‘You don’t need to give a reason. They will know soon enough.’ He turned to one of the two men in civilian clothes. ‘Bunja, you are in command here. I’ll call you from the radio station.’
Banjul lies on the south-western side of the River Gambia’s mouth and is separated from the rest of the southern half of the country – the major tourist beaches of Bakau and Fajara, the large township of Serekunda and the airport at Yundum – by a large area of mangrove swamp, which is itself intersected by numerous small watercourses and the much larger Oyster Creek. Anyone leaving or entering Banjul had to cross the creek by the Denton Bridge, a two-lane concrete structure two hundred yards long. At around two a.m. Taal and twenty rebels arrived to secure the bridge, left half a dozen of their number to set up checkpoints at either end, and roared on into Banjul.
The lorry drew up outside the darkened building in Buckle Street which was home to Radio Gambia. No one answered the thunderous knock on the door, so two Field Force men broke it down, and the rebels surged into the building. They found only three people inside, one man in the small studio, sorting through records for the next day’s playlist, and one of the engineers undressed and halfway to paradise with his equally naked girlfriend on the roof. The engineer was bustled downstairs, while the two remaining rebels handed his girlfriend her clothing bit by bit, snickering with pleasure at her embarrassment, and fighting the urge to succumb to their own lust. It was fortunate for the girl that the coup leaders had stressed the need for self-discipline – and the punishments reserved for those who fell short of this – to all of their men. The girl, tears streaming down her face, was eventually escorted downstairs, and left sitting in a room full of records.
The radio station now secure, Taal called Bunja at the airport and checked that nothing had gone amiss. Nothing had. Further calls confirmed that the Banjul ferry terminal and the main crossroads in Serekunda had been seized. Taal called the main Field Force depot in Bakau where the coup leader, Mamadou Jabang, was waiting for news.
‘Yes?’ Jabang asked, his voice almost humming with tension. ‘Everything has gone according to plan?’
‘So far,’ Taal said. ‘We’ll move on to the Presidential Palace now. Are our men in position around the hotels yet?’
‘They should be,’ Jabang replied. ‘The tourists never leave their hotels anyway,’ he added sourly, ‘so it hardly seems necessary to use our men to keep them in.’
‘We don’t want any of them wandering out and getting shot,’ Taal reminded him. Their chances of success were thin enough, he thought, without bringing the wrath of the white world down on their heads.
‘No, we don’t,’ Jabang agreed without much conviction. ‘We’re on our way, then. I’ll see you at the radio station.’
Dr Sibou Cham yawned and rubbed her eyes, then sat for a moment with her hands held, as if in prayer, over her nose. You should pray for a decent hospital, she told herself, one with all the luxuries, like beds and medicines. She looked down at the pile of patients’ records on her desk, and wondered if it was all worth it.
There was a muffled crack, like a gun being fired some way off. She got wearily to her feet and walked through the treatment room to the empty reception area, grateful for the excuse to leave her paperwork behind. The heavyweight concertina door, which would have seemed more at home in a loading dock than a hospital, was locked, as she had requested. Ever since the incident the previous May this had been done. Her attacker might be in prison, but there were others.
She put the chain on the door before unlocking it, then pulled it open a foot, letting in the balmy night air. Almost immediately there was another sound like gunfire, but then silence. It was a shot, she was sure of it. Perhaps a gang battle. She might be bandaging the victims before the night was over.
She closed the door again and sat down at the receptionist’s desk. All the drawer knobs were missing, which seemed to sum up the state of the place. It was all of a piece with the peeling cream paint on the walls, the concrete-block partition which had been half-finished for six months, the gaping holes in the mosquito screens, and the maddening flicker of the fluorescent light. It went with a pharmacy which had fewer drugs than the sellers in the marketplace.
What was she doing here? Why did she stay? One person could not make all that much difference, and maybe the very fact that she was there, working herself into the ground day after day, took away any urgency the authorities might feel about improving the situation.
But where else could she go? Into private practice, of course. It would be easier, more lucrative. She might even get some sleep once in a while. But she could not do it. In The Gambia it was the poor who needed more doctors, not the rich. If money and an easy life was what she wanted, she could have stayed in England, got a job in a hospital there, even become a GP.
Most of the other Africans and Asians she had known at medical school had done just that. They had escaped from the Third World, so why on earth would they want to go back? They would bitch about the English weather, bitch about the racism, but they liked being able to shop at Sainsburys, watch the TV, give their children a good education. And she could hardly blame them. Their countries needed them back, but to go back would be a sacrifice for them, and why should they be the ones to pick up the tab for a world that was not fair?
She could hardly pretend it had been a sacrifice for her, because she had never been able to separate her feelings about the practice of medicine from the unfathomable desire she had always felt to serve humanity. A doctor went where a doctor was most needed, and it was hard to imagine a more needy country in this respect than her own.
But – lately there always seemed to be a ‘but’. Since the attack on her there had been a sense of…loneliness, she supposed. She felt alone, there was no doubt about it. Her family lived in New York, and in any case could not understand why she had not used her obvious gifts to make more of her life. More, that is, in terms of houses, cars and clothes. The people she worked with were the usual mixed bunch – some nice, some not so nice – but she had little in common with any of them. There were no other women doctors at the Royal Victoria Hospital, and the male doctors all wished they were somewhere else.
The Englishman who had saved her that night had become almost a friend. Or something like that. He flirted a lot, and she supposed he would take any sexual favours that were offered, but he had a wife in England, and she guessed that he too was more than a little lonely. And he was at that age, around forty, when men started wondering whether they had made the right life for themselves, and whether it was too late to do something about it.
She was nearly thirty herself, and there seemed little chance of finding a husband in Banjul, even if she had wanted one. She was not sure what she did want. Not to be alone, she supposed. Just that.
It was a funny thing to be thinking in an empty hospital reception area in the middle of the night. She sighed. In the morning it would all look so…
The burst of gunfire seemed to explode all around her, almost making her jump out of her skin. For a moment she thought it had to be inside the room, but then a shadowy figure went racing past in the street outside, then another, and another. They were probably heading for the Presidential Palace, whose gates were only a hundred yards away, around the next corner.
It had to be another coup.
There was a loud series of knocks on the concertina door and shouts of ‘open up’. She took a deep breath and went to unlock it. As she pulled it back a man half fell through the opening, wiping the blood from his head on her white coat as he did so. Behind him another man was holding a bloody side. ‘We need help,’ he groaned, somewhat unnecessarily.
Taal had walked down the radio station’s stairs, and was just emerging onto Buckle Street when a distant burst of automatic fire crackled above the sound of the lorry’s engine. It seemed to be coming from the direction of