“I can give you some tips,” Derek put in, addressing Consuela. “Some highly suggestive things have happened to the English vocabulary the colonial régime left behind here.”
“Thank you, Derek,” Norman said. “That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for from you. Now let’s look at a question we haven’t faced as yet. What’s our biggest single obstacle to acceptance for this scheme?”
There was a moment of silence. Terence said at length, “Well—ah—the risk of not getting back the return we’re looking for! I mean, before we conduct our on-the-spot surveys we can’t be certain that—”
Norman was shaking his head vigorously.
“It’s not a monetary problem. It’s a personal one.”
“Whether we can sell it to the president,” Consuela said.
“Correct.” Norman leaned forward, injecting his voice with urgency. “I’ve said this before and I’m saying it again. You can’t regard Beninia as a modern, Western, administrative unit. Elihu has dinned this into me until I think I’ve got the image, but I want to be certain we all share it. This is more like a colossal family with nearly a million members than it’s like a nation in our sense. Let me refresh your memories about the way Elihu put it to the GT board. What President Obomi is looking for is a heritage to leave his people that will save them from being swallowed up in their powerful neighbours. He’s not going to look at this in terms of hard cash, except insofar as economic security will contribute to general welfare. Talk to him about food, not money; talk about building schools, not processing prodgies into mechanics and technologists; talk about healthy children, not about mileage of sewer-pipes. You get the image? You’re certain? Because what’s important is to fulfil the president’s hopes, not underpin the failing stocks in MAMP!”
He saw their nods, but knew it wasn’t for their benefit he had added that final emphatic warning. It was for himself.
I haven’t seen or sensed the proof of it yet, but Elihu swears to it and I think I have to believe him. It’s only fair and just that sometimes making a fat profit should coincide with doing long-term good, and chances come too seldom for us to miss even one of them.
Now that he had finally seen Beninia, though, he was irrationally afraid that he had built himself an illusion at long range, and next week or next month he might cease to be able to accept that he was doing good. And if that happened there would be no other handy prop with which to underpin the shattered parody of purpose that justified his life.
* * *
A short while later he was terrified to realise that when he spoke that apparently clear injunction to himself and his colleagues all he had done was mouth the words. He had not, even he himself had not, taken in the full implications of the statement.
At the Presidential Palace a magnificently robed major-domo nearly seven feet high ushered them into an ante-room where black servants were bringing aperitifs and trays of tiny African hors-d’oeuvres to the assembled company: Mrs. Kitty Gbe, education; Dr. (Econ.) Ram Ibusa, finance; Dr. (PPE) Leon Elai, foreign affairs; and President Obomi.
Upon seeing whom, Elihu strode forward unceremoniously and embraced him. Drawing back, he said, “Zad! My God, this is terrible! You look ten years older and it’s only been a couple of months!”
“I have no more gods,” the president said. He drew back from the embrace and forced a smile. “It’s wonderful to see you back here, anyway, Elihu. There was a moment when I feared—but never mind that, I have good doctors and they keep me going somehow. Will you not introduce me to your distinguished fellow countrymen?”
He blinked his surviving eye at Norman and his companions.
“Why—ah—of course,” Elihu said. “Let me present first Dr. Norman Niblock House, of General Technics’ board…”
Norman held out his hand. “I’m honoured to meet you, sir,” he said. “And I hope very much that we’ve worked out a way to solve some of your country’s problems, and that you’ll find it acceptable.”
“Is it, Elihu?” President Obomi inquired, glancing at the ambassador.
“I’ve done my best to get you what you asked for,” Elihu said.
“Thank you,” Obomi smiled. “You must explain it to us over dinner, Dr. House. I know it’s a shame to spoil good food with business, and my chef will be infuriated, but time is running out for me and—well, I’m sure you’ll appreciate my plight.”
He turned to Consuela as Elihu named her and ushered her forward, while Norman stepped back in a daze. Automatically he waved aside a tray of drinks that a servant held before him.
The matter can’t be settled that easily! Surely there will have to be argument, persuasion, a selling job?… How about these ministers of his? Are they as prepared as he is to take someone else’s word when the whole future of their nation is at stake?
He stared at them, the one plump woman and the two medium-sized men with their cheeks scarred in traditional designs, and could not detect anything less than satisfaction in their expressions. The truth began to sink through the sluggish water of his mind.
When Elihu compared Obomi to the head of a family, I thought he was just invoking an analogy. But this is how a family welcomes friends with a proposition to make—offers food and drink, deals first with personal matters, gets around to the irritating questions of business later. They aren’t looking on us as foreign delegates: ambassador, representatives of a giant corporation. It’s more as though …
At that point he almost lost track of the inspiration that was slowly emerging to awareness. He got it back in the voice of Chad Mulligan, asking whether anyone knew an interior decorator he could tell to do up an apartment for him with the latest modern gewgaws.
He took a deep breath.
A country or a super-corporation had behaviour-patterns distinct from smaller groups, let alone individuals. Needing something done, they briefed diplomatic missions, or put out a contract to tender, or in some other fashion formalised and ritualised their action, and if they failed to prepare thoroughly enough there was calamity.
The President of Beninia, needing something done, had acted just the way Elihu described, but until this moment Norman had failed to grasp the exactness of the comparison—like a paterfamilias he had turned to an old friend whom he trusted and explained his needs, and when the friend came back with his expert proposal …
It was settled.
But it took him until the time of their departure, after midnight, to convince himself that he was right, and most of the following day to make his colleagues understand.
“Dear Norman: This must be the first letter I’ve written in over three years. Talk about old habits dying hard … I guess what I really want to do is set down some notes for an article, but addressing a mass audience I’m sick of. I’ve done it in books and journals and over TV and at lecture-meetings and I’ll probably revert to that eventually because my skull threatens to burst with all the pressure inside, but the time I spent down in the gutter got me used to talking to a person, one at a time, and what I really need is to be able to turn into a million of myself and go out and have a million separate conversations because that’s the only way you ever establish communications. The rest is just exposure to information, and why should anybody look at one wave on a sea?