“With a name like that, Miss Kenton, I suspect the place will have a distinctly English flavour.” Stevens stares out of the little window next to his seat, taking in the arid landscape of the Northern Cape. “It was called after Sir Thomas Upington, after all, and he was very British.”
“I do hope you’re right, Mister Stevens.” Sally Kenton smooths the white dress, making sure her knees are properly covered. “Africa is a complete unknown to me, but I’ve heard stories of cannibals and lions…”
“Oh, no, Miss Kenton. No such things at all. I’d call the place half-civilised, should you ask me. They do have motorised vehicles and roads – and I understand their houses are comfortable, brick structures; not quite up to the standard of the manor, but still.”
The seatbelt signs flash on. James Stevens helps Miss Kenton to fasten the clasp. Then, as the aircraft touches down, he is surprised to find her hand seeking his, fingers clamping down in uncertainty.
“Oh, don’t worry, Miss Kenton. These machines are made for this.”
His reward is a shy smile.
Stevens loads the trunks on a trolley while Henry Hartford II waits in the air-conditioned cafeteria. He detests this place, the heat and the circumstances. To think his son – his only son – had to succumb to a snake bite! After all the years of toil to make him become a man of distinction; all the costs of education and the effort to make him become somebody; the Symbol of Evil dashed his dreams of his son taking over the family’s empire one day. And now, in this godforsaken town, he must find suitable transport and make arrangements for his son’s funeral. He signs and closes his eyes. Surely somebody must be held responsible? His son died as a result of negligence, nothing else…
“Arrange transport, will you Stevens?”
Stevens smiles politely, leaves the baggage with his master, and steps outside to survey the possibilities. As usual, Mister Hartford has several trunks and they’ll need at least a roomy limousine to cart them to this little tumble-weed town. When the glass doors slide open to allow him outside, he stops in shock.
Heathrow. Now there’s an airport for you. Modern and huge, you can find anything from a razor to a new suit in the place. But here! One building, a dilapidated restaurant and nothing else. Worse: once you exit the building, you’re on a kerb. Where’s the line of taxis and limousines? The heat is oppressive. The sun’s glare is too bright. And there, the only vehicle with a taxi-sign on the roof, is a minibus that has seen better days.
Did he say the place is half-civilised?
“Are you sure we’re on the right road, Stevens?” Even Mister Hartford seems unsettled by the way the vehicle swerves and sways past the potholes.
“Oh yes, sir. The driver has no English, I’m afraid, but he understood a bout the town…” He tries to get his tongue around the word again, fails, and smiles apologetically.
“That’s right, sir.”
Henry Hartford II – in a rare display of emotion – pulls down the corners of his mouth. “I do hope their hotel is up to standard, Stevens.”
“Indeed sir.” Stevens is secretly starting to enjoy the trip. Oh, it’s a tragedy: the master losing his son and such; but this excursion into the unknown is quite exhilarating. He’s never been outside England, and to do so while sitting near Miss Kenton is certainly more pleasant than shining silver in the manor. Almost like a holiday, now that he comes to think of it.
“This is it?” The incredulous tone of Hartford’s voice conveys disbelief and dismay.
The driver says nothing. He opens the back door of the minibus so that Stevens can unload the trunks. Then, after being paid, he gets back in the vehicle, goads the engine to life, and rattles off.
The three – dressed in their usual attire – stand with uncertainty written over their faces as the patrons in Boggel’s Place gather on the veranda. For a moment, the two groups have one thing in common: they can’t believe what they’re seeing.
“Miss Kenton, I’m afraid I expected more signs of civilisation over here.” Stevens whispers as he eyes the khaki clothing, the short pants and especially the unpolished boots.
“And where, exactly, is the hotel?” Hartford’s voice doesn’t have it’s usual commanding tone – in fact, Stevens suppresses a smile because of the note of uncertainty.
Gertruida – who else? – steps forward with an extended hand.
“You must be Henry’s family. Good morning. We are all deeply saddened by your loss. Please do come in? And oh, sorry, we don’t have a hotel…”
“I’m his father. These two are my servants, they’re not family at all.” Henry Hartford doesn’t want to be associated with the lower classes and steps away from Stevens and Miss Kenton. “They’ll wait with the luggage – one hears such dastardly things about Africa,”
Leaving his two servants in the sun, he leads the group to the door of Boggel’s Place. The sooner he gets done here, the better. He does not see Kleinpiet standing off to one side, shaking his head.
“Precilla,” he whispers, “I don’t like this man at all. Lets go over to those two and help them get the trunks on the veranda. Then we’ll see to it that they get something cool to drink. I want to know more about this set-up.”