Sing Like You Know the Words, page 16
Then David turned to his wife, who was also sitting in silence. Was she offended at Matthew attacking her life´s work? Not really, he decided. She seemed more coolly amused. She had that same expression when she was telling him how she had managed to provoke a hostile witness to an outburst that betrayed their own case in cross examination.
But the two of them seemed to like each other less and less these days. Why couldn´t his wife and his best friend get on, he wondered? They were both good people in their own ways. Matt needed to grow up. And Patricia? - for a moment he worried that giving so much to her career was turning her into a person who thought that the point of life was to win arguments; but as soon as he realized he was having an ungenerous thought about his wife he refused to allow that notion space in his mind.
It was a hot country in a dry season.
When times were good, the wealthy elite would drive out of the city at this time of year, heading for their summer residences in the cooler hilly lands to the east. Now times were anything but good. In this year the only road still open led south. It seemed like anyone who could was heading out of town on that road by any means possible, travelling as fast as they could. It was a time of dust, and there was disaster in the air.
But Ray Hawkins was sick of hearing the Europeans complaining about the heat. This is Africa, he wanted to say; if you can’t stand it what did you come here for? So far as Ray was concerned, he’d felt cold enough, in enough different parts of the world, to last for one lifetime. The weather could stay as hot as it liked.
He was troubled by a different kind of heat. The government of this country was his customer, and the government was falling apart. That was a regular and foreseeable situation: his difficulty right now was that this regime was disintegrating even faster than was usual in this volatile place. Faster than he’d allowed for. He’d needed to stay on to make sure of being paid. Now he needed to get out as quickly as possible before the real trouble started.
There’d been shelling already on the outskirts of the city. It hadn’t caused much damage, but plenty of panic. In a month or two the rebels would be settled in as the new government and he´d return, discreetly and start to deal with the new bosses. It was the transition times that were most dangerous; the time of conflict and the period of gang rivalry and tribal blood-letting that came after.
He knew that he’d stayed on far too long. For the money involved it wasn’t worth the risk. It was just good luck that Albert was there too and had been able to offer him a ride to the airport. Now there was a man who had resources inside him that you wouldn’t guess at, to look at him; both mental and physical. Albert would always find a way. A little balding guy, Indian looking, with a paunch that made him appear older than he probably was. Comical really: he always wore a suit and tie as if to say that heat could not get to him, nor dust nor the distance to the nearest dry cleaners either. It seemed that he could disarm even these people with a smile. Ray wasn’t even sure that he carried a weapon.
Albert was waiting for him when Ray paid the bill and walked out of the hotel carrying only a black attaché case. He had left his luggage in the room, not bothering to pack.
-What do you think of the car? Albert asked.
Ray looked the battered Toyota up and down.
-Did you get a warranty?
Albert shook his head, laughing.
-And I had to pay cash.
-The paper money’s no good anyway: I wouldn’t worry. I think it might take us as far as the airport. It’s as well we’re not planning a return trip.
They got in the vehicle. The passenger side door had clearly belonged to another car, of a different colour and probably of a different type; but Ray managed to shut it after a fashion. When they set off it was clear that the suspension only existed as a memory, but the engine started first time, or at least the cylinders that were still firing did.
-Nice, said Ray.
-I bought it from my driver Michel. He’s been driving me around in it for a week so I think it should be fine so long as we don’t run out of gas.
-Shouldn’t Michel be using this heap to get as far away as possible from what is coming down the line?
-I tried to tell him that. He says that he can’t leave the family and his father in law is too ill to travel.
-The money won’t be much good to him.
-It might help. I gave him my good watch as well. Told him not to let anyone see it unless he is talking to someone worth bribing.
-That might do more harm than good.
-Possibly; how can we know what is for the best?
They drove on without speaking for a time, listening to the wounded rattle of the engine. Every few blocks the traffic became heavier, until they were moving at walking pace. The road was jammed with every kind of transport, overloaded with people and possessions. Now and then they passed carts being drawn by animals, or dragged along by straining humans; all of them inching forward only a little slower than the motorized traffic. Horns were sounding everywhere, to no obvious effect.
The drivers leaned on their horns, but there was no sense of rage. The people were past impatience and too exhausted to be angry. A few days earlier there had been an ugly, fearful mood sweeping through the city, making everyone suspicious of each other. Now the violence of that time had given way to a mood of resignation and defeat. At one or two of the bigger junctions, a few uniformed figures were attempting, half-heartedly, to regulate the traffic; blowing whistles and gesticulating with pantomime exaggeration. Their orders were ignored. It seemed that even the officers no longer minded if they were ignored. Some of the military had joined the file of refugees; beaten men walking with shoulders drooping, wearing tunics over jeans, or combat pants topped by T-shirts; weapons and pack gone.
Now and then a light motorcycle would weave through the traffic, carrying two, or sometimes three passengers. Riders of all ages, some with infants nestling on their laps: the whine of their engines rising above the deeper coughing of the other vehicles as they approached and fading as they passed on up the road. Under the noise of engines and horns, the road was strangely empty of human voices. No one seemed to have anything left to say.
Hawkins checked his watch again, uselessly as he knew. Occasionally Albert would make up some time by passing the slow moving traffic on the inside; on what passed for a pavement, or by cutting through little used back streets, where they could make reasonable progress, but always had to rejoin the main flow at some point.
Perhaps they would not make the flight, Hawkins thought. He cursed himself for not leaving days ago. He’d known it would come to this. It wasn’t as if it was his first regime change.
At one point, they passed by some buildings where shells had fallen. It seemed that at least one had exploded directly on top of some of the houses or offices, which were more or less obliterated. Water was flowing from a pipe that protruded from the ruin, and women were collecting it patiently in pails, whilst black skinned kids, with white teeth and pink palms, stared and pointed at the scene of destruction and at the line of cars and trucks moving slowly past them.
In another place, shop fronts had been smashed and the blackened walls showed that the stores had been burnt out. It was obvious that this damage was not the result of shelling. Some shops had been left alone and others completely emptied out. The tribal rivalries that normally lay under the surface were emerging.
Clear of the city proper now, they started to make slightly better progress. The traffic was moving almost continuously, though at a painfully slow pace. Beyond the road and the ditch that lined it, they started to see the savannah scrub: dusty grass with the colour bleached out. Here and there a man of indeterminable age peacefully watching a cow or two; a scene that repeated itself like the motif of a pattern; the dozing man untroubled by the exodus from the city, since it did not disturb his cow.
Most of the roads in the city were badly broken up; just collections of holes punctuated
Now Hawkins could make out the perimeter fence of the airfield in the distance, and yet their progress remained maddeningly slow. He realized that they were not actually travelling slower than before. It was just that being so near, and feeling the time slipping away from them, was intolerable. He could almost sense the jet engines warming for take-off. I could run it from here, he thought. But then, the airport buildings were a couple of kilometres beyond the gate and once they were through that, there should be no more traffic to delay them.
Outside the car there was only still air, dust and heat. If the taxi had once boasted air conditioning, it was not working now, and the open windows gave them no relief. He was soaked with sweat. The hot air was thick with the promise of a storm. Certainly more than one kind of storm was coming after them.
Two armed and uniformed guards were stationed at the perimeter gate, whether they were military or private, who could say. It was surprising enough that they had chosen to remain at their posts, either way. The crumpled wreck of the cab aroused their attention, but once they spotted a European inside, they waved the vehicle on thorough the checkpoint.
- We are going to make the flight after all, Hawkins promised himself.
It was one of those international airports where a man is paid to keep goats off the landing strip. Albert parked the car neatly outside the airport offices, which comprised of various portacabins, and a more permanent structure that served as an arrivals and departures hall. It had even boasted a sliding glass door, which had ceased to slide for want of maintenance. Now it was wedged open giving the flies and everyone else ready access.
-Decent enough wheels as it turned out. Your boy didn’t rob you.
-Yes, it would be nice to think he’ll be okay.
Inside the hall, another kind of disorder, raised voices at the edge of panic: angry, demanding, frightened voices. Through the crowd they caught sight of Johnson, the man from the embassy. Hawkins pushed his way through the mob towards him. Albert followed. People were jostling one another, stumbling against luggage that was piled everywhere, or staggering under the weight of their own belongings. Families guarded baggage trolleys obtained from who knows where, awaiting husbands who had set off to demand or plead on their behalf. Airline functionaries tried to disengage themselves from the grip of travellers, or would be travellers. People had begun to argue among themselves, and generally violence seemed to be lurking not far under the surface of things.
Johnson was relatively unobtrusive, in a lightweight suit, with no mark of office. He was talking in the local dialect to a well-dressed and very excited man, who was clearly insisting that something should be done for him. The conversation was hard to make out, but the man was gesturing repeatedly, making signs that indicated clearly enough an offer of cash. He must be trying to buy tickets for this last flight out, maybe if some other unfortunate could be bumped off the flight. Eventually Johnson resorted to English.
-I’m afraid you don’t understand sir; it’s not a question of whether you can pay. There is simply no room on this plane. All the places are taken, and in any case you do not have a passport with a European country of origin. Only Europeans. I have no authority to help anyone else to leave the country.
It was not clear whether the man understood the words, but for some reason, he accepted that being addressed in English meant that the discussion was at an end. At any rate, the man stopped talking for a moment, and Johnson took the opportunity to turn away from him and greet the newcomers. He nodded to them both and in the same motion took Albert’s arm, propelling him towards the departures desk, ignoring the crowd milling around it. They marched straight past the official controls. Everyone knew Mr Johnson.
-Poor devil, I wish I could help him, but there’s no end to that if you once start. Glad to see that you chaps made it anyway. No time to chat. Your seats are reserved but that won’t count for much until you’re sitting on them. Still got your British passports? Good: some nasty stories about those in the last few days, although I suppose you boys may have spares. You’re the last of my people so I’ll walk out to the plane with you. Just a stroll across here. What me, no, I’m staying on. Of course the ambassador’s been unavoidably called back to London: call it a tactical withdrawal. Just me and a few other of the expendables left to mind the store.
Johnson was one of those lean, prematurely balding men who are burned red by the sun without ever tanning. Five years in Africa and this was his third state of emergency. He was an incessant talker, though he always spoke in the clipped style of an official telegram, as if words were precious. It was a pattern of speech that suited him, as if saying that here was a man who never had a moment to spare. He made it his business to know everyone, and had seldom been heard to make an overtly critical comment about anyone.
Still it was unusual for a career diplomat to show such respect to a pair of notorious arms dealers, especially in times that had become as messy as this. Hawkins found himself wondering whether it was only professionalism that made Johnson so polite, or did the man have his own singular view on the causes of these upheavals that afflicted the region to regularly. Probably he was just an old fashioned Englishman, of a particular class, and the politeness was ingrained. In any case, Hawkins had noticed that at times like these, the Europeans tended to behave, temporarily, as if they were all in the shit together.
As they walked across the tarmac, Johnson explained that he was optimistic that the embassy might be left alone this time around, barring stray artillery fire, which of course could not be ruled out, given the levels of accuracy of the gunners on both sides. For all his talk of punishing the foreigners and taking the land back for the people, the new man would not want to cut off the flow of foreign aid into his treasury before he had even begun to rob it. His present concern would be to gain personal control of as much of the nation’s wealth as he could grab before the soon to be exiled President was able to divert more funds into his various Swiss accounts. Johnson continued, barely pausing for breath.
-The President was an idiot of course. The new man was the hero of the army and saviour of the nation. He even fought in the battle that saw off the last regime, unlike most saviours of the nation, who only get the title through bullying and murder. Then they made him Supreme Head of the Armed Forces, but that was never going to keep him quiet. The President should have sent him abroad or had him quietly shot. And then for the President to leave the country when he did, only to attend another of those idiotic conferences of African leaders that they all love so much; that cost a fortune and never achieve anything. He might as well have left the keys to the national bank behind. But I suppose you boys knew it was coming.
Albert admitted that he’d been approached by the General to supply certain equipment, and that it had been pointed out that the General was a man who did not forget his friends.
-By which he means of course, that he remembers his enemies, and his enemies are all those who are not his friends.
-Well I suppose you must have told him no, for whatever reason, given that you are leaving us now in something of a hurry. Rather strange that. In this country the odds generally favour the rebels rather than the incumbents. I would have expected you to know which way the wind was blowing.
-But the government pays cash, and maybe I had other reasons. In any case, it’s true that if I’m not on this flight, my life is not worth much more than those unfortunate
-Don’t worry, plenty of time for you now
-But you do know there is going to be a bloodbath when the General gets here?
-What can I do? When it starts, we’ll give them official notice that Her Majesty’s government deplores excessive violence directed against civilian populations. We shan’t use the genocide word of course. They’ve had harsh words from us before, and they know what they’re worth. I’ve engaged as many gardeners, cooks and waiters as I can decently hire, a lot more than we can find work for, and I’ve told them to bring their families into the compound till it’s over. I shall probably be in trouble even for that, but it’s little enough. You know how it is, there’s a line you can’t cross. If you do, you find yourself outside looking in.
-We crossed the line when we started giving these people aid and telling them to develop their countries, Albert replied. Before that they grew their own food and the worst they had to fear was a dry year. Now their rulers have a treasury to fight over and governments that steal their land for imaginary businesses to impress foreigners.
-Possibly you´re right, Johnson admitted. All beyond my pay grade. But at least, you know, the new man couldn’t really care less about tribal differences. He just rants about it to get his people fired up so he can get his own hands on the loot. Hopefully the blood-letting will wear itself out in a few days. The trouble is that once the ordinary people start killing each other, they seem to get a taste for it, until finally no-one is in control.
-Well, here we are. The plane is a bit antique, but the best we could do at short notice, not too many pilots eager to land here just at the moment. It’ll get you as far as Nairobi at least: I’m confident of it.
The jet was small, ancient and seemingly overcrowded. There was information for passengers printed in Cyrillic script on the backs of the seats. Johnson had assured the passengers in his charge that all their baggage, however weighty, would be loaded directly they were on board: it was the easiest way to get everyone onto the aircraft: but now it seemed that there were no baggage handlers attending the flight at all. Hawkins thought about the belongings he’d abandoned at the hotel and smiled.