Time for coffee warning!
On the morning of my first wedding, my Best Man and I were detained by the police in Leamington Spa. The wedding was set to take place at eleven in Leicestershire which did not give us a lot of time to talk our way out of jail. A good soldier knows every inch of his uniform, especially his dress uniform. I had handed my Blue Patrols over to the care of Sketchley’s Golden Dry Cleaning Service some two weeks before. Golden Service, for those of you not familiar with England’s premier high street dry cleaners includes restitching any loose seams, button replacement, stubborn stain removal, invisible mending of any tears, extra care when pressing and the client pays for the privilege. Items of clothing so handled are delivered with a check list with all the boxes neatly ticked off and signed by the manager to prove that the item has been lovingly cared for and examined in detail. Naturally, I was somewhat dismayed when the day before the wedding, the manager of the emporium, too casually for my taste, informed me that my uniform was not ready and that I should come back the following day, the morning of my wedding. The procedure was only supposed to take a few days, he had the uniform in his possession for over two weeks. I was understandably tense and suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to drag the little oik over his counter so I would be better able to leave a lasting impression on his tiny little mind. Fortunately Steve, my best man, was able to convince me that he could get me there again at eight in the morning allowing us plenty of time to get to Leicestershire.
At a quarter to the appointed hour we were outside the cleaners and at five to, the manager arrived and opened up. With a flourish, he produced my carefully wrapped uniform and, as a concession along with a profuse apology, waived the bill. I was somewhat mollified but nevertheless, something told me to unwrap the uniform and check it. Blue Patrol tunics have a high collar that wraps tightly around the throat and clips together using hooks and eyes under the chin. The whole ensemble with skin tight trousers (called Mess Coveralls) with red stripes down each leg, riding boots (called Mess Wellingtons) with spurs, a crimson tassled sash, loads of gold braid and a sword on the hip looks pretty damn sexy. It does not look sexy though, if some git of a dry cleaner has half ripped the collar off. I held up the jacket to show Steve. The collar hung there all torn and forlorn. That’s when I lost it.
The police sergeant back at the station, an ex-soldier judging by the impressive array of medal ribbons displayed on his tunic was very sympathetic once Steve had explained (I had tried to explain but could not help littering my narrative with expletives which all present agreed was unlikely to help my cause) and I was let off with a caution. The valves were bouncing in Steve’s car as he sped northwards with his foot driving the accelerator pedal through the bulkhead and me in the passenger seat waving to astonished wedding guests as we overtook them on the Kenilworth bypass.Ever since then, when it comes to important engagements I prepare anally far in advance and so it was with the rather smart wedding Marcia and I were invited to attend which took place Saturday last. As soon as I knew I would not be able to duck out of it, I sent my suits to the cleaners, praying I might be able to lose enough weight in three weeks to be able to squeeze into one of them. I dug out and polished my boots and shoes. I have worn neither since the snake bite but hoped that by soaking them with polish the leather might soften up to provide enough flexibility for me to get them on. I told Marcia to buy me a new shirt, socks and a belt. When the suits came back from the cleaners, I realized that while I could force myself into them, I looked like a sack of potatoes tied up in the middle and to attempt to wear trousers that tight for over twelve hours would leave me with agonizing stomach cramps, always assuming I had not already fallen to the ground as my legs, strangled of circulation, gave way beneath me. Recognising my express diet had failed, three days before the wedding I bought two new suits and spent a morning turning up the trouser hems and invisibly stitching them to the correct length. Of all the things I learnt in the Army, the two most useful were learning to sew and the other to press suits and shirts to the highest standard.
I was ready but I still had to service the car. The last thing I wanted was a non-starter or a break down. I finished off by washing it inside and out.
The day before the wedding Marcia who being a woman and religious to boot, leaves everything to the last second and trusts in God, headed off into town to collect her dresses from the cleaners. She was very late getting back.‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘The radiator burst,’ said Roddie, the driver.‘But it is OK,’ added Marcia, ‘the Portuguese mechanic fixed it at the Comuna, that’s why we are late.’
‘How did he fix it?’ I asked. To fix a bust radiator requires removal from the car and braising of the affected area, that would normally take more than a few hours.
‘He used this special putty.’‘That may have got you home, Marcia, but it will never hold for a trip to and from town on a hot day and in Saturday traffic. Roddie,’ I said, turning to him, ‘get back to town and go and rent a car, any car so long as it has air conditioning.’
Marcia disagreed strongly. I looked to Roddie for support but this would mean more work and less sleep for him so he took Marcia’s side assuring me that the putty would be OK. I was only going to this blasted wedding because I knew it meant a lot to Marcia. The last thing I wanted to do was end up in a fight the night before so just shrugged and quietly added a lot more cash to the small pile of important things I should have with me the next day (passport, driver’s licence, fully charged telephone, spare telephone top up cards, four packets of cigarettes, spare lighters, bottle of DomTom, needle and thread, boot brush and polish).At six in the morning, the taxi came to take Marcia to the hairdresser’s. Roddie would arrive at ten to pick me up and drive me into town in my car. The wedding was at 12.30. I completed a final check of my kit, noticed that Marcia had forgotten her clutch bag and the invitation so added those to my pile and then sat watching the news in my underpants. At eleven, Roddie finally turned up so I dressed and we headed off. Marcia rang telling me she had also forgotten her evening gown so we turned round, collected it and tried again. I had given money to Roddie the day before to fill the car so was irritated when he pulled into a petrol station to fill up admitting he hadn’t done it the day before. It was midday by the time we hit the traffic on the outskirts of town and we still had to collect Marcia from the hairdresser’s. When asked, Roddie admitted he did not know where it was. I rang Marcia who gave some unnecessarily complicated instructions and we were soon lost in the Bairros. Three more phone call and thirty minutes later, we pulled up outside the hairdresser’s and Roddie switched the engine off. The radiator exploded in a cloud of steam accompanied by the high pitched scream of escaping steam which masked my own scream of frustration. I wandered across the dirt road and walked into the hairdresser’s.
‘Marcia!’ I called, ‘can you come outside, please?’‘Let me just pay the bill,’ she said.
‘I think you will have plenty of time to pay the bill,’ I said, ‘just come outside now.’I thought it best not to point out to her that we were stranded in a bairro ten kilometres from a wedding that according to the invitation had started twenty minutes ago. I was annoyed with Roddie for not doing what I had asked of him the night before but at times like this, recriminations only waste time and do nothing to resolve the situation. Better to keep the hired help on side and appeal to their better nature.
‘This is all your fault!’ Marcia yelled at Roddie. It was going to be a long day, I decided. I strongly disagreed with Marcia’s attitude but could not be disloyal to her in front of Roddie. With each insult, the cost of Roddie’s goodwill, if he had any left, was becoming ever more expensive. Finally, along with the car, she had vented all her steam, finishing off with a plaintive, ‘We might as well go home and forget the wedding.’I stepped in. I told Marcia to ring the mechanic and tell him to get down there with his spanners and braising kit. I pointed out to Marcia that the car was automatic so could not be towed unless the prop shafts were disconnected. I pointed out that the car was stranded in a bairro and if the car was not stolen during the night, at the very least it would be stripped of mirrors, headlights, indicators, windscreen, wheels and probably vandalized occasioning a repair bill of several thousand dollars. I suggested it might be wise of her to offer the mechanic five hundred dollars to come out now with all his kit.
‘A-a!’ I cautioned her as she was about to argue with me, ‘I am only going to this bloody wedding because I know it means a lot to you. Patricia is your friend and she obviously loves you. She has bent over backwards to make sure you attend. She has dressed you from head to foot and, by the way, you look stunning. She even offered to buy me suits. You two may be lesbian lovers for all I know but I do not care. You WILL attend that wedding and I will get you there in good order but from now on, you keep your mouth shut and do as you are told.’I rejoined Roddie, gave him a load of cash to pay the mechanic and told him to get me a taxi, any taxi and to get it fast. He made a phone call and told me one would be here in ten minutes. I told him to stay with the car and wait for the mechanic who was on his way. I told him to make sure the radiator was taken off, flushed and braised, remounted and then the car should be delivered to the wedding venue. I peeled off a few more hundred dollar bills and restored his good humour.
The taxi when it arrived was a two door little Toyota, they call them Rabo de Patos here, Duck’s Arses and about as roomy. No aircon of course and as soon as we started moving over the potholed roads I realized it had no suspension either. At a quarter to two we pulled up at the gates of the most expensive hotel in Luanda and were refused access. No way was security going to allow a local poor man’s taxi drive us up to reception so we had to trudge on foot from the gate to reception under a blazing sun. We were both pretty subdued, but for different reasons. I was cursing not putting my foot down the night before and Marcia was upset she had missed the ceremony. Then, just as quickly as everything had gone wrong, it started to go right again. I noticed Patricia’s sister, surrounded by her kids, unloading the boot of a car. She was not dressed for a wedding but the suit and dress carriers she was passing out suggested she had everything she needed to change into. Apparently the time shown on the invitation was Angolan time so 12.30 actually meant 14.30. We still had time to grab our room keys and get cleaned up (Marcia was really impressed that I had thought to bring along needle and thread matching her dresses so I could quickly repair a loose hem) before wandering along lofty corridors of marble and chrome to the chapel.I have never seen a chapel with a bar set up just outside the entrance. It was great. No sitting around in a stuffy church gagging for a drink wondering how long the bloody ceremony was going to last, here you could tank up and subsequently endure almost any torture. I settled for tonic water and tried not to look at the impressive array of malt whiskies on offer. A traditionally dressed and decorated African dance troop was on hand to entertain the guests while they waited for the bride to arrive. It was a networker’s paradise with lesser mortals toadying up to ministers and generals while wives and mistresses critically inspected each other’s couture in an air conditioned atmosphere heavy with insincerity. I was beginning to warm to this wedding.
The bride was stunning. So often in the past I have seen Angolan brides being photographed in front of the then few patches of greenery in the city and they all looked like something out of a gipsy wedding. Not so in this case. The bride wore a Parisian creation of delicate lace which flattered her décolleté and emphasized her delightfully petite figure. The bridesmaids, not one of them over six, were little angels and heartwarmingly clumsy getting themselves tangled up in the train. The African dancers really let rip and preceded her into the chapel, miles more impressive than Mendelssohn. There were more people than chairs so we men stood in the aisles allowing the ladies to sit and get the best view. The place was packed.I keep calling it a chapel for want of a better word but it wasn’t really a chapel as there is no religious element in an Angolan wedding, it is a civil ceremony conducted by a bureaucrat. Normally, the happy couple would queue up outside his office and be attended only by necessary witnesses and a few friends, space being limited but this couple were sufficiently blessed for the bureaucrat to not only leave his office but work on a Saturday.
Perhaps, given his audience, he decided to lighten up an otherwise extremely dull procedure because, unlike the minor officials I have encountered who behave like little Hitlers such is their overbearing arrogance, this one demonstrated a sense of humour which on occasion bordered suicidal. There are a number of certified documents which the couple have to produce and must be recorded by the registrar. Permission to Marry, Freedom to Marry, Medical Examination, Certificate of Residence and, in the case of the groom, documentary evidence of having completed compulsory military service or authorized exemption. No military service, no legal nookie. All these documents have to be read out, the relevant laws quoted and be attested to by the witnesses. Boring in the extreme and as dull as ditchwater. When this guy got to the military service certificate he asked the groom whether he had actually completed his military service or had his father got him out of it. There was a sharp intake of breath and my grin was a mile wide. The groom muttered something about going to university instead whereupon the registrar said, in front of all those generals, ‘Quite right too, we can’t have brains in the Army!’ The registrar must be a close friend of the family. Either that or as I write this he is now doing his military service on a firing range, as a target. He then got to the bit where he asked the groom under which regime he wished to marry his bride, seperação de bens (divided property), bens adquiridas (only the chattels they acquire together after marriage are jointly owned), or communião de bens (joint assets). The groom selected joint assets. ‘Congratulations!’ said the registrar, ‘you have just taken on all the debts of the bride’s family!’There were four photographers and two guys running around with impressive video cameras. Each one made sure that he photographed or videoed every single guest present as well as the proceedings. After the ceremony, the bride insisted on a few special photographs selecting family members and a few of the guests to pose with her and be filmed and snapped. She dragged Marcia up in front of the cameras and then, to my acute discomfort, hauled me up as well. Unless the man editing the wedding film is Edward Scissorhands, the final result will be bigger than Ben Hur. I hate cameras at weddings which is why you will have to wait until the official photos come out. Despite Marcia’s protests, I refused to take my camera along which was a shame, I realized, when we got to the reception. The place was filled with beautifully decorated tables clothed in white linen, each seating ten and groaning under the weight of silver and crystal. Attention to detail was much in evidence, even the starched napkins were embroidered with the happy couple’s names. Each centre piece, resembling a crystal fountain, was surmounted by a spectacular flower display, in fact there were more flowers evident than would be in Holland at the height of the growing season. Idle curiosity compelled me to count the tables, I stopped at fifty. I realized I should quickly locate the loos in case Marcia needed them and as I circumnavigated the large central colonnade dominating the hall I realized there were just as many tables on the other side. Patricia had ensured our table was one in the VIP area the only advantages I could discern being its proximity to the dance floor and the quality of the champagne.
I have no idea why I tortured myself like that but even though each group of four tables had an attractive waitress clad in provocatively tailored national dress, I had to check out the bars for myself. Normally, in every African country I have visited, any blended 12 year old scotch such as Black Label or Chivas is considered classy. Faced with a choice between Johnny Walker or any old cheap blended scotch, I’ll take the cheap one, I hate Johnny Walker, it’s a spiv’s drink and I certainly would not pay the extra for Chivas. I would, however, be prepared to pay extra for decent single malt. Imagine my angst, therefore, as I surveyed the shelves of the bar knowing it was all free, and saw row upon row of Aberlour, Glenmorangie, Glenfarclas, Arran, Balvenie, Dalwhinnie, Glenlivet, the variety was endless. Glenfarclas is a particular favourite of mine and my now long deceased father. Every time I came home on leave I would bring him a bottle of 25 year old Glenfarclas and help him drink it. I have never drunk any since his death. A taste or flavor can be so evocative of fond memories, oh how badly I wanted to try a glass of Glenfarclas, close my eyes and think of the Old Man. They did have Johnny Walker, the Blue Label. That should keep the plebs happy.Since I was on my feet and badly in need of distraction, I scoped the buffet. The variety of food was bewildering and was displayed on several twenty yard long counters. During the evening I discovered three more set ups like the one I was visually savouring, in all several hundred yards of hors d’oeuvres, main dishes and desserts. My heart leapt at the sight of smoked salmon, the irregularity of the slices suggesting they had been inexpertly cut from whole fish rather than arriving machine sliced in vacuum sealed packages. My heart positively soared when I saw, inexplicably displayed at the opposite end of the counter to the salmon, caviar. Naturally, this is Africa and we all have to make some sacrifices so I was stoic when my enquiry revealed there was no horseradish sauce or rye bread. They did, however, have capers and cottage cheese along with crusty white bread so I made do.
Marcia would be wondering where I had got to so having located the loos, scoped the bar and food, all I needed to know now was the location of the smoking area. A pretty waitress tried to explain to me where it was but I was too distracted by her radiance to pay enough attention so she guided me there. It was a glass cubicle open to the skies. Any smoker using it would do so in full view and slowly roast in the heat radiated off the glass walls. Instead I located the rear entrances to the building and walking out discovered a row of five spits with a steer roasting on each. As I choked a cigarette down I chatted to the men slaving over the barbeque pits. They had started the roast at six in the morning rotating the spits by hand all those hours under a blazing sun. There wasn’t a bottle of water in sight, a matter I quickly rectified to be rewarded with the first taste. The meat was tender and delicious with a pleasant hint of smoke. I hurried back to Marcia licking my lips.The table had filled by the time I got back and by amazing coincidence, I found myself seated next to my old friend Bartolomeu Dias and his wife. Deep joy! He is wonderfully entertaining, a larger than life effusive character but a very shrewd businessman. When I first met him over fifteen years ago, he drove a Ssangyong Musso and had big ideas. A few years later he was driving the latest model S Class Mercedes and wanted me to front up buying a passenger jet for him so he could start a regional airline. It was my task to sort out when and where delivery would be deemed to have taken place thereby releasing the bank guarantee. The American seller, unsurprisingly perhaps, felt that there was every chance he would deliver the aircraft to Angola whereupon it would be seized or otherwise lost to him as a result of some corrupt malfeasance so he wanted delivery in Johannesburg. This, Dias told me was unacceptable to him for reasons that remained somewhat obscure to me. Nevertheless, I got an all-expenses paid trip to California and was able to bring buyer and seller together in happy agreement and Dias started his airline buying several more aircraft from the same delighted broker. Dias is now listed in the top 100 richest Angolans.
With such beautifully laid and well attended tables I was slightly embarrassed at the thought of plonking upon it my plastic mineral bottle full of DomTom. The bottle in question was under the table between my feet and concealed by the table cloth. I had stupidly fired up the whisky demon and now desperately needed a slug of my elixir. There is a poor man’s country moonshine made by the locals here out of fermented coconut palm tree sap called Maruvo. In appearance only, it is remarkably similar to DomTom and is usually stored, as is my DomTom, in one and a half litre plastic mineral water bottles. I could not imagine the reaction of the cream of Angolan society when they conclude they are seated next to an Englishman drinking Maruvo, the very hooch that leaves their workers inebriated and even lazier than usual. I tried smuggling a glass off the table and, clamping it between my thighs, pouring some DomTom into it but such suspicious activity focused on my groin accompanied by sound effects normally heard in a latrine attracted the immediate attention of my fellow diners who presumably assumed I had been too lazy to locate the toilets. I explained my predicament to a curious Sra Dias. She laughed and explained it to Dias who demanded to see the bottle. He studied it, then unscrewed the top and gave it a tentative sniff.‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘Ginger Juice, Lemon and cider vinegar,’ I said.‘No alcohol?’
‘No alcohol,’ I confirmed.He poured himself some and took a slug. He looked as if he had just sucked on a particularly bitter, well, lemon. ‘What do you drink this for?’ he gasped.
‘I drink it instead of alcohol, Sr Dias,’ I told him, ‘I do not drink whisky anymore.’He looked stunned. He examined the table in front of me. Sure enough, the only glass of mine with anything in it contained water. In all the time he had known me, he had never seen me at any kind of function without a glass of whisky in my hand. The DomTom stayed on the table for the rest of the evening.
In some respects the Angolans are far more civilised than Europeans. For a start, they can all dance. I do not mean the jiggling about that passes off as dancing nowadays nor the mechanical, cold, graceless perfection of Come Dancing, but the elegant flowing way two people can glide around a dance floor in perfect harmony of movement. Right next to the dance floor I had the ideal opportunity to admire the relaxed skill of the couples, the intricate and very close footwork yet never a toe stepped upon. None of it appeared in any way choreographed so natural did it appear but it would take me years, perhaps never, to achieve anything close. For Angolans, dancing is as hard wired as scuttling out of the incubating pit their mother had dug and heading to the sea is for newly hatched turtles. Even though I did not dare join the happy throng on the floor, the dancing made the evening really special for me.I have mentioned the attention to detail but I have yet to mention how thoughtful were our hosts. All girls like to look their best and will often, especially when it comes to elegant shoes, suffer hell on earth to do so. Marcia, in her brand new shoes was in agony. My boots were twenty nine years old so well broken in yet even I was footsore. For every lady present, the bride had arranged a pair of white dancing slippers and, as the dancing entered full swing, these were made available to those who wanted them. Pretty soon, almost every girl had kicked off her shoes and was wearing slippers.
I never thought for a moment I would last more than a few hours. Marcia had assured me it would be OK to leave at eight. I had enjoyed more than just a plateful of smoked salmon and caviar. General Miala, Inspector of the Republic (head of all Ministers) and Godfather of the bride recognised me (I was last in his office in 1998 begging him not to have me expelled) and invited me to his table for a chat and a catch up. I had plenty I could entertain him with about what I had been up to and seized the opportunity to remind him I still did not have residency but trod carefully when remarking on the way he had occupied his intervening years since he had spent a few of them in jail accused of attempting a coup. For that reason I felt it impolitic to comment on his remarkable weight loss. Even for VIP guests of the state like him, prison food is pretty dire. Thankfully he soon changed the subject and seemed content to discuss the wedding reception which, as Godfather of the bride, meant it was his largesse I was enjoying. Earlier in the evening I had heard a rumour that the catering bill alone was $165,000. He asked me what I thought of the reception. ‘Worth every penny,’ I said and I meant it although I could not help sparing a thought for those living in abject poverty only stone’s throw away in the bairro where I had abandoned my car. Thus reminded of the teensy weeny impediment to us getting home, I excused myself and hurried off to find Marcia.‘Any news on the car?’ I asked.
‘Do you want to go now?’ she replied.‘Not unless you want to, darling,’ I said, ‘but we are not going anywhere without a car.’
‘The keys are with reception and the car is in the car park. Roddie did try to get hold of you.’Dammit, I’d forgotten to turn my phone back on after the marriage ceremony. One thing was certain, though, I wasn’t yet in the mood to call it quits and go home.
‘What time is it?’ I asked Marcia. My watch battery died three years ago and I never bothered to change it so have not worn a watch since.‘Midnight,’ she said.
‘But there are still people arriving!’ I exclaimed.‘Darling, this party will go on until tomorrow morning!’
Mr and Mrs Dias made their excuses and left. Another General clutching an ice bucket into which was buried a bottle of Bollinger dropped into Dias’ vacated seat. Selecting three champagne flutes off the table he examined them briefly to ensure they had not been used and then poured out three glasses. He hadn’t said a word yet so Marcia and I were studying him curiously. He passed one glass to Marcia, one to me and then held his glass up as if to propose a toast. Marcia picked up her glass but I hesitated.‘I am sorry,’ I said, ‘but I do not drink alcohol.’
‘Yes you do,’ he said.For a moment I thought he was throwing his weight around and I bristled but then he said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you Sr. Tomas? When I last saw you, you were quite the drinker!’
Oh Christ yes! The penny dropped. ‘Saurimo, 1995,’ I said. I introduced him to Marcia and insisted that Marcia sat between us who assured the General that as far as alcohol was concerned, I had had my epiphany. As a result, he appeared to lose interest in me and concentrated his attention on Marcia, courteously refilling her glass as required and enlightening an enthralled Marcia about my scandalous behaviour all those years ago. Bugger this, I thought, I’m off for a fag. This time I went out front, mainly to see where in the vast car park Roddie had left the car. I gave up after a couple of fag’s worth of walking around in circles and returned to the main entrance. Parked on the road at the end of a white carpet leading from the entrance to the road was a 1942 black Cadillac in immaculate condition. Under the street lights, it looked awesome. I spoke to the chauffeur who allowed me to snap with my phone a couple of pictures of the interior. I was about to take an outside shot when a lithe beauty in a gossamer thin dress wafted up to me.‘Excuse me,’ she said in Portuguese, ‘are you English?’ I would have confessed to any nationality if it would make her happy.
‘I am going to England in the new year for three months to study English,’ she continued in a voice so seductive I thought I was being bathed in warm milk and honey, ‘I need English to help with my modelling career.’‘Oh I am sure there are easier ways for you to learn English,’ I said with a wicked smile, ‘all you have to do is find an English boyfriend, suck on his tongue long enough and you will come away fluent in English.’
She blessed me with her unblinking gaze and moved closer, backing me into the Cadillac. I caught a hint of perfume on the warm summer breeze and noticed as she ran the tip of her tongue across them that one of her teeth was ever so slightly crooked which only added to her charm. ‘Single Englishmen are hard to find in Angola,’ she said. I didn’t even have time to consider that now, after divorcing Dominic’s mother and not yet having got round to marrying Marcia, technically I was a single Englishman in Angola before Marcia’s voice said, ‘And you still haven’t found one!’ I jumped out of my skin. There was Marcia standing not two yards away in the company of a Chinese couple. I slithered away from the young lady and was introduced to Linda and her husband, the couple who act as import agents for the stuff Marcia brings in from China. We chatted a while and I thought I had got away with being caught with a young lady climbing into me but then Marcia said, ‘I think it is about time I took you home.’‘I have checked all through the car park,’ I told Marcia, ‘the car is not there.’
‘It’s in the VIP car park.’ she said.‘Oh,’ I said. I guessed we were going home whether I wanted to or not.
It was a fantastic party, all the more enjoyable because I was sober throughout.As I relaxed into the leather upholstery of the car, the aircon set just right as Marcia drove us home, I was really pleased with myself.
‘You did enjoy yourself?’ Marcia asked me.‘Oh yes,’ I assured her, ‘when is the next wedding?’