In this extract from Fortunate, Beth has been invited as a guest to a party for the President’s security officers at a remote hotel on the edge of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. Johnson is the hotel manager. Boniface is a senior security officer.
An enormous silk marquee with flying pennants has been erected on the lawn, open at the front to give a view of the lake. A red carpet flows like an issue of blood across the terrace, down the stairs to the lawn and disappears into the back of the marquee. Johnson says, in a low voice, that Beth has saved him some trouble by returning and then takes her to find Boniface but he’s preoccupied with his duties, hardly looking at her as he snaps, ‘You’re almost late, but at least you’re here.’ He receives a call on his radio phone and turns away from her to talk, before striding off into the hotel. Beth fears she may not get a chance to confront him.
Military men stand around in cliques on the lawn, their uniforms spangled with colourful ribbon bars and party-poppered with gold braids, tassels and lanyards. Jekuche is filling their crystal glasses with Moët et Chandon champagne. A small group of women strut and shimmer near the edge of the lawn in their fashion-house dresses. She’s pleased that she can hold her own in Alena’s Chanel piece. That’s what you can slip into if you can borrow from a friend who’s married to a futures trader. Johnson brings her a fresh orange juice but then hurries off on his duties. She is about to pluck up courage to drift over towards the women when she hears the buzz of a helicopter. It flies low overhead, its blades chopping the air with a harsh thwack thwack, making the silk of the marquee sink and flow. Excited chatter erupts from the guests as the muscular machine disappears behind the hotel. ‘The President,’ boasts a man near Beth as he reaches for the knot of his tie, whether to check it is straight or as an involuntary gesture to protect his neck, she can’t tell.
Ten minutes after the helicopter lands, the President appears on the terrace and walks down the carpet with a jaunty gait. He’s smaller than Beth expected; he compensates with dinner-plate glasses. He raises a hand graciously to acknowledge the prolonged applause. Boniface escorts him into the marquee. The guests are lined up by a master of ceremonies and ushered forward to be introduced in order of importance to the President. Beth is third from last with two overawed-looking men behind her. They are the only ones not sporting medals on their uniforms. The President’s eyes are almost closed and he stands unmoving as Boniface introduces each guest. How will Boniface introduce her, she having told him her name was Lynette? But she mustn’t miss any opportunity to ask him about Matt.
When it’s her turn, she whispers to Boniface, ‘I’ve got to talk to you afterwards.’
Boniface just has time to hiss, ‘There’s no chance of that,’ before they are in front of the President. ‘Your Excellency, this is comrade Doctor Bethan Jenkins,’ Boniface announces.
The President is uninterested.
‘She’s a very … er … useful friend of the Party – and she’s Welsh.’ The President remains unmoved; totally preoccupied it seems with affairs of state, or asleep on his feet.
‘In fact, your Excellency,’ Boniface says loudly, ‘she’s a good friend of the Prince of Wales.’
‘Ah!’ The President’s filmy eyes widen and gleam like an attentive owl. He looks at Beth and smiles faintly, saying with a cultured and precise voice, ‘Indeed? Pass on my good wishes to my friend, the Prince. Let him know that it’s my sincere wish that we’ll meet again when he’s King. I very much hope that by then your Prime Minister and his clique of gays and neo-colonial adventurers are no longer attempting to re-colonise us.’ He chuckles deeply.
Although nervous – perhaps because she is nervous – Beth finds herself smiling awkwardly back, but there’s no time to deny any royal connections. Boniface has pushed her on and is ushering forward the next guest. The President returns to his stony state.
Inside, Beth is seated between the two men who’d taken up the rear of the queue. The tables have been laid for a banquet and she can’t help but say, ‘Wow!’
The man on her right chuckles and leans towards her. ‘The roses and crane lilies were flown in yesterday from Kenya whilst, of course, the tulips came from Holland. The lobsters, crab, crayfish and mussels are from France but the duck and king prawn are from China. Beef is from Argentina. The pawpaw, mango, and dragon fruit you see in the fruit salad arrived fresh only this morning from Malaysia. Do you like crème-chantilly? It’s from Paris. Ferrero Rocher? They’re from Italy. Me, I like it all and I’ll finish the banquet with Johnny Walker Blue Label.’
Beth remembers the starving children on her way to the hotel but it seems a futile gesture to refuse to eat so she tucks in as heartily as anyone whilst she watches for an opportunity to speak to Boniface. Her seat mate says little more during the meal although leans across soon after they start eating to tell her, ‘We’re at one of the President’s most important functions this year but the media aren’t allowed near. Many of the guests are being decorated for top secret services to the state.’ Secret services? More like accidental services in her case, she thinks. She feels nauseous.
When everyone is satiated, they are ushered out – burping shamelessly – whilst the mountains of golden sweet wrappers and crustacean remains are cleared and the furniture re-arranged. Beth tries to catch Boniface’s attention but he’s instructing his security team and ignores her. Half an hour later they are invited back into the marquee. The tables have gone and the chairs are now in two sets of rows that face each other. The deeper set of five rows faces away from the open front of the marquee whilst the opposing set of two rows, raised on a low plinth, looks out onto the lake. There is a green-leather armchair for the President in the centre of the first of the two rows to give him a good view over the water, although the last blush of pink is decaying to purple as the sun falls away.
Beth makes for the furthest of the five rows by the open front of the marquee but feels a firm hand on her shoulder. It’s Boniface. ‘Dr Jenkins, come this way. I’ve reserved a place for you in the second row over there behind the President. It’s a great honour for you.’
She protests but he’s insistent. And so she finds herself almost directly behind the Presidential armchair. Boniface leaves her there between the two men that she’d sat next to at the meal. He strides to the open end of the marquee and looks out at the lake. The light is fading rapidly but Beth can see three black kapenta boats far out in the bay, fishing lights not yet lit and nets raised on their booms like dark wasp nests. A patrol boat stirs up tar-black eddies from the bituminous depths of the lake as it draws alongside the nearest kapenta boat – presumably the security services giving them a look over. Boniface turns around. His eyes squint and he moves a couple of steps each way, looking back at the President’s chair from different angles. Then he returns and orders the man sitting on Beth’s right, ‘Swap places with Dr Jenkins.’ The man jumps up to do so but Beth looks at Boniface, puzzled.
‘It’s protocol, Dr Jenkins.’
‘It’s very important I speak to you afterwards,’ Beth says, remaining stubbornly in her seat as if that will persuade him to acquiesce.
‘If there’s an afterwards, you can see me then,’ Boniface says darkly. Taken aback, Beth swaps places.
Back Boniface goes to the front of the marquee before turning to inspect the seating arrangement again. Beth has the impression that he’s lining her up in some way. She is now almost directly behind the President’s chair. A disquieting thought comes to her. She remembers 'The Day of the Jackal'. She’ll be in the line of fire of any assassination attempt from the mouth of the marquee. She checks herself. The heat is turning her into a conspiracy theorist. The President could not be safer: security men swarm about like hornets. The cream of the CIO are present. What can possibly go wrong?
But what would stop an assassin? Obvious: to see a friend in the line of fire. She finds herself crossing her hands in front of her chest. Does Boniface suspect that Fortunate is going to make an attempt on the President’s life? Does he believe what Hope dismissed as ridiculous? Is he betting that Fortunate will not shoot if she’s behind the President? Of course he won’t shoot. She rests her hands on her lap.
But what if there’s another assassin out in there in the wilds? Someone cold and suave. The security services are taking elaborate precautions. There must be a reason. She stares, feeling as pop-eyed as a thyrotoxic, towards the half-lit lawn and the now dark lake. In her red dress she must look like a bull’s-eye in a target. Beside her, she realises, are two lowly, expendable men.
Whilst she tries not to think that there is only going to be the Head of State between herself and an assassin’s bullet, the President enters to loud applause to take his seat in front of her. They all stand. No sooner has the President arrived at his chair than he turns to her and hands her an envelope. He says that it’s a private message for Prince Charles and would she deliver it at her earliest convenience? He turns back, giving her no chance to deny a friendship with the Prince. She finds she’s tightly clutching the envelope. She’s becoming a transcontinental courier; this has to stop.
Johnson appears through the flaps at the side of the marquee, carrying two great bunches of gold and lilac balloons. The guests clap again as he makes his way to present them to the President. Beth can’t see the President’s face but his little fidgets tell her that he’s as pleased as the birthday child who opens the final wrapping on the pass-the-parcel. The two security men on the lawn either side of the entrance have turned their attention from scanning the shadows at the edge of the lawn and the black expanse of the lake and are looking into the marquee although they remain poker-faced. She hopes they aren’t getting distracted. She thinks of the Jackal firing his high-powered rifle at the melon. She remembers Frederick Forsyth’s description of the melon exploding, leaving just the hanging remains of the string bag that contained it. The melon connection is macabrely appropriate, the way they’ve all been stuffing themselves with fruit at the banquet.
The President takes the balloons. He raises his arms theatrically – sycophantic laughter babbles from the guests – and then holds them aloft without releasing them. The security men have turned their attention to undoing the knots that hold the rolled-up flap of the marquee as if they’ve decided it’s too much of a risk to leave it open now that night has fallen. The roll loosens and drops a little as the first knot at one end is undone. A sudden movement of sultry air from the lake agitates the balloons. Beth sees something move in one of the bushes at the end of the lawn. She pulls in her shoulders and catches her breath. The man at the other end of the flap is having difficulty with his knot. For heaven’s sake, what’s wrong with you, man? Give it to me; let me do it. Get that roll down fast. He succeeds in pulling out one loop.
That’s when it happens: a cracking retort, so loud and close that she thinks the assassin is next to her. She chokes on her heart. The security men swivel, knees bent, reaching for their handguns.
The guests in front of the President retract their necks. A collective gasp sucks the air from the marquee, followed by the briefest moment of dead quiet. But the President is still standing, his head intact, and Beth sees that there is no dark stain spreading on her dress. A piece of lilac balloon lands at the President’s feet. A large moth flies in a crazed arc from the bush on the edge of the lawn.
The marquee erupts in hee-hawing laughter. Beth swallows her heart again and chuckles with the rest, exchanging a how-silly-we-were look with the men next to her. Even the President turns from side to side, smiling, still holding the balloons aloft. Then he releases them and they float merrily to the top of the marquee trailing their silver ribbons while everyone claps with sweet relief.
Beth sees the security man at the mouth of the marquee return to his knot, exchanging smiles with another official – he’s momentarily off guard. The night outside thickens, a cloaking opacity. She can no longer see the surface of the lake. She finds herself apprehensive again whilst all around is good-humoured murmuring. Out of the inky dark, from the direction of the lake, she sees a single flash of explosive light.
Copyright © Andrew JH Sharp 2013. This extract may not be reproduced without the consent of the author.
‘Out of the inky dark, she sees a single flash of explosive light.’