In the land al-Mahdī lost.

View of our garden from our house on the Nile.

The Khartoum arrivals hall was just a tiled room with poor lighting, full of disembarking passengers and a foreign smell. I stood by my suitcase, arms clutched across my waist, as I scanned the crowds, searching for my husband.

A wall clock told me it was nearly midnight. Outside darkness pressed against the glass exit door. The view was impenetrable, shedding doubt on my decision to arrive here earlier than planned. But what was I to do in London by myself?

I couldn’t stay in a strange city where I knew no one and had nowhere to live other than my VW Kombi. A van painted in the colours of the Rhodesian flag with rebel badges and stickers was noticeable and I couldn’t park up just anywhere. Anyway, I didn’t want to spend a month alone now our friends had been forced to go home to Zimbabwe.

They had come on holiday to do the grand tour with me, now that sanctions were lifted, but on entry to the UK they were given a one week visa to allow them time to change their flights and return home. It was basically a deportation order despite our country’s new status in the world.

It was so unfair and all because my friend was too honest, albeit a mite antagonistic. The immigration officer had no sense of humour and sent both of them home. From their report the immigration officer said something like, ‘did you fight in the Rhodesian war?’

Our friend responded, ‘of course.’

I mean, what able bodied man under 60 didn’t, right?

The immigration officer said, ‘did you support Ian Smith?’

‘Yes of course.’ My friend said rashly before committing the fatal mistake of adding, ‘dumb bastard,’ under his breath.

Clearly it was the wrong thing to say. The immigration officer heard, frowned and gave them 24 hours. After a short argument they managed to get an extension of one week which allowed us a lightening tour around the great ancestral island.

As I waved farewell I wondered what I would do with myself for the next few weeks. When my husband and I made this plan, we agreed that he would fly to the Sudan by himself giving him time to settle into his new job. He would also find us somewhere to live. While he was doing that I would spend a month sightseeing in the UK with our friends. Then when they were ready to go home, he would come back to the UK and we would go to Sudan together to take up our new life.

There was no contingency, no plan B and I didn’t want to hang around for weeks waiting until my husband was able to return to the UK. I decided instead, to drive to Khartoum in my Kombi. It would fill the intervening weeks, and be interesting to drive across Europe and North Africa. I had no maps, but my school girl geography was good so I thought I could just follow the signs, and off I set.

I might have made it if the car hadn’t broken down. Now as I waited in the arrivals hall, I watched people retrieve their luggage and exclaim when they met family or friends, hugging and kissing each other, and chattering as they walked to the exit, arms entwined. They were happy to be reunited and I was alone,  skirted by their swirling joy.

I looked at my watch. The clock on the wall was slow. It was nearly 2 am. I suppressed rising nervousness. Surely my husband would arrive to collect me soon. I hadn’t contemplated an alternative. I didn’t know his address or phone number, and at that stage I wasn’t to know, phones in Sudan were as unreliable as everything else.

All I had was the post office box number for the engineering company for whom he worked. Earlier that day I had sent a telegram from Rome. The man who sent it assured me it would reach Khartoum in plenty of time to warn my husband of my arrival. Only once I had his assurance did I exchange my last Sterling for a one way air ticket from Rome to Khartoum.

My stomach rumbled. I hadn’t eaten on the plane. After I bought my air ticket there was just enough Lire left over to buy a pizza; one like I had seen people munching as they sauntered through Roman streets. Its bohemian promise was sadly compromised by the cold reality of a flavourless wodge of stale dough. Now I regretted leaving it on a discrete building ledge because I was hungry and even stale pizza would have done.

A man interrupted my thoughts.

‘Are you okay? Is someone meeting you?’ His accent was English public school, his blue eyes appraising under pale eyebrows and receding flyaway hair.

‘Yes. Thank you.’ In case he was dangerous I added. ‘I am waiting for my husband.’

He nodded and walked back to a small group of men, some in traditional Arab clothing, and some like him in Western suits and ties. They stood in a circle around their baggage talking.

They had lost interest in me and I returned to my thoughts, wondering if my Kombi would be all right in the Rome airport. My stomach growled and I remembered the bacon and eggs I had left behind. Oh God! An image of the food I had forgotten in the cool box of the Kombi bubbled to mind. It’ll be heaving by the time I get back to rescue it.

I had a good excuse for abandoning the car in Rome airport. I had little choice after its clutch went at the top of a mountain pass. I managed to drive, clutch-less to Rome but I didn’t think I could continue on with it like that all the way across North Africa. In the end it came down to a choice; spend my cash on an airfare or fix the Kombi, but if I fixed the car, I wouldn’t have enough money to pay for fuel for the rest of the journey.

The clutch packed up after I had left Lyon, days earlier, to travel high across the Alps heading for Italy. At the time I had no idea the road was closed. If there were warnings I didn’t see them. I stopped at a sign saying Douane. I knew the word meant Customs. It was the same in Afrikaans, which I don’t speak, but I had seen the word plenty of times at the South Africa border crossings. So I knew I had at last reached the border between France and Italy.

It was February and snow drifted metres high on either side of the road. On my left icicles, the length of broadswords, dripped like stalactites from the lip of a rocky outcrop. On my right, snow stretched across the landscape towards towering peaks hidden in cloud. I shivered as I alighted from the interior warmth of the Kombi.

Underfoot the road was covered with a thin layer of snow, enough so my footfalls crunched in silence as I made my way to the sign. A red fox, bushy tailed and magnificent ran in front of me, and I stopped to watch, remembering childhood tales from Beatrix Potter.

The fox disappeared. Once more I was alone with the sign, feeling the triviality of my existence. Above, a vast sky domed a fathomless blue, fringed with the cloud shrouded mountains.  Still, I could not see a customs post. Perhaps I was mistaken, and the word did not mean Customs after all.

I turned back to the van. As I did, I saw something in the distance sticking out from the snow. I squinted but couldn’t make out what it was against the glare. I didn’t fancy wading through drifts to examine it. Slowly it dawned on me that it was a chimney.

A chimney meant a building and a roof, but none of that was visible from where I stood. The customs post was completely submerged. I returned to the car and sat, arms looped over the steering wheel, staring at the chimney wondering what to do. I didn’t want to go back so I figured I would press on. Perhaps there would be another post further on.

I turned the ignition and depressed the clutch to put the car in gear. The grating crash made me wince and I turned off the engine. I am not sure why I got out of the car again except I must have had some vague notion that is what one did when a car broke down. You got out and lifted the bonnet and fiddled in the engine until you fixed it. It was a silly notion really; I hadn’t a clue. All I did was shiver and stare.

I sat back in the car and pondered, but nothing came. I put the car in third gear, took off the handbrake and rolled, turning the key as the car moved forward. With a jolt the car started and bunny hopped down the road. As I picked up speed the engine screamed, and teeth bared, with my left shoulder rising to meet my left ear, I crashed into fourth gear. I would be all right now.  I would worry about what I would do to stop or slow down to turn a corner  when it happened.

Despite moments of terror, and cringing embarrassment I made it to Rome, but the details are too many for this story.

Now the Khartoum arrivals hall was emptying and a man in jalabiya and turban pushed a broom about in front of him. Outside vehicles arrived and left and the last remaining group picked up their luggage to leave. I didn’t know what to do, and looked again at my watch trying to contain rising panic.

The group that included my enquiring Englishman disappeared beyond the glass exit doors. I was alone with the broom sweeper. My hand went up to my mouth and I chewed a nail, thinking blank thoughts as I tried to contain growing despair. The door opened again. At last! I breathed out. He was here. But he wasn’t. It was just my Englishman returning.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘we are heading into town. I don’t think your husband is coming and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a taxi at this time of night.’ He looked concerned. ‘We can give you a lift to the Hilton and your husband can pick you up from there, if you like.’ He scanned my face. ‘You can’t stay here anyway. The airport is closing.’

I stared at him mute as my brain shrieked. I had heard scary stories and my imagination always worked overtime, but what choice did I have. I gathered my courage and nodded.

‘Thank you. Something must have delayed him,’ I said.

He picked up my suitcase, saying politely if unnecessarily, ‘we are outside.’

As I followed him to the car I had another thought. How could I check into the Hilton? I had no money, but it was too late to admit that now and anyway he was putting my case in the boot. A sense of fatalism overcame me and I tried to hide my worry with a mask of polite interest.

In the car the man introduced himself. He was on business and visited Sudan often.

He asked, ‘is this your first visit?’

‘Yes,’ I nodded wondering if admitting ignorance was a good idea, but I find it difficult to lie outright. Prevarication is easier, but outright lying always brings me undone.

‘But your husband lives here?’

Oh God how long would this trip take and how many confessions would the man exhume. I was wrong to be suspicious. He was merely a concerned English gentleman, and I was an ungrateful and mistrusting person. By the time we arrived at the hotel he had extracted the truth. I didn’t know where my husband was or how to contact him.

It was just as well this was the era pre-internet. Trust preceded technology and the hotel did not ask for a credit card or a deposit, for I had neither. They gave me a room without a flicker of doubt although they kept my temporary British passport. I suppose that was security of a kind. I turned to thank my benefactor and made my way to the lift. At least I was safe for now.

He called out, ‘you might ring the embassy tomorrow.’

I turned, and he explained. ‘Your husband will have registered with the embassy. They will be able to contact him.’

The breath I had held in my lungs, seemingly since I arrived, whooshed out and gratefully I said, ‘thank you.’

Here at last was a likely resolution to my rescue. Contacting the embassy hadn’t occurred to me. The next day, I discovered, it hadn’t occurred to my husband either. The front desk arranged for someone from the British Embassy to come and speak with me. He was a solemn young man, not much older than me, who didn’t seem able to believe I had travelled to Khartoum on my own with just a one way ticket, no money, and no knowledge of where, in the million square kilometres that made up the Sudan, my husband lived or worked.

‘Do you know the name of the company for whom he works?’

I shook my head. ‘I can’t remember the name of the company. I only have the post office address.’

‘Right, he got up to go. I’ll see what can be done.’

I counted the hours and was afraid to eat or ask for prices, afraid to leave the hotel in case he came to find me and I wasn’t there. What kind of bill was I racking up and how would I pay it if I couldn’t find him?

On day three, I was just about ready to despair when my husband arrived to collect me. He paid the hotel bill without comment. I didn’t ask him how much. He said not to worry about the Kombi. It would cost more to retrieve than it was worth. Of course he never received any telegram, but his grin of incredulity made me feel better.

‘Did you seriously think you could make it all the way here in that clapped out tin can?’

We walked out of the hotel through revolving glass doors. Outside the heat smacked into me like a solid wall, the air searing my lungs and I gasped. A minute later, discomfort was forgotten.

Before me lay the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, their waters flowing side by side for hundreds of meters before unifying into one mighty torrent that would flow on passed antiquity, oblivious to history and the puny efforts of humankind. I was in the enchanted Kingdom of Kush. A land of whirling dervishes that spawned al-Mahdī, killed General Gordon and crowned Lord Kitchener’s career. It was the start of my new life.


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