When I arrived in Bukavu, the consul told me, “You don’t want to stay at the Royal Residence. It’s a fine hotel, but you’ll run through your per diem every day by the time you wake up. And then you’ve got meals. My wife and I would be happy to have you stay with us until the deputy arrives.” The consulate’s CIA officer, scheduled to appear in two weeks, was always referred to as “the consul’s deputy.” I would have to make room for him. “By then we’ll have the apartment in the consulate building ready for you.”
While I had expected to live in a hotel, I was quick to see that there were advantages to this arrangement. I had come to the Congo on a direct transfer from Brussels, Belgium. I had witnessed Foreign Service life in Old Europe. But I had no idea how it was lived in the underdeveloped world where posts might be small and remote with tiny staffs. The Bukavu consulate’s American staff included only three of us: the consul, his radio man and me with “the deputy” soon to join us.
The Bukavu consul’s residence was opulent. It sat atop a bluff overlooking Lake Kivu with islands spread out below. Blue mountains receded into the distance. A large, rather baronial home, it reminded me of a Swiss chalet.
Living en famille with the Hillises gave me a chance to see how a Foreign Service marriage worked in a small post. Carl Hillis was commanding, authoritative, often gruff, but with a ready sense of humor. His head was totally wrapped up in running the post.
Harriet Hillis provided the softness. I liked her very much. She treated me as if I were a cousin, which is to say that, although she did not know me, I belonged to the family.
A Foreign Service wife was not a State Department employee, but she had definite responsibilities. Her husband’s advancement depended partly on her doing them well. Harriet ran the house and the servants. That was an involved task, given the amount of entertaining the Hillises did.
Entertaining was an important way for the consul to get to know the elite of the town and to ferret out what was going on in the Kivu. While I was living at the house there were all male lunches with African politicos, cocktails at 6:00 for wanderers passing through the town, dinners for expatriates, United Nations officials, and Belgians. Some colonials had never left, despite the downturns of independence; others had left and returned. I was invited to many of these functions. I considered this generous of the Hillises, but the consul expected me to do an effective representational job while being a guest.
Harriet also took care of the children. There were two boys, one ten, the other four. In addition, she acted as a kind of den mother for the consulate staff. Charley, the commo man, was having a romance with a Belgian girl of good family, but of questionable reputation. Harriet wanted to be certain he handled that wisely.
She also took an interest in Mlle Moutarde, the consul’s secretary. She was a sophisticated and attractive young Belgian who lived openly, unashamedly, with the young Volkswagen dealer. This was at a time when respectable Americans – and the Foreign Service is nothing if not respectable! – did not yet have live-in partners. Mademoiselle was nuts about the guy. He was largely indifferent to her, taking advantage of a good thing that had come his way.
I soon saw that, despite Harriet’s warmth, there were tensions in the family. They became evident during the dinners I shared with the Hillises. Often they led me to excuse myself immediately afterwards and return to the cultural center to work or write letters.
The Hillises’ two sons were as different as a pair of boys of the same parents could be. The older boy, Wilfrid, aged ten, was studious, shy, sensitive. When I met the family, Wilfrid was introduced as the resident chess master; I took it that he was well nigh unbeatable. Wilfrid, I learned, also read encyclopedias for pleasure. I was rather taken aback at this. What a weird kid! I glanced at his father for confirmation. The consul nodded his head. Wilfrid was not Will or Willy or Bill. He was his own kid, sensitive almost to the point of fragility.
But it was also true that Wilfrid was having a tough go of it. It could not have been easy, especially for a shy child, to be dragged around the world where it was necessary to start a new school every few years, make new friends, and do that in a foreign language. Somehow or other Wilfrid had broken a bone in his leg. He clumped around the house dragging a cast.
If the kid wanted to whimper now and then, I could certainly understand why. The trouble was that he whimpered all the time. In the morning he might appear at breakfast dissolving into tears simply because he’d been wakened from sleep.
“That’s enough of that,” Harriet would say.
The consul might add, “Okay, let’s turn off the waterworks.”
“I’m trying,” Wilfrid would respond, a quaver in his voice. The quaver signaled a cracking of the dam, a flooding of the spillways. I would flee as quickly as I could and seek refuge at the office.
Toby, short for Tobias, was the exact opposite. At four, he was an extrovert, good with people, full of pep, and as charming a kid as I had seen in some time. One evening I witnessed a wonderfully tender byplay between the consul and Toby. Together they investigated the consul’s wristwatch and compared it to a large clock in the hall.
Then the two looked at a figured tablecloth. ”Ou est la maison?” the consul inquired in French, asking Toby to point out a figure in the cloth. Toby pointed out the house. The consul beamed. Toby was his kid. The two looked alike and had similar senses of humor. Toby could be a handful. I had a hunch the consul had been one at the same age.
A handful and also a rascal. Toby would shout (his father also shouted), stomp, and run his poor mother ragged. He also interrupted things constantly, particularly when guests were present. Toby knew how to use the tears, too, probably from watching Wilfrid. He needed discipline and would be warned, then carried physically from the room to give the grownups some peace.
I thought the whimpering had become habitual. Both boys used it as a way to negotiate with their parents. I thought it should have been brought under control years before. The fact that it hadn’t meant that it might continue into adulthood.
It was also clear that the consul’s career had priority. Perhaps when an FSO became a Principal Officer – Carl Hillis always pronounced those two words as if they bore capitals – work had to take priority. Harriet and the consul may not have wanted it that way, but they allowed the tradition of the service to set the rules.
Wilfrid concerned his father. Watching the child sometimes, the consul would shake his head. He once told me that he assumed Wilfrid would erect a shell around himself and take refuge in it. That could not have been a happy prospect. Even more distressing, now and then I saw a look on the consul’s face that suggested that he did not really like his son.
A night or two before the CIA man arrived and I left, I thought to harmonize relations in the house. “Wilfrid,” I said, “I wouldn’t want to leave here before you’d beaten me at chess. Shall we have a match?”
Wilfrid looked surprised at this suggestion. While I assumed I was outmatched, he must have regarded me as three times his age and equipped with all the experience of adulthood.
“Go on,” urged Harriet. “You enjoy chess matches.”
Wilfrid clumped across the room on the leg with the cast. He fetched the chessboard and men. We set them up on a small table under a lamp and got ready to play.
“You better refresh my memory about how these guys move,” I told him, studying the pieces: the king, queen, rook and knight, bishop and the pawns. It had been so long since I’d last played that it took me a few moments to keep them all straight.
Wilfrid explained the pieces. He had clearly read chess books as well as Britannicas. He began the match by moving forward a pawn. I responded by sending forth a pawn of my own. Our pawns did a minuet for several moves. Then the big guys marched out. We both studied the board, squinted our eyes and stroked our chins. We made deliberate moves.
I had played no chess for quite a while. Still it was not hard to detect that the resident chess master’s play was entirely defensive. Wilfrid did not play to win. He played to ward off defeat.
A shiver of alarm ran down my back. I had made two false assumptions: first that Wilfrid would easily defeat me and, second, that victory would bolster his self-esteem. It would make him feel better about himself. But what if he lost? I suddenly glimpsed what I should have seen earlier. The whimpering, the encyclopedia reading, the taking refuge in a shell: these were all defensive strategies.
It was going to be very hard for Wilfrid to win this match. He would do that only if I started what I called Playing Toulouse.
I started trying, not obviously, to lose pieces. I succeeded for a time. But I didn’t want to surrender so many that Wilfrid caught on and felt humiliated. When he saw what I was doing, he leaned over in his chair and complained, “Ohh! My stomach hurts!”
“Don’t use that as excuse to stop the match,” said Harriet.
I sat back from the board, hoping we could stop. As his mother came to watch us, Wilfrid found some courage. He made a move, one that practically sacrificed a knight to me. I could not ignore the opportunity and took the piece. Tears seeped into Wilfrid’s eyes.
We continued to play. Harriet returned to her chair. Eventually it became clear that the defensive strategy could not prevail. Rather sheepishly, I won. In a quavering voice Wilfrid manfully declared, “I’m beat.” He left our table and went to sit beside his mother, his eyes brimming with tears.
Harriet reached to put an arm about his shoulders. Suddenly he rose and gimped out of the room.
I glanced at Harriet, wanting to say how sorry I was that I had misread–− But, face it, I had misread everything. Harriet sensed my chagrin. I realized that articulating it would only make things worse.
I left the house and walked around the neighborhood. How fragile we all are! That was what I thought. I trudged about for half an hour. When I returned to the house, everyone had gone to his room. I stayed alone in the living room, thinking how glad I would be to get into my own place.
For the rest of my tour in Bukavu, I felt pangs of guilt at having suggested that Wilfrid and I play a game of chess. The Hillises and I never spoke of it. They continued to be as generous to me as they always had been.
Through friends met in the Congo I kept tabs on the various postings of the man I’ve called Carl Hillis. He had a very distinguished Foreign Service career. He may have served as ambassador to Upper Volta (now called Burkina Faso), possibly as his next post after Bukavu. He certainly impressed people in the State Department. He must have picked up influential mentors. He later served as the American Ambassador to Poland and finished his career holding one of the positions of ambassadorial rank at the US Mission to the United Nations.
If Carl Hillis had a notably successful professional life, this was not the case for his sons. Neither of them married. Toby never finished college. He became infatuated with music-making, but lacked the talent and drive to succeed. As his father had foreseen, Wilfrid never learned to make friends. He spent his life inside the shell he built around himself.
Leave a Reply