I bought my first car — ever — in Aden, in 1962. It was a brand-new Ford Zephyr. The car I actually wanted — a Ford Zodiac (big brother to the Zephyr) – was temporarily out of stock and I was in too much of a hurry to wait. I lived to regret my choice. That damned Zephyr spent more time in the garage than it did on the road. And, as it turned out, the dealer’s mechanics were a lot less than competent. Their worst screw-up was when minor gearbox repairs ended up with the car having five forward speeds and no reverse.
It was at about this time — early 1963 — that a new dream car appeared on my vehicular horizon. It was the new Humber Sceptre — a sports saloon that had all the space and comfort of a sedan and all the zazz of a sports car. It had — and, to be honest, I think this is what sold the car to me — no less than sixteen businesslike-looking dials on the dashboard. It also had five forward speeds and two overdrives. I simply had to have that car.
But even with the inflated salaries we earned in Aden, I couldn’t afford two cars. So I had to offload that damned Zephyr. This turned out to be easy. The company’s new interpreter – a Palestinian from Nablus called Khaled Madhat Kamal – arrived on the scene in the nick of time and bought the damned thing off me for nearly the price I’d paid for it originally – £600 sterling. My new car cost just over £900, but it was wonderful.
I had bought both cars (and I was later to buy another) from the same firm – Athanas Motors. The Athanas brothers were the Aden agents for Ford, Rootes Group, Bedford, Jaguar, Bentley, Land Rover, Austin, Morris, MG, Triumph, Volkswagen, Saab and Volvo – in other words, practically everybody. If you wanted to buy a new car in Aden, you pretty much had to buy it from the Athanas boys.
As a result of my purchase of several cars – and the purchase of about a dozen others by various of my flatmates/workmates — I got to know the proprietors well. There were two Athanas brothers – Dino and Stavros. Their real name wasn’t Athanas – that was the shortened version they reckoned non-Greeks could remember. They were really Dino and Stavros Athanasacropolo – both (as I expect their name has already revealed) Greeks. They hailed from Thessalonika in the extreme north-eastern part of Greece, just near the Bulgarian border.
The brothers had been in Aden more than 30 years and now regarded South Arabia home. At the time of this story, Dino would have been just on the wrong side of 60. Stavros the silent partner – about a decade younger. Stavros mostly handled the brothers’ no automotive businesses, of which there were several. Since my connection with their business empire revolved entirely around vehicles, I never got to know Stavros very well. But Dino was another matter.
He was a large man – just over six feet tall, barrel-chested and massive. But hard – I don’t think he had an ounce of anything but muscle on his body. He had an impressive mane of silver hair which he word combed straight back, and eyebrows so black, dense and bushy that they seemed to belong on a younger, less tidy person. He dressed well in expensive tailored suits (of course, in Aden, everyone had tailored suits), and lived ostentatiously well in a grand cliff-top house on Ras Marshag overlooking the entrance to the port with sweeping views across to Little Aden and up toward the Yemeni mountains beyond Lahej.
He also had a sixth-floor penthouse above Athanas Brothers Motors in Crater – the most insalubrious part of Aden. But he kept that mostly for parties too rowdy for his mansion in Ras Marshag. As he and I grew ever friendlier, I got invited first to his parties in Crater, and later to his parties at his Ras Marshag mansion.
At one of his parties in Crater, the police had to be called when he got his drunken guests (including, I regret to say, me) throwing all the crockery out the front windows of the flat and onto the street below. It turned out that smashing crockery on the floor after a particularly fine meal was a sort of Greek custom. But it was not, according to the police, a custom in British Aden, and they – understandably in the event – took a pretty dim view of a hail of crockery falling onto the street from a sixth floor window. As for his guests, I think we were all too drunk to care.
At another of his parties there, everybody who knew – or thought they knew – how to do the Highland Fling was doing it. With 50 or 60 inebriated guests in the cramped lounge, the dancing wasn’t going too well, when a Scottish guest weaved to his feet and announced that if we could just clear him a passage through the crowd, he’d show us all how the fling was supposed to be done.
He started out in the back hall, stepped and hopped across the dining room, skipped across the lounge and out across the balcony, gathering speed as he went. By the time he reached the balcony – still accelerating – there was no way he could stop and he ‘flung’ himself over the railing. He fell six stories and landed on his back in the middle of the street. Those nearest the railing, who watched him fall, later said he was still dancing when he hit the street.
There’s no happy ending to this story. He was dead as a doornail. I am ashamed to say that the partying resumed long before the police arrived. As I recall, the police had a terrible time getting anybody to focus long enough to give any sort of account of the events leading up to his death. At last they had to forcibly break up the party and take most of the witnesses off to the pokey just to get their statements. It took until dawn for some of them to sober enough to speak coherently.
Dino had a wife and a passel of grown kids – even a couple of grandchildren – in Greece. When first he came to Aden, his wife (whose name was something like ‘Elastic’ – at least that’s how I remember it) turned around and immediately returned to Greece, taking their kids with her. There was, she said, no way in hell she was gonna spend even a weekend in such an awful place.
For years Dino tried to get her to join him but she was adamant. If he wanted to see her or the kids, he could visit them in Greece. For years he would pay long visits to his family, but eventually the intervals became longer and longer, and finally he just stopped trying. Then he tried to get a divorce. But divorce in the Greek Orthodox Church – to which they both belonged – was as hard to get as from the Catholic Church, and in any case, old ‘Elastic’ was unalterably opposed to the idea of divorce – partly, I suspect, because she liked having access to half Dino’s very considerable income without having to put up with Dino. He was, if my memory is good, a pretty randy old goat, and I imagine his sexual demands on her would have been considerable.
Finally, Dino met Maureen Darling. Maureen was British and a middle-ranked civil servant. I liked Maureen a lot: I think everybody did. She was 40-ish – about 20 years Dino’s junior – with a good, if ample figure and the soul of a saint. She was a brilliant bridge-player (that’s how I met her) and one of the most popular people in the colony.
Dino and Maureen fell in love at once and within a few weeks she’d moved in with him. Maureen and Dino soon became accepted as just another couple in our little set. No, that’s not quite right. Given all Dino’s money, they became the leading couple in our little set.
Maureen managed to tone down some of Dino’s excesses. They were very much in love, and there was practically nothing he wouldn’t do for her. Parties at the flat over the garage stopped and eventually he sold the lease on the upstairs flat. More decorous affairs – held in his vast mansion on Ras Marshag – replaced them. Under Maureen’s tutelage, Dino’s staff rose above themselves and some of the dinner parties at Dino’s remain memorable after almost 50 years.
He had the most spectacular hi-fi system I have ever seen. Stereo sound was still new, and big speakers were still the only way to reproduce good sound. So Dino had ripped out the end walls of his vast lounge and had replaced them with gigantic horn-speakers, each eight feet by ten. The knobs and levers to control this gigantic system occupied half of a third wall.
Sometimes Maureen would hold musical evenings when a select few guests would sit, stunned by the quality of the music, gazing out through the fourth wall – all glass – overlooking the entrance to Bandar Tawahi. There, in the dark, the wakes of passing vessels flamed with cold phosphorescence.
Dino and Maureen’s life flowed smoothly – at least it did as long as they remained in Aden. But both of them loved travel. Back in those days hotels were reluctant to permit men and women who weren’t married to share a room – indeed, many of them had regulations forbidding it. Since their passports gave away their marital status – or, more correctly, their ‘unmarital’ status, they spent a lot of time sneaking from room to room. More than once, they were ejected from a hotel when housekeeping or room-service discovered them together. All this sounds a little silly now, but in the Middle East in the middle sixties, prudery actually ruled.
Both of them wanted desperately to get married but old ‘Elastic’ (or whatever her name was), back in Thessalonika was adamant. No divorce. No divorce, of course, meant no marriage. At last it was Maureen who found a solution their problem. She changed her name by deed poll from ‘Maureen Darling’ to ‘Maureen Athanasacropolo’. It was as easy as that. Then, with two passports in the same name, the two lovers could stay wherever they wished. And so they did.
Eventually, our head office pulled its head out of its arse and Aden was deemed safe enough for families. So we soon had about a dozen company families in the colony, and our life gradually became more pleasant. No children were allowed. The Brits had kids – lots of the military families had kids, but in my company all the couples either had no children or were old enough that their children were grown and gone. For the ten of us bachelors – except for Don Rusk – the fair sex mostly belonged to other people.
Two women pretty much dominated our lives. One was Erik’s girlfriend, Jonquil Rastineck (not her real name) – a middle-rank civil servant in the American consulate. Jonquil was never going to win any beauty pageants. She was short and fat. and had a great hooked beak of a nose and a set of incredibly snaggly teeth. But she was wonderful.
Jonquil had one of the sparkliest personalities I ever met – an unfailing sense of humour, a vast font of kindness and all sorts of skills not normally associated with women: for example carpentry and welding. And she had a head full of ideas for filling in the time all of us seemed to have too much of. It was Jonquil who organised picnics, expeditions to the top of Jebel Shamsun, trips to the Tawila Tanks, things like that – all things that made life in Aden a little less miserable.
Florine, the boss’s wife, was the other one. At least once a week she would invite all the bachelors then in town (we were seldom all in residence at any one time) for an evening of games and small amusements and a superb meal. She acted as a sort of surrogate mother to the lot of us. That she sometimes overplayed her hand hardly mattered.
Both women treated us like a class of schoolboys who had to be fed, watered, amused and kept in order. They were not very subtle about it and sometimes we felt a little well … a little emasculated. They were only trying to help – and I’m sure they actually did – but sometimes the breadth and depth of their collective attentions seem to stifle us. The result of all this was that sometimes, just to avoid the feeling of suffocation, we were actually glad to get out of Aden and back out into the desert.