This is the second post in the “Memorable Moments” series, posts that will be edited and re-arranged into a book as a “Blogging a Book” project. The posts are in no particular chronological sequence, just as I remember them. I hope you find them interesting.
Sometimes when things seem so bad that they cannot possibly get worse, help arrives from the most unexpected source.
I had a personal experience of this soon after moving to South Africa in 1978.
Currency restrictions in force in Rhodesia at the time only permitted emigrants to take limited amounts of cash and assets out of the country, in my case, an old Peugeot 404 station wagon, household furniture and less than a months salary in cash. Not the best way to start a new life in a new country with two children under five.
I was luckier than most, I had a job to go to. A good job I thought, with the parent company of my former employer in Rhodesia. There was a snag, I had been owed many leave days (paid vacation days) by the Rhodesian branch, because of military call ups every alternate month for the previous few years, I had been unable to use my accumulated days. In an amazing twist that would get an employer into serious trouble now, I had to take a months leave on arrival but my first month’s salary was paid into my frozen bank account back in Rhodesia.
Things were tough, but with a regular salary we were able to slowly get our life in order until after 6 months I was told that the company could no longer afford to keep me on, technically the company was supposed to employ me for a minimum of a year in terms of my immigration and residence permits. Being the eternal optimist, I elected not to make an issue out of it and left quietly.
The economy was not too good back then, hundreds of Rhodesians were moving south. We had convincingly won the terrorist war only to be betrayed by our former allies in the West, finally by South Africa. Our government was forced by Britain, and the others to hand over to Mugabe’s terrorists, thereby condemning a once peaceful and prosperous country to the disaster that is Zimbabwe today.
Pietermaritzburg, the small city where I was living had little commerce or industry, it was the provincial capital. The commercial and industrial giant of Natal was Durban, 80 km away on the Indian Ocean coast.
I was in a dilemma, very few jobs in my city, but rents were low, more opportunities in Durban, but higher rents and the cost of moving. I applied for jobs in both cities. I was shortlisted for a sales reps position that included a company car, it sounded ideal and it was based in the city where I was living. The selection process dragged on for weeks while I was rapidly running out of money. I was also offered a sales position in Durban, to start immediately, commission only, no company vehicle. I needed to make a decision, if I waited too long I would have no cash left to move or put deposits down to rent a house, get electricity switched on.
In desperation I contacted the first company again, told them that as much as I wanted their job, I could not wait and would have to take the less attractive one and move to Durban. They still could not give me an offer. I made a decision, one of those decisions that has a huge effect on one’s life, alters the future of a whole family, I signed a lease on a house in Durban, contracted with a removal company, gave notice on my house in Pietermaritzburg. I committed myself, and my family to a new path.
A week later, before I had even moved out of the house, the first company contacted me and offered me the job. Murphy’s law. I knew that I could get out of the other job, it was commission only, I had not signed a contract, but I could not get out of the lease on the new house and my landlord had found a new tenant to take over my house. I offered to commute from Durban, it was a sales job but the area was inland away from where I would be living. It was a non starter. They said no.
We moved to an awful small house on the inland side of a huge sand dune known as The Bluff. Shielded from cooling sea breezes stifling hot in the heat and humidity of a Durban summer and directly in the flight path of the nearby airport, the noise of jets taking off and landing, the stink of jet fuel and the irritation of the fine grains of sand everywhere made for a miserable existence.
Although the job was not great, I managed to pay the rent and feed my family, after a few months we were even in a position to move to a better house in a better area. I switched from selling wall coatings to life assurance, still commission only but a worthwhile product, I could sleep at night without wondering if I was misleading people.
We survived nearly two years, two difficult years living on a shoe string, one unexpected expense away from financial disaster, not a happy position to be in.
As a new boy in town with no contacts, no old school friends, no network, I struggled to make a success of selling life assurance. It did not help that I did not enjoy it either. Cheryl, my first wife found some part-time work, then the unexpected happened. We both got sick and were unable to work for a couple of weeks, no work, no income.
I applied for a job with a large food products company, I got the job, I started almost immediately but it was a monthly paid position, I would have to wait a month for my first pay cheque. We had paid the rent, electricity and telephone bills but we had no money for food for the boys, petrol (gas). I had to have fuel to get to my new job. To cut expenses, I had bought a motor bike a few months earlier so that the car was used less.
It was the worst time in our married lives, absolutely no idea how to survive the next month. No family or friends in the country to help. One Saturday morning I looked at my wife’s engagement ring and said that would have to go. I felt terrible, she took it off, I got on my motor bike, drove to a pawn shop in Durban and pawned it for R200, it was worth about R1000. The only time in my life I have had to do that. (One SA Rand then was worth more than US$1)
When I got home Cheryl said we had enough instant coffee for a cup each while we worked out how to stretch the R200,she put the kettle on, then she saw that the postman (mail man) had just gone past our drive. She walked up the steep drive, collected some letters and started back down.
I was distractedly watching her through the window, my mind more on stretching R200 to cover food, fuel and other costs, when she started leaping in the air and screaming, I thought she had been stung by a wasp or seen a ghost or some thing.
Then she ran inside waving a letter and shouting that it was our income tax refund. Totally unexpected, but because we had paid tax when I had a decent salary for 6 months and then had a low-income for the rest of the year, we had been re-assessed. I can’t remember how much the cheque was for but I do know that it was more than enough for our living expenses for the month, there was enough for me to redeem the engagement ring when the shop opened on Monday. The only times I have ever been inside a pawn shop, twice in 3 days!
That was our own miracle, help came from a totally unexpected source right when we needed it most. Call it God’s will, the universe or whatever, but it was some sort of divine intervention. From that low point our situation improved and kept on improving for the next 15 years but that is a story for another post.
That was a long time ago, I have had many ups and downs in my life since then, but I have never forgotten the importance of not giving up, hanging in, keep hoping. Often the breakthrough comes just when it is needed most and in the most unexpected way. Perseverance, determination and resilience all important values to get through life.