You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
As the wheels lifted and we rose into the remnants of a storm, I could feel the weight falling from my shoulders, knowing I was returning home for good. The plane tilted gently to take a westward turn. I had the luxury of several unimpeded windows through which to watch the strikes of electricity that were both below and far beyond. The clustered lights of the townships glittered like a thousand compound eyes, becoming ever more distant.
It was Christmas Eve. The airport was quiet and the plane half full. After an interminable wait for the women and the children and the incapacitated to board, we few First Class passengers were led down the silent gangway and into the quiet calm of the soberly lit cabin in the nose of the plane. As I took my seat, nodding approvingly at the glass of Laurent-Perrier NV Grand Siècle I had been poured, I saw a man I recognised sitting across from me. He had settled back in his chair with his eyes clenched shut, as if he had already been there for some time.
I sipped from my champagne and studied his face, trying to recall where I had met him. He was tall, a little older than me, perhaps in his 70s. He was wearing a short-sleeved check shirt, and his body was positioned in a rigid diagonal, with his fingers laced over his waist and his tummy sticking out like a watermelon. I watched him silently as the other passengers fussed around in a leisurely manner, arranging their private seating areas and conferring with the stewardesses about their drinks.
I drained my champagne and signalled for a refill. Across the aisle, in front of me, I saw a younger man was keeping pace. As his glass was topped up, he turned and tilted it towards me, raising both eyebrows in a silent toast.
The flight was held on the ground for some technical issue for almost half an hour, and by the time the wheels went up, it was gone 11 o’clock. The cabin lights had dimmed to a sultry neon, and I had the impression that everyone was asleep already, before we had even been served dinner. The only sign of life was the large flat screen of the younger man who had toasted me; it showed a Christmas cartoon of a snowman that I recognised from many years before when my children were small.
I ate alone, a fillet of sea bass along with a glass of 2018 Chateau de Respide. My mind was too alive to think of sleeping, but too distracted to watch a movie or read. The snowman cartoon was repeating over and over again on the younger man’s screen, and I found myself watching it intermittently. I saw the hazy images of snow falling over the fields of southern England; a boy and his snowman soaring through the night sky, moving south over Brighton Pier and the English Channel. In a little over 10 hours, I would be spirited through that same sky, moving north, back to the familiar fields and lanes of my life before.
When the dinner service was over, I reclined my chair and put up my feet. The older man I recognised had not stirred. Now that the lights were lower, I felt that nagging frustration of not being able to place someone or something you know so well. I became aware that his legs were twitching and straightening, perhaps in a dream. I sat up and watched closely, considering whether I should go over and attend to him. His shoulders were jerking up towards his ears, and I could just about make out his face, contorting in a tortured rictus. I must have spent the best part of an hour frozen in indecision, occasionally glancing over to see with growing alarm that his limbs were still shuddering. At some point, to my relief, he fell still again, his body straight but his seat bolt upright.
I closed my eyes again, still a long way from rest. I heard a stewardess moving down the aisle, holding a tray with glasses of chilled water. She stopped by the old man for several minutes, and I watched with one eye half-open. She bent down over him in her heels, then beckoned a colleague over. They started looking around at the other passengers, and I remained still and shut my eyes. When I opened them again, they had reclined the man’s seat and were carefully placing an oxygen mask over his face. They pulled a blanket over him and fastened it under his seat belt, his arms by his sides.
Moving up through Africa, over Lubumbashi, the turbulence began. Currents of air rocked the giant plane. Opposite me, the man’s stiff body jerked around like a crash test dummy. He slumped one way then the other, then back towards me, leaning over like a creaking slab of lumber. As his shoulder tilted into the aisle and his head nodded forwards, out of his top pocket fell a small black square which slid across the carpeted floor.
I waited to see if the cabin crew would come and prop the man up. Eventually, I got up to go to the bathroom, and on the way back I bent down and squirrelled the object into my lap. I examined what I had found with my fingers; it was a small legal pad. I feigned sleep again as the stewardess came and straightened the man in his seat, leaning down on one knee to get the necessary heft. When I was sure she was gone, I flicked on a small light and opened the pad.
Page after page, the paper was filled with hand drawings of rain spiders. Vivid sketches, legs upon legs. Families of them, covering the pages and crawling off the margins. All in black pen, inscribed with force, sometimes coloured in so thickly that the paper had thinned.
Seeing these images summoned a vivid memory of the early ‘80s, and my first trip to Rhodesia – a name my youngest son tells me I mustn’t use anymore. I was just starting out then and had been sent to inspect some small-scale diamond mines in Chiadzwa. I had roomed with a young family and their son; a blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy whose only clothes appeared to be his school uniform; grey jersey, shorts, and long socks. One evening the boy had delighted in telling me, as a newly arrived Englishman, about all the nasty insects and hazards I was likely to encounter. There are things out to get you here, he told me, his voice squeaking with relish. Most of all, I recall, he enjoyed describing how in the short early summer period, there were often weeks of rain, a kind of mini-monsoon, when rain spiders as large as your hand would fall off the roof in the middle of the night with a dull thud.
At the time, I must have laughed it off, but what this little boy could not have known was that he had tapped into a long-held fear. Later, after I had settled in South Africa and taken control of my own company, we bought a large house in Saxonwold in Johannesburg. Living there, I became constantly vigilant, always peering under beds and behind doors. On the rare occasion I had found a rain spider, I would yell for the pool-boy. I could not bring myself to kill them with my own hands.
I remembered the original outbuildings we preserved and the thatched cottage we had renovated to serve as an annexe. Geoffrey, our security guard, was charged with cleaning and throwing away all the old junk left in there by the previous occupants. I will never forget how, one day, while clearing the cottage, he had appeared at the kitchen door holding his wrist. When I opened the door to him, he told me there was a female rain spider in there. She was protecting her eggs and had bitten him. Terrified that it was poisonous and he might die on my watch, I invited him into the house. But he would not come. He asked for a wet rag with hot water and vinegar and sat there silently on the back step, cleaning out the triangular bite mark.
From my commanding home study above the garage, I used to watch Geoffrey polishing my Jaguar as if it was his own, as his wife, Martha, chasing the boys across the lawn until they collapsed into a heap of giggles. Sometimes I found an afternoon when my work was done, and I would stand there smiling at these games, longing to go out to join them in their play. The boys looked so content with her. Later they would always joke that she had been the one who secretly raised them, until my wife Belinda tearfully confessed over supper one evening that she didn’t find it funny anymore.
Once the boys had both gone off to boarding school, we hadn’t needed Martha anymore. Geoffrey left us not long afterwards, following one of several burglaries. He had been the most likely source of information for the intruders, who appeared to get in without causing any damage, making off with jewellery and hi-fi equipment. These incidents were always an inside job, I told Belinda, but when I gave Geoffrey the news, I said it was because his hands were so arthritic that he couldn’t lift anything heavy.
The last time I saw Martha, she had arrived at my door, many years after that, to tell me Geoffrey had gone and that her child was in trouble. Martha told me that their son worked in a diamond mine and had suffered an accident underground. She had found out that it had happened on one of my sites. He was now languishing in a government hospital with a broken body. Her son’s boss had told him that the company could not assist him, and he was not to return to work because the accident had been his fault.
I had noticed her hands trembling as she asked me if I could help. She could see that I was irritated at this intrusion into my private business affairs. I didn’t know anything about her son. I didn’t even know she had a son. I had never before spoken to her about what I did or where I worked.
Please, she had said. For what I did for your boys. For all the times I comforted them. I remember her palms opening and her fingers splaying. And I noticed for the first time that she had two fingers missing, one on each hand, her eight digits unfurling in supplication.
As she made her way back down the long drive, I had stood on the front porch and listened to the sounds of the city in mid-summer. It had been a weekend when she visited, and the city was calm. In those moments, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the English countryside; no traffic noise, no commotion. Only the cry of exotic birds reminded you that you were in Africa.
I had watched Martha as she ambled back down the drive to the gate, and I had heard our housekeeper call out to her before she left, using a name I did not recognise. They had embraced, and Martha had stepped out through the side gate. She did not turn back, and I would never see her again.
As I sat in the darkness of the First Class cabin, remembering this moment, I fingered the old man’s notepad. I could feel the heaviness of the ink that had seeped through the fibre of the paper, as if the dark smudge of the bodies of the spiders he had drawn would rub off on my fingertips.
Holding this notepad with the knuckled figures on every leaf, thousands of them scratched indelibly across every page, my hair bristled and the joints of my fingers clenched. It was over 40 years since that little boy warned me, and I had never come to terms with my fear. I had always believed that one of them would be waiting for me in a dark corner, ready to bite. Or I would be sprung out of a peaceful dream by the sound of its body falling to the floor with a thud in the dead of night. Disturbed by this thought, I put the notepad into my briefcase and reclined my seat flat, comforting myself with the knowledge that where I was heading now, this danger did not exist.
As I stretched out, still wide awake, at last I remembered where I had met the old man. We had sat next to each other at supper at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town some years ago. It had been a difficult time for our industry. We had ploughed through at least three bottles of red as we consoled each other about the unions and their obscene pay demands, and the increasingly squeezed margins that were driving the brightest and the best of us out of the country. After dinner, he walked with me back to the hotel in silence, because he had tears in his eyes; the tears, I assumed, of a man who had been ruined by the unfairness of seeing his life’s work undone by the new era of democracy. When I saw him at the queue for the breakfast buffet the next morning, I had headed in the other direction.
Out of the window I saw only darkness. I was subsonic, above the clouds at seven-hundred miles an hour. This could never cease to marvel. I wondered what the earliest European settlers would have made of my journey after their squalid months at sea, and here I was with my bed and duvet and menu of luxury wines and fine foods cooked by a gourmet chef, to ease the passage of a mere ten hours.
I reached up to press the bell to summon a stewardess but thought better of it. I flicked on my screen to show the map of our progress. We had just passed Matadi; we were already halfway home. I looked through the notepad once more until I found the only words the old man had written inside. They were scrawled on the last page.
Rain spiders don’t like rain. That is why they come inside.
I woke later with an uneasy feeling in my stomach as the plane began its descent. Perhaps the fish had been bad. Perhaps I had not slept enough. I decided to concentrate on pleasant thoughts. The i5 I had my eye on for road trips to Dorset. The round of golf I would play tomorrow with the old boys from the bank. How eventually, I would sell the flat in Pimlico and look for something outside London with more space to breathe. I thought about how my sons were happily married and running their own firms, with enough saved for their children to go to St. John’s or Bishop’s as they had. Our future was secured. I had stayed. I had hung in there for them; that and for the sun, which I would miss, but not the ruined country.
I sat up at last, and my stomach turned again as the plane jolted down through the first line of clouds over the suburbs of London. The sun was lighting up the world, and the cabin was coming to life. I heard the crew-members explaining to the younger man that a passenger had passed away in the night. They were working their way down the aisle, speaking in grave tones. Soon it would be my turn.
What were they asking? And what would I say? Would they know I had seen it happen? Could I have intervened? Could I have done more? I closed my eyes again as they conferred over the dead man’s shoulder. As I rehearsed what I would tell them, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu, banking over the two-thousand-year-old city. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know better. I felt the shudder of the landing gear opening underneath us. I said a silent prayer.
In the taxi from the airport, eyes half-closed and unsure if I was dreaming, I heard about the stowaway who had clung to the wheelbase of our plane all the way from Johannesburg, falling from the sky as we landed. The man had thudded into an office block from four hundred feet. Weeks later I would hear that he had survived to start a new life with a new name.
Listening to the news report on the radio that morning, I shivered and fastened my jacket as the taxi made its way from the airport into the slowly awakening city. I was imagining the falling man up there clinging on for dear life in the bitter cold. I was picturing myself, a few feet above him, warm and drunk and trying to ignore what was happening all around me.
As the memory of my journey faded, I watched the suburbs rolling past with a growing sense of alarm that I did not recognise this place anymore. I looked out of the window and wondered where I was, and whether we were going in the right direction. I used to know these streets so well, the backroads and the cut-throughs. I watched the early commuters in their cars and on the pavements, a grim look of determination on their faces, and I could not imagine myself among them.
By the time I turned the key in the lock and pulled my trolley case into the warmth of the freshly-cleaned house, all I could think about getting some warm liquid inside me. I had to sweep aside the cobwebs from the kitchen cupboards to get to some ancient teabags.
I sat down with a hot cup of tea, the hair on my arms bristling with what I took to be relief. I was home, and now I would finally get everything I deserved.