103. Tarmac Tilly.

By Peter Fraenkel

It was, I guess, one of the most painstakingly stratified societies on earth.

A double-lane avenue – King George’s Avenue – ascended the Hill, popularly known as ‘Nobs’ Hill’. That avenue was, at this period, the only tarred road in town so it was simply referred to as “The Tarmac”.  It was lined by blue Jacaranda trees and red flame trees. At the crest stood the red brick Government House – neo-Georgian – the residence of ‘H.E.’ – His Excellency the governor. It was surrounded by a park where a dozen deer grazed.

Some steps lower down, in a semi-circle, stood the double-story residences of heads of departments. Many of these had hyphenated names, though it was whispered that the double-‘barreling’ – ‘Maxwell-Robertson, Boyd-Wilson etc. – was of recent origin.

Slightly lower was another, larger, half-circle of 3 bedroom houses for middling officials and below that came several tiers of 2-bedroom bungalows, each with a gauzed-in veranda. These were intended for secretaries.

Below this level white occupation ceased … except for one more distant shopping street – Cairo Road – facing the railway line and station. It was to remind us of ‘the founder’ – Cecil John Rhodes –and his dream of a railway from Cape to Cairo.  Here there were several houses and shops built by Jewish or Greek shopkeepers, one English hardware merchant and two Indian tailors.

The main Indian-owned shopping area, however, was some distance away, designated “second class trading area”. This served African shoppers.

Below, where the land flattened out, started ‘compounds’ for black civil servants –two room breeze-block structures with corrugated iron roofs without toilets or running water. At the end of each row of eight there was a toilet-cum-shower block – cold showers. But the land sloped a little further to an area which occasionally flooded in the rainy season. Here were rows of rooms for night-soil cleaners.

Houses higher up had all had indoor toilets.  At the lower level there were only bucket latrines. Each had a flap at the back through which the night-soil men would, after dark, remove buckets, empty the contents into a large barrel which they carried on their ox-cart and then swill it out with pungent-smelling Jeyes fluid.

Out of sight, on the northern slope of Nobs’ Hill, was a camp for Polish refugees – popularly called ‘Siberia’:  breezeblock two-room houses for dependents of the Anders Army. The menfolk served with the British army but families had been evacuated, some to Kenya, others to Northern Rhodesia. Many were of peasant origin. Class divisions among these Poles were as clearly demarcated as among the Brits. Upper class Poles had been admitted to the Gymkhana Club and to the upper social circles of Nob’s Hill.

The lower classes were housed in “Siberia”, but the primitive housing provided aroused some consternation. It undermined the world order!  Weren’t Poles white?  Yet here white men were housed in breeze-block structures much like those occupied by Blacks. Government explained this was a war-time measure. It was our patriotic duty to stop grumbling.

Anyway this seemed the natural, God-ordained, order of things.

But one woman threw it all into chaos:  She wasn’t beautiful. She wasn’t powerful. She was probably not even clever, though I can’t be certain about that: a tubby Polish prostitute they called ‘Tarmac Tilly’!  She traipsed up and down The Tarmac – the only tarred road in town – hoping to pick up punters. She was not soliciting aggressively. She didn’t need to. War had brought some ‘lower order’ Brits to this colonial outpost: aircraft mechanics to service RAF planes, motor mechanics and even a few road-foremen. Most of them were North country working class lads.  They were nicknamed “Chooms” – because that’s how they spoke of their chums.

Whites on the higher reaches of The Hill were outraged. This one woman was undermining the status of the ruling class. “Do something” – they called on Captain Remington, i/c Police. “Lock her up.”

The captain had already searched his law books. “She’s not breaking any law.”

“She’s undermining our status!” That, however, did not shake the pig-headed captain’s resolve so next they delivered their killer-blow: “She might take a Black to her bed.”

The captain had already thought of that. “She won’t,” he explained “I had her called in and got in an interpreter. I spoke to her firmly “You do that and I’ll lock you up…yes, in one of my narrow cells … and throw away the key.”

He knew, of course, there was no law to justify any such action but he hoped Tarmac Tilly would not know.

She laughed. “You think I’m a donkey? Those blacks have no money. And I’d lose my white friends. No, colonel, I’ll stick to white business.” (She had had years of experience of dealing with cops and was convinced it would flatter any captain to be addressed as colonel!)

At the Gymkhana club they were outraged.  What was the world coming to? But Tarmac Tilly, unperturbed, continued marching up and down the Tarmac, aka King George’s avenue. Then, only a few months after the end of the war, Poles were offered repatriation. Some were homesick and accepted. Most of the Gymkhana Club Poles, however, refused to return to a Poland dominated by Moscow. So Tarmac Tilly managed to get herself on to the very first boatload home.