“What about Zambia?”
“How do you feel about living in Zambia?”
“Well, I can’t say I’ve ever given it much consideration really. Where is it?”
“In Africa I think, I don’t know exactly. Where’s our atlas?”
I went off in search of the atlas and we both crowded over the coffee table as Ziggy, my husband of five years, searched for the page containing Zambia. We found it on page 23 in the middle of a long pointy bit of southern Africa.
“So what’s going on there?” I asked
“A cobalt plant,” he said, as if that explained everything.
Ziggy had spent the past couple of weeks looking for a job. His current employers had closed the division he worked in and as he had received a fair redundancy package, he had time to search around for ‘the right job’. For the past three years he had worked as a site engineer in the petrochemical industry at various coastal locations around Great Britain. We lived in Burton upon Trent, about as far as anyone can get from any British coast, which meant that most weeks he went off to the site early on a Monday morning, returning on a Friday evening. This left me a little lonesome, and in sole charge of hand-rearing our three very young children, an arrangement hardly conducive to a fulfilling married life.
When Ziggy and I decided to start a family, about a year after we got married, we had this notion to have a couple of kids close together, then a gap of two or so years, then produce two more.
Brad had been a five-weeks premature baby. The planned two year gap between him and his first sibling went for a ball of chalk when my second pregnancy materialised very quickly and I again went into labour five weeks early. This second premature arrival didn’t bother me, but it put other people on the back foot.
During my pregnancy I was getting battered from the inside every which way and was sure that I was carrying twins, but my learned GP assured me that I wasn’t. The fixed-date visit to the gynaecologist four weeks before due time could not dispute or confirm this notion because I gave birth a week before the appointment date. The hospital staff were rather surprised when I produced twins. I was not. But my GP sure felt like a twit when he was told Leon was born five minutes after I had given birth to Victoria.
The jump from one to three offspring in the space of 17 months soon eliminated all notions of expanding the litter any further. This dramatic increase in children meant I really had my hands full, and I could foresee my life wasn’t going to get any easier Ziggy was searching for a job where he could work closer to home and help with the brood, commuting on a daily basis. Zambia hardly seemed close to home, but then he had implied that I would be going there too. Now I wanted to know more about living in Zambia.
“Go on then, tell me about it.”
“There’s a company in need of a Site Manager to build a new cobalt plant,” he replied, “and it looks very interesting.” A two-year contract was on offer and the successful applicant would be provided with a house, company car, medical facilities, private education for children (when they were old enough), payment of water, electricity and telephone bills and a house servant. On top of all that there was a salary too!
“That’s not too shoddy,” I said.
“And,” he went on, “it would mean I could be home for lunch every day.”
Well, that sold it for me, I can tell you. And the prospect of having my husband at home each day after work was such an appealing thought that I think I would have moved to the South Pole if he’d asked.
“There’s only one problem though,” I sighed.
“My mum and dad. Nancy and Mev are hardly going to welcome this news. We would be depriving them not only of their only daughter, but their only grandchildren too. And goodness knows what my grandmother Doris will have to say about it. You know how she adores ‘helping’ me with the kids.”
“Mmm.” He contemplated that one for a while. “But you know they are always very busy running their pub, and if I were to get a job up at the far reaches of Scotland, that’s a long way too. And at least in Africa it should be sunny.”
“That’s not fair! You know sunshine is my weak spot. But you’re right. And two years isn’t that long, I expect they could visit us for a holiday.” We sat quietly for a while, lost in thought.
“What about the kids?” I asked.
“Oh, we take them with us, of course.”
“No, you idiot, I mean, do you think they’ll be okay with this?”
“Well, they’re rather young to have an opinion, but I imagine they’ll love it. You know how much they enjoy playing outside. They should be able to do that all the time over there.”
“So you think I should apply then?”
“Most definitely,” I said, suddenly sitting up straight, “it could be quite interesting.”
Oh boy, was that ever the understatement of the century.
The reaction from our relatives and friends when we told them Ziggy hadbeen offered the post in Zambia was one of incredulity. That of my parents, Nancy and Mev was as predicted. It was not at the top of their list of ‘things we would most like to see happen in 1980’. However they did understand our situation and gave us their full support, albeit with heavy hearts.
Prior to taking on their pub, my parents were involved full time in running what was originally my grandmother’s very busy, street corner grocery store. In fact I was born into the business and was serving customers (no self-service in those days) as soon as I was big enough to jump up and greet them from the other side of the counter. The familiarity of the business, as well as our family’s general relaxed attitude, encouraged me to call my parents, and even my grandmother, by their first names as I grew older. I only mention this to clarify that this unusual practice was by no means a sign of disrespect, but just the way we worked.
The weeks which followed were filled with pandemonium as we arranged with an Estate Agent for our house to be rented in our absence, sorted out what was to be put in storage, and crated up the things we needed to take.
Whilst all this was going on, the children were getting excited although they didn’t really know why.
Eventually the big day arrived. There were lots of tears, and that was just saying goodbye to our house and the neighbours!
Several cars belonging to family and friends were used to ferry the five of us, together with our substantial luggage, to Birmingham airport. The extent of our entourage was such that the airport staff initially thought we were celebrities.
As we checked in for our fight to Heathrow I was, for the first time, beginning to feel a little nervous. My composure was not assisted by the kids’ shrieks of delight at the prospect of their first flight on an aeroplane. How do you explain to three miniature tearaways that it is not the done thing to go racing off to the aircraft in preference to kissing their Nanny and Grandad goodbye for the last time in two years?
As we walked away from all the loving familiar faces, the tears fell and the hankies waved. I eventually settled back into the airline seat to enjoy the beginning of our journey into the unknown. And what a bloody journey it was.
We were the last to stagger off the plane at Heathrow, having knocked back the G & T’s in a rush when we heard the plane was landing sooner than we’d expected. Inside Terminal One we secured a trolley, loaded the six pieces of handbaggage and with the three kids still leaping with excitement, set off on a two-mile hike to Terminal 3. Here we would check in for the middle, and longest leg of our journey.
What with all the planning, confusion and excitement leading up to this point, it was only as we entered Terminal 3 that we realised Ziggy’s new employers had chosen a Bank Holiday weekend for us to effect our migration. Heathrow airport was packed.
I found a relatively clear bit of space and settled down on the floor with the kids to read them a ‘Mr Men’ story whilst Ziggy went off to buy currency more appropriate to our destination. I got three-quarters of the way through the exploits of Mr Small before discovering that I was reading to myself – and several bemused onlookers. The kids had buggered off to look for their Dad.
I rose nonchalantly to my feet, stacked our scattered possessions back onto the trolley and took it, and my red face, in search of my dear children.
Once re-assembled – easier said than done – we decided to get something to eat, so being the dutiful mother I spent ten minutes in the queue at the selfservice cafeteria trying to buy some gold-plated (should have been at the price) sandwiches. I returned to our table to find Brad at someone else’s, helping himself to their chips, and the twins polishing off some Kit-Kats that some member of our family had managed to slip them when I wasn’t looking.
Ziggy and I were just about to tuck into the sandwiches when we realised our flight was being called. Not to be caught out, we went straight through Passport Control and whilst I went to buy our Duty Free allowances, Ziggy and the children took a slow walk to Gate 47. They must, however, have been calling our flight long before we first heard them because while deciding which perfume to buy I heard:
This is the final call for the one remaining passenger on Flight QZ 003 to Lusaka.
Panic set in. I made hysterical screeching noises at the assistant to sell me whichever bottle of perfume she had in her hand and tore out of the shop clutching my plastic bags.
According to television programmes I had previously seen, most passengers using the moving pavements at large airports could be seen gliding sedately along the corridors holding polite conversation. I reckon the combined speed of me and that conveyor belt must have reached about fortyfive miles an hour as I charged across what seemed like half of Greater London to reach Gate 47 and I certainly did not hold any conversations along the way.
I had never realised how many pairs of eyes you could fit into a Boeing 707, but I now know that it is an awful lot and they were all boring into me. Laden with my purchases, I lurched down the entire length of the plane to our second-from-the-back-row seats.
The ten hour flight to Lusaka was surprisingly calm, if you discount the chaos surrounding the installation of night-nappies and pyjamas in the confines of an aeroplane. The kids slept soundly from sheer exhaustion. Ziggy also slept soundly – but then he would after imbibing umpteen gin and tonics. I tossed and turned in my seat, wondering if we were right to be pursuing such an unusual course, though it was a bit late to be deliberating over that one, with us halfway to Africa and thirteen crates full of our possessions following behind on a paddle steamer.
I was just starting to doze off when some idiot switched the lights on and said it was time for breakfast. I thought my watch had stopped. It was only four o’clock!
Brad was the only one who woke up to have something to eat, whilst Ziggy and the twins slept on, oblivious to the chatter and clatter going on around them. After the breakfast trays had been cleared away I woke Vicki and Leon to get them dressed ready for our arrival in Lusaka. I’d finished Brad and Leon and had just started on Vicki when we had to buckle ourselves in. Just when I really didn’t need it, they told us the flight was landing ahead of time.
We spilled off the plane to be greeted by a lovely warm, post-dawn breeze and strolled across the tarmac to the arrivals gate at Lusaka International Airport. Apparently, I was not the only one surprised by the early arrival. Half of the airport staff hadn’t turned up for work yet and the entire planeload of passengers had to wait squashed up in a corridor as the solitary cleaner finished hosing down (I kid you not) the Arrivals Hall.
Whilst Ziggy battled to find and complete the necessary paperwork and track down our luggage, I attempted to keep the rest of the family united with the hand baggage, at the same time as trying to finalise the dressing of Vicki. This was the cue for the next airport announcement asking the Patras family to urgently check in for the Kitwe flight.
Once more gathering our possessions, we moved through to Domestic Departures where we were told to board for the final airborne leg of our journey. By the time I’d packed everything back into the travel bag, we were last to embark yet again. Only this time it wasn’t funny. The plane was chock-a-block full.
Ziggy set himself down in a seat halfway along the aircraft, with Brad on his lap. Only one seat remained right at the front, which had to accommodate myself plus Vicki and Leon. We were all supposed to have our own seats.What bothered me was that the seats our kids should have been occupying were filled by ‘big people’ and just about all of these big people had arrived on the same UK flight as us – complete with appropriate vast amounts of baggage. Surely the plane would be over its weight limit?
I buckled myself into the seat and held on to the two squirming bodies in my charge, for whom the novelty of going on planes had by now worn off. I felt much the same way myself. But none more so than when I peered between the bobbing heads and saw what lay before me.
The door which separated the cabin from the cockpit was swinging merrily on a hinge-and-a-half. Each time it swung open I could see this little Zambian chap trying desperately to cram dozens of enormous bulging suitcases into what looked like a gorilla cage behind the Captain’s seat. And where the odd suitcase was small enough to slip out between the bars, he secured it in place by tying it up with a length of thick string. When he had eventually succeeded in his quest, he closed the aircraft door, pulled down a collapsible seat, donned a pair of headphones and sat beside the pilot, who was finalising his pre-flight check.
Shit, I thought, this baggage handler is also the co-pilot!
I had been travelling the skies since I was eleven years old and never once had I been scared. Now I was terrified. This rickety little flying machine, crammed to the gunwales with burly adults and their overweight luggage, was to be lifted into the air with the assistance of two pathetic looking prop-driven engines and a baggage handler!
I felt physically sick. No way was this plane going to get off the ground. As we taxied out to the very edge of the runway my insides felt like they were made of lead. The engines whined, the fuselage shook and the connecting door flapped back and forth on its wounded hinges. The plane bucked and rattled against its brakes until the Captain thought he had enough power for take-off.
Then we crawled forward.
Very, very slowly we trundled down the runway. Further and further we crept along. I felt sure the pilot would have to put on brakes, turn around and try again, when gradually my seat tipped back as the front end of this heap eased off the ground. We had lost sight of the terminal buildings long ago and were on the verge of ploughing the field of a neighbouring farm when the rest of the vibrating contraption became airborne.
Eventually the tension eased as it became apparent that we were actually going to stay in the air and the knots of leaden worms in my gut began to dissolve.
Next a tap on my shoulder announced the arrival of Brad who, clutching his paper bag and climbing onto my lap between Vicki and Leon, declared that he was going to be sick.
Never before had one small airline seat been occupied by so many.
I tried to turn around to indicate to Ziggy that he should fetch Brad, but it was impossible due to the fact that I still had my seatbelt fastened and was unable to unbuckle it because of all the children on top of me. And it was pointless trying to shout to Ziggy, as you couldn’t hear a darned thing above the din of the engines. Oh, what a memorable flight that was. If I live to be a hundred I know I shall never forget it.
After an hour, the plane touched down and we tumbled out with great relief into the hot dry air of Kitwe’s Southdown Airfield. We looked around for a terminal building but all we could find was a corrugated tin hut, which turned out to be it.
The enthusiasm and anticipation that fired us prior to leaving England had now been replaced with apprehension and trepidation, just as England’s green and lush fields had been replaced by the pale and arid land which lay before us. And we were questioning what the devil we had let ourselves in for.
A black face with a big smile and a placard reading “Rhinestone” stood beside a company bus which had been despatched to collect us and three other Rhinestone newcomer families from the ‘airport’. Introducing himself as Wilkins, he greeted us all enthusiastically and after supervising the stowage of our baggage ushered us aboard comparatively luxurious transport. We settled back in our seats but everyone seemed rather shell-shocked by the preceding experience, so the atmosphere on the bus was somewhat subdued.
Then someone chirped up, “Well, what a flight that was” which snapped everyone out of their lethargy and in no time at all we were exchanging names, whilst kids were running up and down the bus from window to window.
“Wow, look at that tree, it’s growing out of a sand-hill.” We were told by Wilkins that these were termite mounds, some of which could reach two or even three metres in height.
“Mummy, look at those funny houses,” as we passed small round huts with mud walls and thatched roofs.
“Hey, look at those weird sheep – some of ’em’s got horns!”voiced by a six-year-old belonging to a couple we were talking to. He had spotted a herd of goats.
It wasn’t long before we saw signs of civilisation, as scruffy white buildings began to appear beside the road. As it widened, the street became lined with trees and houses, before progressing into shops and commercial looking buildings – some were even two stories high!
After negotiating two large roundabouts and a single set of traffic lights we found ourselves in the heart of Kitwe, the principal city of Zambia’s Copperbelt Region. Our little bus drew to a halt outside the impressive multistorey Edinburgh Hotel.
We were warmly welcomed by Doug, Ziggy’s new boss, before checking in at the hotel. We were shown to our room. It had two single beds. When I enquired as to where the children were to sleep I was told that the hotel did not realise we had any.
We were passed through the hands of the entire Hotel Edinburgh Reception staff – from porter and various clerks before eventually getting the attention of a Manager, to be told that we would be allocated a larger, or two adjoining rooms ‘now’.
By the time negotiations had reached this level I was working solo, as Doug had carted Ziggy away for a briefing, so I decided I would take the kids for some fresh air and sunshine. That was until someone said such a course of action was not to be recommended. I was advised that in order to safeguard it from being stolen, I should stay with our luggage in the temporary room until I could accompany all our possessions to the new room, where it could then be safely left under lock and key.
This implication of lack of security did not sit well with my already strained nerves, nor did the prospect of spending any length of time cooped up in a hotel cell with three small, very bored children.
Although our three children had all been subjected to the same upbringing, I was (quite stupidly) surprised by the difference in their characters. All three being premature, they had taken some time to catch up sizewise to other kids their age. However, size made no difference to their mental capacity.
Brad was talking quite early in comparison to the children I came in contact with at the various ‘mother and child’ appointments or activities. Despite being smaller than his playmates it soon became apparent that he was not going to be pushed around.
I won’t bore you with the scores of misdemeanours the little sod accumulated during his first three years, other than to relate one tale of when he first attended playschool.
Vicki and Leon were about 5 months old and Brad was eligible to join a playgroup near to where we lived. It seemed like a good idea for him to spend time with kids his own age, so he attended three mornings a week.
One morning, a few weeks after he started there, I was ‘summoned’ by the Head of the establishment.
“Mrs Patras, I’m afraid we have a slight problem with Brad. He has taken to hitting some of the other children.”
Oh, no. Not my little angel.
“What happened?” I enquired.
“Well, it would appear that he just walks up, thumps a boy’s arm and says, ‘So there’.”
I assured Mrs Thompson that I would address the situation with him and make sure that it did not happen again. As I pushed Vicki and Leon in the Mighty Chrome Twin Pushchair up the long slog of a very steep road home, Brad displayed no signs of having done anything wrong.
After they had all been fed and watered I sat beside Brad at the table.
“So Brad Anthony, let’s talk about what you have been doing at school today. The teacher told me you’ve been hitting some other children. Why did you do that?”
With a look which said he couldn’t understand why this should be a problem, he said,
“Well, they’re all bigger than me, so I hit ’em back first!”
Needless to say, this practice was nipped in the bud very smartly.
We made a point of never referring to Vicki and Leon as ‘the twins’ as we felt they must be treated as separate individuals. However, for the efficiency of using two syllables instead of five when talking about them collectively, they were often referred to as ‘the kids’. As they reached the ‘do something naughty’ age, roughly when they turned one year old, Brad, at the grand old age of two-and-a-half, would come trotting along with a sneaky smile on his face.
“Mummy, have you seen what those kids are doing?”
By the time we moved to Zambia those kids were clearly developing their own personalities.
Leon James was the charmer, the chatterbox, the showman. Victoria, the elder by five minutes, was a little quieter and, for the most part, more sensible. Naturally being one girl against two boys (and her mother’s daughter) she learned to toughen up very quickly.
None of them lacked confidence, which came as no surprise given their parentage.
Over the years people have asked me, “Who is your favourite?”
FAVOURITE? What sort of a question is that? “Well Brad of course,” I said, “being my first born. And Victoria naturally, being my beautiful, only daughter. And Leon without a doubt, because he’s my baby, my last born.”
We were eventually released from the room after about an hour, shown our revised accommodation and were able to deposit our belongings, then lock up and go.
By this time I was seriously in need of a drink.
Accompanied by my little tribe, now armed with an assortment of toys retrieved from a suitcase, we tracked down the Terrace Bar. I had experienced larger entertainment areas in my previous life but it was quite pleasant, if a little crowded, with three other families and four couples all enjoying suitable refreshments.
As the children entertained themselves I sat with a cold beer and mused.
I was quite surprised to see clouds. I don’t know why I had not expected to see clouds, maybe it was because the Zambia Tourist Board brochure we had been sent said September would be dry and hot, and so I assumed that meant no clouds. Within a short time I was relieved that we did have clouds, as they gave welcome relief to the blazing heat of the sun. But they were really strange clouds.
These clouds were startlingly white against an azure sky and whilst the top and sides of the clouds looked all soft, fluffy and puffy, like a mountain of cotton wool balls or a child’s drawing, the base of each cloud was completely flat, as though someone has sliced off their bottoms with a sharp knife, or as if they were sitting on a horizontal sheet of glass.
Despite the twelve kilometre drive into town from the airport I had not, until this point, noticed that the traffic was driving on the left. For some weird reason I had expected it to drive on the right – probably because we had crossed the English Channel. But when I considered it sensibly, it would be obvious to anyone with half a brain that vehicles would drive on the left, Zambia being an ex-British colony and all.
It soon became apparent that the toys my kids had brought along were quite a scarcity in this area and the majority of our time was spent trying to prevent the treasures being squirrelled away by other junior hands. Recognising that a revolt was imminent, I packed the toys away and decided to check out the local scene.
Having lived most of my life in an English town, my experience of cities was pretty limited, but what spread before me barely resembled my perception of the word ‘city’.
We strolled into an open square about the size of a football field, which consisted of parking spaces surrounded by a couple of dozen shops. No bustling traffic and no busy office-wallahs scurrying around. In fact hardly any traffic and certainly no-one scurrying. But I was instantly overwhelmed when I saw the number of black people present.
Yes, I can hear you clearly.
“What the devil did you expect, you stupid woman? You’re in the middle of Africa for God’s sake!”
Well, I just hadn’t thought about it that far, okay?
Whilst people went about whatever business, leisure or otherwise they were engaged in, I did not feel entirely at ease. Not that I was being threatened or anything. No-one was giving us the evil eye, there weren’t hordes of men wearing leopard skins and brandishing spears closing in around us, or anything remotely menacing. I just felt so conspicuous, being white. Within ten minutes we returned to the hotel terrace where I felt more comfortable.
We were reunited with Ziggy shortly thereafter.
Later, after tea on the terrace and a quick bath, the kids were put to bed earlier than usual that evening and we left them safely tucked up in the knowledge that they would sleep soundly after the excitement of the past thirty-six hours. We went in search of a bite to eat in the hotel restaurant.
Ziggy chose to try a Zambian dish and asked the waiter for a recommendation. Apparently nshima and relish was the most popular. Being less adventurous in my eating habits I opted for steak and chips.
Cutlery already laid on the table was changed as appropriate and drinks were ordered. Whilst we waited for our meal to arrive Ziggy told me what he had learned from Doug during the course of his briefing.
He said that the following day, Sunday, Doug and his wife would collect us from the hotel to accompany us to our next level of accommodation. We wondered how many levels there were going to be. Was this some sort of test, or what? Or perhaps a traditional African custom in which we had to be initiated?
Before we could ponder this further, our food arrived. A huge piece of fillet steak filled my plate and looked delicious. Ziggy stared at his. It was a large plate with a mound of something on it that vaguely resembled mashed potato. Then a bowl was placed before him with a sort of gravy/sauce in it, which looked like it might contain some meat too. His hands reached either side of the plate for his knife and fork but the area was devoid of anything metallic, so he called for the waiter and pointed out this omission.
The waiter smiled benevolently.
“You see, sir, you do not eat it with the knife and the fork. You eat it with the fingers.”
Ziggy looked from the plate of stiff white stuff, to the dish of brown sloppy stuff, to the smiling waiter and raised both eyebrows.
“Sir,” said the waiter, suddenly producing a spoon, “may I?”
“Oh, please. Be my guest,” replied Ziggy, gesturing with a wave of his hand towards the food.
The waiter then carefully took a spoonful of the white stuff and with a flourish transferred it to the palm of his left hand. He then discarded the spoon and with his right hand carefully pressed the knuckles of two fingers into the ball of goo to form a hollow. He then transferred this to his right hand, making sure that Ziggy was following every move carefully.
“Now sir, you take your nshima like so and…” the waiter made a swooping motion with his goo scoop above the sauce dish, “then take up the relish from the dish and, hey presto, you eat it. Lovely, sir.”
On that happy note he disappeared with the spoon and his sample nshima scoop, leaving Ziggy in stunned silence.
It is not easy eating steak when you are trying with all your might not to laugh, which was made no easier when I glanced around and saw several bemused fellow diners observing this demonstration, also trying to suppress laughter behind politely raised hands or napkins.
But I had to hand it to Ziggy (if you’ll pardon the pun). He did manage to get about a third of the way through his ‘traditional dish’ before excusing himself to go and wash. Upon his return he said,
“That was quite nice actually.”
I said nothing. I could not remember the last time I heard him tell such a bare-faced lie. He never tried nshima and relish again.