Chapter OneWorld Organisation H Q, N airobi, 1141
"Where?" said Abdul Hakim.
"Uingereza, Bwana. England," said his special assistant, Saloth Sar. "It's in the south-eastern part of this island, here, off the northwest coast—"
"I know where England is," said Abdul Hakim. Suspecting that most people considered him impatient, he hoped it was said of him that he did not suffer fools gladly: that he was businesslike and no-nonsense, brisk rather than brusque.
He need not have troubled to work on the first impression he created. Even to a complete stranger, seeing him from a distance, the type was unmistakable—from his heelless pointed slippers to his white lace skullcap and the green cotton gown that covered him from neck to ankle—he was the very image of the entitled upper-class Ivy League graduate, the cream of Tsumkwe Prep or the playing fields of Bulawayo Academy, striding confidently across the hallowed quadrangles of Timbuctoo to a meeting of his secret society, always cultivating that essential air of effortless superiority. No deliberate parody of an upper-class, elite modern African of the mid-twelfth century would have been closer to the type.
He was indeed a Timbuctoo man (Double First, PPE), MA (Political Science) (Witwatersrand), PhD from the Kisangani Higher Institute for International Relations magna cum laude (he entitled his thesis The Influence of Climate and the Environment on Tendencies towards Aggression in Barbarian States, with Special Emphasis on North America)—and certainly he knew where England was. What he didn't understand was why the world's premier intergovernmental body, the Organisatio Nationorum Orbi, should want to send a peacekeeping force there.
"They don't have roads, do they?"
"Some roads. From the main ports on the Channel to the commercial capital." Saloth Sar wondered if he should add "London," but decided that Abdul Hakim knew that, or would want his assistant to believe he knew it.
Abdul Hakim searched the recesses of his memory. "This civil war ... it's still going on?"
"There's a lull, probably only temporary, while King Stephen and the Empress Matilda regroup their forces and try to raise money to continue the fighting. But on both sides, control of their troops is very tenuous. Most of the time the soldiers go around robbing, raping and pillaging civilians, even the ones supposedly on their own side. Their allegiance to one party or the other is purely nominal, and powerful barons or large groups of armed men tend to switch sides if they get a better offer, or think the enemy is going to win the battle."
With the slightest movement of his hand, Saloth Sar gestured gracefully at the draft report he had placed in front of Abdul Hakim. He was a diminutive, slender, softly-spoken Nirvanan, the son of two dancers from the Royal Khmer Dance Company. His movements were fluid, graceful, deft and economical. Many men assumed that he was homosexual, although most women did not make that mistake.
"There's quite a lot in the draft report about the humanitarian and human rights situation, and something from the child-protection people," he said. "It looks pretty bad. The secretary-general is aware of the situation and wants the council to set up a peacekeeping operation. We've put in the report that we're going to send a technical survey team."
Abdul Hakim leaned back in his swivel chair. To gain time, and to look thoughtful, he reached out and picked up the pipe lying in the glass ashtray on his wooden desk. Then he put it back down again. The desk officers of the Europe Etc. Division of the ONO Office for Keeping the Peace Up—"of which I have the honour to be director," as he liked to say—were already stretched by five major missions in the North American Great Lakes/Middle West region and Newfoundland, not counting a separate initiative by the secretary-general's personal envoy, the Illyrian ambassador Redl (a pompous and lazy time-server, in Abdul Hakim's opinion, whose secretive backstairs deal-making did more harm than good). This was not the time to take on a new operation, especially in England. Cold, bleak, muddy, rainy, snowy, foggy, sleety, remote, roadless, godless, unfriendly, uncivilized, Christian, quarrelsome, unforgiving, profitless, backward England—the place screamed "quagmire." Logistics would be a nightmare. Saloth Sar had said there were roads out of London. He could picture them. Corrugated grass-grown tracks more likely, and in the wet season—did they have a wet season?—axle-hugging, wheel-clinging mud-baths. Everything would have to be moved by barge and balloon. And troop contributors—how would they be able to entice any country to send soldiers to a place like England?
With a sigh of resignation, Abdul Hakim started to read the document Saloth Sar had brought him. REPORT OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL ON THE SITUATION IN ENGLAND, symbol S/1141/-. Well, things certainly did look bad. Country split by civil war between rival factions for the throne. Both claimants descended from the Conqueror, each with a strong following of his or her own. Armies running amok throughout the land, preying on civilians. Large provincial towns such as Worcester and Gloucester sacked and burned, amid murder and rape. More murder, rape, destruction of villages, pillage, poisoning of wells, abduction and recruitment of children into armed forces, widespread hunger and exposure, huge population displacements, and heavy death toll directly and indirectly caused by the fighting. All right, can't have that kind of thing going on. But would they agree to let ONO deploy a peacekeeping operation?
It seemed they would. The parties had fought each other to a temporary standstill, and as part of the manoeuvring they had signed a ceasefire agreement (all right, they didn't call it that; thankfully they hadn't yet quite reached the firearms stage) at a place called—he riffled through the pages of the draft report—ah, yes, Bletchley. Such charming names these native places had! The text of the agreement was annexed to the report. Hmmm. Fairly crude example of this kind of battlefield agreement. Called for all forces to remain in their present positions, except for essential resupply (and, he supposed, regular raping and looting excursions, which for these kinds of forces usually constituted "essential resupply"); set up a provisional council with representatives of both parties to resolve the question of succession; humbly appeal to Her Holiness the Pope to guide their deliberations and invoke God's heavenly grace in resolving this issue. So maybe there was already a nuncio en route from Rome to chair this committee, unless there was already one resident in—what was that place called? There it is, the Holy City of Canterbury. Now, where do we come into this?
By paragraph 45, the signatories called on the Organisation of Nations of the World "to send a force to supervise and guarantee the implementation of this agreement by the parties, and to assist them in the resolution of the present conflict." Abdul Hakim felt a brief flare of irritation. So the church gets a "humble appeal" to send one man, who's probably already there, and whose only job is to tell them what God wants them to do. ONO, which will have to spend tens of millions of taxpayer shillings to sort out this mess, gets a perfunctory "calls on." Not much respect there.
It got worse. The Bletchley agreement also called for "negative forces" to be "tracked down." Apparently this was a reference to an English terrorist group calling itself the Sons of Hereward, in honour (if that was the word) of the leader of the original English resistance to William the Conqueror, back in the 1070s and 1080s. They were based in the marshy fenlands in the east of the country and, if reports were correct, were violently hostile to the English government (which they called the "Norman Occupation Government," or NOG); and they expressed their hostility through killing, raping and robbing inoffensive civilians in their vicinity, most recently in the town of Cambridge—the site, it seemed, of a small university. The agreement was written—deliberately, Abdul Hakim supposed—in the passive voice, raising the question of who was supposed to do this tracking down. He made a mental note to flag to his boss, the under-secretary-general for peacekeeping, that this "tracking down" was definitely not a task for ONO.
"Supervise and guarantee the implementation of the agreement"—what would that mean? Monitoring the ceasefire, verifying the positions of the military of both sides and observing their movements, reporting any violations to the Security Council. Need that entail more than a few hundred unarmed military observers? Milobs were easier to find than armed contingents, because ONO paid them more than they would normally receive in their own armies, and there were fewer of them. On the other hand, they would have a lot of negotiating, explaining and politicking to do, even at the local level. What languages did these people speak, anyway?
The original language of the agreement was Latin, but Abdul Hakim's political staff had already sent the document for advance translation into Swahili. In theory all ONO staff were supposed to be able to work in Latin, but many here in Nairobi, if asked, would be forced to describe their Latin as rusty. Later the report would be translated into the other ONO official languages: Arabic, Chinese, Persian and Sanskrit.
The agreement went on: "and to assist them in resolving the present conflict." That would require much more than a simple technical military monitoring presence. The mission would need a political element, under a fairly prominent special representative, or head of mission. And with all these horror stories, it would need humanitarian, human rights and child-protection components. Public information? Yes, they would need a radio station. There would be no newssheets up there in England, he was sure. Most of the population was probably illiterate anyway.
"Saloth, I'll get to this tonight, but what are we recommending?"
"Sending a technical survey team to report on the practical modalities of a future implementation."
"A bit tentative, don't you think? The situation looks pretty bad. I know it hasn't really come up on the council's radar screen—no press interest that I'm aware of—but some of the northern Europeans must be aware of this. Normandy? Yes of course, they're one of the concerned regional powers. The Viking League? Any of them on the council at the moment?"
"Denmark. Next month's president." The presidency of the Security Council rotated on a monthly basis, in Swahili alphabetical order.
"There you are, then. We'd better put some more meat in it. Can't we recommend the immediate deployment of military observers to the headquarters of the opposing sides? That would look as if we were getting things moving. These ceasefire agreements in the field can be very shaky. It wouldn't do to have them start fighting again while we're faffing about with a technical survey team. We'd need the team as well, of course. How long would it take to put one together?"
"I'll talk to Field Support. On the political side, Leclerc could go. He speaks French."
"Is that what they speak? I had a strange notion that they might speak English in England."
"Not the people we'll be dealing with. Anyone of importance in England will be Norman. They all speak French, and the really important ones will probably be able to manage in Latin."
"Thank heavens for that level of civilisation, anyway. I don't suppose any of them will speak Swahili?"
"What makes you such an expert, anyway, Saloth? Have you been to this Allah-forsaken place?"
"Not within a thousand miles. But we had an English nurse when I was growing up. My brother and I. A slave, of course. The most amazing-looking creature—hair as yellow as butter, and skin the colour of cream."
"You make her sound like a dairy product."
"Well, she did like that sort of thing—always hankering after cheese and butter and milk and so on. She was fixated on something called curds and whey. She'd learned Khmer, which is why we bought her. That and her sweet and gentle nature, and her striking appearance. Her eyes were the colour of the sky. Most people in our town had never seen a cream-coloured person before. When they saw her blue eyes they would think she was blind, and try to help her across the street. But she was really quite intelligent. She could even dance—she had a fine natural sense of rhythm. But of course she lacked the discipline and sophistication that a proper dancer needs. Oh, and the most important thing—she taught us some English."
"You speak the language?"
"Heavens, no. Just a few words. I remember what she used to say to calm me and my brother down when we were fighting. Oi, yew tew! Fakkin shattit oral wollop apairaya!" Saloth Sar smiled fondly at the memory. "Probably some traditional Anglo-Saxon lullaby. There's a rough poetry to some of these primitive languages, don't you think? Fakkin shattit."
"Be careful not to tell too many people you speak some English. You might end up as district officer for the Holy City of Canterbury, or wherever. They'll be needing to send some people from HQ. This is going to be big. We won't be able to staff the entire mission with temporary appointees and ONO volunteers."
After Saloth Sar had left the office, Abdul Hakim spent a few moments gazing out of his large, steel-framed window, through the peeling blue-green film intended to provide protection from the setting sun. From his thirty-seventh-floor office, he had a fine view of midtown Nairobi. Directly below his window, across First Avenue, the Isaiah Steps led up to the short spur of Forty-Third Street to the low granite pile of Grand Central Station, where, every morning, trains brought in three million commuters from every corner of the vast urban sprawl of this mighty city. He never tired of the view from his window. Look at that new building on Second Avenue and Forty- Sixth, a cylinder of silver-grey glass reflecting bright shards of the mild January sun down onto the shadowed street below! And that red marble tower on Lexington, with its top five storeys a gigantic replica of a traditional hut—a thousand tons of concrete and steel masquerading as thatch. With his conventional background and education, it pleased him to see these classical touches, in a world he often thought was growing more brutish every year.
The Security Council had scheduled the introduction of the England report for late Thursday afternoon: the least auspicious time. Though the report had been out for almost two weeks, not a single member had mentioned it, still less called the secretariat with questions. England was definitely off their radar screen.
The discussion was scheduled to take place, as usual, in the cramped, utilitarian consultation room, behind the celebrated Security Council chamber where the council held its public meetings. It was in here, not out there, that the members of the council worked out in private the decisions later announced to the world with carefully choreographed public pomp. Off to the side of the consultation room was an even more cramped and uncomfortable caucus room, where smaller groups of lower-level diplomats could retire to hammer out gritty details beneath the notice of their excellencies, the ambassadors.
They were tired, Abdul Hakim could see, as he returned to the consultation room at about four o'clock. They'd spent practically all morning and most of the afternoon discussing the Middle West. He had briefed them himself on developments in the Manhattan and Chicago operations—another roadside bomb in Breukelen had killed two ONO peacekeepers, as well as a dozen or so civilians, and the Canadians were being blamed. The USA had restated their commitment to a just and lasting peace in the Middle West, but sometimes Abdul Hakim wondered if African involvement in North America was doing more harm than good.