call of duty
“Sir,” the marine guard on duty greeted D a few minutes before midnight, “I’ve got a situation.” Coming on a late-night phonecall, these just may be the four worst words in the English language. At any rate, they definitely outrank “we have to talk” (or “whose bra is this”) in that respect.
Every week, someone at the embassy is designated as the duty officer. The unlucky victim has to be on call for a week during the hours that the embassy is officially closed and must be available to respond to any emergency, small or big. At small embassies, duty is a recurring joy, rotated among the junior officers on a frequent basis. In an embassy the size of Nairobi, it is rare to be the duty officer more than once during a two-year tour. In a post that is rated critical for both crime and terrorism, however, once is plenty.
The worst thing about having the duty phone is not the calls themselves; it’s the anticipation. It’s the knowledge that the phone will never bring good news when it rings. Even if the situation is not an emergency in the true sense of the word, it most likely will feel like one to the person who is calling, which makes even the most mundane situations feel stressful. The other challenge is that the duty officer’s options are usually limited. There’s not much immediate assistance one can offer in an emergency, no matter how personally involved one might get with a case.
His first day with the phone, D stayed in, frittering away time on his computer with nervous anticipation, waiting for the phone to ring. When no calls came either the first or the second day, he began to loosen up and nurture the unlikely hope that the phone would stay silent the entire week. Alas, it was not to be. He wound up fielding four calls in all, and all but one came on the third day. Fortunately, three of the calls were routine. The other one, coming just as we were readying ourselves for bed, was bad enough to cause D to lose sleep.