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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 3 - A Visit From Mr Noah

…To her credit Madeleine was not the epitome of a diplomatic service spouse. Nor did she confine herself to the straight jacket of running the Residence, for which service she received a small commission. She tried very hard to immerse herself in activities which were out with the parochial confines of the “High Commotion”, as she liked to call it, to the mild irritation of her husband. Armed with boxes of home made biscuits and cakes, Madeleine made thrice weekly visits to SOS Children’s Village located on the outskirts of Dombe, and helped entertain orphaned toddlers, many of whom were stricken with AIDS. She was a prominent supporter of a small animal welfare shop which sold second hand clothes, crockery and assorted junk in their little shop. The dear old lady who took centre stage in the organization had been doing the job for many years and knew a kindly face when she saw one. She sprang her little trap one morning when Madeleine was working. Could a decrepit donkey named Egbert be taken into the extensive Residence grounds on a permanent basis? The poor thing had a history of maltreatment. Madeleine didn’t give the request a moment’s further consideration….

Madeleine, the British High Commissioner’s wife, is adapting to life in Zungula much better than her husband, who is ill-prepared for the tasks which face him.

Then Mr Noah, a trader in African artifacts, enters their lives.

Michael Wood’s novel, leavened with humour, draws the reader into the frustrations of a man confronted by much more than he bargained for.

Sunday at last – the only day Sandy Mackelson felt free of harassment. Her Majesty’s High Commissioner in Zungula was not a happy man in spite of the luxury which surrounded him in the grounds of the Residence. In the month which had elapsed since he and his wife arrived, it was she who had settled the better.

Parading around the elegant corridors of London’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Mackelson had been sure that his new job would be a doddle. Against all expectation, there had hardly been a moment to pause for breath since he completed that awful journey from Heathrow. A number of tricky issues had come up, or were appearing on the horizon. There had been no hint of these in his briefing. Problems were piling up, one on top of the other. This wasn’t what he’d imagined at all.

While he struggled to stay afloat, in the alternative world which Madeleine inhabited, he witnessed in her an energy and enthusiasm which he had not seen on other overseas postings. She had quickly adapted to Zungula’s tropical conditions and coped with the draining humidity much better than him, even if this meant he had to bear the sight of her sagging flesh more than was customary. Within days she had set about engaging with the other office spouses, organizing coffee mornings, and making quite a good job, she felt, of befriending people. The older women at least, thought her quite fun. Indeed they considered her a refreshing improvement to the awful handbag wielding Dutch spouse of Sandy’s predecessor; a woman who had been universally disliked.

Madeleine had busied herself in the Residence doing the things that are considered normal for a newly arrived High Commissioner’s wife. Professionals were brought in to shampoo the carpets under the supervision of a hook-nosed Indian woman who, careful to make the right impression, ranted at her Zungulan charges as if they were mentally defective.

Elegantly patterned drapes which were not quite to Madeleine’s liking were auctioned off for next to nothing in the High Commission’s annual clear out of unwanted office furnishings. The Residence received a new coat of paint from top to bottom. Kitchens were given a revamp; all the latest stainless steel appliances flown in from London. As the new Madame, Madeleine was certainly sweeping clean. She supervised re-tiling of the Residence swimming pool, bringing to it her taste for Roman-style mosaics, purchased from a specialist shop on the King’s Road. A concrete- lined water feature at the entrance to the house, which some had considered quite elegant, was filled with soil and bold indigenous plants. These gave the front of the Residence a fresh and striking tropical appeal. The Raucous Toads which had croaked incessantly at night, like ducks quacking through megaphones, had thankfully migrated elsewhere. Sandy could sleep at last.

The cost of home improvements began to create quite a dent in the office budget. Yet even if Madeleine’s projects were criticized behind the scenes, no one had the balls to say anything to her face. So it was hardly surprising that she felt encouraged to devise a list of further actions which would be needed before she was fully satisfied with the place where she and her husband would be required to entertain Ministers. Perhaps even the President; where Sandy would soon be hosting his first Queen’s Birthday Party.

The tennis court would have to be resurfaced before too long. Madeleine understood that the Vice President and his wife (apparently twenty five years his junior) were players of some enthusiasm. However there would be no point inviting them to display their skills at the Residence while the existing court was potholed and filled with puddles after each day’s rain. Mind you, she pondered, Sandy wouldn’t be much opposition even if the court was repaired. He was utterly spastic and had abut as much hand-eye coordination as a two year old. Madeleine had pleaded with her husband to buy a new racquet before they left London. He simply wouldn’t hear of it. She knew that the old wooden Maxply was a disgrace. Her husband had been a laughing stock at Dulwich Lawn Tennis Club, and rightly so, even allowing for the snobbery of its members.

In spite of her bulbous shape, it was Madeleine who offered a reasonable game, having first learned at Madras College in St Andrews. She had played regularly since, was capable of a heavy serve and had a wicked forehand. Sandy in contrast played occasional social tennis, and even then, only if numbers were short. Just the sight of him wielding the Maxply would trigger the sniggering. To think that he also paraded those knee length pirate pants. He had looked like the village idiot. Still, Madeleine thought on further reflection, what’s good enough for that Nadal boy!

She would also have to attend to the Residence gardens. Goodness knows what the staff had been doing these last few years while their predecessors were in situ. Some of the trees had grown so tall that they were blocking out light to the house. The shrubs had turned woody and needed cutting back, the watsonias splitting; lawns had been unkempt when they first moved in, and there was virtually no colour in the beds. Some of this would have to be put right long before the QBP.

To her credit Madeleine was not the epitome of a diplomatic service spouse. Nor did she confine herself to the straight jacket of running the Residence, for which service she received a small commission. She tried very hard to immerse herself in activities which were out with the parochial confines of the “High Commotion”, as she liked to call it, to the mild irritation of her husband. Armed with boxes of home made biscuits and cakes, Madeleine made thrice weekly visits to SOS Children’s Village located on the outskirts of Dombe, and helped entertain orphaned toddlers, many of whom were stricken with AIDS. She was a prominent supporter of a small animal welfare shop which sold second hand clothes, crockery and assorted junk in their little shop. The dear old lady who took centre stage in the organization had been doing the job for many years and knew a kindly face when she saw one. She sprang her little trap one morning when Madeleine was working. Could a decrepit donkey named Egbert be taken into the extensive Residence grounds on a permanent basis? The poor thing had a history of maltreatment. Madeleine didn’t give the request a moment’s further consideration.

“Of course we shall have him. I’m sure he’ll be perfectly happy. Though we’ll need to train him to stay off the flower beds,” she said as an afterthought.

Yes, Sandy Mackelson couldn’t but help admire the enthusiasm with which his wife was approaching life in Dombe, though he had been less than impressed with the thought of Egbert joining them at the Residence. In contrast to his wife, Sandy had been routinely depressed since their arrival in Dombe, and though he would never admit it to Madeleine, he felt a sense of inadequacy among his new peers. To his surprise he found that there was much more to local politics than he had thought possible; senior Zungulans were more articulate than he had imagined of people coming from such a poor country. He had already had the unpleasant experience of being defeated in debate.

Neither had the High Commissioner yet made an impression on the long list of Ministers to whom it was customary to make preliminary courtesy calls – they always seemed to be away in Kintyre where the President maintained his principal residence. Sandy now realized he should have worked much, much harder mugging up on personality profiles when he had the chance in London, so that at least he could concentrate on the most important individuals. Above all however, he felt his shortcomings stemmed from profound ignorance about all things African. In the circumstances, he thought defensively, how could he be anything else? He had begun his career doing low level consular work in Barbados. As a youngster he hadn’t thought about how one progressed through the ranks. Instead he indulged in the sun and sex commonly associated with island life – each liberally mixed with Cockspur Five Star for which he retained a thirst to this day. Already he missed the forays to AG Gittens’ off-license in Railton Road, to restock with this smoothest of rums, and to enjoy a little banter with the proprietor.

“Dis com from genwin Bajan cane ya know. Don’ trash it man wit coke and all dem tings. Jus’ some hice ya wantin’. Ya take it like dat, boy, the dog dead.” And the old man would chuckle at the base humour which he knew would leave most Britons bemused.

The Caribbean had been Sandy’s only prior experience of living among black people but any resemblance to Zungulans ended with skin colour. In those balmy days he had learned to dance the calypso in convincing style, swinging his hips in the suggestively alluring manner for which West Indian people were renowned. He would party as hard as the rest of the islanders, frequently coming home with the milk, and much the worse for wear. Colleagues were not surprised when he began a love affair with a Bajan beauty, married as it turned out, whose shared passions were riding his Norton Commando along the narrow country roads dividing fields of tall sugar cane, or skinny dipping in the calm waters of Sandy Lane Beach. The affair ended in tears. An enraged husband discovered their secret liaisons. The man handled things the West Indian way. He beat young Suzy Braithwaite until her face was swollen.

Even before the thrashing however, Suzie had begun to tire of Sandy and to complain about the infrequency of his lovemaking, afflicted no doubt by his fondness for rum. He, on the other hand, felt threatened by the aggressive racism the couple endured from Barbadian men when they were out in public.

“Girl what ya doin wid a honky? Y’all puss mus’ smell sometin’ now,” had been typical of the remarks.

So Sandy was eventually left high and dry. At the end of his tour in Bridgetown he moved to Kuala Lumpar as a Second Secretary doing routine commercial work, for which he felt little enthusiasm. He did pretty much the same at a higher level in Bangkok before moving to then dreary Warsaw as Head of Chancery, where his political skills were barely tested. It was in Thailand that he received a letter out of the blue from Madeleine, his teenage sweetheart, tired of the East Neuk of Fife. She soon arrived for a holiday in the exhilarating metropolis of eight million people. The two reacquainted themselves so completely that marriage followed within months, putting pay to any fun Sandy was having with local girls.
There were spells in London between these three to four year appointments, but hitherto, the nearest Sandy Mackelson had got to Africa was his last role as Deputy Head of Mission in Amman. His had not been a glittering career. DFA had not been impressed with or forgetful of the minor scandal he had created in Barbados; much later, he had also been chastened for not taking the trouble to learn a foreign language, a matter which the organization took very seriously. He had hoped this last posting to unfashionable Dombe would be his swan song; that sending the occasional telegram back to King Charles Street reporting on the political and economic situation (which others would draft), cutting the ribbons at formal openings of aid projects, and helping to keep the small British business community in good spirits, would be enough to convince the powers back home that he was active.

Instead, he found himself ill-prepared for a much more demanding role. As the former colonial power, the British plenipotentiary was expected to lead among European and US counterparts in strongly opposing President Chilembe’s intentions of running for a third term of office. London was furious about reports of Chilembe’s plans to amend the Constitution to accommodate this ambition. However, when confronted with the reality of a face to face meeting with the Head of State, Mackelson’s performance was well below par.

“You see,” the President had said to the delegation of protesting Ambassadors, “I am not the one who is propagating this idea. Ah no. But my people have made their wishes clear. They want this President to stay on. How can I let them down?” he had asked rhetorically. “And if I may say your Excellency,” he continued, wagging a podgy finger directly at Sandy Mackelson, “the British gavanment is in no position to chastise me. For has not Tonny Blair already begun his thad tam of office?” Mackelson had remained speechless. He had even rehearsed what to say if this argument came up, but the President had cleverly moved the conversation on, and the opportunity for a retort was lost.

Then there was the matter of a deteriorating security situation in the north. This had started with two men from different tribes disputing ownership of a cow. One protagonist had settled the argument by plunging a spear into the other, then nonchalantly pulling the animal away. Within a few days there had been related outbreaks of violence with one tribe lining up against the other in the vicinities of Machope and Chiweta. Dozens had been killed. The High Commissioner had been asked by the Minister of Home Affairs to join a triumvirate of independent peace negotiators including the better than average EC Delegate, and someone drawn from the NGO community. The last of these had taken steps to bring a few tribal chiefs together to discuss reconciliation. Mackelson felt at sea. He had no idea how to negotiate with two sides whom he thought were obvious savages, and he had been reluctant to step forward. Momentum behind the Minister’s initiative and subsequent NGO efforts then stalled.

Mackelson also faced difficulty over a British teacher who had been chased by an angry crowd into the High Commission grounds. Locals had accused the man of raping a young schoolboy and were baying for his blood. Dombe newspapers had a field day. They castigated “British perverts” for bringing their “disgusting practices to Zungula”. For it was well known that there were no African shoga.. The mob had organized a full time presence outside the High Commission gates. Mackelson had to arrange temporary quarters and around the clock security for the teacher; he had asked the police to remove the mob before he could agree to release the man into their custody for investigation of charges laid. Five days on, the crowd were still chanting their slogans and showing no sign of dispersing. The police did nothing. Mackelson decided he would have to call on their Commissioner, to avert a greater escalation of the crisis.

If the combination of these events was not enough, there was also a possible security threat to the British community at large, and the High Commission in particular. Envelopes spilling a white powdery substance had been intercepted in the mail room. While UK officials steered clear, Zungulan staff issued only with rubber gloves had been instructed to open and assess the offending correspondence. The envelopes had Kintyre postmarks and in time honoured fashion, contained messages crudely made up of words extracted from newspaper print:

“British die for colonial”

“Blair. Garden Brown. Now you pay from Muslim”
The powder was forwarded by courier to Johannesburg for laboratory examination. Mackelson had not dismissed the possibility that it could be anthrax. MI6 had warned that the mission in Dombe might be judged by enemies of Britain to be a soft target. Zungula had a mixed Christian and Muslim population. Even if there were only half a dozen fanatics among the latter, these could pose a threat. As it was, the High Commission was no longer accepting mail through the post and there were severe disruptions to consular and aid business.

Her Majesty’s representative was beginning to feel as if all of this was over his head; he felt swamped. He hadn’t even begun to think about the content of his Queen’s Birthday Party speech, and the event was the diplomatic highlight of the year. As he sat in the shade of the Residence khonde gripping the remains of a Zungula gin and tonic, another depression was beginning to set in. Mary, the most senior of four maids, approached him from the open living room doors. The watchman had informed her about the arrival of a visitor. She was aware that the individual had been a regular when the Mackelsons’ predecessors were in situ and she was on friendly terms. His name was Noah Bamidele.

“Shall I tell him to go away, Master?” Mary had asked when she detected her boss’s dark mood. The unfortunate “master” appellation was still commonly used by subservient people in Zungula. It stuck in the craw of many and there were those who took time to explain why it was now embarrassing. This had not yet occurred to Sandy Mackelson.

“What does he want?” he asked broodily, and without waiting for her reply, “Tell him I’m busy.” Mary turned, quietly collecting Mackelson’s empty glass as she did so.

“Wait! Ask him to come,” he suddenly snapped, on second thoughts. Mackelson figured that any distraction was better than brooding over the worries he faced at work. “But make sure he’s checked at the gate before he comes in.” Mary understood the term. Noah would be searched.

A few minutes later he appeared on the khonde, with Madeleine following closely behind. Her husband’s shock must have registered on eir visitor as his opening words plainly indicated.

“Will I leave, Master?”

The High Commissioner could hardly credit what had come into his company. Noah was not, on first appearance, someone who ought to be seen rubbing shoulders with those at the Residence. He was dressed in shabby trousers, patched at the knee. His well worn shoes looked as if they had been retrieved from a rubbish tip. He wore a grubby black and white, hand-made smock-shirt and a matching cap. He smelled of cheap tobacco and as if he had been in close proximity to a bonfire. Over his shoulder he carried a large, bulging, brown cloth sack.

“My wife and I were about to go out.” Mackelson lied. “What is it you want here?” he asked pompously, making a mental note to give the watchman a tongue lashing for allowing this individual within a hundred metres of the Residence.

“Master. I am trader. I bring artifactees. Very old boss. Maybe you and Madame would like to see?”

Without waiting for an invitation which instinctively he knew wouldn’t come, Noah kneeled on the tiled patio floor and quickly opened up the sack. There was an imploring expression on his upturned face which said “please God, hear me out”.

Madeleine felt sorry for him and wondered how on earth he carried such a load around in the heat. It looked unbearably heavy. The trader took out eight very solid looking carvings and one package smothered in bubble wrap. He gazed up at his hosts now seated in their comfortable wicker khonde arm chairs; already he sensed their interest. For these were magnificent pieces of work carved by real village craftsmen for traditional ceremonies and festive occasions – initiation rights, legitimizing the authority of chiefs, evoking the spirits of ancestors, celebrating the harvest, circumcision, a call to war. Each was so precious that they must have been given up with great reluctance by economically distressed village people.

“This one is Nimba maxix (mask) from Guinea. This one Dan from Ivory Coast. And this Kalelya from Congo. All these maxix are old Boss, maybe fifty or eighty years.”

Sandy Mackelson picked up and examined one of the masks. He could see how precise the wood cutting had been; how superbly the chisel had been deployed. The piece certainly had an authentic smokey village aroma. It had a simplicity yet was clearly a fine work of art. Then he studied a particularly macabre figure. It stood about a metre high and had hundreds of rusting nails driven into one side of its head and across its entire torso. Its belly had a piece of glass inserted into the woodwork and there was something not quite discernible inside.

“Boss, this is the Nkonde, also from Congo. Each of these nails is promise given by someone and witness by a fetishist. Anyone who not keep the promise then he die,” Noah said dramatically.

Madeleine shuddered at the thought. Noah explained that there was real power in these figures. The fetishist could inflict sudden illness on any defaulter and this might progress to death if the person concerned did not make amends. An Nkonde’s face was made to look terrifying, the mouth always agape as if shouting a warning to those who didn’t stand by their promises. Encased in the glass stomach were magical substances from which the fetishist derived his power. “Sometimes even a human hat (heart) Boss.”

Sandy Mackelson wanted the Nkonde figure. He was fascinated by it and quickly dismissed Madeleine’s fear that it might bring them bad luck. The masks were also the best they had ever seen and a far cry from the quickly hacked-out rubbish which cluttered the homes of many a tourist visitor to Africa. Throughout the discussion, Noah made no reference to the bubble wrapped piece, but his favourite psychological ploy was working its own magic.

“What is in this bigger package?” Sandy Mackelson’s resistance had crumbled.

“Master, this one very special.” Noah, carefully began to unwrap it. Under the polythene was another layer of rough cloth as if to underline the value of what was about to be revealed, and adding to the Mackelsons’ suspense. “This one came from the Asantehene’s palace in Kumasi. You can see Boss, it is rare.”

The quality of this last piece of work was indeed more superb than anything they had seen before, except perhaps the African treasures which Madeleine had insisted she take Sandy to see at the British Museum. It depicted a naked woman upon the shoulders of a man covered only by a small piece of kente cloth around his protruding genitals. The woman had platted hair and tiny red and gold beads around her neck and ankles. Her hands with painted nails, clutched nubile breasts. Under the kente, the man displayed a semi-erect penis. Madeleine and Sandy agreed that they would have to have this too, even if it was risque´. It would add a certain earthiness to their entrance hall, they thought, an African authenticity which might also prove a conversation piece for guests, along with the Dan mask and fearsome Nkonde figure.

However much the Mackelsons had been alarmed by their first impression of Noah Bamidele, they had warmed to him a little. Madeleine went off to make him a sandwich and some tea while her husband began the inevitable haggle over the price to be paid for their object d’art. As a newcomer to Zungula, Sandy was still mentally converting Kwacha prices into Sterling. He fetched a kitsch talking calculator from the study. Noah was completely fascinated as the electronic voice within the circuitry repeated each number that the High Commissioner punched in.

“Boss, no African could make this machine. It prove that of all the people in the world, it is the whites who are the most clever to do this thing. We pray for the day when white people come back to rule this place.”

“Actually, the calculator was made in Korea,” Mackelson replied drily.

“Maybe so Master. But it was the white men who showed them how to do it.”

Sandy was thankful when Madeleine returned, followed by Mary carrying refreshments on a tray. He had no wish to enter into a discussion about the dubious merits of colonialism. With some food filling Noah’s belly, and tea with four sugars, it seemed that he was amenable to Sandy’s counter-offers for the carvings. At last all seemed satisfied with their end of the bargain. Madeleine had also dug out an old pair of jeans which her husband never wore, and a pair of tennis shoes. Although the latter had seen better days they still had more mileage in them than those which Noah was wearing. While expressing gratitude, the trader asked for a plastic bag to carry them away in, and a note confirming that he hadn’t stolen them. This, the Mackelsons found, was a common enough request in Zungula.

Having earned from the deal what seemed like a small fortune, Noah was now ready to take his leave, asking permission to return at some future date, when he might have more pieces to show his hosts. His livelihood depended on keeping in with regular clients, and these were thin on the ground. The High Commissioner wasn’t quite ready to let him go.

“Perhaps there is something else you can do for us. I collect train memorabilia. Do you know what I mean by that? I want things like railway station signs. Anything to do with trains really.” Madeleine rolled her eyebrows in apparent exasperation.

There had been no functioning railway in Zungula for the last five years. The World Bank had used its muscle and insisted on closure of the single track to Mozambique, as part of a so called economic recovery programme. It was cheaper they argued, to move freight by road. They persuaded the Minister of Finance that the country could not afford railway maintenance costs. Mackelson knew all about the closure. What interested him was the precise location of mothballed steam engines which once operated. In particular, was it possible to get hold of their brass or copper nameplates? Noah considered this unusual request and smiled.

“I will try for you Boss.”

Madeleine handed over his plastic bag with the jeans and shoes, and the note which he had requested. However much they had taken to him, she didn’t want to run the risk of this man helping himself to something on the way out, so she accompanied him to the front door. With a lighter load over his shoulder, Madeleine watched Noah disappear down the road; just as it started to rain a little, with the familiar smell of lightly sprinkled paving making her think of home.

© Michael Wood


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