As a follow-on from last week’s “Rookie in London“, (setting 40 years ago) here’s a preview of how a Kenyan woman sees present day UK for the first time – in Grass Shoots, the sequel, my work in progress… (there’s still time to read Breath of Africa first!)
“The plane dipped its wing. Emily pressed her face against the window and gazed with astonishment at the scene below her. Through broken puffs of cloud neat patterns of green fields were laid out, separated by darker hedgerows and trees. Miniature houses arranged in clustered blocks densely huddled together in creases of hills or corners of winding rivers, as if frightened to expand further. There was safety in proximity, Emily knew, but even in Africa, the people allowed themselves greater room for manoeuvre.
A change of direction and another circle of London, this time revealing an unbelievable density of buildings of various heights and sizes, stretching beyond the horizon as the plane descended from the holding pattern.
Emily touched Paul’s shoulder beside her.
“There’s the Shard,” she said. “It’s exactly like the picture!”
“And I can see the River Thames,” said Maria in the seat in front of her.
“But can either of you identify the bridges?” challenged Paul.
The plane steadied before touching down on the runway at Heathrow.
Endless corridors of slowly moving walkways led to the main terminal. Emily and Maria dived into a washroom, then left Paul at the immigration check to queue at the other countries gate with their new Kenyan passports, which had taken several months to obtain. He had to wait for them, and then led the way to the baggage hall amid the stream of dazed-faced passengers.
It was good to be on her feet for a change, but Emily felt weary. A scramble for trolleys and a tiresome wait in rows three-deep, watching a jumble of bags bumping around the carousel, leaning on the trolley as if she had just walked twenty miles. So many people.
At last. All their luggage intact, Paul again led the way. Emily raced her trolley alongside his.
“How do you know where to go?”
“Follow the signs.”
There were so many bright, flashing signs, so much noise and bustle, she didn’t know where to look. Paul pointed to a plain black and white board high up on a wall indicating the coach station.
“We’ll take the shuttle to Gatwick. It’s better than trying to cram into the tubes with all our luggage., and then we’ll catch the train to Sussex. That reminds me.” He paused to bring out his mobile phone. “I’ll just text Louise to say we’ve arrived.”
The coach pulled away from the terminal and joined a stream of traffic four lanes wide. Emily looked at her watch, and then at the mass of cars keeping pace with them along the M25, sprays of water spewing up from their wheels. It was two hours since they’d landed and she hadn’t yet seen a blade of grass. The gigantic wipers on the coach windscreen groaned at each swipe. She fiddled in her seat beside Paul, feeling a tightening in her chest. So much activity, so much tension, it was quite exhausting.
Disgorged into the covered parking area at Gatwick, they bounced their baggage across the lanes and up corridors into lifts crowded with people. A hasty march along another lengthy passage and onto a platform. A sleek train pulled silently in, its doors opening automatically.
“Quick – let’s take this one.”
Paul pushed her forwards with the surging crowd and grabbed her case, swinging it with his onto a pile of others. He prodded her along the narrow aisle into a vacant seat, taking one for himself on the opposite side. Emily looked round. Maria sat three rows behind her, a bemused expression on her face. She glanced across her neighbour towards the window. The rain had stopped. And this was the first time since landing nearly four hours ago, that she’d seen the sky. The wheels chattered busily along the track as the coach swayed and Emily closed her eyes, trying to cope with the sensations around her.
The tightness didn’t go from her chest until long after Louise met them at the station and drove them to her home, a double story building covered with ivy. The red brick reminded Emily of the new buildings in Amayoni. Similar houses crowded on either side, with only a small open passageway to divide them apart. Louise stopped the car at the front door and Paul leapt out to offload their luggage.
Emily stretched her arms wide and yawned. Some low hills rose in the distance.
“Those are the downs,” said Louise. She showed Emily and Maria upstairs to their room. “I hope you don’t mind sharing?”
Two single beds stood on opposite sides of the room, with matching covers in pastel shades. A table stood between them, and Louise indicated some shelves in a fitted cupboard, which they could use for their clothes.
“I hope you’ll be warm enough with those duvets,” she continued. “If not, just tell me and we’ll turn on the central heating. I know you’ll find our weather trying until you get used to it.”
“Yes.” Louise sat on one of the beds and patted beside her. “Come and try it.”
Emily sank into the softness, feeling the feathery lightness, and marvelled. “We are going to learn so many new things.”
…Emily went to the window, but she couldn’t open the lock. Below her, a garden the size of a maize patch in Amayoni, was enclosed in a dense hedge. A bright green close-cut lawn with immaculately trimmed edges separated flower beds containing colourful blooms, set out in artistic design. A small tree stood at the far end, its branches straining in the wind. It was laden with large green fruit, and some had fallen to the grass. They looked like apples, she’d never seen an apple tree before.
A sea of roofs spread into the distance, their different shapes and colours making a motley patchwork. Each building had a chimney, and wires and antennae were strung haphazardly between them. Beyond rose the downs, blueish in the distance fading into a dull grey sky, heavy with moisture…”