I had never come across such a place before. Every stallholder shouted a greeting. They called her Rosie though that wasn’t her name. Her family name, however, was Rosner. “That’s what they called me when I was a kid. They’ve known me since I was that high.”
“Is that your intended?” they called pointing at me. No, she told them, I was not, but I was his good friend.
“One of us?” they asked. She nodded, confirming I was a Jew. “Married?” they asked. “No,” I said, I was not.
“Come Erev Shabbos” (the eve before onset of Sabbath) “by then we will have found you a good woman.”
I promised to come though I knew very well I wouldn’t keep that promise.
One stallholder took Rosie to the back of her stall, whispering. “What was that about?” I asked later.
“They have a daughter who is not doing well at school. They asked whether I would take her on for extra lessons. I said I couldn’t but gave them the name of a teacher who might. These people really value education.”
It was slow progress getting through that market.
The Rosner house was a surprise – a house falling apart. Wallpaper was peeling off the walls. Wet patches all over. Living seemed to go on only in the basement.
“Your own house?” I asked.
No, but they had been renting it for over 40 years. “We can’t get the landlord to do any repairs. No good nagging him. He promises but nothing ever happens. He can’t afford it. He’s a poor devil – like all of us.”
“All except for the clever ones,” chipped in another, “The ones who went to South Africa. They made a packet!”.
It must have been a fine townhouse once, but more than a century earlier. Now living seemed to go on only in the basement. A coal fire kept that one room warm. Here Mother Rosner and her sister, known as Sissie, sewed wedding dresses for a West End store. A uniformed driver in a gold=coloured delivery van brought in measurements and materials and boxes of sequins. He usually stayed for a cup of tea. For dressing big society weddings – weddings with several bridesmaids and flower girls – they called in a troupe of neighbourhood women – Jewish and non-Jewish. They worked together in that basement. It was, I suppose, what used to be called a sweatshop. The bride would have been amazed to see where her glorious wedding dress had come from.
I had only been in South Africa on a study visa. When I got my degree, I went back home to the country now called Zambia. On my next vacations, however, I headed for a South African seaside resort. I stopped over in Johannesburg. I had heard Bernard was ill.
“Very ill”, Rosie told me. No, he didn’t want any visitors. “He doesn’t want anyone to see him in this state. “Motor neurone disease”, she explained.
I had to look it up in a medical dictionary. He was losing the use of his limbs, one after another. He needed to be fed … and worse.
I never again saw him alive, though I did manage to attend his funeral. I shovelled one or two spadefuls of soil and remember the sound – like a drum beat – when they hit the coffin. I remember the colour of the soil – reddish-yellow. I never forget it, though I wish I could. I’d much rather remember Bernard on the roof of his car, steering with his two feet, his hands waving to awestruck onlookers and laughing. Laughing.