Life in Africa has its extremes but most of its inhabitants live either at one end of the scale: grinding, unchanging poverty; or at the other, fabulous wealth and all its benefits. The rest are spread out more or less evenly between. So unless you are a recently deposed president whose body has mysteriously surfaced in the bay, porcupine like with a load of machetes sticking in your back, then life is generally the same old drudgery, a never changing routine, but while it is immensely difficult to work your way up the food chain, it is frighteningly easy to slide down it so fast and unexpectedly you couldn't be more bewildered if your legs fell off while riding a motorcycle.
I first met Marcia over two years ago. I had separated from my wife some two years before that but, for reasons of permanency in this country (after nearly fourteen years I still do not enjoy residency status), I have not yet had the courage to divorce her. Being married to an Angolan seems to help with the visa renewals, however temporary. Being here allows me to be close to my son who, unless I kidnapped him, could never live with me in Europe. A difficult situation then, and one that I happily accept in order to have some influence on my son’s upbringing.
In Angola, it is considered unnatural, positively weird for a man of my age not to have a girlfriend, or maybe three. My ex secretary Bella, therefore, took it upon herself to introduce me to a succession of delightful and mostly highly eligible spinsters in the hope that I would hit it off with one of them. Despite much effort on her part, she never succeeded. Until Marcia, that is. I am convinced that Marcia was an afterthought, more a companion for Bella at one of my dinner parties than another possible candidate for 'Mrs Tom'. Marcia was enjoying a few weeks leave from university in Belgium and I am sure that Bella only brought her along for someone to talk to as she could never be sure which of my eclectic group of friends I had invited this time and, as a result, what the evening’s conversation was likely to consist of.
Halfway through the evening I confessed, rather unkindly I will admit, that I had never met anyone so dizzy as Marcia and could never imagine myself having a serious relationship with her. Marcia and I have been together ever since.
Until yesterday evening that is.
When I met Marcia, I owned a piece of land in the southern suburbs residential development that I had bought with what little I was left after the separation agreement. While I was away in Uganda, she grabbed the reins and built a beautiful house on the property, which is now being sold for a quite frankly ridiculous amount. Disciplining my finances (which meant denying me access to cash; I kid you not, I tried to make a withdrawal today and they said I needed Marcia's OK), she bought a considerably larger plot on which we will build another eight houses. While managing all this, she bought a farm in Lubango which, while never having turned in a profit, has paid for itself and the land has gone up in value ten times. Last Saturday was my birthday and on Sunday morning, while I slept off the effects of a jolly good knees up and a near drowning the night before (don’t, as a 48 year old heavy smoker, go for a midnight swim in a fast flowing river with a gutful of whisky), she secured a prime river side plot, a lifetime’s dream for me and one which will give me somewhere to park my sport-fishing boat, another lifetime’s dream.
Life could not be better then; going swimmingly in fact, if you’ll excuse the pun. Until we got home.
‘We need to have a serious talk’, this out of the blue as we neared the site.
‘Eh? Serious! Why?’ Mental images of hauling prize Tarpon out of the Atlantic and into the teak lined cockpit of my Hatteras accompanied by the adulation of those that had been lucky enough to receive one of my invites evaporated suddenly. The driver, a stoic, diplomatically locked his eyes on the road ahead and politely pretended to be deaf.
‘Best wait until we get home’ was the ominous reply.
Disconcerted? You have no idea. I was not only wide-awake but stone cold sober as the driver pulled into the yard. What the effing hell had I done now?
I have never understood women and with two failed marriages behind me never bothered trying with Marcia, preferring to accept these sudden mood swings as a fact of life but the prospect of a set to was no less unpleasant. I tried to recall all the conversations of the night before. Had I said anything crass? I know she was annoyed at my near drowning even going so far as to say, a little unkindly I thought, that she would have apportioned no blame to the skipper of the boat as she knew what an idiot I was. OK, I know that it was my fault that I went overboard but to allow me to drift for nearly 10kms in a crocodile infested river before hauling me out again was at least a trifle unprofessional. I could not think of a damn thing that I had said or done that could have annoyed her so I resigned myself to a bit of a verbal bashing, my survival depending on faculties diminished by fatigue and alcohol.
‘I think you regret splitting up with your wife.’
We were back on the site, in our room and I could not have been taken less unawares if the guard had leapt out of the wardrobe and beaten me over the head with 1937 Morris Oxford starting handle. Of course I had no answer and the inability to respond immediately, to eloquently deny such a vile accusation was further proof of my guilt. My problem was that I tried.
‘Are we talking about the same young lady that used Angolan law to keep my house in Luanda and required me to sell my house in Cape Town if I wanted to see my son again?’
‘I think that really, you want to have her back’
‘...and the three kids she has had in the meantime? For Christ’s sake, she’s had four kids by three different men and cost me a fortune and you, you silly cow, think that I would take her back?’
I was outraged but realised an instant later my outburst had cost me the high ground and I was routed. She packed a small night bag and left.
To add to the discomfort of watery lungs and the misery of spending my first night without Marcia for reasons other than operational, a spider bit my hand and I am now dragging a very painful boxing glove around. I did not sleep a wink and goodness knows what I looked like at this morning’s briefing for the delegation that are the Ambassador’s guests to Angola.
On the way to the briefing, my driver’s telephone rang, oh, I don’t know, about a thousand times and I knew, just knew, it was Marcia. I held my tongue for at least half an hour, about 100 yards of Luandan traffic jam, before finally cracking.
‘What did she say?’
The driver nonchalantly negotiated a pothole before replying.
‘Donna Marcia says that you want to use the profits from the house sale to rebuild your wife’s house’
‘Yes, she says that you are just using her to make enough money so that your wife will abandon her boyfriend and come back to you’
The thought of my wife coming back to me was almost as terrifying as life without Marcia.
I got back to the site after the briefing and scanned through my emails. Urgent, reply soonest, accounts due etc. Nothing imperative then. I skulked off miserable as hell to my room and listlessly scanned the websites for the fishing boat that now would remain but a dream. What use a nice riverside house and Hemmingway standard sport fisher without Marcia to share it with? I was beginning to wish that I had drowned.
Then the phone rang. Marcia’s aunt, a ferocious creature who I can well believe, as family lore suggests, beat her husband stupid. So, they were bringing the big guns in.
‘This is a very difficult situation.’
‘Marcia is but a little girl, you understand?’
I hadn’t a clue what she was driving at but couldn’t argue with her so far.
‘The family had hopes for you’
The use of the past tense was worrying.
‘I know’ I lied. The mobile phone felt greasy and slippery against my ear I was sweating so badly.
‘What to do, what to do?’ Mai Ines said. What to do indeed. I wasn’t even sure what had happened let alone be able to formulate a plan to deal with the disaster.
At this morning’s briefing, the subject of corruption, or what was perceived as corruption came up. With the example I was given, I tactfully suggested that at times, not only in Africa, it was better to throw money at the problem, the end result being far more cost effective than what would inevitably become a long drawn out course of action which, while morally unquestionable, might lead to much bigger problems in the future. It was such a choice that I was faced with now.
Most of us are used to civil law but there is also moral, or traditional law. Like anything devised by men, neither is perfect; something forgotten by our more militant brothers who use literal interpretation as justification for commissioning some really quite hideous crimes and practices but, in their true spirits, both types of law try to encourage adherence to socially accepted norms. In my case, whilst not transgressing civil law, I had offended moral law. Marcia, young by any standards, especially in the eyes of her adoring family and definitely by comparison with me having just turned 48 two days ago (by mid-day today I was beginning to realise why my birthday was at least, in part, a catalyst), had lived with me for over two years and I had never formally requested permission of her family for her to do so. I had never made a declaration of my honourable intent. I had not submitted the ‘Pedido’. In the eyes of her increasingly sceptical family, she was living in sin with a foreigner who at any moment could up sticks and return to the wife in UK that no-one knew about and to exacerbate my already shaky position, I could not deny that I was still officially married to another Angolan. Apparently all the local stationers sell the pre printed forms that assist the illiterate make ‘The Request’ so I really had no excuse.
Time, then, to follow my recently given advice and throw money at the problem. I called Victor, one of my steadiest drivers, a man I have known for over a decade and explained the problem to him. What I needed, I said, was a Consiliatori, an advisor. That most trusted of individuals to whom one bares one’s innermost secrets and problems and then slavishly follows their advice.
‘It’ll cost you’ he said, and then he rang Mai Ines.
It’ll cost you a lot more,’ he said when he had finished on the phone, ‘the family are going to fine you’.
This, apparently, is what will happen.
Marcia is banned from spending another night with me until Honour has been satisfied.
The family will meet this afternoon and decide the form and amount of tribute I must pay.
For my ignorance and lack of respect, a fine (Multa) will be applied.
This will all be embraced in a formal letter, which if I am lucky, will be ready for collection tomorrow.
Having analysed the contents, I will get a rough estimate from Victor before going to the bank and withdrawing the required amount and then go on a shopping spree.
Once I have everything on the list, which will include bolts of cloth, groceries, suits, you name it (I am sweating about the fine, I have grown rather fond of my new pick up truck), I then notify the family formally with the letters and forms I must submit, that I am ready.
They then notify me of the time and place (which could take ages if they all have to trawl in from the provinces and there is some doddering old uncle whose opinion, even though he has never met me and is only vaguely aware of marcia's existence, is essential, but he lives somewhere in Portugal) and the result is by no means whatsoever a foregone conclusion. If I have seriously pissed off the family, the whole could be a carefully engineered and costly exercise in public humiliation. Is Marcia worth it? Of course. Could I cope with it? I haven’t been so scared since I was gargling the Rio Kwanza two days ago.
And that brings me back to the beginning, the bit about extremes. I was on the biggest high, the future looked absolutely rosy, Hemmingway dreams. I had started the climb by myself and with Marcia, soared to new heights. Now I am staring down a hole so deep and terrible I feel sick. I was guilty of an arrogance that just may cost me almost everything and destroy all my dreams, hopes and plans for the future for I cannot do this without Marcia. Whatever it takes, I will do all that I can to get away from the edge of the awful hole I am staring down right now. Both sides may feel they have the moral high ground. Both believe that they have behaved honourably but, right now, I am going to chuck as much at the problem as I can and bugger what anyone else thinks. It will be cheaper and miles better for me in the long run. Bloody Africans. I said I would marry her. Is the word of an Englishman worth so little nowadays? I guess not if one fails to show due respect and then caps it all by demonstrating one's mortality. If I had drowned, my legal spouse would have got everything.
And that just wouldn't have been fair. So who can blame Marcia's family for forcing me to do what I should have done ages ago?