This post contains portrayals of homosexual actions and lifestyles. There may be references to, or explicit descriptions of, sex between consenting adults.
If homosexuality, sexually explicit language, or swearing offends you, or if reading material that contains these violates any law or personal or religious beliefs, you must exit now without proceeding further.
If you’re under 18 years old you may not read it either because it is against the law. I regret this because I was once a randy teenager myself and I feel somewhat two-faced in helping enforce the law. Hopefully, one day, censorship may disappear along with other vestiges of Big Brother and Mother Grundy.
The story is entirely fictional. Kirkhall Island is a fictional Barrier Island off the Georgia Coast. Where I mention real people or companies (for example, the policeman in Mutare or the airport manager at Bulawayo), it is merely for a semblance of verisimilitude and the attitudes and actions I ascribe to them are entirely fictional.
My thanks to Bill and Alastair who edit my work and make suggestions. Any errors that remain are probably because I ignored their advice.
EX AFRICAby Horatio Nimier
The morning sun, almost overhead on its annual northern trek, had spent the last four hours heating the rocky African grasslands, which in turn, had warmed the air above them, causing strong thermals to rise up into the clear, azure sky, each an invisible column crowned with a growing cap of white cumulus. Enjoying this free boost, the Berghaan climbed high, its eight-foot wingspan, with the splayed tip-feathers reducing turbulence, providing the necessary lift with minimal effort. It had been a perfect morning: shortly after sunup, a meerkat, a rare delicacy in this part of Africa, had ventured too far from its hole, and the eagle had swooped down to snatch its breakfast. Portions of the small mammal still now remained in the bird’s craw as it soared upwards. Exhilarating in the balmy, unstable air, and with plenty of altitude in hand, it performed a roll and then, apparently pleased with that, executed a quick somersault and then another, once again earning the name Bataleur for its breed. Such was its joi de vivre that it paid scant attention to the increasing thrum in its ears and commenced another roll. The bird was half inverted when the blue and silver craft speared out of the cloud less than sixty feet away.
If the waves of the incoming Atlantic tide continued to pound on the sands, if the seagulls still mewed incessantly over minute crustaceans trying in vain to hide under the wet sand, I didn’t hear them. The outside world had ceased to exist when I saw the name in the short article on page seven of The New York Times which Mike had brought home with the bagels and fruit for our brunch. The image that was projecting onto the screen of my mind, was a genial man holding forth about the promise of a new world at Paul’s and my graduation dinner. What a great evening that had been: four years of hard work had culminated in success for my buddy and me; our friendship, cemented together by shared late-night sessions of panicked cramming and conspiratorial college escapades, was crowned by the amiable rapport of our parents. The world was ours. As the meal progressed, Blake Helminger was proposing that the growing accord between Israel and the Palestinians, and the types of agreement such as NAFTA, would result in the 21st Century beginning with a surge of global development that would be like a second industrial revolution. In such an environment it would have been unthinkable that anything but calm seas and prosperous voyages would be Paul’s and my lot. The happy image blurred as I returned to the present and recalled the short report I had just read. What had Blake’s end been like? Had he been fighting to gain control as his aircraft arced toward the ground? Had his burned hands clawed at a hatch as he attempted to escape? Or had his death been mercifully swift and unforeseen as his craft arrowed into a mist-shrouded hill?
"What’s the matter?" asked Mike, startling me.
"Uh Oh ." I struggled up from the depth, "This article here. Seems like my best friend from college’s father was killed in a plane crash."
"You’re kidding! What happened? Where?"
"It doesn’t say. Down in Zimbabwe — he had a farm there. I guess he was in some small plane — they didn’t say anything about that."
"Shit, that sucks. Was your bud with him?"
"I dunno. It just says that a pilot was killed when his plane crashed on attempting to land at Bulawayo. He was found dead in the wreckage. Doesn’t say anything more about him: the article is more about how safety is being impacted by the current crisis in the country. Little or no money has been available for airport safety or air navigation aids, and now most international airlines are avoiding Zimbabwe altogether."
"When did it happen? Where is Bulawayo?"
"Yesterday, I guess. It says Saturday, so either yesterday or a week ago. It’s hard to tell in these short filler articles — they sometimes sit on them until there’s a convenient space that needs something. Bulawayo’s a town in Southern Zimbabwe — next country to the north of SA."
"Ah! A bit homesick are we?"
"No. Not really. Different time, different place, different guy."
I turned back to the paper, looking unseeingly at other stories, until Mike broke the silence. "So? How come you’re not giving your buddy a call?"
"Yeah," I sighed laying the paper across my knees, "I should talk to Paul. I guess it’s about 9 o’clock on the West Coast. Hope I’ve still got his number."
"Thought he was your best friend?" Mike chided gently with a smile.
"Yeah," I said as I got up and headed toward the doors, "he was."
I stopped and looked at him over my shoulder. "He kinda got freaked when I came out."
"Oh!" Mike reflected for a second or two, "He didn’t know?"
I shook my head slightly. "Naah. I’d never told him."
Mike kept his own counsel on this revelation as I padded through to my office and browsed through my Outlook address book. I did have a number. I couldn’t remember where I’d got it from or how, and I hesitated before picking up my headset. Considering carefully what I was going to say, I slipped it over my head, and slowly started to punch the dial buttons.
"Hello?" The intonations that broke the monotonous ringing tones flashed through synapses in my brain and paged in recollections from eons past in my life.
"Yes. Who is this?" A slight pause followed, "Chris?"
"Hey, Paul," I hurried past an introduction, "I’ve been reading today’s New York Times and I saw the story about your dad. I just phoned to say I’m sorry to hear the news."
"Hey, Chris! Man, it’s good to hear your voice. Thanks for calling." There was a brief relapse into the voice I remembered with its Rhodesian twang before the wearied tones returned as he continued, "Yeah, it’s difficult to actually comprehend that Dad’s gone. I saw a Cessna Skymaster fly over this morning, and I thought ‘I must tell Dad that those planes are still flying’, because he always liked them. And then it came to me that there’d be no more chances to tell him anything."
"These things happen so out the blue they take time to get used to," I sighed resignedly. "What went wrong?"
"We don’t know much. Seems as though he’d radioed that he had lost a prop blade and was returning to Bulawayo. He requested a straight-in approach and got it, but for some reason, maybe a gust — it was apparently blowing some — he banked on finals and couldn’t get the wing back up. He went across the airport in a long curve and it looked as though he was recovering, then the low wing caught a pole and the plane cart wheeled in and caught fire."
"Shit. What kind of plane?"
"Beech King Air."
"Wow! Nice plane. Pretty rugged usually."
"Yes. He’s never had any problem with it before. I don’t know what went wrong this time. They say there’ll be an inquiry, but the politics down there are so screwed up, and almost any government appointment is done on the buddy system, so I don’t know how competent anyone will be and what’ll come out."
"He owned the plane?" I asked.
"Yeah. He was running a charter business down there "
"I thought he was farming?" I asked surprised.
"Yes," there was a little sigh, "he was. Then came the land redistribution. They took his farm and all his equipment." His voice changed, a tone of bitterness edging in as he explained, "The story they tell the foreign press is that the land gets redistributed to the people whose land it originally was. That’s a crock: some political bigwig has moved in and uses it as a weekend party house."
"How’s your mom? She down in Zimbabwe, too?"
"Actually she’s up here with us. She’d come over for a visit and then had a blood clot in her leg so stayed here — the doctor wouldn’t clear her to fly. Dad had a contract to finish so he stayed behind. She’s taking it kinda badly — her doctor still won’t let her fly down there, so that’s pretty rough on her. Anyway, with the medication she’s on now, she can’t take malaria tabs."
"Shit, man, I’m sorry to hear that. Where’s the funeral going to be?"
"We’re having a small memorial service up here on Tuesday. Then I’m going to go down and collect Dad’s remains," his voice dropped into a choke as he finished, "apparently there isn’t much of him left."
"It’s OK, Paul. Take it easy, man. I understand." I cursed inwardly at my inability to say anything that was vaguely intelligent or meaningful, and tried to steer the conversation elsewhere. "I was remembering our graduation dinner this morning when I read the story. Remember how he believed that we were on the brink of a brave new world?"
"Funny, you should have remembered that," he responded in a stronger voice, "I was reminiscing with Mom and Kathline this morning, and Mom brought that up. Dad was always an optimist," and I heard his throat tighten again.
"So Kathline’s your wife?" I asked desperately trying to get back on firm ground.
"Oh! Yes." His voice brightened and then became a tad embarrassed. "I forgot how long it’s been."
I didn’t want to go there, either, so I asked, "You got any kids?"
"One at present. Charlie is almost four now," he added with fatherly pride, "and is a handful, especially right now. Kathline snapped a leg bone skiing about a month back and isn’t really mobile."
"Wow. That must have hurt like hell."
"Yeah, Mom helps out, but Charlie runs her ragged," he laughed ironically. "It’s been one thing after another for us."
"I was just thinking that. I see from your phone number you’re still out in California: who’re you working with?"
"Still with Gemelli Engineering. Doing consulting stuff with RF/Microwave, up/down converters and that sort of stuff; I get involved in developing RF/analog assemblies and integrating designs for customers and supervising testing.
"What’re you doing these days, Chris?"
"I’m with Avionic Development. Doing aircraft control applications and software."
"Always interested in planes! You got your license?"
"Naah. Every time I start down that route something else comes along and takes my time, or my money, away," I laughed. "I’ve got a Kawasaki Ninja, though, that’s the next best thing to an airplane," and heard his chuckle on the other end of the line. "I’m living in Georgia. Down the coast from Savannah a tad."
"Sounds nice. Warmer than Pittsburgh for sure."
"Yeah, it’s already nice enough to sit outside." There was a pause. "So, you say you’re going down to Zimbabwe?"
"Yes," he said resignedly. "I’m headed down on Thursday. Just going to settle the legal side of things and collect Dad’s remains and maybe bring back some of his personal stuff. I also need to get some more of mom’s stuff. The rest I’ll put in storage until she can get back down there."
"That’ll be rough. Take care, man."
"I’ll do that. Thanks for calling, Chris. It was what I really needed to hear today."
"No sweat, Paul. Keep in touch. And let me know if there’s anything I can do. I’d like to come out for the memorial service if that’s OK."
There was no hesitation in the reply, "No problem. It’d be great to see you."
"Cool. What time is it?"
"Three in the afternoon — on Tuesday. I’ll meet you at LAX."
"If that’s convenient for you, otherwise I’ll rent a car."
"No, man. I can do that. You can stay at our place, too. Mom’s got the guest room, but we have an attic that’s done up with a big double bed."
"You sure it won’t be a lot of trouble? I can always hit the local Holiday Inn."
"No way, Chris. It’ll give everyone something else to think about — I’m telling you, right now we need it."
"OK, Paul. Thanks. And, seriously, let me know if there’s anything I can do. Your Dad was a neat guy."
"You mean like come down to Zimbabwe with me?" he joked. "I’m not looking forward to doing that trip."
I laughed, "You still speak like a Rhodesian, Paul. Just remember to drive on the left and you’ll do fine."
Promising him I’d call him with my flight details into LA, we said our good byes and I slowly set the phone back into its charger.
"How did it go?" Mike asked as I pulled out my chair and poured myself another cup of coffee from the thermos.
"Not bad," I dragged my mind back from a previous lifetime. "Probably easier over the telephone, although I am going out for the memorial service."
"West Coast — LA." As I finished the second half of my bagel I filled him in with the details of the call and we discussed the crash a bit. I got to telling Mike about my college days and my friendship with Paul. Paul’s grandfather, Thomas Brochard III, was an American who, as a young rookie in his firm, had been sent down shortly after the Second World War to open a branch office in Rhodesia. Paul’s mother, Joan Brochard, had been born in Salisbury, but married and with her own family, had stayed there when the political stalemate between Britain and her former colony had caused the head office to recall their Southern Africa rep back to The States. The old man had paid for Paul’s college education at Carnegie which was where I had met him — he, I, three Aussies and a Kiwi forming a hard-drinking, rugby-loving, Southern Hemisphere clique. I had got on well with the older Brochard, and had spent two summers out in California working in the computer department of his company.
When I finished my tale we were both quiet and I picked up The Times again, but my mind stayed thinking about times past, and I didn’t take much in.
It was Mike who broke the silence. "So why don’t you go down to Zimbabwe with him?"
"It’s not as though you don’t have the vacation time," he reasoned, "you carried about two weeks over from last year because you hadn’t taken it."
"Would you come if I did?" I asked putting the paper down.
"I can’t get away for the next couple of months, otherwise I would."
"I think I’ll give this one a miss," I replied. "I’ve had my share of broken-up friendships and relationships." I pulled my T-shirt up, "See the marks where the spears went in?"
"Do friendships really ever end?" he asked almost rhetorically after rolling his eyes at my histrionics.
"Yeah," I replied, covering up and getting defensive. "When you’re down and hurting and your buddy leaves you lying there, they sure as hell do."
"What did he think about it all?"
"How the fuck should I know?" I answered with asperity. "He went his way and I went mine. We’d left college by then, so there was no reason to be together."
"So you said, ‘Hey, Paul, I’m gay,’ and he just got up and walked away?"
Oh, shit! Why did my guy have to be this friggin’ lawyer who could keep his cool and argue logically even when the whole situation was a crisis? "No. There was some yelling there was a bunch of name-calling." I retorted beginning to resent his insistence.
He merely raised his eyebrows and waited. Damn! How did he do that? "OK, maybe I hit him. Maybe we went round and round for a while."
Mike grinned widely. "Oh that must have been a sight not to be missed: two nerds punching it out! I thought that was limited to the jock frat houses."
I was at the point of snapping and I flashed him my warning look, but he sat there smiling at me, his hands dug into the front pocket of his sweatshirt, and I gradually had to admit to myself that it must have presented a kinda funny scenario if the emotion was taken out of it, and began to laugh myself.
"So, why don’t you go with him?" Mike asked when the giggles had died down.
"I dunno. Maybe he doesn’t want anyone with him."
"It’s going to be one heck of a lonely trip for him. And, by the way, you did mention he asked you."
"I don’t know that he was serious. And I don’t want to leave you."
"Awwww!" Mike responded leaning over and ruffling my hair affectionately. "It’ll only be for a week or two. And you can bring me back some neat presents," he added with a mischievous grin.
I grabbed him and held him close to me. "Go call your buddy," he said letting me go after a minute or two. I thought about it for a few seconds, then headed back into the office and hit redial on the phone.
I felt a sudden uneasiness about what I was going to say and I sidestepped it briefly, "Don’t you have caller ID?" I asked.
"Chris! No. We don’t get that many calls at home. What’s up, man? You got the flight times?"
"How serious were you about me going down to Zim with you?"
"Naah, Chris. You can’t do that. It’s a bunch of money and time."
"I spend my life flying around for meetings. I’ve got more frequent flyer miles than I know what to do with. If you want me to go to Zim with you rather than come to the service I can do it."
There was a long pause and then, "Shit, Chris, that would be one enormous favor, man. I am scared shitless of what I’m going to find down there and what I’m going to have to do."
"Yeah, I kinda figured."
"I just can’t believe you’d do this for me. I mean after what happened and the way "
"Hey, forget it. Let’s try it again: maybe we’re both a tad more grown up now."
"Man, I so owe you."
"No sweat. I’ll go do some tourist stuff, too, while I’m down there. Maybe visit my folks."
"If Kathline hadn’t broken her leg it would have been different," he hurried on, "but with her out of action at the present and Charlie around, too, she just can’t make it."
"Oh," I added, "and in case you’re wondering, I’m in a committed, monogamous relationship, too."
"Uh? Oh er yes. Oh, that’s great, Chris," he bumbled in confusion, but I had felt pretty sure that if he hadn’t gone down that line of reasoning yet, his wife would surely have dragged him down it when he told her about me.
"So when are you going?" I queried while he flailed about.
"I was going to leave here on Thursday. Got a flight to London, then British down to Johannesburg on Friday, and then South African up to Bulawayo."
"OK I could meet you in London. Are you flying out of Heathrow or Gatwick?"
We discussed flight schedules for quarter of an hour, and then said good bye when he started to get effusively thankful once again. "You’re a really good guy," I said to Mike as I went outside. "Not many people would have been so thoughtful." I ran my hands past the folds of the hood and rubbed his chest under the sweatshirt.
"I’m just thinking of the reunion when you get back," he suggested, tilting his head back and smiling up at me.
I bent over and kissed his lips, then tugged the sweatshirt up over his head. "Let’s go inside and practice."
The next three days passed like seconds as I put my work in order, got my gear together and rode into Savannah for some last minute shopping. I spent Wednesday night at Mike’s, and on Thursday morning he drove me out to Savannah Airport. Check-in was quick, leaving us time for a quick cup of coffee, and I found myself torn between the excitement of the trip and the incipient emptiness of going away from Mike. As the time drew near when I’d have to go through security, I pulled a small box out of my pocket. "Just so you know that you are still mine while I’m away," I said mushing through what I’d planned as a more eloquent speech, "these will keep us together." My trip to Savannah had netted two plain, gold bands and I slipped one over the ring finger of his right hand and then placed the other on mine.
"Chris ," he murmured gazing at his hand, "this is the best thing that has happened to me. Ever," he added in a stunned tone then, leaning forward and oblivious to the stares from those around us, gave me a long kiss. "You have no idea how much I value this, how much I always will," he admitted, "I couldn’t have asked for a better keepsake and forget-me-not". As Shakespeare observed, parting is such sweet sorrow, and when the MD-88 taxied from the gate I was both sad and elated as I looked from the waving figure at the terminal to the circle of yellow on my hand.
Other than a brief spat of turbulence in the vicinity of New York, the flight over was uneventful, and having cleared customs and immigration I made my way to Terminal 1. Paul’s plane had only just arrived, so I went and got a shot of caffeine to re-boot my flight-dulled brain. The second cup was coursing down my throat when I spotted him walking across the concourse toward the meeting point. Gulping the last two mouthsfull of the brown liquid, I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders and dashed after him.
"Paul!" I called when he was within earshot, and he turned around and spotted me. His face broke into the grin I remembered from college.
"Chris! Hey, buddy, it’s good to see you," and, in contrast to the last time we had been together, he put his arms around me and gave me a hug. Pulling back he looked at me. "You haven’t changed much since college!"
"Nor you," I admitted, "except that you dress all preppy now!" I pointed to the khaki Dockers, still neatly pressed after a thirteen hour flight, and the navy blue blazer. "What happened to the blue jeans and garrison belt?"
He laughed. "They’re in my bag. Thought I should look presentable when I arrived. Geez, Chris, it’s good to see you man. This is the only good thing that’s happened to me in a week."
"It’ll pass, Paul. Just bite the bullet and we’ll work through it." Not wanting this particular conversation to develop much further I asked, "What are your plans for today?"
"I hadn’t thought that far," he confessed. "What do you want to do?"
"Well, we’ve got close on fourteen hours until our flight leaves. Let’s dump our stuff and head into the city. Let’s see your ticket — are we sitting together on the flight down?"
"I don’t know," he took his tickets out of his jacket pocket and looked at them. ‘Geez,’ I thought to myself, ‘you can’t travel much if you use paper instead of e-tickets.’ I scanned his boarding pass and noted the 27B with misgiving: twelve hours in a middle seat, buddy, and your clothes will be the least of your worries.
"No. We’re a ways apart. Wait here and I’ll go get it changed," I said, dropping my backpack at his feet I didn’t want any debate at the airline counter. If my jeans and biker jacket caused the British Airways clerk to have any qualms, he hid them well, and gave me a friendly smile as I produced my Gold Executive Club Card.
"Hi!" I said as he asked how he could be of assistance. "My friend and I are flying down to Johannesburg tonight, and he has a really cruddy seat in the back, so I was wondering if I could get him an upgrade with my frequent flyer miles?"
"Let me check for you, Mr. Lawrence." He typed rapidly on a keyboard and then said, "That’ll be no problem. Plenty of room up front tonight." With the trademarked smile on his face, he returned my card to me while the printer whirred and spat out a new boarding card. "Have a pleasant flight, Mr. Lawrence, do you know where the Club Lounge is?"
"I think so, but just remind me so I don't get lost!" I listened to his directions, thanked him and returned to Paul.
"Now we’ve got seats next to each other so we can chat," I remarked giving him the new card. The lower seat number didn’t trigger any recognition with him, and I smiled to myself when I thought of the surprise that awaited him in the evening. "Let’s go dump our stuff," I suggested and headed off for the Executive Lounge. The receptionist greeted us warmly while I signed Paul in as my guest. Moving inside I remarked, "They’ve got showers here, so I’m going to clean up quickly. You can, too, if you want."
"Holy shit, Chris, are you some director of your company or something?"
"Naah. Just some low-level jerk who is made to fly around a lot for business." He laughed and we made our way towards the showers.
An hour later, with a smooth face, and girded with deodorant and a fresh T-Shirt, I guided Paul to the Underground station. He still had the pressed Dockers on, and I silently wondered if he imagined he might casually run into the Queen walking around the city. "What do you want to see?" I asked when he revealed that he hadn’t been to London before.
"You tell me," he said, so we behaved like a couple of tourists for a day, popping up like groundhogs from the Underground to see the Changing of the Guard, the Tower with its Crown Jewels, the cathedral that bore his name, Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament, until, at about 6pm, we dragged our weary feet into a pub in Soho to relax over a beer (yeah, he’d become sufficiently Americanized to whine about the temperature at which they served it) and eat a snack.
"At least you’ll sleep well tonight after all the walking," I commented as we watched the locals kick back after a week of work.
Two hours later we had run the gauntlet of security checks at Heathrow and were headed for the gate, arriving just in time to hear the call for the first class passengers to board. "That’s not for us — it’s first class," Paul protested as I steered him to do the door.
"Look at your boarding pass, Buddy," I replied, relishing this moment.
"Are you crazy?" he asked looking up from the card to my face. "How much did this cost?"
"Nowt. Some frequent flier miles."
"But you could have used those for a flight sometime," he said holding back from the line.
"Paul, you need to understand something," I said putting my arm around him, leaning close and speaking with a mock seriousness. At least half the people here assume we’re both gay. So, they naturally expect us, as Gays, to have a better living standard, better taste, and more sophistication than they. Ergo you have an awesome responsibility, bud: if you don’t behave like a civilized person you’re going to be letting down about twelve percent of the entire population."
Paul did a quick scan around to see if there were any homophobic stares directed his way, but not detecting any, realized I was making fun of him, and a punch landed gently on my upper arm. "Thanks, Chris."
"Hey, it seemed a pity to waste those preppy clothes on the rabble in the back!"
Conversation as we left runway 9R behind us and began our climb to 35,000 feet.
"Quite a long take off run. I guess we’ve got a full fuel load," I remarked.
"Yes. It’s pretty full in the back cabin, too. Amazing to think we can do this, what is it — 6,000 miles? — non-stop. When Dad took the King Air down it took him a couple of days. Of course it was just him and Mom, and she hasn’t got a license so he had to do all the flying."
"Why did he decide to stay down there with all the shit going on?"
"Well, he’d known no other life. He had the farm and they were doing well. He never believed that the government would commit national suicide just to grab votes, and he really thought things would turn out all right in the end. When the farm got taken away and there was no compensation, they were suddenly wiped out. He’d had his multi-engine license for a while and the pay for charter work in the Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa region is real good, so he figured a few years of flying hard down there would set them up for their retirement."
Conversation over Avord, France.
"I just want you to know, Chris, I understand what a jerk I was the way I treated you when you came out. There were many times since then I wanted to pick up the phone and call you and say I’m sorry, but each time I chickened out, afraid of being dumped the way I dumped you."
I sighed as much with relief as with past regrets, because I had known that this discourse would have to take place at some time on this trip, and the sooner it was behind us the better. "I won’t say it didn’t hurt." I swallowed hard. "It hurt like hell: there was a time there I felt I had nobody when I really, really needed a friend. I guess, looking back, I had thought coming out would be easy, that I was the only one who was affected. But I suppose that, too, was naive. If I’d been smarter I could have set the stage a bit better for you, but after pussy-footing around the issues and living a lie for so long, sooner or later one just wants to get it over with regardless of how the chips fall."
"Strange thing was," Paul said looking straight ahead, "I thought I was protecting myself, my reputation, what people thought about me. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that most folk thought I was a big prick for what I’d done. My parents gave me no end of nagging, as did Granddad. After that I was too ashamed to call you, too. But, if any good at all has come from Dad’s accident, it’s that he and Mom are pleased we’re friends again."
"We were always friends."
Conversation over the Algerian Coast.
"That was a really good dinner by any standards. Fantastic for an airline. Now I’m going to take advantage of these fancy seats and get a good night’s sleep."
"I told you that my dragging you all over the city would exhaust you," I agreed. "Just think: it’s helping you get over the jet-lag."
Conversation over Bangui, Central African Republic.
"What time is it?"
"About 5:30 London time. You can still get about another good hour’s Z’s before breakfast."
"I thought you hadn’t flown this route before," Paul smiled sleepily.
"I haven’t. But I’ve flown enough to be able to read the patterns of preparation in the galley."
Conversation over Lusambo, Zaire
"I could easily get used to this kind of travel," Paul confessed as he brushed a croissant crumb from his shirt.
"It sure helps to pass the time," I agreed, allowing the flight attendant to refill my glass with sparkling mimosa.
As I placed the glass down on my table, Paul reached over and touched the back of my hand close to the shiny gold band. "The committed, monogamous relationship?"
"Who is he?"
"An up-and-coming lawyer in Savannah."
"That doesn’t tell me much."
"Killer eyes. Mind as sharp as a knife, ice cool logic. Gentle, kind. The other lawyers in his firm think good things about him and his work. He lives in awe of pretty much anything technical, is frightened of flying, and is terrified when he’s up behind me on my bike and I go much over seventy. He has these dark eyes that grab your soul. About my height, fair hair and he owns pretty much my entire heart.
"It was he who got me off my ass to call you and also to come on this trip.
"His name is Mike. Oh, yeah, did I tell you? He has these fantastic, dark brown eyes."
Conversation over Francistown, Botswana
"Just about an hour left to go. You’re probably flying over parts of the same routes your dad used to."
Paul looked out the window. "Shit, the next few days are going to be tough."
"Yeah. I know. Don’t forget that I’m here: any time you need me, anything you need me to do."
Johannesburg International was pretty much like any airport, but since we were on a connecting flight to another country we could at least avoid customs and immigration.
It was early afternoon in Bulawayo when we walked down the steps from the ERJ-135 whose wings, so recently flying through the icy upper altitudes, were already wavering as the hot air eddied above them. We deplaned in silence, the image that we’d studied through the window not five minutes earlier of the long, curved furrow ending in a huge black patch still freshly etched on our retinas.
The wreckage itself had been taken to a small hanger we learned about an hour later in the airport manager’s office. Mr. Roger Zinyeka was a genial man who had a deep empathy for Paul and what he wanted to know. Over cups of tea, a legacy from the former colonial days, he told us of the final approach of the King Air. "Everything was going OK. He was a bit higher than usual, but if he had only one engine he maybe wanted a bit more altitude. The right engine was turning but much slower than the left one. Just over the approach lights there must have been a gust of wind. His left wing went down, then he got it level. Then the plane went into a right bank and, before he could get it up, it hit the post for the windsock. The tip folded up and the wing dug into the ground and then the plane fell. The fire equipment was there very, very quickly, you understand, but the fire was too big already." He leaned forward as though to make Paul understand an important point. "We think your father was killed when the plane hit the ground because nobody saw him try and leave the cockpit. We believe he died instantly and was not in pain or burned."
Paul excused himself and walked over to the window overlooking the apron where our Embraer was beginning to taxi out for its return flight. Mr. Zinyeka and I sipped our tea in silence only inadequately comprehending what had to be going through Paul’s mind. My friend stayed at the window, watching the ERJ until it tucked its wheels in and began a climbing turn to the south, then, with a sigh, he returned to the desk and sat down.
"Thank you very much. I know everyone here must have done everything they could to save him.
"Would I be able to see the wreckage?"
"Certainly, Mr. Helminger. I’ll take you there, but I must ask you not to touch anything because the investigation is not yet finished."
"I understand." We finished our tea and followed Mr. Zinyeka down the stairs and out onto the ramp. A bright green Cessna taxied by, wobbling on its undercarriage as it crossed some uneven patches of concrete. In silence we walked past a large hangar and toward a smaller building next to it. The main doors were open, allowing us to see the blackened fuselage inside and, as we got nearer, my nostrils picked up the acrid scents of charred plastics and metal. We crossed the threshold with reverence, the hangar, like hangars anywhere in the world, smelled of aircraft paint and fuel; oil spots stained the grey concrete floor under our feet, and as we drew closer to what had once been an airplane, the only sounds came from the curved metal roof as it expanded and contracted in the afternoon heat. Two men in khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirts came around from the back of the wreckage and appeared ready to chase us away, but seeing Mr. Zinyeka, walked forward to greet him.
From the introductions we learned that the two were engineers from South Africa, called in by the insurance company to examine the wreckage to try to determine the cause of the problem. They greeted Paul somberly, and then, in response to the airport manager’s question, became more animated as they returned to the world of engineering to give an update on what they had found. No problems had been discovered in any of the control surfaces, but the prop on the right engine had apparently impacted a bird.
"You see, there are some blood marks here," the man introduced as Karel pointed to a bent propeller blade lying on the floor still attached to its hub. "Two of the other blades were bent in the crash — see the different bend? —the third blade is just not too bad, but this one is bent completely differently. In the engine we got some feathers out, and we’ll send them to the labs in Jo’burg, but my bet it’s a Berghaan — a buzzard — because of the red and black colors. We think the bird flew into the prop, and the strike bent the blade slightly and put it out of balance. It would have made the engine vibrate very badly, shaking the whole aeroplane. Look at this blade," he pointed to the relatively undamaged one, "See the angle — it isn’t feathered. We think maybe with the strike, or because it was running out of balance, or maybe because the pilot, your father, had his hands full keeping the plane flying and didn’t hit the switch, it didn’t feather. We don’t know. We need to look at the mechanism a bit more and try and see if the switch was pulled. Anyway it must have been a big drag on the starboard side, and when the gust hit it well the recovery at that altitude would have been very difficult."
Paul walked over to what was obviously once a seat. "Is this the ," his voice trailed off.
"The pilot’s seat? Ja." Paul stretched his arm out and gingerly touched the aluminum frame with his fingers and we saw his shoulders begin to shake. I watched him briefly then turned and wandered over to the side where some photographs and drawings were laid out. The others followed me: however great our desire to help, this was ground my friend had to cover alone.
"He wouldn’t have suffered. The doctor said there was no smoke in his lungs, he must have died in the crash," the older man, Eddie, explained to me.
I nodded. "Where is the body now?"
"In the morgue towards the town," Karel said and putting his hand on my arm added, "Mr. Lawrence, I don’t think your friend should see the body. A man shouldn’t remember his father like that."
My throat constricted and I could feel my eyes pricking, "I’ll try to persuade him not to."
"What are your plans here?" asked Eddie redirecting the conversation.
"Well, we need to get his father’s remains back to The States. I think he’s made arrangements to have him cremated here and take the ashes back."
"Ja, cremation would be easiest. Freight often gets delayed or lost."
"Then we’ll go to Mutare. That’s where his dad was living, so there’ll be stuff to sort out and pack there."
"How’re you going to get there?"
"Rent a car and drive up."
"I don’t think that’s such a good idea," Eddie said and turning to Mr. Zinyeka, "You think there’s petrol there?"
The black man shrugged his shoulders. "Sometimes, yes, sometimes no. But driving here is not always safe," he finished clicking his tongue.
It took a few moments for this to sink in. "Oh, shit," I gasped, "we had kinda taken car rental for granted."
"There’s very little forex to buy petrol," the airport manager explained, "There’s very little money for anything and, you see, petrol comes from outside so we need forex to pay for it. He pointed over the yellow-brown grass to the runway, "I have been asking for money for the runway to be fixed for two years, but it never gets into the budget. We do what we can do," he shrugged expressively.
"So what do people do who want to get from Bulawayo to Mutare?"
"Bus. Tourists take a tour, or at least a luxury bus. Do not take other buses — many accidents happen because the drivers speed."
Paul walked over to where we were talking. His face was strained, and with his hands in his pockets he stated that he thought we’d call it a day and go to the hotel. Having thanked the engineers, the three of us walked out into the sunshine, past an Aero Commander that lacked engines, and returned to the airport terminal in silence. After discussing the rental car predicament with Paul, Mr. Zinyeka offered to drive us to the hotel, and by six o’clock we were seated at the bar, heady lagers in chilled glasses in hand, discussing our alternatives, when the two engineers from the airport came in. Greeting us warmly they asked if they could join us and pulled up two big wicker chairs. The talk was cursory at first, but once we changed to first names things began to flow more easily. "I think I can help you with your trip to Mutare if you can go up on Monday and come back Friday," Karel said.
"Sounds good to me," said Paul. "From what Zinyeka said my father’s ashes should be ready by Wednesday. Do you think I can see his remains tomorrow or will the morgue be closed on a Sunday?"
Eddie looked at me and I shook my head to signal I hadn’t spoken to my buddy about his concerns so the engineer took the bull by the horns. "Look, Paul, it’s none of my business, but I don’t think you should do that. It is not the way you must remember your father."
"I have to pay my respects. It is the very least I can do."
"Yes, sons must honor their fathers. We believe that, too." Quiet settled on the table and we sipped our beers each in his own contemplation. "Ja, we have a saying in Afrikaans, it’s about the best things a man can give, and part of it is ‘Aan jou kind, jou voorbeeld, aan jou ouers, eer, aan jouself, respek.’ It says you have to give honor to your parents. But also it says you’ve got to give your children an example. Would you really want your children to feel that they must look on your body if you had been in a bad accident?" He paused as his words sank in and Karel nodded quietly in reflective agreement as he stared into his glass. Eddie spoke again, "The saying also says that what you give to yourself is respect. That means that you must make the hard decisions."
Once again we drank for a while in silence then Paul spoke, "I don’t know. I understand what you are saying, but I feel under an enormous obligation — especially since Mom can’t be here. I guess I’ll sleep on it and decide tomorrow."
"Then you might want to think what you want to have to tell her," Karel commented. We sat without speaking for about a minute, watching the doves strut around the cooling flagstones, then he changed the subject, "Anyway, if you can leave on Monday there’s a friend of mine who is flying to Harare. If you are willing to pay him in US Dollars he’ll pick you up here and drop you off at Mutare on the way," Karel said.
In the end, Paul decided to heed Eddie’s and Karel’s sage advice, and in the late Monday morning we were climbing out from runway 31, wings rocking in the rising thermals, as Sam, our pilot, set course for Mutare.
"Hello, I’m Felicity East." We were standing outside the building that served as Mutare’s arrival and departure hall. The woman was tall and thin, no makeup disguised the fact that she had spent a great deal of time outside, and the firm arm muscles suggested she was not afraid of hard work. From under a straw hat, steady blue eyes mirrored her smile. "I’m Gerald’s wife. He’s got something going on at the office, so I said I’d pop down and get you." Heedless to the bicycles that were being ridden with various degrees of control, she set out across the street, her blue skirt swaying in time to her long strides. We followed with a great deal more caution and loaded our baggage into the back of the Land Rover. I took the back seat leaving Paul to ride up front beside her as we drove down the wide streets lined with brilliant red Flamboyant trees and lilac-colored Jacarandas.
Tired of battling a legal system that was being continually hobbled, and exhausted by the constant political unrest that swirled through the land, the man who had handled the Helminger legal matters for years had left the country. Exactly who had appointed Gerald East as the lawyer to handle his father’s estate, Paul wasn’t sure, but he was only too glad that someone else had picked up the reins. ‘He seems very friendly over the phone,’ had been his only comment to me about the Easts. ‘They sure do’, I reflected as I slid the window open and let the tropical air blow through my hair as I surveyed the bustle of a third world town.
"Yes, things have changed a lot here," Felicity responded to a remark of mine, "The farmers are getting hard hit with this land redistribution. The land is good, but we can’t feed the whole country if everyone is tilling their own little lot. There’s hardly anything to export, and our forex reserves — that’s foreign exchange — are perilously low." Steering adroitly amongst cyclists and careening cars, she went on discussing the current political situation until we pulled up in front of a long, beige bungalow house outside the town. "Gerald will be home for lunch and then you and he can discuss business," she said to Paul. "The house where your father lived is not far from here — we can walk down there later and I can help you pack up whatever you need to take back."
She was quite adamant that we weren’t going to stay in the local hotel as we had expected ("We get precious few visitors here nowadays and new faces are always welcome") so Paul and I settled comfortably into the two rooms she had prepared for us. After a quick wash we repaired to the verandah, where a tall pitcher of beer shandy awaited us, and we were on our second glass when a white Peugeot pulled into the driveway and a shortish man in a smart shirt and slacks got out and walked quickly up to the house. With his trimmed gray hair and ramrod stiff back, I half expected him to snap to attention and salute as he reached the top of the stairs.
"Hello," he greeted us, "I’m Gerald East. Sorry I wasn’t here to meet you, something unexpected cropped up and I couldn’t leave right away." Paul and I introduced ourselves, and Gerald offered Paul his condolences. "I liked your Old Man," he said looking over the garden. "Fine man. Terrible business, terrible business." He returned his gaze to my friend and asked, "Do they know why his plane crashed?"
"Looks as though he hit a big bird and then, as he was landing, got tipped by a gust and couldn’t recover in time on one engine," Paul summarized.
"Terrible. Most unfortunate," he said softly, then turning businesslike, asked, "Everything work out with the morgue people?" Paul assured him that all the arrangements had been made without hitch, to which Gerald replied, "Good. Good. Seemed like a good chap when I spoke to him. Not always the case in government offices," he said shaking his head, and then indicated we should sit down at the table as Felicity came out with a tray with a plate of grilled pork chops and a large bowl of fresh salad. We sat down, paused briefly while Gerald intoned the Selkirk Grace, and then set to with the food.
"What kept you at the office?" Felicity asked when there was a pause in the talk.
"Old Harold Mortimer died yesterday."
"Good heavens! What happened?"
"Heart attack very likely. Or an aneurism," he replied. "Doctor Patel will do the autopsy and we’ll know for sure then. The maid found him this morning when she went over. Don’t know when he died, but he hadn’t slept in his bed."
"Philipina found him? It’s a wonder we didn’t hear her screaming from here!" Felicity said without smiling.
"Apparently she ran to the McGlaughlin’s house in a rare state, and they called the doctor. The police came to see me to see if I knew anything about a will. Told them he’d never asked me to draw one up for him — doubt he had much of worth to leave. I don’t believe the government paid him much if anything for his farm, and his wife had run through most of their savings before she died. There were no children. Probably end up selling what we can to cover the funeral."
"Well I can go over and tidy up and take inventory if you like," she said matter of factly. "I’ll have plenty of time and it won’t cost anyone anything." The conversation continued about the death of their neighbor, and then drifted onto what Paul and I had done in Bulawayo, what Paul wanted to do here and how long we’d be in town.
"We’re leaving on Friday," Paul confirmed. "I’m headed back to The States, and Chris is heading down to his family in South Africa."
"Good, good." Gerald nodded at me as he stabbed a fork into a pile of lettuce. "Where do they live?"
"Durban area. Up the North Coast a bit."
"Ah! I know it. Umhlanga — we spent a holiday there once — Umdloti, Tongaat. Nice area."
After lunch, Gerald and Paul went into the house to discuss the disposition of Paul’s father’s effects, while I remained outside talking with Felicity. We chatted, I guess, for about an hour and a half until the others came out. Paul looked pale, and I guessed the discussion must have been stressful for him. He sank down heavily into the large wicker chair and looked at me with dull eyes. "We’re wiped out, man."
"What do you mean?"
"Dad’s bank account has the equivalent of about five hundred and fifty US dollars in it."
"Holy cow! Somebody’s taken his money?"
"No," he sighed, "it looks as though he’s just been spending it away for several months — almost since Mom left by the look of things. Not much coming in from his flights."
"But the Beech was insured?"
"Yeah," he shrugged, "but you know what insurance is like. With the current exchange rates who knows whether it’ll cover the outstanding loan. Then there are the last couple of week’s landing fees on a credit card and gas as well. We’re down about three thousand US dollars there. There’s this month’s rent on the house, some outstanding utility bills. It would have been more than covered by the charters he had scheduled, but now " His voice trailed off.
"Some tea and biscuits for everyone!" Forever the colonial, Felicity set great store in the restorative powers of tea. I smiled at the concept, but I could not argue with the empirical data that proved it was valid: with the caffeine in the brew, and the forced inaction of holding a cup of hot liquid in one’s hand, all the ingredients for contemplation were present. I took a plain cookie and sat back to digest the latest news.
"Any indication in the bank statement on what he’d been spending his money? Or was business just not too good?" Not too good! I was reverting to my own colonial past of measured understatement — for such a loss as Paul reported, business would have had to be disastrous.
"No. Apparently he was doing flights pretty regularly — South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, but the loads must have been light because he was just covering expenses. His log book was burned in the crash so we don’t know for sure."
It was almost impossible for me to talk about these developments: I felt helpless, unable to think up any useful stratagem to help my friend. Paul and I discussed various possibilities, but Gerald ruled out most of them as impractical, and we were in a somewhat melancholy mood when, once we had finished drinking the tea, we set out for the house Paul’s father had been renting. "I spoke with Dessai yesterday. He says you needn’t be in a hurry to move out: he hasn’t any prospective renters for the house," Gerald assured Paul as we walked along the street, then added gently, "and he won’t charge you rent — just wants you to cover the utilities."
"Thanks. Tell him I appreciate it."
"He’s a good chap."
The house, like most here, was a bungalow, its plastered walls a light pink in color, and the roof covered with faded reddish tiles. It sat atop a small koppie — a low hill — and from the living room there was a grand view over the surrounding countryside. I slid the wide glass door open, and a few pigeons that had been pecking for grubs in the grass flew off in fright. The garden was fairly natural: indigenous plants were somewhat corralled into rockeries, but the veld grass had been replaced by a coarse lawn that was long overdue for a mow. A large granite rock with a natural hollow had been placed as a bird bath, but without any recent rain it was dry, a mud of fine reddish dust at the bottom bearing witness to the evaporated water. Idly I took the hose that was lying next to the house and directed the warm stream into the concavity. The smell of hot, wet earth from where the stream splashed over wafted up to my nose, mixing with the smell of creosote from the beams that supported the roof. I was back in Africa — nowhere else did the earth smell quite so rich, nor, elsewhere, were there to be found the redolent trees, grasses and plants exuding the comforting familiar scents of my native continent. As I turned the tap off, the pigeons settled down a few metres away, and for a while they were the only things moving in the warm afternoon. I looked over the verdant countryside, slumbering under the clear sky, to the distant koppie with a cross on its crown, and I felt the tug of the land reawaken in my veins. What turmoil the rebirth of the continent was causing: there had to have been a better way to release the constraints of colonialism, but unwittingly Africa had got caught up in the fight between Communism and Western ideology. Not believing that the devil you knew could possibly be better that the one you did not, and lacking, through no fault of their own, a broad base of experienced people, most countries had not fared well. Sighing, as much over what had been lost as over the realization that I could never adequately explain to Mike that I was the child of another place and a different time, I turned and walked back into the house.
The interior was fairly sparse: a TV and a stereo that had been new about fifteen years ago sat in a wooden cabinet. To my left there was a large bookshelf that held mainly ornaments, although one shelf had been cleared to hold a pile of tourist magazines and several binders of King Air maintenance directives. The wall opposite to where we had entered was decorated with a zebra hide, now aged and with some patches of skin showing through the gray and black hairs, while the remaining walls were covered with aeronautical maps of the Mutare, Victoria Falls and Kariba areas.
Paul sat down at the desk and rapidly went through drawer after drawer while Gerald watched. I wandered over to study the maps and Felicity followed. I indicated to her the route we had taken in from Bulawayo, and she pointed out additional points of interest in the vicinity that we might like to visit.
Paul pushed the last drawer closed leaving a small pile of papers on the desk. "Well, if we didn’t find any money there, we at least didn’t turn up any more unpaid bills," he spoke the words with resignation. "Let’s go see what else is in the house," he said as he got up and headed down the passage.
Yet, as we soon discovered, the same words could have been uttered over the rest of the house. Some soap, a half empty bottle of shampoo, the cleaning supplies, and a wicker basket that contained a couple of days laundry were all that remained in the bathroom. The bedroom revealed some clothes and shoes, a suitcase, an ancient radio alarm, some pictures of his family and little else. We traipsed back to the living room, and Paul intimated that he would like to spend some time going through the papers in the desk, which Gerald agreed would be a good start. He and Felicity would head back to their house and, since I had elected to stay with Paul, we could come back for dinner whenever it suited us.
As my friend settled down to his task, I picked up a couple of the King Air binders and went outside to discover what was interesting about that type of airplane. Relaxing on the old wooden bench, I started to turn the pages, but the warm sun and the scents of Africa entranced me, until after a while I put the book down and sat back to enjoy the garden. The house had been neglected and was in sore need of a repaint. Leaves and small branches filled the gutters, and some birds had made a rather bulky nest of twigs and scraps under the eaves where the downpipe curved from the gutter to the wall. Probably a Kwikkie, as we’d called the wagtails as kids. My peripheral vision detected a movement and, swiveling my eyes, I watched as what appeared to be a line of dead leaves moved through the rocks to the birdbath. I sucked my breath in: the Gaboon Adder is nocturnal and not often seen during the day. It paused, forked tongue flicking as it sought for scents of danger, and then it bent its broad, blunted triangular head to the still surface of the water and slaked its thirst. The earth-brown shades of the body, with its fawn-colored rectangular patches and vague hourglass shaped rich brown areas, gave the impression of a Persian carpet design, and helped it blend into the forest vegetation which was its normal habitat. It drank for less than a minute, and then went on its silent way to look for dank earth somewhere out of the hot sun. It is a good-natured snake and I had never heard of anyone being bitten by one, but its venom was highly potent, so I scanned the short grass surrounding the bench and instinctively swung my feet off the ground onto the seat.
For over an hour I sat there, reading the aircraft sheets cursorily and otherwise enjoying being outdoors. I was half dozing when the door slid open and Paul came out. He had kicked his sneakers and socks off, and trod gingerly over the grass his tender feet finding each little stone. I laughed at him, and he responded with a derogatory description of my ancestry. Deciding not to add to his worries by mentioning the snake, I dropped my feet to the ground so he had room to sit. "I don’t know, Chris," he said, staring unseeingly over the garden, "We all thought Dad was doing well down here, but it seems as though he was flying one or two people a time, and that’s not a good load factor for a twin turbo-prop."
Later, as we walked home, the anxiety on his face was obvious, and the evening with Gerald and Felicity was rather subdued, the conversation always finding its way back to why Blake Helminger’s business had gone down so far.
"You see it time and time again here," Gerald said after dinner as he passed around a bottle of South African port, "These chaps think that if they can just hold on a bit longer then business will get better and they’ll survive. I suppose it is more or less inevitable in places like this where it’s difficult to change jobs or set up a new business. And there’s no safety net, like social services, as there is in Britain or in your country."
This discourse continued for some time, until eventually, wearied out, Paul and I retired to our bedrooms, resigned to the fact that Paul’s Mom was, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt.
After that, the week went by fairly quickly. Paul, Felicity and I would spend much of the day sorting through Paul’s parents’ belongings, debating on what was to be kept as a family heirloom, what could possibly be sold, what was to go into storage, and what was to be thrown out.
Tuesday had brought a new development. We had been packing boxes in the afternoon when there was a knock on the front door. On opening it I was confronted with a tall, thin policeman wearing an impeccably pressed khaki uniform. His eyes ran from my muscle shirt to my cut-offs and bare feet and then back, before his mouth informed me that he was Elijah Mupinda and the head of the Mutare police force. Without waiting for an invitation, he pushed past me and entered the house. Many a day of riding my bike at well over the speed limit has made me a tad gun-shy around cops, and Mr. Mupinda’s attitude was doing nothing to allay my unease. I saw his eyes scan the room, resting briefly on the piles of papers and half-filled boxes, and I called for Paul and Felicity to come through.
"Good afternoon," Mupinda said, "I was just driving nearby so I decided to come by and see if everything was proceeding smoothly."
"Indeed? Well everything is going well, thank you," Felicity replied in the chilled tones that, while faultlessly polite, implied that the recipient was straying outside the bounds of proper behavior.
Ignoring her, Mupinda addressed Paul, "I believe that the funds in Mr. Helminger’s bank account were less than expected."
"I would have expected my conversations with the bank manager to have been confidential," Paul spluttered.
"When everything is above board they are," replied the policeman as Felicity laid a hand on Paul’s arm. "Unfortunately, many people forget that the days of colonialism are over. Many of the Zimbabwean people suffered under the chains of that domination, and it is only right that those who profited unjustly then, now do their share in rebuilding this country."
"I think you could also say that a great many Zimbabweans were a lot less hungry as a result of my father’s labors than they are from what the current owner of my father’s farm has managed to produce. And certainly a large part of whatever he had earned since he lost the farm has brought badly needed foreign currency into Zimbabwe."
"That is what I hear," he replied levelly, but his eyes had narrowed at the mention of the farm’s new proprietor. He changed his tack, "I also hear that he was flying very often, so when I heard that the funds were so low I naturally wondered why."
"It would appear that the number of people flown did not always cover the cost of the gas and the flying of the airplane," Paul explained with a sigh.
"That must be it," Mupinda stated evenly looking at my friend. "I fully realize that laws and especially customs vary from country to country and, as a foreigner, you may not understand how things are here. So I wanted to come by as," he looked at Felicity then back to Paul, "a friend, and inform you that smuggling and foreign currency violations are taken very seriously in Zimbabwe."
Felicity gave him an icy smile and stated, "And, as a friend , I’m sure you would know that Mr. East is representing Mr. Helminger’s estate and would not be party to anything illegal. I dare say he will be able to answer any other questions you may have," and moving to the door, held it open for him. Leisurely he shook hands with Paul, passed another cursory look over me and, ignoring Felicity, left the house.
"Of all the nerve," Felicity seethed.
"Just another small time official stretching his muscles," Paul said. "Here I am worrying how Mom’s going to live, and Napoleon here thinks there are bundles of money lying hidden around."
"I wouldn’t trust that guy," I warned him. "He’s got promotion on his mind so just watch that nothing gets planted on you."
Paul patted my back. "You watch too much TV, Bud. I’m clean. Poor, but clean."
At dinner that night, however, Gerald put a different spin on things. "When your father’s farm was confiscated, Alfred Ncube took it over. The farm lands are supposed to be turned over to the people, but Ncube was some Party big-shot and it was given to him. Not one head of cattle grazed on that farm, not one ear of corn was grown. Apparently there were big parties there: while the rest of us suffer from shortages due to currency restrictions, he was serving wines and beers and fancy foods to anyone he wanted to impress. Many people suspected, but if you were wise did not speak it out loud, that he was in the drug trade.
"One weekend he and some of his henchmen and their er consorts were out at the farm, and someone thought it might be fun to go out and shoot some game. They drove around the nether regions of the property and, not surprisingly since they were creating such a din, didn’t see any game at all. By this time some no small amount of beer had been consumed and one of the men concluded he was a good tracker, so they decided to go searching for the game on foot. They had got about two, three hundred meters from the car when Ncube put his foot on a land mine that had lain there since the civil war. He was blown to pieces, and the aspirant tracker had his leg blown off and fell to the ground screaming. This so scared the others that they started to run back to the car, but in their panic they didn’t exactly retrace their steps, and one of the women set off a second mine — there are hundreds of them left in the bundu here," he explained to me, "and she and the third man were killed.
"Apparently there was no phone at the farm — the wires had long since been stolen for the pitiful price someone could get for the copper — so when the group failed to return, the servant set out on his bicycle for the town to tell someone. He was an old man and had worked for your father for many years "
"Must have been Samuel," Paul said.
"Yes, that’s the one. The first person he went to was Blake. Blake called the police, then he and Samuel headed back out to the farm in the Land Rover. They searched through the house, and were just heading into the bush to try tracking them when the police finally arrived. The police had been delayed because Mupinda, knowing that the farm belonged to a person of influence, had insisted on going home and changing into his best uniform first." With that last remark he looked at us under raised eyebrows and then continued. "With Samuel in the first police vehicle to act as a guide, the little convoy followed Blake’s Land Rover as they searched in the dark. It was a slow business, because they, too, had to be wary of land mines. They would drive half a mile or so and then stop and call and listen. After about two hours they heard the screams of the two women, and when they finally made it to where they were, they found them huddled in the branches of a low tree, totally hysterical, having had to listen helplessly to the wounded man bleed to death, and then hear the sounds of crunching as night set in and the hyenas came upon the scene.
"The strange thing was that Ncube was rumored to be extremely wealthy, but no money or anything of real value was ever found. It caused a bit of a stir, and about a week after the event, Mupinda and his men arrived at your father’s house and took it apart. Naturally they found nothing. They searched his Land Rover, and again found nothing, and they stood by while some aircraft mechanics at the airport searched his plane and once more found nothing.
"Of course," he continued, "other than his government salary, nobody ever admitted giving the man any money, so probably the rumors of drug trading are true. Anyway, millions of dollars are not easy to conceal, so, in the end, everyone had to come to accept that Ncube’s life style had been a mere front, that any fortune that had ever existed had been at the expense of bribes from people currying his favors and influence, and had been frittered away with all the lavish entertainment."
"What did Dad say about it all?"
"He was philosophical about it, merely saying ‘who lives by the sword will die by the sword’, an apparent reference to Ncube’s reputation as a brutal and savage man during the civil war."
"Who has the farm now?"
"The land is finally being farmed a little by some local people. Pretty much what you folk call crop sharing."
"Share-cropping," I corrected him trying not to crack a smile.
"Oh! Right! Well, about three months ago someone left a stove or light unattended and the house burned down one night. Nobody called the fire brigade so it burned to the ground."
"That’s sad," said Paul. "I’d hoped to see it again — we had some good times there."
"It’s best to remember it as it was then. It was a mess at the end."
"That’s all I ever hear since I’ve been back," Paul burst out sharply: "Remember him; remember that; remember every God-damned thing as it used to be."
"It’s hard," said Felicity placing her hand on his, "but it’s true. It’s going to take a generation or more for this country to get on its feet again, and many more before it reaches its former status."
"Anyway," Gerald continued as though there had been no interruption, "when I said that everyone had accepted that Ncube had no fortune, I exaggerated a bit: Mupinda has been on a one-man crusade to find the money ever since. Just like the people after the lost city of the Kalahari, he’s obsessed with the old stories, and that’s why he was after your father and why he acted as he did today."
"Not at all. He sees it as his route to sure fame and a comfy government post. There were at least three surprise inspections of your father’s plane before he was scheduled to fly to South Africa; twice his house was searched while he was away on a trip; and he and Samuel were both questioned about what had happened between when they got to the house and when the police arrived. It stopped only when Blake was flying some government fellow to Botswana and complained to him about this treatment. This chap called up Mupinde and told him to back off."
"I don’t think Mom knew any of this," commented Paul.
"No. It happened after she left, and I don’t think he wanted her to be worrying over him. But, when I first heard of the crash my first reaction was that it was sabotage."
"No," said Paul shaking his head, "The techs said it was definitely bird strike. No fire, nothing untoward other than the prop damage before the landing."
We talked way into the night, and when I finally made it to my bed, it was to dream of a plane whose wings were made from compressed dollar bills.
On Wednesday I called my parents to make arrangements for my visit to the coast. My father had been out of town when I was leaving Savannah and nothing had really been firmed up about my trip down south. I had a brief talk with Mom and then headed to my room to make my plans. At dinner that night I broached the subject. "You know, I’ve been thinking."
"Ay, now there’s a way to get yourself into trouble," said Gerald with droll humor.
"Yeah," I agreed with a wry grin, "that’s what usually happens.
"Anyway, it appears that my parents have house guests and it is not really convenient for me to go down there, so I was wondering if I could stay here for a couple extra days — or I can move to the Holiday Inn. I can’t change my return flight from Jo’burg so I thought I’d play tourist and go up to Vic Falls. Is that still possible?"
My statement was greeted with a stunned silence until Gerald remembered his manners and said, "Of course you can stay here — don’t want to hear any talk of hotels. Stay here as long as you wish. Probably still OK to travel to The Falls. Especially if you’re going to pay in US dollars. There are bound to be tours."
"I was thinking of seeing if I could get a flight up there with one of the guys flying out of here."
He considered this for a few seconds and then declared, "Yes, that might be possible. You could talk to John Wilkinson — I’ll give him a call if you like. Again, the US dollars will be a big help."
He was as good as his word, and right after breakfast on the following day Felicity handed me the telephone with the news that it was John Wilkinson for me. A few minutes discussion and I had myself a ride to Victoria Falls on a food delivery run the following Sunday, and I could come back with him on the Tuesday run back to Mutare. That would be cool, with me.
"I’m only too pleased to be of help. Blake Helminger was a heck of a good fellow," he said at the end.
After the sun went down on Thursday evening we had Paul’s farewell dinner — a barbecue under the panoply of stars that hung in the black Southern Hemisphere sky. In the intervening days Paul had become resigned to the facts of life, and he was a bit brighter — although I suspected that would change as he came closer to home and to breaking the news to his family.
The following morning, Felicity, Gerald and I helped him unload his suitcases from the Land Rover onto the curb in front of the airport terminal. Alongside we piled the two boxes of his parent’s possessions that he felt he needed to take with him. We had just stacked them on the sidewalk, when two police cars pulled up and Mr. Mupinda and four other officers of the law stepped out.
"Good morning, Mr. Helminger," he said smoothly. "I see you are ready to leave us."
"What is the meaning of this?" asked Gerald moving to the front.
"A mere formality, Mr. East," said Mupinda with a smile. "We just need to make sure that nothing that belongs to the people of Zimbabwe is leaving the country."
"Oh, for God’s sake," Paul gasped, his tension showing, "What now?"
"We have to search your baggage before you leave."
"This is absurd!" Gerald snapped.
Mupinda turned on him, his polite tone gone. "Why was it never absurd when the white soldiers dumped the clothes of black people on the road to search for weapons?"
"Then the country was in a civil war. Now we’re supposed to be at peace."
"You mean the War of Independence, and there are more ways to overthrow a government than with the gun," Mupinda said, his vouce regaining its civility. "Mr. Helminger, will you bring your belongings inside where we can look through them?" It was obviously pointless to argue, so we hauled everything into the hot building, found a couple of small tables, and watched while three of the policemen pulled things unceremoniously out of the suitcases and then the boxes. Mupinda stood by watching, occasionally picking up something to look at it more closely and then tossing it down, often onto the floor. At the end of twenty minutes they had gone through every article Paul had and nothing that was going to deprive Zimbabweans of priceless relics had been found.
"Have a pleasant journey," the policeman said, and without a word to the rest of us, turned and walked out, followed by his henchmen, leaving Paul’s possessions in piles on the tables and chairs.
"Son of a bitch," my friend muttered through clenched teeth as he and I set to to repack his stuff, and Felicity raced back to the car to get some tape and string to re-secure the boxes. "The sooner I get out of this dump the better."
"Just watch what you say and to whom," cautioned Gerald, placing books and papers carefully back into a pile before repacking them. "Remember there are draconian laws here against defaming the government or the president — and they take wide latitude in their interpretation."
By the time we saw our Cessna pilot walk through the doors, we were securing the last box. "Just as well I’ve got a light load today," he laughed as he picked up the two boxes and headed out. We said our good byes to Paul, Gerald and Felicity offering their hospitality if he were ever to come back, and watched him follow the pilot across the ramp.
The engines turned over and the props became transparent disks, and we waved. We waved again as the little aircraft taxied away, and we waved once more as the Cessna lifted off and pointed its nose to the south. I felt a pit of helplessness inside as I watched my friend’s departure: sad for his loss, depressed for the situation his family now found themselves in. As we walked back to the Land Rover I opined to my hosts that the burden had to weigh a lot more heavily on Paul than he had let on, All changed were whatever plans and desires he and Kathline had had for his own family, since now he would pick up the added duty to look after his mother.
"Does Paul’s mom have any other family besides him?" asked Felicity as we crossed the road.
"Her father lives nearby. He was born in The States, you know. But he’s old and, although he’s comfortable, I don’t think he has an abundance of money," I paraphrased a conversation I’d had with Paul one afternoon at the house. While I’d helped pack some stuff into a box, I’d asked him about his grandfather, and Paul had confirmed that he was still around, but was living in one of those communities for the elderly where they can maintain their independence, but where help was always on hand should they need it. But his granddad’s finances weren’t great: he’d supplied a good deal of the money for the Beech, and what was over was clearly not going to be any great help to his mother.
We drove home in silence trying to get the bitter taste of the morning’s encounter out of our mouths. "It’s the classic tale of the goose and the golden egg," Gerald stated over lunch. "If the government weren’t so hell-bent on staying in power by making unkeepable promises, and instead put some solid, long-term strategic plans in place, everyone would be better off. We’d get foreign investment. As it stands, our smartest people, black and white, are leaving the country for somewhere where they can make a decent living. If you do manage to hit on an idea that earns foreign currency, the government makes you exchange it at such a bad rate that you lose in the long run. The result is that people are disinclined to invest money or hard work in businesses that generate foreign currency, because they make hardly anything."
We ate in silence for a while. "If you’ve got nothing else to do this afternoon you can help me over at Harold Mortimer’s place," Felicity broke into my contemplations of what Gerald had said as I finished off my beer. "I volunteered to clear the place out, but it’s a mess and there are some things it’ll take two people to move."
"Sure," I responded. Gerald and Felicity had taken no payment from Paul or me for our stay so I was only too pleased to be able to help out. "Kind of a bummer for you," I remarked to her as we walked over to the dead man’s house half an hour later, "Clearing out two deceaseds’ houses in a week."
"Yes. It does tend to make me a bit sad. Reminds me that I’m mortal, of course, but somehow it seems to be a mirror of this country: at the end of the day all that’s left of a hard life is pitifully little of any value."
I was ruminating on these words as Felicity unlocked the front door and I followed her inside. Similar on the outside to Paul’s father’s house, Mortimer’s was very different inside. On every window-sill plants grew in jam jars or plastic pots. The kitchen cupboards were filled with a mish-mash of crockery that didn’t match, and an assortment of pots and pans whose appearance suggested that they were new in Queen Victoria’s reign. Magazines were piled everywhere; old binders filled with columns cut from newspapers were stacked along the wall, and two large bookshelves that were filled with books, mostly paperback novels, but some hardcover books on Rhodesia and Southern African history, took up an entire wall. On other walls were photographs of young airmen, standing or sitting in formal poses in front of their aircraft, and there was a framed squadron insignia with an elephant on it and the word ‘Rhodesian’ in a scroll underneath.
"I didn’t know the Rhodesian Air Force was established in World War II," I remarked pointing at the badge.
"No it wasn’t," Felicity replied, putting down some papers she’d picked up, and walking over to examine the photographs. "There were some training squadrons here, over at Thornhill in Gwelo, Gweru as it’s now called, but they were RAF controlled. There were three squadrons in the RAF overseas, though, which had mainly Rhodesian crews, and they were allowed to add the word to their escutcheon.
"Did you know that Rhodesia was the second country after Britain to declare war on Germany? So many Rhodesian men volunteered that the government here had to introduce conscription to keep some of the men at home to run the country!
"That’s why there were so many bitter people with the way Harold Wilson treated Rhodesia — we felt we’d sacrificed an awful lot of young Rhodesian blood on behalf of the motherland, and it cut deeply to be spurned by them."
She lapsed into silence, and we turned to study Mortimer’s library. An eclectic collection ranging from Neville Shute to Hammond Innes and Alistair McLean to Louis L’Amour. Two shelves were occupied by Reader’s Digest Condensed Book volumes, and I perused the titles of these for a while, making a mental note of a couple I might want to read. "He used to be well off, but I think he died a disappointed man," Felicity said with a sigh, and picking up the cleaning bucket and dusters, walked through to the back room.
For two hours we worked hard, sorting through clothes that might be worth selling if laundered, filling trash bags with stuff no-one could possibly want, and cleaning up the general dirt. Taking a break we walked out into the overgrown garden, and as we sipped our lime juice I related my encounter with the adder a few days earlier.
"That’s a rare sight," Felicity remarked, "usually around here it’s the Berg Adder that we see. That’s a nasty snake: unpredictable and vicious. And you have to watch for the Green Mamba, too.
"The snakes go for the birds nests," she continued pointing at a conglomeration of twigs about three feet above the ground in a nearby tree. "That’s why some of the birds go for the eaves to make their homes. I always pull them down, though, because I think they’ll bring lice into the house. Besides, they always crap all over the walls of the house and underneath the nest," she laughed as she swirled the last of the drink around in the glass and swallowed it. I grinned at her, marveling at the spirit of the Colonial Woman. So often portrayed as whining parasites, incapable of living without servants, many of them had not infrequently provided the moral and intellectual supporting structure of their adoptive countries. Another vital loss for the continent I thought as I walked inside, draining my glass into the grass.
"What happens to all this stuff if there’s no will?" I asked as we re-entered the stuffy atmosphere of the house.
"We’ll give most of the books to the local library. Selling the house, Gerald feels, should cover his outstanding debts and provide for a funeral. The rest of the stuff we’ll probably throw away — it’s no use to anyone else. Look at this — their visitors’ book." She flipped through the pages of the blue leather-covered book. "Three quarters of these people aren’t even living here any more. The Garthwaites — they’re in Australia somewhere; Joan Campbell — poor woman has such Alzheimer’s she doesn’t know what day it is, but her heart is as strong as an ox so she’ll live forever in cloud-cuckoo land; Jack Madison — took his family down south because of the danger here, and within six months he was murdered in a car hijacking." She tossed the book down. "What a waste. So many lives just wasted." She sighed and we walked into the bedroom "And you were worried about an adder? Watch out for the people — they’re the dangerous ones.
"Here, help me move this wardrobe so I can clean behind it."
"So is there a special girl waiting eagerly for you to return?" the question came a few hours later as we walked home, with me carrying the laundry in a plastic trash bag slung over my shoulder, while in Felicity’s hands were a couple of books I wanted to read.
I stiffened my lips and replied, "Well, actually it’s a special guy who’s waiting for me."
"Ah," she replied evenly and then, after we had walked a little further, "Have you been together long?"
"Coming up to a year."
"Oh, then you’re going to have to take him back a nice anniversary present."
"Yeah. I’ve been looking around. There’s a nice gold bracelet in the shop in the main street. I just dunno how Zimbabwean it is and I’d like something local."
"Well, I can show you some nice pieces made here. Some are gold, some are gold with other metals intertwined, but they’re made locally by the widows and orphans charity. I do quite a bit of work for them, and their stuff is good in its own right."
"That would be kinda what I’m looking for. Not too fem are they?"
"There are all sorts, but, no, the ones I was thinking of are definitely masculine."
We walked on in silence for a while and as we unlatched the gate at their house Felicity asked, "This boyfriend of yours wouldn’t have anything to do with why you’re not going to see your parents would he?"
I looked at her, so level and honest and forthright. "How very perspicacious," I said. I closed the gate behind us and expanded, "They seem to think I’ve decided to be gay like I might have gone and joined the Communist Party or the Ku Klux Klan. My brother and sister-in-law are forever praying for my ‘conversion’ or ‘healing’ — whatever that may mean! Whatever I tell them, whatever papers on modern psychology I send them, my parents believe that letting me go to The States to university was the big mistake, and that was where I was ‘forced off the rails’, but I’ve known who I am since I was fourteen."
"It never ceases to amaze me how so many people will ridicule the natives for their witchcraft and superstitions, but at the same time, in their own lives, they’ll come to really important conclusions based on much less solid evidence."
I gave her a big grin. I doubted Felicity ever made a decision based on superstitions or whims.
On Saturday morning we made a shopping trip into Mutare, and I had another chance to browse around the shops and stalls. Off the beaten track I found a neat little store that was half a pawn shop, half a second-hand store. Riffling around the back amongst the dusty books, I uncovered a couple of old maps which were going for what I considered a good price, and walked out with them a happy boy. In the afternoon, Felicity and Gerald set off to play golf and I was left to my own devices. It took me an hour to remove the maps from their rather hideous frames and carefully roll them into a cardboard tube the shop owner had given me. With nothing else pressing to do, I took my camera and zoom lens and headed off to the house Paul’s dad had rented, in the hope that I’d get a couple of shots of the Gaboon Viper. I filled the birdbath once again and settled down on the bench to wait. Once I’d been still for a while, the birds returned, and I stretched out in the warm sun listening to the sounds of their chirping. The house was still, the window blinds closed, and I wondered whether Blake Helminger had sat out here ever to enjoy the seclusion. I watched idly as a bird tugged a stick to reinforce its nest in the small tree near the water, and wondered whether my friendly adder was watching him, too. Turning my head I surveyed the nest under the eaves, and smiled at Felicity’s notions of the lice. Could a snake negotiate the climb up the downpipe, I pondered? If it coiled around like a spring it might get the traction, but overall I thought it was unlikely — unless it slithered along the roof and could reach down from above.
I recalled Felicity’s words ‘they always crap all over the side of the house’ and smiled briefly, until I realized that, on this house, there was no sign of any defecation on the walls at all. Always curious, I dropped my feet to the ground, stood up, and wandered over. There was no sign of guano on the ground underneath the nest either. Nor any sign of broken eggs. Strange, I thought, and, being curious, made my way round to the garage to fetch the heavy wooden ladder I’d seen previously. Propping it against the plastered wall, I cautiously made my way up to the eaves. With my head hitting the overhang it was difficult to see inside, and I tweaked at the nest gently, ready to pull back quickly if I detected any movement, but the structure remained firm. I tugged again with no more success. With my engineering curiosity seriously piqued, I gave a hard pull. For avian architecture the nest was proving remarkably stubborn, and I decided it definitely deserved a closer examination, which soon revealed the secret: the birds had anchored their nest by twisting a thin strand of wire around the downpipe.
Now, truth be known, I’ve never read of a bird that was so dexterous as to twist wire, and thus, in the interests of science, I began to pay a lot more interest to the setup in front of my face. I scrutinized the top layer of sticks. Intertwined with little scraps of cloth and strands of wool, they were held securely together as a very firm base for a nest. And then I became aware of something else: there were no feathers in the nest.
Still wary, but now very puzzled, I climbed down to scrounge around the garden for a strongish stick, and when I reached the nest again I used it as a lever to pry some of the upper twigs apart. Once the sides had been loosened a little, the entire top section lifted up like a plate, revealing a small depression inside with more cloth and wool and shredded grass. Stirring this aside with my stick I thought I could make out some splashes of beige in the dark nest, and put my hand out to see what they were. They were soft and warm, and my over-stimulated imagination flashed an image of tiny birds to my brain. Involuntarily I jerked my arm back and nearly fell off the ladder. Regaining my balance and composure, I touched the soft mounds gently with the stick, but discerning no sign of movement, I plucked up my courage and reached in again. Within a minute I held in my hand three small, chamois leather bags. My curiosity fully aroused about what the nest might contain, I gave them a cursory glance before slipping them into the pocket of my cut-offs, and pushed my hand back into the depression with bravado. This time my fingers touched paper, and gingerly I pulled out a folded United States $100 bill. With eager abandon I began rummaging around, and within five minutes had come up with some fifteen more, but after that I could neither see nor feel anything other than sticks and grass, so having carefully pushed the cloth, debris and twigs back into place, I climbed down the ladder and lugged it back to the garage.
With racing pulse I headed back to the Easts’ house, repeatedly looking over my shoulder while trying hard to contrive an air of nonchalance. Once home I made sure everyone else was still out, then made my way to my bedroom and closed the door behind me as stealthily as a thirteen year old boy with a purloined Playboy. Squatting cross legged on the bed, I spread the bills out on the counterpane and counted them, then once again took the little bags into my hand and examined them more closely. Each was indeed made of soft chamois leather, seamed with neat double blanket stitch up the sides and secured at the top with stainless steel safety wire — the type used on aircraft. I opened one of the little sacks and tipped its contents out onto the white cloth. The afternoon sunlight did not reach to the bed, but the light that ricocheted from the facets of the small stones that lay there was just as dazzling. Quickly undoing each little bag I emptied them onto the bed, and sat gaping at them in dumb amazement. With shaking hands, I quickly separated the stones into thirty-nine groups of ten. For a good fifteen minutes I contemplated my stash, picking up first one stone then another to see the kaleidoscopic change in the spectrum of colors as I turned them this way or that. Compared to the gems, the C-notes were dull, and I contented myself with holding each up to the light to check for authenticity. Finally I slowly scooped the ice-clear pebbles back into the bags as my brain churned at 100% utilization.
"Did you have a good trip?" Gerald asked me as I closed the Landy’s door behind me on the following Tuesday when he picked me up at the airport.
"Oh, yes. Man, The Falls were fantastic!" ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ — The Smoke that Thunders, as the indigenous people had called them when David Livingstone, about a hundred and fifty years before, came across what no other non-African had set eyes on before. Gazing on the awe-inspiring sight of thousands and thousands of gallons of water plunging over the ridge of rock, feeling the gentle spray that boiled up into the sky, he had remarked ‘Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’. I had been given the angels’ view as John had circled the little Bonanza above the tumbling water as we came in to land. The remainder of that day I had spent wandering about the rain forest that was kept perpetually damp by the diffused droplets, and the following day had sat in the back of an open Land Cruiser spotting game in the Hwange Game Reserve. Right at the end of the excursion we had came across a leopard walking across the little road in front of us, so I could go home truthfully claiming to have seen the big five.
While I was clearing the table after lunch Felicity informed me that she was headed out to visit some friends, but the bracelet she thought I might like for Mike was indeed available at the local charity, and, if I wanted to, I was welcome to take the Land Rover up to get it.
"Don’t forget we drive on the left," she called as I pulled off with a vague wave, concentrating more on the clutch than on which side of the road I was driving on. The house where the Widows and Orphans Charity had its offices was a sprawling bungalow, separated from the road by a wire fence which seemed to be held together by an entaglement of the dark green leaves and purple, trumpet-like flowers known as morning glory which, once having gained a foothold, grows like a weed. Behind this natural bulwark lay a front yard of dusty earth and sparse clumps of coarse lawn-grass, which was awash with children of all ages playing games, who paused briefly to watch me as I walked past into the house. With pride in their undertaking, two of the women in charge ushered me through to the workshops, where I received the courteous acknowledgements commonly reserved for dignitaries whenever I was introduced to one or other of the women working there. On my request, one of my guides produced the bracelet Felicity had described, and taking it into my hands I knew it was exactly what I had been seeking for Mike. Thick gold strands had been twisted with hammered copper, producing an unusual effect as the yellow and orange-brown colors of the metals blended. It was exquisite and unmistakably African, definitely something that could not be purchased anywhere in The States. So, thanking the working women profusely and carefully holding the bracelet in its cardboard box, I walked back to the office to make the purchase. The cost, when I took the exchange rate into consideration, was so ridiculously inexpensive, that I felt at once compelled to make a donation to bring the price to a more realistic level, a simple act that produced such an outpouring of effusive gratitude from the gentle folk, that I hurried back to the Landy feeling distinctly embarrassed and a little guilty about my own standing in life.
Taking advantage of having some wheels and some free time to myself, I decided to pick up some other things I needed. I parked the vehicle in the town, and dodging the street vendors with their mutis, wandered back to the second-hand shop down the side street. I knew precisely what I was looking for, having spotted it on my previous visit, and walked directly to a small room in the back, coming back with a small grey nylon case with the Olivetti logo on the front clutched in my hands.
"Does this typewriter still work?" I asked the owner of the shop.
"I really don’t know. A lot of stuff just gets dumped here when people leave or die. Here’s a sheet of paper, try it out." I pulled the zipper open, and found the contents to be in pretty good shape if one neglected the keys where more than a few of the characters had worn off. I rolled the paper into position and started to type as I would on a keyboard, but the extra pressure required, and the inherent time delay of the type heads arcing across to pound the ribbon, made the response lag, and after I had pushed about six letters, two keys jammed, and I had to stop and untangle them.
"Seems OK," I remarked. "How much do you want for it?"
The owner looked around and leaned across his desk, "Zimbabwe dollars or US dollars?"
Fifteen minutes later I completed my second trip to the Land Rover, and with typewriter and the other purchases I had made stowed in the back, set off for the Easts’ house. Thankfully no-one was home when I arrived, so I gathered up everything I needed for my task, grabbed the key to Mortimer’s house, and with my PC bag slung over one shoulder headed back to the Landy.
Being alone in the deserted house of old Mortimer in these circumstances was eerie, but I pushed the feelings to the back of my mind as I plugged my PC into the adaptor for the local phone. While it powered up, I rummaged through the desk to find the passport I’d seen on my previous visit, and then, with that and the dusty visitors’ book open, I rolled one of the sheets of paper I’d bargained for into the little Olivetti, and began to type. After a couple of dozen lines were on the paper I turned to my PC, brought up Google and began to search for what I was looking for. Two hours later, with my work done, I packed the little typewriter into its case, shut down my PC, dumped most of the other stuff I had bought into one of the black trash bags and, with a final look around, left the house, carefully locking the front door behind me.
Once again behind the wheel, I drove the Land Rover back to the garage of the East’s house and, having ascertained that no-one else was yet home, I returned the purloined keys to their hook, then climbed on a chair and put the typewriter on top of an aged wooden cupboard, pushing it well to the back and out of sight, where it was unlikely to be found. Satisfied with my afternoon’s work, I returned to the kitchen, washed the dust off my hands, poured myself a beer, and began to prepare dinner.
"Oh my God!" Felicity’s cry brought me scurrying from the bedroom where I was just finishing cramming clothes and linens into boxes, to the almost bare sitting room where she and an African woman had been packing up Mortimer’s pictures and books.
"What’s going on? You OK?" I asked, alarmed.
"Oh, yes," she said holding an dusty envelope in her hand, "Sarah was clearing these shelves and found Harold’s will. We had thought he hadn’t made one." She held it up in front of her face and blew a cloud of dust off. "Ooh!" she wiped her face with her sleeve, "It must have been there for ages."
"Oh! You gave me a fright: I thought you’d come across a snake. What’s the will say?"
"I don’t know: I haven’t opened it. I’ll call Gerald and he can open it — or tell me what to do."
Forty minutes later I was leaning against the door post sipping at a Coke can as Gerald scanned the sheet of paper in his hands. "No surprises here, thank goodness," he said sounding relieved, "Everything pretty much as we had surmised. One bequest to his old boss who now lives in America; your neck of the woods," he added looking at me.
I straightened up and walked over and scanned the paper. "That’s California, opposite side of the country. About as close to me as Khartoum is to you."
"Oh, yes. I suppose it is. No problem: it’s just that set of Dickens’ books," he said pointing at a set of about fifteen books, their green and black leather bindings somewhat cracked, and the gilt titling faded almost to illegibility. I walked over and picked one up and opened it up causing an eruption of dust that made me sneeze.
"Hey, Sarah, pass me that duster, please. I’ll clean them up and pack them in this box. It looks good and sturdy to withstand the mail."
"Put this paper in first," the woman said as she handed me the yellow cloth duster and picked up some thick brown paper. Together we took the volumes, book by book, down, wiped each, shook it gently, and flipped through the pages to make sure nothing was loose, then placed them into the box. I opened up the volume titled ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ — one of the few Dickens novels I liked — and looked at the first page: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ’, yes, the period written about was indeed very like the present period, I reflected as I bent down and gently placed the volume amongst its fellows in the box. When the entire set was finally packed and cocooned firmly in more brown paper, Sarah and I held the flaps closed while Felicity taped it securely closed. Gerald lifted the box up onto his shoulder and, with the will in his pocket, walked to the door.
"I’ll call this chap up in California and make sure this address is correct," he said, "and we can get it in the mail. What time is it now in California, Chris?"
"It’s about 3am for us in Georgia, so midnight for them. They must be ten hours behind Zimbabwe."
"Oh. I’d better wait until this evening, then."
After the sound of his car died away the three of us returned to our work, and by six in the evening everything was either packed in a box, sitting in one of eight plastic sacks awaiting the trash removal, or in the small elephant-skin briefcase where we had placed personal items such as his birth and marriage certificates, house and insurance papers, check book and passport. "What are you going to do with those?" I asked pointing at the open briefcase.
"I don’t know," replied Felicity wearily. "Gerald can deal with them. I just couldn’t tear up the certificates — it would feel too much like killing the old boy off."
I nodded, understanding her completely as I gently closed the case and checked the locks.
"You know it was quite macabre finding that will today." We were sitting in the living room, relaxing with a Drambuie before going to bed. "It was as though old Harold had briefly come to life again."
Gerald nodded in agreement. "I didn’t know he’d worked in Salisbury. Thought he was a Bulawayo man. Must have been in the early fifties."
"Did you get through to that Californian guy?" I asked nonchalantly.
"Yes. Called him before I left the office and he was just getting up. Seemed a nice enough fellow, but couldn’t remember Mortimer at all. Funny how that happens: a person does something and they forget it almost immediately, but that act means so much to another person that they remember it all their lives." He sipped his liqueur, "Makes one only too aware of the importance of little acts of kindness."
"And the danger of little acts of malice," I rejoined.
"Yes, Chris, you’re right. That’s the problem here. Nobody ever set out to be unjust or mean, but there were hundreds of little things that meant almost nothing to the perpetrator but have remained etched in the hearts of those they affected. Kept inside them, magnified by time and now they boil to the surface to be repaid with interest."
On the following Friday morning we once again stood in the little airport as Mupinda and two other policemen went through my belongings. I hadn't been expecting this: since Paul’s departure we’d largely put the issues of the farm from our mind. Now, I watched the antics with a certain amount of disquiet, and was only too aware of the sweat that was causing my T-shirt to cling to my back. "What about the computer?" the police chief asked. Remembering his proclivity for dropping things on the floor, I held my PC myself and ejected the battery, CD-player and modem cards, before opening the cover and showing that there was nothing hidden on the keyboard. "What’s this?" he asked pointing to the little door on the back.
"The memory chips," I said and pulled the latch back allowing the door to spring open exposing the circuit boards.
He stood staring at me, and I felt the perspiration break out on my forehead. Had he any idea of what I’d taken from the birds’ nest? Oh, God! Could the stash have been a sting?
There was a long silence and time appeared to stand still, then the man grunted, and with a brief, "You can go," turned on his heel and left the building, leaving Gerald and Felicity fuming. Breathing more easily once more, I thanked my hosts, made them promise to visit me in the US, and then, with my backpack on one shoulder and my computer pack in my hand, walked out onto the asphalt ramp.
The flights back to the US were long but uneventful, and the Saturday evening sun was painting Savannah yellow as the MD-88 banked onto finals and its wheels dropped into place with a thump and a roar. Ten minutes later I held Mike in my arms.
The remainder of the weekend was a tumultuous time of recapping the previous two weeks and just enjoying being together with my guy again. I discovered that absence made little difference to the heart’s fondness, but it certainly increased the hormone count, and it seemed that almost every four hours found us frantically pulling each other’s clothes off, and making up for our separation. Monday came around and found me weak-kneed, but catching up with my work, and it was evening before I had a brief moment to call Paul. He sounded down when I asked him how things were going: the insurers were giving them a bit of pushback about paying for the Beech, and in all probability he was going to have to advise his mom to declare bankruptcy to keep her creditors at bay. They weren’t sure how they were going to manage, but the way the chips looked that they were going to fall she would have to move in with them.
"Strange thing," Paul said, "that guy, Montgomery or something, who died just when we were arriving, used to work for Granddad and actually bequeathed him something."
"Mortimer," I jolted his memory, "Yeah, I’d heard he’d left something to someone on the West Coast. I had no idea who it was, though. It’s a set of Dickens books."
"Right. Like Granddad’s gonna read those!" Paul remarked sardonically.
"One can always benefit from good literature," I countered. "Look, will you give a message to your grandfather from me?"
"Sure. I told you, he’s really pleased that we were buds again."
"OK. Be sure to tell him to read the ‘Tale of Two Cities’. Tell him I have always fond that ‘The Fellow of Delicacy’ in ‘Book the Second’ to contain much that is relevant."
Paul laughed, "You’re kidding, right?"
"No. Serious. Will you tell him that?"
"Yeah, OK. I’ve made a note of it. Tale of Two Cities, Book the Second, The Fellow of Delicacy," he laughed, "You were always weird, you know that?"
"And if he decides he doesn’t want the books, I’ll buy them off him."
"That’s more up his alley!"
We chatted a bit and then, with promises to keep in touch, we said good bye.
It was just over two weeks later that I heard from Paul again.
"Granddad and I think we all need to have a little talk," he said after we’d exchanged hellos, "You probably know what I’m talking about, but I’m not going to say anything on the phone. We’ll spring for the tickets if you and Mike want to come and spend a weekend with us."
"I haven’t the vaguest notion what you’re talking about, but any time I can get out to California and meet your grandfather I’m going to jump at the chance. That’s very generous of you and I’m sure Mike would enjoy meeting y’all."
"Where d’you get that ‘y’all’ crap?" he came back laughing.
"Hey, it’s a word that covers exactly what one wants to say," I defended my expanding vocabulary.
Orange County, I guess, is an OK place to live if one wants to live in Southern California. The houses were definitely fine, although a tad closer together than I would have liked for the prices they commanded, but there was no denying that the weather was warm, and Paul and Kathline gave us the tourist view of LA before driving down south to their home. Later, after the rambunctious Charlie had been settled in bed, the adults sat down to enjoy the temperate night air and a couple of bottles of really good Napa Valley wine.
"OK, Chris," Paul said almost immediately, "Come clean, buddy. What’s the story?"
"Huh? What’s what story?"
"Oh, c’mon! I’m not that dumb. Granddad gets a bequest," he used his fingers to put the word in quotes, "from a guy he’s never heard of. What he gets is a set of books that he’s not at all interested in. But I pass on a message from you to read a certain chapter of a certain book. But, big surprise! When he gets to that chapter, the pages are all glued together.
"Any memories starting to come back?"
I shrugged. "Nope. Far as I remember they were old books. Someone probably spilled something on that one and the pages stuck together. Could happen."
Paul looked around the table with exaggerated incredulity, then back to me. "Could happen, but not in this case. Because, when Granddad pried them apart, what do you suppose he found there?" He looked at me smiling and waiting for an answer.
"Dunno. Fish moths?" I shrugged, swallowing my wine a bit faster than I should have as Paul gave me the patently patient look that said he was still waiting for an answer. "Hey," I came back, "Sarah and Felicity and I all packed those books off the shelf together. They were all dusty and we dusted them off. None of us saw anything in them."
"So you had no idea about any diamonds?"
"Diamonds? No! There were diamonds inside the book?" I asked raising my eyebrows.
"Diamonds?" Mike asked with incredulity.
"Yeah," said Paul turning to him. "Three hundred and ninety diamonds. All various sizes and clarity, but totaling up to just under three hundred and fifty carats and worth, we are told by a guy in LA who is supposed to be reputable, close on a million and a half dollars."
Mike did a double take.
Paul went on, "All tightly packed up in a hole cut in the middle pages of a book that had all been stuck together. And the person I suspect for putting them there is your partner sitting right there next to you." He laughed and pointed at me, "Look at him! I lived with this guy for four years and I know that face: he’s lying through his teeth. He knows a whole lot more than he’s letting on."
"Chris?" Mike asked and I could see that the lawyer in him was rising to the surface.
"I don’t know what y’all are implying," I said as I refilled my glass, "but it sounds like you’re accusing me of smuggling. That’s illegal and I wouldn’t be dumb enough to pull that stuff. I tell ya, it’s all a story in your minds: You live too long out here on the West Coast, and soon enough Hollywood gets into your blood and everything becomes a movie plot to you."
A brief silence where politeness fought with disbelief greeted my feeble protest until Paul’s grandfather spoke in level tones, "Let’s suppose, Chris, that you were to make a movie about a whole lot of diamonds coming from Africa to America, how would that story go?"
There was a long pause. "Yes," Paul’s mother broke the silence with a strange little laugh, "tell us how you would make film like that."
I paused, looking into my wine not sure that I really wanted to say. In deciding what I’d had to do, I’d had to make some suppositions, and those could well be way off the mark. If I was going to tell this story I’d have to lay bare most of my thoughts to everyone there, and that made me nervous. "Well," I said when no-one — by which I mean Mike — came to my rescue, "I’m not much into story telling, but if I were to make a movie along those lines I reckon it’d go something like this.
"This is all hypothetical and totally in my mind, you understand?" And when I’d seen their amused nods of agreement I began:
"I’d start with the camera panning over pristine African veld. As the titles run, they’re interrupted with short vignettes how a young guy and his family clear a farm out of the veld, then build a home, work real hard and, finally, become fairly successful. Soft music, maybe Meditation from Thais.
"As the movie begins we’d see the country consumed in political upheaval, and folk around them are being killed or having their farms burned to the ground. The war comes to an end, and as things return to normal, these folk are farming fairly successfully, producing food that’s needed for both local consumption and export. But then, in spite of all they can do, some drug lord with connections to several political bigwigs takes a fancy to this farm, so his government cronies expropriate it without paying a cent to our farmer, and give it to the drug lord as a gift. All our family has is a bit of money in the bank but, in any case, that has become worthless through devaluation. So they’re trapped: they can’t move out because they’ve got too little to start up again anywhere else, and if they stay, their farm — the way they’ve made their living — has gone.
"They’re modern day frontier-folk: they know they can’t give up, so they take a big gamble: this guy has a pilot’s license, so he goes, puts himself in hock, gets himself an airplane, and starts up a little charter business to fly people around. With the long distances between towns and the uncertain safety on the roads, flying is a profitable venture, and he and his wife start to build up their savings again. Then there comes a setback. You see, you have to do this in movies because the audience has a short attention span, so you have to alternate bad things and good things. Anyway, his wife gets this medical condition and has to go Stateside for treatment. So now he’s by himself in this far-off country and just doing his flying."
I paused to take a sip of wine. "One day he’s flying this cat from South Africa to somewhere else. It’s a long flight, and, as happens in such environments, the pilot and passenger get to talking. The conversation drifts around, and eventually they get to talking money. His passenger maintains that the best investment is diamonds. So our pilot starts to think about that — there’d be this long quiet period then, where all you see is the vast, open African hinterland under the airplane, and after maybe a full minute of this, I’d make his passenger break silence and tell our pilot guy that he could facilitate things if he ever decided he wanted to buy diamonds.
"The next scene is the pilot at Gaberone, leaving his plane after a different flight. He takes a taxi from the airport into town where he meets his former passenger who takes him to a diamond dealer — a really up-front, honest guy who tells him a lot about diamonds. This would give the audience, who probably knows absolutely nothing about precious stones, a level-set to understand the movie.
"From then on, any time our guy does a run to South Africa or Botswana he buys a diamond or two. Nothing too dramatic and easily concealed on the plane.
"Then one night — OK, it’s a movie, so there’ll be lots of wind howling — there’s a knock at his door. He opens his door and there stands the old family servant from the days when they had their big farm. This servant tells him that the drug lord who took the farm hasn’t been seen since he left to drive around the farm in the early afternoon. The servants are anxious because they’ve heard some explosions and they suspect he could have been blown up by a land mine — since so many of those had been left lying around from the recent war. The old man is plainly frightened about what the politico-friends of the drug lord will do to him if the drug lord is, indeed, dead, and he has done nothing (or, worse, the wrong thing) to help.
"So the pilot guy tells him he’ll help. First, he calls the local cops. But he knows they’re all clueless and, anyway, he’s only too aware that no-one knows the roads and paths on the farm as well as he does. So he and the servant race back out to the farm together in his Land Rover. They get out there and, when there’s no response to their pounding on the front door, the old servant lets them in through a back entrance. Our pilot has no misconceptions of how bad it will be if there is anyone else in the house and he comes barging in, so he and the servant move cautiously from room to room staying close together. Granados’ Andaluza kind of music here, building up tensions.
"In searching the house they come to the room that the pilot had used as his den. He notices a picture hanging over where his old safe was built into the wall. He sends the servant to check something elsewhere in the house, and then he moves the picture aside and, sure enough, the safe is still there. Quickly he spins the dials and — would you believe it? — the dumb drug guy didn’t have the smarts to even change the combination? The music stops, and in silence we hear a clunk of the latches pulling home, and the safe door swings open. Inside, is beaucoup de cash — American Dollars. The pilot thinks ‘Hey, this adds up to more-or-less the value of my farm which this guy stole from me.’ and he hurriedly stuffs the notes into his pockets, closing the safe and putting the picture back just as the old servant re-enters.
"Finally the cops make it to the farm. They have no plan of where or how to search: they run all over the house and around the outside like chickens without heads. Eventually our pilot guy takes control, puts the old servant in one of the police vehicles, since he, too, knows the roads, and then, taking the lead in his Landy, takes them all over the farm looking for the drug lord. Now he’s by himself in the Land Rover and it’s dark, so he has every opportunity to empty his pockets and hide the greenbacks about the cab of the vehicle.
"We need something dramatic here, so I’d make the search fruitless until the dawn breaks, and then, about half a mile away, have them see the vultures circling in the red-blue sky. Grimly they head in that direction and come across the scene of the accident.  We see the drug lord’s lifeless body hanging from the very top branches of a tree — totally improbable, but, as I said, this is a Hollywood movie. They make their way to the spot, and the only survivors are two, pitiful women who confirm the whole story of the land-mines.
There’s no more for him to do out there, so the pilot guy goes home, leaving the police to clean up.
"Now this drug lord is reputed to be real rich, but the cops can find no trace of any money anywhere on the farm. No-one who has ever been to the house will admit (with good reason, due to the nature of their transactions) that they ever saw any money. Some of them won’t even admit they’d ever been to the farm at all. The only people who were in the house after the drug-lord disappeared — our pilot and the servant — swear that they were together the whole time — the brief errand the servant went on is either purposefully not mentioned or is forgotten.
"The cop, however, has his suspicious, and goes to the pilot’s house and conducts a search. Strumming crescendo as we see him approach the Land Rover where we had earlier seen the pilot guy hide the money and then, cymbals, the cop opens it and inside — it’s empty."
"This guy is good," remarked Kathline as she refilled her glass, her hand trembling slightly, "I’m beginning to feel I was actually there."
"Hey, it’s all smoke and mirrors," I pointed out, but I could feel the uneasy sweat trickle down my spine in spite of the evening air. I refreshed my dry throat, then resumed my fantasy. "The cop can’t find anything, so he goes away, yet his suspicions are in no way allayed, and we see him conducting surprise searches of the home and the aircraft from time to time — each search ends up fruitless.
"Change of scene.
"With this new money, our pilot guy starts to invest really heavily in the diamonds. They are easier to conceal and easier to move than the US Dollars.
"Only once does he nearly get caught.
"His nemesis, the cop, arrives unexpectedly and conducts a surprise search of his home. By sheer chance the cop misses finding the diamonds or the cash, but the pilot gets spooked. He can’t risk the stones being found — he’d go to jail, and he and his wife would once again be penniless. So he paces up and down considering where he can conceal them. He goes outside, and is looking around when an idea comes to him: he carefully lifts an old bird’s nest from a crook in a tree, and places it under the eaves of the house. It’s a bit insecure there, so he wires it in position with some aircraft safety wire and then secretes his stash amongst the twigs. To anyone on the ground it looks pretty much like any other nest.
Once again I picked up my wine glass and stared into the ruby liquid as I spoke quietly, "Then the pilot has an accident and unfortunately dies." I saw Paul take his mother’s hand in his, and I hurried on.
"Nobody else knows about the money and it looks as though his secret is going to the grave with him. The pilot’s kin-folk have come out to settle up things and the cop, who still suspects that the cash is hidden somewhere in the house, sees this as his final opportunity to prove his theory, and harasses them over and over, even searching their stuff when they leave.
I needed to lighten the atmosphere that my previous statements had generated. "But fortunately there’s this gay guy, a real cool dude, who ow!" I exclaimed as Mike slapped the back of my head. "Hey," I protested as everyone laughed, "it’s my movie: I can make anyone be anyone I like."
"It’s all right, Mike" said Paul’s grandfather, "we’ve known Chris a long time."
"OK," grinned Mike turning to me, "Let’s hear what this cool guy is going to do in your movie."
"OK, so this guy is sitting outside one day and he sees this birds’ nest under the eves. He knows that birds usually make a big mess around their nests which is why many people pull them down, but the wall and path by this particular nest are all clean. He begins to wonder why this one should be different, and goes, gets a ladder, and climbs up to the nest. After prodding around a bit, he finds, carefully concealed inside, some cash and some little leather pouches. When he tips the contents of the pouches out, lo and behold, he’s holding what surely look to him like diamonds.
"So he’s in this quandary. He knows who this stuff belongs to, he thinks he knows who put it in the nest, but he also knows he could be searched and, if he’s caught, he’ll go to prison, and the diamonds and cash will be gone for ever. So his problem is how to get the stuff out of the country without getting caught — either when he’s leaving this African country or when he’s coming back into the USA.
"He’s got this on his mind when it so happens that he hears about an old guy in the vicinity who’s up and died and left no will. In talking to the locals, he finds out that the no-will is not a big deal since there isn’t much worth bequeathing. So the cool dude — in my movie it’s gonna be Brad Pitt," I declared, pulling my head out of Mike’s reach, "goes into this second-hand shop and comes across an ancient typewriter. And while he’s there, he also buys a whole lot of books — books in cheesy condition, but the kind of stuff someone would conceivably put in a will.
"He has this idea in his mind. Along with the typewriter and books, he buys some glue, ostensibly to fix the spines. He also persuades the store guy to part with some paper and envelopes, too, if he pays for everything in US dollars.
"He takes his haul back to where he’s staying, and the camera zooms slowly in on him as he sits on his bed, Springsteen blaring on the stereo, while he glues the pages of about a chapter of one of the books together.
"The scene cuts and we next see him sneaking into the dead guy’s house. The music changes to something like Marche Slave while he sets up the typewriter and types a pseudo will. He makes it say all the things the local folk have already decided to do with the dead man’s stuff, but he adds this bequest about these books to the dead pilot’s family back in The States. Going onto the Net, he gets an address, and then he uses the dead man’s passport and a convenient visitors’ book to copy the signatures that were required for testator and witnesses, being careful to choose people from the book whom he knows are either dead or in such a state of health that they would be unable to testify about witnessing a will, although he’s pretty sure there won’t be any big scrutiny of the document.
"We change to some modern music, maybe Bryan Adams’ Cuts Like a Knife while the camera zooms in on him cutting a hole in the glued pages then inserting the stones, carefully wrapped with the dollar bills to make sure they don’t rattle. He glues some additional pages to cover the hole, and finally places the books on a shelf. Finally, he hides the will behind the books, sweeps around the untidy house gathering up dust, and sprinkles it over the whole bookshelf so it looks like nothing has been moved there for a long, long time.
"When he leaves the house he’s a much more carefree cat, and he sits back to wait to see what happens.
"Sure enough, next day there is much hoo-hah as the will is found. Our guy acts all dumb, but helps pack the books up, making sure he’s the one packing the glued-pages volume, then seals the whole lot closed, and leaves the lawyer, who is more-or-less free of any suspicion, to ship them.
"Being a Hollywood picture, I’d have the cop just happen to be in the post office when the parcel of books is mailed, but he’s busy being all self-important and arguing with the clerk over some trifling matter and doesn’t give the books a glance.
"Now there’s a big scene switch. We’re back in The States where the pilot’s father-in-law has received the books. It’s late, he sits down in front of a fire (because he lives in Montana) with a glass of whiskey, and starts to tear open the package."
"I’ve never been to Montana, and I don’t even like whiskey," murmured Paul’s grandfather pulling a grimace and causing the other folk to laugh.
"Yeah," I said. "I told you right at the beginning, none of this is true. It’s all pure Hollywood."
"R-ight!" said Paul with his index finger in the air in mock recollection.
"He opens one particular book," I went on undaunted, "a favorite of his since school, but finds he can’t flip some pages because they are all stuck together. Puzzled, he gets up and fetches some rooty big Bowie knife Hey, he lives in Montana, he has to ward off bears," I added, as my words caused more laughter. "Anyways, he separates the pages, and into his hands fall these diamonds. He looks at them for a long time, and then we see him go to the phone and start to punch in a number. The screen splits and we see his daughter pick up the phone in her house.
"The scene fades out, back to Africa. The pilot’s house is now deserted. The cop drives up alone and begins to walk slowly around the outside. He pauses under the nest, studying it for a long while. All of a sudden he turns, runs to the garage and hauls back a large, empty crate. He climbs up onto it and, as the credits start to roll, puts his hand in and rummages around. When his hand comes out, it’s clutching a small sheet of paper. Unfolding it he sees it is a receipt from a diamond dealer. Climbing down off the crate, he leans against the wall of the house in frustrated despair. As the credits come to an end, he tears the paper into shreds and grinds them under his foot."
I sat back in my chair and looked from face to face. No one met my gaze and, as my rush died down, I wondered whether I’d sailed a tad too close to the wind. Mike put his hand on the back of my neck and squeezed gently as though sensing my misgivings, yet understanding it was not his place to speak. No one said a word. Paul’s grandfather appeared intent on examining the surface of his wine in its glass; Paul reached out to Kathline and squeezed her hand; his mother wiped her eyes with a napkin. She crumpled it into her lap and looked over at me and gave a gentle smile.
"You left one thing out of your movie, Chris."
"What’s that, Joan?" I asked.
"You never showed the true value of those diamonds. They had a value much higher than their monetary worth. Those little stones represented a lifetime of work — of very hard work. And they also represented a very great love." Everyone else at the table nodded slowly in silent agreement. She emptied her glass and picked up her napkin. "I think the tale you wove just now was very probably accurate: we can never know for sure. It is an account, though, that I find very reaffirming personally, and it will allow me sleep more comfortably at night." She stood up, "And that is where I’m headed right now." She bent down and gave me a kiss on the cheek as she passed. "Thank you, Chris."
I nodded, and gave her hand a squeeze, my throat too tight to permit speech.
"Yes, I’m ready to turn in, too," Kathline said, gathering her glass and plate. "I’ll leave you guys to talk guy stuff."
"No, it’s late and I’m off, too," announced Paul’s Grandfather pushing back his chair. "I don’t like being on the roads too late at night." He walked over to my chair, and I stood up to shake his hand. "When your movie gets made," he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes, "I bet Brad Pitt makes sure that he uses the correct address for the beneficiary."
"Well, when that guy I don’t remember wrote his will, back in 2000 according to the date on the paper, he wrote the name of my retirement home as Orange Grove. That’s its name now, and what one sees if one goes on the web site, but back in 2000 it was called Sea View Homes."
"What remarkable foresight old Mortimer must have had," I replied blandly, although I could feel my face start to flush. With the slow transmission rates I hadn’t done a very thorough search, and I had got caught out, which, for me anyway, bites big time.
"Ah, that must have been it," he agreed. "Probably got it from the Inyanga. See you tomorrow — I hear we’re going down to see the Queen Mary. Interesting ship. A fun place to explore.
"Goodnight Chris, Mike. Sleep well."
"Goodnight Mr. Brochard, you too," we responded.
He walked off a few steps then turned. "I think Mr. Brochard is way too formal. Make it Tom from now on will you?"
"Thanks, Tom. I will."
On Sunday night as we were saying our good byes at the security line at LAX, Kathline whispered something to Mike as she shook his hand, and I heard him laugh and saw his head nod vigorously. "What did Kathline say that was so funny?" I asked later as I packed my PC back into its bag after passing through the metal detectors.
"Nothing you need to know about," he replied with a smile. "You’ve got way too high an opinion of yourself as it is." He began to walk towards the gates.
"Hey! Wait up!" I called, and closing the zippers, ran after him. "What did she say?"
"None of your business," he laughed.
"OK, then, maybe this’ll persuade you," I ran my fingers inside his denim jacket and began to tickle his sides.
Mike jumped away from me, laughing. "OK, I’ll tell you . Stop that!"
He adjusted his jacket. "She said she and I should both be very glad that Paul’s straight, otherwise neither of us would have the guys we love."
I grinned back at him. I could have told him that Paul was a great buddy, but he wasn’t the guy I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. But I didn’t. I kept that back until late Monday night when Mike was lying in bed in my arms back in Savannah.
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