On the one hand, his intellect remained exactly as it had been before leaving New York earlier today. When the official reception party met them at the miniature Port Mey landing-ground—Embassy staff of assorted colours and an honour guard of the toy Beninian Army in garb ideal for a parade but absolutely ridiculous for warfare—he was able to look about him and formulate corresponding ideas, such as that this was a silly place to pull financial plums out of. This wasn’t mere poverty. This was downright squalor. The road along which the Embassy cars hummed and bumped towards home was maintained, after a fashion, by gangs of labourers with pick and shovel, but it was flanked by hovels, and the only sign of official intervention in the unhampered process of human degradation consisted in a banner saying, in English, that Beninia welcomed foreign investors. He had never expected to see, in this brave new century, naked children playing in mud with squealing piglets; here they were. He had never expected to see a family of father, mother, grandfather and four children on a pedal-driven conveyance made from three antique bicycles and two large plastic crates; they were held up at the airport exit to let one pass ahead. He had never expected to see one of the pioneer Morris trucks, the first fuel-cell design to achieve commercial operating cost, full to the brim of children aged between nine and fifteen waving and grinning over the tailboard; he saw no fewer than six during the journey, decorated with pious signs stating MORE HASTE LESS SPEED and THERE IS NO GOD BUT GOD and DO AS YOU WOULD BE DONE BY AMEN.
The air was heavy with unspilled moisture even worse than he had experienced during the wait at Accra, which added to his inclination to be cynical.
Yet, at the same time as he was noting all these signs of backwardness and poverty, he was possessed of a sort of exhilaration. The road gang engaged on maintenance were accompanied by a group of four singers and musicians, making a rhythmical worksong out of the monotonous beat of the picks and counterpointing it with drums made from empty cans of different sizes. At the gaping, rag-curtained door of one of the hovels he saw a proud mother showing off her new baby to admiring neighbours, beaming with infectious delight. And standing outside another he saw a truck marked with a red cross, whose driver, dressed in a plastic coverall, was meticulously spraying himself with disinfectant from an aerosol can prior to getting back in the cab—slim proof, but proof, that the twenty-first century had made contact with Beninia.
Elihu was engaged in discussion with the gaunt young negro who had been holding the reins of office during his absence—the Embassy’s First Secretary. He was at least eight years younger than Norman. Watching him, Norman wondered how it felt to be responsible for one country’s relations with another, even on so small a scale as Beninia represented, at that age. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing the two other cars following with the remainder of the GT team—a girl from Rex Foster-Stern’s Projects and Planning Dept, an expert in African linguistics specially recruited for the visit, and two economist-accountants from Hamilcar Waterford’s personal advisory group.
Fishing in recent memory for the First Secretary’s name—Gideon … something? Gideon Horsfall, that was it—Norman leaned forward.
“Excuse me breaking in,” he said. “There’s something I’d like to ask you, Mr. Horsfall.”
“Ask away,” the gaunt man said. “And please call me Gideon. I hate being mistered.” He gave a sudden chuckle that ill-matched his rather skeletal look; he was a sort of parallel to Raphael Corning, though shorter and much darker, which threatened to send Norman’s wandering mind off down a side alley concerned with the involvement of thin nervous types in modern politics.
“I used to save mistering for paleasses,” he added when he recovered from his amusement. “But having been here a while I think I have that problem in perspective for a change. Sorry, you were going to say—?”
“I was going to ask whether you feel the same way about Beninia as Elihu does,” Norman said.
There was a pause. During it, Gideon looked around at the suburbs of Port Mey closing in on either side. Apart from the fact that the ground was not compact enough to carry high buildings—as Norman’s research had informed him, much of Port Mey had been swamp before it was drained by the British and partially reclaimed—it bore a striking resemblance to pictures of slums in Mediterranean Europe a century ago, with narrow alleys across which lines of washing were strung up, debouching onto the adequately wide but badly pot-holed street they were following.
At length Gideon said, not looking at Norman, “I can tell you this much. When they decided to post me here, in spite of the nominal promotion—I’d been Third Secretary at the Embassy in Cairo, you see—I was furious. I thought of this as a hopeless backwater. I’d have done anything to get out of it. But they made it clear that if I didn’t swallow my pride I could look forward to a future at attaché rank, indefinitely.
“So I said yes, at a sheeting awful cost to my mental stability. It was touch and go whether I actually got there or whether I went under care with a shrinker. I was practically living on tranks. You know how it is to be brown-nosed in a paleass society.”
Norman nodded. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was so dry there was nothing under his palate except air.
“I’ve been running things while Elihu was away,” Gideon said. “Not that there’s much to run, I grant you. But—well, two years ago being faced with that much nominal responsibility would have caved me in. I wouldn’t have been able to help it. Nothing else has happened to me apart from coming here, yet somehow”—he gave a shrug—“I’m back in one piece, and nothing fazes me. We could have had a RUNG-Dahomalian war and I’d have kept going through it. I might not have coped very well, but I could have made the effort and not felt I was helpless and useless.”
“That’s right,” Elihu nodded. “I’m pleased with you.”
“Thanks.” Gideon hesitated. “Elihu, I guess you’ll understand this. Time was when I’d have licked the ambassador’s boots for praise like that. Now it’s just—well—nice to have. Catch? This is part of trying to explain things to Norman here, I mean, not personal.”
Elihu nodded, and Norman had a disquieting sense of shared communication between him and Gideon which he, as a New York-bred stranger, could not hope to eavesdrop on.
“Elihu here,” Gideon resumed, turning in his seat to face Norman, “could do anything short of telling me I was a sheeting fool and proving it, and I’d still stand up and back my judgment. If he had proof, I’d say so and start over, but I wouldn’t feel stupid because I’d been wrong. I’d feel there was a reason—I was misinformed, or some back-home preconception undermined me, or something. This is being confident, which is the same as being secure. Catch?”
“I guess,” Norman said dubiously.
“Obviously you don’t. Which means I probably can’t tell you.” Gideon shrugged. “It’s not a thing you can isolate and show off in a jar—here’s the reason why. It’s something you have to experience get through your skin and into your belly. But … Well, some of it is in the fact that there hasn’t been a murder in Beninia in fifteen years.”
“What?” Norman jolted forward.
“Truth. I don’t see how it’s possible, but it’s a matter of record. Look at those slums!” Gideon pointed through the car window. “You’d think that was the sort of place designed to breed gang-rumbles and muckers, wouldn’t you? There’s never been a mucker in Beninia. The last murderer wasn’t even one of the majority group, the Shinka—he was an Inoko immigrant aged sixty-some who caught his second wife cheating.”
I’d love to bring Chad Mulligan here and shoot down some of his precious theories, Norman thought. Aloud he said, “There’s no doubt in that case that Beninia does have something.”