The coup began at seven on Sunday morning. It was a grey and windless dawn and the grey Atlantic rollers broke in long even lines along the beach. The palms above the tidemark shivered in a current of cooler air that blew in off the breakers. Out at sea – beyond the surf – there were several black fishing canoes. Buzzards were spiralling above the market, swooping now and then to snatch up scraps of offal. The butchers were slaughtering, even on a Sunday.

We were in a taxi when the coup began, on our way to another country. We had passed the Hôtel de la Plage, passed the Sûreté Nationale, and then we drove under a limply flapping banner which said, in red letters, that Marxism–Leninism was the one and only guide. In front of the Presidential Palace was a roadblock. A soldier waved us to a halt, and then waved us on.

Pourriture!’ said my friend, Domingo, and grinned.

Domingo was a young, honey-coloured mulatto with a flat and friendly face, a curly moustache and a set of dazzling teeth. He was the direct descendant of Francisco Félix de Souza, the Chacha of Ouidah, a Brazilian slaver who lived and died in Dahomey, and about whom I was writing a book.

Domingo had two wives. The first wife was old and the skin hung in loose folds off her back. The second wife was hardly more than a child. We were on our way to Togo, to watch a football game, and visit his great-uncle who knew a lot of old stories about the Chacha.

The taxi was jammed with football fans. On my right sat a very black old man wrapped in green and orange cotton. His teeth were also orange from chewing cola nuts, and from time to time he spat.

Outside the Presidential Palace hung an overblown poster of the Head of State, and two much smaller posters of Lenin and Kim Il-sung. Beyond the roadblock, we took a right fork, on through the old European section where there were bungalows and baulks of bougainvillaea by the gates. Along the sides of the tarmac, market women walked in single file with basins and baskets balanced on their head.

‘What’s that?’ I asked. I could see some kind of commotion, up ahead, towards the airport.

‘Accident!’ Domingo shrugged, and grinned again.

Then all the women were screaming, and scattering their yams and pineapples, and rushing for the shelter of the gardens. A white Peugeot shot down the middle of the road, swerving right and left to miss the women. The driver waved for us to turn back, and just then, we heard the crack of gunfire.

C’est la guerre!’ our driver shouted, and spun the taxi round.

‘I knew it.’ Domingo grabbed my arm. ‘I knew it.’

The sun was up by the time we got to downtown Cotonou. In the taxi park the crowd had panicked and overturned a brazier, and a stack of crates had caught fire. A policeman blew his whistle and bawled for water. Above the rooftops, there was a column of black smoke, rising.

‘They’re burning the palace,’ said Domingo. ‘Quick! Run!’

We ran, bumped into other running figures, and ran on. A man shouted ‘Mercenary!’ and lunged for my shoulder. I ducked and we dodged down a sidestreet. A boy in a red shirt beckoned me into a bar. It was dark inside. People were clustered round a radio. Then the bartender screamed, wildly, in African, at me, and at the boy. And then I was out again on the dusty red street, shielding my head with my arms, pushed and pummelled against the corrugated building by four hard, acridly sweating men until the gendarmes came to fetch me in a jeep.

‘For your own proper protection,’ their officer said, as the handcuffs snapped around my wrists.

The last I ever saw of Domingo he was standing in the street, crying, as the jeep drove off, and he vanished in a clash of coloured cottons.


Evensong
The Fall of Saigon