Aden, Yemen, 1963
Girls were in short supply in Aden. Hardly surprising since it was essentially a military base in an uncompromisingly awful place, but there it was. If there were any local (Arab) prostitutes – and I’m sure there were – I neither saw nor heard of them. There were plenty of military wives and also wives and daughters of the colonial administrators, but their circles and ours hardly ever met.
For the most part, we had to do without. This got awfully old in a hurry. We had a lot of parties and got drunk a lot, and we spent a lot of time on the beach at Gold Mohur. Jigsaw puzzles and bridge were popular.
We also went to a lot of movies at the Star Cinema, an open-air theatre on the edge of Tawahi. Even English movies — when seen in an Arabic context — could sometimes provide unexpected entertainment. I have always been an aficionado of Science Fiction. Once, seeing an advert for a movie called The Incandescent Projectile I rushed to buy a ticket, expecting to enjoy a ‘space opera’, only to find myself viewing a cowboy movie called The Flaming Arrow. Apparently the title in the poster had been translated into Arabic for use in the Arabic theatre in Crater, and then translated back into English for showing at the Star. Something important had clearly got lost in translation
Duty free shopping in the souks of Crater also occupied us until everybody had every duty-free thing he wanted.
We bitched and moaned, but there wasn’t a whole lot the company could do about it. Well, there was one thing. They gave us two annual leaves instead of only one. And they paid us so well it was hard not to feel guilty. None of us had a date for a little over a year. There just weren’t any available women. We knew. We thought we’d turned over every damned rock in the colony.
Below is a YouTube video filmed in Aden’s Old Town, in 2009:
Then Don Rusk arrived. Don, a few years older than most of us – just over 40 – was known throughout the company as Don Juan. He was – I had heard him boast of this – never without female companionship. We wondered how he would fare in Aden. Actually, we felt smug – we were prepared to enjoy seeing him taken down a peg or two.
Don, born cute, grew up handsome. He had been educated in Chicago by a sort of pixilated aunt who taught him about classical music, ballet, art and literature – altogether the sort of man who would stand out in a rough-and-ready all male society like Aden. To make himself even harder to compete with, he exercised, ran, lifted weights, used creams and potions on his skin, pomaded his abundant, dark hair and had his hands manicured at least once a week. He was, in a word, vain. To be fair, he had reason to be.
When he heard our tale of woe, he just smirked knowingly. He bought himself a Lancia Fulvia (still, to this day the largest sports convertible I ever saw) and set out hunting. Within twenty-four hours he’d located a pair of spectacular Chinese twins that none of us had even heard about. Then he brought young English girls home for the night three times in the same week – all luscious and curvy and everything we’d hardly seen for three years.
This went on for nearly a year. He went through girls as though he had an endless supply of them on tap somewhere. In retrospect, that’s probably exactly what he had. We’d all have given our left balls for access to his sources, but he played his cards awfully close to his chest.
I guess his success spurred at least some of my mates on. Marcel eventually found a British girl – just one British girl – and married her before she could get away (I was best man), then Ubaldo proposed to Irene – the nurse in Wadi Hadhramaut – and they were married in the nightclub atop the Rock Hotel. Again I was best man. Charlie Revilla, who had been stationed in Argentina before his transfer to Aden, eventually got so desperate he imported his girlfriend from Argentina. They, too were married on the Top of the Rock. For a third time, I found myself acting as best man. I had already been best man twice – both times to old university friends – and I was beginning to feel like ‘always the best man, never the groom’. That was pretty apt. I didn’t get married until I was 40. And then it happened in China.
Marriage was not on Don’s agenda and he managed to avoid it for another decade or so. Finally he got trapped in a Chicago hospital where he’d incarcerated himself to get his haemorrhoids* — which had caused him intermittent agony for years – repaired. His live-in girlfriend from London (where he was stationed) flew into town to be by his bedside and his local dolly was spending most of her time in his bedroom, too. Inevitably they met, and somehow, in the brouhaha that followed, he found himself wed to the dolly from England. The last thing I heard about Don, he was in his early 80s, still happily married and proud father to several children.
* Don and I shared a bathroom in the staff house in Aden. One morning, feeling much the worse for wear after a long evening of boozing. I staggered into our bathroom, took the cap off the first tube that came to hand and squirted its contents onto my toothbrush.
After only two or three strokes, I knew I’d done something awful. Within seconds, the whole inside of my mouth had puckered up and my lips had contracted to something like a ‘rosebud’ (they really did look like that in the mirror). An awful chemical taste suffused my entire mouth and then my tongue went numb. My mouth and lips were so puckered up that it was actually hard to get my toothbrush out of my mouth– the opening just wasn’t big enough. It was the damnedest thing.
A quick look at the tube soon told me that instead of toothpaste, I’d picked up Don’s tube of Anusol – his haemorrhoid cream. The sensation was amazing. The blurb on the tube promised that the shrinking of the piles and the relief of pain and itching would last at least four hours. It lasted at least that long. I couldn’t drink, eat or speak for more than four hours and the lower half of my face was so numb that I drooled.
My advice – don’t try this at home.