Colin had told Mr Achero on his first impromptu visit almost a month ago that he had no intention of moving into temporary accommodation with his girlfriend so that their flat could be upgraded. He had a still-valid contract. Besides, he had paid a whole two year’s rent in advance – as was the fashion in this bloody country; there were still 15 months to run on it. Still, the man was there again, dust motes spinning in the light above his receding hair.
Mr Achero’s hairline was reminiscent of Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, but he was much shorter than the life-president – a lot shabbier looking too. He favoured the custom-tailored outfits known locally as politico: matching trousers and shirt-style jackets under which one wore white vests. Even Colin, after less than three years living in the capital, could tell Mr Achero’s tailor had no panache. The pale blues and cream fabrics Mr Achero went for didn’t help either.
Colin exhaled hard and flexed his fingers, feeling the sinews in his forearm pulse. He didn’t tell Mr Achero that he hadn’t seen his girlfriend for months, that he had no idea where Nadima was. Instead, he offered to consider moving into temporary accommodation if Mr Achero would give him his deposit back during the period required for the upgrade.
Mr Achero’s head jerked suddenly to the left. “What do you mean?”
“You are insulting me, not so?” Mr Achero jabbed a finger in the warm air between them and launched into a rant about Colin’s white colonial attitude, how he had only arrived yesterday and wanted to act like he knew more than those who know what there is to know.
Colin frowned at the man’s choice of words. What was there to know? He shook his head at his own paranoia, making a mental note to lay off the local puff-puff. He knew Mr Achero’s persistence was because of the recent influx of foreign journalists into the capital to cover the political stand-off that had become international headline news. The man obviously hoped that if he upgraded the flat, as he put it, he would be able to double the rent to match what other landlords in the capital were making by renting their properties en masse to the likes of Reuters, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera, Seven Network and CNN. Colin refused to be swindled in that manner. He had been living in Lubyanka too long for that.
Colin had been covering one of his usual London stories for the BBC when he met the woman from the country where they named every city after a place or institution in the former USSR or USA.
There had been a stabbing on the bus route 25; luckily the victim had survived because the bus had been right in front of the Royal London Hospital. The woman was one of the ‘regular commuters’ he tried to interview.
“You won’t get a soundbite from me,” she said.
“Pardon?” Colin lowered his microphone and glanced at the mini-disc recorder.
She shook her head. “Look, I know the drill. You’re a journalist, the victim was a black kid, I’m the only black woman on this bus…”
Colin stared like a stunned puppy as she raised an eyebrow.
“You want me to say something you can use, but it’s not going to happen.”
He regained his composure and shrugged. “Well…”
“I’ll tell you what though,” she continued. “This wouldn’t have happened in my country. Not on a bus, not like this.”
You couldn’t say Colin planned what happened next, but two things helped steer the course of events: one, the woman was beautiful in the National Geographic African way, with buttocks that made him think of peaches; two, Colin was a lifelong Afrophile – he knew where to buy suya, green plantain, goat’s intestines, harissa, egusi and cassava in London. When he started with the BBC his dream was to anchor major new stories from the continent, but he had been at the corporation for years; Harare had come and gone, Mogadishu had come and gone, the interest in Darfur had fizzled to zero, and he was still doing London stories – albeit in what his favourite suya vendor called African London, South London.
So when Nadima said he should visit and he responded, Seriously? and she nodded with that smile, saying big things were about to happen there, it wasn’t long before he was on the phone, making plans.
Mianinho, head psychiatric nurse at the Federal Bureau Infirmary, sees Colin Saville reporting for the BBC on his small white desktop TV and rushes to the recreation room. As he expects, patient 141, Mesi, is gesturing at the big screen, exclaiming, “Yes, I’m a genius,” his greying dreadlocks whipping upwards each time he pumps his fist. Mesi has been like this since he first arrived 11 months ago and insisted on watching the local news.
He had sat, immobile as the pale cream plastic chair he had chosen to sit in, his eyes darting like tadpoles as news came in about the coup d’état.
Mianinho had watched too; images of the president’s car riddled with bullets, masses of soldiers assembled outside the presidential mansion, fires blazing in the centre of Pentagon, the poorest city in the country, and – the next morning – that iconic scene in parliament: James Alhassan, a former aide of the assassinated president, with his right hand raised, asking for calm, claiming he had taken control so that the people could curb the excesses of a series of irresponsible administrations.
Then – a day later – there were clips of heads of foreign missions making measured statements about the coup, asking their citizens to stay calm; the man from London, with his black-rimmed spectacles, sweat patches growing at the anchor points of his sailor-blue shirt, highlighting the two countries’ historically strong relationship; the portly career diplomat from Lisbon insisting through a flurry of hand gestures that his country’s commitment is for the long term; a slow and careful spokesperson for the French embassy stressing that there is no cause for alarm; and the woman from Washington DC, adjusting the belt of her green pencil skirt as she expressed the hope that, “we can build a solid, mutually-beneficial, relationship with this new administration.”
That’s when Mesi shouted, “Of course, you’ll work with us. We have oil, minerals… A lion doesn’t leave fresh meat for the hyena to chop.”
Mianinho went to him, but Mesi insisted he was fine, then, pulling at his long knotted beard at the point where a grey streak divides it unequally, he whispered. “Do you want to see something?”
Mianinho was used to being let into the secrets of the insane. It was part of his job. If they saw him as a willing listener, they trusted him more. He was a calm sort, his demeanour quite the opposite of the wild curls that adorned his head. He followed Mesi into his room, taking care to leave the door open, and sat within leaping distance of the exit. You could never be too careful.
The room was like all the others. Yellow walls, brown doors, a single high window with a brown frame on the side of the room opposite the bed. A single bed of welded metal – no nails or screws – also sprayed brown and bolted to the ground. The FBI had the lowest suicide rate for infirmaries in Africa, probably the world. The edge of the bed is where Mianinho sat as Mesi reached beneath it to retrieve a worn leather case.
He pulled out jaundiced news clippings chronicling a range of coups from South America, through Eastern Europe to Africa. He pointed out the diplomatic statements made after the coups, how measured they were, how quickly countries with significant commercial interests tried to justify the coups, protect their positions.
“Sometimes, they are involved in the coups.” Mesi’s smile, almost invisible beneath the hair that was gradually swallowing his face, peeked briefly as he continued. “The coup d’état itself is a very familiar thing for the West. Nobody panics. It is what happens after…”
Mesi stood up suddenly. He was not a small man.
Mianinho stood up too.
“I have a letter to deliver to the president.” Mesi shook Mianinho’s hand and, leaving the nurse in his room, headed to the courtyard. Within minutes he had left the grounds of the FBI.
Mesi himself did not understand why he fell into monologues. Loneliness, perhaps? He had tried to stop himself many times, yet here he was again, the sun setting on the city of Lubyanka, people staring at his unruly, shoulder-breaching dreadlocks, his torn shirt, the red string he uses for a belt, his tilted head, with orange light filtering through his mad, mad beard, talking to the clouds. Repeating himself.
“The coup itself is nothing new to them. Nothing new. Winston Churchill: ‘These are men who would feed a crocodile hoping that it will eat them last.’ Pinochet? Augusto? They loved him. You know why? Even his evil was predictable, measurable – you could make plans around it. The problem is always men like Mobuto Sese Seko and Manuel Noriega. Men who eat grilled goat one day and demand poached pheasant the next. They say ‘whiskey’ and, by the time they get a glass in their hands, they want brandy. Misfits.
Take this city; I know it like my tongue knows the inside of my teeth: that path to the left runs beside the big gutter where a thief was beaten to death in 1986, straight ahead leads to the chapel with the stained glass windows that filter the sun into rainbows, to my right, through a fork under six gnarled flamboyant trees, you will pass the main library, veer away from the trees and jump over a little stream that trickles over stones and plastic debris, and you’re headed towards the seat of government. We can know every corner, but what’s the use if we can’t control what happens in it? That’s why the West is wrong-footed when coup leaders who seemed like perfect allies, suddenly change their names, wear lion manes…”
Mesi laughed and clutched the letter in his back pocket. “Today I am jumping over the little stream.” He cut a curious figure, bouncing into the heart of the city, tunnelling into a cacophony of car horns, screeching police cars – the post-coup vortex – his sandalled feet heavy with dust, his silhouette darkening in the seeping light.
This time, Mianinho finds Mesi calmer in spite of the gesturing. He slaps the patient on the shoulder and sits beside him.
Mesi retrieves a tiny, folded rectangle of paper from his shirt pocket. “I’m a genius,” he says under his breath, his eyes fixed on the TV screen as he marks a deep dark bullet point on the paper with a blue biro.
Mianinho notes the bags under the eyes of the BBC World presenter that he didn’t see on his small white desktop TV. The man is troubled; he can tell. His tanned skin is blotchy with spots, there is tension at the corners of his mouth. Mianinho wonders if it is the local fame that’s getting to Colin. Everybody knows him, from Lubyanka to Pentagon to the Kremlin market district; he always has the most up-to-date information on the coup, the subsequent stand-off and international sanctions. How fortuitous that he was the only international journalist on hand when the coup happened. His career has been transformed. His twisted grimace, perfect for delivering shocking news, is a television news norm now. Apparently he has a fan club in America; they call him Almásy after the good-looking man in The English Patient, the film based on a book written by a Sri Lankan who lives in Canada that was filmed in Italy and Tunisia with money from America. Still, the man is troubled. Eleven months after the coup d’état he is delivering a special one-year report from the streets of Lubyanka, with charts, diagrams and studio-link discussions with a local expert who has been living and teaching in a place called York in Britain for twenty years, as only the BBC can.
The country is holding up well, Colin reports; there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of food or medicines imminent in spite of the sanctions. Actually, the sanctions – imposed after the new head-of-state, James Alhassan, refused to honour international debt repayments since the lenders were aware that they were lending to irresponsible governments – have led to more support for the new leadership, especially from the developing world. An unforeseen, but with hindsight, an unsurprising trend. Trading continues with their African neighbours and Venezuela has entered an oil development partnership with them. In the last month, Brazilian trade officials concluded a state visit by pledging to set up an automobile factory in the Northwestern Region. The local expert in the London studio, Roland Osikelo, says he’s not surprised by the support within the sub-region, but he is stunned that there isn’t more impact on the citizens. “For instance, we love rice,” he says, “where are they getting rice from? Who is buying our cash crops? They must be rotting on farms?” Colin nods into his camera via satellite, but he doesn’t really have the answers. He hasn’t thought about these small details. He points out that the assassinated president’s administration never took any international loans, but beyond that the world hadn’t taken interest in their local development policies. At present all that remains a mystery because the new government refuses to talk about the past and everyone from the previous government who isn’t part of the new government is missing.
And as the television switches from London studio to Lubyanka streets, Mesi continues to make deep dark bullet points and write, in a light, scratching scrawl that bleeds to the ends of his folded rectangle of cream paper. Mianinho sits beside him, eyes fixed on Colin’s report, occasionally glancing at the illegible rectangle to his left, a frown deepening on his forehead.
Colin had been following the woman for weeks. He first spotted her buying tomatoes at Kremlin Grocery Bazaar, weighing the red circles delicately in her hands as if each one held a story in its invisible red heart. It was mainly the way she stood, head leaning a little to the left as though listening to the argument of a smaller person, a mother, a pocket-sized uncle, a child even. He was certain he remembered her particular incline of neck from a dinner-dance his still-absent girlfriend had taken him to soon after his arrival in Lubyanka. He recalled the hum of air-conditioners fighting the rising heat generated by couples gyrating to Congolese lingala music, a dash of kwaito and sprinklings of hilife relieved occasionally by soothing strains of kora and the odd mournful fado.
It was a journalist’s award do and the president’s wife – whom he had only seen from a distance – was the guest of honour. What he had seen from a distance then, was what he saw at Kremlin Grocery Bazaar. But more than that, the deference the market traders showed to the woman, clad in orange and green tie-dye fabric that covered her feet, gliding from vendor to vendor with a woven cane basket hanging from her left arm, convinced Colin: it was the president’s wife. He had followed her since, hoping she would lead him towards answers for the questions that continued to haunt him. Maybe it would even help convince Nadima to return if she saw his in-depth report, touching on all the aspects of the coup she had accused him of obsessing about. How could she not understand? She was a journalist herself, so she had to know that sometimes you just had a hunch that you had to follow, no matter how many times people told you it was ridiculous.
“Even if it destroys your recently-revived career?” she’d asked, something like mockery firing her glance.
Colin still hadn’t come up with an answer to that question. Looking back, he can see how she must have lost her patience with him and left. He had travelled to all the known prisons, bribed guards, peeked into solitary confinement chambers. He’d visited alleged firing squad sites, scanning the earth for fresh blood – nothing. But if he could find a way to speak to the woman with the inclined head, the woman he was sure was the president’s wife…
She is alone again, a serene movement of blue and white batik, crossing the road near the university hospital, where the best surgeons in the country are trained. The light is in Colin’s eyes and he lifts an arm alive with goosebumps to shade his forehead. He doesn’t see the shadows merging with his in the late afternoon sun, doesn’t hear footsteps, doesn’t get the chance to note the ironic dark-trousers-pale-shirts uniformity of the plain clothes officers as they slip a sack of soft, brushed cotton over his head. The sunlight turns a beautiful, filtered green as he is led away.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
Colin stares at the man in front of him and likes him immediately. He is not in uniform, but his demeanour exudes the authority of formal office. He is smiling. Colin swings his legs down from the cot that dominates his cell and chuckles. In the three hours he’s been incarcerated he has played many scenarios over in his head. The most enduring ones have been to do with the landlord, Mr Achero. He can’t help but wonder at the timing of his arrest – just two days after his confrontation with the landlord, when the man had berated him for acting like he knew more than those who know what there is to know. However, given the kinds of arrests he has been told result from bribery and connections, the lack of aggression in the approach of the officer makes him reconsider. “Curiosity?” he ventures.
The officer laughs heartily. “Funny. Very funny. Try again.”
Colin debates the wisdom of enumerating his concerns about loose ends in the coup d’état and its aftermath.
The main thing that triggered his suspicions was the small, quiet funeral. In all the time he has spent with Africans – both in London and on African soil – he has never known a funeral with as little fanfare. With the ex-president’s life and achievements, he feels there should have been more. Nadima had explained to him that it was because there was no intact body to embalm after the automobile fire, but it was still hard to reconcile with his expectations. Colin shakes his head and addresses the officer. “I really don’t know.”
The officer waves an impatient hand. “It doesn’t matter what we call it; you can’t go around following any woman that you like, OK? You will be released tomorrow.” He nods swiftly and turns to leave.
“Was that the president’s wife?”
Another man walks past the now-open cell door.
The officer stops at the black metal door but doesn’t look back. “When you see the officers who arrested you, you can ask them. All I was told is that you have been following a woman without her consent.” He pauses. “You got a good look at the officers, didn’t you?”
Before Colin can respond, the man is gone, the metal door slotting into place with an authoritative clang. Colin laughs at the absurdity of it all. He wonders if the colour green will tell him what he needs to know of the woman he was following. Will the rice he ate at the chop chop two days ago explain its abundance in a time of trade isolation? What are the chances that Nadima will hear of his arrest and come here to comfort him? Can the softness of cotton against the skull make the mind rest easy? His empty stomach aches; his laughter echoes against the concrete walls. As he lies back it strikes him that the man who walked past the open cell door had the same stubborn set of jaw as the one who stabbed the black kid on the route 25 bus in London. He realises that he hasn’t used the word black in that way in a long time. It sounds like nonsense to him now, having spent so many months, years even, in a place where almost everyone is some shade of black… well, brown.
Mianinho is surprised at how fast Mesi moves, his feet whipping along the ground, his arms clasped behind him. Mianinho stoops to buckle the straps of his sandals, keeping an eye on the older man as he slips through a gap in the hedge in front of the cross-wire fence that surrounds the infirmary. When he reaches the gap himself, Mianinho discovers that the fence has been professionally cut to a height ideal for Mesi, who is walking along an open sewer towards the main road.
Mianinho hasn’t had time to think about why he is following the man outside the FBI. Understandably, he has been troubled by Mesi’s disappearances, but he’d always thought his stories of going out to deliver letters were fantasy; that he was hiding out on the FBI grounds somewhere. Mianinho feels it’s his duty to know where the patients hide, so when he saw Mesi slipping out during siesta, he just grabbed his sandals and tailed him. Luckily, he is on a break. The other staff are there for the patients.
Having seen the cut in the fence, Mianinho begins to reconsider the things Mesi has told him. Maybe the man was actually delivering letters to the president. He dismisses the thought before it can settle, swats it in the way he might swat one of those slow-falling balls of nomadic white ephemera that carry the seeds of silk cotton trees. The insane are very much like zealots; they will go to any lengths to make reality out of what they believe. Who is to say Mesi didn’t cut that fence himself when he discovered he was to be placed in the infirmary? The man is obviously well-read and quite lucid outside of his habitual outbursts.
Ahead of Mianinho, Mesi has crossed the road and is heading straight along the path that leads to the chapel with stained-glass windows and perpetually open doors. His dreadlocks almost touch the ground as he stoops to pick flowers from a patch flourishing in the hollow of a lone baobab tree. He stands and resumes his journey, his arms behind him, his left hand now clutching a palette of flowers. When he reaches the chapel, Mianinho notes how Mesi pauses and looks around before turning to walk through the black and gold gates towards the cross-adorned doors.
Inside, Mesi breaches successive meshes of filtered light at equidistant intervals, mirroring the spacing between the stained-glass windows on either side of the building. He stops at a pew bolted in the dark lull between two streams of sunlight, wipes a section with a splayed palm and sits down. Mianinho, who has never been inside the chapel before, is stunned by the intertwining threads of red, blue, green and gold light. He watches light-anointed dust floating in the air above Mesi’s head; it seems to dance, restless as mosquitoes above a barrel of water at night. He sees the older man place his bounty of flowers in the trough where a hymn book would usually sit and lower his head as if to sleep. That’s when Mianinho notices a woman in the pew in front of Mesi; she does not turn around, but Mianinho feels he can’t go any closer. Picking a seat at the rear of the chapel, he sidesteps to his left, out of the sunlight streaming in from the doorway, transforming from silhouette to shadow. He settles. From his position, it is hard for Mianinho to tell whether there is any communication between Mesi and the woman; she is still, her black-scarfed head steady as a comma in a printed story. Indeed they could both be praying.
Mianinho remembers a conversation he had with Mesi about love:
“Have you known love?” the older man had asked.
“Yes.” Mianinho prepared to be evasive, but Mesi didn’t push for details.
“Good.” He paused. “So, if someone you loved – like your mother – was sick, what would you do to heal them?”
“Anything,” Mianinho said, without thinking.
“Even if you had to lose something of yourself? Not like a kidney; real sacrifice.”
“Even if it were illegal?” Mesi caught and held his eyes.
“It took him a while to respond. “Yes… I think so… Yes.”
“Would you lock her in a dark room, if needed?”
“That’s how I feel. Shakespeare.” He nodded. “Remember, illegal is always more convenient for some than it is for others.”
Mianinho felt after that exchange that perhaps Mesi was trying to explain to him that, although no one had ever come to visit him, he was loved. Now he is uncertain again. Mesi isn’t an easy man to read and Mianinho is never quite sure what to believe; what is fact, what is fantasy, what is genius, what is madness? He notes that neither Mesi nor the woman have moved. Outside, a car horn blares, dragging his musings to the streets, his occupations after work.
For close to two years, starting four months before the coup, he has been going to meetings after work on Wednesdays. He received a leaflet for it while waiting for a bus home. National Rehabilitation Volunteers: be the force for change in our land. He read it and put it in his back pocket, forgot about it. But one of his friends mentioned it over a beer and he decided to go. They had to call a number to be given directions to the meeting and Mianinho was surprised to find that the gathering was in a Government building, had close to 300 attendees and was led by a well-known newsreader. After short introductions, the newsreader stressing the requirement for secrecy, they were told that the first task of the group was to think of local alternatives for all imported goods and report back the following week.
When they arrive the next week, they are split into groups of ten to debrief. One person in each group takes notes. A woman in Mianinho’s group comes with a ladder, made by her own hands. She says she doesn’t understand why the country imports ladders when they have forests and plastics from the oil. A man explains to them a simple method of preserving tomatoes and other vegetables, “so we don’t have to import those canned tomatoes and tomato purées we love so much,” he says, with obvious frustration. At the end of the meeting they are told that their subgroups are now Committees for the Alleviation of the Nation (CAN).
In the third week they are told that many changes will be coming in the country and they are not to panic, no matter how dire the news may sound. Coming from the newsreader it sounded like law. There are murmurs and a few people want to know what kind of changes.
“Big changes,” says the newsreader. “Just trust that they are for the better.” They are now to meet privately in their CAN groups as it will no longer be safe to meet in such large gatherings: phone numbers are exchanged, handshakes and hugs close spaces in the room.
There was a yellow note stuck to the green door of Colin’s flat. Because of his hurry and because he didn’t want to forget to follow through on his great moment of clarity (as he has done a few times under a cloud of puff-puff), he pushed the note into his breast pocket and rushed to the old computer he shared with Nadima. Although it was no longer his regular computer, it held most of the documentary evidence for his humble reports in London. As it hummed to life, hovering in BIOS operations for an eternity, Colin cursed both Intel and IBM and pondered the preponderance of the colour green in African flags – it couldn’t be a metaphor for forests, because Algeria and Libya weren’t exactly blankets of green.
The LCD of the laptop brightened with a whir of miniature cooling fans and Colin logged in. After another finger-tapping period of waiting he opened his main folder and typed in a search for Bus_25. It was the folder in which he had stored his notes for the follow-up report he did on the route 25 incident where he had first met Nadima.
The follow-up had been his last assignment in London before he had handed in his resignation to go freelance. In the end, the attacker had been given 40 hours community service for disruption of the bus service because his victim had chosen not to press charges. The attacker (both remained unnamed because of their ages) had, with his mother, visited the boy he’d stabbed in hospital to apologise. Colin had reported it as an extraordinary act of forgiveness in the interest of community reconciliation, making reference to similar situations in South Africa, in a special segment for BBC London. It had been his first TV report; he’d sweated like a feverish fish in rehab under the lights.
What Colin was looking for was a grainy still of the attacker that he had managed to acquire – through a contact – from the bus company’s CCTV footage. He hadn’t been able to drive the fleeting silhouette of the man who had walked past his Lubyanka cell door from his mind, and he’d suddenly remembered the image.
The folder wasn’t there. Colin banged on the table. He started a new search for *.jpg. After a few restless moments of waiting, he got a list of 412 files. He narrowed the search, by month, to a list of 13 files. Because he didn’t remember how the particular file was named, he flicked through all 13 images. It wasn’t there. He reached into his pocket to call Nadima and ask what had happened to all the images he had saved in those last four weeks in London. He heard rather than felt the yellow note and opened it hopefully. Possibly from Nadima. Perhaps the beginnings of a reconciliation. He spread it out on the keyboard.
It was from his local contact – officially, his research assistant. “Sir, I have been looking for you. There are rumours of two other countries refusing to pay irresponsible debts. Your phone is off.”
Colin pulled the phone from his pocket; it was, indeed, dead. “Shit!” he exclaimed as he grabbed his keys and bolted out of the door.
Mianinho paces up and down the main corridor of the infirmary, a tune on his lips, pausing every few seconds to glance at the door that leads outside. Mesi has been summoned by the centre’s director and Mianinho is concerned that his inability to stop Mesi’s escapes into the city will lead to disciplinary action against him. But there was nothing he could do – he had only found out about the hole in the perimeter fence because he had followed Mesi. He wonders what the director will think if he tells him that he is beginning to wonder if what Mesi says about delivering letters to the president is true. An eccentric man he may be, yes, but Mesi knew a lot about international politics – even if it was historical. He imagines what the president’s response would be if he received a letter from the dreadlocked, bearded patient 141, and laughs. The laughter echoes in the corridor, finds angles along the pale cream walls, separates, bounces and rediscovers bits of itself in the chaos of its own revolution.
It is into this passage of laughter that Mesi appears, startling Mianinho, who quickly recovers to question the patient.
Mesi pulls his beard. “All is well.”
“So why did he send for you?” Mianinho steps in line with the older man, who hasn’t stopped walking and is heading back to his room.
“Nothing. Nothing important.” Mesi waves his left arm as he leans to open his door with his shoulder.
At the door, Mianinho debates whether to leave or ask the question that’s been on his mind. In the end he leaves the door open and sits on the edge of Mesi’s bed.
“What’s your story, Mesi? What did you do before you came here?”
The older man freezes for an instant, then squats and reaches beneath his bed for the same worn leather case he produced the first time Mianinho visited his room. He rises into the last dregs of red-orange light slanting into the room from the high window, opens the case and passes a photograph to Mianinho.
It’s a 9” x 6” glossy print – black and white – but the image is grainy, like newspaper print – it looks like a scan. It’s of an elderly man sitting in a wooden chair with a tapered back. There are carved poles on either side of the tapered, ornate centre, akin to the silhouette of a Mughal temple. The man’s left hand is flat on the table before him, the black strap of his wristwatch shows just beyond the cuff line of his dark suit jacket, which has taken his hunched shape. He wears spectacles and a black hat – a brimless hat. There is a pen caught still in his right hand. Beside him stands another man; balding, bespectacled, in a dark jacket and tie (like secret agents in films, Mianinho thinks), looking down, his arms folded.
“That’s Camdessus.” Mesi points at the man standing over the first one. “IMF.”
Mianinho raises an eyebrow, none the wiser. “And…”
“The man signing is Suharto. Indonesia. It was January 1998.” Mesi chuckles. “To you it seems like an ordinary picture, even though it is clear who is calling the shots. But it’s worse; folding your arms like that in Indonesia is an insult – and there he was, doing it to the president.
Mesi takes the picture back from Mianinho and replaces it. “The IMF demanded severe measures – very severe – to continue funding Indonesia’s development. So severe it led to riots. It brought the country to its knees. They…” Mesi pauses and sits on the bed too, his elbows on his thighs, as if addressing the dust on the floor. His hanging locks form a curtain and his voice emerges from its cover. “Imagine being an economics student from the third world then. Sitting in university lectures in Europe, where macroeconomic theories are expounded, but no one can give sound working examples of. Imagine meeting a friend from home for coffee – South American coffee – and – as a joke – calculating what it would take to repay your country’s IMF and World Bank debt. But the joke is on you – it can’t be repaid without Indonesia happening again.”
Mesi begins to laugh, a disjointed, high-pitched sound – raspy, slapping his thigh, his hair swinging from side to side.
Mianinho glances out of the open door, but Mesi raises his hand. “I’m fine.” He coughs and carries on. “See, for example, since independence, we have been under undemocratic rule 70% of the time, yet 89% of our debt was secured during undemocratic rule. How? Who pays Mobuto’s debts?”
Mesi smiles. “So imagine the two friends I was telling you about realise this. Imagine how they felt. Now imagine that years later they become successful politicians at home. What do you think they would do if they had the opportunity? What would you do?”
Mianinho is unsure what to say. He shrugs.
“Don’t drop your shoulders. Say it. You can at least dream. What would you do?” Spittle gathers at the edges of Mesi’s mouth.
Mianinho stares at the white froth clinging to Mesi’s beard and moustache, then turns to the open door.
Mianinho is walking past the big TV in the recreation room when the de facto head of state, James Alhassan, appears on the screen. It’s another of Colin’s reports. The news ticker, white text in CAPS on BBC-red background, at the bottom of the screen informs the world that two weeks after twenty-eight countries around the world refused to pay ‘irresponsible debts’, the IMF and World Bank has met with heads-of-state to negotiate reasonable debt levels and repayment terms. Both organisations have promised to update their policies on lending conditions to avoid future abuses of presidential office for self-enrichment. James Alhassan is addressing the nation, thanking everyone for their austerity during the period of sanctions.
“We have come through a great battle, an intense period of struggle and we have emerged victorious.” His right hand is hyperactive, occasionally punching the air. The report cuts from his speech to scenes in Chile and Indonesia. Mianinho’s pager buzzes with a message. Patient 141 has visitors in the director’s office.
Mianinho is curious. He would like to follow Mesi when he goes to meet his visitors. He thinks about the conversation he had with the older man about love. He wonders if the visitors are people from his family coming to release him from ‘a dark room’. He remembers the woman in the church, he recalls the threads of red, blue, green and gold light, he can see the flowers in the trough where a hymn book would usually sit, he imagines the fragrance of wild flowers rising where musical notes would hover in the air during mass. When he knocks on Mesi’s door, he hears a mumbled come in.
It is midday, but it is when Mesi’s room is darkest as his high window is west-facing. Still, there is enough light to cast a feint glow in the man’s hair. When Mianinho’s eyes adjust to the dimness, he notices a set of new clothes on the bed. Beside it is a bowl of water. There is a mirror propped up next to the pillow. Looking up he observes the shaving blade Mesi is holding against his neck. Mianinho doesn’t ask where the clothes came from, he doesn’t question the water – or the mirror. He doesn’t move his eyes away from the blade.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a writer, editor, socio-cultural commentator and performance poet. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck (University of London) and is a 2007 recipient of Ghana’s national ACRAG award for poetry and literary advocacy. Nii’s début novel ‘Tail of the Blue Bird’ was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize and his work has been translated into Italian, French, Chinese, Dutch, German and Arabic. His latest books of poetry are the Michael Marks Award-shortlisted pamphlet, ballast: a remix (2009) and The Makings of You (Peepal Tree Press).