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Day twenty-five – Boo!

November 25, 2017

Although the audience for opening night of the panto was disappointingly small, the show went well. Nasty Lady Nipscrew (me) got even more boos than the villain Garth Invader. Quite satisfying, really.

Two hours before I have to leave for the first of today’s two shows and there’s a cake for the wrap party tomorrow in the oven. So another novel, started a couple of years ago that didn’t get past Chapter One. (And even Chapter One isn’t finished.)

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CHAPTER ONE

THE GENERAL remained seated behind his desk as the man and his entourage entered and crossed the room. The man’s hair was silver, his suit was silver, his tie was silver. The man’s name should be Silver, the general thought – especially as they were here to discuss silver, amongst other things. The suit must be silk. Linen would be more rumpled and any other fabric would not allow the man to look so cool. He would be sweating soon enough.

The man, whose name was not Silver, reached the desk and held out his hand. “Frederick Lawrence,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you, General.” The General waited just long enough before standing up to shake hands across the desk with the silver man.

“I thought the President would be here,” Lawrence said. He was an important man. He did not travel thousands of miles to meet underlings – no matter how many stars the general in question might have. Not that the General had stars. What he had was far more important.

“Alas, no, Mr Lawrence,” the General said, resuming his seat and indicating that Lawrence should take the seat on the other side of the desk. “For reasons you will no doubt appreciate, it would not be appropriate for the President to be here today.” Lawrence sat and his entourage looked around for chairs, but there were no others. The General had ordered their removal before the meeting. “I am afraid,” the General said, “that I must insist on total confidentiality for this meeting, Mr Lawrence. I must ask your colleagues to wait outside. I hope you understand.”

Lawrence looked at the General for a moment, then sighed. The General could see the thought going through the man’s mind: Here comes the shakedown. Lawrence looked over his shoulder at his entourage and waved them out of the room. As they departed, a pretty young woman arrived, bearing a tray.

“Excellent,” said the General. “Earl Grey tea and Piccadilly biscuits from Fortnum and Mason. I believe these are your personal favourites?”

Lawrence nodded. “You’ve done your homework, General.”

The General smiled. “I have indeed, Mr Lawrence.”

The young woman poured the tea and offered biscuits to both men, before asking if the General would like anything else. “Thank you, Amina, no,” he said. “Please just close the door.”

Alone in the room, the two men sipped their tea and each ate a biscuit.

“You are a busy man, Mr Lawrence,” the General said.

Lawrence was indeed a busy man, unaccustomed to travelling to places he considered the back of beyond to negotiate with tin pot dictators – and he hadn’t even got the dictator. Of course, he said none of this, simply nodded.

The General smiled again. “Then I shall not waste your time.” He reached for another biscuit. “Exactly how much is your company prepared to pay the President for the mineral rights?”

Lawrence, as the General knew he would, pretended to misunderstand. Reaching for his briefcase, Lawrence said, “General, I am sure you are familiar with the bid we have submitted. Not only are we offering generous royalties on the minerals, but we have also guaranteed many benefits to nearby communities, including employment and assistance with both education and sanitation.”

The General waved away the proffered document. “Come, come, Mr Lawrence, I am also a busy man, so let us not waste any more of each other’s time. My office is not bugged. This is a private conversation. We may speak freely. So let us, as you say, cut to the chase. The President has been offered a very large bribe – quite openly – by a Chinese consortium. The President is inclined to give the rights to these people.  The Chinese will bring in their own workers, so there will be no conceivable benefit to local communities. The only thing the local communities will have is continued – and now heavily polluted – poverty. The President does not much care about these things, but I do. I do not mind the President lining his pockets. Why would he not? But there must be some benefit to the local communities. So, I ask you again, how much are you prepared to pay the President for the mineral rights?”

There was a long silence, during which the General topped up their teacups and helped himself to another biscuit. Finally Lawrence spoke. “Wouldn’t this be simpler if you just told me how much the Chinese are offering?”

You are mine now, the General thought. “Two hundred million American dollars.”

Lawrence did not blink. After another lengthy pause he said, “Two hundred and fifty.”

The General smiled. “Two hundred and fifty million?” On the other side of the desk, Lawrence nodded, as if it went without saying. But the General wanted it said. “Yours is a British company, Mr Lawrence. I think perhaps to save your accountants the trouble of converting currency, we should say two hundred and fifty million pounds.”

Lawrence squinted at the general for a moment, then nodded again. The General waited, sipped his tea. Eventually he said, “Two hundred and fifty million pounds. Yes, fine.”

The General beamed at him. He put down his teacup and held his hand across the desk. After some hesitation, Lawrence leaned forward to shake hands.

“It is, after all,” the General said, “the price of doing business in Africa, is it not, Mr Lawrence?” Lawrence nodded. “Think how much money this will make for your company.”

Lawrence peered into the box of Fortnum and Mason biscuits, chose one. “So,” he said, leaning back in his chair and attempting to wrest control of the meeting, “how does this work, General? A Swiss bank account? Or do I bring you a suitcase full of unmarked notes?”

“You have not done this before?” the General asked, smiling.

“Not personally,” Lawrence said.

“Well, Mr Lawrence, the first thing you must do is identify two people in your company,” the General told him. “One of them will come back next week to meet the President. During this meeting a contract will be signed between your company and the President, agreeing to pay the President a negotiating fee of ten million pounds, followed by a consultancy fee of ten million pounds every month for twenty-four months. Your envoy will make whatever arrangements the President wishes for the first installment. I suggest you choose for your envoy someone in the company whom you do not like. Or perhaps it would be best to select an old and loyal employee who is close to retirement age.”

Lawrence shifted in his chair. “I don’t understand,” he said.

“Of course you don’t,” the General told him with a smile. “But in a few minutes you will. This first man is, as I believe it is called, the patsy. He will do what is required of him, return to London and file the contract in an appropriate location. The first installment will be paid to the President’s specifications. That is when the second man – or woman – will discover the contract, with all its implications of bribery. He – or she – will bring this matter to your attention and you will be shocked and outraged. This blatant example of corruption is abhorrent to you – and everything your company stands for. Where some executives might sweep this incident under the carpet, reward and then ignore the whistleblower, you, Mr Lawrence, are not that type of man. You will sack this renegade employee and go public with the scandal.”

Lawrence stared at the General. “I still don’t understand.”

“Patience, Mr Lawrence.” The general opened a folder on his desk, removed a piece of paper and held it out to Lawrence. “You will contact this journalist.”

Lawrence reluctantly took the piece of paper, glanced at the name, looked at the General. “Why on earth would I contact her, of all people?” he asked.

“For all the reasons rushing through your mind,” the General told him. “It will make you look honest.” Lawrence placed the piece of paper back on the desk, saying nothing. He leaned back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest.

Once again the General smiled. “Relax, Mr Lawrence. I am going to make you a hero. When the story breaks, the President will be forced to flee. He will have your ten million pounds – and the other many hundreds of millions of pounds he has stolen from the people over the years. I will be forced – reluctantly, of course – to step into his place. And your secret will be safe with me.”

Lawrence took a moment to process this information and then he sighed. “So, you stage a military coup and we start paying you instead?”

The General laughed, a deep, booming laugh. “On the contrary, my dear Mr Lawrence. You will honour the dishonourable contract signed by your traitorous employee. In fact, you will be so appalled, you will double it, but you will not pay me.”

Lawrence frowned. “Double it. I see,” he said with another, deeper sigh.

“Mr Lawrence,” the General said, leaning back in his chair, completely relaxed, “this country needs education. It needs health care. It needs access to clean water and sanitation. It needs orphanages. It needs employment for surly young men who use what little money they have on alcohol and prostitutes, then go home and infect their wives, creating even more orphans.”

Lawrence listened and then nodded. “I see,” he said. “And I do understand. That is why, if you look at our proposal, you will see that schools and health care and other benefits for the local community are already included. In fact – ”

Whatever he was about to say was cut off by a bark of laughter from the General. “Oh, please, Mr Lawrence, do not insult me. Yes, you will build a school and a health centre, just as you have done here before and in many other countries.. They might even have a roof on them. You or someone from your corporate social responsibility department will come and have a photo taken with smiling villagers and you will publish the photo in your newsletter and in your annual report. And you and your stockholders will pat yourselves on the back for your beneficence.”

The General paused to open another folder on his desk, from which he extracted the company’s  annual reports for the past five years, each report turned to a page featuring a photo of Lawrence or the head of CSR posing in front of a school or clinic, surrounded by smiling children. The General laid these out on his desk, facing Lawrence. On top of four of these glossy images the General placed grainy photos of the same buildings, now crumbling and decayed.

“This school,” the General said, pointing to the photo in which Lawrence appeared, “has no desks, no books and no teachers.” He pointed in turn to two other photos. “Nor does this one or this one.” He then pointed to the fourth photo. “This clinic has no beds, no medicine and no doctors.” He pointed to the final photo. “Nor does this one. Do you think that this is right and proper?” Lawrence began to speak, but the General held up a silencing hand. “No, Mr Lawrence, it is not right.” The General’s fist pounded his desk. “We will  have schools and clinics and water and sanitation!” he yelled. Then he pointed a finger at Lawrence and said, his voice now barely a whisper. “And you will provide them. You want our minerals? That is the price you will pay.”

Lawrence was silent for several seconds, considering what to say next. “I understand your frustration, General,” he began.

“No, Mr Lawrence, you do not,” the General interrupted. “The only way you could possibly understand would be if Britain had been conquered and was still ruled by the Third Reich. Your country has not been invaded for a thousand years. Your people have not been robbed, cheated and enslaved, stripped of their dignity for hundreds of years. Your people have divided themselves sensibly into their various ethnic groups – the English, the Scots and the Welsh. They have not had their lands arbitrarily carved up by master races hell-bent on plunder and profit, with no thought given to centuries of tradition and culture. So do not sit there, Mr Lawrence, and try to tell me you understand my frustration.”

Lawrence had the decency to look somewhat abashed. He also clearly had no idea what to say next.

The General pressed an intercom button on his desk. “It is time for the whiskey,” he said. A moment later the same young woman entered the room, this time bearing a tray containing a bottle and two glasses. She placed the tray on the desk, collected the tea things onto their tray and turned to depart. “Thank you, Amina,” the General said as she reached the door. She turned her head to smile at him and then exited without saying a word. The General smiled at Lawrence. “I believe Talisker is your favourite?” he said, pouring generous measure into both glasses. Lawrence simply nodded, as he reached for his glass.

“Understand, Mr Lawrence,” the General said. “I am the product of your arbitrary borders. My grandfather was a trader who found a bride from another tribe on his travels. My father, who followed his father into business, married an Aruba woman, met in his own travels. And my wife is also the product of an inter-tribal marriage. We are mongrels, both disowned and embraced by many tribes. Would my forefathers have travelled to trade with these communities if the Europeans had not cast them together in a previously non-existent and unfathomable country? Perhaps, but I think it is unlikely. And then we would not be here, drinking this excellent single malt, would we?”

The abrupt change from lecturing to conviviality was having the desired effect on Lawrence. The man, unable to fathom which facial expression to adopt, took a slow sip of whiskey. He nodded his appreciation. Eventually he said, “I am aware of the President’s ancestry and strong tribal allegiance. It is a testament to your talents and perseverance that you have achieved such a trusted an elevated position in this country.”

“No, Mr Lawrence,” the General said. “It is a testament to how merciless I can be. I think you would do well to remember that.”

Lawrence’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down in his throat.  The General smiled. There was another long silence. Lawrence took a fairly large swig of whiskey, composing himself before saying, “What exactly is it that you are proposing, General?”

[NEED TO FILL IN DETAILS]

“Forgive me, General, but I need to ask,” Lawrence said. “Hypothetically speaking, what is to prevent me, as soon as I am back in London, from contacting the President to inform him of your plot.”

The General smiled. “Hypothetically speaking, nothing at all, Mr Lawrence. I would be surprised if the thought did not cross your mind. It would halve your costs and increase your profits. What is an enhanced reputation and a knighthood compared to that? No doubt the knighthood will come in its own time without all these good deeds.” This was clearly not the response Lawrence expected.

“Let me be clear, Mr Lawrence,” the General continued. “The President will leave office soon. He and his family can leave with your ten million pounds and the rest. They can live out their lives in a villa in whichever country will take them. Or he and his family can be butchered in a bloody coup. I would prefer the first, more civilised option, but either way the President will be gone and the only question remaining will be who is awarded access to the country’s minerals.”

“I see,” said Lawrence.

“No, Mr Lawrence, I do not think you do see.” The General reopened the first folder, drew out a sheet of paper and handed it to Lawrence. “This is a list of bribes – yes, let us call them what they are – bribes paid by your company in the past to the President, along with proven or suspected bribes paid to leaders in many other African countries.”

Lawrence took the list, examined it for a minute, then handed it back to the General. “I don’t see my name, because I know nothing about this. I will be shocked and outraged if this information came to light.”

“Yes, of course, Mr Lawrence,” the General said, his smile broadening. “I would expect nothing else. The company would be embarrassed, but it would survive, no doubt with you still at the helm. And I hope that will be a comfort to you when your beautiful wife Dianne, your lovely daughter Stephanie and your son Michael are dead. Because, like the President’s family, they would die. Perhaps together, perhaps one at a time. Who knows? Which would be most merciless, do you think, Mr Lawrence?”

Lawrence’s silver eyes widened, his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down again. He took a moment to clear his throat, then said, “We were only speaking hypothetically.”

The General’s laughter filled the room. “Of course we were, Mr Lawrence!” He stood up, extended his hand across the desk. “I look forward to calling you Sir Frederick very, very soon.”

* * *

In the outer office, Frederick Lawrence’s entourage leapt to their feet the moment the moment the General’s door opened. Lawrence appeared and moved quickly towards the exit. Hurrying to keep up with him, Nigel, his personal assistant said, “That was a long meeting, sir.”

Lawrence glared at him. “Get me out of this fucking country,” he said.

“Yes, of course, Mr Lawrence.”

Lawrence smiled to himself. Sir Frederick, he thought. Lawrence of Africa.

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