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Here In Africa: The Endless Journey

An elderly man leaves his home and flies thousandsof miles to live with a woman in need of companionship.

The woman, once noted for her beauty was being betrayed by her sagging muscles and tissues. "As the slow destruction continued and her fabled beauty became a memory, her underlying cruel streak came to the fore. Her selfish lack of concern and interest in others, never very strong at the best of times, disappeared with increasing age, and she, who’d always been the centre of attention in every gathering, felt no need to entertain her visitor or provide for his comfort.''

What a ghastly situation for the old man. How can he escape from it?

Barbara Durlacher tells a satisfying tale.

The plane emerged from the cotton-wool clouds, steadied, levelled out and taxied to a stop. Baton waving marshals directed it to a parking space and as it came to a standstill, the passengers rose to their feet and gathered their hand-luggage.

The hostess helped the elderly man into his heavy overcoat and gently placed his trilby on his head. She instructed him to remain in his seat until the other passengers had disembarked saying that he would be helped down the steps and then someone would take him to the arrivals area.

Bewildered, the old man looked at the milling passengers and heaving crowd. Slowly his eyes adjusted and finally he saw a man holding a placard with his name. He shuffled forward and was unhurriedly led to a luxury chauffeur-driven car where the woman waited.

Tears blinded the couple as they embraced; hats were knocked aside, umbrellas dropped and toes stepped on. Scraps of conversation were exchanged, each interrupting the other in their eagerness to express their wonder at meeting again after all these years. Then, after they’d both calmed down and the driver’s impatience to leave could no longer be concealed, she finally gave the driver orders to pull away.

As the car blended smoothly into the heavy traffic he felt himself relaxing and his eyes began to droop, oblivious of her chatter. No matter that he did not hear her; what she said would undoubtedly be repeated later. What he needed now was to close his aching eyes and sleep for a while, to catch up. This had been his very first flight and he’d been travelling for 28 hours. He was utterly exhausted.

After what seemed like hours, he felt her nudge him and woke with a start to hear that the large building they were passing was a famous palace known the world over for the exploits of its inhabitants, but seen only as a blur through his smeared spectacles. Still too dazed to take in what she told him, the drive and the sightseeing seemed meaningless. All he wanted was to find a comfortable bed and sleep for hours.

The next morning, feeling somewhat refreshed, he tentatively entered the elegantly furnished Morning Room to join her at breakfast. But when they’d finished, amidst a clutter of heavy silver forks and spoons, delicate bone china and crisply starched napkins, he still felt hungry. He missed his daily bowl of thick Scots porridge and heavy slabs of black bread and cheese, the breakfast he’d eaten for more than 50 years and which his simple constitution knew and enjoyed.

If this was what it was going to be like for the rest of his life, he would never stand it, he thought. Silently he vowed to make some changes. ‘Accommodations’ as he preferred to think of them, even tiny ones, would have to be made if he was going to be happy here.

Slowly the days passed and he found that once the excitement of their meeting was over, they had little in common. For nearly 60 years they had exchanged weekly letters; everything that each had experienced during their adulthood had been said and minutely commented upon; every feeling and every event had been dissected and analysed. Now there was nothing left to discuss.

As the days and weeks passed into months his despair increased. What was he really doing here? How was he expected to occupy himself during the endless years while she sat in her fusty, super-heated room in that smelly armchair in which his rival died? Her days were filled with aimless pursuits; occasionally she wrote a few lines in her distinctive hand at her delicate Sheraton desk to friends and acquaintances, but most of her time was spent watching simple animal programs on television while gobbling chocolates, or tearing and defacing old photographs of friends and relatives whose faces now displeased her.

She, who had once been the most beautiful woman in three counties, was being betrayed by her sagging muscles and tissues and as the slow destruction continued and her fabled beauty became a memory, her underlying cruel streak came to the fore. Her selfish lack of concern and interest in others, never very strong at the best of times, disappeared with increasing age, and she, who’d always been the centre of attention in every gathering, felt no need to entertain her visitor or provide for his comfort. She had no interest in keeping him amused, nor did she feel it was necessary to help him to adjust to a life very different from the one he had known and where, he now realised with a pang, he had been so happy.

What on earth had possessed him to write to her with those stories about how badly he was treated by those around him? What had tempted him to put a spin on the truth and present himself in the best light possible when, if he was honest, he knew that many of the objections aimed at him were merited? He knew that only small changes on his part would have erased the harsh words and put the record straight. All fault lay on his side.

Yet at the time, he had felt it was his right to stick to his guns, and it was his masculine pride not to retract and apologise for his dreadful behaviour, or to forgive those he was so certain had wronged him. He’d found it impossible to take the first steps to a reconciliation.

But this alternative - which he’d longed for as the ultimate solution to all his problems - was not working out as he had expected. After all wasn’t she fabulously wealthy, lonely, and searching for a new man in her life? Hadn’t she told him in letter after letter, how desperately she longed for a loving companion and how unsuitable the many occupants of that post had been in the past?

Crazy women, she claimed, and men whose only interest was in conning her out of her wealth had been sent by do-gooders anxious to help. None of them were suitable. She hated them all.

Now he understood why none of the previous companions had stayed and why she’d never been satisfied with the care they offered her, or the so-called companionship. She had a beautiful woman’s total absorption with herself and complete lack of understanding of everyone else. Her iron-willed determination not to change her way of life even for him rankled and very soon he stopped making an effort to entertain or talk to her. It was plain that she was content on her own and desired nothing except instant admiration and, if possible, outrageous flattery. All his efforts were a waste of time, as she seldom bothered to listen and even if she heard anything he had said, she instantly dismissed his opinions, as she was adamant that she knew better than anyone else.

The days were the worst and it was not long before he took to going downstairs and spending hours with the Hall Porter, who like all those in his trade knew everything about the people living in the building. Never slow to talk, the Porter made him laugh with his stories about the goings on and his ingenious solutions to the various problems he’d encountered and although he knew that the stories were exaggerated and it was not possible for one man to be as resourceful as he claimed, he still valued the man’s company. He also carefully remembered the information he gleaned from his gossip, storing it in his memory for later use. One never knew when something unexpected would come in useful.

Then one day the opportunity presented itself. “Ring downstairs for the Hall Porter,” she commanded him imperiously. “The bathroom switch is not working. It’s a simple job, he can fix it himself, not need to call in an electrician and waste money.”

After making the call he told her the Porter would come up during his dinner hour and that he would explain to him what was needed. It was not necessary for her to disturb herself with matters of such a mundane nature. He was glad to help her and would see that all went exactly as it should. He was happy to take such a small thing off her shoulders.

**

At the inquest the Porter gave his evidence that he had been called by the gentleman to come up and fix the bathroom switch, but was kept busy by an unexpected delivery for the luxury penthouse suite and was available when needed. He had gone up the following morning as soon as he clocked on, only to find that the door was locked and the safety latch on. It took him some time to jimmy the door open and when he did he found the occupant of the flat lying naked in the bath. The body was cold with no pulse. He called the doctor who arrived within a few minutes.

The pathologist’s evidence was that the body had been in the water for upwards of 10 hours, putting the time of death at around 4 pm the previous afternoon. The Porter testified that the gentleman had left for his daily walk promptly at 2 pm as he always did and he had seen him go in the direction of the park, as was his habit.

‘Death by Misadventure’ was the verdict – there was no doubt about it.
The elderly lady, the occupant of the flat, had decided to take a bath while the gentleman was out, and slipped while exiting the bath. Falling back, the water splashed over the side onto the wooden floorboards from where it gradually seeped through to the electrical wiring.

The doctor testified that she had a history of heart problems and had been hospitalised for a time. It was clear that the combination of the fall in the bath and the electric shock was the cause of death.

**

Removing his suitcase from the cupboard in the dark corner of the basement where he’d stored his tools, he walked to the corner and boarded a passing bus. After alighting, he quietly disposed of the suitcase and his gloves in a skip outside a building site. Then he hailed a taxi to the airport.

He paid for from the large wad of notes he’d extracted from the hidden drawer in the Sheraton table. Then he bought a bottle of the finest Glenlivet malt whisky and a large box of Belgian chocolates.

Sitting comfortably in the Departures lounge enjoying the chocolates, he reflected on the experiences of the past few months. Sixty years of correspondence between devoted brother and sister had come to nothing; she was a different woman to the loving companion he’d known in his youth. Nothing remained of that person and the imperious old woman who had tormented him for so long was someone he’d grown to hate.

But amongst the torrent of talk that had poured over him in the limousine on the day of his arrival, the one fact of her chatter that had penetrated his dulled senses was her news that she’d succeeded in changing her will in his favour. In her jeering fashion she claimed that due to her clever negotiations she had been able to break the family trust and that when she died, he’d be a wealthy man. All she wanted was his devoted 24-hour companionship – the companionship she had subsequently spurned – and his assurances he would never leave her.
But this time he had won. After all the battles of their childhood, her betrayals and this final subjugation, he had won the ultimate test. Now he would return to his birthplace and the wife and daughter who had never ceased to love him. When her estate was wound up he’d be a rich man.

He’d noticed her love of handmade Belgian chocolates and was pleased that she’d not noticed the faint taste and smell of bitter almonds in his gift box. All it had taken was a bit of knowhow. It seems she’d forgotten that many years ago he’d trained as an electrical engineer and his working life had been spent in a chemical laboratory.

Though he’d never passed an exam there are some things one never forgets.


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