In a Geordie accent

In a Geordie accent it sounded twice as menacing. And then the sound of a chain saw revving up in the background really did add to the drama of this latest phone call.

“I’ll cut the rest of yer ‘effing’ fingers off and send ‘em to yer wife I swear!”

I met Pat in the Ghion Hotel car park outside the conference center. I was scouting this particular, week long gathering of water and sanitation engineers, desperately looking for work and this was looking like the best lead I had had all week. Jill was with me at the time and she had also noticed the copious dandruff clearly contrasted against the black material of Pat’s very formal dinner jacket and his incongruously scruffy shoes but everything else about the man seemed plausible. He talked sense at least to my attentive ears, but thinking of it now… I was desperate to hear positive and comforting words. Pat was running a big water supply project on behalf of a Belgian utility company in conjunction with the Addis Ababa Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA); the kind of overseas project some of us NGO types could only ever dream of; a whacking great salary, status, all the perks imaginable and all the same excitement gained living overseas with none of the usual hardships. Pat was not promising me an end to my joblessness or ‘ought else’ but in my mindseye streamed a wonderful array of powerful connections. At this point in my career and for the kid’s sake I was more than ready to drop the wishy-washy, semi altruistic lifestyle of a volunteer and budding aid worker.

Networking furiously, the call I needed finally came through. I met Max in the Ghion Hotel lobby and didn’t quite know what to do when I caught site of his disfigured right hand. He was still a little unsure as the disfigurement was fresh and he was learning to cope with this new digital arrangement. Max asked all the usual questions about me, my career path, technical knowledge and life in Addis Ababa but was pretty vague about the role. Eventually he came clean and now aware of my religious leanings asked me if I knew a priest! Pat was a Catholic and perhaps he would, with greater reverence than that afforded to his titular boss, listen to a man of the cloth. If a priest could drum some sense into Pat and get him to leave Ethiopia, then the role of senior project manager would temporarily be mine. Adding further urgency to Max’s cause, he asked me to call Pat’s wife back in the UK to explain that her husband had gone ‘loco’ and needed to be evacuated back to the relative safety of Geordieland! Stepping into Pat’s rather scruffy shoes under these circumstances was less than ideal. The dinner jacket and dandruff was a definite no-no! Nevertheless, for Jill and I, a six-week contract would pay the bills. For Max it would buy all the time he needed to hire a qualified and chartered Senior Project Manager with the requisite 20 year’s progressive experience in the field.

Jill pondered our options long and hard and surprisingly advised against the package as a whole. So with my counter-strategy in hand, I went back to Max to negotiate. I would take over the day to day running of the office, get the project back on track, mend relations with the head of AAWSA by apologizing profusely for the verbal and physical attacks made upon his persons and those of his staff by Pat and then prepare the way for the incoming technical experts from France. In return, Max would have to phone the poor unsuspecting wife and start going to church!

This ill-fated joint venture would be in serious jeopardy if the French consultants ever found out what an almighty cock-up the Belgians had made (with its supporting cast of eccentric British expats abroad including one working class but mildly deranged, Geordie-lad-made-good, a second, upper class Oxford graduate way out of his depth and frantically treading water, placing his total trust in a spotty, unemployed, over-confident, do-gooder blindly offering to save the whole shabbam).

Moving into my new, villa-cum-office in an up-market area of town and having the place all to myself and Tsegay, my newly acquired ‘fixer’ felt great. I was on top of the world again and I began by tidying the place up and making it my own. I shifted the desks and chair around to suit and began to establish my new empire as I am prone to do. I then went out to meet some folks and to get the ball rolling again. Our commercial agent, probably the first of this type I had ever met, looked the typical well-dressed gangster and he was clearly confused by the new kid in town. “Where was Pat?” he enquired; the senior project manager for whom our client was paying a minor fortune? Being the experienced gangster he really was he knew instantly that I was in the wrong shoes but I schmoozed him as best I could and he accepted the situation for what it was. We tacitly decided to work  together to save our own interests.

Day 2; up early and into the office at the crack of dawn only to find the furniture back to where it had been placed before my arrival on the scene. May be somebody had not got the full picture, so I sent out a clear message by moving it all back to where I wanted it. I was the boss and henceforth this was the way forward. Day 3; tables and chairs back again in their original positions. I cannot recall how many days we continued this game of musical chairs until it dawned on me that Pat was still in town and a few more days before I realised he was convinced that he was still in charge. Max had clearly fallen short on his half of the bargain and confirmed the situation when he next called from Belgium to ask me if I could meet with Pat face to face and ask him again if he could leave the country, hand over the office keys and files which he was presently lugging around town in a giant hold-all. This spotty southerner was ‘ne’er gonna get one o’er this canny northern lad’.

Pat and I met a second time on neutral ground in the Hilton Hotel lobby. He was pleasant, told me I had pluck and would make something of myself one day when I was all grown up. He asked me politely to warn Max never to show his face again on pain of pain and tantalizingly dangled the office keys in my face, making it clear that the office was his domain. He asked me to desist from moving the furniture around again as it was getting on his nerves. I agreed; a kingdom divided will always fall.

Max assured me I was in charge and that everyone had confidence in my abilities to pull this one out of the bag. I was unsure whether anyone in Belgium had even half an inclining of what was really going down in Ethiopia but Max and I were determined to welcome our French compatriots to Addis Ababa with no hint of drama in the air. Just one week before their arrival I hadn’t received a penny for my efforts and there was no advance on the table. The ‘Del Boy’ in me took control and drastic action followed. I found an amazing villa for rent and recently vacated. It was just 200m down the road from our family home and seemed perfectly located. I signed a six month contract, shipped over whatever furniture could rescue from the old office and with Jill’s willing approval stripped our house bare and furnished the new place as best we could to receive the French.

The critical concept of ‘cash-flow’ was my first lesson in business. The second was ‘curtain flow’! Jill and I emptied our bank account and used our meagre savings to bank roll the project trusting entirely in an outfit that looked distinctly incapable of organizing the proverbial ‘….in a brewery’. Our bedroom curtains looked lovely in the guesthouse above the office but left us dangerously exposed at home to prying eyes.

Max returned to Ethiopia and was happy to have made such a great choice employing me! My disaster management skills clearly extended way beyond refugee camps, wars and natural disasters right into people’s personal mess. As an encore, I was summarily dispatched and tasked with finding a local physiotherapist. I returned like a faithful Indian scout with a blind war veteran from the Finfine Hot Spa and Baths. Each morning he proceeded with military precision and brute force, amid screams and gasps of pain, to manipulate Max’s fingers. The ones he had recently chopped off in an accident with a circular saw during some home repair work back in Belgium. They had been sewn back on in Europe and were now suffering an anti-colonial backlash.

The French finally came and went and in contrast to what I had been told to expect, they were delightful. They completed their work on time and professionally. My replacement was found and I prepared myself for the job market once again. Our furniture was handed back and I was paid handsomely for my services and there I thought the story would end happily ever after. But it never does!

On one of my final days, Max was staying in the office and I had packed up early to meet Jill and the kids at home but as I entered our compound I found the front door suspiciously open. Endale our loyal and trustworthy zebanya (house guard) mentioned that some forenge had turned up and had insisted on waiting inside for us. Generally, foreigners were considered safe and above suspicion in those days and so it was – there sitting on my sofa was Pat the Geordie.

“You’re a clever little bugger then eh! But here I am and I’ve finally found you - so you had better start co-operatin”. I did. Observing how comfortable and ready for action this particular psycho was, sitting in my front room, with the children due home at any moment was beyond the call of duty. Knowing Pat held no particular grudge against me I felt it time to drop Max in it. So I escorted him out of the house and down to the office for what turned out to be his pen-ultimate showdown with Max. Nobody died but it was touch and go with lots of squaring up and numerous office guards doing their best to calm down what they must have thought – a hilariously funny situation; a whole bunch of forenges physically brawling amongst themselves in the compound with one poor guy who had no fingers left to even pull a punch!

And back to the very beginning. Pat finally did leave Ethiopia when his visa ran out but continued his vendetta against Max by telephone for quite some time. Hence the threat to chop off the rest of his ‘effing’ fingers. On his part, Hugh maintained his stiff upper lip throughout and survived the onslaught. We became friends and he then lead us into some really really serious trouble a year or two later but that is another story. Pat must have finally found himself a priest and disappeared off the scene.