The final results had already been up for two days before Leon Jacobs bothered to make his way to the Stellenbosch University administration building. When he got there, he saw a note placed next to his name on the main bulletin board. The dean of the Journalism Department wanted to see him. Leon might have skipped the meeting with the academic, but Professor Olivier’s office was only two floors up, so he went.
He knocked before entering.
‘Enter,’ was the reply on the other side of the door.
Leon opened the door and saw what he presumed was the dean sitting behind an antique desk, one of those with a green leather surface. Olivier wore a blue shirt with a flimsy collar covered with a brown herringbone-patterned jacket with leather patches on the elbows. The Jim Morrison-styled black hair with grey flecks completed the image of an aging professor trying to be as hip as his students, two generations younger.
After a number of seconds, Olivier looked up over a pair of round frameless spectacles and saw the equally scruffy Leon standing in front of him. The only difference was that Leon didn’t wear a jacket or glasses and wasn’t grey.
‘Yes,’ Olivier said, in a gruff voice.
Having heard from a classmate who attended his classes that the professor was notoriously cantankerous, Leon stuttered, ‘You … wanted … to see me, sir. There was a note on the results bulletin board. I was one of the journalism students?’ Leon said.
‘What’s your name? I don’t recall seeing you in class.’
‘Yes, Jacobs, rings a bell. Let me see.’
Olivier glanced at a typed A4-sized paper in front of him. He dragged his finger down a list and stopped at the middle of the page. He leaned across and opened the top drawer of his desk, took out a number of envelopes, paged through them, removed one and put the others back in his drawer. He picked up his letter opener and sliced open the envelope. He removed a single A4 page, scanned it, and handed it to Leon.
‘I will get straight to the point, Jacobs. This letter informs you that you have now finally finished your studies at this university. You have been our guest for ten years and completed a couple of degrees, which, on the face of it, looks impressive. You started well and finished your BCom in Economics followed by a Master’s in Economics in five years…’
He paused a beat.
‘But, your wheels came off after that.’
Olivier stood up from his chair and leaned forward.
‘For God’s sake!’ he said. ‘During the last five years you jumped from faculty to faculty…Languages, journalism this year, even drama.’
With Olivier’s face so close to him, Leon stared mesmerised at the amount of grey and black fluff growing out of his nose and ears.
‘Although you sat for this year’s exams,’ Olivier said. ‘I’m sure you know you’ve failed miserably.’
Olivier said, ‘I don’t want to waste my or your time any further. I’ve discussed your sorry situation with my colleagues and the decision was unanimous. You’ll not be accepted for any course next year, not even for a diploma in cleaning dorm rooms. You have used up enough of the university’s time and resources as a serial student. Time you get some responsibility, son, get a job, get your life in order. Do you agree?’
‘Ja, sure,’ Leon said, his attention focused on Olivier’s fluff.
‘Okay, dismissed.’ Olivier looked down at the papers on his desk, shutting Leon out.
Leon left the room, closing the door and the book on his university life.
Nobody was at the Cape Town International Airport to see Leon off.
He flew into Oliver Tambo International Airport with a two-hour stopover before boarding the Egyptian Air Flight to Cairo. There was no specific reason as to why he wanted to go to Egypt, except that he got a good deal from a travel agent for booking late. The other problem was that he didn’t know what his next step would be after recently failing a drug test for smoking dagga at a late-night drinking session two days before he applied for the training programme as a scuba rescue diver for the South African Navy. He figured he had enough cash from an inheritance from a recently departed aunt to last him three months of travelling. Enjoying each other’s company and sharing a crude sense of humour, he had made a point of regularly visiting her in the old-age home in Strand, half-an-hour’s drive from Stellenbosch.
He cleared customs in Johannesburg. His first stop was the bathroom. While he was busy washing his hands, he glanced up at the mirror. He didn’t like what he saw. He was tall, but his shoulders were slouched forward, cancelling out the positive impression his six-foot-one frame used to make. Although only twenty-eight, he saw an underweight, ten-year-older man. His skin was grey from spending too much time out of the sun and in UV lights from pubs and bars. Although his hair was washed, he couldn’t remember when last he had had a haircut.
After he left the restroom, he wandered around the duty-free area and bought a bottle of Jack Daniel’s that was sealed to ensure no tampering before he reached his final destination. He checked his boarding pass to confirm the time he needed to be at the departure gate.
Still forty-five minutes left, time for a quick one before the flight.
He headed over to the News Bistro and took a seat where he could see an Arrivals and Departures board. He glanced in the direction of the restaurant’s cash register where a few waiters were standing around and tried to catch one’s attention. The waiters were chatting among themselves or staring into space and one seemed to look straight through him.
He sighed. I might as well be invisible.
Eventually a waiter strolled over and dropped a half-torn plastic-laminated menu in front of him. Leon asked the waiter to clean the table of the coffee stains left by the previous patrons. The waiter pulled a damp rag out of his pants pocket. Leon picked up a smell, like old socks. He shifted his chair backwards.
This one is not like the News Bistros in the city. These guys would go out of business if they had any competition with other restaurants in this section of the departure area, Leon thought.
He ordered a double Jack Daniel’s on the rocks from the waiter with the smelly rag. He had to remind the waiter twice, and the whiskey arrived after twenty minutes, without the ice cubes.
At least I got the drink. He lifted his glass, smelled the contents, and breathed a sigh of relief. Before he took his first sip, he noticed that the rim of the glass was covered with red lipstick. He slapped the glass on the table, swore under his breath, jumped up, and threw a fifty rand note on the table.
Half an hour later, Leon boarded the overnight Egyptian Air flight from Johannesburg to Cairo non-stop. By that time, he was craving a drink, but it took an hour for the departure formalities to be finished and another hour before the flight was on cruising speed. Only then did he see movement in the serving area indicating that the cabin staff was getting ready to start with the catering for the evening.
Finally, a drink or two.
Since he was sitting in the back part of the Boeing, it took another twenty minutes for the drinks trolley to arrive. While waiting, he whiled away the time by flipping through the inflight magazine. Most of the articles were in Arabic, some with summaries in English. He tried to entertain himself by correcting the language, spelling and punctuation of the English translations. At least my journalism degree is being put to good use, he thought cynically. From one or two articles, he picked up the usual propaganda and political overtones, which denoted clearly how the press was censored. Unbelievable, he thought, even the articles produced for in-flight magazines. The photos were mainly from Egypt’s rich archaeological history like the pyramids and the sphinx. The photos look okay, but if only they were not so dated and the printing was of better quality.
The uniformed cabin attendant with the drinks trolley finally reached Leon’s row of seats.
‘Can I offer you something to drink, sir?’ he asked absently, wishing he was somewhere else rather than serving drinks in this oversized tin can in the air.
Leon, with all his senses focused now on his prize, said, confidently, ‘Whiskey, please?’
‘Sir, you should know, on this airline we don’t serve alcohol,’ the cabin attendant said evenly.
‘What, you must be joking. All airlines serve alcohol.’
‘Please, sir, it’s the policy of the airline and it’s to respect our religion. Now please order your non-alcoholic drink,’ he said, emphasising the non.
‘Coke.’ Leon’s voice sounded deflated.
The cabin attendant took out a small 200-ml plastic glass, a two-litre plastic bottle of Coca-Cola, and proceeded to fill his glass halfway.
‘Fill it up,’ Leon said, harshly.
The cabin attendant ignored him and proceeded to take the order of the person next to Leon on the aisle side. He ordered Sprite and was handed two 330-ml cans with a cup filled with ice. The detached attitude of the cabin attendant had revolved into one of over-friendliness toward Leon’s neighbour.
The guy had longish blond hair and was an outdoorsy and fit type, probably handsome to the ladies, maybe the guys too, Leon figured.
The cabin attendant said, ‘If you want anything else, push the call button on the TV remote.’ He leaned over and removed the remote and during the move brushed against Leon’s neighbour.
‘Here is the button.’
It’s obvious where the button is, Leon thought.
When the cabin attendant pushed his trolley further down the aisle, Leon mumbled under his breath. ‘Fuck, I can’t believe this bird is dry.’
‘Yeah,’ the guy next to him said, hearing Leon’s lament. ‘It’s a bummer. By the way, my name is Jeremy,’ the guy said.
‘Allow me to let you in on a little secret,’ Jeremy said.
‘Huh,’ Leon mumbled, again removing the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket. He never liked talking to fellow flight passengers.
‘What if I tell you I have some booze with me?’
Leon turned his head towards Jeremy, suddenly interested.
‘I have flown Egyptian Air before and know their rules. I brought my own.’
Jeremy bent forward, pulled out a gym bag stowed on the floor below the seat in front of him, zipped it open, took out a medium-sized toiletry bag, removed a string of six plastic sachets, and handed it over to Leon. Leon inspected the label and saw that the sachets contained a brand of vodka he hadn’t seen before, something like Smornovsky.
‘They are packed in doubles, plenty more where this comes from,’ Jeremy said.
‘Wait a minute,’ Leon said, ‘Isn’t this illegal?’
Jeremy grinned. ‘I got away with it before, besides, did you see how the cabin attendant stared at me? He wouldn’t report us, I’m sure.’
He proceeded to open the first sachet and squeezed the contents into Leon’s plastic glass that only had a sip of Coke left. He then proceeded to mix one for himself.
‘Cheers,’ Jeremy said, and they both downed the first of many vodka doubles during the flight.
After the dinner trays had been removed, the cabin attendant dropped by for a friendly chat with Jeremy, who used his charm to ensure Leon was also properly stocked with mixers for the night ahead.
Jeremy reclined his seat, filled a blow-up cushion, and put a dark mask over his eyes. Leon observed this with detachment and commenced to deplete Jeremy’s stash.
A few hours later and, after some more vodka doubles, Leon was in the zone, the mellow familiar floating feeling that only alcohol or the occasional marijuana hit can give.
At some stage during the night, he tried to operate the remote on his passenger TV but couldn’t get it to work. Soon after that he passed out as the trustworthy Boeing stabilised in cruising speed at an altitude of 35 000 feet above the dark African night below, eating up the miles towards the land of the pharaohs.
The next morning, around five, the lights of the Boeing were switched on and the cabin attendants started serving breakfast. After the binge the previous evening, Leon didn’t feel like breakfast but decided to have some anyway, hoping the meal would help soothe the mother of hangovers.
After breakfast, he removed his toothbrush and some aspirin from his overnight gym bag in the overhead locker. ‘Aspirin?’ Jeremy asked.
‘Forgot the Colgate.’
After Leon returned, Jeremy said, ‘Going to see the pyramids?’
‘I guess,’ Leon said. ‘Maybe a Nile cruise as well. And you?’
‘No, I’m going to Jameel.’
Jeremy took the in-flight magazine from his seat pocket and flipped to the second-last page that contained a rough map of Egypt. He pointed out a speck on the map.
‘This is Jameel. It means beautiful in Arabic. It’s situated across the Arabian Sea on the other side on the Sinai Peninsula, a historical Bedouin fishing village that has been developed into a holiday resort destination.’
‘So what’s happening in Jameel?’ Leon’s eyes followed Jeremy’s finger on the map.
‘I teach surfing, been doing this on and off for about three years now. I take a month’s break every six months or so to visit family in Durban and to renew my re-entry tourist visa.’
Leon nodded absentmindedly and looked out of his window where the rising sun started to illuminate the surface to reflect the sandy Mars-like landscape of the Sahara.
‘Great view,’ Jeremy said, looking over his shoulder. Leon quickly turned his gaze away from the desert towards Jeremy.
‘Sure,’ Jeremy said. ‘Yip, the Red Sea on the Sinai side has some of the best dive sites in the world. Literally thousands of scuba divers visit the area every year. The resort I work for has everything. Windsurfing, sailing, scuba diving …’
‘I’m a qualified scuba diving instructor,’ Leon said. ‘You recon I can find a job as a diving instructor? I have sort of run out of options. But that’s a story for another day.’
‘So why don’t you contact me after your holiday?’ Jeremy said.
Before the two new friends parted ways, they swapped their email addresses.