FathomOnline

 

 Fathom 1991

Cover

 

Inside Cover

 

Poetry

R.A. Killawee
Gina M. Beaton (2)
Kathlyn Schweyer
M. Littlejohn
Martin Wanless
Thane K. Sherrington (2)
Edward W. N. Meers (2)
Roz
Gwynedd Morgan
Shannon Webb (2)
Anton (3)
John D. Boutilier (2)

Prose

Katie Bowden
Urs Frei
Derrick Higginbotham

[PDF]

Urs Frei

 

 

The Godsend

     Inside the one-room terminal the heat was intolerable. An air conditioner resting in a window licked at the pavement outside with a tongue of rust, while its blackened vents inside made one surmise an ancient internal rupture. The attendant was a black man in grey dungarees, small and hard, as If he had been kiln-dried in the line of duty. He seemed oblivious to the heat, and confirmed placidly that the air conditioner was out of order. Fortunately noon was still an hour away, and on the west side, the runway side of the terminal, was a strip of shade wide enough to wait in. Half an hour later, when it had shrunk by half, the attendant came out to confirm that the plane would be late, and at that moment Arthur Nkobe savoured the unusual clarity and certainty of his premonition that everything would become much worse before the day ended. This would only be in keeping, after all, with the general deterioration of things since his arrival from Khartoum two weeks ago to administer drought relief in the southern Sudan. He had found awaiting him in Juba a suite of air-conditioned offices, a well-prepared staff--but no supplies. The French, British, and Americans had promised aid, but the French supplies had never left Paris, the British supplies were lost among shipments to Ethiopia and the Sahel, and now the Americans, instead of aid, were sending their own administrator to decide how it should be distributed.
     He was affected strangely by the heat. Several times already he had been sure that he could see the plane; twice he had turned to his assistant, Cecil Deng, to point it out, only to find when he turned back it had disappeared. He was so affected that he felt no embarrassment, since how could one be embarrassed when even the hills seemed to have shrunk in prostration from heat and thirst? And still now and then he felt a wave of irritation. But Cecil, divining his superior’s mood, looked alert and innocent.
     Across a distance of several yards were six Dinka chieftains. “What are they saying?” Arthur Nkobe asked. Cecil looked at him as if such a question could not possibly be meant to be answered. He shrugged faintly and said in a voice that implied a question: “Their festivals....”
     Cecil had been born a Dinka but moved north when he was a child. His name was originally Kirr Jal, and he could be distinguished from the chieftains only because his business suit happened to fit. Arthur Nkobe could not decide whether Cecil’s unease in their presence meant fear or contempt, or something of both. Certainly he had been taken aback to find that for this meeting with the representative of America the Dinka had decided to wear suits almost identical to his own. Perhaps they embarrassed him; but to Arthur, the tall slender chieftains with their prominent bones managed, in their innocence, in spite of the sleeves that came halfway up their forearms and pants halfway up their calves, not to look ridiculous. But he did not understand why, with their people so near starvation, they had made the effort to be here. Cecil Deng, whose job it was to interpret such things but who scarcely remembered his mother tongue, did not understand it either.
     After all his anticipations the plane appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the sky, and in a minute landed on the runway in a roar and a cloud of heat, stopping a hundred feet away. A door opened near the front and two black men struggled with a ladder which they hooked onto the doorframe. The ladder swayed as they came down one-handed, carrying luggage in their free hands, and at the bottom they made adjustments to fix it to the tarmac. Then the American, a white man, appeared in the door. Arthur Nkobe thought he was seeing two men, and realized his mistake when he heard Cecil Dang snort with laughter or astonishment. The American was already suffering visibly from the heat and seemed reluctant to go down. Then he turned and slowly descended, and Arthur Nkobe held his breath until he had reached the bottom, though surely the sagging of the plane from his weight was an illusion also. The American went under the wing to the nearest shadow, panted, and mopped his forehead. A brief discussion took place between him and the luggage carriers, the meaning of which was plain: he utterly refused to leave the shade. The carriers considered their work done and looked toward the terminal for a solution to the problem.
     But what happened then was expected by no one. The Dinka began to run to the plane, and when they reached it one of them took off his jacket, and all six held it up as a screen for the American to walk under. He seemed not to understand at first what they expected, then allowed himself to be escorted in a stately, comical procession across the runway. Arthur Nkobe saw his own astonishment reflected on his assistant’s face. At the terminal door the American shook their hands.
     “David Johnson,” he said. “Call me Dave. Now please, get me out of this damn heat, will you?”

     In the restaurant of the European hotel all three air conditioners were turned to full. The noise of their straining made conversations at other tables inaudible and gave an air of imminent disaster to the normally placid interior, with its panelled walls, Parisian lampshades, and photographs of the contemporary European monarchy. Arthur Nkobe and Cecil Deng waited at one of the tables for David Johnson to finish washing. They discussed the Dinka languidly without really broaching the question still puzzling both of them.
     The American had changed into loose white cottons which slightly disguised his corpulence, and sat down with a sigh. He was astonishingly, almost pitifully, ugly. Whatever expressiveness his face might have had was lost in fat, and the shape of his mouth reminded Arthur of the head of a fish that he had once been served in a hotel on the Red Sea. His eyes, in contrast to those of the fish, were almost invisible. He wore a gold ring embedded with diamonds, and so embedded in flesh that the very idea of trying to remove it was unpleasant. His voice was smaller than himself and seemed condemned to eternal complaint.
     “Another one of those damn places where you can’t get a proper shower,” he said.
     “Water rationing,” Arthur Nkobe said. “We’re-”
     “Oh please. Don’t tell me it’s different any other season. Where did you go to school, Oxford or someplace?”
     “London.”
     “For some reason all you people go to Oxford or Harvard or somewhere like that. Oh God, am I hungry! Service,” he called, turning as far as he could. “Where’d that waiter go?”
     As they awaited his meal the American recounted the horrors of his journey: six hours delay in Cairo, the incompetence of baggage handlers in Khartoum, a plane that should have become scrap iron twenty years ago. He was served a whole chicken and two plates of vegetables, and while he ate, nimbly dissecting the chicken, he did not speak; he seemed to have forgotten that he was in company and to be unconscious of being watched. Whenever he looked up Arthur Nkobe would gaze pointedly at his watch, but the American seemed not even to see him, but to be gazing within and savouring the happy unison of his internal organs. At length, when he had eaten everything, he covered his mouth to belch and said:
     “Those six men --those chieftains-- do they always do that sort of thing? With the jacket, I mean.”
     “No.”
     “Now I don’t mean to seem suspicious, you understand, but did you put them up to it?”
     Arthur Nkobe smiled wryly, “That would have been rather difficult.”
     Johnson nodded and picked at his teeth. “I want to meet with them this afternoon.”
     “I’m sorry, I thought you knew. They’ve already gone home.”
     “I see.” Johnson stared at him without expression, and Arthur Nkobe discovered, somewhat to his discomfort, that he had no idea what the other was thinking. “Now I don’t like to throw my weight around,” the American continued, so clearly without humour that Arthur strangled his impulse to laugh, “but I think I should make clear that I’ve been given full authority over the distribution of American aid. So --he sighed-- if things don’t go the way I say, there won’t be any. I also have to tell you that over in America there’s a new philosophy concerning foreign aid, and that is: help people until they can help themselves. Now I happen to know that you’ve got quite a little piece of swamp here, which I guess isn’t any use to you or anybody else, and I happen to represent some investors who’d like to see a little tobacco come out of that swamp. Do you follow me? You’ve already got a canal half built to drain that thing, what’s it called...”
     “The Jonglei.”
     “Jonglei canal. It’s a disgrace.” Arthur Nkobe was surprised to hear the American expressing his own feelings, but not slow to realize that the disgrace Johnson meant was that it had never been finished, not that it had ever been undertaken. “As I understand, you have the single biggest machine in the world sitting there rusting away: He shook his head, and the way in which his lips came together conveyed profound sorrow. “Our plan is to feed your natives, put them to work, and put that machine to use. The aid is the first step, but we aim to see that they never starve again.”
     “By turning them into good American niggers?” said Arthur Nkobe mildly.
     The American narrowed his eyes slightly and pursed his lips. Then he looked away and brusquely changed the subject.
     “I’ll need an air-conditioned jeep for four days starting tomorrow. I’ll also need a translator. I plan to tour the canal site and visit a few of the tribes.”
     “You should not,” said Cecil Deng suddenly, looking at Arthur with what seemed to be both confusion and an appeal. “They might not—with outsiders—”
     He stopped, and the American pursed his lips again, this time in an unmistakable expression of contempt.
     “I think it would not be a very good idea for you to visit them now,” said Arthur Nkobe softly, feeling that it was futile but that he had to say this much at least.
     “They’ve never held a suit jacket over you, have they?” asked the American, rising from the table. Arthur Nkobe shrugged.

     The next day was filled with work. He let Johnson have Cecil Deng as his guide and translator, and after seeing them off in the morning, Arthur Nkobe returned to his office and applied himself to a mound of neglected paper. There were letters and telegrams from London, Paris, Khartoum and Addis Ababa which required tactful yet pointed replies. This took the whole morning, for he could manage well enough in English but was terrified of even attempting it in French; on top of this someone had mislaid the French dictionary. At lunch he met for two hours with representatives of the Red Cross, who smiled sympathetically at his description of Johnson. He wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon composing letters to New York and Tokyo, but found himself distracted by a thought which after the meeting had begun more and more to impose itself upon him: that the American and Cecil should not have gone without him. Repeatedly, he made the same arguments, managed to sooth his conscience with the same extremely valid excuses. But in the middle of the afternoon and a letter to the Japanese foreign ministry, he stopped working and began to pace behind his desk.
     At least I should have tried harder to change his mind, he thought -even though it would have done no good, he added to himself, ahead of the voice of his reason. And slowly he began to realize that what distressed him was behind that voice was hiding another, obscure and secret, the result of which was that he had not wanted to go or wanted to change Johnson’s mind.
     But eight hours had passed since they had left, and evening was approaching. The nearest tribe was a hundred miles away, and although there were two other Jeeps, Cecil Deng was the only man he could trust to guide him at night. Nothing could be done until morning. He thought briefly of asking the Red Cross to send a helicopter, but wouldn’t they think his reasons were absurd? And what if they were right?
     But he could not reassure himself. He had no appetite that evening and later, in his hotel room, could not sleep. After midnight, while it was still some distance away, he recognized the roar of the Jeep, fell as if he had been awaiting it the whole time, sprang out of bed and reached the lobby before it had pulled up to the hotel. Cecil Deng was alone. They met on the front steps and in the dim light he tried to interpret Cecil’s expression—he had never seen one like it on his face. Cecil held a large glittering ring. He held it with his thumb and forefinger, and his hand was trembling.
     “They would not let me into the feast,” he said, “but they said to keep this.” He made a strangling sound and seemed to catch his breath. “Mr. Johnson was very surprised.”
     Arthur Nkobe stared. Cecil’s face was contorted with repressed laughter, and to his surprise, and although he managed to show nothing and make no sound, he found himself struggling against the same impulse rising in himself.

 

last updated August 17, 2007 | © 2007 Fathom Publishing
poetry, prose, and artwork © individual authours | website created by Alana Paul