Every so often in life you get the chance to retrace the steps of a younger self, feeling both the proximity of place and the distance of time. Something of a paradox. Almost 10 years ago to the month I left my country, Zimbabwe, to venture to the land of my birth, England. I had no recollection of the place whatsoever bar a brief one week visit 5 years earlier (an aborted attempt!).
Thinking back it does seem a long way off. Some memories are quite vivid, others dim like an aged negative, the contrast fading and the detail losing its sharp edges. Catching the National Express in from Stansted brought the suburbs of north London into focus. A glimpse of a clear stream and a sign pointing in the direction of the Lee Valley reminded me that I wasn’t all that far away from Bedfordshire and the environs of Luton, where I spent a few fairly indifferent years of my life. The connections were tenuous but they were there. I’d made friends with a couple through a local church towards the end of my time. They had relocated to Germany where Marieke was from and they’d visited us in our community near the Dutch border with their 4 kids not long before.
There is something in the character of England and its people that exudes a confidence, sometimes verging on pomposity, sometimes crudeness, depending on circumstance and place. During the process of checking-in, boarding and the flight over I’d lazily observed my fellow passengers and attempted to mentally categorised them on the basis of nationality. Waiting on the tarmac I was in line with a British couple who bemoaned the price of the cab to the airport. They’d been visiting friends in Goch. She was very chipper, verging on flirtatious while he was more of the staid, happiest-when-mildly-cynical sort of a Brit. Did I know how much the British government had sold off the former army base that was now Weeze Airport (used mainly by low cost carriers like Ryan Air)? I professed not to but on being pressed guessed £100, 000. That pleased him. Nope, £1! he announced with disdain. Can you actually believe it? That’s our government for you.
On the flight over I found myself in an aisle seat next to 2 young ladies of apparent Middle-Eastern complexion. They prattled away in German, giggling and flicking through pictures on their phones. Later in the flight one of them attempted to buy duty-free cigarettes from the air hostess but was politely declined. On the adjacent row a young British teen watched a film on her phone. Later when she stood up to disembark I got a glimpse of her Whatsapp. Her user profile appeared to be ‘Little C**t’. How charming…
Back in the coach to London we moved deeper into the environs of the city. Shoreditch High Street hove into view and the driver stopped to let some people disembark. I looked across the road at a stupendously perfect advertisement for Swatch, not on a billboard, but applied in paint to the brickwork on the side of a building. With some admiration I wondered by what state-of-the-art technique it had been applied. Glancing upward I noticed a familiar looking, purple-flowering, shrub, emerging from between the whitewashed bricks. A Buddleia.
A little further on, or was it further back, a glimpse at a sign on a building at street level read Tower Hamlets Labour (the political party). Beneath it was scrawled some Asian-language script. I’m out of my depth here. Next to the Labour branch was a bar, its name boldly spelt out in neon: Satan’s Whiskers. Yip, I was definitely in one of the ‘mixed’ boroughs, the sort that I felt more attracted to if I was to be honest. Give me Tower Hamlets over Kensington most any day of the week.
The approach to Liverpool Street Station brought some memories flooding back: being disgorged from the tube late afternoon-evening and scurrying along to one assignment or another in the catering/hospitality industry. I’d initially worked in events as a champagne waiter and soon after signing up for the more regular pay provided through relief catering to offices, banquets and special events. With a wry smile I recalled the frigid occasion on which I’d hawked men’s suits for Marks and Spencers on these very same streets. It had reportedly been a hugely successful campaign for M&S, but less so for me. I worked my ass off but was paid by the hour (£10 or £12) just like the other slackers on my shift.
The London Underground had lost none of its charm: the urgency of the turnstiles (can I really use my contactless card now? What if it’s rejected and people behind me get annoyed?), the disorientation of the inclined escalators, the massed advertising whenever you were stationary for a brief moment. I spent that evening catching up with an old friend and it was good. He and his wife, both professionals and without kids, lived in an apartment overlooking one of the canals. They had renovated it tastefully. His father had been an acclaimed architect back in Africa, so perhaps some of it was transferred. After the wedding I’d return for another night’s stay.
On the train down to Winchester the following morning I noticed an abundance of Buddleia growing along the rail sidings. Funny that. Now that I knew what the plant looked like, courtesy of a lady in my community back in the community who’d donated one, it seemed to be popping up everywhere. It was certainly locally abundant but was it as widespread as my random sightings suggested?
I have to say that Winchester has some charm. The sort that tourists hanker for when seeking out history, and by that I mean cobbled streets, medieval churches and higgledy-piggledy streets which defy even the most adept of map-readers (I’m not amongst them). I had a few hours before my rendezvous with the wedding party at Brasserie Blanc, a restaurant neatly situated besides a small public car park and a Theatre-Library (couldn’t tell which) during which I checked into my accommodation and strolled through the city centre.
When the time came I was a few minutes later than the appointed hour. No matter. Champagne was being given out to the new arrivals and the other guests were chatting amiably on the upper level of the establishment. The groom guided me to the balcony below which was locked the pedal bike I’d hired for the weekend. I’m pretty sure I was the only guest traveling by that particular mode of transport but more of that later.
Weddings are strange affairs. They bring together people from all walks of life and, as in the case of JP and Menna, from at least two distinct English-speaking cultural backgrounds. Behold the smattering of individuals from the year group of ’97, St Georges College, Zimbabwe – Dan, Sean, Simon and Tom – none of whom I could consider close friends but with most of whom I was on amicable terms. Likewise most were as I remembered them, a few pounds heavier in some cases, a few grey hairs more in others. In the seating arrangements I landed up next to a varsity mate of the groom’s, Craig.
Attentive and unpretentious he had come down from Scotland where he worked in a family business. He had gone to one of the rival schools in Harare so there was fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of conversation: Rector’s Day rivalry, corporal punishment, waterpolo and the like. Craig was also the unofficial wedding photographer. He had been gifted a digital SLR but professed he was very much an amateur. It wasn’t as if JP couldn’t afford a wedding photographer considering his occupation but, being similarly unpretentious in such areas of life, a mate with a decent lens would do just fine.
Opposite me was the beautiful and elegant Sarah, wearing a pink floral dress of satin or silk. It certainly marked her out. Tall and slim, she possessed chiselled features – good bone structure they’d probably have said in Victorian times – and flawless olive skin. Whom I guessed to be her mum and sister were sat at an adjacent table and I could see the dark complexion, facial features and height were common traits. I imagined her perfectly in the role of a Latino-heroine in some Isabel Allende novel. A contemporary Daughter-of-Fortune.
Sitting directly to my left was the French wife of another contemporary of mine. Both she and he worked for a very large French company. They had an infant girl with them, Lena or Lana, an obvious source of happiness and many sleepless nights. Being closest to me and given the ambient noise it was easiest to talk to either her or Craig. For the first part of the evening I spoke with her. We could connect around the subject of parenthood but after talking for some time about her position in the company, her career aspirations and her demands for better pay and more recognition I found my attention drifting back to Craig.
The speeches were heartfelt and sincere. Firstly the Father-in-Law, Hugh, and then Menna, JP and Best Man, Scott, in turn. Scott had always had the good fortune of looking the fresh-faced youth but his face was filling out and lo-behold, a few lines had appeared. A decent slab of salmon, dessert and several glasses of red wine later and we were on to the next venue. By now it was early evening. Together we crossed the town, walking close by the historic Norman cathedral. Being the culture vulture that I am I would usually never pass up an opportunity to go inside a place like this. Today I did. It pained me a little but Hugh at least enlightened us with some trivia about the heroic deeds of Diver Bill in stabilising the foundations of the cathedral a century or more before.
The party was getting going when we arrived at the St George Tea Rooms. A young man with a guitar and silky voice crooned into a microphone. It was lost on most of the audience who were imbibing the next round of alcoholic beverages. Old college compatriot Terry was looking a little jaded and tales of the bachelor’s party two nights earlier explained it. Perhaps it served our relationship well on this occasion. At school I felt somehow beneath him, never quite matching his easy manner and charm on my own terms. Today it felt as though any pretensions were absent. After 20 years or so in the British Army he was now on Civvy Street and married with 2 boys. The kids weren’t there but his wife was.
At first glance I had written her off as attractive but waggish – sorry! However, appearances can be deceptive. Belying her waifish figure, immaculate blonde hair and make-up was a surprisingly engaging and shrewd lady. She talked freely and outspokenly of motherhood, kids and her love of Zimbabwe which she’d visited with Terry. She was a Brit by upbringing but outward looking in sentiment.
Once the tea rooms had closed around midnight we drifted to first the pub across the road and from there to a club proper where the usual array of nightlife availed itself. Two girls in their mid to late twenties I’m guessing insisted on buying Dan and myself a shooter and following it up with a Gin and Tonic, a popular evening beverage with Zimbabweans of a certain demographic. The shorter of the two was so inebriated that she kept repeating the same questions: how old are you? how old do you think I am? and where are you from? It was like conversing with someone with chronic amnesia.
At some point she sobered a little and became a little teary. Something about her father dying from asbestosis or mesothelioma. I’m not sure I know the difference but both sound ghastly. She asked me to spare a thought for her mum, bereft as she was of her husband. It had been 3 or 4 years but obviously the trauma was still alive. At some point she stopped snivelling and looked up at me with round, hopeful eyes. I thought of a Basset hound and had to resist the urge to pat her on the head.
It seemed she had a decent job in the tobacco industry (no, she wasn’t proud of it) and a boyfriend. Did she want kids? I asked. She did. At 30 years of age what was stopping her? Not wanting to miss out was her reply. I told her to just get on with it but honestly, is there any right answer on this question?
The evening was brought to a close after we traipsed to a late night joint where the rest of the town awake at that hour appeared to converge. They were serving hot food. I settled for a houmous burger and another G&T. A few minutes later and it was only Craig, me and Dan remaining. I always enjoyed conversation with Dan although we met very infrequently down the years. He’d been in the travel agency business for some time but had dabbled in a few other things from time to time. He wore his heart on his sleeve, earnestly speaking of his highs and lows and what would be best for the world at that moment in time. I really missed these sorts of conversations with and about the people and places where I grew up.
Craig was going through a lacklustre period it appeared. He was part of family-run business in the Scottish lowlands and he lamented the appalling lack of eligible women in the area. He broke it down for me statistically and it really did seem quite dire. Another down to earth sort like Dan he asked me as an aside if I could recommend any particular course of action. He had heard about my backpacking exploits, probably from JP, and wanted to know if I had found some enlightenment along the way. After chewing it over for a few minutes I had to confess that, in itself, it hadn’t. It presented new opportunities for sure but he would have to figure out the puzzle himself. He had nodded resignedly and said that was what he had expected to hear. Sorry mate!
A little while later I said my farewells and headed back in the direction of the Brasserie to collect my bike and cycle to my lodgings. On the walk across two young ladies, also in their 20s, giggled and teetered on heels. One of them asked me something inane. On making a similarly inane reply she perked up.
I know that accent. South Africa?
Nope I replied. A little further north.
Australia? she responded a little less certain this time. They knew nothing of Zimbabwe it appeared even when I explained its precise geographic location. Not for the first time did I come to the realisation that the bonds of Commonwealth were increasingly immaterial to this generation and the ones that would succeed it.
To be continued…
Note: Several names have been changed to conceal the identity of individuals. All observations and opinions are mine and are not meant to cause offence or to discredit the name or reputation of any person named or portrayed herein.