Sunday, June 6, 2010

MEAT

Drinking alone at my hotel bar in Accra, I was joined by two German gold dealers with three Ghanaian women. One of them was a modelish woman I had noticed with the Germans a few nights before, but I hadn't seen the other two. It turned out they were her sisters. As we sat over a round of beers, one of them began flirting, running her toenail up and down my leg under the table. But I was becoming used to this sort of thing in Ghana by now, from women trying to make a little extra to get by, and chatted on and smiled.
A Ghanaian man in his fifties, slight, with heavy spectacles, walked in and sat down at our table. The Germans seemed to know him. I thought he was a doctor, but he introduced himself as a businessman. His name was Terence. He sat next to me, and we talked for a few moments before he asked my nationality. When I said Australian, his face fell, and he looked away. He didn't speak for a few moments, and when he did so he apologised, saying that his wife and two young children had died in Australia.
'In Queensland, in a plane crash,' he said. 'In the sixties.'
He said the memory still hurt him very much, whenever when he heard the world "Australia". I gave my condolences, and he shook his head and said it was his problem - so much time had passed since he had waited for that plane that never touched down on a bush strip in the Queensland scrub.
Terence ordered more beers and we drank. The Germans drank on too, into the mid evening, when they got up and summoned the three sisters to follow. The girls suggested I accompany them, but Terence whispered in my ear not to have anything to do with them. As one of the Germans passed by me, he bent into my ear and suggested that I shouldn't have anything to do with Terence. When I told him I intended to stay and have another drink, the German shrugged, curled his arm around the waist of his girl, and led the way out. 
Terence said he knew a jazz bar nearby, and we went. We passed down darkened, deserted alleys. When we arrived there, I found myself in a long, low-ceilinged room, almost empty, blue lit with dingy corners. A vintage Nina Simone tape played softly. 
We sat at the empty bar. 'It's still early for this place,' Terence said. He called over the proprietress, a larger than life jolly woman called Margaret, and she lined up beers. 'Drink up,' she said. I'll run a slate for you.'
Terence and I downed our first beers, and I looked around. Here and there people loitered at tables in ones and twos. There was a TV above the bar, showing a news broadcast. I saw Stevie Wonder beside another man in matching white African robes and long, curly hair, Ghana's military ruler Jerry Rawlings. 

A young man beside me at the bar spoke up. 'Bastard. This used to be a good country,' he said quietly. 'But that bastard Rawlings... he's a killer. We never used to have killing here, you know. But he has soaked the land in the people's blood. And do you know why? He is half Scottish. There is no people more violent in this world than the Scots. Look at them, soccer hooligans, the tartan army... Well, Rawlings is half Scottish, half African. If he was all African, he would never have killed his own people.'
Feeling it wasn't quite the time to mention what was happening right then not too far away in Rwanda, I just nodded. Terence spoke up at my other elbow. 'Come on. Let's play darts.'
A board was located and three sets of darts, and Terence, Margaret and I started up a game of "Around the Clock", which I had not played since childhood. Margaret quickly showed herself to be a skilled exponent of the game. I was just beginning to get the hang of it again when the alcohol kicked in and I perforated the woodwork.
Some time later, Terence had wandered off and I realised Margaret and I were playing by ourselves. She had a sharp wit, and got no end of amusement out of my hopelessness with the darts. 'I thought Australians could drink beer.'
'We can. Just not as much as Ghanaians and still hit something as elusive as a dartboard.'
She laughed, and Terence returned with a formal-mannered middle-aged man whom he introduced to me as "lieutenant-colonel" somebody. The bar by now was filling up, and the smoky air resounded to laughter over which I strained to hear.
'The lieutenant-colonel wishes to propose something to you,' Terence was saying.
'Oh?' I asked. 'What?'
'Pigs' trotters,' the lieutenant-colonel said.
'I see,' I said, as surprised as if they had suggested I run guns for them. 
'Yes, you see,' the lieutenant-colonel went on, in clipped English, 'I do believe you have rather a lot of them down in Australia.'
'I must admit to not being utterly au fait with things in the pork regard,' I said, desperately trying to think of something more pertinent. Then a light bulb blinked on. 'Actually, our Prime Minister is in the pig business. He has an interest in a substantial piggery.'
'Excellent,' pronounced the lieutenant-colonel with a tweak of his grey moustache, obviously used to wheels being greased at the highest levels. 'Perhaps you could have a word with him for us.'
'Well,  I suppose I could write to him, yes.'
'Very good!' Terence said. 'The moment I saw you I knew you could help us. You see, pigs trotters are very popular eating here, whereas I would wager that in your own country they are thrown away as waste.'
'Or ground up for hamburgers or pet food,' I said. 'How many would you like?'
'One container load would be optimum to begin with,' the lieutenant-colonel said. 'Or as many trotters as you can get us for, say, forty thousand US dollars.'
'I'll see what I can do.'
'Very good then,' the lieutenant-colonel said, then stopped for a moment and looked at me. 'By the way, I'm sorry to have been so pushy about this... You're not Jewish are you?'
'No,' I said, 'although I am a vegetarian. Well, almost.'
'Vegetarian!' the lieutenant-colonel laughed with a military British bark. 'Vegetarian!! Oh, that's a good one, that's a very good one!' 
We all laughed, and he gave me his business card, and asked me to get in touch as soon as I had the shipment organised back in Australia. I said I'd do what I could.
'Secure us the order, and we shall send the money. Five percent is yours. Is that adequate?'
'Done,' I said.
We shook on the deal, and the lieutenant-colonel went away still chuckling, 'Vegetarian...'
'He really liked you,' Terence said, offering me another beer. 'It couldn't have worked out better.' 
Terence and I parted like old friends, and I stepped out into the cool night for the walk back to my hotel. There was a table outside, and a young man and woman were talking in low tones. Strangely enough, I thought I recognised the man, who wore a sports shirt and pants, and expensive shoes.
'I'm sorry, don't I know you?'
'I don't know,' he said, then flashed me a smile. 'Perhaps you do from the television.'
'Of course, you're the beer man!' 
'So you have seen my commercials,' he said still smiling. 
'All the time. They're on virtually every five minutes.'
'And do you know how much I get for each commercial? Just $200.'
'Well you'll have to do something about that,' I said, with the uninformed determination of the adequately inebriated. 'You'll have to get yourself a good agent.' 
'But who, here?' he said. 'There is no-one.' He stopped for a moment, and looked at me closely. 'You seem to know about the business. I don't suppose that you would consider...'
'Oh, I'm sorry - it's not really my line.'
'No? What are you in then?'
'Import-export,' I said. 'Meat.'








From my travel book "The Blue Man", published by Lonely Planet Journeys.

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