“Over my dead body,” Olivia had said…
From the window of the manager’s bungalow Evan Cameron watched Charlie Gambon’s Police Land Rover driving away from the compound, Olivia sitting alongside him in the front.
In the course of one day he had managed to lose both his wife and his mine…
That morning, the voice at the other end of the telephone had told him, “The Management has heard your recommendations, Evan…”
The voice was that of Natasha, speaking from her Pretoria office. Natasha was the Company’s Personnel Manager. She was the also the Company’s butcher and herald of unpleasant news; and as ever her tone was icy.
“The Board has finally come to the conclusion that re-opening the Ochatingi mine is no longer a viable proposition…
“I’m sorry, Evan – but that’s the final word. You are to give immediate notice to everyone still on the payroll. A team will be coming out to seal off the mine entrance and to strengthen all perimeter fences… The good news is that any management living in the compound will be allowed to buy their properties from the Company at heavily discounted valuations.”
“And my future… their futures?”
“As I said, you are to give everyone immediate notice.”
“I see,” Evan said. He paused, then asked, “Me included?”
“Well you can hardly give notice to yourself, can you?” Natasha said tartly. “But you should expect its arrival soonest. As I say, like everyone else, you will have the right to buy your bungalow on generous terms, if that’s what you want…”
The conversation was clearly going no further and, as Evan Cameron put the telephone down, he wondered what the future held for them now – and how was he going to break the news to Olivia?
She was sitting out on the stoep flicking through a copy of Time Magazine – a copy that had to be at least six months old: He remembered buying it at Cape Town Airport when he had flown back from a conference.
Without looking up she said, “Do you realise that it was only a year ago that the bloody guerrillas blew up the fuel refinery at Ermelo?”
He didn’t realise it; but he sat down in the chair alongside her, steeling himself to break the news as gently as he could – but Olivia had banged the open magazine angrily down on the table with a force that threatened to split the spine.
“Christ! In this fucking place it could have been a hundred years ago and no one would notice the difference!” she complained bitterly.
Oh, Christ, too, Cameron thought. Perhaps this wasn’t the best time to introduce the subject of redundancy?
Olivia had been discontented ever since he had first been posted to Ochatingi eight years ago, but lately she had become worse – more like a sulky Black Mamba on heat, assuming that was Black Mambas did suffer periods and did become discountenanced by the hormonal changes that they brought on. He had always known Olivia didn’t like Ochatingi: Perhaps she would welcome the news that he had just lost his job, be pleased to be spared having to live out in this backwater any longer.
That possibility was quickly confirmed when, after repeating as gently as he could his telephone conversation with Natasha, he ended by telling her that the only positive thing coming from it was that, if they wanted, they could buy the bungalow at a knock-down price.
“Over my dead body!” she had said; and for emphasis she repeated it again: “Over “my dead body, Evan!
“I’ve already spent eight years buried in this dump: I certainly don’t want to have any more – and with no more wages coming in then not even at a knock down price. Why, we couldn’t even afford the petrol to get me to Pretoria and back.”
Okay, so that was settled then.
He was wondering whether now was the time or place to explore what the future held for them when he heard a commotion down by the compound entrance. Standing up, he saw that the gate had been burst open. Three police Land Rovers were following each other into the compound in quick succession, the first nearly knocking down a protesting Lestunga as they sped past.
The convoy came to a halt in front of the bungalow and Charlie Gambon stepped down from the lead vehicle, a number of his blackjacks swarming from out of the other two. Wondering what on earth this was all about, Cameron jumped down from the stoep and walked across to meet their unexpected visitors.
Gambon hardly paused in his stride, brushing past him and making no effort to return Evan’s greeting. He waved a piece of paper at him as he passed, saying, “I’ve got a search warrant, Man. We’re going to search your bungalow – all of it; and that includes the servants’ quarters.”
There was no “Sorry Evan, but…” about it; and Gambon and his men marched up to the bungalow. Four of his blackjacks went straight round the back whilst the Inspector led the remaining four onto the stoep and towards the front door. As they went past Olivia, reading her magazine, Evan saw her look up, her expression emotionless; and he could hear Gambon saying: “Search Warrant!” as he marched his team through the front door.
Evan Cameron was getting an uncomfortable feeling that he knew what they were looking for – the kerosene can! He had never said anything to Olivia about it; and. she didn’t know he had it or of the reason he had hidden it – yet she didn’t seem to find this intrusion so unexpected.
Climbing back onto the stoep he sat down beside her, intending to explain all. But before he could say a word to his astonishment Olivia got out of her chair: “Excuse me,” she said stiffly; and she went inside.
Following her into the bungalow, he saw her going to the bedroom and heard her locking the door behind her. What had got into her? Had she, he wondered, known this was going to happen?
The police knew exactly what they were looking for – and they knew where to find it. There was no need for them to search anywhere other than the kitchen and the servants’ quarters; and it was towards those that they headed.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked Gambon.
“Sorry, Evan,” Gambon said, still not looking as if he meant it… “But we have information that leads us to believe there is stolen police property on the premises.”
They had information… From where, Evan Cameron wondered, did that information come? His first thought was the cook: Olivia had sacked her after several warnings that she wasn’t to use the telephone for calling her bookmakers. The cook must have gone to the police out of spite. Yet the houseboys had told him that she had gathered up her things and taken off for Durban, where she had relatives…
It couldn’t, could it, have been Olivia? He knew that she had been getting unhealthily close to Charlie Gambon ever since the two had been paired in this mixed doubles competition at the tennis club. It seemed strange that his wife should go straight into the bedroom and lock herself in at a time like this – it was almost as though she didn’t want to face him.
Crashing from the storeroom told him that the police were pulling the packing cases out. In a few seconds Gambon came back to the kitchen triumphantly flourishing the incriminating kerosene can, which he waved around in front of him.
“Found it!” he said, looking smug… His expression hardened: he walked up to Evan and stared into his face; and, from just inches away, he shouted, “I found it, you bladdy nigger fucker!”
He thought Gambon was about to foam at the mouth, but the Inspector, taking control of himself, carried on with studied deliberation, “I don’t know what you know about this – you or anyone else in your household…
“But you can tell them all – and that includes that kaffir girl I hear that you have befriended… You can tell them first that this is a piece of police property – or it was once, before someone nicked it.”
He thrust the can up under Evan’s nose, who thought that the Inspector was going to start salivating again: “Look at it! What does it say, Man? It says fokking property of the fokking South African police doesn’t it? Why are you hiding police property in your house, Man?
“… And you can also tell them,” Gambon, calming himself again added, “that not only is it police property but also that it’s evidence! Evidence in a murder case, I’ll tell you, Man!”
“Be reasonable,” Evan told the inspector. “It may once have been police property – but who’s to say how long ago it came into someone else’ hands?”
“Exactly so! So the police didn’t have it at the time the fire started in Ochatingi, did they? But it’s still police property, and somebody stole it, Man. I can’t tell you who, right now, but it has to have been stolen by someone in this house – and that includes the Bantu girl. We’ll fingerprint it; and that will tell us who it was that handled it, probably using it to blow up a shack in Ochatingi.”
“Well Anulka’s no longer here so I can’t answer for her,” Evan said. “Look, if you like I’ll go and ask Olivia if she knows anything about it. I guess you’ve upset her – I can’t think why else she’s gone and locked herself in her room.”
Gambon said quickly, “Oh, don’t trouble her – Olivia’s not a suspect… It’s the black bitch that I’m going to get a warrant for…
“You see, I’m not so concerned about the can being stolen – but whoever hid it here had to have something to hide – knew that it had something to do with that shack being burned down. And bladdy Kaffir that she may have been, an old woman got killed in that fire. That’s what it’s evidence of, Man… murder!”
Remembering that he had never allowed his hands hadn’t come into direct contact with the surface of the can at any time, Evan Cameron was glad he had gone to such lengths. But Anulka must have touched it many times between the fire and her handing it over to him on the following day.
“Just the same,” he said, “if you don’t mind, I’ll go and see what’s wrong with Olivia.”
He knocked on the bedroom door. “What on earth are you doing, locking yourself in there?” he shouted through the door. “Come out, Olivia – the Inspector wants to know something.”
The door was unlocked and Olivia emerged. He pointed to the can Gambon was holding: “I’m sure you don’t know anything about it… but could you just confirm that you have never seen the jerry-can that the Inspector is waiving around the place like a madman?”
Olivia shrugged her shoulders and went to sit down. He hadn’t expected her reply – and certainly Gambon hadn’t either. Looking coolly at her husband, she said, “Yes, I have seen it before, Evan. The cook – rather the ex-cook – showed it me. She said that it had come up from Ochatingi with Anulka and that you had hidden it Rather a silly thing to do; and which I assume means you were trying to protect the girl.”
Gambon gave what seemed like a whoop of satisfaction. He said, “Of course, we shall have to find the cook – but that shouldn’t be difficult.” He poked a finger in Evan Cameron’s chest. “When we do, if she’s still singing the same tune, then I can’t even begin to spell out all the charges that you will be answering to, Buddy Boy!
“In the meanwhile you can redeem yourself some by telling me where that Bantu girl is.”
Giving his wife a sorrowful look, Evan said: “I won’t tell you that, Charlie. In fact I can’t see that there’s any need. I don’t mind betting that, if my wife hasn’t told you already, then she’s more than able and willing to do so.”
He turned towards Olivia, angry and sad all at once: “You bloody Judas!” he said. “How many inches did lover-boy here give you to make you to blab out the comings and goings in this house to him? On your back, were you? On your back, whilst he spilled the milk and you spilled the beans? I’ll bet you were…”
Gambon bridled. He put his fists up and crouched, ready to throw a punch; but Evan Cameron had picked up a chair and was holding it to his chest, the legs away from him, keeping the Inspector at bay.
“Oh, let’s not have any bloodshed,” Olivia implored them. “Can’t this thing be sorted out with some decency?”
She walked across to Charlie and stood as close to him as she could. Taking his arm she asked, “Are you about to come off duty, Inspector? Because, if you are, I would like to come with you – that is if you’ll have me. I’ve had enough of living in this effing dump.”
“I can always be off duty for you, Olivia,” Charlie replied, smirking.
He called his sergeant over and instructed him to take the can carefully back to Duxbury Road Police station, sending the other two Land Rovers with his men back along with it.
“I’ll just pack a few things,” Olivia said.