by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Chapter 6 and Chapter 7
appeared in issue 227.
Chapter 8: Columbia, South Carolina
part 1 of 4
Salvatore did indeed get a good view of the east coast — for about five minutes. But the sleek regional jet soon penetrated a solid cloud layer, and by the time it was back in clear skies the land below was completely obscured.
‘Yes, I should have thought about that,’ he said to himself. ‘And I certainly would have, if I’d been the pilot!’
He dozed off instead. The seat beside him was occupied by a studious businessman, and Lucia had no pressing plans to discuss — they could wait till Salvi was settled in his hotel — nor any urgent desire to chat. So she let him rest, and just hung around, unseen but ever-observant, on the port wing for the duration of the flight.
* * *
Forretan Exploration had been established for over twenty years. Some of those years had been, from a financial perspective, much better than others ... but such was the nature of the exploration business. Viewed more appropriately in ten-year cycles, the Company had not only survived the economy’s gales and storms, and avoided its biggest rocks, but had in fact delivered solid growth to its small number of owning partners.
From the outset, Forretan had invested well in highly-skilled and intuitive researchers, and a healthy proportion of its carefully planned exploration projects had resulted in sales of the rights to what subsequently proved to be modest but profitable production operations. Its reputation had therefore continuously improved, and it was presently judged by industry experts to be relatively well-positioned for at least the next ten years.
Norman W. D. Crofton, appointed Public Relations Officer during its very first year, was neither a geologist by education nor a miner by experience. After leaving high school with good all-round results, he had opted for the route of work and immediate income rather than a university degree, and had taken a trainee clerical job with a major stone-processing operation not far outside Columbia.
Over the next fifteen years he had established, in several posts of increasing responsibility within that company’s finance department, a solid on-the-job knowledge of the industry’s operations and its particular business quirks. His easy personality, combined with his frank, no-messing approach to life, were seen by his bosses to be shaping him well for the trials and tribulations of PR, and he had eventually been offered, and had accepted, a well-paid role in that department.
Then Forretan’s head-hunters had sought him out. Despite now having a wife and twin baby boys to support, he had taken the risk, quit his safe job, and joined the precocious start-up firm at the age of thirty-three, with a greatly increased salary and a significant profit-related annual bonus.
Now, twenty years down the line, he was still as much a part of the fabric of the place as the stone, supplied by his previous company, which supported the walls of its impressive headquarters.
* * *
Salvatore’s cab driver was a tall, black man, well into his sixties, and wearing a permanent smile and the last remnants of grey-white hair and sideburns. As they crossed the river and entered the city itself, he decided to break the journey’s uncomfortable silence.
‘Your first time here, sir?’
‘Yes, it is,’ said his passenger, proffering no follow-on conversation. But this was no brake on the proud Columbian.
‘Fine place, sir. Been here over two hundred years — that’s a long time for the USA! One of the first planned cities in the country, you know? See for yourself, right here ... all laid out in big blocks an’ fine wide streets. Wide enough so the mosquitoes die of starvation ‘fore they can reach the other sidewalk! Good design, sir. Like New York, but a whole lot happier, ha!’
Salvatore was surprised to find he was enjoying this free and impassioned little speech.
‘Yeah, we got it all here, sir. An’ we done it all too. I’ll take you roun’ by the First Baptist Church, if it’s OK with you ... that’s where the State delegates voted to secede from the Union. City paid a high price for that. Became a focal point for Union action ’gainst all the Southern states. But Sherman didn’t get to burn down the Church, like he was shootin’ to do. An’ the Confederates may have lost in the end, but after the war, South Carolina was one of the first states to appoint ex-slaves to its Legislature ...’
‘You certainly know your history,’ offered Salvi with cautious admiration.
‘You bet, sir. This city’s my life. An’ you sure ain’t the first person I told ’bout it, ha!’
‘Well, I’m very grateful ...’
‘You from Europe, sir?’
‘Yes, that’s right — from Italy ... Venice, actually.’
‘That so, sir? Hey, I sure hope you sort out your own problems ‘fore it’s too late!’
‘So do I. We’re trying really hard.’
‘Yeah, that’s one beautiful city, sir ... very special.’
‘Oh, have you been there?’
‘Heck, no! Ain’t been nowhere but the front seat of this cab, sir. But I seen it all in books an’ stuff ...’
Salvatore regrouped quickly after spotting his huge gaffe. ‘Right ... so, what else can you tell me about Columbia?’
‘Well, at the last count we got six hundred an’ sixty-one places of worship, sir — an’ that includes three synagogues an’ a mosque. Bet that’s even more than Venice!’
‘I’m certain it is!’
‘Hey, we’re crossin’ Washington Street now, an’ the First Baptist Church is on the next corner. There it is, see! That’s beautiful to me, sir ...
‘An’ I’ll tell you a funny story ‘bout Washington Street — back in the twenties they decide to pave it, OK, ‘cos it’s so muddy all the time ... an’ they use wooden blocks, right? ... an’ as soon as they get a heavy rainstorm, it up an’ wash all them blocks clean away, ha! Reckon the guy who had that bright idea never even built a path in his own yard. Hope you got better thinkers over there in Venice!’
The young Venetian planner chuckled, loud enough to show he was still in tune.
‘An’ we’re real well educated these days, sir. Better than most cities in the States, an’ that’s official. You know, two outta five people in the city got a Batchelor’s degree or better ...’
‘Yeah. Course, it use’ to be very different, sir. Half the city’s white, other half is mainly black, plus a few other races. But sixty years ago, the blacks were still real separate, you know? City ruled for equal pay for black teachers, back in ‘45 ... that was a start ... but then people tried to strip ‘em of their qualifications. There was segregation everywhere ... in schools an’ restaurants an’ parks an’ all. Imagine a black tryin’ to get a place at university or a job in city administration in those days! An’ so on. But it changed real fast in the sixties — an’ Columbia was ahead of the game then too ...’
‘So it’s all OK now?’ Salvatore was trying to keep up.
‘Heck, I didn’t say that, did I, sir? But it’s a helluva lot better. We got plenty of fine colleges — lots of ‘em church-supported, an’ one financed by the Negro College Fund, an’ a women’s college of liberal arts, an’ a grand technical college. An’ the University of South Carolina itself, of course ... best International Business Programs in the USA!’
‘Education seems very important to you,’ offered Salvatore, feeling there was little more he could usefully or safely say.
‘Ain’t that the only way, sir? An’ on top of all that, there’s a whole new urban development goin’ up between here an’ the river, involvin’ the University an’ lots of local businesses — for commerce, an’ housin’, an’ recreation, an’ research into environmental sciences an’ lots of other clever new stuff. It’s called Innovista ...’
‘Now that really does interest me a lot ...’
‘That’s great! You be sure you take a look at how it’s comin’ on, sir. An’ now, here we are. Welcome to Gervais Street! I’ll get your bag.’
Salvatore climbed out of the spacious rear of the cab, shook the driver’s hand firmly as he thanked him for the enjoyable and informative trip, and then tipped him very handsomely.
‘Well, that’s real generous of you, sir. I’ll take just one dollar for me, if that’s OK with you, an’ the rest’ll go to our high school’s travel scholarship fund. Now you have a nice day, an’ enjoy your time here!’
Salvatore’s reception at the hotel, just after noon, was equally warm and welcoming. He felt strangely good inside, but also rather empty.
With a stay of at least two or three days ahead of him, he unpacked properly, then picked up a small street map from reception, wandered out into the brilliant spring sunshine and quickly spotted a sandwich bar. OK, that would do — he wouldn’t waste his energy in this heat, just to seek out a pizza.
Then, sandwich procured, he quickly forgot that sensible strategy, and wandered for several blocks along Gervais Street and back again, enjoying his lunch, tolerating the temperature, admiring the wide, easy-going thoroughfares of the spacious city centre, and wondering finally what might happen next.
Right on cue, Lucia emerged from a shaded doorway, smiled as seductively as usual, and picked up his gentle pace.
‘Hello Salvi! What a beautiful day!’
‘Yep, it’s great, he said, his English already reflecting a little bit of America. ‘And there’s much more room for us on these sidewalks, compared with the backstreets of Venice ...’
‘That’s true. Yes, this really is a very big country.’
They strolled in silence for a couple of minutes. Then Lucia decided the lunch break was definitely over.
‘Right, Salvi. We want you to call and set up a meeting with Norman Crofton this afternoon, if you can. If not ... well, you should make it as soon as possible, of course.’
‘All right, but ...’
‘No — just listen for now, Salvi. We’ll base our story for him on what we know, from Marie-Anne, about Andreas’ e-mail exchanges with “norm”. You’ll need to pretend, initially, that you are Andreas — and that you’ve got something very special to tell him. From what we know of Forretan’s business activities, he’s not likely to turn his nose up at that ...
‘So you must make your first call from a public phone, not from your own mobile or any in the hotel, OK?
‘But once he’s on board, we must revert to the truth about who you really are, and what you are officially doing — in case he decides to run any checks, or talks to the local police for any reason. We can’t let you get into any trouble here, caro mio! And after that you can use any phone you like.
‘So perhaps you can be thinking of some good reasons why you should have chosen specifically to come to Columbia to pursue your research into solutions for Venice. OK?’
‘Sure, Lucia. I’ll try and do that ... but we will talk about it before I actually meet him, won’t we? I don’t want to mess things up again.’
‘Of course we will. And there’s one other little challenge. We don’t know what sort of music Crofton enjoys. You’ll have to find that out on the spot.’
‘This is getting complicated. I hope you’re going to give me some clear guidance this time!’
‘Oh yes, Salvi. We’ve definitely registered the need for that. Here’s exactly what you’ll need to do ...’
They made their way back towards the hotel, and Salvatore found a phone booth close to its main entrance. He dialled Forretan’s switchboard number which, back in Venice, he had extracted, along with the address of their headquarters building, from their rather sparse web site.
‘I’m sorry, sir — Mr Crofton is out of the office all day. May I take your name and have him call you back in the morning?’
Salvatore left no name.
Forced, as often happened, to put its plans on hold, the Mater concluded that there was nothing for it but to allow young Pirone another early end to his minimal day’s active work. Lucia would stick with him for now, though, so they could at least continue with their general observations. They would probably learn some more things of interest ...
‘OK, Salvi, we’re both free till the morning. Fancy some sightseeing?’
‘Good idea. I’d like to stroll around one or two of the city parks, and take a good look at the different varieties of trees and birds and other wildlife over here. I feel a bit like Darwin! But what are you interested in?’
‘I’d enjoy the parks too. And for similar reasons, I’d like to see a few of those hundreds of churches the cab driver mentioned.’
‘Oh, were you in the cab with us?’
‘I certainly was. It turned out to be a very informative trip! So, what do you say?’
‘Sure, we can visit some churches, later. They do always make me feel a bit nervous, but ...’
He pulled out his city map and aimed north along Lincoln Street. They soon came upon the green open spaces of Finlay Park, and he made straight for the lake with its “mountain” and cascading waterfall.
‘Cute, eh, Lucia?’
‘Very cute, Salvi. The people here are lucky to have such a fine place to relax, in the heart of the city.’
‘You bet. Not much room for parks like this in Venice! But we do have a bit more water ...’
After a good look around, they headed back south-west and found the smaller Memorial Park, with its monument and long walls raised in honour of the South Carolinians killed in Vietnam, and other memorials for those lost in other conflicts. Salvatore studied them carefully, but said nothing. Lucia recalled Carla’s observation of Toni’s earlier, identical reaction as he had stood before the World War Two liberation fountain in Paris.
They eventually left the park by an eastern exit and made their way along Hampton Street to the First Baptist Church. Salvatore gave it a good long look, appreciative of its style and its important historical role, but he was loath to enter, even though he guessed the atmosphere inside would be quite joyous.
‘Not going in, Salvi? I was quite keen to catch the mood.’
‘I’d rather not, Lucia.’
Like most Italians, Salvatore’s childhood had been pervaded by a very different Church: in particular, by its images and stories of the horrors of the end of the world and the need to ensure personal salvation though unequivocal faith. His own faith was, at this stage of his life, by no means unequivocal, and he still felt far from ready to confront it ...
Instead, he followed his street plan and came upon three more churches in quick succession. Each time he stopped, looked, and moved on.
After the last of these brief pauses, Lucia asked gently ‘Not planning to go into any of them, Salvi?’
‘No, Lucia, if you don’t mind too much.’
‘That’s fine. No problem. And don’t worry about visiting any others. I can take a peek at some on my own, later. I’ll leave you to relax now, for the rest of the evening. I’ll make contact again tomorrow, after we finally get to meet up with Norman. But before I go, let’s just have a few words about your real cover story ...’
It was five-thirty. The previous night on the town in Manhattan and the early start that morning were catching up on Salvatore, fast. He pointed himself back towards the hotel, set his alarm clock, and took a long and solid nap.
Dragged, three hours later, out of this blissful state, he quickly got changed and sought out the hotel’s cocktail bar. Over a couple of small beers and a lot of salted peanuts, he had a brief chat with the bartender about places in town with live music on offer, and was at once directed to an apparently ideal spot just a few blocks away.
He stopped off at an en-route restaurant, choosing conservatively from an already conservative menu, then made his way expectantly up to the music bar he’d been recommended.
The welcome from its own bartender was effusive, and it included another large bowl of peanuts. Almost as if he were expected! But regrettably there was no live music slated for that evening, just some background Country & Western sounds, which were a long way from his personal taste. ‘Oh well,’ he thought, ‘I’m here now. I’ll stay for a couple more beers ...’
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd