On the road back to Banda Aceh I tried to put my troubles to one side while I regarded what was happening around me. Apart from police check-points where our registration was recorded and my passport perused, I counted seven Aid Agencies at work. Countless construction projects in progress, from road surfacing, recycling rubble, and new houses.
I mentioned the houses to Ibrahim. His response sounded jaded.
‘We don’t have communities anymore in devastated areas like Lampu’uk. We’re building villages to house orphans. And of those, some will leave the area, while others argue for better quality.’ He beat a fist against the steering wheel. ‘What’s the point of that?’
I didn’t have an answer.
After he manoeuvred the Land Cruiser around or through several rain-filled potholes, he regarded my blank stare, shook his head. ‘No choice. We have to spend the money. As soon as we get it.’
‘Political, mainly, although none will admit it. The various governments providing Aid want to broadcast their charity world-wide.’ He grimaced at me. ‘And it’s worse. A few Agencies dream up projects that are crazy, just to meet deadlines. Like filling up a helicopter with US dollars wrapped in information leaflets, flying over populated areas, and dumping them.’ He stifled a laugh. ‘Can you imagine?’
We both lapsed into silence. I realised he needed that R&R break before he dreamt up equally absurd projects.
Or were they?
My life, insignificant in comparison. And so far, I had messed up everywhere. It led me to thinking about Angelique, Eko, and Jane. Whichever way, Eko was more important to my future. The reality was that both my daughter and my possible daughter were dead, while Eko was alive. Mind made up, I mentioned that I’d found Eko at the lodgings.
Ibrahim tooted the horn twice, then he frowned.
‘Why isn’t he with you?’
‘I’m not sure, maybe he won’t until his work is complete. But he will come back with me sometime. We agreed on that.’
‘Mr. Richard, our culture is different to yours. Do you think he was just being polite?’
A vice clamped my chest. I gulped and swallowed a bitter taste. Ibrahim had voiced my inner fears.
Probably? I was kidding myself. Most certainly.
I nodded. ‘That’s why I’m going to Sabang. I hope my friend Tevfik can help me.’
He drummed the steering wheel. ‘Tevfik…Tevfik? Don’t I know that name?’
‘Most likely,’ I said. ‘He was one of your previous co-ordinators.’
‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘Tevfik.’ He paused, as if uncertain or disturbed. He steered the Land Cruiser into a nearby layby, kept the engine and air-con running. He turned to me. ‘Your friend? What’s he doing on Sabang?’
The same bird that stole my piece of gristle, or maybe a similar one, flew past my window. It screeched at me.
One man’s view might not be the same as another.
I shrugged it off. ‘He was running a home-stay resort with his wife.’
Ibrahim kept his voice low, but the words were measured. ‘With. My. Money.’
He recovered. ‘Please ignore that, Mr. Richard. It was improper.’
How could I ignore that?
Delcie learned never to partially reveal secrets. It would only get my back up. In that mood, I’ll call a spade a spade, and not a digging implement. And I was in that mood now. ‘You’re implying Tevfik was corrupt.’ It was not a question.
He shook his head. ‘I can’t talk about it.’
I clenched my teeth. ‘Ibrahim, I’m not a bloody auditor, I don’t work for your agency or any others. I’m a hitchhiker whose only agenda is hearing what you have to say about Tevfik—my friend.’
He ignored my outburst, put the car into gear and eased out onto the road. We sat in silence, both of us seething — well I was — until he parked in the ferry terminal car park.
There, he apologised for his behaviour and wished me a safe trip.
‘Inshallah,’ I said.
With Ibrahim keeping schtum, I was left to my own devices to either forget it or raise it when I saw Tevfik.
Did it matter?
It didn’t affect me — or Eko. Unless I chose to take the moral high path. What if Ibrahim was wrong? It stayed with me throughout the crossing, unresolved.
Late afternoon I arrived at Sabang. No sign of Ibrahim disembarking, not much activity, either. I considered staying away from Tevfik, but I needed him to persuade Eko to go back to the House with me. In the end I hoisted my bag on my shoulder and trudged up the lane to the home-stay resort.
What do I say to him?
I didn’t have to. His wife told me he’d gone to the mosque or the coffeehouse, which postponed my dilemma. I booked in for one night, had a nap, showered, changed my clothes, and set back out again to wander around town to find a restaurant.
On my own.
Maybe it was my subconscious mind, but I found myself retracing my steps on my last visit. Past the same old colonial buildings, past the now deserted fruit market to the well-weathered coffeehouse.
Where, on the terrace, two men absorbed in deep conversation. Not any two men.
Tevfik — and Ibrahim.
I melted back into the shadow of a huge tree. Not that it mattered, neither sensed my presence, and I felt rather foolish acting like a secret agent.
What was happening?
I steeled myself and counted to ten. “Bite the bullet” seemed appropriate, and I figured I‘d find out more by initiating an Islamic greeting. I left my shadow behind, walked up close, and stood there. ‘Peace be with you,’ I said.
Ibrahim eyes rested on mine, wasn’t surprised. He pointed to an empty chair. ‘Take a seat,’ he said.