Ellie and Adam were married in 1972, three years after they met. From their first courting it was clear to them both that they had found their soulmate. To Adam, she represented the rare combination of intelligence and creativity he craved, while bringing the respectable Englishness that his parents so valued. To her, it was his ‘otherness’ that she found so attractive – the same thing his father Piotr had worried so much would make him an outsider.
It wasn’t just his Polish roots that made Adam seem different to the other young men Ellie had met – there was also his passion for his work, a job that most of his colleagues saw as a necessary drudge in order to earn a crust. Adam arrived at the printers each day with a zest for the tasks ahead, which – like his father before him – caused a considerable amount of ire among his more lackadaisical colleagues. He made them look bad, to put a barely pointed point on it.
Ellie loved to see her husband go off to work each morning with enthusiasm. Her father, a ship-builder, had not enjoyed his job, leaving the house each morning with great reticence and arriving home, filthy and exhausted each night. That had been her impression of the male working life for twenty years – it was a delight for her to be proven wrong. Even if it did make her sad about her father’s experience.
The young couple went out dancing, and to the cinema fairly often, but more out of a sense of obligation to social norms than any real joy in either pursuit. Their true shared passion was reading. Reading novels, reading non-fiction, reading the newspaper. When they read the same books they discussed them at length and when they read different ones they delivered lengthy and detailed reports to each other.
Ellie had an infuriating – to Adam, at least – habit of skipping to the end of books to see how many pages there were in total, “To see how many I’ve got left,” then inadvertently reading the last few lines before she skipped back to her place; ruining the ends of a great many books for herself. Rather than accepting his offers to check the page numbers for her, she carried on stubbornly with the practice for the entire length of their marriage.
Adam had been born just two years before the arrival in London of the Empire Windrush. And as such, his impression of the black community in London was one that had never stalled in its growth or expansion. Adam saw plenty of black faces around the East End – the community was small, but growing strong. And like most embattled immigrant communities, it was faced with huge difficulties.
In the early seventies the National Front was in its ascendancy. The organisation was a terrifying, malevolent force on the streets of London, and if Adam, as a son of immigrants, had even the vaguest notion of opposing the arrival of non-whites in London, then one look at the gruesome actions of the N.F. was enough to put him off the far-right for the rest of his life.
While holding no prejudices himself, the sheer lack of integration and opportunity meant Adam could count on one hand the number of conversations he’d had with black people – beyond the transactional ones he had in the course of every day life.
It was a shit time to be black in London. Opportunities were restricted to an unbelievable degree, while general levels of unemployment and a shortage of housing increased the tensions yet higher.
Considering all this, it was with a small amount of surprise that, on being summoned into the office of Mr Thomson, the owner of the printers’, Adam came face to face with two black gentlemen, immaculately attired in British business dress. Mr Thomson – a short and irritable man, who had grown to hate the thunderous noise made by the presses in his 20 years of ownership, making him seem permanently on the verge of a breakdown or psychic fracturing – spoke first,
“Adam, thank you for coming up. These men,” Gesturing limply, and somewhat redundantly, towards the only other occupants of the room, “Have an opportunity they would like to speak to you about.”
“Mr Chociemski, let me introduce myself,” said the taller of the two men, extending his hand confidently, “I am Mr Babatunde and this is my colleague, Mr Ajayi. We have been sent by the Nigerian government.”
Adam reached out, shaking both of the proffered hands in front of him.
“As Mr Thomson says, Mr Chociemski, we are in need of a man with your skills. As I’m sure you are aware, the recent years have been quite tumultuous for our country.”
Adam nodded, sensing some kind of acknowledgment was expected of him, although he was aware of nothing of the sort.
“The Biafran conflict in Nigeria was a dark period in our country’s history. We have been left with very little to rebuild the country, and as such the government has been forced to make some ‘acquisitions’ of certain foreign businesses. One of these is a publishing house with a printing press, which during the hostilities was used to disseminate separatist propaganda.”
Adam had absolutely no idea what the Biafran war was, or how the Nigerian government’s recent acquisition of a printing press had anything to do with him.
Seeming to sense Adam’s confusion, the taller man, Mr Babatunde, continued,
“What we need, you see, Mr Chociemski, is a man who knows how to run these machines, who could help us in the interim while we train our own people.”
There was a silence in the room. Adam was aware that all three men were looking at him intently. Even Mr Thomson had shaken off his usual glowering expression, replaced instead with one of keen attention. It reminded Adam of the moments when, as a child, he had turned around in the cinema and looked back at the face of those sitting behind him in the audience, enraptured by the silver screen, transported completely out of that place and time. Eventually, he asked,
“And how long would you need me for?”
Adam had never travelled outside of England and couldn’t confidently point at Nigeria on a map.
“It should take about ten days.”
“That sounds reasonable enough.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Chociemski,” the shorter man, Mr Ajayi, interjecting, “That is the time it will take for us to arrive in Lagos. It will take ten days by boat to reach Nigeria. After that, we hope you will have completed the necessary training with our workforce within a month. In total, we estimate we’ll require your services for 53 days.”
Adam was dumbstruck. He had been away from Ellie for precisely three days since they were married. He'd thought ten days might be a bit of a push.
“We would of course pay you appropriately for your time, Mr Chociemski. Our government would be willing to pay you this amount, per day.” Mr Ajayi handed Adam a slip of paper, careful to keep the figure out of view of Mr Thomson, who craned his neck outrageously in an attempt to see what it was.
Adam wasn’t sure what he expected, but the figure in front of him was astronomical, far more than he made working for Mr Thomson. Turning back to his employer, he said,
“And this is alright with you, Mr Thomson?”
“We’ll have to see, that’s almost two months. I’m not sure I can promise you your job will be there when you come back, but we always need good lads who know what they’re doing.” Adam hesitated, looked back to Mr Babatunde, and then Mr Ajayi.
“Perhaps, if we were to increase the amount by this much?”
Mr Ajayi handed Adam a second piece of paper. He had to read it twice. Quickly adding the two amounts and multiplying the sum by 53 – maths had never been a favourite of his, but the amount was almost a year’s salary.
“I’ll have to speak to my wife.”
“Of course. You can reach us by telephone, we are staying at this address.” A third piece of paper handed to Adam by Mr Ajayi. “We will wait until Friday for your answer, otherwise we may need to seek out an alternative specialist. Please take this by way of a retainer.”
Adam accepted the envelope and hastily shook hands with all three men, before leaving the office.
As Adam left the printers he knew already that he was going to accept the offer. Even before the issue of money had been raised, the idea of travelling to the other end of the world had firmly gotten its hooks into him. Now he merely had to explain it to Ellie and his mother, Katja, who would no doubt be terrified at the thought of her only son disappearing for two months to darkest Africa.
“My darling, something wonderful has happened!” Adam called out as he walked through the front door of the two-up, two-down house he and Ellie lived in. “I’ve been offered some work, an incredible opportunity.” A pause, silence, “Where are you?”
“I’m up here,” came the reply.
Adam hurtled up the stairs and into the bedroom where Ellie lay, one hand holding a copy of ‘The Mill on the Floss’, while the other lay flat on her stomach. Adam threw himself down next to her and began to explain everything. The mysterious gentlemen, the exotic far-flung war, the immaculate suits and their nerve-janglingly firm handshakes. He talked for thirty minutes, enthusing about the amount of money, “We could buy a house!” and speculating about his exotic, unknown destination, “Do you think there will be parrots?”
By the time he had finished, Ellie could see that his mind was made up.
“If you want to do it, and it’s only for two months, then I think you should.” she said, smiling.
“You do? Fantastic!” He threw his arm over her and smothered her, kissing all over her face and neck, until she squeaked in mock protest.
“I’ll call them immediately to let them know!” said Adam, sitting up on the bed, “And then I suppose I’ll have to tell my parents.” With this some of the enthusiasm left his face, he left the room with his brow furrowed, no doubt worrying about how his over-protective mother would react.
'Well', thought Ellie, listening to his heavy steps on the stairs, 'I suppose it’ll just have to wait until he gets back.'
Thomas Charles Owen
Editor of Smoke and Tales
And haiku writer