"You'll probably find," Tom Edwards
lifted his Santa Claus beard so that James could hear him, "Business
with Gbang falling off a bit."
Christmas barbecue on the beach. James
hadn't been at all sure about it. Christmas was supposed to be
snow and sledges and frosted breath on moonlit nights. A beach
barbecue in the sun didn't sound right at all.
Maybe it didn't to him, Julie had
said, but it did to her. That's how she'd grown up, and she couldn't
bear the miserable English Christmas weather after her father
had retired; made it all seem so bleak and dreary.
James had acquiesced, as Julie had
known he would. Besides, Tom had been volunteered as Father Christmas
and would need moral support.
Tom dropped his sack of presents on
the sand, settled himself down beside it and hauled a brown,
still cold bottle of beer from the folds of his costume.
"Climax are not at all happy with
the Minister of Mines," Tom patted at his bright red robe, like
an absent-minded smoker searching for matches, "Or with Ngombia."
"Greedy, was he?"
"Very," Said Tom, "And it rankles."
"But why should they be unhappy with
Ngombia as well?"
Tom stopped patting, a look of relief
on his rubicund face.
"Climax never have liked the place,"
He withdrew a bottle opener from deep within a hidden pocket,
"Ever since the palaver they had over bodies."
"Mmm," Tom gritted his teeth as he
levered the cap off the bottle, "On the railroad."
There was a hiss and amber-flecked
froth bubbled over Tom's fingers. He dropped the cap and opener
back in his pocket and raised the bottle to his lips, his tangled
white beard matting damply around it. James watched as Tom's
Adam's apple bobbed happily up and down.
"It all started," Tom pulled the bottle
free of its hairy nest and wiped his mouth with the back of his
hand, "Years ago."
When Gbang mine had opened, the railway
line built to carry ore trains from Mount Erskine to Tuehville
harbour had proved both irresistible and immensely popular as
a footpath through the bush. Eventually, the inevitable had happened.
"He was an old fellow," Tom recounted
the story, "Deaf as a post, never heard the train coming up behind
"Didn't the driver see him?"
"Ha!" Tom almost choked on the last
of his beer, "You ever tried to stop a fully-loaded ore train?"
James had to admit that he hadn't.
"Took miles," Said Tom, "And by then
the old boy was in pieces."
James felt slightly sick.
"His family carried the bits up to
Mount Erskine," Tom continued with his tale, "And demanded compensation."
"Climax could hardly be unhappy with
them for trying."
"No," Agreed Tom, "They weren't. They
paid what was asked, and added a modest sum on top as a goodwill
"So what was the problem?"
"A couple of weeks later, another
chopped up corpse was brought in. This time it was an old woman.
She'd been run over that morning; they brought the train driver
with them to confirm it."
They'd taken the bits of body up to
the mortuary, said Tom, where Gbang's doctor had had a look at
the remains. Been dead for days, he'd told them, dead long before
any train got near her.
"Yup," Tom nodded, "They'd kept the
old crone's body after she'd died, then dumped it on the track
during the night, out of sight round a bend. The first train
down in the morning went straight through her."
James ' stomach was churning.
"What happened in the end?" He croaked.
The family had sued. Gbang Mine had
protested its innocence, but nobody had wanted to listen. The
courts had simply added a fine to the compensation demanded.
Naive, and unfamiliar with third world politics, Climax had appealed.
The Minister of Lands and Mines had sensed a popular cause and
a lucrative opportunity. The minister had threatened closure,
and the rest was history.
"Climax had just invested hundreds
of millions," Said Tom, "They couldn't afford to walk away. They
bought peace for a small fortune, then discovered that all they'd
done was set a precedent for future disbursements. The harassment
and mutual distrust have continued to this day."
Tom emptied the last of his rapidly warming beer down his throat,
"Climax's first real experience of WAWA."
"West Africa Wins Again," Said Tom, "It
"But," James pointed out, "Despite
all that, Climax still stayed."
"They stayed," Tom dropped his empty
bottle back into the depths of his gown, "Because they were making
money; lots of it. But they've always been itching for an excuse
to pull the plug on Ngombia, and they may soon have one. Western
economies are slowing, demand is slackening, and ore prices are
falling. Gbang is barely profitable, and Climax have huge new,
low-cost reserves to exploit in Brazil."
He straightened his beard and clambered
to his feet, swathes of powdery sand clinging to his robes, white
against the brilliant red.
"Ngombia depends on iron ore revenues,"
Tom hoisted his sack over one shoulder and stood, swaying slightly,
studying the sea of expectant, childish faces waiting for him
across the beach, "If Climax pull the plug, Ngombia goes down
Father Christmas performed magnificently.
He tripped cheerfully and often over his sack and most of the
children; consumed half of a monstrous slice of Christmas cake,
and lost the other half in his beard; pinched Helen's bottom
once (Behave, Helen squeaked, delighted) and Julie's twice (Behave,
Helen purred, livid); and, eventually, reluctantly, wove erratically
towards the palms from whence he had come. Everyone had got a
present; quite often the right one.
Later, as the sun began to set, they
sat by the shore and watched the Fanti fishermen launch their
boats from the beach and paddle off into the dusk. Half hidden
in the gloaming, Lucy was busy building sandcastles for Annie
to sit on. Julie leant against James, her head on his shoulder.
"Happy?" She asked.
"Mmm," Murmured James. He was; it
had been a good day.
Julie reached out and adjusted his
paper hat for him. Her fawn-coloured skin was dusted lightly
with salt; the evening breeze had tousled her hair; there was
a patch of sand on one cheek.
"I'm glad," She said.
Helen Edwards teetered up and laid
an immaculate pink towel carefully on the sand beside them.
"Did I tell you," She lowered herself
cautiously, as if worried she might overbalance, "That we're
"No," Julie lifted her head up off
James' shoulder, "Where to?"
"Oh," Helen’s voice was studiedly
casual, "Out of town a bit, where it's quieter."
thought uncharitably. You could always tell UN personnel; except
for the Resident Representative, whose house was provided, they
took the cheapest housing and saved their allowances.
"I'll tell you how to get there,"
She began to trace a map in the sand
with her forefinger, her voice adding a turn by turn commentary.
Halfway through, she stopped, her shell-pink fingernail encrusted
"James," She said accusingly, "You're
She was right; he wasn't. He sat still
and silent, his eyes glazed, not seeing anything.
"Of course," He whispered to himself,
Not since Christmas Eve as a five-year-old
had he felt such excitement. He longed for tomorrow.
"Charles, tell me where you live."
"You know that, James; Sessaka suburb."
"Try telling me how to get to your
"You know that too."
"Pretend I don't."
"O.K.," Charles shrugged, "If you
James listened, drinking his insipid,
lukewarm tea with grim determination, waiting until Charles had
"Charles, in the U.K. I can tell you
exactly where my house is in three words."
Charles looked vacant.
"Eight, Acacia Avenue."
"So?" Charles still looked vacant.
"Christ, Charles, don't you see?"
James put his cup back in its saucer, "What's the name of your
street? You don't know, do you? Neither does anyone else. Nor do
you know the name of any of the streets near you."
Charles stared at James in silent
"Charles," James pushed his cup and
saucer aside, "There's not one single street name sign anywhere
Charles was silent for several seconds
"Seems to me," He said at last,
"The mayor should be ordering a bunch of them."
"The mayor?" James felt a twinge of
disappointment, "Why not Nagbeh?"
"Nagbeh's Ministry of Commerce and
Transport," Said Charles, "The Transport bit includes vehicles,
highways and road safety. Street names are like municipal park
signs; they come under the mayor."
"He could still order from us, though."
"Natch," Shrugged Charles, "But how
"Try counting how many roads there
are in Tuehville."
"Hundreds, man," Charles reached out
for a toothpick, "And all of them need a sign."
"No, Charles; each one needs two signs."
"At every intersection."
"Two signs? At every intersection?
Dammit man, you'd need thousands of them."
"Thousands and thousands, Charles."
Another silence, then.
"James," Charles was pensive, "I just
thought of something."
"If nobody knows the names of the
streets, what do we put on the signs?"
James was stopped in his tracks.
"Damn," He said at last, bitterly
It had been such a good idea.
"Mummy, Annie and Puddle and me
nearly caught a cobra today."
"Puddle and I," Corrected Julie, fishing
around in the back seat of her ancient, battle-scarred car for
her tennis racket and towel.
"Puddle and I," Said Lucy, "We all
of us found this great big black cobra in the rocks and we chased
it into one of the storm drains and Puddle stood at one end and
barked and we stood at the other end and threw stones in."
Puddle skittered around the car, delighted
with himself and his mornings work.
"Did you? That was nice." Julie's
voice came muffled from under the front seat where she was trying
to retrieve a spilt bag of tennis balls.
"Mummy," Lucy persisted, "Do cobras
Julie emerged backwards from the car
and stood up, her face brick red from a morning on the embassy
court with Nina Murchison and Helen Edwards and Andrea Mainwaring.
Rupert's annual 'Across the Pond' tennis match between the American
and British communities was imminent, and practice had become
a social priority.
"Do what bite?"
Puddle jumped hopefully at a passing
"Cobras? Of course they do."
"This one didn't."
"Which one didn't?"
"The one Puddle was barking at."
Julie's eyes froze. Puddle recognised
the storm warning cones and tried desperately to pretend that
he was a rock.
"One day, dog," She glared at him,
"You're going to get bitten; then you'll be sorry."
"How d'you do; I’m Jonathan
Swift, second secretary. I believe we're partners for the first
Tall, bespectacled, and with prematurely
thinning dark hair, Jonathan carried about him an air of earnest
confusion. Recently arrived in Ngombia, he was desperately trying
to adjust to his first overseas posting. He wrinkled his nose
and fidgeted uncomfortably.
"Bit sticky, isn't it?"
Daylight had broken on Rupert's tournament
and the first of the competitors and their supporters were milling
around sleepily in the early morning humidity. Shafts of colourless
sunlight, portents of the heat to come, stabbed blindingly between
the slender trunks of the trees that surrounded the British embassy
Jonathan and James' American opponents
came up to introduce themselves.
"Hi, I'm Stan Borman, and this here's
The four men shook hands.
"Vince is an economics analyst with
USAID. I'm the embassy archivist; that’s kind of a filing
"Stan's the one with the computer
brain; I just try to find useful ways to spend U.S. taxpayers'
money in Ngombia."
"And have you?"
"Have I what?"
"Found any useful ways to spend your
Vince thought for a few moments; the
question was a bit heavy for first thing in the morning.
"I guess that depends on your definition
of 'useful'," He replied eventually.
"How about building health clinics
up-country?" Suggested James, "Wouldn't that be useful?"
"Mighty useful to folk in the bush,"
Vince conceded, "And just what all presidents should do for their
James tried a few practice swipes
with his tennis racquet.
"So why don't they?"
Vince paused for a moment to reflect.
"I guess," He spoke thoughtfully,
"It's a case of working the system. If presidents used their own
people's taxes to build clinics, then asked us for our people's
taxes to build palaces, we'd refuse." He shrugged, "So they do
it the other way round."
"You mean, they use their own people’s
money to build palaces for themselves, then, when the money runs
out, turn to you to look after the starving poor?"
"You got it," Vince agreed, "And it's
hard to refuse."
"You’d look like the rich man
turning away the starving poor."
"And eventually," He said, "The poor
become our responsibility, not theirs."
Rupert Mainwaring came bustling through
the trees, a slightly crumpled programme clutched in his left
"I say, chaps," Rupert’s gaze
swivelled busily between schedule and wristwatch, "Could we buck
things up, just a teensy bit?"
The four players wandered down to
their allotted court, Rupert clucking and fussing around them
like an anxious mother hen. As soon as they were settled, Rupert
squawked off, schedule flapping, in search of other tardy competitors.
James wondered idly whether, if Rupert stood still, he'd lay
"Suppose," James returned to his original
conversation with Vince, "Suppose you could approve any one project
you wanted, what would do the most good for Ngombia?"
"Easy," Sunlight flashed from his
glasses, "Farm to market roads."
"What on earth are they?"
"A network of simple feeder roads,"
Said Vince, "To give rural farmers access to markets where they
could sell their produce. Their lives would be transformed. The
long term economic impact on the country would be fundamental."
The project would be huge, said Vince,
and would only work if country farmers could sell their produce
at a profit. Subsidies on imported rice would have to end, which
would mean that rice prices in Tuehville city would have to rise.
The president had turned the idea down flat.
"Why? What's so special about rice
prices in the city?"
Vince gave James a sideways look.
"People in the interior are invisible.
If they can't afford to grow food, they just go hungry," He unzipped
his kitbag and pulled out a motley collection of racquets, balls
and towels, "But if people in the city can't afford to buy it,
The Brits lost, six games to three,
despite their opponents' good-natured determination to surrender
every line call.
"All stems from premature independence,"
Rupert muttered darkly.
"Quit worrying," Stan Borman handed
Rupert a freezing can of Budweiser, "You can beat us all at golf
Chapter twenty one
Back to previous page
"Your putt, Stan; for another birdie."
Tom Edwards retreated out of Stan
Borman's line of sight.
Stan's meticulous nature was reflected
in his play, and his deft accuracy around the tiny, oiled-sand
greens of Ngombia's only golf-course had already elevated him
to scratch status, an experience he was unlikely to repeat in
his lifetime and one which he treasured dearly.
Stan's ball drilled its way across
the dark brown oily sand, trailing a tiny furrow. It dropped,
with a satisfying plomp, into the centre of the hole.
"How come you Americans are always
so good at this game?"
Rupert's voice came from the edge
of the green.
"You're always so wretchedly enthusiastic,"
He rattled on; Rupert rarely worried unduly about replies. "Into
everything, all over the place. How many of you are there in the
country? There must be hundreds."
"Oh, I guess there's a few of us,"
Stan observed mildly.
"Can't help wondering," Rupert was
undeterred, "What on earth brought Americans here in the first
"I'm not exactly sure myself,"
Stan smiled his slow easy smile, "But I guess it started with the
Second World War."
"Come on, Rupert," Tom nudged him
gently in the ribs, "The foursome behind us is waiting to play."
They set off up the slope to the next
tee, leaving behind them the green boy, dragging his block of
wood around and around the hole in ever widening circles, smoothing
out the footprints and furrows in the sandy surface ready for
the next set of players. Stan continued his story.
"Ngombia pledged loyalty to the allied
cause, and we shipped in mountains of supplies for the Mediterranean
campaign. But there was nothing here; Tuehville was just a tiny
Stan took a two iron and a freshly
polished ball from his caddy.
"We started from scratch; mapped out
the entire country, built a new port, and had just finished drawing
up plans for a new Tuehville when D-Day happened and the urgency
kind of disappeared."
Stan placed the ball carefully on
a tuft of grass and dried his hands on the little towel clipped
to his trolley.
"We've probably still got all the
old maps buried somewhere in the archives," He gave a brief,
neat practice swing, "I doubt if anyone's seen them in twenty
years. Might be interesting to dig them out one day."
The next morning, James called to
congratulate Stan Borman. It had been Stan's third medal in three
"Thanks, James. Trouble is, now the
committee are insisting I play off minus two."
It didn't really trouble Stan at all;
a negative handicap was better than being ambassador. Almost.
"Stan," James hesitated, "This may
seem a dumb question."
"The BWA has a real problem in trying
to help new wives find their way around Tuehville."
"Heck; don’t we all."
"After what you said yesterday, I
wondered if it would be possible to have a rootle around your
archives and see if any of those old maps still exist?"
"Sure, I don't see why not; they were
military maps, but they must have been declassified years ago.
To be honest, I think most of them were just coastal surveys,
not maps of the city."
Stan saw the look of disappointment
on James' face.
"Still," He offered encouragingly,
"No harm in having a look. Come on over tomorrow morning and I'll
let you know if I've found anything."
James returned the next morning just
after sunrise; Stan’s coffee percolator had only just come
to the boil.
"Hey," Stan peered at him over the
top of his half-moon reading glasses, "You are an eager beaver."
James smiled. "The morning rush is
over; the garage should be quite for an hour or so."
Stan opened a cupboard door and withdrew
"Sit yourself down," He offered,
"Have a coffee whilst I tell what I know."
"Thanks," James was trying very hard
to be patient, "I'd appreciate it."
Stan placed a steaming mug on the
notepad that lay on the desk.
"It looks like you may find your street
maps after all."
James felt his skin prickle slightly.
"How do you know?"
"Old memos," Said Stan, "I came across
some very old memos."
The prickle was stronger.
"And I managed to identify the location
of this particular archive."
"Where?" James was on the edge of
"Do you know the Tuehville sewage
Ye gods! thought James, no
wonder nobody hadd ever found the maps.
"Sorry, Stan; it’s not been
one of my priorities."
"No," Mused Stan, "No, I don't suppose
it is for most people. I guess that's why nobody's been down
"You're not going to tell me..."
"Don't worry," Stan smiled, "The maps
are stored in a small hut on a track leading to the plant. I'll
draw you a diagram of how to get there."
Stan's amateur cartography was as
precise as everything else about him; James watched the elegantly
concise maze of black lines blossom before his eyes.
"Normally, James, there's no way we'd
allow a non-embassy official anywhere near our records, but I
checked this one out. It's not actually an archive; the maps
were declassified years ago and have been available for sale
to the general public ever since."
"For sale to the public?" James was
staggered, "How come nobody knows?"
The slow smile again. "They're military
maps, James, and the military are not strong on advertising and
promotion. Besides, who'd want a thirty year old map of part
of the coastline of a tiny West African state?"
"Point taken," James conceded,
"But if I did want one, how would I go about buying it?"
"Theoretically," Stan took a mouthful
of his coffee, "There's a charge of one Nomba per map but, to
be honest, it's not worth the paperwork. If you find anything
that interests you, just help yourself. I believe there's an
old caretaker who looks after the store; he probably can't read,
but I've written a note authorising him to release any maps you
Stan handed over a brief letter typed
on embassy letterhead; James took it without reading it.
"Thanks very much Stan; I really appreciate
all your help."
"Hey, it was nothing; I don't often
handle a request like this. Good luck with your rootling."
James turned to go; he was halfway
to the door when Stan called after him.
"Those old memos I mentioned."
"What about them?"
"They told an interesting story. Seems
like somebody did try to name Tuehville's streets after all,
but sorting it all out was no easy task. The issue went all the
way up to cabinet level. Finally had to get the Minister of Transport
to approve each and every one."
"Yeah," Stan poured himself another
mug of coffee, "He and his cabinet went stomping all over Tuehville,
deciding which street would have what name."
"Any idea who he was?" Asked James.
"Sure do," Replied Stan, "It was Aloysius
Sharman; Gertie Garbo's old man."