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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 7 - The Queen's Birthday

...The President was more than pleased with Tembo’s performance and began to reward him handsomely. The two men became close associates. In time, Chilembe saw advantage to be gained by moving Tembo into the political arena. The logical place for a man of such skill was one of the most high profile Cabinet positions. As Minister of Finance, Tembo became responsible for attracting aid money from as many sources as possible. Hundreds of millions of dollars were involved each year. So much money was flowing in that it was surely appropriate a little might find its way to the top men, who worked so diligently in the service of the people of Zungula...

Now in his early fifties, Joe Tembo was enjoying the fruits of his success. He lived alone in a beautiful replica colonial house in Area 43 of Dombe. Alone if one excluded the small army of servants, some of whom occupied quarters tucked away to the rear of the property. Tembo boasted that his swimming pool was the biggest in town. Bigger even than the American Ambassador’s. He was chauffeured in a metallic blue Jaguar car which was much more admired than the run of the mill black Mercedes allocated to Cabinet colleagues. And far more in keeping with what he thought to be his sparkling personality. He was feted wherever he went, eating at the finest tables in the private homes of those who sought his ear. His own parties were legendary. Once a month, except during the rains, he would invite dozens of guests to his home. A local jazz band was hired to play, and a DJ recruited to fill in when the musicians took their beer breaks. Booze flowed generously and of course there were girls, girls, girls, whose role needed no amplification...

Meanwhile, it is June 3rd, the Queen's official birthday, and British High Commissioner Sandy Mackelson is making a speech at the annual garden party when there is a rude and most unfortunate interruption.

Michael Wood continues his gloriously readable sad-funny novel of present-day life in a mythical African country. For earlier chapters please click on When The Crocodile Smiles in the menu on this page.

Joe Tembo was a “Big Man” long before his appointment as Minister of Finance. He had previously been the Vice Chancellor of Elliot Joseph Chilembe University and Managing Director of Fortune Holdings, a company which controlled a countrywide chain of supermarkets trading under the unlikely name of Kudya Price Cut Lifesavers. Fortune was owned by the President as part of his personal business empire.

Tembo brought about dramatic change at KPCL. He diversified beyond the normal range of foodstuffs into household utensils, cheap clothing from China, and electrical appliances. At the same time he shrank the workforce and convinced those who remained that they were lucky to keep their jobs. They were required to work longer hours for the same pay. Company profits grew dramatically.

The President was more than pleased with Tembo’s performance and began to reward him handsomely. The two men became close associates. In time, Chilembe saw advantage to be gained by moving Tembo into the political arena. The logical place for a man of such skill was one of the most high profile Cabinet positions. As Minister of Finance, Tembo became responsible for attracting aid money from as many sources as possible. Hundreds of millions of dollars were involved each year. So much money was flowing in that it was surely appropriate a little might find its way to the top men, who worked so diligently in the service of the people of Zungula.

Now in his early fifties, Joe Tembo was enjoying the fruits of his success. He lived alone in a beautiful replica colonial house in Area 43 of Dombe. Alone if one excluded the small army of servants, some of whom occupied quarters tucked away to the rear of the property. Tembo boasted that his swimming pool was the biggest in town. Bigger even than the American Ambassador’s. He was chauffeured in a metallic blue Jaguar car which was much more admired than the run of the mill black Mercedes allocated to Cabinet colleagues. And far more in keeping with what he thought to be his sparkling personality. He was feted wherever he went, eating at the finest tables in the private homes of those who sought his ear. His own parties were legendary. Once a month, except during the rains, he would invite dozens of guests to his home. A local jazz band was hired to play, and a DJ recruited to fill in when the musicians took their beer breaks. Booze flowed generously and of course there were girls, girls, girls, whose role needed no amplification.

Tembo was academically gifted and quick on the uptake. He was charming and still handsome in spite of moving past middle age. As a powerful man, known by all to be close to the President, he could have his pick of available Zungulan women, even some who were not, and indeed was profligate in his attentions to many. Mixing business with pleasure came easily to him. A growing addiction to the charms of the less than sophisticated Patience Phiri illustrated the point. However he couldn’t help but ask himself how of late, he had become so predominantly entangled with his secretary. Patience was from a relatively humble background but she had two characteristics which marked her out as exceptional in an otherwise ordinary pool of female staff. Driving ambition for a better quality of life, and a physique which men were lured towards like bees to honey. When she first enquired about a job in the Minister’s office, Tembo hadn’t even looked at her qualifications, though fortuitously she had turned out to be a good and conscientious worker. He had seen enough from the photograph on the front page of her application. As soon as she walked through the door of his office he had made up his mind that she must be his. She excited him. It mattered not a jot that she was already married. At first he kept his desire in check. He complimented her excellent typing, the speed of her shorthand, the courteous manner in which she received his visitors; her lovely smile when he had warned her about the cockroaches from the International Monetary Fund.

Soon he felt confident enough to touch her. A hand left on her shoulder as he stood over her at the computer. An arm around her perfect waist as they discussed the day’s diary. Never once did the girl flinch or make clear that his attentions were unwarranted. With each day that passed his familiarity with her was carefully cultivated so that in due course he might reap the rewards. He would say that she looked “especially beautiful today”, or comment on the pretty way she had attended to her hair. Patience enjoyed the attention and knew instinctively that her boss, an important, rich man, was attracted to her.

In spite of enduring conservatism in Zungulan society, Patience knew how to use her womanly gifts to best effect. She began to wear clothes in the office that were more revealing of her fulsome figure, even if at first this put some strain on the family budget; shorter dresses, lower cut blouses which better showed off an ample cleavage, shoes with ridiculously high heels which she struggled to master – unlike those European women she had seen in the shopping mall whom she now tried to emulate.

While Patience efficiently went about her duties in the office, she also felt she had been given a green light to flirt with her boss. Naturally Joe Tembo approved, so long as this was not done publicly. She wiggled her back side in exaggerated fashion when she walked between their offices. She created opportunities, perhaps to pick up intentionally dropped papers, to bend low, challenging him with her own upturned eyes to feast on the fuller view of her breasts that she was displaying. He knew of course that if he could see, they were being shown to him. One evening, Tembo could restrain himself no longer. He called Patience into his office and instructed her to lock the door. She did so without question and walked slowly to him, looking sultry, knowing the effect she was having on him; a temptress. Tembo took her hand and gently spun her around so that they were both facing his desk. He kissed her neck and measured her reaction. Patience Phiri closed her eyes and began to rub her bottom into his groin. He slowly guided his hands from her belly to her breasts. She moaned her encouragement, rubbing and feeling the extent of his hardness. He lifted off her blouse and clumsily grappled with the hooks on her bra strap. At last he could see and caress the softness which spilled out. The woman’s nipples were bigger than he’d imagined and nicely erect – all the better for playing, he thought.

“Minister. Let me take off my panty,” Patience giggled excitedly.

She dropped her skirt to the floor and removed her knickers, a gorgeous bottom still pointing at him invitingly. The Minister wasted no more time. He freed himself from his bulging trousers and entered her moist, heavenly warmth from behind, urging Patience to rest her arms on his desk for support. They were soon moving expertly together, him thrusting, her pushing hard against him with each stroke, gyrating, groaning her pleasure. He cupped his hands over her breasts again and pushed faster, urgently, the pleasure of this young flesh bringing Tembo close to yielding. The change in him was easily detected by his attentive secretary.

“Come for me my Minister. Come now. Oh Minister, push at me hadda,” was the manner of her encouragement.

When finally he came, the explosive effect was more than he could bear. Her young vaginal muscles had been tightly clenched over him and she had been experienced enough to relax the pressure at the crucial moment, so intensifying his thrill. The sweat was dripping from his forehead; his still fastened shirt was soaked. Patience’s naked body was also glistening from her exertions. Tembo knew that she hadn’t climaxed that time. The intercourse hadn’t lasted long enough to give her a full share of the profits from their coupling. But he determined that this woman would be no one off. She was far too good a screw to go to waste. He would have her any time he wanted, he vowed. This was a special girl whom he felt sure would indulge his every fantasy. Mrs Patience Phiri had become his lover, and a very willing one.

That was four months previously. Since then the two had made love frequently, usually in Tembo’s office, sometimes discreetly at his home. The sex had got even better with time, feeding the Minister’s appetite like a fix to a junky. The duration of their mating and his stamina defied the man’s age. Tembo began to worry that their extended lunch hours were hindering his work; affairs of State as he had joked with Patience. No one else seemed to notice their absences.

The young woman enjoyed the secret liaisons; everything about her lover had class written all over it. She quietly inspected the things in his home, running her inquisitive fingers over the furnishings and textures with child-like curiosity; even admiring the diversity of alcoholic liquid in Tembo’s drinks cabinet, which she correctly surmised had cost a fortune.

Beyond the confines of his home, the Jaguar was of course a thrilling contrast to the taxi-buses which were her normal mode of transport. With the chauffeur given time off for lunch and his servants told to make themselves scarce, Joe would take the wheel on the short drive to his house. As soon as she jumped into the car, Patience would make sure that her man was more than ready for the first course. In turn he began to surprise her with elaborately wrapped presents, and cash for more of the clinging clothing he wanted her to wear. Soon she began to hate the thought of returning each evening to the Chabwele township where she and Sam shared that little house. If only she had married this Minister, she dreamed.

For a few weeks she had suspected it, but when her period didn’t come for the second time, she knew she was pregnant. Given the scant attention she had paid to her husband, the chances were that the baby was Joe Tembo’s. She announced this to him one evening while straddled across him on the office floor. Tembo’s reaction was calm and well rehearsed.

“Ahyy, no my dear. The seed cannot be mine. You see I had a small operation the last time I was in England,” he lied. “Those white people have made it possible for me to have sex with you, but not to give you a baby.”

* * * * * *

Sam Phiri had settled well into his new role. He realized he still had much to learn before he could claim to be fully accomplished, but Matthews Chihana had called him a couple of times from that grand office on the top floor of the Board, to tell him how pleased he was with his progress.

The more junior man had put together a special task force within his department to collate data on the maize harvest. He had given instructions that figures should be broken down by region. These were needed to compare with knowledge he already possessed about areas of the country and particular farmers (for these were meticulously listed) who had been in receipt of donor funded seeds and fertilizer the previous year. There had been high hopes that these farmers, the lucky recipients of free inputs, would have increased production accordingly. However his team had uncovered worrying anomalies where output had even fallen on some of the farms which had been assisted. Steps would need to be taken in concert with the Ministry of Agriculture, to correct the problems. He would try to persuade donors to concentrate some new money, on irrigation.

Sam’s task force was also required to cross check its findings with the Ministry, so that there could be no discrepancies. Of course there were ongoing discussions with the Ministry of Finance as well, whose wisdom was required when setting the price paid to farmers for their maize crop. All of this information would be eagerly awaited by delegates attending the Regional Food Security conference. Sam was even looking forward to this, as he was almost ready with an interesting set of data. There had been no need to accept Beauty Musajakawa’s offer of help from British officials in Dombe.

There was another reason why Sam Phiri was pleased with himself. He had watched his wife’s belly begin to swell over the last few weeks. Quietly, he observed a change in the size of her breasts as well, though he had been forbidden to sample their delights, so tender had they become. A baby was just what they needed right now. Obviously he had more money coming in. Much more. Patience too had returned home one evening to announce that she had had a step up, he presumed within the secretarial ranks – after all she was working for a Minister.

So he had allowed her the indulgence of buying new clothes and fancy shoes. In fact his wife’s whole appearance had changed quite dramatically over the last few months. She had transformed herself from the quiet country girl whom he first met in the Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary congregation, to quite a modern girl. While the new look stirred him, he had found that there was little point in getting excited. It would only lead to frustration. Patience had rebuffed his every move.

“Now that I am with child, you must not go with me. You can damage the baby so.”

The frequency of his rejection and the adamant way Patience protected herself did not at all perturb Sam Phiri. He laughed if off good-naturedly. In fact he had determined nothing was going to unsettle his new found happiness and the love he felt for his wife. Life was being kind to them both now. However this strong sense of well being was about to be take a knock. One morning, when Sam arrived at his office – habitually half an hour earlier than the rest of his colleagues, he was surprised to find Joe Tembo, the Minister of Finance, waiting for him. This was highly unusual. Officials called on Ministers, not the other way around. Sam was sure that the visitor’s distinctive car had not been parked outside. There had been no forewarning of the senior man’s presence. The two had never met but someone as prominent as Tembo could not be mistaken.

“Good morning to you Minister. Welcome. I am sorry that my secretary is not yet here to offer you tea. It is an honour to see you.”

Tembo weighed up what he judged to be a groveling introduction and surveyed Sam’s grubby, oversized suit which he presumed to be an acquisition from one of a thousand local tailors, or perhaps a second hand cast-off from the market. He wondered how Patience could have been attracted to this man. However, he was equally pleasant in his reply.

“I am delighted to meet you Sam. Mr Chihana speaks highly of you and of course I should offer congratulations on your promotion. It is a very important position that you now hold.”

“Thank you Minister. I am trying to make a good fist of it, as the British might say.”

“Indeed so.” Tembo left an uncomfortable pause in the conversation. Sam felt obliged to ask how he could be of service to the Minister.

“I come on behalf of the President no less.”

“The President?”

Sam could feel his heart beating faster. What on earth could the President want with him? Might he be planning to make an appearance at the Food Security meeting? This would make the event very high profile. It would raise the stakes. More briefing would be needed; contributions to a draft speech, no doubt. A lot of additional work when he was already fully stretched.

“The President wants to know how much grain is in the silos.”

Thank God, Sam thought to himself. He just wants information.

“There are sixty five thousand metric tonnes.”

“How much is this worth?”

“I am not sure of your meaning, Minister.”

“If you were to sell the grain on the international market, what would the country get for it?”

“But Minister surely there is no suggestion of selling the grain. We need this in Zungula. There are shortages in ………”

Tembo cut him off. “The President is keen to ensure that donor help is maximized if we are short of grain this year Sam. You are to sell our reserves. I ask you again. How much are they worth?”

“I cannot give a precise figure. Perhaps five million dollars.”

Sam Phiri was visibly shocked by the nature of this discussion but the Minister pressed on relentlessly. “The Kenya Government will buy. See to it that you sell all but five thousand tonnes. And Sam. The President would appreciate it if you took the necessary action immediately. That is before the start of your conference. Furthermore, there is to be no trace of the transaction. I will furnish you with details of an account to which the proceeds are to be credited. This will be with the Finance Bank of Zungula. I will be the sole signatory. Do you understand?”

“Minister, of course I understand. However what you propose is in direct contravention to provisions within the Public Finance Management Act. I can quote you chapter and verse.”

Sam may have been new to the job but what he had learned as part of his studies at Elliot Joseph Chilembe University, put him on the moral high ground. Tembo was impressed but unmoved.

“That will not be necessary Sam. There is no need for you to worry about little details. I am the Minister of Finance. You have not yet reached such exalted heights,” he added sarcastically.

The conversation was over. Tembo left without another word. Sam Phiri sat stunned at his desk. He knew from the data which his team had produced (figures for Northern Region had still to be compiled) that reserves would be needed as the hungry season progressed. The year had been exceptionally dry. From his visits home it had been obvious that the north in particular had suffered prolonged drought. Selling grain horrified him, even if the quantity they had in the silos was only a fraction of the nation’s requirements. Reserves had been paid for by the European Union three years previously in a gesture aimed at stabilizing local prices. The donors weren’t stupid. They would want to know what had happened to stocks. Sam was so worried he took his concern to Chihana on the top floor.

“Naturally I am aware of the President’s request,” the MD said casually, as Sam began to pace about, wringing his fingers in a state of extreme agitation.

“Sah, we need that grain.”

“Nonsense Phiri. The donors always provide in times of need. Is that not so? It will be easy to explain any discrepancy. Tell them that three years is a long time to keep grain in those poorly designed Russian built silos. Say a lot of it was spoiled. As for the rest, we have been distributing this in keeping with its intended purpose. To make up for shortfalls year on year.”

“They won’t fall for that,” Sam pleaded, raising his voice more than necessary. “They are bound to aks for the Board’s records on quantities which went where, and when.”

Chihana laughed at Sam’s naivety. “Phiri, my dear man. You must be more imaginative than that. Make up a story. I have told you what you can say. Embellish it. You can also claim a degree of administrative incompetence in your department if that is not too demeaning. Tell them five thousand tonnes is a best estimate of what is left. That your staff lack the required accounting expertise to be wholly accurate. That as part of any future assistance, you would welcome help from donors with long term training. They will applaud your honesty.”

“My honesty Sah?” Sam needed to take a deep breath before he could continue. “What I am being aksed to do is dishonest. The Minister has even told me that the proposed grain sale is to be kept secret. The instructions I have been given are entirely verbal. Will someone rectify matters by giving me written authority to proceed with the sale?”

Chihana now looked at Sam with a threatening expression, all traces of humour gone. “You, no one else Phiri, are the Head of Procurement and Sales. You will do as you are told. The Minister has made perfectly clear our President’s wishes. None of us can question his judgment on such matters. If you know what’s good for you and your family,” here he paused for effect, “you will proceed immediately with the sale of sixty thousand tonnes of grain. Subject to your early success, I may find a way to organize a bonus for you.”

Sam had been in the MD’s office only twice. On each occasion he had left bewildered. This time, he was also frightened. Chihana had made plain that he would not tolerate disobedience. The memory of their first meeting flooded back. “No need to thank me now Phiri”. The real reason for his promotion was becoming clear. The powers that be thought him reliably compliant. He had a young family, or soon would have. He would not sacrifice material benefits on issues of principle.

* * * * * *

The Residence was a flurry of activity. Maids, including additional staff brought in from other High Commission households for the day, mopped already clean tiled floors. They polished the brass ornaments until you could see your face in them; they dusted the furniture, cleaned the windows, arranged a mass of flowers in the hall, peeked and giggled at the genitals on Noah’s masterpiece from the Ashantehene’s palace. Kitchen fundis prepared tray upon tray of sandwiches, cheese and pineapple sticks, miniature pizzas, deep fried prawns from Mozambique, crudités with blue cheese and curry dips, rosemary flavoured meatballs with spicy sauce, vol-au-vents, savoury choux-buns, chicken skewers and much more.

In the garden, bars were set up at the north and south ends with champagne glasses amassed on a table close to the lectern. A dozen coolers, each fabricated from half an oil drum, were filled with ice, beer and soft drinks. The band stand had been erected. The Union Jack was hoisted on one side of it; Zungula’s flag depicting a spear-wielding warrior standing over a fallen leopard, on the other.

Even Egbert the donkey had been dressed up for the occasion. The beast had willingly accepted a red, white and blue sash around its neck which one of the house girls had sat up half the night stitching together by hand. A small red bow had been tied to the tip of his tail, initially causing the animal to flick this in irritation.

Madeleine supervised the frenetic morning in a manner which typified her efficiency and eye for detail, flitting from room to room, and corner to corner of the garden, insisting on last minute improvements in presentation. The kitchen needed particularly close attention. She knew her own staff were now up to standard, but she wasn’t going to risk immigrants from other households upsetting the apple cart. Although this was her husband’s day, it needed a great deal of work behind the scenes from her, if it was to prove a success. She demanded that there should be no grounds for complaint – especially about the food.

It was the third day of June. Her Majesty the Queen’s official birthday. A cause for celebration in every country where Britain was represented diplomatically. Whenever UK’s Department of Foreign Affairs’ budget was stretched and examined to identify possible savings, this was one line that was sacrosanct. The expense could always be justified by simply arguing that the great and the good attended; that it was an ideal opportunity to influence; real business was being conducted.

Midday was approaching and the first of more than three hundred and fifty invited guests would soon be arriving. Policemen were stationed outside the Residence gates to supervise traffic and to check holders of the distinctive gold embossed invitation cards. Senior High Commission staff and also Beauty Musajakawa, had been asked to arrive early as they would form the greeting line.

Sandy Mackelson was still busy in the Residence study, making last minute amendments to his speech. Heather, his secretary, was standing by to quickly type in his scribbles. Beauty had briefed him the night before about the extent of fighting in the north. This would need mention somewhere in the text. The High Commissioner didn’t want to be the harbinger of bad news on a day which was supposed to be celebratory. So he toned down the sentences which Beauty had suggested, preferring “the British Government is prepared to join with others in helping to bring about an end to current troubles in Northern Region” over the more alarming “conflict in the north has escalated to a point where it seems to be out of control in some areas. A senior British official has just returned……etc”.

At last all was ready. The British guests were first to arrive having been subject to a three line whip imposed by Oily Stainbury, himself having taken instruction from Madeleine. Everything had to run like clockwork. In truth the Queen’s Birthday Party was a frightful bore for most British officials who were already well enough acquainted with their interlocutors in the Zungula Government. However, female spouses enjoyed the opportunity to dress more lavishly than was common in the country, and perhaps to show off a new hat specially purchased for the occasion, on a previous home leave. In this respect the event was rather like a gathering at Ascot, except that in the tropical heat, freely flowing alcohol worked its way into the bloodstream more readily and with far greater effect.

It was a perfect day though the midday sun was already quite overpowering; old hands made an immediate bee-line for the marquee which had been erected in case of rain. As guests flooded in to the garden, men even sweltered in their light weight suits, neck ties adding to their discomfort. One old fool appeared in a kilt and full accompanying regalia including thick woolen socks with shoes laces tied elaborately over them. He was perspiring heavily.

“Macrae’s the name. I’m in tea. You’ll have heard of me I shuppoze?” he said to Beauty, his head cocked at a strange angle. He looked like a clone of Robin Cook making one last appearance before his erstwhile diplomatic colleagues.

“Err, no I haven’t. But nice to meet you anyway.” she replied.

The offended Scotsman looked back at her in apparent disgust, even as he shook the hand of Andrew Cunningham. Zungulans were also now arriving in numbers, some patiently waiting to take their turn at the greeting line, others more sensibly by-passing this and making straight for the bars. The Mackelsons fussed around as many of their guests as possible, making them feel welcome, checking that they could navigate their way to the drinks and the food. The British excelled at this sort of hospitality. Sandy occasionally tapped his breast pocket, just to be sure that his speech was in place. What a disaster it would be if he lost it in this growing crowd of people.

The Police Band arrived with their collection of musical instruments and got themselves comfortably seated. How fine they looked in their Number One Dress outfits. Their sergeant signaled to a passing steward and ordered beers for each of his men. After all, they too had to endure the heat. Sandy Mackelson glanced across at them nervously and hoped they had put in a lot of practice.

Big Men began to make an appearance at last. First was John Temdane, now quite crooked, in the physical sense. For many years he had been a confidant of former Life President Dr Victor Mpande. He continued to sport the old Congress Party lapel badge as a mark of his former allegiance. Some said he had been responsible for the arrest and detention of dozens of political opponents in days gone by, and their subsequent disappearance. In spite of his reputation, Temdane was invited year after year to the QBP, just as he was entertained at Europe Day, America’s Independence Day and other similarly lavish events.

First of the Cabinet appeared at the party – Jessica Wamkulyu the near illiterate Tourism Minister, her prominent position explained by the apparent enthusiasm with which she shared Elliot Joseph Chilembe’s bed. The President clearly included big women in his retinue. The Minister’s legs were like tree trunks and she had immense difficulty propelling herself, breathless, through the Residence hall and into the garden beyond.

Then Joe Tembo arrived, looking cool and dashing in a Ghanaian shirt of rich blue material, patterned with gold overlay. And at last the Vice President, who had agreed to toast the Queen, accompanied by his gorgeous young wife dressed fetchingly in a hugging, strapless, white satin dress of a quality more usually found among famous actresses attending a film premiere. Around her neck hung a faultless string of pearls; her wrists were adorned with several matching ivory bands into which the craftsman had inserted inlays of gold. These looked exquisite against her ebony skin. She even outshone Beauty when it came to envious glances from the female contingent at the party. The men’s thoughts were more rudimentary.

Sandy Mackelson greeted the VP warmly. His eyes sparkled with anticipated delight when they fell upon the principal guest’s wife, who introduced herself as Lucy. She touched the High Commissioner’s arm lightly and said confidentially with a little pout that she had wanted to arrive earlier but her husband was always dithering.

Sandy felt a stirring as a result of this briefest of exchanges but kept himself under control, settling for a complimentary remark on the lady’s elegant attire. He then led the VP into the garden, with Lucy following closely behind, arm in arm with Madeleine. Christ, the High Commissioner thought to himself, how did the old goat get hold of her.

The sergeant of the Police Band saw the guest of honour approaching and immediately raised his baton to sharpen the attention of his musicians. He waved the baton again as if swotting an insect. The band slowly struck up a version of their national anthem – Zungula Our Land. In truth it was again a cacophony of awful noise, each bandsmen creating his own beer induced interpretation of the music until the fearful crescendo that typified their performance, familiar to Mackelson from his visit to their Headquarters, was brought to an end with another ear shattering clash of symbols. The Zungulan guests didn’t bat an eyelid but there was some tittering in the British ranks as several people remarked on the quality of the rendition.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Stainbury who had been loitering close to the bandstand, suddenly bellowed “Pray silence for the Queen,” just at the point when his boss was climbing up to the lectern. This had not been in the pre-party briefing. Sandy Mackelson was quick to understand the reason for muffled laugher and felt his face flush. He switched on the public address system. There were a few wheeps and pheeps as the gremlins worked their way out of the loudspeakers.

“In case there should be any misunderstanding,” he began with an awkward smile, “I am the Queen’s Representative.”

There was genuine appreciation of this attempt at humour and some relieved hearty laughter which served to dissipate the embarrassed discomfort which had resulted from Stainbury’s silliness. The High Commissioner felt a difficult moment had passed. Warming to his task, he took the speech from inside his jacket and began.

“Honourable Vice President, Ministers of State, Your Excellencies and members of the diplomatic community, assembled parliamentarians, representatives of religious faiths, honoured guests, members of the press, ladies and gentlemen. This day, June 3, is as much as anything, a celebration of our shared history. Since the time when David Livingstone first walked upon Zungula soil………….”

It was a cleverly crafted delivery which played up the enduring friendship between Zungula and Britain, though Mackelson had seen little evidence of this in practice. It referred to aid cooperation and recent achievements in health and education. There was the familiar commercial insert, an attempt to bolster opinion of Britain’s fading trade with the region, and to disguise the fact that Zungula’s business with the mother country looked none too healthy.

As in all good speeches there was an intended comic interlude before getting into the tricky stuff. A reference to the recently played annual football match between parliamentarians and diplomats – which the Zungulan side unexpectedly won 2-1 “though I had wondered when the MPs scored their second goal, why the match was brought to an end by the referee, ten minutes before time.”

There were gaffaws all around as even the Zungulan guests understood that the game, a matter of some importance as far as the President’s ego was concerned, had been prematurely terminated by signal from him in the VIP area, allowing the breathless and generally outmatched diplomats no chance of a comeback.

While it had been difficult to find reason to heap praise on President Chilembe’s administration, the High Commissioner referred to “continuing efforts to get back on track with the International Monetary Fund” – though he was still a bit cloudy on what this meant exactly.

“On issues of governance I welcome recent establishment of the National Council for Safety, Security and Access to Justice, chaired by the Vice President………..”

At this juncture there had been discernible ripples of laughter from a small group of people close to the north end bar, and this had put Sandy Mackelson momentarily off his stride. He paused and looked up, disturbed. That hadn’t meant to be funny. What was going on? He recomposed himself for perhaps the most important message in the entire speech – a warning shot on the Third Term issue.

“And the President has an historical opportunity to be counted among the very few African leaders who ensured an orderly succession within the terms of the existing Constitution…….”

Again there was high pitched cackling from that same group of people, more raucous this time, especially from the women involved. They were now seriously upsetting the High Commissioner’s concentration. He could feel the anger bubbling up inside him and momentarily lost his place in the text of his speech. How dare they be so bad mannered, he thought; on the Queen’s official birthday of all occasions. Recovering, he was about to turn his attention to the situation in the north when a third noisy outburst erupted from the culprit revelers.

Madeleine had been listening proudly to her husband’s delivery and was simultaneously supervising the stewards’ charging of champagne glasses in anticipation of a concluding toast to the President of the Republic of Zungula. She had heard, incredulously, the rudeness displayed by some of her guests and decided that action was needed to put a stop to it. She barged her considerable weight across to the source of the disturbance.

Surrounded by a group of admiring females, including Jessica Wamkulyu, was Egbert the donkey. Madeleine’s mouth hung open. She could not but avoid the reason for the women’s cachinnation. The beast was boasting an erection as long as her arm, which was not quite touching the ground. When Madeleine recovered her composure, she slipped off one of her flat shoes and beat the animal hard across the back. Egbert let out a respiratory, rasping bray of pain and shock, and bolted across the garden, scattering guests before him. Macrae had been directly in the beast’s path and stumbled full length onto the grass in his efforts to evade it. There was no doubting his Scottish credentials as his own disheveled manhood was laid bare to all in attendance.

It mattered not how the unfortunate High Commissioner ended his speech, nor how the Vice President responded when their composure had been recovered. Toasts were made as was appropriate to the occasion, but the balance of the afternoon was an anti-climax. Egbert had been the star of the show. News of the fiasco was quickly carried all over Dombe and even to Kintyre. After all the work and planning, the QBP had been a public relations disaster.

© Michael Wood


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