90. Sweetcorn Fritters

By Peter Fraenkel

Money ruined Bernard’s life … loads of money.

For his 18th birthday he had been given a car – a Wolseley. Today one only sees these handsome vehicles at vintage car rallies. The car was housed in a double garage next to the Cadillac that his father drove. The family’s house was in one of the posher suburbs of the city of gold, Johannesburg, commonly known as Jo’burg or, in some circles, as Jewburg. His father was an industrialist – or so I thought. In fact it was his mother’s brother, a Mr Maurer, who was the industrialist but he had installed Bernard’s father as his sales manager for Jo’burg. The firm’s main operations were in the Cape Province where they manufactured blankets but also canned fruit and vegetables. As a side line they also marketed pineapple slices glacé. They owned a whole string of fruit farms and had contracts with many others. It was an enterprising firm. They frequently marketing new products, though not all proved successful.

I had made friends with Bernard at university. Many evenings there would be a quiet tap at my window while I was swotting. I then crept quietly out of the house, my uncle’s house. Bernard’s car would be parked round the corner. We drove to a market stall where we could get a good minute steak in a beigel bun for one shilling and three pence. Some nights I did not come out but pleaded there was some work I had to finish.  Often this was not true but in Jo’burg one did not admit that one did not have that one shilling and three pence. Being poor was seen there as shameful.

We sat our finals together.  I passed.  Bernard passed four of his papers but ploughed the fifth. Of course he could and ought to have sat it again a little later but he couldn’t be bothered. He seemed to me no less capable than any of our crowd but he never again took an exam. It was not a degree he wanted, but the carefree life of a university student. When the rest of us went on to pursue careers, Bernard hung on around the university… for years. He dropped in on courses that interested him or amused him but never again took an exam. After several years, however, this life started to bore him and he moved to England where his family had come from.

A few years later I, too, migrated to England to get away from apartheid South Africa. I looked up Bernard. He immediately invited me to accompany him to his aunt’s house for that important Jewish institution – Friday night dinner. His aunt and her sister were warm and hospitable but – and I had not anticipated this – they were living in poverty in the poor East End of London.

Their roof leaked. In the sitting room, mouldy wall paper curled off the wall. It was not their own house. They rented it for a pittance from another poor Jew.  The landlord always promised renovations but could never afford to get them done.  The aunt and her sister (everybody called her “Sissy”) worked in an ill-lit basement. They sewed “bespoke” wedding dresses to order for an elegant West End department store. The store delivered the cloth, the lace, buttons and sequins and, of course, the measurements of the bride.  When several orders came at the same time two or three neighbourhood women, often non-Jews, were called in. They all worked together in that ill lit basement. I suppose this was what they used to call a sweatshop. But they seemed to work together cheerfully. Who was exploiting whom? Perhaps it was the elegant West End department store that was the exploiter.  The guests at grand weddings would have been shocked had they known where the bride’s gorgeous dress had been made.

These sweatshops were not in Bangladesh in the Far East but in the East End of London, only three stops away on the Underground.

Sissy was a very economical and skilled cutter. On one wedding dress order she might salvage enough material to make a dress for a little girl’s confirmation. They called this “cabbage” and it was theirs to sell.  I never discovered why it was called cabbage.

It dawned on me that Bernard’s uncle, Mr. Maurer, the great industrialist, had emerged from such poverty. So had Bernard’s father.  Perhaps that explained their generosity to their children.

“I want my son to have everything” I once heard his father say.

One year Bernard’s parents decided to take a trip to England. They left him a generous allowance for food and left Mimi, their Cape Coloured servant, to cook his meals.

That’s when we moved in – three of Bernard’s friends, of whom I was one. We found the cellar shelves stacked with cans of sweetcorn. This had been one of Mr Maurer’s mistakes. It did not sell so the tins ended up in family cellars, to be consumed gradually in future years.

Bernard’s allowance bought us cheap red wine – lots of it and Mimi made us sweet corn fritters and more sweet corn fritters. On her off days I was roped in to cook such fritters. We even composed a song about “Sweet corn fritters. Sweet corn fritters! How we love our sweet corn fritters…“

But after some weeks that love cooled. It came as a relief when Bernard’s parents came back from England and we had to return to our respective homes.

Bernard seemed to move almost entirely in a circle of friends of his father’s youth in that Jewish East End. There was a woman his father had once hoped to marry but he had gone off to South Africa and at that distance ardour had cooled. Bernard now met, fell in love with and married her daughter, Ruthie. She was an infant school teacher. The neighbours found this amusing. “Better late than never” they joked.

Bernard never held down a job. He had always tinkered with radios and people gave him their sets to repair. He had not had a systematic training, so he tried one thing, then another until he got it right. Repairs often took a long time.

My mother once asked him to install an aerial at her block of flats. It took him a fortnight.  He took on an Israeli radio mechanic as his partner. The partnership soon broke down. I met the Israeli a little later. “At the rate he works” he told me, “we would both have starved”.

Of course, Bernard had a private income. The Israeli did not. And Ruthie brought in a teacher’s salary.

I once accompanied her as she went shopping for our Friday night dinner. In that busy East End market every trader seemed to know her, greeted her, exchanged news with her, asked after her mother and after aunt Sissie, and, increasingly, after Bernard’s health. Some of the stall holders addressed her in Yiddish and she responded in that language but more usually she replied in broad cockney English. To me, however, she spoke the King’s English as, I assume, she did at the school where she taught.

Once a black Caribbean, who repaired shoes in that East End market, addressed her and me in Yiddish. I expressed some surprise.

“Do you speak one language only? Only one?” he challenged me. “No? So why shouldn’t a shokhedik speak Yiddish? You think we are too stupid?”

I retired confused, doubly confused, since I believed the term he had used – shokhedik – was insulting, like that N-word. Perhaps I was mistaken.

Bernard suffered from frequent bouts of asthma. I wondered how much of this was psychological. There followed other problems with walking. Arthritis, perhaps?

“What are you doing about it?” I once asked.

He shrugged his shoulder: “Praying. “ He seemed to be serious.

Perhaps he knew more about his condition than he was willing to discuss. He did become a regular synagogue goer and tried to encourage me to accompany him.  I refused, so we came to see less of each other.

Then I was posted to Nyasaland, now called Malawi, to reorganise a radio station.  I was fully absorbed in this job and kept little touch with my London friends, though I did always post Christmas cards.

I got back to England after an absence of over a year. I phoned. It was Ruthie who answered. When would it suit them to be visited, I asked?

“I fear,” she said, “Bernard doesn’t want to see anyone. He doesn’t want his friends to see the state he is in. Motor neurone disease – if you know what that is. One loses the use of one’s limbs, one after the other.”

She was weeping.

I never saw Bernard again.  I did accompany his coffin to the grave and shovelled the first load of soil onto the coffin. Perhaps others stood back because they realised I had known him longer than any of them.

The thud that my first shovelful made – like the beat on a kettledrum – made it sound as if the coffin was empty. Later shovelfuls corrected that impression.

I remembered that years earlier I had occasionally had twinges of jealousy triggered by his riches.

Poor rich Bernard!