Tuesday 24th September
There were a few worse places to be in the world than outside warehouse 2 in Cotonou Port, but I couldn't think of them. Moses and I were on our haunches in 105 degrees and-it felt like-200 per cent humidity. I was losing weight and patience.
Berthed on number 2 quay, in air crinkled by the heat from the baked concrete, was the Naoki Maru. It was a 14,000-tonner dry cargo ship with a rust problem and an Oriental crew who leaned on their elbows at the ship's rail, waiting. Waiting to discharge my client's 7000 tons of parboiled rice from Thailand which was going to be sold to Madame Severnou, who I was waiting for to come and give me the money. Above us, on the roof, a couple of vultures were waiting for someone to make a mistake crossing the road. A driverless fork lift stood outside warehouse 3 with a pallet of cashew nut sacks a metre off the ground waiting to put them down. I could see the driver, waiting and doing some sleeping on some sheanut sacks in the warehouse. We were all waiting. This is Africa where everybody has mastered the art of waiting. Waiting and sweating.
The sweat was tickling my scalp as it dripped down the back of my head. I could feel it coursing down my neck, weaving through my chest hair, dribbling down my thickening stomach and soaking into the waistband of my khaki trousers so I knew I'd have a rash there for a week. I wasn't even moving. The dark patches under my arms were moving more than I was. I looked down at my hands. The sweat hung in beads off my forearms and dripped down my knuckles and in between my fingers. Christ, even my nails were sweating. I looked at Moses. He wasn't sweating at all. His black skin shone like a pair of good shoes.
'Why you no sweat, Moses?'
'I no with a woman, Mister Bruce.'
'You do sweat then?'
'Oh yes please, sir.'
I had a newspaper in my hand called the Benin Soir which always came out the morning after the 'soir' looking unshaved, hungover and ready for nothing. I opened it and scanned the pages. There was nothing but smudged newsprint and black and white photographs of African people on black backgrounds. I tried to get some breeze from turning the pages.
I turned the last page and folded the paper in half. I was going to start fanning my face, which is what most people use the Benin Soir for, when I saw an almost readable item in the bottom left-hand corner with the heading: Tourist Dead. Cotonou had never had tourists and now the first one had died.
The article told me that a girl called Françoise Perec, a French textile designer, had been found dead in an apartment in Cotonou. There was a paragraph that finished with the word sexuel which I couldn't read at all and I didn't need to. A police spokesman said that it looked like a sex session that had gone too far. I wondered how a policeman could tell that from a dead body. Is there such a thing as an ecstatic rictus? A drop of my sweat hit the page. I folded the newspaper and used the Benin Soir how it was meant to be used.
I was beginning to gag on the smell of hot sacks, stored grain and crushed sheanut when a pye-dog strayed out of the warehouse shade. It wasn't the healthiest pye-dog I'd ever seen. It definitely wasn't anybody's pet dog. It had the shakes. I could count its toast rack ribs and it needed a rug job. Its nose hoovered the ground. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the crewmen leave the ship's rail. The pye-dog moved in tangents. It stopped, clocked round a spot as if its nose was glued to it and then moved on. The crewman bounced down the gangway. There was a flash of light from his hand. He was carrying a cleaver.
Moses had pushed up his sunglasses and was frowning at the way things were developing. Inevitability was in the air. The pye-dog, its diseased hindquarters shaking, the crewman, his stainless steel cleaver glinting, closed on each other. The sun was high. There were no shadows. The instant before they met, the dog looked up, aware of something. The survival instinct wasn't operating too well inside that pye-dog. He looked right. The crewman came from the left and took the dog's head clean off with a single blow.
There was no sound. The dog's fallen body twitched with brainless nerves. The crewman picked up the dog's head and held it trophy high. The men at the rail burst into cheering and clapping. Moses threw off his Mr Kool act and was up on his feet, eyes rolling in horror, and pointing.
'Must have been a Chinese,' I said, before Moses could get anything out.
'Why he kill the dog?' asked Moses.
'He eat him?' Moses was shocked.
'You eat rat. He eat dog,' I said, trying to balance the horror of foreign cuisine.
'Dog eat dog,' said Moses, laughing at his own joke, '...and I no eat rat. I eat bush rat and he no rat rat.'
'I see,' I said, nodding.
The crewman put the dog's head down and picked up the body which he tucked under his arm. The legs still twitched in memory of birds chased and rubbish investigated. He bent down again and picked up the head by an ear. He walked back to the ship. The dog's tongue lolled out of the side of its mouth. Its wall eyes bulged out. A dark patch remained on the concrete of number 2 quay.
'He go eat him!' Moses confirmed to himself as if it were a fair thing to do.
'Hot dog,' I said without smiling, knowing that Moses would roar with laughter, which he did. My best lines fall on deaf ears, my worst are a triumph. I think I satisfy his anticipation.
'Here we go,' I said, standing up.
Moses turned and saw the group of hadjis heading our way. Al hadji is the title given to a Muslim who has been to Mecca. Before air travel it must have been a big deal to have been a West African hadji. Now they charter planes and a grand will do the job. These boys have got money and Allah on their side and a long line in horseshit.
They looked quite something, for a bunch of businessmen, dressed in their floor-length robes, their black skins against the light blue, green, burgundy and yellow cloth, their heads bobbing underneath multi-coloured cylindrical hats. In another world they could have been showing a summer collection. Here they meant business. They were going to hassle me for the rice which wasn't mine to be hassled for. I reached for my cigarettes. They weren't there. I gave up last year. That's why I put on the weight. It all came back.
I heard an expensive engine. A grey Mercedes with tinted windows stopped with a squeak in between me and the hadjis. An electric motor lowered the window. The hadjis huddled together so that the car's occupant must have seen seven sweaty faces pressed into the frame of the window. One of them took out a hanky and wiped his brow.
Some African words came from the back seat of the car. The words sounded like they could move some sheep around. They had the hadjis rearing back. The group moved as one, turning and walking back to the port entrance. The window buzzed back up. One of the hadjis fell back to get a stone out of his Gucci loafers.
The Mercedes swung round to where Moses and I were standing. The driver, anthracite black, was out of the car almost before it had stopped. He opened the rear door and looked as if he might drop to one knee.
I got a short blast of air-conditioned cool and with it came Madame Severnou. All five foot of her and another nine inches of sculpted deep green satin which sat on her head but could just as easily have made it to a plinth in the Uffizi. At six foot four I could put a crick in her neck, but as Madame Severnou knew, size wasn't anything.
'Bruce Medway,' she said, as if tungsten would melt in her mouth. She held out a small coffee-coloured hand encrusted with gold rings and jewels.
'Madame Severnou,' ...