‘I cannot find your name here madam,’ the Kinjii Airlines official rubbed his forehead and caught a drop of sweat hanging from his nose. He turned the pages of the papers in front of him and stared disbelievingly at the typescript. Jo stood before the counter her ticket extended in front of them both. She began to explain ‘I wouldn’t normally try to confirm so early, it’s just that I’ll be in Jonja until the last day and I’m told that communications there are difficult.’
The official raised his head sharply at the word “Jonja”. He re examined his customer, uncertain whether to judge her a fool or merely ignorant. His look of surprise met her, full in the face and, dissatisfied with what he saw, he looked down again and returned to the matter in hand. ‘They are always doing this,’ he said. ‘I will ring them. It will be all right, don’t worry.
Sweat covered his face. It hinted at the resentment he felt at having to work at all on such a hot afternoon. He had been disturbed by this woman from the dreary siesta which he could usually rely upon as a regular feature of his working day. Few tourists flew into Kinjii now, and his services were rarely called upon. The white woman’s voice had floated across to him with the aura of hurry and rush that such people always carried with them.
He picked up the ancient black telephone and dialled. At first there was no connection. He sighed in a resigned fashion and tried again. This time it connected and he smiled at Jo and waited for the answer. She smiled back and waited also. She tried to tell herself that the fact that she held a return ticket in her hand, a piece of solid neatly printed computerised evidence, meant that there would be a return flight to the coast. That all she needed to do was have it stamped, ripped in half and folded into her passport and she could get on a plane out of Africa.
The heat sucked at her breath making her chest cave, already she could feel the sweat breaking out under her clothes. She had been Kinjii a few hours now but she was still aware of the intensity of the heat. Even so she didn’t mind, it healed her, strengthened her and she loved it. She could feel it thawing the cold core of her Northern European heart. She squinted beyond the covered concourse, to the landscape outside. The light was so bright that the trees and people appeared like an over exposed photograph projected onto a screen. The glare scoured her eyes and she looked back inside to where, for the first time, she saw that the small airport was well peopled with police and soldiers, all heavily armed. They stood in casual groups, seemingly sapped by the heat, disinterested and bored, but some of them watched her and, she noted, dubiously that she was the only European in sight.
The official had finally got through. His face stretched into a beaming smile and he launched off into an enthusiastic conversation, which, Jo suspected, had little to do with the confusion over her tickets. She turned her attention back to the airport and the taxi rank. There was still no sign of Martin. She hoped he would not be too late. She didn’t relish the idea of waiting too long amongst the soldiers and enthusiastic taxi touts, some of whom now stood in a semi circle a little distance away, each of them trying to catch her eye. She avoided them, but not always with success and occasionally one who met her edgy glance would quote a hopeful price.
She looked down at her feet and checked, unnecessarily, that her light bag, money belt and passport pocket were all still attached to her. She felt for her travellers’ cheques in her back pocket and her sunglasses around her neck. Everything was where it should be, and when she looked up the touts were gone. Instead the concourse was dominated by activity. The disinterested soldiers were now alert. The roughly slung guns were held to the ready and they marched forward on the concourse moving people aside with a combination of body language and shouting. In a moment they had made some sort of a guard of honour and, in the distance. Jo could see the flashing lights and hear the rhythmic beeping of an approaching entourage. She tucked her camera behind her, well out of sight. No one seemed to be taking any notice of her, but she knew enough to keep a low profile.
The convoy of cars drew up at the concourse. Two police cars had escorted a large black limousine to the airport. One policeman opened the door of the limousine and helped an elderly man out. The entire guard of honour saluted and stood to attention. Then, as the man was helped into the interior of the airport, the line of guards ululated and cheered. This was clearly an important man. Even so nothing in his demeanour marked him out. He was dressed in the standard brown suit and he was treated with awe. The soldiers had greeted him first with reverence and then with enthusiasm. All around business had stopped as had the voice behind her, all were honouring this elderly man. Jo watched, interested. The man was escorted through a door to the airport lounge. The soldiers went through a speedy ritual of presenting arms and relaxed. The voice behind her resumed its conversation and soon rang off. The taxi touts returned and the convoy sped off divest of its contents. Jo turned back to the matter of her ticket.
The official stepped over to the counter and sighed, ‘There has been some mix up, you have a ticket, but the flights have been cut.’ He paused for effect and then said conspiratorially ‘the troubles you know.’ Jo felt her heart sink but the man smiled. ‘There is one flight, and they have put you on it the time though is 8 a.m. yes?’ Jo nodded, it would mean a long wait at the coastal airport but it was better than no flight at all. She thanked him, took back the ticket and put it in the wallet attached to the belt around her waist. She started to walk towards the light. The touts and porters whom she had expected to accost her at the moment she moved, had melted away again, relieved but cautious she carried on towards the real Africa. She could see a mini pulling into the car park. That would be Martin. She quickened her pace, excited.
A policeman stepped across her path and stood facing her, his khaki uniform, peaked cap and gun blocked her progress. He carried not just a pistol but some kind of automatic weapon. He spoke to her sharply in his own language. ‘I’m sorry,’ she replied. ‘I’m English I don’t understand you.’ In her peripheral vision she saw Martin get out of the mini, see her and stop by the car, watching. She became aware of a second policeman behind her. ‘You have to be detained,’ the first policeman said watching her face. Jo felt her stomach leap and the wonderful heat became aggressive. ‘May I ask why?’
‘You have shown no respect’
‘I’m sorry what for?’
‘For our country’ the policeman snapped. ‘For our rulers. You must come to the office’ She felt a pressure in her back. A sharp metallic point was brushed across her. She saw that Martin had moved more firmly into her sight. His beard and glasses were all that she could see of his features. She longed to touch him. He looked furtively around and then, when he was certain that she could see him, he made a sign with his hands, rather as if was dealing out cards. She felt the pressure in her back increase and force her to turn away from the friendly figure and move back into the darkness of the airport. For a moment she could not interpret his sign and she puzzled over it, but, as the door of the office opened to reveal a third policeman behind a desk she understood.
They took her bags from her and laid them on the desk. They made her stand at attention before the senior officer. They spoke in their own language and the senior officer stood. He was silent at first. He wore the same uniform as the rest, but for three black stripes on his sleeve. His dress was immaculate, but his face, hot and sheened with sweat, was pocked by some previous infection. He did not attempt conceal to his hostility. Suddenly he slammed a cane that he grasped in his hand down onto the desk. It made a sound like a report and Jo leapt, startled, but was forced roughly back to attention and all paused.
Behind the desk several photographs hung in their frames. The largest she recognised as President Umtata. The others she had not seen before, all looked important, some were women. The cane pointed to the photo of Umtata. ‘Who is this?’ said the senior officer.
‘President Umtata,’ she replied. The policeman nodded.
‘And this?’ he pointed to a small photo of an elderly man.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know’ Jo said, staying calm and reasoned.
‘Why don’t you know?’ said the officer.
‘I’m afraid, I’m not familiar with all your important people. I’m sorry I should have studied them before I came here.’
‘What is the purpose of your visit’ he changed tack.
‘I’m visiting a friend’ she replied.
‘How long do you stay?’
‘Do you not show respect in your country for your rulers?’ he demanded again.
‘Oh yes but I…’
‘Who is this man?’ he pointed at the same picture he had shown her before. His voice was growing increasingly peremptory. ‘I’m sorry I don’t know, I haven’t seen him before.’
‘You haven’t seen him before’ the officer was incredulous ‘You lie!’
‘No really I ….’
‘You lie!’ he insisted coming towards her. ‘Look at the picture you have seen this man before.’
She looked at the picture, trying to control the trembling in her left knee. She stared hard and in silence, trying to gain time. The face was familiar. She must not panic. She must think, somehow, somewhere she had seen this man before. An image of the old man in the car flashed before her, as did a sudden realisation. ‘Oh!’ she said.
‘Oh!’ the policeman mocked.
‘It’s the man who arrived this afternoon, the man you honoured.’
‘Ah yes, and why did you not honour him?’
‘I did not realise who he was’
‘You saw everyone else?’
‘Well yes but I…’
‘Then why did you not show respect?’ He slammed the cane down again to emphasise his displeasure. Jo realised that there was no point in arguing. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said ‘I really didn’t know.’
‘Ignorance is no defence in the law,’ said the officer. Jo bit back the fear that caught her at the usage of this phrase. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry I can offer no excuse.’ In her head the brief paragraph on arrest that she had read in her guide book reiterated her need to keep calm, be obsequious and hope for a compromise.
‘Do you know the punishment for your crime?’ Jo closed her eyes and fought back the increasing panic. ‘No, I’m afraid I don’t’ but I’m sure you’re going to tell me. She heard her suicidal thoughts echo in her head so loudly that she thought she had spoken her sarcasm aloud. ‘Keep calm,’ she told herself ‘there is a way out.’ ‘It is a fine of four thousand five hundred palig and five years in prison.’ Jo let out a breath.
‘If you are to charge me with this very serious crime, might I be permitted to contact the British Consul?’ The officer went on the offensive.
‘Have you any complaints?’ he asked. ‘Are you being badly treated?’
‘No, no of course not. I’m being treated very well.’ Jo retreated fast. ‘But as you see I’m ignorant of your laws and I need advice.’
‘We can advise you’
‘Then I’d be grateful to hear your advice. What should I do?’ There was a long silence. Jo looked from the face of the officer to the two policemen. They made no reply, but an implication hung in the air and Martin’s hint made real sense. She hesitated about how to proceed and then gathered her courage and spoke out in what seemed to her to be a ridiculously unsubtle approach. ‘In my country, when tourists commit crimes, they are often fined on the spot. Should I perhaps pay a fine?’ The mood relaxed and despite the thin deception that all parties were indulging in, the pantomime commenced. ‘You realise the severity of your crime?’ said the officer.
‘Of course I do, I ask that you are lenient with me, because of my ignorance and because I wish to show my respect for your country. I know your President is a great man, and as such I’m sure he would offer mercy to me since I am ashamed of what I have done.’ The officer opened a drawer and took out a book and with exaggerated officialdom he looked down the printed pages. After a moment he looked up ‘You can be released on payment of a fine of one thousand palig and you must salute our President, after you have paid the fine.’
Jo drew in a deep breath at the cost of this pantomime. She took the money out of her money belt. The officer grasped it and laid it on the desk, watched by the two other policeman. Then he stood and indicated to her to face the picture. An overwhelming desire to giggle swept over her but her relief was premature and she covered her fit with a cough. The officer frowned, but then with no hint of amusement he faced the picture and saluted. Jo followed suit. The officer swivelled his eyes towards her and they remained in that serious stance for an endless minute while Jo battled the heat and the fear. Then the salute was over and the officer beamed at her, stretching out his hand. ‘Welcome to Kinjii’ he said ‘We are very pleased to have you here.’ ‘I bet,’ thought Jo ‘I’m Father Christmas!’ But she smiled demurely at her new friend. ‘I hope you enjoy your stay’ he said, beaming.
The two other policeman also shook hands with her, all smiles of welcome and delight. She picked up her bags and turned towards the door. It was opened for her. She stepped outside. The warm wind brought relief and a porter hurried up to her grabbing her bags. Normality was restored. The strangely absent taxi drivers returned to offer their services but Martin was waiting by the mini. She stepped towards him still expecting to be prevented, but nothing happened. He smiled at her but signalled her not to be too familiar, reticence was needed despite the fact that it was the first time in three months that she had seen her fiancee. He took the bags from the porter and tipped him. The porter grumbled but went back to the covered way. Jo was aware that they were still being watched. Martin opened the door and let her in only then did he kiss her. ‘Okay?’ he asked and started the car. He backed out of the parking space, checking all around, not just for other cars. He took care to drive away sedately. Jo felt a claustrophobic desire to shoot from the environs of the airport like a rocket from its tower but she made herself rest in Martin’s knowledge of the country. ‘Thank you for your signal, it took me a moment to get it, but it might have taken me a lot longer if I hadn’t seen it.’
‘Well I was working on the assumption that you hadn’t really done anything wrong. It might have been different if there was a real charge, what was it by the way?’
‘I didn’t show respect to one of their elder statesman when he arrived. I didn’t salute or something.’
‘But you didn’t know who he was of course’
‘No, well I knew he was extraordinary because they made a fuss of him, but I didn’t think I had to salute’
‘Yeah, that can be quite a problem for the locals.
‘You mean it’s a genuine charge?’
‘Well I stayed cool anyway. I kept telling myself that there would be a diplomatic incident if a Brit tourist was charged with not saluting a local dignitary.’
‘They could have planted something on you though’. Her stomach leapt at the new vista of possible catastrophes that Martin’s words had opened up. Trumped up charges, abuse and a nightmare scenario had never crossed her mind as she had stood in that office. ‘Oh shit! I never thought of that!’ They were silent for a moment while the implications of what had just happened began to sink in. Jo closed her eyes against the alien landscape and shivered. It would have been her word against theirs. One young bejeaned Brit, trying to claim she didn’t smuggle drugs. They would have won. She opened her eyes and sighed. ‘It was money well spent.’
‘How much did they take?’
‘One thousand.’ she said. He whistled.
‘A hundred quid, let’s hope you salute next time’
‘I couldn’t have bartered could I?’
‘No, not you, a well seasoned traveller who is used to that sort of thing might be able to knock it down. You did right, I take it you didn’t shout at them.’
‘God no, I stayed cool and polite.’ She took a breath to say more but he cut across her
‘Good’ he said ‘that’s that then.’ Again they were silent and Jo looked at Martin. Despite his eighteen months almost consistently in the sun, his skin was still a translucent white on his face or what there was of it that wasn’t covered by the dark beard and heavy rimmed glasses. His eyes darted nervously about the road and Jo could see that he had lost weight. He was not the relaxed and dashing aid worker that she had met just six months before, while he was on furlough. She turned her attention to the road and reflected that the whole episode of their relationship had the atmosphere of a war time romance. The speed with which they fell in love, the desperate hours they spent together in England trying to squeeze out the time and the promise of marriage that they had made to each other almost as he departed from the station platform. A promise to prevent the separation eating away at what they had established. Even the new sights and smells of Africa, and the incident with the policeman compounded her sense of Edwardian adventure, perhaps even Edwardian escapism.
They had been driving through a desolate industrial landscape spattered with half dug gravel pits and elderly tin buildings, and now they were approaching the outskirts of the town. People and traffic were beginning to occupy the road and the sidewalks. Tin shanties, in small plots of land had been erected, each surrounded by an allotment of growing maize and banana and paw paw trees. Towards these homes in the dusty red earth thousands of people were now streaming on foot. Jo saw that the expanse of shanties went on for miles beyond the road and in the late afternoon people were being swallowed by the acres of tin and banana.
Occasionally one of the shanties would sport a notice “Butchery”, “Grocery”, or “Hotel” and many carried gaudy adverts for Coca Cola or Sprite. Few people stopped to buy. They all seemed intent on getting home. Some watched the car and its occupants pass them by with a dull interest but nobody smiled or waved. Jo seemed to expect that somehow, but she was not disappointed that nobody seemed to care. She had received quite enough attention for one day. Martin watched the battered cars weave before them and swerved to avoid a Mtatu which had stopped to disgorge itself of its passengers. Very soon he turned off onto a dirt track. Then he smiled and relaxed a little. ‘This is the kind of road you’ll have to get used to on Safari.’
‘Will it all be like this?’
‘Not all of it and we’ll be in a better car, a Nissan van probably this old mini rattles every bone.’ He slowed down to negotiate a large pothole, once round he continued. ‘I’ve arranged a three day safari with “Safari Tours”, I’m told they’re the best. It just means that we stay in their lodge on the Tenda Plain and on Lake Maru, apparently they’re very luxurious and we leave at six a.m. on Wednesday’ Jo groaned at the early time and he laughed. ‘It’ll be like that all the way. It’s early to bed and early to rise here. We work with the sun.’ He paused to turn into a driveway. They were met by a shaded garden, surrounding a small whitewashed house with a tin roof. ‘Well this is it, Algy’s house. You won’t meet Algy, he’s gone north to try and interview some rebel. He won’t be back until Thursday, or that’s his plan.’ He parked the car under a tree, rampant with white flowers, that released a pungently sweet scent. ‘Frangipani’ he said matter of factly when he saw Jo’s curious look. He pulled her bags out of the back and they turned towards the house. ‘It’s not as luxurious as the lodges will be, but it’s a good deal better then my hut in Jonja, so make the most of it because we’ll be in Jonja this time next week.’ He crossed the verandah and opened the door to the small house. It was furnished exactly as Jo would have expected, lino tiles on the floor, cane furniture cramming the rooms and African Art bedecking the plain white walls. Martin set down her bags and sighed ‘Want a drink?’
‘Oh yes if there is one’
‘Yes alcohol is not a problem here. Soap is but not alcohol mind you it’s a bit rough.’
‘Never mind, I need something a bit rough, I think I’m suffering from delayed shock’ Jo sat down into one of the cane chairs, relieved at last to be in some kind of private territory. ‘What are we doing tomorrow? Anything exciting?’ Martin came back with the drinks. Jo took a closer look at him for the first time and saw just how thin he was. His white shirt and khaki trousers hung off him. She could not remember his hands being so thin and wiry, nor did she recall the slight tremor. ‘Have you been ill?’ she asked.
‘No not really, just the usual squits, you’ll get ‘em.’
‘As for tomorrow, we’ve got to get you into the High Commission, because they’ve asked for all tourists to report in. Did you not hear that before you came over?’
‘No, is there some problem?’
‘Well it’s not really anything to worry us, because the parks are in the south, and Jonja’s a mission but there’s been some sort of resurgence of fighting, that’s why Algy’s gone north. Like I say, we’ll be travelling south, although the first part of our safari is only about fifty miles from the rebel front line. Still we won’t be on that road for long.’
Jo was quiet for a moment, thinking that this adventure was shaping up to be a little too real for comfort. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘we said before that we should see each other regardless, so now I’m here we should enjoy.’ He smiled and leant back, taking a swig from a large glass of whisky.
‘We’ll eat in a while’ he said ‘Would you like a bath or something?’
‘Or something sounds interesting’ she lolled towards him, but he did not respond. He seemed puzzled by her quip, even annoyed so she set her head on one side and looked coyly at him. His face cleared and he put down his drink, stepped over towards her and pulled her out of her chair. He wrapped his arms around her and they stood for a moment rocking together washing themselves in the early evening breeze that slipped through the louvres and the mosquito screen.
Jo felt the old attraction return. The empty terror that had troubled her in the car evaporated. The old love was still there. Their separation had not damaged them. Despite his thinner frame and nervous manner she still loved him. She raised her head to look into the strangely large brown eyes magnified by the glasses. She reached her hands to his face and pulled his head down so that she could kiss him. She felt the familiar prickle of his beard and moustache and she tasted the strong whisky. She put her tongue into his mouth and felt him react with a strong movement of his arms and hips. A short moan escaped his throat and then the kiss ended and he was pressing her to his shoulder, snuggling his face into her hair. ‘I’ve missed you’ he whispered. ‘I’ve missed you’. There was an urgency in his voice that surprised her, a desperation in his grip that hinted at more than lust. The strange passion aroused her and she felt the familiar thrill rush up her body. She began to run her hands up his back and insistently she tried to guide his down, but he didn’t want to follow and he pulled away. ‘Let me show you your room’ he said and went to pick up her bags.
‘Ah’ said Jo, and followed repentantly. She had misread his mood and was mildly offended that he was in such control. He opened the door to a small light bedroom plainly furnished with a single bed, above which hung a mosquito net tied in a knot waiting for use. The room’s window looked on to the back garden, at the bottom of which a small hut stood surrounded by maize and cultivation. ‘That’s Edward’s shamba’ said Martin. ‘He works in the house for Algy but I said I didn’t need him for these few days.’ He looked at her for the first time since the kiss but looked away when she met his gaze. ‘Are you sure you’re all right about this?’ She asked again. ‘Have you gone off me or something?’ She braced herself to hear that he regretted everything about their relationship, but he smiled in a reassuring, if strained, manner. ‘No you’ll do. It’s just that’ he paused and raised his hand to his forehead rubbing nervously. ‘It’s not been easy here, I’m having to change gear step into “enjoy” mode, if you like.’ She nodded but didn’t try to touch him.
‘Is there a shower here?’ She asked. ‘I’d love a shower.’
‘Mm a good idea, it’s through there, towels and everything are in there, anything you need just give me a shout. I’ll go and get some food going.’ He turned and walked to the kitchen. Jo watched him, but once he was through the door and out of sight she flopped noisily onto the bed. She lay there watching the reddening sky cast shadows in the garden. A striking bird hopped about in a tree by the window, its electric blue back flashed in the light as it pecked at the branches. She stretched out to a switch on the wall and pressed it. The ceiling fan lumbered into action, its strange shuddering soothed her. She listened to Martin making the dinner and she smiled as she pictured him.
He was a strange man. A recent convert to Christianity and so his morality was severe. He had taken on his faith in his late twenties and wore it like a shroud which obscured his vision of the world. It blurred the clarity of temptation and pain and made it easy to resist. Jo, on the other hand, wore her faith like an old and familiar dress, one which she used often but one which she abused as well as loved. It fitted her comfortably and she had the feeling of being accompanied, while Martin, she perceived, felt he was led. He had been led to Africa, led to give up his teaching in England and led to her, but she had a feeing that Martin, who affirmed it all so positively, might be just as liable to deny it.
Her thoughts wandered to the office in which the police stood with her. She saw again that distant and reddening view of Martin as he signalled to her. The face of the senior officer looked at her, sweat on his cheeks and a rage in his eyes. He slammed his cane down on the desk it’s “thwack” made her jump and she woke up. She pulled herself up and shook her head to rid it of the sleepiness. A siren whined through the evening, not a car siren, but a steady throbbing. ‘What’s that?’ she called and began to wander through. ‘It’s the half hour warning’ he said. ‘There’s a dusk to dawn curfew.’ He chuckled when he caught her look of consternation. ‘It’s okay.’ he said reassuringly. ‘It’s only in the cities’.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010