Marcia had to travel up north again, this time to attend a sick relative.
Two days after her departure I was sitting in front of the TV. It was about ten at night and the doors to the veranda were open allowing a cool evening breeze to circulate around the lounge when I had to answer a call of nature.
Sadly, there are a lot of people who would recognise the symptoms of waking up frequently during the night, gagging with thirst and having to make frequent trips to the bathroom only for the issue to be disappointing. I am so jealous of young Dominic who can, in the course of an average day, consume pints of milk and litres of fruit juice and then hold it all in while sleeping the whole night through in the tender embrace of his guardian angel before releasing it all the following morning in one long and satisfying stream. When I have to go the urge is irresistible and one which, to avoid inevitable and crushing embarrassment, must be attended to immediately.
So I trotted off to the bathroom.
Unlike Dominic, whose bladder must be the size of a reservoir of sufficient capacity to serve a medium sized town, mine measures no more than the volume occupied by a peanut in space, so I wasn’t gone very long.
As I returned to the dimly lit lounge (we were running on town power, a voltage insufficient to elicit more than a weak glow from bulb filaments but just enough to keep the TV going) I saw a figure turning from my desk. Now all he had was four yards to cover to the open veranda doors while I had twelve yards from one end of the lounge to the other. Since the last robbery, I had a sword by my desk, clearly not an option now as Fagin was between it and me and I really hoped he wouldn’t notice the gleaming hilt so near to his grasp, and another by my bed which, if it came to sword play, was well out of the reach of this indignant homeowner. Despite my precautions it was happening again and instead of a keen blade with which to run the bastard through, I had my dick in my hand and believe me, that wouldn’t scare even a virgin. The brief moment I was rooted to the spot in mute astonishment was all he needed to nip out and with the agility of a gazelle, vault the garden wall leaving me seething at the intrusion and then frothing with incandescent rage when I realised he had nicked both my laptop and mobile phone. I had not only been humiliated, I was effectively incommunicado and before any Techie gleefully tries to instruct me on the value of ‘backing up’ let me remind him that I do so religiously once a week on Saturday nights so, by the most appalling coincidence, the thief struck while my back up drive was connected to the laptop and not locked safely away in the bottom drawer of my recently denuded desk so that had gone too. Angry? I was madder than a sack full of cut snakes and beat the dogs up and refused to feed them for not barking, the indolent bastards.
As the dogs gave up their vain attempt to scrabble frantically over a boundary wall so recently and elegantly scaled by an athletic bandit, instead skulking fearfully in the furthest and darkest corners of the garden, it occurred to me. Why hadn’t they barked their lungs out?
My house isn’t vast so the thief, no doubt lurking in the garden had, apart from the open windows, a calculated window of opportunity measured only in seconds and obviously knew exactly what he wanted and where it was. Clearly this was a local job.
Without lashing out on another computer and all the vastly more expensive software needed, I was effectively off line but I could at least exchange the dinner and beer money Marcia had left me for another mobile phone and chip.
The reason that Microsoft Outlook has an address book, and mobile phones allow us to store telephone numbers, is a recognition of the fact that the average person can just about remember a couple of pin numbers. I had no idea what Marcia’s number was, especially her temporary Congo number or any of those of my friends so even though I had a pristine mobile phone and was now uncommonly sober and dieting to boot, I would sit in splendid isolation until the first of the mildly interested pitched up to see why I had suddenly plunged off their radar screens. Since I did not owe anyone any money, I felt I could be in for a long and hungry wait.
Marcia had travelled to the laughably named ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo. A vast country, bigger than the largest Australian state which, if you believe Beardy Bryson and any atlas you care to buy, are undeniably enormous but, unlike Australia (a generally placid country the greatest threats of which are natural if you exclude the occasional mutilated backpacker), Congo is plagued by murderous insurrection. Yet Congo hospitals are apparently staffed by French and Belgium trained doctors, paradoxically very experienced, who the Angolans at least, a contention supported by the considerable cross border traffic, consider superior to the Portuguese and Cuban trained Doctors we have here.
Dominic’s mother once told me the harrowing tale of her younger brother who, having fallen out of a tree and broken his arm, concealed his injury for three days, three days, lest Cuban doctors amputated it. Most people who come to Angola assume that the limbless hobbling at every intersection and roundabout were so afflicted as a result of landmines. Not at all. The majority were due to ordinary accidents, the sort that occur if you hang suicidally around busy intersections or roundabouts and duel with the unyielding 4x4’s of the rich in the hope of the few casually discarded pennies which may mean the difference between slow starvation and, well, slower starvation. Couple this with the fact that so many pouring into the city to escape the bush war hadn’t the slightest idea how to cross a busy road safely simply because they had never seen one before and it becomes obvious why there were ten times as many road accident victims as there were from landmines. It was the lack of reconstructive surgery skills and a belief that a swiftly wielded scalpel was a measure of clinical adeptness that left so many hobbling on crutches along with a coincident boom in the sale of bull bars for 4x4’s.
That last contention is desperately flippant and could be construed as cynicism. Let me put it this way. You are a hard pressed, under funded and badly equipped surgeon overwhelmed with casualties and before you lays an individual, a child with a crushed limb say, and you know that with the skills you possess followed by proper post operative care in clean and hygienic surroundings, both the little lad’s life and his leg could be saved. But those conditions do not exist and without them, the prognosis is a foregone conclusion, the wound will infect and the child will die. So you amputate the kid’s leg knowing that it’s his best chance but he will never bend it like Beckham or, if you follow that line, have the chance to even try. And it is even worse for the girls. Put your hand up if you would marry a ‘Mutilada’. Or even employ one. Be honest.
I was a bomb disposal officer and then went into humanitarian mine clearance so I am not suggesting that mine clearance is a waste of money, far from it. My lads worked in appalling conditions risking their lives every inch of the lanes they cleared but as much as I was convinced that such indiscriminate weapons should be banned and dragged out from the face of the Earth, I did wonder sometimes whether the funding would have been better dispersed merely marking off the danger areas and sinking the rest into recuperative healthcare and clean water. Free mosquito nets would have saved more lives than I ever did demining and, remembering the shattered remnants of colleagues I cradled in my arms waiting for the casevac flight, that is a sobering thought.
It really is a chicken and egg situation. If there were no landmines, there would be fewer injuries. Most people in Angola though, one of the most mine polluted countries in the world, suffer traumatic amputations through causes other than by mines. Those causes are, however, less emotive than images of Princess Diana clutching some poor child who, having attempted to collect the scraps of wood her mother would need to light a fire and cook a meagre evening meal lost not only her leg, but her future and self respect in one searing detonation. Long lists of road traffic accident statistics just cannot compete for international funding. So, as for so many poor doctors, what choice for the aid agencies competing for limited funds from donors motivated more by politics and emotion than common sense? Would that the world could grant licence to the venal, ambulance chasing lawyers to sue the manufacturers of such devices to compensate non combatants who suffer as a result of their products performing according to specification.
Pity really, because if the arms manufacturers had to pay for the treatment of and compensate every civilian, as opposed to congratulating themselves on the number of soldiers their products took out, dismissing the rest of the indiscriminate carnage as collateral damage, there would be a little more money available to treat the little kid dying of malaria or dysentery, or rebuild the leg of one run over by a 4x4 as well as a dramatic disinclination of major corporations to get into the currently highly lucrative killing business.
The border between Congo DRC and Angola is as efficient and well staffed as a first world country. I was going to say as slick as Heathrow or any US port of entry but that would give you entirely the wrong impression. This place is organised and populated by those who not only understand, but exhibit patience, respect and, in many cases, sympathy and on the Congo side are rewarded with a salary of just $30 per month for all their commendable effort. Exhausted, hollow eyed yet still dedicated Congolese doctors get a whole $50 a month. Bear that in mind next time you are stuck in a very long queue and one of them tries to sting you for a ‘fee’ to help you jump it. Personally, I have never seen the need for extraordinary payments having anticipated the crush, and I rather enjoy chatting to new acquaintances and allow myself the time to do so. For our collective amusement, there will always be at least one expatriate who loses it and rants and raves to be instantly selected for the more personal and hopefully intimate attention of the authorities. The immigration services at Miami International are famous for that.
It was this economic disparity that left me with Marcia a country away securing the most affordable medical attention for her cousin while I unwittingly provided some thieving shit a shop till you drop, all you can carry is free opportunity.
If the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of UK disappeared for more than five minutes or longer than it took to do something with a cigar and an intern, there would be a furore (if it were the Italian President, there would only be that respectful silence and uncomfortable wait as his loyal security services, ridiculous feathers in their bonnets, discreetly stuffed all the girls into their respective taxis as they stumbled one by one bleary eyed, exhausted and presumably enriched into the pre dawn light).
As a non entity, therefore, I was impressed when after only three days, a man appeared at my door and thrust a phone into my face on the other end of which was an agitated Marcia.
‘Don’t worry Honey’ she said, ‘The thief will bring the things back’.
There are lots of things I like about America. Vast protected natural reserves, hunting and shooting, the best sport fishing boats in the world, Remington rifles, breathtaking architecture, wonderful authors and, believe it or not, the friendliest policemen I have ever had the pleasure to hand over on the spot fines to but there are other things I hate. Like freezing cold and so very, very tired, having been tasked with driving a low boy from the panhandle down through Mexico and on to Belize with a D6 and ripper on the back and, pulling into a Texas Dairy Maid roadside café to be told, no, they don’t have fresh milk just dairy substitute (and we all know that Americans are expert at taking that wonderful natural product, coffee, and turning it into anaemic piss). You try standing there at six in the morning, the place full of ‘real’ truckers gorging on supersize plates of grits and corned beef hash swamped in eggs and beans, the bacon covered in sickly sweet maple syrup and hear some dolly bird dressed in a poncy uniform shouting out, ‘Hey, this guy wants to drink milk! I think he’s from England!’
No, darling, I am from Turkmenistan, bend over your hot plate and I’ll prove it.
What I really hate is the unquestionably American endearment, ‘Honey’.
I am not a sweetie. I am the sort of bloke who, if you accused of being violent, would smash your face in with a half brick or that very honest tool of an English thug, a length of 4x2 and I bear the scars of those times I tried and was painfully overwhelmed. Honey? Where the hell did Marcia dig that one up?
Now couple being called ‘Honey’ with the knowledge that while having a leak I let some dick head rob my house. My spit was running back at a rate too fast to swallow.
Marcia, recognising that there was no point wasting her Congolese telephone credit trying to quench the super heated steam from a boiling pot, assured me that within five days of her return, all our goods would be returned.
Bearing in mind that earlier in the year we had been robbed and Marcia, with the skills of a bloodhound and Sherlock Holmes combined had not only identified the thief but recovered the goods within two hours, I settled down to await her return.
On her advice I had not called the phone company to cancel the mobile but against her advice, after a week, I called my old number and it was answered. I hung up hurriedly knowing that my new number was not recorded on my old phone and, to be honest, I was scared shitless that Marcia would find out and beat me stupid. She may be tall and skinny but she is from Uige and has a vicious right hook and the only way I would be able to stop her beating me senseless would be to kill her but I am, after all, rather fond of her so if I have the opportunity to avoid a confrontation, I will snap it up even if that means joining the dogs in the darkest corners of the garden.
A week later, Marcia pitched up and was quickly in contact with the new owner of my old phone. In what to me initially seemed little more than an inconsequential exchange, Marcia determined that this person was deeply religious so went on to remind her listener that lying now would condemn her soul to an eternity of hellfire. Quickly absolving herself of her earthly sins, Marcia’s victim confessed that the phone had been left with her to charge by a neighbour and that she not only knew who this person was but where she lived.
Now in possession of the phone, Marcia urged her Centurions to whip her Legion into line and descended upon this new address, the resident of which capitulated immediately and (rather sensibly, I thought) freely revealed that the phone had been offered to her son by a fellow passenger during a Taxi ride from Benfica (where we live) to Samba. Armed with a description, Marcia wheeled her troops and in good order advanced from Samba to Benfica and descended on the taxi rank, not three hundred yards from our house.
Angolan taxi drivers are a tough breed. Their existence is miserable. Long hours and an income dependant on the reliability of aged Toyota Corollas imported from Belgium. An English copper foolish enough to pull a warrant card and try and intimidate them in the course of his enquiries would be murdered on the spot yet within five minutes, Marcia had a description that more or less matched two known bandits in our neighbourhood.
Exhausted and so close to home, I staggered back. It had been three weeks since the laptop was lifted. By now it had been sold on Roque Santeiro Market and its disgusted new owner would have realised that the battery was crap and it would only work with the adapter still by the side of my desk. My family photos and everything else dear to me were by now probably in the bottom of a bin. Marcia had recovered the phone, which was a commendable effort, but the laptop surely was history. What I needed now was a cold beer and a cigarette.
I had no sooner slumped down into my chair when the door burst open and Marcia, accompanied by a posse, marched in two forlorn looking guys.
OK the mob, their contorted features vaguely recognisable as my neighbours, weren’t brandishing flaming brands and pitchforks but they looked pretty mean nevertheless. I thought the two lads they had in tow were going to spew on my carpet at any moment.
‘Which one was it?’, Marcia demanded as the crowd edged forward ready to slaughter either or both of the two sweating youths while their mothers wailed in the background. Brutal retribution was now my gift.
Of all the youths in the neighbourhood that matched the description I had given Marcia on the basis of the briefest glimpse in poor lighting conditions subsequently reinforced by the taxi driver, these two, I have to admit, were a pretty good match. All I had to do was point to one of them and I would have the right to beat the crap out of him, to vent my rage, to wreak my vengeance.
‘Which one?’ demanded Marcia.
I looked at her helplessly, aware that all the neighbours were looking at me as well. I am not into this. It’s only a fucking laptop. If I had caught the bastard fair and square, maybe with a sword in my hand, I’d have cut him to ribbons but don’t ask me now, after the event, when I can’t be sure, to condemn either of these sweating lads to a beating.
‘I’m not sure, Marcia’
‘What do you mean, you are not sure? It is one of these boys!’
‘You are probably right, Marcia, but I cannot say which one’
Clearly, the crowd thought I was a wimp as I did too I suppose. I would dearly have loved to thrash the bastard that nicked my laptop, the one who had the audacity to watch me through my lounge windows and than dart in when I nipped off for a piss. One of them was guilty, of that I had no doubt so I suppose thrashing them both would mean the guilty bastard got his due and the innocent one would learn the salutary lesson of growing up looking like the local thief and then compounding the error by hanging around with him.
I am not shy of throwing a fist when I have to and sometimes I come off worst but I have never punched a man that could not defend himself much less one whose guilt was in doubt. Both of them were strapping lads and in a fair fight I would have been hard pressed but I wasn’t going to see either of them kicked half to death in a most unfair contest. No matter how much, deep down, I thought they probably deserved it.
I turned to the lads and asked them straight out, ‘Which of you two stole my computer?’
Both of them avoided my gaze and said nothing. They were guilty as fucking hell but I had only seen one that night and could not now, in all honesty, identify him.
Recognising that I wasn’t going to play ball, Marcia took over.
Rolling her eyes back into her head she announced that unless the laptop was returned, the thief’s eyeballs would explode in his head. Furthermore, and as bizarre to me as it was to her slack jawed audience, she went on to intone, back arched, arms splayed, unseeing eyes peircing the ceiling and on to wherever her particular Gods resided, that on the laptop was lots of music and this would play incessantly in the stomach of the thief so denying him sustenance and rest. My lounge cleared faster than a formula one grid.
The next day we opened the veranda windows to discover the laptop placed neatly by the door.
It was exactly five days since Marcia’s return.