The darkness I feared is falling, but we’re no longer straddling that hot, narrow, frightening stretch of road. We’ve driven a few hundred metres. The distance from peril to safety. We hope.
Hordes of children gather. Women appear, suspicious, but inquisitive.
We drag our bags from the 4×4 and stow them in the silver saloon. Lock-up the crippled vehicle but leave the windows open. Because, of course, they won’t shut.
And we keep the keys.
Night tightens its grip and Cosmos is anxious to start for Nyimba.
We clamber into the back of our silver chariot. A young man’s in the passenger seat.
‘My escort,’ explains Cosmos.
I hear, but don’t begin to wonder who – or why. My only concern is reaching Nyimba.
Our rescuer’s a cautious driver, with an ear for cheery music – it’s strong and reviving, like a cup of Malawi tea.
Soon I’ve recovered enough to want to know who’s singing. So I can buy it, to brighten dreary UK days.
It’s Cosmos. The sunny music blaring out is his. He travelled to a studio in Malawi. Recorded a full album. Drinking tea between takes, perhaps.
In less than half an hour we’re in Nyimba.
Night is not kind to the town.
No street lights, this world is dark in a way ours never is. Well, rarely.
The dingy petrol station is lit – but far from bright. It makes the rest of the town look grim.
Red light leaks from the open door of a small bar, not far from the pumps. Loud music pulses out. They have electricity. For now.
We hand the key for the 4×4 to a ‘Miss Grey,’ near an address texted to us by the car hire firm. The place we must leave the vehicle. The one we left at Cosmos’s place.
Miss Grey lives behind the petrol station.
From weary wells of experience I dredge up yet more anxiety. This is where we said we’d meet the driver. It doesn’t look like somewhere I’d really want to hang around at night. With luggage.
Cosmos is there before me.
‘Ah! It is not safe for you to wait here. Can you ring this driver? We can drive towards him, meet on the road.’
Alas, this driver’s phone is switched off.
‘Do you think,’ I pray, out loud, ‘Miss Grey would let us wait with her?’
Our hero enquires. The prayer is answered.
Cosmos leads us down a dark alley to a courtyard. Busy with people and dogs and chickens. Lit by a flickering fire.
We take our leave, hand over a sum of money that I know will go towards a music video. His face relaxes, his eyes smile with genuine happiness – then he’s gone.
The Grey house is a single storey concrete box. The sitting room leads off the yard. To European eyes it looks – well, I don’t know what to say. Perhaps because I’m so grateful for the sanctuary.
It’s a large room. Sparsely furnished. Clean. A worn mat lies on the polished concrete floor.
Maroon settees lean their backs to the walls.
We perch on a two-seater some distance from the woman across the room. Her name is Harriet. She seems to be in charge.
Another woman joins us. Sits on another settee. Across the room.
No-one makes eye contact.
Harriet opens a large, square wooden shutter and looks out into the courtyard. A light breeze enters the stuffy room, carrying night sounds.
More women walk past us into short, dimly lit corridors, then vanish.
Silent. Like nuns on their way to prayer.
I feel as if I’m trapped in a play by Tennessee Williams.
Archaeo-man breaks the spell.
‘Is there somewhere we could we wash our hands?’ he asks.
‘Ah, yes, of course. We have water in the mornings, so we fill the bath,’ says Harriet. ‘And you may rest if you like,’ she says as we pass through a very well-ordered room, containing several neatly made-up beds, ‘though I’m not sure it is tidy.’
Women all over the world, are we all the same?
In the bathroom, on a rougher concrete floor, sits an ancient, deep, enamelled bath, filled to the brim with clean water. Underneath is a hole for drainage.
And there’s a lavatory. Moving aside the lacy cover concealing the old cistern we find the handle – and it works, it flushes.
A jug and a basin full of water sit on the floor. We take turns pouring cold water over our hot, filthy hands onto the floor. The soapy water drains away beneath the bath.
My apprehension vanishes with the dirt. This place has a charm that I, in my condescending western way, find touching. And it’s so, so clean.
A hint of appetite returns and we pull out clumps of bread, cheese and tomato – clumps that once were sandwiches – from a plastic bag still hot from the day. It would have been hard to eat with all those hungry eyes upon us.
Plates appear. Tea is offered and accepted.
Then we notice the jug. And unnamed woman notices us notice it.
‘It’s a traditional drink. Cream of Tartar. Would you like to try it?’
It’s made from the fruit of the mysterious, majestic baobab. Thick, like guava juice. A little sharp, a little sweet. Off-white, opaque. And tasty.
We cancel the tea. A kettle’s been taken outside to the fire in the courtyard. We’re being a nuisance.
And that’s when the cellphone rings. Fegan, the driver, is here. At last. Nearly nine hours since …
Oh, God, such blessed relief.
My new friend fills my empty water bottle with Cream of Tartar and gives me a precious, fuzzy baobab fruit to take away.
The women gather outside to wave us off, like family bidding a fond farewell.
I relax into the plush back seat of the Land Cruiser as we drive into the night.
But the road has a little more fun in store for us.
[To be continued – the final part of this particular journey]