It was as if Mr Mzee’s words had propelled Julian Knight into that twenty-four hour journey – into a relay of road and air and rail. Their tête a tête at the Ministry of Culture, Women and Youth, with a fan gusting at the loose edges of paper, and the sounds of the street rising with dust through the shutters, spun him into an inevitable trajectory. He felt like a small boy again, packed off to boarding school by his parents, knowing that attempts at resistance would be futile.
‘The project is underway. Much has been done in your two years here. It has been a great honour to have you amongst us. And now,’ Mr Mzee drew breath as if something precious was to follow. ‘It is time for you to go back to your family Mr Juma. They must need you too.’
Julian replied quickly, ‘But I was thinking I could stay another year.’
Mr Mzee laughed. ‘We all long to be with our families, to be in our homeland. I remember this for myself, when I was in Germany.’
Julian tried again. ‘You don’t think that with another year we’d have the training sorted?’ He heard the bluster in his voice, the need to convince. ‘The men can do the heddle making, warping, beaming, threading of shafts and the reed, everything for the weaving. But they need to be able to do a bit of loom maintenance.’
The anticipation of the journey arrived in his body like the shivery grip of a fever. He grasped at slices of the day through the office shutters. A line of women wrapped in khangas processed like a string of bright beads along the road. A basket on the back of a bicycle was ornamented with the forked tail of a yellow-finned tuna. Vespas smoked by, the riders wearing builders’ helmets to comply faint-heartedly with the law. Dust rose.
The sensations slid away from him as he imagined his feet cooling on the plane, the food delivered in plastic trays and sanitised to western tastes, without the rich addition of coconut milk or ants in the flour. It was usually hard to visualise from the embracing heat here, but a sudden picture came of Scotland – one of those dense still days when the tops of trees are bitten off by cloud, and the sheep, stone walls, and sky reflect only shades of white. He imagined rain sheeting onto dark roads; headlights and spray; faceless transport. No one noticing him.
He couldn’t even identify where home was now. Not his flat in Edinburgh, rented out – why would he live in the ferocious wind-bite of that city again anyway? Then it came, as if he had been keeping it from himself. It would have to be his parents’ house in Perth, at least to start with. He pictured them tucking a hand under each of his elbows on the railway platform, and hoiking him away for interrogation as his feet scrabbled and pawed to hold their ground. ‘Did it go wrong there too?’ they would ask. And who would contradict them, tell them how he had started something here which might just flourish?
No-one at home could know what it meant to witness Mohammed’s face when the first cloth had rolled towards him onto the beam. As the smile had sprung his features into life, the rest of the men in the workshop crept forward, congregating around his loom, looking between his face and the cloth, edging into laughter almost as if they had witnessed a miracle. Mohammed continued to build the cloth, bouncing back the reed to consolidate the fabric, finding his rhythm. Soon all the looms were going and the workshop had filled with the regular soft thud of the shafts rising and falling, the reeds bashing and shuttles shimmying to and fro. Light would band in between gaps in the latticed walls of the hut. With it came the sounds of children playing under the shelter of palms outside. The workshop had come to feel like Julian’s own place.
Not prepared to lose the agenda wholly to Mr Mzee, he grappled on: ‘I have some more ideas for business development you see.’
‘You have given us many ideas. So very many ideas.’
‘Thank you. I’d like to see if we can tap into the Mombasa market – there are plenty of tourists there with money to spare.’
‘Mr Juma. Pease join us for sodas and sambusas. We are so happy to invite you – myself and Mr Makame. When will you come for a celebration?’
Julian saw that he was not being offered an option – he was being offered a leaving party. From his preparation for this posting he knew that he was only there to train people, to build capacity, that he should make himself dispensable. And yet and yet and yet. Everyone in the workshop still deferred every small decision to him. They had adapted his name to something familiar to them – ‘Juma’ – and invited him to meet their families. They laid out before him plates of breads, fish, meats, even biryani or pilau as a mark of occasion. Strangers called out his name in the street.
Cloth was not only rolling off the looms, it was for sale in the little tourist shops in the Stone Town, with labels attached in dollars. A quality product from organic cotton, hand-dyed. He’d even seen tourists on the beach with it draped and wound over their bikinis.
He was proud himself to wrap a ‘Kinyonga’ kikoi around his waist each morning when he got up to stretch on the step of his house and go to the stall for bread and bananas. In the way of local fishermen he wore nothing underneath. It reminded him of wearing the kilt. But the slim length of the kikoi from waist to ankle made him feel sinuous, even, dare he admit to it, sexy.
They had talked about producing kikois impregnated with pesticides in the same way as mosquito nets. They might even have got money from Aid programmes to do it. But that was another project that hadn’t yet been realised, and he for one would only sit outside at night if he was wearing long trousers, socks and full length sleeves, armoured against the squadrons of mosquitoes that whined after his blood.
Mr Mzee was spreading the fingers of both his hands on the desk and smiling at him. ‘Your obligation is not to us. Now, please allow us to celebrate what you have done for us. Can we depend on you Mr Juma?’
He looked through the shutters beyond Mr Mzee and recalled his own words when the inevitable redundancies had come at home, thirteen years before. ‘It’s harsh, but it’s economic reality,’ he’d said to the men. ‘I’m so sorry, the market has collapsed. There’s nothing more Knights can do.’
They’d surely seen it coming anyway in the dwindling use of the Mill building – three floors closed up, until finally just the first floor looms remained. Plastic sheeting was stapled at the windows, keeping in the meagre heat and gas fumes seeped out by the Super Ser. At the end, George Kaye, bolshy and squint-shouldered, had shut himself in there to make a point, to complete his last length of tweed. He was so engrained in tradition, he couldn’t grasp the opportunity for change, to take the redundancy money and run with it.
‘It’s the facts of life, George,’ Julian had said. ‘You have to build a different future. Not one that revolves around this monument beckoning you to it every morning.’
When he told each of the men, he had felt behind him the presence of his father, his grandfather, and all the ‘greats’, all of whom had built the woollen business up, responding deftly to this pressure or that, diversifying into ready-mades when the market required it, always innovating, and coming up with schemes for the workers – introducing smallpox inoculations, life insurance, savings schemes. Always encouraging self-reliance. And it had been his accident of birth to inherit something that ailed, causing people to say that things had been different in his father’s time, and this was young blood turned bad, wrecking the lives of whole families.
As the Mill went dark, its windows offering themselves up to be smashed by flying stones, its roof slates slipping, the patriarchs lined up to inspect Julian when he lay in bed at night, asking, ‘Are you sure you’ve done all you can?’ ‘What about making it into a museum?’ Even after ten years in Edinburgh, they returned to ask, ‘Why are you running away?’ ‘Africa?!’ And the whispers: ‘Couldn’t even keep a wife. She ran off.’ And the unuttered implication that they didn’t blame her.
Hadn’t his parents sent him away to school at the age of nine for the very purpose of preparing him for a life of difficult decisions on behalf of others? Had there been an inkling that he wasn’t up to it even then, when he was extracted from the regiment of boys in long grey shorts to spend weekends at home? His father would take him to the Mill office and peer at him from behind stacks of enormous pattern books on his high dark desk. The patriarchs watched from the wall behind his father’s head. He was brought there, he realised now, to be taken into manly confidences, to start fitting into his future business environment. But his feet didn’t touch the ground from the leather armchair and he usually sat on the floor.
When his own photograph was added to the wall, after University, there appeared to be no resemblance to the other portraits. Nervousness hovered behind the eyes and he wasn’t even wearing a tie.
He succumbed to the leaving party. ‘Of course,’ he said to Mr Mzee. ‘Thank you.’
The Ministry car came to take him to the airport in the early evening. At the time he had applauded the building of the new road that allowed goods to get from village to town in little more than an hour. But the car moved too quickly for him now, and he clutched at cameos flashing through the glass, cramming them into his memory as if into pockets from where they could be unfolded to view later.
It was his favourite time of day, when the low sun laid palm trunks in striped shadows across the road and people congregated in a kind of carnival on every village verge, moving through a hazy light smoked up by the braziers lit for the night ahead. Street stalls displayed lines of coconuts, limes, oranges. In a shop, a man lay flat on the empty counter, head back in the abandon of sleep. Over-amplified radios crackled out the News. Ahead of the car, crossing the road, chickens were pressed tail high into undignified strides to avoid being run over. There were ox carts to avoid, and streams of schoolchildren returning home. An open truck was full of singing footballers.
He gazed out at the adobe houses which had been sliced in half by the new road, leaving the fronts sheered off like dolls’ houses. The occupiers had just moved uphill of the development, continued to live in the unaffected rooms.
‘Were they paid compensation?’ he asked.
The driver laughed, not apparently seeing any need for a serious answer.
Julian was seen off at the airport – ‘seen off’ in both senses, he felt. There were sincere handshakes, a gift of cake, egg-rich and greasy in a plastic bag, and mangoes in a woven banana-leaf pouch. He accepted Mr Mzee’s handshake without being able to meet his eyes. Then he was going through Security where officials whispered his name coyly, and was watched until he reached the small departure lounge from where there was no return, to drink instant tea and join groups of Italians in short skirts and spaghetti-strap tops for the last chance to buy tourist tat. On their twenty minute flight to the mainland they would barely reach 3,000 feet. He knew he would be forced to look down on the full sails of dhows as they crossed the turquoise gap between island and mainland, and be bound to see the reefs brushing the water’s surface from below.
Amongst the rayon sarongs from Indonesia and the T-shirts promising in words across their fronts Hakuna Matata – ‘no problems’ here – he looked for ‘his’ products in the shop. He posed as an ordinary tourist as he ran his hand over the soft cotton, eavesdropping on what was said about colour and quality by the people in shuffling sandals around him. It was a habit, but meaningless now. ‘Cotton!’ the voices waiting at home said, ‘what a betrayal’.
He sat down. He was still in Zanzibar, but was moving into that tenuous international zone, becoming anonymous, his skin cooling in the air conditioning. Looking out through a wall of glass, fluorescent-jacketed men crawled over the small planes, feeding in suitcases and rucksacks, just as they would at another airport tomorrow morning. He thought about the miraculous deepening of colour just after sunset. Just before people became silhouettes against a pale night sky, their clothes and skin would escape the blanching effect of the sun and radiate dense saturated red and brown and gold.
Two years living without a TV, and the images he watched blearily on a version of the week’s BBC World News made him flinch against his seatbelt, and pull down the eye mask. Rows of faceless young men in desert uniforms. Wildly gesticulating people in streets of rubble. Flags and coffins carried on uniformed shoulders. Members of a British family comforting each other on a suburban sofa, and accusing the regiment of not providing the right kind of protective clothing. But it was the flattened streets of Basra that really got to him.
Julian remembered his father talking once about the bombings in Clydeside where he had gone with his own father to visit their affiliate company during the war. Dawn broke, the all clear sounded, and people emerged from their shelters into a smashed and burning town. Julian’s grandfather had apparently become heady and lost his sense of direction, because of the sudden absence of the Singer Factory. One minute there was a familiar bulk of stone and steel, prominent and weighty, dominating the skyline and the economy. The next, it was gone. Blasted away. At Auchentoshan Distillery a warehouse full of whisky was set ablaze. Julian’s father had been mesmerised by the resulting inferno, as whisky poured into the nearby burn and created a finger of fire that pointed to the Clyde.
His father spoke of the devastation as if it were a shift in the mental as well as the physical landscape – almost like a liberation. It would be like removing Schiehallion from the Perthshire skyline, he’d said, the feeling of disorientation and desertion by an icon. It was also a release from a dominant influence – like the end of a long year at school. But this talk had been the result of an afternoon ripened by whisky, the words whispered almost guiltily. His father had seemed momentarily more human, but Julian hadn’t seen this side of him since.
Suspended over the Sudanese desert, snatches of sleep came. He supposed it was sleep. He climbed a ladder propped against a crumbling wall. Windows were crammed with expectant faces, wanting something from him. But the windows were stuck fast, and none of the attachments on his Swiss Army Knife made any difference and there was a fire growing beneath him. He fell, waking, into his seat and sunrise over the Alps. Snow-sculpted peaks poked through cloud, inviting him to ski in the postcard sunshine before the inevitable drop into the bumpy cloud above Schipol.
On the flight to Glasgow, he looked at his hands. The skin looked dry and wrinkled without the normal sheen of humidity. They were thinner too, more knobbly, as if they belonged to someone else. And already in this climate, his back had stiffened – he’d lost the characteristically loose feeling of his body, aged overnight.
A drum-beat of protestations had gathered in his head, a subconscious preparation, a defence. It must have been his father’s war-time stories, thoughts of his grandfather and company history. The Mill had flourished at the signs of the First War, a sudden demand for khaki, navy blue, puttees. His grandfather had felt compelled to respond to the new market, despite the family aversion to war. And wasn’t that the beginning of the moral decay which bequeathed to Julian an undermined business that only needed a few shoves from cheap competition or some other hostile force to completely topple? So he had inherited decline and redundancies and in turn been blamed for it, for something which had deeper roots.
‘Give me a break,’ the drum-beat banged on and on. ‘It wasn’t my fault’.
He changed the money in his wallet to Sterling. He changed the Sim card in his phone. He got a bus into town. And finally, he got on a train to Perth.
He was dishevelled, unshaven, still in flip-flops when his parents would expect brown brogues. He had found a warm jacket, now pungent with mould after lying in the corner of a cupboard for two rainy seasons. He clung to the smell as a familiar. And to his small bottle of Kilimanjaro water, still half full. He sipped it slowly, not wanting to finish it, as if such slight threads would keep him umbilically attached to another place.
The man opposite was smiling and cradling a Debenhams bag in his lap. He hadn’t flinched when Julian opened The Guardian. His peaceful glaze made Julian wonder if he was already drunk even though it was only ten in the morning. Was he the kind of man who promises you’re his best pal and pours his reeking breath over you? But there was no smell coming from him. Julian dropped his face towards the job adverts, lifted the paper slightly.
‘Nice Day,’ the man said, storming through Julian’s paper wall.
Julian looked up and out of the window, as if for the first time. As they moved into the countryside, the April day showed signs of Spring. Daffodils were pooled on garden lawns, and gorse beamed in clumps from hillsides, for all the world as if the sun had some heat in it. There was even some blossom in the trees and you could see people out in their gardens in T-shirts. There was so much grass here. So much green. And between trees he saw the slate shading which could only be the first shoots of a bluebell field.
‘Going far?’ The man was smiling at him now.
Jobs for EFL teachers in Poland were pulling Julian’s eyes back downwards. Could he re-train as an English teacher? Maybe he should have gone straight to Poland, not even bothered reporting back, just to disappoint the family once more. He dragged his eyes back up to the man’s face. ‘Just to Perth.’
‘Me too. Went down early this morning.’ He crackled the bag against his chest. ‘Had to get this.’
Julian had the corner of the newspaper in one hand, ready to turn the page. Pursue the conversation with this man now and he might as well give in, fold up his paper. Should he explain his fragile state after the long journey, his disorientation, his need for over-the-shoulder glances lest he forget where he’d come from? Should he plead to be left alone? He wasn’t really in a fit state to have a conversation with a stranger hugging a bag.
The man’s hair was sandy, his eyes watery, his hands trembling slightly. Looking at him more carefully, Julian saw the suggestion of a shiver in one corner of his mouth, but it looked less like drunkenness now. When Julian caught his glance, he was unable to resist the naked openness of the eyes, a sense of personal light emanating from the man. He sat back, disturbed.
The man laid the bag on the table between them, and opened it, lifting out a tissue-wrapped, be-ribboned parcel which he slowly and carefully opened. Something black nestled inside. The man held up a dress, a finger hooked through each shoulder. It hung between them, concealing the man. Julian wiped a hand across his face.
A reflex made him touch the fabric. He knew it instantly. Viscose. And polyester lining in a gold colour. The dress concertinaed a fold at a time back into the tissue paper, revealing the man again. He carefully rewrapped it, and tied the ribbons.
‘They didn’t have it in the Debenhams in Perth,’ he said.
Julian stared at him. The night had been too long.
‘It had to be this one, see. This particular one.’
Julian remained pinned in his seat, paralysed. He wanted to carry on thinking about his normal breakfast-time back at the village, how he would be watering the passion-fruit vine which scrambled up from the baraza, squeezing lime juice onto papaya, biting into the yeasty maandazi, and drinking hot sweet tea. He would make the short cycle ride to the workshop, hearing with pleasure as he approached, the shafts already rising and falling – the rhythmic softness of hand looms.
‘I see,’ he managed.
‘She phoned the Glasgow branch last night. They said they’d keep her back a size ten.’ He spoke softly, as if emphasising some tenderness in the act, and then added more quietly. ‘I said I’d come. Not working myself, at the moment.’
‘She – your wife?’
‘Daughter.’ The man stroked a flat hand over the tissue paper and then slid it back into the carrier bag. He left it now on the table between them. ‘She needs a bit of love and support right now.’ The damp-eyed look had returned.
‘It’s for his funeral.’
Any sense Julian’s numb mind had gained from this conversation so far was now rattling away from him. ‘Whose?’ he asked.
‘Her husband’s. On Friday.’
Julian spoke quietly. ‘I’m sorry.’
The man broadened his gentle smile and looked out of the window. Julian became suddenly afraid that the slight shiver in his cheek, the wet eyes, would erupt into something more, and embarrass them both.
‘It’s a fine dress,’ Julian said. What would have come naturally in the Swahili language was, ‘Atapendeza’ – literally, ‘she will please’ or be beautiful. Instead he had to settle for, ‘She’ll be proud to wear it, I’m sure.’
‘You heard?’ The man pinned a swift glance on him and then eased it away. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. It’s been in all the papers.’
Julian wondered what ‘it’ was, and blustered towards comprehension. ‘I’ve been out of the country. I haven’t been reading papers really.’
‘He was in the Black Watch.’
BBC images from the flight flashed up at him. So that was it. That explained the man’s giddy state, the heightened value he gave a bit of cheap viscose which had been cut on a press with a hundred others and stitched together in an automatic frenzy of pumping needles. Julian guessed that the man had told his story to the shop assistants too. He would have been happy to wait while they scurried to another department for pink tissue paper and ribbons. They probably found him a chair, a cup of tea. He was, after all, shimmering today.
Julian noticed a middle-aged woman look over at their table from above her book. Even the schoolgirl with the black rimmed eyes seemed to be listening, as she chewed. The whole carriage seemed to have fallen into a respectful silence so that the swish of air against the windows, the rhythm of the rail joints, the opening and closing of the automatic door as the carriage rocked, all became amplified. It was as if the man had possession of some mysterious knowledge that they all wanted to brush against.
They were descending now, the train channelled between high stone walls – the final stretch before Perth. Julian knew from past times that people would start to collect their belongings and gather the thoughts that had strayed up sidings or branch lines. They would prepare, with combs and lipsticks, to present themselves to loved ones on the platform. They entered a tunnel and Julian saw in the window reflection that the made-up teenager was punching in her final text. With a jangle, the drinks trolley was lined up in the lobby ready to exit. Suddenly aware of the end of his long journey, the beginning of his new life, Julian wanted to know more.
‘I heard there was a stooshie, whether their gear was up to it, up to what they were doing.’
The tunnel released them to sunlit warehouses. Two children bounced on a trampoline in a garden.
The man huffed softly, raised his eyebrows. ‘Some are accusing.’
‘Not you? Your daughter?’
‘It’s not about blame. It’s what happened. We’re concentrating on those that are left, sticking together.’ The man seemed to register the beginning of the pink brickwork of the station, the white picket fence marking familiarity, and pulled the carrier bag towards him.
But his last words were still thudding softly in Julian’s fuddled mind. They echoed within some un-named place that felt hollow and distant.
‘It was good to talk to you,’ the man said, looking at him again, smiling.
Julian had barely slept. Hunger was gnawing at his stomach, and he was off-balance after the tumbled hours of dark and daylight. His bare toes were white with cold. He saw that the man meant what he said – even though Julian hadn’t mentioned a job or a business or a hobby.
Something surged up in him and pulled him to his feet. The man stood up on the other side of the table. As Julian grasped the offered hand, he covered his right forearm with his left hand in the sincere, respectful Zanzibari style. His own eyes became watery. He would have hugged the man, but there was a table between them. And he was Scottish.
And that’s how he was standing when the train soothed under the vaulted glass ceiling and against the platform. He saw his mother and father, grey and waiting side by side, his father leaning heavily on a stick. They looked like cornered animals, unmoving, whilst figures passed in front of them. Their hands fluttered, patting at each other and pointing as they caught sight of him.
Impelled out into the cool air, he dropped his bags. Children leapt to hug relatives, and clung to careering trolleys. A spaniel raced between legs dragging a lead behind it. He was amongst smiling faces and Spring clothes in red and blue and purple illuminated through the moss-covered skylights.
Julian stood with his arms at his sides, everything stripped away by the journey and watched his parents hobble towards him in a decrepit three-legged race, his father’s face twitching between spasms of arthritic pain, his mother’s hand gripped knuckle-white around her husband’s elbow. They seemed an aged version of themselves after only two years. And yet, as he watched their approach, sparks of sudden recognition exposed his own eyes in his mother’s face; the slight hook of his nose in his father’s. His mother’s mouth seemed twisted around something but he noticed that a red scarf brightened her neck, signalling a special occasion. He felt a flush rise in his own face as if in correspondence with it, and a wall of resistance crumbling away to re-shape his horizon.
They drew towards each other, stretching across the distance of a few paces with tremulous smiles and half-extended arms. His parents limped into his embrace. Julian’s bony knuckles, strong arms, and broad back built a fence around them. He felt their hands patting at his back.
‘Good journey, son?’ his father asked.
‘Not so bad.’
‘Your mother’s got a salmon in for lunch, haven’t you, love?’
‘I hope you’re hungry,’ she said.
They stayed, rocked by gusts from passing passengers and the suck of the train pulling out again, until the platform was quiet. Then Julian picked up his bags, and they walked together through the dark tunnel out onto the station esplanade. They waited, squinting out from a pool of sunlight that splashed against glass and lawn and blossom, for a taxi that would take them home.