Jeremy Clarke

Table talk

Jeremy Clarke reports on his Low Life

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Seven hours between flights at Nairobi airport and nowhere to smoke. So I bought a ten-dollar transit visa, left the airport precincts and headed for the nearest bar. It was called The Pub. The white-shirted, bow-tied waiters saw me coming and greeted me with a chuckle, as if they were thinking, ‘Here comes another nicotine addict on his ten-dollar transit visa.’

I hadn’t been settled at my outside table for more than a minute with a Tusker and a fag when a brisk, unshaven man asked if he could share it. He was on a three-hour stopover between Kinshasa and Dubai (final destination Pakistan). He’d smoked four cigarettes already, he said: two in the transit-lounge toilets immediately after disembarking the plane, and two on the short walk to The Pub. He’d lived in Kinshasa for 16 years. He was a groceries wholesaler.

One day I hope to go and live in Kinshasa. How was Kinshasa nowadays? Was it safe for foreigners? I said.

‘Is safe. You can move around. Make business. Everything. Is full of foreigners making business: Americans, Lebanese, Chinese. So many Chinese. They have agreement with the government and don’t need visa.’ He rolled his eyes in humorous resignation at the ubiquity and increasing political influence of the Chinese in Africa. ‘The local people are afraid of them. They think they are wizards. When two Chinese people argue together, the local people think they are fighting with their souls.’

He was doing good business, he said. War? What war? Kinshasa is booming. When you say you are trading in Kinshasa, people no longer laugh at you. They nod their heads. He is even expanding his wholesale business over the border into Angola. ‘Very proud people, the Angolans. They have nothing, yet they are so proud. What they are proud about, we don’t know.’

He lit another cigarette. Then he showed me his cigarette packet, inviting me to admire it. It was indeed the last word in cigarette-packet design. American, he said, admiringly. Suddenly struck by an inspiration, he riffled in his wallet and triumphantly produced a very old ten-pound note, which he presented to me. He’d been keeping it for years, he said. I spread it out on the table. Her Majesty the Queen looked young and very beautiful.

He looked at his watch and stood up to catch his onward flight. I shook his hand warmly in gratitude for the tenner. Immediately his place was taken by a large senior Kenyan policeman in gold horned-rimmed glasses and a greatcoat. He saluted, sat down and came straight to the point. It was thirsty work this constant patrolling, protecting the likes of me from unwanted attentions, he said. If I could supply him with one soda in recognition of his efforts, he would be very happy. Equally happy to have got off so lightly, I said I would have one ready on the table for him the next time he passed by. He stood up, saluted and continued on his rounds.

His place was taken by the head of the British Council in Lagos, Nigeria, who’d also purchased the ten-dollar transit visa simply to smoke. Dave had been working for the British Council for 24 years. I asked him the usual fatuous question about whether or not the British Council was used as a cover by the British secret service. He answered it by asking me which of the two was the foreign secret service — was it MI5 or MI6? He always got them mixed up.

Soon he, too, looked at his watch and dashed off to meet his onward flight. Almost immediately his seat at the table was taken by a young white Kenyan photographer rummaging furiously through his camera bag. So what did they all make of the Delamere business here? I said. ‘You mean Tom?’ he said, looking up, surprised. ‘Tom and I had lunch only the day before yesterday. He didn’t do it! It was the other guy who shot him! Tom couldn’t believe it that he had to shoulder the blame. They’d buried the dog, buried the bullets, and when they were both arrested, he assumed the guy would hold up his hands. He was gutted to have to go down for something he didn’t do.’ 

He did a comic double-take as the large policeman in the gold horn-rimmed glasses returned to the table, came shuffling to attention and ceremoniously saluted me. I returned the salute and passed him his soda. ‘I have some cake, and now I have a soda to drink with my cake,’ he said, patting his stomach in anticipation.

The Pub. Walk out of Nairobi airport and turn left. One hundred yards. Sit, smoke, chat to people from all over Africa. Ice-cold Tusker. Recommended.