Mad Dogs and Englishwomen...
What a grande old bitch she was - I loved her unreservedly!
The trouble with people dying when you are a child is that you never get to know them as an adult so your memories of them aren’t shaped by a knowledge of the world and how people are shaped by that world. Later, when you realise that a loved one was just as flawed, maybe more so, as everyone else, the realisation is logical rather than emotional, sudden rather than evolutionary. Their flaws will forever seem incidental rather than integral to their makeup.
When I was born, my grandmother was living in a huge old mansion in Johannesburg that she’d turned into a guesthouse to make ends meet. Her second husband had died in 1961 and she was living in reduced circumstances but did not want to lose the house that she’d moved to when she and my grandfather left Zambia in the late thirties. My grandfather died before I was born and I only have a very vague recollection of her second husband, probably not true memories but memories created from various photographs including several of him guiding me around their garden on top of a huge tortoise. Apparently he was a depressed, disturbed man whom no one liked, particularly my mother and uncle – he committed suicide by gassing himself in my grandmother’s old Jaguar. What a beautiful car it was too – long, sleek and black, deep red leather seats that I seemed to disappear into, lots of walnut panelling, shiny chrome trim everywhere. I loved it! Years later it got confiscated by the Mozambique police after my grandmother’s boyfriend had an accident in it, killing a pedestrian. He didn’t get charged but I never saw the car again.
In 1965, she was forced to sell the house to the South African government as they wanted to knock it down to make school playing fields. In a matter of months, a beautiful old house had completely disappeared without a trace except for the memories that lived on in the minds of those who’d lived and visited there.
An advert for a hotel on sale in Mozambique caught her attention.
She’d been going there for years. It was a favourite place for South African holidaymakers seeking tropical beaches and a Mediterranean lifestyle that seemed decadently liberal compared with a conservative, Calvinist South Africa that was entering the darkest days of apartheid. In earlier years, she’d gone with my grandfather and the kids, my mother and uncle. After he’d died, she went with her second husband, firstly on holiday but later to see my mother who moved to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) after marrying my father whom she’d met there. By the time she was forced to sell the house, she was living with Mac, her Scottish boyfriend. My uncle, Cecil, had never left home so the three of them travelled to Maxixe to see the hotel. Four months later they were living there, owners of a brand new hotel in a country of Portuguese-speakers, a language they didn’t speak.
The hotel was an immediate success with locals, South Africans and tourists from Rhodesia, a country that was inhibited by a small-town, English provincial mentality that existed in many of the British colonies at the time rather than the dourer South African Calvinism. It was a perfect example of Portuguese seaside architecture and, quite typically for that time in Mozambique, employed some rather innovative design concepts. By now, they’d be dated enough to be considered trendy. All the floors were covered by parquet flooring except for the vast sitting room and the bar that had the sawn-off trunks of coconut trees embedded into a cement floor coated by a high gloss. One wall of the bar was covered with concentric circles created by embedding coconut shells into the glossy cement. This almost avante garde interior was married to my grandmother’s expensive but traditional tastes. While the dining room and bar furniture were contemporary sixties, the sitting room was full of her expensive antiques from the Johannesburg home. Very expensive blue and white English china (not willow pattern!!) and expensive silver-plated cuttlery were used in the dining room. The reception area, sitting room, hallways and stairs were covered with expensive Persian rugs. The overall effect was astounding. It would have been astounding anywhere but was even more so in such a tropical setting.
Within a short space of time, Mac and Cecil could get by on their broken Portuguese but my grandmother never learnt more than a smattering of words necessary to help her with the kitchen staff. Her domain was the kitchen where the staff soon learnt English to cope with her lack of Portuguese. Some of them already spoke a bit of English, having worked on the South African gold mines through an arrangement between the South African and Portuguese authorities that exploited but supported thousands of poor black Mozambiquans while contributing towards the country’s foreign reserves. Men who worked or had worked on the mines were known as Wenelas, after the organisation that recruited them. Their relative affluence made them very popular with the local women. And shopkeepers! When she wasn’t in the kitchen, my grandmother was sitting behind the bar, surveying her public while drinking cane, brandy or scotch.
Instead of going to Johannesburg for holidays, we now went to Maxixe, a place that was to become my home after my parents died. There is so much more to say about her but not enough time right now.
Next time I must remember to write about some of the following:
- Her superstitions that had my mother post her her horseshoes and her slapping sailors on backs
- Her problems with Miss Austria
- Her mouth full of golden fillings
- How she and I modelled her vast collection of hats that she’d kept from her youth
- Her sentimental attachment to letters written by old lovers
- Her love for dogs, especially Great Danes, that ended in tragedy
- Her vast collection of photographs from her youth including some rather interesting ones taken by my grandfather
- Her attitude towards my father and his family
- Her banishment of my uncle’s girlfriend, later his wife, to the opposite end of the hotel
- Her having the waiters carry chairs from the hotel to the club for film viewings because she didn’t like the club chairs
- Her method of slaughtering turkeys
- Her drunken binges
- Her telling me about an affair my mother had with a Portuguese show jumper
- Her being ‘responsible’ for ‘turning’ me gay