My good friend Elias Sagtrouser was standing at the bar, and for once, he was listening intently to a dapper, well turned-out gentleman whom we all recognise, and call 'The General', as indeed, he was a high-ranking army officer in his earlier years. We all like The General, as he is polite, gruffly friendly and very good at conversation, and is the sort of man who makes you feel that the only interesting person in his world is yourself and I've stood in awe, listening to many a story from his experiences during his years abroad, mostly about West Africa and other foreign climes.
Elias beckoned me over, or rather enveloped my shoulder with a large tweed-encased paw as soon as I ducked into the bar, and he had an excited look on his face, which means that he's either sold all his out-of-date paint, or managed to extricate all his accounts in ready cash. It was neither of these, as I was about to find out, and while I said my 'hellos' to The General, shaken hands and had a couple of opening laughs, Elias called for refills, which were large pints of Shep's 'Winter Warmer' (6.3% ABV), and well worth the effort too!
The General had a rusty old biscuit tin on the bar, and a newspaper folded to show some sort of large building project.
"Scrobs, I'm just about to tell Elias a story which I've only just uncovered, and I'd like you to hear it as well, you being in building and that sort of thing"!
Of course, by now I am all ears, and just for once, Elias is silently waiting to listen instead of making some jest.
The General continued. "D'you remember the old chap who used to walk his little dog round the village, and invariably wore an old army hat"?
Well of course, we all knew 'The Major' because he really had been active during the war. He'd always kept himself to himself and there was always a certain amount of dignity and mutual respect whenever he crossed paths with anyone. He'd died several years ago, and I remembered the funeral well, as there was a strong Army presence, with a band and several rows of sparkling medals here and there.
"I knew The Major on and off for many years", continued The General, "as we'd been in places abroad although not at the same time, and had experienced similar duties here and there. He never really said very much though, and while I would be clearly senior to him in rank in the present day, at the time I'm going to tell you about, he was a Major, and I was only a much younger Subaltern.
"The Major was Officer Commanding the chaps building some large infrastructures in Nigeria, mainly bridges, dams and the like, soon after the war finished, and things were starting to get back to something near normal. His job was mainly liaison between the Royal Engineers and the local politicians, who were, how can I say it, much more 'conservative' in those days, and took life much more seriously, but it really was a cauldron ready to blow up"!
Elias at this point pointed at everyone's glasses, then pointed to the barman, all in one rounded gesture, which immediately produced three more pints. "These are on me", said The General, "As you will need them after I tell you about what's in this biscuit tin"!
"The Major's widow only recently died at a ripe old age, and his family were clearing out the house as one does. The sons knew that their dad and I had something in common, and they passed me this old tin which they thought might interest me as it contained some old army letters and brass buttons and the like, and they really meant nothing new to the family, as they'd seen them all around for years".
The General continued. "I'd noticed what looked like an old field dressing in the tin, and it turned out to be a tight bundle of letters, all handwritten, and some of them were almost illegible on account of the fact that they had been written in very poor native English. I just couldn't read - let alone pronounce the names, except those by The Major of course! At first glance I didn't understand what they were, and spent more time reading the accounts of military equipment handovers and looking at photographs of Bailey Bridges and the like. I was posted there in the middle forties, and it was fascinating to understand how it all happened back then, and I well remember the attitudes of the high-ranking politicians, the banks and the wealthy families. It was almost a feudal society, you just had to have contacts and money to get anywhere"!
He paused and took a long draught of beer, not just for effect, but because we all like Sheps, and this was a moment to savour!
"After several attempts, I eventually managed to get into the pile of handwritten letters, and at last it became clear what they really were"! The General paused to take another large draught of beer, and looked thoughtful for several seconds.
"They were job applications from two young - both very young - local chaps who'd been working with the Royal Engineers to get the country's roads and bridges up and running again. The letters all praised 'Major Engineer' for the way they'd been treated, and how they'd learned so much in building and the like. They were clearly wanting to succeed and desperate to get to somewhere in life, but being caught up in the turmoil, their task was pretty bleak! The Major had personally written back to them, several times, and it was clear from the final exchanges, that the two chaps eventually got good jobs, with his recommendation, with the Colonial Offices, and became settled in their new careers, which was indeed a pleasing result"!
Elias and I both nodded sagely, as it was indeed the sort of story which we both understood well, as it's hard enough starting up and making a success in building in this country, let alone somewhere like Africa!
"Now that is a very interesting story", Elias said triumphantly, "but what happens next, as it sounds as though there's more.."?
"Oh yes, there's more", said The General, and he opened the biscuit tin and took out the bundle of letters which had been tied up inside the field dressing.
"I've at long last managed to decipher the two names", he said, "and to make things easier, I've printed off the letters as well. They're utterly fascinating"! He placed the original soiled, dog-eared letters on the bar and flattened them so that we could both see the long, unpronounceable names clearly. They were difficult to read, let alone say, but the facts were simple to understand, and we both spent several minutes examining both the letters and the print-outs. Elias was obviously impressed, as his trilby hat was still within ten degrees of the horizontal, which is a first under any circumstances!
"Er, so, what does all this really mean then General"? uttered Elias, full glass in hand, and ready for consumption! If Elias wants an answer, he goes several furlongs further than the next man to achieve one!
"Answers, eh, Chaps"? Said The General. "Here's your answer"! And he opened the overseas newspaper he had placed on the bar, and slowly folded the pages so that it was easy to read a long article on 'The African National Games Stadium'! It read something like this, because there were several headings which confused me.
"The Engineering Consultancy for the new multi-billion dollar athletics complex, football stadium, swimming pools, residential apartments, cycling velodrome, sports arenas, athlete's accommodation and associated infrastructures has been awarded to...two unpronounceable, but instantly recognisable names, and their international business partnership, which has been unchanged since the nineteen-forties and now operates in forty-five countries..."
The General looked at both of us in turn, turned away into his own world, next to his treasured biscuit tin, and started to read the letters all over again and wonder at their content - even again...