"How's the bush rescue service today?"
"Steve!" James was stunned, "Steven
James had no idea how Steven had managed
to track him down. He hadn't even known that the man was still
in the country. It was years since he'd last seen him, strapped
to a plank in the bush.
"What are you doing up in town? On
a buying trip for GTE?"
"No, James," Steven was impatient
with news, "I've come to repay a friend a debt." He nodded towards
the door, "Can we go for a coffee somewhere? You and I need to
Willie Wils was quieter these days;
terror had tied the lower ranks of government to their dusty
office desks. In the corner farthest from the window, two Lebanese
were attacking a bowl of Hommus with handfuls of pitta bread.
Behind the coffee machine Peter the waiter skulked in silent,
unaccustomed idleness. Otherwise, the place was empty. James
led the way to a window seat; visible, unsuspicious, isolated.
"So," He said, "What's on your mind,
Peter the waiter sidled up beside
"Morning, Peter; how’s your
But Peter didn't smile; times had
changed. People didn't joke any more.
"Never mind," Said James, "Just bring
us two coffees, please."
Peter grunted and shuffled off.
Steven Harrison looked up at the clock
on the wall.
"Fifteen minutes ago," He toyed with
the salt and pepper pots on the table, "The entire expatriate
staff at GTE took off from Gbedeh airstrip. They should land
in Freetown, around lunch time."
"Sierra Leone?" James was taken aback, "What
are they going to do over there?"
"Catch a flight to London," Steven
was swinging the salt and pepper pots by their plastic tops,
clacking their bases against each other, "They're not coming
"Not coming back?"
"That's what I said, not coming back." Steven
was still clacking his pots, "Our parent company, Worldwide Resources,
decided to quit."
Steven settled the two pots back on
"Ngombia's gone down the tube, Jamie,
and Worldwide don't think it can be pulled back up again."
Worldwide's London office had arranged
a private charter of two Trislander aircraft. The planes had
flown in early that morning from Sierra Leone. Within thirty
minutes of landing, they'd refuelled, loaded everybody on board,
"So what are you doing here, Steve?"
"As of twenty minutes ago," Another
brief check of the clock, "By default, I became acting general
manager of Ngombia's largest timber concession. I am here to
present my compliments to the new Minister of Agriculture."
James was caught unawares.
"Is there one?"
"We were informed yesterday," Said
Steven, "He takes office this morning. Someone called Sunday
James had never heard of him.
"So what happens after you've said
hallo to this Sunday whatnot?"
"I have to find a way to keep GTE
"With no senior staff?"
"Senior staff!" Steven snorted contemptuously, "We
had plenty of them, James, but that's not what we need."
"So what do you need, Steve?"
"Workers, Jamie, workers; mechanics,
operators, enumerators; white bushmen."
"And where do you find them?"
"That's not hard," Steven shrugged,
"If I offered the facilities and pay that GTE personnel enjoyed,
I could fill every slot twice over in a week; and with better people."
"Yes," Said James, "You might. But
how would you start up a new operation?"
"James, all the equipment and facilities
have been abandoned; it’s all there for free."
"You'd still need finance. Where's
that coming from? Banks here are hardly falling over themselves
to lend money, and Worldwide won't have left anything behind
in the safes."
"Not in the safes, James," Steven
grinned, "But there's millions of dollars worth of felled timber
lying around in the camp and nearby bush, and I've got half a
dozen buyers who'll pay cash at site and arrange their own shipment."
"Steven," James was feeling just a
trifle confused, "Why are you telling me all this?"
"I told you," Steven had completely
forgotten his coffee, "I came to repay a debt I owe a friend.
"Thanks, Steve, but I'm still lost."
"I hear that you and your partner
are good at dealing with government officials."
James shrugged non-commitally.
"We've had some success," He acknowledged,
"Worldwide have abandoned their concession,
James. The PEC will take over."
"The Minister of Agriculture will
be our new chairman. He's the one who will be approving suppliers
and signing purchase orders. Provided that you and I can cobble
together the right kind of agreement, I'll be recommending that
GTE appoint yourselves as sole suppliers."
"In that case," James pushed back
his chair, "May I suggest that you and I go and pay our respects
to your new chairman?"
They sat outside the minister's office
for nearly two hours; neither was particularly concerned, both
having long since acquired the Ngombian knack of falling easily
asleep in queues, whether sitting or standing.
"You can go in now."
Instantly awake, the two of them rose
and were ushered in through the green baize door.
The minister's head was lowered, his
face almost on the desk. He was writing a letter; slowly and
painfully, it was true, but nevertheless writing. His was an
appointment from outside the PEC.
James and Steven waited silently.
"Yes, gentlemen?" The minister did
not look up.
"Mr Minister," James began, "We came
to offer our congratulations and pay our respects to you in your
"Thank you, gentlemen," The minister
pushed his letter to one side and turned towards them. James
stared at him, dumbstruck.
Sunday Gbandulo, the new Minister
of Agriculture and Chairman of the largest timber concession
in Ngombia, was very young, barely out of his teens. Across the
top of his left eyebrow there was a scar; crescent shaped, it
stood out pale grey against the black of his skin.
The minister smiled and held out his
hand to James.
"I am glad to see your head is fixed," He
said, "I think I owe you a favour."
"I take it," Said Steven later on, "That
you and Gbandulo met somewhere before?"
James recounted the story of his accident
with Gertrude Sharman's garbage truck.
"Christ," Breathed Steven, "How to
make friends and influence people."
"He may be influenced," Said James,
"But he's hardly a friend. Besides, how could he possibly evaluate
"He couldn't," Steven grinned,
"Not without my advice."
"Meaning?" James was determined to
make Steven spell it out.
"Right now, I'm the only person in
GTE that knows what we need and where to get it; Gbandulo may
be a nice guy, but he hasn't got a clue." Steven was suddenly
serious, "Like I said this morning, if you and I can cobble together
the right kind of agreement, I'd be prepared to channel all GTE's
business through your outfit."
"And what's the right kind of agreement?"
"James, I didn't let those two planes
go without me just for fun. I stayed for my wealth, not my health."
Would be a crook if he could,
thought James; George had been right about Steven after all.
Peter the waiter lumbered up with
two coffees, thumping them down gracelessly on the table. Muddy
liquid slopped over into both saucers.
"Thanks for being so straightforward,
Steven," James lifted his cup and drained the saucer into it,
"In return, I'll offer you equally straightforward terms of business.
No credit, and no warranty."
"Cash on delivery, eh?"
"No," Said James, "Cash with order."
"You're crazy, nobody pays cash with
"The boot's on the other foot, Steve.
After today, nobody anywhere will deal with GTE on credit, and
you know it."
Steven was silent, nursing his cup
of coffee in his hands.
"O.K.," He said at last, "But we still
have to sell the idea to Gbandulo."
"And I have to sell the idea to my
Julie was curious.
"Who are you going to see?"
"In tennis shorts and tee-shirt?"
"I'm supposed to be VSO."
"Then throw your comb away," She instructed, "And
don't wash or shave for a few days. Meanwhile, go down to the
market and buy yourself a tie-dye shirt and leave it out in the
garden in the rain with your shorts until you go."
The journey took just under twenty-four
hours; it seemed to James more like twenty-four years. Every
time the pulley-pulley bus had got stuck in a mud-hole, he and
the rest of the passengers had had to disembark and push the
thing to dry land. James arrived miserably hungry, caked in filth,
and so stiff he could hardly stand. He sank to the roadside,
"What you say, my brother?"
James looked up at the dishevelled,
shoeless tramp looming over him; his face cracked into a grin
behind its red-brown mask.
"Fine, my friend," He said, "Just
He reached up to grab Charles' outstretched
hand, and hauled himself laboriously to his feet.
"Come on," Said Charles, "There's
someboday I'd like you to meet"
They set off down the muddy track,
its surface pock-marked with slime-green puddles, that served
as the village high street; between the rows of crude, white-painted
huts with their blank, empty glassless windows; past the huddled
groups of market women with their enamelled basins of fruit and
vegetables and their charcoal braziers. As they passed, one of
the women called out
"My friends, you want rokor?"
Charles fished in the pocket of his
"Yeah, old lady," He sauntered over
to where she squatted, hunched, wizened and rheumy-eyed, wreathed
in blue-grey smoke, "Give me two."
The market woman picked two cobs off
her brazier, knocking the ash away with burn-scarred hands. Charles
handed one to James.
They wandered on together, the tramp
and the ageing VSO worker, hopping over the stagnant pools and
discarded rotting fruit and vegetables that lay scattered along
the length of Pelepah's sodden, soggy main highway, contentedly
chewing on their blackened corncobs. James had never tasted anything
quite so delicious.
Charles led James to the dilapidated
dwelling buried amongst the myriad shacks and tracks that was
Pelepah village. The ground all around the hut had been swept
meticulously clean and, in front of the door, a stocky Ngombian
sat watchful guard over the entrance, a palm-frond broom at his
side. He grinned as they approached.
"What you say, boss?"
James stared; something about the
man was familiar.
Pencil's face beamed as if it would
burst; he grabbed both of James' hands inside his own horny paws,
shaking them with childlike excitement.
"Welcome, boss," Pencils’
great brown eyes shone with delight, "You go on inside."
"Yeah," Charles took him by the shoulder, "Come
on in; there’s somebody else I'd like you to meet."
After the colourless glare of the
wet-season sun, the gloom of the interior left James temporarily
"Good afternoon, Mr Davidson; welcome
to our humble abode."
The face was lost in the dark, but
the voice was unmistakable.
The voice coughed politely.
"Formalities, I think, belong to yesterday:
perhaps I might be known as Aloysius."
"But," James looked around him in
the empty, unlit hut, "You're all alone: both of you. Where is
everybody? Your families?"
"Safe," Said Aloysius; he didn't say
more and James didn't ask again.
Charles moved next to where James
"Take a seat, James; tell us what's
It took James quite some time to finish.
Aloysius stretched and cracked his knuckles.
"It would appear to be a most propitious
"Appear?" Charles was incredulous,
"Ain't no appear about it, man. This is bonanza time: big bonanza
"Mmm, possibly," Acknowledged Aloysius
cautiously, "On the surface, this would indeed appear to be absolutely
ideal for us." He paced the small earth-floored room, summarising
the situation as he saw it. "One, Sunday is an ex-employee of
my wife; two, he has acknowledged that he owes James a considerable
debt of gratitude; three, he is in a position to give us very
considerable amounts of business; four, he depends on the advice
of a senior manager who is also, as they say, in James's pocket."
"Not much wrong with that," Offered
"No," Agreed Aloysius, "Not much;
except that Gbandulo is very young and is about to become very
wealthy very quickly."
James sensed where Aloysius was leading.
"And you think he might get carried
away," He suggested, "Become too big a spender too quickly."
"Yes," Said Aloysius, "I think he
"Hey, come on you two," Charles was
impatient, "What's so wrong about a guy who enjoys his success?"
Aloysius peered at Charles through
"Jealousy," He said, his voice mildly
reproachful, "Other people's jealousy: jealousy of former friends
left behind and jealousy of enemies overtaken. There is nothing
"I still think we should go for it," Declared
Charles defensively, "How often do you get a minister all to
yourself, right at the beginning? This could get to be really
"Yes," Said Aloysius, "It could. But
it will all rest on the shoulders of one naive young man; and
that could be very dangerous indeed."
Sunday Gbandulo wanted to help. At
least, he wanted to help the white man who had protected him
after the accident. He didn't know the other one. He wanted to
help, but he didn't understand a word that either of them was
saying. And that made him suspicious.
"Mr. Minister," James was treading
the tightrope between simplicity and condescension, "Mr. Minister,
we need your assistance."
They needed his assistance; Gbandulo
"There are many Ngombians working
at GTE; you can help us save their jobs. They will be very grateful
Grateful people? Gbandulo liked that.
He could feel the sun shine.
"Mr Minister, perhaps you would like
to fly down and inspect the operation?"
Fly? Up in the air? For what? To walk
around and look at machinery and things that meant nothing to
him? Gbandulo did not like that at all.
"Mr Minister, perhaps you do not have
time to visit GTE. You are a very busy man, and you have many
things to do."
Gbandulo couldn't think of one single
thing he had to do; after all, he was now a minister, why should
he have to do anything?
"Mr Minister," Steven interrupted,
"Perhaps, as chairman of GTE, you might find that your obligations
as a director interfere with your ministerial functions."
Obligations as a director? Ministerial
functions? The words meant nothing to him. Gbandulo was suddenly
deeply suspicious again.
"If you will allow us," Seething,
James tried to bring the conversation back on course, "We could
take care of some of your work for you. You are the man in charge,
you just tell us what to do."
Tell white men what to do? Gbandulo
remembered his childhood days as a starving beggar; his adolescence
first as a labourer, then as a driver. He was torn between disbelief
"All you need do is sign these papers,
and we will arrange everything."
But Gbandulo did not want to sign.
He did not understand, and he was becoming bored.
James could sense that today was not
"Mr Minister, perhaps you would like
to think about the matter? Perhaps we may discuss this with you
"Yeah," Gbandulo waved them out of
his office, "Tomorrow."
They drove back to the cheap, dilapidated
hotel where Steven was staying.
"It may sound daft," Steven clambered
out of the car, "But what we need is an interpreter; someone
who could express what we want to say in a way Gbandulo could
"You know," James was thoughtful,
"I don't think that's daft at all."
He declined Steven's invitation to
come into the hotel for a drink.
"Thanks," He said, "But I need to
go back to the office and do some serious thinking."
Half an hour later, James parked his
car by the edge of the lake surrounding his office. He opened
the car door, raised his umbrella, and stepped on to the plank
and breezeblock walkway that led across the pond to the office
door. He sensed someone beside him.
James looked round; a sergeant and
two privates stood behind him, all three of them armed with automatic
"You're under arrest," The sergeant
beckoned with the muzzle of his weapon, "Let's go."