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Jo'Burg Days: The Lucky Dress

Handsome Naval officers, jewels, bright clothes, a ship-board cocktail party... Barbara Durlacher mixes the ingredients for a romantic re-union.

The dress always hung in a special place in the cupboard. The soft silk was printed in delicious psychedelic colours of melon, daffodil, chartreuse and pink in a large swirling pattern. A demurely high neck, graceful wide sleeves and a full, floor-length skirt made it supremely comfortable to wear and being loose and lightweight it was ideal for summer parties or entertaining at home. This was her “lucky” dress, for the nicest things always happened whenever she wore it and it was her first choice when she hurriedly packed her suitcase after receiving the letter.

Moist topical heat pressed heavily on the land, and the smell of mud, rotting fish and vegetation drifted across the water. Moored in the deep water of Kilindini Channel, the two naval frigates were a blaze of light, and excited conversation and dance music rose gaily from the smartly dressed cocktail crowd clustered on the deck.

Anxiously she peered at her watch. “Where can he be?” she thought, “he promised he would be here by six thirty and it’s a quarter to seven already.”

Another few minutes passed and several of the gaily-dressed people began dispersing, some driving away to dinner with friends, or to various parties on ships in the harbour. At last, creating a small frisson amongst the crowd gathered in the foyer of the hotel, two Naval officers appeared, marching smartly in unison down the long curving staircase. Uniform caps under their arms, dapper in their smartly tailored short white mess jackets and black trousers, epaulettes gleaming and chests bedecked with bright medal ribbons they too, were ready for the evening’s festivities.

“Please, oh please …I’m so sorry to bother you, but I have to ask, are you going to Cavalier to the cocktail party? If you are, would you mind if I shared your taxi?” she blurted out, foolish in her nervousness and anxiety not to be late. “No problem, Ma’am” came the cheery reply, as the doorman whistled up a smart black service vehicle and an officer handed her gallantly inside.

Arriving at the dockside, the Naval launch, manned by two Able-Seamen, was still loading passengers, the women like gay parakeets in their bright clothes, jewels and hairdos and their escorts already sweating slightly in unaccustomed stiff collars and formal suits. Within a few moments the lines were cast off and the boat was speeding across the anchorage towards the distant ships. Piped on board, she was welcomed by the Captain and introduced to various officers and their friends.

The cocktail party followed the usual formula; light-hearted conversation and attentive service from stewards carrying trays with a selection of drinks. “Horses’ Necks” (brandy and ginger ale), “Pink Gin” (angostura bitters, gin and ice) and even, for the more daring, a potent “Black Velvet” (Champagne and Guinness) mixture, soon raised the volume of conversation and laughter to unprecedented heights. Delicious snacks, happy laughter, all around her people were enjoying themselves, pairing off, starting to make plans for dinner, and still he had not appeared at her side.

“Yes, I’m up here for a week, just while the ship is in harbour. I flew British Overseas Airways from Cape Town to Johannesburg and then to Nairobi. There we got onto a small plane and flew to Mombasa, I was very surprised to see how tiny the airport is and how little traffic seems to use it.”

“Well, you know; this trouble with Smith, his declaration of UDI and his determination to keep Rhodesia for the Whites has worried a lot of people, and the tourist traffic has really declined in the past two years. Not so many rich Americans arriving for safaris in Tsavo as in the past, things have been very quiet here in this part of East Africa since the Suez business.”

Another chipped in, “Yes, the economy is really suffering. It’s this Beira Blockade that’s doing the damage. Stopping the oil from getting through to Rhodesia will probably be the downfall of Smith and his supporters, and it must be costing the British taxpayer a penny or two as well. Keeping two frigates permanently on station, patrolling the Mocambique Channel and the entrance to Mombasa harbour to stop the tankers from discharging is a crazy idea, but the politicians will always have their way, no matter how much it costs.”

Then a warm hand touched her shoulder and she turned to meet him. “Darling, you look so lovely … that dress is beautiful, you look marvellous in those colours, gay and summery like your happy personality. I’m so sorry to have left you alone, I’ve had so many officials coming on board all day I just couldn’t get away.”

Turning to the group, “You’ve been introduced to Moira, of course? I do hope you are all well and enjoying yourselves; have my officers been looking after you properly?” he enquired, knowing that his well-disciplined ship’s company could be relied upon to make sure that the visitors lacked for nothing. A little later a ripple ran through the company and selected guests were asked if they would like to move below and stay for a cold buffet and dancing.

“My dearest, would you like to stay, or will you be patient another ten minutes while I say goodbye to my guests and then change? We can grab a taxi and go back to the hotel or go out to dinner to really celebrate our reunion.”

“Darling John, it seems such a long time since we were together, those few days in Cape Town hardly count. Why don’t we go straight back to the hotel, have a meal and then take some time out to enjoy one another’s company? I would prefer that to being in a noisy group. I want to tell you how much I love you.” Smiling up at him, she thought once again how handsome he was, tall and well-built, the very epitome of a fine naval officer, responsibility resting lightly on his shoulders, complete confidence in his manner and the grace with which he socialised with his guests.

“Right then, I’ll just pop below and see how the Officer of the Day is coping and check if anything new has come into the Signals office. I’ll change and then we’ll be off.”

Sipping her last drink and gazing across the dark waters, lit by the sparkling reflections, with the dark equatorial sky studded with millions of stars, she smoothed the silk of her ‘lucky dress’ and smiled to herself.

“He’s a marvellous naval officer, a wonderful lover and I adore him, but he simply never notices what I wear. I’ve worn this dress to every reunion in the last two years. It’s my ‘Lucky Dress’ and I know that when I’m wearing it nothing can go wrong. Somehow the softness of the silk and the warm colours give me the assurance that we will always be there for each other no matter how long the separation and how great the distances. But this time together will be really special, this time I have something wonderful to tell him, something he has been waiting to hear for a long time. I know he’ll be overjoyed.”

Then he reappeared, smart in his light-weight tropical suit, and as they walked together down the gangplank, and she heard once again the Bosun’s shrill, sweet piping as the Captain and his lady left the ship, she knew that the whole night and the new few days were theirs alone when they would renew their love and build a foundation for the future.

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