Murray and me with love

MURRAY AND ME: A love letter by Jess the dog, one of Murray Ball's characters from Footrot Flats.
MURRAY AND ME: A love letter by Jess the dog, one of Murray Ball's characters from Footrot Flats.

It started out as just another sunny Saturday in Durban, way back in the spring of 1963. Three girls sharing a flat - sharing their hopes and their dreams - had all booked appointments to see Madame Noneen. She was a fortune-teller. Yes, for just a few rand, Madame Noneen would sell you the future.

Her workplace - her 'office of dreams' - was on Smith Street in the heart of the city. Not exactly the sort of street name that shouts mysticism or conjures up romantic notions. Street names, though, can be deceiving ... When we girls arrived for our appointments, Madame Noneen immediately singled me out. She told me I would meet my future husband 'very soon'. He would be tall, dark, with tawny eyes and an entrancing smile. I was a total sceptic. This was not going to happen.

Well, believe it or not, I met him the next day. Murray Ball. My future husband. He was tall, dark, tawny-eyed and he had a lovely smile. Thank you, Madame Noneen. You could have added that he was damn good-looking, hopelessly romantic and, on top of everything else, he sang beautifully. What more could I wish for? (Oh, and by the way, he could also draw a bit.)

The meeting was pure chance. I was new to Durban, having decided to emigrate to South Africa from England after enduring one of the foulest English winters on record. Friends from my office invited me to a Sunday afternoon garden party in the leafy Durban suburb of Kloof. The party was essentially for business people and their families. Nothing particularly special. You mingled and you made small talk, you swam and you played tennis. And you ended the day with, what else, a traditional barbecue -a braaivleis.

Murray and his father, Kelly, were also at the party. Kelly was a former All Black who had emigrated to South Africa with his wife Meg and their young family in 1948. When I met him, he had been widowed for just one week. Murray, who shared his great love of rugby with his father, had returned to New Zealand in 1958 to chase his own All Black dream. He had been working as a cartoonist on Wellington's Dominion newspaper when he received the news of his mother's death.

He madea lightning dash - if in fact there was such a thing in those days - back to South Africa. When I met him at the party he was jet-lagged and feeling decidedly unwell. Unsurprisingly, he and Kelly were both struggling to come to terms with the passing of a wife and a mother. Neither really wanted to beat the party. For that matter, nor did I.

While other guests drank and ate the steaks and boerewors, Murray and I sat on the stairs. He told me he was a cartoonist. Mmm... a bit odd, I thought. Not odd enough, though, for me to decline a game of tennis at his aunt's house the following day. And not odd enough, either, for me to turn down a movie invitation after the tennis.

Bob Hope starring in Call Me Bwana. I'm not sure how much of that movie we actually saw! Murray chose to stay on in Durban after his mother's death. He picked up a steady, low-paying job at his father's amusement park, Kenilworth Showland, on Durban's beachfront.

At that time, it was the largest amusement park in the southern hemisphere, and Murray had the lofty title of 'assistant dodgem car operator'. He was assistant to a truly delightful Indian man who went by the unlikely name of Popeye. Before meeting Murray I'd only been out on one date in Durban. It was with someone whom I'd actually met back in London. There, we'd had lunch and he seemed perfectly charming. After he returned to South Africa he sent me flowers - beautiful, long-lasting white, waxy South African flowers called chincherinchees.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT: Luv from Dog, by Murray Ball.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT: Luv from Dog, by Murray Ball.

We actually wrote to each other for a couple of years. He was, I thought, an attractive and exciting prospect. How wrong could I be? One dinner date with him in Durban was all it took for me to learn he wasn't my cup of tea at all. Murray, though, was an altogether different proposition. We would take long, romantic walks along the hot sands of Durban North's Beach, always stopping off on the way home at the Cuban Hat roadside café for double-thick malted milkshakes.

Murray would sing to me. Songs from the movies and songs by all the crooners. Sinatra's 'All of You' was one of his favourites. And Murray would draw for me. Usually they were pictures of Disney characters. He was so talented. I loved those pictures. Within three months we were engaged. Murray proposed to me outside the Durban ice rink. It was after one of those lovely long walks. My answer was always going to be 'yes'. Madame Noneen's mystery man had won me completely.

Although Murray's father had initially questioned the sanity of our decision - mine in particular for falling for this out-of-work cartoonist - I could tell that deep down he was delighted with the news. He was chuffed that he'd had a hand in bringing Murray and me together. At the same time he was very sad that Murray's mother hadn't had the chance to meet me.

Out of the blue one day, Kelly asked Murray if he was getting me an engagement ring. Murray told him we were saving up for a pearl. "You're not getting her a pearl, Murray. Pearls are for tears." Kelly bought me a diamond ring and put it on my finger. "There you are, Pam. Murray can pay me back - I'll just dock his pay each week."

I protested ... for all of about 30 seconds. Murray, on the other hand, was beside himself, wondering how he'd ever pay his father back on his low wage. I suspect he never did. Half a world away, my parents were less than thrilled at the word of Murray's and my engagement. I had only recently emigrated to South Africa and news that I was going to marry an impoverished, would-be cartoonist, currently working dodgem cars at an amusement park, did not sit well with them.

Despite my parents' reservations, we married in England in August 1964 at Sanderstead Parish Church in Surrey. It wasn't what you could possibly describe as the perfect day. Mum and Dad were going through a difficult time. My father had cancer and knew he wouldn't be around for much longer. Murray and I had decided to move to New Zealand after our honeymoon and my parents were naturally upset we were leaving England so soon after the wedding to head to the other side of the world.

Looking back now, I can understand their feelings. Like I say, it was difficult at the time. We saw a fair bit of Mum when Murray and I returned to live in England between 1969 and 1974. Christmases with her in Surrey were special. In 1984, 20 years after our wedding, she came to visit us in New Zealand. It was a time of healing.
Murray and I were happy about that.

After the wedding we headed for Paris to honeymoon for a few days in the place they call the city of love. It was perfect. We eventually met up with Kelly under the Eiffel Tower in Paris and travelled with him around Europe for the next six weeks. We visited amusement park after amusement park ... the honeymoon was short-lived!

Murray and I flew into New Zealand in the spring of 1964 and headed for Wellington. The hills around Wellington were covered with yellow gorse - it's funny the things you remember. Murray left me in a café near the Dominion offices while he ran upstairs to reclaim the cartoon spot he had vacated a year earlier. Sadly, the new editor turned him down.

We set up home in a modest flat in Mitchell Street, Brooklyn, surviving our first few weeks on handouts from Kelly, who by now was back in South Africa. Murray also had a cartoon accepted by the weekly newspaper Truth. He was paid four guineas a week. Our rent was six. You didn't have to be a mathematician to work out something had to be done - and quickly.

We were newlyweds and we dreamed all the dreams... Fulltime cartooning, though, would have to wait. We moved to Hamilton and found a house - well, half a house, anyway In Opoia Road. Murray attended Hamilton Teacher's College. He had decided to do a one-year crash course in primary school teaching. Once he completed the course, we were posted to Whitianga where he completed his three-year 'bond' at the local primary school.

In his first book, Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest, he refuses to evaluate his teaching skills but "at least", he says, "schoolchildren can now scratch little men with big noses on their desk tops better than they used to". We gave up New Zealand for five years in 1969 and, with 1.5 children in tow, we headed back to England to try to break into the cartoon market.

We bought a small, damp cottage on the edge of Exmoor and Murray set to work drawing single cartoons for various magazines. Week after week they were rejected. A lesser man would have given up at this stage, but he plugged away. A year passed before Punch, the satirical and most prestigious of English humour magazines, accepted his prehistoric strip,  'Stanley', and that became the catalyst for a flood of work.

Labour Weekly picked up another new cartoon, 'Bruce the Barbarian', and Punch commissioned 'All the King's Comrades'. All the time, Murray supplemented his cartoon work by illustrating comics. We were, at last, making a living. In 1974, with two sons and our beautiful adopted daughter, we were able to return to New Zealand with enough work to carry us through for a while. We settled in Gisborne in our Valley Road house where Horse, the cat, was already in residence.

In1975, 'Footrot Flats' was accepted by Mike Robson,then editor of Wellington's Evening Post. We will be forever grateful to Mike. Now, 38 years on, Hachette have put together a delightful book of Murray's romantic 'Footrot Flat' cartoons. It was never going to be a difficult assignment. Love and romance have been central themes in so many of Murray's strips.

I often get asked which of the female characters in 'Footrot Flats' was based on me. In fact, it's the second most FAQ after "What is the Dog's name?" Well, you can take your pick out of Cheeky, Aunt Dolly, Jess or Cousin Kathy. I do, though, draw the line at Dolores.

One of the greatest loves in Murray's life was Finn. I played second fiddle to that dog many times. We had him as a puppy in 1982, well after 'Footrot Flats' had begun. By chance, he looked just like the 'Footrot Dog' and, inevitably, they became one and the same. Finn was the inspiration for so many of the cartoon situations. Finn and Murray were devoted to each other. Murray's world fell apart when he found him dead in his kennel at 15 years old.

We owe Finn a lot. Murray has, of course, retired from drawing. We now spend much of our days walking the dogs, one border collie and a couple of spaniels. We also have two cats, one of which is a gnarly, seven-kilo, big, black and white male, and must surely be Horse reincarnated.

HAVE DOGS: Murray and Pam Ball with their dogs Maggie and Jackson in 2012.
HAVE DOGS: Murray and Pam Ball with their dogs Maggie and Jackson in 2012.

We shared a special anniversary in September 2013 - 50 glorious years since we played that first game of tennis in Durban and Murray's dad, Kelly, put a ring on my finger. I'm happy to say that love has endured.

- PAM BALL, Gisborne...50 years on

© Pam Ball, Extracted from Luv From Dog by Murray

Sunday Magazine