That is what struck me about Karen Tungay. It was distinctive and all-embracing. Her passion!
I looked into those mischievous, dancing eyes and instantly made a friend.
Karen and I met in a lift club when I was ten. I changed schools a few years later but I saw Karen often when I went to Durban for the Christmas holidays.
Karen was a person that was soaked in music. Her father was the founder of The Drakensberg Boys Choir. Karen’s love of music began when she sang her first songs, aged four, with the 20 pioneer boys who had joined the new choir school.
When she was 17, she was asked to train and conduct the school choir. I can just imagine the relish she felt brandishing the baton in her hand. Her passion came to the fore. She would not rest until the sound the choir produced was perfect. It was astonishing the marvellous melodies and harmonies she coaxed from the choir that year. The sound soared around the school hall. Karen smiled. She was happy.
Like myself, Karen became an actor.
I remember sharing a house with Tossie Van Tonder, the dancer. Tossie is a long, tall individual. At one time, she used to shave her head and looked uniquely wonderful. Karen got the female lead in a film, Playing With Fire, in which she was cast as a dancer. She used to come and work with Tossie in the studio. Karen was not a ‘dancer’ yet there was no way that she was going to let herself down. Once again, her passion expressed itself. She fervently rehearsed for a full month with Tossie, who was the film’s choreographer.
I was amazed to discover that I had a small role in Playing With Fire. As a result of my fall, this has been wiped from my memory. So I have no knowledge of the film’s success or failure. That is not the point I’m making. Karen’s inner passion kept on taking her to new places. These stretched her as an individual and pushed her on.
The first time we saw each other after my accident in 1989, was when she flew back from Paris to visit her family in the nineties. I was then living in Durban and Karen gave me this beautiful tea pot. It has a cat curled sleepily around it’s lid. It is too gorgeous to use, so it sits in my lounge. I often catch the cat’s eye and we smile at one another. In 1995, flush with the money I had been making with my show My Plunge to Fame, I booked an air ticket to various destinations around the world. One of them being Paris. I was keen to see Karen who had been living there for some time. She had been composing, singing and making CDs. She lived in a small flat and seemed happy. The two of us sat at a bistro, drank wine and attempted to catch up on our lives in that one meal. We laughed and spoke over each other in our excitement to get things out. When I left, two days later, Karen gave me these small salt and pepper shakers. They are two adorable cats dressed as chefs. They grin at me from my kitchen counter.
For the past few years, my friend, B and I go and spend three days of enchantment in the Cotswolds. We stay at Cassie Bassett’s (nee Holliday) second home, Hollybush Cottage. I have mentioned this idyllic place before in my blog. This, for me, is the most perfect place in the world. Three years ago, as was the norm, B and I invited a whole load of friends around for lunch. Karen, who was living in Bath, two hours away, came much to my delight. It had been years since we had seen each other and we relished being together again. Karen had moved from Paris to Bath because she had an autistic daughter. Apparently Bath offered a superb school for children with autism.
“This time next year,” I promised as we hugged goodbye.
The following year, I traveled to England at a later date, in August. When I phoned to tell Karen that this years ‘Hollybush’ was on, she said she had a problem.
“My daughter is on holiday. Would you mind very much if I bought Francesca along?”
I assured her that we looked forward to meeting her daughter. On the day of the luncheon, I received a very distressed call from Karen: “ Francesca woke me at three o’clock this morning, dressed in her school uniform. I explained to her that there was no school and got her back into bed. This morning, Gaye, she went into a complete meltdown. She was drumming her head against the wall whilst making this thin indecipherable sound. I am so sorry but we won’t be able to come today.”
We had a lovely lunch and Tammy (Bonell Garner) spent the night. B said to us: “I think that tomorrow, we should all go and visit Karen in Bath.”
We arrived in Bath and I had barely moved my hand from the door knocker when the door was flung open by a grinning Karen: “You made it!” she cried as she engulfed us all in hugs.
“And you must be Francesca?” I said to this child who was staring at us with gorgeous big brown eyes.
Karen kneeled next to her and said: “These are my friends, Gaynor, Tammy and B,” she held her, whilst pointing us out. Francesca stared for a moment and then ducked out of her mum’s embrace and scooted to the other side of the room. She picked up a picture book and began turning the pages. Her attention was clearly on us not the book.
“She can’t speak so don’t expect any replies,” Karen explained.
We had a gorgeous lunch and I was once more struck by Karen’s passion. This time it wasn’t her music or acting that drew this wonderful characteristic to the fore. Karen’s passion was revealed in her relationship with her daughter. Her autistic daughter, who couldn’t speak a word, who sat watching her DVD of “The Little Mermaid” for the 140th time, drew a fervent love out of Karen. It was a different kind of passion to that she’d displayed in her acting and with her music. This was a totally all encompassing kind. It was the kind that I have never experienced. The passion of a mother for her daughter.
“See you at Hollybush next year,” I cried, waving as B drove away that evening.
That was the last thing I said to my friend of 47 years.
On the 20th May, 2019, Karen’s body was discovered at the foot of her staircase. All that passion she contained evaporated from our world. And yet the passion that she gave out so joyfully still remains in the people she touched and loved.
Karen was so young when she died. I think of my other friends – Gaby Lomberg, Gina Benjamin, Jil Hurst, Fiona Coyne, Frantz Dobrowsky and Chris Wells. All in their forties and fifties. Their lives cut short too early.
It makes me realise, especially in this time of Coronavirus crisis, you must make the most of every day. Be thankful for this gift of life. Keep in touch with your friends. See things around you with fresh eyes. Be kinder to others and to yourself.
Live each day with passion.
As Karen did.