We are gridlocked in a dodgy area of a dodgy city in a country thousands of miles from home. A bus has stopped halfway across a junction 100 yards further up the street and nothing can get by. We haven’t moved for ten minutes and are now surrounded by two lanes of angry traffic, each car jostling for a millimetre of advantage that will take them precisely nowhere.
It’s midday on Saturday and the pavement teems with people. I watch one man on the curb performing on-the-spot ear-piercing – his client winces as his lobe is punctured and the new stud is pushed in. Shoppers mill about the stationary cars carrying bags and checking their phones. There are four of us in the car. My host (let’s call him Ian), two of his friends from the US, and me. As the temperature rises outside, our tiny Suzuki Swift is struggling to keep us and itself cool.
I sit unconcerned, my mood buoyant after our morning visit to a nursery-teacher training school in a very poor satellite town. The optimism of the trainees has filled me with hope and belief in the future of this country which from the outside looks increasingly like it’s hitting the skids. These women – who have nothing themselves – have been given a chance to help children who are growing up surrounded by hunger, by poverty and by violence. They have taken the opportunity with joy and pride.
But that was an hour ago. We’re taking what is meant to be a quick detour through the city to look at a building important in Ian’s life. He spots a tiny gap in the lane to the right and winds the window down a couple of inches to make a hand signal – ‘I’m going there.’
The air shifts.
Out of the mass of people, two men appear by his door. One points to the rear driver’s side wheel. As we turn to look, the other reaches into his trouser pocket and produces a gun which he thrusts at Ian through the gap in the open window.
‘iPhone. Give me the iPhone.’
Everything stops. My senses seize up while my mind turns inwards where multiple scenes fast forward through my head.
When people talk about lives changing in a split second, often they don’t mention that the split second seems to last a very long time. My complete attention is fixed on the metre between me and the muzzle of the gun.
The gunman fidgets and his trembling hand sends flashes of sunlight bouncing off the barrel around the car. The silence stretches out.
Finally Ian looks directly at our attacker. He reaches for his phone. Then he stops.
‘No. I’ve got tourists in the car with me, what impression of our country do you think you’re giving? What do you think they’ll go back and tell their families and friends? You’re doing your country a huge disservice. **** off.’
He touches the button on the door panel and, as the window closes, the gunman pulls the weapon away and slopes off. His mate vanishes into the crowds. My adrenalin levels spike. Ian looks at me. He smiles.
I can’t answer. I sit in nervous, shocked silence for another ten minutes until the gridlock loosens and Ian can continue his battle through the chaotic streets.
In every book I’ve ghosted there have been moments that are euphemistically called ‘challenges’, and in every book there have been points of genuine pleasure. It’s not often you get two such extreme examples packaged in the space of a few hours.