Tuesday, 16 October 2012

You choose...

A while ago I wrote a for me, fairly typical rambling post in which I mentioned God, the Devil, a Mercedes advert and irritating neighbours before concluding that if one were unwilling to tempt fate, one should drive a BMW.

Right at the end of the post I submitted a photo of what I thought was undeniably the most beautiful sports coupé ever built and I have reposted it above. It happened to be a BMW so suited the purposes of my post. It was also painted in my favourite colour for a car. Not just any car, but a car with the coachwork and lines able to carry it off. Think of Angela Merkel in Pippa Middleton's famous dress and perhaps you will grant me the point.

Those who know me from my younger days may have found it surprising that I would elevate a BMW to 'Most Desirable' status even though I am sure they would concur that the 3.0 CS BMW was, and remains very desirable. My grandfather designed the Mercedes factory in Sindelfingen and as a young lad I had free(ish) run of the factory. He only drove Daimler Benz as the old German diehards called them and I was a Mercedes man too. I even bought a bright red 300SL for my first wife as a salve for her broodiness. It didn't work, she took the car and ran off with a married Aga gas bottle filler from Coalville in Leicestershire and had a kid with him instead. Naturally, I was bloody annoyed but through skillful diplomacy and not a little compassion and understanding, I got her back in the end. She was even polished nicely and had a full tank of petrol. As an aside, while I was back in UK sorting out the divorce, there was an accident at the gas bottling plant and the man who cuckolded me was carted off screaming to the burns unit at Leicester Royal Infirmary, presumably bewildered by how a procedure he had performed daily could go so badly wrong. I have to confess to just a little schadenfreude as I drove the Mercedes back down the M1 towards Dover.

I did own and drive a BMW once but that was by default. Default in the sense that desperate measures were needed to recover from my own stupidity. When I was living in Cape Town, I bought a Ferrari (I had a Mercedes as well I hasten to add so hadn't taken complete leave of my senses). Go onto the internet web thingy and see just how many less than a year old, low mileage Ferraris are up for sale. They should grade car makes by their divorce rates. My first two wives were Ferraris. They were beautiful, very desirable, athletic (sadly not always in my bed), temperamental and badly screwed together. If you want a long term relationship, buy something beginning with 'V'. Volkswagen or Volvo spring to mind. 

With no takers for the Ferrari I swapped it for a BMW convertible which, I have to admit, was a much nicer car. Almost anything would have been but if anyone had turned up with the car pictured below, I would have bitten his arm off and regurgitated the ignition keys later.

I leave it to you.  Most beautiful and desirable coupé ever: BMW or Mercedes?  Both in my favorite colour, by the way…

Mercedes photos courtesy of Mechatronic Germany.  Link on the right hand side of my blog page under 'Toys for Boys'
Maybe I should tempt fate again.  Just once...


Blogger has gone mad!  Either that or I suddenly have ten times as many readers in UK as I did yesterday.

Normally I get around 100 page views a day.  Yesterday, I had just 77 but then it's been nearly a week since my last post.  Today, however, I have had 1,071 page views.  1,006 of them from UK and all between 1500 and 1700 hrs today.

Clearly, this is bonkers.  Obviously it is highly improbable that 1,000 people in UK suddenly decided to sit down to Tuesday afternoon tea and read my blog.  Not unless the Secret Services are forcing detainees to read my blog as a new form of excruciating torture now that water boarding has been banned.

Spot the anomaly...
Anyone else seen such unusual spikes in their Blogger stats?

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Time for Coffee... Memories

Old soldiers never die, they just get very boring.  I had gone for a stroll, Alex on his ‘bike and the dogs gambolling alongside when suddenly I heard some one shout, ‘Delta Trés!’

I haven’t been Delta Three since 1998 and the memories hearing my old radio call sign elicited turned to a flood when I recognised the man calling me.  ‘So you’re still here!’ he said, ‘AND alive!’ with a big grin on his face.

I guess we both look a lot older

I could appreciate his surprise on both counts.  During the time we worked together, we had some pretty hairy moments and then in 1998, the Angolan government decided it no longer needed the services of PMC’s, Private Military Companies and expelled us all.  All that is, except me.  My name was on the list so I was legally obliged to leave as well, I just didn’t want to go.  My employer’s were very reasonable telling me there were seats on the ‘plane for my Angolan family as well.  The gorgeous Irish PA to the director warned me that I would probably be killed once they knew the expats had all left leaving over a thousand employees wondering how they would get paid, and dozens of clients wondering if they would be murdered in their beds. 

You hear stories of homeowners refusing to abandon their properties, placing themselves at almost suicidal risk as the volcano explodes or the forest fire bears down on them.  Many outside observers shake their heads muttering, ‘They deserved it, how mental can you be, to die for the sake of a house?’

I can’t remember who it was, someone quite famous and pretty damn clever (I can’t be arsed to look him up on Google), who pointed out that most men live lives of quiet desperation.  Very subtle but it bangs the nail on the head, doesn’t it?  Death and Taxes someone else said.  All I knew was that most people spend their whole lives, all too often unsuccessfully, servicing debt.  Their mortgages (such an apt word implying release from obligation only on death), the Hire Purchase on assets as wildly depreciating as their cars, their furniture, their kitchens, the bedroom extension and with store cards, even the shirts on their backs.  No fucking way was I going back to that.

I came to Africa after a divorce that had effectively ruined me.  I wanted to get as far away as possible.  I decided I would go for the Mr Micawber school of financial management; if I did not have the readies in my pocket, I couldn’t have it, simple as that.  I would have none of the expensive watches other expatriates sported, none of the designer bush wear, none of the exotic holidays.  In fact, I was entitled to one month’s holiday out of every three, but for two years I took no holidays whatsoever and, as I have already mentioned, my employer’s were exceptionally decent folk (all ex Army) who, recognising they would still have to pay me my salary even though I was on leave, as well as my flights, and then pay the salary and flights for my temporary replacement, paid me my flights out in cash as well as a double salary for staying in post justifying it to the bean counters by pointing out the benefit of continuity and the economy of saving a return airfare.

I moved upwards from Contracts Officer, one who is assigned to a particular client, through Contracts Manager to Director, number three in the organisation, hence my callsign, Delta for Director followed by Three to indicate my seniority, instead of Charlie for Contracts Officer.  In the last year before our expulsion, the new Delta One was mortified to learn, as he obviously had access to the company accounts, that I was earning more than he was.

So, by the time of the expulsions, I owned outright, no bank loans, my house in a desirable suburb of one of the most expensive cities in the world, everything in it and the cars on the driveway.  My wife and stepdaughter were Angolan and obviously well settled.  I may have only had a cheap Seiko on my wrist rather than the latest Omega Sea Master, had never been on holiday with my new family and my clothes were definitely reaching their sell by date but I could sleep at night.  Our time would come.

The expulsions comprehensively screwed up my Five Year Plan.  I should walk away from all this?  I should accept an uncertain future?  I should climb on a ‘plane to UK and have to find somewhere, anywhere in a strange land to live while my employers hurriedly found some other, no doubt junior position in some Godforsaken unaccompanied outback while my family, not able to speak a word of English lived like refugees?  Bugger that.  I was staying and if necessary would defend my house standing at the end of the driveway with an eight shot Makarov.  At least I’d get a couple of the buggers before I went down.  More if they gave me time to reload.

During the few days everything took to fall apart after the expulsion order, British Embassy officials were about as much use as chocolate fire guards.  The Swedish Embassy, however, a contract I hung on to by mutual consent after being promoted beyond contracts officer and then manager, pointed out that while they could not officially become involved, gave me a bloody great sign adorned with the Royal Swedish Crest to hang on my gates in the hope the invading police might pause and consider the international implications of barging onto apparently Swedish diplomatic territory.  The First Secretary made it quite clear, they would do what they could to look after my family, but I was on my own.  Fair do’s and I was very grateful, more than they will ever know.

I ran the rear party and got a 727 load of colleagues to the airport, secured the vehicles and then quietly slipped away into the shanty towns where, armed with enough radios to cover both our own company frequencies and those of the police, I hid up in a tin shack, sweating in the heat, swigged whisky and listened to them all looking for me.  Apparently the departure of the aircraft was delayed for hours on my account.

But my old colleague couldn’t have known any of this, he was up country at the time.  He admitted he’d heard rumours of how, once the plane had left, I went round every single guard post, the police behind me, telling the guards to stand their posts, not to rob their clients and bugger off into the bush because they would get paid,  With a 12 hour on, 24 hour off shift system I had to do this three times in 36 hours and was very nearly caught at the boss of de Beers’ residence when I finally succumbed to the offer of a hot shower, a change of clothes and a decent meal.  As the police arrived front of house, I was leaping over the back wall cursing the razor wire I’d insisted they install.  I had managed to speak personally to every single guard and every client.  All the guards stood their posts and every single client paid their salaries in cash.

My Angolan wife, well connected as she was, eventually cleared it for me to come out of the very hot cold, so to speak and the new Angolan management of the vestiges of the company so recently and hastily abandoned by its English management offered me my old job back.  Much as I liked the old rogue, Paulo Fortunato, the Angolan director of the company, I declined the offer lest I found myself black balled in London for being a cad with my head spiked on Traitors Gate.

By now, my old colleague and I were back in my nearly finished restaurant and Almeida, the very strange but efficient boy Marcia employs to run the shop was serving up a couple of cold ones.

‘You know’, he said, ‘I have no idea how you survived the Belgian incident’.

‘Belgian Incident?’  I hadn’t a clue what he was on about.

Bear in mind we were onto about our third or fourth beer by now.

Of course, the Belgian Incident, how could I have forgotten!  It was the 12th of May 1997.  Easy to remember because it was my 38th birthday.  I was technically off duty having been withdrawn from the field to enjoy a period in the city sort of relaxing.  That night I was definitely relaxed.  I was in my house with both my near and extended family getting exceedingly drunk and looking forward to the prospect of a hell of good nosh up and, if I could still manage it after blowing out some candles and such dedicated overindulgence, a good shag.  The stereo was on full blast playing my kind of music for a change as it was my birthday party but then I heard the radios, my real mistresses as my wife stated all too often, go nuts.  Whoever it was transmitting was clearly panicking and shouting into the microphone of his radio, distorting the signal.  I left the house and moved into the garden.  I was not on duty so left it to the control room operator to calm him down and find out what was going on while I listened in and fumbled for the car keys.  Just get his bleeding call sign, I was silently begging the operator.  Every client we had received a radio with a location specific call sign.  With a call sign we could already be crashing out the armed rapid reaction team.  Even if he wasn’t at home, with a call sign we could call his residence guard and if the client had obeyed standing operating procedures and informed his guard where he was going, we’d at least have an inkling of which part of the city we needed to scour through to recover his beaten remains.  And where was the duty officer?  By then I was sitting in my running car wondering where to go.  Do I head to the office in the middle of town?  Or, recognising that I lived smack bang in the middle of a smart suburb where half of our in town clients lived so there was a 50 50 chance I’d be real close, better wait perhaps?

My guard, hearing the car start up, opened the gates allowing me to reverse out onto the street.  And I waited.  I realised I only had a few fags left in my pack so I told him to nip inside and ask my wife for a full pack and to go into my desk and get the spare magazines for my pistol.  Slowly I was sobering up.  The messages over the radio were becoming ever more frantic.  My guard returned and I told him to lock the gates, get his AK and climb in next to me.  The war may not have been over for me but the party certainly was.  I’d like to say that urgency and professionalism precluded me from kissing the wife and family goodbye but, to be honest, I forgot all about them and the party that was now in full swing.  I always hated my second set of in-laws anyway.

Finally, and we are only talking about ten minutes from the first garbled call for assistance, Delta Two came on the air and gave us a decent location.  By now I wasn’t the only one hanging on to the end of a radio.  Two streets away from me, I knew the place, the offices of a French company with a Belgian manager, one our company was keen to acquire and all us on the ground weren’t.

The Belgian director of this company could best be described as a lunatic, a Walter Mitty, that dangerous combination of paranoia and aggression.  I couldn’t think of any one with the possible exception of his mother who liked him.  Although I was licensed to carry and, if necessary use firearms in Angola, unless I was in the field, my weapon was usually tucked, unloaded in the bottom of my rucksack.  This idiot during a meeting in town pulled up his trouser leg to reveal an ankle holster housing a .38 special.  The tubby little sod actually thought I’d be impressed.  Instead I thought, ‘Oh dear, are we to have problems with this one?’  I was about to find out just how big a shit storm this guy could stir up.

It only took me five minutes to get there and most of that was spent driving down the dual carriageway that is António Barroso to the roundabout and then half way back up again so I could turn right into the residential area.  As the crow flies, I was less than a kilometre from my house.  As I turned off the main road I could see one of our rapid reaction team vehicles parked up short of the road where the incident was taking place. 

I climbed out.  Even from round the corner of a built up area I could hear the racket of what sounded like half the Zulu nation on the war path.  Delta 2 had also just arrived and he briefed me.  The road we were on was only about three hundred yards long and was a dead end.  Behind the high wall that unexpectedly sealed it off, in a way very reminiscent of Berlin, was one of the more unsavoury Bairros, a collection of densely packed tin shacks and their suffering occupants.  Our side of the wall had once been a very smart residential suburb with substantial three storey houses built in groups of three, driveways separating each block and small yards front and back.  For security reasons, nearly all of the front yards had been enclosed with steel grills behind which no doubt alarmed citizens were now hiding and topped with variously wriggly tin or asbestos sheet roofs.  Cars lined the wide unpaved streets on either side.  The sidewalks installed in colonial times were all smashed up and of the trees that lined this once leafy and pleasant boulevard there was scant evidence.  Green and stinking raw sewage pooled in what once had been gutters.  At that time in Luanda, this was still a smart place to live.  So smart in fact, that the British Embassy housed its Military Attaché right opposite to where I had parked.  Having seen me pull up and very keen to know what was going on, Colonel J joined us.

Together we strolled to the top of Rua Dr.  P. Nascimento and had a look down.  The road descended gently towards Maianga so we had a pretty good view of several hundred evidently severely agitated individuals blocking the road about a hundred or so yards down.  Most of them were waving machetes or AKs and all of them were chanting at the tops of their lungs.  It was quite an impressive sight.  Our group of whites must have made an impression on them too for suddenly a round whizzed overhead, no doubt to discourage us from getting any closer.  It did the trick and we retired, in good order naturally (doesn’t do for an officer to run, it alarms the troops) back round the corner.

While the substance of many buildings suitable for expatriates to rent was sound, the fit and finish wasn’t, never having enjoyed any maintenance or modernisation since the Portuguese hurriedly scrambled out with what they could carry in 1975.  Given the security situation (in 1992 there were pitched battles through the streets of the city the bullet pocked walls of which serving as mute reminder to such a recent event), having rented a building, during its refurbishment a ‘Safe Haven’ would be built in.  As the name suggests, it was a room that had been fortified with a steel door protected by a substantial steel grill in which the occupants of the house could hide, allowing the assailants to loot whatever they wanted in the hope they could not be bothered with all the additional effort required to break through these defences merely to satisfy a blood lust.  It was from such a room, on the top floor at the back of his house that the resident Belgian was sending increasingly urgent appeals for help while some of the burlier and more determined of his employees tried to bash through.  Clearly, they weren’t interested in stereos or TV’s, they did want blood, a fact our arrogant little Walloon was knicker moisteningly aware of.

‘Well, what do you think Tom?’ Delta Two asked me.

‘Think?  What the fuck are we doing here?  He isn’t exactly our client and besides, he’s a shit.’

‘Technically, Tom, he is not a client, he is one of our employees,’ seeing my face he added an explanation, ‘The sale has gone through, we have bought this company from Elf.  Technically all those guys in the street are also our employees.’

‘Jesus Christ!  We’ve been dropped right in it’.  The implications were enormous.  Elf had obviously been keen to sell because, rather like most of British industry in the Seventies, this company was grossly and expensively overstaffed with the most militant work force imaginable.  We only needed that quick squint down the street and consider the high velocity retort if any confirmation were required.

‘Bloody hell, all this just for the Elf contract’.  I was a bit bitter, ‘So Hercule Poirot in there has told them they’re all going to be made redundant and now they want to kill him?’

‘That’s about it’ Delta Two confessed, ‘So what do you reckon?’

‘Where is our Police Liaison Officer?’  For situations involving locals, albeit never as extreme as this, the Angolan Police had assigned to us, or embedded in modern parlance, an Inspector whose job it was to co-ordinate our response with that of the national police who indisputably had jurisdiction in a situation like this.

‘He went down there with Paulo Fortunato (our Angolan Director) but they haven’t come back and they aren’t answering their radios either’.  I pictured the machete wielding baying mob and tried to imagine our tubby, often disingenious but amiable Angolan Director and the unfortunate Inspector amongst that lot.  What I did not know at the time was that they had been grabbed by the mob and beaten up.

‘And the Intervention Police?  Where are they?’

‘The Inspector called them before he went down there but they haven’t turned up’

Of course they hadn’t turned up.  So long as it was just a disgruntled workforce wreaking vengeance on a particularly odious expatriate, why should they interrupt their evening meal?  Besides, it is always easier to clean up the mess after a riot than to try and control it.  Until I knew that two of our guys were now in there, one of whom our Director, that had been my attitude too and one I would have urged my boss to seriously consider adopting but now, the matter was really out of our hands.  We had to do something.

Delta Two was one of the nicest guys I ever worked for.  Outwardly calm under stress I knew him well enough to realise that right now his guts must have been churning with indecision and, don’t forget, we had an independent witness from the British Embassy who would no doubt the following morning give an unbiased, unabridged account to the British Ambassador detailing the conduct of a British Company on Angolan soil that caused His Excellency to be summoned for a hat on, no coffee interview with the Angolan Minister for Foreign Affairs. Delta Two was a very perceptive, rational and compassionate man.  Basically, he was an all round decent bloke who recognised my many flaws but was always able to get the very best out of me. I really wanted to help him.  Of course, I would have preferred to be back at my birthday party, after all, technically I was off duty but although still legally pissed as a rat, I was doing my best to sober up.

By now there were a bunch of Contracts Officers present, well trained with enviable military experience, frightening reputations and all armed to the teeth.  I have no doubt that had we decided to clear the street with force, it would all have been over in ten minutes.  I am also just as confident that the Angolan authorities would not have acknowledged our military skill and discipline and the British Ambassador would have bust a blood vessel.  Shooting an Angolan citizen in the bush if he was attacking government property was one thing as the dead man would be categorised a terrorist. Fire and manoeuvring through a suburb of the capital was entirely another and as I realised the moment I arrived, had the most God awful implications.

I took another quick squint down the road.  To the right, there was absolutely no cover, save for the parked cars and even if I did manage to get down to Hercule’s house undetected, what then?  How would I get across the street packed as it was by homicidal maniacs?  To the left of the street, along the wall separating the smart area from the Bairro was a row of breeze block shacks.  If I could get onto the roofs, there was a chance I could make it to within three houses of the Belgian’s and then cross the final three backyards without being detected.  While Mr Dickhead’s safe haven had an armoured door and grill, being on the top floor the window had no bars.  Perhaps we could sneak him out that way?  It was worth a try.  If I could get him out then, and I had no intention of making this clear to my boss, I would willingly exchange him for Fortunato and our Inspector.

With the economy of truth I have already indicated, I explained my idea to Delta Two. 

‘We cannot go down that street without provoking civil war’, I explained, ‘At least this way we are doing something’

Most of the roofs over which I intended to crawl were fragile asbestos and Delta Two pointed this out.

‘Look at me’, I said, ‘I look like a fucking whippet!’

‘You can’t go alone’, he said, ‘you need someone to cover your back’

‘You can’t go!’ I said.  He was lightly built as well. ‘What do you think Head Office would say if you got slotted playing schoolboys on an Angolan roof top?’

It would be nice to have an extra pair of eyes connected to a smart brain behind me.  I had to give him that.  I looked around our assembled colleagues and I could see that all of them were keen.  Trouble was, they were built like brick shithouses and were twice as heavy.  None of them would make it a yard before crashing unexpectedly through the roof crushing some poor bastard to death in his hovel.  All, that is, except T. E.

T.E. was ex SAS and what he gave way to me in height he more than made up for with perfect musculature, damnably attractive blue eyes and blonde hair.  He only had to walk down the street and the knickers of every girl he passed would spontaneously combust.  My wife adored him.  So much so that on one occasion when he appeared out of the bush, dirty, dishevelled and disgusting, she fed him my dinner telling me to make do with a sandwich.  Think of a pint sized Rutger Hauer.  He volunteered to go with me.

We would need a rope so we collected all the tow ropes from our vehicles and linked them together.  Me looking like Sherpa Tensing, we were bunked up the wall of the end house and started the long traverse across the sloping roofs. 

We nearly made it.  We were going so carefully that none of the nutters in the street spotted us.  What I hadn’t figured on was that the sound of someone crawling over their roof might not escape an owner, already nervous about the riot in front of his house.  In those days, everybody had a weapon in their homes.  T.E. and I were about to cover the last wriggly asbestos roof before dropping down into the first of the back gardens when we both heard the unmistakable sound of an AK being cocked, right below where I was lying.  I had a choice, move as quickly as I could thus alerting the guy below exactly where I was or stay perfectly still.  I would like to say my decision to freeze was rational.  In hindsight I think I was too busy shitting myself to think about moving.  I think I must have been crawling over this guy’s living room or something while T.E, was crawling over the kitchen for there were six inches of the top of a dividing wall between T.E. and me so he was safe.  I looked at him and his eyes were as wide as bastard saucers, he knew as well as me what was coming.  So I waved at him.  I can’t believe it, I bloody waved at him.  It was a surreal moment but ended abruptly when his nibs below loosed off a whole magazine through his own roof missing me by a yard at least.  It collapsed immediately but T.E. grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and hauled me to safety.

Well the shit really hit the fan then.  We were so close, a matter of thirty yards and I could see the window we were going for but, alerted by this sudden burst of automatic fire and the shouts of the guy who, depleted of ammunition had burst out of his house and into the street, everyone else now decided to have a go.  T.E. and I made it to the top of the sloping roof at the rear and looked over the edge.  It was a huge drop onto the roof of a Bairro house below.  Neither of us fancied our chances and we hardly had a lot of time to discuss them as more and more were joining in the fun.  We lay down behind the cover the six protruding inches of yet another dividing wall provided to consider the zero number of options that sprang to our minds. 

It hardly requires me to point out that there was a hell of a lot of gunfire.   My radio crackled to life.

‘Delta Three, this is Delta Two.  Is that gunfire directed at you?’

Oh, most definitely I thought.

Our radios were attached to our belts by what was marketed by the manufacturers as a ‘quick release clip’.  Oh they would bloody well quick release alright when you dropped your trousers for a shit in some foetid Angolan bog or reached into a pocket for a handkerchief or your car keys but try getting one off your hip when you really need the bastard thing.

Like I said, I worked for a very professional and surprisingly considerate company.  Even though I wasn’t exactly married to Bina yet, who would be the mother of my Number One son, they recognised it was a serious relationship and had issued her a company radio so that if ever she got into difficulty, she could call for help.  That radio was now sitting on a bookshelf in my lounge and without doubt, she and the guests at my party were listening in.  Given the proximity of Armageddon to my house, the noise of the gunfire could hardly have escaped her attention.  As I lay there with only six inches of fragile breeze block between me and the discomfort occasioned by a high velocity round puncturing me a little bit, my reply to Delta Two was considered.

‘Delta Two, this is Delta Three.  Nothing to worry about, just a few Gentlemen who appear very keen to talk to me.  Over.’

‘Should I send an extraction team in?’

‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’

Not unless you want to start the next Luanda civil war, I thought,

‘We’re both OK and will work our own way out.' I transmitted, ' I am sorry, we’ve been compromised so cannot reach the objective.  We are going to have to make our move now and may not be able to respond, over’

‘Delta Two, Understood’

You have no idea how calming such British Military discipline is in a time of real deep shit.  Delta Two may have been giving birth to kittens but me and T.E. were stuck on a roof.  The longer we hung around, the more popped up armed guys would join in and pretty soon one of the guys shooting at us would work out that he would get a clear shot at us if he climbed onto the roof of one of the many cars parked in the street rather than loosing off at ground level.  But we had what now to us looked like a vast open area, completely exposed that we had to cover with no clear idea of where safety might lie.

‘T?’ I called out, ‘You OK?’

‘Yeah, and you?’

‘Fine,,, We can’t stay here’

‘I know, mate’

‘Paul wanted to send a team in’

‘I heard’

‘Nice of him, don’t you think?’

‘I’d sooner he bought me a beer!’

‘Shall we go for it then?’

‘You’re the boss’

‘You’re the expert!’

‘In that case, try and keep up!’

They say that theoretically it would be possible for a man to run across water if his legs had the power to paddle fast enough.  Fuck, we paddled.  I have no idea how many wriggly asbestos roofs collapsed under us but like startled geese, we glided over the lot.  Our original route of entry had been denied us so we headed right and fetched up against some razor wire on the other side of which was a twenty foot drop into the most beautiful garden I had ever seen.  In Army training manuals effective enemy fire is defined, or at least confirmed, when someone gets hit.  There were only two of us and although neither of us had been hit, it was concentrated enough for us so we launched ourselves into space and landed in the thankfully well tended and, therefore, soft flower bed.

You may recall me mentioning that some houses here were constructed in blocks of three.  Rather like UK semi detached houses but with an extra one thrown in the middle.  Only the two outside ones had driveways from front to rear, the opportunity for the rapid egress Mr T and I were looking for.  Well we had just dropped in on a middle one and were caught like rats in a trap.  There was nothing for it, we were going to have to knock on the back door in the hope the resident wouldn’t shoot intruders in his back garden on sight.  Given the gunfire, the fact that no-one securing his house as well as this man had would expect a knock at his back door and then trust two very sweaty, dirty and obviously well armed individuals to walk calmly through his home out to the street beyond, we both thought it a long shot but basically the only one we had.  So I bashed on the back door grill.

For us it seemed like hours.  Any second we expected people to appear at the top of the wall and plug us like fish in a barrel.  Really, it could only be a minute or so, as long as the house holder needed to pull on the trousers he eventually appeared in before he opened the back door.  Not the security grill, just open the back door enough to allow a gap sufficient for him to peer through.

Now I would be the first to admit that my command of Portuguese, especially then, was fairly basic.  I’d also be the first to confess that my lifestyle, especially between divorces, had been a little colourful so I was well versed in all the platitudes necessary to overturn the latest lifetime ban awarded me at my favourite watering hole.  All this street acquired eloquence I now gushed over this man.  The door opened a little wider and behind him, I could see a statuesque lady clad in a flowing night gown clutched to her breast, presumably his wife, and hovering behind her a stunningly attractive young lady clad only in panties and a T shirt.  Naturally I was far too preoccupied with my own safety to notice that her T shirt was washed out, far too small for her burgeoning bosom, dark blue with an NYC logo and that her panties were light blue with a delicate pink embroidered edge leaving little to the imagination.  Mr T, I am positive, never caught sight of this as being a true professional he was too busy covering my back.  What I did notice was the front door to the street, not ten paces away.

Obviously, I will never be sure if it was through an ingrained sense of decency or a fear for his daughter’s virginity but he let us pass.  As I crossed his threshold he grabbed my arm with surprising force, ‘Boa Sorte’, Good luck, he said.  I was just passing through his front gate thinking, ‘What a nice guy’ when the lights went out.

I woke up in the back of a Toyota pick up, one that had been kitted out with a central row of back to back seats down the centre of the bed.  Our Inspector helped me onto the seat.  I could see that Mr T had taken a bit of a hiding judging by the mucous and blood leaking from his fractured nose.  All my pockets were empty, I’d lost my gun.  I was dizzy but I knew that losing a weapon was serious. 
‘Have you got any fags?’ I asked the inspector.  I was trying to figure out what the hell he was doing in the back of a police truck.  Now that I was thinking about it, how come I was in the back of a police pick up with the back of my shirt soaked in what I now realised was blood?

‘Intervention Police’ he said.

‘Oh.  In that case hand out the fags then, they’ve knicked all mine’ I replied.

They’d stuck the three of us into the back of a Hilux and driven us down the road into the middle of the mob.  As I came to my senses, I could see them all poking machetes under our noses and then scraping them along the kerb stones to sharpen them.  It really was the sort of behaviour that gave the African his deservéd reputation for being ever so slightly unstable, a delinquency leading to that immortal phrase, ‘Nothing a slug from a Martini Henry can’t deal with’.  Sadly, I was bereft of a company of Welsh guards, had a mysterious hole in my head and was gagging for a puff.

‘Seriously, Old Chum.’ I was desperate for a fag by now and just knew he had some on him, ‘if they were going to kill us, they’d have done it by now so hand out the smokes’

Sure, the mob was scary but although they swung their machetes perilously close to our heads, apart from the odd painful side swipe with the flat of a blade, they never actually hurt us.  The sight of the Inspector and I calmly lighting cigarettes extended this invisible force field and they all backed off a bit.  I didn’t have a watch anymore but I guess it was after midnight so I was officially entering my 38th year.  Happy Birthday to me and all that.  Clearly, they had something better in mind for us than being hacked to death on Rua Dr. P. Nascimento.

‘Any news on Fortunato?’ I asked the Inspector.

‘They let him go an hour ago, they thought you were the start of a major assault, that’s why the Intervention Police dived in’

Me and my Makarov? Fancy that.

‘And why are you sitting here?’ I enquired with not just a little interest. 

‘It’s the Intervention Police, they want to interrogate us’

‘Oh’, I said, ‘Give us another fag then’

We were dumped off at a police station and thoroughly searched once again.  Someone came in and dumped a sack full of our weapons on the counter.  Of our wallets, watches and radios, there were no sign.  Thirty minutes later, three more of us were brought in, similarly denuded.  One of them was a South African who entertained us all with descriptions of the interrogation techniques he and his colleagues applied to Kaffirs along with assurances that he would never talk.  Since this police station was a bungalow, I doubted his death would be recorded as trying to escape by leaping, handcuffed to a chair, from a fifth floor window.  More likely it would be recorded as having his head stuffed down a loo with my hands around his throat.

A senior police officer and his entourage arrived and demanded to know if any of us spoke Portuguese.  Ignoring all the advice we gave our clients not to engage directly with our abductors, to avoid eye contact and all that shit, I stood up and admitted that I did.  I was Delta Three after all, the most senior man present and a Director so between us we could clear up any misunderstanding. They took me to a cell and beat the crap out of me.

They didn’t ask me a single question.  By the time they had finished softening me up I was ready to sign a declaration stating that my mother was the lesbian leader of a fascist cabal dedicated to the overthrow of the democratically elected Socialist People’s Republic of Angola but they never gave me the chance.  They tossed me back in with the rest,

The South African said, ‘Did you talk?’  About what you stupid fucking Boer? I thought.  ‘I tried to’, was all I could cough up.

Then Paulo Fortunato arrived.  He looked worse than I did and was clearly incandescent with rage.  ‘HIM!’ he said pointing at me.  Oh God, not again.  ‘And THEM’ he continued indicating the rest of us, ‘I want them out of here NOW!’

Well, that was damn decent of him but to be reasonable, I had a bit of an axe to grind so I told Paulo that they had nicked everything off us, including company property.  Minor things like weapons, ammunition and radios and major things like my cigarettes and lighter.  That was bound to set him off and it did.

Before they released us, and as the de facto representative of the expats, I had the surreal experience of standing in front of the guy who had supervised the best thrashing I had endured in ages and agreeing with him that we had all been treated decently.  All our property was returned to us for which, of course, we had to sign.

The Intervention Police had piled in, cleared the street of hoodlums and rescued the Belgian.  I have no doubt that they would have been quite happy to see this git stretched out in the street looking like a porcupine with all the machetes stuffed into his back, as I would have been but once the incident blew up, like me, they had no choice but to get involved.  In about an hour or two, the Ambassador would enjoy a quiet breakfast and neither he nor the Minister for Foreign Affairs would be disturbed by any disturbing communiqué.  So we had all done our jobs. 

As I walked out of the police station and saw all my colleagues off, Paulo was there in his big 4x4.

Dawn was breaking over the city, about the only time it looked nice.

‘Where’s my driver?’ I asked.

‘He told me you’d been lifted and was hanging around waiting for you so I sent him home, your car must be on your drive’.  He leant out of the window and said, ‘You know Sr. Tomas, you need to calm down.  I wouldn’t have gone in there for some stupid Belgian.’

I looked at him, a man with a face as beaten as mine for doing just that.

‘I didn’t, Sr Fortunato’

‘I know’

'Tony was the only other branco willing to go in with me, you know that?'

'I know', he said, 'Get in, I'll drive you home'.

‘Thanks, Paulo, but I forgot the keys to my house.  The family'll be sleeping and I don't want to wake them.  I'll get a coffee and a Bolo de Arroz at the Café at the top of António Barroso, I’ll walk’

‘In that state?’

‘It’s OK, I’ll sit outside…’

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

'Quick and Easy' Lobster Curry

I have no idea how much lobster costs in UK but like everything there, I guess it is pretty expensive and not everyone has the opportunity save a few pennies by going out and catching a pot full every time they need some.  In Luanda, whole lobster sells for about $15 a kilo which strikes me as pretty bloody eye-watering if all you’re going to eat is the tail, which is all most people seem to want.  Our lobsters here are crayfish really, as they do not have claws but everyone calls them lobster.

I do like lobster; simply done in boiling water then chopped up into a salad or butterflied and then grilled with plenty of butter.  I especially like it, however, when made as a curry.

This curry is relatively quick and easy to make and uses easy to find ingredients, many of them (shock, horror!) in tins.

First, get yourself a few lobsters…

That should be enough to start with...
Fill a big pan up with very slightly salted water, add chopped fresh coriander stems and bring it up to the boil.

Some people are squeamish about giving lobster a final very hot bath so if you are one of them, buy frozen lobster and leave the guilt to someone else.  If you have live ones, you can always pop them in the freezer for a while which numbs them.  The trick is not to overload the pot, if you do the temperature of the water falls rapidly and this not only spoils the flesh, it could lead to the appetite busting sight of a lobster thrashing about screaming for Radox bath salts.

While you are busy dropping lobsters in a pot and fishing them out once they are pink (five minutes or so) finely chop up a few onions (one small one per lobster) and fry them off in some oil in a heavy based pan until they are translucent, not brown. 

Add a generous table spoon of Garam Masala and stir that in before adding a couple of tins of skinned tomatoes and mash them around to pulp them up a bit.  By now the lobsters should all have been boiled so take a couple of cups of the water and pour that into the onion/tomato mix and give it a stir.  Keep an eye on it so it does not burn adding a little more lobster water as required.  At this stage I usually add chopped fresh pineapple but this is entirely optional.  If you want your curry spicy though, this is the time to add fresh or dried chilli.  I have a four year old who shouldn’t really eat spicy food so even though I like my curries with a heat rating of ‘Burning Bum By Morning’, I have to make do with mild for the time being.

Cooking with Gas!  Steaming nicely.  Note the shitty little stove I survive with at the moment
This is what the sauce should look like with the addition of a little of the water in which the lobsters were boiled

Rip the tails off the lobsters and split them open straight down the back.  Peel out the flesh and remove the vein.  Throw the heads back into the boiling water.  Chop up the lobster tails into bite sized chunks and put them to one side.

Five lobster tails, a pot of Coconut milk, a wooden cutting board and a sharp knife.  What else can I say about this photo?

Lobster bodies thrown back into the water to make a lovely stock

At this stage I usually pause to choke down a cigarette and moisten my tonsils with amber nectar to give time for all the flavour from the lobster bodies to infuse.

Ladle out about a litre of the infused lobster water into the onion/tomato mix and give the mixture a stir to incorporate it.  This now needs to reduce which will allow further time for salad preparation, another quick shmoke and a slug of something nice.  Put a litre of fresh, very slightly salted water into a pan and set that on the heat.  This will be for the rice.
Little Alex just can't resist testing the reduction.  He is my finest critic (out of the mouths of babes and all that), and he is certainly not verbose limiting his reviews to just 'YUCK!' or, 'MMM. NICE DADDY!'.  Today I was a nice Daddy.
Very finely chop an onion and a couple of garlic cloves and sweat them off with a bay leaf in a few tablespoons of oil in a heavy based pan (one that has a lid).  When the onions are soft, add two mug fulls of rice and stir the rice around so it does not stick.  You want to coat all the rice grains with oil.  Then add the boiling water and give the rice one more gentle stir to ensure nothing is stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Allow the rice to come to the boil, turn the heat down low and put the lid on the pan.

By now the onion tomato mix should be reducing nicely.  It needs to reduce until you can draw a path through it with a wooden spoon so that the bottom of the pan is briefly exposed.  The mixture should be loose but not liquid. 

Doesn't take long to reduce so keep an eye on it.  If you burn it, you have to go straight to jail, not pass Go and not collect 200 Quid...

Add the chopped lobster, chopped fresh coriander leaves, stir it up and then add half a can of coconut cream.  Allow this to come to a simmer on a low heat, check seasoning.  You shouldn't really need salt as there was salt in the lobster water (unless you are cooking for Angolans who consume enough salt with every meal to preserve a ham) then bung the lid on and turn the heat off.

Note, we haven’t bothered to even check the rice, let alone stir it. Have a look at the pan, if there is still lots of steam escaping out from under the lid, there is still water in there.  When the steam output starts to reduce (about ten minutes after first pouring the boiling water in) lift the lid off the rice pan.  What we want to see is no water, instead little craters in the rice surface where the water has boiled through.  If the pan is still steaming slightly, it will not have burnt.  Turn the heat off, leave the lid on the pan and relax for ten minutes (or lay the table if the Maidling is already off duty).

Garnish the curry with a little more fresh coriander and serve.
Some decent sized (20-25 Kg) Kingfish we caught earlier.  I'll get round to doing some nice recipes with these later.  Honest!
While I was rattling the pans, the monkeys were hooting at each other in the jungle not 50 yards from the kitchen door.  Must have been the smell of the cooking. Sorry for the quality of the photo, it was taken with the camera on my phone which, apart from a ladle, was all I had to hand.  Do not expect any Monkey recipes from me by the way...

In the meantime I have kept myself, and a few willing helpers, busy laying 196 square metres of tiles in the restaurant area as well as surrounding the same with the double wall that will form the beds for my herbs and flowers.
STILL a bloody building site but there is progress
Jungle in the background, not fifty yards away as I said

Looks bigger now that it has been tiled.  That and only having one table. Sorry about the uncleared mess on it, I had to feed the troops and the maidling was still foraging for scraps when I took this photo.  I shall bend her over the table and give her a stiff talking to in the morning.