James felt his way carefully down
the corridor to the bathroom, his eyes screwed up against the
morning sun streaming past the edges of the curtains at each
window. The banging in his head refused to stop; it seemed to
come from all around him. He turned on the cold water tap and
gazed at himself in the mirror; red eyes glared back at him.
He could still hear the banging.
"Damn," This time he knew what it
was, "Not bloody again."
"James?" He heard Julie scurrying
down the corridor.
"James?" He saw her appear behind
him in the mirror.
"I know," He said, "They're not fireworks."
"James," She said, "There are soldiers
looting the house next door."
They stood at the dining room window,
peering out from behind the curtain. From the front door of the
house opposite, soldiers in crumpled fatigues were streaming
out like khaki ants, each one bowlegged with the weight of looted
treasure. A television; a hi-fi set; a table; chairs; clothing.
The procession seemed endless. A blue pickup stood waiting by
the roadside, a soldier at the wheel. James guessed it had been
It was all over very quickly; the
last soldier slammed the tailgate shut and vaulted up to join
his comrades in the back of the pickup. Crowded in amongst their
ill-gotten booty, they roared off down the road and out of sight.
Banda Avenue seemed strangely deserted.
All was silent, save for the sound of distant rifle shots, interrupted
by occasional outbreaks of much louder machine gun fire. Julie
let the curtain drop and stood back from the window. She turned
to face him.
"What do we do now, James?"
There was a burst of knocking at the
front door. Julie flattened herself against the wall.
"Don't answer it," She hissed.
James hadn't been about to. He watched
as Julie squinted along the dining room window, trying to catch
sight of the front door.
"James," She started to giggle,
James gazed over the top of Julie's
head; iridescent on the edge of the front doorstep, just visible
from the corner of the window, was the back of a pink trouser
suit. Level with the doorbell, curls of hair, streaked and highlighted,
were wound tightly around yellow and pink plastic rollers.
"Wow," He breathed, "Helen in curlers;
it must be really important."
James opened the front door.
"Helen!" He tried to sound surprised;
"You're up bright and early."
"Oh, hullo James," Helen patted awkwardly
at her rollered hair, "There's been a coup, can I come in?"
James led the way to the kitchen.
"Come and have a cup of tea," He offered.
He opened the kitchen door.
"Damn!" He'd forgotten the night before.
Julie scampered to the rescue.
"Sorry about this Helen; the houseboy hasn't turned up yet. Grab
a seat while I stick the kettle on and wash a couple of cups."
James cleared a few inches of counter
top and lent against it; sporadic gunfire and the wail of sirens
sounded distantly through the kitchen window.
"So, what's the story, Helen?"
Helen told them the little she knew.
It was on the radio, she said, the People's Emancipation Committee
had assumed control of the country. The president had been executed,
everyone was to remain calm, corruption and exploitation were
at an end, and long live the new president, Winston Stanley Livingston.
"My houseboy said the soldiers shot
the president and his chief of security and all the palace guard," Helen
accepted a mug of fresh tea from Julie, "With machine guns. He
said the bodies have been put on display by the roadside near
the city hospital. He's gone to have a look."
"Mummy? What's all the noise and banging
A bleary-eyed, pyjama-clad Lucy stood
at the doorway; behind her, a puzzled and slightly uneasy Fi
stared wide-eyed at the three adults.
"Don't worry, Lucy," Julie was pouring
mugs of tea for James and herself, "Just soldiers messing around.
You two go and get dressed, and give Annie a shou..."
The teapot dropped on the counter with a crash.
"Annie!" Julie whirled round, ashen
faced, "James! She's not here; she’s at the Nyamplu's home!"
"I'll drive over with Fi and bring
"No," Helen interrupted, "I don't
think that would be wise. There are soldiers screaming around
all over town. They'd grab your car on the spot."
"Then I'll walk," Said James.
"You can't," Objected Julie, "It's
"Only two or three," He replied,
"Charles can walk back with Annie and me and collect Fi from here."
Within ten minutes, James had showered
"See you later," He called towards
the kitchen from the front door; Helen was sitting nursing a
second mug of tea whilst Julie was tipping the first of the previous
night's dirty dishes into the sink. "If I'm not back in two hours,
try and give the embassy a buzz."
He closed the front door behind him.
James walked, as inconspicuously as
he could, alongside Emancipation Boulevard whilst carloads of
soldiers careered past. Battle-high and crazed with liquor, they
leered from the windows, blazing automatic rifle fire skywards
with terrifying abandon.
Half an hour later he crossed over
Emancipation Boulevard and began the lonely trek down the freshly
graded dirt road that led towards the house where the Nyamplu's
lived. There were no cars, no cyclists, no walkers. Occasional
groups of Ngombians clustered uncertainly at the doorways of
their huts, watching him as he passed. Nobody smiled, nobody
waved, nobody spoke; they just watched, silently. He walked on,
not looking. His senses screamed silently within his ears; the
back of his neck prickled with desperate unease. A police car
cruised slowly past, the occupants eyeing him with sullen suspicion.
He was really scared.
"James! Good to see you. How did you
Charles dragged James in through the
blue painted front door and shut it behind them.
"How's the family? Have you had any
problems over your way?"
"Everyone's fine, Charles; I walked
Relief swept over Charles' face like
sunshine between clouds on a windy day.
"Come on in, James," He led the way
into the terrazo-tiled living room, "Would you like a coffee?"
"Thanks, but no thanks," James did
not sit down, "I had a tea before I left. Julie's expecting me
to be back as soon as I can."
"I'll walk back with you," Charles
was pacing up and down the room, a trapped animal in a too-small
cage, "But first let me dress for the occasion."
He re-appeared ten minutes later,
clad in filthy T-shirt and ragged shorts, a pair of cheap plastic
sandals on his feet.
"I'm Moses Kpele," Said Charles,
"Your houseboy." He started towards the door, his plastic sandals
flapping noisily on the hard tiles. "Let's go, boss."
With Charles and Annie beside him,
James' mood changed. He no longer felt isolated; he was no longer
the object of hostile curiosity. They were just a father and
his daughter and his friend out for a walk. He felt himself relax;
felt the warmth in the sun once more. He almost felt like waving
to passers-by. They crossed Emancipation Boulevard together and
started down Banda Avenue.
The frantic scream of tyres was right
James jumped involuntarily, yanking
Annie with him. A massive black sedan slid to a halt alongside.
It lay there, a vast metal animal, its exhaust panting.
Three soldiers leapt out, bracketing
them; one beside James, one beside Charles, their rifle barrels
pointing straight at their stomachs. The third, a sergeant, crouched
a few paces distant covering all of them. Armed, they bristled
"Who are you?" James felt the muzzle
of the rifle jab into his lowest rib; it hurt.
"You," Attention switched to Charles,
"Who are you?"
"Moses, boss," Said Charles."
"Moses who?" The private next to Charles
"What you do?"
Christ, thought James absurdly, they
can't tell each other apart any more than we can.
"Where you get this?" The private
grabbed the strap of Charles' wristwatch.
James went ice cold. No houseboy would
ever own a watch like that. He saw the private's finger whiten
on the trigger. He felt the foresight of the rifle sharp against
his ribs; hard as steel, he thought. He saw the sergeant's eyes
glaring at him; blood red; glazed; terribly, terribly hard. He
knew, with utter certainty, that this was the end. Blown away,
he thought, that's what they say, blown away. He did not feel
brave; he did not feel scared; just numb, detached.
Annie started to cry.
The sergeant swivelled; as if for
the first time, he saw her.
"Hey, you," He barked at the private,
"Quit it. Ain't you see the small girl cryin'?"
"Eh?" The soldier loosened his grasp,
letting go of Charles' watch; his eyes widened, "Sorry, yah?"
The sergeant relaxed, straightening
up from his animal crouch, lowering the butt of his rifle on
to the road.
"She's cryin'," He said to James,
"Take her home."
The change in mood was instant, total,
"Where you live?" The sergeant spoke
"Over there, boss," Charles gestured
behind him, "Not far."
"O.K., you walk."
The sergeant climbed back into the
stolen car, beckoning his two privates to follow.
"See you, man," The sergeant grinned
from the car window, then suddenly, dramatically thrust his rifle
aloft, "Long live President Stanley Livingston!"
The final five hundred yards along
Banda Avenue lasted forever. Annie walked beside James, head
bowed, clutching his hand, tears running silently down her cheeks.
James wondered when, or if, he'd see Charles again.
"Jonathan?" It had taken nearly fifteen
minutes to get through to the embassy.
"James Davidson here; what’s
the drill? Who's in authority?"
"Hmm," There was a pause on the line, "I'll
have to check with Aitchee on that."
Not for the first time, James wondered
why embassy staff insisted on using the quaintly anachronistic
initials H E when referring to the ambassador. He wondered if
they referred to the Queen Mother as Kewem.
"Will the embassy be issuing advice?"
"Hmm," Jonathan pondered, "I suppose
we will. Why don't you give us a bell on Tuesday?"
"Tuesday?" James was incredulous,
"Jonathan, today's Saturday. There's just been a coup, the president
and the entire security force have been shot to bits, there are
soldiers screaming around the place like lunatics, and homes are
being ransacked. For Goodness sake, what's this Tuesday business?"
There was another pause, then;
"Dash it all, James," Jonathan’s
voice protested down the phone, "Tomorrow's Sunday, and Monday is a
British bank holiday, you know."