I was sitting quietly at my table, drinking a Primus from the bottle. I was listening to a loud, strange and pleasant Congolese hypno-trance song, and watching the dance floor writhing and shaking of the diplomats, soldiers, aid workers, businessmen and shockingly attractive prostitutes.
I was minding my own business, behaving myself, when a great force struck me on the side of the head.
Then I was on the floor, contemplating the ceiling of the bar, with cool beer drip-dripping off the table and onto my neck.
I thought I’d just rest there awhile and listen to the music and the drums in my head, but a huge white face loomed over me. It seemed to be talking to me.
“Hey! Hey!” the big face shouted, looking down at me, concerned. “Ag, man, you okay?” Strong hands gripped me, lifting me back into my chair. I reached nonchalantly for my beer, but it was gone and I succeeded in plopping my forearm into a puddle of suds.
“You okay?” the face persisted. I smiled and nodded and proceeded to fall the other way. A large white arm reached out to steady me. “Hey, I’m really sorry, bra,” the face said, in a thick Afrikaans accent. “Sorry to hit you. I thought you were my friend, you know.”
“Friend,” I agreed, and grinned, very pleased with my having achieved the power of speech. “Yes.”
“I thought you were my friend,” the face repeated. “You look like him.”
Still swaying a little, but faculties returning, I focused on the man seated beside me. “It must be hard to be your friend,” I reasoned, rubbing the side of my head.
A waiter arrived, looking utterly unperturbed by the assault in his establishment, placed four more beers on the table and mopped up the spill with a cloth. My assailant dug some bills from his jeans and paid.
“I’m Mannie,” the gentleman said, lifting my arm so he could shake my hand. “I thought you were my friend Simon. I heard he was in town.”
“Simon is my friend,” I mumbled.
“No, no,” Mannie said, patiently. “Simon is my friend. You just look like him. That’s why I hit you.”
I drank some beer and began to assemble a handful of neurons. “Simon is my friend, as well. He came here with me.”
“Ah! I understand,” Mannie said, spreading his giant arms wide. “You brought him along for protection.”
“Not doing a very good job so far,” I groused, drinking some more.
“So where is he?”
“Said this bar was pretty safe…” I continued. I angled my inflamed head up to squint at Mannie. “He hits me, too. Says it’s for my own good.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst place I’ve ever been. It may be the worst place in the world. War never ends there. It just shifts from declared to undeclared, and it’s difficult to keep track of who’s fighting whom. Everyone keeps changing sides.
The conflicts have embroiled every one of the country’s neighbors and many more African nations besides. The UN is present, which has greatly increased the local supply of acronyms. The peacekeeping mission MONUC has been in-country since 1999, but recently changed its name to MONUSC. The modified moniker may be the only thing the 20,000 foreign troops have achieved in all that time.
The government is corrupt, of course, but that’s okay, because so are the police, the army and, for all I know, the Fédération des Boy Scouts de la République Démocratique du Congo.
The DRC is a playground for all the worst, most bestial things humans can do to each other. Violence and inhumanity of every sort. Kidnapping for fun and profit. Slavery and human trafficking.
The rebels invade villages and commit mass rape and murder. The army clears the rebels out, so that it can commit its own mass rape and murder. UN peacekeepers from various countries trade with the rebels for ivory, drugs and anything else of value. Cannibalism has been documented.
All of which explains why I arrived in the Kinshasa, via Johannesburg, with my friend Simon in tow.
When it’s necessary for business reasons to visit some of the dodgier parts of the world, it’s sometimes wise to rent a friend. Simon is a special kind of friend, who used to work for the Royal Marines and a British boat service that’s also special. He charges me (or my clients) a lot of money, which I pay cheerfully, to make sure that all my treasured parts stay attached to me.
Simon looks remarkably like me. He could be my older brother. Same height, same hair and eye color, similar facial features. However, he’s 15 pounds more muscled than I am and has more scars, while I have longer hair and less dignity.
When I’m in England, Simon enjoys beating and bruising me on a rubber mat, in an ongoing alleged attempt to teach me how to defend myself. (Generally, the only person I have to defend myself against is him, the bloody sadist.) And when we’re on the ground in a nasty place, he enjoys threatening people who might want to harm me.
All things considered, I like Simon.
Mannie explained that he was a South African Army liaison officer with the UN mission. He asked me why I was in the DRC. I answered vaguely that I was investigating a business project. He nodded, apparently used to caution and evasion.
“So why d’you want to want to kill Simon?” I asked Mannie, as we started on the next beers.
“I wasn’t trying to kill him,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t hit you hard.” I thought he’d punched me plenty hard, but I kept that observation to myself. “He slept with my wife,” Mannie grunted.
“Right. That sounds like Simon.”
“Last time he was here,” Mannie continued. “Well… not my wife, exactly. My ex-wife. But still…”.
Then, the man himself appeared. “Hullo, Mannie!” said Simon, all smiles. “What’re you doing here?”
“Scrambling my brains with his fist,” I said, glowering.
“I thought he was you, you son of a hoer,” said Mannie. “I heard about you and Thandie.”
“Oh, yes…” Simon said, having the decency to look abashed. “Sorry about that, mate. Still, you are divorced.”
“Aren’t you going to hit him?” I asked Mannie, rather pointedly.
“Not from the front,” he said, seriously. “Are you mal?”
So I headed to the bar for more drinks, while the two caught up.
I ordered a Coke (in the bottle) for Simon and Primus for myself and Mannie.
“Don’t drink that,” a voice beside me said in badly-accented French. I looked down to see a nicely-dressed black woman, about 30. “Are you French?” she asked.
“No, I’m not,” I replied, turning away. I figured she was a working girl in search of a client. But, upon reflection, that didn’t compute. Her accent wasn’t local. And her blue blouse was completely covering her breasts. I turned back for another look. “Why shouldn’t I drink Primus?”
“Because it tastes like urine,” she said, smiling. “And the brasserie is owned by Heineken. Have a Tembo. Much better.” She wiggled her own empty bottle of that beer. I turned back to the barman and changed my order, including one for my new acquaintance.
“So if you are not French, what are you?” she queried. I have a good ear, and had placed her now.
“I’m from New York,” I said in English, grinning. “And you’re from Texas.”
Cheryl was a pilot, ex-Air Force, flying UN supplies and business products in and out for a cargo outfit based in South Africa. She was charming, and extremely attractive. I was charming in return, and extremely attracted.
Unfortunately, I made the fatal error of inviting Cheryl back to the table and introducing her to Simon.
Naturally, they had things in common. Naturally, they had war stories to swap. I had tales to tell about business deals, boardrooms and baseball. Simon had tales about sneaking into countries, armed to the teeth, and abducting bad guys. Never try to compete with a Special Boat Service veteran for the affections of a lady.
So that night I lay awake, seething, listening to Cheryl and Simon in the hotel room next to mine, loudly proclaiming their temporary love.
I was very annoyed at Simon, and made a mental note to rent better friends in the future.
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