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A Court Of Fowls: Episode 76

Now that I was faced with reunion at last, inwardly I started
to fret. How did I look? Would she think I was still handsome
enough for my years or would my illness be obvious? Might she resent
my intrusion? Should I greet her with a kiss? Would I hug her?
What should be my opening line? Would it make her smile?

Chapter 26
Reunion

Two days later, Annie drove me in her old Volkswagen to what
seemed like a quiet beach location about twenty minutes from
Kaambooni. On the way she told me this was to be my rendezvous
with Amina; Nimrod had agreed without hesitation that she and I
should have some separate time together before entering the camp
to meet family and friends.

I waited apprehensively, listening for the sound of the Beetle returning.

Now that I was faced with reunion at last, inwardly I started
to fret. How did I look? Would she think I was still handsome
enough for my years or would my illness be obvious? Might she resent
my intrusion? Should I greet her with a kiss? Would I hug her?
What should be my opening line? Would it make her smile?

I stared out to sea. A few crested terns passed by, occasionally
turning back towards me, seeming almost to hover over the water,
and then with wings quickly tucked in, plunge down like an arrow in
their hunt for silvery prey. On the distant horizon I could see what
looked like an oil tanker making slow progress on its journey north.
Where would it be heading, I wondered. Any one of the Arab states,
I supposed. Would pirates have their eye on it?

‘So you kept your promise to come back.’

I’d been sitting letting my mind wander from one thing to the
next and hadn’t heard her approach behind me. The sound of her
voice even startled me. I got to my feet as quickly as my fifty eight
years would allow; I felt like a shy, gangly schoolboy, apprehensive, as
if I’d been waiting overlong for my first date to show, and truly believing
that she never would.

I managed what I hoped would be interpreted as a warm smile.

‘It must seem to you very late in the day, Amina.’

At once I could see that this was a very different woman to the
one I’d met all those years ago. There was a presence about her, a
perceptible strength of character, a quiet assurance in her bearing.

Something has replaced the remnants of girlishness which I’d fallen
for long ago. She’d acquired, how would I describe it ...... poise.

Wider about the hips she otherwise filled her camouflage fatigues
with plenty to attract the eye. Her greying hair was tied back in a
tight knot. There were the beginnings of hen’s feet at the corners of
her big brown eyes. I noticed a broken front tooth. Yet her beauty
seemed undiminished.

‘Yes,’ she replied, a plain statement of fact.

I overcame my bashfulness and walked forward to embrace her.
She offered me each cheek to plant a kiss, after which she briefly
took both of my hands in hers as she drew in the sight of me, registering
goodness knows what.

‘Come,’ she said, ‘let’s walk. It isn’t too far.’

I was content to go wherever she chose to take me and for however
long. Did love never die?

‘Is your daughter safe?’

It was polite conversation as I knew Annie would have told me if
the story was in any way different.

‘Thank you for asking, Stewart. Yes. We have her back, none the
worse for her unpleasant experience. At least nothing that we can detect
at the moment.’

‘How old is she?’

‘Just turned fourteen. But rapidly becoming a young woman.
She’s tall like her father, but thankfully has acquired her mother’s
good looks.’

‘Of that I am sure there’s no doubt.’

We exchanged happy smiles. It was as if the years of our long
separation had evaporated and we were transported back to the brief
time we had together in Mogadishu. I looked into her sparkling eyes
and could see a look of contentment. Although I knew she’d not
had an easy life, there was no evidence of hardship in her face, as
such. We continued along the shore, sometimes indulging in quick
bursts of chatter as we tried to prioritize and fill in the most important
gaps about what had happened during our lives; sometimes in
silence as we reflected perhaps on what might have been.

‘I came back, you know. To look for you. Only weeks after they
sent me back to London. I went to your house and met your uncle.

What was his name?’

‘Jama.’

She was looking at me with undisguised astonishment.

‘Yes. He told me you’d fled to Berbera. That you might even be
dead. I couldn’t bear to think about it. But then time moved on and I
learned to live my life without you. I married. I’ve got a daughter
too. Dalila. Do you know what it means?’

‘I am partnered with a Maasai. We have never spoken Swahili to
one another. I know just a few words.’

‘It’s supposed to signify delicateness. Though she was far from
that during the pregnancy.’

Amina laughed. ‘And your wife? Is she well?’

‘I hope so. I haven’t dared speak to her for a couple of weeks.
But yes, she was well enough when I left, if very sore that I had
come to find you.’

‘I don’t blame her, Stewart. What made you do it after all this
time?’

‘I believe sometimes, people are driven to do things by their inner
souls. The motive isn’t always clear. Some destiny drew me here, over
and above my need to see you. When I read about your exploits in
the newspapers I felt an inexplicably powerful urge to find you. It
was more than fulfilling my promise to return. The coincidence of
seeing your photograph at a time when you were anyway quite
prominent in my thoughts, was amazing. It felt as if I had no control
over the forces which influenced me.’

I had to be braver than that. There was little point in having come
to Somalia again if I was not to express my feelings with more honesty.

‘Do you remember I told you that I loved you?’

‘Yes. And it surprised me.’

‘Seeing you now, I think I still do in a way, though I love Jamila
too. You’re very beautiful, you know. And you have a certain mystique.
Quite beguiling, if you don’t mind my saying.’

‘Ah Stewart, you must be going blind in your old age.’

I turned serious for a moment. ‘I haven’t come to upset your
happiness here, or to try vainly to prise you away from Nimrod. He
sounds like a good fellow.’

‘He is everything I could want in a man.’

‘I’m happy for you, Amina. Truly I am. I hope I didn’t cause too
much hurt all those years ago.’

‘I thought of you, obviously.’

She was pensive for a moment and then continued. ‘I heard once
that the challenge of existence is to fall in love with life and come to
terms with all its joys and sorrows. I’ve never forgotten that. In those
few words I think you have my answer. I don’t see the point in being
more specific.’

It was a clever answer. She had drawn a quick line under talk of
our bygone relationship, such as it was. With a happy smile she
pointed beyond the ripples of the shoreline.

‘Years ago I remember standing with you at Mogadishu Heights,
pointing out my house in the distance. Now I have rather less to
show you. But that’s our lovely old dhow out there. We’ve recently
fitted an engine to her. And lying just beyond is Uhuru. Now that’s
one Swahili word I do know!’

Amina took my arm and guided me off the hard sand of the
lower portion of the beach, up into the soft stuff and beyond, over a
dune into a grove of palms. In the middle of them was her camp, a
rather scruffy collection of canvas and plastic coverings quite unlike
the Bedouin luxury I’d envisaged. Nimrod was first to emerge and
shake my hand, and I was pleased that he did so without bravado,
and with genuine warmth. He introduced me to Sanya who looked a
little reticent, but I could see Amina had not exaggerated. She was
truly made in her mother’s image.

One by one, all of their friends came forward saying ‘assaalmu
alaykum,’ ‘maalin wanagsan,’ or simply ‘sahe taki.’ For those who could
not speak English, Nimrod acted as interpreter. It was a wonderful
occasion and a treat to see so many smiling faces. The children were
particularly endearing.

We were later joined by Kakenya and Annie who arrived with
crates of cold beer. The women had prepared a huge pot of goat
stew, the savoury smell from which made my mouth water. I told
them it was my favourite dish and I’d developed a taste for it many
years ago when I lived in Nairobi. They clapped their hands together
with evident pleasure. The food was indeed delicious, and seemed all
the tastier for consuming it in the open air of the beach.

The afternoon disappeared in a flash, which is the usual way of
things when enjoyment is the order of the day. As daylight began to
fade a fire was lit and a warm glow descended over the camp.
I looked across at Sanya, safe now, tucked into the loving arms of
her father. Nimrod saw me looking.

‘What you did to get her back was very brave,’ I told him. ‘You
must feel so relieved.’

‘Yes. She is still such an innocent little thing, in need of my protection,’
he replied with modesty, as he tickled his daughter below
her rib cage. I wondered if Bloody Labour would have legislated
against that by now. Sanya erupted into attention grabbing giggles.

‘Regrettably, our life here has forced us into many actions which
ordinary people would not have wished to be a part of,’ Nimrod volunteered
as if wanting to get something off his chest. ‘Two days ago,
we killed one of the men who took Sanya. It wasn’t intentional. We
fired on their boat. He was just unlucky. Now he is shark food.’

‘What of the others?’

‘One. In fact we have him here, as our prisoner. Now I wish we
hadn’t brought him. I would gladly have shot him back there in
Mtanda Wanda, such was my anger at what he’d done. But something
inside stopped me. A burning in my head telling me that he
would have a different fate. Undoubtedly, that is what saved him.
Does that make any sense?’

‘Yes it does. The reasons for our decisions in moments of crisis
aren’t always manifest. We often do the unexpected and can’t explain
why. I suppose fate comes into it.’

‘You know, when that man had the upper hand he seemed to delight
in the torment he brought to me and Amina. Now the boot is
on the other foot, I truly do not know what to do with him. What is
your opinion?’ Nimrod asked.

‘Kidnapping is a serious offense in any civilised place. Back
home, all suspected criminals are tried in a court of law and given
fair representation. Of course we have the facilities to imprison
them, if convicted. Here, I’m unsure. We must thank whatever God
that he didn’t take Sanya’s life. At least he is not a killer.’

‘Lucky for him. We have a local soothsayer around these parts.
He was drawn into the abduction in a minor way. The kidnappers
asked him to deliver their instructions to us, or more accurately to
Annie. Did she tell you that?’

‘No.’
‘Samatar is a man of few words but some say he can look into the
future. Amina and I have poured over the strange thing he said to
Annie. ‘In a court of fowls a cockroach never wins his case.’ Simplistically,
we’ve concluded he was likening the kidnappers to cockroaches,
while predicting that they would eventually have to contend with us,
represented as hungry, tormented chickens. Fowls can be quite vicious,
you know. I have seen them chase and tear apart a striped
mouse. We have the opportunity perhaps, to demonstrate more
compassion than Samatar was implying. But I don’t think forgiveness
will change this man. People like that never alter their behaviour.
235
Given identical circumstances, he would do it all again. Would you
believe that he is a policeman?’
‘Nothing surprises me these days,’ I replied, thinking of Jamila
and Teapot the Terrier, and our night of terror at the hands of a few
corrupt and criminal members of the Kenya police.
Nimrod stared into the glowing embers of the fire.
‘Will you stay tonight as our honoured guest?’ he asked, brightening
again. ‘There is something to be said for sleeping under canvas, a
gentle breeze against your skin. And tomorrow we have good Ethiopian
coffee and plenty of fruit for breakfast.’
‘You have been too kind to me already. But yes, I would love to
rest here.’
‘So long as you do not run off with Amina in the night and leave
me bereft,’ he smiled.
‘It’s very tempting, but I know she has already chosen the better
man.’
‘Good. Then it is settled. We will make up your bed. Meanwhile I
must also arrange food, and water for our prisoner. Amina!’ he
called. ‘Let us go to Fisi together.’

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