12 A short story –“Cars From Congo”.
AN ORDINARY LIFE OF A SEVENTY-PERCENTER.
Interlude: A short story –“Cars From Congo”.
I first thought about trying my hand once more at writing short stories in about the year 2000 (after so many years since the publication of “The Broken Promise”).
I attended a presentation at the “Centre For The Book” in Cape town given by a woman from Durban. During the talk Christine let us know about a writing ‘workshop’ that she was running — “World Of Words” — via an e-mail List on the Internet. I subscribed and had an enjoyable couple of years with her and about ten other people (mainly in the USA) writing and critiquing each other’s work. Christine would set the project for each week and we would write and submit. One of the first pieces I wrote was this Don Corbett story, “Cars From Congo”. The assignment for the week was something like “Write a piece of about 1000 words starting with the sentence ‘The sun rose in the west that morning’.
The time of writing was the New South Africa born of the 1994 elections, but there were still rumblings in Africa and many people with roots in England, or others with access to England, Canada, the USA, were glancing nervously northwards, ready to leave at short notice for foreign parts. Against this background, then, in most of my Don Corbett stories the friends are meeting somewhere where they have a view of the ocean with ships passing by on the horizon, sailing round and up the coast toward faraway England — a way of escape from the dark continent.
The super-inscription for Don Corbett stories is “Fringes of War” because that was where Don’s career seemed to have taken him — wheeling and dealing in the 1960’s. ’70’s and ’80’s somewhere on the fringes of conflicts in Africa but never at the centre of the wars.
But I hasten to assure you that Don was always making deals with the ‘right side’ — except, of course, that ‘the wind of change’ were blowing across Africa form south to north so that neither he, nor most ordinary citizens, could ever actually know which was the ‘right side’ ! We have the example of Angola where South Africa was fighting alongside of the Americans against the ‘Communist onslaught’ when suddenly everything changed. Perestroika in Russia opened the way for a new relationship between the Soviet and the West (and a ‘cooling’ of the Cold War leading to it’s end in 1989). The Americans withdrew from Angola, and South Africa was left fighting the ‘border war’ alone. But the ‘wind of change’ had caught up with us, the ANC was unbanned by F W de Klerk, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, our troops came home from the Angolan border — and, in retrospect, we were found to have been supporting the wrong cause both in Angola and in Mozambique! In that climate of change, how could Don Corbett ever be sure that he was making deals with the right side?
[ **’The wind of change’ phrase was coined by Harold MacMillan, prime minister of Great Britain, in a prescient speech to our South African parliament in 1960].
Here is the short story.
Fringes of War: Cars From Congo.
A Don Corbett story.
“The sun rose in the west that morning!” Don had a way of abruptly capturing attention. We were gazing with great curiosity at the many cars parked at the house across the street when he said this, beginning to answer our unasked question. He surveyed the scene as he continued slowly, “The west? The fact dawned on me and I was fully awake in an instant. The plane had been heading due north to the Belgian Congo where we were to land before going on to London. We should have been seeing the sunrise out of the right-hand windows, but there it was on the left!”
Don Corbett paused. He turned to look at each of us in turn, his black eyes glinting in his leathery face as he remembered the events he was about to relate. His lips were just slightly pursed as he drilled his statements into our minds with those steely eyes. The drama of his moment became our drama as we sat there on the flat roof of his unusual house in the hills outside the city. From here we had a full view across the street and could clearly count the fourteen motor cars, pickups and Jeeps parked in the yard. He was about to tell how they came to be there.
Don shifted position a little, took a sip of his coffee and continued.
“I was going to London. We left Johannesburg at midnight, landed at Windhoek to take on passengers and took off again for Leopoldville at three o’clock. At sunrise we would have been landing in the Congo but here we were heading south! Looking down from the plane (which we all were doing), we saw a dirt road and on it an endless stream of cars heading south.
It was only at Luanda in Angola where we landed to refuel that we were told anything. War had broken out in the Congo. The forces of the freedom fighters were bombarding Brazzaville airport to stop any planes landing or leaving. The revolution was in full swing and soon the Belgian Congo would no longer be a Belgian colony.”
He took another sip of coffee, gave us all another piercing look and continued.
“We got to London the next day. The newspapers were full of stories of the revolution in the Congo and people fleeing before the advancing rebel militia. Some people fled to the north, others headed south. The Belgian troops stayed to see expatriates safely on their way and then they also withdrew to a neighbouring state.”
Another pause for coffee, another look at us. Daphne sat forward a bit: “I’m getting a picture!” she said. “Those cars across the road — they came from the Congo?”
“Yes”. Don gave a little laugh. “When I arrived home from London two weeks later I saw that the house across there had been sold. To a Belgian family, I was told, from the Congo. The house had been empty for a while so there was some excitement in the street as we waited to see the new neighbours moving in. A day or two later they began to arrive. First a couple of cars; then a couple of trucks the next day; then more cars and a Jeep. After four days the yard was full of vehicles. More were parked on the pavement and in the street. We all gawped at the out-of-town number plates and the car models that we didn’t normally see in South Africa.”
Another pause as Don looked at Daphne with an “Am I answering your question?” look. Then he continued. “While some refugees from the Congo had taken ship from Angola to Europe, others had travelled onwards overland to South West Africa, South Africa and, as you see, to here across the street. This family had a thriving transport and car-hire business in Leopoldville. When the time came to go, all they could save of their wealth was what they could take out of the country with them. So they loaded all they could into the fleet, handed the keys to every and any member of the family or friend who could drive and who needed to go south, and off they went. They loaded as much fuel as they could lay hands on, in any possible container, and hit the road! So did every other expatriate who owned a vehicle of any sort. Some went north but most went south to where they could reach a country border in the shortest time. What we saw from the air was the string of vehicles several miles long creeping slowly to the comparative safety of the Angolan border”.
Don looked thoughtfully at the yard full of vehicles across the road. “There are only fourteen left now. They arrived with twenty-nine. The government gave special dispensation to all refugees, first in allowing them into South Africa without documents, with all their possessions, and later in allowing them to sell the vehicles here. I bought my Jeep from them”.
The year was 1960. The Congo lay many thousands of miles to the north-west, but the African revolution was underway and here we were, expatriates sitting at the very edge of the continent, drinking coffee. Don took up his coffee cup and sipped away quietly until it was empty and he put it down. We all turned to follow his gaze down the valley in the other direction. From here we could see the sea with a ship passing slowly down the coast, ten miles away, a sight which afforded some comfort to us, a way of escape.