“Hey, Jeanette, what do you think of Sudan?” I ask my friend of over twenty years. Jeanette raises her brows, like, “What was that again?” I give a heartfelt groan. “I know the question was as impromptu as it gets, Jeanette,” I say, tracing an invisible pattern on the tablecloth with my forefinger. “That came rather outta the blue,” Jeanette replies, adding rather coyly, “Got an admirer from there?” I wave my hand distractedly, saying easily, “No, but Richard and I could be jetting over there in about three days.” Jeanette now turns her full attention on me. “Keisha, whatever could Richard be looking for in Sudan?” I open my mouth to say something, but Jeanette raises her hand, saying, “I know I may sound discriminatory, but Sudan…hello?” I understand Jeanette’s concern. After all, Sudan is not exactly known for being too peaceful, for starters, what with all the frequent tribal wars and unrests.
A waitress hovers close by with our glasses of Merlot. I wave the waitress on impatiently, irritated at the intrusion. My friend, being less subtle, heaves a loud sigh and asks no one in particular, “What now?” The poor waitress backs off slowly. It’s my guess she would be thinking that the sun had gotten to our heads a little, hence our crude behavior. Not that we (my friend and I) are usually like this. It’s just that Jeanette, my friend, could be irritable and easily bored; never mind that she is a director of one of the chains of hotels owned by her husband, a billionaire. You would think that could take the boredom away, but not so with Jeanette. Did I mention that she went skydiving in Arizona last year? Just then, the faint drone of a helicopter is heard as it flies overhead. There are a few minutes of silence as we idly sip our drinks, enjoying the soft breeze.
We are under the shade of an umbrella outside our favorite restaurant, known for its popular Greek cuisine. Both of us have some Greek roots, by the way, though we are African-Americans. There’s another drone of a helicopter ahead and this acts as a cue for Jeanette to prod me with, “Hey missy, you were saying…?” Bringing my flow of thoughts to a halt, I give a half smile, eyeing the little bubbles in my drink. “There’s this restaurant Richard’s friend is building in Sudan, so Richard, being his financial advisor, is going over to see things for himself,” I say simply. My friend gives a gentle shake of her head, saying, “All this could be done from here, Keisha, if I were to say so. Unless he actually wants to take a trip.” I nod my head in reply. Raising my glass to Jeanette, I say, “Here’s to a fun trip to Sudan, Jeanette.” Jeanette raises her glass halfheartedly, saying, “And here’s hoping that you both change your minds. I think I enjoy having you around for an occasional couple of drinks. Wouldn’t want that to end.” I force a laugh, replying with, “No need to be melodramatic, Jeanette. Nothing is going to happen to us.”
As if signaling the end of conversation on that topic, the same waitress hovers again at our table and we allow her to take our empty glasses, declining a refill. We leave shortly afterwards in our separate cars, agreeing to get together again for another drink after I come back from Sudan. I have already made up my mind to learn more about the country. Go to Google, perhaps.
As I drive past some familiar streets of Coral Gables, Miami, I think about my friend Jeanette. I have known her from way back in college. We met, one day, in a history class being given by Mr. Winslet, a professor of Ancient History. The topic of the day in question was on Greek myth and during the discussion that followed, we discovered that we shared some Greek roots. Our great-grandfathers were both Greeks. Now we are in our early forties, and while she’s married to Ben (she met him in our second year in college), I am in a two-year-old relationship. Not that I am complaining: Richard had been all for the vows and happily ever after thing, but after the horrible experience I had with Ben—funny that Jeanette’s husband bears the same name too—I had been fretting about committing myself to another marital relationship. Ben, my ex-husband, was drinking and squandering the little money we had on casinos and betting. I had called it quits with him and never looked back. The divorce agreement was mutual and it was a relief when I learned that he had married again and was attending an AA program. Perhaps I was fretting over nothing, but I wanted to see how this trip to Sudan went; then I could maybe decide to plunge headlong into a more permanent relationship with Richard. All these thoughts run through my mind as I navigate through the traffic to our residence.
I stop over at a local grocery and purchase a few items for dinner. I want to prepare some chicken salad, rice, and cheesecake. I know we have some wines at home. Richard always makes sure of that—one of the quirks I like about him—but he’s not one given to drinking excessively, thank goodness. I get home some minutes later. Grabbing my groceries and handbag, I get out of the car, closing it with my foot, and just then my cell phone rings. Choosing to ignore its ringing since my hands are not free, I make for the front door, drop my groceries on the ground, and fumble in my bag for the door key. My cell starts to ring again and I pick it up absently, calling out a distracted “Hello,” thinking it was Richard. It was him, alright, but he sounds a bit worried as he says that he would be late for dinner. “Are you okay?” I ask as I try to insert the key in the lock. “It’s nothing, hon. I’ll be home before nine,” he says airily. But I still detect some unease in his voice. I know that his office had granted him some leave, about eight days starting tomorrow. This way he gets to go to Sudan. I will be going with him on this trip. I had mentioned my forthcoming trip earlier to my manager at a travel magazine, and he had agreed. I work there part-time as a writer and I suppose the manager sees my going on a trip to Sudan as an opportunity to explore the tourism potential of the place. This way the company benefits from the information I would likely provide. “Okay, hon,” I reply to Richard and we both say our goodbyes.
Two days later, as we begin our ascent into the clouds at JFK Airport, I glance over at Richard, who seems engrossed in his notes. He’s an accountant and is acting as an advisor to his friend, who is building a restaurant in his homeplace. His friend’s name is Isa, a Sudanese. Isa’s mother was from Kansas and his father was from Sudan. His father is back in Sudan after his wife’s death. In my small musings, I feel Richard slip his arm round my neck and give my ear a soft nibble as he asks, “Now, what is going on through that mind of yours?” “I’m thinking about this trip of ours, Rich—,” I begin hesitantly. “For starters, I know from my Google search that the political climate in Sudan is unpredictable and could be quite volatile. This could present some danger to us.” But Richard clasps my hands reassuringly in his and says gently, “Nothing is going to happen to us, Keisha. I will make sure of that.” I nod absently, thinking back to last night after dinner and we had retired for the night.
I had felt a little thirsty and had got up from the bed to go to the kitchen and get some water to drink. I had noticed that Richard’s side of the bed was empty. Thinking that perhaps he was in the living room looking through his notes, I stepped inside to find it in semi-darkness, as the light from the kitchen which was switched on filtered inside. I saw Richard talking to someone on his cell phone as he made some hand gestures. I waited patiently in the living room, trying not to interrupt. The time was about 2:15 am according to the digital clock in the bedroom. I had automatically checked the time as I got out of bed. As he ended the call, I had padded softly into the kitchen, giving him a kiss as I moved to get a glass and pour myself some water from the tap. “That was Isa,” Richard had said, grabbing a stool and sitting down. “I was expecting his call, given the difference in our time zones.” I drank some water and leaned on the kitchen table, replying with, “Oohh,” with a flick of a loose braid of hair getting in my face, finishing the water in my glass. “Want some?” I had asked, moving towards the sink again. “Yes, please,” Richard answered with a sigh. I filled the glass again with water and brought it to him. “Are you okay?” I asked, concerned. But Richard took the glass of water, finishing it in a single gulp. Dropping the glass on the table and trying to sound airy, he had said, “Hey, why don’t you take a trip to Mauritius and I will meet you there. I know you have always wanted to go there. I could ask my boss for an extended leave…” He could have gone on, but I put a cool finger to his lips and, moving close to him, I had said gently, “I don’t know why you’re saying this, but whither you go, I goeth.” Hugging me close to him, he had said worriedly, “It’s just that there’s some unrest in the village close to the town where the restaurant is being built. Some people have been killed and many wounded. I am not sure it’s such a hot idea for you to go with me, though.” Tracing a finger in the “V” of the open-necked Tommy Hilfiger pyjama top he wore and hearing a soft inward breath he took, with a tightening of his hug, I whispered in his ear, “I would go nuts if you were in that Sudan or wherever and I was not there with you. Now, can we continue this conversation some other time?” With an answering groan, he lifted me up and we left the kitchen together, flicking off the light switch as we made for the bedroom where we got down to serious business, forgetting all other worries.
As we coast through the clouds presently, I blurt out suddenly, “Let’s get married,” then wish I had bitten off my tongue. But to my surprise, Richard says, “Sure, why not. Thought I would give you time to get used to the idea of having me around you for all time, woman.” A stewardess passes just then and Richard beckons at her. “Please, could you get us some champagne?” he asks. He adds, clasping my hand in his, eyes gleaming with mischief, “Could you believe that this lady finally proposed to me after rejecting my initial offers of proposal?” The stewardess gives a broad answering grin, saying, “I wouldn’t mind being in your shoes, lady. What were you thinking?” I inwardly ask myself that same question as she departs to get us some drinks. I know I have been cautious about getting into another serious relationship, but I wonder if perhaps I have been unnecessarily too cautious. I inwardly thank Richard for his understanding and patience.
Meanwhile, the stewardess returns with our tray of drinks in frosted flute-like glasses. Taking the glasses from her, not minding some curious glances from fellow passengers, Richard and I exchange a passionate kiss, followed with a clink of our glasses, before taking some sips of the champagne. The stewardess comes back about thirty minutes later to take our empty glasses. And by this time, we are both asleep, getting lulled by the silence of smooth travel.
The plane eventually touches down at Khartoum International Airport. It is midday, and the temperature is in the mid-90’s. It takes us all of an hour and a half to get through customs, change some money to the local currency, and collect our pieces of luggage. Thankfully, Isa is at the arrival lounge to meet us. He calls out Richard’s name as he moves swiftly towards us. He is tall and lanky in build, like Richard. The two friends hug fiercely, obviously glad to see each other. Richard had told me a little about Isa before our trip. They had met in Miami, three years ago through a mutual friend: a lawyer at a party. Isa and his father had travelled to Miami at the time on vacation.
Meanwhile, Richard introduces me as his fiancée, and greetings are exchanged briefly. Richard and Isa haul our belongings into a trolley, pushing it through the door marked “Exit.” Isa buys some bottled water for us and directs us to where he had parked his vehicle: a beat up Ford truck. He turns on the AC when we are all inside and revs up the engine before driving off. Richard asks him about his father, and he replies that his father is busy taking care of his small cotton farm.
The two men discuss the progress of work at the site where the restaurant is being put up while in the moving vehicle. They skirt some serious issues as Richard gives him a warning look. But this is unnecessary as Keisha sleeps deeply, with her head resting gently on Richard’s shoulder. Richard looks down tenderly at her closed thick lashes—courtesy of her Greek ancestry—making crescent shapes on her cheeks. He remembers their last night in Miami with an inward smile. He seems not to get enough of this “stubborn” woman. But it was this “stubbornness” that drew him to her in the first place.
Richard had met her at a fundraiser being given by his company towards stem cell research. This was just after her divorce from Ben, and Jeanette, her friend, had invited her to the event. An argument had ensued between two invited guests over stem cell research, and an attractive young woman had coolly said, “Gentlemen, I believe we’re all gathered here to promote stem cell research, unless you are here for some other reason, that is.” A simple statement, but that had quelled the argument, and an embarrassing silence had followed. He had walked up to her during dessert and had introduced himself. He was struck by her beauty and elegance. Nothing about her was frivolous. His mother—an Italian, married to his father, an African American—being so fashionable, she had always stated the wisdom of marrying a woman with looks and style. It seemed his father had made the right decision in marrying his mother, who had both qualities, God rest both their souls. However, the elegant young lady had been drawn to him as well, given the lunches they went out to afterwards, and as the saying goes, the rest is now history.
His attention is drawn back to the present as they drive past one town after the other. The scenery is impressive, consisting of an endless spread of grassland and a few trees dotting the landscape. They get to their destination in an hour. Richard reluctantly nudges Keisha awake, giving her a kiss on her head. Isa ushers them to a modest building: a bungalow with two baobab trees on either side of it, obviously providing some shade. “My papa lives with me,” Isa says as a man in his seventies comes out, walking quickly to greet the new guests. “I am Ahmat,” he says, “and I know you are the couple he often talks about.” Richard and Keisha reply easily with nods and smiles, introducing themselves. A young man in a white cap and long white gown comes out to take in their pieces of luggage into the house. “So, welcome to Taba,” Isa says with his arms spread wide in a welcome gesture.
There’s a low, rumbling sound of thunder as they all get into the building. “It’s been threatening with rain for the past two days,” Isa explains. His father agrees with a small laugh, saying, “I believe there could be a heavy downpour. Hope it doesn’t affect my crops, though.” “We would like to see your cotton farm while we are here, sir,” Richard says politely and Keisha agrees, with a small nod linking her arm through Richard’s. The couple gets shown their room with a small bathroom in-suite. They take some moments to freshen up and come out to have a dinner that consists of smoked trout with some rice and vegetables. Isa and Ahmat fill them with stories about the area, purposely leaving out the ones about the unrest going on in the nearest town. Later, the couple retire to their room, obviously exhausted from the long travel, which took close to 15 hours.
Richard and Keisha stay for about two days, simply enjoying their new environment and the tours Isa gladly gives them in his truck. He carefully avoids the area where the unrest took place. They see a couple of army vans with a few armed soldiers on patrol, but they are obviously providing security. Keisha takes some pictures and interviews a few people she meets. She wants to have something to show for her travel to this country that has its challenges of desert encroachment due to climate change, as well as tribal unrests. The presence of armed security in town brings little relief to Keisha and she mentions the same to Richard later while lying on their bed. Richard also has the same thoughts, but does not want to scare Keisha unnecessarily. He draws Keisha close to him and whispers, “You worry needlessly. I’ve told you that nothing is going to happen to us while we are here. You saw the heavily armed security, honey. Those men meant business.” Keisha replies with a little nod. “But be careful when you follow Isa to the site tomorrow, okay?” Keisha whispers back. “Sure thing, hon,” Richard whispers throatily, kissing her throat. Keisha gives a soft moan, wrapping her arms ‘round his neck, encouraging him with gentle movements to finish what he started.
The next day, while Richard is out with Isa to visit the site where the new restaurant is being built, Keisha decides to do some little explorations of her own. Ahmat had gone to his cotton farm earlier to supervise the work some laborers we doing over there in his Volkswagen Passat. So, left only with Amman, the housekeep who was busy doing some chores in the house, she informs him that she wanted to take a walk and observe the surroundings, but he gives her a small frown with a silent shake of head. He speaks passable English and says haltingly, “Not safe for woman, walking alone.” I ask him to join me as both a guard and guide. He agrees to do so after finishing the chores that are left. I wait patiently, moving ‘round the building and taking pictures. The scenery is beautiful; the scarce vegetation is still impressive to look at. There are some trees, too. But the vastness of the land is just amazing.
Amman comes out of the house, apparently done with the house chores. He makes some hand gestures for me to come closer. As I approach, he says, “It is the phone. Master; on phone.” I follow him into the house and grab the phone, which is still ringing. “Keisha?” It is Richard. “Hi!” I say. “Just calling to make sure you are okay, hon,” Richard says cheerily. “Of course I am, sweetie,” I say with a smile. “Actually, I want to do some exploration of my own.” Concerned, Richard says, “Ask Amman to go with you. It’s not safe for a woman to move around in these parts alone.” Laughing now, I say, “It’s alright, Richard. I already asked Amman, anyway.” We speak for two more minutes and hang up.
As we move out of the building, I observe that it has become cooler, but I still leave my hat on. The sun is bound to come out ever so bright today, after the much expected heavy rainfall last night. Amman moves silently ahead and I follow close behind, taking a cursory look at my surroundings. I see a few buildings some distance away. We pass a few people going to their farms. I click away with my camera. Amman makes a left turn for a deer trail, and I follow. We see some cattle grazing. It is a beautiful sight and I take a few pictures. I pause to take a few sips from the bottle of water I have in my bag. I have just put the bottle in my bag when, from the corner of my eye, I notice a quick movement. “It is antelope,” Amman says quietly. “I wish I had taken a picture of it, but that was obviously impossible,” I say with a soft sigh, for the antelope had actually sped off.
We pass more farms and pause as Amman stops to greet someone, a young man. They obviously know each other because they exchange some greetings in the local dialect, patting each other on the back. “That my friend, Sadat,” Amman explains as we continue our walk in silence. I am lucky to see a couple more antelopes, and unbelievably, a giraffe. I am positively gushing as I take more photos. Amman seems amused at my reactions, which I guess to him may seem foolish. But I don’t care. I am already thinking of how great my collection of pictures would look on Travelex, our biweekly magazine.
An hour later, we decide to head back to the house. Amman takes a different route. “Saves us more time,” he explains. We meet Sadat again on our way back, but he is not smiling this time. There is a worried look on his face. He speaks rapidly to Amman again in the local dialect and I notice a tension in the air. Sadat leaves us shortly, walking quickly away. With a little frown, I ask Amman what could be the problem. He replies with, “There is trouble,” increasing his pace as I follow unquestioningly. As we move almost at a small jog back to the house, my mind goes to Richard. I hope he is alright. The house comes to view as we turn ‘round a corner. We hear the faint sound of a vehicle and I turn round to see Ahmat’s VW coming rather too fast and raising some dust as it draws up close to the house. My sense of alarm increasing, I stand with Amman in front of the building, waiting for Ahmat to alight from his vehicle and tell us what is happening. My mind goes to Richard again and my anxiety heightens. He steps down, slamming the door of his car, and moves fast towards us. I glance quickly at Amman. By this time, I was really scared.
“I see that Isa and Richard are not back,” Ahmat begins. I was about to ask him what was wrong when he turns to Amman and speaks quickly in the local dialect. This is the second time in less than an hour a conversation is carried in my presence in the local dialect, and I wonder if this was done not to alarm me. But the effect is just the opposite. My worst fears are realized as Ahmat explains to me that there is serious unrest taking place now in the area. Some people are dead already, while some are wounded. The security has already heightened the tension by the shots they fired at the restive groups. It’s obviously an ethnic clash involving two different communities. The clashes seem to spread from one community to the next. I give a small nod, saying, “Richard and I learned about a recent uprising before our arrival in the country.” Ahmat agrees with an answering nod, arms resting on his hips, saying, “The incident could have sparked the unrest going on now.” I glance at my watch, my mind going to Richard.
As if in answer to my silent troubled thoughts, the phone rings. Amman had already gone into the house earlier, obviously to prepare food. Ahmat and I move into the house to answer the phone. Ahmat picks up the phone, saying, “Hello!” I watch him as he listens to what the other person is saying to him on the phone. Frown deepening, he replies with a silent, “Alright,” hanging up the phone. “That was Isa,” he says heavily. “But Richard seems to be missing, according to him.” I openly stare at him, not comprehending. “I don’t think I understand what you are telling me, sir,” I say in a sort of dull voice, feeling a roaring in my ears as the full implications of what Ahmat is saying hit me unawares and I grab the back of a wooden chair for support as I shake my head in silent denial. Amman comes into the living room, glancing anxiously at both Ahmat and I. I feel like my little world is collapsing around me as I sob brokenly, head bent in my arms and kneeling in front of the chair. I feel like I am experiencing the worst nightmare possible. Perhaps it was all a mistake and I am overreacting for nothing. I rise up and begin to pace frenziedly in the living room like some caged animal, a myriad of emotions running through me—anger, fear, anxiety—but mostly anger. Anger at Richard for not being more careful like he had advised me this morning. Anger at myself for not insisting on going out today with him and Isa. Ahmat and Amman are giving concerned looks at my pacing, so I sit down on the wooden chair, clasping my hands tightly together to get a grip on my emotions. “It could be that Isa and Richard got separated by mistake,” Ahmat tries to reassure me. “You know how busy a construction site can be, my dear.” I know that Ahmat is just trying to allay my worst fears, and I do appreciate it, but I wish I could be left alone with my thoughts while I figure out what to do. Amman has thoughtfully placed a glass of chilled water in a tray beside me. I thank him and silently pick up the glass, raising it to my lips. I have taken a few sips before we hear the sound of a vehicle, and we rush outside.
We see Isa come out of the Ford truck and walk wearily towards us. He looks worn out and tired. He observes the questioning looks we throw at him and heaves a heartfelt deep sigh. He is reluctant to speak at first because of my presence, perhaps. “Look, Isa,” I begin, arms crossed at my elbows. “I know Richard is missing, so don’t feel you have to keep me ignorant of anything that is going on, okay?” I want to be strong for Richard and dealing with the actual details and trying to find him should be my objective now. “Of course not, Keisha,” Isa says, making a small gesture for all of us to move into the building. “I am puzzled at what happened,” Isa continues when we are all inside the house. “There was a brief meeting initially at the site, and everyone present was happy with the outcome.” He glances at us as he speaks, asking Amman to get a glass of water for him. Isa continues, “We gathered that the locals felt that the presence of a restaurant could help boost development in the community. Moreover, the construction of the restaurant has been going on well in spite of the unrest these past few weeks. Richard was actually aware of the unrest before his arrival here. I felt I owed it to him to mention that before he left Miami.” Isa glances at me as he says this, and I agree with a nod. This is no time to dwell on why Richard decided on coming over to Sudan, or my insistence on following him, as they are both immaterial to the present situation. Amman brings a tray containing a glass of cold water to Isa, who takes a gulp, emptying his glass. Amman replaces it with another filled glass of water.
Isa continues with, “Richard and I were at the site for about three hours when we decided to get a drink at a local pub close to the construction site. It was at this pub that trouble broke out. We noticed that everyone was running in different directions and some shots were fired in the air. I knew immediately that this was another unrest taking place right before our eyes. But the thing that was rather puzzling was that when I turned ‘round, Richard was nowhere to be seen. He seemed to have vanished into thin air.” At this, I make a little sound in my throat and Ahmat gives Isa a look, which makes Isa look apologetically and helplessly at me. He continues uneasily saying, “I tried looking for him in the chaos, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. It was quite a busy area. I made for the car afterwards, thinking that Richard could be there, perhaps. But he was nowhere to be seen. I frantically searched for him and I couldn’t find him,” Isa concludes wearily. I feel tears well up in my eyes as I am gripped with a fear for Richard’s life. Isa looks guiltily at me. “Amman and I would have gone out now in search for him, but it is no use, as a 24-hour curfew has been declared by the government,” he says. I feel my shoulders slump as I begin to weep softly, thinking that Richard could be lying helplessly somewhere, seriously wounded or even dead.
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