A Rookie in London

Thought you might like a change from Africa…. Here is an excerpt from Breath of Africa, to wet your appetite in case you haven’t read the book already. If you have read it, I would greatly appreciate a review on amazon – only 11 more reviews are needed to reach the magic number of 50, when amazon will raise its profile on their website, I am told.

It is the late 1950’s and Charles arrives in London for the first time on his way to University:

***

It was afternoon. It must be afternoon. The sun was thirty degrees from the horizon and yet his watch said ten o’clock. It was going to take time to get used to this strange phenomenon. That orb, weakly glowing through the smog, seemed to remain stationary all day.

Wet glistening streets slid past. The bus came to a standstill and men on bicycles weaved in and out of the traffic, incessantly ringing their bells. Monotonous brick buildings crept by, covered with grimy filth. Did people really live there? He stared at the terraced houses lining the street. No earth, no trees; just a front door and the pavement. He thought of his home, of the patches of maize and beans, of the endless sweep of the African plains, and wondered how anybody could survive in this teeming hurrying metropolis.

At the terminal, there were more people than he had ever seen in his life. He glimpsed one black face.

“Jackson!”

Waving frantically over the crowd, Charles pushed his way through to his brother, embracing him thankfully.

“Where’s your baggage?”

Noise, shouts, bangs, rushing figures, running feet, waving arms. No peace, no quiet, no rest.

A taxi took them to The Strand Palace Hotel. Charles trod gingerly over the plush carpets and wondered at the white porters, long corridors and dark rooms, comparing them to the mud huts he had left behind.

He flopped onto his bed, ready for sleep, but Jackson roused him.

“Come on, Charles! It’s only morning, you know. You’d better start shopping if you want my help as I have to fly to a dig in the Middle East tomorrow.”

He followed Jackson into the street, stopping once or twice to stare at the hundreds of people in overcoats that raced past. Footsteps pitter-pattered on the pavement in staccato against the steady roar of traffic, and only one or two individuals in that mass of humanity raised their heads to glance back at him.

They joined a queue at the bus stop. A double-decker loomed up and Charles was caught in the rush towards the entrance. For a second he felt at one with the surging throng and then, lodged in a seat, became a spectator again.

The way these people formed queues on any pretext astonished him. And there was a definite code among them too, for when somebody tried to push in they were severely relegated to the back. Nobody showed interest in anybody else. His eyes roamed over the pale faces half-hidden under soft caps, the pinstripe suits and shiny shoes. His hands strayed self-consciously into the pockets of his mud-coloured windcheater and he shivered. But nobody noticed.

In a department store, Charles searched doggedly through the hangers for a pair of warm slacks. A pimpled assistant spoke at his shoulder, and a torrent of unintelligible sound filled Charles’s ears. He turned to Jackson in bewilderment.

“What language is that?”

“It’s only cockney – London speak; he’s asking what you’re looking for.” Jackson addressed the man politely, “We’re looking for trousers with turn-ups.”

The youth produced a pair on special offer. Charles walked to the cashier’s desk, two people rushing past him on the way. He emerged from the queue, his pocket heavy with change.

“There’s one thing you must always remember, Charles,” Jackson warned as they rode the lift to the rooftop café, “the UK is not Kenya, where most people are friendly. Nobody here talks to strangers.”

What a place. How can you make friends if you can’t talk to strangers? In the café he studied the people reading their newspapers. One man stretched for the sugar.

“Excuse me.”

“Sorry.” There was no interest. Why bother to come here at all? Ignoring Jackson’s warning, he caught the man’s eye, and cleared his throat.

“Do you live in London?” The man muttered beneath his breath, then folded his newspaper, drained his cup and left the table, tripping over in his haste. Charles, grinning, glanced at Jackson.

“What did you think you were doing?” Jackson was laughing at him. “If you must talk to strangers you’d better learn to discuss the weather; it’s a safer topic.”

Out on the pavement his steps quickened and there were fewer collisions. There was something in this hurry he supposed. But hopefully Oxford would not be quite as bad.

***

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