My Uncle and Aunt lived in a fine stone house with black tiled roof situated on a high ridge overlooking the Westcliffe Flats and the Johannesburg Zoological Gardens. We often stayed with them when we visited Johannesburg from Swaziland almost as far back as I can remember.
It was awesome to be there and hear lions roaring at night in the middle of such a large city. I spent many a Sunday there while I was at boarding school and especially enjoyed the wonderful lunches served by a manservant in white uniform and gloves. From time to time he would attend with a silver tray and brush to remove crumbs from the table. This was a new experience for me!
It was not long after I had left school, (and was beginning to feel rather ‘adult’) that I was staying in the house alone, since my uncle and aunt were away on holiday. The Allied invasion of Italy at the end of 1943 was receiving much attention from the media and formed the main topic of conversation for most people.
One evening I decided to go into central Johannesburg to see a film. I walked out of the side garden gate, down a windy road cut through rock leading to the parking area above the Flats. The path continued through a wooded area and through the gardens filled with shrubs and finally reached the main gates of the Zoo where there was a tram-stop. In those days red trams were for Europeans and green trams for Coloured people. One still saw benches marked “whites only”. There was a prominent notice inside the tram that read “no spitting-moenie spug nie”. Tuberculosis was prevalent at that time.
The tramway went alongside Jan Smuts Avenue, and climbed the hill into Parktown with its beautiful stone houses first built by mining magnates during the early decades of Twentieth Century. The route passed the impressive buildings of Witwatersrand University on the right hand side while to the left were the main Brewery Buildings displaying a large lion in red neon lighting with his tail wagging up and down.
The tram continued down the hill through Braamfontein and at the point where the tramway (and Jan Smuts Avenue) joined Smit Street was a large bill board of a cheery looking man in his striped pyjamas sitting on a Bovril bottle floating in the sea. The caption read “Bovril Prevents That Sinking Feeling”. From here the route turned left into Johannesburg continuing to the tram terminus in Market Street behind the Town Hall.
By this time it was dusk and the lights were on. I think in 1943 neon lighting was a fairly recent innovation in Johannesburg. From the terminus a pleasant stroll along a few blocks brought me to Theatre Land in Commissioner Street. The main cinemas were The Colosseum, 20th Century Fox and The Plaza. The Metro was elsewhere in Rissik Street They were all brightly and extravagantly lit up producing a spectacular sight; there was a general hustle and bustle in the streets with well dressed people standing about chatting as they waited to enter the cinema of choice.
I chose to mix with the crowd going into the Colosseum. I bought popcorn in the foyer before entering the auditorium: such luxury! Thick wall-to-wall carpeting, usherettes to escort you to your seat; and plush comfortable seats with enough ‘leg-room’. One had the choice of either sitting downstairs or upstairs. Taken together, there was seating for over 2000 people The highlight of the Colosseum was the domed overhead ceiling through which concealed twinkling lights shone producing the effect of sitting outside gazing up at the stars. Subdued ground-level lighting shone upwards illuminating decorative castles with turrets and weird figurines adorning the walls (wonderful to behold for a bloke used to sitting on a wooden bench in the Mbabane court house adapted for screening ‘bioscopes’ on a Saturday night!) An orchestra was conducted by the charismatic Charles Manning with his shock of long white hair that he energetically displayed. He included some popular songs, the words of which appeared on the screen with little white balls popping up and down above the words to help the audience sing. All this was in the pit situated between the audience and the screen. This pit was then lowered out of sight when the show was due to begin. A large maroon velvet screen was pulled aside to reveal the viewing screen upon which lantern slides of numerous advertisements were projected.
A full programme followed, commencing with an African Mirror news reel as well as one from BBC Movietone . These provided full coverage of news of WW 2, often showing explosions from ships sunk at sea or fighter planes being shot down , or enemy targets being bombed or harrowing views of the destruction in bombed London or Coventry. (hereby hangs a silly tale : suddenly, there was a massive explosion shown on the screen with the word “Pipeline” across it. I read this as “Pip-e-li-ne” and in what I thought was a stage-whisper, enquired if this was a new war zone in Italy – much to the amusement of those nearby, since the news was reporting on a huge pipe line being built somewhere or other and had nothing at all to do with the Italian campaign! It’s strange what irrelevant memories stick in one’s mind!)
The newsreels were followed by a feature film or two as well as a cartoon—Popeye the Sailor man was popular at that time, as was Tom and Jerry. This would take the entertainment to Interval. With that the pit and orchestra arose from the depths with Charles Manning conducting at his energetic best. The lights came on and usherettes, clad in fishnet stockings and costumes not too revealing, walked down the aisles each carrying a tray, supported by a strap around the back of the neck, with a selection of sweets for resale. Many patrons took the opportunity of going outside during interval either to the bar or milk bar for refreshments. I collected a ‘pass out ‘card and ventured outside to see the sights and hustle and bustle of city life. There was a man in a white coat selling vanilla ice cream and Eskimo pies from his little cart drawn by a small hinny. Ladies from the Salvation Army stood at the entrance to the cinema holding their collection boxes and singing hymns. It was all very exciting. The ‘pass out card’ enabled me to return inside for the main film. I do not remember what the film was but at the end of it everyone (except those strongly opposed to the ‘war effort’) stood at attention while “God Save the King” was played.
It was, of course dark by the time the show was over and I found it just a little eerie walking the few blocks back to the tram terminus. The ride back to the stop outside the Zoo was uneventful. The prospect of walking in the dark up through the shrubbery passed the Westcliffe Flats and beyond to the windy road leading to the house on top was alright, though only just, as the roar of a lion and other animal sounds from the zoo made me look over my shoulder every now and then and, somehow, I found myself whistling a bit, (I’ve never been much good at whistling) I walked through the side gate to the garden and walked a bit faster as I approached the formidable looking stone house with its black tiled roof. I let myself in to my uncle’s office at one end of the house but could not find the light switch. I knew the way well enough but stumbled over a low table; then crashed into the dining room table knocking over a chair. This unnerved me somewhat. What was that? I became distinctly apprehensive when I heard strange gurgling noises and moans emanating from somewhere in the house. The groaning sounds increased as I stepped into the hall.. but then, with my hand still on the doorknob, there rose in front of me this white spectre rising and falling with increased high-pitched supplications to I know not what. The hair on the back of my neck rose. I was frozen to the spot. I couldn’t move. I was petrified and feeling anything but ‘adult’. I was terrified. I felt dampness on my leg- actually it was a bit more than dampness- well, er, alright – I peed in my pants! Before I fell in a heap, the spectre took on human form and said “hau! Morena”. It cannot be : a spectre speaking Sesotho? I recognised the voice of Jack, the manservant who, unbeknown to me, was in the habit of sleeping in the hall when my uncle and aunt were away.
We greeted each other gleefully and with great relief: He because there was no dangerous intruder about and I because there was no ghost. I continued up the stairs to my room, feeling quite ‘adult’ again! I relived the excitement of my night out before falling soundly asleep, knowing that Jack was between me and anything untoward!
However, I tell you what, if I had been able to move and run away, nothing would ever have convinced me that I had not been in the presence of a real live ghost. [Why do we assume ghosts will us? Why are we so frightened of them? I do not know: we just are!!]
Story by Peter Millin