Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ripples by BJ Neblett (Part 1)

Ripples (Part 1)
by BJ Neblett
copyright 2010

June 9, 5:45 AM
San Rosario, Colombia
            The child’s crying had awakened the old man in the middle of the night. He sat on the edge of the tiny bed watching as the five year old stirred in a fitful rest. Loving concern clouded his soft, kind eyes. Every few minutes trembling hands rinsed a tattered blue handkerchief in a basin of cool water lying on the floor. He returned the damp cloth to the child’s forehead. Her eyes struggled to open and she softly moaned.
            “Easy, my child, I am here. Grandpa is here.”
            His callous hands gently stroked the girl’s long raven hair. It was matted and soaked with sweat. Juan Carlos looked about the tired darken room, sighing heavily. The front of his worn cambric shirt heaved with weary muscles. The child’s fever had not broken; if anything it was worse.
            He rose, stiff bones popping like kernels of corn in a fire. “Be brave, mi Niña,” he whispered, tenderly patting the girl’s shoulder, “be brave.”
            Outside, somber shadows began to stir as the first breath of light touched the silent village. A puffy white mist kissed the earth, causing Juan Carlos to feel as if he were walking in a cloud.
            “Someday,” the cracked lips proclaimed to the air, “someday I will know what it is like to walk among real clouds. Then there will be no more problems… no more troubles.” His voice trailed off. He’d reached the square wooden house of Victor Manuel.
            “Victor, my friend,” Juan Carlos called out in a voice heavy with the hour. Victor Manuel, are you awake?”
            A brown gibbous face appeared in the open window. It wore an unkempt moustache and a kind expression. “Juan Carlos you old goat, you stalk the streets like a ghost. Come inside, it is early. We will drink some of our special coffee which the Americans prize so highly.”
            The old man shook his head, white stubble of his beard glistening in the yellow sunlight. “No, there is no time. Please, I need your assistance. My granddaughter is very sick. She has great fever. I am afraid for her. You must take us in your truck to the hospital in Vélez.”
            “María Elaina, sick?” Victor Manuel blessed himself and disappeared. The front door to his home creaked open. “The hospital you say… the hospital is well over one hundred kilometers away, in the next valley. It will take us most of the day to get there. Are you sure my friend?”
            Juan Carlos nodded, “I am sure.”
            “This I will do for you, of course, but what of the beans? The big trucks are supposed to arrive today.”
            The senescent face twisted in protest. “The trucks can wait! Already the men from the company expect too much from us. They work us hard and pay us nothing. It is because of them I must take my poor Niña across the mountain! They refuse to even provide our village with a doctor. And for what…” Juan Carlos spat on the ground, “just so some rich gringo can enjoy the special coffee that grows only here in our little valley!” He looked Victor Manuel in the eye. “Tell the men of the village to stay home… stay home till I return. There is no work today; maybe no work tomorrow.”
            Victor Manuel opened his mouth to challenge his old friend and boss. He was cut off by an indignant wave of the other’s hand.
            “I am in charge and it is my decision,” the old man said arrogantly. “I do not wish to hear about shipping schedules and deadlines. All I care about is my sweet little María Elaina. Come, the day grows old as we speak.”
            By the time the crescent moon lay contentedly over the mountain, María Elaina lay under comfortable white sheets, resting peacefully. The fever had been reduced but she remained a very sick little girl. Juan Carlos shifted his position in the chair next to her bed. He would stay with his granddaughter at the hospital until she was better. Victor Manuel had returned to the secluded valley. The coffee beans would wait a few more days. The people of the village who grew the rich and rare beans prayed for little María Elaina. They understood.
            The big international company that purchased the valuable commodity did not understand.
            Nor did they care.

June 12, 8:19 AM
London, England
            Nigel Bannister paced the thick green carpet of his plush twelfth floor office overlooking the Thames. Outside, a steady drizzle played against the smoke tinted windows, reflecting Bannister’s mood. On the expensive mahogany desk waited a steaming cup of English breakfast tea, while three yellow lights on the multi-line telephone flashed impatiently.
            Bannister ignored them.
            The intercom buzzed, pulling Nigel Bannister from his thoughts. “Excuse me, Sir. Mr. Cooke is here. And I still have Mr. Howard, and Mr. Smyth, and Todd Worth on hold.”
            Bannister stopped pacing and frowned, his aquiline nose flaring. Finally he approached the desk and pressed a button. “All right, all right Miss Hastings… very well, let me speak to…” Bannister paused. Smyth could wait. He knew when he finally faced his boss he’d better have some serious answers.
            Nigel Bannister was a good, albeit brusque man; a company man. After Oxford, he’d gone from buyer to vice president of export. Bannister knew his beans. He knew and understood the coffee business inside and out, perhaps better than he knew and understood the people he dealt with every day. But Nigel was also a cautious man. He was used to making important decisions in his own time, on his own schedule, after he had considered all angles, weighed all his options. This business with the small plantation in Colombia had popped up rather suddenly. And Smyth, his boss, wanted it disposed of swiftly and quietly.
            “No,” Bannister corrected himself, “send in Cooke. And I’ll speak with Howard in a moment. Tell Smyth and Worth I’ll call them back momentarily.” With that Nigel Bannister closed the intercom. He nervously fiddled with the four-in-hand knot of his silk tie from Harold’s, painting on a plastic smile as the door to his office opened.
            “Roger, old chap, good to see you again… been much too long…”
            “How are you, Nigel? How’s the misses?” The two men stiffly shook hands, considering one another like prize fighters in a ring.
            “Oh, fine, fine, thanks… now, what’s all this rubbish about San Rosario, eh?”
            Roger Cooke was a field man for the company. He enjoyed his work, loved the people and countries he dealt with, and had no use for big cities, board rooms or four-in-hand ties. His sudden summons to the home office both surprised and annoyed him. He was glad Bannister had come right to the point. The sooner he could return to the field and his duties the better.
            “There’s not much to it actually, Nigel. The growers are dissatisfied with conditions. It’s nothing new. Only it seems one of the children nearly died because there was no doctor nearby. She’s in the hospital in Vélez. It’s the same problem I’ve been pitching to you for years. The growers just need some improvements. They want the company to provide the village with a doctor and a medical facility.”
            Bannister’s thin lips pursed, his steel eyes narrowing. “Damn nuisance, this business. It’s like the whole planet is on some health care kick or something; only why now, Cooke, why the work stoppage now?”
            “Well, it seems the girl is the granddaughter of Juan Carlos. Carlos is the foreman of the plantation and a village elder. The people love and respect him. They…”
            “Yes, yes,” Bannister interrupted impatiently. “So this Carlos character is the key to this whole mess then?”
            Roger Cooke studied his vinegar faced opponent carefully. He knew his type. Twenty years behind a desk had hardened him to the needs of the field. The simple people of the towns and villages who grew the beans were the heart and soul of the company. Cooke knew this. Cooke also knew that the company looked upon them as no more than numbers; pluses and minuses, assets and liabilities; pawns in a global game with extremely high stakes.
            “I think we need to listen to Juan Carlos this time, Nigel. I think…”
            Once again Cooke was cut short by his superior. “Now listen here, Cooke. The world wants its coffee when it wakes up in the morning. It doesn’t want excuses. It doesn’t want to hear about some five year old; or her stubborn old grandfather; or some jungle village without a doctor.” Bannister let out a contemptuous snort. “And neither does the board of directors! In twenty years I’ve never lost a shipment nor had one delayed for any reason… hurricanes, revolutions, old men and children be damned!”
            He paused, once again fiddling with the knot of his tie. No need to get all worked up over this, he thought. The solution is simple. He looked up at Cooke. “Your man in Colombia, this Howard chap, he’s a good man?”
            Roger Cooke bristled at the inference of the question. “James Howard is a fine man. I picked him myself. This is what I do, Nigel… I know the field, and my people. If Howard says the situation is serious, then I trust his judgment.”
            “Yes, quite… fine…” Without another word, Nigel Banister strode over to the large mahogany desk and pressed a lighted button on the telephone. “Hello, Howard? James Howard, are you there?” he bellowed into the speaker box.
            “Yes, Sir, James Howard here…”
            “Good, good, this is Nigel Bannister in London. Roger Cooke is here with me. Now listen carefully, this is what I want you to do.” He turned, his unforgiving gaze falling upon Roger Cooke. “I think it’s time for some changes. Find me a new foreman… I don’t care who… that’s your department. But I want this trouble maker, this Carlos fellow out… and I want him out today! Get those people back to work! And tell them I’ll hear no more talk of a doctor or health care or whatever… understood? And for God’s sake get that shipment on the trucks! Got it?”
            Bannister didn’t wait for a reply. He snapped the speaker box off, severing the connection. His trademark confident half smile returned. “Well, that should take care of that, eh what? That’s how we handle things here in London. Decisions, that’s what I do, Cooke, handle problems; make decisions.”

Next week part two.

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