Saffron Skies – Extract

THE sky in Bamako was the colour of plum, an angry, darkened mass of clouds lying low on the horizon, occasionally sending gusts of cool, arid air across the city. It was the rainy season and the river was swollen to a dirty grey-orange. A man was waiting for her just inside the modest terminal building, holding up a handwritten sign. Madame Amber Sall. She waved in friendly recognition.

‘Hello,’ she smiled her thanks as she pulled her suitcase behind her. ‘Thanks for coming to pick me up… it’s a bit chaotic in here!’ The tall, thin man stared impassively down at her.

‘Par ici, madame,’ he indicated the way, snapping his fingers impressively and garnering the immediate attention of half a dozen young boys swarming around the arriving passengers. Of course. French. Amber could have kicked herself. He shouted something – a small, bright-eyed boy in a playboy bunny T-shirt jumped forward, grinning. He took hold of Amber’s suitcase, obviously jeering at his friends who stood watching in envious silence as he followed the tall man and la blanche outside. The humidity was intense – a thick, sweaty second skin, despite the imminent arrival of rain. Dieudonné, as he was improbably named, informed her that they would be going to le Ministre’s house then the following day, she would go to Timbuctoo by plane and from there, by four-wheeled drive to Téghaza.

‘And how long will it take? To get to Téghaza, I mean?’

‘Sometime two, four days. Dieudonné shrugged. Obviously time, for him, was not of the essence. Amber frowned. Max had said she was to be away for ten days. If it took her four days to get to the damned place… and four days to get back… bloody hell.

‘And Tendé? M’sieur Ndiaye? Is he… here, in Bamako?’

‘Non. M’sieur Tendé is at Téghaza. Il est déjà parti.’

‘Oh.’

From the back seat of the air-conditioned Mercedes, Bamako flew by. They crossed the grey, sluggish river, drove down one wide boulevard after another and then turned off into what was obviously one of the wealthier, older suburbs. It was surprisingly green after the arid semi-finished construction landscape around the airport. Here there were thick, dark green trees; thin, needle-sharp palms; wild, overgrown explosions of colour in the clambering bougainvillea and flat, cantilevering flame-orange trees. Colourful, hand-painted signs at every junction pointed the way to the Résidence de l’Ambassade de France – or to Salon de Beauté Aminata. They pulled up in front of a high white wall topped with curls of barbed wire. A uniformed sentry stood to attention as the gates swung silently open. The wheels crunched noisily over the gravel and they came to a stop under the carport of large house with brilliant white walls, deep arched verandahs and dark, moss-green shutters.

A uniformed maid and a young boy dressed in khaki shorts and shirt stood stiffly to attention as Dieudonné opened the door for her. A sharp word from him and the boy took her case from the boot of the car. They walked through the darkened, cool rooms of the labyrinthine house, passing through a courtyard and turning down corridors until finally, the maid stopped before a tall, beautifully carved wooden door and pushed it open. The room inside was enormous, sparsely furnished and to Amber’s tired eyes, an absolute oasis. The boy carefully laid her suitcase down on a small ornamental bench at the foot of the bed and he and the maid silently withdrew.

Amber looked around her. The room was beautiful – light, delicate green walls; dark polished wood floor and two or three pieces of what looked to be colonial era furniture; a low, wide bed covered in a striking abstract-patterned cloth of greens, rust-browns and blacks; a small writing desk in a corner and two large white wicker chairs covered in the same material as the bedspread, looking through the almost floor-to-ceiling windows out onto the wide verandah with a vast assortment of plants in terracotta pots. Whoever was responsible for the décor in Madame Ndiaye’s house obviously had very good taste. She walked across the room to the door on the opposite side. A large shower-room with a toilet and bidet behind an ornate, wooden screen. She looked at herself in the mirror above the sink. She looked rather the worse for her ten-hour journey. She looked at her watch. It was six o’clock in the evening. Almost on cue, the sound of the prayer call wafted through the air outside, a soft, melodic moan. She could hear people moving about in the courtyard below. It was time to take a shower and a rest – she had no idea who was at home or what the evening schedule of the house might be. In fact, she had no idea about anything, other than the disappointing fact that Tendé Ndiaye was some two or four days’ journey away. She was hungry, too but there was nothing to eat in the room and she wasn’t sure she could find her way back through the rambling house to find anyone to ask about food. She headed straight to the shower. The water pressure was low but it was hot – half an hour later, she rinsed the shampoo from her hair and walked over to the bed. She was exhausted. Despite it being a daytime flight, she’d hardly slept a wink the night before.

She lay down, naked, on the sheets, listening to the faint sounds of people moving around outside and to the crickets beginning their nocturnal buzz. Nightfall was swift – through the shutters she could see the light dying all at once. She lay on her back, savouring the tropical heat which enveloped her – no distinction between her skin and the air surrounding her; all was one. She thought sleepily, dreamily, of an alarm clock before lassitude claimed her and she tumbled headlong into a thick, dreamless sleep.

She woke the next morning, dragged out of sleep by the early call to prayers, nursing a mild hangover. She opened one bleary eye, looked at the little alarm clock on the bedside table and lay back, surprised. She’d slept for almost twelve hours straight. It was 5:30am. Outside the dawn was breaking – faint strips of white light appeared through the shutters. They would leave for the domestic airport at 8:00am, Dieudonné had told her. She would fly to the small airstrip outside Timbuctoo and from there a driver with a four-wheeled vehicle would take her to Téghaza. She lay in the dissolving darkness, wondering what on earth she’d let herself in for. Suddenly, the planned trip which in London had seemed like a rather mad but essentially exciting thing to do, now began to take on the air of an unplanned nightmare. She wanted to crawl back into the safety and anonymity of her London flat, get on the Tube at 8:15am as she did every morning and go straight back to the world that she knew and felt safe in – not the shadowy world of Max and his contacts and the deals that he made across it. She closed her eyes. Timbuctoo? Was she mad?

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