"For me?" Julie's voice was squeaky
"Yup," James was close to bursting
with a mixture of excitement and pleasure.
"It's…" Julie searched for superlatives,
but couldn't find them, "It's lovely," She said simply
James glowed happily.
In front of them both, gleaming blue
and white in the sunlight, stood Julie's brand new car, fresh
out of M&M's showroom.
"My favourite colours," She sighed,
"You clever thing."
"And no battle scars," James added
Julie opened the front door and slid
in behind the steering wheel.
"MM.," Julie marvelled, "And it's
got…." She paused, peering carefully at the dashboard to
make sure she was right, "It's got air-conditioning."
"Just wait," She ran her hands gently
over the dashboard, "Just wait till Helen sees this."
"Call it the spoils of war," Suggested
There was no more to be said: it had
all been worth it after all.
"I say," Rupert hopped agitatedly
from foot to foot on the burning sand, bursting with Very Important
Gossip, "Have you heard? Robert's retiring; we’re about
to have a new ambassador."
"Mmm," James had forgotten the corkscrew,
and was rummaging around in the boot of Julie's new car for a
screwdriver, "Name's Wainwright, or something like that."
"Hear he's a bit of a bridge fiend,"
Tom flapped scalded fingers as he juggled red-hot sausages on the
"Nina said she thought his wife played
golf," Julie was laying strips of dull green lettuce across paper
plates set in the sand.
"I hear she's his second wife,"
Helen was laying stripes of brilliant red polish across nails that
precisely matched her swimsuit, "They say she used to be his
Quite plainly, the Very Important
Gossip was old hat. Crestfallen, Rupert attempted a rally.
"Gather Ngombia is a bit of a demotion
for him," He ventured gamely, "Used to be a much bigger fish;
ambassador somewhere in East Africa."
"Why's he coming here then?"
"Upset our foreign secretary by negotiating
with a bunch of terrorists for the release of some voluntary
workers." Rupert was thrilled to have scored a hit at last, "Not
supposed to negotiate with unrecognised terrorist regimes. Been
a touchy subject with the ambassador ever since."
"When's he arriving?"
"Another couple of months or so, in
the New Year. His wife didn't want to spend Christmas in a new
post where they wouldn't know anyone."
"Wonder what the Murchisons will do
once that they're retired?" Julie doled out spoonfuls of potato
salad, "Probably play bowls every afternoon."
"Funny, isn't it," James dragged a
screwdriver out from under the spare tyre, "One minute you're
an ambassador, with everybody calling you 'Your Excellency’
then," He hammered the screwdriver through the cork of the wine
bottle with a rock, "Poof! you're just another OAP creaking back
to your flat in Hove with your string shopping bag and two tins
of cat food."
James turned the screwdriver and pulled;
hard. To his delight, the cork emerged in one piece; the trick
didn't often work. Today was going to be a good Saturday.
"Yes, Charles," Fresh back from the
beach, James could feel a thundering headache brewing from too
much sun and too much wine. He clutched the phone to his ear,
trying to concentrate.
"James," Charles’ voice came
again, "Guess what?"
"I was at a barbecue at Nagbeh's new
country house this afternoon."
"And?" James was feeling irritable;
there was sand in his hair, sand in his ears, sand everywhere.
"He told me he signed the order for
the paint yesterday."
"On top of the order he already gave
"Yeah; one hundred thousand gallons."
"Christ!" Suddenly, the headache and
the irritation were gone: James felt his head clear like mists
"And the same again for delivery three
Silence. James sat on the floor, his
back against the wall, his eyes glazed.
"James?" Charles sounded anxious,
"You still there?"
"Yes," He croaked at last.
"James," Charles’ voice came
from far away, as if in a dream, "James, we just made ourselves
a whole pot of money."
"I know," Said James.
He had been right. It had been a good
James looked up from where he sat
on the floor, still dazed with excitement.
"Daddy, something's wrong with Puddle."
Lucy dragged James by the hand to
where Julie sat on the porch step, Puddle's head in her lap.
A silent Annie sat next to her, ceaselessly stroking the dog's
nose. Julie looked up as he approached.
"James," Her eyes were brimming, bright, "Puddle's
back legs are paralysed; he can't walk."
"He can still wag his tail, though,"
Lucy told him reassuringly.
James felt suddenly helpless.
"We could try Alan Dempster," He suggested.
"He's not a vet."
"No; but he is a doctor."
Annie lifted her head from her rhythmic
"Will he make Puddle better?"
"Let's ask him, shall we?"
"Snake bite," Said Alan briefly,
"Can he be cured?"
"No," Said Alan, "I'm sorry; he can't.
We don't know what type of snake or what type of poison, and
it wouldn't make any difference if we did."
"What does that mean?" Julie spoke
"It means," Alan told her, "That your
dog is dying; slowly and painfully."
It was all so incredibly matter of
fact; so quick. James struggled to take it in.
"Could he be..? Could you..?" The
words were sticking in James' throat.
"Put to sleep?" Alan rescued him,
"Yes, he could; I could."
James walked with Alan across the
AMEN compound to the clinic dispensary, leaving Julie to try
to explain to two stricken, unbelieving faces.
On the way back, James carried the
brown glass flagon of chloroform, Alan the blue-wrapped tube
of cotton wool. They could as well have been a noose and gallows.
It was all really very simple.
Julie sat on the floor, her legs straight
out, childlike, in front of her. She held Puddle's head gently
whilst Alan soaked the large cotton wool pad and placed it over
the dog's muzzle. Lucy and Annie knelt next to her, each holding
one of Puddles' paws. Thick, giddy perfume filled the room and,
slowly, gradually, Puddle's ragged breathing began to ease. Julie
scratched his ear gently.
"Silly, silly mutt," She said quietly,
"I warned you about snakes."
Puddle's tail brushed softly against
the floor then, quite suddenly, his eyes closed and he was gone.
For a moment, all was quiet. Annie stroked a paw, not looking
"Bye, Puddle," Whispered Lucy.
As if stung, Annie leapt to her feet.
"He's dead," She wailed, tears streaming
down swollen cheeks, "He's dead and he won't ever ever play with
Furious with grief, she spun and ran
across the room.
"I'm never, ever going to have another
pet," She wrenched open the front door, "All they do is just
She fled out into the night, too angry
even to slam the door behind her.
Charles was looking as close to grey
as a Ngombian can.
"Goddam," He scrabbled open a packet
of aspirin and threw two into the back of his mouth, "That Nagbeh
James waited whilst Charles washed
the aspirin down with a cup of coffee.
"And he likes you, James."
"How come? I hardly know the man."
"Ever since you cooked up that new
car deal for him, when his transmission packed up a couple of
years ago." Charles waggled his coffee spoon at James, "I told
you about taking care of the right people, remember?"
"So what's on your mind, Charles?"
"First," Said Charles, "We order a
very expensive birthday present for the minister. How about a
"He's got one; we gave it to him,
"A new limousine then, twice as plush?"
"It'd take months to get here."
"Nagbeh's birthday's not for months."
"O.K.," Agreed James, "What's second?"
"Second," Said Charles, "Is the mayor."
"The mayor," Repeated Charles,
"He gave us an order for street names, remember?"
"Christ!" James was aghast, "I’d
"Yeah," Growled Charles, "So had I; but he hasn't, and now he wants
to know where all his signs are."
"Charles, they're not anywhere, you
know that as well as I do. He gave us the order, but we couldn't
"Hah!" Exclaimed Charles, "With the
money you and I just made, we could finance a new presidential
"Yes," Agreed James, "Now, we could.
Then, we couldn't."
"Can hardly tell that to the mayor,
"You're the ideas man, James, you
start thinking. The mayor wants to see us, in his office, today."
Daniel Genesis Digbeh, Mayor of Tuehville
city, was very upset. He sat behind his desk and glowered; livid.
"Dammit, Nyamplu, how come Nagbeh's
order got in front of mine?"
The minister's order, the mayor had
been given to understand, was already being manufactured. Soon
Nagbeh would have new traffic signs and road markings all over
the place and he, the mayor, was going to have to put up with
months of the minister banging on about how the mayor couldn't
even organise street names.
"Dammit," Digbeh repeated, "What the
hell am I supposed to say to keep the man quiet?"
Upset mayors are bad for business
and James and Charles were acutely aware of the need to find
a tactful solution.
"Mr Mayor," James' cleared his throat;
he hoped his voice sounded more confident than he felt,
"It was our understanding that you were simply conducting a thorough
analysis of your departments capital expenditure."
A puzzled frown crossed Digbeh's forehead.
"We also understood, Mr mayor, that
your analysis was coupled with a most careful evaluation of alternative
"Really?" Digbeh looked baffled
"Yes, indeed, Mr mayor," James was
beginning to relax, "And we believe we have the documentary evidence
still on file."
"You do?" The mayor was looking cautiously
"Perhaps we might put it before you," James
did not bat an eyelid, "Tomorrow?"
"Indeed you may, Mr Davidson,"
The mayor regained his composure, "I shall look forward to that."
Charles was bursting with impatient
"What was all that evaluation of alternative
suppliers business, James?"
"I just thought it might be helpful
if the mayor had a confidential file, full of inferior quotes
from other suppliers."
"But, James, we know he hasn't: he
hasn't got any other quotes at all. We made sure of that."
"Suppose we made some up," James suggested, "On
imaginary letterheads. We just need to make sure that the prices
are too high, or delivery times are too long, or specifications
are inadequate. That way the mayor could show that he'd selected
the best choice for the city."
"My dear James," Charles peered admiringly
over the top of his glasses, "Whatever happened to all your ethics?"
"They got adapted," He said.
The mayor was delighted.
"Fantastic!" He riffled through the
file of painstakingly prepared quotations, pausing only to examine
the detailed summary sheet at the back. It scrupulously evaluated
all the bogus offers and concluded that the proposal from AAA
was in the best interests of the City Corporation. The file had
taken James hours of careful work to prepare.
"Dammit!" The mayor slapped the file
down on top of his desk, "Just let Nagbeh try and suggest that
I don't look after the city's affairs properly!"
There was a moment's silence; Charles
leant down to pick up his briefcase.
"Mr Mayor, there was one other thing."
"Yes, Mr Nyamplu?"
"My colleague and I would appreciate
the opportunity to extend seasonal good wishes." Charles rested
his briefcase on his knee and undid its catches, "We had thought
that you might allow us to present a suitable artefact to City
"That would be most kind," The mayor
spoke with polite non-enthusiasm.
"However," Charles lifted the lid
of his briefcase, "On reflection, we felt it might be more suitable
were we simply to provide the appropriate funding."
Charles withdrew a bulging manila
envelope; the pupils of the mayors' eyes dilated slightly.
"Thank you, Mr. Nyamplu," Tuehville’s
mayor replied graciously, "A most wise and generous gesture.
I am sure it will do much to establish mutual and enduring goodwill."
Like a plump brown seal diving for
fish, the packet slid silently into the depths of the inside
breast pocket of the mayor's jacket.
James stood beside Tom at the edge
of the fifth green, daydreaming about Nagbeh and the mayor and
being rich. The sun had emerged from behind the soggy grey clouds
of a stray dry-season shower, and all around them the ground
steamed in the heat. The humidity was suffocating; James ached
for the sixth tee and its oildrum full of cold beers.
Four feet from the hole, Rupert hunched
over his putter, twiddling endlessly with tiny practice swings.
Eventually, satisfied, he grounded his club head and began his
"Have you heard?" Tom enquired of
"What?" Rupert paused, mid-swing.
"Climax have pulled out of Gbang Mine."
Unable to stop himself, Rupert putted.
The ball sped past the hole, a foot wide and yards too strong.
He straightened slowly, furious.
"No," He said, without turning round, "I
"You're not supposed to have,"
Tom was wiping sticky black oiled-sand off his ball, "Still your
putt," He added easily.
Rupert was torn desperately between
outrage at Tom's tactics and the prospect of some really scorching
gossip. Gossip won.
"Tell us more," He lined up his putt
and swung grimly.
To Rupert's considerable surprise,
and even greater satisfaction, his ball caught the edge of the
hole and corkscrewed in.
"Not that much to tell," Tom waited
until the greenboy had smoothed out the dark brown putting surface
with his wooden drag before replacing his ball on the sand,
"A telex arrived at the minister's office from Climax in Cleveland,
formally terminating their concession and management agreements."
There was a stunned silence. Tom swung
his putter gently and watched his ball roll across the green,
trailing its little furrow in the sandy surface. It plopped unerringly
and satisfyingly into the centre of the hole.
"When did all this come to light?"
"Three days ago."
Tom slung his putter nonchalantly
through the air to his waiting caddy.
"So who's running Gbang mine now?"
"Nobody," Said Tom, "As of now, Ngombia's
principal source of foreign revenue is just a great big hole
in the ground."