On the night of Annie's
third birthday, the first of that year’s change-of-season storms
The power supply had
failed with the first distant flash of lightning, and the storm had
ground remorselessly and malevolently nearer through the utter darkness.
The lightening was now
so close they could hear the fizz as it struck, a fraction of a second
before the colossal, tearing cracks of thunder. It was unbelievably,
the night fell silent. James and Julie lay frozen in the blackness,
tense as violin strings, whilst, deep underneath the bedclothes,
Lucy and Annie huddled between them in silent terror. The storm hung
over them, invisibly threatening, as if waiting.
Out of the dark, Julie
screamed. James felt her leap upright.
"It ran over my face!"
She shrieked, "It ran over my face!"
"What did?" James heard
her scrambling out of bed. He could see nothing in the blackness.
"I don't know," Julie
wailed miserably, "But it ran right over my face. I wish we had a
"We got a packet of candles
for Annie's cake," James spoke into the night, "I'll fetch them from
He swung his legs out
of bed, feeling for the floor.
The night turned pure,
blinding white. This time the explosion of thunder was instantaneous,
a part of the searing flash: overwhelming, mind-numbing, louder than
anything that James had imagined could be possible. The whole unbelievable
roar seemed to swallow him, blasting thought from his mind. This
had nothing at all to do with storms as he knew them; it was raw,
"Christ," He whispered
to the dark. He was genuinely frightened.
"James?" Julie's voice
was tiny. He could hear Lucy and Annie whimpering beneath the bedclothes,
"I'm here," He answered.
"I'm scared to get back
into bed; I don't know what's there."
Scared to get back into
bed? Julie must be standing on her own somewhere in the dark: whatever
it was had really terrified her.
There was nothing for
it; they needed light. James began to feel his way along the wall
of the bedroom. His heart was thumping: if a strike like the last
one caught him midway, he knew he'd die with fright. He felt his
way out of the bedroom, into the living room, his hands outstretched,
utterly blind in the void of night. Along the living room wall, through
the door, along the corridor to the kitchen. He could hear the wind
buffeting the house; rain lashing at the windows, drumming on the
roof. The hairs on the back of his neck stood rigid; his hands were
clammy, ice cold. Never, even as a child, had he been so scared by
He bumped into the cooker;
his fingers found the matchbox lying on the surface. He scrabbled
the box open, frantically scratching three matches at once on its
Darkness fled to the
corners of the kitchen.
James pulled the packet
of candles out of a kitchen drawer and lit four of them. He walked
slowly back down the corridor, shielding them with his hand. Invisible
gusts of wind from nowhere tugged at the flames; shadows leapt and
threatened with silent malice.
As James reached at the
bedroom, the flickering candlelight showed Julie standing by the
bed, white as a sheet.
"Look," She said, not
moving, her eyes fixed on the far corner of the room, "That's what
ran over my face."
Where the walls met,
three enormous cockroaches clung silently, their antennae waving,
feeling for movement. Julie shuddered. James reached to pick up a
shoe from the floor.
"Don't!" Julie squeaked,
"If you miss, we'll never find them. I'd rather they just stayed there;
at least I know where they are."
James dripped hot wax
on the bedside tables and glued two candles to the top of each. In
the stillness of the bedroom, their flames steadied.
There was a flash, a
fizz, and a breath-stopping explosion; but, in the face of candlelight,
terror admitted defeat.
James climbed back into
"Coming?" He asked Julie.
Gingerly, she lifted
a corner of the sheet, then slid carefully onto the bed. Annie burrowed
up against her, snug and warm.
"Promise you'll never,
ever not be here when it's night and there's a storm?"
The next morning,
James made a tour of inspection under the house. Lucy and Annie came
with him, clutching his hands, almost too scared to look but driven
by insatiable childish curiosity.
He was amazed
at the lack of damage. The lightening bolt had passed clean under the
house and, apart from a small crater in one of the brick pillars, there
wasn't a mark on the building.
can be really scary," Observed Lucy solemnly.
"I don't like
"If you're frightened,"
Said James, "You can always come into our bed."
always be there?" Lucy squeezed his hand earnestly, "Being alone is
The next day, James and
George made their weekly inspection of the most seriously bed-ridden
of the rusting hulks lying in the care of M&M's garage. The weather
was once again suffocatingly hot and humid.
"I thought," James squirmed
as perspiration trickled down inside his shirt, "A storm like that
would have cleared the air for years to come."
"Not a chance," Said
George, "It's always the same. Things get worse and worse until it's
absolutely unbearable. Then it all explodes and, for a little while,
life seems better." He reached inside the cabin of an engineless
truck and pulled out an ancient grease-smeared work-order, "But it
George scanned the work-order,
noting how long the vehicle had been in the garage, and the customer's
potential for humbug.
"It soon becomes just
like it was before, nothing really changes," He tossed the work-order
back onto the driver's seat, "A bit like Africa in general."
Above them, the sun blazed
from an azure sky; from the depths of the garage around them came
the hum of distant chatter and the occasional clink of a spanner
dropped onto concrete. James sighed.
"It all seems so placid."
George shot him a sideways
"Don't let the blue skies
and balmy breezes fool you," He said, "Africa has an amazing capacity
for violence; it’s there, under the surface, all the time."
James stood at the rear
doorway of the spare parts warehouse. It was pouring, and the drumming
roar of torrential rain on the corrugated metal roof was deafening.
In front of him, a concrete ramp sloped down to an open courtyard,
some fifty yards square, already ankle deep in water. Around the
perimeter of the courtyard huddled ramshackle tin-roofed service
bays, their concrete floors raised a few inches above water level.
From the roofs of the bays hung aged, twisted gutters, hopelessly
overwhelmed by the floods of storm-water that sluiced, unchecked,
over their sides and cascaded into the courtyard lake below.
James stared, lost in
thought, as the wall of rain seemed to explode off the ramp and a
misty spray blew past him into the gloom of the warehouse behind.
He recalled his first meeting with George in London.
"M&M is one of the
largest trading companies in Ngombia," George had explained,
"M&M Motors is just one part of it; the part that we'd like you
James had listened attentively
as George continued.
"We import cars, pickups
and trucks," George had told him, "Our principal markets are the
Government and foreign concessions."
"Timber operations and
an iron ore mine," James had interrupted: he’d looked M&M
up in his directory.
George had nodded,
"We also have the misfortune to be importers of cars that the Cabinet
"What's wrong with that?"
"Put very simply,"
George had explained, "Government ministers are a major pain in the
rear. They demand immediate attention, terrorise garage personnel with
threats of instant jail, harass you mercilessly, and never pay their
"Then why don't you stop
handling their cars?"
"If we did," George had
replied, "They'd simply close us down until we changed our mind."
There had been a silence
that seemed to go on for ever.
"Ngombia," George had said
at last, "Is different from the U.K."
James turned, and walked
back into the warehouse. In the shadowy gloom on either side, dust-laden
vehicle body parts were stacked haphazardly against the walls. On
shelves all around him, dilapidated cardboard boxes held aged, unknown
spares for long-forgotten vehicles. Everything, everywhere, was grey
with dust and corroded by years of tropical heat and humidity.
Ngombia was, indeed, different.
"M&M imported this
vehicle into Ngombia?"
"You are aware that it
is a requirement of the Ministry that all automobile dealers maintain
stocks of spare parts for vehicles that they import?"
"You say the transmission
on my car is beyond repair?"
"And you do not have
another transmission in stock?"
"You realise that it
is essential for me to have my car available at all times for official
"So, you must airfreight
in a new transmission and, in the meantime, provide me with suitable
Six months into
his new appointment, James was facing his first major incident; Agamemnon
Nautilus Nagbeh, Minister of Commerce, Industry and Transportation,
had just destroyed the transmission on his official limousine. Or,
at least, his driver had. He had done so by driving over a rock on
the road to the Minister’s farm, splitting the housing, and driving
on until forced to a smoking halt. The Minister now wished to have
his car restored to health forthwith. Payment was not a subject to
be discussed: at least, not if M&M wished to stay in business.
"Two things," Said George
later, "Just two things."
"One, maximise ministerial
happiness; two, minimise M&M’s costs."
James got up to leave.
He was at the door of the office when George called after him.
"Have a word with Charles
Nyamplu; he might have some ideas. He and Nagbeh were at school together."
"The minister's not terribly
happy," Said Charles.
"No," Agreed James,
"He's not. As far as he's concerned, we supplied the car, it's gone
wrong, he's the Minister of Commerce and we're to blame."
"You got the drift,"
"Nagbeh has demanded
a courtesy car while his own is in our garage," Continued James,
"A new one, of at least equal standing to his own."
"We'd have to airfreight
a complete new transmission from the States," James pointed out,
"The cost would be horrific."
"On top of which,"
Added Charles, "Nagbeh would have beaten his courtesy car to death
driving to his farm every weekend."
"By the time we got it back," Said
James, "It would be worth next to nothing."
Charles was unperturbed.
"It costs a lot to keep a minister happy."
"The pity is," Said James, "We
wouldn't have made him happy. In his eyes, we'd have done no more
than was necessary."
Charles sighed, "Got
any other bright ideas?"
"Yes," James surprised
himself with his own confidence, "Don't lend him a car; give him
"Jeez," Charles shook
his head in disbelief, "One minute you're worried about the cost
of lending the minister a car; the next you want to give him one."
"That's right," James
was warming to his theme, "Take him to the best restaurant in town,
present the car to him as a mark of our esteem and appreciation.
He'd love being able to brag about the deal he pulled."
"I'm sure he would,"
Observed Charles dryly, "But it would cost us a bomb."
"We wouldn’t have
to provide a courtesy car, and we could sea-freight in a transmission
for his old car, instead of air-freighting it. We’d save a
bundle. Besides, just think what the ministerial goodwill might be
Charles was silent for
a few moments.
"You know, James,"
He said eventually, "You might just do rather well in Ngombia."
"I like the idea,"
Said George later, "Now you and Charles sort it out."
"You don't think you
should make the presentation?"
"No, James," Said George, "I
don't. If people here think I'm the one who solves their problems,
they'll keep on bringing them to my door. In which case,"
He added darkly, "Your job would be redundant."
They dined at Sabbatini's
Set halfway up Tuehville’s
only hill where, during the city's chronic power cuts, breezes eased
the worst of the stifling humidity, Sabbatini's restaurant was Ngombia's
number one meeting and eating spot. There, deals were done, new relationships
quietly nurtured, and old ones discreetly sustained. There was not
a government minister or senior manager who did not find reason to
dine on the hill at least once a week. The list was long of customers
who, over the years, had found reason to be grateful for the cuisine,
wines, and ambience that were so conducive to mellifluous negotiations.
"Dammit!" Agamemnon Nagbeh
Heavy with food and alcohol,
he swayed gently as he stood between Charles and James on the sidewalk
"Dammit," He repeated,
"M&M is alright!"
The sultry afternoon
heat weighed down on them like a steamy blanket. In front of them,
Nagbeh's new prize glistened in the sunlight. He eyed it covetously.
Light emerald green metallic; his favourite colour. Few people knew
that. Nagbeh knew instinctively that this car was a good omen.
The engine idled silently,
a faint soft burble from the exhaust the only evidence of life. James
opened the rear door of the sedan; a wave of cool air wafted out.
Nagbeh held out his hand.
"My friends," He smiled,
grasping each of their hands warmly in turn, "You know how to do
business. I do not think you will have big problems this year."
Nagbeh folded his bulk
in to the automobile, sinking deep into the rear seat. James shut
the door, and stood back as the car moved off. He and Charles watched
as it slid silently down the hill, the rolls of flesh on the back
of the Minister's neck visible through the rear window.
"What a good thing it
was," James confided to Charles, "That you went to school with Nagbeh;
I’d never have known about Emerald Green."
"So," Enquired Julie
that evening, "Did any morsels of priceless inside information fall
from the table of power at lunch?"
James reached behind
him, trying to do up the buttons on his back-to-front shirt: Tom
and Helen were holding a Vicars and Tarts fancy dress party that
"None that we'd make
any money out of," James had his elbows over his ears as he groped
for the top button at the back of his neck, "But get ready to be
uncomfortable next dry season."
Julie was pulling on a pair
of black fishnet tights.
"It's always uncomfortable
in the dry season," She remarked, "What's so special about the next
"Power and water shortages,"
"Ever thought where Tuehville's
electricity comes from?"
Julie had to admit that
it was not a topic that had greatly exercised her curiosity.
"Two sources," Said James, "The
hydro-electric dam up the St. Luke river, and an old gas turbine
station." He wriggled his arms uncomfortably inside the straitjacket
of his reversed shirt.
"Hooray," Said Julie,
"I'm so glad you told me."
"The turbine station
is out of commission and will be for months. PUA are running their
hydro-electric plant flat out."
"Why's that a problem?"
Julie teetered around the bedroom; black lacy bra, black fishnet tights,
black stiletto heels.
"The problem," James
was beginning to feel singularly unvicarly, "Is that, in a few weeks
time, there won't be enough of a head of water at the dam to generate
"I suppose that means
even more power cuts," Julie sighed. She bent down to pick up a miniscule
mini skirt off the floor, "They're a real pest if you've got a bridge
"It's going to be a bit
more awkward than that," Said James, "St. Luke is the only source
of water for Tuehville. There are going to be water cuts as well."
"What?" Julie was horrified, "No
electricity and no water?" She grimaced, "Parties are going to be
fun, aren't they?"
James watched as Julie
hitched herself into her microbrief mini skirt, and thought what
a powerful combination were innocence and wickedness.
George loaded a second carton of whisky into the back of his car,
"For our logging customers."
The rains had ended,
and roads up-country had dried out. It was time, said George, to
visit each of the twenty-two timber concessions scattered throughout
"We'll start tomorrow,"
George breathed deeply as he eyed the remaining six cartons that sat
on the dusty road beside the car, "The first leg's a longish one."
They set off early, the
warm grey mists of dawn still clinging to the trees by the roadside,
the massive radio antenna on the rear of their car swaying like a
deep-sea fishing rod. They drove steadily eastwards across open swamp
and scrubland, the landscape empty of human habitation save for the
occasional lone palm-frond hut.
About two hours later,
the open landscape grew increasingly crowded with bushes and clumps
of palm trees. The first of a straggle of mud huts appeared, surrounded
by gaggles of hens, goats and small children.
Announced George, weaving between potholes at a steady sixty five miles
per hour, "The surfaced road ends here."
The car flew off the
end of the road and dropped like a stone onto bone-hard, washboarded
laterite, ramming James into his seat. Red dust plumed up instantly
in a massive cloud behind them. The car filled with brain-numbing
noise as the wheels hammered over the rock-hard ruts with relentless
violence. James clung grimly to the door handle: disintegration could
not be many minutes away.
It was several miles
before George slowed to a halt. James waited for him to announce
that he'd decided to abandon the trip.
"Here," Instructed George, "You
"Me?" James was stunned,
"Just follow the road.
After about a hundred and fifty miles it reaches Pelepah, then forks;
we take the left one." He unbuckled his seat belt and got out of
the car. James did the same; he wondered if skydivers felt like this
before their first jump.
"Nothing to it," George
reassured him, "It's a bit like driving on ball bearings."
George buckled himself
into his seat.
"Try not to brake too
suddenly," He advised, "Especially on bends."
James was surprised at
how quickly he adjusted to the constant noise and vibration, and
to the occasional sideways hops and skips of the rear wheels on the
corrugated surface. The road twisted and turned through mile after
mile of seemingly endless jungle; no open spaces, and nothing to
see except walls of bushes and trees on either side. From ground
to eye level, every leaf and every blade of grass beside the road
was coated thick with brown-red dust.
"Gets more interesting
after Pelepah," Said George, "The high bush begins there."
Shortly before noon,
the jungle began to thin, opening out into a broad green plain, dotted
with shrubs and small trees. The road bent in a gradual curve to
the right, crossing a wide, rock strewn riverbed, before snaking
up a distant hill. On the faraway summit, James could just make out
a gathering of huts and shacks.
"Pelepah," George yawned
and leant back in his seat, "It's got a couple of small stores. We'll
stop there for a bite to eat and stretch our legs."
"Carbide lamps!" James
picked up what looked like a coalminer's lamp from the creaking wooden
counter, "I thought those went out with the Model T." He held it
up in front of him, "And what on earth's the strap on it for?"
James gazed around him,
fascinated; the store was an Aladdin’s cave of frontiering
treasures. On the warped, dust-laden shelves, patent medicines jostled
for space with crude machetes, bales of coloured cloth and packets
of tobacco; hammers, nails, knives and tins of powdered milk; bags
of flour, packets of tea and boxes of candles; pots, pans and enamelled
basins. Most of it seemed to have come from China. Curled up in a
corner, a boy of about ten slept on top of a brown hessian mountain
of rice sacks.
At the front, the store
had neither door nor window nor wall; it simply opened on to the
dusty packed-earth road. It was owned, as were the two other stores
in Pelepah, by one of three Lebanese brothers: their sole source
of supply was a general import-export house in distant Tuehville,
owned by their cousin.
George took the lamp
from James and hooked the strap over his head. "Night hunting,"
He explained, "Tie it on your head, and off you go. Shine it in the
face of a leopard, and the animal freezes. Gives you time to shoot." He
pulled the apparatus off his head and put it back down on the counter, "Or
so I'm told."
They sauntered back out
into the sun; James could feel his shirt clinging soggily to his
"Boss, you want Rokor?"
By the side of the store,
a wizened market-woman was tending a small charcoal brazier; on it
lay four singed, soot-blackened corncobs.
"Roast corn," George
translated, "Try one. They're tough as old boots, but they taste
good if you're hungry."
They ambled slowly down
the middle of Pelepah's only street, avoiding the green slime of
the open drains on either side. James gnawed valiantly until his
jaws ached, then gave up and decided he wasn't quite hungry enough.
They arrived back at
their car, and James waited while George leant against the side,
contentedly chewing the last of his cob.
"Hmmm," He murmured to
James over the roof of the car, "I really must remember to invite
Egon Ronay round one day."
George tossed the cob-stem
into nearby bushes.
"My turn to drive,"
He opened his door, slid down into the seat, and started the engine.
An hour later, they stopped
at the roadside.
"Let's take a leak,"
As they stood by the
side of the car all seemed silent, save for the creaking of the engine
as it cooled. Gradually, as his ears adjusted, James became aware
of the intense, incessant insect song that was so much a part of
Ngombia. The sound seemed to swell and fill the air, broken occasionally
by the raucous cry of some strange, unseen creature hidden in the
trees. The dusty brown road baked in the sun, hemmed in on either
side by massive dark green bushes. The heat and stillness was oppressive;
there was not a breath of wind. James was sweltering.
"The heat's not so bad
at this time in the afternoon," George opened the passenger door
and knocked the dust off his shoe against the sill, "In the morning,
before the humidity's burnt off, it can be a bit uncomfortable."
Another hour passed.
"We turn left in a couple
of miles," George was watching every tree as it passed.
James checked the speedometer;
three hundred and twenty seven miles from Tuehville, eighty-seven
from Pelepah. 'It's a good idea to learn and remember distances',
George had said before they set out, 'Just in case you find yourself
travelling at night. One tree's very much the same as another in
"Just here," George pointed
through the windscreen.
A small white wooden
board about fifteen inches square was nailed to a tree; on it were
painted the letters 'GTE".
"Forget the sign,"
Said George, "Remember the termite hill beside it; that’ll be
there long after the board's rotted."
James swung off the road,
and down a narrow winding track. Dark green bushes, twice the height
of a man, walled them in. Leaves and branches brushed against the
sides of the car.
"About twelve miles more," Said
George, and slumped back in his chair, half dozing.
After what seemed an
eternity, the track widened and they emerged into a large clearing,
several hundred yards wide and half a mile long. Dotted at random
around the scrub-covered open space were half-a-dozen trailer caravans,
each sheltered by a wooden roof and verandah. Two of the trailer
homes had tiny gardens. At the far end of the clearing, a white bungalow,
slightly larger than the trailers, stood next to an open-sided, tin-roofed
workshop. Across the floor of the clearing ran ragged gullies, eighteen
inches deep and twice as wide, cut like miniature Grand Canyons into
the coarse gravelly red soil by last year's rains. Around the edge
of the clearing the massive dark green wall of the jungle stood,
silent and gloomy in the late afternoon twilight. It seemed to watch
their every move.
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"This is it," George
yawned and stretched in his seat, "GTE Camp; our home for the next