Julie was prodding James with her
"What was it," She enquired sweetly,
"You were saying about fireworks?"
From behind, they heard Helen explode
"But they weren't fireworks," She
wailed, her hands flailing against her thighs in agitation,
"They were shots: we heard them; they were real shots."
"Of course they were real," Julie
waved a dismissive hand at the still-doodling James, "Come and
help me find the children, then we can sit down and have a think."
Together, she and Helen prised a protesting
Lucy and Annie out of the bushes where they'd been poking sticks
into a massive nest of furious red ants. The four of them grouped
themselves around where James sat.
"O.K., clever clogs," Demanded Julie, "Now
what do we do?"
James was thinking hard, anxious not
to put a second dent in his image as the font of family wisdom.
"Maybe we should listen to the radio," He
suggested cautiously, "If I brought the car down to the edge
of the beach, we could hear if there were any announcements."
Tom hove to.
"Hallo all," He waved a group greeting,
"Isn't this exciting?"
And in a strange way, it was. An indefinable
sense of drama had charged the air; James could already feel
the invisible bonds of adversity drawing the group together.
It was almost pleasurable.
James and Tom parked their cars nose
to tail, parallel to the beach, doors open, both radios switched
"Quadrasonic riots," Said Tom.
There was no news; just classical
music with breaks every ten minutes or so for an announcement
that never varied in its crude, stark brevity.
"This is NBC, Ngombia Broadcasting
Corporation. The government of Ngombia instructs all persons
to remain off the streets. Everyone is to go to their homes.
Anyone seen in the streets will be shot."
In a little patch of shade at the
foot of two palm trees, they sat and listened; two couples out
for a picnic on the beach; two small children playing in the
sand. Above them, the dark green fronds lifted gently in the
soft afternoon breeze. Far out to sea, distant waves flashed
and glittered in the brilliance of the sun that flamed from a
cloudless blue sky. Julie raised a corner of the lid of her coolbox
and peered inside.
"Drink, anyone?" She asked, "There
are four left."
Six miles away, the heart was being
torn out of Tuehville.
"I think," Said James eventually,
"That we need to find out what is actually going on. There are
no phones at AMEN, so we'll have to drive in to town and have a
Julie wasn't at all sure about the
"What happens if the roads have been
"Then we can sleep in the car. But
let's find out now, when it's daylight, not later on when it's
Reluctantly, Julie agreed. James started
the engine and switched on the air-conditioning. They waited
a couple of minutes for the car to cool before they all clambered
"We'll follow a bit later," Tom gave
them a cheery salute, "See you at our party tonight."
For several miles, all was normal.
As they passed through Sessaka suburb and headed into town along
Emancipation Boulevard, James began to wonder if the radio reports
had not been either a hoax or a massive exaggeration. Eventually,
he broke the silence.
"Haven't seen any rampaging hordes
Julie sat next to him, stiffly disapproving.
"Hmmph," Was all she said.
They were approaching the long right
hand bend before the Imelda cinema when Julie screamed.
"James!" She shrieked, her fists clenched
tight in front of her face, "Look out!"
From nowhere, a massive, gold-coloured
saloon hurtled towards them. Canted hard over on its soft suspension,
straining to hold the turn, it howled down the centre of the
road. James pulled hard to the left, very quickly. The car slammed
past, its engine screaming its open windows festooned with soldiers
brandishing automatic rifles, waving him off the road.
"James," Julie was taut as a wound
spring, "Turn round; let’s go back."
James was shaken, but reluctant to
"Let's just see round the corner;
it might be a clear run home from here."
He gentled the car round the gradual
curve, pricklingly conscious of Julie's intense unease. Round
the curve, and into the mile long straight that led past the
Imelda cinema and on to the heart of the city.
Three hundred yards ahead a jumbled
array of overturned vehicles, broken furniture and concrete breezeblocks
filled the road. There was not a single person in sight.
Suddenly, from behind the barricade,
a massive blue and white police car leapt like some mechanical
beast that had scented prey. Tyres screeching, lights flashing,
siren wailing demonically, it charged straight at them.
"Get off! Get off! James, get off
the road!" Julie screamed.
She buried her face in her hands,
terrified. James wrenched at the steering and stamped on the
brakes; the car thumped up onto the pavement and slewed to a
halt in a cloud of dust. The great blue and white monster thundered
past, furious faces at every window, furious arms waving him
out of the way.
"Please," Julie was talking at the
floor, not looking up, her head in her hands, "Please James.
I'm really scared. Let's go back."
"Please, daddy, let's go," Lucy’s
voice came from behind, "I don't like this."
Suddenly, everything had become desperately
serious. James U-turned across the broad avenue and headed back
the way they'd come. Very carefully, he accelerated, eyes and
ears straining for sight or sound of other vehicles. Nobody said
After a long silence, Julie spoke.
"James," She ventured hesitantly,
"Doesn't Charles live out this way?"
"Sessaka suburb? Yes, he does."
"He knows everybody who's anybody.
He'd know what was going on, wouldn't he?"
"I'm sure he wouldn't mind us asking,"
"Come on in, James, welcome to our
home. Hi, Julie, nice to see you. Hi, Lucy; Hi, Annie."
He led them up the white stone steps to the verandah that ran along
two sides of the house. "Our daughter's told us all about you from
"Grab a seat," Charles swung a selection
of cane chairs away from the wall and slid them around a large
cane table in the middle of the verandah. He pulled open the
mosquito screen that covered the front doorway,
"Friday!" Charles bellowed into the
interior of his house, "Friday! You come here, you hear?"
Charles moved back to where they now
sat around the cane table; with almost deliberate ease, he lowered
himself into the chair next to James. Charles' houseboy appeared
in the doorway.
"Friday, you bring tea for all, you
"Yeah, boss." Friday vanished back
Charles turned himself to face James.
"So," He breathed, "Exciting times,
James declined the proffered cigar;
he would have dearly loved to have accepted. Charles put the
cabinet back on the table and set about cutting the end of his
own cigar. Friday darted between them, clearing the cups and
saucers and plates.
"Want to make any phone calls, James?
Maybe you ought to let somebody know where you are."
"If I may, I'd like to call the embassy."
"Sure, go ahead; the phone's in the
hall, on the right of the door as you go in."
Jonathan Swift was duty officer. James
outlined their story as well as he could. There was a long silence
at the other end of the line.
"Riots, you say?"
"Barricades, you say?" James could
almost hear Jonathan's brain trying to engage gear, "In the streets?"
"Yes, Jonathan. Nobody can get into
or out of town. Anyone seen on the streets is liable to be shot.
It's been announced on the radio all afternoon."
"Aah, well," The relief in the voice
was almost tangible, "That would explain it. Don't listen to
that local sort of stuff very much up here: prefer BBC World
"Jonathan, we left Tom and Helen at
AMEN beach; they said they would try to get back to town later.
We haven't seen them since."
The silence at the other end of the
line was deafening.
"Drat it," Jonathan’s voice
came at last, "Does that mean their party tonight is off?"
Charles and his cheerfully plump wife,
Matilda, were overwhelmingly hospitable. Julie was embarrassed
at the fuss being made over Lucy and Annie, and at the enormous
supper that was somehow conjured up out of nowhere. As soon as
the meal was over, and whilst Friday was busying around in the
kitchen brewing coffee, the two women disappeared with both sets
of children. Charles laid a two-way pocket radio on the dining
"One advantage of having political
contacts. Let's find out what's happening."
They sat in the pool of light that
surrounded the cane table on Charles' verandah. They sat and
listened as the laconic reports crackled in of riot and looting,
of death and destruction; the collapse of civil law and order.
Around them the night insects whirred and fluttered against the
lamps; far away in the kitchen James could hear the chink of
china as Friday washed the dishes. There were two worlds that
night, and neither seemed real.
Julie and Matilda came to join them,
and Friday bustled out with steaming cups of coffee.
"Bring the brandy and four glasses,
you hear, Friday?"
Much later, Charles lit his second
cigar. Julie was still on edge.
"Do you think the riots will reach
"Nah," Charles was savouring his brandy, "It's
like containing a forest fire. We've got it cordoned off in the
centre of town; now we just let it burn itself out."
Charles swilled his brandy gently
in its balloon.
"I've had Friday make up beds for
all of you," He said, "You'd all better stay with us tonight."
The incongruity of a Ngombian family
offering refuge from rioting Ngombians to white foreigners struck
James hard; for a brief moment, he considered declining the offer.
"Thank you," Was what he actually
said, "We'd be very grateful."
James was surprised at how well he
In the bright light of morning, the
night's violence and terrors seemed to have evaporated. Charles'
two-way radio had fallen silent, as had NBC. It was decided that
James would drive into town first; if all were clear, he would
come back for Julie and the two girls.
Apart from the rubble, the streets
were empty. The violence had vanished, but an invisible atmosphere
of unremitting hostility blanketed everything. James drove deeper
and deeper into Tuehville, the hairs on the back of his neck
bristling. His eyes searched unceasingly for any signs of life;
he felt he could not trust anyone; not the army, not the police,
He passed store after store, office
after office, their steel shutters and roller blinds peeled back
like skins from oranges, their windows smashed, their interiors
utterly gutted. Nothing had escaped. The streets were scattered
with bricks and stones, broken glass and broken furniture, odd
shoes and sandals. But, more than anything else, James noticed
the paper; thousands and thousands of sheets of it strewn over
streets, over pavements, in amongst bushes, hanging from trees;
dumped, scattered, littered everywhere. It was as if a hundred
massive garbage trucks had emptied their bellies in the streets
He drove on, unchallenged.
Exactly what happened during that
day and night of violence would never be known in full. But,
little by little, from conversation and rumour, James pieced
together the bare bones.
On the morning of that fateful day,
a large, enthusiastic, but peaceable demonstration had gathered
before the presidential palace. In front of them, a detachment
of troops had stood uncertain, fidgety guard at the foot of the
palace steps. When the people refused to disperse, an order was
given to fire in the air. A stray ricochet struck one of the
demonstrators. He collapsed, screaming, and those nearby turned
to flee in fright. Like wildfire, their fear fanned outwards.
Within minutes, the horde was in flight, surging down the mall
that led from the palace towards the town centre. As they ran,
as terror diminished, so fear and panic gave way to anger; anger
at their summary dispersal, anger at their powerlessness, anger
that swelled and exploded into overwhelming fury over the squalor,
degradation and eternal nothingness of their lives. Blind, directionless
anger; violent, uncontrolled, and mindless save for a sudden,
burning desire to avenge the suffering and misery that the endless
years of grinding poverty and deprivation had imposed. Within
moments, a stampede of terror became a riot of rage and revenge,
of destruction and looting.
Untrained, undisciplined, and terrified,
the army blasted with dreadful abandon at the rampaging mobs.
Eventually, hopelessly outnumbered and impossibly tempted by
the sight of looted riches beyond their dreams of avarice, the
army mutinied. The mob and the troops became one.
By the following morning they had
laid waste every office, travel agency, and garage; every bookshop,
toyshop, and dress shop; every chemist and jeweller; every hardware
store, department store and supermarket; everything. What could
not be eaten or worn or sold had been burnt or smashed and broken.
The economic heart of the country had been ripped out.
Of the eight hundred and sixty British
men women and children living in Ngombia before the riots, one
hundred and seven left on the first available flight, never to
return. Capital investment plans by foreign companies were frozen
immediately and indefinitely, whilst banks insisted on parent
company guarantees to cover local credit facilities. The waiting
list for the British school shrank from four months to one and,
three nights after the riots, two hundred and forty two of Tuehville's
nameless poor were tipped into an unmarked grave in the swamps.