The High Commission building exuded an air of colonial poverty. It sat amid the activity of the Nyerere Street looking vaguely out of place. It gave the impression that, when independence came, it should have been wrapped and packaged and taken to a plot reserved for it Whitehall or on the Mall. As it was, in the rush and relief of departure, the Commission had been left looking like an overdressed dinner guest at a bar-be-cue. The flaking paint and air of sad neglect only added to the impression of offence. To make matters worse, not all of it was occupied by employees of the British High Commission, that had been reduced to minimum staffing. Some of the building had been closed off and the rest was let as offices for related activities.
The office to which British tourists had to report was tucked away on the second floor, it was staffed by a bored man who could barely hide the look of contempt. Tom stood before him. ‘Name?’ The official asked, pulling out a form from a drawer and indicating that he should be seated. ‘Tom Cyril Wilson’ replied Tom, sitting down. The young man could not resist raising a supercilious eyebrow at the sound of the name “Cyril”, but he said nothing and went on with the procedure. ‘What’s the purpose of your visit?’
‘Holiday’ said Tom lamely. The eyebrow went up again.
‘Holiday? God in a place like this!’
‘It was cheap’
‘I can imagine.’
‘Well there’s the Lake too, I wanted to see the Lake.’ The official found a spark of interest in that and said, in almost animated fashion. ‘Ah Lake Maru, yes it’s stunning. I go there myself when I can, it’s well worth a visit and if you’re going there you’ll be well away from the troubles.’ He stamped the form and added, half to himself.”Troubles” makes it sound like Northern Ireland, I wish it was half as peaceful. When did you arrive?’
‘When are you going to the Lake?’
‘On the sixteenth, I’m going on safari first.’
‘Oh, with which firm?’
‘Safari Tours, it’s just a trip to the Tenda Plain, nowhere else. They said it was safe.’
‘Well, anyway,’ Tom was beginning to feel out of his depth. ‘We come back here on the night of the fifteenth and then I’m flying down to the Lake. I’ll be staying at the Tenda Lodge.’
‘And you’re flying back on the twenty-third?’
‘Yes I’ll just pass through. There’s only six hours between flights.’
‘Can I have your passport please?’ He took the passport and began to fill in the details on the form, as he did so he continued speaking. ‘Now a few hints on survival Mr Wilson. As you know, there’s a dusk to dawn curfew in the cities. It’s probably wise to assume the same in the country and although, in theory, it’s safe to walk about in the day, I suggest that when you leave here, you get in a taxi and go straight back to your hotel which is… oh yes, where are you staying?’
‘Also on the sixteenth?’
‘Yes, I’ll leave some stuff there.’
‘Well go straight back there and make use of their excellent bar and swimming pool, until Safari Tours come and get you tomorrow morning.’ He paused to place on further stamp on the paper. ‘If you must go on the streets just remember these people are paranoid. If you even so much as point you camera at a policeman, soldier, building, bridge or flag you’ll be in trouble, even on safari be careful. Keep an eye on what’s going on around you and don’t draw attention to yourself. If you do get arrested, stay cool, polite and friendly and try and find a way of handing over about a thousand shillings, or, if you have it a few dollars.’
‘No, not pounds…’
‘Definitely not Euros……’ he almost smiled. ‘A bit of cash should do it. It’s the price for justice in most crimes or non-crimes.’ He passed a copy of the form to Tom. ‘Just check I’ve got that right.’ Tom took it and the young man continued ‘Your safari route to Tenda is fairly safe. There’s one section, about a hundred miles, sorry kilometres, I always forget, which runs parallel and about fifty miles south of the Rebel lines. It’s a bit close, but so far there’s been no real trouble, just one or two hijacking of vans. The need transport apparently. Don’t worry,’ he said cheerfully catching sight of Tom’s expression. ‘There was nobody in them at the time. Well, nobody British anyway, so no paperwork for yours truly, and that’s what counts.’ He paused and produced a folder on which he wrote Tom’s name and placed the duplicate papers he had inside. ‘You’re not going to cause me any paperwork are you Mr Wilson?’ Tom chuckled and took his proffered passport. ‘No, I certainly hope not.’
‘No, good well my name is Terence Bardle. If you do need any help, here’s the phone number to ring, but I’m sure you won’t mind if I say that I hope we don’t meet again.’
Bardle stood and extended his hand. Tom shook it noting, to his surprise, that the official was quite a short man. Up until that moment Tom had expected him to be as large as his voice and manner implied. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘You have been very helpful. I shall do my best not to cause you any paperwork.’ Bardle came round the desk and opened the door for him. ‘It’s straight down there and the stairs are on your right. Okay?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
Tom stepped out of the High Commission and paused. He was mid height, a little over-weight, and he considered himself more than plump. He had a mass of curly hair that he had already noticed attracting the attention, on the streets, of people who varied only in shades of dark and black. Twice someone had reached out and touched his hair, in passing just to see if it was real. Thankfully no one so far had tried to pull it off.
The rest of the day stretched ahead of him and the sun bit into his fair skin. He thought of the hotel swimming pool. ‘The best thing you can do…’ he head Bardle saying ‘ is get in a taxi and go straight back to the hotel.’ But it was only half a mile to the hotel and he had come here to see the place. He was in Africa, Africa that place of his childhood dreams. The shape on the map, the home of the leopard and the lion and now he was here. He was in Africa, his first trip out of Europe and probably his last, as the money that remained of his “golden handshake” courtesy of the credit crunch, would soon disappear into a morass of mortgage and debts and not holidays. Even if he succeeded as a “self-employed” man he would probably never be able to come back again. ‘Taxi?’ A hopeful face loomed up.
‘No’ he said, decisively. ‘Dammit no, it would cost a fortune anyway.’ He set off in the direction of the hotel with an optimistic sense of adventure, at last he was breaking the mould, at last he was living the fantasy. Possibly “fantasy” was the right word. He had this idea of the old colonial British chap, walking down welcoming streets in Africa, a grateful people glad, now that their roads and bridges and borders had been built. After all the British did ban slavery pretty early on. Naive and stupid didn’t quite cover Tom’s jaunty mood, but he would soon learn, even now he became aware that he was a lone white face amid a bustle of strange and sometimes hostile features. The expected cheerful greeting did not match the disdain with which he was observed only his hair, and his increasingly red face, raised a smile, not his presence on the street.
He saw a Range Rover pull up and watched a white man get out. The man was dressed in shorts shirt and long socks with sandals. His skin was the deep gold of those white people who live in the sun. He may have been white, but he was clearly local and could move amid the heat with confidence, if not arrogance. Unlike Tom whose pallid translucent white, now tinged with a stinging pink marked him out as, not only white, but a stranger. ‘Hello, how are you?’ said a voice beside him. A man had fallen into step with him. He beamed at Tom with a warm and friendly face, but Tom had been warned. ‘I’m fine’ he replied guardedly.
‘Where are you from?’ his companion fell into step beside him.
‘No, Nottingham actually.’
‘Oh really, where DH Lawrence comes from.’ Tom tried to cover the momentary surprise that his prejudice had led him into. ‘I am an educated man sir, I study English at the university.’
‘How is England?’
‘Er – cold at this time of year.’
‘It’s snows there yes? How do you like our country?’
‘I like it very much, but I haven’t been here long.’
‘When did you arrive?’
‘Ah huh, I thought so,you are still very white.’ They laughed a little and then the man stopped walking, suddenly. ‘Perhaps you would like to talk. You can teach me about England. Perhaps we could have a cup of coffee together.’ Tom smiled but was unable to take the offer at face-value. Bardle’s cynicism had made him cautious. ‘It’s very kind of you to offer, but I must meet someone.’ He looked at his watch to add conviction. ‘In fact I should have been there five minutes ago. Thank you all the same.’ He made a move to go, but the man caught his arm and gripped it hard, immobilising him. Tom looked straight into the face of his companion and saw that it was pinched, and the structure shone through, making the skin that stretched over the skull grey. His clothes hung on him in a parody of western style, but frayed and dirty. His eyes expressed a desperation, too keen for comfort. Neither spoke, so Tom tried to extricate himself, by now aware of what he needed to do to smooth the path to friendship again. ‘I’m sorry’ said Tom ‘I didn’t mean to offend you…
‘You have offended me.’ The man relaxed his grip on Tom’s arm, giving him an opportunity to reach for his wallet. ‘Look I really do have to meet someone’ Tom lied ‘but do have a cup of coffee on me. He took out one hundred note from his wallet and pressed it into the man’s hand. ‘It’s was nice to meet you’ he continued hurriedly. ‘I do hope you do well in your studies.’ Tom retreated quickly down the street,searching the traffic for a taxi. The man looked down at the note in his hand and Tom heard him call after him ‘I’m not at the university anyway!’
A taxi pulled up beside the curb. Tom smiled as casually as he could ‘How much to the Norbreck?’
‘Two hundred’ said the man. Tom closed the door and began to walk away. ‘Okay! Okay!’ The man called after him
‘One hundred and fifty.’
‘One hundred’ Tom rejoined.
‘One hundred and twenty.’ Tom got in, too relieved to haggle further. He glanced back down the street and searched for a familiar face amongst the strained crowds on the pavement, but his mild assailant was gone, taking his desperation with him.
The taxi laboured its way up the hill from the top of which the Norbreck, observed the city. They pulled into the drive. A uniformed man opened the door for him, and Tom settled up with the driver. A blast of air-conditioned atmosphere met him at the door and he headed straight towards the terrace bar. From there he could watch the life of suburban Africa, without falling prey to its acquisitiveness.
The terrace bar was a haven of neutral territory. It served afternoon tea and elevenses, but ugali (maize porridge) and dawa (vodka and lime) were also available, the food, like the people, mixed on the terrace. Behind the terrace, the hotel stretched away, guarded rooms and luxury suites. On the other side, although the Terrace was open to the street, all those who used it, or observed it, understood that it was the tourists’ territory and they ruled it. The prostitutes may wander in amongst the guests, and occasionally someone would be permitted to sell trinkets, but no more forceful or ingenious method could be employed to part the tourist from their money. Tom sat at a table and ordered a Pimms, letting the strain of the last few minutes pass over him. He turned and looked at the street at last aware that he really was in a foreign country. A strange and tormented place and he should be careful. He closed his eyes and chuckled ‘What in God’s name was he doing in Africa anyway?’
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010