Fireworks and Guy Fawkes Day had
been banned that year, to no-one's surprise. As a consolation,
the British School added an extra day on to half-term. Julie
said she'd take Lucy and Annie to AMEN beach for the morning.
One of Lucy's ninth birthday presents had been an enormous inner
tube from GTE's shipment of tyres; she was itching to try it
"Funny how we still carry on as normal," Julie
emptied a handful of cold drinks out of the fridge into the coolbox, "Even
though most of the children's Ngombian friends at school have
got uncles or fathers in hiding, or jail,"
She closed the coolbox lid, "Or who've been executed."
James was rummaging through a pile
of papers. He hummed absently.
Julie emptied Annie's bucket of its
Saturday horde of pebbles, sandy shells, dried seaweed and a
crisply dead crab, filling it instead with a pair of waterwings.
"Most families have left, so classes
are tiny, yet the school still opens every morning at eight.
The timetable still has Art and Arithmetic and English and Games,
and we still pin the children's drawings and essays on the classroom
She groped around behind the fridge
where she'd tidied away Lucy's and Annie's spades the previous
"It's only us old-stagers who are
still here," Julie dragged the spades out from their dusty lair,
blowing a wisp of grey fluff off her nose, "I suppose in a way
Ngombia had become home for us, and we can't believe it's gone."
James carried the coolbox out to her
car; Julie followed with the buckets and spades.
"Will you be arrested again, today?"
Julie stood up on tiptoe to kiss him
"Take care, won't you?" She asked
James slid his arms around her waist,
"You were right," He spoke into her
"It's time to go home."
"Mmm," He waved the papers in front
of her, "Charles and I are cashing in our chips; we’re
leaving the table."
"But how?" Julie was confused,
"Why? I don't understand."
James told her of Aloysius' forebodings.
"The party's over," He concluded,
"It's time to go."
Julie's face lit up like a soft pink
lantern: she glowed. Her little sigh of relief was barely audible,
but it came from the very depths of her heart. She slid her arms
up around his neck and rested her head against his chest.
"Thank you," Was all she said.
"Welcome, Mr Davidson."
Dipstick hadn't changed a bit: long,
thin and oily, he still looked as if he dwelt in dark places.
Only now he wasn't Manager of Foreign Transactions; now he was
The Manager of Ngombia National Bank. James trusted him even
less than before.
"What can we do for you today, Mr
Oily servility oozed from between
Dipsticks' clinging, wringing hands. James tried not to look
"I have some corporate documents for
"Ah yes," Dipstick delicately accepted
the thin sheaf of papers.
"I think you will find them all in
order," James was fighting to stay calm.
"I'm sure they will be," Murmured
They ought to be, thought James, Aloysius
himself had drawn them up.
"I notice," Dipstick was riffling
through the pages, "You wish to transfer substantial funds overseas;
to the UK."
James blinked; he had never thought
of the U.K. as 'overseas'; just 'home'.
"These are indeed very substantial
sums," Dipstick repeated, his greasy unctuousness now touched
with a tinge of unease, "We will need to ensure that everything
"Of course," James was determined
not to let anything ruffle him, "Your thoroughness is appreciated."
"Perhaps you could check back later?"
"How much later?"
James sank into one of the green,
fake-leather chairs that stood in the foyer of the bank. On the
coffee table next to him, a copy of the morning paper lay open
at the cartoon page. He folded the paper right way out and glanced
at the front page headlines.
"Oh, shit," He said.
The crudely printed headline was at
least three inches high:
Underneath, in slightly smaller letters,
was the message:
CORRUPTION WILL BE ELIMINATED!
His face frozen, James scanned the
front page story.
"Minister Gbandulo charged with
high treason,....bribery, extortion, theft of the people's
money....dastardly plot foiled...tireless efforts of Stanley
Livingston, loyal protector of the people.....control of the
Ministry of Agriculture has been placed in the trustworthy
hands of the Presidential Office."
Things were already unravelling, and
with terrifying speed, but there was nothing James could do:
he folded the paper and sat back to wait.
Clammy handed, James pushed himself
up out of the green, sweat-slippery chair. Dipstick was trembling
"Your papers are in order."
James had known they would be; he
wondered why Dipstick was so anxious.
"However," Dipstick was still trembling;
why was the man so nervous? "Mr Davidson, you may not be aware
that certain restrictions have been imposed by the authorities."
James stared: he realised suddenly
that Dipstick wasn't trembling with nervousness; he wasn't trembling
at all. Dipstick was quivering; quivering with excitement. The
slimy little toad was almost hugging himself with suppressed
"Tell me," Said James, ice-cold,
"Just what are these restrictions?"
Dipstick licked his already shiny
"As of today, Mr Davidson, the Peoples'
Emancipation Committee has decreed that companies may remit funds
overseas only to pay for goods supplied."
"Naturally," James didn't bat an eyelid, "That
is the purpose of this transfer."
Dipstick gave a tiny half-bow of acknowledgement.
"In which case, Mr Davidson," He purred, "I
am sure you would be able to provide Bills of Lading and Customs
documentation evidencing delivery of the goods in question."
"Of course," James voice betrayed
nothing, but he knew he was beaten, "I'll arrange for the papers
to be collected from my office."
Nathaniel was waiting outside in the
car as James came down the steps outside the bank.
"We're going back to the office,"
James clambered in and pulled the door shut, "But, first, we have
an important visit to make."
The receptionist at the presidential
office nodded James straight in; she’d been told he might
Livingston looked up as James strode
"You appear agitated, Mr Davidson."
"I think you know why."
"Please tell me."
"My bank advises me that your office
has forbidden the transfer of funds outside Ngombia."
"Not forbidden, Mr Davidson, restricted.
Transfers of currency may still be effected for approved imports,
but money cannot be sent out of the country just on demand."
"Why the sudden change of heart?"
"Money is a fascinating thing, Mr
Davidson," Livingston was cleaning his fingernails with an ivory-handled
paper knife, "It is the lifeblood of a nation; it goes round
and round, carrying with it the oxygen for trade."
James listened patiently; Livingston
beckoned him to sit down.
"A responsible government cannot allow
its country to be bled dry," Livingston glared at James,
"By those who would behave like vampires; leaving the rest of us
with just an empty corpse."
Livingston didn't care the slightest
whether or not Ngombia became a corpse, only about making sure
that he didn’t become one himself. If AAA's funds had left
the country, and the PEC had found the coffers bare …….
He shuddered at the thought.
"It would have been better," Livingston
breathed deeply, slowly, forcing himself to remain calm, "To
have consulted my office first on such a major financial matter."
"Of course, Mr President."
"However," Livingston relaxed, becoming
suddenly more placatory, "However, despite the necessary restrictions
on transfers of funds overseas, there are naturally no objections
to disbursements of any size within the country."
Oh, sure, James thought bitterly,
of course there weren't. Bribes would continue to be paid, as
"I trust the picture is clear,"
Livingston had regained his composure and was leafing through the
papers scattered across his desk, "Should you wish to contact
me, my secretary can arrange an appointment."
There would be no need, the picture
was crystal clear; James’ fortune was stuck, immobilised
in Ngombia, and there was nothing he could do about it. Livingston
had demonstrated precisely who had the real power. Wordlessly,
James turned and left, boiling with impotent fury, numb with
Nathaniel drove back to AAA's office
in nervous silence; in the rear seat, James sat and brooded,
oblivious to the heavy thud of the wheels as they thumped into
the foot-deep potholes that had become so much a part of Tuehville's
The sergeant and his accompanying
private were waiting for James in his office; both were clearly
ill at ease.
"Boss?" The sergeant was clutching
the barrel of his ancient Lee-Enfield rifle, twisting it back
and forth, the brass-plated butt smearing grease in dull brown
streaks on the carpet. This was clearly a very low-level deputation,
no more than messengers.
"Yes, Sergeant," James wondered why
the man should be so nervous, "What can I do for you?"
Behind the sergeant, James saw the
private lean over and rest his rifle against the office photocopier.
The soldier straightened and stood uneasily, hands clasped awkwardly
in front of him, cracking his knuckles anxiously.
"Boss," The sergeant continued,
"Colonel Yakpowolo said you should please come right now."
relic of a forgotten language. James felt a prickle of apprehension.
Who the devil was Colonel Yakpowolo? And what kind of scheme
was he plotting?
"Sure," Said James, "Shall we use
He knew full well that the two soldiers
would have no transport of their own. To reach his office, they
would have had to commandeer a taxi. He wondered if it were the
army's growing unpopularity that had caused the two men's unease.
With his two uniformed passengers
on board, James drove to the ministry without interference. Aware
that he would not have them with him on the return, James took
care to park some distance away from the building, out of sight
of the sentries and their arbitrary parking fines.
Colonel Yakpowolo was looking at the
pictures in a colour brochure from a supplier of military equipment;
he did not look up.
"You Davidson?" He asked.
"Yes, Colonel," Said James.
A particularly dramatic picture caught
the Colonel's attention.
"Dammit!" He sucked loudly through
James waited whilst the Colonel examined
the picture from several angles.
"You understand traffic rules?"
"You know military vehicles have priority?"
James tried to remember if he'd failed
to give way recently; he couldn't think of an incident.
"Davidson," Yakpowolo tried again,
"You got blue car, with white roof?"
James froze. Without explanation,
he knew instantly, with terrible clarity, what was coming.
"My wife has."
Yakpowolo was unmoved.
"Maybe your wife doesn't understand
"Your car had an accident with a military
vehicle on official business."
James tried desperately to remain
"Was anyone hurt?" He asked.
"Everyone is in AMEN hospital."
"Everyone?" Said James.
"All your family."
James felt nothing. Reality had vanished.
"O.K., you can go." Colonel Yakpowolo
was looking at the pictures again.
But James had gone.
Alan Dempster was waiting in the tiny
hallway of AMEN clinic: his face was haggard.
"James, I'm desperately sorry,"
He put his hand out and gripped James by one arm, "Listen,"
He went on, "There is very little time, and there is no way to
change what has happened, or pretend that things might be different."
Suddenly, it was cold; so very, very
"An army truck pulled out to overtake
a pulley-pulley bus, straight in front of Julie. There was no
way for her to avoid it; the earthworks and machinery along the
roadside hemmed her in; she couldn't escape."
Alan's hold of James' arm was almost
ferocious in its strength. "The children died instantly, James.
Julie is still alive, but she has massive internal injuries."
Just like that.
The world went silent; from an enormous
distance, James heard Alan's voice.
"You know what our facilities are,
James. We have no anaesthetist, no proper intensive care unit,
and only a tiny bloodbank. Major surgery is simply not possible,
and there is nowhere else to go. Julie is sinking, James, and
I cannot save her."
James was freezing.
Slowly, his hands slid up his arms,
feeling for comfort, feeling for warmth. The walls of the little
hall were incredibly far away, as if at the wrong end of a telescope.
He stood there, not moving, not speaking, his arms wrapped round
him to protect himself from the terrible cold, all alone in the
middle of nowhere.
"Come with me," Said Alan, "I'll take
you to her."
Numb, unseeing, James felt himself
being guided along the corridor towards the little ward next
to the operating theatre. The walls leapt and leered at him twisted
distorted evil. Tiny details stared at him, magnified with terrible
clarity. The tear in the dusty brown mosquito net; the lightswitch
by the door, one of its screws missing; the patches of flaking,
peeling paint beside the window. James tried to resist, to slow
his feet, to think; the world was rushing by, and he couldn't
Julie lay in the bed by the window.
Alan steered James gently across the room.
"She may regain consciousness, James,
but it will be only temporary. She's not in any pain, I've seen
Alan's grip slackened and he let go
of James's arm,
"I'll take you to see Lucy and Annie
later," He said quietly, "Right now, it's Julie who needs you,
and I think you should stay."
James stood by the bed; silent. Alan
backed away soundlessly.
"I'll leave you alone, now. If you
need me, just ring the bell on the table; I won't come back unless
There was a plain wooden chair beside
Julie's bed. A hundred years ago, in another life, when he was
five, at his first school, James' teacher had had a chair like
that. He wondered if she'd mind him sitting on it now.
He stood by the bed, looking down
at Julie. Her face was swollen and discoloured, and a crudely
stitched gash ran across her forehead. Her fair hair was matted
with dried blood. Around the base of her neck, faint dark red
smears showed where the nurse had tried to clean her up. A plastic
tube led from her arm to the bottle of dark red plasma hanging
above: the bottle was half-empty.
James sat down on the plain wooden
chair. He couldn't think of what to say, so he just held her
It might have been minutes, it could
have been hours later, when Julie stirred. Her head turned, just
a little; she struggled to open her eyes, glazed with drugs and
shock. She smiled; lopsided, sleepy.
"How was the office?" Her voice was
James held her hand, and started to
tell her, but her eyes were beginning to close again. In a panic,
he sought desperately for words, terrified that she might go
whilst he sat silent and uncaring. He didn't know what to say.
So he sat beside her, and he told her about all the things that
they had done together; and all that she had meant to him. He
held her hand, and he told her what he'd felt that winter night
so long ago, and how she had made him happier than anything else
in the world. All the things he'd wanted to tell her that day
when Spring was handing over to Summer and Annie was born, but
couldn't say the words, but now he could. And when he told her
it was real and it was now and he loved her so much he knew he
would burst. He didn't know if she could hear, but he didn't
stop; there was so little time, and so very much to say.
Once, during the rest of that afternoon,
Julie floated slowly back to the surface.
"Lucy?" Her eyes were anxious,
James could hardly hear her.
"Don't worry," He held her hand tightly, "They're
waiting for you."
There was no need to say more.
Julie gazed gently at him, her eyes
filled with enormous sadness.
"Oh, James" She whispered, "Oh, James," Her
eyes were very soft; she was slipping away again,
"We do love you. Don't be lonely."
At half past four, Julie stopped breathing.
The room was silent. A cockroach ran up the wall, stopping near
the bedrail, its feelers waving. Outside, the shadows of the
palms were lengthening and blurring. From far away came the sound
of surf breaking on the beach.
She would be just in time for tea,
It was sunset when Alan came back.
James was sitting by the bed, Julie's hand still in his. Through
the window, far away to the west, the evening sun sank slowly
onto Mount Erskine and bled silently into the sea. Within moments,
it was dark.