I don’t understand the British. I am supposed to be one of them, but they have made it clear to me I am not. I stare across the bar counter at the upside-down bottles of alcohol displayed as beacons reflecting in the mirror; an infinity of glowing jewels. Glenfiddich, Dewars (for Mr Siddons who will drink no other), Johnny Walker, Grants; all the usual suspects.
Of course, I know the content of each whisky bottle is Bells. The publican bought a consignment cheap. It’s my job to take the empty bottles out the back and fill them with Bells. We only replace the bottle with the proper brand when the labels begin to look tatty. The publican insists no one can taste the difference. But Mr Siddons knows. Last time I replaced the old bottle with a new bottle of real Dewars he complained that I had substituted the whisky for a cheaper brand. He was right, but it was the cheaper brand he was used to. He didn’t like the Dewars. How could I explain that the whisky he was familiar with was actually Bells?
I hadn’t been in the country for more than a few weeks and was lucky to have a job even though it paid slave wages. It also provided me with a narrow bed in the attic along with a shared bathroom with only a cold tap. I have to carry hot water up three flights of stairs in order to have a bath. I am not sure what the other staff do, but I think they don’t bother bathing every day. There is no shower.
But I digress. I was taking about being British. At least I am British by decent even though I was born in a colony. Both my parents were British and I had assumed we were the same people, although we had been at odds with them politically since our Prime Minister made his unilateral declaration of Independence from Britain in 1965, when I was too young to remember. Anyway old Mr Barnes has just put me straight. I am a foreigner.
I asked him where he worked and he scolded me. ‘You never ask an Englishman what he does for a living,’ he said and then added, ‘you foreigners are all the same.’
For the past few weeks I had chatted to him during my lunch breaks. He always asked questions about me, so I felt it was time I learned more about him. Not that I cared. I was just making small talk. Now I sat on the stool, dumbfounded by his reprimand, and feeling very alien in a strange land.
It was at that moment another bloke came into the bar. He spoke to my colleague behind the counter, and my heart lifted above its dark dealings with Mr Barnes.
‘You’re Rhodesian,’ I blurted.
‘Ja.’ He turned to me and took a slurp from his pint. ‘They never make the beer cold enough in this joint.’
‘Where are you from?’ Mr Barnes was forgotten as I turned on my bar stool to face my fellow countryman with a surge of joy and desperation for my lost home.
‘Ja me too, although I was born in Bulawayo. I went to school in Salisbury. Oh, and Gwelo.’
‘Oh my brothers went to Saints’. The world around me disappeared and once more I was back at home, remembering the warm sun on my face; the highland air, fresh and clean. We talked of the places we went, the Gremlin drive-in café where food was brought by waiters to your car. The night clubs, La Bohème and Brett’s and the Coq D’Or and the pubs, the Blue Room, the Red Fox, the Oasis and many more. We laughed at the amazing stripper who tossed tassels to whirl in opposite directions; such muscle control.
Our eyes glazed as we longed once more to see the first rains of the season moving along the road. We talked about how we would run ahead before it caught up and we were drenched. We remembered the first huge drops that plopped onto the dirt to spurt dust in small funnels about our bare feet, and the smell of it; a smell you could never forget. We talked of the ant-lions we would catch by twirling a straw to tickle the slopes of their burrows. And we talked of friends, people we knew in common, and laughed at teachers he remembered, their names familiar to me from hearing stories from my brothers. I loved their nicknames like Quick Straw.
I said, ‘I remember the worse maths teacher I ever had. She was an absolute dragon who terrified me so much I never learned a thing in her class. I don’t think teachers like that should be allowed near kids.’
‘Oh, what was her name?’ His expression was mild, but curious.
I said her name. How could I ever forget it?
Quietly, sadly, he shook his head. ‘That’s my mother.’
‘No,’ I gasped, my cheeks burning. ‘You’re joking.’
He looked at his feet. ‘She is really a very nice Mother.’
My break was over and I had to go back to work. His beer was finished and he had to get along. I never saw him again, but I have never forgotten, even though it was a long time ago.