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Transit

PUBLISHED: September 8, 2020

 

At Heathrow, three hours before her flight to Boston, Thandi was in one of the shower rooms below the Galleries lounge in Terminal 5. A previous tenant—someone who, at some point in the day, had been in there before her, before every inch of the shower room was cleaned, its towels and various amenities replaced—had left a trace of themselves; the radio on, the dial turned to Classic FM. Which meant that Thandi had spent the last twenty minutes listening to Fauré and Vaughan Williams. Now it was Handel. From Solomon: “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.”

This was the first part of her transit routine, her routine between flights. After bathing and dressing, she’d go downstairs to do her usual walkabout, grazing the possibilities of the duty-free floor—perfume, whiskey, rare chocolates, the sort that were rare in Nairobi. Then she would find a place to eat. If she was with her husband, Kimani—who liked what he liked and disliked what he disliked, which in the case of airports was the buzz and bustle of the duty-free floor—she’d return to the lounge and dine with him there. But if she was traveling alone, she could play with time. Reverse the order of things. Could, for instance, sample one of the terminal’s restaurants. Three months ago, the last time she was here at Heathrow (en route to Greece for a Nigerian friend’s wedding), she’d dined at one of the newer places. It was called Pardee (in Middle English: “by God”), a place where they served meals that were elegant and shrapnel-small: the newest tentacle of Terminal 5’s desire to be a transient playhouse of Great British luxury.

She wasn’t hungry now. And as she left the shower room and ascended the stairs to the second level, where the lounge was, she was thinking that she just wanted to be in her corner, a newspaper in one hand, a glass of red wine in the other. Before going off to shower, she’d marked the spot as hers. Left her blazer on the back of the chair, and a newspaper on the small round table headline up (“May’s Brexit deal crushed by Commons”).

This was where she always sat. Right by the big panels of windows through which one could spy the glidings of aircraft and next to a host of beautiful and curious things: pots of white lilacs; other pots containing flowers that looked like wheat; the cool Heathrow light that pressed its soft hand in; the life-sized statues of several horses: black and sinewed, tails swept to the right of their bodies. Focused. Unmoving. Like sentries standing guard.

She was surprised—shocked, to be precise—to find that her spot had been taken, annexed by a woman who was drinking tea and eating shortbread biscuits. The woman had folded Thandi’s newspaper and pushed it away so that one half was dangling off the side of the table and the other was being used as a tray.

Thandi, standing now behind the woman, tugged at the blazer and said, “Excuse me.”

The woman turned around slowly, unsurely, as though steeling herself to encounter something wild, then she launched her body off the chair and said, “Oh god. Did I take your place?”

The thief had the voice of a smoker. The yellowed teeth of one too. Thandi, who’d grabbed her blazer off the back of the chair as the woman stretched around, tossed her things onto the sofa behind them. Anyone watching would likely deduce that a dramatic affair was about to take place. The thought had crossed her mind, but it embarrassed Thandi—average of height, soft-bodied, tastefully modest in her beige attire of cigarette trousers and cashmere knit; a woman, these days, who prided herself on being well-behaved. Neutral.

“I didn’t realize that someone was sitting here. Honestly. I’m a very absent-minded person. I’m so sorry,” said the woman.

“I said it’s fine,” Thandi said. 

“No. You were here first. I’ll move.” The woman picked up her tea and biscuits and set them down on the square table by the sofa. Then she sat next to Thandi’s recaptured things. “It’s yours now,” she announced. “I have vacated your territory.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Thandi said, sounding perfectly unoffended.

“Well, I’m not going back. So if you change your mind…” The woman laughed—a deep barbecued sound. Then she extended her hand and said, “I’m Flannery.”

She was tall, this Flannery. Blonde, loose-skinned, astonishingly white. She wore a flowered top with long sleeves, a knee-length skirt, and had slip-ons on her feet—an outfit that Thandi noted disapprovingly. But she accepted the hand nonetheless, shook it, and said, “I’m Thandiwe.”

“My god you’re pretty, aren’t you?” Flannery said. “And what a wonderful name!” 

“Thanks. Yours too.” Thandi truly felt this way. That a name like Flannery was noteworthy. But she imagined it had sounded insincere.

“Where is it from?” Flannery asked.

“Southern Africa somewhere.”

“Wonderful.” Flannery smiled. Said—“I used to have a friend from South Africa. Lovely girl. Itha Swanepoel. But I don’t think you’d know her, would you?” She paused, narrowing gray eyes at Thandi.

“Sorry. No. I don’t know any Ithas.”

“Of course. She’d be my age now. Which is old.” Flannery laughed. 

“I’m from Uganda. We don’t have Ithas or Swanepoels,” Thandi said.

Flannery furrowed her brow. “Oh,” she said. Her voice dropped and she sounded disappointed when she said, “Well, I’m sorry. I don’t know anyone from Uganda. Although I guess now I do.”

Flannery—who’d been flipping through pages of the Mail on Sunday—returned to her reading. And Thandi thought how bizarre that exchange had been, though she couldn’t say why it was bizarre, only that it was. Kimani, the more articulate of the two, more quickly discerning, would’ve been able to pin it down. She pulled out her phone to text him, but just at that moment Flannery looked up and said, “Uganda? Is that the one where the president was a cannibal? Long ago, I mean, not now. Gosh, I should hope not now!”

“Rumored, yes. But I doubt it.” 

“I can’t even begin to imagine it!”

The women laughed, regarding one another like two unacquainted animals sniffing each other out, Flannery expecting a response, Thandi denying her one, the moment finally scattered by an announcement from the front desk: Mr. Vikram Rao? Mr. Vikram Rao, could you make yourself known to a member of staff, please.


Eighteen years ago, when she was still new to travel, when she left Uganda for the first time—an unripened twenty-year-old accompanying her father, both of them laughably clothed for the Cape Town winter—airports made her anxious. Made her want to heave. This was a story that the Thandi of that time told often enough that it had become a shibboleth of her life. But it was not fully true. The problem wasn’t the airports themselves. Not really. Not on their own. Actually, her anxiety about travel had been activated long before she set foot in an airport. Before actual travel. As she stood in well-aired but penitential embassy rooms, providing answers to irksome questions: Do you have family here? In Uganda? (“Yes,” she’d say, “my parents. Two sisters and two brothers.”) Any close family ties? (And Thandi would wonder if Europeans and Americans had different definitions of “close family.” For what could be closer than your own blood?) A husband, for example? Children? (“Oh, no. I’m not ready for that,” Thandi would proclaim, laughing, misunderstanding the question to be one of mere curiosity.) Time and again, for several years, her visa applications were denied.

A year after her Cape Town trip, she’d graduated from Makerere with a degree in Development Studies and began working at a development agency in Kampala. It was run by a mix of white people: a Frenchman, an American from Maine, and a Rhodesian woman—the Uganda expert, as they called her—who’d lived in Kampala for a year. As a new recruit, there was training to be done in America, so Thandi spent a month in New York in July—her first time out of Africa. After three years at the agency, she achieved something unheard of for the locals and became a fairly prominent figure in the organization. Together with the Rhodesian, she was invited to a big international development conference in London—a sign of her growing currency.

At the British embassy (in the interview room), the interviewer had asked the same genus of questions. This was enough to annoy Thandi but not to alarm her. After all, he’d asked the same of the Rhodesian, and by then Thandi had been to America and returned and had the visa and stamps to prove it. But the same man, two weeks later, signed his initials to the bottom of a letter declaring that her application for a visa to the United Kingdom had been denied. He was not convinced, he wrote, that she had close enough family ties to her home country. The Rhodesian, with her green Zimbabwean passport, did not suffer the same fate.

Thandi appealed the decision on the basis that the interviewer’s fixation on her family ties (i.e., her marital status) was sexist and that she’d recently returned from a trip to America, evidence that she had no migratory intent. If I could leave America, Thandi wrote, the greatest country on Earth, and return home to Uganda, the Pearl of Africa itself, why would I elect to remain in Britain—a country that looks at the shadow of its empire and does not yet recognize it as a shadow at all. That elegant savagery (which in the end was the death knell of Thandi’s appeal) belonged to her father, Robert: a university professor who did not believe that any country was great, let alone greatest; who was in fact convinced that America was an appalling force in the world; who had long ago stopped traveling outside of Africa; and who liked to say things like, Why should I leave Africa? I am from Africa. And from what I can tell, non-Africans don’t like to bathe. Why should I, a clean man, dispatch myself to the lands of the dirty?

Even when she began to travel a little more, she wasn’t able to enjoy it. Wasn’t sure that the prospect of her-as-tourist had lost its repellent shimmer. She dreaded the long waits at Hamad International: the crowds, the unbearable toilets, the airport workers that tailed her in duty-free shops, afraid that she might steal a bottle of expensive lotion or a pair of high-end shoes. But it was Brussels—where they kept travelers to Africa quarantined in a faraway section of the airport—that had delivered the worst experiences.

Once, having been granted a scholarship by the Chinese government to do a master’s at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, she had a twelve-hour wait in Brussels before a flight out to Pudong Airport. Surprisingly, the Belgian officials in Kampala (a nasty bunch from an even nastier country, her father had pre-warned) granted her a transit visa. But once she arrived, the officer had refused to land her. He looked down at her papers (passport, tickets, SJTU admissions letter) and then, without stamping her passport, handed them back to her. She asked him why he hadn’t stamped the passport. “I need an entry stamp to go through,” she said.

“Why should I let you through?” he asked. “I see no reason for you to come into Belgium. I can see you’re continuing on to China later today. In a few hours in fact.”

“No, not in a few hours. In half a day! It says so on my ticket, didn’t you read it?”

The officer looked at her keenly through his small brown eyes. “And why should I believe that you’d come back?” he asked.

“Why shouldn’t you?” she countered. 

The officer regarded her for a long moment, and Thandi tried but failed to imagine what thoughts accompanied that rampant gaze.

Finally, blinking out of his silent reverie, he said, “You have an onwards flight to Pudong airport, I suggest you walk to your terminal and wait for your flight. I’m sorry, but I cannot land you.”

“But I have a valid transit visa!” Thandi protested. She had not yet learned that immigration officers were authorities in the same way that policemen were authorities, that they expected immediate deference.

“And what do you plan on doing with it?”

“I am supposed to meet a friend for lunch at a place called The Lobster House. Afterwards, we will go shopping in Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and then she will drive me back to the airport.” None of this was true. Those places existed, but far above Thandi’s fiscal capacity. But a week before she was due to travel, a friend (a Murundi girl who’d lived in Belgium and now lived in Kampala with her Muganda boyfriend) had advised her to name real places so as to appear less suspicious. In reality, Thandi planned to just walk around the city, get some fresh air, take some photos of Belgian landmarks, and then find a cheap café to have lunch at. But her friend had said the posher the itinerary, the better. She’d even made Thandi practice the words, so that her French (a language she’d relinquished in primary school) sounded as close to native as possible.

The officer cocked his head to the side, as though he was examining her afresh. From a new angle. Thandi began to have the sense that she had triumphed, but then his head lifted back up and his shoulders started to jig up and down and she realized that he was laughing. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I cannot take the risk of landing you. You expect me to believe that you will come back? We have had a large number of people like you in recent years. Trying to settle here and being less than honest about it.”

“I’m not trying to settle. I just don’t want to be stuck here for twelve hours! It’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University! Do you think I would throw away that opportunity to stay here in Brussels? And do what exactly? Be a housegirl?”

“I have never heard of this university,” the man said. “And I am beginning to lose my patience.”

“I have a valid transit visa!” Thandi cried and her face was astonished, her eyes welling up and her shoulders shaking with fury. “This is so bloody unfair!”

The Belgian (who was only slightly lighter than her, who Thandi deduced was probably Arab) didn’t enjoy this kind of thing—women coming apart at the seams. He wagged a menacing finger at her and said, “Would you prefer that I send you back to your country? Hmm? Just be grateful that I haven’t done that. I could do it very easily. Believe me. Now go to your terminal. Go. Go!” He called on the couple behind her to step forward, then looked at her one last time and made the shoo motion with his hand. Thandi obeyed.

An older Thandi, whenever she looked back on this, would cringe at this moment. The admission of impotence, the compliance with an irrational pecking order. Even now she wished it away—a reminder that she had once been weak. But of course it was too late. The moment had already pressed into the clay of her, become a part of the ceramics of who she was. By the time she boarded the plane, twelve hours later, it was a hard and permanent thing.

What was not permanent, what years of frequent travel had by now worn away, was her anxiety. Nine years ago, when success and marriage came (to William Kimani of landed Kikuyu stock), Thandi shed her old self for a new one: better clothed, better cared-for; a life propelled by the force of a Kipling decree: Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. She discovered how to travel well. How to defend herself against indignity. Now, Thandi didn’t have the kinds of struggles she’d once had. Almost always, she and Kimani traveled in Business (and occasionally, if they were feeling indulgent, First). Ten-year visas—a thing unheard of by the old Thandi—were bequeathed to them without fear. With ease. For this was what the Kimanis had demanded of the world—a life unencumbered by inconvenience. And this was what the world had granted.

There was a tension in this for Thandi—the kind one would expect in a woman who was born in the midseventies into a young and precarious middle-class, one whose brilliant academic of a father was underpaid, whose mother’s pride as one of the first African dukawallas was for decades chafed by the modest reality of her sales. Before meeting Kimani (at Shanghai Jiao Tong) Thandi knew, abstractly, that there were people like this. People like her living lives of immense privilege and access. But that world had seemed sealed off. And even though she was in it, even though the seal had been broken open, she still sometimes felt like an interloper. Not in places like these—foreign lands where no one knew her—but at home in Karen when Kimani would speak to the children of his ancestors, a gilded tail of memory that stretched back to touch the seventeenth century. And when the question inevitably came—“What about your people, Mummy?”—what could she say? She knew of her grandfathers—one a tradesman, one a lay church preacher—and their fathers, simple Kiga peasants both. But that was where the line ended.


Outside as afternoon waned, the light began its dying, its soft-handed retreat. But inside the lounge, which in Thandi’s mind fell under the mediation of airport time, and which had little correspondence to normal time—children zipping around at midnight, adults getting spa treatments or conducting business over phones at 2 a.m.—the day had picked up. Brought with it an invasion of travelers. Sitting now by the pot of white lilacs, on the opposite end of Thandi and Flannery, was a family of four—a highly Scandinavian middle-aged couple and their blonde boys. Thandi’s chair—empty in the wake of Flannery’s evacuation—was now occupied by a pixie-haired white woman, clad in a black hoodie and matching joggers. And in the adjacent seat, a gentleman in a blue kaunda suit.

Thandi was scrolling through emails on her computer when a loud exchange broke out at the reception. It was the Vikram Rao from before and the blue-suited woman at the front desk. The reasons were unclear, and Thandi wouldn’t have ordinarily taken heed, but she was close enough to the entrance that she caught the end of Mr. Rao’s attack: “You people are fucking useless! And you’re supposedly the ones that brought us civilization! You wonder why the Asians and the Arabs are so far ahead of you in hospitality—and in nearly everything else these days? This! Is! Why!” He walked away, making for the exit, but then turned back around and continued at the receptionist: “I should have known not to use these mildewed European airlines and airports. I should have flown out of Abu Dhabi!” Thandi laughed at the dramatics, then returned to her emails.

“Then why didn’t you?” Flannery said, head craned back. She turned to Thandi. “These rich people! These bloody rich people! And they wonder why the whole world hates them.” She shook her head, face scrunched in great disgust, then, feeling the need to explain herself to Thandi, put her hands on her chest and added, “I’m only here because I’m Silver, like most of these people I’d assume. I tried to get an upgrade. They say if you dress nicely, you’re more likely to get one. I shouldn’t have believed it. One has to be rich to get even the tiniest sliver these days. Well, I am not rich. And I tell you what else? At moments like these, I’m glad not to be one of them.” She pointed a finger at the empty space that Mr. Rao, only moments ago, had wrathfully occupied.

“Yes. That was unnecessary,” Thandi said, though this was more for Flannery, whose fulmination had caught her off guard.

“I’m glad we’re of one mind. For a moment I wondered if you were…you know…a part of that particular species. I would have told Mr. Raul right off if that was me. Why didn’t she tell him off?” she inquired, palms and shoulders raised high.

“I think it was Rao,” Thandi said.

“It’s a matter of manners,” Flannery pressed.

“Maybe we give him the benefit of the doubt. You never know in these situations.” This—Thandi’s sympathy offer—was met with a bruised stare. And Thandi thought, then, that she saw something move through Flannery. Coil; then uncoil.

“Well, I suppose I can’t argue with that.” Flannery stood. “I’m going to get myself another cup. Do you want one?”

“Oh. Thanks. A glass of dry red would be nice.”

Briefly, Thandi’s gaze followed Flannery as she moved toward the bar, the hard sandals on her feet clacking loudly against the floor, the hard muscular legs which hadn’t been oiled, the slow gait, slower than Thandi was used to from white people who were always, it seemed to her, in a great carnivorous rush. (Kimani’s favourite edict in the middle of the busy streets of Marylebone: “Walk fast. This is London.”)

When Flannery returned—without her tea, with two glasses of red instead—she said to Thandi, “So what is it you do in Uganda?”

“I’m in the dry-cleaning business,” Thandi said. “But I don’t live there. I live in Nairobi, where my husband is from.”

“Is that where you’re going?” 

“No. Boston.”

“What takes you to Boston? Is it work?” 

“A little bit of work. But mostly pleasure.”

“Ohhh lucky you. There won’t be much pleasure for me where I’m going. Lisbon. Just work work work.”

Flannery sipped her wine. “And will you be staying at a hotel or…?”

“With friends of mine who live there.” This was false. Her travel agent had booked her a top-floor room at the Mandarin, but Thandi saw no need to divulge this information.

“Doooo theyyy?” Flannery said. “What are they doing there, then?”

Thandi, who was used to this sort of thing from strangers—curiosity that churned into something more suspicious—was still not immune to its antagonising power.

“Working. Living. Paying their taxes,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Flannery said. “I didn’t mean to intrude.” She leaned back against the sofa, picked up her wine and a copy of OK! Magazine (which Thandi knew she couldn’t possibly have procured from the lounge; had to have purchased from one of the bookshops downstairs).

Thandi, who suddenly recalled that she had things to do (duty-free items to collect, food to eat so as to avoid airplane food), stood and announced her intention to leave.

“But the flight doesn’t leave for another two hours. Are you going to lug that thing around? For two hours? Why don’t you leave it here?” She pointed at Thandi’s carry-on. “I’ll watch over it for you since my flight leaves later than yours.” And something must’ve alighted on Thandi’s face, because Flannery added, “You don’t think I’d steal anything, do you?”

“I don’t know you,” Thandi said.

“It’s up to you.” Flannery shrugged, returning to her copy of OK! “All I’m doing is offering.”

Thandi could not explain, then, the sensation that came over her: an emulsion of dread and pity. She took a moment to appraise this Flannery, thinking she was tiresome, imagining how she must flounder in her day-to-day, bumping along winds of self-harm, unable not to warp her human interactions. Much like a gnat. But harmless, Thandi concluded. And anyway an act of theft in this place of white lilacs and black horses seemed unlikely to her.

Thandi acquiesced. “Okay. I’ll be back in an hour. Thanks.”


Flannery waited till 6:17. It seemed like a good sign, the fifteen minutes that Thandi had been away. She walked over to the woman who occupied her former seat, the chair from which she’d been evicted, and tapped her on the shoulder. The woman turned around, her face unable to feign interest.

“Could I ask of you a favor?” Flannery said.

“Yes?”

“I’m just going to pop over to the bathroom. Would you watch my things while I’m gone? I’m sitting over there.” She pointed to the leather sofa, her magazines and large duty-free bag.

“Okay, but I’m leaving in five minutes. I won’t be responsible for your things after.”

Flannery nodded in thanks. She searched for the ladies’ bathroom, Thandi’s suitcase in tow, and when she found it—a place of gleaming dark walls and elegant vanity tops—ensconced herself in a large stall.

The carry-on itself was not quite what she’d imagined: hard, black, and unfussy. But she stuck to her plan, still. Emptied it, one by one, of its contents. The small silver computer, the transparent bag with creams and cosmetics, the blue jeans, the cotton underwear, the newspapers, these ubiquitous things were of no interest to her. Nor, in the end, was the scarf—its square white center exploding with brown bird plumes. These things were, some of them, curious. But they did not count as evidence.

This fact satisfied Flannery. She repacked the case, everything in order, and after emptying her bladder, pulled up its handle and wheeled it out of the stall. She stood before the mirror, washing her hands, gazing at her blue-veined face, feeling the split-second sadness to which she’d lately grown accustomed when she looked in a mirror, and the understanding that came with it: that she could no longer be counted among the beautiful. Not at fifty-four.

Flannery recalled that she’d been beautiful once. That she’d been beautiful in Lichfield—where she was from—and that there was a time when hers would have bested the beauty of the Thandis of the world. She thought of all the poor young girls in Lichfield growing up now, neighbors of other young girls, the kind who didn’t exist in Lichfield forty years ago. How unfortunate that they were born in this fragile age, one where every Thandi expected to be accommodated and indulged at the expense of others.

She dried her hands with a white face towel which she gathered (disapprovingly) that she was meant to add to the growing tower under the sink. She was nearly dismayed to find that the bottle of hand lotion was empty, until she recalled Thandi’s bag of creams. Flannery unzipped the case and pulled the bag out for close examination.

It was the first thing she saw when she lifted the bag to eye-level: small and skull-white, gleaming at her with menace, as though they’d been biding their time, waiting all along to be discovered—these pots of diamond-infused face creams.


By the time Thandi re-emerged from below—with her own duty-free bag (wine for her Boston friends, chocolates for their children), the gate to her flight had opened. She saw her carry-on, pulled right up against Flannery who was asleep, stretched out on the sofa, sandals off, arms folded over her belly. She stood over her for a moment, hesitant, trying to decide whether to wake her. To say thank you and goodbye. But then Flannery exhaled deeply, rolled onto her left side, and turned her back to Thandi who took this as a signal to leave.

On her way out, the lady at the front desk (the same one who’d been at the receiving end of Vikram Rao’s rebuke) said that they weren’t boarding premium passengers yet. “We’ll let you know. You can still relax, Mrs. Kimani,” she said. But it would feel awkward going back, and anyway Thandi preferred to be early as opposed to on time. She thought about Flannery as she made her way down to the gate. She’d found it alarming at first, how her carry-on handle, which she’d left folded down, stood lifted like an antenna, but then she imagined that Flannery had pulled it up to wheel the bag closer. In the end, she decided, she’d had the right idea about the woman. And the more that she thought about it, what did it matter if Flannery had taken something? Everything she required—passport, wallet, jewelry—stayed with her at all times, hedged in a tight grasp between arm and rib. The rest was easily substituted.

At the gate, where there was a steady swell of passengers, Thandi was first in a line of five. On the other side of the barrier, a gate agent—short and red-haired, the name Stephen etched onto a badge—was flanked by two men. Stephen regarded her and said, “Step forward, madam.” Thandi, who was reading phone messages in her left hand, gave the man her passport and boarding pass with her right. So she didn’t see it, that moment when he turned to the men behind him. But she heard it. Heard the whispered baritone of “This is her.” Thandi looked up, with sudden force, at men who appeared to be scrutinizing her. Then she looked behind her and around her at the assembly of travelers, to try and locate the suspicious one among them.

By the time she turned around, the two men—average of height and slim as reeds (and who knew that slimness could be so menacing!)—had moved past the barrier to enclose her.

“Will you follow us please, ma’am?” the one with no beard said. He pointed at her carry-on. “I’ll take that,” he added. She relinquished it without pause. But when the other man, the one on her left, pointed to her bag and said, “That, too,” she refused.

“No,” Thandi said. But he picked it out of her hands easily, as though he was confiscating something from a small child.

Thandi walked behind one and in front of the other and replayed the sound of that “no” in her mind. This was a habit that followed precarious moments, when she felt unsure of whatever had just found its way out of her mouth. Sometimes, the words in her head disappeared as though carried off by some interior wind. But now all she could think about was that no: that a weaker no, a more faltering no, had probably never been uttered by a Kimani. She wanted to cry out, to curse, though she couldn’t imagine what she’d say if she did. And of course she knew, without having to look (though she stole a dismayed glance before she stepped into the lift) that the assembly of people she’d turned to before had now turned to her. Were watching her. Kneading her into various ill-made shapes.


Somewhere deep inside the belly of Heathrow Airport—somewhere that was the kind of place she’d heard of but had not had to imagine—Thandi sat. The room was void of extravagance or care. There were two red chairs on either end of a white table, a boxy telephone attached to the wall and a black box—an audio recorder. On her way in, they’d passed others like it and she saw a tall man wearing a khamis exiting the room that neighbored hers.

An hour passed and she wondered what on Earth the men were doing, though through the window she could see the arm of the one that guarded the door. The other, the one who’d spoken first and who she now saw was the leader between them and who she was now sure would be conducting some kind of interrogation, had wandered out of view.

Thandi had had some time to brood. To consider the kinds of things that Kimani would think of: protocols, legality, their London lawyers. She remembered them now because she was convinced that the officers—or whatever they were—had not behaved properly or followed the right protocols. She intended, when they brought her things back in, to phone her lawyers right away and prepare them to do ferocious battle. But in the meantime her mind kept wandering off to the passengers on the plane. And she cringed at the thought of how she must have caused them a delay. Wondered if at this moment, a flight attendant was announcing her name to everyone on board: This is the final boarding call for passenger Thandiwe Kimani. And whether the other travelers would put two and two together, would identify her as the suspicious figure they’d whisked away. Thandi wondered if a few of them would Google her, and what they’d make of their findings: a recent Forbes list, interviews with one or two of the loud Kimanis (second cousins of her husband), speculation about how many square miles of land they owned. Perhaps they would even come across an article in a British tabloid from two years ago, the infamous one that existed, now, as mere screenshots: These Black Africans are Crazy Rich. But where does their money come from?

By the time the door cracked open, bringing with it the two officers, Thandi had been waiting for two hours. She was sure she’d missed her flight. She was fuming.

The beardless man sat down across from her. And she saw her captor properly then—the pale pear of his face, the brown hair that was over-moist, the smallness of his mouth which, when he talked, when he said, “Kee-MA-nny, is that how you say it?” barely moved—and was struck by how weak he looked.

She allowed herself to imagine that he was more easily overcome than she’d first thought.

The officers got on with their duties in the order they’d explained, but this was after informing her that they had the right to do whatever they were about to do under the law, and that if she resisted, at best they would keep her in the room for as long as they desired, and at worst they would lock her up in a cell.

Thandi, who’d refused to open her bags when they asked, who had said, “If you want to open it, you open it. You’re the one that brought me here,” sat in silence. She eyed the men intensely, as they searched her bags and swabbed them. She did not waver, even in those moments when they glanced up from their rifling and caught her eye. She wanted to convey something: that she, too, was watching them and had marked them.

The search and swab took ten minutes, and then the officer, the pale one, announced that they were done. “I’ll be back with the results. In the meantime, pack this all up,” he said. He collected his swabs and made for the door, but then turned back, picked up her bag of creams and said, “I’ll be taking this.”


They released her, eventually, once it was ascertained that she was carrying nothing prohibited. Once it had become clear that they had gotten something terribly wrong. But not before reporting these facts to her without apology. Informing her that they were simply doing their duties, that they had done nothing wrong, they hoped she understood that, and that it wasn’t their policy to reimburse passengers for missed flights.

Thandi—who by then had informed the lawyers of the situation, two big-time barristers who were presently en route to Heathrow—stood to pack her things. She couldn’t be sure exactly when it had happened, but something old and hard had broken inside of her. The officers watched her as she put her handbag on her shoulder and lifted the carry-on handle.

“I’m free to go?” she asked. They nodded, yes.

Thandi walked out of the detention room and passed the officer who was holding the door open. She ambled a few feet forward, then turned around and said to him, “Do you have children?”

The officer frowned, indicating that the question was odd and that he had no more time in his day to give her, but still he said, “Yes.”

And then Thandi spat on the floor. “You are nothing!” she said to him. 

He looked up, face even whiter than before, and said: “I’m sorry?”

“I said you’re nothing! Just a fucking worker! And your children will be nothing and their children too. Never forget that.”


It would take Thandi some time to connect the cardinal dots of her detention. Three weeks, to be exact. When the whole story unraveled. When big people got involved at the request of a government minister who, in turn, had involved himself not through the lawyers, but through a friend of the Kimanis who sat in the House of Lords, and was determined to get to the bones of this awful humiliation. This is how it came to light that Flannery Green had reported Thandi to a security officer at Heathrow, informing him that she was all but certain that the lady in question was hiding drugs in her pots of creams. And this is what the officer had passed on to the men that had carried out Thandi’s arrest. Later, when the woman hired to investigate the whole thing paid Flannery a visit in Lichfield, Flannery would deny that she’d made false claims: “I’m a good woman, a good neighbor, you can ask around. I didn’t lie, I just got it wrong.”

In the end, nothing happened to Flannery. But the officers were suspended for misconduct and for failure to follow protocol. Kimani thought it didn’t go far enough. He’d wanted the officers sacked. He’d been so angry, angrier than Thandi. But a few days after her return from Boston—as she lay in the sun on the veranda of their Karen home and recalled, with laughter, her mighty imprecation—she’d said to him that it was time to forget about it, that she’d taken care of them in her own way. That they would reap what they’d sown. 

3 Comments

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emily.e.s.lawson@gmail.com's picture
emily.e.s.lawso... · 1 year ago

Wow. This story knocked me over. So utterly expert, incisive, complex, and damning.

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r.miles's picture
r.miles · 1 year ago

What happens? I'm hooked!

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Evelyn's picture
Evelyn · 11 months ago

Gripping from the get go!

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