2009-06-27 00:00

HANDS up all those who remember Josie Thorpe. There won’t be too many young folks amongst you, I dare say. Josie believed in Heaven and departed thence a good twenty or so years ago, but I knew her long before that, at Michaelhouse in 1956, would you believe it? She was the rector’s secretary, I was teaching art. A dismal failure, I, to be sure. I didn’t fit in at all, really, my only buddies were Josie and a horse called unKonka, a furious male bushbuck, because he was so wild. His owner had had a heart attack last time he tried to ride the beast, which then reverted to mustanghood in the veld and grew long hairs all over its body like a musk ox. But then there was Josie, gentle in every way. I felt we made a good trio of personalities, life was tolerable out there in the veld.

Even when angry, Josie was calm itself. It’s a pity ‘ladylike’ has become a term of sarcasm: Queenie Windsor is called ladylike, you have to be stupid and conservative and genteel to be ladylike. Well Josie was none of those but she was ladylike all right. She really believed virtue always triumphs in the end. One should never make an unseemly fuss. Those were the days of establishment of the police state and truly cruel race laws, in enforcing them the polizei might chuck you out of a tenth-floor window at HQ in Joburg and tell the press you accidentally tripped over a chair and fell out, that sort of merry jest. Maybe you’d slipped on a cake of soap. Josie would gasp at the evil of it all and light another cigarette and murmur almost gently: Their time will come. Cigarettes were for Josie as sleep was for Macbeth: Balm for aches, great Nature’s second course. Cigarettes knit up the ravell’d sleeve of care. Josie smoked fags all the time, disgustingly but always graciously, if that’s possible. Along with Churchill and Stalin she was one of the great tobacco-stinkers of history. Sir Walter Raleigh perhaps, whom Elizabeth I drove from her presence for stink. Neither fly nor mosquito ever settled on Josie.

Such stinkers never know how they pong, see, because their nasal passages are all cauterised by the smoke, and of course one is never so ungentlemanly as to tell them, but I tell you travelling with Josie in her shagged-out old VW Passat was Hell itself; it seemed always to be winter so the windows were always closed, always the visibility was about 10%, not because of fog on the road but from the kippering process going on inside. Even if you were only going somewhere for the day you’d take along fresh shirts in an airtight suitcase plus a bottle of shampoo. And thus it was one Christmas day we sallied forth from Durbs for dindins at my daughter’s place in Prestbury, a nice hot midsummer day so we could have all the windows open, but of course as we hit 1000 ft altitude we ran into rain, a solid sheet of leaden stratocumulus over the entire midlands, death by second-hand smoking, who says there’s no God, somebody up there hates me. Josie chats away about the democratic nature of Natal, in which she believes. She has stickers all over her rear window about The Last Outpost and the Natal Stand against Apartheid, that sort of stuff. And round about Camperdown in the middle of this chat there’s a mechanical sort of dreadful bang from somewhere in the Passat but she merely says it often happens and continues uninterrupted about the principles of the extinct Liberal Party. She understands and loves this car. Five minutes later round about Umlaas Road we come to a steepish downhill bit and our speed increases from 100 to 105 kph and now there’s a truly dreadful explosive sort of bang and the entire roof wrenches off and I see in the rear-view mirror Natal Stand stickers and stuff flying through the air and a motorcyclist madly dodging about so his head doesn’t get sliced off. Oh dear, says Josie.

We go back and dump the roof in the veld, Josie cuts off certain shreds of roof-lining cloth with a pair of nail scissors from her purse and I bang down certain sharp rusty edges with a roadside rock. The Passat looks quite sporty as a convertible. We put on our raincoats with hoods and forge ahead, it’s quite nice and warm if wet and Josie can’t smoke. It is good to be alive, there’s a sense of adventure in the air, people in passing cars wave and smile.

The Prestbury folks are amazed. What happened, hey?! Josie reaches for a fag but the whole pack is sopping wet, Ron who smokes a pipe gives her tobacco and she rolls a skyf with tissue paper. We sip glasses of sherry before lunch and talk about art. There was something Bohemian about Josie, or is it Hippy, maybe Flower Child. The names change, the personality doesn’t.

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