Joe and I disembarked from the aircraft and made a beeline for the immigration security counters, where he and I queued in different sections. Joe in the British, EU, EEA and Swiss nationals, me in the other nationalities section. When my turn to be served came, I presented my documents to the immigration officer at counter 4—a tall Asian man with a shiny, black, long beard.
'Purpose of your visit, Ma'am,' the man said, squinting as he flipped intently through the pages of my passport.
'I'm visiting a friend,' I said.
'Name of the friend.'
'Joe. He is English.'
'Ma'am, I need a full name.'
'I'm sorry, officer.' I cleared my throat nervously. 'His name is Joseph Macintosh. These are his documents. All the details are in there.' I handed him the bulging khaki A4 size envelope Joe had given me moments after we landed.
The immigration officer pored over the documents and fired some more questions at me. His questions seemed innocuous at first. But as the minutes ticked by, I saw him tap his fingers ferociously on the keyboard. His eyes darted between the screen and the document a million times. Then he frowned and glared at me'. Something was wrong.
'Wait here, please.' The stony-faced immigration officer said, hopping from his stool.
I watched as he scurried towards the small office at the counters' far end. He rang the doorbell and disappeared inside when it swung open. Even though I did not turn around, I could feel the stares of the people in the long queue behind me. This journey was my first, but I had watched enough immigration documentaries to understand the horrors of being deported.
The immigration officer returned after a hellish period of suspense.
'Sorry about that,' the officer said, perching back on the stool. 'Everything is in order. Here are your documents. Welcome to the United Kingdom.' His mouth creased into a smile.
Finally, I was free to go.
I thanked the officer and shuffled past him as I scanned the foyer for Joe. I had passed a cash machine when I felt a tap on my shoulder followed by a familiar voice.
'Hey, you. I was beginning to worry,' Joe said.
'Sorry, I had to wait,' I said, glancing at the Metro in his hand. 'The man at the counter needed to check a few things.'
'Ah, yes, of course,' Joe said.
He seemed unperturbed as he folded the newspaper into a thick bundle and threw it in the trash can.
We scurried towards the carousel. As I watched it go round and round, spewing bag after bag, I wondered about the man who had stamped my passport.
'What's on your mind?' Joe said. 'I know that look.'
I glanced at him and said, 'It's about the man who stamped my passport.'
'What about him?'
'Well, he is Asian, isn't he?'
'I didn't see him, but I'll take your word for it.' Joe gazed at me, his amusement apparent.
'That means he is a foreigner, right?'
'Well, yes and no. What's your point?'
'How come he works for the immigration, you know, checking foreigners' passports and things when he is not from here?'
Joe burst out laughing. 'Oh, my dear girl. You have a lot to learn.'
We grabbed our bags from the carousel and strolled towards the Nothing to Declare exit, where the doors belched us into another foyer. as I trailed behind Joe, I studied my surroundings and saw people from all walks of life darting back and forth. Blacks, whites, mixed race and some whose colours were foreign to me. As Joe and I weaved through the bustling crowd, I heard people muttering the perfunctory 'sorrys', 'pardon mes' and 'thank yous'. My eyes shifted to the escalators vacillating up and down, to the guards handing out directions, the lovers hugging and kissing, the gift hunters scouring the shop aisles, and to the ATMs spewing cash on demand. I was still soaking up the scene when Joe took my hand and pointed to a Starbucks shop.
'Let's grab a drink. Simon will be here in a minute,' he said.
‘Is Simon one of your workers,’ I asked.
‘Yes.’ Replied Joe.
In Kariba, Joe had told me about his flourishing business and the many people who worked for him. He had mansions, much better than we had back home and money in the bank. When he told me these things, excitement washed over me. I could not wait to become part of his empire. To learn from him, perhaps travel the world as he had done. Being on United Kingdom soil and in Joe’s company, that dream did not seem far-fetched. It was finally happening. At long last, I was going to have the life I’d dreamed of having. The kind of life that made it possible for me to help my parents back in Kariba.
In the coffee shop, Joe ordered two medium size lattes and handed one to me.
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked when he saw me frowning.
‘Coffee gives me a headache. Can I have something else, please?’ I said.
‘Tea? Hot chocolate, then?’ Joe asked.
‘Hot chocolate, please.’
Once served, Joe said we should sit by the window where we could be on the lookout for Simon, his driver. We sat, facing each other, feasting our eyes on the hustle and bustle around us. Moments later, as I sipped tentatively from my cup, Joe stared at me and said, ‘So, what else don’t you drink?’
‘I don’t drink beer or wine. None of that,’ I said.
I dipped a nod.
Joe gave me a long, thoughtful stare. ‘Well, well. What else don’t I know about you?’
‘You mean what I like to eat?’
‘Anything. Humour me.’
I considered this. ‘Well,’ I said with a shrug. ‘I can’t think of anything right now.’
Joe took a sip from his cup and placed it on the table. 'Well, let me know when you do. I like to know what my employees like and don't like.'
'How come?' I said.
'Shouldn't a boss know?'
'He should,' I said with a nod. 'Will I need a lot of training?'
'Honey, everyone needs training,' he coughed out a laugh. 'In your case, a little grooming perhaps.'
'Oh. What kind of grooming?' I asked.
Joe made a dismissive gesture with his hand. 'Let's not worry about details now. All I'm saying is, I want you to be comfortable here.'
I beamed. What a thoughtful man he was.
Later, we went outside and sat on the benches adjacent to another shop called Boots. Joe kept glancing at his mobile phone. Then, finally, after what seemed an age, for Joe at least, his phone rang.
'Bloody hell, Simon! Where are you?'
The man must have said something Joe wanted to hear because immediately, his face softened. He stayed on the phone for about a minute and then hung up.
‘Let’s go wait over there,’ Joe said, pointing to the escalator near the entrance.
We waited a few minutes before Joe waved and yelled ‘over here’ to a tall, thick man looking around. It had to be Simon, the man he had yelled at over the phone. The man darted towards us, keys dangling in his hand and a smile plastered across his face.
‘Sorry about that, Boss. Traffic,’ the man said.
I watched as Joe and the man shook hands. To the other man, shaking hands did not seem enough. He drew Joe towards his chest and covered him with a warm embrace. They exchanged kind words, laughed and looked like two long-lost friends, lovers even. Earlier, when Joe barked at Simon over the phone, I had braced for an explosion when he finally appeared. But as I watched the fondness between the two men, the knot in my stomach loosened. I was witnessing a different side of Joe. Back in Kariba, he had only exposed his business-minded side. The side determined to save the world through his charity work and business ventures. To me, he had seemed like a man with little time for banter or friendly chit-chat.
‘Simon, this is the girl I told you about. Isn’t she a knockout?’ Joe reached out his hand and patted me gently on the shoulder.
Simon turned towards me and allowed his dazzling blue eyes to examine my head down to my feet. Then he took my hand and planted a light, warm kiss on the top of my palm.
‘How do you do, Miss? You sure are a real beauty. Sir over here did not exaggerate a thing when he described you. No exaggeration at all,’ he said.
‘Hello.’ I giggled, covering my mouth with one hand.
‘Shy too. I say that’s an excellent quality in a girl.’
Simon grinned. ‘Girl, let me take another good look at you.’
Still holding my hand, he gave me a twirl which sent my head into a spin. ‘Beautiful. Just beautiful.’
Even though I felt overwhelmed, my vanity revelled in Simon’s compliments. No one had ever described me as beautiful. Not even my boyfriend from school. It sent warmth all over my body.
Joe said we needed to go, and Simon let go of my hand. After a short ride in the lift, we marched towards a cold, dimly lit car park on the sixth floor. My eyes were glued to Simon, whose blond, tasselled hair kept bouncing up and down to his swift movements. He looked boyish and handsome in a dark blue suit. Finally, we got to the white SUV with tinted windows sandwiched between a red Peugeot and a grey BMW. Simon opened the passenger seat door behind me and ushered me inside. I felt relaxed as I peered out the window, marvelling at the number of cars packed on that one floor. Seconds later, Simon steered the vehicle towards the motorway, expertly negotiating his way through the heavy traffic at top speed.