1. How the Imp got its name

By Peter Fraenkel

They always blamed Jacobus Bowmaker. That was unfair. He was in the wrong job. He knew it and so did everyone else, but they would not let him go.

Bowmaker was the undertaker at Akasul. He looked like a battered prize fighter but under that coarse exterior he had a tender soul. Far too tender! For him measuring a corpse for a coffin was agony. Even harder was lifting the body into its coffin. Worst of all was a funeral service. If the mourners wept the undertaker broke down. His grief sometimes outdid theirs. But eventually Bowmaker found a cure – in a bottle. On funeral days he started on the whisky early in the morning. By the time the mourners arrived he was drunk, sometimes very drunk. This could create problems. Once he fell into a newly dug grave and it needed his two African gravediggers to haul him out. Another time he drove his hearse into a storm water drain. A dozen boozers from the Corner Bar had to come out to haul out the vehicle. He only managed to get to the cemetery as the angry mourners were about to give up.

The matter came to a head when H.E. – His Excellency the governor – died of a stroke. Corpulent senior officials of the protectorate sweated in gala uniforms which most had not donned for years – not since, as slim young men just up from university they had sworn fealty to the king-emperor. Now, however, they had to stand around in the blazing sun, waiting. This simply had to stop. The district commissioner decided to put Bowmaker on the “black list” – ill-named since it only listed whites. All the town’s barmen and all three liquor dealers were informed in writing that they were not to sell Bowmaker any more alcohol. The D.C’s order was pinned up at all the outlets. Jacobus Bowmaker declared that in that case he would move his business to a more tolerant town. Consternation: Who else would agree to become the undertaker in that remote colonial town? Prominent citizens pleaded with the district commissioner. The banning order was never revoked but neither was it enforced after Bowmaker had agreed to take on an African driver. The circular remained pinned up but became increasingly fly-blown and yellow.

What was it that had delayed the governor’s coffin? Bowmaker had crashed his hearse into the entrance of the old Hotel Imperial. Part of the roof had come down. Half the hotel signboard hung over the entrance threatening to decapitate passers-by. It was removed. And that was how Hotel Imperial became Hotel Imp.

The name caught on. People would say “Come down before the flicks and have a beer at the Imp.” Black men, who were paid a miserable wage to carry water to the bedrooms – there was no piped water – said “I work at the Imp”. Naughty young Abie introduced his school mates to “imping”. In return they paid him in cigarettes filched from their fathers. He let them peep through the keyhole when Zbyszek was with the beautiful Aniela – much more interesting than thumbing through encyclopaedias for their sex education.

In fact the Imp had ceased being a hotel several years earlier. It had been the first hotel ever built at Akasul. Some claimed this had been even before the railway reached that deep into the heart of Africa. In those pioneering days the hotel’s roof had then been supported on wooden pillars. Whites had not yet discovered the voracious appetite of the local termites. Of course Blacks knew, but who would have consulted munts? The ants devoured the pillars. The corrugated iron roof sagged. Rain poured into the veranda. This veranda, around three sides of the courtyard, connected the guest rooms – all twenty of them.

When Weisbrot bought the building – he got it cheap — he saw that while the hotel bar was making him money and so was the attached cinema, the hotel was losing it. He closed it down promptly, fired the last of the staff and let out furnished rooms. There were few takers in the 1930s. Weisbrot was coming to regret his purchase. But then world history came to his rescue. In 1938 there was an influx of Jews escaping from Nazi Germany. They needed a roof over their head: better a leaking roof than no roof. Some years later World War II brought a second wave of refugees: Poles – dependants of the Polish army in exile. Only one Englishman resided in the Imp. He took up two rooms. He was a bit of a mystery man.

One student came to stay from time to time. His parents lived around the corner in a cramped little house which doubled as their dry cleaning establishment. When he came for his vacations they rented a room at the Imp for him – provided one was vacant.

This student, three quarters of a century later, and now – so far as he knows – the last survivor, recalls with pleasure the people he met there and –with rather less pleasure – the discomfort of jumping across puddles during tropical downpours to reach the bucket latrines.

He set down these “Tales from the Imp.”