Viva La Leopoldville
A wise man, I think he might have been a drunk of some sort, told be once that “You should never make a decision in the heat of the moment. Whenever possible sit down somewhere quiet, drink something suitably strong and let the decision come in its own time. This is good advice to live by but sometimes it can be difficult to put into practice.
I remember standing on the main river side dock of Braazaville, looking somewhat scared and confused as a very tall, very large man talked me into cross the Congo river with him over to Leopoldville. It should really have been something to think about, when James invited me to join him on his “Business Venture” whatever that was going to be. But in reality it was the case that I was stuck in a foreign city, without the language or any usable currency, with no idea how I was going to get out of there. I was looking for options and James was the only one I had. So I said “Yes”
We walked together over to the ticket office where James told me he was going to get passage for the both of us. The boat was apparently casting off in only a few minutes so he was in a bit of a rush, pushing his way through the queue of people, his big bulk preventing anyone being too vocal in their annoyance. Within a few short minutes, James came back out of the office with a giant grin on his face and two tickets in his hand. He then took me by the hand and led me onto the small river boat.
While I had been led to believe that there were several crossings per day. I seemed that everyone wanted to be on our boat. There was several dozen squeezed into a small cabin only. Thankfully the voyage was only around twenty minutes or I would have passed out from the mixture of tropical heat and overwhelming hum of body odour filling my nostrils.
We made it to the opposite docks and poured out onto the sun-kissed stone surface. There was a small open hut with a large sign in several languages. The word I could understand was immigration. The crowd formed an orderly queue and moved up, each person showing their papers to the official looking men sitting in the hut. Now in my sudden flight from the Magnificent I had left my passport and all other forms of identification behind me in my cabin. I had known that this was going to be a problem but I figured that I would be able to contact an embassy or consulate before I needed to left the French Congo, not be lead out the second I reached the river.
I had told all this to James so I assumed he would be as nervous as me as we quickly made our way up, yet he seemed a picture of calm and confidence. I was bricking it, definitely looked unwell when we two finally stepped up in front of the two officials.
They looked at us and I just froze unable to say or do anything. James just leaned in to them. I heard some words in French and the name “Enrique O’Brien” and gestured over at me. He then passed a number of books over to them. There appeared to be a large number of notes stuffed into them. The officers looked at him, then me, then at each other. They passed the books, somewhat lighter, back to James and signalled for us to continue. James grabbed me by the arm, helping to give me still wobbly legs a boost and pulled me away from the hut. “Ah!” he said, looking around at all the sights “Welcome to Leopoldville”
James immediately summoned a taxi and spoke to the driver, it was in French so I still didn’t have any idea what it was he was saying. Thankfully the driver understood and immediately set off into the main town.
Leopoldville like most colonial towns of the time, was an interesting mix of European grandeur and local culture. I saw large numbers of the natives going about there business on foot while we drove through them in our taxi. The going was slow enough and it was already into the afternoon when we arrived at a somewhat run-down building, the words Hotel Royale, half-broken and fading, along the front façade. “Well Enrique!” my companion said to me “Home sweet home!”
After he had paid the driver. James looked at me and said “Do you have any other clothes?” I looked down, looking at my grubby porter’s outfit, encrusted in salt and shook my head. He stuck his hand back into his jacket pocket and removed a wad of cash. “Here Enrique. Go to a tailors and get yourself some good clothes. Something more suiting for the climate. While your at it get yourself some dinner and maybe a drink or two. But I want you here by eight O’Clock. I expect the rest of my associates to be here by then.”
I was about to walk off when I realised I hadn’t the foggiest notion where I was. I turned back and noticed that James was already writing something onto a piece of paper. “Take this!” he said, “It is the address of here. Just hand that to a taxi driver or policeman and they will be able to help you get back. You should be alright, it isn’t that far.” After that he just pointed me in the direction of the nearest tailor and set me along.
Despite the somewhat ageing hotel, the area we where in was generally fancy with clean streets and well turned-out houses and businesses. There was a tailors at the end of a side alley exactly where James said it would be. When I stepped in through the door the well-dressed proprietor looked down his nose at my grubby exterior and seemed just about to throw me out when I stuck my hands in my pocket and removed the wad of cash I had there. At that moment it was as if his whole demeanor changed and I was no longer boy, I was monsieur. Some things never change. He got quickly setting me up with some new clothes.
Within half an hour of stepping into the tailors I had two brand new suits in the colonial style and assorted wear for my adventuring. I’m sure that I was paying way over the odds but I didn’t really care, it wasn’t my money. I showed the tailor the address on the paper for the hotel and he said in broken english that he would send the finished clothing there for me. I left with a pair of beige slacks and a casual shirt on that the tailor informed me would be most suitable for Leopoldville at night. with about half my money left I set back out to get myself some dinner.
As luck would have it. The tailor told me about a nice restaurant/club only a few minutes walk from his shop. It wasn’t that difficult to find, even under the blazing sun, the neon signs could be clearly seen. In my new get-up I was able to enter past the serious looking door man without any difficulty and was shown to a booth by a busily efficient waiter.
They had a wide range of fare and while looking through the menu that I seemed to suddenly realised how hungry I was. I am not a particularly adventurous man when it comes to food so I just ordered the steak with whatever version of potatoes they happened to have. I was so engrossed with eating as well as the half bottle of red wine that came with it that I nearly missed the look that I was getting from the other side of a room.
Now I am sure that people always say this kind of thing when they first go to a foreign country, but they didn’t have the likes of this woman back home in Dublin. She was quite a looker, her white dress clinging in just the right places to show off her curves, reddish-blonde hair cascading round her face framing her plunging neckline. If I would see a woman like that anywhere in the world I would fall instantly in love. Here was no exception.
In fact I became so enamoured with this mystery woman that I almost failed to notice her looking right at me. She smiled and nodded her head at me, I instinctively looked behind me, convinced she must have been referring to someone else. She looked right at me again, her smiling face beaming in mirth. I gave up, pointed at myself and made a questioning gesture. She nodded again and walked over to my booth.
Now, I come from before such things as video players and recorders and the like. I had never heard of such a thing as slow motion. But whatever that woman was doing was a very good impression of what I thought it would be. She glided more than walked, a sliding motion that gave the impression her feet never left the ground. She came arpund beside me and without so much as a by you leave she had sat beside me.
Now if my French was non-existent, her English was even worse. Through a combination of gestures, sign language and slow talking I was able to get her name, Yvette, and how she like to drink champagne given by rich friends. Since I considered myself flush that afternoon, I decided I could be her friend so I beckoned a waiter and got a bottle of bubbly.
I had never drunk it before and I found it a strange experience. Yvette seemed thrilled with my generosity and was getting very friendly herself, muttering French sweet nothings in my ear. I enjoyed this very much, so much I fact that I was surprised to find that the time was nearly 7 O’Clock.
Though I only knew him a short while I was of the impression that you did not come late for James. So as much fun as I was having with my new best friend, I figured I had to go. I got up and started making my apologies. Yvette acted upset, pretending to throw a tantrum in a uniquely sexy manner, in the end she begged me to have one last toast wih her. She filled the glasses herself and with a Bon Chance, we drank it down.
The sun had already set as I left the bar, there was a nip in the air which hit me right in the head as I walked into the night. I walked another ten paces and my steps became more uneven, I blamed the champagne. I began to suspect something else as my vision blurred and I could just make out Yvette and two men approaching me.
The drug she used on me was pretty strong; I can’t say I have experienced many stronger, but they failed to realise one thing, where I was from.
If Irishmen are known for one thing, it is the ability to fight while drunk, if another race can also do that it is the Scottish. Thus I was covered on two fronts as I prepared to make my stand.
They must have thought it comical, me swaying like that, spitting slurred curses at all three of them and especially Yvette. They thought otherwise when I lunged forward, delivering a precisely aimed kick to the bollix of the larger of the two men. He went down like a sack of potatoes. His friend was too dumbfounded to do anything about the left hook I launched straight into his jaw. He went down too.
Yvette, robbed of her male escorts, fell to her knees and started pleading in French, something along the lines of “They made me do it!” I was in no mood for revenge however, so I just set off in the direction of the main road as fast as my drugged legs could carry me.
As bad as I was, I was still able to find and get into a taxi. Thankfully, I still had the address in my pocket and at a quarter to seven we pulled up back in front of the old hotel.
I somehow opened the door and fell out landing face first on the path, right in front of a pair of shoes, James’s shoes.
He looked down at me “Seems like you had an interesting time! Well don’t just lie there. We have work to do!” at which point I felt a strong pair of hands lifting me up.
I was back with James and safe for the time being, but I still didn’t have a clue what it was he intended for me to do. I was soon to find out, and that of course, is the next part of my story.