“How did security let you in here with that?” Jahni glanced down at the swagger stick Madari carried.
“Kahil, I’m a loyal officer and a trusted advisor to his majesty. Palace security would have no reason to suspect me of any ill-intent.”
“You took the blade out, didn’t you?”
Madari smiled. “Yes. I didn’t want there to be any kind of dispute to mar the colonel’s ceremony.”
They both looked over at Rahama, standing talking to the King, a newly bestowed decoration gleaming on his chest.
“The Order of Murtaza,” Jahni said. He left a long pause then added, “Most often given on retirement.”
“Not always,” Madari said.
“Or close to.”
It was true. The order was a long service decoration given to those who had devoted their whole career to the service. Even Ahmed had received his just before he finally retired from the Army. Some people said it had been the only way to drop a heavy enough hint that it might be time for him to consider retirement.
Not that Rahama would really retire yet, Madari knew that. Retire from the command of the Royal Guard, perhaps. But even if he didn’t then take up a position at the Defence Ministry, or accept a Generalship, he would still be acting as an unofficial advisor to the King.
Looking around the palace reception room, thronged with senior officers from the Royal Guard, other regiments and the Defence Ministry, Madari suspected they were all discussing the same thing. When would Rahama retire? And who would replace him? Did they glance at Madari when they wondered that? It was his ambition, but so far stated only to Jahni. Rahama must know – he missed nothing. But so must everyone else. After the way Madari took charge when Rahama was injured, his ambition must be clear to all now.
But despite this ambition, he worried at the idea it might happen soon. Was he ready? And was Jahni ready to take on command of the Special Forces unit?
“So do you think he’ll…” Jahni began, but stopped as Rahama himself approached. He shared a long handshake with Madari, and then embraced him.
“Ah, Faris. It seems such a short time ago I watched Ahmed accept his Order. I hope to be around to see you collect yours.” Turning to Jahni, he smiled. “But, my young friend, I would be blessed indeed if I’m able to see you collect yours.”
“I hope you are, sir,” Jahni said, bowing his head, with a hand on his heart. “Congratulations, Colonel.”
“Thank you. Both of you. Now, you are going to come to my party on Saturday?”
“Yes of course,” Madari said.
“Your guests will be here by then, yes?”
“Yes,” Madari said, smiling at the thought of seeing Clive Drummond, Eshe Abasi and especially little Kibibi. They were heading to England and Clive had suggested they stop for a visit. Of course Madari had been delighted.
“Then, please, bring them along. It’s all quite informal, everyone is bringing their families, so feel free to bring the child. And please, no dress uniforms. The regimental dinner will be quite formal enough.” He looked serious for a moment. “You might think that strange, gentlemen, but this party is not to honour me and my service. It’s to honour my family who have supported me throughout that service.”
He smiled, breaking the solemn air that followed his speech.
“I will see you there.” He glanced around. “And now I’d better go and talk to someone else before people start to assume I’m handing you the key to my office.” He left with a wink that startled Madari.
Jahni stared after him. “Ah, that was quite a broad hint.”
“No,” Madari said. “He was only referring to the assumptions other people might make. He’s not saying that he will be giving me that key one day.”
“You seem determined to talk yourself out of that office.”
“Not at all. You know my ambitions. But it’s wrong to make assumptions. The security situation is serious and Rahama is one of the King’s right hand men. To retire now might be bad timing.”
“So I shouldn’t start picking out the colour I want to repaint your office quite yet?” His smile matched his teasing tone and Madari gave him a half-hearted frown, but he enjoyed the smile.
Madari’s guests arrived the following morning. He waited at Arrivals, thinking it was taking a long time for them to come through customs and baggage claim, when he saw them, at last. A porter followed the party, pushing a luggage trolley which towered with trunks and cases.
Drummond, Eshe and, clinging to Eshe’s hand, Kibibi, walked out of International Arrivals. Seeing Madari, Kibibi at once smiled with delight, let go of Eshe’s hand and ran to him. The intensity of the joy that surged over him at the sight of her surprised Madari. He bent to lift her up when she reached him and threw her arms around him.
“Oh, my dear, you’re getting so tall!” he said, noticing the extra effort it took to lift her now. So strong and healthy, obviously well-cared for. He’d never stop being grateful to Drummond and Eshe for taking her in. And he’d never stop wondering what it would have been like if he’d brought her home, the way Karen so teasingly suggested.
“Faris,” Drummond said, coming up with his hand out. Madari let Kibibi down and shook Drummond’s hand. “Good to see you old chap.” He spoke in English. “Looking better than you were before. Put a bit of weight back on. Good to see. Good to see.”
“And you have lost none,” Madari said to Drummond, who laughed. Bowing his head to Eshe, Madari spoke to her in French. “Madame Abasi, I am honoured to meet you again.” He looked at the trolley the porter stood waiting with. “Ah, you have a lot of luggage. You must be going to stay in England for a long time.”
“Ah, well, you know women,” Drummond said, but then leaned in closer. “Fact is, we’re not going back to Zaire. I’m heading home for good. Retiring. But I’ll fill you in later. Better get to the hotel. The little one’s pretty tired.”
Madari looked down at Kibibi, who was holding his hand. She smiled up at him, but he saw the tiredness in her face. Yes, she needed rest. It was a long journey for such a young child. He picked her up again and said, “Follow me. I have my car.” After another glance at their luggage he added, “Though I think we may need to hire a taxi as well.”
Almost two hours later he left them at the hotel, after helping them check in and have all that luggage taken up to their rooms. He told Drummond to explain later about not going back – for now, he would leave them to rest. They happily accepted the invitation to come to Rahama’s party on Saturday and as he drove away from the hotel, Madari pictured himself there, showing off Kibibi to his friends. Again he thought about how things would have been different if he’d already introduced her to them as his adopted daughter.
Of course, as a visitor, something of a novelty, she would be treated differently than the same child he was proposing to raise as his own. Some people still harboured prejudices. Kibibi might be healthy and well-looked after, and given the essentials of life and much more by Clive and Eshe, but the party would be attended by many wealthy, upper-class people. Apparently the King and his family might even attend. And of course the women and girls would be in their finery, even if it was their more informal finery.
Glancing at the clock on the dashboard, he saw that he had around an hour before he was expected back at barracks. He took the next left and headed for Sophia’s flat.
She had some other guests already. He recognised members of the charity committee and supposed they were having a meeting, so said he wouldn’t stay long. One man he didn’t recognise. A European in his thirties, quite handsome. Was he a new member of the committee? Madari looked at him narrowly, then followed Sophia into the kitchen where she was bringing more tea.
“I don’t really have time to stay,” he said. “I just wanted to ask you for your advice with a fashion problem.”
“I’ve told you that brown is not your colour,” she said, teasing gently. “Stick with dark blues and greens and you can’t go wrong.”
“Not for me,” he said, feeling he was being teased a lot these days, and that he rather liked it. “I told you that Clive Drummond is visiting, with Madame Abasi and little Kibibi? Well, I’ll be taking them with me to Sharif’s party on Saturday and I would like to buy a dress for Kibibi. Something… well, pretty. Whatever is the style at the moment.”
“Ah, and since you know less than nothing about dresses for small girls…”
“I appeal to your always impeccable fashion sense.”
She poured a small glass of tea, and handed it to him. “I think I’d enjoy that, Faris. Going shopping with your money.” She smiled. “In fact, it’s probably best if you don’t come. You’re not the most fun shopping companion.”
“You mean I will insist on looking at the price tags?”
“That’s part of it. I’ll tell you what. I will take Kibibi and Eshe and go shopping. You and Clive wait for us in a cafe or coffee house and we’ll come and join you once we’re done.”
“You really don’t have to go to all that trouble, but if you want to…”
“Of course I want to. I’ve been dying to meet Kibibi. We’ll have a lovely time. Call me later with arrangements.”
“You’re very kind.” He appreciated more than ever that they’d stayed friends. “I’ll let you get on. Is it a committee meeting?”
“Yes. My turn to host.”
“Um, who’s that new member?” He kept his voice carefully neutral. Just making conversation, even sipped his tea with forced nonchalance.
“Or, you mean Richard? He’s a doctor. He’s just joined us, yes. Would you like to be introduced?”
A doctor? Women liked doctors for some reason. Madari fought to keep the frown off his face. A handsome doctor, working closely with her on the charity committee. No doubt giving up his valuable time for the sake of the charity. Madari put his cup down.
“No, thank you. I need to get back to barracks.”
As he drove there he chided himself for those ridiculous feelings of jealousy. It was none of his business anymore. Sophia could see whoever she liked. He had no right to know who she was seeing. If she was.
But… the security situation… she was still a potential target. What if some plausible seeming man tried to get close to her for nefarious reasons? Of course, he could hardly start having all her friends investigated. She certainly wouldn’t be his friend much longer if she got wind of that. Something more informal though.
“Kahil,” Madari said, in what he hoped was a casual tone, as he and Jahni left a briefing later that afternoon, “are you still having those sparring sessions with Miss Black?”
“Yes,” Jahni said. “Every week. You don’t have to worry, Faris. She’s very good. She’ll keep Sophia safe.”
Ah, him bringing up Sophia’s name gave Madari an opening. “She must get to see a lot of Sophia’s social life.”
“Well, you’d know that better than me,” Jahni said, holding open a door for Madari as they arrived back at the unit’s offices.
Yes, he was part of that social life. Perhaps social wasn’t the word he wanted. Personal. Her personal life. The part that was none of his business.
“Come into my office a moment,” he said to Jahni.
He closed the door behind them. The room was dim with the blinds drawn over the windows to keep the sun out. “I was wondering,” he said, waving Jahni to a chair, “if Alex ever mentioned anything about anyone Sophia might be seeing.”
Jahni froze for a second. “Seeing?”
“A man for example,” Madari said, keeping his tone casual. He sat on the edge of his desk.
Jahni frowned and looked at Madari for a long time, his face unreadable in the dimness.
“A man?” he said at last.
“Which of course Sophia has every right to do,” Madari said, quickly. “She’s a free woman. I’m just thinking about her safety.”
“Her safety. Right,” Jahni said, slowly. “No. Alex hasn’t mentioned anyone. I don’t think she would mention it to me.”
“What about if you asked her?”
Jahni stood up and moved more into the light that came through the half-closed blind over the glass in the door. “Is there someone specific you’re worried about?”
“No. I just thought, if she was seeing anyone…”
“You’d like to know about it.”
Madari looked away, bit his lip, feeling a blush rising in his cheeks. He should take heed of that, he knew. If he was blushing with shame at asking this, then he shouldn’t be asking it. But despite that he went on.
“For her security,” he said, turning back, but unable to meet Jahni’s eyes. “It would do a lot for my peace of mind if you were to ask Alex -”
Now he did meet Jahni’s eyes and saw enough anger there to make him want to beg forgiveness. He didn’t, just waited. After a moment, Jahni took a breath. The colour that had drained from his face came back.
“I consider Alex a friend. I won’t trespass on that by asking her to violate her client’s privacy.” His voice was stiff and formal.
“Right. Of course, I quite understand.” Madari frowned, not at the refusal, or not only that, but at the words Jahni used. That he considered her a friend. How close had they become? Had Madari made a mistake allowing those sparring sessions? They were alone during those sessions. Did they still leave the door open?
Alex was European and more forward than most of the women Jahni met. Something he seemed to like, if his friendship with Karen Bennett was any indication. And those women he said he… met in hotels. Did he still do that? The thought sickened Madari.
Then a sense of his own idiocy swept over him. He’d come in here jealous about Sophia and what men she might be seeing. Now he was seething over the thought of Jahni and Alex Black. And most idiotic of all, he had no evidence that Jahni was seeing Alex, or that Sophia was seeing anyone at all.
“I’m sorry, Kahil. I shouldn’t have asked. I’m a fool.” He held out his hand for a shake. “Forgive me. Sometimes I get notions in my head and… well, forgive me, please.”
Jahni shook the offered hand and nodded his head. “It’s forgotten.”
Fearing Jahni was still offended and annoyed with him, Madari included him in the shopping expedition a couple of days later, since the men’s part in this was to be lounging in a coffee house for a couple of hours.
“You remember Major Jahni,” he said to Drummond, as the two of them rose to meet Jahni when he arrived in the coffee house.
“No,” Drummond said. “I remember a Captain Jahni. Congratulations on your promotion, young man. Knew you’d go far. Said that to Faris after I met you. That young fellow of yours will go far, I told him.”
They all sat and a waiter came to take Jahni’s order. The coffee house was also a shisha cafe and a water pipe gurgled on the table. Aromatic smoke drifted around the room. Other men, mostly elderly, lurked in the deep interior of the shop, smoking, playing chess or backgammon. Madari’s group sat by a window near the front of the shop, where the atmosphere wasn’t quite so thick, as the smoke was disturbed often by the opening door.
“Haven’t smoked one of these in years,” Drummond said of the shisha pipe. “Always enjoyed them though. Maybe I should buy one to take home.” When Madari gave him a questioning glance, he picked up the cue. “Ah, yes, haven’t really explained about that yet, have I?”
The waiter came back with Jahni’s coffee and they all settled comfortably into their armchairs. Outside the sun glared off the pavements and a heat haze shimmered above the tarmac of the roads. But with its stone walls and floor the cafe stayed cooler.
“War’s coming you see,” Drummond explained. “Trouble’s been spilling over from Rwanda for a while now. Some of my security lads have gone back into the Army. I’d been thinking for a few years about retiring and going home, so when I got an offer for the lodge, it seemed like the right time.”
“And you’re taking Eshe and Kibibi with you?” Madari said.
“Yes. Couldn’t leave those two at least. Obligation you know. Eshe will be my housekeeper, and she’s already officially adopted Bibi. If the buggers make any trouble about them staying I’ll marry Eshe.”
Madari stared at him for a second. Drummond had both a smile and a determined look in his eyes. He meant it.
“Wouldn’t be a sacrifice,” he added. “Fine lady.”
Madari didn’t answer, he turned to look at Jahni, settled very comfortably in his seat, and looking half-asleep. He’d been on late duty last night, Madari recalled. Yet he’d still come to join them, instead of staying home to sleep.
War was coming here, Madari knew. Though it was hard to imagine it, sitting here in such peaceful surroundings and pleasant company. But the reality lurked out there. There was fear on the streets, the city changing.
Could Madari do as Drummond had? Flee the oncoming war with those he loved? Could anyone blame him for doing that? Especially given the nature of the enemy. Who could condemn him for taking Jahni and finding a safe haven? Was his duty to Jahni stronger than his duty to the King and his country?
But there was a difference. Drummond was returning home. Madari and Jahni would be going into exile, leaving home behind, and perhaps never returning. Did either of them want that? Perhaps Kahil did, he’d asked to go and make a new home somewhere else. But Madari wasn’t ready. Not yet. This war would come and they would win or lose and the choice might be taken out of their hands. But right now, he was not ready to make that choice.
“It will be a big change for Kibibi,” Madari said.
“She’s still young enough to adapt,” Drummond said. “Couple of years time, she’ll be like any other English girl. Anyway, you should be able to see her more often now if you want to. And the postal service is better.”
“Yes, that will be nice,” Madari said. “We can fly over to London easily enough.”
We. He heard himself say it. Which was strange, since though Jahni was perfectly friendly with Kibibi, he had no particular attachment to her. Why should he want to fly to London to see her? But Jahni made no objection. Instead he nodded, looking more awake, looking at Madari.
“That would be great,” Jahni said. And Madari knew there was something unspoken there, behind his eyes. But he had no idea what.
“Faris, they’re here.”
Jahni’s voice brought Madari back from a pleasant doze, and he opened his eyes to see Sophia, Eshe, Alex and Kibibi taking a table outside, fussing with shopping bags. In a moment, Sophia came inside and over to Madari’s table. The men rose to meet her.
“I thought we should sit outside,” she said. “The atmosphere is a little thick for Bibi in here. And we don’t want to disturb the peace.”
“Good idea,” Madari said, rising with his coffee cup, but finding it empty. He waved a hand at a waiter to follow them outside and the men joined the shopping party at a table under a large parasol. The waiter took their order and went back inside.
“All of these bags for one little girl’s dress?” Madari said, in French, to Kibibi. She giggled.
“We bought a few other bits and pieces,” Sophia admitted.
“You’ll have even more to buy when you get to England,” he said to Kibibi. “It gets cold and rainy there.”
“Yes, you’ll need warm things,” Jahni said. “Hats, gloves, scarves.” He smiled at Madari, perhaps recalling their long ago shopping trip buying warm clothes for themselves to wear in Britain. That interesting time in London, his seeing snow for the first time, visiting Madari’s past even as they prepared for the consultations that would help them build their future.
“A coat,” Sophia said. “And woollen sweaters.”
“Wellington boots,” Madari supplied, remembering seeing child-sized rubber boots in shoe shops in London, in a rainbow of colours and patterns.
“An umbrella,” Jahni said.
“Oh, we are used to rain,” Eshe said.
“But not snow,” Jahni said. “You’ll love snow,” he said to Kibibi. “You can build a snowman and throw snowballs.”
She made him explain, and he laughed with her. What must it be like for her? Madari wondered, leaving her home for somewhere so different. But Clive was right, her youth would allow her to adapt. It would be very different if Madari were to abandon his home and go into exile.
He dismissed such thoughts, tried to enjoy their pleasant chatter. Jahni was leaning over to Alex now, speaking to her in Arabic, explaining what they’d been talking about. She was the only member of the group who didn’t speak French and he felt guilty for a moment for leaving her out of the conversation. But she was probably too busy watching the crowds and doing her job to worry about it. Though that made him think of something.
“Has Kibibi had English lessons, Clive?”
“Started them a few months ago,” Drummond said. “Bibi and Eshe.”
“She is learning faster than I am,” Eshe admitted.
“Give her a few months and she’ll be chattering away like a native,” Drummond said. The waiter appeared with their drinks and some cakes. He placed a glass of juice in front of Kibibi and she said “Merci” politely. Sophia leaned over and whispered to her. Kibibi spoke again, saying “Shukran”. The waiter smiled at her as he put down the rest of the order and left.
“You’ve been teaching her Arabic?” Madari said, leaning over to Sophia, who was sitting beside him.
“Only a few words,” Sophia said. “Which I’m sure she will forget in a couple of weeks, once she gets to London.”
“She’ll be saying ‘ta very much, mate’ instead,” Drummond said, in English, and those who understood chuckled at it. Actually, not all of those. Glancing at Jahni, Madari saw he appeared tense. He smiled at him to cheer him up, but that had no effect.
Madari spoke to Sophia again, dropping into Arabic this time. “If you’ll let me have the receipts for the dress and the rest, I’ll bring you over the money later.”
“My dear, I may not know much about fashion, but I’ve been shopping with you enough times to know that a dress is never just a dress.”
“I can’t fool you, can I? There may have been a few other, shall we say, essentials.”
Jahni watched Madari and Sophia with their heads close, smiling and laughing. He watched the child looking around with big eyes, curious and laughing too. She gripped the glass of juice with both hands and Madame Abasi watched her carefully to see she didn’t spill any. The scene was one of such pleasant friendship and domesticity that he despised himself for his surge of jealousy when he looked at Madari and Sophia.
But this whole thing… He’d had to come along, because when he heard about it, his first thoughts had been suspicions. Again, he despised himself for it, but what else could he think? Madari asking Sophia to help him buy a dress for Kibibi? Something that she would surely find ‘sweet’. Thoughtful. Kind. Designed to show him in a good light.
He didn’t doubt that Madari wanted to do something kind for the little girl he was so fond of. The gesture was sincere, Jahni felt sure. But couldn’t he have simply taken her to a dress shop himself and asked the staff for advice? They would have taken care of it and given him all the help he needed. But he chose to go to Sophia.
Adding that to his request for Jahni to ask Alex if Sophia was seeing someone else, Jahni’s fear that Madari was working on persuading Sophia to take him back had turned into certainty. Now he wished he hadn’t come here. The cake and coffee he mechanically ate and drank might as well be ashes and vinegar, they turned so sour on his tongue.