Jim Lawrence woke to find a flight attendant prodding his arm, asking him he would like a cup of coffee.
The flight from London airport to Glasgow was a short one and he had never been offered coffee on it before. That was not the only unusual thing about this flight. The aircraft was an impossibly large one and not just coffee, but breakfast, was also being served..
The sun streamed through the window on to his lap. It was harsh and strong and Lawrence could feel it burning his trousers. He raised a hand to his forehead to shield his face from its power.
“Black with no sugar, please,” he mumbled to the air attendant as he struggled to pull down the table in the back of the seat in front of him.
He looked out of the window, into the bright harshness, and far below he could see a parched, yellow landscape far removed from the verdant, lush farmland of England and southern Scotland.
“And where it that?” he finally asked the air steward.
“Oh, that’s the Sahara, sir” she replied with a smile.
“And where is this plane going?”
She now looked surprised, hesistating for a moment before answering.
“Why Johannesburg,” she said.
“Uh,” Lawrence grunted, gazing at the steaming cup of coffee.
As he waited for the coffee to cool down, Lawrence started the process of pieceing together the events of the previous evening, when he had gone to the Press Club in Fleet Street to kill time before heading out to Heathrow Airport to catch a flight to Glasgow, where he was spending Christmas with his parents.
How could he on his way to Johannesburg? he asked himself, racking his brain for clues.
His head was throbbing; he had a dryness in the throat and a terrible thirst. This was the first clue. Too much alcohol.
He pulled down the blind over the window. The harsh African sun was stabbing into his eyes along with seemingly burning his trousers. It was a long way from Glasgow’s winter rain. He needed time to think without pain and distraction.
He had a vague memory of being in the Fleet Street Press Club and events after that were a blank. But he could recall his moments leading to the visit to the establishment perfectly.
He had set his alarm clock for an early start because there was much to do before catching the flight to Glasgow. An insurance policy he had taken out as a teenager, during his first job as a junior reporter on a Glasgow newspaper, had matured some months previously and he was now determined to collect the payout, all 300 pounds of it, which would come in handy over the Christmas period.
He had remembered the insurance agent who was to make the payout telling him to take some identification with his photo in it, and he had remembered that morning to search for the passport he had not used for three years, relieved to find that it was not out of date.
He remembered the encounter with the friendly insurance agent, who had arranged to make the payment in cash instead of by cheque, which would have taken a week to clear the bank in the Christmas holiday period.
With 300 pounds in his pocket, Lawrence had first headed to the BBC World Service headquarteers in the Strand, where he worked as a news script-writer, for Christmas drinks with his colleagues on the day shift before a spot of shopping to buy his mother a Christmas present, a brooch, and then a visit to the Press Club to kill time before his early evening flight to Glasgow.
What had happened next was the difficult part for Lawrence to recall. There was much talk of friends in far-flung places and friends heading off to spend Christmas in romantic locations. One was going skiing in Canada, another touring jazz clubs in New Orleans and Lawrence’s best friend, Charlie Brooks, was in South Africa, having returned to his native country earlier in the year. The English weather, the traffic, the noise, warm beer… it had all got too much for Brooks, who increasingly complained that life in London was about surviving and not living. There was Brooks in South Africa, enjoying the southern hemisphere summer, while Lawrence faced the hassle of getting to Heathrow airport with his heavy bag - all for the grim prospect of enduring another Christmas with his elderly parents in a dreary, red-brick Glasgow suburb with nothing to do beyond going to the local pub and talking football.
“Would you like another cup of coffee, sir,” said the flight attendant, a male this time who eyed Lawrence with some suspicion.
“I’m fine,” said Lawrence, “Oh hang on, a some bottled water would be OK if that can be arranged. I’ve got this terrible thirst.”
Looking about him, Lawrence could now see the trolley from which drinks were being served. The width of the rows of seats, the twin aisles, told him he was on a jumbo jet and the uniforms of the air attendants indicated a British Ariways one. If the plane was crossing the Sahara, he reasoned, Nairobi would be the next stop, before the leg to Johannesburg, and Lawrence could get off the plane there. He pondered this option before changing his order from bottled water to an early-morning beer.
* * * *
The story of Lawrence’s journey to South Africa was one of legend, especially at the Fleet Street Press Club. I had heard it possibly a dozen times, from a dozen sources, but I had never believed it. I considered it, if not an urban myth, a fleet Street one. I knew South Africa well having worked there, and knew of the impossibility of catching an international flight to Johannesburg by mistake instead of a domestic one to Glasgow, with all the security and skewed logistics this would entail.
During a spell working at the BBC World Service, I was on an overnight shift, eating breakfast in the BBC canteen in the small hours of the morning, when I met the legendary Jim Lawrence.
“So where did you work before coming to the Beeb?” he asked me as we made conversation over bacon and eggs.
“Oh, worked down in Johannesburg as a correspodent immediatley before here,” I replied.
“Have I got a story to tell you about South Africa,” Lawrence said with a laugh and out came the account of his unscheduled flight to the Dark Continent.
“I’ve heard that story, but I never believed it was true,” I said. “I thought it was apocrythal, you know a hack story, exaggerated with just a grain of truth.”
Lawrence said indeed it was true but few knew the punchline. His friend lived on the Indian Ocean coast and when Lawrence arrived in Johannesburg, topped up with beers on the flight, he hailed a taxi to take him to Durban - 600 kilometres distant.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 12 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … his musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler.