Her husband, Sir Nigel Rothbank, hated it too. He missed the well-appointed leather chairs, the thick oriental rugs and tapestries, and most of all, the cigar-smelling opulence of his gentlemen's club. But, his family owned vast estates of tobacco, sugar cane and khat. It was his turn. Uncle Andy was in America, on business, he had said. Aunt Vicky -- how she hated that diminutive -- insisted on traveling through China one last time before death took her. Her expression. So dramatic, so theatrical, the whole family was rather like that. It was his turn then, he felt obligated, he needed to be here, in spite of the gout, the voracious insects, the horrid company, and his wife's illness, at least that's how he thought of it, her condition, that is.
The overhead fan beat cadence to the somber presence of her guests. Why they were in such a black mood was a mystery, to be sure, thought Megan. They, at least, have an indoor pool and an air conditioner that works. Theirs was broken, that is to say, it stopped working all of a sudden one abysmally hot, sticky day last week and, that was that. What a country. The only air-conditioner repairman in the entire region, it seems, was in prison. He had attempted a coup, of all things, and failed, miserably. Of course, he failed, he's an air-conditioner repairman, for Christ's sake! No sense of responsibility or consideration, these people. He must've been aware of all those who need him, who depend on him, his services. But no, he goes off to try to take over the country, leaving them -- her, her husband and their guests -- sweltering in this oppressive summer heat under siege on all sides by rabid mosquitoes.
There simply is no excuse!
*************Why in heaven's name would anyone want to rule this God-forsaken, bug-infested, despicable country? He deserves to die, hung by the neck until dead. That's what the judge said, she read it in the local gazzette -- her repairman. And good riddance, she thought bitterly, taking a sip of her Mint Julep. A new one was on the way; an air-conditioner, that is. She ordered it without telling Nigel, of course, he would've never approved. Nigel liked to sweat. And cheap, all the way to the bone and back again, cheap. Her repairman, that's how she thought of him; how dare he? The impudence, the gaul, there's no excuse. Hang 'im high, she said to herself, seething with despair, hang 'im high.
Nigel was busy filling the room with cigar smoke. After dinner, no matter where he was or who was around, he had to have a cigar with his brandy. A ritual he would not forsake under any circumstances; well, almost any. There was the time on safari when, because of the proximity of a lion pack, he thought better of it. Our guide had told him, rather tongue-in-cheek, that lions could abide, for the most part, the odor of humans and their assorted trappings, but cigar smoke was out. They would attack at night, dragging off the offender.
But tonight, not wishing to abandon his dinner guests completely, he had decided, not without some regret, to take his smoke with company in the living room. It would never occur to him, his ego being what it is, that company may not wish to enjoy the odor and the haze. They suffered in silence. Troopers all.
Ordinarily, he had his after-dinner smoke and brandy in his den. It smelled heavily of leather, hard drink and, of course, cigar smoke. The walls were decorated with the heads of unfortunate animals he had murdered on safari. Nigel wanted trophies, and by George, he got them. A male lion's head, a hippo, two hyenas, a sleek cheetah, and, oh, the long neck and head of a giraffe. It stood next to the door, about six feet tall. His contempt for this giraffe extended to occasionally using it for a hatrack. You see, accidentally -- we think -- it came between him and one of the last remaining white rhinos on the face of the planet. Nigel had been denied the pleasure of contributing to the demise of this rare creature, so he humiliated the giraffe whenever whim prompted. It was only fair, as he saw it.
Mogumbo entered bearing a tray laden with after-dinner treats -- sturgeon eggs and avocado slices on Dutch sesame crackers and watercress and cucumber wedgies -- placing it deftly on the coffee table. He stepped back and stood erect, at attention, admiring the tray and the style with which it was delivered. He wore brown huaraches, black cotton pants, what looked like the flag of Italy for a belt, and his signature red leather vest covering a shirt so white Megan was certain she could read by it on the darkest of nights. Receiving no response, or even notice, Mogumbo dismissed himself and proceeded to light the evening candles.
A natural aristocrat, he nonetheless harbored no simmering resentment or ill-will concerning his present occupation. If he did now and then feel a twinge of animosity caused by a misspoken, off-hand remark or a surly and impatient tone, he disguised it quite well. Which was all for the good. Nigel had no truck with insubordinate, insolent or ill-tempered servants. And that's how he thought of them. They were not employees in the modern sense, but servants from the old school.
Megan, for her part, had watched Gorillas In The Mist once too often and was therefore convinced it was only a matter of time before she would meet her death one stormy night at his hands. If not Mogumbo personally, then with his tacit approval. He would simply vacate the premises prior to the deed. Consequently, she was always polite, even when the stresses and misfortunes of daily life had gotten the best of what otherwise was a cheerful disposition, as she saw it. Nigel would have vigorously tried to discourage such deferential treatment, had he known, which he did not and would not. Megan liked having secrets; it helped.
Finishing her Julep, she thought again about having him followed, Mogumbo, that is, on his days off or when he went to market. He was too damn smart to be an ordinary butler, she knew, extraordinary as he was notwithstanding. He has to belong to some anarchist group, probably the mastermind behind the train derailment. Or a jewel thief. One day, a dark green sedan from the Ministry of Good and Evil will pull up and cart him away. That'd be the icing on the cake, she bristled, perspiration beading on her face and arms, first I lose my A-C repairman, then the finest butler on the continent turns out to be wanted by Interpol. What the hell is wrong with these people?
She reached for a caviar-covered cracker. Her guests remained stoically silent and immobile, almost comatose, too hot to eat. Nigel ignored everyone, lost in his cigar and brandy, daydreaming about the club back in London. Megan handed Mogumbo her empty glass and merely nodded. He nodded back and left the room, silently; like a ninja, she thought.
Her guests, Igor Brokenoff and his wife, Mai Lin, recently returned from their summer home in the Alps of Italy, sat frozen in time and place, the shock of reentry and acclimation not quite having been dissolved away by dinner and two, at least two, high-balls of whiskey and coke. Igor disdained cigars, he disdained anything that hinted at bourgois habits. Reaching into his jacket pocket he retrieved a compact silver case, unsnapped the tiny latch with a flick of a thumb, took out a marijuana cigarette, lit it with the heavy, gold-plated, elephant-shaped lighter sitting on the coffee table, and passed it languidly to his tortured wife, as she saw it, and resignedly, how he also was beginning to. What the hell.
Igor had inherited a rubber plantation, not 20 kilometers to the south, at the death of a relative he had no idea existed. It was a turn-key operation, as they say. The market was strong, steady; prospects were good. However, Igor was handicapped by an absence of knowledge about how to grow and maintain rubber. How to process it, how to store it, how to,..., well, he was missing a lot he needed. In addition, he scored low on the required managerial skills, organizational aptitude, and general common sense. The plantation eventually went belly-up.
Some time afterwards, one night at a cocktail party during the Cannes Film Festival, an old geology friend suggested letting his fledgling oil-well company have a go on Igor's now fallow fields. One month almost to the day later, when the Brokenoffs were touring Florida, they got a cable -- one of the last -- at a Motel-6 informing them they were in oil, lots of oil. Ever since, they've spent their time traveling, resting wherever, buying property, partying and generally trying to live as well as they possibly could. Considering. Considering they suffered for it. Each in his or her own way.
Mai Lin was torn between her now dashed dream of owning fieldhands and having them work themselves to death on her rubber plantation -- she, the baroness; they, the lowly subjects -- and the reality of being oil rich, filthy oil rich. Her personal philosophy hung on the horns of this dilemma. She was tortured.
Igor's philosophy could be summed up as: Everybody is full of crap. And that's where his head was, most of the time. It wiped away all pretense of innocence and superiority, putting everyone on the same level playing field. But it also cast him as something of a pariah in the European social set. Consequently, he liked coming here to get away from all that, well, crap, and for the clean air, the breathtaking scenery, and the peace and quiet. Maybe he would even shoot something. Why not?
Mogumbo appeared and deftly placed the frosty Mint Julep on the rattan coaster resting on the hand-carved yew wood side table -- inlaid with alabaster. He stepped back and stood erect, at attention. Ordinarily, this behavior -- this order and discipline, this grace and skill of movement -- filled her with a profound and satisfying sense of, well, order and discipline, of things being right in the world. Tonight, however, it plunged her into depths of feelings she'd rather not grapple with; troubling, unnerving, irritating feelings. In other words, it was giving her the creeps. She leaned to dismiss him, only to find he'd already done so -- silently. No matter.
Igor snubbed the roach and placed it in the silver case, snapped it shut, then slid it neatly into his inner jacket pocket. He gave Mai Lin a look, she looked back, they both looked at Megan. Nigel paid them no heed. The three rose and moved to the foyer. Mogumbo was there reaching for the doorknob. Good-byes, invitations exchanged, apologies, thank-yous, a handshake, a hug, a peck on the cheek.
The Brokenoffs walked across the porch -- constructed of imported yellow cedar -- and down the steps -- same material -- to their waiting automobile, the chauffeur dutifully standing at attention by the open rear door. When passed the event horizon of the bubble of cool, interior air, they quickened their pace, fairly leaping into the back seat. With the hushed, liquid tone of well-machined tumblers meshing flawlessly, the steel-belted door whispered shut.
Megan wanted to wave, but couldn't see through the tinted glass, and didn't wish to appear foolish in front of Mogumbo. It crossed her mind that Mogumbo probably couldn't see through it either, but then again, could he? She gestured with her eyes for him to close the door as she drifted back to the sitting room. Nigel was gone. Her hands gripping the ends of the armrests, she leaned back; her damp, cotton dress pressed against the crushed leather. What Megan called June bugs, and others less fierce, dinged against the screen door.
The encroaching night enfolded her; she let it, not much choice. Starlight shimmered through the heat -- the sky had cleared -- a meteorite streaked across the vast blackness far to the east. The way the sunset backlit and traced the ragged peaks -- a dull ebony smudge at the earth's edge -- brought to mind a book of tiny prints of woodcuts, each accompanied by haiku, a gift from her father on one of his homecomings from the Orient. Somewhere along the line, she misplaced it, along with the rest of childhood.
The hot, spicy smell of lush, tangled jungle running up the foothills, mingled with that of the wild animals and creatures that called it home, wafted through acres of tobacco and khat, caressing her tenderly. Megan surrendered to the sultry completeness of it all; to the still, sweet silence; and smiled contentedly at the bounty of life.