The Zambezi River was in flood for the first time since 1958 and a plume of smoke almost hid it from sight. To the uninitiated, it looked like a bush fire, but to old Africa hands it was unmistakably Mosi Oa Tunya, the smoke that thunders; Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world. The train passed over the Falls Bridge at 6am. The passengers spilled into the corridor to get the best view. A strong wind blowing from the Northern Rhodesian side made it difficult to discern the Falls, but as the train edged nervously across the bridge the spray cleared.
“Bleeding marvellous.” said the little Cockney standing beside Jimmy Harkins. “You wouldn’t have the likes of that where you come from Pady.”
Jimmy pursed his lips and swore noiselessly. Typical of the insensitive little turd, can’t even spell Paddy properly.
“Ah, howiyas! What’s da starry? Are ya well? Dah’s grand, Taffy.” he replied in an extravagant imitation Dublin accent. “But Oi’m shure pales into insignificance besoides duh natural beauty of duh sun rising out of duh smog on a summer’s day in duh glorious East End.”
“Oi, watch it, Pady, my name’s not Taffy. I’m not a bleedin’ Welshman. I’m born and bred a Londoner and me name’s ’Arry. ’ow many times do I ‘ave to tell you? Don’t you people know it’s bleedin’ rude not to use a person’s proper name?”
“Sorry, Oi kape forgettin’. Duh trubble is you remoind me of a bloak oi used to know. Came from Pontypridd. You’re his spittin’ image.”
’Arry blew angrily up his nostrils and concentrated on the rainbow dancing daintily over the Falls.
Jimmy turned again but the magic moment had been ruined. The man’s insensitivity irritated him throughout the voyage, with his Paddy this and Paddy that, the ultimate disrespect, the Paddy factor, the Paddy jokes. He’d been through all this before but he hadn’t travelled six thousand miles to be treated as a bog trotter by this grimy little piece of Cockney rhyming slang.
It was a long haul from the Cape. Four days on the train and the enforced confinement meant that tempers were now beginning to fray. Jimmy felt like decking the bastard but he didn’t fancy walking the whole way from the Falls to the Copperbelt.
He enjoyed the two weeks from Southampton to Cape Town, on board the Transvaal Castle. The biggest ship he’d sailed on previously was the overnight ferry from Belfast to Liverpool. Trying to find a place to sleep away from the drunken revellers made that a night to forget. Life on the Castle liner, on the other hand, had been one long, luxury holiday. By comparison the train journey proved to be almost uninterrupted tedium. They passed through all the places worth looking at, during the night, Mafeking, the Great Karoo and later Bulawayo. The glimpse of the Falls provided the only magic moment but time to move on. Jimmy felt a sense of relief when they pulled into Ndola station in Northern Rhodesia. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected but apart from the black faces it could have been anywhere in Europe.
“See you around, Pady,” called a voice from behind.
His old mate ’Arry.!
“Not if I see you first, ’Arry boy,” Jimmy muttered.
He expected t be met by someone from the Education Office in Ndola, but with the platform gradually clearing and no sign of anyone. marvellous, he thought. How the hell am I going to manage that bloody trunk?
The trunk in question contained all his personal possessions, and had last been used by the chief surgeon of Bombay Mission Hospital in 1956. He knew because of a faded label on the side. All Jimmy’s earthly goods and chattels filled one corner of the trunk but he hoped to return to Ireland with a few trophies from his stay.
“Mwaiseni po mukwai.”
Jimmy turned to confront a small round faced African who suddenly appeared.
“Bwana, bwana Harkins?”
“That’s right. Who are you?”
“I am Joshua, and I must deliver you,” he replied cheerfully.
“Good for you.
“I’ve a lot of luggage. Can you give me a hand?”
“Do not worry bwana. Everything taken care of. Please come with me.”
Joshua led him outside the station to a grey Land Rover. He ushered Jimmy into the passenger seat and eased himself expertly behind the steering wheel. With the press of a button the engine roared into life. The gears crashed and they headed off to an undisclosed destination. Jimmy signed a three-year contract with the Crown Agents in London. The open-ended contract meant that he could be directed to serve anywhere, at the discretion of the Ministry of Education.
When they arrived at the Education Offices it had closed for the day.
“Now what?” he queried. “Do I sleep in the open?”
Joshua smiled at the thought.
“Oh no bwana. Do not worry. I will take you to the hotel. You must be at the Office at nine o’clock, bwana. Your luggage will be fetched for you.”
He dropped Jimmy outside the Nkana Hotel and drove off at speed. The Nkana Hotel, which looked a bit dilapidated, had to be better than sleeping on the train.
Jimmy hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep for days so he decided to retire early,
only to be wakened early next morning by the strident calls from the street outside.
I’m late, he thought and reached for his watch.
The time showed six o’clock but he shaved and showered hurriedly, donned the safari suit he had bought especially for this occasion and went to the dining room. The breakfast was unexpectedly familiar, a large plate of bacon, eggs, sausages, black pudding and fried bread, which he washed down with cups of strong tea. He considered ordering steak or lamb chops but he wasn’t bold enough to break the habit of a lifetime. Steak for dinner, yes, but not for breakfast. He read somewhere that too much red meat made you aggressive or something. It did something for the Afrikaners, for the ones he met were built like the proverbial outhouse, and they ate steak in vast quantities.