Enjoy my stories. They’re all true!
(c) Wendy Ames
A Beechcraft Bonanza is a small plane, miniscule to those who are comfortable in jumbos, and my friend was extremely nervous of small planes. I only discovered this when we arrived at the small commercial airport near Johannesburg to board the charter to the luxury game lodge in the Timbavati. The trip was a very last minute affair. We had been offered a cut price, all-inclusive deal that was too good to miss on Thursday morning and by Friday we were on our way – almost.
We met our pilot, Stan and his girlfriend in the cavernous reception area where Raynor confessed her terror. Clearly nerves had to be calmed so we all sat down for a cup of tea. Stan was extremely nice and very well qualified. In fact he was about to join a major international airline and had satisfied all its stringent requirements, which was good enough for me. He spent a good hour telling Raynor, who was three Valium’s down, that the plane was as safe as houses, that he was very experienced and that everything would be fine. There was no danger. Nothing untoward would happen. He’d done the trip dozens of times. As he talked, I remembered that Buddy Holly had crashed to his death in one of these planes but thought it best not to say so. His girlfriend, Viv, was equally reassuring and all was calm when we boarded the plane. The plane was a four seater. I climbed in behind Joy and Raynor sat behind the pilot’s seat and, as luck would have it, next to the passenger door.
We took off into the tranquil sky and were climbing steadily and smoothly. We were high up in the air when suddenly the door next to Raynor flew open. In retrospect it was hilarious but at the time it was like something out of a bad movie. The silence in the plane was deafening. No one said a word. I reached across Raynor, who was paralysed with fright, and instinctively grabbed the side of the door. The gap between plane and the open door wasn’t huge – about 3 feet- and seemed set to stay that way. But I wasn’t taking any chances and hung for dear life with thumb and forefinger, which was all I could manage. We continued to climb for about five minutes which seemed a very long time. Raynor and I looked at each other. Were we going all the way with the door open? Eventually Nick said, “it’s ok Wendy. The door won’t open any further.“ Hm! And still we climbed. Finally we started a slow circle back to earth and landed safely and quietly.
The atmosphere was understandably strained. What on earth could a pilot say in such circumstances? Nick was wise enough not to try. He simply locked the door, re- started the engine and we took off again. This time all went well. We flew quite low across the dusty landscape while Nick gave a running commentary about the trees, the birds and so on. After about an hour we landed on a bare, landing strip and within minutes were speeding through the bush towards to the lodge.
First stop was our rondavel which was a westernised version of the traditional African hut. A quick decant of our possessions was followed by sundowners on the verandah and a sumptuous dinner amongst a cacophony of bird calls. A husky young ranger is par for the course at any game lodge and Lee fulfilled expectations. He looked the part, seemed to know his stuff and promised us some unforgettable drives. Then it was party time. Jolly champagne-induced fun was had by the livelier sparks, in the pool. One hears tales of wild goings on in the bush but this party was more noisy than naughty and I hadn’t laughed so much for years. At one stage, I remember draping the kreepy krauly round my neck and announcing to the world that, “I am Lady Bracknell and these are my pearls.” It all ended at dawn when we dripped back to our rondavels. No early game ride that day.
The door situation had been delicately broached and by the end of the first evening game ride we were all laughing about it. In fact we laughed the entire weekend. On the game rides when we toasted the sunset and struck ‘Out of Africa’ poses in our totally inappropriate gear; at mealtimes, in the pool, on the verandah, in the bush and in the bar.
We didn’t laugh when our open landrover was driven into a pride of about 20 lions but sat trembling for half an hour until we could safely retreat. Neither did we smile when we narrowly missed a charge by a furious white rhino. In retrospect we took some ridiculous chances but we had Lee and we trusted him. We didn’t see any white lions for which the area is famous but we saw just about everything else. And laughed some more.
On the last day we had dinner in the boma. In traditional terms, a boma is a livestock enclosure or the equivalent of a kraal. Our boma had been redeployed as an informal outdoor dining area, complete with stockade fencing, rush matting and a fire. It was a taste of Africa adapted for the tourists but it was great.
Lee saw a flea
OD on tea
next to me…
A silly limerick scribbled on the back of a leaflet satisfied Lee’s request for a memento of our visit. We were sad to leave but can report that the door on the plane stayed tightly closed all the way home. Funnily enough it didn’t seem to matter.
MALE FOR NON-SPEAKING ROLE IN AFRIKAANS LUNCH HOUR PLAY.
© Wendy Ames.
The casting notice was brief and to the point. No hyperbole. No promise of instant stardom. The part didn’t sound much but then who knew? Great careers had been launched by less. Probably a walk on. Pity they want a man, I thought as I made my way to the photographic studio at the top of the theatre. The call to fame came several hours later when I was happily pushing a top model round a developing tray in the darkroom. Actually it was more like a panic stricken squawk crackling through the intercom. (Was Sarah Bernhardt ever summoned thus?) “What was I doing? Could I come down to the main theatre immediately!” The natural response would be to ask why but this merely provoked a flurry of incomprehensible shrieks. Never mind the details. It’s my big chance, I thought as I tore down the rickety stairs.
Several pairs of eyes assessed me as I scurried past the rows of empty seats in the dusty theatre. By the time I reached the stage the die had been cast or rather I had. Desperation had won over sexual preference (non-speaking male?) and literally anyone would do. Time was pressing – the audience was queueing up at the box office – so the niceties of discussing the role or even telling me what the play was about were ignored. I was thrust onto a bed, covered with a sheet, told I was playing the dead father, exhorted not to move under any circumstances and abandoned to my fate.
To say I lay quivering under my slightly smelly shroud would be to overstate the case although I do confess to a momentary frisson as I heard the audience dribbling in. The play was being performed in the round which meant that there were no friendly curtains to hide behind. It also meant that the people in the front row could tickle my toes if they wished. The pressure was on. As a newly cast corpse I couldn’t risk the slightest twitch.
The house lights dimmed and we were off. At least a pair of angry sounding Afrikaans actors were, while I lay doggo and relaxed into my role. Surprisingly enough it wasn’t long before I was taking a lively (so to speak) interest in the play. Since I didn’t understand a word of the language I was dependent upon the tone of the voices (increasingly harsh) and the actions (mysterious thuds and crashes) to interpret the plot.
Just when I began to think what a lark it all was, one of the actors lifted the sheet and gawped at me. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Whatever next? I wondered nervously. I didn’t have long to wait. A few minutes later somebody jumped onto the bed and rolled around on top of me. It was heart attack time. What kind of play was this? Corpsing took on a whole new meaning as I tried to quell the quivers.
Things settled down above and below the sheet and finally interval arrived. Dared I shift my position to ease the ache in my elbows? Better not. After all I was in full view of my public and someone might be watching for just such a lapse. We were well into the second half when it happened. The itch on my left foot. Mind over matter, I thought. I can beat this. Did I have a choice? I fell to wondering what would happen if the corpse was to leap out of bed and have the most wonderful, marvellous, agony-relieving scratch. Don’t worry I didn’t. Imagine what the critics would have said!
The torment miraculously subsided and I noticed that the play was gathering pace. Judging from the tremendous furore taking place around me, emotions were running high. The denouement is approaching, I told myself. It was. Suddenly a plump and understandably sweaty actress drew the sheet aside and leapt into bed with me. What this signified in the greater scheme of things I cannot tell but as she lay panting by my side I relinquished all plans for an acting career. Paying one’s dues was one thing but playing a stiff was enough to scare a girl to death.
PAGE 92 IS ON TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN
(c) Wendy Ames
It was the South Easter that did it. The high Cape wind that plays havoc with hairdos, skirts, dustbin lids and in my case, a script. That and the loose heel of my right shoe. Of course if I‘d put the script in an envelope it wouldn’t have happened. But I didn’t and my horror as the precious pages flew over rooftops and under passing cars was off the scale. Panic makes one do strange things and I became a demented woman frantically grabbing at pages in mid-air, scrabbling under tyres in transit – I can’t think why I wasn’t run over – and screaming at passers-by to do the same. I was the entertainment on the corner of Long Street and Buiten Street that morning and it’s something I will never forget.
The play, to be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in a couple of weeks, was written by South Africa’s foremost playwright who was currently directing rehearsals in the main theatre. He was revered worldwide and such was the respect for him that there was an unusual hush throughout the entire building. Voices were not raised and people tiptoed along the adjoining passage which housed the dressing rooms. No one used the main theatre as a short cut from one end of the converted warehouse to the other, as in normal times. Great work was being created there and no one dared to interrupt.
As assistant and photographic assistant to the director of the theatre, I did whatever came my way, both inside and outside the darkroom. In fact everyone mucked in and did what was necessary to keep things going. We were proud to be working in this famous theatre and it was fun. Contacts are everything when money is short and I had a contact who allowed me to make as many photocopies as I needed, free of charge. It was a very good deal which I often made use of. On the day in question I was handed the original script of the play – loose leaf pages, unnumbered and some hand written – and asked to make half a dozen copies. No problem. I gaily trotted down Long Street with the script under my arm and chatted to my accountant friend as I made the requisite number of copies in his office. Job done. Back to the theatre.
I was happily contemplating my next task – creating the poster for the production – when my loose heel caught the kerb and I tripped. I released my grip on the hundreds of pages and the ferocious Cape wind did the rest. All hell broke loose in my world. I grabbed as many pages as I could as did the people around me. I had no idea how many pages gusted over the rooftops and down the street but I ended up with armfuls of scrunched up pages, many artistically enhanced by tyre marks, gravel, splatters of oil and goodness knows what else. The drama was over and people moved on while I contemplated the awfulness of the situation. I had lost goodness knows how many pages of the long awaited play. Many of those that I had were ruined. What on earth was I to do? I slowly climbed the steep stairs to the theatre and stood in the deserted foyer. I had to confess but how? In the end I gently opened the door to the main theatre and silently beckoned to Ross, the film director who was assisting on the production. He came outside and his face was as white as mine as I said, “I’m terribly sorry but..” He glanced at the scrunched up mess in my arms and understood everything.
To his everlasting credit he didn’t freak out. Well he obviously did inside but he contained it. “Don’t worry, we’ll sort it out, “ he said. We sat at the pine tables in the health café and painstakingly laid out the pages, one by one. We covered about half a dozen tables with gaps for the missing sheets. Miraculously, with all the photostats, I had only lost about six pages of the original script. Ross knew the play and rushed off to retype the missing scenes. “What will you tell him?” I asked before he left. “Don’t worry,” was the reply.
I crept up to the darkroom and hid there for the rest of the day. The next day I fully expected some kind of retribution and as luck would have it I ran into the playwright in the foyer. He greeted me in his abstracted way and never said a word. “Perhaps he didn’t notice,” I thought. A vain hope considering all the tyre marks but nothing was said, then or ever. It was as if it never happened. The play went off to Edinburgh as scheduled and I bought a large packet of envelopes.
© Wendy Ames
Silence. It was so quiet it was scary as I peeked round the corner of the elegant stone pavilion. I expected to see a small camera set up, a handful of actors and some scruffily dressed crew. Instead there was an immense vista of infantry, cavalry, tents, horses, gun carriages, wagons, camp fires, oxen, artillery, flags and more. There were red uniforms and white helmets as far as the eye could see. Everything was still. Not a whisper. It was as if this panoramic vision of military might was frozen in a strange moment of time. Cecil B DeMille had come to Pietermaritzburg and everyone was waiting for me!
My first thought was to run away and never be seen again. Ridiculous but I didn’t care. The next thought I had was to go back to the wardrobe boss who had sent me on this terrifying mission on my first day and admit defeat. This would be humiliating beyond belief and kill any crew cred I might have, stone dead. I would be known far and wide as the girl who couldn’t cut it. No! My only option was to take a deep breath and do it. So I did.
To explain. I was the novice Wardrobe Assistant, Second Unit, on a major international feature film that was being shot in Natal and Zululand. The film, Zulu Dawn, was a cinematic recreation of the battle of Isandlwana and the famous last ditch stand that took place at Rorke’s Drift. The battle pitched the British army against the might of King Cetshwayo’s Zulu warriers. The Zulus won hands down but that was in the filmic future. Right now the British army was on parade in a park in Pietermaritzburg and some nincompoop had forgotten his helmet.
Zulu Dawn was the biggest thing on the South African film scene at that time. Everyone who was anyone was there and the stories that emerged from this extraordinary production are legion. The director – Douglas Hickox, not Cecil B – had come to South Africa to make the follow-on of the highly regarded film, Zulu. He was accompanied by a plethora of British cameramen, producers and key crew who were in turn ably supported by an enthusiastic South African contingent. Everything about the film was big. Huge in fact. During the main battle scenes there were five camera units, 5000 Zulu extras and hundreds of redcoats, as the British soldiers were known. The redcoats were everywhere, all the time.
The cast was equally impressive. Famous international actors rubbed shoulders with the cream of South African talent. Let’s toss names around and mention Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, Sir John Mills, Bob Hoskins, Simon Sabela, Ken Gampu and Abe Temba.
Anyway back to the day in question. At second glance I could see the director and his entourage surveying the scene in the distance.
It was only afterwards that I realised why everything was so quiet. It was an enormous set up that had taken hours to prepare. They were ready to shoot when the man with no helmet was spotted. He was in the cavalry, close to the front, and couldn’t be missed. I think tempers had exploded when the discovery was made and no one dared move or speak until he got his helmet, which is where I came in.
I was completely unversed in the ways of feature filmmaking and never been on such a huge set before. But common sense and the knowledge that someone out there would start causing mayhem if I didn’t arrive soon, galvanised me into action. Holding the white helmet high above my head, I stepped into the silent fray and squeakily declaimed, “ Wardrobe!” “Wardrobe!” There was no reaction but I decided this was the right approach and upped my vocal delivery. “Wardrobe! Wardrobe!” I shouted nervously as I made my way through the endless rows of cavalry. No one turned a hair. This was probably because no one could see me. Horses are taller and more imposing than me. I started getting desperate. Where was this man? Still nobody spoke. Or helped. I remember asking one guy but he just shrugged. I persevered. Did I have a choice? Why couldn’t he be a foot soldier? They were at my level and a helmetless head would be easy to spot. I carried on, waving my helmet through the endless ranks, up and down, slowly making my way to the front.
Finally a bored voice far above me said,” he’s over there. “ I could have wept with relief. I made my way down the row and handed the helmet over. Trumpets didn’t sound. No one cheered. A laconic voice just said, “Thanks.”
I didn’t care. I’d done it and as I scuttled back to the pavilion I patted myself on the back. When I finally got back to the vast wardrobe tent, the guy who had sent me asked, “How did it go?” “ I shrugged and said, “ Fine, no problem.”
I had at least learnt something.
GETTING OUR STRINGS CROSSED
© Wendy Ames
My prince was a man in a hurry. He hit the stage running and after three attempts slumped drunkenly across his chair. His bow at the king’s entrance was less than perfect. He never actually made it to his feet but managed some uncoordinated twitches before collapsing on the floor. He eventually staggered onto his chair and the scene continued without further mishap until I realised that the next lighting cue was due. No time for an elegant exit. My prince didn’t need booster engines. He took off like a rocket and came to rest with his feet swinging to and fro in front of the curtains, while I clunked down the wooden ladder.
As arguably the worst puppeteer in history, I was the reason for the prince’s less than perfect performance. But I had a good excuse. I was the novice stage manager of a show that aspired to be the Salzburg Marionettes in South Africa and had no time to practise. In fact I was co-opted into handling the prince during the final rehearsal when the director discovered that everyone else’s hands were full. “ No problem, “ I thought but soon discovered that controlling a string puppet from six metres above its head is an extremely delicate task. The guys in Salzburg clearly spend years perfecting the art.
The show in question was an adaptation of ‘The Little Mermaid’, which was being presented to audiences between Cape Town and East London. Touring is tricky for any show and ours was more so because the set included a five metres x three metres wide and approximately six metres high wooden bridge for the puppeteers to stand on, with a stout ladder at one end for access. It was extremely heavy and had to be assembled and dismantled after every show and transported on top of our six ton truck. But that is another story for another day.
The puppets were suspended on rails at either end of the bridge and the trick was to avoid getting the long strings entangled which was more difficult than you might think, especially during quick scene changes. Each puppet was attached to a cross shaped piece of wood which was clutched in one hand and operated by dipping or waggling the hand to make the puppet droop, swoop or in the case of the mermaids, swim. Refined movements – a handshake, a nod or a tap of the foot – were achieved by delicately pulling the appropriate string or strings. Considering that one was operating high above the stage and only had a bird’s eye view of the operation, the procedure was extremely tricky.
As stage manager I had technical reponsibilities and managed pretty well in this strange new world. The lights were operated by means of ancient dimmers which were circular controls with a dial on top. Turn the dial one way to brighten the lights and the other way to dim them. I had six dimmers of different sizes to control and with the constant setting up and dismantling in different theatres, I devised a system of coloured tape so that I knew which lead went into which plug and most of the time it worked.
The pre-recorded voice and sound effects track was on ¼ inch tape and its operation should have been foolproof. Set the levels, press the button and the track would run smoothly throughout the show. Of course it didn’t. Periodically the tape would stick, usually when I was up top with my prince, and I would have to tear down the ladder and press the button to restart it. This caused consternation on the bridge because the puppets on stage had to hover about and wait for the voice track to continue. The puppeteers took these hitches very personally and the enforced silences were punctuated by their angry hisses for me ‘to do something.’
Anyway back to the day in question. It was opening night, or rather opening afternoon, in East London and we arrived late. We had attended the producer’s New Year’s Eve party in Port Elizabeth the night before and the drive to East London took longer than we thought. In fact we drove up to the stage door as the audience was trickling into the foyer. There’s a special kind of pressure in this situation and tensions were running high as we unloaded everything and tried to figure out how to assemble the bridge. It was the first time that we had done this and it involved much thumping and shouting which hopefully no one heard. The puppets were hastily hung and the lights and sound sorted out. By this time the audience was getting restless. Children who had been promised a special treat were racing up and down the aisles and we simply had to get going. So we did.
Despite our exhaustion all went well until my prince’s panic stricken exit. I made the lighting cue in question and things progressed quite well until it was time for my prince’s next entrance. I crept up the ladder to discover that his strings had become entangled with those of a mermaid. A brief tug of strings ensued which the prince won. He made his entrance but the mermaid came too and her tail swung forlornly in and out of sight throughout the scene.
The sound track sailed past its frequent sticking point and all was well until one of the dimmers emitted an alarming flurry of flashes and loud bangs. This became an epidemic and three other dimmers flashed and crashed. A smell of burning filled the air. I even saw flames. Completely panic stricken I disconnected every plug within reach and awaited electrical armageddon. Fortunately I’d stopped the rot but in so doing had plunged half the stage into darkness. The other half was still brightly lit and the effect was interesting to say the least. Perhaps the audience thought it was the latest in avant-garde theatricality but the puppeteers did not. They were vocal in their desperation but what could I do? “Half the stage is better than none”, I thought and better this than a fire that could kill us all”. The show continued in this half and half vein and to my amazement the audience applauded enthusiastically at the end.
They obviously liked the show but must have wondered why this gentle Hans Christian Andersen tale incorporated mysterious flashes,loud bangs and a prince who was clearly drunk.
© Wendy Ames
” Skydiving is better than sex,” said Sue into the silence. You’d think a comment like that would raise a laugh. A snigger at least. But we’d been sitting in the burning sun for hours so I suppose it was too much to hope for. All we cared about was water. Gushing out of a tap. Spurting out of a hosepipe. Pouring down from the sky. It didn’t matter where it came from so long as it was cold and there was plenty of it. Would there ever be plenty of it again?
The day had started early as it does in the bush. The tents were struck before the first pink glimmering of dawn. Teeth were grittily scrubbed with sand. Breakfasts were gulped down beside the dead ashes of last night’s fire. Haversacks were heaved into the landrover and we were ready to leave or so we thought.
There’s always a moment when you know things are going to go wrong. For me it was Stinko’s shout of exasperation as the wheels of his combi dug impotently into the side of the sand dune. For Marike it was Barry’s, ” Ok everyone. Let’s give them a push.” For Gustav, surly at the best of times, it was the way the Aussies sat on the roof of their combi and filmed us while we flung our collective weight behind their vehicle. We tried. We really tried. But it was useless. The wheels dug themselves deeper and deeper into the swirling pile of sand. To make things worse we added several layers of dirt to the grime we had already collected in the five days since we’d had a shower. To be frank, we were filthy, we stank and we were angry. Some dangerously so as it turned out.
Barry, the laconic New Zealander who was tour guide and absolute boss made a fast decision. ” I’ll take the landrover and get some chains. Wait here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” With that he was gone and we were stuck. At first it wasn’t so bad. The bush is great and we were an interesting crowd with plenty of experiences to share. For instance there was Sue, a friendly sky diving beautician from Manchester. She had ample hips and was always plucking her eyebrows. Comes from years of checking other people’s I imagine. Sue was fun. Useful too. She travelled with a vast stock of loo paper which everyone made use of.
Then there were the Dutch girls. Marike, a languid blonde with a great line in tank tops from which her breasts were always threatening to escape and Anna, a thin nurse from Amsterdam with an acerbic sense of humour. Johan, the lone South African, was burly and dependable but had already managed to put a few backs up with his remarks. Let’s ignore that and go on to Jane, a game-for-anything American who was working in a fringe theatre in Cape Town. She was hip, cool and to everyone’s surprise could pitch a tent in under three minutes. The last of our tour crowd was Gustav who was silent and short tempered at the best of times. I think he’d been sent on the trip by his company, with orders to unwind. He didn’t.
Then there was the Australian film crew; the people who had caused all the trouble by tagging along with us in a combi that didn’t have the requisite four wheel drive. They were making a travel documentary about Africa and seemed a jolly crowd. We’d all liked Stinko, Sheila, Rob and Sally up till then. I still did.
Anyway there we were, sitting around, swapping stories and enjoying the stark beauty around us. The sun had risen quite high when someone – I think it was Anna – complained of thirst. She went to find the water can and discovered that it was only half full. We looked at each other. It was 9am. Barry wouldn’t be back for hours. There were eleven of us and only half a can of water. You’d think that people’s common sense would come into play. Take a swig and pass it on. Make the water last all day. But somehow it didn’t. I noticed that some people took several gulps of the precious liquid before passing the yellow plastic can on to the next person. I also noticed that Gustav’s colour was starting to rise.
The conversation started to falter and imperceptibly things started to change. ” For heaven’s sake”, I thought. ” We’re all civilised adults. We’re not in any danger. Barry will come back and we’ll be fine.” But I felt a prickle of unease as I noticed that the Australian film crew had withdrawn from the rest of us and were huddled under a tree a few yards away.
It was us and them now. No doubt about it. They felt threatened in some way and I didn’t blame them. Slowly the day dragged on. The flies buzzed. The air sang with heat. We were deep in the heart of the African bush and we were thirsty.
It must have been about 3 o’clock when it happened. The water was almost finished and Gustav suddenly stood up. “This is appalling,” he shouted. ” We are all going to die. Barry should have been back by now. He isn’t coming. Something’s happened. We are going to die and it’s your fault.” With that he reached for a Swiss army knife no one knew he had and advanced towards Stinko. We were so drowsy that no one stopped him. Well not right away. Stinko gaped and stumbled to his feet. It was absurd. It was a nightmare. But it was happening. Sue screamed. Rob threw himself towards Gustav. A terrifying moment.
Then we heard an engine. A landrover engine.
The insanity ended as quickly as it had begun. The throb of the engine grew louder and we returned to what we had been before, well as much as we could. Because an incident like that changes people in some small, secret way for ever. A few days later I told Barry what had happened. “It was unbelievable,” I said. “It’s the bush,” he replied.
AN IRISH WORKING MAN
© Wendy Ames
As he walked towards us we heard the swish of his trousers against the wet grass. We were shivering so much that we dropped the bucket of water we were carrying and shivered even more as the icy water dribbled down our legs. He was moving at a determined pace and was about four feet away from us when suddenly he stopped….
Holidaying in Ireland in November was a crazy idea but we had no second thoughts. Just the urge to go. Our plans were minimal. Get the train to Holyhead. Take the ferry to Dun Laoghaire. Catch a bus into Dublin and take it from there. I liked the sound of Killarney, so when we ran into a doctor who was heading that way, we accepted a lift and were soon on our way. Driving in Ireland was hair-raising to say the least and our junior medic epitomised the state of play. “Sure the people have no idea how to drive. They do whatever they want. No regard for others. It’s a terrible thing.” So saying, he took a completely blind right turn and narrowly missed condemning us and the occupants of several oncoming cars, to extinction. He dropped us in a small town and we decided to continue our somewhat unorthodox form of travel.
Our progress was slow. At one stage the only option was a man in a donkey cart filled with boulders which he carefully placed in the craters we encountered along the way. He took this job very seriously and each boulder took twenty minutes to position and admire. Then we met a friendly grocer who was going to Galway Bay. “Would we like to come?” “Yes please.”
Connor turned out to be the best friend two girls could have. We chatted away and enjoyed the security of knowing where we were going, with every chance of getting there. Eventually he asked us where we were staying in Galway. We had thought of a bed and breakfast and asked for his suggestions. After a few minutes he asked us if we would consider something different. Which is how we ended up in a deserted caravan park a few miles outside Galway Bay, in Salthill. In those days Salthill was a little more than a row of houses and a couple of shops. Out of season it was quiet and peaceful. Nothing happened in Salthill in November.
The caravans were dotted about the field at odd angles like drunken houses on a monopoly board. There must have been about twenty caravans in all, outlined by the light of the moon and loosely defined by the solitary glare of a nearby shop. Our caravan, owned by Connor’s uncle, was small and thanks to Connor, quickly made habitable with blankets, pillows and basic rations. “There’s a tap in the next field,” he said. “Take the bucket and you’ll be fine.” So saying he left, promising to be back in the morning.
We rather enjoyed the hike across the dark fields and came back with enough water to survive till morning. Next day we were up with the lark to explore our new home. Connor arrived to check that we had survived the night and invited us to a local dance that night.
It was hilarious. Girls stood on one side of the hall and the boys on the other. When the music started, the boys rushed over en masse and grabbed the nearest girl. When the set ended, the sexes parted like the Red Sea and waited impatiently for the band to strike up again. Most of the boys had taken the pledge (not to drink) and proudly wore the badge on their lapels. The next night, Connor, who had not taken the pledge, invited us to taste poteen – home-brewed Irish whisky – and took us to a Céili which was delightful.
Our social life was enlivened by two students from Trinity College Dublin who were camping under canvas, three fields away. We met them at the tap and quickly became friends. It was after a jolly supper in their tent that it happened. Now well versed in water collection, we had taken our bucket with us so that we could fill it up on our way back. The moon was high and as we walked across our field, we could see the caravans were clearly outlined against the sky. We had left the lamp on in our caravan and its light spelt warmth in the cold still night.
Suddenly we saw him. A stocky man with a cloth cap firmly pulled down over his forehead. He was dressed like an ordinary Irish working man and appeared between two caravans about 20 feet way from us. There was no expression on his face but he looked at us with an intensity of purpose that stopped us in our tracks. Was he a rapist? Was he a murderer? What was he doing in this field at 1am? These thoughts raced through our minds as we stood and gaped. Why didn’t we run? We should have done but we just stood there and shook as he walked steadily towards us. He was four feet away from us now. I could see the lines on his face and the creases on his jacket. I could touch him but I didn’t. “You run that way, I’ll run the other,” I whispered to my friend. “Now!” In that instant he turned round and headed towards our caravan. Was this better or worse? I couldn’t think. After a few seconds my friend said, “ We must see who it is,” and started running after him. Had she lost her mind? I shouted at her to stop and ran after her. He reached the caravan, opened the door, which was facing towards us, and stepped inside.
We arrived a few seconds later and flung the door open. Nothing. “Oh there’s no one here,” said my friend with relief. Then we looked at each other. “ No one here?” We searched every nook and cranny in our tiny caravan as the realisation of what this meant sunk in. The windows were minute. The door had been clearly visible to us the whole time. He could not have left the caravan without us seeing him. He was a solid, living, breathing, three dimensional person. He was a real as were. Wasn’t he?
SIX TON TROUBLE
© Wendy Ames
They were quietly sipping sundowners on the verandah outside the guest house when we started backing our six ton truck into the tiny driveway. Jaws dropped and drinks were spilled but it was 5pm on Christmas Eve, so the elderly guests in this genteel hostelry in Mossel Bay had every right to be amazed. The driveway was not only minute but curved in the most inconvenient way, so parking our truck was an extremely tricky manoeuvre. I directed operations from the ground with much arm waving while my friend Biddy hung out of the cab window and gently guided the steering wheel one way and then the other. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing but eventually our truck achieved an acceptable resting place about fifteen feet away from the front door.
Ignoring the horrified gazes of our audience, we nonchalantly walked to the back of the truck, unlocked the doors and reached inside to retrieve our suitcases. To my dismay my case had been swapped for that belonging to Toby, the undeniably chubby puppet master. I was thus condemned to enormous pants and shaving gear for the night while Toby, who had travelled ahead with the rest of the gang, languished in his hotel room in Port Elizabeth. I later heard that he went into a decline when the mistake was discovered and refused to come out of his room until a change of clothes arrived. He had a while to wait.
Our stop in Mossel Bay was unscheduled. Biddy and I had been coerced into driving the puppet show’s production truck from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth when the original drivers reneged on the deal at the last minute. I was aghast when it was first suggested. Who could drive a six ton truck? What about the husky guys who were in charge of the production? But after consideration we decided it would be fun. Madness but fun. I should explain that Biddy – an ex-hippie with long blonde hair and the remnants of a New York accent – was cool before anyone knew what that was and could handle anything. I never saw her panic or lose her temper and if she thought it was ok, well so did I.
We had been rehearsing the show in a dusty warehouse in Cape Town and the truck contained the puppets, the sets and everything else that was required for the show. It also transported the enormous wooden bridge and supports on which the puppeteers stood while operating the string puppets. The bridge was long, extremely heavy and could not be accommodated inside the truck. It was therefore hoisted onto the roof and anchored, somewhat ineffectively, by a criss-cross of ropes which slipped quite frequently along the way. This was disconcerting, not to mention dangerous and re-hoisting the bridge became a regular chore.
We left Cape Town in a merry mood and nearly took the roof off the first garage we stopped at, to fill up. Lesson number one. The cab is comparatively low but the truck behind it, is not. We skimmed the forecourt roof with inches to spare and left a somewhat shaken garage owner behind us as we headed out of town. The sun was shining, the roads were clear and all went well until we encountered some fairly hair-raising mountain passes. They were beautiful of course but tricky to negotiate behind the wheel.
We were bowling along towards Mossel Bay when we were flagged down by a traffic cop who couldn’t believe his eyes. A large truck with a strange wooden contraption on the roof and two girls in the cab.
What exactly where we doing? Biddy explained our mission and our destination. He shook his head in amazement and brought up the subject of driving licences.
After some discussion he decided that we were licensed to drive the front axel or the back axel but not both at the same time. This was indeed a problem. He was incredibly nice and said that if we should drive to Mossel Bay, he wouldn’t stop us. But if we should drive any further he would have to put us in jail. So saying, he revved up his bike and was on his way.
So that’s how we ended up in Mossel Bay. Negotiating the steeply-inclined streets was tricky but we eventually found a telephone booth – no cellphones then – and started telephoning every hotel, bed and breakfast and guest house in town. It was Christmas Eve and there was no room at any inn. Eventually we found a room-to-share in our little guest house but had the good sense not to mention the truck.
The phone lines buzzed when we reported our plight to the puppet show producers in Port Elizabeth and to the director who was still in Cape Town. Consternation reigned. Lawyers were consulted and in the end we were told to get in the truck and drive. If we got arrested they would bail us out. Take this chance on unknown roads at night? No thank you! In the end a compromise was reached. We would get up at the crack of dawn and drive through the day, which we did.
“Happy Christmas Biddy.” It was chilly at 4am with no coffee to soften the blow. The dining room was locked up tight, as indeed was every café and restaurant we passed along the way. It was the weirdest Christmas Day in every way as we ploughed on through the deserted landscape. We eventually arrived, in Port Elizabeth around 4pm and were greeted like long lost heroines who had escaped a fearsome fate. The story had got round that we were in jail and likely to stay there throughout the holidays. Once this tale was well and truly squashed, we had some Christmas cake and Toby changed his pants.