I have been asked several times “Can you describe yourself in one word?” and I would have to reply to that “Lucky” Being lucky has gotten me more in life than any amount of preparation or hard work. It is through luck, being at the right place at the right time and the like that has gotten me out of more situations than anything else. Take for example the situation after my hurried escape from the magnificent.
I had come ashore in my lifeboat after nearly three days rowing through the sea. My legs were shadows of their former selves, my hands had calluses on their calluses, and my arms were burning worse than they ever had before. I was a wreck and the first thing I wanted to do the second I hit dry land was sleep. After kissing the beach and spitting out all of the sand that I had thus ingested I threw myself back into the boat, wrapped a blanket around myself and fell asleep. In retrospect it was a rather foolish move to collapse back into the boat on a strange shore when I had no idea about the tides in the place but figuring out that something is foolish is best left to someone with a fully functioning brain, and mine was off at the time so I was only concerned with getting my rest.
I was woken by heavy shaking of the boat. The sky was already starting to darken and I found it difficult to see. I thought for a second that the tide had come in and washed me back out to sea. But I could hear the gentle lap of the waves and it was coming from far behind the bow of the boat. It seems that the tide had gone far down the beach. But the boat was rocking, what was causing that? It was only with my eyes adapting to the low light levels that I noted a dark figure finish coming over the side. I scrabbled for a torch under my blanket. Turning on the light I shone it at the dark figure and found that it was still dark. It was a black man.
He seemed a little taken aback when the light went into his face. For a moment I entertained the notion that this man had never seen a torch before but the way he moved made me realised that I must have blinded him with its glare. He groped around the boat for a few seconds stumbling over the many haphazard boxes and pieces of equipment that I had left strewn on the deck. When he regained his vision. He started to talk to me in a questioning manner, I couldn’t understand what it was he was saying, but it sounded oddly familiar. He kept on gesturing for me to get out of the boat, continuing to speak to me loudly and slowly. This man had obviously learned his communicating with foreigners etiquette from the English. Thinking of nothing better to do I nodded. Gathered what things I thought I might need and followed him.
I found it difficult to see this fella as he walked off the beach and into the surrounding jungle. I kept my torch shining on him, occasionally flicking it down to make sure there were no roots or holes in my path. I don’t think he liked that very much, he kept on looking back and speaking loudly at me angrily. I didn’t really care, I was not going to get lost. It was only a few minutes later that we emerged from amid the trees and I saw lights ahead of us. It was a collection of buildings, white sided against the tropical sun. The black man bid me to enter with him. Thinking of nothing better to do, I followed.
I found myself walking through hallways in what looked to me to be a schoolhouse. The place was deserted and I looked into each room seeing the rows of empty desks freaked me out a little. I had never liked school much at the best of times so being in one after dark was especially unnerving.
We continued through until we reached a room with a lone light swinging from the ceiling. At a desk beside a window was a man, a white man in the garb of a priest. He was writing furiously into a ledger and didn’t seem to notice our entering. My companion went over to the desk, placed his hand on the priest’s shoulder to get his attention and started speaking in that strangely familiar language. I had been thinking about it on my walk from the beach and I had come to the conclusion that I had taken in enough of the chatter from the “Tribesmen” in the Tarzan serials to recognise what they were speaking. But when the priest started to reply my heart sank a little. I knew the language they were speaking well enough. It was French.
The priest bade me to come over and sit in a chair in front of his desk. He started speaking in heavily accented English asking who I was and where did I come from. He hadn’t heard of any shipwreck he said so he might have found my being washed up on the beach somewhat dubious. I endeavoured to set his mind at ease by telling him my story including the details of the cannibalism. He was, needless to say, even more sceptical. Thankfully he was a true Christian man and offered me a place to stay for the night.
I was in, apparently, The French Congo, on the south coast, only a couple of miles from the border with the Belgian Congo. The Priest, Father Julian, ran a convent cum school and small hospital with a number of nuns which was stationed in what could be best described as the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, he told me, they were going to send a van over to Brazzaville the next morning and that I would be welcome to hitch a ride.
I had more questions about how I might be able to find my way out and hopefully home but Father Julian was seemingly busy. I instead was placed in a bare room by a dour faced nun. I had not slept off my three days of rowing and had been living off the adrenaline of my sudden discovery so within seconds of hitting the rough sheets I was asleep again.
The next morning I was awoken by a nun bringing me in something small to eat; different nun, same dour face. Having just eaten and by then fully rested I was much more able to face the world. I retraced my steps to Father Julian’s office only to find him having an animated conversation through a telephone. I only have a few of the saltier French words in my vocabulary and I caught most of them coming out of the enraged priest. In the end he slammed the receiver down shouting “Merde!” only then realising that I was present.
I felt suddenly like a very large, very vulnerable target. I instinctively started trying to hide myself from his gaze. He was looking like he was about to explode on me as well when he calmed down, though still annoyed, and said to me “That was about my driver. He got drunk last night and has been thrown in prison. I don’t know when he will be released. I have no one to drive my van over to Leopoldville. I have people and medicine over there that we really need here. Things that cannot wait. What am I going to do?” He put his head in his hands the lifted his head and looked at me, a smile developing on his face. “Enrique.” He asked me “Can you drive my van?”
Since I went to a catholic school I have developed a well-honed ability to lie to clergy. “Why of course I can drive a van” I said “I used to drive a van for my Job back in Dublin” This was what I like to call a ‘truth in technicality’. While I had ridden in the van with Daithi while we made the boat run. I never drove it for work. Daithi did show me how to handle the van. He even let me handle it once. I think I managed to make about twenty yards when, ashen-faced, he wrenched the wheel from my hands and decreed that he would never let me drive a vehicle in his presence again. I think he was jesting.
Father Julian seemed to take what I said at face-value. He was relieved and explained the situation to me. I was to drive the hospital’s van cum ambulance to Brazzaville with the Matron and two nurses. There we would meet one of the hospital’s doctors with the medicine and other supplies on the docks and the boat from Leopoldville. This doctor could drive himself so I would be free to make my way wherever I wanted once I reached Brazzaville. It was a win-win situation I thought. How difficult could it be?
Father Julian explained that the terrain was so ‘difficult’ that it was likely to take half the day to get there so it would be best to set off as soon as possible. He took me out from his office and around back. The van was a dilapidated old thing which from the looks of it had been through the wars and considering the time probably had been. My intended passengers Sister Concepta, the Matron, and Sisters Bridget and Bernadette the nurses, were already loading the little cargo for the outbound trip. I made a show of inspecting the vehicle, in reality checking that all the pedals and levers that I remembered where there, and announced that I was satisfied for our journey and would go and get my things. Father Julian, bless his soul, was so grateful to me he had given me an old duffel-bag that he had for my assortment of crap. I wasn’t sure what was important so I took everything and took it back to the van.
The front cabin was a snug affair so it was just going to be me and Matron in the back while the two younger, and much better looking, nurses stayed in the seats in the back. It was probably for the best, the other two didn’t have any English while Matron had enough to communicate effectively.
With Father Julian and some of the rest of the staff looking on I went through the start-up procedure in my head, said a few prayers and turned the ignition. The engine came to life and immediately jutted forward. Remembering Daithi’s screamed advice I put the gears into first and slowly released the clutch. Slowly, ever so slowly, the van edged out of the little compound and out into the tree-lined road.
Hubris is a sin I am intimately acquainted with and as soon as the hospital was out of sight I figured that I had gotten the hand of this driving lark and was going to show this old nun how things were done. I increased my speed shifting up the gears as I had remembered Daithi telling me and pretty soon we were moving down the road at a fair rate of knots.
How I say road, But this is in the loosest possible definition of the word. It was not paved, more of a track, a muddy, bumpy, trail through the jungle. Moving at any speed through this was causing the van to jump up and down like an over excited stallion and I started to feel sorry for the two nuns in the back. That very thought brought to my mind the image of two nuns bouncing around in the back of the van, an image so bizarre that I almost started laughing and which distracted me enough that I ended up hitting a bump in the road and knocking the van into a hedge.
Our landing was soft so neither me of the Matron had visible injuries. She did however, have a look that could curdle milk, “Sorry!” I murmured “I’m a little rusty”, the look remained. We both got out. Me to check the van and if we could get back on the road and Sister Concepta to check on the other two. The hedge had no nasty surprises so I was confident I could just reverse out without difficulty. I asked the Matron about the nurses, still feeling concern but she just replied gruffly “They’re alright. Tied down!”
After reversing back onto the road I set on ahead at a more sedate pace, making good time but nothing flashy. Time moved remarkably fast, me being kept busy with constantly watching for uneven ground, and in no time we were over an hour on the road. It was then that we came to something frankly disturbing.
Growing up in Dublin when I did, it was not unusual for me to see horses attached to carriages out on the road, delivering milk, coal, and whatnot. Occasionally there would be an accident when one of these horse would get injured and more rarely it would be nasty. What I saw on that road was horrific.
It looked to my vantage that three different carriages had collided with each other within the last few minutes. One, it appeared, had been overloaded and slipped on the mud careering into the other two. The horse on the first carriage had tried to hold on to the road so strongly that it had torn something in its front leg and it was lying face down, its hoof in an unusual position. The second had been impaled with some metal bars from the first wagon killing it, dead. The third horse’s front hoof had been crushed by the second wagon lurching back. It was trying to move, crying in pain and panic. There was assorted bits of freight like chickens and papers lying around and to top it off the drivers were each running around, wailing at what had happened and shouting at each other.
While I was watching this chaos in front of me, a large man stepped down from the third wagon. He held a box in one hand and a gun in the other. While the drivers argued he went to third horse put the gun against its head and fired. This silenced everybody else. The man then went in silence to the first horse and put a bullet in its head too. He then turn and started walking, straight towards us. I was petrified but Sister Concepta was made of stern stuff and bade me to keep quiet with a shush. The man knocked on my door with the barrel of the gun I opened it and he said something in French. The nun replied in kind and he said “I am sorry. My name is James! Are you going to Brazzaville?”
It is good advice not to refuse a man with a loaded gun who has recently used it. We welcomed James in the cabin and somehow he was able to fit his big bulk between me and the Matron without crushing us. Under James’ eye the carriage drivers had already made a hole for the van to pass through allowing us to continue on our way.
As soon as he had settled, James lost whatever menacing countenance that he had possessed on the road. His gun had seemingly vanished and his started to talk with us openly and exuberantly. In fact he very much monopolised the conversation, Sister Concepta not having very good English and me being busy driving. That didn’t seem to bother James though, he certainly had enough to talk about. He was on his way to Brazzaville to cross over to Leopoldville on the other side of the Congo river and meet his compatriots. From there he was planning an expedition to go into the heart of Africa and “find his fortune” Though the details were “hush-hush”. We didn’t pry.
On my part I told him of my experience at sea and he listened most attentively. At the end he looked at me with a mixture of pity and admiration in his eyes “So you are going to this city without a clue what you’re going to do next? That takes courage my friend!” At which point he slapped me on the back so hard that I had to scrabble to stop running into trees again.
With James’ talking and my avoiding potholes time passed even faster for me. The roads gradually improved too first into wider dirt tracks and then paved roads so I was able to increase my speed more. Within another three hours we were entering the outskirts of Brazzaville. Following Sister Concepta’s directions I made my way, slowly, through the maze of bustling streets down to the docks where we found a straight-laced looking doctor waiting for us.
I offered to help loading but the doctor and nuns insisted that only they could do it properly. They told me I was free, giving me their thanks. I then stood for a second, looking around, thinking about what to do next when I came face to face with James again.
“Enrique, my friend!” He said to me “I have been thinking about how you have nothing here and it saddens me. But I think again and I know you are in luck. I could use a person like you. A man with courage and quick thinking.” He pointed at the small ferry docked close to us “That boat is heading for Leopoldville in half an hour. If you come with me I can offer you a chance at great riches, enough to go wherever you want. You would be a fool to say no.”
I said at the start of this part of my story that I consider luck a strong part of my life. I never said it was good luck all the time. I have a few decisions in my life that I have come to regret later, this was one of them. “Why not!” I said to James, he immediately began grinning, “It will be an adventure!”
It most certainly was an adventure, which more than once nearly saw the end of me. But that is left, dear reader, for the next part of my story.