104. I turned Blackmailer

By Peter Fraenkel

I turned blackmailer… and I never regretted it.

My father had a partner in the dry cleaning and laundry business. Let me call him Horst. Their friendship evaporated rapidly and after a while the two got on very badly. The partnership had to be dissolved . This was difficult. It was war time. They could not find separate premises. New building was impossible in war time.  They were forced to continue in the same house. 

Mr Bornstein, a pleasant and intelligent Pole, proposed a solution. (He was the lover of Horst’s wife, Hilde.) Horst was to run the dry cleaners in Month 1 and pocket all the proceeds. My father was to run the laundry and pocket the proceeds.

The following month they were to swop roles. Horst seemed complacent about Hilde’s affair. He had sexual problems of his own: he was a ‘flasher’ – he displayed his erect penis to passing African women, then gave them a  shilling or two to keep silent.  Of course they didn’t. Every black man in the neighbourhood chuckled about it. I was a kid of 14  and spent much time with Dad’s laundry workers, trying to learn the Nyanja language. They told me about Horst’s eccentricities.

Horst quarrelled with Amon, our servant. I don’t recall what it was about but they very nearly came to blows. I saw Amon lift his fist as if to strike Horst, but he didn’t. I can vouch for it.  But in that racist society it was a crime for an African even to threated to strike a European. 

Horst shouted he would report him to the police. Amon deserved a good thrashing and the police would give him one. 

 This, alas, was probably true. The police in our British  protectorate were used  largely to keep Blacks in their ‘proper place’.  Amon was likely to get a severe beating. I was determined to prevent this.

Horst, puffing with fury, set off for the police station, two blocks from our house. I followed him on my bicycle and caught up with him.

“Horst” I said, “Take my advice: Don’t!  Amon will tell them things about you that you will find embarrassing. Very embarrassing.”

“Nonsense”, he snorted.

I cycled back home but went to our kitchen window to observe.

Horst never entered the police station. He walked around the back and a while later emerged on the other side. Amon had escaped that beating.