Panama, A Pantomime by John Bryson
An extract from HEAT 22
General Noriega’s portrait stood on the hotel bar, his cap crusted with laurels, stars the length of his epaulets, his cheeks pocked and grainy. The camera had caught him reviewing a parade. Now a year after capture, the General was still the legitimate head of government in Panama, anyway in the view of most Latin American states, and this status suited his bearing in the photograph, his eyes staring down the rest of the world.
His army gone, his irregulars outlawed, twenty thousand US soldiers in occupation of his country, the General’s continued presence in this bar would have surprised him. The place is well known to cab drivers as El Parvo Real on Calle 51, set between the hotels and office blocks of Via Espana and the classy condominiums of Campo Alegre. But to those inside the bar it is called the Royal Peacock. A barmaid pulls brown ale from the keg. Ayrshire roses stand in a window vase, and someone can tell you the result of the soccer draw between Crystal Palace and Manchester United.
We were drinking gin from an iced decanter, a system which allowed the choice of tonic for a long drink or a drop of vermouth for a martini. My contact in Panama was to have been a shipping owner who had moved from London to the Canal Zone for the cheap flag registry, but now he was out of town. So here was Celia, his only daughter, who was fond of telling everyone she was twice divorced but ‘not at all discouraged.’ She spent most of her energies shopping for clothes, so I wondered how discouraged her father was. He was seventy, and Celia past forty. She liked to leave the couturiers and the milliners in time to be beside the gin decanter in the Peacock around 3 pm mixing it at first with tonic, becoming serious about the martinis an hour or two before dinner.
Her friend Olwen reached for the General’s portrait and her finger drew two lines top to bottom. ‘We could paint prison bars here or, you know, cut them out from cardboard.’
Celia saw a flaw in this artifice immediately. ‘He’s not dressed for prison.’
‘It’s the image that counts,’ Olwen said, ‘and the Americans will love it.’
The barstool conversation amounted to a committee meeting. For a quorum, evidently Celia, Olwen and now Marjory were plenty. The topic in hand was a party, a pantomime due to be staged on New Year’s Eve in the Peacock. Marjory, who thought of herself as a Northumberland girl, although she had lived in Panama for thirty-five years, was keen on a traditional Hogmanay, with a cake, a piper and the Morris costumes they also wore in the Peacock every May Day, but the majority this year favoured enlarging the show with a pageant and a panto in the form of Punch and Judy, to mark the anniversary of the US invasion.
The air-conditioner in the Peacock is set to Very Cool as a reminder of British climes. The difference between the heat of Panama and the autumn airs of London dews the windows. The chill allowed Marjory to wear a houndstooth skirt and knitted blouse. She seemed uneasy about the intrusion of Punch and Judy into Hogmanay, so she sang in a high clear voice,‘Hogmanay, Trollolay,’ to keep the proper ambiance alive. She turned to me and smiled. ‘I may be an old duck,’ she said, ‘but I can still hold a note.’