Two months absorbing London before Christmas, and then New Year in Paris. How much excitement could two Saffa neophytes embrace before feeling a little glum in the face of the dark days of January and February.
I still had the best job in the world to go to but Carmela had a pretty isolated existence. The weather was confidence-sapping and she had to look for a job while I had landed with my bum in the butter. Newsroom colleague Ray Whitaker, and his wife Jacqui, lived a few miles away and were solicitous and kind but they had their lives cut out working during the week, just as I did. A couple of times I procured some cider from Smithfield Market and Carmela cooked Italian and we had as many colleagues around as could fit into the flat.
Phil Duff, the colleague from Durban I have mentioned in earlier blogs, had a car, which he very kindly loaned us for a few weekend getaways. Before I briefly go into where Carmela and I went in his car, I have to relate one of his idiosyncrasies that got our suburban neighbours tutting. He insisted that feeling the cold was purely in the mind and insisted on spending the entire winter wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Not even a gilet or pullover. He went on to upgrade to an open-top Spridget (I can't remember whether it was an Austin Healey or an MG), which I occasionally helped him restore. More of that later.
I believe our first trip was to Coventry and Stratford-upon-Avon.
My strongest recollection of Stratford was visiting the kitchen where Shakespeare had spent his early days. There was an iron pole stretching from the floor to the ceiling. Attached to it was a horizontal iron spar with a leather belt secured at the opposite end. Directly below the belt was a circle worn in the floor, the bottom part of the vertical pole swivelling at its centre. Diameter of no more than 3 feet, as I recall?
"What is that?" I asked the curator of the house/museum.
"Child minder," was the concise reply: it was, after all, fairly obvious given the visual evidence and those two words.
No wonder the poor little bugger had a lot of time to stretch his imagination and his command of English (including 16th century expletives). "A pox upon thee, remove me from this swiving pig trap," might have occasionally passed his infant lips.
Coventry Cathedral was altogether more cerebral. I had interviewed the provost when he had been visiting Pietermaritzburg and had been beguiled by his humanity. The cathedral had famously been all but destroyed by World War 2 bombs. He had participated in its restoration, started by Richard Howard who had advocated forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead of razing it and building something completely new, the vision was for it to work for everyone in Coventry. The ruins remained and were incorporated into a versatile modern venue. While we were there, the roofless piazza caught a few weak rays from the sun for Carmela to enjoy on her face.
At some point on our journey I got to throw a frisbee for the first time. I'd never come across one in Durban.
We muddled along until we received some uplifting news. Carmela's older sister, Elena, was coming to visit us in London. The fact that Elena was a great friend of mine, too, galvanised us both into action. It also brought the snow. I believe our first, ever. Carmela can be seen (above bottom right), airing the pillows to spruce up the "lodgings" for her sista's arrival. A kinda early spring clean.
I can't remember how long she was in London. All I can remember was the excitement. And it had been snowing. The picture below is the evidence as the siblings plan their day over a hot beverage.
As is often the case après la chute de neige réelle, it becomes swiving cold. If these had been colour photos above, you'd be able to see this from the blue lips. We had to get the photos but I reckon it was the quickest photoshoot ever.
We dragged Elena around the sights as much as was practically enjoyable, including a trip to Windsor, where I seem to be the only one who can remember her, bold as brass, walking up to a castle guard and kissing him on the cheek. In those days they weren't supposed to show any emotion but I could swear he allowed a delighted twitch to transform his lips for a nanosecond. I should also utter a few Elizabethan expletives in support of my conviction that I had a technicolour pic of the event. But no-one can find it. A bottle of something appropriate to anyone who can unearth it.
As with so many extra-special moments, the visit was over too soon. I would have been a fool to expect that Carmela would have been anything other than inconsolable. I'm not sure she'd counted on being torn from the hearth of her family TWICE.
She was brave but this misty day in Henley seems to encapsulate the ephemeral nature of visits from special people when one is so far from home.
Of course, I didn't help by ducking off to France early in March. Obviously, I didn't do it deliberately but that is small consolation for a person in need of support. If the roles had been reversed, I would have been pretty miffed.
I'd been assigned to a breaking story of an expensive yacht (one with sails) from Camper and Nicholson that had gone missing. It had been purchased by an unnamed South African who had entrusted it to one of the top skippers to sail from Southampton back to South Africa.
Apparently, I had acquitted myself reasonably well during the initial investigation. I had established that the crew had been picked up from a life raft by a freighter and were headed for Bordeaux. I'd established a discourse with a French shipping agent in the French port. He'd agreed to fetch me in his Renault 4 at Bordeaux airport and we'd take it from there.
As I was leaving the office, our news editor, Eldrid Retief, briefed me. His conclusion was slightly unorthodox: "Bordeaux is one of the best places in the world for food. You're on a per diem allowance so, if you take my advice, you'll save all of it for one splendid meal. Go forth and enjoy yourself."
But first I had to get to my destination. There was no direct flight: only Heathrow to Paris (Air France), Paris to Bordeaux (Air Inter). Air Inter was absorbed into Air France more than two decades ago. In 1975 its planes resembled cheaper inner-city buses. I kid you not, they had unpadded plastic seats like those excruciating stackable plastic chairs in low budget town halls. The pilots flew at only two angles: vertical and horizontal. Or that's how it seemed. We took off in Paris, flew vertically to cruising altitude, switched to horizontal mode until we were directly above Bordeaux Airport, and then dropped like a stone on to the tarmac. The fact that I remain extant to this day suggests that I might be exaggerating a tad. But not a lot.
Off to Bordeaux full of misplaced confidence
So what if I only knew three words of French? I could wing it ... well actually, to be fair to myself, I did, I did. The shipping agent was used to les étrangers and we managed a version of Franglais that worked. We headed for the port (first pic above), hung around a bit until the freighter arrived.
When it did, the South African crew stepped ashore looking pretty unperturbed. They'd met some weather in the Bay of Biscay and the top of the range yacht sank like a stone, giving them just enough time to climb into the life raft and notify the local shipping, who came to the rescue.
I told them I'd been authorised to help with accommodation but they smiled and told me politely that they were sorted. I couldn't help getting the impression they'd be staying somewhere a bit more salubrious than I could offer (and would enjoy, myself).
I was left with a little time to explore the delights of the city. Had I known then what I know now about the proximity of Pauillac, Margaux et al (and had the appropriate funds), I might've popped out for something a bit special, wine-wise.
But I didn't, so eventually with my belly-button almost touching my spine, I repaired to the restaurant recommended by Eldrid.
Je reçois un coup écrasant à ma folle fierté
The maître d'hôtel handed me a menu and a wine list. I chose a glass of local red and went straight to the most expensive thing on the menu. The maître gave an approving nod and disappeared. A sommelier brought me my wine and I sat back in anticipation. I was starving but confident that roast duck would fit the bill.
"Votre foie gras monsieur," a waiter approached, plate held high. I could only see the bottom.
"Mercy," I nodded my assent, proud to use one of my three words of French.
"Voila!" He plonked the plate down with a flourish.
Fortunately he was standing to my left, marginally behind me, so he wouldn't have seen the despair, taking my head slumping forward as a nod of appreciation.
Two small rounds of liver, two similar sized pieces of melba toast, and a lettuce leaf sat staring back at me. I could see I was being observed quizzically from across the room as I drank my wine millilitre by millilitre and cut my liver (I'll never know whether it was duck or goose), toast and lettuce into individual centimetre squares and carefully assembling them into tiny open sandwiches before transferring them to my mouth.
Looking back, I can recall an explanatory nod, "rosbif" being whispered between the two diners opposite.
I eventually finished my fairy feast and determined to fill up with pud. I summoned the maître. He produced the menu, maybe thinking he was in for a long night. If I deducted the necessary 9% from my per diem budget I could just squeak in an item from the penultimate section of the menu and be left with a 10% tip, comme ci comme ça. And there it was, staring me in the face. The price fitted exactly.
I placed my finger very deliberately on "Fromage".
Having already established that I was obviously deranged, he retreated without comment.
While I was happily contemplating a large bowl of trifle and added custard, the kitchen staff were cutting two small slices from a round of fromage de chèvre and, you guessed it, two pieces of melba toast and, of course, a lettuce leaf.
I detested goat's cheese in those days but I ate every last crumb before making the universally understood squiggly pen and paper gesture to the maître with my two hands. The bill arrived and I placed the exact amount including a 10% tip on the saucer, made a thank you gesture and slunk off to my hotel. I don't think I cried but I was a lot tougher then.
I said before I embarked on my culinary débâcle that I would wing it. The proof is on the left (above if you’re reading on your phone). Despite the formal style, I was heartily encouraged by the fact that the managing editor recorded "our belief that you did very well". It looks as if Mr Noble had personally typed it on a piece of newsroom copy paper. I particularly appreciated the four accent dots on on the underlining of his signature.
Eldrid's hand-written note on the bottom left-hand corner was consolation for completely betraying the magnanimity he had shown me before my departure.
Cocksure, I'd been, certainly, but hubris hadn't quite set in yet.
A week or two later and the sun came out. Somehow, in the colder climes, it made everything alright again.
During the grey months, I had helped Phil with his sports car and he insisted that I use it to transport Carmela off into the countryside to experience the joys of Spring.
The pictures above were taken in Cheshire during an excursion courtesy of Mr. Duff.
At the time (and probably still today) Chester was renowned for its unspoiled Tudor architecture and for the completeness of the encircling city wall. The River Dee provides the backdrop for Summer and, as you will bear witness, even ice creams were consumed in preparation for sunny delights to come.
I hope Carmela doesn't mind me drawing your attention to her shoes in the picture on the left with Tower Bridge in the background. Such was mid-70s fashion. We were both slaves to it to the extent that I even grew a manicured beard in homage to the coolest guy on t' telly, Noel Edmonds.
We had fun in the sun.
Coming soon: Preparing for the big VW Kombi expedition to Europe.
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