’s speaking?” I asked rather suspiciously.
“You’re joking with me,” the girl laughed. “I wanted to know how your accompanying in the studio went this week. Is he going to come to dinner?”
I suddenly felt cold and shivery. I recognised the voice of my best friend, Sally, who had died at the age of nineteen, forty years ago. I was rooted to the spot, unable to speak, but my younger self took over the conversation, while I looked on helplessly.
“What did you sing at your lesson today?” I heard myself asking Sally, looking forward to a long chat about our heroes.
“I cancelled my lesson. I was far too excited to go. Can you keep a secret, Meg? Mum told me not to breathe a word, but I have to tell someone. You won’t believe what has happened to us!”
I waited expectantly. We never cancelled our singing lessons if we could possibly avoid doing so. We’d have to be on the point of going to hospital before we would think of staying away.
“We had a telegram this morning,” Sally said solemnly.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Has someone died?” I asked.
All the telegrams we had ever received in our family had born bad news of one kind or another.
“Not that kind of telegram, silly. One from the bank to say we’ve – or rather – Mum has won a prize in the Rhodesian Sweep. Not first prize, you understand, but a fortune all the same.”
She paused tantalisingly.
“How much?” I asked.
“Forty thousand pounds!”
That was a lot of money in 1962. You could retire on the interest of money like that. Sally’s father didn’t retire, but he and her mother bought a bigger car, went on a first class trip back to Scotland, and had a kidney-shaped swimming pool built in the back garden.
After we had got over the excitement of her parents having riches beyond our imagination, our conversation reverted to how I had got on as a very keen, but inexperienced studio accompanist to Derek Bailey.
“Sally, it was wonderful, the best time I’ve had in my life. He was so kind and understanding. My sight reading has improved so much, and guess what? He was thrilled when I asked him to dinner and he’s going to take me to Dawson’s Hotel for lunch sometime next week as well.”
I was waiting eagerly waiting to hear what she thought of my news, but the line was dead. She was gone and I had no idea how to get her back again.
I looked into the empty lounge, still with its Adam ceiling and bay leadlight window. Even the fireplace remained, although it was fitted with an anthracite heater now. In our day, we had an open coal fire, which filled the house with comforting warmth we never enjoy in winter today. Periodically the McPhail’s coal truck would arrive to replenish our coal cellar. ‘Mac won’t Phail you,’ read the slogan on the truck.
Our big radio with its green cat’s eye to fine-tune the stations stood on a table next to the fireplace and was the sole source of our entertainment as the Nationalist government banned TV from South Africa until 1976, fearing that the population might be influenced by radical ideas from the outside world. The piano was in the opposite corner, where I must have distracted the neighbours practising singing and piano scales early each morning.
As I stared round the room, remembering the way it had been, bemused at the vivid conversation with Sally, who had died so many years ago, I suddenly saw my parents and Derek, chatting together over an after-dinner whisky. Although I was there, rooted to the spot, watching, I could see my younger self, clad in that bottle green velvet dress I had thought so attractive. It was the first time I had accompanied for Derek in their singing studio on the eighth floor of a building in the centre of the city, while Marina was away on a trip. He was on his own at home, so my mother had suggested he should come to dinner one evening.
He loved our little dog, Shandy and encouraged her to sit on his lap, shedding her hair on his Saville Row suit.
“My girl friend,” he said contentedly, sipping the whisky, stroking Shandy, and regaling us with tales of their days in variety when they had appeared on the same bill with the likes of Max Miller. Rawicz and Landauer and Albert Sandler.
The scene faded as quickly as it had begun and, once again, I saw myself standing on the bougainvillea-covered stoep with my parents bidding him goodbye after a wonderful evening.
‘Thank you for looking after Meg,’ said my mother.
He smiled at me in a kindly fashion. ‘I think it’s Meg who’s looking after me,’ he replied.
My heart warmed to his words, just as it had done forty years ago when I had first heard the same words spoken in that very spot. He was a kind and gentle man, with none of the conceit one might expect from a great and famous tenor.
We watched him drive his jaunty blue convertible up the hill of Juniper Street. He gave a gentle hoot on his horn to bid us goodbye.
The scene vanished and reverted to being one of my indelible memories once again. I was alone in a cold and empty house, longing to return to those happy innocent days, sad that my parents, Derek and dear Shandy were gone forever, knowing that the moving van and Helen would soon be here, and knowing too that I couldn’t possibly share what had happened – or what I had imagined – with Helen or anyone else for as long as I lived.
1 August 2011