The vicar, the seamstress and the mining engineer, blog 2

Many of the other contractors that lived in the accommodation block were middle aged men who had been swept from the technical departments of multinational corporations during the periodic purge of staff. They were doomed to roam the earth on six month contracts, cursed by their estranged families when they returned home, destined to be outsiders for the rest of their working lives. One of these men, call him Bill, had the look of my ‘A’ Level maths teacher, small, combed-across hair, glasses. His father had been an engineer in charge of sanitation for one of the colonial administrations. After independence the family had returned to London and Bill had been educated in the local grammar school.

Bill had a wry self-deprecating humour reminiscent of a bewildered, slightly short-tempered vicar straight off the plane from England (his father?). In this guise he could poke fun at typical cultural misunderstandings between Europeans and Africans without ever seeming to be racist.

After observing Jason and his benzedrined frog Bill told me a story of a Canadian mining engineer with whom he shared lodgings. Returning home one night he had been confronted by a (naked) woman running around the house screaming hysterically. He found the mining engineer spread-eagled on his bed, dead as a door-post, his heart having ceased to function at some point during their passionate love making.

After calming the poor woman Bill had called the Mine Manager and explained what had occurred. They agreed that the exact circumstances of the death should remain secret and that Bill should be the man to write home to the wife.

Several days later Bill was approached by a complete stranger who asked him whether he’d heard that one about the Australian mining engineer who’d died ‘on the job’ and the seamstress had gone running down the road like Archimedes shouting ‘eureka’.

Bill paused in telling the story, then looked over his glasses at me, “Which goes to show how the Chinese and their whispers are becoming increasingly influential in Africa.”