Murchison, Her Brittanic Majesty's Ambassador to the Republic of
Ngombia, poked contentedly at the cubes of ice with his finger, steering
them gently through the vegetation floating on the surface of his
Pimms and lemonade. He wondered where on earth George had managed
to get his hands on fresh mint.
A long, faithful,
and undistinguished career had been rewarded with a final posting
of ambassadorial rank in a distant and almost forgotten outpost.
Barring unimagined heroic deeds, there was now no chance of a knighthood
but, given a fair wind and decent drinking companions, Robert's CBE
should be safe. Content, he stretched his long, thin legs out under
the coffee table in front of him, smoothed back what was left of
his carefully brylcreemed grey hair, and watched the sun slip slowly
behind the distant trees.
Next to Robert
on the Sanders' first-floor verandah, James tried desperately to
relax in his wickerwork cane chair. He had never met an ambassador
before, and was frankly unsure as to how he should address one. His
uneasiness was short-lived.
"I say, Robert,
George's view is rather splendid, isn't it?"
voice swept James' uncertainties away like cobwebs in a sudden squall
nibbles absolutely spiffing? Why don't you have some at the Q.B.P.?
Nina tells me its shirtsleeve order this year; jolly good show. I
say," The squall suddenly shifted its bearings, "James Davidson,
isn't it? Rupert Mainwaring," Rupert's right hand shot out, "Ngombia
Insurance, we met earlier on. I've just been chatting to your wife.
What do you think of Ngombia so far?"
But there was
not the slightest chance of James replying. Rupert Mainwaring was
at full throttle, firing bonhomie at all and sundry like some irrepressible
Gattling gun. Public school had provided the accent, rugger the build,
and military service the bearing. Now, in his late forties, a job
far beneath his capabilities had provided Rupert with the time and
surplus energy with which to organise other peoples' lives.
Fresh quarry had been sighted downwind, "I've just seen Tom Edwards.
Excuse me; must dash."
And Rupert was
gone. Bulldog jaw thrust forward, trim hair swept back, he bustled
busily across the verandah to where a slightly crumpled figure stood
morosely eyeing the cubes of ice at the bottom of a nearly empty
"What ho, Tom;
icebergs grounding on the seabed, eh?"
As the verbal
cyclone spun off out of earshot, Robert Murchison leant over towards
He murmured conspiratorially, "I think every community needs a Rupert.
They may drive people potty, but they do make things happen."
From St. George's
Day dinners to golf monthly medals, from tennis tournaments to Christmas
beach barbecues, from charity bazaars to school sports days, there
was hardly an event on the expatriate calendar that had not, somewhere,
felt the hand of Rupert Mainwaring.
nodded in the direction of the verandah rail, "He's right; it is
a splendid view."
A pale green
sea of grass ('carpet-grass', George had told James, 'You don't seed
it, you plant it in tufts. Grows best in the sunlight') swept down
to the edge of the St. Luke river, broad, black and somnolent in
the fading evening light. Two immense Cottonwood trees, their silvery
trunks rising straight and branchless for seventy feet above their
massive, finned bases, stood one on each side of the sward, framing
the scene. Groups of white egrets patrolled the longer grass near
the river, searching for insects and frogs. Amongst the well-spaced
trees and Hibiscus bushes, neighbouring residences glowed softly
pink in the sunset. There were no fences; with slightly more than
three acres per house, there was little need.
doesn't it?" George Sanders lowered his heavy frame into the chair
next to James, "Pity it's not ours."
James was puzzled.
"I thought these
were company houses."
a little ruefully.
to Aloysius Sharman."
James had never
heard of Aloysius Sharman; he wondered how on earth the man had found
the money to build such a development.
"We lent it
to him," Said George easily.
was staggered, "All of it? Weren't you worried about getting it back?"
shovelled up a generous handful of peanuts from the glass dish beside
him, "We lent him the money and he built the houses. He then leased
them to us with four years rent payable in advance, which just happened
to pay off the entire loan."
everything you can see from here, collects rent on all of it, and
paid nothing for any of it."
James was amazed.
"How come M
& M agreed to a deal like that?" He asked.
"We needed his
goodwill," Said George simply.
appeared next to them, resting her comfortably ample shape on the
back of George's chair.
"What on earth
are you men gossiping about?"
Mary Sanders was comfortable, thought James. He wondered idly what
her dress was made of; elastic felt, perhaps; soft, grey elastic
smiled down at her husband.
"Time for a couple
of rounds before dinner?"
James sat next
to George at the green-clothed table, toying with his pencil. He
hoped he could remember how to score.
"So who was
this Aloysius Sharman?" He asked.
George was busy
shuffling a rather dog-eared pack of cards.
Commerce and Transportation," He grunted, "Quite a wheel in his day."
the pack across to Rupert who cut for the ambassador to deal.
"Still is, in
fact," George went on, "It was Aloysius who first hired the customs
clerk who is now the president of this country." He watched nervously
as Robert Murchison began enthusiastically scattering cards around
the table, "Aloysius made him, and he's one of the very few who could
still break him."
"The man has interests
in just about everything," Robert chipped in, pausing mid-deal,
"From paint to trash."
scratched his head, trying to remember where he'd dealt the last
"Aloysius has a monopoly on all of Tuehville's rubbish collection:
to his own silence, Rupert Mainwaring could stand it no longer.
it," He tapped the side of his nose knowingly, "Aloysius agreed the
deal with the mayor in exchange for persuading the Minister of Public
Works to build a road out to the mayor's new farm. Mind you," He
"Nobody knows where the mayor got the money for the farm."
George was getting
restive; the ambassador still couldn't decide where he'd last dealt.
the concession to his wife as a birthday present," George explained,
and pointed helpfully at a haphazard pile of cards next to him, sighing
quietly with relief as Robert began happily spraying cards around
the table again, "She calls her operation Gertrude's Garbage; everyone
else calls it Gertie Garbo."
It was all suddenly
too much for James.
"How can you
be so calm about it all?"
"About all what?"
"All this corruption
and wheeling and dealing." James felt vaguely dispirited, "Does it
have to be that way in this country? Why can't things be run the
way they are at home, without all this skulduggery?"
said, carefully counting the heap of cards in front of him, "If you
choose to stay in Ngombia, there's a saying you may find useful."
Muttered George, helping himself to a spare card from the jumbled pile
in front of the ambassador.
James was still
"If you want
to join the game," George continued, picking his cards up one by
one, nestling them between thumb and forefinger, "You don't tell
everyone that they've got to play your way; you play by the rules
of the table."
supervisor took James' application form and inserted it at the bottom
of an enormous pile of ageing, faded documents.
"Come on man,"
James felt Charles bristle beside him: he had come with James specially
to arrange a telephone for his home.
"Come on, man,"
Charles urged; the honour of the Nyamplu name as Tuehville's premier
Mr. Fixit was now at stake, "This is my friend. You can find a
The supervisor repeated, sliding the foot-high pending column out of
sight under the counter.
Charles switched tack, "My friend tells me he knows someone who left
Ngombia and never paid his telephone bill. The man is not coming back.
If we pay his bill, can we have his line?"
The friend was
fictional, both parties knew that: it was simply part of the etiquette
of corruption that negotiations be conducted obliquely.
"How much was
his bill?" The supervisor did not look up.
sucked his teeth.
"No, man; we
never cut lines for twenty nomba."
Charles settled his elbow more comfortably on the counter, "Maybe his
bill was thirty five nomba."
supervisor delved into the drawer on his right, pulling out a much
thumbed and creased sheet of telephone numbers. He looked up at Charles.
"There is one
man owed seventy five nombas."
could he owe so much?"
shrugged. "Maybe he called England too many times."
"You can give
a discount for cash?"
pondered silently; he needed the money. Business had been slack recently,
and he was paying fifty nombas every month to his supervisor to keep
extracted a small wad of very used notes from his back pocket.
pulled the pile of green papers back into the middle of his desk
and slid James' form out from underneath. He wrote '21229' on both
pages, and handed one to Charles.
He said. He almost smiled.
down the shallow steps outside the telecommunications centre.
I don't think I'd have got very far without you."
"Hey, man, it
was nothing. Let's go have a coffee."
James went to
open the passenger door of the car. As he did so, a voice came from
me one nomba, yah?"
down, and felt instantly sick to the pit of his stomach.
Leprosy is a
desperate affliction; slowly, inexorably, remorselessly, it literally
consumes its victims, rotting their bodies from within. All it requires
is poverty, squalor, and time. And the being at James' feet, crippled
by polio and abandoned early in childhood, had given generously of
all three. What should have been a young man of perhaps twenty-five
had become instead a monstrously deformed creature. In a face grotesquely
distorted by massive swellings and weeping sores there was no nose;
just two gaping holes in the skull. At the ends of stick-thin arms
and legs, hands and feet had been eroded to mere stumps, thick with
twisted scar tissue. To each hand, and to each knee, were tied crude
blocks of wood. On these the creature crawled from one street corner
to another in an endless, pitiless quest for alms.
James was overwhelmed
by a sudden, childlike wish for a magic wand. He had a momentary
vision of himself showering notes and coins in a glittering cascade
upon the crippled leper, and of a spontaneous, miraculous cure. But
all that he had was a crumpled five-nomba note, buried at the bottom
of his trouser pocket. He tugged it out, tattered and pitifully inadequate.
"Here," He said, "Take
thank you, boss." He said. His lipless mouth could not smile.
James?" Charles was standing by his open door, one foot on the sill,
watching him over the car roof.
"Come on, man,
what you doing?"
James opened his door and climbed in. Charles pulled out into the traffic.
at him sideways. "Yeah," He said.
James sat in
silent thought for a few minutes. Then,
make you feel awkward, seeing people like that?"
what? I feel sorry for the guy, but I didn't ask God to make him
that way. Maybe God should feel awkward."
"It just doesn't
seem right, some people get such a rotten deal out of life."
that's life; it never was fair."
They drove in
silence for a few minutes.
"Did you give
him any money, James?"
was embarrassed, it seemed such a very small amount, "I gave him
Charles was aghast, "What the hell for? Now you'll have every beggar
in Tuehville harassing you. There are thousands of them, just like
James was suddenly
"If there are
thousands of them, just like him," James had never felt like this
before, "Then for Pity's sake, why does nobody do anything about
it? We just gave sixty nombas to some cheap little crook to fix me
a telephone, and you're upset because I gave five to a dying leper
crawling in the gutter."
to interrupt, but James wouldn't let him.
Charles, I had dinner at the M & M compound. Every single residence
out there is owned by just one man; a man who was a senior government
minister. You know, and now I know too, that he never paid a cent
for any of them. It was just a monstrous bribe to someone with influence."
James' voice was bitter, furious, "And it's the same at every level;
the only thing different is the amounts involved. Meantime, Charles,
there are cripples crawling and dying in the streets of Tuehville.
How can you possibly justify that?"
were pale with the strength of his grip on the steering wheel.
voice was hoarse with restraint, "You'd better be glad you said that
to me and not to anyone else. You don't know enough about what goes
on here to talk like that."
"You mean just
because I'm white and a foreigner I'm not entitled to object to corruption
suddenly openly angry.
I mean you've never even met the minister you're talking about; you
know nothing about what he and his wife do in this community, and
you haven't tried to find out anything. All you know is what some
other foreigner told you at a cocktail party." Charles drove straight
through the red lights on Sekou Toure Avenue without even slowing,
"You know nothing yet about our country, and you sure as hell don't
have any right to tell us how to run it. Life's not fair, and some
people get a lousy deal, but that's just the way it is. It ain't nobody's
fault, and you’d better not go around trying to blame the guys
who got to pick the long straws."
They drove back
to the office in silence.
If you want
to join the game, you play by the rules of the table.
beamed from the embassy balcony. Far below him, Atlantic waves gasped
and flopped against the base of the cliffs on which stood the British
and all the other western diplomatic compounds. High above, the afternoon
sun blazed from a cloudless sky. On either side, the dull green fronds
of nearby palm trees stirred imperceptibly in the whisper of a breeze.
It was desperately hot, and Robert longed for the change-of-season
storms and the rains that would follow.
On the terrace
beneath the balcony, two hundred and sixty eight members of the British
community echoed the Loyal Toast. Two hundred and sixty eight glasses
of sun-warmed champagne glinted in salute and were drained. The Queen,
for whom every expatriate would do anything except live in her country,
had been properly acknowledged. As one, the British community in
Ngombia returned to its favourite occupations of gossip and seduction.
"Oh, I say,
James, this is rather fun, isn't it?"
semaphoring greetings to all and sundry, Rupert Mainwaring steamed
through the throng, his pertly diminutive wife Andrea bobbing dutifully
in his wake.
and its corvette escort, thought James.
hove to alongside and dropped a temporary sea anchor.
wizard?" Rupert drained the last of his glass and grimaced slightly,
"Even if it is a trifle overcooked."
James was about
to reply when Rupert spun through ninety degrees, a gun turret on
red alert, "Oh look, Andrea, there's Robert; I really must chat about
the tennis pairings."
churned off, Andrea in tow, a trail of slapped backs and spilt champagne
in his wake. All of a sudden, James and Julie found themselves adrift
in a sea of chatter.
at his arm.
"Now that we're
here," She said, "Let me introduce you to some of my friends.
James was amazed
at how many people Julie knew. She and he bounced from one beaming unfamiliar
pink face to another, squeaks and shrieks of prattle and tattle ricocheting
with random abandon about his ears. Confused and bewildered, he felt
the world begin to whirl: he wished it would stop.
Julie, "Someone you do know."
blinked with relief; he recognised the rather crumpled figure, but
the name of its owner escaped him entirely.
Julie introduced him, "We met at the Sanders."
Tom waved a half-empty glass of gin and tonic vaguely at a pink catsuit
shimmering beside him, "My wife."
precisely in the shade of a nearby palm, Helen Edwards acknowledged
their presence as if she were wearing a neck brace.
this nice," The knife-straight lips barely moved. Shielded carefully
all afternoon from direct sunlight, Helen's pancake make-up was only
now beginning to allow the first tiny droplets of perspiration to break
through. Her hair, blonde streaked with mouse, bristled with a texture
somewhere between wirewool and meringue, a frosted rebuke to the limp,
humidity-sodden mops of other, lesser wives.
odd it was, thought James, that Helen Edwards could make forty seem
like a threat, whilst Mary Sanders made fifty seem like a haven.
this nice," Repeated Tom. He beamed at James through steam-clouded
spectacles. His shirt clung damply to his portly frame, a slick of
brown hair, streaked prematurely grey, hung soggily across his sweat-beaded
forehead and his rimless pebble glasses had slipped precariously close
to the tip of his heat-shiny nose. James could not, for the life of
him, imagine what it was that Tom found nice.
Said Tom, "And no politics."
couldn't even remember what it was that Tom did.
the Minister of Lands and Mines," Said Tom, "The U.N. pays me to
tell him how to make the most money out of Ngombia's iron ore."
"Sounds a worthwhile
cause to me."
Tom waved his now-empty glass at no-one in particular, "Trouble is,
the minister thinks he's the worthwhile cause."
Helen was getting
She slid a gold-braceletted, pink-sleeved arm through Julie's, "Let's
find some interesting company."
trundled on with his story.
of Gbang Mine?"
James had, but
he wasn't at all sure where it was.
miles west of Tuehville," Tom told him, "Sixty by road. Bloody great
mountain of almost pure iron. They call it Mount Erskine; you can
see it from the beach, it's where the sun sets."
steward hove into view; Tom’s eyebrows lifted gratefully as
he exchanged his empty glass for a new, ice-packed gin and tonic.
operated by an American outfit called Climax Steel," Tom continued,
"The minister wants them to renegotiate their concession agreement.
He thinks he can cut himself a larger slice of the cake."
"And could he?"
and loosened the knot of his tie with one hand; the afternoon sun
really was uncomfortably warm.
"It would be
very easy for him to make life in Ngombia difficult for Gbang Mine."
Tom tugged at one end of his tie, trying unsuccessfully to pull it
out of his collar, "You know the kind of thing: refuse work permits
for expatriate personnel; delay customs documents on machinery imports
and ore exports; enact bogus health and safety regulations and shut
the mine down every time there was an infringement." Tom paused to
glare at the crumpled, doggedly immobile tail of his tie, "That sort
really persuade Climax to pay more?"
wrenched his tie free from his collar: the glass in his other hand
"It would if
they wanted to keep Gbang," Tom undid the top button of his shirt,
sighing with relief as his collar flopped open, "But it's not the
only iron ore mine in the world, and western industrial demand is
"And if Climax
didn't?" Asked James, "Want Gbang, I mean."
Tom gazed thoughtfully
out to sea, his eyes huge and owlish behind his glasses.
"Iron ore and
timber are virtually all that this country has," He said at last,
"Without Gbang, you could wave goodbye to Ngombia."
Back to previous page
Robert and Nina
Murchison had appeared on the Residency balcony, clad in their dressing
"We're off to
bed," Robert boomed, "You folk carry on and enjoy yourselves - you
know where everything is."
chorus of voices wished the Ambassador and his wife a good night's
sleep. Everyone was happy; another year had passed, tomorrow the
sun would shine again, and all was right with the world.
From off the Atlantic
Ocean, the breeze began to freshen, and the evening to cool. The fronds
of the coconut palms around the edge of the terrace lifted gently and
swayed, their thin sharp leaves rattling lightly against each other.
Far out to sea, lightening played behind gathering clouds. The rains
would soon be coming.