After the meal the two Johns decided that we all return to the hotel. John with his arm about Destiny, Camila holding hands with her two cousins and John whistling as if we were in Benidorm strolling along the beach promenade. I was perched on the edge of the family certainly not on holiday. Apart from the constant and rational fear of kidnap that after talking to John, I had managed to partly package and put away for now, I had the additional worry of Gallie’s arrest. Not only had she done nothing, she despised what I had done and it seemed grossly unfair that she was being punished for my crimes. In a small and selfish way, I was hoping that if she was accused then she might start to have sympathy for the real criminal. I had to call Ricardo again.
“Just listen Ricardo. Go to a public phone now and I’ll call you back in exactly ten minutes and then give me the number of the phone but go to a different phone from last time. Make sure you’re not followed. Ten minutes from now.”
“Hello Goris. How are you? Where are you?”
“I’m in the UK. What’s going on with Gallie? Is it true she’s been arrested?”
“Yes it’s true. They’re holding her. Goris you need to come back for your own protection. You can’t just leave her to rot in jail.”
“They can’t hold her. They have nothing. You’ve got to get her out. Call Senator Ben Roman, he’ll help.”
“I have. Gallie asked me already and he wasn’t interested. He said that he couldn’t do anything, National Security. I think they’d got to him. They’re closing ranks. I doubt you’ve got a friend left. I’m telling you, as a friend, come home. We’ll do a deal.”
“You mean you will. Let me warn you, you have no idea what I’m capable of. I don’t even know but survival changes a man. I’m not the Goris you knew. I’ve been through too much and I’ve seen too much. I created DRI to break men like you. Let me put it in other terms. If you hurt me or my family, I will make sure DRI exposes you, puts you on trial and executes you.”
“Jesus Goris. I’m your lawyer for Christ’s sake. I’m your friend. What are you threatening me for? I want to help you and Gallie. I’m telling you to come home for your sake. I’m warning you the list of special-forces and bounty hunters is huge. I’ve seen it and so has Gallie. She is afraid for you not her. How long can you run?”
“Until they can protect me.”
“Get real. That will never happen. The US has already infiltrated DRI. They are close to controlling it and then it’s over.”
“Bullshit. They can’t control it. It’s far too advanced.”
“Are you sure? Don’t underestimate the US. And even if it’s not the US, someone in the end will succeed. We’d better hope it is the US.”
“Ricardo, tell Gallie I’m sorry and make sure you tell her that I love her.”
“That’s it? What does that mean? Why did you call?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to hear about the girls.”
“You did. They’re frightened for you. They want you home but you’re not listening. Look Goris, you can’t run forever. Somebody is going to find you in the end. Even if you don’t trust me, what I’m saying is the truth. Are you going to make a new life without the girls?”
“Yes I am. I have no choice.”
“With a new passport I suppose and a new family? Look Goris, that’s the stuff of Hollywood. I act for people who have disappeared and they can never be happy and even if they are, they get caught. They don’t live a normal life, always looking behind them. It’s no life. That’s not for you.”
“Don’t presume. Who gets the opportunity to start a completely new life? I screwed up my last one so now I have another chance.”
“And you can just forget your whole life just like that – the girls, your parents, family, friends, LA? In the end it will not let you?”
“In the end is a long time away. Things change. What life is waiting back home for me Ricky? I will not go to prison.”
“We will fight them. They could never convict you.”
“This is the US you’re talking about. It will never go to trial. They’ll hold me and I will just disappear. And what will Gallie have to do, spend her life fighting for my release? It wouldn’t be fair to her.”
“Goris, what if I talk to them?”
“I don’t know. What could you do?”
“Do you want to come home?”
“I’m really not sure. I feel alive here. In LA we are all dead. It’s no life, big cars and big houses. I’m useless there. We all are. We have too much and it’s not enough. In LA I feel worthless. I couldn’t go back to that after all this. Out here, all your senses are alive. For the first time, I notice smells, see things, feel things. I’m afraid all the time but you learn to enjoy every little thing because it may be your last. What do you enjoy? What do you see? Ferraris, steak, the gym?”
“And ask every African where they want to be here or there?”
“That’s the point Ricky, they’d choose LA every time. That’s the black widow.”
“Bulllshit Goris. It’s just a romantic vacation for you that the privilege of wealth allows. You know you’ve got everything here so you can enjoy everything there but live that life for real and you’d come crawling back. It’s a hell hole and when you’re being held at gunpoint, you’d wish to God you were back in plastic LA enjoying the shit life you gave up.”
“I have been held at gunpoint and I loved it. You can keep that empty corrupt life and leave me here. The only way I’d ever come back is if I was guaranteed a trial by jury and only to free the girls so they could move on and that’s never going to happen.”
“So if I can guarantee you a trial, you’d come back?”
“Yes. Probably but I could never trust the US government.”
“Ok leave it to me. Call me soon and don’t get caught or killed. I’m going to get you a watertight deal.”
John was too kind and too considerate a man despite a hard and unfair life. He was sensitive and compassionate. He recognised my anxieties and tried to make me understand how pointless it was to worry about a possible outcome at the expense of a definite present. He understood that he could not prevent the loneliness and the fear but he certainly could soothe it and when I returned to my hotel room, I opened the door and I was not alone. He must have thought that two would make me even less lonely than one and it did for a brief time. When it was over, I was alone again but definitely soothed by the event. I slept well. When I awoke, for a moment I thought I was back home with Gallie and Jazzy beside me. I took a look and there were two girls asleep on either side of me but not my girls. I wasn’t sure what to do. This was an unusual occurrence. I decided to move around to wake them so that they would realise their mistake and just get up and go and they did wake. They got up went to the bathroom and five minutes later got back into my bed. John must have told them to stay. If they were there and paid for, I had no real choice. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. It was extreme pleasure but it only made me forget for the duration and as soon as it was over, I wanted them to leave. I gave them a hundred dollars each and they left.
I showered and as I attempted to wrap the tiny, mock flannel towel around my waist, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. I had lost a lot of weight. Bullshit LA diets for overfed, overweight wealthy Americans, no carb, high protein, liquids only, pills, hypnosis, gastric bands, power exercising, brisk walking, gym membership, power training, running club, cycling club. One meal a day, fear and constant diarrhoea was quite evidently the best way to lose weight. Perched on top of this borrowed and unrecognisable body was a disproportionate thing, overgrown and untrimmed black beard, black mop of hair, black eyebrows and all with blonde roots. I looked like a vagrant. I felt like an actor and it felt surprisingly okay. There was a knock on my door and looking down, Camilla stood, smiling and then giggling at the sight of this semi-naked white man. She asked me to come down with her. Everybody was ready to go.
All the family were waiting for me, the two Johns and Destiny grinning and looking at me. John asked how I was. Destiny asked how I was. John asked how I was. The boys thought it was amusing and they asked me how I was. The whole car erupted in laughter at my expense and I loved it. John explained where we were heading and gently warning that it was a dangerous route. He asked us to be very vigilant and suggested that nobody slept. I refrained from asking him what he expected us to do if we were confronted with something dangerous. We were helpless against any force, whether a man with a gun, one of the many rebel groups, a gang, criminals, police or army. I felt less panic. I was learning to stay in the moment. The children sang African songs, Destiny at peace, leaning on John and holding his hand singing, John enjoying the scenery and affection, John proud and in charge, driving his family on an adventure and me, absorbing the happiness and staring out of the window, happy to have found a veneer of calm.
I closed my eyes and left the car for a second. It was incomprehensible to imagine that behind the beauty of the dirt roads, the villages, the forests, the colours of the sky and the African smell of life there was incredible danger, under every rock, inside every house, amongst the trees, in the sand and on the road. Africa was a lie for the true smell was death and corruption and greed. A smiling child with a dead soul holding a Kalashnikov, a woman dying of aids, a child sick with malaria, soldiers with machetes, Muslim against Christian, rebel against rebel, white profiteers and all for what? All the times I had been in Africa, I had seen disease and death, corruption and theft but overwhelming this all was the contrast. God had abandoned Africa or perhaps made a huge mistake for it made no sense to set death and poverty on this scale against a backdrop of such perfect natural beauty. Why did God not plant this death where most things cannot survive? It would have been more fitting to have filled the Arctic. Just as the Jews prayed to God when the Nazis were marching them to their death in the gas chambers and their lungs were filling with poison, the Africans too clung to God and prayed as they were beaten and raped and dying and pillaged and abused. I wondered what was happening to Gallie and Jazzie but not for a moment did I question my decision. DRI was a million miles away and had no bearing on us despite it being the reason we were here. It was a surreal and fantastic illusion for the only reality was this moment. I couldn’t go to it. It was too far away. I felt something on my leg that caused me to open my eyes. John was tapping me. There was a police roadblock ahead.
“Goris, don’t talk. Be silent all of you. Children I want you to sing as loud as you can. It is very important. Nobody talk to Goris. His name is Michael, remember. Children what is his name? Good. Sing.Sing.”
John got out of the car and approached the police. They pointed their rifles at him and he raised his arms. There was a lot of shouting and pushing. John was pushed to the floor and a rifle held at his head. John said to the children to keep singing but Camilla was crying and the boys were too frightened. He told me not to look.
“I’m going out. They’re going to kill him….Excuse me, we are lost. Perdu. Nous sommes Perdu. Je suis Anglais. Touriste. J’ai de l’argent pour la vacance.”
“La vacance. La vacance. Il est un idiot. Il est Anglais. Me speak English. So you are on holiday. This is funny. Nobody take holiday in Congo. Only the English.”
They laughed. I laughed. John laughed. They offered me a cigarette which I took even though I didn’t smoke tobacco. They sat down on the side of the road. They took out some beers. John and I smoked and drank and laughed in fear.
“What are you doing here? This is a very bad place. It is not safe. You have to go North, far north. There are many rebels here. They will kill you English man.”
“I am a photographer. I take photos. John agreed to take me to the North but we got lost.”
“You must go before dark. When it is dark, you must stop. Have a good holiday.”
“Don’t turn round. Just get in the car and let’s go. Lucky they thought you were an English fool or we could have been dead.”
As we started to drive off, the senior policeman knocked on the window. He was carrying a black and white photocopy of the photo of me and John. He looked in the car at everyone as if he was looking for someone. His mood had changed. He looked at the picture and then at me and John. He stared into my eyes forever.
“What are you doing here? Passports! What are you doing here? You know it is not safe. I asked you what are you doing here?”
“I paid them to drive me. I wanted to see the North.”
“He paid us and we decided to leave Angola. We are from Namibia but there is nothing there for us. We want a new start. We are miners, diamond miners, prospectors. We have money to prospect in the North. We just came from Mbuji-Mayi but it is too dangerous there. Too many prospectors and the city is big.”
“You have Dollars in England? How many dollars have you got?”
“Not many but maybe we can show you. Look here in my wallet. These are dollars. Look one hundred dollars. Uncle Sam.”
“Yes Uncle Sam. I like Uncle Sam but I prefer his family. You give me the whole family. Ok now better you go. Have you heard of Goris Hoff?”
“No. Who is he??”
“Just go and do not stop. If there is a roadblock, do not stop. It will not be the police or the army. Goodbye Michael Stanley Gordon, Englishman.”
His raucous laughter stopped abruptly and he put his hand through the window to shake my hand. He gripped me tight and did not let go until he had looked into my eyes and made permanent fixed contact. He smiled and let go. He went to the other side of the car and shook hands with John.
“Goodbye Mr Angula.”
We drove off slowly in silence. John put on the radio and I found the BBC world service. We listened intently to a report on the explosion of Seagulls and their impact on life in Hastings in England. We heard about residents who couldn’t sleep because of the noise and how these birds were ruining their lives, how angry they were that not enough was being done by the local council. We heard from a councillor how hard they were trying to find a humane solution to the problem and that they were considering the introduction of Hawks to the area to frighten off the seagulls. An expert on birds was discussing the likely outcome of such a battle. Was it right to bring birds not native to the area into a balanced ecosystem? It was hard to believe how lucky some people were that such mundane and ridiculous things were real issues in their lives.
“You see John, it’s not just here where things are bad. There is suffering everywhere.”
“Yes you are right. Seagulls are a real problem. John you hear this? Destiny? Children?”
“Yes we heard.”
“I don’t get it John. Why didn’t he hold us? He knew who we were. Did you see how he looked in my eyes and how he said the name on my passport? My god John, if he knew who we were and he let us go, that means DRI is here. It doesn’t seem possible.”
“You can be sure that he did not know. He had a piece of paper with a photo. Maybe he was just looking for a white man with blonde hair. I’m sure that he had never heard of DRI. Did you really see the picture he was looking at?”
“Yes. Well not properly. I’m sure it was us.”
“Well I am sure that if he knew who we were, he would not have let us go so cheaply. He would not lose an opportunity of a lifetime. And it was neither stupidity nor kindness. There is no room for kindness and stupidity is for the rich. Goris, the internet is everywhere. The police even in the DR Congo have computers and internet. They want to see what they can’t have. Everybody in Africa wants to see what they can’t have. He made a mistake and he will soon learn this. We don’t have much time.”
“I think that you may well be right. It just seems so out of place. Everything does. I still can’t believe that the internet is here in such a wild place.”
“Television and internet are everywhere. As if we haven’t got enough disease here, the social networking parasites are on their way to Africa too. They are kindly donating balloons and drones and satellite to give internet to Africa. They now want to take away the little money and control that they have allowed us. The internet is a drug and we will all become addicts. I do not want this in Africa. It will just create more inequality and resentment.”
“Logic tells me that it’s too late John, nobody can stop the internet coming here. Anyway we are on the road again and still free and we should be happy.”
“That’s good Goris, you sound like me but we are not safe yet. Maybe it is a trap or maybe he hasn’t realised what he has lost yet. One thing I am sure is that if he could sell us, he would.”
“Now you sound like me but you’re probably right, he’s going to realise soon and then everyone will know. John we can’t stay on this road. It’s too dangerous. Maybe the radio will say something.”
“There is no other proper road. John what do you think?”
“I think that we’d better turn off. We just have to keep going north. If we go west a bit and then there is a track north. Look there is another road about 50 kilometres west. We have to try. It will be dark soon so better we stop.”
“I agree with John. Let’s turn off and drive for a while and stop when we find somewhere safe, where we can hide the car.”
The mood in the car had shifted down. The dirt track was narrow and bumpy and at points I had to get out to direct John to avoid huge potholes and rocks and ditches. It was barely agricultural with no signs of human life. We came to an area of trees and bushes and John stopped the car inside. Everyone got out to stretch and relieve themselves, all in silence and a little fear. Darkness had suddenly consumed everything without any warning. It was absolute pitch black. The children got back into the car and lay down. John and Destiny climbed across the back seat. John put his seat back and closed his eyes. The white man put his seat back too and closed his eyes. He listened as one-by-one they fell asleep and soon all were breathing heavily, the two Johns snoring loudly, the children snoring gently and Destiny breathing deep and heavily. The entire night the white man lay awake afraid to move for fear of disturbing the sleeping family and the occasional moment that he drifted from his thoughts and into sleep, the lone mosquito in the car squeaked it’s evil squeak close to his ear after having supped a while on his blood, leaving him scratching and fully awake.
I watched the African sun rise and heard the African birds sing their African songs and soon everything had opened its eyes and the family too were awake and yawning and stretching and relieving themselves behind the bushes. Destiny had some biscuits for us to eat and John lit his primus canister to make real coffee. Never had coffee tasted so good and never had I felt so alive and excited. I was happy and it made no sense.
“Good morning everyone. It is beautiful here. Look around you.”
“I think Goris needs his coffee John. Maybe the sun has stroked him. Did you dream about your mother?”
“No. I just feel happy. I haven’t felt like this since…I can’t remember. I can’t explain it. As ridiculous as it sounds and I can hardly say the words, I am happy. I am the most wanted man in the world. I said it. I am apparently Goris Hoff, the fugitive, on the run with a black Namibian called John and his family, in hiding afraid for my life, for all our lives in the most dangerous country in the world. There are criminals, agents, rebels and armies looking for us and God knows what they might do to us. I’ve lost my life, my family, my home, my friends, everything I once thought I loved. I have nowhere to hide and nowhere to run and I know truthfully that it is only a matter of time before one or other of these hunters tracks us down and kill us, torture us or sell us. But until they do, every day of freedom is a gift and they can all go to hell. Come on let’s get going.”
“Are we all ready to go?....Good…..Did you all hear? Today Goris feels African so let’s enjoy the day. Goris, John and I were talking and at some point soon we are going to have to set down roots. We have children. We cannot run forever. The problem is that it is not safe in the North either but we cannot get into Uganda or Tanzania. Maybe we can go to the Congo but they speak French there and the children do not. The truth is that it is not safe anywhere especially for you.”
“You don’t need to worry about me. I am going to go on my own once we reach wherever we reach. I have decided that I can’t put you at risk any more. You can live a normal life. I can’t. Together we will get caught. We both know it John.”
“Yes we do. However, you cannot go. You will be caught without us. We owe you our lives.”
“What do you mean? I have put all your lives at risk. You would be in Angola back in your house if it wasn’t for me.”
“Exactly and instead, we have been on a trip, moved countries and changed our lives. Now I know I won’t die in Angola. We have hope. I don’t know what for but we all feel it. You can stay with us and make a life.”
“What sort of life, always afraid, always looking over my shoulders. I have a wife and a daughter. I love them. I have to free them. The US government is never going to let them go unless I give myself up. I can make the rules now while I’m still free.”
“But I thought you didn’t want to go home.”
“I don’t but what choice do I have, really. I am white. I am American. I love it in Africa. I love you guys but home is home for all its evil. I have to go.”
“Well whatever you decide, we still have a long way to go. I must speak quietly because I do not want to frighten the children. We are heading north and it is very dangerous. There has been war for so many years. There are many rebels and gangs and I don’t know if they are in this area. We need to go about 800 kilometers to Ikela. Yesterday we managed less than 200 kilometers. It was a very hard way but now we are on a faster road. We can find somewhere to stay in Ikela and eat properly. We have to go to the N7 and then it is a straight road all the way but it is fraught with danger. We must be on our guard but to tell the truth, we are helpless in any case but it is better to be prepared.”
“Is it? Maybe it’s better to bury our heads and close our eyes.”
“I’ve done that all my life.”
“Me too. Let me ask you something. When you see all the luxuries we have back home, what do you think? Are you jealous? Do you want that for Camilla?”
“To be honest, I want it all when I see it. I don’t want to want it but it looks so clean and beautiful. It is a dream of mine to drive a James Bond car, an Aston Martin in silver, a DB5, a beautiful machine and to swim in a chlorine pool in a house in Hollywood. I want a watch, a nice watch with a real alarm, a Rolex and I want to buy Camilla dresses and pink shoes but when you know you can’t have something, it is just a nice dream that you have when you are lying on the grass with the sun beating down and you try to make the dream feel real but when you open your eyes, you know where you are and you take a deep breath and carry on with your life. The real danger and it is coming to Africa, is when you start to see real people living the dream, when you start to see real people in those cars, those watches and those pools. What hope is there for our children?”
“Yes you are so right but you know, the worst part of it is that when you have all those things, it’s not enough. The only true life is a simple life and I can see it here, in Africa.”
“No Goris, you see it because you can afford to see it like that. You have choices, we don’t. Perhaps that is what excess gives you, choice and perhaps that is what we really want. I don’t know anything truly but I know that happiness and contentment is dying and it is all because of desire, for money and land and Hollywood and everything we cannot have and the internet has fuelled this discontent.”
“I think that we were meant to meet John.”
“There is no doubt in that. Did you think that it was chance that we were brought together? You came to me because I summonsed you. I didn’t think you’d be white but I see now that you had to be. I could not have done this without you.”
“And I thought I found you, that I was looking for you.”
“Yes you were because I called you. My ancestors asked your ancestors to bring you to me. It was not fate.”
We drove along the track and soon came to a road, the 809 in the direction of a very small town called Penge where we hoped to get some food and fuel. A few children were selling fuel on the side of the junction and John pulled up thirty feet past them, waving some notes out of the window. They came towards us, rolling a couple of big plastic barrels of fuel and as soon as the exchange was done, John drove off at high speed. We stopped a few kilometres along the road to fill up the tank and continued. Whenever we saw children selling fruit, food or water, we pulled up past them, waving cash, paying them and driving off again. John said it felt safer to stop in this way in case people were waiting to ambush us. I was happy not to have to make any decisions for now. Five hours driving and we reached Penge, a small conglomeration of white houses with tiled roofs lining, in a most picturesque and unfitting way, either side of a brown dirt road, gangs of children chasing and waving and screaming at us as we drove through, too afraid to stop. Camilla and the boys waving back excitedly, yearning to stop and play. The children continued to wave and scream through the rear window as their friends became ants in the mirror and only when we had left it all way behind, did we breathe out in relief.
Our stock of fuel was rapidly being consumed by our very thirsty and aged car. Some hours along the dirt road, a few houses poked their heads above the landscape and we stopped. The two Johns got out and approached an old man working on the land. A brief exchange of words and they returned. We drove a few kilometres further and turned right, off the road into a very narrow, undulating and pot-holed dirt track and to an empty hut. John called out and a young man appeared. They shook hands and the Johns followed him. Six people returned, four young men and the Johns all holding things. They opened the rear and put in barrels of fuel, fruit, vegetables and biscuits. John opened my bag, took out my wallet and gave them $100. They held it up to the light, passed it from one to the other, shook hands and disappeared. They told us that it was about seven hours to Ikela and we should not stop after this for anyone.
The radio was on to cover up the silence in the car. There was always a limit to conversation and ours had run its natural course for the moment. There was no point forcing it and so we all went into our own worlds, the children in sleep, John and Destiny into each other, John to the endless road and me, happy as a madman in spring. The entrancing dead landscape, scattered cattle, all kinds of birds, a few farmers and red dust, a red road and red land below a piercing blue sky and scorching sun. Extremes went hand in hand here and that made it more exhilarating, not knowing what was around each corner but knowing that something dangerous was never far. It was a world that was so far from my wildest dreams, so utterly removed from LA and by some sheer chance I had become a player.