Bardle’s office could not be said to resemble organised chaos, merely chaos. It was not a big office, at the best of times, and the desk usually tidy, was piled with loads of paper and a constantly ringing phone. A policeman of senior rank sat opposite Bardle, whilst an American, in civilian clothes, stood by an open filing cabinet through which he was idly searching. An older woman stood at the door trying to attract the attention of Bardle. ‘Terence, his majesty will see you in five minutes for a briefing.
‘Oh shit! Okay thank you Mary.’ He stood up and slammed the filing cabinet drawer shut. The American grinned at him, through his smooth brown face. Bardle winced at him and probed the smile. ‘Soooo, just hoow many of your lot have they got?’ He asked the American.
‘A family, Carl and Betty Zanfeldt, and their kids Craig and Marci – five and eight respectively.’
‘Well, they’re all right if they’re going alphabetically.’
‘Not with only seven.’
‘Seven? I make it six.’
‘Oh, who have you got then?’
‘Your family, Tom Wilson and Josephine Campbell, not counting the old lady who raised the alarm.’
‘Well, the old lady said there was one other, an Englishman. He seemed to be with the English girl.’
‘If I may interrupt,’ the policeman leant forward and smiled ingratiatingly at Bardle. ‘I believe the seventh man is Mr Martin Booth, the army picked him up late last night, on the road back to Losuda.’
‘So he got away,’ said the American.
‘It seems so.’
‘Martin Booth, Martin Booth, who the hell is Martin Booth? Mary!’ He yelled through to the next office and Mary appeared at the door. ‘Who the hell is Martin Booth? Is he a tourist?’ Mary turned back to her own office without a word and the phone rang on Bardle’s desk. He answered it. ‘Yes sir, I’ll be with you in just a minute.’ He put the phone down. ‘Mary!’
‘I’m coming! I’m coming!’ Mary reappeared with a file in her hand. ‘Martin Booth, Terry, he’s a mission man, an English teacher at Jonja. He’s been here eighteen months.’
‘So what’s his relationship with this Josephine Campbell.’
‘Well I think I remember them. I think they’re engaged. She was a nice girl, tallish dark curly hair bobbed in that nice modern fashion – very nice.’
‘Yes, thank you Mary, yup I remember.’
‘A nice girl,’ Mary handed the file to Bardle. ‘I hope she’s all right.’ The phone rang again and Bardle answered it, while arranging his three files before him. ‘No! No comment!’ He shouted and put the phone down.
‘Careful’ said the American ‘We’re going to need the Press.’ Bardle was looking at the three photographs. He was surprised at how unfamiliar Jo looked to him, he must have had a hangover that day, but Tom he remembered. ‘I knew that one would cause me paper work.’ He said. ‘It’s a loser’s face.’ Then he looked up sharply at the policeman. ‘So what are we doing about this eh?’
‘Several rebel informers have been arrested in Losuda and Jonja. There is a Mr Marata in Jonja who is believed to be in league with these particular rebels. He was picked up last night, and the Safari Tours rep’ Charles Obuwe and Abdul Hassan the other driver are currently being questioned.’
‘Since a good many of your people die in police custody are we expecting to get any information out of these people before dawn?’ Bardle’s distaste and accusation were ill advised in the circumstances, but the fan had broken down in his shabby office and he hadn’t had a drink yet that morning. The officer, however, ignored the comment and was about to continue when the American asked. ‘Do we know what happened?’ It was a question that the officer could answer with some knowledge and he was pleased to do so. ‘The rep’ Charles Obuwe at Safari Tours, says that the second driver, Joseph Losele was reluctant to take the tourists. Obuwe thinks now that he may have planned to hand over the van and join the Rebels. He is known to be a friend of one of the driving forces of the rebels, Leo Botaleni.’ He took a breath to sav more but Bardle interrupted. ‘So why did they go with him?’
‘Their original van had broken down, and so they changed vans.’
‘And they have to change drivers?’
‘Apparently so’ said the American.
‘Yes,’ the policeman continued. ‘Each driver is responsible for his own vehicle. Abdul was going to catch them up later, so Joseph Losele should have been driving an empty van.’ The phone was ringing again.
‘So it was a cock up’ said Bardle before he picked it up. ‘That does not sound encouraging. Hang on.’ He said down the phone and covered the mouthpiece. ‘Who’s this old woman they picked up? Did she escape like Booth?’
‘No they let her go, but she’s in a bad way. She was with a boy, Angus, there was a skirmish and he was shot. She didn’t say much apart from that, she’s had some kind of stroke.’
‘And this Booth, what kind of condition is he in?’ The policeman shifted his gaze to some immaculately manicured fingernails, he looked mildly embarrassed as he executed a quick polish of the shiny talons on his trouser leg. He spoke carefully choosing his words with a slight smirk. ‘He’s fine except that…’ He paused and lowered his eyes ‘when the army picked him up last night um..they thought he was well possibly a rebel they questioned… ‘
‘Oh fuck!’ Bardle wrung his hands. ‘He’s better be fine after make-up or they’ll be trouble.’
‘Yes, he’s fine, they say, just a bit …. tired.’
The sound of a woman’s voice on the receiver attracted Bardle’s attention and he lifted the phone to his ear. ‘Hello,’ he listened for a moment, while a plummy voice exclaimed. ‘Sir, I have been waiting almost five minutes to speak to someone. My name is Mrs Angela Booth, I understand from the news that there has been a kidnap, and I can’t contact my son. I rang the Commission and they referred me to you. What is going on Mr?’
‘Bardle’ said Bardle, glad of the pause. ‘Mrs Booth, the situation is not…. um clear can I ask who you’re enquiring after?’
‘Martin Alan Booth, he’s teaching at the Anglican School in Jonja, his fiance Josephine Campbell was visiting him. I know they were going on safari and yesterday the news said…’ her voice cracked with anxiety, its insistence desperate. ‘All right Mrs Booth hang on a minute’ and he shouted through to Mary ‘Have we any other Martin Booths in Jonja?’
‘No,’ Mary called back. ‘As far as I know, that’s the only one in Kentanga.’ An army soldier of very junior rank appeared at the door and beckoned to the policeman who stood and went to the door to receive a message. When he returned Bardle was on the phone again but was not being given much chance to speak. The policeman approached him and at his first attempt to speak. Bardle waved him away with an ill considered gesture, the policeman tried again, when there appeared to be a gap in the conversation but he was waved away again. He too grew irritated and only when his beautifully manicured hands hovered above the archaic phone and threatened to cut it off, did Bardle pause to listen. ‘Mr Booth’ he informed Bardle, ‘is waiting downstairs.’
‘Would you hang on a minute, Mrs Booth, we may have some good news.’ That, at least, would keep her quiet, even if, again it was incautious. ‘He’s here is he?’
‘Well send him up, for God’s sake!’
Downstairs Martin sat between the two soldiers in the foyer of the Commission. He had been very dehydrated when they had picked him up. His lips and mouth were dry and cracked. At first they had refused to give him water, until, they said, he told them what his link was with the rebels. Martin shivered at the memory of the barracks’ interrogation room and the dark soldiers delighted to have a white man in their power. Even so they had been wary of his consistent story and the pushing and kicking had stopped after an hour or two, while someone went to check the story. When the soldier returned he brought tea, biscuits and good humour, but the tea was too hot and it burnt his damaged lips as he tried to gulp it down, too thirsty to wait. He had been questioned again at a gentler rate and been allowed to sleep a while, which he did; a deep escapist sleep on a bench in the barracks. In the morning they had brought him a huge English breakfast, eggs, bacon and toast and another cup of tea as well as water. Now, miles away from the bush road, he sat in the High Commission foyer, waiting.
A woman clattered down the stairs above him, she leant over and called to the soldiers. ‘You may bring him up now!’ Martin rose wearily to his feet. The escape had happened, almost as if to somebody else, but now the explanations would have to begin and what explanation did he have? He had abandoned his fiancé to the mercy of cruel men, not one part of him regretted that. He knew, without analysis, that he was utterly selfish and that he could not recant that even to his conscience. It was not that he did not love Jo, it was that he loved his fear more. The fear of death, the fear of torture, the fear, even, of seeing Jo hurt. If he had never known that fear would he have gone through a life with Jo, not ever knowing, how little he would do for her? The questions in his mind were too many and too disturbing to be answered, and now all he could see was Jo in the dust and a man she knew had felled her. What could he say that would help her? What had he done so far that would help her? What might he say that would implicate her? He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath as he was walked towards the door of Bardle’s office. The soldiers on either side of him, stepped aside as he approached the office door, and Martin was able to step forward freely. The policeman stood and offered him his chair, another man, a European, stood watching the scene. Terence Bardle, who Martin had regarded until now as a vapid bureaucrat, was holding the phone. ‘Mr Booth?’ he asked. ‘Mr Martin Alan Booth, teacher at the Anglican School in Jonja, formerly of Harold’s Park, Islington?’ Martin nodded, bemused by this sudden formality in the hitherto casual Bardle. Bardle, himself, smiled and offered him the telephone receiver that he held in his hand. Martin looked curiously at it, uncertain of what to do, so Bardle explained. ‘Your mother!’
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010