16. The Flames of Akasul

By Peter Fraenkel

I never saw Wolpowitz drunk but – truth to tell – I rarely saw him without a bottle of whisky by his side. They said his wife had left him years earlier saying she could not bear to live with a drunkard. He didn’t seem to miss her but she had taken away their son – and that hurt bitterly. He said I looked a bit like this son and he was always pleased to see me. I loved his tales of the bad old days so I often visited him even though he often teased me just as, I suspect, he had once teased his son:

“How are the cows doing?” he would ask. I had once declared, aged thirteen or fourteen that I was going to be a farmer. “No, boy,” he declared in his Yiddish-accented English “You? You’ll be businessman and you’ll make money. Lots of money!”

After I had heard this several times I faced up to him: “So where are your millions?”

“Bad luck,” he replied, “I’ve had rotten luck….. But you’ve got de look of de lucky kind.”

I loved his reminiscences. He had spent some years in the USA in the real Wild West but, having failed to strike it rich, he had moved to the Belgian Congo to make his fortune. That fortune too had eluded him, even after he had moved again – to Northern Rhodesia. He had, however, accumulated a wealth of stories that were, to me, as exciting as the books of Zane Grey and Karl May that I was devouring. Wolpo – as everyone called him – always wore a wide-brimmed hat such as they wear in the Wild West and he walked bent over a knobbly walking stick.

He remembered much. Too much. He remembered things that others hoped had been forgotten. There may have been others among the ‘old timers’ who remembered but they kept their mouths shut. Wolpo talked. That made him enemies.

“Greenberg?” he would say. “You know how he made his packet?”

Then he would tell me of shady deals, forty years earlier, which had laid the foundations for Greenberg’s fortune. Wolpo had similar tales to the discredit of many respectable community figures. “Money bleaches vite”, he would say.

Of course, they detested him. In the bad old days they might have found ways of having him bumped off, but not in 1946 in British Africa. Pax Britannica had brought us law and order – of sorts.

So, when Raftopoulos’ garage burnt down many came to commiserate with him – but not Wolpowitz. Rafi’s repair shop with its hoists and tools had gone up in flames. So had his stock of tyres and his hand-operated petrol pump. So had several second-hand cars that Rafi was hoping to sell. Happily his much admired vintage car, a Maybach, had escaped. Usually it was garaged at the workshop but on the terrible night of the fire it had been safely at Rafi’s house – a mile or so away. It was indeed a unique vehicle – on its two rear doors was emblazoned the coat of arms of the German Hohenzollern. Some said it was a prototype – the only vehicle of its type made especially for the Kaiser and his family. The story had it that the vehicle had been shipped out to German South West Africa in 1913 or 1914 in preparation for a visit by His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince but war had intervened and the tour had been cancelled. The magnificent vehicle – intended as Germany’s competition to the Rolls Royce – had passed through many hands. Just how it came to land up at Akasul was much debated. There were conflicting versions but the admiration for this beautiful car was general. The morning after the fire people stopped Rafi in the street to enquire whether the ‘Kaiser’s car‘had escaped the flames. He could reassure them.

When, later that day, Wolpowitz met him in Cairo Road he flashed a wicked smile: “Better managed this time, hey, Rafi?”

“What do you mean?” Rafi barked back.

“You know, Rafi! You know!”

Raftopoulos turned away abruptly.

Wolpo laughed. Later he told me: “It was in the Belgian Congo – way back. I was dealing in timber. Rafi had a grocery shop. Big shop! But it wasn’t doing well. Too much competition. He tried new lines – Greek sweetmeats and things. Some he baked himself behind the shop. But nobody wanted his baka … what do you call them?

“Baklava?” I ventured.

“That’s right. Didn’t sell. So he imports Greek cheese but – only two or three Greekies in town, nobody bought his cheese. Often got mouldy. More money down the drain! Then – surprise, surprise – one Sunday evening fire breaks out. His entire shop goes up in flames. Of course he files claims against the insurance. The insurance people? Very suspicious. The bleddy fool had increased his insurance only a few weeks before. They sent investigator – a retired copper, a Belgian. Shrewd fellow! He found out Rafi had bought a can of petrol a few days earlier. Petrol? What for? He had flogged his own car telling people he could no longer afford run it. And the Kaiser’s car? That drank gallons. It was just for show. You wouldn’t think a Greekie be such a shlemiel, do you? The insurance company laid charges, they was going to get him behind bars. Lots of fuss. In the end they dropped case. I guess he bribed somebody. But he never got them to cough up insurance money so he was stony broke …. bankrot.”

“You think he’s up to his old tricks again?”

“Sure thing. But he’s learnt a thing or two. And who remembers now vot happen 30 years ago…. even longer….. near 40.”

“Except you?”

“That’s right.”

“And you’re keeping mum?”


“Wolpo”, I looked at him quizzically “What’s he got on you?”

He raised his knobbly stick. For a moment I thought he was going to strike me but he only waved it threateningly in the air, then burst out laughing: “Vat is it de politickers say? No comment!”