My wife hates snakes. I don’t particularly dote on them myself.
The barman grunted incoherently. I shivered in reply – then froze. Something crawling, creeping, working its way up my spine. No, not a gigantic hairy spider, I thought, but a fat slimy snake (I know they’re not slimy) its tongue flipping in and out of a fanged orifice. Ugh! I categorically dislike snakes.
‘Hi, Bwana. You buy me a drink?’
Beer slopped down the side of my glass as I pressed against the edge of the bar to pivot on my seat. She had slithered so quietly beside me.
’What’s your name? Where you from?’
‘England. I’ve recently moved here.’ I responded on impulse.
Her eyelids fluttered as her fingers continued to stroke my back. ‘My husband Danish, working overseas right now. Go on – no problem one beer.’ Her hand moved from my back – to my thigh.
The warning I’d read flashed through my mind. ‘Sorry, best we don’t.’
The barman, straight-faced, shook his head. ’Another beer, Mr
‘J – Just the one please – thanks.’
Her upper arm brushed against mine; no effort to remove her
hand. ‘Not slaves anymore, not for hundred and fifty years. No drink for me?’
‘Please, you should move on.’
‘Uh! You too old anyway—’
She slipped off her stool. I focused, watching her move to target other male customers farther along the bar.
‘Nice backside though.’
‘A lucky escape, Mr Paul. She’s attractive yet it’s a different guy each night.’ The barman had decided to take me under his wing – only my second week in Tanzania.
Ava leaned towards me, grinned in her mischievous way and whispered, ‘Someone has eyes for you.’
I’d been living in Jangwani for a month or so, a few weeks after that embarrassing encounter with the woman in the bar, and learned if a girl smiled at you and you smiled in return she would understand a free beer could be had. Conversation and afterwards … who knows?
This, however, did not apply to Ava. A young local woman, well known as the hotel manager’s girlfriend, almost all of us were
prepared to buy her a drink with no strings. After a while, I’d developed my own system with the others. I formed a cross, with my arms over my chest, whenever a woman approached me. It became a joke.
‘Ha ha we know, Paul protecting himself from the devil,’ they mocked.
Nevertheless, the ploy worked and I managed to avoid unwanted attention. Better than the mouthful of abuse I might have used in earlier days.
‘Which one, Ava?’ I followed her grin the length of the crowded counter.
Ava winked at me taking some pleasure from my unsure glances at each of the women. They all beamed except for one; she seemed absorbed in a deep discussion with friends. Staring at her, those beautiful almond eyes occasionally lifted to peek in my direction.
‘Ava,’ I whispered, ‘you mean the girl at the far end of the bar?’
‘Her name’s Siara, the last I heard she attended college in Moscow.’ Ava’s hand shielded her mouth. ‘Her sponsor died so she had to come home. A shame, this year her final exams were due – here, I can introduce you.’
Ava slid to the ground and weaved her way across the teeming bar. With a tug on the woman’s wrist, she wrestled back through the throng.
With a squeeze, her arms wrapped around each of our waists,
she said, ‘Siara, I want you to meet Paul. He’s quite new in Tanzania. Paul, this is my friend, Siara.’
‘Jambo, Siara. Paul Neville.’
Hans, sitting next to me, refused to be outdone. ‘Hi, my name Hans. Have we not met somewhere earlier?’
A shaggy greying beard hid a large proportion of his weathered face. Hans wasn’t your typical expatriate.
She smiled at Hans but held on to me a little bit longer. I can be quite shy in female company but words came naturally with Siara.
‘I’ve travelled quite a bit, never to Russia though.’ I bought a round of drinks; a friendly gesture – nothing else expected.
‘Paul, people are leaving – the table for two.’ Ava waved enthusiastically. ‘Go on. We’ll join you later.’
I claimed the spaces. Although he continued to chatter to Ava, I glimpsed Hans’s scrutiny.
Siara sat demurely clutching her brown leather shoulder bag on her lap.
‘Expensive,’ I said, pointing to the bag.
’No, but my stuff, almost everything I own, is inside. Do you
like the giraffe? It’s the emblem of Tanzania.’
I stretched to run my fingers over the profile. Embossed on the side of the bag it stood proudly beside a small Tanzanian flag.
‘I still say an expensive bag.’
‘You’re living nearby? Ava said you moved quite recently.’ Siara fingered her glass before taking a sip of her drink.
‘Fantastic. I’m no more than a two or three minute drive away.’
I waved behind her. ‘You can’t actually see my house; the tall palm trees and bushes hide it. What about you?’
Siara twisted and nodded. ‘Presently I’m living in Dar. I bumped into Ava earlier today and she persuaded me to join her for the evening. I used to come quite often, but some years ago. Hold on a minute; take care of my bag please.’
Leaning forward I pulled it to me. Hardly worthwhile; within a
few minutes she strolled back holding out her hand.
‘Thanks. Sorry, I wanted a quick word with Ava.’
‘Don’t worry, I wouldn’t steal it.’
‘So what brought you to Tanzania?’
I eased into my chair. ‘A job – it’s a long story.’
‘You didn’t have a job?’
‘Made redundant when I lived in Athens, Greece. Currently I’m working for the Fraser family. I’d been on top of the scrapheap for three years prior to getting this chance.’
‘What’s a scrapheap?’ Siara’s hand rummaged for her glass.
‘When no one wants you.’ Shifting on my seat, I watched her relax a little.
‘So how many countries have you been to? I bet Tanzania’s the most beautiful one.’
’Well, most places in Africa and the Middle East – they were all with work though. I wish I’d had the opportunity to visit Russia. The plane, during its descent when I originally arrived here, allowed an awesome view as it skimmed over Zanzibar. That’s somewhere I must go. You know Zanzibar used to be a centre of the slave trade
many years ago—’
‘Yes, I’m familiar with the stories of the colonial days.’
Siara found it easy to refine some of the missing detail in my life’s itinerary.
‘I lived in Moscow for four years and although they taught my course in English, I managed to pick up quite a bit of Russian.’
We swapped travellers’ tales. ‘I remember the first occasion I went to Japan,’ I said. ‘Leaving London we flew north over Scotland and eventually Greenland.’
‘Could you see snow from the plane?’
‘Everywhere, once we reached Greenland. I’ll always remember watching the sunset. Five miles up at the time.’
‘You saw a sunset in the snow from five miles high? Different.’ With her elbows resting on the table, Siara pushed her fingertips together as a steeple, supporting her chin, but it was her eyes I looked into.
‘You’re right – more than you think. The sun continued to set. Just an orange crescent remaining above the horizon. Then slowly, so slowly it started to rise again. I couldn’t believe it.’
‘My God how much had you drunk?’ Siara’s hand, covering her mouth, veiled her concern.
‘Only one, well two at the most. I ordered a double afterwards. Also I’m sure I landed in Tokyo the day before I’d left.’
The creases on her brow deepened as she digested the vision. For a moment, I sensed her thoughts. A long soothing swallow of almost cold beer comforted my dry rusty throat.
‘I suppose you’re married?’ Her voice soft and gentle – she sipped her drink dissecting me through long curled lashes.
‘Yes, her name’s Hannah; we have two girls, Judy and Kate. And you?’
‘I’d hoped I’d met the right guy for me during my time in Moscow but it didn’t work out.’
‘Your heart – broken?’
‘More or less – on the scrapheap.’
One drink became two, then three.
Gradually Siara’s expression brightened. ’Did you say you had
been to Tanzania earlier?’
‘Yes, but twenty years ago when I started to come to Africa. I’d waited for four days, my contact failed to show. Not impressed with the level of bureaucracy.’
‘Oh pole sana, I’m sorry – you’ll find things are better these days.’
‘I had other, more unsettling, experiences. Lusaka, a cockroach floating in a bottle of beer didn’t go down too well …’
Siara peered over the rim of her glass. She had put some ice cubes in the beer and prodded one with her finger.
‘Another time, visiting the copper-belt of Zambia, to get to my hotel room I had to circumvent mountains of sleeping bodies occupying the corridor. For once in my life I pushed a chair under my doorknob.’
‘No, you’re joking. I remember that in a movie once.’
’Then I screwed up really well during a trip to Ethiopia. I’d
phoned Hannah from the Hilton in Addis and happened to say how much I enjoyed the apple pie I’d eaten for dessert.’
‘They make good apple pie in Ethiopia? I love apple pie.’
Siara’s tongue ran over her top lip. Her teeth sunk into the equally full bottom one.
‘After the trip, my eldest daughter, Judy, would hardly speak to me. She’d attended a local fundraising event for famine relief in Ethiopia. I’ve never been forgiven.’
‘You’ve a caring daughter.’
‘They’re both good girls. Doing well at college too. Anyway, there were grounds for me to contribute to the relief fund. I did wonder – the Hilton had no problem in securing food supplies – but my bill had to be paid in US dollars.’
Siara stood holding out her hands. ‘Come on; dance with me.’
As we rose, I glanced to Ava and Hans. No mistaking Hans’s scowl. The DJ selected a slow song; he must have been watching.
Her dress fluttered in the breeze. The material, an open local weave commonplace with many of the girls, stretched to her ankles and hid almost all of her figure. The flowing red zigzag pattern glowed under the strings of lights suspended from tree to tree above the restaurant. She didn’t object when we moved close together; yet she stiffened when I put my hands on her shoulders. Her bare skin – cool to the touch – soft silky brown skin. I rested my cheek against hers. I could feel her breasts pressing against my chest. My imagination or did she push, ever so slightly?
’Thank God you’re wearing flat shoes otherwise you’d be taller
than I am.’
Lifting her head to one side, she flashed a sweet nervous smile. Not excessively beautiful but amazingly attractive, Siara exuded warmth with such an innocent countenance. Her deep brown eyes sparkled and refused to stay still; they enthralled me. She wore no jewellery or cosmetics. Sensuous, holding a woman close again – how long had it been? I drowned in the natural smell of her body.
‘Goodnight you two,’ Hans called in his stilted English, ‘my bedtime. I have early start in morning.’
Ava stirred and started to collect her things. We meandered over to catch them before they left.
‘I’ll … er … well... I promise to put Siara in a taxi later if that’s okay.’
Siara and Ava looked at each other; I had the feeling they were analysing my embarrassment.
‘All right, I think I’ll be safe with Paul.’
The glare Ava gave me said everything. She had better be. The DJ carried on playing soft music; bars in Tanzania do not close if there are patrons. I wanted it to last.
We talked then danced some more. Far too soon, Siara touched my arm. ‘Sorry, I have to leave. Please call the taxi.’
I checked my watch – after midnight. ‘I hadn’t realised.’ With a sigh, I dialled for the local taxi. ‘I’ve enjoyed this evening with you but you know – Hannah.’
’You’re right, I understand but all being well we’ll get together
another time. We say natumaini tutaonana tena.’ I walked her to the
We embraced. A gentle kiss from her soft moist lips as the taxi pulled up. I slipped two ten thousand shilling notes into her palm for the fare and knew I’d love to meet her again.
The nights I frequented the bar I would scan around hoping to see her. Hans, after he returned from Tabora, said he might have shared a beer with Siara a few years ago, although he had no idea where she might hang out.
‘Do not be worried,’ he told me, ‘there are plenty of available women to choose.’ Hans laughed through his beard.
‘It’s not like that, Hans.’
‘Like what …?’