In the Land of Queen Elizabeth’s Head

The vehicle was offered whilst the kitchen staff changed. Following a loud function that had fed five hundred, Alistair, the sous-chef, doused himself in a cloud of strong deodorant, before casually enquiring if anybody fancied a motor. His offer fell cold onto the ground, until Zuba, in a haze, offered to take the car.

Standing next to a discarded heap of chef whites and still in his underpants, Alistair wrote Zuba’s address on the back of a crumpled blue menu, promising to drop off the car the following afternoon. He explained the car’s details, the specifics of which were consumed in Zuba’s confusion and excitement.

***

On the late bus home, Zuba thought back to months before when he had been employed as a teacher in Sierra Leone. Only two members of staff owned cars then. One was the principal who had a low silver Datsun car that had an amicable relationship with rust and belched out thick smoke when it was in motion. Staff and pupils often joked that the smoke from principal’s jalopy was so thick it could cook rice. The only other member of staff with a car was Mr Vandy, the physics teacher, who had acquired his degree in America, and, as such, considered his skills wasted in a mere secondary school. His car, therefore, was an extension of his disdain for his situation — a lumbering prop that emphasised his superiority. 

***

The offer of the car further convinced Zuba that the conference centre was a place where things were given away. The previous week, a tattooed waitress with blue hair and a pierced nose had offered up a futon. Zuba did not volunteer to take the futon because their cramped flat could not accommodate a futon; cars on the other hand slept outside.

The conference centre was also a place where good food was thrown away in massive amounts. Zuba had therefore taken to rescuing portions to feed him and his flatmate, Boy Kennedy, which meant they had more money to send to relatives and friends in their home countries. Their fridge was currently crammed with cooked lamb from a lavish dinner for an insurance company, lasagne from a shift at the Caledonian Hotel, whilst unrelated slabs of sticky toffee pudding, liberated from different restaurants, kept company inside a transparent bowl on their coffee table.

His initial dismay at being food-destroyer-in-chief had eventually mellowed to resignation. His first order to dispose of leftovers had been disconcerting, and he thought that  the sous-chef, was joking, when after a function to feed delegates of a conference on climate change, Alistair declared, that two wide containers of chicken should be put in the bucket.

The chef had sensed Zuba’s incredulity from his alarmed expression. He therefore explained the rationale behind the mass wastage; leftover food used to be given to the homeless until some sad bastard claimed that he got food poisoning after eating their salmon. There had been talk of a lawsuit.

Since chicken had always been a luxury, Zuba refused to carry out the order to dispose. He instead emptied the contents of the two trays into a green bin bag which he took home, leading to some strange glances from other passengers on Bus 33. The rescued pieces of chicken fed him and Boy Kennedy for a couple of weeks.

***

If you were lucky, you ate chicken twice a year in the home country. Once was during Christmas when masked devil parades were organised and singing children patrolled the neighbourhood in matching ashobi outfits. The other chicken-worthy occasion was Ramadan Pray-Day when Muslims celebrated the end of their period of fasting. Jollof rice, cassava leaves, groundnut soup and other delicacies were cooked and shared amongst households.

Back then, being the oldest boy-child of the family, Zuba was often tasked with slaughtering the single rooster which was saved for that particular occasion. On said occasion, he stood on the squawking bird’s wings, dug a hole in the ground with a sharp knife to collect the blood and then slit the throat. The chicken would jerk spasmodically as the blood oozed, the part of the ritual which he hated the most. His mother had reprimanded him for being squeamish, stressing that she expected him to embrace the duties of manhood. One chicken to feed his family of fourteen meant a meagre piece for Zuba, and as was customary, he got the neck which was awarded to him as compensation for slaying the fowl.

***

It was Boy Kennedy, the flatmate from Zimbabwe, who had advised him to work in kitchens. He reasoned that people in this part of the world took food very seriously and used every opportunity to eat out. He even made Zuba watch a couple of programmes on the television featuring animated chefs jabbering away over exotic creations. Zuba watched transfixed, being most bewildered when a beautiful chef with dark hair poured half a bottle of wine into a bubbling sauce. Surely alcohol was for drinking only?

***

With time though, he was sent almost exclusively to the conference centre where fridges and freezers were entire rooms, and cleaning them required wearing an oversized red jacket reserved for that purpose.

 On another occasion, he had to polish strangely-shaped knives which were apparently used to eat fish. He also received a crash course on how to operate huge bellowing machines used to wash pots and pans. He realised that a side plate was different from a saucer, and that some top quality cheeses had pungent smells that lingered. And then there were the perplexing concepts of starters and desserts which involved eating separate portions of food from different plates before and after the main meal.

When he therefore phoned home, his mouth was bursting with stories about life in the kitchens. There was for instance the drama of Hubert, the bald pastry chef, who was escorted from the premises by a couple of stiff security men. Hubert had screamed obscenities and smashed a stack of plates after hearing that he would not be getting a pay rise.  

Still buoyed at the prospect of owning a car, Zuba arrived home just after one. Surely, Alistair could not give him a car for free. Perhaps fatigue had addled the chef’s brain, shearing him of common sense. Nobody gave cars away.

He had the flat to himself, which meant that Boy Kennedy had taken himself to the Mambo Club at Tollcross. Zuba had been to the club a couple of times but hated the choking cigarette smoke which left his clothes stinking. And he also could not understand some of his fellow Africans who visited the club only to spend the entire evening acting like American rappers complete with fake drawled accents and baggy clothing. 

Boy Kennedy had been lucky enough to meet someone in the club though, a svelte woman with long yellow hair that reminded Zuba of bright raffia. The woman claimed that Boy Kennedy looked like Will Smith, and they were since then inseparable, Zuba often hearing them having loud sex through the wall.

After switching on the central heating, he emptied his camouflage backpack of the wide Tupperware container that accompanied him to all shifts. Today it contained condemned sausages and black pudding from breakfast. He had also wrapped up squashed chunks of cheesecake in foil paper.

He ate in front of the television, trawling the bright green teletext for news of back home. Manchester United were interested in signing Patrick Kluivert. Peace talks continued between the central government and rebel forces. He would buy a phone card and call home over the weekend. News of the car would make for good conversation.

***

As promised, Alistair, the sous-chef, arrived with the car the next day. The flat Zuba shared with Boy Kennedy was on the third floor, their living room window overlooking the court below. From his elevated position, he observed Alistair’s approach in the distance, his red hair distinct behind the steering wheel of a white car, which Zuba recognised as a Ford Uno.

Not bothering to lock the door, he hurried down the stairs to receive his car. The courtyard was deserted, the only occupant being a typical biting wind.  

On seeing Zuba, Alistair broke into a broad smile and beckoned him to get into the vehicle. Zuba welcomed the warmth of the car as he settled nervously on the seat which was covered in black and red tartan material. The sous-chef twisted a dial, dousing the voice of an animated radio presenter who was busy praising the qualities of a newly released pop song. Alistair was wearing a sleek leather jacket and a pair of grey jeans, and it was almost as if being out of his chef’s uniform had taken away his customary grumpiness. 

“Here she is mate! All yours. Missed the turning coming here or would have been a little earlier.”

“This belongs to me?” Zuba replied, running his hands along the dashboard which had accumulated a thin coat of dust.

“Absolutely. Got a new one, and this banger’s worth next to nothing now. Would maybe get fifty quid for it on Auto Trader, which is not worth the effort. So, you might as well have it, as long as you don’t mind your neighbours laughing at you. It is MOTd till next July, and I put in new brake pads just a couple of months ago. Runs smooth and engine’s only 1.4 so it does not drink a lot of fuel!”

After the chef’s departure, Zuba spent time exploring the car, turning dials and flicking switches. He was happiest at the fact that the vehicle had a basic stereo system that played CDs. Music was one of the few luxuries he had allowed himself since arriving in the new country, and he had managed to accumulate a respectable stack of mainly rap and reggae albums.

***

He showed the car to Boy Kennedy when he arrived home in the afternoon. The flatmate was very impressed, purring as he circled the vehicle, excitement dancing in his eyes.

“In this country there are opportunities for all,” Boy Kennedy pointed out as he settled on his haunches to inspect the vehicle’s tyres. “Do you see how we now live in the land of Betty’s Head?”

Sensing Zuba’s confusion, Boy Kennedy explained, “Betty is their Queen Elizabeth, and her head is on the pound notes we struggle for. So, this is her land. Imagine owning a car after being here for just three months! As long as we work hard and follow the law, nobody will disturb us. Our parents are not corrupt government ministers who steal public money, but today in this foreign country which has ice on the ground, we have opportunities! You the man who cleans kitchens now owns a car!”

***

Zuba took to eating in the car. He would heat liberated food from the kitchens in their old microwave and carry it down to the vehicle. He also took  CDs, which provided mood music.

On the first evening, he ate sea bass and mashed potatoes to the accompaniment of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. On another evening, Bob Marley’s Uprising provided the background to a tender pork joint. At other times, he fiddled with the radio, settling on random stations that produced music pleasing to his ears.

The white car remained uncomplicated, especially as he could not drive and as such did not have to buy fuel. He only once had to put water in its engine to ensure that the heating worked and kept him warm as he dined, the dashboard illuminated like a constellation.

***

In mid-December, the conference centre closed down for the Christmas holidays; yet, Zuba was offered shifts in the kitchens of an airport hotel. He danced across the living room after Marie, the narrow Gothic lady from the agency, explained in a light voice down the phone that he would receive triple pay for working on Christmas and New Year’s days. Boy Kennedy would be missing till the new year; Amanda, the girlfriend with the raffia hair, was spending the holidays with her family in Orkney and had invited him to travel up with her.

***

There was no public transport available after his early shift on Christmas day so the hotel provided a taxi. The driver was round and pleasant and on hearing that Zuba was from Africa mentioned that he had been on holiday to The Bahamas in the summer.

The Queen’s Speech was in its final lines when he switched on the television, and he stayed on his feet to listen to her message of hope and goodwill, observing that unlike on the pound notes, the crown was missing from her head.

He waited for the end of the speech before phoning home, whilst he watched rescued turkey and roast potatoes rotating in the microwave. The money he had sent earlier in the month through Western Union had been received by his mother who had cooked for all of their relatives. Everybody was well except little brother, Abu, who was laid low by a troublesome bout of malaria.

He ate in the car again, settling his plate on the passenger seat as he selected music appropriate for his meal – Brenda Fassie’s Memeza. The temperature gauge read two degrees and he adjusted the heating in the car accordingly. The turkey tasted bland and so he transferred his attention to the potatoes which were crisp and well-seasoned.  

***

The police woke him up on Boxing Day, their knocking pitched between apologetic and urgent. As he was led across the court into their waiting car, he could feel the neighbours’ eyes from behind curtains.

He was driven to the canal that ambled through a nearby housing estate at Wester Hailes. One of the police had to walk round to let him out, opening the door as if it was made out of crockery.

 Zuba’s white car was in the canal.

The vehicle was positioned as if it had attempted a somersault and landed on its head, the wheels facing the sky, the rusty undercarriage exposed in the dull morning light. The windows were smashed, broken glass strewn along the canal’s path like rough diamonds. Something sharp had been taken to the seats, the stuffing spread on the path like confetti, other bits floating in the half-frozen water. The CDs had been removed from the glove compartment and smashed underfoot, 2 Pac’s face on the cover of All Eyes On Me hidden beneath a surface of pulped plastic.

A policewoman took pictures of the car whilst talking to Zuba about insurance and how they would test the abandoned beer bottles for DNA. There had been a spate of car vandalism over the Christmas period. This happened almost every year and was the work of yobs who were bored and drank too much.

They promised to be in touch and returned Zuba home just in time for him to get ready for his Boxing Day shift.


Foday Mannah hails from Sierra Leone, currently lives in Scotland, and is employed as an English teacher. He holds an MSc in International Conflict and Cooperation from the University of Stirling and an MA with Distinction in Professional Writing from Falmouth University. In his writing, Foday seeks to represent the experiences of the remarkable people he encounters in life. He likewise explores and highlights the disproportionate use of power — both domestic and political. His short story, Amie Samba, was shortlisted and published for the 2019 Bristol Short Story Prize. Foday has also had pieces shortlisted and longlisted/highly commended for the Commonwealth, Bridport, Sean O’Faolain, Mo Siewcharran and Brick Lane writing competitions. He can be found at https://twitter.com/FodayMannah and https://www.instagram.com/foday_mannah/.

1 Comment

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  1. Hi Foday Mannah, this is Med Magbie aka Magbieus I just finished reading this interesring piece of writing of yours whilst taking rest after the days job.
    I wish you can send me more of your writings and publications.
    Thanks and please keep me posted.
    Best regards.

    Like

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