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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 17 - In Hot Soup

The British High Commissioner to Zungula has been discovered in his philandering. His wife has disappeared. And Sam Phiri, the decent man in a tangled skein of wrong-doing, prepares to do a good deed...

Michael Wood's novel about poltics and double-dealing in an imaginary African country leaves the reader longing to know what happens next.

For earlier chapters please click on When The Crocodile Smiles in the menu on this page.

Before Sam and Beauty parted company in Bakili, he had asked her a favour. Having flown from Dombe he had no available transport for traveling to Machope. Even the infrequent taxi-buses had stopped running while the fighting had raged on and off along the route he needed to take. It would be some time, perhaps weeks, before the taxi drivers’ confidence returned, even though news of the peace agreement was already circulating around the northern capital and the sound of primary school choirs filled the streets in celebration. Beauty had agreed that Sam could use the old ODD Land Rover for his journey so long as he paid for the diesel and left a full tank when he returned the vehicle to the care of Michael Huxley.

The road was bad. In places Sam had to drive into the bush to get around still abandoned vehicles. He was thankful to be driving the robust car. Occasionally he met solitary figures walking along the pot-holed tarmac. All used the same familiar hand motion, attempting to flag him down. At first he stopped since in rural areas it was considered impolite to drive past someone who might be in need of help. The first few came up to the car window and asked for food. They were exhausted and leaned on the car door as they spoke. Sam could only offer them water as what little food he carried was intended for his mother. When the water container ran dry he simply drove on past other strangers. It was hard to do but they would have to wait a little longer for assistance. He knew the grain would soon be coming to this part of the country. In fact he had already called his staff in Dombe to ensure that action was in hand. Meanwhile, the people would survive, just, on wild fruits and berries.

At last he reached the outskirts of Machope. His heart began to thump in his chest. Some huts on the perimeter of the village had been burned. Their grass rooves were missing and the mud walls were charred like those in the Wa Tonga’s palace compound. It was obvious that his village had not escaped unscathed. Now he feared the worst. He remembered Beauty telling him that the fighting had come so close to Machope that she had been forced to abandon her attempt to get there.

Within a few minutes more, he had reached his mother’s mud-walled compound. It was in tact with no outward sign of damage, but there was no one about. He called out. “Moni. Odi.” There was no reply. He looked across to neighbouring huts. There was nobody there either. He stepped down from the Land Rover and entered Grace’s familiar yard. Empty. Yet there was a semblance of order about the place. Aluminium cooking utensils were neatly stacked; there was fresh water in the earthenware pot, shaded under the old mango tree. Three tethered goats were feeding on cut grass. One was eating a piece of paper. Surely these animals were being cared for. Sam called out again but nobody replied. It was eery and unnerving.

All the huts were the same. Signs of life yet devoid of human presence. The whole village seemed to be deserted. Then Sam heard a baby crying. It came so suddenly in the silence of the place that it startled him. He walked over to the hut from where the sound had come, fearful to enter. He called out again. “Odi. It is me. Son of Lupenga Phiri.” No reply, but the child surely had a parent or a relative nearby. He entered the hut cautiously, speaking softly in reassuring tones. Inside the baby lay on the mud floor wrapped in a colourful chitenge. Then he saw movement behind a crude screen.

“Come out,” he said. Slowly, a young woman, perhaps seventeen, emerged.

“I mean you no harm. I am Phiri. My mother lives in the hut over there,” he said reassuringly, pointing in the direction. “Where is everyone? Where is my mother?”

The girl picked up her baby and it immediately stopped crying.

“We are here,” she said simply. She moved past him into the open air and shouted several times. She was yelling that this man with the big car was a friend. Sam followed her outside. Then to his amazement and relief, people began to emerge from their huts. He rushed to his mother’s compound again. As he entered, her tan and white bush dog ran towards him wagging its bent tail, jumping up at him in obvious excitement. His mother was gingerly climbing down from the raised grain store where she had been hiding. Sam rushed over to assist her. She looked perfectly well. The two embraced; tears ran down their faces as the emotion welled up from each of them. Sam was reluctant to let his mother go and continued to hold her fast until she suggested they have a drink of water. An audience had gathered outside. People whom he knew now came forward to shake his hand and to offer their greetings. He told them all that they need no longer hide when they heard strangers coming into the village. There had been a peace conference in Bakili and the Ngoni chiefs who were present had overseen symbolic burning of weapons.

This news produced a great deal of excitement and people began to rush to huts further away to tell them the good news. After a time, Sam and his mother returned to their compound and she told him how the village had nearly been razed. A small band of Ngoni had come only a fortnight before. They came at night and set alight some of the huts. Sentries raised the alarm. Village elders had discussed the need for vigilance. The Ngoni war party was quickly set upon and killed.

“Ayeee. It was a terrible thing to have them threatening us with their spears and those knives. But they had small penises!” Grace Phiri exclaimed, and yelled at her own base humour. “They were no match for our men. Now they are dead and we have buried them in the fields so that no one will find them. Not unless their mothers and wives come and ask for our forgiveness.”

“It is over now my dear mother”, Sam replied reflectively. “I am so glad that you are safe.” The two settled down to eat some paw-paw which Sam had brought from Bakili. That evening Grace would slaughter one of her goats and they would eat a portion of the mealie which was still sitting in the back of the Land Rover. Friends would be invited and they would talk long into the night about events over the last few months; how Machope had escaped the worst of it.

Sam stayed for three days. He helped in the fields and carried out some hut repairs for his mother. He lapped up the fresh air and the simplicity of village life, even if he knew that his enjoyment of it was only from the perspective of someone who had the luxury of being able to leave; someone who was now relatively well off, holding down a well paid job. Before he departed he told his mother about Patience.

“Ahee, my boy. The most beautiful girls are always bad ones. They cook for you only until someone richer can tempt them away. Don’t be troubled. One day when her breasts begin to sag, she will see the error of her ways. For then her rich man will look for another and she will be left alone with no one to love her.”

By now Sam had had plenty of time to reflect. He really could afford to move out of Chabwele township at last. He resolved to do so as soon as he could. So doing would help him expunge the memory of the woman who had been his wife.

* * * * * *

Noah Bamidele walked down the path which was strewn with litter and filth. He noticed neither. Now he was free and able to enjoy the sunshine on his face. He looked forward to seeing his family again. It had been more than five months since his incarceration in Dedza began. He had lost nearly half a year’s precious income. The High Commissioner had said little to him during the journey back to Dombe. Noah had tried to tell him about the locomotive name plates but it seemed clear that the Boss didn’t want to know any longer. The white man would only say that the prison had been paid a lot of money to secure his early release.

When Noah got out of that big car, Mackelson had given him five hundred Kwacha and then sped off down Julius Nyerere Highway without saying goodbye. The money was enough only to get by for a few days. The trader pushed on down the path towards the spot where he guessed his wife would be living. The further he went down the hill closer to Marimba River, the busier this part of Chabwele became, and the more cramped together the shacks, such were the conditions in which the dregs of Dombe society were living. Noah bought two finger sized bananas – all he could afford. He ate one with relish. It was firm and sweet, the way he liked them. He knew that his wife would have finished long ago, the new shack which she would have started on the fateful day he had left for Kintyre, but he still worried how his family had survived all this time without him.

As he reached the spot where his previous home had been before the flood had swept it away, he found that dozens of shacks had miraculously reappeared. There was little or no trace of earlier damage. He began to ask people whom he recognized if they knew where his wife was. To his surprise they laughed and told him to look no further than the shabeen. What could they have meant? His wife never took alcohol. She was a good woman. Perhaps she had found a job, serving in one of the bars. Noah then cast this thought aside. That too would have been taboo for her.

The artifacts trader began to search around the neighbourhood. He took the advice he had been given and asked the first bar owner he came across if he knew the whereabouts of his wife.

“What is she looking like?” the man had enquired.

Noah suddenly found it difficult to point to any distinguishing features.

“Except she have one top tooth which sticking out some,” he said.

“Ah, that one. She has been here today already. If you ask at One Stop she might be there.”

“Is she working in these places?” Noah asked in genuine puzzlement.

A customer who had been leaning against the mud wall outside had heard the conversation and sauntered over to answer the question, the smell of industrial strength liquid thick on his breath.

“You need to be rich to have her,” he announced.

“How are you meaning?”

“She won’t take less than two hundred Kwacha. And kali too. She hit me once with that ndodo she carry.”

Noah had seen drunken men like this often enough. They rarely made sense. He walked on to the One Stop and looked inside the dingy premises. The room was dark. He could make out three tables with two or three men seated around each. They were all drinking chibuku from a pail, and playing dominoes. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light he saw a woman with her back to him, sitting with her arm around one of the customers. A stick was leaning against the table.

“What are you wanting to drink?” a voice called out to him loudly, presumably from the proprietor. The woman looked around to see who had come in. Noah wasn’t quite sure at first, but then he saw that tooth protruding from her top lip and realized it must be his wife. He walked across to her, now fully aware how she had been earning a living. He placed a hand on her shoulder.

“My wife. I am here now.”

She looked at him as if he had returned from the grave. There was disbelief on her face. The customer with whom she was sitting barely glanced their way. Noah took her by the hand and led her from the bar. A place which he knew no woman should frequent. Outside she shouted at him and struck him with the ndodo. He had suffered the weight of these sticks before but the real pain was now in his heart. For he knew how badly he had let his family down. Noah pleaded for the opportunity to explain what had happened to him; begged for her understanding.

When her temper subsided, Noah began the long story. He was close to breaking down in the telling of it for he too had suffered. Man and wife started to walk towards the dump where their children had made an occupation of scavenging. It would be good to see his kids again, Noah thought. Half way there they stopped and looked down on the frenetic sight of Chabwele below them, the river glittering in the afternoon sun as it snaked its way towards Dombe. The sparkling light on the water made it look idyllic – a far cry from the reality of its polluted state. While they rested from the heat, Noah looked at his wife’s haggard face. He had noticed she did not seem well. The sunken eyes and hollow features were familiar in another way. He had seen men like this in Dedza jail. He could not tell her but now he feared that his wife of nearly forty years, had the Edze. Silently, he wiped away the tears, as his wife walked on in front of him.

* * * * * *

Oily Stainbury was expecting a visitor. It was 9.05 pm; an appropriate time to entertain his informants. The streets of Area 43 would be quiet. There would be no prying eyes. Even so, he had advised the man to be discreet and to make sure there was no one around before driving in to the High Commission property. The man’s instructions had been to use a small private car; one they could be certain would be inconspicuous. Stainbury saw the reflection of headlights shining through the tall metal garden gate. He looked out of the living room window; the night watchman was opening up. The visitor manoeuvred under the canopy of a frangipani tree which overhung the drive, and parked in one of two bays. Stainbury greeted the man and the two went quickly inside.

The man looked around at the chaos that was Stainbury’s living room. He wondered how many British, if deprived of their servants, would also live like slovens. Oily moved a couple of old magazines off the sofa and carelessly flung them onto an adjacent writing desk already littered with copies of old UK newspapers. He could detect the disdainful air of his visitor but was immune to it.

“What do you have for me?” Oily began, without regard for even the basic courtesies of Zungulan culture.

“I have more information about the President which I am sure will be of interest to your government.”

“Well there hasn’t been any reaction to the last stuff you gave me. In fact there has been a deafening silence. My people clearly don’t believe he’s off his rocker. Want a beer?”

“Thank you. In a glass if you don’t mind.”

Oily trotted through to the kitchen; the visitor could hear him washing a tumbler in the sink. Then the thud of a refrigerator door kicked closed too hard. Oily re-emerged and handed his guest the still wet glass and an imported can of McEwans Export. He cracked one open for himself but drank straight from the can.

“I’m all ears.”

“There has been little said of late about the President’s desire for a third term of office.”

“So?”

“He is definitely going for it. Museveni’s success has given him all the encouragement he needs.”

“But the donors halved aid going in to Uganda. Won’t Chilembe fear similar consequences?”

“Frankly no. My concern by the way, is not about the principle of a third term. However, with the President showing signs of instability, I fear the longer he stays in office, the worse it will be for our country.”

“Signs which seem only apparent to you,” Oily retorted.

“His illness aside, the President is a businessman at heart. Better that he returns to this than discredit us further. Of course he is reluctant to hand over the reins to someone else because he knows that by so doing he will no longer be able to profit from public assets. I presume I need not be more specific. Can’t your people line him up for something? The Presidency of the African Development Bank will be up for grabs soon. Elliot’s idiosyncrasies shouldn’t be too out of place in that madhouse.”

Stainbury ignored the request, preferring to focus on the visitor’s implied reference to corrupt practice. He could be as frank and undiplomatic as he wanted. “We’re aware of his appetite for rake-offs and the impotence of the Anti Corruption Bureau.”

The two danced around the topic for some time but the visitor had still not said anything which was remotely surprising further to their previous clandestine meetings. Stainbury said as much. His visitor looked at him levelly and took a long drink of the dark beer which the Scots called “Heavy”. He then continued on a different track.

“It surprises me that your government has exerted not an ounce of pressure on the President to find a new home for our Parliament. The man thinks only of himself and his personal comfort. He has no true democratic values. He presides over hell and damnation in the north and food scarcity nation-wide, without so much as a glimmer of conscience.”

“Again, in your opinion,” Oily said icily.

“We need a more dynamic leader. Someone who can work with foreign governments to help bring Zungula into the 21st Century; someone who can be trusted not to raid national coffers; someone with determination to restore parliamentary processes.”

“I’m not aware of any obvious candidate”. Oily had said this with a cynical tone, knowing perfectly well the direction in which their conversation was going. The visitor sucked his teeth. He looked at Stainbury as if he was an insignificant tadpole.

“I am that person. A number of Cabinet Ministers have approached me already and asked that I challenge the President when he finally makes public his decision to press for a third term.”

“Someone who can be trusted not to dip into national coffers eh?”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning we know that you weren’t exactly reluctant yourself, to tuck into the proceeds of the Kenya grain sale.”

Unreasonably offended, Joe Tembo stood up and swallowed the remainder of his beer. “I am sure when you look at my credentials, you will find that there is no one else who can succeed to the Presidency. I know your Prime Minister desperately wants to be able to point to another country in Africa which respects the rule of law and adheres to a system of government which is deserving of international approval. To give credence to his Commission for Africa. Zungula is also a nation with a substantial Muslim population. Neither your people nor my supporters want them going off the rails. Otherwise it might spark something far more serious than a few peasants throwing spears at one another!”

Stainbury accompanied his guest through the hall to the front door. Before Tembo stepped outside he stopped and put a finger on his temple as if contemplating something. “By the way,” he said, now responding to Stainbury’s earlier accusation. “I hope you weren’t serious in linking me with the grain sales. You cannot have any evidence to that effect or your useless auditors would have so concluded. Chihana was the crook, I am sure, and he has disappeared.”

A thin smile appeared on Tembo’s face as he slipped out of the door. He presumed he had left enough doubt in the younger man’s mind that he had taken no part in the Kenya business. More importantly, he had planted the seed which he expected to grow – when the British saw the sense of it –into unequivocal support for his Presidential ambitions. Stainbury watched him climb into the old Peuguot 405. The Minister left in a hurry, taking a branch of the frangipani with him as he sped to the top of Oily’s drive.

The night watchman barely had enough time to swing open the gate. Lovely Patience would be waiting at home, the Minister thought, and would attend to a need that he felt growing in his groin. Perhaps he should lay claim to that child of hers after all. A son and heir might go down quite well with the populous when he was President, to say nothing of having such a pretty young woman permanently in attendance.

* * * * * *

The morning that her husband was traveling to Dedza again, Madeleine Mackelson got up very early as she had decided to put in a few hours at SOS Children’s Village. There were never enough volunteers. People feared that the youngsters might transmit their HIV. However Madeleine was quite happy sitting with a small group of children, reading to them, and teaching them playground games, some of which she remembered from her own happy days at Leuchars Primary School in Scotland. The children would shriek with delight when Madeleine told them they were going to play their favourite – Hide and Seek. Being at the Village made the High Commissioner’s wife feel a strong sense of purpose. It was rewarding work. She had also used her influence to squeeze some money out of the Small Projects Scheme which her husband had control over. SOS Children’s Village dormitories would be equipped with new furnishings and bedding. The Director of the charity had been delighted.

As school started so early, Madeleine had finished by 9.30 am. When she arrived back at the Residence she was tired and intended to run a bath. When she entered her home she saw a thick padded brown envelope lying on the hall table, next to the Ashante carving. The envelope was addressed to her. The senior maid came through to the living room and offered to make morning coffee. “That would be lovely, Mary.”

Madeleine tore open the package and was surprised to find it contained a tape. There was no accompanying note. She had a bad feeling about this, as might anyone who received such a thing. She stepped over to the hi-fi and slipped in the tape with trepidation. There was some static at the beginning and then she heard her husband’s voice.

“....if this gets out.”

“Relax my darling. Think about us and what we did. I’m ready for more entertainment. Aren’t you?”

It was the recording which Stainbury had made. There was nothing else on the tape. Madeleine slumped into a chair. The woman’s voice she knew immediately to be Lucy Kanyerere’s. It seemed incredible. The bitch had called him darling. They must be having a bloody affair. What’s more, someone knew about it and wanted Madeleine in the picture.

When Mary appeared with the coffee and Madeleine’s favourite chocolate cake, she couldn’t help noticing that there was something very wrong. Her boss’s normally bright disposition had faded. Instead she looked white as a sheet and distracted.

“Mary, who delivered this?” she croaked, holding up the empty envelope.

“I don’t know Madame. It came to the gate. The guard said it was a man on a motorbike.”

“Thank you.”

Madeleine’ s mind was racing. Apart from fury about her husband’s betrayal she sensed danger, and in spite of everything her protective instincts came to the surface. If her fool of a husband was screwing the Vice President’s wife there could be all kinds of trouble. She walked back to the hall feeling dizzy with the pressure. She looked in their address book and found Lucy Kanyerere’s number. She dialed it without hesitation.

“Hello?”

“Lucy. This is Madeleine.” She paused deliberately. The older woman sensed the uncertainty at the other end of the line and waited for Lucy’s response.

“Oh, Hi Madeleine. Sorry. I was thrown for a moment there.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“How do you mean?”

“Let’s not play games. I’m not stupid and neither, on balance, are you. I know that you have been seeing my husband. Don’t deny it.”

There was a momentary silence and then Lucy responded, bold as brass. “Madeleine, I told my husband from the beginning that I had been with Sandy. He and I have that kind of a relationship. I thought Sandy would have told you as well,” she lied unconvincingly.

“I don’t care what you told your husband. The fact of the matter is that mine has got himself stupidly involved with you. Did you know that someone has recorded your phone conversations?”

Lucy seemed genuinely shocked. “How?!” she gasped.

“How the hell should I know! What I can tell you is this. If the British government gets to hear of this, Sandy’s career will be over. I daren’t think what might happen if some bloody foreigners have got their knives into him.”

“Oh dear.” was all Lucy Kanyerere could think of saying.

“You must never see him again or contact him in any way. Is that clear?”

“Yes.” Lucy paused for a moment and then added “I suppose you won’t believe me, but I’m sorry for any hurt I’ve caused you, Madeleine. Tell Sandy I regret any trouble.”

“I’ll tell him no such thing. I doubt if you made all the running. Goodbye.”

Madeleine had been extraordinarily composed but now her emotions bubbled over and she began to howl. To her it seemed preposterous that such a woman could fancy her husband. Given his past, it was less surprising that Sandy had strayed into her bed. Madeleine fled outside, her coffee and cake untouched. Mary watched her trot out of sight behind the royal palms which fringed the bottom of the garden. There, Egbert was grazing contentedly and sneaking the occasional munch on a flower. An hour earlier Madeleine had been full of happiness; now she began to cry in a state of complete misery. She rubbed Egbert’s head and the beast responded by pushing against her substantial frame, sensing perhaps the comfort she needed.

* * * * * *

Sandy Mackelson had a six o’clock meeting. He drove straight there after dropping Noah along Dombe’s outskirts, still some way from Chabwele. He would have preferred to divert briefly to the Residence to freshen up; have a drink. Unfortunately there wasn’t time. Gate guards saluted as he entered through the tall steel gates of the High Commission grounds. However it was still routine procedure to check underneath all vehicles, including his own. All of Her Majesty’s missions abroad were now potential targets for bombers. Luckily one of the office’s string of drivers appeared so Mackelson was able to get out of the Range Rover and leave him to wait patiently while the guards finished circling the car.

The High Commissioner climbed up the two flights of stairs which led to Chancery, still wondering what could have happened to Lucy and why he had been unable to contact her. In the top floor waiting area he immediately recognized his visitor – Peter Bosson the mushroom man. Mackelson extended a hand.

“How very nice to see you again. Do come through.”

He fiddled with the entry code for a moment. The electronic device had been playing up and occasionally refused individuals through the door.

“I’ve only got half an hour I’m afraid,” the High Commissioner fabricated, “I have another meeting later which I have still to prepare for,” he said, inflating his own importance with the untruth. The man from Commonwealth Executive Services, looked tanned and fit.

“No problem. I just thought I ought to let you know how I got on in Bakili.”

“Yes, how did it go?” Mackelson replied, feigning interest, as the two settled themselves into comfortable arm chairs.

“Well frankly I wasn’t able to get much done. As you know......”

Bosson began to relay in laborious detail how difficult things had been during his six month assignment. The accommodation had been appalling; the power had been more off than on; it had been near impossible to buy fresh food; he and his wife had survived on tins of imported meat and vegetables. The heat, the flies, the dust, the drums, Mackelson thought, and began to look at his watch. The CES man was undeterred and droned on interminably. Fortunately Mackelson was saved by the appearance of Beauty Musajakawa. She had prepared an account of her visit to the north and wanted the High Commissioner to run his eye over it before she sent it off to her Secretary of State.

“Ah. Have you met Peter Bosson? He’s been in Bakili on a business development assignment.”

“Yes, we met at the airport.” Beauty said off-handedly. Determined not to be drawn in, she made her escape.

“Does that woman work here?” Bosson asked, incredulous.

“Yes of course. She’s the head of the aid operation here.”

“Well. I have to say she’s an odd bird. She got me out of a bit of a hole at Bakili airport. I’m afraid we were rather over the luggage limit after all of Andrea’s shopping for material and what not. Anyway, after Miss Muzajack.......”

“Musajakawa,” the High Commissioner interrupted.

“Yes quite. After she was thoughtful enough to offer up her luggage allowance, she was then very rude to me and my wife. I’m not one to complain normally but............”

“Well I shall certainly have a word with her,” the High Commissioner said with rising irritation, getting up and slipping on his jacket, while ushering the old dud out of the room. For the first time he felt real solidarity with his aid colleague.

* * * * * *

The visit to Bakili and then Machope had done Sam Phiri the power of good. Being among his own people, the knowledge that his mother was safe, and the exhilaration of contributing to the peace process – something which he had never expected to be in a position to do – had brightened his outlook on life, and temporarily allowed him to put his wife’s wickedness out of mind. In Zungula it was almost a tradition for men of all religious persuasions to fool around outside the confines of their matrimonial home. However when a woman strayed from a man who was otherwise behaving himself, it was considered abnormal; something to be ashamed of; a signal perhaps that all was not that it should have been in bedroom department; that the man was to blame.

Sam’s mood therefore darkened a little when he returned to Chabwele and was faced with all the unwanted reminders of Patience. While he had been away she had sneaked back, filling a suitcase with most of her clothes, leaving behind only the oldest things which she felt she had no more need for. On her side of the makeshift wardrobe, a solitary shoe remained. He picked up their wedding photograph which was on his bedside table. His mind flashed back to that day. They had both been virgins and he had been more scared than her when the time came for them to consummate the marriage. It had all been a bit unsatisfactory to begin with, but the two quickly learned the tricks of the trade.

He gazed down at her smiling face, her hair decorated with ribbons, and mingled with sparkling little gold-coloured baubles, an amulet attached to a very ordinary chain around her neck. However, Sam could only see the image of her and Joe Tembo, the two entirely unperturbed by his discovery of them. “You are a snake now,” he muttered to himself. He decided there and then to throw out everything else that she had left behind. In truth there wasn’t much. Theirs had not been a home with material evidence of success. Nevertheless, Sam thought, if he was going to move house, he would want to make the exercise as painless as possible. He dragged to the door the old dressing table which only Patience ever used, and eased it out onto the rubble strewn path. Its mirror had been cracked and Patience had pasted photographs over this in a fruitless attempt to disguise it.

Next came her tasteless collection of romantic novels, each thrown a mile; then her dressing gown, ragged at the hem; then her sewing machine and spare reels. His exertions began to attract an audience. Small children ran off with the books but no one made a move on valued items while the owner of this house was still busy clearing it like a madman. Finally someone plucked up courage.

“Are you not keeping these things?”

Sam answered in the affirmative and struggles immediately broke out as people fought for what they wanted. Everything which he threw out was gone in seconds, ferreted away to another home, an unexpected bonus handed to them by an apparent lunatic.

When the house was empty but for the basics (bed, the make-shift wardrobe, the charcoal cookers, a kerosene lamp), Sam sat on the porch with his head in his hands. Time ticked away. He sat in that position for perhaps twenty minutes, dwelling on the sorrow that he felt. His wife was not dead, but the woman he had once known, was gone. At first he did not look up when he heard footsteps of some people very close to him. They stopped. These would be more scroungers, he expected, back to pick the bones dry.

“Are you OK Sah?” There seemed to be concern in the tone of the enquirer. Sam looked up. In front of him was a man who was holding hands with two boys, who in turn held the hands of their younger siblings. All were in rags. The children were bare-footed; their hands and faces dirty. It was chilly at this relatively early hour but none of the youngsters wore anything warm. The man’s clothes were a coarse, striped, half length smock which was pleated just below waist level, a matching hat and quite a good pair of denim jeans. Sam could see warmth and sympathy in the man’s eyes. He looked like a kigeni.

“I am fine, thank you. Why do you ask?”

“I was only passing by. It was my son who aksed if you were all right.”

Sam considered the little boys. Shy, they quickly averted their gaze. One had a runny nose but seemed oblivious to the mess on his face.

“You have your hands full with four,” Sam said.

“That is true. But I love them. They are all I have.”

“Don’t you have a wife to help you look after them?”

“Yes I have one, but she is not well so.”

“I am sorry.”

“That is how life can be. Still, we must look forward. God willing, things can only improve some.”

“God willing,” Sam repeated. He knew that Chabwele was full of people like this, eking out a precarious existence. In fact God showed no sympathy for them. He wondered if God existed at all, given His oversight of such terrible human suffering in this place, in the North, in Zungula more widely, in Africa.

“Where do you and your family live?”

“Down,” was the man’s simple answer, pointing to the Marimba River below, as if it were Hell itself. Sam nodded.

“Then I will go now. My wife is waiting for us. I wish you well in life’s journey.”

The man tugged at his boys and the five of them began to march away, the kids with tottering little steps, having to run occasionally to keep up with their father. When they were nearly out of sight around the corner something about them snapped a thought into Sam’s head. He shouted after them: “Hey. Come back. Bambo!”

Noah looked around, surprised to see the man he had been talking to, running towards them. Sam was out of breath, unaccustomed to such exertion. He was also visibly excited with the notion which had come to him and wore a smile in contrast to his earlier misery.

“Come back and see me tomorrow evening,” he said.

“For work, Boss?”

“No. Not for that, but please come.”

“I can do it, Boss. Unfortunately I have nothing to bring with me,” he said with true regret. In Noah’s West African culture the tradition was to take a gift to the home of a new acquaintance, however small a token. It was shameful not to do so.

“There is no need. Just come. Make it about 6.00pm. I will be back early from my work place. You will remember where I live?”

“I can remember, Boss,” Noah replied, puzzled.

“Tomorrow then,” Sam confirmed. He watched the little group trail away down the hill. One of the boys looked around at him, his finger in his mouth, but in a moment, they were gone.

* * * * * *
By the time Sandy Mackelson got back to the Residence he was dying for a gin and tonic. He could have done without the meeting with that old fool Bosson, he thought to himself as he entered the living room and immediately asked the attentive Mary to pour him a drink. The senior maid was frozen to the spot and looked like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights.

“What on earth’s the matter, Mary?” he asked.

“It is Madame,” she said nervously.

“What do you mean? What about Madame for goodness sake?”

“She is gone Sir.”

“Gone! Gone where?”

“I do not know Sir. She just said that she was leaving. She was crying.”

“Oh Christ.”

Mary poured the G and T but slipped away when she saw the look on her boss’s face. What little colour in him had drained. His face was like ash. Mackelson realized immediately that Madeleine had somehow found out about his all too short affair. He surmised too that she must have challenged Lucy Kanyerere and this would have explained his lover’s failure to turn up at the pottery.

Shite, he thought, swilling the gin around in his mouth before swallowing half a glass full. He felt the warmth of it hit his belly but the alcohol did nothing to relieve the panic he now felt. It was as if someone had struck his jaw and then vigorously shook him. Like a million other miscreant men when the game was up, he suddenly understood he was nothing without his wife; she was the backbone of the household; his grand title and armour plated car, the grandeur of the Residence, were all hollow things if she were not a part of his life. “What a bloody fool,” he said aloud. He went into the kitchen. The cook was busy preparing the evening meal and Mary stood beside him.

“Mary, is there anything more you can tell me about today?”

“Yes Sir. Madame received a package this morning; a tape. After she was hearing it, I saw Madame cry and she ran into the garden.”

“Where is the tape?”

“Sir, it is beside the record player.”

The High Commissioner quickly found it lying on top of the cabinet containing their music system. He played it and shuddered. This was more serious than he thought. Some bastard had found a way of tapping into his phone. “Fucking hell. What am I going to do? What the hell am I going to do?”
The usual bustle in the kitchen had fallen silent.

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