Terence Bardle’s clock radio snapped on at six a.m. as usual. The sun outside was obscured by the clouds that carried the first monsoon rains of that year, but as yet the air was still and no thunder stirred or threatened. Bardle took in his first waking breath of the day and found it as painful as ever. The heat stung his lungs and the humidity, brought about by the oncoming rain, pressed down on him and made him sweat in his bed like a long distance runner. A morning of sticky papers and fraught discussions lay ahead of him. The quiet life he had thought this backwater African country would afford him had confounded his expectations. It had probably counfounded those of his employer also, they had not rewarded him with a dull as ditchwater posting without reason. Their idea that he could no harm where he was might need revision. The peaceful bureaucratic existence he had hitherto experience was increasingly a distant memory and it was about to get worse. Through his morning haze he started to listen to what was on the radio. ‘This is Radio Kinjii! Radio Kinjii! We are the new People’s Republic of Kinjii! Umtata is dead. The people are free!‘
‘Oh fuck!’ moaned Bardle and turned over onto his stomach. ‘Oh no, no, no, no!’ He began to pound the bed with his fist and stuck his head under the pillow. What in God’s name would happen now?
Algernon Beck’s reaction was to reach first for the coffee and then to listen to the sound of shooting that had woken him in the small hours, like Bardle this event was not entirely welcome. There had been a time when his journalistic instincts would have risen to the occasion, but the exhaustion, the mess, the tension and the gore now featured along with fear and a numbing pessimism about the nature of change, or no change in the world . He recalled the pictures he had seen on the pages of his childhood magazines. Pictures and stories that had once inspired him. Pictures of reporters in perilous positions: ducking the crossfire, staying in war torn countries until the heroic last minute, or doing pieces to camera while smoke cleared behind them. Now their triumphs seemed too costly, Daniel Purl, Tim Hetherington, Frank Gardner, dead, dead, paralysed . He was old now and still haunted by the death of the journalist in Nicaragua whose shooting was recorded by his helpless cameraman and whose death had made the Americans pull out of that countyr, there had been many since then and the US and others had learned nothing from that. He remembered the remorseless blood letting since 9/11, the desperate revolutionaries in Libya and Syria and the numerous, and the young hardly known, obscure crusaders looking for the big story, who never came back from Somalia, Bosnia or Afghanistan. Outside the wind began to batter against his mosquito screen relieving the heavy oppressive air with a hint of rain. The breeze made the sounds of gunfire move nearer and fade with its gusts. Al dressed, for he was Al now, investigative reporter and not the good time journalist in the wrong place. He only hoped that, should the worst happen, his demise would be recorded in some way and not become a forgotten question mark. He got out his small tape recorder. Checked its batteries, stocked up with tapes and put on his rain proof jacket and then he stood in the room a moment, looking at the safe cane chairs and the ethnic art he had so carefully collected. He was weary of all but he could not justify staying where he was or retreating to the High Commission. The recorded message on Radio Kinjii carried on, its almost robotic voice proclaiming a freedom in which, by instinct, he had no faith. ‘Poor sods‘ he said. He switched off the fan and stepped out of the door. He began to lock up, but then half way through the action he stopped, there was little point, looting would be rampant whoever won ‑ let them have it.
He got into his rather elderly jeep, coaxed it into starting and backed up the drive, as he did so he noticed Edward standing by his shamba. In his hand the middle aged cook held a gun. He saw his employer, but he did not smile or wave and, as the first drops of rain fell, he turned back into the tall maize, that he grew every year, and disappeared. Al turned into the road. He got the feeling that whatever happened he would not be coming back.
He drove the half mile to Terence’s place and pulled in. A light was on inside and Bardle was silhouetted against the window, getting dressed. He heard the car and came to the door. ‘Hi, is the bloodhound’s scent up then?’
‘Certainly is and you can have lift if you come in the next five seconds. I figure company would help on the ride in.’
‘Yes, I didn’t fancy it by myself I must say, especially not in that bloody regulation mini!’ He pulled on his own jacket, grabbed a briefcase which looked as if it would have been more at home in the City of London than on a Kinjii street and ran through the now heavy rain to the jeep. He did not bother to lock the house up either.
Al set the jeep on the road and after a moment’s driving pulled in and got out. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and attached it to the aerial of the vehicle and then climbed back inside. The rain damped it to the aerial so that it hardly fluttered but it comforted them both while the rain clattered heavily on the tin roof of the Suzuki.
The streets were deserted. ‘They obviously don’t believe in it.’ observed Beck. The people were not cramming the roads with jubilant proclamations. They had not run to the aid of the Rebels. They were not firing their guns at their oppressors. They had gone indoors, closed their windows and they were waiting to see which path the storm would follow. The rain obscured the vision ahead, but very soon the shadowy figures of soldiers and weaponry began to loom towards them and then pass by without challenge. They passed an army well prepared, if not disciplined, silent and grim as it watched the foreigners going about their business. The firing they had heard had subsided in this area of town, although ahead they could see smoke rising from the Palace and the heavy thudding of mortar fire added a new dimension to the coup.
Bardle thanked all the gods that the High Commission building was well away from both the palace and the radio station. A fact that he had only remarked upon before because of the inconvenience it had involved, but not any more. The rain flooded down the streets, carrying with it the red earth of the side walks. The waves dislodged pieces of tarmac, cracked and loosened with the long dry season. The pieces thudded against the wheels of the jeep as they turned towards the High Commission building. ‘I‘ll drop you off here okay?’
‘Sure but aren’t you coming in? We’ll get good information and it should be – er – fairly safe.‘
‘Tempting my man, tempting but no I’m going up to the radio station.’
‘What? They’re going to massacre it, you saw the tanks!‘
‘They’re waiting for the order, I should have time.’
‘Al,’ Terence felt desperate. ‘Give it up! This is not the time to prove yourself. Don’t waste your time on them. This coup is going nowhere. It won’t even be a story by tomorrow.’
‘Then I’ll have to make it one won’t I?’ Even so, he hesitated but then he renewed his conviction. ‘For Christ’s sake Bardle they deserve their say. Umtata’s a monster and we all know it, at least let’s give them a few last words.’ Bardle bowed his head in the rain and watched the red water sweep past his feet. ‘Okay’ he said after a moment’s thought. ‘But I’m coming for you in an hour. I’ve got to get out to the border somehow, we had word last night that that’s where they’re going to deliver the hostages. Now that’s a story for you.’
‘Done!’ said Al and Terence watched the white jeep wade through the streets into the rain. He turned and crossed the road to the brightly lit High Commission that proclaimed its occupation as a kind of defence.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010