Tuesday 21 June 2011

Home Alone

Marcia has gone to Uige. It’s a province north of here, about a day’s drive away. She’ll be gone for a few days or as long as it takes to sell a property we have up there that someone is suddenly, and rather conveniently I must confess, mad keen to buy.

As a result, I am stuck in the Southern Suburbs without transport. Alexander has been dropped off at his aunt's place and, surrounded by all his cousins, is no doubt having a whale of a time. I am looking forward to a break from CBeeBies and interminable Brazilian soaps, the prospect of retiring early to read a book while scoffing a nice sandwich washed down with beer and all the Seventies music Marcia hates oozing from the laptop's speakers being quite agreeable.

Before Marcia left she went to the bank, drew out what she assumed would be enough road money for her trip and enough for me while she was away. When she returned home to disburse these funds, grab her bags and leave, I begged to disagree.

Sure, if the trip went according to plan, she had more than enough but this is Angola. Being the sort of pessimistic soul I am, I insisted she should have a reserve, just in case. There was the briefest of arguments but I assured her that I really did not need much and it would be better if she took the rest. The generator was full of fuel, I had water, a fridge full of beer, all the cigarettes I could choke down and feeding myself had never been a problem; all the groceries I needed could be bought locally and I would still have enough for that. I could survive quite happily on the amount I proposed I should be left with.

This morning, and quite unexpectedly, the carpenter turned up.

His continued employment with us has, I will admit, been the source of a bit of friction between Marcia and I. Marcia is quite fond of him and calls him ‘Uncle’. I think he is a shit, both in character and the quality of work he provides. Rather than having him crudely nailing bits of poorly crafted, very expensive unseasoned wood to my house and watching it warp in the sun, I would prefer to expertly nail his head to the gate post and watch him rot but then Marcia wouldn’t be the first to accuse me of being occasionally intolerant of those less able than myself. Please, this isn’t arrogance on my part, well, I suppose it is but I am so often confounded by Marcia’s tendency to call in a tradesman to perform a task I was never even aware of let alone understood the need for and one, since its execution was evidently so important to her, I could have done myself had she brought it to my attention first rather than that of the sullen oik now standing before me.

Nevertheless, he was here at the God awful time associated with chilly pre dawn light, a nervously grinning assistant in tow and clutching an encouragingly large bag of tools ready, he said, to finish off the job he’d started some three months ago.

Fine. I didn’t even ask, I just unlocked the gate and let him in. He knew where all the half cut and unplaned timber was stored in the yard and I needed to brush the taste of last night’s whisky from my mouth and have a cup of tea.

Thirty minutes later, steaming mug in hand I switched on the TV hoping to catch up with the news and, glancing through windows the size of which gave me the vista needed to be the bane of idle employees, saw the two of them stretched out by the pool, the bag the contents of which I had hoped would be put to artisan use now merely a pillow for the ‘Master’ carpenter, his mate having to settle for resting himself as comfortably as he could against the veranda doors leading to my bedroom.

‘So what’s the problem, then?’ I demanded having burst out of the lounge.

‘We need thinners for the varnish’, says Boss Chippie. Never mind respectfully dragging himself to his feet, the bugger didn't even open his eyes. I was never any good at team sports but have played enough rugby to be confident that I could have comfortably drop kicked his head into the neighbour's garden.

Typical. They had pitched up for work without the materials necessary and were now happy to collect a day’s pay doing nothing. I coughed the money for the thinners. Then it was sandpaper. I brought to his attention the sacks of cement I had bought, the initial lack of which had apparently been the impediment to the completion of his last round of work and without batting an eye he asked me about sand. OK. I had to pay for sand as well. And give them money for transport.

Bearing in mind I was on short change here and had been confident that the few Kwanzas in my pocket were more than adequate for the next few days, I was now faced with either lashing the last of them out on a taxi to take me to the bank and back or giving this venal sod what he needed and reconciling myself to econo-cuisine until Marcia returned.

Anyone who has endured Luanda traffic only to stand for a few more hours in a bank queue would quickly opt for, as a most welcome alternative, surviving three days on a well prepared but very cheap Chilli con Carne and that’s exactly the choice I made. I handed over the majority of my dosh and off they went to buy what was needed.

Six hours later there was still no sign of them. I was hungry and increasingly irritated. No doubt they had converted my dinner money to beer by then and would only put in an appearance when they knew I wasn’t around. That way they could spin Marcia a tale of mitigation and point out that they still needed cash for thinners, sandpaper and sand.

Recognising there was the faintest possibility that these two might just turn up again while I was out, I left the gate unlocked and headed off to what we here call the ‘Cantina do Terceira Rua’.

The Third Street Canteen, our village’s humble answer to Sainsbury’s, is run by Sr Cesar, a very affable man about the same age as me. Having expended his life’s savings to acquire a plot here, he lacked the funds to build a house. Undeterred, he erected a block and wriggly tin shack on the street front of his property and stocked it with all the things he thought his more affluent neighbours might need, everything from toilet paper to soap, diary products in coolers powered by a little petrol generator, booze, fags, beer, every type of canned goods, sweets for the kids, fresh vegetables. Even cotton buds and sticking plasters decorated with Mickey Mouse cartoon characters, the latter also a hit with the younger and more accident prone generation. His bread, delivered to him twice a day from I know not where, is crispy and delicious and even though it must have been handled by dozens of people, those that made it and those that delivered it, he presents it in a beautiful hand made wicker basket covered with a crisp, clean lace cloth and serves it with hands encased in plastic bags. Every week, he divides his takings into that which is required to restock his shop and that which will be used to buy a few more bricks, some sand and cement and slowly, but given Sr Cesar’s determination, inexorably, his house is rising from its foundations and I am happy to be one of his patrons.

It has become a daily routine for me to take the roundabout route necessary to reach his shop, carrying Alexander on my shoulders, the dog gambolling alongside. Much to my embarrassment, and to Marcia’s annoyance fearing as she does for Alex’s teeth, Sr Cesar always slips a few free lollipops or chocolate éclairs into the shopping bag for the boy.

With only the dog for company this time, I would nip round to Sr Cesar’s and buy all I needed to make a monster chilli.

I always go back a different way. Covering the same ground is boring and going back the way I usually do takes me past the house of Sr Joao, a man who by dint of hard work and sacrifice managed not only to complete his house, but install a swimming pool as well before an uncompensated industrial accident ended his working career. He makes ends meet by renting his place out for wedding functions to those who cannot afford the ridiculous prices charged by the hotels here, and by brokering the sale of building plots. A veteran of the Angolan civil war, as so many Angolan men of his age are, he is a bloody interesting bloke to talk to and since his place is blessed with a nice tree shaded porch, I often stop there to crack open and with Alex share with him the freshly boiled eggs supplied by Sr Cesar in three little plastic bags, one for the eggs, one for salt and the last for the fiery hot pepper sauce they call Gindungo, while swapping a few war stories as old soldiers, to the intense boredom of those who have never served, often do.

Penniless now but armed with all the sustenance I would need for the next few days carried in two plastic carrier bags, I headed off with renewed spirit from Sr Cesar’s towards Sr Joao's place. At the bottom of the road is a bit of a valley, a depression down which all the surface water of the last rainy season has, all the building work leaving it no other place to drain, eroded a gully that effectively cuts one side of the suburb off from the other to motor traffic.

Today I came across the sight of a mini bus, its over ambitious driver no doubt having sought to avoid extra kilometres, beached across the divide.

Its passengers sat disconsolately under the shade of a nearby tree, offering no assistance to the unfortunate and in their eyes, culpable driver who, drenched in sweat and armed with a hub cap, was trying to dig the opposite bank down enough to afford an exit for his vehicle. My faith in humanity having been restored by my visit to Sr Cesar’s and the imminent prospect of a visit to Sr Joao, this time undisturbed by the need to prevent Alex the Bandit from throwing rocks into his pool, I decided to lend a hand.

I felt for this guy in the same way I respect Sr Cesar and Sr Joao. Here was a man trying to make an honest living. Running a taxi is a marginal and thankless task by any standard. Every hour he struggled in that ditch was costing him money and I well understood how the loss of even a bit of income could bust a man's cash flow and pitch him into the far deeper chasm of unremitting poverty. Just like me, and my Dad before me, I bet he was willing to do anything to avoid watching his kids starve, even if that meant clawing at sunbaked soil with his bare hands.

His passengers, rather than lend a hand, had clearly decided that the payment of their ten cent taxi fare absolved them of any obligation to get dirty in extremis. There were enough of them to lift the mini bus shoulder high and carry it up the bank yet they were content to spend the rest of the day in the shade of a tree watching one man labour mightily on their behalf.

I dug a bit with him and then helped him collect some rocks to give traction to the driving wheels. Several times he tried, engine revving, tyres smoking while I pushed and after each failed attempt we dug some more, collected and positioned more rocks before finally, with a stinking clutch, the vehicle popped over the ridge and was free.

As one, the passengers jumped into the bus.

'Keep going! Don't stop!' I yelled as the wheels scrabbled for grip.

The driver looked back at me and mouthed ‘Obrigado’ as I waved him on.

I was caked in dirt, really sweaty but I felt good.

Then, as the dust settled around me, I realised that some bastard had nicked my shopping.