Africa is my idea of love. It’s even shaped like a heart, the beating pulse of romance; vast plains filled with wild, untamed beasts battling with brave explorers, the adventurers masculine sweat glowing under the intense heat of the equatorial sun, face to face with dangerous predators or risking death with exotic incurable diseases. It’s the excitement of tackling the unknown, hacking through an impenetrable jungle or escaping by canoe down a raging river. You live on a diet of wits, gut instinct and determination for survival. Add a dash of khaki and a clash of animal print in to the mix just for shits and giggles.
When the light fails to even penetrate the clouds here during the dark winter months, I become a virtual traveller and let my mind escape to those far away lands. After all, you can’t buy actual real romance at Tesco’s. Yet. Imagine that offer: buy one dashing, good-looking explorer and get a buff, rugged safari guide for free? Deal.
This boring afternoon I’m lounging comfortably on the old faded blue check sofa in my fluffy grey sweatpants and trusty swimathon t-shirt, feet encased in stripey slipper socks, indulging in my fantasy world again. I’m pretending that the rain lashing my windowpane is, in fact, a refreshing wet season downpour crashing and splashing against the canvas of my tent. I’m cowering on a small camp bed, trapped inside as I tremble with each uncomfortably loud trumpet call of some boisterous elephants outside. As they approach, breaking through the forest, barging ever closer to camp, each branch snap making me jolt, confirming imminent death from being sadly squashed. Alone. In a wet and muddy squish.
Suddenly the tent door is flung open by the hunky local wildlife researcher, who will save me from certain death, his drenched shirt clings to his skin, defining his awesome men’s fitness magazine level muscles … ‘We have to leave now’, he yells at me. Of course, I’m the typical heroine, so I must freeze in total panic. I’m gripping the end of the bed because obviously that’s what’s going to stop a two tonne animal and Mr. Hunk rushes over to me, prises my hands off the metals bars and says masterfully, ‘Come with me NOW.’
It’s all so dramatic and life threatening as we dash through thick foliage to reach the nearest village, building up to the fervent and totally awesome hot sex scene later when we are safe and filled with the adrenaline of escape and the relief of surviving such a narrow escape from impending doom. Rudely, and typically just as I am being rescued, way before reaching the electric climax, I’m dragged back to the real world by the modern day-dream spoiler, a harsh computer generated BEEP.
I click the accept call button. ‘Hello?’
It’s Pretti! Yay! I’d recognise that caramel centered, radio ready voice anywhere, even without the handy name identifier. It’s almost five years now since she went back home but we have regularly kept in touch all this time. That’s mainly down to her; actually its completely down to her, she’s really good at that. She’s good at lots of things, which is slightly annoying. But she is a real friend and is always there for me, virtually in both the physical sense and virtually in the almost always sense.
‘Hello darling, can you hear me?’
‘Yes! I can! How are you?’
‘Oh wonderful to hear your voice darling, technology these days is isn’t it? Such a pity the internet here can’t handle video to see your gorgeous face. Me? I’m good, I’m good, I was just thinking of you and I wanted to send you something.’
The little profile picture in the corner of the screen reminds me how stunning she is. Sitting at some bar with an amazing looking cocktail she is the queen of sophistication. Behind her is a spectacular sunset over the water, spotted with old fishing boats, which is enough to make anyone jealous, let alone the fact that she is totally beautiful to boot. Her long, dark, thick, shampoo advert quality hair frames a dainty face dominated by her exquisite, piercing, almost feline, amber eyes. There were no surprises when she was first of the uni crowd to be taken off the shelf, wooed, worshipped and whisked away by a wealthy lawyer.
Pretti Patel would like to send you a file. Do you accept?
I click on the download button and the blue line charts the file’s progress from Tanzania to England through the mythological myriad of cables.
The file opens and up pops an advert.
‘’Tambasam’ means ‘smile’ in Kiswahili. Volunteer at our orphanage and make children like Lucy smile everyday’, it reads, alongside a picture of a very cute little girl. They sure know how to get to those heartstrings.
‘Oh shit… I mean thanks Pretti, wow, I never thought you could do it but I should have known better!’
‘Darling its purrrfect.’ She rolls her r’s, starting her charm offensive. ‘Now I know you can’t refuse. All these years I have been telling you to fulfil your deep seated desires and see the REAL Africa. I’ve already spoken with the lady in charge and she sounds wonderful. She’s absolutely fine with you teaching the children swimming every afternoon so you will have time for Swahili classes in the morning. It’s not faaar from my house and you can stay here, with me, of course. Plenty of time for adventure, so you can hunt down a game guide or two? I will turn you into a lioness, a true man-eater, no, I’m only teasing darling!’
“Pretti, I kind of hate you right now. You know I’m a totes chump when it comes to kids… let alone ones without parents.’
‘I thought you would understand. It’s just the right thing for you’
‘I do, completely, more than most people, and I am sure it will be just as rewarding, hell no it will be ten times as rewarding but I can’t. There are so many other things to think about, you know, stuff?’
‘What ‘stuff’ darling? Come on dear, spit it out.’
‘Well, there are snakes. Like big snakes that slither around and try to kill you in your sleep. With their slimy bodies and beady eyes and funny sock puppet shaped heads. The weirdos. You know how much I hate snakes.’
‘Listen, I’ve not seen a snake in Dar es Salaaam the whole time I have been back sweetie, and in any case the Swahili hate them as much as you, so there are always more than ten expert snake killers you can call on in an instant. Next ‘stuff’ darling?’
‘Ok, not totally convinced about that one, they are the most disgusting animals ever. Erm how about getting sick? Didn’t you nearly die from malaria? There are a million tropical nasties that could come and kill me off. I’m not quite ready to leave the land of the living just yet, you get me?’
‘Sweetheart, ‘I get you.’ We do have modern wonders such as foreign doctors and medicine but have your inoculations and take the malaria tablets and you will be fine. It’s different for me, I was born here and now I live here, getting malaria is not so bad, just like very bad flu. If you feel sick pop a few coartems and in a few days you are as right as rain again. Trust me, I’ll be here to look after you, remember?’
‘Ok so Nurse Pretti will mop my brow, I’d have to take a picture to believe that one. Well what about work? I kind of can’t just walk out the door can I?’
‘Tell me how is it going these days?
‘Well pretty much the same as always. Most of the kids are great, some are complete spoilt brats but hey that’s kind of expected. Gormless George still is the favoured instructor even though he sounds like a stoned surfer as he manages to charm all the mothers using only the power of his pectorals. They just glaze over when he starts speaking so they can stare at his body and don’t actually listen to whatever cool sounding language he picked up off the latest rap video. They just think he is down with the kids and on their level, rad and all that kind of ‘ting’.
Meanwhile I’m the super bitch that’s always in her swimming costume, obviously trying to lure their sex-starved husbands away from them. It’s stupid, why would I be interested? I wish I could wear a t-shirt that says:
I’m in my swimming costume a lot of the time because IT’S MY JOB.
My body isn’t exactly ‘sports illustrated’ but I’M YOUNGER THAN YOU and I SWIM ALL DAY. Don’t see it as a threat, see it as a CHALLENGE!
I’m NOT attracted to your husband because I don’t date MARRIED MEN. If you are that worried that he will run away with the swimming teacher then wear sexy underwear, buy sex toys or suck his cock more often.
No, I DON’T fancy George a.k.a G Force, G Diddy or G Doggy or whatever street moniker he’s copying today either, he is all yours! I actually prefer guys when I can understand what they are saying and have a conversation, perhaps even with a teensy bit of intelligence and/or some witty banter.
Yes, I am STILL single because all my evenings and weekends are spent TEACHING YOUR CHILDREN so I can earn enough money to eat cornflakes.
So please, GIVE ME A BREAK.
Ooh that reminds me, I can’t come to Tanzania. I’d starve. I need at least one bowl of cornflakes a day, preferably two.’
She was roaring with laughter now. ‘We have all sorts of cereals darling, even home made granita and top of the range mueslis. If you wanted caviaaar and truffles: it’s possible. It’s truly aaamaaazing what we can get now, bloody expensive mind and not always in stock but still…’
“Grr. Pretti you have an answer for everything.’
‘Well darling, you see, it is part of my job. I cleverly prepared a trial case fighting for the prosecution, with the naughty advantage of knowing the defendant so well. Just remember, I do know whether you are telling me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and anything you do say will be jotted down and maybe, no definitely will be, used against you.’ She let out another laugh, jokingly evil.
At that point Morris leaps up on to my lap to my defense. ‘Miaow.’
‘Ah, your honour! I call to the stand my first witness. Mr Morrison, of the Turkish Van cat clan and lifelong friend of the defendant. I give you a cast – no! a cat-iron reason as to why Tanzania is totes out of the question. Mr Morrison here requires daily attention, including feeding and cuddles due to his denial that he is now a pensioner in cat years as he is suffering from feline alzheimers and still thinks he’s a kitten.’
‘Oh hello Morris, I’d forgotten about you. Drat. That’s torn a big hole in my case.’
‘Ha! I’ve outsmarted the lawyer!!’
‘Not quite, darling. You see my main argument has yet to be presented. I have two friends of mine who are lovely people looking for a short-term rental in London. By the sound of it you need a break from work and the volunteer position is ideal, no? My friends could rent your house and you would then have enough money to pay for the volunteering and also have a bit of free cash for a wonderful once in a lifetime safari. They could also take care of Morris, now everything is sorted. No snakes, Nurse Pretti, teaching orphans swimming, stunning safari. How can you turn down the trip of your dreams?’
Trip of my dreams. Daydreams that turn into reality. She’s got me there. It’s all starting to sound a bit good and a little bit odd. Why has she gone to all this trouble? There is something else she is not telling me.
‘Pretti, it does seem to be amazeballs but I’m getting a hint of a secret motive behind all of this? C’mon spit it out, you have to tell me. The cat’s out of the bag.’
Morris takes his prime seat in front of the screen. He likes to be centre of attention and annoying at the same time. It’s all me me me with him. My pause for paws removal from the keyboard gives Pretti a few seconds to take advantage of my distraction.
‘Listen darling, I have to run. Have a think about it and let me know, please? I do hope you say yes though.’
‘Ok, I’ll have a think about it.’ There is something wrong, she’s just avoiding the question, typically Pretti. Well if she’s not ready to tell me yet it must be something pretty big if she’s doing all of this to get me to see her….
‘Wonderful. Okay darling, really must dash, time and tide are the only things that won’t wait for me, despite trying! Take care, speak to your boss then pack your bag. Mwah.’ She blows me a kiss down the line and then she’s gone down the ether, a genie back into her bottle.
All of this requires a massive chunk of chocolate and a gallon of tea. It’s a puzzle that need’s solving. I feel a bit like Nancy Drew, first whiff of a mystery and I have a hint of a clue or two. But then I’m not Nancy Drew and after the chocolate has successfully been demolished and the tea is polished off, I’m no closer to any idea why she would want me over there so badly. I mean she has the perfect life. The pictures she sends are all examples of this: a flash house, the top of the range car, a husband who adores her and of course she has the perfect job for the ardent feminist. Maybe it’s just me and she is being genuinely helpful?
‘What do you think Morris?’ As usual he thinks its best to go to sleep and dream of catching mice. ‘That’s cute but not helpful’ I tell him, giving him some nice strokes whilst I contemplate this potential escape from the grey boring prison of British spring.
First things first, I need to check with my boss as to why I cannot possibly take any time off, I let Pretti know I can’t come and that will be the end of it. Then she will have to spit out the real reason I’m being badgered into going out there. The actual problem is that picture of Lucy. I want to teach her to swim, give her the freedom to have fun in the water, to maybe find something she is good at, like me. After all, I’ve been there. I head to bed, taking old man Morris with me, no wiser to Pretti’s predicament or less guilty about not letting Lucy into the joyous world of swimming.
Early misty Monday morning and I’m outside Glynnis’ office at the leisure centre. It’s perfectly neat and trim, precisely like Glynnis. Every item is labelled and the item’s dedicated spot are also labelled, so you know if you were ever to get anything in the wrong place too. And anything that can possibly be laminated is laminated. Then it’s waterproof and official, that’s the power of lamination.
As I survey the scene through the glass window she’s using ‘that damn computer’ as she has labelled it, typing as if it contained some kind of bacterial superbug that strikes you dead if you press the keys for too long or have your hands just that bit too close. It’s a wonder she’s not wearing gloves. She’s actually quite a good instructor, strict on punctuality and pretty old school with the rules. No wearing of goggles for the first year of swimming lessons on Glynnis’ watch.
‘Er morning Glynnis’ I say cheerily, entering the room in a mock whirlwind fashion, hoping to disturb some papers and stir up a bad mood. ‘How was your weekend? Another rave filled ecstasy and acid trip binge I expect?’
I get a peer over the spectacles that are usually propped on top of her head so she can blow the whistle at any misbehaviour and then easily move them to the bridge of her nose to assist with timetables or length timings. Her short strawberry blonde hair is perfectly styled as usual and her uniform is expertly ironed. She always creases her nose up at my efforts of presentation, ironing is a science for those who are anally retentive, especially when I’m rarely in anything but my cossie and my hair is always either wet, stuffed into a swimming cap or doing its own thing no matter how hard I try to tame it. Totes pointless.
‘One of these days I will take an ecstasy tablet just to shut you lot up. Enough nonsense about discos and the like, I’ve got enough to do on this damn machine without any of that. What did you want to see me about?’
I spill out my pre-rehearsed splurge, to be efficient and also to get to the refusal as quickly as possible. ‘So a friend of mine wants me to go and visit her in Africa. You know I like Africa, well she’s found a volunteering position and I can teach orphans to swim and learn the language. I’ll need a few months off work, like a sabbatical I guess? Anyway I told her we were busy and that you need me so I just wanted tell her officially it wasn’t possible to have some time, you know, for Africa and all of that stuff?’
She stops typing. Then she stares at me again over the specs, for a moment, digesting my buffet of words.
‘I’m thinking that it’s your the one that’s been on the acid trip?’ She pauses, the specs move to top of head position, reserved for deep thought and instruction. ‘Hmm. It might just do you good, getting out of here. You’ve needed a break for a while. And it may just solve my staffing problem…. Let me see.’
She snatches down the laminated rota from beside her on the information board. She looks at it for a very long time. Like forever. I’m starting to get nervous. Staffing problem? What’s that all about?
‘I’ll put George on for some extra shifts and then Tamara can cover when she has finished her exams. That’ll give you until October when she goes off to University. Then you can come back and you will take over Tammy’s classes. I’ll let everyone know at the next team briefing and change the rotas. Free to go. Now scoot.’ She moves into her typing pose hands up Tyrannosaurus Rex style ready to start stabbing her prey of letters again.
‘What? So it’s a yes? Kind of thought you would say no…’
Shit shit shit. Aaargh. Glynnis turns back to me. ‘Have an adventure. It would do you good. You are always saying I’m too stiff and boring. Take the chance whilst you can. I didn’t. Opportunity doesn’t knock twice. You’re young and free, have fun. Then come back and don’t moan so much. That’s all I am going to say on the matter. Out!’
Dinosaur hands shoo me away and I slink back out of the office, knowing that once Glynnis has agreed to a rota change there is no going back….
‘Karibu Tanzania darling! How are you doing my love?’
I’m not as much jet lagged but jet flagged but I manage to locate Pretti in the midst of a throng of meeters and greeters at arrivals gate. I rush over to her, jump out from behind my trolley of bags and give her a huge hug. Hugs are my favourite thing and even though she is still pint sized, she is surprisingly strong and I get a satisfying squeeze in return.
‘I’m so glad to see you! I like made it in one piece! Can you believe it?’
‘Me too, you look as beautiful as ever, your hair is soo long and you haven’t got any shorter that’s for sure! I should have remembered to dig out my heels, you lanky bitch, hahaha.’
‘Right back atcha dogface! Yeah no heels, what’s that all about? I’ve missed you so much, thanks for coming to pick me up.’
‘It’s my pleasure, darling, after all it was all my dastardly plan. Now, let’s get out of here and I can get you home to a nice cup of that builders tea you like, some wholemeal muffins and air con.’
Wow, I think, I step into Africa and Pretti makes it sound like she lives in a posh coffee shop. I smile, and we both look at each other. It’s been too long, but when you go through an experience together, facing what life throws at you as a team, anytime apart is quickly forgotten.
‘Sounds great, I really really need a shower though, and a nap, and and I’m not sure what else...I feel like a sweaty pig, I mean just look at my fringe?’ It’s stuck to my forehead in a very unflattering slap after sitting on a plane for eleven hours in recycled breath and now plunged into an open-air sauna. ‘But you, as always, have this glowing aura. How do you float around in a perpetual state of perfect goddess? It must be your Indian genes, like some kind of anti-sweat super power, the girl with an inbuilt inherited ability to look like a model in baking temperatures.’
‘Darling, I’ve been here long enough to adjust, but it won’t be long until we get you to my home where there’s a lovely hot or cold water shower in your bathroom and plenty of clean fluffy towels.’ I relocate my trolley of bags and we start walking away from the mêlée of relatives and taxi men waiting for other arrivals to appear. We walk arm in arm as Pretti fills me in on everything. Amina, our housegirl, is there all day and can cook for you or do anything you need. ‘We have cable TV and a full fridge, just take time to relax, get some sleep, freshen up and be ready for sundowners later because we are going OUT. You can meet lots of my wonderful friends and have a little fun; this is the start of an amaazing new adventure for you. You have made it here that is brave enough. And it is so exciting! Now let’s get you into the car.’
The airport is surprisingly small for a capital city, and the car park is right across from the open side of the building. We stroll slowly over to Pretti’s large, pristine 4x4. It seems ridiculously big for her but I know she can handle it like a rally driver, she lives to ‘man up’. The sun is pretty hardcore, the super bright white light is not only enveloping me from above but also reflecting back at me from the tarmac below and the other parked cars around me, blindingly. I squint my eyes, it’s only just touching eight in the morning, it must be boiling later on. Even though I am hot, tired and quickly dampening my clothes, the warmth is a welcome blanket for me, escaping the winter blues. I smile as think ironically, I can’t wait to lie out and take in the rays.
‘Ok darling, prepare yourself for the ride of your life.’
There’s that cheeky glint in her eye, a flash of a smirk and I’m not sure whether she is referring to her driving or what is coming round the corner. As we move away slowly she starts a running commentary of everything we pass by. In the background is the soundtrack to my first sights of Africa, something typically of Pretti’s mash of music taste, always ultra-cool and slightly hippy. This time its been updated a little to a mix of laid back hip hop overlaid by a woman gently singing. She lyrically transforms the view beyond into a cinematic projection, as if out there is just a film, a TV show, only make believe, a vision, with an additional voiceover provided by my local guide.
Out from the airport driveway there is a tarmac road and then suddenly a gap appears as the tarmac disappears and we’re on rough road made from red dirt and random stones and then a large puddle appears from nowhere and now we’re behind a petrol tanker and a matching large shiny 4x4 cuts us up and then a battered old minivan undertakes us and then we are back on tarmac and we grind to a halt as an articulated lorry is pulling out across all four lanes, or five if you count the extra lane which is really the footpath but is actually the dirt verge.
‘Woah, there Schumacher on speed! Pretti, you weren’t kiddin were you?’
‘Of course not, this is what keeps my brain sharp and my fingers flexible. It is the reason girls get manicures, a perfect way to show them off.’
We giggle; knowing that Pretti can be very chilled out and usually takes everything in her stride, which considering her job is pretty traumatic makes her an absolute legend. Behind the wheel however, she likes to be ‘Queen of the Road’ by getting all her anger out through rude gestures.
‘You learned so much from me....’
We’re surrounded by local transport that Pretti points her manicure to next.
‘These are repatriated Chinese or Japanese or Korean school buses, serving out their retirement in Dar after a long route via a demolition derby through the Gobi and Sahara. Now they are in a funny disguise, they are colour coded by route, named by start and finish on their faces, so if god forbid, you dared to take one then at least you know where you are going from and to. After that you are on your own.
All I see is their butts tagged in graffiti stickers, some are of a kind of broken advert slogan English or some form of Arabic, probably messages to Allah and there’s an occasional nod to Jesus or pictures of Che Guevara or Kanye West and words I don’t understand in what must be Swahili. Passengers seem to be stuffed inside in a tangle of yoga shapes for a world record attempt of bodies in a bus.
Pretti next points out the ragged dark blue overalls, the ‘uniform’ of the conductor who is hanging out the door, ushering more commuters in, to compact, compress and condense. In front of us now there are small trucks piled high with teetering lumpy sacks or saggy smooth sacks, overflowing on the top and sides and yet there is at least one person perched on the brow or lounging on the tailgate, waiting for, or oblivious to, the ultimate buckaroo. I laugh, there’s no health and safety, just needs and means.
And we are moving again, there are small cars that struggle slowly over the dips and bumps by parting a small grunt, old 4x4’s that tackle every ditch with ease and a let loose a triumphant growl and white saloon cars named ‘taxi’ that scrape and screech and squeal through the cavities. It’s hot and dusty and humid and there is the bitter smell of burning as smoke clouds its way over to us from a pile of something on fire at the side of the road. I see tall buildings, small buildings, warehouses, shopping centres, some buildings half built, their storeys propped up by giant twig-like supports as if a game of jenga is being played by Goliath and the Colossus of Rhodes and factories with TV screens silently advertsing what looks like bread and juice. Beside these are the washing lines, hanging from apartment block balconies that seem to be maybe only twenty years old but are so dirty and worn already that they look like they smoked crack for the majority of it.
Suddenly we’re at an intersection. People appear at the window, young children who work as those super annoying windscreen washers armed with an old wiper who swoop and splash and swipe whether you want it or not, same the world over. Pretti’s shouts ‘No, no!’ through the door in a vain attempt to make them stop, but it doesn’t make any difference. Then there are deaf boys making clicks and whistles and squeaks through the glass and more young kids who gesture for food moving up and down the lines searching for pellets of grub in a real-life game of pac-man, and disabled people begging, being pushed around in wheelchairs or pushing themselves in trikes by hand or just getting by on crutches or just sitting in the middle of the road, all looking longingly, asking politely, suffering the heat as well as their immobility.
Then we are off again, as a policeman waves us by, enthusiastically replacing any traffic signals and we are passing small shop fronts, with goods and contents escaping onto the street, old fridges and sofas in crazy 70’s carpet prints and new kettles and plastic Tupperware and tyres and tables and coffins and plants and then the shops disappear and it’s just the wares for sale in the grass verges with skirts and dresses in hangers on trees and hats and shoes and shirts and shorts laid out in neat rows. There are big adverts for beer and cigarettes and jeans and mobiles and beer along the highways and the small adverts down the small streets for massage places and photocopying and passport photos and phones and shoe repairs and photocopying and barbers.
‘What’s that they’re doing?’ I ask, looking over to my right.
‘Making street food, darling, your classic take-aways that keeps you alive. There are kebabs, chips, fried chicken and a dash of salad, what I call heart attack in a bag, you, what English call Friday night late night’.
We both chuckle at the square wonky barbecue stands and big woks of oil. Just further ahead some guys are arc welding with no eye protection or chatting watching what must be football on TV, as there are lots of the same English jerseys of teams from England. ‘They support the same football teams?’ I enquire. Pretti doesn’t know much about football, she’s a rugger girl, it’s much more stately and private school. I know a bit, being a northern girl you don’t get far in life without either knowing soccer inside out, or at some point going out with a man who does.
I look at their faces; most are smiling, even though they seem to have little. It’s a first impression, people appear happy through the window of my safe tourist carriage.
Then we have stopped again and an ice cream man comes past which is just an white ice box on the front of a white bicycle with a white sun roof and there’s just one cornetto tune playing, sounding like it’s out of a Victorian jukebox, same the world over, and there are people playing frogger between the cars selling newspapers and cashews and pirate DVD’s and glossy British magazines and coat hangers and pillows and shoe racks and large maps and fly swotting electric tennis rackets. It’s an exciting game of real-life scaletrix, the drive home part of an amusement park that thrills, threatens to spill and sometimes makes you grip your seat with nervous anticipation of the next big dip.
There are motorbikes stuffed with bread, neatly displaying in all directions like a multi-loaf armed Hindu dough god and women with large crazy loud print dresses balancing full buckets or huge shopping bags on their heads whilst carrying a baby strapped to their back and somehow texting on their mobile phones, no need for hands free, and bare-chested ripped sweaty men pushing big heavy wooden carts ferrying jerry cans and rubbish and fruit and sometimes nothing past other guys just sleeping, under the tree or on a bench or anywhere.
Bug eyed bajajis, an invasive version of the Asian tuk-tuk, are zigzagging their way past stationary vehicles, crawling ahead with a rattling hum, waggling their waspy exhaust tails.
Soon we are on our way again, the tarmac has become smooth and efficient and complete and now needs speed humps, there are less vehicles, mainly just the big 4x4’s, the shops are all spaced out now, little clusters only sprouting on corners, the houses are becoming grander, some sneaking a peek from behind big gates, a littering of embassies, the tall umbrella open and umbrella closed shaped trees are more abundant, bright fuchsia pink flowers are garnishing the walls,
you can smell the sea, see the waves dancing, you can hear the birds chirping,
and the organised chaos has become more orderly and less chaotic,
and ultimate dodgems is coming to a close and we’re safely at the gate.
Pretti’s house is a welcome sanctuary after that crazy blur that was the ride home. The big wooden front door opens on a bevel, a grand entrance to an oasis, a mix of eastern temple with African highlights. I plonk myself down amidst the expanse of calm, cream sofas covered with local textiles and comfy cushions. I’m looked down upon by a myriad of wooden statues of entwined lovers, abstract paintings of African landscapes and weird instruments. It’s stylish and modern, yet homely….in fact it’s a bit too much like home.
‘Wow, Pretti, you’ve done alright! It’s way better than any house I’ve ever been to, I mean check out the size of your flatscreen! The whole place looks more like something from LA or somewhere just as posh, not quite the colonial gaffs in films n that, I mean you don’t have any stuffed heads anywhere?’
‘No, dear, Buddhism doesn’t really welcome displays of death. I must say It’s an absolute pleasure to finally have you here, I’m so glad you decided to come and see me.’
‘Well you pretty much twisted my arm…’
“Darling this is Sokoine, one of the guards’ I turn and a tall, lean, dark, blanket wrapped man appears, silently. He nods, brings in my bags and quietly takes them upstairs. A white ball of fluff, with a very happy face and a wagging tail, follows him inside.
‘Hey Tiny’, Pretti says as the pup, a Bichon Frise, welcomes me with a lick and some enthusiastic bumbling around my feet, smelling, sniffing and digesting the new guest’s personal signature.
‘You might come across Alfie later’ she informs me, ’He is the stripey cat that looks like a tiger and will want his lunch, which is in the fridge, if you are up and about. Other wise Amina will see to him.’ Like all cats he is probably off for an early morning adventure, not too dissimilar to Morris’. Wonder if he is ok, will have to see if I can check on him later.
She comes to perch on the end of the sofas. ‘A quick run down of the house, darling. Use this one for the TV channels, you have a BBC channel on there somewhere, movies, entertainment not much you won’t recognize.’ She stops waving the wand and swaps it for another. ‘Now this one is for the DVD player, just put whatever DVD you can find in that chest beside you and it automatically switches over. Some are copies, so you may find the sound or picture are a bit funny so use this one for the TV controls. Moving on to the kitchen….Amina? Aminaaaa?’
There is a shuffle of footsteps and then a tiny lady pops her head through to the kitchen from the backdoor.
‘Ah, there you are. This is the houseguest I told you about.’
’Good morning Madam.’ She almost whispers it to me. Amina maybe only just nay over five feet, a move by Pretti to make her feel taller, no doubt. She is also probably one of the thinnest people I’ve ever seen and with the most perfect, naturally white teeth you would pay thousands of pounds for back in the UK. Her hair is sectioned into squares and little braids stick out from all angles.
‘Amina, please can you make one cup of tea? Darling do you want breakfast?’
‘I’m ok, just a cup of tea will do me.’
‘Fabulous. I’m going to have to dash to the office very soon, so have a look around the cupboards and your room is on the left at the top of the stairs.’
She heads off in that direction and I take up the offer to be nosey. There is a water fountain and the fridge could fit three elephants in there as well as the salad items and jars and jars of condiments that inhabit it already. Lacking wine though, wonder where that can be? On the front there is a fancy ice machine, and, like she said, the cupboards are full of all the things you would find in the UK, from baked beans to proper mustard to lemon curd.
Then I make my most exciting discovery. Through the patio doors I can see an inviting pool, perfect size for exercise, chilling out and probably the most awesome pool parties ever. Cannot wait to get in there later!
A buzz of frenetic energy alerts me to Pretti’s reappearance. ‘Ok promise you will call if you need anything?’
I’m confused, perhaps she has forgotten. ‘Erm I don’t have a phone?’
She rummages in her huge handbag that makes her look even smaller and is bound to be designer.
‘Ok here use this one, my number is in there, but I’ll be home before you know it. Please, make yourself at home, eat what you like, use the pool, just don’t leave the house, can’t have you wandering off just yet.’
‘Roger that. Message received loud and clear. Think I might have to go straight to bed, over and out.’
‘You do that. Toodles!’
‘Thanks!’ I say as she exits in a flurry. I’m finally kind of alone to process the last few hours.
I manage to find my room upstairs and sit on the bed for just a moment, taking all this in. I have to admit; it’s not what I expected. At the moment I think it’s kind of no different to home, except its sunny and really really hot outside. I don’t believe I am in Africa; I’m thousands of miles away, but this is kind of a weird super luxury version of home? I’m relieved I got here on my own after I was kind of forced into making such a significant decision. I want to wake up refreshed and able to figure this out, there is something wrong I can’t quite figure out. She didn’t mention anything about Phil, but he is probably working away right now.
I’m in a cocoon, surrounded by recognizable comforts; I feel protected and looked after. I test out the baptising shower facilities and finally feel clean but now totally drained, I slide between the cool sheets under the icy breath of the air conditioning unit. It’s soothingly quiet apart from the humming, which is sending me into a much needed post flight induced coma. I finally submit to the tiredness, the puzzle will have to be solved later….when I’m woken up again seemingly moments later.
‘Sorry darling. I couldn’t just bear to leave you here. And to be honest I wouldn’t be on top form at work today either.’
‘That’s ok’ I mumble, as she climbs into bed with me and whispers the answer to the riddle.
‘Phil and I have separated.’
‘Ok.’ Eyes closed, snuggled in, I’m drifting off again. That makes sense. Perfect sense. Then again it….
A voice jolts me out of the darkness. ‘So, are you a missionary, mercenary, madman or misfit?’
‘Aiiiiieeeee….’ Is all I can manage before falling backwards in a spectacularly awful tumble back into the water.
A hand reaches down to me in the warm sea, ‘Here, let me help you up.’ He appears like a shadow, an outline of a thin man against the night, a trickster ghost who first scares me then comes to my rescue.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t think anyone was on board, I just needed a short rest and I kind of had to leave the party on the boat over there’ I point wildly in the direction of the huge fishing boat with the 80’s rock music still pumping out of it, ‘but I didn’t want to seem rude so anyway sorry again I’ll not disturb you and and right, I’ll go now. Thanks, sorry, shit what a fucked up evening.’
‘Woah, calm down there missy. Breathe, sit, chill.’
He guides me to a bench on the boat that is topped with a slither of foam padding. He leaves me there whilst he lights a small old-fashioned lamp, the kind of thing you see in period dramas, glass, a flame and a metal handle. I can see him now, the shadows have a revealed a lean man, with some muscle, his face is mostly a neatly trimmed beard, topped off with stunning electric blue eyes and a nest of brown hair. Weirdly alluring, wild and yet calm. He unscrews a bottle, pours out two healthy measures into mugs and hands me one.
‘Here, seems like you could do with some of this.’ His voice is almost worldy, without a strong accent of anywhere or class or whatever else you could call distinguishable?
‘Thanks.’ He disappears below deck and I take a few sips of what turns out to be a not bad whiskey. At least I’m off that freaking boat. Kind of stuck on another one now, jees I do get myself into stupid situations.
After a short while he pops up back on deck, throws me a t-shirt and shorts.
‘Here, you might want to put these on. Lovely lingerie by the way.’ He winks at me and my night couldn’t be getting any more suggestive, not after what just happened on the ‘party express’.
It’s enough to send my internal alarm bell off again for the second time tonight, now this time, however, totes my fault. When you spend most of your days in a swimming costume you kind of forget that you’re just in your wet underwear and on a strangers boat. In Africa. In the dark. On my own, with someone I don’t know in M&S knickers and bra. Lordy lord. I put the faded top and boardies on pretty damn quick.
He climbs into a hammock, conveniently spaced adjacent to the table. He leans over and gathers some rolling papers and a zip lock bag, which, I can only imagine, contains the illegal type of weed. He begins constructing a smoke.
‘So tell me, what’s the craic with the party? Was the champagne not chilled to the right temperature? Maybe the canapés were very last year? Was there a fight over who was hoovering all the Charlie?’ Now his voice has character, sneeringly so. The acidity of his party critique bites through the salty air.
‘It’s not often I get visitors, well hardly ever and even rarer in the female form, hope you can earn that tot of JB.’ He takes a sip of whiskey, nods over in my direction, lights his spliff and lies back, ready for a good tale. He makes lying in the hammock look so easy, oozing relaxation from every pore.
And so I begin, ‘Erm, it wasn’t quite like that. Basically my friend invited me to a boat party where I don’t know anyone cause I just arrived this morning but it sounded really cool and she wanted to get wasted so I said ok. At first it seemed fun, we had like the cheapest G&T sundowners over there so we could see sun going down, er hence sundowners erm yeah it was beautiful like and then we got in the smaller boat out to the party boat. No canapés, champagne or Charlie to be seen, or at least what I saw, just mainly people in shorts and t-shirts, pretty much like this I suppose’ I say pulling at the new attire I’ve acquired, ‘eating BBQ food and drinking beer. Listening to 80’s rock, as you can probably tell. Nowt flash like.’
‘Hmm.’ He draws on the spliff creating a halo of haze above his curly mop. ‘What made you go overboard?’
The whiskey is hitting the spot now. ‘It was fun at first, my friend was getting very drunk and nattering on to one of the women on board so I was stuck being the newbie, everyone generally talking about some gossip about other people I don’t know, or places I’ve not heard of or sailing politics. Felt really like a fish out of water.’
I down the rest of the whiskey.
‘It’s a small community, your just another new face, most of the long-termers here won’t bother to waste their time with you. Here,’ he says, shoving the bottle towards me, ‘have some more of this, at least one person tonight will make you feel welcome.’ He shows me his set of perfect teeth as they reflect from the light of the ancient lamp.
‘Thanks.’ I pour myself a generous tot, now that I’m not almost naked I’m beginning to feel a bit more at ease. ‘Ah well it wasn’t quite like that, I suppose, there were a couple of nice couples, they seemed interested in me. They even invited me to their house parties, sounded good, hot tub, pool….’
He interrupts with a loud coughing, ‘I’m sure they did. Did they also let on as to what goes on at their parties?’
He sits up in the hammock, legs straddling either side. ‘Ok. Let’s back up a minute here. What did ya say you were doing here? Visiting your friend?’
‘Yes and I’m going to be teaching swimming lessons at the local orphanage.’
‘Thzzzzsssppp, hahahahahaha’ he spits out his smoke admist a guffaw of laughter.
‘What’s so funny?’ I have no idea why that should be so amusing, no one has ever laughed before about swimming lessons. Ever. Fact.
‘Ah. You gotta be kidding me?’ He leans back into the hammock and sways gently, using his spliff as a mini-conducting accompaniment to his story. ‘NGO do-gooder at toffy boat party immediately gets invited to swingers clubs, you must have died and gone to heaven. What you doing on my boat? Get back over there and have the time of ya life!’ He points back over to my Alcatraz and laughs.
‘Oh. My. God. Are you serious?’ At this point all I can do is put my head in my hands. I’m feeling quite drunk but not so drunk that this isn’t all making some kind of stupid sense. He keeps laughing and sniggering as I stand up, I now have to find a way of leaving without being rude yet again. What is it with this place?
‘Look thanks for the drink and the clothes but I think I should be going, and I’d like to get back to land, not the party if possible? Is that ok?’
‘Hooo, hold tight.’ I sit back down, not much else I can do. He’s still mildly howling as he tumbles out of the hammock and almost crawls towards the inside of the boat. He leans over and makes a call to the ‘dingey’ on the radio in Swahili.
“I guess that means the dinghy is coming?’ I call out, kind of desperate to know this living nightmare might actually have a resolution.
‘Yeah don’t worry, its coming. It’ll take about fifteen minutes or so, so just chill man, ya got the best stories any how.’ He effortlessly regains his seat in the hammock, brushes some of the wild nest hair to the side and continues to give me a lesson in winding down.
‘Well as much as they are amusing you they are embarrassing me.’
‘Ah c’mon, lighten up a little. You sure are being introduced to the finest Dar has to offer. I’m just letting you know. I’m not the one offering my wife to you, think about it.’ There’s that cheeky smile again.
Damn. He has been kind of cruel, but also very kind. I mean I wouldn’t appreciate some wally washing up on the rear of my boat, specially when she’s obviously so naïve.
‘Oh, of course. You’re right. I’ve just had such a, such an odd evening, really, I think I should go home. I’ve only been here one day and well, Africa is not what I imagined, at all. I mean look, I’m staying with my friend who is going through a bit of a bad time right now but man she lives like royalty and so do all her friends with these fancy boats and stuff which is totes not what I thought Africa was all about, then on my first night out not only am I ignored by most of her mates cause I’m not around for long enough but then I get unwittingly invited to a sex party? I mean what the fuck, literally? Then, just to make this seem like I’m on another planet, I get felt up by the seriously fat, loud, drunk, South African boat owner and its such an awkward situation ‘cos its his food and drink I’ve been indulging in which means that I can’t explain why I suddenly need to leave. I felt trapped, and for me the easiest way out was just swimming away. So, I end up jumping off the end of the boat and no-one actually notices, which, thinking about it, is a good and a bad thing too ‘cos what if I had too much to drink and was drowning or something? Now I end up here and after scaring me shitless to start with, you’re basically saying that…’
‘I’m saying what you said earlier, that you ARE a fish out of water. Take some advice.’ He pauses, takes a drink and looks me in eye. ‘It’s day one, sure you got the shitty end of the shit stick but so what? This IS Africa, it IS bongo crazy, you’ve already got a story to write home about. You’re not the first one to get an offer to a party and woah, surprise!! When ya get there it’s all about shagging some old guy whilst his wife watches and ya won’t be the last, take it from me, I know these fekkers. And as for Johan, well what can I say? He’s a dirty old man and he’s getting worse. He’s rich, he’s drunk most of the time and likes to think grabbing boobs or whatever is just friendly foreplay. That’s, that’s kind of how things are here. Raw; Broken. Don’t take it personally, but if you don’t man up then go home. You need to take a dive into the deep end, sink or swim. There’s no place here for a softie. That I can tell ya for free.’
Then it’s all a bit too much. I’m not sure whether it’s the whiskey, the multiple embarrassments already or just tiredness and being so far away from home.
‘Please,’ I say, some tears breaking their way free from my eyes, ‘I don’t have a phone and I’m staying at my friend Pretti’s house. Do you know her? How I can contact her? I just want her to come and get me.’
He grabs a phone next to him on the table. A couple of thumb movements later and he’s talking into it. ‘Hi Pretti, can you hear me? Your mate’s here. Ya, on Karisma. I know. Ya, she’s getting on the dingey soon so she will see ya back at the quarterdeck. Ya. Twenty minutes tops I reckon. Sure. No problem. Laters.’
He puts the phone down and says quietly. ‘Wait for her at the club.’
‘You know ya friend well?’
No, Nemo. Ya Pretti. How she doin?’
‘She’s ok. Why, what’s up?’ I’m curious now. He’s fishing. Not sure what he knows already about her so will have to keep schtum.
‘So you know that she’s split from Phil, ya?’
‘Yes, but that’s all I know.’
‘Well I take it ya on team Pretti right? ‘Cos ya better know there’s a definite split. A whole lotta meat on that there story. Town’s been dining on it for weeks.’
‘1. She’s my friend, 2. She’s my friend and 3. I’ve only just got here so I don’t have any insider info for ‘ya’. Sorry.’
‘That’s not much fun.’ He pulls a sad clown face. ‘I’ll trade you. Go on. Take a risk.’
‘Look, thanks for rescuing me but I really don’t have anything to ‘trade’. Us girls don’t go round spreading tales on each other. What team are you on?’
‘Sure. I get it, ya know it kinds of keeps me going a bit. Out here.’
He walks off to the other end of the boat. I hear the sound of pissing so I take a chance to finish the whiskey. Bloody Africa. Bloody Pretti. Bloody everything. Now I’ve pissed this guy right off, not playing the game. He must be lonely, why else be so nosey? He walks back and sits down, facing out to sea an uncomfortable silence builds. I remember what happened earlier and think it might help fill the void.
‘What you said before, what did you mean?’
‘By what?’ He doesn’t turn round, I catch what he says though.
‘When I first fell off the boat, you were talking about missionaries and mad people or something?’
‘Ah yeah. The four types of people who come to Dar.’
The gentle humming of the engine signals the dinghy’s arrival, interrupting the conversation. ‘Ya taxi’s here.’
‘Oh good! Listen, thanks again. Erm I don’t even know your name? Sorry, I haven’t asked anything about you, I’ve just been wittering on.’
He turns to look at me. ‘I never offered my name and you never asked me, likewise I have no clue who you are, mermaid. Now get on the boat, get back to saving orphans or whatever will make you happy. I wish you good luck.’
I climb into the small metal boat with a sigh of relief. He stands on the back edge of the boat, the spot where I fell off earlier, as the dinghy pulls away.
‘Tell Pretti I said hi,’ he yells over the noise of the engine, ‘And to watch out for Andrea.’
I nod. Oh shit! ‘What about your clothes?’ I pull at the shirt and shorts but he’s turned back, most likely to sit back in the blue hammock, smoke and feed off gossip.