There's an unspoken complexity about flying, at least in my circles. None of my frequent-flyer friends ever told me travelling to the UK would be complicated. It can be a daunting ordeal for the uninitiated.
While waiting for my flight at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, an Indian girl latched onto me because she wasn’t sure she knew what to do. She could speak English, but just enough to get around. She had me talk to her dad over the phone, and he asked me to take care of her. This went against everything Bunny had told me to do. She’d left for Scotland two weeks before I did and cautioned me to act like I was just as clueless as anyone asking me for help. People are known to leave you watching over bags with contraband or try to use you as a drug mule.
“You’ll end up on Banged up Abroad,” she’d warned. It's not in my nature to say no to people seeking help. The young lady got off in Nairobi and was hopping on a connecting flight to Ethiopia. It's safe to say I didn't find any drugs on me, but I sure was paranoid and kept checking my shit just in case.
Two weeks earlier, my friends and family were all congratulating me on getting my visa. I found this a little strange and wondered whether white people congratulated each other when their visa applications were successful. We Africans congratulate each other because so many of us get rejected by foreign gatekeepers. People are usually happy for you when you are deemed “worthy”. When one of us makes it in. We leap over red tape, jump through hoops of bureaucracy, answer a slew of intrusive questions about our financial status and pay application fees; all on a gamble of getting a pass into the so-called First World. Unless of course, you come from money. I got denied a visa to Australia when Bunny and I were still dating. She was on a work placement there and I’d been employed as a part-time copywriter at a hole-in-the-wall agency. My bank balance looked more like a bank-teeter-on-the-edge-of-destitute. I couldn’t prove that I could support myself during my stay in Perth, and I couldn’t ask my parents to temporarily fatten my account because then they would know I was seeing someone. Then they would prod me about when I was planning on marrying her, especially if I was going to be sharing a bed with her in another country. I wasn’t ready for all that at the time.
I’d been told to make the most of my time in Scotland. It made me feel like the stakes were high, like I had to return with something to show for it because I wasn’t just doing this for myself; but also for the handful of people I inspired. The ones who lived vicariously through me.
“Are you coming back?” they would ask. “Or do you plan on staying there?”
I had a stopover in England and spent the night at my aunt’s flat before flying to Scotland the next morning. She’d lived there since the early noughties and spoke of Zambia with fondness. But a lot of her memories were like an old roll of film, negatives stuck in time. It reminded me of how, no matter how much older a niece or nephew got, you still saw them as that snot-licking rascal you knew years ago. Sure, Zambia was underdeveloped, but it’s not like we were in the dark ages.
My wife, Bunny was a geologist pursuing a master's at the University of St Andrews. I was a writer pursuing a better career. The funny thing about pursuit is that your aspirations always have an elusive quality. This was especially true for a writer from Zambia. I’d gone from popular blogger to underpaid travel writer to disgruntled freelance copywriter in less than a decade. I had two short stories published and nothing else to my name except bylines I wasn’t proud of. Aspirations of becoming a critically acclaimed novelist had died long ago. Bunny was the breadwinner of our household, and what I brought home were crumbs. While I sneered at people who left the country to pursue a “better life” in Europe, America, or Australia, this opportunity to accompany my partner to a first-world nation was possibly the last chance I had at making anything of my writing career. I didn’t know how exactly I was going to do it, but we’re all in pursuit of something, aren’t we?
“Welcome to The Abroad!” Bunny said as she squeezed me. I was in The Abroad indeed. I knew I had arrived when an Amazon truck with the trademark arrow/smile plastered on its side skated through traffic. I also noticed that our taxi didn’t make a sound when its Pakistani driver pressed the accelerator. It was an electric car, just one of many on the road. I didn’t want to believe it, but everything looked like a haze of dust and smoke had been lifted.
Fields of neat green grass stretched out across farmland as we drove past. Balls of cotton sheep tacked sloping hills on one swathe of countryside and a series of perfectly arranged irrigation pipes fed strawberry seedlings on another. The boutique hotel Bunny had been staying at was next to the river Eden and was in a predominantly farming area.
She’d occupied a guest room, but it was becoming expensive and we couldn’t cook or get laundry done regularly there. I joined her house hunt the day I arrived.
We soon learned that what we assumed was a tedious task of looking for accommodation back home had a different level of convolution in Scotland. We had to fill out various forms and go through yet another selection process to be considered significant in the First World. We just wanted to find a place to call home. We scoured multiple real estate agency websites, looked at ads on the university’s student portal and Lord knows what else. In the end, it was an ad on Gumtree—a site where you could find anything from secondhand furniture to a bionic leg—that helped.
‘1 BEDROOM COTTAGE IN DUNINO ON BUS ROUTE FOR 1 WHOLE PROPERTY £650 PCM:
1 bedroom, sitting room, bathroom and kitchen
Bus route to St Andrews nearby. www.go-flexi bus service stops at property. Cycle to town
Bunny called the number, expecting that we would have to jump through more procedural hoops. An old man’s voice croaked through the loudspeaker.
“Hello, how are you today?” Bunny said.
“Yes?” the man replied.
“Uhm, yes... I’m calling about the 1-bedroom cottage in Dunino for £650, is it still available?”
“Unfortunately, no. But I do have another vacancy. Are you a student?”
“Yes, I’m a postgraduate student at St. Andrews.”
“And where are you currently staying?”
“At a small hotel in Edenside.”
“Okay, and how much are you paying there?” This was a question we hadn’t encountered in our house search.
“£60 per day,” Bunny said looking at me curiously.
“Good. I can offer you a room with a bathroom and kitchen for £800 a month. I just need to confirm this with my wife.”
“Okay, that would be great,” Bunny said feeling hopeful. It was more than we anticipated to pay for a house but less than what we were currently paying.
“You said you’re in Edenside?”
“I see. That’s a little further out from St Andrews. I can pick you up in town and you can see the place. If you like it, we can arrange for you to stay,” he said.
“That’s very kind of you, we would appreciate it!”
“We? Does that mean you’ll be sharing with someone else?”
“Yes, I live with my husband”.
“And where is the rest of your family? Parents?” Weird, Bunny’s look said.
“They’re in Zambia, where I’m from,” she said, almost as a question, asking why he would want to know.
“Good,” he said. “And are they sponsoring you?”
“I’m sponsoring myself,” Bunny said, nearly following up with, what does this have to do with anything?
And as if the man could hear the frustration in her voice, he said, “I asked because I like to get an idea of the financial position of the people I let out to. We can discuss this further when we meet, and, if you like the place. My name is Peter, by the way.”
“I’m Buniwe,” Bunny replied.
“I don’t have a mobile phone, so I’ll meet you outside the entrance of the Byre Theatre on Abbey Street. I’ll be driving a blue Honda Jazz. Is 2 PM alright with you?”
“Yes, that’s fine.”
“Right! See you later then!”
Peter was on time and his estate was a forty-minute drive out to the fringes of St Andrews. There was no awkward silence as I’d feared, he talked the entire way. He asked us about what we did and filled us in on little titbits about the other properties on his land. It turned out that what he kept referring to as his house was a castle.
Long beech trees with yellowing leaves lined either side of the long driveway on Peter’s estate.
“There’s a little stream down there and sometimes you might see a deer drinking from it,” he said, cocking his head to the left. This man had his own forest and was downplaying the castle to a regular house.
“Nothing,” was what he said when I asked him what he did. He was employed for a few years when he was younger but retired early to take care of the property. He said the “house” was given to him by his parents. His family made their money in India many years ago. Colonial money, I thought, even though the Scots were also touched by the long arm of the British Empire. While they got a rough embrace, we got a stranglehold.
We didn’t expect that the room Peter was offering us was part of the castle. He asked us to wipe our feet as he swung a door that opened into the kitchen. While the walls outside were made of stone, the inside of this section of the castle had been modernised with insulation, central heating, and a lick of paint. A white door revealed a small, unfurnished lobby area. To the right was another door that led to the rest of the castle, and left was the bathroom. The bedroom was larger than I expected. It had an armoire with intricate carving on its doors, a matching chest of drawers, and a double bed on one end of the right wall. The green Persian wall-to-wall carpeting reminded me of the soft grass of the landscapes we had passed on our way to the castle. The place had enough charm and character that Peter didn’t need to convince us to take it. Bunny and I were both excited about the prospect of living in a real-life castle. O’ the stories we could tell our friends back home. Besides, we were officially desperate.
“We’ll take it,” Bunny said to Peter.
The heart of the castle was decorated with antiques and oddities Peter’s parents and relatives collected. Petrified fox heads staring at nothing hung on the wood panelling in the entrance hall, their mouths open and mimicking snarls. Two of them had dates from the 1800s and I wondered when the castle was built but didn’t ask. While we waited for Peter to return with his bank card reader, his wife Federica kept us company. She was pleasant enough, trying to pronounce our Zambian names and promising she would do her best to remember them. She wore an oversized woollen jumper and hugged herself as she spoke. I noticed that behind her glasses, her eyes were each a different colour. She noticed me squinting to confirm my suspicions.
“You’re probably wondering why I have one green and one brown eye,” she said with an Italian accent. “When I was younger, my friends would tease me about it and the superstitious old women in our village said it was a curse. I only learned much later in life that it’s called heterochromia. It’s a rare condition where each eye has a different colour,” she said looking somewhere past us.
“Does it affect your vision?” I asked. Bunny elbowed me.
“No!” Federica laughed, returning to this plane. “It’s just a slight mutation.”
“She’s not telling you about her ‘curse’, is she?” Peter teased, as he walked in with the card reader. “She tells this story to all our guests!”
After Bunny paid him, Peter offered to take us back to St Andrews and we agreed we would return with our things the next day. As we stepped outside, a black and white dog with long fur scurried towards us carrying a plastic bone in its mouth. It dropped the toy by my feet and then waited eagerly for me to pick the bone and toss it.
‘“Go on,” Peter implored.
I picked the bone and threw it across the pebbled driveway. The dog ran for the chew toy as soon as I had flung it and returned it wagging its tail. I didn’t expect it to jump onto me and leave pawprints on my chinos.
“Go away, dog!” Peter shouted.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” I said, feigning a love for dogs. “What’s his name?”
“Duff,” he replied. “He’s an old collie but still loves to play!”
Etching in one of the large stone blocks high above the kitchen entrance declared that the castle had been built in 1836. The part of it that we occupied smelled like it. I’m not sure how I missed it before, but as soon as Bunny and I put our luggage down in the bedroom, the matured odour of mould made the inside of my throat itch. Living in a castle was all well and fanciful until you had to deal with centuries of fungi colonising every damp crevice of the stone building. We couldn’t see it, but I suspected it lingered in the floorboards. The bathroom also had little black splotches of the stuff on the ceiling. I prayed that it wouldn’t be murder on my sinuses.
On Tuesday I accompanied Bunny into town so I could wander around while she was in class. We took a large bus and parted ways at the gate of one of the university’s buildings.
“Text me when you get home,” she said, planting a soft kiss on my lips.
Home, I thought.
Google Maps told me that I was now on Market Street. This was the place to grab a Starbucks coffee, shop for fast fashion or buy groceries in Tesco Express. Its flagstone sidewalks were wet from a drizzle and dog piss. There were as many types of dogs as there were people. I’d never seen so many pets on leashes in my life and didn’t know whether to be amused or grossed out when I saw them sitting inside cafes by their masters’ legs.
I was wide-eyed. St Andrews was an old town with remarkable cathedrals and old stone architecture. Monuments of religious conquest stood on nearly every street and some had been converted into museums and tourist attractions. People—mostly students—shuffled in and out of various establishments, several of them kissing multi-coloured vapes or cigarettes. I tried to commit faces and quirks to memory, hoping I could use them as a reference for my writing. Real-life caricatures roamed the streets and after a few minutes of people-watching, I felt alone.
A month later, I’d been doing the dishes one evening when I felt the hairs on my neck stand. I turned to face the kitchen door and Peter was there behind the glass, still as a mannequin. As I approached the door to open it for him, I wondered how long he’d been standing out in the cold. I wondered if he had been watching me.
“Hiya!” he said, flipping from eerie zombie to cheerful landlord. “Your electricity bill came in earlier today. Here you go!”
“Thanks,” I said, receiving the envelope, unsure of what to make of his lurking.
“See you around!”
Neither Bunny nor I could believe how much the bill had come to. From the headlines I’d seen, I’d gleaned that there was an energy crisis in the UK caused by a soar in global gas prices and the war in Ukraine. I denied it, but we both knew the expensive bill was my fault. I’d kept the heating on for long hours because I spent all my time at home. Bunny and I argued about it and she told me we’d be destitute if we spent all our money on electricity. I grudgingly agreed to use the heating economically.
That night, I lay awake while Bunny slept deeply. I was shaking from the cold when the thumping from Peter and Federica’s movement in the room above ours turned into loud, yet muffled voices. It sounded like they were fighting. I’m not sure how I eventually slept through it.
As I brushed my teeth the following morning, my eyes scanned the small bathroom and landed on the ceiling. The mould appeared to have amassed more territory. I wasn’t sure if it had spread out further along the cracking paint above the sink, or if it had been at that same spot when we first arrived. Bunny wasn’t around to confirm it, she had left for class at least three hours before I’d convinced myself to roll out of bed. I had some writing to do.
I sat at the kitchen table and opened my old MacBook intent on putting down two thousand words for a short story. The well of work at home had dried up, and my UpWork and LinkedIn were sorry sights. I thought maybe I could work on what I was truly passionate about and draw inspiration from my new surroundings. I was only a few sentences in when I convinced myself I needed to look up Scottish authors. Several virtual rabbit holes and YouTube videos later, I learned that Ian Rankin would be in St Andrews in late December. I didn’t know who he was, but I thought it would be great to attend an author event where a literary scene actually existed. I bought two tickets for Bunny and I and an auto-reply email said that I could pick them up at the Topping and Company bookshop in town. I needed a break anyway and the bookshop would possibly inspire me.
Topping and Company was a bookworm’s paradise. It had rows upon rows of books on shelves with long ladders to reach them. They were separated by genre, author, subject matter and other immaculate filing systems. I couldn’t tell if I’d heard soft music inside the shop, but I might have heard an angel chorus as I walked in. You could sit inside and enjoy a free coffee or tea as you read your new purchase, or simply get lost in the rows of beautiful book covers and spines. I got the tickets and stepped out of there before I could spend more money.
When I returned, Peter was outside speaking to a Korean man, one of the tenants staying in the cottages on the farther side of the estate. He was talking loudly and arranging some beaten furniture in the back of a white minivan.
“I’ve spent weeks sorting this rubbish!” he shouted to the man. “Half of it is stuff my parents collected!” The man nodded his head as he smoked a thin cigarette. “The other half is what Federica has hoarded over the years! I dinnae need any of it! She’s visiting her parents in Italy, so this is my chance to take some of it to an auction!” All the while, Duff was trying his best to hop in the back of the car and pull at a black trash bag.
“Go away, dog!” Peter shooed.
I walked over to say hi. “This is Jin!” Peter said, introducing the Korean man. I introduced myself after the brief awkward silence that followed. Peter had clearly forgotten my name. Jin nodded and tipped a faded brown beret as he blew out smoke. Are berets making a comeback? I thought.
“I just came back from town,” I said, making small talk.
“Bad day to be out!” Peter shouted as he pushed Duff away from the car.
“I needed to get out of the house,” I replied. “Anyway, I’ll see you later!”
Before I could get far, Jin jogged up to me.
“I know we just met,” he said as we both trembled from the cold, “but can I borrow £50? I have a small emergency. I pay you back tomorrow.”
I should have said no, especially considering that I’d just made a spontaneous ticket purchase. But I found it difficult to turn down anyone. I handed him two £20 polymer notes and lied, telling him it was all I had, like I had haggled with a marketeer. He dipped his head and backed away. “I pay back tomorrow!” he said.
Just then, Duff’s sharp teeth grabbed a hold of a big trash bag in the back of Peter’s car and yanked. Peter was in a tug of war with Duff when I caught a glimpse of what was in the bag. It looked like a long, bloody bone.
The sun was visible on most days, but only to provide light, not warmth. I thought it was a cruel celestial joke, my inner cynic manifesting because I wasn’t getting any work. LinkedIn provided no Scottish leads, and I’d lost track of how many remote and on-site copywriting jobs I’d applied for. Zambia had no work for me either. I decided to look for another kind of job. Still, nobody would hire me. My residence permit only allowed me up to twenty hours of work each week and that limited my options. I could have applied for a job mopping floors at Zizzi or some other restaurant the hipsters flocked to, but I wasn’t ready to become the stereotypical African in the diaspora.
So I stayed home, uninspired to write anything. Each day, I noticed the mould on the bathroom ceiling creep over more white territory. Each day got colder. Each day was an agonising wait to bedtime, irrationally hoping that the next one would be warmer. Bunny and I couldn’t even have sex because neither of us was brave enough to strip. I began to spend all my waking time in bed, listening to podcasts on some days and on others, I listened to the voices in my head fight over whether we should turn on the heating. Each day I did virtually nothing and when Bunny would text to say she was on her way home, I would set up my laptop to look like I’d been busy. Sometimes I’d even snap at her when she tried to touch me while I punched nonsense on my keyboard, pretending that she had disturbed me while I was in the zone. Each day my responses to family and friends back home were similar:
I’m good. Just this London weather!
I’m fine. It’s just so damn cold!
We’re well. Impepo fye!
Eventually, I stopped responding to texts and picking up calls. I couldn’t let on that I was losing my mind. I couldn’t let the illusion crumble. Was this denial common among diasporans?
I hadn’t seen Jin for over two weeks, and he hadn’t paid me back that £40 he owed me. I’d knocked on his door several times and even peeped through the windows in desperation. His silver Volkswagen was always right next to his cottage, and I began to think he was just avoiding me. I decided to try my luck one evening, assuming he was at work during the day. Light glowed through his curtains, but he didn’t come to the door no matter how loudly I knocked.
“Fucker”, I said as I turned to walk back to the castle, my breath a smoky wisp in the security light. The fog was thick that night, a thin cotton wool curtain floating above the ground and obscuring the treetops. It was pitch black along the path leading back to my semblance of warmth. The trees and their gnarled branches looked like they were concealing something. My shoes crunching against the gravel became incredibly audible as I quickened my pace. Who knew what kind of serial killers hid out there?
As I approached the castle, I saw Peter standing outside its entrance at the top of the landing. He was doing that thing again. Lurking. I was getting more convinced that he was the one to fear on these cold nights, not imaginary serial killers.
“Hello!” I said with an uneasy wave.
“Hello,” he replied after an uncomfortable pause.
It frightened me to walk up to him, but I had to ask if he knew where Jin was.
“Have you seen Jin around?”
“No!” Peter said, turning off his zombie switch again.
“If you do see him, please tell him that I’ve been looking for him.”
“Uhm… do you think I could interview you sometime?” I asked, trying to fill the dead quiet. Peter jerked his head back, recoiling from my question.
“About the castle I mean…”
“I wouldn’t be comfortable,” he said flatly.
“Is Federica back? Maybe I could interview her instead? I’m starting a website and—”
“She’s still away,” Peter said with his eyes piercing through me.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any harm. Have a good night.”
“Good night,” he replied coldly.
When I got to the bottom of the steps, Duff happily trotted over to me with something in his mouth.
Not now, Duff. When he dropped the item at my feet and readied himself for a throw, I noticed that it was a brown beret. I picked it up and looked at it. It was the same faded hat Jin wore. I almost didn’t recognise it because of what looked like a large blood stain blotted on its topside. Peter was standing in his open doorway watching me. When I looked at him, he slowly closed the door, severing any eye contact.
When I told Bunny about what had happened, she didn’t quite follow. She was in the bedroom studying for an upcoming exam and didn’t catch most of what I’d said. None of my terror.
“It’s probably nothing,” she said with her nose in a textbook.
I lay awake that night feeling like the mould had infiltrated not only our bathroom but also my throat and lungs. I tossed like a beached fish, trying to apply logic to what felt like an unreal situation. Was Jin still alive? And if he wasn’t, was Peter responsible? As I felt the sleep come on, I rationalised it all and felt a little more at ease. I found comfort in the fact that the Ian Rankin event was only one more day away and I’d have at least one first-world experience for my memories.
Before I could completely fall asleep, I heard loud thudding above us. Muffled voices again. It sounded more aggressive than it had previously and I wondered if Federica was back. Who is Peter arguing with? Before long I was wide awake again and I heard Peter go outside.
“I WON’T DO IT ANYMORE! YA HEAR ME?! I WON’T DO IT!”
He sounded drunk. I tried to gently shake Bunny awake so she could see Peter in action, but she pushed my hand aside and muttered something incoherent. Peter got louder and by the crunching of the gravel outside our bedroom window, it sounded like he had moved his protest closer to us. I grabbed my phone and decided to go record what was happening for Bunny. As I wore more layers to fend off the cold, I felt my bladder swell.
“Shit!” I whispered in the dark. I rushed to the bathroom and flicked the light switch. What I saw made the piss recede up my body and my stomach nearly collapsed. The mould was a thick mat covering the ceiling and parts of the walls, you could barely see the white paint. When did that happen?
I couldn’t hear Peter anymore so I left the bathroom to go outside and catch what I could. I struggled to get the key into the kitchen door to unlock it and then stumbled into the frigid night. I tried to walk around to the back as fast as I could while taking off my glove so I could directly touch my screen. The camera finally opened and I crept towards where I’d heard Peter’s drunken sermon.
He was on the ground, and from my view around a stone corner, I saw his body jerking. I thought he might be having a seizure. Too much drink. When I got closer, I could hear squelching noises and the sound of sticks breaking. The fog was still thick and I could barely see. My phone’s torch hit the wet skin of something with long, damp hair looming over Peter’s stomach. His intestines were splayed out and chunks of his insides lay on a bed of dead leaves. I thought Duff had killed his master, but Duff was barking and whining at the thing to cease. I tried to step away slowly and run back inside, but I was transfixed. The thing stopped gouging mouthfuls of Peter’s belly and then turned to look at me. Our eyes met. It had one green and one brown eye.